Monday, August 29, 2016

And now for some Montreal fest reviews

MONTREAL - Despite a shrunken schedule, resigned professional staff, last minute changes in programming, the Montreal World Film Festival is functioning pretty much without interruption, all films having been consolidated into one theatre (which the festival owns, so no rent issues), and a schedule that remains pretty much on time from 9 am until late night. I suggested to festival staff they run films round-the-clock and turn a crisis into an event, but was met with a frown. Oh well. Here are my capsule reviews for films I’ve seen so far, in order I saw them.

Camp Holland (Boris Paval Conen). I was expecting this Dutch film, about Holland’s role in the war in Afghanistan, would follow the path of so many recent war films – in other words, blame the West for war crimes, etc. But it refreshingly took on the stultifying Allies’ Rules of Engagement, which are so tightly written Afghan villagers die at the hands of the Taliban while Western troops stand down because commanders won’t issue orders to fire. Would an American have made this film?

Love Maybe (Michael Kreihst, Austria). This is a take on contemporary romance, particularly cheating, and showing the consequent highs and lows of affairs, making those who participate realize that with the excitement of new love comes depression from the debris left behind.

The Seal of the Sun (Taiyo No Futa). This Japanese film goes to great efforts to reconstruct how the Japanese government responded to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. There are extremely detailed scenes of the panic that enveloped top government officials - including a stalwart prime minister – and the authorities’ often maladroit response to an event that could have destroyed an entire country.

The Unexpected (Zhanjun An, Vhina). For some reason – the tight living quarters, the close family connections – this film, which goes back and forth in time - alternating in black and white and colour - reminded me of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. But that’s where similarities end. This is a tale of a woman caught between the desires of two men, consequently exploited, and blames herself. Terrific acting from all and a searing performance from the female lead. 

The Last Birds (Son Kuslar, Turkey). It’s hard to know what the plot is about in this film which has a rural village’s native son return after years in the city. He likes to hunt, to the villagers’ disdain, setting up a confrontation. Is the film about urban versus agrarian values, dysfunctional city versus rural life? It's hard to tell.

My Italy (Bruno Colella). This is a modern, whimsical, zany take on the 18th century’s Grand Tour of Italy, where artists, intellectuals and the upper crust would travel to Italy, considered then as today the world’s capital of art. Several accomplished contemporary artists are featured in part-documentary, part-dramatic, roles, and in stories that are at once humorous, insightful, and sometimes plain bizarre.

As Far as The Eye Can See (David Franklin). This American film pits a one-time accomplished classical pianist against his own demons back on his rural farm in Texas. The film explores themes of wasted talent and the pride of “those who made good” in rural communities. The film could have benefitted from more exploration of central character Jack Ridge’s (Jason London) emotional angst, but features a stand out performance from up-and-comer Jasmine Skloss Harrison as Alyssa, an older-than-her-years mentor to him.

Swaying Waterlily (Seren Yuce). My favorite film of the festival so far, this is a pitch perfect take on modern middle class life, Turkish-style, which is exactly the same as anywhere else in the world. Two couples are the closest of friends. Yet their desires – including sexual – career jealousies, and even lifestyle choices, are grist for their sometimes grating psychological mills.

SFashion (Mauro John Capece). In a world riveted by globalization a famous Italian fashion house can no longer sell goods at the prices it always commanded. Efforts to adapt by cutting costs leads to a cash shortfall and a spiral downwards as the firm, with its sprawling manufacturing campus and hundreds of workers, is forced to close. The story centers on the daughter of the original owner and her nightmares, often depicted in magic realism, as she loses control of a company that is obviously her very life. 

Comment J'ai Rencontré Mon Père (Maxime Motte, France). This comedy tries to place the world wide immigration and refugee crisis within the context of one family, whose adopted black son one day discovers an African washed up on the beach. He immediately claims him as his dad. The family goes into contortions trying to protect and smuggle the “immigrant” to England. The story’s feel-good nature glosses over obvious unethical efforts by the clan, one of whom is a respected court judge, and typically dismisses the difference between a legal and illegal migrant.

Contribution (Sergey Snezhkin). During the Russian Revolution, after the White Russian Army seizes a former Red Army controlled city in Siberia, the White Army commander demands that local business leaders provide money to replenish the army’s dwindling stocks. An exquisite diamond – which can be cashed - is supplied by one, only to almost immediately disappear. A captured Red Army investigator is told to find it by 9 pm or he will die. This is an interesting take on the parlor whodunit, with some great acting.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Festival hanging by a thread

MONTREAL - Well, the Montreal Word Film Festival hasn’t crashed, at least not completely. Arriving in the city yesterday I feared the worst (see Aug. 24 post below). Back in July I’d bought a pass online and expected to be here until next Wednesday. Normally I see five or six films a day. With a massively truncated scheduled – all films being shown at just one venue instead of the usual seven or more – and crowds converging at one spot, would I even be able to get into the films? Not to worry. The word obviously went out and the vast majority of people who usually attend the festival, thinking it had died or was in major crisis – as it is - decided to stay home. So I got into four afternoon and evening movies Friday with no problems, as most people decided not to attend. There were about three-four dozen people at each screening, the historic Imperial Cinema dwarfing them. These people, indeed, are the diehards, as the Montreal media likes to point out. On the bright side, though I don’t take pleasure in saying it, it’s easy to get into every film one wants and attendees are joking they don’t have to make tough decisions about which which of several films to see in any one slot. That’s because there is only one film showing per time slot. Mind you, on the fest’s full second day – today - attendance was up this evening, perhaps because word has spread the festival isn’t a total disaster and what is being screened is adhering to schedule, thanks to a loyal handful of volunteers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Montreal fest dead as a doorknob?

Ironically, the 40th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival, which I have attended for all but about five editions, might be collapsing. The festival has been struggling the last few years amidst axing of government funds, acrimonious relations with the Quebec film community (many Quebec directors have long refused to have their films premiered there, for example), toxic relations with the media, and last year, a situation where festival founder Serge Losique couldn’t immediately even pay staff, is foundering on the eve of its official opening….A friend in Montreal emailed yesterday that on Monday he tried to pick up tickets and a program, which only went live on the festival’s website a few days ago. No luck. The theatre was closed, with the date of sale bumped up to Tuesday. He went back Tuesday. Theatre still closed.  Now they’re supposed to go on sale today. And there is no printed program, only online…..Then in this morning’s Montreal Gazette I read that most of the festival’s 15 staff have resigned citing the fest’s precarious finances. The fact the festival took so long to announce its program led to increased speculation it would not even come off. Then the PDF version of its program was released by the weekend and all looked well. Now this…..I have been a strong supporter of the festival for years, largely because I have seen such extraordinary good films these past four decades. I’ve also like how efficiently the festival has been run (unlike festivals with volunteers this one rents professional staff) and the close proximity of its venues. But I was not going to go this year if the employee pay dispute had not been settled. It only got settled in February after the staff took their case to a government agency….Now, according to the Montreal media, the festival has yet to pay to rent its main venue, the Cineplex Forum (that’s right – where the Montreal Canadiens used to play)…..Losique, stubborn and secretive as he is, has always somehow pulled the festival off. But this year – ironically on is 40th birthday – he might have finally run into a big brick wall.

Last weekend I attended the director Marcie Begleiter’s documentary Eva Hesse, about the acclaimed 1960’s abstract artist, at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). Hesse is notable because she was the only woman – as one colleague described her, “one of the boys” – in a New York art world that was male – even macho - dominated. Her sculptures were breakthroughs in what they said about ephemeral life, the place of women, and the use of materials. The Detroit Institute of Arts had one of her most famous works, Accession II. The documentary takes us back to that black and white period of 1960s Greenwich Village with some great archival stills and video, that makes you appreciate this visionary artist and her amazing output over just a few years before a very untimely death….Eva Hesse continues this weekend at the DFT.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Woody Allen's latest, and sitcom's king

Woody Allen’s Café Society (at the Landmark Main Art) is a composite of several Allen themes – the jazz era, pre-World War II New York, the pre-war struggling American Jewish family, showbiz and, alas, romance – a subject that transcends eras. Set in the 1930’s the movie tells the story of nebbish Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who leaves his Bronx family to seek fame, or at least a job, in Hollywood. Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an uber talent agent and hosts luxurious parties at his swanky Los Angeles home. He eventually hires Bobby and has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show him around LA. Naturally Bobby falls for her. Trouble is, she’s having an affair with uncle and is torn between the two men. Woody Allen narrates the scenes and Eisenberg channels the typical Allen character, insecure and horny but ambitious in his own way. This movie has been getting generally positive but not outstanding reviews. One aggregated criticism is that Allen luxuriates in well worn store lines from previous films. I can see that. Yet I loved this movie nonetheless. The acting is terrific, the stereotypes are so sharply defined as to make you often guffaw. The costumes are impeccable and the sets knockouts that should get a nomination or win an Academy Award. Every interior scene – from Uncle Phil’s deeply veneered office to Bobby’s Hollywood hotel room, to Bobby’s crooked New York brother’s (Corey Stoll) nightclub, are sumptuously gorgeous.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (at the Detroit Film Theatre) is a well made doc cataloguing the great television sitcom creator and writer’s career. Norman Lear, of course, created All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. At 94 he’s still vigorous and engaged, often largely in politics. Politics and Lear are inseparable, at least from the 1970s (he wrote many film and TV scripts before that). His breakout of course was All in the Family. But I didn’t know it was largely based on a British sitcom, Til Death Us Do Part, featuring a father and son-in-law at each other’s political throats, just like Archie Bunker and Michael Stivic. Similar enough, at least from the one scene of the Brit show shown here, to make you wonder if it was a rip off. In any case, All in the Family begot Sandford and Son (also based on a Brit sitcom), begetting Maude, begetting The Jeffersons, etc. etc. The film’s centerpiece is the political conventions that Lear’s shows blew up – whether it be challenging bigotry, racism, portraying strong women (Maude) or suburban materialist angst (Mary Hartman). But Lear got blow back of his own, from black activists challenging his cardboard stereotypes in a show like Good Times. Ewing (from Detroit) and Grady also made Detropia (2012), a somewhat stereotyped and technically more pedestrian portrayal of Detroit’s decline and dystopic landscape (see posts Sept. 13 & 15, 2012). The directors have certainly grown in ability in those few short years. Norman Lear is a highly adept effort that intertwines present and historic film footage and interviews, providing a vivid and well-rounded depiction of its subject.  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Traverse City: and three for the road

My final three films at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival were Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016) and Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)……The first two are documentaries. Life, Animated, is a film about understanding autism, or at least providing a possible doorway into how people with the mental condition might be able to better communicate with the rest of the world. We meet Owen Suskind (photo left), who develops seemingly normally until the age of three, when he starts to show atypical behaviour. But, as he grows into childhood, his parents inadvertently discover he can communicate through the dialogues of cartoon characters, in this case those of iconic Walt Disney films. Suskind grows into a somewhat independent adult and his innate intelligence makes him a leader among others with autism, in a chronological film that is at once absorbing and enlightening, and bonds the audience to a cheerful and indeed witty human being…..Trapped is a searing account of the kind of TRAP (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers) laws that increasingly are restricting women’s access to abortions, mainly in southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. As “pro-life” or anti-abortion legislators seek to increasingly restrict abortions, numerous clinics have closed because they can’t meet stringent regulations governing how their facilities operate, endangering women from obtaining safe therapeutic abortions. These are not controls over clinical procedures but extremely detailed rules over such irrelevant matters as hallway widths, even how high the lawn on the clinic property can be. Still, a few clinics forge on in the face of legislative mandates and ongoing protests outside their doors by anti-abortion activists, one of whom tells a black woman considering an abortion that “black lives matter,” which evoked audience laughter given the general context in which that phrase is used these days ……Finally, Sing Street is a feel good drama about a bunch of 1980s Dublin school boys who form a band, initially imitating their heroes of the era like Duran Duran and The Cure. The movie comes from the same director who made Once (2007), about a busker (Glen Hansard) who teams with a Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) and make beautiful music together. But whereas Once was extraordinarily charming because of the chemistry between the two actors and the genuinely glowing music they made, Sing Street suffers from a plot that takes a long time to get going with characters and theme that fall a little too much into cliché…..The festival – the 12th annual in beautiful Traverse City, MI, at the height of the summer tourist season - ends today.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tacking to satisfying dramatic resolution

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Of the films I’ve caught so far at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, the French One Wild Moment (Jean-François Richet, 2015) was the best. The film, starring stalwarts Vincent Cassel and François Cluzet, is in the best tradition of the French farce-drama. The film is tightly edited and extremely well-paced, and on the button for stringing the viewer along in subtle suspense. Two middle aged best friends and their daughters (photo left) arrive in Corsica for a summer idyll. There are numerous instances where the plot could have gone in various directions but doesn’t until it reaches its key dramatic stepping-off point, and even here the narrative could have migrated but the director honed to his satisfying desired end…….In Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes, 2014) - and the festival’s opening night film - Mark Ruffalo plays a larger than life character in Cam, a father of two young girls and husband of Maggie (Zoe Saldana) who can barely stay married to him because of his failure to self-medicate his manic-depression. Ruffalo is very good in the role, so much so you wonder how he was able to keep the intensity scene after scene. But the movie is overly long and suffers from repeating the same emotional dynamics without coming to firm resolutions……Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts (Yngvild Sve Flikke, 2015), from Norway, plays with the movie cliché of women waking after a night with a new lover and donning his oversized Oxford shirt. Sigrid (Inga Ibsdotter Lilleaas) is a young feminist who abhors clichés, especially of the relationship variety. But that doesn’t mean she’s not looking for love, and falls for a cerebral writer twice her age, leading to more self-evaluation. Meanwhile, a couple of other disparate characters – a performance artist (Henriette Steenstrup) and a long ago radical author, Agnes (Anne Krigsvoll) - are symbols struggling through their own feminist-imbued dilemmas……Kings of Kallstadt (Veronika Schramm, 2014), from the poster, seemed like a mockumentary of Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. It is, but at a very low level. What it’s mostly about is Trump – and the Heinz family, of Heinz ketchup fame's – ancestral home of Kallstadt, Germany. The filmmaker interviews townsfolk in the quaint village, many noting their linked heritage to the American business tycoons whose families left hinterland Germany generations ago. The documentary has a mild satirical edge, describing the town’s insularity and idiosyncrasies, including the local delicacy, pig stomach. But if the audience was expecting outright mocking of The Donald they were likely disappointed. Most villagers actually said they admired the man for his business smarts and assertiveness……  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moore threatens to quit Traverse City

TRAVERSE CITY, MI - Michael Moore says he will quit Traverse City and its renowned Traverse City Film Festival – now in its 12th year – if local merchants continue “gouging” patrons who attend the increasingly popular fest. “If this becomes an Aspen, I’m leaving,” he said. The famous and controversial documentarian was speaking before an audience at the festival’s opening night screening of Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes,  2014). Fearing the small resort city in northern Michigan could “turn into Aspen” with its notoriously high prices, “where only those with money can live here and be here,” Moore castigated merchants who were charging as much as several hundred dollars for accommodation. “Now when I learned this year that some of those motels and hotels are charging $600 and $700 a night gouging people who come here I have to really kind of seriously reassess,” he said. “Because I did not create this for (people) to become greedy.” Moore has thrown equity and sweat into the festival, including the restoration of Front Street’s stately old State Theatre – now in its 100th year – and the creation of the Bijou by the Bay a few blocks away. Moore said he was at a meeting with community business types earlier in the day and when he complained, was told “it’s a matter of supply and demand.” That, in essence, is capitalism and the free market, something that Moore’s personal political views are, shall we say, somewhat at odds with. “I get that,” he said. Then he turned around the question. “So how about this, how about I start charging $50 to $100 a head to see a movie here (at the TCFF)? Then we’ll see how many of your $700 rooms you’re going to sell.” …..This year’s festival is dedicated to films by women directors, for which festival staff over the past year scoured the planet. Movies, Moore said, over the decades, overwhelmingly have been made “by the same damn white guys over and over.” Yet in Europe as many as 40 per cent of films are made by women in Scandinavia, 14 per cent in the UK, but in America only “two per cent,” despite Hollywood’s well known “liberal” bonafides. Moore said in their search for films made by women, by April, festival staff got “way over what we needed” so female directors are front and centre at the event, which Moore hopes will help change the dynamic for women and get their films regularly up on the silver screen…..Appropriately enough, a short film before last night’s main screening featured several of this year’s festival’s women directors dancing with attitude to Aretha Franklin’s Respect….The Traverse City festival’s popularity is attested by the fact that, before it had even begun, most of the screenings were sold out, a far cry from when I last attended the event in 2011…… TCFF runs through the weekend.