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The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 5

Che

Director/Country/Time: Steven Soderbergh, USA, 235 min.

Cast: Benecio Del Toro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Franka Potente

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Argentine doctor helps facilitate Cuban revolution; fails to do same in Bolivia

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Noel's Take: There's a surfeit of ideas—both thematic and visual—in Steven Soderbergh's four-hour, two-part riff on revolución á Che, and the film definitely lingers in the mind, like a stimulating conversation. But while Che contains a number of amazing scenes, they're held together by mush, largely in the form of lengthy battle sequences that feel slapped-together. The first half of Che resembles one of Oliver Stone's history-writ-with-lightning projects, as Soderbergh mixes film stocks and jumps back-and-forth in time to mount a romantic, widescreen ode to Cuba in the late '50s, and the unlikely success of the ragtag band of intellectuals and peasants who stormed down from the mountains and seized the country. The second half deals with Che Guevara's attempts to repeat the experiment in Bolivia, only to find that outside agitators aren't as welcome there (unless they arrive in American soldier suits and beat back the rebels). The conventional wisdom on what Soderbergh is up to here holds that the first half shows the potential of idealism, and the second shows its limits; but that doesn't really do the scope of Che justice. It's also about winning hearts and minds, and the slow, grinding work of giving citizens a personal stake in their own liberation. (The first words out of Che's mouth whenever he comes upon a stranger are, "What's your name?") And it's about how the powers-that-be adjust to upstarts, and how those upstarts behave when they achieve power. (Though it's not enough about the latter, in my opinion.) In short: Che doesn't skimp on the depiction of the grinding effort behind Che Guevara's vision for Latin America, and Del Toro certainly doesn't skimp on his performance as the thoughtful-but-ruthless Che. But the persistent problem with Soderbergh's work is that he seems to approach his projects as "You know what would be neat?" first and foremost, and while he applies his substantial intellect to every movie he makes, I often wonder about whether he has as much burning passion for his subjects as he does clever ideas on how to shoot them. I found Che fascinating, but as with The Good German, Bubble, Solaris and several other recent Soderbergh films, I also found myself wondering frequently whether it needed to be made. The visceral, gut-level connection just wasn't there for me, and without it, the string of wilderness shoot-outs became something of a chore. A chore worth performing, but a chore nonetheless.

Scott's Take: It didn't seem possible for Soderbergh to make a film as perversely uncommercial as Solaris, but along comes Che, which takes history's most galvanizing revolutionary (at least, if dorm-room walls are to be believed) and deliberately sucks the drama out of his story. For four-hours-plus, Soderbergh focuses entirely on the grinding labors of getting a revolutionary movement off the ground—first triumphantly in Cuba, with Fidel Castro at this side, and in the second half Bolivia, where he and his comrades are permanently stuck in the mud. Soderbergh has said that Che is all about "process," and to that end, it's admirable for its quiet, uninflected scenes of Guevara slowly gathering a force from villagers in remote areas hundreds of miles from Havana. What he wants for them is simple: Hospitals and health care for children, reduced infant mortality rates, employment, and a government that's responsive to their needs. That's a decidedly unsexy agenda for a great warrior, but Soderbergh (and Del Toro, who slips into the role beautifully, never once calling attention to his performance) keeps his head down and explores the day-to-day life of guerilla fighters on the march. Still, it's important to note that Che is more compelling in theory than as an actual moviegoing experience: The action is disjointed, confusing, and never for a moment dramatized, and the second half, in particular, literally goes nowhere. (Incredibly, Magnolia Pictures has picked up distribution rights, which have been in limbo since Cannes. Needless to say, they have quite a marketing challenge on their hands.)

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Noel and Scott's Grade: B-

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The Wrestler

Director/Country/Time: Darren Aronofsky, USA, 105 min.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Has-been pro wrestler struggles to make ends meet

Noel's Take: I can't imagine a more perfect actor for the story of a wrung-dry former wrestling superstar than Rourke, whose plastic-surgery-altered face and chemically altered body doesn't require much make-up to appear worn and abused. And although I wouldn't have guessed it in advance, I now can't imagine a more perfect director for a story of wrestling and its discontents than Aronofsky, who lingers over the lurid details of combat showmanship—the razors, the barbed wire, the staple guns—and gives what might've been just another thinly plotted, often obvious indie melodrama a thick shot of viscera. The biggest flaw in The Wrestler is that much of it is predictable and familiar, including a subplot involving Rourke's estranged daughter that features a lot of stock "You were never there for me!" speeches. But even that flaw isn't too big, given that this story takes place in the milieu of a fake sport that relies on simple, manufactured drama. (There's something to be said for the eternal purity of stimulus: response.) Besides, this movie has its milieu down cold, from the under-filled small-town arenas that host the after-market wrestling circuit to the upbeat '80s metal and seedy strip clubs that form the foundations of the hero's habitat. There's a lot in The Wrestler about people who sell their bodies (including the turn by Tomei, playing an over-the-hill stripper not sure how to react to her only fan), and about the wreckage left behind once the milling throng loses interest. (There's a scene in an abandoned beachside fun park that's particularly effective.) But mostly, the movie rides on Aronofsky's wintry suburb-scapes and Dardennes-style follow-shots, and on the performance of Rourke, who plays a genuinely decent guy who doesn't let his dawning self-awareness get in the way of his knack for giving the fans a show.

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Grade: B+

Scott's Take: Because the script for Aronofsky's new film was written by Rob Siegel, former editor of The Onion and a personal friend, I have to recuse myself from registering my thoughts on it in public. I will say, however, that The Wrestler is easily Darren Aronofsky's funniest film to date—and you can quote me on that.

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Tokyo Sonata

Director/Country/Time: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 119 min.

Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Koji Yakusho

Program: Masters

Headline: For the downsized in Japan, the unemployment line is just the beginning.

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Scott's Take: Kurosawa originally made a name for himself with fine J-horror films like Pulse, Séance, and Cure—though the latter defies the label in many ways—more recent films like Bright Future and Doppelganger have been drifting into new territory, albeit with the same penchant for the bizarre and eerie. Tokyo Sonata lurches from austere family drama to whimsical comedy to something altogether unclassifiable, but if you can hang on for the tonal rollercoaster ride, it's a lot of fun. The beginning starts out like the great French film Time Out: Kagawa plays a businessman who loses his job, but rather than suffer the embarrassment of telling his family, he puts on his suit in the morning and pretends to go to work. Before long, he discovers that there's a whole subculture of unemployed men in suits who line up for food handouts in the park and loiter in the library during the day. Kagawa's shame eventually manifests itself in ugly ways at home and here the film suddenly takes a turn towards dark domestic melodrama. Then Koji Yakusho shows up and things just go completely haywire. It's hard to know what to make of Autumn Sonata, because it's so unsettling and off-balance, but Kurosawa gets at the dreams and frustrations of the average Japanese family at a time of great instability. And on that level, at least, people in these dismal economic times can relate. Grade: B

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The Other Man

Director/Country/Time: Richard Eyre, UK, 90 min.

Cast: Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Romola Garai

Program: Gala Presentations

Headline: Desperate husband tracks down and toys with wife's lover

Noel's Take: There's not much I can say about why this tasteful Euro-mystery doesn't really work without ranging too far into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that there's a key piece of information that's kept from the audience for roughly the first 70 of The Other Man's 90 minutes, and since I guessed early on that the big curve was coming, I couldn't help but groan at the many unnecessary contrivances required to keep the secret, and to think about how much better the movie would be if it played the story straight. Wasted in the narrative gamesmanship is an interesting dynamic between Neeson (playing an aloof upperclass type who starts to lose his shit when he discovers evidence of wife Laura Linney's affair) and Banderas (playing Linney's ex-lover, eager to hook up with her again). Neeson tracks Banderas to Milan, and disguises his identity in order to draw Banderas out over a daily game of chess. Neeson prompts Banderas to spin anecdotes about his trysts with Linney, in what might've been fodder for a darkly twisted psychological study. But that's not the kind of movie this is. It's just a twist-delivery machine, incapable of the emotion we humans call desire.

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Grade: C

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Detroit Metal City

Director/Country/Time: Toshio Lee, Japan, 103 min.

Cast: Kenici Matsuyama, Rosa Jato, Yasuko Matsuyuki, Gene Simmons

Program: Midnight Madness

Headline: Hard rock band has soft pop frontman

Noel's Take: I made it through about 30 minutes of this broad Japanese comedy before I gave up, thoroughly exhausted by the way it kept belaboring the same joke. Granted, the joke's not bad: a wimpy musician—who longs to make music that's "serious, yet trendy…like Cornelius"—is drafted to be the frontman for a death metal band, and risks losing the girl of his dreams because he screams songs about "raping 11 chicks in one minute." Based on a popular manga series, Detroit Metal City is very much a live-action cartoon, but even if it were animated, it would still be annoyingly shrill and one-note.

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Grade: W/O

Tomorrow: Bill Maher takes on religion, the grossest French horror film ever (supposedly), and the Paris Hilton movie Paris Hilton doesn't want you to see!

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