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by Gregor Smith
On Friday, July 12, the twenty-second Maine International Film Festival begins its ten-day run. With films spanning nine decades and six continents, there's something for nearly everyone, as long as one is not into car chases, explosions, or superheroes. Rather, MIFF offers quieter fare, where substance trumps special effects. It is for the armchair explorer who wants to travel the world from the comfort of a padded, reclining seat in an air-conditioned movie theater.
With at least five dozen features and two dozen shorts, there's plenty to choose from. The highlights of this year's festival include three Maine-connected feature films, an award for a long-time festival supporter, a tribute to a different longtime supporter who recently died, a jazz film and concert, five current films from Argentina, and a selection of classic films from cinema's earlier decades. All festival screenings will take place at Railroad Square Cinema or the Waterville Opera House.
The festival opens at 6:30 Friday at the Waterville Opera House with Blow the Man Down. (In case you can't make it, there will be a repeat screening eight days later at the same time and place.) Shot in and around Harpswell in midcoastal Maine, Blow the Man Down "is not your ordinary everyday Made-in-Maine movie, if there is such a thing," according to the MIFF website, as it "was shot in late winter, not midsummer," and mostly under gray skies. The film offers an "amazing combination of dark humor, suspense, saltiness (in all the meanings of the word) and just plain originality."
We meet sisters Priscilla and Mary Beth Connolly after the death of their mother from a long illness. MIFF's online summary picks up the story: "They need a break … but they won't get one. A dead body, three seriously busybody friends of their mom's (played by great actresses Annette O'Toole, June Squibb, and Marceline Hugot), and a friendly but inquisitive young local cop combine with towering local inn-keeper — okay, it's actually a brothel — Enid (the unforgettable Margo Martindale) to make the Connolly sisters' lives complicated."
Saturday at 12:30, Railroad Square will host the world première of this year's second Maine-related feature, an animated musical written and directed by Brian Zemrak of Winslow and produced by his California brother Derek. Suitable for all ages, Bongee Bear and the Kingdom of Rhythm is the only full-length animated movie in this year's festival. The MIFF broadsheet describes the film: "In a land known as The Kingdom of Rhythm, a young orphan bear, Bongee becomes the life-long friend of the young Princess Katrina and tries to protect her from the evil witch Bandrilla…, who casts a spell on the people of the kingdom. Bongee sets out, with the aid of his wacky friend Myrin … and the wise owl Mindy, to break the spell and return singing and dancing to the land." The film's vocal talent includes the inimitable Ruth Buzzi as Bandrilla, the late Dom DeLuise as Myrin, and nonagenarian June Lockhart as Mindy. The film will have a repeat screening on Sunday at 12:30 at the Opera House.
(The festival's third and final Maine feature, In the Moon's Shadow, will also have two screenings, but not until MIFF's second weekend. We'll have an extended article about the making of that film, which co-stars Belgrade actress Debra Lord Cooke and was partly shot in that town, in next week's issue.)
On Sunday evening, MIFF will present its Mid-Life Achievement Award to New York City screenwriter and director Hillary Brougher following a 6:30 screening of her newest film, South Mountain, at the Waterville Opera House. An associate professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts, she chairs its Film Division.
Each year, MIFF presents a 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 French actress Dominique Sanda; previous winners include actors Lauren Hutton, 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.
Brougher first came to MIFF in its first year (1998) to introduce her first film, The Sticky Fingers of Time (1996). She returned with that sci-fi film noir about a time-jumping, 1950s pulp-fiction author for MIFF's twentieth anniversary in 2017. The film will be shown again on Monday at 3:30 at the Opera House.
South Mountain debuted at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX in March. According to the MIFF site, the film is "a meditation on a particular sort of love that grows in the wreckage of broken things. Lila (Talia Balsam) is an artist and teacher who has built a modest rural paradise in New York's Catskill Mountains in New York's Catskill Mountains with her writer/husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen). The two have been married for two decades. But then Edgar unexpectedly announces the birth of a child with another woman, and Lila tests her bonds to her best friend Gigi begins a friendship with a younger man. All is changing, or so it seems."
South Mountain will have a repeat screening on Friday, July 19 at 3:15 at Railroad Square Cinema. The festival will also show Brougher's second film, Stephanie Daley (2006), which stars Amber Tamblyn as a teen charged with murder after the death of her infant and Tilda Swinton as a pregnant psychologist who is tasked with discovering the truth. Those screenings will be held on Saturday, July 13 at 6:30 at Railroad Square and on Thursday, July 18, at 3:30 at the Opera House.
Later on Sunday, MIFF will present the first film in a two-film tribute to the late actress Verna Bloom. A frequent festival guest and part-year Maine resident, Bloom died in January in Bar Harbor at age 80. Her filmography includes such diverse roles as Marion Wormer in John Landis's National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Mary, Mother of Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Sarah Belding in Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973).
On Sunday at 9:30 at Railroad Square, one can see Bloom in Medium Cool (1969). Shot in Chicago during the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention where police beat anti-war protesters, the film is a "hybrid of fiction and incendiary documentary." Bloom plays an Appalachian woman who has an improbable romance with at television cameraman. The following day at 6:30 in the Opera House, Bloom will appear as June, "an unusual sculptress of unusual sculptures," in After Hours (1985). Both showings will be introduced by Jay Cocks, MIFF's 2010 Mid-Life Achievement Award winner and Bloom's husband of nearly 50 years.
At its Centerpiece Gala on Tuesday at 6:30 at the Waterville Opera House, MIFF will celebrate the "underrecognized jazz genius Horace Tapscott and the African American community around Leimert Park in South Los Angeles to which he devoted his life." The festival will give the world première of The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz.
The film's director, Tom Paige, toiled on his "labor of love" for nearly fifteen years, starting with some 2005 concert footage of the group and adding "a wealth of priceless interviews and more recent live recordings." After the screening, three of the film's musicians — bandleader, composer, and woodwind player Jesse Sharps; pianist Bobby West; and cellist Pete Jacobson — will perform live on the Opera House stage.
As always, MIFF will reintroduce audiences to a select batch of classic films, some well known, some not. This year's eleven "rediscoveries," most of them in newly restored prints or digital versions, span five decades and four continents, from David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) to the 1928 silent French drama, The Passion of Joan of Arc. The latter will have a new jazz score composed by trumpeter Mark Tipton and performed live at the screening by his quintet, Les Sorciers Perdus ("The Lost Wizards"). Tipton and his ensemble also performed new scores to silent classics at the last two MIFFs as well.
This year's other "rediscoveries" are Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975, Algeria), The Cranes Are Flying (1958, Russia), Detour (1946, USA), Enamorada (1946, Mexico), The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, Taiwan/Hong Kong), One More Spring (1935, USA), Sunny Side Up (1929, USA), Winchester '73 (1950, USA), and Wings of Desire (1987, Germany/France).
This year's festival will also have five recent films from Argentina, all of which are directed by women or have strong female characters: Cetáceos ("Cetaceans"), in which a marriage comes apart as he travels on business while she remains behind in their new apartment; Familia Submergida ("A Family Submerged"), wherein a middle-aged wife and mother has to adjust to the death of her sister; Los Miembros de la Familia ("Members of the Family"), in which an adult brother and sister in a shabby seaside resort try to carry out their late mother's bizarre final request; and La Omisión ("The Omission"), wherein about a young woman from Buenos Ares searches for a job — and herself — in the country's rural south.
And let us not forget La Flor ("The Flower"), the 14-hour epic about four women who continually re-imagine themselves as scientists, pop singers, and international spies. The film will be shown in four parts, but the festival broadsheet promises that one does not need to see all four parts or see them in order to enjoy them.
Please note that most of the Argentine films will be shown in Railroad Square's Cinema # 3, which, with only 50 seats, is the festival's smallest theater. Be sure to arrive early, lest the screening you want to see sells out!
Finally, MIFF will also present five collections of shorts. The short films can be either fiction or non-fiction, live action or animated. They range in length from a few minutes to half an hour, but the majority are between 10 and 20 minutes long. The two dozen shorts have been grouped thematically into four collections of five to eight films each: It's Rough Out There, International Shorts, Uncommon Visions, and Maine Shorts. This last collection includes "About John," the 13-minute documentary about Belgrade Lakes poet and woodworker John Willey that was described in last week's cover story.
To get descriptions of the individual shorts, please visit www.miff.org. To get descriptions and showtimes for the three dozen feature films NOT mentioned above, check the MIFF website or pick up a copy of its 17" x 32½" broadsheet at Railroad Square or elsewhere around the area, including many of the places where you can find Summertime in the Belgrades.
Admission to most screenings costs $10 per person; special events, e.g. the Opening Ceremony, the Mid-Life Achievement Award, the Centerpiece Gala, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, cost $15. One can buy advance tickets on the MIFF website 24 hours a day or in person at Railroad Square Cinema, 2:00 — 7:00, Mon. — Fri., and 12:00 — 7:00, Sat. & Sun.
If you want to see a lot of movies, you can buy a Partial Pass, which is good for ten admissions (one or two people per screening), including the special events; or a Full Festival Pass, which will admit the buyer to as many public festival events as he or she wishes to attend. A Partial Pass costs $95 and Full Pass, $200 — prices that haven't changed since 2015!