Tuesday, January 27, 2015

London's National Gallery, unspooled

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, shown last week at the Detroit Film Theatre, is a three hour documentary about London’s National Gallery, perhaps the most famous museum in the world. Wiseman is a legendary U.S. documentarist and has made more than 40 films. His first was Titicut Follies (1967), about patient-inmates at a state hospital for the criminally insane and the only one of his previous films, surprisingly, I have seen, at least in part. His movies' topics are eclectic to say the least, from depicting a great university, At Berkeley (2013), showing this Saturday at the DFT, to Welfare  (1975) (a profile of New York City’s welfare department circa mid-1970s) coming to the DFT Feb. 14, to Hospital (1969), chronicling the daily activities in a large U.S. hospital, at the DFT Feb. 28. National Gallery both pleased and disappointed. If you’re into art the film’s a winner. There are umpteen close up shots of the National Gallery’s glittering treasures. And if you can’t fly to London to walk the museum’s corridors this film might be second best way of (vicariously) being there. Wiseman’s camera meanders the maze-like galleries, with close-ups of patrons’ faces as they studiously admire the art, and of docents giving talks about certain pictures. Wiseman is there during the museum’s executive committee where an official reports on the museum’s tight budget for the coming year. It’s also there at various special exhibition openings like ones for Leonardo and Titian. And finally there are numerous “back of the museum” shots of conservators explaining their work and working their magic to restore paintings. New solvents, we learn, are designed so that future conservators can reinterpret a painting afresh and literally wipe away this generation’s painstaking conservation efforts “in 15 minutes.” But this is not the kind of documentary one might come to expect based on some of the more brilliant ones of recent years. I’m thinking of films like John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier (2013), Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) or Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer (2013), another film about art. These were marvels in terms of cinematography, image, juxtaposition, special effects, soundtrack and editing. There is nothing like that here. Wiseman simply places his camera and records what’s in front of him. There is not even any voice over. I suppose that is the Wiseman effect. He lets the subjects speak for themselves as he alluded in a post film talk. But one leaves the three hour film somewhat tired of the lack of point of view and narrative. I’m hardly a filmmaker and wouldn’t ever compare myself to Wiseman. But I can also place a camera, turn it on, and record. Wiseman shot 170 hours. He cut the film down to three. But it really doesn’t matter how long it is. It could have been one hour, two hours, five hours, 10 hours. It simply would have been more of the same. And whether you’d like that is entirely up to your perspective, I suppose.

Unfortunately I went to see Mordecai, David Koepp’s farce about a shady art dealer (Johnny Depp) and his travels and travails among a host of nefarious characters. This movie has the look and feel of a British farce circa 1968. And Depp is obviously channelling Peter Sellers, who probably would have made the real difference in transforming this film from bore to fun.

I came out of Mordecai about 6.30 pm last Saturday at Devonshire’s Cineplex, only to find a long lineup of people waiting to get into another movie. I’d never seen a lineup inside a multiplex in Windsor before. I asked someone the name of the movie they were waiting to see and it was, not surprisingly, Eastwood’s American Sniper. This film has really struck a chord with a huge swath of the public.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cumberbatch brilliant as Turing, etc.

In the last post (Jan. 19) I mentioned writing to Cineplex Entertainment asking what the chances would be of Windsor getting some of the lesser viewed best picture Oscar nominations such as Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash. That must be a hard call for distributors who stand not to make a lot of revenue in smaller markets where the film going public simply doesn’t have the appetite for these art house type movies. And yet doesn’t it behoove the distributor to make them available simply because they are an Oscar nomination? Here is the response from Cineplex spokesman Mike Langdon: “Scheduling is always a challenge, with a number of new releases opening each week and a finite number of screens available.  That said, after Oscar nominees are announced, we do our best to bring as many as possible to audiences that haven’t had the opportunity to see them.  Typically, this takes place throughout award season – leading up to the end of February. That’s not to say we’ll have the opportunity to show each and every film – but we will make an effort to schedule certain Oscar-nominated films in the weeks ahead.”

Meanwhile last night I took myself to the double bill that I’d missed Saturday night because of the crowds (same post above)......First up was Eastwood’s American Sniper. I’m not saying it wasn’t good. But somehow I expected a more full bodied war flick. The problem is I could imagine the battle scenes being staged and in my books that isn’t good enough. But Bradley Cooper as American hero Chris Kyle (pictured) was very good and Sienna Miller as Kyle's real life wife Taya Renae Kyle put in a good performance..... It’s interesting how the public has gone wild for this film, which is obviously pro-American and patriotic. Yet earlier film dramas that took a decidedly anti-Iraq War stance such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Redacted, bombed (so to speak) at the box office.

The second film I saw was Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, about the cracking of the German Enigma code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch as famed Alan Turing, the nerdy brilliant mathematician who led the team at Bletchley Park to crack the code, is brilliant. It’s a tossup between him and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything) for Oscar best actor though I think Cumberbatch has the edge. (I haven’t seen Steve Carell in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Saturday night cabin fever

Talk about cabin fever. I drove into Windsor for Devonshire Cineplex’s 7.05 pm screening of American Sniper (Clint Eastwood) Saturday night. The ticket seller was kind enough to tell me that the only remaining seats were likely in the front row. Nuts to that. So I got in my car and drove a few kilometres up the road to Silver City Cineplex. That house was worse. I could barely get in the front door. A line of people snaked around with perhaps a hundred waiting to buy tickets. The kiosks had about a dozen or more at each. So I was out of there! Why so many people? True, it was early Saturday night - prime weekly movie going time. But the break in the weather – the first above freezing temps since the New Year – must have had something to do with it. Perhaps this week I’ll make the trek to see the enormously popular Sniper – top January weekend box office ever, according to today’s NY Times – the six Oscar-nominated (including best picture) film based on the true life of military hero Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper...I was going to double bill this Saturday with The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum). Not that I particularly wanted to see the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring film about the breaking of the German Enigma code during World War II. I’m so tired of WW II movies. But all reports are that this is a great film. As well, I thought I’d add it to my bucket-of-popcorn list to see another of the films nominated for this year's best picture (I’ve seen Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything).

So what did I do instead? I returned home, logged on to Netflix, and found a little known picture called 28 Hotel Rooms. Matt Ross’s 2012 first film is an interesting idea – two lovers who only meet around the country when business takes them to the same cities. So their time together is confined to one or two days in a generic if upscale hotel room in Some City, USA. (A modern version of the classic 1975 Bernard Slade play Same Time Next Year only not so funny. Robert Mulligan's firm version came out in 1978.) Chris Messina and Marin Ireland star. The problem is the scenes are so short that the audience gets only little snippets about what’s going on in the characters’ lives. Had the characters been further formed this would have been a more satisfying film. And I’m not sure at all what the meaning of the last scene was....The next film I watched Saturday on Netflix was Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). I saw the film when it first came out. This is classic Polanski (based on the Roland Topor novel who co-wrote the screenplay), filled with angst, paranoia, and confused identities and gender roles. Polanski himself plays the central character Trelkovsky (pictured), a mild mannered clerk who happens to rent the wrong Parisian apartment. A nice late Saturday night horror show if you ask me.

I put in a request to Cineplex to ask if Canada’s largest distributor will show those films nominated for Oscar best picture but that very few people have seen. I’m talking about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and Damien Chazell’s Whiplash of course. This must be a dilemma for distributors since there’s very little market in cities like Windsor for these typically art house films. Yet they’re nominated for the world’s top movie awards and the great mass of people out there must be scratching their heads wondering what the hell they're all about.