Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A scintillating art market tale

Reviews, listed in the order I saw the films, from the 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival, which continues until Sunday.

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018) is the re-creation of an actual heist that took place in 2004 at a Lexington KY university. Four students, a little too bored with their lives and seeking some kick ass experience, decide to rob a couple of the most famous books of all time – John James Audubon's The Birds of America and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But their ambition is only matched by their incompetence, with the real-life foursome making interwoven appearances to comment on their audacity or stupidity. The film’s dramatic action is good, but the plot and takeaway don’t transcend the pedestrian act of the thievery it depicts.

Le Brio (Yvan Attal, 2017) is a welcome breaking of the mold of political correctness in filmmaking. Daniel Auteuil plays professor Pierre Mazard and Camélia Jordana as law student Neïla Salah. Mazard is an outspoken very politically incorrect teacher, and mocks Salah for her race and religion in front of a class of hundreds, to whistles and boos. He’s called up before a disciplinary panel. Meanwhile, he chooses Salah to coach for a national debating championship and turns the young woman from a rough-around-the-edges slacker to an articulate learned graduate, well trained for the legal profession. She indeed becomes fond of him. Is this all a charade? The film’s main problem is that it is formulaic. The second is that, in today’s higher education world, such a figure as Mazard probably wouldn’t keep teaching beyond his first transgression.

Radiance (Naomi Kawase, 2017) is a story of understanding and love between two people – a budding filmmaker Misaki (Ayame Misaki) and a famous photographer, Masaya (Masatoshi Nagase) who has all but lost his sight. She works on films for visually impaired people and, a member of a review committee, he bluntly criticizes some of her techniques. Yet she grows to appreciate his vast catalogue of photography and the sensitivity he’s brought to his craft, while giving at times as good as she gets. This nuanced film’s plot slowly develops, sometimes relentlessly so, though there are piquant moments of human tenderness and connection.

The Price of Everything (Nathaniel Kahn, 2018) is a film about today’s art market and how art - especially the contemporary variety and among a certain group of shall we say elite artists – has become an over the top multi-million dollar business. Kahn interviews some of the top people in this world – from artists themselves such as Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons to collectors like Stefan Edlis (photo left) – who has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in his Chicago high rise – to dealers and auction house specialists like Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s. You might think the film is a predictable critique of conspicuous consumption among the one per cent, some of whom buy art like they buy stocks. But it treads a fine line, with buyers like Edlis acknowledging his consumption but evaluating his collection like an art critic. A case is even made for capitalist art acquisition – is it better for a painting to at least be seen and appreciated, and therefore kept alive, than descend into a museum’s basement vaults and be put on display every 20 years? Deftly edited, this is a mesmerizing documentary that presents all sides of the argument, and that both does and doesn’t take modern art too seriously, still asking the age old question, "Is this art?"

Claire Darling (Julie Bertuccelli, 2017) stars the venerable Catherine Deneuve as an aging dowager who one day has a revelation and decides to sell all her mansion’s belongings. The objects, many rare paintings, furniture and crafts - and emblematic of various stages in her life – should be sold at a fine art house auction and not at a common yard sale. Her estranged daughter Chiara (Chiara Mastroianni), hearing about this, quickly returns home and tries to stop it. The film attempts an interesting study of mother-daughter relations (each proves stubborn and selfish) and Deneuve, as usual, is great. Yet it remains unsatisfying: could the depiction of the relationship have been fleshed out more, and what is behind Claire’s abrupt decision-making – mental illness, dementia?

Friday, October 26, 2018

Neighborhood theatre lives ... in Allen Park

The old fashioned neighbourhood cinema lives…in Allen Park. The Allen Park Cinema has long been a fixture in the downriver community and is owned by Mike Mihalich, the man who owns MJR Digital Cinemas, known for their state-of-the-art multiplexes. He bought it in 1993. Dennis Redmer, VP of operations for MJR, told Windsor Detroit Film the venue has always been “a good neighborhood theatre.” After all, he should know. He grew up in Allen Park and his first job in 1971 was working at the theatre. Until about the year 2000 there were still several smaller movie houses in metro Detroit that offered second-run flicks at deep discount prices. Now there’s just the Allen Park. Yet the theatre still attracts a strong audience, despite even more competition from sources like online streaming. Why? Partly it’s the neighborhood atmosphere, with nearby local restaurants where people can eat before or after a movie. And “not only have you got our parking lot in the back, but there’s just a ton of city parking across the street,” Redmer says. The prices are amazing: $1 beore 6 pm and $1.50 after 6. And yet the theatre still makes a profit, Redmer said. Surprisingly, for the smallish looking building, there are five screens inside. “It used to be one big one,” Redmer says, then divided and divided again and the final auditorium came after the theatre bought the old attached Kowalski sausage store.

I regret to inform that the online independent cinema site FilmStruck is closing. I got the email today. I took out a $100 (US) FilmStruck subscription earlier this year (it can only be accessed stateside) and it was like having an art house theatre in your computer, with classic indies from the French New Wave, British and Asian cinema and beyond, including the Criterion Collection - 1800 flicks altogether.  The site closes officially Nov. 29. It had only been around for two years.  According to show business bible Variety, “The move appeared to be the latest by WarnerMedia, under AT&T’s ownership, to streamline operations by cutting niche-oriented business ventures.” 

The Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) kicks off Sunday and rolls until Nov. 4. There will be 143 films (218 screenings) at three locations in downtown Windsor including the new University of Windsor Armouries (creative arts) building (photo left), which should be an interesting location. Individual tickets are $14 adult (pass $195), students and youth $9 (pass $70), with opening and closing night films $25 each.  There’s also the renamed 48-Hour Flick Fest for Mark Boscariol, one of the founders of the festival, now in its 14th edition, who died an untimely death earlier this year. The Opening Night film is Capernaum (Nadine Labaki) set in Beirut, and the closing night movie is Cold War set in Poland, by director Pawel Pawlikowski. This is the little festival that could and now is one of the premier film festivals in Ontario. Yet, as someone who travels widely in Metro Detroit, virtually no one on the US side of the border knows about it. And IMO it’s the best film festival in the entire region.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Three stunning debuts and a charming follow-up

This will be my wrap from Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinema, which ends today.

Danish director Gustav Moller’s The Guilty is an obvious tour de force for actor Jakob Cedergren, who plays Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police dispatcher. The entire film is focused on Holm, as he answers emergency calls. It’s therefore reminiscent of 2013’s Locke by Steven Knight starring Tom Hardy, as the sole subject driving a car on a British motorway yet communicates with disembodied voices via Bluetooth. In The Guilty, the disembodied voices are the alleged crime victims, and one in particular, a woman (Jessica Dinnage) kidnapped in a domestic dispute, and with whom Holm tries to stay in touch and dispatch police units to intercept the vehicle that is taking her to danger. It’s an extraordinarily realistic drama that takes place all in one setting.

Another debut film, Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, from Paraguay, tells the story of two women friends, middle aged Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún), both adrift after recent financial losses (Chiquita temporarily ends up in jail) with no men in their lives and human vultures purchasing their treasured assets – furniture and car – to make ends meet. The real focus, however, is on Chela, a shy but open-minded woman, and an artist, who tries to come to terms with her life, conceding it’s not over yet. The performances by little known actors are extremely nuanced and highly believable.

Yet another debut was Martin Skovbjerg Jensen’s Sticks and Stones, a coming of age drama. In the story, Simon (Jonas Bjerril) and his mother move to a small Danish town from Copenhagen and try to come to terms with its provincialism. As the new kid in class he soon meets fellow teenager Bjarke (Vilmer Trier Brøgger). The two form an irreverent team and use a class video assignment to go launch guerilla journalism against the owner of the town’s one local industry that is subject to corporate takeover. Their antics go too far and are denounced by their liberal-minded teacher. And Bjarke, who clearly has some psychological issues, descends into the realm of a Dylan Klebold. 

Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism (not his directorial debut) isn’t quite the movie I thought it would be given his introduction in person prior to its screening. Yes, it’s about the growing sameness of cities around the world made homogeneous with the same stores, cafes and cultural references. But, really, it’s a human-interest story – a very cute and endearing one at that – about two young naïve Japanese women, Nina and Su (Nina Endo and Sumire), who win a free trip abroad. They decide on Singapore – the first time they’ve travelled beyond home – and find themselves prototypical tourists, trying to hit all the city’s major sites. Drama breaks out, but the film’s spell of innocence and charm never gets lost.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Far from Fame or even Dirty Dancing

Reporting from Montreal's festival du nouveau cinema.

Gaspar Noé’s’s latest, Climax, measures up to some of his best thrills and is certainly better than the last of his films I have seen, Enter the Void (2009). He has only made five features and I have only missed one, Love (2015). But whether Climax is better than Irréversible (2002) or I Stand Alone (1998) I think not. And there’s a major problem with it. Like Enter the Void, it starts off with lots of commotion, color and loads of energy but this soon gets repetitive. In the film, we meet a group of dancers practicing in a rented hall. They are extremely good and apparently tireless. But how much dancing can we – and they – take? Finally, it’s break time, and we see that a party has been prepared. There’s a table with drinks, including inviting sangria. All this – including perhaps 20 minutes of quick-cut viciously gossipy conversations among the various dancers – takes almost half the film’s length. I even started to get bored - this is all, this is it? Then, and only then, we realize someone has spiked the punch. Those who consumed the liquor start to experience weird effects. The story is based on a real-life episode though Noé took some liberties. LSD had been dropped in the bowl. Some of the dancers begin to get deranged. Is this what LSD does, can’t it provide good trips as well? These people seem to be spiraling downhill as if arsenic had been injected. Fights break out, some of the characters, like the lead, Sofia Boutella (Selva) look like they're losing their minds or have entered some dystopian hell. One dancer starts cutting herself and a troupe mate kicks her in her pregnant stomach. The troupe’s leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), who prepared the drink but denies spiking it, locks her young son in an electrical closet to prevent him from being exposed to the mayhem; she loses the key and we hear his shrieks, perhaps being clawed over by a rat. Now, this is the kind of terror we’ve come to expect from Noé and in a way he doesn’t disappoint. Depravity in all its human misery is on display. At one point a text message crosses the screen, saying collective life is impossible. Thus, continues Noé’s theme: deep down humans are incapable of love and, given half a chance, descend to animals. What audiences find thrilling in his movies is the frenzy by which it’s depicted. There are also a couple of typically unconventional technical touches. The movie’s end credits are plastered on the screen at the movie's beginning. And midway through – just before the plot's human damage kicks in - there are gigantic acting and directing credits in all manner of celebratory fonts. Ironic? Yeah, probably.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pushing the edge at Montreal fest

Currently attending Montreal's festival du nouveau cinéma, at which the films reviewed below screened.

Holiday, Swedish director Isabelle Eklof’s stylish and diabolical thriller, depicts in all its horror the amorality of a certain class of people. Okay, they’re the criminal class.  A group of Scandinavian underworld types, on some unspecified holiday on the Turkish coast, looks like any charming group of people yearning for a little southern exposure. And it certainly seems that way when Sacha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) arrives with suitcase in tow at the local airport. We soon see her as passenger in a car with a slick well-dressed sunglass wearing Euro-type, a la Jean-Paul Belmondo. Problem is, he’s not taking any of her nonsense. A lapse in her spending necessitates a car stop and a couple of hard slaps to the face. Anguished, she recovers quickly. Next, we see her with her pals of seeming hoods – who look a lot like you and me – lazing about in the Mediterranean sun. All appears well. But under the surface there are complexities, as her “boss” plots out a significant swindle and woe to anyone who screws up. And she’s his play thing. He rapes her on the condo’s ground floor as one of the group’s kids comes down the stairs; her resistance is futile. She meets a couple of Dutch guys at an ice cream shop ad inevitably becomes friendly. Until they discover what she’s all about. As violence is done to her, she does to others, all in her sunny innocent way. I guess a yacht-sailing southern vacation is worth the price.

In All Good, from Germany, director Eva Trobisch, intends to show how women, or a woman, cope(s) after being raped. The immediate conclusion is that for many women, they deny or subsume the experience, and go about life as if nothing happened, while their insides are tearing apart and they suffer deep psychological trauma. In this film, the lead actor Anne Schwarz as Janne, an intelligent up and coming book publishing editor, not only pushes away her trauma but continues to engage the co-worker Hans (Martin Löw) who did this to her. After being raped following a party, Janne proceeds about her daily routine seemingly untraumatized. She is on the surface calm, almost maddeningly so. She even continues to engage Hans, though as the film goes on her interactions take on the form of subtle satire and then the odd caustic remark. Yet her relationship with her assailant is part of a matrix with several men in her life, including Piet (Andreas Döhler) her lover with whom she’s falling out. An intellectual, he’s also psychically brutal. Then there’s Robert (Tilo Nest) her boss, a 50-something who is having relationship problems of his own (who knows how he behaves in them?) but seems the least threatening of all the men she knows. The audience may be frustrated at Janne’s overt inability to stand up for herself. But she does land some subtle verbal punches on the hapless Hans who in his seeming guilt, acts like a little puppy only wanting to make things right. But it’s this very subtleness, the nuances of her relationships, and the frustrations it might invoke in us, that makes the film much better than the polemic it could have been.

Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie, a German-Czech-Bulgarian co-production, examines the depth and intracicies of sexuality, and aims to look at its extremes. “Touching” here could mean physical touch or psychological touching, opening the psyche or breaking down personal defenses to understand how we approach intimacy and attraction, and indeed our sexual preferences. At times the film seems a straight-ahead examination of the psyche itself whether sex is involved or not. The main character, Laura (Laura Benson), who wants to understand her own inner life, attends therapy sessions with a counsellor who seeks to extract her anger by pushing/punching her, which she releases almost as a set of primal screams. The camera takes us into sessions with people who may not be stereotypically glamorous, indeed those we might consider “handicapped” or “differently-abled” as one of the most intelligent of the subjects in the film, Christian, describes himself. It explores a S & M club, an effort by the filmmaker that is not voyeuristic but simply to show on a continuum the meaning of sexuality for certain types of people. This is a film - it won the Golden Bear in Berlin - that may seem uncomfortable for some and that, to appreciate, yes, might entirely depend on your attitudes towards sex and the exploration of the inner self.