Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

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" Failure is not quite so frightening as regret "
The Dish

MRQE Top Critic

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If you read the mainstream newspapers you might think TIFF is all U2, Madonna, and George Clooney — and for some people, that’s what TIFF is all about.

But there are hundreds of films at TIFF, and not all of them have star power; not all are films you can see in your megaplex next month (or next week, in the case of Drive). Some are foreign films looking for North American audiences. Some are independently produced films seeking further recognition at festivals and art houses. There are even a few shorts and genuine avant-garde art films looking to fill their niches.

My TIFF lies beneath the headlines. I’m on the lookout for very good films that might not see another audience until the next festival. I’m looking for hidden gems, diamonds in the rough, and unsung heroes.

2011 was a good year for me at TIFF. On my first day I was 4 for 4, and it wasn’t until my last day that I saw two snoozers in a row. There wasn’t a single day without at least one good movie. On a whim, I switched from an Icelandic film to a Swedish film and saw one of my favorite movies at the festival — usually my whims don’t pay off that well.

I’ll post many reviews in the coming weeks and months, but for now let me give you a taste of two of my immediate favorites.

Samsara is the latest film from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of Koyaanisqatsi. As with his last film Baraka (made nearly 2 decades ago in 1992), Samsara was filmed in gorgeously detailed 70mm. I liked Samsara better than Baraka. Both films consist of music and cinematography — interesting faces, crowds, and landscapes — from around the world. I found Samsara to hold together better than Baraka.

Holds together better than Baraka
Holds together better than Baraka

To choose a single example, Fricke includes a segment that seems to be about masks. He films a French performance artist who uses clay and mime to draw expressive, changing faces over his real face. The opening shot is of a Balinese (?) dancer wearing an artificial expression that makes her look more like a doll than a person. There is a disfigured American (?) soldier in full dress uniform, his face a scarred ball of flesh. There are strip-teasers and Japanese kabuki performers putting on false faces for their audiences.

Fricke also visits many of the locales that have made other recent documentaries so fascinating — a Chinese factory seen in Manufactured Landscapes full of yellow-clad workers assembling irons, and the chicken-grabbing machine from Our Daily Bread. I also recognized stunning natural landscapes from National Geographic, including a city buried in sand, and barren trees defying the looming sand dune behind them.

The music is heavily influenced by Asian cultures, but often with a driving beat that adds energy to the restless visuals and makes the music itself much more worldly and appealing. Think Buddha Bar but more energetic.

I can’t wait to see and hear this film again.

Play is the Swedish film that I saw on a whim. It’s a neorealist drama about a bullying incident that takes place over the course of a day. The camera stays at a distance, using telephoto to pick out its subjects. The effect puts the audience at a distance — we’re allowed — sometimes forced — to watch the interactions, but we aren’t close enough to intervene. Appropriately, most of the adults in the film are at the same distance from the kids as we are — they sometimes see that something bad is happening, but they aren’t sure whether it’s their place to intervene, so they stay back.

Look but don't touch
Look but don’t touch

Occasionally the camera will push in, pull out, or round a corner to reveal an important player. The film also cuts to a parallel “story” about a cradle abandoned on a commuter train. These tricks remind you that there is an intelligence behind the film — someone inviting you to think about the message and not just get lost in pity or disgust.

These techniques wouldn’t work without some interesting fodder in the characters and story. The antagonists are 5 older boys, all black. Their victims are three younger boys — two Caucasians and an Asian. Are we being provoked to make racist judgments? Is race even an issue, or is it class or culture? Or is this simply a case of jocks versus nerds, having more to do with age and hormones than race, class, or culture?

A coda begins to explain the cradle on the train and invites you to consider the wider world of the film, without wrapping things up too neatly or feeling too contrived.