Saturday, December 31, 2011

Profound Disbelief: Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth

I’m beginning to wonder if Miriam Toews isn’t something of a one-hit wonder. At this point in her career she has completed five novels, including Irma Voth (Knopf Canada, 2011). So far, the only one that has wholly impressed me has been A Complicated Kindness. Toews has a knack for molding vivid characters, except this time she’s gone too far. I struggled to make sense of the title character. On one page Irma does not comprehend simple irony; on the next she is gushing about “excruciating existential dilemmas.” Irma’s background does shed some light into her cryptic character. She was raised in a conservative Mennonite community on the Canadian prairies until her family moved to Mexico several years before the novel opens. In the present tense of the novel, she works as an assistant for a leftist independent filmmaker making a movie about Mexican Mennonites. So given her eclectic background, we might expect her to have a slightly incomprehensible personality. But even though I agree that just because someone is unsophisticated doesn’t make them incapable of sophisticated thought, I don’t think Toews creates a very convincing case for Irma Voth.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Movies and Time: Christian Marclay's The Clock

For those of us unrepentant film addicts who can track the passage of our lives by the movies we’ve seen, Christian Marclay’s The Clock provides a unique sort of enchantment. Marclay, a California-born visual artist and composer, has assembled a twenty-four-hour film made up of film (and some TV) clips about time. Most of them actually mark the time: the first time I caught a section of it, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last July, my watch read 3:09 p.m. as I stepped into the projection room and as soon as I’d settled myself on one of the couches, I heard a voice from screen bemoaning the lateness of the 3:10 train to Yuma. Many of the scenes  some are as short as a single shot  contain images of clocks and watches, but Marclay’s day-long montage considers time in every conceivable form and interpretation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas, Dylan and Music that Matters

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? / another year over, a new one just begun...”

Christmas is like that isn’t it? John Lennon got it right. There’s the implied long wait, the excitement building, then the event, and it’s over. So this is Christmas? Now it’s over, and what have we done? Well, if you’re anything like us, at our house, you’ve simply had another year run by uncontrollably past. It could be that your Christmas was like John’s old partner George's was when he was “simply having a wonderful Christmas time...ding, dong, ding, dong...” I’m certain that for many that describes it. We move from one party to the next, eating too much, drinking too much, obviously spending too much. What began as a simple birthday party for the son of God, has turned in to this big...thing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse: The Artist/Entertainer at his Peak

With The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, both released this holiday season, the two creative (but not mutually exclusive) sides of director Steven Spielberg, the entertainer and artist, are on display on our movie screens. And though the films differ in quality, they’re both accomplishments that showcase him, once again, as one of the finest filmmaking talents in the world, if you weren't already aware of that fact. Many people aren't.

The two movies also share one thing in common, they’re both European stories that, as a positive sign of Hollywood’s recognition that foreigners make up a huge share of the overall box office, have not been Americanized in the slightest. Of course, being big budget, special effects extravaganzas, as only Hollywood could really afford to make, they are still in English. That’s the other economic reality. Hollywood still won’t take chances on subtitles fearing turning local audiences off of their movies.

I actually grew up with the adventures of Tintin, the young intrepid Belgian reporter, created by the Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi), over 23 comic books, as my grandparents (who moved there from Poland) and my mother, who was born there, were from that country. When I was young, reading them in their original French, my memories of the strip were that they contained exciting, exotic adventures, were populated by eccentric/amusing characters and were drawn with a simple but effective style. That last might seem too hard to duplicate on screen but Spielberg, utilizing performance capture animation, pulls it off flawlessly.

Performance capture animation requires photographing actors, particularly their facial and physical expressions, and then grafting them as animated figures on the screen making them look like actors playing the roles. (Motion capture is the process of photographing the whole person. The use of it for film is performance capture.) Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) was one such movie but it was a rather impersonal, cold project. The Adventures of Tintin is a warmer, personality driven effort and much more pleasing and entertaining as cinema. It’s a refreshingly different looking movie, too, an animated flick that looks like it’s been bred with a live action movie, adding up to something unique on screen. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Performing Without Inhibition: Wim Wenders' Pina

"Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost."
                                             Pina Bausch

Watching Wim Wenders' hauntingly poignant and unique film about the choreographic genius of Pina Bausch, I was reminded that when I was younger I didn’t want to run away and join the circus; I wanted to join Tanztheater Wuppertal, the internationally acclaimed German dance troupe that Bausch directed from 1973 until her untimely death in 2009.

I saw her extraordinary dancers, culled from all corners of the globe, for the first time in 1984 during a rare visit of the troupe to Toronto. The piece was The Rite of Spring, and the stage was covered with spoil (dirt, peat and other detritus) that turned to mud soon after the dancers started marking it with the sweat of their extraordinary effort. Together with the approximately 2,000 spectators who thronged to the theatre that night, drawn by Bausch’s reputation as an award-winning dance artist, I watched spellbound from the edge of my seat, eyes wide open, a lump in my throat.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The School for Scandal at the Barbican, Butley in the West End

Ensemble members in various states of dress and undress stride cheekily up and down in a runway-style pre-show before settling down to the text in Deborah Warner’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s unbeatable comedy of manners The School for Scandal at the Barbican. This opening promises fun, but after about ten minutes of the actual play you realize you’ve been led down the garden path. Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler), who presides over the metaphorical school of the title, a crew of self-involved gossips who pick the reputations of London high society like vultures pecking at corpses, makes out with Snake (Gary Sefton) and shares a line of coke with him; that’s about the level of Warner’s invention. The hip-contemporary underwear-dominated costumes supervised by Binnie Bowerman quickly give way to the eighteenth-century outfits you see in most versions of the play, though every now and then someone walks onstage with an anachronistic costume piece, or someone pulls out a cell phone, and the transitions between scenes are flashy strobe-lit video projections that operate as Brechtian interruptions. It makes perfect sense to update the setting of The School for Scandal (originally produced in 1777), but I don’t get the nervous, ADHD shift between the play’s real setting and modern day  though Warner is hardly the first director to try this sort of post-modern theatrical trick.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small: A Movie That Growls “Merry Christmas”

There are several moments in We Bought a Zoo that may be reminiscent of a far better film also about a man with a plan who arrives in a remote town and is charmed by the eccentric people living there. Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, which came out in 1983, was set on the coast of Scotland. Peter Riegert played a conflicted oil company executive way back then and he appears all too briefly as a newspaper editor in the current release, directed by Cameron Crowe. The star this time around is Matt Damon, portraying a recently widowed journalist named Benjamin Mee fleeing Los Angeles and arriving somewhere in rural Southern California with his two children.

Newspapers throughout the nation are withering away, plus Benjamin’s adventure beat becomes too difficult to maintain because it requires a lot of traveling. With two kids to raise on his own, he simply quits the job. Meanwhile, his brooding 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) has just been expelled from school for stealing and their city home is plagued by noisy neighbors. A real estate agent shows several properties to him and his precocious daughter Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, cute enough to stop mugging for the cameras already!). But none are right for them until they spot a ramshackle country house on 18 gorgeous acres – and adjacent to an almost-defunct Rosemoor Wildlife Park, in dire need of renovation and revival. The family also desperately in need of revival suddenly must contend with lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.