Saturday, October 31, 2015

October Cultural Roundup

AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize Exhibit, AGO

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Sleep by Nino Ricci (Please see review here)
Requiem and Poem Without a Hero by Anna Akhmatova
Where did you sleep last night by Lynn Crosbie

The (Not So) Nice Italian Girls Reading Series presents a Roman style Bacchanalia, October 4, 2015 at the Black Swan Tavern

Black Mass (U.S., 2015)
Rosemary's Baby (U.S., 1968)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Very Masculine History

Sleep by Nino Ricci (Doubleday, 2015) 235 pages
                    **SPOILER ALERT ***

Secrets are poisonous - especially those kept from one's spouse and closest relations. The secret that our protagonist David Pace withholds from his wife Julia is enormous and eventually undoes the marriage. David has a serious sleep disorder - unnamed specifically but clearly a form of narcolepsy - that almost endangers the life of their son Marcus in a near car accident on the highway at the beginning of Sleep. But as the book progresses we realize that the problem is much deeper than a medical ailment.

What troubles David is what ails many men - an obsession with violence and power and an overwhelming sense of shame when one loses face or control. The diminishing of power engenders rage and violence. This is not a book for the faint of heart - it's a stunning example of "dirty realism", a form of realism that depicts the "seamier" aspects of life in simple and unadorned language.

David Pace is a cauldron of anger and insecurity, alternately fearsome in his rages and self-castigating in light of his list of moral and professional failures. An academic, specializing in Roman history and achieving a sort of minor academic celebrity for his book Masculine History, the main character is ironically named Pace (pace means peace in Italian). Mr. Pace's troubles are many: a failed marriage, accusations of plagiarism and stealing from a student in his academic work, a hostile relationship with his twin Danny and his mother and memories of an acrimonious relationship with his dead father - a successful but bullying totem in David's past.

David is petulant, unhappy and somehow, interestingly, sympathetic to the reader in many instances.

The anger runs through every page like an electrical current - anger at Julia's smothering attentions to their only child; jealousy of his twin Danny's material success and ostentatious home in the suburbs (the homes in Danny's suburbs are said to resemble Rome before the fall); envy of his department head's past relationship with Julia, a fellow academic; the list is endless.

Julia's post-partum depression seems to makes scant impression on David, aside from being a tool to bludgeon her with when they fight over Marcus. In David's mind, he has become: "... the enemy, the threat, the bad parent she needs him to be in order to assure herself she is the good one."

Post-divorce, a trip to the cemetery to see his father's grave with his mother and brother, elicits only this from David: a fantasy that somehow his teenaged father had forged some sort of relationship with the fascist leader Mussolini during WWII when he lived in his small southern Italian village. As a boy, David searched through his father's papers for proof of such an unsavoury alliance to no avail.

When David comes upon his nephews and son furtively playing with their grandfather's gun at Danny's house, David squirrels away the gun under the pretext of removing it from the grasp of the children. He secretly begins to practice shooting at a range - alternately enthralled and repelled by his new fascination. This begets a new obsession.

David is a dangerous creature - not because of his medical condition or his efforts to hide it - but because its discovery seems to unleash the unpleasant, unsavoury, misogynistic wreck hidden beneath the veneer of the mild-mannered, semi-successful academic. David has neither patience nor respect for the women in his life - his ex-wife Julia, his mother or Jennifer, the hapless grad student whom he lures into his home for a night of illicit drugs and, allegedly, non-consensual sex. Afterwards David can remember virtually nothing of their sexual encounter.

When Jennifer lodges a complaint against David suggesting that she was a victim of date rape, David fears the worst  - that he has transgressed in a manner that he can't recall or guess at during his sleep. He thinks of other incidents that he has read about in which narcoleptics have murdered their loved ones in their sleep. He fears:

If intent is there, doesn't blame follow? Maybe all sleep has done is provide the permission the waking mind has withheld.

When David is driven from the college and banished to a lesser position in a school south of the border - driven away by his illness, mismanagement of his meds, near bankruptcy, poor relations with Julia and Marcus and his disastrous encounter with Jennifer - he lands in an equally precarious position. It's as if he is descending into a further ring of hell.

He finds himself falling for Kateri, the wife of Greg, the academic and friend who invited him to the U.S. college to teach. Sensing vulnerability and unhappiness, he is inexorably drawn to her. His relationship with her is brutal and reciprocal. Among his many addictions is his addiction to danger and risk - from relationships that will inevitably implode and will damage his chances of success to his fascination with guns and violence.

 ... for the first time he thinks he gets what the real thrall of a gun is beyond the blood lust and compensations, this feeling of being alone on the road without judges or gods, beholden to no authority but your own. The terrible freedom of that, of making the hard choice. Anything less, it seems is only for sleepwalkers.

David can neither control his more destructive impulses nor does he appear to want to. When he is removed from the college, yet again, for a grievous transgression he ends up in a foreign country on the business end of karma. The end result is spectacular and somehow appropriate.

At one point, David is confronted by a very young band of thugs, all with weapons and poor impulse control, David hallucinates that the leader of the boys is named Marcus, a clever Oedipal detail. For in this tale, the sons will destroy their fathers with the weapons that they have received from their fathers.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Cultural Roundup

Hitchcock/Truffaut (U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
Rocco and his Brothers (Italy, 1960) Please see review here.
Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014)
Freeheld U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
Eva doesn't sleep (Argentina, 2015) Please see review here.
Hyena Road (Canada, 2015) Please see review here.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
Louder Than Bombs (U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
Room (U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
I Smile Back (U.S., 2015) Please see review here.
Sky (France, 2015) Please see review here.
Stonewall (U.S., 2015)

Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibit, Toronto City Hall, September 18th - 20th

Nino Ricci's book launch for Sleep, McNally's Books, September 21st
Word on the Street, September 27th

Thursday, September 17, 2015

TIFF 2015: Sky

Norman Reedus, Diane Kruger and Lena Dunham avec bebe
Sky (France/Germany, 2015) directed by Fabienne Berthaud, Ryerson Theatre, 3p, 100 minutes

Romy (Diane Kruger) is a young French woman unhappily married to the rather brutish 
Richard (Gilles Lellouche) and holidaying in America. After a violent altercation during a drunken fight, Romy flees and heads for Las Vegas, fearing that she has killed Richard. 

She later finds out that she has not. But this is only after many mis/adventures (in a small cameo, Kruger's real life boyfriend Joshua Jackson appears as a police officer who informs her that Richard is still alive). 

Romy hitchhikes to Las Vegas, dons a bunny costume to pose for photographs for money, is mistaken for a working girl, and meets the enigmatic Diego, a park ranger who claims only to sleep with prostitutes. 

Director Fabienne Berthaud with translator
Romy is the sort of romantic European who is in love with the southwest, aboriginal cultureand the image of cowboys. A seedy bar in the middle of nowhere with a cast of dubious characters has enormous appeal for her. To my North American eyes, the locale seems as sad and desperate as something out of The Last Picture Show. But for Romy, she feels that she is finally amongst honest, authentic people.

She follows Diego home and decides to remain there, finding a job as a waitress, befriending Diego's pregnant sister-in-law Lena Dunham, and seeking solace from a wise and benevolent Indian grandmother who serves as a surrogate  mother to the lonely Romy and christens her "Sky". This makes me squirm a bit in that I recognize my own infatuation with aboriginal culture and values. I see pieces of Romy in myself and it makes me uneasy. 

Here she finds a kind of happiness even though her plans do not evolve as she has hoped. Krueger is convincing as the dislocated Romy and Reedus is appropriate as the mysteriously sexy Diego, the elusive object of her desire.

The footage of California and Nevada is stunning, romantic, picturesque ... much as Romy imagines it to be. It is easy to buy into the fantasy, the romance of the southwest. 

TIFF 2015: I Smile Back

Sarah Silverman (Laney) and Josh Charles (Bruce)

I Smile Back (U.S., 2015) directed by Adam Salky, Winter Garden, 1p 85 minutes

Laney (Sarah Silverman) is a dangerously deceptive person living a seemingly idyllic life - with a kind, attractive, successful husband named Bruce (Josh Charles) and two picture perfect children whom she is completely devoted to, living in great comfort and security in an upscale New York suburb. He's in insurance but you can't have everything.

And this security and veneer of contentment appears to be part of the problem because Lainey is an addict. She is addicted to cocaine, marijuana, bennies, among other drugs and she is also addicted to dangerous situations. Whether she is having unsafe sex with violent strangers, sex with a close friend's husband, or crudely insulting her child's good friend's mother with whom she has a petty disagreement over the value of Thanksgiving.

Silverman is perfect in this role - roiling with some unexplained rage that can be, in part, tied to abandonment by her father at the age of nine. But this can't be the whole answer. Laney also has a brother who has somehow reconciled and forged a relationship with the long gone father. But not Laney. She cannot forgive him for finding a new life and the kindness with which he treats his other young daughter from his second marriage.

Whatever is tormenting Laney seems only to be assuaged by drugs, sex and/or turmoil and usually all three at once.

Although I applaud the fact that there was no easy solution to Laney's problems or a pat resolution in the film, in the end, as much as I enjoyed her performance (and I did a great deal) I was left with the thought that this film, based on the book by Amy Koppelman, brought nothing new to the genre. What are we left with - junkies are dishonest, unreliable, dangerous, unpleasant, uncontrollable? They disappoint you, cheat on you, destroy your happiness?

We need more - it's an exceptional performance by a talented woman but that alone won't suffice to make the film meaningful.

The ceiling of the Winter Garden 

Director Adam Salky

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

TIFF 2015: Room

Jacob Tremblay (Jack) and Brie Larson (Ma)

Room (Ireland/​Canada, 2015) directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Princess of Wales, 3p, 118 minutes

This Booker-shortlisted phenomenon by the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue was a hugely  successful - both critically and commercially. It certainly shocked and entranced many of us when it was released. Expectations were very high for this film. 

Joy (Brie Larson) was kidnapped and held in a sound proof bunker disguised as a garden shed at seventeen. Two years later she was impregnated by her captor (whom she refers to simply as Old Nick) and gives birth to Jack (Jacob Tremblay). They live in a space that Jack calls the "Room". When the film opens, Jack is five. 

In the book, Joy (known as Ma to Jack) creates a complete and wondrous world for Jack - she is creative, mindful of his health, actively physically engaging him, all in one single room that contains everything they need to live in a very minimal manner: drinking water, food, heat, a toilet, a bath. 

Larson is wonderful here - striking the right balance between loving, fearful and very close to the edge as she struggles to survive under horrific circumstances. At night, the repulsive and sometimes violent "Nick" brings food and supplies and forces sex on Joy while Jack is confined to a wardrobe, unseen and unheard. 

The young boy Jacob Tremblay is a wonder here - the little boy is, by turns, loving and inquisitive, angry and confused, defiant and all five year old petulant when required by the script. 

When Jack turns five, Joy conceives a plan to escape and then the duo are forced to live under the scrutiny of the press and the pressures of existing in the wider world when they are successful in their escape.  

The script is constructed such that the tension does not diminish with the transition to the post-Room world. Joy is angry, sometimes unstable. sometimes rough with Jack. He has high anxiety dealing with new people and chaotic situations. Mercifully, we no longer see their captor and the film does not dwell on the abuse that Joy suffered or how she was entrapped by "Nick". 

It's balanced and non-exploitative in area that could easily slip into a very salacious re-working of the novel. 

View from the very very back row

TIFF 2015: Louder than Bombs

Louder Than Bombs (Norway, France, Denmark, 2015) directed by Joachim Trier, Ryerson Theatre, 12p, 108 minutes

It may be that Louder than Bombs is so appealing as a film because it depicts the dynamics of a family in the aftermath of the death of the mother as rather complicated and sometimes ugly. No one escapes scrutiny or censure here.

Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne), a high school teacher and former actor, struggles with the death of his wife, Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a highly respected and accomplished photojournalist who had killed herself four years before in a car crash. Isabelle's photographs are exceptionally beautiful and relevant (I would love to know who the real photographer is, they are mesmerizing). She travels the world and captures humanity at its most poignant. This makes the return home problematic; she always appears to be yearning for something else and seems ill at ease at home.

Gene takes solace in the arms of a sympathetic colleague at school unbeknownst to his sons. The two boys, Jonah and Conrad, vastly different from each other, pursue divergent paths in recovering from the tragedy. 

Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a gifted if intellectually overbearing young professor - highly talented, articulate but somewhat cold, much like his mother. He is also a new father who seems unsettled by the arrival of a new daughter and indulges in a dalliance with an old flame to alleviate some of the anxiety he is experiencing. 

Conrad (Devin Druid) is an awkward loner who is immersed in violent video games and obsesses over a girl in his class who doesn't even know his name.

Gene tries desperately to connect with the boys but mostly fails as many parents do. As we all do.

The performances are uniformly good. No one - perhaps with the exception of Byrne - appears likeable, least of all the sons but it is an honest portrayal. We are judgmental, angry, immature, in the face of tragedy. We blame each other, we blame ourselves. We are weak. We are confused. We are human. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TIFF 2015: Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis: Little Girl Blue (U.S., 2015) directed by Amy Berg, Scotiabank 2, 4p, 106 minutes

If you are like me and have a limited knowledge of Janis Joplin’s life, you might have shared the view that Joplin was a carefree, happy-go-lucky hippie. This film is important in that the filmmaker Amy Berg has discovered some previously unseen material that paints a fuller, more nuanced portrait of the singer.

Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, it might surprise you to learn that Joplin was an early and vocal supporter of integration in Texas, a highly unpopular view in that era and place. She was an early Beatnik who loved the blues and black music and a loner with few friends. She was once voted “Ugliest Man’ by her schoolmates. 

That early ugliness and sense of alienation drove her, after high school, to embrace the scene in San Francisco amongst hippies and rockers and like-minded people. It was also her first taste of hard drugs.

As a member of the increasingly popular Big Brother and the Holding Company, she became a rock star but still, she wondered, “Why do the guys in the band go home with some girl and I go home alone?” Even when she was calling the shots with her own band, the Kozmic Blues Band, her insecurities did not seem to abate. 

What would drive this young woman, at the height of her fame, to return to her high school reunion ten years after she graduated in her feather boa and psychedelic glasses - to say "Look, I am better than you think I was."

I find it extraordinarily empowering to see a woman succeed on her own terms in the music industry - through sheer will power and talent rather than sex appeal and and the usual trappings of conventional - short-lived as it was.

A profoundly complex person of great sensitivity – we learn about a more this vulnerable and lonely person through rarely seen footage, interviews and her personal letters to her straight-laced yet loving family back in Texas who watched in wonder as she soared into the stratosphere.

TIFF of the Day: Wonderful to see artists such as Pink, Juliette Lewis and other female artists acknowledge Joplin's influence in the closing credits of the film. I could easily see Pink in a bio pic about Joplin's life. 

TIFF 2015: Hyena Road

Rossif Sutherland (Ryan) and Paul Gross (Pete)
Hyena Road (Canada, 2015) directed by Paul Gross, TIFF Lightbox 2, 120 minutes

Paul Gross wrote, directed and co-starred in his newest offering about Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Did you realize that our engagement there was longer than our involvement in WWI, WWII and the Korean War put together? 

There were words at dinner tonight as the husband teased me about how much I cried during the film. (It's true. It's not a testimony to its quality - and it is very good - but certainly a tribute to the intensity of the scenes it depicts.) 

The characterizations of both the Canadians and the Afghans are nuanced and fair-minded. I would love to hear from a solder stationed there to hear their sense of its accuracy. Wounded Warriors - a charity and veterans service organization that offers programs for the wounded veterans of the military actions following 9/11 were involved in the making of the film. 

The Canadian troops are building a key road through the county - called Hyena Road - in a conflict zone. Sniper Ryan (Rossif Sutherland) patrols the region with three fellow snipers seeking out potential dangers, of which there are many. Paul Gross is Pete Mitchell, an intelligence officer seeking to engage "hearts and minds" in the region and secure information that will permit further engagement with the Afghans. 

Writer/Director Paul Gross
The men encounter a former mujahid known as The Ghost (Neamat Arghandabi), an elder marked by his distinctive and alluring eyes - one disturbingly blue, one brown. The Ghost shelters Ryan and his men preventing them being massacred by the Taliban during a fire fight. He harbours an important secret that makes him valuable to the Canadian forces. 

Their lives come together in a terrible and eventful manner - to say more would ruin the film and I want you to see it because it's a moving, nuanced depiction of the conflict. The men and women may, or may not, be uniformly heroic but they are realistically portrayed - neither saints nor demons. There seemed to be a number of servicemen and women in the audience (or people affiliated with servicemen and women) and they were openly appreciative of the film. I hope he got it right. 

TIFF of the Day: Objectification of the day and there has to be at least one - why else do we go to the movies and stare at beautiful creatures? When Paul Gross came out after the film to answer questions, I said to myself "Ooooh, his hair is silver now." (I was thinking of that Mountie from way, way back with the dark brown hair) But then I looked at him, really looked at him, from my perch in the third row, and thought, "Ooooh, his hair is silver now." Nice.

Monday, September 14, 2015

TIFF 2015: Eva Doesn't Sleep

Eva Doesn't Sleep (Argentina, 2015) directed by Pablo Agüero, Scotiabank, 4.15p 85 minutes

Reviewing this film is problematic if you do not have a sense of Argentina's troubled history and the obsessive nature of the populace's devotion to First Lady Eva Peron (nee Duarte) - also known affectionately as Evita Perón. I knew very little of the history so have had to rely on a bit of post-screening research to understand the context.

Evita was the wife of the fascist-leaning Colonel Juan Perón, a member of the military group that orchestrated the 1943 coup that overthrew the civilian government of Argentina and became its President.

Eva Perón died of cancer at the age of thirty-three in 1952 (how like her to die at the same age as Christ sneers one of her detractors in the film). Her body was embalmed by the same man who embalmed Lenin (the director revealed this after the screening). There is a haunting scene of a beautiful woman floating in formaldehyde and another of a child peering at Evita through the lid of her coffin.

This might give you a sense of the importance of the event to Argentinians. Millions mourned her early death and Agüero has the archival footage to demonstrate it - waves and waves of the descamisados (the shirtless ones), the working poor, the indigent and the well-heeled who flocked to her funeral.

In 1955, Perón's government was overthrown by a military coup. Juan Perón fled the country but was unable to make arrangements for the transport of Evita's body.The military junta that had assumed control also seized the corpse of Evita. The body came to have such an intense symbolic and religious value to the country that they sent the corpse out of the country to Europe. The junta was so afraid of Eva's symbolic power that they even made it illegal to utter her name.

Agüero creates surreal, fictional scenarios surrounding true events - the veneration of the body by thepoor (a young cleaning woman who wishes to see the corpse in the beautifully candle-lit cathedral); the transportation of the body by the military by a frightening military man/driver (Denis Lavant) who struggles with a young recruit to keep the transaction secret; a general rumoured to have been kidnapped then interrogated by young Perónists in the 1960s about where Evita's body is truly buried (when he cannot reveal the information he is murdered).

The general tells a fantastic story to the Perónist revolutionaries who kidnap him - is it true, who knows? - that the body was shipped to Milan, buried by a nun who was unaware of Evita's true identity in an unmarked grave.

Gael García Bernal has a very brief appearance n the film (really just a red herring to entice Bernal admiring viewers such as myself as the role is so minimal) as Admiral Emilio Massera who was responsible for orchestrating Argentina's Dirty War (Guerra Sucia) waged from 1976-1983 by the military dictatorship of the time against suspected left-wing political opponents. The Admiral was responsible for burying the body of Evita under six metres of cement when the body was returned to Argentina in the 1970s. He demonstrates the obsessiveness, perverse sexual interest and misogyny that she elicited and, still to this day ... the power.

A more detailed history of the travails of Evita's body may be read here.