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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

03/07/2018

Some film choices that rise above meaningless fare

Gerald Schmitz

The 15:17 to Paris (U.S.)
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK)
A Fantastic Woman (Chile/Germany/Spain)
The Party (UK)
The Young Karl Marx (France/Belgium/Germany)

A visit to the multiplex can be depressing beyond the overpriced snacks and “entertainment” options in the lobby. When bombarded by multiple noisy trailers for meaningless “coming attractions” before the main feature, I want to cover my eyes and ears. There’s a lot to avoid. (You couldn’t pay me to see soft-porn dross like Fifty Shades Freed.) That’s not to say that everything film festivals show is great. Sundance premiered a buddy “comedy,” The Long Dumb Road, that was, well, long and dumb. But their high-quality selections give one hope.

Where to turn? If you have not yet seen the Oscar nominees (for the full list see: http://oscar.go.com/) check your local listings to see if any are playing. (A few of the best picture nominees are available to rent on iTunes: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Get Out. Best animated film nominees available to rent include Coco and Loving Vincent. Some films in other categories can also be found to rent, on Netflix, or online.)

Several new films in wide release are worth a look. One is the latest from 87-year-old director Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris (http://www.1517toparis.com/), referring to the incident on Aug. 21, 2015, when, travelling on an Amsterdam to Paris train, three young Americans stopped a heavily armed terrorist from carrying out a massacre. That real life-and-death situation contrasts with the contrived mayhem aboard trains of the recent Liam Neeson crime thriller, The Commuter.

Unusually, rather than casting actors in the roles, Eastwood has the three — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler — play themselves, reprising what brought them together on a European vacation, and reenacting the fateful moments when, aided by a British passenger, they were able to subdue the attacker who had 300 rounds of ammunition. Consistent with Eastwood’s spare filmmaking style, sensitive without being sentimental, it’s an effective approach to dramatic recreation that captures the heroism of these ordinary young guys faced with a life-altering choice.

Warner Bros

Except for a few flashes that prefigure the struggle on the train, Eastwood builds up to it slowly through the backstory of the trio as boyhood friends who meet at a Christian school in Sacramento. Anthony is African-American. Spencer and Alek are from single-parent families. They love “playing war” and sometimes get in trouble, though nothing too serious. Spencer and Alek both join the military. The chubby Spencer especially grows up wanting to prove himself and to “save lives.” It is he who will directly confront the shooter, Ayoub El Khazani (Ray Corasani), in the line of fire. Here is living proof of the movie’s tagline that “in the face of fear ordinary people can do the extraordinary,” fully deserving of the concluding tribute by former French president François Hollande in awarding the Americans the Legion d’honneur.

Eastwood tends to be regarded as a conservative icon, associated with movies about masculine action, violence and war. But that is a superficial assessment that ignores the compassionate, soulful quality with which this master filmmaker approaches his subjects. (See the fine appreciation by Calum Marsh, “Compassionate machismo,” in The National Post, Feb. 10.) It’s no accident that Eastwood twice has Spencer recite the Prayer of St. Francis on screen, and with obvious sincerity.

Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool gets terrific performances from Annette Bening as the aging American actress Gloria Grahame who, while working the Liverpool stage in England in 1979, attracted a much younger boyfriend, an aspiring actor named Peter Turner, played by Jamie Bell. Adapted from Turner’s memoir, we can see why he was smitten by Grahame’s vivacious if chronically insecure persona. The four-times-married Grahame was a screen beauty, best known for winning an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952, my birth year. The young Turner, in a vulnerable phase, bisexual and still living at home, was seduced by her charm. Bell is at his best since his breakout role as a teenage ballet phenom in Billy Elliot (2000) and still shows he has the moves in a great dance sequence that wins his character’s heart.

Peter followed Gloria to sunny California, her funky beachside abode the site of a delicious dinner scene with Gloria’s mother (a cameo by the great Vanessa Redgrave) and sharp-tongued sister. Then it was on to New York City where, concealing a cancer diagnosis from him, her rebuffs ended the relationship. Back in England in 1981, she collapsed after a performance and was hospitalized. Desperate for respite, she reached out to Peter and his supportive family (especially the no-nonsense mother played by Julie Walters, who was also the mom in Billy Elliot). They stayed by her side when the truth could no longer be ignored. Gloria always wanted to play Shakespeare’s Juliet, and there’s a touching scene in this poignant romance when Peter as her caring Romeo arranges a parting wish fulfilment that is indeed such sweet sorrow.

Starting with the best of the following three features that premiered at the February 2017 Berlin film festival is Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s multiple award-winning and Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman (nominated for best foreign-language film), which opens with a stunning image of the Iguazu Falls I visited over 40 years ago. Transgender actor Daniela Vega gives a brave, moving performance as a young transgender woman, Marina, who has entered into a loving relationship with an older man, Orlando.

While pursuing a singing career she waits tables. After celebrating her birthday joy turns to grief when Orlando suffers an aneurysm, collapses and dies in hospital. The bruises he suffered falling down stairs at their apartment bring on a police investigation. In the eyes of the brusque authorities her legal name is still Daniel. Although Orlando’s brother, Gabo, is sympathetic, she suffers much worse treatment from the immediate family, especially ex-wife Sonia and son Bruno, who demand to take back anything the couple shared (car, apartment, a beloved dog) and try to exclude her from any memorials. There’s even a demeaning physical assault.

Through all these indignities Marina maintains her dignity and identity. She gets moral support in a scene with her singing teacher in which he cites from the prayer of St. Francis. The power of love proves stronger than prejudice. There’s no visit to the falls but, as grace flows, Marina gets to say a last goodbye. She will get something back. She will be herself. She will sing. A fantastic woman indeed.

Writer-director Sally Potter’s The Party (http://www.thepartyfilm.co.uk/), filmed in black and white, is a brisk satirical romp that deftly skewers the elite London trappings, foibles and conceits of Britain’s political and chattering classes. The hosts are Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a rising politician celebrating being named shadow minister of health, and her arch academic husband Bill (Timothy Spall). Guests include April (Patricia Clarkson), a waspish old American friend of Janet’s who shows up with flaky German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), several university acquaintances of Bill’s — Martha (Cherry Jones) and pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) — and a cocaine-snorting banker, Tom (Cillian Murphy), whose wife Marianne has yet to arrive.

The stage is set for this first-rate acting ensemble to deliver. Secrets are served up and the repartee turns fast and furious as the proceedings come to a boil with black-comic touches to elicit laughs and gasps.

Another 2017 Berlin festival selection finally arriving in North America is Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx, which captures the revolutionary icon’s stormy early years from 1843 as an atheist-socialist critic and political fugitive from reactionary authorities, supported by his fortunate relationship with Friedrich Engels, rebel heir to a Manchester textile empire employing Irish labour, including children, under the slave-like conditions of the industrial revolution. The Marx (August Diehl) and Engels (Stefan Konarske) partnership emerges amid a ferment of often disputatious encounters in radical circles with the young Hegelians, philosopher-publisher Arnold Ruge, renowned French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet), Christian communist Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), and the members of the League of the Just which Marx and Engels succeeded in having renamed the Communist League, and for which they penned their most famous pamphlet, commonly known as The Communist Manifesto, released just before the 1848 revolutions broke out across Europe.

Marx was chronically short of money with a young family to support, his devoted wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, excellent more recently in Phantom Thread) having cut ties to her wealthy family. Marx could also be arrogant and short-tempered. Watching the unruly passions of Marx and Engels as twenty-somethings, it seems unbelievable that they would become secular saints (or bogeymen) and their ideas warped into next-century totalitarian ideologies imposed on much of humankind. Surely they would be appalled at the prospect.

Haitian-born Peck’s sympathetic treatment never hints at that while sketching a complex intellectual evolution hard to translate in a few minutes on screen. The result is still engaging, if less compelling than his acclaimed Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which explored the influence of American African-American author and critic James Baldwin.

*As a final note, let me recommend two excellent docuseries streaming on Netflix. In Wormwood master filmmaker Errol Morris delves into the murky circumstances surrounding the 1953 death of defense scientist Dr. Frank Olson with links to biological weapons development. Was it suicide or a CIA execution? Another renowned documentarian, Alex Gibney, is the force behind Dirty Money with episodes on: corporate cheating; predatory payday loan scams; Big Pharma and outrageous drug pricing; bank involvement in money laundering; producer monopolies and black-market thefts (Quebec maple syrup!); above all, the skinny on Donald Trump as the ultimate shamelessly self-promoting business con-man.