On the opening night of the inaugural Niagara Film Festival, I saw a haunting Masterpiece by the Director of Cinema Paradiso at the Empire Theatres in St. Catharine’s. The festival is turning out to be quite the event and well worth attending. Along with a daily reception at the festival headquarters—The White Oaks Resort & Spa—the film people are quite accessible & friendly.
In the opening film, The Best Offer, two art collectors cook up a deal to buy art treasures for a fraction of the price. Appraiser and auctioneer, Virgil Oldman, played by Geoffrey Rush, tells buyers they’re fakes while his buddy, Billy Whistler, played by Donald Sutherland, bids on them. The two get away with it for years, until Oldman stashes away millions of dollars worth of art, in a secret room in his apartment. He spends his evenings wistfully gazing at the paintings of young women—the only females the middle-aged man has ever had any connection with.
His world unravels when a mysterious young heiress, Claire Ibbotson, played by Sylvia Hoeks, calls him to appraise the antiques in her villa. When she fails to materialize, he discovers she’s an agoraphobic living in a hidden apartment, similar to his own cocoon. He is fascinated.
Whistler warns him that emotional fakes can be as difficult to discern as artistic ones—be careful. But Oldman doesn’t hear him. His descent into obsession and madness, orchestrated by some very skillful thieves, is reminiscent of the school girls’ climb up the mountain in Picnic at Hanging Rock. The alternate world is all too real and spooky at the same time.
Italian writer/Director Giuseppe Tornatore has brilliantly created the visual images, symbols and psychology of another level of existence. Cogs and wheels, clock pieces, a woman who repeats numbers incessantly, an eye peering through a key hole. Who will dare to open the door to the fear and passion waiting on the other side?
Rush is compelling in his portrayal of the tortured man—Sutherland a touching and compassionate sidekick. The woman remains a mystery, as she should. It’s hard to tell the difference between authenticity and forgery in this piece. That’s what makes it so brilliant.
Friday night, I sat under the stars at the Peller Estates in Niagara on the Lake, and listened to one of the best pianists Canada has ever produced. On screen and off, Montreal musician, Marika Bournaki, stunned the crowd with her powerful virtuosity.Bobbi Jo Hart’s insightful and revealing documentary about Bournaki’s life, I Am Not a Rock Star,displayed on the big screen above the grape fields, just won Best Documentary at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. It follows the development of the young protégée’s career from ages 12 to 20—at home in Montreal, at Julliard and on the road. Bournaki is not just talented, she is nice. There was no question she was not willing to answer at the Q & A after the live concert. She is down to earth, friendly and devoted to her craft. As she said in the film, she may not always love herself but she will always love music. Hearing her perform, on screen or off, will instill the same passion in her listeners/viewers.
On day three of the Festival I saw two stellar films. By far the best movie I’ve seen in a long time is Go Far: The Christopher Rush Story—Zack Arnold’s documentary about a young man from Michigan with Muscular Dystrophy. Arnold charts Rush’s life from the time he was Jerry Lewis’s poster child to his death at 30 in 2007.
The director’s candid interviews with professors, classmates, neighbours, friends, personal care workers and family members, and actual film footage of Rush, present a mosaic of a young man with drive, humour, enthusiasm and zest for life. In spite of the fact that he spent his whole life in a wheelchair, and didn’t have the muscle strength to turn a page, Rush managed to sky dive, scuba, and obtain two degrees—the last one in law. Far from being depressing, Rush’s life provides an inspirational role model for others coping with a debilitating chronic illness, and a guide for those seeking to understand and communicate with them. There was hardly a dry eye in the theatre.
“Go Far” was the name of a program Rush developed to teach people to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. Arnold, a personal friend of Rush, is hoping to bring that program, and his film, to educational facilities around the world. Angel donors are encouraged to make contributions through his web site at www.gofarmovie.com to enable him to do that.
Dan Hartley’s Lad – A Yorkshire Storyhas a distinctly British flavour and mood. Hartley, who has worked as a video playback operator on all the Harry Potter films, began the process of creating his first feature film by casting local amateurs. He had an idea he wanted to pursue, loosely based on his own childhood in the Yorkshire Dales, but he wasn’t entirely sure of the story line. That came when he gathered the actors together and improvised scenes. Then he wrote the script.The result is a heart-warming, emotionally honest portrayal of a 13 year old boy’s struggle to cope with the loss of his dad—and of the friendship he pursues with a dying park ranger. The cinematography is exquisite and the story unfolds naturally. Unfortunately, neither of these wonderful films has a distributor—so it may be a while before they can be seen by a general audience.
In Ian Gabriel’s “Four Corners”, a 13 year old chess player becomes an unwilling child soldier in a civil war between two gangs called “28” and “26” in the Cape Flats Shantytown of South Africa. Jezriel Skei’s stunning performance as Ricardo helped garner the film the award for Best Feature at the Festival. An aura of realism was created through the use of regional actors, actual gang handouts and Cape Town languages such as the numbers gangs’ secret language called Sabela. Watching the film was like driving through Harlem in a convertible. It felt as if gun fire could break out any moment. The fast pace, quick scene changes, constant action and crisp dialogue created a sense of tactile immediacy.
At the end of the film, a voice over comes up as the young chess player competes at the national level, “They say chess is about making choices—but the one choice you don’t have is to stand still. You have to make a move whether you like it or not.”
The young heroine of a musical feature from Scotland called “God Help the Girl”, Eve, played by Emily Browning, does not have to dodge bullets, but she faces inner challenges just as daunting. Anorexia Nervosa has put the young musician in a treatment facility where she’s locked up, forced to eat and monitored as if she were in prison. Eve breaks out with the help of a young lifeguard, a la Art Garfunkel, aspiring singer, James, played by Olly Alexander. He gives her a free place to stay while she sorts herself out. The music they create, along with sidekick Cassie, played by Hannah Murray, is fun, spirited and toe-tapping. Director/Writer Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of the group Belle and Sebastian, has created some innovative visuals with colour, shape and texture. The visual mosaic is almost as intriguing as the audio landscape. This is a feel good movie with great music and a strong message about bonding, friendship and celebrating life.
I was happy to see several of my favourites win awards Sunday: Dan Hartley picked up Best Director for Lad: A Yorkshire Story; Zach Arnold got Best Documentary for Go Far: The Christopher Rush Story and Geoffrey Rush got Best Male Actor for The Best Offer. Congratulations all!
***It was a great festival—not only because of the excellent programming—but because of the accessibility of the filmmakers, the copious opportunities for learning, the ease getting into the venues and the overall positive attitude of the staff and volunteers. Well done! ***