Monday, November 6, 2017

WIFF 3: Pricking pretentiousness

(A note: some of the films screened at this year's Windsor International Film Festival are ones seen previously and have been reviewed in earlier posts; they won't be reviewed in  festival coverage.)

My final four films at this year’s festival were The Square, Integral Man, Loving Vincent and At Worst We Will Marry…..First, Ruben Östlund’s The Square (pictured left), which won top prize at Cannes, and follows on his powerful and morally disturbing 2014 Force Majeure. Morally disturbing is this as well, though done in a series of farcical set pieces, all fascinating, though the viewer might wonder what it all adds up to. The film breaks new ground in attacking the pretentiousness of the art world, a subject on which few in the cultural industry dare tread. But the movie is really based around a series of incidents afflicting an art museum director, Christian (Claes Bang), who at turns is robbed, accused of using his power to seduce women, and becomes a lightning rod over a gross publicity campaign. And there is the frightening hilarity of the 11-minute human ape scene…..Integral Man (Joseph Clement) is about Toronto professor James Stewart, who made a fortune writing mathematical textbooks – “the most published mathematician since Euclid” – and his 2009-built Integral House in Toronto’s Rosedale neighborhood. The film is a paean to the house’s intricate and breakthrough design, though a viewer, as I did, might find its atmosphere cold and austere and wonder what the fuss is about. Stewart, who lived only briefly to enjoy the house before dying of a rare form of cancer, also was a classical violinist, and the house remains a space for chamber concerts and philanthropic fundraisers……Loving Vincent (Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela), thankfully, was not a regurgitation of the wonderfulness of one of the world’s best – and best loved - painters. Rather, it explores, in detective fashion, the premise (based on a 2011 book) that Vincent van Gogh did not kill himself but was the victim of an oafish prank by the town’s fool. For some reason, the artist claimed credit, perhaps for aesthetic nobility. Technically, the movie is a richer colored animation paint-over of filmed dramatic scenes than, say, Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life; here 100 artists were involved. In fact, so realistic is it that it’s like watching an animated painting done by van Gogh himself……Finally, Quebec director Léa Pool’s At Worst, We Will Marry, also plays with murder and the heroic. In this case, 14-year-old Aïcha (Sophie Nélisse, an actor born in Windsor), a child of a broken home and sexually abused by her father, one day meets Baz, a man twice her age, and falls for him. He can’t dissuade her that there’s no future in their relationship, given the age difference. But, in a terrific and memorable performance as a very disturbed enfant terrible, she is incorrigible and haunts Baz, committing a crime for which he takes full credit. And that unlikely decision is the movie’s major flaw.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

WIFF 2: Screams from the post-industrial landscape

(A note: some of the films screened at this year's Windsor International Film Festival are ones seen previously and have been reviewed in earlier posts; they won't be reviewed in this week's festival coverage.)

The great Cate (Blanchett, that is) serves up another tour de force (after her 2007 Todd Haynes’s directed I’m Not There) in German director Julian Rosenfeldt’s Manifesto (pictured left)Make that a dozen or so uber performances, as she dons eclectic personas, and surrealistic backdrops, to shout out a melange of some of the world’s greatest art and political manifestos. Breathtaking!....I have truly fallen in love with Diane Lane. Yes, she’s a beautiful woman but it’s her acting skills which are sublime. In Eleanor Coppola’s delightful Paris Can Wait, she’s the bored taken-for-granted wife of a Hollywood tycoon, but who finds pleasure in the wining and dining overtures of a stereotypical French romantic (Arnaud Viard). You can’t take your eyes off Lane’s subtle, understated performance…..After Love (Joachim Lafosse) is a superbly acted film about a couple (Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn) divorcing but due to economic circumstances are still forced to live together. This film could be a textbook for theatrical students…..Ingrid Goes West is an hilarious romp of a film about a young woman (Aubrey Plaza as Ingrid), mentally disturbed, caught up in the semi-real world of social media. She becomes obsessed with a minor LA star (Elizabeth Olsen), eventually stalking and befriending her, in a movie that depicts social media’s toxic extremes……The Only Living Boy in New York has a stellar cast (Jeff Bridges, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Beckinsale and Cynthia Nixon) and has all the makings of a great film, at least in my book. The setting is New York, the principle character Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) is a young ambitious writer, there’s plenty of scenes among the Upper West Side literary set. But it gets bogged down by an improbable love triangle involving a father, son and the same woman. Moreover, other plot elements aren’t sufficiently explored, such as Webb’s writing talents or that of the gnarly hard drinking W. F. Gerald (Bridges). The film’s audio is also poor with much muffled dialogue…..Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune is a predictable send-up of early 1970's communal living. Anna (Trine Dyrholm) exuberantly wants to push the envelope of life experiences and recruits a group of people to live together (and share the expensive rent). But when her husband’s lover Mona (Julie Agnele Vang) moves in, Anna’s seeming New Age welcome (it is the Seventies, after all) crumbles in the wake of a traditional broken heart…..What to make of Happy End, Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest? Could it be subtitled “the family that is malevolent together stays together?” In a typical role, Isabelle Huppert as Anne Laurent is the matriarch of a construction company. Not only does she have to deal with a lawsuit arising from a workplace accident but that of the evil in the hearts of her own family. The great Jean-Louis Trintignant as her father is an irascible aged man and one can’t help feeling sad for the shocking declining physique of the famous real-life actor. The story borders on absurdity, and seems an Haneke throwaway…..A Bag of Marbles (Christian Duguay), based on an autobiographical novel, is a charming tale about two young French Jewish boys’ flight from the Nazis. While the film is sentimental its best features are its meticulously recreated scenes and sets, down to highly authentic newspapers and even splintered wood in nondescript objects like a drain pipe……Aurore (Blandine Lenoir) is a predictable feel good movie about a woman (Agnès Jaoui) entering middle age, with all the jokes about hot flashes, declining looks, and kissing frogs before meeting a prince. The movie’s a crowd-pleaser, especially among a certain demographic set (I counted two other men among the audience). 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

WIFF 1: the ghosts have it

(A note: some of the films screened at this year's Windsor International Film Festival are ones seen previously and have been reviewed in earlier posts; they won't be reviewed in this week's festival coverage.)

The ghosts have it, appropriately enough, given the time of year, so far, at the Windsor International Film Festival. My favorite film in the first couple of days of the seven-day event – now in its 13th year and which ends Sunday - is City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman), the portrait by a group of brave Syrian underground journalists – many of whom have been killed - under the name RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) who depicted the atrocities by ISIS in their then captured (now liberated) city…..This was followed by A Ghost Story (David Lowery) (picture above left), not so much a horror flick – though there are a few thrill moments – as a meditation on loss and life. The trailer – showing a “ghost” wearing the tell-tale sheet – looked almost laughable but I’m glad I saw the film because it transcends what, in a less competent director’s hands, could have seemed facile and unintentionally humorous…..Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) was a disappointment, not from a production or acting POV (Brian Cox as Winston Churchill is excellent) but from an historical narrative. The film makes Churchill, in the last year of the Second World War, out to be an incompetent boob, indeed a drunkard and a dotty old man. I’ve never heard of this description for someone considered perhaps the greatest figure of the 20th century. Indeed, one historian said the movie “gets everything wrong.” It left a bitter taste in my mouth…..Susanne Bartsch: On Top (Anthony Caronna) takes us behind the scenes with this generation’s Andy Warhol, eccentric model and avant-garde fashionista Susanne Bartsch. Why had I never heard of her before? In any case, Bartsch, in the 1980's, took up from where Warhol left off, throwing outrageous parties, celebrating over the top fashion as a way to transform the self as a creative, poetic act. “Life itself,” she says, “is an art form.” ….Heal the Living (Katell Quillévéré) is a well presented dramatic look at the issue of organ transplants. It just shows that even topics that usually are presented in dry didactic ways, if done right, can transcend rudimentary infomercials…..The Odyssey (Jerome Salle), is a biopic about Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer and his “oceanauts.” We may think of Cousteau as a sterling transformative adventurer who opened the undersea world to the general public. But, like many great men, he had some warts – he was a serial cheater on his long-suffering wife, somewhat vain and overly ambitious, threatening financially his far-flung enterprises. ….Graduation (Cristian Mungiu) continues Mangiu’s depiction of Romanian corruption (pre-and post-war Communism). It’s surprising for Westerners to see the kind of greasing the wheel that goes on in some countries, but it’s shown here, where even doctors are offered cash incentives to expedite surgery. Some good, intense acting if a dismal story….Thelma (Joachim Trier) is a slick Danish film about a young woman who has supernatural powers, diagnosed in the film medically as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, a real phenomenon. It’s unclear why these events take place but often profound things happen during her seizures: people are displaced, set on fire or disappear. It seems this is because Thelma (Eili Harboe) is rebelling against her strict Christian upbringing, an unfortunate cliché that mars an otherwise superb film. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Southern Ontario's two other film festivals

There’s not only the Windsor International Film Festival getting underway over the coming week. There are two other film festivals – in Sarnia and London - taking place around the same time. Sarnia’s Southwestern Ontario International Film Festival (SWIFF) runs Nov. 2 – 5 while London’s Forest City Film Festival kicks off today and runs until Sunday. The Sarnia fest is in its third year and the London fest is in its second. The Sarnia festival is run by Ravi Srinivasan, who also happens to be a programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) though he hails from Sarnia. SWIFF is screening 14 films, all at the 600-seat Imperial Theatre, a live arts centre in the city’s downtown. The Forest City fest, with 46 films, is run by Dorothy Downs, a filmmaker and TV producer with many ties to filmmakers throughout southern Ontario. And that’s a large reason why Forest City focuses only on films – local, national or international - in which there is a regional connection. For example, The Truth Is in the Stars features William Shatner speaking about the influence of Star Trek; it was written and produced by Stratford’s J. Craig Thompson. Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek, is produced by Aaron Gilbert, who grew up in London. There are even some Windsor filmmakers' works featured. The Ghost of Ed was shot in Walkerville by Charlie Conlon, and Love in the Age of Like  is by Windsor’s Theodore Bezaire, while Ashes was produced by Jake Raymond and stars Tanya Bevan – both from Windsor (with a third of the film shot here). Then there’s Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2, starring one of Canada’s best known actors, Colm Feore, originally from Windsor......Downs says her festival is designed to give a showcase to regional films that otherwise “are never going to have a chance to be seen by anybody locally.” The festival screens at two locations in one block downtown, and in its first year drew a “spectacular” number of people, she says. “We really believe in supporting the local artists, helping to build the industry, helping to encourage emerging filmmakers......” Meanwhile, back in Sarnia, SWIFF’s Srinivasan says the festival is held in early November – with some overlap with the Windsor festival - in part to “capitalize” on that city’s First Friday event, where stores stay open late to draw people downtown. He said for Friday and Saturday night screenings the draw has been about 500 people per night. (Only one film is screened at one time.) Despite working for the Toronto festival Srinivasan said he doesn’t book films through TIFF’s Film Circuit, which the Windsor festival uses. His fest contacts distributordirectly. SWIFF’s opening night film is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Other scheduled films include The Square and City of Ghosts – also being screened in Windsor.....The Forest City festival, registered as a charitable non-profit, receives $15,000 in municipal funding and $8,000 from Heritage Canada, and pays filmmakers for movies in competition. The Sarnia festival, a non-profit, receives $25,000 from the province and $15,000 from the municipality.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Iranian corruption, and a modern guys film

A couple more reviews from this year's Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal, which ended Sunday: 

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran): This film’s story is meant to be a microcosm for the corruption in modern day Iranian society. It’s an underground film because Rasoulof is facing jail time and the movie was shot, undercover, in the country’s remote north. It also won this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard prize. The film concentrates on Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad) who stands up against an unspecified local corporate entity that seems to run the local community, and which wants his land. His fish farm is destroyed, he is falsely jailed and forced to pay compensation to the town boss. His family’s downward spiral is sickening. This is a character-driven plot and Akhlaghirad is a good actor. But the film falters from its overwhelmingly melancholy, its slow pace, and an unrelenting bleak visual backdrop.  

Bernard and Huey (Dan Mirvish, USA): This film, from an unproduced screenplay by the cartoonist, screenwriter and playwright Jules Feiffer, is a little surprising for those of us who think Feiffer epitomizes the liberal sentiments of the New York’s Greenwich Village. After all, he drew the iconic cartoon strip the Village Voice newspaper for over 40 years. But these characters, Bernard and Huey, also inhabited that strip, at least in the 1950s. Bernard (Jim Rash) is the nerdish intellectual, Huey (David Koechner) the alpha male. Huey is an expert on women and sets Bernard up with women he’s dated. Twenty-five years later Huey shows up at Bernard’s apartment unexpectedly. The table is turned. Bernard scores with various women, Huey is fat and bald but as gregarious as ever. This is a male bonding lark. After all, what do men often spend their time talking about? Women and getting laid. The film is all New York, very contemporary, with interesting characters. But if you’re a woman offended by this sort of talk, stay away. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Move over Judge Judy, and Turkey's repression

More reviews from Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinéma 46th edition:

Ni juge, ni soumise (Jean Libon, Yves Hinant, Belgium-France): Move over Judge Judy. This film, featuring Brussels real life “examining magistrate” Anne Gruwez, is an up-close look at a judge meting out justice. This magistrate conducts business in her cluttered file-strewn office, with a couple of assistants, while lawyers and the accused, or witnesses, sit before her. Gruwez is matter of fact and no nonsense, nothing in the long litany of some pretty sordid cases seems to phase her. The film is a behind the scenes look at the criminal justice system by its participants, and nothing seems made up for the camera. Gruwez admonishes lawyers when they speak out of turn, cracks a joke if a defendant says something silly or insincere, warns one defendant it’s her head, not his, that will be on the block, if she frees him and he screws up. It’s all part of the day for the eccentric judge, who drives an old-fashioned Citroen, has a pet rat that tries to interfere with her typing, and quips with a police officer about how motorists must get out of their way when their have the police car siren on.  As she and a group of detectives go over a 20-year-old cold case, they laugh about whether a witness has dentures. They disinter a body from a grave and Gruwez says they should chip more bone off “to go with drinks.” But this individual is hardly belittling justice; instead she’s the personification of it. Crime, like life in general, is full of absurdities and Gruwez simply pays vocal heed to them. But life can be horrible too. The most disturbing case is an Islamic woman who has no guilt about strangling her baby because the child - "Satan" - was the offspring of a rape. Just when she thinks she has heard it all, the magistrate finds new surprises, like when a prostitute tells of what some of her johns want. “It’s funny, we learn stuff,” Gruwez says. “The thing with the pins.”  Ni juge, ni soumise is a tour de force of utterly candid observation, a film that deserves wide circulation.

Inflame (Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik, Turkey): This directorial debut which has had release at many film festivals including Berlin and SXSW has immediate resonance with what is going on in the increasingly authoritarian country of Turkey under President Racep Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s a metaphor for his slam down on civil liberties (170 journalists currently imprisoned, thousands of other professionals arrested and fired in mass sweeps after last year’s attempted coup) so it’s surprising the film actually got made. Ozcelik answered that questioned in a Q & A after the screening, saying that she received – surprisingly – state funding (along with crowdsourcing) in 2015, before the coup took place. The film – no surprise - currently can’t be shown in the country. In any Inflame (the Turkish title is Anxiety) is not about current events but an event that few in the West have likely heard of: the 1993 massacre of artists and intellectuals by Islamist terrorists in a hotel in the central Anatolian city of Sivas. It depicts a young TV news station editor (a fill-in for Ozcelik herself, who worked many years in television). Hasret (Algi Eke) increasingly finds herself subject to official dictates over how to edit film. Her news director says orders come from the state and are not to be questioned. She’s demoted from working on investigative documentaries to editing government minister speeches – to make them sound better, of course. These dictates so enrage and alienate Hasret she leaves her job and holes up in an abandoned apartment. This is where the “horror” part of the film, as Ozcelik described it, kicks in. Hasret imagines she’s in a burning building and the walls are getting hotter. She turns away an old friend who comes to check on her. She pulls panels off a wall which reveal a crude mural of people dying in a burning building. To her credit, Ozcelik’s message is right on and her use of surrealism is highly appropriate. But the movie falters by too much focus on Hasret’s angst and breakdown (we get it already), and the surreal touches aren’t executed well enough. This results in an at times boring narrative with an unintentionally diluted impact.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Nay and yay at Montreal's FNC

The 46th edition of the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), the city’s longest running film festival – and there are many here – got underway last week. The last time I attended it was in 2014. It’s been my intermittent Montreal festival. For years, I didn’t miss the earlier in the year Montreal World Film Festival and the autumnal Festival du Nouveau Cinema was optional. Now, with the MWFF pretty well tanked due to lack of funding – and mismanagement? – the FNC is pretty much all I have left in the city where I was born, and love. Without further adieu, here’s two reviews from today’s offerings:

Samui Song (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand): This is a wannabee outrageous crime drama. A veteran filmmaker himself, Pen-Ek was obviously influenced by Quentin Tarintino, Brian De Palma, and others of the blood-soaked human – and humor - ilk, but this effort falls flat. Vi (Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak) is a bored soap opera actress married to a millionaire potter Frenchman Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui), caught up in a spiritual Eastern cult. But he abuses her and in fact enables the “Holy One” cult leader (Vithaya Pansringarm) to rape her. She seeks revenge and conveniently meets the would-be assassin Guy Spencer (David Asavanond). He’s blood thirsty, alright, and there are some gruesome beating scenes including a joking one where Jerome is pummeled with one of his phallus sculptures. But the film takes a bizarre turn where a completely different woman (Palika Suwannarak) is raising a young son with her female lover. Guy shows up and tries to force her to eat offal. But he’s offed by a mysterious shooter, with unintentional hilarity – or maybe it isn’t, this film’s humor is so dry - showing just the gun’s muzzle poking through a cracked door. But is the final joke on us? It might be, since the last chase scene is being shot by a film crew. Finally, Vi is back to being her soap opera star self, and leaves the set arm in arm with the hated Holy One cult leader! But the obviously intended humor falls flat, ruined by a lack of script subtlety and on screen devices like an overmodulated menacing soundtrack.

Mon Ange (Harry Clevin, Belgium-France): This is one of the most inventive film stories I’ve seen in a while, and plays with the ideas of perception and reality, and is even philosophical. Beset by a trauma, a mother (Elina Löwensohn) gives birth to an invisible baby boy. The child grows and become infatuated with a little girl (Madeleine) next door, who is blind. She can sense and touch him but never can see him, not that she would be able to anyway. The years go by and she has an operation that allows her to see. Now she hopes to see her boy/friend (first platonic and then romantic) in the flesh. He sets a time to reveal himself but it turns out not to be what it might. The movie seems to be saying several things: would we judge people the same way if we didn’t see them? How important is physical beauty to a relationship? And how we “see” ourselves may be quite different from what we look like. Filmed at times through a foggy prism with a magic realist edge, and with plenty of close-ups of the beautiful Madeleine’s face as a child, teen, and adult (Hannah Boudreau, Maya Dory and Fleur Geffrier respectively), the film seems almost tactile, including with intimate shots of pinpoints on the skin during times of sexual arousal.