Tuesday, February 24, 2015

For the love of Turner Classic Movies

Now that I’m on a sojourn to wait out the northern winter in the sunshine environs of central Florida one of the charms of vacation rentals is having access to a whole slew of cable channels. And while Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is available to Canadian audiences I don’t feel like shelling out the big bucks back home to get it. So it’s always a treat when I come stateside and am able to watch this amazing channel for its cornucopia of classic movies from the Turner vault…..Here are some of the movies I’ve indulged in over the past few weeks: Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937). Considered one of the greatest films ever made it’s a delight as a character study about a group of French POWs but underwhelms on the bigger scale. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). This almost perfect telling of three American vets who return from World War II features flawless performances from the likes of Fredrich March, Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy. But the standout is Teresa Wright, whose portrayal of a small town bright young woman is incandescent. The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson, 1956) is Humphrey Bogart’s last movie. He plays a rather contradictory character to the noble moralistic types we associate with him. He’s a former sports writer hired as a press agent to promote a corrupt boxing scheme. But Bogie, in the end, does the right thing - phew! The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) was dramatic enough, I guess. But, afterwards, reading about the film, took a lot of my respect away from it. Its portrayal of British POWs enraged military vets and its plot - a British officer (Alec Guinness as Nicholson) collaborating with the Japanese, was considered unthinkable. Yet Guinness as always is a standout. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) is a Doris Day - Rick Hudson classic, an utterly hilarious romantic comedy whose laughs come from a variety of misunderstandings. Why don’t they make movies like this anymore? There was the double bill of Steve McQueen movies: The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) and Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968). The Thomas Crown Affair is the story of a sophisticated millionaire who has it all and arranges a bank heist for kicks. But the most interesting thing about this picture is the multiscreen imagery, using the technology that premiered the year before at Montreal’s Expo 67 including in the Ontario pavilion film A Place to Stand. Meanwhile the Bullitt chase seen through the streets of San Fran wasn’t as dramatic as I expected (or remembered) and McQueen only did a small fraction of the Mustang’s driving. But his portrayal of the steely taciturn cop Frank Bullitt always has us in his corner. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) shows Gregory Peck in one of his best and most iconic roles as lawyer Atticus Finch whose moral toughness is matched by his personal gentleness. What was the point of Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)? And since the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose book the movie is based on, co-wrote the screenplay, what was he trying to say in this most famous of American novels? Beats me. The story of course is about a middle aged man’s infatuation with a pre-teen beauty Lolita (though actress Sue Lyon was 14). There is no sex (thank God) nor even, unlike the novel, much prurience (thank God). Due to among other things, political correctness, the film wouldn’t be made today and almost wasn’t at the time. Subject matter alone why is this novel considered among the best of 20th century literature? Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) seems as fresh today as it did the year Star Wars came out, minus some bad period sartorial styles (excepting Diane Keaton’s quirky Annie’s wardrobe, as much a hit as the picture) and clunky cars. Allen’s wit shines again and again in such classic scenes as gathering escaped lobsters (above left), swatting spiders, or sneezing into a box of cocaine. The movie established Woody as the modern king of comedy and morals. Finally The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross, 1977). It’s easy to see why Richard Dreyfuss as Elliot Garfield won best actor at the next year’s Oscars. I never understood his character’s attraction to Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason). But it is what it is and the story written by Neil Simon has gone into the annals of best known theatrical plays.

Academy disconnect. Not surprisingly there was a major drop in audience for Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. That’s because most of the films nominated for best picture were ones the mass audience has never seen, much less heard about. The New York Times today has an article about this major gap between Hollywood - which now seems fully captured by the art house crowd - and the average moviegoer. Check it out at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/movies/awardsseason/oscars-show-growing-gap-between-moviegoers-and-academy.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

Sunday, February 15, 2015

And the best film Oscar should go to...

Now having seen the full line-up here’s what I think about which picture should win this year’s top Academy award and my thoughts about the other films in contention, in declining order.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle) (picture left). This story of an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman) and his Marine sergeant-like music school instructor (J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher) should win best picture. Everything about this movie is great. The acting first and foremost is outstanding. The interplay between Neiman and Fletcher is highly realistic and tension-filled. Moreover, unlike many other films with significant attributes (acting, writing) this is the kind of movie we don’t get enough of - a thriller, if not of the detective kind then certainly one based on emotions - and about heroic personal struggle that everybody can identify with.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu). I originally thought this should take best picture, and it probably will. It’s achieved enough accolades and awards to date and that weighs against why I think it should win the top Academy nod. The story is great, the acting is pretty good, and the direction is amazing. Upon second viewing, however, I saw through some of the acting. But no matter how much I and other critics enjoyed it this is an insider’s movie. If you’re an actor - whether on Broadway or the local village playhouse - you’ll identify with these characters’ roller coaster lives. The general public probably won't so much.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). I’m not a huge Anderson fan because his pictures often strike me as insipid or bizarre (Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums) but this movie was highly innovative and resonated in a lot of ways. About a weird cast of characters set in a grand Eastern European hotel between the wars, this movie is a send-up of an infinite variety of clichés of the 1930s as well as a kaleidoscope of images, scenes, and stories. A delight though not for everyone.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum). As I’ve posted previously that Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding in this home front World War II picture about how Britain broke Nazi German’s Enigma Code. The movie has enough genuine scene setting and drama to raise it to a high enough level. But it’s a marginal movie in terms of theme and the best aspect of it is Cumberbatch as father of the computer Alan Turing.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). Also set in Britain though in more contemporary times this bio of wunderkind Stephen Hawking really has one great thing going for it - Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. And while the movie proceeds at a decent pace as it chronologically tells Hawking’s story, it struck me as just a bit too stereotypically biopic, meaning it’s really hard to capture the original events.

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood). This is the portrayal of American Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during the Iraq War, an expert sniper who had 160 confirmed killings. Bradley Cooper as Kyle is excellent and Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle also provides a more than credible performance. The war scenes are pretty good but, like too many biopics, I could envision just a little too easily how the movie crew set up these scenes in places like Middle Eastern Morocco.

Selma (Ava DuVernay) This pic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a seminal event in American civil rights history certainly has enough drama and realism to it. And although they don’t necessarily look like the real people, David Oyelowo gives some pretty good speeches as MLK and Tom Wilkinson isn’t bad as President Lyndon Johnson, though the film has been criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Johnson as an impediment to voting rights legislation. The film also manages to wrangle enough emotion from the audience. But all the pieces don’t come together in top form to make this a best Oscar picture.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater). This overly long - okay I know it was purposely filmed over 12 years - movie, tells a lacklustre story about any boy, anywhere, growing up in the good old USA. But that’s it. There are no particular insights, no moral conclusions. The best thing is Patricia Arquette as a working class mom, and Arquette's performance is indeed good.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A most underwhelming movie

Moviegoers expecting A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, to be a New York gritty action-packed crime drama - as I did - are in for a major disappointment. This movie, the story line of which would seem perfect for a gangster thriller along the lines of movies from The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) to Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990), to Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980), just doesn’t have that dramatic edge. In fact it doesn’t have much edge at all. Heck, this could be a theatrical play there’s so little action and what action does take place on the gritty Brooklyn streets is largely irrelevant to the narrative. Rather, what we see is a set of business negotiations in which ambitious Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) tries to build his local home heating company. (The title’s reference is to 1981, when the movie is set, a period of extreme crime in NYC.) The industry is rife with corruption and competitors want to put him out of business. That’s where the violence comes in. His trucks are hijacked and fuel stolen. His drivers get roughed-up. There are personal threats to Morales and his family. The movie is mainly concerned with Morales overcoming these almost crippling challenges. How can he get his adversaries to stop their intimidation without resorting to violence himself as his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges, going to the extent of getting her own gun. At the same time we don’t know if Morales is himself shady - an issue never resolved - because a police investigation into the industry brings several charges against him. This all might sound exciting but it really isn’t. The movie is basically all - literally - talk, with quiet scenes of Morales and his wife or associates or potential enemies having face to face and actually placid encounters despite the backdrop of tension. Two people in the audience of the screening I attended fell asleep (I heard one snoring, the other started shouting as he roused from sleep.) There are some action moments, such as a shoot out on the 59th Street Bridge or near the film’s end when Morales, in his car, goes after the hijackers of a truck. But The French Connection this isn’t. There is decent enough acting on Isaac and Chastain’s parts. But this is basically a cerebral film and isn’t at all what a moviegoer might think is in store from the title.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Academy Awards nominated shorts - reviews

Here are my capsule reviews of this year’s edition of the Academy Awards Nominated Short Films, the ever popular screenings put on annually by the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts. For more go to http://www.dia.org/detroitfilmtheatre/14/DFT.aspx. Screenings continue through the month.

The first five shorts are animations.

Me and My Moulton. This is Canada’s entry for this year’s Oscars but it’s actually a Canadian-Norwegian co-production by Torill Kove. This childhood memory of growing up in the 1960s is a funny take on the narrator’s eccentric parents, the kind who love modern art and designer furniture when all families around them are white bread conventional, as the narrator yearns to be. This is a typical National Film Board animation - sorry - with stick figure creations. Worth a few chuckles though the audience seemed to enjoy it.

Feast (US - Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed). This was the best animation by far. Not only in terms of its technical superiority and imaginative story but its whimsical joy and humour. It’s a take on how dogs will do almost anything for a scrap of food, especially the toss offs from humans. 

The Bigger Picture (UK - Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees). The best thing about this short is the merger of fine art and conventional animation. But it’s a dark, depressing story about Me-generation selfishness and the unregretted disposal of the aged. Not sure why the filmmakers made it but it struck me as almost contemptible.

A Single Life (Netherlands - Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen). A whimsical take on the periods of a person’s life all to the tune of a vinyl record. Whatever.

The Dam Keeper (US - Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi). This, the longest animated short at 18 minutes, has a lot to it. Beautifully drawn characters and landscapes with a type of George Orwell Animal Farm theme, only about bullying. Bullying is an all too common topic these says. Nevertheless this film deserves a break because of its beauty and sentimentality.

Now for the five live action shorts:

Parvaneh (Switzerland - Talkhon Hamzavi & Stefan Eichenberger). This movie is about the Moslem African migration experience, a theme pretty overworked these days by European film makers. Still, it’s a sweet tale about a young woman and her spur of the moment friendship with an anti-establishment punk. Good performances by both actors.

Butter Lamp (France/China - Hu Wei and Julien Féret) is the most bizarre film of the lot. A photography crew poses various groups of traditional (Tibetan) Chinese families in front of huge static backdrops of famous Chinese scenes, as if they’re actually in those locations. Whatever.

The Phone Call (UK - Mat Kirby & James Lucas). Now we’re getting into something good. Acclaimed actress Sally Hawkins at first seems a klutzy emergency hotline worker. Until, that is, she gets on the phone (on a call from a character played by also acclaimed actor Jim Broadbent) and deals with an emotionally taut situation.

Aya (Israel/France - Oded Binnun & Mihal Brezis - picture above). This is the best picture of the five. A woman at an airport waits for a friend. But she meets someone entirely different and goes off on a long drive with this stranger and possible romantic interest. The film is a mystery on several levels, and speaks to modern ennui.

Boogaloo and Graham (UK - Michael Lennox & Ronan Blaney). A heartwarming story about a couple of kids during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Two brothers become so attached to their pets, baby chicks, that they’re ready to defy their parents and run away from home to protect them. The domestic humor is an antidote to the violence we know is all around.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

London's National Gallery, unspooled

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, shown last week at the Detroit Film Theatre, is a three hour documentary about London’s National Gallery, perhaps the most famous museum in the world. Wiseman is a legendary U.S. documentarist and has made more than 40 films. His first was Titicut Follies (1967), about patient-inmates at a state hospital for the criminally insane and the only one of his previous films, surprisingly, I have seen, at least in part. His movies' topics are eclectic to say the least, from depicting a great university, At Berkeley (2013), showing this Saturday at the DFT, to Welfare  (1975) (a profile of New York City’s welfare department circa mid-1970s) coming to the DFT Feb. 14, to Hospital (1969), chronicling the daily activities in a large U.S. hospital, at the DFT Feb. 28. National Gallery both pleased and disappointed. If you’re into art the film’s a winner. There are umpteen close up shots of the National Gallery’s glittering treasures. And if you can’t fly to London to walk the museum’s corridors this film might be second best way of (vicariously) being there. Wiseman’s camera meanders the maze-like galleries, with close-ups of patrons’ faces as they studiously admire the art, and of docents giving talks about certain pictures. Wiseman is there during the museum’s executive committee where an official reports on the museum’s tight budget for the coming year. It’s also there at various special exhibition openings like ones for Leonardo and Titian. And finally there are numerous “back of the museum” shots of conservators explaining their work and working their magic to restore paintings. New solvents, we learn, are designed so that future conservators can reinterpret a painting afresh and literally wipe away this generation’s painstaking conservation efforts “in 15 minutes.” But this is not the kind of documentary one might come to expect based on some of the more brilliant ones of recent years. I’m thinking of films like John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier (2013), Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) or Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer (2013), another film about art. These were marvels in terms of cinematography, image, juxtaposition, special effects, soundtrack and editing. There is nothing like that here. Wiseman simply places his camera and records what’s in front of him. There is not even any voice over. I suppose that is the Wiseman effect. He lets the subjects speak for themselves as he alluded in a post film talk. But one leaves the three hour film somewhat tired of the lack of point of view and narrative. I’m hardly a filmmaker and wouldn’t ever compare myself to Wiseman. But I can also place a camera, turn it on, and record. Wiseman shot 170 hours. He cut the film down to three. But it really doesn’t matter how long it is. It could have been one hour, two hours, five hours, 10 hours. It simply would have been more of the same. And whether you’d like that is entirely up to your perspective, I suppose.

Unfortunately I went to see Mordecai, David Koepp’s farce about a shady art dealer (Johnny Depp) and his travels and travails among a host of nefarious characters. This movie has the look and feel of a British farce circa 1968. And Depp is obviously channelling Peter Sellers, who probably would have made the real difference in transforming this film from bore to fun.

I came out of Mordecai about 6.30 pm last Saturday at Devonshire’s Cineplex, only to find a long lineup of people waiting to get into another movie. I’d never seen a lineup inside a multiplex in Windsor before. I asked someone the name of the movie they were waiting to see and it was, not surprisingly, Eastwood’s American Sniper. This film has really struck a chord with a huge swath of the public.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cumberbatch brilliant as Turing, etc.

In the last post (Jan. 19) I mentioned writing to Cineplex Entertainment asking what the chances would be of Windsor getting some of the lesser viewed best picture Oscar nominations such as Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash. That must be a hard call for distributors who stand not to make a lot of revenue in smaller markets where the film going public simply doesn’t have the appetite for these art house type movies. And yet doesn’t it behoove the distributor to make them available simply because they are an Oscar nomination? Here is the response from Cineplex spokesman Mike Langdon: “Scheduling is always a challenge, with a number of new releases opening each week and a finite number of screens available.  That said, after Oscar nominees are announced, we do our best to bring as many as possible to audiences that haven’t had the opportunity to see them.  Typically, this takes place throughout award season – leading up to the end of February. That’s not to say we’ll have the opportunity to show each and every film – but we will make an effort to schedule certain Oscar-nominated films in the weeks ahead.”

Meanwhile last night I took myself to the double bill that I’d missed Saturday night because of the crowds (same post above)......First up was Eastwood’s American Sniper. I’m not saying it wasn’t good. But somehow I expected a more full bodied war flick. The problem is I could imagine the battle scenes being staged and in my books that isn’t good enough. But Bradley Cooper as American hero Chris Kyle (pictured) was very good and Sienna Miller as Kyle's real life wife Taya Renae Kyle put in a good performance..... It’s interesting how the public has gone wild for this film, which is obviously pro-American and patriotic. Yet earlier film dramas that took a decidedly anti-Iraq War stance such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Redacted, bombed (so to speak) at the box office.

The second film I saw was Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, about the cracking of the German Enigma code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch as famed Alan Turing, the nerdy brilliant mathematician who led the team at Bletchley Park to crack the code, is brilliant. It’s a tossup between him and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything) for Oscar best actor though I think Cumberbatch has the edge. (I haven’t seen Steve Carell in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Saturday night cabin fever

Talk about cabin fever. I drove into Windsor for Devonshire Cineplex’s 7.05 pm screening of American Sniper (Clint Eastwood) Saturday night. The ticket seller was kind enough to tell me that the only remaining seats were likely in the front row. Nuts to that. So I got in my car and drove a few kilometres up the road to Silver City Cineplex. That house was worse. I could barely get in the front door. A line of people snaked around with perhaps a hundred waiting to buy tickets. The kiosks had about a dozen or more at each. So I was out of there! Why so many people? True, it was early Saturday night - prime weekly movie going time. But the break in the weather – the first above freezing temps since the New Year – must have had something to do with it. Perhaps this week I’ll make the trek to see the enormously popular Sniper – top January weekend box office ever, according to today’s NY Times – the six Oscar-nominated (including best picture) film based on the true life of military hero Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper...I was going to double bill this Saturday with The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum). Not that I particularly wanted to see the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring film about the breaking of the German Enigma code during World War II. I’m so tired of WW II movies. But all reports are that this is a great film. As well, I thought I’d add it to my bucket-of-popcorn list to see another of the films nominated for this year's best picture (I’ve seen Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything).

So what did I do instead? I returned home, logged on to Netflix, and found a little known picture called 28 Hotel Rooms. Matt Ross’s 2012 first film is an interesting idea – two lovers who only meet around the country when business takes them to the same cities. So their time together is confined to one or two days in a generic if upscale hotel room in Some City, USA. (A modern version of the classic 1975 Bernard Slade play Same Time Next Year only not so funny. Robert Mulligan's firm version came out in 1978.) Chris Messina and Marin Ireland star. The problem is the scenes are so short that the audience gets only little snippets about what’s going on in the characters’ lives. Had the characters been further formed this would have been a more satisfying film. And I’m not sure at all what the meaning of the last scene was....The next film I watched Saturday on Netflix was Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). I saw the film when it first came out. This is classic Polanski (based on the Roland Topor novel who co-wrote the screenplay), filled with angst, paranoia, and confused identities and gender roles. Polanski himself plays the central character Trelkovsky (pictured), a mild mannered clerk who happens to rent the wrong Parisian apartment. A nice late Saturday night horror show if you ask me.

I put in a request to Cineplex to ask if Canada’s largest distributor will show those films nominated for Oscar best picture but that very few people have seen. I’m talking about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and Damien Chazell’s Whiplash of course. This must be a dilemma for distributors since there’s very little market in cities like Windsor for these typically art house films. Yet they’re nominated for the world’s top movie awards and the great mass of people out there must be scratching their heads wondering what the hell they're all about.