Before this blog mentions a single word about the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, I must start by saying that for the first time in years, I LIKE THE FESTIVAL TRAILER! Readers who have read this site in the past will remember my previously mentioned (see the comments! Hilarious!) and longstanding (see #4) problems with the festival trailer which, in past years, simply went on too long and featured some very haughty filmmaking. Well, clearly I was not alone in thinking this, and as one who truly enjoys accentuating the positive, I offer my kudos to the Festival’s design and marketing departments for what is a short, sweet trailer that makes its point. The trailer features the festival’s hand painted, blue background and has the signature red eyebrows fly down from the sky and nestle gently on the figure’s forehead. Cut to black. Done. Bravo. In my first press screening for the terrific 12:08 East of Bucharest, gasps and applause were audible.
From Poster To Trailer, Elegnatly; The 2006 Toronto Film Festival Campaign
The trailer finished, and the films unspooled on what was a good day for me (6 films). As mentioned, 12:08 East of Bucharest was first, and it was probably the best film I saw all day. The film, which features a single story broken into two very distinct and wildly differnent segments, primarily follows the story of three men, Jderescu (Teodor Corban) a well-to-do television station owner whose ideas and self-regard vastly transcend his ability to deliver quality television to the people, Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an elderly retiree and the town’s part time Santa Claus who spends his time waiting for the street lights to turn on and off, signaling the start and end of his days, and Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) a heavy drinker, history teacher, faux-revolutionary whose personal debts and domineering wife have forced him to try and heroicize his own life. This cast of characters is surrounded by a society out of joint; there is a firecracker epidemic plaguing the town as children set them off without conscience, the townseemingly has a single viable merchant in a Chinese immigrant who, despite being the butt of Manescu’s jokes, is the conscience of the community, and a traditional Romanian youth brass band who want to play Latin dance music but are forced, rather unhappily, to slog through Romanian Christmas carols.
The film hinges upon the fateful decision of a distracted Piscoci and the ‘revolutionary’ teacher Manescu to join Jderescu on his TV station’s community phone-in show and discuss the question of whether their small town actually participated in the Romanian revolutuion to oust Communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu on December 22, 1989. This sequence, shot in the style of low-budget public access television programs is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Jdrescu confronts the self-proclaimed revolutionary Manescu on whether or not he was protesting in the public square before 12:08pm on December 22nd. The time is crucial, because it marks the line between the Ceasescu regime’s control of the nation and the minute in which the nation was informed of that he had been deposed.
I have already said too much perhaps, but the film’s formal vignettes in the first half are equally matched by Manescu’s real-time collapse in the Public Access TV show format of the second half, and despite the stylistic differences, the movie soars in both segments. Corneliu Porumboiu’s direction is both funny and humane, and the story’s personification of Romania’s crisis of identity in the context of its own history is clearly worthy of the film’s Camera D’Or win at Cannes. In the context of last year’s amazing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which won a Special Jury Prize in Sarasota when I showed it this past April, Romania is clearly home to an exciting cinema and full of terrific filmmakers. I look forward to seeing Porumboiu’s next film and, along with Lazarescu director Puiu, seeing where Romanian cinema takes us next.
Next up, because of a personal schedule change, I headed to see Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding (Efter Brylluppet), which was acquired by IFC Films quite a while ago (I couldn’t find a release date on-line). The film tells the Sirkian story of two men and the ways in which their lives intersect both presently and, with enough emotional twists and turns to satisfy Sirk himself, in the past. I expected the film’s tale of a Danish billionaire’s decision to give money to an Indian orphanage run by fellow Dane Jacob Petersen (played by Mads Mikkelsen who is as intense and fine in his performance here as he was as Tonny in the amazing Pusher films) to be a sort of commentary on philanthropy and class issues. In light of Gates Foundation’s ascendancy and Warren Buffet’s recent philanthropic gifts, the issue is a timely one, but I wasn’t prepared for the Danish version of Written On The Wind. The film feels in many moments like a Dogme movie (jittery hand held shots, a slew of closeups of eyes and mouths, glances exchanged, etc.) and so, most cinephiles watch the film awaiting the dreaded dark, Danish twist that plunges everything into despair. But when the twists do come, and keep coming, Bier does a fine job of subverting expectations and still delivering emotional punches. The question remains, how many revelations is too many? After The Wedding has an over-abundance, and the film becomes somewhat exhausting. As melodrama in the classic mold, however, it is as fine an example as any.
The afternoon was plagued with a few disappointments. I didn’t care much for the prisoner/wife/prison guard love traingle in Jean-Pascal Hattu’s 7 ans despite a game lead performance by Valérie Donzelli who brings a good working-class sensibility to the role of Maïté. Ultimately, the film suffers from an undercooked story that strains credibility because of its refusal to get too stay with Maïté’s point of view. As the wife of Vincent (Bruno Todeschini), an inmate in a prison (we never learn his crime), Maïté’s sexual tryst with a prison guard named Jean (Cyril Troley) wins her husband favor within the prison walls, but one would think her motives and feelings would transcend the simple need for sexual fulfillment. We aren’t given much more that that. When Vincent has Jean tape record their liasons, things get sort of silly. The movie has the lovely rough around the edges look of a truly independent film, but the editing and transitions sometimes feel like a television movie made for Lifetime. Could have been much better.
Next up was Palimpsest which was more like a film-school experiment in sound design and peek-a-boo scare tactics than a decent thriller. Imagine Kieslowski and Mark Romanek making a movie starring the love child of Steve McQueen/Daniel Craig/Ulrich Mühe and written by Bam Margera with the classic cop-out “Surprise! It was all a dream!” structure, and you have an idea of this one. Ugh.
Rushed to The Royal Ontario Museum afterward to catch Jia Zhang-ke’s wonderful first documentary Dong, which follows the painter Liu Xiao-dong (imagine John Curren and Jenny Saville, sort of) on two excursions; one to the Three Gorges area of China where he paints demolition workers at play (and encounters tragedy) and the other to Thailand, where he paints young prostitutes. The paintings are wonderful, and I suspect that anyone who is interested in the form will enjoy the film, but Jia being Jia, there are many other levels at play including the issue of the artist’s responsibility to his subject, the life of the subject (both the Liu Xiao-dong’s subjects and Liu Xiao-dong himself as Jia’s subject), and the relationship between creative work (filmmaking, painting) and manual and sex work (demolition, prostitution). I loved the film; the exteriors echo Platform, but the subject of the role and place of the artist is pure documentary and unlike anything Jia has made before. Shot on what I assume is HD, it looked great on the big screen and Liu Xiao-dong’s colorful paintings really popped; I think HD does an amazing job with vibrant colors, and this film benefits from it. A must see for fans of Jia’s work, or those interested in the workings of the creative mind.
Finally, I stayed put at the Museum for Vincenzo Marra The Session Is Open, a documentary exploring the procedures and personalities behind a highly inept legal system in Naples, Italy. If it weren’t so funny, you’d probably cry. The film suffers from long, procedural monologues and debates about evidence, etc., you know, courtroom stuff. That said, there is a lot to be engaged by as the personalities clash, prejudices (or should I say “post-judices”) are exposed and days and weeks go by without any progress.
It was a long day, and after a quick duck in to the THINKFilm brunch this morning, I finally found some time to write. I am running off to catch Shortbus now, and with Brand Upon The Brain! later tonight, it promises to be a great day. More tomorrow…