Monday, November 23, 2015

Two at the DFT

This weekend I caught Gueros (2014, Alonso Ruiz Palacios) as well as this year’s Taxi (Jafar Panahi), the two films on tap at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT), with Taxi also playing next weekend……Gueros intrigued me because it was a take on youthful alienation and something of a nod to the French New Wave. And Taxi, because it’s Iranian and made by perhaps that country’s leading filmmaker and which has generated a lot of publicity during its screenings at numerous art houses this fall……First, Gueros. What you notice first is that this film is in 4:3 aspect ratio so it appears on the screen more like a square than a rectangle, and the fact it’s shot in black and white. No biggie there, it was the subject matter that interested me. The film has been hailed by the critics and yes it certainly does have enough references to the kind of meandering story lines of the New Wave. But I thought the subject matter was barely interesting. The central character Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre) gets kicked out of his home to live with his older university-going brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) in Mexico City. Everywhere he goes people remark on his light skin, hence the movie’s name, showing that racism exists, even unintentionally, in every society. Sombra is on strike, against a strike, by fellow university students, who have laid in for a long occupation of their presumably liberal arts campus. I thought this was an interesting aspect of the movie but the director brings no edge to it. Is Sombra politically against the strike or simply indifferent? More the latter. The two characters plus a roommate and a student leader, Ana (Ilse Salas) decide to leave the university’s fractious atmosphere and go on a drive in search of a legendary Mexican pop star, whose voice “once made Bob Dylan cry.” They find him but don’t get the reception they wanted. So what’s the film about? If anything ennui, that politics doesn’t matter, and that life is for filling in any haphazard way you want. It’s these very aspects that induced a bit of ennui in me…..Now to Taxi. The film by the celebrated and persecuted (by the Iranian authorities) Panahi is a rather light slice of life. Panahi plays a taxi driver (picture above) picking up fares around Tehran, with virtually everything filmed from a dashboard camera. The characters are disparate, from a man and woman arguing over the death penalty, to two older women carrying a fish bowl, to a cyclist bleeding from an accident, to a young filmmaker played by the filmmaker’s niece, Hana, who harangues the good-natured Panahi as she goes about making her own school project film. One wonders what all this is supposed to add up to. There’s a reference to the Iranian theocracy’s oppression, as Hana reads the strict guidelines about who should be the good guys and bad guys according to official state policy. It’s not until the end of the movie that we come face to face with the real wall of oppression on a sunlit Tehran day. Altogether, Taxi is a series of whimsical character studies, ending with a surprising and not so pleasant kick in the teeth. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Festival's benign neglect should end

The causal indifference the City of Windsor shows the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), now in its 11th year, might be explained by many things. First, arts has never been big on the radar screen in the City of Roses. If anything, sports has long been the centre of attention. This city, for instance, like all of Canada, is hockey mad. But not simply hockey. Baseball tourneys and high school meets, bring serious money into Windsor, as witnessed by the solidly booked hotels for major sport gatherings. Despite the WIFF’s increasing success (17,000 tickets sold this month over six says, 2,000 higher than last year’s 10th anniversary nine-day run) it can’t boast that. So there’s been an inbred bias for sports and against the arts. But the world is changing and it’s time for city leaders to take note. Arts itself is becoming big business everywhere. Film festivals are springing up in the smallest of cities across North America. Summer time festivals which accent creative artwork and crafts keep growing. The visual arts itself has found a new audience and developed a cool cachet; just check out Grand Rapids’ stellar Art Prize every fall. And the so-called Creative Class, even in Windsor, is a demographic city planners seek to lure. Backers of WIFF say it transforms the downtown and gives shots in the arm to businesses like restaurants and cafes between screenings. But that takes place for only one week a year. WIFF of course would like to expand that and up until several months ago was offering monthly film screenings. It’s up to the city to recognize it has a growing new industry, non-profit or not, given its business spinoffs and potential for commercial and non-commercial growth like film studies and production workshop and studios. City hall could do several things to facilitate this without taking a big whack to taxpayers. It could provide free or discounted rental of the Capitol Theatre to the festival, and eliminate its $1 surcharge on tickets. Supporting WIFF would also have other benefits. It would meld with the city’s efforts to bring post-secondary education downtown as well as lure more Millennials to the core. However, WIFF might also seek alternatives. It could scout for better or cheaper facilities. The demise of the Palace Cinemas has relegated WIFF to a largely uncomfortable Capitol Theatre. The Jewish Film Festival uses much better facilities at Devonshire Cineplex, where perhaps some of WIFF’s films could be shown. But bottom line is WIFF has been the object of benign neglect for too long. Times, and demographics, are changing, and it’s time the city wakes up.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

See you soon

I am taking a break for about a month and therefore will miss this year's fab Windsor International Film Festival, the lineup for which was announced last week (, among other cinematic delights. See you in late November!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Capsule reviews from recent travels

Some capsule reviews of films I caught recently on travels in New York and New England, which may or may not have or will play locally:

Breathe (2014) - Actress Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) is a superb director and her latest film shows why. You know what happens when you befriend a more self-assured, outgoing and a bit idiosyncratic friend in high school. They become a kind of hero and you become their protégé. Such is the case with Charlie (Josephine Japy) and her affection for Sarah (Lou De Laage) (picture above), the new girl in class. But what becomes an endearing if unequal friendship sours as Sarah takes on the trappings of a sociopath. This is eyeball-riveting stuff from beginning to end.

The Fool (Yuri Bykov, 2014) The story centers on an honest workman (Artyom Bystrov) in a teeming public housing slum on the outskirts of a contemporary Russian city. A busted pipe exposes a huge crack in the wall of the nine storey building, shifting the foundation and which will cause an imminent collapse. The movie is all about corruption. This could have been made 40 years ago and the indictment would have been against Soviet authorities. Today, it’s local politicians in an allegory for Putin’s Russia whose dereliction is the source of calamity. The acting is generally good though I felt the flick had something of a stage-managed presence with scenes carefully calibrated.

Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014) (currently screening in Detroit) is a horror film, yes. But in the hands of these deft Austrian filmmakers right away you know this isn’t going to be Hollywoodish. And you can see why it was that country’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Horror is always best when it’s more psychological than starkly visual though this film mediates successfully between the two. Two boys (played by namesake brothers Elias and Lukas Schwarz) find their mother (Susanne Wuest) much changed after having facial surgery. Still wearing gruesome bandages she looks like, well, an Egyptian mummy. She’s ill-humoured and seemingly picks on one child over the other. The boys come to the conclusion she isn’t their mother and begin a series of tests to prove for sure.

Leaning to Drive (Isabel Coixet, 2014) This is an intelligent feel good story about two very different classes of New Yorkers - a struggling Sikh immigrant from Queens, Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), and an Upper West Side well-off writer, Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson). Shields, recently divorced, has never learned to drive and decides to take lessons. Darwan, a taxi driver, has a second job as driving instructor. The movie takes us on their various driving classes on the streets of New York with Shields’s inevitable miscues behind the wheel. The movie’s humorous, yes, but also subtly endearing as the friendship between the two characters builds. It’s a modern tale of people from both sides of the tracks, or in this case the river.  

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.