Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Early Montreal film fest highlights

Some of the highlights so far at this year's Montreal World Film Festival, which continues until Sept. 2:
At Middleton (picture left), Adam Rodgers’s first feature, stars Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga as a couple of 40-something parents taking their kids to an orientation before they set off to college. But most of the fun takes place between the parents, who see themselves as polar opposites but connect on the one thing they share sarcasm. This is a send up of modern college life, political correctness and, not least of all, young women’s addiction to cell phones.

Adieu Paris: Accomplished German director Franziska Buch’s latest film is as much about the many splendours of love as it is about life and loss, personally and professionally, and what can be gained even from adversity.
Lost in Laos (Alessandro Zunino), a crowd favourite, is about a couple of Italian 20-somethings  who head off to the infamous village of Vang Vieng, Laos for a holiday of hedonistic partying in a tourist mecca long sought out by young Westerners. Then they run into the real Laos.  
The Flower of Shanidar (Gakuryu Ishii) is a Japanese sci-fi flick about a corporate laboratory which harvests exotic flowers for a miracle drug from the flesh of women who are carefully chosen as hosts. There are references to human beings’ primitive connectedness to nature. The film is disturbing for its depictions of the extremities of science and medical ethics.
Citizen Marc (Roger Evan Larry & Sandra Tomc) is about the trials and tribulations of Canadian marijuana activist Marc Emery. But what the film reveals is the wider scope of Emery’s activism as a libertarian anti-government crusader, a devotee of Objectivist Ayn Rand. Emery almost single-handedly defeated Sunday shopping laws in Ontario. But he was extradited to the US after the Stephen Harper government agreed to turn him over for selling marijuana seeds, an alarming decision.
Gaming Instinct: What happens when a brilliant but bored teen hooks up with an equally bored but arrogant classmate, both of whom despise the society around them. A philosophical game emerges where they target someone to get him to escape his personal prison by any means necessary.
Café Ta’Amon (German director Michael Teutsch) is about a café on Jerusalem’s King George Street that has been the ancient city’s most famed gathering spot for intellectuals. The film also portrays Israel’s New Left in the aftermath of the Six Day War to oppose the "occupation" of former Arab land. Israel even had a Black Panther Party. Who knew?

Silvi Maybe Love by Germany's Nico Sommer is the latest twist on the theme of the 40-something divorcee trying for a new start. Lina Wendel as Silvi places personal ads but meets losers who turn out to be sexual freaks. This plot may seem farcical but it’s tempered by subtly and good performances.

Bozo: This Japanese film by Tatsushi Omori is a portrait of alienation in the character of a modern factory worker trapped in a Kafkaesque existence from which he feels he can’t escape, leading him down immoral roads.
Hanna’s Journey (Julia von Heinz) pits a young German business student against her country’s Holocaust past when she decides to go to Israel to work with disabled people so it will look good on her resume. She confronts a society that is a direct response to her grandparents’ Nazi past.

The Don Juans by the Czech Republic’s most esteemed director (and this year’s Montreal film festival president) Jiří Menzel, is a romp through the day to day rehearsals of a fictitious small opera company. Great performances in a film which is both a deconstruction of one of the world’s high arts as well as an obituary on the death of high culture generally.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Montreal fest fine, despite the negativity

So I’m back at the Montreal World Film Festival, 37th edition….It was depressing attending my first screening Friday 7 pm at Cinema Imperial – and introspective and delightful Irish film called Run & Jump (Steph Green) - where the audience was sparse indeed, looking like what you’d see at a third tier festival, not this city’s premier event. There’s been a lot of talk in Montreal about lower attendance this year and this was a perfect example. Who’s to blame? Don’t know. But it seems the press has had some hand in it, casting a pall over the 12-day festival. Why, for example, does my cousin, who’s never attended the festival and has no interest in these kind of films, tell me he’s heard the festival is “not very good?” It can only be because he gets it from the media. In any case I rebutted Montreal Gazette columnist Brendan Kelly’s negative take: And my response: I guess in Montreal, after so many years (there’s been a kind of ongoing war between the media and fest director Serge Losique) people get jaded, despite the fest’s cornucopia of films – about 400 titles (roughly 200 features) from around the world, the likes of which you’ll see in no other festival in North America, and I mean no other. The true beauty of the Montreal festival lies in its international flavour. By and large these movies aren’t going to screen in any other city's film festival let along some art house cinema next February. You see a great Italian, Swedish or Japanese movie here or you don’t see it at all.  But I’m an outsider so what do I know? ….Anyway, getting back to the attendance, while the crowd was depressing for Run & Jump audiences started picking up Saturday and Sunday. (Is the public defying the critics? Would be nice.) And people with whom I’ve spoken have had generally good things to say about what they’ve seen. Of the 17 films I’ve attended all were good-to-excellent with the notable exception of one, The Red Robin (Michael Z. Wechsler), which I walked out on. Despite predictions of rot maybe this year’s festival has a better than average offering. It's off to a very good start.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blue Jasmine - a whiff of burnout

While I awaited with bated breath Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, one thing I definitely wasn’t looking forward to was seeing his leading man, that being one Alec Baldwin. Baldwin has got to be one of the most obnoxious figures in Hollywood. And recently he outdid himself by making an outrageous anti-gay remark about a British journalist (look it up). But I had the last laugh – and more – after seeing the movie on the weekend. For one thing, Baldwin plays the most hideous of characters – Hal, a sleazeball millionaire investor, much like Bernie Madoff – who uses other peoples’ money to enrich himself. He has absolutely no morals. Second, one of the sponsors (product placements) in the movie is a certain Russian vodka, the name of which starts with S and is very popular among the trendy set. Well, isn’t it interesting that, life being so unpredictable, in the wake of this movie being made, there is now a massive boycott of such vodka. Why? Because it’s the most obvious Russian product that can be boycotted by people in the gay community and their supporters (who should be all of us). This follows this summer's outrageous Russian government crackdown on gays, a series of sickening repressive measures that have led to protests worldwide. (Think twice before you buy anything Russian.) What a terrible coincidence for the Woodsman. One wonders if his conscience is greatly troubling him after having the now discredited vodka play such a prominent role – including two endorsement lines from the main character - in his film. And it’s doubly ironic given Baldwin’s real life anti-gay remarks.

As for the movie itself? Blue Jasmine is a tragedy not unlike some of Allen’s previous films. Cate Blanchett as lead character Jasmine does a remarkable job portraying the anguish of a previously uber-wealthy woman brought down by her husband’s scheming criminality and now riding the fault line of a nervous breakdown. Exiled from Park Avenue to a working class walk-up in a seedy San Francisco neighbourhood to live with her formerly partly-despised trashy sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) Jasmine is trying in whatever way she can to pull a new life together, even if it means descending to such factotum jobs as a dentist's receptionist. But her past continues to haunt her. Ginger’s ex, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), castigates her (and Hal) for stealing $200,000 he’d won in the lottery by putting it into a bad investment. When it looks things might be turning a corner and Jasmine meets a career-climbing embassy official, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party, Augie turns up in the most unlikely of places and exposes her lies, after which the once fawning diplomat unceremoniously dumps her. Jasmine is forced back to the relative squalor of life with low class Ginger. As befits a movie by Allen there are enough laughs to go around in Blue Jasmine. But at its core this isn’t a very funny movie. And I can’t think of another of Allen’s films – other than his purposely unfunny Bergmanesque efforts like Interiors (1978) – that are missing his trademark nugget of sarcastic whimsy. In sum this movie is a downer. Allen is a master at churning out generally high quality films on a yearly basis. But with Blue Jasmine he might have pushed himself too far. There’s a whiff of burnout about it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Three for three (or four)

Some pretty decent movies over the past week or so. At the Windsor Internationl Film Festival (WIFF’s) monthly summer series it was Blood Pressure by Winnipeg director Sean Garrity. This is a taut psychological drama about an early middle aged woman Nicole (Michelle Giroux), left, who is being lured into a romantic relationship by an unseen admirer who leaves the most enticing letters and elaborate leads to track him down. The film plays with the idea of suburban married ennui but throws a curve at the end. What was more interesting was that there was no real script to the movie, as Garrity, who was present, told the audience. That, and the use of colour to signify mood, made the movie that much more impressive.
Meanwhile, on Friday I caught my much-anticipated Museum Hours, and it didn’t fail. Director Jem Cohen’s meditation on art and life through the characters of a museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) at Vienna’s Kunst Historiches museum and a Canadian tourist Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara). It’s Anne’s first visit to the gilded Austrian city and she is there only to visit a cousin in hospital. She’s otherwise lost in the city of Strauss and Freud. Johann, whom she meets a few times on museum visits, offers to be her impromptu tour guide. There is nothing romantic between the characters and the story plays out very realistically. Cohen, whose oeuvre has been the focus of small urban landscapes and art films, here creates a feature juxtaposing real life and art as depicted by the various paintings and sculptures of the museum, with special emphasis on the great medieval Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel and his extraordinarily detailed depictions of everyday life.  The museum has one room devoted solely to his paintings. The wintry scenes of today’s Vienna, from railway yards to slums to opulent neighbourhoods, seem to be today’s equivalent, the filmmaker suggests.
Out of boredom one Saturday night recently I decided to turn on TV Ontario to check if the public network still featured Saturday Night at the Movies, the old show originally hosted by grandfatherly Elwy Yost, sadly now deceased. It does! And there were two films featuring the same director, Nicole Holofcener. The first, Please Give (2010) features a Yuppie Manhattan couple Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt (born in Windsor!) whose work and life develop into a morality play about their relationship to others who might not be so well off……The second movie, Friends with Money (2006), stars Jennifer Aniston of all people, Keener again, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack. Three well-to do L.A. couples are concerned about their single friend Olivia (Aniston) who has taken up a job as a house maid. But my discovery was British actor Simon McBurney (Aaron) who was fascinating to watch and has had a great career in film and as founder of an avant garde theatre in Britain…..By the way, current TVO host Thom Ernst does a credible job introducing the films.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Film clips

It’s mid-summer and the dog days have arrived. Kind of feels a little like that in the world of film. I’ve seen nothing too spectacular lately. Caught Almodovar’s I’m So Excited! two weeks ago at the Main in Royal Oak. The reviews haven’t been overwhelming though nominally positive and I guess I’d place my checkmark in the same column. Campy, complete with bisexual airline pilots and a trio of gay stewards –  well, come on, gay flight attendants were ripe for this treatment! – the story all takes place on an airplane flying from Spain to Mexico with a somewhat bizarre cast of characters in first class. This is Almodovar in all his utter baroqueness and camp. And yes the attendants break out into the Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited! But, unfortunately, I was a little less so. The subject was fine. I just wished it could have been elevated, so to speak, in every campy way.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the Coen Brothers’ next effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, about the Greenwich Village folk scene before people like Dylan and Phil Oaks arrived. It’s based on the memoirs of deceased singer Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and stars Oscar Issac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman.

This Friday I’ll be heading to the Detroit Film Theatre to catch Museum Hours, Jem Cohen’s feature starring Canada’s Mary Margaret O’Hara, set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. A chance encounter between two strangers leads to a meditative dialogue inside and on the streets of Vienna about art and life and everything in between. Love this kind of stuff! Reminiscent of Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami 2010), the Hawke/Delpy Before trilogy (Richard Linklater), and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. (Speaking of which, the DFT has a doc about one of the characters in that 1981 film, Andre Gregory, later this month.)

I really don’t like to read too much about a film before seeing it. If possible I like to be completely surprised, going on my gut instinct. But when it comes to Woody Allen, I don’t want to know anything about his next movie. Such is the case with the just released Blue Jasmine starring Cate Blanchett, coming – and it can’t be too soon – to a Detroit area cinema.

I was very sad to read that The Attack (Ziad Doueiri) (July 8 post) has been banned by the Arab League, which means it can’t be shown in 22 Middle Eastern countries. Seems the movie by the Lebanese director takes too much of a nuanced tone between Arabs and Israelis and that wasn’t good enough for the League, which obviously doesn’t want its citizens to make up their own minds.