Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sin/Syn City: A Conscientious Objector’s View of Las Vegas

Imagine you are an alien who has just landed on earth. You learn that the occupants of the resource-abundant blue planet have built a city in a region you consider to be relatively uninhabitable: the middle of the desert. There are few natural resources in close proximity. Food, water, and electricity all have to be transported in. Here, amid constant air conditioning and an absence of clocks and windows, humans amuse themselves by essentially throwing their money away and engaging in other frivolous pursuits such as strip clubs, showgirls and huge buffets. You’re not in Venice, Rome, Paris or New York, although all these places have shrines in this city. It’s not a Circus Circus, Treasure Island or Mirage, albeit it sure feels like all of these things. It’s Las Vegas, and it’s so jam-packed with artificial splendor it’s difficult to imagine what its authentic urban scene would look like.

Mari-Beth looking for the authentic Las Vegas  
I visited the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world last month. Although Las Vegas was not on my to-visit list, I figure it is one of those places you must see for yourself – alien or not. Throughout my visit, the thought kept nagging me, why so fake? What's the authentic Las Vegas? Why do we feel the need to practice self-delusion so garishly? Eventually I convinced my travel companion to board a city bus and take a ride to nowhere. We passed strip malls and strip joints, trailer parks and industrial parks, sterile looking houses over sterile looking land. We rode right to the mountains on the east side of the city and it took us close to two hours round-trip. But at least I felt I got to see the ‘real’ Las Vegas.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Opening the Wrong Doors: Sarah's Key

Mélusine Mayanc (centre) in Sarah's Key

Ever since the enormous, and deserved, worldwide success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Holocaust dramas have become a regular subject in the movies. (There had been films on the Holocaust before, but Schindler’s List appeared to open the floodgates.) With cinema's penchant for trivializing tragedies like the Holocaust, fortunately only a few such movies (Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) have descended into that odious category. But many others have fallen short in doing justice to the meaning and events of the Holocaust, an admittedly tall order for what is still such an incomprehensible and unprecedented act. Sarah’s Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah), the latest film release concerning the Holocaust, is one such disappointment.

Based on the popular, and critically acclaimed, novel by French author Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key unearths, to a degree, the shocking events in France, during two days in July 1942, when some 13,000 French Jews – mostly women and children – were rounded up in Paris, sent to the Vélodrome d'hiver, kept in appalling and inhumane conditions, and then soon after transported to Auschwitz where most perished. In of itself, this wasn’t unusual – the concentration camps were ultimately the destination for most of Europe’s 11 million Jews and the graveyards for six million of them – but what was unique here is that it was the French police, the gendarmes, who carried out the deportations, even before their German occupiers had ordered them to do so. Sarah’s Key begins on that fateful day when the Starzynski family (mother, father and young daughter) are compelled to hastily leave their home. They comply, but not before Sarah (Mélusine Mayanc), the Starzynski’s 10-year-old daughter, instructs her younger brother, Michel, to hide in a closet and not leave until she returns to retrieve him. She locks him in for good measure and then, still clutching the key, leaves. The rest of the film deals the ramifications of her act. And while the movie’s opening scenes are suitably powerful – you’ll curse the anti-Semitic French when you view them – the film becomes progressively more cluttered, contrived and, finally, off topic.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death By Focus Group: Paul (2011)

When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first burst on the North American scene as actors and, in Pegg's case, writer with their first feature film, Shaun of the Dead, I was generally impressed. What I enjoyed about the film was how they managed to capture that hard-to-handle middle ground between horror and comedy. One minute, I found myself laughing out loud (the scene where they are deciding which LPs they are willing to give up as weapons to fling at the approaching walking dead still makes me giggle), while the next gave me legitimate chills. Their next film together, Hot Fuzz (both were directed directed by Edgar Wright of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame), combined a buddy cop movie, like 48 Hours, with the gentile English drama, such as A Room With A View. For a variety of reasons, I never saw it, but I hear from several people who did that it is Shaun's equal. The major criticism, even from those who liked it, was that in the last act they threw out the gentility and went for straight action, in other words becoming what they were ridiculing. Perhaps that was a sign.

For their next mash up, 2011's Paul (with Frost now on board as co-writer), just released on DVD, they clapped together the alien-amongst-us film with the gross-out buddy comedy. I was looking forward to it, because the premise seemed to be ripe for sending up. And yet, except for Kristen Wiig's winning performance as the daughter of a religious nutcase, Paul is an almost complete failure. The finished film, the first one wholly funded by a US studio (the others had been British imports), not only feels like it was focused-grouped to death, it feels like the script had the same treatment. Every laugh is calculated, every 'beat' in the script seems completely programmed. The spontaneity that seemed to permeate Shaun is long gone. The basic premise of Paul is that Graeme Wily (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are two life-long SF-loving geek friends who come from England to attend the huge Comic Con in San Diego, and then head out on a road trip across America visiting all the sites made famous in UFO lore or movies (Devil's Mountain, Area 51, etc.). Along the way, they encounter an alien. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Personal, Yet Universal: Guy Clark's Songs and Stories (Dualtone Records, 2011)

I have seen Guy Clark in concert a couple of times. Each time he has been accompanied by his friend and co-writer Verlon Thompson. There is a warmth and familiarity between these two men which spreads throughout the concert hall. Clark and Thompson standing at the mics, guitars in hand, singing their fine songs of life, love and liberty – there’s nothing like it. And they take requests. They also come out afterwards to sign CDs and chat to fans, if, they always say, people are interested! I’ve never heard anyone offer to come out to sign, and give the audience a choice before. His new Songs and Stories CD captures perfectly the feel of a Guy Clark concert.

It should. It was recorded live at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. The date isn’t given, but it could be yesterday. The recording is just as warm and intimate as a chat with an old friend after a long absence. The format is a bit different than I’m used to. The band is expanded to include, beyond Clark and Thompson, a bass player (Bryn Davies), a percussionist (Kenny Malone) and another guitarist/mandolinist/singer (Shawn Camp). And then Clark announces, during the introduction, that they will sit down to play. This is something new for Clark. Perhaps it worked so well during the guitar pulls and in the recording studio that they just decided to bring the format to the stage. It works a charm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: The Lost Son (1999)

This question has always nagged me: Why are there so few good directors among great cameramen/women? For instance, when the enormously talented Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) turned to directing movies in the eighties, he came out with the undistinguished All the Right Moves (1983) and the ridiculous Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in those pictures that comes close to the fever dream he conjured up in Taxi Driver.

But then there is Chris Menges, the British cinematographer behind such strikingly diverse work as Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984) and Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). When he turned to directing, his work was not only as distinguishable as the movie-makers he'd worked for, sometimes he even surpassed them. The trouble is: Nobody knows this since his films have been largely produced and abandoned. After being rightly celebrated at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut A World Apart, about a young girl coming to terms with her political activist parents during the apartheid years in South Africa, his subsequent pictures have gone MIA.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chekhov and Ibsen at the National Theatre

I understand the need to find translations of Chekhov and Ibsen that don’t provide obstacle courses for contemporary actors; one of the reasons André Gregory was able to do the phenomenal work he did with the cast of Vanya on 42nd Street was that David Mamet made the language so limpid and close to the natural rhythms of American actors. But the rage for new versions of the plays, often mired in contemporary clichés, is infuriating. In Pam Gems’s rewrite of A Doll’s House, Krogstad warns Christine, “Goes around, comes around,” and I’ve heard a student actor perform a scene in Uncle Vanya in which Astrov uses the expletive “fucking.” That can’t be a reasonable solution. In Andrew Upton’s version of The Cherry Orchard performed by Britain’s National Theatre (and widely seen abroad in HD), Gaev (James Laurenson) calls Lopakhin (Conleth Hill) a “crap artist” and Lyubov Ranevskaya (Zoë Wanamaker), rather than just excoriating the eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) for having no mistress at his age, grabs at his crotch and wonders out loud if he’s got anything at all down there. But the real offense in Upton’s Cherry Orchard is his lengthy addenda, which seem to have two purposes  to overemphasize the political subtext (the second-act debate between Trofimov and Lopakhin is about one and a half times longer than the one Chekhov wrote) and to make sure the audience doesn’t miss the point. That must be why Yasha (Gerald Kyd), Lyubov's manservant, takes three times as many lines as Chekhov wrote for him to persuade her to take him along when she returns to Paris. (Yasha, born a peasant but determined to rise in the world, is more or less a comic variation on the self-educated valet Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie.)  Does Upton really think he can improve on Chekhov?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Change is Gonna Come: The Help Offers Flawed Hope

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, I found a job with a weekly newspaper in Brookline, Massachusetts. I wrote a column called Around the Town with Babs, a nom de plume that various reporters before me had assumed over the years. The task was to ferret out mundane local gossip, such as:Stanley Lager of Richardson Terrace has been promoted to general manager at Filene's Department Store.Or “Elm Street residents Jane and Bruce Ganz are heading to Florida for the winter.” (Attention: thieves!)

As an aspiring journalist fresh out of college in the 1960s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan finds a job with a weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. She writes a column called Ask Miss Myrna, a nom de plume that various reporters before her had assumed over the years. The task is to ferret out mundane local housekeeping advice, such as how to avoid tears while chopping onions.