The seagull

This excellent film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1895 classic play seems to have everything right. Screenwriter Stephen Karam has done a great job by opening the play a bit, but has kept the story and the motivations (from what I can tell) pretty much the same. The film stars Annette Bening as Irina Arkadina, an aging actress spending the summer at her brother’s beautiful Russian country estate. She’s accompanied by her lover, well-known playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), and her troubled son, Konstantin (Billy Howle). There are other characters with them and they all seem to have one thing in common: unrequited love. There is Masha (Elisabeth Moss), daughter of the estate manager, who is obsessed with Konstantin. But Konstantin is secretly in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young neighbour who dreams of becoming an actress. Konstantin is upset at his mother because she mocked one of his plays. He also dislikes Boris and is resentful of his talent. It gets worse when Boris attempts to seduce an all too willing Nina. It may be impossible for modern audiences to understand this community of 19th century over-the-top dramatic actresses of artists and romantic/suicidal youths, but if there is one cast that can do it, this is the one. Bening in particular understands the bigger than life persona and never misses a chance to strike a pose. She’s grand. A refreshing aspect of this film is that the mostly American cast did not feel the need to speak with an accent. Too many times I’ve seen actors absurdly attempting to take a Russian accent or a British accent. To my ear, everyone spoke a very good English without any accents. Director Michael Mayer keeps it all snappy and frothy. Very enjoyable.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The seagull

 

Directed by:
Michael Mayer

Screenplay by:
Stephen Karam
Based on the play by Anton Chekhov

Starring:
Saoirse Ronan
Annette Bening
Corey Stoll
Billy Howle
Elisabeth Moss
Brian Dennehy
Mare Winningham
Jon Tenney

98 min.

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Final portrait

In 1964 Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti wanted to paint a portrait of his American friend and biographer James Lord, and asked Lord to pose for him. Lord met Giacometti in his dirty and dusty studio in Paris. Lord (Armie Hammer) thought it would only take a few days, but Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) only paints a few strokes, stops, looks at what he’s done, swears at it and smears the painting with some white paint. So he has to start again. And that’s not all. Giacometti’s private life is complicated by his love for his wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud) and his model, Caroline (Clémence Poésy), who is also a prostitute. Lord has to cancel his flight back to America several times, hoping in vain that Giacometti will be able to one day finish the portrait. Happily he has Alberto’s brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), to keep him company. Final portrait is a mess. Where do I start? Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, as always, is overacting and repetitive. When Giacometti is swearing at his canvas, you would expect a good actor to do some variations. But Rush says the same swear word the same way every time. That action is replayed so many times during the film that it becomes annoying. And several scenes of Giacomett and Lord walking in what looks like the Père Lachaise cemetery are also repetitive. The film is ugly. Everything looks gray (dirty and dusty?) and I could not believe we were really in Paris. And lastly, I found the whole film and the story to be uninteresting. To avoid!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Final portrait

 

Directed by:
Stanley Tucci

Screenplay by:
Stanley Tucci

Starring:
Geoffrey Rush
Armie Hammer
Clémence Poésy
Tony Shalhoub
James Faulkner
Sylvie Testud

90 min.

Rated 14A

In English, Italian and French with English subtitles.

Wonder wheel

Wonder wheel, the new Woody Allen film is not a comedy but a melodrama. “I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters,” says Mickey (Justin Timberlake) speaking to the camera. Mickey is a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe playwright, and this type of naration is often used in theatre. This is the 1950s, and the film centres on Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam-bar waitress and wannabe actress. She lives with her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator, and her young son Richie (Jack Gore), an incorrigible pyromaniac. Their apartment next to the boardwalk is surrounded by the noise of the amusement park and the shooting games. The film starts as Humpty’s estranged daughter Caroline (Juno Temple) comes to seek refuge from her mobster husband. Initially Humpty refuses to get involved because he’s afraid the mobster will be looking for her. But her allows her to stay with them. Meanwhile, Ginny has an affair with Mickey the lifeguard, who is a few years younger than she is. That gives Ginny a little break from the gloom of life at the apartment where Ginny and Humpty are always fighting and Richie gets in trouble again with another fire he has started. With Mickey, Ginny can dream to be an actress again, and Ginny is happy. That is untill Mickey meets Caroline and he falls for her. Although this is an original screenplay by Woody Allen, it feels like a play, either adapted from another source or from an unproduced Woody Allen play. A big chunk of the action is stagey and takes place inside the apartment. But even when it does not, the screenplay has a series of speeches and monologues that seems like it was written for the stage. It may have been deliberate. Look at it this way: Ginny played on stage when she was younger, and Mickey, who wants to be a playwright, reads Shakespeare, quotes Eugene O’Neill (Wonder wheel might have been an O’Neill play, or a Tennessee Williams, or an Edward Albee). The characters in Wonder wheel are angry people, clinging on to their unattainable dreams. They are surrounded by a deafening dysfunctional noise. Wonder wheel is well directed by Allen with an acute sense of doom. But there is a lack of focus in the writing. There is enough drama and material for several films. Winslet is unforgettably tense in portraying Ginny’s increasingly hysterical neuroses. And legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s brilliant use of colors is one of the great joy of this Woody Allen film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Wonder wheel

Directed by:
Woody Allen

Screenplay by:
Woody Allen

Starring:
Kate Winslet
Justin Timberlake
Juno Temple
Jim Belushi

101 min.

Rated 14A

The only living boy in New York

When Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) sees his father kissing another woman, he decides to follow her… and then happens whatever happens in those types of films. Thomas, is a recent college graduate, lives in New York in a Lower East Side apartment when he is not spending the night at his parents’ Upper West Side house. One night while he’s out with his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), he sees his father, Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), a successful publisher, making out with Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). He’s so intrigued by this, and her that he starts to stalk her. Either he wants to stick it to his dad, who is always very critical of his son’s choices, or he wants to break up the relationship before Judith, his mom, finds out. It’s probably both of those. Judith (Cynthia Nixon) has suffered from depression and alcoholism. It is clear that Thomas loves his mom and that he has a rather tense relationship with hid dad. After a few days of playing detective, Thomas is confronted by Johanna. She knows she’s been followed and she knows who he is. And then, as expecting, they start having sex. Meanwhile, Thomas befriends one of his neighbor, W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges, who also narrates the film), a whisky-guzzling, chain-smoking novelist on the decline. Thomas confides to Gerald about Johanna, his dad and the whole mess. I found The only living boy in New York unexciting and boring. I would have thought that a film about a young man having an affair with his father’s mistress would, and should be sexy and a bit dirty. There is no sex! All that’s left is the acting. Jeff Bridges is good but the character he plays is such a cliché. Brosnan is better in avoiding the traps. Composer Rob Simonsen’s joyful and clever score is everything the film should be, but isn’t.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The only living boy in New York

 

Directed by:
Marc Webb

Screenplay by:
Allan Loeb

Starring:
Callum Turner
Kate Beckinsale
Pierce Brosnan
Cynthia Nixon
Jeff Bridges
Kiersey Clemons

88 min.

Obit.

The art of writing obituaries comes to the forefront in Obit., a new documentary about death that celebrates lives. The writers/journalists from The New York times obituary department are dedicated to accomplish what looks like a very hard task. Most impressive of all is that every morning, every day it all start again. There are always new personalities to write about, to research. There is a printing deadline to respect and, depending on what time of day or night the person has died, a lot of pressure rests on the writers shoulders. It is also important that they get it right. That means a minimum of errors. It is fascinating to watch Bruce Weber, for instance, call the wife of man he’s writing about and ask her questions about her husband as she mourning. This is necessary in order to have more accurate informations, and not some unverified versions of the truth. We are told that sometime a family will have entertained some myths about the deceased (a kind of wishful thinking). The New York times obituary archives (appropriately called “the morgue”) is the place where they store some of the photos and articles that are used to compose the obituaries. Archivist Jeff Roth is keeper of the gate. Although it may differ for some people, I did not find Obit. to be morbid at all. It is conventional, yes, but well made. And a very interesting topic.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Obit.

 

Directed by:
Vanessa Gould

93 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

A quiet passion

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

 

In A quiet passion British director Terence Davies gives us a portrait of American poet Emily Dickinson. When we first see young Emily (then played by Emma Bell) she’s at a Christian boarding school. The stubborn Emily refuses to accept the school’s religious precepts. Her liberal-minded father (Keith Carradine) seems to take Emily’s unconventionality as a folly of youth. This is a way for Davies to say that Dickinson’s refusal to act and think outside of what was expected at the time, will color her life as well as her poetry. All her life, the unmarried Dickinson lived with the family at their home in Amherst, Massachusetts where most of the film is set. Throughout the film, religious zealots and moralists are being rightly ridiculed. There was no way that Emily would let her Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland), for instance, dictate what she should or should not say or think. As an adult, Emily (now played in a spectacular performance by Cynthia Nixon) befriends Vryling Wilder Buffum. Played by Catherine Bailey, it is a comic masterpiece of precision. With every flick of the fan, eye rolling insinuations and flirting stares, Vryling is very funny and entertaining to Emily and her sister Lavinia “Vinnie” (the marvellous understated Jennifer Ehle). A quiet passion is actually quite witty. There is joy and exaltation in Emily’s smiles, and laughter in her face and her eyes. But later in life she suffers terribly from the death of her parents. And she feels lonely and think of herself as ugly caused by a lifetime celibacy. She becomes a recluse, seldom leaving her room. The only thing she can rely on is her writing and her sister, also a celibate. Emily has screaming matches with Austin (Duncan Duff), her married brother, after she finds him in the living room with a married woman. Emily gets sick from Bright’s disease and her whole body is taken by terrifying, unstoppable tremors. Although Emily Dickinson wrote close to 1800 poems, fewer than a dozen were published during her lifetime. Because of Dickinson’s innovative use of punctuation and various styles and forms, she is now considered one of the most revered American poet. I remember hearing American composer Aaron Copland’s Twelve poems by Emily Dickinson, and now his use of sudden dissonant outbursts makes sense. Here we see Dickinson in the early scenes bursting with uncontrollable joy, or in later years as sorrows and pain filled her days and nights, being visited by depression and anger. It mirrors the exalted and impetuous nature of Dickinson’s poetry. In A quiet passion, Davies shows the family’s spending quiet evenings with only lamps to light up the living room. These were different times. Davies is not afraid to linger and let the silences create a reflective atmosphere. Those beautiful 360 degree pans of the rooms or, as a complete contrast, the walks in most the sunny and colourful gardens is the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. The cast is splendid. To name a few, Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s loving sister and Catherine Bailey as her best friend, form with Nixon a trio of unforgettable actresses. What I find most compelling is the respect for Dickinson from all involved. Cynthia Nixon’s complete commitment should be saluted at Oscar time. And let’s hope that the film and Terence Davies will also be remembered.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

A quiet passion

Directed by:
Terence Davies

Screenplay by:
Terence Davies

Starring:
Cynthia Nixon
Emma Bell
Jennifer Ehle
Duncan Duff
Keith Carradine
Joanna Bacon
Catherine Bailey
Jodhi May
Annette Badland
Eric Loren

125 min.

Rated Parental

Citizen Jane: Battle for the city

One of the great things about documentaries is that they present worlds and places you never imagined and extraordinary people doing the unimaginable. Citizen Jane: Battle for the city is about urban journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Her 1960 book The death and life of great American cities is considered one of the most influential essay about urban planning. Additionally, Jacobs was an earlier example of what you would today call “an activist”. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs’ neighbourhood, Greenwich village, New York, and others were constantly threatened by destruction by urban developers. One of those was Robert Moses, a greedy and power-hungry man who had all the politicians in his pockets. His goal to practise “slum clearance” -expropriate whole neighbourhoods to build mega highways and move the population (mostly black) to public housing projects was thwarted by Jane Jacobs and other activists. When Moses planned to build a road through Washington Square Park, the reaction was immediate and the project was successfully aborted. Manhattan and Greenwich village would have been destroyed and replaced by the Lower Manhattan Expressway or the Mid-Manhattan Expressway were it not for people like Jane Jacobs. She was arrested in 1968. That same year she moved to Toronto, caused by her opposition to the Vietnam war, where she quickly got involved and arrested again. Almost sixty years after it was written, The death and life of great American cities is still pertinent today. In her writing, read in the film by Marisa Tomei, Jane effectively exults her dedication and love of the city.

Quote… “Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en massa, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Jane Jacobs, The death and life of great American cities, 1961

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Citizen Jane: Battle for the city

Directed by:
Matt Tyrnauer

With Marisa Tomei reading Jane Jacobs

93 min.

Rated General

After the storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Yoshiko Shinoda has two children. A son, Ryota (HIroshi Abe), and a daughter, Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi). Yoshiko is played by Kiki Kirin. In an early scene, Chinatsu visits her mother who lives in a tiny apartment. The snappy banter between the two woman is too good to resist. But the film centres on her son, Ryota, a middle-aged, divorced, failed writer. Actually, Ryota wrote one successful novel, then that was it. To earn a living, he works as a private eye, spying on cheating husbands and wives. He even follows and spies on his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki). He’s still jealous and does not like her new boyfriend. Every time they meet, Ryota and Kyoko fight. Sometimes it’s about their son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), but most of the time it’s about the unpaid child support he owes her. Like his recently deceased father, Ryota is a compulsive gambler. When he visits his mother, he searches through the apartment to see if he can find some money, or if his father left something that is worth selling or pawning. Yoshiko invites the whole family at her house the night of a much talked about and awaited typhoon. Even Chinatsu, who does not get along with her brother, has been invited. While the storm is raging outside, inside they trying to find some peace of mind and understand each other. Hirozaku Kore-eda’s good humoured screenplay is well served by an exquisite ensemble cast, headed by the fabulous Kiki Kirin. The private eye scenes in mid film were too long, but otherwise this is a beautiful, worthy film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

After the storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku)

Directed by:
Hirozaku Kore-eda

Screenplay by:
Hirozaku Kore-eda

Starring:
HIroshi Abe
Yoko Maki
Kirin Kiki
Taiyo Yoshizawa
Satomi Kobayashi

117 min.

In Japanese with English subtitles.

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

I am not your negro

James Baldwin’s Remember this house was his remembrances of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Within five years all three were assassinated. The documentary I am not your negro uses the words from the unfinished manuscript (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) as narration, film archives, photos and Baldwin being interviewed on TV to document the history of the American Civil Rights movement. On The Dick Cavett show, Cavett seems caught off guards by Baldwin’s serious tone. It’s as if he expected Baldwin to start joking. But for James Baldwin racial segregation was no laughing matter. Tired of American prejudice against blacks, Baldwin left the US in 1948 to go live in France to continue his writing career in freedom. He came back in 1957, after seeing a photo of a black teenage girl entering a desegregated school. She is surrounded be white teens who are spitting on her. That and other images are powerfully inserted in this film. The violent and racist images of the 50s and 60s (photos of white men and boys holding signs with racist slurs and swastika on them) are sometimes mixed with more recent events: the Rodney King beating (I had no idea that his beating had been so violent and intense) and more recent killings of black people by police officers and the Ferguson, Missouri protest. Once he came back in America, Baldwin started to work alongside Evers, Macolm X and MLK. We see him during the 1963 March on Washington with Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr and white actors Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston. He talked and wrote at length about anything relevant to the African-American experience. This included commenting about groundbreaking films like Guess who’s coming to dinner? and In the heat of the night, both films made in 1967 and starred Sidney Poitier. The most powerful moment in the film comes with a clip of a Technicolor Doris Day film. Whiter than white Day, all teeth glaring, is shown in all her glory while we hear her singing a syrupy song. It is juxtaposed with black-and-white photos of black people hanging from trees. Chilling effect! The fact that James Baldwin was gay is only mentioned in a FBI report, proof that Edgar J Hoover was investigating all Civil Rights activists as possible threats for the nation. This documentary is crucial and might be an eye opener for certain people who think that racism does not exist anymore or, worse still, never existed. It has to be seen.

And the Oscar went to… I am not your negro was nominated for Best documentary feature. It lost to O.J.: Made in America who is more than 7 hours long.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

I am not your negro

Directed by:
Raoul Peck

Screenplay by:
James Baldwin
Raoul Peck
from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember this house

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson as James Baldwin

95 min.