Monday, March 25, 2019

Doc superbly portrays Christo's immense project

Reviews below of a couple of films from the final day of the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa.

Andrey Paounov's Walking on Water, about the 2016 environmental art project of the famed landscape artist Christo, The Floating Piers, on northern Italy’s Lake Iseo, is a tour de force presentation of an artist and a project that makes Christo one of the most famous, imaginative and courageous artists of our time. (His partner and wife Jeanne-Claude, died in 2009.) The Christo of course is known for his vast outdoor projects like New York City’s The Gates in Central Park, northern California’s Running Fence, and Berlin’s Wrapped Reichstag. This documentary (there has been an earlier one about The Gates by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles in 2007) takes us almost from beginning to end of the project. Christo is either so famous and so used to media that he doesn’t blink an eye when the camera follows him around his myriad daily routines in the project’s planning and execution, including petty frustrations with computers and staff, arguing with associates, and getting as good as he gives from primary assistant Vladimir Yavachev. But there is uplifting bonhomie too. It’s all part of the immense particularities of designing and building s four kilometre set of floating walkways. Christo’s projects are so immense they need various government approvals. But here in Italy, after the exhibit opens in June 2016, the crowds are so overwhelming Christo threatens to shut it down; the authorities have done little to limit access or maintain crowd control. This documentary is best at portraying the daily realities of creating art on a mammoth scale, and its vast sweep of outdoor visuals – to the thrilling electronic soundtrack of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi – are breathtaking.

I have always had a soft spot for Michigan’s own Jeff Daniels but his latest film, Guest Artist, is a flop from beginning to end. The premise is good. An arrogant New York playwright is seconded by a flyover country theatre troupe (“Lima” Michigan filling in for Daniels’s own Chelsea) to write a play. It’s an obvious sign that the playwright, Joseph Harris, a drunk, is all washed up. But when Harris arrives at the local train station, he’s greeted by the town’s aspiring playwright Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias). Needless to say, the fawning Macias – “to me you are the American theatre” - has to put up with Harris’s verbal abuse. “An artist never apologizes,” the playwright shouts in infuriated angst. The problem with the film is there should be more, a lot more. The entire film is shot at the train station between basically two characters. I was expecting the playwright to end up in town with the local theatre company, lording it over the ensemble cast in a series of vignettes but ending up hoisted on his own petard. Instead, what we get is essentially the filmed 2006 stage play. And, finally, it’s annoying that the Harris character, as the theme of his greatest yet to be performed play, dredges up an old trope about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, saying they were “the best thing that happened to this fat arrogant excuse for a country.” In 2006 such thinking, at least by people of a certain ilk, was par for the course. But, hey Jeff, it’s 2019, time to move on.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Finally, Aretha's fabulous 1972 concert film

Amazing Grace, the 1972 concert recording of Aretha Franklin, is finally getting wide release in mid-April (Easter weekend, in fact, and appropriately so). The film had its Florida premiere yesterday at the Gasparilla International Film Festival here in Tampa. (It’s having its Detroit premiere tumorrow night at the Detroit Film Theatre.) The film is directed by the acclaimed Sydney Pollack, a major director of the era who oversaw films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) The Way We Were (1973), and Tootsie (1982). Amazing Grace was shot over two nights at The Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Aretha’s performance, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, is probably the gospel performance for the ages, at least as captured on film. It’s amazing that, almost 50 years since being shot, the movie is only now getting released, having had all sorts of difficulties from technical problems (audio-video sync) to contractual issues between the artist and the filmmakers. Her family estate finally agreed to release it after Aretha’s death last summer. While Aretha may have been the Queen of Soul and by the early 1970s had already released perhaps her most iconic hits, Respect, Chain of Fools and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, she returned to her Gospel roots in 1972 with the recorded concert for the album by the same name, Amazing Grace. In the film, a still quite young Aretha is composed and subdued between songs but rises to the occasion – boy, does she ever – during them. Her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, introduced her and said that, contrary to opinion given Aretha’s superstardom, “if you want to know the truth she never left the church.” Besides Aretha’s riveting singing the film also features the fabulous choir who, in certain cases, enraptured, can’t help themselves by rising and shouting back at the singer, even when they aren’t performing. And there is Mick Jagger, just another member of the audience, clapping and singing along. 

Tomorrow, by Martha Pinson, is a first-time directorial effort which, like several other debut films at this festival, is more than competently handled. It’s a charming story about Tesla (Sebastian Street) a British army vet, disabled after a bomb blast in Afghanistan, who finds a new career and love back home in London. The movie is mainly a character study among four friends (two couples) – Tesla and Katie (Stephanie Leonidas), and Sky (Stuart Brennan) and Lee-Ann (Sophie Kennedy Clark). The story lines are affecting, with all the characters having their own romantic and career struggles, and good times and bad, set against the backdrop of contemporary London. 

And, unfortunately, in the “this is two hours of my life I’ll never get back” category, is The Parting Glass (Stephen Moyer), a film which comes off as a contemporary version of a Chekov play. It follows an extended family as they arrive in Missouri after the suicide of a sibling, Colleen (Anna Paquin). But the story is monotonous as the group ventures along highways and byways to reach their sister’s former residence, with petty annoyances, disagreements and misunderstandings along the way. This film is difficult, even painful, to watch, and while there are good performances from the likes of Cynthia Nixon (Mare) and Ed Asner (the father), its overall effect is tedious and irritating.

The Tampa Bay Gasparilla International Film Festival ends today.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A grand edifice of - laughable - deception

Miranda Bailey’s You Can Choose Your Family is one of those comedies that not only sparks almost continuous laughs but creates an eerie almost disturbing feeling at the same time. It stars comic Jim Gaffigan as Frank, a man who has two families. Yes, he’s a bigamist. But not intentionally. You see, many years ago, recently married Frank had an affair, from which a child was born. Supposedly being responsible – at least in his words - he decided to remain loyal to that “family” as well as his, well, original one. Over the years the families grew with more kids and Jim, yes, continued being spouse and dad to both. He did this by creating an elaborate scheme of deception. He would tell both spouses (and families) he was out of town – often on lengthy business trips to Japan – when in fact he’d be travelling not all that far to spend time with his other family. How he could maintain this edifice of lies is astounding but he somehow manages and became rather good at it. This house of cards comes down in a shattering moment, all provoked by the son of one of his families, Philip (Logan Miller) who goes on spring break to just the town where Frank’s other family is located. Philip learns the deception and tries to blackmail his dad, then becomes an accomplice. And just when you think Frank’s luck will continue, all is exposed before both spouses in a catastrophic moment. Bailey, who has long has a career in film as producer of such quirky pictures as Swiss Army Man (2016) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), told a post-screening Q & A at the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF) that she loves “to push people’s buttons.” Her films are “funny and provocative” at the same time. She indeed pushes the buttons in this film, with a zany performance by Gaffigan and all-around good acting by the largely child and teenage cast. This, folks, is comedy that will leave a knot at the pit of your stomach.

Meanwhile, during the Q & A, Bailey and You Can Choose star Samantha Mathis (as one of Frank’s wives) told of a new female-oriented website created to be a counterpart to such movie review aggregated sites as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It features women critics and is called Bailey spoke of how film criticism is largely dominated by males. Nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s just that being male, men may see a film differently from women.. 

The Gasparilla International Film Festival continues until Sunday in Tampa, Fla.

Friday, March 22, 2019

This inspired the Stockholm Syndrome?

Hard to believe, but the 1973 bank heist which inspired the term Stockholm Syndrome, in many ways was a two-bit affair and so over the top that the new film, Stockholm, by Canadian director Robert Budreau, had to leave out certain aspects of it because they were too incredible. Budreau was in attendance last night for the film’s screening at the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF) here in Tampa, Fla. Budreau also directed 2015’s Born to Be Blue about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Both films star Ethan Hawke. In Stockholm, Hawke plays Lars Nystrom, the crazed bank robber, wearing a wig, cowboy hat and big map of Texas on the back of his jacket, who waves a submachine gun over startled bank customers and employees. Quickly he expels most of them but keeps a few tellers hostage. A siege ensues as the befuddled Stockholm police surround the building. Of course, we know that the hostages (kind of) bonded with their captors. The film is good enough, I suppose, and Hawke – a personal favorite – gives a sufficiently exciting performance as the zany psychotic robber. But, apparently true to actual events, the movie seems so off the wall – almost a mockumentary - that it took away my breath, and, uh, my judgment. I still can’t believe this incident occurred the way it did. Okay, I’ll give the film two-and-a-half out of four stars.

The other film I caught at the festival yesterday (part of the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival component) was Mexico’s Leona, directed by Isaac Cherem. Ariela (Naian González Norvind) is a young mural artist who lives in a cloistered Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City. She meets a non-Jew, Ivan (Christian Vazquez), falls in love and they move in together. But she fears telling her family about the relationship. Sure enough she’s ostracized and her family tries to set her up with nice Jewish men, with whom she has little in common. The film evokes well the tyranny of family and the intolerance that can be part of any religious, racial or cultural group. Norvind plays her role effortlessly as an independently minded young woman trying to weave herself through society’s norms. 

The Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF), combined with the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, continues until Sunday.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Two amazing directorial debuts

Whoa! If these two films are any indication of the talents of a new crop of directors coming on to the horizon then moviemaking will be in good hands indeed……The first film, as screened yesterday at the Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF) in Tampa, is the directorial debut of Noble Jones. It’s called The Tomorrow Man, and stars the estimable John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. Lithgow plays Ed Hemsler, a 70-something retiree who lives alone near a small town in upstate New York. He’s one of these guys who follows news incessantly, frequents chat rooms (even in his underwear), and harbors paranoid fantasies about disasters and nuclear holocaust – in a word, a survivalist.  In fact, he has gradually built a storehouse of food and non-perishables should the world as we know it implodes or indeed explodes. “I just want to be ready,” he says in the most matter of fact way. One day, at the supermarket, he spots a woman of his own age, Ronnie Meisner (Danner), who turns out to be a bit of an eccentric herself. She accepts an invitation to drop by his house and they sit on the couch watching war documentaries. Ronnie herself is a hoarder. Her biggest criticism of Ed: “You always think about tomorrow but I’m here right now.” For a first-time director Jones has an accomplished hand, combining absorbing nuanced pacing with an appropriate offbeat score, while extracting wonderful performances from these two great actors.

Then there was Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit, starring Elle Fanning. Minghella has welded together an American Idle type plot with crisp editing and a fantastic performance by Fanning, who must be seen to be believed. The story starts out in a Polish immigrant household on the Isle of Wight (Fanning’s Polish is flawless) where Violet (Fanning), a public school student and singer in the church choir, has bigger, much bigger, ambitions: to win the British Teen Spirit contest, possibly land a recording contract, and become a star for the ages. Along the way she’s helped by an unlikely character, Vlad (Zlatko Burić), a scruffy one-time opera star who happens to live in the same village. He recognizes her talent and appoints himself her manager. Yes, the plot is pretty formulaic. We watch as Violet rehearses and wins local and regional auditions before travelling to London for the nationwide contest. But it’s Fanning’s acting composure, verve and raw talent  (she had a singing coach for the role) that make for an extraordinary singing and dancing performance, enough to bring tears to your eyes. 

The Gasparilla International Film Festival continues until Sunday in the Tampa Bay area.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Entertaining performances in unbelievable story

The Hummingbird Project, which opened the Gasparilla International Film Festival last night here in Tampa, Fla., and was released widely in theatres this week, is a feather in the cap to Montreal director Kim Nguyen, whose respectable 2012 War Witch, about child soldiers in Africa, I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival several years ago. Now, in this new Canadian-Belgian co-production, Nguyen has achieved such status he’s attracted stars like Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård and Salma Hayek to be part of his solely-written feature. And while this flic has its entertaining moments, mainly as a result of the amusing acting of Eisenberg and Skarsgård, and keeps the audience focused because of its madcap plot, there’s a certain unbelievability to it all. Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton (Skarsgård) are cousins working in an elite Wall Street trading firm run by Eva Torres (Hayek), a kind of Cruella de Vil who terrorizes her staff. Vincent and Anton, tech geniuses, hatch a plot to create a faster way to game the market and consequently make millions of dollars, allowing trades to be done one millisecond (the flap of a hummingbird’s wing) faster than current computer programs. To do so they have to build a straight-line pipe for fiber optic from a computer center in Kansas, 1000 miles east to the New York Stock Exchange servers in New Jersey. This is where the plot gets downright silly and you can suspend disbelief, but really? This twosome has to acquire land on all manner of private and public property to dig the line, which would be an infrastructure nightmare for even the biggest engineering company.  And yet there’s Vincent and his underground drilling specialist pal Mark (Michael Mando) plodding through countless properties in cities, suburbs, farmland and wilderness, to obtain property owners’ consent. Given how long it takes to get any engineering project built these days it’s beyond belief these newbies would be able to do it all within a year or two. Meanwhile, Eva, who accuses the twosome of stealing her algorithms, shows up in various places to harass them. Our heroes also suffer personal trials, which makes the audience want to cheer them on even more. Eisenberg and Skarsgård are actually great in these roles and Hayek’s many fans will see her in all her navigator-glasses-spiked heels-no-nonsense splendor. But, really, The Hummingbird Project is cotton candy for the easily amused.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Thin on plot, thick on travel

Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre, The Maple Theater and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor) continues the British director’s eclectic offerings of film themes. If you’ve caught any of his fun culinary road movies with comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden such as The Trip to Italy (2014), or even his 2002’s 24 Hour Party People – about the punk rock scene of Manchester England including the great bands Joy Division and New Order – you might be surprised that Winterbottom can change focus on a dime and create a movie centred on an international mystery that spans the South Asian subcontinent. But Winterbottom is no stranger to that type of intrigue, having made, among others, A Mighty Heart (2007) about the terrorist killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, and In This World, about a couple of young Afghan refugees escaping to the West. Still, The Wedding Guest is as much a mystery for the viewer as the subject itself. The movie opens with Jay (Dev Patel of Danny Boyle’s 2008 Slumdog Millionaire fame), of South Asian heritage, packing for a flight from London to Pakistan. After landing, he rents a car, drives well into the country’s hinterland, and buys a couple of pistols. Late one evening, wearing a mask, he creeps up on a remote house where a wedding is soon to take place. The next we see is his kidnapping of Samira (Radhika Apte). Is Jay a terrorist? Not in the political sense. He eventually unbinds her and wins her trust when he tells her he was trying to steal her away from what would have been a very unhappy arranged marriage. From here the movie evolves into a road trip. And what a trip! Anyone fascinated by travel to Pakistan and India might be interested in checking out this flic for that purpose alone. The scenes of the twosome in various Indian cities such as Amritsar and Delhi, literally on highways and byways by rental car, train, bus (including one that seems to be a sleeper coach) and motorcycle, blends traditional Third World backdrops with the modernism of cell phones and the Internet. A viewer might think, ‘Hey, if I can stay connected in India maybe it’s worth a trip after all.’ Now, about that plot. There’s the kidnapping and release, and a relationship of sorts emerges. There’s also intrigue in the way of found loot, of sorts. And that’s about it. The story turns into (rather predictably) a romance and a travel yarn for today’s backpackers and Airbnb set. I’d recommend seeing the film for those reasons alone. But don’t be surprised if you’re confused by the thin plot.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A return to space, like it actually was

One week, three films – to date! First Greta (Neil Jordan) starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, then Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi) featuring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, and then the IMAX documentary Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller). I am currently in Florida so all these films might not be available on the home front…..The best is the amazing Apollo 11, made for the 50th anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon. The film, using original sourced footage with no contemporary addition, voice overs, or interviews, captures the Apollo 11 eight-day mission from blast off to splash down, in incredible video that will have you riveted to the huge screen, sometimes in split or several images. The only thing contemporary is Mike Morton’s exciting soundtrack. Everything else, from the original audio recordings of Launch Command and Mission Control and astronaut communications, to renowned CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s reportage (he’s as synonymous with the space program as the astronauts), is the real thing. Never seen before footage of the launch site - including scenes of thousands of spectators gathered to view it - and the recovery of the charred capsule in the Pacific and on USS Hornet, are also featured. Refreshingly, the film takes a straight forward approach as in “this is exactly how it happened.” It injects no politics or opinion; indeed, the film almost invokes patriotic feelings, and shows a world that doesn’t exist anymore.…..Iranian filmmaker Asghar Fardahi’s (A Separation, 2011) Everybody Knows is a psychological twister set in a small Spanish village. Extended family are gathered for a wedding. But then one of the family members disappears.  This is just the opening of a far-reaching story into the motives of the kidnappers and wider family secrets. Good performances all around in a drama about the psychological scars of past crimes, real or imagined…..I wish I could say I loved Neil Jordan’s (whose most famed movie is the long ago 1992 breakthrough The Crying Game) Greta. And Isabelle Huppert, the incredibly versatile French actress, is fine indeed. In fact, it’s probably only worth going to see this movie to watch her - Huppert makes for a very scary psychopath. The problem is the movie is formulaic and almost laughable at times in how it’s contrived, including the cliched musical score. And a big turnoff was the artificial settings. The story is supposed to be set in New York but Toronto dubs for some scenes such as the beginning when it’s obvious the Toronto subway is a stand for New York’s.