MIFF 2018 - Part 4

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Part 4 of my recap of the films I've seen during the 2018 Maine International Film Festival. 

Day 7

I Am Not a Witch

I was blown away by this one. It’s set in present-day Zambia, where an 8-year-old girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is labeled a witch by her community and forced to go live in a camp of witches. At this camp, she and all the other witches are tethered at all times, literally to keep them from flying away. They are sent to do menial labor, but Shula is soon plucked out of the day-to-day labor to travel with a government official to use her witchcraft to decide who has committed crimes among groups of suspects. The film is shocking and enraging in how these women and this little girl are treated, as well as the rampant superstition that permeates everyday life and leads to these women being in this terrible situation. And yet the film at times manages to find some comedy to slip through the cracks to lighten what would otherwise be a very depressing film. It’s an eye-opening film that apparently garnered some award consideration in Great Britain last year. If it becomes available streaming anywhere it is well worth the 90+ minutes to experience this. The new best film of the festival so far for me.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Family First

This French-Canadian film is a gritty and mesmerizing family crime drama. JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) is low-level muscle for his drug-dealing uncle. He does this work side by side with his brother Jimmy (Theodore Pellerin) who is a loose cannon. When his uncle wants to give him more responsibility, JP discovers he doesn’t have the stomach for it and wants out. Of course, getting out isn’t so simple. Both Leduc and Pellerin give great, raw performances. Pellerin’s Jimmy is perhaps the most obnoxious character I’ve ever seen, which makes him easy to hate, and the same can be said for the sneering uncle, which only fuels the viewer’s desire to see JP make his way out of this life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Madeline’s Madeline

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I don’t recall where I heard about this film, but this was one of the films I had circled when the schedule for MIFF was released. Despite not seeing any trailers, I had a certain level of expectations for it. Turns out it may have been smarter to have an idea of what I was heading into because I just could not get on board with this film. There are elements of it that I liked and some that I could appreciate. But too much of it just came across as incoherent mess and pretension, something I hate to throw around just because I don’t “get” something, but I couldn’t get past the surface level with this film to anything of substance or meaning. It’s a film about a teenage girl who is heavily involved in a theater class and production, but who also has a strained relationship with her mother. It’s also a film about mental illness, which I think the structure of the film tried to emulate. Helena Howard gives a standout performance as Madeline, but it’s hidden underneath so much noise from the director, Josephine Baker. This film has gotten rave reviews, but I can’t help but get the impression that it’s one of those films that people praise precisely because they don’t understand but don’t want people to think they don’t understand it. I really struggled with this one. It feels like a film that might make more sense after a second viewing, but it’s also a film I don’t exactly want to sit through a second time.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

DAY 8

Mademoiselle Paradis

This film, set in 1777 Vienna, is based on the true story of Maria Theresia Paradis, a woman who was blinded at an early age and learned to play the piano without sight. Her parents sought out various treatments to try to get her eyesight back but had no success until they gave her to Franz Anton Mesmer for treatment. Under his mysterious and questionable treatment, she regains her sight, but her music suffers greatly as her brain adjusts to all it’s now taking in. Maria Dragus gives an incredible performance as Paradis, very effectively playing someone who is blind. Her eyes regularly move independently of each other, which is either a special effect or incredible concentration on her part. Overall, it’s an impressive period drama.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blaze

Ethan Hawke steps behind the camera to direct this film about Blaze Foley, an obscure but influential country singer who died in 1989. Portrayed by relative newcomer (and also a musician) Ben Foley, the film jumps back and forth between several moments in his adult life, from when he was living in a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend/wife/muse Sybil Cohen (Alia Shawkat), to his life trying to make it on the road, and lastly the day of his death when he recorded a live album at a bar. Shawkat continues to make a name for herself outside of Arrested Development, but it’s the newcomer Foley who is the standout here. Foley is electric and a revelation as Foley, playing a wide range of emotions as a man who seemed happy living the simple life, gave in to temptations and indulged his demons on the road, and even though he could be a giant teddy bear he never backed down from a fight and sometimes went looking for one. There’s not a false not from him on screen. Definitely worth checking out because he wasn’t a famous musician, so there is no baggage or expectations being brought to the story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Papillon

A remake of the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman film from 1973, Papillon stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek as the two prisoners in a French Guiana penal colony trying to escape. Based on the memoir of Henri “Papillon” Charriere, the film depicts the inhumane conditions that these prisoners suffered through, Papillon (Hunnam) being there on a life sentence for a crime he did not commit and looking out for convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega (Malek) as his rich meal ticket to protect and pay for a chance to get off the island. Hunnam and Malek give good performances, particularly Hunnam when Papillon is locked in solitary confinement for two years. But it’s impossible to compare this to the superior original that starred two powerhouse actors. And the question lingers as to why this remake was necessary. It’s a competent and well-made film, but ultimately a superfluous film.

Rating 3 out of 5 stars