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Michael Meets Patricia Clarkson and Chansi Harrow!

One of the best parts about going to national film festivals includes meeting... Chlotrudis members from around the country! We met Marilyn, Maryellen, Alex and Thom (although I already knew Thom) in Toronto, and Tara at High Falls... and this year, a bunch of us were lucky enough to meet and spend time with Chansi, one of our new members from Florida! Chansi was delightful, and I hope we get to see her again soon... maybe even at this year's 16th Annual Chlotrudis Awards Ceremony.

One thing that Chansi did as we were leaving the screening of CAIRO TIME was take a few photos of me while introducing myself to Patricia Clarkson! Did I mention how charming she was? And how accessible? I love these photos, because not only do they capture how beautiful she was, but how personable; especially the last where it looks like she's sassing me.

Anyway, here they are for your enjoyment!

TIFF Wrap-Up from Bruce!

TIFF 2009 was slightly smaller than it has been in past years but there were still 335 films to choose from, an absolutely impossible task. This year seemed generally higher in quality than past years but that could be simply the luck of the draw. At the end of the festival I had four clearcut 5 cat favorites:

DOGTOOTH - this Greek film makes one painfully aware that many interesting films rarely see the light of day in English speaking countries. This dark comedy is the story of parents who have succeeded in raising three children in a fortresslike compound. The three teenagers, a boy and two girls, have never seen another person other than their parents. When the father hires a sex worker to satisfy the biological urges of the son, things begin to unravel.

THE GOOD HEART - reunites Brian Cox and Paul Dano, this time in a black comedy from Iceland directed by Dagur Kári. No, Cox and Dano do not speak Icelandic as the film is in English and is set in New York City. Cox, a curmudgeonly bar owner, rescues homeless man (Dano) after the two end up as roommates in hospital. Each changes the other profoundly and things go swimmingly until a woman (Isild Le Besco) enters the picture.

LES HERBES FOLLES - this French absurdist comedy is the latest from master Alain Resnais (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES). A stolen handbag leads a middle aged man into an adulterous affair with an emotionally unstable avaitrix. I totally agree with a critic who said the cinematic agility of this film seems more likely the work of a 27 year old than an 87 year old. The film won the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

VISION - veteran director Margarethe von Trotta succeeds in making the 12th century fascinating,with her tale of nun Hildegard von Bingen: the mother of herbal medicine; a composer,poet and the person most responsible for resuscitating dramatic arts which had laid dormant for one thousand years since the time of the ancient Greeks. Hildegard wrote liturgical musicals which the nuns in her convent performed and her music is very much alive today. Barbara Sukova is magnificent as the nun who had visions, a fatal attraction to one of the nuns in her order and a wily tactical ability to manipulate the chauvinistic leaders of the Catholic Church who held great power over the people. She even convinced the Archbishop and Pope that science and religion were compatible.


Chris Kriofske's TIFF Reviews

I scheduled less films than usual this year to make time for some of Toronto’s more notable attractions (CN Tower, Casa Loma, and the Bata Shoe Museum, among others), but I did manage to see ten of the former.

In a London suburb in 1962, Jenny, (Carey Mulligan) a teenager preparing to apply to Oxford University meets and falls in love with a worldly, seductive man (Peter Sarsgaard) more than twice her age. With director Lone Scherfig (ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS), an adapted screenplay from novelist Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY) and an excellent cast including Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams and a tart cameo from Emma Thompson, it’s no surprise that this film received a glowing reception at Sundance earlier this year. Although a little clichéd at times (especially when it cues the Serious Music) and verging-on-implausible at others (Jenny’s parents are wildly inconsistent in their behavior), this is still an enjoyable, bittersweet coming of age story and a likely indie hit to boot. Most exciting is how it recreates and examines a particular place and time—Britain just before the Beatles ushered in the swinging Sixties. Expect Mulligan’s whip-smart Jenny to be this year’s buzzed-about breakthrough performance. 4 cats

The latest from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang (WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?) plays like a greatest hits album. It’s brimming with all of his favorite obsessions: the prevalence of water (culminating in his most hilarious Buster Keaton homage to date), manipulation of time and space, delightfully absurd musical numbers and preferred actor Lee Kang-sheng in the lead. However, he also includes a few worthy new tracks to the playlist: most of the film is set in France, with such celebrated actors as Jean-Pierre Leaud, Fanny Ardant and Jeanne Moreau playing more or less versions of themselves (and don't miss Mathieu Almaric's cameo); additionally, the plot hinges on the making of a film within this one, encouraging viewers to question what’s real or a façade. Stunningly gorgeous (the mirror-filled forest sequences will take your breath away) but challenging, it may prove too obtuse for some viewers, but it was my favorite film of the festival. After seeing it, you will never look at crushed tomatoes the same way again. 5 cats

The arrival of an aristocratic Spaniard student upsets the delicate hierarchy of an elite, remote, all-female 1930s British boarding school. Eva Green stars as a flamboyant, idealistic, controlling teacher. A slightly overcooked directorial debut from Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley), all this has to recommend it is lovely cinematography (packed with foreboding, nighttime lake shots) and the continuously shifting alliances among the characters in the film’s first two acts. A genuinely shocking twist then arrives, but it doesn’t prevent CRACKS from lapsing into a lesser version of HEAVENLY CREATURES; nor does it dissuade Green from ravenously chewing up the scenery. At least it was the only truly mediocre film I saw at TIFF this year. 2.5 cats

Director Andrea Arnold’s follow-up to RED ROAD is decidedly less ambitious but no less captivating, suggesting she could prove a female heir to Mike Leigh and his working class, actor-focused domestic dramas. Its tough teenage protagonist, Mia (impressive newcomer Katie Jarvis) uses her love of hip-hop dancing as a means of escape from her rough housing project home and also her young, immature, uninvolved mother and exceptionally foul-mouthed little sister. Tension mounts as Mia and her mother’s charming boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) develop a mutual attraction. Arnold redeems this not entirely original plot with strong performances, a poetic pace and an inspired, dense visual composition (shot in TV-like 1.33 aspect ratio, which gives the film its immediacy). The penultimate scene is exquisite in its simplicity, resonating with movements rather than words. 4.5 cats

This comedy from Canadian media personality Sook-Yin Lee (best known in the States as the lead actress in SHORTBUS) lays bare its quirkiness from the opening shot of a clucking chicken alarm clock. Sammy (Cristen Milioti), a tomboyish grocery store detective in charge of exposing shoplifters is attracted to Eugene (Mark Rendall), a musician who busks in front of the florist next door. When inexperienced Sammy finds herself sexually incompatible with Eugene, she aims for carnal fluency with a variety of partners. If this all sounds insufferably precious, it’s not. Lee proves herself an adept writer/director, while Milioti is a real find, resembling a more likable, approachable Sarah Silverman. It’s also a treat to see Canadian comedic legends Kevin MacDonald and Sheila McCarthy show up as Sammy’s parents. Although not as novel, soulful or graphic as SHORTBUS, this is a better acted and at times, much funnier film. 4 cats

Gau Xiaolu’s film (a Golden Leopard winner at the Locarno International Film Festival) defies categorization. Markedly dissimilar from most contemporary Chinese cinema, it alternates between stylistic allusions to the French New Wave and a naturalistic, documentary like feel, with passages that conjure up states of mind rather than narrative momentum. It charts the journey of Mei (Huang Lu), a young provincial woman who moves to a large Chinese city and eventually ends up in London. She meets a series of men, all of whom add varying sorts of conflict into her life. Presented as a series of titled chapters, the film’s pace fluctuates, often deliberately jumping past a major plot point while occasionally stretching out time to an impressionistic degree. An intellectual and at times inscrutable work, but also an original, lyrical character study with a surging and wonderfully loud rock and roll soundtrack. 4 cats

The terrific Danish actress Paprika Steen (THE CELEBRATION) is absolutely harrowing and brilliant as Thea, an alcoholic actress in this intense drama from director Martin Pieter Zandvliet. Although John Cassavetes already covered this territory decades ago in his films which starred his wife, Gena Rowlands (particularly OPENING NIGHT), Steen is so riveting and her character’s persona so all encompassing that whether the story is second hand soon seems irrelevant. As the film follows Thea’s attempts at sobriety, it folds in scenes of her onstage (and backstage as well) as raucous, boozy Martha in a production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Martha and Thea’s similarities are obvious, but Steen’s grasp on both roles lends depth to the connection. Throughout, Thea emerges as an intriguing (if deeply troubled) blend of personality tics, constantly speaking her mind only to immediately rescind. At one point, she nonchalantly blurts out, “I hate ordinary people,” and then quickly apologizes; it’s to Steen’s credit that you could spend an hour debating whether Thea is sincere or just merely defensive. 4.5 cats

For Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, this is certainly not an obvious follow-up to masterful familial drama STILL WALKING. After all, the main character here is an inflatable sex toy that one morning magically comes to life. It sounds incredibly silly on paper (and I dread any potential American remake), but Kore-eda is a serious filmmaker, and this foray into pure fantasy is affectionate and rather poignant. A lot of the credit goes to Korean actress Doona Bae (THE HOST), who is perfectly cast as the titular character. Cute as a button in her tentative movements and little maid’s uniform, she plays the role as an innocent discovering a strange new world, learning by mimicking everything around her. Kore-eda stretches the premise by introducing additional characters to symbolize the philosophical implications of what it’s like to be an air doll: isolated and expected to serve a function. As a result, for me, the film loses some of its mojo along the way; I would have almost preferred two hours of Bae just bouncing around Tokyo—in those moments, AIR DOLL is as light and graceful as a feather but compelling enough to hold your attention. 4 cats

Sometimes, an actor’s presence alone convinces me to check out a film and Patricia Clarkson is the main reason to see this one. She plays Juliette, an American magazine editor who arrives in Egypt hoping to meet up with her husband, a Canadian diplomat. Unfortunately, he’s held up in the Gaza Strip due to an escalating conflict, leaving her to wonder the streets by herself, where she’s seen as an oddity by the country’s Muslim men (and women). Tareq, a local man and an old friend of her husband reaches out to her, and they find themselves attracted to each other. Although not a towering performance by any means, Clarkson is charming and provides a good surrogate for the audience. To her credit, director Ruba Nedda is not afraid to build momentum with subtlety and silence, and the growing affection between Juliette and Tareq exudes class and restraint—perhaps almost too much, as CAIRO TIME is a perfectly affable film that could benefit from a bit more tension. 3.5 cats

LESLIE, MY NAME IS EVIL The Manson Family trial re-imagined as a farce? That’s the gist of Reg Harkema’s follow-up to his anarchic comedy MONKEY WARFARE. Here, he gives us the twin tales of Leslie, a runaway who falls under the wild influence of Charles Manson, and Perry, a young, sheltered chemist who becomes obsessed with her while serving on the jury for her trial. At the premiere, Harkema introduced the film as “anti-realist” and he wasn’t kidding: LESLIE plays like the love child of late John Waters and Charles Busch (minus the drag), gleefully sending up late-1960s America. While often crude and always over the top (don’t miss the ultra-groovy virgin sacrifice sequence!), the film is also a hoot in how it comically inverts a tragedy without managing to entirely trivialize it. Mostly avoiding garishness and almost approaching wit, Harkema’s palette is nonetheless an acquired taste, and this one could use more of the previous film’s discipline. Still, it’s hard for me to hate on a farce that’s actually quite sincere in how it secretly holds up a funhouse mirror to the real, modern day world. 4.5 cats

TIFF Day 4 - Sunshine and Sex Dolls!

Sunday continued the trend of bright sunshine and balmy weather. After catching a program of short films in the late morning, Scot and I met Bruce to walk west on Queen St. to the Robert Bulger Gallery to attend the Opening Reception for Don McKellar’s art installation, IMAGINARY LOVERS. As we strolled down Queen Street, we serendipitously ran into Gil and Amanda who had arrived the evening before and invited them to come along. After a lengthy and surprisingly warm walk, we arrived at the Gallery (formerly Atom Egoyan’s Camera) and joined the party. Tracy introduced us to her good friend Caroline Gillis, with whom she has worked on stage (most notably the Off Broadway run of Daniel MacIvor’s play, ‘A Beautiful View’). Caroline would be recognizable to fans of ‘Twitch City,’ ‘Slings & Arrows,’ or MONKEY WARFARE. Don’s installation was comprised of a series of short films shot on cell phone featuring women all over the world sending message telling their boyfriends they missed them. Some Chlotrudis members might remember a pair of Don’t films, PHONE CALL FROM AN IMAGINARY GIRLFRIEND: INSTANBUL and PHONE CALL FROM AN IMAGINARY GIRLFRIEND: ANKARRA bookending one of our short film festivals. After complete the two initial films, Don continued to make these shorts during his travels, including stops in Wellington, New Zealand, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Regina and Montreal. The films are strangely touching and haunting, and utilize Don’s trademark humor to good effect. They are visually arresting, despite the limitations of shooting on cell phone. It was great to be able to see them as part of this installation.

The other non-film highlight of the day was my chance to finally meet the delightful Paprika Steen (who as you may recall was scheduled, but unable to attend our Chlotrudis Awards Ceremony earlier this year). I introduced myself after the screening, and she said she’d recognized me in the audience. (She gives a great Q&A!) We spoke for a few moments before she was rushed off, and she invited us to the APPLAUS party (which, if you can believe it, we were too exhausted to attend!) My hope is we are able to bring Paprika to Boston for Chlotrudis sometime in the future. She would be a terrific guest. Congratulations on your outstanding performance Paprika!

And now, on to the reviews!

Short Cuts Canada Programme 2
director: Sami Khan
director: Sonya Di Rienzo
director: Kazik Radwanski (pictured right with Guy Maddin)
director: Guy Maddin
director: Ryan Mullins
director: Richard Kerr
director: Samer Najari

Contrary to what you might think, I didn’t elect to see this program of short films because the new Guy Maddin short was featured (although that certainly was an added bonus). I really wanted to see the third film by Kazik Radwanski, Chlotrudis Short Film Festival alum. His debut short film, ASSAULT was a Chlotrudis selection in 2008. I’m always a little wary of the short film programs, because there are usually a couple of gems, and a couple of bombs, with some mediocrity filling out the rest. I am pleased to report that this year’s batch was the best selection of short films that I have seen in Toronto! Sami Khan’s 75 EL CAMINO is a moving film about getting older and the nostalgia of an old car and what it represents. In THE TRANSLATOR, Sonya De Rienzo subtitles the thoughts of various people on a subway ride, including a young couple who find themselves drifting apart. Kazik Radwanski completes his trilogy begun by ASSAULT and followed by PRINCESS MARGARET BLVD. with OUT IN THAT DEEP BLUE SEA, a poignant examination of middle age and the conflict between doing what you need to do and what you want to do. Guy Maddin is wacky and I just love him. In NIGHT MAYOR Guy invents an imaginative history for a real life friend, weaving humor, social commentary and Canadian history into a seamless fantasia. VOLTA by Ryan Mullins, explores the disappearance of the movie theatre, and what that means for a social life in this documentary about a little village in Africa. Richard Kerr’s DE MOUVEMENT is a visual collage of images plucked from historic trailers. The program ended powerfully with Samer Najari’s fantastic portrait of the immigrant experience in the snowy streets of Montreal in the film SNOW HIDES THE SHADE OF FIG TREES.

director: Martin Pieter Zandvliet (pictured right with Paprika Steen)
cast: Paprika Steen; Michael Falch; Sara-Marie Maltha; Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks; Noel Koch-Søfeldt

In a tour de force performance, Danish actress, and Chlotrudis honoree Paprika Steen unleashes a powerful and fiery performance as an actress recovering from alcoholism. Thea’s addiction led to her divorce and loss of custody of her two young sons. Now on the road to recovery, Thea takes hesitant steps toward being a part of her children’s lives again. Her ex-husband is trying to help, but Thea’s impatience causes her to lash out in frustration, needing things to move more quickly because as she notes, she doesn’t drink anymore. As she feels her life spinning increasingly more out of control, she relies heavily on her caustic wit and biting intelligence. She lashes out in one moment, and then submits to logic and calm the next. It’s exhausting to watch, giving the viewer an idea of what it must be like to live it. The narrative is intercut with scenes of Thea playing Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ on stage – scenes of Paprika actually performing the role in Denmark. The juxtaposition allows for insight into Thea’s character, and provides us with a nice twist at the film’s end.

While first time solo director Martin Pieter Zandvliet does a good job keeping things tightly focused on Thea, shooting her in unflattering lighting and in tight close-up as an unforgiving witness, he and his collaborator Anders Frithiof August fare less well with the screenplay, which doesn’t allow for much of a dramatic arc. That said, this film is all about Paprika Steen and her unflinching, exhilarating performance. Awarded the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, this is a sure contender for a Chlotrudis award if it gets released in the U.S. While I would give Paprika’s performance 5 cats, the film as a whole gets 3 ½ cats.

director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
cast: Du-na Bae; Arata; Itsuji Itao

One day an inflatable air doll, a substitute for sexual pleasure, wakes up to find she has a heart. She is self-animated, self-aware, and filled with wonder as she discovers the world around her. On a meandering sojourn around the neighborhood she wanders into a video rental store and gets herself a job, carefully concealing the fact that she, in fact, made of plastic and filled with air. She returns home each night before her owner arrives from work, but soon grows tired of the sexual acts he performs with her and becomes more fascinated by the parade of humanity that she encounters each day; most particularly the young man with whom she works at the video store. Of course, as we all know, along with wonder and delight, life brings sadness, pain and heartbreak. After she accidentally tears a hole in her arm and her true nature is revealed to her co-worker, he hastily tapes her up and re-inflates her with his own breath. It is at this point that she truly learns what it means to be human, as she falls in love with her benefactor. Her further adventures lead her to an elderly man in the park on a respirator, a woman struggling against aging, a little girl and her harried father, and the man who created her.

Kore-eda is a master filmmaker, weaving elements of loneliness and alienation into this charming story about the creation of a new life. In parallel to the air doll’s inflatable nature, we see a series of humans who are empty inside, desperately seeking something to fill the void in their hearts. Duna Bae is magnificent as the innocent experiencing life for the first time. Her large eyes grow wider with each miraculous sight she sees, and she capably conveys the joy, confusion and pain of living with each move she makes. Despite the wacky and somewhat salacious premise, Kore-eda is such a life-affirming personality that you know you’re in for something special. 5 cats.