Friday, September 4, 2015

A festival most cities would kill for

At this year’s edition of the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF) the crowds seemed up, the screenings down (from three or four to two screenings for each feature) - which may explain the increase in crowds for the individual screenings - and the overall number of films was up. But there seems to be more shorts than in previous years. Nevertheless the festival, still underway, and under the tutelage of its long time one-man leadership, Serge Losique, soldiers on, tattered, ever controversial, and like a cat with nine lives, keeps returning, defying all odds. The festival lost huge amounts of government funding last year due alleged bookkeeping secrecy, which hasn’t returned. Losique, MWFF’s founder, is now 86 and even the mayor of Montreal suggested last week he hand over the torch to a younger generation. Over its many years the festival has generated more than its share of critics, particularly in the local Montreal media, who for years have battled Losique. Charges include the fest’s lack of star power, as in big names on red carpets. To which I say: who care? I’d much rather see quality films with actors on the screen than in the flesh and blood. Losique has also been criticized for his secrecy, his supposed dictatorial ways, and indeed the quality of the films brought to the festival. The critics charge MWFF is a dumping ground for films rather than featuring ones expertly curated. In fact, in a Globe and Mail article last week the festival’s chief programmer admitted as such. Nevertheless MWFF endures and in my books offers a wonderfully diverse smorgasbord of international cinema, the likes of which most North American cities would kill to have. My picks, based on the first six days of the festival - the only days I attended this year - are: 

Gateway of Love (Tonino Zangardi, 2015, Italy): An undercover police officer falls in love with a store clerk after he rescues her during an armed robbery. The clerk kills her husband in self-defence when, after learning of the affair, he tries to choke her. The lovers then try to escape, hoping to avoid a messy court case. The operative word is “try.”

Václav Havel - Living in Freedom (Andrea Sedlácková, 2014, Czech Republic): This is a fascinating portrait of the man who led the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. Havel, long a leading playwright and outspoken dissident under Communism, eschewed political ambition but had the role thrust upon him, which he grasped honorably and effectively.

An Italian Name (Francesca Archibugi, 2015, Italy): An extended family gets together for dinner. One brother, politically right wing, is always the humorist and decides to play an elaborate joke on his sister and brother in law, dyed-in-the-wool leftists. He tells them the name of his soon to be born wife’s child is Benito, as in Mussolini. It’s a joke that gets carried too far.

The Spiderwebhouse (Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2014, Germany): Three children are abandoned by their mentally ill mother and must fend for themselves, with predictable results. The house deteriorates into a colossal mess as furniture is overturned, dishes pile up and get broken, the children themselves become filthy. While missing their mother they have come to love their homemade dystopia.

Summers Downstairs (Tom Sommerlatte, 2015, Germany): An investment banker and his wife descend unannounced on their freeloading relatives at their grand summer house. The banker, David, arrogantly orders his brother around to the brother’s significant other’s disgust. She in turn stands up to David and apparently embarks with him on a romantic fling. But not everything is as it seems.

The Thin Yellow Line (Celso Garcia, 2015, Mexico): This is a road movie with difference. A crew of unskilled laborers are thrown together to paint a remote Mexican road’s center line - all 200 km of it. The film’s a character study of what happens when you throw a bunch of strangers together and the pitfalls, if not potholes, that befall them. A wonderfully acted and ultimately heartwarming story. 

2 Nights Till Morning (Mikko Kuparinen, 2015, Finland-Lithuania): A chance meeting in an anonymous hotel brings together two guests, an architect and celebrated DJ who spins electronica. But their romance isn’t straightforward bliss and is fraught with nuance in a very life like way.   

Invention for Destruction (Karl Zeman, 1958, Czech Republic): Master Czech animator and filmmaker Karl Zeman brings Jules Verne to the screen with this delightful live action - animation featuring the story of an evil millionaire who wants to conquer the world. Verne’s illustrations are peopled by actors in this brilliantly filmed fairy tale.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, 2015, Netherlands-Mexico- Finland-Belgium) (photo above): This master’s retelling of the 1931 visit to Mexico by the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is typically Greenaway: larger-than-life as befits its subject, philosophical, learned, and cinematically iconoclastic as the director makes wide use of the visual medium in a way seldom seen in film.  Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein is brilliant.

Happy (Jordan Goldnadel, 2015, France): This movie about carefree twenty-somethings pits a young American woman travelling in Europe with her French counterparts as she finds love and friendship, but ultimately perhaps mostly her own. With solid engrossing performances. 

The Truth About Lies (Phil Allocco, 2014, United States): This comedy about modern relationships and misunderstandings is the kind of film that will keep you almost constantly laughing if not put a smile on your face for its entire 97 minutes. The movie starts with our hero getting fired from his job, losing his apartment, and getting dumped by his girlfriend. Things can only get better. Well, maybe.

Labia (Gabriel Patricio Bertini, 2014, Argentina): A corrupt federal judge, like a Mafia don, is the go to man for various people seeking advice and favors. But as the film evolves it’s obvious his patina of power thinly overlays a pitiful human being.

Parabellum (Lukar V. Rinner 2015, Argentina-Uruguay-Austria). So this is what happens when survivalists fearing the end of the world pack it in and head for the wilderness. Robotic like, they are trained, sometimes unethically, in military techniques, to fend for themselves in a post-apocalyptic world.  

Montedoro (Antonello Faretta, 2015, Italy-USA-Brazil): A middle aged American woman travels from New York to her birth village in a remote corner of Italy only to find it’s a ghost town. But her imaginings make the ghosts come alive in this visually poetic film. 

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