Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mood Disorder: Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night—the latest offering from the Dardenne brothers of Belgium—feels about as long as that, despite clocking in at a little over ninety minutes. The filmmakers have made realism their trademark approach, seeking to give voice to contemporary society's flotsam and shed light on their plight. In this attempt, they mean to channel the neo-realism of De Sica and his fellow Italians. His Umberto D. follows one elderly man as he loses both his Rome apartment and his pride, forced to beg on the streets for rent money. The Dardennes's film also tells a basic story, that of one Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a French wife and mother of two who's being forced from her job at a small company. But De Sica suffuses his film with a tone and technique that flushes out fellow feeling for the titular character. He was a humanist: Umberto Ferrari's character is fully formed and dignity affirmed in our eyes, even as he's debased in the eyes of others. The Dardennes brothers miss this streak. Two Days, One Night lacks a compelling central character, which leaves its simple narrative and conflict moribund.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neglected Gems #69-70: The Rocketeer (1991) & The Last Starfighter (1984)

Billy Campbell and Alan Arkin in The Rocketeer (1991)

The cinematic “excesses” of the 1980s and early 1990s, so venemously derided by critics today, manifest mostly in the films we still remember – your Rambos, your Conans, your Top Guns – but these big, loud, attention-grabbing blockbusters naturally came with their fair share of imitators, some of which did the job of perfecting escapist entertainment much better than their more lucrative counterparts. Swept aside by petulant studio executives and disregarded by audiences and critics as cheap knock-offs of worthier films, these are stories that Tolkien might have described as “lesser sons of greater houses” – lighthearted adventure films whose excitement, intelligence, and genuine charm have been all but forgotten in the wake of their longer-lasting, more successful kin.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Notes on the Method: Jane Fonda, 1969-1971, Part 2

Jane Fonda as Bree Daniel, in Klute (1971).

In the 1971 Klute, Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniel, a high-class Manhattan hooker who – reluctantly – asks for the protection of a cop named John Klute when she’s stalked by a creep (Charles Cioffi) who turns out to be a killer. Donald Sutherland gives a fine, understated performance as Klute, and the chemistry between him and Fonda (they were an off-screen couple for a few years and made one other picture together, 1973’s Steelyard Blues) is partly what makes the film so memorable, especially once the protagonist and the title character become involved. Klute is far from a romantic comedy, but it has a romantic-comedy set-up: the tensions between the hero and heroine, who come from different worlds – Klute is a small-town Pennsylvania police officer who meets Bree during an investigation into the murder of a friend – and rub each other the wrong way, turn out to be erotic ones. Sutherland’s nerdy looks – the gawky frame, the mongoose neck, the outsize ears – are used here to emphasize his character’s square-shooter persona, the very thing that Bree mocks and tries to undermine, at first reflexively and then as a form of resistance against the danger of losing emotional control. (During this early phase of his career, Sutherland generally played hipsters, most famously “Hawkeye” Pierce in Altman’s M*A*S*H; the fact that his goony appearance didn’t stand in his way is an indication of the way the Vietnam-era made movie stars of actors who would never have landed leading-man roles in any previous period, like Woody Allen and Elliott Gould.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Living Outside the Norms of Time: Remembering Frank Ogden ('Dr. Tomorrow')

He went by many names. Some proclaimed him the "Marco Polo of Cyberspace." Others, "Dr. Tomorrow" from his internationally syndicated newspaper column that appeared throughout North America. Whatever name you gave him, it was generally agreed that Frank Ogden, who died at the age of 92 a few days before the New Year arrived in 2012, was one of Canada's rare creatures – an iconoclast who lived outside the norms of his time. He was not only an elected fellow of the Explorer's Club; he was also the first Canadian member of the World Future Club. From studying voodoo in Haiti, to turning himself into a "cyborg" by having surgically implanted, intra-ocular bionic lenses to improve his eyesight, Ogden was never chained by conventions. In a country not noted for celebrating its prodigies, Ogden created a niche that left both scientists and scholars comparing him to such unconventionally brilliant thinkers as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Storytime: The Missing and Babylon

Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in The Missing.

He does not have Daniel Craig’s suave charisma or Clive Owen’s intellectual charm or Gerard Butler’s (woefully overexposed) sexy swagger. James Nesbitt, ostensibly also a child of the United Kingdom but born to Protestant parents in disaffected Northern Ireland, has brought his own unique brand of intensity to the acting profession for decades. His recent triumph was as a father whose young son is abducted in The Missing, a taut eight-episode BBC series that was co-produced by and broadcast on the Starz pay-cable channel late last year.

I first saw Nesbitt, who turned 50 less than two weeks ago, as an Irish protest organizer trying desperately to keep things peaceful in Bloody Sunday. That award-winning 2002 television film, directed by Paul Greengrass (soon famous for The Bourne Supremacy), depicts a terrible chapter in world history. The British Army killed 13 unarmed demonstrators staging a cilvil rights march in Derry on January 30, 1972. Think Selma with white faces and a brogue. In The Missing, he inhabits the role of Tony Hughes, a Brit on a 2006 vacation in rural France with his wife Emily (the excellent Frances O’Connor, who portrayed an equally conflicted mom in 2001‘s A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and son Oliver (Oliver Hunt). The boy, age six, disappears and the story follows an agonizing search for clues by his distraught parents. They must contend with a duplicitous local police force and various suspicious civilians, including a wealthy developer (Ken Stott) and a convicted but remorseful pedophile (Titus De Voogdt).

Friday, January 23, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (4 of 4): It’s (Still) Hard Being Loved by Jerks

Charlie Hebdo’s then editor Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier (1967-2015), in 2012. (Photo by Fred Dufour)
“I prefer to die standing up rather than living on my knees.” Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), editor of Charlie Hebdo and one of the victims of the January 2015 terrorist attacks targeting him and his staff.
You cannot look at It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks (C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons, in French), the fine 2008 documentary that Daniel Leconte made about Charlie Hebdo and the lawsuit launched against it about ten years ago by various French and non-French Muslim groups, in quite the same light as when it first came out. Yet the issues and questions raised by this very perceptive film, revolving around the definition of racism versus legitimate satire, the rights of French citizens to not be offended stacked up against the values of the Republic where free speech, however offensive, is sacrosanct, and the intent behind the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, still apply today. Only now they’re overlaid with the blood of the victims of the shootings in the magazine offices, killed by those who not only opposed their freedom of speech and image but who felt they had the moral right, even a religious obligation, to silence it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (3 of 4): The Lessons of Philip Kaufman's Quills

In the opening scene of Philip Kaufman's prickly and erotic drama Quills (2000), based on Doug Wright's clever and perceptive play, we bear witness to a muscular brute partly dressed in leather who both gropes and caresses a young woman in what appears to be a sadomasochistic tryst. As we're drawn in further and become aroused by the deeper and darker dynamics of their grappling, we soon discover that we've actually become enraptured by the sight of Mademoiselle Renard, a libidinous aristocrat, who is about to meet her demise at the hands of a sadistic executioner during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Just as she is about to be decapitated, we meet the incarcerated Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) who is in the process of documenting her tale. In one swift stroke, Phil Kaufman with a sly aplomb implicates us in our deeper fascination with sex and violence. With that audacious opening, the director, who is no stranger to eroticism and politics (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June), brings us in more intimate touch with our hidden and forbidden desires. He uses the outrageous exploits – and the brutally frank writings – of the Marquis to raise more probing questions about the role of art, the matters of sex and the dubious tool of censorship. And it's no accident that the story is set a short time after the Reign of Terror because what's up for grabs in Quills is the romantic belief in the basic goodness of man.