Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar nominated shorts - animation & live action

This wasn’t the best crop of Oscar animation and live action shorts. But a weekend viewing at the Detroit Film Theatre (with Oscar nominated documentary shorts coming up next weekend) winnows the better from the just okay. I didn’t see anything bad but nothing spectacular either. 

ANIMATION

Borrowed Time (USA - Andrew Coats & Kou Hamou-Lhadj) This Old Western story is about a sheriff and his underling who come under attack and must fend for themselves, with mixed results. Years later the boy is now the sheriff but has never gotten over the trauma. I’ll give the film an A for emotion but C for leaving the viewer confused about the disconnect between a long-ago event and a now grown man’s continuing grief. (Two out of five stars)

Pearl (USA – Patrick Osborne) Many of us of a certain age can remember growing up with tape decks and driving around the country, hitting the open road and letting our freak flags fly. But maturity settles us as a next generation has its own lifestyle and music totems, though sometimes there’s a connection between the generations. (Three out of five stars)

Piper (USA – Alan Barillaro) Leave it to Pixar and Disney to come up with a lifelike imitation of a sandpiper chick’s first tentative moments into the world of scavenging for food, and being bashed by tsunami type waves that get more than its feet wet. This film is charming of course but doesn’t transcend beyond that. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Blind Vaysha (Canada – Theodore Ushev) This National Film Board short has all the earmarks of the thousands of others you’ve seen – and likely dismissed out of boredom – for years. The story is commendable – about a woman who sees both the past and the future – but fails to hold one’s attention and delivers a not unsurprising message. (Two out of five stars)

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada – Robert Valley) (photo above) This, the longest of the five, is also the best. Most of us have grown up with a charismatic friend and this story is about one such individual who descends into a miasma of self-abuse. The film is accompanied by offhand sometimes comic narration and realistic visual evocations. (Four out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Pear Cider and Cigarettes; what will win: Piper

LIVE ACTION

Sing (Hungary – Kristóf Deák). A new girl in school wants to be part of the award-winning choir. But when she’s told she can’t sing a rebellion ensues in this allegory of corruption and resulting justice. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Silent Nights (Denmark – Aske Bang) Here is a contemporary story of the clash between African migrants and Western society. But the film eschews clichés and informs that prejudice, and immoral choices, are not the monopoly of any particular race. (Three and a half out of five stars)

Timecode (Spain -  Juanjo Giménez Peña) This won Cannes’s Palme d’Or for best short film. It’s delightful and takes you to a story you weren’t expecting. But its whimsy is just a little too pat. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Enemies Within (France - Sélim Azzazi) (photo above) This is a taut, well-acted mini drama of a police interrogation of a man who may have terrorist ties. (Four out of five stars)

La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland – Timo von Gunten) Based on a true story, British actress Jane Birkin plays a woman who’s fixated on waving every day to a passing high-speed train, eventually developing a relationship with the engineer. It’s whimsical, charming and perhaps most likely to appeal to, shall we say, certain people of a certain age. (Two and a half out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Enemies Within; what will win: La femme et le TGV  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Longing for mother, longing for daughter

Lion, the feature film directorial debut of Australian Garth Davis, has been nominated for six Academy Awards. This seems a little much and I will argue that it’s because of the emotional impact of the film. I felt that too. I’m not one who easily tears up yet the tears were quite spontaneous at Lion’s end. This really is a very humane heartfelt story, based on true events. It’s about a destitute child in India who, one day, out with his brother, loses his way and finds himself eventually on the streets of Calcutta. He’s rounded-up and put in an orphanage, later adopted by a good-hearted Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). As an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) seeks to return to India and find his mother but can’t remember where he came from. The movie from here puts a tormented Saroo, who now feels more Australian than Indian, on a quest to seek “closure” by finding his family. The film’s direction is good, the scenes of Saroo’s poverty-stricken childhood amidst the detritus and streets of his rural Indian home are well paced. And Saroo as a child (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are well played. This is a film that pulls at your heartstrings not just for the characters but for any kids in these circumstances, and the film invites you to join the cause of vanquishing such conditions.

Meanwhile, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Julieta, based on three of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s stories, features Emma Suárez in the lead role as a bereft mother whose daughter Antia (played at different stages of life by Blanca Parés (older) and Priscilla Delgado (younger)) has run away. The movie traces Julieta from a young woman (played by Adriana Ugarte) and her growing estrangement from her rebellious daughter. This is a movie that keeps circling in on itself. There is an early scene where Julieta blames herself for a fellow train passenger’s death, and where she also blames herself for the death at sea of her lover and Antia’s dad, Xoan, a fisherman. In fact, Julieta keeps blaming herself, in a downward spiral, even for her daughter’s separation. The acting is all-around good. It’s the story I found incomplete. I didn’t understand how these disparate events added up to such profound mother-daughter strife and mother guilt. I’ll conclude this is because of an underdeveloped script or the inadequate merging of Munro’s three stories. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Captivated by nature

Seasons, which screened late last month at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT), is an extraordinary film. The cinematography is fantastic, the kind of film that makes you ask, “how did they get those shots?” The film was made by a couple of France’s most esteemed filmmakers, Jacques Perrin, whose bio includes acting in films by Vittorio De Seta and Costa-Gavras, and Jacques Cluzaud, who has directed special format productions, also related to nature. Seasons tells the story of the evolution of Europe’s forests, from their “golden age” before humans descended on the scene, to their eventual thinning out and marginalization by agriculture and urban development. Most of the scenes, which are shot in a very still and studied way, nevertheless captivate the viewer as they depict myriad animal species – from waterfowl to reptiles to wild boars and moose - in their natural pristine habitat, eking out an existence or in fact preying or being preyed upon. There are scenes of cougars chasing horses, with the filmmakers tracking them right alongside at ferocious speed.  There is a shot from within a wolf den, and of chicks falling dozens of meters from the top of trees to the ground before they can fly, and of grizzly bears battling it out on hind legs with one another. The film looks at the forest in its four-season splendor but not chronologically, flipping back and forth among different times of the year. Gradually, humans appear, first as cave people, then as medieval knights, rapidly cutting down trees and turning lands into vast agricultural panoramas. Some of the shots, particularly of birds flying high above, must have been shot by drones or mini-cameras embedded on the birds. Still, the shots are remarkable and seemingly done in an incomprehensible way. Yes, this film is a paean to nature and there’s a subtle political message about preserving forests as much as possible rather than laying waste and creating urban sprawl. But the nice thing is the filmmakers don’t bat you over the head with it. The film is primarily about nature (as in a National Geographic special) and for the viewer to assimilate the splendors before them. What you conclude from that and what you do with that information is up to you.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Two nights, four films

20th Century Women: You could tell right away this is a film based on someone’s personal experiences. And, presto, that’s exactly what it is. Director Mike Mills’ film is about his mom, an eccentric iconoclastic “Depression” era woman played by Annette Bening, and himself, a 1970s child highly influenced by the women in his life, including his reading of feminist tracts like Our Bodies Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. The film’s most striking character is Dorothea (Bening), who refuses to be pigeonholed, and who has some interesting ideas about self-knowledge and independence. But the film is too long, takes too many plot deviations and overall is a bit of a bore. (I must have looked at my watch 10 times.) (The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the Oscars.)

Silence: This has been famed director Martin Scorsese’s passion for decades, based on the Shūsaku Endō novel. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play two 17th century Portuguese missionary priests in Japan, where Christianity is brutally outlawed. This film lasts almost three hours and, well, it feels like it. It plods along with the same repeated scene cycles which might be described as hiding-praying-being captured. You’d think a story like this would have lots of drama but the movie is extremely flat. This could easily have bene corrected by adding, for example, surrealism or abstraction, or somehow counterpointing the events depicted with those elsewhere in the world to provide a larger picture of the historic times. By delivering the film as it is, if Scorsese thinks he has created a masterpiece, then he's a little too full of himself. (The film is nominated for Best Cinematography for the Oscars.)

The Founder: Of the four films reviewed here this is the best. It’ a straight forward look at the rise of uber businessman Ray Kroc and the creation of the McDonald's corporation, from its roots in a California drive-in to growth in suburban Chicago in the 1950s. Michael Keaton as Kroc (picture above) is front and centre and fabulous as the no holds barred businessman. John Lee Hancock’s direction is crisp, fast-moving and absorbing. Most surprising is the film’s lack of mockery and condescension. McDonalds, after all, could have been an easy target. Rather, the film is an objective telling of the fantastic business success of one of the world’s most iconic corporations, whether you like the company or not. (Why has this film received no nominations for this year’s Oscars?)

Hidden Figures: The wonder of this film is that such a story even existed, that NASA – which probably most people think of as a benign forward-looking organization – discriminated en masse against black people. But let’s face it. The women depicted in this film worked for NASA in Virginia just as the space program was taking off in the late 1950s. It was the era of segregation. Of course, who knew that there was a large group of female African-Americans who were the living “computers” for space age mathematical formulas, including some of the most critical calculations to get a man into space? The film’s direction by Theodore Melfi is somewhat uneven, detours into slapstick on occasion, and I wasn’t crazy about the contemporary score. But it’s a sweet story about overcoming the hideous prejudice which afflicted so many American institutions. (The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan) for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Writing (Adapted Screenplay).

Monday, January 23, 2017

High class trash

I should have been a little more circumspect before thinking that the Paul Verhoeven film Elle (at the Main Art) would have not only great artistic merit but great moral or symbolic value as well. But Verhoeven, after all, is the director of films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls and has a strange infatuation with sex, violence and rape. His fantasies are on display again here in this film based on the novel by Philippe Djian. I also was taken in by the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Isabelle Huppert, is the star. And the film also stars that great stalwart of contemporary French cinema, Charles Berling. Huppert, who is almost always great in whatever film she’s in, certainly doesn’t disappoint, though she is getting a bit typecast as the emotionally cold, calculating career-climber with no soul. The fact she’d allow herself to be cast in this film is also unfortunate. For Elle is nothing but an exploitative, sexist, vulgar film dressed up as high art. I’ll admit the film captivates the viewer from beginning to end. And Huppert and the supporting cast are quite good. But it doesn’t make up for the film’s vile and quite improbable themes. Let’s list them. As a little girl Huppert as Michèle Leblanc is manipulated or plays a direct role in the savage serial killings by her father. As an adult she becomes a successful video production studio executive. The central narrative of the film is her initial and continuing rapes by a masked assailant who keeps breaking into her house. From the film's trailer one might think the story line would be about the character exacting revenge. But that’s not really what happens. In fact, Michèle seems to enjoy her rapist, who turns out to be a man she’s otherwise highly attracted to. So, what is the story trying to say – that women, after all, enjoy being raped? You’ve got to be kidding, in the year 2017; how anti-feminist! Second, what is the probability of a child having endured such extreme trauma now as an adult being the victim of such extraordinary violence? Probably nil. Third, the video studio Leblanc runs is obsessed with making vulgar animations of creatures raping women in the most hideous ways. Now, what’s that all about? If the movie tried to link these storylines or interpret them in a way that suggested society’s moral depravity, the denial of feminism, even childhood trauma causing the Leblanc character's sociopathic mindset, at least that would be something. But Verhoeven just leaves the incidents standing on their own, with no connection and no judgement. It’s almost like he’s laughing at it all and perhaps even laughing more at us, the audience. It’s hollow laughter.

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.