Thursday, April 23, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day One

The nice thing about spending a few days in Toronto is that I can go to movies all day and not feel guilty about it. I went to movies in Geneva, Paris and London--notably James Gray's Two Lovers (2008), Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972), Atom Egoyan's Adoration (2008) again, and Jean-Luc Godard's Le M├ępris (1963)--but always after a solid day of sightseeing. What am I missing when I go to the movies in Toronto? Cold weather and ugly architecture?

The first movie I saw was Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (2008), about organized crime in contemporary Naples. The film is audacious in the way it cuts between five different storylines with no immediate connection. The characters include a young boy of about thirteen who delivers groceries, a pair of would-be gangsters, a dressmaker, a respectable-looking middle-aged man who pays out money to different people, and a sleazy landfill owner. There's a hidden connection between two of the characters, which the film reveals mid-way through, but that notwithstanding, this is not one of those movies like Crash (2005) or Babel (2006), where the film tries to show how We Are All Connected through chance encounters and buried connections. Rather, what binds the characters is that their actions are regulated and determined by an all-pervasive mob corruption--one that doesn't seem to have a center but is everywhere.

Even at 137 minutes, the film bites off more than it can chew. (It ends with as much text as Il Divo [2008] begins with.) Without a word of exposition, the film throws us into the middle of everything and leaves us to find our bearings. It's never explained in so many words why one of the characters goes around giving out money to different people, but sooner or later you figure it out. On the other hand, I'm still not entirely clear on what the mob has to do with haute couture, although I guess they're producing knock-offs of designer dresses. Not all of the characters are well developed. The landfill owner's assistant bears mute witness to his boss' sleaziness for most of the picture, his discomfort clear almost from the outset, before suddenly taking a moral stand in the last scene in which he appears. Of course, it goes without saying that I prefer a film that tries too much to one that attempts too little.

Filmed in 'Scope by Marco Onorato, the movie is never less than exquisite to look at, despite the gritty realism of the locations and performances. The film moves between concrete slums and wide open country, and Onorato's lighting schemes are similarly varied, ranging from diffuse daylight coming in through windows, hitting the characters side-on, to hard institutional lighting from above, as when some of the characters go to a morgue. There's one especially beautiful scene with the would-be gangsters walking through a forest with the branches and leaves casting shadows on them. The soundtrack is also noteworthy, alternating between interiors with little ambient audio, and exteriors with a richly populated soundtrack of off-screen shouting and other sounds.

I suspect a lot of people will want to see the film for the same reason that Fernando Merielles' City of God (2002) was so popular in North America, despite it being in Portuguese with English subtitles: because it's about gangsters. Often young boys go to movies like this and come away thinking that the characters are cool, regardless of the filmmakers' intentions. To his credit, Garrone is keenly aware of this: An early scene shows the two would-be gangsters emulating Tony Montana from Scarface (1983). And this film has no equivalent for the Tommy DeVito character from Goodfellas (1990), the psychopath who kills people because he likes it. Incidentally, it's worth noting that while real mobsters were flattered by the depictions of organized crime in The Godfather (1972) and other Hollywood films, the non-fiction novel Gomorra is based on did such a good job of exposing the Camorra gang's activities in Naples that its author, Roberto Saviano, is now under permanent police protection. Of course, the films are the same no matter how people interpret them, but obviously there's a difference between studio filmmakers, like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, who are expected to make movies that will appeal to teenage boys, and an independent like Garrone, who's under no such obligation.

Similarly, I suspect some people won't want to see Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008) because it's about baseball, but it's also about a lot more than that. The film opens in the Dominican Republic where Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is competing for a spot at spring training with the Kansas City Royals. The film follows him to Kansas and then to Iowa, where he's selected to be the starting pitcher for the minor league team. The film shows how competitive baseball is at this level with so many excellent players vying for only a handful of positions; if a player starts performing poorly, he's unceremoniously dropped from the team and sent home. As one character puts it, "Life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball just gives you one." At this point, I thought I knew where the story was headed, but then it takes an unexpected turn, and the film's real subject--the opportunities for immigrants in America--comes to into focus.

This is only Boden and Fleck's second feature after Half Nelson (2006), and again they show themselves to be nuanced writers (there are no villains in this story) with a talent for coaxing fine performances from all their actors. However, their stylistic choices are often heavy-handed. One favorite device is a focus pull from one character in the background, framed in medium close-up, to another positioned closer to the camera, or vice-versa. (Interestingly, this device feels more naturalistic when it's tied to a pan, as in a church youth group meeting that Sugar attends in Iowa.) When Sugar starts doping, the film suddenly introduces anti-naturalistic sound cues--the dialogue is way down low, as if Sugar is listening from underwater, while the stadium lights behind him emit a loud buzzing noise--as well as oddly framed close-ups that lop off part of Sugar's face, a faster shutter speed, a shallower depth of field, and sudden, jerky pans and tilts. Like Gomorra, the film strives for realism, but where Garrone's pseudo-documentary style isn't tied to any one character's subjectivity (and accordingly, there are vastly fewer close-ups), Boden and Fleck draw from a larger range of stylistic options to make us identify with the film's protagonist.

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