Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story
Dir: Yousry Nasrallah
Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story is a wonderful melodrama about women’s lives in urban Cairo. Hebba (Mona Zaki) is a TV talk show host who is married to Karim, an ambitious journalist. They live a western-style life in a luxury condo replete with expensive gadgets, and dine in exclusive restaurants. But one day Hebba’s eyes are opened by a viewer who questions her superficial interviews. She decides to change her outlook by addressing politically controversial women’s issues, problems never mentioned on TV before. Like Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, Hebba brings new tales to her show each day, with stories of lust, greed, love and betrayal.
Hebba invites a series of ordinary women, both rich and poor, with unusual lives to tell about their strange situations: an ex-con taking care of her former jailer, a beautiful woman living in an asylum, and an educated professional launching a one-woman protest. Each guest tells an even deeper and more fascinating tale about how she ended up where she is now. The audience follows each story as it shifts from the bland TV stage to the rich dramas of the guest’s recollections. And in between her interviews, Hebba’s home life is gradually revealed. Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story is a great movie with an excellent script (by Wahid Hamid), good acting and fascinating characters, showing women’s lives in today’s Egypt.
Dir: Harmony Korine
In Harmony Korine’s latest film, a gang of marauding, hideously deformed old people terrorize suburban Nashville in their wheelchairs. They smash fluorescent bulbs and drag baby dolls behind them on their bikes. These trash humpers literally hump large plastic trash bins on the street. They fellate shrubbery leaves and masturbate cylindrical objects they find. They are known to engage in cruel pancake thuggery, and siamese twin bullying.
This is not a conventional movie by any means — there’s only the barest of a narrative. It’s shot on coarse video, with PLAY and RECORD occasionally appearing on the screen. Sounds, words and songs (about angels and devils), are constantly inserted into the soundtrack, seemingly at random. At the TIFF screening, Harmony explained Trash Humpers like this: Everyone probably knows Field Of Dreams — “if you build it, they will come”. This movie is the opposite: “If you destroy it, they will come on you.”
Trash Humpers is a nihilistic piece of art, somewhere between a film and an installation, like a non-stop, giant youtube clip projected onto a movie screen. It’s terrible, and it’s brilliant.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Dir: Lee Daniels
To win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a movie has to have certain qualities. It should be something unusual and new. It should have a straightforward story, not an ambiguous or ironic one. It should be a moving look at a character who overcomes great obstacles. And it has to feature great, dramatic moments by its actors or characters.
Usually the film will go on to win big at the Golden Globes and Oscars. Past People’s Choice winners include Slumdog Millionaire, Tsotsi, Amelie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Shine, Roger and Me, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Precious — this year’s winner — fits all of these criteria.
Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe) is an overweight 16 year-old girl with a heart of gold who is functionally illiterate, and pregnant with her second child. It’s the 1980’s, and Precious lives her precarious existence in a Harlem apartment with her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique). She survives the daily suffering and violence by escaping into vivid fantasies where her life is like a fairy tale and everybody loves her. She is placed in a girls’ alternate school among other drop-outs where a kind teacher and role-model helps her rebuild her life and encourages her to record it all in a small, black notebook.
Sidibe and Mo’Nique manage to give strong performances (the movie is a bona fide tear-jerker) without being mawkish. While it’s simple to tell who the good guys and villains are, the strength of its characters makes this more than just a movie-of-the-week or an interview on Oprah.
Dir: Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg
Another film about an all-girls’ high school in the 1980’s played alongside Precious at TIFF, but two stories couldn’t be more different. In Tanner Hall, rich, privileged girls carry on their mothers’ legacies at an exclusive New England prep school. They order pizza, embroider clothes, gossip, and play practical jokes on teachers. But the idyllic lives of three best friends are disrupted when a death-obsessed, scheming English girl elbows her way in. She uses her knowledge of their secret trysts (on and off campus) to insinuate herself into their more innocent lives, spurring them on toward maturity.
This first film, written and directed by prep-school grads Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, seems at times more concerned with the girls’ clothes and hair than their hearts and heads, but the story is still watchable. Aside from an execrable opening scene about a little girl letting a bird out of a cage, the movie is not that bad. Comic relief is provided by Amy Sedaris and Chris Kattan as two teachers trying to improve their sex lives.
Dir: Bong Joon-ho
A desperately poor Korean mother (Hye-ja Kim), who is committed to her only son’s well-being, makes her meagre living selling traditional herbal medicines and practicing acupuncture. Her son, Dong-joo (Bin Won), is a social misfit with a very slow mind who hangs out with manipulative hoods. When he is arrested for the death of a
neighbourhood girl, his mother is the only one willing to look out for him. She becomes a single-minded crusader and amateur detective, stopping at nothing to find the real killer.
The mother and son, at first, seem like comical caricatures, playing out the type of extreme vengeance drama so popular in Korean pop cinema. But as their motivations and history gradually reveal themselves, the characters gain depth and become more sympathetic . The great acting, uncomfortable characters and gripping mystery/detective plot make this a cinematic treat. Director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) is as good at mysteries as he is at making big-budget action movies.
J’ai tué ma mère
Dir: Xavier Dolan
Another new mother/son movie at TIFF, J’ai tué ma mère, is a great family drama, this one set in Quebec. Hubert (Xavier Dolan) is a teenager who does not get along with his mother (Anne Dorval). He is smart and well read, but is not doing well in school — he’d rather spend his time at his boyfriend Antonin’s house than in his own home. Hubert and his mother both try to win each other’s affection, but most of their conversations quickly devolve into explosive shout-fests.
This low-budget movie was written and directed by the 19-year-old who plays Hubert, and is partly based on his own experiences. Dolan has packed his movie with visual references to Quebecois and French artists (like Pierre + Gilles), poetry and songs. Characters named after Rimbaud quote Cocteau. Anne Dorval is excellent as his mother, and the two make a formidable team. This is a great first film.
How to Fold a Flag
Dir: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
The documentary How to Fold a Flag follows the lives of four soldiers discharged from the 2/3 Field Artillery division of the US army, a group whose time in Iraq was covered in the very good 2004 documentary Gunner Palace. Their lives have drastically changed since returning home. One man who was demoted for writing a critical blog — leaving him ineligible for medical benefits — now works as a cage fighter. Another has made his home in an isolated shack. A third misses the excitement of war and hates his pointless job. A fourth man is running for Congress in Buffalo, but faces cruel attack ads from his rivals. The film also commemorates their friends who never made it home.
The documentary is flush with vibrant, almost lurid displays of red, white and blue flag motifs, expressed in fireworks, parade costumes, graves, shopping malls, news shows, flyers… the image of the stars and stripes is ubiquitous. The men’s lives provide a “what ever happened to…” follow-up to the characters we met in Gunner Palace, but it’s just not as interesting a story.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Dir: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Far better is the fascinating biography of Daniel Ellsberg’s life, and the role he played both in escalating the Vietnam War in the 60’s and helping to end the war in the 70’s. Ellsberg was a high-ranked Ivy League policy wonk in the US defense department, and his research helped fuel the deceptions that led to of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (where the US falsely claimed to have been attacked by missiles from North Vietnam). This was used as a justification for ramping up US involvement in a war which eventually killed more than two million Vietnamese, as well as over 50,000 US soldiers. Eventually his disgust with US policy led him to smuggle out thousands of pages of secret documents, later known as the Pentagon Papers, and release them to Congress and the media.
The film — using contemporary TV clips, audio conversations from Nixon’s secret tapes, new interviews with many of the key players, and re-enacted scenes — is a flawlessly researched look at the man Nixon labeled “the most dangerous man in America”.
Women Without Men (2009)
Dir: Shiran Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour
Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage, during the brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossaddegh’s government (1951-53), to escape a life dominated by men. An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. A fourth woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a foggy bathhouse.
I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. In addition, the excessive use of faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from the story. Still, the movie provides a glimpse at a part of Iranian history and a cosmopolitan culture seldom seen on a screen.
Dir: He Ping
The unfortunately-named Wheat is a new Chinese movie about two Qin soldiers who show up in a town in the country of Zhao during the Warring States period. One is an elite soldier who wants to return to his village to help with the wheat harvest, the other a bumbling ne’er-do-well. After being chased by Qin soldiers looking to kill all deserters they show up, wounded by a Qin arrowhead, in a village of their Zhao enemies. Since all men are fighting the war, it is a village of women without men. The soldiers convince the villagers that their troubles will soon be solved by telling them a vivid saga of their battles, but with the Zhao as the victors, instead of the Qin. The young noble woman of the village (Fan Bingbing) is intrigued, but the shamaness sees disturbing contradictions. Still, things go well until the tide turns…
The movie is beautifully shot with some great dramatic parts — especially the storytelling scene — and some good acting and writing, but that still doesn’t rescue a slow movie. It may have limited attraction for anyone not interested in ancient China.
Dir: Lars von Trier
An unnamed couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) are passionate lovers — she’s a PhD student in Mediaeval Feminist Theory, while he’s a much older professional, perhaps a psychologist. When a family member dies, she takes it especially hard and ends up hospitalized and heavily medicated. He decides to “demedicate” her, and act as her therapist in a remote cabin in the woods so she can overcome her anxiety and fears. Sounds pretty tame, doesn’t it? It’s not.
Like Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) Antichrist is not an easy movie to forget. It’s a devastating, surreal, and multifaceted story, with shifting fantasies, nightmares, and hallucinations. It’s also extremely sexually explicit, and filled with scenes of gore and blood that would not seem out of place in grotesque movies like Saw III or Hostel 2. Dafoe and Gainsbourg are the only people on the screen, but they carry it off. Von Trier has completely abandoned his minimalist Dogme manifesto by breaking every one of its restrictions. He comfortably uses special effects, beautiful music, and extensive CGI images for the benefit of his fable. If you can stomach it, and like to be strongly affected for a cathartic couple of hours, this is a fantastic movie. But if you’re at all squeamish or easily offended, stay away.
by Ward (1937)