Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A post war identity crisis

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (opening Friday at The Maple Theater) is a story of lost love but with a twist. Germany has just surrendered after World War II and rubble-heaped Berlin is divided into Allied sectors. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a Jew who suffered a disfiguring facial injury and requires surgical reconstruction. She returns to her old neighbourhood and searches for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She finds him (quite readily) working as a busboy in a nightclub. He doesn’t recognize her but cooks up a plan to have her impersonate his former wife - in other words, impersonate herself! She’s in love with him and agrees to go along. And despite her trying to convince him she’s really his wife he’ll have none of it. But what’s on Johnny’s mind is to exploit Nelly’s inheritance. She agrees to pose as his wife (ironically as herself) to claim the estate. He also coaches her on how she is to arrive on a displaced persons’ train and behave while the family and he greets her. She goes along with all this, seemingly, because she’s still so in love with him. When she changes her hair colour and clothing to mimic what she used to look like he’s startled for a moment but then says “it’s all wrong.” She tells her confidente Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), “I’m really jealous of me!” This may sound funny but in the film's context it’s really not. But it does make you want to give old Johnny a shake since Nelly’s facial reconstruction and mannerisms are close enough to what she used to look and be like. Or, more practically, to have Nelly shake him since she's such a diffident character. Moreover, Lene can’t understand Nelly’s continuing attraction to Johnny, who betrayed her during the war as a Jew. “The gasses come and we forgive,” she says despondently. Johnny is a pianist and Nelly a singer. And when they finally perform before family and Johnny hears Nelly’s voice it’s then that he recognizes this woman must indeed be his wife. I know this story is based on a novel, Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet. But that story must have had more believeability because it introduced a third dimension in a daughter who is trying to determine parental recognition. In the film, it seems implausible that Johnny wouldn’t recognize Nelly and the fact he doesn’t undermines the plot’s credibility. Moreover, the film is a one-trick pony - a drawn out effort by two people to create a false impersonation. It would have been nice to have had a few subplots (the exploitation of nightclub performers or the sordidness of post-war Berlin although one incident suggests this). Or it could have had greater context: I didn’t think many Jews returned to their homes after the war; Nelly sought her husband but wasn’t she otherwise conflicted?  The best parts of the film are the vivid dark, moody cinematography (Hans Fromm), and Zehrfeld and Hess’s stand out performances. Both also starred in Petzold’s 2012 Barbara - about an East Germany physician - which has more complexity and is a more satisfying picture.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Treading water in late August, barely

It’s the dog days of summer and my movie watching has been as lacklustre. Over the last couple of weeks I did manage to see a couple of half decent films and, well, a couple of classics for the ages. I’ll have a review next week on the new film opening August 28 at the Maple - Christian Petzold's Phoenix.….Meanwhile I got to Woody Allen’s 46th film Irrational Man. Joaquin Phoenix plays a stand in for Woody’s normal angst ridden cerebral character as a philosophy professor (Abe Lucas) at a small New England college. He’s moody handsome bait for a couple of women - one on faculty (Parker Posey as Rita Richards) and one a student (Emma Stone as Jill Pollard). Allen, as a writer, has inserted philosophical themes from a lesser to greater extent in many films and here it’s embraced widely. Lucas arrives on campus rather despondent finding little meaning in life. As a kind of existentialist, however, he realizes he can become a man of action which in turn gives life meaning. This happens to be criminal but for good purpose. Irrational Man isn’t Allen’s best. It seems narrow in subject matter, characters, even humour. But it’s worth seeing. A bonus - at least for me - is that it’s filmed in one of my homes away from home, Rhode Island. There’s a scene where characters are in front of Island Books on Spring Street in Newport. That’s the store I went into last September after losing my wallet, seeking a phone number for the local police department. (My wallet ended up being returned intact.)

On Netflix I watched The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, (2014, Mike Fleiss), about perhaps the second most famous member of The Grateful Dead who accompanied lead man and icon Jerry Garcia, improvising chords to the bearded one’s nifty lead guitar. Normally docs aren’t made about second tier band members. But this is the Grateful Dead, which developed its legions of Deadheads (don’t ask me). So I guess some of the iconography rubs off. Nevertheless it’s an engrossing flick and isn’t just about Weir but the band generally. There are great scenes from early Haight-Ashbury days and the band’s decades of musical truckin.’ Weir was the lady’s man in the group but has settled into contented older age, happily married with children in leafy Marin County, with some contemplative Buddhism to round out life’s mystery. 

And there is Turner Classic Movies' ongoing Summer Under the Stars schedule. I caught back to back Marx Brothers’ films celebrating Groucho. First was Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod) a spoof celebrating the president of Huxley College, Quincy Adams Wagstaff, played by Groucho. My favourite scenes are on the football gridiron with wonderful non-stop sight gags as Huxley beats Darwin usurping a planned thrown game……The second was Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey) a satiric comment about the rise of fascism (Mussolini banned it). Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, leader of fictitious Freedonia. The movie winds-up in a crescendo of delightfully absurd song and dance numbers with a cast of hundreds and a medley singing the praises of their great nation with lyrics overlaid against some of Americana’s most famous songs including a Negro spiritual and Oh Suzanna. Yuck, yuck.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inmates run this asylum, or don't

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre) is a kind of drama-documentary about a real life experiment that, well, went so right it went wrong. It’s based on a true psychology experiment at Stanford in 1971 with a theme you’re probably familiar with. Throw a bunch of people into opposing power relationships and see what happens. In this case Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the psychologist, cooked up an experiment whereby a bunch of students would be paid $15 a day to stay in a replica prison for two weeks. Some were chosen as guards, others prisoners. The students at first take a light-hearted approach thinking there might be some realism but, hey, this is a controlled university experiment - with explicit instructions of no physical harm - taking place on campus, so what could go wrong? As you might suspect, plenty. Well, actually, in scientific terms, nothing. In fact, the students who play the guards take their roles so seriously the experiment is a smashing psychological success in terms of what it finds about the excesses of human nature. The jail - actually a small cordoned off hallway in the bottom of a university building - soon descends into the roughest prisoner boot camp you might imagine. The prisoners have the proverbial smiles on their faces wiped off in no time. An insubordinate prisoner is forced to strip naked. Others are literally thrown in “the hole” (a dark closet). The hands-off approach is ignored and physical fighting breaks out with the guards using their night sticks to keep the inmates in line. When one of Zimbardo’s associates suggests intervention, he says, “No, let the guards figure it out.” A rebellion ensues and a riot takes place within a hundred square feet. The guards, especially one played exquisitely by Michael Angaramo as a kind of badass southern sheriff (think: “You in a heap of trouble, boy!”), become almost psychotic in their demands for obedience and eventual enforced depravity. The experiment, however, goes off the rails when the prisoner students think this is more than what they signed-up for and demand out. But they can’t leave, except in one or two extraordinary cases, where the first released inmate threatens legal action. Zimbardo himself takes on the role of authoritarian warden, calling the basement cell block “my prison.” When the guards try to force the prisoners to sodomize one another Zimbardo finally intervenes and calls a halt. The two week experiment ends after six days. Based on true events none of the participants suffered long term harm. Zimbardo found the research (the movie is based on his book The Lucifer Effect) integral to an understanding of authority, power relationships and how good people turn bad. It’s similar to the earlier Milgram electric shocks experiment at Yale. This is all fine and the movie is tautly paced and has great performances by a rising group of young actors including Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons, and Tye Sheridan. But if the film follows the experiment so closely (and Zimbardo consulted on it) I wonder how Zimbardo got away with creating a real life dungeon, depriving citizens of their rights. In the end, though, Zimbardo is lauded for his depth of research into how ordinary people can become tyrants. But didn’t anyone question how he himself became one?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Short takes on a shorts film festival

My evening at Media City’s 21st festival at downtown Windsor’s Capitol Theatre last night consisted of watching three programs - one featuring regional film artists and two international filmmakers...…In the regional category my fave was London’s Josh Romphf’s Void. Here the viewer is sucked into a grid like alternate universe or the emptiness that defines another existence underlying or surrounding our own. There is a metaphysical context, of course, for grids underlying and empowering consciousness and experience. Romphf, including with his grunting otherworldly score, seems to nail it here…..Local and Toronto filmmaker Annie MacDonell’s The Fortune Teller, a depiction of an art restorer reconstructing a broken sculptured hand, is notable for its narrator’s abstracted monotone meticulous description of the sculpture’s damage and requirements for rebuilding, straight out of an art restoration text or like a coroner’s description of a corpse’s wounds. The finished rebuild joins the inanimate object with a real life painted hand and in the end seems to embody it….Windsor filmmaker and musician Scotty Hughes’s The Strait (Le Détroit), a multi-media project where Hughes innovatively plays synth to an 8 mm long lost film of the Windsor riverfront, may surprise and even shock about what the city’s now splendid riverfront used to look like - an industrial scar filled with boxcars about to be loaded on to railway ferries. Nostalgia can be good and bad…..In the first international program, virtually all seven films address landscape and nature in some way, usually in contrast to co-existing human built structures, detritus, or threats. Fern Silva’s Wayward Fronds looks at the peculiar natural and tourist facets of the Everglades subject to human intervention - including touristy Mermaids! - and how nature, with snakes invading a motel room, can reclaim it. Robert Todd’s Falling features rapid fire shots of, well, falling leaves in an urban setting. The beautiful patterns are sometimes marred by the ugliness of things like fast food wrappers. Or as the filmmaker called it, “a beautiful pile of dead leaves but who the hell cares” and “the world is falling around us”.....In Thomas Kneubühler’s Forward Looking Statements the camera moves closely over a vast tract of land in northern Canada with a voice over of a conference call between multinational iron ore company officials and business analysts discussing the area’s huge investment mining potential. The last scene shows an aboriginal with a rifle turning and pointing to the camera with his finger. Regardless of artistic merit (Falling is the best in terms of deft camera work and soundtrack) all three films repeat standard environmentalist credo of which the indie film world is replete…..The second international program was more interesting. Johann Lurf’s Embargo is a slick superrealistic visual survey of an armaments factory at night, with a glistening syncopated soundtrack. Beep from Kim Kyung-man is a send-up of patriotic South Korean lore. Who knew? And while the jingoistic nationalism is over the top it’s ironic that the filmmaker’s mockumentary is of a country juxtaposed with perhaps the world’s most repressive regime…..Basma Alsharif’s O, Persecuted employs grainy historical imagery in the service of the Palestinian cause. Will there be a film putting forward the Israeli view next?.....And John Smith’s Dark Light is a short meditation on visiting Poland during the Solidarity movement and the rise of Thatcherism. Graphically his enlarging dark tunnel is arresting. Smith despises Thatcher and finds the lack of commercialism in the Communist country refreshing, with visits to nondescript shops intriguing, and warns that capitalist liberation isn't all it's cracked up to be. Beats the Red version.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Starting to feel like the dog days

It’s mid-July. There hasn’t been a whole lot in the cinemas. Not quite the dog days but… So I turn to Netflix, which still amazes me in that I can switch on my tablet and watch a film. How luxuriously convenient in the early 21st century…..But it’s been a pretty mixed bag in terms of what I’ve seen.

Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967) starring for the ages Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. I should always be suspicious of Neil Simon, since he wrote this and the earlier Broadway play, with his predictable saccharine romantic stories. But, believe it or not, I’d never see the movie, let alone the play, and wanted to give it a twirl. Silly me. What we get is basically a filmed version of a static play, with 90 per cent of it shot in the sixth floor Greenwich Village walk-up of the newlyweds first home. Listen folks, if you’re going to see a movie, make it a movie. Let’s have something shot on a bit of a wider canvas, as in more scenes in more indoor - and outdoor - locations. It was claustrophobic just watching this thing. Regardless, Fonda as Corie (opposite Redford’s Paul) is as natural they come and shows for all the world why she’s been such an outstanding actress.

Unforgiveable (André Téchiné, 2011), based on the Philippe Djian novel, is a bit of a brain tease. It stars the always engaging André Dussollier as Francis, a crime novelist seeking a reprieve on the island of Sant'Erasmo in the Venice Lagoon. He falls in love with the realtor, Judith (Carole Bouquet), who sets him up with the house, and they rather improbably marry. Then his visiting daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry) disappears. He hires a private detective, the flamboyant Anna Maria (Adriana Asti). Turns out she and Judith - who seems promiscuous - had been lovers. Francis eventually fears Judith is cheating on him and hires, of all people, Anna Maria’s son Jérémie, an ex-con, to spy on her. Yup, Judith seduces him. Jérémie in turn gets into a physical confrontation with a gay man. While the film has its moments depicting human introspection (Francis) and character (Anna Maria), to believe all these storylines within the context of a few close knit people is to render the viewer a bit of a fool.

Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014), based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, got some positive media buzz when it was released. How delightfully intriguing - have a character named Gemma Bovery whose name sounds almost like Flaubert’s famous Emma Bovary. Only this Bovery is English though beautiful and sophisticated. Her neighbour across the street Martin (Fabrice Luchini) develops an immediate crush. And yes Gemma’s life does follow, loosely, that of the 19th century heroine. Some people might think this is cute and original but to me the story simply seemed contrived just to create those very reactions. 

The Art of Getting By (Gavin Wiesen, 2011) is a slacker film extraordinaire and a kind of millennial The Cather in the Rye. It was the best of this Netflix lot. The film opens with George (Freddie Highmore) doodling away oblivious to his high school class and teacher. The world is meaningless to George and he casts off studies, family and the entire conventional world around him into a psychological dustbin. But one of his clasmates, Sally (Emma Roberts, whose a dead ringer for another Emma - Stone) sees a certain integrity in his misanthrophic personality and they become friends. A third character Dustin (Michael Angarano), a rising young artist, also finds much talent in George’s art and mentors him. He gets romantically involved with Sally, to George’s (who’s professed only platonic friendship) chagrin. My one disappointment: the movie ends in a kind of pat way with George tying up all the pieces. I would have preferred he remained in rebellion always and everywhere.

More Netflix films, unless there’s something else to write about, in the next post…

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Film festival notes

Film festival time - already? Yup, The Traverse City Film Festival, filmmaker Michael Moore’s contribution to culture and tourism in northern Michigan, is set to run July 28th to Aug. 2nd. But if you don’t want to make the more than four hour trek “Up North” (as they say in Michigan) you can stay in town and stop by the Media City Film Festival, the world-renowned Windsor-based experimental film festival, starting on the 28th and wrapping up Aug. 1st. Traverse City has its schedule published at A couple of docs immediately stand out - Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Amy (picture above) about the late great Amy Winehouse, and Robert Cohen’s 2015’s Being Canadian, about well, just what makes Canucks different from Yanks, beside the fact we (well, most of us anyway) say “eh.” Paul Weitz’s 2015 Grandma stars Lily Tomlin being both down and out in LA and having a senior moment in this intergenerational mother-daughter story. Patrick Brice’s 2015 The Overnight features Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) and Taylor Schilling (“Orange is the New Black”) along with Jason Schwartzman in what's been described as a kind of updated Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969). Meanwhile along with the array of films - some released within the last few years and a number of classics - the fest celebrates the 100th anniversary of its glorious main theatre, the State. Acclaimed star Geraldine Chaplin will dedicate the new cornerstone. She’ll talk to the audience and introduce her dad, Charlie’s, The Great Dictator on its 75th anniversary. As well, Roger Corman (didn’t know he was a Detroit native but then just about everybody is, right?) will be on hand, and some of his 400-plus oeuvre screened, which shows just how he became the “King of B Movies”…..Meanwhile back home, Media City still hasn’t released its schedule. But the event always offers a smorgasbord of the esoteric, poetic and eccentric, for films that can last barely minutes to longer pieces, grouped by themes or in separate programs…..And one final note. The Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), after celebrating a spectacular 10th anniversary last year - is returning to six days for this November’s showcase - Nov. 3 - 8. “Our decision was always to keep with a six-day festival, expanding to nine days only for major anniversaries,” executive director Vincent Georgie said in a release. The festival has grown remarkably since 2005 - from 16 films that year to 111 last with some 15,000 tickets sold.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Marxist fable from France

Robert Guédiguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011), on Netflix, is a textbook example of Marxist filmmaking. It stars the estimable Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who seems to be in every second French film I see, along with Ariane Ascaride, the two central characters - husband and wife Michel and Marie-Claire. Michel is a union steward in a Marseille dockyard, forced to draw names of which workers will face layoff. Michel, an ever so conscientiousness egalitarian, decides to put his own name in the mix. He draws it and, pushing 60, becomes unemployed with no prospects to be hired again. But he has his severance and pension and he and Marie-Claire enjoy a comfortable enough life in their small apartment with a rooftop patio overlooking the dockyards and Mediterranean. For their anniversary the couple are feted by friends and ex-colleagues and given a little treasure chest of cash donations and an all-inclusive trip to Africa, hence the movie’s name (and not to be confused with Henry King’s 1952 film based on the Ernest Hemingway story). One night the couple are playing cards when their home is invaded by gun-waving thieves who tie them up, steal their money (including the travel tickets) and raid their bank accounts with their debit cards. They also take a comic book that was Michel’s first childhood comic. Days later Michel is on a bus and notices a couple of kids reading the same comic book. He asks to see it and finds it’s in fact his, since his name was inscribed in it. He follows the kids home and discovers the home is also one of his fellow ex-worker's, who’s also lost his job, and was at Michel and Marie-Claire’s party. The assailant, Christophe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), is soon arrested and faces 15 years in jail. Michel decides to visit him in captivity. The tables are turned. Christophe lashes out against the relatively more affluent Michel, compared to his miserable life, young and facing long unemployment without a pension. “What should I apologize for - being out of work, for dipping into (Michel’s) savings, his pocket money...going thousands of miles (to Africa) to ogle at the world’s poverty?” It turns out our armed robber is quite the theoretician. Michel, possibly a veteran of France’s New Left and the May 1968 Paris revolt (as per an early scene photograph), is induced in guilt. He wants to withdraw the charge. True, Christophe has a couple of young brothers who were abandoned by their parents and face being wards of the state. That tugs on Michel and Marie-Claire’s heartstrings. So Michel cashes in the ticket to help the kids and the couple decides to adopt them. In a near final scene the couple, sitting on the dock, don’t at all regret their decision. Indeed Marie-Claire blames the “bosses” for dividing the workers, and Michel puts the layoffs down to evil “globalization.” Regardless of the validity of this economic analysis the movie has an immoral core. It is justifying violence, indeed terrorism, and excusing it. The ends justify the means and all that. But it figures. Guédiguianis is a former Communist and staunch left-winger. So, folks, just so you know, here's a movie with a Marxist message shot through and through.