Sunday, July 31, 2016

Traverse City: and three for the road

My final three films at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival were Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016) and Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)……The first two are documentaries. Life, Animated, is a film about understanding autism, or at least providing a possible doorway into how people with the mental condition might be able to better communicate with the rest of the world. We meet Owen Suskind (photo left), who develops seemingly normally until the age of three, when he starts to show atypical behaviour. But, as he grows into childhood, his parents inadvertently discover he can communicate through the dialogues of cartoon characters, in this case those of iconic Walt Disney films. Suskind grows into a somewhat independent adult and his innate intelligence makes him a leader among others with autism, in a chronological film that is at once absorbing and enlightening, and bonds the audience to a cheerful and indeed witty human being…..Trapped is a searing account of the kind of TRAP (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers) laws that increasingly are restricting women’s access to abortions, mainly in southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. As “pro-life” or anti-abortion legislators seek to increasingly restrict abortions, numerous clinics have closed because they can’t meet stringent regulations governing how their facilities operate, endangering women from obtaining safe therapeutic abortions. These are not controls over clinical procedures but extremely detailed rules over such irrelevant matters as hallway widths, even how high the lawn on the clinic property can be. Still, a few clinics forge on in the face of legislative mandates and ongoing protests outside their doors by anti-abortion activists, one of whom tells a black woman considering an abortion that “black lives matter,” which evoked audience laughter given the general context in which that phrase is used these days ……Finally, Sing Street is a feel good drama about a bunch of 1980s Dublin school boys who form a band, initially imitating their heroes of the era like Duran Duran and The Cure. The movie comes from the same director who made Once (2007), about a busker (Glen Hansard) who teams with a Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) and make beautiful music together. But whereas Once was extraordinarily charming because of the chemistry between the two actors and the genuinely glowing music they made, Sing Street suffers from a plot that takes a long time to get going with characters and theme that fall a little too much into cliché…..The festival – the 12th annual in beautiful Traverse City, MI, at the height of the summer tourist season - ends today.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tacking to satisfying dramatic resolution

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Of the films I’ve caught so far at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, the French One Wild Moment (Jean-François Richet, 2015) was the best. The film, starring stalwarts Vincent Cassel and François Cluzet, is in the best tradition of the French farce-drama. The film is tightly edited and extremely well-paced, and on the button for stringing the viewer along in subtle suspense. Two middle aged best friends and their daughters (photo left) arrive in Corsica for a summer idyll. There are numerous instances where the plot could have gone in various directions but doesn’t until it reaches its key dramatic stepping-off point, and even here the narrative could have migrated but the director honed to his satisfying desired end…….In Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes, 2014) - and the festival’s opening night film - Mark Ruffalo plays a larger than life character in Cam, a father of two young girls and husband of Maggie (Zoe Saldana) who can barely stay married to him because of his failure to self-medicate his manic-depression. Ruffalo is very good in the role, so much so you wonder how he was able to keep the intensity scene after scene. But the movie is overly long and suffers from repeating the same emotional dynamics without coming to firm resolutions……Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts (Yngvild Sve Flikke, 2015), from Norway, plays with the movie cliché of women waking after a night with a new lover and donning his oversized Oxford shirt. Sigrid (Inga Ibsdotter Lilleaas) is a young feminist who abhors clichés, especially of the relationship variety. But that doesn’t mean she’s not looking for love, and falls for a cerebral writer twice her age, leading to more self-evaluation. Meanwhile, a couple of other disparate characters – a performance artist (Henriette Steenstrup) and a long ago radical author, Agnes (Anne Krigsvoll) - are symbols struggling through their own feminist-imbued dilemmas……Kings of Kallstadt (Veronika Schramm, 2014), from the poster, seemed like a mockumentary of Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. It is, but at a very low level. What it’s mostly about is Trump – and the Heinz family, of Heinz ketchup fame's – ancestral home of Kallstadt, Germany. The filmmaker interviews townsfolk in the quaint village, many noting their linked heritage to the American business tycoons whose families left hinterland Germany generations ago. The documentary has a mild satirical edge, describing the town’s insularity and idiosyncrasies, including the local delicacy, pig stomach. But if the audience was expecting outright mocking of The Donald they were likely disappointed. Most villagers actually said they admired the man for his business smarts and assertiveness……  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moore threatens to quit Traverse City

TRAVERSE CITY, MI - Michael Moore says he will quit Traverse City and its renowned Traverse City Film Festival – now in its 12th year – if local merchants continue “gouging” patrons who attend the increasingly popular fest. “If this becomes an Aspen, I’m leaving,” he said. The famous and controversial documentarian was speaking before an audience at the festival’s opening night screening of Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes,  2014). Fearing the small resort city in northern Michigan could “turn into Aspen” with its notoriously high prices, “where only those with money can live here and be here,” Moore castigated merchants who were charging as much as several hundred dollars for accommodation. “Now when I learned this year that some of those motels and hotels are charging $600 and $700 a night gouging people who come here I have to really kind of seriously reassess,” he said. “Because I did not create this for (people) to become greedy.” Moore has thrown equity and sweat into the festival, including the restoration of Front Street’s stately old State Theatre – now in its 100th year – and the creation of the Bijou by the Bay a few blocks away. Moore said he was at a meeting with community business types earlier in the day and when he complained, was told “it’s a matter of supply and demand.” That, in essence, is capitalism and the free market, something that Moore’s personal political views are, shall we say, somewhat at odds with. “I get that,” he said. Then he turned around the question. “So how about this, how about I start charging $50 to $100 a head to see a movie here (at the TCFF)? Then we’ll see how many of your $700 rooms you’re going to sell.” …..This year’s festival is dedicated to films by women directors, for which festival staff over the past year scoured the planet. Movies, Moore said, over the decades, overwhelmingly have been made “by the same damn white guys over and over.” Yet in Europe as many as 40 per cent of films are made by women in Scandinavia, 14 per cent in the UK, but in America only “two per cent,” despite Hollywood’s well known “liberal” bonafides. Moore said in their search for films made by women, by April, festival staff got “way over what we needed” so female directors are front and centre at the event, which Moore hopes will help change the dynamic for women and get their films regularly up on the silver screen…..Appropriately enough, a short film before last night’s main screening featured several of this year’s festival’s women directors dancing with attitude to Aretha Franklin’s Respect….The Traverse City festival’s popularity is attested by the fact that, before it had even begun, most of the screenings were sold out, a far cry from when I last attended the event in 2011…… TCFF runs through the weekend.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

He farts, therefore he is

This is what the culture has brought us in the summer of 2016. For what we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, is none other than the movie, Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). It stars two bankable young actors, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, the latter who, despite his great acting, may end up being unfortunately typecast for life by this film. (His Harry Potter fans might shriek in horror.) For this movie, stand back, is nothing other than one prolonged fart joke. Not just farts but scatological overall – a preoccupation with any waste product that comes out of the rear end. Here’s the plot. A man, Hank (Dano) washes up on an island and is about to commit suicide. He spots a corpse, Manny (Radcliffe), also washed up. He thinks it’s alive and eventually Manny does seem to come to life. But mostly what Manny does is fart. Because, don’t you know, the last thing a person does when they die is fart or poop? Manny’s continuing flatulence seems to indicate there’s still a spark of life in him. Manny also has a very flexible body. It bends and twists like a “multi-purpose tool guy,” Hank says. And it’s useful. The constant flatulence gives the corpse energy. Hank boards it and, propelled by farting, rides it back to the continental USA. Beached on the west coast the two men try to find civilization. Manny increasingly comes to life - his first words: “I’m not a sack of shit.” Hank, as if to a small child, has to teach him what life is all about. The film starts to get slightly philosophical and of course that’s the point. Hank explains to Manny everyday things like garbage, the Internet, women, love. Hank professes profound friendship and says it would be nice if, eventually, their shit flowed together. Captured by a bear Manny lights his fart on fire to scare the beast away. Otherwise the two wander in the woods creating a castaway alternate reality. They build rudimentary buildings and even have a car just like that in The Flintstones. But what they’re really questing after is the woman on Hank’s phone’s wallpaper, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom Manny has deeply fallen in love with. Alas, they find her, a suburban housewife. The paramedics arrive and Hank is interviewed for the local news. Manny is zipped into a body bag. Hank won’t have it and the two escape back to the sea. Manny still has some life (gas) left in him. He gets back into the sea and takes off, his flatulence in high gear. The famous existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in 1943, wrote his seminal book, Being and Nothingness. In 2016, we have the equivalent, Flatulence and Nothingness.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Humble dog a backdrop to all

Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog (at the Main Art Theatre) is a wry story – or several smaller ones wrapped up in one – centred around a, well, “wiener-dog”, slang for the humble dachshund, and often the target of, well, hot dog jokes. Hence, here. The film has four stories wrapped like a bun around our humble animal friend, and starring a cast featuring Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn. We meet wiener-dog when upscale couple Dina (Delpy) and Danny (Tracy Letts) acquire a pet for son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who’s recovered from cancer. Dina hates the dog and is proven right. The dog gets sick and shits all over the house. Remi wants to hold on to him but Danny secretively removes him to be euthanized. Only to have the veterinarian assistant Dawn (Gerwig) taking pity and spiriting the dog home. One day she meets an old friend, Brandon (Culkin) and they go on a road trip. Visiting his brother Tommy (Connor Long) she leaves the dog there. The next (third) story stars Danny DeVito as Prof. Dave Schmerz, an old hack of a film school prof trying to get his second screenplay accepted by Hollywood. The students don’t like him and a former student and now star film director cracks a joke in his presence. Schmerz, reaching his limit, outfits wiener-dog for something no good. Finally, there is the visit by Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw) to Zoe’s mom Nana (Ellen Burstyn). Zoe is after more money from her almost invalid mom. The film has a cute Intermission segment where wiener-dog marches across the country with famous American landscapes in the background. The audience is told this is the time to go for refreshments though you’d have to be fast. So what, pray tell, does this all add up to? Lots of laughs, in the black comedy sense. And plenty of stereotypes a la Americana. Are all these characters and scenes symbols, metaphors? I suppose you could read umpteen ideas into them and they’d probably all make sense. Scene One’s rich couple a destroyer of dreams and rightly shat upon. Scene two’s road trip through an American wasteland populated by nondescript losers (Dawn and Brandon). The corruption of Hollywood (careful Todd, but does it matter?) and academia in the third story, and the tragedy of old age in the last. Why not? Or deduce your own interpretations. Meanwhile, sit back and have several good laughs at the absurdity of it all. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Exploitative, offensive, sterile - you name it

I was recently in New York City and attended the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I’d been to several New York film art houses but this was the first time at the venerable Lincoln Center theaters located, appropriately enough, in a lower level off the side of the mammoth performing arts center on 65th Street. The purpose? To see the Israeli film Tikkun (Avishai Sivan, 2015), which had been getting quite favorable reviews. But this is one of these films where it might be argued there’s a vast gulf between the critical intelligentsia and average (art house) filmgoers. “Haunting, unnerving brilliance,” praised once critic. “Chilling surreal moments,” said another, “Impressively imaginative and stylish,” a third said. Alas, I beg to differ, and do so heartily (see below). But just don’t take my humble opinion. There were others that night in the theater. Like the flippant remarks of a couple of seatmates. Or the opinion of my companion, an astute and insightful friend who knows film and who was frankly “offended” by Tikkun. And there was the couple sitting a few rolls ahead of us who walked out in disgust. Okay, a small sample of views. But if this many – or few – felt this way it may be representative of a wider body of opinion – just maybe? Let's go to the film’s plot. It depicts an Orthodox Yeshiva student who, according to Tikkun's official description, experiences a crisis of faith, almost dies, and is brought back to life by his father. “Tikkun” in Hebrew means “fixing or rectification.” In the film, the healing is of the student Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel). He is a character somehow alienated from his faith. And he is also apparently alienated from anyone around him. He’s an empty vessel, emotionless, and moves through daily life like a sleepwalker. The film’s subtext seems to say that religion, in this case Hasidic Judaism, may be at fault. Sure, I’ll buy the argument. But you have to make it. This film provides no evidence. Instead the whole work is pretentious, showy, exploitative (it has the most gratuitous sexual scene I’ve ever watched), and sterile. Indeed, and ironically, Tikkun mimics its central character…..From what I can see Tikkun is not scheduled to be opening at any metro Detroit or Windsor theatre in the near future, if ever.