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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

This generation's Virginia Woolf

Between/Us (2013, Dan Mirvish) is this generation’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966, Mike Nichols). Like the earlier picture, based on the Edward Albee play, it features two couples. Emotions are revealed, truths uttered too literally. And marriage breakdown is in the offing in this Millennial Generation equivalent of the famous Burton-Taylor combo playing opposite George Segal and Sandy Dennis…..Here we have Taye Diggs and Julia Stiles as the bohemian Brooklyn couple versus David Harbour and Melissa George’s upper crust Midwesterners. Part of the film takes place in the gated community home of the latter, part – in film time a couple of years later – in the cramped messy abode of the former. Lifestyle-wise these couples couldn’t be more different although they had a sinew of friendship. What’s left falls apart over the two meetings, and it ain’t pretty. The movie scores on all points – great direction, acting, hand-held camera often in claustrophobic situations.

There are under-the-radar films – movies one's never heard of – but which apparently did get released. I saw two of these on the weekend…..One, Bigger Than the Sky (2005, Al Corley) stars John Corbett and Patty Duke, of all people. The story is slight. Overly earnest Peter (Marcus Thomas), dumped by his girlfriend, seeks a role in a community theatre company. He’s never acted and the plot is about how he integrates himself into the world of "crazy" theatre people. The movie is plodding and as earnest as the character himself though you have to give it credit for trying to capture the real world of amateur theatre. Corbett and Amy Smart (as the leading lady) are particularly good.……Then there was a movie with a similar title, Reaching for the Moon (2013, Bruno Barreto of 2000’s Bossa Nova and 1976’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands), a film set in New York and Brazil based on the life of Pulitzer winning post-war poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop (Miranda Otto) travels to Brazil for a respite but discovers the wonders of an exotic society and the love of esteemed architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires). Unfortunately a ménage à trois develops (the third woman is Mary Morse played by Tracy Middendorf) and we know how those go. This is a pretty good biopic with a lot of subtlety exploring the relationships of these three women. Treat Williams plays poet Robert Lowell.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Roughing it at the movies

They say camping is roughing it. But on a recent camping trip – travelling around Lake Superior – perhaps the roughest part was finding a decent movie to go to in the evening. I tried to pick campgrounds near towns that were large enough to have at least one movie theatre. In Mackinaw City Michigan, for example, there was the Courtyard. In Iron Wood, Mi. – a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border in the UP – there was Cloverland Cinemas. And in lovely Sturgeon Bay, Wis. – a tourist and outdoor recreational mecca north of Green Bay – there was good ol’ Cinema 6. In one city, Thunder Bay, Ontario, I decamped in a motel because of a massive downpour.  The helpful clerk at the reservation desk recommended Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors with Zac Efron and Seth Rogen. But when I discovered my room’s cable had Turner Classic Movies I knew I need not go anywhere else and opted for Howard Hawks’s 1938 Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and an extremely zany Kate Hepburn. Finally in South Haven, Michigan, the only movie at the Michigan Theatre (how many Michigan / State Theatres are there in the state of Michigan? There are also ones in Ann Arbor and Traverse City) I hadn’t seen was Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. But by this point I had had my fill of schlock so went back to the campground to make a, well, campfire instead….. The thing to know about small theatres in Anywhere North America is that the offerings are, shall we say, limited (and not in engagement). Let’s call them Top of the Schlock. So in Mackinaw City I chose what I thought was the best, or least worst. That was Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent. In Iron Wood, it was, alas, Neighbors. And in Sturgeon Bay it was Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. Here are capsule reviews:

Maleficent: It makes sense that Stromberg, who directed the otherworldly and spooky 2006 Pam’s Labyrinth, made this, since Maleficient’s forests are as exotic and creepy. This is a remake of Sleeping Beauty, folks, and the special effects are impressive. If you like sci-fi, chivalry, knights and castles, and all that stuff, this is for you, though it didn’t seem to set the few kids in the audience on fire.

Neighbors: I have to hand it to director Stoller. He threw everything into this kind of Animal House update. The arguments, fighting, and alcohol and drug induced partying seemed all very real, taking me back, er, to my own high school years. But for all the fireworks and mayhem this seemed labored and beside the point.

Godzilla: This very realistic remake has Godzilla battling monster bird like creatures, all feeding off of radiation, as per the reason for the original Godzilla franchise. The scenes of a destroyed Waikiki Beach or San Francisco are extremely well done – what they can do with effects these days! But this is a dark and depressing movie, making one feel there is no human hope to survive powers we cannot control.