Saturday, September 21, 2013

Torture Porn: Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners

Hugh Jackman & Jake Gyllenhaal

During Prisoners I felt like I’d been strapped to my chair and was being whipped around through a house of horrors I hadn't signed on for. The director, the Québecois Denis Villeneuve, is extremely accomplished, and the movie is beautifully made, with sequences that are marvels of suspense and mood. He’s working with a superb cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and with a talented cast who create distinctive, interesting characters. But everyone is at the service of material – Aaron Guzikowski’s script – that amounts to the worst sort of gut-wrenching manipulation, sold to us as a meaningful disquisition on evil and how the loss of a child can diminish one’s humanity. Prisoners is a cheap thriller dressed up to look like an important movie, its 150-minute length offered as proof of prestige. It’s loathsome.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lee Child's Never Go Back: Jack Reacher Returns

Never Go Back, Lee Child’s 18th Jack Reacher novel, is just like its predecessors, at least in the broad strokes: Our wandering hero finds himself in deep trouble, meets good people and bad, helps the good and kicks ass on the bad. What is noteworthy about this one for the many, many fans of Child’s thrillers is that Reacher finally makes contact with Major Susan Turner, new head of the 110th MP Special Unit, Reacher’s old command. In the earlier novel 61 Hours, Turner was no more than an attractive voice on the telephone, a voice Reacher describes as "warm, a little husky, a little breathy, a little intimate," and whom he was determined to meet in person.

But the meeting is not what Reacher expected. After making his way from South Dakota to the Virginia headquarters of the 110th, as close to a home as Reacher has ever had – there is a legendary dent in his old desk, where he once bounced his commanding officer’s head – Reacher finds someone else in the unit commander’s office, a nasty piece of work named Lt. Col. Morgan. Reacher receives two pieces of bad news: a 16-year-old incident has somehow resulted in a murder complaint against him, and he is the subject of a paternity suit from a woman he’s never heard of. Furthermore, Susan Turner has been charged with taking a $100,000 bribe, arrested and jailed. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shannon's Deal: The Iceman

Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta in The Iceman

After watching Michael Shannonthe Method Dwight Frye of our times straining to pop not only his eyes but every vein in his head as the dark embodiment of helpless, neurotic super-villainy in Man of Steel, it’s kind of relaxing getting to see him settle down and play a regular, run-of-the-mill cold-blooded professional assassin, with a hundred kills to his credit, in the true-crime docudrama The Iceman. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a colorless but intense dude who, in 1964, is courting Winona Ryder and dealing in pornographic films. (He tells his bride-to-be that he works dubbing Disney cartoons, a detail that suggests a livelier imagination, and more of a sense of humor, than anything he ever gets to say or do again would suggest. He tells Ryder that his favorite job was Cinderella.) Richard also has a brotherplayed briefly but memorably by Steven Dorffwho is in prison, and who Richard has nothing but contempt for, because the brother killed a little girl. A reference in their dialogue together about having had it tough growing up, and a flashback to their father dispensing punishment with a belt, seems meant to answer any distracting questions the viewers might bring to the table about just how these guys could have gotten so screwed up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Scorsese's Jukebox

Rock music didn't make its true first appearance in movies until 1955 when Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" introduced movie audiences to its power in Richard Brooks' youth drama Blackboard Jungle. This jumping tune, heard over the opening credits, got people hopping with the kind of infectious enthusiasm not seen since the beginning of The Swing Era. Blackboard Jungle was the story of a new teacher (Glenn Ford) who begins a job at a school in the 'wrong' part of town. He initially gets a lot of grief from the underclass students he's trying to teach. But one of his colleagues gets more than just grief. He tries to interest his charges in jazz. But the music of Stan Kenton and Bix Beiderbecke makes no impressionable dent in their not-so-impressionable minds. (The poor teacher is forced to watch his prize collection of records get tossed around the room and smashed to bits.) The picture was noted for introducing to audiences the raw and exciting presence of Sidney Poitier, but the lasting memory is of a public so startled by "Rock Around the Clock" that Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador to Italy, protested Blackboard Jungle's inclusion in the Venice Film Festival that year because (thanks to Bill Haley & The Comets) it incited people to violence.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Adventures in Art, Expedient Creativity and Spirituality: Interview with Pete Townshend

Last June, critic Deirdre Kelly reviewed the Stratford production of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy in Critics at Large as "a feast of the senses." She went on to elaborate that "this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo." Speaking of the composer, Pete Townshend, the founder of The Who, Kelly had an opportunity to talk with him for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The paper ran a portion of her long discussion with the artist. Here today, we supply the rest. Townshend discusses a range of subjects including autism in relation to Tommy, the spiritual guidance of Meher Baba, the generational conflict in post-War Britain and the continued relevance of Tommy today.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Henry James’s Children: Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters

Claire Jullien and Julia Course in Our Betters

Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters, which is receiving an elegant, intelligent and finely acted revival at the Shaw Festival, is a fascinating comedy of manners on an unusual topic: rich American women who travel to Europe to marry poor but titled men. It’s as much about the market economy as Jane Austen’s novels, but the women’s motivations are more unsympathetic than those of Austen’s characters. When Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas marries the unappetizing Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, whom she could never love, Lizzy is appalled but we pity Charlotte’s plight; without money, she can hardly hope to get a better catch, and she’s pragmatic enough to consider herself lucky to have found Collins. But the women we meet in the London of Our Betters – Pearl (Claire Jullien), who is married to Lord Grayston; Minnie (Laurie Paton), who is the Duchesse de Surennes (and now a widow); Flora (Catherine McGregor), who left her husband, the Prince della Cercola, after the death of their child; and Pearl’s younger sister, Bessie Saunders (Julia Course), whom Pearl has matched up with the young Lord Bleane (Ben Sanders) – act out of a combination of vanity, restlessness and self-delusion.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – Just Read the Books

Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The following contains spoilers for The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series.

If I were writing this to let you all know how notably underwhelming the recently released The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is, I know that I’m a little late to the party. Even if you weren’t aware of the film, or author Cassandra Clare’s multi-volume teen fantasy book series that inspired it, you probably heard that resounding flopping sound the movie generated when it premiered in theatres a couple of weeks ago. Just this past Thursday in fact the studio put the planned sequel (based on the second novel City of Ashes) on indefinite hold. It is probably for the best.

Directed by Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, 2010), and starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower (who played the centuries-old vampire Caius in the Twilight films), City of Bones is a bit of a hot mess: pretty to look at but remarkably frustrating to follow. In fact, that is the most apt word to describe the experience of watching City of Bones: frustrating. The movie – clocking in at over 2 hours – feels both unbearably long and exasperatingly hurried. I’ve read all five published books of the Mortal Instruments series, including Clare’s more readable Infernal Devices prequel trilogy, and even I found the film difficult to follow – and even more difficult to like. I enjoyed the books, mind you, but I confess they don’t live long in your consciousness after putting them down. Clare has produced a believable world on the page, and offers a number of interesting twists on the vampire/werewolf/demon narrative, but little of that makes it onto the big screen. The result is a film that no doubt would anger a fan of the books and confuse the average moviegoer.