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.

Paterson

“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”

William Carlos Williams, Paterson

The latest Jim Jarmusch film, Paterson, is a lovely film about the joy and love of poetry. The film is about bus driver and amateur poet Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and her taciturn bulldog, Marvin (Nellie), in Paterson, New Jersey. A week in the life of Paterson. The same repeated routine everyday. Waking up at the same time with Laura asleep next to him, eats Cheerios for breakfast, walks to work taking the same streets, everyday his supervisor is unhappy about something in his life. Always. But not Paterson. Paterson is happy. Seems to be. Paterson writes poems in his little notebook. As you hear the poems read aloud, we see the words appearing on the screen. On the bus, Paterson overhears conversations between passengers. One of them is about that time Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was arrested and charged of a shootout at a bar on Lafayette street. At lunch, Paterson sits near the Great Falls of the Passaic river and writes some more. During his day, Paterson sees a great number of twins. At home, Laura is in a constant state of artistic reinvention and designing. She likes to paint on curtains, directly on the material, on the floors, the walls, the dress that she is wearing. She likes to paint circles, like doughnuts or Cheerios, almost always black on white, white on black. It’s all over the apartment. Black dots or circles. She wants to become a country singer and plans to sell cup cakes (black with black and white icing!) at a week-end fair. In the evening, Paterson takes Marvin for his walk. Marvin takes Paterson to the local tavern. Paterson has a nice rapport with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henly). Paterson also meets a lot of interesting characters. Jim Jarmusch’s probable inspiration is William Carlos Williams, more precisely Carlos Williams epic poem Paterson. In the film we often see a book of his poem. I slowly got immersed into the rhythm of this film. At times Paterson almost feels like you are in a Fellini film (the twins), but I also saw some images that evokes other directors (Hitchcock?) Full of surrealist details, Paterson is greatly helped by production designer Mark Friedberg and Catherine George’s costumes. Frederick Elmes’s photography never draws attention, but the cinematographer has to walk a fine line between the daily life of the main character and the purity of the poetry. He must not overly underline what is already beautiful. Adam Driver is an appealing actor playing an appealing character. It could be bland or boring, but somehow Driver makes it compelling, I think, because he includes us in, like a joke that nobody else would get. Along for the fun ride is kooky Golshifteh Farahani who will get most of the laugh. That’s when Driver and Farahani are not totally upstaged by Nellie.

You should know… The poems written by Paterson are actually by American poet Ron Padgett. Jarmusch chose four of Padgett poems and commissioned three new poems to be used in the film. Water falls, a poem attributed to another character was penned by Jarmusch himself. The winner of the Cannes film festival Palm dog award was Nellie. Nellie had died a few months before the awards. It was the first time that the Palm dog was posthumously awarded.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Paterson

Directed by:

Jim Jarmusch

Screenplay by:
Jim Jarmusch

Starring:
Adam Driver
Golshifteh Farahani
Barry Shabaka Henly
Cliff Smith
Nagase Masatoshi

118 min.

Rated 14A

Juste la fin du monde (It’s only the end of the world)

You could say that I’m a Xavier Dolan fan, but Juste la fin du monde is not my favorite of his films. Even so, there are some elements I liked. Dolan adapted the Jean-Luc Lagarce 1990 play. In it Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a successful writer, pays a visit to his family. He has had almost no contact with them in 12 years. We know from the film’s opening scene that he plans to tell them that he is dying. This is clearly a dysfunctional group of character. Louis has an overbearing, over aggressive (over everything) older brother. Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is loud, interrupts every conversations and bullies the whole family. It soon becomes clear that nothing is going to go smooth. Mother Martine (Nathalie Baye, wearing too much make up and has a Cleopatra haircut) smokes like a chimney and does aerobics in the kitchen. Sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) was too young when Louis left. She is a sweet, insecure and sensitive girl. Louis meets Antoine’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Catherine has probably been the target of her husband’s aggressiveness. She is so shy that she is unable to carry a full conversation. You can’t fault Dolan or his director of photography, André Turpin, for the beauty of the images and the quality of the directing. They have filmed mostly in close up to accentuate the feeling of claustrophobia. But Juste la fin du monde is hysterical. Not just a bit, all the time. You have every one trying to speak over one another. The worst is Vincent Cassel. I don’t actually (I won‘t because I can‘t) put the blame on Cassel. Antoine is an impossible part to play, and cannot think of an actor who can do it without annoying most people in the cinema. Dolan likes hysteria, but this is too much of it. He wanted to make a film on incommunicability, and boy did he ever. The overbearing Gabriel Yared score is doing all it can to make the dialogue inaudible. I think Dolan is a brilliant director, but not this time. My feeling about Juste la fin du monde can be best describe by that classic retort: “Not tonight, I‘m having a headache!”

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Juste la fin du monde (It’s only the end of the world)

Directed by:
Xavier Dolan

Screenplay by:
Xavier Dolan
Based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce

Starring:
Gaspard Ulliel
Nathalie Baye
Marion Cotillard
Vincent Cassel
Léa Seydoux

97 min.

In French with English subtitles.

Maggie’s plan

I am not going to spoil it by telling you when or how it happens, but there is a brilliant association made between artificial insemination and pickles. It is brilliant because screenwriter-director Rebecca Miller does not write any naughty lines. She know that anything her characters say at that moment will have double entendre. She just let us, the audience, decide if we get the joke or not. Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, and her plan is to have a child. Unlucky in love, Maggie decides that the best way is to find a sperm donor. She just found the suitable candidate, when she meets professor and novelist John (Ethan Hawke). John is married to Georgette who, according to everyone Maggie talks to, is a cold-hearted bitch. Soon Maggie and John fall in each other’s arms. Three years later, John left Georgette and married Maggie. John and Maggie now have a daughter. Between taking care of her daughter and John and Georgette’s kids on weekends, Maggie realizes that her relationship with John was a mistake. Georgette and Maggie finally meet and Maggie finds out that Georgette is not that bad after all, once you get to know her. I would say that Maggie’s plan‘s overall tone is pleasant. There are funny moments and performances. I liked Saturday night live‘s alumni Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s best friends, Tony and Felicia. Rudolph in particular will stand on her head, if needs be, to make a line funny. And Bill Hader’s Tony feels real and human. Georgette is played by Julianne Moore in one of her rare comedy performance. It’s a great comic creation. From the costume,- a shaggy-carpet-like ugly fur coat, platform shoes -the thick german (?) accent and those piercing, cold stares meant to scare off anyone who angers Georgette, Moore seems to be having the time of her life. But Georgette also has heart and Julianne Moore is making sure that see that. There is plenty here to like.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Maggie’s plan

Directed by:

Rebecca Miller

Screenplay by:

Rebeccca Miller

Karen Rinaldi

Starring:

Greta Gerwig

Ethan Hawke

Julianne Moore

Bill Hader

Maya Rudolph

Travis Fimmel

Wallace Shawn

92 min.

Rated 14A

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