Monday, April 12, 2010

Max Manus, Chloe

Busy times my friends! I have two units coming vacant in my building, a garden to whip into shape, taxes to prepare for, bathroom renovations to coordinate, and the minutiae of life to attend to. Thus, it was a blessed relief last night to turn my back on the world as I walked into the Park Lane cinemas.

Max Manus (2008, Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg) (Park Lane) It is April 9, 1940, and Max Manus, who has been fighting the Russians in Finland, has returned to Norway on the very day of the German invasion.

Though haunted by his front-line experiences in the Finnish campaign, Max throws himself into the work of the nascent Norwegian resistance movement, organizing dissenters and fighting the occupying forces in any way that they can. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, Max escapes in dramatic style, makes his way to England with his best friend Greggers, and joins the Norwegian Independent Company to be trained as a saboteur.

Upon returning to Norway, Max quickly makes a name for himself as a daring saboteur, a fearless partisan, and a passionate leader of men engaged in dangerous campaigns to disrupt enemy operations by sinking ships, burning office records, and disseminating propaganda.

Alongside the genesis of a war hero, we see glimpses into Max's personality through the complications of friendships and loves nourished amid the turmoil and uncertainty of war. This theme is especially poignant towards the close of the film, when Max sits - unemployed, uneducated, and unskilled - in the company of the ghosts of comrades fallen in battle.

Max Manus is a beautifully crafted film that concerns itself more with presenting the man and the times than with erecting a pedestal on which to enshrine a hero - the film is much more evenhanded than, for instance, Schindler's List. Indeed, Max Manus scrupulously avoids controversy, touching on important issues such as the efficacy of propaganda as resistance, the collateral casualties of sabotage missions, and collaboration with the occupying forces, as pedestrians events and issues that are dealt with daily instead of as deep philosophical questions to be debated.

The sets, costumes, and props are beyond reproach, and Aksel Hennie - a doppelganger for a young Steve Buscemi - does a fantastic job in the lead role, which he plays with admirable restraint. In fact, the whole film feels respectful without, as I alluded to above, ever straying into reverence - and is not bad in the nail biting espionage and heart pounding excitement departments either.

In my book Max Manus is winner. It is probably not in wide release, so be sure to watch it at home when you get a chance.

Chloe (2009, Atom Egoyan) (Park Lane) On my way out of the theater, a poster for Atom Egoyan's newest film caught my eyes and drew me in like a honey bee to a succulent blossom.

I left 2008's Adoration in absolute awe of Egoyan's craft as a story teller, as a creator of physical and moral realms, and Chloe left me virtually speechless. It is the tenderness and passion of Egoyan's films that is virtually physically painful to experience.

Catherine and David Stewart (perennial favorite Julianne Moore and always reliable Liam Neeson) are an established, well-educated, upper-class couple who have lost the instinctual intimacy that first brought them together. In a moment of desperation, Catherine hires Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), an ethereal beauty and high-class escort, to seduce her husband and prove his suspected philandering.

However, Involving Chloe in her problems is akin to opening Pandora's box, as the lady of the night proves a virus that nurtures the seeds of confusion, fear, and desperation that are born of the desire for love, comfort, compassion, and warmth. Egoyan, working against the backdrop of a Toronto somehow rendered exotic and romantic by masterful cinematography and artful lighting, plays Chloe's character like an instrument, teasing out a subtle web of sexual intrigue.

Moore is a wonder to behold in this film, playing a role reminiscent of her character in Todd Haynes' Safe (a terrifying film built around a sufferer of multiple chemical sensitivity), and Neeson is his usual blend of intensity and restraint. Meanwhile, Seyfried plays the nymph beautifully, seeming almost transparent in her role as angel of destruction - will we see her in more films of this caliber rather than the disposable roles that seem to have populated the majority of her career?

In my mind, Chloe firmly establishes Egoyan in the company of directors such as Ang Lee, the Martini Brothers, and Kim Kiduk, all of whom make wrenching films that feed raw emotion directly to the viewer's soul. Chloe, as a quick scan of the reviews reveals, is not for everyone - but is a must see in my book...

And speaking of books...
I enjoy trying to see what books are on the shelves in the background of movie scenes. In Chloe, I spied an interesting assortment in David Stewart's collection, including books by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachin Begin and American right-wing bull horn Rush Limbaugh. In addition, I spied a volume on German history and a tome entitled Titan, which is probably the biography of US philanthropist John D. Rockefeller. Are these books chosen at random to add atmosphere, or are they carefully placed in shot to suggest something about the characters?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Cracker Barrel: A Journey to the Heartland of American Cuisine

Walking into the Cracker Barrel at Rocky Mount, North Carolina after 12 hours on the road, the down-home flavour of the place struck me immediately - it was like it had been painted on! However, we all know that we should not judge a book by its cover, so I followed our hostess as she wound her way through the establishment's sprawling dining room and settled in to study the entrees on offer.

Carolyn, my step mother, and I opted for succulent southern cooking, ordering up hot plates of pan-fried catfish with hot biscuits and all the fixins, which included two of a long list of sides ranging from green beans and steak fries to the "special vegetable of the day." Now Carolyn was quick to select green beans and lightly breaded okra, while I was intrigued by the veggie special, which turned out, inexplicably, to be brown rice. OK. Green beans and okra it is. Dad, meanwhile, ordered up a wholesome ham steak with veggies.

As the food was being lovingly prepared, we occupied ourselves with small-talk and playing peg games that were laid out on the table. But not for long, as the food was in front of us before we knew it.

A Feast (of sorts) for the Senses..
Ye gods! How does one begin to describe such a meal! Let's begin with the catfish, cooked to the consistency of soggy leather and smothered in a sauce that can be best described Ugh. Now this sad excuse for an entree was accompanied by the South's finest canned beans, which proved inedible, breaded okra that was surely fresh from the bulk plastic bag and into the deep fryer, and a bed of rice as soggy as surely every serving of Uncle Ben's Quick Rice ever boiled up. Ugh.

Have you ever read a story that takes place in a nursing home? Remember the description of the grayish, over-boiled mush of veggies turned out by the kitchen? Well, i'm willing to bet Cracker Barrel caters for them!

Ahh, you ask, but what of the ham steak? Indeed, the ham steak. Well, it barely made it onto the table. This 4-5 millimeter thick slice of ham loaf, fried to the texture of tough leather (various leather textures being well represented in the meal) was sent back to the kitchen post haste and replaced with a chicken salad that soared above everything else on the table in its shining, inspiring mediocrity.

What else is there to say? I feel positively polluted. There should be health advisories on the front doors of every Cracker Barrel from coast to coast. Give this one a pass folks!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Green Zone

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) (Park Lane) The buzz preceding Matt Damon's latest outing established the film as a continuation of the Bourne series set amid the political intrigue and heavy artillery combat of Iraq as Operation Desert Shield approaches George Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished." Essentially an intelligent action movie that addresses relevant political and social issues alongside thrills and chills. This is a laudable goal, and one that Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made seem achievable, but is apparently much more difficult than one might think.

The film follows Miller (Matt Damon), a US Army officer leading a team charged with securing Saddam Hussein's purported store of WMDs in the days immediately following the advent of the second Iraq war. The opening of the film, a collage of news footage interspersed with scenes of Miller's team infiltrating a reported WMD site, evoked memories of where I was and what I was thinking as the second Iraq war began - establishing a sense of immediacy and relevance.

The purported WMD site, alas, is empty - and apparently is not the first empty site that Miller and his men have risked their lives to secure on the strength of woefully inadequate intelligence. Returning to base and able to find no answers regarding the source of the faulty intelligence, Miller has no choice but to go rogue, delving into dark corners of political intrigue to learn the dirty secret behind America's reasons for going to war. It is Matt Damon against a global intelligence conspiracy - Bourne 4.0 indeed!

The problem is that, much like Body of Lies before it, Green Zone is not what it claims to be/tries to be/pretends to be. The political intrigue - what shady deals were worked out behind closed doors and in torture rooms to ensure US involvement in Iraq - is paper thin and in no way illuminating. The action sequences - shot in the same annoyingly jerky Bourne style that made The Quantum of Solace so difficult to watch - are distracting and disjointed. And Matt Damon - the darling of the intellectual action film scene - is flat, lifeless, and very out of place shlepping an M16 in uniform and shouting orders (huwah!).

Green Zone is a mess! And, sadly, Matt Damon, whom I have always considered a sign of a film worth paying attention to, proves yet again how limited he is as an actor. Like many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Damon essentially plays himself in every role - he has never hit one out of the park by playing brilliantly against type a la Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love or Reign Over Me (both HIGHLY recommended). I found The Informant flat and lifeless despite a brilliant back story, and Green Zone essentially boring despite impressive explosions and - again - a compelling back story.

The Iraq wars have not fared well in the theater to date, producing one brilliant film, Bigelow's Hurt Locker, and a bevy of interesting and entertaining films that never really rise to the challenge of delving into what many claim to be the Vietnam of our age: an ill-conceived, mismanaged military folly in a place that the US little understands and has even less right to interfere. I understand that documentary film has done a somewhat better job of tackling the subject, but have not sampled any of these films.

Among the interesting and entertaining films that I can recommend are some that are very worth spending a few hours with. A few that come to mind are: Three Kings, Jarhead, the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and Brothers, which, against all expectations, succeeded in engaging me and bringing tears to my eyes (by the end it even had me impressed by Tobey Maguire, something I am loathe to admit!).

Green Zone, on the other hand, is a solid, non-qualified PASS.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Not Crazy about Crazy Heart

With the Oscar buzz still echoing in our ears and the big winners enjoying renewed interest at the megaplex, I am truly at a loss as to how to write about how much I wanted to like Crazy Heart and how disappointed I was with Crazy Heart.

Let's start on a positive note: Jeff Bridges. The dude, as they say, abides. On the radar since the Coen brother's cult hit The Big Lebowski, Bridges deserved his best actor nod for his portrayal of Bad Blake, and continues a tradition of the academy rising above politics to recognize true dramatic brilliance by lauding artists such as Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke, among others.

In fact, the casting of CH is entirely above reproach, which Colin Farrell fitting in the skin of a "new country" idol as if he had lived the part, and Maggie Gyllenhaal playing up her fleshy, sex-kitten, come hither look for all it is worth. This cast simply works together, giving flawless performances against a seamless backdrop that is a testament to the craft of legions of set designers, wardrobe experts, lighting crews, and sound men.

In fact, the whole film fits together as smoothly and elegantly as its cast, rendering it slick and shiny as a new dime that is worth about 2 cents.

The thing is that CH was a phony. It is a paper-thin, paint-by-numbers, stock Hollywood tale: man at rock bottom meets woman, woman inspires man, man makes mistake and breaks woman's heart, woman dumps man, man returns to rock bottom and finds new hope in: a) woman's forgiveness; or b) realization he can live a respectable life without her.

Wonderfully inspiring stuff!
I am really being a lot harder on CH than I should, considering that I was entertained by it. The thing is that there are some films that I go to with the mere expectation of entertainment - think Casino Royale or the Bourne series - rather than serious intellectual engagement. CH, on the other hand, sold itself as more than light entertainment: The Christian Science Monitor, along with virtually every other newspaper and website, gushes "Bridges draws us deeply inside Blake’s moment-to-moment heartbreaks. He makes us root for him as we would root for a dear friend. Ultimately, his triumphs become our own."

I saw the movie that the Monitor is talking about, and it is called The Wrestler. An edgy tale of redemption that takes risks, pushes boundaries, and takes us deep into the dark recesses of its protagonist's heart and soul. CH suffers in agony by the comparison, maintaining its slick patina by playing it safe all the way, never taking any risks. At one point Maggie Gyllenhaal's character asks Bad Blake if Colin Farrell's character is "real country" under his "new country" guise - maybe CH is real dramatic brilliance under its slick Hollywood guise, but I resent having to search for it.

To return to the critics by way of closing, it is impossible to miss the fact that few of the rave reviews really spend much time talking about the movie itself. In the end most seem to be reviewing Bridges' absolutely brilliant performance rather than the film: The New York Times proclaims CH "A small movie perfectly scaled to the big performance at its center."

I expected more than a one-man show...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blogging, Olympics, and Avatar 3D

Five months
Has it really been five months since my last post? I can't imagine! And honestly, it could be five more months after this, I just don't know. I reached a point last year where I just didn't know why I was blogging anymore - a few core friends were reading my posts, but besides that I felt I was working hard to express my ideas and opinions, and they were just echoing in a void.

Well, be that as it may, I have been thinking of late of returning to this forum, but of doing so in a less specialized manner. I will keep commenting on movies, as they remain a passion, but will also try to include more ideas, opinions, and anecdotes on other topics. No promises, mind you, but let's see if I can get back in the groove.

And, of course, given current events, the first topic has got to be the seemingly all-consuming Vancouver Olympics. Now in terms of "fete of the century" or "fiasco," I have nothing to add. However, watching Mike Robertson go from sure-fire gold to silver in the men's snowboard cross the other night got me thinking about our competitors to the south and their seemingly superhuman ability to dominate international sporting events.

Now I am not begrudging Seth Wescott his Gold medal - anyone who can come from that far behind, that low on the course, deserves to wear the laurels. However, watching Lindsay Vonn and Julia Mancuso beat the world's top alpine skiers by almost a full second (an eternity in these events), I got to wondering about the bigger picture. I have three theories:

1) Food Supply Doping: Think about the American food supply system as revealed in documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation: a concoction of ground GM corn, meat raised on steroids and growth hormone, and a raft of other chemical additives. Is it possible that the amount of such additives consumed by Americans in a standard meat, potatoes, and apple pie diet "pumps them up" in such a way as to give them an advantage over athletes from nations with stricter food additive codes?

2) Funding: It's hard to argue the obviousness of the fact that American athletes benefit from significantly higher financial resources than those from most nations. This is not necessarily due to higher government spending (I would have to research this), but due to higher corporate sponsorship - think about the largest, richest companies in the world, and think about what nation they call home and which athletes they are more likely to support. That's what I am talking about.

3) The Cold War: Yes, Dr. Strangelove has a hand in this also. I was talking with some friends the other night, and it hit me: The USA's current sport training system and mentality is a direct offshoot of the intense rivalry that existed between the Americans and the Soviets during the second half of the twentieth century.

Think about it: in addition to stockpiling bombs and expanding "spheres of influence," the cold war was fought viciously on the ski slopes, skating ovals, velodromes, and sprinting tracks of the summer and winter Olympic games. Sport was one of the many proxies for armed combat used by the American and Soviet governments to prove their superiority over each other - and this mindset shaped the sporting mentalities of many of the coaches, in particular, and some of the athletes competing in Vancouver. Winning is everything.

Now I am not disparaging the American athletes - as I said, Wescott showed amazing skill and stamina and deserves his gold - I just want to illuminate some of the context of what we are seeing happen on the slopes and in the rinks. American athletes are the product of a system that has murky roots, but in the present enables them to truly be the very best that they can be.

Own the Podium
And I guess that this is where a lot of the concern about the Canadian "Own the Podium" campaign arises from. The Cold War tainted sports with politics (e.g. the 1980 and 1984 Olympic game boycotts), warping the spirit of the games by taking the emphasis away from performance and personal achievement, and some fear that the Own the Podium Campaign amounts to the same thing and could be a pretty murky foundation to build on in and of itself.

Overall, I hope that governments around the world continue to fund sports and the arts so that the skiers, bikers, swimmers, painters, singers, and poets of our nations can continue to inspire the dreams of young people and build the rich tapestry of our global culture (a round of Kumbaya anyone?).

Avatar (James Cameron, 2010) (Bayers Lake Imax) To switch gears a little bit, I just want to add my two cents about Avatar 3D, which I saw a few weeks ago in the local Imax. I will skip preliminaries and get right to the hyperbole: by about two-thirds of the way through I consciously thought "I am glad that I am alive to witness this achievement in technology."

The new form of 3D filming that Avatar relies on is achieved by filming two offset images that are simultaneously projected onto a specially coated screen. The viewer dons special glasses in which the two lenses are polarized at perpendicular angles to each other, meaning that each eye views one of the offset images independent of the other (with none of the image "cross talk" that typified the old red and blue glasses 3D). The brain is essentially "confused" by the two images, and resolves its confusion by interpolating the images in a clean, crisp, three-dimensional picture.

This is a stunningly powerful colour to add to the palette that filmmakers use to compose their masterpieces. It sucks the viewer deeply into the film, creating a world entirely separate from that outside the theater walls - and this is essentially what I feel that a great film should do.

But this is not to say that Avatar is a great film - a great moment in technological evolution certainly, a great experience without doubt, but a great film in no way. The proof of this pudding is under the crust: if you watched Avatar in 2D, I am sure that it would lose more than a little of its shine, revealing all the more baldly the predictability of the story, the sometimes painful dialog, and the cringe-inducing acting of some of its key characters - things that jarred me even in 3D, but were forgiven in the name of the overall experience.

And the Oscar Goes to...
Sure, Avatar will likely win best picture, but hopefully this will clear the way for the best director Oscar to go to a more deserving director like Kathryn Bigelow, who's Hurt Locker would have been stunning in 3D, but managed to suck me into the world she created on screen solely based on a compelling scenario, taut writing, subtle acting, and sublime cinematography.