Friday, March 24, 2017

Flirting with the paranormal

Let’s see now. Kristen Stewart (aka Maureen) is an American in Paris working as a personal shopper in the film by the same name, directed by France’s Olivier Assayas (update from distributor: the film originally was to open March 24 but now is to open March 31 at the Birmingham 8 and Livonia 20) for a famed model/celebrity/star (Nora von Waldstätten), whom we – and she – hardly ever see. Maureen apparently needs the money even thought she detests the job, which keeps her from more interesting pursuits. Like being a medium? For Maureen seems to freelance in trying to detect the paranormal, and checks out a country estate where in fact she does make contact with a ghost who vomits ectoplasm, one of the more convincing apparitions I’ve seen on screen. And despite all the fringe benefits of her job (buying at chic Paris and London boutiques, travelling Eurostar first class, hanging around her employer’s opulent penthouse) she seems depressed and at sea, owing perhaps to her brother Lewis’s recent death (why? We don’t know), with whom she of course is trying to communicate. Meanwhile her boyfriend (Ty Olwin) is hundreds of miles away in Oman, a contract techie fortifying a foreign government’s computer security. Despite Maureen’s disdain of fashion, she has a yen to try on her employer’s recently bought clothes, which also is a sexual thrill. Meanwhile her iPhone has been breached by an unknown texter, who’s both friendly and frightening but who won’t reveal his identity and could be her brother. “I thought you wanted to be someone else,” he says of her almost transvestite behaviour. And, “I prefer you like this” when she’s in an armor-like shimmering dress. When he threateningly says he’s tracking her and is now on the apartment landing, Maureen looks out the peep hole and can’t see anything. After returning from Cartier with a high-priced necklace and earrings, Maureen makes an unsavory discovery. There’s no apparent motive or assailant though the police think it's her. Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – also starring Stewart – and Summer Hours (2008) – won best director at Cannes for this, which he also wrote. Really? This two-tract (the shopper and the spiritualist) film seems not to know where it’s going, with all sorts of unresolved dilemmas (Maureen’s job ambivalence, her unfulfilled psychic quest, and is Lewis haunting her?) that adds up to a ho hum story, the best aspects of which might be the street realism of Paris, London, and high-speed train travel between the two cities.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Gasparilla ends; now what are these films' future?

The one-week Gasparilla International Film Festival, in Tampa Florida, ended last night and here are my final set of reviews for the films I chose to see. Let’s hope some of the films screened get wide distribution, always a concern at festivals where even very good movies may otherwise never see the light of day.

Future 38 (Jamie Greenberg): This movie throws all the tropes of 1930s films together in a comedy that mixes old with the new. Our hero Essex (Nick Westrate) is sent on a time-travelling mission to seek a matured isotope which can be used as a weapon to stymie the Germans before they launch World War II. He finds himself in New York in 2018, and is there ever a world of difference! Only it’s not quite what you think. The old and the new have a way of coming together in strange ways in this hilarious film which serves up 30s-era repartee (“I feel like I just cracked the world’s biggest fortune cookie”). Formica, of course, plays a special role.

Handsome Devil (John Butler): This Irish boarding school film is a technically well made coming of age story that also debunks gay stereotypes, while serving up a few of its own. Ned Roche (Fionn O’Shea) is shunned because of his sexuality yet it is he who turns the table on the school with a big reveal.

King Charles (Nicholas Naylor) This was a local crowd-pleaser because it was filmed in and around the Tampa area. I’m not big on movies about cops and drug dealers but this sustained my interest. The acting could have been better but there was enough excitement and plot twists to string me along. Troy D. Williams is the starring DEA agent working on the margins to bring down a drug kingpin (Rod Grant as Mitchell Caldwell). 

Women Who Kill (Ingrid Jungermann): This was a wry comedy sending up, intentionally or not, that whole Portlandia-like hippie milieu found, in this case, at a Brooklyn co-op market. No one smiles among the volunteers while two central characters, Morgan (played by Jungermann herself) and Jean (Ann Carr) – who also host a podcast about female serial killers – sort out the ragged ends of their relationship when a mysterious Simone (Sheila Vand) comes along. Full of angst-laden psychobabble among the fair trade set, the film is a rare treat.

Carrie Pilby (Susan Johnson): Based on the novel by Caren Lissner this is a delicious comedy about an intellectually precocious graduate student (Bel Powley) who’s IQ and superior ethics make her feel she can’t associate with the rest of the world, who are all inferior, of course. Her shrink (Nathan Lane) tries to get her outside her shell but it’s a tough slog for our hero, who can see through other people’s games and postures. Gabriel Byrne as Carrie’s dad rounds off the three main characters.

All Nighter (Gavin Wiesen): Emile Hirsch as Martin and J. K. Simmons as Mr. Gallo, Martin’s ex-girlfriend’s father, go on a bender trying to track down the missing Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton) in a rollicking road movie – if only around L. A. – where the twosome’s adventures result in some crazy and hilarious encounters. Comedy, yes, but also a coming of age film in its own way.

Unleashed (Finn Taylor): (Post-screening Q & A with director and producer in photo above) This closing night film was a crowd pleaser because of its predictable scenarios. Emma's (Kate Micucci) cat and dog are transformed by the cosmos into two hunks of men. I thought the premise was that the transmogrified animals would be the ideal males we hear women so much want. But these guys keep their animal instincts and still can’t get close, though they sure are cute. Maybe that’s the point.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Four more from Gasparilla

The Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa continues. The ambitious, professionally-run and well-funded festival, has been disappointing only in that its screenings haven’t attracted large audiences. Here are some more capsule reviews as the festival continues until Thursday.

The Sense of an Ending (Ritesh Batra): The film, starring Jim Broadbent, Emily Mortimore and Charlotte Rampling, is based on the book by contemporary Brit author Julian Barnes, and takes an episode from it to tell the story of a youthful romantic dalliance and the far-reaching consequences, understood only later in life. All the acting is good, with Broadbent as a curmudgeon a bit of a hoot in a bittersweet story than spans the generations.

Breakable You (Andrew Wagner): This is the best film I’ve seen so far, a character study with a star-studded cast including Holly Hunter, Tony Shalhoub and Alfred Molina. It’s also about theatre people and Manhattan’s Upper West Side intellectual milieu. The film rotates among several sub-stories concerning different individuals or couples, all related by family or profession. It made me think of the long-ago TV series Family with its mining of rich psychological themes and characters’ moral dilemmas. An entirely absorbing movie.

Past Life (Avi Nesher): This film, which takes place in Israel and Europe circa 1977, pits the father of two young women against his accuser for a death that took place during the Second World War. The father (Doron Tavory), a Holocaust survivor, reveals to his daughters his implication in an almost whodunit tragedy. While that is the overriding story almost as interesting is the dynamics between the two daughters -  Sephi (Joy Rieger), a music student, and Nana (Nelly Tagar), an acerbic journalist. World War II is much distant now, but in 1977 the wounds were still somewhat raw. Good performances all around although the story can seem convoluted; you have to pay attention.

Veras Mantel (Ronald Unterberger): From Germany, a horror film about a famous writer who suffers from agoraphobia. Shut-in, she freezes upon moving beyond the edge of her doorway. The film’s premise is good, as the plot is about her being unable to escape a deranged fan. But it sinks because the clichés are pretty horrible, including a police investigator who wears an oversized Columbo trench coat, and a bronze-faced tormenter. Nevertheless, there still are a few chills and the main character, Veras, is convincing as the terror-stricken victim.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Greetings from the Sunshine State

Some people go to Florida for the sun. I go for the darkness. I’m attending the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, a decade-old event which is still in growth mode. The gala opening party Thursday attracted a who’s-who of the local arts and business (sponsors) scene, and the iconic downtown Tampa Theatre (the interior designed like a Tuscan village) was almost full. Screenings on the first day at the Muvico modern complex in historic Ybor City (where there are still hand-rolled cigar factories) were less so for a festival still seemingly feeling its way. Here’s what I’ve seen so far.

Burn Your Maps (Jordan Roberts; opening night film): This is a comedy with an earnest message. Wes is a child with a rich fantasy life and imagines himself a Mongolian goat-herder, to the vast dismay of his parents, or at least his father (Marton Csokas). Wes’s parents have marital problems. His mom (Vera Farmiga) finds liberation by travelling to Mongolia with Wes to fulfill his dream. There she meets up with another dreamer, a “retired” nun (Virginia Madsen) who seems a footloose hippie. The film’s big problem is structural. It takes a long time to get to the point where the family travels to Mongolia, and then the lengthy Mongolian scenes aren’t all that interesting. However, it’s funny to find that the supposedly exotic Mongolia has similarities to home, including cell phones, modern rental cars and baseball caps worn by real goat-herders. The movie also overuses the trope of the whimsical and stubborn kid who unites the family.

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog): This 2015 film about the early 20th century archeologist and influential Brit imperialist Gertrude Bell, a woman well before her time, has great touches we would expect from accomplished indie director Herzog: magnificent desert scenes and rich traditional Bedouin sets and costumes. The problem is that, at over two hours, it’s languorous. Nor does it fully explain the character of the larger than life Bell, who travelled on her own through what was the Ottoman Empire and would soon become the modern Middle East. As an archeologist what did she discover? Instead there are numerous scenes of her (played by Nicole Kidman) on camelback travelling through the wandering sands. Nothing against Kidman, but her character just doesn’t seem rugged enough; that glamorous porcelain face lacks the grit of years of travelling against blinding sandstorms and piercing sun. 

Dean (Demetri Martin): This film works the well-worn cliches of New York vs Los Angeles for a new generation, and succeeds. Just like Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall, Dean (played by Martin) is a wry, skeptical New Yorker, aghast at the over-the-top hipster trappings of a “creative class” agency, where his revealing stick drawings (also done by Martin) are much sought. Also well done is the fact that, just like in life, the film’s motto might be: expect the unexpected. For example, (not a spoiler alert), Dean falls for Nicky (Gillian Jacobs, who is stunningly made for the screen; this is a compliment) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) falls for Dean’s dad Robert (Kevin Kline). There’s a lot of truth in the chuckles, and even slapstick, built into this enjoyable film.

The Architect (Jonathan Parker): This is possibly my favorite film so far. It’s a character study of an architect (James Frain) and his clients (Parker Posey and Eric McCormack). Frain as Miles Moss is the ever so uncompromising architect-as-artist, who sucks his clients into designing his dream house. Posey, a housewife with artistic ambitions of her own, is the one who really bonds with Moss, swept away on his lofty, if arguably very true, philosophical musings about what design is all about. It’s fascinating to listen to Moses, a rare character type in films or life, though I met plenty of them in college and, looking back, it wasn’t such a bad thing. McCormack is the practical, rational foil to Posey’s flights of artistic fancy. The film, which, by the way, is also a comedy, works on different levels about art, integrity and corruption.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar nominated documentary shorts

Now it’s time for reviews of the Oscar nominated documentary shorts, being shown for public viewing this weekend and next at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). Let’s say right off the bat that someone could be excused for thinking there was a definite political or “message” being sent with this crop of nominees. There are five films altogether, three of which deal with the Middle Eastern migrant crisis. Each of course has merits as does the issue generally. But with the vast array of documentary selections to choose from, when does Hollywood stop being political and start showing movies for movies sake?

Joe’s Violin (USA – Kahane Cooperman) This is a story about a violin that has been the possession of a World War II Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, and how he came to own it (in exchange for a pack of cigarettes) in a displaced refugee camp. Now in his Nineties, Feingeld decided to donate the instrument to a public school musical arts class in the Bronx. We witness how one of its young students embraces the violin, and how happy she is to meet the donor. It’s a sweet story with some flashback poignancy, but doesn’t rise beyond a straightforward narrative.

Extremis (USA – Dan Krauss) This is film which may be difficult to watch, as it deals with two patients in an intensive care unit in an Oakland, California hospital. It’s an up-close portrayal of medical staff – one doctor in particular – as they assist the patients and their families in end of life care. The film is a sensitive depiction of the interaction among staff, the patients, and patients’ loved ones, but again, is solely a straightforward narrative.

4.1 Miles (USA/Greece – Daphne Matziaraki). This is the first of the migrant crisis films and follows the crew of a small Greek Coast Guard boat off the coast of the island of Lesbos, as it tries to save refugees on flimsy boats crossing the short distance from Turkey. For those who have just scanned the headlines or caught video clips of this humanitarian disaster, the film is an upfront, searing portrayal of the human aspect of this “issue.”

Watani: My Homeland (UK – Marcel Mettelsiefen) A family in the middle, of a warring neighbourhood in the Syrian city of Aleppo tries to survive amidst the daily shelling. When the father, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army, is captured by ISIS, the mother and her four children seek refugee asylum in Germany. The film follows their travels and new life in Europe. Again, as with 4.1 Miles, the close-up of the human impact of war is heart wrenching.

The White Helmets (USA – Orlando von Einsiedel) (photo above) This film is about a group of Syrian emergency workers who rescue people who may be trapped after a bombing during the current Syrian civil war. The group puts their lives in extreme danger – indeed, dozens have bene killed – as they climb through rubble and try to extricate victims. Like Watani: My Homeland, the filmmaker is present among the rescuers capturing scenes that show what, on a human level, is going on behind the headlines.

What film should win the Oscar: The White Helmets; what will win: The White Helmets.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar nominated shorts - animation & live action

This wasn’t the best crop of Oscar animation and live action shorts. But a weekend viewing at the Detroit Film Theatre (with Oscar nominated documentary shorts coming up next weekend) winnows the better from the just okay. I didn’t see anything bad but nothing spectacular either. 


Borrowed Time (USA - Andrew Coats & Kou Hamou-Lhadj) This Old Western story is about a sheriff and his underling who come under attack and must fend for themselves, with mixed results. Years later the boy is now the sheriff but has never gotten over the trauma. I’ll give the film an A for emotion but C for leaving the viewer confused about the disconnect between a long-ago event and a now grown man’s continuing grief. (Two out of five stars)

Pearl (USA – Patrick Osborne) Many of us of a certain age can remember growing up with tape decks and driving around the country, hitting the open road and letting our freak flags fly. But maturity settles us as a next generation has its own lifestyle and music totems, though sometimes there’s a connection between the generations. (Three out of five stars)

Piper (USA – Alan Barillaro) Leave it to Pixar and Disney to come up with a lifelike imitation of a sandpiper chick’s first tentative moments into the world of scavenging for food, and being bashed by tsunami type waves that get more than its feet wet. This film is charming of course but doesn’t transcend beyond that. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Blind Vaysha (Canada – Theodore Ushev) This National Film Board short has all the earmarks of the thousands of others you’ve seen – and likely dismissed out of boredom – for years. The story is commendable – about a woman who sees both the past and the future – but fails to hold one’s attention and delivers a not unsurprising message. (Two out of five stars)

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada – Robert Valley) (photo above) This, the longest of the five, is also the best. Most of us have grown up with a charismatic friend and this story is about one such individual who descends into a miasma of self-abuse. The film is accompanied by offhand sometimes comic narration and realistic visual evocations. (Four out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Pear Cider and Cigarettes; what will win: Piper


Sing (Hungary – Kristóf Deák). A new girl in school wants to be part of the award-winning choir. But when she’s told she can’t sing a rebellion ensues in this allegory of corruption and resulting justice. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Silent Nights (Denmark – Aske Bang) Here is a contemporary story of the clash between African migrants and Western society. But the film eschews clichés and informs that prejudice, and immoral choices, are not the monopoly of any particular race. (Three and a half out of five stars)

Timecode (Spain -  Juanjo Giménez Peña) This won Cannes’s Palme d’Or for best short film. It’s delightful and takes you to a story you weren’t expecting. But its whimsy is just a little too pat. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Enemies Within (France - Sélim Azzazi) (photo above) This is a taut, well-acted mini drama of a police interrogation of a man who may have terrorist ties. (Four out of five stars)

La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland – Timo von Gunten) Based on a true story, British actress Jane Birkin plays a woman who’s fixated on waving every day to a passing high-speed train, eventually developing a relationship with the engineer. It’s whimsical, charming and perhaps most likely to appeal to, shall we say, certain people of a certain age. (Two and a half out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Enemies Within; what will win: La femme et le TGV  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Longing for mother, longing for daughter

Lion, the feature film directorial debut of Australian Garth Davis, has been nominated for six Academy Awards. This seems a little much and I will argue that it’s because of the emotional impact of the film. I felt that too. I’m not one who easily tears up yet the tears were quite spontaneous at Lion’s end. This really is a very humane heartfelt story, based on true events. It’s about a destitute child in India who, one day, out with his brother, loses his way and finds himself eventually on the streets of Calcutta. He’s rounded-up and put in an orphanage, later adopted by a good-hearted Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). As an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) seeks to return to India and find his mother but can’t remember where he came from. The movie from here puts a tormented Saroo, who now feels more Australian than Indian, on a quest to seek “closure” by finding his family. The film’s direction is good, the scenes of Saroo’s poverty-stricken childhood amidst the detritus and streets of his rural Indian home are well paced. And Saroo as a child (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are well played. This is a film that pulls at your heartstrings not just for the characters but for any kids in these circumstances, and the film invites you to join the cause of vanquishing such conditions.

Meanwhile, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Julieta, based on three of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s stories, features Emma Suárez in the lead role as a bereft mother whose daughter Antia (played at different stages of life by Blanca Parés (older) and Priscilla Delgado (younger)) has run away. The movie traces Julieta from a young woman (played by Adriana Ugarte) and her growing estrangement from her rebellious daughter. This is a movie that keeps circling in on itself. There is an early scene where Julieta blames herself for a fellow train passenger’s death, and where she also blames herself for the death at sea of her lover and Antia’s dad, Xoan, a fisherman. In fact, Julieta keeps blaming herself, in a downward spiral, even for her daughter’s separation. The acting is all-around good. It’s the story I found incomplete. I didn’t understand how these disparate events added up to such profound mother-daughter strife and mother guilt. I’ll conclude this is because of an underdeveloped script or the inadequate merging of Munro’s three stories.