Halifax film screening picks — March 9-15

09 Mar
March 9, 2015

Carbon Arc and the Dal Art Gallery film series are both on hiatus this week, but there are some solid film screenings happening in Halifax this week—notably a Cineplex presentation of Casablanca.

Casablanca isn’t just a movie, for many, it’s the movie—and this week you have a relatively rare opportunity to catch a pristine presentation on the big screen (Oxford on Sunday, Dartmouth Crossing on Wednesday & Sunday).

My cheap night pick for Tuesday is the widely enjoyed vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, which played at TIFF Midnight Madness showcase in September as well as the Outlier Film Festival in Halifax in November. If you missed it then you’ve got the opportunity to catch up this week at Park Lane.

Here are my Halifax area screening picks for selected days this week:

  • Tuesday (Mar 10) — What We Do In The Shadows, Cineplex Park Lane, 4pm,‎ ‎7:20pm,‎ ‎& 9:50pm‎, regular pricing, continuing through Sunday. Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement, USA/New Zealand, 2014, 86 minutes.
  • Wednesday (Mar 11) — Casablanca, Cineplex Dartmouth Crossing, 7pm, $6. Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942, 102 minutes.
  • Thursday (Mar 12) — School of Babel, Halifax Central Library, 7pm, free, in French with English subtitles, co-presented by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 & Alliance Française Halifax. Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2015 Césars, this film follows the lives of a group of youth—Irish, Serbian, Brazilian, Tunisian, Chinese and Senegalese—who recently immigrated to France. Julie Bertuccelli, France, 2014, 94 minutes.
  • Sunday (Mar 15) — Casablanca, Cineplex Oxford & Cineplex Dartmouth Crossing, 12:55pm (both theatres), $6. Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942, 102 minutes.

Halifax film screening picks — March 2-8

02 Mar
March 2, 2015

There’s a resurgence of interest lately in the 1940s and ’50s director of westerns and thrillers, Anthony Mann (for a quick intro see this 17-minute late-career 1968 BBC TV profile/interview on YouTube). The Wednesdays film noir series at the Dal Art Gallery gives you a chance to sample his work with the 1948 thriller Raw Deal.

“A woman helps spring her boyfriend from the state prison so they can flee to South America, but he insists on first collecting the $50,000 owed to him from a ruthless double-crosser played by Raymond Burr,” says the Museum of the Moving Image’s intriguing summary.

It’s otherwise a week of social justice film screenings in Halifax, including a new doc about the plight of Baha’is in Iran from Iranian Canadian Maziar Bahari, whose own story of imprisonment, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, was recently screened here by Carbon Arc. Note that this Saturday’s screening is a presentation of the local Baha’i community and included a panel discussion afterward.

Here are my Halifax area screening picks for selected days this week:

  • Monday (Mar 2) — Honour Your Word, Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, 7pm, free, director Martha Stiegman in attendance, co-presented by AFCOOP. 60-minute 2013 doc (trailer here) about the political & conservation struggles of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.
  • Wednesday (Mar 4) — Raw Deal, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 8pm, free. Anthony Mann, USA, 1948, 79 minutes.
  • Friday (Mar 6) —  Vessel, 7pm, Carbon Arc Cinema @ the Museum of Natural History, $7, co-presented by Halifax Sexual Health Centre. Winner of the SXSW Film Festival’s audience award for documentary, as well as a special jury citation for “political courage,” Diana Whitten’s Vessel offers a vivid profile of the abortion-rights group Women on Waves, as well as its founder, Rebecca Gomperts (trailer here).
  • Saturday (Mar 7) — To Light A Candle, 11:30am, room 301 @ Halifax Central Library, free, hosted by Baha’i Community of Halifax. Maziar Bahari, Iran/Canada, 53 minutes, trailer here, followed by panel discussion. Bring a brown bag lunch if you like; finger foods and beverages available.

Halifax film screening picks — February 23-March 1

23 Feb
February 23, 2015

The Thrillema cult-film screening series is back this week, rolling out Stuart Gordon’s comedic sci-fi-gore-alicious H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator (1985).

It makes for a tough choice on Wednesday night which also has the latest in the noir series at the Dalhousie Art Gallery—Orson Welles’ still under-appreciated The Lady From Shanghai (1948), a film which Jean-Luc Godard considered one of the ten best American sound films ever made.

Carbon Arc has one of this year’s Oscars’ best animated feature nominees, the latest from Ireland’s Cartoon Salon, Song of the Sea, with two screenings this Friday.

Here are my Halifax area screening picks for selected days this week:

  • Monday (Feb 23) — Living Without Money, Halifax Central Library, 7pm, free. 52-minute 2010 doc about 68 year old Heidemarie Schwermer, a German woman who made a deliberate choice to stop using money 14 years prior. If you can’t make the screening, fittingly enough the whole film is online—for free.
  • Tuesday (Feb 24) — Medicine for Melancholy, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 5pm. Black History Month screening series wraps up with this 2008 day-in-the-life drama about a contemporary black couple, set in San Francisco.
  • Wednesday (Feb 25) — The Lady from Shanghai, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 8pm, free. Film Noir retrospective continues with this 1947 Raymond Chandler novel adaptation.
    Re-Animator, The Thrillema @ the Museum of Natural History, 8pm, free, advance tickets available at Strange Adventures.
  • Friday (Feb 27) —Song of the Sea, 7pm & 9pm, Carbon Arc Cinema @ the Museum of Natural History, $7.

Halifax film screening picks — February 16-22

16 Feb
February 16, 2015

It’s not every week that Halifax gets an indie film release before most of the country, but that’s what’s happening this Friday at the Carbon Arc screening of sixties pop doc The Wrecking Crew. The three Canadian cinemas that are opening it this weekend are Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, Bloor Hot Docs in Toronto—and Carbon Arc.

The story of the unsung session musicians who recorded six Grammy Record of the Year winners in a row (1966 to 1971) was actually completed in 2008 and screened at festivals then, but filmmaker Danny Tedesco (son of one of the musicians) has been working for the past six years to find the funding to license over 120 music cues. With that job complete the film is now seeing a commercial release.

Carbon Arc, unusually, has two films screening this Friday, with Canadian coming-of-age drama Tu Dors Nicole, which got good notices at Cannes, screening at 7pm, with The Wrecking Crew following at 9pm.

Here are my Halifax area screening picks for selected days this week:

  • Monday (Feb 16) — Mr. Turner, Cineplex Oxford, regular pricing (playing Monday through Thursday). Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s biopic.
  • Tuesday (Feb 17) — Pariah, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 5pm, free. A “tender, sporadically goofy, yet candid examination of emergent identity” said NPR in 2011 about this multi-award-winning tale of a young, black lesbian in Brooklyn.
  • Wednesday (Feb 18) — The Brasher Doubloon, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 8pm, free. Film Noir retrospective continues with this 1947 Raymond Chandler novel adaptation.
  • Thursday (Feb 19) — CKDU Film-e-oke/Howling Moon Karaoke, Plan B/2180 Gottingen St, 8pm-11pm, $3 suggested donation. Looks like a fun event for CKDU’s 30th anniversary—get ready to re-enact scenes from Casablanca, Jaws, The Princess Bride, and, inevitably, The Big Lebowski.
  • Friday (Feb 20) — Tu Dors Nicole, 7pm, and The Wrecking Crew, 9pm, Carbon Arc Cinema at the Museum of Natural History, $7 each.

 

 

Halifax film screening picks — February 9-15

09 Feb
February 9, 2015

Trying something new, starting today… I’m going to be combing through local event listings, weekly, to come up with recommended film screenings for the Halifax area. This week’s current film pick was a pretty easy one—Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater is a surprisingly strong depiction of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s 118-day stint in an Iranian prison. The squeamish need not fear—this is a journey of the soul, not torture porn, and the ever-appealing Gael García Bernal does a fine job of inhabiting this role, while Stewart successfully cracks the problem of making an extended detention interesting on the screen. Friday’s Carbon Arc screening at the Museum of Natural History. (Above you can see the real-life and film-fiction Baharis side by side, with Jon Stewart and Cameron Bailey at TIFF this past September.)

My repertory pick of the week is the 40th anniversary re-release of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, which it so happens was Al Pacino’s next role after The Godfather Part II. This is a Cineplex Classic Film Series screening at Dartmouth Crossing on Wednesday.

Here are my Halifax area screening picks for selected days this week:

  • Monday (Feb 9) — Payback, Halifax Central Library, 7pm, free. Based on Margaret Atwood’s bestselling book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, dir. Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes).
  • Tuesday (Feb 10) — Faat Kiné, Dalhousie Art Gallery, 5pm, free. 2000’s now rarely-seen capstone film from Senegal’s “father of African film,” Ousmane Sembene.
  • Wednesday (Feb 11) — Dog Day Afternoon, Cineplex Dartmouth Crossing, 7pm, $6.
  • Thursday (Feb 12) — Mr. Turner, Cineplex Oxford, regular pricing (playing Monday through Thursday). Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s biopic.
  • Friday (Feb 13) — Rosewater, Carbon Arc Cinema at the Museum of Natural History, 7pm, $7.
  • Sunday (Feb 15) — Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, Fundy Film Society at Al Whittle Theatre, Wolfville, 4pm and 7pm, $9. Haven’t yet seen this tale of a 1966 Spanish road trip quest to meet John Lennon, but it looks like it would make for a fun actual Sunday road trip to Wolfville.

 

 

Soderbergh’s 2001

26 Jan
January 26, 2015

The biggest film-nerd thrill of this young year came and went in a week. Steven Soderbergh’s unauthorized edit of 2001—shortening it by about 40 minutes, and making several other substantial changes—was posted on his site on January 14 and gone by sometime on the 21st.

“The exercise amounts almost to a new genre: something in between filmmaking and film criticism,” said Stephen Marche, at Esquire, but as much as cinephiles might rush to embrace this budding quasi-genre, its legal status is clearly even more tenuous than its classification niche. If you didn’t download it while it was up, you’ll need to snoop for it in the darker corners of the net, or beg a copy from someone who was faster on the draw with the download.

So it is gone, -ish, but will it be forgotten? If I had to guess I would say that cinephiles will be passing it around and organizing shadow screenings for years to come. Because the Soderbergh edit is not a mere curiosity—it is a bloody brilliant creation on its own terms.

I’m sure that he did not attempt it without some trepidation. “Not only does the film not need my—or anyone else’s—help,” he wrote in the article accompanying his video posting, “but if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” But, he says, “it’s technology’s fault” that he was able to both to spend enough time with the film to begin to consider how it could be restructured, and also that he was able to do that restructuring.

He has cut out roughly half an hour of the film—just about all of those cuts coming before the original intermission point of the film. He has also binned the end titles, so all told about 40 minutes of the original have been dropped.

The Dawn of Man sequence has been trimmed—most notably the first attack of the rival primates has been deleted. All of Heywood Floyd’s meetings and conversations on the space station have been deleted (leaving just the brief moment where he identifies himself to the station security computer), as well just about all of the press conference on the moon.  Gone too is most of the conversation on the shuttle to the monolith dig-out at the moon crater, raising the sense of drama and revelation in the encounter sequence.

When we join the Discovery in deep space after only 32 minutes, 23 minutes faster than the classic cut, the ship’s mission is even more vaguely understood than in the original, though the recorded explanation by Floyd still kicks in after the deactivation of HAL 9000.

There is some more trimming in the mission scenes, but again most of the cuts are to inter-human dialogue scenes, especially the private pod conversation between astronauts Dave and Frank, which Hal memorably lipreads.

Soderbergh further adds to the newfound velocity of the opening acts by changing a couple of music cues, moving Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” forward from the moon-shuttle sequence to add a sense of foreboding to the early moments of the Dawn of Man sequence. The later scene on the moon now features another Ligeti piece, “Harmonies Aus Zwei Etueden Fuer Die Orgel”—a louder, more insistent number not originally heard in the film.

The other change to the film’s sound is the addition of a reverb/echo that has been added to Hal’s voice and other sounds coming from the ship’s communications panels. This somewhat distracting alteration (perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite work for me) is one on the ways in which Soderbergh pushes the otherness and strangeness of artificial intelligence into the foreground.

Hal was always one of the greatest novelties of the film, of course, but it seems to me that, more than narrative pace and focus, Soderbergh is interested in a reconsideration of Hal and, more broadly, the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity.

He signals this interest at the outset by retaining but refashioning the 3-minute overture. In the film’s original release this was simply Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” playing behind a black/blank screen. In later theatre screenings this would have been ditched but it reappeared, eventually, in home video releases of the film. Rather than dropping it, Soderbergh has elected to transform it into an arty flash-forward by intermittently splicing in first the eye of Hal and then the solarized Dave Bowman eye from the through-the-monolith sequence. This nicely sets up the leitmotif of the spliced-in Hal eye that he edits in intermittently through the film, using it both as an editorial stitch and a visual thematic reference point.

Soderbergh’s cut of 2001 can be seen as analogous to his 2002 remake (re-adaptation?) of Solaris. Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the 1961 Stanisław Lem novel was a heavy-duty, 166 minute affair, and its length was not solely due to the Russian director’s meticulous and meditative (yes, slow-paced) style. It was carrying a second payload, so to speak, in addition to Lem’s theme of the limits of human understanding, and that was Tarkovsky’s bleak-ish Christian existentialism. Soderbergh’s film, some 67 minutes shorter, jettisons the added layer of theology and delivers a focused and efficient rendering of the novel’s philosophical and narrative core.

Kubrick’s 2001, in addition to its philosophical probing of human identity, and our place in the universe, has a parallel mission as well, and that its construction of an imagined human future. This was always Kubrick’s explicit, stated, intention—to do the “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie,” one that would not only probe the implications for humanity of the existence of a greater, alien intelligence, but which would also convincingly depict a future world of commercial space travel and lunar landings and outposts.

I really do get why this cut might feel to many devotees like a ruthless chopping at the film’s essence. But let’s be honest. Those painting-the-future scenes don’t do what they used to do. To state the obvious, we no longer think of 2001‘s future as our future. The imaginary 2001 and the actual 2001 are both in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the red Olivier Mourgue Djinn chairs. I love the zero-G toilet instructions. And so on. (This article about the hit-and-miss nature of Kubrick’s future predictions is itself a hit-and-miss affair, but is a useful list for review.) All that stuff is adorable, and no one is advocating that we burn or abandon the classic cut of the film. These are the scenes that divert and amuse. But they no longer amaze.

Let’s also stipulate, right now, that the dialogue in the film is mostly terrible. It’s long been argued that that’s part of the point of the film, that it’s a deliberate irony that the humans are less interesting than the computer. Fine. But there’s still the fact that they are not interesting, at least in conversation. Have I crossed the line into film blasphemy yet?

You could, of course, advance the argument that these world-building scenes have a role to play in pacing. That the airlock sequence with its building, spring-loaded drama and tension wouldn’t seem as dramatic without the slower passages of the film building up to it. Ok, again I can see how someone might experience the film that way. All I can say is, I just watched the Soderbergh cut, and that scene did what it always does—absorbed 100% of my attention, for the hundredth time.

If you can agree with this school of thought at least partly/grudgingly, maybe you can sense why it’s a tempting prospect to think about cutting away the stuff that no longer grips our imagination, to try to unearth an essence that still grips with contemporary-feeling directness, nearly 50 years on.

Of course, cutting the film on a Philistine “cool”/”not cool” basis is bound to feel more like a mutilation than a refinement. The enduring power of the film is such that there has been a recent spate of attempts to distill the film as a contemporary-feeling trailer, with results ranging from this risible fan-boy attempt, to the rather more sleek and refined BFI 2014 UK re-release promo.

“IF i was finally going to touch it, i’d better have a bigger idea than just trimming or re-scoring,” wrote Soderbergh.

What he has managed to do, especially by inserting Hal’s impassive, iconic eye in scenes where it formerly wasn’t, and isn’t directly part of the action, is a gesture of defamiliarization—making us look afresh at this disembodied character who has become part of our mental furniture.

I think of the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“—the way that the eye of the blackbird is a portal to an other intelligence that the poet cannot know. I think of the ways in which Terrence Malick has often used sudden, interjected images of animals to create a similar effect in cinematic terms, perhaps most memorably in The Thin Red Line.

Artificial intelligence beyond the human was a theme already foregrounded in Kubrick’s cut of the film. The idea that such artificial intelligence could be in competition with, or at least an alternative to, the next stage of human evolution, was always a latent possibility raised by the film. What Soderbergh’s cut does is to make this latent possibility freshly manifest.

There is a sublimity inherent in the attempt to comprehend the meaning of a nonhuman entity such as Hal perceiving the world that we do, while cognizing it differently. Soderbergh’s edit is an argument, delivered with digital tools, that what is lasting about 2001 is the way it opens up the big questions about humanity’s essence, and our place in the universe.

unplanned Sergio Leone deep dive (Duck, You Sucker & Once Upon a Time in America)

27 Oct
October 27, 2014

I’m used to thinking of the category “spaghetti westerns” as a fairly inexhaustible pool of films, so I was rather surprised when it clicked with me recently that the entire Sergio Leone oeuvre is comprised of just six mature films. Long ones, to be sure, and rather more chock-a-block with filmic references than I ever knew until I found myself on a Leone bender this month.

Once Upon a Time in America - Blu-rayMy head was originally turned a few months ago by the fall 2014 release announcement for the “Extended Director’s Cut” of Once Upon A Time in America (itself not a western, of course), which thanks to funding from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and from Gucci, runs 251 minutes, 22 minutes longer than the previous 229-minute cut. As someone who continues to be interested in film restoration in general, and the work of the Cineteca di Bologna in particular, I blind-bought the new Blu-ray edition on its September 30 release, taking the opportunity to finally watch this film and to have a first experience of it that much closer to the director’s original vision.

This summer had already seen MGM re-release The Man With No Name Trilogy, in an edition that replaces their 2011 release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with a new Cineteca di Bologna restoration. With the fresh flurry of interest in Leone the 2011 Blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time in the West could be had cheaply so I picked that up too. MGM followed up Warner’s release of America a week later (October 7) with a low-priced ($9.97 on Amazon.ca at this moment) Blu-ray disc of Duck, You Sucker, which means that all six Leone masterpieces are now available in high def.

Duck, You Sucker - Blu-ray - amazon.caAs it comes to us on this budget disc, Duck, You Sucker is sort of a hot mess. It has undeniable allure: it is Grade A Leone, it is all the more enjoyable for being rarely seen and hard to find, it is an evolutionary missing link between the two “Once Upon” films (and in fact it it was called Once Upon a Time… the Revolution in some European releases and that is probably the best title it had, certain much better than, for example, A Fistful of Dynamite). However it is a sub-par release of a damaged film. No further cleanup has been done since the 2007 DVD release, and thus the image contains plenty of visible noise and artifacts. The disc has no main menu, thus the film auto-starts on load, and has no new special features. However it carries with it the special features from the DVD release, including the excellent “Sorting out the Versions” doc, which at least makes it clear why certain transitions in the film really make little sense. The upshot is that the best that could be done with the elements at hand was done, in terms of restoring the film to its theatrical cut. But even the theatrical cut didn’t completely make sense, so in order to create a fully-realized artistically-integral cut of the film it seems unavoidable that someone would have to do what the Film Foundation just did with America and find additional elements and bring them back in.

Does all of that sound like a recommendation? It probably doesn’t. Therefore it’s incumbent on me to say, if you have ever enjoyed any of Leone’s films, you owe it to yourself to see all six of his masterpieces, the flawed ones. Duck, You Sucker, awkward title and all, is a compelling, intense film, and this Blu-ray release at least allows you to see the best-available cut in high definition. Now if you’ll excuse me, watching all six different commentary tracks on five different films hasn’t exhausted my interest in Sergio Leone, so I have to go read Christopher Frayling’s fascinating-looking book about him now.

 

film festival season is TIFFing my AFF

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

The best thing about the two-week marathon that ensues when you do the Toronto+Halifax film festivals back to back as I have this year is the wall-to-wall films. The worst thing aside from the sleep deprivation is the abiding feeling that you’re rather letting down the side by not promptly posting up reviews of every film on your blog.

But as that’s really not been possible, I present, in the place of 17 AWOL film reviews, a series of random festival observations from the past 10 days.

TIFF+AFF is actually a killer pairing. TIFF is really well organized, gets a lot of films that would never play in Halifax, and offers plentiful chances to see, and pose a question to, directors and stars in person. But the Atlantic festival gets a number, this year a large number, of films that are really hard tickets to get in Toronto, and presents them for less than half the price of equivalent Toronto screenings. And it does so all in one multiplex, which makes it dead easy to get from one screening to another. And tickets for the hottest international films are plentifully available, because Halifax audiences are much more interested in regional films than what’s going on elsewhere.

UK English has taken over the subtitling industry. Maybe this has been true for a while, but it seems like every foreign-language film that I have seen so far (and I believe that I’ve seen 7 that were subtitled in their entirety) has been subtitled in UK English. There has been much fancying, significant scoffing—of food, and there have been many lads. This is how I found myself watching a film (Mommy) that was made and set entirely in Canada but subtitled in an English dialect that no native or long-time Canadian would likely use. Perhaps the subtitling will be re-done in time for Canadian or US distribution but this raises an interesting question—does the UK-English-speaking audience at film festivals really significantly outnumber the North American festival audience? If so, that’s surprising to me. Maybe someone who understands the industry better than I do can weigh in with an explanation. I mean, I’m a card-carrying Anglophile so it’s no skin off my teeth. Uh, nose.

While we’re on the topic of subtitling… It is now widespread convention to subtitle even mildly accented English, in English. I am seeing more of this, this year, than I ever have before. Don’t people whose first language is not English find this just a little insulting? And are native English speakers really that thick? I’m talking about perfectly understandable English lines here, echoed as subtitles. I would really like to know more about how this has because a consensus practice.

Goodbye to Language 3D looked way better at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto than it did at Cineplex Park Lane in Halifax and the only reason I can think of is that Dolby 3D is a significantly better technology than RealD. This is something that I have had no time at all to research so I have no idea if there’s a firm basis to this suspicion. If anyone else knows about the difference between these systems I would welcome your observations and links in the comments. This was the first time that I ever saw the same 3D film projected with the two different technologies in the same week, so it’s nothing I had ever thought to consider before.

Movie-going etiquette is sometimes worse at festivals than at regular commercial screenings. This is of course not true across the board but I’ve been amazed how many glowing smartphone screens have disturbed my viewing experience in the past 10 days. And tonight, for example, at a particular slow, quiet and long film (Winter Sleep) I had to deal with a compulsive foot-tapper somewhere behind me. Super distracting. I don’t remember anyone being that asinine at Guardians of the Galaxy but maybe I just couldn’t hear them.

I have come to derive some perverse enjoyment from the exit walk of shame. You know, where people bend forward and move quickly as they try to hard not to block people’s view as they give up on a screening and leave. As a general rule, the more people bail on a screening, the more I am enjoying the film. This year’s champion has been the nearly impenetrable The Color of Pomegranates, a Toronto screening from which literally dozens of attendees exited in bafflement. It was awesome.

Iraqi Odyssey (Samir): first look

08 Sep
September 8, 2014

Twelve years on from the 2002 documentary Forget Baghdad—an essential, if not widely known, film about the tragic dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq—director Samir is back with the story of his own Iraqi family’s global diaspora.

As with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we have a filmmaker interrogating his own family to ferret out its history. Iraqi Odyssey is far less focused than Polley’s film, describing a rather more diffuse family narrative, but with more political weight. Samir takes a rather meandering route to illuminate the circumstances that forced his family to leave Iraq, and how his uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins came to live in such far-flung places as Auckland, Buffalo, London, Zurich, and Moscow.

Without a clear central thesis the early going of the film is rather slow, so much so that I found myself nodding off briefly at the early avalanche of family-specific anecdotes and factoids. But once the film begins to tell the story of rise and fall of Iraqi Communism, and its eventual co-optation by Ba’athism under Saddam Hussein, we begin to get into some fascinating history—including some remarkable injected archival footage of everything from street scenes to classic Egyptian Arabic cinema—that will likely be largely unknown to Western audiences.

Oddly, perhaps, the choice was made to create the film in 3D, which provides a kind of artificial space in which members of the family talk in the foreground while archival photos and film clips appear and disappear behind and beside them. The studio interviews are the only piece of the film that has actually been shot in 3D.

At one point in the film there are some brief but quite horrifying images of torture that happened under Saddam’s regime; later there is a similarly brief but shocking verbal recounting of torture. The film does not dwell on these topics but the abruptness with which they are interjected clearly caught off-guard some members of the festival audience in Toronto.

At its current running length of 162 minutes it does feel like a 90-100 minute film with all of the DVD extras thrown into the main cut. But that main spine of the film was for me a worthwhile reward for spending the time.

The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom): first look

07 Sep
September 7, 2014

Instead of a theory of what really transpired in the death of Meredith Kercher, and what role if any was played in that by Amanda Knox, The Face of an Angel comes at us as a deconstruction of how the media represents such a story. But it ends up being something much different, and this viewer finds himself gnawing on tricky questions of how men represent women in life, literature, and cinema, rather than anything about the media’s relationship with its readers and audiences.

Centred on a fictional film director’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the story structure is explicitly modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. By moving the scene of the crime from Perugia to Siena, a connection is made with visual directness to Dante’s own time and environs. The hell sequences include decontextualized scenes of rough sex between the director (a convincingly obsessive Daniel Brühl) and a journalist (a smoothly professional Kate Beckinsale)—enough to make us wonder whether we are looking at an assault—but with no discussion after the fact between the principals. (Leaving one to wonder—you show me a man inflicting pain on a woman during sex, and we’re to understand it’s the man who’s in hell?)

Our director-protagonist’s next would-be Beatrice is a fresh and spontaneous young university student and waitress (Cara Delevingne, brilliant casting move), and it is through a rather more platonic relationship with her that he has a hope of gaining a more central insight into this story of murder.

Winterbottom has given us a film of layered complexity that ultimately argues that the worst thing about the did-she-didn’t-she debate about Amanda Knox is that it has robbed the real-life victim, Meredith Kercher, of central status in the story. But does this side-on approach to the material risk doing the same thing in a different way? I expect that will be the most debated point as people dissect this film.