Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Netflix It: Sita Sings the Blues

Available on Netflix, or free on the film's website: Sita Sings the Blues, written and directed by Nina Paley

Synopsis from

Two women having troubles with their men, separated by several centuries, find their stories coming together in this animated comedy-drama from artist and animator Nina Paley. A female cartoonist moves from the United States when her husband gets a new job in India. While acclimating to her new life in India, the cartoonist becomes fascinated with the Hindu folk tale "the Ramayana," in which a beautiful woman named Sita, who was created spontaneously from the Earth, is adopted by King Janaka, pledged to a brave warrior named Rama, and is kidnapped by the demonic leader Ravana. Sita's story is given two visual interpretations at once -- a visually striking abstract version and another which employs a whimsical, cartoony approach and uses vintage recordings of jazz singer Annette Hanshaw for Sita's voice. As the film jumps back and forth between two adaptations of the Ramayana, the cartoonist discovers that her sojourn in India has taken a turn for the worse when her husband falls in love with another woman. Sita Sings The Blues was an official entry at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

In a word: trippy. Nina Paley is just as creative with her take on copyright law, as she explains on the film's website.

Friday, September 18, 2009

35 Shots of Rum

Opening this weekend: 35 Shots of Rum, directed by Claire Denis

Synopsis from the New York Times:

35 Shots of Rum, a quiet and lovely new film by the French director Claire Denis, is concerned with the bewildering chasm between huge and tumultuous international movements and individual lives. It is self-evident that the story of Joséphine and Lionel, an African immigrant whose wife was German, is bound up in a complicated history of demographics and political economy. The fact that nearly all of the characters in this film are French while few are white is a further index of how the European landscape has changed in recent decades. But the more salient change, the one that shapes Ms. Denis’s delicate narrative, is the one that occurs within Lionel and Joséphine’s relationship. It has to do with universally recognizable but nonetheless highly particular shifts in emotional weather, as a child and her parent undertake a gradual separation after years of solitary intimacy.
— A.O. Scott

Fatal Promises

Opening this weekend: Fatal Promises, directed by Kat Rohrer

Synopsis from the movie's website:

Through personal stories of victims and interviews with politicians, NGO representatives and activists, Fatal Promises provides a comprehensive look at the realities of human trafficking versus the rhetoric of politicians and pundits who claim to be making significant strides in combating this horrific crime against humanity.

From Q&A with Rohrer and Emma Thompson:

Bright Star in Theaters

Opening this week: Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion

Jennifer's Body in Theaters

Opening this weekend: Jennifer's Body, directed by Karyn Kusama

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers in Theaters

Opening this week: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Other Films at the Toronto International Film Festival

The Toronto International Film Festival also featured nine other movies about which I had already posted. Check them out here:

Women Without Men, directed by Shirin Neshat

White Material, directed by Claire Denis

Once Upon a Time Proletarian, directed by Xiaolu Guo

La Pivellina, directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel

Le père de mes enfants, directed by Mia Hansen-Love

Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion

Fish Tank
, directed by Andrea Arnold

Jaffa, directed by Keren Yedaya

A Brand New Life, directed by Ounie Lecomte

Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, directed by Mary Wharton

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

THIRTEEN’s American Masters explores fifty years of folk legend and human rights activist Joan Baez in Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, airing October 14 on PBS

Features rare performance footage and candid interviews with David Crosby, Bob Dylan, ex-husband David Harris, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Roger McGuinn, and more

Joan Baez made her debut appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Fifty years later she returned to that same Rhode Island stage on August 2, marking her and the festival’s 50th anniversaries. She is presently on a worldwide tour in celebration of her 50 years as a performer and in support of her Grammy-nominated CD, Day After Tomorrow.

In the first comprehensive documentary to chronicle the private life and public career of Joan Baez, American Masters examines her history as a recording artist and performer as well as her remarkable journey as the conscience of a generation in Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, premiering nationally Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The film coincides with the DVD/CD release on October 13th on Razor & Tie.

“From an early age, Joan Baez had the courage of her convictions,” says Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer of American Masters, a six-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. “Her artistry and her commitment to human rights make her a musical and political force as relevant today as when she first started.”

Following Baez on her 2008/2009 world tour, the filmmakers captured Baez in performance as well as in intimate conversations with individuals whose lives parallel hers. From a stop in Sarajevo, Bosnia to revisit the scene of Joan’s courageous trip to that war-torn city in the middle of the 1993 siege, to Nashville, Tennessee, where she joined Steve Earle to talk about their collaboration on Joan’s 2008 Grammy-nominated album Day After Tomorrow, the film allows viewers an unprecedented level of access to Ms. Baez.

Shot in high definition with a natural, filmic look, Joan is also joined on screen by, David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Reverend Jesse Jackson, among others, to illuminate this extraordinary life. Rich historical archival footage – Baez’ controversial visit to North Vietnam, where she is seen praying with the residents of Hanoi during the heaviest bombing of the war; Martin Luther King Jr. outside a California prison where he visited Joan to offer his support after she was jailed for staging a protest; Joan at her first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and Joan as a teenager performing at the historic Club 47 – is woven into the story so viewers can experience scenes from Joan’s life that have never been uncovered.

The grit of the film is Baez’ power as a musician – from her tentative teenage years in the Cambridge, Mass coffee houses to her emergence onto the world stage and the 50-year career that followed – Joan Baez is a musical force of nature and this film captures her strength as a performer and the influence she has brought to bear on successive generations of artists.

Tanner Hall

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Tanner Hall, written and directed by Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Possibly influenced by the nuanced societies of Jane Austen and the estrogen-infused work of Lillian Hellman, co-writers and co-directors Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini explore the emotionally complex world of young women in their thoughtful coming-of-age drama Tanner Hall.

Everything about Tanner Hall is somewhat timeless: the slightly crumbling ivy-clad exterior, white porcelain sinks and teenaged girls in pleated skirts, cardigans and knee socks. The story of the people inside this grande dame of an institution, however, troubles the benign surface of these classic images.

It is fall, and Fernanda (Rooney Mara) returns to her beloved Tanner Hall to begin the new school year. She is yearning to see her old friends Kate (Brie Larson) and Lucasta (Amy Ferguson). Although clearly girls of privilege, they exhibit none of the stereotypical behaviours assumed of children of their class; rather, they are at once worldly and innocent, hovering on the razor's edge between adolescence and adulthood.

But there's a new girl: Victoria (Georgia King), who is clearly one angry, emotionally dishevelled young woman. Victoria wants scalps on her belt, and within hours of her arrival, she has set the trio of friends against each other without their fully understanding why or how. That's just the first day.

Victoria instinctively understands that Fernanda is her prize because she is practical, clear-eyed and not easily fooled. But while Victoria focuses on manipulating her, Fernanda's attentions are elsewhere, mostly on her developing affections for Gio (Tom Everett Scott), the husband of one of her mother's friends. Vulnerable to the stirrings of what she thinks is real love, Fernanda allows his pursuit of her to get tangled up in the teenaged machinations around her, and the outcome is a much-too-rapid vault into adulthood for each girl.

Bare Essence of Life

Showing at the Toronto Film Festival: Bare Essence of Life, directed by Satoko Yokohama

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

The darling of new Japanese cinema, Satoko Yokohama confirms her talent and brilliant originality with Bare Essence of Life, a satisfying tale of rural eccentricity that combines black humour and fantasy with romanticism and drama. Scripted and directed by Yokohama with self-assured grace, the film strays from both the commercial mainstream and the independent art-house cinema to find its own path.

An opening shot pans along a colourful world of disparate objects and several alarm clocks all about to ring and awaken Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) to another glorious morning. Following the offbeat pace of his strange thoughts and even stranger outbursts of vitality, the film chronicles the mentally challenged young farmer as he daily tends his grandmother's organic vegetable garden, putting all his effort into planting, ploughing and harvesting, with poor results. The real meanings of his actions somehow escape him.

Life with his grandmother is peaceful, until the day when an odd new feeling gets hold of Yojin. Out of the blue, a girl from Tokyo appears in the countryside. Machiko (Kumiko Aso) is a pretty nursery-school teacher who loves children. She has come here to escape her past, the death of her boyfriend in a car crash while he was with another lover. Something Yojin has never experienced before creeps into his heart, and his actions are taken over by a desperate need to be next to Machiko and liked by her. He has the sudden urge to control himself, a feeling that brings unexpected consequences.

Japanese superstar Kenichi Matsuyama is especially compelling as Yojin, finding a balance of strength and sensitivity in this portrait of an unusual farmer. Filmed with true empathy, Bare Essence of Life renders a vivid portrait of rural Japan. As the story unfolds its miracles and surprises, the audience follows the ups and downs of Yokohama's characters.

The Waiting City

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Waiting City, directed by Claire McCarthy

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

To adopt a child is to wait, and to wait in a city far from home can be an exciting thing – or a test of all one's resources. In the case of Claire McCarthy's epic, glistening new feature, those on hold are a young Australian couple, Fiona (Radha Mitchell) and Ben (Joel Edgerton), who arrive in Kolkata to claim their adopted child.

Outwardly happy and connected, Ben and Fiona are nonplussed when they discover that their adoption arrangements have hit some bureaucratic snags, even when their Western-style problem-solving skills prove ineffective at helping the situation along. As they dig in for a long wait, they comfort themselves with the assurance that their new daughter Lakshmi, whose picture they have cherished for months, will still be theirs. So, they wait: Fiona works from her laptop while Ben ventures out into the city in search of new experiences and friends. One of these new-found acquaintances is Scarlett (Isabel Lucas), a girl whose easy acclimatization to the rhythms of Kolkata seems to match Ben's own.

As time passes, it also seems to intensify, and the couple respond very differently to the chaos, colour and allure of the city around them. Frustrated by the delays surrounding matters they assumed to be solved, Ben and Fiona inevitably turn on each other, and are forced to confront their differences, long-held resentments and secrets. The hoped-for break in the adoption proceedings does come, but by then there is a question of whether their shattered relationship can, or even should, continue.

But Kolkata doesn't just take, it gives, and McCarthy's deep personal knowledge of the city and its gifts is woven into every strand of the story's fabric. Edgerton and Mitchell provide beautifully articulated performances, ably supported by Lucas, Samrat Chakrabarti as Krishna, a hotel worker they befriend, and Tilotamma Shome as Sister Tessila, a compassionate nun from the adoption centre. Cinematographer Denson Baker's stunning photography captures the vibrant Kolkata with a rich complexity that does true justice to the city and those waiting people within it.

Un transport en commun (Saint Louis Blues)

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Un transport en commun, directed by Dyana Gaye

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Just when despair began to set in about the decline in cinema production from sub-Saharan Africa, here comes the irrepressible Dyana Gaye to turn things around. Her new film, Saint Louis Blues, is a musical that takes place on a road trip in Senegal, and the result is every bit as unlikely as it sounds.

At a taxi stop in the capital, Dakar, people gather and wait for the battered old Peugeot station wagon to depart; the taxi won't leave until the driver finds a seventh passenger. As they wait, one woman breaks into song, and suddenly an impromptu musical number begins, right there in the dusty parking lot. And this is not the music you might expect on a Senegalese road trip. In what may be Gaye's most brilliant stroke, she reaches back to the tradition of French musicals from the fifties and sixties to lift her characters into an altogether different register from the world that surrounds them. As if transported straight from a Jacques Demy film, they translate their plight into light lyrics and lilting melodies, stepping gracefully in sync with the music. When the song ends, the story continues.

Gaye lives in both France and Senegal, and the bridge between these worlds has never been so finely expressed as in this film. The bright future of African cinema, she has already won the attention of Focus Features in the United States, who supported this film through their Africa First programme.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Es kommt der Tag (The Day Will Come)

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Day Will Come, directed by Susanne Schneider

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

The legacy of terrorism is on the minds of a number of filmmakers this year, and with The Day Will Come, Susanne Schneider does a superb job of detailing the impact that youthful decisions can have on people's lives decades later. In her intimate, powerfully acted and extremely well-written film, Schneider focuses her narrative on two women from different generations whose lives are inextricably linked together.

The Day Will Come centres on a mysterious young woman (Katharine Schüttler) who equally mysteriously arrives on the doorstep of a family of complete strangers. She has had a small incident with her car and needs a place to stay for the night. Living in the countryside in a homey, rambling farmhouse with an underproducing vineyard, Judith (Iris Berben), her husband and their two teenaged children open their doors to the stranger. Little do they know how their lives will be completely and utterly changed.

Judith has a secret from many, many years ago that this stranger is committed to exposing. Slowly but surely, the truth begins to emerge, a past that has been swept under the carpet in a very successful attempt to create a new life.

It would be unfair to detail any more of the plot of this finely judged film. The beautifully honed performances of the two female leads become increasingly intense and harrowing as the story unwinds, and the fine secondary roles act as a subtle counterpoint to the main drama. Set in Alsace-Lorraine, a place where French and German mingle and blend but where history can never be fully forgotten, The Day Will Come evokes the complex masterpieces of Margarethe von Trotta's early work. As Schneider fully understands, the past never disappears; it reappears at unexpected times in unexpected ways. Her film is unflinching in its gaze and direct in its emotional connection.

Chaque jour est une fête (Every Day is a Holiday)

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Every Day is a Holiday, directed by Dima El-Horr

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Road movies can range from popcorn entertainment to Michelangelo Antonioni. The genre is generous, which allows Dima El-Horr to invest her excursion with political nuance, existential heft and a specifically female point of view.

The film opens with an arresting sequence: a couple runs through a tunnel, backlit brightly. She calls out to him, but he keeps running. The police lead him away to prison. In the same tunnel, this one lover is now joined by dozens of other women, all carrying portraits of their imprisoned men.

From this brisk, symbolic opening, Every Day Is a Holiday begins a road trip from Beirut into the desert, toward Lebanon's men's prison. It starts on a bus, but soon events throw the women out into a landscape of parched rock, land mines and hot sun, where their common cause begins to conflict with competing decisions.

Anyone who knows Elia Suleiman's films about Palestine will recognize how El-Horr distills the harsh social realities of life amid war into stark, sometimes absurd scenes. Examining the artificial community created by three women whose men all happen to be prisoners, she explores tensions of class and politics in beautifully conceived set pieces. She also benefits from a cast that includes the superb Hiam Abbass.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, written and directed by Rebecca Miller

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Does anyone really know Pippa Lee? Ostensibly a well-off model wife, mother and friend, Pippa wears each of her masks just a little loosely. Played to perfection by Robin Wright Penn, Pippa is a woman for our times. In this smart study of life at the top of the social food chain, writer-director Rebecca Miller adapts her own novel in a wrenching yet often hilarious look at one enigmatic woman.

Pippa (Wright Penn) and her publisher husband, Herb (Alan Arkin), have just moved to Connecticut following Herb's heart attack. Accustomed to the creative whirl of New York, Pippa adjusts slowly to her beige-toned suburban home and the slower pace of small-town life. Regular dinners with their friends Sam (Mike Bender) and Sandra (Winona Ryder) provide some reprieve, but it is not until their neighbours' recently divorced son Chris (Keanu Reeves) moves in next door that Pippa begins to rediscover facets of herself that have long been in hibernation. As she cares for an older husband who appears to be drifting farther and farther away, unsettling memories from her past swell up and threaten to smother her. Furthermore, strange incidents add to the growing tension in the home: someone has been sleepwalking, indulging in messy late-night snacks and taking the car out for nocturnal spins.

Pippa Lee is the story of a woman who has faced many challenges but is still trying to figure herself out. Taking us from Pippa's troubled years growing up in the fifties and sixties to her seemingly more peaceful life in the present day, Miller's narrative traverses both the highs of falling in love and the crises arising from drug abuse and family trauma. Blake Lively is at once coquettish and forlorn as the teenaged Pippa, more than holding her own among a cast of veterans, and Julianne Moore gives a standout performance as a sexy, no-nonsense photographer. But it is Wright Penn who adeptly carries the film, bringing Pippa to life with a nuanced range of emotions and a subtle yet irresistible comic presence.

Miller lends both a zany sense of humour and an incontestable talent for storytelling to this tale of an uncompromising free spirit. Though Pippa may already have survived her youth, we learn that coming of age is a process that never stops.

The movie's website is here.

Köprüdekiler (Men on the Bridge)

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Men on the Bridge, directed by Asli Özge

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

What if you lived in the most colourful city in the world and never managed to tap into that bustling charm, which is obvious to everyone else yet somehow unattainable to you? Blending glimmering sunsets with urban decay, Istanbul can be an especially heartbreaking place to live when happiness constantly seems out of reach.

Faced with such crushing contradictions, Asli Özge originally intended to reveal these different aspects of her hometown in documentary format. Yet somewhere along the line, the project began to shift toward fiction. Using her original subjects, Özge scripted their lives to match her inspiration, casting each person in their own life story. In other words, Men on the Bridge is as true to life as fiction can possibly get.

Setting up shop on the Bosphorus Bridge, halfway between Europe and Asia, Özge focuses on despair. Murat (Murat Tokgöz), a small-town traffic cop on a recent transfer, spends his days squeezed among millions of cars, dreaming of love. Umut (Umut Ilker), two years into an unhappy marriage, drives a shared taxi, distracted and resigned, while his demanding wife craves luxury. Fikret (Fikret Portakal), raised on the streets with no education to speak of, sells roses in a near-endless river of traffic and fantasizes about a better life. The hopes and dreams of these men intersect on a daily basis in the Bosphorus Bridge rush hour, along with myriads of anonymous drivers honking their way into oblivion. Tucked away in different pockets of the city, the three protagonists alternately compete for the viewers' attention, unaware that the most important character is the ground they stand upon.

While by no means attempting to restore the Turkish city to its former glory, Özge allows occasional glimpses of accidental beauty that can't help but conjure up visions of a fairy-tale past. Stuck between the gutter and the stars, Istanbul is like a beautiful woman who's fallen from grace, and the film is about every man who fell with her.

The film's website is here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Unloved

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Unloved, directed by Samantha Morton

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

As an actor, Samantha Morton once said she had only one thing to give to directors: “Honesty. Massive honesty and truth.” Directing her own film for the first time, she draws that same truth from her cast and her story.

The Unloved
is inspired by Morton's own life as a girl in the British Midlands. Lucy (Molly Windsor) lives with an unstable, sometimes violent father, played by Robert Carlyle. When the local social services step in to rescue her, Lucy leaves the chaos of her family for the uncertain dangers of a care home.

In stark, distilled scenes that fall somewhere between the work of Ken Loach and Terence Davies, Morton shows Lucy attempting to navigate the social services system – arbitrary rules, hostile older kids and, most powerfully, isolation. Almost by instinct, Lucy learns to observe the shifting winds of her reality rather than always daring to react.

The Unloved
was made for Britain's Channel 4 because Morton insisted that girls like Lucy were far more likely to see films on television. And yet, Morton has made something thoroughly cinematic. The images are painterly and the sound heightened, all designed to pull the viewer closer and closer to Lucy's perspective. The intimacy and focus of the film are so complete that, even in its moments of childhood horror, the sense of empathy is unbroken.

Morton's entire childhood was spent in the care of the Nottinghamshire social services system, from infancy to age eighteen. Girls she knew there went on to become prostitutes, two of them murdered on the streets. Morton escaped that fate partly through the strength of her imagination. It was in social services that she began training as an actor, and it was also there, at age sixteen, that she began to storyboard the film that would become The Unloved – full of massive honesty, but also a surprisingly mature art.

The film's website is here. Unfortunately, people in the US can't watch the videos, but more will probably be available later, especially if there is a US theatrical release.

Engelen (The Angel)

Showing at the Toronto Film Festival: Angel, directed by Margreth Olin

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Norwegian director Margreth Olin makes her fiction-feature debut with The Angel, a searing, atmospheric study of abuse and addiction that began as a documentary project based on the life of the film's protagonist, Lea. It opens with the death of Lea's father, whose passing disrupts her idyllic rural existence as a young girl. (In the early scenes, the flowers and woods surrounding their cabin are almost as significant as Lea and her family.) Things change when her mother, Madeline, takes up with her old boyfriend Ole, an alcoholic who turns abusive when he drinks. By the time she reaches her teenaged years, Lea is already working on similar bad habits. Once heroin enters her life, Lea's battle with addiction threatens to become all-consuming – and her interaction with her infant daughter starts to mirror her relationship with her own mother.

On one level, The Angel is a precise, unflinching portrait of addiction, showing how a person's family life and environment play roles in facilitating and forming an addict. Though the film has the dreamy, drowsy tone associated with works on the same subject, it's far from typical. In many ways, this is a mystery about character and the roles we're expected to play. An individual's motivations are often obscure or unknowable. Personality assessments are speculative, even between those who share the longest and most intimate relationships. Throughout the film, the strongest and sometimes the most dangerous characters turn out to be the neediest. Madeline has always been an enigma to Lea because it always seemed like mother rather than daughter was the one who most needed to be taken care of.

Combining the hushed tone of a confessional with the helpless resignation of an elegy, The Angel approaches its characters with a respectful but perplexed deference.

Olin delivers sections of the voice-over narration, stating her desire to tell Lea's story as she'd like it to be told. By asserting her directorial voice in the film, she emphasizes the uncertain nature of character and personality.

Featuring a stellar cast, with three different performers playing the role of Lea – including Norway's most celebrated actress, Maria Bonnevie, in a brilliant turn as the adult Lea – The Angel paints a portrait of a society in which roles are reversed and the child must care for the parent.

Trailer (without subtitles):


Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Crackie, directed by Sherry White

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Life on the Rock never seemed easy, but for Mitsy (Meghan Greeley) it is especially rough. The teenager has been abandoned by her mother, a particularly unfit parent prone to both the bottle and the sex trade. She is left to be brought up by her mercurial grandmother Bride (Mary Walsh), who is well-meaning but oppressively suffocating.

Mitsy's dreams for the future hinge on her desire to be a hairdresser, but her current emotional well-being revolves around a wee dog named Sparky, an unwanted canine misfit to whom she becomes hopelessly attached. After Bride agrees to let Mitsy take the dog in as a pet, the teen tries desperately to create a happy, safe place for Sparky to thrive – basically, she wants to offer the dog the kinds of comforts she has never known. But Mitsy's life is shaken once more when her mother returns to Newfoundland. Even though Mitsy is thrilled, Bride wants nothing to do with her ne'er-do-well deadbeat daughter. It's a family made up of three wildly dysfunctional generations, always poised to clash. And in the midst of it all, Mitsy is learning about her emerging sexuality and developing a crush on a local bad boy who works in a rather grim fast food joint.

Sherry White's feature directorial debut is a delicate balancing act, a sharply observed character study of two women who struggle to do their best despite being handed a pretty rotten lot in life. Greeley is a revelation as Mitsy, turning in a performance so sympathetic it is often heart-wrenching to behold. And as her grandmother, Walsh offers us yet another multi-dimensional character, proving she can deliver much more than the comedy that made her famous. Mitsy's story is never sentimentalized, and while the times are indeed as harsh as one can imagine, White offers us some cautious optimism as well. Crackie is a refined film, full of evocative moments and raw human emotion.

Partir (Leaving)

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Partir, directed by Catherine Corsini

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Fresh from her remarkable, award-winning role in last year's Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Kristin Scott Thomas returns to the Festival opposite the smouldering Catalan actor Sergi Lopez in Catherine Corsini's gripping tale of a mid-life affair in southern France.

A gunshot erupts in the night, puncturing the quiet of a slumbering house. From this ominous opening, Partir jumps back in time several months. Suzanne (Scott Thomas) is preparing to return to work as a physiotherapist after years at home caring for her brusque doctor husband, Samuel (Yvan Attal), and her teenaged son and daughter. Samuel hires Ivan (Lopez) to build Suzanne her own backyard clinic. A former convict with a young daughter in Spain, Ivan responds cautiously at first to Suzanne's natural warmth. But when an accident brings the two closer together, social barriers give way to mutual attraction. As their relationship intensifies, Suzanne leaves her bewildered husband and children, abandoning her comfortable lifestyle for Ivan's cramped apartment. Practical matters soon disturb the lovers, however. Ivan can't work because of an injured leg, and Suzanne, thwarted by her aggrieved husband, is reduced to doing odd jobs. With money growing scarcer, she becomes increasingly desperate.

Corsini sets a simmering mood from the outset, contrasting the cool, clean aesthetic of the domestic space with Suzanne's sun-kissed vitality. Yet for all the heat of the affair, Partir is in essence the story of a family in freefall. While the daughter echoes her father's anger at Suzanne, the son remains loyal, and his attempts to support his mother as she veers further and further away from the woman he knew are truly touching.

As the frustrated wife prepared to risk everything for passion, Scott Thomas gives a rich, captivating performance. Lopez (best known for his villainous turns in Pan's Labyrinth and Dirty Pretty Things) deftly embodies the tension of a middle-aged labourer whose hard-won prudence is swept away by a force he can't resist, and Attal brims with the indignant, wounded rage of a husband betrayed. Corsini's skilful direction captures the subtleties of emotion and character as the story propels itself toward a shocking end.

Trailer (without subtitles):

Hotel Atlantico

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Hotel Atlantico, directed by Suzana Amaral

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Suzana Amaral's films linger long after the closing credits. They haunt you: characters who seem merely ordinary people become embedded in your mind. Amaral's feature debut, The Hour of the Star, was released when she was fifty-three and became a unique and surprising hit. In it, Amaral created a poignant portrait of a seemingly dull character, Macabea, an incompetent secretary, that resonated in unexpected ways. More than a decade later, the director released another moving character study with A Hidden Life. Now this accomplished auteur presents Hotel Atlantico, a mysterious and atmospheric journey through the landscape of Southern Brazil. It is a testament to Amaral's great talent that her third fiction feature is screening as part of this year's Masters programme.

Hotel Atlantico
follows an unnamed man as he wanders through Brazil, living life in the moment without ever having a clear destination. Sometimes referred to as “The Artist” by those who recognize him from a telenovela in which he starred, the man is drifting, taking a voyage of discovery and allowing fate to decide his course. He is always accompanied by death in his travels, from those who expire at his side to those who wish him dead.

There is a palpable Lynchian aura to the film, with a vaguely defined threat seeping through the scenes. At the same time, the narrative and the performers are going with the flow, exuding a “living in the moment” energy that may be due to Amaral's Buddhist beliefs. She elicits wonderfully nuanced performances from her actors. Our Artist seems at times tough and distant, at others vulnerable and kind. The film is infused with humour and sexuality – an unexpected popcorn sex scene in priests' robes is a highlight.

Hotel Atlantico
explores the mysteries of life through our protagonist's approach to his travels, which are always marked by unexpected adventures. Amaral directs her narrative in an arc without a set conclusion, giving the effect of a journey that continues long after you've left the theatre.


Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Stolen, directed by Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Australian-based filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw originally set out to make a documentary about an under-reported land dispute in Northern Africa. Once they started shooting, however, they gradually stumbled on a story about modern slavery that has become hugely controversial.

In 2007, Ayala and Fallshaw were drawn to the cause of the Polisario Liberation Front, which represents the Sahrawi people (meaning “people of the Sahara”), who have long struggled for control of the Western Sahara against the competing interests of Morocco and other factions. The two spent several weeks in a refugee camp controlled by the Polisario. Inside the camps, a complex hierarchy exists between the white Arabs and blacks, all of whom consider themselves Sahrawi. The filmmakers focused on a black woman in her thirties named Fetim Sellami, who is reunited with her mother through a United Nations programme. Sellami has a noticeably servile relationship to an older white woman named Deido. Upon further questioning, the filmmakers recorded persuasive testimony that a form of slavery continues to be practised. The existence of modern slavery has been detailed in books like Kevin Bales's Disposable People, but rarely has it been covered on film as intimately as in Stolen.

The Polisario staunchly maintains that it forbids slavery. When Ayala and Fallshaw raised the topic in the camps, they soon found themselves unwelcome. Fearing that their tapes would be seized, the filmmakers buried them in the desert and fled. Stolen turns into a tale of suspense and political intrigue as the filmmakers struggle to recover their tapes. Placing themselves in the story, Ayala and Fallshaw document their own moral quandaries. They include a statement by Sellami maintaining that she's not a slave, contradicting what others say. The filmmakers don't purport to have all the answers, but they do raise important questions. You can expect a heated discussion after each screening.

The film's website is here.


Showing at the Toronto Film Festival: Heiran, directed by Shalizeh Arefpour

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Teen lust takes on a wholly different meaning when it surfaces in the wrong country. In Iran, high-school student Mahi (Baran Kosari) and illegal Afghan worker Heiran (Mehrdad Sedighian) risk Romeo and Juliet status when her horrified family refuses to bless their spontaneous union. Supported by an affectionate grandfather (theatre veteran Khosro Shakibaei, in a memorable last performance) who spends the afternoons chatting to his deceased wife, Mahi follows Heiran to unforgiving Tehran. There she is suddenly thrust into a grim adulthood, and it takes more resolve than she ever imagined just to keep loving the man who turned her life on end. Struggling to make ends meet, Heiran gives up his dreams of university and asks for a refund on his student fees to provide a down payment on their shabby flat. Soon the couple has a baby to cope with, too, and Heiran must take responsibility for his family.

In a world where ethics have taken a back seat, this Persian tale of woe is quite re-freshing. Who would think virginal flirtations would stir such deep emotion when promiscuity barely even registers anymore in modern life? In Shalizeh Arefpour's debut feature, a flower exchanged is practically a marriage vow, with fathers brooding and mothers upbraiding their offspring over the merest hint of romantic entanglement. In the Iranian countryside, a universe of autumnal fields and still waters, love ought to be the gateway to heaven. Instead, it's the doorway to new dangers.

In the end, Mahi suddenly awakens to the harsh fact that love alone cannot conquer all. Faced with the cruelty and bitterness of reality and with fewer choices now in her grasp, Mahi bravely fights her final battle before retreating to memories of the past, where flowers were always in bloom and bicycle rides could last forever, just like love.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Fold a Flag

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: How to Fold a Flag, directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

A cage fighter in Texas. A congressional candidate in Buffalo. A heavy-metal rocker in Colorado. A hog butcher in North Carolina. Their common thread is that they went through combat together in Iraq in the U.S. Army's 2/3 Field Artillery unit, known as the Gunners. Now they're dispersed back to their hometowns, trying to resume normal lives. In this extraordinary documentary, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein reveal the poignant and poetic tapestry of America's neglected corners.

Tucker and Epperlein are uniquely qualified for this journey. Their debut feature film, Gunner Palace, which played at the Festival in 2004, was the first theatrical work to follow American soldiers in Iraq. That was followed by The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair in 2006, which looked at Abu Ghraib from the rare perspective of a wrongfully accused Iraqi prisoner, and Bulletproof Salesman in 2008, which examined a war profiteer.

How to Fold a Flag begins with a 1920 epigraph from the German author Ernst Jünger: “We were asked to believe that the war was over. We laughed – for we were the war.” That sentiment embodies these characters. In Texas, Michael Goss, haunted by the deaths he witnessed, says, “I need to continue fighting something.” In Buffalo, Jon Powers campaigns on his war record for the U.S. Congress, which doesn't stop his opponents from “Swift Boating” him with smear tactics. In suburban Colorado, Wilf Stuart tries to uphold his mother Becky's spirits as his brother prepares to deploy for combat. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Javorn Drummond cracks jokes about his ramshackle home. Describing his sense of dislocation, he says, “We went to war as a unit and came home alone.”

How to Fold a Flag checks in on these characters and others throughout the pivotal election year of 2008, capturing unforgettable moments of hope, loss and redemption. They may be young, but they have a lot to teach us.

Beautiful Kate

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Beautiful Kate, written and directed by Rachel Ward

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

One of the many remarkable aspects of Beautiful Kate is that the film asks – insists, really – that you become emotionally engaged with its characters almost immediately, yet it also challenges you to postpone your judgment of their actions until the story has neared its end. Accomplishing this requires disciplined and concise filmmaking, which is exactly what characterizes Rachel Ward's debut.

Based on a 1982 novel by Newton Thornburg, the film begins with forty-year-old Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn). At the behest of his dutiful sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths), Ned reluctantly returns to the isolated family homestead after a twenty-year absence because his cantankerous and bullying father, Bruce (Bryan Brown), is dying. Ned has dragged his twenty-one-year-old fiancée, Toni (Maeve Dermody), along to act as a lipstick-coated suit of armour and agent provocateur against his father.

Incendiary memories of the past are what Ned must guard against, however, and in this he fails. Conflicting and painful recollections of his twin sister's passing as a teenager and the subsequent death of his brother demand attention, but revisiting these traumas does little to calm the stormy waters between father and son. Guilt-ridden flashbacks fraught with emotional violence and taboo sexuality are set to haunt Ned until he can face his father head on. Each man has a lifetime of pain that only the other can help reconcile.

Ward has brought a precision to her filmmaking that fully supports this dark, brooding narrative. Andrew Commis's accomplished photography emphasizes the contrast between the lushness of the landscape and the barrenness of the crumbling family property. Ward's extensive performance experience may also have provided her with the sensibilities needed to draw such uniformly excellent work from her cast. Beyond these achievements, the sensitivity and skill she evinces as both writer and director of this memorable, difficult story announce the arrival of a strong new voice.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Today the name Daniel Ellsberg might draw a blank from younger people, but in the early seventies, he was all over the news for leaking the Pentagon Papers. This resulted in his being hunted by the FBI and dubbed “the most dangerous man in America.” President Nixon developed a personal obsession with the idea of destroying Ellsberg, which led to the recklessness of the Watergate scandal.

No one could have predicted this outcome in the mid-sixties, when Ellsberg was considered a golden boy working inside the Pentagon. But after visiting the front lines in Vietnam, his outlook began to change. With high-level access to government documents, he read a top-secret study of the war. The seven-thousand-page report revealed that the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had consistently deceived the American public about Vietnam. Ellsberg felt he would perpetuate the lies unless he did something drastic.

In this thrilling account, directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith get the full story of Ellsberg's dramatic change from trusted insider to vilified outsider. Even if you know pieces of this story from other sources, such as Harrison Salisbury's excellent book Without Fear or Favor, this new telling is full of rich detail and emotional depth. Extensive interviews with Ellsberg reveal the family tragedy that shaped his character, as well as how his wife Patricia influenced his actions. The narrative is enriched by interviews with other key players, from retired New York Times editor Max Frankel to former Nixon aide John Dean. The voice of Nixon is also heard through the infamous White House audio recordings in which he speaks of Vietnam as a “shit-ass little country” and urges Henry Kissinger to consider using nuclear weapons.

At a time when newspapers have a questionable future, Ehrlich and Goldsmith offer a stirring reminder of the media's courageous role in Ellsberg's story. In hindsight, history has shifted to his side. This film puts us back in the moment when the risks were great and the results unclear.


Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Eamon, directed by Margaret Corkery

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Made for less than five hundred thousand dollars, Eamon plays like the most expensive low-budget film you've ever seen. The result is a fabulously fresh and highly entertaining first feature.

Selfish, bratty little Eamon (Robert Donnelly) shoos his father aside for a privileged place in his mother's heart. King of her bed and dictator of all things quotidian, he leaves no space in her affections for anyone but himself, having banished his father to what feels like a distant planet – a planet where touching your spouse is punishable and sleeping on the couch mandatory. Lonely and sexually frustrated, brooding Daniel (Darren Healy) covers himself head to toe while bikini-clad Grace (Amy Kirwan) actively pretends he doesn't exist. Though he might not look it, their son is well aware of the parental climate and does his best to keep amorous heat waves at bay. Sitting between them every chance he gets, he insulates one from the other to make it easier to get what he wants – which is just about everything. Monopolizing attention and eliminating sexual desire is what Eamon does best.

A bright, satirical drama with dark overtones, Eamon follows this idiosyncratic trio on a family holiday of sorts, intended to give them a break from their dire financial straits. Unfortunately, salvation does not sprout on the Irish coast, and sooner or later they come face to face with their problems. Too bad one of the three has no interest in seeing them resolved.

Unexpectedly granted funds and full creative control by Ireland's Catalyst Project, a government initiative designed to nurture budding filmmakers, Margaret Corkery stripped her first feature down to its bare essentials: three leads, an uncluttered narrative and the merest sprinkling of ancillary characters. The film's strength lies in the details. One of the most important elements in Eamon is the weather: it might be sunny outside, but it's certainly raining in the master bedroom.

The Topp Twins

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: The Topp Twins, directed by Leanne Pooley

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

The story of one of New Zealand's most cherished and charmingly irrepressible performing duos finally reaches the big screen in Leanne Pooley's latest feature, The Topp Twins.

Through a compilation of interviews, performance footage, home videos and newsreel archives, Pooley's documentary introduces audiences to Jools and Lynda Topp, the world's only yodelling, lesbian, country-and-western-singing twins. The film combines an array of artful filmic formats, making audiences privy to an honest, intimate and entertaining portrait of two sisters who resist, often through satire and parody, the political and sexual norms of post-war New Zealand.

Their story spans fifty years, starting with their humble upbringing on a small dairy farm and leading to their internationally acclaimed present-day tours. While Pooley undoubtedly succeeds in demonstrating the twins' effortlessly comical stage presence, the film also acknowledges Jools's fight with and recovery from breast cancer, offering a glimpse past the superficial details of their public lives.

Interviews with the girls' onstage alter egos – Ken and Ken, Camp Mother and Camp Leader, and Prue and Dilly – steadily inject the story's biopic digressions with lighthearted humour, reminding audiences that their talents exceed and ultimately subvert the traditional preconceptions that could define or categorize their theatrical antics. The sisters maintain an aversion to classification that has allowed for limitless possibilities over the years. As they wittily put it, “We're not comedians, we're just singers who are funny.”

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that its real task goes beyond a simple showcasing of the twins' considerable skills. Through the use of newsreel footage and photography, Pooley charts their provocative careers alongside thirty years of seismic social change in New Zealand, demonstrating how the country struggled to find and define its national identity.

In this elegantly compiled work – part biopic, part concept film, part comedy – Pooley provides a strong reminder that what resists classification may be the very thing that has the power to restore unity, understanding and compassion in a tumultuous world.

The Topp Twins' website is here.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont

Synopsis of the film from the TIFF website:

Glenn Gould is arguably the most documented classical musician of the last century. In addition to numerous films about him (including François Girard's seminal Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and two fine portraits by Roman Kroitor), Gould appeared in countless radio and television programmes, culminating with John McGreevy's legendary Glenn Gould's Toronto.

Still, few of these pieces have managed to truly capture all of the myriad contradictions that made up Gould. Most have readily accepted his carefully groomed public persona. One of the more notable aspects of Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont's Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is how it explores the incongruities between Gould's private reality and his wider image. It investigates Gould's personal life, specifically his long-running affair with painter Cornelia Foss, his drug intake and how his public facade began to take over his existence.

Genius Within is packed with compelling interviews with key people in Gould's life, including childhood friends, collaborators and even pop singer Petula Clark (a semi-ironic obsession for Gould). Hozer and Raymont have unearthed some truly extraordinary unseen footage, like the short film Gould made with writer and photographer Jock Carroll in the Caribbean.

The documentary is a fascinating record of a key moment in our cultural history – that post-war period in the fifties and sixties when you could actually begin to discuss Canadian culture as a distinct entity. But what ultimately emerges is a man imprisoned by his own eccentricities and an image that came to dominate his life. In many ways, the film is a portrait of loneliness and isolation, which some saw as Gould's overriding themes in his radio work and writing. Genius Within is an assured, comprehensive and balanced portrait of one of Canada's most significant cultural icons.


Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont discussing the movie:

Mall Girls

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Mall Girls (Galerianki), directed by Katarzyna Roslaniec

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

This tough, uncompromising and gritty slice of realism cuts to the core of the socialization of an adolescent who finds herself caught up with a gang of teenaged girls determined to make their way in the world. At times startlingly aggressive, at others softly romantic, Katarzyna Roslaniec's film unflinchingly slashes its way through contemporary Polish society. Roslaniec exposes the confusions of a deeply troubled and potentially damaged generation, one that has grown up entirely in post-Soviet democratic Poland.

Alicja (Anna Karczmarczyk) is a newcomer and an outsider, an ordinary, conservatively attired teenaged girl who quickly finds herself mocked by the sexualized, hip group of schoolgirls who essentially walk the walk and talk the talk, both at school and in the streets. Crude, belligerent, cocky and fearless, this group of fourteen-year-olds soon starts to make Alicja's life a living hell. Next to them, Alicja looks plain and commonplace, but it is not long before she is slowly invited into the group, undergoing a tough initiation along the way. She soon discovers why her new friends look so trendy and stylish: they hang around the local malls after school and give strangers casual blow jobs. The money earned allows them to buy the latest in fashionable jeans and cellphones. The choice Alicja faces is stark – to become part of the group and be accepted, or to try to go her own way. When she meets a shy, introverted boy, she finds herself in the middle of a power play for her emotions: as the leader of her gang reaches out to her for affection, her male love interest struggles with his feelings for her.

Growing up as a teenager is never easy, but Roslaniec portrays her protagonists not so much as the fourteen-year-olds they are, but as the adults they pretend to be. The filmmaker is completely at ease with her subject, and there is no sign of a false note anywhere. The gang's frank behaviour and crass language is at times breathtaking – these girls are not wilting wallflowers, and in their world survival is equated with aggression. At the same time, the hard, grown-up face they put on to cope with their daily lives does not tell the entire story. Each one grapples with a wealth of other emotions, as families and friends cause them heartbreak and pain.

Trailer (without subtitles):


Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Blessed, directed by Ana Kokkinos

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Filmmaker Ana Kokkinos last appeared at the Festival with The Book of Revelation, her third feature after Head On and Only the Brave. Fans of these powerful and provocative films will be enthralled with Blessed, for it shows us an evolving artist in full command of her craft as she tackles the subject of mothers and children.

Set in a working-class suburb of Melbourne over the course of one day and one night, the film introduces us to seven different children, none of whom live in circumstances that make it worthwhile to stay home. Each has a personal odyssey, with problems that need solving and messes that need cleaning up, and none of them can, at first, really articulate what they need and what they want. But they search for it anyway. When dawn breaks at the end of the night, we experience the same twenty-four hours from the point of view of the children's mothers. We learn so much more about these women than we could see when looking only through the eyes of their offspring. The mothers are hostages to their unspoken love for their children, and their powerlessness against it is achingly familiar to any parent. Toward the middle of the film, one of the mothers encounters one of the children, not her own, in a highly charged situation. Sensing his need, she quietly remarks, “Your mother loves you.” “No, she doesn't,” he replies, to which she responds, “Yes, she does – there's nothing she can do about it.”

Kokkinos has lived in Melbourne all her life, and her knowledge of and affection for the city is evident throughout the film. With a meaty and substantive script (based on the play Who's Afraid of the Working Class?) as bait, Kokkinos has gathered a remarkable cast made up of some of the finest actresses working in film today, including Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto, Deborra-Lee Furness, Victoria Haralabidou and young Sophie Lowe, also appearing at this year's Festival in Beautiful Kate. Emotionally and structurally, Blessed is a challenging film, and like a cinematic fishnet, it casts itself wide and slowly draws everything in – and it's a good catch.

My Dog Tulip

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: My Dog Tulip, directed by Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Fierlinger

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

My Dog Tulip
is a profound and beautiful love story that just happens to involve a man and his dog. The film is based on the celebrated 1956 novel by J.R. Ackerley, whose other book about the relationship between a dog and its owner, We Think the World of You, was adapted into the 1988 film starring Alan Bates and Gary Oldman. My Dog Tulip is a vivid animated feature that never fails to stimulate the senses with its artistry.

Middle-aged Ackerley (Christopher Plummer) has failed in his search for the “ideal friend” with whom to share his life. Though he never considered himself a dog lover, he comes to adopt an eighteen-month-old German shepherd named Tulip. What follows are the adventures of a devoted yet bumbling dog parent and the animal that becomes the love of his life, that ideal companion he thought he would never find, as they navigate their fourteen-year relationship. Through Tulip's cycles we confront the facts of life, sometimes in vivid and startling detail; Ackerley minces no words, even as he weaves a touching memoir.

Animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, this dog story captures the particular feelings of pet owners without being overly mawkish. At once a portrait of the dog lover and a provocative meditation on the wonders of nature, My Dog Tulip is a playful and moving ode to man's best friend.

With their whimsical and visionary style of animation, the Fierlingers convey this sensitive subject with humour and a strange sweetness. They are pioneers in the use of animation for documentary purposes, having created many projects for PBS, including segments for Sesame Street, and autobiographical works such as Drawn from Memory and Still Life with Animated Dogs. My Dog Tulip is the first animated feature to be entirely hand drawn and painted using paperless computer technology. Featuring the voices of Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini, this is a delightful animated tale that evokes lasting images about a man and his relationship with a biter, barker and defecator.

The movie's website is here.

Cairo Time

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Cairo Time, written and directed by Ruba Nadda

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

With her latest feature, Ruba Nadda delves into the emotionally fraught territory of the fleeting affair. In a tremendous performance, Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a magazine editor. Vaguely dissatisfied with her job, Juliette follows her Canadian diplomat husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), to Cairo. When she arrives, however, she learns that he's been held up in the Palestinian territories due to escalating tensions in the region. Left to wait, Juliette soon discovers that the streets of Cairo can be tough terrain for a woman on her own.

Enter Tareq (Alexander Siddig), an old friend of Mark's who becomes Juliette's companion and guide, introducing her to various Egyptian customs. The city's grandeur comes alive as he leads her through the beguiling streets of Cairo. While they wander side by side, Juliette senses an alluring kindness and charm in Tareq, and he is equally taken with her. As she waits for word on her husband's imminent arrival, the two struggle to control their obvious mutual attraction. The pyramids beckon, offering a gentle reflection of the epic desire building between the tourist and her guide. Their bond becomes increasingly complex as it evolves: is this a profound friendship or something else? Adding to the discomfort is the obvious loyalty they both feel to the man they have in common – Juliette's husband and Tareq's friend – who is physically absent but still present in their minds.

Nadda directs her own screenplay, managing to avoid the stereotypical pitfalls such an undertaking could have easily delivered. And Clarkson so owns her role that it's difficult to imagine another actor having taken it on. Even if you've never been to Egypt, Cairo Time will have a ring of familiarity; the film evocatively serves as an analogy for the intricacies of passionate romances that, for practical reasons, can never be realized. Like a sensuous vacation, Cairo Time's sweet melancholia will linger long after the final credits roll.

The movie's website is here.

Whip It

Showing at the Toronto International Film Festival: Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

Despite their differences in age, nationality and lineage, Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page feel cut from similar cloth. Independent of mind and spirit, they embody a new kind of female cinema icon. They also both seem drawn to the funkier side of popular culture. Who but Barrymore, in her role as producer, could have taken the campy television show Charlie's Angels and turned it into a contemporary feminist blockbuster franchise?

A perfect match for these two engaging personalities, Whip It is Barrymore's debut as a director and Page's first big starring role since Juno. The setting is the world of roller derby, that discredited seventies sexploitation sport now transformed into a grassroots phenomenon sweeping a certain sector of America's female population. Often working class and with a fondness for tough-girl noms de sport (“Sandra Day O'Clobber” is a personal favourite), these devil-may-care women have built an increasingly successful sports movement.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) is your typical small-town Texan teenager. Comically misunderstood by her parents, the aspiring tomboy is made to compete in beauty pageants by her faded debutante mom (Marcia Gay Harden).

While visiting nearby Austin, Bliss spies a couple of wild-looking women on roller skates delivering flyers for a local roller-derby night. With her best friend, the saucy-but-kinda-nerdy Pash (Alia Shawcat), Bliss crashes a world far from the pageant crowd, a rocking underground punk scene infused with beer, hellcats, fishnets, short skirts and bodychecking.

Before long, she's leading an exhilarating but risky double life. First-time director Barrymore is clearly in her groove working with the perfectly cast derby girls (including Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, Eve as Rosa Sparks, and Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly), all of whom execute their own stunts. Barrymore herself is a knockout (pun!), playing an accident-prone and totally hilarious Smashle Simpson.

The movie's website is here.

My Year Without Sex

Showing at the Toronto Film Festival: My Year Without Sex, directed by Sarah Watt

Synopsis from the TIFF website:

It's August in Melbourne. As Natalie (Sacha Horler) and her husband, Ross (Matt Day), celebrate his birthday, she collapses. When she wakes up, she's in the hospital after emergency surgery for an aneurysm.

My Year Without Sex is for anyone who has suffered life's daily little challenges, only to get sideswiped by a massive one. This is what happens to Natalie, and her subsequent year-long trial ensures that she has little choice but to laugh and cry, often at the same time.

Ross and Natalie's two kids, two jobs and a dog mark them as a typical family. They deal with the typical things: school, cooking, sports, Christmas, goldfish, birthday parties, lice and bills. But when Natalie's illness hits and she becomes too frail to work or drive, she suffers a further breakdown of confidence and spirituality – one that she is unable to address until she meets Margaret (Maude Davey), a local cleric in the depths of a crisis of her own.

The story unfolds in monthly episodic segments, during which director Sarah Watt (whose film Look Both Ways won the 2005 Festival's Discovery Award) mines the minutiae of everyday life for the profundity that becomes so very clear in a life-and-death situation. Bookmarked and highlighted by colourful and expressive images (Watt is also an animator), the film beautifully captures the rollercoaster ride of family crises. It focuses on the things we take for granted, showing us that great insights rest within the typical, if only we know how to look. And as Natalie faces one funny, annoying, crazy thing after another, she begins to see them as the warp and weft of a full, rich life that is always worth fighting for.

The film's website is here.