A few really big exceptions aside, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is fairly tame. The big guns are shelved for now, and the programmers have instead turned their spotlight onto some more intimately-scaled little pictures that need distribution, films that will be out in theaters within the next month and international releases you and I will not likely see in our local cineplexes. Where oh where are the big Oscar movies of years past? They’re definitely not here.
Sugar (dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2007, USA)
I stumbled, quite by accident, wanting to kill time, into Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s surprising Sugar. Boden and Fleck co- wrote and directed the modest breakout hit Half Nelson, which netted star Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and here they couldn’t be more far removed from Nelson’s inner-city, drug-dealing turmoil, but those two elements do play a small role in Sugar.
When the projector began cranking, and the film opened with a shot of men playing baseball, in the Dominican Republic, I wanted to get up and leave immediately. A sports movie, in another language, about men, is really not my usual cup of tea. So, I sort of forced myself through the first few standard minutes, and am glad I did: Sugar is not a baseball movie, nor is it a simple “coming to America” story—it possesses a life and vitality that is singular.
All of the players in the Dominican Republic desire the same outcome: they want to play ball in America so they can send money back to their deprived families who spend their days working in t-shirt factories. For these young me, particularly the lead character “Sugar” (the excellent Algenis Perez Soto), it is more than just a dream of providing and chasing some American ideal—it’s a way to break the poverty cycle in their home country and to not live idle lives. “Life gives you many opportunities,” says Sugar’s uncle, himself a former player in the states, now a cell phone salesman. “Baseball only gives you one.”
The film is a rich exploration of the exploitation faced by Latin American men who are sent out to play here, and it’s a world I had no idea even existed. Sugar is an unusual story that’s definitely never been told before, which is a credit to these two fledgling directors, who seem to have found a particularly alchemic cinematic grace in working with one another, rather than alone. As writers seeking out completely original subject matter, they should be applauded for versatility.
Once “Sugar” lands in the States, he is caught up in a whirlwind frenzy of pre-season training and practice. In these scenes, rather than over-loading the film with the traditional montages that plague the sports film genre, Boden and Fleck instead go for introspection as their lead character, and those who have accompanied him from the Dominican league, begin to see just how isolated one can be when placed in unfamiliar surroundings, where they don’t speak more than ten words of the language. This feeling of not being able to fully communicate makes “Sugar” try even harder to learn, and makes him even more focused on the game.
And rather than staging the scenes in Iowa with overt racism or hatred (though there is a little implicit racism in the script), the directors wisely turn away from the “bad American” clichés, and show scenes of good people genuinely helping “Sugar”. Particularly effective are the scenes where the guys head out to the only diner they know, to order the only food they know how (“French toast!” they all yell in unison). They have to, like many people who are new to the country and to the language, work harder, practice more, and be better than everyone. Not to mention, they have to rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers. As macho ballplayers, that can be a humbling experience, and those detail peppered throughout are very moving without being coy.
This film is packed with detail, the directors have a meticulous eye for it: in one scene, for a brief second (and without being preachy whatsoever) we notice “Sugar” looking at t-shirts in a discount department store, when he reads the label, it says “made in the Dominican Republic” and his face just collapses. Also a great detail is the exploration of baseball and sports fan subculture and the hierarchies of the sport, focusing on the enthusiasts who go to every high school game, every college game, and every minor league game. They have their fingers in every baseball pie, so to speak. When “Sugar” is dropped off in the corn fields of Iowa with a religious, elderly couple who speak no Spanish, he learns about, it is a funny fish-out-of-water moment, but also a learning experience for him and for the audience.
The film hinges on the performance of Perez Soto, and the audience’s empathy for him as he goes from Dominican dreamer, to Iowan farm teammate, to New Yorker on the lam. Boden and Fleck show, again, that working with an untrained young actor, as they did with the glorious newcomer Shareeka Epps in Nelson is one of their fortes. Perez Soto, for his part, does a nice job of showing the immigrant’s point of view, and highlights for the audience what is good, bad, and implausible about the American Dream.
All of the odds are against them, and so are most of the American players. The Dominican players, if they even hint at a loss of skill level, are sent home, while the Americans get chance after chance. “Sugar” is lucky he is more talented than most players on the team, but eventually, his arrogance gets the better of him. He has only that one shot that his uncle told him about and his entire life is riding on it.
His journey takes him far away from home, to unexpected little corners of the country, and makes for one cool little movie about how people from other cultures find their way on their own. It’s definitely not about baseball, in the broadest sense. For someone like me, who know positively zilch about sports in general, it’s an easy lesson and a informative primer on the fanaticism that surrounds the sport, even on the minute level, and it’s all told on a relatable, approachable point of view, with an entry point that is universal. Anyone who has ever felt alone, anyone who has ever experienced being taken out of their comfort zone, and who has been dropped into a situation where they had to fight for something the want more than anything, will be able to get on board with this lovely movie.
Che (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2008, USA/Spain/France)
Buckle up! Che, the newest offering from director Stephen Soderbergh that details the life of Che Guevara, is a whopping four and a half hours long.
I was among a group who was able to see the entire epic, split up only by a fifteen minute intermission, yesterday morning, the way the director has announced he intends everyone to see it; a “road-show” full cut of the film will be screened around the country (in approximately 20 markets) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the eightieth anniversary of his birth. Then, as planned, the vast Che, which features a gorgeously interior performance by Benecio Del Toro as the now-iconic revolutionary, will be split into two parts, The Argentinean and Guerilla.
When it first played at Cannes in May, all signs pointed to Che as being a hard sell. The length alone was its most daunting feature, not to mention it is essentially a four and a half hour Latin American history lesson, mostly told in Spanish. So, the chances of its success competing in the United States market, where you’re only considered a hit if you make over 100 million anymore, were rather bleak.
I’m happy to report, though, that as a far-reaching artistic endeavor and a more meditative alternative to the usual bio-pic fare, Che is a mild success, but more importantly, it’s a major turning point for Soderbergh as a director. This is his most ambitious film to date: a mainly Spanish-language mega epic of a revolutionary who has become appropriated by the entire world as a symbol of freedom and rebellion. I’m sure you’ve seen the t-shirts.
He opens chapter one like a book, with a golden-hued map of Cuba, all set to a pulsing score. We are given a cursory lesson in Cuban geography (probably much-needed for most viewers). This is a necessary feature to orient the viewers into the world of the Marxist guerillas’ plans. Immediately, we are plunged into New York, 1964, where Che is being interviewed in a black and white, grainy sequence that shows only his eyes furiously moving; these black and white bits are interspersed into the main attraction: the saturated world of color in Mexico City of 1955, where the story really begins after two seeming starts. Stylistically, Soderbergh goes for a scaled-back, less-is-more approach and lets the natural features take over the story’s art direction, rightfully. This may not be as flashy as the director’s other films, but the vistas are stunning.
The film cuts back and forth between the two formats. At the United Nations in 1964 NYC, Che, an Argentine who became a Cuban citizen, is greeted by shouts of “murderer” and “assassin”. He is Fidel Castro’s highest ranking lieutenant, the Marxist brains of the entire Cuban operation and a master at combat and warfare. We then are transported back to Mexico to begin the journey with Che to Cuba for the first time. It is a little bit confusing at the beginning, to get one’s bearings, but once Soderbergh gets a feeling for the complicated rhythms, so do the viewers. Once it hits its stride, it’s hard to stop watching.
Part one is well-shot, if fairly standard bio-flick material that charts the man’s journey from being a doctor to fighting in the jungles to becoming a sort of pseudo-celebrity asking to be powdered before an American television appearance. Del Toro’s versatile, stately performance covers a lot of ground, spans Che’s entire life, and proves a task the actor is more than up to. Che’s ability to be an orator, a fighter and an all around charismatic force of nature jumps to life thanks to Del Toro’s gift of being able to tap into his powerful, specific instrument. He is likely the only possible recognizable, working actor that could have pulled this off, exuding a dangerous charm, gravitas and presence every second he is onscreen.
He loves his soldiers (men and women) and knows all of their names. His idea of successful warfare is smart warfare and he only takes soldiers who can read or write; the ones who can’t, he makes sure to teach. He sees what he is doing as enriching the lives of these peasants who have long been taken advantage of. He wants to save each Latin American country, person by person.
Part one ends with the rebels winning the war, and according to Che, this is where the real revolution begins.
The first image of part two is another bit of Soderberghian cartography, only this time, we get our lesson in South American geography (and I was hugely embarrassed that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the continent). The action will take place in Bolivia, where, funded by Castro (even after he renounced his Cuban citizenship), Che has sworn to bring the revolution to all of Latin America, much to the consternation of the country’s leaders.
One year later, Che is disguised as an old man with glasses, sneaking into Bolivia to train a new army of rebels in secret. By now, he has become a worldwide legend and has left his wife Aledia (Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) behind. Obviously, “Che” is going to dominate a story called Che, but Moreno is barely there, and the same goes for Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, Julia Ormond and countless others—a cheeky trademark of the director’s that has become slightly irksome. His affinity for stunt casting known faces in cameos speaks to his directorial sway and the love for the project, but it is as distracting here as it is in Traffic or the Ocean movies.
But fortunately, the main character’s commitment, body and soul, to his cause, is mirrored in Del Toro’s physical commitment to playing him—in part two, it is as though he is playing two men wildly different than his character in part one.
Both parts of the film highlight that the best way to bring about change is with your own two hands, hard work, and, as Che says, with “love” for whatever it is you’re doing. For the director, this is an obvious labor of love, but at points watching lingering scenes of nature at a very deliberate pace can get tedious. As bloated as it is brave, I can see why Soderbergh thought it would be advantageous and respectful to do it in this style, but this will be slightly too much for most to handle in one sitting. In shorter chapters, it could have worked in a way that something like HBO’s recent John Adams mini-series did and turn a history lesson into something a bit more gripping. Yet, there is still something stolidly fascinating about this lesson in cinematic endurance that seems as equally influenced by Marxism and pop culture as it is by Terrence Malick in the many scenes featuring a cool and meditative showcasing of the geography as the story.
The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008, USA)
Practically everyone in Toronto was buzzing about Darren Aronofsky’s newest offering The Wrestler. Following up the love it or hate it mess of The Fountain, The Wrestler was shown to a capacity press and industry only crowd in a completely packed theater of nearly 600—there were no empty seats. This is the first time I had seen that happen. In the same theater, for Che’s screening immediately before, roughly a third of those seats were filled.
Riding high on mega-buzz, the film, which just days ago won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, announced to the world that star Mickey Rourke is, and I am not being cheeky, a top possibility for a Best Actor nomination come early 2009; if not the win. That the director had the foresight to cast the downtrodden, eccentric actor who most people expected to go the way of Gary Busey, in the role of washed up former professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a right miracle and one of those rare instances where a performer can take every element of his past and his physical being, and use them to their fullest potential. Possessed of a weathered face that has been changed by cosmetic surgery to a very extensive degree, Rourke is able to even use that to his advantage in creating this once in a lifetime character.
When the film opens to the strains of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” (Ram’s theme song), we don’t see him right away, we just see press clippings, posters, and other tchotchkes and assorted ephemera from his past. It is all we need to get a sense of what he has become and that only takes Aronofsky seconds. The Ram is way past his prime, living in a filthy, pad-locked trailer in Jersey (he didn’t pay his rent again), and wounded beyond belief. When the camera finally settles onto Rourke’s face, it is jarring to meet him head on.
Broken, and taped-up within an inch of his life, The Ram ekes out a miserable existence working the most low-level amateur circuits he can find to make a buck, where the mats are sprayed with blood and not cleaned up in between battles. He also works doing stock at a grocery store. He is strung out on pills, drinks a lot, and is reeling from a life spent being beaten and abused, of his own choosing. A far cry from his former glories. Within these first few minutes, it is clear that Rourke was the only person who could play this part, much as Del Toro was the only actor who could play Che.
The Ram frequents a dive of a strip club (he hooks the doorman up with pills), where Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) is also eking out a meager existence. Tomei has always been a hard actress to cast, but when she’s good, she’s on fire—her scene where she talks about The Passion of the Christ is her most brilliantly funny moment since winning the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. Cassidy is The Ram’s only “friend”, a relationship for which she is paid by the shimmy, but not a responsibility she takes lightly: when The Ram needs sound advice about his estranged daughter Stephanie (an excellent Evan Rachel Wood), Cassidy is the go-to girl for him.
It’s only fair, if one is to discuss the sheer physicality of Rourke’s performance as a wrestler, to then also discuss the sensual physicality employed by Tomei in her free scenes of seductive dancing and stripping. Last year in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, she was frequently, shockingly, naked. And she looked amazing. Last year, in her mid-40s, she fearlessly took it all off to reinvent herself, and it seems that that work could be viewed as a primer for the even more brave physical and emotional nakedness she brings to her career-best character here: a single mother busting her ass to feed her kid and move into a condo, thus leaving her lap-dancing days, and clients like The Ram, behind.
In between juicing and working out, The Ram spends his days prepping for his big battles, getting his hair perfectly highlighted at the salon, and going tanning. It is implied that the preparation for The Ram probably isn’t much different from what Cassidy does to get ready for work—they’re both putting on a show, after all, and shows require a certain image. The big difference, though, is that The Ram, when performing, beats opponents with barbed wire clubs, artificial limbs and gets stapled by a staple-gun wielding maniac; all in the name of show and money. He is mutilated in various extreme ways to please a bloodthirsty, raging crowd that chants at him while he’s down: “you still suck!”
These intense scenes are, well, crazy, but also wickedly funny and incisive. Aronofsky is able to show the kind of damage these athlete/performers endure to make a living. Rourke is beyond brilliant in these wrestling scenes, and shows a heretofore unknown comedic diligence in the funny moments (“do your push-ups brother,” he barks at a neighbor kid). Yet nothing will prepare you for the unexpected fragility in the poignant moments of sharply-drawn drama as his life begins to fall apart and his years of self-abuse begin to catch up to him. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch him.
After a heart attack and a bypass, The Ram tries to make a go of it in the real world. He goes to Stephanie to patch up their broken, distant relationship. He tells Cassidy that “she doesn’t really like me very much”, and that’s putting it mildly. He was not present for her as a child and in trying to reconnect; he hits many obstacles tougher than a metal folding chair to the face.
He tries to make a break from this world, even going so far as to work the deli counter at his supermarket to earn more money (one of the film’s absolute delights), but ultimately, he’s alone, and needs the adoration and the energy of the fans to buoy him, to keep him alive. This is Aronofsky’s most accomplished film thus far, devoid of the gimmicky camera angles and fish-eye lenses that permeate his other films, Pi, and Requiem for a Dream. It is a more straight-forward narrative, with a more straight-forward, audience-friendly structure. While The Wrestler does have moments of sentimentality, it is never out of place, never obnoxious. The ending is a brilliant culmination of suspense, fury, great story-telling and acting, and it will leave audiences high on their own adrenaline.