Friday, March 26, 2010


                                                                  Photograph courtesy of Michael Chapman

Lasciandosci con la speranza di rivederci un giorno.
Leaving you with the hope that we'll see each other again one day.

My aunt passed away on March 22nd. I don't feel it is my place to speak about her life here but I will say that it saddens me immensely to think it was, perhaps, not a happy life and ended with more than a dozen years of confinement to her bed due to a serious illness. Although not entirely a surprise, I find that we all are still quite shaken by the news this week.

At the cemetery where we gathered after the ceremony, a lot of unpleasant memories were stirred up. Being the main Catholic cemetery in Hamilton all of our relations (older brother C., father, grandparents, uncles, aunts) were all buried there.

I asked to see my brother's grave which I have never seen. He died decades ago at the age of six months from crib death (now more commonly known as Sudden Infant Death syndrome or SIDS) before I was born. Born on Christmas day, he was my mother's first child. She was only 23 years old at the time. My mother was so distraught when she visited his unmarked grave that my father refused to let her go any more. That's how they rolled back then. He couldn't see her suffer so he said no more visits to the grave. Consequently, the little boy never received a marker for his gravesite. My mother, after decades, could no longer recall the exact spot. I think, burdened by other responsibilities, she gave up trying to pursue it.

Luckily for my mother, and me, I was conceived three months after C's death and born exactly one year to the day that he died (June 20th).

Due to my sister F's tenacity a few years ago, she sought out C's gravesite after a harrowing day of wandering through the cemetery during an extremely hot day searching for it. She came across a grave which bore my exact name in another section and which indicated that the little girl had been born very close to the time I was born; this gave her quite a fright that day. But she persisted and found the exact spot where he had been lain. She also arranged for a small marker to be placed on it so now the little boy  can be found more easily by family.

Staring down at the stone marker with his name - he has the same name as my paternal grandfather and my younger brother - and the dates (born Xmas day, died on my birthday) sent a chill through me as I'm sure it did to my daughter J. We stood shivering in the windy, cloud covered cemetery threatening rain, staring down at the grave, red plastic flowers stiffly affixed to the spot by my mother. I looked at some of the other markers nearby ... all children, all very, very young. My melancholy deepened.

In the car on the way home my daughter J asked whether I would have been born if my brother C had lived. I said likely not as we were only separated by 18 months but my husband R quickly inserted, "But possibly yes ..." I think to soften the jolt of what I was saying. After all, no me, no daughter J ... a very disturbing thought to us all.

We drove on to my father's grave in another section - this cemetery is immense and not easily navigated. On the black gravestone's face were carved the words: Lasciandosci con la speranza di rivederci un giorno. It brought home the longing and passion my mother had for my father. How tortuous those years were after his death.

And how I resented going to visit my father's grave back then. After he died, we used to make weekly pilgrimages for a very long time, for months, perhaps years. I was also compelled by an archaic tradition to wear black for six months (it was meant to be for a year and I don't remember how I narrowly escaped this sentence). The medieval nature of this mourning still horrifies aand unsettles me. And I remember how angry I was at my fate ... losing my father, watching my mother suffer and being forced to dress in this way when I wanted only pretty clothes and happiness in my sixteen year old life. My little head was filled with so many unfulfilled longings and dreams.

It is all so long ago now but ... cliche of cliches ... it feels like yesterday.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Small Fist of Power

Public Enemies (U.S., 2009) directed by Michael Mann, 143 minutes

Much as I love the two acting leads, Johnny Depp, as the 1930s American bank robber/outlaw John Dillinger, and Marion Cotillard, as his coat check cutie Billie Frechette, this film left me cold much in the same way Steven Soderbergh's 2008 epic four hour film Che disappointed me.

Both seemed to adhere too rigidly to the history of the men to reveal the "true" man - as paradoxical as that may sound. These men are more than a summation of the gun battles they fought and who they killed. More than a series of colourful locations and authentic looking costumes. But the "real" Dillinger eludes us here.

The film does look beautiful, the costuming and selection of most of the actors are spot on - but it felt bloodless and inauthentic to me. If only they had captured the energy and excitement of the excerpt I had read from Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burroughs that the movie was based on. 

I remember reading that the director Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral, Ali, The Insider, Heat), who seems to share my passion for gangsters, was pleased to be using the exact same locations that John Dillinger was found at (the safe house he escaped from during an escapade with the FBI, and the same cinema, the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where Dillinger watched the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama and was apprehended and gunned down).

The story is tragic and familiar following a well known historical pattern, knowing no geographical boundaries: an impoverished and uneducated boy rises to power through criminal means. He becomes a sort of hero to the underdog despite his violence and criminal ways. He eludes capture and can only be caught if a trusted friend betrays him. He dies young and violently then becomes canonized by the public after his death. And so it goes for Dillinger and ... Jesse James (U.S.), Ned Kelly (Australia) and Salvatore Giuliano (Sicily) and countless others no doubt.

Dillinger's tenure was short and very violent. He was released from prison in 1933 (serving almost nine years for stealing $50 worth of groceries) and was killed the following year but not until he had been involved in robbing at least two dozen banks and four police stations.

I felt too much time was spent on the car chases, bank robberies and gunfights and too little on his back story. What was Dillinger's? You don't grow up to be Public Enemy Number One unless there is some kind of trigger in your background. I had no sense of the man. I can't imagine, nor did I want to see, the Dillinger character emoting about an underprivileged background which lead to these circumstances but some hint of why ... there was only a tiny glimmer: the early death of his mother and a harsh father. The three screenwriters (which included Mann) gave us nothing to frame this cold-bloodedness and history of violence.

The only time that Dillinger came to life for me was when Depp was interacting with the lovely Billie (Marion Cotillard) - there is real chemistry there - moments of tenderness and gallantry, many small gestures of passion, short-lived as they were rumored to be together only for the last six months of Dillinger's life. Or there are touching scenes with Dillinger's men with whom he shared a brotherly (or criminal) sense of loyalty and duty.

Heck, I'm as attracted as the next gal to outlaws and bandits but I can't quite believe Depp as a cold blooded killer. He is still too pretty, even as he grows into middle age with those liquid eyes and pouty lips. I say this with regret as I adore him on screen in almost everything he does - from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape to Finding Neverland's James Barrie to the cartoonish Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy to the grotesque Sweeney Todd and many more roles.

I think in times of great economic duress and historical upheaval, when we believe that we are being exploited by unjust forces, we turn to these folkloric anti-heroes who represent one small fist in the face of authority and power. Maybe Dillinger stole from the banks that had "ruined" so many lives during the Great Depression because as one characters says, "he was just giving the customers back their money".

I couldn't help thinking of another outlaw whom I have written of many times: the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950). In one of my first posts on this topic, I talked about the links between the post-Civil War outlaw Jesse James and the mid 20th century Sicilian bandit Giuliano. There seem to be many similarities here too between Dillinger and Giuliano.

Both men surface when society is in a state of economic chaos: Dillinger was at the height of his bank robbing powers during the Great Depression and Giuliano appeared during WWII in a country under siege where there was a great need for rationing and, consequently, an even bigger need to sell and buy food on the black market in order to survive. Their criminal careers began with a quest to feed themselves.

Dillinger stole $50 worth of groceries for which he was sentenced to ten years; Giuliano was smuggling black market goods (cheese and wheat to be exact) and faced a long prison sentence for this crime had he not escaped the clutches of the carabinieri.

Anecdotal stories told of Dillinger mingling with the "common folk", in cinemas, on the street, as did Giuliano. They seemed to glory in their ability to evade the police and mix in with the people. In this film Dillinger walks straight into a detectives' squad room, even asking a group of them listening to a ball game on the radio who was winning. There were many such stories about Giuliano moving freely in the streets, even amongst the police, undetected.

They were generous and extravagant at times to a fault and were famous for it. They were well liked by the press for their quick-witted responses and mocking ways towards their enemies and the authorities. 

Both were impeccably dressed (Depp is fabulously attired here) ... even Giuliano who was rumored to have lived in hiding in caves for seven years was always well-groomed and admired for his handsome demeanor. 

They were both ruthless when betrayed or thwarted: killing whomever, whenever, they were threatened with exposure or their plans in peril: former allies, the young, were not spared nor were the deaths anything but vengefully violent.

Each had a streak of gallantry and romanticism (real or imagined by their admirers?). Didn't you love the way Dillinger threw his coat over the captive female bank clerk's shoulders as they exited the bank even as he was robbing it? Or the way he sang a folk song to the bewildered mechanic, while he was hijacking Sheriff Lillian Holley's new Ford car, with the captive mechanic in it? Or his gentleness with Billie when he swore he would never leave her, his tender nickname for her (from the song Bye Bye Blackbird sung beautifully here by Diana Krall). His last dying words were meant for her and her alone.

Giuliano was famous for his chivalry. In one story he stole a duchess' jewels and left her a book of poetry in its stead. He was enamored of the knights of Charlemagne's time. He gave money unstintingly to the poor and grew outraged when his mother and sisters were insulted and threatened as they often were.

The people close to them (accused of no crimes) were physically abused and tortured for their allegiance: here Billie Frechette and also members of Giuliano's family who were harassed, arrested and imprisoned for years for their protection of his whereabouts.

They both died young and very violently in a hail of bullets (Dillinger at 31, Giuliano at 28) betrayed by those close to them (Anna Sage, a formerly friendly Romanian madame from a brothel he frequented in Dillinger's case and Gaspare Pisciotta, Giuliano's best friend, sometimes referred to as his cousin). 

They were both romanticized and adored by the common man (and woman). And remain so today ...

We don't care for thieves and killers, nor should we, but most of us still idolize those who, in some small way, shake the corridors of power and authority and survive but a little while, fight valiantly and are soon extinguished by forces greater than themselves.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Last Station

The Last Station (Germany/Russia/UK, 2009) directed by Michael Hoffman, 112 minutes

Even if this love story between the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia were purely fanciful and not based somewhat on fact, it would still be vastly entertaining. The film was derived from Jay Parini's novel The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year.

Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is tired of living with his wife Sofia (Helen Mirren) who, although still beautiful after a married life of almost fifty years, is volatile and wilful (and quite possibly mad).

Even if Sofia is uncontrollable and petulant (she breaks dishes in a rage, insults Tolstoy and his Tolstoyan colleagues, refuses to countenance Tolstoy's own wishes to bequeath the copyright of his work to the Russian people), our sympathy still resides with her rather than his insipid followers - the dimwitted Tolstoyans, their scheming daughter Alexandra Tolsoy and the obsequious doctor who trails him, writing down all his words as if he were a religious prophet (which many of them believe him to be).

The Tolstoyans are lead by Vladimir Chertkov (the approrpriately slithery Paul Giamatti) whom Tolstoy embraces and praises like a son. The Tolsotyans are described as such:
Tolstoy's views were formed by rigorous study of the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ, particularly, The Sermon on the Mount. They self-identify as Christians ... They do not participate in, or concern themselves with, governmental and worldly affairs, which the Tolstoyans considered as immoral and corrupt. Thus, they may be technically described as anarchists, though not all of them claimed that title. Many now regard them as Christian anarchists because they recognize God as their only authority.
Oh yes, and they are avowed celibates.
In counterpoint to the severity of the Tolsoyans we have two young lovers Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy - who happily resides in my memory as the much maligned working class hero in Atonement), Tolstoy's personal secretary - and Masha (Kerry Condon), a worker in the compound, who are enmeshed in the movement, living in the same rarefied community but with strong, hitherto unvoiced doubts about whether they are embracing the right course.

They are all, in a way, fighting for Tolstoy's soul and for control of his legacy.

Eventually Tolstoy wearies of Sofia and of the inability to find peace to work and under cover of the night he escapes with daughter Alexandra (Anne Marie Duff), his doctor and Chertkov only to be stranded at a railway station when he falls ill. Sofia pursues him (Orthodox priest in tow) but she is not permitted to see her husband as the Russian media gathers around the station waiting for the grand denouement. It will be the final time the couple meets.

For me it seems a metaphor for the power of love versus the power of inflexible absolutes of doctrinaire politics. Not even the saintly Tolstoy can resist Sofia and all her considerable charms. Mirren is wonderful - even at her most impetuous, annoying moments - when we compare her to the austere sycophants that follow Tolstoy about. "You all think he's Christ, don't you?" she taunts his followers. She appears to be the only one who does not and treats him accordingly.

And the long-time marraige rings true due to the artistry of Plummer and Mirren - petty fights, sexual passion, intellectual compatibility, arguments about money and friends and ideas - all the hallmarks of a strong if tumultuous marriage. Except Leo feels he cannot abide her any longer. He is old and sick and beleaguered with the desire to leave something lasting even if it means destroying a financial legacy for his children which is what Sofia objects to.

Sofia, over the top, impetuous and sometimes cruel, we are on your side.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When Reptiles roamed England ...

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (Penguin Group, 2010) 312 pages

This is a gentle and loving account of the relationship between two intriguing women involved in an unusual pursuit in the early 19th c. - fossil hunting. Elizabeth Philpot (1780 – 1857), an impoverished gentlewoman and amateur paleontologist, and Mary Anning (1799 -1847), a working class girl with a talent for discovering rare and important fossils.

The two unlikely heroines of this real life tale collected fossils from the cliffs around Lyme Regis in Dorset located on the southern English coast. The chapters alternate between Elizabeth's more "refined" voice and that of the hardscrabble and quick-witted Mary.

It is hard to fathom today how revolutionary the discovery of these fossils were. The supposed age of the new discovered fossils contradicted established notions of the earth's age and the creation of all life on the planet. It directly contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible which states that God created the world in six days. This is also the basis of a new film about Darwin called Creation which I saw at TIFF last year.

Mary Anning's life is clearly destined to be something special for we learn in the opening chapter that she was struck by lightening at the age of fifteen months. While those around her perished, she survived. It was rumored that this created special attributes in Mary.

The three Philpot sisters, Elizabeth, Mary and Margaret, are sent to live in Lyme Regis when their brother marries (shades of Elinor and Marianne's fate in Sense of Sensiiblity here). The two eldest Philpot sisters assume that they will never marry as they have neither the financial means nor the looks to attract husbands. This fate is bothersome to Elizabeth but it does not impede her from beginning a lifelong pursuit of fossils while in Lyme.

Mary, nineteen years Elizabeth's junior, is a natural explorer who uncovers many fossils upon the beach and sells them in her parents' shop. This becomes a more acute situation when her father Richard Anning, a cabinet maker who initiated this interest in her, dies.

Mary Anning's brother Joseph finds the remains of an mysterious 18 foot creature which they dub a "crocodile" in a cliff face (later identified as a first complete specimen of an ichthyosaur (similar sample of fossil shown left). The local mucky mucky Lord Henry Hoste Henley purchases it for a pittance ... first the skull which is unearthed separately, then the body. Because a storm had covered the cliff face with debris where it was initially found, Mary must wait two years to unearth the intact body.

Chevalier underlines in a subtle, non-strident manner the difficulties the two women had in being taken seriously. When Lord Henley learns of their discovery he immediately tries to lay claim to the fossil and sells it to a museum attributing the discovery to himself. Mary's fossils, which are rare and important finds, are at times attributed to others (always men) and, it would appear, vastly undervalued by buyers.

Her life changes somewhat when the eminently respectable William Buckland, an English geologist & paleontologist, enters her life. His involvement gives her stature and respectability even as it loosens the clucking tongues in Lyme about the unsuitability of Mary traveling about with Buckland. This is considered such a scandal that Buckland procures a chaperone for them so they might fossil hunt together. When a landslip (where a portion of the cliff face collapses) permanently injures the chaperone Fanny Miller, a former friend of Mary's, "vague impressions hardened into harsh opinions".

Mary is soon sought after for her discovery prowess. A Colonel Thomas James Birch soon come calling. He courts Mary until she discovers, for him, another ichthyosaur, and then promptly sails away with his find. When Elizabeth angrily confronts Colonel Birch he soon sells his fossil collection and gives the proceeds to Mary's family which, despite her success, barely keeps the family afloat financially.

Later we learn that Birch has made overtures that turn the girl's head ... stolen kisses, a locket with his hair which Mary treasures. The class differences would make it impossible for them to marry (if that's what Birch was after which is suspect). She is poor and he is not much better off though of a higher class. Elizabeth is flesh and blood enough to be jealous of this relationship and to confront both, at different times, about it. For an alternative version of this relationship, and possibly more accurate historical take, please read here.

Unexpectedly Colonel Birch returns on Mary's birthday and he acknowledges that they cannot marry. They wander off alone together and the conclusion of that brief tryst is unclear. At the end of the chapter Mary says, "I lay back down and looked at the stars until I had to close my eyes".

When Mary's discoveries are challenged by a leading authority in the field, Elizabeth feels compelled to travel to London to defend her friend even though they have not spoken for years after their dispute over Colonel Birch. Mary is being accused of being a forger, of trying to piece together two separate remains to manufacture some new creature and enhance her reputation.

The denouement is as gentle and graceful as the rest of the book. Mary is vindicated and her expertise is finally recognized. The two women are reconciled. This piece of historical fiction is not a page turner but I do respect that Chevalier has not painted the lives of these women as not being lead without a cost to their emotional lives. They feel the price of being outside of the maintream. Being respected female pioneers in their field does not completely compensate for the lack of love and passion in one's life. Being too poor, too plain or too "odd" to attract a husband is not something easily forgotten or ignored.

Two devices in the novel irked me: Chevalier describes her characters as leading with a certain body parts (eyes, nose, hair, etc ...). It becomes tedious and not particularly enlightening. Secondly, at certain points when Mary is filled with clarity about a situation she is said to be filled with lightening. This feels too heavy-handed a metaphor.

Tiny, delicate echoes of Jane Austen are pleasingly evident here (I am a committed Jane-ophile, hence my attraction to this historical period!) ... especially when Elizabeth Philpot is found upon the beach with a soiled dress and dirty gloves which she is sure has repulsed her sister Margaret's potential suitor just as Lizzie Bennett's soiled dress horrified the Bingham sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Philpot pointedly admonishes Margaret in the novel that life was "not a Jane Austen novel" where all ends amicably in marriage. Indeed it does not. In the post-script, Chevalier mentions that Austen frequented the same Assembly Rooms noted in the novel and it is recorded that she was in contact with Richard Anning, Mary's father, who was a cabinet maker for a quote but, alas, he was too expensive!

I enjoyed these two women, creatures as remarkable as the treasures they found.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscars 2010

Can't miss the cheesy pre-show red carpet ... the fashion winners: Helen Mirren in a beaded, lavender Badgley Mischka gown; Jennifer Lopez in sparkly pink, looking like a lovely flower blooming; Nine's Penelope Cruz in ruby red satin; Cameron Diaz in a strapless gold Oscar De La Renta gown and flowing blonde locks; Kate Winslet in a silvery, strapless Yves Saint Laurent dress; Up in the Air's Anna Kendricks in rose pink; Taylor Lautner with a dazzling smile and a classic tux; Sandra Bullock, from The Blind Side, in a silver mermaid style dress; and, Meryl Streep looking very much the classic 40s Hollywood star in white.

Misses: Morgan Freeman chewing something on the red carpet (whattup with that?); Miley Cyrus slouching in a silvery, too-much-cleavage-for-her-age dress and looking very unhappy for some unknown reason; Kathy Ireland - too lean, too tanned, too chirpy as one of the interviewers on the red carpet; Sarah Jessica Parker, again too lean, too tanned in a toga-like Chanel gown ala 1969 with her slightly frazzled blonde up do; Carey Mulligan in what looked like a classic black ball gown which up close was decorated with ... small utensils?? Charlize Theron always looks beautiful and elegant but tonight ... the large rosettes positioned along the bust line? Not so much ... although I loved the beautful lavender purple of the dress. Maggie Gyllenhaal in a ... tropical sarong? Zoe Saldana ... beautiful girl, I just don't know how to start about this Givenchy dress which one wagging tongue on described as an "intergalactic cancan skirt".

Neal Patrick Harris and the bejeweled, be-feathered showgirls in the opening number including the line (referring to himself) "What is he doing here?" - what a beginning. Lots of fun, very old Hollywood. And I loved the Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin combo as hosts. They were bitchy, impolitic and self-deprecating, taking shots (mostly funny) at the big names: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Matt Damon, Helen Mirren ...

The best line was introducing Christoph Walz in the audience: "In Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Walz was a Nazi looking for Jews ... well, Christoph, look around you, you have hit the motherlode!" and teasing George Clooney (obviously in on the joke) by bringing up his name a few times, saying nothing nice about him and cutting to his sour face as they did so. Or the joke that Matt Damon was going to take Jennifer Garner to Tahiti if he wins.

Some highlights:
Nice dynamic between Tina Fey and Robert Downey introducing "Best Original Screenplay" about what actors want in writers versus what writers want in actors which eventually devolves into sniping at each other and her snapping at Downey, "Just read your lines!"

Alec Baldwin spoke of the film Precious, "In Precious, Gabourey Sidibe is told she's worthless, nobody likes her, that she has no future. Hey, I'm with CAA too!"

Loved the homage/montage to now deceased director John Hughes with a reunion of the Breakfast Club actors (and others) on stage inclduing Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Macaulay Culkin, and Matthew Broderick. Seeing those snippets of all those great films that R and I grew up with was fun.

The always funny Ben Stiller in blue Avatar makeup and an out of control blue tail announcing the "Best Makeup" winner.

Writer Geoffrey S. Fletcher for "Best Adapted Screenplay" for a heartfelt, emotional acceptance speech ... and Steve Martin saying afterward, "I wrote that speech for him!"

Mo'Nique thanking Hattie McDaniel (the first black actress to win an Oscar for a role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind) after winning "Best Supporting Actress" and her husband for pushing her to do "what is right rather than what is popular".

I liked Twilight's Kristen Stewart's nervousness and sweetness (introducing an homage to horror films with fellow Twilight star Taylor Lautner); she has a genuine quality that is very appealing in a young person. I find Lautner sweet but sometimes he is so polished he seems robotic.

Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in slankets supposedly backstage ... or in bed together the night before the awards ...

This relatively new way of introducing the "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" is very appealing - actors praising their fellow actors: Tim Robbins (Morgan Freeman), Colin Farrell (Jeremy Renner), Julianne Moore (Colin Firth), Michelle Pfeiffer (Jeff Bridges) and Vera Farmiga (George Clooney). And then in the Best Actress section: Forest Whitaker (Sandra Bullock), Michael Sheen (Helen Mirren), Oprah Winfrey (Gabourey Sidibe), Stanley Tucci (Meryl Streep) and Peter Saarsgard (Carey Mulligan).

Jeff Bridges' heartfelt tribute to his parents after winning "Best Actor" in Crazy Heart as well as Sandra Bullock acknowledging her mom after winning "Best Actress" in The Blind Side.

Looking gorgeous, sounding completely overwhelmed, can I get a whoop whoop for Kathyrn Bigelow for being the first woman to win "Best Director"? I think I scared my family when I yelled for joy after this and after The Hurt Locker won "Best Film". Loved the three male leads hanging on to each other and hugging in the back row behind the director and the producers after the big win.

And the concluding line spoken by Steve Martin: "The show went so long that Avatar now takes place in the past ..."

Some embarrassing misses:
Steve Martin introducing director/former fashion designer Tom Ford and fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker as "clothes whores" fell flat.

James Taylor's off key rendition of the Beatles' "In My Life" for the In Memoriam section.

The cheesy dance number and gymnastics highlighting the "Best Score" nominees ... it's like my better half said to me, "How can you respectfully portray a film like The Hurt Locker with these sorts of dance numbers?"

Playing "I am Woman" after Bigelow won ... good lord, is it the 70s again?

I don't care what the haters say, I always enjoy the show and I think the two hosts were great this year!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia (U.S., 2009) written and directed by Nora Ephron, 123 minutes

Nominated for one Oscar: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

But the first meal I ever cooked for Paul was a bit more ambitious: brains simmered in red wine! ... But the results, alas, were messy to look at and not very good to eat. In fact, the dinner was a disaster. Paul laughed it off, and we scrounged up something else that night.
My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

I wanted to end these Oscar nominated reviews on a joyous note (this will be the last review before the Oscars on Sunday). I had another review in mind but it was bleak and mean-spirited and it's too beautiful a day to do that.

This film combines many of my favourite things: cooking, Paris, New York, intriguing women and .. blogging! Although I read one or two reviews which felt that the combination of the two women's stories was jarring and did not fit well, I disagree.

Ephron has written a script combining cooking diva Julia Child's autobiography My Life in France with Julie Powell's blog-turned-memoir where she described how she decided to cook all of the 524 recipes in Child's seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Meryl Streep is enchanting as the young(ish) Julia who spends her early years as a bride in 1950s Paris with her husband Paul Child. She feels lost, useless in the kitchen and a bit overwhelmed by the French and their veneration of food and cooking.

I loved the way Streep forced us to see Child in a new way: sexy, fun, quirky and innovative. It was a pleasure to see an amicable, loving marriage on screen with Paul Child (the very sexy Stanley Tucci) who displays genuine lust and admiration for his voluptuous, charming wife.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a dispirited and aspiring writer with a difficult job (she works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. answering calls from 911 victims), imagines that her New York girlfriends all have more fabulous lives than she does and she may be right. She lives in a modest apartment and struggles to determine what she is good at. She decides to start a blog, mining her obsession with Julia Child and Child's masterpiece on French cooking. The recipes sometimes confound or puzzle her; at times, they are daunting or she is tired and frustrated and she is not particularly successful in the execution.

It is obvious that we are meant to see Julie's travails as a smaller version of Julia's as both try to learn to cook and attempt to get published. They both endure discouraging environments and the ever present fear of failure as well as experiencing the aid of loving, supportive husbands. Julia faces the snobbery of the French who assume an American can never learn the technique required for French cooking and the sexism of the male-dominated chef profession. Julie has low self esteem, little money and a sense of life rapidly passing her by.

And while Streep, as Julia, always appears charmingly ditzy and appealing, Adams gives off a different vibe here: snappish, irritated and a bit rude. It takes the sparkle off Adams' image too for me. I still remember her as the ditzy but lovable princess in Enchanted and the timorous, sweet-tempered nun in Doubt. Here she is frumpy and anxious and sometimes not pleasant to watch and, based on Powell's latest book, Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, she may be channeling the real Julie Powell.

Ephron's writing is funny and energetic and both characters have enough bite in them that they enliven fairly dull non-visual activities like: writing, cooking, reading, pouting. Yet it works here.

In real life, Julie does achieve success even though she does not garner the admiration of the real Julia Child who is displeased with her book. Both women have found their way and even though their journey to success is separated by almost half a century, their travails are not so very different.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Star Trek

Star Trek (U.S., 2009) directed by J.J. Abrams, 127 minutes

Nominated for four Oscars: Best Makeup, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects.

Reader, I fought it, I fought it in vain, possibly the only person on earth who did not want to see this film … I said I would accompany R and J to see it. Even J was surprised that I went as I was pretty vehement about not seeing it. I was curious as the reviews were ecstatic (the reviewers couldn’t all be Trekkies could they? I thought to myself).

But they nailed it … they truly nailed it from the casting to the convoluted pseudo scientific plot to the costumes, alien creatures and incredible cinematography and special effects.

Twenty eight year old Chris Pine (James T. Kirk) has the appropriate swagger, sex appeal and bravado to play the aspiring commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Pine looks like a slightly beefier version of James Dean that the filmmaker reinforces with the use of Kirk’s motorcycle and his rebellious, often dangerous antics as a boy (clue: it involves a boy, a vintage car, a highway cop and a cliff – I’ll say no more but the scene is among the best in the film). I realized with a jolt afterwards that this was the same kid who played Nicholas the male lead in Princess Diaries 2 and Just my Luck … quite the transformation.

Zach Quinto
, a nice Italian boy, plays the young Spock with a frosty but commanding presence that it is surprisingly dead on and his performance is warmed up considerably by a budding love interest with the sexy and brainy Uhuru (Zoe Saldana). The film is equally weighted between Kirk and Spock with a role for Leonard Nimoy as an older Spock and a key element in the alternative universe plot.

Everyone is near perfectly cast: Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and a feisty, humorous Scotty (Simon Pegg).

The prerequisite villains, represented by the ever treacherous Romulans lead by Eric Bana (Nero), elicit a well-deserved shudder as they resemble, to my mind, Nazis or skin heads with their bald heads, facial tattoos, quasi military garb and warrior-like posturing. Bana is near unrecognizable, his handsome looks hidden beneath fierce tattoos and a sneer.

It strikes the right note with a tiny bit of campiness in homage to the original TV series, action, braininess and sexiness.

The “realism” of the fight scenes is a welcome note – when the characters are fighting hand to hand combat, or being jet-propelled through the air in an amazing scene with Pine and John Cho, they look dirty and sweating and bloodily cut up as they should.

Minor quibbles … I guess there is a shortage of actresses older than 50 in Hollywood seeing that they needed to cast Winona Ryder as Spock’s mother?? Trekkies likely had no trouble following the plot but I found myself like the proverbial old lady sitting mystified in the cinema and had to restrain myself from whispering to R: How did “older” Spock end up on that wintery planet? How did Kirk cheat on his test to become an officer? What did Nero mean his planet had been destroyed?? Mercifully I saved my questions for after the film.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A TV set with no picture

Don't nobody want me. Don't nobody need me. I know who I am. I know what they say I am.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (U.S., 2009) directed by Lee Daniels, 110 minutes
Push by Sapphire (Random House, 1996) 175 pages

Nominated for Six Oscars: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Directing, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Despite the hype surrounding the film (renamed Precious because of a 2009 sci-fi film similarly named), I wanted to read the book too. I wanted to hear the voice of this writer. I wanted to see if Sapphire could create, and sustain, the voice of an illiterate sixteen year who seems to hold little promise based on how she looks and what she has experienced at the hands of her parents and the world.

Is it a grotesque carnival of negative stereotypes about black people or a message of hope and a realistic portrayal of a troubled young black girl with few hopes? When dealing with disturbing material in art - here there is incest, rape, sexual abuse, violence, what might be perceived as negative stereotyping of black people - when is it too much to include? I think it is when its artistic value becomes less important than the sensationalism of the material. Sapphire walks a fine line but she does not cross it I feel.

I would have to say that in the book Sapphire largely succeeds in this attempt to create a voice for Precious. This is a brutal, unrelenting portrayal of Precious' life: sexually abused by her father and impregnated by him twice; mentally and physically abused by her mother; despised by the world, vilified and ignored. I don't think I am telling you anything that the movie trailers have not.

The film is ... how can I describe it? Gentler? Less graphic? I'm not sure my words adequately explain this. The book is raw and painful and it works on that level. I did not want to see, in the film, all the things I read about in the book. A mere suggestion of this horror was enough for me. For instance, we see but a brief glimpse of Precious' father raping her (and it is only shown once), shot in a hazy sort of dream-like state with the mother Mary (the terrifyingly convincing Mo'Nique) standing in the background doing nothing.

The comedian Mo'Nique is a revelation here: mean, ugly, vicious, violent, completely unafraid as an actress to display all the evil that this character embodies.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is deemed too fat, too ugly, disposable and useless. But the real Precious is a girl of intense emotions and vulnerability with aspirations beneath a forbidding exterior. Both mother and daughter are morbidly obese. Of her mother Precious says in the book, "She ain' circus size yet but she getting there."

Even Precious' dreams in the book are haunted by abuse - too disturbing to detail here - where she pictures herself a tiny child at the mercy of her mother. A memory? A dream? In it, the tiny baby trills the alphabet - is that Precious as she might have been if she had had the proper care and upbringing? If she had been taught to read properly?

Precious escapes into a fantasy world where she is the star. In moments of stress in the book (is this scene real or imagined?) Precious also cuts herself:
Get Daddy's razor out cabinet. Cut cut cut arm wrist, not trying to die, trying to plug myself back in. I am a TV set wif no picture. I am broke wif no mind. No past or present time. Only the movies of being someone else. Someone not fat, dark skin, short hair, someone not fucked. A pink virgin girl ...
Her fantasy self has light skin and long hair that she can swing back and forth alluringly, small breasts, a thin physique - an image created and sustained by the media and racism.

Here the film is better able to encapsulate the fantasy ... we see the beautiful light-skinned boyfriend, the pretty clothes, Precious in the spotlight - adored, loved and the object of desire. The fantasy is vivid and disarming. And, honestly, a brief visual respite from the horror of the girl's life.

When Precious is suspended for getting pregnant a second time, an alternative school is recommended for her despite her mother's objections. Her mother Mary prefers Precious to remain as she is: abject, cooking for her, caring for her mother's needs, and devoid of self esteem which Mary seems dedicated to destroying every last ounce of.

Precious finally learns to read with the assistance of a savvy teacher at the alternative school with a pretty but unlikely name, Blue Rain (Paula Patton), who grows to love the seemingly unlovable Precious. This is Precious' journey to becoming a writer, to literally learning to write.

Precious steals a file from the social worker (played with frumpy deadpan seriousness by the pop singer Mariah Carey who is a personal friend of the director Daniels) that she is forced to go to. She reads the file with the assistance of a schoolmate. Precious is appalled when she sees in the report that it would be difficult for her to get her GED, that she should get employment instead, possibly as a home attendant. Here Sapphire tackles the logic of workfare, of forcing the impoverished to deserve what they get from the government. 

Precious gives birth to her son Abdul and debates whether she can return to school. The dishy Lenny Kravitz has a small role as a sympathetic nurse - talk about eye candy. When she returns from the hospital, a vicious surprise lies in wait for her as her mother tries to kill her. Precious flees with nothing but the baby and seeks the help of an overburdened but sympathetic nurse at Harlem hospital. She ends up in an armory for shelter that night - with addicts and homeless people - and is robbed during the course of the night.

Blue Rain, perhaps expressing all our anger and sense of futility as a reader, is outraged at Precious' situation and manages to find a place for her at a home called Advancement House so that Precious may continue her education and still have childcare for Abdul.

At times the plot feels like the plagues of Egypt upon the Israelites with one catastrophe following another for Precious. When we learn that Precious' father has died of AIDS it feels as if the reader can bear no more tragedy. She has contracted AIDS but, blessedly, her baby is safe.

At times her despair is so overwhelming that it is difficult to keep reading:
I always thought I was someone different on the inside. That I was just fat and black and ugly to people on the OUTSIDE. And if they could see inside me they would see something lovely and not keep laughing at me ...
But it ends with some sense of hope. She will continue her education. She joins an incest survivors' group (humorously referred to as an insect group initially by Precious). She learns to read and write. She loves and cares for her child. She will not return to her mother. She has hope and we all need a little bit of that.

My only concern regarding the structure of the published work is the short essays appended to the novel, written by the other members of Precious' literacy class. I wish Sapphire had found a way to include their back stories in another fashion. As it is it feels tacked on and somewhat superfluous.

But the film surpassed my expectations ... again the hype tended to keep me away. I shouldn't have waited.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Be Italian ...

Nine (U.S., 2009) directed by Rob Marshall, 119 minutes

Nominated for four Oscars: Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Music (Original Song).

You may have seen me griping on fb about the use of non-Italians in principal roles in this film. The film is an adaption of a 1980s musical about Federico Fellini and a loosely based reincarnation of the Fellini film 8 1/2. It is a homage to the popular myth of a certain type of modern Italy in the 1950s and 1960s created by Fellini on film: sensuous, hedonistic, sexy and fun. Even as the scoundrel Guido Contini exploits and uses the females in his life, with the exception of his revered mother, he charms his way into your psyche as a viewer and lover of Fellini's films. As one character says, "This is your Rome Guido. The world sees Rome as you invented it".

One lady behind me sighed, "Make you want to be be Italian doesn't it?" I totally understood that sigh of envy ... the images were so powerful, the women, costumes and sets exquisite. It's a beautiful fantasy that glorifies the Fellini films of that era.

Well, further to my initial salvo, at least Penelope Cruz (Carla) is Spanish and Marion Cotillard (Luisa) is French. Nicole Kidman had the good sense to request that her character Claudia be Swedish which makes more sense for her in terms of her physical attributes and in that she is meant to represent the Anita Ekberg muse in Fellini's films (vide the over the top voluptuousness and sensuality of Ekberg as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita). Nine reproduces that joyous scene in a much more subdued way here.

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous Italian film director ala Federico Fellini. He is working on a new film, tentatively titled Italia, but has no script, no new ideas and plenty of women trouble. In a panic, he escapes to a hotel outside of Rome to pull himself together, invites his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), a delightfully silly feminine caricature, rather than his long suffering and more demure wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) to join him.

Day-Lewis plays the tormented, philandering Italian artist very well. For me, Day-Lewis has a curiously non-sexual vibe on screen but not so here. Here, he is believable as the oversexed, appetite-driven filmmaker juggling wife, mistress, muse, fantasy sex object (Fergie as the feral la Saraghina from a pivotal scene in 8 1/2) and the admonitions of female close friend Lilli (Judi Dench) and mother (Sophia Loren). See the original portrayal of la Saraghina here.

Like the original Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2, things go awry very quickly. The producer is after him to stay on schedule. His wife Luisa unexpectedly pops into the hotel to join him and discovers Carla to be in the same hotel. Carla, feeling ignored and unhappy, tries to kill herself with pills. Claudia, the muse of his most famous films, declines to play the role any longer.

This really is a film about the women in Guido's life and in a feminist twist the key female figures in his life all take turns walking away from him and his obsessions.

Penelope Cruz plays the ditzy and sexy Carla to perfection. Kidman is the right combination of icy beauty and sex kittenish charm as the Swedish film star/muse Claudia; Loren is looking a bit leathery nowadays but still has a lovely, regal bearing as Guido's venerable mother. Marion Cotillard, who is much prettier than the real-life wife of Fellini, Giulia Massina, still conveys the sweetness and innocence of that actress. Fergie is stunning as Saraghina: feral, all overt sexuality and aggression. Hudson has just the right amount of American swagger and aggressiveness to play the predatory reporter who is after Guido. Judi Dench is sexy and charming and wise as Lilli the costume designer and confidante to Guido.

They each get show-stopping musical numbers the most riveting being "Be Italian" by Fergie using both elements of traditional Italian music and a more traditional Broadway score. Fergie practically blows you out of the theatre with that voice of hers.

But they are all wonderful: Penelope Cruz as a burlesque dancer in the opening song "A Call From the Vatican" is delectable. Even Kate Hudson as the smarmy reporter in love with Guido's movies and all things Italian has a sensational number in "Cinema Italiano". Judi Dench does a memorable turn in "Folies Bergere" with a sort of Marlene Dietrich campy accent and a bevy of gorgeous jewel encrusted girls with feathers in the background. They all have their star turns including Cotillard in "Take it All", Loren in "Guarda la luna" and Kidman in "Unusual Way".

When Luisa sees a screen test with Guido making the same moves on a beautiful young actress that he used on her at their first meeting, she finally leaves him to re-pursue a career in acting. Claudia refuses to play the muse. Carla goes back to her husband after a failed suicide attempt. The film "Italia" falls apart. Only the ghost of Mama remains to help him nurse his wounds. He walks away from the film and goes into a kind of hiding.

But in the end, the creative impulse cannot be dimmed and we see a fabulous coming together of the real and fantastic when all the characters in his life gather on a sound stage at the end.

Wonderful. I would happily see it again and again. It inspires me to see all of Fellini's films again, but especially 8 1/2.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds (U.S., 2009) directed by Quentin Tarantino, 153 minutes

Eight nominations including Christoph Waltz for Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Directing, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has said that the title of the film was inspired by Italian director Enzo Castellari's 1978 war film, The Inglorious Bastards. This was a surprising film for me - there was far less gore and profanity and quick-witted but silly repartee larded with pop cultural references between the characters - all trademarks of his cinema making starting with Reservoir Dogs.

R and I first saw Reservoir Dogs at TIFF back in the 90s and it was truly a revolutionary piece of work: smart, profane, violent. I felt agitated and excited throughout the film. We knew we were seeing something truly different. Tarantino has spawned a host of minor league imitators, almost a sub-genre of film within Hollywood. But the fame and the acclaim, the knives have been drawn and there was much speculation regarding whether this long awaited film would live up to the hype.

SS Colonel Hans Landa (the miraculous German actor Christoph Waltz) arrives at a dairy farm in France to interrogate a farmer about rumors he is hiding a Jewish family in 1941. Landa gently coerces the farmer to confess then orders the SS to shoot the floorboards under which they are hiding. Waltz smoothly moves from charm to menace in seconds, terrifying the farmer's family and the hiding Jews. One teenage girl, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), escapes. The tension is unbearable - drawn out and exquisitely acted between the colonel and the farmer and mercifully much less graphic than I anticipated.

The tone of the film is quite different here from most films produced today - slowed down and patient, more like a classic Hollywood film which did not feel the need to fill all the silences or move quickly to the next action-packed scene.

Flash forward three years ...
In Italy, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt with an excruciating accent that they claim is from Tennessee and a twitchy little black mustache which reminds me of Hitler) recruits a team of eight Jewish-American soldiers for a mission hoping to terrorize and demoralize German soldiers. They come to be known as the 'Basterds'. Their tactics involved scalping, slicing the shape of swastikas on to the soldiers' foreheads and generally showing no mercy. One individual, Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) known as "The Bear Jew", beats his victims to death with a baseball bat. His name is whispered amongst the Germans as if he is some terrifying, mythical creature.

By1944, Shosanna has a new identity as 'Emmanuelle Mimieux',  the owner of a Parisian cinema.
A smitten German soldier named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), whose adventures fending off the Allies are to be celebrated in a propaganda film created by Joseph Goebbels much to Shosanna's horror, has fallen for her. Brühl has the right amount of charm and finesse which quickly elides into viciousness when he doesn't get his way. Zoller convinces Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to hold the premiere at Shosanna's cinema.

So Shosanna plots to assassinate the highest ranking Nazi officers by burning down the cinema which contains highly flammable film, with the aid of her love, the projectionist. But before the Nazis face a death by chicken fricassee, we see the now mandatory Mexican standoff, vintage Tarantino, between some allied officers posing as Nazis, a German double agent named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Krüger) and some German soldiers in a Parisian tavern. This, too, is long drawn out scene, excellently played and with no certainty that the good guys will prevail.

Aldo Raine learns that Hitler will be attending the premiere at Shosanna's theatre and devises a plan where he, Donny and Omar (Omar Doom), will pose as Italian escorts at the premiere and blow up the cinema.

Landa soon connects von Hammersmark with the shooting in the tavern and strangles her at the premiere. He also uncovers the three Americans posing as Italians, Aldo, Danny and Omar. Landa then makes a deal with Raine's commanding officer for full immunity if he permits the assassination of Hitler and the other high ranking officers to proceed.

I won't reveal the rest of the plot ... it might not go as you would have foreseen. The "good" are  not necessarily saved, nor all the "evil" punished. And I think Tarantino's boasting that this is his best film is not overstated. It displays a new maturity and despite Pitt's curious mugging (I think he is trying to impersonate Clark Gable) the acting is uniformly strong, the costumes and settings picture perfect.

It has been accused of being a Holocaust revenge fantasy but I think it is very much more than that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bright Star

Here lies one whose name was writ on water.
John Keats' epitaph

Bright Star
(Australia, 2009) directed by Jane Campion, 119 minutes

Nominated for Achievement in Costume Design - but it has so much more to offer!!

I first saw this at TIFF last September, 2009. John Keats died at 25 a few years after my beloved Jane Austen in 1817 thinking that he was a failure as a poet. Today he is seen as one of the greatest Romantic poets of our time. Bright Star tells the story of the love between Keats and Fanny Brawne, a young girl of fairly modest means whom he courted for three years and was engaged to before his death. "Bright Star" refers to the name of a poem that he wrote for her.

When Australian director Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), A Portrait of the Lady (1996)) introduced the film during the festival (looking like a gracefully aging hippie with her long blondish grey hair worn loosely and her simple clothes) she said the film was like "a door that opens slowly". It is a slow, quiet film but I like Campion's style. She understands desire, and passion, and can allow for quiet moments of great emotional power in her films.

Keats (Ben Whishaw last seen as Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited in 2008) is depicted here as a serious minded and struggling poet, physically frail, and deeply involved in the care of a younger brother who eventually dies of tuberculosis (as did their mother). Whishaw, usually thin, appears like a gaunt shadow of hisself with a pale complexion and long shaggy hair, looking quite the Romantic ideal.

Fanny (the lovely Abbie Cornish) is portrayed as a frivolous, flirtatious girl obsessed with fashion who makes her own clothes. There is a sly joke here because Fanny's clothes, at least at the start of the film, appear garish and a bit loud for the Regency fashions of the early 19th c. At the beginning she is dressed in bright poppy reds with big ostentatious collars and big ruffles. As she evolves as a woman, so does her style. Later, she appears more graceful and subdued in rich reds and blues and purples.

Keats described her thus to his brother George in his letters: "She is not seventeen - but she is ignorant - monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx - this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it."

Despite his initial antipathy they fall in love - they are thrown together a in a series of circumstances when they share a portion of the same rented house - she, with her widowed mother, brother and sister and, he, with fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a rude, acerbic fellow who, one suspects, is half in love with Keats himself based on the stridency with which he attempts to separate the two lovers.

Gossip and Keats' illness push the couple into an engagement despite her mother's reservations because Keats has no means of making a living. But he is too ill to remain in England for another winter. His friends arrange for him to travel to, and live, in Italy. Unfortunately, their romance ends there as Keats dies in Italy of TB.

Beautifully done, quiet and subtle and intensely romantic.

Later I read that Fanny married but always concealed her relationship with Keats, which appeared to be largely chaste, a secret from her husband, and only revealing the truth to her three children. After she and her husband died, her children sold Keats' letters in the 1870s. You may read more of their story here.

TIFF of the day: At the press screening for this film in Toronto "the technical staff loaded the last reel of the film backwards. With less than 20 minutes left, suddenly Fanny and John were dancing on the ceiling while their carefully cultivated English accents turned into something that sounded like mangled Danish. TIFF staff apologized as the room filled with sighs."