Friday, July 26, 2019

A cinematheque in your own computer

It’s a wonderful world we live in when we can have our own cinematheques right in our very own computers. Of course, there’s Netflix, but for the real art house experience you have to go to the Criterion Channel. Here are some of the films I’ve been watching….At long last I saw the 1968 Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment by  Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. This is a Cuban and art house classic that is a reflection on the Cuban Revolution through the eyes of one man, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri). I didn’t know what to expect – was the film a documentary, agitprop? In fact, the film unspools as a personal narrative or drama that combines observations of Cuban society with aspects of the protagonist’s own life. Though released in 1968 most of the movie seems to have been shot in the early Sixties, right after Castro seized power. This is not just a compelling personal tale but a peek into what Cuban society was like as it transitioned from dictatorship to communism….Then there was Girlfriends,
Claudia Weill’s 1978 film, which I’d caught back in the day but barely remembered. Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt is an aspiring photographer trying to get by in New York, dealing with frustrated career ambitions, friendlessness, and the unpredictability of romance. Some of the acting is stilted but the low budget feature starring Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest and Bill Balaban nevertheless is an absorbing look into the ebb and flow of personal relationships…..From the French we’d expect stories about the subtleties, charms and unpredictability of romance. And I watched two gems from the French New Wave of the early 1960s – François Truffaut's Antoine and Colette (1962) and Éric Rohmer’s The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963). Both are relatively short; why aren’t short films screened before feature films in theatres? In Antoine and Collette, Francois’s famous actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud, who appears in numerous of his films, plays Antoine, who has the hots for Colette
(Marie-France Pisier). They seem to have a lot in common – classical music, the arts generally. He makes a move for her after a concert and she warms to him. But it’s not as he expects. Anyone who’s had a crush on someone that seems reciprocated will identify with this sad emotional truth. The Bakery Girl of Monceau is about a kind of romantic ruthlessness. A young man on a Paris street keeps crossing paths with a young woman and decides to one day to approach her. She tells him they could get together but right now she’s busy. But weeks go by and he never sees her again. Meanwhile, a clerk in a bakery takes a shine to him. Not his type but he agrees to go out with her anyway. Then the first woman reappears.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Anti-abortion film deserves to be shown

Unplanned, the docudrama based on the memoir by former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson (played by Ashley Bratcher), is now playing in selected Canadian theaters for a limited time. It has already played in hundreds of US theatres, controversial or not. I caught it Tuesday at Silver City in Windsor. (The theatre was almost full taking into consideration it was discount Tuesday night.) The abortion rights movement has called the film “anti-abortion propaganda” and “preaches an absolutist and extreme case against abortion.” Threats of violence have already resulted in two theatres elsewhere in Canada cancelling the film. Even the Prime Minister’s office has weighed in against Unplanned. But despite public pressure not to run the film Cineplex Entertainment has done the right thing by screening it, albeit in a very limited number of theatres in select markets, apparently where there is public demand for the movie perhaps based on pockets of the country with large conservative or Christian populations. Whatever the reason, good for them. Because showing Unplanned is nothing less than upholding the principle of freedom of speech…….Now, about the movie. It’s very funny to see the disparity between the critics’ view of Unplanned on Rotten Tomatoes – a dismal 45% approval – versus the general public’s view – a rave 91 per cent. Critics, who if not denouncing it as being “propaganda” or simplistic, disparage, from a cinematic perspective, the film with words like, “mediocre production values and subpar performances,” “bland competence,” “bland acting, boring writing.” I’ll admit the film isn’t particularly complex and has a cable TV straight-forward narrative, the acting perhaps a bit stilted at times. Nevertheless, it held my attention and the production was good enough, which is better than what I can say for a lot of “nuanced” films. Unplanned has been deeply criticized for portraying the horror of the abortion process, though it does cite speaking points of the pro-choice side, such as a woman needing to control her own body and depicting the sometimes obnoxiousness of anti-abortion protesters. The shot of a fetus fighting against being sucked out of the womb and the blood that comes with it, or the fetal tissue falling on a shower floor after a self-aborting RU-486 pill, are indeed cringing to watch. There is also the POC (nicknamed Pieces of Children) clinic room where fetuses are manually put back together to ensure no parts are left in the mother and where even clinic staff first shudder. And the alleged bureaucratic authoritarian atmosphere of Planned Parenthood comes into focus with a new quota announced for performing abortions. “Abortions are our fries and soda,” says the regional PP director (Robia Scott), a reference to the fact abortions, unlike advice on contraceptives, pays the organization’s rent. Abby is also irrationally reprimanded for speaking up in a staff meeting. To be fair, Johnson’s memoir has been challenged. But that’s no reason to ban or even threaten this movie. Let’s put the facts on the table and let the public decide what's right and wrong. Shame on those seeking otherwise.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Pavarotti human through and through

Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s new film (at the Maple and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor) about the famed tenor who died in 2007 will please opera lovers and those who don’t even know a lot about opera. It’s a splendid, easy going tribute to the man and the voice who was a legend in both the world and non-world of opera in the late 20th century. It’s also very human or at least portrays someone who is very human. Pavarotti was rather humble and full of life, and despite his acclaim, always had stomach-churning worries about his performances immediately before setting foot on the stage. His biggest claim to fame was from his ability as a tenor (an unnatural voice) to reach High C notes. He loved his family, Italian food (he’d have a suitcase of Italian specialties as he toured), people and zest for life. But despite the mostly favorable portrait the singer was not entirely a saint. The film depicts two affairs, with his lovers interviewed for the picture. Even his former wife Adua Veroni speaks laudably and no doubt after much consternation concludes Pavarotti’s philandering was indicative of his very human self. Pavarotti perhaps most famously brought opera to a mass audience transcending its elitist status - at least by today’s standards but just the way opera traditionally had always been received in Italy. After all, his association with José Carreras and Plácido Domingo as the Three Tenors created stadium-filling sensations.  And, a little-known fact to me, he performed in the 1990s with rock starts like Sting, Bono and Stevie Wonder. He broke categories and rules (earlier he sang for his wife’s record label contravening an exclusivity contract with Decca but his personal response was to hell with it if he couldn’t be happy; Decca gave in and bought the label!) One comment about the film’s technical aspect. It uses video from only 20 or 30 years ago yet the quality is often uneven and blotchy. Was film stock that bad such a short time ago?