TIFF Day 3: Gilliam, McCarthy and some other stuff

One thing I forgot to mention yesterday, but that I think is pretty key in getting across the feeling at TIFF’s industry screenings: Unlike CIFF, press and industry attend entirely separate screenings from the general public out here, so the tone of the press & industry screenings is much more subdued than the enthusiastic public ones. At The White Ribbon screening yesterday, the film was initially shown in the wrong aspect ratio, meaning that the subtitles were cut out. Then, when they got that fixed, they accidentally started showing the wrong movie. This is the only technical glitch I’ve ever seen at a TIFF press screening, and the crowd was having none of it — people yelled “FIX IT!” and other helpful suggestions while the theatre manager got continually more frustrated. Apparently having the world’s film industry and media elite makes for a pretty unforgiving environment — I certainly felt sorry for the poor folks trying to get everything in order.

I’ll definitely have to make a point of seeing more public screenings.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam)

Though it’ll likely be remembered in the public consciousness primarily as Heath Ledger’s last film, Imaginarium isn’t really his — like most of Terry Gilliam’s films, it belongs entirely to the director. Gilliam once again crafts a fable to the power of imagination and storytelling, a theme the director has plumbed many times before, and this time out he lets his creativity run wild, crafting fantastical vistas enabled by the eerie powers of the immortal eponymous doctor.

The doctor gained his immortality through a deal with the devil (a wonderfully vaudevillian Tom Waits, complete with bowler and pencil moustache), which has put the soul of his daughter at risk. With the help of an amnesiac found hanging under a bridge (Ledger in the “real” world; Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Firth in the imaginary ones), he has to beat the devil at his own game, reclaiming souls with the help of a magical mirror.

Much of the film feels like an excuse to indulge in CGI world-building, and many of those worlds are marvelous in their own right. There’s one built entirely of candy, another made of overpriced shoes and other consumerist fantasies, and they’re universally skewed in an unmistakably Gilliam-ish manner. But something in the CGI doesn’t live up to the director’s more handcrafted charms — the hand-made practical effects of his previous films had more personality, and the new computer-generated worlds never feel as inviting, or as real.

Ledger’s role doesn’t give him as much to chew as his not-at-all overrated turn as the Joker, but he easily keeps up with both Waits and Christopher Plummer as the good doctor. Verne Troyer plays Parnassus’ assistant, and not particularly well, either. Even with Gilliam’s boundless imagination, the whole thing comes off a little lacklustre.

The Ape (Apan) (dir. Jesper Ganslandt)

From overbearing fantasy to desperate realism: Swedish filmmaker Jesper Gansladt’s The Ape (Apan) opens with Krister (Olle Sari) covered waking up in a bathroom, covered in blood. As he washes himself off, it becomes clear that the blood isn’t his — whoever it is, they’re probably in pretty rough shape. As Krister goes through the rest of his days, the scene crystallizes — we see hints of his violent temper, his troubled social skills and eventually the details of the night before become readily apparent. It’s concise (just over 80 minutes) and intense, just detached enough to keep things off-kilter and just disturbing enough to keep you emotionally involved.

The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)

Despite his terse, minimalist prose, Cormac McCarthy’s novels can make for riveting cinema — just look at No Country for Old Men. With its rich post-apocalyptic setting, The Road seems like ideal movie fodder, telling the story of a father and son travelling south for the winter while foraging for food and avoiding the looters and cannibals that dominate the post-disaster world.

Visually, director Hillcoat nails it. The lifeless, ash-coloured world is perfectly bleak and eerily hushed, making the occasional encounters all the more intense. But in shifting around some of the book’s major sequences and emphasizing the moments of action over the long stretches of foraging that dominated the book, he sacrifices the uniquely doomed atmosphere of McCarthy’s story. You don’t get the sense of just how hungry the characters are, or how hopeless their quest really is. It’s closer to a typical last-man-alive scenario — still distinct, but closer.

Like the book, the movie is essentially about the triumph of hope over cynicism, but on film, the battle just isn’t as hard-fought. It’s still a grim, compelling world, it just feels like too brief of a visit.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (dirs. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith)

The trickiest thing about documentaries is separating the story from the filmmaking. The Most Dangerous Man in America has a great story in Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked 7,000 pages of classified Pentagon documents outlining the truth behind the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. It just doesn’t present that story in a particularly compelling way — at least, at first.

Although it should be the most interesting part of the story, Ellsberg’s acquisition of the Pentagon files drags, and though he deals with some major players in the Nixon administration, the feeling of intrigue that the directors are clearly aiming at just doesn’t come through. The odd animated interstitial doesn’t do much to supplement the doc’s talking-head-based structure, either.

Once the files are actually stolen and the leak begins to hit the press and the public consciousness, things pick up. News clips and headlines from the time add an immediacy that’s sorely lacking in the first half, and as momentum builds, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a bit of revolutionary fervour. The post-script — that despite the attention they received, the stolen files didn’t inspire much in the way of actual change — is both depressing and unsurprising, but Dangerous Man should be commended for spotlighting a piece of recent history that’s already all but forgotten.

La Pivellina (dirs. Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel)

It’s not often that a film can build itself around a precocious two-year-old and end up winning me over, but La Pivellina did just that. An impoverished Italian circus performer finds the titular “little one” abandoned in a park and decides to take her home to her husband to take care of her. A note inside the child’s clothing pleads for whoever finds her not to take her to the police, but to wait, and the mother will pick her up eventually.

There’s surprisingly little in the way of conventional conflict in the film. There’s worry that police might find the child and misinterpret the situation as a kidnapping, and the financial pressures of a pair of circus performers raising a child do cause some tension, but the filmmakers are more concerned with the evolving relationship between the child, the couple and another boy who lives in their trailer park. The small gestures add up, and eventually it’s impossible not to feel some attachment to the little tyke as the film builds up to the bittersweet moment when the real mother returns.

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