Articles

September 19, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “The Survivor,” “Charlotte” & “I’m Your Man”

 

THE SURVIVOR (no distrib):  So many films and television productions have tackled the subject of the Holocaust over the decades that it takes real effort to break through with a story that feels fresh.  Barry Levinson’s The Survivor is his strongest film in years, and it manages to have an impact.  The script by Justine Juel Gillmer is similar in some of its structure and themes to Sophie’s Choice, although this is a true story, based on the book by Alan Scott Haft, the son of its subject Harry Haft (Ben Foster).  Haft survived Auschwitz due to his boxing skills, which were utilized in a particularly awful way:  the Nazis (personalized here through the officer Schneider, played by Billy Magnussen) had him brutally fight other inmates for their amusement, the loser to be murdered thereafter.  Although there are extensive black-and-white flashbacks to that period in Haft’s life, the bulk of The Survivor takes place after the war, when Harry had emigrated to the US and was pursuing a career in the ring.  He had some success, culminating in a bout for the middleweight title against Rocky Marciano, but he was wracked with a particularly acute survivor’s guilt because of what he’d done in the camps, some of which he poured into an obsessive search for the fate of the girl he’d loved before the war.  One of the people who assists him in his efforts is Miriam (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread), who works for a survivors organization.  The film is the story of Harry’s healing, and it rests on the shoulders of Foster’s performance.  Much will be made of the physical demands of the role, which included a massive weight loss for the Auschwitz sequences and bulking up for the post-war boxing, but as with his classic forbears like DeNiro in Raging Bull, Foster’s acting here is much more than the fluctuations of his weight.  It’s easily the best work Foster has ever done, with space for Harry to be gentle, weary and even funny, as well as shamed and enraged.  He gets fine support from Krieps, Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo as boxing trainers, and Saro Emirze as Harry’s brother.  Gillmer’s script is well structured, and if it hits some Holocaust tropes–Magnussen’s sneering Nazi may have a bit too much of Ralph Fiennes’ in Schindler’s List–those are balanced by its insights.  By definition, The Survivor isn’t going to appeal to all audiences, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon of its subject.

CHARLOTTE (no distrib):  Without being flippant, a person truly had to lead an unhappy life if the Holocaust was just the next terrible thing to happen to them.  Charlotte is the story of Charlotte Salomon, whose tragic existence was marked by depression and family suicides even before the Nazis came into the picture, so although its ultimate message is meant to be inspirational, it’s inescapably tough to watch.  The wrinkle here is that Salomon was a unique artist, a woman who by the time she was in her 20s had already completed more than a thousand autobiographical paintings, which when published after the war as a life story were considered to form the world’s first graphic novel.  Filmmakers Eric Warin and Tahir Rana try to do justice to Charlotte’s art by telling her story in animated form.  Sadly, they appear to be out of their depth.  Visually, the film’s animation is conventional and drab compared to the samples of Salomon’s own work reproduced here, while the script by Erik Rutherford and David Bezmorgis is an uninspired recounting of one distressing event after another.  The strong English-language cast includes Keira Knightley as Charlotte, as well as Jim Broadbent, the late Helen McCrory, Sam Claflin and Sophie Okonedo, who are able to do only so much with the material they’ve been given.  The desire to commemorate Salomon’s life and art is understandable, but in this case the result doesn’t live up to the goal.

I’M YOUR MAN (Bleecker Street – Sept 24):  A low-key sci-fi rom-com, Black Mirror as a Hallmark movie.  Alma (Maren Eggert) is a scholar of ancient languages who’s been appointed as one of the experts to judge the effectiveness of a new line of romantic partner robots who are personally crafted for the buyer.  Tom (Dan Stevens, speaking German) is her designated mate, and she unwillingly takes him home.  The opening stretch of Maria Schrader’s story (she wrote the script with Jan Schomburg) is routine robot-trying-to-be-human stuff, as Tom has to face the challenges of a cocktail party and other civilians with the awkward banter his algorithms supply.  Alma is initially hostile to the whole idea of Tom’s existence, but naturally that changes over time, as she starts to compare his sensitivity to her needs with the very fallible humans around her.  There may have been a way to make I’m Your Man work, and perhaps in the original German it does, but in subtitles it feels stiff and overdetermined.  Even though Stevens does an efficient job with the technical challenges of his role, and Eggert is likable, there’s no sense of chemistry between them, and the script doesn’t provide much wit or imagination beyond the basic premise.  The sentient AI sci-fi subgenre is a crowded one, and I’m Your Man isn’t state of the art.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on screened.com and the-burg.com. In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."