Monday, September 30, 2013

September Cultural Roundup

Some ladies of The Group ...
All this talk of Love by Christopher Castellani (review)
Sumptuary Laws by Nyla Matuk
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
   by Michael Gorra
The Group by Mary McCarthy (review)


Hateship, Loveship (U.S., 2013) (review)
The Fifth Estate (U.S., 2013) (review)
Bad Hair (Venezuela, 2013) (review)
Those Happy Years (Italy, 2013) (review)
Violette (France, 2013) (review)
Gabrielle (Canada, 2013) (review)
Kill Your Darlings (U.S., 2013) (review)
Ain't Misbehavin' (France, 2013) (review)
How Strange to be called Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini (Italy, 2013) (review)
Sex, Drugs and Taxation (Denmark, 2013) (review)
Hotell (Sweden/Denmark, 2013) (review) (review)
This is 40 (U.S., 2012)
Enough Said (U.S., 2013)

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Rajapaksa Stories

The Rajapaksa Stories by Koom Kankesan (Lyricalmyrical Books, 2013) 179 pages

One cannot help liking the beleaguered fictional Mahinda Rajapaksa (a character based in name, if not reality, on the real life President of Sri Lanka, scion of a prominent political Sri Lankan family, multi-term President, de-facto Bond villain to his people, and eventually, the somewhat reluctant friend to our very own mayor Rob Ford whom he encounters on a bizarre thrill ride through downtown Toronto. 

Quirky, sexist, decadent, sex-obsessed, self-regarding, self-flagellating, the author still cleverly manages to garner great sympathy for our hapless hero Rajapaksa. 

Obsessed by cinematic gangsters and images of troubled boxers (Mahinda adores both the characters of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the character of Jake LaMotta as portrayed by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull and James Bond); failed film actor prone to nocturnal emissions turned politician; wrestler of decrepit tigers; persecutor of yet another type of tiger - the indefatigable Tamil Tigers - and inadvertent cyber-lover of his own brother Dudley (yes, you read that correctly). Rajapaksa wears many masks and lurches from one disaster to the next in this comic novel. 

Perhaps he is saved in our estimation by his guilty conscience, his seeming innocence and the frequency with which he is humiliated by desired (and unrequited) objects of his lust, his incompetent and corrupt brothers whom he employs or by his rivals. Early on he reveals to the reader that he is plagued by dreams of four vicious tongued aunties – each more philistine and opinionated than the last. Is there anything more formidable in South Asian culture than a disapproving auntie? In a dream, one auntie recalls with horror a visit to London, England to visit her daughter where she witnesses a lunatic screaming about Jane Austen, of all things, on the street. The sight disturbs (and baffles) her.

 Canadian readers will be most interested in Rajapaksa’s encounters with Rob Ford in the last third of the novel. Kankesan’s seemingly prophetic powers truly astound depicting a pot-smoking, cyclist abusing, chick-cruising Ford in a full out carnival ride of frat boy hijinks with Rajapaksa playing Robin to his demented Batman.

Rajapaksa had been trying to elude a pack of karate-chopping eight year old Tamil "terrorists" when he escapes into Ford's SUV at a stoplight (just part of a little plan to co-opt of portion of Scarborough where many Tamils live). It is worth the price of the ticket merely to watch the fictional Rob Ford carve his and Rajapaksa's name into a tree like the BFFs they come to be or to witness them break into the fictional city councilor Adam Vaughan’s office (the Mayor’s supposed nemesis in the book) and steal his typewriter for absolutely no reason at all – except in a sly homage to one of the writer’s favourite films The 400 Blows. 

But the satiric humour is not alienating; feelings of compassion for our troubled Mayor (and for Rajapaksa) oddly persist in the reader. Kankesan’s writing generates both laughter and a grudging compassion, a treasured combination of talents. 

Interspersed with the stories are mouthwatering recipes of Sri Lankan dishes, conveniently described by Rajapaksa’s dead mother (a phenomenon never really explained but no matter) and, inexplicably, a cadre of Tamil Tigers. 

If I had any criticisms, it would be that the average (and largely ignorant) Westerner is unaware of the importance of the Tamils’ struggle in Sri Lanka, the distinction between Sinhalese and Tamil, the Tamils' history within Sri Lanka. A brief historical note interwoven into the text likely would suffice in explaining the role they have played in Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa family’s struggle to remove them. 

Originally published on on August 6, 2013  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

TIFF 2013: Hotell

Alicia Vikander
Hotell (Sweden, 2013) directed by Lisa Langseth, 99 minutes, TIFF BellLightbox 1, 11.45a

Girl .... the Scandinavians are dark ... listed as a comedy drama in the programme book I kept wondering nervously when the comedy part would kick in with this film.

Erika (Alicia Vikander whom you may recognize from A Royal Affair) is a beautiful. elegantly dressed perfectionist. She appears to have the ideal life: a wonderful husband, a beautiful home, a great job. She is expecting her first child - a boy. We can tell that Erika is accustomed to having things exactly her way - from the way she carefully arranges the photos in the yet to be inhabited bedroom of the baby to the Cesarean section planned two weeks before the birth date. 

Unfortunately, Erika must deliver two weeks early under traumatic circumstances and the little boy is born with likely brain damage due to temporary asphyxiation. This understandably plunges her into a deep depression. She is unable to see the child, much less hold him and comfort him.

Erika begins attending group therapy but is virtually silent during the many sessions that she attends. The only thing that engages her is an item she remembers from the news where a woman comments that she sees herself as a hotel where she can compartmentalize feelings and states of mind. Four fellow group members excitedly concur and then Erika offers to bring them to a hotel for a night to reflect and work on their problems.

And what a group she assembles ...  Rikard (the exceptional David Dencik) obsessed with his mother, torture and Mayan culture; Ann Sophie (Mira Eklund), terrified of simple every day encounters; and lonely, middle-aged Pernilla (Anna Bjelkerud), who wishes nothing more than to have sex with a married man; and, mysterious Peter who harbours his own secrets.

The group tries to accommodate all of their quirks and desires - traveling from hotel to hotel with Erika's husband thinking she is at some sort of week long therapy session. Of course the denouement comes and when it is does it's both hilarious and shocking ... and plumb in the middle of a wedding party to boot.

Friday, September 13, 2013

TIFF 2013: Sex, Drugs & Taxation

Sex, Drugs & Taxation (Denmark, 2013) directed by Christopher Boe, 110 minutes, Scotiabank, 12p

Based on true events in Denmark, I said to my film going friend K, whom I accompanied to this screening, that you really couldn't have made this story up.

In 1960s Denmark, playboy millionaire Simon Spies (Pilou Asbaek) and tax lawyer Mogens Glistrup (Nicolas Bro) conspire to "revolutionize" the travel industry where Spies has made his fortune. Glistrup has a wider agenda - a political and societal one - the virtual elimination of income tax.

Spies, whose beard and sexual antics remind one of a very unappealing combination of Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner, was lauded as a sexual hedonist and travel innovator who created Denmark's first discount airline.

Glistrup who later went to prison for tax evasion, entered politics and faced charges of racism for his anti-immigration views paints a more complex and tragic figure.
TIFF describes this as "a tragedy with tax laws and copious amounts of booze and LSD". True. However, although this is a story worth telling, cinematically, these two present particularly repellent images – from Spies inviting the press to watch him grade potential girlfriends, have them strip and then promptly penetrate them before an oddly compliant crowd to Glistrup’s Ayn Rand-like fanaticism regarding the rights of the individual and disregard for the emotional welfare of his family.
As a film goer, there is little emotional resolution … not even the image of Spies warding off a gorilla with his mighty penis can assuage my critical assessment. And that’s saying something. 

TIFF 2013: How strange to be called Federico: Scola narrates Fellini

Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico (How strange to be called Federico: Scola narrates Fellini) (Italy, 2013) directed by Ettore Scola, Jackman Hall, 9.30a

Many decades before Felliniesque became an adjective, Italian director Ettore Scola once worked at Marc'Aurelio, a satiric newspaper in the 1940s where Fellini joyfully toiled, under the watchful eyes of the Fascist government, before writing scripts for vaudeville and then movies - La strada, La Dolce Vita8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord - among other gems. 

This autumn to marks the 20th anniversary of Fellini's death and Scola, a longtime friend recreates the life of the young Fellini, combining news footage, archival film footage, excerpts from Fellini's films and personal anecdotes, shot primarily in the renowned Cinecittà's  Studio 5. 

Scola re-creates a series of backdrops from their shared past - the offices of Marc’ Aurelio, the Cinquecento Square, the bar where the pair would meet and talk through the night, the black Lincoln that Fellini drove through Rome when he struggled with bouts of insomnia. Young actors play the roles of Fellini, Scola and Fellini's favourite leading man/alter ego Marcello Mastroianni. The men share philosophies, cruise, admire the streetwalkers of Rome, drink, fantasize ...

In a clever last scene, Scola weaves archival footage of Fellini's funeral which was held in  the Cinecittà's  Studio with a final image of an imagined sure-footed sly escape by the hatted, red-scarfed Fellini escaping two military officers to join an abandoned carnival set where he solemnly rides a kiddy car on a merry-go-round. Cue the rousing montage of all the weird, surreal and beautiful circus, parade and carnival images of his films ...

It caused a lump in my throat to see all those scenes together. And made me want to see his films all over again. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

TIFF 2013: Ain't Misbehavin'

Ain't Misbehavin' (France, 2013) directed by Marcel Ophuls, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 12.30p

Before the film starts and Marcel Ophuls is introduced to the audience, we know we are in the presence of a rascal ... a highly intelligent, charismatic rascal with an impeccable lineage. An accomplished filmmaker in his own right and the son of Max Ophuls, Marcel Ophuls, now 85, has produced a number of outstanding documentaries before this one - the most memorable being The Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour opus originally slated for French TV and first brought to my attention (and many people of my generation) by Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

Exile and escape from Germany during the war after an idyllic childhood ... forming friendships or rubbing shoulders with filmmakers Francois Truffaut (he asks Truffaut's wife if Truffaut slept with Ophuls' wife Regine, she thinks not), Jacques Rivette, Preston Sturges (a selfish egoist), Costas Gravas, Michelangelo Antonioni (what a brave man he is to bore people so), documentarian Frederick Wiseman (a lifelong friend), Volker Schlondorff (a good friend) ... taking advice from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (he hated Germans) ... mingling with actresses Jeanne Moreau (a good friend), clubbing with Dietrich in a "dyke bar" (tempting, but too "old" to sleep with he decides) ... a roll call of film talent and royalty.

Ophuls at the Q&A
My favourite line when asked about younger German directors he has known: "I ... don't ... like ... Fassbinder." Worth the price of admission if only for the anecdotes and snippets of classic movies Ophuls loves. 

Ophuls tells not only his story but the story of his father Max Ophuls' life and filmography interweaving his own, his father's films and film favourites. Other films by the younger Ophuls explored the life of the Nazi Klaus Barbie, Northern Ireland's "Troubles", Germany's reunification, and, Yugoslavia's disintegration.

But it is not all accolades and fond anecdotes. Ophuls hints at domestic discord and possible violence, casually mentions his father's philandering,  the resistance of the French to the airing of The Sorrow of the Pity where he maintains that in the 1970s the French wanted to be painted all as resistors, none of whom collaborated during the war.

Lively, entertaining, intelligent, seductive, sometimes immodest but delightfully so ... He says he is done with documentaries. I hope that's not so. Bravo sir.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

TIFF 2013: Gabrielle

Sisters Sophie & Gabrielle 
(Désormeaux-Poulin & Marion-Rivard)
Gabrielle (Canada, 2013) directed by Louise Archambault, 104 minutes, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 9a
Gabrielle is a film about a developmentally challenged young woman's desire to be free, to be independent and that includes the right to sexual freedom and to live on her own.

Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard who is in fact developmentally challenged) lives in a group home and sings in a choir for developmentally challenged adults. She is in love with Martin (Alexandre Landry) and the couple are attracted to each other physically and emotionally. Gabrielle's sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is on the cusp of seeking her own independence and will soon leave for India to join her partner but fears the effect that this will have on Gabrielle. There is a mother on the scene but she is somewhat removed from Gabrielle's life. The responsibility rests with Sophie.

The film raises some thorny issues about the rights of the disabled to engage in sexual activity with other consenting adults - should precautions be taken? Is this fair to the individual to impose birth control means? How far should her independence extend? What is society's responsibility in this issue?

When Martin's mother asks if Gabrielle is "fixed", Sophie ferociously asks if Martin has had a vasectomy. Why Gabrielle but not Martin she wants to know? But, sadly, the repercussions for Gabrielle are more dire, of great consequence, and the filmmaker eludes that thorny issue instead focusing on the lovely and touching relationship between the two. You can see the chemistry between the two here

Marion-Rivard is joyous in the role, exuding a gentle radiance that is impossible to dislike. Landry, an actor who does not have a disability, is convincing, utterly charming, in this role. The audience roots for the two lovers but one cannot but walk away with the anxieties that Martin's mother expressed: what will become of the two if left to their own devices and wishes? What is best for them?

I think I disappointed my filmgoing friend with my hesitant response after the film ... I just kept thinking how I would handle this as a mother of a developmentally challenged young adult (boring, I know, but the issue needled me). The answer is not easy and I think the filmmaker skirted it by presenting the two as sort of star-crossed lovers whose rights were being trampled. It's more complicated than that and I think the director knows that. 

TIFF 2013: Kill Your Darlings

Radcliffe and DeHana as Ginsberg and Carr
Kill Your Darlings (2013) directed by John Krokidas, 100 minutes, VISA Screening Room, 2.30p

The murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in 1944 has always fascinated followers of the Beats almost as much as Carr seemed to entrance the poets and writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. This first time director John Krokidas has hit all the right notes in trying to capture the heady times in the 1940s Manhattan before Kammerer's death. 

Krokidas spoke after the film of this being a ten year old dream, first conceived when he was a university student himself. Charming, self-effacing and funny, it was intriguing to hear how as a gay teen he felt alienated and fearful of coming out in his Connecticut hometown and he was inspired by Ginsberg's poetic honesty and passion.

Here John Krokidas succeeds beautifully in exploring the still closeted Ginsberg's intense feelings for Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) that he dare not act on. Ginsberg (an amazingly affective Daniel Radcliffe) is a not particularly affluent but highly intelligent teenager from Paterson, NJ whose father is a well respected poet Louis Ginsberg (David Cross) and whose mother Naomi Ginsberg is mentally ill (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and suffers from paranoid delusions that her husband is spying on her and trying to keep her trapped in the house.

The film is beautiful to behold and vividly evocative of the wonder Ginsberg must have felt in entering this new world - some of it sordid, some of it ugly - all of it new, all of it exciting. 

Allen escapes to Columbia University and becomes ensnared by the emotionally manipulative Lucien. Lucien has his own issues - stalked by David Kammerer (Michael C.Hall), an older gay man, since his teens. Kammerer follows the boy from city to city as his frantic mother tries to remove him from Kammerer's influence. Allen soon comes to know Kerouac (Jack Huston), a recently released as a seaman in WWII and aspiring writer, and Burroughs, a bizarre if talented fellow student. 

This somewhat unholy trio introduces the eager Ginsberg to jazz, the West Village, Christopher St. (where his new Columbia roommate cheerily tells him "all the fairies go"), the work of Henry Miller, racially integrated speakeasies and hallucinogenic drugs.

Not only is there a sexual awakening but a new way of viewing poetry, art, literature encapsulated by a movement they describe as "New Vision". Ginsberg challenges a Columbia professor on his definition of art and literature. Fuelled by bennies or lust or freedom, he forges a new path ... a path that might bewilder some but enraptures others, others that know what it means to feel passion and rebellion and love, sometimes unrequited, but love nonetheless.

The film begins and ends with the murder of Kammerer. He was stabbed with a pen knife, bound and thrown still alive into Hudson River by Carr, for, allegedly, his predatory behavior towards Carr. Ginsberg is expelled for a fiction piece based on the murder that is deemed smutty and inappropriate by the university; Lucien goes to prison (he served less than two years for the murder); Kerouac enters another kind of prison, a marriage he doesn't want in exchange for being bailed out by his girlfriends' parents when he is accused of being an accessory to the murder. 

The old gang breaks up ... for a while ... but the legend lives on.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. ~ Arthur Quiller-Couch
Director Krokidas at the Q&A