BLACK SHEEP @ THE 31ST MONTREAL WORLD FILM FESTIVAL
What a difference a year makes. Last year, I casually fit five films from the Montreal World Film Festival into my schedule. I met up with friends, had lunches before and drinks afterward. For ten days, there was something special happening in my routine. This year, the special dropped off and pressure took its place. I was asked by Ioncinema, a website I’ve been writing DVD reviews for these last couple of years, to cover the festival for the site. This meant I would be fully accredited and that in turn means I get a fancy badge with my picture on it that allows me into all the screenings and gives me access to the pressroom. A schedule was made. I would attend twelve screenings. Meanwhile, I still had to go to work every day, work on the Black Sheep site upgrades and find time for an editing project I have pending. Somehow managing to make everything work was the least of my worries (cutting the gym out of my schedule freed up time for meals). My biggest concern was booking interviews with directors who were in town with their films. I finished with three interviews, two less than I had hoped for but I am very happy with the results of all three. As many of the screenings I scheduled were done so in hopes an interview would follow, I cancelled many of them to alleviate some of the aforementioned pressure. Twelve screenings turned into five … well, five and a half really because I walked out of Nicolas Roeg’s PUFFBALL (blech). Subsequently, the pressure that was initially created entirely by myself gave way to other states, like appreciation and enjoyment.
The first film I saw is actually in competition in the First Films category. Germany’s DER ANDERE JUNGE (THE OTHER BOY), directed by Volker Einrauch, tells the tale of two teenage boys in Hamburg who are forced to interact with each other because their parents are good friends when they otherwise never would. Paul (Tim Oliver Schultz) is a boy with no boundaries. He does what he wants and his parents do nothing to discipline him. Why should they really? He is a man after all and a man needs to find his own path if he is ever going to be successful. Robert (Willi Gerk) on the other hand is quiet and pensive. He is a sensitive boy who is mostly left alone by his parents, as they don’t really know what to do with him. Robert allows Paul to step all over him whenever the two cross paths, losing a little more esteem each time. By the time Paul naively sticks a gun in Robert’s face, he cannot take it anymore. Having finally been pushed too far, Robert pushes back. One of the boys ends up dead and the true beauty of the film follows. Perhaps if the parents weren’t so preoccupied playing cards with each other, they could have seen what was going on between their boys in the next room this whole time. The death and subsequent cover-up forces all involved to wake up and see the limitations of their own lives. Einrauch’s film asks many questions about nature and nurture, like whether the boys are accountable for their own actions or just acting out the influences of their parents, but never presumes to answer any of the questions directly. Instead, he allows the film’s starkly guarded performances and delicate script to leave the debate in the laps of the viewer to bring home to bed with them. Sleep is that much further out of reach after seeing this one.
For me, sleep was even further away on that particular night. New this year at the festival is the Midnight Slam series. Gore and ghouls from around the globe found themselves a home in the daily midnight screenings dedicated to violence and horror. Making its North American premiere at the festival was SHOOT ‘EM UP, one of the larger festival entries this year as the film is being released ultra-wide this week. Midnight screenings are like one long stretch of full moon fever. People seem to feel that the time of day gives them free reign to holler and give props every time someone jabs a half-eaten carrot through the back of someone’s skull. I don’t mean to take away from the fun, especially from a film like SHOOT ‘EM UP, which can be loads of fun. I guess I just felt bad for my roommate who had to sit next to “Oh, no. Oh, no. He’s not going to … OH YEAH! HE DID GO THERE!! I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS MOVIE!!!” all the way through the movie. As irritating as this was to my roommate, it is probably exactly what writer/director, Michael Davis wants. This is Davis’s first Hollywood production and he surprisingly scored some top talent (Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci) for what amounts to nothing more than B-movie with better production value and smarter dialogue. Drawing inspiration from John Woo’s HARDBOILED, Davis gives us a man (Owen) who delivers and then saves a baby amidst constant gunfire zipping past his head. With the baby tucked under his arm like a football, he outruns the bad guy (Giamatti), finds solace in the arms of a lactating prostitute (Bellucci) and eventually finds himself jumping out of an airplane and into a shoot-out in mid-air. Davis’s action sequences are outrageous but are also sharply choreographed and shot with style. His witty screenplay even manages to weave family values into the fold. SHOOT ‘EM UP is the kind of movie you shut your brain off to enjoy, only to realize you didn’t have to.
An opposite experience can also be had. SPINNING INTO BUTTER is the kind of movie you keep your brain alert for only to realize you could have left it in the car. I am honestly baffled at how this film finds itself in competition for the festival’s top prize. I have been known to write films off prematurely but I knew within the first minutes of this film that it would be hollow and cheap. SPINNING INTO BUTTER was originally a play and having the playwright (Rebecca Gilman) also write the screenplay (with Doug Atchison) was the first mistake to be made. The story of an over glorified guidance councilor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who moves from an inner city Chicago school to a quieter Burlington university (read as leaves black for white) is preachy without a strong position. It knows what it wants to say but it doesn’t know how to say it. It wants to expose the deep seeded hatred and racism within everyone that we don’t talk about. This is both admirable and brave. It’s a shame it tells us this through one-liners angrily spat out of numerous throwaway characters of various ethnic backgrounds. You’ve got an angry black woman, a noble Nuyorican guy and a nerdy Asian student for starters. The colorful background makes way for the nice white lady dean of students (Parker) to meet and engage in challenging debate with the well-intentioned black reporter (Mykelti Williamson). While the film finds its most solid moments in scenes shared between these two actors, its ultimate lack of character encouraged by first-time film director, Mark Brokaw, only turns this movie against itself. Instead of exposing our buried racial prejudices, it serves to show the tokenism and ignorance of the filmmaker himself as it relies on stereotypes to make its points.
My journey then went from no character to full character. After making the rounds through the United States festival circuit, Montreal filmmaker, Francois Dompierre, comes home with his first feature, ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW. This was it for me. It is a strikingly beautiful, rich character study that is haunting and inspiring. You know after the first few minutes that you are about to see something meaningful and significant. Then, by the time the film comes to a close, you know that Dompierre has the potential for great things in his future. Wes (Joey Kern) gets a phone call late one night from Alison (Alexandra Holden). He wishes he were still dreaming but he can’t avoid the voice on the other line. A part of him doesn’t want to either. From the few things said over the phone, so much is learnt about these two people and the effects they have had on each other’s lives. Meanwhile, the depth of Dompierre’s screenplay has only just begun. Each scene that follows gives that much more insight into the nature of their relationship and themselves without revealing too much. The intrigue nears Lynchian proportions as the film is told out of chronological order but in a manner that feels like the only way it could have been told. I found myself anxious as the film was drawing to a close as I felt I didn’t know enough yet about these two people, about their fascinating story. Dompierre did not disappoint though. He reveals just enough and at just the right times to keep you wanting to learn more about Wes and Alison and subsequently doing so until the end of the film. The film is not without its faults but they smooth themselves out through the earnestness of the director’s presence felt throughout the film. My only regret about ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW is that I didn’t see it at a public screening so I could have shared in the warmth this film gives so freely.
Like last year, my closing film for the festival is also the closing film of the festival itself. Unlike last year, the film is well deserving of its place. French director, Claude Miller, returns to the Montreal World Film Festival this year with UN SECRET (A SECRET), starring Patrick Bruel, Cecile de France and Julie Depardieu. The sheer scope of the story is staggering. The summer of 1955 is vibrant and colorful. Everyone around the swimming pool is alive and soaking in the gorgeous day. Everyone, that is, except for young Francois. He is in awe of his mother’s beautiful stature, weary of his father’s disappointment and afraid to get in the water. Thirty years later, Francois (Mathieu Almarich) is a therapist who helps others face their fears. It isn’t clear whether his fears have been entirely vanquished but it is certain his healing process began in 1962, when he finally learned about his family’s secret. The secret itself had been buried since the early 1940’s. The script begins by alluding to things unsaid within Francois’s family and how avoiding saying these things only creates more damaging problems than speaking the truth would. However, the title itself suggests that there is one secret that will eclipse all. As that secret unfolds, the viewer is treated to so much suffering that serves as concrete insight into how this family became what they did. Miller’s film is a morality tale about the consequences of keeping things to yourself. Not saying what you should only leads to internalized torture that stops you from being who you are. Furthermore, it is foolish to think that secrets don’t get out. Silence echoes louder than any truth ever could. That said, as much as I would like to, I can’t tell you anymore about this film … it’s a secret and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
On this, the last day of the 31st Montreal World Film Festival, I am relieved that it is closing and to have survived. Beyond that though, I am thrilled for having had the experience behind the scenes. Hanging out at the Hyatt lobby, meeting directors, getting into sold out screenings – all these things are new to me and it was a pleasure to have had these opportunities. I’d like to thank Trevor, Phil and Candice for joining me for screenings. I’d like to thank Celine France and Maryanne Shelley at the Festival pressroom for being so accommodating and helpful. I’d like to thank directors Michael Davis, Volker Einrauch and Francois Dompierre for meeting with me and sharing their experiences. And lastly, I’d like to thank Eric Lavallee at Ioncinema for sponsoring me to begin with and making this whole thing possible.
Next week, I will make my way to Toronto for my first time at the Toronto International Film Festival. See you there.