Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Congrats to Windsor festival's 15th year!

It’s the little festival that kept on growing. And this year (Nov. 1 – 10) marks the 15th anniversary of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), a monumental achievement when you think about it, since the Windsor area isn’t particularly known for having an arts film-oriented audience. Moreover, WIFF isn’t the only film festival in the greater Windsor-Detroit area. Detroit and Ann Arbor feature other festivals throughout the year. But, in my books, WIFF beats them all, mainly because its formula of “mainstream” art house flicks (as opposed to more rarified documentaries or esoteric and experimental  films) are the ones that will most likely gain theatric distribution throughout the coming year. As well, many of these movies come from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) circuit and TIFF, after all, is, after Cannes, the most prestigious festival in the world and the one arguably that puts more films into regular distribution orbit. While WIFF isn’t on the scale of TIFF I often say to people, “Why go to Toronto – and fight the crowds and difficulty obtaining tickets – when you can see some of the cream of the crop two months later in little old Windsor?”....To celebrate its 15th anniversary WIFF has extended its programming to 10 days, slotting more than 165 films and 277 screenings…..I like the couple of major innovations this year. The first is WIFF Alley. WIFF officials have taken notice of the fact audiences cut through the alley between the Capitol Theatre on University Ave. and the Chrysler Theatre on Riverside Dr. So they’ve decided to utilize it to show off, among other things, “incredible public art installations.” Likewise, the new WIFF Village will take over University Ave. immediately in front of the Capitol Theatre on the festival’s second weekend, featuring “live entertainment and signature events”….. Downtown Windsor really comes alive during WIFF – arguably the downtown’s most festive time of the year (the Santa Claus Parade is one day, this is 10) - and it might make sense in future years to theme the entire downtown with WIFF imagery, something the downtown BIA, a sponsor, could increasingly get involved in……While the festival has expanded to 10 days the price of a festival pass has gone up to $249 from $195 last year. This seems a bit steep; we'll see the uptake. As well, the festival continues to pretty much be a solely Windsor event. I’m in Detroit a lot and virtually no one I speak to there has ever heard of WIFF (though Detroit radio station WDET is a sponsor). That’s not necessarily a criticism of WIFF – the Windsor-Detroit area has long had huge psychological barriers when it comes to interacting with one another. And, maybe it’s best this way. After all, we don’t want to crowd out WIFF screenings to the point tickets are hard to come by…..So, just like the City of Windsor as a whole, I think of WIFF as a best kept secret.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

From Iceland, Germany and Britain, three amazing films

Doubtful these films will see the light of day locally but I saw them this month at Montreal’s Festival of New Cinema (Festival du Nouveau Cinema) and thought them so good they’re worth writing about.

The first film was Echo by Icelandic director Runar Runarsson. It’s like nothing I’ve quite seen before. It’s a 79-minute film containing 56 vignettes of life in largely the city of Reykjavik leading up to and through the Christmas and New Year’s season. The film opens with a scene of stationary brushes at a car wash that seem like towering tropical plants; they come to life like swamp creatures as a car moves through them. The film's scenes are totally distinct from one another and each one carries a story in itself - snippets of life. A barn burns as the owner remembers good times that took place there. A janitor gets a phone call from her estranged spouse saying he’s taking the kids away for the holidays, despite it being her turn to have them; she breaks down in tears. A piano student smilingly rehearses a piece only to be upstaged by another child. A man with dementia in a nursing home, all dressed up, cannot understand what’s taking place around him. Butchers carving carcasses break into a joyful dance. Apartment dwellers take to the courtyard to set off a stream of fireworks. The director, present after the screening, said the vignettes were a combination of documentary and staging, and we could guess which were which! The shot of a live birth was very real, however. The score, hardly Christmas kitschy, helps maintain a meditative quality as we’re engrossed in every joyous and not so joyous scene, wishing the parade of them would never end.

The next film was System Crasher, by Nora Fingscheidt, Germany’s entry for best international film for the upcoming Oscars. It’s a portrait of Benni, a nine-year-old girl who was traumatized and has become an enfant terrible. Her mother refuses to take her in and the child welfare system can’t find a suitable home for her behavioral problems. The title comes from the fact the child can’t be placed in any proper facility. Benni is smart, witty but has an unpredictable temper and the smallest thing, from a look to a laugh from another person, can set her off in a violent torrent. A girl in her class mocks her trying to read a poem, Benni swiftly takes the girl’s head and bashes it into the desk. Benni must travel with an adult escort (Albrecht Schurch), a working-class guy who seems to make a breakthrough with her when social workers can’t. Fingscheidt took seven years to make this film and comprehensively studied the child welfare system; Benni is a composite of several problem children she encountered. What’s astonishing is that this film is not a documentary but drama, and Benni is played by child actor Helena Zengel, so good she’s now working in a film with Tom Hanks.

The third film was the British film Bait by Mark Jenkin. Wow, is this terrific! Totally unexpected, the film is shot in 16 mm black and white with a scratchy overlay, as though it was a film made decades ago and just found in an old beat-up trunk. As well, the shots are almost all close up or oblique, where we just catch a partial view, sometimes at an angle, of the subject matter – wine and cheese being deposited in a fridge, a fishing bucket dropped on a pier, bits of rope, the eyes and cheeks of a strained face. The story pits a vanishing breed of Cornish fishermen against upscale urban tourists (complete with Land Rover), who’ve bought up houses and rent them out for charming seaside idylls. Class conflict ensues between the two groups, all captured by bits of speech, grunts, and facial expressions. Jenkin provides no resolution to the clash though the film depicts the seething contempt under the surface of people whose way of life is threatened.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Oscar performace within questionable flick

Caution: spoiler alerts ahead…..Should you see Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, or shouldn’t you see Joker? Having seen it I’d advise not. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix as the DC comic character turns an amazing role but that was to be expected from one of the best American actors of our time. Utterly embodying this psychopathic killer Phoenix’s is a fluid performance of a demented character in his many manifestations, from calm and collected when not tormented, to unlimited guffawing when he is disturbed by an event, to a literally masked killer whose motives are unexpected and spontaneous. It’s more than an Oscar-worthy performance. Having said that it’s questionable what the film itself is all about. Yes, if you like watching psychopaths on screen here is a grand portrayal for the ages. But for what purpose and to what end? Those expecting Batman to appear will be disappointed; there’s no Bruce Wayne in sight, and therefore no triumph of good over evil. Yet the rest of the comic story is in place, with Joker a denizen of Gotham City which of course is New York and in this case New York at its modern low ebb circa early 1980s. Subway cars are strewn with graffiti, crime rampant, and city streets grimy and litter-filled. But if the missing Batman was Bruce Wayne in disguise there is another “Wayne” that makes an appearance: Thomas Wayne, New York’s outspoken businessman. Of course this character is a stand in for Donald Trump and the film might be described as an anti-Trump screed. It also sides with the Occupy Wall Street movement of a decade ago. Joker slaughters three investment bankers on the subway who were harassing a woman (wouldn’t it be more correct that petty criminals of the era had been doing this?) The murders spark widespread outrage against the ruling class or “one percenters” of our time. Thousands of people don clown masks, as per Joker, to demonstrate. But this political theme is ultimately undercut by the character’s innate madness. Are these murders class-based or simply Joker’s acting out against anyone who annoys him enough, including a Johnny Carson stand-in in the name of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro)? So what does the movie all add up to? Not much, except, yes, a wrenching performance by Phoenix.