Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Cheer: Our Seasonal Flicks

For those who celebrate Christmas, we wish you a very Merry one. For those who don't, be cheerful anyway. For everybody who loves watching movies, here's a few of our seasonal favourites.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deserving Better: The Film Adaptation of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version

In Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times, his new biography of author Mordecai Richler, Foran makes mention of the fact that noted Canadian producer Robert Lantos optioned Richler’s last novel Barney’s Version pretty much as soon as it was finished in 1998. The initial plan was for Richler to write the screenplay with his friend, director Ted Kotcheff, behind the camera. They had already worked together on two other Richler adaptations, the superb The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), and the uneven, but still highly engaging, Joshua Then and Now (1985). I’d like to think that in some alternate universe that pairing did indeed come to pass where the film adaptation of Barney’s Version came out before Mordecai died in 2001 and garnered praise as one of the finest Canadian movies ever (and picking up a slew of awards, besides). But, alas, in our real world, Lantos wasn't happy with Richler’s drafts and after the writer died, the movie took a long time coming before finally seeing the light of day in 2010. Unfortunately, it did so saddled with a mediocre director, a neophyte screenwriter, and with far too many significant and damaging changes made from the book.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is it Such a Wonderful Life?

Back in December 1990, on the CBC radio show Prime Time, host and film critic Geoff Pevere and I decided to re-assess the popularity of Frank Capra's Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life (1946). We felt that it was ample time to examine why this particular picture had become such a holiday classic. Neither of us actually hated the film; in fact, we thought some of the small town neurosis that David Lynch would expertly dissect years later in Blue Velvet (1986) had its roots in It's a Wonderful Life. But we were baffled that audiences over the years had viewed this movie as an uplifting and heart-tugging affair. To us, there was something much more unsettling lurking in this material, a looming shadow that the picture ultimately sought to avoid. So we decided to head straight for the darkness. Someone should have warned us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Subject Over Style - Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times

Nearly ten years after his death, Canadian writer/provocateur Mordecai Richler is still in the news. Two MontrĂ©al city councilors are facing flack from Quebec nationalists for daring to suggest that the city name a street after one of its most famous native sons. The film adaptation of Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, is opening wide on Christmas Eve. And writer Charles Foran has penned the ultimate Richler bio, Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada, 2010), a problematic but fascinating look into the life of one of the most original, free thinking and courageous writers of our age. 

As a Montreal-born Jew, though one who came along almost thirty years later than Mordecai and grew up in the suburban (but mostly Jewish) City of Cote St. Luc, far from his St.Urbain Street haunts, I have always found Richler to an interesting enigma. And not the least because my own community had such ambivalent feelings towards him. As I wrote in my 2001 obituary for him in the Jerusalem Report magazine, the Jewish community went from being uncomfortable with his often scathing, satirical, warts-and-all portraits of his people to viewing him as something of a hero, even someone to be proud of, because of his forthrightness in confronting Quebec’s separatist and/or intolerant French nationalists. Mordecai was particularly scathing in his disdain for the province’s asinine language laws which decreed that English, one of Canada’s two official languages, be deemed second rate or non-existent on street and business signs. You get a vivid sense of how strongly he felt about those oppressive laws in his superb non-fiction book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem For a Divided Country (1992). 

I must confess that I, too, changed in my early views about Mordecai Richer. Though my Jewish high school, Bialik, featured The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) on its curriculum, many of the Jews around me, including my parents, disapproved of him and being an insecure and somewhat sheltered young person, I was uncomfortable with how he wrote about his own. (I still maintain that the non-Jews in Duddy Kravitz come across consistently better than the Jews in the book.) Later, I loosened up and began to recognize that Richler was, in fact, proud of being a Jew – like most Jewish writers but not actors, singers etc., he never anglicized his name – and, in fact, was dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy, self-serving nature and bombast of the Jewish establishment and its most prominent citizens. That’s something that I can relate to, having had more than a little, and mostly unpleasant contact with some of those very same types of Jewish machers. (That’s Yiddish for movers and shakers.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pulling Punches: The Fighter

When David O. Russell directed Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), he took familiar genre material and then with flair and originality not only made it less familiar, he made it dazzling. In Flirting with Disaster, about an adopted man (Ben Stiller) who sets out to find his birth parents, Russell turned this hilarious sojourn into a whole new version of screwball heaven. (His first picture, Spanking the Monkey, a 1994 comedy about incestuous urges, served merely as a warm-up.)

Three Kings began as a satire about the 1991 Iraq War as seen through the eyes of three grunts who live average lives, but are looking for glory. When they seek to steal gold from Saddam’s bunker to enrich their own coffers, they find instead that their lives are dramatically altered when their quest becomes a rescue mission to save the lives of refugees. As a war movie, only Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) was its equal in the undaunting way it blended tragedy and farce.

Russell faltered with the highly ambitious, but tone-deaf, 2004 comedy ♥ Huckabees which began as a fascinating existential mystery, but then got bogged down in a chaotic, shambling satire about corporatism and environmentalism. (Since the corporate heads, the environmentalists and the philosophers all end up as fools; it was tough to figure out just what Russell was lampooning here.) Even so, Russell was certainly an original who turned corners that you never saw coming. You felt like you were experiencing traditional stories opened up in radically new ways.

In The Fighter, however, David O. Russell walks a straighter line. The movie is about the rise of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to become Welterweight Champion. But Russell pulls no rabbits out of his hat this time; he pulls his punches instead. It begins as a riveting character study of how Ward, from the working-class neighbourhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, had to overcome a complicated family dynamic to be the boxer he was destined to be, but the picture soon retreats into traditional inspirational territory. Which is another way of saying that The Fighter is sure to be a holiday hit.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Refreshing a Classic: Soulpepper Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol

Every Christmas, in every major theatre centre around the world, there seems to be a version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the boards. On Broadway, you might see Star Trek's Patrick Stewart; on London's West End, any number of accomplished British actor have essayed the role; and five times in the last nine years, the acclaimed theatre company, Soulpepper, has mounted a production in Toronto (this year, it runs until December 30th).

The problem that any adaptor, director or actor doing this work faces is trying to find ways to make it fresh. Thanks to the book, and of course the brilliant Alastair Sim film version from 1951, we all know the material by heart, so it is difficult to have any measure of surprise for the audience. There's also never a need, ever, to warn people about spoilers ahead. Heck, we all know the last line: “God bless us, everyone,” and that it's delivered by Tiny Tim.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Listening: A Retrospective Soundtrack To Live By

As the troublesome decade draws to a close, people are compiling their top-ten lists for various art forms. I’d like to think back instead on a half-century of popular music that was able to, as a traditional gospel line suggests, “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Each tune has stuck with me. Not every one of the past 50 years is represented; some supplied multiple selections -- I could barely escape the 1960s, in fact. It wasn’t easy to choose from among so many worthy contenders. My apologies to the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Jesse Winchester, Bonnie Raitt and countless others. Disco and hip-hop aside, these are a few of a nostalgic Baby Boomer’s highly subjective favorite things: