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Montreal World Film Festival, 2001

     So you thought that Heather Donahue, hyperventilating babe in the woods of The Blair Witch Project, was a one-trick pony? Not on your life. Donahue is at the top of her acting game, and the headliner talent, as a brash, promiscuous, fashion writer in Seven and a Match, the best American independent film I saw at August's Montreal World Film Festival.

     Here's yet another tale of self-absorbed, in-crisis, post-collegiates caught for the weekend in a summer house; and I almost didn't attend a screening when a producer described it to me, beforehand, as "a kind of Big Chill story." But somehow life is pumped into a creaky generic formula, and I found myself caring about this grumbling group of ex-Yalies enduring a calamitous Saturday and Sunday.

     This first feature is smartly written and nimbly directed by Derek Simonds, who happens to be helmer Brad Anderson's half brother; and the High Definition video cinematography by Anderson's regular DP, Uta Briesewitz, really does pass for 35mm. Best of all is a charming cast of up-and-coming actors, one of the freshest indie ensembles in the years since Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Remember these names above all: Eion Bailey, Pera Wright, for when Seven and a Match finds a theatrical distributor.
Elsewhere at Montreal? Baran, a masterly film from Iranian cineaste, Majid Majidi (The Color of Paradise), about the unspoken love felt by a poor Irani boy for an Afghan girl, as they work on a hellish construction site in Tehran. A Miramax release.

     Martha... Martha, a hurtful, pessimistic tale of a young French mother with deeply rooted mental problems, directed by Sandrine Veysett, who earlier made the melancholic classic, Will It Snow For Christmas?

     Solitude, an almost miniature Canadian feature from far-off Saskatchewan, following several female characters on a retreat at a monastery, where they live among the monks. All mood and the quietest zen spirituality, Robin Schlaht's humble film, a treat at Montreal, was rejected by this year's Toronto Film Festival.

     Honey for Oshun, a miserably titled disappointment from veteran Cuban director, Humberto Solas (Lucia), about a lost guy in his 30s returning to Havana from the USA in search of his mother. Inexplicable soap-opera acting, heavy panting music, a klunky script, and I scrambled out of the theatre so as not to face the kitsch reunion of weeping son and his insane-asylum mama.

     Amelie from Montmartre, the current Gallic box-office hit about a young woman racing about 1930s Paris, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children). Chocolat meets Moulin Rouge. Self-conscious whimsy, and every frame goosed up, floor to ceiling, with faux-surrealist imagery.
A Montreal film critic, minutes out of Amelie, gushed, "I told my friends that anyone who doesn't love this movie needs a doctor." He practically turned mauve when I informed him – call 911! – that I found Amelie distressingly empty.

     A prediction: Miramax will spend major dough advertising it for Academy Awards.

     Congratulations! To Time's Richard Schickel, given the Maurice Bessy Award at Montreal for distinguished film criticism, which got him not only a certificate but, far better, $10,000 in cash. That's for decades of smart reviewing and a host of important books, including The Disney Version and The Men Who Made the Movies.

     And happy 25th anniversary of the Montreal Festival! Through the years, I've discovered countless important movies, especially European ones, and been availed of some most unusual subjects for interviews. Where else could you talk, one-on-one, to tough-guy actor Frank Vincent, who got stomped on by Joe Pesci in Good Fellas? Or Toshiro Mifune, superstar of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai? Or Ginger Rogers, fuming about the foul language in today's ignominious Hollywood? Or Brian De Palma, who comes every year to melt into the crowds and watch movies?

     I wish I'd been there for the first fest in 1977, which had, among its luminary guests, Ingrid Bergman, Gloria Swanson, Fay Wray, Howard Hawks, the Taviani Brothers. Later times, I was in attendance for memorable press conferences with Arthur Miller, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gerard Depardieu, Robert Altman, Jane Fonda, Clint Eastwood, and I even got the autograph of La Strada star, Giulietta Massina.

     A high point? Montreal 1986, which featured the North American premieres of both Crocodile Dundee and Blue Velvet. A personal regret? That I turned down a lunch with then-James Bond Roger Moore, because I was too snobby to let go of Sean Connery as the only 007.

(September, 2001)


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