Monday, April 10, 2017

Expectations dashed, civility rules, & The Greatest ever

Expectations dashed, once again. The build-up to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was so great I was expecting to be taken on a roller coaster of an epic comedy ride for the ages. But, no. Not that this is a bad movie, far from it. I found it, even at 162 minutes, fully absorbing, the topic interesting, the acting half-decent, if the plot rather predictable. But for the critics to swoon as they did over this – and at one point in a public screening breaking out in applause - was a bit much. And ditto for the awards lavished on it, though it never got a prize at the aforementioned Cannes. This is about a father-daughter relationship. The tropes are in place. He’s an old Sixties-era hippie. She’s the modern post-feminist businesswoman. The twain doesn’t particularly meet. But dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) thinks daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) should lighten-up. He follows her on a business trip to Bucharest, inserting himself into her social engagements and even business meetings, an unlikely event. She barely tolerates him. He puts on disguises and lures the gullible into believing he’s a business coach, even a country’s ambassador. Of course, the story is more than simply dad wanting to get his oh-so-serious and all-business daughter to crack a smile. It’s about the lifestyle she’s chosen. You see, she has embraced the capitalist world. Worse than that, she works for a firm that offers advice to companies on how to downsize and lay off workers. The old merry prankster simply can’t have that and is willing to do anything – including handcuffing Ines – to persuade her to change. This theme, as far as contemporary movies go, is as clichéd as you can get. (Question for moviemakers: when is capitalism not bad? Answer: when a film makes a profit.) Sure, the movie has its amusing scenes. But spectacularly funny – as in laugh out loud – I think not. Chris Knight in the National Post called the scene where Ines breaks into Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All “one of the funniest moments in a movie this year.” I guess he hasn’t seen too many comedies. 

Meanwhile, Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, starring the one and only Shirley MacLaine, is a surprisingly smart comedy. MacLaine plays an aging retired businesswoman who is the personification of a control freak. But that’s only what you’d think if you just saw the trailer. In fact, she’s a wise old woman, who imparts manners, sophistication and class to those who could use some. In a world increasingly lacking in all three I applaud a film that has the gumption to take our era’s decline in civility.

Just in time for Easter week, Nicholas Ray’s 1961 King of Kings is a factoid summary, on grand scale, of the Jesus story. Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) deftly pieces together the myriad parts of the story from Christ’s birth to his Resurrection, adding the political background against which the saga takes place. There’s a lot to the story, of course, but the essentials are boiled down in a way to make them highly consumable, with the proverbial cast of thousands. Jeffrey Hunter plays Jesus and Orson Welles narrates.

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