By the end of day seven I was 18 films deep. There's no prize at the end of the festival awarded to the person who sees the most films, but I try to see as many as I can at one time. The festival is the event that affords me to see about half of the movies I see in any one year. During a bathroom break I bumped into a colleague and we were making small talk about the fest. When I told him I had seen about 15 films up until that point even he remarked about how that's a lot for me! Yes, it was true.
I'm already outpacing myself from year's past when seeing two-dozen films seemed like a large feat. This year I'm aiming for a solid 30.
The Wednesday slate of four films started at high noon with the documentary "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" about the former Fox News CEO/Chairman who passed away in 2017. This revealing documentary showed how this icon ushered in a whole new media business that catered to the conservative-leaning audiences he felt were being underrepresented in other media institutions. He knew how to tap into that "niche" market and make it one of the leading pillars of broadcast journalism today.
Alas, the dark side of Ailes, including the sexual assault lawsuits filed against him, are a big focal point of this film, and it is pretty shocking the control he had as a businessman, a media leader, and as one of the leading figures of the Republican Party to not have an appointed/elected position. His reign was so strong and unchecked that even then-President Barack Obama called him the most powerful man in media. And with his power Ailes was able to kill careers, blackmail and even put his small New York town into the thrust of millions in campaign funding to knock Democrats off the borough council.
"Divide and Conquer" was a gritty look at the man who built up one of the most memorable news channels in history and fell on his own sword by acting impenetrable. I really enjoyed this documentary.
After that I had completely forgotten what films I was supposed to see. All I knew is that I would be in the Ritz East B theater for back-to-back showings, but I could not for the life of me remember what they were. I didn't even have a schedule on me to check!
When a programmer came out to introduce "Woman at War" I was pleasantly reminded of what I was supposed to see. This Icelandic film is about a 49-year-old woman who takes down the electrical wires and pylons that supply power to a corporation she feels will ruin the country. But with each action she takes to knock out the power supply she risks ruining the country's economy and social structure. At the same time, she readies herself to adopt a 4-year-old girl from Ukraine.
Within the first 20 minutes of this film I was mentally preparing myself for a nap. I felt this was going to be a drab film with an overpowering social message about protecting the environment headed by a Social Justice Warrior who would be a sad sack when arrested for her crimes and quietly satisfied with their self-imposed martyrdom. I was so, so happy to be wrong!
This biting human interest piece is a dramedy that implements mild surrealist elements (a band follows the lead character Halla around and provides a real-time musical score) that luxuriates in its own confidence to have a strong woman take charge of her life. Halla leads a simple life as a choir director and yet she becomes her own Lara Croft with her own abilities to survive the wild, sans guns. An elaborate sequence in the film shows her destroying an entire pylon and the ensuing chase that occurs afterward for her capture and arrest. She knows how to hide, cover, swim her way through any situation because of her drive to protect her country and to have her very own child. This was a truly rewarding experience and the twist near the end only made it that much better.
Where Halla was a confident woman who could easily fend for herself, the female lead in the next film was probably the dumbest I'll see at the festival.
In the French film "Treat Me Like Fire" a young restaurant owner gets duped into a sleazeball's underground world of gambling and danger. Her first mistake was following this guy after he robbed her restaurant, and her second was continuously going back to him after that. She was a sheltered woman of probably 20 years old who found this guy to be the appealing bad boy she only read about. I'm so tired of watching young women lacking any effort to think in a way that will truly benefit herself, especially when a guy gets in the mix. She loses her popular restaurant to risk getting killed because of her idiot boyfriend. There was nothing appealing about watching a woman get trampled on in a time/culture when female empowerment has reached a new high. "Treat Me Like Fire" was the first bad film of the festival I had the displeasure of watching. The producers of the film should have taken a cue from the title and extinguished the flames of this project so it wouldn't harm others.
To erase that experience I grabbed a big slice of pizza for dinner and then a couple of drinks at the festival lounge. I forgot how relaxing the lounge can be especially when you can order up some free drinks with your festival badge. I got into a conversation with one guy who was friendly with the bartender. I ordered a special cocktail called a Gentleman's Sour - tasted like a Long Island - and the handsome, bearded, plaid-wearing guy asked if I was a gentleman, or sour because I looked ripe with anger. The gentleman answer is up in the air, but I told him that I naturally look hard and cold. Just the other day, I told him, I was walking and a friend drove by and said, "Why do you look so angry when you're walking?" My resting bitch face is pretty fierce, but we all had a good laugh about it.
As I ordered my second drink I noticed the barkeep and the handsome fella having a slight whisper with each other before I was handed my drink. I jokingly asked what they did to it, but that I didn't see it fizzing all crazy as if one of them tried to roofie me. Of course they said no to roffie-ing me, but the handsome guy said he dipped his balls in my drink. Without missing a beat I said, "there's the sour part of my drink I taste." The bartender said I got him good. Again, it was all in good fun.
So I sipped/chugged my drinks and got some reading done before heading out to see the Melissa McCarthy vehicle "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, the former writer/biographer who became infamous in the early-'90s for forging letters she claimed were written by famous celebrities of decades past like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. The film shows her ability to write, create and sell off a number of these forgeries which raked in tens thousands of dollars before being caught by the FBI.
McCarthy is a showstopper in this film. What a breath of fresh air this role is for someone who has made a living post-"Bridesmaids" as trashy, despicable and over-exaggerated women who aren't even funny, which is something considering she is known for being a comic actor. She doesn't lose her comedic chops in her role as Israel who is portrayed as a tough, hard-drinking cat lady who uses her writing talents to make a criminally-lucrative move to get her financially stable again. McCarthy shines bright here and the film flows effortlessly at her whim. There is heart and soul here that allows us to root for the "bad girl" and yet we watch intently to see how it's all going to fall apart.
There's nothing flashy here in the movie because all of the flash is in the writing in both the script and the letters Israel is portrayed as forging. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is a special film that tells a convoluted true story well that doesn't give us any surprises or cliches than we need. I really loved this movie.
After that last film of the day I realized how every film was female-centric. I don't want a badge or self-congratulations for being "open-minded" to see such a slate. People are people, it's their stories that make time interesting. And yet all of these films, save "Treat Me Life Fire," featured strong women who stood up for what they believed in and didn't regret it, ranging from the anchors in "Divide and Conquer" and all the way through to "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" These are the types of films that should be getting more exposure because they aren't only focused on great people, these were some of the best films of the festival I had seen.
And on a final note, I completed a total of I think 14 dishcloths now? I've totally lost track. (Correction: I'm up to 14 1/2). But as a first I actually gave one away! Before one of the screenings on Wednesday a woman asked me what I was making. I told her a dishcloth because they're easy and don't require concentration. She said she never saw a man knit before and since she seemed intrigued by the skill I gave her her own dishcloth to have! She was very appreciative. I don't even do anything with these knits I make anyway. I need to start giving stacks of three out for Christmas presents to start off-loading them en masse.
Ratings (to date):
Infinite Football- Good
The Favourite- Good
The Other Side of the Wind- Good
The Guilty- Very Good
The Image Book- Good
Studio 54- Good
A Private War- Good
Burning- Very Good
Monrovia, Indiana- Excellent
The Front Runner- Good
Bathtubs over Broadway- Good
Dogman- Very Good
This One's for The Ladies- Fair
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes- Very Good
Woman at War- Very Good
Treat Me Like Fire- Poor
Can You Ever Forgive Me?- Excellent
(Correction: An earlier version of this story detailed President Obama calling Roger Ailes "the most powerful man in the world." That was an incorrect quote from the movie. Ailes, allegedly, told people that Obama said he was the most powerful man in the world.)