Monthly Archives: September 2011

Drive (2011)

(In theaters, September 2011) Every so often, genre thriller fans are asked to confront moody art-house versions of familiar crime stories.  Here we have a stunt driver / mechanic moonlighting as a getaway driver.  He meets a single mother and her son; gets embroiled in a heist when her husband gets out of prison; is forced to defend himself once the heist turns bad and he ends up with a lot of money that other people have acquired in ways that would get everyone killed.  Having read (and re-read) James Sallis’ thin novel on which the film is based, I can say that the adaptation is both loose and faithful: The plot is there, the motivations are entirely different but the mood is just as laconic and borderline pretentious.  There are fewer details in the film about the protagonist’s life as a stuntman, but the details surrounding the main plot are far better developed (in particular “Irene”, much more fully rounded from the novel’s “Irena”).  Still, the film itself feels stuck in-between genre conventions and dramatic pretention: The languid pacing alone is a tough sell to thriller audiences: Drive often feels like lengthy silences loosely connected together and the editing seems happy to linger on characters as they stare wordlessly into space to the sound of eighties-inspired music.  Ryan Gosling’s nameless character is either a straightforward revenge-driven hero, or an enigma without dialogue; I had certainly imagined a scrappier protagonist from the novel.  Meanwhile, art-house audiences may not feel entirely with the Grand Theft Auto-inspired subject matter, or with the unnecessary flashes of extreme gore.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is far more interested in dramatic beats than action sequences, which gives a particular off-beat flavour to the film’s more intense moments: they likely won’t satisfy action junkies, but they do bring something unusual to the table in terms of visual presentation.  (The opening pre-credit sequence is remarkable.)  Los Angeles itself gets to shine either through glorious night-time helicopter shots, or through the presentation of seedy run-down apartments in which the characters live.  This kind of in-between location comes to define the rest of the picture as well, and if there’s enough interesting material in Drive to warrant a look for those who enjoy style clashes, the film itself may be a bit too self-involved to be fully successful.  Cut fifteen minutes of the film, and we’ll see again.

Filthy Lucre, Joseph Heath

Harper Collins, 2009, 338 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-395-6

Given the importance of money, it almost goes without saying that a good understanding of the world goes hand-in-hand with a good grasp of economics.  “Follow the Money” isn’t just good for crime thrillers: it’s a solid way to figure out what’s really happening around us.  Unfortunately, economics isn’t called the dismal science for nothing: often politicized into uselessness, the study of money has attracted, well… people with money, intent of using the results to further their political aims.  As a result, activists from the right and the left now come with preconceived notions about economics that are actively harming any rational policy discussions.

To truly understand economics, argues Joseph Heath in Filthy Lucre (subtitled, somewhat incompletely, as “Economics for people who hate capitalism”) we have to let go of a few myths, cherished preconceptions and long-held statements of faith about economics.  To this end, he presents and demolishes twelve fallacies about economics: six that are favoured from a right-wing perspective, and six that are usually held by the left.

Heath isn’t an economist; he’s a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and already well-known in Canada as one of the country’s most interesting intellectuals after a few well-received books such as The Efficient Society and The Rebel Sell.  He’s a skilled rhetorician, and Filthy Lucre is at its best when it starts poking at beliefs that have been ingrained in us through lazy consumption of political debates.  (His metaphors aren’t always convincing, but he can usually offer further sources for readers who would like a deeper understanding of his arguments.)

In the first half of the book, he demolishes a few right-wing fallacies: Libertarianism is the first target in explaining why capitalism isn’t natural.  In successive chapters, he argues that incentives aren’t all that matters, that competition isn’t always better, that taxes are usually at their optimal level, that international competitiveness isn’t required and that moral hazard doesn’t necessarily embed morality into economics.  Game theory figures heavily in his metaphors and readers are almost guaranteed to come away from this section with a better understanding of economics in general.

What’s more interesting, however, is the second section which takes aim at economic fallacies cherished by the kind of left-leaning readers most likely to pick up a book on “economics for people who hate capitalism”: Here, Heath serves some tough counter-examples to people who still believe that prices must be set by governments, that the pursuit of money is evil, that capitalism is doomed, that equal pay is an ideal, that all wealth accumulates to the top or that equality is more desirable than efficiency.  If the book’s first section is fun to read, this second half makes the book even better, because it forces equality-minded left-leaning readers to confront their own prejudices with colder facts and ponder the trade-offs required to get to their shiny progressive utopia.

Anyone who’s familiar with Heath’s previous work will find a continuity of argument in Filthy Lucre: Heath may be writing from a deep and self-acknowledged left-wing perspective, but he’s remarkably successful at explaining the status quo, its advantages over most alternatives and the wonders of steady incremental changes.  The book argues for a keener, more nuanced understanding of the current system before setting out to improve it, and it’s hard to argue with such even-handed reason.

After The Efficient Society and The Rebel Sell, Filthy Lucre also marks a third great popular book in a row for Heath.  If anyone has missed his work so far, don’t wait for another excuse: Read the books and wait for his next one –he deserves a spot on anyone’s must-read list.

Apollo 18 (2011)

(In theatres, September 2011)  As a certified space exploration geek, I have to admit that as much as I don’t like the conspiracy-mongering mockumentary intent of Apollo 18, the notion of a secret mission to the moon does hit a sweet spot somewhere in my brain.  I’m unaccountably fascinated by stories blending hard-SF with horror (see Event Horizon, Blood Moon, etc.) and Apollo 18 adds another layer of interest by choosing to show its story using found footage.  Unfortunately, interesting doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with good and as the film ended after merely 85 minutes, I felt as if I had spent more time second-guessing the director’s choices rather than enjoying the film itself.  The biggest problem, obviously, is the script: From the pedestrian lines of dialogue, the mortally slow first act, the lack of twists and turns (save for one unexpected lunar lander), ridiculous threat and a conclusion that ends like most found footage horror movies have done since The Blair Witch Project, this is a thin, weak and predictable film.  Even in terms of secret space program science-fiction, it has fewer good things running for it than the first ten minutes of Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (and I don’t praise the Transformers series lightly)  But even allowing for a script that’s more promising than well-executed, it’s really the film’s pseudo-documentary approach that kills it.  The opening and closing title cards are annoying in their insistence that What you saw was real (yeah, like anyone could miss a secret mission to the Moon), and the subjective-camera thing becomes a problem more than an advantage: It places a filter on the experience of the film that a more conventional direction would have eliminated.  (It doesn’t help that by the final five minutes, we’re seeing camera angles that can’t exist, and that the conclusion makes it impossible to answer the question “Where did they get the footage from?”)  So, yes, don’t be surprised to find yourself constantly wishing for the film to have been made another way.  It makes Apollo 18 a curiosity, perhaps even a marginal recommendation for SF/horror fans, but certainly not a good film for the ages.  Parts of it are ingenious, though, and there aren’t that many other films with a cast list of merely three people.

Contagion (2011)

(In theaters, September 2011) There are many things to admire about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but the one that sticks in mind is his attempt to tell a story about something that’s basically unstoryable.  Modern-day epidemics do not lend themselves to the kind of heroics best shown on-screen: They involve many people doing their job, they turn into public policy debates, they don’t spare the righteous or punish the guilty, they peter out rather than climax and they present a diffuse threat rather than a clear antagonist.  Faced with those constraints, most movies about epidemics crank it up to zombies (28 Days Later, etc), borrow from science-fiction (The Andromeda Strain), or can’t help but throw in car chases and explosions (Outbreak).  No such narrative sleigh-of-hand here, as Contagion keeps to a fairly realistic depiction of a massively contagious and highly deadly epidemic.  Hopping all around the globe, bringing together half a dozen narrative strands, Contagion adopts a quasi-documentary look without forgetting to indulge in the occasional spectacle of a world gone wrong.  It doesn’t take that many shots of people touching things to let the film unnerve viewers, and Soderbergh’s assured direction does the rest.  Among other not-so-subtle touches, he not only kills off two characters played by Oscar-winning actresses, but has a graphic autopsy scene featuring the head of one of them.  Much of the script feels reasonably credible, with enough technobabble to set the tone.  Of course, trying to tell an unstoryable story eventually takes its toll.  Not every subplot is equally compelling (The second half of Marion Cotillard’s trip to China feels dull, whereas Jude Law’s character is annoying enough to create resentment when he escapes death) and the third act gradually diffuses itself as the epidemic runs its course.  Soderbergh’s tendency to tell a story in selective bits and pieces can occasionally be frustrating, given the potential here for a slicker film.  (Although the anti-chronological coda is a nice ironic touch.)  But given the film’s success in so many areas, in telling a familiar story in a way that sticks closer to the real world, Contagion ends up being a modest success; it’s perhaps Soderbergh’s most accomplished melding of art-house instincts in the service of broadly popular entertainment.  Amusingly for a filmmaker who’s been known to push for day-and-date direct distribution, at a time where movie theater attendance is dropping and video stores are closing, there may be no better argument for internet streaming/downloading that seeing Contagion and indulging in a bit of paranoia at the thought of human contact.

Un Prophète (2009)

(On DVD, September 2011) A lengthy but rarely uninteresting sit at nearly two hours and a half, Un Prophète is essentially a look at the life of a young Arab man during his year-long incarceration in a French prison.  It plays out quite a bit more entertainingly that a simple statement of the premise will suggest, though: Within moments, our protagonist is manipulated by a bunch of Corsican prisonners into murdering an incarcerated witness, and the protection he earns in this fashion propels the rest of the action.  Part of the film’s pleasure is seeing the quasi-defenseless protagonist, ably played by Tahar Rahim, grow into a wheeler, schemer and eventually win over his opponents.  After a few disjointed minutes in which the quasi-documentary cinematography calls attention to itself, the film’s narrative arc progresses along nicely, adding and removing threats as it advances.  It makes for compelling viewing, especially as the film moves away from its initially bleak and uncompromising tone to a somewhat more hopeful conclusion.  Less happily, the film occasionally indulges into a bit of magical realism in which reality is bent to ghostly advice and artful foreshadowing (hence the title) –much hidden depth is suggested by the film’s artful flourishes, but it does take away from the more reality-based bulk of the film.  Still, that’s not enough to take away much of the impact of this big, full, engrossing film: Un prophète is a look at a reality most will hopefully never experience, but it’s also a terrific story about someone working with the cards he’s been given.  Most disturbing, perhaps, is the non-judgement of the camera –the criminal as a hero, obviously, with the disappearance of his ghostly conscience a minor loss when he manages to work the system to his end.  The final images of the film suggest that a happy life will never be possible, and that he will always be followed no matter how he tries to escape.  Deservedly nominated for an Oscar, Un Prophete offers a dazzling mix of allegory, thematic depth and pure old-fashioned storytelling.  It’s worth the sit.

Tropa de Elite [Elite Squad] (2007)

(On DVD, September 2011) It’s really unfair to compare Elite Squad to City of God, given the latter’s well-deserved reputation as one of the best films of its time.  But the comparisons go beyond the fact that both movie come from contemporary Brazil: Both of them, after all, have been written by the same screenwriter, and if City of God was more interested in the criminal and bystanders, Elite Squad takes a look at the elite police forces fighting to clean up the corrupted mess that is modern-day Rio de Janeiro.  But don’t think for a second that the focus on the police forces makes for a kinder, gentler film: Even the protagonist seldom hesitate to gun down suspects, torture persons of interest or indulge in a bit of gratuitous cruelty.  Unusually structured, the film is narrated by a retiring police officer as he tries to pick a successor from two promising, but uneven recruits.  Wagner Moura is sympathetic as the narrator, but it’s André Ramiro who captures the film with a performance that sees him go from a good-natured intellectual to a revenge-driven warrior.  The solid script may skip over some of the transitional states, but it opens with an effective bit of structure, and ends at the perfect moment.  The cinematography lushly captures the moden favelas, and a few action sequences help lift this dramatic thriller into more exciting territory without necessarily sacrificing the themes of the film to a purely action-driven film.  A pretty good example of why even populist filmgoers should pay attention to world cinema, Elite Squad is a fascinating look in a very different culture where crime and punishment play out differently.  It’s a damning indiction of police corruption and the endless cycle of violence that seems to grip the area, but mostly it’s an entertaining police drama with a heavy dose of moral relativism.  The picture never bother to punish transgressions, in part because it’s so difficult to see who never goes beyond moral decency.

Super Troopers (2001)

(On DVD, September 2011) I watched this while in the mood for some dumb silliness, and got what I wanted: Super Troopers’s big comic premise is to transpose frat-boy antics onto a police context: Bored patrolmen playing head games with motorists, dumb policemen flying off in a rage, duelling corps trying to one-up each other.  There really isn’t much more to this film.  On the other hand, well, it does manage to be sporadically funny … and ten years later, Super Troopers still live on in internet pop culture in a series of memes and in-jokes. (“meow”, “mother of god” and “enhance –just print it” are the three that come up from time to time)  Anything with even the slightest bit of pop-culture relevance after ten years is worth a quick look.  The Broken Lizard comedy troupe that conceived Super Troopers is uneven: writer/director Jay Chandrasekhar is very funny, but many of the other either struggle to make an impression, or make a negative one.  Production notes suggest that the budget of the film was ridiculously low, but it doesn’t show too much: while this is a low-budget film, its lack of funding doesn’t feel all that obtrusive.  Perhaps the best thing about Super Troopers is that, for all of its self-indulgence in showcasing a comedy group in a deliberately dumb setting, it’s decently structured and, as a result, survives without too much trouble even a decade later.  Small praise, but we can all remember far dumber comedies that are nigh-unwatchable even with the best viewers’ intentions.

Oldeuboi [Oldboy] (2003)

(On DVD, September 2011) I really should have seen Oldboy earlier: Not only had it gotten widespread praise everywhere I looked, but I should know more about a popular director like Park Chan-wook.  Oh well; there’s a time for everything, including watching Oldboy.  From the get-go, we’re in interesting territory.  Much like Quentin Tarantino, Chan-wook can’t help but play around with the grammar of cinema, and even the more familiar moments of the story have a cinephile kick to them.  Not that there are many familiar moments, given the unusual premise: A seemingly ordinary man is held prisoner in a room for fifteen years, then abruptly released and encouraged to seek vengeance.  The identity of the captor is a brief mystery as he quickly reveals himself to ask the hero to find out why he’s been held fifteen years.  It’s easy to see why Oldboy got so much praise, with its mysteries upon mysteries, with a stylish sense of storytelling and a conclusion that upends the vengeance motif.  Slickly executed and filled with odd little moments, this is a movie whose foreign origins make even better, as we’re plunged in contemporary South Korea for a thriller that would play just as effectively anywhere else.  If, at times, it’s hard to differentiate between cultural barriers and the film’s elliptical sense of storytelling, it wraps up decently and doesn’t leave too many loose ends lying around.  (On the other hand, the plot does get more and more far-fetched as it progresses, but given the premise, that’s to be expected.)  Oldboy does live up to its great reviews; don’t wait as long as I did to see it.

The Debt (2010)

(In theaters, September 2011) Fall is the season of the serious thriller, and it’s hard to get more serious than the drama-heavy The Debt, an English-language remake of an Israeli film that looks at the price of vengeance.  Here, the story hops between 1960s Berlin and the 1990s as three characters, then and now, deal with a botched mission in trying to bring back a war criminal to justice.  It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that the story of the 1960s as told by the 90s characters has a few serious gaps; it takes longer to understand that its conclusion is a lie and that the consequences of that lie are still very much in play thirty years later.  Directed without much levity, The Debt is good for a few suspense sequences, a look at a fallible Mossad and a structure that plays out over thirty years.  Helen Mirren makes for a capable senior secret agent, whereas Jessica Chastain ably plays her, thirty years earlier.  Otherwise, the film is unobjectionable: Solidly directed, competently acted and professionally executed, it’s a serious thriller that works better than most other suspense movies in theater.  Sadly, it doesn’t quite shine –for all of its potential in setting a story across two time periods, it sometimes feel as if The Debt is timid in bringing all of its threads together, or playing off the ironic possibilities of its bifurcated structure.  It’s not much of a criticism, but then again it’s hard to express exactly what’s missing when one feels that something is missing.  It may be better to rejoice in the return of the serious thriller after an empty summer.

Make’em Laugh, Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor

Twelve, 2008, 383 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-50531-4

Tie-in books don’t have a very good reputation: They’re often seen as schlocky derivative products, churned on tight deadlines and little inspiration by writers needing the money, the result selling on the basis of something else (“Seen the movie?  Buy the novelization!”).  But Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor’s Make’em Laugh is an entirely different kind of book.  It’s gorgeous, detailed and presents a compelling history of comedy in America.  Based on the 2009 PBS series of the same name, which attempted to describe the history of American comedy in six hour-long episodes, the book has the luxury of packing much more detail in nearly 400 superbly-designed pages.

Presented in oversized hardcover format, Make’em Laugh at first looks like a particularly thick coffee-table book filled with illustrations, a strong structure and short texts.  But look closer, because there is a lot of content here.  The book is divided in six sections meant to present an overview of the different kinds of comedy in the cultural American landscape: The Knockabouts (physical comedy); Satire and Parody; Smart Alecks and Wiseguys; Nerds, Jerks, Oddballs and Slackers; Bread-Winners and Homemakers; and, finally, The Groundbreakers.  Every section is introduced by a general essay, and then divided in a series of artist profiles, detailing the career, humor and influence of comedians ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Bill Maher.  The profiles take up from three to six pages, mixing a life narrative of the artist, best-known jokes and a generous number of photographs.  Additional material discusses various comedy venues such as radio, Catskills Mountain resorts, vaudeville and comedy albums.  You can certainly read Make’em Laugh as a coffee table book, dipping in and out of profiles as the day goes by, but it will take you a while.

At the end, though, Make’em Laugh offers a convincing overview of American comedy in the twentieth century.  Reading profile after profile, you get an impressive sense of some people’s careers (You mean that this George Burns is also that George Burns?!), learn fascinating historical trivial (Mel Brooks fought in World War 2?) and also, more importantly, get to understand the place of comedy in the development of American self-expression.  This never becomes more important than in discussing “The Groundbreakers” which, from Mae West to Lenny Bruce to Richard Prior to George Carlin, were often undistinguishable from civil rights activist and first-amendment warriors.

There’s also the sense that, by spanning the ages from vaudeville to the web, Make’em Laugh offers a few clues as to the development of pop-culture in the US during an entire century.  Reading accounts of Will Rogers or Bob Hope (among many others) is getting a glimpse in the cultural obsessions of a nation’s history, and some of the trappings of popular fame in the early twentieth century look suspiciously like the celebrity culture of today.

As good as Make’em Laugh can be, its reading experience can be improved by modern tools: Savvy readers will bring the book close to an internet-enabled device, and search YouTube for relevant clips as they come across mentions in the text.  You could also watch the original series but isn’t it more fun to go down the rabbit hole of funny video clips?

Now available on bookstores’ discount tables all around the continent, Make’em Laugh is a fine purchase for anyone even remotely interested in cultural history, comedy or simply an entertaining read.  The authors never forget to slip in representative jokes, and make their cultural history easy enough to read.  When you’re done with the book, leave it on your coffee table to share the fun with guests.

Flammen & Citronen [Flame & Citron] (2008)

(On DVD, September 2011) It would have been so easy to take the basic premise of this film and make a big schlocky over-the-top action movie out of it: After all, what better than two distinctive assassins working together to kill Nazis during occupied WW2 Denmark to inspire gunfights, car chases and explosions?  In fact, for short moments, it’s possible to mistake Flammen & Citronen for such an action movie.  There’s gunplay, car chases and maybe an explosion or two.  But make no mistake: As it advances, the film gets grimmer and grimmer, as it becomes obvious that the resistance is being exploited, that the Nazis may not all be worth a bullet in the head, and as the two lead characters fall in increasingly desperate circumstances.  Sooner or later, their actions doom them to an inglorious end.  Still, Flammen & Citronen does deliver in terms of entertainment, and the downbeat ending fits with the ambiguous thematic aspirations of the script.  (It’s also faithful to the true story that inspired the film.)  As a look at World War 2 from a different perspective than the Anglo-Saxon (or French) one, Flammen & Citronen is an entry on par to the Dutch Zwartboek / Black Book.  (Even though Verhoeven’s film feels more polished, the pair makes for a splendid double feature.)  The production values of the film as impressive, and the recreation of the era is believable.  Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen are fine in the title roles, but WW2 cinephiles will have more fun spotting Christian Berkel in yet another Nazi role.  Flammen & Citronen got practically no play in North America, but it’s a world-class piece of cinema; anyone who thinks that there’s nothing more to say about World War 2 may want to have a look at this one.