Sunday, October 12, 2014

Day 3 at FNC: four films, four winners

Four films, four winners in day three at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC)….The first, Beautiful Youth (Jaime Rosales, 2014) is a film about two Spanish twentysomethings ravaged by their country’s recent economic woes. To make money they have to act in a porn film. There are absolutely no regular jobs and after Natalia has a child their unemployment becomes a crisis. The viewer could be forgiven for intruding on the private lives of Natalia (Ingrid Garcia Jonsson) and Carlos (Carlos Rodriguez), so subtle is the acting as to make the relationship seem so real…..Foreign Bodies (Mirko Locatelli, 2013), from Italy, was my favourite of the day. In the film, Antonio (Filippo Timi) takes his youngest son Pietro to Milan to undergo cancer treatment. Staying in a dormitory Antonio encounters a family of Arabs and complains to his wife back home about how they talk and smell. When one tries to befriend him he can barely conceal his contempt. But unlike where many films would have gone, such as creating violent confrontation or outright racist incidents, Foreign Bodies is highly nuanced as Antonio tries to come to terms with these unfamiliar human others……Canadian filmmaker François Girard is acclaimed for his Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) and The Red Violin (1998). In Boychoir (2014), shown at the festival (and where he was introduced before the screening by director Atom Egoyan), Girard brings together veterans Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates with newcomer Garrett Wareing, who plays Stet, a troubled pre-teen who has astonishing singing talent. Hoffman is the gruff choirmaster who tries to harness the boy's talent in a famed choir’s boarding school. The movie starts off slowly but eventually grips the viewer for a solid if predictable outcome…..Finally, Japanese cult director Shinya Tsukamoto got a rousing ovation after receiving an award in person prior to the screening of his latest film Fires on the Plain (2014) (picture above left). This movie is Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) on steroids. A lost Japanese soldier on a Philippines island during the Second World War walks through his own valley of death as a survivor of a vanquished army. Sick from tuberculosis and starving the temptations of cannibalism are all around. The horrors of war have seldom been so gruesomely and realistically depicted, all to an accompanying harrowing score.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Day 2 at Montreal's edgy FNC

Day two, three movies at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema…..Call it a film travelogue. In PilgrIMAGE (2008) Father-daughter Peter Wintonick and Mira Burt-Wintonick (picture left) embark on travels around the world to go to the sources of the motion picture industry from its earliest beginnings. They travel to France, the home of pioneering special effects wizard Georges Méliès (he of the famous Le Voyage dans La Lune, 1902, with its iconic image of an astronomers’ capsule plunging into a very unhappy moon face). They sit on a park bench in Rolle, Switzerland waiting for home town hero Jean-Luc Godard to show up, a spin on – wait for it – Waiting for Godot. They travel to Nuremburg, site of the Nazis’ gargantuan rallies shot for propaganda purposes in Triumph of the Will (1935) by the technically brilliant but morally corrupt Leni Riefenstahl. They even dance on the hills outside Salzburg where The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) was made. Dad and daughter’s journeys are punctuated with musings, often light hearted but poignant, about the meanings and uses of film, from creating illusions, to empty vehicles of mass consumer fulfillment, to outright propaganda. It’s all put together imaginatively in a series of video journals linked as chapters in an artist’s sketchbook…..I found it harder to take an interest in Past Present (Tiong Guan Saw, 2013), about acclaimed Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, whose only film of which I've vaguely heard is I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). This doc has Tsai returning to his childhood roots in Malaysia and revisiting some of the storied movie palaces where his interest in film was first started. Along the way there are praiseworthy comments from others in the Asian film world including by Ang Lee. But what struck me most about the film was how Malaysia in the 1960s seemed no different from any town North America. Rambunctious kids packed Saturday matinees or snuck into (Japanese) porn movies. And theatres had the same names as here, like the Odeon or the Rialto….Finally there was Isabelle Prim’s Le Souffleur de L’Affaire (2014), a complex mind twister that plays like a detective story centring on two important late 19th century artistic works. One is the first colourised film by Georges Méliès (see above), about the fire of the Grand Bazar de la Charité in 1897 - where many aristocratic women died - and the opening of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Could an Italian anarchist and prompter (le souffleur) be implicated? Rostand himself makes a time travelling appearance, egged on by famed actress Sarah Bernhardt. A running theme is the antisemitism of the period as referenced by the Dreyfus Affair. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Montreal's FNC - a film festival's film festival

Attending Montreal’s Festival of New Cinema (FNC) (street pavilion pictured left) is a little like attending a conference on higher mathematics. Even devoted cineastes and festivalgoers might give pause – or be intimidated – by the various deep and obscure recesses of the film world through which the programmers have burrowed to select each year’s massive program -  380 films including 152 features – from more than 50 countries. This is my occasional October go-to fest in a lovely city where the autumn leaves are more advanced than in dear old Windsor. The FNC is really a film festival’s film festival, if I can say that. At 43 years it’s actually older than this city’s traditionally best known festival, the Montreal World Film Festival, held each August. And it has had the props from some of the world’s leading innovative directors from John Cassavetes to Spike Lee to Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. So while critically acclaimed if sometimes obscure films are FNC’s flavour of the day it can seem surprising to find relatively mainstream movies sprinkled amongst the mix. Such was the case with Wednesday night’s opening film, Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie starring Reese Witherspoon, now playing widely in the U.S. but which still hasn’t come to Detroit.....However, regular daily screenings didn’t get off to an auspicious start when the Argentinian film Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) starring Viggo Mortensen couldn’t be shown because the digital print was corrupted – bring back reel-to-reel! Next up was first time director’s Emma Dante’s A Street in Palermo, a tale of what happens when two people confront one another and refuse to back down. This is a terrific set piece about obstinacy and its ramifications as two car drivers going opposite directions on a tiny street refuse to back up to let the other pass, each believing they’re in the right….The next film was Seeing is Believing (2002), part of an homage to Canadian documentarist Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, 1992), about the power of the hand held camcorder as a “weapon” for activists to confront authority and record abuse. It shows how citizens’ videos have been effective in countries from The Philippines to Bosnia in documenting human rights crimes…..Finally I saw another first time director’s feature, Garrett Bradley’s Below Dreams. Set mainly in New Orleans the film follows three characters, all in their 20s, struggling to build lives out of unlucky or marginal circumstances. These mostly unprofessional actors, found on Craigslist, with similar personal life stories, created extraordinarily naturalistic portraits of everyday life.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Celebrated Hot Docs coming to Windsor

In addition to next month being the 10th annual edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) – and having appropriately expanded dates (Nov. 1 – 9) - the next biggest new aspect is the addition of films form Toronto’s celebrated Hot Docs film festival, held every spring at its cinema on Toronto’s Bloor Street West (picture left). Twelve Hot Docs documentary films have been added to this year’s WIFF lineup spread throughout the festival, according to WIFF executive director Vincent Georgie……How did the WIFF - Hot Docs relationship come about? Turns out Hot Docs President Chris McDonald had been coming the last couple of years to our fest and had taken a personal interest in it. Of course WIFF staff like Georgie have gone up to Hot Docs and originally met McDonald there. “We had a conversation this year and said let’s do something together,” Georgie said. Given that someone like McDonald probably attends a great many festivals it might be surprising he’s warmed so much to ours. According to Georgie what McDonald likes best about WIFF is how warm and “engaged” the audience is. “Ours is very very much, it’s a peoples festival, so it has a feel that he’s always really enjoyed.” ….WIFF doesn’t pay Hot Docs for the movies but they will be introduced as having screened at this year's Toronto fest. “They are films that would have made their premiere at Hot Docs that we saw there and then said, ‘Okay this is something we want to bring to Windsor,’” he said. What are a couple of Georgie’s favourites? Advanced Style “is really fun,” he said. It’s about “supremely stylish glamourous women” well into later ages including their 90s. “You can’t help but smile when you watch,” he said. A second film is Love Me, about Ukrainian mail order brides and the industry surrounding them. “It’s something you sort of smirk at, the whole idea of mail order brides,” Georgie said. “But this actually I felt was really quite enlightening.” The full list of Hot Docs films:
ADVANCED STYLE | D: Lina Plioplyte | USA | 2014
BEFORE THE LAST CURTAIN FALLS | D: Thomas Wallner | Belgium/Canada/Germany | 2014
BRONX OBAMA | D:Ryan Murdock | USA | 2014
HARMONTOWN | D: Neil Berkeley | USA |2014
LOVE AND TERROR ON THE HOWLING PLAINS OF NOWHERE | D: Dave Jannetta | USA | 2014
LOVE ME | D: Jonathon Narducci| USA/Ukraine | 2014
POINT AND SHOOT | D: Marshall Curry | USA/Canada, 2014
WRITE DOWN, I AM AN ARAB | D: Ibtisam Mara'ana-Menuhin | Israel/Palestine | 2014
THE BACKWARD CLASS | D: Madeleine Grant | Canada/India | 2014
THE BEIJING ANTS | D: Ryuji Otsuka | China | 2014
THE STARFISH THROWERS | D: Jesse Roesler | USA/India | 2014
VESSEL | D: Diana Whitten | USA | 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

Predictable plot in Paris set comedy-drama

Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith. Who could ask for more, right? Indeed the opening scene of My Old Lady (much acclaimed and prolific playwright Israel Horovitz’s second film directorial effort based on his play of same name) – opening Friday at the Main Art, AMC Livonia, and Michigan Theater - has lots of promise. An American, Mathias Gold (Kline) has arrived in Paris and is trying to find a certain apartment. We soon learn he has inherited a rather luxurious flat, a balm to a failed writer with a pile of debts. He finds he could sell it for 12 million euros, a tidy sum. But it’s not to be. He’s quickly informed by the apartment’s unexpected resident, Mathilde Girard (Smith), that he is in fact the interloper. It has something to do with an arcane French housing law. She’s the real resident despite his legal ownership, and he can’t claim the abode until she kicks the bucket. Yes, it’s as bizarre to you and me as it is to him. Problem is, even though Mathilde is 92 she’s in “top health,” according to her physician, so prospects of shelling out monthly rent to the dear woman almost ad infinitum isn’t an attractive prospect for Mathias. Worse, Mathilde, a shrewd no-nonsense Englishwoman who has lived most of her life in Gai Paris, in fact demands rent from him if he’s going to stay even temporarily. This is a peel back the onion layers flick, folks. Nothing seems as it originally appears. The only honest character is our New Yorker. Mathilde’s erudition and manners belie some sordidness. Adding to the picture is Mathilde’s live-in daughter Chloé (KST), who immediately dislikes Mathias, providing a mother daughter two punch. The unfairness of it all of course nags Mathias and, consulting a realtor, he seeks ways to acquire the apartment, even if he has to split it up. Mother and daughter resist. But Mathias discovers a secret which he can use against the twosome. Along the way he discovers other things about the Girard family and who exactly they are, which triggers the onion peeling and revelations. And while the plot nominally kept my attention it really is pretty predictable. The movie is billed as a drama and comedy and it’s about two-thirds the latter. But we do smile if not chuckle at some of the lines and antics, from Mathias’s very American clumsiness among the French to classic jokes about the French population’s health. “It’s the red wine, isn’t it?” he says of Mathilde’s longevity. While Mathilde, spotting a loser, morbidly suggests he would fail at committing suicide by jumping into the Seine “and just end up with a dreadful cold.” But the film descends into considerable darkness until we’re relieved, thankfully, at the end. If you like typically romantic scenes of Paris this film’s for you, with a score by Mark Orton that sounds traditionally Parisian yet menacingly modern. If you like Kline, Smith and Scott Thomas, you might not want to take a pass. But all have performed better largely because they’ve had better scripts in better stories.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Zip.ca's unlamented death

Zip.ca, for descriptive purposes Canada’s long time version of Netflix, closed last month. Oh, you didn’t know about Zip.ca? Join the club. I joined Zip.ca in 2005, almost as long as the DVD Internet-based DVD rental service had been in operation. How did I hear about it? From a work colleague. To me it was one of the best inventions since sliced bread or at least celluloid film. But virtually anyone I ever spoke to about Zip.ca – with a movie data base of more than 70,000 titles – was totally unaware such a service existed. Yes, folks, this was the Canadian equivalent of Netflix, before Netflix began a digital streaming service and entered Canada, which may have been the death knell of Zip.ca….Of course Netflix is nothing like Zip.ca despite a certain illusion. You could find extremely rare and sub-genre movies on Zip.ca. Want to watch Truffaut or Kurosowa or Rainer Werner Fassbinder? This was the place to find numerous of their films. Or classic comedies dating back to the 20s? You won’t find these on Netflix, not by a long shot. Netflix does carry some foreign and indie titles but this is extremely watered down homogeneity compared to what Zip.ca offered…..But perhaps Zip.ca’s time had come. After all, the world is increasingly digitally-driven and Zip.ca – an Ottawa-based firm – was still in the relative dinosaur age of shipping physical discs. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Zip.ca had previously posted on its website it was attempting to develop a streaming service but couldn’t find the right economies of scale. Now it’s closed and cineastes are much the poorer for it…..Why did Zip.ca close? The owners have been mum. I requested comment and was told by spokeswoman Jana Dybinski that “we are not interviewing.” An email to subscribers from founder and Chairman Rob Hall Aug. 18 said simply, “After more than 10 years in business and 20,570,326 movies watched in homes across Canada, we've decided to close our doors.” Media coverage has also been slim, perhaps a reflection of how poorly the service was known. There were a couple of stories in Zip.ca’s home town Ottawa-based media but they reported little more – or less - than what I’m writing here…..Despite a huge inventory Zip.ca seldom advertised though it did have a kiosk service similar to Redbox, about which I only learned in researching this post. None of these kiosks to my knowledge existed in the Windsor area.….Spokeswoman Dybinski did provide some statistics: 20,570,326 – the number of discs shipped to homes across Canada; 305,207 – the number of Zip.ca members; 70,958 - number of unique titles in its library; Kugluktuk, Nunavut - farthest place the company shipped to; Toronto – the city where subscribers watched the most movies at 2,108,647 rentals; 2,884 - number of movies watched by Zip.ca’s top renter…..So share a lament, and I still had several Fassbinder titles in my order list I will now never receive.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Montreal festival faves

Talking to other festival goers and hearing the general ”buzz” among people at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival, you’d think the movie Chagall-Malevich (Russia, Alexandre Mitta) would have swept the fest’s awards. It didn’t take one prize including that by popular vote. The film is about the obvious at times antagonistic relationship between the two great artists at the time of the Russian Revolution. It may have been a crowd pleaser simply because of its subject matter. And while it had some inventive magic realist moments (yes, Chagall and Co. are shown flying in the sky as per the artist’s signature dreamy images) this picture was more soap opera than wide scope, depicting a small group of characters with a Chagall (Leonid Bichevin) who seems squeaky clean and in fact who we see painting only once. There is little insight into highly contrasting Chagall and Malevich’s approaches to art. This is rather superficial TV fare.

Here were some of my festival faves:

The Hotel Room (Germany, Rudi Gaul) (picture above): Famed female author (Mina Tander) sits down to be interviewed with video journalist (Godehard Giese) who has done just a tad too much research in this drama that plays on memory, accountability and what is fiction and reality.

Watchmen in the Wind (China: Liang Bixin): A doc about a special Chinese army detail that services a remote desert railway in northeast China, braving sandstorms, frigid cold and searing heat, and months - sometime years - away from family.

A Golden Boy (Italy, Pupi Avati): The story of a bright young writer (Riccardo Scarmacio) who can’t seem to sell his fiction and descends into a maelstrom of grief only to find fame – fittingly given this movie’s theme – in a very indirect way. Sharon Stone, speaking impeccable Italian, stars as a sympathetic publisher.

Field of Dogs (Poland, Lech  Majewski): From the director of The Mill and the Cross (which screened 2012 at the DFT) and co-writer of 1996’s Basquiat (Julian Schnabel) comes this meditation on a crass materialistic and tragic world set against two major 2010 Polish catastrophes - devastating floods and the crash of an airliner carrying the country’s elite. Dante’s Devine Comedy plays centre stage and there are some serious ruminations on the meaning of it all. 

The Ambassador to Bern (Hungary, Attila Szász). Based on a true event, the movie depicts the seizure of the Hungarian embassy in Bern in 1958 by a couple of freedom fighters who rued the Soviets crushing of the ‘56 Hungarian uprising. Taut politically-laced drama.

No Man’s Land (China, Ning Hao): This is China’s version of Quentin Tarantino and I didn’t mind. At turns hilarious, macabre, absurd and extraordinarily violent, the back roads of China prove rife for a modern Western – er, make that Eastern.

Schimbare (Spain, Alex Sampayo): A middle class couple travels to eastern Europe to seek a kidney on the black market for their sick daughter. The trip does not go well. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine what happens in this edge-of-seat thriller.

Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery (Germany, Arne Birkenstock): Wolfgang Beltracchi is an artist of supreme confidence and casually says he can paint the work of any great master, no big deal. And does – forging his way through the world’s art markets in this documentary that shows a – slightly – contrite Beltracchi and accomplice wife Helene, as they serve out their sentences on day parole, allowing him to now make legitimate art. But will it sell?

Amanet (Albania-Italy, Namik Ajazi). There were Stalin’s show trials and there’s still North Korean’s Hermit Kingdom. Until the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe there was Albania, one of the most repressive post-war Communist states, where purges of top government and party officials came and went as quickly as someone changes his socks.

Norwegian Wood (Japan, Tran Anh Hung). Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, himself garnering enormous acclaim these days, this story set in 1967 is an intimate portrait of intimacy amidst the confusion of youth and a backdrop of the emergence of hippiedom.