TIFF 2011 Reviews Part III

Reviewed here:

  • Monsieur Lazhar *****
  • Leave It On The Floor ***½
  • Superclasico **½
  • I’m Carolyn Parker ***

Days 7 and 8 of the festival.

Monsieur Lazhar *****

Directed and Adapted by Phillipe Falardeau /Canada

Monsiuer Lazhar tied with Pina as my favourite of the Festival, and I was very pleased that it received the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature Film from the TIFF Jury.  The work began as a one-man play by Evelyne de la Chenelière featuring only the title character, a teacher in a Montréal elementary school.  Falardeau expanded this to include a much wider cast, and especially the children.

The story begins with a tragedy.  Children are at play in a schoolyard, but one, Simon (Émilien Néron) , has an errand to retrieve something from his classroom.  His teacher has committed suicide, and Simon finds her hanging in at the front of the empty room.  The death leads to the school seeking a new teacher.  Enter Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant (played beautifully by the Algerian actor Fellag).

Lazhar has very old-fashioned ideas about classrooms with desks arranged in rows and well-behaved students.  He begins with a dictation to see how well the children understand and spell French, but his text is a complex one from Balzac.  One kid refers to it as antique literature.  In time he will learn about more appropriate books from a sympathetic girl, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) in his class.  Alice was particularly affected by the death, and blames this on Simon who had taunted their teacher.

Bashir Lazhar’s background is not as simple as it first seems.  He is not a landed immigrant, but a political refugee whose family was murdered for his wife’s writings.  She was actually a teacher while Bashir ran a café.  His teaching “experience” came from watching his wife plus his own early school days years ago, but she is now just a memory.

Monsieur Lazhar touches many themes:  the experience of death, the role of an immigrant making his way in a new country, the relationship between adults and children, the endless rethinking of what constitutes “good teaching”.  After the screening, Falardeau noted that there is a closeness between teacher and student in his film that is no longer possible with modern-day worries about “inappropriate” actions.

The heart of Monsieur Lazhar lies with the children, and Falardeau brings out wonderful performances from his young actors.  They provide the joy, the laughter that would be harder to find if the story focussed too much on adults.

The film’s website includes an extensive interview (in French) with the director and a trailer (no subtitles).  Monsieur Lazhar opens on October 28 in Québec.  International sales at TIFF were strong, and Canada has entered Monsieur Lazhar in the Foreign Film category for the Academy Awards.

Leave It On The Floor ***½

Directed by Sheldon Larry / Canada

Leave It On The Floor tells the story of Brad (Ephraim Sykes), a closeted, 22-year old black boy who has just come out, with predictable effect, to his mother.  She throws Brad out of the house, and off he goes into the L.A. streets not knowing what to do.  In a convenience store he meets, flirts with and is robbed by Carter (Andre Myers), then finds himself in a warehouse where there’s a party like none he’s ever seen.

This is the Los Angeles Ballroom scene, a gay, black subculture where everyone, in his/her own way, is beautiful, and the aim is to out-dance anyone else in the room.  As a newcomer, Brad is the centre of attention especially from Princess (Phillip Evelyn), and is soon adopted by the House of Eminence presided over by Queef Latine (Barbie-Q).

The plot and dialogue won’t set you on fire as a screenplay, to the point where I worried in the opening moments that this was just too low-budget a film to care about the basics.  However, the music and dancing more than make up for this — this is really an old-style musical, or if one wanted to be really arcane, an operetta, where the plot is merely a device to get to the next song.

Frank Gatson Jr.’s choreography and Kimberly Burse’s music are the heart of Leave It On The Floor.  The variety of styles never bores, and shows the combined talents of established artists.  Gatson is Beyoncé’s Creative Director and Choreographer, and Burse has a 16-year history in many parts of the music business.  This may be a film made on a shoestring by Sheldon Larry and his students at USC, but there’s great work here.

Comparison to Paris is Burning, the 1990 feature that brought Vogueing to public view, are inevitable.  Indeed, a San Francisco screening of Leave It On The Floor was timed for the anniversary of the earlier film’s debut.  Twenty years on, finding “home” is still a challenge, and homophobia hasn’t disappeared.

Oddly enough, this is officially a “Canadian” work thanks to the mysteries of film financing, although there isn’t a drop of maple syrup in the production.  Sheldon Larry is a nice white boy from Toronto who works mainly in TV.  This is his first feature.  His film concentrates more on the up side of the ballroom scene than on its social context, but given the weakness of the writing, that’s probably just as well.

Superclásico **½

Directed by Ole Christian Madsen / Denmark

Christian (Anders W. Berthelsen) simply has no drive.  His wine business in Copenhagen is bankrupt, his wife Anna (Paprika Steen) just went to Buenos Aires to live with soccer-playing Juan (Sebastián Estevanez), a divorce in progress.

Even Christian’s son Oscar is drifting away and plans to fly off for a visit Anna.  Christian decides to go along with the hope he might get Anna back, but things don’t quite work out as he expects.

Oscar is a real chip off his father, withdrawn into photography as a substitute for the real world just as Christian is focused on wine.  He meets Veronica, a tour guide at a cemetery and falls in love, but runs foul of her father.

Meanwhile Anna and Juan are having a great time, and Christian is very much a third wheel, although his feelings about Argentine wines is slowing mellowing.  Housekeeper Ernanda (Adriana Mascialino) decides to take matters into her own hands, and Christian finds himself enjoying South American passion.  “Never say thank you for sex” is Ernanda’s tip in gentlemanly manners for poor Christian.

Probably the best lines on relationships come from an old wine farmer (Miguel Dedovich) with a monologue about why he hates divorce — God has a sense of humour:  you may get back together and think everything is OK, but in time …

Superclásico is a light comedy with good characters, but an off-kilter combination of a Danish movie shot in Argentina, and a less than credible plot.

I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful ***

Directed by Jonathan Demme / USA

After Hurricane Katrina, Carolyn Parker, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, was a major thorn in the side of the many agencies involved with reconstruction of the city.  She was among the last to leave during the destruction and the first to seek to rebuild her home, a process that took five years.  Director Jonathan Demme followed this woman and her slow progress through the maze of government and private contractors.  Although his film could be read as a testament to one woman’s strength of will, it is an indictment of the ineffectiveness and lack of co-ordination in so many programs.

I may sound like a Republican, but we must remember that the response to the Katrina disaster was a product of the Bush White House.

Demme’s camera stays resolutely in the Lower Ninth.  We never see tourist New Orleans, although it’s impossible to watch this film without knowing that close by these empty streets is a very different city.

Carolyn Parker is a great woman with astounding spirit in the face of the destruction of her neighbourhood, the indifference of governments, and the corruption of contractors looking for easy money.  She is proud of her son and her community, and fights to ensure that the poor are not forgotten.

I have to admit a certain degree of Katrina-fatigue, and despite its relatively short 90 minutes, I’m Carolyn Parker seemed to go on rather too long.  At its heart, though, is one obvious question:  is this really “the American way”?