Win Win (Tom McCarthy, USA)
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is the Dennis Denuto of his small New Jersey town. With business in a down-turn and unable to afford an I.T. guy, Flaherty is forced to fix his malfunctioning computer back-up system himself, between unblocking the toilet and attempting to find the source of a mysterious clanking noise which has begun to interrupt meetings with clients. At home there’s a tree in his front yard which needs to be cut down, but Flaherty can’t afford to get it done by professionals. The high school wrestling team he coaches is Bad News Bears bad.
To alleviate his financial woes he decides to assume guardianship of one of his clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly man in the early stages of dementia. Despite convincing the judge he would do this for altruistic reasons and promising to ensure Poplar would stay in his own home, Flaherty pockets the $1,500 a month that comes with the job and promptly drops Poplar in a nursing home against his wishes. The next day, troubled teenager and promising wrestler Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) appears on Poplar’s doorstep, and the Flahertys take him in until they can get in touch with his mother (Melanie Lynskey), which turns out to be longer than expected, and in the meantime Kyle enrolls at Flaherty’s high school and begins wrestling.
It’s a tried and true story with nothing to write effusively about, but at the same time there’s nothing not to like about it. Giamatti stutters and winces his way through another endearing performance as a sarcastic, pudgy 40-something with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a pained smile on his face, and Shaffer plays the aloof but intelligent teenager with quietness and maturity.
The primary conflicts in the film (the consequences of Flaherty’s ethical quagmire, Kyle’s mother’s true motivations) are all threaded together a little too neatly to be realistic, but director Thomas McCarthy, whose previous credits as a director include the well-received The Station Agent and The Visitor, brings the film to its inevitable “big match” conclusion with just enough genuine joy that you forgive its derivative nature. Some characters are redeemed and emerge from their personal darkness, others are run out of town with their tail between their legs, but after all is said and done you can’t help but feel satisfied, even if its been done before.
Rating: 3 stars
Senna (Asif Kapadia, UK)
Even those with no interest in motorsport will find something to love about Senna, a heart-breaking, moving biography of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna which is the best film I’ve seen this year.
Its greatness lies in the fact that it observes Senna’s life from three very different angles, and with exquisite editing brings them all together for a devastating conclusion.
The film begins with Senna’s career as a promising go-kart racer, and shows interviews with his parents in which they profess total support for their son’s passion even though they hold grave concerns for his safety. Senna’s mother in particular eloquently describes the constant conflict a parent feels when their child pursues a dangerous career, wanting her son to achieve his dream but aware of the fact that it’s a sport in which drivers are regularly injured and have been known to die at the wheel.
But Senna is exceptionally good, and the nature of his competitiveness is told in Senna’s own words as an athlete whose desire to compete and win is comparable only to the greatest athlete of the 20th century, Michael Jordan.
When asked in an interview at the height of his career to name favourite competitor to race against, past or present, he didn’t say Alain Prost (with whom he had had a turbulent relationship as the two best F1 drivers in the world for many years) or Nelson Piquet (a fellow Brazilian and himself a three-time F1 World Champion). Instead, he named a British go-karter against whom he had raced in the late 70s, and who forced Senna to push himself to be at his best in a pure racing environment. No money, no politics, just speed. This dogged competitiveness and inability to settle for anything less than the best would push Senna to continue to race even after one driver had died and another been seriously injured in separate incidents the day before his own death.
But while he was a fiercely competitive athlete he was also a conscientious citizen, and the film also frames his career through the eyes of a Brazilian people going through terrible social problems who saw Senna as their sole national joy at a time of great hardship. After his death, one woman at a public memorial said, tears streaming down her face:
“Brazilian people need food, education, health and a little bit of joy. And now that joy is gone.”
It’s terribly moving, but it’s nothing compared to the footage of Senna’s funeral, into which is spliced footage from early in his career when he is sharing happy moments with those closest to him. Senna’s mother lightly touches the coffin which holds her dead son, and we see footage of her kissing him on the cheek after a race years earlier, all smiles. A distraught girlfriend bows her head onto his helmet, sobbing, and we see earlier footage of the two sharing a joyful scooter ride in Europe. His father is barely able to look at the coffin, and needs support from his wife even to stand, and we see footage of him animatedly embracing and hugging his son after a World Championship win.
I feel like I understand Ayrton Senna having seen this film, despite having no previous interest in motorsport, and have a whole new outlook on the role athletes can play in society. Great documentaries transcend their subjects and become something more, and Senna is a great documentary.
Rating: 5 stars
Bullhead (Michaël R. Roskam, Belgium)
Matthias Schoenaerts is a sweating, raging, frothing, caged beast as the titular “bull head” in Michael R. Roskam’s psychological character study, set in the unlikely underworld of illegal hormone trading in Belgium.
A traumatic and humiliating experience as a child has profound effects on the attitude and outlook of the adult Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts) and his friend Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), who avoid each other for 20 years after Jacky has his testicles smashed by a bully and Diederik’s family refuse to let him testify. They are thrown back into each other’s company when the farm run by Jacky strikes a partnership with Diederik’s boss, a shadowy hormone supplier who has just had a police officer killed.
The grown up Jacky has struggled to come to terms with manhood and injects massive amounts of testosterone and growth hormones to become a mountain of a man, but is emotionally underdeveloped and almost completely unable to interact with his lifelong dream girl, the bully’s younger sister (Jeanne Dandoy).
Bullhead is part crime drama and part character meditation, but the two sides are unevenly paired and constantly at odds with each other. Beautifully bleak photography and an explosively shocking ending lingered with me after watching the film, but where the character study is incisive and confronting, the crime drama is disappointingly mediocre. The tragic consequences of Jacky’s accident touch the lives of all involved, from Jacky and his parents, to Diederik, and even the bully himself, but had this been explored in greater depth the film would have resonated far more intensely.
But Schoenaerts really is mesmerizing, and though Bullhead isn’t likely to be an international hit, I hope the actor is given opportunities outside his native Belgium because his performance is genuinely outstanding.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Guilty of Romance (Sion Sono, Japan)
After loving Cold Fish on day eight, I was eagerly anticipating the other film from cult Japanese director Sion Sono to screen at MIFF: the psychosexual Guilty of Romance.
The film begins with the discovery of a sadistic murder in a popular underground love hotel, where a woman’s body has been dismembered and partly re-attached to a mannequin. The word “castle” is painted on the wall in blood, surrounded by bright neon paint splashes. The significance of this grisly scene is not revealed until the very end of the film, and in the meantime focus is shifted to Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kagurazaka), who is in a romance-free marriage with a famous erotic novelist, her days consisting of repetitiously serving her husband as a slave would a master.
To escape her daytime life Izumi takes a job as a model, which quickly leads to work as a pornographic actress and eventually prostitution. Izumi wholly embraces her sexual awakening after some initial hesitation, and is ushered through the depraved world of love hotels by the experienced Mitsuko Ozawa, who is also a literary professor by day and encourages Izumi to exert the power of her body over men, a concept which is entirely foreign to Izumi.
As Izumi falls deeper into her self-discovery it simultaneously uplifts and destroys her, and a confrontation with her husband brings everything to a shattering climax.
From Cold Fish’s rhythmic, colourful opening titles and its first scene – where a character determinedly rushes through a supermarket to military marching music – I fell in love with Sono’s use of colour, perspective and the interplay between auditory and visual to create off-kilter contrasts. Guilty of Romance is even more richly colourful, with neon lighting dominating many of the more visceral scenes, and is one of the more visually arresting movies I’ve seen in years.
Unfortunately, the plot is lazily constructed, throws in some artificially pseudo-intellectual musings for seemingly no good reason, and rambles on for far too long (even though this international cut is 40 minutes shorter than its original running time). The person responsible for the killing also has the least on-screen time of nearly anyone in the movie, too, completely undermining what could have been a shocking ending.
Rating: 2.5 stars