Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Italian Authors Night at Festitalia

The Pearl Company
16 Steven Street @ King William

Tuesday September 29, 2009

Novelist Michelle Alfano (Made Up Arias)
Poet Alvaro Tortora (Paradise Marshes)
Novelist Lina Medaglia (Demons of Aquilonia)
Organized by Bryan Prince Bookseller

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TIFF 2009: Videocracy

Videocracy (Sweden, 2009) directed by Erik Gandini, 85 minutes at Varsity Theatre 4

"In a late evening of 1976, a local Italian television broadcasts a quiz where viewers at home have to answer questions. For each correct answer, a housewife takes off a garment and does a brief dance. The format is simple and very successful."

Thus begins Italy's romance with the veline, the semi-nude TV girls who stand by the host, silently, gyrating to music during commercials, that infest Italian TV as documented by Erik Gandini, an Italian born director now living in Sweden, who also narrates this documentary.

Gandini profiles a quartet of stooges who define the new media culture in Italy: Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy; Fabrizio Corona, a former purchaser of paparazzi photos turned extortionist and media celebrity; Ricky Canevali, an amateur singer and not so talented karate studying mechanic who aspires (truly) to be a combination of John Van Damme and Ricky Martin; and, Lele Mora, an ever grinning, tremendously successful talent agent who works hand in hand with Berlusconi and represents many of the TV celebs who currently crowd Italian TV.

Gandini paints a depressing picture of a populace infatuated with Berlusconi and all his sleazy antics. Hundreds, if not thousands of girls, audition for the roles of the veline yearly. Voters disregard his manipulation of the law to protect his media business interests. His stranglehold over the media in Italy in television and print remains unquestioned and unchallenged. His numerous "love" affairs appear to be lauded rather than condemned and his bon vivant image admired.

The serpentine and multi-tattooed Fabrizio Corona goes from buying the incriminating photos taken by paparazzi to blackmailing celebrities for the same photos (he even does so with Berlusconi's daughter Barbara and the Berlusconis pay according to him). He serves a brief jail term for his antics but exits with a business strategy (which includes a merchandising scheme, a website and a roster of planned appearances) more popular than ever posing in clubs and making celebrity appearances.

Our amateur singer Ricky is desperate to appear on TV, in any way, despite limited talent and moderate intelligence and whines about how easy it is for girls who want to do the same for the obvious reasons.

Lele Mora, talent agent and friend of Berlusconi, idolizes Mussolini, and cheerfully displays for the interviewer a video montage of fascist symbols, head shots of Mussolini and swastikas while entertaining a menagerie of TV celebs including Big Brother (Il Grande Fratello) contestants at his lavish villa funded by his success as a casting agent for TV celebs.

What a way to end the festival! If anyone is searching for signs of the impending apocalypse, look no further than the Italian media and the last shot of the camera lingering on a group of humping, gyrating teenage girls and young women who are auditioning for a role as a velina.

TIFF of the day: "The trailer for Videocracy shows scantily dressed women and provides statistics about restrictions on press freedom. Italian public broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi's Mediaset channels have refused to air it ... the reason given for rejecting the trailer was that it was offensive to Berlusconi's reputation." Source: aidanmaconachyblog.blogspot.com

TIFF 2009: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinksy

Anna Mouglalis (Coco) and Mads Mikkelsen (Igor)

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (France, 2009) directed by Jan Kounen, 118 minutes at Scotiabank Theatre 1

Call the newspapers! Beautiful, brilliant, successful people often behave abominably in the service of their egos and their art. Someone pass me the smelling salts please ... unkind ALC, unkind. I actually quite enjoyed this film.

The famous fashion designer Coco Chanel's (Anna Mouglalis) infatuation with Igor Stravinsky (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, better known as the villain from the new James Bond franchise) begins when she attends the premiere performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The revolutionary work creates a sensation, generating equal parts derision and praise as well as a near riot in the theatre. Coco is hooked. And so are we.

Who is this man that incites such passion in the audience? The work is tumultuous and new, indecipherable, threatening sounding but appealing too. See the beginning of the ballet choreographed by Nijinsky recreated here by the Joffrey Ballet and tell me what you think ...

Shortly after World War I ends, the two meet again in 1920. Igor, a native Russian, is now a destitute refugee living in Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Coco offers the impoverished composer, his wife and four children a temporary refuge in her country mansion Bel Respiro in Garches. It is not a proven fact but a rumor so the script has to do with the imagined sexual relationship between the two artists.

Katerina Stravinsky, Igor's wife (Yelena Morozova), who is not well, and, it is implied has made herself ill at the service of her husband's needs as a musical genius and bearing their four children, watches with sadness and a sense of impotence as the two dance around each other, an intimate dance of foreplay before they consummate their relationship.

This is a mature adult love triangle portrayed realistically. Coco operates without guilt but with a genuine respect for Igor as a musical genius. Stravinsky is portrayed sympathetically, as both a devoted father and committed artist struggling between his desire for Coco and his obligations as a husband and father as well as to his art.

He does not see Coco's contribution to culture to be as great as his own, hurling the epithet "shopkeeper" at Coco during an argument. But she understands who holds the reins of power and it is not him but Coco who is both independently wealthy and unfettered by responsibilities and emotional ties. She understands too well that he is able to produce art at her expense. Katerina is dismayed by the turn of events but her primary concern appears to be that Igor continue his music at all costs.

The costumes, the decor, Coco's mansion, all are exquisitely designed and shot here. The mansion itself bears her signature colors of cream and black and her unique designs. The film tries hard to equate Coco's perfectionism and the development of her fashions and the now famous No. 5 perfume as being as exacting and challenging as Igor's compositions.

The film ends with the two as elderly, frail seniors having flashbacks of what they once were and what they once meant to each other.

TIFF of the Day: As history shows, whether the relationship was real or not, the two were not meant to be together. Coco went on to a succession of lovers most notoriously with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Nazi spy, during WWII. Save for the intervention of the British Royal family she would have been charged with war crimes.

Friday, September 18, 2009

TIFF 2009: Cracks

Eva Green as the inimitable Miss G.

(U.K./Ireland) directed by Jordan Scott, 104 minutes at the Elgin Theatre

Why is a same sex boarding school always such a sexually charged environment in the world of film? One senses immediately that there will be some sort of sexual scandal and/or violence. This film does not disappoint in that respect.

The setting is an elite British boarding school in 1934 on Stanley Island. The dishy French actress Eva Green (probably best known as the love interest in the James Bond vehicle Casino Royale) is referred simply to as "Miss G." by the girls and stars as the bohemian school master. She smokes, wears kohl around her eyes, has beautiful, elegant clothes, ignores rules and is adored by her girls. She organizes diving competitions for the girls in which she urges to strive harder, go higher.

Clearly Sapphic by temperament, she encourages independence and unconventionality and particularly favours the "top mean girl" Di Radfield (Juno Temple from Atonement (2007) and this year's Glorious 39). In a manner, it seems an overly familiar trope - the unconventional, seemingly fabulous teacher who pays for her transgressions against a more conservative society and environment. Except ... Miss G. really should pay for her transgressions in this instance.

Di clearly has feelings for Miss G. and is soon threatened by the appearance of Fiamma (Maria Valverde), a lovely aristocratic Spaniard who is new at the school. Fiamma appears to have been somewhat abandoned by her family in the process.

Fiamma is initially shunned by Di and the girls. But Fiamma is confident enough that she is immune to their jealousies and also to the considerable charms of Miss G. But soon she starts to enchant the girls who fall in love with her imagination, her charm and her beautiful things. Predictably, this creates chaos at the school and, again, it does not end well for Fiamma.

But Fiamma's defiance and her treatment by Miss G., who has been sexually rebuffed by Fiamma, finally inflames the other girls to challenge and reject the manipulative teacher but only after Fiamma is made to pay for her rejection of Miss G.

Although beautifully shot, and well acted by the young girls, the ending is easily foreseen and Jordan Scott (daughter of filmmaker Ridley Scott) brings nothing new to the table in terms of plot and suspense.

Minor TIFF of the Day: According to a recent Vanity Fair article on this film which it calls "The Children’s Hour meets Lord of the Flies", the term cracks refers to a crushes.

TIFF 2009: Vincere

Vincere (To Win) (Italy, 2009) directed by Marco Bellocchio, 128 minutes at the Scotiabank Theatre 2

When I was younger my mother sometimes would said, "You know, Mussolini did some good things too." But this was the era that she was raised in where Mussolini was treated as a sort of god. And by the way Ma, I am still waiting for proof of that assertion.

Mussolini, before he became Il Duce, had a wife named Ida Dasler and a son. After the film, an audience member asked if Ida was Jewish and the actor who played Mussolini (the powerfully charismatic Filippo Timi) said he could not confirm this but to my mind it might explain a few things.

Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) met the young Mussolini in 1907 when he was a "young socialist provocateur" who challenged the monarchy of King Victor Emmanuel, the papacy, the existence of God and advocated passionately for socialist revolution. She was clearly dazzled by him and there was strong sexual passion between them that she never really recovers from.

They did not become lovers until seven years later at the start of WWI. She helped him start his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia, and she sold all of her possessions to finance the venture.

A year later in 1915, she gave birth to a son, also named Benito Albino Mussolini, and they married. She soon discovered that he had married another woman from his village, Rachele Guidi, during the war, who would eventually bear him four children. Rachele was to represent the ideal of the submissive Fascist wife, who tended hearth and home and adored her husband. Mussolini, inexplicably for me, held an intense attraction for women of that era sort of like our friend Silvio Berlusconi in Italy today and with whom he has been compared, sometimes favorably.

Mussolini fought in World War I and returned with completely altered political ideas, renouncing socialism and now advocating Fascism. His political career soared and he went on to found the National Fascist Party in 1921. All traces of his marriage to Ida were virtually destroyed.

Ida was unceremoniously dumped, placed under house arrest and eventually was committed to an asylum in 1926. In the film, the manicomio is run by a pack of vicious nuns, some of whom think she should be grateful that she was impregnated by the great leader.

Her son Benito, who was at centre of her life, was given to her sister to raise and then in 1931, at the age of 15, the younger Benito was adopted by the former Fascist police chief of the town of Sopramante. In 1942, at the age of 27, he died in an asylum where he had been given coma-inducing injections repeatedly.

From the asylum that Ida was committed to, she continued to petition Mussolini, the Pope, and various other officials demanding that her marriage to Mussolini be recognized and her son acknowledged.

The former never happened. She never gave up her fight for recognition and effectually disappeared from history until Marco Bellocchio saw a documentary on her life and decided to make this film.

Filippo Timi convincingly plays the young Mussolini and then in the latter part of the film his son as a young adult. The former portrayal is as dynamic, powerful and convincing as is the latter: that of a confused, angry young man whose life has been shattered by Mussolini's refusal to acknowledge his mother as his legitimate wife.

The actress Mezzogiorno is relentless as the spurned first wife who will not submit to her fate. Her singlemindedness eventually does turn to madness as she begins to believe that she is being tested by Mussolini and must simply persevere in order to prove her worth to Il Duce.

TIFF of the Day: After I saw this film I saw Videocracy and there is a telling scene where the most powerful talent agent in Italy compares Berlusconi, positively, to Mussolini and then cheerfully displays to the filmmaker a small video on his mobile phone which is a celebration of Fascism, swastikas and Mussolini's hard jawed visage!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

TIFF 2009: Glorious 39

Romola Garai as Anne Keyes

Glorious 39 (U.K., 2009) directed by Stephen Poliakoff, 129 minutes at the Elgin Theatre

A favorite time period of mine - pre-WWII Britain - and so many good actors in this film: Romola Garai (Atonement), Bill Nighy (Love, Actually and many other films), both of whom were present at the screening, and, the divine Julie Christie (star of Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451 and Darling).

An intriguing but, at times, confusing plot. World War II is imminent. Anne Keyes (Romola Garai), an actress, adopted as an infant into an aristocratic family, is doted on by her father (Bill Nighy) who is a prominent MP and minister in the government, two seemingly loving siblings (Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne) and a boyfriend who works for the Foreign Office.

The setting in idyllic, beautiful. It expertly covers the ugliness of the desire of certain British citizens to prevent war with Germany no matter what the cost to Europe and democratic freedoms.

Anne finds herself in possession of some mysterious audio recordings which have been stored on long playing records (remember those?) in her father's home and which appear to be blackmailing a friend. They seem to implicate some highly placed people in an anti-war, pro-Germany plot to prevent Britain from entering the war. People start to disappear: a best friend and MP who supports the war against Germany, a fellow actor, then her boyfriend.

Jeremy Northam, who plays a sinister government official who may or may not be involved in this plot, pops up again. He was also featured in the Darwin biopic Creation with which the festival was kicked off.

When Anne begins to piece together what is happening her world is turned upside down and she finds the people that she most cares for turning against her. How she eludes them is intriguing but odd.

At the screening, the director Poliakoff said that all of the historical info was true which I'm presuming means the anti-war plot, the suspension of habeas corpus, the pro-Germany sympathy amongst the aristocracy, the bugging of the telephone lines of political opponents, Brits sending away their children to protect them from the Germans and people putting down their pets in the event of war. But what I could not tell was the extent to which the aristocracy would go to eliminate evidence and people to protect their dirty little secret. This plot point threw me off, the historical detail with the thriller subplot - did this really happen to certain persons opposed to the "plot"? A frightening but intriguing point.

Minor TIFF of the Day: Bill Nighy doing a very awkward air guitar in response to being introduced to the audience at the Elgin theatre (did I see Romola Garai sniggering?) Come on Bill, both you and I are way too old for that gesture dude.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TIFF 2009: The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying (U.S., 2009) directed by Ricky Gervais, 99 minutes at Elgin Theatre

This film is a one joke sketch which has been prolonged into a feature length film and a not so veiled satire about those who believe in organized religion. The British comedian Ricky Gervais is one of my favourite comedians but I feel he misses the mark here.

Mark (Ricky Gervais) is a self-described loser: overweight, no girlfriend, unsuccessful screenwriter, shabby apartment, no money. He inhabits a bizarre, fictional world where everyone always speaks the truth, always, no matter how brutal or painful. Hence, sadly, he knows exactly what everyone thinks of him all the time.

As a screenwriter at Lecture Films specializing in films of refined people reading the history of specific centuries, Mark has drawn the short straw and writes a screenplay about the 13th c. Sadly, the only notable event of that time is the Black Plague and apparently this is not a big film draw.

Mark's date Anna (Jennifer Garner), on whom he has an enormous crush, can say, not unkindly but truthfully, that he is not her type, she is not attracted to him and would never sleep with him before the date even starts. His secretary (Tina Fey) can say with impunity, "I know you are being fired today and I never liked you." His work nemesis Brad (an oddly worn looking Rob Lowe) displays equal antipathy (and an eye for Mark's potential girlfriend Anna whom he tries to lure away).

All goes miserably until Mark does a remarkable thing ... he lies, as in, speaks a falsehood, at the deathbed of his mother to console her that there is an afterlife. Word quickly spreads as if it is the "gospel" and Mark quickly gains zealous followers eager for a leader, a belief in God and the afterlife. He transcribes his beliefs on two pizza boxes, tablet like, for the masses and hence, the "beginning" of religion. It is a joke that goes on too long.

Using his skill to lie, he can now withdraw funds from an overdrawn account and, more importantly, invent an entirely fictitious history in a screenplay that would rival any world created by George Lucas. The film becomes a hit, he becomes famous, respected and wealthy.

But he doesn't get the girl ... and then this film goes into an entirely different direction about why shouldn't a schlub like Mark get a girl like Anna and how superficial people are. Why should Anna prefer a horrible guy like Brad (as good looking as he is) instead of a good guy like Mark?

And it is all so ... unfunny. With cheap production values, over lit sets and jokes that wear thin twenty minutes into the film I felt like shouting "I get it, I get it! No one can lie in this world and it's funny!" If we spoke our minds wouldn't it be awful? Yeah, Ricky. It would be, so perhaps I should just button up because I think you are an immensely talented guy in a misguided comedic vehicle. And that's the truth.

TIFF of the Day: Oh no, I saw Angry Asian Man in the line-up for this film. He was directly behind me for the Chris Rock event bragging about how he had left two or three films because he disliked them and almost left a fourth but luckily someone committed suicide in the film (just in time) and he didn't have to leave. Sure enough, he walked out on Rock twenty minutes into the talk. I'm not sure Angry Asian Man is enjoying the festival ... he seems to have very high standards.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TIFF 2009: The Informant!

Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre

The Informant! directed by Steven Soderbergh (U.S., 2009) 108 minutes at the Ryerson Theatre

Love Damon, love Soderbergh, but I did not love this film. I know I was meant to laugh, to find Damon's performance as the double dealing president of Archers Daniel Midland Bioproducts Division comical but barely a titter passed my lips the whole time. It's a compelling story based on true events but it left me cold.

Matt Damon, deliberately looking puffy and porcine for the role, plays real life Mark Whitacre, a former ADM senior executive, a whistle blower, who exposed the company's price fixing practices in the corn processing business, and collusion with other international companies in the early and mid 90s as well as collecting close to $10 million in kickbacks from ADM related companies.

He logged hundreds of hours of secret audio tapes between the company's executives and other corporations, spoke indiscriminately to almost everyone about what he was doing with the FBI as an informant and somehow expected when the dust cleared that he would become president of the company because everyone else would be in jail.

Whitacre was possibly bi-polar but most certainly a compulsive liar, a cheat, a fraud and a number of other things (including delusional). In the end he was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison camp (served eight and a half years for good behavior) and was released in 2006 while more senior ADM officials served three years for robbing the American consumer of hundreds of millions of dollars. What sort of twisted logic is that?

A good story that merits a second look ... am I suffering festival fatigue? Even Damon couldn't tempt me to like it.

TIFF 2009: Chloe

Chloe (Canada, 2009) directed by Atom Egoyan, 99 minutes at the Elgin Theatre

Maybe I'm a bit tired or unduly irritated by the fact that every single film I have attended I have sat beside or behind someone using their Iphone or Blackberry during the film ... or maybe the latest offerings from two of my fave living directors (Egoyan and Soderbergh) that I saw today were not up to snuff.

Today I saw Egoyan's Chloe, an adaptation of the French thriller Nathalie (2003), and have mixed feelings about it. It is best described as an eroto-thriller with a "Fatal Attraction" sort of twist to the ending which I won't reveal. Certainly this is Egoyan's most commercial venture in some time.

Maybe I am tired or maybe I am just ... not ... a ... nice ... person but every time I hear Egoyan speak I am reminded of the dorkiest, brightest kid in the class who is trying to impress the teacher. I can't help it!! And I really do enjoy his work and respect him as an artist.

Dr. Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore), an OB/GYN doctor, is married to David Stewart (Liam Neeson), a handsome music professor, who has a roving eye and a flirtatious manner. When David deliberately misses a birthday party planned for him by Catherine, her suspicions are aroused about his fidelity.

Catherine meets Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a pretty young prostitute to whom she extends a kindness during an emotional encounter with a client and whom Catherine contracts to "tempt" David to see if he remains faithful. Catherine is soon disappointed when Chloe tells her that David has begun an affair with Chloe, arranging trysts at the Windsor Arms and in the conservatory of Allan Gardens. Seyfried is convincingly cast as the needy, manipulative call girl with a mother fixation.

As much as the details repulse Catherine, they also arouse her and she finds herself falling in love with Chloe and sleeping with her. But Chloe also becomes disturbingly interested in their only son Michael (Max Theriot), a sullen, introverted teenager who appears a bit estranged from his parents.

Catherine seems desperately lonely. She lives a very separate life from David and feels that her role as a mother has dwindled away as Michael has grown up. She is also disturbed by Michael's burgeoning love and sex life. She seems to occupy neither role now: wife/sexual partner to David and mother to Michael, and suffers a great deal of anguish because of it. The loneliness is agonizing and familiar.

At one point she says to David that as he ages he becomes more beautiful while she feels that she is becoming more invisible as she ages, less attractive, less sexual. Of course, this is Julianne Moore so it doesn't quite resonate as she is still a very beautiful woman. But you understand the concept, she makes you believe her agony. It is a common belief that they (men) age handsomely, we wither away like pieces of over ripe fruit on the vine.

After Chloe sleeps with Catherine who, uncomfortably, seems a sort of mother figure for Chloe, Chloe refuses to leave her alone, business arrangement or not. I won't spoil the denouement but it is a surprise.

One final note: it's great to see how beautifully Toronto in winter is filmed. He makes it look sensuous and wonderful: Yorkville, the Windsor Arms, Queen St. West, Cafe Diplomatico (the Dip) on College St., Allan Gardens, Avenue Road, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Rivoli restaurant ...

Minor TIFF of the Day: Egoyan said that screen writer Erin Cressida Wilson had set the film in San Francisco, her home town, but Egoyan insisted that it be set in Toronto. Wilson, married to a Canadian, happily complied.

Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF 2009: An Afternoon with Chris Rock

An Afternoon with Chris Rock, Isabel Bader Theatre

Chris Rock is so much better than the tired display I saw today with Thom Powers, an uneasy interviewer, who seemed intimidated by Rock. Really, who wouldn't be a little? All that pressure to be funny up against this guy. This was part of the Mavericks series where a TIFF staff member speaks to a filmmaker. Rock is promoting his doc "Good Hair" about black women and their relationship with their hair. I really wanted to see this film but couldn't get tickets. Luckily, it will be out in October.

The room was packed and enthusiastic but an odd note was struck when the interviewer kicked off the session by asking how Rock liked Toronto and he responded, "What do you do in this town?" Crickets, crickets, not a titter or word from the crowd. It seemed an odd response.

And I thought the approach by this interviewer was wrongheaded. Why ask Rock about Obama's performance so far? If things have improved for blacks? Whether health care reform will pass? He is an entertainer, not a politician. He is a well informed comic with a strong political slant but, still, he is a comic.

Maybe he thought the questions were silly too because I found Rock's answers laconic and not very thoughtful. He was better when making rude and seemingly off the cuff remarks such as:
  • Joe Jackson was a better dad than Michael Jackson. At least Joe was able to get up in the middle of the night when the kids had a bad nightmare unlike Michael who was too narced out. Not funny! a woman screamed into my ear after he said this.
  • The American public looks at George Bush Jr. today like an old boyfriend they can't believe they used to date.
  • Black men don't care about good or bad hair ... they are more concerned with a*s ... the interviewer suggested a new doc "Good A*s".
  • He says he refuses to criticize Kanye West for his ridiculous attack on Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Video Awards because he doesn't want to end up in a rap song about what a lousy comic he is.
  • When asked what he said to his daughter who came to him and said she didn't have "good hair" like her friend (which prompted the creation of the film), he replied "It's like when my wife says so and so has a nice house. I tell her, you know, you have a nice house too ..."
I left feeling oddly ripped off. I should have saved my money and bought a DVD of his concert Kill the Messenger. Now that was funny.

TIIFF 2009: Giulia non esce la sera

Giulia non esce la sera (Giulia doesn't go out at night) (Italy, 2009) directed by Giuseppe Piccione, 105 minutes at AMC #3

The director Piccione spoke briefly at the beginning of the film and said that it may surprise the audience but he is considered a sex symbol in Italy (considering his Jean-Luc Godard visage - yes).

I knew nothing of this film and am at a loss as to why it does not work for me. Is it possible that it is because we have two main characters, Giulia (Valeria Golino) and Guido (Valerio Mastandrea), equally unhappy (one more so, deservedly) whose lives do not foretell any possibility of happiness or improvement in their circumstances at the end?

Giulia works as a swimming instructor by day. By night, she returns to a prison for women for having killed her lover who had threatened to leave her. That seems an odd arrangement but, hey, I'm not a lawyer. She leaves behind a husband and a young daughter who cannot forgive her for the notoriety the family faced after the murder. The only access the mother has is stolen glimpses of the girl that she spies on in public. She is obsessed with her daughter and this consumes her life.

Guido is a successful literary author up for the prestigious Malaspina Award in Italy. He is also married and bored, or disillusioned, with his spouse (Sonia Bergamasco, the female lead in The Best of Youth from a few years ago). It is unclear why - she is attractive, intelligent, charming, a good mother - could it be, Guido, because she has not read your latest book? I see no discernible reason for his distaste. Even his broodingly dark good looks cannot generate much sympathy in me for Guido even though he seems a kind, thoughtful man.

They meet when Giulia teaches Guido's daughter to swim. An affair ensues but Giulia is predictably tortured ... moody, passionate, angry ... perhaps this is more attractive than the "normal" wife which is something that his wife hints at. Guido is tender and thoughtful with Giulia but she is too far gone, too unhappy to be "saved" by a white knight.

The film does capture the petty jealousies between writers very well, the barely concealed dislike of one's rivals, the eagerness for prizes and recognition that one must conceal in order to seem a serious, respected writer in the service of art. The anxiety about producing worthwhile art.

There are also some lovely Felliniesque images here where the author imagines the characters in his short stories (a girl in an umbrella store floating underwater, a lap dancer with a crush on a priest in the pool where he now swims) but these are too fleeting and infrequent and feel at odds with the rest of the tone of the film

It ends very badly for Giulia and not so well for Guido either and we have learned what ... One shouldn't kill one's lover? An artist shouldn't covet prizes or other women?

Minor TIFF of the Day: This is director Giuseppe Piccione's first time at TIFF. He was invited in 2001 but in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy he was unable catch a flight and to attend the festival.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

TIFF 2009: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hef with the director Brigitte Berman

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
directed by Brigitte Berman (Canada, 2009) 135 minutes at the Elgin Theatre

Perhaps Dumb and Dumber in front of me (who actually necked periodically during the film and then when Dumber was bored she started to text) were as surprised as I was regarding the content of this doc. Not just cheesecake, bunnies and the Playboy Mansion ... substantially more; hence, their boredom I presume.

Hefner, loathe him or like him (and I am somewhere in the middle), was instrumental in tearing down sexual and racial taboos in the 50s and 60s. The concept that good girls liked sex was a novel and startling concept then.

In the film he comes across as lucid and articulate if a bit frail. He is after all 83 now. It is respectful and detailed in chronicling his early interest in liberating men from what he perceived as repressive 50s mores and then segueing into attempts to promote racial integration on his Playboy television shows, supporting the rights of blacks and those he believed to be unjustly imprisoned, even support for the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights and film preservation.

As the TIFF program description states: "When some Playboy clubs in the southern United States would not let black patrons in, Hefner used his own money to buy the franchises back from their owners, ensuring that institutions bearing the Playboy name would be racially integrated."

Okay, there are the inevitable dimwits like James Caan defending Hefner and yapping about the Playboy Mansion but then there is also a long list of people I like and respect: filmmaker George Lucas, Dick Cavett, comedian Bill Maher, comedian David Steinberg, politico Jesse Jackson, comedian Dick Gregory ... it's a long list.

His critics come across as fussy, humorless and prudish. I have always found the intersection of radical feminism and right wing conservatism a dangerous place to be. Do I really want to be on the side of Christian crooner Pat Boone even if he and feminist icon Susan Brownmiller occupy the same moral ground? No, I do not.

Eliot Spitzer, no stranger to sexual shenanigans and perceived moral turpitude, once said that his obituary is already written. The same may be true for Hefner. Someone made an interesting statement in the film saying that none of her colleagues would take Hefner seriously no matter what he had done in the past in the way of political activism because, unfortunately, he has mixed his mission for the freeing of male and female sexuality with his personal life.

We may not remember his struggles to protect First Amendment rights for Americans or his civil rights activism for racial integration or prisoners. All we may be left with is the image of a frail octogenarian trying to juggle seven interchangeable blonde playmates and the magazine. Is that the primary legacy he wants to leave? Perhaps it is.

Minor TIFF of the day: Finding myself defending Hefner's probable sincerity as a political activist to the husband on our date night. Arrggghh. Who'd have thought it possible?

TIFF 2009: Jennifer's Body

Johnny Simmons and Megan Fox

Jennifer's Body
(U.S., 2009) directed by Karyn Kusama, 103 minutes at Ryerson Theatre

Needy Lesnicky: Jennifer's evil.
Chip Dove: I know.
Needy Lesnicky: No. I mean, she's actually evil. Not high school evil.

Okay, I am shallow enough to admit that I wanted to see this film merely based on the name of the film (stolen from a favourite Hole song that I love). Added bonus: Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno, also wrote this alt-horror/comedy script.

I still remember with a mixture of amusement and shock a Riverdale mom raging about Juno which she claimed made teenage pregnancy seem attractive. Really lady? I thought it was little more nuanced than that. Billed as an "anti-Juno" film, this is also more complex than a classic horror film, and brought to you by the director of Girlfight (2000).

Jennifer's Body tackles the horror genre, something I am not that particularly thrilled with, and turns it on its twisted little head. Jennifer (Megan Fox of Transformer fame), a hedonistic little hottie, is the victim of a botched ritualistic murder committed by loserish indie band on the make lead by a sleazily played Adam Brody. Because Jennifer was not a virgin (so not a virgin), her body has become possessed by a demon which compels her to literally consume teenage boys in a fittingly graphic manner.

Jennifer's BFF is Needy (Amanda Seyfried), a dorky but sweet girl, who slowly figures out that it is Jennifer who is picking off the boys in her highschool: from the big highschool jock, the resident cute punky boy, an Indian exchange student, et al, in this small town called Devil's Kettle.

Needy must soon make a decision if she is to take out Jennifer as she has her eye on Needy's boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). She better be quick ... Jennifer has a big appetite.

Minor TIFF of the day: At a TIFF press conference Diablo Cody claimed,"I just think there's nothing scarier than a b*tch ... I think the b*tch should take her place in the catalogue of classic horror characters: like Dracula, Frankenstein, and like a bitchy attractive woman. It's about that bad."

Friday, September 11, 2009

TIFF 2009: Creation

Paul Bettany as Darwin and friend

Creation (U.K., 2009) directed by Jon Amiel, 103 minutes at the Ryerson Theatre

My first TIFF film this year!

R and I have been going to the festival since we graduated. Now I go mostly on my own which I enjoy. It used to be that you could get a really inexpensive pass, jump on the streetcar and see dozens of films leaving only minutes between films and still get in. Okay, things have changed.

Some might say it is a victim of its own huge success. I say put a sock in it! This festival is considered one of the best, if not the best in the world. Boo hoo, the lines are too long! Boo hoo, the people are pretentious! Boo hoo, it's too expensive (it can be but, hey, I got a pass which allows me to see films for ten bucks each). Boo hoo, that crowd to see Brad Pitt interferes with me getting to my dentist in Yorkville on time! This festival changed Toronto. This (and massive immigration) turned the city into an exciting, diverse and intriguing place to be culturally in the 1970s and today. So get over yourselves with all that hating kids ...

Enough nostalgia ... If you were expecting Creation to be a dry film explaining the scientific origins of evolution, this is not the film for you. This is a tender, passionate recreation of the emotional trials that Charles Darwin suffered on the cusp of developing his theories as detailed in his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species in 1859, which at times threatened to unhinge him and blow apart his family.

The film is based on the biography Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution written by Randal Keynes, the great great grandson of Charles Darwin.

Effectively deconstructing the image of a dry, boring, dispassionate scientist, the filmmaker Jon Amiel has gone to great lengths to convey something else. This film depicts an emotionally and physically fragile Charles Darwin and how he developed his theory of evolution and what that meant to him as a man married to a devout Christian wife.

We can't underestimate the tremendous impact that the theory made on a largely Christian society which believed biblical lore literally including how man was created. If man and other living beings evolved over the course of millions of years (as Darwin's theories prove) how is one to interpret the stories of how God created man and the world during the course of one week and many other things as detailed in the bible.

The British actor Paul Bettany
(as striking as he is) bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Darwin, which the director pointed out before the film, and, if portrayed accurately, was a fragile, passionate, emotional man who loved his family and wife greatly and feared for the repercussions on their lives if his scientific theories proved true.

At one point, Emma Darwin (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's real life wife and mother of his children) accuses him of being at "war with God" and that he knows it is a war that he "cannot win". Frankly, Darwin seems terrified of the possibility. At one point he takes to his bed, shaken and weary and unable to proceed. He is literally dragged from his bed by a colleague who understands the historic importance of Darwin's discoveries and urges him on. Other scientists are feverishly working towards the same conclusions and they want Darwin who has been at work on them for years, if not decades, to come forth.

Emma is initially resistant to his discoveries and feels that, even if true, they must toe the line with their more religious friends. When their eldest child Annie (the enchanting Martha West) is punished by the local clergyman (Jeremy Northam) for claiming that dinosaurs existed Emma is squarely on the side of the minister, not because she doesn't believe they existed but because she doesn't think that Annie should question the authority of the church on any issue. She expects the same from Charles.

There is a tense moment when Charles instructs her to destroy the manuscript if she does not believe his theories to be true and we suspect, briefly, that she has done so.

The film implies that it is daughter Annie's honest curiosity and pluck that pushes Darwin to proceed. When he appears fearful and unable to continue she merely says to him, "Why are you so afraid? It's only a theory."

Annie is rambunctious, intellectually open, charming and loving. The father/daughter relationship is particularly lovingly rendered as Charles and Emma struggle over caring for Annie during her illness which is a near catastrophic event for the parents.

It is curious to imagine this famous scientist as a fun loving story teller who adored his children, went on nature expeditions, passionately loved his wife - what a pleasant, intriguing surprise!

Minor Tiff of the day: "A miffed John Riley, the president of television networks for Astral Media — which sponsors TIFF’s opening night gala party — [held] up a picture of Connelly in front of party guests and ripped it in two, saying: “This is my former favourite actress.” All this because Connelly left the party early citing the first anniversary of her father's death as the reason. That's right John, show the world how gracious we Canadians can be.

Post-script: Astonishly, someone is quoting from ALC here. Not bad for a little girl from Hamilton!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reading Lolita in Toronto

"What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita-perhaps more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness-indeed, no life of her own."

Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov (Published 1955; republished by Everyman's Library, 1992) 335 pages

As I sat in my garden on a beautiful September day, I wished you a violent death Humbert Humbert. I feel two sides are at war within me when I re-read this book: the mother of a female child versus the writer/artist. I don't want to explore the plot of the novel, which is so well known, so much as other issues about art and writing.

Nabokov is a master, an exquisite writer. I cannot deny that. Although at times it is as if you are listening to your favorite, overly cultured uncle who uses ten dollar words when fifty cent words will do. The language is overwrought and refined but suits the heightened nervous sensibility of this overly educated, emotionally retarded dandy with sinister, pedophilic intentions.

And the topic is notoriously heinous. Lolita has becomes a code word now for a sexually precocious girl-child. Humbert's corruption of the twelve year old Lolita Haze (incidentally the exact age of my own daughter which I admit hits a nerve) repels the reader even as it mesmerizes with its language.

Nabokov's language, cloaked in clever, beautifully constructed metaphors and French or Latin phrases, oozes with exaggerated voluptuous detail which I had to admit angered me at times. It was difficult to separate my feelings as a mother of a young girl from myself as a reader of literature, and as an appreciator of fine writing.

Nabokov fudges Humbert's guilt somewhat I feel ... Lolita is not a virgin so therefore he has not "despoiled" her at their fateful first encounter with her mother "safely" dead and no relations to worry about her safety. Lolita is portrayed as cunning and manipulative and as having never truly cared for Humbert even though he obsessed and agonized over her for years.

Humbert does see himself as a monster, a monster with no self-control regarding Lolita, but a monster nonetheless. He reiterates this constantly. This gave me little comfort as I read. It is heartrending to learn that Lolita cries each night after learning her mother has died and she deals with Humbert's advances in a matter of fact, even nonchalant manner. I find that nonchalance hard to believe and serves only to soothe Humbert's conscience I think.

By the book's end, Nabokov has done the near impossible for me: he has made me feel sympathetic and tender towards Humbert. Broken, unstable, raging Humbert, deserted and "cheated on" by Lolita who has run away, become involved with another older man and then run off again, married and become pregnant at seventeen. Humbert, who murders for Lolita. Humbert, the pedophile who weeps when he realizes that he meant nothing to her, nothing at all.

In an afterword, Nabokov makes it clear that he sees Humbert as a pervert, as a disturbed individual. As a writer and as a reader, I must respect that. I must not assume that the character of Humbert represents the true feelings of the writer. I must respect his right to write whatever he wants.

I have rights as well: to walk away from a piece of work if I don't like it. But if I do, I hope it is because the work lacks artistic merit and not because I find the topic offensive.

Monday, September 7, 2009

TIFF 2009

The festival approaches! I love this time of year. Toronto cools down (literally and figuratively) ... I am taking a week off to see a few films which I will be writing about briefly. My friend B will accompany me for a few of these. Extremely smooth ordering process this year and I had a great fill rate - 14 out of 15 films chosen! More anon ...