Sunday, September 30, 2012

September Cultural Roundup

Utter movie madness this month with TIFF. Haters gonna hate but I love love love the festival.

The Hunger Games (U.S., 2012) directed by Gary Ross
Io e Te (Me and You) (Italy, 2012) directed by Bernard Bertolucci (review)
Frances Ha (U.S., 2012) directed by Noah Baumbach (review)
Ginger and Rosa (UK/Denmark) directed by Sally Potter (review)
The Iceman (U.S., 2012) directed by Ariel Vromen (review)
Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners (U.S., 2012) directed by Shola Lynch (review)
To the Wonder (U.S., 2012) directed by Terence Mallick (review)
Passion (U.S., 2012) directed by Brian DePalma (review)
Argo (U.S., 2012) directed by Ben Affleck (review)
Blondie (Sweden, 2012) directed by Jesper Ganslandt (review)
Great Expectations (U.K., 2012) directed by Mike Newell (review)
The Secret Disco Revolution (Canada, 2012) directed by Jamie Kastner (review)
Much Ado About Nothing (U.S., 2012) directed by Joss Whedon (review)
English Vinglish (India, 2012) directed by Gauri Shinde (review)
Imogene (U.S., 2012) directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (review)
40 Year Old Virgin (U.S., 2005) directed by Judd Apatow
House at the end of the street (U.S., 2012) directed by Mark Tonderai
Looper (U.S., 2012) directed by Rian Johnson

Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (review)
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow
About Alice by Calvin Trillin
Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Spadina House, 385 Spadina Ave., Toronto, September 7, 2012

Word on the Street, September 23, 2012
Martin Amis at the Toronto Reference Library, September  26, 2012
Quattro Books Fall 2012 Book Launch, Q Space, September 27, 2012

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Quirky Girl (and why she won't go away)

Deschanel, the It girl for quirkiness
And so begins a new category of blog entry for ALC ... POP goes the world - a discussion of all things pop culture.

Am I just bitter because there is no chance that I will ever be the Quirky Girl that everyone loves? Am I just envious? Perhaps. Possibly that is so ... or is it because the world seems like a much more serious place and I want grown men and women to behave a tad more seriously (oh, that old lament ALC? yes, that old lament). Quirky Girl's predominance has been emerging for decades now. She is the It Girl of the 21stc.

Let us examine this anthropological specimen closely: 

Her physical attributes:
> Young (never over 30, ever young).
> Gamine.
> Sexy but not threatening.
> Pretty but not beautiful.
> Never fat (because then she becomes something else ... perhaps Fat Party Girl, another species entirely).
> Sexually appealing to boys and men. 

Zoe Kazan
Her emotional attributes:
> Ditzy ... but that's just a cover for being clever in a unconventional way.
> Unwise to the ways of the world.
> Always cute and dresses in same said manner usually in bright colours, makeup and occasionally hats (sometimes with pretty dresses) and always in a cute, quirky fashion. Might also be a bit slovenly but that just adds to the cuteness.
> Pop-eyed enthusiasm (see picture above) for the world and all it brings.

Where does she abide in popular culture? 
Her predecessors are legion: the characters of Gidget and Tammy (film series in the 1950s and 60s); Laugh-In go-go girl Goldie Hawn in the late 1960s; Diane Keaton in Annie Hall in the 1970s; the character of Mayim Bialik in Blossom and Lisa Bonet (in general) in the 1980s; the sometimes sullen character of Rayanne in the TV series My So-called Life in the 1990s; the character of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the 2000s.

Her current manifestations: Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha (2012); Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks (2012) written by Kazan herself; the character of Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010); the character of Summer (Ms. Deschanel again) in 500 Days of Summer (2009); and, of course, The New Girl Zooey Deschanel in ... anything.

I want to put Lena Dunham of the HBO TV series Girls in this category but she doesn't quite fit ... being a little too cerebral, not really pretty/cute or not cute in that customary quirky way. And I honestly think she is trying to do something quite different for young women and their self-image. (Why she is on the verge of quirky: gets tattoos like many a wannebe bad girl but they are from Eloise as if she is saying, "See, just kidding, I'm not really a bad girl!" Quirky.)

Why is the Quirky Girl so popular? Why won't she go away?
She is non-threatening. She represents youth and beauty (fine things in and of themselves) unspoiled by womanhood and maternity and responsibility. She is not fully perceived as an adult woman but is closer to a doll or a sex toy; therefore, pliable, easier to manipulate, undemanding. She is attainable, manageable, and she is the female mirror image of the Fan Boy who refuses to grow up.

I would not mind the attire, which personally I think is rather adorable; however, I mind the lack of  involvement with the world, with real life. If only they could get their sh*t together and try to make things better instead of just trying to manage their moods and their wardrobes. 
Lena Dunham, on the verge of quirky
Why she must die ...
She is a concrete manifestation of arrested development - an example of the desire to avoid engagement with the real world, with adulthood. And who could blame her really? I don't want every female to turn into a boring old married lady (ahem) with kids ... it's not that at all.

But seriously, cute after 30 is not cute. Cute after 30 is ... disturbing. It's unappealing. It's depressing. But maybe, okay ... let's not let her die. Maybe we should just hang out with her for a while and then go shopping with her for new clothes. Yeah, that would be nice.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

TIFF 2012: Imogene

Imogene (U.S., 2012) directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, 130 minutes 
Sunday, September 16, 2012, 11.30a., Ryerson Theatre

Oh Kristin Wigg I love you so ... I wish this movie was better and more worthy of your comedic talents which are substantial.

Imogene is a comedy about an underdog (a situation where Wiig often flourishes - the most obvious example being the insuperable Bridesmaids) who loses her boyfriend Peter and her job and in an attempt to bring that boyfriend back stages a fake suicide attempt. She ends up in a psych ward and then drugged in the back of her mom Zelda's (Annette Bening) car and then New Jersey. This is problematic ... in that mom has a number of "impulse control" issues: gambling, shopping, being just two examples. 

Comedy ensues ... 

Home is Ocean City, NJ, which is a nightmare for Imogene - mom has a new boyfriend (Matt Dillon playing an unnamed covert government agent); her old room is now inhabited by Lee, a boarder (Glee's Darren Criss) who impersonates a member of the Back Street Boys in a cheesy stage show in Ocean City; and, her nerdy brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) is obsessed with crabs and all things mollusk. 

Imogene, a once promising playwright, must find a way regain her life among the shiny, pretty people that she had access to when she dated Peter. Except none of the mean girls that she associated with want anything to do with her, she is thrown out of her apartment and she has no employment. 

This being a comedy Imogene must regain at least part or all of what she lost ... she does and in the silliest way possible restoring her troubled relationship with mom by tackling an agent trying to kill Mom's boyfriend and making the evening news. This liberating action coupled with Lee's support as her new boyfriend helps her regain her confidence so that she is able to write a play that is staged in Manhattan ... all this ranges from silly to improbable to ridiculous.

And that makes me sad ... because I think Wiig is wonderful. Much better than this cheesy material.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

TIFF 2012: English Vinglish

English Vinglish (India, 2012) directed by Gauri Shinde, 144 minutes
Saturday, September 15, 2012, 12.15p., TIFF Lightbox 

This film is surprisingly moving … initially I felt it was going in a very maudlin direction, trying to pull on my heart strings a little too hard. It owes much to Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 feature Bend it like Beckham in feeling, tone and theme. Both reveal a determined woman repressed by her family circumstances and deals with their attempts to grow beyond the expected limitations of their prescribed lives. Call it Bend it like Shashi … 

Shashi played by Sridevi, who has been described as the “first female superstar of the Indian Cinema" (and the audience was quite in awe of her presence in the film it seems), is a gentle-spirited South Asian wife and mother of two in India. She is utterly domestic, passive, lacking in self esteem and easily wounded by her family’s teasing that her greatest and only skill pertains to her cooking of a delicious dessert called ladoo that she makes in her home and sells to neighbors and friends. 

Shashi travels to NYC to attend the wedding of her niece. Feeling belittled by her lack of English skills, she joins an ESL class for the remaining four weeks that she will be in New York.

After a humiliating episode in a restaurant when she is unable to order a simple meal she is befriended by a kindly French immigrant named Laurent (the sad eyed, handsome Skyler Marshall) who eventually ends up in the same ESL class as Shashi. The class is a quirky hodge podge of ethnic, non-English speaking immigrants led by a flamboyant and highly enthusiastic instructor named David: respectively of Chinese, Hispanic, South Asian, French, African descent.

Her isolation as an immigrant in NYC is not unlike her isolation as a middle class, affluent housewife who is not perceived to have any valuable skills. Neither is recognized or respected.

Aided by a kindly niece Shashi persists and learns to speak English in secret but she is constantly torn between the duties of wife/mother and her obligations to herself. At one point I was hoping Shashi would abandon her role as a doormat to her family and break free. She does in a manner. 

Interestingly, Shashi does not take the expected route; she does not fall for her handsome fellow French student although he is clearly smitten with him. She chooses to make her feelings known at the wedding – asking the bride and groom to respect each other, value each other and never denigrate the other person. Therein, she changes her life and her relationship with her husband and a particularly denigrating teenage daughter.

Although it is not a traditional Indian film (actors do not break into song and dance except at the wedding) during the course of the film, there is music, a great deal of it. And it greatly adds to the joyousness of the film.

After the screening the first time director Gauri Shinde, the producer R. Balki and the actor Skyler Marshall, who played Laurent, were there for a Q&A. All three were charming and as an added treat brought platefuls of ladoo for the audience to try ... always the quickest path to a jaded film viewer’s heart.

Friday, September 14, 2012

TIFF 2012: Much Ado About Nothing

Acker and Morgese as cousins Beatrice and Hero
Much Ado About Nothing (U.S., 2012) directed by Joss Whedon, 137 minutes
Friday, September 14, 2012, Elgin Theatre, 11am

Current pop culture "It Boy" Joss Whedon has done something interesting ... going from the mega hit The Avengers and a legacy of solid TV series hits and/or cult faves like Buffy the Vampire Killer, Angel and Firefly to a modest Shakespearean production of Much Ado that was apparently shot in his own home on a modest budget in b&w film. Pretty impressive. Whedon also adapted the play for the screen, no small feat. As I was the only person on the planet that was bored by The Avengers, I was unsure what to expect.

And Whedon largely succeeds ... A brief synopsis of the play here for those of us (including me) who need a refresher.

Aside from the regressive elements of the play (Leonato wishing his daughter Hero dead rather than not a virgin when he suspects that she has been playing around before her wedding day and then pretending to marry Claudio to an identical proxy to punish him for Hero's "death"), we must forsake political correctness, let those plot points go and embrace the premise and trust the playwright ...

The setting is modern day, replete with business suits and cellphones for this upper echelon of society, within what is allegedly Whedon's California home standing in for a palace in Messina. Benedick (
Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), who alternately hate and love each other (as William's heroes are wont to do), do a pretty adequate job but something is amiss. This Beatrice is just a little too much on the edge of hysteria in voicing the words of the beautiful and misanthropic Beatrice who swears that she will never marry. 

Nor is this Benedick,  I almost hesitate to say, "butch" enough for this role. Denisof has a slightly goofy quality that is at odds with the material I think as does Beatrice. Perhaps the director feared that the material would be too static if they played it straight without the pratfalls. Thus, Benedick is rolling around in the bushes (obvious to all) while listening to Don Pedro the Prince and Claudio (Fran Kranz) plotting to throw them together and Beatrice is falling down stairs when Benedick suddenly professes his rediscovered love for her. 

The supporting roles are strong ... Leonato (
Clark Gregg), Claudio and his betrothed Hero (Jillian Morgese), the Prince (Reed Diamond - wow where has this gorgeous man been?), Dogsberry (Nathan Fillion - who got a resounding burst of applause when he appeared on screen), Prince John and his nefarious underling.

What a vanishing skill this must be for actors ... to move from mastering Shakespearean dialogue to acting in film (or trying to do both).

Well played Mr. Whedon, well played ... I was especially happy as this was one of the few films that both myself and my friend C liked a great deal. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

TIFF 2012: The Secret Disco Revolution

The Secret Disco Revolution (Canada, 2012) directed by Jamie Kastner, 84 minutes
Thursday, September 13, 2012, 3p., Bloor Cinema

Aside from the silly fictional conceit that a trio of masterminds have orchestrated a secret revolution in creating disco to further the liberation of certain oppressed groups in society, the film has an amusing, quirky quality that pleased the audience. 

Director Jamie Kastner has a lively, playful style that engages archival material, old TV footage, interviews with record company execs and disco stars, and what appears to be personal videos taken, to illustrate the joyfulness of the beginnings of disco dancing and music. He charts the rise (and death) of disco in the 1970s in this documentary.

I am game in believing that women, gays and black people were given opportunities to shine in a hitherto possibly unfriendly music environment. One of the disco superstars talked about being on the "black track". If you were black (pre-disco and the mid 70s) and perceived to play primarily black music, it was near impossible to be played on a radio station that played mostly white music. With its popularity (and the possibility for greater commercial gain), black disco artists were seen as more profitable therefore marketable.

Fun to see Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor, Evelyn Champagne King, Anita Pointer, Kool (of Kool and the Gang), The Village People, KC (of KC and the Sunshine Band) these many years later ... I danced to all their songs. Many times! God, it was fun.

Certainly, the energy and the freedom that it celebrates still appeals. Was the infamous Studio 54 as wild and raucous and hedonistic as it has been portrayed? Apparently so ... with superstars publicly coupling unabashedly with busboys according to one interviewee.

The best part of this doc was watching The Village People, the ultimate gay icons, deny that any of the songs had a double entendre and getting snippy with Kastner when he persisted with this line of questioning.  

Kastner was self-effacing and articulate during the Q&A - and so happy that we were there to see his film!

TIFF 2012: Great Expectations

Ms. Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in her bridal finery

Great Expectations (U.K., 2012) directed by Mike Newell, 128 minutes
Thursday, September 13, 2012, TIFF Lightbox 1, 9.45a.m.

Once my husband R complained that Dickens was overly long, overly elaborate, too tedious to read. I pointed out that he was paid by the word for his efforts. “Yeah, and it shows ...” he remarked acidly. He may have a point there. 

It looks like my solid Catholic school education has come to naught as I couldn’t remember a single blasted passage of this book except for the fact that Miss Havisham was forsaken at the altar. Need we re-hash the plot of this high school favourite? I think not. For those that require a refresher please read here

Why pursue a remake of the classic? I can’t say speak for the director Mike Newell, best known for his rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral (still a favourite of mine after all these years - I know, I know, but I like it) but I know that certain classic stories stay with you forever. This might be one of those for him. 

The dishy Jeremy Irvine
Jeremy Irvine, as the adult Philip Pirrip nicknamed Pip, has that open, innocent face that I imagine all of Dickens’ heroes should possess – full of wonder, by turns joyful then wounded by what the real world brings to them. He is handsome, good-hearted and honest and Irvine’s face communicates all that and more. 

Most of the characters look like grotesques with overly fussy clothing and layers that seems to emphasize the claustrophobia of life in Dickensian England. London, as pictured here, is ugly and peopled with rude, insentient filthy beings who barge by the astonished Pip as he seeks to make his way as a newcomer. I loved that the spoiled rich Finches of the gentleman’s club that Pip joins in London resemble New Wave punks of the 1980s with their foppish curly hair, billowing shirts and elaborate waistcoats.  

I relished the grimy, nasty version of Victorian life that Newell presents … highlighting the ugly treatment of convicts and the distaste for the poor of urban England. The low value placed on women and what they bring to marriage. The greed and snobbishness that pervades the unbearable upper classes. 

Eventually the city gradually rubs off on Pip and he too becomes callous and cold, judgmental of his sister’s husband Joe the blacksmith (Jason Flemyng) and the people he left behind once he has received his annuity from his anonymous benefactor Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes). 

That grimy image is not restricted to the city of London. The county of Kent, where Pip is born, seems depressingly ugly and barren. The women are disheveled, cheap looking and yet be-ribboned in an unbecoming way; the men are grubby, shoddy and but also overdressed and fussy.

I was especially captivated by Miss Havisham (who else but Helen Bonham Carter?), the compelling horror of her ruined bridal dress and decaying mansion that once housed the sumptuous wedding feast until her groom betrayed her and broke her heart. She is by turns imperious and impossible, sentimental and emotionally vulnerable.

Ralph Fiennes is also compelling as the escaped convict whom comes to play such an important role in Pip’s journey. Estella, Miss Havisham's ward and the thought to be lost daughter of Magwitch, is played with icy precision by Holliday Grainger. 

The cast is near perfect. It almost prompts me to reread the book. Almost.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

TIFF 2012: Blondie

The women
Blondie (Sweden, 2012) directed by Jesper Ganslandt, 88 minutes
Wednesday, September 12, 2012, 12p, Bloor Cinema

This film brings to mind Tolstoy's quote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

This Swedish family is a dysfunctional matriarchy controlled by a trio of unhappy women - Sigrid, the mother, and her two oldest daughters Elin, a high-fashion model, and Katarina, a surgeon in an unhappy marriage with two young daughters. Men are largely absent from this film with the exception of the cuckolded and ineffectual husband of Katarina. 

Stop right there ... I find it hard to believe that either of these two women holds those occupations. They lack the demeanor and, in some instances, the gravitas required.

Sigrid is exacting, critical, and mean-spirited, the kind of woman who would send a fifteen year daughter to Milan and encourage her not to come back. Elin sleeps around, drinks too much and takes drugs. She is a parody of what an unhappy model is. Katarina has taken out her frustrations in a much more conventional route: an affair with a much younger man. There is a third much younger daughter Lova but she is too miserable and too passive to resist these hurricanes that are her female relations. 

Thrown together to celebrate Sigrid's 70th birthday on her lavish estate, the women soon start to implode as the old resentments surface. The two eldest girls are particularly destructive and vindictive.

Into this stewing pot of anger there must be a boiling point and a resolution which, as usual in family dramas, usually involves a crisis around the matriarch or patriarch. There is a climax and a rapprochement of sorts but it's stereotypical and neat. Not even a medical crisis can resolve every family crisis. In fact, it usually doesn't. 

This film made me want to revisit Ingmar Bergman's films (the film's notes briefly allude to Bergman). Now he can do Swedish angst.

TIFF 2012: Argo

Affleck as Mendez
Argo (U.S., 2012) directed by Ben Affleck, 120 minutes
Wednesday, September 12, 2012, Scotiabank 1, 9.30am

I was completely taken in by Argo much to my surprise. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as I thoroughly enjoyed Affleck’s last offering, the Oscar nominated The Town, from two years ago. The Iranian hostage situation in the late 1970s and early 1980s was but a dim memory for me and I had no knowledge of the true backstory behind the escape of the six American Embassy workers trapped in the Canadian embassy with the permission of Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The story was officially declassified by President Clinton in 1997.

Some background on the events leading up to the crisis here. The film does a great job of providing a very short synopsis of Iranian history up until the crisis.

CIA agent and "exfiltration" expert Tony Mendez (a bearded and oddly attractive Ben Affleck) was sent in to find a method to get the six out of Iran. Rejecting a hare-brained government scheme that suggested six bicycles be smuggled into the embassy to have the four men and two women ride 300 miles to the next border, he came up with a possibly equally bizarre plan. It was an elaborate ruse to suggest that a Canadian film crew was shooting a sci-fi film entitled Argo in Iran and that the six were members of that film crew who had flown in for two days to scout the location and were flying back out. 

This involved the cooperation of an established Hollywood film producer Lester Siegel (the excellent Allan Arkin) and a master make up artist (John Goodman) to establish the credibility of the film: optioning an existing script, hiring actors, creating ads for industry publications in Hollywood, organizing a public reading of the script, securing the permission of the Iranian government and various officials. Affleck has a good time skewering the labyrinthine nature of Hollywood in the process. 

The tension of the ordeal is unbearable throughout the film and even when we know the outcome (the good guys win of course), the audience remains in a constant state of terror that the ruse will be discovered.

Affleck wisely shifts the story away from Mendez (himself) and focuses a great deal of attention on the six Embassy workers (named here) – their anxieties, fears and despair between accepting the plan and trying to remain in the embassy that will soon be overrun. But Ken Taylor has a sense that a household staff member has become suspicious about the presence of the Americans (he has told her that the six are Canadian friends from abroad). 

The filmed scenes are effectively interspersed with news footage from that time. The Iranians are portrayed in an evenhanded way without shrinking from the violence and terror of that time: the public beatings and hangings in the street, the spontaneous crowds of rioting citizens, the enormous hostility towards America for harboring the Shah of Iran, the daily betrayals of those suspected of not supporting the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ambassador Taylor is seen as compassionate and brave – taking in the Americans when several embassies turned them away at the door. 

There is a harrowing last scene at the airport with the group and Mendez barely escaping the wrath of the duped Iranians. As political thrillers go, they don’t get much better than this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TIFF 2012: Passion

McAdams in a typical ooh-la-la shot
Brian DePalma’s birthday was today … TIFF CEO Piers Handling asked us to sing happy birthday to him at the Winter Garden before he came onstage to talk about his newest film Passion, a remake of the Alain Corneau thriller Crime d’amour about office politics and revenge. He seems a sweet enough man but even Handling seemed to struggle with the right adjectives to describe his work: I believe he used the words idiosyncratic and individual. I agree with that summation but that doesn’t always mean good.

The plot is too convoluted to describe so I will leave you with this very brief synopsis from "A young businesswoman (Rapace as Isabel) plots a murderous revenge after her boss and mentor (McAdams as Christine) steals her idea." Isabel is initially seduced by Christine's charm and generosity but balks at Christine's stealing of an advertising idea that is a hit with the higher ups.

DePalma has done wonderful work over a forty year career (Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, The Untouchables) and then there’s ... Scarface. Some people love Scarface (and not in an ironic way) but for me it typifies the worst of DePalma’s excesses.

Passion is described as a "baroque" thriller that wastes the energy of two immensely talented actresses Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. It’s hard to imagine the awesome Girl Who Kicked Everyone’s Butt in the Stieg Larsson inspired trilogy of movies cowering before the slender McAdams. But cower she does before McAdams’ evil manipulation and lies.

Rachel McAdams claimed afterwards that she thought she was reading for the role of the underling (that would make more sense in terms of physical type) but no … she was not.

As usual, with DePalma, there is too much of everything in this film: too much sex, too much violence, too much camp, too much emphasis on the rival women as potential lovers, too much lipstick (and gosh I love lipstick!).

The ending never comes too soon for me and we are fooled a number of times brought on by a Hitchockian crescendo of suspenseful music. Some might find this engaging. I wanted to pluck out my eyes about mid way through.

Personally my theory is that DePalma wanted to see two hot women make out. Yeah … and who could blame him I guess. 

TIFF 2012: To the Wonder

Kurylenko and Affleck

To the Wonder (U.S., 2012) by Terence Mallick, 112 minutes
Tuesday, September 11, 2012, Princess of Wales, 3p.m.

This will be a challenge. A very big challenge to review but here goes. I saw this film at the same time as two other friends saw it. Both disliked it. A great deal I believe.
I think Mallick approaches his work almost as a poet does (thanks dear friend C who also saw the film for the analogy). Here is one definition of poetry:
“A piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical … Something that arouses strong emotions because of its beauty.”

Mallick creates beautiful images … obscure images with elliptical meanings. He doesn’t seem to care if you don’t “get it” (like many poets). He creates for himself and like-minded people. He creates gorgeous images. His images of nature often have a metaphorical meaning such as the natural occurrences in Tree of Life that symbolized the beginning or the end of life.

The plot of To the Wonder? Most of the film is a long monologue from the female perspective in French. The male protagonist is near silent. I think it’s about the dissipation of love, mostly from her perspective.

Boy (Ben Affleck as Neil) meets girl (Olga Kurylenko as Marina) in France. She is gorgeous with beautiful clothes and poetic gestures (she also has a precocious daughter). She’s like a child herself: she dances in the street, runs through meadows and forests like a nymph. She seduces him, entrances him. In short, she is a beautiful fantasy – part girl-child, part love goddess. She is clothed in rich reds and gray-blues and deep purples in sumptuous fabrics. She is part of nature, primal, richly hued, moody in temperament.

They fall in love. France is beautiful, magical, mystical. It’s certainly shot that way. Gorgeous, sensuous colours, close-ups of intricate architectural detail and landscapes. The camera work is sometimes frenzied as if the lovers cannot contain themselves and their excitement.

He decides to bring her to America (which I thought was Texas based on the number of oil rigs we see but it is Oklahoma). The boy’s world is cold, sterile and likely even poisonous (does this mean that their relationship has become poisoned too by the change in locale?). They live in a treeless suburban tract surrounded by possibly unsympathetic elements in the populace. The house is barren, virtually empty, forbidding to the viewer. His job seems to be to test the soil surrounding oil rigs that largely appears to be contaminated in very poor regions. The scenario is depressing. The people appear wounded and disfigured by difficult lives.

In America, which Marina was anxious to go to, she seems to change or perhaps he sees her more clearly, as a human being, not a goddess. He sees that her feet are made of clay. She is not divine but a deeply unhappy woman who is unable to adjust to this forbidding new world. What seems enchanting in their fantasy world in France is merely annoying and childish in his old world. He appears reluctant to marry and she returns to France with her daughter.

Jane (Rachel McAdams), a past lover, enters the picture. She seems more substantial. Still beautiful, still desirable, but somehow more real, more of Neil’s world - who could be more straight forward than a person named Jane? And yet they can’t seem to connect. Perhaps too much has transpired.

Marina and Neil reunite … perhaps they both think that she will be happier if they marry but she is not. Almost in a hypnotic state, she drifts into an unlikely act of infidelity that even puzzles the viewer as it seems so illogical, so wantonly stupid.

On the periphery is a priest in crisis (a handsomely pensive Javier Bardem) who fears that he lacks the true dedication, the sincerity, to perform his work. All three characters appear to have a crisis of confidence. The young couple believe in love as does the priest ... but love of a different order.

Affleck was chosen I think for a certain quality of stoic manliness. He speaks little (which is good, he is at his best with few words), presents an iconic image of masculinity, very much in the tradition of the highly principled American loner. He is stoic, strong but gentle.

Kurylenko is beautiful, fragile, easily hurt. I think the filmmaker acknowledges that she is a paper thin construction born of fantasy and lust. She can’t withstand too much scrutiny or strife or she crumples like a paper doll.

Not every piece of art requires that it be immediately understood or liked. I think Mr. Mallick would agree. On second thought, I don’t think he cares what I or anyone else think about his film. And that’s fine too.

Monday, September 10, 2012

TIFF 2012: Free Angela Davis

Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners (U.S., 2012) directed by Shola Lynch, 101 minutes
Monday, September 10, 2012, Scotiabank 1, 2.00p

Who is Angela Davis? What was she before she became this beautiful icon on a poster or a button? My memories/knowledge of Davis are reduced to these visual images … I knew she supported the Black Panthers. I knew that she went into hiding and then was arrested by the FBI but I didn’t know or had forgotten the details. This doc serves to rectify that for those of us who were too young to remember or have forgotten this important historical period.

Throughout the film, we have the advantage of Davis, now 68, narrating the events of her own life with additional commentary from both supporters and some involved in apprehending her. She is still passionate, elegant, articulate - the viewer can easily see how people were drawn to her, even those who did not espouse Communism or might have had serious reservations about the goals of the Black Panthers (amusingly, watch the white people in crowds doing the Black Panther power salute).

Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Originally from Alabama in the south, she studied at Brandeis University and German philosophy at Frankfurt University and eventually moved back to the U.S. to assume this academic position at UCLA.

She was a radical who supported withdrawal from the Vietnam War, gay rights, prison reform, the Black Panthers … your basic right-wing conservative nightmare in Ronald Reagan's California.

The filmmaker lets the images of that time speak for themselves: photos and film of black people being beaten the streets by cops, fire hoses turned on women and children, an older lady who looks like your aunt Ginny being dragged down the street by a burly cop. It certainly must have felt like black people were under siege.

A vocal member of the Communist party and an advocate for the Soledad Brothers - three black prison inmates charged with the murder of white prison guard (which included prison advocate George Jackson) - she soon became the target of racist invective and death threats herelf. She bought a gun; actually, she bought four guns. Some of those were used in a hostage taking by a trio of Black Panthers in a courthouse in California that ended with the killing of a judge.

On August 7, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother Jonathan held up a courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center and took Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three female jurors hostage in a bid to secure the freedom of the "Soledad Brothers". It ended spectacularly - horribly and bloodily.

Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy and imprisoned. A massive worldwide campaign ensued to “free” her. The film documents the events leading to the hostage taking, the political fall out, the push to remove Davis from her academic position with California governor Ronald Reagan leading the charge and urging the regents to remove Davis. The film also documents the Angela "mania" effectively - the rallies in foreign countries in support of Davis, the T-shirts, the buttons, the music written in homage.

She was eventually acquitted in 1972 but continued to work as an activist and lecturer - a portion of her life that the doc does not explore - but disavowed her membership in the Communist party.

And she continues to persevere … the charisma, the magic is still there. She continues to inspire even if her thoughts appear more measured and voiced in less strident tones. And, happily for me, she's still got a very cool Afro do happening. 

Angela now ...

TIFF 2012: The Iceman

The Iceman (U.S., 2012) directed by Ariel Vromen, 103 minutes
Monday, September 10, 2012, 11.15am, Scotiabank 3

This film is a fictional re-enactment of the life of Richard Kuklinski, a hired killer for the Gambino family. As a Polish-American, Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) could not be initiated into the crime family as he was not of Italian descent but he served as a dutiful "soldier" nonetheless and carried out some 100 hits (some say that the number is closer to 250). 

Either due to his stone cold demeanor during hits or his method of freezing the bodies he kills to disguise the time of death, he soon acquires his nickname. The film convincingly traces a long history of violence stretching from the 1950s (murdering a man in a pool hall who insults his fiancee) to proving himself worthy enough to be a hitman (shooting a homeless man to death) in the 1960s to numerous hits in the 70s.

Early in Kuklinski’s career, Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), mob boss, taps into Kuklinki’s sociopathic tendencies that we later learn was part of a long string of violent and deadly altercations including torturing animals and schoolmates.

Perhaps what piqued the interest of the filmmaker was the seemingly normal life that Kuklinski led away from the mob. He and his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) live with their two beautiful daughters in an ideal suburban environment. The girls attend Catholic school; their dad takes them roller blading and to cozy family dinners. Kuklinksi is a loving father and husband and, to their minds, is an excellent provider and protector.

Shannon is of course immensely talented (roles as the mentally ill, truth telling John Givings in Revolutionary Road or the controlling, sleazy band manager Kim Fowley in The Runaways come to mind) and he is utterly convincing as the killer. There are also intriguing, surprising choices for supporting roles: James Franco as a sleazy mob underling with a penchant for filming underage girls; David Schwimmer sporting a Fu Manchu mustache who is a largely inept hitman and notorious blabbermouth connected to DeMeo; the usually jovial heartthrob Chris Evans as "Freezie" a particularly psychotic henchman who drives an ice cream truck; or, Stephen Dorff, as Joseph, Richie’s brother who is serving a long sentence for killing a child suggesting a Kuklinski family history of abuse and dysfunction.

When Kuklinski unravels, as he inevitably does, the family has no inkling of what this other life is. At his sentencing in the 1980s it’s the last time he sees his family (he died in prison in 2006 under somewhat suspect circumstances).

I hesitate to embrace this film somewhat … not because it isn’t good (it’s very well done for this genre) but haven’t we seen enough of this trope: the psychotic killer who has a tender side (exhibit #1: Tony Soprano and company)? Who loves his children and wants a quiet life when he’s not assassinating or torturing people? Of course, even killers have a line they won’t cross. For our “hero” it’s sparing the life of a seventeen year old girl who witnesses a murder.

I presume that I am troubled that I come to “like” or sympathize with Kuklinski despite the horrific murders. Is that enough ... to like him? We have no sense of why he is what he is. There are explicit hints of a brutal father but that doesn’t suffice (take a look at the family history - it's horrifying), a great many people have those and rarely kill. I wish time had been spent in exploring the sources of this icy resolve to kill on command at least as much time as was spent on the meticulously designed clothes and beautiful set.