Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Montreal World Film Festival for me this year

Normally this time of year I’d be in Montreal for the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), which I began attending in its first year in 1977. I’ve only missed a few editions and have been a staunch defender of the festival when others, mainly the Montreal media, have derided it for any number of reasons – a dictatorial administrator, the lack of a “curatorial” program, and not opening its financial books. As someone not from Montreal I happily traveled to the festival year after year and simply indulged in the hundreds of films regularly on view. And uniquely, compared to other festivals, even Toronto, MWFF  films were a smorgasbord of flicks from around the world – even from very obscure or small countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The MWFF administrator and founder, Serge Losique, in fact did run the festival as an autocrat. He started it and dammit, he was going to do what he wanted and to hell with what other people thought. Well, the consequences caught up with him last year. Even before that, government funding was being pulled. But last year (photo of optimistic filmgoers above) his sponsorships collapsed to the point he couldn’t afford to rent a major multiplex (the old Montreal Forum). The glossy pre-published film guide turned out to be useless; instead ever-changing zeroxed sheets were taped to the one cinema Losique had left, the Imperial.  Ticket holders, film directors and actors, often couldn’t get to their films.  And instead of paid staff there was a handful of volunteers. It was all very sad for a festival that once had been dominant in Montreal and rivaled the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I still have fond memories of it. But, because of last year’s catastrophe, I decided not to go to this year’s event. Yes, the MWFF apparently is still happening. There are films listed on its website. And reportedly, a major Quebec corporation, Quebecor, bailed Losique out on the Imperial theatre’s mortgage.  But it still wasn’t enough to lure me. I’m afraid the MWFF, as far as I'm concerned, is dead……That won’t mean I won’t be going to Montreal for a festival this year. In October, there is the even older Festival du nouveau cinema (Festival of New Cinema) a more avant-garde event that serves up an excellent program. Montreal is beautiful in October. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

A comic book brought to life

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch) is worth going to see for several reasons: it’s kind of a Cold War spoof, it has highly realistic – and very entertaining – fight scenes, the soundtrack is great, and it’s like a comic book come to life, given that it was based on Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City. Our heroine, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a female James Bond on steroids, a masterful physical dominatrix – and literally, ball buster – of men. And for those who love Eighties rock, that synthesizing electronica of the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order and, yes, A Flock of Seagulls, this will bring back memories to a time when rock shattered generic walls and was a hell of a lot more vital than it is today. And for those old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, well, the entire movie takes place in the days leading up to that event and the night itself. The plot is thin but it doesn’t matter. Broughton is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a microfilm list of double agents being smuggled into the West. At every turn – repeatedly crossing back and forth between West and East Berlin - she is ambushed by KGB agents but, battered and bruised, escapes every time. The fight sequences are a lot of laughs simply because they’re executed so well on such villainous scum. But what’s also great about this film is the highly accurate depiction of that era – the bargain basement clothing of the poor East Berliners, the ultra-fashionable lesbians in West Berlin punk bars, the entire glossed-up 1980s look against the grayness of a bleak Berlin. Atomic Blonde is an uber two-hour escape.

Here’s a shout out - as I’ve done before – to Metro Detroit-owned MJR Digital Cinemas, for being so progressive and in the forefront. I attended the MJR’s Southgate last weekend to see The Glass Castle (Destin Daniel Cretton) and was wowed by the deep plush luxury seats – the regular seats - with footrests. This is the future of cinemas, folks (Windsor’s Devonshire Cineplex recently announced its conversion to luxury seating). And it’s a way theatre companies are fighting back against home cacooning. Seems to be paying off. On a gorgeous sunshiny afternoon, the cineplex was packed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Why I have no interest in seeing Detroit

I have no interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Detroit. The film has not done well at the box office, contrary to filmmakers’ expectations, though it has held its own in the Detroit market. There are questions as to why box office returns have been one third what was anticipated. Beyond getting out the film’s story – about the brutal deaths of three black youths at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riot for which there were no convictions among law enforcement personnel - the film’s box office is needed to simply repay its production costs - $55 million. I’m not naïve. I’ve lived with the Detroit riot’s aftermath since moving to this area in 1969, when legal proceedings were still ongoing over what has long been considered a major travesty of justice.  I’ve known about the Algiers Motel incident long before the rest of the world is now being informed of it…..Still, I have no interest in seeing the movie. Why? Several reasons. It's bringing up subject matter that is long over, or should be put to rest. Detroit 2017 is hardly Detroit 1967, when the city’s police force was overwhelmingly white and in many ways demonstrably racist. This film is commemorating – sometimes I think there’s almost celebratory nostalgia for the riot with events taking place this summer in and around Detroit (i.e., Bigelow’s film’s premiere at the Fox Theatre greeted like a New Year’s Eve fete) – an event half a century old when Detroit has attempted to move mountains to get on to a new and progressive path, though the physical and sociological ramifications of the riot still linger. (Also interesting is that no Detroit leaders have spoken out against a film that reinforces the city’s historically terrible image.) The film’s timing also conflates what happened 50 years ago to recent shootings of blacks by police forces around the United States. While these shootings are tragic and in a few cases questionable, their significance is out of proportion to the larger context of shootings by police generally and of police…..Why hasn’t the film done well at box office? My hunch is that it’s the middle of summer (the film’s opening was to coincide with the riot’s anniversary) and people like escapism and not harrowing realism. That a great many filmgoers, who tend to be young, have no idea what the film is about. And, perhaps, like me, a hell of a lot of people simply want to move on to the more progressive present.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Media City makes Windsor truly world class

I attended the Regional program of last week’s 22nd annual edition of the Media City film festival. It’s important that the public knows that this is not just a film festival but a festival of “digital art.” Hence the type of films screened, which are far from mainstream and more of what some might describe as experimental or art. That by no means lessens their importance and indeed the festival is internationally acclaimed, attracting filmmakers and jury members from around the world. While few other events do, Media City indeed makes Windsor world class…….Here are my faves from the 12 films screened. Lullaby Optic by Detroit’s Steve Wood, at eight minutes, was a kaleidoscope of revolving colours, almost as if a black hole was dispensing energy fragments. Moreover, shards of multicolour lights moved singly or in groups across the screen. It was all scored to “electronic” sounds or what’s known as circuit bending music, performed, yes, on circuit boards. And NASA’s archival sound lent well to what I’ve described as a black hole!....My next favourite was London resident Charlie Egleston’s 23-minute Watch Tower in seven parts. Set in the hills of Mexico the film is a studied look from different angles of a transmission tower and its sometimes-flashing beacon (at night). While we hardly see any people we hear them and other sounds, including music, of a Mexican village. It all creates an eerie or dislocated feeling. Are we being watched? Despite bucolic scenery and happy voices do they matter to the omnipresent anti-human tower? .....Notable also was Windsorite’s Alana Bartol’s six-minute A Woman Walking (the City Limits), North of The Bow (river in Calgary), which traced the line where rural meets urban, identified with swaying fields backing on to suburban tracts and wind catching manufactured detritus on barbed wire. The starkness is right in front of us, folks…..Other films, not just here but in the following International Program 2 (of which there were six over three days; opening night featured the films of Yoko Ono), and of other films of the kind I’ve seen over the years, descended too often into clichés of the genre - abstracted-amoebic like forms, for example, moving to industrial or atonal sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that if your message is compelling (as was Lullaby Optic) but I longed for more breakout themes: character portraits, mind games, elliptical narratives. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Two films from the past week

Besides being a generally heartwarming and funny movie, The Big Sick (Michael Showalter) is one of the bravest films I’ve seen discussing Western-Islamic relations, and in particular its references to Islam. The film is literally about the real-life relationship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script, and stars Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in the role of Gordon. Nanjiani is an aspiring Chicago stand-up comic who meets Gardner after his act in a comedy club. It’s one of those attraction-repulsion relationships where the protagonists soon can’t get their hands off one another. Until, that is, Gardner suffers a serious lung infection and is placed in hospital in a medically-induced coma. But before this there are some hilarious and heart spoken words. An incident in a coffee shop, where Nanjiani’s religion and race become overtly obvious, has him half-seriously shout that he “hates terrorists!” And, when his parents break off their relationship with him because he opted for an American woman over a Pakistani arranged marriage, he tells them that, while he respects their values, he’s in America now, and the world is wider than traditional religious boundaries. The script’s Nanjiani-Gordon’s dialogue is witty and their relationship takes some unconventional bumps.  But the movie, at just over two hours, could have had about 20 minutes shaved off of it. 

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd), is not about Shakespeare’s anti-heroine but is based on a 19th century Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov. Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a subjugated wife who must obey her husband at all costs. He orders her to stand with her back to him while he masturbates. She can’t even smile without being censured. But Katherine, whether due to an incorrigible personality or the fact she indeed is a sociopath, decides to go on a series of murders. First is her abhorrent husband (Paul Hilton). Next is his father, a despicable lord of the manor played by Christopher Fairbank. Up to this point, I was with Katherine, at least emotionally, and the murders seem more than justified. She is, after all, a self-actualizing spear against male oppression. But it’s what comes next that collapses this apparent persona, and may lead the viewer to conclude quite differently about her psychological state. Which raises the question: do these events undermine that “morality” of her earlier actions, and therefore the story’s feminist vision?