July 13 – 19, 2018Vol. 20, No. 6

MIFF @ 21: Film Festival Returns to Downtown Waterville

Emily Mortimer as bookstore owner Florence Green in The Bookshop, MIFF's opening film.

by Gregor Smith

If you like fine films, Friday the Thirteenth is your lucky day! That's when the 21st annual Maine International Film Festival starts its ten-day journey into worlds both real and make-believe. And now that MIFF is of legal age, anything can happen!

With screenings at Railroad Square Cinema and the Waterville Opera House, the festival offers movie goers who aren't into car chases and explosions and who don't mind reading subtitles a chance to indulge their passion for films both new and old, foreign and domestic — from beloved classics, to forgotten masterworks, to brand-new features, some of which will have their world or North American premieres at the festival.

The key events of the festival's first seven days are the opening ceremony on Friday, the Lifetime Achievement Award presentation on Sunday, and the Centerpiece Gala on Wednesday. All three events take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Waterville Opera House. During that week, the festival will also pay homage to late movie director Hal Ashby and will uncover a new batch of "rediscoveries," i.e. unjustly overlooked classics, many in newly restored 35 mm prints or in digital reincarnations.

David Carradine, center, playing harmonica, as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory (1976).

It may seem ironic, but the festival's opening film is a paean to the written word. Set in 1959, The Bookshop follows the struggles of a plucky, young-ish widow (Emily Mortimer) to bring enlightenment through novels like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to the residents of a conservative English town who aren't sure that they want to be enlightened. She is politely but relentlessly opposed by the local matron of the arts (Patricia Clarkson), but befriended by an older, book-loving widower (Bill Nighy).

According to the MIFF website, "The Bookshop is an elegant yet incisive rendering of personal resolve, tested in the battle for the soul of a community. [Director] Isabel Coixet's gentle, charming, and thoroughly principled new English-language film walked away with most major awards at her native Spain's Oscar-equivalent Goya awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay."

Later that evening, at 9:30 in Cinema 1, audiences can get their first look at Hal, a new documentary about Hal Ashby, who died thirty years ago this December. An anti-authoritarian director — if that's not an oxymoron — Ashby brought us a string of classic films of the 1970s, including Harold and Maude, Being There, Coming Home, and Bound for Glory. The documentary Hal explores his life and work through archival footage and interviews with people who knew him. It will have a second showing on Monday at 6:30.

Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (right) in 7th Heaven (1927).

MIFF's Hal Ashby retrospective also includes Being There, his 1979 satire starring Peter Sellers as "Chance, the gardener," a simple man who is mistaken for a sage and winds up as an adviser to a political power broker, and Bound for Glory, his 1976 adaptation of folksinger Woody Guthrie's eponymous autobiography about his early years before he found fame. Being There screens Tuesday, July 17, at 9:30 and Sunday, July 22, at 3:30, and Bound for Glory will be shown Thursday, July 19, at 3:30. All three screenings will be in the Waterville Opera House.

On Sunday, MIFF will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to French actress Dominique Sanda. Each year, MIFF presents Lifetime or Mid-Life Achievement Award — the designation depends on the age of the recipient — to an actor, director, screenwriter, or other professional filmmaker. Last year's honoree was actress and model Lauren Hutton, and previous winners include actors Michael Murphy, Glenn Close, Keith Carradine, Malcolm McDowell, John Turturro, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, and Sissy Spacek; directors Robert Benton and Jonathan Demme; and writer Terrence Malick. The award presentation will follow of screening of Sanda's best-known film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971).

This year's Centerpiece Gala on Wednesday is simultaneously a film screening and a concert. The film is 7th Heaven, a 1927 silent romance in which a Parisian street sweeper (Charles Farrell) interrupts a suicide attempt by a desperate young woman (Janet Gaynor) and two gradually fall in love. The film won Oscars for Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Edmund Lowe and Greta Nissen in Transatlantic (1931).

It will be accompanied by a jazz score newly composed by trumpeter Mark Tipton and performed live by his quartet, Les Sorciers Perdus ("The Lost Wizards"), who thrilled audiences at last year's MIFF with their live performance of Tipton's score to another silent classic, Sunrise. Besides Tipton, the quartet includes guitarist Ryan Blotnick, bassist Tyler Heydolph, and drummer Beau Lisy.

While 7th Heaven will be the oldest film at this year's festival, the second oldest is a mere four years younger. An early "talkie," Transatlantic creates a web of financial and romantic intrigues among the passengers luxury cruise ship making the seven-day transit from New York to London. Directed by William K. Howard and starring Edmund Lowe, Lois Moran, and Myrna Loy, the film will be shown in Railroad Square's Cinema 3 on Saturday, July 14, at 3:00 and Friday, July 20, at 6:00.

Among MIFF's other "rediscoveries" are the uncensored, 183-minute director's cut of Andrei Rublev, the 1966 Andrei Tarkovski epic about the life and times of medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev; Jabberwocky, a 1977 comic mashup based on the Lewis Carroll poem and featuring Monty Python alumni Terry Gilliam as director and screenwriter and Michael Palin as star; and La Vérité ("The Truth"), the 1960 courtroom drama directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Brigitte Bardot as a young, free-spirited woman on trial for killing her lover. For screening times and locations for these films, as well as MIFF's five other rediscovered masterworks, please consult the festival's literature or website.

Jabberwocky (1977).

With nearly 70 feature films and more than two dozen shorts, it is, sadly, not possible to describe them all in one article. You can, however, find descriptions, cinematic trailers, and screening times for all the festival's films on the MIFF website. Thanks to a recent redesign of the site and newly created free wireless Internet zone covering public spaces in downtown Waterville, it is easier than ever before for smartphone and tablet users to browse MIFF's site and even buy tickets online.

Admission to most individual screenings costs $10 per person; for the opening ceremony, Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, and the Centerpiece Gala, you will pay a few dollars more. You can buy advance tickets on the MIFF website, in person at Railroad Square Cinema, and by phone at 866-811-4111.

If you are planning to see a lot of movies, you can buy a $95 Partial Pass, which is good for ten admissions, for one or two people at a time, to any festival event, including the special events listed above. If you are particularly ambitious, you can even spring for a nontransferable, $200 Full Pass, which will admit you to as many public festival events as you can attend and let you reserve a seat online in advance for individual screenings.