Friday, September 19, 2014

Predictable plot in Paris set comedy-drama

Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith. Who could ask for more, right? Indeed the opening scene of My Old Lady (much acclaimed and prolific playwright Israel Horovitz’s second film directorial effort based on his play of same name) – opening Friday at the Main Art, AMC Livonia, and Michigan Theater - has lots of promise. An American, Mathias Gold (Kline) has arrived in Paris and is trying to find a certain apartment. We soon learn he has inherited a rather luxurious flat, a balm to a failed writer with a pile of debts. He finds he could sell it for 12 million euros, a tidy sum. But it’s not to be. He’s quickly informed by the apartment’s unexpected resident, Mathilde Girard (Smith), that he is in fact the interloper. It has something to do with an arcane French housing law. She’s the real resident despite his legal ownership, and he can’t claim the abode until she kicks the bucket. Yes, it’s as bizarre to you and me as it is to him. Problem is, even though Mathilde is 92 she’s in “top health,” according to her physician, so prospects of shelling out monthly rent to the dear woman almost ad infinitum isn’t an attractive prospect for Mathias. Worse, Mathilde, a shrewd no-nonsense Englishwoman who has lived most of her life in Gai Paris, in fact demands rent from him if he’s going to stay even temporarily. This is a peel back the onion layers flick, folks. Nothing seems as it originally appears. The only honest character is our New Yorker. Mathilde’s erudition and manners belie some sordidness. Adding to the picture is Mathilde’s live-in daughter Chloé (KST), who immediately dislikes Mathias, providing a mother daughter two punch. The unfairness of it all of course nags Mathias and, consulting a realtor, he seeks ways to acquire the apartment, even if he has to split it up. Mother and daughter resist. But Mathias discovers a secret which he can use against the twosome. Along the way he discovers other things about the Girard family and who exactly they are, which triggers the onion peeling and revelations. And while the plot nominally kept my attention it really is pretty predictable. The movie is billed as a drama and comedy and it’s about two-thirds the latter. But we do smile if not chuckle at some of the lines and antics, from Mathias’s very American clumsiness among the French to classic jokes about the French population’s health. “It’s the red wine, isn’t it?” he says of Mathilde’s longevity. While Mathilde, spotting a loser, morbidly suggests he would fail at committing suicide by jumping into the Seine “and just end up with a dreadful cold.” But the film descends into considerable darkness until we’re relieved, thankfully, at the end. If you like typically romantic scenes of Paris this film’s for you, with a score by Mark Orton that sounds traditionally Parisian yet menacingly modern. If you like Kline, Smith and Scott Thomas, you might not want to take a pass. But all have performed better largely because they’ve had better scripts in better stories.

Thursday, September 11, 2014's unlamented death, for descriptive purposes Canada’s long time version of Netflix, closed last month. Oh, you didn’t know about Join the club. I joined in 2005, almost as long as the DVD Internet-based DVD rental service had been in operation. How did I hear about it? From a work colleague. To me it was one of the best inventions since sliced bread or at least celluloid film. But virtually anyone I ever spoke to about – with a movie data base of more than 70,000 titles – was totally unaware such a service existed. Yes, folks, this was the Canadian equivalent of Netflix, before Netflix began a digital streaming service and entered Canada, which may have been the death knell of….Of course Netflix is nothing like despite a certain illusion. You could find extremely rare and sub-genre movies on Want to watch Truffaut or Kurosowa or Rainer Werner Fassbinder? This was the place to find numerous of their films. Or classic comedies dating back to the 20s? You won’t find these on Netflix, not by a long shot. Netflix does carry some foreign and indie titles but this is extremely watered down homogeneity compared to what offered…..But perhaps’s time had come. After all, the world is increasingly digitally-driven and – an Ottawa-based firm – was still in the relative dinosaur age of shipping physical discs. It wasn’t for lack of trying. had previously posted on its website it was attempting to develop a streaming service but couldn’t find the right economies of scale. Now it’s closed and cineastes are much the poorer for it…..Why did close? The owners have been mum. I requested comment and was told by spokeswoman Jana Dybinski that “we are not interviewing.” An email to subscribers from founder and Chairman Rob Hall Aug. 18 said simply, “After more than 10 years in business and 20,570,326 movies watched in homes across Canada, we've decided to close our doors.” Media coverage has also been slim, perhaps a reflection of how poorly the service was known. There were a couple of stories in’s home town Ottawa-based media but they reported little more – or less - than what I’m writing here…..Despite a huge inventory seldom advertised though it did have a kiosk service similar to Redbox, about which I only learned in researching this post. None of these kiosks to my knowledge existed in the Windsor area.….Spokeswoman Dybinski did provide some statistics: 20,570,326 – the number of discs shipped to homes across Canada; 305,207 – the number of members; 70,958 - number of unique titles in its library; Kugluktuk, Nunavut - farthest place the company shipped to; Toronto – the city where subscribers watched the most movies at 2,108,647 rentals; 2,884 - number of movies watched by’s top renter…..So share a lament, and I still had several Fassbinder titles in my order list I will now never receive.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Montreal festival faves

Talking to other festival goers and hearing the general ”buzz” among people at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival, you’d think the movie Chagall-Malevich (Russia, Alexandre Mitta) would have swept the fest’s awards. It didn’t take one prize including that by popular vote. The film is about the obvious at times antagonistic relationship between the two great artists at the time of the Russian Revolution. It may have been a crowd pleaser simply because of its subject matter. And while it had some inventive magic realist moments (yes, Chagall and Co. are shown flying in the sky as per the artist’s signature dreamy images) this picture was more soap opera than wide scope, depicting a small group of characters with a Chagall (Leonid Bichevin) who seems squeaky clean and in fact who we see painting only once. There is little insight into highly contrasting Chagall and Malevich’s approaches to art. This is rather superficial TV fare.

Here were some of my festival faves:

The Hotel Room (Germany, Rudi Gaul) (picture above): Famed female author (Mina Tander) sits down to be interviewed with video journalist (Godehard Giese) who has done just a tad too much research in this drama that plays on memory, accountability and what is fiction and reality.

Watchmen in the Wind (China: Liang Bixin): A doc about a special Chinese army detail that services a remote desert railway in northeast China, braving sandstorms, frigid cold and searing heat, and months - sometime years - away from family.

A Golden Boy (Italy, Pupi Avati): The story of a bright young writer (Riccardo Scarmacio) who can’t seem to sell his fiction and descends into a maelstrom of grief only to find fame – fittingly given this movie’s theme – in a very indirect way. Sharon Stone, speaking impeccable Italian, stars as a sympathetic publisher.

Field of Dogs (Poland, Lech  Majewski): From the director of The Mill and the Cross (which screened 2012 at the DFT) and co-writer of 1996’s Basquiat (Julian Schnabel) comes this meditation on a crass materialistic and tragic world set against two major 2010 Polish catastrophes - devastating floods and the crash of an airliner carrying the country’s elite. Dante’s Devine Comedy plays centre stage and there are some serious ruminations on the meaning of it all. 

The Ambassador to Bern (Hungary, Attila Szász). Based on a true event, the movie depicts the seizure of the Hungarian embassy in Bern in 1958 by a couple of freedom fighters who rued the Soviets crushing of the ‘56 Hungarian uprising. Taut politically-laced drama.

No Man’s Land (China, Ning Hao): This is China’s version of Quentin Tarantino and I didn’t mind. At turns hilarious, macabre, absurd and extraordinarily violent, the back roads of China prove rife for a modern Western – er, make that Eastern.

Schimbare (Spain, Alex Sampayo): A middle class couple travels to eastern Europe to seek a kidney on the black market for their sick daughter. The trip does not go well. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine what happens in this edge-of-seat thriller.

Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery (Germany, Arne Birkenstock): Wolfgang Beltracchi is an artist of supreme confidence and casually says he can paint the work of any great master, no big deal. And does – forging his way through the world’s art markets in this documentary that shows a – slightly – contrite Beltracchi and accomplice wife Helene, as they serve out their sentences on day parole, allowing him to now make legitimate art. But will it sell?

Amanet (Albania-Italy, Namik Ajazi). There were Stalin’s show trials and there’s still North Korean’s Hermit Kingdom. Until the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe there was Albania, one of the most repressive post-war Communist states, where purges of top government and party officials came and went as quickly as someone changes his socks.

Norwegian Wood (Japan, Tran Anh Hung). Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, himself garnering enormous acclaim these days, this story set in 1967 is an intimate portrait of intimacy amidst the confusion of youth and a backdrop of the emergence of hippiedom.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Montreal festival survives another year

It was with some trepidation that I looked forward to this year’s edition of the Montreal World Film Festival. The prognosis was not good. Festival founder and president Serge Losique had lost much government funding (including blockbuster grants from Quebec’s SODEC and Telefilm Canada). There were rumours the fest had mortgaged the grand Imperial Cinema, which it renovated beautifully in the 1990s – and where as a kid I saw How the West Was Won, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm when it was a Cinerama theatre. So I sent in my $100 for a 10-day pass (a fantastic deal) and kept my fingers crossed. But Losique, ever the optimist, was non-plussed. In a written interview with the Montreal Gazette (which he vetted) Losique dismissed government bureaucrats who complained about the fest’s lack of financial transparency, maintaining the books have been “clean and transparent.” This isn’t the first time the MWFF has been in crisis. Similar problems occurred in 2005 and many predicted the festival, now in its 38th year, would die. An alternative festival was funded and fell flat on its face. Losique (who pretty much has run the MWFF as a one man show since its beginning) seems to have nine lives. And in the Gazette interview he predicted the MWFF, like cinema as a whole, “will outlive us.” ….. So it was great to arrive in Montreal and find the festival operating pretty much as always.  But there were a couple of disappointments. The festival catalogue at 216 pages was noticeably thinner than in past years. And the festival had lost one of its showpiece cinemas, Theatre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts. On the plus side, not all sponsors abandoned Losique. He still has one of Quebec’s premier corporations Québecor in his court and numerous other larger and smaller businesses including Cineplex (where the bulk of films were shown at the Cineplex Quartier Latin muliplex), NBCUniversal, and Hyatt Regency….Among festival goers there was obvious considerable talk was about the future of MWFF (or in French, Festival des Films du Monde – FFM) with many thinking this would be its last year. Many people blamed Losique for being a notorious autocrat and his own worst enemy. Others threw criticism at Montreal’s new mayor, former federal cabinet minister Denis Coderre, for ignoring the event, a major cultural attraction that draws tourists from outside Montreal including many US visitors. But there is reason for thinking there will be a 39th running for the Montreal fest, perhaps North America’s most internationally-oriented film festival….Tomorrow: capsule film fest reviews.