Saturday, March 10, 2018

Word to the wise: it's TV not film

As I’ve written before I’m not a great fan of Netflix. It’s movie samplings are meagre and play to the midstream. I’m amazed so many professional critics still laud the site…..For example, this week, I tried in vain to find a film I hadn’t seen in the theatres that approached a semblance of interest, and landed on Peace Love and Misunderstanding (Bruce Beresford, 2011) starring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener (I’ve now seen three Catherine Keener-starring films over the past couple of weeks: two in theatres, Nostalgia (Mark Pellington) and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)). The film was light-hearted but predictable in the clash between conservative/straight and hippie/wanderlust; guess which side wins out? ….. But it seems a lot of people use Netflix for watching – or binge-watching – television shows, something I don’t do, since no shows have appealed to me. But yesterday, after reading a New York Times digest of current edgier TV series, I decided to take the plunge, and sampled three series…...Two of the series Babylon Berlin (pictured) and The Same Sky were from Germany, and from England, Peaky Blinders. I watched the first episode of each.  Both Babylon Berlin and Peaky Blinders offered an overflow (a good thing) of atmospherics, both set in pre-WW II Europe. But plots (each had at least two simultaneous threads) were ever-so-slow starting and drawn-out, and therefore seeming convoluted. It left me wondering if this is the nature of TV.  After all, if you have one or two major themes, you must develop them over six hours or more, instead of a film’s average hour and a half. Consequently, it wasn’t obvious what each series was about. Babylon Berlin depicted the decades of the Weimar Republic, showing the period’s libertine values – a porn studio - and the nascent start of Communist-Nazi street battles. But what was the uptick after episode one?  Peaky Blinders depicted a street gang in Birmingham where members wear razor blades in their peaked caps to, yes, blind their opponents, but thankfully the episode wasn’t as violent as expected. Again, there was a slowly-emerging plot but great sets (amazing what computerized effects will do to create pre-war scenes of Birmingham’s factories and Berlin’s Alexanderplatz) and superb wardrobes and styles. Both series get the “look” of the era down. But, scintillating, grabbing plots? Not in the beginning, at least ……Then there was the series The Same Sky, set in the mid-1970s in a divided East and West Berlin, where spying across The Berlin Wall was rampant. This series interested me more, maybe because I’m a student of that era’s Berlin. But it also had interesting well-directed scenes that showed how a Communist spy was recruited with side stories of the characters’ family lives. However, the series took one hour build up to the start of the key scene; a movie would have nailed this in 15-20 minutes. Maybe TV has always been this way, and it’s been so long since I’ve watched it that I now notice how its plots just slog along.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscars, Schmoscars

Oscars, Schmoscars. Most years I could care less about  the Academy Awards’ late winter ceremony, just as I despise most award ceremonies – orgies of self-congratulations among self-satisfied elites. But, this year, more than ever ….. First, the nominations for Best Picture are the most popularly narrowest I’ve ever seen. What percentage of the public has seen Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water (the likeliest winner) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? These are all art house flics. And while this column covers primarily art house pictures, even on this level, most of these films' subject matter never struck a chord with me, and I consequently haven’t seen them. Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino) is a flavor-of-the month story of a gay couple. I’ve already reviewed Lady Bird, an overrated film by Hollywood’s current darling Greta Gerwig. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) admittedly has populist appeal and was a critical hit. But I found it, among other things, seriously compromised by poorly executed location shots that showed the modern city behind the staged war action! I hear that Darkest Hour (Joe Wright) is brilliant, or at least Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is. And I don’t doubt it. But after having seen Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill at WIFF last fall, starring Brian Cox in a role I found highly historically questionable, another Churchill biopic was just too much. Sorry, but I have no desire to relive the Pentagon Papers news phenom of the early 1970s in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a media sensation I always associated, anyway, with The New York Times and not The Washington Post – a  current controversy over this fact rages. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a bizarre almost unbelievable fantasy in the del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) tradition, and consequently seemed uninspiring. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by British director Martin McDonough is another flavor of the month story about America’s supposed uber racism. Get Out (Jordan Peele) does interest me and I may even see it tonight (while the Oscars are on) because, while seemingly about race, it has a lot of other elements and plot twists. But Best Picture Oscar material? We’ll see. Finally, Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis (his supposed final role) with Lesley Manville, about the 1950s London fashion world, is a topic and era that interest me. So I’ll reserve judgment. But virtually all these films have had little popular appeal, though I realize that shouldn’t be the only criteria ….. And, second, the other reason for “Schmoscars” this year is the apparent uber politicization of the ceremony in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein et all Hollywood sex abuse scandals. Yes, they’re horrible. But the Oscars have been politicized enough over the years – a double or triple dose this year for a ceremony the vast majority of people watch just to have fun (or criticize the women’s fashions), is a complete and utter bore.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar short docs: art blooms from adversity

The problem I have with this year’s list of Oscar nominated short documentaries is the same I have with the short live action nominations – they’re pretty much all-too-serious and kind of downers to boot. And why, pray tell, are they all from the US?…..First up is Edith & Eddie (Laura Checkoway, USA, 29 mins), a film about an unlikely pair of ninety-something newlyweds, who get along blissfully as if they were spring chickens. Until, that is, family members intervene, and supposedly for the good of the couple’s psychic and physical health, separate them by moving Edith, her protests notwithstanding, hundreds of miles away, never to see her husband again. The story is heartfelt, disturbing and tragic …... Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, USA, 40 mins; pictured) is my pick for best film. And only because of its revelation of a scarcely known but absolutely outstanding artist, Mindy Alper. Working in an array of media, Alper’s sculptures amazingly capture the complex personalities of her subjects. Yet there is a downside to the movie: Alper’s lifelong battle with mental illness. There are times viewers may wonder whether they should be celebrating the woman’s artistic brilliance or crying over her tormented background …... Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, USA, 39 mins) is a peek into the city of Huntington, West Virginia, which happens to have the highest rate of drug overdoses in the US. The film depicts three people who are trying to break the pattern – the fire chief (Jan Rader), Patricia Keller (the drug court judge) and Necia Freeman, who brings meals to female addicts. Each is tough, committed, and especially in Judge Keller’s court, brings innovative solutions to curb the opioid epidemic in a deindustrialized Appalachian town …... Knife Skills (Thomas Lennon, USA, 40 mins) is another film that looks at the underside of society, in this case Ohio ex-convicts employed by the owner of an upscale Cleveland French restaurant, to be retrained in culinary arts. Most but not all find themselves rather transformed by their new careers, providing not just fulfillment but a sense of creativity. Restaurant owner Brandon Chrostowski himself is no stranger to having a long ago run-in with the law. ….. Traffic Stop (Kate Davis, USA, 31 mins) juxtaposes the serene, smart educator Breaion King, a dedicated professional in her classroom, with videotape of a police stop of her for speeding in Austin, Tx, in which the police wrestle King to the ground and arrest her. (She’s suing one officer.) The film obviously references the numerous controversial police arrests and real or alleged violence perpetuated by officers against black people, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the dash cam video, while King is mildly uncooperative with police, there's no reason for the officer’s excessive force. But it also seems difficult to prove a racist motive: this could have happened to anyone regardless of skin color. However, there are a couple of moments when an officer’s squad car comments about the black community do have racist overtures.

(Oscar-nominated short documentary films will be screened again this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Oscar Animation shorts: croak in more ways than one

Dear Basketball, Kobe Bryant’s ode to his basketball career, appears an odds-on fave for the Oscar best animated film. It is a sweet serenade to the game, with ex-Disney artist Glen Keane as director (Bryant is a producer) doing the visual honors over five minutes. I’m not quite sure why it’s an odds-on favorite, other than to honor an obvious US sports megastar (well, duh!). Sure, the film is poetic but, in grayish watercolor type drawings, hardly the most inventive, let alone interesting, animation, on offer this year …... That would be the next film, Garden Party, from France (helmed by Florian Babiklan) closing in on seven minutes, though it seems delightfully longer, and which has already won almost 25 awards at various film festivals. In the film, frogs have taken over a sumptuous mansion and are having a grand old time, tumbling into a jar of macaroons or hoping on to the controls of a hi-tech entertainment system, blasting sound throughout. But the mansion is abandoned, its interior disheveled as if after a week-long debauchery…or something else. We finally find out what it is in the final scene, which is a grand play on an underworld crime stereotype. This film deserves to win because of its sheer juxtaposition of lovable amphibians against malevolent squalor. ….. Lou (David Mullins, United States, 7 mins), by a veteran Pixar animator, serves up an inventive story about a kind of ghost – Lou – who hangs out in a school yard lost and found box, and is really the kids’ best friend against the, well, school yard bully. Cute, enjoyable, but not the strongest flic in the roster…… Negative Space (Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, France, 6 minutes) takes a peculiar obsession and builds a whole story around it. Yes, you all know of the experts who tell of the most efficient ways to pack your travel bags (roll those socks up!). In this film, the directors have fun with the concept to the nth degree. Sure, this short puts a smile on your face. But an award for such a trivial subject? ..... Revolting Rhymes (Jakob Schuh & Jan Lachauer, UK) is the lengthiest of the nominations at 29 minutes, basing its intertwining fairy tales on the spins that diabolical children’s author Roald Dahl had given them. This flic is certainly well made in its multidimensionality, with plenty of whim and chuckles as fairy tale characters come to bizarre and unseemly life. But it’s length is also its undoing – there’s just too much to chew on to maintain impact.

(Oscar nominations for Animation short films will again be screened this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Oscar Live Action: whimsy over message, please

This year’s offering of Oscar Short Live Action films suffers from one big word: four of the five are MESSAGE films. Whatever happened to comedy, whimsy or indeed straight narrative about someone or something, without the drift into moral statement? Methinks the crop of young filmmakers has grown up believing the only way to make films is with a message. Of course, I imagine few people (necessarily) dislike messages, but after a while, like anything else, the brain tunes out. Moreover, this year’s crop of films has messages with an obvious down or depressing quality.…. After the terrible Parkland Fla. school shooting last week one wonders if the first of these films, Reed Van Dyk’s Dekalb Elementary’s (USA, 20 mins), chances of winning will rise. The film is based on a true incident that took place in Atlanta. A youth with mental issues walks into the school carrying an assault rifle. The school secretary tries to calm him. No bullets are fired inside the school, but a few shots are directed at police. Yet there are a couple of scenes that don’t seem believable – when he leaves the office and the secretary doesn’t run for help, and the length of time it takes for police to reach the office after the attacker given up…….Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett (USA, 20 mins), tells the story of the well-known 1950s death of Emmett Till, the Chicago teen who is visiting his family in the South, flirts with a white woman, and pays the consequences by being murdered. The acting is good with slowly and subtly rising drama. The film also tells the “inside” story from Till’s family’s perspective. But this is a message movie in a year when the genre is overdone……The Eleven O’clock (Derin Seale, Australia, 13 mins, pictured) is my choice for Oscar. Why? Because it departs so refreshingly from the other entries. It’s not just a comedy but, in the best shorts tradition, deftly constructs a mind-bending plot twist that will make you rethink your previous judgements…..The Silent Child (Chris Overton, UK, 20 mins) is a very well-acted film that, while carrying a message, is heartfelt and broaches a subject that receives not enough attention – deaf children and how they should be properly educated, apparently as overwhelming form of neglect. Rachel Shenton, who wrote the screen play, is especially good as a caring but astute social worker……Finally, Watu Wote/All of Us (Katja Benrath, Germany & Kenya, 23 mins), is the most on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama of all the films. It depicts an almost day long bus ride through some of Kenya’s most remote and terrorist-infested areas. The story culminates in an event after which one of the passengers, skeptical of another religion, is protected by those religion’s adherents. Despite the film’s obvious acting and directing merits, the message is ultimately predictable.

(Oscar nominations for Short Live Action films will again be screened this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Now there's scientific proof

With the Detroit Pistons recently acquiring NBA all-star Blake Griffin, that might be reason alone to see another side of the Slam Dunk Champion’s skills – comedy acting. Because Griffin happens to star in The Female Brain (opening today at the AMC Star Southfield 20), a satirical look at, yes, male-female relationships, but from an utterly different point of view. Don’t be put off by the early didactic tones of our neurological professor (the versatile director Whitney Cummings, co-creator of 2 Broke Girls), who explains that centuries of study provide scientific clues as to why women and men act the way they do. When one of those “ah ha” moments in the interactions of the three couples portrayed in the film rear its head (women are “neurotic”, “seek consensus” or lack “spatial orientation”, or he’s a “cave man”, controlling, etc.) the frame freezes and there’s an overlaid visual effect that accurately describes what the brain is responding to and brief scientific description of why she – or he – predictably acts the way they do, laughingly reduced to current slang. The film is based on the book by Louann Brizendine. The film's three couples are composed of characters you may know from TV and film including Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Beanie Feldstein (Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird) and Cecila Strong (SNL). Marlo Thomas also has a small role. And, of course, our NBA and Pistons champ, if he can only bring the team alive! They all have problems or issues and, yes, the female-male dynamic raises its head throughout, mostly in humorous ways. Griffin’s Greg must assert his domestic manliness as a bumbling do-it-yourselfer. Vergara’s Lisa can’t figure out why there’s not much emotional, let alone sexual, response, in her marriage. The film might be criticized for playing, ironically, on stereotypes, though the filmmakers would argue they’re all scientifically-based. But there are twists. James Marsden’s Adam hates the way GF Lexi (Lucy Punch) is trying to change him. And, delicious irony of all, Toby Kebbell’s Kevin wants to go slow with the straight-laced professor and part-narrator Julia (Cummings), a ball of scientific and feminist contradictions.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Hiatus for now, but

Hi folks, it's been a busy late fall - mainly as a result of travel and my "day job" as a freelance journalist - hence the reason for the dearth of recent posts. Unfortunately, more of the same will continue into January. I'm going to revisit my time allotment come the end of January, and if I can keep up the blog then, I will.

Meanwhile, a couple of takes on recent films: Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is vastly overrated – an unbelievable rating of 99% at Rotten Tomatoes - huh!? Rather, it’s a competently-directed first effort by the acting It Girl of recent years, a fave of mine as well and methinks a sentimental favorite of the critics. But it tells a ho-hum story of a rebellious teen - very much modelled on Gerwig's own life – surprise! - that is no different from scores of other coming-of-age movies...And one film that hasn’t been mentioned much in terms of accolades, or mentioned at all, is Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel (photo above) starring Denzel Washington. Washington plays a legal savant and a has been Sixties radical who still is fighting the good fight, even if he’s somewhat rough around the edges. This film, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes. When was the last time that happened?