Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Dreyfus Affair For Our Times: Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy

“The most frightful judicial error that has ever been made.”
- Alfred Dreyfus

Robert Harris is both prolific and versatile. A former journalist, best known for his 1986 account of the hoax surrounding Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries turned to penning novels that generally fall within three categories: alternative history such as Fatherland (1992), which is set in a triumphalist 1964 Nazi Germany that is contemplating a détente with America, and Archipelago (1998) that plays with the conceit that a diary purporting to be that of Stalin chronicles his relationship with a young woman who shortly before his death provided him with a son, one that is alive and in the 1990s is being groomed to seize power; thrillers such as The Ghost (2007) that takes as its premise the story of a professional ghost writer who is hired to replace a predecessor who drowned under mysterious circumstances, and then is assigned the task of completing the memoirs of a recently resigned Prime Minister that will counter the suspicions of war crimes he committed during the Iraq war, and Fear Index (2012) inspired by the global financial meltdown and with a nod to the Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, about a hedge fund operator who has designed computer software which uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear that for a time makes huge profits for its investors until the computer begins to operate on its own independent of human control; historical novels on ancient Rome, Pompeii (2003) and the first two novels of the trilogy that focuses on the orator and politician, Cicero, Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009). His most recent offering, An Officer and a Spy (Random House, 2013), about the notorious injustice visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer in fin de siècle France, fits within the last genre.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Story Time: Neil Jordan's Byzantium

Gemma Arterton & Saoirse Ronan in Byzantium

More than a quarter of a century after he made Mona Lisa, Neil Jordan’s movies still have a mesmeric narrative pull – the pull of stories out of The Arabian Nights. He doesn’t command the respect he once did: no one went to see Ondine, his marvelous update of the legend about the romance between a fisherman and a water spirit, and his latest, vampire tale Byzantium, opened in only a handful of cities. (It’s now on DVD.) But that’s not Jordan’s fault – he’s never stopped being a master filmmaker and a master storyteller. Byzantium, adapted by Moira Ruffini from her play, is astonishing. Its protagonist is Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who travels with Clara (Gemma Arterton), whom she describes in her voice-over narration as “my secret, my muse.” They’re mother-and-daughter vampires, which means that they look like sisters – Clara hasn’t aged since her early twenties, Eleanor since her adolescence. Clara is the pragmatist who supports them by whoring and thievery, while sensitive Eleanor is at odds with the life she’s been thrown into. Clara gave birth to her when she was working in a brothel in the early nineteenth century and had to give her up (or kill her, which she didn’t have the heart for), so Eleanor was raised in a Catholic orphanage where she was taught not to lie. Clara thrives on lying, and she’s brilliant at it, while her daughter is haunted by the fact that her entire life is a lie built around a secret she’s forbidden to reveal. But she can’t help herself – she writes the story of her life and her mother’s on sheets of paper and then lets them float away on the wind.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Further on Down the Road: Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska stars the 77-year-old Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a shambling, broken-down wreck of a man, whose thought processes are clouded by age and years of alcoholism. Woody would probably be spending his declining years sitting on the couch with a beer in his paw, with his inner radio tuned to a frequency that just barely picks up the bitching of his wife, Kate (June Squibb). But he’s received a piece of junk mail that seems to promise him a million dollars, and he gets setting off on foot, trying to get from his Billings, Montana home to the offices of Cornhusker Marketing and Promotions, Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska, so he can collect. (He doesn’t trust the mail.)

Woody has two sons, David (Will Forte), who works in a store selling audio equipment, and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who is this family’s version of a go-getter: he does reports for the local news, and has recently been given the chance to serve as anchorman, when the regular newsreader gets sick. David, whose girlfriend has just dumped him, looks like a complete sad sack, resigned to settling into a lousy job and a lonely apartment, but there are signs that some part of him still hopes for better things: he’s quit drinking, an impulse that Woody can’t even make sense of in theory. David views Woody as little more than a living reminder of a lot of bad memories, but after he’s picked the old man up while shuffling along the side of the road a few times, he decides to humor him and drive him to Lincoln. It’s the only way to exorcise Woody’s fantasy; it might even be a chance for the son to know something he doesn’t know about his father, or at least, give the old man an excuse to be grateful. Anyway, it’s a change. Once the movie leaves Billings, its defining images are the cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white shots of multiple lanes of highway stretching out across the Midwestern scenery, blights on the landscape connecting nothing to nothing.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Resident Upheaval: The Grim Future of Survival Horror

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Justin Cummings, to our group.

The survival horror genre is broken. Time was, I would open a kitchen cabinet and half-expect something dead to fall moaning on my neck. I’d see leafless branches in my backyard, stretched out against an autumn sky, and swear I could hear a chainsaw. Survival horror video games, especially those in the Resident Evil series, had an insidious way of creeping into my subconscious. Innocent shadows took on sinister shapes, and the dash up the basement stairs was a desperate bid for safety. They don’t do that anymore. And it’s not just that I’ve grown up in the interim – something has happened to the series, and the genre as a whole. Controllers aren’t quaking in the hands of kids these days, and if they are, I think it has more to do with irresponsible parents not knowing what an M-rating is, and less to do with solid game design. So, it’s broken. And the creator of the Resident Evil series, Shinji Mikami, is promising to fix it. The question is: can he?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mini Masterpieces, Mostly: Cannes Lions Awards 2013

For the last thirty years, I’ve had a movie tradition that I don’t share with anyone else. It goes back to 1981, while at Montreal’s Concordia University, when I got a chance to attend a school showing of the Best TV commercials from the Cannes International Advertising festival, saluting the best ads from around the world and put out as a cinematic compilation for our edification. It was a stupendous program (I still remember the highly inventive Australian LEGO ad which copped the top prize that year) and one I made sure to catch each year even after I moved to Toronto soon after, once in a restaurant, the (defunct) Groaning Board which showed them and a couple of times as screeners when I reviewed them. (For a couple of seasons, the program on offer was the London International Advertising Awards, which doesn’t seem to be that different overall then the Cannes batch.) Mostly though I saw them at the Bloor cinema at the end of the calendar year, a tradition which ended briefly when the Bloor closed in 2011 and which after a two year hiatus, has now returned in the new revamped Bloor Hot Docs documentary cinema. Fortunately, its quality remains and except for one bone headed decision, its program is as clever and entertaining as ever.

Now known as The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (are they trying to hide the advertorial bent of the selections?), the program, which has been around since 1954, and based on Cannes since 1984, celebrated its 60th edition in June 2013. It is a jury selected compilation of what are considered the very best ads in the world, from TV, cinema and, increasingly, the Internet. (Astoundingly, more than 35,000 entries were received in 2013.) And after thirty years of viewing the commercials, it’s easy to see certain patterns in how different countries make them, often reflecting what we have to come to know as their national character.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mixed Blessing: Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan

                                       (photo by Pavel Antonov)
The Foundry Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan – which began at LaMama last winter and was picked up for a run at the Public – is clever and tedious by turns. It begins promisingly, with The Lisps, a fine bluegrass quartet, performing a series of ballads before they take their places as the show’s back-up band. (I was especially struck by Eric Farber, who plays “found-percussion and contraptions,” a series of items housed in a suitcase, and whose wildly animated face seems to carry its own light.) The set by Matt Saunders is a series of small box houses built on steps under wooden cut-out clouds; Clint Ramos’s costumes are in an entertaining patchwork of styles. And for a while Lear DeBessonet’s staging keeps you alert and expectant. For instance, when Wang the Waterseller (David Turner) finds shelter for the visiting Gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak and Mary Shultz: one black, one Asian, one white) at the home of the local prostitute, Shen Te (Taylor Mac), they fit puppet versions of themselves into the model house while they mime sleeping as they stand upstage of it. At moments like this the production feels collegiate in a good sense – pared-down, imaginative and playful.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Future Looks Bright for Fox's Almost Human

Karl Urban and Michael Ealy stars in Fox's Almost Human

Good old fashioned fun is part of the recipe for the best new dramas of 2013. Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already staked out that territory nicely (and, though it makes me feel a little dirty in admitting it, so has The Blacklist). And even though it came a little late to the party (premiering just three weeks ago), Fox's new science fiction crime police procedural Almost Human, is standing with the best of them. 

Almost Human has an ambitious concept on paper a futuristic drama with high tech wizardry and self-aware androids but at its heart it is a buddy cop show with consistently high production values and two engaging lead actors. Created by J.H. Wyman and produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Almost Human is set in Los Angeles in 2048, in an era when advancements in technology have resulted in a corresponding increase in criminal activity. Our hero is Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban, Star Trek), who returns to the police force after emerging from a 17-month coma, which resulted from a botched raid that cost him his partner, one of his legs, and parts of his memory. Almost two years out of commission, he finds the station a very different place. Every cop is assigned a mandatory synthetic partner rule-oriented and emotionless MX-model androids who seem to be watching the cops as much as watching out for them. With little patience for this new normal, Kennex quickly (and dramatically) dispatches his assigned android, and is then given a different kind of synthetic, one with more personality than the other models and arguably with more personality than Kennex himself.