Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Holiday Obsession: Cinematic Sharks

Robert Shaw as Sam Quint, in Jaws (2005).

On America’s annual Fourth of July this month, I lazily tuned into a late-night cable broadcast of the ultimate Independence Day movie: Jaws, which haunted my visits to the beach – and that of countless others – long after it was released in 1975. This time around, adrenaline-fueled insomnia kept me glued to the TV for the film’s next two sequels, which I’d never seen before. But I was too pooped by 2:45 a.m. to keep my eyes open for Jaws: The Revenge. I can only assume that a franchise getting sillier by the year had reached an apex of silliness by its fourth go-round.

This guilty-pleasure marathon came despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s career-making hit (he only directed the first one) and George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars forever altered the landscape of cinema in my country. (Or should I say the seascape and galaxyscape?) The more introspective narratives with gravitas of the early 1970s gave way to action and adventure, a scenario that bombards us with one mindless summer blockbuster after another, few of them ever as original as their lower-tech antecedents of three decades ago.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The ‘Millennium’ Movies: 'Stieg Larsson' Adaptations Fall Short of Brilliant Books

The Girl Who Played With Fire, which opens in North America today, is a significant improvement on its predecessor, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, released last spring. (Both films are adapted from the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular novels and make up the first two thirds of his ‘Millennium’ trilogy.) Whereas the first film in the series, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was a clunky affair, lurching from scene to scene before slowing down to breathe, the second movie, with Daniel Alfredson at the helm, is a smoother, more consistent and pleasing experience.

Much of the reason for that is Alfredson’s superior skills as a director – both he and Oplev have TV backgrounds and credits I am not familiar with – which is good news for those awaiting the final film in the series, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, also directed by Alfredson. But to be fair to Oplev, there was quite a bit of exposition to cram into The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which at over 2 & 1/ 2 hours is about half an hour longer than The Girl Who Played With Fire. (The Swedish cut of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo clocks in at three hours, which may mean it flows better than the shorter version that reached North America.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Michael Golamco' s Year Zero

In one of history’s most insidious social experiments, after the April 1975 overthrow of the Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge began trying to erase that ancient civilization’s culture and traditions. During a single day, these “rice paddy nationalists” emptied the capital city of Phnom Penh. Many died during the forced march of two million residents into the countryside, where they were enslaved in agricultural labor camps, working night and day without adequate food. People with an apparent education -- even anyone who wore eyeglasses -- were executed. The insane goal was to return the populace to a peasant economy with no class divisions, no monetary system, no schools, no hospitals and, for a devout Buddhist society, no religion. Torture was commonplace. Surgical experiments were conducted without anesthesia. The forces of leader Pol Pot, who had been a university student in France, even murdered babies. He predicted that his ultra-Marxist minions would “do away with all vestiges of the past” and described the new era, in which an estimated 1.7 million citizens were killed, as Year Zero.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Petrolheads: Our Love Affair With the Car

Ever since I played on the remains of my maternal grandfather's one-and-only car back in the 1960s, I've been fascinated by cars and driving. My grandfather owned a Model T Ford that, once it was no longer viable for the road, he had turned into a tractor to work his land. By the time I got to it, it was a rusting hulk that sat on my uncle's property. We kids used to hop on the old seat and pretend we were driving anywhere but there.

Though I've had a life-long love affair with cars, I've actually never, technically, owned one. Both cars my wife and I have owned have been in her name. So it goes. Yet, I love the idea of the freedom that a car gives you; I love the speed and I love to drive fast. Just not as fast or as well as Nelson Monteiro (more on him in a second). Unfortunately, living in the city, with the congestion, incompetent drivers, irriating stoplights and unrealistic speed limits, it's taken much of the joy out it for me. So, I live vicariously through a long-running, very politically incorrect BBC series called Top Gear (BBC Canada, Monday through Friday at 9 pm -- repeats of the 2002 through 2009 seasons; new shows, Saturdays 9pm). The show has been on TV for almost 33 years (with a one-year break between 2001 and 2002 when it was reconfigured into its current format). The show, hosted by three archetypes (Jeremy Clarkson, the tall, paunchy, man/boy; James May, the long-haired, intellectual, musician who's nickname is Captain Slow due to his, by the show's standards, unwillingness to drive fast; and Richard Hamilton, sort of the 'cute Beatle' of the show who's nickname is The Hampster because he's not as tall as the oafish Clarkson), is pretty basic. Using humour of a decidedly 'laddish' variety, they start most episodes by showcasing some sort of super car (usually an Audi, Maserati, Jaguar, Ferrari, Porsche, you get the idea) on their track. All three are skilled drivers, with Clarkson being the best, Hamilton the most reckless and May, well, his nickname is Captain Slow for a reason. Clarkson or Hamilton almost always take on this part of the show. They race around the track while they discuss a 'fast car's' strengths or weaknesses. There's usually a lot of speed, lots of spins, tons of smoke and a bunch of silly showing off.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Notes From a Critic at Large (Part Two)

Along with some of the forgettable pictures I mentioned yesterday, there was one riveting movie I did catch up with in recent months – and it never turned up in a theatre. Killshot (2008) is a tip-top crime thriller featuring Mickey Rourke in the role in which he should have been acclaimed.

As good as Rourke was in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), the picture was shaped around our knowledge of the damage Rourke did to his career after the promise he displayed; first in a small role as an arsonist in Body Heat (1981), and then in a major part in Barry Levinson’s autobiographical Diner (1982). After showing some of the flair of Brando, with his soft machismo and sweet charm, Rourke (to paraphrase Brando in On the Waterfront) quickly took a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Leading a life of excess and self-destruction, Rourke’s career basically took a header. The Wrestler was his unapologetic calling card for redemption, a celebrated comeback, and he delivered a touching and bruising performance as a man making amends with what little he had left. But his life flooded into that performance to such a degree that you couldn’t really separate the actor from the man. (Brando had done a similar thing in Last Tango in Paris but he used that role to examine the nature of masculine aggression that he had so dramatically defined early in his career. In The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s redemption story confined Rourke, who could only trace the lines of a promised life now gutted.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Notes From a Critic at Large (Part One)

Ever since “losing” my job as a freelance film critic for Metro Newspaper last fall, I’ve spent very little time going out to movies. Whereas in the past thirty years, as a professional critic, I used to see about three films a week, I’ve been lucky to see three movies in a theatre in the last five months. I’ve simply lost the heart for it. But I’ve also been seeing signs that films aren’t getting any better, either.

Looking at Russell Crowe’s grim, purposeful expression on the billboards for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, the movie seemed to be issuing a threat rather than enticing audiences to see it. Besides, I had already seen that glum look of Crowe’s way back in Ridley Scott’s equally dour Gladiator (2000). (On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed watching Crowe in Scott’s inconsequential, but lovely 2006 comedy, A Good Year, which most people had ignored, or dismissed.) Witnessing the collection of stooges (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider) on posters for Grown Ups, the film seemed to be arrogantly daring you to defy its potential stupidity. (Stupid can be fun when it’s smart stupid. Dumb stupid, on the other hand, is always a drag.)

Lately, I’ve been working on my new book and catching up with reading, music and some films that were gathering dust at the foot of my television. Movies I’ve caught up with on television have been largely stupefying. Law Abiding Citizen, for instance, is one of the most incoherent thrillers I’ve seen in years. Clyde Shelton (Gerald Butler) witnesses his wife raped and his daughter killed in a home invasion. During the trial, Philadelphia prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) tells him that one of the two criminals will get a light conviction due to botched forensic evidence. Rice ultimately makes a deal with the most brutal of the offenders (the guy who did the raping and killing), so that they can fry his accomplice. Shelton feels betrayed and ultimately gets revenge on the killers, the prosecutor and the whole damn city of Philadelphia. Director F. Gary Gray (2003's The Italian Job) starts out by staging scenes more outlandish than Michael Winner’s ugly vigilante fantasy Death Wish (1974), but he realizes (soon enough) that, with the popularity of torture porn in mainstream horror pictures (Saw, Hostel, etc.), he better turn Shelton into Dexter. As a result, Shelton only mutilates those he finds responsible for heinous crimes. But in order to explain how Shelton is able to continue wreaking havoc, even while in prison, Gray (and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) concoct a ridiculous subplot about Shelton having connections to black ops in the CIA. (Apparently, his black ops training enabled Shelton to dig tunnels between his solitary cell and a garage he happened to own nearby thus allowing him to prowl the city unnoticed.) While a number of good actors (Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb) try to save face by gamely following the dots in the story, the charmless Gerard Butler can do nothing to cover the preposterousness of the avenging father.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Crossover Standard: Renee Fleming's Dark Hope

Crossover is a term used in the music business that refers to an artist from one genre "crossing over" to another. Its most familiar definition refers to an opera singer taking a stab at either jazz or pop. For me, this approach has failed more often than succeeded in the history of popular music. Consider Kiri Te Kanawa's disappointing jazz album many years ago with Andre Previn, or Sting’s rather soulless Songs from the Labyrinth featuring the music of John Dowland.

For Renee Fleming, one of the finest voices to hit the operatic stage, her new album Dark Hope sets a new standard and level of achievement to which all other crossover artists shall be compared. This is a thoughtful record of songs from new bands such as Muse ("Endlessly") and Arcade Fire ("Intervention"), with more familiar songs from Peter Gabriel ("In Your Eyes") and Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah"). The music works for two important reasons: she sings in her own speaking voice and she took the time to prepare each song with a trusted producer. Clearly this was the way to go for Fleming, now 51 years of age, to inspire her in new ways beyond the regular schedule of opera performances. Her producer, David Kahne, wanted to create an album linked by her voice, rather than song selection, consequently what we hear is rather seamless; something akin to a euro-pop or dream-pop sound. And while that may not challenge my ears, I do find the mix irresistible.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.