TIFF 2011 Reviews Part II

Reviewed here:

  • Take This Waltz **½
  • Elles **
  • Anonymous ***
  • Albert Nobbs ***½
  • In Darkness ***
  • Lena **
  • The Oranges *
  • The Eye of the Storm ***½
  • Rose ***
  • Pink Ribbons, Inc. **

Days 4 to 6 of the festival.

Take This Waltz **½

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley / Canada

After her brilliant feature debut Away from Her, this is the much anticipated 2nd feature from director Sarah Polley.  Alas, my hopes were dashed by a script that lost its way.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogan) are a couple in a nicely renovated house in Parkdale (or near enough Parkdale in Real Estate lingo), Queen Street West definitely.  She’s in love, although some (including me) would read her as needy, while others (not me) would see her as just liking to be close and cuddly.  Maybe I’m just an old cynic.  Anyhow, Lou has a thing about chicken.  He’s a cook, and he’s writing a cookbook, and he’s working through all of his recipes.  Sensitivity, except possibly for the chickens in his life, is not Lou’s strong suit.

This couple has an ongoing game of concocting horrible stories about things they would do to each other, but this only works when both of them know it’s in fun.

Margot goes off to Louisbourg, NS, on a job writing up tourism literature.  There she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) who obviously likes her, but the feeling is not (yet) mutual.  On the plane back home, Margot has faked a disability so that she can use a wheelchair (with a very contrived excuse about getting lost in airports).  Daniel turns up next to her on the plane, and back in Toronto, we find that he lives right across the street from Margot.  Can you say “contrived”?

Love blossoms, well, the buds open a little, but tentatively.  Margot’s not sure.  She goes out for drinks with Daniel, and during the conversation, she asks what he would do to her, an echo of her standard game with Lou.  Does Margot use this as a pickup line with every guy she meets?  Daniel replies with an extended verbal seduction, very sexy, and quite the contrast to Lou’s indifference to a non-poultry relationship.  Margot is hooked, but not quite.

As the story plays out, Lou becomes aware of a new neighbour, but has no sense of what is going on.  After Lou invites Daniel to a house party, well, things are uncomfortable, and Daniel moves out the next day.  Margot tracks him down using the image from a greeting card and runs all the way from Queen West to the Beaches boardwalk in the east end.  Dramatic license of the cinema.

Now we come to the title reference.  Margot and Daniel are in a loft having passionate sex (actually many escapades with two or more people) while the camera circles the room, furniture accumulates to give a “lived in” look and to mark the passage of time while Leonard Cohen’s song plays.  They settle down into a life of happy households, and this is where the film should end, but …

Lou calls up with a crisis.  His alcholic sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) has fallen off the wagon.  Can Margot come to help out?  This leaves our heroine stuck between two worlds between an old relationship and a new one which, inexplicably, does not hold.  She’s left all alone on an amusement ride at Centre Island while Video Killed the Radio Star plays under the credits.

Take This Waltz depends far too much on its music track to artificially juice our feelings at key moments, and especially as we walk out of the theatre after a disappointing finale.  The acting is OK, and Michelle Williams does a credible job with Margot.  For me, that’s a thankless character.  Either we believe that the guys she’s with are just not reliable, or that she herself cannot make up her mind what she wants.  Best to blame the writer/director.

Elles **

Directed by Malgoska Szumowska / France / Poland / Germany

Any film with the delightful Juliette Binoche gets my attention, but as my rating shows, I was disappointed.  The premise is that Binoche is a journalist, Anne, writing an article about young women, students who pay their way through college by prostitution, for Elle magazine.  She lives in a well-off Paris home, has two kids she cannot control, and is the stereotypical “modern woman” who does everything.

Anne’s days become preoccupied by her subjects, and a rich fantasy life with lots of sex follows.  Anne’s problem, as a writer, is that her subjects don’t fit their stereotype.  Both are well off and happy with their sideline.

At this point, it helps to know that Elles started out life as a documentary about the problems of student prostitution.  However, the premise evolved, partly because of funding, into a piece of fiction.  Oddly enough, the filmmakers went through the same surprise as “Anne” in their early research discovering that sex workers are not necessarily unhappy.  If there is a social message, it focuses on a moneyed lifestyle where everything is in the moment.  The problem is shared by Anne’s children as much as by the women she interviews.

As a piece of journalism, the choice of only two subjects by Anne seems odd, but for the sake of the plot here, there’s a limit on how many stories the film can tell.  I had trouble accepting the premise, and so Elles seemed like an excuse for some steamy sex with Mlle. Binoche.

What started as a doc with a feminist outlook morphed into a story about a modern but repressed housewife.  Were the filmmakers seduced by the lure of money for a feature just as their characters seek a flashier lifestyle?  Binoche is great, but I’m not sure that Elles has much to say.

[Postscript:  I could not help thinking about the style of French porn movies of decades ago when plot still had a role.  There would be some pretext for characters to be together, there would even be dialogue, a sex scene or two, and then a denouement.  The structure of Elles was eerily familiar.]

Anonymous ***

Directed by Roland Emmerich / Germany

Anonymous is a quasi-Shakespearean costume drama dressed up as a mystery.  Well, if you’re the director, there’s no mystery — Emmerich and author John Orloff start from the premise that Shakespeare himself was an illiterate hack actor, a fake, and that the real author of “his” plays was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).

History is bent, spindled, folded and otherwise warped to suit the thesis including such gems as Shakespeare’s “illiteracy” (untrue), the order of publication of the plays, and the idea that Richard III was written as a satire of William Cecil (David Thewlis) who was actually de Vere’s father-in-law.

In Emmerich’s world, the plays formed an integral part of the political machinations around Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson, later Vanessa Redgrave), her supporters and her rivals.  There’s going to be a small industry in debunking this view of the world as it will appear in future “academic” essays, but an equally good contribution to media literacy curricula.

All that said, Anonymous is a good story if you simply treat it as living in a parallel universe with familiar characters in new guises.  It’s a cloak and dagger story from an action film director and some not bad poetry borrowed from that Shakespeare chap, whoever he was.  Derek Jacobi has a nice turn as the Narrator, an echo of his role as Chorus in the film version of Henry V.

Anonymous opens on October 28, 2011.

Albert Nobbs ***½

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia / Ireland

We are in a fine Dublin hotel where Albert Nobbs is a butler.  He is especially well regarded by the female clientele thanks to his attention to their preferences.  Nobody seems to notice that he is a woman living as a man.  Indeed, Albert has led the role for so long, 20 years, that being a “woman” is beyond his experience.

One day, a painter, Mr. Page (Janet Mcteer) shows up.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Another woman in disguise, this one more brazen in part due to Mcteer’s build, and partly to her gruff, no-nonsense character.  Nobbs is attracted to Page, but the real revelation comes when Nobbs learns that Page has a wife, Kathleen.  The solitary Nobbs fantasizes about life with a partner, but his choice is a bad one that will lead to an unhappy end.

Close has fun with Nobbs’ desire for secrecy and his near-unmasking on occasion, and the business between Nobbs and Page is quite comical as they discover each other’s hidden sides.

The story of Albert Nobbs and Glenn Close goes back to 1982 when she played this role in a stage adaptation by Simone Benmussa of a 19th century short story by Irish writer George Moore.  In 1986, Close adapted the story as a screenplay, and spent much of the next 25 years getting it made.

Albert Nobbs is a good story if you buy the premise, and Close is wonderful as the always reserved and repressed Nobbs.  Everything is well put together — the period decor, the supporting cast — but I couldn’t help feeling that Nobbs tragedy is only barely enough to carry the whole piece.

Opens Dec 11, 2011.

In Darkness ***

Directed by Agnieszka Holland / Canada / Germany / Poland

Adapted from In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall

Imagine hiding in the sewers under a city for over a year fearing that discovery or betrayal could reveal you at any moment, totally dependent on the kindness and bravery of others for your survival.  In Darkness tells the story of a small group hiding under Lvov during the last years of WWII while the Nazis searched everywhere to ferret out the Jews.  When the story begins, they are living in a house with a secret access to the underground network, but this is discovered by a sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz).

Against his better (and anti-semitic) judgement, Socha agrees to help the Jews for a price and hides them in a remote corner of the tunnels under the main cathedral.  One early and difficult choice he must make is the number he will take as there are more people to hide than space in that obscure nook.  Those left behind don’t last long.

This story could be maudlin (if that term can be applied to anything about The Holocaust), but Holland keeps control of the action and characters despite 144-minute length of movie.  These are real people trapped in an unimaginable situation with all the tensions of life in the “real” world magnified by the context.  Some rise to the challenges, others cannot bear the strain.  Humour and the natural forces of life survive.

Meanwhile on the surface, there is a mix of Poles who are sympathetic, indifferent, and outright hostile to the Jews and their fate.  Nobody can be trusted, and the Nazis are quick to reward informers and eliminate those working against them.  Many Poles are more than eager, but Holland seeks to show some, at least, who did not fit the stereotype of willing accomplices to Hitler.

The strength of In Darkness lies in the detail of its characters and plot.  Despite the claustrophobia-inducing locale (actually a set built for the purpose), the film does not seem contrived, and but for one climax involving a storm and the rising flood within the sewers, Holland avoids manipulating the audience.

She skates under the question of Polish and Catholic antisemitism by focusing on a “good man”, one who transcends his mercenary interests by continuing to protect “his Jews” even after they have no money or valuables left.  Damning with faint praise, I would say.

Poland has submitted In Darkness as its nominee for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.  Sony Pictures will distribute it with an opening planned for February 2012.

Lena **

Directed by Christophe Van Rompaey / The Netherlands / Belgium

Lena (Emma Levie) is an overweight 15 year old girl, and she uses sex (mostly unsuccessfully) to gain friendships.  She never knew her father, and lives in Rotterdam with her screwed-up mother Danka (Agata Buzek), a woman who signals that she’s busy with a boyfriend (or client, maybe) by leaving a flag in their apartment window.  Mom is also a bus driver, although this role is hard to believe given her erratic behaviour.

Lena has a boyfriend Daan (Niels Gomperts), at least someone she thinks is her boyfriend, but he’s a petty crook with his own distracted parent, a father who spends his time repairing musical instruments.  She also thinks she has a girlfriend, but that relationship is very one-sided.

Caught between her own home and Daan’s, Lena’s at loose ends.  She resorts to the only behaviour she knows and winds up in bed with Daan’s father.  The plot really comes off the rails here:  Lena comes home to find Daan threatening his father with a gun (we know he has a gun because this was set up, rather clumsily, earlier in the story), but it’s Lena who winds up shooting Dad.

The ending feels tacked on, and it even has a different look from the rest of the film.  Couldn’t Van Rompaey make up his mind or did he substituted this low budget ending for whatever was there originally?  Do I care?

Only two stars here for a sympathetic character lumbered with a contrived end.

The Oranges *

Directed by Julian Farino / USA

Oh, I really wanted to like this film.  Look at the cast:  Hugh Laurie, Allison Janney, Oliver Platt and others.  The setting: Orange, New Jersey, suburbia where everything should be fine, but isn’t.

What I got was a very slight piece.  Two suburban couples (David and Paige Walling, Terry and Carol Ostroff) and a love interest for David (Laurie) in the form of Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester) who has just come home from college.  She’s no longer the kid across the street.

The biggest problem here is that the actors are more or less playing themselves, or at least playing the version we’re used to seeing on TV.  Laurie is a kinder, gentler version of House, but he’s still getting a girl far younger than himself.  Typecasting?

Oliver Platt’s Terry spends his time collecting tech-toys, gadgets that may or may not work, but form the heart and soul of his life.  Poor Terry.  At least it gives Platt something to do while providing comic relief and suggesting that he might just be ignoring his family.

Reading a few comments elsewhere on the net, this is supposed to be a commentary on modern American society’s inability to deal with the vagaries of modern, mix-and-match relationships.  No, that sounds like a pretense for a weak script.  Maybe I just don’t connect with suburbia so much so that a “comedy” about folks who live in their beautiful houses on a tree-lined street, but just can’t get it together, offers nothing for me.  Maybe you have to live in Jersey to get the joke.

The Eye of the Storm ***½

Directed by Fred Schepisi / Australia

Screenplay by Judy Morris based on The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1973)

I have to admit, up front, a fondness for both Charlotte Rampling and Geoffrey Rush.  Any film starring both of them gets my immediate attention.

Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling) is a force of nature, even though she is mostly confined to her bed and not far from death.  She is a great matriarch presiding over her grand Sydney house, her staff and her children very much in control, or so she thinks, of her world.  For dramatic convenience we will ignore the fact that the actors’ ages are much closer in real life than in this story.

The two children are eccentric in their own way, and unsurprising offspring of such a woman.  Son Basil (Geoffrey Rush) is an actor (you have to imagine that word with a very pronounced “-or” in the manner of the ham he almost certainly would be on stage) who fled from Australia to West End London in his youth.  Now he’s Sir Basil and, almost under protest, he’s back at home for his mother’s end.  Daughter Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis) married a French prince, but that didn’t last, and she is now forced to live on the cheap.  Mother is rather well off, and Dorothy will live well provided that she inherits a decent share of the estate.

Stir in a few minor characters:  two nurses, a housekeeper/cook and a lawyer, long a family retainer and hopeful of continued business.  This may be a house of faded glory, but the estate will be substantial.  Lotte, the housekeeper (Helen Morse), doubles as a cabaret singer to Elizabeth, quite literally singing for her supper.

The family history is far from simple, not surprising given that both children chose to live far away in Europe.  In flashbacks, we see Elizabeth as a middle-aged woman, strong, full of her sexual powers (which last right to the end).  Dorothy is a princess without a prince, fallen on hard times, and she’s as prissy as her mother is outgoing.

Sir Basil is an actor and writer, and could very well be the author of the book as he doubles as narrator.  Times and points of view shift, but this is Sir Basil’s story to tell.

In the end, there is a temporary alliance of convenience between Basil and Dorothy, but once Elizabeth has died and the estate is divided, they go their separate ways.  Indeed, the two children will burn through their shares of Elizabeth’s estate with little to show in the end.

Charlotte Rampling may spend much of her role in bed in varying states of awareness and competence, but she is the force in any scene she plays.  Rush and Davis are not to be outdone, but The Eye of the Storm is not an acting contest where each principal attempts to upstage the other.  Watching actors this good is rather a lot of fun in its own right.

In retrospect, I could not help noticing that this is a costume drama, with all the conventions that implies, set within my own lifetime.  Yes, I’m getting on, but these characters inhabit their own, refined world where time and the privilege of great wealth pass slowly.

Information about the film including a trailer can be found on The Eye of the Storm website.  It has already opened in Australia, and has Canadian but not yet U.S. distribution.

Rose ***

Directed by Wojciech Smarzowski / Poland

In 2011, I seem to have unwittingly created a theme of films set during and shortly after the end of WWII with a focus on the tensions between the nationalities and religions of central Europe.  Rose is one of the strongest in its exploration of the savagery and tragedy brought on by nationalism and war.  (This film should not be confused with Little Rose, a different work made in 2010.)

We begin in 1944 with the Warsaw uprising.  Tadeus (Marcin Dorocinski) is an officer in the Polish Home Army, and he lies wounded, playing dead, while German troops rape his wife nearby.  He escapes the city by dressing as a civilian.

The retreating Germans and advancing Soviet army are indistinguishable in their dislike of the Poles, and the Soviets regard the women as fodder for their own use in mass rape.

In the countryside, Tadeus meets Rose (Agata Kulesza), herself a victim of multiple rapes and beatings, on her farm.  Tadeus seeks lodging in return for casual labour, but his training in mine-clearance is particularly useful, if an unusual talent for a simple passer-by.  Gradually, the relationship between Tadeus and Rose warms, and Rose’s daughter comes out of hiding in the farmhouse attic.

Other Polish refugees appear on the scene, and the Rose’s hold on the farm is threatened.  This is an area now in Poland that was once part of East Prussia, Mazuria, with its own dialect (now almost extinct) and a population of ethnic Germans.  Who you are and what language you speak can be life-or-death distinctions.  Meanwhile, the secret police guess who Tadeus may really be, and the Russians have little use for those whose goal might be Polish independence.

The action is brutal in places, and the “liberators” get no more sympathetic treatment than the occupying Germans they displaced.

This is a difficult, but strong tale.  The setting is bleak, and the story does not end well, but its strength lies in the hope of love, of caring between two people in very hard times when envy and hatred were far more common.

Pink Ribbons, Inc. **

Canadian director Lea Pool brings us a “documentary” purporting to be an exposé of the corporate takeover of fundraising, the high-jacking of breast cancer as a front for advertising, and the low proportion of spending on prevention as distinct from research.  Yes, research addresses both treatment and prevention, but Pink Ribbons Inc. argues that the balance is badly skewed to the money-making treatment side.  This might be an interesting topic were it not for fatal flaws in the execution.

First off, although this is a National Film Board of Canada production, we spend an inordinate amount of time listening to Americans.  Moreover, we do so uncritically, and the film seems more a venue for their rants against the cancer industry than a detailed, documented review.  Talking heads, many talking heads, shot in an unvarying straight-on view, advance their positions unsupported by investigative footage.

One speaker rails against the terminology of “battles” and “survivors” as if somehow these demean cancer sufferers and divert attention from the need to prevent the disease.

Without question, the corporatization of fundraising of every kind, the idea that every cause is a branding opportunity, is an important topic, one deserving of a Michael Mooresque treatment.  Instead, Pink Ribbons Inc. feels as if Pool was offered this film, did minimal original research, and was content to uncritically package the ideas of a few activists in the field.  A worthwhile subject is poorly served by the result.