Anytime you attend a film festival for more than a few days, there is always a bad run where you see a number of uninspiring or downright disheartening films in a row. You start to wonder why you put yourself through this. But then all it takes is attending one impressive film to put a spring in your step again.
Today was a day at the festival that my friend Michael Sicinski (read his excellent festival reports on GreenCine Daily
– here are
the first two entries so far) perfectly described as a â€œrefrigerator day.â€ The list of films to choose from at the festival today had nothing that could be described as essential. Like when there's nothing appealing in the refrigerator but you keep opening the door hoping that something new will have appeared since the last time, many festival attendees – myself included – kept reopening the schedule book trying to find a promising film that they might have overlooked during the dozen times they looked at it before. But just like you've gotta eat something, at a film festival you've gotta see something. So on days like today you take your chances and hope to find something that surprises you.
The film that did that trick for me today was a Canadian curiosity called Pontypool
. It's directed by Bruce MacDonald
, who had a very exciting run of projects in the 90s (including Highway 61
, Hard Core Logo
, and the TV series â€œTwitch Cityâ€) but he then had a string of disappointments throughout the current decade that wasn't broken until last year, when he received a lot of praise for The Tracey Fragments
starring Ellen Page. I think it's safe to say that Pontypool
is the only film I've seen that could be called a â€œsemiotics horror film.â€ Laurie Anderson once said that language is a virus, a perfect tag line for this film. It's an ultra low budget affair (but creatively so) that takes place entirely in one location: a small town radio station located in the basement of a church. The film focuses almost exclusively on a talk radio host (a wonderfully weathered, gruff, and sensitive performance by Stephen McHattie that recalls Nick Nolte as much as Don Imus) and his producing staff holed up in their studio as some kind of mystifying end-of-the-world mayhem is overtaking the town. The film plays like a smart thriller at these points but then, ironically, becomes increasingly philosophical as the action heats up. This is an absurdly delicious plot that shouldn't be spoiled, so for now I'll just tease you by saying that you should imagine Roland Barthes adapting Orson Welles' War of the Worlds
radio play. The film will surely get released in Canada (it playfully brings up certain key themes of Canadian identity) but right now has no U.S. distribution plans. Hopefully it will at least show up on TV or DVD.
Quickly, the other highlights over the past two days have been films that Dave has already mentioned (as well as David Gatten's moving short film How to Conduct a Love Affair
, which screened at the Wexner Center in February). The British artist Steve McQueen's debut feature film, Hunger
, is an astonishingly assured, visceral work about the Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands. McQueen has always had one of the strongest visual sensibilities of the gallery artists working in film or video and he transfers his talents to the dramatic, narrative setting better than probably any other visual artist has. He's a very smart filmmaker, which is always a welcome rarity. It has distribution in the US with IFC Films, so it should show up in the next year or so. If awards were solely given for artistic merit, surely Hunger
should be a nominee for multiple year-end awards –at the very least, Michael Fassbinder's performance as the main character is a stunning bit of performance art that should be acknowledged – but the film is likely too hard for the traditional Oscar audience.
's Wendy and Lucy
is a small gem. She doesn't make films that proclaim themselves as masterpieces, instead they're carefully and lovingly assembled portraits of people living outside of society and are filled with perfectly realized details. In addition to a strong lead performance by Michelle Williams, there are also great small character turns by Will Oldham and Will Patton. Michelle Williams
plays Wendy and Reichardt's dog Lucy plays herself (anyone who saw Old Joy when Kelly presented it at the Wexner Center
will probably remember Lucy from that film). I can't think of another filmmaker who has ever given their dog a title, starring role in their feature film before. I'd recommend the film to anyone. However, for dog owners, it's essential viewing and contains some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the relationship between a pet and its owner since Umberto D. Being in a separate country from my dog, it made me wish I could walk out of the movie theater and pet him and go for a nice long walk with him.
I'll wrap this up because early tomorrow is the four hour Steven Soderbergh
behemoth called Che
. Look for a report on that film soon.
, Assistant Curator, Film/Video