Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Uber intellectual quirky

What to make of Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan (2015), currently at The Maple Theater. The film, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, stars the one and only Greta Gerwig, who I’ll still call the “It Girl” going back to when I probably first discovered her in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) and then through movies like Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (2012) and the inestimable lead role in Noah Baumbach’s 2012 Frances Ha. Gerwig is one of the few characters that will draw me to a movie simply because she’s in it. And she doesn’t fail here, trading on her quirky, goofily charming characters each underscored by a can’t-pigeon-hole-her intelligent independence. In this film, she’s cast as a 30-something New York college counselor, organized to a fault and seemingly knowing what she wants in life. Which is, in a word, independence – but, with a child. She doesn’t want a relationship but does want semen, and has an old friend Guy (Travis Fimmel) do the deed (but not with her). Best plans go awry when she bumps into John (Ethan Hawke) a "ficto-critical anthropologist" of the Marxian “commodity fetishism” school (a term that takes me back to college and which I thought long outmoded). He, of course, is a deep intellectual and writing a deep deep book to boot. He’s married to an even deeper - and extremely icy - Columbia professor Georgette (Julianne Moore). The two aren’t really getting along. John and Maggie fall in love, she has her baby, they get married and live happily ever after. For a few years. But it’s apparent John still can’t get over his uber intellectual former wife. Maggie doesn’t have to read tea leaves and her new plan is to break up with John and get Georgette and John back together. O-kaay. The plot is obviously meant to be quirkily humorous and it is, though I’m not sure exactly what the point is. None of the characters are particularly attractive with the big proviso of Maggie herself. (Doesn’t seem Gerwig can fail at anything.) It was disappointing one of my favorite actors Wallace Shawn had the smallest of roles. And, when it comes to Canada, the film stereotypes in a way I haven’t seen since movies from the 1950s: a lodge in remote Quebec with de rigueur animal heads and characters who get lost in a blinding snowstorm.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A simmering post-war brief romance

I attended Cineplex’s Classic Film Series movie last night at Devonshire Mall. Cineplex started the Classic series in 2010 and features four films throughout the summer (okay, since May). Last night’s was David Lean’s Brief Encounter, starring Trevor Howard and the little known Celia Johnson. It’s a terrific film, and for some reason (I otherwise never use a point system) I gave it 86 out of 100 points. Made in 1945 and shot in smoky black and white it’s a close-up study of an affair. Well, kind of. Let’s call it an infatuation or even a love story. But the story takes place over a brief period of time – about a month – and from what we are shown on the screen, no sex is involved. (Pop psych radio host Dr. Joy Browne says it's not an affair if no bodily fluids were exchanged.) It hardly matters. The attraction between Dr. Alec Harvey (Howard) and Laura Jesson (Johnson) is at once electric and passionate. They meet in a suburban railway station canteen waiting for their various trains taking them in opposite directions. Several coincidental meetings lead from one thing to another, and the story is on. The intimate close-up shots highlight the acting which is appropriately paced and, with a couple of exceptions on Johnson’s part, not overwrought. But perhaps the most poignant scene is the very final one, in contradistinction to everything that comes before. And, by the way, this must be one of the very first films summarizing post-war suburban life. You might think it’s a critique of the far flung suburbs - the terrible angst of sterile not urban living and all that - but it’s not…..The next film in Cineplex’s series is A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951) starring – what a line-up! - Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters July 10, 20 and 25. This is an in part film version of the terrific Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy, and both the word and celluloid versions are scintillating…… There are only four films – disappointing! - in the series and the first was Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976), the last Raiders of The Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) August 7, 17 and 22…..I asked Cineplex how they chose the films. “The films were all recently studio remastered have never been brought back to theatres until now, something very exciting for the fans. Availability also plays a big role. Rocky was a no-brainer since its celebrating the 40th Anniversary this year!” spokeswoman Sarah Van Lange said.

Friday, June 3, 2016

From one war zone to ... another

Dheepan, which opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre, won last year’s Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie, by French director Jacques Audiard, is a combination exploration of the Third World immigrant experience and a basic good versus evil drama set in a gang-infested housing project in Paris’s northeastern suburbs. The film is emotionally touching as it follows Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who flee the strife of the Sri Lankan civil war where Dheepan was a fighter with the Tamil Tigers, one of the combatants. The two are not married but pose as a couple along with a presumed daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). They head to France and through connections Dheepan gets a job in a dilapidated slum. You know the story because it’s been told a hundred times, from On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) to Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), before: good people trying to live decent lives get enmeshed in gang warfare. After Sri Lanka, in other words, war of another kind, which is part of the picture’s point. So on this score the film is a little clich├ęd. And, frankly, I’m surprised it drew this much critical acclaim at Cannes. Sure, the Tamil immigrant experience is different but substitute Dheepan for someone who’d fought in another country and the story would be the same – just change the ethnic backdrop. Anyway, in the plot, Dheepan is hired as a caretaker and does a conscientious job. Yalini is also hired to take care of a disabled old man. Illayaal goes to school where she’s frightened of learning French and beats up on another kid. The “family’s” efforts to re-establish themselves are hindered by a gang who has taken over one of the housing blocks, essentially controlling the neighborhood. Dheepan and Yalini are reluctantly forced to deal with the thugs, eventually leading to a maelstrom. The film has a slow, plodding pace but is redeemed somewhat by the very good acting of the two leads (Jesuthasan in his youth was an actual Tamil Tiger). Jesuthasan's character’s quiet deliberateness is matched by the shy uncertainty of Srinivasan’s Yalini, both trying to find their footings in the new world. Their personal relationship, marked at turns by unfamiliarity and sometimes clumsy attempts at emotional connection, is played with effective nuance.