Saturday, September 26, 2009

EIFF: Day One

Another autumn in Edmonton. After outrageously record-breaking heat earlier this week, you can start to feel the chill setting in as we prepare to dive into months of snowy hell. The leaves, feeling a heart-sinking terror at the coming cold, leap to death rather than face the agonies of frost. The cracks in the asphalt are fairly panting with anticipation for the ice to come and pry open their maws, turning the Edmonton streets into a giant car-eating beast. It hungers. You hear its stomach growl as the weather begins to change.

And just as we feel our spirits sagging with the weight of the coming winter, the Edmonton International Film Festival (23rd edition) comes along offering some sort of shelter from the dismal spectacle of nature committing hari-kari en masse before first snowfall. Yes, let us seek comfort in the antiseptic environs of City Centre Mall (speaking of dead things) and warm ourselves beneath the glowing lights of the cinema.

But is there enough combined friction in this slate of films to even generate the heat needed to offset the chilly blast of the theatre's air conditioning? Will we all freeze to death sitting before some middlebrow mediocrity so devoid of spark you could lock it in a room full of dry tinder and not lose a wink of sleep? We shall see.

Cooking With Stella

The beginning film sets the tone, as festival producer Kerrie Long noted in her introduction to this year's opening gala. In that case, what does Dilip Mehta's Cooking With Stella presage for the rest of the week? It's not a terrible film, but certainly a bit of a clunker. Set in New Delhi, the film focuses on a Canadian family new to India: Maya, a Canadian diplomat (Lisa Ray), and Michael, her chef husband (Don McKellar, who answered questions with Mehta after the screening), along with a young baby. They're greeted by Stella (Seema Biswas), a cook and household servant who has served visiting diplomats for thirty years.

For years, Stella has conned her employers with little scams, overcharging for laundry and food and earning commissions from the complicit shop owners. She also steals the duty-free western groceries and sells them on the black market, and even, on occasion, simply swipes jewelry. But when Lisa and Michael hire a nanny for their baby, Stella finds her cash cow under threat by an honest outsider.

Mehta plays this mostly as a comedy, and while the quality cast helps in this regard, I'm not sure if the film really works. The director said after the screening that he wanted the audience to laugh and then feel a "pinch," as he called it, when they considered what they were laughing at. His real intention, he made clear, was to make a comedy about the economic disparity between the servants and their employers. Certainly, that element is there, but the humour is often too broad to really connect with the actual themes of the film, and the plot requires far too much credulity on the part of the audience to really hold together.

Mehta might be the film's main weakness. Primarily a photojournalist, he confirms my (potentially unfair, I admit) bias against photographers-turned-filmmakers. For every Stanley Kubrick, there are ten Dilip Mehtas—directors who possess a fine understanding of light and composition, and yet do not seem to have a clear grasp on how to make good cinema. The film, at first glance, does not seem ugly, but it is certainly flat and inert, possessing an aesthetic with the depth of a made-for-television movie.

Scenes in a crowded Indian marketplace, for example, feel as if they were filmed in a studio with twenty extras. Most likely, these scenes were actually on location (the film was made in New Delhi), but Mehta hits a barrier here where his abilities as a photographer cannot help him as a director. He does not lead us into his images, but rather cuts right to the primary information in the shot. There is no sense of the scope of the marketplace—no establishing shots, no stray details of the bustle and vitality of the crowded place—just Michael walking through it, close to the camera. Mehta's frame makes the world smaller, less real. And this from a director who claimed his editor needed to work in New Delhi in order to take in the flavour of India.

Not Quite Hollywood

EIFF has a particular fondness for documentaries about crap cinema and figures on the margin of the film industry, which makes Not Quite Hollywood a good fit for the festival. Mark Hartley's energetic documentary chronicles the heyday of Australian exploitation cinema in the 1970s and '80s (or Ozploitation, if you prefer), when a flurry of low-budget filmmaking in that country produced a series of violent, sexed-up cheap thrillers that have grown in cult popularity over the years.

The tone of Not Quite Hollywood is celebratory, although for a bit of variety Hartley also talks to a couple of film critics who mostly sniff disdainfully at the parade of vulgarities relished by the film. There are some interesting little movies that Hartley puts under the spotlight, like Roadgames (Rear Window set in a truck on the highway, apparently) and Long Weekend (obnoxious couple go camping and are attacked by vengeful nature, from plants to weather to animals), but mostly there is just a lengthy parade of cheesy gore and sex.

It's entertaining, if a bit tiring at times—those montages of naked women or over-the-top murders start to get a bit monotous, you know—but when Hartley focuses his attention on a single picture the film gets more interesting. Tales of Dennis Hopper's debauched adventures during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan are particularly enjoyable, as are anecdotes of the difficult Chinese action star Jimmy Wang Yu. The film also makes a fair point in how genre cinema often serves as a necessary foundation to more respectable filmmaking (which echoes the development of the Canadian film industry in the 1970s in some ways), but mostly, this is just a celebration of using naked women as living hood ornaments and the art of setting actors on fire.

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