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Cronenberg, Iñárritu, Godard and More Stun Mexico’s 2014 Morelia Film Fest

Cronenberg, Iñárritu, Godard and More Stun Mexico's 2014 Morelia Film Fest

The advantage of taking the redeye from the US to Mexico City for the Morelia International Film Festival is that you don’t waste an entire day traveling.
The disadvantage of arriving mid-morning on the first full day of festival screenings is that a movie by one of your favorite directors is starting in just a very few minutes: David Cronenberg‘s “Maps to the Stars.” It debuted in Cannes, six long months ago, isn’t due to open in the United States until February, five long months hence. The impatient cinephile’s flesh is weak.

You rush off to the screening, and grab two types of your own liquid courage — coffee and Coke Zero — to fight off the grogginess inevitable after snatching perhaps three hours of fitful plane sleep.
In some ways I wish I was groggier. I read Bruce Wagner’s fictions — most of which I own, and some of which are even inscribed by the author — with a mixture of amusement and horror. And though I admire most of “Maps to the Stars”‘ actors, especially the incredibly game Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal of the aging movie star Havana, I also watch the movie with a mixture of amusement and horror. It’s interesting that there are resonances with another movie about actors that I saw and loved in Toronto, Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which is also playing here: both feature aging actresses. The luminous Juliette Binoche is conflicted about playing the older part in a new revival of the play that made her a star in its ingenue role. The luminous Julianne Moore is trying to get the part in a remake of the movie that her actress mother starred in, decades earlier.

I later learn that Wagner wrote a novel called “Dead Stars,” based on his original screenplay, after an earlier plan to make the film fell through. I wonder if my completion fetish means I will buy Wagner’s book, even though I find its story, and the sensibility behind it, disturbing, not to say appalling. He’s still making hay out of his brief career as a limo driver, when it seems he was exposed to the worst of Hollywood.

Afterwards I stumble towards the opening day lunch, held in the beautiful courtyard of a government building, the Ayuntamiento de Morelia, which also appears to date to the 18th century. En route, I run into Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, who is being honored with a retrospective here, inevitably only a fraction of his 60 or so determinedly eclectic movies. We share a table with another Israeli director, Noaz Deshe whose film “White Shadow” has won a number of awards at festivals in Dubai, Munich, and San Francisco; Pierre Rissient, the famed French tastemaker and producer’s rep whose biopic “Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema” by Todd McCarthy, is playing here; Denis DeLaRoca, festival advisor; and Daniela Michel, the General Director of the festival, who somehow manages to greet and introduce everyone in the vast room. I congratulate her on the coup of debuting the festival, the night before, with the bravura “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which I think is Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s best and most dazzling film. She’s still glowing from the evening.

Gary Meyer, chief curator for the Telluride Film Festival, and I run towards an irresistible hour-long documentary about Maria Felix, that axiom of the cinema, gorgeous star of Mexico’s Golden Age, entitled “Maria Felix, Maria bonita, Maria del Alma” (“Maria Felix, Lovely Maria, Maria of the Soul”), made by Canal 22, one of Mexico’s public television stations, like America’s PBS. It is irresistible, combining photographs and clips with an over-the-top narration casting the events of Felix’s life as if they were the plot of one of her melodramatic movies.

It’s playing opposite Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Goodbye to Language,” which I have seen twice without really feeling I’ve seen it as it should be seen. Once in Paris in July, in a theater where it was shown in 2D despite being listed as 3D in Pariscope and on the Internet; and once in September as the last film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was indeed in 3D, but a 3D so blurry and headache-inducing that there must have been something wrong with the projection. I enjoyed it only intermittently both times. (I’m one of those philistines that preferred his early funny work. If I say my favorite Godard is “Contempt,” that’ll probably tell you everything. I muse, briefly, about movies about movies and the shared DNA of “Contempt” and “Maps to the Stars.”  When I hear the word “culture,” I reach for my Discover card.)

The rest of the day brings revivals and rediscoveries from the Golden Age in quick succession. Julio Bracho‘s “Another Dawn” (1943), shot by the genius Gabriel Figueroa, whose brilliant compositions and shafts of poetic light are obvious even in this fading print, has something of the propulsive feeling of Cornell Woolrich’s “Deadline at Dawn,” with the forceful Pedro Armendariz being hunted by corrupt government thugs who want to kill him as well as obtain damaging documents in his possession, while he rekindles a romance with a now-married college sweetheart.

Alejandro Galindo’s “Four Against the World” (1950) is a poetic evocation of the time-honored there-is-no-honor-among-thieves plot, wherein four ill-assorted bad guys hide out in a shabby apartment where all lust after the eminently lust-after-able Leticia Palmer, quite the saucy dish. Things end badly for all concerned.

Victor Halperin’s “Supernatural” (1943) is quite the oddity: a brisk (65 minute) Paramount picture made by the Halperin brothers, who’d gotten a studio deal on the strength of the surprise success of their independent feature, 1932’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott seem to (sleep) walk through it, but the minor players, especially Allan Dinehart as the fake medium and Beryl Mercer as his drunk greedy landlady, make a meal of the scenery. The Halperin brothers soon returned to independent production.

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