Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Parasite - you've got to be kidding

It was a long flight, long enough to watch at least three films on the in-flight entertainment system. Herewith are reviews of these three movies, which helped pass the - interminable - time.

Parasite (Bong Hoon-ho, 2019) I’d been avoiding this film all fall, despite it’s incredible accolades. Unanimous vote for best picture at Cannes, 99 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, numerous critics’ best film of the past year, and who knows how it will do at the upcoming Oscars? Why have I avoided? The main plot line of a poor family subverting a wealthy family is a well-trod tale of class conflict. The only difference is it’s a Korean Marxist-themed film. But, hey, I’m on an aircraft and Parasite was available free-of-charge so, hey, let’s see what all the fuss is about. As it turned out the movie was worse than I expected. Parasite is basically a stage play, a black farce that pits “Les Misérables” against the nouveau rich. Sure, there is some charm and ingenuity in the way the Kim family carries out their messy subversion. But there’s also some, uh, gruesomeness. But that’s basically all this film is - the downtrodden Kims infiltrating the Park family’s sleek opulent designer home though various forms of playful deception, with varying results. It left me looking at my watch and yawning. 

Alice and the Mayor (Alice et le Maire) (Nicolas Pariser, 2019) This is a much better film, for any number of reasons.  It stars Fabrice Lucini, one of France’s best and most popular actors, along with a younger Anaïs Demoustier, no slouch herself in terms of filmography. The setting is the City of Lyon, in particular city hall. Lucini plays Mayor Paul Theraneau, a dedicated but burned-out veteran politician whose ideals have given way to the routine of signing bylaws and posing for ribbon cuttings. Demoustier as Alice, a philosopher and yes, idealist, is hired to give “ideas” to the mayor on how his administration and hence, city, can be improved if not transformed. They form a quick bond and Theraneau eventually finds new inspiration. The film’s acting is startingly real; it’s very easy to imagine the real staff of a city hall interacting the way they do. Sure, the themes are leftist politics. But there is a seriousness, and depth, brought to issues, seldom seen in even more pointed political films, almost like reading a theoretical journal.

C'est ça l'amour (Real Love) (Claire Burger, 2018) This a sweet touching film and all because of the pain and angst that its protagonist, Mario Messina (Bouli Lanners), a mild-mannered civil servant and father of two teenage girls, is put through. After his wife Antonia (Antonia Buresi) walks out on the family, Mario is left utterly emotionally alone. For whatever reason he can’t cope as a single dad. His bratty daughters mock him and his lack of parental competency can’t counter their antagonism. Yet, we sympathize with him throughout. The only problem in that this drama is all of one note: the hits just keep coming against poor Mario. But, alas, there is redemption, of sorts, in the end.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

NT Theatre hype, and I lost only $20

I’ve generally been well disposed towards the increasing number of National Theatre Live events screened by Cineplex, part of a strategy to get audiences to come to the theatre and counter an ever-growing number of home-streaming services. Yes, the price is a little extra - I paid $18.95 for the current production of Fleabag, the one-woman play by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But, hey, it’s for a production from Britain’s premier theatre, and the price is much better than regular theatre tickets to see the production live. (Some of those tickets were inflated to as high as £600 (over $1000 CAD/$780 US)). My problem was the length of pre-screening time that was filled with National Theatre promotions. In fact I started to think of it as propaganda since it was advertising disguised by high-culture narratives. At first I thought, ‘Ok I don’t mind a little bit of info about NT productions’ but the hype kept going - for a full half hour! Here we think we’re getting so-called cultural entertainment and yet we're bombarded with what is essentially advertising, and for much longer than for the average “crass” Hollywood movie……As for Fleabag itself, this is the of-the-moment play in England which has captured (or enraptured) audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and spurred the hit TV series of the same name. I was a little skeptical about all the fuss but went to see it anyway. My dubiousness proved correct. In the play, Waller-Bridge comes on stage and sits on a stool and begins regaling her character’s life, that of a young single woman in contemporary London. She runs a failing café which has a live guinea pig (guinea pig?) and only one down-and-outer as a regular customer who orders tea. In other words, it’s despair city. Meanwhile she moans about her boyfriend and yes, does hilariously describes a pick-up on the London Tube. But there’s not much else that is funny in this portrayal (which Waller-Bridge also wrote) of a Millennial’s quotidian life. In fact, the latter half of the play borders on melancholy and almost evokes pity. Yet the live audience, many of whom probably paid highly inflated ticket prices, cheered upon the playwright-actor’s stage entrance and then hung on to her every word, trying to wring out any possible laughs. Thank goodness I only paid $20 for my ticket and not a hundred or much more to attend the live theatre performance.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Great acting amidst head-banging plot

I wanted to like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story for a number of reasons. Baumbach is one of my favorite contemporary directors with on point works about modern mores in films like The Squid and the Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2013) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). If there is one director who captures the essence of the moods, interests and values of the contemporary American intellectual it’s Baumbach. And with one of today’s foremost actresses, Scarlett Johansson, as well as the seemingly everywhere Adam Driver the movie showcases some of today's very top talent.  Sprinkle in such perennial favorites as Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Wallace Shawn and this movie is so appetizing you can almost taste it. But after viewing its 136-minute length on the big screen (courtesy WIFF’s monthly series at the Capitol Theatre; the film is now on Netflix) I came away not filled with brilliant portraits of erudite characters’ contradictions and life’s cul-de-sac moments but of being beaten blow-by-blow by a very ugly divorce case. Having said that, there is a lot of greatness in this film. Without exception the acting is superlative. Johansson as Nicole Barber is amazing in portraying her mood swings – often contained in long shots – such as when describing her marriage in a first meeting to lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Dern as Fanshaw  herself gives a wholly brilliant performance as a take-no-prisoners counsel who also polemically targets the state of divorce procedures and power imbalance between men and women.   And there’s Adam Driver, “Mr.Nuance” with a thousand inner feelings that emerge in warmth, despair, anger and pain. In the plot, Driver as Charlier Barber, is a Brooklyn theatre director who’s ambitious and successful. But his wife Nicole Barber, a one time Hollywood screen actress, feels she’s playing second fiddle. She longs to move back to California. The marriage increasingly breaks down and before we know it both spouses are meeting lawyers and Driver in particular faces tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Which raises some questions. How come we don’t see Nicole’s lawyer’s bills? In fact, the onus is all on Driver to prove he’s a reliable father to get custody and he has to rent an apartment in LA. So, despite Fanshaw’s treatise about gender discrimination, is the movie unwittingly portraying how men are in fact the ones discriminated against by the courts? Politics aside, the plot descends into somewhat predictable bitterness and outright anger, ironically for two people who still have positive feelings for one another.  All this, again, is fine acting. The problem is that, for the audience, it starts to  become head-pounding and probably quite uncomfortable for anyone who in fact has gone through a divorce.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Irishman is all De Niro and Pacino

The best things about Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated The Irishman (now on Netflix) are Robert De Niro facial expressions and Al Pacino’s looks and demeanor. Or rather De Niro’s non-expressions. His character as Frank Sheeran, infamous one-time Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa’s (Pacino)’s bodyguard, is that of having a poker face par excellence. This display is hilarious and I felt like applauding De Niro’s effort, or lack thereof, or in fact his astounding effort to be effortless! As for Pacino’s Hoffa, well, he may not look exactly like the stout Hoffa of old but he certainly doesn’t look like Pacino and he assumes a character that might pass for the bombastic labor boss. In the annals of crime dramas and popular American lore, it probably was only a matter of time until someone got around to making a movie about Hoffa’s disappearance. And here we have it. Clocking in at almost 3 and a half hours, Scorsese, basing the movie on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses – one of scores of books (and interpretations about the Hoffa case and speculation about how Hoffa died) – the movie is an otherwise biopic taking us from Sheeran’s early days as a hit man in the Philadelphia mob up to the Hoffa disappearance in the summer of 1975. And there are all the usual tropes along the way – clothes and cars and scenes of domestic life including families gathered around laminate kitchen tables - during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Women have beehive hair styles and men ugly polyester leisure suits. It’s all pretty proforma and mildly interesting. But De Niro and Pacino are the real show-stoppers here though Joe Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino is also a bit of a hoot (just thinking of Pesci makes me smile). So, this is the “Corrupt Union” version of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. I’m not sure the movie warranted its length. I’m less and less a fan of biopics since I know the scenes are artificially created, and I’m picky enough to know that this movie, though largely centered around a Detroit incident, wasn’t filmed here. In fairness, most of the settings worked though a big miss was the location of the Machus Red Fox restaurant on Telegraph Rd; in the movie there are hills behind it! Another annoyance was Scorsese’s Doo-wop soundtrack. Scorsese has long been Doo-wop obsessed and the score seems out of place among the shirt and tie clean cut criminal crowd. Oh well, The Irishman moves along at a good enough clip and there are enough characters and well done small plots leading to the big one to satisfy most moviegoers. And I do like the story’s conclusion about how Hoffa’s body was disposed of, one I agree with having read about the case. And, no, it wasn’t under the Meadowlands’ stadium end zone.

Finally, after waiting all fall, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story with Adam Driver and Scarlett
Johansson is hitting the big screen locally. The Windsor International Film Festival is the organization showing it, at three times this Thursday, downtown at the Capitol Theatre. Kudos to WIFF and its special association  with Netflix, which also allowed WIFF to host several screenings two weeks ago of The Irishman

Friday, November 22, 2019

Film clips

A few capsule reviews of recent theatrically-released films.

Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi) is an almost juvenile black comedy that in pre-screen publicity makes much of the fact it’s employing an historical trope to comment on the modern world’s hatred. Not sure what that means and the entire story is set in a mythological Nazi Germany. There are sight gags and stunts galore as 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) becomes an incompetent member of the Hitler Youth who confides in, yes, Adolph Hitler (played by the director). The film’s problems are that it’s overproduced, the gags not quite timed right and we’ve seen countless versions of Nazi era films, serious and otherwise.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) is a terrific film on several levels. Its screening in an almost square aspect ratio black and white 35 mm print is perfect for both the maudlin outdoor environment and the psychological dismalness of the two characters, Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pettinson). The film, shot in Nova Scotia, takes place at a remote New England lighthouse with Winslow a new “wickie” under the supervision of his master Wake, who bullies him relentlessly. The film not only displays various dimensions of a twosome power struggle but is immersed in hallucinatory images and mythological allegories. And Defoe and Pattinson give it their best.

Give Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton) five stars for its extremely realistic 1950s sets and for Norton’s brilliant performance of a PI with Tourette syndrome. The film is also Norton’s salute to 1950’s noir and works to a point. The complex crime plot delves into wider issues including racism and the era of slum clearing and massive public housing and expressway development with Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, a stand in for the notorious and iconic New York Master Builder Robert Moses. The problem is that the movie’s plot doesn’t sustain enough interest over its more than two hours length.

Notes: Very much looking forward to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, possibly tonight at 10 pm (it clocks in over three hours), as part of the Windsor International Film Festival’s screening of the movie several days this week and next. Kudos to WIFF for scoring exclusive rights to show the film in Windsor.

And next week at Cineplex Silver City, I might be checking out, this time on the big screen,  the great rock film 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom) about the Manchester 1980s music scene featuring Joy Division and New Order.....And I probably shouldn’t miss the British theatrical sensation, Fleabag (Tony Grech-Smith · Vicky Jones), part of the National Theatre Live series. Check for times.....Cineplex is stepping up its screenings of unconventional films and theatrical presentations, particularly in Windsor, and it's something we should be grateful for and is rather overdue. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Reserved seating. What's the point?

I’m not sold on the idea of picking your own seats when buying a ticket at the local bijou. Increasingly, however, theatres are having customers pick their own seats. My first encounter with reserved seating was at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield, MI. a couple of years ago. At first, I thought this was pretty cool – hey, pick your own seats, especially if you arrive early, and you get dibs on what could be some of the better seats in the house! But in a theatre like the Maple, an old-line theatre without stadium seating, even if you pick your seats there’s no guarantee someone taller than you, or more talkative, won’t sit in front, beside, or behind you. Now Windsor’s Cineplex and Imagine theatres, which have stadium seating, have also launched reserved seating. A couple of weeks ago I was waiting in line on a Tuesday night at Silver City to buy a ticket to see The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers). It was a relatively short line so I didn’t bother to buy a ticket at a kiosk. The problem was the line just wasn’t moving quickly. Finally, when I got to the ticket counter the cashier pointed me to a computer screen and said I could choose my seat. Ah ha, I thought to myself, did having customers choose their seats cause the line to move slowly? After all, a customer has to spend some time deciding exactly where they want to seat. They have to figure out where the screen and exits are, what seats have been chosen, and where – just where – they want to sit for optimum viewing. Then, last week, at Lakeshore Cinemas to see Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton), a theatre I hadn’t been to in about a year, there is no more box office with a human ticket seller; instead there is a row of ticket kiosks. Again, the customer is asked to choose their seats. And, like at Cineplex, all seats are stadium seating and really offer no comprised views. An argument for reserved seating is that customers may want to sit in their favorite areas or not on the sides, but if the seats have already been chosen what difference does it make? And with reserved seating, ironically, you’re more limited. If you arrive at your seat and there is a group of talkative people behind you, you now have limited choices about where to move, especially if the theatre is crowded. Sure, you can move but then you may be occupying someone else’s seat. So, reserved seating? Unless you do it online hours before a popular movie to ensure you have seats I don't see the point.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mystery, time travel and the wounds of terrorism

It appears my truncated schedule, due to unforeseen events, at this year’s Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), which ends tonight, has been very heavily weighted towards the festival’s own major focus, in part, on French films. So, here are three more reviews focusing on the festival’s rich French offering, including those featuring some of France’s most famous stars. 

The Mystery of Henri Pick: Director Remi Bezancon’s takes on novelist David Foenkinos’s book is a delightful mystery. Unlike other mysteries, which can be heavy, this one leans to the light side. It also has an intellectual flourish and will surely appeal to anyone who loves books. A publisher (Daphne Despero) discovers an unpublished manuscript by a small-town restaurateur Henri Pick, someone whom his wife describes as never having read a book in his life. The book, a romantic story that plays on a theme from Pushkin, is published and becomes a sensation. However, a famous Parisian critic, played in all his snobbish glory by Fabrice Luchini, has his doubts about the author’s authenticity. Despite meeting opposition everywhere, he perseveres to determine if Pick really wrote the novel.

La Belle Epoque (Nicolas Bedos) is a witty somewhat bizarre film that plays with several themes: nostalgia, time travel and romance (it is French, after all). Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is a washed-up newspaper cartoonist (his newspaper went digital) and a Baby Boomer fossil, who eschews the modern online world and doesn’t own a cell phone. His wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) is the opposite – an aggressive adapter who belittles her husband for his dormant and slovenly ways. Their marriage reaches a breaking point. As it happens, there is a production company that caters to people who want to revisit the past. A despondent Victor decides to return to 1974 and a café where he first met Marianne. It’s the hirsute 70s alright, complete with strumming folk singers, vest sweaters and smoke-filled bars. The story is a trip down memory lane and a rather innovative one at that. The directing, with constant screen switches and a sort of film within a film as the production crew tries to stage personal historical events accurately, is amazing. Yes, it's a farce. But the scenes become repetitive and you wonder why anyone would want go to all this trouble to rekindle something in the past.

Amanda, directed by Mikhaël Hers, is a gentle, absorbing and very humane look at Parisian life in the aftermath of major terrorist events that have traumatized the French capital over the past few years. Interestingly, there seem few films that explore this aspect of human life given the kind of terrorism the world has experienced in recent times. David (rising star Vincent Lacoste) is a happy go lucky 24-year-old, and uncle to seven-year-old Amanda (Isaure Multrier). One day a tragedy strikes Amanda’s mother, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and David is thrown into the role of Amanda’s guardian. It’s something David, who is barely getting his own life together, must quickly come to terms with. The subtle interplay between David and Amanda is realistic as each tries to adapt, sometimes uncomfortably, to this unforeseen relationship. The ending will leave a few tears running down your cheek.