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.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Catching WIFF misses, Lakeshore cinemas' art series

I missed Whiplash and Mommy at the recent Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF). But did manage to see Whiplash last week at The Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township, and Mommy – surprisingly! – at Lakeshore cinemas’ on Windsor’s far east side……

First Whiplash, which got WIFF's Peoples’ Choice Award and certainly was all the buzz at this month’s festival. It’s a terrific movie alright and something you don’t see a lot of in films these days – fast-paced, in-your-face dramatic action, all the more stunning since this is Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut. (“So there!” I say to all the people who scoff at film festivals featuring first time directors’ films.) The story is about music (drums) student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) being under the tutelage of jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a Detroit native and star of Farmers Insurance commercials and numerous dramatic film & TV roles). A Nazi-inspire drill sergeant might be more like it. For Fletcher gives no ground in seeking absolute perfection with a P. The story is fictional but in 2014 I didn’t know there could still be instructors like this. I used to have teachers who threw chalk; this instructor throws furniture, and curses and harangues, and makes you stay after class to practice hours on end until you get it right! In this era of touchy-feely education this method, not really Socratic, is a throwback indeed. The film doesn’t question Fletcher’s techniques and seems ideologically to support them. For, as Fletcher says, it’s the only way to achieve outstanding art……Then it was off to the Lakeshore to see Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, where even on a Tuesday cheap night it just goes to show that art films in good ol’ Windsor (apparently outside of WIFF) can’t draw an audience. Yes, dear readers, I was the only person in Lakeshore Auditorium 3. Despite its critical acclaim I found Dolan’s 2012 Laurence Anyways overproduced. But in Mommy (Canada’s entry into next year’s Oscars), the film hits the mark in extracting terrific performances from leads Anne Dorval (as mom Diane) and Antoine-Olivier Pilon (as son Steve). Here is a story about a delinquent, incorrigible young man - with numerous psychological hangups - and his relationship with his tough as nails mom who might have been the same way at his age. This film isn’t for everyone. But it has ferocious non-stop shout out loud emotionally charged performances, making you wonder how the actors could sustain it. Suzanne Clément as Kyla, the across-the-street neighbour, is a charming bonus. 

Speaking of the Lakeshore I was surprised to discover that owner Imagine Cinemas has been running a Monday night Art Series, which started in October and ends Dec. 8. On tonight, for instance, is Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014, Peter Chelsom) with the outstanding Simon Pegg, and Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl fame. In previous weeks the series has shown John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary (recently at WIFF), Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. I hadn’t seen any publicity about this series and you have to go to Imagine’s website’s “Specials” section to find the schedule. A box office person told me the series might be extended next year. The website is

And finally, it’s good to see that the iconic 1950s Cinerama wide curved screen brand has been resurrected in a stunning renovated theatre in Seattle. It’s the baby of film buff and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Check out today’s NY Times piece at

Monday, November 10, 2014

WIFF capsule reviews - part two

Here are my final reviews of films I saw at WIFF’s 10th edition:

An Eye for Beauty (Quebec 2014): This latest from Denys Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions) is a rather prosaic story about a Yuppie couple in rural Quebec whose eyes are wandering. Despite some stilted acting by leads Éric Bruneau and Melanie Merkosky and a story that’s been told a zillion times, the film holds our interest not least because of great direction and cinematography (set in spectacular rural Charlevoix and storybook Quebec City) as well as depiction of contemporary lifestyles to which many of us can relate. 3.5/5

The Sea (Ireland 2013): Based on the John Manville Booker prize-winning novel (Manville is also the screenwriter) first time director Stephen Brown must have thought he had a quality mood piece about memory, loss and regret on his hands. He did. But the characters plod through the scenes, particularly lead Ciarán Hinds, who nevertheless is interesting in this overly dramatic film. Other good cast members are Charlotte Rampling and Rufus Sewell. But the movie is awfully derivative of a thousand similar stories and a bit of a strain to watch. 2/5

In her Place (South Korea 2014): This studied piece about a teen’s psychological disintegration speaks volumes about teenage pregnancy, modern alienation, and the often disconnectedness between adults and children. Ahn Ji Hye is brilliant as the despondent and increasingly disturbed teen, waiting out her pregnancy, while an affluent couple seek to adopt her child. 3/5

Altman (Canada 2014): Noted documentarian Ron Mann gives us a more than competent summary of the life of acclaimed iconoclastic director Robert Altman. Well-edited, the film includes a vast array of snippets from Altman’s many pictures (including MASH, Nashville, A Wedding, The Player)  and earlier seminal TV series' episodes he directed for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Combat! 3/5

The Immigrant (United States 2013): James Gray continues his New York-themed films, and again with actors like Joaquin Phoenix (who I always want to call the new Brando) and Marion Cotillard. Jeremy Renner also stars. I couldn’t stay for the entire screening but the re-creation of early 20th century New York is brilliant. Phoenix is always great to watch and Cotillard is terrific in the role as a frightened newly-arrived Polish immigrant. But the film seemed a bit directionless. 2.5/5

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Denmark 2013):  I love Scandinavian films and though not a fan of crime movies will seek out such a film from Sweden or Denmark because of those countries’ cinemas’ intensity and tweaking with genres. Unfortunately not so with this movie which is a very straight forward crime story. 2/5

Mr. Turner (UK 2014): Acclaimed English director Mike Leigh’s latest is a brilliant period piece with astonishingly realistic sets and a standout performance by Timothy Spall (picture above) as the great artist himself. Spall really is amazing and should win a boatload of best actor prizes. The cinematography by Dick Pope should win also because every scene bares resemblance to a muted Turner masterpiece. One problem: either the dialogue is so realistic or the volume recorded so low it was often difficult to decipher what the characters were saying. 4/5

Saturday, November 8, 2014

WIFF capsule reviews - part one

Ironically, despite Windsor International Film Festival’s extended run to nine days this year (ending tomorrow) on its 10th anniversary I only started getting to films Wednesday night. Partly it was a combination of things: work and personal business, having seen some of the films already, and simply not having enough interest in others. But here are my capsule reviews (and star rating) of the first eight films I have seen, in the order I saw them. (My remaining films will be reviewed in the next post.)

Clouds of Sils Maria (France 2014): This work by Olivier Assayas is as ambiguous and dreamy as per the title. It’s like a metaphorical mist envelops the story as aging actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) considers taking on the older lead in a play she made famous years ago playing the younger character who drives her boss to suicide. The metaphor is obvious: suicide equalling artistic death. Kristen Stewart as Maria’s A-personality assistant also embodies the vigour of youth as especially does the young woman in the play, an overly confident yet superficial actress (Chloë Grace Moretz). 3/5

A Wolf at the Door (Brazil 2013) (picture above): I was hooked from the very start of this picture with the camera frozen on a surreal-looking phone booth and the menacing throb of slow bass notes, which punctuates the film throughout. Moving back and forth in time this story of two women, a man, and a kidnapped child is a depiction of madness, a person’s unknown psychological depths, and the ultimate consequences of what we sow. 4/5

Halfway (Belgium 2014): This comedy overstays its welcome a bit too long, just as does the ghost (Jurgen Delnaet as Theo), the previous owner of the house in which Stef (Koen De Graeve) moves in. I suppose the point of the movie, other than providing a few good laughs, is for Theo to be the conscience of the rather nasty Stef, who has a penchant for alienating people. But the plot’s goofiness gets in the way. 2/5

Winter Sleep (Turkey 2014): Hard to believe this won Cannes’s Palm D’Or. Not that it’s not good. But clocking in at 196 minutes this series of tête-à-tête mini dramas among three or four people isn’t particularly ground breaking. Bergman did it years ago. And, as at least a couple of people described it, so did Chekhov. The first 45 minutes is ponderous and a bit confusing as to where the film will lead. But once we get into the first dialogue on topics like the meaning of art, criticism, courage, integrity – and the stripping away of the charactyers' defences – okay, we’re on to something. 3/5

La Sapienza (France & Italy 2014): This film about Italian religious architecture will knock your socks off for the studied stunning images of the interiors of some of that country’s great churches, in particular those designed by the 17th century’s Francesco Borromini. But it’s more than that. It’s about the beauty that was and the crassness that is. It’s about human love and even human contact. Does contemporary society make robots of us? The scenes and acting techniques at times are deliberately humorous if absurd and hark back to filmmakers like Jacques Tati and Luis Buñuel. Director Eugene Green makes a cameo as a kind of all-knowing oracle. 3/5

Force Majeure (Sweden 2014): Ruben Östlund’s eagerly anticipated film about male heroism – or the lack thereof – was different from what I expected and I’m glad it was. Still the director toys with the same subject matter. What does it mean to be a man? Is heroism or indeed chivalry dead? But the director seems to want it both ways. He’s arguing men should be ashamed of abandoning their families in dire crises. But is this only a male issue? The female characters suggest they wouldn’t have acted that way. But in an age of feminism and questioning traditional gender roles, framing the issue from a male-female perspective wasn’t that smart. The question should be: how would any individual respond? Otherwise the film is brilliantly paced and totally unpredictable, a treat from beginning to end. 4/5

Corbo (Quebec 2014): Mathieu Denis’s first film is a great debut on a number of fronts – expert cinematography and creation of mood, evocation of family and group dynamics, and the accurate depiction of what life was like in Quebec in 1966 given the director wasn’t even alive then. This was the heyday of the FLQ, the radical terrorist group that was blowing up symbols of English dominance. A new recruit, Corbo (Anthony Therrien), joins. It will be interesting to see Denis’s future work. 3/5

Beloved Sisters (Germany 2014): Who knew that the great 18th century German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller carried on a ménage à trois with all the drama you might find in a Woody Allen movie, only kept under respectable pretences of the day. Director Dominik Graf’s telling of the story gets a little shopworn as the daily intrigues among the three and their extended families and friends pile up. One wishes there was more emphasis on Schiller’s philosophy although there are notable scenes about his commitment to the technology of book publishing, and his ideals of truth and beauty in contrast to the corruption of the same during that period’s French Revolution. 3/5

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

WIFF barely registers on Detroit's radar screen

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the disconnect between Windsor and Detroit. Here we are, two metropolitan centres – admittedly one of vastly larger size – but nevertheless connected by industry, employment, family and friends, not to mention Canadians’ devotion to pretty much all things Detroit sports! And yet we have a film festival in Windsor, now in its 10th year and running until Sunday, which barely registers on the Detroit radar screen. Sure, the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), does limited marketing in the States. And occasionally there will be a blurb in a Detroit newspaper, as per the Free Press in its Play entertainment section last Thursday. But the Windsor event is far from a Motor City phenomenon. Yet there is nothing like it in American megalopolis. In fact until only recently there was no mainstream film fest in the Motor City at all. (Ann Arbor has had its long running experimental film festival). The closest Michigan mainstream festival like Windsor’s happens to be a four hour drive away each summer in Traverse City, also now in its 10th year. It’s only been in the last couple of years that anything like a regular festival got underway in Detroit, and that’s Cinetopia. Cinetopia launched three years ago in Ann Arbor and expanded to Detroit in 2013, with films screened mainly at the Detroit Film Theatre and nearby venues. Fifty films were shown over five days last June. Cinetopia is billed as a “festival of festivals” and culls its films from some of the world’s great film festivals including Sundance, Toronto, Cannes and SXSW. It’s of course to be welcomed. But this is still a nascent event and its offerings dwarf what’s on display in Windsor. In fact this year’s WIFF has well over 100 films screening over nine days. Yet one could barely hear a pin drop in Detroit when it comes to that city’s buzz over the Windsor festival.

As for WIFF, my picks for the rest of the week – Clouds of Sils Maria, A Wolf at the Door, Halfway, Winter Sleep, Mr. Turner, Force Majeure, Corbo, Age of Uprising, Beloved Sisters, The Sea, In Her Place, An Eye for Beauty, Wild Tales and Tom at the Farm.

The news that the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, known as busybodies in some places, has chosen this week’s WIFF to deliberately launch a campaign to designate as Restricted movies in which actors smoke, isn’t new. Health groups across North America have long been lobbying for some sort of restrictive code. More than 10 years ago World No Tobacco Day focused on eliminating tobacco content in movies targeting younger audiences. To me this is social engineering and I’m against it. But I’m constantly amazed by how many films still feature characters’ smoking. Not that the smoking bothers me per se. It’s that it seems so out of touch with how average people live their lives these days. Smoking is way down among the general population. Why isn’t this reflected in the movies?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Birdman and Keaton fly high

I tried for four-on-four last weekend. But I only made it to three. These were Viktor (Philippe Martinez, 2014), starring uber garrulous Gérard Depardieu, he of the seven bottles a day wine habit (that’s my man!) and justifiably notorious tax refugee (I’ll second that!). That was followed by Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) (picture left) starring Michael Keaton. Finally, there was Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent with Bill Murray. The fourth film that I wanted to get to, and am kicking myself that I didn’t, was Matthew Amalric’s The Blue Room (2014) starring the same. The AMC Lavonia 20 was the only cinema screening it. Wouldn’t you know, it’s gone this weekend….Which makes me want to comment on the threadbare audiences for critically acclaimed films in Detroit. Viktor, for example, had just one screening at Cinema Detroit in the old Burton International School on Cass Ave. I, dear readers, was the only person in attendance. There was a full human skeleton a few rows over in a seat but something tells me it didn’t pay…..In any case, here are a few capsule reviews: 

Viktor: Ah, the Russian Mafia. When I think of the Russian Mafia I think they’ve got to be just so many more times worse than their Italian kin. Depardieu as the redoubtable Viktor, just released from prison, seeks revenge for his son’s death. We’re taken on a tour of the Moscow underworld, which is great because it includes some stunning above world scenes of the contemporary city, along with Viktor’s solitary (of course) walk through Red Square. I’d pay to see Depardieu in just about anything. And in this picture he doesn’t much more than mumble and slowly amble along. That’s okay. Otherwise we’re treated to a slurry of mob clichés and a predictable story. 

Birdman: Here’s the first movie in a while I can say I was blown away by. (It helps if you haven’t read anything about the film.) This is a movie about the acting trade or more specifically one actor’s (Keaton as Riggan) attempt to redeem himself on the lofty stages of Broadway after selling out and becoming a schlock actor in Hollywood comic book adventure movies. Birdman can be a stand in for Keaton’s real life roles in the Batman franchise – yuck yuck. Not only does this film have a terrific cast (Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis) but as per its namesake it flies in terms of cinematography, plot and sheer top-of-form acting.  

St. Vincent: Leave it to me to conclude that this was an edgy-break-new-territory film about a nasty misanthrope. Murray as Vincent is a narcissistic people-hater alright. But this story about a Vietnam vet frozen in time travels a predictable path as he reluctantly befriends an elementary school kid (Jaeden Lieberher), son of his new next door neighbour Maggie (Melissa McCarthy). The movie ends up being pretty mainstream schmaltzy. 

As for The Blue Room, I’m doubly mad at myself for being so lackadaisical and missing it, especially after today re-reading the description: “Two adulterous lovers go from pillow talk to possible murder in this sexy, brain-teasing thriller. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Grand Budapest Hotel) directs and stars as Julien…Based on a novel by celebrated crime writer Georges Simenon, this beguiling cinematic puzzle unfolds in an elliptical style that keeps the audience guessing every step of the way.”