Saturday, November 5, 2011

Getting it (Mostly) Right: The Day of the Triffids (2009)

Third time is the charm, I guess. It took three goes at The Maltese Falcon before John Huston's 1941 version finally did it justice (the other versions were 1931's The Maltese Falcon and 1936's Satan Met a Lady). The earlier versions went off on wild tangents away from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 noir classic narrative. What Huston decided to do was to take Hammett's novel as is, sometimes dialogue and all, and really use it as the source.What a concept! As a result, he had a film that is still watched today (while the other two are only viewed as almost unwatchable curios) and he came out of it with a career for both himself and star Humphrey Bogart. John Wyndham's 1951 influential science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids (it's inspired several films, including 28 Days Later) was first made into a movie in 1962 which took the novel’s most basic premise and veered it completely off track.

The premise of Wyndham's novel is quite simple. As the story starts, a plant called the triffid is irritatingly menacing the Western world. Triffids are large, carnivorous (they use a poisonous stinger to immobilize and kill their victims), are ambulatory and may be able to communicate with each other. It is suggested that the plant was created in a laboratory in the Soviet Union and that spores for the plant landed in England when a plane carrying them accidentally crash landed. Scientists and others are working diligently to control them. One scientist, Bill Masen, is stung by a 'young' triffid. He is temporarily blinded and sent to hospital. While he is in hospital, a 'beautiful' meteor shower (which he cannot watch) is seen all over the world. The shower causes everybody who looks at it to go blind. The rest of the book details Masen awakening alone in a hospital, determining what has happened, searching the streets of London for sighted people (the unsighted are desperately trying to survive and one technique they use is to capture sighted people and use them as slaves). Masen hooks up with a group of sighted people, but chaos and unrest quickly erupts. A sighted despot named Torrence decides he can set up his own dictatorship in London. Masen, with the help of writer Jo Playton, flees and tries to make their way out of London to somewhere safe, all the while dodging attacks by both triffids and other cruel sighted (and blind) humans. The ending is left open ended whether Masen and humanity will survive.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Le Havre: A Funny Film that Celebrates Harboring the Helpless

Blondin Miguel as Idrissa in Le Havre

Don’t expect to see Scandinavian musicians with extremely pointy shoes and hairstyles. The wacky characters in Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) do not appear in Le Havre, an equally deadpan new film by the Finnish writer-director that has much more of a beating heart. He sets this one in the French port city, where an occasional cell phone is the rare hint of modernity in an otherwise thoroughly convincing early 1950s ambiance. This version of the seaside Normandy town is populated by a quaint citizenry whose clothing, homes, shops and cars are very mid-20th century. In a working-class neighborhood, their normally sedate existence becomes less so due to an issue that has exploded in the 21st-century: undocumented immigrants. These days in America, they’re often dismissively referred to merely as “illegals.”

With In This World (2002), Michael Winterbottom was among the first filmmakers in recent decades to address the plight of refugees in a compassionate way. That docudrama concerned young men from Afghanistan making their way across an often hostile Europe in hopes of a better future than is possible back home. Le Havre centers on an adolescent boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from Gabon who escapes when police discover a huddled mass of Africans in a shipping container on the docks. He’s later spotted hidden in the shallow water behind wooden pilings by Marcel (Andre Wilms), a local man with a marginal career shining shoes in an era of Nikes – along with cell phones, another 2011 touch. Ditto for sensationalist newspaper headlines that suggest the fugitive lad being hunted by cops could be linked to al-Qaeda.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Once Upon A Time and Grimm: Fairy Tales Go Prime Time

Jennifer Morrison (far right) and the cast of ABC's Once Upon A TIme

Fairy tales are the new vampires: this is what a friend of mine told me a couple of months ago after she saw the new fall TV schedule. And indeed, fairy tales do seem to be enjoying a real renaissance of late. Three years into our apparently unending economic downturn, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that popular culture is turning to more and more fantastic and otherworldly settings to tell their stories. And if fairy tales seems destined to displace teen vampires in our cultural zeitgeist, Snow White herself seems fated to be their poster child. Next year alone, Hollywood will be releasing two live-actions retellings of her familiar story: Tarsem Sitongh’s as-yet-untitled project with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen coming out in March, and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman with the Twilight saga’s Kristen Stewart playing a Snow White meets Joan of Arc incarnation of the character. And in 2013, never to be outdone, Disney will be releasing Order of the Seven, another live-action adventure which tells the story from the perspective of the dwarves and re-sets the action to 19th-century China.

But we don’t have to wait until 2012 to experience the fairy tale revolution: over the past two weeks, two new shows have premiered on the small screen, each with its own revisionist take on the familiar stories we all grew up on: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm. But even though both shows operate generally on the same, perhaps familiar conceit – bringing storybook characters into our contemporary world (see 2007’s Enchanted for a recent movie example of this) – the two shows could be hardly be more different in their particular takes on the idea.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood: Vividly Evoking a Complex Past

Non-fiction books really come in two basic flavours. There are the ones written because the author finds the subject or person of interest (Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which is about the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and America’s first serial killer) and hopes to convey that to the readership at large. And then there are the others written for very personal reasons, with the likely hope that readers will relate to the book or at least gain an understanding of a world they may know little about (Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother, convicted killer Gary Gilmore). James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood (Random House, 2010) actually fits into both categories. It’s a powerful look back at his life and background, but it is also a vivid depiction of an era, a city and a culture, one with a family at its centre that aptly fulfills Tolstoy’s dictum, “that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way … ”

It’s also an extraordinarily detailed, raw and painful book, with FitzGerald, whose memory is remarkable, recreating a childhood filled with angst and avoidance, plus a family dynamic for which dysfunctional barely begins to scratch the surface. (Full disclosure: I know James socially, and back in 1989/90 I wrote a few freelance pieces for Strategy, a now-defunct business publication that he edited.) What Disturbs Our Blood is on one level the story of Gerry FitzGerald, a Canadian medical pioneer (who worked with Nobel Prize Winners Banting and Best), and his son, Jack, James’ father, who followed him into medicine, with a different specialty – allergies – and in many ways also replicated the tragic arc of Gerald’s life. James, for his part, became a journalist, but always felt weighed down by his family dynamic of secrecy, which never discussed and barely acknowledged the suicide of his grandfather, and of withholding, with parents – particularly a father – who had no clue how to relate to his three children or even how to show them physical affection. The result, in James’ case, not surprisingly, was a young man, growing up feeling like an outsider in his own skin and in the world at large, feelings exacerbated by his father’s nervous breakdown and physical and emotional decline. Only when James began delving into psychotherapy in his early 30s – and commensurately started a quest to unearth his rich family roots stretching all the way back to Ireland in the 12th century – did he come to some a sort of understanding of the emotional demons afflicting him and his family. This is a memoir you won't soon forget. Critics at Large interviewed him about the book, the reaction of its readers and his thoughts on the difficulties of non-fiction (especially when it’s as complex as What Disturbs Our Blood) succeeding in Canada.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cruel Tease of Lost Promise: The Beach Boys' The Smile Sessions

Probably no pop album experiment has ever developed the legendary mythical status afforded The Beach Boys' ill-fated Smile album. Considering that it's a record that was never finished by the band and shelved in the vaults for years (in fact, it's a work that brought heartache and madness to its creator), Smile built a large appetite over the years for its release. Now it has finally been issued in an epic box-set (The Smile Sessions) complete with 5-CDs of material that includes a facsimile of the original record, plus many CDs of session material that chronicle the album's creation. Included as well is a 2-LP vinyl set of Smile, two 45rpm singles from the work, a book with extensive background material on the making of Smile and its aftermath, and a 24" by 36" poster of Frank Holmes' quaintly evocative cover art (which is duplicated in 3-D on the front of the box itself). A more compact 2-disc set will be out shortly for the more casual and cost conscious fan. Never in the history of pop music though has an incomplete record ever been so lavished in merchandising. It puts the work itself in danger of being buried by the hype. But no amount of hype can hide the troubled atmosphere conjured within its tracks.

Like Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes, Smile is a drug-induced gaze back on the early frontier spirit of the American past; and just like many daring artifacts that tap into the tapestry of that frontier, it's a grand folly, a failure of ambition with scatterings of masterful songs embroidered into its symphonic canvas. But where The Basement Tapes provided a clearly defined map of America's musical past, it also confidently pointed forward to a future that would give birth to the grassroots pop of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967) and The Band's Music From Big Pink (1968), two hugely influential records that changed the course of sixties music. Those informal 1967 recordings in the Big Pink basement in Woodstock also created a camaraderie among the musicians which brought focus to their subterranean experiments. With The Beach Boys' Smile, which began recording in 1966, its progenitor Brian Wilson had no such spirit of fraternity with his mates and the drugs didn't loosen up the dynamics (as it did with The Basement Tapes). Instead it brought paranoia and collapse. As for the album title, Smile couldn't have been more of a misnomer. It became what David Leaf, author of The Beach Boys & the California Myth, aptly called "a cruel tease of lost promise."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Three Comedies from Different Eras

Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, which translated commedia dell’ arte into scripted form, was mostly consigned to the reading of theatre history scholars until Giorgio Strehler, Jacques LeCoq and Amleto Sartori mounted their famous production in Italy in 1947 and brought it back into the public consciousness. In it, an Arlecchino figure – a tricky servant – manages to serve two employers simultaneously without either of them knowing it, and without realizing that they’re separated lovers. (One, the story’s heroine, is disguised as a man.) The play is entertaining but I prefer One Man, Two Guv’nors, Richard Bean’s revision, which was given a tip-top production at the National Theatre in London by Nicholas Hytner that has moved to the West End. (It was recently shown widely on HD.)

Bean has transplanted the Goldoni text to 1963 England – providing just enough distance from the audience’s experience to allow for a stylized period farce – and the scenes are interspersed with songs by Grant Olding, who leads a combo in shiny mauve suits called The Craze. (Olding, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, wears heavy-frame specs like Buddy Holly.) The songs evoke a variety of early-sixties groups, including Herman’s Hermits and, inevitably, The Beatles. The servant with two governors is Francis Henshall, played by the ingenious James Corden, whom aficionados of British film will recall from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing and Hytner’s The History Boys. His employers are a prep-school twit named Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and the woman of his dreams, Rachel Crabbe (Jemma Rooper), who hatch a plan to emigrate to Australia after Stanley kills her twin brother Roscoe in self-defense; in the meantime Rachel pretends to be Roscoe to keep everyone off the scent. That means that she also has to pretend to be engaged to a brainless ingénue named Pauline (Claire Lams) – a match of convenience arranged by Roscoe, who was gay, and Pauline’s Mafioso dad, Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway). Pauline is really in love with a highly dramatic actor named Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby) whose father (Martyn Ellis) is the slippery solicitor Charlie and his friends typically employ to get them out of scrapes. The other characters, rounding out the cast of commedia types, are “The Duck”’s wised-up bookkeeper Dolly (Suzie Toase), the object of Henshall’s amorous inclinations, a Caribbean called Lloyd (Trevor Laird) who runs a pub-restaurant, and a pair of waiters (David Benson and Tom Edden).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Musician Revitalized: Ron Sexsmith at the River Run Centre, Guelph (Oct. 21, 2011)

Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith

Let’s get something out in the open right away, I’m a big fan of Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith. I’ve seen him live a dozen times, bought all his CDs, including various artist collections on which he only has one tune. I was also privileged to be invited to the taping of his episode of Beautiful Noise (a made-for-cable music show).

Friday night in Guelph we were in the presence of a different Ron Sexsmith. I last saw him in Hamilton’s Studio Theatre, an intimate venue with table seating. He was just starting to get the reviews for his new album Long Player, Late Bloomer, and the documentary, Love Shines, was just starting to be shown at festivals. It was April. Sexsmith had added a pianist to his band, and was playing Hamilton, then being feted at Massey Hall, before leaving for a European tour. He seemed tentative. He had a cold and it marked some of his vocals. The news had come out that Sexsmith had been considering getting out of the business. Although he bravely soldiered on, and gave us a fine show, his confidence was shaky. You can hear this show on CBC’s web site.

Last weekend in Guelph, however, he was a changed man.