Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Wages of Combat: Triage – A Movie About Lingering Anguish

With nothing else of interest on television late one recent night, I decided to check out Triage on the Showtime cable channel. The 2009 drama had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but never opened theatrically in the United States despite the clout of Colin Farrell in the lead role. Generally not one of my favorite actors, he plays a seasoned young Irish photojournalist who experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after covering Saddam Hussein’s Kurdistan genocide in 1988. The premise sounded intriguing to a news junkie like me; especially when I discovered that the director was Danis Tanovic, a Bosnian filmmaker whose Oscar-winning No Man’s Land (2001) used black comedy to effectively depict the futility of war.

There is no comic relief in Triage, which probably renders its tragic tale more realistic but less commercial. People witnessing the world’s many barbaric conflicts on television may seek a little pacifist escapism in their entertainment choices or at least opt for make-believe action punctuated by jokey one-liners like “Hasta la vista, baby.” Tanovic adapted his screenplay from a 1999 debut novel by Scott Anderson, a writer all-too-familiar with mayhem after a quarter-century documenting intrigue, corruption and carnage in dangerous places. He based The Hunting Party (2007), starring Richard Gere, on his misadventure with fellow scribe Sebastian Junger: The two got involved in a crazy scheme to capture Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian war criminal, but it all fell apart when they were mistaken for CIA agents.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Overkill: Joe Wright's Hanna

Saoirse Ronan as Hanna
Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) might display an abundance of skill in his new espionage action adventure thriller Hanna, but there is little in the way of sense and sensibility. Working from a script by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Wright abandons the lyricism of his earlier work for the steely visceral rush of pictures like The Professional, La Femme Nikita and Run Lola Run. But he goes at this pulpy material with such earnest intent that the movie collapses under the weight of its own artful seriousness.

The story, which has the fairy-tale overtones of Little Red Riding Hood and (more explicitly) those of Grimm's, is about the coming of age of a teenage killing machine. The 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives alone with her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) in the remote mountains and forests of Finland. While he trains her to kill wildlife to survive, perform martial arts for self-protection, and to memorize languages for adaptability, we soon learn that this hermetic education is also to prepare her to go out into the world and kill his former CIA handler Marissa (Cate Blanchett). Years earlier, when he tried to flee the Company, Marissa took aim to stop him and killed his wife and Hanna's mother. When Hanna finally sets out to seek vengeance, she ultimately intends to lock horns with her father's nemesis.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Together Again: Johanna Adorján’s An Exclusive Love

Johanna Adorján launches An Exclusive Love 
On the evening of October 13th, 1991, dressed in their best night clothes, Vera and István, crawled into bed for the last time. Holding on to each other’s hand they waited for the end to come. A note lies on their bedside table: “We have lived together, we are dying together. We loved you very much. Mami.” Lived they had. Married nearly fifty years, the Jewish Hungarian couple survived the Holocaust and fled their motherland during the 1956 uprising in Budapest. Making a new home for themselves in Denmark, they continued raising their family and living life to the fullest until the end.

So begins Johanna Adorján’s account of her grandparents’ lives and death in An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, translated by Athena Bell (Knopf Canada, 2011). The author was 20-years-old when her grandparents took their lives in their Copenhagen home. Her 82-year-old grandfather, a former orthopaedic surgeon, was slowly losing a battle with heart disease. His wife, a still vibrant 71-year-old, refused to carry on without him. Sixteen years after their death, Adorján began her quest to reveal how and why this fateful decision was carried out.

An Exclusive Love pragmatically, but tenderly, recounts the lives and deaths of these unassailable lovers. Adorján compiles a beautiful collection of testimonies from friends and family members, the author’s memories, and her own fabrication of that final day. “What does one do on the morning that they know is their last? I imagine that they tidy up, get things done.” The author lets us in on the life journey of two people who were somehow both immensely passionate lovers of Wagner’s operas and chain-smoked Prince of Denmark cigarettes. Yet they were also extremely practical, thrifty, orderly, and responsible until the very end.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dreaming: Songs of Woodstock

Back in the summer of 2009, as some of you close to my age may recall, the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival was being celebrated. Looking back, it's probably clear to most of us now that it was hardly the beginnings of an idyllic community, or the heralding of a new society. But as a cultural event, no question, it was certainly something significant to note. A number of artists also wrote interesting songs about that legendary swoon in the mud: two who performed there; and another who didn’t quite make it. Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain" begins simply by describing the torrential rain and the crowd's determination to outlast it. But then songwriter John Fogerty, quite movingly, leaps into larger concerns at work in the country. Those concerns took in the real storms to follow in the subsequent years ahead, the sense that the freedoms sought at Woodstock were not only illusory, but that a bigger price would soon be exacted out of all the frolicking. "Who'll Stop the Rain" went on to also provide both the title and emotional leit motif of Karel Reisz's film adaptation of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a story about dashed ideals, the cost of loyalty, Vietnam, and the darker implications of the drug culture in the seventies.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Many Charms of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey (ITV, PBS) is now available on DVD
I must admit I’ve always been fascinated by British dramas and documentaries about that country’s class system. I was too young to be interested in the hit miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs, which chronicled the relations between servants and their masters in a stately manor house. It was an influential show that just celebrated its fortieth anniversary with the release of a box set, and whose sequel premieres on PBS on April 10.  But once I was old enough. I became riveted by everything from Michael Apted’s seminal Up documentary series, which examined the lives of select subjects every seven years in a series that’s reached to 49 Up, to Robert Altman’s 2002 Gosford Park, which meshed the vagaries of the British class system with an American-style murder mystery. Invariably, those shows and films depicted a hierarchy that was pretty rigid (especially the Up films) and suggested that you generally were stuck in whatever class you were born into for life. Unlike the American class system (yes, it does exist), which more often than not is based on wealth, the British class apparatus was (and is) always about who your ancestors are, a fact of life that influenced your education and where you could live in London. (Wealth is also a factor but not the dominant one.) There’s a great scene in Mad Men’s most recent season whereby Layne Price (Jared Harris), Sterling Cooper’s British partner, extols his love of America by expressing relief that upon coming to New York, he stopped being asked what school he went to. The fine, entertaining recent British mini-series Downton Abbey, created by Gosford Park’s screenwriter Julian Fellowes and co-written by him with Tina Pepper and Shelagh Stephenson, puts that system under a microscope, showcasing how ‘modern’ times begin to slowly change and erode the traditional way of doing things.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Measure of a Man: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

No. Director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) has not done a new film version of Frankenstein. Currently on the boards in London's West End, Boyle's brilliant play Frankenstein (it was written by Nick Dear) is a monster hit sell-out (it closes, or is supposed to, on May 2nd). I was fortunate to see it four days ago without having to drop a fortune for an airline ticket, or scalper prices at the theatre.

Beginning in 2009, the National Theatre Company in London began offering live broadcasts of shows on their stages to movie theatres around the world. It is a fabulous idea. The National Theatre attracts some of England's finest actors and actress, such as Helen Mirren, Judi Dench (I was able to see her live in London in 2009 in the scintillating play, Madame de Sade – and, gushing fan moment, got to meet her briefly at the stage door after), Derek Jacobi and Jude Law. There are risks involved in these broadcasts. Since they are sent via satellite to the cinemas around the world, there is a chance that you might pay your money and see nothing if the signal is lost. I thought that was going to happen on the night I saw Frankenstein. Before the play started, on screen there was a hostess setting up the night, followed by a short documentary on the making of the play. The sound wasn't working. After twice springing out of my seat to complain, they fixed the problem just before the play itself was to begin. The show was mildly marred all evening long by occasional sound drop-outs (something they warn about at the start), but compared to not seeing it at all because of no sound, it was something I was happy to live with.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Identity Crisis: The Source Code Switcheroo

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

That’s the opening line in George Orwell’s classic book, 1984. Here it is once more the “cruelest month,” as poet T.S. Eliot contended in The Waste Land, and a similarly bright cold day. Not so sure about the clocks, but the foreboding in those 20th century literary works surely resonates today. The 1949 novel concerns a totalitarian dystopia where the term “memory hole” refers to enforced amnesia and “Newspeak” is language dumbed-down to foster lack of logical thought. Eliot’s twisty 1922 verses include “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” “One must be so careful these days” and other despairing observations.

Two new films, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code (released on April 1st), suggest Big Brother-like societies. In the former production, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, Matt Damon plays a politician who encounters the unseen forces – all wearing fedoras! – that manipulate our lives. Source Code, cleverly written by Ben Ripley and smartly directed by Duncan Jones, is a sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens. His last memory is of flying a helicopter mission in Afghanistan when he’s suddenly transported onto a commuter train heading for Chicago with a bomb onboard.