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127 Hours

A completely cathartic life-or-death experience
I started loving this film within the first few seconds. 127 Hours begins immediately with the sound of Fresh Blood's "Never Hear Surf Music Again" ("There must be some f*%#ing chemical, chemical in your brain, that makes us different from animals, makes us all the same." etc...) just as featured in the 1st trailer. That not-ripped-off euphoric feeling (how many times have you seen a trailer with a perfect song/music and then felt betrayed that it wasn't in the film later... yeah, me too) carried on all the way through the rest of the film.

The film has an energetic start with a split screen showing office-bound commuters/workers going along their daily drudge while our lead, x-treme biker/hiker/climber Aron Ralston (played to perfection by actor James Franco) packs his gear (unfortunately not finding his Swiss Army knife which might have made a lot of difference to him later on) for a trek into Blue John Canyon country in Utah. While on his way he has a brief fun climbing/diving/swimming interlude with two female hikers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). He then heads off on his own and at about 20 minutes into the movie takes a tumble with a small boulder that ends up pinning his right arm against the side wall of the thin crevice of a canyon. And that is where we are with him for the next "127 hours" (but only 1 hour of screen time) that it takes him to get loose.

I'm not going to spoil that resolution here, although most will likely hear about it anyway before seeing the movie. An obvious clue that he survives is given by the screen credit early in the film that says it is "based on the book Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston". The guy must of survived if he wrote a book about it right? Well, you can survive in many ways and not all of them leave you whole (both mentally and physically).

Director Danny Boyle brings a lot of the key Oscar-winning players of the Slumdog team back for this new film. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, soundtrack composer A.R.Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (this time paired with Enrique Chediak) are chief among those. As an added bonus, from the director of the toilet-diving cam in Trainspotting, we now have the "desperately thirsty character saves his own urine so it can be filmed while drunk through a tube"-cam in this movie.

At the Toronto Film Festival's 2nd screening of the film, Boyle was there to take questions from the audience and his enthusiasm and excitement about the film were infectious. Tidbits included his talking about their 6 days of location shooting followed by a sound-stage recreation of the canyon based on 3D scanning imagery. Boyle also praised actor James Franco and emphasized how every time we see him in a new film he is stretching his talents and abilities, unlike many lead actors who are just basically playing themselves in various different situations.

Boyle said that for an audience to watch what would otherwise be deemed "unwatchable" you either had to be making a schlocky/not-to-be-taken-seriously horror movie OR you had to make the audience completely identify with the character to the extent that they would believe that they themselves would have done the exact same thing to save themselves if they had to. Well, Boyle succeeds in making you believe it.

Seen at the Ryerson Theatre, Toronto Sept. 13, 2010. 2nd screening of 3 at TIFF 2010.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

BLt: PoCNO rocks! There is no other way to describe it.
Seen at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept 17, 2009.

First off it is important to note that the Bad Lieutenant name was imposed by producer Edward Pressman in the hopes of building a future franchise. As Herzog said, a better franchise would be based on his title Port of Call New Orleans. The combined title is a compromise which Werner Herzog was willing to agree to.

Herzog was fun as always at the introductory remarks and the Q&A with TIFF programmer Colin Geddes. Telling anecdotes such as Cage asking him on the 2nd day of shooting what is his motivation and Herzog telling him not to worry about that, just go with "Evil is bliss" and sometimes "let the pig out!" (from the Bavarian colloquialism "Die Sau rauslassen!" / "Las die Sau raus!").

I'll confess that I had my doubts about this one simply based on the BLt title alone, imagining that this was going to be some sort of embarrassing sequel that has been imposed on Herzog for some bizarre contractual obligation reason. Have no fear about that! This is a Herzog movie and a Nicolas Cage on-a-rampage movie with all that those both imply. Even if certain clichés of the genre are adhered to (the prostitute girlfriend, the father who is an ex-cop now "drinking himself to death", etc.) these end up having totally different plot resolutions than you'd expect. Cage's second scene confronting the matron lady and her hairdresser alone is worth the price of admission. I know they don't give Oscars for roles like this (actually, maybe for Denzel they did) but this is the best Nicholas Cage I've seen in years.

Comment at the Q&A "I have seen 20 movies at this festival, and this is the most entertaining of all of them!" I couldn't agree more (and BLt:PoCNO was my 22nd). BLt:PoCNO rocks and Herzog rules! Seen at the Elgin Theatre/VISA Screening Room, the 2nd screening of 3 at TIFF 2009.

The Singing Revolution

This is the story of how culture saved a nation.
"The Singing Revolution" (Estonian title: "Laulev revolutsioon") was screened in its Canadian Premiere as the main Gala film of the 3rd Annual estdocs Estonian Documentary Film Festival in Toronto on Sunday Oct. 21, 2007 at the Ontario Science Centre Auditorium.

The evening opened with welcoming words from festival organizers Ellen Valter and Lia Hess and the introduction of film co-director Maureen Castle Tusty who explained that her husband and film co-director James Tusty was not able to make it to the Toronto screening as he was representing the film at its simultaneous Polish premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Maureen Castle Tusty then introduced former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar who was a special guest for the evening and who also played a prominent role in the events of the film during his early years in the Estonian Heritage Society.

Even though the audience in the hall was a large cross-section of local Estonian-Canadians for many of whom the main events of the film were a well-known part of our recent international history, I think everyone was genuinely impressed by the high standard of care and craftsmanship that the filmmakers put on display in their film which was screened in a crystal sharp high definition image.

The film delivers a lot of densely packed information on Estonia's recent history from the Communist/Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that effectively delivered Estonia into the repressive dictatorship of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Regime to the most recent Song Festival("Laulupidu") of 2004. More time is spent on the early years of the Russian occupation in the 1940's as it was then when the terror of the occupiers was at its fullest. The film then leaps ahead to the years of the mid to late 1980's when Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (economic restructuring) & "glasnost" (open-ness/free speech) opened the way for Estonian national movements such as the Estonian Independence Party, the Popular Front and the Estonian Heritage Society to test the limits that would be allowed before a further brutal oppressive crackdown began. Their steady probing and persistence made tiny Estonia a leading element on the way to the eventual breakdown and breakup of the Soviet empire. Along the way, the role of Estonian music in general and the ongoing National Song Festival in particular, are shown as a force that kept hope for independence alive from as early a date as 1947 when Estonian composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks was able to sneak his song "My Fatherland is My Love" into the new Soviet Republic's first post-occupation Song Festival.

Although the subject matter is overall one of a very serious nature there are still several moments of humour in the film such as one Russian babushka's complaints about how "I'm ashamed of Estonians, they are so sly. Face to face they're so nice to you, but they stab you in the back when you turn." Fans of the writers Andrus Kivirähk and Oskar Luts were also rewarded with anecdotes such as narrator Linda Hunt extolling the clever "Old Farmer of the Barn" (Estonian "Rehepapp" - also the title & subject of a recent novel by Kivirähk) as the Estonian national hero in place of conventional mythological warriors and conductor Tiia-Ester Loitme lamenting the loss of her balloon in the Song Festival Parade with the words "Minu nunnu lendas minema!" ("My precious has flown away!") (this last one evokes Luts' immortal comic play "Kapsapea" ("The Cabbage Head"). It was a pleasure as well to hear Popular Front leader (& otherwise artist/cartoonist) Heinz Valk tell the stories of how he coined the phrases "Laulev revolutsioon" (Singing Revolution) and "Ükskord me võidame niikuinii!" (One day, we will win regardless!) with which he forever afterwards had to end his speeches, to audience shouts of "Say it Heinz! Say it!!". So there were many subtle chuckles to be enjoyed from the movie also.

The 475-seat hall was totally sold out for the occasion and the film was warmly received with a unanimous standing ovation at its conclusion. I'll admit to a huge personal bias here because of my Estonian heritage, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who supports movements of self-government and national independence and basic human rights in this day and age would not be moved by this wonderful film. Thanks to Maureen and James Tusty for their vision and their efforts to bring this story to the screen and to the world.

Oct. 28, 2007 Update: The 3rd Annual estdocs Festival ended on Oct. 26, 2007 and it was announced that "The Singing Revolution" won both the Audience Favourite and the Jury Prize for the week-long festival.


Triumphant "Against the Headwind Hall" film on conductor Tõnu Kaljuste and his opera house dream.
The building of an opera house may not immediately strike most people as a prime subject for a very dramatic film.

Yet, it is sometimes the most extreme circumstances that can be the setting for the most compelling stories, as it was with real life composer Richard Wagner's struggles to build his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany and with eccentric film director Werner Herzog as he showed in his semi-fictional mad-dream-of-opera-in-the-Amazon-jungle film "Fitzcarraldo". Such is also the case in the new documentary film "Against the Headwind Hall" ("Vastutuulesaal" in Estonian) by director Priit Valkna and producer Artur Talvik, which tells a similar tale, in an Estonian setting, with a very Estonian resolution in the end.

The charismatic conductor Tõnu Kaljuste resigned his position as music director and chief conductor of the world renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in late 1999 and set out on a quixotic quest to build an opera/concert hall on the island of Naissaar which is situated about 8 km. northwards of the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

Naissaar, also known as the Island of Nargen, was once the family homestead of world renowned telescope and optical lens inventor Bernhard Schmidt (1879-1935) among whose other theoretical inventions was a wind-powered sail/propeller boat which used the force of the wind to sail directly into the wind itself. The idea of this "against the headwind ship" becomes a simile for Kaljuste's dream to realize the construction of his opera/concert hall despite all the forces of bureaucracy, financing, and all practical common sense circumstances that are working against him. The present day Naissaar Island, for instance, had no electrical supply, a barely functioning harbour and only 2 permanent residents at the time this story all begins.

How Kaljuste went about this goal and the many characters he meets along the way, including Bernhard Schmidt's nephew Eric, now living as an artist in Mallorca, Spain, eminent Estonian novelist Jaan Kross, film director/musician Hardi Volmer, theatre director Peeter Jalakas and various stone-masons, ship's captains, architects, and national and municipal politicians and bureaucrats, is shown in this exhilarating film that has many different moments of despair before the original plans come to their surprising final fruition.

It all ends to the soundtrack accompaniment of the stream-of-consciousness pop hit "My People" ("Minu inimesed") by the young Estonian rap/dance-club performer Chalice (the single monikered stagename of singer Jarek Kasar) which gives a musical benediction to Kaljuste's efforts, while composer Arvo Pärt declares on-screen that "the Estonian people can't begin to appreciate the trouble that Tõnu has gone through". Thanks to director Priit Valkna's triumphant film "Headwind Hall", we get the chance to see it and appreciate it for ourselves.


A sly and sexy low-key thriller
Reviewed at its North American Premiere screening Sept. 7, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Visions Program during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's "Ploy" has been one of our favourites at TIFF this year. The film has a very sly and often languid build-up to various shocks as it unfolds. I'm not going to spoil those for anyone by saying too much here.

The film's setup is that a man Wit (who runs a restaurant in America) and his wife Dang (a former well known actress) are returning to Thailand after an absence of 10 years to attend a funeral. They are staying at a Bangkok hotel and while the wife settles into their room the husband goes down to the bar for cigarettes. There he meets a backpacking teenager named Ploy who evokes his sympathy (she has a black eye, possibly from an abusive boyfriend, and she is also from his hometown of Phuket) and without any apparent sexual scheming he simply invites the girl back up to the hotel room to rest up while she awaits her mother's arrival.

The wife doesn't take kindly to this intrusion and the teenager is taken aback as well ("You didn't tell me your girlfriend was going to be here!"). The comic absurdity of this setup gradually starts taking a darker turn with petty theft, suspicions of adultery and possible murders and rapes entering the storyline before we're done. Meanwhile a maid and bartender at the hotel are having a mysterious sexy assignation simultaneous to the main plot line and Dang's former acting history also attracts the attentions of a stalker. How these different plot strands intertwine and tangle and then untangle and resolve themselves was a pleasure to watch. The film started with the most basic of elements and then let you think you knew where it is going before it pulled the rug out from under you several times.

Actress Lalita Panyopas (from 1999's "Ruang talok 69") makes a welcome return in the role of Dang to director Ratanaruang's ensemble. I was also happy to see a bright clear picture in the print of "Ploy" after last year's TIFF print of "Invisible Waves" was muddy and dark.


Too many stereotypes, not enough passion to engage the audience
Reviewed at the World Premiere screening at Roy Thomson Hall, on Sept. 7, 2007 during the Toronto International Film Festival.

On the surface, this would seem to have everything going for it with a solid cast (veterans Witherspoon, Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal, Streep, Arkin and new faces Metwally, Naor, Oukach, Khouas) a recent hot director (Gavin Hood, dir. of "Tsotsi", winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and a script on a current hot-button issue (the anti-terrorism law of extraordinary rendition which allows U.S. agents to transport suspected terrorists to off-shore sites where anti-torture laws do not apply).

Somehow each of the cast members, perhaps due to the number of major characters involved and thus the reduced screen time allowed for each, come across as superficial stereotypes - the distraught expectant mother, the ex-boyfriend who tries to help, the CIA agent with a conscience, the cold hearted CIA executive, the pragmatic senator, the torture victim, the secret police torturer, the torturer's daughter with a secret boyfriend, the boyfriend with a secret). You're not with any of the characters long enough to identify with them much and when it all gets tied up together in the end a bit too neatly you're just left feeling disappointed and cheated.

Early reviews seem to be mostly praising this but the friend whom I saw it with and another veteran TIFF goer that we see in various line-ups had the same sense of disappointment.

The film just seems too desperate to make it all relevant as it tries to inspire our shock at the wrongs being perpetrated in the name of the anti-terror wars but it mostly comes across as clichéd rather than natural. When the Gyllenhaal character finally builds up the will to act on his moral outrage you're just not convinced about how he's made this character arc as he has spent the first 3/4's of the film either stunned by the effects of a suicide bombing that takes place before his very eyes and then drinking himself into a stupor while occasionally taking time out for an illicit office romance or to bark an order to underlings. It seems Gyllenhaal is the protagonist we are meant to identify with but he is too weak-willed to inspire much audience sympathy. Witherspoon as the distraught expectant mother has more of an immediate draw on our heartstrings but doesn't kick off the expose on the U.S. side of the things which we are pulling for her to do by soliciting help from ex-boyfriend Sarsgaard (who works for Arkin's senator character) after her Egyptian-American husband goes mysteriously missing after a trans-Atlantic flight. There are at least a few moments of fireworks when Witherspoon at least briefly gets to confront the CIA exec played by Streep who is pulling the forced extradition strings behind the scenes, but a few seconds of confrontation doesn't make up for the 90 minutes of gradually increasing tedium that it takes to get there and we still have about 30 minutes to go in the plot after that highpoint. The subplot built around the head police torturer and his family in an un-named North African country is more engrossing and a neat twist is pulled off in that storyline but that wasn't enough to save the picture for us.

I had really been looking forward to this film but something just seemed to be missing in the way it pays off the different plot lines.

The Beales of Grey Gardens

More of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale
We saw the Canadian premiere screening of "The Beales of Grey Gardens" on the afternoon of Monday Sept. 11, 2006 at the Al Green Theatre during the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Also on the program was Albert Maysles' very first film, "Psychiatry In Russia" from 1955, in what may have been its World Premiere screening in a theatre, as it had previously only been shown on American Public TV as far as Maysles himself could remember. Albert Maysles was introduced briefly at the start by TIFF programmer Nicholas Davies and was interviewed at the end by fellow director Barbara Kopple (dir. "Harlan County USA", "Dixie Chicks -Shut Up And Sing") and answered several questions from the audience.

"The Beales of Grey Gardens" is an entirely new film that has been assembled from the extra footage that Albert Maysles (camera) shot with his brother David Maysles (sound) in 1972-74 for the film released in 1975 called "Grey Gardens". Both films will be issued in a new 2 disc Criterion DVD set in December 2006. (You'll also be able to purchase them separately, in case you already have the 1st one.)

"Beales" does seem to be assembled on the assumption that anyone seeing it has already seen the original "Grey Gardens". There is no introduction or newspaper montage such as the first film has to give you any context or information about who these women are and why are they living in only a few rooms of a once imposing mansion that seems to be slowly going back to nature. Only late in the film there is a mention of Jackie Kennedy Onassis convincing her 2nd husband Ari (Aristotle Onassis) to help out the Beales with funding for renovations and upkeep of the Grey Gardens estate.

I felt overall that "Beales" perhaps showed more of a needy side to Little Edie that wasn't shown quite so overtly in the first film. Her flirtatious manner towards both of the Maysles brothers is more apparent and her questioning of their choice of the first film's title as "Grey Gardens" seems to hint at some disappointment that the film isn't titled after herself or her family, but rather the house (Maysles is obviously making up for this in the title of this 2nd film). The first film has more of a defiant pride where even the apparent desolate circumstances cannot undo her. Big Edie gives the same mother of all she surveys portrayal in both films.

The afternoon was even more enhanced by getting a chance to hear Albert Maysles tell anecdotes about the film and just speak in general about life and documentary film. Barbara Kopple did try to direct questions his way but it seemed that Maysles was simply more interested in getting certain views out and he actually seemed to be ignoring what he was asked and just using it as a springboard to carry on telling us a continuing story. Kopple wasn't in the least offended by this and seemed to be quite happy just to be there to act as a prompter for Maysles.

Among the tidbits that came out from Maysles was a quote of Little Edie's reaction after the Beales were given a private screening of the first film: "The Maysles have created a masterpiece!", and that Albert Maysles had recently re-connected with the neighbour's gardener Jerry Torres who as a young man was a frequent guest to Grey Gardens and who appears in both films and now drives a cab in New York City. Maysles also had some impassioned things to say about how documentary film was important in the world as a means to promote our understanding of each other and to act as a deterrent to anger and hate. An interesting comment made about the Beales but also about people in general was that "People want to tell the truth about themselves. They don't like to keep secrets".

All in all a great afternoon of documentary film. Kudos to TIFF for organizing it.

Manufactured Landscapes

Watching piles of eWaste not that interesting
Reviewed at the World Premiere screening Sept. 9, 2006 at the Isabel Bader Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

This had an interesting premise but seemed to go on too long with too many shots of piles of eWaste (recycled computers, keyboards, cables etc. shipped over to China by the ton and then sorted and remade into new products to sell back) and other desolation.

The filmmakers tried to get more people interviews to boost the human element but were frequently prevented from doing so due to Chinese censorship. Still, what was there was interesting. The bits of a Shanghai high end real estate agent preening and strutting around showing off her luxurious mansion and gardens, intercut with the scenes of others living in medieval conditions were especially striking. The opening tracking shot of a 480m factory floor was quite something as well. Scenes of the activity at the Three Gorges Dam project were also a complement to the Jia Khang-je films at TIFF (the feature Still Life/Sanxia Haoren & the documentary Dong) which were also built around that subject.

Director Jennifer Baichwal, Producer Nick de Pencier, Cinematographer Peter Mettler and subject Edward Burtynsky were all there on stage for a Q&A after the world premiere. Producer Noah Weinzweig was introduced from the audience and was thanked as the most key person that assisted in the on the ground access in China itself.

Office Tigers

Played pretty straight for a mockumentary
Reviewed at its 3rd & final screening at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre on Sat. Sept. 16, 2006 during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film had World Premiered at the Paramount 3 Theatre the previous weekend on Sept. 9, 2006.

This felt like the India based Office Tiger company gave the filmmakers insider access in the hopes of getting a free promotional film out of it and the film only comes across as subversive in a few instances - the co-owner is caught off-guard in the midst of berating his much put upon secretary, the home lifestyles of the executives are compared to those of workers, the co-owner is actually proud to be still living in a messy hotel room after 6 years in India, another executive lives in a luxury mansion with pool but it seems his dog is his only friend.

After about 45 minutes we got the point, but the film went on for twice that long.

Director was a no-show for this 3rd screening so there was no Q&A.

10 Items or Less

A bit too light in both subject and quantity
Reviewed at the Sept 12, 2006 2nd screening at the Paramount 1 theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival. The film had World Premiered the day before at the Elgin Theatre VISA Screening Room.

The basic plot involves Morgan Freeman playing a one time popular actor who is on the downward slope of his career and who is taking on roles that may be beneath him, but which he still does with a positive attitude knowing that he needs to pay the rent etc. The downward slope is indicated by his being a long time between roles with previous flicks in bargain DVD bins and his being chauffeured by a not too sure of himself production assistant who drops Freeman off at a local community market where he is going to do research for a role as supermarket manager. He soon discovers the real-life market is run by a iron-willed "10 Items or Less" checkout line clerk played by Paz Vega. When Freeman's ride never returns and Vega needs help in prepping for an interview the circumstances cause them to join forces in a ride across town to get Freeman back home and to get Vega a job that'll get her on a more upwardly mobile career path.

While the film was enjoyable, it felt like it was still a sketch or a work in progress. There were two extended musical sequences (One with Vega & Freeman teaching each other children's songs in the car, one that literally plays like a Paul Simon music video) that felt like padding to bring up the time and even then the film was only about 80 minutes long.

It's a good thing Morgan Freeman is as well liked as he is because without him this would have been too little. Sure it was funny in parts and Paz Vega is a delight as well, but there was just not enough here to say it was a complete film.

They lost me when Morgan Freeman started talking about stopping the car to ask for directions and Paz Vega said she never does that. Who ever heard of a guy wanting to ask for directions and the woman saying no!? In the real world it's the exact opposite.

Make sure you stay for the outtakes in the credits. The bit with a Target Store saleslady teaching Morgan Freeman how to hustle sales is just hilarious! An early bit where Freeman's chauffeur insists it is Freeman's voice on a "Books on Tape" reading was also pretty funny.

The director/writer Brad Silberling and actress Paz Vega were there for a brief Q&A after the screening. Silberling answered one question saying that the script was not written specifically for Morgan Freeman and that once Freeman took the role he actually changed very little of what was there. Quite a compliment for both Silberling's writing and also about how Freeman can just slip into a role and make it feel entirely like he was born to play it.

Sari's Mother

Well made and sad portrait
Reviewed at its 3rd and final screening Friday Sept. 15, 2006 at the Varsity 7 theatre during its World Premiere run at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

This is a 22 minute short and is apparently an outtake from the same director's Iraq in Fragments film which contains 3 other portraits of Iraqi people in recent times. Fragments won Best Director, Cinematography and Editing in the Documentary category at Sundance in Jan. 2006 but was mysteriously itself absent from TIFF this year.

Sari's Mother is well made and shows the heartbreaking situation of a 10 year old boy (who looks 5 years old in terms of growth) who had contracted AIDS through a blood/plasma transfusion and the circumstances at his family farm and how his mother with a brave and forced smiling face tries to get medical care through a broken down medical system where bureaucracy still reigns crazily supreme regardless.

Director was not in attendance for a Q&A.

San xia hao ren

Three Gorges Good People and the magic of perseverance
Reviewed at the North American premiere screening Tues. Sept. 12, 2006 at the Varsity 8 Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

I was lucky enough to be at TIFF screenings on Monday when it was announced that Sanxia Haoren was going to have a special one-time screening as a last minute addition to the Visions programme of TIFF 2006. I think the online tickets went fairly quickly and the theatre was packed with a considerable overflow of film writers & critics who had been unable to squeeze into the industry screening.

Sanxia Haoren has been given the title Still Life for international release, but the original Chinese title would seem to translate simply as Three Gorges Good People and it is in the vicinity of the dam's construction and the city demolitions and the people displacement entailed by it, that the film takes place. The film has a bookend plot of a miner Han Sanming (character's and actor's names are identical) who comes to the town of Fengjie to search for his estranged wife and child. The centrepiece story is that of a nurse named Shen Hong who is searching for her missing husband.

The dour faced Han Sanming is initially a cause of concern as it seems at the very start he is going to be swindled by tricksters on the river ferry but he soon shows that he can hold his own. We then think he is going to conned by a sarcastic motorcycle taxi driver who takes him to the location of his supposed house only for him to find it is now submerged under water. Things soon settle down for Han though as he finds lodging in a boarding house and work as a house demolition man on a crew with a brash young man who seems to have learned all his life lessons from the movies of Chow Yun Fat. Various humorous interludes (such as a young boy who sneaks cigarettes and roams around singing overly romantic songs which usually degenerate into an off-key screech by their end) and certain magic sequences (which I won't spoil) serve to bring comedy and wonder along the way. Several times the screen is seemingly chapter titled with the words "cigarette", "liquor", "tea" and "toffee", when these items occur during the plot, and any other meaning to this device eluded me. The journey of Shen Hong is similarly full of encounters with different characters on the way. I don't think the two stories actually intersected, but I may have been somewhat tired at this mid-way mark of TIFF as this screening went from 10:30 pm to 12:30 am.

The impression that the actors were perhaps simply playing versions of themselves was reinforced later in the week when I also caught the same director's documentary "Dong" which follows painter Liu Xiao-dong around locations at the Three Gorges Dam and it turned out that Han Sanming was actually one of the sturdy workmen that painter Liu was using for his models in a large multi-paneled painting of men. A blond-dye haired motorcycle taxi driver of Still Life makes a cameo appearance in Dong as well.

I found both of these films equally absorbing as they told stories of regular people in somewhat extreme life-changing situations and also that the 2 films complemented each other in a symbiotic way. Seeing one will enhance your appreciation of the other and vice versa. Both films are very deliberately paced but very lyrical and if you have an appreciation for slower paced film they are very rewarding. Also, if you did not have any concept of the magnitude of what is going on in the Three Gorges area, these films will give you a first hand view.

The director Jia Zhang-ke was not in attendance for the North American premiere, as he presumably was still in Venice celebrating his win of the Golden Lion for this film and 2 awards for the documentary.


Great doc on painter Liu Xiao-dong
Reviewed at the 2nd & final screening Sat. Sept. 16, 2006 at the Paramount 3 Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (North American Premiere was on Thurs. Sept 14, 2006 at the Varsity 8 Theatre).

The film follows modern realist Chinese painter Liu Xiao-dong to locations in the Three Gorges Dam area where he paints a quintych (5 large connecting mural paintings) of 11 sturdy demolition workers and then to Bangkok, Thailand where the multitych painting is instead one of 11 beautiful young women.

The painter Liu comes across as an engaging personality who also does martial arts in his spare time ("the body must be kept strong in these difficult times"*) and is given to philosophical musings on life ("even in the midst of despair, the power of the human spirit is beautiful"*) and when a tragedy befalls one of his demolition worker subjects he undertakes a side journey to deliver gifts and the last ever taken photos of the man to his grieving family. The death is not captured on film but is alluded to by the director Jia Zhang-ke cutting in a couple of scenes from his feature film "Still Life" (Sanxia Haoren) which show a brick wall collapsing and then Han Sanming (an actor in "Still Life", but also one of the demolition workers being painted) following a burial shroud being carried out of the ruins.

When the scene shifts to Bangkok, Thailand the film follows painter Liu to a studio where he poses 11 young women in languorous poses around bedding and pillows. In a parallel situation to the Chinese workers, one of the young women also has a possible personal tragedy as her home village is shown in a TV broadcast as being flooded and the woman boards a train to find her family although the film does not follow her further. Bangkok painting scenes are inter-cut with an interview of Liu in a water taxi which is constantly getting humorously interrupted when traffic going in the opposite direction comes between his boat & the camera boat.

At various times it also struck me that director Jia was mimicking painter Liu's multi-person paintings by doing camera panoramas of groups of people such as a crowd of helmeted motorcycle riders. The film ends with a seemingly unrelated market scene of "the blind leading the blind" which may have been just too good of an image to pass up.

I probably got more out of this film having been lucky enough to have caught the last minute single screening of Venice Golden Lion winner "Still Life" earlier in the week. At least 2 of the actors in "Still Life" seem to have been discovered by director Jia Zhang-ke while filming this documentary - the above-mentioned dour faced Han Sanming and a young man with a blonde hair-dye job who ended up playing a sarcastic motorcycle taxi driver in the feature film. I think anyone who is interested in painting or simply in getting a look at life in the Three Gorges Dam area and in Bangkok Thailand will enjoy this film but it is possibly too slow paced for some viewers.

The director was a no-show for this screening and may not even have made it to Toronto after his Venice Festival wins (where "Dong" also won some doc awards).

*quotes are paraphrased and may not be exact.


A dark comedy on the road to Iraqi Kurdistan
Reviewed at its 3rd & final screening Sat. Sept 16, 2006 at the Varsity 3 cinema during the Toronto International Film Festival. The film had world premiered earlier during the fest on Sept 9 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

This road movie with touches of dark comedy was a pleasure to see and touched the heart many times. It is story of a "Kurdish Mozart" (as imagined by the director - a fictional living legend Kurdish composer/musician with a whole orchestra of sons and daughters) and his struggle to get to a major music festival in Iraqi Kurdistan from Irani Kurdistan. It was fascinating and life-affirming.

Even as the film had several moments of desperation and despair on the way the whole thing was lightened by touches like a comedic bus driver, various moments of interaction between the father and his sometimes reluctant or rebellious sons and the resilience of a young woman named Papooli (Butterfly) who was born with the name Niwe mung (Half Moon).

Director Bahman Ghobadi was an enthusiastic show-up for the 3rd screening and gave many interesting tidbits during his Q&A such as info on the banning of female singing and musicians in present day Iran for the past 28 years, that his self-censorship on the film did not help it to get past Irani censors so that he may re-cut the film for the later general international release now anyway (restoring more scenes of female singing & playing) and that the whole 7 months of seeking for travel permits subplot in this film was a nod to the struggles he had to get his earlier "Turtles Can Fly" film made.

This film was 1 of 7 in TIFF 2006's Mozart - A New Crowned Hope series which is a sneak peek at the series before it screens at the Vienna Mozart Year Festival in December 2006.

Highly recommended and a worthy successor to the director's previous films.

Red Road

Mystery with a slow fuse
I saw the North American premiere of Red Road on Sept 14, 2006 at the Isabel Bader Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival.

This was extremely well made for a first time feature and the story line packed quite a few wallops on the way. It is a slow build up so just be patient, there'll be plenty of shocks to come and it is quite a while before all the pieces fall into place.

It was a very original idea and story by Andrea Arnold using the characters imposed on her by the limitations of a new Dogme-like film rule called Advance Party. 2 more films are set to come using the same lead characters and actors but in entirely different contexts. All of them must take place in Scotland according to the rules.

Director Andrea Arnold was there for the North American premiere and led a lively and humorous Q&A at the end that included the somewhat chilling statistics that the UK has over 4 million CCTVs or 1 for every 14 people and that overall they have 20% of the CCTVs in operation on the entire planet.

The Namesake

Entertaining and universal
Just got home from the Sept 11, 2006 official world premiere screening of The Namesake at the Elgin Theatre at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Director Mira Nair briefly introduced the film by saying that it was her most personal project as she herself lived in Kolkata for 12 years and then in New York City for 25 (the 2 cities that the characters in the film travel between as well). She dedicated the film to the legendary directors Ritwick Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. She introduced the actress Tabu who said a few words about how grateful she was to work on the project, especially as it helped her to understand her own mother better. Director Karan Johar and actor Amitabh Bachchan (who is not in this film, but a guest at the screening) also happened to be in attendance in the audience and were introduced to warm applause.

I better admit right off the bat that I went to see the film based simply on how much I've enjoyed Mira Nair's films in the past. I did not know the work of the veteran Indian actors or the work of the younger American based cast. I was aware that Kal Penn has acted in several teenage and/or stoner comedies but I've never actually seen those films so have no preconceptions about his work. And I've only seen maybe a dozen Bollywood films in my life, just enough to know that the scenes of kissing in The Namesake would not be acceptable to a traditional crowd. Also, I have not read the book that the film is based on, although having enjoyed the film as much as I did, I definitely intend to read it as soon as possible (in fact we picked up 2 copies on the way home).

OK, so after getting all of that out the way, maybe some will take my views with a grain of salt as they might feel that I am not qualified to comment, but I found this to be an all round entertaining and enjoyable film that made your heart ache for the different characters at various times and that hit all the right notes along the way. The casting seemed all-round perfect and everyone was completely believable in their roles. Kal Penn was absolutely solid in his part and grew from a young surly teenager to a confused young man to a mature adult. In the role of the parents both Tabu and Irfan Khan were thoroughly believable as a young arranged marriage couple in Kolkata who moved to America to build a new life and who aged together gracefully with lifes ups and down on the way. Tabu carried more of the weight here and was just gorgeous as a young bride and grew into a mother with many cares but who held herself with dignity throughout. Her acting even just with her eyes was just wonderful to watch. All of the technical aspects, the cinematography, costuming, locations, set decoration, and soundtrack etc. were equally impressive. The theme of family and the search for one's self are universal and are all well communicated in this film. The sense in the room of the theatre was that everyone was identifying with the film throughout (the audience was maybe 15-20% of South Asian heritage - with the rest a mixed Canadian Toronto and film festival crowd) and the occasional jokes and visual gags all went over to great enthusiastic laughter.

I encourage everyone to see it when it opens in general release. So far only this and Babel and Paris Je T'aime have earned a 10/10 from me at this year's TIFF.

Ten Canoes

Were we punk'd? But we loved it!
Just got home from the Sept 7, 2006 1st screening of Ten Canoes at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In what was apparently a film can foulup, the print that we saw had English language narration for the general overview parts but no subtitles whatsoever for all of the indigenous language dialogue that occurred on screen. We knew we were missing a lot of the film and definite humour (since the characters themselves were laughing) but the entire audience stayed and watched on regardless.

The director and festival programmer reacted in horror when they were told this in the Q & A. Which makes you wonder is there no advance checking of the print whatsoever or were we a test audience to see how the film would play without subtitles.

I think most people found it fascinating because this was the first time ever to see an Australian aboriginal film story played out and the beautiful cinematography and ambient sound (and/or brilliant foley) and indigenous music on the soundtrack made it a magical experience regardless.

Director Rolf de Heer gave very thorough and enthusiastic replies to audience questions at the Q & A afterwards after having only been in Toronto 2 hours from his flight from Australia. You could tell how impassioned and pleased he was about the film and his entire experience with the community that helped him make it. It seemed that he could have told anecdotes for hours about it and overall I think he gave the most detailed replies that I have ever heard a director give at TIFF (and I've seen probably a few hundred films there over the years).

Still, I wish we had gotten to know the jokes and the 50% or so of the story we missed.

I'm giving this a 7/10 with the sense that it could easily be an 8 or 9 once I've seen a version that I can completely understand.

Miami Vice

Walked out after 30 minutes...
At first I didn't think I was going to qualify to write a comment on this film since I walked out after 30 minutes. But seeing that about half of the comments here seem to have the same opinion as mine and they watched over 2 hours of it to get there, then my relatively short endurance doesn't seem that bad in retrospect.

Where did it go wrong? A jerky start to the movie as if reel number one went missing in the projection booth, we're in some dance club somewhere, but praise the gods, it is Nina Simone on the soundtrack with the Felix Da Housecat remix of Sinnerman! I'm thinking - confusing start to the movie but Mann has not lost his instinct for the good soundtrack so let's call it a draw to start with and keep watching. In the murky darkness Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as Crockett and Tubbs begin to be apparent. They are staring into the distance across the club for most of the time except for when Crockett heads for drinks and puts the moves on the bartenderess - then back to more staring. At what we are not sure of, some sort of honey trap sting? Some guy meets another guy who gives him his female escorts and the guy heads into the back room to party down but the cops have it wired and are watching it on screens anyway, so what are Crockett and Tubbs looking at? Then for some reason they punch and kick their way across the room to get to somebody for who knows what reason - at least I think it was them fighting their way across the room because it was pretty dark and hard to tell. Then they go out on some balcony to take some private calls with their confidential informants on what they themselves even admit are un-secured un-encrypted phone lines. Turns out their buddy informant (played by John Hawkes, i.e. Sol Star from TV's Deadwood, yeah!) is in trouble and is on the run from the drug dealers he snitched out who meanwhile in a cutaway shot proceed to wipe out the FBI guys (we're gonna need some more FBI guys) that the informant linked them up with. Crockett and Tubbs get the triangulation somehow on their runaway buddy and within a minute (remember they were on the disco balcony seconds before) are driving right up beside him on the freeway and get him to pull over. Meanwhile the guy's family has been wiped out by the drug gang and when Crockett and Tubbs give him the word on that. he walks in front of an approaching transport truck. Turns out of course that the FBI has a leak and Crockett and Tubbs have to go undercover without anyone knowing who they are so that the leak won't give them up. So the drug dealers are in it with some drug importers who have fast boats and a warehouse of drugs so Crockett and Tubbs knock over the warehouse, blow up the boats and rip off the drugs - presumably so that they can offer themselves as replacement boat drivers cause the importer is gonna need a replacement shipment ultra-fast (we're gonna need some more drugs pronto). Then the whole cop posse is intimidating some hood who presumably has to hook them up with the dreaded drug importer gang. Then Tubbs & his lady friend cop are back at his/her place taking a shower and start to get it on and then...

I don't know what happened next, because that was when I got up and walked out.

Because somewhere on the way to that scene I had just lost interest in the movie and wasn't even interested enough in the 2 characters making out to care what was going to happen next to them.

In this Miami Vice, I didn't know who these characters were, had no empathy for them and pretty much could roughly guess the rest of the plot from that point forward when I stopped watching. This was when it was possible to tell what I was watching in the murk and the graininess because a lot of the time it was pretty unclear what was going on. And I have no trouble with hand-held - I even liked the Bourne Supremacy's car chase with the crazy out of control hand-held - but I was shocked at the shakiness and graininess and darkness of some of this footage. And then I read they spent $135 million on this?

And I have no attachment to the old TV Miami Vice. I haven't seen an episode in probably almost 20 years. But I seem to remember that Crockett and Tubbs were cool bad-a$$ cops with fast cars and attitude and cool clothes for the time and they were tight with each other and would back each other up to the death and always had a fast wise crack ready.

The Crockett and Tubbs in this movie did not give off any of that chemistry, didn't have lines with any cool dialogue and the whole thing seemed to be pretty darkly and confusingly filmed.

Maybe I missed something by walking out, but according to a lot of these reviews I apparently didn't.

The Smell of Paradise

I didn't love The Smell of Paradise in the morning*
This plodding documentary felt overlong with about the last 20 minutes spent in a village where the filmmakers may have been hoping (they don't quite say it directly) to obtain the journalistic coup of a post 9/11 on-camera interview with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and/or Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but didn't get it and chose to end the film with the waiting game anyway. Osama and Omar may have made a crafty decision for their personal safety, because the rest of the film has interviews with primarily Chechen jihadists who have mostly, since those interviews, been assassinated by such means as car bombs or poisoned mail. Several times the narrator or a security official stresses the dangers of the filmmakers' journey but the only on-screen incident involves having one of their jeeps get stuck in a mud hole whereupon a group of Afghani locals pitch in to pull/push them out. The film seemed to promise a journey into a jihadist "Heart of Darkness"/"Apocalypse Now" but instead of a Colonel Kurtz/Marlon Brando at the end, there is only a dry weeping mullah who exhorts the filmmakers to forget all they've seen and heard, and just learn to love God. Given the build-up, it is not enough to merit the journey.

A few extra points can be given for the filmmakers' perseverance in what appears to be extremely bleak circumstances and landscapes, which gets this to a 6 out of 10, or a 3 out of 5, or a 2 out of 4, depending on how you like to scale.

* the summary comment is because I went to a 9am screening of this film.

Stranded in Canton

Like a secret time trip back to the early 70's
"Stranded in Canton" had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 14, 2005 in a paired screening with Michael Almereyda's new documentary "William Eggleston in the Real World". There may have been several other previous screenings but the only other one that I easily found on the internet was when it opened the 6th annual Memphis International Film Festival on April 21, 2005.

Eggleston filmed about 30 hours of footage in the years 1973-74 and this has been recently edited down to 76 minutes for this final production which Eggleston said was now finished. Director Robert Gordon and film editor John Olivio assisted Eggleston with this final distillation and Eggleston himself provides an occasional commentary right in the film itself as shown. Perhaps the eventual DVD release will have a more complete commentary, but with the laconic Eggleston, this might very well be it. The little that Eggleston said was usually humorous and gave some comic relief.

The film left me feeling nostalgic for various hell-raising drunken friends from my own youth because the vibe here was as if William Eggleston had traveled back in time to secretly film these people in the early seventies. Most of them seem quite oblivious to the camera and with the infra-red lens some of this may have been filmed almost in pitch darkness so people were even more likely to act uninhibited. The video technology itself was so new that many may not have even understood that a movie camera was in fact being used. Eggleston films various colorful family friends and sometimes strangers in bars and on the streets. One interesting historical note is the informal performance footage of Memphis based blues guitarist/musician Furry Lewis (1899-1981) performing at a private house party (Lewis is the musician name-checked in the Joni Mitchell song "Furry Sings The Blues" on the 1976 Hejira album).

A word of warning for those with modern day PETA sympathies: one scene here captures the old-time carnival act of geeking chickens, although it is filmed at a night time street scene. In the days before such TV shows as Fear Factor, you could go to carnivals/circuses where a low-ranked performer would perform acts such as biting the heads of chickens or snakes or eating worms whole etc. for the entertainment of the paying crowds. The low-brow level of this "entertainment" caused the other carnies to disassociate themselves from the "geeks" or "geek men" which has gradually led to the word's modern day connotation of socially inept individuals.

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

Frustrating experience but still some good performances & good Leonard Cohen stories
This was a frustrating experience to sit through. Part concert film, part biography with historical footage & photos, part present day interview, these various strands seem to be struggling with each other. This was filmed primarily at a series of Leonard Cohen tribute performances organized by producer Hal Willner in Sydney, Australia during January 2005 under the banner of "Came So Far For Beauty". Many of the same artists had also performed similar concerts during 2004 in New York City and the UK. Interview clips with Leonard Cohen at his home in LA along with some archival photos and film footage are interspersed into the concert scenes.

The flow of this wasn't always very satisfying and there was one aspect that began to get more irritating the longer the film went on. The filmmakers begin sabotaging their own concert artists by editing/interjecting an occasional red sparkle/red sequin image over their performances, which you gradually realize is a foreshadowing of Leonard Cohen's own performance with U2 (filmed at a totally separate non-concert staged studio setting) to come at the very end of the film. It is like they're constantly saying: "Don't worry if you don't like this particular performance, Leonard Cohen himself is yet to come!". What kind of message is that to send in the middle of your film with other performers? Some songs are even interrupted in mid-performance by historical or interview footage and then when Leonard Cohen is telling some good anecdote we go back to another cheat sheet performance (many of the singers don't seem to know the lyrics, so their eyes and eyelids constantly have a downcast/lidded look as they look to their music stands for the words). Still, there are some terrific performances here by Rufus Wainwright (on "Everybody Knows", "Chelsea Hotel #2" & "Hallelujah") Martha Wainwright (on "The Traitor") Beth Orton & Jarvis Cocker (duet on "Death of a Ladies' Man) and former Leonard Cohen band alumni Perla Battala & Julie Christensen (they also lend terrific support for most of the other singers) on "Anthem" and with the greatest revelation being the single monikered Antony (actually Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons) giving a show-stealing rendition of "If It Be Your Will".

Leonard Cohen's & U2's seemingly mimed/lip-synced performance of "Tower of Song" comes as a big let down at the end. Even more frustratingly, the main concert's rehearsal clips show the rest of the singers rehearsing a group finale, which, after a search on the internet (see, I found out was the Sydney show's closing number "Memories" ("I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl, I said, look, you don't know me now, but pretty soon you will, So won't you let me see, won't you let me see, won't you let me see…, your naked body.") which would have made for a much more humorous and rollicking finale but is sadly not to be seen in the film. A great opportunity lost but perhaps still a future possibility for a DVD down the road. Still, Leonard Cohen tells some great stories and Rufus Wainwright gets to tell his own personal "Leonard Cohen moment" story and Nick Cave gets to talk about his discovery of "Songs of Love and Hate", but I would rather have had a pure concert film or a pure interview/biography (or better yet, both separately!) rather than this hybrid which doesn't satisfy either craving completely. The good moments rescue this enough to bring it up to a 7 out of 10.

William Eggleston in the Real World

Happy to have been born in a world with William Eggleston and Michael Almereyda
I saw Michael Almereyda's "William Eggleston in the Real World" at its Canadian premiere on Sept. 14, 2005 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening was part of the Dialogues program at the Fest but Michael Almereyda was unable to attend due to commitments in New York City so there was no Q&A.

This was a film that grew on me, as it started out very boring and became more and more interesting as time went on. Almereyda starts by following Eggleston and his assistant/son Winston as they wander around Mayfield, Kentucky on a commission from Gus Van Sant to shoot photographs. Almereyda's hand-held camera shakes and picks up the wind and all sorts of extraneous noises while Eggleston barely says anything and even when he does it needs sub-titling to help you make it out.* Then they start making their way home to Memphis, Tennessee and stop off at a ruined house for sale by the side of the road, advertised as a "real fixer-upper", and suddenly you start seeing the beauty of the things that Eggleston is seeing in the damaged green roof or the patterns of sunlight on the dusty floors. Soon you are at home with him where he does some amateur improvisations on his electronic keyboard and piano.

Then he takes you along on a trip to visit his girl-friend Leigh Haslip (Eggleston has meanwhile been quite happily married to his wife Rosa for 40 years, and she must just humor his occasional philandering since she later describes him and his family as "He's sweet, all the Egglestons are sweet, it's in their genes"). At Haslip's house, Eggleston sketches a free-form portrait while Haslip herself rather drunkenly rambles and lounges on a couch in her pajamas. Eggleston is still not saying a lot, but you are gradually liking him more and more, as you realize this is an artist with no pretensions whatsoever. He is what he is and he does what he does and he doesn't care about having to explain himself or his work to you at all. You can take it or leave it.

For the rest of the film you follow along on a few more trips such as to the Getty Museum in LA where Eggleston walks around rather anonymously at his own photographic exhibit. You get to view a few clips from Eggleston's own black and white experimental video film "Stranded in Canton" (1973-74)(see which was also shown at 2005 Toronto Film Fest after having been recently distilled down from 30 hours to about 76 minutes with assistance by director Robert Gordon (see and film editor John Olivio. There is a single scene towards the end where Almereyda finally seems to get Eggleston pinned down at a restaurant and he tries to get him to talk art and photography with provoking statements such as "Real life is an illusion. Photographs are the reality", and Eggleston protests and disagrees and says that he doesn't understand what Almereyda is talking about. So you never really do get any answers from Eggleston himself.

When the credits role at the end with the sound of Roy Orbison's beautiful singing of "In the Real World" you are back again at Leigh Haslip's house where both she and Eggleston are just gleefully enjoying the song on the stereo while they talk about how happy they are to have not been born in the Middle Ages before there was Roy Orbison. And I'm just as happy to have not been born before there were the photographs of William Eggleston and this film by Michael Almereyda.

Addendum: Feb. 11, 2006 * I recently reread this and remembered that it was sometime early in the film when Almereyda comes out with a line describing some of Eggleston's low angle shots as "if they were taken by the family dog" which got a great laugh out of the audience.

Promised Land

Disappointing, an important story is not told clearly enough
(Some plot spoilers) I saw Amos Gitaï's film 'Promised Land' at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14, 2004 at its 2nd North American screening. The film had just world premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 7, 2004 where it won the Emblem of Peace Award.

Director Gitaï was at the screening and made some brief introductory remarks during which he said that the film was dedicated to his mother who had passed away during the course of the filming and who had been a lifelong advocate for women's issues. He also said that his main goal with this film was to portray an anti-'Pretty Woman' point of view and to show that prostitution was in no way a life of glamour, champagne and limousines and that prostitution images of that nature, whether portrayed in film media or elsewhere, were even used by criminal elements to lure young women into sexual slavery. Due to time limitations there was no Q and A session after the film.

Certainly with that introduction and the knowledge that this theme and script had attracted international talent as diverse as Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen, Werckmeister Harmonies), Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita, Sex is Comedy) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, The Libertine) to appear in the film, I had very huge expectations. Unfortunately, the film could not fulfill them.

(Spoilers start) The story concerns a group of young Eastern European women who are smuggled across deserts and borders at the beginning of the film and then auctioned off in the middle of the night at an outdoor slave market, although they still stay together throughout the course of the rest of the film. They are finally able to determine that they are in Israel and the title of the film is meant to be taken ironically in their case. They were presumably seeking to escape poverty in their home countries but their fate now is likely to be even more cruel. There is no back story provided except for one character's later flashback about seeing a choir sing in a countryside church back in Estonia and her saying in voice-over that 'Estonia seemed so far away'. It was often difficult to tell the women apart due to the dark lighting of the film (The film was so dark that when the cinema's projector went on the blink about 10 minutes in and started showing only intermittent flashing images, the audience sat and continued to watch for a good half minute or so, thinking it was part of the regular film, until finally a few brave souls started to clap in annoyance. After a short repair, the screening continued.) No character or name introduction was made for most of the women which didn't help the situation. They are just objects to be brutalized and assaulted by the various smugglers and guards during the journey. They end up transported to a restaurant/night club that doubles as a brothel and there they are stripped off and hosed down and then superficially dressed and made-up to attract customers. Hanna Schygulla appears in a cameo as the head madam in charge of this process and Anne Parillaud is a junior madam/gang leader. Again, no background is given about them either (although Schygulla calms one of the young women by making it sound like she herself went through the same tortuous journey at one time). At this point a British woman (played by Rosamund Pike) rather mysteriously appears in the midst of the club and there is some suspense as you wonder whether she is there to help the women as some sort of undercover police agent or whether she is a captive herself. The women are held at night on board a ship in the harbor and it is there where the use of a 'deus ex machina' plot device leads to the resolution. (Spoilers end)

Admittedly, the dehumanizing anonymous treatment that the women receive was probably part of the point in order to convey the cold-hearted brutal nature of the background to prostitution, but it didn't provide the audience with a specific character to identify with for most of the running time and when one of the East European women did finally emerge as the lead in this respect, it seemed like an afterthought and rather too late in the plot.

Overall, this has the feeling of an incomplete effort about a serious subject that really deserved more work and it leaves the impression that the budget and thus the shooting schedule did not allow for more to be done. For comparison, see Lukas Moodysson's 'Lilja 4-ever', which gets a similar story across with much more impact, primarily by focusing on a single young woman.

Disappointing, an important story is not told clearly enough. 5/10

Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie

Communicates a total joy and excitement about life and music making
I saw the North American premiere of Thomas Riedelsheimer's "Touch The Sound – A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie" on September 10, 2004 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film had previously World premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and UK premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, both in August 2004.

This film should meet with the same success as the director's previous 'Rivers and Tides – Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time' as it again masterfully portrays an artist, perhaps not well known in the mainstream (although within the modern classical music world, Glennie is the foremost exponent of solo percussion performance and of percussion concerti with orchestras), in such a striking and all encompassing manner that it endears them to virtually anyone seeing it.

For the first 10-15 minutes or so, I wondered whether the issue of Glennie's deafness was even going to be mentioned (she is famously reluctant to allow it to be used in her music bios, feeling that it detracts from the message of the actual music itself) or whether they would leave it as a surprise revelation for the end. As it happened, it came out quite casually in an interview excerpt. There was a smattering of interview bits throughout the film but for the most part the music and sound experience was left to explain itself. The best (and funniest) thing that Glennie said was something along the lines of... why should she have to explain to anybody how she manages to 'hear', since when she asks other people how they hear and they answer 'with the ear' and when she then asks them to explain how that works, they are at a total loss, so why should she be any different?

The film captures about a year of travels in Evelyn Glennie's life but fore goes the above mentioned 'classical' world to instead show her in either solo or group improvisation situations around the planet. The main performance involves her and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith (he did the soundtrack for Rivers and Tides) recording an improvised CD in the wonderful sound space of a deserted factory in Germany. Other stops along the way are a NYC street jam with tap dancer/choreographer Roxanne Butterfly, a NYC rooftop jam on full kits with drummer Horatio 'El Negro' Hernandez, a Japanese rehearsal/workshop with the formidable Taiko drummers 'Za Ondekoza', a Japanese café/bar performance with the violin/piano duo 'This = Misa & Saikou' and a cliff side exploration with fog horns (courtesy of Jason the Fogmaster). Various solo bits as well are interspersed such as a snare drum solo in NYC's Grand Central Station, a meditation in a Japanese zen garden, a visit to her brother and the old family homestead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, a teaching session with hearing challenged kids (Glennie's teaching methods involve getting the kids to 'listen' through the sensation of touch), and a solo using only the bits and scraps of cans, plates, utensils and glasses rounded up in the café/bar seconds before the performance itself. No matter what the circumstances you will be amazed at what Glennie can make music with and how intriguing even the most commonplace sounds can be if you really, really listen to them.

There is a total joy and excitement in life and music making that is on display in this film and its message is conveyed in a very down to earth manner that is not at all esoteric or high/art culture but rather communicative and people oriented. There is real emotion as well, as my eyes teared up hearing the young girl who was participating in the music training class say as she removed her hearing aids that she could 'hear' the music quite well without them.

Highly recommended. 10/10

Sag-haye velgard

Outstanding Iranian/Afghan film with terrific child leads (and an adorable dog)
[some plot spoilers] I am a sucker for dog movies in any case, but combine an adorable Scottish Terrier with the two wonderful child actors who are the leads in this film and you have a winner. The performance by the 7 year old girl Gol Ghoti is particularly outstanding. The young boy Zahed also has several great moments especially some of a black comedic vein in exchanges with a jail guard.

Briefly the plot involves a sister and brother who are 'night prisoners' at a prison where their mother is being kept on some sort of bigamy/adultery charges as she had remarried when her Taliban husband had disappeared for 5 years during various wars. Her second husband dies but the first husband returns and has her jailed, then he himself is jailed by the Americans for being Taliban. The kids are able to stay overnight at least with the mother while gathering wood and picking for articles from the dump during the day to make a living. Then the prison governor changes the rules and the kids are out on the street at night as well. They have adopted a stray dog in the meantime after rescuing it from a gang of kids who were tormenting it. They and their pet are collectively the 'stray dogs' of the title.

The kids then proceed thru a comedy of errors to try to get caught stealing so that they can be sentenced to prison and rejoin their mother. A charming sequence is done in tribute to Vittorio De Sica's 'The Bicycle Thief' which the kids actually go to see at the Kabul cinema in order to gather tips and inspiration for their attempted crimes.

A lot of this probably sounds very bleak and depressing but the spirit of the kids, their charming dog and their love for each other and family lets this film rise above the harsh circumstances that they face and convey a heartwarming (and at times heartbreaking) tale of endurance and love.

This is the 2nd film by Iranian director Meshkini who developed the idea while working on scouting the Afghan locations for Samira Makhmalbaf's 'At Five in the Afternoon'.

So far (Sept 2004) I believe this has only played at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals but it hopefully will receive a wider distribution. In 90 minutes this film lets you feel more for the Afghan experience than many other and longer histories or documentaries could convey.


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