With 5 days down and 5 days to go after this one, it's hump day at Tiff, so how appropriate that all of the films on my schedule star women. Most of the major premieres have happened at this point, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of good stuff to see. Indeed, two of the three films I saw today were festival highlights for me.
(Click here for the trailer)
How long has it been since we got a great rock and roll movie? Sure, Once was a great music movie, but it wasn’t exactly rock and roll, and films like Pirate Radio, Cadillac Records, and The Runaways have all been badly missed opportunities. Dreamgirls, Ray, and Walk the Line are all decent, but none of them really get your juices flowing and feeling the power and excitement of great music. The last time it happened was probably School of Rock or Almost Famous, basically a decade ago.
Enter The Sapphires, the true story of four Aboriginal girls who form a Supremes-like vocal group in 1960’s Australia so they can go to Vietnam and entertain US troops. Chris O’Dowd (the cop from Bridesmaids) stars as the group’s boozed-up soul-preaching Irish manager, and the scene where he teaches the girls the difference between soul and country & western (which is what the girls were singing when he discovered them) is a classic. “Both types of music are about loss,” he says. “But country & western is just about sitting at home and whining about it, while soul is about standing up and taking back what’s yours.” It was the most inspiring music moment I’ve seen in a film since the Almost Famous cast was singing “Tiny Dancer” a dozen years ago.
And beyond the music, there are strong social messages about racism here, as the girls face treatment that was just as bad as the racism in the US at the same time. In fact the reason the girls go to Vietnam to sing is because there isn’t any opportunity for them in Australia, except to wallow away on their farms, far from a population that would rather pretend they didn’t exist. Watching the film, I was reminded of a moment during the Lore Q&A the day before, when director Cate Shortland (An Aussie herself) told the crowd that Germany is better about owning up and accepting blame for their atrocities than just about any other country out there. The way these native girls were treated by white Australians was abhorrent, and it was revealed in the Q&A here that some parts of Australia still have segregated white/Aborigine restrooms to this day.
Even though it has some flaws (not the least of which is making the Vietnam war kind of look like a good time), The Sapphires is a hell of a lot of fun, and it has everything you’d want out of a music flick: great songs, great performances, humor, levity, momentum, developed characters, a social conscience, and great moments of real meaning that illustrate the transformative power of music. It’s been far too long, but luckily The Sapphires aren’t sitting at home whining about it. They’re here to take it back.
The Grade: A-
Sapphires director Wayne Blair
(Click here for the trailer)
The official mission statement of Tiff is “To transform the way people see the world through film,” and I don’t think those words have ever literally applied to me quite as much as they did during Hannah Arendt. The true story of the eponymous German/Jewish philosopher and political theorist, the film specifically dramatizes Arendt’s coverage of the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, and the immediate aftermath of her theory on “the banality of evil.” Directed by feminist German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta and featuring international star Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, this is a unique film of extraordinary power.
The major challenge of the film is that it’s using a visual medium to deal with an inherently non-visual subject. The film is essentially about the creation, development, and justification of an important moral theory, and von Trotta described the project as an attempt to “transform thought into a film.” She succeeded, and even though the major scenes feature little more than philosophical arguing, the performances, ideas, and dramatic dialogue sustain an intensity that would normally only accompany more visual subjects. The climax of the film involves the scrutiny Arendt came under for what many people misinterpreted as a defense of Eichmann, and the scene where Arendt justifies her beliefs to her Ivy League students is incredibly powerful, with Sukowa knocking it out of the park. Hannah Arendt is a truly challenging film, not in its watchability (which is never in doubt), but in its intelligence and ideas. Even if you may not agree with all of the ideas thrown at you, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a film that makes you more thoroughly examine the nature of right and wrong.
The Grade: A
Hannah Arendt director Margarethe von Trotta & star Barbara Sukowa
(Click here for the trailer)
Sadly, it wasn’t a 3 for 3 day, as Therese Desqueyroux was a bit of a dud. Adapted from the provincial French novel by late director Claude Miller (he died just after finishing this film), Desqueyroux concerns itself with the title character, an unhappy housewife in 1920’s France. The plot is only vaguely interesting; Therese is unhappy, so she slowly begins to poison her husband. Then, when she’s found out, her husband defends her in court and gets her acquitted because he knows that returning home with him will be a worse punishment in her eyes. Therese is played by Amelie star Audrey Tautou, but she’s badly miscast. Tautou is kind of like a French Zooey Deschanel, so it should go without saying that a role involving mostly ennui and silence doesn't exactly play to her strengths. Therese Desqueyroux is slow, placid, and empty, and not even Tautou can save it, because she wasn’t allowed to actually use any of her talent.
The Grade: C
Audrey Tautou with the wife of late director Claude Miller
Tomorrow: A Dickens adaptation, the Cannes Grand Prix winner, and two horror films.
Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies.