Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Love, in three different ways

The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs) is an almost perfect film that harmonizes subtlety, character, humour and an interesting plot. Michael and Mary (Tracy Letts and Debra Winger), late middle aged, are in a marriage that long ago had the life swooshed out of it. Sure, they’re more than civil to one another and go through the motions, including dinner and sitting down watching television with glasses of wine. They still sleep together. But there’s no real there, there. Instead to make themselves happy, they’re having affairs. Michael with a neurotic dance teacher (Melora Walters) and Mary with a somewhat immature young buck (Aidan Gillen). But something happens that reverses their feelings. And - spoiler alert - as they make plans to separate and move out of the house (in part at the persistence of their aggravating lovers) they fall back in love. Do they reconcile? You’ll see, in a somewhat haphazard awkward way. The best part of this film is how the plot and characters are in sync, an absorbing comedy-drama that will keep a smile on your face virtually all the way through.

Jane Jacobs: Battle for the City (Matt Tyrnauer), tells the story of the inimitative Jane Jacobs, the activist and author who started the modern day urban renaissance movement. But the film is also a primer on post Second World War modernist urban planning and what it wrought (high rise public housing projects, the destruction of outstanding earlier architecture like New York’s original Pennsylvania Station.) And central to it was the chief urban planner reigning over 1950s New York City, Robert Moses. He’s often, here and elsewhere, painted the villain. But you must put yourself in his shoes. Modernism was the mid-century game and modernists like him had their hearts in the right place. They genuinely believed public housing would help impoverished people by clearing the “slums.” We know different now. And people like Jacobs were prescient. Thank goodness projects like a major freeway through what is now Greenwich Village never came to pass, due of course to Jacobs and her merry band of anti-development activists. Jacobs of course has written the bible, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argues for traditional urban neighbourhoods – high density, downtown retail, and public transit over private cars. This movie depicts how the template came about.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) won Best Picture and two more awards at this year’s Oscars. But who saw it? Sure, it was playing theatres for some time, even in Windsor, where its run was brief. I kicked myself for never seeing it. But last week I found it on Netflix. The film starts slow, almost incoherently, and then, over three chapters or acts, builds into a more defined character study of one man. While in elementary school, Chiron (aka Little) is withdrawn and bullied by other kids. He finds refuge in an abandoned crack house in Liberty City, Miami. As a teen, the bullying continues in part because of his gay demeanor. But his retribution against his main tormenter is so violent he’s arrested. Leading to chapter three, where, now in his Twenties and nicknamed Black, he’s been transformed into a bulked-up drug dealer, a far cry from his meek childhood. He gets in touch with an old pal Kevin, now a chef. They renew their friendship, and after three decades of strife Chiron/Black finds sanctuary. Like Christ in the arms of the Blessed Virgin he’s in the beloved arms of Kevin. The movie’s best from the midway point, when the character starts being fleshed out and a better rhythm to the story takes place. I’m not sure this movie should have received Best Picture but it is a triumph for depicting subtleties of character, based on on Tarell Alvin McCraney's semi-autobiographical play.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A west coast swing

It’s funny what you run into when you travel – like film festivals. Recently on a swing through the Pacific Northwest I lucked out and was in Seattle during the Seattle International Film Festival. But given my timeline and what was available, I only caught one film – that being Turkish director Mehmet Can Mertoglu's Album. It was a bizarre little story about a couple adopting a child, with surreal or magic realist touches. It was hard to understand the director’s point – the surreal flourishes (a cow giving birth, civil servants asleep at their desks) made no sense or were grasping at straws. If anything the film mocked middle class Turkish society by the couple who wants the perfect child and then for respectability conceals the adoption......Further down the coast I, again, stumbled upon the San Francisco documentary festival (SF Docfest) and managed to get to just one film. But it was a great one. It’s Salt Lake City director Andrew James’s Street Fighting Men, which follows the stories of three men in inner city Detroit. James had no familiarity with Detroit but you wouldn’t know it from the film. The film, obviously a doc, comes off as a drama, which was James’s intention. More on this film – it has yet to screen locally – in an upcoming post…..Then in my Berkeley domicile I
walked over to a couple of Landmark (the same company that owns Royal Oak’s Main) art cinemas. At the Shattuck I saw Venessa Gould’s Obit, a look at The New York Times’s famous obituaries, or the staff who write them, often about obscure but significant individuals and under daily deadlines. Engrossing. Then, across the street and around the corner at the California (great to have two art houses in such proximity) I saw Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s doc about the late great John Coltrane - my fave jazz musician – and a pitch perfect treatment of the man, who died in 1967 at age 40. A Coltrane doc was well overdue since he is among the pantheon of jazz greats including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Most significant was showing Coltrane’s humanity and spirituality, an even more uplifting personality than I'd expected.