Saturday, September 30, 2006

"The Namesake" Review

It is imperative to open this review with some personal context: without it, I feel I cannot properly relate what The Namesake (both the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri and now this film by Mira Nair) means to me. Bear with my long, rambly reflections if you can... Toronto, the early 80's: After I was conceived, my parents had decided on the name “Yaseen”, its origin a beloved surah (chapter) of the Qur’an (as well as another moniker for the Prophet.) That was always intended to be my official name, but ultimately my father was convinced by others that it was too "powerful" a title to be bestowed upon such a young child. It was not altogether uncommon a choice, but still a relatively rare one found in my parents' social network of close family and friends. In our culture, hyphenated names are not the exception; in fact, most of my male cousins have two names fixed in the same fashion. Hence, "Ali" was added at the end of "Yaseen" to balance it (the former is also another significant figure in Islamic history.) Growing up, I was always addressed by the whole name (although "Yasu" was a popular nickname as well)... but secretly I hated my long-ish appelation. People would always forget it or, worse, thoroughly mangle it: "Yasmeen" (a female-assigned variant), "Yasmin" or "Yasneen". Finally, once I hit the age of ten, I decided to use "Ali" in place of it - it would be easier to employ in my social circles, at school and with strangers. Short, memorable and mostly immune to mispronunciation. I was relieved, because my name no longer put me at odds with my friends - growing up in Canada during my formative years, I was eager to blend in at any cost. Perhaps "Ali" could never be mistaken for a "Mark" or "Eliot", but at least it was not as foreign and odd-sounding as "Yaseen".

At the time, I justified it by arguing that it was more efficient to use at school (substitute teachers were my nightmare) and much easier to jot down on forms. Issues with self-image and cultural expectations simply complicated matters. For the majority of my teenage years, I was eager to place a distance between myself and everything associated with my name. Happily, once I entered my late teens and early twenties, I grew more at peace with all these issues. They are not completely resolved, but everyday I gain more clarity - hopefully, the years to come will be less marked with this kind of ambivalence. And yes, I've recently put my first name into use again, sometimes even preferring it to the one I used for so long in my youth. Rather than feel frustrated with the division of my life along this line, I feel somewhat amused by it. I am not so connected to the religious aspect of it any longer, but I still appreciate (as opposed to cringing at) its uniqueness.

If you are familiar with the trajectory of The Namesake's narrative, you will likely understand why this book seems to align with my experience in an almost frighteningly similar way. And if this reads like a scattershot anecdote, I assure you that it will come into better focus when you become familiar with the protagonist of the story, Gogol. The Namesake quite literally refers to the revelation he ultimately has, coming to terms with not only the origin of the name, but why exactly he has been running away from it for so long. This personal story connects to a larger canvas, describing the life experiences of a first-generation American-Bengali family attempting to navigate the inherent duality of their identities. Other key characters include his mother and father - Ashima and Ashok Ganguli, sister Sonia, extended relatives and a series of love interests who come and go at different points in his life. The novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (best coupled with her stunning and genius Interpreter of Maladies short story collection) is one of the best I have come across. Her prose is rich with detail, yet not overly complex, moving back and forth along time shifts that are seamless. This makes the efforts of director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala all the more impressive in this film adaptation, which manages to encompass the mood and specificity of the novel's descriptions without feeling disjointed or "bookish". Not even five minutes of screentime had elapsed before I started to tear up - I was a total goner before I knew it.

Unlike the novel, the film begins with a glimpse of the defining tragedy that Ashok (Irrfan Khan) experiences as a young student before shifting immediately several years later to the day his life is directly intertwined with Ashima's (Tabu). Their marriage is arranged by their talkative parents, eager to sell their children as great catches ("She knows how to sew sweaters!") Even though the match looks promising, the bride-to-be is informed by her father-in-law that she will have to uproot and move to America where Ashok teaches on a university campus, far removed from her familiar surroundings and beloved ones. Can she handle it? Ashima, half-shy and equally bold, responds: "Won't he be there?". So begins a playful, mostly wordless courtship between the couple; as Lahiri explains and Nair beautifully captures, the depth and intensity of their relationship lies in what is unsaid. "I love you" is an idea utterly foreign to the way of communicating in Bengali marriages. With a series of telling glances, awkward body language and self-conscious smiles, actors Irrfan Khan and Tabu engage in this hesitant flirtation. Soon, a little baby boy joins the family; yet his name causes some anxiety because traditionally, the right of naming is reserved for elders in the family. When pressed to make a quick decision by the hospital staff, Ashok suggests "Gogol" as a pet name for the child, referring to the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol he adores so much. Although just meant as a temporary arrangement, the name sticks: as a child, Gogol insists that he be addressed accordingly.

Of course, the whims of childhood give way to the stubbornness of adolescence, and Gogol (played as a teen and young adult by Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle fame) begins to resent his name and, by extension, his parents for inexplicably choosing it. In time, he reverts back to his second name "Nikhil", and further shortens it to "Nick", which will perhaps gain him acceptance in school. As the years pass, Ashima and Ashok's relatives slowly pass away, and an ever-growing gap forms between them and Gogol. He does not understand their seemingly pointless traditional lifestyles, and they in turn cannot relate to his experience as an ungrateful teenager. Trips back home to Calcutta to visit family and the requisite Bengali-themed gatherings held back home in Cambridge (among the small immigrant population) provide Ashok and Ashima connections to their familiar language, loved ones and practices. But for Gogol and his equally-indifferent sister, these enforced family events are oppressive and uncompelling. The film then splits its attentions on two separate character arcs: Gogol, who tries to gain a degree of self-confidence and independence both in his professional and romantic life, and Ashima, who must come to terms with preserving her values in a land that is technically her home, but still far removed from the Calcutta of her youth. For both Lahiri as well as Nair, the conception of imaginary homelands and articulating feelings of alienation are key; their overall work is primarily about these ideas.

Understandably, a film version cannot accommodate the entire project of a novel (nor should it), and so The Namesake cuts a few subplots (including Gogol's first love Ruth, a girl he meets in college) and regrettably lacks the impact that Lahiri's gift of illuminating character interiority carries. At the same time, this is a human canvas that is completely familiar to Nair, she herself having been born in a different country than the one(s) she resides in presently. The film is closely related with the world of Lahiri's novel; even if the camera does not explicitly reference a certain person or object also found in the novel, astute readers will make the connections. But one does not to be versed in the text to enjoy the film - if the audience reaction at the festival screening I attended is any indication, people from all cultures and backgrounds (reflected in the multicultural Toronto crowd) will respond strongly. This is a film that crosses points of difference to address the bonds between parents and their children. Any individual who has felt at odds with their parents over his or her life choices (or vice versa) will see themselves reflected in these people. Personally, the film was a deeply emotional two hours; by the end of the film, I had a lump the size of a small apple in my throat. The film ends on a bittersweet note, but it suggests hope and possibility beyond the pain suffered. The closing shot is brilliant, bringing the audience full circle and back to where they started on this journey.

In a performance that undoubtedly confirms her status as one of India's top actors, Tabu is the spirit of The Namesake. Asked to convincingly portray the shades of a shy, loving soul from a twenty-something student all the way to a mother nearing fifty, Tabu is totally convincing. Entirely respectful of her character's naïvety and innocence, it is impossible to take your eyes off Ashima on-screen. A scene that requires Tabu to reach deep and express unexpected, lonely desolation is heart-wrenching to watch. It is one of the strongest performances I have seen in several months. As Ashok, Irrfan Khan is equally endearing (this is a reunion for both him and Tabu who together played the Macbeths in Vishal Bharadwaj's Maqbool, an Indian spin on the Shakespeare play), bringing dignity and sensitivity to this soft-spoken man. In perhaps the pivotal role, Kal Penn is fine if uneven in a dramatic turn; his Gogol runs the risk of losing a lot of sympathy (and frequently he does), but Penn is unafraid to venture to those dark places. Jacinda Barrett is likable in her brief role as Maxine (a girlfriend of Gogol's that Ashima and Ashok have trouble adjusting to), and Zuleikha Robinson makes a totally convincing Bengali-French-American who catches Gogol's eye later on. Dependable character actress Brooke Smith is a pleasure to see again as a confidante Ashima befriends working at the neighborhood library. Even author Jhumpa Lahiri makes a quick appearance as an "auntie" at Gogol's naming ceremony. But this film belongs to Tabu: The Namesake may deal foremostly with Gogol's self-journey into maturity and self-acceptance, but Ashima is positioned at the centre of this story.

As expected in any Nair film, The Namesake is vibrant with colour, laughter and speaks a completely cinematic language. Despite the fact that the movie covers a lot of ground in its running time, the camera sweeps along without losing focus. The director does an exceptional job maintaining a strong momentum and delivering a delightful dose of comedy (Tabu's expressions are utilized to perfection - watch her eyes in the courting scenes with Khan, or the moment she meets the slightly over-friendly Maxine for the first time.) The cinematography by Frederick Elmes is sumptuous, especially the shots captured in Calcutta where the Gangulis reside during their family vacation. The film could be described as a happy medium between the intimacy of Monsoon Wedding's documentary-style approach and Vanity Fair's sexy, oppulent mise en scène. The musical score by U.K.-based d.j. Nitin Sawhney impressively matches and further accentuates Nair's eye on the proceedings.

In her introduction to the film, Nair discussed how she is profoundly inspired by the medium of photography, its significance, and how it plays a big part in how she approaches directing films. As such, in The Namesake, Nair is interested in the mementos that people hold dear in times of despair or remembrance. Books, pictures, slippers, letters, and flashes of memory all provide the characters a way to access the past. In a delightful exchange, Ashima playfully confesses to Ashok that she decided to marry him because she was impressed by his dress shoes, stamped "Made in the U.S.A." Sly references like this also demonstrate Nair's focus on material items and the connections that are accordingly made between East and West. These saved items show how the two countries are linked together by the people who live in them (even if they reside there only in memory.) Nair also dedicates the film to two legendary Bengali artists - Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, movie-makers who put India and later Bangladesh on the map. The Namesake is a rare film that truly lives up to the tradition established by those directors. I believe she is one of the most important directors of Indian origin working today. The experiences of the immigrants who move across the globe but still retain their homeland in their hearts are given a voice in this film. B+

Monday, September 25, 2006

"The Fountain" Review

Read First: You asked, and here it is. Although I must warn that for those of you who want to experience The Fountain in all its novelty, I would save this review for after you've watched it in November (it could feature spoilers, but that depends on how much you have already read/heard about the film.) It was a difficult one to write, mostly because I wanted to love it so badly.

After overcoming several obstacles by way of severe budget cuts, controversial casting changes and ever-shifting release dates, The Fountain has finally been unearthed. Almost five years in the making, Darren Aronofsky's labor of love is an ambitiously mounted science-fiction epic about the legacy of undying love and the great mysteries of human life. Set in three separate eras in human history (or is it really?), the narrative tracks one man's quest to locate the fabled "fountain" of eternal life that will save the woman he loves from certain death. This is quite the departure for the director in relation to his prior work (it lacks the blunt nihilism of Requiem for a Dream's final moments, for one thing - his approach here is much more subdued and longing.) The Fountain admirably grapples with questions about the afterlife and the meaning of existence in this universe. While the director should be lauded for attempting to deliver on such a mature premise, the end result is lamentably shallow and impenetrable in its examination of these same ideas. To be blunt, the film is a one-show wonder, equal parts majestic and hokey. It delivers on some spectacular eye candy care of Peter Park's macro photography effects, but little in the way of narrative clarity. To be sure, Aronosky's manner of juggling three non-linear threads looks impressive on paper, but the story crumbles due to its vagueness.

The Fountain begins quite literally "in medias res", providing no prior context to these two characters and the romantic relationship they share (whether the three couples - all enacted by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz - are actually related to one another or are the same figures is one of the film's surprises.) The first incarnation of the saga centres on a Spanish conquistador (Jackman) sent off on a mission by Queen Isabel (Weisz) circa the 1500's to find the fountain of life in the jungles of South America. Complications arise with the threat of her overthrow by a fanatical and power-hungry Inquisitor, determined to execute her on charges of heresy. Meanwhile, in the present day, lab researcher Tom Creo frantically works day and night to find a cure for his wife Izzi's malignant brain tumor. His moodiness and bad attitude frequently clash with the chief of research (an underused Ellen Burstyn), who is concerned that he is fighting a losing battle. The film's third thread is set sometime in the faraway future; Tom is shown suspended in outer space, constantly haunted by the memory of his lover. He spends his time meditating in close proximity to an enormous decaying tree, which seems linked to the fading lifeforce of Izzi. How these stories correlate is what The Fountain explores with full verve.

That is, it attempts to do so in the constrained space of a scant 93 minutes. To say that The Fountain is underwritten (and even aimless at times) is not stating matters accurately. The film whips along speedily at the sacrifice of true character depth or even emotional involvement; again, who exactly are these characters? Why does Aronofsky spend so little time developing them as people and instead focus his attentions on repeating certain scenes and lines of dialogue across the time periods? While the shifts back and forth between past, present and future are all initially attention-grabbing, the momentum eventually stops at a standstill. In fact, one of these plotlines feels forced and questionable because its inclusion in Tom and Izzi's love story is justified through a feeble conceit. Oversights such as these considerably weaken the director's convictions; indeed, this moment in particular completely took me out of the film.

But the film's biggest failing may be in the manner it ends. Aronofsky provides many definitive statements about the hereafter and fate of the soul, but has little philosophy to back it all up. In the end, The Fountain becomes little more than a mouthpiece for Aronofsky to articulate his tidy, non-complicated version of life after death. For all the shots of Tom floating in the lotus position or the screenplay's allusions to the Mayan afterlife, none of it quite holds together. Even the twist that is played along these same lines is ineffective, because it feels too much like a sleight of hand. Certainly, Aronofsky includes plenty of arresting images to guide the viewer through this elementary and facile understanding of the other world, but this viewer was left cold nonetheless. Once the closing credits began to appear, I was at a loss to understand how Aronofsky was able to close on this strange, problematic note.

Hugh Jackman is truly the life force of The Fountain, throwing himself body and soul into this demanding, half-baked role. The actor is forced to commit to some rather taxing and perplexing moments (sometimes even played against himself or with a tree), and pulls them off strongly without a moment's hesitation. It is telling of Jackman's talent that he is able to present Tom as a three-dimensional person when there is nothing to support that much on paper. Rachel Weisz does not fare as well, although it could be argued that she has so little to build upon in the first place. Izzi is not so much a believable human being as a saintly ideal coaxing Tom to come to terms with her inevitable death. This understandably forces the actress to enact a character that she (as well as her director) does not quite understand. Her line readings are forced and unsure, adjectives that could never be used to describe her vibrant Oscar-winning portrayal of Tessa Quayle in last year's The Constant Gardener. Aside from this pair (who furthermore share no believable chemisty), the other cast members are left to make impressions in the few pockets of screentime available here and there. Pros like Ellen Burstyn, Donna Murphy (Doc Ock's wife in Spider-Man 2), Sean Patrick Thomas and Ethan Suplee are wasted in filler roles as concerned research colleagues of Tom's.

On one hand, I want to celebrate The Fountain as a commendable effort, but at the same time I am hesitant to do so in light of its many stumbles. It is a must-see for sure, and the film will likely have its ardent fans who will be thrilled by Aronofsky's fanciful ideas about love, life and death. In spite of my frustration with the piece, I still want to revisit it later this year when the taste of disappointment begins to clear a bit. In the meantime, I will turn again to Steven Soderbergh's underrated Solaris remake, a similarly-themed and superior science fiction romance, to get the emotional fix I missed out on with this one. C

UPDATE, November 25th: On a second screening, I have decided to bump the grade to a B. New capsule review to follow shortly.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Just for your info:

Bobby = Lock for a Best Picture nomination. It's like Crash set in a hotel.

A Smattering of Thoughts.

I am at the stage where the sleep debt and poor eating habits are quickly catching up on me, and I still have nine films left (I think.) I'll have to keep these short for now, because I'm low on time and energy. Friday and Saturday are going to be utterly packed. Therefore, grades and reviews might take longer than expected to appear, but I promise to write about every single film to some degree. I kind of want to save The Fountain and The Namesake for full length write-ups, so stay tuned.

I want to give Tsai Ming-liang the benefit of the doubt here, especially since his last two efforts (that also screened in Toronto during the '03 and '05 seasons) knocked me silly. In fact, I regret not placing his masterpiece The Wayward Cloud very high on my top ten list last year, as the film has still no release date for Canada or the U.S. But his latest, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Taiwan, France, Austria), is a challenging sit, mostly because it feels as though Tsai has distilled all of his familiar themes about alienation and disconnectedness into this experiment that fails to take them in any new direction. That would be fine, I suppose, since Tsai usually has something up his sleeve to punctuate the deafening silence, but this approach can only work for so long. The result was akin to sorting through two hours of Tsai's "greatest hits", but with a fraction of the originality or suspense. This time, Tsai moves the action to his native country of Malaysia, where he focuses his gaze on two threads of interest. The first plot involves a dazed wanderer (Tsai favourite Kang-Shen Lee) who finds himself in the care of a Bengali worker, who nurses the confused man back to health on a soiled mattress. On the flipside of the coin, there is a young woman Chyi who works at the whim of her abusive employer and tends to a comatose man (also played by Lee.) The film then unravels at a crawling pace, showing how each character ultimately resolves his or her hunger for human contact. At the same time, Tsai slyly - without words - takes note of Kuala Lumpur, its suffocating enviroment, and the varied individuals that populate its narrow streets and cramped building spaces (especially the foreign labourers who keep the city running.) Again, there is much potential here, but it still stagnates early on. Not since Terry Gilliam's Tideland have I seen so many walk-outs in one screening. C-

Based on the novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote the screenplay), Tom Vaughan's Starter for Ten (U.K.) is a witty and appealing little comedy starring James McAvoy (who appears in no less than three festival entries this year - all of which I've seen) as an enthusiastic first-year college student with great ambitions indeed. The year is 1985, and McAvoy's Brian has moved to Bristol University from a small working-class town. Determined to cram his head full of various trivia, he hopes to compete on a television game show called "University Challenge" along with his fellow team members. He prizes knowledge above all else, insisting that he must make the effort to do the best he can. However, his life becomes complicated when he falls in love with the alluring Alice (who may or may not have a thing for him), while his family and friends back home are worried that he has transformed into a snobbish "wanker" (or worse, gay.) Trying to find his place in this confusing conflict (as well as sort out his love life), Brian begins to lose sight of what made him pursue this education in the first place. Set in Margaret Thatcher's England, Starter for Ten has a lot more going for it than the game show subplot or the unrequited love track; along the way, it grapples with the ambivalence that characterizes one's early twenties. It may sound similar to Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential released earlier this year, but this one embodies a less cynical perspective. The last ten minutes or so are largely unconvincing, mostly because the film then resorts to articulate the "lessons learned" on part of the hero. However, this still is a worthwhile look for those who find themselves in the same boat as James, or wish to look back at a time of insecurity in their own lives. B-

On a whim, I decided to throw a film I knew nothing about into my schedule for Wednesday evening; I had the time and ticket to spare. Pavel Giroud's The Silly Age (Cuba) was a real find, and I am pleased that I forced myself to give this one a chance. It's probably my second-favourite film of the festival so far, following Volver. The title refers to a Cuban expression describing the time period in a child's life when his or her behaviour changes dramatically (usually for the worse.) Playing like a cross between Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education and Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y., it is a sweetly told coming-of-age story about a ten-year-old boy who comes to terms with family, sex and death during the late 1950's. Giroud convincingly presents the world as seen through the eyes of a young boy trying to make sense of a cold and unwelcoming environment (Bergman's Fanny and Alexander is clearly another influence here.) Over the course of the film, Samuel (played by the mature and talented Iván Carreira) falls in love with a movie star, learns how to kiss girls, feuds with his man-crazy mother, and wins over his bitter grandmother (who initally wants nothing to do with him.) All this takes place amidst the backdrop of the Castro's revolution, which some characters vehemently oppose (while others feel quite indifferent.) Giroud does not exactly re-invent the wheel here, but The Silly Age still manages to sustain itself through some particularly charming moments and performances. Anyone who recalls their early formative years before the 'teens will find much to enjoy here. It's darkly funny, but also devastating and soulful when it wants to be. This is Giroud's first feature film, and he shows an incredible eye for composition and blocking - hopefully he has a follow-up in the works as I write this. I already consider myself a fan. B+

Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland (U.K.) will definitely be talked about in the coming months as a potential awards magnet, seeing as it features exceptional performances by both James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker. Based on the semi-true book of the same name by Giles Foden (and adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock), the film tells the story of a young and enthusiastic Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy) who travels to Uganda to make a difference. Upon his arrival, he befriends an aid worker (Gillian Anderson: blink and you'll miss her) and her husband, both of whom work in the local villages to help first-hand the victims of famine and disease. However, Garrigan's life changes drastically when he crosses paths with Uganda's newest president (brought to power in a recent military coup) - the larger-than-life Idi Amin (Whitaker). The leader is so won over by the quality of Garrigan's work and his fine personality that he signs on the lad to serve as his personal physician. Initially, Garrigan settles quite nicely into a privileged lifestyle (with plenty of perks at his disposal.) But when whispers describing Amin's ruthless silencing methods of his critics reach the doctor, he finds extracting himself from the dictator's circle is more difficult than he could have imagined. Amin had begun his regime with promises of freedom and equality, but his ideals simply melt away with the perverse discovery of unyielding and questionable authority. Macdonald cranks up the tension progressively through the film, and when the situation turns truly horrifying, the impact is considerable. The film makes a strong statement about Amin's barbarity (especially driven home during the film's gruesome finale), but there are some twists and last-minute shockers that seem too convenient to be totally acceptable (indeed, the story is based on a composite of characters and stories.) James McAvoy is superb as the conflicted doctor, bringing true humanity to a man who wants to believe the best of this stand-in father figure, even if all the evidence points in the other direction. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker is an easy lock for his first Academy Award nomination: it is a performance that thankfully makes no attempt at precise impersonation. Rather, Whitaker plays the man as a spoiled, impatient child who becomes a frightful force when things do not go his way. He can be tender and loving at one moment, abusively violent the next. The portrayal starts off a little cartoony and threatens to veer into caricature, but by the end, Whitaker demonstrates that he thoroughly understands Amin as a truly sick man who has become permanently drunk on his own sense of power. B-

For a good two-thirds of its running time, Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering borders on absolute genius. Free from the restraints of adapting from yet another source, Minghella is free to let his imagination run loose. And indeed, this film looks or sounds nothing like he has done in the last ten years. Juggling many threads and amazingly managing to do justice to all of them, Minghella's screenplay is a fascinating problem play about the intersection of class, culture and family in modern-day England. Jude Law is Will, who runs a architecture firm with his business partner Sandy (a winsome but underused Martin Freeman, also in Confetti at the festival); they have been hired to give King's Cross - an area of the city associated with crime and urban squalor - an up to date facelift. Along with his work duties, Will faces some problems in his personal life: he lives with his girlfriend of ten years (Liv, played by an excellent Robin Wright-Penn) and her autistic daughter Bea from a previous marriage, and lately things have not been so good. Bea refuses to eat or sleep, and Liv feels that Will is not giving the matter its required attention and concern. Things take a turn for the worse when the studio at King's Cross is broken into, thousands of dollars worth of equipment gone in seconds. As Will becomes determined to track down the criminals behind the robbery, he becomes drawn into the life of a beautiful refugee from Bosnia (a committed Juliette Binoche.) Add to this a supporting cast of colourful characters (including a running cameo by Vera Fargima as a street worker), Minghella works against the odds to deliver a tightly-wound and crisply-worded drama. His screenplay adds layer on top of layer of complexity to the characters, always upping the stakes and exploring unfamiliar turns. It is a shame then that he seems so determined to resolve every single dilemma with such detailed precision by the end of the film. Every single major thread and small subplot is given its own perfect closure, which would be fine if these convenient solutions did not seem so forced. By the end, it leaves enough of a sour taste to dock the film several points. But this is worth seeing for some superb writing and several great performances (Law once again shines under Minghella's gaze.) The film is also pleasing to look at: it features some of the finest cinematography I've seen on display this year (by the wonderful Benoît Delhomme, who also shot The Merchant of Venice and The Proposition.) The images are relayed with a sharpness, realism and urgency without resorting to jumpy handheld shots and grainy murkiness. B-

And very quickly, Zhang Ke Jia's Dong (Hong Kong, China) has been called a companion piece to his Still Life (which just won the Golden Lion at Venice a couple of days ago and was added to the Toronto list almost immediately thereafter.) Playing like an intimate confessional, the documentary feature follows painter Liu Xiao-Dong on his journey through the Three Gorges Dam in Fenjie, China, as well as his time spent in Bangkok. Along the way, Zhang Ke focuses on the landscape of these locations, as well as the increasingly-modernized populations living there (carrying cell phones, mp3 players and the latest technology available today.) The camera records Dong at work directing his models and dabbing thick, clumpy paint onto his large blank canvases. The man dicusses his philosophy and reveals the difficulty he faces in being an artist who is always wondering where the criterion of success lies. At other times, Zhang Ke moves about in the streets and dwellings of the cities, capturing the images of people connecting, celebrating, eating and dancing. It is a slice of everyday life. Unfortunately, despite the gorgeous imagery and breathtaking locales, the film offers little in the way of narration or context except for Dong's own ramblings (which grow irritating very quickly.) The result is a pretty but considerable bore that captures none of the scope, commentary or perception of Zhang Ke's own The World, which drove home the experiences of directionless youth trying to approximate a Western ideal in a superficial amusement park featuring the man-made wonders of the earth. C

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Yeah, I'm at a loss for words myself really...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Day Four

In the tradition of Christopher Guest and his signature-style satire of by way of "mockumentary", British director Debbie Isitt's Confetti (U.K.) is a laugh riot through and through. Both directors focus on well-meaning, but ultimately clueless individuals too wrapped up in their own personal dramas and neuroses to notice how idiotic they look from the outside. Here, Isitt considers the desperate (and at times freakish behaviour) that emerges during the ordeal of wedding planning. Introducing the film, the deliciously witty director related that the idea for the film came to her a year ago when her own sister's expensive and detailed wedding ended up as a disaster. The film's title refers to a popular bridal magazine that attempts to shake up their readership by holding a contest: which couple can pull off a totally original, innovative concept for articulating their vows? The winners are handed the keys to a half-million-pound house and featured on the cover of the monthly digest. However, for the picky editorial execs (including Felicity Montagu, who played snooty Perpetua to perfection in Bridget Jones's Diary) the contenders leave much to be desired: a dowdy-but-cute twosome with a Hollywood musical theme in mind, an obnoxiously competitive tennis duo that alienate everyone around them, and a pair of "naturalists" intent appearing nude during their commitment ceremony. Throw in a gay couple - both professionally and romantically involved - in charge of planning the three events under one tight budget, and there's plenty of chaos in the works.

Beginning ten weeks before the curtain rises, the film showcases the development (or lack thereof) of the presentations. The "Confetti" staff, as well as the wedding planners Archie and Gregory, have to contend with bossy relatives hijacking ideas, bridal nose jobs gone awry and the insistence by Michael (the male half of the nudist couple) to remain unclothed for the ceremony (something the conservative magazine has no intention of tolerating.) Throughout the film, no one is safe from ridicule: every character is humiliated, exposed and eventually taught a lesson. But the tone somehow mananges to avoid condescension; there is bite to the humour, but it is not exploitative. Although these are ridiculous people, they are still human, and Isitt often shows the flipside of what is happening on the inside. The characters have chances to reveal their insecurities, and this attempt at a balanced depiction gives dimension to the film. What could have so easily been a repetitive, mean-spirited affair is tender and revealing in the director's hands.

The efforts here are even more impresssive considering that there was no script written beforehand. Every single line and blocking idea was made up on the fly; the actors were simply given a concept before the camera began rolling. When the audience learned this fact during the Q&A with Isitt, they broke into applause and amazed whoops. Indeed, learning this tidbit of information after watching the film only underlines the true improvisational genius of what she and the team pulled off in six weeks (!) of filming. The quips and one liners go down easy, and the film has quite its own share of so-funny-you'll-pee-your-pants moments. For most of its running time, Confetti simply breezes through, keeping a speedy momentum and switching up the scenarios. What a shame then that the film hits a wall in its final act, where watching the couples perform their all-too familiar weddings seems anti-climactic. But is it really fair docking the film overall for losing the reigns late in the game when so much of what came before bordered on brilliance? I'm still mulling it over, although this should not dissuade anyone at all interested in this gem. It's a must-see for comedy lovers (read: those of the Best in Show fanship, not those who frequent the Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller/Jim Carrey commodities of the month.) B/B+

Guillermo del Toro will undoutedly have fans salivating throughout all of Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico/Spain/U.S.), a meticulously-mounted fantasy that blends the dark fairy-tale world of children's stories and the harsh realities of war. In his comments preceding the screening, del Toro discussed how his prior film The Devil's Backbone premiered at the festival only a few days before 9/11, and how the experience moved him to conceive of a companion piece for it. One need not look hard to recognize the similarities - both concern the experience of children trying to cope with violence in suppressing environments. In between trying to survive their immediate situations, the protagonists become witness to supernatural events that may or may not be self-constructed. When the film begins, Ofelia and her very pregnant mother are on their way to meet Captain Vidal at his military base far noth. A very creepy Sergei Lopez plays Vidal, who is an important official of the newly-implanted fascist regime (and also Ofelia's stepfather.) The Spanish civil war is in full-force, and Vidal's primary concern is to obliterate the rebel forces that have made their base in the furthest recesses of the forestland. Ofelia at first attempts to adapt to her new life, but when her mother takes a turn for the worse and her stepfather takes no interest in her (he is awaiting the arrival of his "son"), the young girl is visited by strange, nocturnal flying creatures - "fairies", she calls them. Determined to investigate the origin of these beings, Ofelia ventures out into the night, and discovers something extraordinary in the maze of paths behind the house.

Pan's Labyrinth then proceeds to move in two different directions: the magical world that Ofelia immerses herself in, and the tensions that escalate with the battle between the two opposing political forces, with del Toro jumping back and forth. The two environments do not mesh well together, and at times it felt as though I was watching two separate films at once. The result is that neither payoff feels particularly satisfying. Ofelia's descents into the mezmerising and deadly other-worlds are undoutedly exciting, but her interactions with a grotesque-looking fawn (definitely not the stuff of your bedtime stories) or close encounters with child-eating monsters never come into focus with the rest of the film as a whole. The experience is not unlike watching imaginative vignettes set in nightmarish environments interspersed with lengthy sections about a band of rebels and moles trying to take down an evil authoritarian. All the moments with the adults feel obligatory, while the strengths of the story clearly lie with Ofelia's adventures.

However, this is still a unique fable that fans of fantasy and del Toro will want to experience. His sense of play and creation is truly commendable, and he has great fun bringing to life non-human beings and testing his audience's tolerance for gore and the abject. The film looks beautiful through and through (Oscar nominations for visual effects, art direction, sound and especially makeup are all deserved if the Academy is voting with their brains attached this time around), and all his actors are on-key (especially Y Tu Mama Tambien's lovely Maribel Verdu as Ofelia's confidante, and a housekeeper in the Captain's home.) Well recommended. B

Predictably banned in his home country of Iran (just like everything in his filmography), Jafar Panahi's Offside (Iran) is a critical look at the government's policy of banning women from attending sporting events. Packaged as somewhat of a light comedy (!), the movie impressively manages to hit at the major issues without being even a tad preachy in its politics. When speaking about why he was inspired to make this film, Panahi related a story of how his daughter insisted on accompanying him to a football match a couple of years ago (that's soccer for North Americans.) Sympathetic, he told her that she would never be let inside, but she insisted to a point that he relented. Ultimately she was able to make it past the police guards, and this moved the director to write a story pondering the ways female fans are able to sneak into these matches without being caught. First, some context: the Islamic government refuses to allow women into such arenas, insisting that the mixed gatherings must be avoided. The presence of profanity, sports fervor and other behaviour are deemed too inappropriate for women to witness. It is thusly why the teenage girls of Offside have to resort to posturing as boys to enter the 2006 Iran vs. Bahrain game (which qualified either team to move on towards the World Cup in Germany). But their true challenge is skillfully evading the security officials at the stadium gates, who are instructed to thoroughly search any suspicious individuals.

Offside opens on the road, with a shot of an panicked elderly man attempting to wave down a bus filled with jubilant football fans. The reason for his anxiety is soon made clear; his daughter left the house without informing anyone, which could spell disaster for the family's honour if word spreads to the community. "Her brothers will kill her," he shouts fretfully, utterly at a loss for his next move. The bus moves on soon enough though, although some boys begin to realize that an anti-social teen is not exactly blending in with the crowd. The flustered imposter manages to evade trouble on the bus, imploring a fascinated boy not to turn her in. It is at the gate that her confidence fails her, and soon enough, she is moved to a detention paddock where similarly shameless girls await the arrival of a van that will send them directly into the hands of the Vice Squad. Throughout the game, the guards attempt to keep the girls quiet, but their outrage will not be contained. The bulk of the film is spent outside the stadium while the match is played inside, roars by the crowd regularly echoing through the hallways. The clashing groups make some compromises: the captives can "watch" the game by way of one man providing commentary. One girl attempts to escape under the pretext of having to use the washroom, but since the stadium lacks facilities for women, one of the men instructs her to place a poster over her head so no one will recognize her. The security guards, initally high on their own sense of power, eventually admit that the rules banning women are without basis, but maintain that they don't make the rules. And that's that.

It is impossible to overlook Panahi's metaphor, as football in Iran is often considered as the unifying event in Irani patriotism. The clerics allow it because it fosters a sense of nationalism and religious fervor. The players in the game and the spectators shouting encouragement represent Iran itself, and inclusion in the spectacle is empowering. Men are active participants in the social, political and economic spheres of power, while women are excluded under flimsy regulations upheld by similarly flimsy moral rhetoric. The only way women can participate is if they adopt "masculine" characteristics (such as actually dressing as men here), but even then they are rejected. Offside then is not "only" about football, but is just as much about Iran's imbalanced power structures. In a key scene, the girls start to create their own playing field in their detention space, each one standing in for a beloved team player. This show of resistance is one of many important moments that provide the fire to the film's politics. It works marvelously, but Panahi only blunders when he drives home a conclusion that seems a little too optimistic and cheery for the subject matter. Even if it is intended as light-hearted overall, the final shots seem at odds with the clever debates that rage between the assertive girls and the frustrated guards. B+

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Blahed Out

Totally worn down, having sustained myself on less than five hours of sleep for the past three days. I need a break from the movies and the blogging. New grades are to the right, and since I have only one screening tomorrow (school starts also on top of this all - fun!), I'll write my slapdash reviews later. This morning, I decided to trade in Suburban Mayhem for the crowdpleaser Confetti by British director Debbie Isitt, which was obviously a smart move. A woman ahead of me in the lineup for Volver yesterday told me that it was a real treat, and I figured I would rather enjoy myself than sit through something dark and mind-numbing. Make sure you see this film when it opens later this year (Fox Searchlight is behind distribution, so even if it gets a limited theatrical release, a DVD release is guarenteed.) I was in hysterics throughout.

The rest of the day was strong as well; Pan's Labyrinth was arresting, although not as satisfying as del Toro's The Devil's Backbone or even Hellboy. Jafar Panahi's Offside was terrific, although two women next to me talked through the whole thing. Audience members around us shot them dirty looks all the time, but they would continue their obnoxious banter within a minute or two. I think one was acting as a translator (because her friend could not understand Farsi, nor read the English subtitles all that well.) I understand the situation, but you really shouldn't be attending a film that you will need explained to you, line by line. That's what DVD is for, so you can pause, rewind and make all the noise you want.

I will be lying down if anyone needs me.

EDIT: Oh, btw, browsing in Chapters in between screenings, I saw Tom Perrotta's Little Children on sale for 7 bucks (steal!). Forward several hours later: I am completely hooked and already more than halfway through. For those who haven't picked it up already, it's a quick read if you are willing to forego the film's surprises. I can already tell that this is going to make one fantastic cinematic experience. Winslet and Wilson are perfectly cast.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Day Three (Plus Full-Length "Volver" Review)

It was just before six a.m. that I ventured out into the darkness of the early morning, intent on catching the earliest express bus downtown. My purpose? To find a way (whether by winning same-day tickets or being first in line for rush seats) to gain entry into a screening of Pedro Almodóvar's Volver. All in all, my considerable lack of shut-eye and valiant effort to beat the crowd/clock was well worth it; I visited the festival box-office on the off-chance that a new block of tickets would be released. More than two hours before showtime, I was happily ordering a drink at Starbucks, a newly-printed voucher in my pocket. And the film certainy lived up to its reputation (see below for review.) My luck did not exactly continue with Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction that evening; after waiting for an hour in the rush lineup, more than eighty people (including myself) were informed that the house was packed. The first time I have had bad luck with a rush lineup, but in the past for other films, I've been there at least two hours in advance. No big deal - I'm not exactly a fan of Forster or the overexposed Will Ferrell (who plays the lead). I simply wanted to catch a glimpse of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Thompson (who looked "absolutely stunning", according to a volunteer I talked to outside the theatre), and had an extra coupon to spare for the evening. When that last show didn't work out, I decided to return home and conserve my energy for the next few days.

Re: Pictures. If the incident with the cameraphobic usher on Thursday wasn't bad enough, today moviegoers were informed that even bringing such "techtoys" into the theatres (let alone turning them on) would be grounds for removal from the screenings. I am going to have to find a way to discreetly hide my camera when handing my tickets to the volunteers. This bullying is getting out of hand; there is a big difference between wanting to take a couple of snapshots of celebrities and actually recording an entire feature-length film. I'm sure the most ignorant of theatre staff can tell which one is the illegal act. Anyways, no one showed up for Volver, I got a shot of director Mark Palansky introducing his film Penelope (the cast appeared for the Q&A, but I had to jet for my next screening), and although Tarsem Singh and two cast members were on-hand to present The Fall, the no-gadgetry policy was being especially enforced at that particular venue.

*Mild Spoiler Warning*

(Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)
Members of the male sex are tellingly of little concern in the close-knit community almost wholly populated by the female characters of Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, a loving testament to the relationships and intimacies shared between women (bravely depicted warts and all.) It is a celebration of womanhood in that the progressive construction of new dreams and hopes in these individuals' lives (both material and emotional) are made a reality only through the support this unshakably-linked band of mothers, daughters and old family friends offer one another. But in order for positive and healthy growth to take place, Almodóvar argues that the skeletons of the past must be thoroughly exhumed and acknowledged. Only then can the traumatic wounds of past (mis)deeds begin to heal, and - indeed - before the credits on Volver roll, themes of forgiveness, abuse, neglect, and selective memory are meatily "fleshed out". But all of these elements are still packaged in the familiar Almodóvar recipe so many film lovers have come to adore - his trademark soapy plot lines, his absurd plot twists, and his tremendously flawed (and therefore endearing) human figures. And it is undoubtedly one of his treasures; a passionate, aching film literally throbbing with a pulse of its own.

Although the revealing twists of the film are best unraveled on virgin eyes and ears, the characters begin their journeys in the following states. In modern-day Madrid, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) works several jobs to support her perpetually jobless husband and teenage daughter Paula. Lola Dueñas plays her sister Sole, who makes a living by running an in-home beauty salon. The family suffered a tragedy several years before, when both Raimunda and Sole's parents burned to death in a house fire. The sisters meet every so often, but the routine so familiar to each woman suddenly veers off course when two life-changing events occur almost simultaneously - death visits two characters not long after they are introduced. This is the catalyst for several changes in the women's lives: Irene (the sisters' deceased mother) begins to appear to certain loved ones, while Raimunda embarks on the opportunity to stand on her own two feet fiscally and emotionally. Meanwhile, an old family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) who always comes to the family's aid in times of crisis asks Raimunda for a seemingly impossible request. Volver then unspools in every imaginable direction - as light is thrown upon the shadows of the past, the current situations faced by the formidable women come into sharper focus.

What Almodóvar always returns to is the idea of an unbreakable loyalty proven by these women on a consistent basis. No matter how grim the situation may be, they are there for one another through thick and thin. Indeed, just as Irene apparently rises from the dead to nurture and protect her lonely children, the women of Volver exercise a sense of motherly authority over one another. Instinct kicks in, and the need to protect and shield (a motif that resonates even more powerfully in light of a revelation towards the end of the film.) The women often clash heads over different matters and opinions (especially the hot-tempered Raimunda, who always lashes out before she thinks on the consequences), but reconciliation and forgiveness are inevitable ends in the continuous cycle. A theme of group empowerment is key; as individuals, the female characters are strong-willed, yet isolated. In one another's company, they are invincible.

Though one could say that the film works simply as a well-crafted melodrama, an argument can be made that Almodóvar himself makes a clear distinction between what is sensationalized and exploitative in the media, and then the art that is more respectful and affectionate of its characters and their dilemmas. Consider the scene in which the ailing and shunned Agustina appears as a guest on a daytime talk show, having promised to air her "dirty linen" live in front of a studio audience (and millions of viewers at home.) The vapid hostess (reminiscent of the desperate interviewer who hilariously tries to extract information from Rosario Flores's prize-winning bullfighter in Talk to Her) promises Agustina advanced health care in exchange for spilling her family's deeply-buried secrets. Realizing that betraying her close family friends not only injures them but herself as well, Agustina refuses to participate. Similarly, Almodóvar refuses to sell-out his lady loves: Volver is an acknowledgment of their very human qualities, not a campy and degrading circus intended to poke fun at them.

Although Volver works exceptionally well by itself on paper and due to the strength of Almodóvar's unflappable convictions, the film would be unimaginable without this particular cast playing the striking characters. Penélope Cruz is a revelation, simply put. Nothing in her mainstream Hollywood output can prepare an otherwise dispassionate viewer for this generous, flawless characterization. True to Raimunda, Cruz is stubborn and cruel when understandably overcome with frustration, but equally open and spiritually naked in other moments. In one stand-out scene, her character is moved to perform a song her mother once taught her; Cruz may not sing the words herself, but commits fully to that moment. Tears rolling down her face, her soul lifting upwards, there is no holding back. This is the performance of her career. The other cast members are not sidelined though; as Sole, Lola Dueñas is given a juicy comic role that she enacts with full gusto. Meanwhile, Yohana Cobo is mature and likable as Raimunda's no-nonsense daughter, and Blanca Portillo's expressive face truly illuminates the lonely Agustina. And finally, Carmen Maura (working with Almodóvar again after a ten year-plus interval) brings great humanity and motherly love to Irene. The entire cast truly deserved the ensemble prize at Cannes - how could the jury have singled out a single woman in this wealth of talent?

Overall, Volver does not represent a cute-yet-frivolous diversion in Almodóvar's canon; rather, I believe that there is something truly exciting happening here. No doubt, it works as an entertaining dramedy in the footsteps of something like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But there's something even more revolutionary and transcendent about his latest, which includes the viewer in on the characters' journey towards redemption and togetherness. After the twists and secrets are exposed, it is almost as if Almodóvar is opening the door for a greater story. As these women move towards a better understanding of themselves as limitless in their potential and boundless in spirit, Volver clearly reads as Almodóvar's love letter to his women. The people in his life that participated in his craft, that fascinated him as human beings and supported him as a friend. Volver translates as "to return"; indeed, return I hope he does, with more material studying the complex ways in which we function as vulnerable, demanding creatures. No one does it better these days. A

And quick thoughts on the other two:

(Mark Palansky 2006; pictured)
After Volver, the whimsical modern-day fairy tale Penelope came as a disappointment in its treatment of mother-daughter relationships, self-actualization and body image. Playing as a bland mish-mash of Richie Rich, The Princess Diaries and Lemony Snicket, the story revolves around a curse (dating back several generations) that afflicts a highly privileged land-owning family. The main victim: an innocent girl with a heart of gold, but damned with the facial features of a swine (played gamely by a wide-eyed Christina Ricci.) Catherine O'Hara plays her superficial, overbearing mother, while Penelope's father (Richard E. Grant) feels that the girl needs space to grow. Trapped in a mansion of expensive commodities, but starved for human contact, Penelope eventually rebels against her sheltered surroundings and embarks on a journey towards indepedence out there in the real world. Meanwhile, a potential suitor (James McAvoy) lingers on the scene, offering the young woman a chance to break the evil spell causing her physical otherness. Penelope is not without its moments and serves up big laughs from time to time (often delivered by O'Hara, or Peter Dinklage as an eye patch-wearing undercover reporter.) But the screenplay is disappointingly predictable right down to its every word: true love-threatening engagements that carry no suspense, life-teaching morales about self-acceptance, and a villain that is determined to cause conflict-causing problems just so that the film has ground to cover. Thusly, the proceedings never feel spontaneous, but gimmicky and meaningless. Worse yet, the film cops-out on its own message of self-acceptance, contradicting much of what Palansky espoused. Cute, but empty calories. Reese Witherspoon serves as one of the film's producers, and only appears an hour into the film to play a stock best-friend role. C

The Fall
(Tarsem Singh, 2006)
In terms of genre and approach, miles away from the disturbing images of 2000's The Cell, but Tarsem still lingers on the idea of the shared imagination and dream worlds. This time, instead of one person entering another's consciousness, he explores a universe equally constructed by two people. In the early twentieth century, a Los Angeles hospital houses two very different patients - one a twenty-something Hollywood stuntman recovering from a near-fatal injury, the other a five-year-old Eastern European girl with a broken arm and very hungry for distraction. The two form a tender friendship, and since he cannot make use of his legs, she visits him in his bed everyday, and they pass the long mornings and afternoons in each other's company. The clinically-depressed Roy (a strong, capable Lee Pace) offers to relate an adventurous epic to the girl in exchange for her stealing morphine pills for him (in case the pain ever becomes too much to handle.) Alexandria, his young companion, is hesitant at first, but as Roy offers tidbits to whet her appetite, she cannot refuse his proposition. As the epic is narrated, Tarsem cuts to a fantasy world in which five wronged men from different parts of the globe vow vengeance on an oppressive lord who is to blame for their misfortunes. As in The Wizard of Oz, hospital staff and other individuals from the real world stand in for this imaginary universe. As Roy recedes further and further into his darkness, Alexandria becomes his only link to the real world. The bleak truth about Roy's suicidal mindset juxtaposed against Alexandria's hope forms the grounds upon which the film proceeds. The Fall is obviously a beautifully-made story; apparently, Tarsem shot in thirty-two countries over a period of four years to bring to life this tale of heroism, war and kinship. Pace is credible in both roles as the emotionally-dead patient and the brave hero of the tale, but it is Catinca Untaru as Alexandria that steals the film. Her delivery is hilarious, and instantly adorable without approaching cutesy kid shtick (read: Jerry Maguire.) B

Friday, September 08, 2006

Day Two

Not much to add this time around; more frantic speed-walking back and forth across the city, attempting to join ticket-holder lineups before they begin to dangerously swell and overfill. More money wasted on junk food and sugary, caffeinated Starbucks drinks to keep myself awake through the waiting and watching (yes, I did pack a lunch in an effort to conserve funds, but I ate it for breakfast. Ah well.) No celebrity sightings for the first three films (the lead actress of Climates, Ebru Ceylan, showed up but the lighting was too poor to take shots - I also hated the film, so no big loss); as for A Grave-Keeper's Tale, it was a true joy to have director Chitra Palekar and the gifted actor Nandita Das (you may recall that she served on the Cannes Film Festival jury last year) present to both introduce the film and participate in a Q&A following the screening. I had a chance to briefly greet Das afterwards and congratulate her on the strength of her past performances (in Fire, Bawandar, Hari-Bhari, Kannathil Muthamittal, etc) and her work in this film. I am still a little star-struck, to tell you the truth.

Note: I'm not really happy with the state of these reviews, as they were worded quite differently (read: better) in my mind on the way home, but they will have to do for now. I have to wake up in less than five hours to head back in an attempt to grab tickets for Almodóvar's Volver. Wish me luck (if you will be so kind.)

Takashi Miike’s latest, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, is a fascinating blend of philosophical treaty, murder mystery and unrequited gay romance. While it manages to successfully encompass and pull off all those elements in varying degrees, it cannot be denied that the film is a love-it-or-hate-it experience. This is perhaps the first festival screening I can remember where absolutely no one clapped - for a Toronto audience, that is virtually unheard of. Even for films that are largely met with an air of indifference, smatterings of applause here and there are typical (even expected.) The gist of the matter involves two young men - Jun and Shiro - recently imprisoned for unrelated acts of murder; the first is a soft-spoken, boyish youth, the latter a wild and dangerous troublemaker. The film begins with the discovery of Shiro's body being strangled at the hands of Jun, and the majority of the film is then devoted to flashbacks, in which Miike depicts each youth's troubled backstory and the experiences they have in prison (with each other, and with other individuals populating the rank and cavernous building.) Miike also explores the notion of manhood and identity, and he returns to these matters continuously throughout. Much time is also devoted to a thread involving an inquisitive police official attempting to solve the mystery behind Shiro's end (confessionals by the inmates, warden and other staff are directed towards the camera, as if the audience members are the ones positing the questions.) For the most part, Big Bang Love works; the creepy atmosphere, symbolic imagery (both men are able to look beyond the prison walls and observe a rocket and Mayan pyramid, representing space to one, and heaven to the other), and the time shifts are engaging and maintain interest. Unfortunately, the proceedings run out of steam about two-thirds in; Miike spends more time re-visiting what already came before in the murder investigation, while more pressing matters (such as the complexity of Jun and Shiro's intense bond) are left behind. I did enjoy most of it, but am unsure to what extent I would recommend it to others. C+

*Possible Spoilers* Beginning early on in the familiar convention of a gripping film noir (all the ingredients are present, from the gorgeous femme fatale, to the moody and dense atmosphere), Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk surprisingly transitions into something of a bleak existential drama about trying to make it day by day in an unsympathetic, self-interested world. At first, the shift may seem jarring and at odds with what came before (especially considering the director's focus during the first hour of running time.) But upon further reflection, it is arguable that the tragic ordeals the lead character Koistenen experiences (played by a pitiable Janne Hyytiäinen) are part of an attempt by Kaurismäki to drive home an ironic twist on the expected outcome. This, in my mind, elevates the film from a standard crime potboiler into something much more soulful and character-driven. The basic premise involves an introspective, people-shy security guard who finds any type of human interaction painful to sustain. His social life remains empty and bland until a friendly blonde walks into his life and opens him up to the possibility of an intimate connection. But what follows is an utter and complete downfall from (comfortable, if unsatisfying) stability; Koistenen quickly finds himself in hot water, and his situation progressively worsens from one scene to the next. On one hand, his refusal to challenge and fight back against his oppressors is frustrating; even when he does decide to retaliate, he surges forward half-heartedly, as if he knows that failure is inevitable. And yet, this is not a revenge drama - Kaurismäki is more interested in the character's up-and-down journey, and the small - often fleeting - pockets of hope that give him purpose to move on (including Maria Heiskanen's Aila, an old friend who hints at wanting more.) It is a quiet, meditative film, but a character journey well worth undertaking. B

I am not sure what director/actor/writer/editor Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s intention was with the interminable Climates; whether a narcissistic vanity project or an effort to exorcise his own personal demons, it is a bloated misfire by any definition. Attempting to portray the breakdown – and then the potential rekindling – of a strained marriage, the film demands an hour and forty minutes to cover barely twenty minutes’ of action. The conceit is that the stages of the relationship are mirrored in the shifting seasons – spring/summer (growth), autumn (slow decay) and winter (death.) Ceylan’s metaphors seem absolutely novel compared to his hollow script, which offers nothing for the viewer to mull upon. His approach is restricted to achingly long takes, where dramatic beats punctuated in between dialogue are made to signify severity. The reality is that there is no pay-off; Ceylan repeats the same cycle of connection and misunderstanding between the husband and wife incessantly, with nothing new to offer. Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan (as the conflicted woman; also the director’s off-screen wife) commit themselves fully to recreating what are no doubt very personal family histories, but they are undoubtedly events better off left in memory. The different “climates” and places depicted – a beach paradise getaway in Kas, the snowy mountain ranges of the north – attempt to add dimension, but serve simply as distractions from the weakly-etched characters always undermining themselves. The saving grace of the film comes in the appearance of actor Nazan Kesal, playing a scornful ex-flame of Ceylan’s; working with nothing substantial, she conveys a palpable mix of bitterness, lust and hesitance in her interludes with Ceylan – it is a shame that she only appears in the second act. The film could have used her energy during the turgid majority. D-

For a first attempt with a full-length feature film, Chitra Palekar truly impresses with A Grave-Keeper's Tale, based on a short story by celebrated Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. Set in a post-Gandhi, late 1950's Maharashtra village, it is a film that critically examines the state of (especially) women under caste and gender hierarchies. However, Palekar is also interested in how power imbalances created by ignorance and superstition become internalized and fixed within the consciousness of a people carrying generations of abuse and inequality. The gifted Nandita Das, one of India's best actors working today outside the mainstream output, plays a frightful village outcast denounced as a "ghoul" that feeds and nurtures of the bodies of dead young children. The villagers make sure to keep their distance, lest the witch pollute their environments with her evil and unlucky presence. Dalits (or "untouchables") themselves are unsympathetic to her situation; as one woman puts it, "I may be an untouchable, but at least I do not bury the bodies of dead children." Indeed, Chandi is left the task of performing funeral rites for young ones, a responsibility left to her by her ancestors. While the status quo maintains that Chandi live a separate life from her fellow people (even her close relations), a young boy fascinated by her infamous reputation decides to ask his father about the intimidating figure. What follows is a detailed backstory of the "witch", once a mother and integral part of the community, and the events causing downfall into ill-repute. Palekar's film has its usual hiccups (easily forgivable, considering the minimal budget and it being her first effort), but the passion for the issues is potent. When Chandi refuses to be complicit in the village men's demands or stay confined in the community's definition of a "good woman", she is punished with a brutal sentence. Palekar also shows how Chandi's husband (the wonderful Atul Kulkarni) also turns against her when he feels the judgment and disapproval of his fellow villagers. It is a simple film, but is moving in its universal ideas about mothers and children, conformity in society, and the need to isolate and suppress what is different from the "norm". B

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Day One

The festival has officially begun... or, to be more exact, began approximately eight hours ago with a screening of Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute at 2 p.m. I attended that showing, and also snuck in an evening film - the Palme D'Or-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach. The day went by very quickly, spent waiting in lineups and walking from one theatre to the next. I'm not particularly tired at the moment, but I only did two films after all; next Friday , I have a whopping five scheduled, so we'll see how I'm faring then. Overall, it was a solid start to the festival; the Branagh came as something of a mild disappointment (but it certainly had its charms), while the Loach completely bowled me over. Just a sidenote - because of piracy fears, the festival volunteers have become especially paranoid about cameras in the cinema halls. Before the first film began, I was simply taking pictures of the festival director (Piers Handling) doing his opening remarks and was loudly scolded by a scandalized usher (as if I were taping the film itself!) Therefore, I might not be able to deliver photos on a consistent basis, although I will still try to evade those pesky, power-trip losers.

For The Magic Flute, the D.P. Roger Lanser showed up to introduce the film; Branagh is in Venice right now, but sent a humourous taped video thanking the audience for showing interest. In an interesting bit of trivia, the film had its world premiere simultaneously both in Toronto and Venice - apparently, the latter screening was set to start only twenty minutes after ours did. Neat! As for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Cillian Murphy was on-hand to both introduce the film and offer his comments in a Q&A following the screening (see picture below.) The actor is shockingly waif-ish in person - scarecrow indeed! I also took a video of the discussion, and although it is hardly perfect (it was taken on my digital camera, which has no zoom feature for that command), the audio is quite adequate. Currently, both YouTube and Google Video are giving me problems uploading it, but I'll keep working at it. Murphy talked about Loach's methods, approaching his own character, and the reaction to the film in both Ireland and England.

Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of The Magic Flute is a mostly winsome affair, this time performed entirely in English (the libretto is written by Stephen Fry.) The proceedings are captured against the backdrop of the Great War, although Branagh sidesteps any direct reference to nations or specific events during that time period. The setting is simply used as a starting point; in fact, apart from the bookends of the film taking place entirely within the trenches, the true meat of the story lies in faithfully retreading Mozart's plot. That is not to say Branagh and Fry have not had fun updating the piece for the early twentieth century; for example, the Queen's attendents are now nurses tending to wounded soldiers at the frontline, and the bird catcher Papageno is a "pigeon" military messenger (get it?.) Ultimately though, the main concern of the story is that of Tamino and Pamina, two lovers separated by a scheming mother, a powerful lord and character-testing ordeals. The film is characteristic of the pace (and length) of an opera; dilemmas that could be solved in a matter of minutes are stretched out for several scenes, and the individuals attempting to overcome their obstacles spell out every motivation and feeling by immediately shifting into tenor/baritone/soprano/bass/etc. Yet if one is willing to buy into this world without reservation, the twists and turns can be quite captivating. Interestingly enough, what surprised me the most about Branagh's direction is how much he relies on other films for inspiration; the first twenty minutes unfold at the speed of Moulin Rouge!'s own opening, and some shots echo Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (believe it or not.) There is a lot of use of miniatures and similar visual effects work that seems unnecessary, although the opening sequence (which lasts possibly more than five minutes) is something of a marvel - the camera moves from lingering on a small flower in the ground that Tamino picks up, to sweeping across packed trenches along the battlefield, to moving upwards to the sky, dancing with the fighter planes zipping through the clouds. All in all, there is nothing particularly exciting about this attempt at opening up the work; apart from a few clever lines, Fry's text is rather flat, and no major changes have been made to the story. But it is definitely worth a worth a look for Branagh/Mozart enthusiasts eager to see a fresh and visually ambitious take on the opera. B-

Although I have seen very few of Ken Loach's films (aside from this one, only Sweet Sixteen, Ae Fond Kiss and his contribution to 11'09"01), I can safely say that this is one director's worldview I truly gel with. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a thrilling story of how several passionate IRA revolutionaries banded together in the early 1920's to put an end to British oppression. At the forefront are two brothers, Demian (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who decide to head the movement after a series of deadly and merciless attacks by the Black and Tans (a brutal force responsible for "policing" all of Ireland) pushes them over the edge. For the entire two-hour running time, Loach holds the viewer's full attention in his grasp - aside from a few moments developing camaraderie between the group's members and a tender romance, the tension is unrelenting. And despite the fact that the film's perspective is deeply grounded on one side of the conflict, the film still manages never to resort to off-putting jingoism. True, the British forces are portrayed as authorities determined to suppress dissent at any cost, yet they are hardly moustache-twirling villains (one scene even shows the ambivalence one official feels at his violent orders.) Loach is more interested in the state of affairs amongst the IRA members, especially once debate emerges regarding how the new Ireland should be run. The true complexity emerges here, once Loach deconstructs the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an agreement that simply spawned another hierarchical, forbidding regime. Like last year's Manderlay, what I came away with were similar questions about nation-building and how one's well-meant ideals can quickly errode for the purpose of pusuing a "greater good" (which may not be "good" after all.) Towards the end, the film does fall prey to overpreaching, but that can hardly negate the strength of what came before. Cillian Murphy is perhaps the only well-known actor in the cast (and he is pitch-perfect in the role, never overplaying the character's zeal), but everyone is excellent. B

Lineup for tomorrow:
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A
Lights in the Dusk
A Grave-Keeper's Tale

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"Your dog's hair is in my pipes, it's... causing problems."

And forging onwards... Click here to see the first part of this post, specifically the predix for Picture, Director, Actress and Actor.

1. Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
2. Juliette Binoche, Breaking and Entering
3. Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls
4. Angelina Jolie, The Good Shepherd
5. Carmen Maura, Volver
6. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
7. Diane Lane, Hollywoodland
8. Sharon Stone, Bobby
9. Jennifer Connelly, Little Children
10. Maggie Gyllenhaal, World Trade Center

Any shortlist that does not begin with Jennifer Hudson is problematic - it's as simple as that. The Dreamgirls star will likely lock up this category for the majority of the season in the popular award shows (SAG + GG [depends on placement] + BFCA, etc)... although it is way too early to be talking about winners (getting ahead of myself.) I've been hearing fantastic things about Juliette Binoche in Breaking and Entering; she plays a Serbian immigrant who becomes tangled up with Jude Law's character. The Academy clearly loves her; they handed her an Oscar when she wasn't the frontrunner in a now-famous upset, and then another nomination that even she seemed to question.) Perhaps there is still leftover guilt about snubbing her for Bleu back in '94 (as they should be!) I also see another Dreamgirls cast member getting pulled into the mix, in a repeat of Chicago's acting nod takeover. Plus, Supporting Actress often makes room for two nominees from the same film (Almost Famous, Gosford Park and Chicago.) Since Noni Rose shares her scenes with likely nominee Eddie Murphy, I can see her getting great notices too. Then there's Angelina Jolie, who could see herself strolling the red carpet with boyfriend and potential Best Actor nominee Brad Pitt. Although she's taken a hit for the whole tabloid craze, people do genuinely love her, and she's been getting good press for her humanitarian efforts. All that in addition to being in a likely Best Picture nominee (+ playing stressed-out wife supporting secretive husband role?) bodes well for her second nomination in this category. My fifth pick is a little "out there", considering any actor from #6 - #10 would make a lot more sense, but it's not completely ludicrous. From what I've heard (or what has been spoiled for me, thanks Roger Ebert), Maura has a tasty role in Almodóvar's drama. If Volver ends up a bigger success than many have predicted, both Cruz and she could find themselves tipped as contenders. Hey, this early in the game, anything's possible.

Never bet against Judi Dench either (in addition to Clint Eastwood); the woman was nominated for Mrs. Henderson Presents last year despite the fact that she didn't bother to campaign (or even seem to care, for that matter.) Notes on a Scandal has her playing against Cate Blanchett (now there's a duo I cannot wait to see on-screen), but I'm leaving her out because, like her co-star, it may be too soon after so much attention. Meanwhile, Diane Lane is finally appearing in a film that is not Must Love Dogs; how exciting. It would be nice to see her attending the Oscars again, considering she keeps such a low profile otherwise, but will this September turn be memorable enough to last through the season? As for Bobby's multi-star cast, it would make sense that one actor would feature on a supporting category (like Matt Dillon represented his fellow Crash thespians last year.) Sharon Stone has been getting some attention around the blogosphere lately, although will voters be able to overlook her other "film" released earlier this year? If not. there's always Jennifer Connelly in Little Children; she always gets great reviews, although will Winslet completely overshadow her? While that remains to be seen, I am most interested to see how Maggie Gyllenhaal fares this winter; her Sherrybaby performance has been discussed a lot lately, but it's probably too small to compete in the overstuffed Best Actress slate. So World Trade Center it is... although will that be enough? She's solid in the film, but Oscar nom-worthy?

1. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
2. Ben Affleck, Hollywoodland
3. Tobey Maguire, The Good German
4. Robert Downey Jr., Fur
5. Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
6. Jack Nicholson, The Departed
7. James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland
8. Brian Cox, Running with Scissors
9. Michael Sheen, The Queen
10. Gael Garcia Bernal, Babel

Like everyone has been saying, Eddie Murphy will undoubtedly pick up his first-ever nomination (if his work in Dreamgirls is as good as rumoured.) And since Oscar loves comeback and image reinventions, Ben Affleck looks tortured and focused enough as the disturbed George Reeves in Hollywoodland to be taken seriously again. Tobey Maguire may seem like an odd choice, but like Derek Luke, he seems the right age and at the right point in his career to win a nomination. Steven Soderbergh has been gushing about his actor's work in The Good German, which gives Maguire an opportunity to shed his "awshuks", non-threatening Spider-Man persona. Soderbergh has led his actors to Oscar success before, so Maguire could follow in that path. Robert Downey Jr. looks to have a very exciting role in Fur, and if voters can see his acting through the costuming/makeup/whatever, he may linger in their minds. Trick is that the Academy sometimes gets fussy about performances like this, where the "acting" is obstructed/filtered in some way (Andy Serkis in The Two Towers.) Either way, it looks like a fresh page for Downey Jr. to be taken seriously as a great actor again. Then there's Little Children's Jackie Earle Haley, which is kind of a risky prediction (considering the nature of the role), but it may pay off. There's always room for newcomers in the Oscar process... and Field has talked about how the actor really had to reach far to access this character. If the film does not completely scare away voters, there's no reason why Haley's name won't be discussed in Academy circles.

Many people seem gung-ho on Jack Nicholson for The Departed, but I'm not sure that the film will be Oscar's cup-of-tea. Yet giving him a record 13th nomination in the same year Meryl Streep gets her 14th will be press the Academy will probably not want to forego. James McAvoy has been become a hot property following his scene-stealing performance in The Chronicles of Narnia, and that could bolster his chances for acknowledgment. His role in the fairy tale-like romance Penelope opposite Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon this November may also give him more traction. If Brian Cox is able to stand out in the mammoth cast of Running for Scissors, the underrated and owed actor could certainly be handed a nod of appreciation. His body of work in 2002 worked against him - he nailed all of those characters, but vote splitting undoubtedly killed his chances. In The Queen, Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair; like with Erin Brockovich and The Contender, we could have a lead actress - supporting actor combo (strong female lead - male authority figure) nominated together from the same film. And Gael Garcia Bernal has been building quite the impressive resume in the last few years since Amores perros. Could re-teaming with that film's director finally lead him to major Hollywood kudos?


1. Emilio Estevez, Bobby
2. Guillermo Arriaga, Babel
3. Eric Roth, The Good Shepherd
4. Anthony Minghella, Breaking and Entering
5. Christopher Guest, For Your Consideration
6. Paul Greengrass, United 93
7. Pedro Almodovar, Volver
8. Shawn Slovo, Catch a Fire
9. Peter Morgan, The Queen
10. Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine

The writing categories are always difficult, mostly because (unlike the acting shortlists) they are so dependant on the Picture nominees. Because I sense a lot of those films will be adapted from prior source material, this field for original scripts seems like a free-for-all. First, Estevez and Arriaga have the most heat right now; the former will be rewarded for branching out, while the latter seems ready for his first nod after several high-profile films. Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth could be swept into a Good German sweep if the film is especially loved by AMPAS (which would count as his fourth nomination, and a consecutive one after Munich last year.) Anthony Minghella is a magnificient writer, especially talented at adapting complex novels; will his second time writing from scratch prove equally magnetic? Then there's Christopher Guest, who has never earned an Oscar nomination for any of his witty mockumentaries (criminal!); perhaps this playful jab at the Academy will prove successful? Let's pray that they have a sense of humour about For Your Consideration.

Paul Greengrass is likely to pick up another nomination for his well-respected United 93; however, on watching the film, will writing seem like one of its better strengths to voters? Conversely, Pedro's screenplays are always celebrated as novel and absorbing, but has the Academy had its full with the man's rapid output in the last few years? Catch a Fire could mirror last year's The Constant Gardener; voters might consider giving the film love here if they find it too controversial for a Best Picture mention. The Queen has been discussed as a fascinating enactment of many documented statements about the royal family's reaction to Princess Diana's death. Along with an Actress nod, AMPAS could throw more respect its way with a placement here. And as much as it pains me to say it, I'm sure Little Miss Sunshine will win Arndt several prizes ("First Best Screenplay", many ISA accolades, etc) this coming awards season. The unsatisfying feature is the sleeper hit of the late summer, and the Academy does love small success stories for the independents (2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)

1. Paul Haggis, Flags of Our Fathers
2. Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
3. Jeremy Brock, The Last King of Scotland
4. Todd Field, Little Children
5. Patrick Marber, Notes on a Scandal
6. Paul Attanasio, The Good German
7. Ryan Murphy, Running with Scissors
8. Alan Bennett, The History Boys
9. Josh Friedman, The Black Dahlia
10. Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, The Prestige

It may be unbearable to consider Paul Haggis in the running for the third time in a row, but he's clearly the industry's "it" boy at the moment. His involvement in this World War II epic directed by Eastwood, with the added exposure of writing the Zack Braff vehicle The Last Kiss, bodes well for the Canadian talent. Bill Condon was included in this category the last time he tailor-fit a beloved musical for the silver screen (and won here a few years before that too), so there is no reason to believe he will miss out this time around either. Another potential Best Picture nominee's writer, Scotland's Jeremy Brock, will surely be a major player in the next few months; he also has Driving Lessons out this year. Todd Field may get consolation votes here for Little Children - this is a category that sometimes accomodates films they may not embrace wholly (read: no Best Picture love.) Finally, Patrick Marber was snubbed almost two years ago for adapting his own Closer for the screen; maybe this time around, he will be luckier?

If The Good German enjoys some critical love, it could build buzz towards another mention for two-time nominee Paul Attanasio (both of his nods also in this category.) Ditto for the family dysfunction dramedy Running for Scissors by Ryan Murphy, which could make like Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Stage plays often do not make a big impression with Oscar, but Alan Bennett's smash hit The History Boys recently swept the 2006 Tonys and Drama Desk Awards. The film version is hitting screens just at the right moment. Can it repeat its theatrical reception with the filmy AMPAS? Josh Friedman's The Black Dahlia adaptation could make an impact, considering the novel's twisty material and De Palma's name behind it. Then the Nolan Brothers have a chance to aim for nomination #2 with The Prestige, a seemingly dark tale of magic and rivalry on the stage.

BTW, I know I said I wouldn't be touching on the tech categories, but I must quickly put in a word for Dick Pope's phenomenal work as D.P. on The Illusionist. It will probably be forgotten by the year's end, but this Mike Leigh favourite does some truly memorable work here. I don't think the film overall is quite at that high level, but I recommend a watch for some gorgeous shots and a solid Paul Giamatti performance.