Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A west coast swing

It’s funny what you run into when you travel – like film festivals. Recently on a swing through the Pacific Northwest I lucked out and was in Seattle during the Seattle International Film Festival. But given my timeline and what was available, I only caught one film – that being Turkish director Mehmet Can Mertoglu's Album. It was a bizarre little story about a couple adopting a child, with surreal or magic realist touches. It was hard to understand the director’s point – the surreal flourishes (a cow giving birth, civil servants asleep at their desks) made no sense or were grasping at straws. If anything the film mocked middle class Turkish society by the couple who wants the perfect child and then for respectability conceals the adoption......Further down the coast I, again, stumbled upon the San Francisco documentary festival (SF Docfest) and managed to get to just one film. But it was a great one. It’s Salt Lake City director Andrew James’s Street Fighting Men, which follows the stories of three men in inner city Detroit. James had no familiarity with Detroit but you wouldn’t know it from the film. The film, obviously a doc, comes off as a drama, which was James’s intention. More on this film – it has yet to screen locally – in an upcoming post…..Then in my Berkeley domicile I
walked over to a couple of Landmark (the same company that owns Royal Oak’s Main) art cinemas. At the Shattuck I saw Venessa Gould’s Obit, a look at The New York Times’s famous obituaries, or the staff who write them, often about obscure but significant individuals and under daily deadlines. Engrossing. Then, across the street and around the corner at the California (great to have two art houses in such proximity) I saw Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s doc about the late great John Coltrane - my fave jazz musician – and a pitch perfect treatment of the man, who died in 1967 at age 40. A Coltrane doc was well overdue since he is among the pantheon of jazz greats including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Most significant was showing Coltrane’s humanity and spirituality, an even more uplifting personality than I'd expected.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ones that got away

Here are some films I’ve seen over the last few months that were overshadowed by my major reviews:

My favorite film at the recent Windsor Jewish Film Festival (which also screened at its Detroit counterpart), was The Women’s Balcony (Emil Ben-Shimon, 2016).  Nothing especially deep here but it’s a straightforward narrative that has the redeeming value of being humorous tinged with a bit of drama, with a great ensemble cast, and speaks to contemporary issues – a sect of Hasidic Judaism’s treatment of women……My second favorite at the fest was Sabena Hijacking: My Version (Rani Sa'ar, Israel, 2015), a documentary of a little known 1972 airplane hijacking which set the stage for how Israel fights terrorism. It’s amazing how many later high profile Israelis - including prime ministers Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu (the latter grazed by a bullet) - were intimately involved in the rescue operation of passengers on a hijacked Sabena jet, in a film that mixes archive film, personal interviews, and well done re-creations……

At the Detroit Film Theatre, last month, I caught Terence Davies’ 2016’s studied flick (aren’t all his flicks studied?), of US 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon embodies the poet well, so much so you wouldn’t know she was the red-headed S & TC acerbic lawyer. But the pic was a little too monotonous for me, the most interesting aspect being Dickinson’s bon mots and even more so the devastating put downs of bosom buddy Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey)

Way back in February, at the Landmark Main Art, I caught the celebrated Raoul Peck doc (it won this year’s Oscar), I Am Not Your Negro, about the American 1960s iconic writer James Baldwin. It’s an investigation, through Baldwin’s thoughts narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, of the place of the African-American in US history, from racist caricature to episodic moments of the Civil Rights era. This film is sprawling but deftly made, and an absorbing multitude of montages. And lacing it together is Baldwin’s thoughts (and some vintage clips of him speaking) - such as: “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.”

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gere by Gere

Two films starring Richard Gere coming out on the same weekend - what a treat! The first was The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, based on the critically acclaimed (I couldn’t finish it) Dutch novel by Herman Koch. The setting is an extremely high brow restaurant, the kind where it takes four months to get a reservation. A special dinner is taking place. There are two couples, Paul (the Brit generally comedic Steve Coogan in a dramatic role and convincingly American) and Claire (Laura Linney). The other couple is Stan (Richard Gere) and Kate (Rebecca Hall). Why such an opulent resto? It is, after all, an opportunity for the acerbic Paul to make fun of elite dining. And Stan (Gere), his brother, is an elite politician now running for governor, another object of mockery. But they have gathered to discuss how to handle a very serious crime, committed by the couples’ sons. Much of the film doesn’t have anything to do with the crime, with flashbacks to earlier periods when Stan, presumably manic-depressive, falls into deep emotional holes. As well, a high school history teacher, Stan’s obsessed with wars, the tens of millions who’ve died in them, and the Civil War particularly (there are scenes when Paul and Stan tour Gettysburg.) Gere’s Stan, by contrast, is restrained and the consummate Clintonesque politician, who essentially plays a calming second fiddle to the eruptive Paul. After almost two hours the nub of the picture reveals itself: an issue of morality. Two characters take one side, and the third, and possibly the fourth, take another. Morality, whether in the macrocosm of war or the microcosm of an horrific small crime – with “love” a motivating factor - has its voices on both sides. 

The second film was Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar), an Israeli - US co-production, where Gere plays a shadowy character, Norman Oppenheimer, whose supposed occupation (his firm deals in “strategies” and “consulting”) is to ingratiate his way into certain elite circles and bring together powerful people for mutual benefit. Such as a soon-to-be Israeli prime minister (Lior Askenazi in a brilliant performance), whom Oppenheimer befriends on a state visit, buys him a pair of $1000 shoes, the first of numerous “favors.” The indefatigable Norman spends the bulk of his time walking Manhattan’s streets, constantly on his phone (and it’s winter, despite the movie poster’s absurd summer image), in coffee shops, or eating his pickled herring dinner out of a jar. Like another fraudulent Jewish part-philanthropist of a decade ago, Bernie Madoff, Oppenheimer seeks to create win-wins for the national and international Jewish community, often undeservingly earning their trust. Gere is terrific as the low key both mensch and schlemiel. The jazz soundtrack by Jun Miyake punctuates the intriguing playful mystery of the plot, and indeed there are similarities in Gere’s character to Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in Hal Ashby’s 1979 Being There. The problem is the film never tells us how Norman cultivates his strategies - legally or illegally – to get deals done. Moreover, Oppenheimer is poor as a church mouse, so what’s in it for him? But the film, well-paced, extremely well-acted, and convincingly set among top echelons of power, with US and Israeli settings, is a treat.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Windsor's other film festival

Most people know about Windsor’s fall film festival – the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF). Fewer are aware of Windsor’s second, and in fact, older, film festival, The 15TH Annual Ruth and Bernard Windsor Jewish Film Festival. The four-day event kicks off Monday, May 1, at Devonshire Cineplex Odeon and runs – with a daily schedule of films at 2, 5 and 8 pm - until Thursday.

The opening night film, 2015’s On the Map, is American director Dani Mankin’s documentary about one of the biggest sporting wins in Israeli history. Coming off a brutal period in the country’s history – Munich, The Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe hijacking – the film shows the story of how the Israeli basketball team won the European Cup. Even non-sports fans reportedly loved the suspence, which features historical figures like Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

On Tuesday there are three films, two on a related subject – the cherished Jewish deli. One is The Last Blintz (Dori Berinstein, 2015) about the closing of yet another beloved NYC deli, Café Edison in the theatre district. The short film is followed by Julie Cohen’s 2014’s The Sturgeon Queens, about the still thriving Russ and Daughters NYC deli, with interviews with the famous daughters and customers including Morley Safer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg….Later, the drama Secrets of War (Dennis Bots, Netherlands and Belgium, 2014) depicts two pre-teens in occupied Holland, who become infatuated with a girl who turns out to be a Jew in hiding, the revelation leading to a chain of dramatic incidents…..At 8 pm, also from the Netherlands, Pieter Kuijpers’s 2016’s Riphagen: The Untouchable, the true story of a notorious Jew hunter in Amsterdam and one man’s struggle to bring him to justice.

On Wednesday, the first screening is Israeli director Miya Hatav’s Between Worlds (2016). In the aftermath of a terror attack, the divisions in Israeli society are embodied in a hospital ward, where social circumstances lead to some personal revelations…..Later at 5 pm, Germany’s Lars Kraume’s 2015’s The People vs Fritz Bauer, is the story of a crusading returned Jewish exile to Germany, a state official who hunts down Nazi war criminals, despite obstacles put in his way by the post-war German state…….The last film of the night is Lola Doillon 2016 Fanny’s Journey, about a young girl who is thrown into the position of leadership during the Nazi occupation when parents are separated from their children.

The final day beings us a Greek film, Cloudy Sunday (Manousos Manousakis, 2015), a true story about a Greek composer, and love between his brother and a Jewish girl, with great use of Revetika Greek folk music and an apparent cast of thousands….That’s followed by Sabena Hijacking: My Version (Rani Sa'ar, Israel, 2015), a docudrama about a little known 1972 hijacking that formed the response by Israeli authorities to numerous future hijacking and terrorist incidents.……Finally, the closing night film, the Israeli comedy The Women’s Balcony (Emil Ben-Shimon, 2016), gently exposes the tensions within Orthodox Judaism, women and men, and places of worship. 

For more info,

Monday, April 10, 2017

Expectations dashed, civility rules, & The Greatest ever

Expectations dashed, once again. The build-up to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was so great I was expecting to be taken on a roller coaster of an epic comedy ride for the ages. But, no. Not that this is a bad movie, far from it. I found it, even at 162 minutes, fully absorbing, the topic interesting, the acting half-decent, if the plot rather predictable. But for the critics to swoon as they did over this – and at one point in a public screening breaking out in applause - was a bit much. And ditto for the awards lavished on it, though it never got a prize at the aforementioned Cannes. This is about a father-daughter relationship. The tropes are in place. He’s an old Sixties-era hippie. She’s the modern post-feminist businesswoman. The twain doesn’t particularly meet. But dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) thinks daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) should lighten-up. He follows her on a business trip to Bucharest, inserting himself into her social engagements and even business meetings, an unlikely event. She barely tolerates him. He puts on disguises and lures the gullible into believing he’s a business coach, even a country’s ambassador. Of course, the story is more than simply dad wanting to get his oh-so-serious and all-business daughter to crack a smile. It’s about the lifestyle she’s chosen. You see, she has embraced the capitalist world. Worse than that, she works for a firm that offers advice to companies on how to downsize and lay off workers. The old merry prankster simply can’t have that and is willing to do anything – including handcuffing Ines – to persuade her to change. This theme, as far as contemporary movies go, is as clichéd as you can get. (Question for moviemakers: when is capitalism not bad? Answer: when a film makes a profit.) Sure, the movie has its amusing scenes. But spectacularly funny – as in laugh out loud – I think not. Chris Knight in the National Post called the scene where Ines breaks into Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All “one of the funniest moments in a movie this year.” I guess he hasn’t seen too many comedies. 

Meanwhile, Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, starring the one and only Shirley MacLaine, is a surprisingly smart comedy. MacLaine plays an aging retired businesswoman who is the personification of a control freak. But that’s only what you’d think if you just saw the trailer. In fact, she’s a wise old woman, who imparts manners, sophistication and class to those who could use some. In a world increasingly lacking in all three I applaud a film that has the gumption to take our era’s decline in civility.

Just in time for Easter week, Nicholas Ray’s 1961 King of Kings is a factoid summary, on grand scale, of the Jesus story. Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) deftly pieces together the myriad parts of the story from Christ’s birth to his Resurrection, adding the political background against which the saga takes place. There’s a lot to the story, of course, but the essentials are boiled down in a way to make them highly consumable, with the proverbial cast of thousands. Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus and Orson Welles narrates.

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.