Saturday, November 20, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Beyond Rangoon

It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.(Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last week, after spending 15 of the last 21 years imprisoned, adds another layer of poignancy for the contemporary viewer.)

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Next Three Days: Paul Haggis’s Botched Remake

Over the years, movie remakes have gained something of a disreputable reputation among filmgoers. But while there are no shortage of remade turkeys (Breathless, Vanilla Sky), many other remakes have been quite good, even great. The makers of The Birdcage (1996) did a nice job of translating La cage aux folles (1978), that funny French farce about a gay couple (one of whom dresses in drag) pretending to be straight to American shores. It deftly substituted political divisions for the class ones in the Gallic movie. Likewise, the folks behind Unfaithful (2002) perfectly captured the darkness and passion lurking behind placid bourgeois exteriors that allowed Claude Chabrol’s French original, La Femme infidèle (1968), to stand out from the pack. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), notwithstanding Brad Pitt’s grating, excessive performance, was a terrific extension of Chris Marker’s brilliant apocalyptic, time-travel SF short, La jetée (1962). And, of course, John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) improved on the 1931 movie of the same name (and another made in 1936 called Satan Meets A Lady), so much so that very few people are aware that Huston’s was actually a remake, let alone the third version.

Diane Kruger & Vincent Lindon
By those lights, The Next Three Days, an American adaptation of Fred Cavayé’s fine 2008 debut French thriller Pour elle (For Her) ought to have been a slam dunk since its premise was so striking and plot friendly. The French movie revolved around an ordinary Parisian teacher, Julien Aucler (Vincent Lindon), whose wife Diane (Diane Kruger) has been imprisoned for murder. She’s innocent, but damning circumstantial evidence means she’s going to be locked up for many years to come. Determined to do right by his wife, and their young son Oscar (Lancelot Roch), and utterly convinced of her innocence, he sets out to see if he can find a way to bust her out of prison and escape the country with his family. Great idea, terrific execution; a foolproof template for a remake, you’d think. That is if Hollywood hadn’t made two mistakes in the process: 1) They handed over the reins of the project to Paul Haggis, hack director (Crash) and screenwriter (Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale); and 2) they decided to deviate from the tight and economical 96 minute French movie and delivered a bloated, excessive 135 minute American version in its place. Big surprise: the remake sucks.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yesterday Don’t Matter If It’s Gone: An Actor’s Legacy

Jake Weber
Although the challenges of Jake Weber’s acting career are nothing compared to the vicissitudes of his real life, the fact that CBS has just canceled Medium – now in its seventh season – probably means he’ll be looking for work in the near future.

Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, describes his former student as “incredibly intelligent, very gifted and just a down-to-earth, personable, wonderful, calm guy. It’s so easy to communicate with Jake.”

On the television series, Weber’s role has been that of a calm guy named Joe DuBois whose spouse, portrayed by Patricia Arquette, communicates somewhat uneasily with the dearly departed. While raising three daughters in Arizona, he’s a technology wizard and she uses her clairvoyance to help the Phoenix prosecutor.

“My character is a man of science and his wife sees dead people,” Weber says. “But the crime and spooky stuff are a way to explore an American marriage.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Transsiberian (2008)

With the release last weekend of the latest Tony Scott/Denzel Washington runaway train flick, Unstoppable, I thought it was appropriate to look back at another (sometimes) runaway train film that did not receive the love, nor a proper theatrical release in North America: 2008's Transsiberian.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island), Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes, the original version of Vanilla Sky), Kate Mara (127 Hours) and Ben Kingsley (also Shutter Island), Transsiberian looked to have the goods to at least get a proper release. However, at its widest, the film managed to make it into only 154 theatres in Canada and the US (not one in Toronto, though, as I have no memory of this picture ever opening here). It made all of $2.2 million at the North American box office before being consigned to DVD/Cable TV/airplane oblivion. Don't get me wrong, this is no masterpiece, nor even a lost treasure, but it is a credible, entertaining thriller that, after a logy start, picks up steam and rattles on very successfully to its conclusion. And it has some things that are missing from the vast majority of big-budget action pictures that do get a proper release: reasonably believable characters and mostly logical thrills.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Solitary Man: The Crucible of Michael Douglas

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction.

For most of his movie career, Michael Douglas has built his box office success as the everyman who always gets his way – even when he loses. Whether he's playing a financial sleaze in Wall Street (1987), or the cocky adventurer in Romancing the Stone (1984), Douglas always finds a way to lure the audience to his side. But it's not because he has the suave romantic allure of an Errol Flynn, or that he plays creepy in the appealingly baroque style of James Woods, or performs in the high-wire theatrics of Nicolas Cage. Douglas builds his appeal by turning the everyman into a solitary man. His pictures almost always feature him as the sharp cookie who has everything, a loving family in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Disclosure (1994), or the financial world at his beck and call in Wall Street, but somebody is always out to take it all away. Even though he has put the wheels in motion towards his own destruction, he becomes exonerated as the victim of forces beyond his control. Perhaps that's the key to the appeal of these movies; the mass audience is never asked to wonder what Michael Douglas has done to earn all this grief.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #3: Margaret Drabble (1987)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. (See some of the others here and here.)

author Margaret Drabble
During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of no longer being able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an Empire. So (just as in the United States) England also elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher, both larger than life figures, never came close to restoring anything glorious. But they did both change the political landscape dramatically. In their midst. many spoke out against their policies - including author Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way). 

In one section of Talking Out of Turn, I looked at England during that decade. And I wanted to include individuals who both predated Margaret Thatcher and were also contemporaries of her. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to have spoken to author Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), film directors Lindsay Anderson (If...) and Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette) and they helped flesh out the past and the present. But Margaret Drabble was a writer who crossed over from both the Seventies to the Eighties. She not only became an outspoken critic of the Thatcher government, she also understood the price her policies would exact in the future. In this 1987 interview, Drabble delved into the effect of Thatcherism on human values. The Radiant Way, her study of three friends begins right on the eve of the Thatcher era. It was her first work of fiction in seven years.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rescue Me: Flawed But Arresting

The following blog contains spoilers.

Is Rescue Me the best flawed show on television? I’d argue it is, but ever since its debut in the summer of 2004, the FX series (from the same cable network that brought you The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Damages) has divided audiences, who either like its incisive drama and outrageous humour or decry its juvenile tendencies and perpetually adolescent characters. Actually, they’re both right as this maddeningly uneven TV series can be as frustrating as it is engrossing.

Centering on the actions of the firefighters of Ladder Company 62 (aka 62 Truck), a Harlem-based firehouse, post 9/11, Rescue Me is an ambitious show that tries, and often succeeds, in capturing a specific moment in time: that of the slowly recovering shell-shocked New York City and the attendant worries, fears and attitudes held by those brave heroes who paid such a high price during the September 11 terrorist attacks. (An estimated and unprecedented 343 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers.) But this is no reverent show, extolling people only at their heroic best. The firemen, led by Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) are a profane, womanizing and, in the case of Gavin, an alcoholic lot, as apt to cheat on their partners as they are to risk their lives by running into a burning building.