The Hands of Bresson

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Looking Back at Toronto 2008

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35 Rhums

One of the biggest regrets I have coming back from the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival is that I didn’t have a chance to write more on-the-ground dispatches, especially since each day brought new encounters, exciting experiences, and often tragicomic turns of events. But our schedule was jam-packed this year, and running from place to place to catch a press screening or do an interview, often with five or ten minutes to spare, eventually took its toll. (Not having free Internet access in the two major hotels where the festival sets up shop was also a huge drag.) Nevertheless, we had some heavy-hitting cross-posters, namely Filmmaker magazine’s Scott Macaulay and Esquire’s Mike D’Angelo, helping us out with coverage. To them I extend our heartfelt thanks.

In hindsight, despite some restrictions on what I could see, I was lucky enough to have caught some good films at TIFF, including Ari Folman’s recovered-memory fantasia Waltz with Bashir and Matteo Garrone’s gritty Neapolitan gangland epic Gomorrah. Of the rest, only two have really left a long, lasting impression. The first, surprisingly enough, is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which I saw at a “sold out” press screening with hundreds of my colleagues at one of the biggest of the Varsity multiplex theaters, the day after the film swept the top prize at Venice. For once, a festival film lived up to its hype: Mickey Rourke’s soulful, heartfelt portrayal of a washed-up professional grappler trying to make ends meet and reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after a near-fatal heart attack was a poignant, beautifully acted character study that brought honest-to-god tears to my eyes. The film reminded me a great deal of the Rod Serling–penned 1962 drama Requiem for a Heavyweight, in which Anthony Quinn, as the title character, retires from the ring after a dangerous head injury and attempts to find work and a new sense of purpose, only to return to the fight world as a wrestling clown. Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is in a similar position, both physically and emotionally, though Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay gives his story a different arc. Once a star on the WWF circuit in the ’80s (a circumstance alluded to in the film’s brilliant title sequence, a nostalgic montage set to Quiet Riot’s adolescent teen anthem “Metal Health”), Randy is now relegated to vanquishing opponents in high-school auditoriums and community centers on a traveling circuit with mostly younger competitors. Randy’s a likable, lifelong fuckup who, like Quinn’s Louis “Mountain” Rivera, is broken and battered from years of punishing tournaments. His closest friends are a preteen neighbor boy he plays video games with in his trailer and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper. It’s no surprise that, following his hospitalization, he eventually finds work pulverizing meat at a deli counter. But Rourke breathes new life into such sports-film clichés, with a self-reflexive candor and empathy that I never dreamed was possible from the actor at this stage in his career, despite solid turns playing brooding, uber-masculine types in turmoil. The Wrestler is playing in late September during the 2008 New York Film Festival, so if you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

At the end of a long, loony, and sometimes trying week of screenings and back-to-back interviews, my last day in Toronto was really my favorite. For one thing, I was determined to enjoy every minute of my remaining time, knowing it would be a bit of a bummer to pack up, pile in the car, and return to the concerns and responsibilities of everyday life I’d left behind in New York a week earlier. I nearly lost my optimism early in the morning when, after a furious caffeine-fueled attempt to line up intelligent questions for the day’s interviewees, I met Barbet Schroeder’s publicist in the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel (central hub of the sales and industry offices) and remembered that we were supposed to have found a location for the shoot. Uh … whoops. My bad. I tried to play it cool and asked her to bring Schroeder, director of a new erotic thriller set in Japan called Inju: The Beast in the Shadow, down in five minutes. Meanwhile, Ana Maria and I headed outside and tried to find an embankment or bench nearby where we could do the interview without too much ambient noise. (It was morning rush hour.) As if on cue, a security guard hustled us away from a spot where we’d chatted up Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino the day before. Then, Ana Maria suggested asking Barbet to do a “stander” inside a Plexiglas bus stop on the corner. I was skeptical, but to my delight, he not only agreed when I returned to fetch him in the lobby, but seemed to enjoy talking to us inside this makeshift street-level studio.

Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected

When we wrapped that conversation, I shook hands with Schroeder, thanked Ana Maria for her cool-headed problem-solving and guerrilla intuition, and sprinted north several blocks to the Intercontinental Hotel for another series of interviews. Anxious, pasty-faced paparazzi flocked outside the revolving door of the entrance, as they did most mornings, like an undulant tumor on the edifice of the building. I headed inside and looked for our cameraman Fernando before meeting reps for Rory and Kieran Culkin, who I was scheduled to speak with in the Proof Lounge patio. Celebs milled everywhere, yakking on cell phones or waiting for interviews to begin or noshing on croissants. Lucky for us, the Culkins were funny and easy to chat with and the rest of the morning went pretty smoothly. Finally, my last interview took me to the third floor, where, after some confusion about time slots and exact suite locations, I was eventually introduced to Jeff Goldblum, star of Paul Schrader’s new film Adam Resurrected. Goldblum, who for some reason doesn’t merit an entry in David Thomson’s highly idiosyncratic “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” is as odd and offbeat in person as he is onscreen. I don’t know how tall he is—my guess is 6’5”—but he’s also dapper, strikingly handsome, and almost extraterrestrially charismatic. We had a brief chat about Adam Stein, the former circus entertainer and Holocaust survivor he plays in the film, which is adapted from Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk’s cherished novel, but it was his mannerisms and speech habits that fascinated me. Goldblum is a charmer, as many career actors learn to be when dealing with press, but somehow, the way he made continual eye contact and repeated my name every time he spoke made our conversation seem ingenuous. On his way out, off camera, we talked about how Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin had both expressed an interest in playing the role of Stein after Kaniuk’s book was published, and Goldblum mentioned how he hoped a bit of Chaplin’s madcap energy, at least, came across in his performance. No worries, Jeff: there’s more than a little Chaplin in your whole way of being.

Seconds after this memorable (and for me, festival-closing) encounter, I was once again racing down the street—sprinting, actually, with my computer bag as baton—to the Cumberland Theaters, where Claire Denis’s new film, 35 Rhums/35 Shots of Rum, was scheduled to begin. I had been anticipating every new work from Denis since 2004, when I had the pleasure of speaking with her for a couple of hours about her oeuvre, first in New York and then by phone at her home in Paris. I love Denis like no other living filmmaker, so each time one of her characteristically earthy, elliptical features unveils before my eyes, it is more than a happening—it’s an Event. To my great relief, I made it to the theater just as the house lights went down, and the film’s first images—shots of a drab rail yard, random passengers on a commuter train, a middle-aged black man quietly observing the tracks while drawing heavily on a cigarette, waiting, waiting—I relished with a mindset of complete gratitude. Gone were the worries of the past week, all that came before and all I’d soon deal with upon returning home. There was a purity to my experience of cinema that afternoon I’d not felt in a long while. And I was rewarded, about halfway through 35 Rhums (a lyrical story about the relationships between a multiethnic group of working-class Parisians) with a quintessentially Denisian sequence I’m dying to see again: Several characters, stranded at a restaurant after hours when their car breaks down, hesitantly gravitate to the dance floor, while the Commodores’ “Night Shift” gently nudges them—and us—into an achingly cool, almost ethereal intimacy. It was the sexiest scene I’ve seen at the movies all year, maybe in two years, and the perfect way to cap my Toronto experience.


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:26 pm

TIFF 2008: Some Films at a Glance

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Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo

Trying to get into the swing of things here in Toronto hasn’t been easy. But I won’t bore you with the details of our cross-border journey or our commune-like accommodations (we’ve nicknamed our two-room suite “the asylum”), though I should mention we’ve had some technical issues with our site that we’ve finally sorted out, so I hope you pardoned our graphical and video snafus of the past few days. One thing we feel confident about is that our latest footage, shot by Fernando Frias and Ana Maria Hermida, looks better than ever.

So far, I’ve caught a good number of decent films, including Bent Hamer’s O’Horten, a deadpan ode to aging and loneliness that follows a newly retired railroad engineer on a strange, cathartic journey to a ski jump in nocturnal Norway (think Scorsese’s After Hours helmed by Aki Kaurismaki, and you’ll have an idea). Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s invigorating Soul Power (just snapped up by Celluloid Dreams) is a high-energy assemblage of verité footage from the Zaire ’74 music festival, a kind of companion piece to the “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout that Leon Gast turned into the Ali-starring When We Were Kings. The film got my blood racing at a 9:30am screening a couple of days ago, and certain images—James Brown’s booty-bumping version of the title song, Celia Cruz belting out a few numbers with the Fania All Stars on board a flight to Kinshasa—have stayed with me. In the genre mold, Marco Kreuzpaintner’s dark teen fantasy Krabat, set in a 17th century Germany where plague and black magic cloud the efforts of an itinerant teen orphan to find shelter and camaraderie, wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but fans of Harry Potter or Peter Jackson may find its dark mythic storyline and atmospheric special effects more compelling than me. The good news is that Kreuzpaintner was a delightful conversationalist when we caught up with him yesterday, and he has just announced his next project: a biopic of New German Cinema icon Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Can’t wait for that one—truly.

I also caught Paolo Sorrentino’s rollicking Il Divo, a flashy, Felliniesque biopic of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, a man presumed to have overseen the deaths of political enemies and lots of other sordid affairs in modern Italy. At a time when films about living politicians are more in vogue than ever (Stephen Frears’s The Deal and The Queen, Oliver Stone’s W.), “Il Divo” holds its own and then goes further, exploding the stylistic boundaries of both realism and by-the-numbers Hollywood fare, while harkening back to the work of pioneers like Elio Petri and Costa-Gavras. Atom Egoyan’s Adoration was a cerebral affair, as his films tend to be. Its hazy muddle of post-9/11 anxiety and Internet Age chatter offers plenty of food for thought, but the story of a high-school kid encouraged by a drama teacher to pretend his father is a terrorist (uh…what?) was jam-packed with absurd plot contrivances that left me frustrated. Still, Egoyan is a smart filmmaker, and Adoration made me appreciate his willingness to find new modes of storytelling to accommodate his recurring theme of post-traumatic reconciliation. (There’s an echo of The Sweet Hereafter in there somewhere.) This morning, I saw Barbet Schroeder’s provocative new S/M noir thriller Inju, about a French crime novelist (Benoit Magimel, fast becoming one of my favorite actors) who travels to Japan and gets ensnared in the deadly machinations of a mysteriously reclusive writer and rival. Suffice to say the film lived up to its subtitle, The Beast in the Shadows, while utilizing a number of vivid, Grand Guignol set pieces to intriguing effect. Lots more to come.