Saturday, March 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #39: Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free) (1999)

Hanna Cohn (Karine Vanasse), the adolescent protagonist of Set Me Free (Emporte-moi) by the Québecois filmmaker Léa Pool, is tender and angry, needy and rebellious by turns. This marvelous film, set mostly in Montreal in the early sixties, begins with Hanna’s first period, and it’s about her attempts to figure herself out. It feels autobiographical – movies are crucial to Hanna’s efforts to define herself (she falls in love with Anna Karina as the prostitute Nana in Godard’s My Life to Live), and at the end, a beloved teacher (Nancy Huston, who worked on the screenplay with Pool and two other women) lets her borrow a Super 8 camera for the summer and she uses it to record her life. It seems we’re meant to see these impressionistic images as the genesis of the childhood portrait that would emerge, eventually, in the form of Set Me Free.

Hanna lives with her Jewish father (Miki Manojlovic), her Catholic mother (Pascale Bussières), and her older brother Paul (Alexandre Mérineau) in a cramped, ugly apartment that can only be accessed through the fire escape. They live on top of one another, and on the way in or out, they’re likely to run into the landlady, who makes unwelcome personal comments about them and demands the rent, which is forever late. Hanna’s mother works long days at a sewing machine in a small clothing factory, and when she finally gets home, her husband, who has trouble holding onto jobs, expects her to type his poems, which is how he defines himself. They’ve never married, and though Hanna declares her illegitimacy proudly in school, along with her official lack of a religious identity (since Catholicism is passed down through the father and Judaism through the mother) – she offers these as proof of free thinking and bohemianism in opposition to the conventional bourgeois culture – you get the sense that marriage is actually something David, her father, has held back from her mother, as a way of punishing her. He calls her terrible names and slaps her when he’s frustrated with how his writing is going (and it never seems to be going well). Both Hanna’s parents are very complicated: he’s a Holocaust survivor and dreadfully moody and demanding; she’s depressed and takes pills, either to put herself to sleep or, on occasion, in attempts at suicide. It’s a hardscrabble, difficult home, both for Hanna and for Paul (whom she’s close to). Officially it’s a Jewish home – David says the prayer before the Sabbath meal – but it doesn’t feel like one, because the mother’s presence imputes a distinctly French Catholic aura to it. And when the kids aren’t sufficiently quiet and serious during supper while their father listens to reports of the Middle East conflict on the radio, he launches his favorite complaint: that they’re a family of Mongols, Gentiles who don’t understand or respect their Jewish roots.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Three Neglected Gems (#36-37-38): Citizen Ruth (1996), Lila Says (2004) & Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Laura Dern stars in Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996)

From Japan's Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) to Italy's Marco Bellocchio (Good Morning, Night), the best filmmakers often function as commentators and observers of their country's foibles, politics and attitudes. Whether it be the razor sharp satire of Spanish director Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) or the timely and relevant dramas of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Cold Water, Summer Hours), those films educate, edify and illuminate the issues that roil and preoccupy a specific society, allowing uninformed viewers to glean a deeper understanding of what's going on below the sensationalist newspaper headlines and quickly tossed off news reports. Here are three films: two which revolve around the social politics, respectively, of the United States and France and another that gives a nod to a classic English novel while also examining the realities of Britain's celebrity culture.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Fireflywere barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.

But the thunderous success of Rob Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a proposed Veronica Mars movie has shifted my thoughts to a darker, less congenial question: what about those beloved series that lived too long, the ones whose sublime early seasons begin to decay under the weight of their own continuity

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Don Draper for the Revolution: No (2012)

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No

Gael Garcia Bernal has the physical equipment of a young romantic lead and the skill and emotional depth of a real actor. In the Chilean film No, Bernal plays René, an ad man who has returned home after some time in exile (to Mexico) and become a success designing TV commercials for a soft drink called Free. It’s 1988, the fifteenth year of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the government, looking to finally achieve international respectability, has agreed to a national election meant to certify Pinochet’s legitimacy as president. A “yes” vote will translate into another eight years in office for the General; those who want him gone can vote “no.” The eyes of the world will be on the election, but the government assumes it won’t have to rig the results; even if enough people had the courage to vote against Pinochet, it’s taken on faith that after fifteen years of official propaganda, anyone who isn’t terrified of change will be indifferent to the possibility. But just to show that everything is on the up and up, for twenty-seven days, fifteen minutes of TV programming will be set aside, late in the evening, for the opposition party to make its case. As one of Pinochet’s men explains, the government will also have fifteen minutes every night, as well as every other minute of broadcast time leading up to the election. René, whose boss is working on the government’s nightly fifteen minutes, volunteers his services to the opposition.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Perils of a Double Life in the Spy Thrillers of Charles Cumming

Author Charles Cumming.

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?
John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. 
The good spies are invariably introspective and thoughtful.
Charles Cumming.

Lying and duplicity are essential traits if a spy is to practice his tradecraft of espionage. As a result, he could be like Alec Milius, the central character of the Scottish writer, Charles Cumming’s debut novel, A Spy by Nature (2001) and his later book, The Spanish Game (2006). Milius is a self-absorbed opportunist whose motivation, rather than being ideological, is financial gain and the “kick and the buzz” from the adrenalin that flows from being in the game. Similarly, the self-serving CIA agent, Miles Coolidge, in Typhoon (2008) disregards official CIA policy by organizing clandestine terrorist attacks in order to destabilize China on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. Yet one of the many virtues of reading a Cumming’s thriller is his multifaceted depiction of intelligent agents. Take, for example, Joe Lennox, the British agent operating under deep cover in Hong Kong in Typhoon. Despite his criticism of Bush and Blair for the fiasco in Iraq, Lennox is a patriot who believes in Queen and Country and the importance of safeguarding Western values. Thomas Kell, who has been sacked from SIS (MI6) because of a torture scandal in Kabul and the protagonist of Cumming’s most recent novel, A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), is equally a complex figure. Like all of Cumming’s spies, Kell cannot conceive of an alternative to working in the secret world. Nonetheless, he is disturbed by his own passive complicity in the aggressive CIA interrogation of a terrorist suspect and his willingness to agree to the outsourcing of torture so that others could do the dirty work. When given another opportunity to interrogate a kidnapper who knows the whereabouts of an innocent man whose life is at stake, Kell redeems himself. He conducts an interview à la the real life former FBI officer, Ali Soufan, who managed to achieve astonishing intelligence results by “rapport building” and treating the terrorist suspect with respect rather than resorting to aggressive methods that Soufan considered were often counterproductive. Kell’s interrogation similarly achieves desirable results and demonstrates that agents can do their work without trashing the principles that some of them profess to believe in. He is simultaneously critical of leftists who demonstrate “their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.”

Working in the shadows where duplicity is a way of life does carry a high price, particularly for those who do not possess a moral compass. In Spy by Nature that focuses on industrial espionage, Alec Milius is given his first assignment at a British oil company to establish a personal relationship with two American CIA officers working undercover at a rival oil company and feed them disinformation about the Caspian Sea area. They in turn try to turn him into a double agent with the lure of a huge amount of money. Because of his greed, he recklessly overplays his hand by participating in a sting operation against the CIA. Disastrous results ensue not only because he earns the enmity of both agencies – he becomes the convenient scapegoat for SIS when British relations with the “Cousins” become strained – but he likely caused three civilian deaths, one of them is his former fiancé. He also has no qualms about risking the life of his only friend, Saul Ricken, by entrusting his secrets to him as a guarantee against CIA retaliation. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Revisionist: Redgrave Plays Eisenberg

Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg in The Revisionist (All photos by Sandra Coudert)

Jesse Eisenberg is one lucky bastard: he managed to get Vanessa Redgrave, arguably the greatest living actress – certainly she’s in the top three or four – to star opposite him in his own play. The Revisionist, which is being produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, is a two-hander in which David, a young American writer who’s having trouble doing the revisions his publisher has requested on his second book, a sci-fi novel, visits Maria, his grandfather’s cousin and a Holocaust survivor, in Szczecin, Poland. She’s overjoyed to see him, eager to play host and show him around the city; he’s just hoping that some peace and quiet in a remote setting will propel him through his writer’s block. He’s the world’s worst house guest – not just a vegetarian (a fact he neglected to mention when he invited himself for a visit) but uninterested in food, so the dinner she’s prepared for him on his first night goes unappreciated. (He just wants to go to sleep.) He finds any kind of noise distracting; he’s caustic, impatient, judgmental and completely self-absorbed. And his treatment of her vodka-swigging taxi driver friend (and sometime lover) Zenon (Daniel Oreskes) – whom he finds washing her feet, a task Zenon apparently performed for the dead mother whose loss he still grieves – is condescending. Moreover, David is wound so tight that he keeps retreating to his room to pry open the window and sneak a few tokes from the stash of weed he managed to get through customs. Only when Maria alludes to her Holocaust experience – her entire family was murdered by the Nazis while her babysitter hid her until the end of the war – does David show any interest in her.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky: As Brilliant and Mad as its Subject

Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky. (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

I am aware that saying I am over the moon mad for a ballet about a dancer who spent half his life in and out of insane asylums sounds, well, a little crazy. But go ahead, commit me. Because I am certifiably nuts about Nijinsky, choreographer John Neumeier’s two-act homage to the great Ballets Russes dancer who tragically lost his mind in 1919, at the age of 29, after only 10 years of blazing like a comet across the stage. This ballet is my amour fou.

I saw it twice earlier this month during its recent run at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts as part of the National Ballet of Canada’s spring season and each time the ballet was a revelation to me. Neumeier captures the epic sweep of the singular dancer’s triumphs and tragedy and as such his ballet is a masterpiece. It held me mesmerized, start to finish.