Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
We are finally more than halfway through this marathon of a film festival, and I think we are all feeling the effects. Having seen nearly fifty films now, I’m often asked how I keep all of them straight. While there is the tendency for the mind to jumble all of them together, it’s surprising how the feelings associated with viewing each film come rushing back when I sit down and write about them. I would not recommend seeing so many films in a short period of time, but if you have to do it this is the perfect venue; just when you think you’ve set some kind of record, there’s always someone else that has seen twice as many. But those people don’t have a life and I do… right?
The Last Winter dir. Larry Fessenden (U.S.A./Iceland)
The setting is a remote area of Alaska, words like barren, vast, and damn cold come to mind. The mission is to build a massive oil well and tap into the profitable resource. The group is led by the liberal hating Pollack (Ron Perlman) who thinks all of the talk about global warming in nonsense. When one member of the crew ends up dead and others begin to act weirdly, everyone except Pollack seems to be concerned about their welfare. What exactly is causing all of these odd happenings and why is the temperature so warm during the dead of winter? The Last Winter tries its hardest to be a thriller with a message about global warming and its consequences, and we have to give it a big E for effort. However, the characters talk so much about what may be happening, with theories flying fast and furiously that we keep waiting for some suspense to build but it never really does. When we finally see what is causing all of the problems it’s quite a letdown, let’s just say it’s something close to a supernatural moose on steroids. I really do credit director Fessenden for trying to create a thriller with a conscience but the result is an odd mix of ideas and thrills that never really takes off.
La Vie En Rose dir. Olivier Dahan (France/Czech Republic/ U.K.)
Here is a masterpiece about the legendary French singer Edith Piaf that contains a performance that must be seen to be believed. Marion Cotillard doesn’t so much as play Piaf as she embodies her. Cotillard begins her performance as a 20 year old Piaf and ends as the 47 year old who looked more like 70 after living a very tough yet fulfilling life as France’s “little sparrow.” Piaf was indeed tiny but her voice was huge as was her spirit and Cotillard is able to go from sweet and big eyed to downright ferocious in one shot. Spanning so many years and locales, director Dahan not only keeps it all cohesive as he takes us back and forth through Edith’s tumultuous life but he also builds a dramatic momentum that many other directors would probably have lost. Edith Piaf’s most well known song was “Je ne regrette rien” which we have heard in a countless number of French films, and Dahan knows that we have been waiting for it but like the rest of the film his timing is absolutely perfect.
For the Bible Tells Me So dir. Daniel Karslake (U.S.A.)
This documentary about the Christian right and their belief that the bible condemns homosexuals not only systematically debunks that notion, but also shows us several church-going families that have changed their minds about homosexuality through personal experiences and soul-searching. Each of the families portrayed in the film, including the family of former Congressman and Presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, have a son or daughter that is gay. Some accept their child no matter what from the get-go, while others have a much more difficult time dealing with it. The common thread is their deep religious upbringing that tells them that homosexuality is a sin. Of course the bible says a lot of things, including “thou shall not eat pork” or something like that. The film interviews several religious figures, including a man who would become the first ever openly gay Bishop. Most of these people, at least the ones who don’t spend their time screaming hatred in front of their parishioners, agree that the bible should never be read on a “fifth grade level” unless you’re a fifth grader. The film successfully makes the argument that the bible has been used throughout the ages to discriminate against one type of person or another. As one person says, “The Christian right is using the same trick once again” in regard to homosexuals. Of all of the people interviewed the one that really sticks in our minds is a woman who could not accept her daughter being a lesbian until she took her own life. Now that woman is a strident gay rights activist. In one way or another this is the emotional arc of most of these people and the question one has to ask is would God want people to suffer so much, to have to tread through so much hatred in order to find love and understanding, or is it man that creates such strife in order to hide his own insecurities?
Goya’s Ghosts dir. Milos Forman (Spain)
The buzz around the festival is that Goya’s Ghosts isn’t Forman’s best film, and that is probably so, but how could it be? Forman has given us films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hair, and Amadeus just to mention a few. The film is based on the work of painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) and it starts with the Spanish Inquisition, goes through the French “liberation” of Spain and ends with the British invasion that would bring back religious rule. It covers so much history in under two hours that the film could be called “Milos’ Notes.” This is not a negative in my mind as many filmmakers should take their own notes and follow Forman’s lead. There is never a moment of Ghosts that isn’t entertaining and that’s major praise for a “period piece”. Along with Skarsgard, Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman both turn in solid performances as objects of Goya’s artistic affection. Once again Forman’s ongoing theme of personal freedom and artistic expression is at work here, but this time we can’t help but think of our own country’s “liberation” of Iraq and that forced freedom isn’t really freedom at all.
Still Alive. A Film About Krzysztof Kieslowski dir. Maria Zmarz-Loczanowicz (Poland)
Kieslowski directed such films as The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique and the Red, White and Blue Trilogy. I have seen many of his later films but I didn’t know much about his beginnings in Poland and how his art was shaped. The film is as interested at what drove him to an early death (many long days and sleepless nights of filmmaking) as well as his never being comfortable with the fame he obtained later in his career, as it is the films themselves. I found it enlightening and curiously touching that he gave so much to the cinema and seemed to get so little in return.
I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal dir. Richard Trank (U.S.A.)
Simon Wiesenthal was in his mid-thirties when he was freed from the Nazi concentration camp by U.S. forces. It was then that his real life would begin. After losing his entire family except for his wife during the holocaust he would embark on a nearly sixty-year journey as a Nazi hunter. Why didn’t he just move on with life like so many others? What drove him to make this his life’s work? Wiesenthal himself answers these and other questions with remarkable conviction and by the end of this devastatingly powerful documentary, you will undoubtedly have a greater appreciation for a man who was true to his heart and conscience no matter what the consequences.
Congorama dir. Philippe Falardeau (Canada/Belgium/France)
At 42 years of age, wannabe inventor Michel (Olivier Gourmet) finds out that he was actually adopted and that he was born in a barn in Quebec. So, he travels there to try and find his biological relatives, but he gets more than he bargained for when he discovers an invention for an electric car and also gets into a tragic accident along way. Who are his biological parents? Is the credit for the invention destined to be his? Congorama is one of those films that very slyly and methodically gives us the answers to these questions but it makes us pay attention and it also makes a rare statement about the Belgian occupation of the Congo and the after effects that are still being felt. Gourmet is fantastic in the lead role as a man who may never know who he really is or what he’s meant to be.
Red Without Blue dir. Brooke Sebold, Todd Sills, Benita Sills (U.S.A.)
A moving documentary about Mark and Alex, identical twins from Montana whose lives would take them in very different yet similar directions. Mark is gay and Alex has decided to change genders and of course their family would never be the same. Through home videos we see that Mark and Alex (now Clair) have never really changed from the cute, well-behaved kids they were, but it took some time for everyone else to understand that as well. A film that reminds us how life can take us on quite the journey and that it’s best to be able to roll with the punches.
Soldiers of Conscience dir. Gary Weimberg, Catherine Ryan (U.S.A.)
Some soldiers decide that they simply cannot kill the enemy and the reasons can range from religious beliefs to the simple notion that it is wrong to kill another human being. Several of these soldiers are interviewed in this extremely well-balanced doc that makes good points on both sides of the argument. However there is no doubting the soldiers we see here undoubtedly have the courage of their convictions and that calling them cowards is simply ignorance at its worst.