Monday, June 29, 2015

A Marxist fable from France

Robert Guédiguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011), on Netflix, is a textbook example of Marxist filmmaking. It stars the estimable Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who seems to be in every second French film I see, along with Ariane Ascaride, the two central characters - husband and wife Michel and Marie-Claire. Michel is a union steward in a Marseille dockyard, forced to draw names of which workers will face layoff. Michel, an ever so conscientiousness egalitarian, decides to put his own name in the mix. He draws it and, pushing 60, becomes unemployed with no prospects to be hired again. But he has his severance and pension and he and Marie-Claire enjoy a comfortable enough life in their small apartment with a rooftop patio overlooking the dockyards and Mediterranean. For their anniversary the couple are feted by friends and ex-colleagues and given a little treasure chest of cash donations and an all-inclusive trip to Africa, hence the movie’s name (and not to be confused with Henry King’s 1952 film based on the Ernest Hemingway story). One night the couple are playing cards when their home is invaded by gun-waving thieves who tie them up, steal their money (including the travel tickets) and raid their bank accounts with their debit cards. They also take a comic book that was Michel’s first childhood comic. Days later Michel is on a bus and notices a couple of kids reading the same comic book. He asks to see it and finds it’s in fact his, since his name was inscribed in it. He follows the kids home and discovers the home is also one of his fellow ex-worker's, who’s also lost his job, and was at Michel and Marie-Claire’s party. The assailant, Christophe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), is soon arrested and faces 15 years in jail. Michel decides to visit him in captivity. The tables are turned. Christophe lashes out against the relatively more affluent Michel, compared to his miserable life, young and facing long unemployment without a pension. “What should I apologize for - being out of work, for dipping into (Michel’s) savings, his pocket money...going thousands of miles (to Africa) to ogle at the world’s poverty?” It turns out our armed robber is quite the theoretician. Michel, possibly a veteran of France’s New Left and the May 1968 Paris revolt (as per an early scene photograph), is induced in guilt. He wants to withdraw the charge. True, Christophe has a couple of young brothers who were abandoned by their parents and face being wards of the state. That tugs on Michel and Marie-Claire’s heartstrings. So Michel cashes in the ticket to help the kids and the couple decides to adopt them. In a near final scene the couple, sitting on the dock, don’t at all regret their decision. Indeed Marie-Claire blames the “bosses” for dividing the workers, and Michel puts the layoffs down to evil “globalization.” Regardless of the validity of this economic analysis the movie has an immoral core. It is justifying violence, indeed terrorism, and excusing it. The ends justify the means and all that. But it figures. Guédiguianis is a former Communist and staunch left-winger. So, folks, just so you know, here's a movie with a Marxist message shot through and through.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bobos in neurotic paradise

Sometimes a movie takes itself just a little too seriously. Such is the case with Last Weekend, Tom Dolby and Tom Williams’s 2014 film starring the versatile Patricia Clarkson, on Netflix. The plot is something we’ve seen a hundred times. A family gathering at a summer retreat - in this case a luxurious stone house along Lake Tahoe - brings out the best but more often the worst in people. The children bring along their lovers and friends and there are the awkward introductions and mullings about whether the characters will take to one another. In this case the clan is headed by Celia (Clarkson), the mother, and everyone seems to have to bow to her constant neuroses. There is added gravitas because she’s considering giving up the house. Celia is of a type - the self-satisfied Californian, liberal in her views and filthy rich, thanks to husband Malcolm’s (Chris Mulkey) - the only seemingly sane person of the lot - business acumen. Celia is what was once coined a bobo or bourgeois bohemian. She dresses like a flower child and buys fair trade products. Yet she basks in her luxurious surroundings, with eco-friendly trappings of course. And yet, amazingly, she sees no contradiction. Celia goes to a farm market and spends $200 on baskets (her obsession) as her son tells her she doesn’t need them. She could have easily given the money to a food bank. Back home Celia is constantly questioning herself, asking Malcolm if others would view them as “good” people. He says they would. The movie is directed well and the plot carries us along. But, really, these characters and their self-indulgent world are fitting for send-up, a la Portlandia, but for the northern California set. For this film embodies all the stereotypes of the contemporary liberal upper class. One son is a stock trader. Another (Zachary Booth) is an artsy and successful gay New Yorker. There is a Hollywood starlet for good measure. She jogs to a self-help recording, the only seemingly satirical scene in the film. There’s another scene, where son Roger (the trader, played by Joseph Cross) puts the moves on the starlet (Jayma Mays). They meet on the dock when Roger is taking a leak. Without washing his hands he takes hers and they venture out on to a boat on the lake, where some extracurricular smooching takes place. All I could think of was, “Why didn’t you wash your hands?!”

Copenhagen, Mark Raso’s 2014 film (on Netflix), is kind of like the Richard Linklater romantic Before… trilogy, only with a harder edge. It’s about a wandering young American in Europe, in this case in the Danish capital. William (Gethin Anthony) is there to find his grandfather. He doesn’t know how to find him and, as luck would have it, meets a charming young woman, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), who’s a walking encyclopedia. She’s also old beyond her years. William falls in love with her but balks when he finds she’s just 14. Despite the romantic airs of cycling around the capital William is personally frustrated and has the arrogance of a young man’s anger. When he finally meets his grandfather that rendezvous doesn’t go so well either. This is a coming of age story though that sounds trite. Let’s just say it’s about a young man confronting himself in a world that offers wonders but unexpected shortcomings. Besides good performances Copenhagen has an awesome soundtrack featuring Danish artists with an otherworldly techno edge. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cinetopia diary

My weekend at Cinetopia began with three films Saturday. The first, Beside Still Waters, a 2013 Michigan made film by director Chris Lowell, is a direct rip off (sorry) of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 The Big Chill. In that earlier film a friend’s suicide brings a group of - yes - University of Michigan - alum together. In this, the death of the lead character, Daniel’s (Ryan Eggold) parents, whose friends didn’t have the decency to attend the funeral, show up. Set in northern Michigan near Petoskey the friends gather in the spacious cottage where they’d spent so many earlier summers. But this meeting is fraught with personality collisions and emotional reveals. Despite its startling similarity (absent the Motown music) to The Big Chill, Lowell’s low budget effort draws some good acting from the participants, including a couple of veteran TV stars. The film, at Cinema Detroit, drew an audience of perhaps 15 people, a worrying omen on the festival’s second day…..Next up Saturday afternoon was Miss and the Doctors (2013) by France’s Axelle Ropert. This film’s improbable premise is of a medical practice run by a couple of doctor brothers (Cédric Kahn and Laurent Stocker) who interview and diagnose patients at the same time, like virtual Conjoined twins. Trouble ensues, however, when they both fall for the same child patient’s beautiful mother (Louise Bourgoin). She reciprocates affections to only one of them. The film is interesting to a point. For example, the subtle acting is good. But it harps on the cliché of the lonely single male. And there’s hardly a smidgen of drama. The film also screened at Cinema Detroit, located in the Cass Corridor, and only four             people attended - one who walked out during a particularly vapid lull.                                                     I started to wonder if attendance at this festival was going to be a bust…..The third movie was an evening film, again at Cinema Detroit, and to my delightful surprise was well attended. It was 2015's Best of Enemies (picture above), Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s (20 Feet from Stardom) take on the William F. Buckley Jr. - Gore Vidal 1968 US Presidential election debates. I was either too young or had no access to US television at the time so was not aware at all of how apparently earth-shattering these debates were - especially for then low-rated ABC News - and for setting the future of political discourse generally. The film explores the personas of these two great debaters of the political right and left. And it wasn't for show, these guys really hated each other, eventually suing and counter suing for on air comments with bitter ramifications the rest of their lives. (I was embarrassingly wrong in my last post thinking there was some sort of private friendship there.) Like 20 Feet this doc is taut and information-filled without being boring, and for many in the Baby Boomer audience no doubt a trip down nostalgia lane….Then last night, at the Maple Theater, I attended my most eagerly anticipated film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language which split the 2014 Jury Prize at Cannes with Quebec’s Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. This pic, however, was exceedingly disappointing and almost laughably poorly made - a pastiche of images (the director’s signature jump cuts throughout) with commentary and character conversation spewing supposed philosophical profundities amidst repeated 3D jarring images of dayglow flowers, Godard’s dog as a kind of omniscient being, a tourist boat docking in Lake Geneva, and a man shitting in a toilet. Yes, we’ve heard the line before about poop making us all equal. Otherwise we get references to Solzhenitsyn, Hitler, fascism. But it’s all been said by others and with more elucidation and depth. And without, thank goodness, the tedium. This film clocked just 70 minutes and I must have looked at my watch seven times. Sometimes I think Godard is the film world’s greatest charlatan, dazzling, alas, easily impressionable pseudo intellectuals….Goodbye to Language, like Best of Enemies, was also well attended, showing that despite a paucity of bodies for certain Cinetopia offerings, people will show up in droves for other films, likely drawn by subject matter and big names.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Cinetopia - the fourth annual - is here

Yes, folks, Detroit’s own film festival - well, actually Ann Arbor and Detroit’s, Cinetopia, is almost upon us. In its fourth year the festival originally started in Ann Arbor but quickly moved into Detroit and, for this edition, certainly has more Detroit venues. In past years I've never seen a whole lot in this fest that has whetted my cinephile appetite, so haven't gone. But I'm making a point to explore at least a part of it this year. Altogether Cinetopia will show more than 70 films (150 screenings) for well over a week. It bills itself as a festival that culls movies from “the world’s best film festivals” including Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto, Berlin and SXSW. Eight main venues are located in Detroit, including the classic Senate Theatre on Michigan Ave., which I’d never heard of before. And three are in Ann Arbor. There are also free outdoor screenings. Cinetopia runs June 5 - 14. Check out the website at've already bought my ticket to see Jean-Luc Godard’s highly regarded Goodbye to Language (2014). That’s at the Maple Sunday night. There is a retrospective of the films of Orson Welles. There’s one Quebec film Love in the Time of Civil War (Rodrigue Jean, 2014). There are several Middle Eastern films screened at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn including six shorts on one program by Arab women directors. Shorts from the Sundance film festival will be shown in Detroit Saturday and in Ann Arbor the following weekend. This year’s acclaimed doc Best of Enemies about the public rivalry and friendship between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal by Twenty Feet from Stardom directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon screens this Saturday in Detroit and the following Saturday in Ann Arbor. Detroit Voices, a collection of shorts by local filmmakers with distinctive Detroit topics, should also prove interesting. A few of my other picks are Christmas Again (Charles Poekel, 2014) about wistful urban alienation at Christmastime based on the director’s own experiences, Beside Still Waters (Chris Lowell, 2013), a kind of updated The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983), and Miss and the Doctors (Axelle Ropert, 2013), viewing the interpersonal and extrapersonal worlds through a ménage à trois.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bridge saga documentary even handed

I watched CPAC (Canadian Public Affairs Channel’s) new documentary The Billionaire and the Bridge written by Maclean’s magazine’s Luiza Savage. Initially skeptical that this would be more pile on journalism against the owners (the Maroun family) of the Ambassador Bridge I found the 47 minute film to be an even handed presentation of the issue, though there’s nothing really new here for people in this area who’ve been following the bridge debate for years. Savage, who’s not based here but threw herself into learning about the bridge issue - and wrote an accompanying article recently featured as a cover story in Maclean’s - includes all sides of the issue - from truckers, the business community, politicians and diplomats, foes of Matty Maroun, to those who defend him or are otherwise against spending government money on what they see as unfair competition against a private owner willing to build a new bridge on his own dime. The doc, however, is marred by a couple of cheesy shots. One shows thunder and lightning over the Detroit skyline to mark a particularly negative turn of events in the narrative. The second is a picture of a local fountain with a face uncannily looking like Maroun’s spewing water from the mouth. For any of your relatives and friends who live elsewhere and may have heard from national media about it but can’t figure out with the heck the Windsor-Detroit “bridge fight” is all about, you can send them this link: