Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ubiquitous Death

It just worked out that four works I encountered recentlyin a movie, a foreign film, a video and a novelall dealt with various aspects of death. Surprisingly, none of it was depressing.
Book cover design by Kelly Blair; image from
Well, okay, some people find the apocalypse depressing, but I LOVE it. Especially when it's presented as well as in The Road or Station Eleven.
The Dog Stars was recommended by a fellow editor when I put out a social-media call for apocalyptic-read recommendations. Peter Heller's first fiction book takes place in the next few decades after a pandemic has killed most of the population and left many of the survivors with The Blood Disease, an auto-immune system threat. The protagonist is tortured by an act in his past, let alone trying to survive a new agricultural production system, murderous gangs and loss. But despite his flaws, we cheer and cry with Hig all along. Best of all, the book manages to have a satisfying ending, which is rare in this genre: it's not all tied up, some things are left unexplained and there is some sense of hope remaining. And yet, you feel that even if these last people die off too, the characters have experienced enough imperfect redemption that you would be all right with that as well.
A lot of people were upset about another Spring Hurlbut project because it was photographs of individuals' cremated remains. In anyone else's hands, it might have been ghoulish, but Hurlbut's respect for her subjects is obvious. Her 2008 video of the release of these ashes from their urns is both beautiful and graceful. Wisely produced without sound, this slow motion group of six videos quickly becomes meditative. One of the subjects was her father, and I found myself thinking about my own deceased parents, and wondering about the spirits of Hurlbut's subjects before their deaths; somehow, I felt I could perceive those spirits through the way the ashes moved. This exhibit is on at the Ryerson Image Centre until April 10. Also on til then is a retrospective of Wendy Snyder MacNeil's photography and video periods and projects, which are disparate and often affecting.
TIFF is currently showing Un Etaj Mai Jos/One Floor Below (2015), billed as a brilliant psychological thriller by Romanian director, Radu Muntean. It was interesting and it was satisfyingly slow climb to...nowhere. I don't mean you don't know who dun it; I mean the climax in a way was the denouement. Just not a story arc I've seen before, nor do I think it works. I wanted it to, but the whole thing was a bit flat. 
Worst of all were the English subtitles, my pet peeve (as a viewer as much as a captioner/subtitler). For instance, "Let's" for "let's go"; "An left" rather than "A left"; "mother f***ers" as two words; unpunctuated "What's up boy"; and an idiomatic translation issue, "Are you going to pay for office hours?" which was to convey that a man was frustrated that he was losing billing time and thus income due to a dely. Disappointing as a film viewer: as a captioner, I know how long the viewer is given to read and take in each line of correct closed captioning, so being tripped up with subtitles creates a stumble in reading and ongoing comprehension. As a caption editor, I sigh at yet another un-copy-edited subtitle file I could have worked on.
Another meh flick was Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012: wow, time flies! I thought I was only a year late seeing this). Let me start by saying Anthony Hopkins is one of my favourite actors I was disappointed in Anthony Hopkins, Scarlett Johansson and even Helen Mirren; I dont think they even tried in casting Anthony Perkins. Like much of the production of Psycho according to this film, it was very meta in that it seemed chaotically produced. While I'm sure it's a very difficult mimic, I didn't think Hopkins' portrayal was at all convincingput your chin down, man!and his focus on losing his bepooled house rang untrue for an artistic genius. Mirren was reduced to portraying too much the weight-nagging bossy boots aspect of his wife (if that's even true) rather than her brilliant support to her husband's work. I could care less about the Janet Leigh character. 
There were some positives, though. I found the issues surrounding censorship and film rating politics of the time interesting. I thought the introduction was good and the extro was genuine and fun. But perhaps the best part of the movie was the section that was about the premiere itself of Psycho: both Hitch's and the audience's reactions were real and you can really feel the sense of terror that existed at the screening. 
Maybe it's good that I didn't rush out to the cinema in 2012 to see this one. Recommended for your next bout of couch-ridden flu. 
No wine and cheese awards for the movies this week!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Two Blue Covers

The only connection I could make between the two works I’d like to recommend this week is that both have blue covers...
In the better-late-than-never category, I found a CD called Trinity Requiem with music composed by Robert Moran. It was commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and features a youth choir from, poignantly, Trinity Wall Street Church, and the recording includes, serendipitously, a siren left unedited at the beginning of the Offertory. There are three other good pieces on the CD (Seven Sounds Unseen, Notturno in Weiss and Requiem for a Requiem), but the eponymous composition is exactly what this minimalist likes. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t find a photo credit for the cover image, which is Turrell-ish. (Which means utterly beautiful and sublime, all you millennials who’d never heard of him before Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”)

My other blue cover is on Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Ballantine, 2013). This is a historical fiction about Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife Fanny (née Van de Grift) which is definitely a Wine and Cheese Winner. Despite RLS's constant ill health, the story is quick-paced and full of characters I didn’t know were connected, most notably Henry James and his significant literary and personal influence on the couple. John Singer Sargent also painted their portrait, the result of which was not really to either’s pleasing, although for different reasons.

This book has been such an engrossing read that I look forward to Horan's previous novel, Loving Frank, about American architect Lloyd Wright. It has also moved me to revisit my James novels, of which I became a fan at thirteen after reading Portrait of a Lady.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Heads Being Used Here

I have seen several pieces on screen lately that deal with using our heads. However, each discussed the head in conjunction with other factors.
Brit TV series, River, lives up to its acclaim. A one-off mini-series of six episodes, it managed to grip me immediately in its treatment of how grief not only affects the heart but also the head. Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker are police officers in this crime drama but in the name of spoilers, I won’t say much more. Other sympathetic performances come from actors like Lesley Manville, but I didn’t really buy Georgina Rich as a police psychologist, at least in the way she chose to/the director asked her to act it. Anyway, the takeaway is that you can’t always use your head in exclusion of the contributions of the heart, either personally or sometimes even professionally. Encouraging symbiosis between the two can facilitate redemption, serenity or at least a sense of acceptance.
A year ago, I loved La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) so was excited to take advantage of my new TIFF membership and see Youth, also by director Paolo Sorrentino. I won’t lie: the chance to see another role by Michael Caine was a huge draw. While Youth also featured the gorgeous music of David Lang, it was better in Beauty, perhaps because it was used so creatively in the juxtaposition to the visual in the opening scene in particular. I found the art and music were not characters in this movie as they had been in Beauty. They were interesting but I think Sorrentino was more interested in the widely irresistible Alps. As the scenery didn't really grab jaded ol' me, it left me able to focus more closely on the human characters’ stories. And that is where Sorrentino shines. He does not reveal all, so that sometimes we don’t know background and thus motivation. But he does seem to touch upon myriad emotions throughout the cast of characters: grief, anger, resentment, boredom, disgust, loyalty and sometimes several, sometimes simultaneously, in each character. These are not static characters, but the action does reflect the immovability of the setting—literally the background. Loved Caine; Harvey Keitel doesn’t do much for me, but other attractive performances were by Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano, who plays a young, already-disillusioned movie star who finds redemption through the words of a kid. Luna Mijovic is an ingenue-ish Yugoslavian actress playing an ingenue masseuse/wannabe dancer; in the director’s subtlety, we don’t learn much about her, but what we do learn we glean from her few words and the brief glimpses into her non-work life.
In essence, it’s about the monkey chatter in your head or what monkey chatter you think, often inaccurately, is in someone else’s head. I’m not saying it’s parabolic, but it’s not a bad takeaway. 'Live and Let Live.' So while I didn’t love Youth as much as La Grande Bellezza, it’s certainly a good gallop through funky ideas, the spectrum of human emotions and existentialism. Oh and the T&A is not gratuitous: it's making a point, too.
I also learned about Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival at TIFF and was ecstatic to find a (post)apocalyptic film amongst the offerings: Into the Forest by director Patricia Rozema and starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. I went an hour early (I’m slightly neurotic about getting my favourite, unclaustrophic seat) and was surprised to be tenth in line! Yet another of my favourite genres appears to be gaining popularity. Sigh.
Good direction does not tell you everything up front or even at all, and yet Rozema manages to get us to buy into this vague setting and to empathize with two sisters who must learn a new way of life: survivalism, and I mean that both as a social movement topic and as the physical goal of survival. But again, it's not just about using your head; the influences of the heart are equally necessary for survival. As someone who considers going to a hotel camping and avoids the unpredictability of Nature and all Her little friends, this story hit close to home: I don’t think I would have lasted the almost two years of the film’s story. The plausibility of the disaster in the near future via widespread power outage is shiver-invokingly real (remember 2003?) yet Rozema’s view, while realistic, is hopeful. Her Q&A session at TIFF after the film was one of the more interesting I have attended. Beautifully filmed in Campbell River, B.C., I hope it does well, as I think some of the issues it raises may eclipse the strength of the film’s artistic merit when it is released, likely in May 2016.
Finally, Concussion, starring Will Smith and Alex Baldwin, was excellent not for its acting, I'd say, but rather due to its educational value. I thought I knew the extent of the risk and results of contact-sport concussions, but this movie made me realize how little I was aware of. The movie makes the issues understandable for the layman and is effective in presenting a multi-layered topic within a two-hour movie. Although perhaps a little too heavy on the America-as-paradise theme, it was an interesting exposé into the power of corporations under threat and the extent to which they will go to maintain the status quo rather than to help their employees.