TIFF 2015 — A First Look – Maddin to Mads and More

The Toronto International Film Festival 2015

Looking at the prospect of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I can’t help but think of Donald Rumsfeld – the other Donald. Once again we’re looking at films that Rumsfeld — who has had his own life on the screen, thanks to Errol Morris — might have called the known known (films that have been around, some since January), the known unknown (films that circulated among the critics before the festival), and the unknown unknown (the bona fide surprises), which I will deal with later.

It's Alive, and It Has a Brain

It’s Alive, and It Has a Brain

Let’s consider some from the first two categories, starting with a Canadian entry, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room, which premiered at Sundance 2015 and then went on to the Berlinale. Here’s my Screen review from Sundance. Once again Maddin is in the archives of cinema, with characters imagined and then rusticated, as is his practice.

We have cave dwellers who create their own proto-Olympics of food preparation and consumption. We have the vainglorious captain of a submarine whose vessel is incapacitated underwater with its crew. And we have plenty of other characters to tie these elements together.

Are we overstating the point to make too much of any effort by Maddin to present something coherent. There’s enough pleasure if you just watch a film like The Forbidden Room as a work of costumed rusticated vaudeville, which it is. But there’s more for those who look closely, from a man who reveres and mocks vintage cinema in the same exposures – not least of which is the notion that the cinema is the forbidden room, where lots of the taboos locked inside us find their way out. Those taboos have been around far longer than the culture that Maddin is recognizing and satirizing.

Bear that in mind when you leave the cinema in Toronto. Most of this city is younger than the movies, and that city – its history, for better or worse — is being demolished all around us. You were warned.

It's So Perfect Here

It’s So Perfect Here

Also at Sundance, now at TIFF, was I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman’s leap into serious drama, in which the now-veteran comic plays a young suburban mother, and the wife of an insurance agent in a big brick house who falls deep into frustration, boredom, a joyless affair, coke and booze, and falls deeper again when the obligatory rehab doesn’t work as planned. Silverman is painfully believable in every frame of this adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s novel about a young woman’s downward spiral. I couldn’t disagree more with the many critics who found it monotonous. On the other extreme of the spectrum from anything by Guy Maddin, I Smile Back, directed by Adam Salky, is another story about ordinary people living the extraordinary unhappiness of everyday life. These ordinary people just happen to have Volvos, or something like them.

Among the film’s pleasures, if that’s the word, is the chance to watch Silverman holding back from being her expected transgressive self. It’s called acting. Someone will chastise me and argue that the acting challenge here, i.e., restraint, is a significant one, given the softball lines that characters toss around. The script does give Silverman’s character a chance or two to toss out her own nasty barbs, but most of the time, and she’s onscreen in almost every frame, she’s acting against type, to our unease. Critics were divided – take a look.

Who's Counting?

Who’s Counting?

At TIFF, also from the Berinale, is 45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of David Constantine’s short story, In Another Country, in which Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play a married couple, Kate and Geoff, preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. They live in a country town, and the rhythms of their lives have slowed down to something gently predictable, but when Geoff is seized by the memory of a former girlfriend’s death in a hiking accident, their long bond shows some cracks. Think of an old man falling for a twenty-something, which was Katya’s age when she died. And think of the intensity of a memory from that long ago, relived as excitement for him, endured as an improbable attack of jealousy for her, to remind you how quickly life goes by. Many more nuances find their way to the surface in a two-hander by actors who had their own sexy adventurous days in film and theater. How’s that for a meta-narrative, as the lit-crits would say?

I read in Screen that 45 Years set the record for a day-and-date film in the UK. Good news. Let’s hope that the film can crawl its way to some recognition in TIFF’s crowded schedule, and in a theatrical afterlife.

All in the Family

All in the Family

Not all roads lead back to Guy Maddin at TIFF, far from it, but Men & Chicken finds plenty of common ground. Anders Thomas Jensen wrote and directed this comedy to produce a jolt, not only in its mire of grand guignol foulness – think of a down-market Peter Greenaway set with trash, animals and animal droppings – but in its low-balling of the human species.

Mads Mikkelson, normally a handsome leading man — except when he’s working with this director’s team, which includes an image to Dumb and Dumber with David Dencik looking like a bald Jim Carrey — takes full advantage of his beauty privilege in that status to play an ugly stupid disfigured character, one of a whole family, living (if you can call it that) and fighting together on an island off the coast of Denmark.

How did they get that way, in Jensen’s version of Cold Comfort Farm? Think of interspecies experimentation, and then be prepared for Jensen’s own take on the philosophical discussion of just that, with all the fatuous certitudes of junk science at its worst.

The moral of the project is, if you want to out-do Lars von Trier at his most nasty, aim low.

downriver-cinema-australia-melbourne-international-film-festivalHome is where the heart is, with endless anatomical references, in Men & Chicken. In Downriver, from Australia, directed by Grant Scicluna, a young man travels home to the site of a murder that he’s assumed to have committed, with a set of co-conspirators that make the confused outcast doubt his guilt. The parolee, James (Reef Ireland), returns to a resort camp that’s gone to seed, where he finds the mother of a child who drowned years ago, the victim of foul play organized, supposedly, by James. Or at least that’s what they say. Gradually, as he’s humiliated by old “friends”, James reconstructs the events that put him in prison and branded him a sex offender and murderer. You think of Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol as the sequence of the crimes is re-established, but you think more immediately of Alain Guiraudie, the French director who brings a courtly elegance and a frank tactility to the LGBT world where such crimes can happen and incise their way into memory.

Is truth happiness? You’ll see, when the Downriver reveals the identity of the killer. Reef Ireland achieves the right mix of bluntness and acuity as the troubled child branded as a child killer.

Kate Winslet -- Is My Dress Red Enough?

Kate Winslet — Is My Dress Red Enough?

Also from Australia is The Dressmaker, by Jocelyn Moorhouse, another tale of a wrongly accused and shunned character, this time a woman (played by Kate Winslet) in this period ‘western” who returns as a skilled designer and seamstress from Paris, where she fled.

Hold Still Now, and Look in the Mirror

Hold Still Now, and Look in the Mirror

Think of The Dressmaker, adapted from the popular novel by Rosalie Ham, as an Austrian Scarlet Letter. Bear in mind that Hester Prynne was also a seamstress, sought after by the proper women of the village of Salem who condemned and ostracized her. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a man who grinned at the pompous self-importance of the pious and powerful, lacked the Australian gene for bawdy excess. We get that here, as that pomposity is brought down to size – and the costumes fit the mood.

You Lost the War, Now Clear the Mines -- aber schnell!

You Lost the War, Now Clear the Mines — aber schnell!

Back to Denmark, for a film that takes us to the days right after the German surrender in World War II. The British, who occupied Denmark as that region’s Allied power, found a landscape where the war wasn’t over. The whole place was mind by the Germans, and who better than the Germans to clear those deadly explosives? Here’s my review yesterday from Screen of Land of Mine.

Denmark’s mistreatment of German prisoners after World War II, a little-known chapter of post-war history, is a powerful j’accuse in Land Of Mine, which may surprise all but specialised historians. The film revisits the Allies’ practice of using captured Germans to clear land mines on the Danish coast that would blow many of them to bits. There’s also humanity here in the bond that forms between a stern Danish sergeant (Roland Moller) and the adolescent POWs in his charge.

The obvious audiences for Martin Zandvliet’s heartfelt drama are Danes who seek the truth behind their country’s myths of wartime heroism, and Germans (the film is mostly shot in the German language) who might be drawn to examples of innocence or goodness in their nation’s years of shame.  This film could also tap into the huge audience for war epics, with a potential global reach thanks to its affinities with classics in that genre such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Grand Illusion, and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land.

At war’s end, some 1.5 million mines placed by the Nazis remained on Denmark’s west coast. Defusing them was a national urgency. Rather than use Danes who had sacrificed so much during the Nazi occupation, British liberators proposed that the Danish government deploy thousands of Wehrmacht POWs on Danish territory for the job. At least half of them died at that task from May to October 1945.

Land of Mine isn’t the first account that suggests that the Danes committed a war crime. Nor is it the first examination of brutality against defeated Germans in 1945. What’s new is that those charges of Danish misdeeds are being brought to a wide audience in the language of epic cinema. Zandvliet (A Funny Man, 2011, Applause, 2009) picks up the story as a vengeful Danish officer assigns a stern sergeant (Moller) to manage a brigade of boy prisoners conscripted late in the war. Moller’s ox-like character makes that severity look a lot like sadism, until the cruelty of his British and Danish superiors and the deadliness of the job draw out his protective instincts.  

Moller bulldozes his way from brutality to empathy, and the plot that probes the nuances of history soon veers into well-meaning inverted extremes of Allied evil and German innocence, as the prisoners operate under a potential death sentence and Danish commanders exploit captive labour.

The depictions of vindictive Danes sending boys to be blown apart clashes with the accepted noble portrait of a country whose king refused to deport Jews from Denmark and wore a yellow star in protest. German soldiers portrayed as innocents who are as harmless as a kindergarten class may be a jolt to audiences accustomed to seeing them as invading predators and killers.  Yet the soldiers’ grim fate, borne out by the facts and observed at close range with a hand-held abruptness, keeps the film’s earnest sentimentality from over-flowing.

Despite the sense of fatalism and some clumsy turns in Zandvliet’s script, Land Of Mine achieves moments of chilling suspense in scenes of untrained soldiers defusing mines by hand and in the bloody bodies that leap into the air when the boys fail.   

The tension builds on the impressive composure of German and Swiss teenage actors (many of them already television veterans), including the endearing twins Emil and Oskar Belton – still not yet 16 – who play brothers who are captured in Germany’s dying days. With some adroit promotion, the young cast could be a strong selling point in German-speaking countries and beyond.

The sand dunes of Denmark’s Skallingen peninsula (finally declared mine-free in 2012) are a huge canvas for cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the director’s wife, who evokes a desert-like vastness reminiscent of a David Lean landscape for boys forced into a labour of futility. The motif of teenagers marching into those expanses drives home the grim truth that wars don’t end when the belligerent commanders declare the fighting to be over.

Zandvliet’s next film, this time in English, follows the tragedy of the Kursk, the Russian sub which broke down on the Arctic seabed in 2000 with 118 sailors inside. Get ready.

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