Friday, September 19, 2014

Predictable plot in Paris set comedy-drama

Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith. Who could ask for more, right? Indeed the opening scene of My Old Lady (much acclaimed and prolific playwright Israel Horovitz’s second film directorial effort based on his play of same name) – opening Friday at the Main Art, AMC Livonia, and Michigan Theater - has lots of promise. An American, Mathias Gold (Kline) has arrived in Paris and is trying to find a certain apartment. We soon learn he has inherited a rather luxurious flat, a balm to a failed writer with a pile of debts. He finds he could sell it for 12 million euros, a tidy sum. But it’s not to be. He’s quickly informed by the apartment’s unexpected resident, Mathilde Girard (Smith), that he is in fact the interloper. It has something to do with an arcane French housing law. She’s the real resident despite his legal ownership, and he can’t claim the abode until she kicks the bucket. Yes, it’s as bizarre to you and me as it is to him. Problem is, even though Mathilde is 92 she’s in “top health,” according to her physician, so prospects of shelling out monthly rent to the dear woman almost ad infinitum isn’t an attractive prospect for Mathias. Worse, Mathilde, a shrewd no-nonsense Englishwoman who has lived most of her life in Gai Paris, in fact demands rent from him if he’s going to stay even temporarily. This is a peel back the onion layers flick, folks. Nothing seems as it originally appears. The only honest character is our New Yorker. Mathilde’s erudition and manners belie some sordidness. Adding to the picture is Mathilde’s live-in daughter Chloé (KST), who immediately dislikes Mathias, providing a mother daughter two punch. The unfairness of it all of course nags Mathias and, consulting a realtor, he seeks ways to acquire the apartment, even if he has to split it up. Mother and daughter resist. But Mathias discovers a secret which he can use against the twosome. Along the way he discovers other things about the Girard family and who exactly they are, which triggers the onion peeling and revelations. And while the plot nominally kept my attention it really is pretty predictable. The movie is billed as a drama and comedy and it’s about two-thirds the latter. But we do smile if not chuckle at some of the lines and antics, from Mathias’s very American clumsiness among the French to classic jokes about the French population’s health. “It’s the red wine, isn’t it?” he says of Mathilde’s longevity. While Mathilde, spotting a loser, morbidly suggests he would fail at committing suicide by jumping into the Seine “and just end up with a dreadful cold.” But the film descends into considerable darkness until we’re relieved, thankfully, at the end. If you like typically romantic scenes of Paris this film’s for you, with a score by Mark Orton that sounds traditionally Parisian yet menacingly modern. If you like Kline, Smith and Scott Thomas, you might not want to take a pass. But all have performed better largely because they’ve had better scripts in better stories.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Zip.ca's unlamented death

Zip.ca, for descriptive purposes Canada’s long time version of Netflix, closed last month. Oh, you didn’t know about Zip.ca? Join the club. I joined Zip.ca in 2005, almost as long as the DVD Internet-based DVD rental service had been in operation. How did I hear about it? From a work colleague. To me it was one of the best inventions since sliced bread or at least celluloid film. But virtually anyone I ever spoke to about Zip.ca – with a movie data base of more than 70,000 titles – was totally unaware such a service existed. Yes, folks, this was the Canadian equivalent of Netflix, before Netflix began a digital streaming service and entered Canada, which may have been the death knell of Zip.ca….Of course Netflix is nothing like Zip.ca despite a certain illusion. You could find extremely rare and sub-genre movies on Zip.ca. Want to watch Truffaut or Kurosowa or Rainer Werner Fassbinder? This was the place to find numerous of their films. Or classic comedies dating back to the 20s? You won’t find these on Netflix, not by a long shot. Netflix does carry some foreign and indie titles but this is extremely watered down homogeneity compared to what Zip.ca offered…..But perhaps Zip.ca’s time had come. After all, the world is increasingly digitally-driven and Zip.ca – an Ottawa-based firm – was still in the relative dinosaur age of shipping physical discs. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Zip.ca had previously posted on its website it was attempting to develop a streaming service but couldn’t find the right economies of scale. Now it’s closed and cineastes are much the poorer for it…..Why did Zip.ca close? The owners have been mum. I requested comment and was told by spokeswoman Jana Dybinski that “we are not interviewing.” An email to subscribers from founder and Chairman Rob Hall Aug. 18 said simply, “After more than 10 years in business and 20,570,326 movies watched in homes across Canada, we've decided to close our doors.” Media coverage has also been slim, perhaps a reflection of how poorly the service was known. There were a couple of stories in Zip.ca’s home town Ottawa-based media but they reported little more – or less - than what I’m writing here…..Despite a huge inventory Zip.ca seldom advertised though it did have a kiosk service similar to Redbox, about which I only learned in researching this post. None of these kiosks to my knowledge existed in the Windsor area.….Spokeswoman Dybinski did provide some statistics: 20,570,326 – the number of discs shipped to homes across Canada; 305,207 – the number of Zip.ca members; 70,958 - number of unique titles in its library; Kugluktuk, Nunavut - farthest place the company shipped to; Toronto – the city where subscribers watched the most movies at 2,108,647 rentals; 2,884 - number of movies watched by Zip.ca’s top renter…..So share a lament, and I still had several Fassbinder titles in my order list I will now never receive.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Montreal festival faves

Talking to other festival goers and hearing the general ”buzz” among people at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival, you’d think the movie Chagall-Malevich (Russia, Alexandre Mitta) would have swept the fest’s awards. It didn’t take one prize including that by popular vote. The film is about the obvious at times antagonistic relationship between the two great artists at the time of the Russian Revolution. It may have been a crowd pleaser simply because of its subject matter. And while it had some inventive magic realist moments (yes, Chagall and Co. are shown flying in the sky as per the artist’s signature dreamy images) this picture was more soap opera than wide scope, depicting a small group of characters with a Chagall (Leonid Bichevin) who seems squeaky clean and in fact who we see painting only once. There is little insight into highly contrasting Chagall and Malevich’s approaches to art. This is rather superficial TV fare.

Here were some of my festival faves:

The Hotel Room (Germany, Rudi Gaul) (picture above): Famed female author (Mina Tander) sits down to be interviewed with video journalist (Godehard Giese) who has done just a tad too much research in this drama that plays on memory, accountability and what is fiction and reality.

Watchmen in the Wind (China: Liang Bixin): A doc about a special Chinese army detail that services a remote desert railway in northeast China, braving sandstorms, frigid cold and searing heat, and months - sometime years - away from family.

A Golden Boy (Italy, Pupi Avati): The story of a bright young writer (Riccardo Scarmacio) who can’t seem to sell his fiction and descends into a maelstrom of grief only to find fame – fittingly given this movie’s theme – in a very indirect way. Sharon Stone, speaking impeccable Italian, stars as a sympathetic publisher.

Field of Dogs (Poland, Lech  Majewski): From the director of The Mill and the Cross (which screened 2012 at the DFT) and co-writer of 1996’s Basquiat (Julian Schnabel) comes this meditation on a crass materialistic and tragic world set against two major 2010 Polish catastrophes - devastating floods and the crash of an airliner carrying the country’s elite. Dante’s Devine Comedy plays centre stage and there are some serious ruminations on the meaning of it all. 

The Ambassador to Bern (Hungary, Attila Szász). Based on a true event, the movie depicts the seizure of the Hungarian embassy in Bern in 1958 by a couple of freedom fighters who rued the Soviets crushing of the ‘56 Hungarian uprising. Taut politically-laced drama.

No Man’s Land (China, Ning Hao): This is China’s version of Quentin Tarantino and I didn’t mind. At turns hilarious, macabre, absurd and extraordinarily violent, the back roads of China prove rife for a modern Western – er, make that Eastern.

Schimbare (Spain, Alex Sampayo): A middle class couple travels to eastern Europe to seek a kidney on the black market for their sick daughter. The trip does not go well. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine what happens in this edge-of-seat thriller.

Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery (Germany, Arne Birkenstock): Wolfgang Beltracchi is an artist of supreme confidence and casually says he can paint the work of any great master, no big deal. And does – forging his way through the world’s art markets in this documentary that shows a – slightly – contrite Beltracchi and accomplice wife Helene, as they serve out their sentences on day parole, allowing him to now make legitimate art. But will it sell?

Amanet (Albania-Italy, Namik Ajazi). There were Stalin’s show trials and there’s still North Korean’s Hermit Kingdom. Until the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe there was Albania, one of the most repressive post-war Communist states, where purges of top government and party officials came and went as quickly as someone changes his socks.

Norwegian Wood (Japan, Tran Anh Hung). Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, himself garnering enormous acclaim these days, this story set in 1967 is an intimate portrait of intimacy amidst the confusion of youth and a backdrop of the emergence of hippiedom.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Montreal festival survives another year

It was with some trepidation that I looked forward to this year’s edition of the Montreal World Film Festival. The prognosis was not good. Festival founder and president Serge Losique had lost much government funding (including blockbuster grants from Quebec’s SODEC and Telefilm Canada). There were rumours the fest had mortgaged the grand Imperial Cinema, which it renovated beautifully in the 1990s – and where as a kid I saw How the West Was Won, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm when it was a Cinerama theatre. So I sent in my $100 for a 10-day pass (a fantastic deal) and kept my fingers crossed. But Losique, ever the optimist, was non-plussed. In a written interview with the Montreal Gazette (which he vetted) Losique dismissed government bureaucrats who complained about the fest’s lack of financial transparency, maintaining the books have been “clean and transparent.” This isn’t the first time the MWFF has been in crisis. Similar problems occurred in 2005 and many predicted the festival, now in its 38th year, would die. An alternative festival was funded and fell flat on its face. Losique (who pretty much has run the MWFF as a one man show since its beginning) seems to have nine lives. And in the Gazette interview he predicted the MWFF, like cinema as a whole, “will outlive us.” ….. So it was great to arrive in Montreal and find the festival operating pretty much as always.  But there were a couple of disappointments. The festival catalogue at 216 pages was noticeably thinner than in past years. And the festival had lost one of its showpiece cinemas, Theatre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts. On the plus side, not all sponsors abandoned Losique. He still has one of Quebec’s premier corporations Québecor in his court and numerous other larger and smaller businesses including Cineplex (where the bulk of films were shown at the Cineplex Quartier Latin muliplex), NBCUniversal, and Hyatt Regency….Among festival goers there was obvious considerable talk was about the future of MWFF (or in French, Festival des Films du Monde – FFM) with many thinking this would be its last year. Many people blamed Losique for being a notorious autocrat and his own worst enemy. Others threw criticism at Montreal’s new mayor, former federal cabinet minister Denis Coderre, for ignoring the event, a major cultural attraction that draws tourists from outside Montreal including many US visitors. But there is reason for thinking there will be a 39th running for the Montreal fest, perhaps North America’s most internationally-oriented film festival….Tomorrow: capsule film fest reviews.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mining for horror

Spoiler ahead....It takes a lot for me to get scared. While I have some aversion to the horror film genre generally part of the reason is I’ve seldom come across horror films that have scared me enough. Beneath, opening Friday at Cinema Detroit, the feature film debut for director Ben Ketai, is par for the course. It’s set up to horrify as usually is the case with such films. And there’s plenty of material to work with. Beneath is based on the 2013 collapse of the Brackett Coal Mine. It says it’s “inspired” by those events. Take “inspired” very liberally. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a sort of memoir, and King tells, even as a kid, he’d make up fantastical stories based on something just a little awry in everydaily life. The same could be said here. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Indeed the film itself is technically well made, the acting is pretty good, and there’s very nimble camera work within the dark recesses of a mine floor. Sam Marsh (Kelly Noonan) is a coal miner’s daughter, back home from New York City where she’s an environmental lawyer. At first I was concerned this would be a political allegory – mining disaster just shows how bad Big Coal is. But anything political is neutered. “It is corporate greed,” Sam says. Her dad, George (Jeff Fahey), who’s just about to retire, responds that it’s this “young clean industry that paid for your law school.” Sam, sensing she’s being mocked, volunteers to go down into the mine for “a couple of hours.” Horror ensues when the mine’s face cutter breaks and overhead debris starts falling. The crew head to an oxygen chamber where they’ll wait out the 72 hours before rescuers arrive. But it’s not that simple. There are harrowing sounds in the cavernous tunnels. A bloody hand smashes against one of the chamber’s portholes. Another miner is pick axed to death, his entrails spread on the floor. There is something in the air or something supernatural that causes crew members’ faces to screw up with their eyes bulging white. They’re almost like zombies, and we’ve had enough zombie movies thank you very much. Sam, trepidations just going into the shaft, experiences sheer terror as she somehow has to come to grips with these otherworldly events. But as you might suspect she proves to be the centre of sanity and ultimately survives, though there’s a hole in the plot. How is this possible if there are no oxygen tanks left after the chamber is vandalized? The filmmakers capture the bleak light (from miners’ helmet lights and lamps) amidst the pressing blackness and claustrophobia, which adds to the frenzy. The problem is the film just isn’t scary enough. Some frightening sounds and two or three out-of-nowhere close-up horrific faces get your adrenalin rolling. But there should have been more variations and they should have built into a greater crescendo of horror as Sam then ekes out the thinnest possibility of survival. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

TVO's astonishing World War I series


It’s more than halfway through TV Ontario’s World War I series, Apocalypse, but definitely worth still tuning into Sunday nights. I came across the series quite by accident, setting up the TV to watch a video. TVO just happened to be on and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. In the series you will see extraordinary and searing film clips from World War I, highly extensive and revealing. And the colourization only adds to the reality of that terrible and in many ways absurd war. The first of this Canadian/France-made series, July 14, was 'Fury' about the political events leading to the war including amazing film of the last minutes of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife before they were assassinated. July 21’s 'Fear' was about the actual beginning of fighting. Last Sunday was 'Hell' - the sickening manifestation of weaponry’s devastation in all its hideous forms. This Sunday is 'Rage' about the political spinoffs including the Russian Revolution. And finally on Aug. 11 'Deliverance.' (Series repeated during the week so check times.) This is the most riveting doc series I’ve seen in years. If anything might turn you into a lifelong peacenik this could be it. 


The news this week from filmmaker Michael Moore that $250,000 will be donated to a fund to bring independent, foreign and documentary films simulcast to theatres across North America is similar to the recent unveiling of the New York Film Critics series (see WDF May 5) which Bloomfield, Mi.’S Maple Theater is an affiliate.....In both series the same film is or will be screened simultaneously at dozens of affiliated cinemas. The idea is to create one huge shared movie going experience for thousands of people with similar interests from coast to coast……Besides making doc films not many people are aware of Moore’s personal commitment to the reviving of the movie industry generally or I should say the classic movie industry. You know, the way we used to go to movies sitting in bricks and mortar theatres with hundreds of others sharing the celluloid experience. Moore started the 10-year-old Traverse City Film Festival - which is currently under way until Sunday - in the northern Michigan community, partly with that in mind. And he pretty much single-handedly revived or created two theatres in town – the State (an original theatre) and the newer Bijou, carved out of a “Roosevelt-era” building. Like the NY series each movie ends with a question-and-answer session where moviegoers across NA (including Canada) can ask questions. Moore’s bricks and mortar revival seems to be working. In relatively little Traverse City (pop. 15,000) more than 1.1 million people have seen movies at the two theatres – open 365 days a year - since they opened respectively in 2007 and 2013.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My week at the movies

Or make that week and a half….Let’s start with one of the most unreported/un-reviewed films currently at the cinema. That happens to be Dinesh D' Souza's America: Imagine the World Without Her. It’s not surprising the film has been little commented upon, at least in the mainstream media, because conservative-oriented films – the paucity of them there are - tend to be grossly ignored when not disparaged (9% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes though 89% of the audience liked it). That’s not the case of course for left wing films, the best example of which are Michael Moore’s documentaries. It’s a shame and doesn’t say a lot about how our media culture encourages open discussion and exchange of ideas. Even if you don’t agree with D’Souza his films generate decent box office returns. His first 2016: Obama’s America (2012) is the second highest grossing political doc ever made after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and America by its second weekend this month is the seventh highest grossing political documentary ever. The films together are a singular antidote to the almost entirely liberal-oriented documentaries and even fictional films that come out of Hollywood and the indie cinema. Is one conservative filmmaker that threatening? Invariably mainstream critics dismiss D’Souza as spewing patriotic and hackneyed drivel. I don’t agree but even then why review so many other types of film – from the sexually raunchy and plot-challenged to the truly good. They get their day in critics’ court but not D’Souza (22 reviews in RT vs. 221 for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) …..In any case, a brief synopsis: D’Souza takes on the well-tread allegations against the United States as articulated by prominent left wing ideologues. These include that America was founded upon genocide of native people, that the United States stole half of Mexico, that capitalism is an immoral economic system, and that America is an imperialist war-mongering nation. Go and judge for yourself.

Last Thursday I took myself to the Main Art for a double bill: 1) Paul Haggis’s Third Person, with a great cast (Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, James Franco and Kim Basinger). Three stories. Three complicated sets of relationships. I’m not sure what Haggis was getting at in each story – beyond the purely superficial - or how the stories interconnect as they supposedly do. But the teeming street scenes – seemingly rare in cinema these days – in Paris and Rome, were great, as was the soundtrack. 2) Begin Again, John Carney of Once (2007) fame, goes to New York and casts Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, in another musical standout of a film. Ruffalo, a burnt-out record producer, discovers low key and principled Knightley, and professionally courts her to record with him. The best scenes are the live performances in various outdoor NYC locales, and the music is terrific.

Then back at home, I caught another double bill on DVD: David Cronenberg’s 2007 Eastern Promises with Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl. This depiction of the “Russian Mafia” in London is a pedestrian crime story and well beneath Cronenberg’s respected past efforts. I don’t know how many times I checked to see how many minutes were left of running time……And then there was Norman Panama’s 1969 How to Commit Marriage starring Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Jane Wyman. They don’t make movies like this anymore, with one line singers flying everywhere in a send-up of marriage, divorce and the then emerging hippie culture. Examples: “You know I never noticed when we were married but you’re fairly attractive”, and “we’re having a friendly divorce: she and her lawyers are friends.” Sparks fly between Gleason, a money-grubbing record company exec, and Hope as a schlock realtor. And transcendental meditation, the era’s rage, comes in for a drubbing in the caricature of “Baba Ziba,” as phony as a three dollar bill. This is the only movie Hope and Gleason starred in together and among these great comedians’ last.