Saturday, March 24, 2018

Travis Bickle for the clerical set

First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke (pictured left), is director Paul Schrader’s version of Taxi Driver for the clerical set. Schrader, after all, was the writer of the iconic 1976 film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert de Niro, about a deranged mass killer, Travis Bickle. In First Reformed, Hawke plays Rev. Toller, pastor of an historic little church. He’s an alcoholic, is showing symptoms of cancer, and had lost a son to the Iraq War. A parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), urges him to counsel her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist, who wants to abort their child from entering a world of increasing toxicity. Toller sympathizes with Michael while condemning his objective, saying “despair” has always existed. When he discovers an explosives-laden suicide vest, instead of disposing of it, he keeps it for himself. Influenced by Michael, he himself becomes increasingly radicalized, and is angered when he hears a local company and major polluter, whose name sounds like the real-life Koch Brothers - despised by the political Left - is underwriting his church’s 250th anniversary celebration. He descends into a psychological maelstrom only partly redeemed by the admiring love of Mary …... Love After Love (Russell Harbaugh) is an emotional dissection which explores the interrationships of a family of the artsy-intellectual set. Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) pushes the limits of behavior (the kind of guy we’d call “a piece of work”), whether it’s making an over-the-top toast to mother Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) and her new beau, to cheating immediately after remarrying.  Suzanne herself isn’t shy from speaking out, denouncing fellow theatre company members during a rehearsal, to accusing Nicholas of trying “to weasel some opinion out of me.” Yes, it’s psychodrama, like you’d find in the old TV series Family or even in a Bergman film, and will make you think about some of life’s priorities. The film benefits from close-up shots and an excellent jazz score…...Back to Burgundy (Cédric Klapisch) is a feel-good family drama set in the vineyards of Burgundy, France. Jean (Pio Marmaï) returns home after years abroad, and helps his siblings take over the family winery. It’s a story as much about family bonding (the French title is What Binds Us Together) as a delightful education in the ways of winemaking. Small dramas occur when the siblings face selling the land to pay inheritance tax and whether Jean will return to Australia and his estranged Significant Other. But the movie at 113 minutes is a tad long …... Other films I've caught at the festival have been Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (Sam Pollard), an excellent portrayal of the Rat Packer and so much more; Beirut (Brad Anderson) starring Jon Hamm (he’s everywhere these days) and Rosamund Pike, about corruption among the diplomatic class during the  1970s Lebanese civil war – more an action drama despite its pretenses; and Budapest Noir (Éva Gárdos), a Hungarian take on the post war Hollywood noir film, though a little too obvious a copy, with a hero,  Krisztián Kolovratnik, constantly unshaven, and scenes with a somewhat unrealistic jazz score and Hungarian modern art.

(The Gasparilla International Film Festival runs until March 25 in Florida's Tampa Bay area.)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A wine country rom-com, and devestating class conflict

You Can’t Say No (Peter Kramer) is a not so hidden gem that should get wide release. It had its Florida premiere here and will be in very limited release – 10 markets – very soon. But this joyful romantic comedy-drama is a feel-good movie with great characterization and a script to match. Alex (Marguerite Moreau) and Hank (Hus Miller) are an estranged couple about to sign divorce papers. He packs up, gets on his Honda, and hits the road. She packs off the kids with mom and decides to do the same. By chance they meet at a bar in northern California, not far from their home, after his antique motorcycle has broken down. Alex realizes she can’t quite relinquish the relationship and Hank obviously still has eyes for his wife. For fun, they embark on a game “You Can’t Say No.” In which each person must answer “yes” to a question no matter how outlandish. Meanwhile, the cast of characters is exceptional, with Allison (Ingrid Vollset), a travelling free spirit who tries to put the moves on Hank, Miles (Hamish Linklater), a quirky manager at Hank dad’s winery, and Buck (Peter Fonda), the hippish and successful winery owner. The visual backdrop is the sumptuous Sonoma County wine country. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, such as when Hank is down on a knee and about to re-propose to his wife, and a passerby jocularity interrupts the mood. And Buck, despite his love of organic coffee, loves pop tarts.

Meanwhile, Madame (Amanda Sthers), starts out whimsical with husband and wife Bob and Anne Fredericks  - (Harvey Keitel and Toni Collette) breezily cycling along the streets of Paris. They seem like they’re on vacation (Bob can hardly speak French and self-mockingly puts on an accent) but in fact are super rich Americans with a mansion of a second (or third) home, which looks like a castle, in the City of Lights. What they really are is hypocritical and mean. Bob, apparently an investment banker, can’t finance the mansion or his wife’s - "Madame's" - lifestyle, and must sell a Caravaggio painting of the Last Supper. That’s symbolic of a dinner party Anne is throwing, where a surprise guest, Steven (Tom Hughes), Bob’s son from a previous marriage, arrives unexpectedly. This throws Anne into a Tizzy fearing 13 guests is unlucky (there’s reference to the 13 guests at the Last Supper). She rapidly recruits the head maid, Maria (Rossy de Palma), to be the 14th guest. Maria is totally out of her league, sitting among this elite class including the Lord Mayor of London and his gay SO. Nervously she spouts some lewd and distinctively lower-class humor. But art dealer David Morgan (Michael Smiley) takes a fancy to her after being tipped off, erroneously by Steven - who likes to create havoc - that she’s a member of Spanish royalty. An obsessive romance develops as Morgan finds Maria “beguiling.” But Anne can’t stand it. At one point she pointedly tells Maria she should remain within her station. Finally (spoiler alert), she discloses to Morgan that Maria is really her maid. Morgan drops her like a lead balloon. Wrapped in lightheartedness, with a sound track to match, Madame is a devastating tale of class snobbery and cruelty, not to mention hypocrisy, as Anne, a “lifelong Democrat,” and the pretty people in her circle, for example, bemoan the vote for Brexit.

(The Gasparilla International Film Festival runs until March 25 in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Crushing stereotypes, by everyone

The opening night film at the Tampa Bay film festival (officially known as the Gasparilla International Film Festival) was Michael Berry’s version of his stage musical, Stuck. It brings together a high-profile cast including Amy Madigan, Giancarlo Esposito and the singer Ashanti. All of them are good, both as actors but mainly as singers in this film about a small group of people stuck in a New York subway car during one of that subway's notorious breakdowns…….The premise: throw a bunch of people made up of different races, classes, and basic human differences – the human soup you’d meet on public transit - and see what ensues. What ensues is the manifestation of a bunch of human stereotypes, based on what people think they know of strangers simply because of their appearance. What’s beautiful (and I don’t mean that in the saccharin sense) about this movie is that it addresses these issues in a fresh and even break through way. After all, almost exclusively in the popular culture, films and TV give us one point of view and one only. For example, only one race has a monopoly on racism or stereotyping. In fact, this film explains, everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or social class, can stereotype. So, we have a Hispanic man, Ramon (Omar Chaparro) concluding that an Asian fellow passenger, Alicia (Arden Cho) is Chinese when she’s Korean. He yells out “you people” to Eve (Ashanti) because she’s black. Meanwhile, Eve concludes that Sue (Madigan) is a religious zealot spouting “white woman bullshit” when she advocates Eve, pregnant, keep her baby …. That’s in terms of exploding basic racial differences. Stuck also gives equal weight to both sides in current political debates. This is most evident in the argument over illegal immigration. It might be surprising (again breaking a stereotype) to hear a cogent argument against illegal immigrants (unfairly taking advantage of public resources) put forward by the Korean-American (Cho) …… Otherwise, the film’s singing is the best part of the movie, with songs, including by Tim Young (who also has a small role as Christopher) that lift and inspire, not only through their lyrics but because of the sheer beauty of the music. Without the songs, the movie, set in a confined space, might be tedious (and there are times one fears it will be) and subject us to didactic nostrums. But beyond the messaging, Stuck ultimately demonstrates how even a brief encounter with a stranger can be transforming.

(The Gasparilla International Film Festival, combined with the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, runs March 20 – 25 in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area.)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Word to the wise: it's TV not film

As I’ve written before I’m not a great fan of Netflix. It’s movie samplings are meagre and play to the midstream. I’m amazed so many professional critics still laud the site…..For example, this week, I tried in vain to find a film I hadn’t seen in the theatres that approached a semblance of interest, and landed on Peace Love and Misunderstanding (Bruce Beresford, 2011) starring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener (I’ve now seen three Catherine Keener-starring films over the past couple of weeks: two in theatres, Nostalgia (Mark Pellington) and Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)). The film was light-hearted but predictable in the clash between conservative/straight and hippie/wanderlust; guess which side wins out? ….. But it seems a lot of people use Netflix for watching – or binge-watching – television shows, something I don’t do, since no shows have appealed to me. But yesterday, after reading a New York Times digest of current edgier TV series, I decided to take the plunge, and sampled three series…...Two of the series Babylon Berlin (pictured) and The Same Sky were from Germany, and from England, Peaky Blinders. I watched the first episode of each.  Both Babylon Berlin and Peaky Blinders offered an overflow (a good thing) of atmospherics, both set in pre-WW II Europe. But plots (each had at least two simultaneous threads) were ever-so-slow starting and drawn-out, and therefore seeming convoluted. It left me wondering if this is the nature of TV.  After all, if you have one or two major themes, you must develop them over six hours or more, instead of a film’s average hour and a half. Consequently, it wasn’t obvious what each series was about. Babylon Berlin depicted the decades of the Weimar Republic, showing the period’s libertine values – a porn studio - and the nascent start of Communist-Nazi street battles. But what was the uptick after episode one?  Peaky Blinders depicted a street gang in Birmingham where members wear razor blades in their peaked caps to, yes, blind their opponents, but thankfully the episode wasn’t as violent as expected. Again, there was a slowly-emerging plot but great sets (amazing what computerized effects will do to create pre-war scenes of Birmingham’s factories and Berlin’s Alexanderplatz) and superb wardrobes and styles. Both series get the “look” of the era down. But, scintillating, grabbing plots? Not in the beginning, at least ……Then there was the series The Same Sky, set in the mid-1970s in a divided East and West Berlin, where spying across The Berlin Wall was rampant. This series interested me more, maybe because I’m a student of that era’s Berlin. But it also had interesting well-directed scenes that showed how a Communist spy was recruited with side stories of the characters’ family lives. However, the series took one hour build up to the start of the key scene; a movie would have nailed this in 15-20 minutes. Maybe TV has always been this way, and it’s been so long since I’ve watched it that I now notice how its plots just slog along.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscars, Schmoscars

Oscars, Schmoscars. Most years I could care less about  the Academy Awards’ late winter ceremony, just as I despise most award ceremonies – orgies of self-congratulations among self-satisfied elites. But, this year, more than ever ….. First, the nominations for Best Picture are the most popularly narrowest I’ve ever seen. What percentage of the public has seen Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water (the likeliest winner) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? These are all art house flics. And while this column covers primarily art house pictures, even on this level, most of these films' subject matter never struck a chord with me, and I consequently haven’t seen them. Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino) is a flavor-of-the month story of a gay couple. I’ve already reviewed Lady Bird, an overrated film by Hollywood’s current darling Greta Gerwig. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) admittedly has populist appeal and was a critical hit. But I found it, among other things, seriously compromised by poorly executed location shots that showed the modern city behind the staged war action! I hear that Darkest Hour (Joe Wright) is brilliant, or at least Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is. And I don’t doubt it. But after having seen Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill at WIFF last fall, starring Brian Cox in a role I found highly historically questionable, another Churchill biopic was just too much. Sorry, but I have no desire to relive the Pentagon Papers news phenom of the early 1970s in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a media sensation I always associated, anyway, with The New York Times and not The Washington Post – a  current controversy over this fact rages. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a bizarre almost unbelievable fantasy in the del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) tradition, and consequently seemed uninspiring. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by British director Martin McDonough is another flavor of the month story about America’s supposed uber racism. Get Out (Jordan Peele) does interest me and I may even see it tonight (while the Oscars are on) because, while seemingly about race, it has a lot of other elements and plot twists. But Best Picture Oscar material? We’ll see. Finally, Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis (his supposed final role) with Lesley Manville, about the 1950s London fashion world, is a topic and era that interest me. So I’ll reserve judgment. But virtually all these films have had little popular appeal, though I realize that shouldn’t be the only criteria ….. And, second, the other reason for “Schmoscars” this year is the apparent uber politicization of the ceremony in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein et all Hollywood sex abuse scandals. Yes, they’re horrible. But the Oscars have been politicized enough over the years – a double or triple dose this year for a ceremony the vast majority of people watch just to have fun (or criticize the women’s fashions), is a complete and utter bore.