a Healthy Disdain


THE 2011 TIFFSRAVAGANZA: Reviews of SHAME, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, SAMSARA, SNOWTOWN, WHERE DO WE GO NOW?, RESTLESS, THINK OF ME, KILL LIST, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, MONSIEUR LAZHAR & THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Partly to consolidate some of my TIFF 2011 coverage, and partly to alleviate my post-festival withdrawal, I’ve collected a second set of capsule reviews, all of which were originally published via blogTO or Sound on Sight. These represent some of my final contributions to blogTO, as I’ve formally jumped ship to the new-look Torontoist, but I’ll continue to contribute to Sound on Sight in the future, and in fact, just finished recording an episode of Sound on Sight Radio with Ricky D and the S.O.S. crew.

Our discussion touched on Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was among my favourites of the festival, as well as Take Shelter (another favourite), and Melancholia, both of which I reviewed in my previous post. Below you’ll find reviews for two more of my personal TIFF top 5, Samsara, and Snowtown, as well as a pre-People’s Choice Award panning of Where Do We Go Now?.

SAMSARA (USA, Ron Fricke)

Covering TIFF has been a privilege for many reasons, but particularly for the opportunity to screen Ron Fricke’s awe-inspiring Samsara. The follow-up to 1992’s breathtaking Baraka, Fricke surpasses even that brilliant film with an effort I can only describe in superlatives, and with what sounds like hyperbole, but isn’t.

Like Baraka before it, Samasra is something akin to a human-centric, arthouse Planet Earth, surveying the globe in a series of astonishing, dialogue-free, 70mm vistas, and underscored by a mixture of traditional instrumental and choral music. Fricke further demonstrates his mastery of time-lapse imagery, a technique that invests even familiar sights – say a helicopter shot of an L.A. freeway – with a hypnotic, organic rhythm. That Samsara is instantly one of the most visually-stunning films in the history of cinema is reason enough to cherish it, but Fricke and co-editor Mark Magidson also achieve a number of truly profound juxtapositions, brimming with meaning and emotion.

It sounds preposterous, but it’s true: In 99 minutes, Samsara achieves something approaching a comprehensive portrait of the totality of human experience. If you’re even remotely fond of being alive, Samsara is not to be missed.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (USA, Sean Durkin)

A hauntingly beautiful, artfully structured, pitch-perfect psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easily among the best of this year’s festival offerings. The film is an achievement that any director ought to be proud of, but the fact that it’s Sean Durkin’s debut feature is frankly staggering.

Also surprising is the performance of Elizabeth Olsen (as a character née Martha, later labeled Marcy May and Marlene), younger sister to the better-known Mary-Kate and Ashley, who, on this evidence, could yet become her family’s brightest star. Here she holds her own even against another excellent performance from John Hawkes, who is both fearsome and tender as Patrick, the charismatic head of a commune-come-cult that, like its leader, is at once seductive and terrifying.

Supporting turns from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, meanwhile, as Martha’s well-meaning sister and brother-in-law, respectively, contribute to a subtle but pointed critique of bourgeois banality. Durkin mines his material for optimum suspense, as well as an acute evocation of post-adolescent uncertainty.

SHAME (UK, Steve McQueen)

In 2008, a lesser-known tandem of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen combined to devastate TIFF audiences with the indelible Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger. Three years on, the duo, now two of the festival’s big buzz names, are looking to repeat the feat with Shame, an equally fearless portrait of sexual addiction. As the secretive, smut-obsessed Brandon, Fassbender bears all and then some, giving perhaps the best performance of a career that is already frighteningly accomplished.

Both insatiable and believably irresistible, his habitual, compulsive conquests are interrupted when his impulsive, self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan, straining resolutely against type) turns up uninvited, cramping his compact Manhattan apartment as well as his style. Visually, McQueen, too, continues to enhance his reputation, rendering Brandon’s constant, near-predatory sate of arousal with consummate skill.

His screenplay, however, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, accounts forShame‘s only notable shortcomings. Most problematically, Morgan and McQueen follow a remarkable climactic moment with an unfortunate contrivance, and a series of false endings that pack all the subtlety of a runaway train. Otherwise, Fassbender and his director deliver another stunning collaboration.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN(Spain, Pedro Almodóvar)

A debauched, high camp mashup of Face/OffOldBoy, and the world’s glossiest telenovela, The Skin I Live In takes Pedro Almodóvar’s signature, soapy sensibility and applies an ingeniously effective genre (plot) twist.

Antonio Banderas is terrifically deranged as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world-renowned plastic surgeon capable of effecting the sort of fanciful transformation that turned John Travolta into Nicolas Cage. He’s likewise capable of acts of vengeance that are positively South Korean in their extremity, and, fittingly, also demonstrates a proclivity for sexual transgression that would make Chan-wook Park proud.

Beyond these (hopefully) enticing teases, the less you know, the better, save that Almodóvar springs what would be a lesser film’s crowning reveal just past Skin‘s midpoint. This paves the way for a superbly subversive third act, wherein the tropes of the rape-revenge fantasy are turned inside out. Almodóvar clearly delights in an unhinged exploration of his favored themes, including the consuming, self-destructive nature of passionate desire, and the malleability of sexual identity and orientation.

I was cooler on his last film (Broken Embraces) than most, but The Skin I Live In is a thrilling surprise in more ways than one.

THINK OF ME (USA, Bryan Wizemann)

Though less masterful than either Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, or the Dardennes brothers’L’Enfant, Bryan Wizemann’s Think of Me is a noteworthy thematic companion, and a compelling entry in American neo-neo-realism. Lauren Ambrose – of Six Feet Under fame – delivers a formidable performance as Angela, a Las Vegas single mother on the margins, in both economic and geographic terms.

The glittering decadence of the Strip is ever-present, albeit distant and intangible, reinforcing the precarious state of her personal finances. Serving a similar purpose (if rather more on-the-nose) is her baby’s literal need of a new pair of shoes. “Baby”, in this case, means the 8-year-old Sunny, played by newcomer Audrey Scott with a precocious, affecting naturalism.

When a co-worker (Dylan Baker) notices that Angela has stretched herself desperately thin, he casually informs her that his sister, an affluent Torontonian, recently failed in an attempt to adopt a child. His implication escapes Angela at first, but Wizemann’s intentions are immediately clear.

That Think of Me succeeds despite a predictable third act is testament to characters that are convincingly drawn and artfully performed, and its sensitive evocation of a struggle that is all too believable.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (France, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Nadine Labaki)


Hash-laced baked goods are the opiate of the masses in Nadine Labaki’s cartoonishly over-broad quasi-musical, Where Do We Go Now? Religion, in contrast, proves to be a potent source of antagonism for the inhabitants of an isolated, unnamed Middle-Eastern village. Initially, the townspeople – all either devoutly Christian or Muslim – manage to cohabit in peace, but news of sectarian violence in surrounding regions quickly provokes a series of farcical misunderstandings.

Innocent mishaps are misinterpreted as acts of mutual religious intolerance, giving rise to increasingly sacrilegious reprisals among the suddenly senseless, belligerent menfolk. Possessed of cooler, more cunning heads, the women hatch a collective scheme to heal the widening rift, involving a troupe of Ukrainian showgirls and, yes, lots and lots of hash.

While these ingredients might make for a dynamite half hour of South Park, at 100 minutes, Labaki’s feature begins to bludgeon you with its facile theses: religious violence is asinine, we’re all the same on the inside, men are hot-headed dumb-dumbs. Add problematic shifts in tone, flat characterization, and an aimless inter-faith romantic subplot, and you’ve got a muddled if well-meaning misfire.

RESTLESS (USA, Gus Van Sant)

Even accounting for the considerable diversity of his previous efforts, Restless is a curious addition to Gus Van Sant’s filmmography. Granted, as an exploration of the emotional tumult of adolescence, its subject matter is of a piece with some of his most lauded work (ElephantParanoid Park), but in tone and style, Restless feels like the debut feature from an indie up-and-comer, rather than a filmmaker of Van Sant’s seasoned pedigree. (Indeed, as the first film from twentysomething screenwriter Jason Lew, that’s precisely what it is.)

The problem is, Restless doesn’t feel like a debut in the sense that it’s uncommonly fresh or vibrant, but, on the contrary, gives the impression of a film that strives, a little too earnestly, to be “different” (Mia Wasikowska’s chosen term, as the terminally-ill Anabel, for Henry Hopper’s funeral-crashing protagonist). “Different”, in this case, means morbid and mawkish and quirky, but also a film that hews closely to indie romance formula, down to its invocation of a manic pixie (dying) girl.

Wasikowska maintains her recent high standards, but struggles to elevate maudlin material that seems distinctly out of place in TIFF’s Masters programme.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (USA, Whit Stillman)

Chronicling the romantic misadventures of the odor-obsessed coeds who run an upper crust university’s suicide-prevention center, Whit Sitllman’s long-awaited Damsels in Distress is a wry, absurd delight.

Indie darling Greta Gerwig is wonderfully deadpan as Violet, the verbose leader of a preening, pretentious, but well-intentioned pack, whose notion of philanthropy involves dating one of the school’s farcically simpleminded frat boys, and whose chief life ambition is to kick-start an international dance craze.

Her priggish, privileged existence is thrown into disarray when her unsolicited relationship advice duly backfires, but tap choreography and sunshine-scented bar soap offer an unlikely path to redemption. Meanwhile, Violet’s transfer student protégé (Annaleigh Tipton) is torn between the sly, faux sophistication of a French post-grad (Hugo Becker) and Adam Brody, as a preppy, posturing playboy.

All involved are perfectly cast and Gerwig shines, but it will come as little surprise to Stillman fans that it’s Damsels meticulously mordant dialogue that truly steals the show. Evidently, despite a 13-year hiatus, Stillman’s rapier wit and delicately skewed sensibilities remain firmly intact.

MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada, Philippe Falardeau)

For what is ultimately such an airy and agreeable film, Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is prefaced by an act that is difficult to interpret as anything but willfully hostile: A primary school teacher has hanged herself in her classroom, presumably knowing full well that her students will be first to discover the horrific scene. Beyond the bald statement that this woman – despite being widely beloved – was “unwell”, the implicit motive for her astoundingly inappropriate choice of venue is revenge on a manipulative pupil with whom she’d had a row.

What details eventually emerge on this point are anticlimactic, and the result is a film that, for all its general virtues of craft, is premised on an event that remains, distractingly, both provocative and opaque. Oddly for an “inspirational teacher” film, its characters also remain relatively developmentally inert. The students are basically a bright, well-adjusted bunch, and brief moments of distress aside, they remain so throughout. Similarly, genial refugee claimant-come-substitute-teacher Bachir Lazhar (Algerian humorist Fellag) arrives to less a culture shock than a gentle culture surprise, and is only cursorily perturbed by an ostensibly tragic past event.

Offering vague answers to its own pointed questions, Monsieur Lazhar disappoints, especially as a follow-up to Falardeau’s delightful TIFF 09 coming-of-ager, It’s Not Me, I Swear!

SNOWTOWN (Australia, Justin Kurzel)

Just as in 2010, a first-time Australian filmmaker has delivered an uncommonly accomplished debut crime drama, about an innocent teen corrupted by the poisonous, sociopathic tutelage of a deranged father figure. The principle difference, though, between David Michot’s Animal Kingdom and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown is that the latter film is based on a horrific true story. In fact, the real distinction isn’t merely that Snowtown is based on a true story, but that, thanks to hugely authentic, partly improvised performances from a cast of non-professionals, it feels like a true story, both tragic and terrifying.

In a convenient piece of symmetry, the notable exception is Daniel Henshall, who plays John Bunting, known as “Australia’s worst serial killer.” Henshall gives one of the festival’s standout performances as the charismatic Bunting, his magnetism enhanced by the fact that many of the cast – drawn from the depressed area where the crimes occurred and the film was shot – knew him from his work on Australian TV.

It’s a bleak, disturbing film, but as much as the murders themselves – which mainly occur off-screen — it’s Kurzel’s portrait of the prevailing, festering deprivation that devastates.

KILL LIST (UK, Ben Wheatley)

Apart from all else, Kill List features the best buddy-assassin duo since Quentin Tarantino treated cinephiles to the legendary Pulp Fiction pairing of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. But where Jules and Vince traded QT’s signature, pop-culture repartee, Kill List‘s Jay (Niel Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) share the genuine banter of lifelong best mates.

How director Ben Wheatley manages to balance elements of social realism – TIFF’s synopsis invokes Mike Leigh with good reason – with caustic humour, extreme, graphic violence, and plenty of frantic WTF-ery, is a mystery nearly as indecipherable as the one that propels the film forward like a speeding, high-calibre slug. But balance those elements he does, and with a deftness that belies his stature as only a second-time filmmaker. (His debut was 2009’s dark crime comedy, Down Terrace.)

On the evidence of Kill List’s late film insanity, I won’t rule out with a deal with devil. Indeed, Satanic inspiration almost seems likely, given an ending that will live in infamy, topping perhaps even Se7en’s anguished “What’s in the baaaahx?” conclusion.

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THE 2011 TIFFSTRAVAGANZA: REVIEWS OF DRIVE, THE ARTIST, MELANCHOLIA, TAKE SHELTER, TAKE THIS WALTZ, THE PATRON SAINTS, AMY GEORGE, & THE ODDS

Having weaseled my way into an official TIFF 11 press accreditation via my official regular gig at blogTO, I fully intend to subject myself to all the films I can physically withstand once press and industry screenings begin in earnest on September 8. In the meantime, here are reviews for the films I’ve seen at pre-festival media screenings, most of which appeared in part one of blogTO’s TIFF 11 review roundup.

THE ARTIST (France, Michel Hazanavicius)

To borrow a reference from TIFF invitee Mr. Brainwash, The Artist is the “Bat Papi” to Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic homages: Where QT often fetes 70s grindhouse fare, French director Michel Hazanavicius has penned a love letter to Hollywood’s silent heyday. In contrast to Brainwash’s dubious credibility, however, there’s nothing suspect about The Artist‘s craft.

Painstakingly authentic and as lavishly mounted as any 20s epic, it’s a ceaselessly charming marvel of gesture and spectacle, charting Tinseltown’s seminal transition to the talking picture era. Jean Dujardin dazzles as the strapping, Fairbanks-inspired George Valentin, a waning star undone by hubris and a disdain for synchronized sound. Opposite, Bérénice Bejo is similarly enchanting as Peppy Miller, the fresh face who earns her big break thanks partly to Valentin, and who proceeds to become a leading light of the talkie revolution.

Both warmly familiar and wittily inventive, and aided by a magnificent score, The Artist succeeds to an improbable degree. Postdating popular silent cinema by nearly a century, Hazanavicius gives new meaning to the notion of a late-period classic.

THE PATRON SAINTS (Canada/USA, Brian Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky)

When I label The Patron Saints “a pitiful aggregation of geriatric decline”, I mean it in the most complimentary terms. Shot on dreary-looking video in a dreary-looking facility for the aged and infirm, it’s an unconventionally lyrical doc, confronting the stark realties of what it means to be old, lonely, and wholly dependent on others for one’s most intimate needs.

It’s about the sorts of indignities we’d all rather pretend we’ll never have to face, but which are, statistically, increasingly inevitable. Thankfully, co-directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky don’t actually provide any stultifying statistics or captions of any kind, and forgo a traditional framework of interviews and narration. Instead, they present a series of arresting, impressionistic portraits – momentary glimpses at physical and psychological frailty, unadorned apart from the gossipy voiceover of Jim, a resident who is both surprisingly lucid and shockingly, hilariously candid.

Most remarkably, the juxtaposition of his astonishing quips against images of desperation and dementia somehow isn’t exploitative, but thoroughly and affirmingly human.

TAKE SHELTER (USA, Jeff Nichols)

Michael Shannon captivates as a portrait of paternal paranoia in Take Shelter, the terrifically affecting sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols, an apparent master in the making. When rural Ohio everyman Curtis LaForche (the typically indelible Shannon) is wracked by tempestuous dreams of his family’s annihilation, his maternal history of schizophrenia makes the potential implications doubly ominous.

Aware that he’s predisposed to delusion, his visions are nonetheless so vivid and violent that he’s compelled to act. Unbeknownst to his wife (Jessica Chastain, in the midst of a deservedly meteoric rise), he invests in costly renovations to a derelict backyard storm cellar, despite the impending expense of surgery to restore his daughter’s hearing. That his frighteningly-realised hallucinations also begin to tax his workplace relations adds to the film’s charged, foreboding air.

Purely on the level of psycho-familial drama, award-worthy performances from Shannon and Chastain justify the price of admission. But it’s Nichols’ powerful allegory for contemporary economic and political uncertainty – punctuated by awesome evocations of natural fury – that girds Take Shelter with a timely, haunting resonance.

DRIVE (USA, Nicolas Winding Refn)

For sheer testosterone-infused, blood-spattered badassery, few films at this year’s fest will compete with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Like Hazanavicius, the Danish directorial darling embraces the trappings of Hollywood homage, echoing the slick detachment of Michael Mann, and most conspicuously and directly, Walter Hill’s 1978 chase thriller, The Driver.

Via Hill, Winding Refn also channels Melville’s Le samouraï: with tone and style calibrated for maximum cool, Drive is the story of a brooding, highly-skilled and honorable wheelman with a fateful weakness for women in peril. Despite his clean-cut look and disarmingly nasal drawl, Ryan Gosling achieves the requisite stoic magnetism, and crucially, is convincingly menacing when he needs to mean business. So too is the normally affable Albert Brooks, who, as an utterly ruthless LA crime boss, means some very nasty business indeed. Meanwhile, per the film’s male-centric tradition, Carey Mulligan is asked only to look adorable and endangered, and is adept at both.

As popcorn entertainment with an art house veneer, Drive satisfies immensely. Only its premium ticket price and imminent Cineplex arrival impede a “must-see-at-TIFF” recommendation.

MELANCHOLIA (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, Lars von Trier)

As a director with a credible claim to the title of “world’s most polarizing”, Lars von Trier’s latest feat of cinematic nihilism inspired more ambivalence than I’d anticipated. Certainly, conceptually, von Trier’s apocalyptic tragedy of manners is supremely accomplished, and approaches Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as a work of outrageous beauty. Emotionally, though, Melancholia mostly left me cold (unexpectedly, coming from an arch provocateur).

Indeed, Melancholia is virtually the anti-Tree of Life. Both films pair candidly intimate family portraits with humbling scenes of celestial violence, but reach opposing conclusions. Malick views the world with a rapturous, spiritual reverence. Von Trier, ever morose, wouldn’t be bothered if it ended tomorrow.

His self-admitted bouts with depression and anxiety are represented, respectively, by sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Both are participants, as bride and hostess, in an implosively calamitous upper-class wedding, before it emerges that a once-hidden planet will collide, catastrophically, with Earth. Performance-wise, both are superb, as is von Trier’s staging of these decidedly unhappy events. But as for the actual characters they play, I’m genuinely unsure that I care.

TAKE THIS WALTZ (Canada, Sarah Polley)

A TIFF sensation in 2000, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love seems to have served as potent inspiration for two wunderkinds of Canadian filmmaking. Last year, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats lovingly appropriated Wong’s slow-mo tracking shots, while, with TIFF 11 gala selection Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley delivers a slow-burn infidelity drama that evokes Mood‘s lush palette and erotic restraint.

Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby may not share the same smoldering magnetism as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but, apart from its forbidden-soulmate-nextdoor conceit, Waltz is more mumblecore than melodrama, and, above all, exudes an awkward honesty. That’s not to say there aren’t false moments (even allowing for Polley’s creative reconfigurations of Toronto’s West End streets).

An audacious and variously climactic late film montage, in particular, beggars belief, but by and large Waltz is a sensitive, evidently heartfelt depiction of marital ennui, typified by Seth Rogen’s sober, against-type turn as Williams’ well-meaning husband.

AMY GEORGE (Canada, Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas)

On the subject of Canadian wunderkinds, Amy George is the debut feature from Calvin Thomas, 24, and Yonah Lewis, 25, a writer-director partnership out of Oakville’s Sheridan College. With just $10,000 at their disposal, the duo settled on a subject both intimately familiar and inexpensively explored: the peculiar perversities of adolescent boys.

Their protagonist is Jesse, (the excellent Gabriel del Castillo Mullally, 13), a mopey Riverdale teen tasked with capturing a non-literal self-portrait. In search of inspiration, he happens upon an obscure quotation that asserts sexual experience as a prerequisite for “true” artistry, with the result that his creative aspirations and innate pubescent curiosity become purposefully entwined. His subsequent clumsy fixation with a high school-aged neighbour (the titular Amy) builds to an ingeniously organic exploratory exchange.

Granted, Thomas and Lewis do venture on some less focused artistic sojourns of their own, but, inevitable rough edges aside, Amy George demonstrates considerable promise.

LUCKY (South Africa, Avie Lathura)

As much as I’m reluctant to kick a doe-eyed orphan when he’s down, Lucky is difficult to recommend because, for the majority of its running time, the South African production depicts a succession of scoundrels doing exactly that. Of course, as an ardent misery porn fanboy (I happily endured Biutiful at TIFF 10), it’s not that I object to the mere fact of the ironically-named protagonist’s misfortune. Rather, it’s that Avie Lathura’s feature adaptation of his own award-winning short doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as subject them to repeated, calculated yanks.

Lucky’s uncle, most notably, is a transparently manipulative caricature, seemingly conjured of pure cruelty. He not only shuts his door to the destitute 10-year-old but also embezzles his meager inheritance, denying him his heartfelt wish to go to school. And then there’s the elderly Indian widow who first shuns Lucky, and then exploits him, before abruptly seeing the error of her lifelong, anti-African prejudice.

A unique look at South African social stratification, Lucky is by no means a bad film, but heaps early hardships on its young lead with slightly too heavy a hand.

THE ODDS (Canada, Simon Davidson)

TIFF’s temptation to synopsize Simon Davidson’s The Odds via a comparison to Rian Johnson’s Brick is understandable. Both films are feature debuts, both are murder mysteries, and both star out-of-their-depth teen sleuth protagonists. Beyond these admitted similarities, though, references to Brick deal The Odds a losing hand.

Davidson’s screenplay is most harshly exposed, demonstrating neither the precocious wit nor the intricate plotting that earmarked Johnson as a noteworthy talent. And where Brick‘s dialogue made artful use of noir anachronisms, Davidson’s script simply feels a tad out of touch. An early, non-ironic utterance of 90s relic “As if!” sets a try-hard tone, embodied throughout by Paul (Jaren Brant Bartlett), the tough-talking proprietor of a peewee gambling ring. He’s putting the squeeze on our hero, Desson (Tyler Johnson), who, despite his grating self-satisfaction, is pretty poor at cards. He’s a marginally better detective, at least, and scents foul play when a poker buddy turns up dead.

Naturally, he’s soon in over his head – a little bit like his director. The Odds is a serviceable first effort, but Brick it certainly ain’t.



TIFF RELIVES ITALIAN NEOREALISM’S GLORY DAYS

TIFF Neorealism

On now through August 28, Days of Glory continues TIFF’s efforts to redefine the summertime cinema-going experience. A sidebar companion to Spectacular Obsessions, the series celebrates the masterworks of Italian neorealism, offering welcome respite from summer’s mindlessly bombastic blockbuster fare. The postwar movement gave rise to some of cinema’s absolute essentials, often eschewing escapism for powerful tales of working class woe. TIFF’s tribute is duly comprehensive, featuring 23 classics and rarities, as well as an in-person discussion with accomplished Italian film scholar, and Queen’s Media Professor, Frank Burke.

Speaking recently from his summer home in Tuscany, Burke offered an encyclopedic account of neorealism’s origins, scope, and legacy, and his appearance, prior to a screening of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (August 5, 6:30pm), is not to be missed. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Il Posto itself is a time-honoured triumph. Though it arrived more than a decade after neorealism’s late 40s heyday, Olmi’s bittersweet coming-of-age tale still rings charmingly, awkwardly, and masterfully true.

TIFF Neorealism

That authenticity, along with the film’s concern with an ordinary young office worker, is emblematic of what Burke cited as neorealism’s radical attempt to “minimize the manipulation of cinema.” Employing real locations, non-professional actors, and confronting harsh postwar economic realities, the movement represented a clear-eyed rejection of the fascist fantasies of the Mussolini era.

Among Burke’s picks for those looking to the Lightbox for a neorealism crash course are two of Roberto Rossellini’s famed War Trilogy — Rome, Open City (August 10, 6:45pm) and Pasian (July 29, 6:30pm). Both shot in the immediate aftermath of German occupation, against actual, bombed-out urban and rural backdrops, Burke identifies the pair as the original standard-bearers of the neorealist movement. Open City is a cat and mouse chronicle of a resistance leader’s bid to escape Gestapo clutches, and is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential films of all time. Paisan, scarcely less seminal, is a six-episode story of Italy’s liberation, co-written by TIFF’s man of the moment, Federico Fellini.

TIFF Neorealism

Third on Burke’s list was opening selection Bicylcle Thieves. Thanks in part to the availability of high quality prints, Burke explained that Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 release has supplanted Rossellini’s films as neorealism’s most iconic, though Bicycle Thieves certainly remains a masterpiece in its own right. The story of a father robbed of the tool he requires to earn a modest livelihood, it’s a simple scenario with the gravest of stakes, and continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers 63 years on.

In addition to Bicycle Thieves, Burke recommended Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (August 10, 9pm) as a particularly accessible selection for those new to neorealism. Despite its director’s ardent left-wing leanings, this seductive, Oscar-nominated crime drama is one of the few films in the program to exhibit overt Hollywood influence, and brims with sensuality, suspense, and heavy elements of film noir.

TIFF Neorealism

As for my personal picks, fans of contemporary indie auteur Kelly Reichardt will feel instantly familiar with De Sica’s moving paternal tribute, Umberto D. (August 1, 6:30pm). A stubborn but downtrodden and disenfranchised pensioner, the eponymous Umberto, with faithful pooch in tow, is evidently the great granddaddy of Reichardt’s heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy. Alienated, in debt, and facing eviction, his dire financial straights threaten to deprive him of even his beloved canine companion.

For purists, Luchino Visconti’s La Terrra Trema (August 21, 4:30pm) is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of true neorealist form and content, with it’s nonprofessional cast and class exploitation narrative. Shot in a seaside fishing village in eastern Sicily, the film was initially funded by the Italian Communist Party, and features a raw, detailed evocation of the townsfolk’s daily struggles, both physical and economic.

Lastly, Mamma Roma (August 22, 6:30pm), from Pier Paolo Pasolini (of Salò infamy) is a tragic tale of twisted motherly affection, prefiguring 2009’s much-loved Mother from Bong Joon-ho. Anna Magnani is sensational as the titular Mamma, an endearingly outrageous ex-prostitute with a fearsome determination to forge a better life for her formerly estranged, misfit son. Considered by many to be the director’s best, it’s no wonder this singular work was the sensation of TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective last year.

For a complete list of films and show times, visit Tiff.net. All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

(This content originally published via BlogTO, July 29, 2011)



THE 2010 TIFFSTRAVAGANZA: MY TIFF TOP 5

Although I didn’t find time for any mid-festival updates, now that I’m done doin’ TIFF I’ve had a chance to articulate some semi-intelligent thoughts on my faves of the fest.

I’m Still Here, the big buzz Joaquin Phoenix “documentary” had been in the running, but Casey Affleck’s recent revelations have dampened my enthusiasm considerably.  To put it briefly:  In contrast to the public pratfalls of Borat or Bruno, much of I’m Still Here features Phoenix in private, interacting with people who we now know were in on the joke.  In hindsight, Phoenix’s spiral into delusion and debauchery is admittedly very credible, but absent a compelling narrative, watching people react to someone they know is pretending simply isn’t very affecting.

With that note out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.  My legitimate favourites of TIFF 2010 were:

5. THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience study is perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time.  A professor at Yale, Milgram sought to determine the psychological underpinnings of the obedience demonstrated by Nazi collaborators during the Second World War.  His findings demonstrated that ordinary individuals will generally obey the instructions of an authority figure, even where their actions might result in the injury or death of an innocent human being.

French documentary The Game of Death transposes Milgram’s experimental design onto the framework of a reality TV show, with gravely disturbing results.  In the updated scenario, at the behest of a television hostess and before a live studio audience, fully 80% of participants demonstrate a willingness to endanger an innocent life.  Most distressing, through a series of post-experiment interviews, the film illustrates that the individuals involved are otherwise normal, compassionate people.

It’s difficult to label a film “important” without sounding pompous, but the Game of Death is a film to which that label certainly applies.  It’s a grimly fascinating spectacle of genuinely universal relevance, given that it deals with a facet of human socialization that is both deeply ingrained and deceptively powerful.  Just as Milgram’s findings should be general knowledge, this is a film that everybody should see.

4. THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

Despite being one of the most talented comic actors of his generation, mainstream popularity continues to elude Steve Coogan, particularly outside the UK.  It’s difficult to imagine that his muted stardom isn’t a source of frustration for Coogan himself, but in The Trip, he demonstrates an admirable willingness to poke fun at his limited celebrity, with hilarious results.  Director Michael Winterbottom re-teams Coogan with friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon for what GQ UK has aptly dubbed “a very British bromance”.

Adopting fictionalized personas similar to their roles in Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), The Trip sees the pair embark on a week-long tour of England’s gloriously picturesque Lake District, ostensibly to review several gourmet restaurants for a London newspaper.  If the premise sounds less than enthralling, rest assured, the end result is a masterclass of wit and improvisation from a duo that share an unrivalled comedic chemistry.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the film benefits enormously from familiarity with Coogan’s earlier work – his legendary BBC series I’m Alan Partridge above all.  It’s against the larger context of Coogan’s underappreciated output that The Trip’s biting self-mockery truly shines.

3. BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a TIFF sensation in 2008, and duly went on to become one of that year’s most acclaimed films.  When it was announced that this year’s festival would host the North-American premiere of his follow-up, Black Swan instantly became the prize ticket of TIFF 2010.  Thankfully, Aronofsky’s latest largely delivers.

Mickey Rourke’s transcendent turn is a tough act to follow, but Natalie Portman copes wonderfully – even if the same cannot be said for her character, Nina.  A dancer with a prestigious New York ballet company, Nina’s perfectionism mutates into pathological obsession as she strives to embody a strenuous dual role.   Barbara Hershey emerges as the standout supporting performer, playing Nina’s aggressively overbearing mother, while Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis are superbly cast as the company’s manipulative director, and Nina’s seductive rival, respectively.

Evoking the paranoia of early Polanski, and elements of body horror as pioneered by Cronenberg, Aronofsky demonstrates an impressive stylistic versatility.  Despite adhering to some well-worn genre tropes, the juxtaposition of those tropes against ballet’s high artistry sees the film achieve a darkly operatic splendour.  While it lacks The Wrestler’s haunting resonance, Black Swan is an excellent, memorably enthralling thriller, and another notable success for Aronofsky and Portman, in particular.

(Trailer)

2. BIUTIFUL (Spain/Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Biutiful, the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), is a quintessential festival offering.  Variously described, after its debut at Cannes, as “purposefully doleful”, “unrelentingly grim”, and “pervasively bleak”, it’s the sort of film readily summed up by Nas’ famous refrain:  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  For Uxbal (the astonishing Javier Bardem), a petty hustler with two young children, a bipolar ex-wife, and terminal cancer, things are essentially that simple.

There’s no denying that Biutiful is a sombre, and indeed harrowing affair, but to those who view film as more than mere escapist entertainment, it is also easy to recommend.  While Uxbal’s personal travails are compelling, and even deeply moving – the performance landed Bardem the Cannes Best Actor Prize – Iñárritu avoids exploiting the character’s imminent demise as a source of cheap sentimentality.  Rather, from the perspective of the audience, Uxbal’s illness actually lends the character an aura of invulnerability.  Because his death is certain, we grow more attuned to the fates of those that he will leave behind.  In Uxbal’s case, that includes not only his family, but also a cross-section of Barcelona’s migrant underclass.

The manner in which Biutiful surveys the exploitation of the disenfranchised recalls Haneke’s Code Unknown, and elevates the film beyond personal melodrama, to a work of trenchant social insight.  Amid the glitz and glamour of red carpet premiers, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss as a downer, but in such a setting it’s also surely a meaningful counterpoint.

(Trailer)

1. OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Introduced by programmer Collin Geddes as “one of the ‘what the fuck?’ films of the festival”, Our Day Will Come seems an unlikely candidate to top many best-of-fest lists.  Indeed, some will simply interpret the debut feature from Romain Gavras – of M.I.A.’s infamous, banned-from-YouTube, “Born Free” – as a derisive “fuck you”.  It’s an understandable take-away, given the director’s stated aim, “confusion”, and the nihilistic misadventures depicted on screen. Clearly, however, it’s not an interpretation I share.

Though it lacks the video’s genocidal overtones, Our Day Will Come echoes “Born Free” in employing redheads as an allegorical representation of marginalization and other-ness.   Olivier Barthélémy plays Remy, an implosively awkward adolescent, whose red hair becomes a source of twisted kinship with Patrick (Vincent Cassell), a bitterly disaffected therapist.  Cassell’s performance – my favorite of the festival – imbues Patrick with a listless, cynical, and manipulative charm.  Initially, Patrick’s overtures of mentorship are a source of selfish amusement, but when the long-repressed Remy blossoms dementedly, he proves impossible to control.  Fixated on the delusion that the pair will find acceptance in Ireland, an apparent ginger wonderland, Remy drags Patrick on an increasingly anarchic, oddly beautiful, crusade toward France’s northern coast.

There are significant elements of Our Day Will Come that defy ready explication, but the film crackles throughout with an undercurrent of iconoclastic intelligence.  Where “Born Free” was an overtly political gut-punch, Gavras here deliberately declines to provide a tidy message.  Despite its bracing depictions of violence, the film clearly strives to be thought-provoking, as opposed to merely provocational.  Whether or not you agree that Gavras succeeds in this endeavour, there can be no doubt that he has the makings of a genuine cinematic force.

(Trailer)



DOIN’ TIFF AND DOIN’ TIFF AND DOIN’ TIFF WELL

Christmas more or less lost its magic for me when I stopped believing in Santa, but that’s not to say I don’t participate in an annual ritual that marries rabid consumerism with religious fervor.  For me, said ritual occurs between early and mid-September, and is called the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF for short.

Here’s what’s on my slate for 2010’s ten days of TIFF-mas (all links are to official TIFF film profiles):

Friday, September 10th:

10PM – I’M STILL HERE (USA, Casey Affleck)

Saturday, September 11th:

930AM – BIUTIFUL (Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

1159PM – BUNRAKU (USA, Guy Moshe)

Sunday, September 12th:

930PM – OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Monday, September 13th:

630PM – THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Tuesday, September 14th:

9PM – LEAP YEAR (Mexico, Michael Rowe)

Wednesday, September 15th:

915PM – KABOOM (USA, Gregg Araki)

Thursday, September 16th:

445PM – A SCREAMING MAN (Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

Friday, September 17th:

930PM – CONFESSIONS (Japan, Tetsuya Nakashima)

Saturday, September 18th:

9PM – BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Sunday, September 19th:

12PM – COLD FISH (Japan, Tsumetai Nettaigyo)

3PM – THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

6PM – SUBMARINE (UK, Richard Ayoade)

Somewhere in there I hope to publish some reviews.  Until then, a merry TIFF-mas to one and all.




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