Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Compare and contrast

Compare and contrast. One famous film critic, Rex Reed (yes, such a person actually exists) last week named Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) his number one movie of 2016. And he listed La La Land (Damien Chazelle) number 10. I’d turn the list upside down, and jettison Manchester by the Sea altogether…..First, La La Land. This is an exhilarating comedy-drama the likes of which modern audiences haven’t seen, and you’d have to go back decades (the early 1960's anyway) to find such a film. That’s because it’s primarily a musical. From the opening scene, when drivers stuck in traffic get out of their cars and sing and dance, to umpteen other scenes where characters – mainly Ryan Gosling as Sebestian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan – segue into melody, La La Land isn’t only a musical feast but combines the best of Hollywood’s epic themes – love, struggle, idealism, disappointment and triumph. The film’s dreamlike quality, compete with sound stages and animated backdrops right out of Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), is a joyful celebration of life and the power to dream. There isn’t a second wasted in this 128-minute offering, which traces the romance of Sebestian, a down and out jazz musician, and Emma, an equally struggling actress, who meet in classic Hollywood fashion (they rather hate each other) but whose idiosyncrasies draw them together. This is not just a musical but a dramatic feast, the songs and dances simply underlying the narrative, the same as all good musicals. A boon to the eyes and ears chances are you’ll come away immensely aesthetically satisfied.…..If only the same only be said for Manchester by the Sea. The film is getting raves, and one wonders why. Sure, Casey Affleck’s acting is superb and there are some decent supporting acts. But that’s about all. I was trying to avoid the film because I was turned off by the desultory narrative. And the film lived all the way down to my expectations. Affleck as Lee Chandler is, pure and simple, an asshole. But we never get to understand why. Sure, a devastating fire that kills two of his kids can lead to emotional shutdown. But he was like this before the fire happened. He’s unpleasant to those around him and picks fights for no reason. He hardly ever talks, and disdains personal engagement. So, what was Lonergan, a very famous playwright including of This Is Our Youth (1996), trying to say? Had there been more insight written into the characters and plot, maybe I could have understood it better. Otherwise, like Chandler himself, this film is stone cold.  

Monday, December 12, 2016

An afternoon of minimalist opera

It was time not for a movie but an opera at the local bijou, in this case last Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera’s live presentation of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar) at Cineplex’s Devonshire Mall theatres, though the opera was simultaneously broadcast at numerous locations in metro Detroit and around the world. Hard to believe but this was the first opera the Met has presented since 1903 that was written by a female composer. (The libretto was by novelist Amin Maalouf.) Unlike most operas L’amour de loin was very sparse in terms of characters and chorus, though the chorus - their heads anyway - did emerge from time to time from a set that evoked the sea. Otherwise, the performance was just three characters who kept it going through five acts. And, boy, did they did it extremely well. The story, based on original manuscripts, is about a poet who longs for an ideal lover but she is located far across the sea. Eric Owens (bass-baritone) plays the poet Jaufré, Susanna Phillips (soprano) is the idealized Clémence, and Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano) is The Pilgrim who brings the two lovers together. The minimalist production features a series of LED strings of lights representing the sea's waves. The lights change color or go dark, representing, remarkably well, day and night or calm and rough waters. The Pilgrim, an almost androgynous character (as Mumford herself described the role in an interview), links the lovers by sailing back and forth between them. Meanwhile, Jaufré and Clémence, in separate scenes, are perched atop some type of ship deck, or bridge or wharf-like platform that also looks like a structure out of science fiction. The chorus adds critical elements to the story as does Saariaho’s surreal score, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. But it really is all Phillips, Mumford and Owens, whose singing is meditative and full of longing. At first I thought the set too stark but afterwards appreciated it as a suitable backdrop to the characters’ loneliness in an almost otherworldly environment.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Packed matinees, and libertine Germany

I always kick myself for forgetting that if there is one movie theatre that is packed for weekend matinees. It’s the Maple in Birmingham. Such was the case yesterday when we showed up for the early afternoon screening of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Normally, a weekend matinee at most theatres not only means there are plenty of seats available but a discounted ticket as well. While the Maple offers discounts it’s hard to find seats, especially if you come at the last moment or a few minutes late, as was our case. (I’ll blame the delay on a road accident on Telegraph.) The reason? It’s those discounts. For some reason people simply LOVE saving a few bucks by attending matinee screenings at this theatre. It has always been the case even when the Maple was run by Landmark Cinemas. (BTW, we got ticket refunds after deciding the crowded theatre was too much for us.).....Not that I had an overriding interest in seeing the film, a story about family and community in a small Massachusetts town. But it’s the only film screening right now that seems half-interesting. The film has won major acclaim, however, and scores an astounding 97 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. So, what do I know? Just make sure to come early to a Maple matinee.

Recently, in Germany, I caught Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. In the small city where I was visiting, the film was only a few that were screened in the original English with German subtitles. Even most North American independents, as well as films generally, seem to be dubbed in countries like Germany and France. The film itself was a low key if mildly humorous look at a couple – he (Adam Driver) a bus driver and poet, she (Golshifteh Farahani), an off-the-wall designer – who live out their day to day lives in the New Jersey city near New York. The film plays on the circularity of life and the connections between the artistic present and past. For example, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Lou Costello and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter all hailed from Paterson…..But it wasn’t so much the film but the theatre's atmosphere that impressed. The Kino Klub in Erfurt (photo above) was a small shoebox of an arthouse with perhaps 100 seats. It reminded me of the old Windsor Film Theatre on Wyandotte Street. But it was attractively designed with a connected bar and lounge. And unlike in North America, when the doors opened the patrons simply wandered in with whatever adult beverage they had on hand - bottles of beer, glasses of wine - as casually as if it was Coca Cola. Ah, Germany!

Another thing: I attended a cinema in Paris to watch I, Daniel Blake (which won this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes), British director Ken Loach's latest. If you think advertising before a feature presentation in a North American theatre is long, you haven't seen anything. In France, it seems virtually endless.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

WIFF 2016: Worth playing hooky for

With more than 100 film presentations (I counted 112), would class directors like Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodovar, Xavier Dolan, Susanne Bier, Jim Jarmusch (two films), Pack Chan-Wook, Ken Loach and Whit Stillman, stars such as Kate Winslet, Parker Posey, Isabelle Huppert (two films), Colin Firth, Ewan McGregor, Ethan Hawke, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Vera Farmiga, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Greta Gerwig, Susan Sarandon and Catharine Deneuve, Windsorites should congratulate themselves on being so lucky to live in a city where such a fabulous annual event takes place….. I’m speaking of course of the 12th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), which kicks off Tuesday and runs until Sunday. The lineup has been great in previous years but it is more than striking this year, enough for true filmgoers to book a week off work and, for me, almost delaying an overseas vacation (I seriously, if briefly, considered it) …. What films you attend, of course, is a matter of any number of things – whether you like documentaries, drama, comedies. Perhaps you’re inquisitive about films from certain parts of the world – Denmark, France, Iran. Or you simply like to see fave artists……The thing about the Windsor fest, unlike other festivals in our cross-border environs, is that it is, among other things, a heaping distillation of the best films from the best, or second best, festival in the world, Toronto. Why pay Toronto prices – and fight the crowds – in September, when you can see many of the same movies in comfortable, intimate, and inexpensive Windsor? And this year there are all new seats at the Capitol Theatre, worth celebrating itself! And the addition of the Chrysler Theatre can only be a bonus…. Now for the films. Truly, about 90 per cent of this year’s lineup I would attend if I wasn’t travelling. But here, with envy, are my top picks:

The Architect: I’ll always attend a film with Parker Posey in it but this screwball comedy about building a dream house has fun written all over it. 
Christine: Based on the true story of a TV anchor’s on-air suicide.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa: Anything about this acerbic musical genius is more than worth a look.
Elle: The great French actress Isabelle Huppert in a perfect role in a drama about a sexually assaulted businesswoman who seeks revenge.
Gimme Danger: The Jim Jarmusch doc about the Motor City’s great, ever vibrant, Iggy Pop (and The Stooges).
The Handmaiden: Perhaps South Korea’s top contemporary filmmaker, Pack Chan-Wook knows how to interweave – sometimes surreal – suspense, with a compelling story.
I, Daniel Blake: Even if you don’t agree with his politics, the UK’s Ken Loach’s tales of the working class and down and out are fine character-driven stories.
Indignation and American Pastoral: two films based on the Philip Roth novels - one set in the Korean War 1950s, the other in the politically turbulent 60s. Anything based on a Roth story is must-seeing.
A Bigger Splash: With three top stars this film set on a sun-drenched Italian island is exhilarating.
It’s Only the End of the World: Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s latest. What more can I say?
Julieta: Anything by Spanish director Pedro Almadovar – for his outrageousness and passion - is worth seeing. And this film is based on three stories by Alice Munro.
Our Kind of Traitor: Based on the John le Carré novel starring Ewan McGregor – buy that ticket now!
Personal Shopper: This won Olivier Assayas, the director of Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), the Cannes Best Director award this year.
A Second Chance: Danish director Susanne Bier brings humanity to her dramas, and this crime thriller looks like icing on the cake.
Summertime: Ah, the 1970s, the early blossoming of feminism and revolution was still in the air, though everyone was moving to the countryside.
Things to Come: The second film in this festival starring Isabelle Huppert. Of course, a must see.
Toni Erdmann: Of all the films in this year’s line-up, this one, a German-Austrian co-production, sounds like an over-the-top exhilarating romp (if the reviews can be believed), and is my number one pick. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Study of a woman

Aquarius, opening Friday at the Birmingham 8 and Emagine Novi, and directed by Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, is billed as one woman’s stand against a big developer who wants to kick her out of her home. It’s that, certainly, but the film plays out more as a meditation on a single (widow) 60-ish Baby Boomer coming to terms with her life. Sonia Braga, the famous Brazilian-American actress, is the star.  The setting is the Brazilian seaside city of Recife. Dona Clara (Braga) raised her family in this home, a nice spacious now Art Deco-infused apartment. The film opens with a birthday party there in 1980. And then flash forwards to the present day, where Clara, now 66 and a retired journalist, lives alone in what may be a fulfilling or less than fulfilling life. The movie is broken into three chapters and mainly shows Clara going about her days – walking to the beach, at dances with girlfriends, visiting with her children. It’s almost as if the proverbial elephant in the room – a construction company that wants to redevelop the site and is stymied by her refusal to move when all the other tenants or owners have been bought out – doesn’t exist. But it’s there in the background, as company officials occasionally maker her offers (“over market price”), and with the increasingly rundown look of the premises. But why should Clara leave? It’s her longtime home, after all, and she’s got a great ocean view. And when one of her children asks if she’s “stressed” by all the pressure she replies, no, “I’m pissed off.” The stereotypes build of her being a “crazy old lady” when, of course, she is quite sane. It’s the others who worry unnecessarily or don’t understand the desire to cling to familiarity, nostalgia and comfort. As I said, the film works better more as a depiction of a character, an older woman who loves music – and insists on listening to her 40-year-old LPs rather than digital downloads – hanging out with friends, and who is seemingly ambivalent about the other gender and romance. In one scene, a man picks her up at a dance but as quickly drops her when she tells him she’s had breast surgery. In another, she phones up a young buck to come over expressly for sex. Meanwhile, the conflict between Clara and the construction company comes to a boil near the very end of the film when Clara finally confronts the developer, Diego (Humberto Carrão), who has been increasingly trying, in not so subtle ways, to force her to leave, including using the building for sex orgies and then introducing nests of termites. She denounces him for his “business” background and being part of an elite lacking “manners” and whose character “is money.” Well, I guess no such film is complete without a ritual denunciation of capitalism. From this scene, it’s only a few minutes to the film’s abrupt and dramatic ending, to which the audience might respond by saying, “good for you!,” and/or, in an exasperated way, “okay!” 

Monday, October 10, 2016

A potpourri of new films

I'm still on the US East Coast, and caught these films over the past couple of weeks.

White Girl (d. Elizabeth Wood). This is the best new film I’ve seen in months. The story of a promiscuous and drug-taking young Brooklynite (Morgan Saylor) (photo left) wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. But I took a chance, and it’s terrific, an exhilarating if alarming plunge down the rabbit hole of the sordid side of a creative class millennial’s life. All the performances are good but it’s not cliché to say Saylor is phenomenal. At New York’s Angelika Film Center.

The Dressmaker (d. Jocelyn Moorhouse) stars Kate Winslet, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. It’s a comedy-drama, true, but leaves you wondering what it really wants to be – a comedy or a drama – because each side is so well-honed. Some people will find the story, set in the Australian hinterland, charming, or the Fifties fashions wonderful, but to me the film was claustrophobic (a small group of characters within a desolate community) and derivative (the grown-up sophisticated daughter returns home to stick it to the hayseeds). In wide release.

The Birth of a Nation (d. Nate Parker). This story about early 19th century slave revolt leader Nat Turner, played by Parker, was a disappointment. Three-quarters of the movie, leading up to the rebellion in antebellum Virginia, is a plodding series of mini sketches, not the dynamism borne of accumulated repressions building to the cataclysm one might expect. In wide release.

Ovation (d. Henry Jaglom) is a story about what goes on backstage in the theatre. It focuses on a group of actors at a regional theatre performing a play, The Rainmaker, and their friendships, romances and petty disputes, all the while worrying about whether the production will close or find a savior in a new underwriter. Jaglom’s films are ensemble pieces with numerous character driven subplots. Always absorbing, he doesn’t disappoint here. At Cinema Village, New York.

37 (d. Puk Grasten). This is a drama inspired by the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in Queen’s, New York, infamous because it became symbolic of modern society’s indifference to others around them. The 37 refers to a (mis)reported news story that 37 people had witnessed the murder but did nothing, creating in popular culture and sociologically the phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” Here is a peek into the lives of a few of them, leading up to and during the half hour of Genovese’s mugging, stabbing and rape. The film’s close-ups, soundtrack and effects give the feeling of a horror movie. At Cinema Village, New York.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Misanthropy, Swedish style

Swedish director Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre) and based on a Swedish and international bestseller by Fredrik Backman, is a take on a kind of everyman and a type we’ve all run into. He’s the perfectionist, the pedant, the nitpicker, the policeman – or as often called these days the “Nazi” – enforcing society’s often unobserved rules and admonishing people for their misbehaviour. In his view, there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. When you park your car you park between the lines. You never show up late for an appointment. You drive at exactly the speed limit. You don’t throw down a cigarette butt. In this story our protagonist is also grouchy and he’s old – 59. And Ove (Rolf Lassgård), confident to a fault, really has no use for other people. “Idiots!” he calls them time and again. His only love is for his deceased wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), whom we meet through flashbacks of their lives. Ove’s misanthropy is akin to his death wish. But every time he makes an effort to kill himself it goes – comically - awry. A new neighbor, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) from Iran moves in across the street. This doesn’t thrill Ove, who’s a kind of Swedish Archie Bunker, and he turns up his nose at the offer of Iranian food. But Parvaneh, tough in own way, breaks through to Ove. And we learn about his life. Despite an austere exterior - partly induced by a similarly unemotional father, no mother, and a tragic childhood incident – we find out layers beyond the surface. (How often can we say this about other people we meet – about everyone in fact?) Suffering what appears a heart attack Ove is taken to hospital and the doctor tells Parvaneh, “You could say his heart is too big,” to which she breaks out in gales of laughter. Lassgård is one of Sweden’s most accomplished actors and puts in a fine performance as a gruff son-of-a-bitch who fights against showing any emotional warmth and indeed much humanity at all. Engvoll, as his wife, is oppositely engaging, depicting well a charming and caring woman who works magic with other people. Other performances, such as that of Parvaneh, are solid. The movie’s problem is in some of the script, also written by Holm. For someone as technically skilled as Ove his attempts at killing himself aren’t particularly competent. And there seemed a disconnect between the taciturn young Ove (Filip Berg, whose eyes are remarkably like the older version of the man) and his attraction to a well-rounded uplifting Sonja. And sometimes I thought the character’s one dimensionality went a little too far. Like the fact he parted ways, for years, with his best friend and neighbor, Rune (Börje Lundberg), over their choice of cars. But the film is ultimately heartwarming and might make you think twice before coming to quick conclusions about other people, especially ones you don't like.