Saturday, March 13, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: The Children of Huang Shi

It’s bad enough when good movies get dumped on DVD without first getting a theatrical release. But it’s even worse when the DVD release also gets ignored. (DVD reviewers often miss these films because they either don’t know they exist, or their editors don’t care enough to HAVE anyone know they exist.) Whatever the reason, The Children of Huang Shi certainly deserves a better fate than its remaindered status in the Blockbuster cut-out bin.

Based on the true story of George Hogg (Jonathan Ryhs-Meyers), a British photo journalist during the early days of the Japanese occupation of China in 1938, The Children of Huang Shi is about how an opportunistic journalist turns into a true humanitarian. After pretending to be a Red Cross aid worker (in order to sneak into Nanjing to get a big story), Hogg confronts horrific Japanese atrocities and gets captured after photographing them. He gets rescued by a Communist resistance fighter (Chow Yun-Fat) who arranges to have him sent to an orphanage in Huanghshi to assist Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), the American nurse who is running it. While he’s initially reluctant to care for the 60 orphan boys living there (and they are alternately not too pleased to have him caring for them), he gains their respect by giving them the kind of attention they’d long given up hope of ever getting again.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Happily Disrespectful: Jamie Cullum at Massey Hall (March 9/10)

You have to have either supreme confidence in your abilities or sport quite a large set to let somebody as amazing as Imelda May and her tight, tight band open for you. Jamie Cullum, the young British jazz pianist and singer did that just this past Tuesday at Massey Hall in one of those concerts that will always be in my memory bank.

Imelda May is an Irish rockabilly singer who's relatively unknown over here, but after her high-energy opening act, she made 2000 new fans. With a voice that is a mix of Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and a bit of Loretta Lynn, May got Massey Hall humming and did what any opening act should do, warm us up and leave us wanting more. As my wife said after May's brilliant 40-minute set "what the hell was that?" And she meant it as the highest compliment. We were here to see Cullum and we were given an amazing gift for showing up on time. At the mid-point of her set, May told us that the up-coming Cullum would "blow your minds". She was right. He had little choice after her performance.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Love: Or the (Sometime) Tyranny of the Cable Networks

Earlier this year I wrote in Critics at Large that HBO’s Big Love, the series about a polygamist family in Utah, was likely the best show currently on television - at least it was when I wrote the piece. But the series’ truncated fourth season, which ended on Sunday, was, regrettably, mostly a bust.

More to the point, the show was reduced to nine episodes this year, after being allotted ten of them last season and twelve each for its first two outings. I don’t know why HBO has taken this tack regarding the slowly shrinking lengths of the series’ seasons – I can’t imagine that its creators Will Scheffer and Mark Olson want fewer episodes to play with – but this season was definitely affected by its shorter run. I also suspect that the network may have tampered with the show, insisting that it move faster, be less subtle and cram more plot points onto its storyline, in order to garner higher ratings by attracting audiences who want a glitzier, more dramatic product. That’s the only conclusion I can come up, without being privy to the behind the scenes machinations of the series, but for whatever reason, Big Love this season was no longer the smooth, flawlessly plotted and carefully laid out series I had come to love.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thrillington (1977)

It’s been commonly assumed over the years that it was John Lennon who was the true avant-garde performer in The Beatles and Paul McCartney was - literally - the straight man. That view developed mostly out of Lennon’s bold outspokenness in both his personality and music, while McCartney submerged his personality in the craft of writing songs. Lennon possessed a romantic spirit, but it was one that made his art real and intimate to the listener. McCartney however was perceived as whimsical and impersonal (i.e. a light-weight). Of course, this is a rather simplistic perception because Lennon was equally whimsical in “Bungalow Bill”; just as McCartney could rock hard in “I’m Down.” It was McCartney after all who came up with the tape-loop experiments that Lennon incorporated into “Tomorrow Never Knows.” McCartney was also the first to create a sonic collage called “Carnival of Light” (still unreleased) before Lennon and Ono did their own “Revolution #9” on the White Album. During that period, John Lennon stayed home to live a more isolated domestic existence, while Paul McCartney was going to art shows and listening to Stockhausen.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Roland Emmerich's Putrid Popcorn: 2012

A scene from Roland Emmerich's 2012.

Roland Emmerich is a sadist and his film 2012 is reprehensible. Strong words for what is ostensibly a 'popcorn movie', but the words are earned. This is the third time now that he has destroyed the world (Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and this), fourth time if you include his earlier film, Moon 44 (1990), where the world is already basically destroyed and maybe fifth if his first picture, The Noah's Ark Principal (1984), is included, and I doubt whether he's done yet. In one other picture, Godzilla (1998), he only leveled New York City. Emmerich seems to take some sort of twisted glee in watching the world laid waste. In the post 9/11 and 2004 Tsunami world, there's something deeply wrong with someone who repeatedly returns to this material, especially the films that were made after these catastrophes. Isn't it enough that we are witnessing it in the real world? Do we need to be 'entertained' by this?

Emmerich is on record saying that he views these films as a warning. He's even been wrong-headedly embraced by the environmentalist movement for this and his previous destructo-pic, The Day After Tomorrow. In 2012, he essentially steals the premise of the far-superior movie The Core (everybody seems to be stealing from this little-seen picture, James Cameron stole the word 'unobtainium' from it). In 2009, a brave, misunderstood scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers the earth's core is heating up caused by catastrophic sun flares, and the earth will essentially destroy itself in the very near future (The Core's Aaron Eckhart and 2012's Chiwetel Ejiofor are interchangeable). A plan to save as much of humanity as possible is launched. Ejiofor's prediction is off, however. It turns out that centuries before, the ancient Mayans had predicted that the world would end on December 21, 2012, and of course they are right. The mad scramble is then on to get 'the lucky few' to the 21st century equivalent of Noah's Ark, or in this case Arks.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Day After: Some (More) Thoughts On Oscar

Sometimes, there is indeed justice in the world. Watching The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for the Best Picture Academy award last night was gratifying, not only because Kathryn Bigelow’s war movie is by far the superior film but also because James Cameron’s dopey science-fiction epic Avatar never deserved anything more than special effects awards and that is just what it got. Interestingly enough, The Hurt Locker’s unlikely win seems to be a direct result of the one of the major changes that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made with this year’s edition of the show, which was increasing the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten movies. That wasn’t an innovation exactly but a return to the early days of the awards, when eight to twelve nominees were the norm. But the motives for doing it again were slightly different. Stung by complaints that the Best Picture award wasn’t being given out to popular Hollywood movies, going instead to independent or relatively unpopular films like Crash and No Country for Old Men, and strongly criticized last year for omitting the top grossing movie of the year, The Dark Knight, from the Best Picture category, the Oscar folk decided to broaden the field. They allowed box office hits such as The Blind Side and Avatar to compete alongside the artistic likes of The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, as well as lesser known movies like An Education and A Serious Man. The hope was that more viewers, especially younger ones, would start watching the Oscars, which had been declining in the ratings in recent years, and thus make the show more relevant to ordinary moviegoers, instead of appealing solely to cineastes. Early indications are that ratings for the Oscar telecast were up significantly, but I suspect the results, i.e.: The Hurt Locker’s triumph, were not the result the Academy would have wanted them to be.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reel to Real: Oscar's Docs

Every year at the Oscars, people concentrate primarily on the Best Picture and Acting categories. But I always like focusing on the Best Documentary Feature section because the people who make them – good and bad pictures alike – have something more at stake than the box office results. This is often why their speeches are either the most moving (or the most proselytizing). Of the five nominated films this year, I’ve only seen three of them.

It’s often been said that you are what you eat, but after seeing Robert Kenner’s incendiary documentary Food Inc. — which examines how the fast food industry radically transformed food production in North America into a stomach-churning enterprise — you just might want to redefine those terms. While Food Inc. is thankfully not alarmist in tone, the facts it uncovers are nevertheless alarming. Using as his guides author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal) and UC Berkeley School of Journalism Professor Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Delight), Kenner examines how the mass-produced food we now consume is not only lacking in proper nutrients; it may also contain potentially harmful bacteria.

The story begins with McDonalds, who set the template for cheap assembly-line food production, then shows how American farms have now become equally uniform — and at the horrible price of creating unhealthy working conditions for both workers and livestock. We may end up spending less for the food, but we pay dearly for it with increasing cases of diabetes, obesity and E. coli outbreaks. It’s unfortunate, though, that because many of the corporate industrial heads like Monsanto refused to be interviewed for the film, Food Inc. ends up lacking a larger dimension than its agit-prop intent. (Thankfully, due to the co-operation of Walmart, they come across far more ecologically minded than usually assumed.) Like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc. lays out its argument clearly, but it’s only one side of the story. To be a truly great documentary, Food Inc. needs a few other conflicting morsels of thought to chew on.

On the other hand, The Cove, a documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, has nothing going for it but its agit-prop intentions. It clobbers the audience so intensely that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s aesthetic you’ll be found guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. To quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists (just add melodrama and stir), The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses nakedly visceral techniques to outrage its viewers.

Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks), but due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the methods of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the team organize their battle plan like a commando team. And the footage they get is as horrifying as you can imagine. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, it seems crudely manipulative to use that footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters. (I somehow doubt that footage of the group massacring electric eels would have the same impact on the movie audience.)

As well as directing the film, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society. So The Cove has an ecological agenda that it proudly wears on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this the movie traffics in the bad faith that Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is powerful and effective and it outrages and disgusts. But it also gets the audience cheering when the bad guys are outted. The one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers not only encourages you to think, the picture’s subject – the ethics of political activism – stands in sharp contrast to what passes for activism today. When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he wasn’t just staging guerrilla theatre (as were Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies), he set out to show how American foreign policy towards Southeast Asia and Vietnam was built on a series of lies. Ellsberg had originally been part of what became the strategy behind the Vietnam War, as both an analyst for the Defense Department and a marine, who first held that if the country went communist, it would be part of a domino theory that would ultimately plunge the region into Stalinist totalitarianism. While it turned out that the country eventually did plunge into Stalinist oppression after the Americans left in 1975, with more than one million Vietnamese fleeing by boat (half of whom, ironically, would land in the U.S.), Ellsberg’s change of heart towards the war was justified. He spoke out because a series of Presidents, from Truman to Nixon, had cooked the facts to support the need for U.S. involvement. (His first day working for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was the same day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident when North Vietnamese ships were believed to have fired torpedoes at U.S. boats. Although the attack was known to be false, President Johnson decided to use this episode to expand the war.) The Pentagon Papers, which were released to The New York Times and other publications, were essentially the secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg went public – risking prison and career – with these documents on the principle that supporting fabrications and brutal dictatorships in order to fight communism was immoral.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (the phrase Henry Kissinger used to describe Ellsberg) is told largely from Daniel Ellsberg’s point of view, along with supporting interviews with the late Howard Zinn and self-damning comments from Richard Nixon’s famous secret tapes, but the film-makers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have also fashioned another crusade. Besides being a compelling historical saga, it is also a personal story of how a man of conscience was motivated to act on the principle of positive rebellion and how those actions changed him from the man that he once was. It’s a little bracing to recall a time when mainstream journalists were after more than just the careerist desire to be hip and consumer friendly. No doubt that careers got made doing groundbreaking stories like The Pentagon Papers, but the risks were also more dangerous. (The Pentagon Papers inspired Nixon to set up his secret government and led to his downfall with Watergate.) Of course, it would be too easy and too simple today to equate Vietnam with the war in Iraq and how pack journalism (like cliques in high school) prefers to go with the flow, but The Most Dangerous Man in America gives one pause over what was gained by Ellsberg’s actions and what’s been lost since.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.