Saturday, November 19, 2016

Savvy and Sullied: Clint Eastwood's Sully

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully

Clint Eastwood's intermittently gripping biographical drama, Sully, depicts Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's emergency landing in January 2009 of a passenger jet on the Hudson River, which resulted in his becoming a national hero when all 155 passengers and crew survived (some with only minor injuries). Based on Sullenberger's autobiography Highest Duty (co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow), Eastwood's Sully is after more, however, than simply celebrating a hero who gambled on his years of experience to pull off a risky landing that could have been catastrophic had it failed. With Tom Hanks in the role of Sully, the picture attempts, often successfully, to contrast the growing acclaim in the media and public for a man who pulled off a miracle with the troubled mind of a veteran pilot who suffers the dread of someone who maybe just got lucky.

With a script by Todd Komarnicki, Sully is at its best when it gets into the area of how our conditioned responses are sometimes inappropriate when dealing with matters out of our control. For Sully, this flight is one of many, where his skills at flying are already a relaxed reflex that takes everything into consideration. But when a number of Canada geese unexpectedly fly directly into his two engines and disable them, he has to quickly move out of that comfort zone and into gambled probabilities. Not only does Sully have to work against time, but he and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), have to quickly agree on a course of action that doesn't come with any guarantees of success. For the public and the media cheering the ultimate outcome, there's an equally set response: people -- naturally eager to celebrate a happy story involving crashing airplanes in New York City eight years after 9/11 -- can't see that, despite the results, the man they're now acclaiming as Superman is currently struggling with his own Kryptonite. Sully is about how technology teaches us to acquiesce to its perfection in order to give us the security of control, but that in reality, that belief can be a trap when life suddenly intervenes and trips us up. Using IMAX cameras to depict various versions, from different viewpoints, of the take-off, the crash and rescue, cinematographer Tom Stern creates a widescreen map not unlike the landscape of a huge video game, but he wisely provides the kind of editing and movement that humanize the screen so that we feel the impending anxiety of losing control.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A Strange and Distasteful Project: The Voyeur’s Motel

Gerald Foos behind the desk of the Manor House Motel in Aurora, Colorado.

We who profess a helpless fascination with human nature were sitting ducks for The Voyeur’s Motel (Grove Atlantic; 233 pp.), Gay Talese’s book about an Aurora, Colorado, motel owner who made a secret vocation of spying on the sexual activities of his guests. On April 11, The New Yorker ran a lengthy excerpt to herald the publication, and though the reaction of commentators was largely hostile, the material had an undeniable, if unwholesome, allure. Many were compelled to read it, and Steven Spielberg was compelled to option it, probably for more or less the reason Talese was compelled to write it. It was just so … odd.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Non-Zero-Sum Game: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

Amy Adams (right) in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

In most science fiction films, we know what the aliens want. They want to annihilate or enslave us (War of the Worlds, Independence Day); they want to befriend our youth (E.T.); or they want to use our oh-so-soft human bodies as incubators for their offspring (Alien). But what if they showed up unannounced one day, and gave no indication of what they wanted? How would the world respond? How would we go about trying to discern their intentions? That’s the question that drives the plot of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, but – and this should come as no surprise to any follower of his work – the plot is just the jumping-off point. It’s so much more than a simple “first contact” yarn: it’s one of the finest science-fiction films of recent memory.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Resonating Reverence: Rory Block’s Keepin’ Outta Trouble

Rory Block's newest album, the sixth in her Mentor Series, is a tribute to blues great Bukka White. (Photo: Sergio Kurhajec)

The remarkable guitarist and singer Rory Block has just released her sixth album in her “Mentor Series” for Stony Plain Records. Keepin’ Outta Trouble is a tribute to American country blues great Bukka White a.k.a. Booker T. Washington, who was born 110 years ago on November 12th. Since 2008, Block has released an album for each of her mentors: Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Like the other five albums in the series, Block has written half of the tracks, inspired by White's deeply moving music, which she says “resonated with my heartbeat.” For Block, who met White in 1965 in Greenwich Village, it was a “transformative” experience for the young singer, who was only 16 years of age when she first saw him in a small club: “His face was like a painting. He exuded awesome power and intensity.” It’s that intensity of spirit that charges her new album with passion, resulting in one of the most exhilarating records in the entire series.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ghost Town: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was released by Nordic Games in 2014.

Five months ago I shifted gears and began a strange and wonderful career in video game development. I fell into it by accident and, while I’m frequently astonished and overwhelmed with gratitude, it’s also illuminated a couple things for me. The first is that I am years behind on gaming news and developments. It’s like eleven-year-old me finished Ocarina of Time, spent 17 years doing some other inconsequential stuff, and woke up in a world where Virtual Reality is suddenly a thing and not in the kitschy, late 80s, "Burger King Kids Club" Kid Vid kind of way. Needless to say, I have a lot of catching up to do and this is how I can justify reviewing a game that’s two years old.

The other, perhaps more positive thing I’ve discovered is that no matter what I feel like playing, I’ll find someone within spitting distance who is just as excited about it as I am. This revelation has encouraged me to abandon the “fake it 'til you make it” model of fitting in with my co-workers and be upfront about the games I like (which are not always popular choices) and the games I couldn’t care less about. In the spirit of being my “most authentic” self, it’s time I admit that I fucking love point and click games. Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds and I’m still purchasing games that rely on a mechanic from the days of DOS. Successful point and clicks can boast some of the most ingenious video game storytelling – mostly because that’s literally all there is to them. So when a colleague suggested I check out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter it seemed like it’d be right up my alley. The horror adventure title from indie developer The Astronauts was distributed by Nordic Games. You play in the first-person perspective as paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, who responds to a fan letter inviting him to rural Wisconsin. The letter was sent by 16-year-old Ethan Carter, who has mysteriously vanished. Prospero arrives to investigate Carter’s disappearance and so the game begins.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Kings of War: Shakespeare’s War of the Roses

 Ramsey Nasr (on screen, and right) in Kings of War. (Photo: Jan Versweyveld, Barbican Theatre in London)

Though the Belgian director Ivo van Hove has been a vital force in European theatre for the last quarter of a century (he’s fifty-eight), New York theatregoers have only recently had a chance to sample his work. Over the last year, though, they’ve been blitzed with it, and he’s developed a zealous fan base. Last season he mounted Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on Broadway while his version of Miller’s A View from the Bridge was at the Young Vic transferred from London. At the beginning of this month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music included his four-and-a-half-hour Kings of War, produced with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, of which he is general director, in its Next Wave Festival.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Power of Music and Remembering in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Nov 7. (Photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

 “Music which is so dear to me, and without which, more than likely, I couldn’t live a day.”
– Dmitri Shostakovich, quoted by Madeline Thien.

Montreal-based writer Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf Canada, 2016), has garnered a passel of accolades – including winning this year’s Governor General’s award for fiction, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, and being shortlisted for the Man Booker Award. I am pleased to report that the novel’s enthusiastic reception is warranted for several reasons. Thien’s vividly drawn characters span three generations against a panoramic backdrop of more than sixty years of tumultuous Chinese history: the civil era of the late 1940s; land reform and the harebrained scheme of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s that, through famine, cost the lives of thirty five million; the fanaticism engendered by the decade-long Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s; and the hopeful expectations of the 1989 pro-democracy protests followed by the tragic massacres in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing of these last two periods is especially gripping. This magisterial novel, Thien’s third and most ambitious in scope, speaks to the enduring influence of music – in this case, Western classical music – when a change in official tastes can render that music and its practitioners dangerously bourgeois. Finally, it is a reminder of storytelling’s power, particularly in a state where the historical narrative has been altered or suppressed to suit the dictates of the regime’s shifting political permutations.