Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot

Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #45: What Just Happened? (2008)

Robert De Niro and John Turturro in Barry Levinson's What Just Happened?

Barry Levinson’s 2008 What Just Happened? approaches Hollywood venality, greed and ego with a razor edge, an elegant style and a distanced wit – a killer combination. It’s adapted from What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, a juicy, deftly written and economical (150-page) memoir by producer Art Linson, who lays out the process of getting movies made in the film industry and tells amazing and often scathing stories about some of the ones he worked on, like Great Expectations, Fight Club, The Edge and Pushing Tin. (He has an earlier book, A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood.) Here’s Linson holding forth on the subject of the pitch:

For those of you who have never been in a pitch meeting, it’s nothing much different from door-to-door sales except the financial stakes are higher. You must convince the guy with the checkbook that he needs whatever soap you are selling. I’m not sure anyone actually needs to buy an idea for a movie. If you buy an idea, you have to pay to have the script written. Writers are expensive. In most instances the scripts are badly done and only a small percentage ever get filmed. Because of the high turnover factor, the executive who winds up buying the script probably won’t even have his job by the time the wretched thing gets made and is ready for release. Either someone else will be the beneficiary of its success, or the poor sucker who was fired will inevitably be blamed for supporting it. Under these rules, I’m always amazed at the optimism that’s displayed so early on for something that might not pay off for years. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Too Fast To Live, Too Old To Get Funding: Passion and The Canyons

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star in Brian De Palma's Passion

Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader are both survivors of the ‘70s “movie brat” era, both bold directors still intent on pushing the outside of the envelope even as they tiptoe toward or past their seventieth birthday, and both continue to have to dance and cajole and plead and scheme just for the chance to make another movie. De Palma’s latest, Passion, is a French-German co-production based on a movie from just three years ago, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (Crime d'amour). This is the director’s first film since 2008’s furiously angry Iraq War screed, Redacted, whose best scenes updated the black-comedy absurdist slapstick of the Vietnam-era Greetings and Hi, Mom! to the time of George W. Bush. The only politics in Passion are of the office variety; it’s about the setbacks and humiliations that Isabelle, a marketing executive played by Noomi Rapace, suffers at the hands of her “mentor,” a bitch on wheels named Christine, played by a blond Rachel McAdams.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Summer in the City: A Musical Notebook

In the 1997 film My Son, the Fanatic, based on a Hanif Kureishi short story, Parvez (Om Puri) is a Pakistani-born taxi driver and secular Muslim. His family life takes an unexpected downturn, however, when his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) converts to fundamentalist Islam. Parts of the picture play like the reverse of the familiar story of the teenager faced with intolerant parents and so turns to music for comfort. In My Son, The Fanatic, it's Parvez who heads to the basement because of his intolerant son to find refuge playing his favourite R&B records. One of those tracks happens to be Percy Mayfield's sumptuous 1950 song, "Please Send Me Someone to Love" ("Heaven please send to all mankind/Understanding and peace of mind/And if it's not asking too much/Please send me someone to love"), which stayed perched on the black music charts for 27 weeks. Director Udayan Prasad takes this soft and pleading ballad, written four years before the United States Supreme Court would outlaw racial segregation in schools, and turns it into a secular prayer.

Andy Warhol would have been 85 this year. Lou Reed and John Cale's remarkable Songs for Drella, a song cycle portrait of their former mentor, is the perfect tonic and tribute to the late painter and film-maker. Reed and Cale, a fractious pair even on a good day, hadn't spoken to one another for years until Warhol's memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 1, 1987. It was painter Julian Schnabel who suggested they create a memorial piece for Warhol. So they set about writing songs that told Warhol's story, and in early January 1989, Cale and Reed, despite their troubled friendship, recorded the album. (Cinematographer Ed Lachman would also film a stunning live performance, but without an audience, on December 4–5, 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Songs for Drella (a nickname contraction of Dracula and Cinderella) has a touching delicacy ("Style it Takes"), features honest self-examination ("It Wasn't Me"), a periodic defiance ("Work"), and sometimes, even a jolting and blistering unapologetic anger ("I Believe"). It's as if Reed and Cale could only bring Warhol to life when they finally faced each other and settled their scores. From the grave, Andy Warhol found a memorable way on Songs for Drella to make them brothers again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Almighty Johnsons: Family Dysfunction of Heavenly Proportions

(bottom left, clockwise) Timothy Balme, Emmett Skilton, Dean O'Gorman & Jared Turner in The Almighty Johnsons

Like many other stories, this one begins with a 21st birthday party (albeit set in a New Zealand locale with accents and culture somewhat exotic to North Americans). Expecting a big, beer-driven blowout, Axl Johnson (Emmett Skilton) gets a little more than he bargained for: apparently he and his brothers are reincarnated Norse gods, and now it’s his turn to enter the family business. With a title guaranteed to make any fourth grade boy involuntarily snigger, The Almighty Johnsons is like nothing else on television. Despite its over-the-top premise that Norse deities incarnated themselves into human beings, packed up from Norway in the 19th century, and emigrated to New Zealand, the ensemble comedy-drama has a refreshing lack of pretension, and leans on smart writing and appealing acting instead of special effects and melodrama. In an era with more teen vampires, werewolves, witches, and wizards than we know what to do with, this New Zealand export stands out with its narrative restraint, charm, and a maturity that exceeds that of its often emotionally-stunted characters.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Chosen: Too Much

Jeff Cuttler and Ben Rosenbach in The Chosen

The stage version of Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen at Barrington Stage Company pushes and pulls and preaches at you. It’s overwritten and overdirected (by Aaron Posner, who also did the adaptation with Potok) and a lot of it is overacted, too; you walk away feeling manhandled.

The book, which came out in 1967, is pedantic and repetitive, but it’s also authentically moving, and it catches you up in its unusual story. Set against the background of the last year of the Second World War and the formation of the State of Israel, it’s the story of two teenage boys in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who become improbable friends and whose twin coming of age illumines the value of two radically different approaches to raising sons. The narrator, Reuven Malter, is an Orthodox Jew finishing his high school education at a parochial school. He’s very bright, especially at math, and his only parent, his father David, a Hebrew school teacher, Talmudic scholar and early Zionist (Reuven’s mother died when the boy was very young) hopes he might become a professor; but Reuven has his eye on the Rabbinate. Father and son have a close, confidential relationship. Danny Saunders is the son of a Hasidic rabbi who brought him up – for reasons Potok doesn’t make clear until the end of the book – in silence, forcing him to look for answers to his questions in his heart and soul. Reb Saunders hardly speaks to Danny except during Talmud study or in synagogue, at which time he challenges the boy to find the mistakes he deliberately sprinkles among his verbal commentaries, a public test that Reuven, invited to attend services, finds appalling but that Danny is inured to and enjoys. Reuven is quick-witted, skillful and thoughtful, but Danny is a prodigy with a photographic memory, and his unbounded intellectual curiosity feels trapped in the restricted learning environment of the Hasidic community. So he steals off to the public library to read on his own, where – before he and Reuven cross paths on their own – Reuven’s father becomes his intellectual mentor, recommending Hemingway and Dostoevsky to him. Freud, however, he finds on his own. There’s a rebellious streak in Danny, who’s expected, as his father’s son, to become the next tzaddik, or community leader; his dream is to study psychology. (If this summary sounds familiar to you but you know you haven’t read the novel, then you may have had the misfortune of seeing the 1981 movie version, with Robby Benson bizarrely miscast as Danny and Rod Steiger tearing it up as Reb Saunders.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spare Parts: The Criterion Collection Release of Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984)

In British director Alex Cox's 1984 debut cult film, Repo Man, which the Criterion Collection has recently released on regular and Blu-ray DVD, people are long past being stirred by the sunny allure of Los Angeles. They're now well into its shady violence. The L.A. of this cheerfully nihilistic picture isn't even that sunny anymore. The neon-bright daylight skies (shot by the crack cinematographer Robbie Müller) could be lit by the same florescent bulbs that adorn a 7-11. The night scenes come across as black ink blots brightened by sparsely placed street lamps that make the city look about as desolate as its inhabitants. According to Cox, whatever appeal Los Angeles had in its past, by the Eighties it's nothing more than a junk yard of spare parts where people are essentially hanging on to whatever junk they've got left.

This maniacally funny science fiction comedy basically tells us that the dashed dreamers who once littered this west coast paradise are now hostile predators brutally protective of their possessions. And since it's a pretty common joke that people in L.A. only travel in their cars, it's the car that has now become the vehicle of their rage (just as it was in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend). Since the Hollywood hits of the Eighties were usually 'buddy movies' like Lethal Weapon (1987) and 48 Hrs. (1982), Alex Cox satirizes how in those weepies for men the buddies settle their personal conflicts to learn important life lessons about civility. Repo Man features two guys who really don't give a shit about civility (or each other). The only life lesson they learn is the tools to repossess a car in record time to survive the economic downturn. Cox's punk ethos, which is far less self-conscious than it became later in Sid and Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987), is totally refreshing and it clears your head. Repo Man – gratefully – doesn't set out to improve anybody.