Friday, August 18, 2017

A comic book brought to life

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch) is worth going to see for several reasons: it’s kind of a Cold War spoof, it has highly realistic – and very entertaining – fight scenes, the soundtrack is great, and it’s like a comic book come to life, given that it was based on Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City. Our heroine, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a female James Bond on steroids, a masterful physical dominatrix – and literally, ball buster – of men. And for those who love Eighties rock, that synthesizing electronica of the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order and, yes, A Flock of Seagulls, this will bring back memories to a time when rock shattered generic walls and was a hell of a lot more vital than it is today. And for those old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, well, the entire movie takes place in the days leading up to that event and the night itself. The plot is thin but it doesn’t matter. Broughton is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a microfilm list of double agents being smuggled into the West. At every turn – repeatedly crossing back and forth between West and East Berlin - she is ambushed by KGB agents but, battered and bruised, escapes every time. The fight sequences are a lot of laughs simply because they’re executed so well on such villainous scum. But what’s also great about this film is the highly accurate depiction of that era – the bargain basement clothing of the poor East Berliners, the ultra-fashionable lesbians in West Berlin punk bars, the entire glossed-up 1980s look against the grayness of a bleak Berlin. Atomic Blonde is an uber two-hour escape.

Here’s a shout out - as I’ve done before – to Metro Detroit-owned MJR Digital Cinemas, for being so progressive and in the forefront. I attended the MJR’s Southgate last weekend to see The Glass Castle (Destin Daniel Cretton) and was wowed by the deep plush luxury seats – the regular seats - with footrests. This is the future of cinemas, folks (Windsor’s Devonshire Cineplex recently announced its conversion to luxury seating). And it’s a way theatre companies are fighting back against home cacooning. Seems to be paying off. On a gorgeous sunshiny afternoon, the cineplex was packed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Why I have no interest in seeing Detroit

I have no interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Detroit. The film has not done well at the box office, contrary to filmmakers’ expectations, though it has held its own in the Detroit market. There are questions as to why box office returns have been one third what was anticipated. Beyond getting out the film’s story – about the brutal deaths of three black youths at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riot for which there were no convictions among law enforcement personnel - the film’s box office is needed to simply repay its production costs - $55 million. I’m not naïve. I’ve lived with the Detroit riot’s aftermath since moving to this area in 1969, when legal proceedings were still ongoing over what has long been considered a major travesty of justice.  I’ve known about the Algiers Motel incident long before the rest of the world is now being informed of it…..Still, I have no interest in seeing the movie. Why? Several reasons. It's bringing up subject matter that is long over, or should be put to rest. Detroit 2017 is hardly Detroit 1967, when the city’s police force was overwhelmingly white and in many ways demonstrably racist. This film is commemorating – sometimes I think there’s almost celebratory nostalgia for the riot with events taking place this summer in and around Detroit (i.e., Bigelow’s film’s premiere at the Fox Theatre greeted like a New Year’s Eve fete) – an event half a century old when Detroit has attempted to move mountains to get on to a new and progressive path, though the physical and sociological ramifications of the riot still linger. (Also interesting is that no Detroit leaders have spoken out against a film that reinforces the city’s historically terrible image.) The film’s timing also conflates what happened 50 years ago to recent shootings of blacks by police forces around the United States. While these shootings are tragic and in a few cases questionable, their significance is out of proportion to the larger context of shootings by police generally and of police…..Why hasn’t the film done well at box office? My hunch is that it’s the middle of summer (the film’s opening was to coincide with the riot’s anniversary) and people like escapism and not harrowing realism. That a great many filmgoers, who tend to be young, have no idea what the film is about. And, perhaps, like me, a hell of a lot of people simply want to move on to the more progressive present.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Media City makes Windsor truly world class

I attended the Regional program of last week’s 22nd annual edition of the Media City film festival. It’s important that the public knows that this is not just a film festival but a festival of “digital art.” Hence the type of films screened, which are far from mainstream and more of what some might describe as experimental or art. That by no means lessens their importance and indeed the festival is internationally acclaimed, attracting filmmakers and jury members from around the world. While few other events do, Media City indeed makes Windsor world class…….Here are my faves from the 12 films screened. Lullaby Optic by Detroit’s Steve Wood, at eight minutes, was a kaleidoscope of revolving colours, almost as if a black hole was dispensing energy fragments. Moreover, shards of multicolour lights moved singly or in groups across the screen. It was all scored to “electronic” sounds or what’s known as circuit bending music, performed, yes, on circuit boards. And NASA’s archival sound lent well to what I’ve described as a black hole!....My next favourite was London resident Charlie Egleston’s 23-minute Watch Tower in seven parts. Set in the hills of Mexico the film is a studied look from different angles of a transmission tower and its sometimes-flashing beacon (at night). While we hardly see any people we hear them and other sounds, including music, of a Mexican village. It all creates an eerie or dislocated feeling. Are we being watched? Despite bucolic scenery and happy voices do they matter to the omnipresent anti-human tower? .....Notable also was Windsorite’s Alana Bartol’s six-minute A Woman Walking (the City Limits), North of The Bow (river in Calgary), which traced the line where rural meets urban, identified with swaying fields backing on to suburban tracts and wind catching manufactured detritus on barbed wire. The starkness is right in front of us, folks…..Other films, not just here but in the following International Program 2 (of which there were six over three days; opening night featured the films of Yoko Ono), and of other films of the kind I’ve seen over the years, descended too often into clichés of the genre - abstracted-amoebic like forms, for example, moving to industrial or atonal sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that if your message is compelling (as was Lullaby Optic) but I longed for more breakout themes: character portraits, mind games, elliptical narratives. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Two films from the past week

Besides being a generally heartwarming and funny movie, The Big Sick (Michael Showalter) is one of the bravest films I’ve seen discussing Western-Islamic relations, and in particular its references to Islam. The film is literally about the real-life relationship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script, and stars Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in the role of Gordon. Nanjiani is an aspiring Chicago stand-up comic who meets Gardner after his act in a comedy club. It’s one of those attraction-repulsion relationships where the protagonists soon can’t get their hands off one another. Until, that is, Gardner suffers a serious lung infection and is placed in hospital in a medically-induced coma. But before this there are some hilarious and heart spoken words. An incident in a coffee shop, where Nanjiani’s religion and race become overtly obvious, has him half-seriously shout that he “hates terrorists!” And, when his parents break off their relationship with him because he opted for an American woman over a Pakistani arranged marriage, he tells them that, while he respects their values, he’s in America now, and the world is wider than traditional religious boundaries. The script’s Nanjiani-Gordon’s dialogue is witty and their relationship takes some unconventional bumps.  But the movie, at just over two hours, could have had about 20 minutes shaved off of it. 

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd), is not about Shakespeare’s anti-heroine but is based on a 19th century Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov. Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a subjugated wife who must obey her husband at all costs. He orders her to stand with her back to him while he masturbates. She can’t even smile without being censured. But Katherine, whether due to an incorrigible personality or the fact she indeed is a sociopath, decides to go on a series of murders. First is her abhorrent husband (Paul Hilton). Next is his father, a despicable lord of the manor played by Christopher Fairbank. Up to this point, I was with Katherine, at least emotionally, and the murders seem more than justified. She is, after all, a self-actualizing spear against male oppression. But it’s what comes next that collapses this apparent persona, and may lead the viewer to conclude quite differently about her psychological state. Which raises the question: do these events undermine that “morality” of her earlier actions, and therefore the story’s feminist vision?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: give it an E for effort

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been garnering amazing praise, the result, I believe, of the fact critics have become so subsumed by the hype (as I was to an extent) that they have suspended their critical judgement. The closest this film approximates is Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. The movie indeed does put the viewer in the centre of a war zone, and prolongs that over more than an hour and a half, much longer that the immersive scenes of the Spielberg movie. The film begins with no prologue but puts the audience directly into the action, which doesn’t let up. This is good. Also great is the sound score, a cacophony of siren-like sounds and loops of increasing pulsating industrial-like rumble, sometimes sounding like an overwrought industrial engine, which led me to wonder if this was an accurate way to underline the visual drama. As far as the visual is concerned the scenes take place largely on the expansive Dunkirk, France, beach under an overcast if slightly sunny sky, which creates an uncomfortable, menacing atmosphere. The story is about the massive and heroic evacuation of some 400,000 troops pinned in by the Germans, strafed as they are on the beach waiting to be rescued. No large ships can sail into the shallow waters so the British government calls on a vast flotilla of small boat owners to sail the Channel, about 20 nautical miles from England. This is one of the most heroic stories of the Secord World War, at the end of which Winston Churchill’s great speech “We shall never surrender” takes place. The film rotates among three stories – a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) as part of the perilous evacuation, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, one of the citizen skippers sailing to the rescue, and two British air force Spitfire pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy), providing air cover. Throughout, the action is intense and never lets up. The acting is generally good including newcomer Whitehead and especially Rylance. But here are my problems: The movie indeed was shot in modern day Dunkirk and it shows. The streets are too colourful and pretty. There are even contemporary-looking buildings along the shore. Close-up shots of the pilots in their cockpits obviously aim for the realistic, their masks indeed looking like they came from the period, and that’s a problem. If this was real, wouldn’t their gear be newer looking? Also, visually, for a film that strives for exact realism, we never see the vast flotilla of citizen boats but rather only about 10 or 12. And, back home in England, the interior of the train coaches look newish. And, finally and most importantly, while I appreciate the film’s intensity, it’s simply not dramatic enough. I found myself looking at my watch twice. There are, for example, redundant scenes of ships bombed and turning over and soldiers thrown under water, and of troops gathered aimlessly on the beach. In fact, the film’s main fault, ironically, may be that in trying to be too in the moment for an hour and 46 minutes, it missed the opportunity to build drama. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Coppola's Beguiled a colossal disappointment

Yes, Sophia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes for this second take on author Thomas P. Cullinan's novel A Painted Devil, the first by Don Siegel in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. To say the least, it’s a colossal disappointment. I was expecting much more from Coppola than a very pedestrian, low key, flat-lined plot. The story is about the discovery by a group of women and girls of a Yankee soldier Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), wounded and gone AWOL, during the Civil War. The women are in a mostly abandoned southern plantation housing a girls’ school. Nicole Kidman is the school principal. She dutifully tends McBurney’s wound and cleans him up, almost fainting after touching such a perfect specimen of masculine virility. She and the rest of the eight-person household also fall in love, or infatuation, with their supposed prisoner. They primp, dress-up and flirt. But the corporal really has eyes for only one: teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). Or so he says. Morrow catches him in bed with Alicia (Elle Fanning) and hell is to pay. She knocks him down the stairs, reopening his wound. Now the leg will have to be amputated. After sedation, he awakens and discovers he's missing a limb. And hell is paid again – this time by McBurney - on the occupants. He, pistol in hand, holds them under, er, house arrest. Until, that is, they come up with a plot to end their captivity. There are many faults to the film though the actors did their best to work with what they were given. The first – and big – problem, is the lack of plot development. More than an hour went by before the first critical juncture, which really got the tension going. But essentially there is only one more act: McBurney’s capture of the women and their revenge. Perhaps this is the original story’s fault (I’d been expecting a played-out series of conflicts, even tortures). But Coppola could have embellished by creating more drama between the various women and McBurney. Instead it’s subdued. Moreover, she could have spun it like she did her 2006 Marie Antoinette, also starring Dunst. There, she used New Wave music over period scenes, an exhilarating juxtaposition. This film is singularity unexciting on many levels.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The "female" Lawrence of Arabia

Letters from Baghdad (opening Friday at the Main Art and AMC Classic Fairlane) is an extraordinary documentary about the life of British historian, diarist, adventurer, scholar, photographer, archeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell. The film follows Werner Herzog’s 2015 Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, a well-meaning but dramatically unsatisfying treatment of, as she’s been called, the “female” Lawrence of Arabia. Although having greater influence, her tale, due to misogyny has, as the directors, Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum say, essentially been “written out” of history……Bell, an Orientalist, from a young age had a fascination with Arab culture and spent roughly 30 years in the Middle East between the 1890's and 1926, when she died. Amazingly, for the period, she travlled fearlessly across desert - on one occasion 1500 miles on camelback - writing, charting and studying the region. She, reluctantly because a woman, was hired by British intelligence at the time of the Ottoman occupation, giving way to the British. Some of this you may have heard or read about before. Certainly, Herzog’s film never went into this detail. But what perhaps many don’t know is her integral involvement in creating the modern Iraq state, including drawing its borders. She also was “right hand man” to the British-installed first king, Faisal. The film depicts Bell as a benevolent imperialist, seeking self-determination for Iraqis and ruing the harsh whip of British rule, including bombing villages that didn’t pay taxes. “We rushed into this business with out usual disregard,” she says in one of her more than 1600 letters to family and colleagues back in Britain.  One might eerily draw the conclusion: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” a foreshadowing of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which the film obviously is arguing. Significantly, Bell, who died from an overdose in 1926, is buried in Baghdad. And she created the famed Iraq Museum, ransacked during the invasion. So, yes, Bell echoes through the century…..Perhaps most astonishing about the documentary is the archival footage of film from the Middle East of a century ago, stunningly preserved, much of it having been locked away and discarded for decades. Tilda Swinton narrates flawlessly while actors in extremely realistic period dress (this must be mentioned) are filmed in black and white as Bell’s family and colleagues, all to the mournful but not maudlin sound of Paul Centelon’s score.