Saturday, November 3, 2018

Domestic freedom, free soloing, and travel's perils

More reviews from the 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), in order of the films I saw Friday. The festival concludes Sunday.

Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018). One of Germany’s current hottest filmmakers, Petzold in Transit takes a 1940’s novel and updates it to the present, or a kind of present. A German who escapes to Paris (Franz Rogowski) must find his way to North America via Marseille but of course needs papers. The references are to the Nazis and the Vichy government, though the stormtroopers are in the guise of modern riot cops. The film is about identity (and mistaken identity) and the Kafkaesque wait for official bureaucracy. But its interwoven and repetitive narratives about three characters doesn’t quite work and the film devolves into a kind of farce.

Puzzle (Marc Turtltaub, 2018), features Kelly Macdonald as Agnes, a dutiful middle-aged working-class wife who finds her awakening from the humdrum by playing jigsaw puzzles. She’s so good she joins world class champion Robert (Irfan Khan). Macdonald’s studied performance is absorbing, and the film plays with gender-specific issues – subservience, male domination, deception as a form of freedom. Macdonald here is in Best Actress territory. 

Tea with the Dames (Roger Mitchell, 2018) features four of England’s most celebrated actresses – Joan Plowwright, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith – all royalty-sanctioned “Dames,” and friends in personal lives – at ease at Plowright’s country home, where they sit around and talk about, well, whatever. But since they’re on display the conversation turns to their acting careers, marriages to famous theatre men, and some industry gossip. And, we learn, being scared before a performance never changes. Fans will probably love it, but the film seemed stilted, much as anyone before a microphone and camera and told to open up, usually doesn’t.

Always at The Carlyle (Matthew Miele, 2018) is a doc about one of the last old-world traditions in New York City, the Carlyle hotel. On my yearly trips I’ve walked by the Carlyle many times and never gave it second thought, though I certainly know Woody Allen plays his clarinet there Monday nights. But the Carlyle outstrips other New York hotels - The Plaza, for instance – by a mile and then some. So I learned from this movie. The hotel's shimmering art deco design is matched by its loyal and long-time staff who vow to keep identities of their famous guests private. But it’s obviously an abode for the one percenters, with all manner of the elite including celebs like George Clooney, Jon Hamm, Vera Wang and Jack Nicholson, holding temporary fort. Former presidents and even royalty a la Kate and William, have put in appearances. This film, though, might pose a threat to the hotel’s famous discretion.

1991 (Ricardo Trogi, 2018). This is the most delightful and indeed funniest film I’ve seen at the festival so far. It’s about a Quebec student circa 1991 who takes his first trip to Europe, and the travails that beset him when he lands in Italy. It’s a story many who have backpacked or taken student tours to Europe will identify with, though Trogi is basing it on his own experiences. There is some fun too with the Quebec-Canadian dynamic and intercultural prejudices, which come in all languages and nationalities. And I remember the same embassy in Rome our hero attends because some of the same events befell me!

Free Solo (E. Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018). Even if you have no interest in mountain climbing you should treat yourself to this film. It’s about “free soloist” – meaning without ropes – mountain climber Alex Honnold and his quest to climb the so far unconquered 3,000 ft. sheer cliff of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Honnold is among a rare group of extreme climbing athletes, many who have already lost their young lives. The sport requires gripping some of the subtlest indentations on slippery rock walls hundreds of feet above ground. Your heart will start pounding, or you might look away, during Honnold’s perilous climb.

The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003). Okay, now I get what all the excitement is about. This perennial Midnight Madness favorite is the generation’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), with yelling, shrieks, mocking and a chorus reciting the well-known lines of some of the worst acting ever put on celluloid. Yes, this is the film that was so bad it’s good. And while toast is thrown in Rocky Horror, here spoons (plastic) - and lots of them - are heaved at pivotal moments. But, really, this is so bad a film only cult devotees could enjoy it.

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