Friday, September 21, 2012

"No One Lives" Will Make You Wish for Death

Luke Evans is coming to ruin your night at the movies. Run!  © Pathé International 2012
"No One Lives" is a horror film that goes too far. One syllable too far, crossing from "horror" to "horrible."

The premise of Ryuhei Kitamura's ("Versus", "The Midnight Meat Train") latest is promising. A handsome young couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) are moving, relocating, trailer in tow behind their BMW.  They catch the attention of a gang of local criminals. We know these are bad criminals because we saw one gang member murder a whole family that stumbled upon them burgling the family's home. The rest of the gang is upset because this cost them money when they had to cut their burglary short. The kicker here is that, when they hijack the couple, hoping for some easy money, the everyday monsters unleash the wrath of a true monster.

It turns out the couple are holding Emma, a missing heiress (Adelaide Clemens), captive and have been for months, since she went missing from the scene of a brutal mass murder. Unfortunately, the film can never make this idea of evil versus EVIL deliver. Kitamura's direction is, for the most part, pedestrian. Anyone hoping for style that elevates this film above standard gore-filled horror will be disappointed. There are a few moments, a few scenes, that, however ridiculous they might be, do stand out, making one wish for more. It would have at least made it visually engaging. The acting the pacing, and the dialogue all come up short. They're never so bad that it's good. Just bad.

The one thing that is intriguing, is Emma. Held captive and brutalized by the unnamed psychopath, she finds herself again a captive. The gang hope to strike it rich by returning her for a reward, but seem unclear on how to go about it, given their involvement in a car-jacking, kidnapping, and the steadily mounting pile of dead bodies and body parts. Now she's stuck in the middle, observing that her best chance of escape is while her former captor is killing the gang. While fearful of him, it's clear she has no doubt he can best the crew. One can't help wonder if she can really escape him or if she has developed Stockholm Syndrome and will find it impossible to break free. That idea never really coalesces into anything, thanks to bad writing and Clemens' limitations as an actress.

When "No One Lives" finally ends, in a most unsatisfying way, one is glad to have survived. That you just wasted 86 minutes of your life on a film with no scares, no brains, and no style is the only horror on offer.

Rating: 1/5

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the Court of the Moonrise King

Suzy and Sam in a field in Moonrise Kingdom
Suzy and Sam get their bearings in Moonrise Kingdom   ©2012 Focus Features
Sometimes things just work out right. "Moonrise Kingdom," the latest from director Wes Anderson is a good case in point. Those who are already acolytes of Mr. Anderson will need no convincing that this is a brilliant work; those who are not may actually find themselves understanding what all the fuss is about. "Moonrise Kingdom" is the perfect blend of components.

The story, on its simplest level is about a pair of 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy (played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward respectively), who, smitten, run away together. Sam uses his scout troop's trip to New Penzance Island, Suzy's home, to enact the plan they have been brewing since first meeting during his trip to the island a year earlier. Their ensuing adventure, including being pursued by the  authorities (Suzy's parents, Sam's scoutmaster, and the island cop) drives what is, at heart, a chase movie. Of course, nothing about "Moonrise Kingdom" is quite that straight-forward.

Set in 1965, "Moonrise Kingdom"  exists in a time and place that feels just familiar enough that it makes us fall fully for the illusion. The world Anderson shows us doesn't exist and never did. Instead, it is an utterly fictional place, with every element stylized to evoke a memory, feeling, or longing. Should such things not reside in your subconscious, Anderson will implant them. The film's score is outstanding in this respect, setting the perfect tone.

Great credit must go to Gilman and Hayward. Their young lovers are entirely believable in an emotional sense. Awkward, childish, and whole-hearted, their feelings struggle to break through to a mature, adult love. Meanwhile, the adults struggle to find a way to soothe their own aching hearts. Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are lawyers, their pillowtalk consisting of details of cases they're working. They are more partners than lovers. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of Island Police, a bachelor, is paralyzed by lost love, and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), puts all of his energy into leading his scouts. All our characters are looking for fulfillment. They are all variations on a theme, a universal constant. Only Sam and Suzy are brave enough, naive enough, or wise enough to actually pursue it.

Suzy is a devotee of children's fiction, the kind of books children used to read, which told tales of children going on amazing adventures, triumphing over adversity, and growing toward adulthood on the way. This is a rather obvious sign that we are not to let our perceptions of reality constrain "Moonrise Kingdom." It is a fantasy, a tale of a journey, by turns touching, terrifying, and tempestuous, through a landscape of our own making, the wilderness of New Penzance representing the uncharted paths before us, rife with obstacles to be overcome and battles to be fought. That Anderson can make the tumult of burgeoning adolescence and the perpetual uncertainty of adulthood funny and sweet is remarkable. As is often the case with the best fiction, it is marvellously true precisely because it is unconcerned with the facts.

There are bound to be those who criticise "Moonrise Kingdom" for being too twee, or too stylized or simply unrealistic. They are the same kind of people who ask how all the strangers on the street in a musical know the dance steps and where the music is coming from. They will never understand. This is a film for those who can hear the music and haven't forgotten how to dance.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Avengers Assemble Winning Combination

Hulk prepares to smash. Hulk strongest one there is. ©2012 Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios

When Aristotle said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (but he said it in Greek), who would have guessed he was talking about “The Avengers”? Have no doubt about it, this superhero feature may be the best of its kind.

The Avengers are a Marvel Comics superhero team that has been around since 1963. The team has had a changeable lineup over the years; the film’s lineup comprises Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The Avengers are brought together by Samuel L. Jackson* (expertly played by Samuel L. Jackson) to deal with the threat of global destruction caused by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother, stealing a device called The Tesseract. With this do-dad, Loki intends to open a portal to another dimension, allowing a force of alien Chitauri to help him enslave the Earth. What follows is 143 minutes of super-heroics.

The remarkable thing about “The Avengers” is that it manages to accomplish so much. There’s quite a bit to set up, from the shadowy machinations of S.H.I.E.L.D. , the agency that Jackson works for, to explaining the mumbo-jumbo of how The Tesseract will work its magic. Sandwiched in there are capsule introductions of our half-dozen heroes and the story of how they are brought together. Unlike, for example, 2002’s Spider-Man, which staggered under a tedious telling of the origin of a single hero before getting to the good stuff, “The Avengers” never feels long or laboured. There is sufficient levity to keep the film from bogging down in ponderous nerdity, but not enough to make it a joke, a fine line nicely managed.

Director Joss Whedon, who also has credit for the screenplay, captures the characters well, showing how disparate they are. They may have to work together, but they are not all friends, or even friendly. None of the friction in the team feels forced, but rather a natural product of the characters. Comic-book fans should appreciate that the characters seem true in spirit to themselves. Granted, Thor has an Australian accent, Black Widow doesn’t have a Russian accent, and Hawkeye’s flamboyant purple costume stays in the closet, but these are minor things that don’t get in the way of enjoyment. The purist may complain about Nick Fury, who is the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics, being replaced by Mr. Jackson, but Fury never really was much of a character. Mr. Jackson brings a lot more excitement to the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. head. One suspects the comic book writers would have used Samuel L. Jackson as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. all along if they could have figured out how to use a real person in their comics.

The action scenes, as one would hope are bold and exciting. Keep in mind that I saw this in glorious 2D, so I cannot speak for how it looks in 3D (blurry with a chance of headaches, one suspects). There is a real sense of danger and the heroes rising to the occasion when all seems lost, which is the definition of cinematic heroism.

Performances are good throughout, though Scarlett Johansson stands out. Unlike many other superhero films, we find a capable, believable female character who is not simply eye-candy or a damsel in distress. Whedon can take some credit for having written it and Johansson for bringing it to life. Samuel L. Jackson is a joy to watch as himself, though, sadly, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking aliens on thismotherfucking planet” is a line that seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

Given the awful “Iron Man 2.” the dubious “Thor,” and the so-so “Captain America,” it seemed a possibility that “The Avengers” could have come up short, but it delivers on all fronts: action, character, performances, and even intelligence. Most importantly, it takes us on a genuine journey, as these individual heroes come together and come to appreciate each other. It’s a pleasure from start to finish and the new measure of what a superhero movie should be.

Rating 5/5

*This character is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Nick Fury,” but it is quite certainly Mr. Jackson.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Another Earth No Place Special

copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Another Earth”, a film putatively about second chances, misses its chance to make a point. In this meandering character piece, a mirror version of Earth has been discovered, a world where we each have a duplicate self. What this means, philosophically or practically, to our world is never addressed, as director Mike Cahill chooses to focus his feature-film debut on Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling).

We meet Rhoda at the beginning of the film, when she is a bright 17 year-old student celebrating her acceptance to M.I.T. She leaves the party and is driving home when she hears a report on the radio about the discovery of the planet, which is soon dubbed Earth Two. While drunkenly scanning the sky for a glimpse of the planet, she collides with a car, killing a mother and child and leaving the father in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is graduating from prison rather than university. She hides herself away from society, taking a job as a custodian at the local high school. The cleaning that she pursues as a heavy-handed metaphor to cleanse herself doesn’t work, leaving her restless. She enters a contest, hoping to win a place on a privately-funded space mission to Earth Two, wanting to escape her actions.

After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she approaches John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man who survived the wreck. She goes intending to apologize for what she has done. She loses her nerve and, through a twist of shaky logic, winds up as his cleaning woman. John is a wreck, living in squalour, having let both the house and himself go. Mapother plays him reluctant and taciturn at the beginning, as if he has almost forgotten how to speak, so deep is his sense of isolation. With him not realizing who she is, the two grow close, Rhoda drawing him out of his despair and he, unknowingly, alleviating her guilt.

The film is ultimately unsatisfying because it fails to address the nature of the pair’s relationship. Rhoda is being unspeakably cruel, seeking to escape her guilt and responsibility rather than accepting it and coming to terms with it. She shows no consideration for the effect of her deceit on John, only wishing to feel better. The character is young, which may explain her self-centeredness, but the question of her narcissism and cruelty is never addressed. We are meant to feel sorry for Rhoda. A tale of redemption must first have the redeemed search for some kind of self-awareness. Jason Reitman deals with narcissistic protagonists in both “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” more successfully, making their narcissism the focus of those films. In “Another Earth”, Cahill seems unaware of Rhoda’s character. One can’t believe Rhoda is ready or deserving of a second chance, either on this Earth or the other—where, she hopes, she didn’t kill anyone—because she hasn’t owned up to her actions. Even the struggle to do so would make her more sympathetic.

Another Earth is a low-budget, indie production and the sets and photography show it. There is nothing in particular to be faulted, but it is not visually distinguished. The focus is on the characters and the performances. Mapother’s performance has the required hint of neediness. Marling does, at times, come across as lost and hanging on the edge of adulthood. The real failing of the film is in the script (which Cahill and Marling co-wrote), not the performances themselves.

Despite a premise that sounds like science fiction, the broader implications of how such a discovery would affect our world, either physically or culturally, is never explored in any depth. The “what if?” element that characterizes good science fiction never comes into play. Putting the story into a broader context of a world facing an existential crisis would have made the mirror Earth central, rather than a contrivance.

“Another Earth” fails to make full use of its premise, fails as a redemption story, and fails to explore the narcissistic cruelty of its protagonist. Maybe the Earth Two version of this film does all of those things, but until it is available, “Another Earth” can be skipped without regret.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Real Mother

Another Mother's Day come and nearly gone. Fields of flowers picked, packed, and presented. Servers at every kind of dining establishment run off their feet. Mountains of chocolates hurriedly purchased at drug store and gas station. I like to think there is an incredible amount of love in the actions undertaken today. I fear, though, that there are far too many who found today a chore, a tiresome burden, or an obligation that consumes a perfectly good Sunday. To anyone who was resentful of having to spend time or thought on your mother today, I'd say I envy you.

My mother, Ruth, died about seven-and-a-half years ago and I only wish there were more days, Mother's Days and others, that I could spend with her. Of course I remember arguments and unhappy days, but as an adult I came to realize just how fortunate I was to have her for a mother. I wonder what kind of person I'd be without her. Had things gone differently, I might have found out, for I was adopted by my parents.

I was an unwanted child and my mother took me in and raised me as her own for the rest of her life. I harbour no resentment for the woman who gave birth to me. I think it was an act of great kindness to allow my mother the chance to raise a child with love and care. If ever I were to meet her, I'd thank her for allowing me the life I had by giving me up.

Speaking to my father today, he told me how, when my parents first got me, my mother was afraid to hold me, afraid she'd drop me or hurt me. How incredible to take in a child from a stranger, when you have no idea what you're about to do, and raise it as your own flesh and blood.

She soon learned to hold me and never stopped holding me in her heart. No matter how far I wandered, I knew she was always thinking of me. Sometimes her thoughtfulness would be expressed in the most inexplicable ways: buying me shirts in colours I detested; shipping parcels of canned goods across the country to make sure I was eating (never mind it would have been cheaper to just send a cheque); sending blankets to me in a tropical country. I realize now that it was simply her taking care of me. It makes me smile.

Sometimes, when I discuss my adoption with people, they will ask me if I know who my "real parents" are. My answer is always the same: "My real parents raised me." They changed my diapers, cleaned up vomit, took me to the doctor, taught me how to ride a bike, worked to make a home and a life for me that, while not extravagant, never left me feeling wanting or unwanted.

Certainly there are mothers who qualify for the title merely because they carried a child to term. Mothers who are cold, uncaring, or abusive to their children. Such parents are terrible and their children are under no obligation to feel affection for them. I consider myself very lucky to have had a mother who truly wanted me and always loved me fully. Whatever good there is in the man I've become, it is because of her. Anyone who can say that about his or her mother should spend more than one Sunday a year to let her know how much she means.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Waring: Somewhat graphic content follows the "Read More" link.

Office Romance

Barbara enjoyed the solitude as she typed at her computer. Having the office to herself, after everyone else went home was the best of both worlds: it made her feel professional but without the demands of maintaining a professional façade with her colleagues. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them. She liked them all well enough. It’s just that she felt something of an imposter. She’d recently rejoined the workforce after taking a few years off to start a family. Now, with her two children in school, she was trying to learn how to relate to adults again.

The rituals of the working world take time and are as intricate as those of the Freemasons, though likely less codified and with fewer funny hats. Except on Funny Hat Day. Barbara didn’t quite understand Funny Hat Day. She liked doing her hair, putting on a flattering dress, chosen for style rather than how easily puke stains would come out of it, and a pair of shoes in which she could never negotiate a Lego-strewn family room. “Why would you want to deliberately mess that up,” she thought? Especially when the day’s work remained unchanged? The hats were just there, peripheral. Three minutes of chuckles and seven hours and fifty seven minutes of hat head.

Fortunately, it wasn’t Funny Hat Day. It was just a regular work day. Barbara liked those. Not that she didn’t enjoy the office’s collegial vibe, but what she really loved was that she was taken seriously, as a capable woman. She wasn’t somebody’s mom, she was somebody.

Barbara saved the draft she was working on and closed the document. She glanced at the picture of her family on her desk as she thought about the e-mail she was about it write. As she sat there, she heard a noise. She’d been hearing noises for about an hour, since the last of her colleagues went home. She had been dismissing them as the building settling, wind, or machinery. It wouldn’t do to let her imagination get the better of her. There was something different about this noise, though. It sounded like the outer door to the stairwell closing with its characteristic clang. There shouldn’t be anybody coming in that door. All the staff entered through the main door, using their electronic pass cards and either took the main stairs or the elevator to the third floor office. The fire stairs were only used as a shortcut to the parking lot when people were leaving at the end of the day.

Barbara sat a moment thinking about what she should do. She thought she could hear footsteps in the stairwell. Her mind raced to scenes of women in heels being chased by killers in countless movies and TV shows. They always tripped or twisted an ankle, their vanity being their undoing. Feeling silly, Barbara reached down and began to unbuckle the straps on her shoes. She’d loved them when she bought them, but the three-inch heels weren’t made for speed.

She heard the fire door open. That was odd. The door was supposed to be locked, only able to be opened from the inside, just like the one at the base of the stairs. She was reaching for her purse, and the phone it contained, when she heard a voice. “Helloooo Barbara,” it sang out. Just as the greeting ended, Tom came into view at the end of the row of cubicles in which Barbara sat.

“Tom, you scared me,” Barbara said, feeling herself relax. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

“Sorry, Barb. I didn’t mean to.”

“My heart is beating a mile a minute.”

“Didn’t mean to, but it’s only fair, since you always have that effect on me,” said Tom as he stopped at Barbara’s cubicle and leaned against the partial wall. She could see the small smile on his face and the subtly raised eyebrow.

Barbara laughed a little and blushed a little. Tom had been flirting with her since a month after she arrived at the office. One of the first conversations they had was him asking her out. This was despite the wedding ring she wore and that, at 34, she was about eight years older than him. She had laughed and blushed that time too. She had to admit to being flattered. Tom, while not overly tall, was a good six inches taller than her and fairly solid, if not muscular. His dark brown hair always looked as if he had just rolled out of bed and run a brush through it once or twice before heading into the office.

“I saw your car in the parking lot and I thought I’d come up and see how you were doing,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Oh, um, fine, really,” replied Barbara, averting her eyes from his gaze.

“In no hurry to get home, huh?” As he said this, Tom moved closer to her and picked up the picture of her family. It had been taken when she and Gary had gone camping with the children. Barbara loved Maria’s smile in that photo. Jake had refused to smile, trying to mimic his father’s look of mock anger at the request to pose for yet another photo. Tom studied it briefly, sitting on the edge of her desk while he did so. Then he placed it on the desk, face down.

“I just wanted to get a few things finished before I head back home. There’s so much to do there, what with making dinner and getting the kids to bed and making sure everything is set for the morning.” Barbara stopped, surprised by how much she had just told Tom. She tended to be on the quiet side when she was in the office. She found herself particularly flustered by Tom, ever since the day he’d casually asked her if she wanted to catch a movie after work. Now here she was just blurting out everything!

“C’mon! It’s got to be nice to get away from the white picket fence and cooking and cleaning and the old Saturday night usual,” he said with a wink. “I wonder how a beautiful woman can live with those constraints.”

He didn’t know the half of it, she thought. Before she’d married, Barbara had lived a life that would probably surprise Tom. In her early twenties, she had been a fixture at the clubs and there wasn’t much she hadn’t tried. Thirteen years of marriage had transformed the lithe, redheaded hellion of her youth into a respectable housewife. She was grateful for that, really. Had she kept at it, she probably would have pushed things too far and paid the price. She nearly had. And Tom was certainly wrong about the “Saturday night usual.” Her husband didn’t approach her for sex anywhere near that frequently. Two or three times a year was more like it, and then it tended to be perfunctorily vanilla. Could he see that in her? Could Tom tell how hungry she was to be taken up, wrapped in flesh and sweat?

“Oh, no, married life is great. I really like it. It suits me. I love the kids and my husband is great. I admit I like coming to the office for the three days a week, though. It’s good to get to act like an adult for a change.”

“I imagine it is. Want to act like adults right now?” Tom lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows as he locked his brown eyes with her green ones.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mayday for May Day?

Hug a union member. May 1st is International Workers' Day, commonly known as May Day, so it’s a fine time to do so, if not to show solidarity, at least to show appreciation. It may no longer be fashionable to admit it, but organized labour has contributed greatly to the quality of life in Canada and many other countries. Furthermore, given the way the government has been treating the labour movement, I’m sure a hug would likely be welcome.
I am baffled by the antipathy shown toward unions by regular working people. It makes sense that business owners and management would be against organized labour; unions give power and money to workers. What I don’t understand is how rank-and-file workers side with management against those who would want to improve the lot of workers. From the 40-hour week to minimum wages, to pensions and benefits, organized labour has been at the forefront in pursuing those goals. Workplace safety, training standards, child-labour laws, and workplace equality are further causes where the influence has been brought to bear. Today we all enjoy many of the benefits that were won by the union movement, often with their blood. In fact, the accomplishments of organized labour are often acknowledged by critics in comments such as this:

Unions and striking were needed before there were governments standards controlling work hours, pay and most importantly, safety. Now unions are about taking advantage of the power of collective bargaining and fighting management, employees that strike these days are not hard done by, they ALL are earning wages above the average income. Posties, Air Canada, OC Transpo, teachers, etc..

Get back to work and be happy you have jobs that pay well, are safe and have benefits at all. If you don't like it, try being your own boss.
In the first breath, there is the acknowledgement of what unions have done, then the idea that there is no further need because everything has been done and it’s over. This poster, Barry, is making a big leap, assuming that we can count on governments to look after us now. Governments were often in strong, sometimes violent opposition to organized labour. Recent anti-union intervention in labour disputes characterize Harper’s Conservative government, including siding with management at Canada Post in ordering workers to return to their duties after the corporation’s management locked out the workers! Harper’s government also gave Air Canada a hand on several ocassions, going so far as to say that if there were to be a strike, it would force workers back. Governments from all parties, both provincial and federal, have had run-ins with labour. It seems naïve to think that government should be left to safeguard the rights of workers on its own.
What the Barrys of the world forget is entropy. Everything is disintegrating and falling apart. It is only through continued effort that what we value in society is maintained. We see this in vicious labour disputes where management does not want a fair settlement, but rather to destroy the union or, worse, destroy the company, gutting it and sucking the marrow from the bones, leaving nothing for those whose sweat built it. Just as no man is an island, no company exists outside of society. We must hold them to account, just as we hold individuals to account. Whatever its flaws, the labour movement has done, and continues to do, that.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Dumb Design in Daily Life

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
                                                                                 -Hanlon’s Razor

Easy is difficult. The evidence is all around us. Computers that we spend more time trying to make work than working on. Phones that stop us from reaching out and touching anyone. Shower faucets that scald us or freeze us as we fumble, in our most vulnerable state, to decipher them. The puzzler about such things is that every one of these impediments, and many more, were designed by somebody.

Over half the world’s population lives in urban areas. In Canada, about 85 percent live in such areas. We spend most of our lives in built environments. Most of our daily interaction is with manufactured objects and geography. Even those residing in the countryside have substantial interaction with the built, whether it be their houses, their roads, or their Blu-ray players.

There are undoubtedly many instances of Dumb Design in Daily Life. The washroom at my work is one. The building was erected in 1966.

The first head-scratcher is the location of the  washroom. It is in the stairwell. Not next to it, but in it. To use the washroom, I must enter the stairwell, cross the landing, and enter a combination on a keypad on the door. This is to pee, not to get access to nuclear launch codes. To be fair, however, the lock has kept the washroom free of hobos and ninja. Infestations of hobos and ninja are common in insurance company washrooms, so maybe it makes sense.

What doesn’t make any sense is what happens inside the washroom. If one uses the urinal and then, like any civilized adult, goes to the sink to wash his hands, he will then find that there are no paper towels anywhere near the sink. Where are they? Back at the urinal! The paper towels are back at the place you just came from and in the opposite direction of the door out. Either you wipe your hands on your pants or head over there, hands dripping, disturbing those who have yet to finish their urinary adventures.

Way over there, not near the sinks, are the paper towels

Urinals on the wall opposite the paper towels
These paper towel dispensers are the only ones in the washroom. If you have a couple of guys who have washed there hands and somebody at a urinal, you've got a small convention squeezed over in the corner there. I think somone just thought they simply must have a couple of those keen dispensers in a wall with the trash bins recessed in underneath and that was the only wall where the things would fit. Never mind that it doesn't make sense, going against both logic and the traffic flow in the room. Remember, this building was constructed in 1966, which means it's been like this for 46 years, without anyone thinking about moving the paper towels, or it has been renovated at some point and somebody thought this was an improvement on what was there before. I'm not sure which is more puzzling.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

From the Beginning

“The Weight” makes a great first impression. The recent death of Levon Helm did one good thing: it got thousands of radio and TV stations to play that classic song by The Band. Hearing it again got me thinking about what it is that gives a song a strong start.
A good first impression gets a foot in the door. After that, you’ve still got to close the deal, but that first step can be a tough one. Sometimes it’s with a guitar riff. "Smoke on the Water", I’m looking at you. Maybe it’s a graceful piano intro. "Let It Be" comes to mind. Whatever it is, you hear it and you’re gone. You’re committed to listening to that song. For me, as a writer, I like engaging lyrics, especially an opening line that catches me and makes me want to find out what comes next. With that thought in mind, here are a few of my favourite opening lines. I define “opening line” in this context as being a complete thought, so it may actually be a couple of lines of text.
The Weight – The Band
Since it inspired this post, it’s only fair to give this song the lead. “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half-past dead,” says so much and sets the stage in a way you wouldn’t think possible in fewer than a dozen words. I hope to write ten words that good someday.

Kick Out the Jams - MC5

Rock and roll is all about making old people uncomfortable. The opening, full-volume command to "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" must have done that in 1969. It may not be as eloquent as some opening lines, but it let's one know that you're in for a total sonic assault. For some reason, this YouTube entry continues with dead air after the song is over, but it's the beginning that matters.

Anarchy in the U.K. - The Sex Pistols

"I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist!" With that opening, in 1976, The Sex Pistols set out to make old people uncomfortable. It worked. It earned the Pistols attention and opprobrium. Many years after the release, I remember the woman I was seeing at the time, a former Catholic schoolgirl, being so uncomfortable with that line that she'd frantically twist the volume knob down when that song began playing on the mix-tape I'd made. I should have taken that as  a sign things weren't going to work out.

Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon

Many Warren Zevon fans are unhappy that "Werewolves of London" is the only song by the artist that most people know. For a time, Zevon himself didn't play the song in his concerts. While it may be frothier than most of his work, the lyrics are still quite clever. "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain," certainly paints a picture and makes me want to know what happens next. Hint: bad things.

Underwhelmed - Sloan

"She was underwhelmed, if that's a word. I know it's not, 'cause I looked it up," kicks of this jangly-guitar rocker from Sloan. It's the tale of a grammar-loving pedant who falls for a woman who is his opposite. I can relate to it fully, though it is no longer an issue. I'm fortunate in that  my wife is tolerant of my pedantry. All I need do is act as her spelling and grammar checker from time to time. This song should be on every single pedant's playlist as a reminder that, sometimes, you've just got to loosen up.

Certainly a very personal list, I grant you. I invite my ones and ones of readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

State of Flux

How much are we who we were and how much are we who we’ve become? That’s the question that “State of Violence,” the latest film from director Khalo Matabane (Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon), addresses.

Bobedi (Hotel Rwanda’s Fana Mokoena) is a high-flying businessman, at the top of the new South Africa. He and his wife, Joy (Lindi Matshikiza), are living the good life. It’s a world totally removed from the violent apartheid-era township in which Bobedi was raised. The crimes he witnessed and the crimes he committed are old memories, decades in the past. When Bobedi and Joy are attacked by an intruder in their home, one who hints at knowing Bobedi’s past, it becomes clear that what’s done is rarely fully done. Joy is murdered by the masked-gunman, leading Bobedi to commence a search for the killer. His literal search for the killer runs parallel to his figurative search for himself.

Unfortunately, “State of Violence” doesn’t deliver on the promise of its premise. If ever there was a country where questions of past actions and present identity resonate, it must surely be South Africa. The transformation of Nelson Mandela from terrorist to respected statesman shows that simple answers don’t exist but that there is some way forward. The film does not delve into these questions with the depth or skill required to make the picture a meaningful commentary. We must content ourselves with one man’s story of revenge, but there, again, the picture fails. As a detective film or thriller, the plot is too pedestrian and straight-forward to give much satisfaction. It’s too broad to be a satisfying as a mystery and too shallow to be a satisfying social examination.

To be fair to Matabane, his star may have let him down as well. Mokoena’s face rarely gives much insight into what is supposed to be happening in Bobedi’s head. While Bobedi does undergo a journey, we only see it happening in the character’s actions, we don’t see it happening on his face or in his mind, so it is not convincing. Presley Cheweneyagae (star of 2005’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Tsotsi), as Bobendi’s brother, Boy-Boy, delivers more emotion, breathing some life into his flatly-drawn character.

The film is competently shot, though Matabane’s shaky camera-work leads more to distraction than a sense of urgency. One great chase scene, where such shooting would have really stood out, instead gets lost because of all the jitter in the scenes that could have been more stably shot. The director uses the township where Bobedi grew up, as a character in the film and does it well. What could have been voyeuristic comes across as real and not exploitative.

The film might have benefited from an extra twenty minutes to develop either theme in greater depth. Whether it is as social commentary or a mystery thriller doesn’t matter. Either would have been a better choice than this hybrid that delivers as neither. Much like its protagonist, “State of Violence” starts down an interesting path, but gets lost when it comes to a fork in the road.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wishes and Choices

Kesenia Rappoport and Filippo Timi in The Double Hour

Second chances can be rare, difficult to recognize, and hard to grasp. “The Double Hour” (La Doppia Ora), by director Giuseppe Capotondi, explores what second chances mean to us. To do this, he brings together two lonely souls, Guido, an ex-cop, and Sonia, a half-Slovenian, half-Italian hotel chambermaid. They meet at a speed-dating evening in Turn, where Guido is a regular. Sonia, who was present at the suicide of a hotel guest earlier in the day, is shaken and finds her first try at speed-dating overwhelming, one man after another trying to make an impression in just a few minutes before moving on to the next woman. Her suitors range from dull to profane. Guido’s guileless gloom touches something in her. The two are immediately drawn together.

Guido (Filippo Timi), widower, failed cop, and, it is hinted, alcoholic, is marking time, unable to connect directly with anyone. His hobby is sound recording; he uses a shotgun microphone to record sound, distancing him from the world around him while lending him some illusion of connection. The film’s name refers to a superstitious game he mentions to Sonia. When the hour and minutes of the time match (this works much better if one uses a 24-hour clock, as in Europe), it’s a “double hour” and one can make a wish. Sonia asks him if it works. He answers “no” with the certainty of one who has tried it innumerable times. Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport), left Slovenia when her mother died, trying to live with her father and his new family, but moved on when that didn’t work. Both are rootless and tentative, seeking a shelter in the broken places they both inhabit. Chance intervenes, however, with further loss.

It is at this point that the film addresses the question of how we deal with loss. Rappoport’s Sonia reels, effectively, between depression and mania, trying to work out her connection to Guido. Does the double hour hold power? Can it bring us back to a time and place we wish to be? Sonia finds herself in a world where the familiar seems alien and the choices we make carry more weight than our wishes to undo them. Timi’s Guido is more taciturn and restrained. He knows that wishes are not granted, however much one would hope. All we can do is choose to rebuild with the broken pieces we have, if we are brave enough. If we get our wish, what will we do with it?

The world Guido and Sonia inhabit is well-photographed but never showy. It captures the mood well, imparting a slight sense of longing, hinting that there is just a little something more we can’t see, a connection waiting to be made.

Loss, longing, love, hope, and fear drive so much of our lives, whether consciously or not, that The Double Hour should resonate with anyone who has had a moment of doubt or introspection. When the double hour comes, it will be our choice what to do with it.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Small, Inconsequential Work of Fiction

“I know what you did last summer.”

“I know, Ted. I’m the one that sent you the postcard, remember?”

“I’m not talking about the trip you took to Vancouver. I’m talking about you and Jenny.”


“Don’t play dumb, Dave. I guess you thought I’d never find out about it, but I know you had your way with her while I was at the manager training course at Hamburger University.”

“I just went over there to look in on her and make sure everything was fine. You asked me to keep an eye on things while you were gone. I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘Had your way with her.’ What is that supposed to mean?”

“You took her out, got her all warmed up and just kept pumping her–“

“What are you–“

“I found your student ID under the seat, Dave. Now the plugs are fouled and I’m going to have to tune her up.”

“All right, I took your car out for a drive while you were gone. I didn’t think it was a big deal”

“Not a big deal? This is a numbers-matching 1969 Camaro Z28. She’s a finely-tuned work of art. I can’t believe you’d betray my trust like that.”

“I had sex with your girlfriend while you were away too.”

“Don’t try to change the subject.”

“In the Camaro.”

“You son of a bitch!”

This was just a small exercise, starting with the given line, "I know what you did last summer," and working from there. The aim was to tell the story entirely through dialogue and in less than 250 words. I came across it buried in a forgotten corner of my hard drive and got a smile from it.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Promises to Keep

“Eastern Promises” is typical David Cronenberg. To some, that may sound like an insult. Others might suggest that there is nothing “typical” about the man who directed “Rabid”, “The Fly”. and “A History of Violence.” Both would be wrong.

Cronenberg consistently explores themes of identity and the layers of self we possess and project to others. Underneath, when all those layers are peeled away, lives something base and animalistic. How we control it, how we live with it, and what happens when it gets loose, is the source of drama in Cronenberg’s films.

In “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg drops Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, into that city’s Russian underworld. The daughter of a Russian immigrant father and an English mother, she is thoroughly Anglicized. She is unable to read the Russian entries in a diary found on a young pregnant girl brought into the hospital.  After the girl dies giving birth, Anna is determined to find the girl’s family. Her late father’s brother, Stepan, refuses to translate the diary for her, saying she should, “bury her secrets with her bodies [sic].” Unfazed, Anna visits Trans-Siberian, a Russian restaurant, after finding its business card in the pages of the diary.

The Russians at Trans-Siberian, both patrons and staff, are immigrants, old and new, who are deeply connected to their Russian roots. Anna finds it all fascinating, especially Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the proprietor, who agrees to help her with the diary. We also meet a couple of shady characters hanging around the Trans-Siberian, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon’s son, and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As the story unfolds, layers are stripped away from each character. Much more about the plot can’t be discussed without spoiling what lays beneath those layers. Suffice to say that Cronenberg’s love of brutality, both psychological and physical plays out here, the former dominating the latter, though there is a scene of extraordinary viciousness that will likely be discussed by cineastes for decades to come.

The performances of Watts, Cassel, and Mortensen are all excellent. Mortensen, in particular, is outstanding. You never believe Nikolai’s repeated claim, “I’m just the driver,” knowing there is much more to him. Unfortunately Mueller-Stahl, as well as Sinead Cusack as Anna’s mother Helen, and Jerzy Skolimowski as her Uncle Stepan, are weaker. Cusack and Skolimowski don’t have that much to work with, having limited screen time. Mueller-Stahl, on the other hand, has plenty of screen time but comes across as a little too unctuous from the start, rendering Semyon too readable, too soon.

The film is very nicely shot by director of photography Peter Suschitzky. In keeping with Cronenberg’s theme of horror beneath banal facades, he shoots the world of the Russians in such a way as to show that it may be in London, but it is separate and distinct. It tends to the closed and claustrophobic, attaining a level of intimacy often not associated with a large metropolis.

Cronenberg has managed to craft a film about gangsters that neither glorifies them nor belittles ordinary people. It is compelling and horrifying and emotionally engaging, some of the characterizations are slightly lacking. When it comes to delivering a look beneath the surface of things, “Eastern Promises” lives up to its promise.

 Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 16, 2012

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Dante Alighieri, Inferno
One of the marvellous and exciting things about the English language is its malleability, the way that words are minted, used, stretched and changed to allow us to communicate ideas. Unfortunately, this means that some words are stretched to the point of unrecognizability. “Hero” is one of those words. It is a word that is used to describe people who are merely victims or who show courage in the face of adversity. It can be used to describe those who merely do what they should be doing, however admirable or brave it might be. Like a sweater that fit well thirty pounds ago, stretching a word to cover everything that wasn’t there before results in the original design being lost.

It is time to remember that true heroes have walked among us. April 15th was the birthday of Hugh Thompson Jr., a true hero.

As a Warrant Officer flying in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, Hugh Thompson and the two crew members of his helicopter, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn, intervened in what is now called the My Lai Massacre, to save the lives of civilians. A U.S. Army unit was killing indiscriminately during its operation that day and Thompson, who was flying reconnaissance, seeing dead children, women, and old men and no weapons, voiced his concern. At one point, he landed his helicopter to stop troops from attacking a group of civilians, ordering his crew to fire on the U.S. troops if the troops attacked the villagers. After rescuing the civilians, he filed an official report. He participated in Pentagon inquiries when the scandal broke and also testified for the House Armed Services Committee. As he became known to the public, he received hate mail and death threats.

Dr. Philip Zambardo, a psychologist who studies the nature of heroic action, has identified what constitutes heroism:

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.

Thompson exhibited true heroism on that day, recognizing that, even in war, there is a line that should not be crossed, actions that are impossible to justify. He had nothing to gain from his action and much to lose. He did what needed to be done because it was right and he was there. He would not stand by. He was haunted by what happened until he died in 2006, but how much worse could things have been had he not intervened?

Thank goodness there are heroes among us. Thank goodness the word still has meaning.

Further information:

Hugh Thompson talks about My Lai

Photo: Public Domain