TIFF 2008 Reviews (5)

Reviewed here:

  • The Wrestler
  • Birdsong
  • Adoration
  • Four Nights With Anna
  • Good

Tuesday, September 9

The Wrestler Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is well past his prime.  He makes his way through a circuit of small-town fights for the smallest of fees.  The fights are harder and the fans don’t come out the way they used to.

Yes, it’s a fight film, and it’s not the sort of thing I would normally go to except for the lead actor, Mickey Rourke.  Could this actor who dropped out of the business pull off a major role?  What was that Golden Lion at Venice all about anyhow?

Rourke has actually spent time working as a wrestler making him entirely believable in a demanding physical role.  This isn’t gentlemanly, olympic stuff here, this is mean, dirty, play to the crowd, the more blood the better showmanship.  It’s hard on everyone.

The film starts with fight sequences, but we also see Randy’s personal side.  He has a thing for a local stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), but she respects the client/dancer divide.  His daugher Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) has been estranged for years — he was always the absent father.  The plot on this side is fairly predictable with unrequited love and reconcilliation, but Rourke’s acting makes you focus on Randy’s character as he tries to rebuild his life.

Yup, it’s a tacky plot, but there’s lots here for the wrestling fans and great acting from Mickey Rourke.

The Wrestler opens in December 2008 in the USA.

Birdsong Directed by Albert Serra

Birdsong is supposed to be a slightly absurb retelling of Three Kings story from the Nativity.  It’s a Catalan fil, in black and white, with an absurdist sense of humour, or so the Festival would have us believe.  It fit into a niche in my schedule.

At the introduction, we learned that the director was not in Toronto, but instead we would have one of the actors who turns out to be Canadian (!?) and just happens to be a friend of the programmer.  Not very Catalan.  We are told that the film is languid.  We should feel free to laugh.

This is an ominous introduction to anyone seasoned by years of film festivals.

The three kings wander.  The shots are, shall we say, static.  No point on moving the camera around.  One of the kings seems to have a stone in his shoe.  He falls down.  They can’t agree on whether to go on or if one of them can even make it up a hill.

In time, they walk up the hill.  This is a very, very long shot.  They disappear over the ridge.  They walk down the other side.  There is no dialogue, no sign of a star, no supporting entourage, no camels.  After 40 minutes they seemed ready to bed down for the night, and I decided that this was a good time to join them by walking out.

Wednesday, September 10

Happy-Go-Lucky

I have already reviewed Happy-Go-Lucky in Part 2 of this series.

Adoration Directed by Atom Agoyan

In Adoration, Atom Agoyoan has given us a memory play, but one with multiple memories and not all of those true.  Who can we trust?

Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) is a teacher of French and drama living in Canada, but originally from Lebanon where she lost her family to the war.  Her husband Sammi (Noam Jenkins) left years ago, and was later killed with his second wife, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard) in a car crash.  Their son, Simon (Devon Bostick), is Sabine’s student.  A coincidence, perhaps, but things get much more complicated.

Simon is working on translating a report of a terrorist attack, but chooses to reframe the story in the first person and convert it to a monologue about his parents.  He posts the story online and provokes an explosion of angry responses in a multivoice chat room.  The school, in a predictably spineless manner, fires Sabine. 

Meanwhile, Simon’s relationship with his remaining family, an uncle who isn’t quite sure what to do with him and a crusty old racist grandfather, becomes strained and he turns instead to his teacher.

Everything gets sorted out in the end, but it’s a difficult journey.  Nothing is what it seems.  Despite clever writing, editing, cinematography and music, I’m not sure it’s worth the trip.

Other writeups of Adoration suggest that it’s another brilliant work from Agoyan, but it struck me as more than a bit contrived.

Four Nights With Anna (Cztery noce z Anna) Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Leon is a simple man who works in the crematorium attached to a small village hospital.  He lives alone, and his past has seen some dubious activity.  At the story’s outset, Leon witnesses a rape, but the victim, Anna, sees him.  That lands him a term in prison and his new job is something of a favour, a hoped-for return to a normal life.

Now Leon lives across from Anna and fantasizes about her.  He has tender feelings, but they are obsessive.  He wants to look after Anna, and figures out a way to ensure she will sleep soundly by swapping ground up pills for the sugar she takes in her nightly tea.  This involves an often-open window used by Anna’s cat that gives Leon access to her room.

On his first visit, he just gazes at her sleeping body and tidies up a bit.  The second time around, Anna has just thrown a big party, and Leon cleans up.  On the third, Leon, who hopes that Anna could be his bride, leaves a ring.  The fourth visit brings the police who have been keeping an eye on his movements.

After a trial and conviction, another prison term.  Leon returns home to find a brick wall dividing the two houses. 

All of this is an improbable tale, and yet I found myself drawn into the sensitive study of an outsider.  Artur Steranko plays Leon, a man we can at best pity, and at worst loathe for what he might have done and might still do.

Good Directed by Vincent Amorim

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is a moderately successful professor and writer, but apolitical.  Some years ago, he wrote a novel sympathetic to euthanasia based on his own family circumstances with his mother. 

We are in Germany in the 1930s, and this obscure work brings Halder to the attention of the rising Nazi regime.  He’s not sure what he can really do, but lends support to a good cause with a bit of arm twisting.  He doesn’t realize what is happening around him, or that things will become much worse.

This would just be a story about a “good german”, but more is going on.

Halder is haunted by the truth, and at critical moments, he hears music that comments on the action.  All Mahler, and if you know the source, there is bitter irony in every piece.  

The final scene is a long steadycam shot.  Halder has been sent to a camp to report on what is really happening.  He arrives to the chilling, familiar queue of new arrivals being sorted either as workers or for immediate liquidation.  Doesn’t look too bad unless you know what is actually happening.  As he walks deeper into the camp, he comes on a little band playing Mahler’s funeral march based on Frère Jacques and sees, finally, the real horror of his “good” German society.

The original, theatrical version (C.P. Taylor, 1982), used music from several composers, but for the film, director Vincent Amorim wanted the continuity of one musical voice.  Mahler, a Jew who converted for social reasons to Catholicism, was the obvious choice.

The visual style of the film comes straight out of Masterpiece Theatre.  These are all actors we know, people who play characters we like, and even the Nazis can be such charmers.  We see society through Halder’s eyes.

The analogy to our own time is apparent.  Should be believe a government that seemingly acts in our interest?  When does support for such a regime become complicity in its darker purposes?

Good will be released in the USA on December 31, 2008.