Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's become of the Jewish deli?

Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man, opening Friday at The Maple Theater, is the film parallel to author David Sax’s 2009 book Save the Deli, an ode to the culinary gift that diasporic Jews have bestowed upon North America. But the film, like the book’s obvious title, is bittersweet (excuse the pun) because the Jewish delicatessen long ago started a major decline. Whereas in the 1930s there were more than 1500 kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs now there might be 200 authentic such delis across the entire USA. What happened? The movie suggests suburbanization usurped the countless neighborhood Manhattan delis for a few large ones at Long Island shopping plazas. Dennis Howard of New York’s Carnegie Deli points to “city agencies, city ordinances, unions.” And one gleans that running a deli isn’t for the faint of heart - the long hours, low margins, and the increasing cost of foodstuffs - means younger generations simply don’t want the toil and trouble. Yet other commercial ethnic cuisines not only are stable but have flourished for diners who thrill to the ever increasing diversity of foods from different nations and cultures. Why Jewish cuisine has declined so remarkably isn’t fully explained. But what Deli Man, a generally enjoyable film,  does do well is celebrate those delis that continue to thrive, from Ben’s Best and 2nd Avenue in New York to Nate ‘n Al and Canter’s in Los Angeles, and several geographically in between. Along the way we get pithy and usually fun-filled dissertations from a host of deli aficionados and experts - from comedians and commentators like Jerry Stiller and Larry King to the learned legalist and retired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.  Commenting on the Carnegie portions, comedian Freddie Roman says, “You have to go for a jaw adjustment after eating the sandwich.” The documentary is centred on David “Ziggy” Gruber (above left), perhaps the most exemplary younger purveyor of kosher food whose goal is to keep the deli tradition alive, including the preparation of many niche Eastern European dishes seldom found anywhere else. “When I cook I feel my ancestors around…you can taste the diaspora,” he says. The movie abounds with scenes of the fast paced kitchens and spirited bustle of the typical deli, from brusque but endearing staff (“even if you’ve never been there before they’re going to talk to you like you have” says author Michael Wex) to the linking of this early “fast food” to delis' traditional place in the community. “We’re part of the life cycle,” says Ben’ Best’s Jay Parker about his special orders. “If it’s a Bris (circumcision) you call us…and we do Shiva (mourning) work too.”  What’s lacking in the movie - and it’s a big lack - is any mention of what many contend are the best deli sandwiches anywhere - those found in Montreal. Only one Canadian deli - Toronto’s Caplansky’s - is featured. But Montreal holds a hallowed pace in North American Jewish culture and food, notably in the iconic smoked meat sandwich exemplified by Schwartz’s delicatessen, which differs from the ubiquitous American pastrami. The fact that it was omitted is really something to kvetch about.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film clips

I attended the fanciest cinema I’ve ever been in last night. It was the Villagio Cinemas in North Tampa, Fla. You walk into the place and it looks like the square of a Mediterranean village. In fact it seems a faux of a faux. The downtown Tampa Theatre, a legendary 1920s building from the heyday of great theatres, is the only theatre of its era I’ve seen with a painstaking recreation of a village - again of the Mediterranean variety - with towering plaster walls set in low light to capture a twilight scene. But the Villagio almost looks more like a restaurant with its bar and rows of dining tables. The theatres themselves seem an afterthought, off to the sides. But what theatres they are. Every seat is like a lush leather Laz-E-Boy reclining and with foot rests. Each comes with a tray, and you can order your meal and drinks with staff delivering to your numbered seat even during the film.

The reason for my attendance? To take in Félix and Meira (Maxime Giroux, 2014), on the schedule of the 19th annual Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival ( Ironically, the film is set in the dead of a cold Montreal winter. And it was in the mid-80s yesterday here in Tampa. That being said the film, nuanced and beautifully shot in muted tones, is the story of a young Hasidic mother (Hadas Yaron as Meira) in Montreal’s Orthodox community who is rebelling against the strictures of her religion. Félix (Martin Dubreuil) is not of the community but lives in the same Mile End neighbourhood and the two often pass each other on the street. Félix is recovering from his father’s death. They strike up a friendship which leads to romance. It’s all well and good but the film doesn’t sufficiently demonstrate why the two are attracted to one another but simply outlines the allure. And I couldn’t believe it when I heard the opening guitar notes of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, a Montreal cliché if ever there was one. The film, nonethlesss, won Best Canadian Feature at last year’s TIFF.

This was the only film I attended at the TBJJF festival but it made me think of a number of events recently that are bothering from a general arts perspective. The problem: virtually everybody in attendance was an insider - they were all from the same community. There were hardly anyone else and this in a major metropolitan area. On a couple of other occasions recently it was the same. Last weekend I attended a contemporary dance performance in St. Petersburg in a fantastic small arts space and gallery. About 25 people attended and they all seemed to know the performer personally. And in a classically influenced new music performance at a funky arts space in St. Pete’s warehouse district last month, three-quarters of those attending seemed to know one another. It’s like all these niche arts performances serve one community and one community only. The public at large is nowhere to be found. Even arts aficionados who may attend other independent films, dance and classical recitals, would be scarce at these events.

Finally back home very late I switched on TCM and caught only part of William Wyler’s 1937 Dead End starring Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrae. Fascinating on two counts. First in an exploration of gentrification decades before the term came into parlance. Second it appears to be shot in and around the same area where Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan’s iconic scene of Allen and Diane Keaton are sitting on a park bench with the 59th St. Bridge in the background. The location: Sutton Square at the end of 58th St. Sure enough Dead End was filmed in and around the area. Says Wikipedia: “The actual Dead End was the corner of East 53rd Street and the East River. Sutton Place South runs north from East 53rd Street at that corner...the pier and tenements are gone and the Dead End is now part of Sutton Place Park.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Postmodern vampires

Vampires are just like you and me. They have their share of hang ups, insecurities, romantic and intimacy problems, even difficulties keeping the house clean. That seems to be what the New Zealand offbeat comedy What We Do in the Shadows (written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also star) is trying to convey to a world that only has the most rudimentary stereotypes about the creatures that come out at night. The comedy, which opens at the Landmark Main Theatre in Royal Oak Friday, is a documentary that pulls the coffin lid back on this world of nocturnal souls. We meet Viago, Vladislav, Deacon and Peter, vampires and housemates hundreds of years old who haunt a rundown - what did you expect? - house somewhere in Wellington, NZ. The documentary crew sent to film them has been given crucifixes for their protection. The movie starts by Viago waking up at 6 pm when darkness falls and giving the crew - and us - a tour of their ramshackle abode. He wakes Deacon (hanging upside down in a closet), Vlad (who’s in bed with a group of women) and the frightening anti-social Peter (in a basement crypt). Viago, a bit of an 18th century dandy, is the neat freak to his dishevelled housemates. He calls a house meeting. Deacon hasn’t washed dishes in five years and they’re overflowing in the blood-splattered sink. And what a mess his housemates make when they attack someone. “If you’re going to eat a victim on my nice clean couch put down some newspapers on the floor.” But the boys really want to get along. Viago informs the viewer that “vampires have had a very bad rap.” The lads take us on a tour of a day in their lives. We meet Jackie, a “familiar” who does the boy’s drudge work like scrubbing blood-splattered rooms. She desperately wants to become a vampire but feels discriminated against. “All I’m saying is that if I had a penis they would have bitten me years ago.” And gets in her digs. “They wear blouses, it’s this homoerotic dick biting club.” Viago, Deacon and Vlad head out for a night on the town. And like many humans they’re rejected at elite clubs by bouncers. Viago, for his part, likes to be nice when he stalks someone. “Play some music, maybe give them some nice wine, it’s their last moments alive so why not make it a nice experience?” Trouble befalls the group when they run into a pack of human werewolves. Later, they capture Nick and turn him into a vampire. But Nick doesn’t know the rules, and does things like rudely flying through the windows and telling all his friends of his new status, which results in the death of poor Peter by a vampire hunter. Nick is put on trial, not least because he insists on wearing the same jackets as Deacon. You get the idea. This movie is a send up of our current obsession with vampires, done in doc mock fashion. I’m hardly into vampire movies and even a movie making fun of them wasn’t all that appealing. But there are enough laugh out loud moments in What We Do in the Shadows that I’d recommend it for a creepy fun night out.

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

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 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.