Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Counterculture Chick: Melissa Leo's Half-Century

Ever since her first bona-fide professional acting gig on All My Children, an urban myth has dogged the 1984 casting of Melissa Leo: that she got the part during an audition process in which Julia Roberts was a fellow contender. The untruth has been repeated over the years on any number of celebrity web sites.

“It’s a bogus story,” Leo said during a February telephone interview from New York City, where she had gone to find a gown for Sunday night’s Academy Awards. ”While I was working on the show, I had the same manager as Eric Roberts, her brother. She was 15 then and visiting from Georgia. He asked if I’d take Jules to the set. She was a delightful, wacky teen who had no idea what to do with her life, except meet Sting.”

Leo’s progression from a one-year stint on the ABC soap opera to a best supporting actress Oscar nomination – for playing the feisty mother of two sons with prizefighting dreams and their many sisters in The Fighter – has followed a sometimes rocky road. After more than 70 films and TV programs, at 50 she is finally on the Hollywood A-list.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Off the Shelf: Laurent Cantet's The Class (2008)

Most movies about idealistic teachers who inspire their charges are usually sappy (To Sir, With Love and Dead Poet’s Society), brutal (Lean On Me), or sometimes self-consciously instructive (Freedom Writers). In short, they remain painfully predictable. Rarely do they delve into the dynamics of the educational process, but instead fall back on the more inspirational side of learning life’s "important lessons." Put another way: People don’t learn in these pictures; they get ennobled. Entre les Murs (The Class) is that rare exception. It examines the complex dynamic that develops between an inspired teacher and a motley group of students.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

LA's Rashomon: Graham Yost's Boomtown

Growing up in small-town Ontario north of Toronto, I didn't have much to do when it came to the arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, except for some regional theatre, the only way to gain exposure to the arts was through movies or television. In my early years, most of my 'education' came from the movies because in Parry Sound in the 1960s we received only one television station (the CBC affiliate in Barrie, now part of CTV). That education was rather slight: Disney flicks, James Bond double-bills, the latest Don Knotts comedy, plus the occasional interesting picture, such as Patton (1970) and Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969). By the time my family moved to the nearby town of Bracebridge I had yet to see any of Hollywood's great films from the so-called Golden Era. When we finally got cable in Bracebridge (about six months after we moved there), I began to discover the history of Hollywood films. My education really began thanks to TV Ontario (aka, TVO, a Canadian version of the US's PBS) and the shows Magic Shadows and Saturday Night At the Movies. Hosted by Elwy Yost, Magic Shadows was a Monday through Friday show that presented classic movies, uncut, broken into thirty minute chunks. In this pre-video/PVR era you either made sure you were in front of the set by 7:30 or you would miss a segment.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
On Saturday nights, Elwy returned with a two-complete-movies theme night. Again showing the films uncut, Yost would offer two movies connected by theme or director or actor. Between each film, he would offer interviews he'd conducted about these films with the stars or directors or critics. To say that Yost was an enthusiast was an understatement. His questions were often simple, never probing, but I didn't care. I was filling my head, finally, with some of the great films of Hollywood and seeing interviews with the people who had made them. I know that thanks to Elwy Yost my appreciation of films developed. At first, I reacted like he did: a fan grooving on Hollywood. It was only later that I understood movies were an art form and I began to develop a critical voice. Yost turned his son, Graham, into a film fanatic too. Elwy told the story on more than one occasion that he let his son stay up late to watch Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time. Elwy even let Graham skip school. The day after, Graham showed up at school with a note explaining that Graham had missed school because Elwy kept him up way past his bedtime watching what many still consider the greatest film ever made.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Acting Heaven: Blue Valentine

For a movie to succeed, usually all its most important elements, from the direction to the screenplay to the acting have to gel. A weak screenplay can sink a good concept, indifferent direction can undermine a strong story and problematic or bad acting can ruin a movie that might otherwise have been a fine effort. Yet sometimes superb performances can either enhance an otherwise mediocre film or occasionally bring an ordinary movie to heights that it would otherwise not scale. In the former category, Lucy Punch’s work in both Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and in Dinner for Schmucks, the American remake of the French film Le Diner de Cons, is an exemplar of that dictum. As an avaricious British prostitute in Allen’s lame film and as Steve Carrell's crazy American stalker in the uninspired remake, Punch, who is English, ran the gamut from drama to comedy and did it successfully and memorably in two accents. (The same compliment can be laid at the foot of James Franco for his diverse performances in 127 Hours and Howl; he’s the only reason to check out 127 Hours, the slight but fact based tale of a man driven to a desperate act when pinned under a rock in a deserted mountain area and he commands the screen in Howl, an otherwise uneven recreation of the 1950s obscenity trial of avant garde poet Allen Ginsberg.) In the latter category, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are so amazing in Blue Valentine that they elevate the film to many moments of greatness, particularly in the half dozen or so scenes where they’re at their rawest or most vulnerable.

Blue Valentine, the second film from writer – director Derek Cianfrance (his debut was
Brother Tied (1998), which I have not seen) tells the story, jumping back and forth from the present to the past, of a married couple, Dean Pereira (Gosling) and Cindy Heller (Williams). As the film begins, it’s apparent that their relationship is collapsing, despite their having a little girl who will be affected by their divorcing. In a bid to save their marriage, Dean convinces Cindy to leave their daughter with her father and check into a motel for a romantic idyll, which does not come off as expected. In the sequences set in the past, five years or so earlier, we see the genesis of their marriage, when they were still in love and where everything seemed promising vis a vis a happy future for the couple.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Smoke Without Fire: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953 & 1966)

Books used to scare me. Ray Bradbury’s famed science-fiction masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 recently reminded me of why. Books are highly influential especially when you let them fester. I remember nights in elementary school spent past my bedtime re-reading line after line of Mark Twain, or Robert Lewis Stevenson, to the point where Long John Silver and “Injun Joe” would chase me in my sleep. These works were brimming with creativity and adventure and sparked a curiosity that was bewildering, but their painted words also had the misfortune of scaring me stiff. Bradbury’s novel was set in a future where firemen reek of kerosene and burn books rather than cherish their beauty. Upon reading it, for the first time, I, too, re-discovered my worn out love for the printed page. I also discovered, quite accidentally, that a film adaptation made in 1966 existed. Initially I thought the film’s existence alone was contradictory to the book’s divine message. But after watching the film, I realized I was both right and wrong.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Poignant Stoicism: Amos Lee's Mission Bell

If only everyone could articulate their heartaches and breakdowns like Amos Lee. Mission Bell, the fourth album from this former elementary school teacher, offers a polished blend of country, blues, folk, gospel and soul all wrapped up and presented with the upmost poignant stoicism. In this sombre memoir, Amos offers twelve introspective reviews of everyday life, loss and learning. He also confirms his diverse and prolific abilities to cascade musical genres.

Mission Bell’s lead off tracks, with the brooding “El Camino” and “Violin,” displays Lee’s talents in contemporary folk and country. “El Camino”yes, what would a country singer be without an automobile reference – radiates images of memory, moving on and spiritual cleansing. Lee revisits this tune, arguably the best one on the album, later with idol Willie Nelson. “Violin” visits the pain of living in the moment, surrounded by the pressures of the world while hoping for someone to pull you through. He admits that, “Lately I have been heading for a breakdown,” while watching a number of (all too common) heartbreaking scenes such as “lovers using words as ammunition.” All the while, the musician never loses his composure, or delivery, assuring the listener that Amos is never going to lose it himself. Lee continues to explore various sounds and styles through the haunted folk ballad Out in the Cold. He even explores his Bill Withers side as he belts out “Jesus,” and applies his bluegrass, gospel abilities with “Cup of Sorrow.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mirror Man - Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Kenneth Bowser's absorbing documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, examines the life and tragic death of a political troubadour whose music perfectly mirrored the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture. He does so by suggesting that Ochs, whose songs included "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Draft Dodger Rag," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and "There But For Fortune," helped define the protest song movement. But the movie also shows how Ochs was undone by his affliction of manic depression that only escalated with the collapse of the left-wing idealism of the sixties. Bowser's view isn't wrong, exactly, but there's an even larger theme that lies unexplored (even though it's touched on) throughout the movie. In telling the story of a mirror man, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune also suggests that, by being a mirror who reflects, Phil Ochs was more a reflection of his times rather than a man who could help define and shape them. When those times were over, the personality - and the man - disappeared.

Phil Ochs
The topical song culture of the sixties, in which Ochs became an integral part, grew out of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement. The music of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Odetta was literally ripped from the headlines of the daily news. Their songs, which spoke of injustice, racism and inequality, also carried the hope of building a new nation, one they felt lived up to the democratic principles that laid within the country's founding documents. Building on the spirit of Kennedy's New Frontier in 1960, the folk music movement, that percolated in the bohemian enclave of New York's Greenwich Village, dedicated itself to the idea that songs could actually change society. By drawing on the socialist realist legacy of the old left that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they believed that the songs themselves took prominence not the singers. To this community of activists, the performer was merely an instrument who brought forth both change and political awareness through their music. In true socialist realist fashion, the artist was defined more by the composition rather than the other way around. While some folk artists, like Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk, had strong enough personalities to prevent themselves from disappearing into their topical music (and Dylan simply cut himself loose from the ideological strait-jacket of the movement by embracing the Golden Calf of pop music where his individuality could thrive), Phil Ochs found himself a world - and a cause - that gave him a personality (and a purpose) that he might otherwise have lacked. As the movie finally reveals, too, his devotion to the cause obviously hid his personal problems. And when the movement died, so did Phil Ochs.