Friday, November 22, 2019

Film clips

A few capsule reviews of recent theatrically-released films.

Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi) is an almost juvenile black comedy that in pre-screen publicity makes much of the fact it’s employing an historical trope to comment on the modern world’s hatred. Not sure what that means and the entire story is set in a mythological Nazi Germany. There are sight gags and stunts galore as 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) becomes an incompetent member of the Hitler Youth who confides in, yes, Adolph Hitler (played by the director). The film’s problems are that it’s overproduced, the gags not quite timed right and we’ve seen countless versions of Nazi era films, serious and otherwise.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) is a terrific film on several levels. Its screening in an almost square aspect ratio black and white 35 mm print is perfect for both the maudlin outdoor environment and the psychological dismalness of the two characters, Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pettinson). The film, shot in Nova Scotia, takes place at a remote New England lighthouse with Winslow a new “wickie” under the supervision of his master Wake, who bullies him relentlessly. The film not only displays various dimensions of a twosome power struggle but is immersed in hallucinatory images and mythological allegories. And Defoe and Pattinson give it their best.

Give Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton) five stars for its extremely realistic 1950s sets and for Norton’s brilliant performance of a PI with Tourette syndrome. The film is also Norton’s salute to 1950’s noir and works to a point. The complex crime plot delves into wider issues including racism and the era of slum clearing and massive public housing and expressway development with Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, a stand in for the notorious and iconic New York Master Builder Robert Moses. The problem is that the movie’s plot doesn’t sustain enough interest over its more than two hours length.

Notes: Very much looking forward to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, possibly tonight at 10 pm (it clocks in over three hours), as part of the Windsor International Film Festival’s screening of the movie several days this week and next. Kudos to WIFF for scoring exclusive rights to show the film in Windsor.

And next week at Cineplex Silver City, I might be checking out, this time on the big screen,  the great rock film 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom) about the Manchester 1980s music scene featuring Joy Division and New Order.....And I probably shouldn’t miss the British theatrical sensation, Fleabag (Tony Grech-Smith · Vicky Jones), part of the National Theatre Live series. Check for times.....Cineplex is stepping up its screenings of unconventional films and theatrical presentations, particularly in Windsor, and it's something we should be grateful for and is rather overdue. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Reserved seating. What's the point?

I’m not sold on the idea of picking your own seats when buying a ticket at the local bijou. Increasingly, however, theatres are having customers pick their own seats. My first encounter with reserved seating was at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield, MI. a couple of years ago. At first, I thought this was pretty cool – hey, pick your own seats, especially if you arrive early, and you get dibs on what could be some of the better seats in the house! But in a theatre like the Maple, an old-line theatre without stadium seating, even if you pick your seats there’s no guarantee someone taller than you, or more talkative, won’t sit in front, beside, or behind you. Now Windsor’s Cineplex and Imagine theatres, which have stadium seating, have also launched reserved seating. A couple of weeks ago I was waiting in line on a Tuesday night at Silver City to buy a ticket to see The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers). It was a relatively short line so I didn’t bother to buy a ticket at a kiosk. The problem was the line just wasn’t moving quickly. Finally, when I got to the ticket counter the cashier pointed me to a computer screen and said I could choose my seat. Ah ha, I thought to myself, did having customers choose their seats cause the line to move slowly? After all, a customer has to spend some time deciding exactly where they want to seat. They have to figure out where the screen and exits are, what seats have been chosen, and where – just where – they want to sit for optimum viewing. Then, last week, at Lakeshore Cinemas to see Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton), a theatre I hadn’t been to in about a year, there is no more box office with a human ticket seller; instead there is a row of ticket kiosks. Again, the customer is asked to choose their seats. And, like at Cineplex, all seats are stadium seating and really offer no comprised views. An argument for reserved seating is that customers may want to sit in their favorite areas or not on the sides, but if the seats have already been chosen what difference does it make? And with reserved seating, ironically, you’re more limited. If you arrive at your seat and there is a group of talkative people behind you, you now have limited choices about where to move, especially if the theatre is crowded. Sure, you can move but then you may be occupying someone else’s seat. So, reserved seating? Unless you do it online hours before a popular movie to ensure you have seats I don't see the point.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mystery, time travel and the wounds of terrorism

It appears my truncated schedule, due to unforeseen events, at this year’s Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), which ends tonight, has been very heavily weighted towards the festival’s own major focus, in part, on French films. So, here are three more reviews focusing on the festival’s rich French offering, including those featuring some of France’s most famous stars. 

The Mystery of Henri Pick: Director Remi Bezancon’s takes on novelist David Foenkinos’s book is a delightful mystery. Unlike other mysteries, which can be heavy, this one leans to the light side. It also has an intellectual flourish and will surely appeal to anyone who loves books. A publisher (Daphne Despero) discovers an unpublished manuscript by a small-town restaurateur Henri Pick, someone whom his wife describes as never having read a book in his life. The book, a romantic story that plays on a theme from Pushkin, is published and becomes a sensation. However, a famous Parisian critic, played in all his snobbish glory by Fabrice Luchini, has his doubts about the author’s authenticity. Despite meeting opposition everywhere, he perseveres to determine if Pick really wrote the novel.

La Belle Epoque (Nicolas Bedos) is a witty somewhat bizarre film that plays with several themes: nostalgia, time travel and romance (it is French, after all). Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is a washed-up newspaper cartoonist (his newspaper went digital) and a Baby Boomer fossil, who eschews the modern online world and doesn’t own a cell phone. His wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) is the opposite – an aggressive adapter who belittles her husband for his dormant and slovenly ways. Their marriage reaches a breaking point. As it happens, there is a production company that caters to people who want to revisit the past. A despondent Victor decides to return to 1974 and a café where he first met Marianne. It’s the hirsute 70s alright, complete with strumming folk singers, vest sweaters and smoke-filled bars. The story is a trip down memory lane and a rather innovative one at that. The directing, with constant screen switches and a sort of film within a film as the production crew tries to stage personal historical events accurately, is amazing. Yes, it's a farce. But the scenes become repetitive and you wonder why anyone would want go to all this trouble to rekindle something in the past.

Amanda, directed by Mikhaël Hers, is a gentle, absorbing and very humane look at Parisian life in the aftermath of major terrorist events that have traumatized the French capital over the past few years. Interestingly, there seem few films that explore this aspect of human life given the kind of terrorism the world has experienced in recent times. David (rising star Vincent Lacoste) is a happy go lucky 24-year-old, and uncle to seven-year-old Amanda (Isaure Multrier). One day a tragedy strikes Amanda’s mother, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and David is thrown into the role of Amanda’s guardian. It’s something David, who is barely getting his own life together, must quickly come to terms with. The subtle interplay between David and Amanda is realistic as each tries to adapt, sometimes uncomfortably, to this unforeseen relationship. The ending will leave a few tears running down your cheek.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Three French films in one day

Following are reviews of some films at the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), which continues until Nov. 10:

Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies 2 is a follow-up to his 2010 Little White Lies, which I understand was a major hit. Not having seen it I can’t compare. But the reason I signed up for this film was because I was expecting it to follow in the great tradition of French farces. All the elements are there – an ensemble cast, a sad sack lead (François Cluzet) about to turn – ugh! – 60, and ragtag friends who unknowingly descend on his vacation property. But Cluzet hardly cracks a smile, having suffered a major investment loss and wanting to get rid of his interlopers and sell his house as quickly as possible. The friends themselves have insufferable quirks, enough for virtually all of them to wind up on the couch. Marie’s (Marion Cotillard) short fuse is ignited constantly, numerous misunderstandings take place among the group of Big Chill-like characters, and two searing near tragedies occur. There are a few comic touches but not nearly enough to keep the film on its intended lighthearted footing.

Ira Sach’s Frankie is a character study and that’s all it is. The central character is Françoise Crémont – Frankie - a French star now on holiday in a breathtakingly beautiful Portuguese town. In this sense Frankie is a self-portrait of Huppert herself, perhaps France’s present day most famous actress, at rest after making a grueling film. For those who are used to seeing Huppert portrayed as a diabolical sociopath (Neil Jordan’s Greta, 2018) or in excruciating threatening circumstances (Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, 2016) this is not another of those films – hardly. Instead it’s a quiet but always interesting – if only because we’re always anticipating something significant to happen - mixing of vignettes, swirling around several characters over the course of their stay in this glorious tourist mecca. Irene (Marisa Tomei) and Gary (Greg Kinnear) ironically break up after a peak romantic moment. Frankie’s son Paul (Jérémie Renier) dearly wants to marry but can’t hold a girl friend. Sylvia and Ian (Vinette Robinson and Ariyon Bakare) can barely contain their rage for one another. Yet the serene Frankie walks, figuratively and literally, through it all.

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an historical drama about two women. A painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young wealthy woman from Brittany who is about to be married off to an Italian grandee. Héloïse is depressed at the prospect and refuses to pose for the painting. It’s up to Marianne to grab fleeting looks at her subject, posing as a hired companion. She memorizes facial features and body mannerisms, surreptitiously creating her portrait in a private room in the large country estate. A stand-offish Héloïse at first is cool to Marianne but Marianne’s presence of character attracts an equally self-assured Héloïse. Strong acting by the two actors in a very nuanced film, with scenes looking like they’re literally out of an 18th century painting, no doubt were part of the reason the picture won the Queer Palm prize at Cannes.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Almodovar's latest - touching yet incomplete

Screened at the 15th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival

Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Pain and Glory, is a thinly veiled autobiographical look at the film director

as he begins to enter old age. Almodovar is now 70 and of course Spain’s best known and wildly flamboyant director of the past 30 years. But anyone expecting the bombast and subtlety and the clashing complexity of characters and storylines in films ranging from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) and Volver (2006), won’t get it in this film. For this is a quiet - very quiet - movie. Here, the director, after a long career, is at rest. He cannot make films anymore. That’s because he ails tremendously, suffering from numerous symptoms from tinnitus to extreme headaches and most of all back pain. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” the director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas – and if you haven’t seen him in awhile, has he aged!), laments. So, Mallo spends his days in his fashionable and art-strewn house, a prisoner of illness. One day his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) informs that the Madrid cinematheque is hosting a tribute to one of his films, Sabor. He’s asked to be there for a Q & A. He visits the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he had a falling out over his dissatisfaction with Crespo’s performance in this very film. They try to reconcile and Mallo presents Crespo with a script for a play, Addiction. Crespo presents it on stage and a long-ago lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), by coincidence, sees it and shows up on Mallo’s doorstep. It’s a heartwarming scene redolent of one-time glorious affection. Generally, in the film, the director, looking back on his life, conjures memories of his past, many of which concern his childhood and mother (a reprise of sorts to his films All About My Mother (1999) and Bad Education (2004)). There’s one about his early homosexual awakening, spying a family handyman (César Vicente) bathing. In the film’s story these snippets of time all add up to powerful memories. What was hard to reconcile, however, were the plot’s detours into the director’s late flirtation with heroin, courtesy of Crespo, and zany moments such as his refusal to attend Sabor’s Q & A - dialing it in, literally, and then the audience amusingly overhearing a fight between Mallo and Crespo. So, yes, Pain and Glory is a well-acted, warmly made with comic touches, look back at one individual’s life. But the film feels incomplete. Is this the character’s entire summing up? Is one film the only highpoint of the director’s esteemed career? (My god, Almodovar has had almost 20!) Is this really the total of a great man’s “glory?”