Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Cultural Roundup

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

TIFF 2014: A Little Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF 2014: Breathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF 2014: Leopardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIFF 2014: This is where I leave you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TIFF 2014: The 50 year argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scorsese and Silvers, from the second row baby!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF 2014: The Imitation Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Turing

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

TIFF 2104: Far From Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

TIFF 2014: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and a well disguised Steve Carell
Foxcatcher (U.S., 2014) directed by Bennett Miller, 133 minutes, Princess of Wales, 12p

Foxcatcher, the name of the hereditary Du Pont estate where most of the film's action takes place, is oddly prescient. Based on a traditional uppercrust sport of tracking down and killing innocent foxes with hounds, it seems an apt metaphor for the near destruction of two brothers by a delusional billionaire intent on entrapping the two men.

I knew nothing of this film or the true crime story behind it but it completely knocked me out when I saw it. It is the story of two brothers, Mark and David Schulz (both played amazingly well by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), Olympic gold winning wrestlers, who become ensnared with a disturbed Du Pont heir named John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) worth billions (the Du Ponts are ranked the 13th richest family in America with an estimated wealth of $15 billon). Du Pont had a desire to sire an Olympic winning wrestling team for the U.S. and tapped the two men to help build this dream. 

Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) both won the gold at the 1984 Olympics but Mark's life, as the film starts in 1987, is a lonely ritual of training in his brother's gym and reliving old glories that few care to remember or acknowledge. He has no parents and Dave seems to be his only family and contact.

John Du Pont invites Mark to live on his estate and to train for the U.S. team preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont also wants Dave to come but Dave wisely demurs refusing to uproot his family. 

Du Pont is clearly disturbed. My friends, eccentric doesn't begin to describe it. He loves guns and artillery (we see him trying to purchase a tank at one point in the film) and can be quite aggressive when seemingly provoked - but he is initially very generous and paternal with Mark who clearly seeks a mentor and a human connection through the older man. Du Pont is a frustrated middle-aged athlete whose mother (Vanessa Redgrave), with whom he lives, discouraged his interest in wrestling which she describes as a "low" sport as opposed to more exalted, equestrian pursuits that are her passion.

Eventually Dave (with family) is coaxed into joining Mark on the estate to build "Team Foxcatcher" (named so for the Du Pont estate) for the Olympics and train the U.S. team. Mark unknowingly plays a dangerous game trying to protect his younger brother from Du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior but ultimately pays the price for defying Du Pont.

I hate to point the finger at mommy (and I dislike this cliched explanation) but the film implies much of Du Pont's rage and disappointment was suppressed due to her controlling and disapproving behavior. Once mommy dies and is no longer the barrier to his thwarted ambitions, Dave appears to come between Mark and Du Pont, and Dave feels the deadly wrath of the deluded billionaire.

Carell is near unrecognizable here as an actor - his comic mannerisms are completely squelched by the elderly mortician like demeanor of the Du Pont character and his face effectively masked in prosthetics that alter his appearance tremendously. It's a very affecting performance. 

Tatum, who can be charmingly winning and heroic in most roles, transforms into a brooding, menacing, near wordless hulk concealing his feelings of abandonment and hurt at what life has thrown his way. Excellent performances by all. Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote), Tatum, Carrell and Ruffalo were all gracious and funny at the Q&A after the screening. Even I could see that from the second to last row of the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Caterina Edwards takes the challenge!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                My colleague and friend Caterina Edwards has taken the four question challenge poised to writers - happy to post her responses here!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Four Questions:

I have been tagged by Michelle Alfano, author of the novel Made Up of Arias and blogger extraordinaire, for the writer’s process blogging tour. So although I don’t usually blog, here goes: 

What am I working on? 

I am halfway through a personal essay on World War I. I like a challenge, but I am, of course, out-of-my depth.

I recently finished a final edit of my new novel The Sicilian Wife, which will be published in the spring of 2015. It is my first and maybe my last literary mystery. When I began the book, I intended to challenge most of the conventions of the whodunit formula. I certainly didn’t intend to name the culprit. I wanted the readers to figure the solution out for themselves. With each new draft I was prodded – and gradually convinced – to shape a more conventional narrative, or at least, a proper conclusion. I sacrificed most of my lyrical darlings, but the result has more suspense and stronger characters than my usual.

I love trying new genres. A few years ago, I wrote a radio play and explored how to tell a story only using sound. Now I am concentrating on the visual: shaping a screenplay with my friend Mar’ce Merrell. 

Why do I write what I do? 

As long as I can remember, I told myself stories. I tuned out the world and let my imagination loose. Eventually, the purpose of my stories changed – at least partly.  I write not to hold off the world but to enter and to explore it. The process of writing is a method of thought and of coming to understanding.  My characters are often caught between two cultures, migratory, displaced, uncertain in their identity.  I don’t choose these characters: they choose me. Or that is how it feels. My father was English, my mother Italian. Growing up in two cultures and two languages, made me suspicious of a single point of view or a dominant narrative. I always end up with at least two types of narratives in my books. My nonfiction book Finding Rosa interwove autobiography, biography, history, and travel writing, as well as explanations of Alzheimer’s biology and effects. The Sicilian Wife integrates elements of a police procedural, crime fiction, folk tales, classical allusions, and contemporary Italian history. 

How does my work differ from others in the same genre? 

Hard to say since I don’t stick to one genre.  I don’t claim that I am unusually original. Each of us who writes from her or his heart will create distinct works, because we are individuals. I like playing with genres and forms, imposing limits and challenging them.  Working within limits sparks energy and creativity. In all my writing I try to move inward and outward, finding the connections between here and there, emotions and ideas, the personal and the political, memory and history, the individual and society. 

How does my writing process work? 

It depends on what I’m working on. The nonfiction book on my mother started with an essay about my experience taking care of her once she became demented. The material ended up at about a halfway point in the book.  I did tons of research, then I started at what I thought would be the beginning and wrote a hundred pages. I tossed them when I realized I needed a through line.

The literary mystery was inspired by a story I heard years and years ago. I knew the end and had to figure out how to get my characters to that point. But in the writing and rewriting – this book took years ­ - I found the original ending, which I had thought was the point of the book, didn’t work.  So revision, revision, revision. One of the most difficult things for me is finding the right rhythm for the work, managing to weave in digressions while keeping the reader hooked.

Each time I write a book I am feeling my way, learning what shape it needs to take. Uncertainty and discovery make the process worthwhile.

In turn, I tag Genni Gunn for the next stop in the Great Blog Tour.

Monday, September 8, 2014

TIFF 2014: Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner
Mr. Turner (U.K., 2014) directed by Mike Leigh, 149 minutes, VISA Screening Room, Elgin Theatre, 5.45p

Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance as the painter J.M.W. Turner, the British landscape painter. Turner is widely seen as a precursor to the French Impressionists. However, watching this film was akin to watching the paint dry on one of his landscapes.

Spall portrays him as a grunting, anti-social gargoyle who abandons wife and daughters to paint, diddles the maid but paints beautiful, ethereal mostly marine landscapes. The performance has been lauded but I found it profoundly uncomfortable watching his obnoxious behavior under the guise of being an artist first - file it under portrayals of the petty tyranny of a minor genius of the form. 

Leigh's challenges in trying to document Turner's life is formidable  - as is often the case with an artist. The film is too long and often meandering to my mind. It's difficult to document the actual physical production of art - even visual art - so we must rely on the vicissitudes of his life to enliven the narrative which are unpleasant to watch and to justify. 

Director Mike Leigh at the screening
Turner is described as "single-minded in his focus on his art and career" in the TIFF synopsis which, I think, is a euphemism for being a callous husband and father (he routinely denied having any children), an exploiter of his maid servant Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson)
and a childish, selfish boor with his new mistress Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey). Both servant and family deferred to his talent - including an elderly father who mixed his paints and bought his supplies.

Leigh appears to have shot the film in the very locations where Turner painted and they are admittedly uniformly beautiful, the colours of the scenery is breathtaking, but beauty doesn't suffice here. 

Leigh tries to lighten the mood with depictions of artistic scuffles at the Royal Academy, founded in 1768 and considerd the arbiter of taste in the Western canon, and through comic turns by an actor portraying John Ruskin but these scenes feel tacked on and out of place. 

The joke of it that the husband ordered the tickets for me as I love Turner's work and he thought I would enjoy it. My husband, I adore you for it, but this, I do not. 

Turner's Dewy Morning, 1810

Sunday, September 7, 2014

TIFF 2014: The Riot Club

Sam Claflin as Alistair
The Riot Club (UK, 2014) directed by Lone Scherfig, 106 minutes, Visa Screening Room at the Elgin, 11.30a

If you hate the British, public school educated elite ... if you assume them to be a bunch of right-wing, elitist, dangerous minded snobs ... this is the film for you. When two Oxford freshmen are tapped to join Oxford’s elite Riot Club, chaos ensues. The Riot Club is a secret society of ten wealthy Oxford university men; their goal is indulgence and debauchery and the tradition stretches back hundreds of years. The club is loosely based on the Bullingdon Club whose past members included Edward VIII, current British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

We are many years away from one of Scherfig's earlier offerings entitled Italian for Beginners (2000) which was influenced by the avant-garde Dogme film movement in Denmark - its precepts include (among many others) a hand held camera, uncredited director, no optical tricks, no music. And this rule stands out: "The film must not contain superficial action" such as a murder. The dictates of the movement now sound as fussy and persnickety as the meeting of a temperance group.

The images in The Riot Club are lush and sensuous; Oxford University is beautifully shot; the actors uniformly youthful and attractive. When a freshman stands on the roof of a 

building and looks out on the campus with pride and exaltation, one feels her sense of joy and wonder.

Miles (Max Irons, son of British actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusak) has the "right"pedigree and went to the "right" schools but has a soft spot for Lauren (Holliday Grainger), a highly intelligent girl from the north of England who is the first in her family to reach such an elite institution. He courts her in the first few weeks of university. 

He is made the tutorial partner of Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin), a surly, right wing scion of a very well connected family whose brother and father both went to Oxford. One knows immediately who you are dealing with when Alistar's father tried to bully the university into letting Alistair have his old room at Oxford that the father and older brother once occupied. That room is graciously relinquished by Miles.

After the ritual hazing - which is as disgusting and as offensive as you can imagine - the Riot Club boys plan a night of excess at a distant pub (as they have been banned from many establishments nearer for good reason, also a trademark of the original Bullingdon Club). 

Alcohol, cocaine and the promise of sex, consensual or otherwise, becomes a potent mix and Miles is pushed to the limit regarding his moral boundaries. To say more would ruin the plot of the film. Let us just say that the depths of their cruelty and ugly behavior is thoroughly believable and depicted with razor sharp intensity by director Scherfig. 

The film stayed with me but I was discomfited by the "posh" stereotypes - granted with such a large cast and limited time it would be difficult to flesh out specific types. Scherig uses a quick visual shorthand to distinguish them and that many would easily recognize - the effeminate twits; the closeted gay aristocrat; the spoiled, handsome brat; the heartless right wing hardass; the weak, scheming manipulator; the lone ethnic outsider permitted in; the innocent ... not one among them demonstrates compassion or even just plan common sense aside from Miles. 

We've seen the cliches and they likely represent very real types - but what about an image fleshed out in such a manner that we question our presumptions about the upper crust and those who also yearn to be them?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

TIFF 2014: Gomorrah

Gomorrah (Italy, 2014) directed by Stefano Sollima, 120 minutes, Scotiabank 1, 6.00p

Our first film at TIFF! What a great way to start ...

Tonight we saw the first two episodes of a twelve-part television series based on the eponymously named expose by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano (not to be confused with the 2008 feature film by Matteo Garrone that premiered at TIFF in 2008). It exposes the Camorra in Napoli, better known as the the Neapolitan mafia. Variety described the series as Italy's answer to The Wire.

Gomorrah is miles away from it's first iteration - in tone, look and feel. It is slick, polished, frighteningly graphic in its depiction of these low rent gangsters operating under one Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) who is at war with rival gangs in Napoli. Savastano resembles not the stereotypically imagined mafia don of a hundred bad gangster movies but, possibly more frighteningly, a particularly taciturn college professor on a very bad day. Banal, but vicious and evil nonetheless. Savastano is the sort of man who would bludgeon one of his men to death on the slightest whiff of possible treachery.  

Savastano is plagued by doubts about the capabilities of his pudgy, inept son Gennaro known as Genny (Salvatore Esposito) who desires power and prestige but lacks the ruthlessness and brains to retain the respect of his father's men.

Savastano then turns to for leadership to Ciro (Marco D'Amore), a handsome, highly intelligent thug who is nicknamed The Immortal for his uncanny ability to evade death despite the many attempts on his life by rival factions. He wants Ciro to toughen up Gennaro to prepare him for possible succession. Savastano has a gloomy premonition, fed by a paid source, that he will soon be betrayed by one of his men.

TIFF described the series as "Shakespearean in its dimension and in its archetypes" citing Savastano as the aging king, Genny as the weak heir, and mafia wife Imma (Maria Pia Calzone) as the scheming Lady MacBeth figure ... it has that and more. 

The Gomorrah in Italy is, as the director Stefano Sollima said at the screening, a byproduct of capitalism. It is, is it not, generally the dispossessed, the poor, the disadvantaged, and yes the sociopathic too, who turn to crime as a means of gaining wealth, women, prestige? All the "good" things that successful capitalism is meant to bring? It most certainly is. 

And another point that Sollima made: the mafia isn't an Italian phenomenon. It's a human phenomenon.  

Not to be missed: Roberto Saviano's non-fiction book by the same name. You may read a review of it here in a post I called My Mafia, Myself. 
Ciro (D'Amore) and Gennaro (Esposito)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Prison Noir

Prison Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Akashic Books, 2014) 254 pages

There is an intensity and melancholy that shines through these fifteen short stories, all written by prison inmates incarcerated throughout the U.S., and edited by the inestimable Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are accompanied by a listing of where the inmate is interned, complete with a map showing where the prisons are.

Noir is a passion of mine, in film and literature, but these woeful tales of prison life have the added piquancy of being written by men and women who have seen (and experienced) some extraordinarily frightening things before entering prison and while incarcerated. I can only assume this when one views the length of their sentencing, for some as long as 25 years. I think one can assume the crimes that landed them there are serious.

The collection leads with Al Webber's struggle with his new "cellie" or cellmate (Christopher M. Stephen's short story "Shuffle"). Long an inhabitant of solitary confinement, Al is angered and mystified by his new cellmate. We, the readers, are as alarmed as Al when we learn the cellmate's true identity.

The inmate in Eric Boyd's "Trap" frees a mouse from a trap on a work detail and one can't help empathizing with both as the prisoner tenderly washes then frees the mouse from his confinement. Boyd's photograph disturbingly resembles any, or every, aspiring young writer.

As a caregiver, Ali, a practicing Muslim, euthanizes (some might argue murders) ailing and dying prisoners in order that they might deliver his plea for freedom to Allah when they reach paradise (“A Message in the Breath of Allah” by Ali F. Sareini). In the end, Ali must deliver the message in person.

One can't help imagining the fiction emulating fact - the foreign-born teenager who misunderstands when he will be released thinking he will leave prison at 22 rather than serving 22 years for drug offenses ("Immigrant Song" by Marco Verdoni); a particularly attractive young prisoner who becomes the target of lust and violence ("Angel Eyes" by Andre White); the Green River serial killer's "autograph" is stolen to be sold on eBay by a fellow prisoner ("How eBay nearly killed Gary Bridgway" by Timothy Pauley); and, a serial killer of killers in prison who manages to kill dozens if not hundreds of prisoners ("3 Block from Hell" by Bryan K. Palmer).

Most compelling, and disturbing, for me is Linda Michelle Marquardt's "Milk and Tea" where an inmate serving a sentence for killing her abusive husband recounts her troubled history and quietly plots the poisoning of her annoying cellmate, nicknamed American Idol for her incessant religious singing.

Of course the ethical issues surrounding the inmates writing arises - some might argue they do not have a right to write and be published. Should they be compensated for their writing or only if they do not write about the crime they committed? Are prisoners entitled to free expression or is this another right they lose once they commit a crime and are imprisoned for it like losing the right to vote (felony disenfranchisement)?

Another concern comes to mind ... should I, as the reader, know the nature of the crime committed by the writer (I couldn't help wondering). But then would I make that demand of another writer - to know his or her personal history before I read their work? No, I wouldn't. I would be curious but I would have no right to know.

Lastly, I can't help contrasting these pieces with another recent short story collection by James Franco I read (yes, that James Franco). The hapless Palo Alto kids in his eponymously named collection are equally violent, careless, perhaps even doomed, yet their middle class sheen and youth somehow make them sexier, less menacing, and therefore somehow less culpable than the protagonists depicted here in Prison Noir.