Montreal Film Journal

FCMM 2002

While the Festival des Films du Monde gets more exposure, the Festival of new Cinema and Media of Montreal offers a selection of films from around the world that tend to be more modern, artistic and thought-provoking, as well as a wide array of multimedia installations.

Next are brief reviews of all the films I saw during the 2002 edition.

Bollywood, Hollywood, Deepa Mehta 68

As the title suggests, Deepa Mehta's delightful new movie marries the goofiness of Bombay musicals with the charm of the best Hollywood romantic comedies, all the while being hilariously irreverent towards both genres. Rahul Khanna plays an Indian-Canadian millionaire who's so fed up with the pressure of his family that he hires an escort (the absolutely adorable Lisa Ray) to pose as his Indian wife-to-be. Much hilarity, joyful song and dance numbers and a surprisingly touching love story ensue. I loved the actors, loved the music... Loved the whole movie, basically! "Bollywood/Hollywood" is as much fun as Monsoon Wedding.

Gambling, Gods and LSD, Peter Mettler 48

More a travelogue than a documentary, Peter Mettler's film takes us from Toronto to India by the way of Nevada and Switzerland, showing us religious fanatics, gamblers, junkies, erotic electro-stimulation, the implosion of a Las Vegas casino, a Bollywood film shoot, Mountain Valley, Hindu rites, Swiss mountains, raves, a dog show, rivers, planes, bungee jumping, clouds... The result is alternately fascinating and boring as a dog's ass. And while it scores some insights into the human condition, a lot of the movie comes off as pretentious hogwash. There's a near-brilliant 88 minute pic somewhere in there, too bad it's lost in an overblown 3 hour long (and I mean long) student film.

Good Rockin' Tonight : The Legacy of Sun Records, Bruce Sinofsky 44

Sam Phillips might be a shameless self-promoter, but you must admit that what he did in the 50s in his Memphis studios did affect music forever. As he puts it himself, the thing about the Sun sound is that he didn't care if it was country, blues, rock & roll or an amalgam of them, all that mattered to him is how a record made you feel. Bruce Sinofsky's documentary doesn't dig much deeper than that, failing to address issues like how, even though Phillips initially put out records by black artists in the belief that "the only thing that wasn't segregated was the radio dial", from his discovery of Elvis Presley onwards Sun Records mostly focused on black music played by white acts.

Still, you gotta appreciate all the great music the film packs, be it vintage performances by the likes of Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis or new recordings of Sun classics by everyone from Paul McCartney to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Mark Knopfler Ben Folds Five and Live. Unfortunately, even the musical content is a mixed blessing as it devotes much time to obscure Sun artists and questionable reinterpretations by Third Eye Blind, matchbox 20 and Kid Rock.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Eugene Jarecki 86

This is the third documentary I see at the festival, and it's another totally different approach. Where "LSD" was contemplative and philosophical and "Sun Records" was harmless and self-congratulary, "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" is a passionately inquisitive film determined to uncover the truth and hopefully inspire action. In a manner not unlike Michael Moore's, Eugene Jarecki makes an infuriating case against Kissinger and exposes the hypocrisy and deviousness of US Foreign Policy.

The film argues that if dictators like Milosevic and Pinochet can be brought before a tribunal for crimes against humanity, so should Kissinger. Jarecki, using journalist Christopher Hitchens' book as a starting point, establishes that the former National Security Advisor:

- sabotaged the 1968 negotiations between the Johnson administration and the North Vietnamese to position himself in a place of power with the Nixon camp, which was elected after the peace talks collapsed (the war in Nam continued for years, causing thousands more useless casualties)
- supervised the illegal secret bombings in Cambodia that killed thousands of civilians
- green-lighted the genocide in East Timor
- ordered the coup against the democratically elected President of Chile and approved the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a General who opposed said coup, which could then proceed and install Pinochet's regime of terror in 1973 on... September 11.

It would be hard not to draw a parallel with the other 9/11, which reinforces the film's query: if the US is so adamant about hunting down those responsible for the deaths of innocents, why aren't they prosecuting Kissinger? Jarucki's film needs to be widely seen and discussed. The manipulation and secrecy of this most objectionable Nobel Peace Prize can't go on any longer.

Tan de Repente, Diego Lerman 89

A quirky Argentinean film that's thoroughly entertaining but also lingers in your mind long after it's over. The story is about how Marcia, a fat and depressed Buenos Aires lingerie store clerk, is taken on an impromptu road trip by a pair of switchblade lesbians (!) who call themselves Mao and Lenin. Mao is a real firecracker, making overt sexual passes at strangers without blinking, and it's sad how Marcia lets herself get attached to such an unpredictable person. Lenin is somewhere between the two; she's a hitch-hiking, shoplifting punk, but when she takes her friends to her aunt's place in Rivero, she finds herself unexpectedly caring for the 70 year old woman.

This is 26 year old Diego Lerman's first feature, but it's a surprisingly mature yet irreverent film. This sexy Latin road movie and its unspoken life-affirming message might call to mind Y Tu Mama Tambien, but "Tan de Repente" has a style of its own. Not only does it revolve around young girls instead of boys, it also has an almost impressionistic feel, with long stretches without dialogue, just great music and black & white cinematography and a lot of life and beauty.

Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Actually, I didn't see that one. They "lost" the film, so it couldn't be screened. Thus I went into whatever was starting soon in one of the other theatres instead:

Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, Matthew Buzzell 40

Jimmy Scott's life story is so pathetic you're not sure whether to laugh or cry. His father abandoned the family, he lost his mother at a young age, he had to hustle as a kid to survive during the Depression, and at 12 he stopped growing because of an hormonal disease. Hence, he never went through puberty, retains boyish features and can't reproduce. This also gave him a curiously high-pitched voice, which got him attention in the jazz community in the 50s. Unfortunately, he was screwed over and over by the music business, to the point where he stopped singing and spent decades struggling through minimum wage jobs, three failed marriages and alcoholism. Only recently has he been rediscovered by jazz enthusiasts, which led to a proper record deal and some recognition- he's apparently big in Japan.

After the screening, Matthew Buzzell admitted himself that he's not a filmmaker, just a big fan of the obscure 75 year old easy-listening vocalist. Yet while we can feel Buzzell's affection for his subject through the documentary, it doesn't change the fact that the movie is amateurish and superficial. Scott's story is rather interesting, but "If You Only Knew" coasts through it in 77 minutes without going further than running a check-list of the man's (few) good and (many) bad times.

Un Homme sans l'Occident, Raymond Depardon 43

Unsurprisingly, this film from French photographer Raymond Depardon is expertly shot, but it's hard not to grow impatient with its uneventful, deadly slow narrative. A self-proclaimed "elegy to the nomads", it opens by quoting David Lean with a shot of infinite sky and small and smallish black specks that turns out to be men on camels when they get closer.

The film then sticks with long, static shots of early 20th century nomads struggling to survive the Sahara desert and each other in amoral survival-of-the-fittest bouts, with the mostly unseen threat of the white man hanging over them. This makes for a stunningly beautiful flip-book of deep focus black & white photography, but the potential for it to overwhelm you with the cruel emptiness of the desert is undermined by annoying blocks of National Geographic-style narration.

Waiting for Happiness, Abderrahmane Sissako 68

Funny watching this after "Un Homme sans l'Occident". Another slow-paced, contemplative film set in the desert, this touching little African picture is not quite as gorgeously photographed as Depardon's, but it possesses so much more heart. Another difference is how it's set in present, as the influence of the Occident has become inevitable, for better (cars, planes, lightbulbs) or worse (cigarettes, bad Karaoke singing, Des Chiffres et des Lettres on TV).

There is not much plot to speak of; this is a "hanging out" movie. We meet a father and his young son who work as electricians, a mother teaching her daughter traditional music, and ever more men (and women) who hear the call of Europe and leave the village. Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako has made a quietly beautiful film about "transit cities" between Africa and Europe, which are called "heremakono", ie places where people are "waiting for happiness".

La Devinière, Benoit Dervaux W/O

Badly shot, pointless documentary about mental patients grimacing, making animal noises and messing with scrap in and around a dilapidated asylum. I d'angeloed after two reels.

Isabelle Huppert, une vie pour jouer, Serge Toubiana 62

A somewhat voyeuristic look at French actress Isabelle Huppert: in rehearsals for the play Médée, on set with Chabrol or Heneke, swamped by the media and fans at Cannes, during photo shoots, even as a kid in old Super 8 films. We also hear Huppert's views on the profession. On good days she sees it as "holding on to childhood and playtime"; on not so good ones, she feels she is "nothing", with acting being her only way to gain "definition". Interesting.

Viva la Frida!, André Luc W/O

Stiff, lifeless portrait of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with cheesy video reenactments of key events. D'angeloed.

This Is Not a Love Song, Billie Eltringham 37

Spike and Central Heaton (get it?), two dumb Scottish lowlives, spend days and nights wandering in the English countryside to escape the wrath of the locals after the accidental death of a farmer's daughter. Billie Eltringham's latest is an occasionally intense but simple-minded "Of Mice and Men" update, brought down by the clumsy way it shifts between a faux-vérité look (it was shot on digital video in two weeks) and Guy Ritchie-type visual gimmicks.

Ken Park, Larry Clark, Ed Lachman 0

I don't know why I still bother to see Larry Clark's sexploitation films when each one is more despicable than the previous. I'll give him one thing, his work his memorable, but so would be the experience of having to watch him rape your children. "Ken Park", which is co-directed by Ed Lachmen, follows three guys and a girl from Visalia, California, as they do nothing but skateboard, smoke dope and do each other, with the occasional bit of the old ultra-violence.

Shawn has a girlfriend, but he likes her mother better. Graphic sex ensues. Tate's always yelling at his grandparents and his dog. The only person he tolerates is himself. Graphic sex ensues. Claude clashes with his drunken, abusive father. Graphic sex ensues (I wish I was kidding). Peaches' dad is a gentler, religious man, but when he catches her being kinky with some guy from Bible Studies, he beats the snot out of both of them. Then out of nowhere, Shawn, Claude and Peaches (who we've never even seen together before) are having a threesome, shown in graphic detail, natch.

Why one would make such a film? I see two possibilities: 1) He's only depicting a reality. If that's the case, someone needs to tell him we got that teenagers were horny and amoral when he made "Kids" seven years ago, no need to keep shoving this down our collective throat. 2) Clark's getting off on making films with the crassest characters and the most close-ups of penises possible. In any case, "Ken Park" is by far the worst film I've seen since... Well, "Bully".

The Sea, Baltasar Kormakur 66

A day in the life of a spectacularly dysfunctional family, Baltasar Kormakur's follow-up to "101 Reykjavik" is unpredictable to say the least. It starts with a bang but soon settles into an almost boringly low-key drama about how an old man, whose fishing and processing company has been holding together a small Iceland village, is being bullied into selling his fish quotas to a big corporation by his own son. As we meet the rest of the family, each member quirkier than the next, "The Sea" shifts into a bittersweet but comedic tone, before ultimately escalating into over-the-top melodrama drenched in alcohol, unhealthy sexual urges and old grudges bursting out. This makes for a wildly unbalanced film, hardly subtle but intense.

In a Foreign Land: Concrete (shorts program)

"Winkelhart"- Dialogue-free but oddly compelling look at a Dutch mall and the nearby train station and back streets at night, as the misery behind urban progress is unearthed. It ends with cleaning crews throwing out the hobos and their cardboard boxes to make the area neat again before the beautiful people arrive.

"Rejoue-moi ce vieux mélodrame"- Same theme, but played around a construction site instead. Local film critic Denis Côté shoots with a sickeningly shaky handheld video camera and amps up the noise to communicate the oppressive nature of the surroundings. Basically, it's incompetently shot and unwatchable, but on purpose. Could have fooled me...

"Entering Indifference" – More of the seedy side of modern city life, more lousy camerawork, but this time with an obnoxious, pretentious voice-over over random images of Chicago and out-of-focus corporate logos.

"Je m'appelle" – Another large block of narration put into images, but this one is well written and relevant, giving a name and a voice to factory workers, junkies, Irishmen, angry youths... Anyone who's been oppressed, belittled, ignored. Powerful.

Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes 79

From the very start, Todd Haynes' homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas is a real treat. The autumn leaves in gorgeous Technicolor, the swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, the lavish titles... When Julianne Moore's upper-middle-class housewife enters the picture, the attention to detail is even more impressive. It's one thing to fill each frame with period cars, clothes and hairstyles, but here even the camera movements and the actor's delivery and body language are old fashioned! Moore is superb as always, but Dennis Quaid also nails the 50s tone down as her fast-talking successful husband.

So far so good, but there's one thing that slightly bothered me about "Far From Heaven": what's the purpose at work, beside a brilliant exercise in style? I can see Haynes throwing a few curve balls, overtly addressing issues hush-hush in Sirk's time like homosexuality and interracial relationships. Still, the handling is out-of-time: doctors conduct treatments to "restore heterosexuality", and the whole town literally frowns upon a white woman being friendly to a "Negro". The film can't possibly think it's daringly revealing that intolerance was rampant behind the polished exteriors of 1950s suburbia, right?

Some people around me seemed to take the film as a parody, laughing out loud at every retro flourish, but I doubt Haynes' intent is this juvenile. Then what is it? In an interview with EW, Haynes explains that his film "uses the filmmaking style of the ‘50s to affect on an emotional level." Well, that sounds just dandy, but despite strong chemistry between Moore and Dennis Haysbert (who plays a charismatic and intelligent African-American gardener), the stunning but overwhelming art direction creates a distance between the story and the audience that makes emotional involvement difficult. I admire the heck out of "Far From Heaven", I just wish I could embrace it more heartily.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman 90

The Funk Brothers had more #1 hits that Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys put together, but few recognise the name. Their music, on the other hand, is timeless: they were the musicians on all the Motown hits in its heyday. It's almost tragic how these guys contributed to shaping the soundscape of the 1960s but were hardly ever acknowledged as more than the guys in the back behind Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson.

Now comes an extraordinary documentary that finally shines the spotlight on them. We learn all about how after having rock & roll "stolen" from them by the white boys in the ‘50s, the Black jazz and blues musicians revolutionised pop music again in Berry Gordy's little Detroit studio, Hitsville USA, aka the Snakepit! Paul Justman's film shows us how the Brothers created and regularly reinvented the Motown sound, taking off from jazz and blues licks, adding a taste of twist and doo-wop, experimenting with Afro-Cuban rhythms and psychedelic vibes, fusing all of it into the catchiest grooves. Even more important than the nifty arrangements is how Motown's music inspires as much as it makes you groove. As Ben Harper (one of many contemporary artists who come in to jam with the Funk Brothers) perfectly puts it, they made "soul music, music that gives you hope and makes you feel like you wanna feel."

About the featured performers, I did find it disappointing at first how they brought in tourists like Chaka Kahn or Bootsy Collins to sing with them instead of reuniting with surviving Motown legends like Diana Ross or Stevie Wonder, but when you think of it's a good thing because the band is not overshadowed, they are the stars for once: Joe Messina and Eddie Willis on guitars, Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith playing the keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass, Richard "Pistol" Allen and Uriel Jones accompanying each other on drums and tambourine virtuoso (really!) Jack Ashford. Not to forget the Brothers who passed away but are still there in spirit: bandleader and pianist Earl Van Dyke, bass player James Jamerson ("Motown's heartbeat"), drummer Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, guitarist Robert White and conga player Eddie "Bongo" Brown.

I expected the film to be a good "Behind the Music", but it's much more than that. You grow to care for these guys and this family they formed in the Snakepit and on the road. It's not even a race thing, as two of them are white. That they could groove is all that mattered to the gang. The anecdotes they tell are sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, but always interesting and endearing. I got so involved with them that by the last half hour, the musical numbers brought tears to my eyes. Hearing "What's Going On" (the title track of arguably the greatest LP ever recorded) put in context with archival images of the social unrest of the late ‘60s, "What becomes of the broken hearted" sung passionately by Joan Osborne (don't- she's great), or "Ain't no Mountain High Enough" doubling as an homage to the Brothers who died before getting proper recognition... Let's hope that this documentary can finally introduce to the world the rest of them who've been standing in the shadows for too long.

11'09"01 60

11 filmmakers, from 11 countries, making 11 films, each 11 minute 9 seconds and 1 image long and offering a different look at the events that occurred on September 11th 2001. The segments range from touching (Mira Nair's real-life melodrama) to pretentious (Claude Lelouch's navel-gazing break-up story), clever (Sean Penn's poetic slice-of-life) to retarded (Shohehi Imamura‘s half-assed symbolism), cute (Samira Makhmalbaf's kids-say-the-darnest-things episode) to heavy (Ken Loach's reminder of the other 9/11, the 1973 US-backed coup in Chile that left 30,000 civilians dead), fun (Idrissa Ouedraogo's charming hunt-for-Bin-Laden comedy) to tedious (Danis Tanovic's slow yarn). There are also two digressions into the Middle-East situation, one pro-Israel (a show-off but inconsequential one-take by Amos Gitai) and one pro-Palestine (the cheesy "magical realism" of Youssef Chahine). And finally there's the pièce de résistance, Alejandro González Iñárritu's riveting impressionistic take on that tragic New York morning, Revolution #9-style. The overall picture is uneven, but the Mexican director's 11 minute alone makes "11'09"01" worth seeing.