The Very Best Intentions

After three days, 14 films, a brilliant Sufjan Stevens concert, several fantastic meals, and too little sleep, I’ve abandoned my ambitions of blogging a brief capsule review of everything I see. There’s too little time, and I don’t want my TIFF experience to be hampered by blog guilt. Instead, here are some brief comments — first impressions and unsupported opinions, mostly. I hope to write up longer responses to the best films after I get back home and find some breathing room.

Ballets Russes

Dir. by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine

There are so many interesting films to be made about the Ballets Russes. There’s the story of their collaborations with the finest artists of the Modern era, including Dali, Picasso, Miro, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and Copeland. There’s the story of how the Ballets Russes thrived at times under the glamorous spotlight of celebrity, bumping elbows with Hollywood elite. There’s the story of sexuality and the early-20th century ballet — of masculinity, in particular, and gay men who became women’s fantasies. But these stories are only hinted at here. Instead, Geller and Goldfine appear to have become trapped by the good fortune of their interviews, and the film plays like an episode of Biography in which dancer after dancer recounts those favorite stories that, I can only assume, they’ve been telling for the better part of eight decades. The surviving members of the Ballets Russes are endlessly entertaining, and there’s a real charm in their storytelling. The women are still elegant and graceful — sexy, even; the men are still full of piss. But the film doesn’t do much beyond providing a platform for their pride (in the best sense of the word) and nostalgia. Ballets Russes will likely play well on cable and PBS.

The Sun

Dir. by Alexander Sokurov

My favorite moment in The Sun is a shot of Emperor Hirohito as he steps onto the front porch of his Palace. Sokurov shoots him from a low angle and tracks slowly — very slowly — to the left, panning right as he goes. The effect leaves Hirohito alone and still at the center of the frame but sets the background in motion, a perfect visual metaphor for the much-transformed world the Emperor has entered. If I’m not mistaken, it’s literally the first glimpse of sunlight in the film, and it comes forty or so minutes in. Set during the hours preceding Japan’s surrender, The Sun studies Hirohito in close-up, fusing the film’s perspective with the character’s subjective view. (Hirohito’s subjectivity transforms the battle sequences in particularly amazing ways.) I have two full pages of hand-written notes on The Sun. Great film. Really great.

Three Times

Dir. by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is in a close race with Claire Denis right now for the title of “Darren’s Favorite Active Filmmaker.” (Claire and Hou are incredibly jealous of the title, as you can imagine.) I had a stupid grin on my face during every moment of Three Times. There’s no chance I’ll see a more beautiful film this week, and, while I wasn’t as moved by it as I was Cafe Lumiere last year, I found it more interesting. It’s juxtaposition of three eras harkens to Good Men, Good Women, my favorite of Hou’s films. Three Times, so far at least, is the highlight of my festival, but I would have predicted as much.

Shanghai Dreams

Dir. by Xiaoshuai Wang

For the first 90 minutes, I thought Shanghai Dreams was an interesting but flawed film, but then it broke one of my cardinal rules: Only really, really, really talented filmmakers get to rape a character for dramatic effect. At that point I began to actively dislike the film. My friends liked it a bit more than I, but we were all disappointed by the final act.

Wavelengths 1

I’m not sure what to say about Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine except, um, wow. Five minutes in I realized that my left hand was gripping my right forearm to the point that both actually hurt. One of the local critics described the film as the most exciting 17 minutes of the festival, and he was exactly right. It’s Modern in the defamiliarizing, “Make it new!” tradition, but it’s also a pastiche of pop culture, and it’s hip-hop in a way that someone like Darren Aronofsky only hints at. Amazing.

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Dir. by Stephen Frears

Although nearly everyone I’ve spoken to in festival lines would disagree with me about this, I think this film has some serious pacing and tone problems, and I was also annoyed by a late plot development, but, good lord, Judi Dench is great fun to watch. There’s a scene between her and Christopher Guest that might include the greatest spit take in the history of comedy. Despite my complaints I laughed pretty hard at times, and it played well to the audience.


Dir. by Danis Tanovic

During his Q&A, Tanovic spoke often about how this film is his homage to Kieslowski. K’s spirit is alive and well in the content of the film — it poses another of those classic moral conundrums without offering anything like an answer — but I felt little of Kieslowski in the style. I’m ambivalent about this one, so I’ll hold my comments for a bit.

Battle in Heaven

Dir. by Carlos Reygadas

I went in with doubts, but by the ten-minute mark I had surrendered my trust completely to Reygadas. Like Claire Denis’s L’Intrus, which sparked a great deal of conversation among my friends here last year, I enjoyed Battle in Heaven as a character study that does most of its work through a subjective camera. Though I have some theories, I’m not sure which parts of the film “really happen” and which are dreamed, and I’m not at all convinced it matters. All of the film is very, very real to the main character. I found myself thinking occasionally of Bruno Dumont during the film, as well. There’s something to the camera movements, especially, that suggest some kind of outside or transcendent force at play in Reygada’s world. It’s related to the film’s Catholic iconography, I’m sure, but I haven’t yet decided how. If it were playing again I’d be tempted to give it another shot. This might be the film so far that I’m most looking forward to discussing.

A History of Violence

Dir. by David Cronenberg

It’s going to be a lot of fun watching how this one plays to American critics. It works wonderfully as a genre film, and based on the laughter and cheering that errupted throughout the screening, it will definitely play as such to many audiences. But it also subverts the genre and offers an allegory on Bush’s America that, in my opinion, holds together much better than Dogville. Another great film.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Dir. by Sidney Pollack

I’m addicted to the TV show American Chopper for the same reason I enjoyed this documentary: I love hearing experts talk about fields that are a complete mystery to me. Pollack’s film doesn’t break any new formal ground, but he avoids most of the biopic pitfalls (it’s not arranged chronologically, for example), and his close friendship with Gehry allows him some intimacy with the subject.

A Travers la Foret

Dir. by Jean-Paul Civeyrac

I arrived a bit late to this screening after a mad dash down Bloor, so take my comments with a grain of salt. This film has some fine camerawork and nice performances, and I really enjoyed the tone. It worked for me as a “mood” piece (for lack of a better word), but I’m not sure if there’s much there there.

Les Saignantes

Dir. by Jean-Pierre Bekolo

I scheduled this one because it was made in Cameroon and because only at TIFF do I get to see films from places like Cameroon. If I watch a film a day for the next ten years I’ll likely never see another one like Les Saignantes. Bekolo introduced it as a “science fiction, comedy, horror film about the future of his country” and said that making the film rescued him from despair. It’s about a movement of women who use their sexual power to overthrow the government. In the process, the film manages to suggest a kind of cool, untapped feminist political power, but unfortunately it does so by projecting onto women degrading male fantasies. Baby steps, I guess.


Dir. by Diane Bertrand

Apparently during her Q&A, Bertrand said that she read Yoko Ogawa’s novel three times, wondering all the while how she could turn it into a French film. The comment doesn’t surprise me. As I watched it, I sensed that many of the scenes that played so badly on screen would work better on the page. L’Annulaire is ambitious, it’s a film of ideas, but it really didn’t work for me. I found myself laughing at scenes that I assume weren’t intended to be funny, though even that is up in the air, as the tone of the film was quite a mess.


Dir. by Laila Marrakchi

Films like Marock are the reason that every filmlover should attend TIFF at some point. I knew weeks ago what my first 20 film picks would be; it’s the next 25 that take some research and some risk. For every Les Saignantes and L’Annulaire — films that, at some point, you stop watching and start waiting to end — there’s a Marock, a genre picture that likely won’t get American distribution, that will never be available to American audiences in any format, but that is just a delight to watch. Laila Marrakchi is a young (mid-20s) filmmaker from Morocco who has drawn from her own life for her first feature. It’s a coming-of-age film that employs all of the coming-of-age conventions, but it does so with a real confidence and grace. I was constantly suprised by small touches — slow pans, perfectly timed dissolves, great lines of dialogue. Hell, I was even moved by it, tears and all. Plus, you have to love a film that rediscovers David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide.” I’ll never think of the song in the same way. Highly recommended.

Enough for now. I skipped Sunflower this afternoon for a much-needed walk in the sun but need to head out for I Am. Post any questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply.