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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The rise of the dead, and the artificial

On the one night I attended the Media City Film Festival’s 20th anniversary event here in Windsor, and saw both of Thursday night’s international programs (12 short films altogether), the film that got the most applause was recently deceased U.S. filmmaker Standish Lawder’s Necrology (a list of the recent dead) (picture left). It was a hoot. Shot in black and white for about 10 minutes all we see is a crowd of people, roughly in pairs, as if waiting to board a commuter train at rush hour, as the camera seemingly pans along the lineup. Only later it becomes apparent that the myriad folk – men and women, young and old - many in business suits as befits the time when the movie was shot in 1970 – appear to be going up an escalator facing outward (and therefore rising to heaven or rising to the sky?). Remarkably they seem totally unaware that they’re being filmed. It’s an extraordinary short movie and, in the words of film theoretician Hollis Frampton, “The sickest joke I’ve ever seen on film.” But the kicker is the last couple of minutes when, having watched hundreds of people haplessly drift by the camera we now have to slog through credits as in “Cast - In Order of Appearance.” And so we get descriptions of “man picking his nose,” “tourist from Mexico” and “secretary, menstruating.”…..Also notable was Brazil’s Ana Vaz’s 2013’s The Age of Stone (29 min). Amidst the green savannah of western Brazil is a cragged scar of land, an open pit mine, where a few workers are laboriously harvesting white stone slabs. The slow moving camera keeps our eyes fixed on individual piles or the jagged cliff carve outs of varying heights. Gradually, however, we see built structures. At first these are tall monoliths. Then there are right angled beams framing the mine, as if this is the cast iron skeleton of a new building. Or perhaps modern ruins? A girl walks through the heaped piles and comments that it was “artificial as the world must have been when it was created.” Fair enough. According to program notes the film was inspired by the construction of Brazil’s capital city Brasilia in the 1950s, when modernist architecture was at its peak, and the artificial was sacred. …..The festival continues until Saturday at Windsor’s Capitol Theatre.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

This week it's not movies - it's stage

The Shaw Festival. Two days, three plays, three different playwrights, none by Shaw but all British and two set in Shaw’s Edwardian England - St. John Hankin’s The Charity that Began at Home, and still living dramatist Edward Bond’s The Sea. The third was J. B. Priestley’s 1930s When We Are Married. All, to some extent, are comedies. One deals overtly with social issues (Charity). Two have imperious matriarchal characters – great Canadian actress Fiona Reid masterfully as Lady Denison in Charity and as Louise Rafi in The Sea (not dissimilar to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey). And all three get in their licks at Britain’s anachronistic upper class snobs. But while Charity and Married are somewhat outright comedies The Sea is mostly a dark and surreal take on loss, insanity and powerlessness served up with creative sound effects (the stirring echoes of Pink Floyd) and props……Charity is a send up of the once fashionable practice among the upper class of befriending those lower than themselves in the interest of presumed generosity. Here Hankin skewers the obvious, to us, phoniness. A disparate group of unlikable types (one a bore, one personally disagreeable, one a gambler) is brought to Lady Denison’s house thinking they are truly worthy of a graceful visit with her fineness yet soon learning it’s a lie, with predictable – and hilarious - results. But the table is turned on the hosts when Lady Denison’s daughter Margery (Julia Course) falls in love with ne’er do well Hugh Verreker (Martin Happer), whose moral character actually impugns them.……Meanwhile in The Sea, a much more complex play, the set depicts an impoverished coast town traumatized  by the loss at sea of a native son. But like today’s Kennedy assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theorists a central character, the draper Hatch - in a role searingly performed by Patrick Galligan - believes the cause of death is really beings from another planet, as he descends into madness (picture above).  Mrs. Rafi rules the small town society, intimidating the merchant and everyone else within earshot. At turns the play seems about hopelessness – why was the young man lost, was the coastguard incompetent, are the villagers doomed to marginalization and unable to come to terms with anything around them. And, written from the vantage point of 1973, the play signals the oncoming onslaught of World War I, II and atrocities beyond. The most poignant lines come from the village’s moral centre, Evens (Peter Millard). Just when we think he has given up all hope for humanity Evens tells youthful Willy (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), a colleague of the drowned Colin, “Now go, catch the 11.45 and change the world”…..After The Sea’s heaviness When We Are Married is light and frothy indeed but not without substance. Three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and wait for the local newspaper to take their picture and record the esteemed event. The couples, you see, have a certain ranking in Yorkshire’s business and political circles. The men in fact are English versions of American Babbits, satisfied with their middle aged, middle class lives. But beyond appearances their marriages are in a hundred ways threadbare, held together only by social custom and religion. But that soon explodes when it’s revealed their marriages were never official - or were they? – setting forth pent-up recriminations between the spouses. It’s really all good fun, and there are laughs galore, with the main characters well on their acting game and Peter Krantz as the photographer a particular hoot. But junior maid Ruby’s lines were sometimes indecipherable because of actor Jennifer Dzialoszynski’s high pitched tone.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Astonishing actors

Every once in awhile I discover an actor so astonishingly good I have to, well, write about them. These are people whose one performance so blew me away I now want to see them in anything, anything at all……For example, this past weekend I caught Simon Pegg in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Robert B. Weide’s 2008 adaptation of the Toby Young book about life at Vanity Fair magazine. It’s a farce and a farce only the way the Brits can do it. Our hero is Sidney Young (Pegg), a cock-up on an individual trying to make his way in the wide world of irreverent investigative – or should that be, yellow – journalism. Simon is hired by a big New York publisher (Jeff Bridges as Clayton Harding) because of his spellbinding work on London’s gossipy Post Modern Review. But he’s gross, says all the wrong things, and, well, alienates people. But we know before long he’s the sanest person in the place and whose integrity abounds. For all that, the movie is a bit stiff, the sets aren’t the most convincing, and I often thought I was watching The Devil Wears Prada (2006, David Frankel) But, man oh man, Pegg is a standout. His comic timing is fantastic and he injects just that right amount of slapstick enfant terrible-ness to keep you watching this two-foot train wreck. (Picture shows Simon with aspiring starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox)).....Another discovery was Yvan Attal, whom I caught a few months ago in his very own 2001 My Wife is an Actress, a delightful comedy about one man’s obsession with his wife, Charlotte (played by his real life partner Charlotte Gainsbourg)’s fame. Attal’s Yvan (based apparently on true events in the couple’s life) is a neurotic TV sports journalist whose depth of consternation and insecurity can’t fail to make you guffaw. His performance also had elements of Truffaut wunderkind Jean-Pierre Léaud, and who can’t like that?

DFT closed…..For those who were wondering, the venerable Detroit Film Theatre is closed for the summer for, believe it or not, renovations. Didn’t the DFT undergo an extensive renovation over the past decade that introduced elegant – and comfortable! – new seats and which enhanced its original 1920s interior? True. But the “air handling and lighting” systems hadn’t been changed, and that’s what’s taking place this summer. The DFT reopens October 10.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You've seen this movie before

Daniel Cohen's Le Chef, which opens at the Main Art Theatre Friday, is one of those films that you swear you’ve seen before. It has all the pat characters and plot. It’s a light comedy. There’s tension between the two protagonists who ally to thwart a dastardly opponent as obstacles get thrown in their way. In this case it’s two chefs – Jean Reno as famed Alexandre Lagarde and Michaël Youn as Jacky Bonnot (pictured) as an upstart and apostolic devotee of Lagarde’s traditional French “gastronomie” or haute cuisine. Jacky is such a purist he gets fired from restaurants for brazenly telling diners what to eat (“you almost hit a guy who put mustard on his sole,” one irate manager tells him). Until one day he hooks up with Alexandre, who must find an assistant after new corporate owner Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier) wants to convert his resto to nouveau or “molecular cuisine.” (You know, tiny morsels served with supposed finesse.) Stanislas wants to put Alexandre out to pasture and tries to influence a group of critics that the chef “hasn’t evolved.” To the rescue comes the lowly Jacky, who seems to know Alexandre’s recipes better than the old man and, in a pinch, throws together a “new menu” combining both traditional and new cuisines and that wows the critics. This movie is all very predictable, from Jacky’s lying to his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaëlle Agogue) about his “apprenticeship” non-paying job – and she leaving him – to the villainous corporatist Matter. And the French public – surprise to North Americans who hold France as the pinnacle of gastronomic taste – comes in for a drubbing for loving the same bland “steak et frites” as we do. It’s all a rather shopworn plot. Instead I would have liked something more focussed on the two chefs themselves, rivals or not, working intricately to prepare some of the best food around. I think of movies like  Big Night (1996, Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci) or even Joël Vanhoebrouck 2012’s Brasserie Romantique, which had more intimate settings and a focus on the subtle inner workings of the restaurant. Yes, Le Chef is about food, but food could have been substituted for any number of things over which good versus evil is played out on a wider scale. And there are the stereotypical characters: charming upstart, arrogant master, corrupt capitalist, and poor suffering though beautiful girlfriend. Even the score has the quirky comedic, uh, flavour, of which you’ve heard a hundred variations. This movie will go over well with a certain kind of audience member (fill in the blank) but don’t expect anything less conventional.