Sunday, November 25, 2012

It's more fun at MJR

I am a recent discoverer of the MJR theatre chain in Detroit. It’s a fully owned Michigan-based operation with offices in Oak Park but its eight theatres are scattered throughout the greater Metro area. I’ve only attended its Partridge Creek mall location but all its cinemas, seemingly sparkling brand new with stadium seating, look equally impressive.....It was one of the first U.S. chains to adopt digital projectors, about which company founder Michael Mihalich was a true prostletizer. “It is an outstanding picture and, with the right kind of sound equipment like we have, there is just no comparison between digital sound from the processor and coming off a 35mm print,” he told Film Journal International. The chain’s website, referencing such pro-digital directors as George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh, describes digital as vastly superior to old fashioned film (sorry, nostalgiaists) that creates an image the way movies were meant to be seen. After all, digital can provide up to 35 trillion (that’s right, trillion) colours, with immense clarity and detail, and is immune to scratches, fading and jittery transitions from one reel to the next (goodbye, countdown numbers).....But what got me interested in MJR (the initials originally were to be for the first names of Mihalich’s family but quickly morphed into Movies Just Right) was the pre-screening announcement. It advises moviegoers to maintain a certain decorum beyond turning off cell phones, such as not putting one’s feet on the back of the seats. I still would have liked viewers to be told not to talk during movies (my top pet peeve) but this is the only chain I’ve been in where management takes such a pro active stance. It seems to work because the theatres are extremely clean, another point of pride with the company’s owner.....Then there is MJR’s theme song, which has caught on in local theatre lore. It’s called “It’s More Fun at MJR!” and after the lyrics, “It’s more than just a movie, it’s a big nite out!” the audience automatically claps three times to the percussion.....MJR shows that fun and civility need not be strangers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Windsor festival 8 - that's a wrap

With an expanded schedule bringing the festival to a full week the Windsor International Film Festival’s 2012 edition, which concluded Nov. 11, seemed to run smoother than ever. Here’s an analysis of this year’s edition:

- The ticket lineups of past years seemed long gone and the whole ticketing process streamlined. It was easy for pass holders to drop by the designated office on the west side of the Capitol Theatre (left) to order daily tickets. Meanwhile those wanting to purchase individual tickets or passes went to the main festival office at the opposite corner. Those in line inside the Capitol were people with tickets – and only tickets - waiting for theatres to open.
- It was nice to have the festival add extra screenings, seemingly at will, as festival goers requested. That’s on top of running more screenings of certain films, the lack of which was a complaint about the festival in the past.
- I still miss having the Palace Cinemas around the block as the WIFF’s second theatre. The seats were comfortable and the environment nicer, even if there might have been gum on the floors. That’s all in the past of course as the Palace gave way to the new Windsor Star offices. BTW has anyone else noticed that the exterior of the Star building looks an awful lot like the mid-century addition of the Star’s former Pitt Street location? One might have expected a more contemporary look.
- Despite the $1.8 million in renovations the city put into the Capitol (repaired roof, enhanced stage), for the audience it really is the same old building. And that’s unfortunate. I realize the city has only so much money and the priority is preventing leaks, but the seats in the Capitol are terrible. Most people complained about those in the smaller Kelly theatre, which seem shoehorned in. And of course those in the Joy theatre are temporary because the Joy doubles as a reception room. But even the seats in the main Pentastar can give a royal pain in the derrier.
- A lot of those attending seemed to be retirees, and we’re talking Baby Boomer retirees. It seems this is the way Baby Boomers like to spend their newfound retirements – hanging out at film festivals. It sure beats lining up for the Early Bird Special.
- The WIFF audience still is overwhelmingly Canadian. WIFF organizers should really step up marketing/publicity in the U.S. The Detroit megalopolis has more than four million people and there is no similar festival in that area

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

WIFF Day 4 & The Hunt wins

The Hunt was one of my two favourites this year at WIFF, the other being – surprise! – another Scandinavian film Oslo-August 31st (Nov. 10 post). Needless to say Scandinavia  boasts one of my favourite world  cinemas. The Hunt is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a founder of the Dogme 95 movement, which calls for films to be stripped of artifice (ie., special effects) and be made in real places with hand held cameras (creating a more realistic effect). It stars the great Mads Mikkelsen (above left) who was also in WIFF’s screening of A Royal Affair (Nov. 10 post). This is the kind of film that wouldn’t get made in Hollywood or probably North America generally. For one thing it’s slightly politically incorrect. For another it doesn’t deal in pat happy endings. It’s about child abuse and I’ll leave it at that.

Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) follows Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) a handmaiden to Marie Antoinette during the tumultuous events of the French Revolution in July 1789. This is more character study than historical drama, and virtually all of the action takes place within the squalid servant quarters or glittering halls of Versailles. The queen and her court might be the targets of the French masses but Sidonie, the queen’s reader, has taken an immense liking to her, only to be served up as “bait” in the end. This competently made film by veteran Jacquot with well acted roles is kind of an 18th Century French Upstairs Downstairs with tragic political overtones.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

WIFF Day 3 & Rebelle wins

Rebelle (Kim Nguyen). This wasn’t my first choice for the time slot (the other film being sold out) but I was blown away by this picture, an extraordinarily authentic portrait of child soldiers in the deepest heart of Africa. Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is seized by rebel soldiers who attack her desolate village, forced to kill her parents, and then pressed into service as a child combatant, a life of constant abuse in the pitiless jungle. The feeling you take away from this film is one of immense heartbreak. The acting is superb coming from a mainly non-professional (indeed street children) cast. It’s Canada’s entry for the 2013 foreign film Oscar.

Barbara (Christian Petzold) is Germany’s entry for next year’s Oscar. German films are typically well made, from storylines to acting to directing, and this isn’t much different. My only problem with it is that the subject matter is becoming rather derivative. It has been more than 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down and German filmmakers still seem to have an obsession about the old East Germany, known as Ostalgie. There have been several films over the years about both the brutality of the former totalitarian regime and the bizarreness of that backward and now somewhat beloved consumer society. But these themes are getting a little long in the tooth.

The Imposter (Bart Layton) is a highly touted doc about a real life 1990s incident where a European imposter pretended he was the long lost son of a small town and naive lower class Texas family. The movie takes awhile to get going - for about the first 40 minutes I kept asking myself “who cares?”- until it starts opening up on the mechinations of Frédéric Bourdin, a career impersonator who takes on the challenging role of reinventing himself as the lost Nicolas Barclay, even if he’s “discovered” in far flung Spain. The movie depicts the strangeness of the case and if anything shows how gullible most of us are – including Barclay’s own family members! – when presented with someone or something which pretends to be true.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is really actress Rashida Jones’s vehicle, from coming up with the idea for the film and co-writing it, and of course starring against Andy Samber as Jesse. Jones, known for her TV roles including as Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation, also has a huge show business pedigree and it has more than rubbed off. Her dad is composer Quincy Jones and her mom Peggy Lipton of the early-1970s show The Mod Squad. Jones was something of a kid showbiz genius and her true acting talents come out full force in this movie. She’s actually quite amazing in every scene no matter whether it calls for seriousness or sorrow, quirky humor, or slapstick. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

WIFF Day 2 & Oslo-August 31st wins

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Denmark is a period piece about the Enlightenment’s coming to the Scandinavian country, or shall we say Enlightenment Interrupted. It’s a well staged costume drama and the country’s entry for 2013 Oscars best foreign picture. And it’s all based on true historical events. Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Johann Struensee really steals the show. This rugged good looking character with his intellectual self-assured ways was the actual doctor behind the throne, if you will, and instituted many radical reforms (at least considered in those days, like freeing the serfs). It’s surprising given how we think of progressive Scandinavia nowadays, but at one time it was one of the most backward corners of Europe. Historical events are shown through a prism of three lives engaged in a romantic triangle. This is not a stuffy historical piece.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) is the kind of gritty drama the French have made a lot of in recent years, and I was reluctant to see it. I’m not into boxing or fighting and have had my fill of marginal characters that are one step away from the gutter. But I must admit that the (unlikely) story of a love affair between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) – an orca trainer at France’s Marineland - basically works and is absorbing. This is fine acting with a plot that moves aloing and it’s understandable why critics liked it.
Oslo-August 31st (picture above) by Joachim Trier of Norway was the best of the bunch – by far. This is an intellectually charged movie about a young man’s attempt at recovery from serious addiction. Yeah yeah, we’ve seen this before. But this is a man who actually has immense talents, comes from a literate family, and is among a circle of young intellectuals in the Oslo coffee house scene. As per the title, the film follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) through the course of a day walking around Oslo, trying to connect with friends, applying for a job at a highbrow magazine. But past events confront him all around, sending him back to his mental prison. Throughout there is an ongoing philosophical monologue on some of the big questions about life and living. It’s rare to see this kind of a movie and when one comes along you wish you could just pick it up like a valuable gem and put it in your pocket.
A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman) looks like it has all the ingredients for a very good picture. The cast is stellar with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir as long time colleagues in a world-famous string quartet. But things go awry when Walken (is he starting to be typecast as an older gentleman?) develops health problems, a rivalry breaks out, and an unexpected romance flourishes. It’s a little bit pat and almost farcical in places. And for some reason the sound wasn’t the greatest, making it difficult to hear Walken’s and Ivanir’s voices. I never got the sense the actors really threw themselves into this, and wondered if the film was simply an opportunity to generate income between more serious roles.

Friday, November 9, 2012

WIFF Day 1 & Vreeland wins

My four films yesterday at the first full day at WIFF:
Ai Weiwei Never Sorry by Alison Klayman was a well made documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist and activist and unfortunately – because he’s so much more than this - best known for his Bird’s Nest stadium during the 2008 Olympics. The man seems equally artist – with highly imaginative and often huge mind-bending installations – and political hell-raiser, with his famous “Fuck You” stance against all forms of authority, most notably his Chinese homeland, though he spent a good 10 years in the West. In person, however, he is a mild-mannered and contemplative soul yet never afraid – or sorry – to confront someone wanting to take away his rights, even if it means vanishing into the Chinese penal system.

Laurence Anyways by Xavier Dolan was a flick I didn’t have a great desire to see but wanted to fill a time gap. Yes I acknowledge Xavier’s immense talent. But another semi-autobiographical film about his gay lifestyle is getting tiresome. It still would have been fine if it was well made. The problem is it overshoots. Magic realism is okay up to a point but this seems too mannered, pretentious and glossy. When the butterfly flew out of the lead character’s (Laurence’s played by Melvil Poupaud) mouth, I had had it. And this story, frankly, - about the otherwise ups and downs of a romance - is not all that interesting. The movie at almost three hours is way too long and often boring; I looked at my watch five or six times. The best acting is by Suzanne Clément who plays Laurence’s girlfriend. And it’s always nice to see aging French actress Nathalie Baye, who plays Laurence’s mother.

I almost felt embarrassed to see Samsara by Ron Fricke. High art travel pieces seem a little cliched. I mean, the sights, the sounds - wow! Again, to fill a gap, I went see this. And was sucked in. I knew I’d seen something like this before in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) with a score by Philip Glass. Sure enough, Fricke directed it. That movie, and subsequent ones by him including this, are all about time lapse photography’s ability to capture surreal images of the everyday world. But Samsara takes us around the globe and shows the extremes of natural and urban landscapes and human activity. It is visually stunning, with another terrific soundtrack, and is recommended.

I don’t know why but Diana Vreeland-The Eye Has to Travel by Lisa Immordino Vreeland was my favourite film yesterday. Maybe it’s because I found Vreeland such a fascinating character. As the most famous editor of both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue she was her own woman. Self-educated (always the best way) Vreeland thrusted herself into the fashion world by a mix of chutzpah and singular vision. I loved the fact that she saw the world as first and foremost one of style, and that personal adornment and clothing is both a physical, intellectual and emotional way of creating your place among humanity. For Diana, artifact was reality. And the role of fashion, indeed, art, is never to be boring. The film is especially engrossing when it delves into Vreeland’s years at Bazaar, with its highly imaginative fashion layouts that took photographers and models to the most remote parts of the world. Vreeland’s was the first invention of the wow factor.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Local festival's week long offerings start Monday

The Windsor International Film Festival is coming up in a few days, and it launched with a spiffy new website. It’s a much cleaner and more professional looking site compared to the old and, shall we say, clanky look - bless its heart  -the previous one had.....Meanwhile this year's WIFF features 52 films (44 features) from eight countries running Thursday through Sunday. But there are preliminary events beginning Monday with the Short Film program, a juried night of films made by local and Michigan post-secondary students. Admission is only $5 or free to students.....Then on Tuesday it’s the famed 48-Hour FlickFest also only $5 admission, and which features short films made over a 48 hour period in October by local filmmakers.....The opening night film is the Canadian feature The World Before Her, a doc by Nisha Pahuja, which won best film awards at the Toronto Hot Docs and Tribeca festivals. It’s a sort of panoramic look at the role of women in India today. The closing film Sunday is Still, another Canadian movie by Michael McGowan and starring James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold, about love and a sense of place versus government overreach.....In between are films running from  midday to midnight and beyond.....Among my picks are Ai Weiwei Never Sorry about the famed contemporary Chinese artist and activist, Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Michael Haneke’s Amour with Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugarman, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet (picture above) starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken, from Denmark Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, and Germany's Christian Petzold's film Barbara. Then there’s Jeff Dupre & Matthew Akers's doc Marina Abramovic-The Artist Is Present, and Quebec director Rafaël Ouellet’s acclaimed Camion.....There are 19 Canadian films. Five films from the overall list are ones that have been submitted for consideration for next year’s Oscars’ best foreign film......Some of WIFF’s offerings, like Searching for Sugarman, Detropia, The Intouchables, Samsara, The Queen of Versailles, 2 Days in New York, and The Imposter, have already been shown in the Detroit market. But this offers a second chance to see these films if you've missed them, right?.....Meanwhile, speaking of the US, the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA has a WIFF connection. On Nov. 7 it will screen the same group of Canadian and US shorts that had been shown in Windsor. Otherwise all films will be screened at Windsor’s historic, venerable – and remodelled! - Capitol Theatre. For more information go to