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.

Their finest

It probably was not easy to make films in London during the Second World War. London was bombed by the German Air Force. At any moment, your neighbourhood, your house and your life could be destroyed. Looking death in the face was a daily occurrence. But all through this, the people at the British Ministry of Information’s film division tried to make propaganda films. Adapted from a Lissa Evans novel, Their finest is a light film that mustn’t be taken too seriously. The central figure is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) a young woman applying to the Ministry for a job as a typist. But because she previously worked as a copywriter, she’s given the job of writing ‘slop’, dialogue between women in propaganda short films. Catrin is married to Ellis (Jack Huston), a struggling painter hoping that soon he’ll strike it rich. In the meantime, it’s up to Catrin to put food on the table. But she finds that writing ‘slop’ is boring and is snobbishly regarded by her writing partner Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a handsome but sexist young man. But Catrin is not going to let Buckley belittle her. At the Ministry’s request she travels to the coast to investigate a story about twin sisters who helped soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk. But the sisters’ heroism has been overblown by the newspaper. Still, she finds the idea of having two female heroic leads interesting. She makes a pitch to her supervisor, Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant), and it is decided to make it into a feature-length film. To play the twins’ Uncle Frank they hire veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). Ambrose was once a matinée idol. But that was when he played a dashing detective in a popular series of films. Now, Ambrose resents playing a supporting character, and, worse of all, an old Uncle! But he needs the money. There are a few British character actor that almost never give a bad performance no matter in what film they play. One of those actors is Bill Nighy. In Their finest he effortlessly makes it impossible not to fall in love with Ambrose Hilliard. The writing gets sidetracked a bit when the Secretary of War (a pompous cameo by Jeremy Irons) insist that the film needs an American star (Jake Lacy) to make it more profitable abroad. At home, Catrin is falling out of love with her husband, while she and Buckley are getting closer. Even if the topic and the historical setting is original and might have been interesting, I am not convinced that the treatment is satisfactory. Their finest relies too much on old American film clichés. It’s been done so many times. And so much better. But still, what moved me at the end is the screening of their film. How good filmmaking with a good script can make any audience laugh and cry. I think that the film Catrin and Buckley made in Their finest is better than Their finest itself. Too bad!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Their finest

Directed by:
Lone Scherfig

Screenplay by:
Gaby Chiappe
Based on the novel Their finest hour and a half by Lissa Evans

Starring:
Gemma Arterton
Sam Claflin
Bill Nighy
Jack Huston
Paul Ritter
Richard E. Grant
Rachael Stirling

117 min.

Rated 14A

The lovers and the despot

The incredible tale of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, film director Shin Sang-ok, being kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. As weird as it sounds it did happen. In 1978, Kim felt that North Korean films did not have the prestige of South Korean films, and were not exportable. That was probably because all North Korean culture product were replete with propagandist elements. The tagline for The lovers and the despot is “They were kidnapped by their biggest fan”. Kim Jong-il had a great appreciation for the work of both the director and the actress. First he kidnapped Choi, then her husband. He incarcerated Shin in solitary confinement four long years, until Shin agreed to make films for North Korea. Once reunited, Shin and Choi planned to escape while traveling to film festivals. They were so convinced that once free their stories would be challenged, that Choi carried a tape recorder in her handbag and recorded every meeting she had with Kim. Shin Sang-ok died in 2006, but Choi, now 89, is interviewed in the film. Their son and daughter are also in the film talking about their parents sudden disappearance. We also get to ear those eerie tapes. We don’t need technical wizardry here because the story is so interesting. The lovers and the despot seems to have something for almost everyone: love, human interest and international intrigue.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The lovers and the despot

Directed by:
Ross Adam
Robert Cannan

Screenplay by:
Ross Adam
Robert Cannan

98 min.

In Korean, English, and Japanese with English subtitles.

Café society

These days a new Woody Allen film does not necessarily mean a good film. And depending on your taste, you might like some more than others. (Am I the only person who hated Midnight in Paris?) Some could not stand his American (mostly Manhattan/New York) films and only got interested by his British, Paris and Rome work. Café society takes place in the 1930s in the Bronx, New York and Los Angeles, California. Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood agent, and he gets a phone call from his sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin), who lives in the Bronx. Rose wants her brother Phil to find a job for her youngest son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg). Bobby flies to L.A. where he will work in the mailroom. Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Vonnie is short for Veronica. Bobby is attracted to Vonnie, but she tells him that they can only be friends because she is seeing another man called “Doug”. “Doug” is actually Uncle Phil. Phil tells Vonnie he’s going to divorce his wife. Meanwhile in New York, Bobby’s older sister, Evelyn (Sari Lennick), and her husband, Leonard (Stephen Kunken), are having problems with their bully neighbor. Evelyn mentions their problems to Ben, her gangster brother. When Bobby comes back to New York he marries a girl also called Veronica (who, of course, he calls Vonnie). Years later, when Uncle Phil and the original Vonnie visit New York, she and Bobby start having an affair. This romantic labirynth in narrated by Woody Allen himself. This is a very good ensemble cast, except for Eisenberg, who plays with too much mannerism. He becomes an erratic, annoying dork. Kristen Stewart fares much better than her co-star. She seems confident that the material is sufficient, and offers us a character without over playing the situations. I also liked Sari Lennick as the complaining sister. I had not seen actress Jeannie Berlin since her Oscar nominated turn in the 1972 comedy The heartbreak kid. It is nice to see her in fine comedic form as steals the film from everyone. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is consistently beautiful. This the most gorgeous Woody Allen film in years, and this is the first time Allen filmed in digital. So, not one of his best or one of the funniest, but not a total disaster.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Café society

Directed by:

Woody Allen

Screenplay by:

Woody Allen

Starring:

Jesse Eisenberg

Kristen Stewart

Steve Carell

Jeannie Berlin

Parker Posey

Ken Stott

Blake Lively

Corey Stoll

Sari Lennick

Stephen Kunken

96 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Hitchcock/Truffaut

“Hitchcock not only intensified life; he intensified cinema.”
François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (revised edition, 1980)

In 1962, young “nouvelle vague” co-founder François Truffaut sat down for a week of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. And the rest, as they say, is history. These interviews were published in book form as Hitchcock/Truffaut (in french Le cinéma selon Hitchcock), and is today considered the ultimate book on cinema. At the time Truffaut was also a film commentator for the famed Cahiers du cinéma magazine. Truffaut and his Cahiers du cinéma colleagues were frustrated by the general snobbism towards Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks and other Hollywood filmmakers. The first edition of Hitchcock/Truffaut changed the world’s perceptions about Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut showed that Hitchcock was not merely an artist, but a cinema genius. This documentary is mostly about the book and how it has influenced several generations of filmmakers. But it is also about François Truffaut, his passion for cinema and the common ground he shared with the”Master of suspense”. Director Kent Jones interviewed mostly American directors. Among them: Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese. But there are also France’s Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin, and Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira Kurosawa). These directors are so passionate about their love for Hitchcock’s films that we share their attachments, their emotions and trepidations. And we get to listen to the tapes of the original interviews, with Truffaut’s questions in French, Hitchcock’s answers in English and collaborator Helen Scott translating. Throughout the film we are reminded of that exchange they have about dreams:

François Truffaut: But would you say that dreams have a bearing on your work?
Alfred Hitchcock: Daydreams, probably.

Scorsese talks about the dreamlike quality in Hitchcock’s films. Vertigo is of particular note to him. Others mention the perverse nature of the film, or the sensuality of Kim Novak coming out of the bathroom. Of Psycho, Martin Scorsese mentions the casual way Hitchcock directs at first, and then surprise his audience by sudden bursts of violence and by killing Janet Leigh, the lead, early in the film. “A film that changed everything”, is what he says about Psycho. What is undeniable after watching Hitchcock/Truffaut is the intensity of Hitchcock’s images. And how beautiful that intensity is. Is 80 minutes too short? In my opinion, 10 hours would not be enough.

Quote: “I had never heard that Mr. Hitchcock drew everything and then shot it. And you have to remember that I was from the ’70s, where at that particular point in the history of film people were throwing up a lot in films, and they were sweating and drooling and improvising and walking off camera, and if things were blurry, that was okay, and they were using at lot of zooms. So, his style was very different from what I was used to. To pre-edit a scene, and then shoot it the way you want to edit it… and then edit it is… insane, because it’s not possible. You’ll never get a good scene that way. But Hitchcock got a great scene every time. What’s exceptional, really, isn’t that he was so adamant and such a perfectionist. What’s amazing is that it worked! Usually, you have in your mind a notion of how this scene is going to look, how it’s going to run, how it’s going to feel. And then you put it there like you imagine it… it doesn’t work!! So, you have to re-edit, and then you have to re-edit that. Then you have to re-edit that. But what he did was almost supernatural when you think about it. He pre-thought it so thoroughly and with such an accurate imagination that when you cut it, it worked just the way he thought it would… every time, every scene, every movie!” Actress Karen Black (1939 – 2013), on filming Family plot (1976)

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Directed by:
Kent Jones

Screenplay by:
Kent Jones
Serge Toubiana

80 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In English, French, and Japanese with English subtitles

Trumbo

When the House of Representatives and its Un-American Activities Committee went to Hollywood in 1947, a proud, card-carrying member of the Communist Party like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) had no chance at all. He was especially uncooperative. Question: “Mr. Trumbo, I will ask various questions, all of which can be answered yes or no.” Trumbo: “I shall answer yes or no if I please to. Many questions can only be answered yes or no by a moron or a slave.” Dalton Trumbo also had to fend off some famous Republicans like actor John wayne (David James Elliott who certainly got the voice and the accent) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Trumbo was among the “Hollywood ten” who refused to answer questions, were cited for contempt and spent time in jail. For years they were all blacklisted and could not find work since no studios would hire them. After jail, Trumbo wrote screenplays under pseudonyms, most of them for producer of B films Frank King (John Goodman). He had to feed his family and he wrote so much that he needed the help and support from his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane) and his three children to answer the phones and the door or type and deliver the scripts. During those years, Trumbo won two Oscars, but could not claim them because they were credited under a pseudonym or a front. One of the film is Roman holiday. Trumbo‘s screenplay by John McNamara is far from perfect. Early exposition scenes are contrived, and later ones involving Trumbo’s relationship with his family are corny. I am sorry to say that I found Trumbo works best when it is about Hollywood history than the main character’s personal life. In between, there is enough fun and laughter to wash all that corniness away. This is funny man Louis C.K.’s first try at playing a dramatic part. He is, unfortunately, not very good. But there are still some amazing performances: Dean O’Gorman plays Kirk Douglas, who was not afraid to openly asks Trumbo to write Spartacus, thus ending the decade long blacklist. Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger has a commanding presence and delivers the funniest line in the film. John Goodman has a memorable outburst (Nothing new about that!). But the film belongs to Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston. Mirren is having so much fun playing bitchy Hedda Hopper. She savours every lines with obvious pleasure as if the words were diamonds. But Mirren’s Hopper is at her most vicious when she is speaking with Trumbo. And what can I say about Bryan Cranston. Watch him as he easily becomes a giant, an icon, a legend before our very eyes. Cranston is brilliant, perfect.

And the nominees are… Cranston was great, but Leonardo DiCaprio got the Oscar for The revenant.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Trumbo

Directed by:
Jay Roach

Screenplay by:
John McNamara
Based on the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook

Starring:
Bryan Cranston
Elle Fanning
Diane Lane
John Goodman
Louis C.K.
Christian Berkel
Dean O’Gorman
David James Elliott
Michael Stuhlbarg
Helen Mirren

124 min.

Rated 14A

 

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has been banned from making film in Iran. Panahi was arrested in 2010 along with his wife, daughter, and 15 friends, charged with propaganda against the Iranian government and sentenced to a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban on directing any movies. But he does it anyway, and then smuggles them to film festivals. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, for instance, was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear. Taxi is a documentary-like, absurdist comedy. It was shot entirely in a taxi. A security camera has been put on the dashboard. The camera can be turned around 360 degrees and can be pointed in any direction. And Panahi is playing himself, a film director who has become a taxi driver. A diverse collection of topics are approached when several passengers come to take a seat into his cab. A man selling illegal DVDs of American films or TV shows (like The walking dead) recognizes Panahi and can’t stop saying how much he admires Panahi’s film. An injured man is put into the backseat with is wife screaming to bring him to the hospital. His last will are filmed on a cell phone. When two women get in the taxi with a fishbowl, with the water and the fishes still in the bowl, accidents are bound to happen. Then Panahi’s niece, Hana Saeidi, a young school pupil, come to seek help from her uncle. She has to nake a film as a school project, and has brought her digital camera. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is about the love of movies, no matter if they’re made on a cell phone or a small digital camera, or in a taxi cab. The last image of the film proves that Panahi can bring a touch of magic into any film in the simplest way. When the DVD smuggler asks him what he considers is a good film, Panahi answers that all films are good. Indeed.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

82 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In Persian with English subtitles

 

Magician: The astonishing life and work of Orson Welles

‘Boy wonder’ Orson Welles was only 24 when he made CitizenKane. For several reason, it was not a success, but over the years the film developed the reputation as the best film aver made. Chuck Workman’s Magician: The astonishing life and work of Orson Welles is an amusing glance at the great filmmaker’s life. But you cannot really do a serious analysis of the man and his films in only 91 minutes. There is a brief look at his childhood. Then his early success in theatre, including Macbeth performed by black actors (known as Voodoo Macbeth), The cradle will rock, very important productions in the history of American theatre. And then came the most famous radio broadcast of all time. In 1938, The war of the world adapted from H. G. Wells, scared Americans who believed the fictional news reports of a Martian invasion. A contract with RKO pictures gave Welles a two movie deal with complete control over the finished films. CitizenKane was the first of those films. But Welles never had the final edit on any of his other Hollywood films. No matter how great they are, The magnificent Amberson, The lady from Shanghai and Touch of evil were pulled from his control and edited by the studios. He is sometimes at fault for that: The films often lagged behind schedule and over budget or he was busy working on radio broadcasts or plays. His other films were made in Europe. To finance them Welles did theatre, acted in mostly mediocre films and made several guest appearances in variety TV series (such as The Dean Martin celebrity roast). A look at his filmography reveals the sad truths: There are more unfinished and aborted films, than completed films. Beside CitizenKane, there are beautiful masterpieces, and as an actor, Welles has a thunderous presence (Touch of evil and Chimes at midnight are good examples of that). His last great film was Chimes at midnight in 1965. Workman interviews childhood friends, supporters (like film scholar and director Peter Bogdanovich), his last companion Oja Kodar, and on archives, Charlton Heston and Anthony Perkins. Although this is not the most insightful film about Welles, it is still worth a look.

Good read… Pauline Kael (1919 – 2001) was considered one of the best American film reviewer. In her long essay, Raising Kane, Kael writes that Welles did not co-authored CitizenKane. She also writes about the people CitizenKane was based on: newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863 – 1951) and his mistress, actress Marion Davies (1897 – 1961). Although Kael’s theories and research have been rebutted, there are still some questions worth asking. Raising Kane can be read here:

http:/ www.paulrossen.com/paulinekael/raisingkane.html

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Magician: The astonishing life and work of Orson Welles

Directed by:

Chuck Workman

91 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Kumiko, The treasure hunter

In the film Fargo, Steve Buscemi’s character, Carl Showalter, buries a briefcase full of money in the snow alongside a North Dakota highway. In Kumiko, The treasure hunter, Japanese office worker Kumiko (Academy nominated Babel actress Rinko Kikuchi) finds a VHS cassette of Fargo in a hole under some rocks. “This is a true story” claims Fargo as it opens. So Kumiko believes the money is still where Carl Showalter/Steve Buscemi buried it. Her boss (Nobuyuki Katsube) treats her like a servant, asking her to make coffee or get him donuts or to pick up his dry cleaning. Her mother calls her and nags her to come back to live with her, since Kumiko is not married. All that makes Kumiko depressed. So she becomes obsessed about going to Fargo, North Dakota, to find the hidden money. She steals the company credit card, and boards a plane for the US. It is cold in North Dakota, she’s certainly not dressed for winter, and her limited command of English will become a problem. This is a slow-moving fable, but once Kumiko gets to the US, the clash of cultures makes things funnier. It is rather the clash between a weird character like Kumiko and the Americans that brings out the humour. Although it may not appeal to everyone, Kumiko, The treasure hunter is a charming fantasy with an amusing performance by Rinko Kikuchi.

You should know… Kumiko, The treasure hunter is based on Takako Konishi, an office worker from Tokyo who was found dead in a field outside Detroit lakes, Minnesota in 2001. Although her death was ruled a suicide, it was insinuated by the media that she had died trying to locate the missing money hidden in the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. There is also a documentary called This is a true story, directed by Paul Berczeller. As for Fargo, it is not a true story.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 Kumiko, The treasure hunter

Directed by:
David Zellner
Screenplay by:
David Zellner
Nathan Zellner
Starring:
Rinko Kikuchi
Nobuyuki Katsube
Shirley Venard
David Zellner
105 min.
Rated General
In English and Japanese
with English subtitles

Altman

This documentary about the brilliant American film director, is an incentive to see some of his films again. Certainly Nashville, The player and Short cuts are worth revisiting, but I’ll pass on Prêt-à-Porter and Popeye. In all Robert Altman made 37 feature films between 1957 and 2006. Altman starts with the word Altmanesque which is an entry in dictionaries. Then throughout the film we see actors like Lily Tomlin, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, the late Robin Williams, among others, give their own definition of Altmanesque. But there are no interviews with the people who knew him or worked on his films. Canadian documentary director Ron Mann tells the story through old video and audio interviews of Altman, most notably from The Dick Cavett show. The film could almost be called “Altman by Altman”. Other archival footage are used, like the Gene Shalit review of Popeye, or home movies from Altman’s archives, and of course, from the sets of his films. His wife and children were interviewed, but we only hear their voices. This peculiar choice means the director can concentrate on Altman and his films. As I said, it makes me want to see them again, or see those I missed. If Altman had a style, it could be called “casual naturalness”. The Meriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of “naturalness” is “carefree freedom from constraint”. In his career, Robert Altman always refused to compromise the independence of his artistic vision to the Hollywood machine. That is maybe his greatest legacy.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Altman

 

 Directed by: 

Ron Mann
 
Screenplay by: 
Len Blum
 
95 min.
 
Rated 14A