Tuesday, February 24, 2015

For the love of Turner Classic Movies

Now that I’m on a sojourn to wait out the northern winter in the sunshine environs of central Florida one of the charms of vacation rentals is having access to a whole slew of cable channels. And while Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is available to Canadian audiences I don’t feel like shelling out the big bucks back home to get it. So it’s always a treat when I come stateside and am able to watch this amazing channel for its cornucopia of classic movies from the Turner vault…..Here are some of the movies I’ve indulged in over the past few weeks: Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937). Considered one of the greatest films ever made it’s a delight as a character study about a group of French POWs but underwhelms on the bigger scale. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). This almost perfect telling of three American vets who return from World War II features flawless performances from the likes of Fredrich March, Dana Andrews and Myrna Loy. But the standout is Teresa Wright, whose portrayal of a small town bright young woman is incandescent. The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson, 1956) is Humphrey Bogart’s last movie. He plays a rather contradictory character to the noble moralistic types we associate with him. He’s a former sports writer hired as a press agent to promote a corrupt boxing scheme. But Bogie, in the end, does the right thing - phew! The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) was dramatic enough, I guess. But, afterwards, reading about the film, took a lot of my respect away from it. Its portrayal of British POWs enraged military vets and its plot - a British officer (Alec Guinness as Nicholson) collaborating with the Japanese, was considered unthinkable. Yet Guinness as always is a standout. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) is a Doris Day - Rick Hudson classic, an utterly hilarious romantic comedy whose laughs come from a variety of misunderstandings. Why don’t they make movies like this anymore? There was the double bill of Steve McQueen movies: The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) and Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968). The Thomas Crown Affair is the story of a sophisticated millionaire who has it all and arranges a bank heist for kicks. But the most interesting thing about this picture is the multiscreen imagery, using the technology that premiered the year before at Montreal’s Expo 67 including in the Ontario pavilion film A Place to Stand. Meanwhile the Bullitt chase seen through the streets of San Fran wasn’t as dramatic as I expected (or remembered) and McQueen only did a small fraction of the Mustang’s driving. But his portrayal of the steely taciturn cop Frank Bullitt always has us in his corner. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) shows Gregory Peck in one of his best and most iconic roles as lawyer Atticus Finch whose moral toughness is matched by his personal gentleness. What was the point of Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)? And since the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose book the movie is based on, co-wrote the screenplay, what was he trying to say in this most famous of American novels? Beats me. The story of course is about a middle aged man’s infatuation with a pre-teen beauty Lolita (though actress Sue Lyon was 14). There is no sex (thank God) nor even, unlike the novel, much prurience (thank God). Due to among other things, political correctness, the film wouldn’t be made today and almost wasn’t at the time. Subject matter alone why is this novel considered among the best of 20th century literature? Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) seems as fresh today as it did the year Star Wars came out, minus some bad period sartorial styles (excepting Diane Keaton’s quirky Annie’s wardrobe, as much a hit as the picture) and clunky cars. Allen’s wit shines again and again in such classic scenes as gathering escaped lobsters (above left), swatting spiders, or sneezing into a box of cocaine. The movie established Woody as the modern king of comedy and morals. Finally The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross, 1977). It’s easy to see why Richard Dreyfuss as Elliot Garfield won best actor at the next year’s Oscars. I never understood his character’s attraction to Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason). But it is what it is and the story written by Neil Simon has gone into the annals of best known theatrical plays.

Academy disconnect. Not surprisingly there was a major drop in audience for Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. That’s because most of the films nominated for best picture were ones the mass audience has never seen, much less heard about. The New York Times today has an article about this major gap between Hollywood - which now seems fully captured by the art house crowd - and the average moviegoer. Check it out at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/movies/awardsseason/oscars-show-growing-gap-between-moviegoers-and-academy.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

Sunday, February 15, 2015

And the best film Oscar should go to...

Now having seen the full line-up here’s what I think about which picture should win this year’s top Academy award and my thoughts about the other films in contention, in declining order.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle) (picture left). This story of an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman) and his Marine sergeant-like music school instructor (J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher) should win best picture. Everything about this movie is great. The acting first and foremost is outstanding. The interplay between Neiman and Fletcher is highly realistic and tension-filled. Moreover, unlike many other films with significant attributes (acting, writing) this is the kind of movie we don’t get enough of - a thriller, if not of the detective kind then certainly one based on emotions - and about heroic personal struggle that everybody can identify with.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu). I originally thought this should take best picture, and it probably will. It’s achieved enough accolades and awards to date and that weighs against why I think it should win the top Academy nod. The story is great, the acting is pretty good, and the direction is amazing. Upon second viewing, however, I saw through some of the acting. But no matter how much I and other critics enjoyed it this is an insider’s movie. If you’re an actor - whether on Broadway or the local village playhouse - you’ll identify with these characters’ roller coaster lives. The general public probably won't so much.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). I’m not a huge Anderson fan because his pictures often strike me as insipid or bizarre (Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums) but this movie was highly innovative and resonated in a lot of ways. About a weird cast of characters set in a grand Eastern European hotel between the wars, this movie is a send-up of an infinite variety of clichés of the 1930s as well as a kaleidoscope of images, scenes, and stories. A delight though not for everyone.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum). As I’ve posted previously that Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding in this home front World War II picture about how Britain broke Nazi German’s Enigma Code. The movie has enough genuine scene setting and drama to raise it to a high enough level. But it’s a marginal movie in terms of theme and the best aspect of it is Cumberbatch as father of the computer Alan Turing.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). Also set in Britain though in more contemporary times this bio of wunderkind Stephen Hawking really has one great thing going for it - Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. And while the movie proceeds at a decent pace as it chronologically tells Hawking’s story, it struck me as just a bit too stereotypically biopic, meaning it’s really hard to capture the original events.

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood). This is the portrayal of American Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during the Iraq War, an expert sniper who had 160 confirmed killings. Bradley Cooper as Kyle is excellent and Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle also provides a more than credible performance. The war scenes are pretty good but, like too many biopics, I could envision just a little too easily how the movie crew set up these scenes in places like Middle Eastern Morocco.

Selma (Ava DuVernay) This pic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a seminal event in American civil rights history certainly has enough drama and realism to it. And although they don’t necessarily look like the real people, David Oyelowo gives some pretty good speeches as MLK and Tom Wilkinson isn’t bad as President Lyndon Johnson, though the film has been criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Johnson as an impediment to voting rights legislation. The film also manages to wrangle enough emotion from the audience. But all the pieces don’t come together in top form to make this a best Oscar picture.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater). This overly long - okay I know it was purposely filmed over 12 years - movie, tells a lacklustre story about any boy, anywhere, growing up in the good old USA. But that’s it. There are no particular insights, no moral conclusions. The best thing is Patricia Arquette as a working class mom, and Arquette's performance is indeed good.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A most underwhelming movie

Moviegoers expecting A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, to be a New York gritty action-packed crime drama - as I did - are in for a major disappointment. This movie, the story line of which would seem perfect for a gangster thriller along the lines of movies from The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) to Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990), to Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980), just doesn’t have that dramatic edge. In fact it doesn’t have much edge at all. Heck, this could be a theatrical play there’s so little action and what action does take place on the gritty Brooklyn streets is largely irrelevant to the narrative. Rather, what we see is a set of business negotiations in which ambitious Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) tries to build his local home heating company. (The title’s reference is to 1981, when the movie is set, a period of extreme crime in NYC.) The industry is rife with corruption and competitors want to put him out of business. That’s where the violence comes in. His trucks are hijacked and fuel stolen. His drivers get roughed-up. There are personal threats to Morales and his family. The movie is mainly concerned with Morales overcoming these almost crippling challenges. How can he get his adversaries to stop their intimidation without resorting to violence himself as his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges, going to the extent of getting her own gun. At the same time we don’t know if Morales is himself shady - an issue never resolved - because a police investigation into the industry brings several charges against him. This all might sound exciting but it really isn’t. The movie is basically all - literally - talk, with quiet scenes of Morales and his wife or associates or potential enemies having face to face and actually placid encounters despite the backdrop of tension. Two people in the audience of the screening I attended fell asleep (I heard one snoring, the other started shouting as he roused from sleep.) There are some action moments, such as a shoot out on the 59th Street Bridge or near the film’s end when Morales, in his car, goes after the hijackers of a truck. But The French Connection this isn’t. There is decent enough acting on Isaac and Chastain’s parts. But this is basically a cerebral film and isn’t at all what a moviegoer might think is in store from the title.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Academy Awards nominated shorts - reviews

Here are my capsule reviews of this year’s edition of the Academy Awards Nominated Short Films, the ever popular screenings put on annually by the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts. For more go to http://www.dia.org/detroitfilmtheatre/14/DFT.aspx. Screenings continue through the month.

The first five shorts are animations.

Me and My Moulton. This is Canada’s entry for this year’s Oscars but it’s actually a Canadian-Norwegian co-production by Torill Kove. This childhood memory of growing up in the 1960s is a funny take on the narrator’s eccentric parents, the kind who love modern art and designer furniture when all families around them are white bread conventional, as the narrator yearns to be. This is a typical National Film Board animation - sorry - with stick figure creations. Worth a few chuckles though the audience seemed to enjoy it.

Feast (US - Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed). This was the best animation by far. Not only in terms of its technical superiority and imaginative story but its whimsical joy and humour. It’s a take on how dogs will do almost anything for a scrap of food, especially the toss offs from humans. 

The Bigger Picture (UK - Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees). The best thing about this short is the merger of fine art and conventional animation. But it’s a dark, depressing story about Me-generation selfishness and the unregretted disposal of the aged. Not sure why the filmmakers made it but it struck me as almost contemptible.

A Single Life (Netherlands - Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen). A whimsical take on the periods of a person’s life all to the tune of a vinyl record. Whatever.

The Dam Keeper (US - Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi). This, the longest animated short at 18 minutes, has a lot to it. Beautifully drawn characters and landscapes with a type of George Orwell Animal Farm theme, only about bullying. Bullying is an all too common topic these says. Nevertheless this film deserves a break because of its beauty and sentimentality.

Now for the five live action shorts:

Parvaneh (Switzerland - Talkhon Hamzavi & Stefan Eichenberger). This movie is about the Moslem African migration experience, a theme pretty overworked these days by European film makers. Still, it’s a sweet tale about a young woman and her spur of the moment friendship with an anti-establishment punk. Good performances by both actors.

Butter Lamp (France/China - Hu Wei and Julien Féret) is the most bizarre film of the lot. A photography crew poses various groups of traditional (Tibetan) Chinese families in front of huge static backdrops of famous Chinese scenes, as if they’re actually in those locations. Whatever.

The Phone Call (UK - Mat Kirby & James Lucas). Now we’re getting into something good. Acclaimed actress Sally Hawkins at first seems a klutzy emergency hotline worker. Until, that is, she gets on the phone (on a call from a character played by also acclaimed actor Jim Broadbent) and deals with an emotionally taut situation.

Aya (Israel/France - Oded Binnun & Mihal Brezis - picture above). This is the best picture of the five. A woman at an airport waits for a friend. But she meets someone entirely different and goes off on a long drive with this stranger and possible romantic interest. The film is a mystery on several levels, and speaks to modern ennui.

Boogaloo and Graham (UK - Michael Lennox & Ronan Blaney). A heartwarming story about a couple of kids during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Two brothers become so attached to their pets, baby chicks, that they’re ready to defy their parents and run away from home to protect them. The domestic humor is an antidote to the violence we know is all around.