Friday, January 27, 2012

My week's movies

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This seemed about the best bet playing locally, both in its topic – a picture with some relationship to Sept. 11 and in its theme – a boy’s search for – what? – meaning in relation to that trauma? The movie is based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, who also wrote Everything is Illuminated, also made into a film (2005) and directed by Liev Schreiber starring Elijah Wood. And in some ways it’s similar. Both involve prolonged and convoluted searches. In this case the story is about nine year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Thorn, discovered on kids’ Jeopardy - seriously), who possibly has Asperger Syndrome. There’s no question the kid is bright but also hyperactive and neurotic. Oskar has formed a special bond with his dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks)  (a lot of Toms here, I know) and they often play a game about discovering New York’s lost Sixth Borough, which at the end of the film I think might be a stand in for the 3000 souls lost in the Twin Towers. For some this may seem a bizarre and quite unbelievable story. But it’s really magic realism and your mind has to play along. After his father’s passing Oskar finds an envelope with a key that belonged to his dad. On the envelope is written the word “Black.” Oskar becomes fixated on it and decides he is going to search all the five boroughs of New York where anyone with the name “Black” lives to see if the key opens something that they own. In his travels he hooks up with an elderly tenant of his next door German grandmother. The tenant is played by Max von Sydow, always a pleasure to watch, except that in this movie he is silent, communicating only by notes. The character stopped talking after witnessing a bombing during World War II. Through their travels by foot, bus and subway, the man starts to act as a kind of philosophical guide to Oskar. Hanks and Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) have smaller roles. This film really is all about Horn, who is pretty good, given he’s depicting someone who’s constantly assertive, in your face and manic. It’s almost enough to give you a headache but not quite, only leaving you with the words, “Okay, that was interesting, I guess.” Does it work as magic realism? Perhaps. But I still found the plot annoying as if the writer was just coming up with something to, well, play - in the manipulative sense - with my mind. This is the first film drama (directed by accomplished Brit stage director Stephen Daldry) I’ve seen that goes into some depth about Sept. 11’s impact on loved ones. And it’s also a kind of ode to New York, with numerous scenes of Central Park, Manhattan and various outer boroughs. Scenes of people falling from the World Trade Center are enough to bring tears. So if the film serves as a kind of meditative experience it’s perhaps worth seeing.

 The Mill and the Cross, (2011) which screens again this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre, is a drama directed by Lech Majewski and starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York. It’s the first film I’ve seen that takes a famous painting, Pieter Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary (1564) and through the wonders of current film technology (green screens, anyone?) is able to make a few of the characters in that vast landscape “come to life” and tell their stories. Basically it’s an allegory for Christ’s Crucifixion inspired by of the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Protestants in Flanders. It’s dark, brooding and - sorry, folks - relentlessly sad. The colours are extremely vivid and most scenes look like art gallery paintings. If you like history of that period, Bruegel (who, let’s face it, is one of the world’s most extraordinary painters), contemplating the heartlessness of man, or simply admire innovative cinematography, you might enjoy this, though enjoy isn’t quite the word. Otherwise you’ll probably be grumbling (to yourself, I hope), if not trying to keep your eyes open.

Finally, there is always the delightful Jacques Tati, and his film (on DVD) Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati is a wonderful treat. He only made six full length films. But he stars in all of them. Every one I’ve seen is terrific and all deal with the absurdities of everyday life. They’re filled with sight gags and misunderstandings and Hr. Hulot is no different. I prefer his Mon Oncle (1958) – about modern architecture - and Play Time (1967). Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is not quite as imaginative and is more reminiscent of The Three Stooges or W. C. Fields. But it was also made earlier than Tati's other films and therefore less sophisticated. But anything this guy made is pretty hilarious and definitely worth seeing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Maple lives, and how!

A news report that the Maple Theatre was closing for good was premature. So hurray to that! In fact not only will the venerable Maple in West Bloomfield continue to show art, foreign and independent films but filmgoers will have a much nicer venue in which to watch the flicks. According to Jon Goldstein of Cloud Nine Theatre Productions, who is taking over the building’s lease, major renovations will take place to upgrade the three-plex with Emagine Entertainment cinemas style amenities. Emagine, in which he is shareholder, is a newer Detroit theatre chain lauded for its digital projection (the first in the world to convert) luxury and reserved seating, as well as alcohol service. Emagine Royal Oak has a restaurant and bowling alley.....The Maple, built in 1974, will still be known by that name and will have new seats, walls, ceilings, an entirely new lobby and concession stand, and bar-lounge, with a “signature” Pewabic tile fireplace. (Pewabic tiles are the famous tiles made at a craft pottery in Detroit for more than 100 years and which adorn numerous area buildings.).....Goldstein says the upgrade will keep to Emagine’s “amenities, philosophy, experience and how you treat your customers.” He has investments in the chain and theatres in western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Niagara Falls.....The Maple will continue running seamlessly into February with the current screening of The Artist along with other titles but will close in April for at least a month while renovations take place.....Goldstein said that while his priorities are art, independent and foreign films – just like predecessor Landmark Theatres – he will also be guided by films that don’t necessarily fit that narrow stereotype. “I’m not going to just play a movie because it’s art, independent and foreign, I’m going to play movies that I believe are going to cater to the audience that’s there which is a sophisticated, upscale audience, that wants to see great stories, they want to see smart film,” he told WDF. That could include movies like The Help, The Debt, The Company Men or The Descendants. “The Help or The Debt last year was a great movie that was more commercial and more mainstream but would have played very nicely at the Maple,” he said. He said a movie like The King’s Speech was introduced as an art film but went mainstream and earned $100 million. “So I think that the real essence of it is what are the great stories that are out there.”.....Goldstein will be booking through New Jersey based Clearview Cinemas, which also serves New York City art houses include the Ziegfeld Theatre, the largest single screen cinema in Manhattan and a frequent site of award presentations.....So why did Landmark pull out and Goldstein’s company take over? Landmark isn’t saying. But Goldstein understands that it did not want to make upgrades to the building. Goldstein’s proposal created more value for the building’s owner Bloomfield Plaza Shopping LLC, which owns the adjoining shopping centre at the corner of Maple and Telegraph roads.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Maple Art Theatre closing

A shocker. Landmark Theatres’ Maple Art Theatre is closing at the end of the month. The Detroit Free Press reports that the Los Angeles-based theatre chain has lost the lease of the building attached to the Bloomfield Plaza at Telegraph and Maple roads in northwestern Detroit. The theatre has long been a venue for independent and art films, even before Landmark took it over in 1998. It formerly was operate by AMC Theatres. In fact as an art cinema it predated the conversion of the Main Theatre (also operated by Landmark) in Royal Oak in the 1990s. Landmark’s website shows the only movie currently playing there is The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius). A release from Landmark quotes the chain’s CEO Ted Mundoroff as saying it “saddens us to leave this historical” site. “We love the city of Detroit and will continue to operate the Main Art in Royal Oak.”  It appears as if the Maple will close for good without an alternative site being sought. The three-screen Maple was built in 1974 and was the “first of its kind in the area” according to Landmark. It's located in affluent Bloomfield Township. Over the years the theatre increasingly drew an older demographic and many of the films, such as British period pieces, were targeted to that group. Landmark directed edgier flicks to the Main in younger and hipper Royal Oak. Bloomfield Plaza also sports some nifty shops and restaurants - including the site where famed Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa was last seen alive - but a plaza across the street lost its Barnes & Noble book store in recent years. All things, it seems, must pass.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Withnail, and with Umbrellas

Two unexpected movie experiences on a Friday night. The first was the British black comedy, Withnail and I. Directed by Bruce Robinson, who was recently recruited presumably out of retirement to film Johnny Depp’s The Rum Diary (2011) about the early life of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see why. Withnail and I, I discovered, is a cult classic. And just like The Rum Diary portrays a down and out journalist at a down and soon-to-be-dead newspaper in Puerto Rico, so Withnail and I is about two losers who share a flat in 1969’s London Camden district. There’s also a connection between the movies in that cartoonist Ralph Steadman illustrated Hunt S. Thompson’s later articles for Rolling Stone magazine, and he designed the poster and opening credits for this film.....But to tell the truth it took awhile for this movie to get going and I was almost about to eject it. The film opens in a slummy, filthy flat shared by a couple of seemingly brain dead longhairs who have nothing going for them except alcohol consumption and in the case of Withnail (Richard E. Grant) lighter fluid. But slowly the picture gathers steam, when our heroes – who turn out to be two unemployed actors – get in to their beat up Jaguar and visit Uncle Mounty (Richard Griffiths). Mounty (love the name) is a flaming gay who allows the boys to use his Lake District stone cottage for a country getaway. Problem is, our lads are about as incompetent living in the country as they are the city. They have no food, not even any firewood to heat the damp house, and they run into a cast of bizarre characters most of whom are hardly friendly. When Uncle Mounty makes a surprise visit, it’s hardly what the boys expected, and Marwood (Paul McGann) fears Mounty’s ardour.....This film turned out to be an extraordinary hoot. No wonder it’s part of the Criterion Collection catalogue.

After Withnail and I, I channel surfaced until I hit upon TFO, the Ontario French public television network, where I saw actors in a mid-1960s film doing nothing but singing. How amazing, I thought, and just had to put down the remote and watch the thing through to the end.....And then it occurred to me, yes, this is that very famous film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy and starring a very young Catherine Deneuve. This movie, made in 1964, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. And it’s easy to see why. Unlike other musicals where there is spoken dialogue along with singing, every single word in this picture is sung, no matter how inconsequential. Even when Deneuve’s (Geneviève’s) lover Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) has an argument with his boss at the local gas station, their rising tempers are sung.....Many years ago I bought the CD soundtrack to this movie because it features an exquisite jazz score by Michel Legrand. And one of the most famous romantic songs of all time is the main theme, I Will Wait for You. Yes, the movie is about love and loss, set in the late 1950s when France was at war in Algeria. Absolutely hard to imagine a movie like that being made nowadays. But maybe I shouldn’t speak too soon. After all, look what director Michel Hazanavicius has done with recreating the silent era in a movie like The Artist.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Palace final weekend

And so it went. The final weekend of the storied Palace Cinemas in downtown Windsor. It was slightly lonesome Saturday evening showing up for the 9.40 pm Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Not as many people as one might have hoped were there to commemorate 90 years of the theatre screening movies downtown, although staff said there had been a steady stream of well-wishers talking in their last movies at the cineplex all weekend.....Three movies were on offer. The fourth cinema had already been decommissioned, with a startling view of dismantled seats and piles of seat cushions, giant speakers removed from behind-the-screen, and a mostly sheared off silver screen itself, torn by an exacto knife, said a staffer. (The screen wasn't needed since newer digital cinemas use different material for screens.) Seats were on sale for $15 a pop, and about $400 worth had been sold over the past day. A nice touch was that staff was handing out passes for films at the Lakeshore Cinemas in Tecumseh, also owned by Imagine Cinemas of Windsor. The Palace closed Sunday to make way for the building’s gutting and renovation to become the new home of The Windsor Star, part of a multi-faceted downtown redevelopment scheme.....Patrons showing up at the box office were mostly upset and sentimental about the Palace closing. Windsor actor Leslie McCurdy, who was found talking with a friend near the box office, said it was a shame. “Vibrant cities need vibrant downtowns,” she said, adding that when she travels she loves to stay downtown and be near entertainment venues. “The best little movie theatre is closing up,” she said wistfully. Patrick Pakula, a U of W student, made a point of coming down on the final weekend. “The Palace Cinemas has been a staple in downtown Windsor for a long time,” he said. Matt LeBlanc of Windsor said he had just heard about the closure and came down for "one last hurrah." He likened the theatre's closing to, “a kick in the head.”.....Projectionist Mike Micelli (photo above reserving seats purchased by customers) is the third generation of his family to work at the Palace. His granddad managed the old classic Palace before its renovation in the mid-1980s. His father was an usher. He said the closure “came out of nowhere” and “I feel like I’m getting shoved out.” He said the staff of about 10 is close knit and hope to keep contact after the theatre closed. A wall to write final messages was a nice touch though staff conceded it will probably just be demolished when the renovation gets underway.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Three for three

Sure I like Toronto. But the idea of wandering the streets window shopping all afternoon on a cold December day prior to a friendly business gathering in the evening kind of left me, well, cold. The solution? How about sitting in a theatre watching back-to-back matinees? You can do that in the big city, where movie houses start screenings at noon and often run until late evening (some things, gladly, never change). And then, since I wasn’t catching the bus home to Windsor until 1 am, I had time to kill after dinner. The solution? Another film of course. It all worked out perfectly.....My train arrived in Toronto at 1.05 pm, allowing me theoretically just enough time to catch a subway up to Bloor St. and the Cumberland Theatre. The Cumberland is a venerable old TO art house in Yorkville, about three levels in height with an escalator taking you from the main floor. The theatre, which I have been to occasionally over the years, hasn’t changed since it was built likely in the 1970s. No matter. With tickets priced just over $10 the theatre threw in a sizable popcorn and large pop, a promotion I haven’t seen at any other place....My first film at 1.30 (okay, by the time I got there it was 1.45) was Café de Flore by Quebec’s  Jean-Marc Vallée (of C.R.A.Z.Y., 2005 fame, which I have not seen but now will). In truth I was a bit leery of this movie’s plot, since it swings back-and-forth between contemporary Montreal and 1969 Paris, with a connection that seems a stretch. But, watching it, both stories are deeply absorbing, even if the connection still isn’t all that apparent but vaguely appears as the film moves on. I won’t vouch for the overall plot's credibility. I think this might depend on what your way of looking at the world is. But each story is wonderfully acted and packs an emotional punch.....This movie was followed by a 3.45 screening (“You’ll make it just in time,” the ticket seller said) of Australian director Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm starring Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis and Charlotte Rampling based on the early 1970s’s novel by Patrick White. This is an acting tour-de-force with Rampling playing the dying wealthy matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, literally on her death bed, with her selfish children Rush (Basil, a famous and conceited British actor) and Davis (Dorothy de Lascabanes, some Parisien aristocrat). The story is a send-up of privilege and selfishness, and could easily be a stage play. Davis is particularly good as the frustrated, neurotic “princess,” who only knows too well how to put her foot in her mouth.....Finally, after the Christmas dinner and a short subway ride from "the Danforth" back to Toronto’s midtown, I caught a 10.30 pm screening of The Artist, the hot silent film that has been garnering many award nominations and is many critics’top pick for 2011, by French director Michel Hazanavicius. This is an extraordinary recreation of a silent film set in 1927. And it has all the tropes of that genre, from the cutesy musical score to a Rudolf Valentino lead (Jean Dujardin as George Valentin) and a plot (the downfall of the silent actor with the rise of the talkies). John Goodman (as a stereotyped shouting – of course - 1920s producer) and Penelope Ann Miller also star. (The movie is currently showing in the Windsor-Detroit area at Landmark’s Maple Art Theatre in West Bloomfield.)