Saturday, January 12, 2013

Nuanced Noir: The Killing (The Danish Version)

Recently, an article in The New Yorker profiled the popularity of Danish television in the UK. They focused particularly on three programs: Borgen, a political thriller; The Bridge, a police procedural; and The Killing, a show that is both a political thriller and a police procedural. But The Killing also adds a third element which is domestic drama. The author, Lauren Collins, collectively describes them as “a minutely detailed diorama of urban life” comparable to The Wire. With respect to The Killing, the only Danish program that I have seen, the analogy seems apt given its multiple narratives, its town-hall corruption and its exploration of social tensions.

The popularity of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen) in the UK is undeniable. Over the course of the first season broadcast in the fall of 2011, audience ratings doubled. When the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall during their Scandinavian tour in March 2012 arrived in Copenhagen, the Duchess expressed a wish to visit the set of The Killing where she was received by both the cast and crew. Given that the American remake of the program, relocated to Seattle that resulted in at best mixed reviews (I have not seen this version), is the first season of the original series good enough to invest twenty hours of your time? I think a case can be made that The Killing is exceptional television and that viewers are richly rewarded.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Not Feeling the Love: Michael Haneke’s Amour

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star in Michael Haneke's Amour

There weren’t too many surprises in yesterday’s Oscar nominations with the predictable choices, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, leading the pack. I had assumed (hoped?) that The Master would be ignored but it wasn’t, grabbing acting (!) nominations for all three of its stars. The American independent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which got four key nominations was a bit unexpected, I guess, but to my mind it was Austrian director Michael Haneke’s undeserving Amour (Love), up for five awards in all, that came out of left field. It’s still rare for non-English language movies to be nominated in the main categories, but Amour snagged Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress nods as well as the obvious Best Foreign Language movie. Haneke is simply not a filmmaker you’d expect America to take notice of, no matter how ridiculously well reviewed Amour was but there he and the movie were, sharing the limelight with Hollywood’s biggest and (supposedly) brightest. And though Haneke’s become a much better filmmaker than when he began his feature film career over 20 years ago, his movies display no shortage of sadism, triteness and camera work so obtrusive that you can’t help but always be aware of someone being behind the camera. Amour isn’t as nasty or banal as his other films but it’s still a movie whose obviousness and lack of genuine interest in its subjects' pain and suffering is as off-putting as movies can get.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall: Christian Petzold's Barbara

Nina Hoss, who starred in Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) and plays the title role in his new film, Barbara, knows how to forge a direct line of communication with the audience even when she’s convincingly playing a character who keeps everyone else at arm’s length. In Jerichow, she played a woman who loathed her husband, and whose feelings toward her lover, who she’s enlisted in a murder plot, couldn’t be clearly sorted out, maybe because she couldn’t fully sort them out herself. In Barbara, which is set in East Germany in 1980, nine years before the Wall came down, Hoss plays a gifted, dedicated doctor whose career in Berlin has been derailed after she requested an exit visa. Released from police custody and exiled to the provinces, she remains hard and unsmiling, doing her best to signal to the world around her that she isn’t happy about her changed circumstances but has resigned herself to her fate. Meanwhile, to the camera, her every fiery glance quietly sends the message that she’s bustin’ outta here.

At her new job, she meets Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a sweetly solicitous young doctor who is immediately drawn to her. Their scenes together dramatize the everyday sexual politics of life in a police state: he can scarcely help but be attracted to the intense, beautiful woman who’s become his professional colleague as a punishment, just as she can’t help but be suspicious of his motives – is he informing on her to the Stasi? Having tried every other way to break down her stony reserve, Reiser finally shares his own back story: he, too, was driven from Berlin, as the consequence of a horrible medical mishap for which he wasn’t directly responsible but for which he nobly feels he was to blame. Naturally, this only makes Barbara more suspicious of him. “Was my story too long?” he asks in frustration. Actually, the story is too damn good, too perfectly shaped to pull them closer together.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fading Fast: David Chase’s Not Fade Away

With The Sopranos, David Chase achieved an elusive feat: creating a television series that was not only a gripping new installment in American film’s much beloved gangster genre, but expanded on its conventions to reflect deep currents of the cultural mainstream. He tries to replicate this maneuver in Not Fade Away, using rock music as a lens to get at the social upheaval of the 60s, but to no avail. The movie is his first piece of work as a writer and director since his HBO mob hit, and it suffers most of all from a lack of what lay at the heart of The Sopranos: fascinatingly layered characters. It doesn’t help that the movie is overly self-conscious and convinced of its notion that rock n’ roll was America’s greatest achievement, as if just stating this thesis makes for an important film.

Not Fade Away opens with a brief black and white scene of a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting on a train before cutting, now in color, to its story of a group of high school guys in the New Jersey suburbs who form a band of their own at the same time. Doug, played by John Magaro, awakens to the power of rock when he hears The Beatles' first hit on the radio and yearns to join a band he sees at his high school because of the popularity (and girls) that come with performing. We’re told by a voice over narrator – his younger sister – from the get go that this is a story about the band, but the narrative doesn’t bear this out. It keeps dropping the band’s fate to follow Doug as he moves through and comes of age in the turbulent decade. It’s a relief that Chase drops the voice over for most of the movie – simply asserting, with old TV footage of The Rolling Stones, that rock music’s trajectory ran parallel to that of Doug’s band is didactic and unsubstantiated if you don’t actually show it. And the sister barely functions as a character in the story. Why is she the one guiding us through it? But when he brings it back at the end, it moves from annoying to simultaneously grating and silly.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stepping Forward into the Past: Safety Not Guaranteed

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.

                                    “…. if there were a devil he would not be the one who decided against God, 
                                      but he that in all eternity came to no decision.”  
                                                                                                               – Martin Buber, I and Thou

Surprise, Joss Whedon once said, is “a holy emotion.” Surprise “makes you humble…shows you that you’re wrong, the world is bigger and more complicated than you’d imagined.” It is also becoming scarce on television (the subject Whedom was discussing) and even rarer in film. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along and does just that. And Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t merely surprising: it is also, in a very real way, about surprise – about why we need it and about everything that conspires to make us unable to experience it.

Safety Not Guaranteed screened at Sundance last January, was in the theatres this past summer, and came out on DVD in the fall. I knew of it – mainly because of Susan Green’s interview with the film’s director Colin Trevorrow for Critics at Large in June – but I finally sat down to watch the film last week. Though I knew the plot’s launching points (a mysterious classified ad) and that it boasted the stars of two of my favourite sitcoms (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and Jake Johnson from New Girl), I went in with few if any expectations. Three parts rom-com and one part science fiction, Safety Not Guaranteed starts small and grows, slowly and surely, through its 86-minute running time – ultimately telling a story that does justice to the intelligence of its characters and its audience. Neither sickly sweet nor mockingly cynical, the film is still sincerely romantic; for all its ambitions, it remains structurally and self-consciously informed by the established rules of romantic comedy. The first feature by independent filmmaker Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, Safety Not Guaranteed has three charming lead actors, a deceptively simple plot, and a marvelously constructed script. Even as the final credits were rolling, it made me want to generate a “Most Underrated Films of 2012” list just so I could put its name on it!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Actors and Movie Stars: Notes on Recent Performances, Part I (The Men)

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
Fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mystery novels have been irate over the casting of Tom Cruise as Child’s 6’3” brick wall of a shamus – a character a friend of mine who recommended the books to me described as “Sherlock Holmes plus brawn.” But the problem with Cruise in Jack Reacher isn’t that he’s wrong for the part; it’s that after three decades as a movie star, he still isn’t an actor. In middle age he’s less narcissistic on camera than he used to be: somewhere along the way he figured out how to listen to the other actors in a scene rather than interacting with some invisible mirror reflection of himself. But he still doesn’t play anything – an action, an objective; he’s nothing but attitude, and the attitude is always pretty much the same (brash, assertive, bullheaded). He can get by in certain kinds of action thrillers when the director is clever enough to use his physical fitness wittily, as Brian De Palma and Brad Bird did in the first and most recent entries in the Mission: Impossible series; De Palma even managed to get a degree of emotion out of him. But Cruise almost always seems miscast because he doesn’t fill in his characters, so you don’t believe in what Stanislavski called the “given circumstances” – that he is the people he professes to be. Reacher is a fiercely independent one-time army investigator with an instinctual sense of justice from which he’s incapable of straying. Watching Cruise in the part I didn’t buy any one of those descriptives, even though they completely inform the plot.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Just Plain People: Folk Music, in Fiction and Fact

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger perform at the Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert in 1996 (Photo: Neal Preston)

What is folk music? You might well ask. Louis Armstrong is quoted as saying “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Of course, even this well known quote has attribution questions. I’ve heard it attributed to Woody Guthrie, and a recent post on the web-site of The Fretboard Journal presents evidence that maybe it was Big Bill Broonzy who said it first.

Over the Christmas break I read a few books which asked the same question, and, not surprisingly, came up with similar answers. fRoots magazine, which proclaims itself “the essential folk, roots and world music guide” states in its reviewing policy that folk music “is music which has some roots in a tradition.” Tradition plays a large role in these books and the way tradition is dealt with by their protagonists is informative.

For over 20 years, Scott Alarik wrote about folk music in the Boston Globe, but he's also a singer-songwriter most notably seen on A Prairie Home Companion, as well as a familiar player on the national folk circuit. So he has first hand experience on both sides of the question. Revival is Alarik’s first novel, and it is a book deeply entrenched in tradition and community.

The story is a classic, a spin on A Star Is Born. The précis on the back cover explains it, “talented, charismatic songwriter Nathan Warren lost his chance at stardom years ago, and now sees his life as waste and ruin. Kit Palmer is young, beautiful, and explosively gifted, but her dreams are also doomed unless she can keep from falling apart on stage. They travel the Boston folk scene as lovers and artists, through basement clubs and funky jam sessions, rowdy open mikes and sprawling festivals, seeking stardom for one and redemption for the other.” And that just about tells it like it is. It’s a simple story, of love and redemption, success and failure, dreams, fantasies and realities.