Category Archives: TIFF 2012

More than Honey – Germany/Austria/Switzerland — Markus Imhoof


Last movie of the week for me and not the best I fear. This is a documentary about bees and theoretically about why they are dying and why that’s and issue for us. I have seen films about this in the past and thought a European perspective would be interesting. Sadly this movie was not. There are some interesting facts but the whole film is disjointed and has no particular direction, conclusion or overall argument to be made. In the end I learned that the current situation of honey bees is dire, that the reasons are multifactorial and mostly our fault for overbreeding and treating them as a commodity, and that forty percent of our food is dependent on their survival. What can or can’t be done about the situation is touched on mostly in terms of correcting the way we breed them and care for them but the director loses control of the message and it becomes muddled and confusing. So sadly not a great way to end my week of films but so it goes. Next post will summarize the week.

More than Honey

Emperor – Japan/United States – Peter Webber

I was not sure about this movie when I picked it out, could it be a routine laudatory picture of General Douglas MacArthur, the ruthless U.S. Commander in the Pacific during World War Two? A kind of homage to the U.S. military? But it did star Tommy Lee Jones and he has a reputation for movies that are somewhat more thoughtful about the U.S. and its politics – In the Valley of Elah and great stories like No Country for Old Men. So I took a chance.

This movie may not be out for a while yet as we saw a version only completed two weeks before it was presented at TIFF. It is a joint venture with Japanese producers and uses American and Japanese actors, and a British Director who honed his skills at the BBC. It tells the story of the start of the American occupation of Japan after the conclusion of the war and specifically the story of whether or not the Emperor of Japan – Hirohito would be tried as a war criminal and likely executed. MacArthur is played by Jones but the main character is one of his officers played by Mathew Fox a relatively unknown actor but who turns in an excellent performance. Fox is charged with presenting MacArthur with evidence one way or the other as to whether Hirohito was complicit in Japan going to war or if he was innocent. The unique quality that Fox’s character brings to the task is that he has knowledge and respect for Japanese culture and a romantic connection with the daughter of one of Japan’s leading generals from before the war. The film follows his attempts to track his lost love down and learn her fate while breaking down the defences around the Emperor to determine his guilt or innocence.

We were lucky to have the director there for a Q and A. Usually by this time in the week everyone has gone home and the TIFF staff do not even introduce the movies. So it was bonus time for us. Webber was very good and was asked some tough questions. The toughest was: “Did he feel the film had a message for us today?”. As I watched the movie I thought how impressive it was that here was a man acting for the U.S. in a country they had just devastated with both conventional and nuclear weapons but who knew and respected its traditions and people. I could not help thinking of the quality of the U.S ambassador to Libya recently killed by an angry mob. This was a great diplomat who won many allies for the U.S. but his death was greeted with ignorance and stupidity by the likes of Romney and Donald Trump (who shamelessly and ignorantly proclaimed that Libya had declared war on America). Here however we see how knowledge and respect wins friends while ignorance and bluster cause resentment. The director answered the question with some trepidation. He asked if the audience was all Canadian and then asked how many Americans were present. About a third of the audience put up their hands. He shrugged and apologized and said he meant no offence but that he wished George Bush had seen this film before he blundered into Iraq. Much applause.

The other question of interest was about the Japanese actors. Many of them spoke English in the film but apparently most had no idea what the words meant. He said he had great respect for them as serious actors. The man who plays Hirohito was in fact a Kabuki actor who usually plays women. Apparently for the very few but important scenes he has in the film, he studied film of the former Emperor and learned his mannerisms and gait and completely absorbed himself in the role. Webber says he is going to be very interested in seeing how audiences in Japan react to the film.

So remember this one. The anticipated release is spring 2013 so they are not looking for Oscars but this is good movie with a worthy message.

A review of the film I read was not positive concluding with (full review at: Playlist ):

All told, “Emperor” delivers a perfectly serviceable wartime movie, with its intentions in the right place. At the same time its harmlessness and adherence to a formulaic storytelling style means the film has no voice of its own and at its worst can feel like the cinematic equivalent of making sure you get enough fiber in your diet. But Tommy Lee Jones at least does make the endeavor worthwhile, pointing toward the better film that could have been made, instead of the one we got.

They got it wrong. Definitely worth your time.

Emperor

Men at Lunch – Ireland — Seán Ó Cualáin

I can’t imagine there are many of you who have not seen this photograph. Eleven men eating lunch on a steel girder 800 feet above Manhattan. It is one of the most iconic photos ever taken and one of my favourites. These eleven men were high steel workers near the top of the Rockefeller Center (30 Rock) in 1932 at the height (so to speak) of the depression. The intriguing aspect of the photo is that no one knows who took it or who the men are although many claim to be related. This puzzle attracted the Irish director who wanted to learn who they were and how the photo came to be. The result is a fascinating film about the history of New York during the depression, the extreme danger of the work these men did and the history of immigration to America. This is a very Irish film from the director to the Gaelic speaking historians who needed sub-titles, to the contemporary Irish photographer who is taking photos of the high steel workers currently building the replacements for the twin towers, to at least two of the men in the photo who come from the little village of Shanaglish in County Galway in Ireland. In the course of the research he is able to prove that the men at the far left and right of the picture are in fact from this little village but the others remain a mystery although they are representative of the great European immigrations that make New York what it is today.

He is also able to debunk the theory that the photo is faked, with a chance to see the now shattered glass plate negative from which the prints have been taken clearly not photoshopped like they could even do that then. There are also many other similar shots of both workers and photographers standing untethered on six inch beams 800 to 1200 feet about the ground. Many men died doing this work although it paid well and at the time roughly one third of New Yorkers were out of work due to the depression so they felt lucky to be making upwards of $10 a day for their efforts. The unofficial motto of the union was: We don’t die, we are killed.

A fascinating film and if you have any curiosity about this photograph at all you will do well to track this down and spend 90 minutes completely engrossed. I promise.

Men at Lunch

Jayne Mansfield’s Car – United States – Billy Bob Thornton

Although I have a real problem with Billy Bob as an arrogant self-important snob, I confess that this movie is actually really good and much of the credit goes to Billy Bob despite being assisted by an amazing cast that includes Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Kevin Bacon. Billy Bob and Robert Duvall were at the screening I attended and there was a Q and A afterward that was good (I guess because no one asked Billy Bob about his musical career – see link below). The film is set in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War in a small town in Alabama. It focuses on the funeral of the former matriarch of the family who had left Robert Duvall and moved to England where she re-married a sophisticated Englishman played by John Hurt. No one in the US had heard from her in years until she passes away and asked to be buried in Alabama. What ensues is a confrontation of cultures from two families who are equally dysfunctional as the English family brings the body home for burial. Both families have been through war with all the men having served in the First or Second World Wars or in Vietnam and their experiences have taken a terrible toll on them all including particularly the relationships between brothers and fathers. The meeting results in a moving exploration of the impact of war on families and ultimately ends in reconciliation between and within the families.

It turns out to be an autobiographical film in many ways and Billy Bob talked about that in the Q and A. I have to say however that despite this particular piece of work being very good; Billy Bob has lots of other issues to resolve. Like how happy he is to be in a country (Canada) he has described as mashed potatoes without the gravy. Or like his infamous interview with Jian Ghomeshi. The link is here for those who are interested – Billy Bob Thornton and the Q Interview.

So a man with a highly inflated ego appears to have done a great job on this project – he is very good himself as one of the brothers but Robert Duvall is simply amazing, (Oscar worthy again and likely to lose out to something less subtle) as is Kevin Bacon who is one of the most underrated actors in with world. So definitely worth seeing.

Oh – what has Jayne Mansfield got to do with it? Well Mansfield – a sex symbol to compete with Marilyn Monroe but less messed up than Marilyn – died young as well at age 34 in a horrible car accident. Following the American entrepreneurial spirit someone bought the car and toured it around so those with morbid curiosity could see the wreck. The car rear ended a tractor trailer and the top was cut off causing severe head trauma to the victims. Some have said she was decapitated but this is untrue. Nonetheless the tour included a plastic replica of her head on the seat of the car. In one scene in the movie Robert Duvall takes John Hurt to see the exhibit and it is the start of their bonding. Strange yes?

Jayne Mansfield is the mother of Mariska Hargitay by the way – Olivia in Law and Order S.V.U. Save that for your next trivial pursuit game.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car

Love, Marilyn – United States – Liz Garbus

For those of you who have seen and loved My Week With Marilyn starring Academy Award nominated Michelle Williams, this film is for you. For those who haven’t – what is wrong with you? Well if you have any romance in you these two movies are really worth your time. The first is a dramatized version of Colin Clark’s journal of a week spent with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier on a film set in the UK. That film gives great insight into this tragic figure and her short but brilliant career as the archetypal Hollywood Star and sex symbol. Love, Marilyn is a documentary based on archival footage of her, interviews with all the significant people in her life and a collection of her letters, journals and other writing that has recently been discovered and published. The director had a series of contemporary actors offer their time to read and perform Monroe’s written words including all of the following: Ben Foster, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Elizabeth Banks, Uma Thurman, Jeremy Piven, Viola Davis, Adrien Brody, Lindsay Lohan, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Ehle, F. Murray Abraham, Jack Huston, David Strathairn, Janet McTeer, Oliver  Plat , Lili Taylor, Stephen Lang.

It is very effective and evokes some very emotional reactions. One of the major narrators is Amy Green who was her contemporary and closest friend. Amy and her husband Milton often had Marilyn stay with them and they became confessors of a sort for her. We were lucky enough to have Amy Green at the showing to do a Q and A after the film and although she is now elderly and quite frail, she was funny and insightful about Marilyn making it a real treat for us in the audience. For those who may not see what so many others do in Marilyn a few facts. She was born to a single mother, her father leaving as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown and Marilyn (then named Norma Jeane Mortenson) was raised in a series of foster homes and orphanages. She survived all that to emerge with a goal of being an actress and she worked tremendously hard at it to great success. Throughout, however, she suffered from insecurity, loneliness and a feeling that she was not worthy of being loved or of loving. This comes out in the journals and letters very movingly. The persona she built and presented to the world was very much a mask but one that she built very carefully and deliberately and put on with purpose. Lee Strasberg recalled a time when he was working with her and she asked to go the powder room. He commented that he should have had a good book with him because her trips to the powder room could take “as long as an elephant’s pregnancy”. Nonetheless about 20 minutes later, when she had not returned, he went and knocked on the ladies room door and she told him to come in. He found her staring at her image in the mirror and when he asked her what she was looking at, she pointed at the mirror and responded, “I’m looking at her.”

The film is full of anecdotes like this that provide insight into an amazing woman who because of her early and tragic death has become an icon that many of her contemporaries like Liz Taylor never achieved. I highly recommend this movie to all.

Love, Marilyn

Antiviral – Canada – Brandon Cronenberg

Yes you are reading that right. This is a film by David’s little boy Brandon (well he is 32 but…) and it shows. I am going to go a bit cranky with this. I had heard about it being shown at Cannes along with Dad’s newest film Cosmopolis. So I was curious. People have been very polite about this movie I think so as not to offend David and it is clear that Dad pulled lots of strings to get Brandon some attention like getting into Cannes, hiring Malcolm McDowell to do a cameo role and so forth. The film harkens back to the early Cronenberg films like Shivers and Scanners but to my mind it is more like an amateurish version of those early films. This is a bad movie and I am particularly upset that it left such a bad taste in my mouth after seeing Great Expectations that morning.

The premise of the film is that celebrity worship has gone to the point where people are actually marketing the viral infections of celebrities and injecting them into fans so they can experience their favourite stars’ illnesses. Of course it all goes horribly wrong. At the Q and A after the film the sycophantic host asked the first question: “Like, How did you ever come up with the idea for this movie?” and Brandon in sharp contrast to the wit and intelligence of Mike Newell (see Great Expectations) responded; ” Like I got the idea at film school when I was like really sick see? And like I was thinking I have this flu from some other person like? Like I am sharing it with someone or something. And then I thought well what if like we actually gave people diseases of their favourite stars? Wouldn’t that be like the ultimate fan worship?” So this trivial thought was turned into a two hour ordeal.

I am paraphrasing this dialogue a bit but I should note that the average age of the 1500 at Great Expectations was maybe 50 and the average age at Antiviral was more like 30. In line waiting to get in I was just in front of four or five young film makers who were talking about their like script and like how they really wanted to get this guy to come to their party that night so they could like impress their producer right? It was driving me like mad right? When I got into the theatre however I was sitting beside a elderly gentleman, yes older even than me, and we chatted about the festival and the films we had seen and as the room went dark and the movie started, he fell fast asleep. Believe me, he had the right response to this loser film.

Antiviral

Great Expectations – United Kingdom – Mike Newell

I went into this one with some trepidation. Great Expectations is a huge novel with many characters and a long and winding story but the cast which included Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, and Robbie Coltrane got me hooked. So off to the Elgin with 1500 other movie fans to see what turned out to be the best movie of the week so far. It will take something pretty special to beat this one out. The set design and cinematography evoke Dickens’ London perfectly and the three big name stars are perfect in their roles. Clearly Carter revels in the odd and quirky and she plays Miss. Haversham very convincingly although I am always seeing a bit of the Red Queen or Bellatrix Lestrange behind those eyes. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Magwitch and Coltrane is clearly having fun as Jaggers the lawyer. If you saw War Horse then you will know Jeremy Irvine who plays Pip. He does very well with an excellent supporting cast.

Mike Newell was there for a Q and A after the film and I think it was one of the best Q and A’s I have ever seen. He was funny, thoughtful, and gave us great insight into how he was able to collapse this huge novel into two hours. Obviously he cut out some major parts but in the end kept the essence of the story. Newell is an eclectic director with a long track record including Four Weddings and a Funeral, High Fidelity (Exec Producer), Pushing Tin, one Harry Potter film and Prince of Persia. So all over the map but mostly with tongue in cheek. I am guessing this movie has a real chance at some important Oscar nominations. Definitely worth your time to attend.

Great Expectations

Hannah Arendt – Germany – Margarethe von Trotta

Okay – this was worth my whole week at the Festival. I was totally surprised by this film. My postgraduate work was in philosophy and specifically 20th century European philosophy and Jewish existentialist theology (wowzers). I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition and I thought to learn something about this thinker and writer. However, the book that gained her notoriety and on which this movie is based was her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil. So instead of a somewhat academic look at a 20th Century German Philosopher, I was treated to a brilliant dramatic story of most unusual woman who demonstrated great courage and love.

As a Jew who was incarcerated in a detention camp in France in the Second World War and who only escaped to the US by chance she had much at stake when she was asked by the New Yorker Magazine to go to Jerusalem to witness his trial after he was abducted by the Israeli’s from Argentina. She was stunned by the proceedings and by Eichmann himself who came across as not one of the evil geniuses behind the Holocaust but as a minor and very mediocre bureaucrat who was simply following orders. He put the Jews on the trains but it was another department that dealt with them afterwards. He denied any culpability or guilt in the matter. He was just following orders. Once they were on the trains and off to their designated destinations, the rest was up to other departments. The film is a dramatic presentation of Arendt’s time in Israel and her return and the impact of her articles and ultimately her book on her career and reputation. One of the most dramatic aspects of the film is the newsreel footage of Eichmann’s testimony. It lends so much credence to her argument that the most extreme form of evil is ultimately so banal.

While many were upset at her description of Eichmann as a minor and mediocre bureaucrat the statements that got her most in trouble were related to her claim that the leaders of the Jewish communities in Europe were complicit in creating the Holocaust because they counselled their congregations and communities not to resist. This was seen by many to be blaming the victim when in fact Arendt, a Jew and someone who barely escaped being a victim of the Holocaust herself, saw this as just an extension of the totalitarian system and the banality of evil reaching even into the victims themselves.

The acting in this film is phenomenally good and the story compelling and engrossing despite the intellectual argument that flows through and drives the plot. I can’t recommend this film more highly to you all.

Hannah Arendt

Dangerous Liaisons – China – Hur Jin-ho

My next film after the vampires was a Chinese version of a classic French play Les liaisons dangereuses which has also been an excellent film in 1988 starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. I highly recommend the latter but only if you can sit through a play that has yet to capture me despite seeing it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, great American actors (see above) and a couple of other performances including this one. I have to stop going to see it. At any rate the original is set in pre-revolutionary France and is supposed to show the moral decay of the aristocracy and how their games with one another’s love and affection backfires on them to demonstrate their disconnect from real human emotion. This one is set in pre-war, pre-communist revolution Shanghai (1931). The story is the same as two older and corrupted social dilettantes try to humiliate competitors by taking advantage of younger more naïve and uncorrupted lovers. The motivation and the overall story have no compelling element for me originally and this film even less so. I am not sure if it is that I don’t connect to dramatic Chinese acting or if it is the story itself but this was not a great film.

I will give credit for one element and that is set direction. The filming of 1931 Shanghai is very good and evocative but once the actors show up I am lost. The lead actress is Zhang Xia of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame. If you loved her in that it might tempt you to go for this one.

Dangerous Liaisons

Byzantium – United Kingdom/Ireland – Neil Jordan

This is a vampire movie and I figured to broaden my experience of horror films I should get beyond Bella Lugosi and “I don’t drink……wine”. So I swallowed my aversion to Anne Rice and went to see this new film by Neil Jordan(Interview with a Vampire and The Company of Wolves among others). I was attracted because he also did Michael Collins which was amazing and not a horror film at all. Disappointed I was. It was so booorrrrriinng right up until the end when suddenly there was action and resolution but until then it was just gothic in the worst sense of the word. While sitting with another TIFF veteran waiting for my next film we got chatting about what movies were good and bad this year and I mentioned how much I was unhappy with Byzantium. He was surprised, had seen it with me as it turns out and thought it was wonderful. I guess you have to like vampires. I should note that this guy sees five movies a day and will see between 40 and 50 movies this week. I am not sure he isn’t confusing Byzantium with something else at that rate but who am I to judge. Let’s just say that if you like vampires you will likely enjoy this and if you don’t stay away. It is not a great film to introduce you to the horror genre.

The director was there for a Q and A afterwards and that was somewhat interesting but the movie is based on a book and part of the story was about how people became vampires. In the book they were taken off to Turkey and bitten by a giant bird but they didn’t have the funding for this so instead they used this isolated little island of the west coast of Ireland (The director is Irish afterall). At any rate this saved them big bucks and maybe that says something about the movie overall.

Byzantium