Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Home: Lion

Dev Patel in Lion

is a magnificent piece of humanist filmmaking, so powerfully affecting that you carry it with you out of the moviehouse, as if the protagonist, the transplanted Indian boy Saroo, were someone you knew personally who’d shared with you his strange and improbable life story. (When I reread my notes from viewing the film almost a month ago, I started tearing up all over again.) In fact, it’s a true tale: Luke Davies’s fine screenplay adapts Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home. The director, Garth Davis, made his name on commercials, and directed four episodes of Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake; aside from a documentary, Lion is the only feature film he’s done. But he’s had towering role models: the early section, with the luminous Sunny Pawar as the little-boy protagonist, suggests De Sica’s neo-realist classics – especially the 1948 Shoeshine – and the transcendent films of the Indian director Satyajit Ray.

Friday, February 10, 2017

When The Music Stopped: HMV Canada Goes Under

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an impassioned post about the closing of a branch of Queen Video, one of Toronto’s few remaining DVD rental outlets, and how that limited rental choices further for film buffs. Since then, another multifaceted DVD store, 7-24 Movies & More, has bitten the dust. It had a weekly 3-for-$8 Monday-Thursday special rental price, which beat its competition but, alas, it had to move because rent at its location had gone up precipitously and its (supposedly) loyal clientele didn’t follow it to its new location. Now HMV Canada has gone into receivership and all 102 locations of the chain (which sells CDs, DVDs, vinyl and collectibles) will be extinct, officially as of April 30, but likely sooner. Coming on top of other recent closures of fine music outlets in Toronto – Sunrise’s two downtown locations in 2014 (it still has ten stores in the province of Ontario, but only one in North Toronto); Vortex Records, one of the city’s best used emporia, in 2015; Refried Beats, the other great used CD (and DVD) shop in Toronto, in 2016; and now HMV – it’s clear that for fans of CDs, and the vast repository of music available in that format, the future is going to be very different than it is now. And not in a good way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neglected Gem #95: The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A scene from The Boy and the Beast (2015).

The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko) is the story of Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), a nine-year-old Tokyo runaway who abandons his family life when his mother dies in a car accident. After years of living as a homeless urchin, one day Ren stumbles out of the bustling Shibuya streets into a world of humanoid beasts called Jutengai, and becomes the reluctant pupil of an arrogant, lazy, bear-like beast-man called Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho). The reigning Lord of Jutengai is preparing to reincarnate himself as a god, and a successor must be chosen. The two candidates for the job, selected for their strength of both body and character, are the noble boar-man, Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), and Kumatetsu, whose fighting prowess is extraordinary but whose personality is sorely lacking. Ren – whom Kumatetsu names “Kyuta” in reference to his young age – establishes an instantly adversarial relationship with the blustering bear-man, who lacks the patience and compassion to act as a proper teacher. Neither knows, or could acknowledge even if he were aware, how desperately they need one another – but it’s instantly plain for all to see that these two loners, hardened by years of solitary survival, are a perfect pair. Only together do they have a chance of readying Kumatetsu for his match against Iozen, which will decide who rises up as Lord, and only together can they ready Kyuta to re-enter the world he left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Piety: Martin Scorsese's Silence

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence.

No question: Martin Scorsese's religious epic, Silence, is aptly named. Unlike his last feature, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), with its frenetic, speed-freak pacing, or the pilot of the HBO series, Vinyl, where the editing rhythms were so percussive that they became assaulting, Scorsese's new picture unfolds with a quiet and solemn reverence, as if we were in church, and the atmosphere is hushed. Silence has a lulling seductiveness going for it (the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is both lush and vibrant), so it's clear that the asceticism of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel has drawn the director – once again – into a sojourn in search of spiritual values and truths, but the drama itself turns out to be no more substantial than in The Wolf of Wall Street. If the sensational highs of sex, cocaine and larceny were the driving force of that picture, rather than an attempt to bring the audience to a dramatic understanding of how Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) swindled his way to the top of Wall Street, the piety of religious faith becomes the drug of Silence, substituting for a rendering of spiritual belief. Scorsese may be aiming for the formalist poetry of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), where a man of God gets tested by those who reject him, but the result is actually closer to Carl Dreyer's Ordet (1955) where spirituality is reduced to pedantic dogma.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tinariwen: From the Desert to our Hearts

The members of Tinariwen. (Photo: Thomas Dorn)

Mali is a land-locked country located in Western Africa – in fact, it’s the eighth-largest country on the continent. Its chief export is gold and, while its official language is French, it is also the host of over forty languages, one of which, Bambara, is generally heard on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Mali’s expansive regional diversity features a portion of the Sahara Desert to the northwest, which is the home, if you can call it that, of the Tuareg people, a partly nomadic group, often dressed in blue, that inhabits most of the Sahara from Niger to Tunisia, including Morocco, Algeria and Burkino Faso. But the Tuareg only account for about 3% of Mali’s population. Out of this tiny populace comes one of the most interesting and popular musical groups, Tinariwen ("deserts”), a nine-piece band featuring traditional Tuareg instruments mashed-up with electric guitars and percussion. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib formed the ensemble in the late seventies while living in exile in Libya. As world music started to spread across the continent and airwaves, to North American and European audiences, Tinariwen started making a strong impression. Their first album was released in 2000, with a brilliant cover featuring a photo of a red sand dune and a tiny figure with his hands in the air. By their third release, Water Is Life (World Village), we finally got a cover featuring the weathered faces of the group dressed in their native clothes. By 2012, following extensive touring away from Mali, the band released their most successful album to date, Tassili, which was recorded in a national park in Algeria without the use of electric guitars, principally to let listeners feel the Tinariwen sound as it originated around campfires and tents. That year it went on to win a Grammy for Best Album in the World Music category.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Shirley Booth: Only the Lonely

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952).

Shirley Booth played the titular domestic on the TV sitcom Hazel for just five years, 1961 through 1966, but it so defined her that it obscured everything she had done before – twenty-five years of starring roles on Broadway and a handful of movies that included her Oscar-winning performance in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952. It was that film that brought her to Hollywood, to recreate the role she’d played on stage two years earlier (which had won her the second of her three Tony Awards). Booth broke through in 1935 in George Abbott and John Cecil Holm’s comedy Three Men on a Horse; her stage work, varied and prolific, included The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotton and Van Heflin (she played the hard-boiled photographer Liz Imbrie), My Sister Eileen,Goodbye, My Fancy, The Time of the Cuckoo and Desk Set, as well as a trio of musicals: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, By the Beautiful Sea and Juno, Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. (When Hollywood optioned them, Hepburn took over the Booth parts in The Time of the Cuckoo – renamed Summertime – and Desk Set.) She had a long career – about half a century, though much of it remains inaccessible to us except through photographs.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sliding toward Fascism in Jo Walton’s Counter-History Trilogy

Paintings of Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on display in Moscow at a party hosted by pro-Kremlin activists to celebrate Trump's election victory in November 2016. (Source: Twitter)

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell 

Recent events, not only in America but throughout Europe, have raised the possibility that liberal democracy, the relatively brief experiment – in terms of human history – is in trouble. For a generation, after the German Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded, it inspired hope. Currently, however, it is threatened by the spectre of illiberal authoritarianism. Liberal democracy requires liberty and the rule of law, and celebrates pluralism based on gender, ethnic and racial equality. What knits these principles together is a respect for truth, a cornerstone principle that requires an independent vibrant media to hold power to account. Illiberal authoritarianism sanctions the powerful to define reality and possess a monopoly on truth. Rather than respect for others, authoritarian regimes set up a “we” – the ordinary, decent people – against the threatening others: “Mexicans and Muslims in the U.S., Kurds in Turkey, Poles in Britain, Muslims and Jews all over Europe, as well as Sinti and Roma, refugees, immigrants, black people, women, cosmopolitans, homosexuals, not to mention ‘experts,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘mainstream media’,” as the astute scholar andjournalist, Timothy Garton Ash, describes. He assails these developments as rampant Trumpismo.