Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Thompson saves an underwhelming Late Night

Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra (a Canuck from Vancouver, by the way) is not as funny as the trailer would have you believe. The best laughs come in the first 20 minutes or so, with pokes at late night TV host Katherine Newbury’s (Emma Thompson) stale monologues and uptightness, along with idiot employees and political correctness. But then the movie turns into a quasi-comedy as we start feeling Newbury’s pain after being told by new network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) that she’s being replaced by a vulgar YouTube by way of comedy club comedian (in 2019 is there any other kind, I ask sarcastically), played by Daniel Tennant. Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel, and a real-life TV and movie star of the moment who wrote this movie’s screenplay, arrives on the scene. In Late Night, she has no TV background but wins a contest to choose a company she admires to try out a work assignment at. From the trailer, I’d expected an outspoken off the wall acerbic personality. Instead Kaling’s Patel is as serious as studying in the library on a Saturday night. But her earnestness is her redeeming feature and she doesn’t hold back telling Newbury what’s wrong with her show. The problem, in a nutshell, is Newbury’s WASPish superiority and highbrow demeanor and how her program is so out of touch with average people (kind of like a PBS or CBC program – ha ha - as opposed to what you’d find on a mainstream network). Newbury is so above it all she hasn’t even met her writers, nor have they ever been on her stage. This seems rather far-fetched; in fact, how could someone like Newbury even keep a show in private television for as long as she has? Patel pointedly tells her she has to loosen up, invite popular culture guests that are anathema to the show host, and get “political.” One of her first new jokes is about Republican male politicians wanting to ban abortion. (Why is it always Republicans who are the target of jokes?) And Newbury gets out on the street interviewing black people who can’t hail a cab because of their skin color. The best part of the movie is Thompson, very much a complete actress with naturalness, verve and indeed humor. What did I wish for and didn’t get from Late Night? More frequent one liners and sight gags and general send ups of the culture of late-night TV and network programming. For a comedy this is a tad serious. 

Murder Mystery (Netflix) directed by Kyle Newacheck, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. We’ve seen this kind of plot before. Average US couple – this time from Brooklyn – goes on delayed Honeymoon to Europe, only to be caught up with rogues and be the centre of a murder mystery. Like Murder on the Orient Express only on a yacht. There are the predictable jokes with the ordinary American couple matching wits with Euro sophistos. But the script, directing and acting just doesn’t quite deliver.

Performance (Criterion Channel). Hard to believe I’d never seen this 1970 film by Nicolas Roeg starring Mick Jagger, though I’ve heard the songs from the soundtrack dozens of times. But what a mess the movie turns out to be. The story centers around Chas/Johnny Dean (James Fox), a vicious gang banger who seeks refuge in an apartment owned by Turner (Jagger, who plays an obscure rock star). Fox is so good he put the chills in me and Jagger isn’t bad at all in his acting debut; calm and collected just like ‘ol Mick always is. But the plot is convoluted with all kinds of needless cul de sacs and arcane references. Then again it was 1970.

Career Girls (Criterion Channel). Mike Leigh’s 1997 film about female friends takes place in the present and the past, constantly switching between the two. The past is the 1980s when roommates Annie (Lynda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) are rather thrown together in a student apartment. Both have weird tics and behavioral issues. Annie is nervous and seems to have Tourette’s; she keeps jerking her head around. Hannah is uber aggressive. A decade later they have settled down and their behavior is more subdued. The plot is strictly stream of consciousness or cinéma verité as they go about their daily lives. But it still made me ask: why do I care? Kudos, however, to both actors for having put on extremely natural performances.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Souvenir of what, and Rocketman flies only so high

I am all for subtle, glacier-moving, incrementally-plodding plot, dialogue-heavy films. So long, that is, as they are interesting, whether it be through the plot itself, the characters’ interaction, the cinematography or shooting cuts. But I have to draw the line in part with The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s new film currently at the Main Art Theatre (and screening at WIFF’s Summer Series in August). This story, which may be semi-autobiographical, is about a young filmmaker Julie’s (Honor Swinton Byrne) coming of age in London circa early 1980s. Well, it’s really about Julie and her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke). Julie is supported in relative student luxury by her landed gentry parents (her mother portrayed by the actress’s real mother Tilda Swinton). And she’s romantically involved with a supposedly high class and intellectual twit, whom she’s mad about despite his substantial shortfalls. And that’s about all there is, folks. Perhaps certain film critics (92% approval in Rotten Tomatoes) have been taken in by the film’s slowness, minimal dialogue, shotgun shots and other “atmospheric” touches. Which would all be good if the film had anything to say beyond its strict portrayal of two people, who could really be any 20-somethings in the confusing part of early adulthood.

I’ve always been a fan of Elton John – how can you not be? - but didn’t have a particular interest in seeing Dexter Fletcher’s (and the real Elton John-approved since he’s executive producer) $40 million biopic, Rocketman, about one our era’s top music makers and flamboyant rock stars. I went to see anyway and the film turned out as suspected. But first things first. Taron Egerton as John sports an uncanny likeness and his singing is almost, but not quite, John’s voice. That’s alright; we know this is a movie – approximation is fine. And Egerton, who must know this role was a high bar, should be applauded for persisting in it as well as he does. Otherwise, the plot is one of those depicted by flashbacks - kind of hackneyed don’t you think? – which combines, a la magic realism, different parts of John’s life, such as childhood, with images of his later career. In many ways this movie is an out and out musical with several just-good-fun dance sequences. The best parts - in fact they're exhilarating - are depicting Elton in performance. The rest – his boyhood, meeting song writer Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), coming to terms with his gay identity, alcoholism and drug addiction, all pass the test as credible filmmaking. But for an overall filmgoing experience the movie deserves a B.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The best film I've seen in weeks

The best film I have seen in recent weeks has been the Netflix-produced The Motive (Manuel Martin Cuenca, 2017), yet another Netflix original made in Spain. (Nothing against Spain, I personally love the place and love watching films set there, but the country must offer some mighty awesome film tax credits.) I suppose you could say this film is Hitchcockian but I hate too many references to the suspense master. Yet there’s no question there’s an homage to Hitch’s Rear Window (1954). The Motive is more a psychological thriller than anything else, with our antihero Álvaro (Javier Gutiérrez), a notary and would-be writer, descending into a kind of madness over his writing. Admonished by his creative writing instructor (Antonio de la Torre) that he apes popular novelists and must write from his own experience, Álvaro takes him to heart - a little too much. He begins spying on neighbors and creates elaborate manipulations to set up scenarios which would make ideal plot points. My only quibble with the film is towards the end when the police lay a charge against an individual but it’s questionable whether that individual should in fact be charged, therefore falsely extending the film’s own plot point.

The White Crow (2018), which I caught at The Maple Theater last month but which is no longer screening but will be coming to WIFF’s year-round line-up in July, is a competently-made third film from the man we usually think of as an actor, and he acts in this movie as well. It’s about the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, from his discovery in the old Soviet Union in the 1950s up to his defection in Paris in 1961. Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko is a great stand-in for perhaps the most famous ballet dancer of the last century. And Fiennes is convincing as his instructor Alexander Pushkin. The sets and costumes are authentic but what comes across most is Nureyev’s steely individualism, wrapped in arrogance, that breaks through the Soviet state’s bureaucracy and wins freedom to the West.

I Am Not an Easy Man (2018) another Netflix original, set in Paris, directed by Éléonore Pourriat and starring Vincent Elbaz as Damien, is a film I’d been avoiding because it seemed a little too post-modern cute. But I succumbed and watched and was rather delighted. It’s a bizarre, very quirky film with a plot you’re constantly trying to get your head around but mainly leaves a smile on your face – throughout. I’m not entirely sure what the point was but Pourriat plays with all kinds of gender stereotypes and in fact massively reverses roles with men assuming the status of victims and trying to promote their “masculism” efforts, a mirror of feminism. Is the film using irony to make a point about women’s current status? Probably. But this script is far from politically correct and in fact the theme is so joyfully convoluted and sliced and diced you can read all kinds of interpretations into it, if you can interpret it at all.