TIFF 2007 Day 4

Reviewed here: 

  • Eastern Promises
  • Starting Out in the Evening
  • Operation Filmmaker
  • Sous les toits de Paris

Eastern Promises, directed by David Cronenberg ***

London.  A barbershop.  Night.  A man in for shave and a haircut gets more than he bargained for.  A woman walks barefoot into a pharmacy; she is pregnant and heaemorrhaging.  She faints.  Cut to a hospital where the baby survives, but the woman dies.

No, this isn’t Cronenberg’s version of Sweeney Todd, although there’s certainly enough blood to go around.

At the hospital, a midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts) saves the dead mother’s diary, but it is written in Russian, the language of Anna’s family.  A business card in the diary leads Anna to a Russian restaurant hoping to learn more. 

Watts plays Naomi with a lot of wide-eyed innocence that is a tad annoying, but necessary to the plot.  The patron of the restaurant, Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is all grandfatherly charm until Anna mentions the diary.  As the story unfolds we will learn that he is the local boss of the Russian mob.

The real tension lies between Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), Seymon’s driver and odd job man, and Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Seymon’s son.  Kirill is a loose cannon who threatens the family’s stability with his own private side-deals including the barbershop murder.  Nikolai is all control, ice-cold at the most difficult moments, and to Kirill, he is an upstart and rival.  These are not friendly, suburban Sopranos.

With her Russian background, Anna has a desire to learn more about her own history, but she runs into the reality of the violent family she drifted into.  Reluctantly, her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) translates the diary and we learn that the dead girl was a sex slave who escaped from a private brothel owned by Seymon.  This diary is very dangerous material.

Everyone underestimates Nikolai, but Seymon recognizes a good man and brings him into family.  This is actually a set up — Nikolai thinks he is secure only to find himself in a Turkish bath where killers take him for Kirill.  The short, stunning fight in the bath has received lots of ink elsewhere and I won’t dwell on it here.  A naked Viggo Mortensen may seem like crowd-pleasing titillation, but the scene is all the stronger for not attempting to disguise his vulnerability.

Nikolai survives (there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t), and his own revenge comes in an unexpected way.  To say more would give away the plot.  By the end of Eastern Promises, Nikolai is in charge, but at what cost?

This great new Cronenberg — a noir thriller — about innocents caught up in complexities beyond their world.  Nothing is what it seems.  Mortensen is clearly enjoying himself as Nikolai, but it’s fortunate that he doesn’t have to sustain the character beyond a 96-minute feature as there’s only so much you can do with dry reserve.

Postscript:  I saw Eastern Promises at a 9:30 am screening on Sunday, and to his credit, David Cronenberg attended to introduce the film.  His first words were “What are you doing here?”.  Such is the nature of film festivals that we watch dark night-time thrillers in the middle of a weekend morning.

Starting Out in the Evening, directed and co-written by Andrew Wagner ***

My advancing years may be affecting my choice of films, or possibly the industry is producing more films with great roles for senior actors, but this year saw a bumper crop in my schedule.

Frank Langella has a wonderful role here as Leonard Schiller, a widower and writer unproductive for years.  The only real light in his life is his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor).

One day, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) appears.  She is a grad student whose thesis a critical review of his work, but Schiller is a great hero and fantasy for her, a would be father/lover.  Heather forces her way into Leonard’s life in a way he’s not really prepared to accept, and his reserve gives way to brief passion, if not quite romance.

Meanwhile, Ariel and her partner, Casey (Adrian Lester) have a difficult childless relationship.  Ariel’s difficulties bump into her need to first accept Heather in her father’s life, and later to support Leonard himself.

Heather aspires to be a literary critic,  and uses Leonard to advance her credibility.   This poisons Leonard’s trust, and their would-be friendship is lost.

At this point, the film arrives at what I call the “fourth reel crisis”.  This quite predictably comes about one hour in [literally just after the start of the fourth reel when films were shown that way] where something must happen to upset events and propel a story to a resolution.  Many directors and writers fail here with artificiality and excess, but Wagner acquits himself well.  Schiller suffers a stroke, but survives and despite his frailty, realizes that writing is his life.  His characters “haven’t done anything for 10 years”, and it’s time to start fresh.

Starting Out in the Evening is a touching portrait of a man who lost a great love, and whose trust for any close friendship is hard won.  There is strength and great care hiding under that exterior, and Langella plays it superbly.

Operation Filmmaker, directed by Nina Davenport **1/2

Every so often, a documentary filmmaker is sucked into a project that refuses to work out as they had planned, where the events take an odd turn, where there’s no end to any story arc in sight.  Here, Nina Davenport finds herself in the unending saga of Muthana Mohmed, an Iraqi film student who happened to be interviewed by MTV.  Actor Liev Schreiber sees the clip and invites Muthana to Prague to participate in his next film.  A wonderful, gracious (and rather guilt-laden) idea — do something nice for the poor Iraqi — but real life isn’t quite so simple.

Early on, it’s obvious that this kid isn’t a serious filmmaker.  He doesn’t have any sense of dedication to whatever he is doing, but these problems are his, personally, not by extension that of all Iraqis.  By the way, this was no poor waif in the streets.  Muthana’s background is middle class (washing and cooking for himself in Prague is a new experience) and obviously he is used to having things done for him. 

Every time the story appears about to end, Muthana’s Czech visa is extended and someone gives him more money to get by.  The saddest part is that, having adopted Muthana, people cannot figure out what to do with him.  Going back to Iraq is not an option as he has been working with Americans and Jews and would be branded a traitor at home.  Western guilt gets him a long way, and Muthana is now living in the UK on a 5 year political asylum.

The analogy to the Iraq war is obvious, but your reaction will turn on whether you see Muthana as an irresponsible con artist, or a victim of misguided charity making the best of an utterly foreign situation.  I found myself flipping back and forth as the screening continued.  Operation Filmmaker is as much about Davenport and the other Americans who find themselves stuck in a situation they don’t understand and cannot control, while Muthana is the hapless standin for a country, making the best he can of the situation.

TVO is a co-producer, and I expect this will show up sometime in the current season on their schedule.

Sous les toits de Paris (Beneath the Rooftops of Paris), written and directed by Hiner Saleem **1/2

Michel Piccoli stars as Monsieur Marcel, an elderly man living in a tiny attic apartment in Paris.  We meet him during a heat wave when his life, and by extension the lives of all in such circumstances, is far from easy.  This is a film about the forgotten people, especially seniors, who live in the garrets.  Within the beauty of Paris there is much neglect.

Marcel has several friends and acquaintces — a cafe waitress, the man down the hall, a public health nurse, and a son he rarely sees.  When the story begins, Marcel is well enough to visit a local pool regularly, but his health gradually fails.  His neighbour finally tires of life under the rooftops and moves away.  Marcel meets a girl at the pool, and they form a warm, brief friendship.  But Marcel’s independence has its price — people assume he is better off than he is, and their visits are less frequent than they should be.  The nurse, well meaning, props a window open to let in more air, but when the weather turns cold and stormy, the now-bedridden Marcel is too weak to close it.

A nearby corner store has the ironic name Paradis de l’air.  When we first see them, there are stacks of fans to fight off the heat.  By the end of the story, it’s winter, and now it’s a stack of space heaters.  Marcel’s friend, the waitress, walks off down the street with one as a present, Christmas red bow and all, unaware of what she will find.

Sous les toits de Paris is a touching story, but my attention wandered during the screening.  Possibly it was the hour (this, my fourth screening of the day), and possibly there’s not quite enough there to demand that I stay awake.  Piccoli is wonderful in a difficult role, and many scenes stay in my mind.  Probably a good TV film, but we are unlikely to see it here.