Thursday, September 30, 2010

Looking Back: Summer Movies at the Rep Cinema

The advent of DVD has been a mixed blessing when it comes to the patterns of film releases at second run, or repertory theatres. Because the window from theatrical to DVD release has been consistently narrowing, the process of a movie going from first to second run has been accelerated as well. Most films, including hits like Inception, are getting to the reps a mere few months after they open commercially. The problem, however, is that with these quick DVD releases, films end up playing only one or two months at the rep house before they disappear for good. Most repertory cinemas are loath to screen a new film when it’s already on DVD, presuming (probably correctly) that too many patrons won’t want to see it on screen if they can rent it for less money at their video shop. All this serves as a prelude to my review of some summer movies that I caught at my local rep house, the venerable, 105 year old Bloor cinema, in September. One of those films, the disappointing The Kids Are All Right, was covered off by Critics at Large’s Susan Green. Here are four more films to consider (though one of them should be avoided) when they get to DVD. But if you can, try to see them on screen. That’s still the best way to appreciate movies.

This Movie is Broken: Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Pontypool) pays tribute to his beloved Toronto and one of its most popular bands, Broken Social Scene, in a movie that’s part concert film and part love story. The love story revolves around Bruno (Greg Calderone), who as the movie opens, has finally managed to romantically connect with his childhood friend Caroline (Georgina Reilly). The problem is, she’s in from London, England and off to visit her family in Guelph the next day and has no interest in a long term relationship. Bruno, however, wants more. But he has to be careful not to push Caroline on the matter. As the two navigate the city, during the summer of 2009, at the height of the city workers' garbage strike, they end up at a free concert put on by Broken Social Scene where things between the two come to a head.

Early on in the film, Caroline talks about how the strike has made Toronto into a more relaxed and less uptight place and the film refracts just that view of the city. This Movie is Broken, which was written by McDonald's longtime collaborator and fellow filmmaker Don McKellar (Last Night) has an easy, freewheeling and appealing flow, graced by likeable performances by its leads. And the concert footage is beautifully shot, capturing Broken Social Scene’s collective (14 members on stage), creative bent. The two parts, the romance and the concert (which wasn't recreated for the movie), never quite gel though, rendering This Movie is Broken as more of a fascinating experiment than a fully fleshed out film. It does, however, realistically capture Toronto in a way few filmmakers, within or outside the city, ever have. Considering that Toronto is usually disguised as an American city by Hollywood or clumsily portrayed on screen by local filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan (Chloe) or Clement Virgo (Lie with Me), that’s no mean feat.

The Other Guys: Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are “the other guys,” two inept cops just itching to capture the New York limelight but outshone by superstar officers (Dwayne Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson), bullied by their fellows and ignored by their put upon captain (Michael Keaton). When they insert themselves into a potentially major crime scene, the apparent kidnapping of an avaricious Wall Street big shot (Steve Coogan), they set in motion a chain of events that promises to get them out from behind their desks once and for all. That is, if they don’t screw things up in the process.

It’s not a bad premise, but The Other Guys is a disastrous comedy. It flails about, making loud noises, offering up inane non-sequiturs (especially from the increasingly tiresome Ferrell) and smashing up cars and buildings, all in a desperate bid to fool the audience into thinking that something funny is going on. Believe me, it’s not. Director Andy McKay, who co-wrote the film with Chris Henchy, scored once with Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story (2004), a very smart, even brilliant Ferrell vehicle. But since then, McKay, and Ferell doing his hapless, ingenuous shtick, have pretty much flopped. Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story (2006), McKay’s racing car driver/bio spoof, was mostly a dud, but at least had terrific performances by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) and Gary Cole (The Good Wife) to recommend it. Step Brothers (2008), however, which starred Ferrell and John C. Reilly as two child/men forced to grow up when their parents married each other, was an outright failure. So is The Other Guys, which wears out its welcome pretty fast as it becomes increasingly clear that its story is paper thin and obvious. Any movie that doesn’t know what to do with the usually side-splitting Coogan (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) has problems to begin with, and when Coogan and Keaton, who’s pretty good as the harried police captain who also moonlights at Bed, Bath and Beyond, are not on screen, things only get worse. The Other Guys, like so many other recent putative comedies, The Hangover, Couple’s Retreat, Get Him to the Greek, Grown Ups, is just another sad manifestation of the current dismal state of American film comedy. This one’s not even worth a rental.

Get Low: Robert Duvall’s approaching 80 years of age and still going strong. Get Low offers him one of his best parts in years. Loosely based on a true story, and scripted by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, this pungent slice of Americana, set in 1938, stars Duvall as Felix Bush, a Tennessee hermit who shows up in the nearest town one day and makes a strange offer to the local undertaker (Bill Murray). He wants to conduct a ‘living funeral’ and have the townsfolk come and reminisce about him while he’s still alive. It sounds like something out of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but Bush has a specific reason to do what he is doing, which isn’t revealed until the film’s end.

As Felix, Duvall is terrific; he gives a quiet, compellingly recessive performance, revealing more with his expressions and his eyes than he does with words. Not that the film is devoid of dialogue; Get Low offers some old fashioned, welcome virtues, talk, characterization and thoughtfulness which have gone missing from most American movies of late. Only Bill Murray strikes a discordant note as undertaker Frank Quinn; he seems too modern and out of place for a thirties set drama. He’s too much like, well, Bill Murray. But the rest of the cast, including Sissy Spacek as Mattie Darrow, an old love of Felix’s and Lucas Black as Buddy Robinson, Quinn's assistant, stand out.

Admittedly, Get Low, which is an impressive first time directorial effort by award winning cinematographer Andrew Schneider (Two Soldiers), is a little too tidily packaged out and resolved. But its virtues, including a revelatory, poignant ending, more than compensate for its few flaws. If only most recent American independent cinema were half as good.

I Am Love: Like many European actors, Scottish-born Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Michael Clayton) speaks more than one language and in I Am Love, she is utterly convincing as a married Italian upper class matriarch who throws caution to the wind when she begins a passionate affair with a man half her age, a friend and potential business partner of her son, no less.

Set at the turn of the Millennium, in Milan, Swinton portrays Emma Recchi, who is the guiding, quiet force behind a family business dynasty that is facing challenges to its financial future. The Russian-born Emma, at first, is only one of the figures caught on screen, in a movie that, pleasingly, takes its time before getting to the main story: the tumultuous love affair which upsets everything in Emma’s until now carefully ordered world. Director and co-writer Luca Guadagnino is as interested in arresting details – the frantic preparations for a big party, the carefully presented food items proffered by Emma’s lover, the chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) – as he is in outsize emotions and I Am Love is rife with both. Less Italian neo-realist and more Grand Opera in its presentation, I Am Love is a tactile feast for the senses (and stunningly photographed by Yorick Le Saux). It’s a rich, atmospheric movie that inventively plays with form and motion, and elliptical images, to slowly, carefully build an all enveloping mood that reflects the deep feelings of Antonio, Emma, and Emma’s equally intense children, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher). All the performances in the film are superb, but it’s Swinton who most holds the screen; often an androgynous beauty in her previous roles, in I Am Love she radiates a sexuality and femininity that powerfully rivals and is reminiscent of Italian acting icons Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

Some have found the film’s somewhat abrupt and melodramatic ending problematic. But I disagree. It’s actually of a piece with everything that has gone before, a manifestation of impulsiveness over control, recklessness over caution, in fact an apt reflection of the chances taken by the movie itself. Without question, I Am Love is one of the best films of the year.

(The Kids Are All Right, Get Low and I Am Love are all scheduled for the Bloor in October – see for more info. This Movie is Broken has just come out on DVD in Canada.)

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He'll be teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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