Sunday, September 29, 2019

Four films hopefully coming to a theatre near you

Here are four capsule reviews of films I saw recently at New York art house cinemas, which may or may not be coming to a cinema in the Detroit-Windsor area, with the caveat that some of these may end up at the Windsor International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 10, getting underway in just a month’s time!

The Load (Ognjen Glavonić) is a 2018 Serbian film that takes place during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. Valada, played by Leon Lučev, gets hired to drive a truck from Kosovo – site of massive NATO bombing – to Belgrade. He doesn’t know what’s in the van (he doesn’t ask employers) and must navigate through treacherous and bombed out roads to the capital. The film has been compared to The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzet, 1953) but other than driving a truck on a perilous journey it isn’t edge of seat stuff.  What it is is a nuanced emotional drama as the workaday stiff Valada prosaically carries out his assignment. The subtlety of the acting is what matters and Lučev puts in an exceptional performance. 

Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple delves into the world of an estranged Asian-American family in Los Angeles. Kasie (Tiffany Chu) must resort to prostitution to pay for her dying father’s care while her layabout brother Carey (Teddy Lee) is ambivalent about pitching-in. The film is entitled “Purple” for an obvious on screen reference but the movie is thematically a noir, pitting good against evil in a maelstrom of corruption in Koreatown’s underworld. Great directing and acting.

Loro is yet another extravagant - and in some ways a choreographed masterpiece – by Paolo Sorrentino, a depiction of the gluttony of over the top materialism among Italy’s extreme upper class. In this case the subject is disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his crowd of handlers and groupies (Loro is Italian for “them”). Like his 2013 film The Great Beauty, the director is obsessed with the theatre of the decaying elite, rotting before our eyes like overripe fruit, and he shows this through immense displays of bacchanalia. Berlusconi, played by Toni Servillo, comes across as not just corrupt but as an exceedingly charming and persuasive showman, though his speech about being representative of capitalism is nothing but the director’s, who co-wrote the script, own left wing political cant.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is director Stanley Nelson’s tribute to perhaps the greatest modern jazz musician. Nelson covers all the bases in this almost two-hour long film, from the little-known story of Davis growing up in a household of combative parents in East St. Louis, to his joining the Billy Eckstine band and his meeting Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The film is best at pointing out the divide between Davis’s irascible and exceedingly cold exterior and the sublime emotional warmth of his songs, notably on cuts on the revolutionary albums Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. It also doesn’t spare Davis of his well-known personal flaws, indeed bad treatment of women including assaults, and his waves of drug addiction, remerging in the modern rock era as a jazz fusion artist. Strong interviews with various jazz greats (Herbie Hancock, Archie Shepp, Wayne Shorter, among others) give poignant comment, the one flaw being Davis’s most beloved wife Frances Davis who obviously can’t be accused of false modesty.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Back to Hollywood's almost past

I've never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino. Sure, I've enjoyed some of his movies but others I haven't seen. For one thing the guy's pictures are too violent, which seems to make no difference to film critics and audiences who otherwise would denounce violence, gratuitous or not, anywhere else in our precious society. Okay, Tarantino's films are about hoods, bad guys - I get it. There's also something very ironic about the T's movies. They're throwbacks to Golden Age crime stories and film and cultural stereotypes, and he has a lot of fun sending them up. I get that too though after awhile it gets to be a bore. So along now comes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which some reviewers say might end up feasting on the Oscars next winter and perhaps catch the award for best picture. But I hadn't wanted to see this movie because the trailer was full of, yes, Hollywood stereotypes. That's the whole point, Stang! But more than that the story harked back to a pivotal moment in Hollywood, 1969, and the time of the Sharon Tate murders. I lived through that era, thank you very much. The world of 1969, Hollywood or not, is well embedded in my memory; I didn't feel like having to relive it. But, during an otherwise boring afternoon and with not much else on at my local Bijou - and especially since this flick might win best film Oscar! - I caught a matinee with, uh, six other people.....Okay, truth to tell, the almost three hour film is a typical Tarantino lark - humor and irony in multiple layers. Sending up old TV Westerns and the still "straight" officialdom of Hollywood and media types in the late Sixties was a hoot. And Tarantino got exceptional performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a B-grade Western actor and his stuntman sidekick. And Once Upon is a generally entertaining movie to watch. The characters zipping along LA streets to the soundtrack of AM radio commercials and Top 40 hits (though some of the songs strain historical accuracy) was fun. But, but, perhaps it's me but I find it hard to suspend belief in period movies regardless of how authentic the backdrops, and Tarantino should be commended for an 80 per cent success rate in creating the "look" of 1969. The problem here is that the entire thing has a phony, or contrived, appearance. Margot Robbie as starlet Sharon Tate visiting a Westwood theatre to watch herself on screen - check. A Hollywood party who's who, including Mama Cass and Steve McQueen, at the Playboy Mansion (where's Hugh?) - check. Al Pacino as a casting agent in a tacky steakhouse pitching mid-brow Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) for Spaghetti Westerns - check. So, in sum, the whole movie was slightly amusing, good for a few guffaws and, alas, had a very unsettling final scene.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A chilling documentary, and a modern virgin birth?

I’m spending the month in the New York area and films reviewed may or may not coincide with those opening in Metro Detroit.

The Danish film, Cold Case Hammerskjöld, by investigative journalist Mads Brügger, is a fascinating probe into the crash of a plane in Africa in 1961 carrying former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in it. No one had formally concluded a reason for the crash but Brügger goes a long way in piecing together a theory. This film is a serious documentary by any means yet has the patina of a satire with Brügger a kind of merry prankster at the helm of a farcical investigation. He dresses all in white, just like the key person in his conspiracy theory that was allegedly behind the assassination. And he dons the white colonialist’s garb, including pith helmet, as he at one point absurdly uses a metal detector to find debris from the crashed aircraft buried in a field (authorities kick him off the site). As the movie progresses we follow the journalist in a real time sense, as he makes one discovery after another in his investigation, leading to a white supremacist who headed a mercenary operation linked to the South African Apartheid regime. We finally learn that many people had reasons to kill the mild-mannered Dag Hammarskjöld. While the film doesn’t offer conclusive proof of who did it, it comes very close and tells a very chilling story indeed.

Rowan Athale’s Strange But True, from the novel by John Searles, contains a bizarre plot that nevertheless keeps the viewer hooked almost to the end. Melissa (Margaret Qualley), a young woman, turns up pregnant at the suburban home of her one time and several years deceased high school sweetheart Ronnie (Connor Jessup). Ronnie’s brother Philip (Nick Robinson) welcomes her but mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) is appalled and sends her on her way. After all, Melissa claims she is carrying Ronnie’s child! How could this be? The plot becomes a whodunit. Charlene is driven near mad trying to medically understand how the pregnancy is possible – did Ronnie freeze his sperm, could this have even been a virgin birth? Several unlikely characters could also have impregnated Melissa.  But while the film has you hooked, the end turns out to be prosaic and makes you wonder: “is this all?” or “so what!” Ryan, however, is particularly good as the embittered mom and, though I’m a big fan of Blythe Danner, she seemed weak and gives a going-through-the-motions performance as an older grandmotherly type.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Watered down, and quirky familial

I’m in the New York area for the month. Some of the films being reviewed may or may not coincide with movies opening or screening in the Detroit area.

I wanted to shoehorn a couple of films into late afternoon and evening time slots to round out a day in Manhattan, so took myself to Landmark Theatres still new and shining W. 57th Street cinemas, the nicest of any Landmark property I’ve been in with a very cool bar but smallish screening rooms but with deeply upholstered and comfortable seats. The Ooey Gooey Butter Cake Ice Cream was  terrif.

The first film was Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela (Portuguese for watercolor). From newspaper ads the film seemed a knockout about the power of water. So I was expecting massive scenes of water in all its terrifying grandeur. Having just read David McCullough’s Johnstown Flood I had an even great appreciation of water’s force and destructiveness. But I was less than impressed with this documentary. The film opens prosaically on an icy river in Russia where rescue workers find cars that have plunged through the ice. The first half hour of screen time is spent simply showing how vehicles are retrieved including with jerry rigged winches – interesting but hardly edge of seat stuff. The film gets more intriguing as we’re taken along a Nordic coast where glaciers break apart and fall into the sea, generating enormous waves and showery mists. Then there’s a sailboat with a courageous crew slicing through icy and stormy waters. The film abruptly cuts to a warm climate and flooding in Miami, and to a giant waterfall in Venezuela, among other scenes. These are all absorbing shots. But the thought repeatedly went through my mind: how difficult would it have been to simply place a camera and, with a little skill, record these scenes? I concluded it wouldn’t have been all that difficult.

The second film, Hannah Utt’s Before You Know It, is a quirky, farcical very New York story about a theatre family trying to make a living in Greenwich Village. The patriarch Mel is played by Mandy Patinkin and the story revolves around he and his two daughters, Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel, played by the director. The real theme of the movie, despite its offbeat artsy characters, is growing up and taking responsibility. Along the way there are comical and very unlikely twists as the sisters discover a whoopingly unexpected family secret. Patinkin’s portrayal of a demanding eccentric impresario seemed a little stale - ever since Patinkin grew that beard he’s really taken on attitude. Utt’s acting as the serene serious older sister is passible. But the real shining acting comes from Tullock, a joy to watch as she’s naturally spontaneous in a role that more than demands it. Alec Baldwin as a shrink has a small part and Judith Light as the unexpected Sherrell is, well, simply bizarre, appropriately or not.