Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Anna Karenina”

“I thank God that the curse of love has been lifted from me.”

I first studied Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth Anna Karenina in my senior year of high school, writing several essays and a journal on the work. I still have that journal. I was assigned the novel again in my sophomore year of college, tearing through the book with a keener, more critical eye in a Russian literature class. Having seen numerous film versions of the classic novel, I had been waiting for a cinematic adaptation that would at once heighten the book’s social criticism, moral relativism and artifice, while paying more than scant attention to the book’s other main character, Constantine Levin. It was as if Joe Wright, in his first period piece since the masterful Atonement, heard my plea, and presented me with his accomplished new version of Anna Karenina.

For the uninitiated, this is one of the most famous love stories of all. Published in 1876, the central story follows socialite Anna Karenina. She is bored in her marriage to her officious husband and falls madly in lust, then love with the charming Count Vronsky. As imperialist Russian high society watches, she learns the social mores and cruel double standards where men’s indiscretions are permitted but women must remain virtuous, without free will. Things do not end well, to say the least, as Anna unravels in a long chronicle of a social suicide. Anna’s plight is contrasted with young Constantine “Kostya” Levin, an idealist from the same circles who flees its rigid confines to scythe fields with the peasants, slowly adopting what would become Communist ideals. Of course, he must learn to curb his romanticised political leanings with romantic love for Ekaterina, or “Kitty”, who was originally meant to be Vronsky’s intended. High society, like pop, will eat itself.

How prescient that Tom Stoppard wrote this film’s screenplay. Stoppard’s seminal work Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead won the Tony Award forty-five years ago and remains one of the authoritative works on challenging a fictional medium’s confines. It was not just breaking down the fourth wall that made that play work so well: its knowing air and self-awareness made the work break new ground. The idea of having a character address an audience directly is not new, but it's used here as a deviated narrative conceit. By staging Anna’s story entirely within a theatre, Shakespeare’s point that “all the world’s a stage, and we are but players upon it” is laid bare. The theatre is used as signifiers and symbols to abstractly represent the physical, drawing attention to its own artifice (insert Bertolt Brecht reference here). The stage is where the main characters play out their actions, while high society fills the audience and boxes watching and judging, and the indifferent population traipses around backstage, supporting the upper echelons unnoticed. Stoppard’s use of theatre as society is microcosm, lending the film a higher concept that we have seen thus far from other film adaptations of the same source material. Detractors have, however, found the conceit to be tiresome and distracting, so either you’re along for the ride or you aren’t.

Beyond its utility as a narrative conceit, Stoppard’s screenplay draws heightened attention to the fact that high society’s actions are consequential only to its own self. Considering the double standards that drive Anna away and allows her brother Stiva’s flagrantly public infidelity, the moral relativism is thrown into stark relief. It is no accident that Levin’s struggle, while merely a subplot in the film, is set in naturalist settings outside of the theatre. The filmmakers use verisimilitude for his story to contrast the artifice of Anna’s opulent but empty existence.

This adaptation also captures smaller points that may have been lost upon the casual viewer or those only familiar with the previous adaptations starring Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau. The dialogue is so often focused on the love triangle that the subtler social criticisms are lost, but not so here. An overarching theme almost left unnoticed is the historical attributes given to Moscow and St. Petersburg (or “Peterhof” as it was known then). Peterhof was the seat of high society, culture and government, while Moscow was then considered a backwater. This further stresses Anna’s infidelity as improper, as it seemed to take place in the then-equivalent of a lesser place.

As usual, all players fare well in Wright’s film. Although somewhat miscast as Anna, Keira Knightley attacks the role with finesse and enthusiasm. Ms. Knightley may be a shade too youthful to play the weathered Anna, but she excels when the despair unravels the once-poised Anna. As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson has every element correct, capturing the youthfulness that betrays the proper man, knowing in the very bottom of his soul that it has little consequence to him. Anna knows what she’s talking about when she says he knows nothing of the cross she bears for them both. To complete the triangle, Jude Law embodies the long-suffering Karenin, leveraging his brittle voice and measured cadence to capture the broken heart of Anna’s ineffectual husband. There is also ample support from Alicia Vikander as Kitty (she can also be seen in the wonderful A Royal Affair), Emily Watson, Matthew McFadyen, Kelly Macdonald and Domhnall Gleeson, as Levin.

Visually, this is one of the most striking pictures of the year. Its aesthetic extravagance suggests Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence by way of Synecdoche, New York. As with his previous collaborations with Knightley on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, all technical details are exquisitely rendered, from Sarah Greenwood’s production design, to Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous lens, to Jacqueline Durran’s sartorial excesses. The sound recording complements the score, which is almost continuously played and rendered beautifully by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli. As with Atonement, sound plays an important role in isolating and heightening for emphasis in seemingly benign but effective manners.

Treatment of a revered literary classic is not, as a matter of due course, without its faults. It is a daunting task to condense a 900-page text that sometimes moves at a glacial pace into a film that seems all too short. Another fault is that Karenin has been homogenized in this version, with his misogyny (or is that misanthropy, given how self-contained he is) removed almost entirely from the film. This oversight should not, however, be attributed to Mr. Law. It makes Anna’s betrayal somewhat baffling and driven not by a need for escape or loathing, but a moment of uncontrolled passion run amok. The film’s numerous players are not well-established as characters on their own, and are more often signified by little traits and virtues. Nevertheless, the film’s bravura acting, inventive but elegant script, and technical excellence more than make up for the film’s shortcomings.

Anna Karenina opened in the United Kingdom in September, following a high-profile opening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is now playing in select cities throughout Europe and North America.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Open Letter: Why Eduard Khil’s “Trololo” Should Be the Christmas #1

Every so often, a wondrous Internet meme of a non-lexical, nonsense song becomes earworm. A prime example is Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol”, a gibberish tune that topped the Italian charts in 1972 and has garnered millions of views on YouTube. That was my nonsensical pop music obsession of 2011. For 2012, there is no better candidate than Russian crooner Eduard Khil’s “Trololo”.

Initially titled “Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой”, the late Khil’s non-lexical Soviet pop sensation gained notoriety when it became an Internet meme in 2009. The title translated into English means “I Am Glad, ‘Cause I’m Finally Going Home”. How it came to become known as “Trololo” was because of the way it sounds. Here’s what the original sounds like:

Note that the song has, at the time of this writing, fifteen million views to date.

It garnered a minor cult following, including a joke on Family Guy:

There’s even a continuous ten-hour – yes, ten hour – loop of the song in a single YouTube clip, which you can see here:

It is in fact the only song by Khil available for purchase at the (non-Russian / Eastern European) iTunes store, where for 99 cents once can have the pleasure of listening to this musical nonsense nonstop.
We are about six weeks out from the infamous chase for the Christmas Number One on the UK music charts. Past winners of this title include vaunted pop classics by Paul McCartney, the Spice Girls, Whitney Houston and Pink Floyd. For those readers unfamiliar with the concept, this is a cultural phenomenon in Britain, a time when a mad crush of artists releases Christmas-themed songs and sing-song-y power ballads in a bid to see who will end up on top of the musical pile during the biggest sales period in the music industry for the entire year. Only sales in the week leading immediately up to Christmas Day counted towards the total, so timing is crucial.

In the last decade, the Christmas Number One single has been dominated by reality singing competition winners, such as Girls Aloud (who saw “Sound of the Underground” launch their successful career in 2002), Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis. There have on occasion been songs that were released as explicit cash grabs that have nothing to do with the holiday, such as the Teletubbies’ theme song and Bob the Builder, some of which top the chart but often came up just short. Then there was the successful 2009 Facebook-enhanced campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s anything-but-Christmas-y “Killing in the Name” to the top, which was started as a joke to counter the commerciality of the whole enterprise but actually became the Christmas Number One (I may or may not have purchased a copy).

True to the whole enterprise, there’s a huge Novelty Factor. Like comically ironic candidates like Rage Against the Machine and the insipid Teletubbies theme song (which was an unconsciously ironic choice), it’s the idea of taking the piss out of the whole occasion, with its seriousness and sentimentality, that makes it such a great idea.

It kinda sounds like a Christmas song. Sing “Trololo lolo” and what does it sound like? “Falalalala”. Reader, the gibberish rhythm makes it, combined with the instrumentation, almost sound like a forgotten Christmas classic, complete with orchestral sweep and chimes that make this sound like a Russian Bing Crosby. Okay maybe not that far, but it’s a musical facsimile, nyet?

It would be really, really funny. Having seen the Christmas Number One parody storyline in Love, Actually many, many times, I have been waiting for a blatant attempt at the coveted title with a song that mocks the insincere warbling of pretty young pop stars. Plus, an added bonus would be that the idea of having this top the chart would make musical executives rip out their hair in frustration. Can you see Simon Cowell having a fit that a decades-old record beats out his latest X-Factor investment, the one that was going to buy him a private island next to Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s?

Universal appeal. It’s the kind of “universal” record that the record companies try to get to appeal to everyone with the Christmas Number One releases. While the Spice Girls had three back-to-back-to-back titles from 1996 to 1998, non-English speakers would not be able to fully appreciate their singles. “Trololo”, however, is perfect in that anyone anywhere can sing along and enjoy it. Plus, it offends absolutely nobody (except aforementioned record company executives) and language is not a factor. You could play this to anyone of any race, age, religion, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity and they would get it. I always wondered: in that old 1972 commercial “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, what song would the singer like to teach to sing? It sure isn’t Michael Jackson or “Express Yourself”, because it’d be too tough with the language barrier. Just throw “Trololo” on and have everyone sing, and you could bring about world peace. Heck, for those opposed to pop music as being “too westernized”, let me remind you: this is a pop record from Soviet Russia. (This also explains Eurovision.)

If you can buy “Gangnam Style”, you can buy this as your next earworm. Self-explanatory.

So if you’d like to teach the world to sing, have a laugh and get a perfect score at karaoke while getting caned at your parents’ place, get “Trololo” to the Christmas Number One! And remember: you can only buy it during the week leading up to Christmas in the UK, so that the sales count.

With thanks to our friends at Gay French Riviera for the tip!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: on Michael Haneke’s “Amour”

“Dance me to the end of love” – Madeleine Peyroux

What happens when happily ever after ends? Michael Haneke, the distinguished Austrian filmmaker whose credits include realist horror stories such as Funny Games, Caché and the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon, makes a radical departure from his usual oeuvre to answer the question.

Right off the bat, cineastes note that this film’s subject matter is not something expected of the director. His films appear at first blush to have an accessible theme, but are often about something else altogether. His Caché started off with a couple attempting to find out who’s been sending them videotapes of themselves carrying on in their daily lives, but is a meditation on the legacy of the Franco-Algerian War. La Pianiste appears to be about a forbidden sexual affair, but actually explores misanthropy and sexual alienation. And The White Ribbon might seem like a riff on Children of the Corn, but things take a more darkly realistic turn when you realize this was in the years just before WWI and who the young citizens of that small German grew up to be in the 1930s … and into this mix comes Amour.

Set in contemporary Paris, we meet an elegant retired couple in their 80s who were once great piano teachers. They attend recitals, they debate interpretations and they mentor dazzling pianists who still look to them for their opinions on the latest attempt at perfecting Handel’s Sarabande. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) now live in an elegant Parisian apartment, enjoying their retirement. One day, Anne has a stroke at breakfast, but doesn’t know it. A series of increasingly debilitating strokes weaken her and rob her of her motor coordination, until she is all but confined to her bed and barely able to receive the occasional visitor. Their estranged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) drops by every once in awhile to express her annoyance at their care of treatment plan, and is exasperated by Georges’s measures to prevent her from even seeing her mother in such a state. Georges, suspicious of nursing homes, refuses to let Anne be looked after outside the apartment: soon, we notice that we haven’t left the apartment, either.

If this story sounds familiar, it is thematically similar to Sarah Polley’s acclaimed 2007 film Away From Her, which explores a husband watching helplessly as his wife drifts away into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Unlike Polley’s film, however, Haneke’s story doesn’t take place in a nursing home, and instead explores the ever-increasing, possibly inescapable indignities that arrive in old age. Anne falls out of bed in an attempt to be mobile. An unfeeling home-care nurse treats her roughly and, when fired by Georges, gives him a terse “go fuck yourself, you dirty old man”. Eventually, pained by her inability to express herself through music any longer, Anne orders Georges to stop playing recordings of their favourite piano pieces. All that is left is the couple, the silence, and the long torturous wait for The End. And in the end, is that all there is? Is this what happens at the end of love? Haneke posits that the title is a bitter test at the end of a long and happy marriage, as if the universe tauntingly asks, “do you love your spouse this much?”

Haneke, with the Palme d'Or, Cannes 2012
I was reminded recently of the beloved American sitcom The Golden Girls, a long-running smash about four senior women living in a shared Miami home, enjoying life to the hilt. The gut-busting laughter in that show was always informed by the ever-present specter of death looming about, and how the women respond to changing times and attitudes with perspective and good humour. The show regularly made fun of Alzheimer’s and did not shy away from jokes about adult diapers. Its insight was informed by the idea of a blended biological and adopted family that kept the demons at bay, even in the face of impending mortality. Georges and Anne, however, have all but locked themselves into their well-appointed home that serves as a de facto sarcophagus. Haneke’s vision is grim and sobering.

This is not, however, a damnation of Amour. On the contrary, it is one of the most penetrating and emotionally devastating films in recent years. Trintignant, the handsome 1960s leading man of A Man and a Woman and the great Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Rouge, came out of retirement to play Georges. His quiet dignity must be enough for two, as he hides his suffering in plain sight of his wife while she is betrayed by the confines of her now-feeble body. Riva, the ravishing star of Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, bottles the last of Anne’s great beauty and cages it within the prison of her mind, looking out onto Georges from within. It’s as if she were suffering death by a thousand cuts, all of them bleeding internally and, most poisonously, emotionally. Providing able support is another French acting national treasure, Huppert, packing her brief appearances here memorably with years of untold frustration. She’s long past the point in life where she knows better than her parents, but helplessly finding their situation increasingly untenable. That Haneke’s story was strong enough to draw two top-drawer veterans out of hibernation and one of the country’s preeminent stars proves that it is a worthy project of the highest order. As he gives the story the gravity it deserves, these three inhabit their performances with nuance and skill that could only have been gained through experience, and cannot be taught in acting class.

While I have painted a story about mortality and decay, I must emphasize that this is a film that fully embodies its title. Haneke’s film says that love reaches beyond platitudes, song and passion, well into the unknown and emphasizes “for worse”, whatever that might be. It is at times unbearably painful. Those who only fathom true cinematic romance in vampire movies and that “notebook” will not be prepared for what lies beyond fantasy and the promise of eternal youth, and posits that only the eternal aspect of love survives, long after the point of no return.

Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been a sensation at film festivals the world over and is the Austrian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (which I predict it will likely win, or be at least nominated). I would argue that all three performers – Trintignant, Riva and Huppert – also deserve nominations for their challenging work. Amour has been opening slowly throughout Europe, and is set for limited release in North America on December 19, 2012. It will be one of the most haunting films on pure, unadulterated love you will ever see.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The German Opera Project: “Wagner’s Dream” (VIFF 2012)

It’s nice to know that in parts of North America, high culture can still be a big deal. In the fall of 2010, New York was in a furor when the legendary Metropolitan Opera debuted Robert LePage’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring das Nibelungen. Opening night drew out high society, in addition to the notorious “Ring nuts”, and luminaries such as André Leon Talley attended. Outside Lincoln Center, hundreds sat on plastic chairs in the rain to watch the opening performance for free in as it was projected on giant screens, which was also simulcast in Times Square. Despite being so close to the Jersey “shore”, high culture can still command an audience.

The production of the most noteworthy Ring Cycle in recent years is the subject of Wagner’s Dream. Directed by noted Quebecois stage and film director Robert LePage, the massive undertaking involved a 90,000 pound (45 ton) stage, hydraulics, zip lines, a frequent fear that the stage would injure the performers, and assembled talent such as famed conductor James Levine. Director Susan Froemke had free rein to follow every aspect of the production, much like last year’s little-seen Wagner documentary The Singing City, a document on the staging of Parsifal in Stuttgart at around the same time.

LePage is known for unconventional productions. He staged Peter Gabriel’s masterful Secret World Tour from 1994, made the award-winning film Le Confessionnel in 1995, directed numerous operas and oversaw the Cirque du Soleil shows Ka and Totem. The Met had wanted to instill new life into a shrinking subscriber base as opera was becoming more expensive, and their prior productions had not been well-received. A production of the Ring Cycle in LA in the spring of 2010 cost an astounding $31 million and failed to turn a profit, not to mention having been criticized for its avant-garde staging, and with lawsuits stemming from workplace injuries. Taking a chance on LePage meant they wanted something fresh and exciting, and potentially ground-breaking. And they got it in spades.

The Rhine maidens, suspended in performance
LePage’s stage for the Met’s Ring Cycle consisted of one giant piece. It is a set of overwhelmingly large planks spinning 360 degrees on a long rod that ran the length of the stage. The planks moved independently of each other and, with the right lighting, were able to stand in for the River Rhine, the forests, the great palace of Valhalla, underworld caves and all manner of hinterlands in between. The Rhine maidens were lifted on harnesses and sang the challenging libretto while suspended in mid-air, adjusting so that the safety wear did not prevent their diaphragms from being able to fully project. We see the initial rehearsals where the sopranos worked with technicians to ensure that they were positioned so that they could sing, and learning how not to get caught in the set or plunge below should a harness snap. (And you thought you had occupational hazards.)

Voigt, as Brunnhilde 
We follow LePage and other production heads as they negotiate the set and reassure the performers that they will be safe. We meet charming Deborah Voigt, the dazzling soprano who was famously dismissed from a 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House for being too fat for the title role, as she prepares mightily, only to suffer an embarrassing fall on the set on opening night of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde is considered the ultimate test for sopranos and for many is the role of a lifetime. We also learn that famed tenor Gary Lehrman bowed out of the production four days before opening night of Siegfried and was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris on short notice. And then there is the sudden exit of conductor James Levine due to ongoing health issues. On top of this, that darn stage appears to have a mind of its own and continues to be a potential safety hazard.

Nevertheless, Froemke’s assured hand as a director ensures that we see the top players in the industry work their way through the difficult material, breathing new life and vision into the work. This is a film not just for Ring nuts or classical music lovers, it is an accessible story of collaboration on a project everyone believes in. You will not find any diva tantrums, All About Eve-style backstage back-stabbing or petty squabbles here. We also see the perspective of the New York Wagner Society, who traverse the world seeing different versions of the Ring Cycle and warn the opera directors that the production should not overwhelm or get in the way of the score. An usher tells us that purists want to see the same play performed in the same way, time after time, without deviation or. That Froemke’s camera is able to get behind the scenes and capture the perspective of the vanguard who is the gatekeeper of the canonical work shows that she understands the cultural value and interest in getting the Ring Cycle done just right. (Those purists would no doubt have hated last year’s San Francisco production, which combined industrial art deco production design with Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe.) They all know they’re embarking on a daunting and slightly mad venture, but everyone respects the journey and take it seriously.

Wagner’s original composition in the 1870s could not have been staged the way he wanted it, and he expressed unhappiness with the original production at Bayreuth, declaring “next year we’ll do it differently”. In an age when technology has finally caught up with the infinity of imagination, LePage was able to realize Wagner’s dream.

Wagner’s Dream played at the Vancouver International Film Festival and enjoyed a successful art house run in Los Angeles and New York. The entire Metropolitan 2010-2012 Ring Cycle played on PBS and screened in cinemas in HD. For more information on Metropolitan Opera productions in HD, head over to their site.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

VIFF 2012: “A Royal Affair”

I love palace intrigue. If the naughty goings-on of Prince Harry this summer in Las Vegas were any indication, so does the rest of the free world. We enthrall ourselves to the naughty happenings of royalty, going back to the age of the Roman Empire. Even as print is a dying medium, it still makes great copy in our era, especially if we can screen-cap, Tweet, Facebook-update (is this a verb now?) eyewitness accounts in real time. Into this state of affairs comes an excellent new film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Nikolaj Arcel’s Danish costume drama A Royal Affair (original title: En kongelig affære). 

This Affair is set in Copenhagen and continental Europe during the 1760s and 1770s. Young Princess Caroline of England (luminous newcomer Alicia Vikander, who also plays Kitty in the much-anticipated new version of Anna Karenina) is married off for political reasons to King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard). Christian is a poorly educated, foppish dilettante who the entire court believes to be mad. He has frequent outbursts that include announcements at dinner to the entire court of when he intends to sleep with his wife. Once he has tired of her and she has produced an heir, he gives himself over to every vice possible and frequents brothels, oblivious to public opinion and the scandal sheets. It is believed in a number of historical biographies, as well as in this film, that he suffered from an undiagnosed medical condition that may have been schizophrenia. (One doctor’s prognosis is that his condition was brought about by excessive masturbation.) In any event, the ruling powers make the disinterested king sign off laws, orders and decrees that are to their advantage. It suits them that the king is perceived to be a madman.

Into this unhappy royal marriage comes Dr. Johann Struensee (a quietly smoldering Mads Mikkelsen). Despite being the son of a prominent conservative minister, Struensee is a man of reason and science, not of faith. Appointed royal physician, he is also the secret author of some “subversive” writings proposing such radical ideas as abolishment of serfdom and peasantry, enforced inoculation, and other reforms that were counterintuitive to the nobility’s interest. Struensee and Caroline bond over their mutual frustration with Christian’s infidelity, their belief that nobility abuse of the masses should end, and an attraction borne out of loneliness and a meeting of the minds. Caroline’s discovery of Rousseau’s dangerous philosophical treatises on the new social contract in Struensee’s library appears to seal the deal.

Struensee soon proves himself to be an able and astute observer of what Denmark needs to reform. Eventually, and much to the consternation of vengeful nobles, he persuades Christian to dissolve the state council and together they form a ruling class of two. This true story takes place in the Age of Enlightenment, which is the real catalyst of progress. Struensee and Christian introduce ideas radical to the age, such as lifting the ban on state censorship, greater access to health care, the abolition of serfdom, and additional reforms that promise to deliver Denmark into an Enlightened and progressive state. The nobility are put out by these changes and quietly sharpen their knives, waiting for some salacious piece of innuendo with which to remove Struensee. In one hilarious example of reform, Christian descries the lack of proper sanitation in the city and declares a “war on shit” in which he triples the number of waste collectors. There’s a line from Hamlet that is brilliantly used here. (You know which one it is.)

The film doesn’t hesitate to put the king, his queen and his doctor on morally ambiguous ground. Struensee helps alleviate the king’s condition as best he can and encourages him to become a truly groundbreaking, fair-minded ruler, but he also sleeps with his wife and is a political radical (at least he was for the times). Morality and ethics aren’t applied in broad unambiguous stripes here, making even the exemplary Struensee an antihero at best. Not even King Christian is a devil, he’s simply so overwhelmed at his lot in life that he holds himself captive to his most base desires at the sake of his own dignity.

It is a testament to Følsgaard’s work that what could have been a caricature is instead a measured study of a man trapped by the confines of his mental and emotional issues, trapped within his body without a prognosis for his various maladies. They say comedy is harder to play than drama, but arguably the greatest challenge is doing both in the same performance to develop narrative arc and character, subtly and without exaggeration. It is possibly the best interpretation of mad royalty since Nigel Hawthorne’s master class in The Madness of King George. The delicate balance of humour and pathos earned Følsgaard Best Actor honours at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. He should look forward to receiving further recognition.

Recognition should also be given to Vikander for her portrait of a queen desperately locked in a life of unhappiness, knowing she is a laughingstock for marrying a madman. She exudes intellect that thinly veils a repressed sensuality. She successfully makes you believe that the Queen never fell in love until after her marriage. Mikkelson, as Struensee, is on a roll this year. He pairs quietly intense work here with his soul-destroying performance in The Hunt, for which he won one of the other major film festival acting prizes (Cannes). Mikkelson will soon star as the new Dr. Lecter in the forthcoming television series Hannibal. The trio constitute a locked-and-loaded triangle in which there’s no one to root for entirely, but you just wish them all well despite the cruelty of time and circumstance.

A Royal Affair is the Danish official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is currently playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival and is scheduled for limited release in North American beginning on November 9, 2012.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

TV Review: “The Song of Lunch”

The title gives it away, even though it’s hiding in plain sight. While etymologically it signifies nothing, it reveals that the BBC production The Song of Lunch is styled after the mock heroic narrative poem conventions popular in the Regency Period. In particular, the title hearkens back to Alexander Pope’s epic poem The Rape of the Lock, a seriocomic masterpiece that blows the cutting of a lock of hair out of proportion. In other words, it is a perfect storm in a teacup.

And what a storm is brewing in the glasses served at The Song of Lunch. This is a dramatization of a contemporary narrative poem by Christopher Reid. He (Alan Rickman) once had a passionate affair with her (Emma Thompson). She moved away long ago to marry a successful novelist in Paris, while he has an editorial job he despises. The funereal volume of poems he composed based on her departure went out of print, “creeping into triple digits” in terms of its pitiful sales. This is their first meeting in fifteen years, at a restaurant that he heavily criticizes but also cherishes because they both shared happy memories there: it was their place. Directed by Niall McCormick, the film runs an economical 48 minutes. Little actual dialogue is spoken, as the lunch is almost narrated entirely by him. He still aches for her, as the production flashes back to their intense lovemaking, while resenting her choice to leave him behind.

The inner monologue he intones deliciously elevates the exercise of mastication to Herculean heights. The ordering of the meals from both he and she, informed by feeling and recognition of old patterns, invokes different reactions from the same waiter and reveals calculated premeditation usually reserved for warfare. (Reid would not be above assigning similarly heavy significance to the arrangement of forks, at least for this occasion.) No drop of wine falls without threatening to echo across the universe, magnifying its terrifyingly insignificant significance to shake the heavens. To give you a better flavor of it, here is the opening of the text:

It’s an ordinary day
in a publishing house

of ill repute.
Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy
and writing-course prose.
Abracadabra, kick it up the arse -
and out it goes
to be Book of the Week
or some other bollocks.
What a fraud. What a farce.
And tomorrow: who knows
which of our geniuses
will escape from the zoo
and head straight for us
with a new masterpiece
lifeless in his jaws.

Reader, you may have noticed that neither character is named, thereby throwing the drama into sharp relief. Not only are the acts and omissions of these two people of nominal interest other than to themselves (he arguably more than she), but they are also greatly exaggerated. It should surprise no one that his hateful volume of regret features an Orpheus and Eurydice analogy elevated to absurd dimension. Like the mock heroic narrative poem tradition, Reid blatantly and deliberately flaunts the narrative excesses to grotesque grandeur, like a Grand Guignol of emotions dancing on the frays of his last nerve.

Although he is the orator of these proceedings, it should be no surprise that she has her own perception of how they once were. As the wine flows and he polishes off the first bottle, she presents her own view of their relationship and rips his analogy apart, then rebuilds it using new signifiers to reflect his own character – the one he cannot or refuses to accept – back onto him. The Song of Lunch, for its deadly hilarious and delectable turns of phrase, also harbors buried anguish, stuffed away in the deepest chambers of the soul, slouching forth to be borne again.  At its heart, the poem says that as grander emotions like love, lust and anger subsides, they are replaced by disappointment. It’s the ultimate sign that one is getting older when once-all-consuming passions surrender to resignation and regret. At one point, there is no longer any energy to be angry, only the gradual acceptance that a Henry James character once uttered in a devastating cri de couer, “We can never again be what we once were!”

The Song of Lunch received scant attention in North America until Emma Thompson received a surprise Emmy nomination for Best Actress this summer. It is so little-seen that neither its IMDB nor its Rotten Tomatoes pages have any memorable quotes submitted for it. The fact that such a symphony of the English language is not enshrined anywhere on the Internet for the aliens to find, but where reality show sound bites run unabated, is a crying shame.

If, after a summer of junk culture you crave a meal of substantive art, tuck into The Song of Lunch.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Summer Song 2012: Loreen’s “Euphoria”

Last year, I wrote about the importance of the summer song. Identifying a song with the summertime is part of growing up and follows us into adulthood. Hearing that one jam brings back specific memories of a time, a place, a person. You can taste, see, hear and almost feel everything around you in that place and time just by a couple of bars of that song. Think of what happens whenever you hear any of the following summer hits and see if they conjure memories: 

1986: “Venus” by Bananarama
1987: “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston
1991: “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” by Bryan Adams
1996: “Killing Me Softly” by Fugees
1998: “Ray of Light” by Madonna
1999: “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys
2002: “ Complicated” by Avril Lavigne
2003:  “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé
2007: "Umbrella" by Rihanna
2008: “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay
2011: “The Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga

One cannot predict what makes a summer jam or what will stick in the memory long after you pack away the beach umbrellas for the winter. But my choice for one of this year’s summer jams is a rarity, as it could also be crossover hit from the Eurovision Song Contest: Loreen’s “Euphoria”.

Originally a contestant on the Swedish version of Pop Idol in 2004, Loreen was born Loren Talhaoui and went on to forge a successful career as a TV presenter without releasing a proper music album. That’s about to change, as her Swedish chart-topper “Euphoria” won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest ahead of the heavily-favoured novelty track by the Buranova Babushkas.

Within hours of winning, the song blasted to the top of the UK iTunes chart. Within a week, it had topped over a dozen other music charts across Europe and was poised to make its mark on the official UK chart in the top five, giving Loreen an instant blockbuster smash single. That’s not surprising given that “Euphoria” received first-place votes from a record 18 of 42 voting countries in the contest, and only two of the 40 did not award it any points at all (and that’s only because Sweden couldn’t vote for itself).

And remember what other Swedish Eurovision champion went on to conquer worldwide charts? A little group known as ABBA, in 1974, with “Waterloo”.

Let’s examine what’s so great about “Euphoria”. It’s a trance-inspired dance track that, at first blush, sounds like just like everything else in vogue on contemporary hit radio. But listen again a little more closely, and you can see that it’s constructed so that it opens with minimal instrumentation to showcase Loreen’s vocals. She’s quietly whispering, questioning why a simple moment of joy is fleeting. But as the chorus builds, the beats kick in and the full vibrato of her glorious voice comes through loud and clear. There is no guest rap, no name-checking, no self-referencing. There is only a voice and a beat.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Master Class: Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

I live in a rainy city. Even today, after a week of perfect sun that seemed to serve as a prelude to summer, the skies opened and I found myself digging out my rain coat again. That’s what happens when you live in a port city. And with the closure of this year’s Cannes Film Festival on my mind, with a French film victorious, there was no better time to see Jacques Demy’s classic 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

On the surface, this seemed like a simple love story when I first saw it years ago. The young man, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is in love with 17-year-old Genevieve (the luminous living legend Catherine Deneuve, in her breakthrough role). He’s a mechanic who dreams of opening his own garage. She works for her mother in the town’s only umbrella boutique, which is on the verge of financial ruin. They talk of marriage, although her mother disapproves (he has only a sickly godmother, thus completing the familial economics of the story). Figurative dark clouds appear overhead in addition to the rains: the Algerian War is raging several hundred miles away, and he must serve. “I will wait for you”, she sings to him, repeating “je t’aimes, je t’aime, je t’aimes” repeatedly as his train takes him away. While Guy’s away, a wealthy jeweler has his eye on Catherine, and the separation and other circumstances conspire to keep the young lovers away for good. I haven’t even mentioned that the whole has nary a line of spoken dialogue, as everything is sung beginning to end, and it finishes in a lightning-fast 90 minutes.
Few films dared, even musical ones, to become full-scale operettas where every word was expressed in song. Even the most famous of musicals had great dialogue and witty exchanges. Not so in Demy’s enduring love story. Demy had the incredulous notion that the whole thing would be sung, and he was fortunate to find a supportive producer who saw his vision completed. The film was a smash in Paris, claimed the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and proceeded to storm the world, culminating in global success, a Grammy nomination for the soundtrack, several Academy Award nominations and an invitation for Demy to live and work in the United States, which he happily accepted. And yet Cherbourg remains his most revered masterwork. Why is this?

The secret lies in the film’s simple structure: a boy and a girl in love, torn apart by life circumstances and choices, but not by plot machinations or something as convenient as deus ex machina. When Demy collaborated with Michel Legrand for the film’s now-famed score, they stuck so faithfully to the idea of a three-hanky-weeper that they wrote at which points in the film each of the three figurative hankies should actually be taken out. The operetta format elevates how we see and experience young love for the first time, when everything in life tastes, smells, feels and sounds that much better. There is nothing else in the world but love. Emotions are heightened and never stop, even when the emotions swell and contract, for better or for worse, and Demy understands this. The music, while constant, doesn’t come at your relentlessly. Instead, it is as gentle as the tide, ebbing and flowing, but it never stops. It may have a sweeping orchestral suite throughout, but it’s also heavily jazz-influenced. Regardless, the two genres make compliment each other seamlessly. This is a seemingly small charmer of a film that grows into a grand masterpiece and reminds you of how you felt in that first brush of true love, and how heartbreaking it is when it doesn’t work out. The film’s coda, which I won’t give away, gives closure, is almost unbearably cruel, but also accepting of the hard choices we make in life, without judgment.

Cherbourg was filmed in eye-popping gorgeous colour schemes. The town feels just a bit more lived-in than most film musicals of the era. You could sense that people actually lived there and that it wasn’t just a film set. Demy knows that such a simple touch made the film connect that much more to the audience: this could happen to even the most uncomplicated people you know, and it’s a complete heartbreaker when life intrudes. There’s an expression that God likes having a laugh when people make plans for the future. While religion doesn’t figure heavily in Cherbourg, one is reminded that compromise and making do are what shapes our experiences and makes us into the people we are. The film’s final scene, when Guy and Genevieve meet under circumstances more complicated than they are, is a coup de grace of such delicate balance that if the emotions were glass, they’d be smashed to smithereens.

Who says life is simple? It’s not, and you must be prepared for any circumstance. That’s what life in Cherbourg is like, just as it is in my city. In both cases, carry an umbrella, just in case. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available in glorious DVD and Blu-Ray. Watch it with a box of Kleenex. This is one weeper that earns its tears honestly.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On the Telly: “The Office”

It hurt me today to find out that my beloved The Office has received a record lowrating. This was the lowest for the American version of the series since its premiere in the spring of 2005.

The history of NBC’s The Office was not a smooth one in its inception. Initial critical reception was generally favourable, but also cool, with many noting its inferiority to the original British series starring Ricky Gervais (admittedly I was not a stark raving fan of it but that’s another blog post). The ratings were generally low-rated, but enough for NBC to continue with the series. Clearly they saw more potential in it than in the wildly misbegotten 2003 version of Coupling, which lasted exactly two terrible episodes. The cast developed and grew into an ensemble, headed by the brilliant Steve Carrell as Michael Scott. The lynchpin of the series was his continually embarrassing efforts to befriend the staff by trying too hard. In other words, perpetual social experimentation and wild failure was the engine of what drove the show, and how the staffers reacted to it. By the time Carrell left for his successful movie career in 2011, having led the cast for seven years and earning numerous honours including a Golden Globe and SAG Award, and half a dozen Emmy nominations, the show had become a respectable long-running hit. The question was: would the series survive, let alone thrive, without him?

New boss: Catherine Tate
The answer appears to be a hesitant “no”, at least for the moment. There has been a tortured attempt in the show’s narrative to fill the gap left by Carrell. He may have been incurably dorky, but he also drew the entire staff together and they came to care for him in the end. The humanity was what was missing from the original Gervais version of The Office in Britain. For Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch, the quest to fill the void Michael left behind mirrored his actor’s departure. Michael was Carrell’s signature role, and the problem was like any good pen, he left an indelible mark that could not be erased and would always be woven into the show.

Let’s liken it to what happened with Diana Ross when she left the Supremes. Without their biggest star, the one who defined the group, the effect was that the air was let out of the room. The Supremes carried on and did respectably, but they were never quite the same no matter how talented the members were who remained. Carrell’s from The Office departure echoes similarly, even a year later. The cast still has moments of brilliance and the ensemble plays well with one another, but the dynamic has changed radically. Sure, there’s great promise in British transplant Nellie as the by turns vicious and loopy new manager, played brilliantly by Catherine Tate in a turn balancing deft comic timing with a hint of dark turmoil, but she will need another year to make the show her own and to erase Carrell’s influence.

Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling)
It’s a bit disheartening that the show seems to be on its last legs. Longtime showrunner Paul Liberstein, who plays the harangued human resources manager Toby, has stepped down and NBC is advertising for a new showrunner. Mindy Kaling, fresh off the success of her terrific comic memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, is filming a pilot that hopefully gives us more of an opportunity to see this refreshingly bubbly actress on a regular basis. And Rainn Wilson has been offered a spin-off with his one-of-a-kind character Dwight Schrute, in a backdoors pilot that will be aired sometime within the next year. (I am looking very much forward to this project.)

Like every office after a major shift in management, The Office is still in a transition stage. What we need to determine is whether or not the company will survive the change and grow into a stronger whole, or be finished off for good. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sound Advice: on Shirley Bassey’s “Get the Party Started”

For those younger readers out there, the name Shirley Bassey doesn’t ring much of a bell. However, if I were to play you her two signature tunes from the James Bond films – “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” – you will hear that voice and know that singer, for no one else can utter that voice that suggests images of jewels slinking their way seductively out of a velvet pouch.

Having been absent from the music scene since her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Dame Shirley spent much of the 1980s and 1990s focusing on charity work and undoubtedly living off the residual income from her immortal recordings. Then, in 2006, she recorded a big, brassy version of P!nk’s smash record “Get the Party Started” for a Marks & Spencer commercial. It contains a slightly halted, almost spoken-word utterance of the opening verses before belting into a powerful crescendo.

Dame Shirley, eschewing the trend of aping youth in the name of commercial art (are you listening Madonna?), instead embraces her signature sound. The cover has big, sweeping brasses with a drum machine that grooves without wearying out the listener in a frantic attempt to party! Hard! Right! Now! The effect is a bold cover that can easily be remixed and made into a dance-club smash (if you want to party hard right now). It could be played as ambience at a more sophisticated lounge or social mixer. Or it could provide the perfect soundtrack to New York Fashion Week while models float about in the latest by Tom Ford or Mary Katrantzou. Although Bassey’s version of “Get the Party Started” doesn’t have the bouncy R&B-inflected youth pop of P!nk’s original smash, it does have what P!nk’s doesn’t have: a sense of occasion.

The popularity of Dame Shirley’s recording lead to the release of a 2007 cover album bearing the same name. To round out the album and flesh out its theme, the recording is big on interpolating brass and drum machine, giving the album grandeur and sonic sweep worthy of a dame. While not every song pops the way her cover of “Get the Party Started” does, there’s plenty to accompany your evening. The list of covers includes a saucy “Big Spender”, a worthy interpretation of Grace Jones’s “Slave to the Rhythm”, a suitably earth-shattering “I (Who Have Nothing)” and yes, another Bond cover, “You Only Live Twice”. The album, in a sign that music consumers still have good taste, became a Top Ten hit in the U.K. This was when she was 70(!!) years old, looking and sounding as beautiful and regal as the day she first blasted her way onto the airwaves nearly half a decade earlier.

And laced through the recording is that big, magnificent voice. Yes, Dame Shirley is still a belter and can indeed get your party started, whatever the occasion. There is nothing like a Dame.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Judging from the poster and title, Jiro Dreams of Sushi sounds and looks like a postmodern comedy directed by Michel Gondry. I immediately thought of Gondry’s 2006 film The Science of Sleep as a possible kindred spirit to Jiro, at least in theory. How wrong I was.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a snappy Japanese-language documentary about an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs a ten-seat restaurant hidden in the basement of a business building. It is close enough to access by metro and around the corner from the famed Printemps location in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district. The documentary is a paean to work and the love of it. We learn that Jiro was abandoned as a child and, having no formal education or means to access it, started working for survival at a young age. He has become a master sushi chef, evidenced by the fact that his little shop is the only one awarded three stars by the prestigious Michelin rankings. In case you’re wondering, a Michelin-rated three-star rating means that it is worth traveling to that country for the sole purpose of eating at that particular restaurant. And this tiny sushi bar – literally, it is just the bar with ten chairs – was chosen out of the literally millions of sushi restaurants in Japan.

Jiro is a workhorse, to put it mildly. He rises at 5 am and arrives at the famed Tsukiji fish market to ensure he gets the very best catch of the day for his customers. We are let in on some of the secrets to preparing and serving the best sushi (rice should be served at room temperature not cold; massaging the octopus for a good 45 minutes will ensure that your tako will have the perfect texture). The intense dedication comes at a hefty price, as menus are often chosen by the chefs based on the catch of the day and start at 30,000 yen a head (that’s $300 US), and reservations are taken a month in advance.

We learn that his sons have gone into the business as well, with the elder working directly for him and the younger having opened a chain in the upscale Roppongi Hills neighbourhood. We also learn that there are sacrifices to hard work, as Jiro often works from 5 am until well past 10 pm and admits that he missed most of his children’s formative years.

It’s a little odd that I’ve never seen a movie about sushi (I’m not counting Oldboy: fans will know why) and that, together with Sushi: the Global Catch, I’ve seen two of them in the space of six months. But such is the appetite for the food and its place in the global discussion on sustainability that Jiro and his sons worry about overfishing and overconsumption of seafood. The two films together would make a very informative double bill.

While Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not as whimsical as its subject sounds, it is also sincere and honest about the nature and love of work. Being a sushi chef is more than cutting up raw fish and putting them on plates served ice-cold. To master it, there lies a philosophy that whatever you serve, the next one will be better. This is an intimate documentary that is straightforward and, like last year’s masterful Bill Cunningham New York, shows the dignity and fun in working with something you love. (Take note that both Jiro and Bill Cunningham are working well into their 80s and show no signs of slowing down.)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently playing in limited theatres, and you can find out more about the restaurant here