Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Iranian corruption, and a modern guys film

A couple more reviews from this year's Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal, which ended Sunday: 

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran): This film’s story is meant to be a microcosm for the corruption in modern day Iranian society. It’s an underground film because Rasoulof is facing jail time and the movie was shot, undercover, in the country’s remote north. It also won this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard prize. The film concentrates on Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad) who stands up against an unspecified local corporate entity that seems to run the local community, and which wants his land. His fish farm is destroyed, he is falsely jailed and forced to pay compensation to the town boss. His family’s downward spiral is sickening. This is a character-driven plot and Akhlaghirad is a good actor. But the film falters from its overwhelmingly melancholy, its slow pace, and an unrelenting bleak visual backdrop.  

Bernard and Huey (Dan Mirvish, USA): This film, from an unproduced screenplay by the cartoonist, screenwriter and playwright Jules Feiffer, is a little surprising for those of us who think Feiffer epitomizes the liberal sentiments of the New York’s Greenwich Village. After all, he drew the iconic cartoon strip the Village Voice newspaper for over 40 years. But these characters, Bernard and Huey, also inhabited that strip, at least in the 1950s. Bernard (Jim Rash) is the nerdish intellectual, Huey (David Koechner) the alpha male. Huey is an expert on women and sets Bernard up with women he’s dated. Twenty-five years later Huey shows up at Bernard’s apartment unexpectedly. The table is turned. Bernard scores with various women, Huey is fat and bald but as gregarious as ever. This is a male bonding lark. After all, what do men often spend their time talking about? Women and getting laid. The film is all New York, very contemporary, with interesting characters. But if you’re a woman offended by this sort of talk, stay away. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Move over Judge Judy, and Turkey's repression

More reviews from Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinéma 46th edition:

Ni juge, ni soumise (Jean Libon, Yves Hinant, Belgium-France): Move over Judge Judy. This film, featuring Brussels real life “examining magistrate” Anne Gruwez, is an up-close look at a judge meting out justice. This magistrate conducts business in her cluttered file-strewn office, with a couple of assistants, while lawyers and the accused, or witnesses, sit before her. Gruwez is matter of fact and no nonsense, nothing in the long litany of some pretty sordid cases seems to phase her. The film is a behind the scenes look at the criminal justice system by its participants, and nothing seems made up for the camera. Gruwez admonishes lawyers when they speak out of turn, cracks a joke if a defendant says something silly or insincere, warns one defendant it’s her head, not his, that will be on the block, if she frees him and he screws up. It’s all part of the day for the eccentric judge, who drives an old-fashioned Citroen, has a pet rat that tries to interfere with her typing, and quips with a police officer about how motorists must get out of their way when their have the police car siren on.  As she and a group of detectives go over a 20-year-old cold case, they laugh about whether a witness has dentures. They disinter a body from a grave and Gruwez says they should chip more bone off “to go with drinks.” But this individual is hardly belittling justice; instead she’s the personification of it. Crime, like life in general, is full of absurdities and Gruwez simply pays vocal heed to them. But life can be horrible too. The most disturbing case is an Islamic woman who has no guilt about strangling her baby because the child - "Satan" - was the offspring of a rape. Just when she thinks she has heard it all, the magistrate finds new surprises, like when a prostitute tells of what some of her johns want. “It’s funny, we learn stuff,” Gruwez says. “The thing with the pins.”  Ni juge, ni soumise is a tour de force of utterly candid observation, a film that deserves wide circulation.

Inflame (Ceylan Ozgun Ozcelik, Turkey): This directorial debut which has had release at many film festivals including Berlin and SXSW has immediate resonance with what is going on in the increasingly authoritarian country of Turkey under President Racep Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s a metaphor for his slam down on civil liberties (170 journalists currently imprisoned, thousands of other professionals arrested and fired in mass sweeps after last year’s attempted coup) so it’s surprising the film actually got made. Ozcelik answered that questioned in a Q & A after the screening, saying that she received – surprisingly – state funding (along with crowdsourcing) in 2015, before the coup took place. The film – no surprise - currently can’t be shown in the country. In any Inflame (the Turkish title is Anxiety) is not about current events but an event that few in the West have likely heard of: the 1993 massacre of artists and intellectuals by Islamist terrorists in a hotel in the central Anatolian city of Sivas. It depicts a young TV news station editor (a fill-in for Ozcelik herself, who worked many years in television). Hasret (Algi Eke) increasingly finds herself subject to official dictates over how to edit film. Her news director says orders come from the state and are not to be questioned. She’s demoted from working on investigative documentaries to editing government minister speeches – to make them sound better, of course. These dictates so enrage and alienate Hasret she leaves her job and holes up in an abandoned apartment. This is where the “horror” part of the film, as Ozcelik described it, kicks in. Hasret imagines she’s in a burning building and the walls are getting hotter. She turns away an old friend who comes to check on her. She pulls panels off a wall which reveal a crude mural of people dying in a burning building. To her credit, Ozcelik’s message is right on and her use of surrealism is highly appropriate. But the movie falters by too much focus on Hasret’s angst and breakdown (we get it already), and the surreal touches aren’t executed well enough. This results in an at times boring narrative with an unintentionally diluted impact.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Nay and yay at Montreal's FNC

The 46th edition of the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), the city’s longest running film festival – and there are many here – got underway last week. The last time I attended it was in 2014. It’s been my intermittent Montreal festival. For years, I didn’t miss the earlier in the year Montreal World Film Festival and the autumnal Festival du Nouveau Cinema was optional. Now, with the MWFF pretty well tanked due to lack of funding – and mismanagement? – the FNC is pretty much all I have left in the city where I was born, and love. Without further adieu, here’s two reviews from today’s offerings:

Samui Song (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand): This is a wannabee outrageous crime drama. A veteran filmmaker himself, Pen-Ek was obviously influenced by Quentin Tarintino, Brian De Palma, and others of the blood-soaked human – and humor - ilk, but this effort falls flat. Vi (Chermarn “Ploy” Boonyasak) is a bored soap opera actress married to a millionaire potter Frenchman Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui), caught up in a spiritual Eastern cult. But he abuses her and in fact enables the “Holy One” cult leader (Vithaya Pansringarm) to rape her. She seeks revenge and conveniently meets the would-be assassin Guy Spencer (David Asavanond). He’s blood thirsty, alright, and there are some gruesome beating scenes including a joking one where Jerome is pummeled with one of his phallus sculptures. But the film takes a bizarre turn where a completely different woman (Palika Suwannarak) is raising a young son with her female lover. Guy shows up and tries to force her to eat offal. But he’s offed by a mysterious shooter, with unintentional hilarity – or maybe it isn’t, this film’s humor is so dry - showing just the gun’s muzzle poking through a cracked door. But is the final joke on us? It might be, since the last chase scene is being shot by a film crew. Finally, Vi is back to being her soap opera star self, and leaves the set arm in arm with the hated Holy One cult leader! But the obviously intended humor falls flat, ruined by a lack of script subtlety and on screen devices like an overmodulated menacing soundtrack.

Mon Ange (Harry Clevin, Belgium-France): This is one of the most inventive film stories I’ve seen in a while, and plays with the ideas of perception and reality, and is even philosophical. Beset by a trauma, a mother (Elina Löwensohn) gives birth to an invisible baby boy. The child grows and become infatuated with a little girl (Madeleine) next door, who is blind. She can sense and touch him but never can see him, not that she would be able to anyway. The years go by and she has an operation that allows her to see. Now she hopes to see her boy/friend (first platonic and then romantic) in the flesh. He sets a time to reveal himself but it turns out not to be what it might. The movie seems to be saying several things: would we judge people the same way if we didn’t see them? How important is physical beauty to a relationship? And how we “see” ourselves may be quite different from what we look like. Filmed at times through a foggy prism with a magic realist edge, and with plenty of close-ups of the beautiful Madeleine’s face as a child, teen, and adult (Hannah Boudreau, Maya Dory and Fleur Geffrier respectively), the film seems almost tactile, including with intimate shots of pinpoints on the skin during times of sexual arousal.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Recreating the past and the present

The New York art house crawl continues. Back-to-back films found me first at Quad Cinema in the West Village for Marjorie Prime, followed by Nobody’s Watching, at Film Forum on Houston St….. Marjorie Prime, directed by Michael Almereyda, (photo left) based on Jordan Harrison's play, is set some time in the future, just far enough where holograms are a fact of life or when today’s millennials are well into middle age. Lois Smith is Marjorie, a near death Baby Boomer who longs for her deceased husband Walter. But in the future you can recreate former loved ones, and Walter (Jon Hamm) appears before her as a reasonable facsimile, aka hologram or “prime.” This presence seems to satisfy Lois emotionally though there are gaps in the hologram’s knowledge of their relationship. Tim Robbins and Geena Davis play daughter and son-in-law, who’ve moved in with Marjorie to support her, yet ambivalence reigns between the couple and Marjorie and even between them and Walter, who they see as an intruder. It’s sci-fi, folks, and the film raises interesting questions about whether memory should be left as it is or can be suitably re-created via an electronic stand-in…..About 10 blocks south of Quad Cinema, after taking in the only-could-be New York street scene on 6th Avenue, it was a screening at Film Forum of the Argentinian film Nobody’s Watching (Julia Solomonoff). I couldn’t get into a packed screening featuring the director a couple of nights before. The film is about Nico (Guillermo Pfening), soap opera star in his native Argentina, but trying to transform his life as a “real” actor in the Big Apple. He’s good looking, has a sort of charisma, and you’d think New York would be his oyster. But he’s having no luck. He takes factotum jobs, shoplifts to make ends meet, and his relationships with friends and lovers are unstable. Pfening plays his character effortlessly in a highly realistic contemporary slice of life drama.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why go to New York? Films of course

One of the most fun things about New York City is the number of art house cinemas. I can think of Cinema Village, Quad Cinema, IFC, Angelika, Film Forum, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Sunshine, Metrograph and I’m missing two or three if not more. Over the past week I’ve been to Lincoln Plaza, Lincoln Center, Film Forum – twice – and the Quad. So needles to say any visit to New York includes a heaping dish of cinema…..The first two movies I saw were Nocturama and California Typewriter, neither no longer showing. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016) at Lincoln Center is a tale of a group of young Parisians who plot to blow up several sites in their fine city. Yet it’s unclear what the purpose is. They aren’t overly Islamic though there are a few who appear Middle Eastern. Their motive is more to target a random number of institutions they for one reason or another detest – from a government ministry to the tower of a bank that just cut thousands of jobs. This movie had every indication of a taut political thriller. To some extent it was but the lack of ideological intent undercut the plot, and about half the movie is spent on the assailants trapped in a hideout surrounded by police, not scintillating cinema. …..Then it was a couple of blocks walk over to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for California Typewriter (Doug Nichol, 2016). This film is, well, a nerdy if sweet documentary about a nerdy subject, the typewriter. The title is about one of the few remaining shops that devotes itself to repairing and collecting typewriters. And we learn there are some fanatical devotees to the pre-digital word processor – actor Tom hanks, who owns more than 250, and Toronto’s Martin Howard, who literally swoons at the sight of certain age old examples of the beast, such as a 19th century Sholes & Glidden. This is a better movie than Nocturama – it’s tighter and more engaging. The point of it all is to celebrate the near past we’ve almost lost – analogue inventions. Hanks, Howard and people like playwright Sam Shepard and author David McCullough laud the typewriter’s mechanical immediacy for providing a more realistic experience. As musician John Mayer says, “The typewriter doesn’t judge you. It just goes, ‘Right away sir.’” Or author McCullough: “There’s a tactful satisfaction that I think is part of our humanity.” ….More films from the East Coast in my next post.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Montreal World Film Festival for me this year

Normally this time of year I’d be in Montreal for the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), which I began attending in its first year in 1977. I’ve only missed a few editions and have been a staunch defender of the festival when others, mainly the Montreal media, have derided it for any number of reasons – a dictatorial administrator, the lack of a “curatorial” program, and not opening its financial books. As someone not from Montreal I happily traveled to the festival year after year and simply indulged in the hundreds of films regularly on view. And uniquely, compared to other festivals, even Toronto, MWFF  films were a smorgasbord of flicks from around the world – even from very obscure or small countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The MWFF administrator and founder, Serge Losique, in fact did run the festival as an autocrat. He started it and dammit, he was going to do what he wanted and to hell with what other people thought. Well, the consequences caught up with him last year. Even before that, government funding was being pulled. But last year (photo of optimistic filmgoers above) his sponsorships collapsed to the point he couldn’t afford to rent a major multiplex (the old Montreal Forum). The glossy pre-published film guide turned out to be useless; instead ever-changing zeroxed sheets were taped to the one cinema Losique had left, the Imperial.  Ticket holders, film directors and actors, often couldn’t get to their films.  And instead of paid staff there was a handful of volunteers. It was all very sad for a festival that once had been dominant in Montreal and rivaled the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I still have fond memories of it. But, because of last year’s catastrophe, I decided not to go to this year’s event. Yes, the MWFF apparently is still happening. There are films listed on its website. And reportedly, a major Quebec corporation, Quebecor, bailed Losique out on the Imperial theatre’s mortgage.  But it still wasn’t enough to lure me. I’m afraid the MWFF, as far as I'm concerned, is dead……That won’t mean I won’t be going to Montreal for a festival this year. In October, there is the even older Festival du nouveau cinema (Festival of New Cinema) a more avant-garde event that serves up an excellent program. Montreal is beautiful in October. 

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.