Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Linking the politcal Left with fascism

Dinesh D'Souza is a prominent American conservative filmmaker and author. Born in Bombay he’s about as patriotic an American as you’ll find, a truism for many immigrants. Through numerous books and now five films D’Souza has combined his patriotism with a critique of liberal society and the Democratic Party. This continues with Death of a Nation: Can We Save America a Second Time? now screening at numerous Detroit-area megaplexes. The film has attracted little mainstream media coverage unlike, say, D’Souza’s counterpart on the Left, Michael Moore’s movies. Nevertheless, his films have had wide though predictably partisan audiences, as will likely be the case here. For beginners, D’Souza’s treatise can be startling if not shocking. Death of a Nation takes its title from D. W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), which many considered incendiary for how it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan. D’Souza recounts how then Democrat president Woodrow Wilson showed the film in the White House and how the Democrats were instrumental in reviving the racist Klan. From there, the film argues through chronology how the Democratic Left has aligned with the forces of racism and fascism, traits typically associated with the Right. Abraham Lincoln, after all, was a Republican. The party of George Wallace was the Democrats.  Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in US history, was also a Democrat and one-time Klan organizer. The film shows the relationship between the Klan’s targeting African Americans and the Nazis targeting Jews, the former influencing the latter. “Which is the party that invented white supremacy?” the documentary asks. “Which is the party that praised fascist dictators and shaped their genocidal policies and was in turn praised by them?” Structurally, the film is broken into interviews and historical re-enactments, including some well-dramatized re-creations of the rise of Hitler, done by a Czech crew. Finally, D’Souza denounces what he calls modern day fascists such as Antifa, which attacks groups it doesn’t want to speak, comparing them to Mussolini’s Black Shirts and the Nazis’ Brown Shirts. While the doc's narrative is engrossing if infuriating, technically the flow at times seems cumbersome. And some might conclude the overall message is simply agit-prop. But that, as they say, may depend on your political perspective

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Suburban cliches, yes, but compelling

As if suburban life hasn’t been ridiculed enough over the decades by all manner of sociologists, novelists, playwrights and filmmakers, leave it to one of Hollywood’s most flaming liberals, George Clooney, to add to the pile. That’s the case with his last year’s Suburbicon, now on Netflix, starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac. It would be easy to dismiss this film as simply another cliché-ridden diatribe against the suburbs and 1950s conformity, and I almost did. And this coming from someone who prefers the idea of downtown living and finds suburban life as monotonous as watching the lawn grow. But the film had something more, just enough edge with enough black humor and some fine performances, that kept me in the pocket. Part of the reason might be that it was co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and it does seem like a Coen movie. From the start it’s opening credits are extraordinarily beautifully campy in depicting a dreamy realtor’s welcoming world to the tract house paradise of late 1950s America, replete with housewives in shirtwaist dresses and heels (the costumes, at least on the women, are impeccable). But there is trouble in Middle America when a black family, the Mayers, move in, apparently mimicking an actual incident from the era in Levittown, Pa. The neighbors rebel as only they could in the racism-unchecked 1950s. But that’s a side story and background to what the picture is really about. That’s the plotting by Gardner (Damon) and Margaret, or Madge (Moore), the name a possible send-up of the prototypical 50s suburban housewife Madge in the old Palmolive commercials. Hiring a couple of Mafia types, they eliminate Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (also Moore). But their hoped for carefree life only spirals downward in a series of bleaker and bleaker episodes. While a tired treatise on the dark underbelly of sunny suburban life Suburbicon nevertheless is redeemed by well-drawn 50s tropes (Green Stamps and Gerald McBoing-Boing, anyone?) and veiled humor.

Meanwhile, in Melvin Goes to Dinner (Bob Odenkirk, 2003), also on Netflix, four of that era’s hip Yuppie types find themselves at dinner in a trendy LA bistro. Based on the play by Michael Blieden, who stars as Alex in the movie, the film is a slow reveal or group therapy for the two men and women, some meeting for the first time. I love films like this, like My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981), where talk can be so much more than action, though there are flashbacks here to incidents, mainly of a romantic or sexual nature. Cheating, pornography, loneliness, alienation, all get their treatment here, though there were times I wished the conversations could have been more fulsome. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coming to grips with estrangement, and sexual identity

I watched these two movies after being tipped off by an article in The New York Times, which from time to time does columns recommending certain original Netflix films. The first is a Spanish film, Sunday’s Illness, the second a French one, To Each, Her Own.

Sunday’s Illness (Ramon Salazar Hoogers, 2018) is the story of a mother-daughter relationship. The daughter Annabel (Susi Sanchez) shows up one day at her mother Chiara’s (Bárbara Lennie) opulent home. The two couldn’t be more different. Annabel is relatively poor, lives in the backwoods, her mother part of elite Spanish society. But the real issue is the length of time they have been apart. Chiara abandoned Annabel when she was eight. Annabel has a proposition: she asks her mother to come to her rural cottage for 10 days, presumably to bond after all these years but she is coy. Chiara is hesitant but takes her up. She arrives in designer clothes, only to have her daughter, passive-aggressively, accidentally spray her with a garden hose. Annabel also throws some verbal barbs, underlying her long-time resentment for being abandoned, about Chiara’s wealth and materialism, Chiara denies she has been corrupted and says she “sees herself” in her daughter. Chiara also was a hippie and “stir crazy” in her youth, attending what appeared to be Woodstock. But the back story is that Annabel is sick and dying, after a life in contrast to her mother’s. “Nothing stands out,” she says. Despite the sparks between the two women they eventually do get closer. Chiara’s style of dress evolves to that of her daughter. In the meditative final scenes Annabel tells Chiara, “I understand...everything.” The film’s strength is its character studies though we are often left grasping for answers: why did Chiara abandon Annabel, how exactly do the two reconcile their estrangement? We’re left to guess but maybe that’s all we need to do.

To Each, Her Own (Myriam Aziza, 2018) is a film as much about lesbian life as it is confronting one’s family about sexual choices and the myriad stereotypes no ethnicity or race seems immune from. It’s a comedy to be sure but could easily have descended into farce or silliness. Instead it keeps a serious edged and therefore its credibility. Simone (Sarah Stern) lives with her lover Claire (Julia Piaton) but is afraid to reveal their relationship to her conservative Jewish parents, despite the fact her brother is part of an openly gay couple. After all, “with two gays kids they’ll go crazy.” The plot is a series of comic misunderstandings. Simone’s brother runs a Jewish dating site and fixes her up with a male date that she hands off to her goy workplace friend, to who she must explain the complexities of eating kosher. She also falls for a Senegalese chef Wali (Jean-Christophe Folly), confounding her own same sex identity. The film is well-acted, fast-paced, has a delightful score, and there’s good character acting on the part of people like her ever-critical mother Catherine Jacob, who poignantly sings at Simone’s brother’s wedding. For a film that combines romcom, farce, contemporary mores, and life in Paris to boot, you’d be hard-pressed to do much better than this.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Film clips: eccentricity isn't an excuse

Here are some recent films I’ve caught, not at cinemas, but on websites, including the fantastic FilmStruck, an art house cinema site owned by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and which, unfortunately, can only be viewed in the United States. Notice how this blog is called Windsor - DETROIT Film?

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries (Roger Mitchell 2014) (photo left), on Netflix, originally a two-part TV series, tells the story of a real incident where an eccentric school teacher (Jason Watkins as Jeffries), is mistakenly arrested and charged with the murder of a neighbor. It’s a classic case of police jumping to conclusions because someone is unconventional enough to evoke suspicion. But the film is also a critique of England’s tabloid press, which made Jeffries a household name and outcast. Watkins is great as the seemingly absent-minded professor who has a sharp mind and is indignantly confounded by his arrest. Mitchell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) paces this picture just right, from early scenes of Jeffries's very normal life socializing with friends and as dedicated teacher to the subsequent police investigation, false media outing, and more.

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), on FilmsStruck, starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms, is about the blackmailing of a group of high profile gay men in England during a period when homosexuality was illegal. But so then was blackmailing. The plot revolves around Melville Farr (Bogarde) who seeks to quash the blackmailing ring, even if it threatens his life as a prominent barrister. Bogarde is always great, as in this role which shows how a man can live both a conventional and unconventional life, as many, at one time, did.

In Search of Fellini (Taron Lexton, 2017), on Netflix, is about a small town midwestern girl who discovers the great Italian director Federico Fellini and is so mesmerized by his films she wants to go to Italy to see him (this of course when the master was still alive). Lucy (Ksenia Solo) makes the escape from home and has several adventures, including romantic, in Italy, before meeting up with the director in a Roma café. It’s an unlikely scenario though partly autobiographical. The film’s best parts are its dreamy cinematography. But that isn’t enough to hold the plot together.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

An outlier who was also an assassin

The Catcher Was a Spy, directed by Ben Lewin and opening Friday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, is a taut almost meditative film about a true attempt to assassinate a famous German physicist during the Second World War. It’s one of these stories about a little-known hero in the annals of history and all the more because he’s such a fascinating character. Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) was a veteran catcher for the Boston Red Sox. But he was much more. A polymath, he could speak a dozen languages and his intellectual knowledge was matched by his physical prowess on the field and off. He was also a patriot. On a baseball goodwill trip to Japan he surreptitiously filmed the Japanese fleet on a premonition America would soon be going to war. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited him as a spy and sent him to Europe to assassinate Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the man behind what the Allies believed was a German-made atomic bomb. The Catcher Was a Spy, intentionally or not, ends up being as much about Berg as the plot itself. Besides his intellectual acumen Berg, especially in the 1940s, was what we’d today call an outlier. He was single his entire life and while he had a girlfriend (Sienna Miller as Estella) it appeared he was also bisexual. The epilogue says he spent the rest of his life devoted to his two great passions, books and baseball. The film, based on the book by Nicholas Davidoff, otherwise depicts a straightforward plot showing Berg and his military colleagues as they slip into war-torn Italy to meet some academic colleagues of Heisenberg (played by Paul Giannini, Giancarlo Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) who lead him to the German physicist’s Swiss lecture. Lewin’s direction is full of close-up shots or intimate office or social gatherings, with plenty of full screen images of Berg, almost as if probing his thought processes as the plot moves along. The acting is good and there is a battle scene that is authentic and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Yet there are times one wishes for something more – less one dimensionality, perhaps, or a fillip or two. Giamatti, who I usually think of in comedy roles, is convincing enough as an Italian scientist, complete with accent, though I had to smile at first. But it’s also interesting how all these actors are aging. Jeff Daniels, 63, admittedly with makeup, is starting to look like an old man. Ditto for Tom Wilkinson, though he is now 70. We’re all getting older.

Friday, June 8, 2018

An, uh, unrealistic love story

Sometimes you just wonder what the point of a film, play, book – and in this case novella – is. The film, directed by Dominic Cooke, is On Chesil Beach, based on the novella by contemporary English author Ian McEwan, who happens to be one of my favorites. But, alas, this movie (seen elsewhere but not in local cinemas) was a disappointment. Here’s the thing: the story is about two young people (Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan) who marry in 1962. You’ve got to wonder if the story is autobiographical but I haven’t seen any evidence it is. Both characters are extremely awkward during what is supposed to be wedding night bliss. Florence (Ronan) finally declares she’s frigid. Which upsets our poor lad no end. He stomps off and wanders, as it happens, a mile or so down Chesil Beach, a beautiful pebbled filled beach on England’s southern coast (so precious McEwan caused a scandal by taking home some pebbles and had to return them). Florence (Saoirse) runs after him. She figuratively throws herself at him, saying she’s at fault and still loves him and, the kicker, he can have any woman he wants – for sex. Edward (Howle), pigheadedly, will have none of it (it is 1962 and he’s a red-blooded English male). And that is the end of this very – very - brief marriage. Until Edward, now in his Seventies, sees Florence, a professional violinist, perform and breaks down over the error of his previous ways. Altogether, this is a lackluster story and you wonder what compelled McEwan to write it, unless he is Edward. (For some reason, I can see McEwan being awkwardly nerdish.) But how realistic is it? What woman, especially in 1962, would pledge love but an open relationship with as many women as her husband wanted? 
I also caught Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait at last month’s WIFF monthly film series at the Capitol Theatre. Geoffrey Rush is terrific as the extremely eccentric artist, Alberto Giacometti, known for his rough edged skinny sculptures and brooding gray-black paintings, often described as images of alienation. But the film suffers from claustrophobia, literally. Most of the action takes place within the artist’s studio. Sure, there are outdoor scenes, mainly long walks between the man having his portrait – interminably – done, critic James Lord, (Armie Hammer) in a famous Paris cemetery. And there are a few café scenes. But the film has no wider vision – either location-wise or story-wise. How does Giacometti, a great artist, fit into the pantheon of modern art history?  Where are his wider Paris community, friends, associates? Nevertheless, Rush is amazing. But the movie is just too narrow in scope.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Love's delusions, and then some

Let the Sunshine In, by acclaimed French director Claire Denis, and opening Friday (an original opening date of May 18th has been changed to May 25th) at the Main Art in Royal Oak, is about the intricacies of love. Now before you think I’m getting all highfalutin let me say that by intricacies I mean the truths, lies, contradictions and mixed messages people in romantic relationships, often of the superficial and temporary kind, give one another. So, we have Isabelle, a ravishing Juliette Binoche (who at 54 has not looked more stunning), an artist, who, as the cliché would have it, can’t find love. All well and good. But let’s admit it. When you’re looking for love there can be a lot of false hopes, delusions, wrong turns, small victories and utter losses. Such is the case with our heroine. The film opens with Isabelle and a lover, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), an almost Harvey Weinstein lookalike, with a personality to match, in bed. He’s married and tells her “you’re charming but my wife is extraordinary.” There’s the actor (Nicolas Duvauchell) who at one moment comes on to her and the next retreats. “Long live (his) family,” he says as he walks away, then turns around and asks for a date. Isabelle’s ex-husband, François (Laurent Grévill) keeps coming back for supposedly nostalgic passion then turns bitter when she says she wants the rendezvous to end. In a bar she meets a Mick Jagger-looking fellow, Sylvain (Paul Blain), who’s denigrated by a friend Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès), an art gallery owner and class-conscious snob. One would think Isabelle would reject such high-handedness, but she’s too influenced by him. And when she repeats some of Fabrice’s comments to Sylvain, he rightly tells her she could have told Fabrice to “stop badmouthing the man I love.” The point is, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a confused personality, one without the greatest sense of self, to accept people’s opinions willy-nilly. It’s this type of personality trait, and some of the confused behaviors in the interactions of the various men Isabelle meets, which makes the film all too authentic, and something we rarely see on screen. Lots of films give us one two and if we’re lucky three dimensions. Let the Sunshine In gives us multiple.