Thursday, April 24, 2014

Partners in crime

Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, 2012), a French-Belgian animated co-production, opening Friday at the Main Art, is the most innocent of children’s films, though I don’t think of the Main Art as a children’s theatre. But, hey, for parents who regularly frequent the theatre – and the wider community – this is a charming movie to bring your young’uns too. It’s like Paddington Bear – well, kind of - only en français though with English subtitles. The English dubbed version featuring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti, would have been interesting but the screener I saw was in the original French. Think of this as Bonnie and Clyde for the young set. Ernest is a big bear. Celestine is a little mouse. They live in polar opposite worlds, the first aboveground, the second below. Both have human traits. Both run shops, drive vehicles, and not least of all have their own police departments. And not surprisingly each fears and despises the other. Until, that is, Celestine throws a wrench into the works. She draws pictures of a smiling bear and how she’d like to befriend one, to the utter outrage of her orphanage. Out gathering teeth one day for her dental apprenticeship she comes across Ernest who is ravenously hungry. He wants to eat her but she outwits him – “bears only eat mice in story books,” she says. She leads him to a candy store where he breaks in and chomps down all the lollipops and marshmallows he can eat. Meanwhile Celestine is more interested in drawing than scavenging and is admonished by her instructor. So she breaks into a tooth implant shop and steals hundreds of incisors. Ernest & Celestine are now outlaws. It turns out the bear is also artistically inclined (he’s a musician) and the two settle into domestic bliss. But the police won’t quit their pursuit. The movie has won the Magritte or Belgium’s top award for a francophone film. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Film this year (Frozen won). For a film screened at a Landmark cinema I was expecting something more edgy – something with a cultural message, perhaps? But that’s not really the case. This is as sweet and innocent as they come – even a throwback to something that would come out of the 1950s - complete with a cute and soothing musical score. For anyone who says there aren’t heartwarming movies out there anymore, just check out Ernest & Celestine.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not porn but another "p" word

What to make of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Nymphomaniac Volume II which has been playing at Landmark Theatres across the U.S. (I caught Volume I in California and Volume II in Royal Oak). This four hour opus, in two parts of course, ostensibly seems porn and von Trier has jokingly referred to it as such. That’s not my take on it. If someone was really checking these films out for sexual excitement they’d have to wade through, in their view, miles of boring dialogue, and repeatedly explicit scenes that because of their unvarying nature seem more hum drum that stimulating. What did I get out of this? Several things. First, the movie’s central character Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a Joan of Arc when it comes to proselyting for uncompromising lust and sex free of hypocritical emotions such as love. She repeats this endlessly in different contexts during the movies. Her view is best expressed in Volume I when she literally throws the dice and determines which of her sex partners she will assign various roles. With one she will display utmost affection, and on down the line until the last ones are callously discarded. For her it’s all arbitrary. Don’t take offence because Joe’s vision is honest – she wants sex and sex only - and when people speak of love they’re inevitably hedging their real desires, are deceptive or manipulative, all to get another person into bed. Another theme in Volume II is when the old learned bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) suggests to her that she is an outcast of sorts only because she is woman. Men who seek multiple partners and innumerable orgasms are a stereotypical historic norm. Yet there’s a contradiction at the film’s heart (so to speak). Because at some level Joe has developed at least one strong affection, that for her one time paramour Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), so intense that she ultimately exacts violence over it. Von Trier likes to explore the big questions – what’s life about, what are the base desires that drive human beings. It’s answered here of course: sex. Everything else is for nought, including the high-minded and erudite Seligman’s learned theories and postulations. This being the third in von Trier’s Depression trilogy (the others being Antichrist, 2010 and Melancholia, 2011) Nymphomaniac Volume I and Nymphomaniac Volume II is most like Antichrist in its delving into our most primitive motivations. Besides the story line – basically a chronology of Joe’s sexual life from teenager to middle aged woman – the films are a display of interesting technical filmmaking. Big graphic numbers intrude over the screen to tick off various sexuals conquests or types of orgasms. A geometric chart overlays a scene where Joe is parallel parking, describing every degree of angle by which she must back the car into the space. And the ending credits’ song is a tour de force of a classic (the name Joe’s in the title) courtesy Gainsbourg - who’s also a critically-acclaimed singer - and Beck. Nymphomaniac might seem like porn but, folks, it’s really philosophy. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Four great movies

I’ve felt a real need to offer some thoughts on recent movies I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of good ones. The problem is there hasn’t been enough time to write lengthy reviews. So I’ll offer capsule ones.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – I’ve never been a Wes Anderson fan but his The Grand Budapest Hotel (showing in Windsor and Detroit) is worthy of admiration indeed. Anderson is known for a kind of magic realism that to my mind borders on the ridiculous (i.e., Moonrise Kingdom, 2012). But Budapest is a standout with a huge stellar cast that both parodies and upholds the old world charm of what we think was Eastern Europe high society between the wars. The acting and scenes are terrific and if you don’t have fun at this you’re probably numb.

Tim’s Vermeer – There have been some wonderful documentaries in recent years. I’m thinking particularly of 2013’s Finding Vivian Maier (screened at WIFF) for one. This in the same league. Johannes Vermeer is considered among the very greatest painters. But Tim Jenison, an inventor and master craftsman in San Antonio, is no artist. But his fascination with Vermeer has him seeking to demonstrate that the great Renaissance painter wasn’t as much artist as technician using the newly invented tools of mirrors to create our first form of photography. Directed by Teller of Penn and Teller magician fame.

The Lunchbox – Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut has been a sensation wherever it’s been screened and one can see why. This is a heartfelt, imaginative yet simple story about two lonely people who have never met yet communicate, through notes in a lunchbox, which was mistakenly delivered to one of their places of work. The subtle acting by the two main characters - Irfan Khan as Saajan Fernandez and Nimrat Kaur as Ila - is amazing. And the ending is just right.

Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (picture above) – Danish director Lars von Trier is up to it again. Von Trier is the director who goes after the Big Questions and Nymphomaniac (Volume 2 opened today at Royal Oak’s Main Art) is no exception. Some may think this is porn. It isn’t. It isn’t voyeuristic. But it has plenty to say about love and lust and the relationships between men and women.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Cerebral intimacy

Love can be so destructive. Breathe In, opening today at the Uptown Birmingham 8, directed and co-written by Drake Doremus (Spooner 2009 and Like Crazy 2011) is typically, for him, an intimate portrait of emotions. Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is by day a music teacher but at night and weekends an aspiring cellist. But unfortunately he's living in a stale marriage with Megan (Amy Ryan) and one daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), who is about to leave home. Then, during the final school semester, the family takes in a British exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones), a beautiful and cerebral young woman. Sophie develops a crush on Keith and the feeling is mutual, especially after she gives an extraordinary performance of Chopin after being coaxed to play something in front of his music class. But dreamy eyed Sophie is also deep minded. Keith asks why with such talent she doesn’t play more. “I want to choose to play not do it because I can,” she responds. Sophie tells him she doesn’t want to live a life “where I’m not choosing” and asks if he’s trapped in his. “One day you’ll be free,” she offers as solace. She then performs a piece for him and while they’re at the piano they touch hands. Megan and Lauren abruptly come home and Keith and Sophie part quickly. Suspicions arise when Lauren sees Sophie’s shadow beneath the bathroom door and Megan discovers four empty beer bottles in the trash. At school, Sophie is quickly labelled a “slut” after a rumour of having slept with classmate Aaron (Matthew Daddario), who’d had a fling with Lauren, even though Sophie had rejected Aaron’s advances. But Lauren happens upon a scene of Sophie and her dad romantically engaged. She confronts Sophie at night in her bedroom. Sophie and Keith decide to make plans to run away. They agree to meet that night after his concert performance. While this story of an everyday affair has been told a million times there’s always fascination in the retelling, especially when the director – as per his technique of repeated takes to constantly wring out the least that is true - creates a story this emotionally taut. But more than simply about romance Breathe In strikes an introspective chord by questioning what it means to be free, whether one’s trapped in a played-out marriage or not.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So many festivals, so little time

Not only did I not go to the first annual Freep Film Festival this past weekend but I also missed a current festival in Montreal called the Festival of Films on Art, in its 32nd year – but new to me! - on until the end of the month. This was the first year for the Freep event, put on by the Detroit Free Press with screenings mainly at the Detroit Film Theatre. It was docs, heavily Detroit-centric, which was the point. Normally this would be my catnip. I am nothing if not a huge Detroitphile. There were films about the largest industrial ruin in Detroit, the Packard factory; about the history of the DIA, about famed New Journalist George Plimpton and his iconic Paper Lion book about the once great - a long time ago! - Detroit Lions; there was a film made right after the 1967 riots which examined the city’s lousy economy and raised the same questions people are raising today - hmmm. I missed the festival because, frankly, I’m a bit wearied of Detroit-centred topics and personally spent a lot of time criss-crossing the border in recent weeks for personal issues. I needed a weekend break.…As for the Montreal festival the stars just didn’t line up for travel. |But it’s really an extraordinary festival in what I call film festival city. There are 266 films – again largely or all documentaries – about the creative process and usually but not exclusively about the visual arts. One, for example, is about the complex authentication of Andy Warhol’s work – who knew? Another a biography of Brigitte Bardot. There’s a German film about Canada’s great and recently-dceased painter Alex Colville. There’s even a film about, yes, Detroit’s rich contribution to “the cream” of pop, soul and rock. Another is about poet Jean Cocteau’s influence on film and art. You get the idea. For more got to then there’s yet another upcoming festival, the venerable Ann Arbor Film Festival March 25 – 30, the oldest experimental film fest in the United States, which started in 1963. I’ve never been but experimental films aren’t my forte. I doubt I will make it this year. BTW Windsor’s Jeremy Rigsby and Oona Mosna, who host the Media City Film Festival - also experimental – in July, will present one film, Archaic Beasts, God's Asshole and Other Ideas of the Previous Century. Well, it’s an experimental festival, folks!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lost woman doesn't have to be

Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way (opening Friday at The Maple Theater) isn’t an entirely new theme for a film. It’s about age and in particular aging women. Still, it’s worth another take. And this time with the top French female actress of the late 20th century Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve as Bettie is down on her luck. Her family restaurant is not making enough money (puzzling because it always seems busy). Her lover has jilted her. She’s early 60-something and kind of washed-up in society’s view and possibly her own. (Deneuve is actually 70.) To clear her mind she drives into the countryside. But the trip doesn’t end, as her quest for cigarettes turns into a drive across France to reunite her grandson with her daughter. The odyssey, though, constantly reinforces her loss of control, low self-esteem, and penurious state. And she’s treated to the stereotypical catcalls for an aging woman. “Move your fat ass” says an enraged man when Bettie tries to aid his beaten wife. And later, at a photo shoot of former beauty queens of which she's one, the 30-something male photographer tells the women to “hold your tummies’s the 60-sexy look.” But there’s praise too. Bettie one night ends up at a roadhouse, gets drunk, and wakes up in bed with a young buck who tells her that in her youth “you must have been stunning.” Deneuve in fact is still a supremely good looking woman and in her seventh decade has a great face, reminding me a little of Adele owing to her minor weight gain. So, is this a movie about how older women are treated? Probably, though it seems a bit clichéd. Deneuve acts with a cast of largely non-actors and the director’s son Nemo Schiffman plays pre-teen Charly, whom Bettie takes on the trip to meet her bratty daughter Muriel (Camille), the latter who despises her mom for caring more about her “marinades” than her family. Ironically Bettie is the focus of a lot of people’s anger yet she seems innocent, suitably well-intentioned, and simply trying to figure things out. Deneuve has always been great with for displaying subtle mood shifts. The cast comes off as pro even though they're amateurs. But I’m tired of road movies and of women trying to find themselves. I’m also tired of out of control kids, and the village reunion at the end of the film is as hackneyed a French scene as you can imagine, though I guiltily loved it. The story line I would have preferred? Bettie goes back to the restaurant, puts the books in order, harangs her staff, and kicks the restaurant up a notch, falling in love with the great guy at the same time. Now that’s a woman finding herself.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film notes from a boring week

Nothing much to report on this week so in the best tradition of journalism, when there’s nothing to report on - you make it up – no, just kidding. Actually in the best tradition, you simply comment on whatever strikes your fancy. So here are a few things mildly interesting from the world of film over the past week:

* Much ado about Wes Anderson’s latest The Grand Budapest Hotel, which opens Friday at the Main. Never been music of a Wes Anderson fan, whose movies are so bizarre, separating time and place into fantasy worlds - as to be silly. Not everyone’s cuppa tea as they say. Though this one might have more potential as a send up of a fictitious 1930s European hotel with all the period archetypes, and a stellar cast with people like Ralph Fiennes, Jason Schwartzman, and everyone’s favourite, Bill Murray.

* Then there was this piece in The New York Times Sunday magazine The Ethicist column. A reader asked if it was okay to boycott Woody Allen’s films in light of the latest allegations about him actually abusing his step-daughter Dylan Farrow many many years ago. What I got from the piece is that the allegations still haven’t been proven in court, and/or that regardless of your views, a person can separate the artist from the art. Read for yourself at

* The first ever Detroit Free Press film festival takes place this week with films pretty much all Detroit-related. We’re talking docs, folks. But it’s interesting so many docs have been made about Detroit and this is the venue in which to see them. March 20-23 at the Detroit Film Theatre (DIA) and at Fillmore Detroit – 12 films altogether. A Detroitophile’s delight. Go to

* Speaking of fests, the 16th annual Detroit Jewish film festival runs April 27 – May 7, and you can see the schedule at The Windsor (unrelated) Jewish festival should be coming up soon.

* And I almost fell over when I saw that Devonshire Cinemas is screening art house fave Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s intriguing Enemy, a psychological thriller par excellence. Now I wonder if I will be the only person in the theatre!