Friday, January 27, 2017

Two nights, four films

20th Century Women: You could tell right away this is a film based on someone’s personal experiences. And, presto, that’s exactly what it is. Director Mike Mills’ film is about his mom, an eccentric iconoclastic “Depression” era woman played by Annette Bening, and himself, a 1970s child highly influenced by the women in his life, including his reading of feminist tracts like Our Bodies Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. The film’s most striking character is Dorothea (Bening), who refuses to be pigeonholed, and who has some interesting ideas about self-knowledge and independence. But the film is too long, takes too many plot deviations and overall is a bit of a bore. (I must have looked at my watch 10 times.) (The film is nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the Oscars.)

Silence: This has been famed director Martin Scorsese’s passion for decades, based on the Shūsaku Endō novel. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play two 17th century Portuguese missionary priests in Japan, where Christianity is brutally outlawed. This film lasts almost three hours and, well, it feels like it. It plods along with the same repeated scene cycles which might be described as hiding-praying-being captured. You’d think a story like this would have lots of drama but the movie is extremely flat. This could easily have bene corrected by adding, for example, surrealism or abstraction, or somehow counterpointing the events depicted with those elsewhere in the world to provide a larger picture of the historic times. By delivering the film as it is, if Scorsese thinks he has created a masterpiece, then he's a little too full of himself. (The film is nominated for Best Cinematography for the Oscars.)

The Founder: Of the four films reviewed here this is the best. It’ a straight forward look at the rise of uber businessman Ray Kroc and the creation of the McDonald's corporation, from its roots in a California drive-in to growth in suburban Chicago in the 1950s. Michael Keaton as Kroc (picture above) is front and centre and fabulous as the no holds barred businessman. John Lee Hancock’s direction is crisp, fast-moving and absorbing. Most surprising is the film’s lack of mockery and condescension. McDonalds, after all, could have been an easy target. Rather, the film is an objective telling of the fantastic business success of one of the world’s most iconic corporations, whether you like the company or not. (Why has this film received no nominations for this year’s Oscars?)

Hidden Figures: The wonder of this film is that such a story even existed, that NASA – which probably most people think of as a benign forward-looking organization – discriminated en masse against black people. But let’s face it. The women depicted in this film worked for NASA in Virginia just as the space program was taking off in the late 1950s. It was the era of segregation. Of course, who knew that there was a large group of female African-Americans who were the living “computers” for space age mathematical formulas, including some of the most critical calculations to get a man into space? The film’s direction by Theodore Melfi is somewhat uneven, detours into slapstick on occasion, and I wasn’t crazy about the contemporary score. But it’s a sweet story about overcoming the hideous prejudice which afflicted so many American institutions. (The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan) for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Writing (Adapted Screenplay).

Monday, January 23, 2017

High class trash

I should have been a little more circumspect before thinking that the Paul Verhoeven film Elle (at the Main Art) would have not only great artistic merit but great moral or symbolic value as well. But Verhoeven, after all, is the director of films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls and has a strange infatuation with sex, violence and rape. His fantasies are on display again here in this film based on the novel by Philippe Djian. I also was taken in by the fact that one of my favourite actresses, Isabelle Huppert, is the star. And the film also stars that great stalwart of contemporary French cinema, Charles Berling. Huppert, who is almost always great in whatever film she’s in, certainly doesn’t disappoint, though she is getting a bit typecast as the emotionally cold, calculating career-climber with no soul. The fact she’d allow herself to be cast in this film is also unfortunate. For Elle is nothing but an exploitative, sexist, vulgar film dressed up as high art. I’ll admit the film captivates the viewer from beginning to end. And Huppert and the supporting cast are quite good. But it doesn’t make up for the film’s vile and quite improbable themes. Let’s list them. As a little girl Huppert as Michèle Leblanc is manipulated or plays a direct role in the savage serial killings by her father. As an adult she becomes a successful video production studio executive. The central narrative of the film is her initial and continuing rapes by a masked assailant who keeps breaking into her house. From the film's trailer one might think the story line would be about the character exacting revenge. But that’s not really what happens. In fact, Michèle seems to enjoy her rapist, who turns out to be a man she’s otherwise highly attracted to. So, what is the story trying to say – that women, after all, enjoy being raped? You’ve got to be kidding, in the year 2017; how anti-feminist! Second, what is the probability of a child having endured such extreme trauma now as an adult being the victim of such extraordinary violence? Probably nil. Third, the video studio Leblanc runs is obsessed with making vulgar animations of creatures raping women in the most hideous ways. Now, what’s that all about? If the movie tried to link these storylines or interpret them in a way that suggested society’s moral depravity, the denial of feminism, even childhood trauma causing the Leblanc character's sociopathic mindset, at least that would be something. But Verhoeven just leaves the incidents standing on their own, with no connection and no judgement. It’s almost like he’s laughing at it all and perhaps even laughing more at us, the audience. It’s hollow laughter.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Compare and contrast

Compare and contrast. One famous film critic, Rex Reed (yes, such a person actually exists) last week named Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) his number one movie of 2016. And he listed La La Land (Damien Chazelle) number 10. I’d turn the list upside down, and jettison Manchester by the Sea altogether…..First, La La Land. This is an exhilarating comedy-drama the likes of which modern audiences haven’t seen, and you’d have to go back decades (the early 1960's anyway) to find such a film. That’s because it’s primarily a musical. From the opening scene, when drivers stuck in traffic get out of their cars and sing and dance, to umpteen other scenes where characters – mainly Ryan Gosling as Sebestian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan – segue into melody, La La Land isn’t only a musical feast but combines the best of Hollywood’s epic themes – love, struggle, idealism, disappointment and triumph. The film’s dreamlike quality, compete with sound stages and animated backdrops right out of Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), is a joyful celebration of life and the power to dream. There isn’t a second wasted in this 128-minute offering, which traces the romance of Sebestian, a down and out jazz musician, and Emma, an equally struggling actress, who meet in classic Hollywood fashion (they rather hate each other) but whose idiosyncrasies draw them together. This is not just a musical but a dramatic feast, the songs and dances simply underlying the narrative, the same as all good musicals. A boon to the eyes and ears chances are you’ll come away immensely aesthetically satisfied.…..If only the same only be said for Manchester by the Sea. The film is getting raves, and one wonders why. Sure, Casey Affleck’s acting is superb and there are some decent supporting acts. But that’s about all. I was trying to avoid the film because I was turned off by the desultory narrative. And the film lived all the way down to my expectations. Affleck as Lee Chandler is, pure and simple, an asshole. But we never get to understand why. Sure, a devastating fire that kills two of his kids can lead to emotional shutdown. But he was like this before the fire happened. He’s unpleasant to those around him and picks fights for no reason. He hardly ever talks, and disdains personal engagement. So, what was Lonergan, a very famous playwright including of This Is Our Youth (1996), trying to say? Had there been more insight written into the characters and plot, maybe I could have understood it better. Otherwise, like Chandler himself, this film is stone cold.