29 August, 2008

Spotlight On Bavarian Cinema At Montreal World Film Festival

by Sandy Mandelberger, Montreal World Film Festival

Bavaria has been a cinema stronghold in Germany for over 100 years. While many German film companies and filmmakers have migrated to Berlin in the last decade, Munich still remains the main hub for the German film industry.

Directors like Doris Dorrie and Sonke Wortmann have been famous Bavarian film names for the last few decades. In recent years, Bavarian films have won innumberable prizes at home and abroad, including Oscars for Florian Gallenberger (Quero ser), Caroline Link (Nowhere In Africa) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives Of Others). Other important films of recent vintage coming from Bavaria include the Oscar-nominated Downfall, about the final days of Adolph Hitler, by Oliver Hirschbieger, and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days by Marc Rothemund.

This year the Montreal World Film Festival will pay tribute to the new generation of Bavarian auteurs by presenting a dozen films, ten features and two shorts. Among the films selected: Die Welle (The Wave), an allegory about the German tendency towards fascist autocracy by Dennis Gansel; Kirschbluten-Hanami (Cherry Blossoms-Hanami), the story of a Bavaria widower who comes to Japan to find some solace, by veteran director Doris Dorrie; Absurdistan, an absurdist comedy about two childhood sweethearts living in a water-starved village somewhere between Asia and Europe, directed by Veit Helmer; Rauber Kneissl (Bavarian Rebel),a biopic of legendary criminal Robber Kneissl, a 20th century Robin Hood, directed by Marcus H. Rosenmuller; and Der Rote Punkt (The Red Spot), the haunting tale of a Japanese student who travels to Germany to visit the spot where her parents died in a car accident, directed by Marie Miyayama.

Bavarian cinema not only concentrates on diverse content but deal with formal aesthetic trends and technological advances, due to the concentration of new technology business in the area. In this aspect, Bavaria and Montreal have a number of similarities. Both are proud to assert their cultural and political identities in their respective federal systems while also being hubs for new technology companies and new media trends. This mix of tradition and techology is expressed in Bavaria by the slogan “laptop und lederhosen”, a mix that is exemplified in the Festival's selections.

27 August, 2008

New Film From Jiri Menzel Opens In New York and Los Angeles

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Jiri Menzel, the iconic Czech director, debuted his latest film, I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, which opened in New York and Los Angeles this week. The film won the FIPRESCI International Federation of Film Critics prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. It also won 3 Czech Lions (the country's Oscar) for Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. Following the openings this weekend, the film will have a national release in the U.S. and Canada.

Menzel came to prominence in 1967 when his debut feature, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, instantly becoming one of cinema’s world classics. Along with fellow Czech filmakers Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, Menzel became known as one of the “fathers” of the legendary Czech New Wave, with films known for their unique blend of self-deprecating dark humor and social satire. Menzel’s subsequent body of work includes LARKS ON A STRING (banned in Czechoslovakia in 1969 until 1990, a year after the Velvet Revolution) and Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film MY SWEET LITTLE VILLAGE.

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND is adapted from a novel by great Czech novelist and social satirist Bohumil Hrabal whose books are the basis for six of Menzel’s films. The film's “hero” is Jan Ditte (Ivan Barnev), an ambitious yet apolitical Everyman whose irresistible charm and overriding desire to make it to the top let him wander unharmed through the political and social upheavals of the turbulent middle decades of the last century, from the 1930s to World War II and 1950s Communism.

The film tells the story, in flashback, of Jan’s burlesque rise and fall, from boy waiter to rich hotelier, beginning in the 1930s in a small town near the Czech-German border where the millionaire wannabe first encounters the pleasures of an affluent lifestyle and his first sexual experiences. I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND stars Ivan Barney and Oldrich Kaiser as Young Ditte and Old Ditte respectively, and German star Julia Jentsch (SOPHIE SCHOLL) as Ditte’s fervent Aryan wife who marries him only after he proves his German background and shifts her husband’s head towards a portrait of Hitler during lovemaking.

Watch the trailer at:

25 August, 2008

America's Summer European Hits

Benoit Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier in Claude Chabrol's A GIRL CUT IN TWO

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

While it is never simple to release a foreign language film in a market dominated by Hollywood, a few European films have managed to become critical and public hits as America moves into its final days of summer before next weekend’s Labor Day. While such films as The Dark Night, Iron Man and the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series have dominated both domestic and international box office, a certain late summer has emerged among specialty distributors of art films. With most of the summer blockbusters coming out in June and July, the month of August has evolved into a rather positive time for the release of more “serious” films and movies that hail from other countries. Perhaps audiences fed up with a rash of superheroes and special effects-laden cotton candy crave a more demanding kind of cinema once the blockbusters have run their course. This is certainly looking to be the case with a handful of certifiable European summer hits.

The first hit belonged to Germany, a country that has re-emerged as a European powerhouse in the past few years (yet again). One of the best reviewed and most enthusiastically embraced films of the summer has been THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, the intensely moving cross-cultural drama by the German-born Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin. In a kaleidoscopic story of fate and fatalities that won the Best Screenplay Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, a mix of characters become embroiled in each other’s mutual destinies. They include a boorish Turkish widower living in Germany; a prostitute he shelters in exchange for sexual ; his son, a well-educated professor of German; the prostitute’s daughter, a fearless political activist; the young German woman she falls in love with; and her lover’s complicated mother, a former hippie who now preaches the gospel of restraint. As the characters move across geographic and cultural boundaries, Akin portrays them with compassion and understanding, including a quietly magnificent performance by veteran actress Hanna Schygulla as the mother who mourns the loss of her daughter and discovers a new life in a new land. The film, which was released in the U.S. by Strand Releasing, has topped more than $650,000 after playing for 13 weeks, and is only now starting to reach urban centers outside of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The film seems destined to be a frontrunner for next year’s Oscar.

It is not surprising that several of the other European films making a big noise come from France, which routinely has a loyal audience in the States. The standout in terms of critical praise and healthy box office numbers has been TELL NO ONE, the French thriller directed by Guilliame Canet. The film has been hailed as a contemporary version of a classic Hitchcock mystery, with Francois Cluzet starring as a kindhearted pediatrician who finds himself on the run on the streets of Paris. The film, which 4 won Cesar Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing and Best Musical Score, has made more than $3 Million in the United States, considered a major success for a foreign language title.

Another French film that has graced movie screens all summer is THE LAST MISTRESS, the French feminist director Catherine Breillat’s erotic costume drama, adapted from Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel Une Vieille Maîtresse. Set in 19th century Paris, the hot blooded film examines the consuming 10-year affair of a dandy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) and a Spanish-Italian courtesan and femme fatale (Asia Argento). The film has been a reputation for its sexual content and the force of willful play between its two sensual protagonists. The film, released in the U.S. by IFC Films, is fast reaching the $1 Million mark in domestic box office receipts, before it even begins its journey to television and the dvd market.

Just opening this past week, but looking like it will have a long run into the Fall is A GIRL CUT IN TWO, the newest film from the French “master of suspense” Claude Chabrol. Loosely inspired by the 1906 murder of the New York architect Stanford White, the film is an icy examination of class divisions, ruthless sexual gamesmanship and crushing social machinery. Ludivine Sagnier plays an attractive television weather girl who finds herself the object of a power struggle between a married, womanizing author (François Berléand) and a spoiled multimillionaire playboy (Benoît Magimel) who wants her as his trophy. The film has been the subject of much media chatter and been consistently widening its reach since its June opening.

As America becomes stalled in an economic malaise that may not lift soon, the Italian film DAYS AND CLOUDS strong>makes it clear that economic distress is not simply an American phenomenon. In this deeply troubling Italian film, directed by Silvio Soldoni, a middle-aged businessman in Genoa is abruptly fired from his high-paying job in the company he helped found 20years earlier and struggles to regain his footing. The film demonstrates how economic hardship is not only a financial consideration, but deeply affects the man’s self-esteem and his network of relationships, including his marriage to an understanding but difficult wife. The film, which is distributed by the specialty company Film Movement, continues to build momentum after its initial release in early July and looks destined to be one of the contenders for this year’s Oscar as well.

While they are not strictly European films, two American films betray their European sensibilities and showcase the work of exceptionally fine European actors. In Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, the director has received his finest reviews in years. In a kind of homage to the Francois Truffaut classic JULES AND JIM and set in the beautiful city of Barcelona, the film tells the tale of a summer series of romances between artist Juan Antonio (played with considerable charm by Oscar winner Javier Bardem) and the women in his life, which includes a bohemian spitfire who is also mentally unstable played by Penélope Cruz.

Cruz also toplines with English actor Ben Kingsley in the mournful ELEGY, adapted from a novel by American author Philip Roth. Kingsley plays a sex-crazed novelist and teacher who manipulates the affections of a student he seduces. Critics are already hailing Kingsley’s performance as a 60-something narcissist obsessed with his diminishing virility as one of the performance of the year, to be remembered during awards season. The film, which made its world premiere debut at the Berlin Film Festival, is directed by Spanish auteur Isabel Coixet, who has demonstrated in her earlier films My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words a sensitivity to the expression of dark and divided human emotions.

Whether they are European films proper or supreme European talents working in American cinema, the films mentioned above are all expanding the cinematic profile of the summer of 2008 and, thankfully, finding audiences who appreciate their inherent seriousness and depth of feeling. In summer, blockbusters are not the only films worth paying attention to.

19 August, 2008

Spanish Cinema Highlights Toronto Film Festival

Empty Nest

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Although it is not an official sidebar to the Festival, the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival is highlighting a dozen new films from Spain. In fact, Spain is the European country most represented at the Festival which opens in two weeks. With a mix of straight-out Spanish productions and a host of co-productions with Latin American partners, the accent is on the continued vitality and strong international impression of contemporary Spanish cinema.

"This is an especially exciting year for Spanish-language cinema," says Diana Sanchez, Latin America and Spanish Programmer for the Festival. "What makes this year's selection so unique is the diversity of themes and genres, from teen comedies to compelling documentaries, and from experimental and avant-garde films to gripping dramas. This diversity is significant, and we will continue to see a burgeoning Spanish-language industry."

Spanish cinema is represented in all the major Festival categories. Among the most anticipated is Empty Nest, the latest film from Daniel Burman. The film, which screens as a Festival Gala, is a co-production with Argentina, France and Italy. Superbly imaginative and entertaining, Empty Nest offers a heartfelt look at the marital tensions between Martha (Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother) and Leonardo (Oscar Martinez) as they struggle to maintain a fresh and exciting marriage after their youngest child marries and leaves Buenos Aires.

In the Contemporary World Cinema section, Spanish film standouts include Blind Sunflowers by José Luis Cuerda, a historical drama set a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War, starring Javier Cámara (Talk to Her) and Maribel Verdú (Pan's Labyrinth). The film tells the story of a family forced to lie and keep up appearances as they become divided by internal struggles and external pressure. With a carefully crafted script based on Alberto Méndez's novel of the same name, José Luis Cuerda explores the darkness of the post-civil war era, the effects of repression and the terrible consequences of the abuse of power.

Horn of Plenty by Juan Carlos Tabío, is making its World Premiere in Toronto. The Spanish/Cuban co-production is a wonderfully crafted comedy set in contemporary Cuba as descendants of a group of Castiñeiras nuns fight for their inheritance of a treasure deposited by their ancestors in a British bank several centuries earlier. Buoyed by the promise of wealth, Castiñeiras descendents throughout Cuba band together to try to prove their eligibility as legitimate heirs. The film stars Jorge Perugorría (Strawberry and Chocolate), Laura de la Uz and Mirtha Ibarra.

Also making its World Premiere in Toronto is The Window by Carlos Sorin. This co-production with Argentina focuses on Antonio, an ill 80-year-old man, who wakes up at his house in the country on what will become the last day of his life. As the day goes by slowly, Antonio carefully contemplates each moment, each light variation while waiting for his son's visit. Stunningly shot and wonderfully acted, The Window is a profound meditation on solitude epitomized by Antonio's last day of life.

Another meditation on mortality, although much more comedic, is explored in Radio Love by director Leonardo de Armas. The film, which also has its World Premiere at the event, is the tale of 36-year-old Carolina, a successful hostess on the program Radio Love. The discovery of her first wrinkles and the appearance of a beautiful young woman ready to take her place at work drive Carolina into a profound existential crisis. Radio Love is a hilarious reflection on Western society's obsession with self-realization and the constant search for happiness.

Another world premiere is presented with Return to Hansala by Chus Gutiérrez. In 2001, an inflatable boat filled with Moroccan migrants shipwrecked off the Spanish town of Rota. Thirty-seven migrants drowned, 13 of whom were from Hansala. Inspired by this tragedy, Return to Hansala is a touching road movie that follows Martín, manager of a struggling funeral home, and Leila, the sister of one of the drowned boys, in their journey to bring the bodies back to Hansala.

The Visions section of the Festival is devoted to more expressionistic works that take visual and thematic chances and ask the audience to work a bit harder. The Spanish film in this arena is Birdsong by Albert Serra, which has its North American premiere at the Festival. Stunningly shot using only natural light, El Cant dels Ocells is a contemplative reinterpretation of the Biblical journey of the Three Wise Men in search of the newborn Messiah. With a cast of non-professionals performing an improvised script, Albert Serra's second feature builds on his ongoing interest to cinematically express real time through the exquisite exploration of earth and sky.

The final roster of all Toronto titles (numbering more than 250 features) is yet to be announced, so do not be surprised if more Spanish films or co-productions are included in the mix. One thing is certain....this is a bellweather year for Spanish cinema and Toronto is the launching pad in North America for these intriguing and diverse films. May they find critical acceptance and that most coveted of prizes....a good North American distributor.

08 August, 2008

More European Titles Announced For Toronto FF

La Fille de Monaco

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

With less than a month to go before the opening of the Toronto Film Festival, a number of European films have been announced for the Gala Premieres and Special Screenings sections of the Festival. These two sections tend to focus on bigger budget films with name actors and directors, most of which already have U.S. distribution in place.

One of the more anticipated European films making its world premiere in Toronto is the latest film from UK director Richard Eyre (Notes On A Scandal). The Other Man is an adaptation of a short story by Bernhard Schlink, which tells the story of Peter (Liam Neeson) who discovers that his wife Lisa (Laura Linney) has been receiving emails and mobile messages from Ralph (Antonio Banderas), a man he never knew existed. His obsession with this unknown rival escalates and, against the advice of his estranged daughter Abigail (Romola Garai), a hurt and vengeful Peter flies to Milan to seek out the mysterious Ralph and the truth about his relationship with Lisa. The Other Man is produced by Rainmark Films in London, with Ealing Studios International handling world wide sales on the title. No U.S. distributor is currently in place, but this is sure to be a hot Toronto title.

La Fille de Monaco, the latest film by French director Anne Fontaine, will have its North American Premiere at the Festival. In this intriguing psychological thriller, a brilliant and neurotic attorney (Fabrice Luchini) goes to Monaco to defend a famous criminal. But instead of focusing on the case, he falls for a beautiful she-devil (Louise Bourgoin), who turns him into a complete wreck. Anne Fontaine was last reprsented in Toronto by her film Nouvelle Chance (2006) and Entres Les Mains (2005).

Another French film making its North American Premiere next month in Toronto is the box office hit I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) by Philippe Claudel. The film had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Adapted by Claudel from his novel, I've Loved You So Long is a film about the strength of women, and their capacity to reconstruct themselves and be reborn. For 15years, Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) has had no ties with her family who had rejected her. Although life once violently separated them, her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) takes Juliette into her home, which she shares with her husband Luc, her father-in-law, and their two daughters. The film was produced by UGC and will be distributed in North America later this Fall by Sony Pictures Classics.

06 August, 2008

Paris 36 To Open Montreal Film Festival

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

If there ever was a love affair between cities, the intimate relationship between Paris and Montreal would be a novel unto itself. Both cities are proud standard bearers for the French language and French culture, although the Montrealers have added a Quebec twist to the traditional patrimonie.

The bonds are further evidenced by the announcement of the Opening Night Film for this year's Montreal World Film Festival. The 32nd edition of the Festival will open on August 21 with the world premiere of Christophe Barratier's Paris 36. Barratier's last film, the Oscar-nominated hit Les Choristes, closed the Festival in 2004. The red carpet will be out on August 21 at the Place des Arts for stars of the film and opening night festival guests.

Paris 36 was written by Barratier from original idea by Frank Thomas, Jean-Michel Derenne and Reinhardt Wagner (who also composed the film's original score), and stars Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Bernard-Pierre Donadieu and Maxence Perrin. The film is set in a working class quarter in the north of Paris in 1936. The spring election of the Popular Front government has given rise to all sorts of crazy hopes and inspires a rash of extremism. That’s when three unemployed showpeople decide to forcibly occupy the local music hall, determined to stage a hit show.

Festival president Serge Losique declared that he was "very happy to have the Festival opened by a film of this artistic excellence and great cast. We are sure that Montreal filmgoers will give the film and its brilliant director the warm welcome they deserve." Paris 36 will be distributed in theaters in Quebec after the Festival by Alliance Vivafilm. For more information on the film, visit the website: