Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Guatemalan Handshake

Dir. Todd Rohal

While it never achieves lift-off to become the spirited absurdist tale that shines beneath some murky filmic waters, The Guatemalan Handshake has an agreeable odd-ball charm, an admirable gonzo spirit and effective stylization. Most remarkable are the gobsmackingly gorgeous shots and sequences that raise the film to heights that unfortunately the rest of it can't quite match. It isn't nearly as bad as some of the comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite might lead you (or me, at any rate) to believe but it lacks the authenticity of early David Gordon Green, as George Washington would be a more apt comparison, or the unique world building of Guy Maddin.

Unfortunately the film doesn't quite star Will Oldham, though he does provide the central character. He plays the put-upon Donald, who in the opening sequence finds some shoes, a dead dog and wanders off to no-one-knows-where, only to appear again in a few flashbacks. He's the boyfriend of pregnant Sadie and the son of the eccentric Mr. Turnupseed and the loose plot revolves around how his disappearance affects the lives of the people in his backwoods town. (There is some business involving Sadie competing in a smash-up derby -- a sub-culture worthy of a different film all its own.) But calling any character here eccentric is pointless since every one of them, except perhaps for the narrator, Turkeylegs, is in one way or another a bit of a space cadet. And not always in any sort of charming way either. The character named Stool, for example, is one of the more unpleasant creations I've come along in some time. In that way he is a bit like a character out of a Jared Hess film -- with his ironic mustache and self-absorbed nastiness. How Sadie ends up falling for Stool after Donald's disappearance defies human nature. But then Sadie isn't the most pleasant of characters either and the film doesn't seem too interested in representing any sort of commonplace reality.

I'm not one who needs likable characters to enjoy a film but I do need them to be more than just a collection of walking affectations and goofy hang-ups. This really is the ongoing crutch of the indie film, and one that doesn't seem to be going away. But for all Wes Anderson's incessant desires to deal only with over-affected characters, he always manages to give them a soul. In the case of Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely (another auteur Rohal style could draw comparisons to, at his best) the lack of a honest personality can work when it is part of the point. This is certainly something that Rohal could improve upon. But then The Guatemalan Handshake doesn't have any intentions on being a character study or anything of the like. It works best at being a series of vignettes loosely tied together by some recurring characters. The scenes that hit their mark are funny and/or poignant and are impeccably shot. There are a few of these scenes -- Mr. Turnupseed losing his temper on his shed's Master lock, Stool loosing his shit when his bus breaks down, an extended Maddin-like black & white flashback to the heroics of daredevil Spank Williams, a simple moment of Turkeyleg in a picturesque field -- and they all work more or less without any context; or, in other words, despite the unmemorable characters. The scenes that fall flat tend to feel slow or repetitive and that feeling creeps up too often.

Todd Rohal is certainly one to keep an eye on. For a first feature he's made a film with a distinct voice and an uncommonly sharp eye. If too much of the film failed to connect with me, it didn't fail to make an impression. Its unpredictable spirit is ambitious, endearingly ramshackle and handmade. If only those qualities could be sustained for an entire film and be applied to the people in Rohal's world as well, I could recommend the film a bit more.

Excellent Trailer:

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Presented without comment, my movie options for the coming weekend.

Monsters vs. Aliens (PG, 90 min.)
12:40pm | 2:40pm | 4:40pm
Angels & Demons (PG-13, 140 min.)
1:00pm | 4:00pm | 7:00pm | 9:40pm
Imagine That (PG, 107 min.)
12:30pm | 3:00pm | 5:05pm | 7:25pm | 9:30pm
Year One (PG-13, 97 min.)
12:50pm | 2:50pm | 4:50pm | 7:20pm | 9:15pm
Land of the Lost (2009) (PG-13, 93 min.)
7:10pm | 9:25pm
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG, 105 min.)
12:45pm | 2:45pm | 4:45pm | 7:15pm | 9:20pm
My Life in Ruins (PG-13, 98 min.)
12:55pm | 2:55pm | 4:55pm | 7:05pm | 9:35pm

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Landlord (1970)

Dir. Hal Ashby

Hal Ashby's film school involved working as an editor for Norman Jewison, which garnered him an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night and performing some game-changing work on The Thomas Crown Affair. Taking the advice of Jewison, Ashby stepped up to the role of director for the racial satire The Landlord and made a debut film that is alternately hilarious, moving and still manages to showcase some avant garde editing and some of the more experimental work of master cinematographer Gordon Willis.

Adapted for the screen by a central figure in 1970s black cinema, Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess), the film stars Beau Bridges, looking all of about 16 years old, as the son of a wealthy, WASPy family who has decided to rebel a bit by purchasing a Park Slope, New York tenement building. After a disarming faux documentary introduction and jump-cut juxtaposing of Park Slope with Bridges' country club upbringing, the film settles down a bit and gets into a more standard story-telling mode. There are highly stylized flourishes throughout but at its heart is a straightforward story of growing-up and finding love and independence. It's like the new-wave, east-coast version of The Graduate.

There's a lot of fun to be had watching Bridges' Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders have his idealistic illusions towards his new job as a Park Slope landlord dashed as he meets his tenants one by one. His awkward introductions to the women of the apartment make for comedic gold. But what makes the scenes, and the entire movie, rise above even some of the best fish-out-of-water scenarios is how genuine the characters are drawn. It's easy to say that the film is free of stereotypes -- it's the contradictions and conflicted nature of the characters that make them shine. I defy you not to fall in love with Francine, the tenant played by Diana Sands (whose own life story is quite tragic), upon first sight. Her and the other characters, like Elgar and his mother (played by Lee Grant in a well deserved Oscar nominated performance), grow, evolve and reveal nuance as the film progresses.

It's this vibrant life that Ashby gives each character that raises the film far beyond an intellectual racial satire and into a film with a heart that's just as big as its brain. Like his contemporary Robert Altman, Ashby is able to turn on a dime from expressionistic montages to intense, intimate moments. It can be as exhausting as it is awe-inspiring but it works wonders in The Landlord. Ashby threads the needle throughout the film and somehow manages to tie together heartbreak, biting satire and huge laughs. For a first film, balancing all this is rather amazing.

After the tenants and his family are through their initial threats to kill him or disown him, Elgar settles into his apartment and stumbles into a relationship with a half African-half Irish dancer at a local nightclub. Their romance, like the film itself, starts out somewhat improbable before turning quite honest and touching. Marki Bey gives a strong performance as Lanie, the quintessential young, intelligent, independent, urban woman of the late 60s/early 70s. At first your not sure what Lanie sees in naive Elgar; but he is growing up, considerably so as their relationship blossoms, and as Lanie starts to fall for him, so do we.

But as naturally as boy meets girl, boy must of course lose girl before boy can really get girl. You see, one drunken night in Francine's apartment is all it took for Elgar to give himself over to her in a way that I think any hetero-minded male would jump at the chance to do. It's one of the best scenes in the film, spectacularly shot in long takes and lit by Willis in a dreamy red hue. And it's made even better by the lack of the regret-filled morning-after that usually follows these scenes. Instead, the morning after is just a continuation of Francine's tenderness and it's a refreshingly sweet moment. The regret comes a bit later, as Elgar and Lanie are settling in and Francine comes a-knocking with news that she's pregnant. This leads up to a hilarious visual joke as Elgar's mother's stands frozen and we cut away to her mind's eye as she pictures herself standing in the lawn singing to eight black children.

Even with an unexpected love-child being thrown into the picture, the film resists falling into any melodramatic traps or heading down any familiar, comfortable paths. The tone of the ending is a little typical of the rebellious movies of the time, such as the aforementioned The Graduate, but it still can't be considered predictable. The Landlord is constantly turning left when you think it's going to turn right and surprising you with its depth when you think it's going to be all style -- right up to the final scene. It's thoroughly unclassifiable and yet nowhere near the film that the cover for the VHS release was trying to sell.

There's enough bold experimentation (that works), hilariously memorable lines ("He just called us niggers" and just about everything else that comes out of the mouth of Lee Grant) and uniquely enjoyable characters to make the film a certified classic. There hardly a wasted moment or line of dialog in the film and even though it is distinctly of its time (this is indeed your daddy's Park Slope) its message and themes are still meaningful today and resonate more than most of the films that attempt to speak about race these days.

RFC and TIFF 2009

Accommodations are being made and tickets have been purchased for my first visit to Toronto and the Toronto International Film Festival. To say the least, I'm jazzed. As I'll be attempting to enjoy my time in Toronto, and hoping to see much of the city during my visit, I opted to go the route of 3x10 ticket packs to be split between myself and my girlfriend, who will probably end up seeing more of the city than myself. These ticket packages allow for a bit more flexibility than the single 30 pack I was toying with. At any rate, I plan on attending somewhere in the ball park of 20 films during the 10 day festival. Seems quite doable while causing minimal burnout. We put ourselves in for the advanced ticket program so there's a good chance I'll see some of the big name draws. But for the most part, since I have no obligation other than to enjoy myself, I'm not going to be threatening my mental health by trying to finagle myself into a Soderbergh film. I'll probably be attending the film that's playing at the right time and the right place -- but whatever I end up seeing, I'll be trying to get word back to RFC HQ in a timely manner. There seems to be a fair amount of wi-fi friendly locations around the theaters and screening rooms (as well as in my apartment), so this shouldn't be too much of a hassle.

A full list of the films to be shown is still a ways away from being complete but some of the major pieces are beginning to come into focus. Yesterday, there was a press conference to announce the Opening Night film and the Galas and Special Presentation films -- just over 20 films that are receiving some spotlight treatment by the festival. Included are Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! (which debuted a pretty terrific trailer just a couple weeks ago), Ricky Gervais' brainchild The Invention of Lying and Tim Blake Nelson's double-the-Edward-Norton-fun feature Leaves of Grass -- and those are just some of the noteworthy American films. Also announced were the inclusion of new films by Jane Campion, Bong Joon-ho, Bruno Dumont, Johnnie To and Nicolas Winding Refn. A couple of official press releases follow:

Press Releases

    7/14/2009| 2009 Festival To Open With World Premiere Of Jon Amiel's Creation

    Toronto - The 34th Toronto International Film Festival® opens September 10 with the world premiere Gala Presentation of Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (The Core, Entrapment, The Man Who Knew Too Little). Produced by Jeremy Thomas, the film tells the life story of Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code, Wimbledon, A Beautiful Mind) as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly (He's Just Not That Into You, The Day the Earth Stood Still, A Beautiful Mind) as his wife, Emma.

    "The tension between faith and reason is prominent in contemporary culture and this intimate look at Darwin puts a human face on a man whose theory remains controversial to this day," says Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF. "We are pleased to open the Festival with such an impassioned look at Charles Darwin, especially on the year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth."

    "We are honoured to open the Festival with Jon Amiel's latest feature," says Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. "By telling a story on many levels, weaving scenes from past and present, this depiction of Darwin promises to deeply move audiences by drawing them into the conflicted mind of a man who presented a concept that changed the world."

    Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part heart-wrenching love story Creation is the story of Charles Darwin. His great, still controversial, book The Origin of Species depicts nature as a battleground. In Creation the battleground is a man's heart. Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, Darwin finds himself caught in a struggle between faith and reason, love and truth.

    The Darwin we meet in Creation is a young, vibrant father, husband and friend whose mental and physical health gradually buckles under the weight of guilt and grief for a lost child. Ultimately it is the ghost of Annie, his adored 10-year-old daughter, who leads him out of darkness and helps him reconnect with his wife and family. Only then is he able to write the book that changed the world.

    Written by John Collee and based on the Randal Keynes biography of Darwin titled Annie's Box, Creation was co-developed by Recorded Picture Company with BBC Films and the UK Film Council.

    Ticket packages for the Festival are now available for purchase by cash, debit or Visa†. Purchase online at tiff.net/thefestival, by phone at 416-968-FILM or 1-877-968-FILM (Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed weekends and holidays) or in person at the Festival Box Office at Nathan Phillips Square (Box Office hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week), located at 100 Queen Street West, in the white tent, west of the square. The 34th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10 to 19, 2009.

    Press Releases

      7/14/2009| TIFF Announces Galas And Special Presentations

      Toronto - The Toronto International Film Festival is pleased to announce the addition of three Gala Presentations and nineteen Special Presentations to the programming lineup for this year's Festival, running September 10 to 19. Included are works from critically acclaimed filmmakers Jane Campion, Lu Chuan, Raoul Peck, Steven Soderbergh and Johnnie To featuring on-screen performances by Mariah Carey, Abbie Cornish, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Ricky Gervais, Eva Green, Johnny Hallyday, Lenny Kravitz, Sergi López, Mo'Nique, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sissy Spacek and Ben Whishaw.

      Ticket packages for the Festival are now available for purchase by cash, debit or Visa†. Purchase online at tiff.net/thefestival, by phone at 416-968-FILM or 1-877-968-FILM (Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed weekends and holidays) or in person at the Festival Box Office at Nathan Phillips Square (Box Office hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week), located at 100 Queen Street West, in the white tent, west side of the square.


      Get Low Aaron Schneider, USA
      World Premiere
      Inspired by the true story of Felix "Bush" Breazeale, this stately frontier drama stars Robert Duvall as a backwoods eccentric who stages his own funeral—while still alive. Ten thousand people arrive to hear him speak and to learn why this local legend exiled himself 40 years ago to the foothills of Eastern Tennessee. Set in the early 1930s, Get Low is a story of mystery and discovery that speaks of timeless things. Can we know who we are? Should we judge anyone? Is there redemption for those of us lost in the dark catacombs of our past? Also starring Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black.

      The Invention of Lying Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, USA
      World Premiere
      From Ricky Gervais, the award-winning creator and star of the original BBC series The Office and HBO's Extras, comes the new romantic comedyThe Invention of Lying, which takes place in an alternate reality where lying—even the concept of a lie—does not even exist. Everyone—from politicians to advertisers to the man and woman on the street—speaks the truth and nothing but the truth with no thought of the consequences. But when a down-on-his-luck loser named Mark suddenly develops the ability to lie, he finds that dishonesty has its rewards. In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, Mark easily lies his way to fame and fortune. But lies have a way of spreading, and he begins to realize that things are getting out of control when some of his tallest tales are being taken as, well, gospel. With the entire world now hanging on his every word, there is only one thing Mark has not been able to lie his way into: the heart of the woman he loves.

      Max Manus Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, Norway/Denmark/Germany
      North American Premiere
      The film is based on the true story of Norway's most colourful resistance fighter Max Manus, and follows him from the outbreak of World War II until the summer of peace in 1945. After fighting against the Russians during the Winter War in Finland, Max returns to a German-occupied Norway. He joins the active resistance movement, and becomes one of the most important members of the so-called "Oslo Gang", famous for their spectacular raids against German ships in Oslo harbour.

      Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire Lee Daniels, USA
      Canadian Premiere
      Lee Daniels's Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is a vibrant, honest and resoundingly hopeful film about the human capacity to grow and overcome. Set in 1987 Harlem, it is the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an illiterate African-American teenager who is pregnant for the second time by her absent father and abused by a poisonously angry mother. Despite her experiences, Precious has a latent understanding that other possibilities exist for her, and jumps at the chance to enroll in an alternative school. There she encounters Ms. Rain, a teacher who will start her on a journey from pain and powerlessness to self-respect and determination. The film stars Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz and introduces Gabourey Sidibe.

      Special Presentations

      The Boys Are Back Scott Hicks, Australia/United Kingdom
      World Premiere
      Based on the memoir by Simon Carr, Scott Hicks (Shine) directs The Boys Are Back, inspired by the poignant, comic and uplifting true story of a man who must suddenly raise his two sons alone. After the untimely passing of his second wife, the ill-prepared Joe (Clive Owen), who is dealing with his own loss, is confronted with the daily challenges of parenthood while coping with his young son Artie's expressions of grief. They are soon joined by Harry, Joe's teenage son from his first marriage, who brings his own personal "baggage" into the mix. Also starring Laura Fraser and Emma Booth.

      Bright Star Jane Campion, United Kingdom/Australia
      North American Premiere
      A drama based on the secret love affair between 23-year-old English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an outspoken student of fashion. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, they rode a wave of romantic obsession that deepened as their troubles mounted. Only Keats's illness and untimely death proved insurmountable.

      City of Life and Death Lu Chuan, China
      International Premiere
      From acclaimed director Lu Chuan comes a devastating and controversial epic film based on the most atrocious holocaust in Chinese history, the Nanjing Massacre. The story unfolds as the Japanese take over the city in 1937 and everyone is struggling to survive in a city where death is easier than life. Starring Liu Ye and Gao Yuanyuan.

      Cracks Jordan Scott, Ireland
      World Premiere
      In an austere and remote girls' boarding school, the most elite clique of girls are the illustrious members of the school's diving team. As they compete for the attention of their glamorous teacher (Eva Green), the arrival of a beautiful Spanish girl disrupts the delicate social balance. In an attempt to put differences aside, a secret midnight party takes place that will change their lives forever.

      Hadewijch Bruno Dumont, France
      World Premiere
      Hadewijch is a religious novice whose ecstatic, blind faith leads to her expulsion from a convent. Returning to her former life, Hadewijch reverts to being Céline, a Parisienne and daughter of a diplomat. However, her passion for God, rage and encounters with Khaled and Nassir soon lead her down a dangerous path.

      The Informant! Steven Soderbergh, USA
      North American Premiere
      Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a rising star at agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), suddenly turns whistleblower. Exposing his company's multinational price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI, Whitacre imagines himself as a kind of de facto secret agent. Unfortunately for the FBI, their lead witness hasn't been quite forthcoming about helping himself to the corporate coffers. Whitacre's ever-changing account frustrates the agents and threatens the case against ADM as it becomes almost impossible to decipher what is real and what is the product of Whitacre's rambling imagination. Based on the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history.

      Leaves of Grass Tim Blake Nelson, USA
      World Premiere
      Bill Kincaid, an Ivy League classics professor, returns to rural Oklahoma to bury his dangerously brilliant identical twin brother who had remained in their native state to grow hydroponic pot. Leaves of Grass is a fast-paced comic film that contrasts two distinct approaches to life. Featuring Edward Norton in the role of each twin.

      London River Rachid Bouchareb, United Kingdom/France/Algeria
      North American Premiere
      This intimate drama tells the story of two people, a Muslim man and a Christian woman, who are immediately affected by the July 2005 London bombings. Both of them are drawn to the British capital when their children go missing on the day of the attacks. Putting aside their cultural differences, they will give each other the strength to continue the search for their children and maintain their faith.

      Mao's Last Dancer Bruce Beresford, Australia/USA/China
      World Premiere
      Adapted from his internationally best-selling memoir, the film tells the true story of Li Cunxin, a Chinese-trained ballet dancer. Plucked from his childhood village, subjected to years of vigorous training and threatened during the Cultural Revolution, Cunxin decides to leave China at great risk to himself and those he loves, for an uncertain future.

      Moloch Tropical Raoul Peck, Haiti/France
      World Premiere
      A democratically elected "President" and his closest collaborators are getting ready for a state celebration. But in the morning of the event, he wakes up to find the country inflamed and the streets in turmoil. Despite the situation, the President does not want to face reality and refuses to resign. Overwhelmed, he plunges into a deep mental confusion as the events unfold. Set in a castle in the clouds, Moloch Tropical is a Shakespearian, behind-the-scenes depiction of the end of power.

      Mother Bong Joon-ho, South Korea
      North American Premiere
      A unique noir thriller that digs into the secrecy surrounding a terrible murder and the mystery of a mother's primal love for her son. The films of director Bong Joon-ho regularly, and brilliantly, break with convention, thanks to an imagination that is not confined to the accepted parameters of humour, suspense or horror - Mother is no exception.

      Ondine Neil Jordan, Ireland/USA
      World Premiere
      A lyrical, modern fairy tale that tells the story of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), an Irish fisherman whose life is transformed when he catches a beautiful and mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his nets. His daughter Annie (Alison Barry) comes to believe that the woman is a magical creature, while Syracuse falls helplessly in love. However, like all fairy tales, enchantment and darkness go hand in hand.

      Partir Catherine Corsini, France
      International Premiere
      Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a well-to-do married woman and mother in the south of France. Her idle bourgeois lifestyle gets her down and she decides to go back to work as a physiotherapist. Her husband agrees to fix-up a consulting room for her in their backyard. When Suzanne and the man (Sergi López) hired to do the building meet, the mutual attraction is sudden and violent. Suzanne decides to give up everything and live this all-engulfing passion to the fullest.

      Scheherazade Tell Me a Story Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt
      North American Premiere
      Hebba is the host of a successful political talk show in present-day Cairo. Karim, her husband, is deputy editor-in-chief of a governmentowned newspaper. When Party big shots imply his wife is meddling with opposition politics, Karim convinces her to start a series of talk shows around issues involving women. Hebba knows, of course, that women's issues are political. But she could not imagine to what extent, and the tension eventually leads to the break-up of her marriage.

      Solitary Man Brian Koppelman and David Levien, USA
      World Premiere
      Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is feeling his age, but you wouldn't know it from the company he keeps. A former mogul with a chain of car dealerships, until legal troubles knocked him out of business, Ben now keeps a grip on the world through his relationships with women - many women. The cast also includes Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary Louise Parker and Jenna Fischer.

      Valhalla Rising Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/United Kingdom
      World Premiere
      It is 1000 AD. For years, One Eye, a mute warrior of supernatural strength, has been held prisoner by the Norse chieftain Barde. Aided by Are, a boy slave, One Eye slays his captor and together he and Are escape, beginning a journey into the heart of darkness. On their flight, One Eye and Are board a Viking vessel, but the ship is soon engulfed by an endless fog that clears only as the crew sights an unknown land. As the new world reveals its secrets and the Vikings confront their terrible and bloody fate, One Eye discovers his true self.

      Vengeance Johnnie To, Hong Kong/France
      North American Premiere
      A father comes to Hong Kong to avenge his daughter, whose family was murdered. Officially, he's a French chef. Twenty years ago, he was a killer. Vengeance is a moody, noir-ish tour-de-force, starring French pop icon Johnny Hallyday.

      The Vintner's Luck Niki Caro, New Zealand/France
      World Premiere
      Set in early 19th century France The Vintner's Luck tells the compelling tale of Sobran Jodeau, an ambitious young peasant winemaker and the three loves of his life—his beautiful and passionate wife Celeste, the proudly intellectual baroness Aurora de Valday and Xas, an angel who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Sobran. A fantastical creature with wings that smell of snow, Xas turns out to be an unconventional mentor. Under his guidance Sobran is forced to fathom the nature of love and belief and in the process, grapples with the sensual, the sacred and the profane—all in pursuit of the perfect vintage.

      The Special Presentations programme is made possible through the generous sponsorship of American Movie Classics Company LLC.

      About Bell Lightbox
      Currently under construction, Bell Lightbox, a breathtaking five-storey complex located in downtown Toronto will provide a permanent home for film lovers celebrating cinema from around the world and will propel TIFF forward as an international leader in film culture. Designed by innovative architecture firm KPMB, Bell Lightbox's fluid design encourages exploration, movement and play. The campaign to build Bell Lightbox is generously supported by founding sponsor Bell, the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario, The King and John Festival Corporation - consisting of the Reitman family and The Daniels Corporation., RBC as Major Sponsor and Official Bank, Visa†, Copyright Collective of Canada, NBC Universal Canada, The Allan Slaight Family, The Brian Linehan Charitable Foundation and CIBC. The Board of Directors, staff and many generous individuals and corporations have also contributed to the campaign. For more information on the Bell Lightbox campaign, visitbelllightbox.ca.


      For further information, contact the Communications Department at 416-934-3200 or by email at proffice@tiff.net

      Friday, July 10, 2009

      Agnès Varda

      Varda was once described in a newspaper account as an ancestor to the French New Wave, a comment she thought was unflattering to her age. Yes, her La pointe-courte may have come out several years before Monsieurs Godard and Truffaut picked up their first cameras (and even their first pens), but the three were born only four years apart. Worse than disparaging her age was the insinuation that Varda was one of those dreaded things in artistic circles - the forerunner. While meant to be complimentary, the appellation of forerunner usually ends up conferring upon the recipient a few nice pats on the back: "Way to go with the inspiration, but we're going to go watch someone else's film now."

      After spending a week with the Criterion Collection set 4 by Agnes, it became clear that if her work could be described as an ancestor to the New Wave, then the children never did surpass the accomplishments of the mother. Yes, I'll say it: Varda is my favorite auteur of the New Wave.

      Of course there are a hundred qualifications to make, the most important is that I have never sat and watched four Godard or Truffaut movies in a week, and I've also only seen a handful of films combined by Resnais and the rest. (I also saw that Melville is sometimes included in the bunch, which just seems bizarre). My experience with these directors has been spread out over 15 years, starting with a failed effort to get my friends to watch The 400 Blows in high school, falling asleep during Jules et Jim in a college film class, and drinking far too much of something at Sean's house while barely tolerating Alphaville. Pierrot le Fou and Shoot the Piano Player could make an excellent tag-team start at challenging the Varda box set, but circumstances what they are, she's the best.

      Ironically enough, the herald of the new filmaking style La Pointe-Courte (1954) was the weakest of the four films. Set in a small fishing village, it is the dual story of a failing love and a failing town, only one of which looks like it will survive. While the drifting and affectless conversations of the two lovers are what most seem to anticipate the big developments in French cinema, it's the shots of the town that are most revealing today. Though only fifty years ago, it seemed like another world, with the economy of the town looking quite like what it might have been 150 years ago - a few fishing crafts, a few small houses, and a rebellious and fearful relation to authority.

      Varda's strengths as a director are immediately obvious - an alive camera and the ability to fill the screen with motion and arresting visuals. One scene of the two lovers walking is interrupted by a small train emerging from nowhere and moving at an impossibly slow speed. Another simply shows a man setting up his boat, with other workers cutting in front of the camera. In almost every shot, Varda makes sure the camera is doing something, or capturing something of interest. Watching La Pointe-Courte, one isn't surprised to learn that she was a photographer before deciding to become a filmaker.

      In one interview in the collection, Varda claims to have seen only a handful of movies in her life before deciding she wanted to be a director, an astonishing fact when considered against how professional and structured her films are. While La Pointe-Courte, sticks to an inflexible division between the two stories, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) presents a real-time classic, following a small-time chanteuse through the streets of Paris for the exact running time of the movie (which is only an hour and a half - the last 30 minutes are saved for Cleo and her man).

      Starring the stunning, even by the standards of 60s French film stars, Corinne Marchand, Cleo examines the rigours of celebrity life on a day when Cleo is about to learn from her doctor if she has cancer. Instead of the stereotypical descent story, however, Cleo instead gets gradually better throughout the day, moving out of her inward shell and embracing people around her - it is, without any sentimentality, a wonderfully uplifting film. As Varda described the progression, she said she wanted the perspective of the camera to trace Cleo's perspective, beginning with close shots of the actress herself, and then moving to other people. The only way to avoid what Satre called "the gaze," Varda seems to be arguing, is to care about the people before they can start caring about you.

      From the mostly cheery to the downright bizarre, and from classic Parisian B&W to the bright and shiny of country colors, the move from Cleo to Le bonheur (1965) is startling. Thrity-three years before Solondz took on that most elusive of all emotions, Varda delivered an odd and at times shocking film about the good life in the suburbs. Staring the real-life Drouot family as a seemingly content nuclear tribe, Le Bonheur introduces an obvious wrinkle (an affair) and a not-so obvious devastating one. Stories of families torn apart are nothing new, but the nonchalance of the husband Francois seems simultaneously to be the most natural and horrifying thing you could imagine. Your intellect says no, but almost everything else makes his courtship of a young postal worker seem like a romance for the ages.

      For someone who started in classic black and white, Varda knew how to use color for effect, saturating scenes with two or three colors that shift throughout the film. Not as obvious as something like Hero, but enough matching sweaters and buildings to make each shot a study in composition. Add to this the creepy/beautiful Mozart that plays throughout the film, the story and filmaking make for a mindsplitting experience.

      As good as the first three films were, I was unprepared for Sans toit ni loi (1984), or Vagabond. This is what a story of alienation and loneliness should look like. I'm tempted to compare it to recent films like Into the Wild and Wendy and Lucy, but even the latter film - fine in its own way - looks like a sentimental bit of Oscar-bait after 100 minutes of Varda's story of Mona Bergeron. Offering only a few glimpses of redemption, Vagabond is merciless in following the drifting Mona from town to town. The character she meets - mostly real people that Varda had scouted - range from friendly to terrifying, but they are all fully rounded characters rather than ciphers for the protagonist's experience. It makes sense given the casting choices, but Varda somehow seems to have captured something very real about life in the streets.

      Amazingly, this isn't done Dardennes-style (though Mona gives Rosseta a nice run as tragic heroine) but through long dolly shots and a carefully choreographed set of images and music, which are felt but not obvious unless you hear the director's commentary. The story is of course about freedom vs. loneliness, and reminded me of a great Guy Clark line that seems akin to what Varda is after:

      there ain't no money in poetry
      And that's what sets
      the poet free
      And I have all the freedom
      I can stand

      It's no spoiler to tell you that Mona's journey does not end well, but there are a series of images near the end of the film so shocking and haunting - and one that is simply the strangest thing I've ever seen - that Mona seems like the kind of character you wont ever get out of your head.

      *A thanks to the guy who left a copy of the Times Sunday Arts section in the library, where A.O. Scott's feature got me to see Varda's films.