Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ones that got away

Here are some films I’ve seen over the last few months that were overshadowed by my major reviews:

My favorite film at the recent Windsor Jewish Film Festival (which also screened at its Detroit counterpart), was The Women’s Balcony (Emil Ben-Shimon, 2016).  Nothing especially deep here but it’s a straightforward narrative that has the redeeming value of being humorous tinged with a bit of drama, with a great ensemble cast, and speaks to contemporary issues – a sect of Hasidic Judaism’s treatment of women……My second favorite at the fest was Sabena Hijacking: My Version (Rani Sa'ar, Israel, 2015), a documentary of a little known 1972 airplane hijacking which set the stage for how Israel fights terrorism. It’s amazing how many later high profile Israelis - including prime ministers Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu (the latter grazed by a bullet) - were intimately involved in the rescue operation of passengers on a hijacked Sabena jet, in a film that mixes archive film, personal interviews, and well done re-creations……

At the Detroit Film Theatre, last month, I caught Terence Davies’ 2016’s studied flick (aren’t all his flicks studied?), of US 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon embodies the poet well, so much so you wouldn’t know she was the red-headed S & TC acerbic lawyer. But the pic was a little too monotonous for me, the most interesting aspect being Dickinson’s bon mots and even more so the devastating put downs of bosom buddy Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey)

Way back in February, at the Landmark Main Art, I caught the celebrated Raoul Peck doc (it won this year’s Oscar), I Am Not Your Negro, about the American 1960s iconic writer James Baldwin. It’s an investigation, through Baldwin’s thoughts narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, of the place of the African-American in US history, from racist caricature to episodic moments of the Civil Rights era. This film is sprawling but deftly made, and an absorbing multitude of montages. And lacing it together is Baldwin’s thoughts (and some vintage clips of him speaking) - such as: “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.”

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gere by Gere

Two films starring Richard Gere coming out on the same weekend - what a treat! The first was The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, based on the critically acclaimed (I couldn’t finish it) Dutch novel by Herman Koch. The setting is an extremely high brow restaurant, the kind where it takes four months to get a reservation. A special dinner is taking place. There are two couples, Paul (the Brit generally comedic Steve Coogan in a dramatic role and convincingly American) and Claire (Laura Linney). The other couple is Stan (Richard Gere) and Kate (Rebecca Hall). Why such an opulent resto? It is, after all, an opportunity for the acerbic Paul to make fun of elite dining. And Stan (Gere), his brother, is an elite politician now running for governor, another object of mockery. But they have gathered to discuss how to handle a very serious crime, committed by the couples’ sons. Much of the film doesn’t have anything to do with the crime, with flashbacks to earlier periods when Stan, presumably manic-depressive, falls into deep emotional holes. As well, a high school history teacher, Stan’s obsessed with wars, the tens of millions who’ve died in them, and the Civil War particularly (there are scenes when Paul and Stan tour Gettysburg.) Gere’s Stan, by contrast, is restrained and the consummate Clintonesque politician, who essentially plays a calming second fiddle to the eruptive Paul. After almost two hours the nub of the picture reveals itself: an issue of morality. Two characters take one side, and the third, and possibly the fourth, take another. Morality, whether in the macrocosm of war or the microcosm of an horrific small crime – with “love” a motivating factor - has its voices on both sides. 

The second film was Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar), an Israeli - US co-production, where Gere plays a shadowy character, Norman Oppenheimer, whose supposed occupation (his firm deals in “strategies” and “consulting”) is to ingratiate his way into certain elite circles and bring together powerful people for mutual benefit. Such as a soon-to-be Israeli prime minister (Lior Askenazi in a brilliant performance), whom Oppenheimer befriends on a state visit, buys him a pair of $1000 shoes, the first of numerous “favors.” The indefatigable Norman spends the bulk of his time walking Manhattan’s streets, constantly on his phone (and it’s winter, despite the movie poster’s absurd summer image), in coffee shops, or eating his pickled herring dinner out of a jar. Like another fraudulent Jewish part-philanthropist of a decade ago, Bernie Madoff, Oppenheimer seeks to create win-wins for the national and international Jewish community, often undeservingly earning their trust. Gere is terrific as the low key both mensch and schlemiel. The jazz soundtrack by Jun Miyake punctuates the intriguing playful mystery of the plot, and indeed there are similarities in Gere’s character to Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in Hal Ashby’s 1979 Being There. The problem is the film never tells us how Norman cultivates his strategies - legally or illegally – to get deals done. Moreover, Oppenheimer is poor as a church mouse, so what’s in it for him? But the film, well-paced, extremely well-acted, and convincingly set among top echelons of power, with US and Israeli settings, is a treat.