Two Harsh Realities and a Tear-Jerker

  • Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a raw documentary directed by Asger Leth. The camera explores the texture of destitution in Cité Soleil, an enormous slum which is home to the Chimères and rival gangs. Each area of the city is ruled by a gang chief. The Chimères are gang members reputedly in the pay of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When Aristide leaves the country, the “most dangerous city in the world,” explodes into chaos.
  • Leth works as part of a filmmaking team of three, interviewing residents and covering action during the day. There are night scenes shot in black and white. At a wake for a gang member shot by police, Tupac tells a man that if he can’t get him a generator (the power has gone off) he will shoot him. During the Q&A, Leth said he was afraid during the film shoot, but safest with the gang leaders. Ordinary gang members could be unpredictable, such as one who was addicted to crack.
  • Near the end of the film, a tall, middle-aged man faces the camera and explains that Haiti has been independent for two hundred years. Despite this, Haitians still need and pray for education, food and rest. As if to illustrate Haitian’s desperation, he looks at the cameraman and says, for example, that he would like to kill him and steal his camera.
  • I recommend this compelling film to anyone who can stomach it but it may make you angry. The Haitian gangster’s obsession with rap made me resent rich, celebrity rappers, for glorifying the gangster lifestyle. Haiti’s Tupac, a major gang boss, is obsessed with escaping Cité Soleil by becoming a rap star. One minute he might be telling one of his henchman that he will no longer spare his brother (due to gang politics) and the next he might be playing his homemade rap tape for his girl. This allows him to think of himself as an artist, not just a criminal. Tupac even phones Haitian rap star Wyclef Jean on camera. Jean is so impressed with Tupac that he collaborates on the documentary’s music.
  • The gang leaders Leth filmed are, according to him, dead now, but the Chimères are still active. This film gives a personal, insider view of the cycle of ghetto hunger and violence and creates some understanding for the young, desperate gang members born into life on the street. Five stars out of five.
  • The Last Kiss explores the insecurities and desires of the young and privileged. I felt manipulated by this film which explored several middle-class doom scenarios:
  1. You and your longtime boyfriend accidentally get pregnant then he cheats on you.
  2. You are successful and have achieved financial security but if you settle down, the rest of your life will hold no excitement or surprise.
  3. The woman you love obsessively marries another.
  4. You are trapped into running the boring family business.
  5. At a time of emotional confusion, you cheat and your lover finds out about the other woman. She dumps you and you have no say in what she does with your unborn child because you were too afraid of commitment to get married.
  • Perhaps some of these characters would like to alleviate their ennui by taking a turn in Cité Soleil… Three stars out of five.
  • Half Moon was an artistically ambitious film that ran too long and needed story-editing. I am extremely sympathetic to the desire to discuss the repression suffered by ordinary people. Here they are Kurd musicians, including a female singer whom they must smuggle over the border like contraband because of her gender. The film has many funny and interesting moments. I give it three stars out of five.

Sprockets Presents…

  • Today I saw two films with my son before zipping off to Brampton for a bridal shower. I have let my primary-aged son rate these and I repeat some of his comments.

  • My son gave The Ugly Duckling and Me five out of five. He laughed all the way through and never took his eyes from the screen. There are even a few yuks for the parents.

  • Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker was more violent than I expected. My son said the film was a bit too old for him. His main complaint was that some scenes were too suspenseful, which he called “annoying.” He still gave it four out of five stars.
  • It’s a good James Bond rip-off with a childish villain and a highschool sweatheart — but no bikini babe. It seems to be aimed at ages up to 13. Warning: The actor playing Alex is so cute that when he enters a room, flocks of girls start chirping and cooing.

Two Films and a Wedding until 1:00

Saturday I went directly from my two festival films to a wedding in the St. Andrews club overlooking Toronto Harbour and, incidentally, the Roy Thompson Hall gala. I think I was having a better time which means these reviews are short.

La Tourneuse de Pages was a deliberately slow-moving thriller which avoids the obvious choices. The acting is wonderful and very French. Four stars out of five.

A Grave-Keeper’s Tale was interesting, entertaining and an example of how artistic expression is possible in India’s regional cinema markets. For different reasons this one is also four stars out of five.

Four films in less than twelve hours

  • I just saw four films in less than twelve hours! What a smorgasbord for the eyes. Here are my impressions:

  • The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is worth seeing but I recommend it with reservations. I loved the Camera D’Or winning Atanarjuat (the Fast Runner), also directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn. While that film was accessible and universal; this film was more challenging. At times it was even confusing.

  • The film, set in 1922, is based on the journals of Rasmussen, a scientist who recorded Inuit culture. Avva, the main protagonist is a shaman who is powerless to protect his people’s beliefs and ways. It is also the story of his daughter Apak, who shares some of his spiritual powers. The main motif is storytelling as different characters tell the tales of their lives both to Rasmussen and to us.

  • The film focuses on first contact with Europeans but it is also about politics within an Inuit community. In the end, the choice each family member must make is to either convert to Christianity or starve to death.

  • The glorious Inuit music throughout, including mystical throat singing sequences, are set against the Christian Inuit songs at the end of the  story. These tunes are “easy to learn” and performed without vitality; dirges for a condemned people and culture.
  • Laitakaupungin Valot (Lights at Dusk), directed by Aki Kaurismäki, is film noir without the detective. A crime is committed and blamed on the protagonist, a loser who fails to make good choices throughout the film. Unlike Philip Marlowe, our underdog protagonist never gets to fight back while the bad guys grind him harder and harder into the muck. There are some funny moments but not enough for me. My favorite is when the gangsters are playing high stakes poker over a super-charged soundtrack. As we are drawn into the scene, the gangster’s wife spoils the ambiance by starting to vacuum the room. Overall, the tone of this world is bleak; a place where love and virtue are never rewarded.

  • Nouvelle Chance, directed by Anne Fontaine is yummy. Visually pretty and artistic yet accessible, I recommend it to anyone who loves theatre and actors. Augustin, a character from Fontaine’s two previous films, works by day as a chichi pool attendant. In his off-hours, he is a theatre director who strives to create a typically French play for his Swedish clients. He casts his play partly at the posh  club and partly at a kind of group home. The resulting conflicts between  a retired operetta star and a TV actress are funny yet subtle.  

  • Fontaine gave charming responses at the Q&A, explaining that although she originally set out to create an 18th century piece, based on correspondence by the Marquise du Deffan, her idea developed into a playful, backstage homage to theatre people. In fact, Fontaine said each role was written for the actors who, in turn, play roles influenced by their off-screen selves. The subtext of this sprightly backstage confection, is a nod beyond the world of theatre, to the multiracial citizens of  current French society.
  • Wang-ui nam-ja (King and the Clown) deserves it’s place as the top-grossing film in South Korean history. It has everything: low comedy, noble sacrifice, aerial acrobatics, murder, suicide, sex, a gymnastics throw-down, romance and tragedy to rival the ancient Greeks.

  • The director, Lee Jun-ik, brings out the beauty in every scene. Lee Joon-gi, who plays the sexually ambiguous Gong-gil, is stunning. Performing in a Korean clown style which combines high wire gymnastics and street theatre, he plays the ingénue opposite Jang-seng (Karm Woo-sung), who decides he will make his fortune by mocking the King.

  • I laughed and cried, feeling empathy for the two performers who have enough audacity to cause revolution and enough tenderness to die for each other. Now that is ultimate showmanship.

The Magic Flute — Twisted Marvel

  • The Magic Flute exceeded my expectations. I laughed and cried in turns. In the opening sequence, spring meadows and Mozart’s vivacious music are set against the falling shells and falling men of World War One. Bright colours, stunning CGI and odd juxtapositions, such as soldiers carrying band instruments, induct us into a magical realm.

  • Mozart’s opera is playful, mystical and symbolic. The original has the incoherent logic of dreams and is structured around the secret ceremonies of the Masons. The danger, in an often literal medium like film, would be to explain too much. Branagh makes his story clearer yet more mysterious. The Magic Flute is a familiar opera, yet one of the pleasures of this film is suspense. We wonder how famous scenes will be adapted to create Branagh’s new vision.

  • The film is set in WWI, yet it isn’t. During the overture, a battalion of blue fighter planes turns aerial pirouettes to music. There are two sides fighting and yet the main conflict is within the hearts of the protagonists. Despite this, elements of history are retained. For example, a Christmas day ceasefire, when opposing armies come out of their trenches to play soccer, recalls real incidents but the moment is reworked to drive the story.

  • Such elements are not easily parsed and Branagh’s symbolism invites ambiguity. A blue army opposes a red army but neither is named. The hero changes sides for love. The conflict is universal, yet based on personal vendetta; heroism is glorified, yet the flute symbolizes peace.

  • The libretto and dialogue by Stephen Fry succeed on many levels. The earthy needs and desires of Papageno are respected even as they are gently mocked. The ‘nesting’ scene between the bird man and his fluttering wife is an ironic wink at suburban nest builders everywhere.

  • Between recognition humour, irony and poignancy, this film tugged my head and heart. Symbols of the Masonic temple are represented on a massive scale by Zoroaster’s fortress/cathedral. The masons are a community of multiracial folk, healing and rebuilding. For me the most powerful symbol is the graveyard. Names in every language mark stones that repeat over and over the ages of the fallen, often at only eighteen years. Fortunately the ending is uplifting.

  • The Magic Flute also features outstanding entrances. The serpent, traditionally killed by Queen of the Night’s Handmaidens, is represented here by poison, snaking out of a gas canister. The Handmaidens, appearing in the stark white uniforms of battlefield nurses, fall in love with this beautiful young man and begin to quarrel over who should get him. How fitting when young men are dying in the thousands – a poignant twist on the fairy-tale original.

  • The Queen of the Night gets the best entrance of all. She rides in astride a tank wearing a long leather coat. Popping and pinging the high notes while the camera focuses on her mouth, a convoy of tanks in the background appear to roar out of her throat. Evil indeed.

  • I have just added a link to one of my favorite Spanish websites: It’s the main source for information about the Toronto Latin scene. They have an online music station, lots of news, local event listings and links. Torontohispano also just launched a glossy magazine as of October 2006.
  • I understand written Spanish better than spoken Spanish so this website is a great place for me to pick up current volcabulary. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll check out the club listings and take Salsa lessons! For now though, I think I’ll just stick to Merengue. Viva Peru! — and happy reading.

The Magic Flute — Kenneth Branagh’s Adaptation

  • I’m looking forward to seeing The Magic Flute, directed by Kenneth Branagh. He has restaged the opera using an English libretto by the well-known actor and writer Stephen Fry. I’ve been a fan of Fry’s comic acting since I first saw him in the BBC’s Blackadder series. I also enjoyed the satirical humour in his novel, The Hippopotamus.
  • Presenting the opera in English and setting it during WWI may be an inspired risk, but only if the tone is right. I’m especially intrigued to see how Branagh will handle Mozart’s references to Masonic ritual set against trench warfare on the Western Front.
  • Adapted for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the film features James Conlin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser.
  • How delightful to start the festival with Mozart! It’s as if the programmers were thinking of me. With Mozart’s 250th anniversary approaching, in 2004 I was obsessed with Mozart’s life. I read biographies, listened to his music and, of course, watched Milos Forman’s brilliant film Amadeus. Peter Shaffer’s conception of a villainous Antonio Salieri, pitted against a carefree, frivolous Mozart has always stayed with me.
  • For the 2004-2005 school year I wrote and staged a school musical about Mozart, the world’s most famous ‘child star.’ The show featured period costumes, live piano, violin, flute and a dance set in the French court where the child prodigy, Mozart, meets a slightly older Marie Antoinette. It was lots of fun for me and the performers who were in grades 6-8. Who knows, maybe attending the festival will inspire me to write something new.

    Cereal Girl

Toronto International Film Festival — Ticket Heaven!

College park filled with flowers and a long, civilized, line of people picking up their tickets.

  • My tickets have been processed! This morning I stood in line for about 40 minutes to get them and it was quite pleasant. I find people in the festival line are usually friendly and easy to talk to. In case you are interested, these are the films I will be seeing on my day pass. There may be a few more “surprise” extras since my husband has bought coupons so that he can see films in the evenings. I will do at least a quick review of the films as I see them.


  • The Magic Flute


  • The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
  • Lights in the Dusk
  • Nouvelle Chance


  • La Tourneuse de Pages
  • A Grave-Keeper’s Tale


  • The Ugly Duckling and Me
  • Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker


  • Ghosts of Cite Soleil
  • The Last Kiss
  • Half Moon


  • Kurt Cobain About A Son
  • Shortbus
  • Falkenberg Farewell


  • Short Cuts Canada 5
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Velvet Goldmine


  • Renaissance
  • The Half Life of Timofey Berez


  • L’ Intouchable
  • Nue Propriete
  • Nouvelle Chance


  • The Hairy Tooth Fairy

FYI, the TIFF official website is at:

Cereal Girl

Español para Extranjeros — Learning Spanish

  • Most North Americans, despite childhood lessons in French or Spanish, remain unilingual. I blame the internet. With podcasts, internet radio and free lessons on zoodles of websites, learning just about any language has become too easy. Where’s the glory in it? The quiet guy in the next cubicle is probably already doing it.
  • Lately I’ve been trolling the internet for intermediate Spanish sites. I’ll listen to anything: grammar, reggeaton, cultural chit chat, scientific blurbs, news and politics… I’ve even found a podcast that teaches nasty jokes and slang but I’m not endorsing it — too many canned laughs and chipmunk-pitched voices. Podcasts designed for native speakers are too challenging for me but I have found a gem, produced in Madrid.
  • I refer intermediate Spanish students to my favorite language podcast: SSL4You. The author, Teresa Sanchez, teaches Spanish via cultural anecdotes. Her weekly monologues, on topics such as getting lost in Madrid, her ‘stolen’ car, Pamplona’s running of the bulls and Spanish wedding customs are entertaining and instructive.
  • After each monologue, Teresa explains the complete text in simpler words, enriching listeners’ vocabularies with useful synonyms. For those who like to read the text, her notes to the program include the complete script of the monologue for consultation on your ipod or computer.

    I don’t know Teresa but it’s hard not to like her charismatic, non-commercial podcast:

Cereal Girl

Toronto International Film Festival

Starting September 7, watch this space for short, personal reviews on over 20 films. The TIFF is a friendly, organized festival with a low-key vibe. I expect to have a great time and see some great films.

Ticket selections are processed by advanced lottery so all I can do now is wait — and make sure I have lots of snacks and clean clothes ready.

How do you like my red carpet attire?

Cereal Girl