Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Film Review: Il Sorpasso (1962)

Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
A great movie can be forgiven one big error. In fact, it may be the definition of a great film that it can withstand a major misstep. Vertigo is superb despite Kim Novak, The Big Sleep is a classic without a comprehensible plot, and then there's Il Sorpasso; it's a great film that's marred only by an ending that's totally out of sync with what's come before. More on that later, and there will be a major spoiler.

One hot Sunday in August in Rome, law student Roberto is leaning out of his apartment window and is spotted by Bruno, who is driving around looking for some friends he was supposed to meet. He asks to use Roberto's phone and in no time flat Bruno has dragged Roberto away from his studies for an impromptu road trip into the countryside around Rome. They are a sharply-defined odd couple. Roberto is studious and uptight, Bruno is a bon vivant, scamster, prankster, and the sort of guy who'll show you the best time of your life but he'll have to borrow your money to do it. The trip takes them to beach resorts, clubs, roadside bars, and a couple of family reunions. Vittorio Gassmann plays Bruno and his performance is one for the ages. Bruno is a force of nature who tries to extract from each moment of life a joke, a prank, a sharp deal, a good meal, or a seduction. He's narcissistic to his core, but he also likes to see other people living the same life as himself. As much as you know it would be the wrong thinng to do, it's hard not thinking it would be great to spend a day and a night with Bruno.

The character of Roberto, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is completely overshadowed by Bruno, which isn't surprising, but it adds to the problem with the ending. Roberto only comes out of his shell in the last few minutes of the film (attenzione! spoiler coming!) when he urges Bruno, who's already a reckless driver, to go faster. The car goes over a cliff and Roberto dies and Bruno lives. Roll credits. Nothing prepares you for this, although to be fair, there are some elements in the film that foreshadow a darker side to Bruno's lifestyle. The problem is that we haven't begun to care much for Roberto because he keeps his head down for almost the entire film. His death just comes across as nothing more than a twisted joke or a failure on the part of the scriptwriter to come up with a smarter ending. What's come before has been mostly funny, ebullient, giddy and sentimental, so the tragic ending seems like a clumsy attempt to add some gravitas to what's been mostly a frothy film.

Putting aside the ending, Il Sorpasso is a madly entertaining film that also looks great. The Italy in this film is shiny, new, glossy, sexy and bursting with life. This period in recent Italian history is known as the "Years of Cement," when the country was being feverishly rebuilt and the average citizen was beginning to enjoy a consumer lifestyle. The look of the film offers what was undoubtedly an idealized vision of contemporary Italy, and that probably accounts for its status as film that's still beloved in Italy, but largely unknown elsewhere.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Black is as Black Does

Bundy phones FOX News to complain that the feds also stole his glasses

The batshit crazy right-wing news cycle for this week has been dominated by the travails of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and career deadbeat who refuses to pony up money he owes to the federal government because, well, he thinks he can get away with it if he wraps himself in Old Glory and claims he's standing up against the "evil" government. With an assist from FOX News, Bundy has become an ephemeral media celebrity; until, that is, he used his fifteen minutes of fame to opine that perhaps blacks were better off as slaves. Given that Bundy is an old, white rancher living in the Nevada wilderness, it shouldn't be shocking that his views on race are antediluvian. Perhaps he could blame his outburst on the radioactive fallout he grew up with thanks to those federal government atomic tests in the 1950s. Predictably, Twitter and the mainstream media reacted with shock and horror at such a naked display of racism, but this past week also saw some racist imagery (or racial stereotyping if one wants to be polite) that's being used to promote NBA basketball. Check it out:

The Toronto Raptors are in the playoffs for the first time in six years and they're decided to rebrand themselves with the "We the North" ad campaign. The first thing that sticks out about this ad is that there's a conscious effort being made to give the Raptors "street cred." Aside from the obligatory glamour shot of Toronto's skyline, the ad shows a city filled with bleak, ugly apartment complexes and grimy expressways. The people playing basketball in these settings are overwhelmingly black, with several of them bearing elaborate tattoos just to provide a hint of gangsta life. It's hard to see what the end purpose of this ad is, but the message seems to be, "Hey, looks at us, we're just like big American cities--we have lots of nasty public housing filled with dangerous-looking black men who love playing basketball." The ad only runs in Canada (as far as I know), but it feels like it's addressing an American market (complete with American-accented voice artist), asking them to please, pretty please, take us seriously as a basketball franchise. And the way to do that, the ad agency has decided, is to portray blacks in one of their officially approved roles: poor, urban and vaguely threatening.

What that ad fails to show is that the audience at Raptors games is easily is the most ethnically diverse of any of Toronto's major sports teams, so it's doubly odd that "We the North" is trying to peddle a black-centric vision of Toronto for no clear purpose. What the campaign does reveal is one of the acceptable faces of racism. People from both ends of the political spectrum find poor, urban blacks to be a useful political tool; the right uses them to attract frightened white voters, the liberal-left needs them as a stick to attack the failures of rightist government policies, and, it would appear, the Raptors use them to sell tickets. What all concerned seem to have difficulty with is seeing blacks in roles outside those traditionally allotted to them, and what's a bit surprising is how common this attitude is even amongst people you'd normally characterize as liberal, or at least enlightened. Have a gander at this trailer for Seth McFarlane's upcoming western comedy and the "joke" at the 2:09 mark:

Hilarious. It's nice to see that the black-men-want-women-with-big-asses trope hasn't died yet thanks to the diligent efforts of white comedians. And then there's Bill Maher, who's mocked entertainer Wayne Brady on several occasions for, apparently, not fitting Bill's definition of what black means. Even Steve Martin got into the act recently with a Twitter joke that backfired spectacularly. Of course, Steve was also the star of Bringing Down the House (2003), the most enthusiastically racist film since Birth of a Nation. And don't get me started on Tina Fey's 30 Rock, but please read this piece by Zeeshan Aleem in the Huffington Post for an efficient dissection of the racism in that show.

The problem with the Cliven Bundy's of the world isn't their lunkheaded, slack-jawed ideas about race, it's that their theatrical racism distracts us from the widely accepted, daily racism that lies behind the Raptors ad and the jokes from Hollywood entertainers who would probably be deeply offended to be called racists.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: In the Morning I'll Be Gone (2014) by Adrian McKinty

This is the final entry in Adrian McKinty's Troubles trilogy featuring Sean Duffy, a police detective working in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s. All three of the novels fall into the noir category, but this latest one has a locked room puzzle at its core that, on the surface, seems like a poor fit for noir crime fiction. Locked room puzzles were a staple during the 1920s and '30s, the so-called golden age of detective fiction, but locked room puzzles also went hand in hand with twee settings, characters with hyphenated names who drank pink gin, and detectives who were usually gifted and eccentric amateurs. Duffy is a professional copper with a taste for illegal drugs, booze, and rock 'n roll. So what on Earth is a locked room puzzle doing in a noir crime novel and with no dapper Belgian detective on hand to solve it? I'd suggest it's because McKinty is slyly suggesting that the Troubles were the locked room puzzle of post-war British politics.

The action kicks off with the famous mass escape of IRA prisoners from N.I.'s Maze prison. One of the escapees is a childhood friend of Duffy's named Dermot McCann. MI5 drafts Duffy into the hunt for McCann in the faint hope that Duffy's connections to the McCann family might produce a clue. Duffy hits a brick wall with the ultra-Republican McCann clan until he meets Dermot's ex-mother-in-law. She tells him that if he can solve the mystery surrounding the apparently accidental death of her daughter some three years previously, she might point him towards Dermot. The girl was found dead with a broken neck inside the family's pub, the doors all locked from the inside and no sign of any secret entrances. Duffy solves the puzzle and then the race is on to stop McCann before he can set off a bomb in Brighton.

This is easily the best of the Duffy books. The two previous novels, The Cold, Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Street, were full of sharp prose, black humor, and superb descriptions of the grim social and physical environment of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. This novel has all of those qualities but also a stronger, smoother plot and fewer obscure cultural references. The locked room puzzle at the heart of the story is a gem; there's no trickery to it, all the clues are out in the open, you just have to put the pieces together. The story then moves seamlessly into thriller mode and this final section is as well done as the puzzle portion of the novel.

What stands out in this series is the passion with which McKinty writes about his birthplace. He's unsparing in his depiction of the sectarian prejudices and cruelties that keep the tear gas canisters flying and the bombs bursting, but he never forgets to show that underneath all that there's a common humanity that shines out at the oddest moments; for example, when Duffy goes to question Dermot's mother her visceral loathing for him (he's a Catholic working for the largely Protestant RUC) doesn't stop her from offering him tea and sweets. And in another scene Duffy's neighbour won't let him leave for an important interview until she's personally combed his hair to her satisfaction. It would seem that the biggest locked room puzzle is trying to figure out how such murderous hatred consumed people who would otherwise be mostly concerned with fishing, pubs and who is to play Mother when the tea's ready.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: Haute Cuisine (2012)

The English title is Haute Cuisine.
Hortense Laborie runs an acclaimed cookery school in the south of France until one day, much to her surprise, she's whisked off to Paris and the Elysee Palace to be the personal chef to the President of the France. The personal chef's function is to cater the President's lunches as well as any small dinners for close family and friends. The much larger main kitchen handles bigger and more formal events. Hortense is told that what the President wants is traditional, classic French cuisine, the kind of food his grandmother made. Hortense follows these instructions to the letter, but after two years the bureaucracy and the in-fighting with the main kitchen wear her down and she resigns. She then takes a one year job as the cook at a French research station in the Antarctic.

If that plot description sounds bare bones, so is the execution of the film, which, as it turns out, is what makes it so good. The story is based (loosely) on the career of an actual chef who did the cooking for Francois Mitterand. Christian Vincent, the director and writer of Haute Cuisine, concentrates his story exclusively on the craft and logistics of cooking in the Elysee Palace. It would have been terribly easy, and tempting, to add in a romantic sub-plot or a comic/dramatic blowup with the main kitchen, but none of these things happen.Vincent has an interesting story and character to work with and he lets those elements pull the audience along. The style and purpose of the film is neatly described in a scene with the President, who complains that his former personal chef was always decorating desserts with sugar roses, which were beautiful but unnecessary. There are no sugar roses on this film.

If the story is unadorned, the look of the film certainly isn't. There's a fair amount of gastroporn on view here, and the interior of the Elysee Palace is one giant sugar rose. Glamour shots of food and furnishings aside, this is a beautifully crafted film with pitch perfect casting, dialogue, and understated yet elegant cinematography; in sum, it's as carefully and lovingly made as some of the food on display. Special mention to Catherine Frot who takes the lead role and creates an interesting character out of not much raw material.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: The Nun (2011) by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

A novel about a teenage girl confined against her will in a convent in southern Italy in the 1840s sounds like it would be either a springboard for a polemic on how awful things were for women once upon a time, or the outline for a gothic potboiler featuring nuns who are either sadistic or naughty (my favourite kind). The Nun is far more sophisticated than that.

The story begins in 1839 when Sicily is still an independent kingdom, albeit an impoverished one, and the local nobles spend most of their time currying favour with the king in order to win pensions or jobs. Agata, the titular heroine, belongs to the Padellani family, an aristocratic family that falls on hard times when the family patriarch dies. Gesuela, Agata's mother, is left with the problem of how to provide dowries for her daughters. Money is short and her influence at court is waning, so Gesuela opts to dispatch Agata to a convent in Naples, one that caters to the unwanted daughters of the aristocracy. Agata does not want to enter the convent as she is love with Giacomo, and also because she feels wants to be part of the wider world, not cloistered away from it. On her way by ship to Naples from Sicily, she meets James Garson, an English shipowner with business interests throughout Italy. She catches his eye and on an impulse he sends her a book, Pride and Prejudice, and thus begins a correspondence based on books. Garson sends her books of all kinds, from politics to poetry to gothic thrillers, and she sends him thank you notes in which she comments on the books she's read. As the years pass in the convent, Agata vacillates between continuing on the path to being a nun or trying to find a way to leave and make her own way in the world. She also falls in love with Garson.

Hornby does a brilliant job of juggling several different genres in her novel, the primary one being the story of Agata's intellectual coming-of-age. Agata is curious and intelligent and wants to make a difference in the world but isn't sure if her life is best lived in or out of the convent. It would have been easy to portray the convent as a stifling hellhole, but Hornby shows that in the context of the limited options available to women at that time, the religious life offered some advantages. In the secular world the women of Agata's class are consumed with getting husbands, and marriages rarely arise out of love. Marriage in Agata's world is all about dowries and mercantile alliances. In the convent, Agata can pursue a career as a pharmacist/doctor. On the downside, the convent is as full of jealousy, scandal and hatred as the outside world. Agata's intellectual journey is mirrored by upheavals in the wider world, as Europe moves towards a series of democratic revolutions and rebellions that erupt in 1848. The historical fiction side of the novel isn't ignored; Hornby neatly balances historical detail with plot and character-building, never letting the history lessons become obtrusive or dry. Finally, the romantic plot is smartly used to give the story tension and pace, and it never descends into melodrama.

Although Agata doesn't turn out to be as naughty a nun as I hoped (those Italian films from the 1970s must have been lying), in every other way this is a superb work of historical fiction that is as much about intellectual growth as it is the colorful and dramatic aspects of a forgotten time and place.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Film Review: Rolling Thunder (1977)

Operation Rolling Thunder was the name given to the US bombing campaign against North Vietnam and, like that military operation, this film is about American soldiers journeying into another country to commit acts of violence. Major Rane, played by William Devane, is a recently released POW who spent eight years as a captive of the North Vietnamese. He returns to San Antonio and his wife greets him with the news that she's now with another man. Rane's young son has no memory of his father. Rane takes everything in stride, never getting mad or terribly interested in what's happening around him. As Rane himself says at one point, he feels dead inside. In flashbacks we see that Rane suffered years of torture, and in the present the only thing that seems to get his juices flowing is when he feels pain or the opportunity arises to inflict pain. He gets an opportunity for both when a home invasion results in the death of his wife and son. Rane ends up with a mangled hand that's replaced with a hook, and you just know that that hook is going to be doing nasty things to even nastier people.

Rane gets out of hospital and tracks down the four American baddies who killed his family. They're living in a whorehouse just across the border in Mexico. With the help of an equally damaged vet played by Tommy Lee Jones, Rane blasts all the male occupants of the bordello. Roll credits as our wounded heroes leave the blood-spattered building.

I first saw Rolling Thunder in a grindhouse cinema in Toronto a couple of years after it first came out, and I have to say it didn't really stick in my mind. Having seen it again I can see why. Unlike most B-grade action films of that time it's a restrained, almost austere piece of filmmaking. Until the final shootout/massacre, the film is mostly a carefully observed character study of a man whose humanity has been worn away by years of prison brutality. The film is also technically better than others of its ilk, with crisp editing and nice use of locations in Texas and Mexico. What really stands out on a second viewing is the performance of Linda Haynes as Rane's sort-of girlfriend. She plays a barmaid who attaches herself to him the way (as she explains it) a groupie goes after a rock star. The role is a difficult one because her character's motivation for doing this is fairly opaque, especially given that Rane barely has a personality, so we're left wondering why she tags along with him. Despite that obstacle, Haynes manages to conjure a convincing portrait of a bored small-town woman who's been around the block too often with the wrong kind of men, and is now, in her own way, as brutalized as Rane. In truth, it's Haynes' performance that holds this film together. Without her to provide a spark of warmth and human emotion, the film would be nothing but a monotone exercise in violence. It crossed my mind at one point that The Last Picture Show would have been a lot better if Haynes had somehow been given the Cybil Shepherd role. 

The finale in Mexico is interesting because it's another example of one of the oldest and most durable tropes in American filmmaking: the concept that Mexico is a place where Americans can go to raise hell without any consequences. From Vera Cruz to The Wild Bunch to From Dusk Til Dawn, Mexico has been portrayed by Hollywood as a land of brothels and gun battles in which the locals serve as cannon fodder for gringos. Any action movie that wanders south of the border almost inevitably has the anglo hero harrowing the resident bad guys, usually in mass quantities. I can't think of another cinematic equivalent unless it's the thrashing the Japanese take in Chinese kung fu films, but at least in those films the Japanese are shown to be fearsomely competent. Hollywood's Mexico is full of bumbling, machismo-addled thugs who can't shoot straight and spend a lot of time leering (the better to show off their bad teeth) and sweating profusely in skanky cantinas. It's the cinematic equivalent of hate literature, but it shows no signs of running out of steam if the trailer for the next Scwarzenegger movie is anything to go by:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

It takes a bold person to try and write a serious novel through the medium of fantasy fiction. The problem is that your book is likely to be reviewed and shelved with novels featuring lovelorn vampires or armoured cats or characters with names like Stabhappy the Slayer. Chris Adrian's novel is a modern-day re-imagining of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park. And, yes, the novel has a full complement of fairies, including Titania, Oberon and Puck.

The human characters are Henry, Will and Molly, all of whom enter the park separately one summer night to take a shortcut to a party being held in a house on the far side of the park. Unbeknownst to the trio of humans, Titania, depressed by the end of her marriage to Oberon and the death of their adopted (stolen) son, has given Puck his freedom. Puck is not a twinkly, giggly fairy; he's a lord of misrule, an agent of chaos, the devil in fairy form, and he'll quite likely destroy the world, but only after he's eaten all the fairies and humans he can catch before dawn.

The fantasy elements in the novel are brilliantly done; so much so, in fact, that at times I found myself wishing that this was a full-blown fantasy novel. What The Great Night is actually focused on is the sometimes unbearably high cost of love. All the main characters, including Titania and Oberon, have known great love and it's flip side, great loss. The novel begins with a description of the slow and painful death from leukemia of Titania and Oberon's adopted son. Their boy was one of a series they'd stolen from the humans (always leaving a changeling in its place), but this time they fell madly, deeply in love with their child, and when he died it ended their marriage. This opening section of the novel comprises the most devastating description of a child's decline and death from illness that one would think it's possible to write: the rollercoaster of emotions his "parents" go through, the hideousness of the medical treatments, and the pain of his final passing. It's an unflinching and bravura piece of writing (Adrian is a pediatric oncologist, so he knows what's he's talking about), but its ferocious honesty may stop some readers in their tracks.

Henry, Will and Molly have all suffered from love and its sudden, tragic absence. The bulk of the novel describes their back stories, which are equally poignant and well crafted, and even include some more supernatural elements. The novel can be criticized for having an excess of heartache and heartbreak at times, but Adrian's prose and imagination are always first-rate. It's a very short list of novels that combine serious themes with fantasy, but two that I've read in the last few years are The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Fairy Tale by Alice Thomas Ellis (click on the titles for my reviews). Both are excellent, but The Great Night has probably moved to the head of the class.