Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Wolf could also be described as the final act in Martin Scorsese's trilogy about the ugly, dangerous face of street-level American capitalism. Goodfellas was the first in the trio and is probably Scorsese's masterwork. Casino was next and felt like a windier, less-focused version of Goodfellas. Wolf represents a collapse in Scorsese's artistic vision. All the elements that worked so well in the previous films--narration by the lead character, great period detail, clever integration of pop songs in the soundtrack--have been trotted out once again, but this time it all feels like it's being done by a hack director.
Both Goodfellas and Casino struck a balance between showing us the inner workings of their secretive, dangerous worlds and the lives of excess lived by the major players in those worlds. Wolf can't be bothered to adequately describe the whys and wherefores of Wall Street in the 1980s. Jordan Belfort, the title character, is quickly introduced, a vague description is given of how his penny stock scam works, and from there we're beaten over the head with scenes and sub-plots that hammer home the point that the Excessive Eighties were fueled by coke, sex and bravura displays of testosterone. In the third act the FBI catches up with Belfort, but this section of the film is even more opaque than the beginning. Why the FBI is on to him isn't really explained, nor are the exact nature of his crimes properly explained. Perhaps this is because financial crimes are basically dry and dull, but what it is clear is that Scorsese only made this film to spend more than two hours showing just how depraved men with too much money can become.
At different points in Wolf it feels like the film has been made by either a horny fifteen-year-old boy or a dirty old man. Scorsese has so much goodwill banked with critics by this point that I don't think many of them have dared to point out that this is a wildly sexist and exploitative film, almost like something Roger Corman would have produced back in the '70s when he hired Scorsese to direct Boxcar Bertha, a bloody, sexy ripoff of the Bonnie and Clyde story. Scorsese is fixated on the fact that Belfort and his minions were sex-obsessed. It's certainly worth pointing out the psychological connection between sex and money, but Scorsese makes the point over and over and over and over, until finally the audience gets the icky feeling that the film is saying more about the director than it is about Jordan Belfort; I mean, how is it that a film about Wall Street has far more sex and nudity in it than Boogie Nights, a film about the hardcore porn industry? The nadir of all this excess is a scene in which Jordan's trophy wife taunts him by displaying her genitals while telling him that he's not going to be getting any because she's mad at him. Unbeknownst to her, a security camera is trained on the room they're in, and some guards are getting a free show, a fact which Jordan gleefully points out. It's a pointless scene that only seems to have been included to provide a raunchy thrill for the male portion of the audience, and there are probably four or five similar scenes that are equally gratuitous.
The worst thing about Wolf is that Scorsese has nothing to say about his subject. He takes an uncritical, even affectionate look at the character of Belfort, and his view of Wall Street in the Eighties amounts to nothing more than delighted astonishment at all the naughtiness that went on. If they were victims of this era, financial or otherwise, Scorsese has nothing to say about them. Based on this film, I'm afraid it might be time for Martin to retire his director's chair and stick to doing DVD commentaries on other people's films; Porky's and Confessions of a Plumber's Mate are just a couple of titles he might be interested in analyzing.
Monday, January 27, 2014
|Rob Ford in a moment of personal reflection.|
The story here isn't the refund, although Twitter and the press seems to be spinning this as a positive action, it's that Ford was asked to speak in the first place. Ford was only a few days removed from his latest YouTube sensation in which he drunkenly called the Chief of Police a "cocksucker" and then cursed fluently in Jamaican patois, with "bumbaclot" (equivalent to "fuck") being the highlight. Oh, and he probably drove home drunk that night, as well. The only interesting thing about this latest scandal is that it heavily underlines and italicizes the fact Ford is an unrepentant liar and addict, not to mention being dumber than a bag of hammers.
So let's summarize: Rob Ford is an odious character who Rhiannon Traill (and probably all of the luncheon attendees) would not want as a neighbour or friend. I'm also betting that there wasn't anyone at that luncheon who would dream of hiring Ford for a responsible position, and that includes a job doing yard work. And yet all of the people there were willing to sit and listen to Ford because he was going to tell them that he will work hard to put money in their pockets. Traill and her audience were annoyed by Ford's tardiness (not his fault, as it happens), but their attendance at the event indicates that his epic personal and political failures are no problem as long as their bottom lines are improved.
The fact that Traill didn't cancel Ford's appearance, and that people actually showed up to listen to him, shows that the business commnity's moral compass is as skewed as Ford's. That's not a great surprise, but it's not often we get to see such a public display of naked, amoral greed. So congratulations to Traill and her friends who lunch, you've all passed the bumbaclot Kool-Aid litmus test! You are true conservatives and a credit to your bank account.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
|There's nothing mysterious going on here.|
Two of the mystery novels were The Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier and Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Phillipe Georget, both of which, as it happens, were set in the south of France. The latter was pulpy, filled with cliche and improbable characters, overlong, and had a prose style that could be politely described as workmanlike. Summertime is a solid police procedural, it's decently written, but it suffers from some lazy sexism, unlikely plot twists, and a tedious sub-plot about the lead character's worry over whether his wife is having an affair. All of the SF and fantasy novels I read were at least as well-written as the crime novels, but I simply couldn't stay with them, and that puzzled me. The answer, I think, is that mysteries get their hooks into us because they withhold information. Mysteries start out by presenting us with a horrific event and then proceed to frustrate our attempts to understand what happened. A mystery, like a stripper, promises a lot if only we'll stick around to the end.
SF and fantasy novels are strippers who come on stage completely naked and then proceed to dress themselves. SF and fantasy are all about big, bold, imaginative concepts, and in most cases the SF concepts or fantasy worlds are put on display right off the top in the first few chapters. What comes after that is the "dressing up" of the concept with characters, plot and action. And that's the fatal flaw in the SF and fantasy genres; if the basic concept of a novel is weak, trite, overblown or poorly described, it will take some superb prose to keep me on board. One book I recently abandoned was Charles Yin's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Recreational time travel is the basic concept, but Yin spends the first part of the book in an opaque description of how the time travel machine works; there's no plot or action, just a user's manual for his imaginative concept. Two other novels I abandoned were an urban fantasy set in London and a SF/steampunk adventure. In both cases the novels started off with big imaginative ideas, but were brought low by vanilla prose and an abject failure to build on the basic concepts. I'm often disappointed by SF and fantasy novels, and I think it's because fans of that genre are happy just to get their teeth into brash SF ideas and extravagantly unlikely fantasy worlds--everything else is just window dressing to them. This also might explain why these genres are overstuffed with trilogies and quartets. The SF and fantasy fan, once they're smitten with an idea, will apparently suffer through any amount of bland prose and mechanical plotting to get yet another fix. Two of the SF/F novels I read were the first in trilogies, and I really can't imagine why anyone would continue with either series.
In general, all of the novels I've mentioned were equally mediocre, but the puzzling, teasing elements in mystery novels keeps me reading them, even though part of my brain is asking why I'm subjecting myself to something so bland and average. With SF and fantasy novels I can't justify continuing to read them if they don't bring anything to the party except a startling, high concept premise, which is inevitably fully on display right off the top, which in turn means the meter on my patience is running. Just so you don't think I'm entirely anti-SF/F here's some superb titles I've read recently, and none of them are the first in a trilogy. Click on the titles for full reviews:
Angelmaker (2012) by Nick Harkaway
The Dervish House (2011) by Ian McDonald
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2002) by Steven Sherrill
A Face Like Glass (2012) by Frances Hardinge
Dog Boy (2009) by Eva Hornung
Thursday, January 16, 2014
|A New Guinea cargo cult was the only religion not to object to|
Lady GaGa's meat dress.
The Parti Quebecois is the ruling party in Quebec, and with this law they are speaking to their base. As a party existentially committed to the independence of Quebec and the supremacy of the French language in public life, they have a vested, but unspoken, interest in discouraging a multicultural society. The PQ's hardcore supporters would prefer to see a Quebec composed exclusively of pure laine citizens. Pure laine is a Quebecois term that refers to people who trace their ancestry back to New France. The bigotry that lurks behind this term popped into the open during the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, when PQ leader Jacques Parizeau blamed the referendum loss on "the ethnic vote." He also said that "we" (meaning the pure laine) had voted in favour in the referendum. It's clear that what the PQ is up to with the charter of values is an attempt to discourage immigrants from settling in Quebec and encourage the ones already living there to move elsewhere. From a PQ point of view that should help diminish the dreaded "ethnic vote" in any future referendum.
But there's an aspect to this story that's more interesting than the PQ's unsubtle politicking. The Charter of Values may list all kinds of religious apparel and ornamentation as verboten, but it's clear that the most obvious target are women who wear hijabs, chadors or veils. Yes, at heart this piece of legislation is one more symptom of Islamophobia, one aimed primarily at Muslim women. And it's yet one more example in the long, long history of women being told what to wear or not wear. A lot of the debate around the charter has focused on what this all means for Muslim women. In general terms, proponents of the charter have taken the line that banning religious apparel strikes a blow for equality of the sexes--why, they ask, should some women be forced to wear what's essentially a uniform? Opponents say that wearing a hijab or the like is a matter of choice and a proud symbol of a person's faith.
Both sides are ducking some more important issues raised by this wardrobe controversy. To begin with, the Koran's only directive when it comes to clothing is that women should dress modestly. Does that mean yes to a Chanel suit but no to Daisy Duke shorts? Who knows? But to categorize a particular piece of clothing as "religious" is futile if not absurd. And it's disingenuous, if not ridiculous, for people to claim that the wearing of such clothes is a matter of free choice. Anyone who lives or works in a Muslim area (as I do) can tell you that girls as young as five or six are being covered up from head to toe. They clearly have no choice in this matter. But a bigger question is, why is it that the discussion about faith-based fashion choices for women always seems to be limited to Muslim women? Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, and conservative Hindus all place restrictions on what women can wear. For a taste of just how bizarre and abusive a religion can get towards women and their appearance, check out this article from Haaretz about a Hasidic woman's difficult decision to defy her sect by not shaving her head.
What women wear or don't wear as part of their faith is only the tip of the iceberg. If clothing is a designation of a woman's religion, it's also, in the case of the sects and religions listed above, an indicator of women who are denied a wide range of other freedoms. When you see a young woman dressed solely to please her faith you're also seeing a woman who is unlikely to do any of the following: live on her own; choose her own boyfriend or husband; go on vacation by herself or with girlfriends; go clubbing; start her own business; have a glass of wine; run for public office; go swimming or sunbathe; have a wild weekend in Las Vegas; go to a movie theatre; or even take up a career or pursue higher education. Some religions and sects might be more liberal, some even more severe, but it always comes back to the fact that faith-based apparel is a visual statement that an aggressively patriarchal and misogynistic religion is denying a woman a range of life choices taken for granted by the vast majority of women in Canada.
There's never a shortage of horror stories in the Western press about the suffering of women in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or India. The commonly-used term "gender apartheid" hardly seems adequate to describe excesses such as honour killings, dowry burnings, female circumcision, and executions for adultery; it would be better to describe this situation as gender slavery, because if you define slavery as one person having absolute power over another, then slavery is the only way to describe a situation where women's lives are completely controlled by men and their religions. There's no one in the West who thinks this is a healthy or just state of affairs, and organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the World Health Organization have spoken out against the mistreatment of women in the countries where these abuses occur.
Human rights laws in Canada ensure that the worst excesses of gender slavery can't take place here, at least without severe legal repercussions. But here's the odd and unpleasant thing about our relationship with gender slavery; we won't tolerate the most gaudy examples of slavery, and we decry these practices in other countries, but we're quite tolerant of social customs and traditions that I'd call the equivalent of the Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil War South. The so-called Jim Crow laws replaced the Black Codes in the American South which had defined and regulated slavery. Jim Crow laws instituted segregation and created a new, less blatant, kind of slavery. It took nearly a hundred years for the US to rid itself of these laws and the racist customs and traditions that came with them. The social traditions and religious edicts that currently restrict some Canadian women from exercising their free will, of which clothing is the most visible symbol, are our modern-day Jim Crow laws, and they're just as iniquitous and cruel as the originals.
And this brings us back to the Charter of Values. It's a foolish, wrong-headed, politically-motivated attack on Quebec's minorities that one would hope never becomes law, and yet...There should be some effort made by governments to curb the tyrannical aspects of religion. All levels of government in Canada are happy to fund a constant stream of public service ads on the evils of bullying, drunk driving, child abuse, cyberbullying, elder abuse, and a variety of other social ills. So why not an ad campaign that lets the more extreme elements in the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities know that women are not to be bullied, coerced or shamed in the name of religion or tradition? Such a campaign should also let women in these communities know that their basic rights and freedoms cannot be denied for religious reasons. Unfortunately, there's a very good reason a campaign like this will never exist: Canadian political parties actively seek the support of ethnic voters, something that stands in stark contrast to Europe, where the political zeitgeist these days seems to include a lot of immigrant-bashing. The federal Liberals have a long history of being the party of immigrants, and in the last decade the Conservatives have worked hard to build support in different ethnic communities. Conservative PM Stephen Harper has been a very vocal supporter of Israel in an effort to curry favour with Jewish voters, and his recent refusal to attend the Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka, which he said was a protest against human rights abuses in that country, was actually an attempt to pull votes in Toronto's Tamil community. Canadian politicians outside of Quebec will never do anything that might antagonize ethnic voters.
The battle over what women should and shouldn't wear will undoubtedly continue on many fronts and for many reasons. It would be nice if here in Canada we could remove religion from the fashion equation and in doing so offer up more freedom to girls and women who currently wear clothing that often represents the uniform of oppression.
Friday, January 10, 2014
I won't go into detail about the when and where of these raids because that's not what's important about this book. What Scahill shows in meticulous, savage detail is that over the course of just over a decade the national security-military complex in the US has turned itself into a counter-terrorist organization, which is not to be confused with anti-terrorism. The US, through the CIA, security contractors like Blackwater, and elite military units such as the SEALS and the Joint Special Operations Command, has become a de facto terrorist organization. These groups have become mirror images of al Qaeda and the like. They have a stated goal of combating terror by taking out the leaders of various militant groups, but the high number of collateral civilian deaths that occur thanks to these drone strikes and raids has made them terror organizations in the eyes of the affected populations. And like most terror groups, the America's bloody raids and targeted assassinations have done nothing except stiffen resistance, both politically and militarily. The best example Scahill gives of this is the case of Somalia. The al Qaeda presence in Somalia was minimal until the US launched a full-scale campaign of drone strikes and raids led by local warlords. The upshot of all this was a civil war in Somalia that was led by a coalition of Islamist groups, the very people the US doesn't want to see gaining power.
The case of Anwar Awlaki shows just how far down the road to rogue state status the US has gone. Awlaki was born in the States, raised partly in Yemen, and attended college back in the US. He became more "radicalized" and moved to Yemen where he became an online preacher of jihad against the US. Awlaki did himself no favours with his speeches, but his violent sermons were no more threatening than any number of things far-right, anti-government zealots have said within the US. Frightened by Awlaki's online popularity amongst militant Islamists, Obama's administration fabricated a legal justification for Awlaki to be defined as a terrorist and therefore a legitimate target for assassination. His rights to a fair trial as a US citizen never came into play. He was duly killed in a drone strike. The message sent by the Obama administration was that Americans can and will be murdered if they say the wrong thing and are also of the wrong ethnicity.
Putting aside the legal and moral problems (which are huge) created by America's terror campaign against its enemies, the US has created yet another problem for itself: it's actions establish a precedent for other nations to engage in similar extralegal and illegal actions. Why shouldn't China get pushy with its neighbors in the South China Sea? Who's to say Russia can't interfere in Georgia or Ukraine? Hey, North Korea, go ahead and shell a South Korean island! If the US wants to conduct its foreign affairs in the style of a bounty hunter from a spaghetti western, it shouldn't be surprised if the world fills up with competing gunslingers.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
It's difficult to pick out the worst aspect of this film, but I think I'll put my money on the characters. The five main characters are resolutely dull, witless and shallow. The same could be said about a lot of the characters in Boogie Nights, another Seventies-themed film, but the huge difference is that the latter film actually likes and respects its characters, and works to make us feel the same way. Russell has no respect for his characters. He's laughing at them and wants us join in on the laughter by making them look and sound as ridiculous as possible. Bad hair! Wide lapels! Disco! Oh, the horror and hilarity! Every character, with the possible exception of Jeremy Renner's, is in the film to be mocked. Their ambitions, their beliefs, their lifestyles, everything about them is either sneered at or openly ridiculed. And yet this isn't a comedy. I saw it in a crowded cinema and you could have heard a pin drop throughout; no laughs, no giggles, maybe a few chuckles here and there. You really have to wonder what Russell's purpose was in making this film because its entertainment value is zero.
The plot is a shambolic retelling of the Abscam scandal, but most of the script is taken up with the dreary personal relationships and romantic entanglements of the main characters. This is where the acting might have saved the film, but, alas, not this time. There's some seriously bad acting going on here. Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams seem to think they're appearing in a telenovela, and Christian Bale casts a soporific pall over the film with his thick, chewy Bronx accent and sluggish...line...readings. Jennifer Lawrence emerges with her honour intact despite being lumbered with some of the worst dialogue, and Robert De Niro appears briefly to show everyone what a real pro can do. Unfortunately for Russell, De Niro's presence only reminds us that American Hustle is basically a ripoff of Goodfellas. In fact, if I was Martin Scorsese I'd be suing for plagiarism. Or maybe not. I wouldn't want people thinking that anything this bad could have been inspired by my film.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Mix the following ingredients:
2 cups The Antiques Roadshow
3 tbsp. The Great British Bake-Off
Zest from Pride and Prejudice
Juice from six medium-sized RADA actors
One whole plot from a cozy mystery (any author)
Cook slowly over three episodes and finish with a dusting of National Trust fairy dust. Serves millions.
My subject isn't the BBC's fresh-out-of-the-oven Death Comes to Pemberley, which is a pleasant scone of a mini-series if your taste runs to scones, but rather why "nostalgia" TV only seems to exist on one side of the Atlantic.
British broadcasters, especially the BBC, have been producing historical/period dramas for a very long time. It may well one of the terms of their broadcasting licences. In the last ten years or so the rate at which these programs have been produced seems to have increased. Since 2003 the UK has sat down to watch period programs such as Lark Rise to Candleford, The Indian Doctor, Downton Abbey, Parade's End, Call the Midwife, Ripper Street, and South Riding. Add to this a host of period literary adaptations (Emma, Great Expectations) plus a small army of tweedy sleuths such as Miss Marple and Father Brown, and you have nostalgia being produced on an industrial scale.
The nostalgia business is neither a good or bad phenomenon. British history and literature is extravagantly rich in stories and characters that cry out for a dramatic adaptation, so it's no surprise that producers simply look through their bookcases in order to find their next project, and there's certainly something worthy in a nation celebrating it's history and art. I'd also theorize that the recent spike in the Brit taste in yesteryear is due to the perception that their uniqueness is eroding in the face of immigration, globalization and integration into the larger European community. The British tabloids are full of fear-mongering stories about immigrants stealing jobs, committing crimes, and scrounging social benefits. Even respectable publications and commentators are still leery of the EU. Britain is, after all, the only EU member not to adopt the euro. The dark side to this fear of change, at least as it applies to the TV business, hit the headlines in 2011 when Brian True-May, one of the creators of the hugely successful TV series Midsomer Murders, said that the program didn't show "ethnic minorities" because it "wouldn't be an English village with them...We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way." As for globalization, I got a close-up look at how that process has affected the UK when I visited London in 2008. My first trips to London took place in the late '70s, and the London I found then pretty much matched my imaginative vision of the city of Dickens and Wodehouse. In 2008 I found a bigger version of Toronto; the stores, the buildings, everything had a North American look and feel. It was rather disappointing. So if on one level period TV drama in Britain is a celebration of history and culture, on another level it's a barometer of unease with social and cultural change.
The situation in North America is almost the complete opposite. With a few exceptions, history doesn't exist for American TV. Back in the '50s and '60s the TV schedule had lots of period programming in the form of westerns, but from the '70s to the present day it's hard to name a half-dozen prominent shows that were set in the past. There was a short-lived boom in historical mini-series that kicked off in 1977 with Roots, which was then followed by a variety of pulpy and popular productions such as Shogun and The Winds of War. But since then? Nothing really, unless you count Happy Days as a period piece. Mad Men and HBO series such as Deadwood are beloved by critics but they're far from being popular successes. Mad Men's most highly-rated episode attracted only 3.5 million viewers; a crap reality show like Duck Dynasty can easily draw more than twice as many viewers.
The US has a history every bit as varied and colorful as Britain, but it's not a subject of much interest to American broadcasters. One reason for this is that politics has become such a charged and divisive subject in the US that there's probably a reluctance to tackle historical issues that could be controversial. There's no controversy in showing US troops fighting bravely in The Pacific and Band of Brothers, but dramatizing something from the Civil War or the Depression or the American Revolution? Just imagine how Tea Party Republicans and Fox News would react if they felt there was a whiff of "liberal bias" in any examination of America's past. The other reason for the shortage of period shows on American TV is that the citizenry sees the here and now and the near future as being of far more interest. Part of America's self-image is that there's a better and brighter future just over the horizon for every citizen. It's an aspirational ideal that's naive and unrealistic, but it can be argued that it's better than living in the past. It's hard, though, to explain why American TV, including HBO and other niche cable channels, so rarely take the opportunity to adapt American literary classics for the small screen. Why no productions of anything by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, John Updike, Henry James, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, and a score of other writers? The BBC seems to film novels by Dickens and Austen on a regular rotation, but American's literary giants can't get a sniff at home. The BBC even had the audacity to film James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans in 1971.
So perhaps in the spirit of the "special relationship" and in light of the inevitability of globalization, the BBC and ITV can be tasked with bringing America's literature and history to the world. How about Newport Mansion from the producers of Downton Abbey? Or Ray Winstone starring as Flem Snopes in Faulkner's The Hamlet? And I definitely want to see the lads from Top Gear starring in an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.