TIFF 09 – Wrap-up
Overall, a disappointing year at TIFF. It’s all about expectations, and some of mine were dashed. Take Fatih Akim’s newest. Entertaining and fun towatch, I’ve come to expect transcendent films from him. This was marking time. I jumped on Partir, simply because of the presence of Kristen Scott Thomas. She held up her end, but just not a very good movie. Did I sense some ‘creatve differences’ between her and her Director Catherine Corsini in the Q&A? Maybe my imagination.
Most of the films were in the ok to fair or ok with an E for effort category. Separated out for special scorn was the atrocious Werner Herzog effort (did I say effort?) My Son, My Son, What Have ye Done. In deed. What the fuck did he do? Think of outtakes from John From Cincinnati. Outtakes for a reason. Herzog couldn’t carry John’s huarachi’s based on this one.
Thank God for the excellent Accident, and Mother. Both inventive and stylish and entertaining.
The best viewing experience was the perfect;y rendered Argentinian film , El Secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes).
My personal highlight and my most lasting memory from this fest though will be not only the two honest, open and heartfelt films of Guo Xiaolu, but her frank, and incisive exchanges in her Q&A’s. She’s got talent to burn, and I hope to hear more from her in any medium.
FLASH LATE BREAKING: The Oprah touch endures. The winner of the 2009 Cadillac People’s Choice Award is “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”. Reportedly as feel-good as last years winner (Slumdog). God I’m such a cynic!
TIFF 09 – Day 6
The last day for me. I’m home now, having left early this morning. At least that was the plan. There were several delays, so I lost a couple of hours at the airport. The festival closes tomorrow (Saturday).
Thursday’s fare started with a film by South Korean Director Bong Joon-ho (The Host). Mother is a murder mystery featuring a strong performance by Kim Hye-ja in the title role. The great irony that director Bong Joon-ho plays with is the fact that the actress is a tv icon in South Korea, playing the ideal of motherhood for over thirty years. Here, the director turns that ideal and on its head – or pushes it to the limit, depending on your point of view.
When a young girl is murdered, the circumstantial evidence points to the son. Having devoted her whole life to protecting her ‘simple’ child, she doggedly pursues evidence to prove her son’s innocence. How far will she go? This is the question that the director asked while introducing the screening. He couldn’t stay for the Q&A, as he had a plane to catch.
The film opens with an extended solo dance in a field of golden wheat by the Mother. The end of the movie circles back around to a similar scene. In between there are twists and turns and surprising revelations. It’s a movie that has obviously been crafted by a Director at the top of his game.
Les Derniers Jours Du Monde (Happy End), the entry by the brother team of Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu, concerns the coming apocalypse, but is more properly pre-apocalyptic. Filmed against some beautiful backdrops, the momentum gathering for the end of the world is all the more poignant. Let me change that pre-apocalyptic appellation to a pre-apocalyptic road movie. Leading the way is Robinson (ala Crusoe), played by Mathieu Amalric, who finds himself alone and in a quest to find his lost love.
As the worlds collapses into ecological disaster, political terrorism and anarchy, the response seems to be sex and hedonism – and more sex. There’s even a running of the bulls scene from Pamploma which seems to fit right in here. The movie is refreshing for its different take on the apocalypse, but it’s a bit of a mess, though frequently lovely to look at.
Tomorrow, a recap.
TIFF 09 – Day 5
An Egyptian film that I had scheduled for today was cancelled, so I had to rejigger my viewing schedule. I added another couple films, and replaced the Midnight Madness film I had scheduled. These days, that’s just past my bedtime! Coupled with the fact that I came down with a head cold. Yuck. A cold on vacation sucks.
First up in the morning then (noon time actually) was a movie I added that seems to hope to be this years Juno– right down to the cutesy graphics. Not to mention that Michael Cera reprises the role of Paulie Bleeker. Talk about type-casting. Here, as Nick Twisp (though he prefers the moniker Francois Dillinger), Cera plays a smarter than is good for him geek. Replace Ellen Page with newcomer Portia Doubleday as Sheeni, and the formula is complete.
None of this is to take away from the charms of Youth in Revolt (it’s smart and funny) but let’s face it – derivative. It’s based on a cult novel by C. D. Payne – of which I have admittedly never heard. I guess I’m into different cults.
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Far from derivative is Malaysian filmmaker Chris Chong Chan Fui’s You Can’t Go Home Again Karaoke. When Betik (Zahiril Adzim) comes home to his rural village (Kota Kinabalu), he finds much changed. The world does not stand still and conform to his desires and expectations. Where he thought he’d take a job helping his Mother in the karaoke bar, she’s decided to pack it in and move out. His fantasy disconnects rather abruptly from the reality.
The Director learned his craft in Toronto, and has just recently moved back to his native country. He’s been primarily an experimental short filmmaker, and this is his first “feature” film. Really though, it’s an extended experimental short. Chong is not really interested in ‘telling a story’, although he does structure the film around the making of three karaoke videos. These three videos (as the director tells us in the Q&A) are meant o stand in for a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is as far as he’s willing to go. He’s far more interested in giving us images. Images that will presumably wash over you and tell their own story.
The last video especially, stands out as a marker for how far fantasy can roam from the reality. This is a film of slowly developing images – a game in which Chong is especially adept. Take the section showing us the harvesting of the palm oil crop, a major export of Malaysia. One thinks of tress and the forest and harvesting the bounty for sustenance, right? The reality here is the opposite. Mounds and mounds of palm oil gourds (?) are shown heaped up to be extracted into a processor. Bucolic nature is overshadowed by the reality of commerce. We may fantasize about a different reality, but we’re idealizing what is really not there.
The last two films of the day were a study in contrasts. The two films could not be more unalike. First, because I was so impressed with Guo Xiaolu’s She, A Chinese (the first movie I saw at the festival), that when I had the opportunity to change my schedule, I was able to add her companion (‘documentray’) piece to my schedule for viewing. I hadn’t even known about it until she mentioned it at her Q&A for the former film. In post-production for She, A Chinese, Guo had become bored with the laborious process of getting permits, agreements, etc. together. While Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country is a Chinese production (in Mandarin), the feature film was a complicated production of the UK, France and Germany. So she got out her own handheld camera and went out to revisit the people and places of China (including some of the places in the feature film). This is entirely a one-woman show (she even forgot to turn on the sound in some scenes!)
But what emerges is a frank and honest snapshot of present day China, replete with some bitterness for the present day, and some longing for the past of Mao.
The novelist Guo (as she did in her feature film) tells the story in 12 Chapters. These are lovely visual essays, that paint themselves directly onto your vision. In many ways, this is an absolutely heartbreaking film, Guo uses the word melancholy several times as she speaks to the audience after the screening. So many possibilities, gone awry. Yet, she still holds out hope for a better outcome as new generations come along. One of the devices in the documentary is a group of children that she ran across on the streets by chance, who begin to read to her some of the stories in a book. It turns out to be a rather didactic text book that is part of their schooling. Framed against this, Guo brilliantly conceives scene after scene to reflect upon those children’s “stories’. Just a wonderful talent, whom I have a wealth of admiration for.
To follow up this from the heart work of love, with the bloated, ponderous, cynical and disingenuous sack of pedantry that is Werner Herzog’s latest (or is it David Lynch’s latest?) was just too startling for words. Herzog has been working in the non-fiction genre of late, but this year he arrived in Toronto with two new fiction films. Herzog should rethink again.
Werner, Werner, what have ye done? I was embarrassed. The audience – out of politeness, or just plain admiration for his body of work, applauded.
TIFF 09 – DAY 4
I had forgotten the black squirrels of Toronto. With Winter just around the corner, they’re gathering up what they may. I started the day out with a nice jog along the shores of Lake Ontario, or some of it at least.
Later I saw Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! Based on a factual account of the ADM price fixing scandals, Matt Damon as whistle blower Mark Whitacre and Melanie Lynskey as his wife, both turn in fine performances. This is certainly a quirky movie, and an unexpected look at another side of Damon.
As the movie builds up steam, we see Damon’s character carrying on a very funny/internal dialogue with his surroundings: commentary, aphorisms, random questions. As his dealings with the FBI become more and more involved, and Whitacre is caught in exaggerations and lie after lie, we realize that what we are hearing is a bi-polar monologue unfolding right on the screen, and inside the characters head. That is the movies most engaging and fascinating moment, when we realize what we’ve been listening to. It’s very well done, and revelatory.
I have to say though, that I prefer my whistle-blower movies straight up, without the chaser, please. The audience member right next to me, had not realized that the events portrayed were all fact based. She was stunned. And it is hard to believe that this all could have happened. The movie though, goes a long way toward explaining how it was possible, unlikely as it all seems.
Men on the Bridge (Köprüdekiler), by Turkish Director Asli Özge was originally conceived of as a documentary. There are several films here that sort of fit that profile, including the companion piece to She, A Chinese. But more on that later.
I make it a point to pay special attention to the films from (or about Turkey), especially Istanbul. They very idea of the city has fascinated me since I visited there several years ago. That shimmering Bosphorus and the magnificent sunsets, the bridge itself (the Bosphorus) linking Europe and Asia, with its traffic jams and the mosque spires towering in the background, no matter which way you turn. The call to prayers. The crumbled and crumbling glory. No city perhaps captures the vibrancy and decay, the possibilities and the seeds of entropy, as does Istanbul.
All of the characters are amateurs, playing themselves. The exception being the two policemen. Police are not allowed to participate in films. So ironically, they are played by their real life brothers, wearing their brothers clothes. There’s a metaphor there somewhere. But Istanbul is a city of metaphorical possibilities.
Much of the main action takes place on the bridge, where the policemen work, and where Fikret, an uneducated, illiterate boy just scraping by, spends his days (illegally) hawking roses to passing motorists. I’ve walked this bridge and seen Fikret (more likely others just like him. I’ve bought coffee from the coffee vendor where he attempts to find a job. I’ve walked through that byzantine bazaar many times, marveling over the otherworldly assortment of spices.
Asli Özge told the audience after, that Fikret still sells roses on the Bosphorus, but that he does much better now, having attained a sort of mini-celebrity. Shades of last years Slumdog Millionaire.
TIFF 09 – Day 3
Argentinian Director Juan José Campanella, (Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film for his 2001 Son of the Bride), with El Secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) has given us a fully realized film, with not a false note to be found. It’s wonderful to view a film that offers up so many plot turns, without giving me the feeling that I’m swimming straight out to sea.
What do we have here? A crime drama of the investigative type and a love story that will tug at your heart strings. That’s hard to pull off seamlessly, but Campanella does it with seeming ease. And go figure, although the central plot concerns a brutal rape/murder, the film is not without its humor. Campanella is, after all, a guy who has spent the last few years toiling in tv land (30 Rock, Law and Order). It’s all second nature.
Time shifting? And this is the way the story is told: black hair/Gray hair. No problemo! seriously, I sometimes get lost in these things. Here, just watch the hair color.
Benjamín Espósito, now retired, has taken to writing a novel based on the case that has haunted him his whole life. Benjamin had fingered the suspect very early, but the usual hurdles, a corrupt judiciary, politics had boxed him into a corner.
There are some especially fine scenes in the film. One is at a soccer stadium that Benjamim and his partner have been staking out as a likely place to nab the elusive perp. First a shot tracks below the rim and then over the green expanse of a soccer field, then down into the crowd, where some serious action takes place. Then there’s the good cop/bad cop interrogation, where Benjamin is the “good cop” and his boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) plays the “bad cop” brilliantly. While this leads to a confession, its the time of Isabel Peron, and this thug, and others like him have other value to the authorities. Political value trumps Justice every time.
Justice though is in the eye of the beholder. The meaning of memory and loss, what to take from the past and what to leave behind is the lesson that Benjamin learns as he revisits the old case. It also frees him to confront the lost years and his own suppressed feelings. My favorite film of the festival so far.
Now every year I await – eagerly await – the new Fatih Akin film. If pressed, I’d have to say he’s my favorite director working today. He’s such a humanist. The Edge of Heaven was my personal Best Of from last year. Soul Kitchen is a departure for Akin. It’s celebratory, comic and a whole lot of fun. It sweeps you up, but on reflection, this is really Akin-light. This is a movie where the director gathered all his friends and said: “Let’s make a movie. It’ll be fun” It’s obvious that the entire cast had the time of their lives.
Every great director deserves a pass to make one of these, and this is Akin’s. He’s already promised that he’s working on something more back to form for him. Fatih Akin is a warm and funny human being and took lots of time with his Q&A, and seemed genuinely surprised and thankful for the enthusiastic response his movie was given. Akin had his best friend and star of the movie Adam Bousdoukos who gave an exuberant performance as the owner of the greasy spoon known as Soul Kitchen.
Just as eagerly awaited was a new film with Kristen Scott Thomas. That would be Partir (Leaving). So when she swept onstage with Director Catherine Corsini to introduce the screening in an elegant backless floor length black gown (how am I doing as a fashion writer?) I was charged up. Unfortunately, the movie left me a little cold. I couldn’t quite take to the obsessive nature of KST’s (as Suzanne) love. On the opposite side the love triangle is her jilted husband, who is just as obsessive in his refusal to let her go.
I’ll forget the movie but obsess over KST myself.
TIFF 09 – DAY 2
I had no films this morning, so I had a big breakfast at Cora’s (elaborate and interesting menu, which reminds of Miami Beach deli’s). Then I went exploring to find a good access to Lake Ontario and a place to run. Found it, and I hope to do that tomorrow – time permitting. Straight down Spadina and turn right on the lakefront wharf. I finished Inherent Vice down there as well. But more on that later.
First up, from Denmark/Scotland, a Viking epic, Valhalla Rising, by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn, based on the audience seems to have a cult following, and is best known they say for his Pusher trilogy. All three movies are available of Netflix, and I just added them. Not that I necessarily would have based on this rather turgid, foreboding Viking offering. The Director admitted that he “knew nothing” about Vikings, in fact had no interest in Vikings, but wanted to delve into an historical story. Nevertheless, I do want to give him another try.
Told similarly to the first movie I saw (She, A Chinese), in the sense that the film is separated into Chapters (here Parts I, Part II, etc), Valhalla Rising is not Kirk Douglas’ vision of the Viking. Nor Tony Curtis’ either, for that matter. . You know this almost immediately. And if you didn’t, when One-Eye uses his fingernail to carve an opening into a man’s mid-section, then thrusts his arms up to the elbows and pulls out his entrails….well, you get the picture. Lots of Viking style bloody events here, but that’s not what I had a problem with. The movie is just so ‘meaningful’ and brooding. It wants to say a lot, but doesn’t really have much to say. Which is forecasted by the dialogue. Of which there is very little. I can’t remember a movie in which the silences, the glares, the steely eyed glances were most of the film. Punctuated by blasts of electronica (sounded like the theme from CSI or something), very little was said in the movie. Well, One-Eye is a mute after all.
It’s 1000 AD and after One-Eye escapes from his captors with the aid of an enslaved orphan boy, he meets up with some crusaders searching for the Holy Land. They all set sail into the fog of war. Do they come out in the Holy Land? Have they crossed the River Styx into Hell? These questions occur. Also, was that real butter on the popcorn?
The Director wanted to make a movie about the beginnings of Norse mythology. Not a bad spin on Viking movies, but I contend he just didn’t know how. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), who played One-Eye was at the screening along with the Director. Funny how little Mads looked up on stage, as opposed to the big screen. He just didn’t seem very Viking like. Maybe it was the second eye.
Filmed though against an incredible back-drop of isolation (actually at various locations in Scotland), the film certainly stars the landscape. As a commentary that very little separates the violence and blood lust of the savage (infidel) from the men of God (Allah), nothing new is added here that we didn’t already know. All bloody trails inevitably lead back to the all-powerful.
From Chinese Director Tian Zhuang Zhuang, comes the supernatural Chinese epic, Lang Zai Ji (The Warrior and the Wolf). Same theme, different part of our planet earth. Here, the Imperial Court has dispatched soldiers to conquer the nomadic tribes (the savages) and unify China.
When his leader and mentor, General Zhang Anliang is wounded, Lu Chenkang must take command. The snows have arrived and the battered army must hunker down. They make do with a village of the Harran – a tribe that only comes out at night. There, Lu founds himself in the home of a mysterious widow, played by a lovely woman with the coolest name in show biz, Toronto native Maggie Q. Maggie’s character is either dead, or a wolf or both. After a rough start (including rough sex – revisited several times) Lu becomes increasingly enthralled with the woman, and he too gets in touch with his animal nature.
Full of cross cutting flashbacks, I had a bit of a problem at first with keeping the names and faces straight. This was not helped by the non-linear story arc, but after a bit, my head got it straight. Like Valhalla Rising in the sense that the film was a visual treat, I found the mythology more intriguing and ultimately, more accessible, thought provoking, and satisfying. Veteran Director Tian Zhuang Zhuang is a little more advanced at this game.
Finally, my late evening film, Yi Ngoi (Accident), from Hong Kong Director, Soi Cheang. An extremely inventive and entertaining film that turns police procedurals on their collective heads. I’d describe it as a crime procedural. Not a caper film, it’s about a close knit gang of assassins who operate like a well oiled machine. The elaborate devices for eliminating the marks (and make it look like an accident) are precision inventions of the collaborative gang. The Director told us that the film was two years in the making, not in small part because of the time it took to construct the inventively staged ‘accidents’. But what is an accident? Sometimes, what appears to be accidental is really a planned event. And sometimes, they really are accidents, masquerading as fate, or karma.
It’s a riveting thriller that never fails to surprise, and then surprise again. This is the kind of tension and inventiveness that the smug tv series Leverage can only dream about. Led by Brain (Louis Koo – as in Kool under pressure), this is a film that will hold your attention from start to finish. The TIFF Asian programmer has this one right: this is a film that will probably be remade in a heartbeat by Hollywood.
TIFF 09 DAY 1
I had to drive to the airport in a driving rain storm (I hate driving in the rain now). Then (my fault for not checking) Travelocity changed the parking facility they used to use for long term off site (as opposed to expensive airport parking) to another facility. Of course I had trouble finding it. It’s in Chelsea for chrissakes. Chelsea?
Then I somehow lost my passport between going through security and putting my shoes back on. Found it easily enough, but an inauspicious start.
So I got in (nearly an hour flight delay), took the shuttle and got to my hotel and checked in fine. Picked up my tickets and good to go. Man, are they super organized this year. Last year the picking up tickets process was about an hour ordeal. This time: about 10 minutes. They’ve even refined the line up process and this looks like it will go much smoother as well.
Which brings me to the movie I saw today from Guo Xiaolu. She’s not only a film maker (she actually has a documentary of the making of her feature showing here as well), but a novelist and poet. Busy woman.
Her film (She, A Chinese) is structured with a nod to her background as a novelist (It’s told in Chapters), but her debt to Jean Luc-Godard (La Chinoise) and Truffaut is apparent as well. Each chapter starts with a red screen with the name of the chapter (nicely chosen) emblazoned across the screen. She’s synthesized her influences into her original hybrid work to create a wonderful style, which I’d like to see more of. The director graciously introduced the film and took a rather long Q&A as well (she gave VERY long answers). She’s very thoughtful and intent on laying bare her intent and her thoughts on her characters.
One of the things I really liked about this movie was the prominent place that the music had in it. No background score here. There were two extended scenes (one a karaoke one) and the other near the end that was an integral part of explaining her main character, Mei. Lots of times a complete song is reserved for the closing credits. Not here, and it’s not filler, either.
One of the things I love about world film festivals is the chance to see films – and places, cultures, and settings – from all over the world. Things you would never see, even as a tourist. Mei (like Guo Xiaolu herself) is born into a rural life of scratching out a living in any way possible. As the movie begins, we are informed that Mei has never been more than 5 miles from where she was born. By the time we leave her, she’s been to and tasted several ‘worlds’. Guo Xiaolu moved to and was educated in Europe. She now makes her home in London. Mei is no less determined to get out of her small, restrictive milieu. In the process she moves from man to man (none of whom seem to work out for her), and although there is heartache and loss at every turn, she’s a survivor and you just know there’s no quit in her.
As the director emphasized after the film, rather than making some metaphorical tale about the changing China, she was more interested in the universal here. It’s a rather unique coming of age story (without the ‘cute’). Mei is inquisitive, willing to try things and naturally curious. A good start to the Festival (for me) after all.
“She, A Chinese,” directed by Guo Xiaolu (United Kingdom / Germany / France) recently won the top prize (Golden Leopard) at the 62d annual Locarno (Switzerland) film fest. It’ll be interesting to see how it does here at Toronto.
Well, I’ve gotten confirmation of my line-up for this years Toronto International Film Festival (hereafter, TIFF 09). Here we go:
- She, a Chinese (UK)
- Valhalla Rising (Denmark)
- The Warrior and the Wolf (China)
- Accident (Hong Kong)
- The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
- Soul Kitchen (from Germany, Fatih Akin’s new one – I always look forward to his films)
- Partir (from France, with Kristin Scott Thomas. How could I pass this up?)
- The Informant! (Soderbergh’s latest with Matt Damon)
- Men on the Bridge (Germany)
- Karaoke (Malaysia)
- The Traveller (from Egypt with Omar Sharif)
- My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog’s new one). He’s got Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans here too.
- Mother (South Korea)
- Les Derniers jours du monde (France)
- Symbol (Japan – at midnight on my last day at the festival. I recently watched the director’s first feature, Dainipponjin)and really wanted to see this one.
I didn”t get tickets for several films I would have liked to see:
- Dil Bole Hadippa: I really wanted to see one Bollywood film
- Micmacs a tire-larigot (from Delicatessen director Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
- Glorious 39 (UK) with Julie Christie
- Mr. Nobody: From France, this one looked really good. Sarah Polley’s in it
- Almodovar’s new one with Penelope: Broken Embraces. Dying to see this one.
- I Am Love (Italy). Because Tilda Swinton is in it
- Todd Solondz’ Life During Wartime
- The Road. Couldn’t score. Ah, well…it’ll be out soon enough
- Kamui Gaiden (Japan)
Then there were others, which looked interesting, but would most likely be in the theaters here at some point:
- Creation, a UK Darwin bio-pic
- The Men Who Stare at Goats, as well as Up In The Air: Both with George Clooney
- Dorian Gray, with Colin Firth and Ben Chaplin
- Chloe, with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore
- Get Low, with what is supposed to be a career capping performance by Robert Duvall, alongside Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek
- The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam). Great cast: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, and Heath Ledger’s last role (although incomplete apparently)
- Michael Moore is debuting Capitalism: A Love Story
- The new Coen Brothers film: A Serious Man
- Bright Star by Jane Campion