Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peripatetic In Cinematic Prose: Eat Pray Love

An Israeli woman once told a friend of mine that there is no Hebrew term for “alone.” The only equivalent phrase, she explained, translates as “I am with myself."

I have no idea if it’s true, but what a brilliant concept. My friend is plagued by the fear of being lonely. The same could be said of author Elizabeth Gllbert in her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, now a film starring Julia Roberts. More in the book than on screen, the lead character has been waging a lifelong battle with personal demons. Anxious to flee a contentious divorce and unsatisfactory affair, she takes off from New York on a journey to find freedom from perpetual torment. Intended as a year of living without sex, her quest begins with the pleasure of great food in Italy, before moving on to spirituality at a guru’s retreat in India and renewal of passion in Indonesia. So much for celibacy.

The literary version of Gilbert has stopped taking her medications, under the assumption that the trip’s adventures would fill up the space usually reserved for misery. After ten days in Rome, the “Pinkerton Detectives” -- how she has anthropomorphized depression and loneliness -- once again track her down. The movie dispenses with such gloomy thoughts of clinical despair. Just as well. Julia Roberts has a cheerful persona, with a boisterous laugh that’s surely one of her most endearing attributes. The cinematic Liz feels guilty about breaking up her marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and sad about her deteriorating relationship with David (James Franco). But that’s only boyfriend baggage, not the gravitas of chemical imbalance or family dysfunction or whatever keeps most depressives in its grip.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Welcome to the Machine: Samuel Maoz's Lebanon

The Israeli anti-war film, Lebanon, which just opened today in Toronto, could just have easily have been called Tank. Based on director Samuel Maoz’s experience as a 20-year-old gunner in the Israeli army tank division, Lebanon (which was the first Israeli film to win the Leone d’Oro at the 66th Venice International Film Festival) depicts the 1982 conflict but not from a broadly observant perspective; instead, we experience the war through the eyes of four Israeli soldiers within the tank: the driver in the tank’s hull, the commander in the turret, the loader and the gunner. Lebanon is obviously made by a director trying to do justice to his memory of the conflict (as Ari Folman also did with his Waltz with Bashir), but Lebanon becomes gripping in a more mechanical, relentless way because our perspective ends up as limited as that of the soldiers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ambivalent Viewing: Season Four of Mad Men

The problem with Mad Men this season, and in fact sometimes in every season, is that creator Matthew Weiner is obsessed with letting character trump story (ironic for a network whose cutline is “Story Matters Here”). As a result, we have episodes such as one and three this year (and large swathes of Season Two) that have been nothing but character bits attached to little narrative drive. This is the exact opposite of films such as, let's say, Tranformers, which are nothing but plot/story and character is never even considered – I think both approaches are ill-conceived. The show's only thread this year that seems to connect it to 1964/1965 have been bits of dialogue in episode one (“Buy her some Beatles 45s.") and episode four (“Did you hear Malcolm X was shot this week?”). This is laziness. At least last year, the handling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was masterfully staged, as two characters discussed their problems as if it were still November 21, 1963. In the background of the scene, unnoticed by them, a TV announces a new era has begun (Kennedy's death). And yet. And yet. I still find myself compelled to watch this year.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Ron Shelton's Cobb

Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb (1994)

After directing the street smart basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump (1992), Ron Shelton approached the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with the idea of doing a biography of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. Given the success of White Men Can't Jump, as well as Bull Durham (1988), his sublime romantic comedy about baseball, the studio figured they couldn't miss. After all, what could be better than a baseball movie about a legend who was one of the greatest players in the history of the game?

What they didn't know  until they read Shelton's script  was that Ty Cobb was also a hateful, ferocious and bigoted alcoholic who had alienated even his teammates. And when they saw that Shelton had Tommy Lee Jones in mind for the part (just before he'd become "bankable" again in 1993 with The Fugitive), the film was put on waivers. Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked up the ball  so to speak  and took a daring risk on a complex project. Then, shortly after releasing the picture during the Christmas season in 1994, they abruptly dropped the ball. To this day, Ron Shelton's best movie remains virtually unknown. Even though Cobb emerged in theatres parallel to the OJ Simpson murder case, which could have helped promote interest in the picture, the issues that both stories raised about celebrity and hero worship were obviously too uncomfortable to comprehend. The studio, some critics and many film goers didn't like the adulation of their heroes tainted by events that tarnished that adulation.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Last Woman Standing: Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work

Johnny Carson: “Some men prefer smart women.”

Joan Rivers: “Oh, please, Johnny. No man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.”

In the opening scene of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, a compelling and discomfiting new documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback), we see in close-up the 75-year-old actress and comedian Joan Rivers having make-up applied to her face while flashbacks of her long career drift by. Although that made-up face remains for the entire film, Joan Rivers, the performer, artist and human being, ultimately shows her true portrait behind that mask. She reveals an actor whose work as an entertainer is perched right on the edge of that desperate need for acceptance. Rivers presents herself as the last woman standing in a world that's now wedded to youth and beauty. In doing so, she gives a triumphant, humourously vitriolic performance as a comedy queen who refuses to go quickly - and quietly - into the dark night.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Father and Son: The Zappa Legacy

In the mid-nineties, when American composer Frank Zappa's full catalogue finally became available on CD, it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was fulfilling to finally see his vast body of work - at that time including over fifty albums that spanned his rock, jazz and classical material from 1959 to 1994 - available in a digital format. But it was also deeply disappointing that, in his preparation for these releases, he felt compelled to remix and recut albums (Freak Out! Hot Rats), or poorly remaster them (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Chunga's Revenge, You Are What You Is, Tinsel Town Rebellion). In the case of We're Only in it For the Money (1967) and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968), he even went so far as to erase the original rhythm section and re-record the backing tracks with contemporary musicians. The justified outcry of fans concerning We're Only in it For the Money had some impact in causing Zappa, before his tragic death from prostate cancer in 1993, to re-release the CD from an original vinyl recording. Since apparently there weren't as many fans of Crusing, his marvellous R&B doo-wop hybrid, that album didn't get the same treatment - until now. Thanks to the Zappa family, who have been springing surprises from Frank's vault of tapes for the last number of years, the original recording of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (along with alternate takes and mixes) is finally available under the new title Greasy Love Songs (just order from

Sunday, August 15, 2010

No, Mr Bond, I Don't Want You To Die: The End of James Bond?

About three weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about James Bond. Over the past few months we'd been hearing the stories about the fact MGM was having money problems, to the point where there was speculation that the studio would fold. As a result, the planned 23rd James Bond movie was indefinitely postponed. My friend said “I don't think we'll see Daniel Craig as Bond again.” He basically believed that the money problems were so severe that it would be years before another one would be made. When it was, the producers, (Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson), would decide to reboot the series and recast. I said, "there's no way. Craig's a great Bond. I can't see them doing that."

Cut to three weeks later and this week's cover story in Entertainment Weekly magazine, “Goodbye, Mr. Bond.” The magazine predicted almost exactly what my friend had said. They wrote that the last time there was a delay like this – six years, in fact – the studio returned with a new Bond when Pierce Brosnan replaced Timothy Dalton. The difference between the last long delay and now is that they've got an absolutely perfect Bond in Daniel Craig. As M (Judi Dench) said in Casino Royale (2006), “I'm not sure a blunt instrument such as yourself will understand, Bond.” Bond is and always was an uncouth blunt instrument who happened to be on our side. The reason Craig was such a refreshing return to form after a VERY LONG fallow period was because he was a boxy, thuggish, though handsome brute who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends. The last time we had a Bond this good was, of course, Sean Connery. Yes, I know I'm in a minority in this, but Pierce Brosnan (who's been very good in other films such as The Matador (2005), The Tailor of Panama (2001) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)) was completely awful as Bond – a purse-lipped pretty boy who was completely unconvincing as 007. Hell, Roger Moore was better (at least in the early pictures like Live and Let Die (1973)).