Highlights from The 17th Annual Phoenix Film Festival 2017 – Part 2
Article by Ray Schillaci
The Devil’s Mistress
Jewish Blind Date
As mentioned in my previous review, PFF 2017 had so much to offer in the way of filmgoing, this critic could only think of one thing: Unlike Pokemon, it was too hard to “catch ’em all”. But what I did have the chance to see (even at times sitting in the first row), gave me so much hope for the future of cinema and filmmakers. These stories were not about comic heroes, gross out comedy or action-laden vehicular slaughter, audiences were privy to films of substance and entertainment that garnered rounds of applause.
Let’s address the elephant in the room before I start. I am reiterating, I’m not a sports fan. I am even less of a fan of golf. I probably place it alongside bowling as my least favorite sport to watch. Top that off with a classy, but not too exciting poster announcing the story of father and son golfers in the 1800s, and I’m ready for a good nap. But, there is another elephant in the room, this film is directed by Jason Connery. Sound familiar? Yes, the son of our favorite (at least to baby boomers) spy, “Bond, James Bond”, Sir Sean Connery.
So, I went in with a modicum of hope for the closing night film only to discover that it was The Chariots of Fire of golf movies, and Jason Connery was not just the son of Sir Sean, but a consummate director that had the crowd laughing, crying, and applauding many times over. Tommy’s Honour is for anybody that has faced any kind of diversity in their life. Director Connery delivers a prestigious package that ranks with the best movies about sports, and that includes Rocky – the rousing and unfortunately tragic true story about “Old” Tom Morris and “Young” Tom Morris, declared as golf’s founding father and son.
Scotland 1866, “Old” Tom Morris is a greens keeper for The Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews, and makes the balls and clubs for the “gentlemen” golfers. He also happens to be the two-time winner of the first major golf tournament, The Open Championship. But, that’s as far as it goes for “Old” Tom, for he knows his place in society, and never gives it a second thought about ever competing with the aristocratic golfers. That’s where his son, “Young” Tommy, draws the line and defiantly crosses over it, for Tommy is a more talented golfer than his father.
Peter Mullan as “Old” Tom and Jack Lowden as the younger Tommy play off each other brilliantly. Director Connery has cultivated a realistic depiction of that intense father and son relationship, and old vs. new ideas that is as breathtaking as the landscapes of Scotland that are captured beautifully by Gary Shaw’s masterful lens.
Tommy’s struggles with his father, his clash with the upper class, and his unwavering optimism to master the game is the stuff legends are made out of. But, these legends are very relatable and down-to-earth. We marvel at young Tommy’s accomplishments, and continue to cheer him on even when he romances an older woman with a past which threatens to be a black mark on his success. In the end, it’s the one he holds near and dear to his heart that overrides any pride or passion for the game. To tell you anymore would be a terrible spoiler. Just do yourself a big favor and see this magnificent production on the big screen.
Dean is an old soul of a picture, it’s sweet, tender, and although it treads on familiar territory at times, we have comedian/writer/director and star Demetri Martin to thank for making it feel so fresh. One can easily see Martin’s influences with his first outing, from Woody Allen to Rob Reiner with a dash of Robert Klein, and that’s all good except when it feels like it. Early on, Martin frees himself from those reins and does what he’s known best for, observational comedy that brings a welcome lightheartedness with moments of hilarity.
Martin plays Dean, a young New York illustrator attempting to cope with his mother’s passing (a year ago), and a recent breakup from a girlfriend he probably still has strong feelings for. Dean does not like change, and both these incidents have unsettled his world. Then, there is the matter of his dad who not only appears to be trying to move on in a healthy way, but wants to sell his place. Dean cannot handle the thought of selling the family home, but has no answers for his dad or what he himself is going through. Kevin Kline portrays Dean’s father with warmth, sensitivity, and as a slight oddball.
Dean is also struggling with a second book of illustrations, but is haunted by his drawings of death that keep popping up in his head. It’s the animation of Demetri Martin’s drawings that gives us a glimpse into Dean’s psyche and I couldn’t help but enjoy watching him struggle through his rut. On a lark and an attempt to get out of that rut, Dean goes to the one place he detests, L.A., for a job offer.
Once in L.A., we see Dean poke fun at the lifestyle with an improbability of fitting in. Even funnier is Dean falling hard for a partygoer who appears to have taken a liking to the fish out of water. But, nothing goes the way he would like to dream it, and after several dismal disappointments, Dean begins to get more in touch. It’s not as saccharin sweet or as pat an ending as one would think. Demetri Martin has opened his heart and told a simple tender story that touches on grief and the power of love it takes to override it.
I have come to right the wrong for whoever was responsible for the synopsis of this movie. After reading said synopsis, and arriving ten minutes late into the film, I thought I stepped into the wrong movie, or worse yet, the wrong movie was being shown in the theater. The synopsis read like an action thriller: “former NY socialite Taylor Stein is entangled in an international baby trafficking ring and goes undercover for the FBI to save a little boy. When a terrible discovery threatens his life, she’s thrust into the world of genetic technology…”
Wow! So, I’m looking for Angelina Jolie or any number of high profile actresses to lead this fast paced, sordid, espionage thrill ride with. But, I walk into a sobering documentary that probably has the first ten minutes embroiled with the FBI, and spends the rest of the time on the plight of children struck down with a rare genetic disease, spinal muscular atrophy, and the fight Taylor Stein takes on to battle the big pharmaceutical companies and government bureaucracy to help these children (including one her own).
Magnificent Burden is an engrossing documentary that needs no hype. Yes, it brings to light Taylor Stein’s family that had a notorious criminal past, and the partygoer that she was. But just as she was later enlightened, so is the audience as we journey with her inadvertently getting involved in blackmarket baby trafficking as well as her choice to aid the FBI with no promise that she would be able to keep the baby she so desired (one struck down with an incurable disease).
It’s a heart wrenching tale that does not wear its heart on its sleeve. This is not an intentional tearjerker, but you can’t help but be teary eyed while watching the struggles of these children and the hopes of their parents. Director Rob Nelson pulls no punches while tearing apart the facade that was once Taylor Stein’s party life. We see Ms. Stein transform into a genuine person with a powerful cause. This woman is a fighter, and what she brings to light is sheer will power, love, and hope for anyone with a child with this horrible condition.
I cannot emphasize enough that this film is not a downer. If anything, Magnificent Burden is an uplifting story that needs to be seen (especially the fight of those affected demonstrating an impactful lesson on how our world can work if we just get involved). Pharmaceutical companies and the government are not portrayed as bad guys. They just need a push, and Taylor Stein has been instrumental in proving that. Stein and director Rob Nelson lay out a fascinating story that will be long remembered.
Director Filip Renc’s grand scale historical epic is both a sweeping masterpiece and a very personal tragic story of the life of Czech actress Lída Baarová, who some may say sold her soul to the devil unwisely. Her acting career rocketed to fame when she aligned herself with German cinema with the help of the Third Reich. The most fascinating aspect of this film, expertly penned by Ivan Hubac and extravagantly crafted by director Renc, is that we don’t care about Ms. Baarová, only those she effects by her ill-conceived actions. Yes, her story is captivating, but our sympathies are for her family and all around her that are hurt by the Nazis and the political whirlwind she ends up creating.
We open on an interview of the 80 year-old fragile grande dame, Baarová, a pitiful shadow of an actress who chats rather than reflects on her story to a journalist in a dimly lit sparse room. It’s Gloria Swanson sans the barrage of reporters from Sunset Boulevard. She’s bitter, angry, and still cherishes the memory of one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals in history, Hitler’s right hand man, Joseph Goebbels. The man known as both “The Malicious Dwarf” and “The Nazi Megaphone”. Their love affair initiated her non de plume, “The Devil’s Mistress”.
Renc and Hubac take us back to a time when life was far more humble for Ms. Baarová, acting at an early age in Czech Cinema and barely making enough money to scrape by. But, her talent and beauty shined through enough that members of the Third Reich wooed her to be a star in German Cinema with the condition that she would have to give up her citizenship and become a citizen of Germany.
She was also set to stay in a large villa with one of Germany’s top male stars, Gustav Fröhlich, who happened to still be married with a wife living in another country. All of the excitement and money was intoxicating to young Lída, and would probably be far too tempting for most. She dismissed her family’s warnings, only to reassure them that she would be careful, and eventually be able to help her parents and younger sister.
Tatiana Pauhofová captures the essence of the young Baarová and plays her as a doe-eyed innocent that sees no harm (or does not wish to) in her frivolous affairs. Her stardom nearly feels like entitlement, and when she is not satisfied being the other woman to Germany’s top actor, she slowly falls under the spell of the Chancellor of Germany, Joseph Goebbels. His power is the greatest aphrodisiac for the young actress, and she is promised even more riches and power if she aligns herself with him.
Karl Markovics is chilling as Goebbels. He is repulsive, frightening, and yet one almost feels for him slightly for his undying love for Baarová. It’s almost like watching Quasimodo with Esmeralda. It’s a doomed relationship partly because of Goebbels’ wife and Hitler’s vision for all who are to service the history of Germany.
There are is so much compelling history here that director Renc infuses into something of a grand opera. It’s like watching a wondrous merging of Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) and Ken Russell (Altered States, The Devils) with high drama and all the visual splendor one comes to expect out of these legends of cinema. Renc knows exactly when to amp up the insanity of it all, but then suddenly has us free fall gently back down to earth, only to recognize the atrocities surrounding Lída.
The film and Ms. Baarová’s story is an enthralling experience that demands to be seen on the big screen. It is set to play internationally in theaters, but sadly has not been given the chance to display its power on American silver screens. The Devil’s Mistress is already set for a June release on Netflix. That’s not a swipe at the company. Good for them to recognize the greatness of Renc and his cast and crew, but it is a disappointment for the American audiences that will not be able to enjoy the grand, big-screen splendor of one of the very best foreign films of the year.
Interesting side note, director Renc revealed during our Q&A; the actress who plays the 80 year-old Baarová happens to be the oldest living Czech actress, 91 year-old Zdenka Procházková. Her performance is nothing short of riveting. And, Lída Baarová was her colleague! When asked about Baarová, Procházková stated she never liked her.
Jewish Blind Date
I have to give a shout out to this wonderfully conceived and thoroughly enjoyable short subject that won Best College Short Film. Director/writer Anaëlle Morf fashions a very funny and sweet story about a young woman trying to reconnect with her Jewish roots in the hopes of marrying a Practicing Jew. She subjects herself to something called the Shidduch test that is suppose to decide whether her life will be a success or failure.
It sounds ridiculous, but writer/director Morf has grounded characters and a very likable cast that I rooted for. Estelle Darnault is warm and genuine as Marie-Lou and I came away wishing that Morf would turn this into a feature starring Darnault.
Writer/director Morf has a deft hand in light comedy, and does not pander. Her story is sincere and it gives a slight tug to our hearts. Her film is informative without being preachy, and feels very personal. By the end, we’re left with asking for more. Having won accolades from critics, other film festivals, 13 wins, and 39 nominations, there is no doubt Jewish Blind Date only grazes the surface of a very talented writer/director.
In Part 3 of PFF 2017, I’ll spotlight the near misses that still won the hearts of audiences, some fun horror/sci-fi, and a few horror shorts that made us laugh and chilled us to the bone.