Films reviews

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Most Anticipated from TIFF #1

As we all know, I wasn't able to go to the Toronto International Film Festival this year. It was difficult for me, but I will survive. Thanks to Wiebke, Alberta and Tracy for sharing in my pain. I would loved to have seen them on this trip.

Fortunately, as you've seen, Beth is doing a great job providing coverage for Chlotrudis, and there are a lot of online film outfits covering the festival from top to bottom, so I almost feel like I'm there. Today I read the first piece that made me really excited.

Obviously I'm excited about the upcoming releases, BLINDNESS, written by Don McKellar, and ADORATION, the latest film from Atom Egoyan, but I have no doubt I will be seeing both of these films soon after the festival when they are released Stateside. I think I am most excited, however about the new film by French director Claire Denis called 35 RHUMS. I'm hoping someone from Chlotrudis caught it (I'm sure I can count on Ivy) but indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez reports on it in his blog. Here's an excerpt:

...its a wonderful movie that I've had a hard time shaking. 35 RHUMS offers quiet moments with its characters -- each striving for someone, or something, else. Agnes Godard's photography and Tindersticks' music, in particular, are striking and beautiful.

Eugene refers to a review in indieWIRE by Shane Danielsen who also had a great quote:

I was looking forward to a number of films here, but none more than the latest from Claire Denis. Such anticipation usually ends in disappointment, but 35 RHUMS only confirmed her mastery. Her finest piece of work since 1999's superb BEAU TRAVAIL, it seemed like nothing so much as her version of a late Ozu, a latter-day response to EQUINOX FLOWER and LATE SPRING -- and like those films, it's about the bonds of family, and people being kind and desiring the best, for themselves and for each other. Yet it's no mere homage; rather, it's imbued with Denis' own, unmistakeable sensibility, the patient and watchful eye that disinguished earlier Paris-set masterpieces like I CAN'T SLEEP and FRIDAY NIGHT.

Now I just have to hope that I won't be waiting too long before we get to see it in the States.

PIFF - Day Two

With a few exceptions, PIFF does a superb job selecting documentaries. In fact, looking back, I would say that overall, the docs I saw were for the most part outstanding, and the narratives, generally uneven. Day Two at PIFF was documentary day, with three docs being the order of the day.

Chris & Don: A Love Story (USA; 90 min.)
directors: Tina Mascara and Guido Santi

This was the film that Chlotrudis co-presented at Ptown, and I was very pleased by the nearly packed house at the Crown & Anchor. CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY beautifully tells the story of the thirty-year relationship of author/poet Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy who was thirty years Isherwood's junior. With Bachardy still living, the film tends to focus more on him, but Isherwood certainly gets his share of attention. All of the issues you might imagine in a relationship with such disparate ages are present, and because Isherwood was a diarist, the access to his most personal thoughts and even video footage is well utilized here. Just thinking about the fact that these two men first met when Don was 16 (they became a couple when he was 18) you can't help but ponder his entire adult identity being shaped by Isherwood. The main point of struggle was certainly Don's search for an identity when partnered with such a talented and well-known figure. I'm sure that if Bachardy had not found his creative talent as an artist, their relationship would never have survived.

Mascara and Santi blend live interview with Don and others who knew the couple, with Isherwood's video footage and readings from his diaries, as well as recreations of some key points in their lives. They shape out of this unconventional, decidedly non-traditional relationship a romance for the ages, with grace, style, and a passionate heart. 5 cats

American Teen (USA; 95 min.)
director: Nanette Burstein

I was intrigued to see this documentary focusing on the lives of teens today that has been the subject of much praise and controversy on the festival circuit. Burstein spent a year immersed in an Indiana community, seeking out and spending time with a group of teenagers that embody the well-known archetypes (or perhaps that should read stereotypes) made popular by the film THE BREAKFAST CLUB. Unfortunately, AMERICAN TEEN just didn't work for me, and the more people I talk to, I've been finding that it either clicks with people, or it doesn't, but even the people who love it can see the artifice and manipulation that turned me off of the film.

I'm not against staged scenes, recreations, or scripted sequences in documentaries. They can certainly enhance a non-fiction film and make it more entertaining. The problem with AMERICAN TEEN is that the film isn't really honest with its audiences. As thing progress, it becomes increasingly obvious that some of the scenes are staged, and eventually you begin to believe that the teens being depicted in the film might actually be characters, or 'actors' representing archetypes, rather than kids being represented in a documentary. Burstein has sought out (or created) such blatant stereotypes in order to fulfill a publicity department's dream and tapping into the early-80's John Hughes zeitgeist that I was instantly reminded of James Frey and his fictionalized memoir. To further this feeling the storylines in AMERICAN TEEN follow such startlingly scripted paths that you'd think a team of Hollywood screenwriters were coaching the action.

Those people who I've spoken two who enjoyed the film totally bought into the PRETTY IN PINK/THE BREAKFAST CLUB vibe that TEEN apes even while acknowledging the manipulation. While I was at first perplexed and disappointed as I watched AMERICAN TEEN, as time has passed I'm still perplexed but now somewhat annoyed. The film's marketing is trying to further underscore the character-like nature of the subjects, and the inauthenticity of the film has begun to grate on my nerves even more. 2 cats

The Axe in the Attic (USA; 110 min.)
directors: Ed Pincus and Lucia Small

I have been waiting for Lucia Small, director of MY FATHER, THE GENIUS, to make another film; curious to see what direction she would take after the intensely personal examination of her father's life and its affect on his family. I was not expecting THE AXE IN THE ATTIC, a road-trip across America with co-director Ed Pincus, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the resulting diaspora that occurred, displacing scores of people whose homes were destroyed in the storm. What makes ATTIC different from other films or reports on Katrina's aftermath is the way the filmmakers insert themselves into the film, constantly questioning their roles and responsibilities while shooting the film; asking questions of themselves that viewers of documentary films often ask of the filmmakers without being able to get an answer.

Pincus and Small focus on approximately 50 people in the film, pared down from the hundreds they interviewed on their road trip. These stories, powerful and moving all, are intercut with images of the devastation, and scenes where the filmmakers debate the social responsibilities of the country and the individual, and how this disaster affected them each personally. ATTIC is an elegant work, and one that I would encourage everyone to see. It's wonderful to see Small continue her fine filmmaking career, and again, makes me eager to see what she will do next. 4 1/2 cats.

After the film, a group of us headed to Level at the Commons for a filmmaker reception. We were late arriving, and much of the crowd had thinned out, but a batch of Chlotrudis members, myself, Scot, Beth Curran, Beth Caldwell, Dan McCallum and his partner Jon, spent the next couple of hours with director Lucia Small and her associate producer Emma, Boston Phoenix film critic and Chlotrudis-pal Gerry Peary, and Central Productions CEO Mike Bowes. We even got a few clues as to what Lucia might be working on next!

Filmwise, MIFF Ends on an Unpalatable Note

As tasty as scrambled eggs and beer might be, it sounds fairly unpalatable to me, and so was the Chilean film the title of which, SCRAMBLED BEER, took its name. It was our last film of the festival, and was also a last minute switch. Tuesday night also featured a film from the Philippines, which at the time drove me nuts (not in a good way) but with some distance has grown on my considerably.

SLINGSHOT (Philippines; 86 min.)
director: Brillante Mendoza

Mostly on Bruce’s recommendation, I decided to catch Brillante Mendoza’s film SLINGSHOT, after skipping it in Toronto. Being half Filipino, I do like to catch films from the Philippines when possible, but generally I haven’t had much success with enjoying them. SLINGSHOT is a fascinating film, one that drove me nuts while watching it… I believe I even told Scot that I thought it was the most annoying film I’d ever seen, but upon reflection, it’s really quite remarkable, and displays Mendonza’s talents quite well. The action of the film takes place during Holy Week, and touches upon themes of religion, politics and poverty. The opening scene is frantic and loud as the police raid a large building where dozens of poor families live. Everyone has their claim to innocence, but these pleas fall largely on deaf ears as the police route most of the buildings male inhabitants and haul them into prison for the night. The next day, most of the men are released and return home, but we soon discover that there isn’t a whole lot of innocence among the lot of them.

Of course, that’s the theme of the film, as campaigning for local elections is in full-swing, and we see various politicians dropping all semblance of propriety and buying votes… literally handing money out in public square to obtain votes. At street level, we see that most of these people will do whatever they have to do to make some money. One man must con another man to pay a third man who is collecting money to pay off his debts to a fourth, and so on. While the constant fighting, shrieking and mayhem that goes on throughout much of this film is incredibly grating, the film is so realistically shot that you sometimes forget you are watching a narrative. There is something so immediate and raw about this footage that you can’t help but be drawn in. Mendoza captures life on the poor streets of the Philippines in a remarkably vivid and realistic way. 3.5 cats

SCRAMBLED BEER (Chile; 88 min.)
director: Cristobal Valderrama

After reading the synopsis of this film (something about a cross between a buddy film and a time travel film) Scot decided he wanted to see SCRAMBLED BEER. So we exchanged tickets for BLUE EYELIDS, which we’d already purchased for this one. I was game; I’d never seen a film from Chile before. It’s such a skinny country! Well, for me, scrambled eggs and beer just don’t go well together.

Vladimir is basically an irredeemable lout. From the moment we meet him he is shown to be a boor, a cad, and a slob. Things get worse from there. After being evicted, he moves in with his friend Jorge and his girlfriend Monica, who clearly is repulsed by Vladimir. After their first day in the new apartment, Vladimir wakes up the next morning with Monica in bed next to him, suddenly filled with passion for him. Despite his shock, he welcomes this new attitude, until he finds out that somehow three weeks have passed since he went to sleep the night before. Things get even more confused when he wakes up the next morning two weeks earlier. He starts to suspect that Fedora, a creepy neighbor who also happens to be a witch, might be involved. So while things sounds a little wacky and confusing, hold on, because suddenly, just over half way through the film, a twist is introduced the radically changes the tone and expectations for the viewer.

Sadly, none of this is handled very well. The comedy is broad and obvious; something that actually might feel right at home in a multiplex. The characters, especially Vladimir, are so unappealing and obnoxious that it’s hard to really root for any of them. Finally, the sudden revelation comes out of nowhere and despite itself, almost makes the film a little interesting. It saved it from a 1 cat film for me. I can now give it 1.5 cats.

Overall, the Miami International Film Festival is a great vacation choice for a film buff. The weather in early March is beautiful, the film selection is great, and for us, the accomodations were perfect (thanks to Chlotrudis member Richard Alleman for the loan of his apartment!) You can't get much better than hitting the beach every day then watching movies every night. As far as drawbacks go, every film festival I attend just makes me admire the amazing organizational feat that the Toronto International Film Festival accomplishes every year. The queues were thoroughly disorganized in Miami, and I feel that is one of the single most important things to do right from the public's perspective. On a larger scale, Miami has a terrible service industry. I can't recall a single satisfying encounter with waitstaff in restaurants. Even if things started off well, by the end of the experience, things had devolved. Gratuities are included in the bill at most restaurants in Miami Beach, and I feel this just takes away any incentive for servers to care. Still, I would attend the Miami International Film Festival again in the future.

Miami Offerings from Northern Europe

After a lovely day at the beach, Monday night found us exploring cooler climes first in Sweden, then in the Netherlands. MIFF is truly international, and Monday night was certainly the strongest night of the week.

YOU, THE LIVING (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark/Norway; 95 min.)
director: Roy Andersson

Swedish director Roy Andersson follows-up his delightfully surreal SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR with an exploration of humankind in all its subdued glory. YOU, THE LIVING, subtitled, a film about the grandeur of existing, is constructed as a series of vignettes, many hilarious in their deadpan absurdity. In an opening sequence, a woman repeatedly shouts at her lover and her dog, telling them to leave her. When they finally, reluctantly leave, she breaks into song. It's surprising and delightfully funny. Members of a marching band show up repeatedly, particularly a tuba player who annoys both his wife and his neighbors when he practices at home. A young woman meets a rock star she admires and later dreams of their wedding night with him. Another man dreams of facing the electric chair after attempting (and failing) to perform the old pulling a tablecloth out from under place settings at a dinner party.

YOU, THE LIVING took three years to shoot, because nearly all of the sets, including the outdoor scenes, were constructed for the film. There's an amazing sequence when the young girl and her rock star, dream husband are in their new apartment which slowly begins to move like a train across the city. Andersson's washed out palette of grays, browns, light blues and whites are enhanced by the whitened faces of the actors. Andersson's films are experiences that might not be for everyone, but they are unique and delightful for me. 4 cats.

BLIND (Netherlands/Belgium/Bulgaria; 98 min.)
director: Tamar van den Doop

BLIND is your basic, tragically doomed romance, yet it's one that writer/director Tamar van den Doop handles with such beauty and originality that it becomes elevated to something much more. Ruben Rietlander is a young man perhaps barely out of his teens, who lost his eyesight during childhood. His elderly mother Catherine cannot properly care for him on her own, and the women she hires to read to him are driven away by his violent tantrums. Enter Marie a scarred, albino woman in her 30s who is shunned by the villagers. For some reason, perhaps out of desperation, Catherine hires Marie to read to her son. Perhaps because she is an outcast herself, Marie will not put up with Ruben's outbursts and she physically manhandles him rather than flees shrieking as is the norm with the hired help. Gradually, the two fall in love, but in Ruben's mind, Marie is a beautiful young woman with fiery red hair and blue eyes. As is the case in tragic romances, Ruben's doctor discovers a way to restores Ruben's eyesight. Marie knows if this happens, their love is doomed, so she leaves and manages to stay hidden from the heart-broken Ruben... until the inevitable happens.

BLIND is gorgeously shot. Tamar van der Doop has a terrific eye, and the incorporation of Ruben's visual fantasies of how things might appear are surreal and gorgeous. Halina Reijin is particularly strong as Marie, keeping her rage tightly coiled inside, and watching her slowly unclench as she slowly lets her guard down around Ruben is a real treat. The period costumes, and lush settings add to the visual feast. 4.5 cats.

Sunday Night Movies in Miami

If there was a theme to Sunday night's films, it would have to be carrying our dead or our absent loved ones. In POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD, two children living in Caracas, Venezuela, must invent stories about their absent parents who are revolutionaries in a political struggle. In Zhang Yang's GETTING HOME, a man literally carries the body of his dead friend back home to his family.

POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD (Venezuela/Peru; 90 min.)
director: Mariana Rondón

In her introduction, director Mariana Rondón thanked the countries of Venezuela and Peru for funding her film, then commented on how POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was a singularly Venezuelan story. In 1960's Caracas, revolutionaries struggle against a political regime. Two children tell stories of growing up with revolutionary parents through a lens of romance and innocence. Rondón wonderfully combines dramatic and comedic narrative storytelling; faux docementary; and comic book style hand-drawn animation over live action to tell this darkly funny, yet serious story of a very volatile time and culture.

At first POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was confusing; Rondón jumps around in time without warning, and the two children narrate their stories as if they were comic book characters. There is none of the political nuance to explain the whys of the conflict. Gradually however, the story becomes clear, peppered with fabulous sequences of the various characters lives. Family scenes around the Venzuelan New Year are lively and telling; especially when Teo, one of narrators' parents, returns home and is subsequently captured by the government and imprisoned. A sequence 2/3 of the way through the film, depicting a group of female, revolutionary, college students committing an act or defiance is perfectly executed in groovy, 60s style, bringing together split screens, animation, music and narration sublimely. Rondón is a talented filmmaker whose work deserves broader exposure. I have no idea what kind of distribution POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD will receive, but I can only hope it makes it to Boston. 4/5 cats

GETTING HOME (China/Hong Kong; 110 min.)
director: Zhang Yang

Straddling the sublime and the ridiculous, young, Chinese director Zhang Yang explores the bonds of friendship in GETTING HOME. Benshan Zhao (HAPPY TIMES) plays Zhao, an aging factory worker whose co-worker and drinking buddy dies unexpectedly far from home. Zhao is determined to fulfill a promise he made to his friend, to return him to his village for burial. Operating with limited funds, and carefully trying to pass his deceased companion off as drunk or comatose, Zhao begins a series of cracked adventures is his attempt to complete his task, and along the way, he learns the true meaning of friendship and finds a path for his life.

Zhang, director the popular Chinese films SHOWER and QUITTING, starts things off on a silly note, and throughout the film there is an understandably absurd quality to the proceedings. Gradually Zhang starts to introduce more serious themes, yet in a way that fits in with the established tone of the film and never seems overly heavy-handed. Sure there's a little schmaltz, but it's not overdone like in a Hollywood film. While he doesn't take the experimental risks that he did in QUITTING, GETTING HOME is an entertaining and lovely film. 3.5 cats

MIFF: Saturday Night Movies

Saturday night featured one of the most unusual films of the festival, and one of the best - and not necessarily the ones I would have expected. It also found us walking the pedestrian mall at Lincoln Road, an experience that makes navigating the mobs in Times Square seem rather tame. Yikes!

ESTÔMAGO - A GASTRONOMIC STORY (Brazil/Italy; 112 min.)
director: Marcos Jorge
This lively black comedy examines the nature of power as it relates to food. Raimundo Nonato comes to the big city from the "jungles" of Brazil - no money, no place to stay - and wanders into a cafe where he orders the fried chicken snack and gets in trouble with the owner when he can't pay. The two work out a deal where Nonato will wash dishes in exchange for board. Diner owner Zulmiro soon discovers that Nonato has a talent for cooking and teaches him how to prepare some of the diner's staples. Within days, the place is packed, and Nonato's food is universally praised. Soon he is scooped up by the local restauranteur, Giovanni, who further instructs Nonato on the finer arts of cooking, including wines, and shopping at the market for a restaurant. As Nonato's fortunes rise, so does his relationship with Íria, a local prostitute with a jones for good food.

Director Jorge intercuts Nonato's story with scenes from the present day where he is embroiled in a power struggle in prison. He enters his cell of a dozen or so prisoners at the bottom of the ladder, but as his culinary skills provide gourmet meals for his cellmates, he slowly finds himself off the floor and into the bottom bunk, then rising higher and higher until he is directly below the cell's leader.

Jorge deftly deftly juggles the two stories, Nonato's rise to power in prison, and the reason he's in prison in the first place. The acting is appealing, especially João Miguel as Nonato, and Fabiula Nascimento as Íria. The black comedy is skillfully handled, and the build-up to Nonato's initial downfall well paced. I hope this film gets a release Stateside, and if it does, it comes highly recommended. 4 cats.

DISENGAGEMENT (Israel/France/Germany/Italy; 117 min.)
director: Amos Gitai
Israeli director Amos Gitai has clearly put together an accomplished work in DISENGAGEMENT, but it's one that requires a little more knowledge of political situation there than I possess to fully appreciate it. After a terrific, yet nebulous opening sequence with Uli (Liron Levo), an off-duty, Israeli police officer and an unnamed Palestinain woman (the marvelous Hiam Abbass) sharing a cigarette, some conversation, then a kiss while on a train, the action jumps (back?) to Paris, where a French woman of Israeli background (Juliette Binoche) stands a bedside vigil as her father dies. Her adopted half-brother Uli arrives, and after some slightly offbeat conversation and particularly bizarre flirtation, the two join their late father's lawyer (Jeanne Moreau) for the reading of the will. There Binoche's character discovers that a daughter she had given up at birth, was living in a camp in the Gaza strip, and that her father had visited her several times. As a police officer, Uli was returning to Israel to move the settlers in Gaza out, and his sister decides to return with him to find her daughter.

With some outstanding visuals and some powerful scenes, Gitai illustrates the difficult task of the Israeli police having to forcibly move Israeli citizens off the Gaza strip. He also shows how ill-prepared the police are, and how easily such a sensitive task can be bungled. Binoche's character is a bit of a cypher, acting a little mentally touched at first, then finding her ground when on the hunt for her daughter. It was nice to see Dana Ivgy (OR, MY TREASURE) playing Binoche's daughter. A strong film, but a little too obtuse for me. 3 cats.

MIFF: The North American Entries

Scot and I took in our first night of Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) offerings on Friday. Each of the ten films we are seeing comes from a different country, and appropriately enough, our first film was from Canada. Sadly, it's been the biggest disappointment so far.

AMAL, directed by Richie Mehta, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and recently won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. The film is based in India and follows the story of autorickshaw driver Amal who defies convention and is actually honest and hard-working. One of his fares is an exceedingly difficult, apparently homeless man who belittles him harshly. In fact, this man is a wealthy hotel owner who is dying. When his encounter with Amal shows him that some of the wealthiest men are the poorest, he rewrites his will cutting his greedy, conscienceless sons out and instructing his lawyer to find Amal our of the thousands of autorickshaw drivers in the city. If you're thinking it sounds like a parable, complete with cardboard characters and heavy-handed lessons, you'd be right. An ironic twist ending does a little to raise the film above bad to simply mediocre. Mehta adapted AMAL from a short story written by his brother Shaun. 1.5 cats

Moving to the U.S. our second film was a big improvement. Ira Sachs (FORTY SHADES OF BLUE) leaves his tested theme of outsiders living in the modern-day South and enters 1950s, northwestern suburbia to look at the domestic difficulties of marriage in MARRIED LIFE. The talented acting pair of Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson play Harry and Pat Allen, a married couple who like, if not love each other. In an amusing reversal, Pat equates love with good sex, and Harry is seeking a deep, romantic love. He thinks he's found it too, in the form of young, beautiful widow Kay (Rachel McAdams) as he confesses to his longtime friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan). Unable to confess to Pat, Harry steers the plot into Hitchcock territory by deciding he must kill his wife to spare her heartbreak and pain. Meanwhile, the plot gets even messier when first Richard begins to pursue Kay, then Pat reveals a secret of her own.

While this all sounds like a melodramatic, period thriller, Sachs manages to keep things lively by casting his film as a comedy. It is in the comedic elements that Brosnan is allowed to shine, conveying a surprising physical comedy. The cast is attractive and talented, and the production design lovely, and while there may be a plot contrivance or two, this lively film manages to entertain for the duration. 3.5 cats.

Toronto Day 8 - Farewell Film Festival

Eight days is a long time to be spending watching movies, and I saw a respectable 24 films in that time frame. A little lighter than previous years, but I am getting older, and there were people to see and hang out with (far more important to me). Even though we were leaving Friday evening, we did manage to squeeze in two more films, and while we started the day with something of a dud, we did end the festival on a high note.

PHILIPPINE SCIENCE (The Philippines; 118)

director: Auraeus Solito

cast: Elijah Castillo, Gammy Lopez, Eugene Domingo, EJ Jalorrina, Shayne Fajutagana

Drawing on his own experiences as a science geek in high school, director Auraeus Solito draws a sweet film about an accelerated science and math high school in the Philippines. Solito caught my eye at 2006's Provincetown International Film Festival with his film about nascent gay desire, THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS which maintained a facade of innocent even when exploring the gritty streets of Manilla. In PHILIPPINE SCIENCE, Solito jettisons the grit (despite the inclusion of the atmosphere of martial law of the time) and the result is very similar to an after school special.

Like FAME, PHILIPPINE SCIENCE is broken up into four parts, freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. There's a core group of students, and each year focuses on a different set. The issues that arise vary: Freshmen, don't waste your time on a girlfriend if you want to be in the Top 5; Sophomores, just because you can't cut it at Philippine Science, doesn't mean you're still not a winner... etc. Unfortunately, while the screenplay is a little clumsy, much of the acting is incapable of lifting the film higher. There are a few good performances, especially the woman who plays the freshman year science teacher, but many of the actors playing the students seem fairly amateurish. Still, I always enjoy seeing films from The Philippines, the country where my mother was born and raised.

I'M NOT THERE (USA; 135 min.)

director: Todd Haynes

cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore, David Cross

There's been a lot of buzz about Todd Hayne's Bob Dylan biopic, especially after it's debut in Venice. Those who know me know that I am not a fan of the biopic, but ever the experimenter, Haynes turns the life of Dylan into something magical, complex, and mind-boggling. In I'm not there, seven stages of Dylan's is portrayed by six different actors, including a woman (Cate Blanchett) and a young, African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin). The different Dylans aren't literal representations of the legendary singer/songwriter, but representative of his persona at the time. Haynes offers scenarios that attempt to give some possible insight into a celebrity whose evolution challenged everyone, especially his truest fans.

I'm not sure if being a fan of Dylan, or knowing next to nothing about him will serve you better at this film. I knew next to nothing and I loved the film. I don't feel I know all that much more about Dylan after seeing the film, but that's not why I went to see the film. As a film, Haynes challenges the viewer visually, aurally, and through the intricate screenplay he co-wrote with Owen Moverman. There are touches of his earlier films peeking through in I'M NOT THERE, in fact, with this film it seems that Haynes wanted to correct the missteps he took with VELVET GOLDMINE.

A word about the acting. The hype is true. Cate Blanchett is simply phenomenal. As Haynes said in his introduction, Blanchett took a bit of stunt casting and elevated it to such heights that you can't imagine anyone else playing the part. She's that good. Franklin is also terrific as the young, rail-traveling Dylan, and Christian Bale gives an astonishingly strong performance as the man-of-the-people Dylan of the early 60's. British actor Ben Whishaw captures his part well, and Heath Ledger does a pretty good job with one of the lest interesting incarnations of Dylan. The weak link, both performance-wise and screenplay-wise is Dylan the legend as played by Richard Gere. Gere just doesn't have the complexity or range to pull off the role. Other actors put in great turns in supporting roles. These include the divine Charlotte Gainsbourg as Dylan's wife, Julianne Moore as the folksinger (re: Joan Baex) who discovered him), Bruce Greenwood as a British journalist, and Michelle Williams as Coco (Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick.

Technically and artuflly, Haynes wins all the way through. His use of music, both Dylan's and others complements the film marvelously. After such stellar films as POISON, SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE, and FAR FROM HEAVEN, I'M NOT THERE is a natural and accomplished progression comining an ambitious stretch and a prodigious talent. While I don't think I'M NOT THERE is going to be a universal crowd-pleaser, it's a strong piece of cinematic art that shouldn't be missed.

After the movies wrapped, Scot, Beth and I met Tracy Wright for one last farewell dinner. We spent a lovely late afternoon chatting and reminiscing about the festival. This year's festival was certainly the most stress-free and relaxed festival for me, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I will post pictures from the Q&A's that I attended soon.

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

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

BREAKFAST WITH SCOT (Canada; 104 min.)

director: Laurie Lynd

cast: Thomas Cavanaugh; Ben Shenkman; Noah Bennett

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

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

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

JELLYFISH (Israel; 78 min.)

directors: Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret

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

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

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

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


director: Jessica Yu

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

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

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

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

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

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

director: François Girard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRICK LANE (UK; 101 min.)

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

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

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

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

JUNO (US; 92 min.)

director: Jason Reitman

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

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

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

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

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

JUST LIKE HOME (Denmark; 97 min.)

director: Lone Scherfig

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

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

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

NORMAL (Canada; 100 min.)

director: Carl Bessai

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

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

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

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

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