Saturday, March 19, 2011

Oh-So-French: Francois Ozon’s Potiche

Given Hollywood’s prolific record of remaking French comedies, any day now we’ll probably hear that someone is about to start shooting Potiche. The English translation: “decorative vase.” Idiomatically, it becomes “trophy wife,” even though the story’s middle-aged protagonist actually seems more of a grande dame in denial while her unfaithful husband routinely romps with his trophy mistress. But no need to parse words when it comes to cheating hearts. Vive la difference!

Perhaps Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon or another mature American celebrity would replace Catherine Deneuve, who stars in the original as Suzanne Pujol, the bourgeois spouse of tyrannical Robert (Fabrice Luchini). In their provincial town, he runs the family umbrella factory. Get the in-joke? The actress first rocketed to fame in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical masterpiece. She even sings again in the new film’s Bollywood-like final scene. This time around, the director is Francois Ozon, who was born in 1967 – the same year Deneuve gave another iconic performance, as a theoretically virtuous young woman who often slips away from marital bliss for anonymous, masochistic sex in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour. Vive la difference! 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Noir Lite: Neil Burger's Limitless

There are clever visual bits littered throughout Neil Burger's sunlit noir Limitless, but the experience is noir lite. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is an unemployed aspiring writer who is mired in inertia. He can't write a word, can't hold onto his girl (Abbie Cornish), and can't even comb his hair. When his former brother-in-law introduces him to an experimental drug NZT (before being murdered for possessing it), Eddie discovers easy access to every square inch of his brain. He recalls everything he's read, learns every language he hears, becomes a piano prodigy, wins back his girl. And he learns to comb his hair. Soon Eddie becomes a genius in the world of high finance, too, drawing the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). Van Loon sees Eddie as a potential means to making a ton of cash. But NZT also has its downside for Eddie, giving him headaches, lost moments, forgotten homicides, attracting Russian mobsters and facing a dwindling supply of pills to keep him hopping. Luckily, he finds a way to keep his luck running and his ambitions fulfilled.

It's daring to set a film noir drama almost entirely in the daytime and Burger provides a clever subtext of linking the use of drugs to the world of high finance (high, or course, being the operative word). But Limitless still ends up being a rather limited drama. As he proved though in his dreamy and seductive The Illusionist (2006), Burger knows how to think with his eyes. In Limitless, however, it's his brain that fails him. Most good noirs show how good men make bad choices by giving in to desires that destroy their lives. Their lives, in fact, spiral downward in their attempt to succeed. Limitless shows Eddie instead creating a lot of wreckage while becoming upwardly mobile, but he's never left accountable for it. Eddie's insider trading and metaphysical manner of cheating his way to the top is presented as something victorious.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gerald Pratley: One of the Real Guys

Gerald Pratley (1923-2011)
Before the Bell Lightbox, Cinematheque Ontario, TIFF, the Festival of Festivals, there was Gerald Pratley. Having discovered the other day that he had died from a lengthy illness in a Belleville hospital at the age of 87, I was immediately struck by the fact that I had known Gerald as both a friend and a colleague for most of my life. Over the years, we had shared a love of movie music, undervalued directors (William Wyler) and days spent at the NFB screening room watching movies destined for the Toronto Film Festival. Although I hadn't spoken with Gerald in over a year, I realized upon hearing the very sad news of his passing that I never expected a day when he wouldn't be here. For if there was one strong trait that I always admired in him, it was his ability to accept you on the grounds that you loved and cared for the work you produced.

As a film critic, it didn't really matter to him whether he agreed with you or not (as Gerald's tastes were often more conservative than mine). What mattered was your sense of integrity, or perhaps, the idea that he still had things to learn from others, just as he could impart to others much of what he knew from a different era with different values. In a profession today that has its share of poseurs and careerists, Gerald was one of the real guys. He didn't set out to be a star which may be why he doesn't have a stronger presence in contemporary film culture. (Like me, he didn't have much patience for film theory, either, which represents another pole of contemporary film culture that he's exiled from.) But Gerald Pratley did build a foundation here for film culture and Canadian movies that made possible all that we see vibrant today. Ironically, I suppose, Gerald wasn't Canadian born.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: OutKast's Idlewild (2006)

Here is another case where the critical herd mentality destroyed a film. Leading up to its release in 2006, Idlewild, the 1930s-era musical set in an African-American speak-easy/nightclub in a small town in the southern US, was already being strafe bombed by critics as an unreleasable catastrophe. Conceived by video-director Bryan Barber as a project for the two-man funk/hip-hop band, OutKast (Barber directed their videos, including their endlessly creative “Hey Ya” clip), Idlewild committed the cardinal sin of ... well, I'm not sure what.

Sure, the story is clichéd. Rooster (Antwan A. Patton – aka, Big Boi in OutKast) is the manager/singer in the aforementioned night club in the backwater town of Idlewild. Through the course of the picture, he has to contend with mobsters (especially the psychopathic Trumpy – Terrence Howard) who want to take over the club and use it for their own nefarious purposes. He is also juggling a bevy of beauties (including his wife), convincing the recently arrived girl singer, Angel (Paula Patton – no relation to A
ntwan), to stay, and keeping his talented but conflicted pianist, Percival (André Benjamin, aka André 3000 in OutKast), in the band. Percival is torn between helping his widowed father (Ben Vereen) in his business (Vereen's the local mortician) and composing great music that will let Percival escape the town and the club. Of course, he sees Angel, and her beautiful voice, as the final key to help him leave. Trouble happens; people die.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Showtime’s Episodes: The One Where the Brits Get Shafted by Hollywood

Some of the biggest news in TV this winter (long before Charlie Sheen began his distracting antics) was the return of some old Friends to the sitcom world: Matthew Perry on ABC’s Mr. Sunshine and Matt LeBlanc’s on Showtime’s Episodes. Since I’ve already weighed in positively on Mr. Sunshine, today we’re taking a look at Episodes.

Episodes is far more than a Matt LeBlanc comeback vehicle. Co-produced by Showtime and the BBC (and airing simultaneously on both of sides of the pond), Episodes tells the story of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (former Green Wing co-stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg), a British husband-and-wife writing duo whose BAFTA-award winning TV series is optioned by an American network. The 7-episode first season takes place over a period of only a couple of weeks, taking us step-by-step from the couple’s disorienting arrival in Hollywood to the end of the filming of their show’s pilot. This slow corruption of the Lincolns’ professional integrity is mirrored in the concurrent decay of their relationship. The two are compelled to make compromise after compromise in the production of their show, including being forced to (mis)cast Matt LeBlanc (credibly played by Matt LeBlanc) as the show’s lead. Within hours of landing in L.A., their show’s title shifts from “Lyman’s Boys” to “Pucks!”, transformed from a genteel, if biting, boarding school comedy about an aging headmaster with a wistful crush on a middle-aged, lesbian librarian into a middle-of-the-road romcom-sitcom about a hockey coach wooing the school’s young, sexy, and very heterosexual librarian.

Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan
Taking on show business from the inside raises the bar considerably for a comedy series, and so Episodes gave itself a steep hill to climb. (The gold standard will always be HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, but Ricky Gervais’ much more personal approach in Extras comes in a close second.)  But even if making a TV show about making a TV show is as old as television itself, Crane and Klarik do bring something new to the table: the dramatization of the difficult translation of a successful UK series into the very different culture of American TV. In that sense, it could hardly be timelier. In the very same week that Episodes first aired, 3 US versions of popular UK shows premiered: Skins (on MTV), Being Human (on SyFy), Shameless, which aired immediately following the first episode of Episodes on Showtime itself. As each of these shows struggles in its own way to translate very popular (and still on-going) British series for an American audience, Episodes offers a dark and satirical look behind the scenes at a comparable, if fictional, effort. If you’ve ever seen a favourite UK series be painfully adapted to the US network model (NBC’s limp re-creation of Steven Moffat’s Coupling comes to mind), Episodes is definitely a must-see.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Post-Modern Love Child: Tumblr

Just imagine if Wordpress were able to seduce both Facebook and Twitter one evening. And it then had a happy accident. The post-modern love child would probably look a lot like Tumblr ( This free blog hosting platform has been operating in the shadows of its mainstream social media giants for four years now. While it hasn’t reached the popularity of its peers, it still proves to hold its own as an innovative blogging alternative, especially attractive to those in arts and media.

In 2007, David Karp, a New York City entrepreneur, founded Tumblr. With the help of lead web developer Marco Arment, the site quickly expanded from friends and family members to a community of millions. The latest member tally, as posted on Tumblr on March 12, 2011, reflects 3.8 billion posts and 14.9 million blogs. Not too shabby, especially considering the current Web 2.0 oligopoly. Even more impressive is Tumblr’s loyalty rate, preserving 85% of its users, in comparison to Twitter’s 60% retention rate. So what is it about this little platform that could that makes it so attractive to both social media junkies and traditional bloggers alike? The answer lies in one’s Tumblr account.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

To the Next Level: Joe Lovano & Us Five’s Bird Songs

Be-bop music occasionally sounds tight and tense. In some cases, of course, it's supposed to. Be-bop jazz reflected the post-war times in which it developed. Then, it was new, challenging and difficult for audiences to appreciate on a wider scale, probably because you couldn't dance to it. Now, some 50 plus years since the death of Charlie Parker, Joe Lovano & Us Five, one of the great ambassadors of be-bop, has channeled Bird and taken him to the next level on Bird Songs (Blue Note, 2011). It's exciting music arranged in such a fresh way that it gives us a whole fresh perspective on the form. For Joe Lovano, Bird Songs captures the past with a lighter, intellectual touch. Everyone in the band is listening and following while simultaneously moving forward. They create a dynamic sound that has an inner-strength easily accessible to the listener.

Not willing to simply play Charlie Parker’s music in a straight-ahead fashion, Lovano shapes the compositions to reflect Bird but not to copy him. His arrangement of "Barbados" is a perfect example of keeping the basis of the tune but mixing it up rhythmically to become something other than an outdated be-bop tune. In other words, it takes on a shape of its own.