Friday, September 18, 2009

TIFF Day # 9: Vincere, Whip It, L'Affaire Farewell, Leaves of Grass and Nymph

So today was my last day of the festival, but I did not take it slow. I saw five films on my final day, and even if none of them were masterpieces, four of them were very good, and the final one was at least interesting. I am tired as hell, so this may be a little shorter than the other updates.

First up was Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (***1/2) his film about Ida Dalser, a woman who married a young Benito Mussolini in the years before WWI and bore him his first son. They seem to be in love, but when his political career takes off, and she realizes that he is already married, Mussolini wants to silence her. When she refuses to play along, she is sent to a mental hospital for most of her life. She is constantly told they if she will let it go, she will be released, and be reunited with her son - but she refuses. She holds steadfast to her belief that Mussolini still loves her, and this is just a test. The film calls to mind Clint Eastwood’s Changeling from last year, but this is much stronger, more confident film. Giovanna Mezzogiorno (an actress I have not been overly impressed with before), is great as Dalser. We feel sympathy for her, and yet there is an edge of madness to her as well. Filippo Timi, who plays Mussolini in the early scenes of the film (in later scenes, he is glimpsed just in newsreel footage) is also excellent. Younger, skinnier and oozing a dangerous sexuality, he also perfectly captures Mussolini’s bluster and ego. For Bellocchio, who has been making films since the 1960s, this is one of his best.

Next up was the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, Whip It (*** 1/2), which puts lead actress Ellen Page back in Juno territory. She plays a 17 year old in Bodeen, Texas, who does not quite fit in. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) forces her into the pageant circuit, although she hates it. Then she discovers roller derby, and falls in love with it. She hides it from her parents, but becomes a star in Austin. The film is certainly predictable from beginning to end, but it is also one of the best pure entertainments I saw at the festival. Yes, Ellen Page is playing a version of Juno here, but she does so brilliantly. She carries the film on her tiny shoulders, and you fall in love with her all over again. The supporting cast - especially Harden, Kristen Wiig, as a fellow roller derby player and Alia Shawcat (from the late, great Arrested Development) as Page’s best friend are also wonderful. Sure to be an audience hit later this fall.

From roller derby to the Cold War, the next film was French director Christian Carion’s L’Affaire Farwell (***), which focuses on a Russian intelligence officer (the great director Emir Kusturica, proving once again he is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind it) who in the early 1980s makes contact with the French government and offers to hand over state secrets. She ends up with an amateur (Guillaume Canet) contact, and the two bond over the course of their meetings. Kusturica does not want money or asylum, but simply wants to bring down what he considers to be an evil, corrupt empire, so that mother Russia can be rebuilt. Kusturica carries the film with his sympathetic portrayal of the “traitor”. Willem Dafoe is much better here than he was in My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? in a very small role as the CIA director. Fred Ward is less successful as Ronald Regan. He decides to play him more like George W. Bush than Regan, and the result is a schizophrenic performance.

The best film of the day was the next one. Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass (*** 1/2) a film that starts out as a coming home comedy mixed with a stoner movie, that gradually takes on more serious, philosophical tones (although it never loses its comic edge). The absurdist tone of the film calls to mind the Coen brothers (who Nelson worked for as an actor in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), even if Nelson is quite at their level yet. Edward Norton is brilliant playing two very opposite twins. One is a philosophy professor in Rhode Island, who has shed his family the same way he has shed his down home accent. The other still lives in Oklahoma, and grows the best pot of anyone around - which has got him into some trouble with some very bad people. When that brother fakes his death (“He was murdered by crossbow. They are inexplicably popular where I come from”) to lure the other one back home, the events of the film are set in motion. The weakness in the film is that the characters surrounding the Norton twins are not as well written as they are, although the performances by Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, Melanie Lynsky and Nelson himself help to paper over this. Richard Dreyfuss, in a one scene role, gives his best performance in years. As a Jewish drug kingpin from Oklahoma, his accent is a strange mixture of New York Jew and Southern hick, which is absolutely hilarious. This is as intelligent as comedy gets.

And perhaps I should have just called it a day then, because the final film of the day Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nymph (**) just was not able to win me over. Perhaps if I saw this film under different circumstances, I would have liked it more. But this largely plotless, largely wordless film just never drew me in. Yes, the film is utterly gorgeous - the first shot in the movie is a mini masterpiece - but its story about a married couple drifting apart out in the forest was just too strange. While he is drawn to the nature of his surroundings, she remains trapped in the technology she uses as a crutch, not to mention the affair she has been having. As I mentioned the film is gorgeous, and the lead performance by Wanida Termthanaporn as the wife is quite effecting, the movie just never really got under my skin the way it should have.

So that’s it for now on TIFF 2009. Although there is one more day, I will not be attending. Tomorrow, they will announce the few awards that the festival gives out. Stay tuned, because sometime this weekend, I will give out my own awards based on the 27 films I have seen at this year’s festival. It was a good one.

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