Friday, 25 September 2009

Why Cairo Time Made My Top 12 Faves

Since posting my Top 12 Faves I've been asked why, since I said Cairo Time wasn't Ruba Nadda's "strongest work" (see review) , I selected the film as a favourite. What I should have made clear in that earlier post is the fact that I don't think Ruba Nadda is capable of making a bad film, period. So even though I think Sabah is a stronger film it in no way casts a shadow over the languid beauty of Cairo Time, which I did enjoy.

I never separate my heart from my head in making decisions about Art. Why should I? Even in literature I can appreciate that Hamlet is a better play than The Scottish Play, but I'll chose Mackers any day over Hamlet. It's the same for film: Cairo Time made my favourites list because it was unforgettable. I couldn't forget Patricia Clarkson's character, Juliette, and her blossoming relationship with Egyptian culture and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), her husband's past employee and her de facto guide. I also could not forget a very sensuous sub-character, Yasmeen, played by the voluptuous Amina Annabi. Annabi doesn't have a lot of screen time in this film, but she is simply captivating when she does appear. I love how Nadda contrasts the earthy Yasmeen with the ethereal Juliette.

The spectacular shots of Cairo and the gentle romance made me think of David Lean's Summertime, The Passionate Friends, and the intimate, bittersweet relationship depicted in Brief Encounter. Cairo Time is a restrained film, that will not be appreciated by those who demand constant action or big emotions; it's for those of us who can appreciate the subtlety of passion.

I chose Ruba Nadda as my Star of the Month for September because I am very proud of our Canadian filmmakers and the strides that they are making, and I also wanted to promote the fact that she had a new film at TIFF. I didn't know at the time, that Cairo Time would win an award for Best Canadian Feature. Congratulations to Ruba and all involved in bringing Cairo Time to the screen.

Cairo Time is being released in Canada on October 9th.

Photo Credit: photo of Ruba Nadda by donna g; other photos by Colm Hogan courtesy of

Saturday, 19 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 10: A Few of My Favourite Flics

I was able to see more pre-festival films this year than ever, so I had a record-breaking year for the number of films I was able to see at TIFF. I tried very hard, but I could not get my list down to a Top 10. To do so, I would have had to eliminate 2 films based on the fact that they were attached to "big name" directors or producers: Jacques Audiard's A Prophet won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and Lee Daniel's film Precious (a.k.a The Oprah Movie) won rave reviews at Cannes, won awards at Sundance, and picked up the Audience Choice Award today at TIFF. These two films are well-told stories and it would have been an injustice to penalize them because they are attached to known names.

MY TOP 12 FAVES (in Alpha Order)
Air Doll
Cairo Time
Castaway on the Moon
Crab Trap
Every Day is a Holiday
Melody of a Street Organ
A Prophet

To choose my favourites, I had to be pretty ruthless. From 56 films I got my list down to 20, and from those 20 films I kept the ones that elicited the strongest emotional response in: How did I feel after seeing the film at TIFF, and do I still have the same response? Are these well-made films? Could I defend my faves if challenged to do so? Would I add these films to my DVD collection? (I buy DVDs only if I will watch the film more than 3 times per year.)

MY ULTIMATE FAVE And the award for donna g's favourite film at TIFF '09 goes to...Castaway on the Moon. This film had all the elements I look for in a film, and is simply, unforgettable.

WHAT'S ARE YOUR FAVES?As you can see my choices are very personal. Whether we go with friends or alone, we always take ourselves to the movies, so what we like will depend on our individual life experiences. Here's a simple example: if you can't stand someone with a certain name/look/or voice, chances are you're going to flashback to that person during the screening and this will impact how you perceive the film; no one else is going to have that same perception because this is your experience.

Please feel free to share your personal faves with me. With over 300 films screening at TIFF, I'm sure we didn't all see the same films. Let loose people, and leave your comments.

Photo Credit: top photo by donna g; photo stills from V.O.S., HIPSTERS, CAIRO TIME, and CASTAWAY ON THE MOON courtesy of

Friday, 18 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 9: Canada, Denmark, Senegal, Zimbabwe

I took a trip around the world today, as so often happens at TIFF, and travelled from Denmark to Senegal, Zimbabwe and then back to Canada. I met some wonderful travellers between my destinations, as so often happens at TIFF, and had conversations with strangers who shared a common interest in film, as so often happens at TIFF. I hope next year you will take the journey to TIFF and buy tickets to places you may never have been. You don't even need a companion; just start a conversation in line with "So what have you seen?".

NORA A beautifully narrated dance performance by Nora Chipaumire, who shares the story of her life in growing up in Zimbabwe. Nora's movements and the settings in which she dances offers us a glimpse into a life that is rooted in the dirt and floors of Zimbabwe. Africa's colours burst forth in full bloom, as does Nora's dancing and radiant ebony skin.

NORA is teamed with the Senegalese road musical SAINT LOUIS BLUES.I couldn't imagine a better marriage of films in terms of showing the diversity that exists within Africa. This musical not only takes us on a passenger taxi ride from Dakar, it takes us back to past French musical styles. Programmer, Cameron Bailey, is absolutely right in saying that director, Dyana Gaye'sfilm is reminiscent of Jacque Demy's work. You can't help but think about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as you watch this film. The inclusion of blues, and Wolof music works in this modern cinematic and cultural hybrid. Go see this while you can because I don't know where else you will have the opportunity to see this unique pairing of African short films.

APPLAUSE If PARTIR belongs to Kristen Scott-Thomas, then APPLAUSE belongs to Paprika Steen. Steen's performance as the recovering alcoholic, Thea is mirrored by the character's scenes as an actress in the stage play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?. Thea's role as the shrewish Martha is Albee's play blends wonderfully with her real life determination to increase custody of the children she lost after her divorce. Watching Thea, we can see that she loves her children and wants to make amends, but we also see what she cannot see, that she is not quite ready for increased custody. This could easily have been a maudlin sad tale that we have all seen before, but director, Martin Pieter Zandvliet balances the film quite well, using black and white for Thea when she is playing Martha on stage, and various tones of colour for Thea's life. He directs and films Steen in a way that makes Thea look like a real woman: she has bags under her eyes at times, her hair is not always perfectly coiffed, and the desperation in her eyes as she thinks about her children makes us ache with sadness for her. We see the maternal love in Thea's face, but we also see her vulnerable state as an aging actress lashing out at her young dresser. Zandvliet also knows how to restrain the action so that this film never seems melodramatic. The point of the story is not to hate Thea, but to understand her, even as we disagree with some of the choices she makes.

WHITE STRIPES UNDER NORTHERN LIGHTS In terms of filmmaking, this is not best concert film I've seen, but it is a great introduction to Jack and Meg White, who make up The White Stripes. The fact that the film documents their Canadian tour has added meaning for us Canadians, especially since not many of us have seen our whole country. The music is of course, amazing, and this will probably be the only chance you will have to hear Meg whisper (her normal tone of voice;she's "quiet") for any length of time. I will never forget the shot of Jack and Meg singing to some Inuit Elders, and having a photo taken with the group. The contrast is too much for the mind to handle. This will probably get released, so if you dont' have $20 right now, wait for it. (By the way, Jack White became my husband after I saw IT MIGHT GET LOUD last year at TIFF. Shhhh...he doesn't know we're married.)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 8: A Mixed Bag

FACE I love the work of director, Tsai Ming-liang, but he is not for everyone. I always get the sense that he makes movies to please himself, and if you like it too, great. If not, he's on to the next project regardless. He makes art house films that are beautiful to look at, but not always easy to understand. I accept that I won't always understand everything he is trying to say, but I'll have a good time watching it. Honestly, I was tired when I saw FACE and was hoping that it would get boring so I could leave, but that never happened and by the end I was tired but laughing. How can you be bored with a film that has stunning photography, French actress, Fanny Ardant, cameos by her countrywomen, Jeanne Moreau and Nathalie Baye, a deer, a bird, and a woman obsessed with banishing her reflection? A few people did walk out of the screening, but most in the sizeable theatre at the Scotia stayed. As one guy said on the way out of the screening: "I think I love it, but I don't know why." That sums up the work of Tsai Ming-liang to a T. If you are curious about this director, I suggest you start with his most accessible work, Good-bye Dragon Inn.

DELIVER US FROM EVIL Hmm...I spent most of this film wondering why I wasn't liking it as much as I should. Nothing is horribly wrong with this Danish film, but I just wasn't connecting with what was happening on screen. Considering that I am Black and the townspeople turn against a Bosnian outsider (they refer to him as "nigger"), I should have felt more than I did. I finally figured out after the film that it was the emotional tone of the film (too one-note) that I didn't like. I also didn't like the actress that played the main character's wife. Her emotional range did not come across well enough on screen for me to believe her character's reactions to certain advancements in the plot. Indifferent is not a feeling I like to experience when watching a film. Even boredom is an emotion.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES Fascinating. Director, Juan José Campanella knows how to tell a story using the flashback technique. So many times this method of storytelling leads to confusion or repeats elements of the plot that have already been revealed. In this film the flashbacks tell the story of a lawyer's involvement in the case of a young schoolteacher who has been raped and murdered. The present day storyline is the lawyer 25 years later trying to write a book about the case, and his reconnection with a beautiful judge who also worked on the case at the time. As a viewer you can't help but become as involved in the case as the lawyer, nor can you help but be interested in the romance, both past and present between the two leads. You feel like part detective and part matchmaker as you watch this film. The ending is disturbing, satisfying and stunning. Well done.

THE WIND JOURNEYS This simple story about a grieving accordion player and the young boy who is determined to become his mentee. When I think of the accordion, I flashback to elementary school where my Italian and Portuguese friends would complain about having to take lessons. Well, if they learned to play the accordion the way it is played in this film, then they should be making very passionate music in adulthood. I've never seen an accordion battle on screen, where each player tries to outdo the other in their playing and in their bragging lyrics. Amazing!

You will go places in this film that most people have never been, including some Colombians. Ciro Guerra directs this road trip via donkey in a languorous manner that suits the pace of the characters internal and external journeys. I enjoyed this trip through the grasslands, mountains and villages of Colombia, and the element of mysticism that cloaks the "devil's horn" accordion played by the lead character.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

TIFF '09: Interview w/PRESUMED GUILTY Directors

Below is an interview with PRESUMED GUILTY directors, Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith. The film has its final TIFF screening on Saturday, September 19th, 4PM at Jackman Hall-AGO. For my thoughts on this documentary see my Sept. 11th post.

donna g: How did you two meet?

Roberto: Martha Sosa introduced us. She is the famous producer of a famous Mexican film titled "Amores Perros". How she got involved in the film is also quite a story.

Geoffrey: Through Martha Sosa, one of the Producers on the film

donna g: Could you please describe your division of tasks as co-directors?

Roberto: Geoffrey and I worked on the edit of this film for 2 months in Valle de Bravo. Before Geoffrey got involved, I filmed this story with the help of my family. We followed Toño's case for 2.5 years. Between Layda and myself we obtained the access to shoot in Mexico's prisons, and we edited the film into a 90 minute rough cut with editor Felipe Gomez (Historias del Desencanto). But the technical difficulties we faced were enormous (recall the footage was recorded by lawyers), and the film needed one last big push for it to be fully shaped in to the drama we have today. Geoffrey saw our rough cut and came on board to help us do just that.

Geoffrey: My job was to help take a set of challenging and difficult film rushes and help Roberto tell the clearest and most dramatic story.

donna g: How would you define Layda's role in the fimmaking process?

Roberto: In a word? Crucial. Layda and I met in prison, many years ago, while lifting data on the criminal courts. Criminal justice reform in Mexico was her cause before it became my own. She worked undercover as an assistant to a prosecutor in Mexico City and designed groundbreaking inmate surveys with some of her colleagues. She learned that 80% of defendants never see a judge, or that prosecutors are more often in charge of trials than judges themselves. But she was not able to make a political impact with these scary findings, so I talked to her about making a documentary short. Soon after that making El Tunel (The Tunnel) we were on CNN with our statistics and inmates telling their stories. That's how Eva and Tonio's friends found us. Layda was key to this film, because she helped me obtain access to film in the prisons and courts, and her family supported us during many difficult months of shooting. She was also a great fundraiser... and also the mom of our child. Without her the film would not exist. Without her I would not have been able to persevere so fiercely in recording more than 300 hours of footage.

Geoffrey: This is Roberto and Layda's film and they have nursed it through years of hard work. Layda is a formidable talent as she is very perceptive about the real and inherent flaws in the Mexican Judicial system, and is extremely good at articulating them.

donna g: Roberto, you and Layda were already doing stats research on the Mexican prison system, yet, in the film there are moments when you are surprised even shocked by some of the challenges you encountered with this case. Why was that?

Roberto: With a 95% conviction rate, and a judge that had already heard the evidence and convicted Tonio in a previous trial, we knew we were fighting against the odds. But, what else could we do? Isn't hope the last thing that dies? We were also facing a prosecution with no physical evidence and a witness that did not seem credible, so I guess we had reasons to be hopeful.

donna g: Geoffrey, what surprised you about the Mexican judicial system?

Geoffrey:A great number of things. On occasions I simply could not believe what I was seeing in the film rushes. As Layda explains, the trial is really just a formality as everything has been decided beforehand. That is just so different to what I know of the process in the UK and the US, and it gives rise to.

donna g: Tonio's girlfriend, Eva shows such devotion and love for Tonio. Is this the reason you accepted her case? (If, not why did you accept the case?)

Roberto: No, but it was a plus. Indeed it was helpful that Tonio had many friends who offered to help us through the maze of handling a production long distance. But I took the case because from the very first moment we met, I knew Tonio was innocent and his friends and then girlfriend seemed to understand that it was important to try an “out of the box” strategy if he was to have a fighting chance.

Above all, I took the case because I wanted to make a documentary that would help people question their own biases, and I saw an opportunity here. Most people tend to be biased against a person just because the police arrests them. There are studies that show, for example, that people are willing to presume a person guilty just on the basis of the charge. For example, if you are accused of sexually abusing a child, it is virtually impossible to get an impartial jury. This is sound social science, this holds true everywhere in the world, not just in Mexico. Humans have a propensity to think like this. That is why it is important to have criminal procedures that protect us against making mistakes because of biased reasoning. But in Mexico, neither politicians nor policymakers are aware of this biases, much less of the importance of designing procedures that protect defendants against them.

When I saw the evidence against Tonio, I had a lot of background that helped me understand how the police had pinned the crime on him, or how the system was using, actively, every method it could to represent him like a criminal. But, according to our statistics, we were facing a typical investigation by Mexican detectives. The typical investigation lacks physical evidence (92% of charges in Mexico City do not have any). The typical defendant never sees a judge in court. The typical defendant is not arrested with an arrest warrant, etc. All this was just like Tonio's experience of the system. Finally, the most vulnerable defendants are the innocent ones, because they are not prepared to offer a bribe to a corrupt policeman. Those who are innocent tend to think that a real justice system exists in Mexico because they have never been through it before. In contrast, the recurrent offender knows that the system is for sale, and are prepared to pay.

donna g: In the film there are rows and rows, and stacks upon stacks of case files representing people's lives. How did you gain access to this room?

Roberto: This is the room where we were lifting data and collecting it in forms many years ago. In that room, when I saw it, for the first time I had this insight that whatever our statistics found, they would not be as compelling as a single photograph of that room. That's when I first came up with the idea of making the film. When we filmed our first documentary (El Tunel), the one that was aired on CNN, I spent an entire day filming in the archives.

donna g: Did you have any hesitations about filming the Mexican police officers involved in Tonio's case?

Roberto: No. I think that it is fundamental to see their faces. We spent many hours looking at the court records to find out the names of the detectives who arrested Tonio, and then we convinced an attorney, Rafael Heredia, to cite them in court. In Mexico, because the system presumes guilt, detectives are allowed to never show up in court to testify. Rather, they can incriminate someone just by filling out some forms. But Rafael Heredia, who has worked for decades in the system, understood how important it was to bring them to court to testify, and he supported the idea.

donna g: I find the "face to face" process, where the accused faces his accusers, fascinating. Is this something that happens frequently in all cases.

Roberto: Yes and no. Mexicans have a "right" to interrogate their own accusers, and many of them do. I do not think it is a good practice, or a right that should remain in our constitution. But in this case it was our last chance to expose the weaknesses in the case against Tonio, because the system places less restrictions on this unregulated right than on what Tonio's attorney is able to do.

It was unique in this trial that the defendant had been trained with a trial advocacy book to interrogate effectively. We used Duce & Baytelman "Juicio Oral", which is a very good translation to Spanish of the principles of trial advocacy, a book that is now used in Chile to train lawyers in a system that underwent substantial reform very recently. This book was sent to the prison straight to Tonio's hands. And we trained Tonio with this material through several hours, on the phone. Essentially, we wanted Tonio to learn how to ask yes or no questions rather than open ended questions. Any lawyer in North America knows how crucial this is for cross examination. And Layda and I worked with him through his training as much as we could do so, long distance.

donna g: Geoffrey, how was working on this documentary different than working solo on The English Surgeon?

Geoffrey: Roberto is a brilliant partner as he knew all his material backwards, speaks perfect English and is very fast as an editor. We were editing in a divine villa outside of Mexico City which enabled us to just concentrate on the film, and I felt we were able to bring the very best out of each other. It was a special experience and one I would gladly plunge into again..

donna g: Roberto, how were you able to balance your work/family life with making a film that took almost 3 years to complete?

Roberto: I still don't know the answer to that!

donna g: Will the film be released in Mexico, and if so, do you think it will outrage enough people that demands will be made for judicial reform?

Roberto: I would be surprised if the film is not released in Mexico. It has all the ingredients a good film could possibly have. The drama is strong, the story is real. We put all our heart in it. And I think if audiences give themselves a chance to watch this, they will not regret it.

Geoffrey: A big part of why I said yes to taking part in this film was because I believe the film will make a huge impact in Mexico.Roberto, Layda and the producers have a fantastic plan for getting the film lunched there, and as countless Mexican citizens know someone directly or indirectly who has suffered at the hands of the Justice system I know it will prove to be the catalyst for real and lasting change.

TIFF '09 Day 7: An Ape a Castaway and a Kitchen

Only 3 more days until TIFF '09 wraps up, so don't delay in getting tickets to these films:

THE APE Click the link or check out the TIFF programme book for the description of this Swedish because I'm not going to add anything else to Steve Gravestock's write-up. All I can say is that your curiosity will be aroused from the beginning of the film, and you will remain curious until the end of the film. Bring a friend or two for the lively discussion that is sure to follow.

CASTAWAY ON THE MOON A man attempting suicide ends up alive on an island in the middle of the Han River. The only person who seems to be aware that he is there is an agoraphobic young woman who enters his life on the island via her telescope. How these two characters have created their own spaces in the world, and how they connect with each other is highly amusing, sad and tender. I absolutely LOVED this movie.

SOUL KITCHEN Who says that TIFF only programmes for the older, established filmgoer? Soul Kitchen is filled with, of course, soul music, latin music, and even a bit of Greek music. This is a formulaic food movie about a guy with a failing restaurant, a parolee brother, and a girlfriend who has headed off to Shanghai. You can see where this film is going, but it doesn't matter because the cast is so good, and that's how it should be in this type of film. Director, Fatih Akin is not making high art here, he's making pure relateable entertainment, and that is exactly what he delivers. I had fun at this quirky German comedy.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


I have mixed feelings towards ACCIDENT. I enjoyed the concept of a group of criminals for hire, plotting and executing murders for pay that look like "accidents". The group, headed by The Brain (Louis Koo) don't care why the murders are contracted, they just care about being paid, and not leaving any evidence at the scene that can be traced back to them. This part of the film is fascinating to watch, but when The Brain becomes paranoid about occurrences that may or may not be "accidents" the film goes into psychological territory, and I'm not sure this is where I wanted to go with Louis Koo. Having seen Koo in Johnnie To's Election 1 and Election 2, and other members of the ACCIDENTS's cast in other of To's films, I had expectations of an action movie. This is not where director, Soi Cheang was headed, so I have only myself to blame for my expectations, and my personal disappointment.
The film ventures down the road of the classic Gene Hackman film, The Conversation. While I do not love this film as much as some, I do have a great deal of respect for the plot and Hackman's performance. If you haven't seen The Conversation, and you have no preconceived notions of where this film should be headed, then you might enjoy this film better than I did. It's not a bad film, it's just that my own personal disappointment lead to a feeling of "been there; done that" as the movie progressed. Fantastic performance by Louis Koo (he's also very hot), and the other actors, but this one is not on my hit list.

THE SEARCH I wasn't feelin' this one. Yes, I liked shots of Tibet (I always like shots of Tibet), and learning about Tibetan culture, but these two elements were not enough for me to love this film. What hooked me into staying at the press and industry screening is the fact that I couldn't make it to anything else in time, and I wanted to hear the conclusion of a story one of the characters "the businessman" was telling. This story is broken up by the film's main plot of searching for two actors to play traditional Tibetan character roles (Drime Kunden and Magde Zangmo) in a film. The search is actually quite boring, but I was so hooked on the love story that I was determined to hear its conclusion. A better film about a search is the documentary The Unmistaken Child. If you want landscape and a mystery, then see this film about the search for the child that is the reincarnation of Tibetan master, Lama Konchog. I saw this film at TIFF '08 and it left me reeling.  If you are still curious about THE SEARCH then wait for the DVD.

TIFF '09 Day 6: Blackness

CRAB TRAP Sometimes you don't know you are hungry for something until it is placed right in front of you. I didn't realize how hungry I was to see Black people on screen. I mean, I know there is a dearth of films with Black people in them, but I didn't realize just how desperate I was to see them (me) on a regular basis. Watching CRAB TRAP at TIFF today, I relaxed into the arms of comfort. The Black people on screen were speaking Spanish, but some of them looked like people I knew, and some of them looked nothing like people I know, but being Black, I automatically went into my "wonder what he/she is mixed with" train of thought. Then my love of culture kicked in and I began to take note of how the Afro-Colombian words flavoured the Spanish dialogue.

Like the main character, Daniel, I entered a world that seems like time forgot with its open beach, wooden houses, and tropical landscape filled with green. Time has not completely forgotten La Barra, however, and modernity and European ways are intruding on the village. The native people do not legally own the land, and the European newcomer who does have legal title to his land wants to built a mini-resort for tourists. Too, the local economy has been devastated by over-fishing. The fishermen have gone further and further away to find fish, and the villagers are not able to eat the food that has traditionally sustained them. With the elder, Cerebro as our guide, we understand the realities of La Barra as an enchanted place trying to hold stead-fast to it's traditions in the face of changing world. Entering into Cerebro's world is the mysterious Daniel. We don't know where he is coming from or where he is headed, but this mystery is not as important as the world we enter into with him.

I enjoyed this simple story, and characters like Jazmin the sad Madonna, and her eldest daughter, Lucia, who has a mind and dreams if her own. The relationship that develops between Daniel and Lucia is at the heart of the film and I will never forget the image of the two of them running on the beach, with Lucia streaming ahead of the white stranger who can't keep up with her free spirit. Thank you Oscar Ruiz Navia for putting this meal in front of me. I hope you will enjoy this repast as well as I did.

Monday, 14 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 5: The Beauty of the Bosphorus

MEN ON THE BRIDGE I go to TIFF for films like this, films that probably won't be playing on multiple screens at the local multi-plex, and which, if they make it to television, will appear on a niche channel rather than on a network station. I like to see how people live in other countries, and this film gave me a glimpse of Istanbul that I have never seen before. The film follows the lives of three different sets of people who are all connected by the Bosphorus Bridge. The story of the young, uneducated street kid, who tries to find a job other than selling flowers to passing cars on the bridge is my favourite. Like the others, he is trying to improve his life, but with no schooling, his chances of getting even a minimum wage job are not good. My second favourite story is that of the single traffic cop who dreams of finding love and leaving Istanbul. His story elicits from us a certain sadness as we witness his ineffectual attempts at dating. Of least interest to me is the taxi driver with the harping wife. Their story is overshadowed by my personal interest in the other two storylines. When the couple appeared on screen I was biding my time until I could go back to the street kid and the cop. These character studies, the historical and political references about Turkey, and the scenes of Istanbul (the bridge at night, the Bosphorus Sea, ancient Turkey beside the modern) were all very satisfying for me.

HIROSHIMA I can't tell you why actor, Juan Andrés Stoll (director, Pablo Stoll's brother) is walking around in his underwear because I didn't stay around to find out. I was looking forward to this film because I had enjoyed the director's previous work (with the late Juan Pablo Rebella), Whisky, and I wanted to see a modern silent film. Well, I was disappointed on all levels. I happen to like silent films and go whenever I can, especially when there is live musical accompaniment. Silent or not, a film won't work for me if the characters aren't interesting. Perhaps this film would have worked better as a short film, but as a feature, I am not interested in watching someone walk from his job at a bakery to his home, where he goes to bed wakes up, does the dishes and cleans out the closet. Maybe if the Juan Andrés could act, I would pay more attention, but his facial expression never changes. Deadpan only works for Buster Keaton. The absence of a score, and the infusion of rock music that is only suitable for annoying your neighbours got on my last nerve. Contrived and boring. Want an introduction to silent film? Go to the TIFF screening of KELIN (see my review under Picks & Pans #1).

Sunday, 13 September 2009


AIR DOLL Do not confuse the plot of the comedy Lars and the Real Girl with AIR DOLL. This film starts out light, but goes on to explore the very modern issue of societal alienation in Japan, however this theme could apply to any major city, as neighbourhoods and communities move away from traditional housing to vertical density. Isolated as we become in these modern constructions, we have to admit that something is lost from being able to exchange even a passing nod to our neighbours. In many such large buildings it is very difficult to know who you are sharing space with. In such a setting where relationships are very hard to form, the film's main character has established intimacy with an "air doll" as a sexual substitute. He has conversations with her about his day, and they have sex on a regular basis, but she is, of course, not real and not able to respond. This lack of intimacy is mirrored in the peripheral characters that we are introduced to, but never meet; we see their sole actions in their lonely homes and workplace, but we are at a distance, observing in their lives.

When the inflatable "air doll" suddenly comes to life one day, she is thrilled by her first breath and fascinated with having a heart. By day she explores the neighbourhood, and even gets a job in a video store where she falls in love with one of the workers. Her daytime life is kept hidden from her owner, and their relationship continues its sexual, but empty routine. There is no intimacy between her owner and the doll, and as she learns more and more about the world, she finds beauty mixed with disappointment and pain. Still, she would not go back to being heart-less. Breathing and having a heart is an experience of beauty that she could not have in her non-sensient form.

Doona Bae as the "air doll" is a delight on screen, and her adaptation to human life is touching. The infusion of humour and film references in the movie blend well with this drama about the loss of intimacy.

Director, Hirokazu Kore-eda is an experienced filmmaker, and as his film is listed in the Masters section of the TIFF programme guide, I have high expectations of his work. While he does not disappoint with AIR DOLL, he does not rise to the level of cinematic expertise that I expect from a master director. He fails on a minor point, in that this film is not well-paced. Too much time is spent on the transition of doll-like movements and wide-eyed wonder to "realness", and some scenes are underdeveloped, especially the cutting away from the main story to the peripheral characters. For instance, one such character is introduced and never appears for quite a while; you almost forget about her. An experienced director should have noted this, and should also be at a point in his career to work more closely with his editor. So, while I can forgive these flaws in a first-time director, I cannot dismiss them in Kore-eda.

TIFF '09 Day 4: It's ALL good!

Exhausted, but content. Since I'm too tired to blog, I'll just recommend the following films since you can't go wrong with any of these titles.
Click on links for full descriptions and screening times.




Saturday, 12 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 3: Michael, Michael Caine

I always try to see at least one film at the historic Elgin Theatre. The interior is just so beautiful and the screen for they use for TIFF screenings is huge. I love to sit in the balcony because I'm not tall, and I like the stadium seating up there. Even from the heights the screen is still bigger than most. TIFF also uses experienced projectionists (no hastily trained employee for this event), which means that there is no chance of any part of the screen being out of focus or out of alignment with the frame.

Tonight I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Caine take the stage along with Emily Mortimer, and the director and producers of the film, HARRY BROWN. Micheal walked on to thunderous applause, and asked us to spread the word if we enjoyed the film and to say "nothing" if we didn't. I loved Michael Caine as Harry Brown, and liked the film.

Michael Caine is so good. No matter what role you see him play, he always disappears into the character. This is not an easy thing for a very well-known actor to do, but he accomplishes this every time.

In HARRY BROWN, Caine plays an old age pensioner living on a very rough housing estate in England. When tragedy strikes a friend, Harry seeks revenge in an explosive way. No one believes Emily Mortimer's character, when she tries to tell her commanding officer, that she thinks Harry is responsible for taking out some of the criminal elements that have been plaguing the estate. Why would they? Most people never think about what people used to do before they became old; they just see an old person, end of story. Well, what Emily's character has noticed is the fact that Harry used to be a Marine stationed in Ireland. She thinks he is very capable of the murders, but she has no one to back her.

I said I liked the film rather than loved it because it's a strange mix of the predictable (out of control youth terrorizing neighbours) and the unpredictable (Harry's revenge is decidedly bloody). So one minute you are watching a social commentary on at risk youth and the ineffective techniques of addressing the problems with band-aid solutions, and the next you are in an tense action drama as Harry, sick of being frightened and with no help from the police, fights back with deadly accuracy. I have to give credit to whomever cast the actor as the drug-dealing, junkie. This guy is the rangiest, creepiest, dirtiest guy I have ever seen. Needle tracks, scars, and sadistic apathy towards life mark this character's body in such a way that he barely looks human.

Overall, though, I recommend Harry Brown for Michael Caine's performance. He owns the film.

Friday, 11 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 2: The Vampires, Orphans, and a Prisoner

DAYBREAKERS Vampires are harvesting humans for their blood, unfortunately, the supply is running out and blood substitutes fail with each clinical trial. Starring Ethan Hawke as a vampire with a conscience, Sam Neil as the corporate giant whose company is behind the farming of humans, and Willem Dafoe as "Elvis", this film is a great mix of jump-in-you-seat horror and bloody entertainment. Willem Dafoe must have taken this movie for the corny, cheesy lines he delivers. You can almost see the glint in his eyes as he compares being a human in a vampire world as being as dangerous as "bare-backing a five-dollar whore", or when he quotes the original Elvis. Great use and timing of the special effects. A film like this could have easily been destroyed by spending too much screen time on CGI and not enough time on the actors and plot development. Twins, Micheal and Peter Spierig (Undead) harness this movie well, providing a good balance of all the elements. They know how to get us involved in the story from the beginning with enough scares and kick-ass action (armed vampire soldiers vs. humans).

MELODY FOR A STREET ORGANI misread the running time of this Ukrainian film, thinking it was much shorter than its actual 153 minutes. I had already invested too much time in this Christmas fairy-tale of two orphan children wondering the streets, looking for either of their fathers. Their mother has died and rather than be sent to different schools, they decide to search for fathers with whom they have lost contact. TIFF programmer Dmitri Eipides, is so correct in labelling director, Kira Muratova's style as "charming mercilessness". That description is why I couldn't leave the press screening, even though I had arranged to meet friends at an earlier time. I was absolutely captivated by the colours, the pathos, the excessive greed displayed with abandon in front of these two beautifully sad children. With every step of their journey, you keep hoping that a Christmas miracle will happen, but Muratova constantly reminds you of harsh reality by sprinkling ugly, societal truths throughout her scenes. This cinematic journey, is long, sad, cold and beautiful, proving why Muratova is in the Masters section of the programme guide.

PRESUMED GUILTYIt's hard to watch this documentary without shaking your head or wanting to raise your clenched fists in frustration at the Mexican "in-justice" system. It's almost like you are watching a satire, where the main characters have to navigate in a world of insane and absurd logic. Unfortunately, for Toñio, he is spending 20 years behind bars based on evidence provided by one witness. The other three witnesses that were never interviewed in his case all stated that they saw him at work during the time of the murder he was supposed to have committed. Given the fact that Toñio works in an open market, where he is highly visible, how could he have been accused of this crime? The answers will boggle your mind. In Mexico, since you are presumed guilty, you have to prove your innocence. The catch. If everyone presumes you are guilty, then the case is obviously closed. NEXT! Crazy, but true.

Lawyer turned filmmaker for this project, Roberto Hernandez and his partner, Layda Negrete, were working on prison stats when they were approached by Toñio's girlfriend Eva. What happens next, is a true story that, even if you are familiar with the Mexican system, will still defy reason. Sharing the director's chair with Hernandez is English Surgeon director, Geoffrey Smith. Spread the word about this one.

You never know who you'll meet at TIFF's Midnight Madness. Virginia (looking fabulous in her PVC nurse's outfit) stopped to pose with me while friends and I were chatting and eating in the line up outside Ryerson Theatre. Virginia also handed me a flyer for Spike & Mike's Twisted Festival of Animation (Sept. 18th - 26th at the Bloor Cinema), which will be showing short films from around the world. Spike and Mike proudly refer to themselves as "the Kings of Tasteless Toons", so don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

TIFF '09 Day 1: George & Penelope

Day 1 at TIFF '09 got off to a great start with two screenings: The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Broken Embraces.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS Mmmm...YUM! George Clooney AND Ewan McGregor in the same film! Ba-Ring it on! They could do a poster of these two sexy, talented actors, and I'd be happy, but casting them in the same movie? Thank you, George Heslov. Reminiscent of George's other wartime satire, Three Kings, this film pokes fun at war while delivering a serious message about peace. Ex-soldier/mentor (Clooney) and journalist/mentee (McGregor) are most excellent collaborators in this film about psychic soldiers, the New Earth Army (lead by Jeff Bridges) and the illogical aspects of war. This film will be coming soon to a theatre near you, so don't fret if you don't get a ticket to the TIFF screening. Yes, you will miss seeing George and Ewan in the flesh, but at least you have another chance to see the film.

BROKEN EMBRACES That's right, Penélope, give Pedro Almodovar a big hug for making your career! I don't know what magic he sprinkles on you, but his fairy dust sure works to bring out the best in you as an actress: All About My Mother, Volver and now Broken Embraces. This melodrama about a mistress, her lover and her much older boyfriend, also focuses on the world of film, which Almodovar so loves to show in his films. Shown tonight on the big screen at the beautiful and historic Elgin Theatre, this melodrama could only have been done so successfully by Almodovar. His talent, familiar stable of actors, and understanding of film history allows him to venture into broad drama with a flair that draws even today's cynics into his plots. He adores his screen women, and always shoots them at their tragic best (what he can do with running mascara is no body's business). The infusion of comedy is always well-timed and never detract from the dramatic elements of his films, and Broken Embraces is no exception. Bravo, Pedro, and thanks for referencing your film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

TIFF '09: Picks & Pans #4

EVERY DAY IS A HOLIDAY This film of three women on their way to visit their respective husband at the men’s prison in Lebanon is a feast for the eyes and the intellect. It was an existential meal of dry desert landscape, female friendship and atmospheric tension. Each woman’s story is fascinating as it is revealed. Two of the women are Arabic-speaking Lebanese (one slightly older than the other; one middle class and bi-lingual, one working class) while the third is a young, newly married, French-speaking Lebanese. Cast with a trio of fabulous actresses, this film offers a refreshing and welcoming female-centred perspective of Lebanese society.

I loved the way first-time feature director Dima El-Horr composed this film. Maybe it’s her work as a former projectionist and editor that has given her an experienced eye for what will hold an audience’s attention and for certain lengths of time. Her work as a stage and television director shows in her placement of the actors in relation to background and foreground. The beauty of the film suggests that she must have worked very closely with editor, Kassem Hatoum and cinematographer, Dominique Gentil.

GIULIA DOESN'T DATE AT NIGHT I usually love, like or hate a film, but rarely do I feel indifferent. I watched this film with a decided lack of passion. It wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t cinematically expressive either, much like its lead male character who is waffling about his marriage and his writing career. When he meets the mysterious Giulia at the pool where his daughter is taking swimming lessons, I thought the emotions would perk up, but they didn’t. Giulia’s story is interesting and emotionally complicated, and I wish we could have followed her journey exclusively, rather than this spend so much time with a lead whose face and actions show no variation. I know the character is at a crossroads, but even indecision and ennui have corresponding facial expressions.

I’ve never had much luck with my Italian film selections at TIFF, and so far, nothing has changed. After a wonderful summer viewing classic Italian films at Cinemathèque Ontario, I’m disheartened by Italy’s modern offerings. Ho hum…

HOTEL ATLANTICO Confession time! I’m in love with the lead actor’s face. There’s something reminiscent of an El Greco painting in his flowing dark hair and the lean lines and shadows of his face. We accompany the mysterious meanderings of his character, “The Artist”, on a journey that has no defined destination. All we know of The Artist is that he is a moderately famous actor who is trying to get away from the baggage that comes with an artist’s life. Along the way, we are introduced to various characters, some sinister, some perplexing, and some lustful. Each person he encounters propels him to the next leg of his trip, and we follow along with him, trying to piece together aspects of The Artist’s life, looking for clues that will give us answers to questions raised along the journey, and hoping for a final solution. Is it the destination or the journey that’s most important to you? Your curiosity will determine whether or not you go and see this film, and your answer to the question posed will determine your reaction to its ending.

JAFFA The TIFF programme guide describes this film as a “contemporary Romeo and Juliet story” (page 267), which is the kiss of death to me. I’ve loved Shakepeare’s works since I was twelve years old, but I have never liked Romeo and Juliet. I went to the press screening because director, Keren Yedaya’s film Or won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2004, and Jaffa screened at Cannes this year.

I thoroughly enjoyed this version of Romeo and Juliet because it had a moral depth and complexity to it that I like seeing played out on screen. This is a story of two young people who are very aware of their world and its spoken and unspoken restrictions. There are no easy answers to questions raised in this film; decisions are made based on limited choices and shades of gray rather than black or white.

Arabic Taufik and Jewish Mali are childhood friends now in their early twenties. What was okay in childhood is not okay in adulthood, and a mixed marriage will not be welcomed by either side of the family or be readily welcomed in the larger society where the religions and cultures do not blend. Knowing this fact, has lead the two to be very quiet about their love. They both continue to work in Mali’s father’s garage along with Mali’s brother, and Taufik’s father. Meir has never liked Taufik and resents his skills in the garage. Meir is not quiet about his feelings about Taufik and there is building tension between the two young men. Trying to maintain the peace between the younger generations of men, are the fathers, who understand the larger historic and social implications of long-term coexistence without friendship. Despite their best attempts, the tension between the two men escalates.

What makes this film interesting to watch is the family dynamics at Mali’s house, where her brother and mother (played by the fantastic Ronit Elkabetz of The Band’s Visit) share a distrust of the Arab presence in Jaffa, but are at odds with each other on every other subject. She wants him to be more ambitious in his work and less mouthy and more respectful to her. The domestic scenes of mother and son squabbling at the dinner table, Mali’s father nightly ritual of rubbing his wife’s feet, and the family watching television together are snapshots that can be seen in many homes around the world.

Actress, Dana Ivgy, does a commendable job showing us who Mali is. Even when she is happy, there is a gravitas about Mali that is palpable. Her role as daughter is well-defined through her silent actions at home and at work, and we get the sense that her silence is holding in more than just her secret lover; it is hiding years of tension in the home and expressing a learned habit of not drawing attention to herself that would raise questions.

I’m very much looking forward to Yedaya’s continued contribution to Iranian cinema.

MY TEHRAN FOR SALE There are some lovely shots of Tehran’s cityscape, and some interesting commentaries on the social and political structure of Iran as seen through the life and actions of a young actress. Merziah is an independent woman, whose lifestyle has estranged her from her parents. Very little is shown of her family, but we are given enough information to know that she has done something to bring shame upon her family and that they consider her dead to them. Merziah’s circle of friends dream of going to Australia, and it’s not easy to get a visa to leave Tehran, but with the help of her boyfriend, an Iranian-Australian who is visiting Tehran, she hopes that she will have her chance.

This story of stiffled youth and artistic expression in Iran would have been more interesting with a different lead actress. Unfortunately, for Marzieh Vafamehr, while she is beautiful she is not the most expressive actress. Great actresses are able to express emotions through their eyes, a talent which she lacks, and which distances us from her experiences. Adding to our sense of disconnection is the film’s flashback/flashforwards framework that convolutes a simple story, and destroys the elements of suspense that it was intended to create.

First-time director, Granaz Moussavi, shows promise, and while I admire her to attempt to introduce us to a different cinematic vision of Iran, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the end result. The film is interesting, but not brilliant.

Info: or 416-968-FILM | 1-877-968-FILM (3456)

Monday, 7 September 2009

TIFF '09: Picks & Pans #3

MAX MANUS Unfair it may be, but after Tom Cruise miscast himself in Valkyrie and ruined a brilliant opportunity to bring a fresh viewpoint to the screen, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about seeing a bio pic about a Norwegian resistance fighter. Documentaries are so much better at these screen portraits, that I almost skipped the press screening thinking that I would do my own research on Max now that I had been introduced to his name, and his exploits. I’m glad I stayed.

Directors, Espen Sandbergrand and Joachim Roenning deliver a solid film that tells the story of one of Norway’s most well-known World War II heroes and his very effective team of resistance fighters. Max’s blatant and daring escape from the Nazis spurred a war-long effort by the Germans to recapture him, and put an end to the destruction he and his team caused with their efficient sabotage of Navy vehicles and intelligence operations.

Max Manus is not an American-style war picture with a larger than life actor playing the lead and a screenplay riddled with pyrotechnic explosions captured by multi-camera angles; instead it is a very realistic picture of a soldier, injured in action, returning to a country occupied by the enemy. Max’s driving force is his resentment of what he perceives as his country’s easy surrender to the Nazis. Unwilling to sit back and do nothing, he and his team fight back in an effort to remind the Norwegian public that there are those among them that have not given up.

Aksel Hennie is well-known in Norway but his averagely-muscled body-type and fair, smooth looks brings a credibility to the role of Max Manus that reminds us that this is a film based on real aspects of someone’s life. Hennie’s Max Manus is a thinking soldier as well as a man of covert action. The supporting cast does an excellent job of humanizing the real life roles they are playing, and their youthful interactions sometimes make them seem like frat boys even as they plot their resistance moves. It’s hard to look at their young faces, and not think about today’s young soldiers. A well-done introduction to a lesser-known aspect of World War II.

PARTIR(Leaving) I could have chosen a more passionate image to promote this film, but I decided on this one because the film belongs to Kristen Scott-Thomas. We know she is capable of playing roles of deep emotional depth and passion (I’ve Loved You For So Long, The English Patient), but rarely have we seen her as we do in Partir.

In this film, Scott-Thomas plays a woman who is both wildly out of control and self-determined. We always expect married screen mothers, living in lovely homes with lovely families to temper their wild affairs with men of lesser economic status with common sense. We expect them to go along with their boring, palatable existence and sacrifice themselves for the sake of hearth and home (they can live later, if at all). Low-income screen mothers in passionate affairs, either end of killing themselves because they can’t choose, or running off with their equally low-income, but hunky lovers and leaving their loathsome brats and sad sack or abusive husbands.

Rarely, do we see on screen, as we do in Partir, an upper middle-class woman who abandons all for lust and love with her labourer-lover. The love scenes between Scott-Thomas (Suzanne) and Sergi Lopez (Ivan) exhibit sensuality, passion, and tenderness, emotions that are demonstrably lacking in the marital relationship. Suzanne’s husband, Samuel (Yvan Attal) is detached and subtly abusive, aspects of his personality that rise to the fore, as he crushes her financially in an attempt to get her back under his control. For Samuel, Suzanne is another element of his art collection, to be displayed as the perfect wife and mother that a man of his status must have to project the perfect image.

Don’t expect sexual acrobatics or hyperbolic emotions in this film. This is a character study of a woman’s re-awakening of her sexuality and her determination to navigate the consequences of choices made on her own terms. Partir is a wonderful addition to Scott-Thomas’ already satisfying body of work.

PASSENGER SIDE I found this road comedy about two brothers very tiresome. I enjoyed the brotherly rivalry and the caustic volleys at the beginning of the picture, but then their constant harping at one another got on my nerves. Punctuating almost every scene with bad music is a weak way to transition scenes, and loading up your script with one weird character after another only works if they add something to the plot or reinforce the world that is being established. Weird for weird’s sake gets boring if there is no cinematic control or direction. This is not even bad enough for a good laugh. (By the way, The Mentalist's Robin Tunney is listed in the credits but she only appears on screen for about 7 minutes.)

PHANTOM PAIN Til Schweiger is apparently a huge star in Germany. I’m going to have to check out his other screen offerings because this one was grossly underwhelming. About the only things going for this film is the fact that Schweiger takes his shirt off (a lot), and the father/daughter scenes, and these are probably influenced by the fact that they are father and daughter in real life. Those scenes of Schweiger as a divorced, underemployed father trying to maintain a connection to his daughter draw you in, but then the movie loses you when it switches focus to Schweiger as Mark Sumner, an avid cyclist, who loses a leg. I’m not giving anything away here, since the title refers to the pain experienced by some amputees in the area of the missing limb.

Going in to Phantom Pain, I expected more scenes of Schweiger dealing with this neurological pain, the pain of mourning his lost limb and his very physical world of cycling, as well as the pain of his current life. The film begins with Schweiger’s narration about his life and his less than loving relationship he had with his father, but so much time is wasted on Sumner as a ladies’ man, and Sumner the active man, that by the time the accident does happen, you’re ready for an explosion of emotion. Well, that never really happens; instead, we see Sumner being aided and rewarded by his very understanding friends, and forgiven by his supportive girlfriend. The anguish and the emotional growth you are set up to expect never appear, and all you’re left with is a ruggedly handsome man who turns into an even more ruggedly handsome man when he gets his hair cut. Disappointing.

A Sweet Liar: Theatre Francais de Toronto's Le Menteur/The Liar

The tag line is  "Don't believe a word he says" , but you can believe me, Le Menteur/The Liar is a fun way to spend a night at...