Dawson city: Frozen time

Dawson city, Yukon. 1978. A construction excavation uncovers more than 500 lost silent films. That’s where archivists Michael Gates and Kathy Jones-Gates were brought in to start the restoration process and uncover the truth about the films. Dawson city: Frozen time manages to be about the films but also about the city itself. The history of Dawson city is told through old films and photographs. With a population of 500 people, mostly from First nations, Dawson city grew to 30,000 people by summer 1898 because of the Gold rush. We see incredible footage of the harsh conditions the men have to endure to find some gold. At some point movie houses were built to show the film sent from the US. The films were made with the highly flammable nitrate. The reels could burst into flame at any moment, which would account for the multiple fires that happened wherever the nitrate films were stored. It is a small miracle that those films were found in Dawson city. Martin Scorsese’s Film foundation claims that “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” The uncovered films shown in this film have suffered terrible damage. But Dawson city: Frozen time is a moving tribute to our past, and a powerful reminder of the importance of history, big or small, and how we must do anything to protect it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Dawson city: Frozen time

 

Directed by:
Bill Morrison

120 min.

A ghost story

A ghost story has a notion of a ghost that we taught was long gone since the days of the Casper the friendly ghost cartoons. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play an unnamed couple. They live a quiet life in a small house where they witness some bizarre manifestation, like noises coming from the piano. What is sure is that they’re in love. Then one day he has a fatal car accident in front of the house. She goes to the hospital to identify the body. After she leaves, director David Lowery leaves the camera on the sheet covered body for an inordinate amount of time, until it suddenly pops up from the gurney. The ghost, a walking white sheet with two black holes for the eyes, start walking around in the hospital halls. It is obvious that it can’t be seen by anyone. A door opens in the wall, for the ghost to leave this earth, I suppose, but the ghost decides to stay and walk over to the house it used to live in when it was alive and… well, not a ghost. The quirkiness of those scenes may cause laughs and guffaws from the audience (as it did with me). But before long it becomes clear that Lowery is dead (pardon the pun) serious. The ghost stands in the house looking at the grieving wife. She can’t see that close to her there is a pile of sheet looking at her. There is a long sustained shot where Mara sits on the kitchen floor and binges on a pie. The whole pie! Rooney Mara is incredible to watch! One day, as the ghost looks out a window, it sees another ghost waving from a nearby house. Both can communicate without speaking. And we, the audience, can read the subtitles of their conversations. The ghost is not always quiet. It can be angry, like when she brought a date home. And then she moves out. But before she leaves a message in a crack in the wall. The ghost remains in the house. It stays there watching new tenants come and go. The house may not even be there anymore, but the ghost will remain in the same location. The crazy concept for this film is not as crazy as the facts that David Lowery makes it work. Yes, it is slow. But that’s what gives the films some of it’s beauty. Long shots of the immobile ghost (Yes, it is really Casey Affleck under there) looking into space or, in an earlier scene, the couple cuddling in bed. These long, quiet moments are spellbinding. I was mesmerised by the slow magic pace of the film. This old romantic idea of the sheeted ghost, brings us back to a time when things were simpler. And that’s Lowery is doing: keeping it simple. The acting from Mara, Affleck and the others are what I would describe as minimalist. There is not much dialogue. In mid-film, there’s a rant by a new tenant (exquisitely and annoyingly delivered by actor Will Oldham). After that monologue you are happy to go back to silence. Lowery has filmed in the reduced 1:33:1 screen ratio. It’s like a square that may recall 33mm. The Daniel Hart score often sounds like a string quartet. Helped by Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography, A ghost story feels like you are walking in a dream. You should know that since he could not find a studio to produce it, Lowery forked in the money himself. And so far, it’s my favourite film of 2017.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

A ghost story

 

Directed by:
David Lowery

Screenplay by:
David Lowery

Starring:
Rooney Mara
Casey Affleck
Will Oldham
Sonia Acevedo
Rob Zabrecky

87 min.

Certain women

Critics have called director Kelly Reichardt “a minimalist”. She’s as far away from mainstream as you could be, that’s for sure. She has managed through the years and through the films to offer us a singular approach to making movies. Certain women is adapted from three short stories written by Maile Meloy. In the first segment, Laura Dern plays a lawyer who is having trouble with one of her client. William (Jared Harris) wants to get back his disability pension. She has told him that he can’t win, but he insists on getting a second opinion. She’s afraid that William may get violent. The second story is stars Reichardt’s favourite actress Michelle Williams. Williams co-stars with James Le Gros as Gina and Ryan Lewis, a married couple with a teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). Coming back from a vacation, the family stops by to see Albert (the marvellously restrained René Auberjonois), an elderly man they know. They try to persuade him to sell them the sandstones that are lying around on his property. They need the sandstones to build a weekend cottage. But Albert only seems to answer to Ryan. During the trip, Gina realises that their daughter is acting the same way towards her. The third and most powerful segment stars Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart. Gladstone plays Jamie, a lonely ranch hand who is tending horses during the winter months. Driving into town one night, she sees people going into the school, and decides to see what is happening. It’s a legal class about school law taught by young lawyer, Beth Travis (Stewart). After class, Jamie befriends Beth. It is clear that Jamie is hoping that something more will happen between her and Beth. As with her previous films, Reichardt does not use dialogue to tell the audience what her characters are feeling or thinking, or what their motivations are. Instead you see them painfully trying to deal with their feelings of helplessness and frustration. Reichardt works outside the box. Certain women is observational rather than the usual declamatory. Not everyone will like it, but I did. Although the three stories are separate, they are thinly weaved together as some characters cross each other’s paths. Williams is the perfect Reichardt player as she portrays Gina’s cold and stoic intransigence, but also her painful self-loathing. But it is newcomer Lily Gladstone who gives the most heart breaking performance. You can almost hear Jamie’s heartbeat as she seeks friendship and love from Beth. It is impossible for Jamie to read what Beth’s intentions are, and Kristen Stewart’s usual acting demeanour is perfectly used here. I should not forget Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography. He paints Montana’s wintry landscape with earth colors. The least you can say about Reichardt is that she is not your mainstream American director. And that’s fine with me..

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Certain women

 

Directed by:
Kelly Reichardt

Screenplay by:
Kelly Reichardt
Based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s Half in love and
Both ways is the only way I want it

Starring:
Michelle Williams
Laura Dern
Lily Gladstone
Kristen Stewart
James Le Gros
Jared Harris
René Auberjonois
Sara Rodier

107 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

The journey

The journey is based on the events that led to the 2006 peace agreement in Northern Ireland. The animosities are clearly laid out from the start. The leaders from the two sides arrive at the meeting. Down the hall is Rev. Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) leader of the Democratic unionist party (DUP). On the other side of the same hall stands Martin McGuiness (Colm Meaney). He turns to face Paisley. McGuiness is MP from the Sinn Féin party and a veteran leader of the Irish republican army (IRA). As the two men look at each other, there is nothing but disdain. They hate each other. Then they enter separate rooms to have two separate peace talks. That would be it, except that Ian Paisley has to leave his meeting to go celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. McGuiness agrees but only if he travels with Paisley. That way if they travel together, neither of them can be singled out for attack. The drive to the airport was long. We are told that it is unknown what was said during that trip. Screenwriter Colin Bateman imagines a conversation that might have changed the course of history. Paisley was an 80-year-old evangelical Protestant minister who hated Catholics. He called the IRA the Antichrist. And McGuiness doesn’t like what Rev. Paisley said about the Pope either. For Paisley, Martin McGuiness and the IRA, are terrorists responsible for the death of innocent people. He can even remember some the names of the victims. ”We were in a civil war”, McGuiness tells Paisley, adding that there were casualties on both sides. As a chauffeur they have baby-faced Jack (baby-faced Freddie Highmore). He’s been put there to spy on them by then Prime minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens). They have also installed microphones and a camera. The excellent Sir John Hurt appears in one of his last films (he died last January from pancreatic cancer). Hurt plays the operative monitoring the drive and listening to the conversation. This is good acting from Spall and Meaney. The more showy role is Paisley. To play the 80-year-old, 60-year-old Spall has to put a lot of make up and prosthetics. But Meaney holds his own and plays the younger McGuiness as the more tempered and sound of the two statesmen. Colin Bateman has written a good balance of witty and profound repartees. Director Nick Hamm has put the whole thing together with style and a suspenseful build-up that is quite effective. It may not all be factual, but it is pleasurable nevertheless.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

The journey

Directed by:
Nick Hamm

Screenplay by:
Colin Bateman

Starring:
Timothy Spall
Colm Meaney
Toby Stephens
John Hurt
Freddie Highmore
Ian Beattie

94 min.

Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy: Marius

Like many people in Québec and around the world, I’m very familiar with the films from Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy (Marius, Fanny and César), as they often played on Radio Canada. I bought the Pagnol plays and read them as a young man. I will focus this review mostly on the first instalment: Marius. The action takes place in the Old Port section of Marseille, France. The waterfront bar is owned by César (Raimu). César’s son, Marius (Pierre Fresnay), a tempestuous young man, is helping his father. Right outside the bar, Honorine (Alida Rouffe) sells mussels with her daughter Fanny (Orane Demazis). Among the bar’s regular clients is César’s friend Panisse (Charpin), a prosperous sail maker. The news that the recently widowed Panisse proposed to Fanny and that Honorine agreed, has angered Marius. He is obviously in love with Fanny. And Fanny seems to be delighted by the jealous attention she gets from Marius. She too is in love with Marius. She breaks off her engagement with Panisse and her and Marius become lovers. But she soon realizes that Marius has another love: the sea. His dreams of sailing and traveling around the world is understandable. He has been living on the waterfront all his life and has seen boats come and go. He has probably heard many stories from sailors about the beauty, the freedom of the sea. The calling is too strong and Fanny sees that it would be pointless to retain him. Even though Marius is still a classic French film, time has not always been kind to older films. It is old-fashioned, of course. But there is a scene in Marius that I found stunning. A declaration of love and affection between father César and son Marius. I certainly was not expecting to find such a scene in that film. You have to take Marius for what it is: a popular melodrama. Like all popular melodrama, Marius has a lot of comedy. The most famous scene is the one when César plays a game of poker with his friends. But his friends all leave one after the other when César keeps insulting them. He even goes so far as calling one of them a cuckold (in French “cocu”). César is an old curmudgeon who likes to argue just for the fun of the argument. They don’t have actors like Raimu anymore, and it is marvellous to see him in the greatest role of his career. His scenes with Alida Rouffe are equally memorable. As the young romantic leads Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis are as good as anybody could be. The poetic portions of the play (it is a stage play) about the love of the sea and the desire for freedom are done forcefully and convincingly. Every one speaks with the typical Marseillais accent that is a bit hard to comprehend. So the English subtitles are a good thing. Marius was beautifully restored in its original 35mm format. I am no expert, but I did not see any scratch or imperfections. The saga continues with Fanny and César.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy: Marius

 

Directed by:
Alexandre Korda

Screenplay by:
Marcel Pagnol
Based on his own play

Starring:
Pierre Fresnay
Orane Demazis
Raimu
Alida Rouffe
Charpin

127 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In French with English subtitles.

The big sick

The big sick is about Kumail, (Kumail Nanjiani playing himself) a stand-up comic who moonlights as a Uber driver. In his comedy routines Kumail talks about his Pakistani heritage and his Pakistani family. One evening, while performing at the comedy club, Kumail is interrupted by an audience member. It’s Emily (Zoe Kazan), a beautiful young woman. After the show, they connect and soon they are dating. But Kumail is hiding something from her. He does not tell her that, according to his traditional Muslim upbringing, his parents are hoping to arrange a marriage for Kumail. His parents don’t even know he is dating a non-Pakistani girl. When Emily, who thought they might have a future together, finds out the truth, she feels betrayed and angrily breaks off with him. A few weeks later, Kumail gets a phone call. Emily has become very ill and has been transported to hospital. He goes to the hospital and although he’s not her boyfriend anymore the doctors need him to authorize an urgent medically induced coma in order to save Emily’s life, while they investigate what is wrong with her. The arrival of Emily’s parents makes things a bit awkward. Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) know all about the break up and how much Emily suffered as a result. But he sticks around and the relationships between him and Emily’s parents grows as they get know each other. Meanwhile, Kumail’s parents have no knowledge of what is happening in their son’s life. His mother, Sharmeen (the hilariously deadpan Zenobia Shroff), invites a new Pakistani girl every time he comes for super. This is such an unusual film. What sets The big sick apart from other romantic comedies is that it is based on the real life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and his now wife Emily V. Gordon. They wrote the screenplay together. Some of the facts have changed, except that the real Emily really spent a few days in a coma. Yes, a romantic comedy about a comatose girlfriend. But this is such a great film on so many levels. First: It has a screenplay that sparkle with witty, intelligent dialogues. The evolution of the characters and their stories feels real, not forced. It flows. And if it manages to be both funny and touching that’s because of its excellent ensemble cast. The early lively banter between Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan deceptively seems so easy to do. But that is not so. The easier it seems, the harder it must have been for the actors to achieve. And it is the same for every actors in The big sick. There’s SNL’s Aidy Bryant as Mary, a fellow stand up comedienne, who has such a pleasant way with words. Romano and Hunter are the most surprising pairing of the film. Hunter plays a badass mom with a heart and an attitude. Wearing a pair of worn-out jeans with patches and speaking with the thickest southern accent, you know right from the start that Beth is not a person to cross. We remember Ray Romano from his TV show Everybody loves Raymond. We recognize his voice, his way with words, but we never suspected such depth. You just can’t go wrong with a trio like Hunter, Romano and Nanjiani. Kumail Nanjiani is in every scenes, so he has to carry a lot of the emotional weight of the film on his shoulder. It is my hope that The big sick will be the sleeper hit of the year.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The big sick

 

Directed by:
Michael Showalter

Screenplay by:
Emily V. Gordon
Kumail Nanjiani

Starring:
Kumail Nanjiani
Zoe Kazan
Holly Hunter
Ray Romano
Anupam Kher
Zenobia Shroff
Adeel Akhtar

119 min.

Rated 14A

In English and Urdu with English subtitles.

Paris can wait

Paris can wait is a film cooked with just the right ingredients to please a certain type of audience, who will undoubtedly pepper the screenings with oohh’s and aahh’s at the beauty of the landscapes and the images. But that’s all there is. This is probably the worse screenplay in quite a while. Diane Lane plays Anne, the frustrated wife of Hollywood producer Michael (Alec Baldwin). They’re about to fly from the Cannes film festival to Budapest, when Anne decides to drive from Cannes to (Oohh! Aahh!) Paris with Jacques (Arnaud Viard), Michael’s (Oohh! Aahh!) French business partner. Why? Anne wants to be in (Oohh! Aahh!) Paris. She’s got an earache and shouldn’t be flying. The reasons are so thin and unconvincing, that the actors can’t even manage to convince themselves, and therefore can’t sell it to us. So they drive through (Oohh! Aahh!) France, but instead of going straight to (Oohh! Aahh!) Paris, Jacques detours to eat at haute cuisine restaurants and visit museums or historical sites. Everywhere they eat, Anne takes photos of the food in her plate. Anne’s photos look like all the photos you see in cooking magazines you can flip through while waiting for your doctor’s appointment. You’ve see one, you’ve seen them all. For (Oohh! Aahh!) Paris can wait Diane Lane has perfected the art of eye rolling and deep sighing. This is beneath her talent. As the romantic (?) lead, the unknown Arnaud Viard is very annoying and most unappealing. Hey! But he’s (Oohh! Aahh!) French! Yes, and his accent is so thick that we have a hard time understanding what he says. Just shows you. Some people will see anything if it has (Oohh! Aahh!) “Paris” in the title.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from August 21 – 23
http://www.bytowne.ca/movie/paris-can-wait

 

Paris can wait

 

Directed by:
Eleanor Coppola

Screenplay by:
Eleanor Coppola

Starring:
Diane Lane
Arnaud Viard
Alec Baldwin

92 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In English and French with English subtitles

Mermaids

Ali Weinstein’s documentary explores the unusual, almost cult appeals of mermaids for the women featured in the film. Mermaids are a myth that has been with us for at least three-thousand years, and its popularity has been renewed with the Disney animation film The little mermaid. Whatever it is that the women in the film have found in the mermaids community is helping them grow as human beings. For some, they feel accepted no matter who they are. That’s the case with Julz, a trans-woman living with her girlfriend and a young daughter. She tells us some of her hardships, when as a boy she realise there was something different about her. We meet elderly retired mermaids from Florida’s Weeki Wachee resort. They have remained friends since the 1950s, where they worked at the resort (film archives is proof). They go back again and swim together. They are mer-sisters. Still today, there are bars where professional mermaids swim for the patrons. We get to know a daughter who has brought her mother to become a mermaid. She’s a mer-mom. Then there is Cookie and her supporting husband. Cookie is able to manage her mental illness much better since she started putting on the fins. During the course of the film, Cookie marries her long time companion. The mer-wedding (?) takes place in a pool, with many of the participants, women as well as men, dressed as mermaids. But not the groom. It’s a surreal image, but there are many of them in Mermaids. As one with many passions, I can understand and appreciate passionate people. Whatever gets you through the day is fine by me.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Mermaids

 

Directed by:
Ali Weinstein

Screenplay by:
Ali Weinstein

76 min.

Parental Guidance