Friday, May 29, 2020

A little of that Northern Michigan horror

Just in time for summer – and in time for the re-emergence of the local drive-in during the Covid crisis – comes The Wretched, a horror flick with a decidedly Michigan feel. (Sorry, Windsorites, the film is only screening at two drive-ins in the Detroit area, the Capri and Ford. However the film is also available on cable and various digital on demand platforms incl iTunes and YouTube. UPDATE: The Ford Drive In was served a cease-and-desist order and expects to reopen June 12 with social distancing guidelines so long as the governor's stay-home order is not extended.) The film is made by Detroit natives Brett and Drew Pierce and set in the northern Michigan town of Northport on Grand Traverse Bay. For every Michigander who loves the summertime feel of Up North this picture will certainly rekindle longing, especially given the slow reopening of the state during the Covid-19 crisis. In the film, our hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a 17-year-old who has come to spend the summer with his estranged dad Liam (Jamison Jones) who manages the local marina. Almost from the start Ben notices things are a little strange. The next-door neighbor Abbie (Zarah Mahler) - wearing a tank top with ‘Detroit’ and skull on it - wants to carve up a dead buck (soooo northern Michigan) but is having trouble. That night Ben is disturbed by a figure on the front porch and then is blinded by a light. Later, Abbie checks on her infant only to find a pile of branches. Hands then reach out and yank her under the crib and, well, she’s never the same again. The story’s a spin on the old zombie genre, and another iconic film which will be obvious, but with a woodsy outdoor theme (I can imagine the filmmakers having fun with this). Ben discovers a symbol – a V with a line through it looking like tree branches. On Witchipedia (yes, the site exists) the symbol refers to “mother born from rock, root and tree.” That would explain how, once a person gets infected, they move with crackly sounds like a gnarled tree trunk. I find it hard to get scared from the best of horror films and the same here though some scenes did make me sit up. Otherwise, the ironically  dramatic music is well timed. The photography is good, especially with some oblique shots through open windows late at night. And the creatures have been well designed with a very horrifying look. (As an aside, the “mother” creature at times – also distinctly Michigan – looks like Alice Cooper.) So, sit back and enjoy a teenage Northern Michigan flick with cool rock soundtrack and downhome characters (Ben has the hots for fellow marina worker smart-alecky Mallory (Piper Curda)). For those missing Up North during “The Rona” this might be an early summer stand in, especially at midnight at the good old drive-in.

Friday, May 22, 2020

My movie week

I finally caught Elio Petri’s great 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion last night on Criterion Channel. For years I’d been reading about the film but it always eluded me. The film is very much of the times and almost seems dated. But not quite. Made in the early-70s it depicts police corruption amidst the tumult of the New Left. Those of us of a certain age remember the almost continual demonstrations, riots and bombings by groups protesting a variety of causes - the Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, or simply revolution to overturn the existing order. Investigation, which won best foreign film Oscar, is marked by a stand-out performance by its lead Gian Maria Volonté (photo), the head of a homicide then political police division who is a fiery autocrat and personifies corruption. Terrific also is the brilliant musical score by famous journeyman composer Ennio Morricone, one of the best ever.

A few nights ago, also on Criterion, I caught up with one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s earlier films, Gods of the Plague (1970). Unfortunately, it was lackluster - uninspired acting and drama - about an ex-con planning to recidivate with Fassbinder’s trademark sub-text of homoeroticism.

Last weekend, I caught several films on TCM. The best was Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) (photo) with Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels. I liked it better the second time around and appreciated its real genius. It uses cinema as  a metaphor to dissect the difference between fantasy and reality, both in the "moving" pictures (it’s set in the Depression era) and real life. But it has so much more - great writing, great characterization, a wonderfully imaginative story, and is immensely fun to boot.…Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 Tea and Sympathy stars the sultry Deborah Kerr opposite John Kerr (no relation), based on the play, of a college student (JK) who develops a romantic friendship with fraternity house matron Laura Reynolds (DK). But the real theme is social pressure and the bullying of someone who is “different” (today he’d be called metrosexual) at the hands of a group of conformists - powerful stuff for the 1950s……Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) is a sprawling police procedural investigating the death of a low class model. The best things about it are the numerous scenes of New York’s Lower East Side circa the late Forties and chief homicide investigator Dan Muldoon, played by the always humorously charming Barry Fitzgerald….Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono is a 1959 film noir, interesting perhaps for parsing the cross-cultural relationships of Caucasians and Japanese-Americans, an original theme of the day. But it never gains much traction…..I rented Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. A major disappointment as the film basically devolves into silly farce. But Streisand is stunning – charming, witty, fanciful – in utterly effortless acting…..Finally, from the Detroit Film Theatre, I rented Ken Loach’s 2019 Sorry We Missed You, the latest Loach take on the British working class from the Marxist-inspired director. This time his focus is on exploitation in the supposedly work-for-yourself gig economy. Whether you agree with his politics – though the message here is fairly persuasive – Loach is an accomplished filmmaker and extracts great performances.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Filmmakers win major case against The Room director

I remember going to a midnight screaming of cult classic The Room at the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF). Honestly, I had little knowledge of how much a fantastic subculture of film fans has developed around this 2003 so-bad-it’s-good movie by US director Tommy Wiseau. The movie, as stilted as it might possibly be, is a romantic drama mainly taking place in, well, one living room and involving a ménage a trois. Okay, I get it. The Room is a dreadfully bad movie. But why it has taken off as a cult classic I’ve never fully understood. In the midnight screening I attended devoted fans laughed uproariously at, natch, the most awkward scenes and spouted from memory the most dreadfully hackneyed lines, of which there are innumerable ones. And of course there is the repetitive throwing of spoons at the screen (batches of plastic ones had been handed out, constantly swept from the floor and redistributed) when the camera focuses on some spoon motif, of which there are, for some reason, several. The whole audience atmosphere is very much like going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman 1975) (how come that film isn’t shown anymore?). Except, that is, that Rocky Horror had artistic merit. I get the reason for The Room’s cult fetishism – it’s bad, bad, bad! The only thing is I still found it stultifying boring even as kitsch. All this is to tell you that a group of Canadian filmmakers last month won a major legal battle against, of all people, the iconic and supposedly much-loved Tommy Wiseau. The Ottawa-based filmmakers started out wanting to make a documentary, Room Full of Spoons, about the iconic The Room. And in good faith they’d approached their hero, Wiseau. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Wiseau was a control freak extraordinaire and an all out, well, a-hole. In a decision by Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Schabas, the filmmakers were awarded US$550,000 in compensatory damages and CDN$200,000 in punitive damages against Wiseau for how he treated them and their film. The filmmakers obviously had wanted to use clips from The Room in their documentary. But Wiseau demanded full control, threatened legal action, waged a social media campaign and successfully got Room Full of Spoons cancelled from many film festivals. In his ruling Schabas found the director’s actions more than high handed, describing Wiseau’s negotiations as being in “bad faith” and his behaviour “oppressive and outrageous.” So now this loser of a director, as (in)famous as he may be, is now equally a loser in the court of law. Hopefully WIFF will soon screen Room Full of Spoons.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Virtual art house abounds

For people locked down in their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic one of the biggest silver linings is the fact most of us have almost endless sources of entertainment to amuse ourselves. Once’s tempted to say: there’s not a better time to have a mass shut-in! There are television and online options galore like Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Netflix, Criterion Channel, HBO, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and other TV movie-oriented channels. But even art house theatres, by public order closed to the public, are making movies available online. Such is the case with the Detroit Film Theatre and Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theatre. (The Landmark’s Main and The Maple Theater are offering no virtual programming.) The DFT currently has available What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Rob Garver’s doc about the famous – perhaps world’s most famous – film critic, once of The New Yorker (photo abive). It’s also screening D. M. Young’s The Booksellers, a doc on the wonderful and sometimes quirky world of antiquarian bookshops. The Michigan Theatre opens today with Andrew Ahn’s Driveways starring Brian Dennehy, and has other openings throughout the weekend. Most of the films run about $10 US and can be paid thru PayPal. For Canadians, other cinemas couldn’t be accessed. For example, Cinema Detroit’s online offerings are only available in the US. Currently it’s screening Abner Pastoll's A Good Woman is Hard to Find, Lara Gallagher’s Clementine and Bartosz Konopka’s Sword of God. Some famous US art house cinemas are also screening online such as New York’s Film Forum. However, there's no access for Canadian cinephiles. Puzzled over what films to watch? The Windsor International Film Festival's (WIFF) director Vincent Georgie sends out email updates. (WIFF obviously had to suspend its monthly screenings at the The Capitol Theatre.) Today’s email suggestions have been WIFF People’s Choice Award festival favorites over the years. There’s  2011’a In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland), 2012’s The Intouchables (Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache) – a perennially screened WIFF film – and 2013’s (tied) Gabrielle (Louise Archambault) and Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton), available on streaming services.

What have I been watching over the past week? I caught Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on YouTube. Pinter wrote the screenplay in this 1983 flic directed by David Hugh Jones and staring a very young Jeremy Irons, Patricia Hodge and a Ben Kingsley with actual hair! On TCM’s weekend Noir Alley I caught Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) with Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, John Carradine and Linda Darnell. And on Netflix I re-watched (I’d mostly forgotten it) Nicole Holofcener’s 2018 The Land of Steady Habits with Edie Falco and Ben Mendelsohn (photo).

Friday, May 1, 2020

Groundhog Day, or practice makes perfect

One of the funniest and most “duh!” moments in Harold Ramis’s 1993 Groundhog Day is early on, when TV weathercaster and self-styled prima donna Phil Connors (Bill Murray) comes down the stairs at his Punxsutawney bed and breakfast. It’s Feb. 2. Asked by another guest as to whether Punxsutawney Phil won’t see his shadow and therefore it will be an early spring, Phil replies, “I’m predicting March21st," which is the proverbial six more weeks of winter anyway, shadow or no shadow. So, duh, what’s the point of the age-old varmint’s fabled prediction?  Groundhog Day, the movie not the Pennsylvania event, has now become a cultural metaphor for the Coronavirus lockdown, with each day seeming a repeat of the one before with no change in sight. I was annoyed in early February when I couldn’t find Groundhog Day online suggesting it should always be available Feb. 2 as a collective cultural viewing tradition. But now Netflix is showing it. I remember seeing the flic when it first came out – in summery Naples, Florida, ha! – and laughing throughout. Seeing it again was a joy. But what is the point of this now comedic icon, enquiring minds want to know. The New York Times did a riff last week suggesting at the film’s “metaphysical” or at least philosophical underpinnings. Said chief film critic A. O. Scott, “At the heart of the Phil-Rita romance lies a marvelous temporal paradox." Rita (Andie MacDowell) is Phil’s new producer, (kind of) has a crush on him but is repeatedly turned off by his innate jerkness. A lot of people in the collaborative NYT piece thought the film is about romance. Maybe. But I think romance is a byproduct of something else – Phil coming to terms with his personality. To me, the closest fictional metaphor is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. As Ebenezer Scrooge must go through several dreamlike states to resolve his own nastiness so does Phil Connors, through a seemingly endless repetition of one day. After all, every morning he wakes at 6 am to Sonny & Cher’s I’ve Got You Babe. The day is repeated exactly as the one before though Phil eventually becomes wise to its quotidian moments, incrementally making adjustments to avoid mishaps or in fact manipulate the future. And like Scrooge he has to reconcile his orneriness and bleak view of humanity; only then is the spell broken. The other splendid thing about seeing the movie oh-these-many-years-later is watching Andie MacDowell, who hasn’t starred in many films since. Her intelligent charming smile yet no nonsense personality is the perfect foil for the irascible Phil. It’s a shame we haven’t seen her more often.