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Friday, October 16, 2009

Movies at TIFF

Prompted by a friend's recent email, I finally got around to a review of this year's TIFF selections. Overall, the movies were better this year but I think this has probably more to do with the fact I was able to select the movies I wished to see rather than opt for a "pass" to certain package where the films were pre-selected.

In no particular order,

1) Good Hair: loved this one and saw this with a friend of mine who happens to be Afro-Canadian. After the show, we met up with her sister and heard a few personal "hair" tales. Chris Rock's socio-political documentary on African hair was both stingily funny but thoughtful. Inspired by his daughter who shocked him with the declaration: Daddy, why don't I have good hair, Chris explores everything from the economics of hair weaves to the politics of "relaxing" one's hair was covered. He journeys from science labs to witness the effect of the chemicals in the hair products on aluminum cans, to the hair salon around the corner to the Battle Royal competition at the largest convention for black hair products in America

2) City of Life and Death: probably will be a candidate for this year's best foreign film. The movie deals with the Rape of Nanking which has been likened to the Chinese holocaust. After many years of avoiding any open discussion about the atrocities, the Chinese seem to have decided to embrace this director's vision to narrate a story of the Japanese occupation of the old proud capital. The mass executions, "comfort women", and violations of all sorts are covered in the scope of this film. Its greatest secret is the story is told from multiple view points including that of various Japanese soldiers, John Rabe (the works of this good german were largely unknown to me) and various Chinese men and women. There are many characters inspired by (and loosely based on ) Iris Chang's novel. The bold black and white cinematography confirms a gripping documentary vision to the film.

3) Baaria: From the director of the much beloved Cinema Paradiso. This movie was bloated with too many characters and was lost in a sea of meandering plot narratives which ultimately did not come to any conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise. Its style and characters were directive of Cinema Paradiso and by the film's conclusion, I was rather longing to see that film again.

4) Prince of Tears: this was the story of a family shattered by the terror of communism plots and conspiracies in Taiwan. The "White Terror" held Taiwan in the 1950s in a state of near martial law. Neighbours, friends and family members could be taken away at moment when the mere rumour of ties of association to Red China were whispered. The plot was somewhat convulated with a twist of a lesbian love affair, misunderstandings between half-siblings and a suspicious and slightly deformed uncle.

5) Anti-christ: I can't really talk about this one. Obscene, grotesque, vile, misogynist and I know why the audiences at Cannes walked out on this film. Lars Von Tier clearly was suffering from some form of mental illness. Later, I learned he wrote this film while recovering from a deep depression. I wonder if it was accompanied by any psychosis.

6) Invention of Lying: Love all things Ricky Gervais. Extras, Office UK, Ghost town, Stand up specialst. He again comes up with a film where characters say the most outrageous things. Brutally honest, cheeky, and yes, funny. Exploring a world where there are no lies (no actors, no forms of any ficition, no religion, no half truths), it does lose its narrative trail at times but nevertheless is entertaining.

7) My son, my son, what have ye done?: Another puzzler? Not sure if I was missing some gene which would give me insight into the film. The story is told in reverse order but did this cinematic technique add to the story telling. There was a dwarf and some other oddities which were reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Werner Herzog, the director, is associated with German New Cinema (and darling of the art house circuit) and a good friend of David Lynch. I wonder who influenced who on this film.

8) Partir: French film starting Yvan Attal, Kirsten Scott Thomas and Sergei Lopez. The plot is a simple: woman starts tense love affair with a construction worker (who is helping to renovate part of her home into an office). Devastating consequences ensue. Splendid acting.

9) Leaves of Grass: Ed Norton plays two roles in this film....twin brothers who have taken different paths in life. One is a cultivator of high grade marjiuana and the other is a much sought after academic of the classics. Both brillant in their own way and in their own worlds. Each has a different way of analyzing the world through their respect intellects. Touching in its portrayal of a wacky dysfunctional family, and well acted. The abrupt changes in tone once the body count starts to rise does jar the tone of the film and the lack of chemistry between Ed Norton and love interest Keri Russell is another failing.

10) Harry Brown: Michael Caine's last major/leading man role. The story runs along the same lines as Gran Torino/Death Wish and is set in Caines' native London. Vigilante justice is the central focus of this story. Formulaic in its unfolding, and stocked with sterotypical characters, it does deliver some good action and nice plot twist at the end.

11) Kamui: strange Japanese film. Ninja code prevents them from ever leaving the clan/family alive. The plight of these "runaway" ninjas is the premise of this story. The movie is obviously met to introduce us to the new adventures of Kamui (one such runaway ninja) and seems to setting us up for his future films (not sure they'll be made too soon after this one is released). The CGI was sloppy at times and the lead actor did a lot of brooding.

12) Karoke: Chris Chong's first feature film. I may be a little bias here as I know the guy. It was an abstract piece with long expansive shots which made for more thoughtful viewing than I expected. A simple story of the homecoming turns into a commentary of the modernization of Malaysia today. I took my parents to see this one and my father got more out of the film than my mother or I. I can see why the film was asked to be presented at Cannes and is winning awards at film festivals everywhere.