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Moviehole at Toronto Part 3!

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Paul Fischer and Melissa Algaze checking out the latest films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Blessed

Australia is represented at this year’s Festival more than in previous years and if Ana Kokkinos’ ”Blessed” is anything to go by, the Australian film industry is alive and well and brimming with originality. Based on a play called Who’s Afraid of the Working Class by Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius, and Christos Tsiolkas, Blessed takes place during the course of one day and night, during which seven children find themselves on difficult urban journeys in Melbourne. There’s Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) street-smart girls, who ditch school and are caught shoplifting. Having recently fled his mother’s cloying love, Roo (Eamon Farren) is living on the street, but when he finds himself in a porn film he realises he’s not so tough and just wants to go home. Unfairly accused of stealing his mother’s money, angry Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) attempts a real theft – with unexpected results. Brother and sister, Orton (Reef Ireland) and Stacey (Eva Lazzaro), must flee the mother they love in order to survive. And James (Wayne Blair) is the most lost of all; a young Aboriginal man with no place in the white or the black world. The second half of the film shifts to examine their plight from the perspectives of the mothers in their lives. There is the fertile Rhonda [Frances O’Connor] seemingly trapped in a relationship and trying to connect with the children that have deserted her. Deborra-Lee Furness is Tanya, the nurse whose marriage crumbles amidst urban, working-class realities, who finds solace in a dying patient. Then there’s the fragile Bianca [Miranda Otto] always on the search of elusive lady luck, which she finds, unexpectedly, and then squanders. Few films of recent memory have delivered the kind of emotional punch than this extraordinary film. Ana Kokinos has crafted a work that is richly layered and taken this series of plays and masterfully turned them into a seamless film that explores the realities of working-class life and how both mothers and children are affected by actions in a very different way. Life is so fragile, the film tells us, and children and life are a blessing. The playwrights worked on the screenplay and the film is hauntingly cinematic, beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Geoff Burton whose camerawork captures the often dark underbelly of the Australian urban landscape, enhanced by the dulcet rhythmic tones of Cezary Skubiszewski’s music.

But the performances of the women are what make Blessed all that more satisfying. Last seen on screen in the unfortunate TV series Cashmere Mafia [along with co-star Otto], Frances O’Connor is magnificent as Rhonda. It’s a tough role, and she navigates through her emotional rollercoaster ride with superb clarity. There is one moment in the film during which O’Connor gives a performance of stunning emotional power. She is superb here. Rarely gracing the screen these days with substantial roles, Deborra-Lee Furness is truly a revelation as Tanya, delivering a haunting, beautifully realized and delicately nuanced performance, easily one of her finest moments on screen in an over a decade. As the camera closes in on her, we see her pain through every pore. And Otto is breathtakingly luminous as Bianca. Blessed is by no means an easy film, but it is an emotive, hauntingly beautiful masterpiece that remains unforgettable in its honesty and cinematic elegance. [PF]

The Road

Australian director John Hillcoat has often been drawn to films that explore the barrenness of society, both physically and emotionally, and his latest, ”The Road”, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, defines those themes with a distinct and fascinating clarity. The film is the epic post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father [Viggo Mortensen] and his young son [Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee] across a barren landscape that was blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed civilization and most life on earth. For some curious reason, the post-Apocalypse is a favourite theme among filmmakers this year, and audiences will be exposed to quite a flurry of such films all treating the subject with varying degrees of success. The Road is a tough, dark and sombre look at a world so utterly destroyed and the need to survive. There are no names given to any of the characters, allowing one to both disconnect from its principals until its final, tour-de-force denouement. The Road is a film that brutally explores the nihilism of a lost society and does so with both grace and power. Hillcoat is a visual master as he so beautifully captures the expansiveness of this dead world, with dark and ferocious imagery. One can literally feel this end of the world crumble before us, with the dying foliage immersed in a world of desperate survivors as cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe lights the film in such a way that its dark and dingy look is visually real, as is the haunting score of Nick Cave. The Road is not an action film, but one that deals with a father-son relationship and director Hillcoat deliberately paces his film carefully, punctuating quite moments with outbursts of violence and suspense. This is by no means a film of escapist fantasy, but like its source material, is a dark and savage work, with sparse dialogue and moments that are both pessimistic but ultimately present us with a sense of hope. There are essentially two actors in the film and both are sensational. Mortensen has grown in leaps and bounds over the years and this may be his finest hour. Subtle, nuanced and saying little with so much, Mortensen gives a beautiful and powerful performance. Young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee is a major find. Last seen in his debut film Romulus my Father, there is no hint of his Australian background and he is simply superb. In a brief role and shown in flashback, Charlize Theron is fine as the wife who deserts her family. The Road is a stunning achievement, uncompromising, visually extraordinary and emotionally challenging, representing a new and exciting chapter in the career of a fine filmmaker who knows how to explore the savagery of a landscape. This is quite a film and one has hopes for box office success, despite its sometimes-difficult subject matter. [P.F]

The Imaginarium of Dr Panassus

One of the Festival’s most anticipated entrants would have to be Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Panassus, Gilliam’s most assured and complex work in years. The central character, Dr Panassus, played to perfection by Christopher Plummer, has an extraordinary gift of inspiring the imaginations of others. Helped by his traveling theatre troupe, including his sarcastic and cynical sidekick Percy and versatile young player Anton, Parnassus offers audience members the chance to transcend mundane reality by passing through a magical mirror into a fantastic universe of limitless imagination. However, Parnassus’ magic comes at a price. For centuries he’s been gambling with the devil, Mr. Nick [a wonderful Tom Waits] who is coming to collect his prize — Parnassus’ precious daughter, Valentina on her upcoming 16th birthday. Oblivious to her rapidly approaching fate, Valentina falls for Tony, a charming outsider with motives of his own. In order to save his daughter and redeem himself, Parnassus makes one final bet with Mr. Nick, which sends Tony and Valentina and the entire theatre troupe on a ride of twists and turns, in and out of London and the Imaginarium’s spectacular landscape.

Parnassus can only be described ass pure Gilliam, a visual tour-de-force of kinetic energy that explores many themes that have dominated the work of this iconoclastic visionary for decades, themes of regret, age, longing and of course fantasy. Gilliam’s magic mirror transports us into a world of shimmering and dazzling artifice, eye-popping color and our deepest psyches. As an artist, Gilliam strips away the rules of cohesive narrative, replacing structure with indelibly rich characters amidst a dazzling backdrop. Production designer Anastasia Masaro has done a magnificent job in contrasting the dour world of contemporary London in which the thousand year old Parnassus has inhabited with the vivid fantasy world that represents the purity of humanity. Beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and sharply edited, the film is hypnotic. Of course, Gilliam has also elicited such wonderful performances not only by a magnificent Plummer but of course the late Heath Ledger, who proves how incredibly diverse and multi faceted he was. This was the perfect swansong, and his replacements, as it were, segue effortlessly and beautifully, in particularly Depp and Farrell who do justice to bother Ledger and the material, imbuing it with much wit and style.

Imaginarium seems the perfect Gilliam film at this time in his life, a rich and profound cinematic tapestry that is original, breathtaking and exhilarating. [P.F]

Precious

Recipient of the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic, the Audience Award: (U.S. Dramatic), and A Special Jury Prize for Acting, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE lands at the Toronto Film Festival as one the Gala Presentations program.

Set in Harlem in 1987, it is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a sixteen-year-old African-American girl born into a life no one would want. She’s pregnant for the second time by her absent father; at home, she must wait hand and foot on her mother (Mo’Nique), a poisonously angry woman who abuses her emotionally and physically. School is a place of chaos, and Precious has reached the ninth grade with good marks and an awful secret: she can neither read nor write.

Precious may sometimes be down, but she is never out. Beneath her impassive expression is a watchful, curious young woman with an unclear but unshakeable sense that something more exists for her. Threatened with expulsion, Precious is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school. Precious doesn’t know the meaning of “alternative,” but her instincts tell her this is the chance she has been waiting for. In the literacy workshop taught by the patient yet firm Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious begins a journey that will lead her from darkness, pain and powerlessness to light, love and self-determination.

The joy in Precious is when she lets us into her rich fantasy life, and while the hardship of this story is prominent, dramatic, genuine, and painful to witness, one can’t close ones eyes to it, in hopes of something better for our protagonist. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe gives an amazingly affecting performance with director Lee Daniels encouraging her to shine in moments of hope and resigned stoicism. As painful and seemly unchangeable circumstances surround her, Sidibe is quiet revelation. Mo’Nique’s portrayal of Precious’s abusive and violent mother is like the shock of a hot a slap in the face, showing us a side to the usually bubbly comedienne, unseen until now. Daniels direction is relentless in showing us the grimy, painful circumstances of Precious’s world. There is nothing forgettable about this raw, vibrant and resoundingly hopeful film; it will be vividly etched in your memory for hours after you leave the theater, if not days and years. [M.A]

The Top Twins : Untouchable Girls

”The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls” is having its North American Premiere at this year’s festival. This wildly entertaining documentary recently won the Audience Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival and won Best Feature Film (under 1 million dollar budget) at the Qantas New Zealand Film and TV Awards 2009.

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is the first time that the irrepressible Kiwi entertainment double act, Jools and Lynda Topp’s extraordinary personal story has been told. The film offers a revealing look into the lives of the World’s only comedic, country singing, dancing, and yodeling lesbian twin sisters. Described by musician Billy Bragg as an “anarchist variety act,” Jools and Lynda came of age performing on the streets of Auckland during the heady days of the political protest marches in the early 80s, and quickly joined the forefront of progressive social change campaigning for a Nuclear-Free New Zealand, Maori Land Rights, a halt to the1981 Springbok Tour, and Homosexual Law.

Their amazing story is hilariously and tenderly revealed through requisite interviews with the twins themselves, performance, and personal archival footage, home movies, in addition to interviews with family members, New Zealand political figures, fellow musicians, and comedians. Director Leanne Pooley creates something extremely unique by featuring special interviews with some of the Topp’s infamous comedy alter-egos, which are uproarious even if you aren’t familiar with some of the Twins most popular creations. Pooley’s access to the twins appears completely unfettered allowing us to share in the unique talents of these groundbreaking entertainers as their careers evolved from street performers to wildly popular concert musicians.

While so many festival films tend to deal with somber subject matters, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is virtually the antithesis. Part concert film, part documentary, part comedy and all heart, the Topp Twins film is pure fun, with as much poignancy and courage as the films two subjects. [M.A]

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