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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: The Deagol Brothers; Cast: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Leah High, Brett Miller, Shellie Marie Shartzer, Tia Shearer, Jordan Lehning, Josh Duensing; Runtime: 105 minutes

Make-Out is one of those movies where you peg the pitch within the first five minutes. This is Garden State with a zombie in it (complete with shambolic indie rock conspicuously framing far too many scenes). That seems to be a common denominator amongst films where the elements of the story are impressionistic or easily orphaned; they seem like premises before they were stories. Make-Out feels like it has styles and mimicked depth, but in the end it’s really for nothing, since the climax is just another scene, the last merciful domino to fall into place. Where the story lures you in (a mysterious death, the concentric aftershocks of grief), it mostly leaves them behind for a case study in circles of friends and family who have sexual interests in one another. It might gall the movie makers to hear this, but I kept thinking of Friends, a show I never watched, because it seemed to be about people I didn’t care about who mix-and-matched their fleeting emotional attachments to entertain themselves.


This is really a film about perverse objects of obsessive love, a subject much better mined by movies like Love Object and Elvis and Annabelle. Make-Out lacks emotional excavation. While one brother is chasing after someone who is of course in love with someone who will never love her back, the other brother proms up the zombie girl and feeds her birthday cake in a scene that embarrassingly steals from both Hannibal and Happy Birthday To Me. It’s obvious he’s projected a fairly impervious fantasy about the poor zombie, who he seems to know little about, but loves freshening up her lipstick and feeding her fresh rat heads.


As far as zombie’s go, Wendy is comparatively inanimate. Even a couple of well-fed dogs barely rouse her to a hobble and she can’t even eat her own birthday cake. If there were any emotional investment to be had in this movie, this might be an unsettling, painful, and poignant place to start. How do we let go? In fact, I admire the premise that a huge number of people would simply try to normalize the resurrection of a loved one, even a flesh eating one, because the power of grief can decimate the rational. But the normalization goes too far, to a point of blasé that makes you instinctively ask why no one who finds a friend thought to be dead, tied up and convulsing uncontrollably, would call the hospital?


Of course even the most ridiculous premise can be sold with a character. An audience can forgive a generously leaking plot, if they can find someone to invest in, root for, someone even to hate. Make-Out is completely rotten with Xanax-barred emotion, where every character sounds like they accessing memorized narcissistic platitudes about their feelings, but they don’t really seem to have feelings. There’s a ridiculous sub-plot on the secrets of making a grieving girl fall in love with and have sex with you that’s just one more out-of-place element jockeying for an overall tone. That’s why it feels so much like a sales pitch. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got cute indie people talking past each other, a beautiful corpse and a soundtrack for people who use depression the way children use binkies and blankets. 


Did I mention the little boy, molded after a Stand By Me character, who voice-overs the entire movie with paltry narrative gloss on the snail trailing plot shards? The viewer doesn’t need the additional distancing of the omniscient narrator who begins as a crucial character and then, like so much of the movie, gets thrown away to follow some other half-formed mood or anemic repartee. Does anyone care how this girl died? It’s slightly suggested that she died because one of the characters may or may not have a dark, sadistic sexual interest in her, but why doesn’t the director care? Why is it more important to have a scene where the prelude to a kiss is, “Let’s get awesome.”


This could have easily been enjoyably farcical and ultimately creepy in the way that people don’t really how truly dehumanizing idolizing love can be. This film needed something other than a series of marketing takes. The writing never salvages the restless remains of the story. If Hal Hartley used to be detachment for people who had lived too much; Make-Out is just lazy ennui, a movie with the momentum of sleep and the conscience of a bored sociopath who likes Gossip Girl.


 


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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
Director: Nirit Peled; Cast: Aaries, MC Lyte, Big Manda, Miz korona, Chocolate Thai, Monie Love, Dr. Roxanne Shante, Mystic, Eryka Badu, Princess and DIamond, Estelle, Remy Ma, Georgia Girls, Rha Digga, GTA Crew, Sparky Dee, Invincible, Shanika, Jean Grae, Trinie; Runtime: 75 minutes

Say My Name works on so many levels, that it’s ultimately a minor disappointment when it loses direction, doesn’t cohere, and ends in a positivity crescendo that feels like a holiday inappropriate card bought from a convenience store. But Director Nirit Peled falters mostly for her amazing ambition. As a documentary, Say My Name attempts to do several things. It’s an anecdote-driven history of women in hip-hop, it’s the hardscrabble stories of just making it to the microphone, and it’s intermittently a commentary on the issues that arise with women in hip-hop. 


Only the last effort makes the movie a fitful experience. We hear conflicting voices about whether it’s “hard” for women in rap, but it’s not really addressed beyond a few ripples. There’s a pulling away from confrontation that simply doesn’t make sense for this kind of documentary—one that aims to get the story, the whole story. 


Issues emerge in an ebbing way, but the movie could have used some people with intellectual distance or a director that forced the issues into more than passing panel clips that looked like bad episodes of Crossfire. Do rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, who trade more in costume sexuality than mic skills, hurt the cause of women in hip-hop? Do women in hip-hop even owe anything to each other as a community? Controversial statements were usually just dropped. With no follow up, Remy Ma and Jean Grae’s statements about being happy for women who get to shake their asses in videos for cash sounds thoughtlessly contrarian? I understand why historically oppressed communities hide their divisions so that a common enemy might not use them as ammunition. But can any of the conflicts compellingly portrayed by these gifted and struggling artists really be addressed without breaking a few toes? Perhaps this documentary suffers from the categorical disintegration that comes when words localize, mutate, and go global. Every history is partial, changing, and redefining itself.


To call this movie a failure would be to deny its enormous pleasures. Remy Ma and Roxanne Shante have spontaneous and quick-witted ways of giving an insider story of outsiders. The freestyle segments are sweet treats that set an overall rhythm for the film that’s fleet and kinetic. There’s no lack of joy in seeing Say My Name, just a hunger for more and a desire for a deeper range of questions. It’s the perfect tease hopefully leading Nirit Peled to expand her scope bigger, bolder, and salted with the same swagger that her subjects here display gloriously.


 


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
Director: Katie Turinski; Cast: Mark (Zebra) Thomas, Lee Kyle, Devan McGrath, Benjamin Porter, Jeffery Kriescher; Runtime: 68 minutes

It’s tragic to say that, for the most part, I’ve seen so many “slices of reality” and artistic biographies that I wince at the prospect of either. With so many people living life within the incessant Twitterati spectacle, it’s difficult for me to believe that people can actually be captured in the wild. It’s hard to sneak a camera in front of someone and not see themselves begin to live as autobiographers. That’s just one of the reasons that Sissyboy was such a genuinely enjoyable film. Katie Turinski had delicate, intimate technique as a director. She obviously built a fairly stunning rapport, a confessional safety zone, and even an eye for capturing settings that were as entertainingly revealing as the characters themselves. 


Sissyboy follows the ideas and relationships contained within a cross country tour of a group of drag queens, albeit drag queen self-consciously acting as satires about the ideas of women rather than attempting to embody some idealized, materialistic, glamorized interpretation of femininity. They’re gender outliers, critiquing some of the reactionary gender rules that gays import into gay culture. Geeky, muscley, tatted, or sporting wheat grass facial fur, these gay men simply don’t fit a type. The sissyboys are a softer version of what Leigh Bowery was to RuPaul. They’re a courageous troupe of funny and flawed artists that have managed to laugh at some really painful life experiences. They share these stories in mini-monologues of free association, group history and their struggles with being who they are. The documented understand that they’re something of jesters, hiding hard realities with flamboyant misdirection. But for all their meth benders and petty thievery, they’re a deeply compassionate group of people that you fall in love with within seconds. 


Sissyboy, however, is so much more than a Pacific Northwest version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It’s rarely talked about how gay people try to import the morality of oppression into their own communities in fetishizing gender roles. The sissyboys seem completely aware that as flippant as their performances seem, they are at odds with unspoken codes of bigotry in their own communities, and they want to address these injustices as much as heal their own private, complex and sometimes troubled personal worlds. The sets might look like elementary versions of the Passion Play, but the shows are brave and garishly hilarious. They rewrite a L’Trimm song to make it from the point of view of teenage Muslim women serenading hot Jihadis. They turn a Fergie song into a primal pro-choice howl. Other jokes are so profane that I can’t even explain them without sounding evil. 


This is the kind of narrative documentary that runs well above its form. I thought this was the best intellectual documentary with ballsac close-ups I’ve ever witnessed. The sissyboys presented here seem like admirably self-aware artists creating without endgame. I’m ruining nothing by telling you that at some point, they decide that their experiment has run its course. They created something and understood when it was finished. How many lovely things would be better off as hit-and-runs? How many artists move on so gracefully, leaving such a comfortable place? It’s difficult not to gush about a documentary like this as much as I am embarrassed for doing so. But the sissyboys were such an outstanding collective of comics, commentarians, artists, and humans, that I forgive myself an hour and some change of being hopeful in the land of the damned.


 


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Friday, Sep 12, 2008
This is the end, my friends. TIFF 08 fades away with a whimper and few Oscar prospects.

The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival has ended, for me, with a sad whimper. There was no single film that took my breath away, proving, I think, that truly superlative achievements are very hard to come by these days. While there was a lot of passion, and a dazzling array of star power shining on the Canadian red carpets, there was a lack of quality, overall and a feeling of slight disappointment in the eyes and on the lips of industry folks I chatted with as well as the ticket-buying public.


I managed to get in a few truly great viewings (The Wrestler and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale were two of the finest of the fest), several middle-of-the-road tedious films, and only a couple that were truly atrocious. But nothing can beat the overall “festival experience” of being where the celebrities are, where the buzz happens, and where other film fans from all over the world convene to wait in line for hours and hope for a miracle. Sometimes seeing some of these peculiar little films can be an eye-opening occurrence (I’ve Loved You So Long was my biggest surprise this year), while others still can be a total bust.


So, to wrap up my second consecutive year of covering the fest, I have compiled a list of the best and the worst of this festival (not just the films, either!), and ended it all with a spate of five mini-reviews to give you all the low-down on what you should keep an eye out for and others that you should avoid like the plague, as well as a top ten list of what was hot and a quick mention of what just absolutely sucked. Thank God for coffee, Diet Coke, and energy bars.


First, some short takes:


Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) (dir. Philippe Claudel, 2007, France)

“I was afraid of betraying the prison experience,” said the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas of her role as a woman released from prison after 15 years, in director/author Philippe Claudel’s moving feature debut. The actress talked at the film’s premiere of “fears of being overwhelmed by my own emotion, of having done some terrible crime. I was afraid my own feelings would get in the way of playing the role”. Thomas was nominated for an Oscar 12 years ago for her part in Anthony Minghella’s epic The English Patient, and in a just world, she will be back for her tour-de-force French-speaking portrait of a woman stilted in her grief and regret (Claudel talked of her “delicious little accent”). “I think we all have a fear of isolation and abandonment,” she added. “It’s our job to use it, that’s my job.”


The Other Man (dir. Richard Eyre, 2008, United Kingdom/USA)

The biggest let-down of the entire festival. What should have been a knock-out, with a pedigree to die for (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, even though the film was barely 90 minutes long. Eyre was on hand to talk about how the film was just finished last week, and it shows. Neeson blusters and barks and guffaws with a hammy ridiculousness (“Gucci loafers!” he furiously bellows in one over-the-top scene), and Linney is barely there, but its co-star Antonio Banderas that got the biggest (unintentional) laughs as a playboy who Linney is cheating on Neeson with. He likens himself to “fellow cosmopolitans and fashionistas” in one particularly hysterical scene, as he befriends Neeson’s character, who is out to meet the man who is schtupping his woman. This flop crawls at a snail’s pace and is hopelessly stage-bound, off-kilter, and badly-written and directed. By the time the ludicrous, emotionally-manipulative “twist” happens at the end, I was numb. “How did you find out about me,” whines a transparent Banderas. “You were on a file called ‘love’,” retorts Neeson. Shoot me, please.


Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (dir. Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, France)

Kings and Queen, which also starred Christmas players Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Denueve, and Emanuelle Devos, is one of the most underrated, emotionally-complicated films of the last few years, so it is no surprise that French master Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film of supreme emotional maturity, familial tensions and pure invention that gorgeously tells each of the film’s character’s stories and allows for a spectacular acting showcase for each of them. The narrative juggles a towering cast, moments of hilarity and tender, moving drama, that all plays out with surgical precision. As the Vuillard matriarch, Denueve gets her best role in years, while Amalric proves that he is one of the finest working actors in the world. Alternately cathartic, dysfunctional and compelling, American family sagas need to start taking on this modern French sensibility that Desplechin has become so adept at executing. This will be released in theaters by IFC in January, and there is no other way to experience this cinematic magic than on the big screen, so seek it out!


Skin (dir. Anthony Fabian, 2008, United Kingdom/South Africa)

Poor Sophie Okonedo. She’s given two capable performances in two of the biggest duds of the fest, The Secret Life of Bees (which she was the single good thing about), and this tedious small-scale drama set in apartheid-ridden South Africa. What could have been a canny entry into the discussion on gender, race and class, instead devolves into a hot mess of histrionics (courtesy of the over-blown presence of Sam Neil as Okonedo’s white father). Based on a true story of Sandra Laing, and her fight to be classified as a white woman, even though her skin was brown (due to something called “polygenic inheritance”), this film fights to be relevant despite its predictable African inspirational music and long gazing shots of the countryside that we’ve seen a million times in a million better movies. This would be right at home on Lifetime Television, where Okonedo might have at least gotten a little bit of positive attention.


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (dir. Jodie Markell, 2008, USA)

One of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” screenplays has been brought to (surprisingly) vivid life by director Jodie Markell (HBO’s Big Love, Joshua and the underrated indie Sweet Land). Markell has a flair for staging the material, and star Bryce Dallas Howard channels her inner Vivien Leigh, but male co-star Chris Evans, unfortunately cannot act his way out of a paper bag. This doesn’t really tread any new ground -– Williams’ milieu is fraught with melodramatic, mentally-unstable Southern Belles, but if you are a fan of the playwright, this isn’t a bad attempt at conceiving his work for a more contemporary audience and very nicely shot. Howard’s temperamental, sarcastic performance definitely is one of the more exciting actresses of her generation, who keeps choosing great material like this, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay and As You Like It. Ellen Burstyn, Mamie Gummer, and Ann-Margret co-star as random Southern women with some sort of panic-stricken dilemmas they must face.


Top Ten Things I Loved About TIFF 08

01. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler


In what could have been an offensive joke of a performance, Rourke captures hearts with his tender, tough portrait of a man coming apart. Will he capture the Oscar?


02. The Burning Plain


You either love the styles of writer-director Guillermo Arriaga or you hate them (he is responsible for the equally polarizing Babel and 21 Grams), but you cannot deny he is writing more expansive women’s roles than just about any other writer-director out there. He should be applauded, as should Charlize Theron and a career-best Kim Basinger.


03. Cultural Hybridity


Almost all of the films I saw, whether they were period pieces, biography films, or simply daring original works, explored the intersecting themes of borders opening; of lines on the maps being erased. They were beautifully humanist takes on what it’s like to live in a world where everyone’s concept of home is shrinking, and where cultures are bleeding into one another. It’s comforting to see that our modern master filmmakers are perceptively mirroring this global, transient realism onscreen.


04. Star Wattage and Accessibility


Where else are you going to be two feet away from Viggo Mortensen but at TIFF? More than I have seen before, the big guns were brought out for promoting films, for selling films, and for getting the word out there. Be it in the form of press conferences (where I sat directly in front of powerhouses like Queen Latifah stumping for Secret Lifes of Bees), or just walking down the street, there were actors and directors practically littering Yonge Street. Also, the graciousness of these actors and directors to do question and answer sessions with large festival audiences, as well as the frenzied red carpets, and just being present in general at screenings is unparalleled.


05. France


Alors! Staggering in their artistic consistency and integrity, the films from our great French directors at TIFF this year (Olivier Assayas, Phillip Claudel, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Agnes Varda), proved that the country sets the bar much higher for their popular entertainment than we do here, they have a standard of excellence that needs to be emulated. The French directorial vision is typically beautifully art-directed; stunning acted and has, across the board, an emotional pull that is sorely lacking in the American entries this year.


06. Volunteers and Employees


Mostly all friendly and knowledgeable, these tireless enthusiasts had to wrangle not only the public, but the celebrities and the press and industry crowd. A thankless job, where they are paid nothing, but they do it with a smile on their face, for the love of film.


07. Talking to Strangers


Whether it was in line, or on the street to get directions, Canadians are friendly. You are standing in line sometimes for hours to get a decent spot, and are forced, in many ways, to chat up your neighbors. The shocker? They are usually extremely pleasant, excited, and just as knowledgeable about film as you are. A refreshing element to the proceedings that can sometimes be more fun than the films themselves.


08. That Blindness Did Not Stink


People tore this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel to pieces at Cannes, and critics had their knives sharpened for it here in Toronto, but Fernando Meirelles pulled it off. Don’t be fooled by those who would dissuade you from seeing it; Blindness is brutal, yet powerfully undeniable filmmaking. And between this and Savage Grace Julianne Moore shows (again) that she is the bravest American actress working.


09. The Queen Mother Restaurant


Canadian food is hit or miss, and that’s being polite (poutin, anyone?). Thank god for the Lao-Thai fusion at this quaint café in the best neighborhood in the city. Affordable, delicious, fresh food and no-nonsense, friendly service (inside or out on the patio) makes this the go-to spot for all visitors. Of note, particularly is their phenomenal brunch. I am not even going to tell you how many times I ate there this week.


10. The Return of Debra Winger


She was only in about four scenes of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, but in her scant screen time, she conducted a master class in scene-stealing as the mother of the title character and Anne Hathaway’s noxious Kym. Yes, it may be the “mother” role, but Winger is understatedly elegant, and rock-solid. Here’s to hoping this high-profile release gains her some traction on the awards circuit, in tandem with Hathaway. It’s a small, quietly fuming turn that should be lauded for its poetic simplicity.


The Things I Did Not Love About TIFF 08

01. Jerks on BlackBerrys and I-Phones


Since everyone at the press and industry screenings are apparently so important they couldn’t turn off their phones for five seconds, other people, who were actually trying to work during the festival got treated to a sea of tiny illuminated screens that never went off and, when in combination, produced an obnoxious glow that distracted everyone from everything. At one especially terrible session, a young woman sitting next to me was actually texting on an I-Phone with one hand, and scrolling through her favorite web content with her other hand. This is not an exaggeration.


02. The Lack of Prestige Films


Toronto has been unquestionably known as the launching pad for Oscar nominees. Last year they showed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, and Atonement (among a score of others), to smashing success and a parade of little gold men. In previous years, they brought out such Oscar war horses as Chariots of Fire, and American Beauty and led the way to glory. This year, none of the movies shown here look primed to be contenders. No one really loved the line-up.


There’s always hope for next year.


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Wednesday, Sep 10, 2008
Mazur reviews (and likes) three upcoming releases from Toronto that don't star women in the lead roles. Mickey Rourke for the Oscar?! What is the world coming to?

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.



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