TIFF Day 4: Eastern Promises, Religulous, Souffle

By JD McNamara 2007-09-10 01:48:20discussion comments
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TIFF Day 4: Eastern Promises, Religulous, Souffle image
Day 4 was one big film-noir sandwich and my best day at the festival thus far. The morning started off great when David Cronenberg actually showed up at 9 AM to introduce his latest film, Eastern Promises. He didn’t have much to say and I’m pretty sure he was still half asleep, but it always adds a little extra to have the director introduce his work in person. Next up was a special in which Bill Maher and Larry Charles presented a few extended clips from their upcoming mockumentary Religulous, and then remained on stage for an hour-long conversation with the audience. Needless to say, hilarity ensued and I’m especially glad I chose to grab tickets to that event. My third feature was another successful noir called Le Deuxieme Souffle, which capped a perfect day and the first time that I thoroughly enjoyed every film I saw.

Eastern Promises
Continuing in the vein of A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s latest film Eastern Promises is a smartly crafted thriller with his familiar touches of grisly violence. What makes Cronenberg’s grim sequences so profound is that they are so perfectly placed and cautiously used that they act as expressions of theme and atmosphere rather than simply death scenes. The shifty world of organized crime has long been perfected by Martin Scorsese, but with this film Cronenberg has once again succeeded in seamlessly weaving mafia dealings around the lives of ordinary people, creating something much different than Goodfellas, Casino or even The Departed.

Set entirely in London and revolving around a division of the Russian Mafia, Eastern Promises begins with midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) delivering the baby of a fourteen year-old prostitute named Tatiana. When the mother dies giving birth, Anna fears for the livelihood of the child, and with no more than Tatiana’s diary she is forced to try and find a proper home for the child. When she discovers a business card stuffed in the diary, Anna decides to visit the Russian restaurant in hopes that they know something about Tatiana or her family. However, the moment she mentions a diary to the fatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) his tone immediately changes and she is sucked into a world she knows very little about and wants even less to do with. As her contact with the Mafia continues, Anna meets Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), both of whom scare and disgust her. Braving the shadows of fear and doubt, Anna relentlessly searches for answers, putting her own fate in jeopardy in order to preserve the young child’s safety.

Eastern Promises is a beautifully made film, shot in a shadowy darkness and combined with ultra-real action scenes that put aside style and focus on raw energy to deliver absolutely breathtaking scenes. Watts is perfectly cast as the innocent but strong willed Anna, Cassel is excellent as the drunken fool Kirill and Mueller-Stahl is effortlessly menacing as the head of the Mafia family. As good as those three are, Viggo Mortenson steals the show as the even-keeled “driver” who keeps a low profile and knows much more than he lets on. He has a few highly memorable scenes and it is easy to see why he is a favorite tool of Cronenberg’s; they work well together and Mortenson seems to fully become the characters that are created for him. Eastern Promises is bold-faced entertainment with a conscience and it is surely one of the best films of the year.

4.5/5 Stars

Religulous: A Conversation
Religulous is going to cause a firestorm of controversy, you mark my words. Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect and Real Time with Bill Maher) and Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat) intend to make a mockery of religion, and that is going to anger A LOT of people. Under the guise of a comedy, Maher and Charles will express their true beliefs and say to hell (no pun intended) with what religious folk think. Well truth be told, I’m a religious person and I laughed pretty hard at both their assortment of clips, and the Q and A session that followed. They have some genuinely funny stuff on their hands and considering that they are both veritable comedic geniuses, I’m expecting the best from their final product. These two have traveled across the world to find some of the wackiest “believers” out there and it should be absolute gold. I do not doubt that I will disagree wholeheartedly with some of the points they will undoubtedly make, but it should be easy enough to shake them off and laugh about everything else. I’m actually looking forward to this one. I really cannot recreate the experience of listening to these two talk for you, but make sure you buy a ticket when Religulous hits theatres.

Le Deuxieme Souffle
Le Deuxieme Souffle is a modern film-noir that goes back to the 1960s in telling the story of infamous gangster Gu Minda (Daniel Auteuil), who daringly breaks out of jail after serving only part of a life sentence, subsequently drawing the attention of nearly every cop in France. A hardened criminal like Gu need not worry about most cops, but Inspector Blot (Michel Blanc) is no normal officer and he possesses the knowledge and skill to keep right on Gu’s tail. Supporting the convict in his efforts to disappear from France are trusted friend Alban (Eric Cantona) and former lover Manouche (the striking Monica Bellucci), who will seemingly do anything to help him escape. Despite their best efforts, there is one thing Gu requires before he and Manouche can vanish: money. Convinced they cannot survive on her money alone, Gu agrees to go on one last heist with some old friends in order to assure he has enough cash for life on the run. Although the heist is successful, things go awry in the aftermath when the Inspector catches everyone off guard, landing Gu in serious trouble.

Director Alain Corneau’s expertise in crafting film-noir is extremely evident in Le Deuxieme Souffle as he paints a vivid picture of the world of crime in France fifty years ago. Shady late-night meetings in bars or clubs, hitmen lurking beyond every corner, detectives sniffing around and a generally seedy atmosphere dominant the screen, basking in the dark shadows of a lost genre. The cinematography is breathtaking and the warm golden haze Corneau uses to light his sets helps us to sympathize with Gu and friends, who glow with a sense of innocence despite their actions. Working from a tightly intelligent script, the actors do a superb job in bringing their characters to life and enhancing the reality of the film. Gu is simply a brilliant character, criminal to the very core but instilled with such honour and loyalty by Auteuil’s brave performance that it is impossible not to root for him. Bellucci sizzles as the matriarch-like Manouche, strikingly beautiful and independent but deeply and soulfully in love with Gu. The two work off each other effortlessly and mesh perfectly with a worthy supporting cast that rises to their level every step of the way. As the story unfolds, we are pulled deeper and deeper into Gu’s life, left only to wonder if he can possibly make it out alive.

If film-noir is making a comeback, Le Deuxieme Souffle is a grand step in the right direction, and certainly a film I hope every fan of the genre gets to see. It’s a slick and enjoyable thriller that throws back to the noirs of old, while adding enough of a modern twist to assure its status as a contemporary masterpiece.

4/5 Stars

Tomorrow’s ScheduleR The Jane Austen Book Club - 09:00am
When Did You Last See Your Father - 12:00pm
Battle in Seattle - 03:00pm
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