Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lighthearted romantic wrong turns

It’s all a little predictable but who cares? If you want an easy, lighthearted time at the movies, with art house overtures and readily identifiable creative class type characters, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre) can fill the bill. You’ve seen this kind of plot before - many times. Long-time platonic friends (Alison Brie as Lainey and Jason Sudeikis as Jake) are really sexually attracted to one another but for one reason or another can’t act on it. He’s a womanizer extraordinaire. She’s still in love with her ex (Adam Scott as Matt), the dorkiest guy this side of The Big Bang Theory. Jake’s witty and Lainey is bright and articulate. He sleeps around and that’s understating it. She hasn’t has an orgasm in a year. They talk incessantly about relationships and, yes, sex. In one of the most titillating scenes in a film in some time Jake teaches Lainey how to masturbate, using a juice bottle. One of the best things about the film is the dialogue (also written by Headland). If the plot’s been done before at least you can be entertained by Jake’s incessant one liners. He tells Laney she’s “addicted to mediocrity” and that Matt has “the charm of a broken Etch A Sketch,” and that an inadvertent one night stand between them back in college was “purely driven by social insecurity.” But despite a hands off policy they tend to do couple-like things, including him accompanying her to a lingerie shop, and showing up for a co-worker’s kids’ birthday party, where Laney ends up meeting Chris (Marc Blucas) and they get it on. The movie is a series of false romantic turns. At one point Jake seduces his boss Paula (Amanda Peet) in a relationship that doesn’t go anywhere. Laney finally decides to leave New York for medical school in Ann Arbor, with Jake telling her good naturedly to get out of town as she climbs into the U-Haul. But this isn’t the end of the story. Jake, arrested after attacking Laney’s old flame Matt in a restaurant, tells Laney he’d “rather fail with you than win with anyone else.” That seals the deal. They marry, and walk down Fifth Avenue for a one night honeymoon at The Plaza, before flying back to Michigan. It’s a modern they lived happily ever after.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gender identity, multilayered, Hitchcockian

François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (2014), which I caught at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York but which is also screening Oct. 23 - 25 at the Detroit Film Theatre, works on several levels. There is the matter of sexual identity. There is the matter of tolerance and self-acceptance. There is the matter of friendship and longing. And there is also the matter of projecting images on false objects or in this case personalities. It’s also all a little Hitchcockian. Ever since childhood Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been as close as friends could be. Then, in her 20s, Laura dies suddenly. Her husband David (Romain Duris) is left alone and must bring up their young child. Claire decides to offer David some support. One day she walks in and finds a very femininely-dressed woman with the child. Turns out it is David. He’d always been a cross-dresser, something about which Laura had supported him. But Claire finds it perverted and says so, and doesn’t know if she can keep it a secret. Initially appalled she starts to come around and continues to visit David. She becomes his transvestite enabler, accompanying him out in public, shopping for women’s clothes, etc. They become best “girl friends” if you will. Two things happen. David, whose female name is Virginia (also played by Duris), still has his male instincts (most transvestites are heterosexual) and falls in love with Claire. Claire does as well though in her case Virginia has replaced Laura as her best friend. And Claire is shocked to realize that she’s sexually attracted to David not as a male but as a female substitute for Laura, confirming her apparently latent lesbian desires. Ozon’s multilayered approach to gender and desire is executed brilliantly. But the film inadvertently gives rise to a couple of questions. One is the nature of transvestism and a feminine ideal. The stereotype transvestite, depicted in this movie, seeks an ultra-feminine persona attained through clothing and makeup. Yet a great many women, at least in today’s world, have defeminized themselves from this stereotype, which was much more common even 20 years ago. The contrast is shown in the film. When they disrobe for bed Virginia is wearing a corset and seamed stockings, Claire just unbuttons her skirt revealing panties. Another issue is the nature of transvestism versus being gay. Transvestism still seems a role that is in the closet (figuratively and literally) compared to the fast growing various aspects of gay culture and even transgenderism (a la Caitlyn Jenner). It’s okay to like people of the same sex or even change to the opposite sex, just not keep your sex and dress like the opposite. This film also would have been a little more powerful had it come out 10 or even five years ago. But 2015 has been a watershed for gay rights and sexual identity causes. The New Girlfriend can therefore be interpreted as part of this mix and not breaking much new ground. The film is based on the Ruth Rendell story, which came out in 1985, a year a film like this would have had more impact.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New York as Cinema Paradiso writ large

It’s my annual sojourn to the US eastern seaboard and that means regular day trips into New York City. Of course New York is an independent cinema enthusiast’s paradise. There are several well-known and venerable art houses with line ups of films that go well beyond the art house circuits in most North American cities. On Sunday, among other New York activities, I managed to get to a couple of films, one at the IFC Center on Sixth Ave., the other at Cinema Village on E 12th Street.

At an IFC Center 10.40 am screening I caught Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (pictured) starring Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a film that dives deep into emotions, trauma, paranoia and fear - especially of women’s psyches - reminiscent of Bergman’s 1966 Persona and other Bergmans, and of Cassavetes’s 1974 A Woman Under the Influence, though Perry says he was influenced by Fassbinder's women-centered pictures. Such is Queen of Earth. Moss as Catherine, after the breakup with her boyfriend, is invited to the summer house of best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Distraught, she has sought a reprieve and delves into her painting in this most bucolic setting. Virginia at one point is reading Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness. Catherine has been emotionally brutalized by her lover who has cheated on her. Meanwhile Virginia is having a summer fling with next door neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit). Catherine and Virginia’s relationship is by turns consoling and confrontational. The source of Catherine’s emotional scarring is mirrored in the almost constant presence of Rich. Cutting and wounding words are exchanged as Catherine spirals down seemingly into the earth itself in this gestalt of psychological stripping. A first class film, and Moss and Waterston are equally impressive.

Later in the day at Cinema Village I caught The Moving Creatures (Caetano Gotardo, 2013), a Brazil-Portuguese film depicting three slices of contemporary family life and indeed mothers’ laments. The first story involves a young man, a bit of a laggard if somewhat whimsical, suspected of a hideous crime. We wouldn’t have known of his alleged behaviour if we hadn’t seen the police knocking on his family’s door. Indeed his mother breaks into a private song that whatever her son’s guilt that wasn’t all he was, and we can understand that. The next story is about a weary confused professional, a recording engineer, who one day has had a lapse in caring for his child. The delight of a nurturing family is shattered, again told by a mother’s song. The third story is more uplifting, about a parent and child reunion many years after the child went missing. The initially tension-filled rendezvous brings events full circle and loving satisfaction, about which the mother, quietly, sings. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

A festival most cities would kill for

At this year’s edition of the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF) the crowds seemed up, the screenings down (from three or four to two screenings for each feature) - which may explain the increase in crowds for the individual screenings - and the overall number of films was up. But there seems to be more shorts than in previous years. Nevertheless the festival, still underway, and under the tutelage of its long time one-man leadership, Serge Losique, soldiers on, tattered, ever controversial, and like a cat with nine lives, keeps returning, defying all odds. The festival lost huge amounts of government funding last year due alleged bookkeeping secrecy, which hasn’t returned. Losique, MWFF’s founder, is now 86 and even the mayor of Montreal suggested last week he hand over the torch to a younger generation. Over its many years the festival has generated more than its share of critics, particularly in the local Montreal media, who for years have battled Losique. Charges include the fest’s lack of star power, as in big names on red carpets. To which I say: who care? I’d much rather see quality films with actors on the screen than in the flesh and blood. Losique has also been criticized for his secrecy, his supposed dictatorial ways, and indeed the quality of the films brought to the festival. The critics charge MWFF is a dumping ground for films rather than featuring ones expertly curated. In fact, in a Globe and Mail article last week the festival’s chief programmer admitted as such. Nevertheless MWFF endures and in my books offers a wonderfully diverse smorgasbord of international cinema, the likes of which most North American cities would kill to have. My picks, based on the first six days of the festival - the only days I attended this year - are: 

Gateway of Love (Tonino Zangardi, 2015, Italy): An undercover police officer falls in love with a store clerk after he rescues her during an armed robbery. The clerk kills her husband in self-defence when, after learning of the affair, he tries to choke her. The lovers then try to escape, hoping to avoid a messy court case. The operative word is “try.”

Václav Havel - Living in Freedom (Andrea Sedlácková, 2014, Czech Republic): This is a fascinating portrait of the man who led the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. Havel, long a leading playwright and outspoken dissident under Communism, eschewed political ambition but had the role thrust upon him, which he grasped honorably and effectively.

An Italian Name (Francesca Archibugi, 2015, Italy): An extended family gets together for dinner. One brother, politically right wing, is always the humorist and decides to play an elaborate joke on his sister and brother in law, dyed-in-the-wool leftists. He tells them the name of his soon to be born wife’s child is Benito, as in Mussolini. It’s a joke that gets carried too far.

The Spiderwebhouse (Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2014, Germany): Three children are abandoned by their mentally ill mother and must fend for themselves, with predictable results. The house deteriorates into a colossal mess as furniture is overturned, dishes pile up and get broken, the children themselves become filthy. While missing their mother they have come to love their homemade dystopia.

Summers Downstairs (Tom Sommerlatte, 2015, Germany): An investment banker and his wife descend unannounced on their freeloading relatives at their grand summer house. The banker, David, arrogantly orders his brother around to the brother’s significant other’s disgust. She in turn stands up to David and apparently embarks with him on a romantic fling. But not everything is as it seems.

The Thin Yellow Line (Celso Garcia, 2015, Mexico): This is a road movie with difference. A crew of unskilled laborers are thrown together to paint a remote Mexican road’s center line - all 200 km of it. The film’s a character study of what happens when you throw a bunch of strangers together and the pitfalls, if not potholes, that befall them. A wonderfully acted and ultimately heartwarming story. 

2 Nights Till Morning (Mikko Kuparinen, 2015, Finland-Lithuania): A chance meeting in an anonymous hotel brings together two guests, an architect and celebrated DJ who spins electronica. But their romance isn’t straightforward bliss and is fraught with nuance in a very life like way.   

Invention for Destruction (Karl Zeman, 1958, Czech Republic): Master Czech animator and filmmaker Karl Zeman brings Jules Verne to the screen with this delightful live action - animation featuring the story of an evil millionaire who wants to conquer the world. Verne’s illustrations are peopled by actors in this brilliantly filmed fairy tale.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, 2015, Netherlands-Mexico- Finland-Belgium) (photo above): This master’s retelling of the 1931 visit to Mexico by the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is typically Greenaway: larger-than-life as befits its subject, philosophical, learned, and cinematically iconoclastic as the director makes wide use of the visual medium in a way seldom seen in film.  Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein is brilliant.

Happy (Jordan Goldnadel, 2015, France): This movie about carefree twenty-somethings pits a young American woman travelling in Europe with her French counterparts as she finds love and friendship, but ultimately perhaps mostly her own. With solid engrossing performances. 

The Truth About Lies (Phil Allocco, 2014, United States): This comedy about modern relationships and misunderstandings is the kind of film that will keep you almost constantly laughing if not put a smile on your face for its entire 97 minutes. The movie starts with our hero getting fired from his job, losing his apartment, and getting dumped by his girlfriend. Things can only get better. Well, maybe.

Labia (Gabriel Patricio Bertini, 2014, Argentina): A corrupt federal judge, like a Mafia don, is the go to man for various people seeking advice and favors. But as the film evolves it’s obvious his patina of power thinly overlays a pitiful human being.

Parabellum (Lukar V. Rinner 2015, Argentina-Uruguay-Austria). So this is what happens when survivalists fearing the end of the world pack it in and head for the wilderness. Robotic like, they are trained, sometimes unethically, in military techniques, to fend for themselves in a post-apocalyptic world.  

Montedoro (Antonello Faretta, 2015, Italy-USA-Brazil): A middle aged American woman travels from New York to her birth village in a remote corner of Italy only to find it’s a ghost town. But her imaginings make the ghosts come alive in this visually poetic film. 

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?