Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Masterful acting but so-so story

While critics are stumbling all over themselves praising Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which just opened in Detroit (at the Main Art and other Detroit theatres, and opening Friday at Devonshire Windsor), my comments are not quite as over the top. Sure, it’s a good enough film. It’s well directed, has a decent script, and has some great 1940s and 50s period scenes, the best being the vintage department store near the beginning of the movie. And, no question, Joaquin Phoenix is great. From start to finish, his performance as the character Freddie Quell, a World War II navy veteran suffering from what today we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder, is fully engaged and in many ways searing. It’s got Oscar Best Actor written all over it.....Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a kind of religious cult guru (though Anderson says there’s no relation to Scientology founder Ron L. Hubbard – no, not much!) is also very good, as he is in every film. Amy Adams, as his wife Peggy, is fine. And Laura Dern as cult adherent Helen Sullivan, is, as well, etc. etc.....But critics are raving about this movie, thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread, at least in terms of what’s come out in the past several months. The story’s okay. But what’s the point of it? Why should the movie going audience be interested in this – i.e., the founding of some cult? Why couldn’t the movie have been about a subject that had more appeal? One woman in the audience scowled afterwards at friends, “I’m choosing the movie next time!” and I heard other grumblings.....You know, sometimes you wish for an old fashioned plot so that good actors’ acting wouldn’t be so obscured. And that’s the way I feel about this film. Hell, even a basic war story, or detective plot, would have been more interesting.....In The Master, what we have is a film that shows off one – and possibly two – great acting talents. But we could have got that by, I suppose, watching them sit on chairs and emote their lines on an empty stage.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The top grossing doc you've never heard of

Sometimes you have to think that what conservatives say about the media is correct. This would certainly seem to be the case with the movie Obama’s America 2016. Have you heard it’s been playing in selected theatres around Detroit? Did you know it’s now screening in almost 2000 theatres across the United States? And did you know that it has made more than $30 million at the box office since opening in mid-July and is the second top grossing political documentary of all time after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11?.....Yet compare these two movies in terms of press coverage. Fahrenheit 9/11 was front and centre in the media when it opened in 2004 and has resonated long since. Frankly, I don’t mind saying I think the mass media has blacklisted this film. After all, even if you don’t like the movie’s conservative slant why not give it the credit it’s due? Media people don’t like numerous other films for various reasons yet have no trouble publicizing them. Absolutely amazing!.....In any case, I caught the flick last weekend at the Uptown Birmingham 8. The film is made by conservative intellectual Dinesh D’Souza and basically follows the outline of his book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.....The film’s central thesis is that Obama is a man from the American hard left despite a manufactured persona that makes him seem centrist and reasonable. Yet everything in his background suggests he’s of the Marxist left and has been able to cover this up through media collaboration and exploiting the tremendous goodwill of the American people who broke the colour barrier in 2008 by electing him America’s first black president.....In the film, D’Souza makes constant references to Obama’s book Dreams from My Father, which is about Obama’s Kenyan-born dad, a died in the wool Third World intellectual straight out of the Marxist anti-colonialist school. “Only from the dreams of the father can we understand” the beliefs of the son, the filmmaker, who stars in the movie and travels to Kenya, says. D’Souza also points to other major influences on the president such as former SDS Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, radical Palestinian writer Edward Said – who was his professor - and radical liberation theology ideologue Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor of 20 years.....D’Souza’s theory is that you have to look at Obama’s actions in office through this prism. For example, everything from Obama’s returning the Oval Office bust of British “colonialist” Winston Churchill, to his speeches equating America with any other country “to reduce” America’s stature in the world, to running mammoth deficits and killing the Keystone pipeline. They’re all apiece of someone of the far left who wants to cripple America, the worst of all nations, D’Souza says.....D’Souza’s arguments about Obama’s influences make some sense although counter arguments can be made that people have all kinds of influences and grow up rather independently of them. After all, Obama hasn’t confiscated the major means of production or instituted wholesale collectivism, as tyrants like Lenin and Mao did. Obamacare as socialized medicine? That's laughable compared to Canada's medicare. And what if America was pushing its weight a little too much in the world? Shouldn’t that need a correction?.....Concludes D’Souza: if you thought Obama’s first term was over the top you haven’t seen anything if he’s re-elected this November. Hence, the movie's title.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Detropia: a review

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia, which opened Friday in Metro Detroit, is less politically confrontational than I was expecting and more a picture of sober second thought. It’s yet another film about Detroit’s massive fall from its status as arguably the world’s greatest industrial city of invention and mass production to its contemporary beleaguered, blighted, and bankrupt state, the poster child for the rusted post-industrial age. Those of us who live in and around Detroit are well familiar with the genre, having been brought up on Detroit “ruin porn” for almost a couple of decades now, originating in books like Camilo José Vergara’s 1999 American Ruins, to Florent Tillon’s 2010 film Detroit Wild City. In fact Detropia is remarkably like Detroit Wild City in its slow, meditative, images of the depths of the D’s urban wasteland. But whereas Tillon’s film is more poetry – with long studied shots sometimes accompanied by someone’s introspective thoughts about the city – “there’s lots of fascination with the apocalypse, if you want an example you can come here and really see it” – Ewing and Grady’s film is more sociologically or politically edged. Whereas Tillon’s film simply portrays Detroit’s bleakness as a canvas outside much context as to why it got that way, Detropia not only probes the reasons for the city’s astounding decay but takes us to recent current events, through which we’re still living: the 2009 recession and GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcy, the City of Detroit’s financial implosion and bankruptcy as Mayor Dave Bing tries to salvage what city services he can under a tidal wave of debt. In the film, Detropia follows several individuals including a video artist, a blues bar owner, and a UAW local union president, who are exposed to the declining fortunes of the city on a day-to-day basis, especially during the recent economic crisis. Meanwhile there are occasional stark screen texts about how many people and jobs the city has lost, or the very limited options the city council has for saving civic services. I thought I’d get tired of the Motor City’s blighted images because this kind of film or book has been done so often now. Even the name Detropia seems rather clichéd. Haven’t we been calling the city something like that for ages? Yet the film didn’t seem tiring to watch. Facts are facts and in Detroit the facts are pretty stark. Nor do I have a great many problems with the characters that the filmmakers follow around, though they’re rather predictable for this genre of film. Raven Lounge owner Tommy Stephens (above left) is the most interesting. He keeps his humour despite the mess he sees all around him. Stephens’ occasional critiques are not so much in anger as in resignation, such as when he says “we’re moving to a have and have not society, he who controls the gold runs the show” or “capitalism is a great system, I love it, but it exploits the weak, always does.” Like many films by liberal filmmakers the economic analysis tends to be one-sided. The movie hints at what caused Detroit’s decline – foreign competition and “greed.” But whose greed? One character says everyone is to blame, yet we’re still left feeling it’s capitalist bosses who are responsible for this mess by willy nilly moving production offshore. What about the decades of wealth these same firms gave the city? What about the historically high wages? What about the fact that it just might be possible that companies have no choice but to slash wages, move, or go belly up? It’s a lesson the liberal-left doesn’t like to learn. Images of a union hall meeting rejecting contract concessions, and a town hall where citizens attack Mayor Bing’s plan to ration services, reinforce this. But, says the mayor in what might be the film’s best line, “The city is broke, I don’t know how many times I have to say that.” Detropia also doesn’t give many solutions to how Detroit can nurture itself back to health. There are references to building new electric cars like the Chevy Volt, or young artists and creative class types moving into the city’s cheap lofts. But the Volt has had teething problems and the creative class hasn’t gained enough critical mass. For once, what about interviewing some businesspeople - yes, business people - like Quicken Loans’ founder Dan Gilbert, who is renovating numerous downtown properties and bringing thousands of workers to the city’s core? Another problem with the film is that it leaves out the wider context of life in Detroit. The city, despite much physical decay, culturally is hardly a wasteland. Just go downtown on a Saturday night when Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre and several other large entertainment venues, are in full swing. Moreover, at 5.2 million people, the larger metropolitan area with its myriad and much intact suburbs is still one of the most vibrant U. S. urban regions, and a far more interesting place than numerous other burgs with better press. To focus solely on Detroit’s inner city woes, while important, leaves out this huge overarching dimension.  Someone who has never set foot in Detroit, watching films like these, would only exude pity without knowing the larger story.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Detropia probes Detroit's urban ills: an interview

Detropia, a film that looks at Detroit's current urban problems through the eyes of some residents who live and work in the Motor City, has had good audience responses at Sundance and at Toronto’s Hot Docs. It opens tomorrow at various Metro Detroit theatres such as the RenCen 4 downtown, Main Art in Royal Oak, and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. Windsor Detroit Film spoke with Heidi Ewing (at right in picture) who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady (at left). A review will be posted this weekend. For more go to Detropia’s website
I made the film partly because I’m from the area. I was born and raised outside of Detroit (Farmington Hills). My family had a manufacturing business. I’ve been coming back over the years and things really seemed to be in dire straits in 2008-2009, and we just started talking about it around the office and Rachel and I decided to come here for a few days with our crew and just see what we found in October 2009 and shoot for three days. We came out of that experience thinking there was a very important story to be told here in Detroit. We weren’t sure what it was but what was going on here seemed to be a mirror of what was happening in the rest of the country. And so we set out on a gut feeling that we would find a film here and I think we did.
I think our film’s totally different. Our film is following a handful of lifelong Detroiters – mainly African Americans – who are disturbed by what’s going on in their city but are resolved to stay and stick it out because they love Detroit. And truly our film is more of a meditation on the shrinking middle class and of the consequences of deindustrialization much more than that film.
We would hope it would be part of a national conversation that’s starting to emerge now especially with the election in November about the direction of this country, about people in the middle class who are falling into basically the working poor because the employment opportunities have dried up for many, many people, especially those with lower skills. And I think there’s a big conversation about how we’re going to move forward, how we’re going to employ a huge swath of Americans who have lost their jobs, and I think that we are really having a conversation in this country about the role of the corporation in our lives and the outsourcing situation has come to a point where a lot of Americans are very concerned that we’re just going to continue this decline. We’d like our film to be a cinematic and more poetic version of that conversation. And also for other cities experiencing similar things as Detroit to use it as a tool and we see that starting to happen in places like Indianapolis and Cleveland people are seeing this film and starting to instigate conversations about increasing the community involvement in their own cities.”
I think there’s multiple causes. You can’t point your finger at one thing – the fact it’s an extremely segregated city, that the city of Detroit has never been able to mend the racial segregation that started even before the riots (in 1967). I think relying on one industry, being a one horse town, and not diversifying the economy, is another reason that Detroit’s in the situation it is. I feel the Big 3 auto corporations fell asleep at the wheel and lost a major competitive advantage by behaving like a cartel in the 70s and 80s and have never regained that advantage. And I think the corruption in the city government didn’t help.
I think Mayor Bing and President Obama and a lot of people are trying to figure that out right now. I think one of the solutions is really luring businesses and entrepreneurs to Detroit making it very, very easy for businesses to set up in Detroit, using every possible tool including tax advantages and tax free zones, becoming a really wonderful place for business. But the city has got to feel safe and I think that is going to be hard to lure people here if you don’t feel secure. So a combination of measures has to be taken starting with their safety. The schools also require money. So at this point we’re looking at really turning in some ways to the federal government to help Detroit with some of these systemic issues.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Joaquin Phoenix moment

I really didn’t know much about Joaquin Phoenix except he was part of the hippy-dippy oh-so-Sixties Phoenix family with siblings with such names a River (RIP), Summer, & Rain, whom, by the way, were all somewhat talented actors. I’d in fact pretty well written him off after his bogus retirement announcement and bizarre behaviour on the Letterman show a few years ago, clad in sunglasses and thick beard and mumbling incoherently. Who cares!? I thought. But it was all a spoof to publicize his self-made film I’m Still Here. Great, the world was really happy to know that! Then last month I caught the 2008 James Gray film Two Lovers, based on Dostoyevsky’s White Nights and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Joaquin is in the lead role as a psychologically damaged young man who enters romantic relationships with both women. His performance is extraordinary as the dark, brooding, paramour, and brought to mind images of such Fifties actors as Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Now, I thought, this is an actor I will definitely watch more of. And, sure enough, opening later this month is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, in which Phoenix plays – what else? – a troubled World War II navy vet who comes under the spell of the leader of a cult (played by another great actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman). The story has evoked comparisons to the Church of Scientology and its founder Ron L. Hubbard. Can’t wait to see it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Montreal festival wraps

I can’t say I saw a really bad film at this year’s Montreal festival with the exception of one – Up There (Zam Salim, United Kingdom) about a guy who dies and tries to adjust to the afterlife. It’s a cute premise. The only problem is that the afterlife seems a lot like the real world and the plot does  nothing to elevate it, if you know what I mean....One of my two festival favourites (I mentioned Hemel in the last post) was Hostage of an Illusion (Eliseo Subiela, Argentina) (picture left). In the film Pablo (Daniel Fanego), an acclaimed novelist, getting on in years, rediscovers his inner spark when a former student, Laura (Romina Ricci), shows up at his door. They carry on an affair. To Pablo this is not just any woman but someone whose insights into life are knowing, often magical, and captivating. The film has overtures of the notorious Dirty War of the 1970s, when the country’s former dictatorship kidnapped thousands of dissidents and killed them, their bodies never found. The festival also had a film Vanishing Landscapes by this same director. It’s about a fictitious old time movie director (Fernando Birri, who actually is known as the “Father of the New Latin American Cinema”), whose views on movies – and life – could have been written by one of the great philosophers.....Other notable films were Shifting the Blame (Lars-Gunnar Lotz, Germany) about victims of crime and the limits of forgiveness; Cherry on the Cake (Laura Morante, France) about a woman’s commitment phobia tied to her myriad complaints about men; Blind Man (Xavier Palud, France), a fast-paced cop film that delves into political corruption and the War in Afghanistan; and The Talk (Sergey Komarov, Russia), a Kafkaesque story about a man who finds himself in a jail cell and can’t recall why he is there.....I only saw 34 feature films of the more than 200 on offer. No doubt I have missed a few other decent ones if not gems. C'est la vie au festival!