Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas movies - outside and in

The Christmas holidays are a great time to see movies. And many movies open, almost with a bow tied around them, just in time for Christmas Day. That included films this year like The King’s Speech and True Grit, which opened in Windsor on the Wednesday before Christmas......So far this month I’ve seen three movies in theatres and four on DVD.....Let’s start with what I’ve seen at the local Bijou.....Natalie Portman definitely shines in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) in this psychological thriller which brought to mind What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962) the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford classic. The movie has a few turns that are even scarier than regular horror movies. The film garnered an unprecedented 12 Critics’ Choice nominations and if there’s any justice Portman should win for best actress if not for an upcoming Oscar.....Me an Angelina Jolie fan? Not. But with a weak schedule of films at the cineplex I opted for the best (or least bad) showing and saw The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others) with Johnny Depp. I actually kind of liked this flic principally because of its stylishness. It was a throwback to the spy/mystery thrillers of the 1960s and brought to mind comedy-dramas like Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) which in fact has a very similar plot. Hmm. Jolie is the Hepburn character in high fashion sitting at a Paris cafe and then travelling by train to Venice. There are some spectacular overhead shots of the canal city as well as street scenes. The only unfashionable element is Depp, who’s scruffiness looks like something the cat dragged in and makes you wonder what’s so sexy about the guy.....Meanwhile at home I watched a movie that had been sitting on the coffee table since summer, Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955) starring post-war sex kitten Martine Carol (no, I’d never heard of her either) and Peter Ustinov. The story is a tragedy about an ambitious and independent woman who ended as a circus attraction with her adventurous life mocked, a comment on the times. The film, also set among European high society, has a grandeur complete with opera halls and parties packed by stuffy swells. But maybe I’m too much a product of our times because Ophüls’s baroque filmmaking itself seemed stuffy and old-fashioned.....Then I watched Raja (Jacques Doillon, 2003). I discovered Doillon this summer at the Montreal World Film Festival and loved his Le Mariage à Trois, a farce about self-important artists. Since that time I have rented his earlier Petits Frères (1999) and now Raja. Unlike Le Mariage both these films were focussed on delinquent teens and brutality. Raja also focused on the bizarre attraction of a rich French man for a native Moroccan. Both these films seemed without redeeming merit, almost perverse, and I felt kind of dirty after watching them. I came to a conclusion. All Doillon’s films have one thing in common: humiliation.....Then it was back to the Cineplex and The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper) starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie is about England’s King George VI’s famous speech impediment at the time of his royal ascendency just as war was about to break out with Germany. Virtually everything about this movie is excellent – from the close up acting to costumes to period sets. Bring on the Oscars!.....Next was Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009) with Michael Caine and Emily Mortimore. Caine as the namesake character goes vigilante in this crime thriller, a nudge above TV fare and pretty suspenseful despite a few holes in the plot.....Finally, The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella) which won this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film and has had the second biggest box office ever in Argentina, where the film was made. It’s interesting what the Academy gives Oscars to. Academy members probably loved this film because it had the right quotient of what they consider sophistication, a beautiful foreign actress (Soledad Villamil), and a complex enough plot. But while it has some generally good scenes and a few interesting story turns it’s long and plodding and takes itself too seriously.....The holidays continue: next up at the theatre: Jim Carrey as a gay man in the comedy I Love You Phillip Morris, and True Grit, which isn’t a Western, it’s a Coen Brothers!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mad Men a little tepid

So what’s the deal with Mad Men? The acclaimed TV show, which has completed its fourth season, has taken the critical world by their short lapels aka the typical ugly men’s suits circa early 1960s. (For some reason this is inspiring a fashion trend.) In any case, I decided to rent a DVD and watch the first two episodes of the drama about Madison Avenue advertising execs in the days of the five-martini lunch when women were confined to the typing pool and otherwise non-complaining targets for male colleagues’ butt-pinching. The series has won a whopping 13 Emmys and four Golden Globes. Critics can’t control themselves, salivating when they talk about how wonderfully the show captures this particular era which seems 180 degrees from our present ever-so-politically correct one. But after watching the episodes I have to say: what’s the big deal? The storyline is built around Don Draper (John Hamm), creative director at Sterling Cooper. In fact, at least from the first two episodes – I had no desire to watch any more – the show is basically ALL about Don – his personal likes, dislikes, his ad campaign creative genius, his affairs, how he treats women especially his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Draper (January Jones). Since this series is about 1960s white collar stereotypes Draper is of course cast as a Korean War vet, hard-drinking and chain-smoking. Much has been made about the show’s authenticity in terms of office decor and especially fashions. The producers get most of this right with the best scenes set is restaurants and bars. Others scenes are passable but I wasn’t blown away. We’re also supposed to be shocked by the political incorrectness of the way people were – the condescension towards women and outright racism towards blacks. Perhaps for younger viewers who didn’t grow up in the era or haven’t seen many movies from that period this is indeed shocking. But the biggest flaw was the lack of dramatic action. Seemingly very little went on over the course of the two episodes except we learned that Don is having an affair with a Greenwich Village art director type and that he was keeping a cold emotional distance from his stunningly beautiful blonde doll-like (well, that’s the point, isn’t it?) wife. In between we get introduced to his secretary Margaret “Peggy” Olson (Elizabeth Moss) whose diffidence is mixed with a cunning sexual desire. Had the show’s plot been more dramatic or indeed edgier I may have been hooked into watching at least a few more episodes. (I realize the plot lines mentioned above have now been well developed.) As for the reputed authenticity, it’s a nice try. But I’ll take the real thing – watching the myriad period films – dramas and comedies - actually made about the advertising world in that era like Lover Come Back, Funny Face, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Sweet Smell of Success.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mark Dailey's death and the Big 8

The untimely death of Citytv’s Mark Dailey – the booming voice of Toronto’s great upstart television network – brings to mind an occasion several years ago when Dailey was in Windsor.....Dailey, who hosted the 11 pm Citytv news and also was the well-recognized voice of “Citytv everywhere” died at 57 of kidney cancer which had spread to his lungs.....Dailey has a strong connection to Windsor-Detroit. That’s because he used to be a reporter with CKLW radio in the heyday of the famous Big 8 and its more infamous 20/20 news. For those who don’t know – and I can only commiserate in your loss – 20/20 News was like nothing else you have ever heard on radio or may ever hear. It was tabloid journalism in highly-charged few-second bites, rapid-fire reporting and announcing, much of it about the gory crime that rocked the streets of the Motor City then as now.....Dailey covered those stories for the station in the early 1970s before moving up the highway to CHUM in Toronto and later to Citytv.....Dailey, a native of Youngstown Ohio, returned to Windsor in 2004 for the premiere of a documentary that captured CKLW back in its day, Michael McNamara’s Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8 (Markham Street Films). For anyone who grew up in Windsor Detroit during the late Sixties and early Seventies CKLW was the station to listen to. At a booming 50,000 watts it could be heard over a large swath of the Midwest and eastern United States. The station famously broke numerous artists’ songs – including those by Elton John, Alice Cooper and Bob Seger - and has been credited by Motown artists as being the “blackest white” radio station ever. But 20/20 News – heard at 20 minutes before and after each hour – was something else. Radio Revolution not only is a terrific return to that era – showing everything from teens cruising Woodward to the 1967 riots – but a “what are they doing now” update with interviews with many of the jocks and newsman, including Dailey, who were household names at the time....So if you haven’t seen it, please do so. Not only is Radio Revolution a great nostalgia piece about the Big 8 but it captures the essence of what it was like growing up in the twin motor cities during that unique period of cultural excitement and turbulence.