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. Beside 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.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Windsor Intl Film Festival to add pop-up screenings and a venue while Jewish Film Festival to expand

The Windsor International Film Festival – ranked the number two festival of more than 150 such events on the Toronto Intl Film Festival outreach Circuit – has had its WIFF365 monthly schedule up and running since January. Every second Thursday there are two films screened at the Capitol Theatre. On May 10 look for Final Portrait (Stanley Tucci, 2017) starring Jeffrey Rush, about the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, at 3.30 pm and 7.55 pm, and the Israeli film Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz, 2017) at 5.45 pm ……You may remember that WIFF screened monthly films a few years ago only to have the series abruptly end. What happened? WIFF director Vincent Georgie told me it was because film distribution literally overnight went from analogue to digital and, well, WIFF was without a digital projector. That’s now been remedied to some extent, with a digital projector gift from the University of Windsor. But a larger $170,000 digital projector will be arriving soon. It’s being paid for from a $250,000 grant from the City of Windsor given to the popular fest, an act which many said had been overdue from a council that pays little heed to the arts ……Georgie told me the fest will also be adding at least three more “pop-up” screenings, after a successful pop-up timed for this year’s Oscars. The next one still be later this month, then in late June and one during PRIDE week. The June 30 event will feature Canadians-themed films (Canada Day occurs July 1) and the PRIDE event will feature LGBTQ films. These pop-ups will be all day events, getting underway in the morning, just like during the regular annual festival! …. Meanwhile, WIFF will be adding a third venue to its screening sites this fall when the 14th edition of the fest gets underway Oct. 29. This will be the renovated armouries building, now home to the University of Windsor’s creative arts school. For those with long memories, the armouries was one of the early venues for WIFF screenings. But at that time it was an ad hoc inflated screen that was installed on the concrete floor of what was then a former drill hall. Georgie says the new state of the art theatre within the art school will be just perfect for WIFF screenings.

Meanwhile, the Windsor Jewish Film Festival, which just wrapped up its 16th run last week, will be expanding by adding an educational role. Jewish Community Centre director Jay Katz says the festival has received a grant and more info will be released by the fall. “Stay tuned!” ….. The festival for the first time utilized two theatres for the opening night film, An Act of Defiance (Jean van de Velde, 2017). Katz says that’s a function of the fact the Devonshire Cineplex theatres lost capacity after replacing their traditional seats with larger recliners. Nevertheless, festival attendance continues to increase and more people from throughout Windsor, and not just in the Jewish community, are attending. The three screenings I attended, including during the day, were almost filled to capacity, something I hadn’t seen before.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Lamarr pic among 10 at Jewish film festival

Who’d have thought famed Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr (left) was an ingenious inventor and integral to the World War II war effort? But in the movie Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean), a documentary screening next week at the Windsor Jewish Film Festival, Lamarr is portrayed not only for her wild Hollywood exploits but as inventor of wireless technology that helped guide wartime torpedoes. The movie screens Tuesday at 2 pm…... It’s the 16th year for the fest, which will screen 10 films between Monday and Thursday, all at its usual locale, Devonshire Mall’s Cineplex theatres…... The opening night screening Monday at 7.30 pm is An Act of Defiance (Jean van de Velde), an historical drama about South African’s Apartheid regime, focusing on activists Nelson Mandela and his “inner circle of Black and Jewish supporters” who face a possible death sentence for conspiracy. In other films, The Last Suit (Pablo Solarz) is a whimsical yet serious story about an aged Jewish tailor, a Holocaust survivor, who embarks on a journey across Europe in search of an old friend who, many years earlier, saved him from death…... There are five films set in or immediately after World War II. The most interesting to me is The Invisibles (Claus Räfle), about the few Jews who remained in Berlin at the height of the war. Other films are Across the Water (Nicolo Donato), about an escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark; 1945 (Ferenc Török), reconciling Nazi complicity in an Hungarian village; The Children of Chance (Malik Chibane), where unexpected circumstances allow a young Jewish boy to survive; and in The Light of Hope (Silvia Quer), based on a true story about a maternity home that gave shelter to women fleeing both the Spanish Civil War and Vichy France……Three other films round out the program. Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators, a doc about the Jewish authors of the beloved children’s book, Hans and Margret Ray; Joe’s Violin (Kahane Cooperman), a short doc about an aged violinist who donates his violin to an impoverished girl in the Bronx; and, Let Yourself Go (Francesco Amato), a feel good comedy set in contemporary Rome about a stuffy psychoanalyst and his free spirited trainer......For more info go to

Sunday, April 15, 2018

LA neo-noir is a cool whodunnit

I didn’t quite finish with my reviewing and summing-up of this year’s Tampa film festival. (Alas, given the weather in Windsor-Detroit this month I long to be back in the warm caress of central Florida.) …...A standout in the festival’s lineup was Aaron Katz’s Gemini, a contemporary take on LA noir. This cool film for the social media age is marked by its constant tease, never fully resolved (and that’s a good thing) of which of the characters supposedly murdered a Hollywood starlet (Zoё Kravitz). A gumshoe (John Cho) has pinned the crime on Heather’s personal assistant Jill (Lola Kirke) (photo above left) who decides to assume a changed persona (ok, disguise, but this movie is so hip, “persona” sounds better). Not only are the characters and plot engrossing but the cinematography is super, with the scenes’ color backgrounds - for example, from neon signs - imbuing the characters' features and entire frames.  The opening scene, an inverted look at overhead palms, is stunning, setting the look and feel for the rest of the film. The taut dreamy electronica is the musical complement…...Meanwhile, Eric Stolz, he of innumerable movies and TV but perhaps best known for playing Lance in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction, is an affable, engaging – and well-dressed – director, and was present for the screening of his latest film, Class Rank. It’s a kind of update on Alexander Payne’s 1999 Election but has a comedic freshness all its own. Socially awkward Bernard Flannigan (Skyler Gisondo), a whiz kid with a superb sense of right and wrong, is running not for student council but the oppressive local school board. His erudite granddad is played by Bruce Dern, an actor now 81 and who’s in movies everywhere it seems these days……Itzhak (Alison Chernick) is a documentary about the great Israeli violinist, one-time child prodigy – now in his 70s – Itzhak Perlman. The film melds Perlman’s professional brilliance with his otherwise down to earth personality, complaining about the lack of accessible public restrooms (he was partly parlalyzed by polio), and being a fanatical fan of his hometown New York Mets. 
This was my second year attending the Tampa festival (officially the Gasparilla International Film Festival, Gasparilla being the all-purpose central Florida nickname, harking back to a famous area pirate). The festival continues to attract numerous and impressive local sponsors and has an enthusiastic contingent of staffers and volunteers. And this year’s showcase of more than 50 features, in quality, seemed a cut above what I saw last year. But GIFF still suffers from a lack of audience, with many screenings having noticeable numbers of empty seats. The fact that this year the festival combined with Tampa’s Jewish film festival was a smart move, so it – or both fests - can build their audiences. Yet the lack of filmgoers is a puzzle. The Tampa Bay area has more than 3 million people and several universities and colleges. Contrast this to Windsor’s international film festival, serving a population one-tenth the size (it hardly draws from Detroit) and which has been in existence about the same time. Yet the Windsor fest’s screenings, many in larger theatres, are sold out or near packed. Let’s hope Gasparilla finds a wider audience, to match its spirit, in the future.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Finally, Detroit doc gets Detroit premiere

Last July I wrote about a documentary filmed in Detroit, but which had yet to get a screening here. It’s Andrew James’s Street Fighting Men. Well, after a somewhat long wait, James’s engrossing film will finally be having its Detroit debut April 14 & 15 at the Freep Film Festival, a documentary-laden and mostly Michigan-centric fest, now in its fifth year, and run by the Detroit Free Press in association with community participants (i.e., theatres)…..Street Fighting Men tells the story of three individuals in Detroit’s inner city trying to make the city and/or themselves better. James, the filmmaker, based in Utah, made the picture quite by happenstance. He happened to be crossing the border headed to Toronto’s Hot Docs festival and became intrigued with Detroit. He explored the city and later spent a year living here, meeting the three individuals and filming their stories. In the film, there’s James “Jack Rabbit” Johnson, a community watch volunteer, Deris Solomon, an adult studying, and struggling, to finish high school, and Luke Williams, who is rehabbing a house. The 1.48 - hour film offers no narration but conveys the stories through the characters. Moving back and forth among them, it comes across almost as fictionalized drama, one of James’s goals…..James will be part of a discussion after each of the screenings…..Meanwhile the Freep Film Fest, which runs April 11 - 15, this year is screening more than 25 films, at locations as varied as the Detroit Film Theatre, Fillmore Detroit, suburban Emagine theatres and for the first time, the classic Redford Theatre. A couple of these films you may have seen before, such as Brian Kaufman’s 12th and Clairmount (at last year’s WIFF), and the celebrated and hilarious Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994) …...The festival, while doc-focused, is eclectic, with offerings for people who might not otherwise attend such an event.  For the sports fan there are three films: The Joe (Evan Neel, 2018), all about the nearly 40 year history of Joe Louis Arena and some of the greatest moments which took place inside the former epicenter of Hockeytown, and opening night film The Russian Five (Joshua Riehl, 2018), about the Detroit Red Wings iconic five Russian stars  who helped lead the team to two Stanley Cups. Going further back in history, there’s back-to-back films about legendary 1960s era “participatory” journalist George Plimpton, who trained with the Detroit Lions. Starring George Plimpton as Himself (Tom Bean & Luke Poling, 2012) screens along with Paper Lion (Alex March, 1968), a film based on Plimpton’s book of the same name…...And, for sentimentalists of daytime kids TV, there’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  (Morgan Neville, 2018; Neville made 20 Feet from Stardom, shown at WIFF in 2013) …...For more information, go to