Friday, June 29, 2018

Film clips: eccentricity isn't an excuse

Here are some recent films I’ve caught, not at cinemas, but on websites, including the fantastic FilmStruck, an art house cinema site owned by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and which, unfortunately, can only be viewed in the United States. Notice how this blog is called Windsor - DETROIT Film?

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries (Roger Mitchell 2014) (photo left), on Netflix, originally a two-part TV series, tells the story of a real incident where an eccentric school teacher (Jason Watkins as Jeffries), is mistakenly arrested and charged with the murder of a neighbor. It’s a classic case of police jumping to conclusions because someone is unconventional enough to evoke suspicion. But the film is also a critique of England’s tabloid press, which made Jeffries a household name and outcast. Watkins is great as the seemingly absent-minded professor who has a sharp mind and is indignantly confounded by his arrest. Mitchell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) paces this picture just right, from early scenes of Jeffries's very normal life socializing with friends and as dedicated teacher to the subsequent police investigation, false media outing, and more.

Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), on FilmsStruck, starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms, is about the blackmailing of a group of high profile gay men in England during a period when homosexuality was illegal. But so then was blackmailing. The plot revolves around Melville Farr (Bogarde) who seeks to quash the blackmailing ring, even if it threatens his life as a prominent barrister. Bogarde is always great, as in this role which shows how a man can live both a conventional and unconventional life, as many, at one time, did.

In Search of Fellini (Taron Lexton, 2017), on Netflix, is about a small town midwestern girl who discovers the great Italian director Federico Fellini and is so mesmerized by his films she wants to go to Italy to see him (this of course when the master was still alive). Lucy (Ksenia Solo) makes the escape from home and has several adventures, including romantic, in Italy, before meeting up with the director in a Roma café. It’s an unlikely scenario though partly autobiographical. The film’s best parts are its dreamy cinematography. But that isn’t enough to hold the plot together.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

An outlier who was also an assassin

The Catcher Was a Spy, directed by Ben Lewin and opening Friday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, is a taut almost meditative film about a true attempt to assassinate a famous German physicist during the Second World War. It’s one of these stories about a little-known hero in the annals of history and all the more because he’s such a fascinating character. Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) was a veteran catcher for the Boston Red Sox. But he was much more. A polymath, he could speak a dozen languages and his intellectual knowledge was matched by his physical prowess on the field and off. He was also a patriot. On a baseball goodwill trip to Japan he surreptitiously filmed the Japanese fleet on a premonition America would soon be going to war. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited him as a spy and sent him to Europe to assassinate Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), the man behind what the Allies believed was a German-made atomic bomb. The Catcher Was a Spy, intentionally or not, ends up being as much about Berg as the plot itself. Besides his intellectual acumen Berg, especially in the 1940s, was what we’d today call an outlier. He was single his entire life and while he had a girlfriend (Sienna Miller as Estella) it appeared he was also bisexual. The epilogue says he spent the rest of his life devoted to his two great passions, books and baseball. The film, based on the book by Nicholas Davidoff, otherwise depicts a straightforward plot showing Berg and his military colleagues as they slip into war-torn Italy to meet some academic colleagues of Heisenberg (played by Paul Giannini, Giancarlo Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) who lead him to the German physicist’s Swiss lecture. Lewin’s direction is full of close-up shots or intimate office or social gatherings, with plenty of full screen images of Berg, almost as if probing his thought processes as the plot moves along. The acting is good and there is a battle scene that is authentic and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Yet there are times one wishes for something more – less one dimensionality, perhaps, or a fillip or two. Giamatti, who I usually think of in comedy roles, is convincing enough as an Italian scientist, complete with accent, though I had to smile at first. But it’s also interesting how all these actors are aging. Jeff Daniels, 63, admittedly with makeup, is starting to look like an old man. Ditto for Tom Wilkinson, though he is now 70. We’re all getting older.

Friday, June 8, 2018

An, uh, unrealistic love story

Sometimes you just wonder what the point of a film, play, book – and in this case novella – is. The film, directed by Dominic Cooke, is On Chesil Beach, based on the novella by contemporary English author Ian McEwan, who happens to be one of my favorites. But, alas, this movie (seen elsewhere but not in local cinemas) was a disappointment. Here’s the thing: the story is about two young people (Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan) who marry in 1962. You’ve got to wonder if the story is autobiographical but I haven’t seen any evidence it is. Both characters are extremely awkward during what is supposed to be wedding night bliss. Florence (Ronan) finally declares she’s frigid. Which upsets our poor lad no end. He stomps off and wanders, as it happens, a mile or so down Chesil Beach, a beautiful pebbled filled beach on England’s southern coast (so precious McEwan caused a scandal by taking home some pebbles and had to return them). Florence (Saoirse) runs after him. She figuratively throws herself at him, saying she’s at fault and still loves him and, the kicker, he can have any woman he wants – for sex. Edward (Howle), pigheadedly, will have none of it (it is 1962 and he’s a red-blooded English male). And that is the end of this very – very - brief marriage. Until Edward, now in his Seventies, sees Florence, a professional violinist, perform and breaks down over the error of his previous ways. Altogether, this is a lackluster story and you wonder what compelled McEwan to write it, unless he is Edward. (For some reason, I can see McEwan being awkwardly nerdish.) But how realistic is it? What woman, especially in 1962, would pledge love but an open relationship with as many women as her husband wanted? 
I also caught Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait at last month’s WIFF monthly film series at the Capitol Theatre. Geoffrey Rush is terrific as the extremely eccentric artist, Alberto Giacometti, known for his rough edged skinny sculptures and brooding gray-black paintings, often described as images of alienation. But the film suffers from claustrophobia, literally. Most of the action takes place within the artist’s studio. Sure, there are outdoor scenes, mainly long walks between the man having his portrait – interminably – done, critic James Lord, (Armie Hammer) in a famous Paris cemetery. And there are a few café scenes. But the film has no wider vision – either location-wise or story-wise. How does Giacometti, a great artist, fit into the pantheon of modern art history?  Where are his wider Paris community, friends, associates? Nevertheless, Rush is amazing. But the movie is just too narrow in scope.