Saturday, April 16, 2011

Love and Fame: Country Strong

Just about the easiest thing to do is create melodrama out of country music. It's built right into the songs. Breaking hearts, lost families and wounded pride are about as common to the genre as the soft crying twang of a steel guitar. In Country Strong (Sony, 2011), which was just released on DVD earlier this week, writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) tells a typical story of the price of love and fame in the world of country music, but she distills the melodrama of its tabloid fascination. Feste instead develops an openly relaxed approach to the material which brings us closer to the essence of the music and how its stars cope with the cynicism of the industry.     

Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter.
The movie begins as country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is recovering in a rehab clinic from alcohol abuse which led to her falling off stage during a show in Texas and having a miscarriage. While drying out, she is being cared for by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a country singer who wants no part of stardom. But he loves both her and her music, which leads to them carrying on an affair. Her husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw), meanwhile wants her out of rehab so that she can pick up her career. So he books her into a three-show tour which includes an opening act featuring both Beau and a young, aspiring singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour not only unravels Kelly's own demons (including the dissolution of her pained marriage), but also the end of her affair with Beau who becomes romantically drawn to Chiles, the talented ingénue who hasn't yet been corrupted by the industry.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Susanne Bier's Trite and Middlebrow In a Better World

In a Better World/Haevnen
Twenty years ago, I happened to catch a debut feature at the Montreal World Film Festival called Freud Leaving Home. I was so impressed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s powerful and caustically funny tragedy of a very dysfunctional Swedish Jewish family that I, and another film critic, called the head of the Toronto International Film Festival to strongly urge that, if there was still room, they add Bier’s movie to their upcoming festival lineup. The call was to no avail and for awhile, at least, Bier’s films didn’t find their way to TIFF. I caught her third movie, Like It Never Was Before (1995), in Montreal, too and appreciated the provocative and moving tale of a middle-aged man who leaves his family for another, younger man, at least in part to recapture his youth. So, by the time, Toronto’s film festival began showcasing Bier’s work, with Open Hearts (2002), she was something of a known quantity to me. Toronto has chosen to feature her work since then, including presenting her eleventh film, In a Better World (2010), which won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But something’s been increasingly lost in recent years. As Bier’s critical and popular star has risen, conversely her films have diminished in impact and quality. In a Better World continues in that disappointing vein.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pragmatic Spiritualism: Paul Simon's So Beautiful So What

I’ve always admired the single-mindedness of Paul Simon. To me, he’s always been a songwriter who starts with memorable pieces that magically blend the new with the familiar. Simon's So Beautiful or So What (Universal, 2011), his first new album in six years, continues in that vein. His songs tap an open pallet of musical history that only a man of 70 years can possess. You can hear within this work his entire catalogue which is an expansive experiment in musical genres. On this album, his ear for rhythm, context and popular song is essentially a hybrid of street wise rock & roll, gospel and folk that features an African, or South American tilt.

There's also a quest for spiritual fulfillment first heard on the opening track "Getting Ready For Christmas". First released last November as a single on NPR, it features the Reverend J. M. Gates preaching about Christmas Day ("...when Christmas come/Nobody knows where you’ll be/You might ask me/I may be layin’ in some lonesome grave/Getting ready for Christmas Day”). But his slightly caustic comments aren’t filled with false piety for Simon recognizes this falsehood. “The music may be merry/But it’s only temporary,” he sings. The song is a much deeper exploration of the hereafter which I'd prefer to call a kind of pragmatic spiritualism. So Beautiful or So What explores questions of God, Mother Earth and the Great Beyond. For instance, on “AfterLife”, Simon humorously reports that a ticket to the afterlife isn’t as easy as it may seem. (“You got to fill out a form first /And then you wait in the line.”) That number is followed by a love song, “Dazzling Blue”, a tale of two idealistic lovers. (“Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen /To make a marriage bed /And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through /And dream our dreams of dazzling blue.”)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Crowded Sunday Night: The Amazing Race, Mildred Pierce, The Killing and The Borgias

I know Sunday night is a 'good' night for TV networks to program their more adult fare, but must they put them all on at the same time? I know, in this age of PVR and On Demand, etc., etc., the need to watch a show when the networks plan it is greatly reduced. However, if you are like me and are one of those dinosaurs who still uses his VCR, what need do I have for PVR? (I've got tape, I've got a working VCR, why would I give the cable companies even more money a month for a PVR box?) Sure, there's On Demand, but I've found it unreliable (the image breaks up or it takes forever to download), and unlike the past, now that I've gone digital, I can't watch one show and tape another, so I'm stuck. It's either watch them while they're on, or at least in the case of AMC's The Killing tape the 1AM repeat and watch it the next day. Full confession, one of the shows, Mildred Pierce, was given to me on disc by a friend who actually gets HBO Canada, but I'm still in a quandary. You see, the one and only reality show, The Amazing Race, I watch is also on on Sunday evenings. So, from 8pm until 12am, it's a marathon.

So, here is how the schedule would be if I had to watch Mildred Pierce on initial broadcast: 8pm, The Amazing Race; 9pm, Mildred Pierce; 10pm to 11:10pm, The Borgias; 11pm (and miss 10 minutes) or 1am repeat, The Killing. It's a bit wearying. Fortunately, my other favourite adult show, Endgame -- starring Shawn Doyle as a sort-of Russian Nero Wolfe who suffers from agoraphobia and solves all his the mysteries by never leaving the hotel he's holed up in -- broadcasts on Monday nights. Endgame works because of Doyle's wonderful performance, but that's for another day. To my Sunday shows. I like them all, although none of them are perfect. But they are adult and are trying to get at some interesting things. They don't always succeed, but this one evening is far more entertaining than the last four months of feature film releases.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cinéfranco 2011: French comedies run the gamut of quality

The 14th edition of Toronto's Cinéfranco film festival recently ended, offering, as per its mandate, a glimpse into the commercial reaches of French language cinema, showcasing mostly movies from France, of course, but also from Switzerland, Belgium, Morocco and the French-Canadian province of Quebec. That commercial emphasis is deliberate on the part of the festival's founder and executive director Marcelle Lean, who recognized that French genre pictures are usually shortchanged at the Toronto International Film Festival and in regular release, which tend to the art house end of things. That does present something of a qualitative problem with Cinéfranco in that the best films from France are usually art house movies, like Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été) and A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) , and not the country’s genre pictures.

That said, some art house movies that shade into accessible psychological thrillers, such as Fred, La moustache, Le petit lieutenant and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté), have played Cinéfranco in the past demonstrating that even within the confines of Gallic genre pics, quality can be found. The festival’s comedies this year ran the gamut from quality to crap, but almost all of them displayed enough thought and intelligence to make them worthy of your time.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft of Sidney Lumet

Director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Note: the following article contains spoilers.

Back in 1983, I went to a screening in Montreal of Daniel, the Sidney Lumet adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel, which was loosely based on the case of the Rosenbergs, the Jewish spies executed for treason in the United States in 1953. The film wasn’t very good, politically simplistic and hobbled by an overwrought performance by Mandy Patinkin. But I still remember, upon coming out of the movie, my good friend Arnie's comments, said with some measure of relief, that finally here was a Jewish story that was not about Israel or the Holocaust. Arnie wasn’t commenting so much as a filmgoer but as a Montreal Jew, like myself, who felt the community’s pre-eminent, dominant concerns were fixated on only those two subjects, leaving little room for anything else. (Nearly thirty years later it’s still pretty much the case.) In that regard, Daniel was embarking on virgin territory, offering a different take on an aspect of the (American) Jewish community, its long-lived political activism and involvement with communism, that hadn’t been really dealt with onscreen before. (The 1976 ‘blacklist’ comedy The Front, which starred Woody Allen, wasn’t really a Jewish film.) When I heard of the death of director Sidney Lumet on Saturday April 9 at age 86, I realized that Daniel was indicative of most of his films. Whatever their quality; they tended to focus on subject matter and issues that most other filmmakers eschewed, beginning with Lumet’s impactful feature film debut, 12 Angry Men (1957). He routinely staked out his own cinematic territory, offering up more than a few gems and, more often, shepherding some great performances along the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scaling the Fourth Wall: TV Shows about TV Shows

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I've always been a sucker for self-referential media: be it celebrity cameos, intentional genre-busting, fictional characters meeting fictionalized versions of themselves, and everything in between. (My favourite Woody Allen film is The Purple Rose of Cairo, I continue to believe that Last Action Hero is an underrated masterpiece, and no-one probably applauded more than I did for Nathan Fillion’s Firefly shout-out in last season’s Halloween episode of Castle, walking on-screen in full “Captain Mal” gear.) And the most popular and entertaining form these stories have taken is the show about a show: films and TV about making film and TV. It’s a conceit that's been around since Shakespeare, and whether it’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or 30 Rock, there will always be something especially compelling about a show within a show.

Last month, I wrote about the recent Showtime sitcom Episodes. This dark comedy stars Friends alum Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc, and tells a story as old television itself: the trials and tribulations of making a television show. In this case, it was the story of a married British comedy writing team who had the misfortune to have a hit series of theirs optioned by an American network. As I wrote, Episodes, for the most part, works well (in large part due to the talents of the BBC television veterans who play the show’s leads), and is definitely worth checking out.

But some of the weaknesses I identified in Episodes have got me thinking about just how tricky it can be to make a television comedy about making television comedy.  It’s one thing to dramatize or satirize the process (from Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood has long been its own favourite subject), but it is quite another to film a comedy about how empty and compromised sitcom production can often be. Episodes mostly held its own, but it’s swimming next to some big fish: The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Extras. Here we're going to look at why I believe these shows, in particular, are so successful.