Monday, November 28, 2011

Windsor's last downtown commercial cinema to close

The fact the Palace Cinemas (left) in downtown Windsor will be closing January 8 is a little depressing. I always had a warm place in my heart for this four-plex, despite its somewhat 1980s glitzy redesign. The theatre will close because the landlord, Mady Development Corp., will undertake extensive renovations to convert the site to the new offices for Windsor’s venerable daily, The Windsor Star. It’s all part of ongoing musical chairs downtown. The Star is leaving its almost century-old site a few blocks away on Ferry St. to make way for the University of Windsor, as the U relocates some of its departments downtown. This had long been in the works as part of a major effort to redevelop downtown. Windsor has been copying the model of smaller Ontario cities which have found it advantageous to have their universities move some of their facilities to the downtown core. This brings students to what had been rather desolate streets with the hopes of spinoffs for retail and other downtown businesses. Overall the plan makes sense. But it still tugs at the heartstrings. The Palace was the last remaining film theatre downtown. So the city, ironically, as it hopes to add more dimensions to the city core, will eliminate an earlier and, arguably, important one. Sure, the Capitol Theatre, also downtown, is headquarters for a couple of seasonal film festivals and hosts Windsor Intl. Film Festival monthly screenings. But it’s hardly a match for a commercial daily cineplex. I used to live within walking distance of downtown and often enjoyed a leisurely stroll to catch a movie at the Palace. Despite an almost three-decade old makeover (the theatre had otherwise long been in the same location) the property was in great shape. Make that “fantastic shape,” as general manager Gina Facca told WDF’s companion newspaper This was evident earlier this month when the Windsor Intl. Film Festival expanded its venues to the Palace, the first time the theatre had been used by the festival since 2008. I actually preferred this venue compared to the Capitol (and, yes, I love the historic Capitol!) because seats were better, the screening rooms smaller, the lobbies brighter. I hadn’t been in the place in a couple of years and, with a friendly staff and great concession stand, it looked as ready to host the public as ever. The thought crossed my mind: what if The Windsor Star does ink an agreement and move into the building? What a shame that would be! A week or so later the nail was in the coffin. The Windsor Star is delighting in its future digs, which will give the newspaper a main street presence which is supposed to allow more interaction with the community in the digital age. Fine and dandy. But it’s really a shame this building was the one that had to be chosen. Palace Cinemas' owner Imagine Cinemas of Windsor (which also owns the 10-plex Lakeshore Cinemas on the city’s east side), has no plans to open another theatre downtown. Ironically, Facca said, the Palace was just starting to see an uptick in business after being devastated by – another irony – construction a couple of years ago. That resulted in an attendance drop from 1800 to 800 a week. The construction was to create a better pedestrian climate to attract people to local businesses! Facca said the theatre was in the midst of negotiations with university groups to use the Palace to show films for fundraisers. It was another effort to spark new traffic. But it obviously wasn’t meant to be. So shed a tear or two for the Palace’s closing and the end of regular-scheduled movies downtown.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Where are the blacks in Woody Allen's films?

Watching Part 2 of the PBS American Masters’ documentary Woody Allen on Monday night and seeing Chris Rock interviewed about Allen, it made me think: where are the black actors in Woody Allen’s films? I really can’t think of any. Allen has made more than 40 movies – about one a year – and his filmography is about as much a cross-section of Americana as you will get. So it’s rather surprising that there have been no – or very few (as I say I can’t think of any) – black actors in his movies. Now I’m not one for saying there should be black actors simply for the sake of racial inclusion. That would be racist. But this being contemporary America and Allen considered to be a big liberal it does beg the question, considering the amount of black talent out there. Is it an oversight? Is it simply because Allen’s world is rather narrow (I.e., Upper East Side Manhattanites)? Is it because he’s in a perpetual bubble and oblivious to the wider world around him, which seems possible, based on his neurotic and self-absorbed personality? In any case, an interesting question.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Woody Allen doc we've been waiting for

Tune in tonight to PBS’s American Masters at 9 pm to catch Part 2 of Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert Weide. PBS promotes this as the “ultimate” bio of Allen and for once the evidence lives up to the hype. I found the first part, which aired last night, absolutely absorbing. It took us from Allen’s childhood when he started writing jokes for local newspapers and comedians, to being a stand-up comic in the 1960s, to his first screenwriting (What’s New Pussycat? 1965) and movies (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) to his ever-maturing filmmaking and seminal pictures such as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Interiors. Allen of course has long eschewed media interviews. And Weide says the filmmaker has long been his “big ‘get.” The PBS series is called American Masters. But this is a masterful telling of Allen’s personal and professional life. It not only spends extensive time with Allen himself - in his apartment, revisiting his old Brooklyn neighbourhood - but draws on numerous interviews from friends and colleagues, from his long time producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe and cinematographer  Gordon Willis, to friends like Dick Cavett and Martin Scorsese, to actors Larry David, Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser and Tony Roberts. There is plenty here – an enjoyable feast of discussion and reflections about America’s most European director who has been churning out a film a year for the past 40 years. Allen is oblivious to critical acclaim. That’s probably a good thing. Entirely devoted to his work he’s famous for not having attended the Academy Awards to claim his Oscars. That’s because he doesn’t think they bestow true honour on a film – any film. He calls it “favouritism,” unlike winning an award for an objective competition such as an athletic event. We also shouldn’t be surprised when he says he would have preferred to be a famous jazz player (he’s legendary for his low key Monday night clarinet performances as part of a group at the Cafe Carlyle) or the fact he doesn’t know “the first thing” about filmmaking when he started into movies. But it’s kind of a surprise when he says of what many consider his greatest movie Manhattan, that he was so embarrassed about it he offered to make it up to his then company United Artists by making another film without compensation.....I can’t wait to see Part 2. (Part 1 can also be viewed at PBS’s American Masters’ web site

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film happily looks at back from the dead technology

It was strange to watch this movie the same day I learned of a Consumer Reports’ writer who rather freaked driving the Nissan Leaf, the all-electric car with an approximate range on one charge of 100 miles. She suffered from what is known as “range anxiety,” fretting about whether she would make her destinations before the battery conked-out, and saving mileage by taking short cuts resulting in hefty bridge tolls, not to mention the fact the little car lost range with the heater turned on! I never could understand the concept of the Leaf because once you expend your 100 miles you have no charge, none whatsoever. And yet, Nissan has invested billions in this automobile, looking to produce 150,000 annually. By contrast, General Motors’ extended-range Volt is different. After the car has consumed its electric charge a gas-powered generator kicks-in, so you’re never threatened by the prospect of your car rolling to a stop on some forlorn highway. The only problem is the price tag. It’s approximately $40,000 with less than a $10,000 government rebate. Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car (opening today at Landmark's Main in Royal Oak) deals with these issues head on in this update of his 2006 Who Killed the Electric Car? That was about how General Motors built a remarkable electric car in the 1990s, the EV1. But it was something of a test vehicle and GM decided, for a variety of nefarious reasons such as pressure on environmental regulators from other auto manufacturers and the oil industry, to end its production. Whoever thought, this new movie (narrated by Tim Robbins) says at the outset, that the electric car would be “back from the dead.” Whereas the EV1 was a pilot now we are into mass production with the Leaf and the Volt and other vehicles just around the corner. Revenge of the Electric Car follows four entrepreneurs – from the largest to the smallest – who have revolutionized electric car technology. They range from GM’s cigar-chomping Bob Lutz, who shepherded the Volt from design to production, to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, who has pretty much  leveraged his company on the Leaf, to Silicon Valley upstart Tesla Motors and its billionaire head Elon Musk, to a one-man electric car converter, Greg “Gadget” Abbott, working out of an LA garage. Paine made the film over the past few years, taking the viewer through the emotional ups and downs as each of the company’s signature models was introduced, with executives betting consumers would flock to the products. The film and Paine, obvious advocates of electric vehicles, honestly acknowledge the teething pains of bringing such revolutionary technology to market, including the financial risks, consumer pricing, and the driving experience such as “range anxiety.” The film is as much about personal vision and New Age entrepreneurism as anything. Lutz, a “car guy” in the old mould, has seen the light and wants to leave a “legacy” with the Volt. Musk, the former PayPal owner who also runs the SpaceX private outer space company, basically drains his fortune developing Tesla and the tension, as he tries to raise financing, is there for all to see. Even Abbott suffers a blow when his garage, where he was preparing several cars for conversion, is torched by an arsonist and he has to start over. But the movie doesn’t whitewash the individuals or the infallibility of the products. Musk is accused of baiting and switching prices before buyers can pick up their cars. Ghosn has to admit to probing journalists, “I can’t give you an answer” on profitability and “obviously there are no guarantees” on whether consumers will like the products. The movie has that sprightly quality which marked Paine’s earlier film, a combination light-hearted look at an important social issue, with an alt rock soundtrack. But whereas the earlier one had a j’accuse tone, this is more straightforward. And remarkably, despite the travails of all these car-builders, the movie has happy endings, suggesting the revolution to electric power has just begun. However, with Leaf’s “range anxiety” and GM only having sold just over 5000 Volts in barely a year, there’s a long way to go. Paine therefore may be a tad too optimistic in his final glowing scenes. But he would probably defer to one commentator in the film, auto writer Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, who says, “What’s needed for the real revenge of the electric car? Time.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Make a date: it's Windsor Film Festival time

I’ve checked four films for this year’s Windsor International Film Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs to Sunday. The first is the French-Polish-UK production The Woman in the Fifth by Pawel Pawlikowski with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke, two good reasons (especially Hawke) alone to see it. The other is its distinctly Kafkaesque plot. Hawke, a writer, is caught in a series of emotional dilemmas. More reasons right there. I’d been looking forward to seeing this flick and it’s great the fest has landed it in my lap, so to speak.....Same goes for Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which has already screened elsewhere in Canada. The film may seem like it’s about eroticism but it’s more about power between the sexes and is informed with a definite feminist sensibility (think Catherine Breillat). In this update of the Sleeping Beauty tale Lucy (Emily Browning) is sedated and men play out their fantasies on an immobile person.....Then Saturday it’s the long-awaited The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest with Antonio Banderas, who plays a surgeon with a singular, beyond the pale, obsession. But this being Almodóvar the film is sure to be layered and complex and raising a whole range of questions about human identity, gender and what makes people tick.....Finally, on Sunday, it will be time to luxuriate in the old classic Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, Vittorio De Sica’s 1964 film with – who else? - Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. The movie won the best foreign language Oscar. It has the two stars playing three couples in different time periods and locations in Italy – three short stories if you will....This year’s fest is better than ever, as they say. It has more titles, almost 50. And unlike the dilemma of last year when festival-goers could choose only one screening of each film certain films will have more than one showing. To accommodate this screenings will be at both the Capitol Theatre as well as the more modern Palace – with more comfortable seats, I should add - a couple of blocks sway. The Palace been sorely missed as a film festival venue and it’s good to see it back....Opening Night has Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen (not necessarily in a comedic role).....Other notable pictures are The Man Nobody Knew, a doc by Carl Colby, son of once CIA spymaster William Colby and about his dad, Emilio Estevez’s The Way, a spiritual journey literally and figuratively across rugged northern Spain starring Estevez, Martin Sheen, and Deborah Kara Unger, Down the Road Again, Don Shebib’s 40 year update of what ever happened to those characters in his Canadian classic Goin’ Down the Road, and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, which has been getting terrific reviews in general release....For more go to

Monday, November 7, 2011

Anonymous, all right

So I went to see Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow). Finally, someone – had the gall? – to put this simmering conspiracy theory questioning whether the man we recognize as William Shakespeare really authored his works, on the screen. And several well known actors have signed-up to be in it, including Derek Jacobi (a noted Shakespearean) and Vanessa Redgrave, which makes you wonder if they also believe it and therefore might be tainted (probably not, eh?) by the huge scepticism if not outright condemnation that has met the movie. Nevertheless, I went to see it because I found the topic interesting, not that I necessarily agree with it. I highly doubt anyone wrote Shakespeare’s plays but the Bard himself. But I came away thinking this was a stinker. Not because of its theory that an aristocrat and lover of Queen Elizabeth I actually wrote Shakespeare’s 38 plays and 154 sonnets and that a comical and rather incompetent actor named “Shakespeare” was the front man for them. But because 1) the fact the movie only tangentially delves into this subject when it was supposed to be the heart of the film, and 2) the back story about the intrigue and plotting of who would replace the aged queen was horrendously convoluted. The film, based on a decades-old theory, argues that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), was the inveterate famous storyteller. Despite my scepticism the film still would have been vastly interesting if it stayed on topic. The film does tell us why de Vere couldn’t reveal his true identity. But it tells us nothing of what made the unknown great man tick. What informed his talent, his philosophy of human nature, his indelible turns of phrase, and his life lessons, that more than teemed forth from every play? Second, the infighting about who will succeed the queen seems irrelevant – even though it was taking part around the main characters – to the central story. And even this part of the movie wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so incredibly convoluted. Please - who’s on first, second and third throughout this more than two hour flick? The picture had beautiful computer-generated images recreating London of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. And Rhys Ifans is superb in his role as de Vere though I want to take the compliment back after learning he was the narrator of the vile Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010; see my post July 3, 2010). So, if you really want, go see this movie for some good acting and some terrific period re-creations. But don’t expect to find much at all about what this is supposed to be about. And if you can figure out the plot more power to you.

On Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) I took in a rather unique event – a showing of mostly home movies chronicling Detroit over the past century. The Lost Landscapes of Detroit shows family-made movies, newsreels and even films from companies like Ford. They depict everyday scenes of Detroiters at work and play, of once thriving neighbourhoods, and of some seminal events such as the little known race riots of 1943, and the opening of the then world’s largest shopping mall, Northland Center, in 1954. Film collector and historian Richard Prelinger brought a similar collection to Detroit last year, a presentation that was a hit. And so too was this one. Many of his collected films can be viewed at

Apparently coming to a Windsor Cineplex theatre, of all places, if a coming attraction movie poster at the Devonshire Mall cinemas is to be believed, is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland. The film is scheduled to open generally Nov. 11 but no word yet when in Windsor.

Finally, perhaps the most fascinating film critic of the last 50 years was The New Yorker magazine’s Pauline Kael. There’s a new biography just out, with a cute title, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. Hmm, wonder if he also means the critic was clueless.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gonzo, Puerto Rico & rum - what's not to like?

The Rum Diary, which opened almost surprisingly at two Windsor theatres last weekend, was the first film in ages I attended at a Windsor cinema. And Cineplex Odeon Devonshire put it in one humongous screening room though there was a paltry crowd to enjoy it Saturday night. In any case this story from the beloved, belated and deceased former gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is little known and long precedes his more famous literary works Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (the former made into a movie in 1998 directed by Terry Gilliam). This is a semi-autobiographical work about Thompson, in his early 20s, a kind of down and out reporter who has left New York to work on a Puerto Rican newspaper. The book describes a sports paper. The movie depicts the San Juan Star, a general interest daily. It describes his escapades among the cast of misfits in the rundown newsroom of a news organization on its last legs, a kind of target by the locals for the evils of American imperialism. Johnny Depp stars as the Thomsonesque Paul Kemp, a reprise of his role in Fear and Loathing as Raoul Duke. He takes on the same character but the story takes place at the beginning of Thompson’s wild alcohol and drug-obsessed lifestyle, drinking his hotel room bar fridge dry on the newspaper’s expense account, natch. Like Fear and Loathing this is a laugh-out-loud comedy as Kemp, like Duke, finds himself in numerous bizarre situations with a couple of whacked-out fellow  staffers, Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). There is indeed a central plot with Aaron Eckhart playing the greedy (what else?) land developer Sanderson. Puerto Rico was on the verge of mass tourism and Sanderson wants to be among the first to cash in, recruiting our hero to write positive reviews about his business exploits (in more ways than one). About the only thing Kemp agrees to is Sanderson’s nubile girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard). True to all Thompson literary themes good wins out over evil in an alcoholic and drug-induced haze including the character’s first experiments with LSD. What’s impressive about the film is its re-creation of 1960-era Puerto Rico, where the women’s fashions seem to be dead on and the numerous vintage cars made me, yes, check whether modern day Havana wasn’t a fill in for San Juan. Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, 1987), whom Depp pulled out of a kind of retirement to make the film, shows he’s as proficient at the helm as ever. Catch the film while it’s still here.