Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rambling Man: Ondine and the Strange Career of Neil Jordan

Director Neil Jordan
Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan is maddening. For every film as terrific as In Dreams,  The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair, and The Good Thief, he'll make an equally dreary film such as High Spirits, We're No Angels, Breakfast On Pluto, The Brave One, his short film Not I (more on that in second) and, yes, The Crying Game (more on that in a sec too). I've never been able to get a handle on him as a director. Perhaps that's a good thing because it means there is an unpredictability about him. But it can also mean he has a complete lack of focus. Jordan also jumps from genre to genre. He'll follow a horror film (Interview With the Vampire – never seen it, so I won't comment) with his disappointing Irish historical drama, Michael Collins. Or he'll make a terrific, underrated caper picture like The Good Thief and then follow it with a barely released disaster like Breakfast On Pluto.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Little Daylight: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Midnight in Paris, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a moderately entertaining and somewhat imaginative lark of a movie. If that sounds like a lukewarm recommendation, bear in mind that most of Allen’s output in the last decade and a half, including Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003), Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), has been negligible, if not contemptuous and utterly fake. (The last Allen movie that fully impressed me was 1992's fine Husbands and Wives. That one's nearly 20 years old!)  At least, this time around, Allen has fashioned a film that has a modicum of wit, a smidgen of style and, only occasionally mind you, a bit of thought. Considering how he’s been generally going through the motions in recent years, I’ll take what I can get.

The movie’s opening is even different than Allen’s usual, predictable and bland norm. Instead of an old standard playing over the credits, on a black background, Midnight in Paris begins with a montage of the City of Light’s most famous landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, etc. Then, while the opening credits run, we hear the plaintive voice of actor Owen Wilson (Meet the Parents, Wedding Crashers), as screenwriter Gil Pender. Pender, accompanying his putative in-laws on a business trip to Paris, and with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) in tow, wants to leave his stifling Hollywood career, rewriting action flicks, behind and become a ‘real writer.’ And where better to do that than in Paris? But what Pender – who has penned his first novel but hasn’t shown the draft to anyone – really wants is to be an author in the Paris of the 1920s, when famous expatriates like writers Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and others made the city their home away from home. One night, strolling along the city streets, an old fashioned car pulls up, just at the stroke of midnight. Pender gets in and, voila, he’s exactly where he wants to be, the glamorous Paris of his dreams.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #18: Thomas Keneally (1983)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

author Thomas Keneally.
The concept of heroes and villains was greatly simplified in the Eighties so I wanted a chapter in Talking Out of Turn (Heroes and Villains) that featured artists who examined that concept with a little more complexity. One such individual, Australian author Thomas Keneally (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The People's Train), took on the inexplicable subject of Oskar Schindler. In his book, Schindler's List (originally titled Schindler's Ark), he tells the story of how Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member, became the most unlikely of heroes. By the end of the Second World War, Schindler saved 1,200 Jews from concentration camps all over Poland and Germany. Just like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler's List is also a historical novel that describes participants and events with fictional dialogue and scenes added by the author. Schindler's List won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1982. While in 1993, Steven Spielberg would make a largely faithful and successful adaptation that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Neglected Gems #3: Code 46 (2003)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

The highly prolific and inventive British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs, A Mighty Heart) displays his prodigious talents with another startlingly original movie, this time mining, quite successfully, the science fiction genre. Set in the near future, at a time when most of humanity is forced to live in designated zones, Code 46 begins with a dream sequence voiced by Maria (Samantha Morton), a Shanghai factory worker. It's a dream that ends with her arrival at a mysterious, unclear destination. Soon after, William (Tim Robbins), an ace intelligence expert outfitted with an empathy virus that gives him mind-reading powers, arrives to investigate her workplace. Someone there is illegally making and selling 'papelles,' a combination passport/visa that allow their holders to leave their designated areas, which they are otherwise forbidden to do. When William and Maria fall for each other, they are forced to confront their mundane, controlled existences and, possibly, take a chance on something better.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Elitist, Escapist, or Everywoman?: Deconstructing ‘The Oprah Effect’

Let me be clear: the purpose of this review is not to critique Oprah’s philanthropy, or her validation of sexual abuse victims, or her support of visible minorities. These are all empirically wonderful things. Whether you love her or loathe her, Oprah’s patronage of the causes that matter to Oprah cannot be denied. I’m not sure which side of the Oprah fan club I belong to. Considering how much information is available about the Oprah brand, we know remarkably little about Oprah the person, other than the choice tidbits she and her Harpo minions choose to divulge. Who is Oprah? She morphs her personality to fit each guest. She’s dancing and thumping with Tina Turner, philosophizing with Maya Angelou and talking literature with Toni Morrison. I half expected her to jump on the couch with Tom Cruise during his outburst! Some people would argue that this is the job of the talk show host, to make each guest feel comfortable. People respect Oprah because she is self-made and there’s no arguing that she’s made a lot of money and a big impact.

Toni Morrison & Oprah
Oprah’s success is often credited to her ability to connect with Middle America. Indeed, her struggles with food and body image are something many women can relate to. We do relate to Oprah, but do we admire her? Despite my efforts to dismiss Oprah as just a mixture of favorite things, weight loss gimmicks and secret Stedman, I can’t do it. Despite my efforts to ignore her, Oprah makes me think. Not only that, but I’m embarrassed to say that Oprah makes me think harder and think better about things I think about anyway. Despite my efforts to mock Oprah, she takes my empty ambitions of thankfulness, self-realization and humor and puts them into practice with ideas like a gratitude journal, aha! moments and the ugly cry. The Oprah Winfrey Show seems to invite mocking, but when you actually examine what it stands for, mocking doesn’t make much sense.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Well Travelled Groove: Booker T. Jones's The Road From Memphis

Booker T. Jones’s new album is called, not surprisingly, The Road From Memphis (Anti, 2011). While Memphis may for some musicians be the place where you arrive, for Booker it’s where it all began. In 1962, he went into a Memphis studio with his instrumental ensemble, Booker T & the MGs, and recorded the classic hit "Green Onions" which went to Number One on the music charts. They later backed Sam & Dave and Otis Redding for some inspired sides that made the group the house band for Stax Records for the next 15 years.

But just when his youthful success was climbing, Booker T. Jones decided to hit the road and head to Indiana University to continue his college degree. It was a 400-mile drive along highway 51 north that Jones came to know so well that he could do it "blind-folded." Says Jones, "I knew that road like the back of my hand. Every turn, every hill, every stretch." Once at university, Jones finished his degree in music by playing gigs on the weekends, all with the goal to "return to Memphis" to play, record and compose. The Road From Memphis is the culmination of that fruitful sojourn.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Witness to Shame: The Visual Legacy of Lewis Hine

Addie Card, just a slip of a girl when Lewis Hine snapped an iconic portrait of her in 1910, told him she was 12. But the investigative photojournalist, hired to document then-legal child labor in America, learned the barefoot waif’s actual age – ten – from others employed at the same Vermont cotton mill. Even more of a shock, she had started toiling there as an eight-year-old. In his accompanying text, he described the motherless-fatherless kid as an “anemic little spinner.”

May 1910: Addie Card at a cotton mill in North Pownal, Vermont