Friday, October 5, 2012

Random thoughts: Canadian Front 2012

Why a series of contemporary Canadian films at the Museum of Modern art? Why not? Returning for its 9th year, the Canadian Front series, now an annual programming event on the museum's film calendar, continues to draw impressive crowds of curious moviegoers and reveal a number of delightful surprises mixed with crashing disappointments. Though this was my first year experiencing Canadian Front, the two best films of the series left me anxious to check out what next year's program will include.

Let's get the bad out of the way. My review of Sunflower Hour was posted separately, but Roller Town can safely join it in the disappointments column. For one reason or another, Canadian comedy troupe Picnicface (think a northern neighbor version of College Humor, but less funny) thought the world needed a spoof of the short-lived 70s roller disco genre. A young boy sees his son gunned down in his garage by mobsters (hardy har) and grows up to be the top roller disco regular at Roller Town, bought for him by his father before he was it? It seems pointless to go into plot specifics. It's your essential "kid wants to keep disco alive" story, with a corn-screwing hobo thrown into the mix. Don't ask. You'd be better off just experiencing the simple pleasures of Roller Boogie (1979), Skatetown USA (1979), and Xanadu (1980) yourself. The laughs are few and far between here. Scenes are linked by agonizing musical numbers by the Bee Gees-inspired Boogaloos, who also appear during the film's go-for-broke finale. Giving credit where credit is due, the movie does provide a fun tribute to Rudy Ray Moore's Disco Godfather in the form of the "Disco Dogfather", an overweight black disco DJ who implores the teen roller skaters to "put your back into it". Overall, Roller Town is proof of something I've asserted for years: comedy and horror are the two genres that are the most difficult to successfully pull off in cinema. The two English-language films in Canadian Front were both farcical comedies, neither of which made any lasting impression. Back to the drawing board, fellas.

On to the good. The official opening film of Canadian Front was this year's Best Foreign Language Film nominee Monsieur Lazhar. A very moving tale of an elementary school class reeling from the suicide of their teacher in the very room where they spend their school days and the immigrant teacher who helps them deal with their grief, it fully deserved its Oscar nomination. Mesnak is a visually interesting but not completely compelling story of an adopted Native American actor who receives a mysterious letter from his biological mother and returns home to the reserve where he was raised for an awkward family reunion. It plays as a unique contemporary re-imagining of "Hamlet", and is a good film, but nothing revelatory. Husband-and-wife team Ivan Grbovic and Sara Mishara make a promising debut with Romeo Eleven, a quiet character study of a young man with cerebral palsy looking for love on-line. The film features a sterling performance from its leading man, Ali Ammar, a high school student. This might be his only film, as according to the director during his Q&A, Ammar is interested in pursuing a career in psychology and not performing.

Now...the brilliant jewels of Canadian Front. While Monsieur Lazhar may be the most prestigious film in the series, Starbuck surpasses it in every way. A dramedy in the style of Judd Apatow, when he was still producing quality work, the film follows David Wosniak, a charming but aimless middle-aged fellow who, in his youth, contributed a record amount of sperm to Quebec's most popular sperm bank. He used the code name "Starbuck", and it appears that because of the sheer volume of his swimmers available, he has fathered 533 children, a large number of whom are joined together in a class action suit against the sperm bank to discover their father's identity. David retrieves a list of the children and begins checking in on the young adult , helping them with problems in their life, all under the guise of a friendly good Samaritan. Where the film goes in its journey is profoundly funny, well-acted and written, and above all emotionally fulfilling. It looks like Starbuck will finally be receiving a theatrical release in the US in March 2013, though word has already spread that it is being remade for American audiences. While the story could lend itself well to a new interpretation by American comic minds...I don't imagine it will have the same humorous and emotional power of the original. Watch the trailer below.

And Cafe de Flore, a startling and unpredictable wonder that defies genre, is a strong contender for one of my overall favorite films of 2012. It will receive a theatrical release on November 2 and if it plays anywhere near you, rush to the theater to see it. The promotional materials make much ado about the leading lady, Vanessa Paradis, but it's so much more than a vehicle for Johnny Depp's now ex-wife. She plays a single mother raising a son with Downs syndrome in the 1960s, and her story is juxtaposed with the contemporary tale of a handsome divorced DJ, his beautiful young new girlfriend, and his ex-wife and daughters, dealing with the split in different ways. These plots converge in a beautiful and unusual way, aided by the title song, heard in two different versions. I was left shell shocked and incredibly moved by this film, as well as its superb soundtrack. Please see this movie.

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