Monday, July 6, 2020

Brando, Taylor electric in Golden Eye

Finally, I got to see, in its entirety, John Huston’s 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye (TCM). It was by far the best movie I watched over the past week. It stars Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Brian Keith. Based on a 1941 novel by Carson McCullers, it’s a film of layers – about masculinity, gender power relations, homosexuality, sexual attraction and voyeurism. Yes - all that. Set on an army base Brando is Maj. Weldon Penderton, a man of exceedingly austere emotions. If you thought Brando did a good Godfather impersonation as Vito Corleone, here he holds in his breath with a diminutive monotone as the uptight Penderton, seemingly on the exterior tough but really a weakling in his personal affairs. Meanwhile, his wife Leonora (Taylor) is a coquettish philandering southern belle, cheating on the straitlaced major and mocking any of his attempts to confront her. Taylor is exquisite in the role, totally lacking self-consciousness with an effervescence, putting one in mind of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. Meanwhile, lurking below the surface is Pvt. Williams (Robert Forster) who meanders around the Penderton’s house and invades it late at night when all are asleep. On horseback rides the major spots Forster in a field, utterly nude. He becomes obsessed with the private. Meanwhile, Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Langdon carries on an affair with Leonora, essentially in the emotionally (and sexually?) impotent Maj. Penderton’s face. Julie Harris plays Landon’s wife Alison, bedridden and mentally distressed, entranced by the houseboy, Anacleto (Zorro David). Psychologists – maybe Freudians? – would have a field day with this story. I’m no psychologist but the storylines, with their outward shows of hypocrisy and subliminal seething, are enough to keep a viewer transfixed. The film is shot through a gold filter, giving the entire production the resulting “golden” hue, as befits the title. 

Other recent films of note:

François Ozon’s 5 x 2 (Criterion Channel) explores the marriage of Marion (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) in receding flashbacks from divorce to their first meeting. Every chapter features a transgression by one or the other spouse. The film features an inventive plot technique and good acting by the principles in what, some would say, is an oh-so-French story.

Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977) (Criterion Channel) is an ensemble production that in my opinion presages Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) six years later. The settings are different but there are a lot of similarities. Enough to make you wonder if this movie sparked Kasdan to take the idea a step further. Set in an alternative newspaper of the era it stars John Heard, Lindsay Crouse and Jeff Goldblum - even the then cult hero Michael J. Pollard - as a kind of communal family with its countercultural highs and lows. The perky soundtrack alone makes you think this could have been turned into a light TV drama. Crouse as Abbie in particular stands out as a very cute yet exceedingly assertive staff photographer.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Michael Caine the droll wit in new family beach movie

Andy De Emmony’s Four Kids and It (available June 30 on digital, Blu-ray, DVD, and on demand, including major digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon Prime and Vudu) is the perfect start-of-summer film for the whole family, even if the kids - ahem - have been on unofficial holiday with schools closed since March because of the pandemic. The whimsical story is a twist on a more than 100-year-old novel by E. Nesbit and based on the more modern children’s writer Jaqueline Wilson’s ‘Four Children and It.”   It stars a few somewhat known entities like Paula Patton (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) as mom Alice, Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, The Crown) as dad David and the venerable for all time Michael Caine as the voice of the beach creature Psammead. And there’s a collection of child actors starring as a soon to be blended family, the one with the highest profile – the movie is a vehicle for her possible stardom - Ashley Aufderheide as Smash. The story begins as two families meet up at a vacation rental on the Cornish coast, just to get acquainted and have a little fun. Of course, the kids immediately hate one another and are sullen and suyly to their parents. Smash personifies her name and is the most precocious. “You ruined my life – again!” she shrieks at her hapless mom. But the kids start to get along and go on hikes together. They land at a beach and see some weird movement in the sand. It turns out to be a beyond-prehistoric creature called a Psammead. Whoever designed this grotesque figure did a more than excellent job. It’s a combination of elf, bunny, shriveled human and planetary alien – both horrific and cute as a button. And with the voice of the inimitable Michael Caine it’s all the more charming. The Psammead has magical powers and can grant wishes. There’s a stipulation. The wish runs out at sunset. “Come back tomorrow, if you survive this one,” Psammead guffaws. Meanwhile a dastardly neighbor (Russell Brand) seeks to capture the elusive creature, adding a secondary plot. The most spectacular of the kids’ wishes is the one, of course, involving Smash. And it indeed shows off the child actor’s voluminous talent. Will your family enjoy the film? Probably.  Parents may be a little bored unless they recognize some of their own, ah, poor parenting skills. But for the kids it's a lock with all the essential elements - fantasy, derring-do, a lovable monster and heroic juvenile personalities they can more than relate to.  

Was I surprised the 16th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) has been cancelled? Not particularly. Though I thought the call might come later than it did last week. After all, WIFF doesn’t run until early November. But it takes a lot of work to plan a festival and I would imagine scheduling films far in advance is part of that. But let’s face it, the organizers were just being prudent. Even though the festival was four months away who can predict the future with this pandemic? As executive director Vincent Georgie told The Windsor Star, what happens if there’s second wave of Covid-19, hitting right around the time of late fall? Last year, the one-time little festival that has grown into an amazing 10 day offering – huge for a midsize Canadian city and IMO the best film festival in either Windsor or Detroit - sold 42,000 tickets. It has the moniker of the #1 Volunteer-run Film Festival by the Toronto International Film Festival Film Circuit.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Revisiting Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

For a movie featuring the proverbial cast of thousands, with spectacular backdrops, and telling a tumultuous story, check out the Mel Gibson (yes, the actor) film Apocalypto, which Gibson directed in 2006 (on video on demand). The setting is Yucatan Mexico and the subject the Mayan civilization in its literally final days before the Spanish Conquest. This is a harrowing story. A peaceful hunting and gathering tribe are captured by its aggressive neighbors, their village destroyed, and the adults taken prisoners. It’s what happens to the prisoners that is so diabolical. We’ve all seen the Maya pyramids and heard of human sacrifices. Apocalypto immerses into the subject spectacularly, showing this otherworld’s harrowing landscape, figuratively and literally. A surreal feast for the eyes with painstaking sets, costumes, make-up and an astonishing cast of literally thousands. 

Take Me (on Netflix) is a 2017 film directed by Pat Healy in which he also stars as Ray Moody, a wacko businessman who runs a real-life kidnapping service, for clients who, you know, just like to get their kicks that way. These “authentic simulated” experiences are staged and Ray charges a sizable fee for the thrill. One day he gets a call from a woman, Anna St. Clair (Taylor Schilling), who is asking for more than he offers. She’s willing to pay big bucks but he turns her down because it’s against his ethics. She’s persuasive and in the end he can’t resist. All goes as planned. The kidnapping happens but then something takes place – evolve may be the right word - which blurs the line between the fake and the real, or is what’s going on ultimately still fake? The fact the viewer doesn’t know until the very end is the genius of this screwball whodunit with good acting by both Healy and Schilling. There’s a great original score by Heather McIntosh. Only problem? While the storyline keeps you guessing it stretches too long. Chop off 20 minutes and it would be perfect.

Le Beau Serge (Criterion Channel) is the very first film of acclaimed French New Wave director Claude Chabrol. Released in 1958 it’s a very human story about two friends: Serge (Gérard Blain) and François (Jean-Claude Brialy). One day François arrives in his childhood village to spend the winter after recovering from a mild case of TB. He immediately seeks out his old friend Serge, only to find him to be an utterly depraved alcoholic, literally the town drunk. He sets his mind to rehabilitate him despite the scowls of Serge’s abused wife Yvonne (Michèle Méritz). Meanwhile, the town flirt Marie (Bernadette Lafont) provides temporary distraction to the fiercely handsome François. And guess what? She’s also having an affair with Serge. What’s best about the film is the incredibly naturalistic acting, especially by Brialy as François…..After the film you can watch a short documentary, featuring Chabrol, about the film’s making and Chabrol’s early life as critic and then filmmaker.

The Windsor International Film Festival usually screens it’s popular Mark Boscariol 48-Hour FlickFest during the festival’s regular run in the fall. But with Covid-19 who knows what’s in store for the festival this October. Meanwhile the festival has released the FlickFest - the short film efforts of 32 teams of filmmakers - on its YouTube channel. An awards ceremony on WIFF’s Facebook page takes place at 8 pm tonight.

Friday, June 5, 2020

My movie week

The Trip to Greece by Michael Winterbottom, on pay-per-view, (photo left) is the fourth and likely last of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s road movies, in which the two well-known British actors hire a car (usually a Land Rover) and hit an exotic European destination. Over several days they stop at bucolic locations and dine at five-star restaurants, all on a British newspaper’s expense account. Meanwhile we’re treated to breathtaking scenery and the usually great wit and story-telling of the two thespians, who joke, mock one another, and try to outdo each other’s impersonations of people like Brando and Hopkins while philosophizing about anything and everything. The shtick has worked up to now but somehow doesn’t catch hold with this flic. Maybe it’s because the boys are just too familiar with the Greek Myths – and the rest of us aren’t – and that a lot of the joking and chatter is too inside the actor’s studio, if you know what I mean. 

The Painter and The Thief (Toronto Hot Docs festival pay-per-view online) by Norwegian director Benjamin Ree certainly tells an interesting and counterintuitive story, and hence a great topic for a documentary. Barbora Kysilkova, a painter of extraordinary naturalistic images, finds two of her paintings stolen. Eventually the thief is found in the person of Karl-Bertil Nordland, an ex con and drug addict. They meet. And instead of fireworks they develop a warm relationship. It may seem antithetical, but it works though Kysilkova is still puzzled by why Nordland stole, something he has no recollection of. “I was wasted and that’s the truth.” The story may be startling but the filming plods along and doesn’t gel until perhaps the second half, about the time Kysilkova’s boyfriend confronts her about having a relationship with such a potentially dangerous figure.

The Booksellers by D. W. Young (Hot Docs festival online pay-per-view) (photo left) is a film for anyone who loves books. The documentary portrays the world of antiquarian booksellers, a rare and, yes, very eccentric, breed, who will go literally to the ends of the Earth to buy – sometimes mortgaging the house – an exceptionally rare volume. We’re treated to interviews with some of the great if unknown (to the public) ones, whose bookstores vary from their own apartments to exquisite libraries or multi-floor old world Manhattan stores. There are also cultural glitterati like wit Fran Lebowitz, long form journalist and author Susan Orlean and one of the original New Journalists Gay Talese. There are stories of Da Vinci’s The Codex Leicester, the most expensive book ever sold, handwritten Jorge Luis Borges’s manuscripts, of jeweled and polished books, even ones made of human skin. If it all seems too fussy and musty – it’s really not – the film explores the up and coming generational world of early hip hop zines and the increasing voices of women making inroads into the heavily male dominated profession. The flic also surveys the overall book industry, lamenting its diminishing role (New York had almost 500 bookstores in the 1950s and has 80 now) in a digital world. But not to despair. Lebowitz says she sees lots of millennials on the subway reading – hold on – paper books.

Life Itself (Netflix) is a 2018 film directed by Dan Fogelman, which I took a chance on and which proved surprisingly engrossing. The subject is small – a multigenerational family – but the story is sprawling, with certain repeated chronological incidents connecting various players over time in ways you don’t expect, a sure sign of first class directing. The central characters are the couple Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and the Gonzalez family. The movie focuses closely on character, intersecting relationships and, yes, the element of chance. It’s like a detective story, keeping you wondering what’s coming around the next corner in these people’s lives. The cast includes Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin and Annette Bening.

Friday, May 29, 2020

A little of that Northern Michigan horror

Just in time for summer – and in time for the re-emergence of the local drive-in during the Covid crisis – comes The Wretched, a horror flick with a decidedly Michigan feel. (Sorry, Windsorites, the film is only screening at two drive-ins in the Detroit area, the Capri and Ford. However the film is also available on cable and various digital on demand platforms incl iTunes and YouTube. UPDATE: The Ford Drive In was served a cease-and-desist order and expects to reopen June 12 with social distancing guidelines so long as the governor's stay-home order is not extended.) The film is made by Detroit natives Brett and Drew Pierce and set in the northern Michigan town of Northport on Grand Traverse Bay. For every Michigander who loves the summertime feel of Up North this picture will certainly rekindle longing, especially given the slow reopening of the state during the Covid-19 crisis. In the film, our hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a 17-year-old who has come to spend the summer with his estranged dad Liam (Jamison Jones) who manages the local marina. Almost from the start Ben notices things are a little strange. The next-door neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler) - wearing a tank top with ‘Detroit’ and skull on it - wants to carve up a dead buck (soooo northern Michigan) but is having trouble. That night Ben is disturbed by a figure on the front porch and then is blinded by a light. Later, Abbie checks on her infant only to find a pile of branches. Hands then reach out and yank her under the crib and, well, she’s never the same again. The story’s a spin on the old zombie genre, and another iconic film which will be obvious, but with a woodsy outdoor theme (I can imagine the filmmakers having fun with this). Ben discovers a symbol – a V with a line through it looking like tree branches. On Witchipedia (yes, the site exists) the symbol refers to “mother born from rock, root and tree.” That would explain how, once a person gets infected, they move with crackly sounds like a gnarled tree trunk. I find it hard to get scared from the best of horror films and the same here though some scenes did make me sit up. Otherwise, the ironically  dramatic music is well timed. The photography is good, especially with some oblique shots through open windows late at night. And the creatures have been well designed with a very horrifying look. (As an aside, the “mother” creature at times – also distinctly Michigan – looks like Alice Cooper.) So, sit back and enjoy a teenage Northern Michigan flick with cool rock soundtrack and downhome characters (Ben has the hots for fellow marina worker smart-alecky Mallory (Piper Curda)). For those missing Up North during “The Rona” this might be an early summer stand in, especially at midnight at the good old drive-in.

Friday, May 22, 2020

My movie week

I finally caught Elio Petri’s great 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion last night on Criterion Channel. For years I’d been reading about the film but it always eluded me. The film is very much of the times and almost seems dated. But not quite. Made in the early-70s it depicts police corruption amidst the tumult of the New Left. Those of us of a certain age remember the almost continual demonstrations, riots and bombings by groups protesting a variety of causes - the Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, or simply revolution to overturn the existing order. Investigation, which won best foreign film Oscar, is marked by a stand-out performance by its lead Gian Maria Volonté (photo), the head of a homicide then political police division who is a fiery autocrat and personifies corruption. Terrific also is the brilliant musical score by famous journeyman composer Ennio Morricone, one of the best ever.

A few nights ago, also on Criterion, I caught up with one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s earlier films, Gods of the Plague (1970). Unfortunately, it was lackluster - uninspired acting and drama - about an ex-con planning to recidivate with Fassbinder’s trademark sub-text of homoeroticism.

Last weekend, I caught several films on TCM. The best was Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) (photo) with Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels. I liked it better the second time around and appreciated its real genius. It uses cinema as  a metaphor to dissect the difference between fantasy and reality, both in the "moving" pictures (it’s set in the Depression era) and real life. But it has so much more - great writing, great characterization, a wonderfully imaginative story, and is immensely fun to boot.…Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 Tea and Sympathy stars the sultry Deborah Kerr opposite John Kerr (no relation), based on the play, of a college student (JK) who develops a romantic friendship with fraternity house matron Laura Reynolds (DK). But the real theme is social pressure and the bullying of someone who is “different” (today he’d be called metrosexual) at the hands of a group of conformists - powerful stuff for the 1950s……Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) is a sprawling police procedural investigating the death of a low class model. The best things about it are the numerous scenes of New York’s Lower East Side circa the late Forties and chief homicide investigator Dan Muldoon, played by the always humorously charming Barry Fitzgerald….Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono is a 1959 film noir, interesting perhaps for parsing the cross-cultural relationships of Caucasians and Japanese-Americans, an original theme of the day. But it never gains much traction…..I rented Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. A major disappointment as the film basically devolves into silly farce. But Streisand is stunning – charming, witty, fanciful – in utterly effortless acting…..Finally, from the Detroit Film Theatre, I rented Ken Loach’s 2019 Sorry We Missed You, the latest Loach take on the British working class from the Marxist-inspired director. This time his focus is on exploitation in the supposedly work-for-yourself gig economy. Whether you agree with his politics – though the message here is fairly persuasive – Loach is an accomplished filmmaker and extracts great performances.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Filmmakers win major case against The Room director

I remember going to a midnight screaming of cult classic The Room at the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF). Honestly, I had little knowledge of how much a fantastic subculture of film fans has developed around this 2003 so-bad-it’s-good movie by US director Tommy Wiseau. The movie, as stilted as it might possibly be, is a romantic drama mainly taking place in, well, one living room and involving a ménage a trois. Okay, I get it. The Room is a dreadfully bad movie. But why it has taken off as a cult classic I’ve never fully understood. In the midnight screening I attended devoted fans laughed uproariously at, natch, the most awkward scenes and spouted from memory the most dreadfully hackneyed lines, of which there are innumerable ones. And of course there is the repetitive throwing of spoons at the screen (batches of plastic ones had been handed out, constantly swept from the floor and redistributed) when the camera focuses on some spoon motif, of which there are, for some reason, several. The whole audience atmosphere is very much like going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman 1975) (how come that film isn’t shown anymore?). Except, that is, that Rocky Horror had artistic merit. I get the reason for The Room’s cult fetishism – it’s bad, bad, bad! The only thing is I still found it stultifying boring even as kitsch. All this is to tell you that a group of Canadian filmmakers last month won a major legal battle against, of all people, the iconic and supposedly much-loved Tommy Wiseau. The Ottawa-based filmmakers started out wanting to make a documentary, Room Full of Spoons, about the iconic The Room. And in good faith they’d approached their hero, Wiseau. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Wiseau was a control freak extraordinaire and an all out, well, a-hole. In a decision by Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Schabas, the filmmakers were awarded US$550,000 in compensatory damages and CDN$200,000 in punitive damages against Wiseau for how he treated them and their film. The filmmakers obviously had wanted to use clips from The Room in their documentary. But Wiseau demanded full control, threatened legal action, waged a social media campaign and successfully got Room Full of Spoons cancelled from many film festivals. In his ruling Schabas found the director’s actions more than high handed, describing Wiseau’s negotiations as being in “bad faith” and his behaviour “oppressive and outrageous.” So now this loser of a director, as (in)famous as he may be, is now equally a loser in the court of law. Hopefully WIFF will soon screen Room Full of Spoons.