Marc Glassman

The compiled reviews of Marc Glassman

Blackfish

Documentary Feature

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director 

With: Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau, Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Jeffrey Ventre

Do whales have feelings? It’s a provocative question, worthy of debate. There’s the scientific evidence that some whales have spindle neurons, which is what humans use to process emotions. But is the effect the same on whales?

 

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s brilliant controversial documentary Blackfish effectively argues that whales not only have emotions but also are sentient beings with complex familial and societal organizations. She goes further, sketching out a psychological profile of the film’s titular lead, Tilikum, an orca that truly is a killer whale.

 

While questions of the nature of whales—their intelligence, playfulness and nurturing qualities—abound in Blackfish, the film is structured as a murder mystery. In the film’s first scene, a news report offers the shocking news that a trainer at SeaWorld, Dawn Brancheau, has died due to an accident in which her favourite whale, Tilikum, has inexplicably dragged her into the pool, drowning and then maiming her. 

 

The film then moves backwards in time, showing how SeaWorld employed crews in the 1970s to capture mother whales and their calves and then transport the babies to captivity in some of the organization’s aquariums. A hardened former crewmember admits that the capture and separation of the mothers from their children was the hardest thing he’d ever done. 

 

It’s in the following archival scene that the viewer first meets a three-year-old Tilikum near the shores of Iceland, where he was forcibly taken away from his mother into something that humans would call slavery. His first place of internment was a fly-by-night institution called Sealand, near Victoria B.C., where the still young whale was stuck in an unlit steel box for most of the day while being maltreated by the older female whales.

 

In 1991, Tilikum was involved in his first human death. A trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell into Sealand’s tank, was “played with” by all of the whales but ultimately died by drowning. The testimony by two sisters who were there that day is harrowing in its details; it’s clear that Tilikum was involved in the young woman’s death.

 

Soon after, Sealand closed and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, an organization that has three highly successful operations in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, Florida. Tilikum is one of over twenty killer whales “working” for SeaWorld. His treatment at this bigger US operator of marine lands, which includes dolphins, sharks and polar bears, was clearly better than at Sealand but other whales, particularly some of the older females, often harassed Tilikum.

 

Cowperthwaite has assembled a great set of witnesses to Brancheau’s demise, SeaWorld’s corporate malfeasance and Tilikum’s homicidal behavior: Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Howard Garrett, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove and Jeffrey Ventre are, in the main, former SeaWorld trainers. Through a wealth of archival material, the viewer sees most of them—and Brancheau—as young, eager employees, thrilled to be working with the whales at SeaWorld.

 

The footage shot by Cowperthwaite shows them now, wised-up and hardened, truly upset at the treatment of the whales at SeaWorld. Clearly, they believe that whales have feelings and personalities; in fact, some like Tilikum and feel that he’s been badly mistreated. Still, there’s the matter of Dawn Brancheau’s “accident.” By all accounts, Brancheau was a first-rate trainer but Tilikum, slightly underfed that day, with his routine thrown off by mitigating factors, was “frustrated.” The killer whale, who was responsible for Keltie Byrne’s demise and the death of an intruder who fell into his tank one night and somehow drowned, dragged Brancheau to her painful, tragic end.

 

Over two years later, Tilikum is still alive, working at SeaWorld Orlando. None of the deaths have been ruled as homicides. After all, whales can’t think or feel anger, can they?

 

Blackfish is a powerful, thoughtful film. It’s one of the finest docs of the year.

The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg, director and co-script w/Tobias Lindholm

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen (Lucas), Thomas Bo Larsen (Theo), Alexandra Rapaport (Nadja), Annika Wedderkopp (Klara), Susse Wold (Grethe), Lasse Fogelstrom (Marcus), Anne Louise Hassling (Agnes), Lars Ranthe (Bruun)

The buzz

At Cannes in 2012, The Hunt became the first Danish language film in the main competition since 1998. Mads Mikkelsen went on to win the Best Actor award at Cannes, showing that the now internationally famous Bond “bleeding eye” villain from Casino Royale had done the right thing by hooking up with director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen).

 

The genres

 Melodrama based on small town gossip; child abuse hysteria

The premise

Lucas is a regular Danish guy living in the small town he grew up in, surrounded by old friends. He and the rest of the “boys” are now in their late 30s and early 40s but they still drink and carouse and hunt wildlife together. Life isn’t perfect, of course: Lucas is divorced and has lost his job teaching in grammar school. But he’s working things out with his ex-wife and is getting to see his son Marcus more—and he has a job in the local kindergarten.

 

There, he spends time with all the kids but does give special attention to Klara, the dreamy, slightly troubled daughter of his best friend Theo. By the end of the film’s “first act,” which takes place in early November, things get even better; Nadja, the pretty cook at the kindergarten, becomes his new girlfriend while Lucas’ ex agrees that Marcus can move in with him after Christmas.

 

But a lot can happen in a month. Klara, who feels neglected by her parents, kisses Lucas while they’re playing at kindergarten. He admonishes her that she should only do that with her parents. Confused and unhappy, Klara makes a vague allegation to Grethe, the head of the kindergarten, against Lucas. Things escalate and within days, other children accuse Lucas of molesting them while the parents quickly become hostile to a fellow they’ve known all of their lives. Even Theo, initially reluctant to accuse Lucas, throws his best friend out of his house. Eventually, even Nadja finds it hard to defend him. Only his son Marcus and a couple of friends—one, a lawyer—believe that Lucas is innocent.

 

Matters get worse. There’s a criminal investigation. Lucas finds that he has to defend himself against rumors. And, as The Hunt shows, with rather devastating effect, even if the courts do show some restraint, the rest of society may find you guilty.

 

Offering neither a horrifying conclusion nor a totally happy one, this is a thoughtful and emotional look at what can happen to someone—anyone—placed in dangerous, ambiguous circumstances.

 

The performances

A film like this, with its village locale, is essentially an ensemble piece. Viewers have to accept people as “types”: the big burly butcher, the kindly but prim and proper kindergarten supervisor, and the “men will be boys” pals of Lucas. Vinterberg needed, in most cases, are competent, non-showy performances—and The Hunt is full of those.

 

There are only two major performances. Mads Mikkelsen, now a famous Bond villain, offers an absolutely brilliant turn as Lucas, an ordinary man trapped in a world where he’s suddenly cast as a heinous sexual outlaw. Perplexed, sometimes defiant and ever resolute, Mikkelsen’s Lucas is an understandable character. He’s someone that demands sympathy from the viewer: a decent person thrown into an impossible situation. Mikkelsen makes you believe in Lucas—and he deservedly won the Best Actor award at Cannes.

 

The other major performance is by Annika Wedderkopp as Klara. Now this might not be a performance; it may be a construction by the director, with help by a willing young actor. But you have to like Klara—see her confusion and dreaminess and sadness. You can’t hate her; Lucas doesn’t, which shows his basic decency as a human being. Whether we should applaud Ms. Wedderkopp or not may not matter. Somehow “Klara” is perfect.

 

The director & writer

This film is an immense comeback for Thomas Vinterberg, who made one of the most celebrated films in Danish history, Festen (The Celebration). It was a brilliant psychodrama in which a son and eventually other members of his family confronted their father with his history of childhood abuse during his mammoth 60th birthday party. The film won many awards, highlighted the issue of sexual abuse and was made into the internationally successful play, which had a year-long West End run in London, was mounted on Broadway and played in Toronto at the Berkeley Street Theatre (with a cast including Eric Petersen, Rosemary Dunsmore, Nick Campbell and Tara Rosling.)

 

With The Hunt, he returns to the notion of abuse but here it doesn’t occur. What Vinterberg is examining is hypocrisy, which was also at the root of Festen. In Festen, proper society initially condemns the father’s children for besmirching his reputation in such a public way, during a well-attended party. In The Hunt, society is again quick to condemn, only in this case the accused is innocent. In both films, of course, the initial societal response is wrong; hence, the drama ensues.

 

Like Festen, The Hunt combines some fine performances with a general sense of verisimilitude. Vinterberg understands that the best stories flow from situations that have the texture and nuance of the real world; from there, his narratives can move to moments of cruelty and love.

 

The skinny

This is an excellent film. The Hunt is tough and melodramatic but it’s definitely worth viewing. Not classic summer escapist fare, it’s well worth it for viewers willing to see hearts breaking and then renewed, not just action films with incalculable amounts of physical, not emotional, damage.

Byzantium

Neil Jordan, director

Moira Buffini, script

Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Eleanor), Gemma Arterton (Clara), Caleb Landry Jones (Frank), Sam Riley (Darvell), Jonny Lee Miller (Ruthven), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Morag), Daniel Mays (Noel), Barry Cassin (Robert Fowlds)

The buzz

Mix Neil Jordan, the director of Interview with the Vampire with Saorise Ronan, the eloquent corpse in The Lovely Bones, and Gemma Arterton, the princess in The Prince of Persia, and you will get media coverage. That’s particularly the case if the film in question, Byzantium, features Arterton and Ronan as mother and daughter vampires.

 

The genres

Vampires; morbid but romantic love; gothic melodrama

 

The premise

Two lovely mysterious women turn up in a run-down English seaside town after having fled from another seedy locale, where each had been nearly caught, feasting on the blood of men. Close enough in looks to be sisters, brazen Clara is actually the mother of demure, thoughtful Eleanor.  Clara, who regularly prostitutes herself to make money for the two of them, easily persuades her latest conquest Noel to invite her and Eleanor to move in with him at his decaying, lush Edwardian hotel The Byzantium, which he’s recently inherited from his mother.

 

Eleanor soon becomes attracted to sweet, lonely, sick Frank, a local boy recovering from leukemia, who falls in love with her at first sight. Meanwhile, Clara has manipulated Noel to let her turn the Byzantium into a whorehouse. While Eleanor and Frank participate in a creative writing class, Clara busies herself making money.

 

In a series of elaborate flashbacks to the early part of the 19th century, Clara’s woeful tale of being turned into a prostitute by the notorious Captain Ruthven and how she turned the tables on the scoundrel by becoming a cursed immortal instead of him is recounted. It becomes evident that Darvell, Ruthven’s friend but a far fairer man, is still in pursuit of Clara two centuries later, along with another vampire.

 

Darvell’s pursuit and Eleanor’s truthful memoir for her writing class turn Clara’s life asunder. Byzantium moves to a violent but poetic conclusion, which will affect Eleanor, Frank and Clara—and others.

 

The performances

Saoirse Ronan is wonderfully charismatic as Eleanor, the sad, romantic vampire who only kills the old and sickly to maintain her existence. She is the film’s highlight and is so sympathetic that you can’t help being drawn into her character’s dilemmas and anxieties.

 

Gemma Arterton seems to be having fun playing an out and out harlot. There’s a bit of overacting in her performance as Clara but she does sparkle throughout.

 

Caleb Landry Jones is a disappointment just as he was in Cronenberg’s Antiviral. Pale and wan, redheaded with freckles, Jones clearly has the look of someone who is sickly—possibly dying. But that’s not acting. It will be interesting to see if young Mr. Jones will be able to grow as a performer. The evidence isn’t here in Byzantium.

 

On the other hand, Sam Riley, who looked uncannily like the doomed rock singer Ian Curtis in Control, is beginning to assert himself as an actor. He lacks the spark of an Arterton but Riley is a reasonable “second banana” lead in the film.

 

The creative team

Director Neil Jordan has crafted a fine film. It honours the tropes of the vampire genre but allows for new twists in what could have been a conventional retelling of what is—sadly—turning into a rather tiresome genre. Credit must go, as well, to Moira Buffini, who created two fine female protagonists and an accompanying mythology in which only men in a “Brotherhood” can become vampires—until Clara makes her appearance. Jordan and Buffini, along with Ronan and Arterton, have developed a very interesting, somewhat revised, tale of vampires, love and lust.

 

The skinny

After the over-heated adolescent dramatics of the Twilight franchise, it’s surprising to be able to recommend a vampire movie. But Byzantium is curiously literary and romantic and, in a way, serious. It’s not for everyone—and the flashbacks go on too long—but this is a solid piece of entertainment.

Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood

Daniele Vicari, director and co-scriptwriter w/Laura Paolucci, Alessandro Bandinelli and Emanuele Scaringi

Featuring: Elio Germano (Luca Gualtieri, journalist), Claudio Santamaria (Max Flamini), David Iacopini (Marco, Genoa organizer), Jennifer Ulrich (Alma Koch, anarchist), Monica Birladeanu (Constantine), Ralph Amoussou (Etienne), Pietro Ragusa (Aaron)

The buzz

This tough elaborately structured film recreates a horrifying act of police brutality that took place in 2001, in Genoa, Italy.  Using nightsticks, 300 policemen savagely attacked 90 activists sequestered at the Diaz School, who had been demonstrating against the G8 Summit. Director Daniele Vicari’s drama was the runner-up to the Panorama Audience Award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in 2012.

The genres

Political thriller; exposé; period reenactment

The premise

A July evening in 2001 in Genoa will forever be notorious because of the worst act of police brutality in Western European history since the end of World War Two. 90 people, mainly students and journalists were assaulted by an Italian police force, angered after dealing with escalating attacks against them by the so-called “black bloc,” anarchists who threw bottles, overturned cars and yelled insults at them for over a week.

 

In Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood, the events leading up to the police riot are carefully recounted, structured through the hurling of one beer bottle, which nearly hit a couple of police officers in their car. The film moves back and forth from that event, showing what happened to various students and activists—and how the police reacted. One gets a sense of some of the youngsters; it’s clear that they’re earnest, political but, in the main, neither violent, nor anarchists.

 

The police assault is recreated as a shocking but well staged set- piece. According to the film’s notes, “8000 extras, 400 batons (nightsticks), 900 gasmasks and 50 litres of blood” were used in this terrifying scene.

 

Although the film is nominally fictional, many of the characters are based on real people who were unwitting participants in the tragedy. For example, British journalist Mark Covell, who was beaten so badly that he suffered eight broken ribs, smashed teeth and a shredded lung, received compensation of 350,000 Euros from the Italian government 11 years later. In the film, he is played as an unnamed English journalist, naïve enough to try to surrender to the on-coming Italian police.

 

Diaz ends with the massive deportation of the majority of the 90 activists and journalists three days after the attack. Endnotes indicate that the search for justice continues.

 

The performances

This film is less about acting and more about searching for sincerity. Director Vicari has successfully kept the film in the neo-realist style. The actors uniformly remain low-key and truthful.

 

The creative team

Vicari and his team have stuck faithfully to the best principles of docu-drama and documentary production. They have strived to tell this story truthfully. To be fair, Vicari has inserted into the drama some good cops and has refused to overly dramatize many of the police officers. But, ultimately, Diaz is an exposé, and the filmmaker’s team hasn’t shied away from the explosive nature of the material. This is a tale with a point-of-view, no question.

 

The skinny

Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood is a film that will make you upset and angry. It’s a very strong film and, as a critic, one must endorse it. But, let’s face it—it’s not a date film! Go to it but don’t expect to have a good time.

A Century of Chinese Cinema

A massive survey of films made in China over the past hundred years is the highlight of TIFF’s summer season at Bell Lightbox.

 

A Century of Chinese Cinema

Noah Cowan, curator w/additional film notes by Aliza Ma, Jesse Wente and Todd Brown

Series of over 80 films runs until August 11, 2013

Guest appearances by Jackie Chan, Chen Kaige, Johnnie To

Scholarly appearances by David Bordwell and Bart Testa

Art exhibitions by Christopher Doyle and Yang Fudong

For more information: tiff.net/century or call 416-599-TIFF

 

Imagine trying to curate a survey of the past hundred years of American cinema or, if it was possible, the past two centuries of Italian opera or British theatre. That’s the task TIFF’s and Bell Lightbox’s Noah Cowan has set for himself with A Century of Chinese Cinema. While film doesn’t define China culturally as much as opera does for Italy, the draw of the form must be considerable. Cinema was being created in Shanghai during the Civil War and Japanese invasion of the 1930s and again in the impoverished Maoist China of the 1950s; it was produced in vast multitudes during Hong Kong’s glory days in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and even in the repressive Taiwan of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

 

Cowan not only had the challenge of presenting fascinating films from various eras, he has to show an understanding of the political and economic circumstances that created three Chinese cinemas in the glory years of the 1980s. During that time a revived Mainland movement of filmmakers called the 5th Generation came to the forefront while a brazen and exuberant group of Hong Kong based directors made astonishing genre films and in post-censorship Taiwan, young artists began to produce deeply interior modernist works.

 

For this survey to work, Cowan has to contextualize Hong Kong’s delirious Tsui Hark, Taiwan’s darker and far less showy Edward Yang and a host of Mainland directors from Zhang Yimou to Chen Kaige, who started off by creating brilliant historical dramas before moving on to conquer other genres. He succeeds in doing just that while also offering fine examples of older Shanghai and Maoist films as well as the key contemporary works of directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Jia Zhangke.

 

Cowan has divided the programme into historical eras and genre tendencies with a great deal of care. The catalogue from TIFF has extensive notes, which further inform his choices. I’ve included his themes and added my own picks of “must-sees,” when appropriate.

 

Film Programme by theme and dates:

The Golden Age (1930s and ‘40s)

Shanghai was the main production centre as sophisticated melodramas were created during the brutal war years.

 

A New China (1950-1975)

“Revolutionary” cinema produced during Mao’s era.

 

Swordsmen, Gangsters and Ghosts: The Evolution of the Chinese Genre Cinema (1949-2006)

Whether in Hong Kong or the mainland, when the two were different politically, genre films were loved by the public.

Must-sees:

Johnnie To introduces his crime thrillers Election and Election 2 (July 13); Infernal Affairs, the original version of Scorsese’s The Departed (July 6); Hero, Zhang Yimou’s martial arts masterpiece (June 28); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s international breakout hit (Aug. 3); Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2, Tsui Hark’s spectacular action thriller with Jet Li (Aug 4).

 

New Waves (1980-1994)

The 5th Generation of new Mainland Chinese auteurs emerges at the same time as Hong Kong’s commercial cinema becomes more outrageous and glorious and Taiwan’s censorship relaxes allowing filmmakers Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien to start their careers.

Must-sees:

The Horse Thief, a hybrid ethnographic drama shot beautifully in Tibet (June 29); A City of Sadness, Hou Hsiao-Hsian’s masterpiece about four Taiwanese brothers reaching adulthood as the Nationalists take over their country (July 1); Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou’s first film with Gong Li about a gorgeous peasant girl, wine, love and war is justly famous (July 14); Peking Opera Blues, Tsui Hark’s comedy thriller set in 1913 Beijing about a quirky trio attempting to overthrow a corrupt government is fast and funny (Aug.4); A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang’s masterwork about a notorious murder case explores the despair of youths in Taiwan in the 1960s (Aug. 5).

 

New Directions (1994-2006)

Chinese cinema becomes more arty and existential as new auteurs Tsai Ming-Liang, Wong Kar-Wai and Jia Zhangke emerge.

Must-sees:

Still Life, Jia Zhangke’s epic look at the destruction of village life due to the flooding created by the Three Gorges Dam (July 25); The Peach Blossom Land, a rare film by renowned theatre director Stan Lai about what happens when two theatre troupes double booked into the same rehearsal space—it’s Brechtian, not farcical (Aug. 3).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something In The Air (Après Mai)

Olivier Assayas, director and writer

Starring: Clement Metayer (Gilles), Lola Creton (Christine), Felix Armand (Alain), Carole Combes (Laure), India Menuez (Leslie), Hugo Conzelmann (Jean-Pierre), André Marcon (Gilles’ father)

 

The buzz

Assayas’ film was placed in competition for the prestigious Golden Palm at last year’s Venice Film Festival. He won the Osella prize for best screenplay. The film had its Canadian premiere at TIFF 2012 and has received mainly laudatory reviews at festivals.

 

The genres

Coming-of-age; revolutionary ‘60s flick; European art film

 

The premise

“The events” of May 1968 have only recently ended. The Fifth French Republic had almost capsized under the coalition of radical workers and students clamoring for a socialist—or possibly Communist—state.

 

Though the Gaullist government has quelled the potential uprising, pockets of radical resistance exist, and are acting up, in France. And similar movements are creating anarchical violence in Italy and Germany.

 

High school students aren’t just talking about the prom or dating rituals. Some are engaged in active rebellion. Gilles, Jean-Pierre, Christine and their friends are working on underground newspapers, sneaking back into school at night to paint defamatory graffiti on the walls and windows, fighting cops at demonstrations and much more—all in the cause of the revolution.

 

At the same time, they’re still teenagers, sorting out life and love and what sort of jobs they want to pursue when they finish their education. Gilles, a talented painter, has a beautiful girlfriend, Laure, who breaks up with him soon after Something in the Air begins. Though he misses Laure, Gilles quickly hooks up with Christine, who is, if anything, more committed to the revolutionary cause than him.

 

During one of the group’s nocturnal attacks on the Establishment, a security guard is nearly killed when one activist drops a huge bag of flour on him from a bridge overlooking their battle. Jean-Pierre, who is not there, is accused of the attack. The rest flee to Italy.

 

As the security guard recovers, the matter is dropped by the police apart from a lawsuit that the guard instigates against Jean-Pierre. And that, too, is eventually dropped. Gilles takes up painting again though he is occasionally drawn back into radical activity. He sees Laure again at a crazily large party but she’s now into heavy drugs and suffers a tragic end. Christine returns from Italy months after Gilles with their relationship unresolved.

 

Gilles, Alain, Christine, Jean-Pierre: the four committed high school friends are leading exciting but cloudy lives as the film ends. Will they continue to be Communists or Socialists? Or in thirty years, will they be capitalists, too?

 

The performances

This is a film that has been largely cast with non-professional actors. No one has to “act” much; they simply have to look like and appear to be Sixties characters. That they do quite well

 

The director

While this is not a true account of Olivier Assayas’ life, it certainly benefits from the fact that he grew up during that time and had experiences that somewhat resemble that of Gilles. One can’t imagine Something in the Air being made by someone who hadn’t lived through those turbulent times. What’s remarkable is that Assayas is able to evoke the period so exactly—with so much depth and feeling. The dialogue, characters and scenes genuinely bring back those times to this critic, and, I suspect, to many others.

 

The skinny

Something in the Air is a poetic time capsule of a film, dropped back to Earth after 40 years. Few films have ever given the sense of the aimless anxiety, the romance and the search for truth that so motivated that period. Assayas has created a truly remarkable film that should appeal to nostalgic Zoomers—and young people engaging in their own spiritual and political quests.

Love Is All You Need

Susanne Bier, director

Anders Thomas Jensen, script from a story by Bier and Jensen

Starring: Pierce Brosnan (Philip), Trine Dyrholm (Ida), Kim Bodnia (Leif), Sebastian Jessen (Patrick), Molly Bixt Egelind (Astrid)


The buzz

A new film by Susanne Bier always attracts attention. The Dane is one of the most accomplished and renowned female filmmakers in the world. She’s won many prizes including the best foreign film Oscar (for In a Better World), a Golden Globe, a TIFF FIPRESCI award, a couple of European Film Awards as well as commendations at Sundance, The Montreal World Film Festival, Rome, Rouen and, yes, even Sudbury.

 

And she’s landed Pierce Brosnan—yes, an ex-James Bond, as a romantic lead in her new film.

 

The genres

Zoomer romance; comedy of manners

 

The premise

Wealthy produce merchant Philip (Pierce Brosnan) and hairdresser Ida (Trine Dyrholm) meet “cute”—she smashes her car into his priceless sports vehicle—-while they’re on their way to the wedding of their children Astrid and Patrick.

 

Ida is recovering from a very bad cancer scare; after chemotherapy, she is actually bald and is wearing a wig. If that isn’t enough, she has just found her husband Leif in bed with another woman after returning home unexpectedly from the hospital. A double whammy! As for Philip, he has never recovered emotionally from his wife’s death.

 

At first—this being a romantic comedy—they can’t stand each other. But that soon changes as Ida’s beautiful smile and Philip’s politesse warms matters enough for them to understand and share each other’s tragedies.

 

After a very skillful set of comic and dramatic scenes, their children, Patrick and Astrid, start to seriously question their relationship while Ida and Philip begin to fall in love. (Patrick may be gay; certainly he doesn’t reciprocate Astrid’s advances.) Meanwhile, Leif shows up with his new mistress adding an element of low comedy to the proceedings.

 

Will true love emerge? What do you think?

 

The performances

Post James Bond, Pierce Brosnan has often been an amiable presence. While his thespian talents are closer to Hugh rather than Cary Grant, he is an interesting actor to watch. It’s hard not to like him.

 

The film is absolutely stolen by Trine Dyrholm as the brave, funny, hairdresser. Charming is the obvious word to use for her performance in the film. You could chalk that up to superior casting on the part of Susanne Bier—but then, may I offer a TIFF tale? As it happens, I saw Love is All You Need and another excellent Danish film, A Royal Affair, within two days. In A Royal Affair, Ms. Dyrholm has a “Lady Macbeth” role as a vengeful Queen Mother. There was nary a smile and not a whit of humour in the performance. And it was impressive! IMDB, that “reliable” guide to cinema, notes that Alec Baldwin once called Trine Dyrholm “the best actress” playing today. I’m not sure that’s the case but she clearly makes Love is All You Need her film—and a good film it is.

 

The director

For Susanne Bier, this film is a relaxation after the rigours of In A Better World. Her films have romantic elements but overall, they tend to be melodramatic with political concerns. That’s particularly true of In A Better World and After the Wedding in which the Danish lead characters are shown to have led idealistic and helpful lives in Africa and Asia but are then forced into hypocritical personal choices in Denmark in order to continue doing the work they believe in.

 

Here, there’s comedy albeit with tragic overtones. We end up caring for Ida and Philip because they’ve earned a respite from life’s dark dramas. Bier has created a comedy that still has a sharp edge to it.

 

The skinnyThis is truly a Zoomer romantic comedy. It’s the elders we care about and their relative escapes from hard pasts. While this isn’t a major film, Love is All You Need is a charming relaxation worth seeing either in cinemas or on DVD.

Kon-Tiki

Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg, directors

Petter Sklavan, script

Starring: Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen (Thor Heyerdahl), Anders Baasmo Christiansen (Herman Watzinger), Odd-Magnus Williamson (Erik Hesselberg), Agnes Kittlesen (Liv Heyerdahl), Gustaf Skargard (Bengt Daanielsson), Jakob Oftebro (Torstein Raaby), Tobias Santelmann (Knut Haugland)

The buzz

Thor Heyerdahl is a legendary figure, an adventurer and social scientist who galvanized the world in 1947, when he sailed a small balsa raft dubbed Kon-Tiki with a 5-man crew from Peru to Tahiti, 3,770 nautical miles (c. 6,980 km (4,340 mi)) in 101 days. Heyerdahl’s intention was to prove that South American indigenous people settled Tahiti, not Asians. No one is entirely sure that he’s right—in fact, most anthropologists disagree with him—but that didn’t matter in those bleak post-World War Two years. Heyerdahl’s feat showed that people could do crazy, inspiring deeds—and live to tell the tale. The Kon Tiki story has been generating buzz for over 60 years.

 

Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg’s faithful rendition of the Kon-Tiki adventure has garnered great praise: it’s been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and Golden Globe (losing both to Amour) and generated the highest box office results in Norway for a native film—over $14 million dollars.

 

The genres

Real life adventure; nautical tales; historical drama

 

The premise

It’s 1947. Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer and scholar, wants to popularize his radical idea that ancient dwellers in Peru sailed across the ocean to Polynesia and settled the area. With some support from the US and Peruvian governments and private donations, he’s able to assemble a five-man crew of Scandinavians to travel on a raft across the Pacific to Tahiti.

 

Heyerdahl’s theory is based on the notion of a southerly stream that will propel the raft from Peru southwestward. For quite a while, the Kon-Tiki takes the crew northerly towards the Galapagos Islands, which are notoriously disastrous to navigate. Sharks hover around the sea craft, creating tension while the men, in extremely close quarters have to figure out a way to deal with each other.

 

Throughout, Heyerdahl remains steadfast in his belief in using old materials such as balsa to keep the raft afloat. Eventually, his patience is rewarded as Kon-Tiki takes them towards Micronesia.

 

The performances

The script doesn’t build up the characters but it’s fair to observe that Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen gives the proper resolute quality to the “character” of Thor Heyerdahl. Anders Baasmo Christiansen is fine as Herman Watzinger, the odd man out in the story, who had to learn how to live and work on the boat.  Odd-Magnus Williamson (Erik Hesselberg) and Agnes Kittlesen (Liv Heyerdahl) also acquit themselves well in supporting roles. But no one stands out—thanks to the script, not to the actors.

 

The directors

Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg know how to create meticulous historical dramas writ large. Their last film about anti-Nazi resistant leader Max Manus: Man of War was a huge hit in Norway and did well in Europe. They can create a sprawling epic and make it look glossy and understandable.

 

But is the complexity of the Kon-Tiki tale delivered?

 

The skinny

Kon-Tiki is a relatively big budget epochal tale of men at sea. (The budget might pay for a week of shooting Iron Man 3). The film’s historical scenes work well and the sense of Heyerdahl’s desperate desire to become a prominent figure is also nicely explicated.

 

Many of the scenes in the ocean are excellent, particularly a shark attack. But the film misses out on creating character development, once the men are at sea. Who are they? Why are they on Kon-Tiki? The answers are supplied but the drama is lacking.

 

Kon-Tiki is a beautifully made film. As a drama, it lacks resonance but as a recounting of an amazing real-life tale from the Forties, it’s terrific.

 

Thumbs up? Thumbs down? How about Thumbs sideways?

Still Mine

Michael McGowan, director and writer

Starring: James Cromwell (Craig Morrison), Genevieve Bujold (Irene), Campbell Scott (Gary), Julie Stewart (Ruth), Rick Roberts (John), Jonathan Potts (Rick), Chuck Shamata (Judge), Hawksley Workman (Gus)


The buzz

Craig Morrison, a New Brunswick farmer and carpenter had to defend himself in court six times between 2008 and 2010 for constructing a house that apparently defied government mandated building codes on his land overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Morrison, who was 88 when he started to build the house for himself and his wife Irene, an Alzheimer sufferer, supplied an independent assessment that his house was “built like a fort,”—and refused to move. Ultimately, his case became a cause célèbre, sparking a Toronto Globe and Mail piece, which stated “This is a true Canadian story, a cautionary tale of the tremendous power of the state over the individual in an age of pervasive bureaucracy.”

 

Michael McGowan, the director and writer of One Week and Saint Ralph, took Morrison’s story (with the now nonagenarian’s consent) and has turned it into a dramatic feature film. Even before its commercial release, Still Mine garnered seven Canadian Screen Award nominations, winning one, the Best Actor Prize for James Cromwell’s interpretation of Craig Morrison.

 

The genres

Zoomer love; one man vs. the “system”—underdog tale

 

The premise

Craig and Irene Morrison’s life is beginning to undergo changes as they reach their eighties. Their living, farming and raising cattle, is becoming more difficult, physically and economically. Worse, Irene is suffering from spells of vagueness, which could lead to a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Ever resolute, Craig decides to build a new house for his ailing wife, one where she won’t have to negotiate stairs and the view from the Bay of Fundy will be beautiful. A craftsman, whose father was a ship builder, Craig Morrison knows how to construct a house. But the authorities in New Brunswick think otherwise. Lumber that Morrison custom built is deemed unacceptable because the requisite stickers aren’t on them. Floor joists, ceilings, wall studs—-all in ship shape—-are deemed improper.

 

While Irene gets progressively worse, Craig is either in court or—when he can—continuing to create what will be his and Irene’s last house.

 

The performances

This is a two-hander. You either believe in Craig and Irene and their love for each other or the film doesn’t fly. McGowan had the wit to hire the right actors.

 

Genevieve Bujold, the legendary star of Anne of a Thousand Days, King of Hearts, Kamouraska, Act of the Heart, Paper Wedding and Dead Ringers, is marvellous as Irene. The tough, idiosyncratic actress gives Irene a spine and anger to go along with her vulnerability.

 

James Cromwell, whose performances in Babe, Six Feet Under, L.A. Confidential and Star Trek, have made him a star in his senior years, nails the role of Craig Morrison. He dominates every scene he’s in, with a quiet authority that is perfectly in keeping with Morrison’s character. The love and absolute devotion he feels for Bujold’s Irene is well expressed through his physical interaction with her: you feel their closeness and unspoken devotion for each other. After decades of being a character actor—sometimes evil, sometimes good, occasionally goofy—Cromwell gets to play a lead at last. To say his performance is excellent is almost an understatement. At the age of 73, Cromwell has seized the role and made it his own.

 

The director/writer

Like Craig Morrison, Michael McGowan is a fine craftsman.  A writer of children’s books, he knows his way around dialog and structure. Like any good dramatist, he appreciates conflict and strong characters. McGowan was inspired by newspaper reports of Morrison’s story to turn his life into a film. The results are clear: Still Mine is an honest, delightful story of a Canadian fighting for his rights—and the love of his life. It is McGowan’s best film to date.

 

The skinny

Still Mine is a wonderful film, perfect for Zoomers. It’s heartfelt, funny, dramatic and romantic. See it. You’ll love it.

Hot Docs Sizzle in Toronto

A little history

Everybody loves a success story and there are few that can match that of Toronto’s love affair with Hot Docs. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Hot Docs is second only to TIFF as the most popular film festival in Toronto. Starting with a bold name designed to counteract  the general public’s perception of documentaries as earnest classroom fare, Hot Docs was initially embraced only by Canada’s public broadcasters and its own industry. Apart from sold out opening night screenings of films by British bad boy Nick Broomfield (Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer) and American Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (the Woody Allen biopic Wild Man Blues), the city didn’t immediately embrace the festival.

 

Torontonians aren’t fickle but they need to be wooed and won; then they become loyal. As the years progressed—and especially after 1998, when Chris McDonald was appointed as the festival’s executive director—-Hot Docs grew from its solid foundations in Canada’s documentary community to become an event that has national and worldwide influence.

 

With the coming of its Documentary Forum in 2000, which brought in commissioning editors from all the major European and US broadcasters, the festival became vitally important to filmmakers across the globe who wanted to finance their next docs. Concurrently, Hot Docs began to programme Lifetime Achievement awards and Spotlights on national cinemas, which increased the presence in this city of internationally recognized artists.

 

Werner Herzog, Al Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman began to show up at Hot Docs—and the city began to take notice of its documentary festival. The growth since then has been stellar. From 69 films screened to 7000 people in 1999—the year before the Forum—Hot Docs hit a peak last year, with 189 documentaries being shown to 165,000 aficionados.

 

Hot Docs 2013: some glowing Canucks

Canadian films always occupy premier spots at the festival. This year is no exception, with films by such veterans as John Kastner, Alan Zweig and Anne Wheeler screening in tandem with impressive work by rising stars Liz Marshall, Ann Shin and Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly as well as fascinating student work by Andrew Moir and former experimental filmmaker Kelly O’Brien.  Hot Docs’ Canadian Spectrum programmers Alex Rogalski and Lynne Fernie are pleased with what they both feel is a “bumper crop” of new Canuck work.

 

John Kastner’s NCR: Not Criminally Responsible continues this award-winning filmmaker’s journey into the heart of darkness of violent offenders. Like his previous film Life With Murder, Kastner’s searching camera and subtle interviewing style reveals the humanity behind someone who has been judged to be psychotic at the time of his brutal crime. Sean Clifton, Kastner’s subject, attacked and tried to kill Julie Bouvier outside of a Walmart in Cornwall, Ontario simply because she was the “prettiest girl” in his eyesight when a homicidal rage overwhelmed him.

 

Incarcerated for years in a mental facility in Brockville, Clifton has slowly come to grips with his life. Kastner’s genius is his ability to make us understand how woebegone Clifton was at the time of the attack and how remorseful he is now. NCR charts the progress of a mentally diseased criminal into someone who has reformed to the extent that he’s actually attempting to integrate into normal life again. It’s a long and painful journey but John Kastner has been able to document it in this moving and powerful film.

 

Ann Shin’s The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a doc thriller that invites viewers into the lives of at-risk women on the run in China from Kim Jong Un’s despotic regime. Placing herself in harm’s way, Shin goes on the road with illegal North Korean refugees Yong-Hee and Sook-ja as they travel across China to Laos and Thailand, where they will finally be free. Shin’s incisive eye reveals the anxiety and almost naïve fragility of her two female leads while concentrating on the ambiguous nature of the broker Dragon, who has organized their highly criminal road trip through Asia. A film made with depth and understanding, The Defector is Shin’s journey of learning into Korean life, North and South, in contemporary times.

 

Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly’s Spring and Arnaud is a fascinating and moving tale about the relationship over the past quarter of a century of two of Toronto’s top artists, Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs. Knight and Connolly approach the couple with respect, allowing them the time to reveal their art and love for each other to the camera. Neither artist’s work can be easily summarized: Hurlbut is a sculptor who has become fascinated by architecture and issues of space in recent years while Maggs’ pristine photography has usually been used to create serial images of numbers and objects, with meanings that are often quite hermetic. By contrast, their relationship is clearly loving and fulfilling. Knight and Connolly capture the final years of their time together as Maggs, at 85, finally has to deal with his own passing. Spring and Arnaud is a clear-eyed, exquisite look at a couple in love, at work and coping with mortality.

 

Kelly O’Brien’s Softening is a courageous self-portrait of an artist and mother coping with Teddy, a child who was born with extreme brain damage. An intimate look at her family, O’ Brien’s documentary, which was made at York University, where she is in a graduate course, shows how the love manifested for Teddy by her eldest, Emma, and her husband Terence have softened her own pain in dealing with her son. Using Super-8 footage, reenactments, text, black and white and colour photography, O’Brien’s Softening is a beautifully constructed mid-length film about love, loss and understanding.

 

Softening will be playing at Hot Docs with Ryerson film student Andrew Moir’s remarkable Just As I Remember, which looks at the effect on two families of ALS (Amytrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease that creates paralysis in its victims. Moir’s sharply edited and highly personal film deals with his own father, who has chosen to live a highly circumscribed life with ALS and the Katz family, whose father has decided to cease medical intervention at a critical point and accept his demise.

 

Peter Mettler and Les Blank

Hot Docs always “spotlights” a Canadian in mid-career and an international figure for an “outstanding achievement” retrospective. This year, the documentarians being highlighted are two filmmakers, whose work is highly contrasting, Canada’s bravura avant-gardist Peter Mettler and the down-home American veteran Les Blank.

 

While it’s easy to suggest that the two filmmakers are quite different, many things bring them together. They’ve shot most of their films, unusual in an age when few documentarians are also cinematographers. Mettler and Blank’s films often show people whose lives are in the margins of society—whether it’s the seekers after ecstasy in Gambling, Gods and LSD or the rather ecstatic New Orleans revelers in Always for Pleasure. Both love music though Blank’s bluesy Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe and Mardi Gras giants The Neville Brothers are far different from the experimental sounds of acclaimed guitarists Fred Frith and Jim O’ Rourke and electronica artist Gabriel Scotti in Mettler’s films. Above all, the films made by Blank and Mettler are fiercely independent.

 

Mettler’s spotlight features his two finest accomplishments. Picture of Light is a bit of a shaggy dog story in which the filmmaker encounters innumerable obstacles, including a rather memorable encounter with a wall in a northern Manitoba motel before he finally shoots the aurora borealis, arguably Canada’s Holy Grail. And in Gambling, Gods and LSD, Mettler documents the ineffable: the ecstatic state as revealed by drug takers, religious fundamentalists and the creator of LSD, the ultimate Zoomer, then 99-year-old scientist Albert Hoffman.

 

Blank’s best film Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, is sadly lacking from this retrospective but his two best docs about blues musicians, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins and A Well Spent Life (about Mance Lipscombe) are being screened. So is the effervescent Always for Pleasure, which captures the fever and fervor of Mardi Gras in music, dance and crazy, heated crowd performance. All are worth seeing.

 

Les Blank died in early April at the age of 77. I was looking forward to seeing him again. I brought Les to Toronto for a Blues festival at Harbourfront Centre in 1989. Les was a man of few words but everyone was choice. He hated the d-word. To Les, using the word documentary was the kiss of death. He wanted to make people feel entertained by his films. Titles were absolutely essential. We agreed that his best was the one he used for a documentary he made about Alice Waters’ food festival in California, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. (No, it’s not in the retrospective.)

 

Les and I spent a week eating spicy food, a challenge in Toronto at that point. We went to a Szechuan place, a couple of Indian restaurants, an Ethiopian diner (not that spicy but the food was great) and Southern Accent in Markham Village. The owner, Frances, recognized Les and made us Cajun cocktails.

 

The last night he was here, we returned to Southern Accent. Les ordered a garlic appetizer and had us both eat it. Les told me that you only eat garlic when you feel that you’re with family.

 

As I wish Les a heartfelt goodbye, I wonder whether he’s pleased that the diminutive of the d-word is now OK—thanks to Hot Docs.