Thursday, February 25, 2016

Oscar picks, and a little live opera

Okay, the Oscars happen this Sunday. As usual I’m bored stiff and will probably ignore it. Actually, more likely, I’ll be watching movies on Netflix. But I did get to see several of the pictures in nomination – pretty much forcing myself since there were next to none I wanted to see (Dec. 12 post). So herewith my pick for Best Picture. (Disclaimer: I didn’t see Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian.) …..The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu) should win based on cinematography, drama, acting, and story……My next fave is Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), a journalistic procedural about abuse in the Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese. If you’re a journalist you’ll love it since it captures a newsroom atmosphere and its (flawed) personalities. Though I still don’t understand how these folks, as portrayed, could have done a major investigative report and write a voluminous story based on just jotting down a few notes here and there……Third fave is The Big Short (Adam McKay), the take of how the housing crisis brought down Wall Street, and almost the world, during the Greeaaatt Recession. The movie was lauded for how it so simply and entertainingly explained the arcane jargon of Wall Street. Nevertheless I still didn’t get all of it. The film was also biased by blaming only capitalism as the cause for default mortgages. Where was the critique of government policy that sought to make available a home for every family just like politicians of a bygone era wanted a chicken in every pot? And nowhere portrayed were the greedy and gullible average mortgagees who should have known they never could have afforded a house......Whoever knew that Brooklyn, the borough, was so Irish? There isn’t a Jewish deli in sight in this movie of the same name (Tom McCarthy) that paints an insular Irish world across the East River, post World War II. It’s a nice period portrayal of Irish immigrants and good character study of one in particular, with great acting by Saoirse Ronan. Finally, Room, (Lenny Abrahamson) had its moments and - spoiler alert - thankfully wasn’t set entirely in, uh, one space, the real human story breaking out in the second half of the film.

I caught a recent Metropolitan Opera Live in HD at the cinema for the first time. It was rather interesting and almost better than actually being at Lincoln Center. This included the almost football game like intermission. Instead of players being pulled away by a reporter before going to the locker room, the breathless opera singers were corralled by the ebullient host Renée Fleming for a scene by scene assessment. In this case there was soprano Diana Damrau (above) as lead Leila in Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). She’s so good she made it seem her performance was like a walk in the park. Altogether the experience made for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. But where was the audience? There were all of seven people in the AMC Fairlane Town Center theatre.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Locking horns in northern Iceland

This review was done for a film that had been scheduled to open this weekend but has since been cancelled. Still, it's an interesting film that readers might want to know about and which of course may end up in some other form of media. 

There is brotherly love, and there is brotherly hatred. In Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, two brothers in northern Iceland live side by side and raise ancestral prized sheep. They compete against one another in contests. But the brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíussn), haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. Who knows the reason? Family passions run deep. Of course the film’s title is a metaphor. The story opens with Kiddi winning top prize in a regional sheep rearing competition to, of course, Gummi’s chagrin. Gummi, surreptitiously, checks the prized sheep and finds signs of Scrapie (BSE), a dangerous incurable disease. Authorities are contacted and all the sheep herders in the valley will have to cull their flocks. This doesn’t sit well since in this remote area sheep raising is the farmers’ only income. Moreover, the region identifies with sheep, a livestock their families have raised for generations. Nevertheless, a quarantine is imposed and the flocks are exterminated. Gummi decides to slaughter his own, an official no-no. But this way he spirts aside his prized ram, Garpur, and some ewes, out of the eyes of authorities. Meanwhile his brother shoots out a couple of windows of his house, accusing him of being a sore loser by indirectly condemning his herd to slaughter. Later, when the cull is finished, a government inspector inadvertently hears the sounds of the sheep coming from Gummi’s basement. Gummi asks Kiddi if he can hide them at his house. But the brothers realize this is a short term solution. They must spirit the small flock to the mountains where the animals can overwinter. As they drive the sheep up the mountain they encounter a blizzard. This is Hákonarson’s first feature, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes film festival. It’s a character driven story. There is limited dialogue so much of the interpersonal cues come from looks, grunts and emotional outbursts. At this Sigurjonsson and Júlíussn, two of Iceland’s leading actors, are brilliant. The actors, who in real life are urban based, also seamlessly portray rugged independent farmers. The movie’s story is more about the brothers’ relationship than the moral imperatives of destroying diseased livestock. The film doesn’t answer the ethical question of whether what the brothers are doing is right. Presumably it’s depicting its characters just the way they are – hardly heroes in their obstinacy and anti-authoritarianism – but yet capable, on some level, of human connection.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Yes, Quentin Tarantino can act

I took in four films at this year's edition of Cineplex's Digital Film Festival, an event that 99.999 per cent of movie goers are unaware of. I took in a couple of screenings on the various nights and the sparse crowds told the tales. In the first of each night's double bill at Devonshire Cineplex's cinema 9 (noticeable by the dent on the screen's left hand side as if someone had thrown a tin can at it) there were relatively more people. The attendance crashed for the later film. On my first night, the first film, Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), had perhaps a dozen people in the theatre, the next film Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) had just me until a couple arrived. This past Thursday, there were a few more people for the first film, True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) but again fewer - less than a dozen - for the second, From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996).....To be honest, I had to force myself to see some of these offerings, especially Inception and Looper. Sci-fi isn't particularly my bag, especially if it doesn't seem to have transcending social or political messages applicable to our own lives. But the cast of Inception (Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine) looked promising. Was I mistaken! This film, which is supposed to work on several levels of the waking state and dreams - with a whole lot of conscious subconscious manipulation going on  - ironically came across as mind-numbingly opaque with one sequence being indistinguishable from another - i.e., was this the dream or reality? Looper was more linear but boring, and I ended up walking out about two-third's through, though it was good to see Bruce Willis again. In brief, the film is about futuristic hit men  who time travel to get their quarry. But as a plot it was rather lame. It would have been more exciting if the assassins went after those in their neighbourhood. And if you're going to invent the future it better damn well look like it. The cars these characters bounce around in look like souped versions of boxy 1990's subcompacts. Their weapons appeared a cross between a sawed off shotgun and musket....The double bill this past Thursday was a lot better. First was True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and set - ta da - partly in Detroit (with scenes of Windsor's Riverside Dr. in the background). The problem is: this dark comedy is really dated. It has the look on an early 90's film that at the time was probably hip and cool but its techno boppy score by Hans Zimmer and styles of the period now looking almost dorky. The second film was better, and unexpected. First off, Quentin Tarantino starred in the entire thing, and he wasn't bad at all. He plays Richie Gecko to a young still non gray-haired George Clooney's Seth (picture above), two (real bad) dudes on the run and heading for a drug deal in Mexico. They kidnap a God-fearing evangelical family - played by Harvel Keitel, Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu - and order them to drive their  RV across the border. The gang all ends up at the Titty Twister, a dive to end all dives full of ferocious bikers and other desperado types, with strippers and whores galore. As you can imagine immense amounts of violence ensue and - the surprise for the uninitiated -  virtually everyone turns into vampires.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A downer list of Oscar-nominated short docs

The question one should ask the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after leaving in a funk after the screening of the five Oscar nominated documentary short films this weekend (at the Detroit Film Theatre) is why every doc they chose was such a downer. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with any one of them and among an otherwise mixed group of docs (ones uplifting, neutral, and depressing) each would have stood out for its greater critical impact. But lumped together they tend to leave the viewer numbed…...First up was Body Team 12 (Liberia – David Darg), an up front, stark, look at the risks a team of volunteers has to undergo to remove dead bodies during Liberia’s Ebola outbreak. We see scene after scene of them zipping up in rubber suits and goggles to prevent their flesh potentially coming into contact with the contaminated dead, the extreme care taken in actually removing bodies, as well as the social ostracism from interfering with bereaved families’ burial wishes..…A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (Pakistan – Sharmen Obaid-Chinoy) (photo above) is the story of an attempted Pakistani honor killing, in which a young woman, who chose to elope rather than marry according to her father’s wishes, survives a shooting and drowning at the hands of father and uncle, both of whom remain vociferously unapologetic even after being jailed. Saba is the victim of an Islamic honor killing and must eventually forgive her assailants to make neighbourhood peace. This is the most poignant of the films and likely the Oscar winner……Last Day of Freedom (USA – Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman). An “animated doc” - in other words a moving sketchbook that outlines the real filmed images - traces the story of Manny Babbitt, a schizophrenic and Vietnam vet, who is executed for murder. The film depicts Babbitt as a victim of injustices, not least a system that shunted his problems to the side. My patience with this sort of film only goes so far. Sure, Babbitt had problems. Sure, the justice system was racist and corrupt. But, I’m always left to ask, what about those who are victims of such perps, regardless of the latter’s personal demons? When will a doc (except perhaps for those who may be victims of sexual assault) be made about them?.....Chau, Beyond the Lines (USA/Vietnam – Courtney Marsh), is the story of children who have suffered birth defects as a result of parents being contaminated with the herbicide defoliant Agent Orange, used by American Forces during the Vietnam War. It’s a tragic yet heartwarming look at these kids, who are otherwise good humored and oblivious to their condition, in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. The film tells us that upwards of two million such people (a questionable fact, since a Vietnamese diplomat himself has identified 200.000 needing aid) have been maimed by Agent Orange, which the US used to clear jungle. No question Agent Orange’s use was controversial and has since been banned (it was never illegal in war under international law). But where are the documentaries indicting the North Vietnamese for their myriad atrocities, from torture to mass killings of innocents, to the terror after victory forcing tens of thousands of boat people to flee?.....Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (USA – Adam Benzine) is a film about the celebrated French filmmaker and intellectual Claude Lanzmann who made the famous and, in many people’s eyes, definitive film (it runs nine and a half hours) about The Holocaust. We learn about this 90-year-old’s significance among post-war French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he was lovers in the 1950's. This is an interesting enough portrait of a person, and of a film, few people may be very familiar with…..After watching all these five films, I’m reminded of an old cartoon (or it may have been a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)) of a group of film goers leaving a theatre where Marcel Ophüls’s 1969 The Sorrow and the Pity, was showing. All have, almost comically, downcast grim faces.