Sunday, January 31, 2016

Time again for the Oscar nominated short films

Every year at this time the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT) shows the Oscar nominated shorts – animation and live action – over two weekends, the first having just concluded. Next Thursday and Saturday it will also screen the five Oscar nominated short documentaries. Of course Detroit isn’t the only city to be screening these films. But it certainly is a highlight of this area's movie year and the screenings are usually packed. Most buy their tickets online. Herewith my capsule reviews, and star ratings:

Animated shorts:

Sanjay’s Super Team (USA - Sanjay Patel): An Indian father and son decide to share the same living room space. The son, Sanjay, wants to watch video games – loud. His dad wants to pray at his Hindu altar. The clash sets little Sanjay on an unprecedented game-like voyage….Heart warming but the fantastic imagery becomes a tad boring. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

World of Tomorrow (USA – Don Hertzfeldt): For some reason this film has been getting a lot of media buzz and I can’t figure out why. The cartoons are stick figures with geometric backgrounds. A little, girl, Emily, is taken on a tour of her future. The voices are garbled, but maybe that’s the point. This future is unsettling but hardly startling, even for apocalypse fans. 2 out of 5 stars.

Bear Story (Chile – Gabriel Osorio): A sweet fatherly bear is stolen from his family by Brownshirt type circus masters. A technical masterpiece and an enormously heartwarming story. But the message is animal rights, or at least a polemic against the capturing of animals for zoos. So if you don’t agree politically you might feel like a bad person. 3.5 out of 5 stars. (This has won scores of festival awards and will likely be the Oscar winner.)

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia – Konstantin Bronzit) (photo above): Astronauts in training are separated when the rocket takes off – one is chosen and the other left behind - separated physically and emotionally. Whimsically entertaining if slightly long. 3 out of 5 stars.

Prologue (UK – Richard Williams): An incident in the Peloponnesian War is witnessed by a small child. Is this clash, 2400 years ago, predicting the human race’s future wars without end? Good graphics and a poignant story but the animation is not particularly stand out. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Now, for the live action shorts:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany—Basil Khalil): A delightful comedy that pitches a Jewish family, waylaid on the Palestinian West Bank, up against Catholic nuns in a monastery. Some sight gags and absurdist humor, all excellent until the final scene, which goes over the top. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Shok (Kosovo/UK—Jamie Donoughue): Two boys during the 1990’s Serbian invasion of Kosovo form a friendship while their town is occupied and ethnically-cleansed of Albanians. Poignant, heartwarming, and sad, and a return to a not so distant past of the atrocities of the Balkans. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Everything Will Be OK (Germany/Austria—Patrick Vollrath) (photo above): An excellently acted drama about an estranged father’s attempt to kidnap his daughter. 4 out of 5 stars. (My pick for Oscar.)

Stutterer (UK/Ireland – Benjamin Cleary): This is also well acted and a heartfelt romantic story about people with a not that uncommon speech disorder, one we probably should be more aware of. 4 out of 5 stars. (Will probably win Oscar.)

Day One (USA – Henry Hughes): A US-Afghan woman joins the US Army as an interpreter in Afghanistan and encounters two especially harsh events during her first day in the field. Good acting and direction, influenced by true events. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Scenes from a marriage, the short version

All it took was letter from Swiss authorities indicating that the body of a long lost girlfriend has been found. Katya died in 1962 while she and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) were hiking around Europe. She had fallen into an icy crevasse and her body preserved by the alpine glacier. This sets off a series of introspective dialogues between Geoff and his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling, Oscar nomination for Best Actress) who ironically are planning their 45th anniversary banquet the following weekend. (They had to postpone the 40th because Tom had a bypass). Kate asks him about what his relationship with Katya was like, culminating with, “If she hadn’t died…would you have married her?” “Yes,” he responds unequivocally. Kate then discovers Geoff one night in the attic searching for Katya’s picture. “It’s just a fucking picture,” he says, defensively, when she confronts him. Some days later, when Geoff is at a retirement luncheon, Kate investigates the attic herself and find slides of Katya in a projector. The dead woman’s psychological presence weighs on her. “It’s like she’s been standing in the corner of the room all this time,” she angrily says. Geoff, sheepishly, tries to pretend Katya doesn’t matter but Kate understands differently. “I think I was enough for you,” she tells him. “I just don’t think you do.” On the day of their banquet they appear at the hall, all smiles, amongst friends and family. Geoff makes a speech. “The choices we make when we’re young are pretty bloody important,” he says, with Kate sitting by his side at least appearing admiring. Geoff breaks down in tears when he finishes and says he loves her. They have the first dance at the end of which the crowd applauds. But… 45 Years - opening Friday at The Maple - directed by Andrew Haigh and based on the story In Another Country by David Constantine, is a kind of snapshot version of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage.  (45 Years runs 1.35 hrs, the famously long Scenes runs 4.55.) Simple unexpected events incrementally open more and more doors into the psychological depths of a long time relationship only to find it’s built on a shaky foundation. Courtenay and Rampling are exceptionally good conveying the subtle words and expressions that depict skepticism (her) and evasiveness (him). When he feels guilty he tries to make it up by doing small favors for her; how common is that? Both actors are seasoned veterans and their performances here were probably close to effortless. All the more why this film is worth your attention.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Two winter westerns on a frigid night

What better way to spend a cold night than to watch two films set in bitterly cold environs back to back at Tuesday’s cheap night at the theatre. First up was Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Next was Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Both are set in the frontier west, the first in the 1820s, the second about 50 years later. Both take place in winter in the stark North American wilderness…..The Revenant is the better film,
by far. It’s actually one of the most eerily breathtaking films I’ve seen, set in an environment that while stunningly beautiful is seemingly malevolent. Almost everything about this movie is impeccably done – the hundreds of virgin sets in the snowy wilds (how did the film crew not make tracks! and Iñárritu said he didn’t want computer-generated imagery), the gorgeous cinematography, the astounding score, and the acting, especially that of DiCaprio (Golden Globe winner as was the film for drama). The next time you think that acting can’t be all that hard just take a look at DiCaprio’s performance here. The plot, based in part on a novel, is about a crew of trappers employed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and one in particular, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an actual historical figure. The movie opens with a group of trappers tanning and gathering hides but are soon set upon by Arikara Indians. Many of the trappers are killed and the rest escape to a raft but must eventually abandon it for fear of being tracked. Heading overland they camp one night and Glass, separated, is attacked twice by a grizzly bear, which severely mauls him. (Don’t put faith in reports that he was “raped.”) He’s left for dead by his crew, led by a selfish John Fitzgerald (Hardy). Glass manages to survive and slowly, through numerous travails in the bitterly cold frontier, make his way back to the fur company's fort-like outpost, to Fitzgerald’s shock.....The Hateful Eight has the Tarantino stamp right from the start, with 1960's movie fonts (Tarantino, if nothing else, loves the glory days of 1960's and 70's imagery), playfully ominously titled story chapters, and a humorous undertone to almost ever scene. But essentially and disappointingly this is a stage play. And even some of the acting seems stilted, particularly the halting conversations in the first chapter. Most of the story takes place in a large log cabin/store (Minnie's Haberdashery), located en route to the town of Red Rock, where the stage coach travelers seek refuge from a Wyoming blizzard. The plot, almost like in an Agatha Christie mystery, unfolds accordingly. At first, some of this seems plodding and besides the point. But eventually the storylines pick up, more tension ensues, culminating in Tarantino’s other trademark, buckets-of-blood killings. Samuel L. Jackson is very good in the film. And Tim Roth as British dandy Oswaldo Mobray is a delight. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, the character around whom the story turns, has the perfect pitch as an outlaw queen, at least early in the film. And Walton Goggins’s Sheriff Chris Mannix is a prissy boisterous delight. But at two hours and 37 minutes Tarantino is a little too full of himself to command such screen time for a rather not so remarkable story.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Highbrow soap opera, pure and simple

Downton Abbey phenom: I never got particularly into the series, airing on PBS, which launched its final season Sunday night, though I watched most of last year’s episodes and have wondered, from time to time, why this Edwardian-era soap is so popular. The New Yorker magazine this week has an interview with Jim Carter (Mr. Carson) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) (photo left), downstairs head servants and late blooming paramours. Carter muses that DA was designed in large part to show the passage of history and the fall of the aristocratic class structure. But the audience got so caught up in the personal stories of the ensemble cast that the producers had to prolong the downfall. “… we realized the success was due to the relationships rather than the social milieu, so we slowed down the march of history and concentrated more on the relationships.” That’s the experience with the people I know – the drama is all about who’s marrying, why did so and so die, dastardly personal conduct and redemption, and can this character make a new start? Pure soap opera, in other words, and the elegant costumes and filigree of a century ago doesn’t hurt either.

I returned to cheap night at Cineplex cinemas last night and took in David O. Russell’s Joy starring Jennifer Lawrence. I walked out on Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) (I know, I’m the only one who hated it) and found the same faults with this. The film’s first third is basically a symphony of the gestalt of the dysfunctional lower middle class family, same as in Silver Linings. You’re almost half way into the film before Russell gets to the guts – the trials and tribulations of Long Island housewife Joy (Lawrence) inventing a miracle mop and getting it on the market, based on the true story of Joy Mangano. And you know what? In close-ups Lawrence looks like a thinner Renée Zellweger.

The Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) has no plans to restart its monthly film series at the downtown Capitol Theatre. “It is not something we have planned for 2016, though we might revisit it in the future,” director Vincent Georgie said. The increasingly and widely popular festival had been organizing monthly screenings to keep the film fest flame alive throughout the year and also as a prop for downtown redevelopment but ended them about a year or so ago.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Life's last delusions

Director Paolo Sorrentino is only 45 years old yet he seems obsessed with age, the aging process, personal legacy, even death. Is he an old soul or old before his time? In his The Great Beauty, which won the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an aging aristocrat of the beautiful people persuasion, ruminates on his life amongst the seeming boredom of the elite world around him. In Youth (at the Landmark Main), two aging artists - composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) – lifelong friends, are vacationing at a Swiss spa. They seem depleted, indeed vanquished, of energy. Especially Ballinger, who adamantly maintains he has retired from composing, and seemingly synonymously, life. Boyle isn’t so defeated and in fact is among a group of young writers working on a screenplay for a new movie roughly titled Testament, as in his own. The film’s context makes it seem these men are actually older than they are, but they're only in their 70s. Hell, those are the ages of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Ballinger and Boyle walk around the spa’s grounds talking about the joys of having a good piss. The plot rambles from topic to topic and scene to scene and the juxtapositions, rather than repel, tend to absorb. Maybe it’s me. I like films that are talkies in the sense of philosophical meanderings on the world, life, and the point of it all. Films like My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981) and the first two of the Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy Before trilogy (Richard Linklater) can make me go gaga, as much as an action movie freak likes Schwarzenegger films. Deep thoughts, or at least pseudo deep, but I’ll taken them. Boyle to Ballinger, “You say that emotions are overrated. But that's bullshit. Emotions are all we've got.” And Ballinger, “You were right. Music is all I understand” after his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) verbally lacerates him for having neglected her mother and her. The movie seems to say that the trivial is important. Like the joy of being able to piss even a few drops, the rules of attraction are about the basest and minutest details. Ballinger’s daughter is unceremoniously dumped by husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) for blond pop star Paloma Faith. Why? She’s better in bed. And the film seems to say that contradictions abound despite out loftiest ideals. Ballinger finally capitulates in every way on a matter of high principle. Like Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty the film moves slowly and meditatively but anything but boringly. And it’s hardly all frowns. Youth, described as a comedy-drama, has plenty of guffaws, such as Ballinger and Boyle constantly betting on whether a svelte bourgeois couple will ever talk. And the two repeatedly laugh at and harangue each other often about their own personal absurdities. The film’s dreamy quality, it’s chattering ruminations offset by some funny sight gags (such as Swiss cows engaged in a chorus) make for more than two hours of engrossing movie-watching, the best newly-released big screen film I’ve seen in months.