Monday, April 28, 2014

Film clips - dated movies, a "western" & a Maple visit

Sign of the times. At one time we use to date movies by the look of cars and men’s and women’s fashions and hairstyles. Over the last two decades a better way to date movies has been to look at the computers on characters’ desks. But even more recently a way of dating movies is to look at the cell phones they’re using. This weekend I saw the movie Could This Be Love? (Pierre Jolivet, 2007) starring Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Bonnaire, a toss off vapid romantic movie if ever there was one and obviously for these two well-known stars a vehicle to make some quick bucks. Yes, the sets had flat screen computers so the movie looked pretty up to date. But the giveaway was the characters' flip phones and lack of larger smart phones. Another "recent" movie suffering the same fate is In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009, the same guy behind Veep the TV satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a send up of the back room corridors at the highest levels of British and U.S. politics - and not for the faint of heart; if this is what politics is like I want no part of it. In both these movies cell phones were so ubiquitous there were jokes about them. But, hey guys, you were so 2000 first decade. 

Finally I’ll have a chance to visit the renovated Maple Theater. I haven’t been to the storied Maple since Landmark Theatres owned it. New Detroit-based management Cloud Nine Theater Partners headed by Jon Goldstein, took it over and remade the venerable showplace stem to stern, putting some stylish film-going luxury into the building, reopening it almost a year and a half ago. But I haven’t been to it since. The reason? Hate to say, but I haven’t found the line up as interesting as I thought the new owners would make it. Despite being an art house cinema the films have been more mainstream and certainly not as edgy as what used to screen there. Recently the theater showed Le Week-End (Roger Michell) starring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan), which I’ve been dying to see. But it wasn’t held there long enough so I missed it. But this week the much-anticipated thriller Locke (Steven Knight) starring Tom Hardy opens Tuesday. And – a bonus - just like Le Week-End, it’s a UK-made film. Hopefully I’ll make it to the Maple.

Kurosawa. Last week I took in the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 movie (am I allowed to use the word “movie” instead of “film” in the same breath as Kurosawa?) Yojimbo at the DFT, in connection with the DIA’s big Samurai exhibit that’s now on. The movie stars Toshiro Mifune, who is central to Kurosawa’s oeuvre (that’s also a word you say in the same breath as Kurosawa). For all its critical acclaim the movie has a pretty flimsy plot and descends into unintentional farce several times. But what’s great about this picture is Mifune himself. He’s a master under total control from the moment he first steps into a frame to the movie’s last seconds. It’s all - gloriously - about him. What’s more this picture is nothing other than a Japanese western. In fact, it was the basis for the great spaghetti-western master Sergio Leone’s 1964 's Fistful of Dollars and you can see why. Mifune as the samurai Sanjuro is the Japanese version of the steely calculating calm Clint Eastwood.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Partners in crime

Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, 2012), a French-Belgian animated co-production, opening Friday at the Main Art, is the most innocent of children’s films, though I don’t think of the Main Art as a children’s theatre. But, hey, for parents who regularly frequent the theatre – and the wider community – this is a charming movie to bring your young’uns too. It’s like Paddington Bear – well, kind of - only en français though with English subtitles. The English dubbed version featuring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti, would have been interesting but the screener I saw was in the original French. Think of this as Bonnie and Clyde for the young set. Ernest is a big bear. Celestine is a little mouse. They live in polar opposite worlds, the first aboveground, the second below. Both have human traits. Both run shops, drive vehicles, and not least of all have their own police departments. And not surprisingly each fears and despises the other. Until, that is, Celestine throws a wrench into the works. She draws pictures of a smiling bear and how she’d like to befriend one, to the utter outrage of her orphanage. Out gathering teeth one day for her dental apprenticeship she comes across Ernest who is ravenously hungry. He wants to eat her but she outwits him – “bears only eat mice in story books,” she says. She leads him to a candy store where he breaks in and chomps down all the lollipops and marshmallows he can eat. Meanwhile Celestine is more interested in drawing than scavenging and is admonished by her instructor. So she breaks into a tooth implant shop and steals hundreds of incisors. Ernest & Celestine are now outlaws. It turns out the bear is also artistically inclined (he’s a musician) and the two settle into domestic bliss. But the police won’t quit their pursuit. The movie has won the Magritte or Belgium’s top award for a francophone film. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Film this year (Frozen won). For a film screened at a Landmark cinema I was expecting something more edgy – something with a cultural message, perhaps? But that’s not really the case. This is as sweet and innocent as they come – even a throwback to something that would come out of the 1950s - complete with a cute and soothing musical score. For anyone who says there aren’t heartwarming movies out there anymore, just check out Ernest & Celestine.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not porn but another "p" word

What to make of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Nymphomaniac Volume II which has been playing at Landmark Theatres across the U.S. (I caught Volume I in California and Volume II in Royal Oak). This four hour opus, in two parts of course, ostensibly seems porn and von Trier has jokingly referred to it as such. That’s not my take on it. If someone was really checking these films out for sexual excitement they’d have to wade through, in their view, miles of boring dialogue, and repeatedly explicit scenes that because of their unvarying nature seem more hum drum that stimulating. What did I get out of this? Several things. First, the movie’s central character Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a Joan of Arc when it comes to proselyting for uncompromising lust and sex free of hypocritical emotions such as love. She repeats this endlessly in different contexts during the movies. Her view is best expressed in Volume I when she literally throws the dice and determines which of her sex partners she will assign various roles. With one she will display utmost affection, and on down the line until the last ones are callously discarded. For her it’s all arbitrary. Don’t take offence because Joe’s vision is honest – she wants sex and sex only - and when people speak of love they’re inevitably hedging their real desires, are deceptive or manipulative, all to get another person into bed. Another theme in Volume II is when the old learned bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) suggests to her that she is an outcast of sorts only because she is woman. Men who seek multiple partners and innumerable orgasms are a stereotypical historic norm. Yet there’s a contradiction at the film’s heart (so to speak). Because at some level Joe has developed at least one strong affection, that for her one time paramour Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), so intense that she ultimately exacts violence over it. Von Trier likes to explore the big questions – what’s life about, what are the base desires that drive human beings. It’s answered here of course: sex. Everything else is for nought, including the high-minded and erudite Seligman’s learned theories and postulations. This being the third in von Trier’s Depression trilogy (the others being Antichrist, 2010 and Melancholia, 2011) Nymphomaniac Volume I and Nymphomaniac Volume II is most like Antichrist in its delving into our most primitive motivations. Besides the story line – basically a chronology of Joe’s sexual life from teenager to middle aged woman – the films are a display of interesting technical filmmaking. Big graphic numbers intrude over the screen to tick off various sexuals conquests or types of orgasms. A geometric chart overlays a scene where Joe is parallel parking, describing every degree of angle by which she must back the car into the space. And the ending credits’ song is a tour de force of a classic (the name Joe’s in the title) courtesy Gainsbourg - who’s also a critically-acclaimed singer - and Beck. Nymphomaniac might seem like porn but, folks, it’s really philosophy. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Four great movies

I’ve felt a real need to offer some thoughts on recent movies I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of good ones. The problem is there hasn’t been enough time to write lengthy reviews. So I’ll offer capsule ones.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – I’ve never been a Wes Anderson fan but his The Grand Budapest Hotel (showing in Windsor and Detroit) is worthy of admiration indeed. Anderson is known for a kind of magic realism that to my mind borders on the ridiculous (i.e., Moonrise Kingdom, 2012). But Budapest is a standout with a huge stellar cast that both parodies and upholds the old world charm of what we think was Eastern Europe high society between the wars. The acting and scenes are terrific and if you don’t have fun at this you’re probably numb.

Tim’s Vermeer – There have been some wonderful documentaries in recent years. I’m thinking particularly of 2013’s Finding Vivian Maier (screened at WIFF) for one. This in the same league. Johannes Vermeer is considered among the very greatest painters. But Tim Jenison, an inventor and master craftsman in San Antonio, is no artist. But his fascination with Vermeer has him seeking to demonstrate that the great Renaissance painter wasn’t as much artist as technician using the newly invented tools of mirrors to create our first form of photography. Directed by Teller of Penn and Teller magician fame.

The Lunchbox – Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut has been a sensation wherever it’s been screened and one can see why. This is a heartfelt, imaginative yet simple story about two lonely people who have never met yet communicate, through notes in a lunchbox, which was mistakenly delivered to one of their places of work. The subtle acting by the two main characters - Irfan Khan as Saajan Fernandez and Nimrat Kaur as Ila - is amazing. And the ending is just right.

Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (picture above) – Danish director Lars von Trier is up to it again. Von Trier is the director who goes after the Big Questions and Nymphomaniac (Volume 2 opened today at Royal Oak’s Main Art) is no exception. Some may think this is porn. It isn’t. It isn’t voyeuristic. But it has plenty to say about love and lust and the relationships between men and women.