Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Cultural Roundup


Books

The Marriage Plot by  Jeffrey Eugenides
The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris
     by Tilar J. Mazzeo
The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Friday, October 31, 2014

October Cultural Roundup


Michael Keaton and his doppelganger in Bird Man
Books
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff 
James Joyce by Edna O'Brien 
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman 
The Second Plane - September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis

Films
Gone Girl (U.S., 2014)  
Bird Man (U.S., 2014) 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Mother's Story

His face, a flower - sunlit, flooded with a beauty that blinds me. 

A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt (Penguin Group, 1997) 148 pages

A mother's love has an irresistible pull for me. A child who is lost to suicide is a devastating blow. This is a love letter to that child, to the family that bore that child. I sometimes wonder why I am drawn to such intense material but, in a manner, I find it profoundly cathartic. 

Carter Cooper, son of Glori Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, seemed blessed at birth - handsome, intelligent with a winning, sensitive personality. And affluent ... no child could have had a more fortuitous beginning. But as every mother of an afflicted child knows, physical circumstances and the love of those around you cannot save you from the demons within. Ms. Vanderbilt watched her son Carter leap to his death from the the 14th story balcony of their NYC apartment. How one recovers from that boggles the mind.

The cause of the suicide is disturbingly unclear. Was it a reaction to his asthma medicine? She
Gloria with Carter 
and Anderson
scours medical research to try and determine this. Was he in a deep sleepwalking state, as his mother sadly conjectures? The final act was so uncharacteristic, it confounded the many who loved him. If it was some sort of mental illness or depression (he had just broken up with his girlfriend), Ms. Vanderbilt gives no hint of it or it remained well hidden by Carter himself.

But the book is more than a memorial to her son.  It is a melancholic paean to a lost time when the family was whole. Ms Vanderbilt's husband Wyatt Cooper died in 1977, her son in 1988. Her second son, the journalist and broadcaster Anderson Cooper, is the last member of her immediate family from this marriage (she also has two older sons).

The reader sees the yearning in Vanderbilt to build and maintain a family by one who lost her father as a toddler and was estranged from her mother for much of her life. She was famously fought over by her biological mother and her paternal aunt (the aunt won). That story has been immortalized in Little Gloria ... Happy at Last.

She is really a remarkable person - spiritual, positive, loving and open to the joys and vicissitudes of life.

An anecdote:
Two or three years ago, a friend invited me to a dinner celebrating the Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition in Toronto. My friend was a finalist in the competition and generously purchased tickets for a group of us to attend the dinner. Two tables in front of me sat Gloria Vanderbilt - looking beautiful if fragile. Someone asked where Ms. Vanderbilt was sitting. Another guest pointed expectantly to a venerable white haired lady at the head table who appeared to be in her seventies. Nope, I replied - it's that sexy, red haired lady in front of us at the head table. She was beautifully made up and seemed rather sweet if subdued. I loved that she had named this prize after her son whom she felt had great promise as a writer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

About desire, unrequited and otherwise


People are more than you think they are. 
And they're less as well. 

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (Harper Collins, 2014) 255 pages
***SPOILER ALERT***

In many ways this is a book about desire, unrequited and otherwise. Cunningham glides easily, and deliciously, between depicting heterosexual and gay desire in an effortless manner ... a talent he demonstrated in the celebrated novel The Hours and the more recent By Nightfall both of which I enjoyed a great deal.

This is a tale of two brothers and how, and why, they love. The book begins on the cusp of the 2004 Presidential elections (the election's significance is unclear except it perhaps demonstrates Tyler's rabid dislike of Bush and his ilk). Barrett, the younger one, is more cerebral and unsuccessful in love. Tyler is older, in love with Beth who is on the verge of death with a terminal illness, and he is a closeted drug addict hooked on coke. 

Both brothers are unlucky in various ways. Yale-educated Barret works in a high end retailer as a sales clerk and is so broke he is forced to move in with his brother and his fiancee in Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with an on again off again musical career, struggles to write a love song for his bride to be at their wedding. 

Tyler is dream-filled, romantic, passionate about politics and his feelings for Beth who appears to be recovering from a serious illness for a brief time but then succumbs. He's intense, demanding, politically astute, somewhat lost.

Barrett is smart but intellectually and financially under-employed and at loose ends. He is haunted by a vision of a green light he spotted above Central Park as the novel begins. He doesn't know what it means (nor do we - does it hearken back to Gatsby's green light at the end of Daisy's dock?). He is unnerved enough by it that he tells very few what he saw. It haunts him but it also haunts the novel - what can it signify?

Into this circle of friends enter Liz and Andrew, a May/December romance with the 50 something Liz, a successful businesswoman who owns the shop that Barrett works in, managing the relationship and the 20 something Andrew with one eye to the inevitable end of the affair. Liz desires Andrew but see no long lasting relationship in the future.

Barrett, too, covets the glamorously young Andrew surreptitiously but the closest he comes to Andrew is snorting Tyler's hidden stash of coke at a New Year's eve party with Andrew.
 
And, not surprisingly, there is a sort of unrequited love that a younger brother (Barrett) feels for an older brother (Tyler), whom Barrett perceives to be superior. Barrett yearns for his brother emotionally and possibly physically. Tyler is unattainable in many ways, the object o of love and some resentment.

Beth does not survive (spoiler alert) and the brothers move out of their shabby apartment once Tyler makes a minor splash with an indie hit on YouTube. Liz breaks up with Andrew. Both Barrett and Tyler find love, or lust, of sorts. But the circle is broken and will not be formed in quite the same way again.

Surprisingly, I found at least three spelling errors in this book - I say surprisingly because Harper Collins is a publishing giant and Cunningham a major American writer. 

Literate, witty, passionate, what's not to love about Cunningham? But I am unsure what to make of this novel. Cunningham is a beautiful writer; however, his intent is obscure here despite the beautiful prose. Sometimes that works for the reader, I'm not sure it does here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Cultural Roundup

Wigg and Hader in The Skeleton Twins 
Films
Dead Poets Society (U.S., 1989)
The F Word (U.S., 2014) 
Good Will Hunting (U.S., 1997)  
Gomorrah (Italy, 2014)
The Riot Club (U.K., 2014)  
Mr. Turner (U.K., 2014) 
Foxcatcher (U.S., 2014)
The Imitation Game (U.K., 2014)  
Far from Men (France, 2014) 
The 50 Year Argument (U.S., 2014)
Here's where I leave you (U.S., 2013)
Leopardi (Italy, 2014)
Breathe (France, 2014) 
A Little Chaos (U.K., 2014)
The Skeleton Twins (U.S., 2014)

Books:
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
Let us compare mythologies by Leonard Cohen
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt

Exhibits:
Vivian Maier: Photographs of Children, Stephen Bulger Gallery
Flash Forward Incubator Program, featuring the work of RHSA and ESA students, Twist Gallery, September 3 - 26, 2014 

Literary & Readings:
Descant's Berlin Launch at the Goethe Institut, September 19, 2014 
Word on the Street, September 21st, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

TIFF 2014: A Little Chaos


A Little Chaos (U.K., 2014) directed by Alan Rickman, 116 minutes, Scotiabank, 9a 

Up early Sunday morning to see the last film on our list!

Kate Winslet plays Madame Sabine de Barra, described as a "revolutionary gardener" who created a rock garden at the Palace of Versailles in the mid 17th c. for Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. Commissioned to do the work by the king’s chief architect André Le Notre, Winslet never disappoints as the strong-willed Sabine de Barra; however, the film does. Immensely.

The focus of the film is off ... why should we care about the creation of the King's rock garden (she said, echoing the laments of millions of angry peasants approximately one hundred years later during the French Revolution). It's not important how the garden was achieved but what de Barra had to face as woman to achieve this position of prestige and honour. Very little is made of her unusual role as a female landscape designer. Instead, Rickman as the co-writer and director (and starring as the Sun King himself), focuses too much on palace intrigues and infidelities.

How did she achieve this role? What were the impediments? Was it a family enterprise that she inherited? Doesn't it merit investigation besides a raised eyebrow from two badly costumed (and wigged) bit players who scorn her?

The architect Le Notre (played rather woodenly by he Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) immediately clashes with de Barra; she values "a little chaos" in her design; he worships symmetry. However, they proceed with the project. Of course, they succeed and there is very little drama to deflect from their succeeding.

Rickman plays the Sun King in full on Snape-like disdain and pageantry. He is becoming "a type", a very unappealing one. Where is that emotional, intense actor we saw, what seems like a hundred years ago, in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)? Of course, this is a very different role but if he could express a bit more than bored disdain in his film roles ... that would help the film tremendously. 

Le Notre's wife (Helen McCrory), suspecting her husband of infidelity, tries to sabotage the project; the king loses a Spanish born noble wife he barely seems to care for; de Barra has a vivid flashback about the death of her husband and child which she blames on herself - but even that is strangely passionless. There is little to pull you forward in the narrative. 

I love Winslet, she can do no wrong for me. But the whole feel of the production felt second rate - the costumes, the sets, the wigs, the jewelry, and ... the dialogue. It's difficult to write dialogue that is neither too stilted (apropos of the mid 17th c.) or too anachronistic (hello Stanley Tucci as the King's gay brother, the Duke Phillipe). 

~

Last film of the festival for us ... it was a good year! So many good films and now the films for grownups season begins in September in anticipation of the Oscar noms. Bring it on!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF 2014: Breathe


Breathe (Respire) (France, 2014) directed by Mélanie Laurent, 91 minutes, Scotiabank 9, 9.15a

The mean girl preying on the innocent good girl is by now a staple of modern cinema and drama. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1792 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses any one?

Seventeen year old Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a moderately unhappy highschool student whose parents are separating, is soon enraptured by a new student - the pretty and provocative Sarah (Lou deLaâge) and her tales of life in Africa where her mother supposedly works in an NGO.

Sarah has all the cliched cinematic hallmarks of a bad girl - sexy clothes and demeanor, inappropriate behavior, provocative language, an attractively defiant attitude. She quickly draws Charlie away from her best friend Victoire. She charms adults and Charlie's friends. They share secrets and cigarettes and intimacy - dancing, sharing clothes, smoking up, talking about boys.

The unsavory change in Sarah's behavior is telegraphed many scenes before. When Charlie rebels in any manner against Sarah and learns an unpleasant secret about Sarah's family, Sarah begins a campaign of intimidation. She begins to covet Charlie's mom's love interest, reveals her secrets to Charlie's friends, taunts and humiliates her. 

This escalates into vicious rumours, verbal bullying, open harassment, physically roughing up Charlie, and, endless phone calls to her cell phone. The script, also written by the actor/director Melanie Laurent best known for her role in Inglourious Basterds, does not chart new territory here.

Even if Sarah appears the prototypical mean girl gone sociopath, the film is redeemed by Sarah's response. It is unexpected and brutal although not wholly surprising. Talk about girls gone wild ...

Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF 2014: Leopardi


Leopardi: Il giovane favoloso (Italy, 2014) directed by Marco Martone, 137 minutes, Isabel Bader Theater, 8p

Count Giacomo Leopardi, the poet and essayist born in 1798, is perhaps not as widely known as Dante but surely has written some of the most beautiful poetry in Italian that the world has seen. 

We lived ... And as a phantom from a dream of terror
Wanders into the day,
And draws across the speechless souls of children
A memory and a fear,
We, as we linger here,
Are haunted still by life: but fears of children
Haunt us not now. What were we?
What was that bitter point in time
That bore the name of life? 
from Chorus of the Dead 

Leopardi (Elio Germano), an aristocrat, was surrounded by a loving but constricting family. Seriously ill all of his life, he eventually became a hunchback and was frequently debilitated by his fragile health. Educated by his father and through the immense library that his father built in their home, Leopardi eventually had to flee his father's suffocating presence.

Brilliant but lonely, Leopardi forges relationships with mentors and scholars such as Pietro Giordani (Valerio Binasco) to escape the confines of Recanati, his small town in northern Italy. It is Giordani and the writer Antonio Ranieri (Michele Riondino) whose friendships largely release Leopardi from his emotional and financial ties to his family.

Germano, as Leopardi, is, by turns, proud, lonely, lustful, fearful - whether surreptitiously watching with longing the peasant girl working on her loom next door, flailing against his autocratic father who prevents his departure from home many times, or slowly withering physically as he ages but gaining in power as a poet and observer of the human condition.

He came to reside in Naples, on the slope of Mount Vesuvius in the latter part of his life, and must have witnessed its many volcanic eruptions before his death in 1837. The final shot of the Vesuvius volcano overflowing is an apt metaphor for the passions that fueled this man.

TIFF 2014: This is where I leave you

Sibs and mom: Fey, Stoll, Fonda, Bateman, Driver
This is where I leave you (U.S., 2014) directed by Shawn Levy, 103 minutes, VISA Screening Room at Elgin Theatre, 2.30p

Hard to resist this cast and the title of this film ... Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Rose Byrne, but I'll give it a try. I appreciated seeing lighter fare after a fairly intense week of movie-viewing.

The film is based on the book by the same name by Jonathan Tropper. The Altman family is gathered by their mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) after the death of the father. Mom says dad's last wish was that they sit shiva for their dad. In the Jewish faith, family members traditionally gather in the home of the deceased for seven days and receive visitors. Dad was an atheist but of Jewish descent. Unfortunately, all four siblings appear to be experiencing various midlife crises simultaneously.

The second eldest son Judd (Jason Bateman) caught his wife in bed with his boss; Wendy's (Tina Fey) husband is a type A workaholic who is disconnected from family life and his two children (and she is still in love with the small town boy Horry whom she left behind after a near fatal car accident); Phillip, the ubiquitous Adam Driver, is an infantile, loud mouthed serial womanizer who lacks a filter; and, Paul (Corey Stoll), who is bequeathed the family business as the eldest, is over-worked and perennially irritated perhaps most of all because he is trying to impregnate his frustrated and unhappy wife (Kathryn Hahn).

Some elements are fresh and/or poignant such as the goofy rabbi (Ben Schwartz) and former childhood friend of the Altmans whose nickname is Boner or that Wendy does not leave her husband for Horry (Timothy Olyphant) despite her obvious unhappiness.

It's hard to dislike Jason Bateman no matter what he does on film or TV - his manner is always winning even when he is playing the sad sack cuckold here. Or Tina Fey, who is appealing even when (especially when) she's cold-cocking a bully who is tormenting her brother.

The actors are talented enough and the circumstances quirky enough that we don't need the superfluous corny and cliched plot points - from the Wendy's little boy constantly taking a crap in front of the family on his potty to the late revelation of the mother's hidden love affair at the end of the film while Paul and Judd are having a fist fight on the family lawn in front of guests.

The writing is good, the actors are great ... we don't need the multiple infidelities and exaggerated sibling rivalry to enhance the plot.

The film succeeds when the filmmaker slows down and allows moments of real intimacy - Judd tenderly remembering his father consoling him after an accident; Wendy re-connecting with Horry who has never recovered from a brain injury; Philip's fiancee (a woman of a certain age) realizing that the relationship won't work; Judd telling Penny (Rose Byrne), an old flame he left behind in their hometown, that he likes her because she's a little strange.

Trust the audience more and slow down the action. We're big boys and girls; we can take it. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TIFF 2014: The 50 year argument

The 50 year argument (U.S., 2014) directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, 97 minutes, TIFF Lightbox, 6.30p

Martin Scorsese co-directed this documentary with David Tedeschi (Editor on another Scorsese doc Shine a Light) about the history of the New York Review of Books. Founded in 1963, Scorsese has followed the Review since its inception. You may be surprised at how exciting the history of a cultural, literary and political magazine could be.  

Robert B. Silvers, current editor, and Barbara Epstein, former co-editor (now deceased) oversaw it all from the beginning ... One part iconoclast, one part intellectual, one part curmudgeon, Silver adds a soupçon of healthy skepticism and tremendous curiosity to the work that he edits and the writers that he has mentored.

It's worth the price of admission to hear and see on film the literary feuds and political scuffles from the 1960s to the present: Norman Mailer excoriating Mary McCarthy's novel The Group in a scathing review (Silver dared him to do it, no other writer would take it on); Darrell Pinckney's admittedly puny and wrong-headed efforts to take down James Baldwin's last novel; a charmingly young and cheeky Susan Sontag questioning Mailer's use of the title "lady novelist"; Joan Didion questioning the media's handling of the Central Park rapists (now fully exonerated); Edward Said versus Bernard Lewis on Islam ...

The film combines archival footage and photographs, new and old interviews with contributors and harnesses a bevy of New York and international intellectuals and writers: Colm Tóibín, Joan Didion, Zoë Heller, Michael Chabon.

After the screening of the film, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi along with Bob Silver appeared in a panel. And I have the pics to prove it ...

TIFF of the Day: The best anecdote that Scorsese told (among many) was a story about going down to Mulberry St. in Little Italy in NYC to shoot a new doc about the beginnings of rock and roll and all the bohos complaining about the movie trailers cluttering the street. They were muttering about the presumed "HBO crap" they presumed was being shot which they didn't like (this is within Scorsese's earshot). Scorsese had a friend from the old neighborhood who was with him that day and said to him sadly, "We don't belong here no more ..." No, he agreed, we don't. 

Scorsese and Silvers, from the second row baby!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF 2014: The Imitation Game

Cumberbatch as Turing
The Imitation Game directed by Morten Tyldum, 113 minutes, Princess of Wales Theatre, 3p

It is only now being revealed how Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly gifted Cambridge mathematician, worked with a band of mathematical geniuses, including its sole female participant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to crack the Nazis' Engima code and effectively helped end World War II. When war was declared in 1939, Turing was tapped to become a member of a top-secret group under MI6 which is assigned the task of decoding German naval communications at the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
The Enigma machine enabled its operator to type a message, then ‘scramble’ it using a letter substitution system, generated by variable rotors and an electric circuit. To decode the message, the recipient needed to know the exact settings of the wheels. (Source: www.history.co.uk)
Turing and Clarke become close friends despite his prickly and off-putting nature and in order that she remain working in this all male establishment without conjecture, the couple are engaged to be married despite the fact that Turing is gay at a time when it is illegal to be openly homosexual.

Within two years the code is cracked but the government conceals this revelation as it would cause the Germans to change their coding system. It continues to conceal this information until well after the war. Turing's work presaged the creation of computers which he worked towards after the war.

Cumberbatch is rightly recognized as being an actor who is able to play any role and here he does not disappoint. Turing is portrayed as quirky, erudite, mercurial, and self-involved but eminently brilliant.

Turing's role was unknown and unrecognized after the war. The group was ordered to destroy all documentation when the war ended. In the early 1950s, Turing was arrested for indecency and was ordered to undergo chemical castration. He did so in lieu of imprisonment but within two years he committed suicide with the aid of cyanide. Who knows what he might have created if he had lived. 

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized on behalf of the British government and the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon on December 24, 2013.

It's a remarkable story that brought us both to tears at its end.

Alan Turing

P.S. On September 14, 2014 The film was chosen for the People's Choice Award at TIFF - always a good omen for Oscar nominated films!

TIFF 2104: Far From Men

Viggo Mortensen as the teacher Daru in Algeria
Far from Men (France, 2014) directed by David Oelhoffen, 110 minutes, TIFF, 9a 

Far from Men is based on the Algerian writer Albert Camus' short story "The Guest". Daru, a teacher, portrayed by the multi-talented Viggo Mortensen speaking French fluently here, is commanded by the local authorities to bring an Algerian villager named Mohamed (Reda Kateb) for prosecution to a neighboring town for the murder of his cousin. He initially refuses but then does so reluctantly.

It is 1954 and the beginning of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Algerian rebels are attempting to remove the French colonists from the country. Daru, while born in Algeria and having lived in Algeria all his life, is of Spanish descent. He is considered neither French enough for the French nor Arab enough for the Arabs. He belongs nowhere and is treated as such. 

The screenplay by director David Oelhoffen beautifully supplements Camus' short story which is less
Viggo Mortensen
than fifteen pages long. Daru evolves from a reluctant and disapproving captor to understanding the tribal customs and history that Mohamed faces. Mohamed must surrender or his brothers will be killed by fellow villagers. If the French kill him, the blood debt is removed and his family will be spared.
 


Together they face the elements, literally crossing mountains to reach their destination, encountering roving bands of villagers who wish to kill Mohamed and rebels who take them as hostages. The landscape, shot in Morocco, is as barren and bleak as a moonscape.

When Daru learns the  circumstances which lead to the murder, Daru offers Mohamed possible freedom. He learns something else from his struggles to deliver the man to justice - Algeria must be for the Algerians and no matter how well meaning he is in teaching the children to read and write and giving them grain for food, he must eventually leave the country.

The most poignant scene is Daru bidding farewell to the children and delivering one last lesson - writing in Arabic rather than French and discussing African rather than European geography as he had at the beginning of the film. The end has come ... the French and Daru must leave as difficult as it may be.

TIFF of the day: Viggo Mortensen was at the Q&A after the screening - looking dapper and eager to answer questions from the audience. Gracious, funny and articulate - one wishes this small film gets the exposure it deserves.