It’s been so hot lately that sitting in an air-conditioned theater is just a good-health move. Lucky for me, there are tons of cool, comfy theaters all around. Of the batch of movies I’ve seen recently, a new French feature called “The Midwife” was the most enjoyable. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot, the film tackles all the biggies–regret, forgiveness, reconciliation, birth, death–without becoming morose or losing its wry sense of humor. Frot plays Claire, a devoted and talented midwife at a small maternity clinic, which is threatened with takeover by a large medical center. When she gets an unexpected call from Beatrice (Deneuve), her late father’s charming but disreputable mistress, Claire reluctantly travels to Paris to meet her. Beatrice has cancer and she wants to make amends for abandoning Claire and her father, who later committed suicide. Angry and hurt, Claire doesn’t want to have anything to do with Beatrice at first but she cannot ignore the older woman’s carelessness about her health and her sincere attempts at reconciliation.
There are several subplots about Claire’s son and a budding romance she starts with a friendly truck driver, but the movie is focused on the two women and their relationship. I’ve seen Deneuve in a lot of recent films but she’s at the top of her game here. As the raffish Beatrice, she’s charming and scheming, glamorous and vulnerable, all at the same time. She and Frot make perfect antagonists, both in looks and manner. Martin Provost wrote the film specifically for the two actresses and they thank him with wonderful performances. The realistic childbirth scenes were filmed in maternity clinics in Belgium and they are just as heartwarming as they are on “Call the Midwife.” You can’t beat newborn babies for lovability.
A French Musical
Another French film that deals with labor pains, but of a different variety. “Footnotes” is a misconceived project that tries to wed a gritty union drama to a romantic musical. It’s been done before (think “The Pajama Game” and “Kinky Boots”) but filmmakers Paul Calori and Kostia Testut are not up that standard. A glum Julie (Pauline Etienne) goes from one job to another, trying desperately to land a full-time contract, which will entitle her to a real job with benefits. Finally, she gets an offer to be a stock clerk at a high-fashion shoe factory, but just her luck, the company’s owner is about to switch over to a Chinese manufacturer. When her fellow workers decide to stage a job action, Julie has to decide what to do, stick with her comrades or try to save her job. Half Dardenne brothers, half MGM, “Footnotes” is a mish-mash with insipid songs and silly dance numbers. So poorly cast that it makes “La La Land” seem a work of high cinema art, “Footnotes” is a gloomy mess. Musicals are supposed to make you feel good, aren’t they? This one doesn’t.
A Harrowing Documentary
Andrew Rossi’s “Bronx Gothic” Is not gloomy exactly, but it is harrowing. A documentary based on the final tour of a one-woman play by Okwui Okpokwasili , the film incorporates much of the stage performance with interviews with the artist. We also see her interactions with her daughter, mother, and husband, as well as with women who participate in discussion groups after they’ve seen the play. Okpokwasiil’s semi-autobiographical theater piece describes the relationship between two 11-year-old girls growing up in the Bronx of the 1980s and “how much work it takes to love yourself as a black girl.” While the play focuses on the sexual maturation of the girls and how that affects their friendship and the complicated feelings of loyalty and rage they share, Okpokwasili uses song, movement, dialogue, and direct address to create an intimate and intense atmosphere, often punctuated by humor. The piece is certainly powerful and Rossi’s film captures how much energy and effort the work demands from Okpokwasili. Ultimately, I felt a certain generic quality to the story: two young black girls curious about sex, sexual exploitation, violence, and the other characteristics of so many stories set in the ‘hood. Even though Okpokwasili describes her Bronx neighborhood as middle-class and her parents as educated immigrants from Nigeria, nothing in the piece distinguishes it from all the other poor black girl stories. We don’t see how that frightened little girl turned into the powerful artist on screen and on stage, so the performance feels less honest than I’m guessing Okpokwasili meant it to be.
The delightfully different “Person to Person” is also set in an outer borough, this time Brooklyn. This is a film that the word “quirky” was devised for, with echoes of early Woody Allen and the HBO series “High Maintenance.” Written and Directed by Dustin Guy Defa, and starring Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Philip Baker Hall, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Ben Rosenfield, Olivia Luccardi and Isiah Whitlock, the film skips between characters, all of whom are trying to resolve some problem in the course of a day. The oddly charismatic Coopersmith plays an avid record collector/dealer who is trying to track down a rare Charlie Parker Record.
Abbi Jacobson plays a new reporter who is being schooled by her overbearing jerk of an editor played hilariously by Michael Cera. Another plotline involves a maybe murder and a rare watch. As these characters weave through their zany day, a fantastic R&B soundtrack backs them up. Defa is an extraordinarily confident filmmaker and he coaxes relaxed and ingratiating performances from his actors. The film wanders about, seemingly with no particular end in mind, but the journey is so much fun and the characters so colorful that you happily follow along. Available on July 28 on iTunes and Amazon Video.
As for the Theater
I’ve been to the legitimate theater too and if you go to the theater for a good time and not much else, don’t miss “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Boy, does it ever! In this classic theater farce, a group of actors and stagehands manage to screw up everything they do, resulting in an audience roaring with laughter. Pure physical comedy executed with perfect timing, this show would probably be just as funny with no dialogue, but there’s plenty of it and it’s funny too. This is a British import and the sort of thing they do so well. It reminded me of “Noises Off,” another theater farce and equally hilarious. Nothing to think about, no serious issues to ponder, just belly laughs.
“Amerike, the Golden Land” is a revival of a 1984 Broadway musical called “The Golden Land.” Consisting of Yiddish songs with English supertitles that tell the story of Jewish immigration to the U.S. at the beginning of the century, the revival by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene is heavy on sentiment and light on humor, the opposite of the original, as I recall. Of course, immigration is an unavoidable subject today, and it is useful to remember that this is not the first time the country has been gripped by anti-immigrant fervor. Immigrants have always provided cheap labor and threatened existing power structures; there’s nothing new there. “Amerike” includes a heart-tugging scene at Ellis Island where immigrants are turned away and families are broken up as well as a piece about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I found the show heavy-handed and too uniform in tone, but a friend loved it, and the audience seemed very enthusiastic. “Amerike” has been extended through August 20, so clearly it struck just the right note for many.
Or Stay Home
O happy day, my favorite trash TV show is back. “The Strain” on FX is in its final season, and the strigoi are in charge. They are a putrid combo of Nazi vampires and who knows what, and our hardy band of resisters is on the run. It may sound like “The Walking Dead” with vamps instead of zombies, but I think it’s way more fun with a winking sense of humor and Guillermo del Toro’s marvelous visual imagination. Perfect summer escapist viewing. Stay cool!