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!