Thursday, April 28, 2016

Windsor's oldest film festival

The Windsor Jewish Film Festival – 14th edition – opens May 2 and runs until May 5 at Devonshire Cineplex theatres. Festival spokesman Stuart Selby says attendance last year was more than 2000, showing the event is increasingly drawing people from beyond the Jewish community, which has about 1200 individuals. “Obviously that’s where it has to grow because the Jewish community is shrinking,” the retired communications professor (University of Windsor) and Brooklyn native said. The festival features 10 films which all in some way touch on the Jewish experience. But all are accessible well beyond the Jewish community and many in fact have been screened at general film festivals throughout the world. After the admittedly larger Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) in November this is the city’s second major film event. The Jewish festival is actually older that WIFF by two years. All the films on tap at the Jewish festival are feature length, with many over the years nominated for or winning awards including the Oscars. This year’s opening night film is Remember, directed by acclaimed Canadian film maker Atom Egoyan starring multiple Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer. The closing night film is Labyrinth of Lies (photo above). Both films touch on the Holocaust, a familiar subject at the film festival. Selby says while Holocaust films are important in depicting Jewish history the Jewish experience encompasses more than that, and this year’s festival shows a broader perspective than some previous editions. “We really try to avoid being too Holocaust-heavy and certainly try to avoid pictures of the camps and all those horrors,” he says. For example, Dough takes place in East London, pitting the last neighbourhood Jewish baker against a Muslim apprentice, for unexpected humour and complications. Deli Man (review posted here March 19, 2015) is a sometimes humorous if bittersweet look at the once ubiquitous Jewish delicatessen in North America, including in Canada. Apples in the Desert is about a young kibbutz woman who rebels against her Orthodox father. And The Dove Flyer, set in Iraq’s 1950s Jewish community, is a coming of age story of a young man growing up during an increasing climate of anti-Semitism. Natalie Portman stars in A Tale of Love and Darkness, a memoir of life in Jerusalem under the British Mandate through the country’s Independence. Tickets are $10 cash at the festival or can be purchased at the Windsor Jewish Community Centre, 519-973-1772. By the way, the festival has no connection with Detroit's upcoming Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival May 8 - 19 (https://www.jccdet.org/arts-culture-education/film-festival/) The Windsor festival's website is www.jewishwindsor.org.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Flawless music by a flawed man

Born to Be Blue, opening Friday at The Maple Theater, is a take on part of the life of famed trumpeter and exponent of the West Coast jazz sound Chet Baker. There’s a lot of great and seminal jazz that’s been made over the decades but Baker’s sound is among the most sublimely cool. But his career was only partly successful as a result to his own human failings, largely because of his heroin addiction. Nevertheless, like a great artist little recognized in his own time, a mythology has developed around Baker since his death in 1988. That’s because of a number of things. His music, of course, but also his physicality. His swept back hair and chiseled face made him a jazz version of James Dean or Jack Kerouac. And his failings and rough edges, including spending time in jail, add to the romantic bad boy and distressed image. In Born to Be Blue, directed by Canadian Robert Budreau (much of the picture is filmed in Sudbury), Ethan Hawke makes a rather ideal stand-in for Baker and pulls off the character quite well, particularly given all the close-up shots portraying pained expressions, mental confusion, and Baker’s semi-articulateness and even at times dumbness. The film really revolves around a central incident, where Baker was beaten and lost his ability to play the trumpet, and his subsequent attempt at a comeback. Of course drugs play a central role as Baker seeks to keep the demons at arm’s length. Carmen Ejugo (who played Coretta Scott King in Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2015)) as his lover is almost flawless in conveying warmth, caring and an ethical counterpoint to Baker’s moral weaknesses. I’m not a big fan of biopics but I don’t see too many things wrong with this one. Yes, I would have preferred the film focussed more on Baker’s overall career.  He was hugely successful in the 1950s and then in the 70s and 80s, despite his addiction. But I understand a film needs a fulcrum point to build a concise story around so what in fact was the defining event in the musician’s life is the focus here. Yes, Hawke does perform a few of the songs himself but most of the trumpet is the off-camera work of Kevin Turcotte. Seeing that there’s another jazz biopic opening in the city this weekend, Miles Ahead starring and directed by Don Cheadle, the two films would make a great themed double bill.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Schlock night at the movies

Time once again for our occasional feature, the night Windsor Detroit Film joins the masses for a blow out cheap Tuesday movie at the local cineplex. And since there are few quality films shown, time to get down and watch some perfectly glistening schlock. This week it was Melissa McCarthy’s The Boss. Admittedly it is our first McCarthy film (sorry, movie). And any time we'd seen trailers of her in other films she looked pretty rolly polly dishevelled. In The Boss she’s still rolly polly but has been made up to the nines. She wears thousand dollar wardrobes and her makeup and hair are impeccable. That, of course, is because she is “The Boss!” As Michelle Darnell (think a cross between QVC and Martha Stewart) she rules the roost of her megalomaniacal larger-than-life persona. But like The Stewart her delusions of grandeur get the better and she’s imprisoned for insider trading. Fair enough (ha ha). When she leaves the prison gates, to her chagrin, there is no Lincoln Town Car waiting for her. She must hoof it to…where? Her mansion has been foreclosed on. She ends up walking the streets of Wrigleyville (Chicago) and foists herself upon her onetime long-suffering assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell). Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) is in a Girl Scout-like group. But bossy (she is The Boss, after all) Michelle, can’t figure out why the girls would go to so much trouble to fund raise for such little benefit. As it happens Claire makes out-of-this-world brownies. Putting her capitalist instincts to work, Michelle seeks a new empire for herself by selling Claire's brownies en masse. She hijacks the local scout group and turns them into a cross between the Black Panthers, Guardian Angels and a Mao-like cult. (The writers can’t get away from these long-in-the-tooth left wing clichés.) Supposedly much amusement ensues as the renegade troupe clashes with the legitimate scouts. There’s even a street fight that is more brutal than regular gangland violence. It’s actually disgusting, and what are the filmmakers trying to say? I know, they’re trying to be funny. Otherwise the film is kind of a sewer pipe of verbal filth and personal nastiness, with admittedly a few laugh out loud (slightly) scenes and occasional witty dialogue. The Boss is simply more of what Hollywood typically dishes out (and I guess rightly so, since the movie is top at the box office after opening Friday) – despicable characters in their odious worlds. Makes you wonder what continuing effect this stuff has on audiences' minds.

By the way, this having been cheap night and all – and typically crowded – my seat mates were a young woman and a seemingly older guy. The guy sat next to me. He seemed tired and awkward. He was wearing shorts (I know, no long pants after April 1st). He proceeded to take off his high tops and place his bare feet on the seat ahead. Meanwhile his young seatmate seemed to anticipate the McCarthy lines, clapping and shrieking when they came.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The unkindness of others

It’s hard to know whether to laugh, be amazed, saddened or even depressed by the story that unfolds in the more than two-hour long Marguerite (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), directed by France’s Xavier Giannoli. Actually, if you’re like me, you’ll experience all of the above. But perhaps I’m more saddened than anything. This is a story, based on true events, of a woman in the 1920s, of some means and influence, who successfully created a minor career for herself as an opera singer. Yet it was totally based on delusion. In this case the character is Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot). But almost a century ago in the salons of New York it was Florence Foster Jenkins (soon to be played by Meryl Streep), who made it all the way to Carnegie Hall before she was confronted with the truth of her woefully inadequate performance and died a month later after suffering a heart attack. In both stories we have the case of a woman who, for rather unknown reasons, has a highly inflated opinion about her singing abilities. Marguerite is obsessed with opera and the classics, so much so that she collects elaborate props and has more than 1000 musical scores including one with notes by Puccini, she is happy to point out. She performs in private concerts among the wealthy elite where politesse rules the day. Not even her husband Georges (André Marcon) has the courage to confront her, as her middling career starts to take a trajectory upwards. While bourgeois society smiles indulgently with some retiring to the next room, our star is launched into the big time, if you will, at the mocking hands of a journalist and cartoonist. The cartoonist, Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), is a Dadaist, an art movement that essentially wanted to overthrow all prevailing institutions by mocking them absurdly. Kyrill, seeing Marguerite’s off key singing as a perfect way to undermine the national anthem, has her sing La Marseillaise in a bohemian club. Marguerite, of course, has no idea she is being set up, and is expelled from her socialite arts society. But her career rise continues. Her cynical Dadaist friends hire a failing opera star, Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), as a voice coach, and a public concert is scheduled with her solely on the bill. Throughout it all no one confronts Marguerite about how truly awful her singing is, allowing her to, shall we say, fail upwards. Frot is terrific as the lead character, winning best actress at France’s Césars. She balances just the right amount of charm, innocence and delusion – was it extreme eccentricism or a mental disorder? – as she tips the scales on notes of such classic arias as Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Delibes’s The Flower Duet and Bellini’s Casta Diva. (Partly it’s Frot’s own voice – she took lessons!). You will crack smiles but there’s also something rather disturbing about this story, and I guess it has to do with the cruelty of others. All this film’s performances are excellent, as are the costumes and sets that create a kind of French version of Downton Abbey. And the film’s depiction of Parisian avant-garde cafe culture is the best I have ever seen.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worth moving to LA for

City of Gold (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), directed by Laura Gabbert, is not about a famous musician, painter or architect. It’s about someone probably no person outside of Los Angeles has ever heard of. It’s about the food and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold. Yet the documentary is fascinating. That’s because of who Gold is. Hardly a pedestrian restaurant critic slapping on three stars to the latest bourgeois-bohemian eatery in a gentrifying part of town, Gold’s reportorial canvas is the almost 5,000 square miles of Greater Los Angeles, a kaleidoscope of a myriad ethnic cultures that have exploded over the last 40-50 years, unfolding in a tapestry on a scale greater than in any other US city. The film’s title says it all. For portraying Gold isn’t just depicting an exquisitely curious writer, fascinated by the seemingly unending variety of food and restaurant culture in Los Angeles. It’s about how his writing about those hundreds of ethnic cuisines – and numerous permutations within seemingly monolithic cultures – transcends the artful descriptions of the meals themselves to portrayals of a city of highly differentiated villages that have knitted LA together. Says urban theorist Michael Dear: “His culinary mapping becomes a cartography of the region, and through leading us we come to understand our city.” In his characteristically southern California pickup truck, the long-haired (and former classical and rock music writer and performer) Gold, heads out on the wide boulevards visiting the often unsung eateries of nondescript blocks and strip plazas, where glorious gastronomic delights await. The variety is profound and astounding – the singular delights of Chengdu Chinese cuisine, Chinese serving up American Chinese food as exotic to fellow Chinese, a restaurant that serves boiled duck with all the fat taken out, Korean street food “previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul,” dishes like hand-cut tonkotsu ramen, Thai pad see ew, and exotica like Oaxacan grasshopper soup and Hagfish or slime eels – “the filets are gelatinous,” he says. In Gold’s love for the city I’m reminded of Randy Newman’s 1983 song I Love LA. Gold believes the city is portrayed wrongly as undifferentiated urban sprawl. But, as exemplified by its cuisine and cultures LA is “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” But Gold is, after all, a restaurant critic, and explains the tricks of the trade. He makes reservations under different names, and has used disposable phones with different numbers, though recently threw off any pretense at being identified. He doesn’t write a review until he’s visited a restaurant at least four or five times. He’s as much cheerleader as critic - “you want these guys to succeed.” Still, it must be uncomfortable being eyeballed. And what kind of feedback does he get when he’s written a negative review? Have his pieces closed restaurants? The film doesn’t say. I would also have liked the film to continue identifying those it interviews, a common irritant of documentaries. Yet the movie is a stunner: about food, yes, but more about LA and its thriving intricacies of culture.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The 1930s iconic look, defined

Some people binge on Netflix. This week I binged on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), specifically five movies in a row form the 1930s, the earliest, 1930, almost from the dawn of the talkies. All were by early Hollywood pioneer Nick Grinde. The first film was The Bishop Murder Case (1930) starring Basil Rathbone as super sleuth Philo Vance, whose eye for the subtly of behaviour itself is worth watching the film for. This whodunit has a tight plot and it strings the audience along, very suitably, to the rather unexpected end…..Remote Control (Nick Grinde, Malcolm St. Clair & Edward Sedgwick, 1930), is a comedy about a self-centred and absolutely hilarious radio announcer (William Haines as William J. Brennan) who takes over  a radio station but inadvertently hires a member of a mob (John Miljan as Dr. Kruger) for a radio show, and who in turn gives coded hints on air to his crime gang…..Shopworn (1932) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Kitty (Lane) in a romance that is as much about class conflict and the double standard facing women as anything else. Lane is “shopworn,” sniffs paramour Dave Livingstone (Regis Toomey)’s mother (Clara Blandick) to “decent society,” and is banished to jail on trumped-up - what else? - morals charges, only to rehabilitate herself and become a stage star, but nevertheless still considered second class…..In Jailbreak (1936), a mobster going legal is murdered (not unlike Jimmy Hoffa) but the dumb gumshoes (often a theme of Grinde’s movies) are upstaged in the crime-solving department by a reporter (another of his themes), in this case the fast-talking Ken Williams (Craig Reynolds). All signs of guilt point to career criminal Ed Slayden (Richard Purcell) when the real murderer is someone, um, more officious…..Fugitive in the Sky (1937) is an early airplane hijack story, not be terrorists (of a sort) but by criminal thug Killer Madsen (Howard Phillips). Intrigue, romance and humor – also a hallmark of Grinde’s films – interplay. A reporter (Warren Hull as Terry Brewer) again saves the day (ah, the press!) while the airborne cast tosses loads of one-liners during their flight into perilous destiny. “I won’t sit down till I’m good and ready,” says one passenger. “Sit down!” shouts Killer. “I’m ready,” says the passenger…..Grinde’s films define what we think of as movies of the 1930’s, with hard-boiled gangsters, wiseacre reporters, scenes of spinning newspaper headlines, tough dames who usurp their stereotypical roles – often addressed as “sister” - dueling competition for the same gal between antagonists who collaborate in the end, and films which often end with a romantic kiss. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Classic takeaways

I drew these thoughts while watching several classic movies lately…. Luis Buñuel’s L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) - screenplay by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – is a subversive comeuppance of the French aristocracy. But employing the Surreal and Dadaist values of that period, so exemplified by Dali, the film’s absurdist humour is anything but didactic. Instead it’s amusingly comic, as when cows casually wander through a formal cocktail party, and a cook gets blown out of a kitchen and the cocktail-swilling swells pay no attention…...In The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944), the story of Jack the Ripper starring Merle Oberon and Laird Cregar (as the Ripper), dance hall scenes set in 1880's London made me think that this is one of the few ways we can access the past. We don’t have time machines but we can live vicariously by being present in an earlier era through movies of another age…..In Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954), we catch Aubrey Hepburn again in all her glory. She is often thought of as the elegant fashion icon in her unintentionally patented little black dress. But Hepburn, in this and other films, also exudes a kind of bohemian flair. For example, in a key scene, she shows up at industrialist Linus Larrabee’s (Humphrey Bogart) downtown office building, wearing top coat and underneath, perhaps odd for the times, not heels and dress but ballet flats and leotard……In Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, the story of Vincent van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas) and based of course on the Irving Stone novel, the movie is filmed in the softest of colours, Metrocolor (the trade name used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for films processed in its lab; virtually all films were shot on Kodak Eastmancolor – Wikipedia), with each frame itself like a lush colourful work of art……The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) (photo above)  is a satisfyingly complete film, in that all the planning, execution, sub plots, and conclusion, come together in great clarity and effortlessly. The classic story is about a jewel heist and stars some of the biggest names of the era – Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore and Sam Jaffe, and in a minor and one of her first roles, Marilyn Monroe.