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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In a funk over nothing to see

A missive comes from a friend that The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum) is really a great movie. I look it up on Rotten Tomatoes and see it’s almost got the best rating - 89% - of the current crop. Hmmm. But do I really want to see another film about “Double-U Double U Two?” Ditto for Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (RT only 51%). An heroic story about an amazing hero. But do I really want to see another movie about “Double-U Double U Two?" That leaves Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (an amazing 92%), from the Cheryl Strayed memoir. But watching an almost two hour flick about a woman coming to terms with life issues through a prolonged west coast jaunt (Strayed’s last name is a pun; couldn’t resist) doesn’t really make me want to leap from my comfortable chair at home. The rest of the movies are fantasies of one sort or another, such as The Hobbit, Into the Woods, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Annie, and The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay - Part 1. Big Eyes? The relationship story at the centre of this film is its most interesting aspect. But I can’t get around looking at all those pictures of formulaic “big eyes” paintings, making me think I’m at some second-rate art bazaar. There is Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, a kind of remake of the James Caan film, though it might be worth seeing just to see Jessica Lange! Finally, there’s Foxcatcher, critically acclaimed (RT 86%) with enough of a quirky story to perhaps make it interesting. But I got turned off by the wrestling scenes. So, what’s a frustrated cineaste to do? 

Now that Sony Entertainment and (independent) cinemas have shown some pluck and stood up to North Korea (or whoever was behind the terrorist threats; the FBI points to the Hermit Kingdom but cyber experts say it could be an inside job) I could make my way to the closest Bijou showing The Interview (Imagine Cinemas’ Lakeshore near Windsor and Cinema Detroit in downtown Detroit, starting Jan. 2). Yes, I could show my solidarity with freedom of speech by attending the film, even if I don’t have a great desire to see this latest frat (fart) house classic. So as the old year comes to a close, your faithful film addict is in a bit of a funk. Let’s toast to better cinema in 2015.

Oh, BTW, it should be interesting to watch the Academy Awards (Feb. 22) if only to see the sorry faces of Hollywood’s elite, after actor George Clooney couldn’t even get one of these supposed libertarian stalwarts to sign his petition standing up to North Korea. Hoping someone makes an issue of it at the ceremony.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dear Leader, it's only - boring - frat house humour

I really didn’t have much interest in seeing Seth Rogen’s The Interview. Sure I’m into politics and the idea of a gag political film targeting the infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un makes for a good laugh (though would a typical Rogen audience even know who Dear Leader is?). But the trailer didn’t look that great. And with stars like Rogen and James Franco, well, it’s simply more frat humour. Still it’s astonishing that the studio-theatre industrial complex fell to their knees in acquiescing to a group of hackers known as Guardians of Peace (the FBI has since confirmed a link to the North Korean government) and pulled the movie in the wake of threats of terrorism. It’s doubtful such threats would have come to pass. This is the North Koreans, folks, not Islamists. Fictitious or not theatre owners didn’t want their “employees and theatregoers” (I like how employees are mentioned first) put at risk. This is a precedent alright. Think who may in the future threaten Hollywood - anyone with an axe to grind. Jihadists might not like the upcoming American Sniper (Clint Eastwood). Japanese nationalists may despise Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. People with deformities might loathe Tim Burton’s Big Eyes…..BTW this isn’t the first time the bizarre North Korean state has come in for lampooning. A few might remember the hilarious 2004 puppet comedy Team America: World Police (Trey Parker of South Park) in which Kim’s dad Kim Jong-il, as sponsor of worldwide terrorism, is unceremoniously impaled. Guess the movie came late to North Korea because it certainly didn’t raise the Hermit Kingdom’s collective scolding finger.

Speaking of slime balls, I did manage to catch Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. The film features Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a petty thief who, on one of his heists, discovers the excitement of freelance video (tabloid) journalism, roaming the overnight shift capturing on his camera all manner of crime and mayhem, selling footage to the highest paying local TV station so as to make the morning news. Bloom finds he’s good at the job. He’s a sociopath and has no moral qualms about filming extremely gory scenes and even rearranging evidence for better camera angles. His career in the “if it bleeds it leads” news shows takes off. The film is an obvious indictment of the crime-infested local TV news (just turn on one of several Detroit stations) though it struck me as a little over the top in terms of how far someone like Bloom would push the envelope. Gyllenhaal as an intense singly-focused individual, who couldn’t tell a joke if he fell into it, is superb.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cat in the Hat it's not

And now for some Down Under horror. Cinema Detroit Friday opens with The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s take on a spectre that frightens the hell out of a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis), seven years after a car accident that killed her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear), is trying to raise a troublesome son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) given to an overfed imagination which makes him almost uncontrollable. It’s almost a nightmare, shall we say, for a struggling single mom trying to make her way as a low wage nursing home personal support worker. Noah runs around with his homemade dart gun, fancies himself a magician with powers bordering on the fantastic. “Life can be a wondrous thing but it can also be very treacherous!” he mimics a learn-magic video. One night he asks his mom to read him Mister Babadook, a pop-up book showing a hideous creature with a top hat and claw like hands threatening a young boy. “See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink,” says the text. It gets worse: “take heed of what you’ve read…and you’re going to wish you were dead.” Well! You can image what this does to a boy who already has over-the-top fantasies. In subsequent days and nights strange happenings occur. Amelia finds glass in the food. Long dead Oskar’s suit is hung as if he’s still in it. The growl-like sound, and silhouetted images of the claw-like hands, of “Mister Babadook” appear out of the shadows. Electric lights flicker on and off. (You know the drill.) Amelia tears up the book but it reappears on her doorstep. Now the text’s lines are deadlier and depict her strangling her son and slitting her throat. She sets fire to the book. Like in the best horror films the plot gets scarier and scarier. Mom and son battle the Babadook. But that’s not the only battle going on, and I won’t describe the others. Let’s just say they have to do with the backstory. Indeed The Babadook can be read as a fill-in for various fears: the loss of a husband, the fact the boy can’t really grow until he celebrates a birthday on its real date (his dad died driving his mom, in labor, to hospital). The movie speaks to a type of primal force that afflicts anyone struggling with lack of closure and unmet needs, both of which afflict Amelia and Samuel. The two actors work well together and Davis is especially good, nonplussed by some of the seemingly clichéd horror roles she’s thrust into. And, yes, there are three scenes (I counted) that will definitely give you the shivers or worse. But note to parents: Mister Babadook, despite its seemingly The Cat in the Hat look, is not the kind of thing you want to read to your six year old, not least of all because it’ll probably be weeks before you can get him out of your bed.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Film clips

I watched Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) for the second time a couple of weeks ago, and this time sat only a few rows from the screen, which was a great way to watch this in-your-face picture. But I also experienced something I didn’t see first time around. Despite still thinking Birdman is one of the best American films this year I discovered something about it revealing. That’s that the actors in fact were “acting.” Maybe this "discovery" can be found in a lot of films watched a second or third time. After all, we already knew the general story so maybe our antennas are subconsciously tuned to discover new things on the screen. But, yup, these actors were definitely acting. I could picture them having memorized the lines and shouting them out numerous times before their final takes. Whether it be Riggan (Michael Keaton’s) confrontations with his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) (pictured), his daughter Sam’s (Emma Stone) romantic cat-and-mouse maneuverings with famed stage actor Mike (Edward Norton) on the St. James Theatre’s outdoor ledge, or several critical scenes of dialogue, it’s like the veneer fell away and I could picture the actors simply mouthing their lines after all their memorization. That’s not taking away from the picture’s emotion, riveting pace, great camera shots, and overall direction. But, alas, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was witnessing “acting” after all.

Disappointed that the New York Film Critics Circle awards – the first of the awards season (yawn) - chose as its best film (and director) Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I didn’t have great expectations for this film, shot over 12 years, about an everyday American kid growing up. But I was in Halifax at the time and it was the only film available in the city’s only half-hearted art house. So a group of us slogged through almost three hours of exactly what I was fearing. Sure the acting by people like Ellar Coltrane (the boy) and mom and dad (Patricia Arquette – who’s especially good – and Ethan Hawke) was realistic enough. But this is a humdrum story about an any boy anywhere. 

Lucky filmgoers at this fall’s Windsor International Film Festival had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. The movie is much anticipated with hype just now being drummed up in places like Toronto and Montreal. The picture opens Christmas Day. So Windsorites can play film snobs and say “we’ve seen it already!” Come to think if it we can occasionally do that with films that have already screened in Detroit before they hit the art house circuit in Toronto.