Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies - R.I.P.

If it’s news it’s news to me. TV Ontario’s long running Saturday Night at the Movies is no more. And has been no more since the end of August. In fact it was a full year ago that TVO announced the long-running program was being cancelled as of this past March with reruns lasting until August. So that explains why, on a couple of bored Saturday nights, bereft of decent movies to watch – and before I subscribed to Netflix - I couldn't find TVO's traditional double bill. How could this be for such an institution? TVO spokeswoman Laura Hughes says the decision to end the show was because of reduced funding. But it was also due “to direct our resources to digital innovation in children's educational media and current affairs.” SNAM, as its known at the network, first aired in 1974 and viewers of a certain age (ahem) might remember jovial Elwy Yost (pictured), who was a kind of kid in a candy shop when it came to all things cinema, a movie enthusiast often in charming awe of the parade of Hollywood celebrities he interviewed. His first film shown? Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Yost retired in 1999 (he died in 2011)  and was replaced by several hosts in the intervening years and for more than the last decade by Thom Ernst, a Toronto-based film critic and playwright. Believe it or not, according to Wikipedia, SNAM was the longest non-news or sports program in Canadian history. The latest re-emphasis on education at TVO follows an earlier push by the network in the same direction. That was in the late 90s. But SNAM survived because the program was outsourced to York University’s film studies department. It’s really too bad this venerable show had to come to an end because it provided one of the few TV outlets for independent, foreign and Hollywood classics. But with the growth of other exclusively movie channels and Netflix it’s easy to see why management discontinued what might have not been the most relevant programming. Still, poor Elwy must be turning in his grave.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My past week's movies

Okay, au contraire to my last post, it turns out there was one movie at the Windsor multiplexes that was half decent. It’s Richard Curtis’s latest, About Time. Curtis is the man behind the best Christmas movie of our era and one of the best romantic movies of all time, Love Actually (2003), with a great ensemble cast. He’s also the man who wrote Notting Hill (1999) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). When I read about this film at first I was kind of turned off by the time travel aspect of the film, at least the way it was described. I was worried the main character, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) would be transported back to King Arthur’s time or some such. But no, the time travel here works in the very recent past, as in days or weeks - i.e., if Tim falls flat making a move on a young lady he learns the best way to approach her and travels back in time to that moment and tries a different tack. This happens several times over various incidents in the movie and it’s a bit tiring but on the whole tolerable. In the end you’re left with the old Curtis magic. The acting is pretty well done with performances by Rachel McAdams as Mary, Bill Nighy as Tim’s dad, and Lindsay Duncan as mum.
My others movies of the past week have all been on DVD or Netflix:
It’s a Great Feeling (DVD) (David Butler, 1949), one of Doris Day’s earliest films, is a send up of the superficiality and back-stabbing of Hollywood - even then! – and has an amazing array of cameo performances, making the movie worth watching just for them alone. These include by Danny Kaye, Errol Flynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Patrician Neal, Edward G. Robinson, Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, and Joan Crawford doing a parody of her classically angry film roles. Who knew this little obscure movie was such a gem.
Serendipity (Netflix) (Peter Chelsom, 2001) has Kate Beckinsale (Sara) and John Cusack (Jonathan) playing lovers who meet by, how else, serendipity? The entire movie plays on the theme of chance meetings and misses as the would be lovers pursue one another over time and geography. It’s a bit corny and the scenes sometimes clumsy and no doubt you’ve seen this type of thing before, but there’s still a little spark that keeps it moving along
And I finally remembered to bring my SCENE card with me to a Cineplex theatre, after obtaining the card three or so years ago. Usually I forget. Now, only one or two more movies until I get a freebee!

Monday, November 18, 2013

No movies, no problem

I don’t know what it is about 2013 but this hasn’t been a particularly great year for movies. Usually autumn is the time for the biggest new releases at least for films which seek critical acclaim with possible Oscar nods but even summer blockbusters were a dude. This past weekend was a case in point. Nothing of interest in either Windsor (no real surprise) or Detroit even at independent theatres. But alas this is 2013 and we have an alternative! It’s called Netflix. Yes, I’ve continued my Netflix subscription after the one month free trial. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t anyone? $7.99 a month and a myriad list of movies (and TV series) to choose from? That’s almost half the price of a Canadian theatre movie ticket. I still subscribe to, where I’ve been a loyal member since 2005, thinking that was the best thing since sliced bread when it started. I’ve thought long and hard about severing my ties to this DVD service but not quite yet if ever. with tens of thousands of titles provides a much broader and deeper selection of films than Netflix. Netflix, on the other hand, is great for spur of the moment movie decisions. But most titles are fairly recent and among the most popular. But still it’s great when you have a long Sunday afternoon ahead of you and therefore can simply log on to Netflix and watch a movie or two. This is another example of how the Internet is making life simpler, more consumer-oriented, and giving more power to the individual at the expense of big institutions and corporations. If the theatres don’t have what I want I can choose it for myself. Just like how You Tube is changing television and how Songza is changing radio…..
Here’s what I watched on Netflix yesterday – Life in Flight (Tracey Hecht, 2008). Nothing particularly special but a good enough story about young New York professionals where career-climbing has come at the expense of a fuller life.

On Saturday night I watched a DVD from It was It Started in Naples, a 1960 (Melville Shavelson) late career film for Clarke Gable (he died that year at 59) and Sophia Loren. It was one of numerous romantic comedies from the period and very predictable. But what I really liked about it was how it captured some of the iconic images of Italy circa 1960 – the advertising signs, the cars, women’s dresses, jazz nightclubs, even patio umbrellas and store signs. That period will never come back despite the fact modern advertisers and graphic designers use many of those motifs in contemporary design, realizing the imagery of that period was something special.
On another topic….With due respect to the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) and any efforts organizers have for selling the fest to American filmgoers in the future, I’ve been told that WIFF’s website was partly inaccessible (i.e. playing trailers) when using a U.S. based computer.

Monday, November 11, 2013

WIFF wrap: And the winners are...

It seems docs won out for me at this year’s Windsor International Film Festival which concluded Sunday. I was blown away by Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel) and 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Nevill). The first about such an obscure subject it barely made me want to see it. But then I saw it! Anonymous in life Maier turns out to be an extraordinary still photographer in the class of Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus. 20 Feet from Stardom’s look at rock music’s backup singers was powerful both from the personal stories and the music. But these aren’t the only reasons these docs sizzled. You can reveal a great artist, as does Finding,  but your own work can become art in the telling and Finding certainly is that. Maier is revealed through innovative scene set ups and fast-paced cutting that captures the breath and complexity of her astonishing work. In 20 Feet Nevill should be
congratulated simply for getting access to the array of famous musicians including Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger, an intimidating prospect. Through heartrending interviews and breathtaking performances the doc shows the multi-faceted reality of back-up singers, who toil in obscurity but whose performances  are often the most memorable parts of songs, to the singers’ own ambivalence about anonymity and stardom. The film’s powerful music washes over you like a tidal wave and you’ll be forgiven if you shed a tear or two.
Here are some pocket reviews of other films in descending order of how much I liked them:
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm). I’ve never really seen a bad Danish film so, no surprise, this was a tour de force when it comes to depicting the personal strife of sailors hijacked by Somalian pirates. But it ain’t just adventure, folks. It’s also about what takes place back in the ship company’s boardroom and the anxiety of executives negotiating with AK-47-wielding bad guys.

Bright Days Ahead (Marion Vernoux). Veteran French film star Fanny Ardant gives a great performance of a suddenly-retired 60-something who is betwixt and between about what she wants to do with the rest of her life, including vanquishing boredom in the romantic department.

Call Girl (Mikael Marcimain). Another Scandinavian film that doesn’t disappoint. It’s about political corruption, and rare for filmmakers (who tend to be left wing or liberal-minded) a dissection of the hypocrisy of Sweden’s socialists during the 1970s, when legislation proposing more sexual liberation coincided just a tad too much with the politicians’ own unsavory prurient lives.

Young and Beautiful (François Ozon). Like Ozon’s other pictures this is an exploration of the complexity of personality and the questionable roads to which it can lead. In this case youthful trauma gives way to sexual experimentation and a seemingly dead end.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg). The story of cross-couple attraction has been told before but this gives a fresh coat of paint. Members of two friendly couples are romantically attracted to those in the other. This kind of thing never ends well of course. But the story, which takes place among workers in a hip craft brewery and stars Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, is a Millennial Generation take on the old tale.

Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas). Unless you really dig (get it?) into the early Beat movement you probably had no idea of such a seemingly seminal event in the life of poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The film has good performances and there’s interesting stuff about why these guys were literary outlaws but overall my reaction was ho-hum.

Good Ol’ Freda (Ryan White). This story of The Beatles’ secretary Freda Kelly is warmly told and a trip back in time to screaming fainting teenagers and the Fab Four. (Was the Cavern Club that small?) And just because one brushes with fame doesn’t mean your life has been completely changed. Freda still works as a 9 to 5 secretary in an office far removed from show business.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino). This was hit and miss. Toni Servillo as Jep, an aging journalist and member of Rome’s smart set, has seen it all. The film at turns can be interpreted as a comment on the corruption of Italian bourgeois society, the ennui of life itself, even the vapidity of avant-garde art. And, yes, it’s Italian, so there has to be Felliniesque touches - or does there? But this journey, at more than two hours, is way too long. And I was turned off by the almost grotesque images of the supposed beautiful people, which ironically I suppose was Sorrentino’s point.

Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan). I was expecting more from this edgy director but all we got is a Hollywood courtroom drama about an admittedly horribly botched police investigation into a notorious 1990’s Arkansas triple murder. The film shows that Egoyan, normally abstract and layered, can do straight ahead moviemaking with the best of them. But the question is why. Or maybe Hollywood is where the big bucks are.

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont). If you don’t know who Camille Claudel was (one of the art world’s most neglected female artists) you wouldn’t know what this film is all about. The director makes no attempt to provide any context for Claudel (a great performance by Juliette Binoche). How about some flashbacks to working in her studio? Even some still shots of her sculptures would suffice. To the uninitiated this is simply a portrait, albeit searing, of another mental patient.

Bastards (Claire Denis). Made by one of France’s greatest contemporary filmmakers this murder-revenge saga is more convoluted than penetrating. And ultimately who cares?

The Double (Richard Ayoade). I was really expecting to like this. And it starts off well with its depiction of an alternative society that seems both antiquated and totalitarian. And despite the fact it stars Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska this theme of a double personality (based on Dostoyevsky novella) just never gains traction.

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry). It’s too bad Gondry went to so much trouble to make a film chocked full of bizarre scenes and prop devices in a magic realist world. And it stars Audrey Tautou to boot. But like Ayoade’s The Double (above) a surreal universe does not guarantee audience fascination. After 10 minutes this left me utterly bored.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Costa-Gavras's Marxist screed

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film by Costa-Gavras. But some of my most memorable films came from this Greek born and French domiciled director. Movies like Z, The Confession, State of Siege and Missing are part of my formative political and film-loving past. What I’ve always loved about Costa-Gavras is how, as a political filmmaker, he’s assimilated the rule of thumb for all great entertainment – it better be interesting or you’ll have them walking out the door! Costa-Gavras’s films are nothing if not fast-paced with excellent scores, quick cuts, and a plot that burns. It's good to see the old master (he’s now 80) hasn’t lost his touch. But let’s face it. Costa-Gavras is a Marxist or certainly strong leftist. And Capital (based on a book by Stéphane Osmont), which opens Friday at the Landmark Main, is no exception from virtually all the rest of his work. It paints a bull’s eye on, what else, capitalism. For Capital is the French equivalent of Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987). Instead of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko there is French actor Gad Elmaleh as Marc Tourneuil, a supposed puppet installed as the CEO of a large international Parisian-based bank. Tourneuil is being manipulated by two factions who want control. One is Miami-based investors Bull Funds (no subtlety there) led by ruthless Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), a controlling shareholder who wants to take over the bank and suck up the profits. But it’s hard to draw a bead on Tourneuil, a cool customer who’s aware he’s being played. His is a puzzling character: does Tourneuil hate or love what he's doing?  Because while he repels his attackers he's a defender of the system or so it seems. Like other Costa-Gavras films there is a terrific score (by Armand Amar), great action, and a very impressive depiction of the world of high finance, or at least Costa-Gavras's idea of it. (In other words, no mild-mannered Warren Buffets here.) But hold it. This is a political screed and there’s just more than a little spin. Costas-Gavras’s blanket condemnation of capitalism looks at the utter worst of this presumed immoral system, leading one to think all captains of capital are cut throat miserable SOBs, and that's putting it mildly. But often takeovers, while designed to increase shareholder value, improve and in fact save companies and jobs. This film is a Marxist wet dream. The movie abounds in lines like, “People believe that money is the tool (but) money is the master,” “Market ethics are like military ethics – the first to shoot kills the other.” We've of course heard this all before and probably in the wake of the Great Recession Costa-Gavras thought he had to make his own Michael Moore (non-doc) film. Nevertheless a lot of the story is believable except at the very end where the movie goes way over the top. Spoiler alert: After Tourneuil has fended-off one set of ravaging beasts he is the presumed captive of another. The deal is done. He walks into the boardroom where applause erupts when he announces, “We’ll keep robbing the poor to give to the rich!” Note to director: Even the most ruthless capitalists are more subtle than that. In fact, given the anti-capitalist spirit of the day they'd be in full denial to even acknowledge what they're practicing is capitalism.