film festivals

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TIFF Day 6: Catching my Breath

After four movies and two parties on Tuesday, I knew I would have to take it easy on Wednesday, so I scheduled a two-film day. Of course, what I didn't account for was the fact that I had to get up early in the morning one last time to go to the box office, and my afternoon was booked for a group-Chlotrudis lunch (the only time I would see Ned & Ivy during the entire festival!) With the ever-growing festival fatigue that hits in the latter half of the trip, and another party looming in the evening, I knew this was going to be a tough day. Fortunately, our first film wasn't until 12:30 p.m., so we did have a couple of hours in the morning to rest.

UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE (France; 114 min.)

director: Catherine Breillat

cast: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Aït Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau

A new Catherine Breillat film is always something that sparks my interest, and in her latest film, the first after the director endured a serious stroke, Breillat tries her hand at a period piece... a true costume drama set in the early nineteenth century. Based on writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s notorious novel of sexual intrigue, UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE charts the tempestuous ten-year relationship between young Ryno de Marigny and the foul-mouthed, half-Spanish libertine Vellini. Now that Ryno is engaged to marry the virtuous gem of the French aristocracy, Hermangarde, he must come clean about his past to her grandmother La marquise de Flers, who is shockingly understanding. Ryno insists that it is over between he and Vellini, and explains to La marquise the sexual dynamic that kept him in her clutches for so many years. Their late night conversation is punctuated by the voracious sexual encounters and the social manipulations between the young lovers.

The casting of Asia Argento as Vellini is an interesting choice for Breillat. Argento is not known for her deft acting skills, and her on-screen presence is decidedly modern. Still, she inhabits the roll of Vellini quite well; her unrefined screen presence matching the uncouth Vellini in a way that works for the film. Newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou, a barber Breillat discovered at a French cafe, does a fine job as Ryno, acquitting himself nicely despite being chosen quite obviously for his looks. Frequent Breillat collaborator Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL; SEX IS COMEDY) adds just enough backbone to the virginal Hermangarde to give her much needed depth. The standout in the cast is certainly Claude Sarraute as the unflappable La marquise de Flers, who takes in Ryno's scandalous story and gives him the benefit of the doubt that he has changed.

What lifts UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE above the vaguely reminiscent DANGEROUS LIAISONS is the way the two main characters are allowed a range of emotions. There is more than just cruel manipulations behind the actions of the young lovers; true emotions simmering just beneath the surface. As far as the production itself, Breillat, who in her introduction to the film explained her obsession with period details, has taken pains to create an accurate look and feel of the time. The film's budget is more than all her previous films combined, and you can see where the money was spent onscreen. This is a fine continuation of a controversial filmmaker's body of work.

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS (Canada; 77 min.)

director: Bruce McDonald

cast: Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Max McCabe-Lokos, Max Turnbull, Julian Richings, Zie Souwand, Slim Twig

This was surely the year of Ellen Page at the Toronto International Film Festival. After receiving well-deserved accolades for her fine comedic work in JUNO, she turns around a floors audiences in Bruce McDonald's ("Twitch City"; HIGHWAY 61) dramatic feature THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS. This is a film that has the potential to blow your mind, incorporating a strong enough screenplay, a powerhouse lead performance, and a visionary director that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking to take the film's title literally and give the audience visual fragments of the titular character's psyche.

In some ways, Tracey Berkowitz is similar to Juno, Page's other leading role at the festival. Both are high-school girls on the fringes of that community. But while Juno has a strong support base in her friends and family, Tracey is adrift alone, picked on mercilessly by her peers, and shunned by her parents who find her to be a problem child. Or it's possible that Tracey is just a very disturbed young girl rejecting any assistance that comes her way. The film is told entirely from Tracey's decidedly skewed point-of-view, it is difficult to gauge the ineffectiveness of her parents accurately. Central to the story is the disappearance of Tracey's seven-year-old brother, who thinks he's a dog. The story is told in flashback, through erratic flashes of Tracey's memory, as she rides a bus through the city, wrapped only in a flowered shower curtain, an impending blizzard looming in the near future.

Two films came to mind as I watched THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS: Lukas Moodysson's LILJA 4-EVER and Darren Aronofsky's PI. The former because we are watching the helpless downward spiral of a girl in way over her head. The latter because of the visual and aural assault Bruce McDonald uses to convey this tragic story. The fragmented visuals and helter skelter editing McDonald employs really adds tremendously to what might have otherwise been an R-rate after-school special type of story. The powerful, sountrack by Broken Social Scene matches the visuals nicely. The film works best if you stop resisting and let it wash over your senses. Moments of near calm are granted in Tracey's discussions with Dr. Heker, a female psychologist cast and played brilliantly by the very male Julian Richings (MY LIFE WITHOUT ME; THE RED VIOLIN).

The film has some minor flaws, mainly in the screenplay, but Page's outstanding lead performance and McDonald's creative and assured directorial hand managed to catapult THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS into my top film of the Festival. I'm hoping that a successful roll-out of JUNO will grant THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS a U.S. distribution deal. I would also love to co-present this film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston next April if it hasn't yet been released.

Once again, we hooked up with Don and Tracy after the film, along with Gerry Peary and Callum Keith Rennie, to walk over to the Century Club and THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS after-party. We once again chatted with Nadia Litz and Kish, as we navigated the crowded party filled with Canadian film notables. Just as the late hour threatened to overwhelm us and we made our way to the exit, we came across the star of the evening, the incredibly talented Ellen Page, and we were able to chat with her, congratulating her on her success. She graciously allowed us to take all the credit south of the border for discovering her rising star when we gave her the Breakout Award at the 11th Annual Chlotrudis Awards.

David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin win Awards at TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival announced its award winners on Saturday, September 15 with co-directors Piers Handling and Noah Cowan handing out prizes on the closing day of the festival. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg won the Cadillac People's Choice Award for the film EASTERN PROMISES. Cronenberg's crime film starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, opened this weekend in New York and makes its Boston debut next Friday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. There were two runners-up announced as well; Jason Reitman's comedy, JUNO starring Ellen Page, a favorite among Chlotrudis attendees, and Ellen Spiro's and Phil Donahue's documentary on the Iraqi War, BODY OF WAR.

On a side note, this year's People's Choice Award was poorly handled; possibly the single biggest gaffe I've ever seen in the generally well-run festival. At the beginning of each screening, volunteers pass out slips with the by-now-familiar-to-festgoers, voting ranks along the bottom. As festivalgoers are accustomed, at the end of the film you tear through the number that corresponds to the rank about how you enjoyed the film: 0 meaning poor, 4 meaning the best. The tearing eliminates the need for a writing instrument, which many people seeing a movie do not have. No instruction is given on the voting process; apparently it was assumed that feativalgoers would be familiar with this type of ballot and proceed accordingly. What a surprise, three days into the festival when Bruce was reprimanded by a volunteer about not having written the film's name on the slip! This was news to all of us, and made the whole tearing through the number irrelevant! Strangely enough, a couple of days later, volunteers were starting to announce, "Don't forget to write the name of the movie on your ballot." This surely hurt the voting, as many people couldn't be bothered and just skipped the voting process altogehter. Let's hope they get this right next year.

Another Chlotrudis favorite, Guy Maddin's MY WINNIPEG, took the CityTV Award for Best Canadian Feature Film. This amazing flim merges documentary and narrative, bringing together the best of Maddin's creative genius to tell the story of the Canadian city that is the heart of the heart of the country. IFC Entertainment has purchased the distribution rights for the United States, so watch out for its release!

The complete list of award-winners at TIFF follows:

Cadillac People's Choice Award:
EASTERN PROMISES, directed by David Cronenberg

FIPRESCI International Critics Prize:
LA ZONA, directed by Rodrigo Pla

Artistic Innovation Award:
ENCARNACION, directed by Anahi Berneri

Diesel Discovery Award:
COCHOCHI, directed by Israel Cardenas & Laura Amelia Guzman

CityTV Award for Best Canadian Feature Film:
MY WINNIPEG, directed by Guy Maddin

Toronto-City Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film:
CONTINENTAL, UN FILM SANS FUSIL, directed by Stephane Lafleur

Award for Best Canadian Short Film:
POOL, directed by Chris Chong Chan Fui

Taking a Break from Reviews: A TIFF Overview

Well, I got almost halfway through my reviews before getting home. That's not too bad. Once the parties started later in the week, I just couldn't carve the time our of my sleep schedule to blog. Sorry about that. I will continue with the reviews tomorrow, but I thought now would be a good time to take a break and talk a little about the TIFF experience as a whole.

Beth, Chris, and I had a morning flight on Friday, September 7, and were driven to the airport by my incredibly generous husband (who would be flying Toronto the following Tuesday). While waiting for our flight to depart Chris chatted with Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, with whom he works at the Coolidge Corner Foundation, and we had a nice conversation with Scot Heller, Arts & Film Editor for the Boston Globe. Upon boarding, I found that I was seated next to Elizabeth, and we chatted a bit about bringing groups to Toronto. She brings several Chlotrudis Board members, and I organize the Chlotrudis members, of which there were a total of 14 traveling to Toronto this year. The flight was quick and uneventful, and we arrived in Toronto eager to start the film festival activities.

We shared a cab with Scott Heller, which was a nice opportunity to catch up with him as it had been a while since we last chatted. I found out that Leighton Klein had left the Globe (which I was sad to hear; Leighton was fun to e chat with a consulate parties.) It was also a good opportunity to remind Scott what Chlotrudis was up to lately.

We checked into the Madison Manor Boutique Hotel, located in the Annex, near Bloor and Spadina. Chris and I would be roomies until he left and Scot arrived on Tuesday. Then I would be upgrading to a suite with Scottie. Our room was nice enough, and the hotel staff was very helpful. Things were promising. Next order of business... the box office.

As is always the case, the first day of TIFF is always the most stressful for those of us who do not spend the money on the lottery system for advanced tickets. Upon arriving at the box office at College Park, Beth, Chris and I got in line (see Beth on the left and Chris on the right) and settled in for what we felt sure would be a disappointing showing. Here is where you try to get as many tickets as possible for the films you want to see. The line didn't move all that quickly, and once we reached the ticket counter, we each got anywhere from a third to about half of the tickets we wanted. This was fine with us, since we knew we would be getting the tickets we needed each day in the morning, and too many tickets would mean a lot of exchanging (I always change my mind many times throughout the festival regarding which films I wanted to see.) Unfortunately, our time at the box office ate up more time than we'd hoped, and we barely had enough time to grab some fast food before Chris and I met Bruce for our first film.

The early morning ritual at the box office is something that many people don't understand. They wonder how I could possibly enjoy doing this, and to tell you the truth, I'm not sure what the answer is to that. It's true, the festival is exhausting, and getting up between 5 and 5:30 a.m. in order to get to the box office by 6 a.m. at the latest seems masochistic, but for me, it's all part of the festival experience. Despite late nights, including one night out until after 2 a.m., I got to the festival box office at the Manulife Center before 6 a.m. four out of my eight days in Toronto in order to get tickets for myself and any other Chlotrudis members who needed them. (Thanks to Beth for handling the fifth day, and to Scot for accompanying me on Wednesday). This year we had a perfect record, getting all the "sold-out" tickets we needed at the box office on the day-of. (The picture at left shows a piece of the line-up around 6:45 a.m. at the Manulife Center. The box office opens at 7 a.m.)

We spent a lot of time in the Toronto subways, run by the Toronto Transit Commission. With the Spadina stop directly behind the hotel, we were just steps away from quick, efficient transportation all over the city, and to all of the movie venues. The Toronto subways run frequently and smoothly. They are relatively clean, with wider cars. The one complaint I have about the subway system is their Sunday schedule where trains do not begin running until 9 a.m.! Here's a shot of one of the subway stops after just missing a departing train.

One last word on the opening promotional trailers that precede every film. These have often been the topic of much discussion in the past, and quickly wear thin by the end of the week after multiple viewings. I've gotta say, and all you other film festivals should take note, despite the presence of half a dozen or so of these promos, they were kept extremely short. This was a definite plus. Additionally, the main promo, the one advertising the Bell Lightbox, future home of the Toronto International Film Festival, featured music from Feist's "I Feel it All." This was a good way to keep some positivity around that promo (which otherwise was pretty poor... except for its brevity). Feist is great, and she's Canadian! Take a look...

TIFF Day 5: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner with Scot

Tuesday, Day 5 in Toronto, featured Scot's arrival to the festival. He couldn't come up early with the rest of us because he was teaching on Monday night. Even before he arrived we were dining witch Scot as you will see in my first movie review of the day. Tuesday also featured the first two industry parties of the festival as we tagged along with Don and Tracy to both the ALL HAT party and the SILK party. Beth, Scot and I also got caught in a sudden torrential downpour. Thank goodness for Dollar Store umbrellas. The Festival really kicked into high gear for us.

BREAKFAST WITH SCOT (Canada; 104 min.)

director: Laurie Lynd

cast: Thomas Cavanaugh; Ben Shenkman; Noah Bennett

BREAKFAST WITH SCOT was adapted from a lovely novel by Michael Downing that I read several years ago, and despite the fact that it features my husband's name (correct spelling included) in the title, I had forgotten that I'd read the book until director Laurie Lynd mentioned the author during the film's introduction. The film is a lovely, heartwarming look at a gay couple and the young boy who changes their lives. Sounds a little too sweet, doesn't it? Well Lynd, screenwriter Sean Reycraft and a talented cast manage to keep it sweet, but make it a delightfully entertaining and relevant film.

Sam and Ed are a successful gay couple. Ed is a lawyer, Sam is a sportscaster. The thing is, with Sam's background (he was a professional Hockey Player on the Toronto Blue Jays until an injury during practice forced him out) keeps him in the closet in his professional life. When Ed's brother's girlfriend dies, the couple find themselves in temporary custody of her eleven-year-old son Scot. Scot arrives on their doorstep smartly dressed and very polite, but they soon find out he has a penchance for boas and jewelry, singing showtunes, knitting, and worst of all, has no idea who Wayne Gretzky is. In a smartly drawn, and funny look at internalized homophobia and the way people perceive others, Lynd tells a heartwarming tale for the whole family.

The cast is terrific. Thomas Cavanaugh is superb as the obstinate, conflicted Sam (the actor is best known for his role in the television series "Ed") and Ben Shenkman ("Angels in America") is solid as Ed. The supporting cast features a host of well-known Canadian faces, all of whom transcend the stereotypes to create well-rounded characters. Most delightful of all was the uncredited turn by the sadly underused Sheila McCarthy (I'VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING) whose pitch perfect portrayal of the politically correct elementary school principal is divine. The film succeeds or fails on young Noah Bennett's portrayal of Scot, and he comes through remarkably. All the kids do a good job, but Bennett's Scot is sweetly heartbreaking.

JELLYFISH (Israel; 78 min.)

directors: Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret

cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Gera Sandler, Noa Knoller, Ma-nenita De Latorre, Ilanit Ben Yaakov, Zharira Charifai

JELLYFISH won the Golden Camera, and the Screenwriter's Award at Cannes earlier this year. Now it comes to Toronto, and in a couple of months, the Boston Jewish Film Festival co-presented by Chlotrudis! I didn't know what to expect from JELLYFISH, but the movie's synopsis sounded pretty interesting, so when Sara Rubin suggested it as one of our choices to co-present at the BJFF, I figured I would catch it in Toronto, and least be able to promote it properly. Imagine my surprise when it proved to be one of my favorite films of the festival!

The theme of JELLYFISH is disappointment. There are three central stories in JELLYFISH, involving three young women living in Israel. All three of these women have suffered severe disappointments, the first years ago during her childhood, another just a day ago at her wedding. Batya lives alone in a rundown apartment, working as a waitress for a wedding caterer and continuously being overlooked by her parents. Joy is a Filipino domestic who doesn't speak Hebrew and is trying to raise enough money to return to the Philippines to be with her young son. Keren is just married to Michael, but their honeymoon has been curtailed after she ends up in a cast at an embarrassing accident at their reception. The three women's stories intersect at various points of the film, and it isn't until the conclusion that the theme of the film unfolds.

Directors Geffen and Keret employ gentle magical reslism, most notably in the form of a mysterious little girl who appears from out of the sea to Batia and leads her without speaking to a path of realization. To tell anymore of the plot would surely take away from the enjoyment of watching things play out while enjoying the film. This is a delightful film, worthy of the accolades it has already achieved, and definitely worth the time of any Chlotrudis member to see it.

PING PONG PLAYA' (USA; 96 min.)

director: Jessica Yu

cast: Jimmy Tsai, Smith Cho, Khary Payton, Roger Fan, Peter Paige, Jim Lau, Elizabeth Sung

Who would have thought that the first feature narrative by filmmaker Jessica Yu, the brilliant documentarian responsible for IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL and PROTAGONIST, would be a wacky comedy in the vein of THE BAD NEWS BEARS? Co-written by the film's star, Jimmy Tsai, PING PONG PLAYA' hits all the right notes of the genre but more, it's comedy, and it's a film created by and starring Asian-Americans, with many of the issues and stereotype subtly woven into the story.

Christopher "C-dub" Wang dreams of being a professional basketball player, but his victories over the little kids in the neighborhood hardly qualify him for a star player. His mother teaches ping pong at the local community center, while his father runs a local ping pong supply shop, which is successful because C-dub's older brother Michael wins the ping pong championship year after year keeping the supply of students to the school flowing. When Michael and their mom are injured in a minor car accident, it falls to "C-dub" to take over the ping pong classes, and to compete in the championships. Sounds a little silly, but Yu and Tsai have written a script that's just flat out funny. At it's best, PING PONG PLAYA' is reminiscent of the films of Christopher Guest, spoofing a genre that is slightly ridiculous to start with. Even when it stumbles it merely falls to the level of the usual Hollywood sports movie genre.

The cast helps to elevate PING PONG PLAYA' above the usual fare. Jimmy Tsai, not an actor, or even a screenwriter, by trade but an accountant for the production company, does a good job making "C-dub" annoyingly ridiculous, but with a good heart. Jim Lau and Elizabeth Sung turn in fine comedic performances as the parents. Peter Paige (CHILDSTAR; "Queer As Folk") turns in a despicably amusing performance as "C-dub's" ping pong rival, and the actress (I couldn't find her on the cast list at imdb) who played the Ping Pong official is near brilliant. Even the typically stock character of the love interest is elevated into an interesting part as played by Smith Cho.

Okay, it's not a brilliant movie, but it is a thoroughly entertaining film that proves that Jessica Yu is one talented filmmaker capable to handling a wide variety of genres. So see PING PONG PLAYA' if you're in the mood for some wacky comedy... and see PROTAGONIST to see a truly brilliant documentary.

SILK (Canada/Italy/Japan; 112 min.)

director: François Girard

cast: Michael Pitt, Keira Knightley, Alfred Molina, Koji Yakusho, Mark Rendell, Miki Nakatani, Callum Keith Rennie

For his first film since THE RED VIOLIN, François Girard has chosen an historical romance that is masquerading as a sweeping epic. Based on a novel by Alessandro Baricco, SILK is the story of the silk-trade in 19th century Italy, and the man, Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt), who procured the silkworms from the mysterious and barbaric island of Japan for his village's silk mills. Happily married to the lovely Helene (Keira Knightley), Herve makes his first trip rather reluctantly, pressured by Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), the man who built the silk factory. While in Japan, he meets the local baron, and his captivating mistress, who snares him with her mysterious spell. Subsequent trips are undertaken eagerly by Herve, in the hopes of furthering his relationship with the mysterious Japanese woman with whom he becomes obsessed.

SILK is a gorgeous film, with lush Italian gardens, stark Russian steppes, and elegant Japanese landscapes filmed for maximum effect (we see plenty of them as Herve travels back and forth to Japan.) Ultimately, despite the epic feel of the film, we are left with a pretty unsatisfying story... at least the one presented on the screen. A happily married man encounters a mysterious and beautiful Japanese woman who doesn't speak a word to him, and he's willing to cheat on his wife with her, after which he becomes obsessed. This is the kind of film where everyone speaks in hushed tones, and somebody is going to come down with the dreaded swooning disease. The cast is a mixed bag, with the two leads, Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley looking pretty but unable to convey the necessary emotions to make the film convincing. They also lack any energy giving the overal film a lethargic feel. There are a handful of supporting characters who fare slightly better, most notably Miki Nakatani as Madame Blanche, a powerful madame in France, who fires up the screen with her presence. Kôji Yakusho (BABEL; SHALL WE DANCE) keeps things interesting as the Japanese baron; Callum Keith Rennie turns in a lively appearance as a gun runner that Herve meets in Japan; Alfred Molina provides some life as the mill owner; and Mark Rendall (the titular character in CHILDSTAR) has grown up some to play the often referred to but rarely seen, Ludovic.

The lethargy of SILK makes me think that Girard needs his former writing partner (Mr. Don McKellar - with whom he co-wrote both THE RED VIOLIN and 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD) to keep his screenplay's interesting. Not that SILK is a bad film, there's a lot of talented filmmaking on display here; it's just not entirely successful either. Unfortunately it's the screenplay and the two high profile leads that are the weak points in this SILK.

After the movies, the fun really started, as we joined Don & Tracy for a couple of parties. First stop was the ALL HAT party, a film that Tracy was in, but unfortunately her character was cut out of because it was too confusing. This modern, noir/western's after-party was at at country-western bar complete with a live band that would have been right at home at the Brattle's Trailer Treats Party. Star Luke Kirby ("Slings & Arrows") was in attendance, as was our friend (and Ellen Page's agent) Kish. We met the director of ALL HAT as well, Leonard Farlinger, who also acted as a producer for MONKEY WARFARE. We didn't stay long at the ALL HAT party, as Tracy was hungry and there was no food. So we hopped into a cab and headed to the famous Drake Hotel and the SILK party. In addition to the open bar and delicious cheese, the SILK party featured grilled cornbread and cole slaw! Several minutes was spent in discussion with Don about the merits or lack thereof of cole slaw as a party appetizer. The party space was small and crowded, and we arrived fairly late, but there were some recognizable faces there, including Michael Pitt, and Sei Ashina, who played the beautiful Japanese mistress. Director François Girard was much younger looking close up that he was on stage at the Visa Screening Room, and pretty cute too. Turns out he's one year younger than me. Got back to the hotel very late, but felt like I was truly a part of the Film Festival experience, party-hopping and all. More to come.

Bruce Weighs In: Day 5 at TIFF 07

Toronto 2007 is absolutely an embarrassment of riches (measured in cats, of course). No filmgoing experience could be more exhilarating. 3 cats is the lowest rating for any of the 16 films I’ve seen so far. And almost all the other Chlotrudis members are having above average viewing experiences as well.

As usual, I’ve tried to mix things up on the international scene with a schedule that covers 19 countries in 24 films. This year Cannes seemed to have a greater than usual influence on my choices. During the past few days tweaked my original schedule only slightly although every time someone raves about a film I’ve not seen I am tempted to try to squeeze it in. Here is a list the films I’ve seen so far ordered by cats. I will do my best to write a review for each film.

5 cats

  • 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS and 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu) Romania
  • MY WINNIPEG (Guy Maddin) Canada

4.5 cats

  • THE BANISHMENT (Andrei Zvyagintsev) Russia
  • LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR (Christophe Honoré) France
  • JUNO (Jason Reitman) USA
  • THE MAN FROM LONDON (Béla Tarr) Hungary
  • WITH YOUR PERMISSION (Paprika Steen) Denmark

4 cats

  • THE BAND’S VISIT (Eran Kolerin) Israel
  • HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (Arthur Dong) USA
  • LOVE COMES LATELY (Jan Schütte) Germany
  • SLINGSHOT (Brilliante Mendoza) Phillipines
  • UNE VIEILLE MAїTRESSE, (Catherine Breillat) France

3.5 cats

  • A JIHAD FOR LOVE (Parvez Sharma) USA
  • PLOY (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) Thailand
  • SECRET SUNSHINE (Lee Chang-dong) South Korea

3 cats

  • THE PAST (Hector Babenco) Argentina

posted for Bruce K.

Four is the Word: Toronto Day 4, and my first 4 film day!

Things kicked into high gear for me on Monday with my first four film day. That coupled with a Chlotrudis group lunch with Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (and a quick visit from Wiebke von Carolsfeld) meant I couldn't grab a nap. Fortunately, Beth agreed to grab tickets for me early this morning so I got about 30 minutes additional sleep. Okay, it's not much, but I'll take what I can get.

The morning started off with a nice breakfast where Beth, Chris, Gil, Amanda, Bruce and I all managed to touch base before we dispersed for our films. A quick ride on the wonderfully convenient Toronto subway brought me to the Scotiabank Cinema and my first film of the day.

BRICK LANE (UK; 101 min.)

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

Based on an internationally best-selling novel, BRICK LANE explores a plethora of theme including the nature of love, the Muslim community in Britain after 9/11, the empowerment of Indian women, and much more. Sarah Gavron, whose little seen in the U.S. made for UK television film THIS LITTLE LIFE earned a Chlotrudis spotlight a few years ago, follows up with this accomplished, multi-layered first feature which has already been picked up for U.S. distribution and is surrounded by the kind of buzz any filmmaker would yearn for.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, Nazneen and her younger sister frolicked in the fields without a care in the world. When their mother commits suicide, Nazneed finds herself promised in marriage to an "educated man" living in Britain. Shipped to London, the good village girl endures a submissive life in the Brick Lane neighborhood, a far cry from the color and splendor of her childhood memories. Her husband, Chanu, is a good man, but old-fashioned, expecting Nazneen to keep the household running while he supports the family, which includes two daughters. When Chanu resigns from his job over one too many missed promotions, Nazneen, driven by her desire to return to Bangladesh and the sister she left behind, begins working as a seamstress out of her home despite her husband's misgivings. She is initially dismayed when Karim, the young man who delivers the clothing to her, catches her eye, but soon they embark on an ilicit affair, and Nazneen begins to explore the rapidly changing world beyond her apartment.

Abi Morgan and Laura Jones' adaptation of Monica Ali's novel is a fine work as they pare down the many threads of the narrative managing to include a great many while spending just enough time on each. The cast is strong, including Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen, whose solitary scenes must convey so much emotion without dialogue, and Satish Kaushik as Chanu who brings such complexity and dimension to a character who could have been painted in very broad strokes. Yet this is Gavron's film as much as it is anyone's, and it's thrilling to see such an assured directorial hand in a first-time feature director. Magnificent editing, a cinematic eye, and deft musical choices contribute to a film that Gavron must surely be very proud of.

JUNO (US; 92 min.)

director: Jason Reitman

cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Olivia Thirlby, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney

It was with great excitement that our large group of six attended what is surely the festival film generating the most buzz. This is a special film for Chlotrudis as it features in a starring role, an actor who is one of our organization's great finds in the U.S.: Ellen Page. JUNO is Jason Reitman's follow-up to last year's well-received THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, but while I was not as impressed as many with that film, Reitman has found a secret weapon to make JUNO truly sparkle in new, young screenwriter Diablo Cody.

When sixteen-year-old Juno discovers that she is pregnant after a single night of sex with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie Bleeker, she knows that she is incapable of raising a child. After a fairly quick consideration of offers, she decides to go with an open adoption after a suggestion from her best friend Leah. Juno finds a good-looking, wealthy couple for the prospective parents in the classified ads of the Pennysaver (right next to the exotic pets section). Her parents are disappointed but supportive, but her relationship with Bleeker gets a little shaky. As the seasons pass and Juno grows more and more pregnant, she learns that there are some people who might disappoint her in life, but there are many who will not let her down.

There are so many things right with JUNO, including the cast (in addition to Page we have Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons) and some deft directorial work, but JUNO succeeds or fails on its screenplay. Fortunately, somebody noticed Diablo Cody's blog and suggested to her that she write a screenplay. After a career that included working in an ad agency, as a stripper and as a phone sex operator, Cody tried her hand at screenwriting. With JUNO she has created the original and extremely funny voice of a teen-aged girl living in the modern world. She does a terrific job handling the many supporting roles as well, making each one pop in their respective scenes.

The other not-so secret weapon of JUNO is certainly the talented Ellen Page, who after putting in some stellar work in lesser-seen intense dramas (HARD CANDY; AMERICAN CRIME) decided she needed to try her hand at comedy. Fortunately for her she found JUNO, a comedy that's loaded with laughs and smarts.

JUST LIKE HOME (Denmark; 97 min.)

director: Lone Scherfig

cast: Lars Kaalund, Bodil Jørgensen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Peter Gantzler, Peter Hesse Overgaard

Lone Scherfig returns with a third film following the delightful ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS and the quirky WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF and offers up what she self-admittedly does best: finding humor in tragic situations. Sprinkling a few new faces, with a few familiar faces from ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, Scherfig unites another talented ensemble cast to look at a community, and the way people can care about people they know, but don't really know.

When a small town where everyone knows everyone else is thrown into a tizzy after a man is allegedly seen running naked through the streets brandishing a rolled-up newspaper suspicion blooms which leads to depression. Fortunately a pair of townsfolk have just launched a hotline for the depressed called "The Silent Ear." As the calls become more frequent, a small group of folk rally together to man the phones in the hopes that the streaker will confess so that the townsfolk can be put at ease and things can go back to normal. Well, in a Scherfig movie, things don't usually work out the way they should... at least not for a good 90 minutes, and despite it's sluggish first third, JUST LIKE HOME comes together beautifully and continues the filmmaker's delightful string of films.

NORMAL (Canada; 100 min.)

director: Carl Bessai

cast: Carrie-Anne Moss, Kevin Zegers, Callum Keith Rennie, Tygh Runyan, Camille Sullivan

When a sixteen-year-old Nick is killed in a tragic accident in a wealthy Victoria community, several lives spin out of control. Carrie-Anne Moss embodies the grief of a mother who has lost a son, begging to talk about her lost boy yet pushing others, including her husband and second son, angrily away. Jordie is Nick's best friend who was driving the car they had stolen when the accident happened. After spending several years in prison, Jordie has just been released, but his pent-up anger guilt hold him in place, preventing him from forward movement. Callum Keith Rennie is failed writer Walt, the man who caused the accident while driving his car while drunk. There are several other storylines running throughout the film, but they don't really matter, and actually, would have probably served the movie better had they been edited out.

NORMAL is what I call a second-tier Canadian film. While I am a huge fan of Canadian film and will see as many as I can during the festival, there are distinct tiers. The top tier feature the directors Chlotrudis knows and loves including Egoyan, Maddin, McKellar, MacIvor, Rozema and on... The lower tier tend to be films that are just bad, and I have had the misfortune to see them at festivals. These include such films as LUCID and YELLOWKNIFE. The second tier have some promise, feature some good elements, but fail overall.

NORMAL features a strong cast, particularly Moss and Rennie who act as each other's foils. I have some quibbling with the editing, and although much was made in the Q&A of the director's hand-held camera work, I found it distracting and occasionally annoying. I also took some issue with some of the director's choices regarding the shooting. One sex scene was overlong and a little annoying the way it lingered on the actress's breasts (even returning to them for no apparent reason for a few seconds the way a man's eyes keep drifting down while in conversation.) The biggest flaw was in the screenplay, which unfortunately, is often the case with the second-tier film. There was too much jammed into it, there were odd leaps in character development (possibly a flaw in the editing) and it wasn't all that original.

Okay, I'm a day behind now, and it's unlikely I'll catch up today. We had a terrific time at two parties last night courtesy of Don & Tracy, but that got us in pretty darn late. I'll try to report on yesterday's films soon.

Toronto Day 2: Catching Up

I'm going to try to do a little catch-up here, with reviews from the three films I caught yesterday.

CHANCUN SON CINÉMA (France; 119)

director: Theo Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Chen Kaige, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raúl Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Tsai Ming-liang, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou

Omnibus films like PARIS JE T'AIME have been popping up a lot lately. CHANCUN SON CINÉMA was commissioned to honor the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Thirty-three world class directors each contributed a three minute film celebrating the love of cinema. What more perfect omnibus for a Chlotrudis member could there be? Naturally, as is the case with all films of this type, some of the offerings are brilliant, others are good, and a handful needn't have bothered. Fortunately in this case, the brilliant and the good far outweight the needn't have bothered.

Part of the fun of this film was in seeing how quickly I could identify the director of any given piece. I was pleasantly surprised at how adept I was at this identification. Highlights include Olivier Assayas' (DEMONLOVER) twist on the purse-snatching moviegoer; Jane Campion's (THE PIANO) surreal look at one cinema's uninvited guest; David Cronenberg's (THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) twisted and satrical comment on television journalism; Atom Egoyan's (WHERE THE TRUTH LIES) look at movie viewing in a mobile world; Aki Kaurismäki's (THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST) deadpan (go figure) look at the factory theatre; Takeshi Kitano's (DOLLS) wry look at the Japanese country cinema; Nanni Moretti's (THE SON'S ROOM) sweet diary of a film viewer; Elia Suleiman's (DIVINE INTERVENTION) absurdist take on a filmmaker's visit to the local cinema; Zhang Yimou's (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) adorable take on outdoor cinema; Lars von Trier's (DOGVILLE) hilarious revenge on the talkative filmgoer; and Walter Salles' (CENTRAL STATION) standout false ending that should have concluded the program instead of Ken Loach's amusing but curious choice that made an interesting comment on cinema.

PLOY (Thailand; 107)

Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Pornwut Sarasin, Ananda Everingham, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Phorntip Papanai

At first, Ratanaruang's latest film PLOY seems nothing like his previous film, the dreamily divine LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. A Thai couple have just arrived back home for a funeral after spending the last 10+ years living in the States. It quickly becomes apparent that their relationship has seen better days, despite their physical closeness on the plane and in the taxi to the hotel. When Wit leaves the hotel room to get a pack of smokes, and ends up spending the next hour or so in the hotel bar befriending the nubile, teenager Ploy while his wife Dang wanders restlessly in their room, it becomes evident. While looking for the luggage key in her husband's suit jacket, Dang discovers a piece of paper with a woman's name and phone number on it; her brow furrows and we wonder if after 7 years of marriage this is it.

When Wit invites Ploy up to the couple's room while she waits for her mother to pick her up in a few hours, things enter LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE country, where dreams and reality collide and intermingle. Are the housekeeper and the bartender really having steamy sex in one of the empty guest rooms? What about the brutal twist that delivers Dang to an abandoned garage in fear of her life? Ratanaruang doesn't provide any easy answers, but that doesn't make PLOY any less a joy to watch. High marks for the three principal cast members too. Together they erased any disappointment that the lack of Tadanobu Asano created.

AMERICAN VENUS (Canada; 81 min.)

director: Bruce Sweeney

cast: Rebecca De Mornay, Jane McGregor, Matt Craven, Nicholas Lea

Social satire is a tricky thing to pull off, but I had high hopes for AMERICAN VENUS after happening upon Sweeney's previous film THE LAST WEDDING, which took a critical eye to marriage. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite manage to pull it off, a fact I don't blame on his script or direction, but rather on the inability of star Rebecca De Mornay to successfully pull it off.

De Mornay plays Celia, a fiercely driven mother and ice skating coach to Jenna, who after botching her chance at the National's, wants only to get far away from her family (especially Mom) even if that means leaving the country. Despite Celia's best attempts, Jenna does hightail it to Vancouver, but when Celia shows up unexpectedly at her door, the subsequent week unspools as a living hell. Deprived at the border of the handgun that gives her so much comfort, Celia spends much of the week unwilling to leave her daughter in Canada, and simultaneously searching desperately for something that she can shoot.

De Mornay bites into Celia with career-reviving vigor, but the beauty of a good satire is when the players play it straight. Celia's mugging and tetanus-stiffened walk turn Celia into a parody of a monster-mother that negate the potential strength of Sweeney's screenplay.

Toronto Day 2: A Mixed Bag

Another late night, and I have to get up early again tomorrow, so this will be brief, hopefully to be followed tomorrow by something more in depth. After a solid screening of CHANCUN SON CINÉMA and a nice lunch with Beth, Nancy and Brian, I spent the afternoon napping. That prepped me for the always fascinating Pen-ek Ratanraug's follow-up to LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE called PLOY, and a disappointing satire from Canadian Bruce Sweeney called AMERICAN VENUS. More details to follow tomorrow.

TIFF Starts off with 2 Docs... sort of

As promised, here's a look at the first two films I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival on day 1. I'm just back from my first early morning box office run and things ran smoothly. I was 9th in line, and most of the people in front of me were a little too... energetic for my sleep-addled senses. Ah, the enthusiasm and uncertainty of the young. I've got three movies lined up for today, and the last one is a 9:15 p.m. show, so I probably won't review them until tomorrow (gotta get to bed so I can make the sunrise trip tomorrow morning!) Still, my schedule is filling in. While I don't have tickets for anything yet tomorrow, I've got most of my other tickets!

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (USA; 89 min.) directed by Arthur Dong

Accomplished documentarian Dong has won acclaim for his earlier films, COMING OUT UNDER FIRE, LICENSED TO KILL, and FAMILY FUNDAMENTALS. He's back with a film that he's been working on for 7 - 8 years, HOLLYWOOD CHINESE, a look at the portrayal of the Chinese, and the opportunities for Chinese American actors and filmmakers in Hollywood films from the earliest days to today. Dong taps a wide array of Chiense-Americans to discuss this topic, from actor/filmmaker Joan Chen to author Amy Tan. The list of notables keeps coming: Nancy Kwan, Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Wayne Wang, B. D. Wong and Henry David Hwang. He also talks to non-Chinese actors who played Chinese like Christopher Lee and Luise Rainer who won an Oscar for her performance in THE GOOD EARTH. Rainer, who looked to be in her 90's, commented on the fact that in today's Hollywood, everything has to be so exact: if you're playing Chinese, you must be Chinese, if you're playing a tall man, you must be a tall man, but it wasn't like that in her day. You were playing a part, it didn't matter their nationality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Dong's film was a look at the earliest days of Hollywood and the lost work of actress/filmmaker Marion Wong and her 1916 silent film THE CURSE OF QUON GWON. Dong speaks to Wong's three daughters and they tell the tale of her secret success that had become lost in history. Now fortunately, more people will hear of it. Nancy Kwan tells of her breakout success in THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, and her sudden celebrity after appearing in the film adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE FLOWER DRUM SONG. Joan Chen discusses the difficulty of capitalizing on t her success in Bertolucci's Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR, and how she had to leave Hollywood to make her directorial debut, XIU XIU: THE SENT DOWN GIRL. Justin Lin tells how his slightly controversial directorial debut, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW spun into a Hollywood foray directing THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT.

While Dong does a fine job exploring his topic, the pacing seems a little bit off, and this genre of film has been done so many times with women in Hollywood, gays in Hollywood, African-Americans in Hollywood, etc., that it's very difficult to do something new and original. A delightful, post-film Q&A featured the director and special guest Nancy Kwan who is in town for a discussions screening of THE FLOWER DRUM SONG.

MY WINNIPEG (Canada; 2007) directed by Guy Maddin
starring: Ann Savage, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Amy Stewart

What a delightful evening in the Wintergarden theatre spent enjoying the world premiere of Guy Maddin's pseudo-documentary MY WINNIPEG. Maddin was challenged by the Documentary channel to make a doc on his hometown of Winnipeg, and Maddin being Maddin utilized his considerable talents to transform the story of the heart of the heart of Canada into one of his fantastic, surreal signature films. While telling the tale of this cold, northern city, Maddin leans heavily on nostalgia, both his own and the the collective population's, delving into the personal to explore how growing up with his family in this city shaped his psyche.

In addition to the exploration of the personal, Maddin brings in two other threads to flesh out his tale. In dreamlike sequences reminiscent of early Russian films, Winnipeg likens the peopls of Winnipeg to sleepwalkers, focusing on one particular man standing in for himself, on a train trying to escape the city but ever being drawn back. He also touches on some of the key moments of the city's history giving the non-Winnipegger a strong if perhaps skewed look at its origins and upbringing.

Looking at Maddin's upbringing in the context of MY WINNIPEG, it becomes clear where the themes for his movie come from. The loneliness and isolation of THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, the bizarre beauty parlor and hockey shenanigans of COWARDS BEND THE KNEE and the watchful mother and distant father of BRAND UPON THE BRAIN are all in strong evidence in MY WINNIPEG. Classic film noir star Ann Savage provides a delightful turn as Maddin's mother, adding both camp humor and a sense of danger to Maddin's memories. As an added treat, the premiere featured live narration from Maddin himself, an experience that will not be repeated if the filmmaker has anything to say about it.

On a side note, it's great to see Canadian filmmakers out in force to support their fellows. In the audience were Chlotrudis Advisory Board member Patricia Rozema, and many other Chlotrudis pals, including Don McKellar, Tracy Wright, Nadia Litz, and Reg Harkema. I chatted with Tracy and Nadia post-film and can attest to high marks all around.

An Overdose of Scheduling

In just over a week, a bevy of Chlotrudis members will cross the northern border and arrive eager to spend the better part of their days in dark movie theatres at the Toronto International Film Festival. As anyone anticipating a trip to the festival knows, the complete schedule was posted yesterday so many of us have been spending a lot of time working on excel spreadsheets tweaking schedules and prioritizing films. It's a massive undertaking with well over 300 films to chose from. Now while my friends Bruce and Beth are well ahead of me with scheduling, I have spent a little time on my own film selection, so I thought I'd share with you in no particular order a handful of films I am excited about and hope to see during the festival.

PING PONG PLAYA' directed by Jessica Yu - With Yu's documentary PROTAGONIST as one of my top docs seen this year, I am very excited to catch her first feature narrative about a young Chinese-American man with dreams of becoming a basketball star. The problems is, he's not very good. Instead he finds himself taking over for his mother to teach ping pong lessons after she is injured in a car accident. Despite his lack of interest in ping pong, our hero finds himself giving his best effort in an important championship game to win the attention of a girl he admires.

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS directed by Bruce McDonald - TIFF is always flush with new Canadian films, something this movie buff always enjoys, and this year is no exception. Chlotrudis Award winner Ellen Page is featured in a trifecta of features this year, and THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is the one I am most excited about. Visually experimental, McDonald's latest film tells the story of Tracey, a young social outcast who leaves her small town for the big city in search of her younger brother. Penniless and along, Tracey encounters a series of outsiders while always one step behind her target.

UNE VIELLE MAÎTRESSE directed by Catherine Breillat - I'm always up for a new film by the controversial Catherine Breillat, who received Chlotrudis attention with for her divisive film FAT GIRL. After suffering from a near-fatal stroke, Breillat returns with a movie that while less in-your-face than some of her earlier work, still deals with her perennial topics of women and sex. UNE VIELLE MAÎTRESSE concerns the attempts of sexual libertine Vellini to interrupt the plans of her dissolute young lover, Ryno de Marigny, to marry the virtuous gem of the French aristocracy, Hermangarde.

BRICK LANE directed by Sarah Gavron - On the strength of a single film, the made for British television work, THIS LITTLE LIFE, filmmaker Gavron received a Chlotrudis spotlight. I am very eager to see her first feature narrative based on one of the most celebrated British novels in years, that opened a window on a community that lives in plain sight but is seldom understood by outsiders. Growing up in the idyllic setting of Bangladesh, Nazneen is married off to a man she has never met and flown to London’s Brick Lane neighbourhood to meet her new husband after her mother commits suicide. Nazneen must struggle to find her own autonomy with a man she does not love, but when the attractive young Karim enters the picture, things get complicated.

JUST LIKE HOME directed by Lone Scherfig - Danish filmmaker Scherfig is off to a strong start. She wowed us with her debut narrative, ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, and proved her talent with her follow-up, WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF. Now with her third film, Scherfig displays her talent for angst-ridden comedy is at its sharpest. A man running naked through the steets of a small Danish town sets off a chain of events that uproot the natural repression and politesse of its inhabitants. As the townsfolk attempt to find a solution to this sudden decay of morals in their community, Scherfig focuses a harsh lens on this insular society’s collective neuroses.

HELP ME EROS directed by Lee Kang Sheng - TIFF is always packed with new films from Asia, and I'm very excited about this Taiwanese entry from Lee Kang Sheng, best known for his leading roles in all of the films of Tsai Ming Liang. In his second directorial effort, Lee shares a personal reflection on Taiwanese society. In this tale of loneliness and dissatisfaction with consumer culture the successful Ah Jie loses all his money on the stock market and turns to pot for comfort. Although he makes a connection with Chyi, a volunteer hotline counsellor, he engages in an easy but unsatisfying sexual relationship with local vendor Shin. Lee explores excess and poverty, both in terms of consumerism and spiritual sustenance.

I'll be back with some more of my selections in the next day or two. I haven't even mentioned any of the terrific-sounding documentaries screening at the festival. I will also return with some tips for TIFF newbies to make sure you don't miss any of the films you want to see!