Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Welcome to Woody's dark alter ego

Woody Allen's latest Whatever Works is far from his best movie. But it does re-introduce us to Woody's common neuroses and philosophical riffs on life, after the spate of movies of recent years (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra's Dream, Match Point) which are focused on plot lines removed from his subjective musings. But instead of Woody starring in this me-focussed film he has implanted Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. This script sounds fresh (including references to Darfur and Global Warming, and a joke about a black man being elected president but still not being able to hail a cab in New York) but it was really written back in the Seventies. And the Boris Yellnikoff (David) character was originally written for Zero Mostel. It's hard to believe, given all the rantings that have come out of Woody's mouth over all these years, that this version of Allen's Being and Nothingness could be the harshest of them all. But it is. Allen's earlier scripts may have been full of wry observations ("Eighty percent of life is showing up", "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work..... I want to achieve it through not dying", "Life is divided into the horrible and the misearble"). But those witticisms carried intellectual heft as well as laughter and charm. But in this release his script is full of mostly acerbic barbs for the sake of being acid-like and cutting. There is really no gentle humour amidst the sarcasm. Boris, a retired physics professor who is both above it all and mad at the world, can only disparage. Unlike previous incarnations of the Woody character who may have been lovingly neurotic there is little to love in this 60-something misanthrope, whose words are sprayed at everyone within earshot whether woman, man or, yes, child. ("...if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage," "What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nothing comes to anything. And yet, there's no shortage of idiots to babble."). "Idiots" is shouted a lot in this film. Boris is offensive to his friends, to strangers on the street and, worst of all, to children, to whom he teaches chess, belittling their incompetent moves and repeatedly calling them "cretins." It's a wonder children aren't crying after these harangues as they surely would be in real life. Even when he mocks himself ("I tried to commit suicide.....obviously it didn't work out.") it's hard to feel love. "Kill yourself, already," might be a reasonable reply. The Evan Rachel Wood character, a Mississippi runaway, is of course the perfect foil for this intellectual left-wing New Yorker. She's naive, a "baton twirler," and beauty pageant contestant of fundamentalist Christian persuasion. So let his venom rip. It is interesting that Allen didn't play the lead character. Was it because he didn't want to ruin his nebbish befuddled image audiences have grown to love? Also interesting is that he picked David for the role. David created Seinfeld, a genuinely funny take on life's absurdities that everyone could laugh at. By contrast, his Curb Your Enthusiasm takes absurdity to a darker and ham-handed level: replacing satire with a dispiriting meanness (the Splashback episode) and even pornographic images ( Get in That Ass, Big Vagina). Therefore, Whatever Works is Woody's nihilistic bleakness represented, appropriately enough, by the baser Larry David.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Detroit indie fest fast taking shape

Entries are pouring in for the first Detroit Independent Film Festival. Festival director Robert Joseph Butler says more than 100 movies have been submitted for the March 3 - 7 event at the new Burton Film Theatre on Cass Ave. The festival is priding itself on being a filmmakers'-run event, so entries are selected and judged largely by peers. The other attraction is the lack of entry fee, a boon to small filmmakers struggling financially. The fest will also be a huge showcase for Michigan talent. And what better time, with the state's nascent big budget picture industry taking shape. While Hollywood is becoming entrenched in these parts the public isn't as aware of the numerous state filmmakers. Take a look at the festival's website (http://www.detroitindiefest.com/) for already-posted noiminations in categories like Best Michigan Feature (seven), Best Actress (nine), Best Cinematographer (11) and Best Screenplay (12). These are for films previously shown at 2009 festivals. On hand at DIFF will be cult director and producer Lloyd Kaufman of NYC-based Troma Entertainment (The Toxic Avenger series, Class of Nuke 'Em High and Tromeo and Juliet). Butler himself has written, produced or directed eight short films, six that have played on the festival circuit. Some well-established Michigan film talent will be judging. This includes Lon Stratton known for his features, docs and commerical work including Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Chris Bondy founder and education director of the Michigan Dramatic Arts Studio which trains would-be cinematographers and actors. Butler said if there is any theme so far from entries it is "struggle and hope" which may "resonate with many of us today."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Scorsese on Dylan's early odyssey

There is the 2004 book Chronicles Vol 1, Bob Dylan's look back on his career, a fascinating read for anyone interested in a first-person description of the early-1960s Greenwich Village coffee house scene and its cast of characters, Dylan's encyclopedic knowledge of music, the influences which nudged him in various career directions (what was behind the abstract imagery of those classic mid-'6os hits like Ballad of a Thin Man and Desolation Row?) and perhaps most fascinating, Dylan's candor with regard to his own artistic roadblocks. I encourage you to read the book. But if you don't, see this film. Best, read the book and see the firm. They act as companion pieces. Just as Chronicles details on the printed page Dylan's emergence from the backwaters of northern Minnesota and his travel odyssey to New York to visit Woodie Guthrie and firmly implant himself in the Village, from where he launched his career, Martin Scorsese's 2005 No Direction Home (not be to confused with Todd Haynes's very good 2007 I'm Not There with Cate Blanchett the stand-in 'Jude' character for Dylan) does a lot of the same on the screen. Clocking in at just over 200 minutes the documentary also focusses on Dylan's growing up in Hibbing, Mn., his early foray into music (including playing with Fargo ND's Bobby Vee), his epic (well, that's what it seems) journey to New York, his early club performances, the personal influences on his career by such people as Dave Van Ronk, Suze Rotolo, John Hammond and Joan Baez. Then there is his signing with Columbia and his breakthrough fame. There are plenty of scenes of the "folkie" Dylan at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. And a lot of scenes from Dylan's famous (or infamous) trip to Britain, after he went "electric," playing to cries of "traitor" at packed concert halls and even a death threat by someone who wanted to shoot him. Personal interviews with Dylan and a wide range of friends, musicians and music industry types who played key roles in supporting and launching his career, are intermingled with some terrific footage from the Greenwich Village scene of that period along with performances in such places as Newport and England, the latter with classic shots of Dylan in sunglasses with his band lounging in the back of his Rolls Royce as it plys the English countryside. The book and the film do two things. They demonstrate just how incredibly ambitious Dylan has always been not only a musician but as an entertainer in very much the commercial showbiz sense, as well as his stone cold drive and burning focus to propel himself forward. The second is that Dylan, often thought of as a "political" singer, is nothing of the sort. He casts lots of water on those assumptions. If anything he is a minstrel, a poet, a writer and musician whose lyrics and songs are what they are or how someone interprets them - straightforwardly or in a metaphoric or surreal way. He and his music are what they are. Intrepret them as you wish. This is what the book and the film reveal.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why no war against terror films?

Something continues to perplex me about the state of Hollywood. That's its refusal to come to terms with the War on Terror. Sure I know that phrase has been heaped into the dustbin by the current Obama administration. Whether you like it or not you have to admit that over the past decade the liberal democratic West has been the target of Islamofascists, people as every bit illiberal, anti-democratic and nihilistic as Adolf Hitler's Brownshirts or Stalinist totalitarins. Yet, whereas in the past Hollywood rallied to support the democratic traditions of North America, Western Europe, the Commonwealth, etc., scant efforts have been made this decade to take a stand for liberalism against Islamist extremists who would destroy the freedoms we have assiduously built up over the centuries: freedom of speech and the press, the right to vote, equality among races, creeds and nationalities, and more recently if belatedly the rights of women and gays. These are all bedrock principles that virtually any Hollywood actor or director would pay lip service to. But when it comes to defending these traditions in the context of our existential struggle against religious fanatics filmmakers have been more than missing in action. Since 9/11 where are the films that stood for the values we believe in? The only one I can think of is Team America: World Police, the hilarious puppet extravaganza by the folks who brought us South Park. Yet we have had a laundry list of films that could be interpreted as taking stands against our general interests, even if they are narrow critiques of U.S. foreign policy in, for example, the Iraq War. Here are a few: In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Body of Lies, Redacted and A Mighty Heart. Not to mention a blockbuster such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Any of these films arguably may stand on their own merits as pieces of criticism of U.S. policy. The problem is that Hollywood is missing the forest for the trees. Regardless of whether the U.S. was right to invade Iraq why hasn't there been a pro-American film about the supposedly just war in Afghanistan? Why are there no biopics, such as about NFL up-and-comer Pat Tillman's desire to leave pro sports and join the army to fight for country? Why indeed has there not been some type of film - even of the superhero variety - pitting the West as "good guys" against a bunch of fictituous evil types who could easily stand-in for Islamists?.....Interestingly while the current Hollywood view is anti-Western it wasn't always this way. Far from it. Hollywood in the 1940s was also quite liberal or even left. But liberals realized that the very traditions they held dearly were ones that totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan wanted to snuff out. As a result the industry rallied and churned out a multitude of films that were in some way patriotic, many of which became classics in their own right, refuting the notion that an ideologically-slanted movie isn't art. These include You're in the Army Now, To the Shores of Tripoli, Sergeant York, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and of course Casablanca, one of the greatest movies of all time. In fact, after World War II, Hollywood kept releasing countless such films, from The Dam Busters and Dunkirk to Twelve O'clock High and Stalag 17....Today's Hollywood, by its almost total lack of conviction in defending Western values, stands in stark contrast to this history. I suggest the chief reason is that the current crop of filmmakers are largely of the Baby Boom generation who came of age during the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s. Moreover, affluent and materially-spoiled in the technological age of TV, to them war became a once-removed and abstract concept. In their view, America changed from an heroic nation to an imperialist invader. And its role in the world has been viewed in that context ever since. So embedded is this philosophy that even the worst foreign attack on America's shores couldn't inspire them to come to democracy's defence. Rather, while perhaps saddened by the immediate death and destruction, they viewed it as the rising of an oppressed Third World against the longstanding sins of the West - "we had it coming." Never mind that Muslim extremists have been indiscriminate in their bombing targets - from New York office workers to markets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - indeed targetting people of their own religion, all in the quest for worldwide jihad..... Because of this narrow focus Hollywood has lost sight of the bigger picture - the defence of democratic values. It's more than time filmmakers did some serious reflection on the principles they say they hold dear.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wilhelm on the DFT

A lot of people know who Elliot Wilhelm is. An interview in the current Visions & Ventures in-house newsletter of the Detroit Institute of Arts' Volunteer Council (I'm a volunteer) provides some information we may not have entirely known about Wilhelm and the Detroit Film Theatre, the venerable art house cinema attached to the DIA...In it Wilhelm says that he was hired to launch the theatre in 1973 with a NEA grant of $10,000. Previously he had worked as a radio announcer.....As curator (that's his title) Wilhelm takes the same approach to film as any other curator at the DIA. "Theatre is our gallery space," he says, and films, as much as paintings or scultures, "are works of art." In selecting films Wilhelm doesn't just rely on a director's reputation or the film's critical acclaim but indeed the actual quality of the celluloid, just as any good piece of art must be visually pleasing or, as he says, "to be seen in the best possible light." There can be a long time line between when a film is selected and screened. He says he can wait two years for a film to come to the DFT that was at, say, the Toronto International Film Festival. For each film he selects there are 15 he's rejected. He quotes Lauren Bacall as providing a kind of rule-of-thumb for film's popularity and timelessness. "There's no such thing as an old movie," she said. "Only one you haven't seen yet."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Canucks at Sundance

There will be seven - count 'em, seven - Canadian feature films at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 21 - 31. The titles were announced by Canada's major government film financing agency Telefilm. They are - ta da! - Last Train Home, in the Documentary category by Lixin Fan, the story of a Chinese family caught up in the country's rapid modernization; Grown Up Movie Star by Adriana Maggs in the World Cinema Narrative Competition, a coming of age story about a 13 year old whose mom abandons the home to become a movie star leaving Ruby to grow up quickly with her "hopelessly rural" dad.... The remaining three films are in the Midnight section: 7 Days by 'Podz' (Daniel Grou), about a father's retribution after the rape and murder of his daughter; Tucker & Dale vs. Evil by Eli Craig (Canada/UK co-production) where college kids mistake a couple of redneck pals for killers (hilarity ensures); and Splice by Vincenzo Natali about the world of DNA splicing and a science experiment that gets way out of hand..... Canadians should be used to Sundance in January. After all, we come from a cold place. (Smile)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My week's films

The documentary Joy Division (Grant Gee, 2007) is a pretty straightf
orward look at how one of Britian's earliest and seminal punk groups got their Manchester start. There are interviews with remaining members of the band as well as renowned Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, now-deceased along with lead singer Ian Curtis of course. The film's background is dreary dirty Manchester in the late-1970s. But, which, as all know, was the fermenting ground for the post "classic rock" (ay - hate that term!) new music era. With lots of home footage, concert and recording shots of the struggling - and in many ways such straight, boys - building the band, leading to their breakthrough fame and the amazing song Love Will Tear Us Apart. But just when they were on the edge of becoming really big - their first American tour - Curtis commits suicide. The rest of the group went on to become wonderful in its own way in the band New Order. The companion film to this is Michael Winterbottom's 2002, 24 Hour Party People, the fictional account of the scene with Steve Coogan as Wilson - a terrific film.....Now I remember why I rented Eastern Promises. It was directed by David Cronenberg. Not sure what ol' Crone was getting at in this 2007 drama about the Russian Mafia in London. Ok, we know the Mafia exists and we know it's violent. That's no excuse for the gratuitous violence in this 101-minute rollout, although I have to admit the near end-of-movie steam room fight with our hero Viggo Mortensen, as a piece of action, wasn't too bad. But Cronenberg gives us no reasons to care about the Mafia or the film's characters - Mafia or non-Mafia (such as nurse Naomi Watts). Instead we get a slowly-developing linear plot about some ugly personalities in a nondescript part of the U.K. capital. Crone doesn't contextualize at all. Who are the Mafia? What do they represent in post 1990s-London? Are they a sign of the flaw in British immigration? (Hmm, can't imagine a liberal director touching that theme.) Or a problem with post-Thatcher capitalism (hmm, can imagine a director touching that but he doesn't).....And, finally, back in time a little with 1962's Richard Brooks's- directed Sweet Bird of Youth, based on T. Williams's play. Paul Newman (as Chance Wayne) is typically great. And he's teamed with smashingly-gorgeous Geraldine Page (Princess Kosmonopolis) as an over-the-hill alcoholic movie star, and Wayne's best-chance to seek fame. Ed Begley is terrific (when isn't he?) as Boss Finley, the local political operative and father of Heavenly (gotta' love these names), Wayne's one-time love whom he seeks to win again. Rip Torn has a delicious role as Boss's thug of a son in this story about love and loss, the consequences of sex, American political corruption, and the old South trying to hold on to the vestiges of power.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Palace seeks independent films

The rumours aren't - repeat aren't - true that Windsor's downtown Palace Cinemas is closing or will close at the expiration of the current lease, which is some time off anyway. Yes, says owner Chris Woodall, he'd like to get "more bums in the seats" for the fourplex and management is working on that. Under former owner Jim Shaban (who sold the Palace and Lakeshore Cinemas a year and a half ago) there was at least a nod to screening independent cinema even if many films didn't get shown. Shaban turned the cinema over to the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) after all. This year WIFF consolidated at the Capitol Theatre downtown. Woodall says his contract with major film distributors prevents him from screening independent or arthouse films. "We're controlled fairly tightly by the major distributors as to what we can and can't show." But that's not to say there's isn't a way around it. He says the Palace has a "new younger manager" and is working on ways to market to groups who might be interested in seeing non-mainstream films, or even cult classics, at the veneable theatre, which dates back decades despite its modern makeover. This could include things like having a student group book a screening room as a charity or fundraiser. "We bring in a film that's not yet on DVD release but is out of print, out of first run and let them sell the tickets," he said. One-off screeenings could be held outside peak times such as Sundays or Monday evenings. Woodall said the charities would make money and the theatre would receive concession revenue. "And raise awareness of the options downtown" of course, he said.