The Three Brothers at TIFF 2011

The festival is upon us again and it hardly seems like it has been a year. Thursday, Sept. 8

Flew into Toronto and spent the day wandering around downtown.

I have yet to feel the same sort of elated joy I had last year whenever a celebrity is nearby. Perhaps this is merely me growing up or coming to terms with the fact that celebrities are mostly normal people too. Regardless, I haven't had any personal celebrity encounters yet. However, I am sure some will occur before the weekend is up.

As I wandered around near the TIFF Bell Lightbox I noticed the sheer number of people wearing press and industry passes, rubbing salt into the wound that lingers since I found out my own attempts to receive press accreditation for the festival were denied (for reasons I still cannot quite understand). Regardless, this year more than last, the centre of the festival is the Lightbox and the constant hubbub of film industry types to be found there shows that the decision to make one permanent festival structure was a wise one.

The only film I saw opening day was From Up on Poppy Hill (dir. Goro Miyazaki). The film, the second feature from Goro Miyazaki, the son of legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is definitely a case of a director finding his own voice. His first film Tales from Earthsea, an adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin novels, was visually impressive and had its moments, but was tonally off. As well, it's narrative was almost impossible to follow for anymore unfamiliar with the novels (as I am). However, after seeing From Up on Poppy Hill, I am more than confident about Goro's future at Studio Ghibli.

The film is both an honest portrait of those middle years of Japan following the Second World War when the country refused to acknowledge the past but couldn't move seamlessly into the future and a heartfelt teenage romance. The animation is gorgeous, the character design is simple (more similar to early Miyazaki and the works of Isao Takahata than recent Ghibli) and there is plenty of humour. The decrepit clubhouse of the high school students that a large portion of the plot hinges upon is particularly charming. It seems to be a character in its own right with its heavy layers of dust, hilarious architecture and multitude of school clubs filling the levels. Poppy Hill belongs squarely in the realistic realm of Studio Ghibli along with Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Only Yesterday (1991) and if this continues to be Goro Miyazaki's area of focus, we may not have a new Hayao Miyazaki on our hands but a new Isao Takahata.

The Q&A afterwards with Goro was rewarding but hard to follow due to his inability to speak English. He had some funny anecdotes about his father and his response to what he learned while making Tales from Earthsea was priceless: "The experience of making Tales from Earthsea was not rewarding at all."

- Aren 1:22 PM Friday, September 9

Saturday, Sept. 10

Friday was uneventful. No tickets were available for the few films I wanted to see like The Artist and The Ides of March, so unfortunately I spent the day catching up on sleep and organizing things with my brothers.

A night at the Royal York with some wine ended off the day.

At noon I made my way over to AMC Cinemas to see Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss. The documentary focuses on a triple homicide case in Texas with interviews with the killers, the victims' families, the police and workers on Death Row. This is not typical Herzog. He's still there lurking behind the camera, asking some of the most profound questions you can find in documentary film, but the film is not about his own particular vision of the case. He does not try to find out the facts and condemn or exonerate the killers. He never appears onscreen and his narration is conspicuously absent.

It is a dark film, about messed up people with terrible lives caught up in a system that doesn't even make sense anymore. The depressing image of a father having Thanksgiving dinner in prison with his two sons does a good job of summing up the kind of messed up families and lives these characters have. The film is not so much a condemnation of the death penalty as an exploration of the microcosm of society that exists and intersects with the death penalty. This is a part of society we don't want to think about because it's just too flawed and broken. Into the Abyss is not the type of film to be excited about, but it's extremely well done and sheds more than a light on its troubling subject matter.

Herzog was absent so unfortunately there was no Q&A following the screening. Later tonight I'll head to Ryserson to see the red carpet presentation of Lars von Trier's Melancholia.

- Aren 3:30 PM Saturday, Sept. 10

 

I saw my first film at the 2011 festival early this afternoon: Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary examining the lives connected to, and broken by, a triple-homicide in Texas, in particular the two felons on death row.  Despite the early descriptions and summaries, Herzog's documentary is not really an argument against capital punishment, although he does explicitly mention at one point that he is against it.  My initial impression is that the film is most of all a portrait of a sad, narrow, and broken way of life that revolves around--that is inextricably bound to--prison.

Herzog's questions are always what drive his movies, and although his narration is absent from this documentary, we still get his probing questions in the interviews.

I've already said that this film is not an opinion piece or a film essay, but does it still change or affect our views on the death sentence?  Sort of.  Herzog puts a human face on the entire process, from the execution staff to the inmates waiting to die.  Afterward, I felt the film overwhelmingly demonstrated that the death sentence does nothing of any real value.  Even if these guys deserve it, it adds no good to the world.  That said, I was also deeply frustrated by the lack of responsibility or sense of guilt conveyed by the felons.  The only figure who seems really sorry, and really aware of the terrible things he's done, is the father of one of the inmates, who spent most of his life in prison and apart from the son he should have raised.  Michael Perry, the felon who is eventually executed, denies his guilt to the end (even though he initially confessed), and is scarily childlike and oblivious to the damage he has done.

This is a dark and sad film, and a very different one from Herzog's last, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  In any case, Herzog is an extremely skillful and reliable documentary filmmaker, and as long as his films screen at TIFF I will go seem them.

- Anton 4:10 p.m. Saturday, September 10

Fernando Mierelles new film 360 is an ensemble film with multiple characters and an interwoven storyline that transpires over numerous locales from Vienna to Denver airport. Screenwriter Peter Morgan mentioned before the film in a brief address that he was especially inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play La Ronde and its exploration of sexual and class divides and how sex transgresses boundaries of class and nation.

I will mention that the performances are quite uniformly good. Anthony Hopkins gives a monologue as a grieving father to an AA meeting that only an actor of his stature could, and yet it doesn't steal the show or feel out of place. Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Ben Foster are the Hollywood stars we recognize, but the other actors are quite good too. Jamel Debbouze gives an affecting performance as an Algerian dentist in Paris.

While the film is competently made (no one can fault Mierelles for ever being a less than stylish and innovative visual director) and Morgan's screenplay is thematically tight, I can't help but feel that the film fails to bring anything particularly striking or necessary. The film lacks a slight vitality that the material needs. However, I do appreciate the way the film reinforces the theme of unity and the possibilities of redemption rather than wallowing in the darkest corners that films of this type often do. Yet, on the other hand, this gives the film a kind of thematic palatability that feels at times "too safe."

- Anders 4:40 PM Sat. Sept. 10

Melancholia is the kind of film I’m happy to see here at TIFF. And if earlier I was complaining that 360 was underwhelming and lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, I might say that Melancholia has it in spades. Controversial director Lars Von Trier tackles the subject matter of the end of the world and depression, and thematically it makes for a rich exploration of despair and humanities place in the world.

Melancholia is first and foremost a visually stunning film. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro and Von Trier capture the end of the world beautifully. Merely the opening sequence, pre-title is rich enough a meditation on how the cinema captures movement, using a series of asymptotic slow-motion shots that very quickly establish the tone of the film. The entire film essentially plays out as a more human exploration of those moments before the rogue planet Melancholia slams into the Earth. Slow motion allows us to pause and examine those moments that are often unseen to the naked eye.

The film is also rich with allusions. The film takes place at a country chateau, whose manicured lawns and manor house bring to mind Last Year at Marienbad. It’s an important point, as this film plays more into the post-war art film tradition of Resnais, or Von Trier’s fellow Scandinavian Bergman than into the typical Hollywood science fiction or spectulative fiction. Kirsten Dunst is fantastic as Justine, whose wedding at her sister and brother-in-laws’ said manor takes up the first half of the film. Justine suffers from debilitating depression and Von Trier explores her dysfunctional family and how they continually lash out at each other, (mostly) unaware of Earth’s immanent demise. Justine seems to have some kind of connection with the planet. Also, the supporting cast is strong, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg as Justine’s sister, Claire, and Kiefer Sutherland (looking more and more like his father every day) as Claire’s husband, John.

Melancholia is the kind of film that I’m still thinking about. It offers a lot to chew on, so expect both a proper review and perhaps even some kind of essay. Its richness ranks it among the most interesting and technically accomplished films of the year so far.

- Anders 10:16 AM Sun. Sept. 11

Sunday, Sept. 11

The word coming out of Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt is very mixed and a lot of negative voices who didn't appreciate his entertaining and experimental riff on the American Gothic and Edgar Allen Poe. We were lucky enough to sit through a Q&A with Mr. Coppola and star Val Kilmer, and Coppola told us how he got the idea for the film from a drunken dream he had in Instanbul. He had bene reading the complete works of Poe, and this was what his unconscious mind came up with.

Twixt is interesting for sure. It has the hyper-real feeling of a dream, shot in high definition. It also has the playful absurdity and underlying menace of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. There are moments of sheer enjoyment, and while I'm not claiming this is a masterpiece, I don't understand the vitriol toward this film. Perhaps it's the fact that a master would dare to dabble in 3D (admittedly, the two sequences in 3D don't add much, but they aren't detrimental either) and genre. Val Kilmer is enjoyable as a "bargain basement Stephen King" type, who comes to a small town to sign autographs and instead enteres into an examination of all that Poe stuff.

I really dug a lot of this film, and I look forward to getting the reactions from my brothers and from others. For now, I'm going to go back and check out a couple of Coppola's recent films that I haven't yet seen, like Tetro and Youth without Youth. And tonight, seeing Alexander Sokurov's Faust.

- Anders 7:30 PM Sun. Sept. 11

 

Riding the subway this morning, the themes and images of Melancholia were still vivid in my mind.  I think von Trier's film is better than I thought it last night.  It's thematically rich and visually stunning, even if there are imperfect elements, such as Justine's obnoxious father and mother or quirky wedding guests, which distract and detract from the whole.  The final shot alone, showing the literal end of the world, makes this a big art film worth seeing.

Twixt is a small experimental genre film by a big, big director--Francis Ford Coppola.  Thinking about this afternoon's screening, I, like Anders, simply don't understand the hate and scorn being directed at the film.  Were people expecting something more serious?  This definitely isn't Apocalypse Now, but that's not a bad thing.  In recent years, Coppola has reemerged as a director of small and truly independent (being largely self-financed) projects.  Twixt is a blend of Twin Peaks and Edgar Allan Poe, and was apparently inspired by a dream Coppola had.  It's a playful blend of horror/Gothic conventions and is very entertaining.  It's not serious art but it is genuinely experimental, in the sense that Coppola is trying new and untested things.  This is basically Coppola working out a dream on film, and I for one enjoyed seeing this great filmmaker's mind play with the macabre.  Val Kilmer was really good in it.

- Anton 11:45 p.m. Sunday, September 11, 2011

 

Melancholia is the reason you come to a film festival. Not to say that it's great — it has its flaws — but it's large and ambitious and meticulously crafted and unconventional. It is not the type of film you will ever see a Hollywood studio produce. Aptly titled Melancholia is both a powerful exploration of depression and despair and an artistically rich film about the End of the World  (think of it as the auteur's version of Knowing). Of course, the end of the world that the film depicts can easily be interpreted as a literalization of the overwhelming despair created by clinical depression. The film is not really about the end of the world, even though those scenes are some of the year's most stunning.

Kirsten Dunst is surprisingly good, Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to impress and Kiefer Sutherland is good ol' reliable Kiefer Sutherland. Dunst does a very good job of showing how defeating depression is. Our intense frustration with her only speaks to just how affective she is as the depressed Justine, and also makes the audience somewhat complicit in Claire's (Gainsbourg) dealings with her. It goes without saying that the film is gorgeous and the music, much of it taken from Wagner, is overwhelming and brilliantly utilized. Overall, Melancholia is a technically marvelous film.

Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt is gothic fun, with the operative word being "fun." It's strange and hyperreal (much of this due to Coppola's decision to film in High Definition). Cameron Bailey was very correct in his introduction of the film when he commented that Coppola always makes personal films whether they be big or small. This film, based on an alcohol-induced dream of Coppola's that he had in Istanbul, is very personal. It accurately captures the absurdities of a dream. It may be strange and uneven and overly macabre and farcical at times, but it's a lot of fun and you can tell that Coppola is truly experimenting which is a very refreshing thing for a master director to do. It also does a good job of capturing the American gothic feel that Edgar Allan Poe (one of the film's characters, as it so turns out) established.  As well, it's nice to see Val Kilmer doing good work again. The man has remarkable comedic timing (best illustrated in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and it truly shines here.

Steve McQueen's Shame is the best film of the festival that I've seen so far. I liked his first film, Hunger, but wasn't ecstatic about it mostly due to its incongruity within its editing and its narrative arc. It was a technically excellent film and McQueen showed shocking formal control of the filmic medium for a first-time director, but the film lacked vitality in its characters and its story. Luckily McQueen has rectified all of Hunger's shortcomings. Shame is technically marvelous, but it is also moving and profound and beautiful and humourous and depressing. Michael Fassbender deserves an Oscar for his work here. I need more time to ruminate upon all of its complexities, but there is no doubt in my mind that Shame is a profound work by a deeply talented director. Expect more discussion of Shame to come in following blog posts and reviews.

- Aren 12:48 AM Monday, Sept. 12

Monday, Sept. 12

Alexander Sokurov's Faust was in some respects a poor choice to see late Sunday night after a long weekend of films, food, and company. It's not that it's boring, but it is taxing. It's a film of small moments, interspersed between scenes of  squalor in early 19th century urbanity. My sense is that the whole emerges in the end, and in the philosophical questioning rather than in the kind of immediate impact that most festival goers expect. And to be fair, there are points in the film that one questions whether it is worth it. There were many walk outs. Sokurov's Faust is a retelling of the Goethe story with a strong focus on the physical grotesqueries of human life, as if to highlight and contrast Dr. Faust's search for the knowledge of the human soul all the more paradoxical and futile. The Devil here is not a charming seducer, but rather a vile, irritating Moneylender (reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's demonic Weston in Perelandra).

In its sweaty, crowded mise-en-scene and collection of unglamourous actors, Faust successfully creates a feeling of dread and paints Faust's fall as more human and pathetic than grand and tragic. His ultimate abandonment of his quest for knowledge and selling of his soul for just one night with the angelic Margarette seems understandable and horrifying at the same time. Faust's hubris is in his gamble that he can have it both ways and defeat the wily devil.

The choice of the Venice Film Festival to award this film the Gold Lion this past week is a bold one even if I'm uncertain as to whether it's a deserving one. It's betting on a film that rejects most of what is valued in popular film criticism, and maybe that's the statement they were going for. While not as formally interesting as Melancholia (nearly two days later I'm still entranced by the images that Von Trier put on the screen, while I'm trying to scrub the filth and smell of Faust's early modern town off ), I'm glad I saw it even though I'm sad that I missed out on seeing some other films that I suspect might be more immediately rewarding, such as Shame or The Artist.

- Anders 9:00 AM, Mon. Sept. 12