Thursday, May 21, 2015

Deneuve stars in stylish French thriller

In the Name of My Daughter, opening Friday at the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, is a smart sophisticated French whodunit, the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in some time. And it makes more than sense that the star of the film should be none other than the classiest lady to have ever performed before the cameras in the post-World War II era - Catherine Deneuve. Here Deneuve plays Renée Le Roux, the elegant doyenne of the Palais de La Mediterranée casino in Nice. It’s the late 1970s. Her daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel), following a broken marriage, has just returned home from Africa. She wants to open a store selling African artifacts but she needs money. The casino is running a deficit and her mother, known for running a fair if tight ship, is reluctant to cash out Adèle’s shares. Meanwhile Agnès becomes infatuated by Renée’s business advisor, a lawyer named Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), 10 years her senior. Maurice, not yet divorced, is a womanizer. Adèle falls hard for Maurice, who likes his freedom and hates women’s emotions. But he goes along enough with the relationship to swing a deal with a reputed mobster, and rival casino owner, to get cash and split the proceeds into two accounts - his and Adèle’s - “symbolic” of their shared love. In return Adèle, at a casino board meeting, votes directly against her mother, to turn over control of the casino to her benefactor, rival casino owner Fratoni. Fratoni then liquidates the casino, blaming its finances on Renée’s poor management. A developer is in the wings and wants to convert the Palais into luxury apartments. Adèle, having in part compromised her principles for her lover, finds her love unrequited. Maurice withdraws more and more and Adèle, obsessed with him, even begins stalking. Starved for attention she attempts suicide. In October 1977 - the movie is based on true events - she eventually disappears, her body never found. ”My journey is over,” her diary reads. “I want Maurice to take care of everything.” And so he does, transferring her three million franc share into his account. “It was what she wanted,” he says. Years later, Renée, forlorn as an old woman living in a bare bones flat, presses the local prosecutor to reopen her daughter’s case. In the Name of My Daughter is a stylish detective thriller, with taut acting all around under the assured directorial hand of French master André Téchiné, known for probing the complex interpersonal motives that underlie human affairs. Deneuve, at the top of her game - still after all these years - displays her trademark controlled emotion under that ever so elegant and civilized exterior.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Comedies brighten this year's Windsor Jewish fest

The Windsor Jewish Film Festival (WJFF) has heard the complaints and is responding in kind, or with humour, as the case may be. The venerable festival, now in its 13th year, kicks off tonight and runs until Thursday featuring 10 films. Not that there were a lot of complaints per se, but there were a few mentions last year of the fact the festival’s lineup was a tad on the dark side as, well, naturally befits many of the films depicting the Holocaust and Jewish-Palestinian experience. So the festival’s search committee turned to find some lighter fare. “We’re conscious that it’s a pretty dark program so we really looked for comedies but they’re not that easy to come by,” spokesman Stuart Selby says. Aren’t some of the world’s greatest comedians Jewish? True, says Selby, a retired University of Windsor prof. “There’s some documentaries about Jewish comedians but we didn’t select those because after seeing them they weren’t that funny,” he notes ironically…….. Still, the committee came up with two comedies and they both look like a hoot. One is Hunting Elephants (Rashef Levy, 2013) starring Patrick Stewart (picture above). It’s about a group of old timers in a retirement home. They’re veterans of the Israeli underground, a group whose activities date to the 1940s and helped forge the modern Israeli state. Using their old combat skills they set up a heist to avenge a wrongdoing against a 12-year-old’s father. “I found it really funny despite the fact that it really employs a lot of old folks’ stereotypical stuff,” Selby says noting he himself is around, ahem, said age. But, he adds, “it’s just not stupid stuff, there’s a family story in it.” Another comedy is Serial (Bad) Weddings (Philippe de Chauveron, 2014) a French box office hit. The movie plays on racial stereotypes and the fitting comeuppance for said misdeeds, showing that no one race has a monopoly on prejudice…….. The opening night film (tonight at 8) is 24 Days (Alexandre Arcady, 2014), poignant in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It’s a thriller based on a true story of a kidnapping of a young Jewish man in a Parisian suburb. “It’s partly a police procedural and it’s partly a family story,” Selby says. The kidnappers targeted Ilan Halimi because he was Jewish and “if he’s Jewish he must be rich” …….Other films at the festival include Defiant Requiem (Doug Shultz, 2012), about an upcoming Czech composer during World War II, himself a prisoner, who led a death camp classical chorus performing Verdi’s Requiem. There’s also the charming 1975 Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver), staring Carol Kane, about the New York Lower East Side Jewish immigrant experience. Following opening night, films will be screened at 2, 5 and 8 PM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at Devonshire Mall’s Cineplex Odeon. For more information go to the Jewish Community Centre’s website Tickets are $10 cash only. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Three films on a fine spring day

A triple bill for a Saturday in mid-April at Landmark’s Main Art theatre..…....First up, Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. A moderate fan of this Gen X director (I loved 2005’s The Squid and the Whale and 2012’s Frances Ha) While We’re Young is a convoluted treatise on early middle age. I had to laugh that the couple whose supposedly humdrum lives are the focus of attention - Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) - felt they were growing ancient at the hardly skin cracking ages of 43 and 44, though I must admit that Stiller actually does seem to be physically aging quickly. And perhaps it’s my age - almost 20 years ahead of them - that makes me smile at the fact they thought there were getting old. Josh even cries, “I’m an old man!” Moreover, this couple’s vacuous lives looked not all that different from the millennial couple they befriend, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Both couples had that grungy hipster vibe if perhaps the older one lacked the edgy frisson of the younger. And what was with the movie’s repeated references to child-bearing? Hard to believe Baumbach would succumb to such a conventional antidote to ennui.  As for the acting, stilted throughout. And we hardly crack a smile watching normally jokester Ben who here is all serious and angst-ridden.….....Next up was Argentinian director Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, six shorts running altogether just over two hours. All were on the theme of revenge. And uncannily two were akin to headlines over the past month. The first, Pasternak, tells the story of an airline pilot who crashes his jet and kills all aboard. Germanwings flight 9525, anybody? Then there was Bombita, a tale of an average guy whose car is towed from a perfectly legitimate parking space. What happened last week in the news? ESPN’s Britt McHenry was captured on a security camera that went viral of her haranguing - insultingly demeaning - a towing company employee over just such an incident, though she might have had less grounds for complaint than our film’s hero. There was Las Ratas, about taking revenge with, yes, rat poison. In El más fuerte (The Strongest) two men engulfed by road rage fight it out on a remote Argentinian highway. La Propuesta (The Proposal), the most emotionally taut of all, tells of hit-and-run anguish and the payoff to cover moral guilt. The best of the six was Until Death Do Us Part (picture above), about a bride betrayed and a wedding party to end all wedding parties. If all this sounds super heavy it’s not. Each film to varying degrees has elements of black humor, some a laugh riot………Finally, the filmed in Detroit horror story It Follows (David Robert Mitchell). I have no interest in horror but went to this because of its Detroit setting, decent reviews and a bit of possibly hipster edginess. And like virtually every other horror film I’ve seen in the past 20 years the best it could do was startle me a couple of times. Mitchell would have been more effective if he’d nixed the scenes of following bodies, leaving the frightened characters’ imaginations - and thus ours - to do the work of conjuring bad spirits. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An iconic story, told impeccably

Victor Levin’s big screen directorial debut 5 to 7, opening this Friday at The Maple Theater, is the almost perfect movie. Let’s count the ways. The film is not only the archetypical New York film with the city’s panoramic scenes and street life as backdrops. It features an aspiring writer in the world’s publishing capital. This story has been told a thousand times but can only ever be told in New York. Then there’s love, a story told an infinite number of times. Yet here it resonates fresh and dreamily between two people, whose backgrounds form the basis of one of the world’s great cultural clashes - Americans and the French. Yes, 5 to 7 is the story of an affair between young Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin) and Arielle Pierpont (Bérénice Marlohe), the wife of a French diplomat. 5 to 7, the title, refers to the only time of day Arielle, due to family obligations (her husband also has a mistress), can meet. For the all-American Brian it’s love at first sight when he spots Arielle across the street on one of his regular Midtown writing break jaunts. But Arielle, equally enamored, sets him straight right away, to his profound disappointment. She tells him that “of course” she’s married, with two children to boot. It’s a French thing. Bloom can’t abide it. But, she says, “Maybe your culture needs to grow up….Maybe there are some people you marry and people you love.” She will be waiting if he returns. For three weeks Brian is perplexed and torn but eventually can’t resist. “French girls aren’t good for your working habits,” he muses. They meet, she hands him a key to the elegant St. Regis hotel, and the affair begins. For our hero, a not unintelligent if conventional sort, Arielle keeps throwing him curves. One day on the street, her husband, Valéry (Lambert Wilson), pulls up alongside and invites the writer to a family dinner. Bloom’s astounded, calling it “wildly wildly awkward.” But, says Arielle in her knowing manner, “The world will surprise you with its grace if you let it.” Just like out of the French playbook the arrangement seems to work. Everyone gets along. Bloom even meets Valéry’s mistress Jane (Olivia Thirlby). From here, the film chronicles Brian and Arielle’s various rendezvous, from prosaic walks in Central Park to hot sex back at the hotel. And while this is a meditative story about sexual and personal awakening it’s far from a dreary French philosophy lesson. There are enough American and French jokes, for example, to spark another Freedom Fries controversy. In a movie theatre Bloom is chomping away. Scowls Arielle, “Can no American watch film without popcorn?” But in a blindfold tasting she can’t tell the difference between Miller High Life and Guinness Stout. Brian’s father (Frank Langella, his mom is played by Glenn Close, as the stereotypical neurotic Jewish parents), alarmed at the affair, castigates the French for surrendering three times to Hitler. “Have you any idea how hard that is to do?” So why is 5 to 7 a near perfect film? It’s got New York, a love affair, the French (including scenes from François Truffaut’s 1962 Jules and Jim), the writing life (including references to The New Yorker magazine), young ambition, and rites of passage. Lots of films have these. But Levin pulls these iconic themes off impeccably with subtlety, wit, seriousness, and charm, set to a poignant pitch perfect score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Moreover, the movie abounds in style. The story is set on New York’s sophisticated Upper East Side, a welcome relief from the site of so many New York films set on the opposite side of the park. And it casts some real life New Yorkers, including esteemed civil rights patriarch Julian Bond and New Yorker editor David Remnick. A near perfect film? Why not perfect? There’s a little early contrivance (I’ll leave you to guess where) and an obvious visual error where the same unlikely pedestrian is in two street scenes. But, really, this is nothing compared to the fact 5 to 7 is the best movie that’s come around in a long long while.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

American Sniper versus Paddington

Good to see that sanity has returned to the University of Michigan following a decision to cancel Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014). The U had caved to a group complaining that it offended certain sensibilities such as those of Muslim students. According to the Detroit Free Press the campaign against the film was led by one Lamees Mekkaoui who said she felt “uncomfortable” when she saw it the fir
st time. “As a student who identifies as an Arab and Middle Eastern student, I feel that ‘American Sniper’ condones a lot of anti- Middle Eastern and North African propaganda,” Mekkaoui said. The sophomore should realize that this isn’t a film literally or figuratively attacking Arabs but terrorists or enemies of the United States. Do German students feel offended if a World War II movie is shown on campus? Japanese students? etc. etc. Word was the movie would be replaced by the inoffensive Paddington (Paul King 2014), about as touchy feeling or as you can get. (Is this a prestigious university or a kindergarten? The whole episode begs for laughs.) Though, who knows, maybe someone will be offended by how bears are depicted as not fierce and intimidating. U of M’s VP of student life E. Royster Harper (now that sounds like a university official’s name, doesn’t it?) called the decision “a mistake.” But to make sure there is an “alternative” to when American Sniper is being screened dear old Paddington will be shown “at that same time.” One writer on the Muslins students’ Facebook page said she would not even be attending Paddington “out of principle.”

Back from two months in the southern U.S. - and viewing voluminous amounts of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) - I’m having withdrawal symptoms without the network. I don’t subscribe to cable TV but have been considering resuming my cable package if I could somehow gain access to TCM. But here in Canada that’s an expensive proposition. I subscribe to Cogeco cable for phone and Internet (and formerly TV - I long ago cut the cord). Cogeco doesn’t offer TCM at all, though it has other movie channels. I’m told by a company rep Cogeco is still trying to acquire TCM. Meanwhile Bell offers TCM as part of a package over satellite but it means anteing up at least $56.95 a month plus 13 per cent sales tax (this is Canada) after the three month promotion ends. That’s a lot of moolah to get just one channel. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to “pick-and-play” after Canada’s broadcast regulator last month ordered service providers to allow basic $25 packages and customers can pick individual channels on top of that. The deadline for companies to offer this new consumer freedom is still almost two years sway. But the Cogeco rep told me it could be a reality at her company before the year is out.

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.”