Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In a funk over nothing to see

A missive comes from a friend that The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum) is really a great movie. I look it up on Rotten Tomatoes and see it’s almost got the best rating - 89% - of the current crop. Hmmm. But do I really want to see another film about “Double-U Double U Two?” Ditto for Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (RT only 51%). An heroic story about an amazing hero. But do I really want to see another movie about “Double-U Double U Two?" That leaves Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (an amazing 92%), from the Cheryl Strayed memoir. But watching an almost two hour flick about a woman coming to terms with life issues through a prolonged west coast jaunt (Strayed’s last name is a pun; couldn’t resist) doesn’t really make me want to leap from my comfortable chair at home. The rest of the movies are fantasies of one sort or another, such as The Hobbit, Into the Woods, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Annie, and The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay - Part 1. Big Eyes? The relationship story at the centre of this film is its most interesting aspect. But I can’t get around looking at all those pictures of formulaic “big eyes” paintings, making me think I’m at some second-rate art bazaar. There is Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, a kind of remake of the James Caan film, though it might be worth seeing just to see Jessica Lange! Finally, there’s Foxcatcher, critically acclaimed (RT 86%) with enough of a quirky story to perhaps make it interesting. But I got turned off by the wrestling scenes. So, what’s a frustrated cineaste to do? 

Now that Sony Entertainment and (independent) cinemas have shown some pluck and stood up to North Korea (or whoever was behind the terrorist threats; the FBI points to the Hermit Kingdom but cyber experts say it could be an inside job) I could make my way to the closest Bijou showing The Interview (Imagine Cinemas’ Lakeshore near Windsor and Cinema Detroit in downtown Detroit, starting Jan. 2). Yes, I could show my solidarity with freedom of speech by attending the film, even if I don’t have a great desire to see this latest frat (fart) house classic. So as the old year comes to a close, your faithful film addict is in a bit of a funk. Let’s toast to better cinema in 2015.

Oh, BTW, it should be interesting to watch the Academy Awards (Feb. 22) if only to see the sorry faces of Hollywood’s elite, after actor George Clooney couldn’t even get one of these supposed libertarian stalwarts to sign his petition standing up to North Korea. Hoping someone makes an issue of it at the ceremony.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dear Leader, it's only - boring - frat house humour

I really didn’t have much interest in seeing Seth Rogen’s The Interview. Sure I’m into politics and the idea of a gag political film targeting the infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un makes for a good laugh (though would a typical Rogen audience even know who Dear Leader is?). But the trailer didn’t look that great. And with stars like Rogen and James Franco, well, it’s simply more frat humour. Still it’s astonishing that the studio-theatre industrial complex fell to their knees in acquiescing to a group of hackers known as Guardians of Peace (the FBI has since confirmed a link to the North Korean government) and pulled the movie in the wake of threats of terrorism. It’s doubtful such threats would have come to pass. This is the North Koreans, folks, not Islamists. Fictitious or not theatre owners didn’t want their “employees and theatregoers” (I like how employees are mentioned first) put at risk. This is a precedent alright. Think who may in the future threaten Hollywood - anyone with an axe to grind. Jihadists might not like the upcoming American Sniper (Clint Eastwood). Japanese nationalists may despise Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. People with deformities might loathe Tim Burton’s Big Eyes…..BTW this isn’t the first time the bizarre North Korean state has come in for lampooning. A few might remember the hilarious 2004 puppet comedy Team America: World Police (Trey Parker of South Park) in which Kim’s dad Kim Jong-il, as sponsor of worldwide terrorism, is unceremoniously impaled. Guess the movie came late to North Korea because it certainly didn’t raise the Hermit Kingdom’s collective scolding finger.

Speaking of slime balls, I did manage to catch Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. The film features Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a petty thief who, on one of his heists, discovers the excitement of freelance video (tabloid) journalism, roaming the overnight shift capturing on his camera all manner of crime and mayhem, selling footage to the highest paying local TV station so as to make the morning news. Bloom finds he’s good at the job. He’s a sociopath and has no moral qualms about filming extremely gory scenes and even rearranging evidence for better camera angles. His career in the “if it bleeds it leads” news shows takes off. The film is an obvious indictment of the crime-infested local TV news (just turn on one of several Detroit stations) though it struck me as a little over the top in terms of how far someone like Bloom would push the envelope. Gyllenhaal as an intense singly-focused individual, who couldn’t tell a joke if he fell into it, is superb.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cat in the Hat it's not

And now for some Down Under horror. Cinema Detroit Friday opens with The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s take on a spectre that frightens the hell out of a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis), seven years after a car accident that killed her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear), is trying to raise a troublesome son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) given to an overfed imagination which makes him almost uncontrollable. It’s almost a nightmare, shall we say, for a struggling single mom trying to make her way as a low wage nursing home personal support worker. Noah runs around with his homemade dart gun, fancies himself a magician with powers bordering on the fantastic. “Life can be a wondrous thing but it can also be very treacherous!” he mimics a learn-magic video. One night he asks his mom to read him Mister Babadook, a pop-up book showing a hideous creature with a top hat and claw like hands threatening a young boy. “See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink,” says the text. It gets worse: “take heed of what you’ve read…and you’re going to wish you were dead.” Well! You can image what this does to a boy who already has over-the-top fantasies. In subsequent days and nights strange happenings occur. Amelia finds glass in the food. Long dead Oskar’s suit is hung as if he’s still in it. The growl-like sound, and silhouetted images of the claw-like hands, of “Mister Babadook” appear out of the shadows. Electric lights flicker on and off. (You know the drill.) Amelia tears up the book but it reappears on her doorstep. Now the text’s lines are deadlier and depict her strangling her son and slitting her throat. She sets fire to the book. Like in the best horror films the plot gets scarier and scarier. Mom and son battle the Babadook. But that’s not the only battle going on, and I won’t describe the others. Let’s just say they have to do with the backstory. Indeed The Babadook can be read as a fill-in for various fears: the loss of a husband, the fact the boy can’t really grow until he celebrates a birthday on its real date (his dad died driving his mom, in labor, to hospital). The movie speaks to a type of primal force that afflicts anyone struggling with lack of closure and unmet needs, both of which afflict Amelia and Samuel. The two actors work well together and Davis is especially good, nonplussed by some of the seemingly clichéd horror roles she’s thrust into. And, yes, there are three scenes (I counted) that will definitely give you the shivers or worse. But note to parents: Mister Babadook, despite its seemingly The Cat in the Hat look, is not the kind of thing you want to read to your six year old, not least of all because it’ll probably be weeks before you can get him out of your bed.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Film clips

I watched Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) for the second time a couple of weeks ago, and this time sat only a few rows from the screen, which was a great way to watch this in-your-face picture. But I also experienced something I didn’t see first time around. Despite still thinking Birdman is one of the best American films this year I discovered something about it revealing. That’s that the actors in fact were “acting.” Maybe this "discovery" can be found in a lot of films watched a second or third time. After all, we already knew the general story so maybe our antennas are subconsciously tuned to discover new things on the screen. But, yup, these actors were definitely acting. I could picture them having memorized the lines and shouting them out numerous times before their final takes. Whether it be Riggan (Michael Keaton’s) confrontations with his producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) (pictured), his daughter Sam’s (Emma Stone) romantic cat-and-mouse maneuverings with famed stage actor Mike (Edward Norton) on the St. James Theatre’s outdoor ledge, or several critical scenes of dialogue, it’s like the veneer fell away and I could picture the actors simply mouthing their lines after all their memorization. That’s not taking away from the picture’s emotion, riveting pace, great camera shots, and overall direction. But, alas, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was witnessing “acting” after all.

Disappointed that the New York Film Critics Circle awards – the first of the awards season (yawn) - chose as its best film (and director) Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I didn’t have great expectations for this film, shot over 12 years, about an everyday American kid growing up. But I was in Halifax at the time and it was the only film available in the city’s only half-hearted art house. So a group of us slogged through almost three hours of exactly what I was fearing. Sure the acting by people like Ellar Coltrane (the boy) and mom and dad (Patricia Arquette – who’s especially good – and Ethan Hawke) was realistic enough. But this is a humdrum story about an any boy anywhere. 

Lucky filmgoers at this fall’s Windsor International Film Festival had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. The movie is much anticipated with hype just now being drummed up in places like Toronto and Montreal. The picture opens Christmas Day. So Windsorites can play film snobs and say “we’ve seen it already!” Come to think if it we can occasionally do that with films that have already screened in Detroit before they hit the art house circuit in Toronto.