Saturday, February 10, 2018

Seen in… January 


Harold Lloyd doing what he does best - creating an iconic movie moment. Image via The Movie DB.

Britain's darkest hour may have been in the spring of 1940 but for Canadians it is deep in the heart of winter. Winter can be a wonderful and magical time of year – if you are between the ages of five to ten years old. Unfortunately the rest of us have to shovel and plow our way to work and back. You wake in the bleak darkness and arrive at your place of work with what can be best described as a brightening greyness. In Toronto, winter is a time when the sky is an even and unbreakable grey. It's time to go home when you glance at the window only to see your own face staring back from the blackened glass. You wake and go home in the same unforgiving dark. It's a surprise I left the house at all, but between volunteer engagements, meetings and advocacy bike rides I did manage to get to the theatre and see a few films at home.


Gary Oldman poisoning himself.Image via The Movie DB.

Darkest Hour

This film is about the dark days of May 1940 when Nazi forces had advanced so quickly through Europe they simply shocked their foes and the majority of Britain’s army were trapped on a beach in France without any way out. Within the British government Winston Churchill had just been appointed prime minister and was being pressured to negotiate with Hitler via Italy. Churchill sees no way of winning as he rightly argues you can’t “negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” When the near miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk offers a spark of hope Churchill delivers his famously rousing speech in the House of Commons: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” which led one parliamentarian to quip that Churchill had weaponized the English language. The speech led to support of Churchill and a turning point that led to the Battle of Britain. The thing about this film is, that not for one second do you think, “Wow Gary Oldman is really a lot like Winston Churchill”. You simply forget there is a Gary Oldman at all as he so completely inhabits the makeup and mannerisms of someone so iconic and renders him full of doubts, resolve and humanity. If this performance doesn’t win Oldman the Academy Award then nothing will. The film is surprisingly gripping despite being a war movie set almost entirely in smoky rooms of government offices and war rooms. Having seen Christopher Nolan’s taut rendition of the Dunkirk evacuation only heightened the urgency playing out behind large dark oak doors of the British establishment.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency Season 2

Despite bingeing through this series like a starving man at an all you can eat Mandarin buffet, it really wasn’t as profoundly quirky or holistic as season one. In a strange way it seemed almost too fantastical. I think this series works best when Dirk and the gang fall into the weird little coincidences that are too weird to be just a coincidence but at the same time might just be the only way to explain what’s going on.

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore

I watched this Netflix original about a woman who takes vigilante justice to the next level after her home was robbed, mostly because Elijah Wood appeared to be playing the same lost loner as he plays in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. He was so similar that I briefly thought this movie was a cross-over with the other show, also a Netflix original. Melanie Lynskey is Ruth who reaches a type of tepid simmer and tired of being knocked about by life sets out to take back a single iota of control. Her neighbour, Tony, played by Wood is so purposeless that he jumps at the opportunity to do anything at all. What seems at first to be perhaps a quirky mystery or buddy movie morphs into something less funny and more dangerous which is what makes the movie interesting. Beneath the humour is a menace and yet the fact that the people who are so menacing are also so pedestrian is what makes it all the more creepy. So this movie is quirky, funny and creepy… if that helps at all.

Black Mirror season 3 & 4

This contemporary cross between Tales of the Unexpected and the Twilight Zone continues to delight, disturb and creep out with the latest two seasons. Each episode is unconnected to the previous as the stories are an anthology of sorts, yet all are set in the near future and in the same “universe” as it were, with a disruptive and disturbing take on technology at its core. There’s too much to recap here but if you are bothered by how people walk into traffic while looking at their mobile phones or by how much Facebook and Google know about you, well then you haven’t seen the half of it and that’s what this show is about.


Kit Harrington all moody and such as beleaguered Catholic, Robert Catesby.Image via The Movie DB.

Gunpowder

This three-part HBO mini-series is an updating of the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James and most of his government in 17th century England. Just to catch you up, this was the plot by repressed Catholics to kill the King who had promised them freedom but never did. The Crown worried that Catholics of the day were more loyal to the Pontiff in Rome than their own king and as such sought to vilify, torture and suppress Catholics whenever possible. This retelling doesn’t focus much on the famously captured Guy Fawkes but on one of the instigators, Robert Catesby, who as portrayed by the young and popular actor Kit Harrington has been suitably sexed up for this version. I guess enough is known about the plotters that the main facts are maintained yet enough unknown to allow the filmmakers leeway to invent the story to make it more interesting. This is certainly one of the more detailed and sumptuous versions you’ll see and honestly is sympathetic enough to the plotters that you’ll almost be rooting for them to blow Parliament to bits.

Notting Hill

I re-watched this because it was on TV, and because I’d heard someone say that the ending press conference was lifted from Roman Holiday and you know what, it obviously was but with the whole happy bit instead of sad bit. In fact, this does feel like a modern day re-working of Roman Holiday except the celebrity knows everyone knows she’s a celebrity. It is interesting to think of this as a “classic” because while it leaned heavily on romantic comedies before it, it has itself become a much copied model of a romantic comedy. In this movie Julia Roberts plays a famous actress who bumps into (literally) a dashing British bookstore owner, Hugh Grant, who, after spilling orange juice all over her, offers a convenient place for her to clean up. Unexplainably, in a moment we never fully understand, she kisses him spontaneously and ever so enticingly. She later invites him to her hotel to apologize (um, if you sexually assault someone, maybe don’t then invite them to a press event at your hotel?) The apology offered and accepted, the handsome Brit then stammers oh so adorably that he wishes their dalliance would continue. She obliges. Only in the movies.


Kristen Stewart waits. Image via The Movie DB.

Personal Shopper

For some reason I thought this film starring Kristen Stewart as a celebrity’s personal assistant who is struggling with the grief of losing her twin brother would be connected to Roman Holiday (from the other side of fame), but it’s not that at all. Stewart plays a young woman who has taken a job she doesn’t like so she can stay in Paris and wait. Wait for what? A sign from her dead brother that there is in fact another side to cross over to. It becomes a frightening and disturbing ghost story but when she begins receiving mysterious text messages from an unknown source it becomes a thriller. So it’s kind of an art house, ghost story, thriller about grief, loss, loneliness and disconnection in a modern world. Sort of. It will get you thinking about your relationships with loved ones and will creep you out if you watch it alone in a creaky old house at night, so don’t do that. Like Olivier Assayas’ other films, just when you think, “boring” he twists the knife and just when you think, “Oh, I get it”, you don’t and the last ten minutes suddenly make you question everything you ever knew - about the movie you just watched.


Our little merman.Image via The Movie DB.

The Shape of Water

A mute cleaning lady at a secret 1950s era government facility forms a curiously close bond with a unique amphibious creature held captive by men who plan to weaponize his abilities. This story is obviously a hybrid fairytale of Beauty and the Beast and The Swamp Thing and maybe a touch of Amélie. Yet, only Guillermo Del Toro would dream up such a thing. In some ways this story is almost camp in its nostalgia and sentiment but such sweet nostalgia and sentiment and so beautifully art directed. The wonderful Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the cleaning lady and Doug Jones her fishy paramour and perhaps it is their performances that is the heart to this fantasy. Richard Jenkins plays a gay man in a straight man’s world, I suppose because he’s a character who only wants to be loved but has been rejected personally and societally. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon plays the role of the spiteful baddy - a role he’s getting too comfortable with, as Michael Stuhlbarg plays the sympathetic and quiet hero (a role he too is getting familiar with) who surprises us with his part in the adventure. Another stereotype employed here is Octavia Spencer as the gregarious and sassy friend of Elisa, who is so talkative, I assume, to verbalize what Elisa can’t (as a plot device there is a reason for Elisa’s muteness). Collectively, the supporting cast represents the “other”, the disenfranchised of society who band together to help a similarly abused outsider. I guess that would really be my only disappointment in the movie; that three brilliant actors did superb and expert turns in roles they could deliver in their sleep. They could have phoned it in, but didn’t. Despite these tropes and expected turns in the plot, there are unexpected ones too and this movie is immensely entertaining and lovely. Del Toro hasn’t always hit the mark when he’s occupied with his own obsessions and despite what some critics may think of as romantic pandering, there is no one else who could make a film like this. Plus, there are plenty of Toronto cameos in this film to delight even the most jaded local.

Mr. Roosevelt

Awww, who doesn’t love a manic pixie dream girl indie chick who is genuinely funny? And who thought such a petite fragile creature could get her heart broken after she returns home to Austin for her cat’s funeral to find her hot mess of an ex-boyfriend has moved on and is doing quite fine with his new girlfriend. Okay. That was my snarky sarcastic review of this movie but it is a much more genuine, funny and honest film than that. But I would say it walks a pretty slack tightrope of becoming a twee comedy stereotype. It’s also ironic to me that any woman ever referred to as a manic pixie dream girl would in fact hate being called that. I’m a fan of Noël Wells but writing a character who is an adorably geeky, energetic, creative, spontaneous young woman who dresses in a sort of a rag-tag cool vintage way, plays guitar and loves obscure movies and music AND has bangs is bound to fall into this stereotype of MPDG. Despite an interview declaring Wells is “Not here to be your quirky heroine.“ it’s um, a little too late for that. The primary difference here is she is the main character and not the objectified love interest of a wayward male character. Truth be told, I guess the background story to this one, of an artistic couple falling in love and sharing a ramshackle house with a cat, until she has a crisis and leaves would have been the more stereotypical MPDG storyline, with the spurned guy as the main character. So maybe this movie’s merit is what happened to that MPDG after she upped and left? How did it turn out for her? Not so great it turns out, but in the end, getting better.

Don Quixote: Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha

It’s been said this literary work is unfilmable, and this just might be the proof. Terrible. Just terrible.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Who would’ve thunk a couple of academic architects doing what everyone else thought were art installations would turn out to be New York’s most influential architects? This unconventional firm leveraged their unique approach to architecture when designing the highly inventive elevated rail line turned park The Highline and when it came to revitalizing and humanizing the sterile Lincoln Center.

Safety Last! w/ live accompaniment

Harold Lloyd is like a cross between Martin Short and Jim Carey. Lloyd was a very funny and modern performer and this silent era classic comedy was one his most popular films. The story is a simple one of a small town guy gone to make it big in the city but winds up as an underpaid clerk at a department store. He proposes a promotional event as a chance for advancement and a way to impress his gal. Of course it doesn’t quite go as planned but creates one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. I saw this at one of my favourite theatres with a live accompanist - it couldn’t have been better.


Vittoria, played by Monica Vitti doesn't know what she wants, but she knows this isn't it.Image via The Movie DB.

L’eclisse

This Antonioni film from 1961 reminded me a bit of the Rainier Fasbinder film the Marriage of Maria Braun because it shows a Europe that was successful and productive and fast paced in a way that left some people disaffected and disassociated as if the modern world had left them in a stupor of ennui and a malaise of loneliness boredom and idleness. Essentially it’s a pretty simple story of a young woman, Vittoria (the beautiful Monica Vitti) rejecting her older lover and falling in with a young materialistic stock broker who also leaves her wanting more from life. What “more” is or would be is the existential crisis of the character. Maybe. I’d love to see this remade today with an emphasis on millennials and social media. Think about it: set during the Eclipse of 2017 with all the racist, misogynist crap going on and people being disconnected from reality via their phones and social media - the old boyfriend could be an academic who rejects her politically correct sensitivity, while the new young stock broker could be a neerdowell hipster tech-sector guy - they meet at a protest and later end the relationship at an eclipse gathering… this could be really something especially because there was no actual eclipse in the original. The last few minutes of the film are pure architectural theory catnip showing one empty modern street and abandoned construction site after another. My version would skip that.


Oh these? Just some pics I took of your mom on holiday. Photos by Herbert Matter still influence us today.Image via The Movie DB.

The Visual Language of Herbert Matter

This is the only film I know about a designer and artist whose work is amongst the most influential graphic design of the last 50 years. Unfortunately, the film itself feels almost like a student project. One of the interviewees, Steven Heller, would have made a much better film. Or even Gary Hustwit, who made such contemporary design classics as Objectified and Helvetica would have done a fine job of one of design history’s greatest talents.

Sir John Soane: An English Architect, an American Legacy

As a tourist in London, I’ve been to the Sir John Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields twice. I had no idea however that such American architectural icons such as Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi all made the pilgrimage to Soane’s home or that his collection, the design of his own home and his surviving buildings were such an important influence on contemporary architecture. This one is for architecture and design nerds only I’m afraid as not everyone will be quite as interested in scalloped semi-domes, elevated light wells and subtly rhythmic decorative facades.

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