Friday, May 30, 2014

Postmodern lifestyle confusion

Chinese Puzzle is French director Cédric Klapisch’s coming to America film. Opening June 6 at Landmark’s Main Art Theatre it portrays the lives of on-the-cusp-of-turning-40 bourgeois bohemians (known as bobos), an ensemble effort with touches of Woody Allen and any number of indie directors. The characters are the requisite creative class types. The lead, Xavier, played by Romain Duris, is a successful novelist who doesn’t particularly feel so. His wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) works in the cinema. Martine (Audrey Toutou) has some sort of ethical business promoting tea exports. Basically Xavier finds life “complicated” and embarks on a novel, called Chinese Puzzle, with that very theme in mind. After all, the poor shmuck has been dumped twice by women (Wendy and Martine) and is relegated to sperm donor for his lesbian friend Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her live in lover Ju (Sandrine Holt). Now with wife Wendy leaving him – with their two children in tow of course – for a new life and love in New York, Xavier is forced to follow if only to be near his kids. This is one lost soul indeed, who seeks out advice from the German philosophers like Schopenhauer and Hegel, who materialize in period garb to sit down beside him and commiserate. Xavier is an example of many modern men, who love their families and only want to stay married, contrary to often popular belief. They’re devastated when their wives leave them, and doubly so when they take the children. Xavier fraudulently gets a green card by marrying a Chinese woman (the Chinese theme is repeated constantly throughout the film, and many of its scenes take place in Chinatown) while harassed by the INS. This movie is a comedy drama but overall I found it melancholy. Here is modern man thrown on the heap of discarded alienated victims of the post-modern lifestyle. He’s a hollow character. When his dad visits – another person from whom he’s estranged – he finds a small sentimental sidewalk carving of initials and a heart drawn by his dad and mom many years ago. The engraving is “a kind of fundamental proof my birth wasn’t to be an accident,” he muses. By the end of the film Xavier hooks up with Martine (and her two kids) and they apparently will now live happily ever after, which seems a clichéd and schmaltzy plot conclusion. Klapisch indeed is inventive with images of magic realism represented by animated cardboard type pastiches which jump out to identify particular moods, something I’ve never seen in a movie before. And while some scenes and conversation will bring you a smile the overall mood is perplexing. There are just too many Xaviers out there.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Taut psychological drama along the motorway

Locke directed by Steven Knight and starring Tom Hardy, currently screening at the Uptown Birmingham 8 and Michigan Theatre, is a road movie with a difference. Ivan Knight, a construction engineer, knocks off his shift on the eve of the biggest concrete pour in Europe, gets into his car and drives one and a half hours from Birmingham to London. Over that time he will have several crucial decisions to make, affecting both his professional and personal lives. This is a searing emotionally tightrope he’s on and we’re there with him literally on the edge of our seats. Locke must ensure that the pour goes off without a hitch despite tremendous odds against it. And he must somehow resolve a major family conflict created by his own making. All the while, we see him at the wheel of his BMW, driving along the M1 motorway, connecting on and off via Bluetooth with any number of people with whom he’s variously negotiating, persuading, and pleading, while trying to keep a balanced rational mind, as befits a low key engineer whose life is marked by methodical calculations. The film is one of the best I’ve seen in months, not only because of how well acted and directed it is but because it deals with an unusual – for filmmakers – topic: an ordinary man in an everyday industry. The movie, story-wise, is a one man show. All we see is Locke in his car as he drives to London in the darkness of night, illuminated by passing headlights and overhead directional signs. The freeway environment lends its own personality. There are other actors but we just hear their voices, representing work colleagues, friends and family members. The film was shot realistically on a motorway by three cameras from different angles while Hardy is driving. It’s astonishingly real as Locke negotiates its three lanes of often busy and quite anonymous traffic, one man in one car among a river of others, each driver no doubt with their own riveting story, if only they had a director this good to tell it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fest coordinator acknowledges "dark" films

A recap on the Jewish film festival. Coordinator Stuart Selby tells me this 12th edition saw increased attendance and “from all appearances, this was the most successful WJFF yet”….. He acknowledges there were comments about the “dark” or serious nature of most of the films – many dealing with the Holocaust or Middle East terrorism - which tends to be typical – but he’s at a bit of a loss to know what to do about it. “That is the nature of all Jewish film festivals.” True, some of these same films were screened earlier at the Lenore Marwil festival in Detroit and later this month at the Montreal Israeli Film Festival. But each of those fests had larger programs, probably because of the cities’ sizes, which provided a little more diversity. “We look strenuously for lighter material, but there isn’t that much available,” Selby said. He said that while films like Bethlehem, The Attack (picture above) and Aftermath may have been dark indeed, “they are also films of such dramatic and historic quality that intelligent film goers come anyway, knowing that they will see films made for adults dealing with adult issues.” But as my seatmate said after one particular film, “there is always Mel Brooks!” Well, I wouldn’t go that far……Meanwhile Selby had high praise for Devonshire Cineplex. Instead of turning people away as in the past from the always highly popular opening night film (Ilan Duran Cohen’s The Jewish Cardinal) theatre staff provided a larger auditorium for the night. The theatre also changed auditoriums throughout the festival based on a film’s expected attendance.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Drama, comedy & docs at Windsor Jewish Film Festival

The 12th annual Windsor Jewish Film Festival opened last night with The Jewish Cardinal (2013, Ilan Duran Cohen) with from all reports a great performance by Laurent Lucas based on the true story of the Archbishop of Paris, in real life a Jew who converted to Catholicism at a young age and became a priest, and presided during the Nazi Occupation…..Altogether this year’s festival features 11 films from seven countries and runs through Thursday at the Devonshire Cineplex, where stadium seating affords a very comfortable way to see a film, festival or not…..Today there is the golden oldie Crossing Delancey (1988, Joan Micklin Silver) starring Amy Irving, and then The Consul of Bordeaux (2011, João Correa Francisco Manso), about the Portuguese Consul who rescued thousands of Jews and others during the Holocaust by granting safe passage to his country. And at 8 pm a documentary Brave Miss World (2013, Cecilia Peck) about a woman’s abduction and rape just weeks before she, Linor Abargil, has to represent Italy in the Miss World competition, and who later becomes a lawyer and activist…..On Wednesday there are also a couple of back-to-back docs beginning 2 pm including one about how The New York Times downplayed the Holocaust during World War II. Hmmm. In the evening – the two films I plan to attend – Aftermath (2012, Władysław Pasikowski), a contemporary thriller about an American returning to his family’s Polish birthplace, and Bethlehem (2013, Yuval Adler; poster above), winner of last year’s top award at the Venice film festival - the story of the complex relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and a young Palestinian informant….Finally on Thursday, three films: The Zigzag Kid (2012, Vincent Bal), For a Woman (2014, Diane Kurys) and The Attack (2012, Ziad Doueiri), which I have seen and highly recommend for a nuanced look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with plenty of drama and insight. For complete listings and descriptions go to Windsor Jewish Community Centre website.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Series revives theatre going experience

What a joy it was last Tuesday to be at the Birmingham Maple Theater – my first visit after its reno - to check out the theatre, take part in its inaugural film from the new New York Film Critics Series – and enjoy a terrific movie to boot…..

First the theatre. I didn’t know what to expect from the major renovation after Cloud Nine took the Maple over. Landmark Theatres used to screen films there (see April 28 post). The entire look is dark, smart and sophisticated, with a bar and café offering upscale light meals. Patrons can also bring booze back to their seats. The last two rows of seating offer wider more luxurious “club” seats but you book them at a premium, prices varying by time of day and presentation. The various old fashioned movie cameras attached to one wall in the cafe make for a nice piece of “cinematic art.” The fact you can get a decent meal without having to go to an often hard to find neighbourhood restaurant (I still lament the closing of Crust pizza in the same West Bloomfield plaza) is nice. Okay, on to the NY Film Critics Series.

Last Tuesday the Maple was welcomed to the series, which features newly-released films that are pre-screened at select cinemas across the U.S. before general release. That’s what took place with Locke directed by Steven Knight and starring Tom Hardy. The series is an effort to ramp up interest in independent film (and good cinema generally) as well as encourage public theatre-going. The pre-screened films (tomorrow night is Chef by Jon Favreau and starring him, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and John Leguizamo) are shown just once, and may or may not open later at an area theatre. “Whether or not the titles open as regular features will vary from title to title,” says the Maple’s Jeremy Mills, “ I believe Locke will be going to the Birmingham 8 in a week or two, but Chef will definitely be at The Maple.”..…The evenings are events with an introduction to the series and film by people like Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers and Alison Bailes of More Magazine. Following Locke there was an interview - with questions and answers from audience members at select theatres across the U.S. (giving the appearance of live but actually pre-recorded) with director Knight and actor Hardy. Another nice touch is a slide show of participating cinemas across the U.S., most of vintage quality with their preserved historical marquees. There’s obviously a move afoot to preserve these cinema palaces and recreate a traditional movie going experience.

As for Locke, this one man movie is unlike most movies you’ve seen lately. Ivan Locke is a construction engineer who must drive one night from Birmingham to London along the A-10 taking about an hour and a half – almost in real time to the film. During the drive he’s confronted with a series of tension-filled and ethical questions related to his work and personal lives. See it.