Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hunger Games and Franchise Blues

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

Some spoilers for films in The Hunger Games franchise follow. 

One of the many results of being a new parent is that your attempts to keep up with popular culture quickly fall by the wayside, and so it was only when The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 came out on DVD that I was able to see the culmination of one of the more unique film franchises in recent years. I’ve had mixed feelings about the earlier movies, as well as the young adult novels on which they’re based, but the way in which this particular franchise came to a close intrigues me, because it strikes me as something of a rebuke to the model on which big-budget, multi-part movies of its ilk are constructed.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Snyder Shrugged: The Disturbing Politics of the Cape and Cowl

Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I recently learned that Zack Snyder, director of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is intending on pursuing a remake of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead once he’s done with all this comic book nonsense. In a recent interview for The Hollywood Reporter, he says:
"I have been working on The Fountainhead. I've always felt like The Fountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something."
This revelation – that Snyder, director of highly politicized comic-book films like his adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (2009), was an admirer of Ayn Rand’s work – surprised very few people. This little tidbit was, in fact, the final piece of a puzzle we’ve collectively been trying to solve for a decade now: the key to understanding Snyder’s distinctly… personal approach to filmmaking.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Clearly Marked Trail: The First Episode of The Path

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path.

“In the beginning, I sort of just made up stuff,” said The Path’s showrunner, Jessica Goldberg, in a interview about the invention of the TV show’s fictionalized religion, Meyerism. A hodgepodge of various religions and belief systems, Meyerism is at the heart of the drama in the Goldberg’s first television series which launched Wednesday April 6th on Hulu. While American Hulu subscribers can take in all 10 episodes of The Path right away, here in Canada we’re forced to walk the sacred ancient path of weekly installments. The series’ pilot, “What the Fire Throws,” aired last Thursday April 7th on Showcase and will be followed by tonight’s second episode titled, “The Era of the Ladder.” While the pilot was amusing enough, Goldberg’s aforementioned approach to screenwriting shows in this largely predictable first episode.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Dori Freeman's Debut Album: Beautiful and Honest

With so much music being released, it’s refreshing to hear someone truly stand out from the crowded world. Dori Freeman, a new singer-songwriter from Virginia, has recently released her self-titled debut album on Free Dirt Records – and I can’t enough of it. Ten tracks adorn the record that is a cross between the subtle sounds of Peggy Lee and the edgy timbre of Patsy Cline, but instead of imitation we have an album of Chamber Country: quiet, soft and introspective but still full of engaging stories and a deep understanding of its musical roots.

Freeman was born in Galax, Virginia, a town in the Appalachian Mountains. Her extended family has a rich association with mountain music, so much so that the Freemans own a shop along the state heritage trail, aka Crocked Road, where travellers seek out genuine original music from Appalachia. It’s also far away from the horrible commercial sounds of “new country” which percolate out of Nashville. Even though she’s 24 years of age, you can hear the ghosts of American music past delighting on every note she sings. Her voice and her thoughtful song writing impressed Teddy Thompson so much he agreed to produce her first record without hesitation, “I didn’t really do anything other than put a microphone in front of her,” he told No Depression magazine. Thompson also sings on three tracks – “Where I Stood”, “Any Wonder” and “A Song for Paul” – which stand out for their harmonies and silky instrumentation.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It’s Just Something He Does: Midnight Special

Michael Shannon, with Jaeden Lieberher, in Midnight Special. (Photo: Ben Rothstein)

We’re all aware of the writer’s maxim that says it’s a terrible faux-pas to have characters telling each other things they already know, as a means of getting this information to the audience. Hollywood seems to employ this clumsy tactic too often, as if paranoid that audiences will stand up and walk out if plot details and character motivations – especially in a genre film context, where weird shit happens all the time – aren’t spoon-fed explicitly to them. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) seems to have crafted Midnight Special as a fierce rebellion against this dumbing-down of popular cinema. This is a science fiction story about a father and son that traffics in emotion, not exposition, and it’s all the richer for it.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Not Buying It: Blackbird and The Humans

Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in David Harrower's Blackbird. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

In David Harrower’s Blackbird, which has opened on Broadway in a new revival, Una, a young woman in her twenties, tracks down Ray, with whom she had an affair when she was twelve and he was forty. Fifteen years have passed; he is working in another city, under another name, having reconstituted his life after spending three and a half years in prison. Their end-of-the-workday conversation in the garbage-strewn staff break room of the company where he works comprises almost the entire play (which runs approximately an hour and a half, without intermission). Harrower’s Scottish, and the play premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005 before opening in the West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, and on Broadway in 2007, with Jeff Daniels as Ray and Alison Pill as Una. I saw the original New York production, and except for Daniels’ gripping portrayal of Ray I didn’t care for it. It seemed to me to be an unnuanced depiction of pedophilia with a heroine whose justified fury at the adult man who slept with her when she was on the cusp of adolescence represents the second way in which he’s managed to wreck her existence: he can go on with his life but she can’t get over what he did to her. That is, it felt like a familiar kind of social problem play that takes a stand no one could possibly dispute – a drama that flatters the audience for its right-mindedness.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Tensions between History and Film: Trumbo

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.

Before a scene is shot, a screenplay is necessary. The screenwriter may draw upon his own imagination as well as other source material, as does John McNamara in Trumbo. But therein also lies a major problem: McNamara conveys skewed or caricatured portraits of gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, actors John Wayne and Edgar G. Robinson, but also relies substantially on Bruce Cook’s hagiographic 1977 biography Trumbo (reissued in 2015), a source that the screenwriter acknowledges having read ten times. Cook did extensive interviews, including with Dalton Trumbo himself, to write primarily about his personal life and professional career as Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter before the blacklist. During those repressive times, he peddled scripts to small independent companies and then used a “front” who pretended to be the writer. Two of his scripts, for which he could not be credited, won Oscars.

Unfortunately, Dalton Trumbo’s politics is given short shrift in Cook’s biography, a major flaw that is reflected in the film, given that Trumbo’s politics is the driving force behind making the film. As a result, Jay Roach has directed a simplistic, superficial and curiously apolitical biopic – notwithstanding a few heated exchanges about labour strikes in the film industry and Trumbo handing out leaflets – that drains the historical setting from 1946 until the early 1960s of any real context. I say curious because his earlier effort, Game Change, a television movie about John McCain’s disastrous decision to choose Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate, is an insightful political film and vastly superior to this mediocre and occasionally embarrassing, puerile production. The blacklist that deprived hundreds of Hollywood personalities of their jobs polarized Americans. Roach’s Trumbo has replicated that polarization – some critics calling it a “thoughtful account” and a “sobering true event” while others have dismissed it as a “whitewash.” Unfortunately, I must side with the latter assessment, but for different reasons.