Saturday, February 27, 2016

90s Redux: The People v. O.J. Simpson

John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

I still remember the day that the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial reached a verdict. I was eleven at the time, and my parents had judiciously shielded me from many of the more gruesome and scandalous elements of the story, but I still knew that it was a big deal, if for no other reason than that a famous football player was on trial. Besides, everyone else seemed fascinated by it; when the verdict came through, I was at recess, and one of the teachers had brought a radio outside so that he could listen to the proceedings. As soon as he relayed the news to me and my fellow fifth-graders, who were huddling close to hear, we took off in a swarm, shouting out the verdict to everyone else on the playground. None of us knew what that decision really meant, but it certainly felt like a momentous occasion.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the creators of FX’s new American Crime Story, presumably planned the first season of their anthology series with the hope that viewers would have a similarly personal recollection of the Simpson trial. In some ways, they’ve set up a tricky scenario for themselves: because the trial received such exhaustive coverage, there’s a lot of it that’s not only a matter of public record, but which also looms large in people’s memories of the mid-90s, restricting the amount of license that they and their cast can take with the story and characters. In that regard, it helps that they’ve chosen to adapt Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I’m unfamiliar with Toobin’s account of the trial, but I’m willing to bet that basing a series like this, which covers fairly recent events featuring many individuals who are still alive, on a pre-existing nonfiction book will help deflect any accusations of rewriting history unfairly.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Neglected Gem #89: Human Resources (1999)

A scene from Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (1999).

Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (in French: Ressources humaines) is one of the few movies I can think of that truly delves into issues of labor and class. It’s set in France at the turn of the millennium, where the 35-hour work week is a hotly debated topic, in an auto factory in the provinces. This is the town where the movie’s protagonist, Franck Verdeau (Jalil Lespert), grew up; his father, Jean-Claude (Jean-Claude Vallod), has spent his whole adult life working at the same machine. But it’s Jean-Claude’s pride that he’s educated his son beyond his own station. Now, a year away from a graduate business degree, Franck returns home to intern in the factory on the management side, and it’s his father who emphasizes the importance of keeping his distance from the workers – of eating lunch, not with his dad and the men he’s known since he was a child, but with the boss, M. Rouet (Lucien Longueville), who has taken a liking to Franck and has hinted at the possibility of hiring him in a management position when he gets his degree. When Franck, drawing on what he’s learned in his university classes, comes up with the idea of asking the works to fill out a questionnaire about their feelings on the 35-hour work week, Rouet encourages him. The union has stated its opposition to the proposed change, but Franck – operating out of scholarly curiosity, not out of a political position – suspects that the questionnaire might indicate that the union is out of touch with the point of view of its members. What he’s too naïve to see is that Rouet is seizing on his questionnaire to further his own agenda: to create a wedge between the workers and their union and to make it possible for him to lay off employees, including, as it happens, Jean-Claude.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Forest: Hiking and Xenophobia

Natalie Dormer in The Forest.

Another day, another bad horror movie.

Or so my life has seemed anyway, as I unwisely took in Jason Zada’s The Forest following on the heels of William Brent Bell’s disappointing The Boy. The Forest, Zada’s feature debut, is about a successful, well-adjusted woman (Natalie Dormer) who goes looking for her troubled twin sister (also Natalie Dormer) in Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” Aokigahara. The “Suicide Forest,” or “Sea of Trees” as it’s colloquially known, is a real place and the site of anywhere from 50-100 deaths a year. It’s the subject of both a popular 20-minute documentary from VICE and the 2015 Gus Van Sant flop, Sea of Trees. Briefly putting aside questions of tastefulness, Aokigahara’s macabre history has ample horror movie potential. The disturbing setting paired with Natalie Dormer, fresh from her roles as rebel filmmaker Cressida (The Hunger Games), and ambitious queen Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones), could have made for a halfway decent film. Unfortunately, The Forest instead trips and lands, Natalie-Dormer-in-the-woods style, into the usual xenophobia and nonsense writing characteristic of most of these “East meets West” horror films (The Grudge, Shutter).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

All They Have To Do is Dream: The Cactus Blossoms' You’re Dreaming

I’m often surprised that more country music acts haven’t attempted to emulate Phil and Don Everly; perhaps in the great library of American music they are untouchable. But there is one band from Minnesota who has not only embraced the Everly sound – and they’ve carefully made it their own. The Cactus Blossoms have taken a huge musical risk on their Red House Records debut album, You’re Dreaming. Their sound is so much like the Everly Brothers it’s uncanny, but after getting to know their music, you realize this is not simple imitation by a long-shot, nor is it a tribute.

The Cactus Blossoms is a five-piece band with vocals by (brothers) Jack Torrey and Page Burkum. Their album of original songs harkens back to an era in American music that was about telling a great story filled with redemption and personal pain. Torrey and Burkum spent many hours in a St. Paul coffee house performing the Country Songbook. On this, their second album, The Cactus Blossoms re-invent all that history and tell stories of the human condition. “Change your ways and die,” sing Torrey and Burkum with warnings that “A sip of whiskey gets your toes wet, If you dive too deep you get caught in a net.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Witch: Think On Thy Sins

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch.

I love a film that delivers exactly what it promises. Yes, there is a witch in this movie, and the question of her existence is not a protracted affair like it would be in so many other modern horror flicks (“Is she really a witch, or is she just crazy? Is there a supernatural evil at work, or is it paranoia?”). Less than five minutes into the movie it is made unutterably clear that you are dealing with a bona fide, hut-dwelling, baby-stealing WITCH, and to expect anything less is to be wholly unprepared for the unapologetic cinematic assault that The Witch will make on your sensibilities. There’s a text card that follows the end credits of the film proudly announcing that the antiquated 17th-century dialogue (with its “thou wilt”s and “come hither”s) is based on accurate historical research, and includes direct excerpts from New England journals and correspondences from that time. But this level of dedication to period authenticity is just icing on the cake – the film by itself (a shockingly adroit debut by writer-director Robert Eggers) is an exquisitely crafted exercise in sustained tension and disturbing imagery, that advertises a descent into Satanic madness and gives you exactly that. I’ve been missing some good old-fashioned devilry in my horror fare, and The Witch makes up for any number of half-assed Sinisters and Paranormal Activitys we’ve had to endure for the past decade. Come prepared to witness evil in its truest form – and the finely made film that acts as its earthly vessel.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Spring Awakening: Wedekind with a Rock Beat

The cast of Spring Awakening at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 2006 Spring Awakening is surely one of the oddest triumphs in musical-theatre history. Steven Sater’s book is a faithful rendering of the great (and still shocking) tragedy by the expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind – which had received its first performance exactly a century earlier – about the oppression of adolescents in turn-of-the-century Germany by a tyrannical educational system and parents whose treatment of their children falls along the spectrum from conformist terror and cowardice to insensitivity to downright cruelty. But the score, with lyrics by Sater and infectious music by Duncan Sheik, is contemporary. The combination feels like it shouldn’t work but it does: the musical numbers both comment on Wedekind’s text and place its depiction of teenage angst on a continuum that crosses into the twenty-first century. No one who has read about the epidemic of high-school suicides in Palo Alto over the past several year needs to be convinced of the relevance of Moritz Stiefel’s fate in the second act of Spring Awakening – because, befogged by the behavior of his hormones, he can’t concentrate on his overwhelming load of schoolwork and feels his weak academic performance has wrecked his life irrevocably. The songs in the musical electrify the anguished, overwrought responses of the young characters, as well as their confused, usually botched efforts at sexual experimentation.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Short Film

Nurse Garmai Sumo in the Oscar-nominated documentary short Body Team 12.

At long last, I’ve arrived at the summit of my Oscar-nominated short film mountain. Having covered the Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film nominees, the last leg of my journey is devoted to discussing 2016’s Academy Award-nominated Documentary Short Films. While I was looking forward to being an insufferable blowhard and boasting about having seen every nominated short film at whatever Oscar party I (probably won’t) attend, I’m sorry to report that some dreams really don’t come true. As it so happens, I have seen every 2016 nominated short film except one: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. While it’s rare to find a cinema that’s screening the Live Action and Animated shorts, it’s rarer still to find one showing the Documentaries. Alas, my local short-film-friendly theatre, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, is unable to screen A Girl in the River, due to “rights issues.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s second Academy Award-nominated film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is distributed by HBO (it is worth noting that 3 of 5 nominees this year are) and tells the story of a young Pakistani woman who survives an honour killing exacted as punishment for eloping with her lover. At the urging of community elders, she ultimately forgives her attackers. In the interest of fairness, I’ll be omitting A Girl in the River from my ranking, instead focusing on the four documentaries that I was able to see. It’s unclear whether or not A Girl in the River will be included when ShortsHD releases the Oscar nominated shorts for pay-per-view download on February 23rd but critical reception from critics who have actually seen the film suggests it’s worth looking into.

Without further ado, here’s my ranking of the rest of this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Short Film: