Tuesday, August 18, 2009


With the full list of films officially announced for the 34th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it's now time to muse, stew, brew and brood. For starters—as Dave Hudson phrased it at The Auteurs Daily—all of the organizational heavy lifting has been done by Darren Hughes at 1st Thursday. I'd also like to shout out to the fine work and incredibly helpful search engines of TOfilmfest-ca. and the anticipatory announcements from my Twitch teammates. Now with the sidebars and their programs in place comes the Byzantine craft of selecting approximately 30-40 movies from hundreds of attractive titles; is anything more nervewracking? Out of sheer deference, I always start out with the Masters.

Air Doll / Kûki ningyô (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan). Official website (Japanese). This compelling tale of a blow-up doll that becomes a real person and abandons her status of mere sex object comes to life with the superb performance of Korean actress Bae Doo-na.

Cannes synopsis: Hideo, who lives alone, owns a life-size "air doll", which suddenly finds herself with a heart. Everything is new to her in the world outside Hideo's house. She meets all kinds of people. The world is filled with so many beautiful things, but everyone seems to have some kind of hollowness, just as she has. In the morning, she pumps herself up, and takes a walk. One afternoon, she meets Junichi who works at a rental video store, and instantly falls in love with him. A first date. New words she learns from him. She starts working with him at the store, enjoys talking and being with him. Everything seems to be going perfect, until something unexpected happens to the doll. A sad yet happy fantasy. This is a story about a new form of love.

At The Daily @ IFC, David Hudson gathered the reviews from Cannes, where Air Doll had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard competition. Not included in Dave's illustrious aggregate is James Quandt's Cannes dispatch to The Japan Times, wherein Quandt assesses straight off that Air Doll is "vastly inferior" to Still Walking, which was shut out of Cannes last year. Quandt opines that Kore-eda has departed "into territory seemingly unsuited to [his] fine, poetic sensibility." Leave it to James: Where others compare Air Doll to Pinnochio, he summons up the ballet Coppelia and the opera Rusalka. And in one particularly lovely passage, he observes: "The words 'heart' (kokoro) and 'substitute' play against each other throughout the film, reflecting Kore-eda's concern with humanity's preference for artificial, undemanding, and surrogate experience: DVDs instead of cinemas, video games instead of poetry, sex dolls instead of a real-life mate." In gist, Quandt finds Air Doll "overlong and sententious."

Guest critic Moko reviewed the film for Twitch: "Nozomi comes across a cavalcade of shattered people, doing their best to pretend like nothing is wrong—people who are 'empty' emotionally in the same way that Nozomi is empty physically." Which is pretty much how Kore-eda responded to my sole question at The Evening Class about the film's theme. At Midnight Eye, Tom Mes' informed review situates Air Doll in the context of contemporary Japan, not only in its freeform adaptation of a popular manga, but resemblances to the work of literary great Junichiro Tanizaki, and the film's Tokyo-specific shitamachi setpieces. Wikipedia. IMDb. YouTube trailer. North American Premiere.

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/ France/Italy). Official website. This is a groundbreaking, deeply disturbing and graphic nightmare vision about gender relations from one of the most important and influential directors of the last 30 years. The film is a break from von Trier's previous work in terms of aesthetics, resembling a Japanese horror movie reimagined by Andrei Tarkovsky. Antichrist features unforgettable and courageous performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. Gainsbourg won Canne's Best Actress award for her performance. Dave Hudson monitored the critical wake from Cannes at The Daily @ IFC. In his Cannes dispatch to The Japan Times, James Quandt wrote: "Danish director Lars von Trier, ever the provocateur, worked his way out of personal depression by making Antichrist, an intense and ultimately preposterous account of a marriage strained by the death of a child. The troubled couple retreat to an isolated cabin, none too subtly called Eden, to work out their problems, which soon escalate into macabre, and then gruesome, violence, the impaling and self-maiming enough to make fans of the Saw franchise flinch." At Film Comment, Amy Taubin complained that von Trier's "trick of putting the audience in a vise and then ridiculing it for wriggling has worn thin, and since Antichrist is an 'intimate' two-hander, the frayed seams are all too evident. Which may be the desired effect, or may not be, ad infinitum, but frankly, it just bored me." Wikipedia. IMDb. North American Premiere.

Carmel (Amos Gitaï, Israel/France/Italy). History in the Middle East is a complex mix of the present and the past. Then, there is also the personal and Gitaï is uniquely placed to reflect on his own past as a soldier and as the father of a young man caught up in the present conflicts that engulf the region. IMDb. World Premiere.

La Donation / The Legacy (Bernard Émond, Canada). Official website (French). Dr. Rainville, an aging country doctor with a deep attachment to his patients, is about to retire and is looking for a successor. Jeanne Dion, an emergency room doctor from Montreal, agrees to go to Normétal to replace him for a few weeks, with no plans for an extended stay. When Dr. Rainville suddenly dies, Jeanne must decide if she'll take over the job, and its inherent responsibilities, for the long-term. The main themes of the film are faith and dehumanization of the public health care system. The Legacy received the Special Grand Prize of Youth Jury and the Don Quixote Award of the Locarno International Film Festival. IMDb. YouTube trailer. North American Premiere.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl / Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loira (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal/Spain). Famed filmmaker Oliveira, who celebrates his 101st birthday this year, tells the tale of Macario's obsession with the enticing blond he spies from his window. Little does he know that she will end up stealing much more than his heart. Daniel Kasman reviewed the film for The Auteurs when it screened at this year's Berlinale ("Adapted from a short story by Eça de Queirós—whose caricature is humorously honored when Trêpa visits an exclusive literary club—Oliveira's Blond Hair Girl is a simple and precise 64 minutes, as pure as rain water and just as lacking in pretension. …The simplicity on display is a relief, and the mastery effortless."); Jay Weissberg for Variety ("Those familiar with the master's airtight tableaux and controlled line-delivery won't find much has changed in the switch to Zola-like territory, updated to the present and told as a flashback by an earnest man discovering his love didn't deserve his adulation."); Damon Smith for The Hands of Bresson ("[C]ertainly the best feature I caught in Berlin, and the leanest, clocking in at a mere 64 minutes. …Terse and forlorn, but etched with wry humor, the film presents characters who exist in a world of fusty Edwardian decorum where the possibility of love is constrained by one's financial means and class position, or in the case of Macario, the consent of an uncle."). To be shown with Working on the Douro River. IMDb. YouTube trailer. North American Premiere.

Les Herbes Folles / Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France). From modernist master Alain Resnais comes a romantic adventure based around the simple act of losing a wallet. Based on French writer Christian Gailly's 1996 novel L'incident, Resnais' first adaptation of a novel into film is about a lost wallet and how it changes the lives of its principal characters. As IMDb synopsizes: "A wallet lost and found opens the door to romantic adventure for Georges and Marguerite. After examining the ID papers of its owner, it is not a simple matter for Georges to turn the red wallet he found in to the police. Nor is it that Marguerite can recuperate her wallet without being piqued with curiosity about whom it was who found it. As they navigate the social protocols of giving and acknowledging thanks, turbulence enters their otherwise quotidian lives."

Cannes awarded Resnais a lifetime achievement award for his work and exceptional contribution to the history of cinema. David Hudson has gathered the Cannes reviews at
The Daily @ IFC. I might add Amy Taubin's evaluation for Film Comment: "The film is at once buoyant and melancholy, heady and erotic—a delirium of contradictory desires. Eric Gautier's crane-mounted camera performs remarkable aerial twists and turns. Resnais, a master choreographer of camera movement, has never been this inventive or this free. Wild Grass seems both precision-wound and made up on the spot. It might be his greatest film since Muriel." Wild Grass has likewise been tagged to open this year's upcoming New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics has acquired the film. At The Auteurs, Adrian Curry encourages Sony to retain the film's original theatrical poster. Wikipedia. IMDb. YouTube excerpt. North American Premiere.

Honeymoons / Medeni Mesec (Goran Paskaljevic, Serbia/Albania/Italy). Two young married couples take off and travel abroad to the promised lands of better opportunities, but hope collapses when their expectations disappear into thin air and their dreams turn into nightmares. As Dimitri Eipides details in his program capsule: "Veteran director Goran Paskaljevic, who fled Serbia for France during the rule of late president Slobodan Miloševic, is not just interested in knocking on heaven's door. He wants to reach those pearly gates hand in hand with his neighbor—hence the first Albanian-Serbian co-production in cinema history. Despite undiminished tensions over breakaway Kosovo, Honeymoons beautifully reconciles the two nations by pointing out their similarities rather than their differences. Though Paskaljevic insists he wasn't trying to make any political point with this work, before he even started filming, Serbian nationalists had already accused him of being a traitor, while Albanians in Tirana and Kosovo didn't exactly warm to the idea. If a simple love story has such powerful repercussions, imagine what would happen if this film was really about politics! Then again, maybe it is." IMDb. North American Premiere.

Hotel Atlântico (Suzana Amaral, Brazil). Official Website. Enigmatic and perturbing, Suzana Amaral's Hotel Atlântico takes us on a mysterious journey through Brazil's southern landscapes. The film follows an unnamed actor as he wanders into new experiences, living life in the moment. IMDb. YouTube trailer. World Premiere.

Melody for a Street Organ / Melodiya dlya sharmanki (Kira Muratova, Ukraine). Two young orphan siblings travel to Moscow in search of their missing father. Scared of being separated and sent to orphanages, they hope to reunite with the last link of their shattered family. As Dimitri Eipides evokes in his program capsule: "Kira Muratova spins her majestic web slowly and purposefully, weaving together alternating vignettes of her beloved duo. This fairy-tale world is not conjured out of thin air, but rather gives us a different take on what's already there: a train station haunted with the memory of a long-lost father; a department store doubling as Ali Baba's cave and the nine circles of hell; a clandestine street that refuses to be found." IMDb. North American Premiere.

Le Refuge (François Ozon, France). The French master returns with this unsettling tale of a rich, beautiful young woman who finds herself pregnant after her boyfriend dies of an overdose. Retreating to a seaside home, she is joined by his brother. As Cameron Bailey offers in his program capsule: "A character study that builds its tension in measured scenes, Le Refuge carries the stamp of its auteur in its pursuit of uneasy situations and its focus on the absolute enigma of the protagonist." World Premiere.

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy). Official website (Italian). This fictionalized portrait of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini concentrates on his youthful years before he rose to power in Italy. It uncovers the details of his first marriage and the child he had with a passionate woman whom he later totally disowned and abandoned. In his program capsule, Piers Handling crowns Vincere "serious, intelligent filmmaking of the highest order" and states: "Mussolini's early life provides the grist for a major examination of the dictator in Marco Bellocchio's tough-edged but brilliantly directed film. With decades of cinematic experience behind him, as well as a filmography that includes some of the most important post-war Italian films ever made, Bellocchio is well prepared for this challenge. Vincere stands as a model for anyone setting out to capture the flavor and essence of a famed historical figure." Dave Hudson monitored the critical wake from Cannes at The Daily @ IFC. Wikipedia. IMDb. YouTube trailer. North American Premiere.

Vision / Vision—Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany). One of the major auteurs to emerge from the New German Cinema, Margarethe von Trotta returns to the Festival with Vision, a study of the remarkable Hildegard von Bingen, the Benedictine nun who emerged as a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance. IMDb. YouTube trailer. Canadian Premiere.

White Material / Matériel Blanc (Claire Denis, France). A family of French expatriates living in an African country where they own a coffee plantation find that their livelihood is threatened by the outbreak of civil war. They struggle to keep their lives together in the face of rival factions fighting for power and gun-toting child soldiers who have no sympathy for their plight. Piers Handling synopsizes: "Denis, always the visual magician, creates a world of beautiful but troubling images. In her hands, the camera is an expressive force that she employs to intervene, reveal and interpret. She immerses the viewer in her chosen reality, making us feel, see and hear everything she puts in front of us, opening our senses to what she is showing. As their way of life disintegrates around them, each character makes choices, none of which is predictable. With White Material, Denis explores the highly charged, divided and intensely emotional post-colonial world that is Africa." White Material was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice International. IMDb. North American Premiere.

The White Ribbon / Das Weisse Band (Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria/ France/Italy). In Protestant Northern Germany on the eve of World War I, strange incidents begin to occur in a village community and increasingly take the form of a ritual of punishment. This latest work from Michael Haneke won the Palme d'Or for best film at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Piers Handling concludes in his program capsule: "Though an analysis of the roots of Nazism can be read into the narrative, the film has a more universal reach. Haneke maintains that the work is as much an investigation of terrorism as it is of fascism. Both provocative and elegantly executed, this is essential viewing—an examination of how violence can perhaps unwittingly take root in a society that ostensibly believes in other values."

Dave Hudson monitored the critical wake from Cannes for
The Daily @ IFC. Having already complained about the "gore galore" at this year's Cannes Film Festival, James Quandt wrote in his dispatch to The Japan Times: "It took erstwhile shock-meister Michael Haneke to trump all this horror with a Strindbergian exchange between a bitter doctor and his mistress in The White Ribbon, the verbal sadism far more appalling than any neighboring carnage." At Film Comment, Gavin Smith added: "[T]his story of sinister misdeeds in a hamlet in Northern Germany just before World War I is a horror movie of sorts—the obvious reference point was Village of the Damned—although its true roots are in the postwar German Heimatfilm genre, which it comprehensively subverts. With its slow, deliberate pace, exactingly framed black-and-white compositions, novelistic array of characters, and mounting sense of unease, it's a completely absorbing experience. … Schematic perhaps, but convincing and authoritative." Wikipedia. IMDb. YouTube trailer. North American Premiere.

The Window / Janala (Buddhadeb Dasgupta, India). When Bimal decides to give something back to his alma mater, he chooses to replace the broken window of his favorite classroom. Plans to pay for this gesture go awry and he cannot bear to tell his fiancée. Hailed as "both searing social comment and pure poetry" by Cameron Bailey in his program capsule, Bailey qualifies that the "delicate balance" poised in The Window "transforms the complexities of today's India into a song of many harmonies." IMDb. World Premiere.


Jim Gerow said...

Michael, I envy you your upcoming TIFF experience. Perhaps I'll manage to make it up there next year. Luckily the New York Film Festival follows right on the heels of Toronto, with considerable overlap as always. This year, depending on availability, I hope to see about a dozen of the main selections and some of the classic Chinese films from the sidebar as well.

The Resnais and de Oliveira films are certainly at the top of my must-see list. I'm also thrilled that the new Claire Denis film, White Material, will be at NYFF. Not sure if that's playing Toronto too. Air Doll is not playing in New York but there's currently a Kore-Eda retrospective at BAM where I can catch up on some of his earlier work.

Looking forward to the rest of your reports on Toronto.

Maya said...

Jim, always a pleasure to hear from you. I'm so glad you get to take advantage of some of these films that are overlapping with NYFF. I've been working on TIFF's Discovery slate and am already beginning to feel overwhelmed by the selection.

Jay, aka The Angry Little Man said...

I think the de Oliveira is a must see! He has a gorgeous eye and with the awkward running time of just over an hour, I doubt this will see much distribution, even on the festival circuit.

I would almost guarantee that Graham will bring Air Doll in for SFIFF, and Antichrist is just weeks away from distribution.

Of course, I have an unshared distaste for Denis...

Maya said...

You are a problem child.