Monday, April 29, 2019

Windsor Jewish Film Festival set for 17th year

This is my piece for the Detroit Jewish News on the 17th edition of the Windsor Jewish Film Festival, which gets underway tonight.

The 17th edition of the Ruth and Bernard Friedman Windsor Jewish Film Festival features 10 films over four days from April 29 to May 2, including the acclaimed new documentary Who Will Write Our History.
The film is about a group of writers who kept a secret trove of documents chronicling their conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto. It will be screened opening night.
The festival, Windsor’s oldest movie fest, typically features films that celebrate or depict Jewish culture, including those about the Holocaust.
This year the lineup includes the comedy Humor Me starring Elliot Gould, the documentary Back to Berlin, about a group of Israeli motorcyclists who travel to Berlin for the Maccabi Games, retracing the ride of their forefathers before World War II. There’s also the film 93 Queen, about a group of Hasidic women in Brooklyn who create the first all-female ambulance corps. And the Israeli film Shoelaces is a funny but poignant story of the relationship between a father and his autistic son.
The festival has long had a dedicated group of programmers who choose from dozens of films for the event, held at the Devonshire Mall’s Cineplex Odeon theatre. They select movies based on what has been screened at other festivals and obtain screeners from film distributors.
“We have a committee that typically looks at 60 to 90 films a year to pick the 10 for our festival,” said spokesman and Windsor Jewish Community Centre executive director Jay Katz.
Katz said the fact the festival screens only 10 films means it’s showing pretty much the cream of the crop. “With 10 we’re pretty much getting award winners,” he said.
Katz said the programmers try to create a diverse program.
“They try to make sure there’s some light-hearted ones because in the genre of Jewish-themed films there’s a lot about the Holocaust,” he said. But he added it’s “important to include” the message of the Holocaust because of its centrality to Jewish history.
The festival was originally connected with the Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival, which takes place this May. But it went its separate way many years ago because of a different film distribution system in Canada.
The festival was started by Ruth and Bernard Friedman, philanthropists who were known for organizing a popular community picnic.
“But, you know, tastes change and communities change and they realized 17 years ago that it would evolve to having the film festival because the whole community would and does come together for this,” Katz said.
The festival has almost two dozen sponsors and with ticket sales it turns a profit, which goes to support Jewish community programs.
New this year is an educational component for high school students.
Drawing on funding from the Windsor-based Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation the festival opened its film vault of more than 100 titles from almost two decades, and school boards picked films to teach about the Holocaust.
“We gave them a list of all the films, they went through them and they took some to screen for their students,” Katz said.
One of them is Defiant Requiem, about the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt and a young composer’s efforts to build morale through the performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Another is Sarah’s Key, the story of a 10-year-old girl during the round-up of Jews in Paris in 1942. A third is Le Voyage de Fanny, about the daring escape of school children to Switzerland.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Back to TCM on a dreary weekend

When the movie theatres just aren’t offering much to see, and the weather is dreary and you don’t feel like going outside, there’s always Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  Last Friday and Saturday, lying on the couch, I ended up watching a lot of films…

Let’s start with Orson Welles’s 1962 take on Franz Kafka’s The Trial. I’d caught glimpses of this before but never the entire thing. The Trial opens with the dramatic Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni, a piece that resonates throughout. Anthony Perkins plays Joseph K., the bureaucrat who is arrested without knowing his charges. The entire film is made as an extended dream sequence, and that’s its brilliant aspect. Dreams are absurd with no apparent rational endings. The film is set in the then abandoned Gare D’Orsay railway station in Paris (though we don’t know that), now a fabulous art museum. Welles loved the building’s long passageways, cramped corridors and endless rooms opening on to others. The film also stars Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Welles himself as The Advocate or Joseph K’s would be lawyer. Part of it was filmed in Yugoslavia, where an exhibition hall was converted into a vast office with hundreds of office workers pounding away on their typewriters, faceless mass organization style. The film is draggy in parts and overly long but its recreation of a dream, the shadowy and dark cinematography by Edmond Richard, and Perkins’s acting, are what makes this a classic. 

Let’s now go to 1961’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (directed by famed New York theatre director José Quintero, his only film), based on the novel by Tennessee Williams and starring Vivien Leigh. Leigh has never seemed more elegant and that's saying something. As Karen Stone, a middle-aged recent widower, and theatrical star, she embarks on a reprieve from the mania of the New York theatre world - an indefinite spring vacation in Rome. With her riches she acquires a luxury apartment, which happens to be at the top of the Spanish Steps. Living a quiet life, she occasionally rendezvous with old friends. At one point she is set up by a high class madame (Lotte Lenya) who runs an escort service for the wealthy. The escort is Paolo (Warren Beatty, effecting a convincing enough Italian accent though you still might smile). However, Leigh as Stone is the entire story, and she, and it, are magnificent. It’s not that a whole lot takes place in the plot but that’s what also makes the film excellent. Leigh’s Stone is glamorous, smart, withdrawn, icy and ambiguous, all expressed through the most subtle facial looks and gestures. This is a film that is wonderfully slow and studied and the viewer accordingly hangs on to every slight moment. 

Other fil
ms I watched were The Secret Garden (Fred M. Wilcox, 1949) starring child actor Margaret O’Brien as Mary, Herbert Marshall as her strange and estranged uncle, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Mary’s sickly and tempestuous cousin. The story, based on the 1911 novel, is a children’s fable for the ages. In it, in essence, the children take over a stuffy old mansion with stuffy old people and, yes, an overgrown garden, and transform it and them……Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) is among the first of a genre of Australian films that captivated the art house cinema world through the 1970s and 80s. Based on what might have been a true story, a girls'  school class circa 1900 goes on an afternoon picnic to Hanging Rock, a remote geological formation. As the afternoon transpires some of the girls go missing. The remaining two-thirds of the film focusses on how the survivors deal with this trauma. The plot is circular and inconclusive and while elements like costumes are excellent and Russell Boyd’s cinematography creates a dreamy languor, the film is overall unsatisfying……For sheer early-1960s madcap comedy 1963’s Palm Springs Weekend is another prime example of the genre. Directed by Norman Taurog (who made a number of Elvis films) and starring Jerry Van Dyke, Jack Weston, Connie Stevens and Stefanie Powers, the “kids” are on a weekend break from college and you can imagine the antics……Finally, William Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven, recreates pivotal moments of  Emily Brontë’s romantic triangle of Heathcliff (Olivier), Cathy (Oberon) and Edgar (Niven), in almost “it was a dark and stormy night” mode courtesy camera work by the famed Gregg Toland. But you don’t recognize Niven without the moustache!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

For some, the ennui of everyday life

For some people, life is never quite fulfilling enough. You try and you try and you try but heartache seems to be around every bend, a metaphor in the movie Diane, directed by Kent Jones, opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre. Diane, a woman in her early 70s, is forever driving from one place to another, and the film uses scenes from the front window of her car as she rounds bends in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Most of the time the sky is gray and the scenes of what are normally a beautiful region are dreary in the early winter gloom countryside and downtrodden working-class streets of towns like Pittsfield. Diane is played by Mary Kay Place, whom we normally think of as an offbeat comedian dating back to her role as Mary Hartman’s best friend in the hit 1970s classic Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Thought she’s had a varied and continuing career since then I must confess the last roles I well remember her in was as Meg in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 The Big Chill and as Rona in Brett Haley’s 2015 I’ll See You in My Dreams. In Diane the focus is squarely on her, as she portrays a lower-class single mother, with a drug addicted adult son, Brian (Jake Lacy), and a circle of friends who are nearing the age of no return. In fact, three of them die during the short period, around Christmas, when the story is set. Diane’s life is ho hum and no different from numerous nondescript lower to middle class women just trying to get by in a world where there is often little to cheer about. She constantly fights with Brian, even when he converts to Evangelical Christianity. Her dying best friend Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), still accuses her of betrayal for stealing her boyfriend that long-ago summer on Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Diane tries to do what she can. She brings food to friends and volunteers at a soup kitchen. But a kind of depressing ennui nags her - ”I’ve done some damage in my life” - and she eventually seeks solace in what may or may not be a personal salvation. Place is up to the task in this character study, where the camera is on her in almost every scene. The film is an ensemble of mostly women including Andrea Martin as Bobbie and Estelle Parsons as Mary. This is not an uplifting film, and there is seemingly no redemption for any of the characters. This is just about life as it sometimes is, and that’s all.

Friday, April 5, 2019

A hedonistic bore

Full disclosure: The only reason I went to see The Beach Bum was as a nod to my SO, who has a celebrity crush on Matthew McConaughey. True, The New York Times had a major review of the flic by Harmony Korine, author of such classics as Spring Breakers (2012) and Trash Humpers (2009), so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? What it is, is one long monotonous depiction of debauchery in the form of Moondog, an inveterate hedonist. In fact, this character's got to be the hedonist’s hedonist. Nothing wrong with that. Pleasure and its pursuits should be a human priority, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, right? We first meet Moondog on a wharf in – where else? – Key West, Florida. He’s the partying boisterous best friend to all, with a joint in one hand and can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other. And a perpetual womanizer, though you’ve got to wonder what the attraction is. Okay, I’m not a woman, but he’s dirty, slobbery, not to mention a world class slob. But there’s an inkling of intelligence within that stoned bonhomie. Every once in awhile he sits down at a small portable typewriter (no laptop for him) and drums out stories that actually have critical value. He’s a kind of anti-establishment South Florida Charles Bukowski, the west coast skid row poet. He even recites a line of Baudelaire. The problem with this movie is that it’s simply one long stretch of the same thing. After about 20 minutes you get tired of the endless partying, craziness, outrageousness. You’ve got to wonder whether a character such as Moondog, in real life, at some point would have dropped the boozing, donned suit and tie, and found a job at an insurance company, just to break the sameness. I understand the filmmakers had a very good time on the set (which also features Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron and, appropriately, Jimmy Buffett) and one can easily see why. But what they’ve released on us, poor viewers, is unrelenting boredom in the form of hedonistic boorishness. 

Monday April 8 marks the debut of the new subscription-based Criterion Collection online movie channel. It rose from the ashes of the former art house website FilmStruck, which closed late last year. Unlike FilmStruck, however, The Criterion Channel will be available to moviegoers in the United States and Canada. Films in April include everything from those of David Lynch to Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Susanne Bier.  

One of the hidden gems of film festivals in the Detroit area is the annual Italian Film Festival, which is taking place all this month at various locations. The festival, sponsored by the Italian Consulate in Detroit, is absolutely free, and brings North American filmgoers a selection of contemporary Italian film. It opened April 3 and runs until May 5.