Monday, September 04, 2006

The other Canadian film festival

Venice. Telluride. Toronto. The late summer film festivals, the ones where the big fall and winter releases are first put on display, like Fashion Week for cinema.

And then there is...Montreal. Specifically, the Montreal World Film Festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary year, a milestone it almost didn't reach. A near-death experience last year saw some of its key local backers throw their funding behind an upstart get-together that proved DOA. "Don't call this year a 'revival,'" a festival honcho told me. "After all, we never went away."

And so it's back, ending tonight since starting up on Aug. 24. But I was a little surprised to find that more than a few folks wish it would just sort of fold up its tent and go away. The selections, 215 feature films from 76 countries, plus 150-odd documentaries and shorts, is lackluster, I heard--slots are programmed, but not curated with any particular taste or sensibility. Its founder, 75-year-old Serge Losique, should hand over the reins to someone more discerning, if the thing should continue at all. The festival is weakly promoted, its phone book-size catalog, lifeless. The Festival du Noveau Cinema, held in October, is infinitely edgier, better.

This is no glamourfest. Quebec's biggest star, Roy Dupuis, put in an appearance, promoting what turned out to be one of the festival's better films, the intensely spiritual thriller That Beautiful Somewhere, a promising debut from 32-year-old Robert Budreau. [You may remember Dupuis from the La Femme Nikita TV show, or Jesus de Montreal.] The lovely Vivian Wu and her filmmaker husband, Oscar Luis Costo, had breakfast a table across from me at the Hyatt Regency Montreal, but I hid from them behind a croissant, as I had walked out of their thrill-less thriller, Shanghai Red, the afternoon before, and I think they saw me.* And that was it. If competition juror Kathy Bates was around I didn't see her, and given the absence of star power she would have been conspicuous in her presence. The Champ Car racers and Air Canada stewardesses staying at the hotel got more attention.

This was my first trip to Montreal, indeed, my first trip to Canada, which is rather shameful.** And, once dreadful rain ended last Sunday, my first of six days at the festival, the city put its best foot forward with the kind of delightful, late summer/early fall weather Al Gore warns us that the Lower 48 may never experience again. I was amused at how nonchalant the zoning is; here in NY, the remaining sex shops and strip clubs have been carefully Balkanized, but on Rue St. Catherine, where the hotel is, they're right next to the fashionable restaurants and shops, in all their fleshpotty, neon glory. [Straight pleasures to the west, where St. Catherine resembles a cleaner Eighth Avenue, gay to the east, mimicking Christopher Street--as for my own participation in the seamier side of city life, what happened in Montreal, stays in Montreal.] The Old City and Old Port fully lived up to their billing as North America's most charming European neighborhoods, and the view from Mont Royal is worth the climb, though you may want to take the more direct route up (which we, natch, did not discover until after the ascent had been made). Duluth Street is home to a matchless French restaurant, The Little Onions, which offered veal and Cornish hen I still savor days later.

And, oh, yes, there were movies, too. Cineaste hadn't sent me to sight-see and eat fancy French dinners (and given the strong Canadian dollar's distressing effect on my wallet there wasn't much of that carrying-on anyway) so I gamely trotted up and down Rue St. Catherine, between the royally appointed Cinema Imperial (host to the competition entries) and the Latin Quarter's Cineplex Odeon, where the flotsam and jetsam of the international market and prior festivals put in appearances. The multiplex (showing Serpents a Bord on one screen***) has an "Alan Smithee Cafe," which seems right, given the anonymous (if not pseudonymous) quality of so many of the movies. They're so under-the-radar the reliable Greencine Daily didn't pick up any coverage that I could detect, and the trades reviewed just a handful of the premieres. This may be the last you'll read about some of these...and I promise to say no more about the least of them, including Shanghai Red, a well-intentioned but pointless remake of 1953's timeless Little Fugitive, a flatfooted Chinese competitor about the making of the nation's first movie in 1905, Ding Jun Shan (showing that Hong Kong still has a thing or two to teach the mainland about comedy-drama), and a disastrously pseudo-pretentious Greek film, The Last Porn Movie (no porn, no movie), if you promise not to see them should they bob up at your local cinema like so many creaking ghost ships.

I'm obliged to save the best for Cineaste. These would include the strongest film I saw, the one everyone I met was buzzing about, the US-Cambodian co-production Holly, about child prostitution and sex tourism, co-written and directed by Guy Moshe; Budreau's film, pictured; a Canadian documentary from the much-respected Alanis Obomsawim, Waban-aki: People of the Rising Sun, about her Indian heritage; a good Chinese melodrama centered on deforestation, Tian Gou (The Forest Ranger); the best of the competition entries I saw, the intriguing if not altogether successful Peruvian revenge picture Mariposa Negra (Black Butterfly), set in the Fujimori era; and a pacy, surprising, and exceedingly well-acted Spanish crime drama, Segundo Asalto (Round Two), which some enterprising distributor unafraid of subtitles really should pick up.

That still leaves a few pictures worth blogging about, for this and that reason, and one or two worth seeing, should the distribution gods smile upon them.

Montreal audiences are unfailingly polite, applauding at the end of just about anything--whether out of acknowledgment, or relief, was sometimes unclear. But there wasn't much clapping at the end of over two hours of Chaos, a Polish premiere that marks the feature debut of Xawery Zulawski, the son of the provocative Andrzej Zulawski, whose film 1978 Possession, with Isabelle Adjani giving birth to a slimy monster in the Paris Metro, remains a head-turner (and head scratcher). The film is nominally about three stepbrothers in Poland as the country prepares to join the European Union; it's really about endless fiery confrontations between the characters, sex tapes, punk rock, vandalism, explosive destruction, and coming-of-age in looser, freer times than older generations had. It's exhilaratingly filmed and I liked a lot of it, though I had no real way into the movie. Zulawski was there but I didn't have a chance to ask him what Chaos was about (what is chaos ever about) or if the entire movie was just a case of proving that where the Zulawskis are concerned the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.****

A US film, The 4th Dimension, isn't an easy movie to fall into, either, opening as it does with a burst of mathematics and time theorems reminiscent of micro-budgeted mind-crogglers like Pi and Primer. The shot-on-digital-video work of two Temple University graduates, Tom Mattera and Dave Mazzoni, the film tells, sometimes in flashbacks (or is it a parallel dimension?), the story of Jack, a child prodigy in quantum physics and molecular biology. As a mysteriously traumatized adult Jack fritters his life away studying the clocks at the antiques store where he works, till he finds a journal, purportedly penned by Albert Einstein, that may hold the key to the strange netherworld in which he lives. The black-and white film bursts into smeary color for the finale, which, like Jacob's Ladder, adds a real-life sociopolitical "dimension," as it were, to the tale. That I understood, but sci-fi buffs who were more on the film's earlier wavelength may feel let down.

There weren't many stars at the festival, but there were some big ones in another US film, Lonely Hearts (pictured), which is the story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, the infamous "honeymoon killers" of the late 1940s (of Leonard Kastle's legendary 1970 indie, a truly great film), as seen through the eyes of the upstate NY detectives who apprehended them, played by John Travolta and James Gandolfini. The writer-director, Todd Robinson, is the actual son of the Travolta character, who is obsessed with the suicide of his first wife. But reality, lovingly detailed by the period costumes and rich cinematography, goes right out the window when we are introduced to this film's Beck, played so memorably by the plus-sized Shirley Stoler in the Kastle film. Here, Beck, an obese, pathetic, lovelorn harridan, is portrayed by...Salma Hayek, in full glamourpuss mode, with not a hint of Charlize Theron's Monster makeup to make her transformation any more credible. Even if you don't know that Beck looked like, would you believe Hayek as a sex-starved spinster, or that Jared Leto would be ambivalent about her charms (why be a "honeymoon killer" at all, preying on war widows, if you had this hot tamale in your life)? Why did she make this film, and why did Robinson allow her participation, knowing every film critic and true-crime buff worth his or her salt would tear it to pieces based on her casting? Insane...but now I now know why this has failed to graduate from the festival circuit into general release.

The high-octane "heroic bloodshed" crime films John Woo kicked off in Hong Kong 20 years ago have wafted over to Korea, and Kim Sung-su's Ya-Su (Running Wild)is a representative example of the genre, where cops and gangsters go to operatic/melodramatic lengths as they play out their deadly games. Here, a principled prosecutor aligns himself with a lethal weapon of a detective to bring down a politically connected mobster, who also, conveniently, converted to Christianity while in the pokey for his past offenses. The detective, however, has his own purely personal agenda to pursue, making for an eventful, if not particularly inspired, movie.

Titanic goes to war in Otokotachi No Yamato (Yamato), a large-scale Japanese epic whose inspiration was clearly James Cameron's king of the world. The imitation in Junya Sato's film is amusingly slavish, from the flashback structure, the key motifs that bind past and present (a drawing and an amulet), digital effects (highly variable), to the music, right down to a closing credits theme song. What it adds is gory, Saving Private Ryan-level carnage as the Yamato, the world's biggest battleship, comes under attack by Allied bombers as World War II winds down and is sunk; what it lacks is a star-crossed romance to animate the tale emotionally, though if Junya had found one aboard the all-male Yamato this would have been one truly progressive/subversive movie. It's a reverent flag-waver from the losing side that proves that it's pretty hard to get teary-eyed over the fate of a war machine. But it satisfied my need for explosions over so many smaller films.

A crafty Spanish thriller, El Habitante Incierto (The Uncertain Guest), is perhaps a little long, but the length is required for first time writer/director Guillem Morales to spin his Hitchcockian yarn. An architect, Felix (Andoni Gracia), doing repairs on a house, breaks up with his girlfriend (Monica Lopez); soon thereafter, a neighbor appears at the door, needing to use the phone...but he never seems to leave the house, and Felix is soon startled by seemingly spectral apparitions. Through a series of peculiar but logical circumstances Felix finds himself an "uncertain guest" in another neighbor's house, spooking its newly crippled owner (also played by Lopez)...but maybe I've said too much already. I'll only add that the blood-freezing ending brought me up short, in a good way, after the relative lightheartedness of much of the film...

...which is now newly available on DVD here in the States, having bypassed theatrical distribution. I'm glad the Montreal World Film Festival exists for me to have seen it on a big screen with a satisfied audience. You can replicate the experience by renting the disc and eating croissants while watching, but it won't be the same thing.

*I wanted to bolt after Costo's laughable cameo, where a sweet Chinese girl says how "cute" the rotund writer-director is, a sign of a vanity project if there ever was one. But I'm glad I stuck around for at least one scene with co-star Richard Burgi, an actor so wooden in this film you can see the bark. Once the spell of his awfulness was broken I was out of there.

**But perhaps it's our northern neighbor's own doing, in part. ["Blame Canada," as the South Park movie song goes.] An article that ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail during the festival showed that Canada has slipped from an already eyebrow-raising No. 7, given its proximity, to No. 12 on Americans' international itineraries, prompting an editorial, "Hi, World, It's Canada."

***The jokey quality of Snakes on a Plane is rather obscured in this more elegant French translation.

****The Chaos screening ran late, so I missed a final chance to see festival co-winner A Long Walk, from Japan, described by Variety as a "modest nugget" in the festival programming. I arrived too late to Montreal to check out the other winning pic, Brazil's The Greatest Love of All, lambasted by the trade paper as "tired, stilted," which would apply to the one crowned head I did see, the Canadian-financed The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (boy, isn't that a title that will get butts in seats?), a turgid lesbian melodrama distinguished solely by Guy Dufaux's ravishing award-earning cinematography in Vietnam, standing in for China, which apparently took issue with the subject matter. Note to self: Weekends (during which I came to and went from Montreal) are for winning pictures, though not necessarily for the best of a fest.

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