Friday, May 8, 2015

Don't Look Now

Sutherland and Christie
Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg (U.K./Italy, 1973) 110 minutes
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (Gollancz, 1971; republished Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier, NYRB, 2008)

The May selection for TIFF's Books on Film is Don't Look Now, a Nicholas Roeg classic I have long overlooked and wanted very much to see. 

In the film, two traumatized parents try to overcome grief over the death of their only daughter Christine who drowned in a pond on their property in England. The original premise is based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, a master of the Gothic and unspecified, unnameable horrors especially those found within a marriage. One may read an excellent review of the film posted by the Criterion Collection here

John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is an exacting professional refurbishing a church in Venice, Italy. Laura Baxter (the always exquisite Julie Christie) is his young wife who is trying to establish some emotional equilibrium after the child’s death. In the story, the couple have left England and travelled to Venice to console themselves after the child's death. John hopes that "life will become as it was before, the wound will heal, she will forget."

Laura becomes involved with two elderly British sisters visiting Venice that they meet in a restaurant – Wendy and Heather. Heather, who is blind, is said to have psychic powers and can communicate with the dead. Laura is desperate to hear any information about her child. John feels that Laura, though not religious, is in a "state of susceptibility" to the suggestion of the supernatural. The motives of the siblings are unclear and are suspect to John – are they helpful, maternal souls administering to Laura's sorrow or are they more sinister in their intentions? John, the blind sister tells Laura, is also psychic. We surmise as much when at the beginning of the film, John rushes to the pond seconds after the little girl’s death with a premonition that something has gone very wrong.

The sisters have an ominous message for the couple – Heather prophesies that John is in danger – and Laura insists that they leave Venice. The parents receive a message that their son Johnny has had a medical emergency while at boarding school in England and Laura leaves to join their son. In the story, this red herring suggests that this is the danger that the family is facing.

The extraordinarily beautiful Venice looks washed out and dirty here – not the Venice of romantic cinema, dreams and travel brochures. This is epitomized by, among other things, a broken, undressed doll lining a canal steps, the rats in the canal, the smudged, grimy looking buildings that are always shuttered from natural light. The canals are largely deserted and melancholy, reflecting the couple's ennui and sense of displacement. Roeg captures Du Maurier's Venice perfectly as exemplified by John's growing unease:
This is the true life. Empty streets by night, the dank stillness of a stagnant canal beneath shuttered houses. The rest is a bright facade put on for show, glittering by sunlight. 
Later John thinks disconsolately, "The experts are right ... Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying." 

The couple also face a panoply of somewhat unwelcoming Venetians who offer their assistance grudgingly: the police officers skeptical of John's claims; the sour faced, black clad crone in the washroom who is present when Heather tells Laura she has seen Christine in her visions; the Bishop whose visage seems to say that he knows more than he lets on – the aspect of the Venetians is even  more dangerous seeming in the film. 

The Bishop has commissioned work on the Church of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children we are told. The Bishop presents a slightly disturbing, odd presence in the couple’s lives. In a harrowing, if somewhat prolonged scene, John has an accident on a scaffold within the church while examining a mosaic that needs to be repaired and nearly falls to his death (a dangerous stunt that Sutherland performed himself). We begin to sense that someone, or something, is in malignant pursuit of John.

After John survives the near fall he encounters the police fishing the corpse of a young woman out from the canal, by her heels, face unseen, resurrecting terrifying memories of his own daughter’s drowning. That scene, not included in the original story, lends a gruesome aspect to John's foreboding. There is a murderer on the loose we are told. John reflectively pauses before an Italian film poster of a Charlie Chaplin film entitled “Uno Contro Tutti” ("One Against All"). Signs affixed to construction sites proclaim "Venice in Peril". One feels the weight of the sinister forces that seem to oppose the couple. 

Roeg's shots of a cat behind a barred window in an apartment or a flock of dispersing birds seem disturbing, off putting. That which is commonly seen as exquisitely ancient or charming in Venice seems ruined, harbouring some archaic, unseen evil in Roeg's hands. The sisters in particular give John "an impending sense of doom, of tragedy". 

After Laura leaves for England, John sees (or imagines that he sees) Laura, dressed in black, riding on a vaporetto on the canal with the two sisters. She does not respond to his frantic calls. We feel that his mind is disintegrating. He searches for the pensione of the sisters and then reports that Laura is "missing" to the authorities even though he saw her leave for England. He tells the police that he knows that there is a murderer on the loose in Venice and possibly Laura is being held captive by the sisters. 

John is excitable and fearful as he searches for Laura and, seemingly, with good reason. He is being followed by a stranger in the calle; the police official he reports Laura's disappearance to is oddly nonchalant treating John's report in an offhand manner, carelessly doodling on a drawing of the two sisters as if they are of no import. Most importantly, John has many fleeting images of Christine's red coat in the alleyways of Venice which elude him.

The sisters are arrested, suspected of having done away with Laura but John soon learns that he is mistaken in his fears and secures their release. He continues to be pursued by visions (or apparitions) of Christine on the streets of Venice. There is a disquieting sense of doom as one wonders what is real and what is not. Laura returns from England and searches for John at the sisters' urgent behest (a scene also not depicted in the story).

Laura pursues John and John pursues "Christine", running through the streets of Venice at night, which makes no sense in the same way that a nightmare lacks reason or coherence. If you have walked the labyrinth of the Venetian streets you realize how confusing and horrifying that might be to a fevered mind especially at night.

John chases the the red hooded figure realizing that an unknown man is doing so as well. He surges forward to protect the small figure whom he feels is in jeopardy. In the end, John does possess the powers of prophesy as Heather predicted but he learns that too late to change the course of his destiny. 

Roeg's directing style has been described as "disjunctive". Perhaps. This editing style is now de rigueur in modern cinema but would have been somewhat revolutionary at the time of its release in 1973. Roeg is relying on the intelligence of the film goer to piece the narrative together coherently. It seems a particularly apt style of movie making when two of the main characters see both flashes of the future and are tortured by memories of the past. 

The film is only slightly marred by lingering shots of certain scenes which may have appeared intriguing in 1973 – an extended, superfluous lovemaking scene between the couple early in the film reflecting no doubt the new liberties of the cinematic era (in the story their lovemaking is summed up by one sentence) and the scene of John hanging precariously, and endlessly, from the scaffolding in the church he is refurbishing. Based on Sutherland's courage in attempting the stunt, one understands Roeg's desire to maintain the drama of the scene. Neither of these scenes appear in the short story which is tighter and more suspenseful.

These scenes, as well as Sutherland's exaggerated acting style, test the patience of the modern cinema goer somewhat. However, I cannot say I was not spooked by the film. I was indeed. 

Daphne Du Maurier

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April Cultural Roundup

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards (Please see review here)

Woman in Gold (U.S., 2015)
Citizen Kane (U.S.,1941)
Birdman (U.S., 2014) (Please see review here)
All Good Things (U.S., 2010)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Sicilian Wife

The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards (Linda Leith Publishing Inc., 2015), 357 pages

Edmonton writer Caterina Edwards does not disappoint with her newest novel - this literary noir combines all the elements we expect from the genre and this talented and prolific writer: drama, passion and literary sophistication. Who else would be able to smoothly mesh the labyrinthian workings of the Sicilian police force and the mafia with quotes from the 5th c. philosopher Empodocles of Sicily, snippets of Greek mythology and fairy tales rooted in Sicilian culture?

The Sicilian Wife is the tale of two ambitious women, Fulvia Arcuri and Marisa De Luca, separated by an ocean but emotionally and intricately linked by a murder and a lover. 

Fulvia Arcuri, is the daughter of a mafia don in Alcamo, Sicily. She escapes to a life of relative normalcy in Canada after a love affair is savagely cut short by her lover's parents who are leery of the boy's association with the Arcuri family. 

Almost two decades later, w
hen a burnt body surfaces in Alcamo, Sicily after a horrific car crash,  Comissário Marisa De Luca, a police captain recently stationed in Sicily from the north, begins to investigate the true identity of the victim, Samuele Mazzolin - Fulvia's estranged husband - and her investigation leads her to Canada and Fulvia.

The story artfully alternates between Fulvia's repressive and brutal childhood lived in a gilded cage in 1970s Sicily including Fulvia's thwarted attempts at rebellion against her parents and the story then turns to the police investigation conducted by De Luca in the late 1980s conducted in both Sicily and Canada.

De Luca, a tough and resilient police commander, faces an equally hostile atmosphere in her workplace - disrespected by some, stalked and harassed by some unknown assailant who ransacks her home (is it the local mafia don, Fulvia's zio Antonio Arcuri, who fears the direction of her inquiries? Or is it one of her disgruntled, belligerent colleagues who resent her?) - she is both in possible jeopardy and stubbornly unmoving in her

Caterina Edwards
pursuit of the truth in the Mazzolin case. 

The women are also linked by one of Fulvia's past lovers - the handsome Alex who pursued a different, sometimes troubled, path from his wealthy, overbearing parents. The two college age teenagers - Fulvia and Alex - were passionately involved until his aristocratic family put an end to the relationship and Fulvia fled to Canada. Alex auspiciously crosses paths with Marisa in Rome during the investigation into the death of Mazzolin.

With suggestions that Fulvia's seemingly innocent husband Sam has possible links to the drug trade in Italy, both women in engage in a voyage of discovery that proves fruitful, searing and ultimately dangerous for both. 

Sensuous, fast-paced and erudite, The Sicilian Wife  satisfies on every level. 


You may purchase The Sicilian Wife here. Kindly also take the time to read a review of Ms. Edwards' last book, the memoir Finding Rosa here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Cultural Roundup

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (U.S., 1962)
Coriolanus (U.K., 2012) (please see review here)
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (U.S., 2010)

Sister Crazy by Emma Richler
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

The Delaware Literary Salon, March 22nd with Nigel Barnes, Diane Enns, Josee Sigouin
Descant, The Grand Finale, Revival, March 25, 2015

Basquiat: Now is the Time, AGO, March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Delaware Literary Salon

Twice a year, my gracious and generous friends Antonio and Fadi host a literary salon in their beautiful home. They provide the food and drink and delicious desserts. The food is all home-made and spectacular. I am lucky enough to emcee and sometimes read.  
The repast courtesy of Antonio and Fadi

An old friend, the musician 
and songwriter, Nigel Barnes
Nigel Barnes is a singer/songwriter, who writes songs and then sings them. He finds it works best that way. He released a CD in 2006, called It Is What It Is. He is in a new band playing some of his songs and some covers. They are still trying to decide on a name, but are having a good time. Nigel has been performing on and off since he was about 13 years old. Let's not talk about how long that is, but over the years he has had the privilege to share a stage with some wonderful people, many of whom have become his friends. 

Diane Enns, essayist and professor 
Diane Enns is an ambivalent philosopher, trying not to let institutional life beat the beauty out of words or the life out of ideas. She writes about things she sees or reads, fledgling ideas, encounters and confluences, and random thoughts that won’t leave her alone. She writes in order to understand something she has witnessed or experienced, to provoke thought, or to indulge in the sheer pleasure of expression. Philosophy too often forgoes the beauty of reflection and its power to move, in favour of lifeless logic and argument. Thinking, imagining, feeling, contemplating, daydreaming, wondering — these are her preferred names for philosophy. It is “life worked out on the page.”

Josée Sigouin, novelist and friend
Josée Sigouin is an aspiring writer born in Montréal and now living in Toronto. She has traveled extensively in Asia, sparking an interest in South Korea, the setting for The Fifth Season, a first novel still in development. She currently works at the University of Toronto where she serves as managing editor for a corporate communications vehicle. Writing fiction provides Josée with the ideal space to explore wider creative horizons.

An appreciative audience
Our  hosts the fabulous Fadi and Antonio
The emcee, Michelle Alfano, who usually forgets
to take a photo of herself so this will have to do

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Make a sword of me

Coriolanus (U.K., 2012) directed by Ralph Fiennes, 123 minutes

The first in the Books on Film series at TIFF in 2015! An excellent way to start the fifth season ... the plot is rich and sometimes a bit daunting but stay with me. I pulled out my 1927 copy of the play to get a feel for the film. Marvelous to have both the series moderator Eleanor Wachtel and Shakespearean scholar Prof. James Shapiro interpret the film and the text for the audience. 

The play is about the abuse of power and our fear that powerful men that we admire and venerate might seize that power and use it against the people. Coriolanus has fascinated playwrights on the right and the left - from John Osborne to Bertolt Brecht who have had vastly different interpretations of its meaning. (Try searching for Osborne and Coriolanus on the Internet and you'll soon learn what he thought of the working class). Olivier clearly saw Coriolanus as a proto-fascist and pictured him swinging by his heels ala Mussolini in the final scene of his 1959 production. 

The play is also about whether we can take a man - a man accustomed to victory by using his brute and military strength in war - and have him assimilate into a peace-time society. The film would suggest we cannot.

Set in a modern-day Rome, the Romans are rioting because there is a shortage of grain in the city and they believe that it is being withheld from them. Civil liberties are in jeopardy due to a war between Rome and neighbouring Volsci, an ancient people who lived south of Rome. Caius Martius (a phenomenal Ralph Fiennes), a much valourized Roman general, is being blamed for the city's ills. As a patrician of the highest rank (a member of the ruling class families in ancient Rome), Martius is openly disdainful of the plebeians or the "common people" and makes this plain.

We are reminded before the film by our host to think of Martius as an Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli general, or a Douglas MacArthur, an American five-star general during WWII - valiant soldiers, much loved during times of war, who are unable to adapt to peace time.

When we witness Caius Martius and his troops subduing the rioting mob, they are attired in the vestments of military power. One immediately thinks of American or Western soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Russians in the Ukraine or Chechnya (thank you for this insight Eleanor Wachtel). The Volscians are swarthy, ragtag, "foreign" looking, out-gunned, less professional in aspect. Serbian armed forces acted as extras in the army - if they look frighteningly realistic as soldiers it's because they are. 

Tullus Aufidius (an appropriately smouldering Gerard Butler), leader of the Volscian army, has fought Martius in previous wars and swears he will kill Martius at their next encounter. The Volscian city of Corioles is besieged in a bloody engagement by the Romans and the two men meet in  knife wielding, mano a mano battle. It only ends when a bloodied and beaten Aufidius is dragged away by his soldiers. 

The military action of the film is cleverly moved forward by a real British newscaster - Jon Snow - reciting lines from the play. Later we are told by the guest speaker Shapiro that the play is the among the longest in Shakespeare's  career - some 4,000 lines - and had it been performed line for line, it would have been four hours long. 

When Martius returns we witness the complex, troubling relationship between Martius and his mother. There is greater intensity in minor interaction between mother and son than there is in the whole film between husband and wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) particularly in the scene where we see the mother dressing her son's wounds in private. When Virgilia encounters them in the bathroom together, Virgilia timidly closes the door and leaves them as if she has witnessed an intimacy that she should not have. How true that is emotionally. 

Earlier in the film, we hear Volumnia 
(Vanessa Redgrave), his formidable mother, boast that her son bears 25 scars from prior combat and now has two more. Chastain, as an actress, seems not only cowed by the relationship between mother and son (which is appropriate) but also cowed by her role between these two giants of the stage - Redgrave and Fiennes. She seems tentative, small, over-shadowed by both and perhaps that it is as it should be. 

In recognition of Martius' valour, he is awarded the agnomen of "Coriolanus" (a nickname, in the Roman naming convention). Volumnia encourages him to seek election as consul, one of the highest of the magistracies within the Roman Senate. Despite his reservations about kowtowing to the crowd, Coriolanus wins easily. 

Martius is plotted against by two Tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) who are attired, and play the role, like two sleazy pols who envy his popularity. The Tribunes were meant to mitigate the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. They fear Martius' popularity will take power away from the Senate and enhance Martius' own considerable ego and power base as a patrician. 

The tribunes foment another riot amongst the people in opposition to Martius becoming consul. He is called a traitor which triggers Coriolanus' rage and open contempt for popular rule. In a famous, much quoted scene he describes popular rule as allowing "crows to peck the eagles". He is ordered banished by the Tribunes. Coriolanus contemptuously replies, "There is a world elsewhere" and he means to find it. 

In exile, Coriolanus searches for Aufidius in Antium, urging Aufidius kill him (to punish Rome for the banishment). Instead, Aufidius, who is moved by Martius' plight, invites Coriolanus to lead a new assault on Rome to seek vengeance. Aufidius' men come under Martius' spell much to Aufidius' dismay. They shave their heads like Martius and he becomes their de facto leader with Aufidius taking a lesser role. In a stirring scene, we see the soldiers getting drunk before a fire, swaying to music, and one by one submitting to the shears that will make them resemble Martius' shaved head. Without words, it says more about the erotic power of militarism and machismo than one thousand lines of verse.

The men jointly lead an attack on Rome. Senator Menenius (Brian Cox), one of Martius' strongest supporters, beseeches the men to end the attack and is rejected. Shamed by his lack of success in dissuading Martius, Menenius commits suicide by a river bank. 

The formidable Redgrave as Volumnia
Volumnia, Virgilia and Martius' son are sent to Antium to persuade Martius to desist. The scene is remarkable and suggests more than a hint of the final scenes of Kurtz, yet another soldier gone astray, in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Martius is surrounded by his followers, shaved head, isolated and glutted with his new power, on a throne made from a golden barber's chair, like an battered idol. 

The women abase themselves, literally, before Martius, begging him to stop his attack on Rome. Finally, he is moved by his mother's words and vows to make peace with Rome much to Aufidius' alarm. Prof. Shapiro is right - after Lady MacBeth, the role of Volumnia is the most magnificent and terrifying Shakespearean role for a woman in the canon.

In an interview when the film was released, Fiennes stated:

“I was always moved by one of his lines to his men, ‘Make a sword of me!’ But the person who has made him that steely blade is his mother. She set the parameters of who he was to be from a very early age. And she — not his wife — is the only person who can collapse him. That’s what moves me about that scene — his carapace of soldierly conviction just shatters under her pressure.”

When Coriolanus returns to the Volscian people (and surely his mother knew that he could not survive it), he is confronted by Aufidius and branded a traitor for negotiating the peace. The Volscians refuse to call him Coriolanus. Aufidius says he lay aside his hatred for Martius so that they might defeat Rome together but after making peace with their enemy, Martius has betrayed him and must die. Aufidius and his troops attack, stab and kill Coriolanus.

There is a powerful and moving eroticism evoked between the two men in the few seconds that Aufidius gently cradles the dying, bleeding Martius whom he has stabbed to death on to the earth.   

Prof. Shapiro said something interesting after the film about acting ensembles. After having seen hundreds of productions and films on the Shakespearean plays, he has found that TV actors seem to work better together in these plays, particularly in comedies. With renowned theatre actors, especially in the dramas - here Fiennes, Redgrave, Cox - there seems to be more of a focus on each individuals' monologues. Here is this actor's turn to shine with this monologue and so forth. There is a bit of that here ... moments of great acting, great monologues, strung together by lesser bits. 

Prof. Shapiro also mentioned how any scrap of humour, meagre as it is, had been stripped from the film adaptation. True, but what a cinematic ride it is ... 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

February Cultural Roundup

Still Alice (U.S., 2014) (please see review)
A Most Violent Year (U.S., 2014) (please see review)
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (U.S., 2014)
Nightcrawler (U.S., 2014) (please see review)
Whiplash (U.S., 2014)

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor

Basquiat: Now is the Time, AGO, February 22, 2015

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, soulpepper, February 22, 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

Books on Film at TIFF

Hello book and film lovers ... 

I have been invited to review some of the films on TIFF's Books on Film series. Now in its fifth season, the series examines cinema that began as literature (and what intriguing literature it is!).

Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company, sits down with filmmakers, authors and experts to discuss both media. I am excited about this series as it combines great literature with great film in a terrific venue at TIFF. There are six films in the series and it runs from March to June, 2015. Look for my first review the week of March 2nd. Hope to see you there!

Some notes from TIFF's website on the speakers, books and films:

James Shapiro discusses Coriolanus, March 2, 2015

Esteemed Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro examines Ralph Fiennes' modern-day adaptation of Coriolanus and discusses the perennial challenges of bringing the Bard to the big screen.

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro discusses  The Remains of the Day, March 16, 2015

The acclaimed author discusses James Ivory's adaptation of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, which was listed as one of the "1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read" by The Guardian.

An Education
Lynn Barber discusses  An Education, April 13, 2015

English journalist Lynn Barber discusses the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of her memoir about her teenage love affair with a dashing con man.

Don't Look Now
Allan Scott discusses  Don't Look Now, May 11, 2015

Screenwriter and producer Allan Scott reflects on the process of adapting Daphne du Maurier's short story into the classic 1973 chiller.

Irvine Welsh discusses  Trainspotting, June 1, 2015

Irvine Welsh, chronicler of the seamier side of Scottish life, revisits Danny Boyle's smash-hit film version of his debut novel. Irvine Welsh will join the audience for a book signing.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Phillip Lopate discusses The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, June 22, 2015

Essayist, poet, novelist and film critic Phillip Lopate considers the classic 1969 adaptation of Muriel Spark's world-famous novel.

For more information and tickets please go to:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (U.S., 2014) directed by Bennett Miller, 133 minutes

Five Oscar Nominations
Actor in a Leading Role (Steve Carell)
Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Ruffalo)
Makeup and Hairstyling
Writing (Original Screenplay)

I saw this film at TIFF last year. The husband chose it and it proved to be my favourite film of the festival.

Foxcatcher, the name of the hereditary Du Pont estate where most of the film's action takes place, is oddly prescient. Based on a traditional upper crust sport of tracking down and killing innocent foxes with hounds, it seems an apt metaphor for the near destruction of two brothers by a delusional billionaire intent on entrapping the two men.

I knew nothing of this film or the true crime story behind it but it completely knocked me out when I saw it. It is the story of two brothers, Mark and David Schulz (played amazingly well by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), Olympic gold winning wrestlers, who become ensnared with a disturbed Du Pont heir named John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) worth billions. The Du Ponts are ranked the 13th richest family in America with an estimated wealth of $15 billon. Du Pont had a desire to sire an Olympic winning wrestling team for the U.S. and tapped the two men to help build this dream.

Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (the sadly overlooked Channing Tatum) both won the gold at the 1984 Olympics but Mark's life, as the film starts in 1987, is a lonely ritual of training in his brother's gym and reliving old glories that few care to remember or acknowledge. He has no parents and Dave seems to be his only family and contact.

John Du Pont invites Mark to live on his estate and to train for the U.S. team preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont also wants Dave to come but Dave wisely demurs refusing to uproot his family.

Du Pont is clearly disturbed. My friends, eccentric doesn't begin to describe it. He loves guns and artillery (we see him trying to purchase a tank at one point in the film) and can be quite aggressive when seemingly provoked - but he is initially very generous and paternal with Mark who clearly seeks a mentor and a human connection through the older man. Du Pont is a frustrated middle-aged athlete whose mother (Vanessa Redgrave), with whom he lives, discouraged his interest in wrestling which she describes as a "low" sport as opposed to more exalted, equestrian pursuits that are her passion.

Eventually Dave et famille is coaxed into joining Mark on the estate to build "Team Foxcatcher", named so for the Du Pont estate, for the Olympics and train the U.S. team. Mark unknowingly plays a dangerous game trying to protect his younger brother from Du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior but ultimately pays the price for defying Du Pont.

I hate to point the finger at mommy (and I dislike this cliched explanation) but the film implies much of Du Pont's rage and disappointment was suppressed due to her controlling and disapproving behaviour. Once mommy dies and is no longer the barrier to his thwarted ambitions, Dave appears, in Du Pont's mind, to come between Mark and Du Pont, and Dave feels the deadly wrath of the deluded billionaire.

Carell is near unrecognisable here as an actor - his comic mannerisms are completely squelched by the elderly mortician-like demeanour of the Du Pont character and his face effectively masked in prosthetics that alter his appearance tremendously. It's a very affecting performance.

Tatum, who can be charmingly winning and heroic in most roles, transforms into a brooding, menacing, near wordless hulk concealing his feelings of abandonment and hurt at what life has thrown his way. Excellent performances by all. Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote), Tatum, Carrell and Ruffalo were all gracious and funny at the Q&A after the TIFF screening last September. Even I could see that from the second to last row of the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Post-script: Mark Schulz has since expressed concerns about his representation in the film which you may read about here. And then ... somewhat retracted his angry attack here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscars 2014: Wild

Witherspoon on the Pacific Crest Trail
Wild (U.S., 2014) directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, 115 minutes

Two Oscar Nominations
Actress in a Leading Role (Reese Witherspoon)
Actress in a Supporting Role (Laura Dern)

Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian director of this film, is an eclectic and intriguing person with wildly varying interests. Who would connect the films WildDallas Buyers Club (2013), Cafe de Flore (2011), The Young Victoria (2009), and C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) with the same director? It would be a challenge to see how these films are linked in theme or interest.  

Based on her memoir, Wild tells the story of  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), an angry, troubled woman whose demons threaten to engulf her. Her mother Bobbie's (Laura Dern) death from lung cancer at 49 triggers destructive behaviour towards herself and her marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadowski, best known for his role in Newsroom). 

Wild chronicles a Cherys' attempt to climb out of a rapid descent into sex and heroin addiction after the death of her mother. Her chosen method? In the summer of 1995, Cheryl decides to walk the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail across the Mojave desert to the Oregon-Washington border. 

The tribulations are the expected ones initially for a novice backpacker: a too large, too heavy backpack; a water tank that proves to be empty after a painful trek in the desert; ill fitting boots; encounters with possible predatory males on the trail. 

But the journey often appears more inspirational than agonizing. Meaningful quotes are posted along the way during the hike at milestones on the path. Her sympathetic ex-husband Paul sends money along the journey. Strangers are for the most part kind, helpful. One backpacker even comments on how everyone wants to help Cheryl and no one wants to help them because they are men, travelling alone. 

But there are instances of near danger that Cheryl barely skirts - with luck and some determination not to be exploited. This is after all one tough chick, one who, in the past risks all with dangerous behaviour - like having sex with two different men, both strangers, in an alleyway while working as a waitress, as a flashback reveals. This is not the Reese Witherspoon of her portrayals of June Carter Cash or Becky Sharp or even the prim Southern belle's assertions on the  importance of manners which has irked some. 

I am not awed by geography - shots of mountain ranges or deserts do nothing for me - but I do like emotionally complicated people who can speak openly about their lives. Strayed has been foolish, irresponsible, possibly unkind and unfaithful, but never evil and not vicious, despite a desperate and peripatetic childhood and young adult life. 

Some have found the flashbacks distracting but I thought they were fitting - it seemed as if the screenplay by Nick Hornby (best known for his literary efforts) had been constructed to reflect how memory works. Images of her loving relationship with her mother Bobbi, of her abusive father, a disintegrating marriage, drug use, promiscuity ... the flashbacks mirror some of the tortured memories that Strayed would have had during her journey. 

Both women - Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon - are excellent. Dern epitomizes the sunny, nothing-can-get-me-down optimist in a difficult situation and Witherspoon is convincing as the fittingly angry offspring of a troubled marriage. 

P.S. Cheryl Strayed has an "advice podcast"called Dear Sugar that I urge you to check out. Originally she broadcast it under the pseudonym Sugar but since the success of Wild, has now revealed herself to be the author. 

Laura Dern as Bobbi

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: Selma

David Oyelowo as MLK and 
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
Selma (U.S., 2014) directed by Ava DuVernay, 127 minutes

Two Oscar Nominations
Best Picture
Music (Original Song)

Director Ava DuVernay produces art that inspires, that rekindles that flame of outrage against injustice that many of us feel and want to act on. This film is a phenomenal historical drama and it really is a travesty that it is nominated in only two categories - one of which is best original song. That astonishes me. Stop treating black people as minstrels who are only here to entertain us. David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King (MLK), Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). All of them should have been nominated as well as Ava DuVernay the director.

I am unsure if the film was shot chronologically but Oyelowo, a Brit, appears to gather strength in his characterization, sounding more and more like MLK as the film progresses. Ejogo perfectly captures Coretta Scott King's particular brand of frosty beauty, cool-headness and refinement.

The South is in turmoil in 1964. As its black citizens attempt to organize and protest for their civil rights, they are increasingly under attack by belligerent, racist whites. The film begins with four small black girls being murdered by a bomb blast in Birmingham, AL. On September 15, 1963, three Klansmen planted nineteen sticks of dynamite outside the church they little girls worshipped in. The explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair and injured twenty two others.

King soon meets with Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) seeking legislation to assist black citizens to register for voting without impediments. Johnson stalls, citing other priorities such as the "war on poverty". Wilkinson is impressive here, not so much imitating LBJ, whom he does not resemble at all, but summing up the Southern piss and vinegar attitude that LBJ was reputed to possess. It's not that LBJ is not a racist (he too refers to blacks as "niggers") but he is a pragmatist. Things must change, things will change, but at the appropriate time he seems to imply.

It has been suggested that LBJ's role has been minimized or distorted in the film but the writer Amy Feldman refutes that notion in a recent The New Yorker article.

King travels to Selma, Alabama with an entourage of dedicated activists which includes Andrew Young, future UN Ambassador and mayor of Atlanta. The problem of voter registration is particularly acute there. King and his followers, including Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers of the film), march through Selma in defiance of the ruthless tactics of a Sheriff Jim Clark, a vicious racist who resorts to extreme violence to suppress protests. They are beaten and thrown to the ground despite their passive resistance. King and his followers are arrested and incarcerated. They soon begin to organize a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Alabama's Governor George Wallace (played by a slithery, snarling Tim Roth) challenges King and vows that they will not proceed. Johnson, too, is opposed to the march feeling that King is trying to force his hand to create legislation that would end voter discrimination. Gov. Wallace allows the state troopers to attack the marchers during a night march on February 18, 1965. They brutally assault the marchers and Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), an activist and church deacon, is beaten and shot to death during a struggle. At a eulogy for Jackson, MLK vows to continue the march. 

During the first march from Selma to Montgomery, the protesters face armed troopers on the bridge. The troopers begin to throw tear gas and beat the crowd with billy clubs. I can't tell you how horrifying this re-enactment is on screen. Old men and women, young teenagers, being clubbed, whipped, thrown to the ground, beaten about the face. It's terrifying, absolutely excruciating, to watch. That the troopers (and George Wallace) were foolish and vicious enough to proceed with these fascistic tactics while on camera, which is later broadcast nationally before a horrified public, is inexplicable and demonstrates a pathological hatred of black people. 

There is one image of a young girl, dressed in a white dress, running like a hunted gazelle from a state trooper with a baton, that will be etched in my mind for a very long time.

President Johnson demands that both King and Wallace stop their actions. He sends a representative to meet with King to postpone the march. King refuses and tells him that, instead, he should convince Wallace and Sheriff Clark to be non-violent. Inspired by the vicious assaults they see on television, a number of white citizens come to Selma to join the next march. This time, the state troopers step aside and no violence occurs as the protesters kneel down and exhibit passive resistance. There is some thought that the white marchers have somehow dissuaded the state troopers from attacking. Afterwards, two white supporters are viciously assaulted and one, a Rev. James Reeb an Unitarian minister, is murdered for joining the marchers.

King and his collaborators are soon brought to court over the next march. The judge rules in favour of the marchers. LBJ confronts Gov. Wallace who claims to have to control over voter registration. Frustrated by Wallace's intransigence LBJ announces that he will send a bill to Congress to eliminate the restrictions on the voting of black citizens. The activists gather for the final march. DuVernay intersperses actual footage from the march in the film. The ordinariness of the participants breaks your heart. These are working people, students, the elderly and a few notable ones - Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., etc ...

Five months later, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there.

The film ends with an update on the lives of those who participated in the marches:
Andrew Young, former UN Ambassador and mayor of Atlanta.
George Wallace, paralysed by a 1972 assassination attempt.
Sheriff Jim Clark defeated by an overwhelming black electorate in the next election.
Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist, murdered by a Klansman hours after the march.
Coretta Scott King established The King Center and campaigned for a holiday in her husband's honor (celebrated the third Monday of January).
MLK, lead the civil rights movement for thirteen years until he was murdered in 1968.