Sunday, December 30, 2012

Joachim Trier's young intellectuals

My favourite film at this year’s Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) was Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st. I had a chance last week to watch Trier’s first full length feature (2006) Reprise, which also starred Anders Danielsen Lie in the lead. The film is equally as good as Oslo, August 31st. Both films deal with the young, hip intellectual community in Oslo. Both deal with the lead characters’ existential yearnings. In Oslo, August 31st it’s Anders’s (character by same name) quest to reintegrate into society - or even into his revered literary subculture – after spending months in a drug rehab centre. In Reprise, it’s Lie’s Philip and Espen Klouman-Høiner’s Erik as best friends who also seek immortality (if only in the minds of a select critical few) with their first and subsequent novels. Trier’s films are marked by their frenetic pace and quick cuts, backward and forward movements in time, with an electronica soundtrack. I can’t think of any American films to compare them with. There are innumerable “slacker” films, which are almost universally about depressed characters going nowhere in movies that technically feel the same way. Trier’s films are not about slackers. If anything they’re about young intellectuals who have something to say, and their friends and lovers who will often throw it right back in their faces, with the speech mostly making points about their social milieu and the greater world around. The acting is brilliant, the writing is brilliant, and let’s hope Trier sticks around for a long, long time.

Wow, this movie Silver Linings Playbook is really the critics’ meow. The Detroit Film Critics Society chose the David O. Russell romantic comedy drama about two mentally disturbed people who fall in love, as its best film of 2012. And Kurt Loder waxed eloquently about same on last week’s Dennis Miller show. If you remember from my Dec. 3 post I walked out on this gruelling high pitched emotional storyline-on-speed which, who knows, the characters may have also been on. I guess it simply grated on my more gentle sensibilities. Robert De Niro also draws praise in a passable role as a working class dad in the Philly version of Archie Bunker’s Queens, sans  bigotry but how 'bout them Eagles?

But not to be missed is Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, which has to be one of the best costume dramas ever set to the screen. The settings and costumes are extraordinarily rich and detailed. The overall movie, seemingly shot on stage, doesn’t feel that way as props are constantly moved and refitted and seemingly blown apart by the story's reality. The choreography is amazing and the movie probably worth seeing for that alone. This movie is touching on masterpiece material.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Two L. A. films

Two iconic movies of L.A. One is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The other is Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future Fame). Both were rather iconic in their times, perhaps still so. Chinatown is widely seen as a Polanski masterpiece and perhaps his greatest film. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is unique because not only does it combine cartoons with regular actors and sets but its cast of cartoons - or “toons” – act as independent entities, another order of being that interact with humans....Both movies deal with classic noirish type PI’s (Nicholson as Jake Gittes and Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant). While Chinatown is set in the 1930s Who Framed is set in the late 1940s. But both rise above simple personal or crime mystery genre and centre on public corruption, pointing their fingers squarely at land developers for their nefarious ways. In Chinatown, it’s all about who want to divert precious water in bone dry southern California from the public to private use. In Roger Rabbit it’s about the conspiracy of a transportation conglomerate, known as Cloverleaf (get it?) to uproot the city’s once famous fleet of streetcars and replace them with freeways, on which cars and buses can move to their congested hearts’ content, though the plan is hardly sold that way. This parallels a true story where National City Lines – a corporate group including GM and Firestone Tires – conspired to get rid of LA’s Red Cars, considered the “best public transportation system in the world” as Valiant, a non-car owner, exclaims. Of course the freeway would be put right smack through the middle of Toontown, home of – who else? – the toons….For me, Chinatown works because it is superbly directed – the scenes easily flow, the young Nicholson is great (but when hasn’t he been?) and of course there is the romantic magic between his character and Dunaway’s (Evelyn Cross Mulwray). Legendary director and actor John Huston plays Dunaway’s father, the corrupt Noah Cross. Even Polanski has more than a cameo as a rather mean little man.

I can’t help but remark on the fact Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – and its extreme violence – is opening on Christmas Day. Just seems a bit jarring, doesn’t it? Reminds you of sugar plum fairies, no? Not quite Bing Crosby’s White Christmas or Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life, if you get my (lack of snow) drift. The other thing that bugs me about the media hype surrounding Django is that there has been no real linkage between this type of admittedly extremely violent film (a parody – with Tarantino everything’s a parody - of the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s) and the culture of violence that allegedly may have had a hand in events like the recent massacre of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. In an earlier era a movie like this wouldn’t have even opened so soon after such an event, let alone on Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Any Day Now will finally come

Was it almost 35 years ago? Apparently so, when you subtract 2012 from 1979. Were gay people ever really treated that badly? For me, the 70s kind of represented the coming out of gay culture, reaching a crescendo only to be felled a few years later by the onslaught of AIDS. But while the disco culture and performers like Donna Summer and the Village People seemed to define the gayness of the very late 70s, when it came to the law it was still antediluvian. As Any Day Now (Travis Fine - Girl, Interrupted 1999), which opens Friday at the Main Art - and based on a true story - shows, gay people were essentially treated the same way that blacks pre-Civil Rights era, were. Discrimination was rampant and the law was anything but on their side. This story is about a drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and an attorney Paul (Garret Dillahunt) who meet, fall in love, and by sheer coincidence, almost immediately find themselves in de facto custody of a drug addict neighbor’s Down Syndrome child, Marco (Isaac Leyva). The mother is thrown in jail and Rudy and Paul apply to the court for legal adoption. Their fight against discriminatory law - which viewed their responsibility as parents several rungs lower than their sexuality - is the central part of this story. The film's performances are all good including such supporting roles as Frances Fisher as Judge Meyerson and Don Franklin as appeal attorney Lonnie Washington, who, with salty language, tells the couple that while they may have lost one battle "it doesn't mean we stop fighting for it (adoption) as a right." It might seem contradictory given the sharp social issues in this film but in many ways I found this a gentle story, because it portrayed Rudy and Paul's relationship - and care for Marco - in such a loving and supportive light. Rudy's confrontational personality only masked a nurturing quality which sought love and decency. This is underlined by the sweet melancholy sound of Joey Newman's original piano score. You might even shed a tear or two watching this movie.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Doubt glaciers are retreating? Check this out

James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), for proponents of the theory of global warming, is definitive proof that the world’s glaciers are shrinking, and shrinking permanently, as a result of the industrial world’s carbon production and altering of the global climate. There’s no arguing with this ongoing project’s stunning visual evidence of the collapse, shrinking, and withdrawal of glaciers from Greenland to Alaska, as captured in the new documentary Chasing Ice (opening today at the Main Art in Royal Oak and screened at the Windsor International Film Festival last month). Balog, an award winning nature photographer for publications like National Geographic, set up a couple of dozen computer-generated cameras that took continuous pictures alongside some of the world’s most famous glaciers, and collected the results. Numerous scientists add their scholarly weight to the images that provide stunning examples of what most experts agree is conclusive evidence that glaciers have retreated more in the last decade that they have since they were formed. Balog, who admits he was at one time a climate change skeptic, says that between 2007 and 2009 he saw a glacier that had been stable for 100 years “literally dying before my eyes.” In one time-lapsed visual, Alaska’s Columbia glacier retreats 2.5 miles over three years. Another in Greenland receded 11 miles. A University of Alberta scientist says of 1400 Yukon glaciers in 1958, four got bigger, more than 300 disappeared, and the rest got smaller. Images after images in time-lapsed sequence tell the story, which shocks Balog, who has since been invited to speak widely about his project and become an activist in the fight against global warming. Glaciers, he says, is “the canary in the global coal mine, it’s the place where you can see climate change happening.” EIS continues to document it including with a camera on Mt. Everest. Analyses of historic ice cores shows no significant changes in atmosphere for 800,000 years but when industrialization started and carbon generated, the CO 2 parts per million zoomed – at a pace of 100-1000 times, according to Dr. Synte Peacock. Balog says while the debate is settled in the scientific and policy making communities, the public’s “perception” of the risk is far behind, and that’s why his pictures are important. He says photography, “as much as anything is about raising awareness.” The documentary itself was made by Jeff Orlowski, who follows Balog on his trips through some of the bleakest, coldest and most awe-inspiring places in the northern hemisphere. There are stunning shots of glacial calving (breaking off into the sea) and moulins or glacier cavities where water pours as waterfalls and enters under ice rivers. Balog and his crew are tethered from the icy cliffs to capture these amazing shots. Balog describes the “miracle and horror” of these immense geological transformations. That’s a phrase with which I think we’d all agree.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

War on Drugs America's shame

The War on Drugs has been with us for – let’s see – well, about 40 years, since  that day in 1971 when then President Richard Nixon declared war on what was perceived to be a growing epidemic of drug abuse across the United States. Certainly drug use was on the rise but few if any people today would agree the War on Drugs has been a success. In fact, as Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (opening at the Main Art Friday) shows, it neither has stopped or even reduced drug use but only perpetuated or increased it. The original crackdown on drug abuse may have had noble intentions. But despite decades-long evidence of failure it persists because politicians of all stripes like to be seen as tough on crime.  America jails more people than any other country in the world and has among the highest recidivism rates, largely among drug abusers. “This phony war doesn’t work and it just leads to more” abuse, says journalist David Simon, one of several people who have studied the drug war or been on the front lines of policing, prosecuting or defending. $1 trillion has been spent and more than 45 million arrests made. Perhaps the biggest scourge has been mandatory minimum sentences that have seen large numbers of people sent to jail for life for relatively small trafficking charges. One Oklahoma inmate is Kevin Chism who was arrested with three ounces of methamphetamine after two simple possession charges. He took his case to the Supreme Court and lost. “So here I am waiting for the law to change, or something,” he says wistfully, enough to bring tears to your eyes. Crack cocaine (which is cocaine that has been mixed with baking soda, water and heated) has warranted mandated sentences at 100-to-one severity compared to convictions for cocaine. Policing and neighbourhoods have also suffered, the film argues, because it’s a lot easier to round up drug traffickers and claim high arrest rates than go after more serious crime. The film explores the chronology of the war on drugs. This started with targeting minority groups and now, as a result of high joblessness, working class whites. But that harms everyone because, as one expert put it, “if you let their rights be compromised, your rights are compromised.” Journalist Simon, while insightful, goes over the top when he sarcastically muses, “Let’s just get rid of” the bottom 15 per cent of society, like the Nazis annihilated the Jews. But the film is long overdue as a protest against one of the most egregious criminal crackdowns in America’s history, a policy that shows little signs of abating because it’s always grist for the political mill and there is a prison-industrial complex that has grown up around it. Think about that the next time you hear of a community protesting closing their local prison.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Lincoln role a master stroke

I thought Joaquin Phoenix was great in The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012). Well, he's blown away (sorry Joaquin, maybe you can grow a beard again) by Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as America's 16th president in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg), you know, the man who freed the slaves. Day-Lewis nails what we think of as Lincoln's low key whimsical but brilliant personality and you hardly know it's the actor on the screen. While I thought Lincoln was an excellent movie I was surprised by its plot. It's built around the last few months of Lincoln's presidency (before he was assassinated ironically soon after being inaugurated for a second term). It focusses on Lincoln's efforts to have Congress pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. The movie is almost a minute-by-minute account of how Lincoln employed his deputies to twist arms and bribe if necessary recalcitrant Congressmen (mainly Democrats) to get them on board. As such the movie delves into policy minutiae. This comes on top of a highly realistic script where the characters speak in mid-19th Century vernacular. The combination can make for some dry movie watching, especially for those expecting the standard dramatic biopic. I love politics but even I found it hard to understand some of the nuances and to-and-fro that was taking place. Nevertheless, Day-Lewis saves the film and there are some spectacular scenes of Congress actually debating the amendment, with highly realistic performances.
I also stepped in to see Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Nero, in limited release. This has been getting widespread critical acclaim with Rotten Tomatoes rating it 90 per cent. It also won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto film festival. Hard to understand why. The lead character, Pat Solitano (Cooper) is a manic depressive just released from incarceration after beating to a pulp a man with whom his wife was having an affair. It's not that Cooper does such a bad acting job. It's that the character is so hard to watch because of his extreme and distasteful behavior. Guess I can't blame a film for capturing reality, right? Otherwise the movie was full of clichés. It takes place in Philly and there's a football theme (“Playbook,” get it?) where Solitano's dad (De Niro) is a rabid Eagles fan. How many other movies have we seen play to a home town type? Philly could be Boston could be Cleveland could be Pittsburgh. And the romantic interest (Lawrence as Tiffany Maxwell) is also an extreme personality, generating clash after clash after clash that you almost see sparks flying off the screen. Inevitably the two fall in love, of course. But when it came to the point where she asks him to join her in a dance competition - ugh - I had visions of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) or They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969), and headed for the exit.
In my last posting I got it wrong saying MJR doesn’t have a warning about not speaking during movies. It does but it isn't as emphasized as the cell phone or seat kicking advisories. I also see AMC Theatres has a similar warning. I haven't been to a Cineplex theatre in Canada in quite some time and never remember similar advisories, which would likely do wonders to cut back on annoyances like pushing seats and yakking.