Monday, August 31, 2015

Remember the M-lamo

I do not find Mr. M particularly "lame-o" but I am flattered by his including me in this Alamo poster reworking (since I am among those savvy enough to have acquired a No Fun box set before he put them on Moratorium, something like two weeks after he started to issue them).

RIP Wes Craven, Oliver Sacks, Peter Kern

I loved watching Wes Craven in the IFC documentary The American Nightmare, talking about how horror movies were a kind of "boot camp for the psyche." He was a very smart, articulate, interesting man. I didn't like all his films, but the ones I did - The Hills Have Eyes, say - I liked a lot. My respects to those who knew him.

Also rest in peace to Oliver Sacks, who was such a fine writer that I forgave him blaming migraines on their sufferers. His essay on Temple Grandin in An Anthropologist On Mars is a must-read if you know of Ms. Grandin's work. Awakenings was really interesting too - much moreso than the film!

Does anyone remember Peter Kern from Wim Wenders' Wrong Move? He just died, too. I liked him in that film. It will be screening as part of an upcoming Wim Wenders' retrospective at the Cinematheque...

American Ultra, No Escape, and the messed up state of original cinema

There are a few reasons why American Ultra may not have attracted much attendance in its first week. One of them screenwriter Max Landis might be right about, regardless of whether he's a fuckwit or not: the majority of cinemagoers these days do not seem very adventurous, do not seem to value originality, do not care that a film receives positive reviews, preferring safe-bet spectacles that deliver a predictable series of thrills to fresh ideas and risk-taking. This may not entirely be the audiences' fault, though. It may have something to do with the fact that the entire film production/ distribution mechanism, apart from film festivals and the odd independent, rep, or arthouse cinema, seems ALSO to prefer safe-bet spectacles, and  - especially in terms of the realm of promotion and distribution - also doesn't seem to know what to do with original filmmaking these days...
Case in point: Bold Films, despite having scored bigtime last year with Nightcrawler and Whiplash, two of the best, freshest, most exciting films to come out,  recently made the terrible decision to retitle John Erick Dowdle's new film The Coup. As a horror fan who has figured out that Dowdle, who brought us the utterly great As Above, So Below a couple years ago, is someone to watch, I'd been reading about this project with excitement and anticipation for several months.  I felt some dismay to discover that Bold Films had allowed/ required the film to be renamed.

It's true, mind you, The Coup is not a totally great title. It is a fresh title, never having been used for another feature film that I'm aware of, and it is very relevant to the story, which has Owen Wilson as a hapless father who brings his family to an unnamed Southeast Asian country (obviously and, in terms of locations, actually Thailand) to find, one day into their stay, that the place has been overrun by pissed-off anti-American revolutionaries bent on executing every white person they can find, since they know too well that America and England are conspiring to exploit them with a new "charitable" water project that Wilson is, it happens, involved in. And there he is with his two daughters and homesick wife as all hell breaks loose. He's culpable, and naive, but not a bad man in spite of his limitations; he mostly just wants to protect his family, and you can't but root for him (Wilson, by the way, is perfect for the role). Intense drama ensues, in which he must suffer sufficiently to purge his sins, after which, as it goes in these "transformative/ punitive ordeal" films, he is permitted to FIGHT BACK and reassert his right to life.

So yes, given the centrality of the coup to the action of the film, it's at least a good title. All the same, it has several disadvantages: it's actually a French word, will be subject to embarrassing mis-pronuncations on the part of garden variety pig-ignorant North American cinemagoers, and will possibly even lead a good majority of people to expect a film about a car (as in, "the coupe"), or to reject the film because they just don't know what the title refers to, and therefore figure the film will go over their heads. These are problematic factors, I'll admit, and I don't blame anyone for deciding "The Coup" had to go. 

But good god, Bold - why change the title to something so generic that not even people who have been reading about the film for months with excitement and anticipation will realize that it's opened? No Escape is one of the lamest, most uninspired titles imaginable, suggesting a direct-to-video (or direct-to-Netflix or wherever films go direct to these days when they don't get a theatrical run) Steven Seagal or Jean Claude van Damme retirement vehicle. It's been used for a half-dozen other feature films already, most recently in 1994. It's so boring that even though I'd been waiting for the film for half a year, the first time I saw it on a marquee - though I KNEW about the retitling - I did not register that it was the new Dowdle project. If it's called No Escape, it must be lame, I reasoned, and picked something else (American Ultra, actually) without even looking to see what it was. And while, yes, No Escape does also accurately convey the drama of the film, it does so in such a way as to suggest that what audiences are getting is a predictable, routine actioner, not a thought-provoking use of genre to raise questions of geopolitics. The Coup may not be a great title, but it's a damn sight better than No Escape.

So Bold Films, who, based on their hits last year, really should have known better, has kind of dropped the ball on marketing this one. Worse, they appear to have released the film without any attempt to generate media buzz - or at least of any sort that's reached me. I haven't seen a poster or a trailer anywhere, and I do keep an eye out. Even most of the JPEG posters online kind of suck; the best one I've found, above, is French. In North America, they seem to be relying entirely on word of mouth, which they're not going to get if people just look at the totally unimaginative title and pick something else.

So to reiterate: go see The Coup. Or No Escape, if you prefer. If you like genre films, if you've read your Carol J. Clover, or if you just like the idea of the globalization of backwoods horror, also seen in movies like Turistas or Wolf Creek or the Hostel films or... (I could go on) - where it's not backwoods banjo-strumming hillbillies who call our flawed heroes (and thus ourselves) to task for class inequities, but impoverished and exploited third worlders - you will LOVE this film. I did. (Tho' admittedly it offers a very unsympathetic portrait of its Southeast Asian revolutionaries, so if you're the sort of person who is concerned about how The Green Inferno is representing indigenous people this may not be the movie for you. That's supposedly opening September 25th, at last, by the by).

Oh, and special note for Stephen Lyons: there's a significant Kenny Rogers reference in No Escape. Pierce Brosnan is pretty good, too, as a sort of debauched walk-on from a Graham Greene novel (Did I ever tell you about the time Mr. Brosnan passed by a group of us on Thurlow street or thereabouts, as we staggered towards Robson Street, late to join the Zombiewalk? We were in full zombie regalia, he was talking on his cellphone, and he didn't so much as GLANCE at us. I guess when  you've been around Hollywood for awhile you get inured to such things...).

Meantime, onwards to American Ultra. Like I say, Max might be right: it could be the audiences' fault that no one went to see the film. But as a friend pointed out when I was chewing it over with him, it's ALSO kind of a silly title, erring on the other side of the spectrum, compared to No Escape: because you see, "getting" the title really requires pre-knowledge of MKULTRA and the CIA experiments with mind control, which aren't even mentioned at any length in the film (you'd be perfectly justified in assuming that "Ultra" projects are entirely the filmmakers' invention, based on what they let slip). Non-initiates might presume it's some sort of sports movie, or perhaps some pro-American exercise in flag waving, maybe involving superheroes.

Landis' rant may not be exactly on the mark, then. Between a title that will confuse people and a co-star (Kristen Stewart) who might not exactly be appealing to the average MKULTRA aficionado, the filmmakers might bear SOME of the blame for why the movie is tanking. But the main reason I'm writing this at all is to say that in fact, whether or not you like Kristen Stewart, and whether or not you know what the title is riffing on, the film is really quite fun, smart, silly, and exciting, and while it may not be as spectacular as the new Mission Impossible film (which I still haven't seen), it's surely a whole lot wittier.

And why all the hate for Kristen Stewart? I mean, sure, I prefer Jena Malone, and I have my doubts that Stewart will have much longevity as an actress, but she's perfectly serviceable in this; there's no sense that there was a whole lot more written into the character than she conveys, and no real reason that I can see to conclude that she's any less talented than any other pretty twentysomething out there. Hell, she even takes a beating in American Ultra to rival Patricia Arquette's in True Romance.  Maybe her haters can take some satisfaction in that? She looks pretty hot with her teeth all bloody. (Maybe she's already been there in the Twilight films, but this time it's her own blood...).

Anyhow, I enjoyed both of these films and recommend them. No Escape is the better, but also very, very intense: be warned. Now if I can only find the time to see Backcountry before it ends its theatrical run... I need a good bear attack movie before the summer's out...
Post-script: thanks to Robin "Cinema Sewer" Bougie for his Facebook thread about American Ultra, which probably prompted me to get off my ass and see the film (though it was more a matter of circumstance - my girl was at a workplace reunion that I was not going to enjoy, and lovingly set me free to go see a movie across the street while she socialized, whereupon I was given a choice of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, MI5, Trainwreck, Straight Out of (Outa?) Compton, No Escape, and American Ultra. And some romantic comedy. I might have picked American Ultra anyway, but Mr. Bougie may have informed the choice... Thanks!).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Goodbye, Caring Place

Maple Ridge residents can breathe a sigh of NIMBY-tinged relief now that, after years of mis-serving the community, the Salvation Army "Caring Place" is being given the boot. For far too long, the Salvation Army has been importing a substantial homeless/ jobless/ frequently addicted-and-mentally-ill contingent into a community that really doesn't have much of a problem with these things, CREATING a problem for people who actually live there. That would be fine, I suppose, if they actually followed up on their "care" - if they saw people through a process of cleaning up, getting jobs, getting their lives together, becoming productive citizens or such. Instead it seems most of the people they bring to town end up sleeping in tent cities clustered around the Caring Place, taking what's offered to them and apparently doing very little with it, all the while making the locals - including a goodly number of senior citizens - rather nervous as they rifle through their recycling or sleep in their doorways or... Maybe the Caring Place has done some good things for the people it serves - but it hasn't done much visible good for Maple Ridge, and in fact seems like a half-assed and misguided institution, less about actually HELPING than making themselves feel good about their lame gestures towards the same... which is a very different thing. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there are lots of people who they've done right by. I see no evidence of it, and as a sometimes Maple Ridge resident, I say... good riddance.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Goodbye, Mr. Woo!

So Erika and I are working our way through the Mission Impossible movies, hoping - if we get through them in time - to be prepped for a theatrical screening of the new one (is it still even playing? Are we too late?). I love the first one in the series, which is a masterfully-crafted, rather old-fashioned (if somewhat loud) thriller. It's as good a film as Brian de Palma ever made - I'm a fan, by the by - without it being an overtly "Brian de Palma" movie, if you see what I mean (he has projects that are obviously more personal than others; MI 1 does not seem to fit among them). Anyhow, we both liked it when we watched it a couple of weeks ago, and are now finally tackling the second - a hurdle for me, because it's a film I totally hated on first run, when I saw it in Japan. I hated it so much, in fact, that it threw me from attempting any of the subsequent films in the series.

So far - we're paused, about half an hour into it - I'm being reminded why I hated it, mostly. While I admit that there IS a kind of style and craft at work, it's such an obvious, cliched, unsubtle, over-the-top sort of style - the stuff of rock videos, perfume commercials, and maybe Robert Rodriguez when he doesn't have Quentin Tarantino writing for him - that I can only chuckle derisively at it and roll my eyes. I can't get involved in it as story; the characters that it invests with beauty - Cruise and Thandie Newton - mostly just annoy me; and if Woo's hammy, corny, bigger-than-life directional style wasn't enough to put me off, we have one of the hammiest, corniest screenplays that Robert Towne ever penned (did he DO anything good other than Chinatown? Have I seen it?). Everything about this movie seems to suggest that it thinks its audience are a bunch of fucking idiots. Since it was the third most successful film of the year 2000, we gather, maybe the filmmakers were actually onto something at the time...

But audiences are getting smarter, I suspect. Windtalkers and Paycheck, both of which I had forgotten were John Woo movies until just now, both tanked at the box office and were commercial failures to boot. And I now discover - since MI2 got me wondering what Woo is up to these days - that Woo in fact, though still living in America, has actually returned to making movies in his home country.

In honesty, I don't mind. I haven't enjoyed ANY of his American movies (though Face Off had moments). I liked his Hong Kong films well enough, though I haven't seen any in years. But I think for whatever reason John Woo is someone who does better work in his home country, in his home idiom... I will not miss his presence in American cinema. Sorry, Mr. Woo, and goodbye.

Anyhow, Erika's off the phone now... We should get back to MI2...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Yes Men follow up, plus Zombies, Cowboys, Danny Trejo, Chuck Norris, and... Commando? WTF?

So Andy of the Yes Men was walking up the aisle at the Rio (see previous post), and I happened to be right behind him. I'd already asked him my "public consumption" question during the Q&A (about how they kept a straight face during their pranks; Andy, gay, immediately began teasing me - "does this face look straight to you?" then eventually explained about suspension of disbelief in reverse - how the boredom and lack of interest of the audiences he pranks are kind of infectious to him, make it far easier for him not to crack up, to treat his presentations like they're the dryest things imaginable). Anyhow, there he was, and there I was, and for a second, no one else was flocking around him, so I got to ask him a private question that had been niggling - how the Yes Men know Bob Ostertag, who has some honorary affiliation with them, as I recall. I like Ostertag a lot from my days of enthusiasm with noise music, and even saw him live, doing the Between Science and Garbage performance with Quebec animator Pierre Hebert. Andy seemed surprised or impressed that I knew him at all ("how do you know Bob Ostertag," he asked in reply), and explained that Ostertag and he are really old friends... which is more or less what Ostertag told me awhile back via email, if memory serves, but it was nice to scratch the itch. It is interesting that Andy comes out of the closet explicity in the new film; his doing so doesn't fully pay off, so you kind of expect it to be something he's doing for future purposes, like it's an area they plan to explore further, which can only enrich the Yes Men "series"... I may try to talk to him about it someday...

Anyhow, it's been a weekend of movies: a ridiculous amount of cinema has been consumed, since I've been on a visit with my 84 year old, speech-impared Mom, and there's not a lot else we can easily do (we did take a nice walk this morning, mind you). Since Thursday, the films we have seen:

The Last Castle (2001): a rather old-fashioned prison movie with Robert Redford (as a respected military man who goes to jail), James Gandolfini (as the di rigueur sadistic warden), and a really well-used Mark Ruffalo (as the prison bookie and general hustler involved with both the principals; he kind of steals the show, by virtue of having the most morally complex character and playing him perfectly). A thoroughly average and not very surprising film, but well-made and enjoyable. Dad would have liked it (he was both ex-military and a retired jailguard), but I doubt he ever saw it.
Bad Ass (2012): also thoroughly average, and not entirely well-crafted, but a very fun film to watch with Mom no less, starring Danny Trejo as a senior citizen getting revenge for a friend's death. Some nice images of the non-white side of LA, a surprisingly tender and complex performance from Trejo (who usually is just asked to grimace, glower, and be violent; he actually has a scene where he's required to cry in this film!), Also some nice work from Charles S. Dutton, a character actor I'm partial to, as the main bad guy (gangland henchman to corrupt politico Ron Perlman). It was fun to see Patrick Fabian, who carried The Last Exorcism, in a different role, as a cop, but he's almost a token white, is given nothing much at all to do in this film. Bizarrely, tho' I haven't heard of Bad Ass before, I discover that there are two sequels... I don't think I'll seek them out, but I was entertained.

Speaking of Danny Trejo, his presence on the box art for the 2012 Syfy channel Walking Dead knockoff Rise of the Zombies (AKA Dead Walking) is definitely misleading, since he only has a small role (though he does get to turn into a zombie, which is about the only thing he does in this film that he hasn't done in a dozen others, unless you count his somewhat zombie-looking vampire in From Dusk til Dawn. Don't get me wrong, I like Trejo - a bit less since he's suddenly started appearing in every low budget action film out there, but no matter. The problem is, really, that he doesn't usually get asked to extend his range very far, and his brief zombie scene aside, this film is no exception).  The real stars are Mariel Hemingway and Ethan Suplee, that guy with the permanently tense forehead who pulls off the trick of looking to be intensely stupid and in deep concentration at the same time, all the time. You've most recently seen him on the screen as one of DiCaprio's stable of loyal brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street, probably. He's not as good in this. There's some inventive gore - never saw a father (Levar Burton) cut a chunk of his own flesh out of his arm to feed it to his zombie daughter, never seen an infant stomped to death when it suddenly goes zombie - but it really is just a Walking Dead knockoff. Not a bad one, but they could have seemed a bit more original without the young Asian man, who obviously is meant to suggest the character of Glen, or, say, the prison setting of the film's first third. The only thing the film does that isn't in The Walking Dead, in fact, is make use of helicopters, but gee, what other zombie films have we seen those in...?
As far as zombies go, Mom and I also took on the Shout Factory remaster of the Romero classic Day of the Dead, on Blu. Nevermind that it's kind of an essential film in the history of the modern zombie film, with early/ major involvement from Greg Nicotero, who these days occasionally directs The Walking Dead (and does gore for it): this film has probably provided me, over the years, with more pleasure than any single other movie, believe it or not. I've seen it at least twenty times, listened to the commentary, showed it to friends, and have owned it in five different versions (censored Canadian VHS, uncensored US and Japanese VHSes, Anchor Bay DVD and now this). I've had the poster on the walls of a few apartments, too, so that "Bub" and "home" are kind of synonymous. I even use bits of it in class now and then, when discussing censorship with my students. As familiar as I am with the movie, in this enhanced hi-def version - even on Mon's decidely NOT hi-def TV - there were nuances to facial features and other details that I'd never seen before, that surprised and impressed me and made the film that much richer. But that's only half the story, sadly, because in preparing it for Blu Ray, the film has been made almost too bright at times, enhanced to the point of damaging it slightly, making certain moments look quite fake. For example, makeup you could never tell was makeup in any previous presentation I've seen - like the dark hollows under the eyes of the male "lab zombie" that Logan chains up and admonishes to think, shutting the lights on him - looks OBVIOUSLY and DISTRACTINGLY like thick greasy facepaint. Of course, you know that it IS just that - but it shouldn't LOOK like it, and it never has before now.

Still, great fun, even though I last saw it just a few months ago (making my girl watch it as part of her birthday gift to me!). The actor who plays Bub, Howard Sherman - AKA Sherman Howard - brings the greatest emotional range to a zombie role I've ever seen, and always manages to fill me with glee in his big scenes - saying hello to Aunt Alicia, practicing his gunmanship, answering the phone, shaving, and emoting when he finds his mentor killed... Here he is listening to the Ode to Joy...
I pushed my luck with Mom for one other zombie film this weekend: the first Resident Evil. I here confess that I am among the people who enjoy this film. Mom is not, it turns out. As I have nothing much to say about it - besides mentioning that I enjoy its almost surreal, dreamlike quality - I direct people to read this essay for more. My only anecdote here involves a recent ESL error of some delightfulness, where a student of mine, writing on the film, meant to say "the heroine is very cool," and wrote instead, "heroin is very cool." Seldom does one get errors that delightful in student papers. It made me very happy.

Not everything Mom and I caught this weekend was on video, mind you. We also looked at a TCM screening of Fritz Lang's goofy, charming 1952 western melodrama Rancho Notorious - subject of a perfect double bill with Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar last week at the Cinematheque, and playing one more time on Sunday (today, that is, for most of those reading this) in a 35 mm print. I mean, Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer and Jack Elam in one movie? Melodramatic cowboy songs that serve as a chorus, propelling the narrative, linking themes? A scene where Dietrich - never mind singing, which she also does - rides a cowboy quite literally as part of a barroom "horse race"? The film is a must-see. I hadn't seen it since my pre-teen years, where I caught it a couple of times on TV and rather fell in love with it. My fondness for Billy Joel aside, I had pretty good taste when I was a little kid, though I'm kind of surprised that this film in particular would have resonated with me back then.
Speaking of westerns, Mom and I didn't quite finish the 1983 actioner Lone Wolf McQuade tonight, one of three films you can snag on a "best of Chuck Norris"-type Blu set at Vancouver HMVs for a mere $10. But so much about that film has exceeded my expectations, took me totally by surprise that I'm prepared to praise it as it stands. I had no idea, for one thing, that it is very much an homage to spaghetti westerns, right down to a soundtrack actually composed by an Italian (Francesco De Masi). I don't know anything at all about director Steve Carver, though I believe one of his other films, Bulletproof, has a small following. This film lacks the cynical wit of the best spaghettis but it still works, and there are other nice dues-paying casting decisions (like having Peckinpah vets RG Armstrong and LQ Jones in roles; & speaking of metatextual film nods, there's also an Eastwood Hospital at one point in the film). David Carradine is the main bad guy, and William Sanderson is a weaselly lowlife who rats on him; Nicaraguan-born Barbara Carrera, who I know best as the Leopard-girl of whatever she is from the 1970's Island of Dr. Moreau, is sexy and strong as the female lead and love interest. It's not a great film, maybe, but is so much better than I ever would have imagined that I'm entirely impessed, and wondering what else of Steve Carver's I should see. (I have seen nothing else he's done, to my knowledge). And are the other Chuck Norris films on the set equally as good? I'm going to have to do a major re-evaluation of him, if so; I had always thought, having barely seen any of his films, that he was a bit of a joke, but he sure isn't here!
There's more we watched this weekend - like the very well-made, well-cast year 2000 ransom negotiation thriller Proof of Life, which involves a Gilroy - Tony, of Michael Clayton, not Dan, of Nightcrawler. After those two films I keep my eyes open for Gilroys. We also got through about 40 minutes of Iron Man, which I've come around to liking, having thought it deeply trivial when I first caught it theatrically (my willingness to embrace politically questionable crap in the name of entertainment is at an all time high these years, possibly as a survival strategy in the current media-scape). Mom couldn't follow it, so we switched movies. But it's late, I'm tired, and I'm running out of things to say... and I have one more film that I have to get to...
In some ways, to my utter surprise, the high point of the weekend thus far was the director's cut of Mark L. Lester's 1985 film Commando, which I think just edged out Total Recall and End of Days as my favourite Schwarzenegger movie. (Apologies to the Terminator franchise, but it's not even in the running). I had last seen it at age 17, when it came out on VHS, and remembered about it only that Schwarzenegger carries a tree in one of the first scenes, though I do recall that my buddies and I enjoyed it back in the day. That doesn't always mean much, unfortunately: a lot of these 80's hits, looked at now, don't hold up very well, and Schwarzenegger in particular can be nearly incomprehensible as a one-time fan favourite; he can't act, he has no emotional range, and he's frequently miscast (as with Total Recall, where he's absurdly supposed to be playing some sort of everyman). Plus there's all those stupid self-conscious catch phrases ("I'll be back" and such), which were presumably meant at the time to identify and solidify his fan base, reward them for being in the know and gratify/ satisfy them - like they were someone's idea of a formula that made an Arnold movie a hit, such that they HAD to be included in every film. They seem kind of embarrassing now, almost insulting to the audience's intelligence, like forcing Bruce Willis to say yippee-kai-yay in every fucking Die Hard movie ever made. But say what I may, Arnold is perfectly used here, and the film more than any other I can imagine makes it possible to understand why anyone loved his movies ever. Nothing feels forced; the story suits the actor; and there isn't a scene that doesn't work. A lot of that is down to Mark Lester, who has always been an able exploitation filmmaker, and has made other favourites of mine, like Class of 1984. But there's also a great supporting cast, including Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Vernon "Wez" Wells, Bill Duke, and best of all, David Patrick Kelly (of The Warriors and another favourite of mine, Dreamscape), who almost steals the show before he's dropped by our hero off a cliff. The corny Schwarzenegger jokes don't seem like they've been hammered into the film under duress, so they have a chance to actually work ("where's Sully?"/ "I let him go").  The director's cut adds a bit of gore and a couple of character lines. It doesn't radically change the film, but hey, that's just as well. I never would have imagined that I'd enjoy one of Arnold's films so much, but I cannot tell a lie on this one, folks...

Anyhow, it's been a movie-intensive weekend, and there will be more tomorrow. They may go unremarked upon, however. Peace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Yes Men in Vancouver tonight!

Didn't get a chance to write much about this - or much of anything lately! - but the new Yes Men movie screens tonight at the Rio, with Andy and Mike apparently in attendance. Kind of a must-attend, if you ask me. Also, the utterly essential They Live will screen, in honour, we presume, of Roddy Piper (RIP). Love that movie, though I doubt I'll get to stay for both...

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Bison this Friday!

My God is it tough to get out to shows these days. Time and again, when gigs I want to see are happening, I'm exhausted, double-booked, out of town, buried in work, or broke. I was neck-deep in a move when Danzig played the other week. I had been giving some thought to seeing High on Fire and Pallbearer at the Rickshaw, but I didn't have the space to even think about it until the day after it happened, which is to say, today (I was talking it over with Erika, walking to the train station this morning - "I might go to a show tonight" - when I clued in that I was a day off schedule). The last time I actually made it to a Bison show - save for peeking into the Electric Owl to say hi to the guys and buy their new EP - was, I think, on Vancouver Island, maybe in 2012, and I didn't even stay for the whole gig; I just wanted to show Erika one of my favourite bands, briefly, without forcing her to stay until it got painful. (Music that heavy is generally not for her). This Friday tho', at 23 Cordova, home of a former incarnation of the Cruel Elephant, Bison is going to play - in their post-Masa incarnation. I'm going, dammit! And leaving my girl at home...

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Madame Bovary, plus some notes on the Vancity Theatre

I have always loved the Vancity Theatre more than other theatres in Vancouver.

A big part of that is the design. They have fantastic seats, for one. They're like flying first class on a plane. No other theatre comes close in this town, except maybe International Village (formerly Tinseltown). The projection equipment and sound system are state of the art, of course, but when it comes to theatres the way to my heart is apparently through my ass, because it's the seats that have always stood out for me. They're just that great.

Another part of my fondness for the place is that for years they were an underdog: they'd program these amazing film events - this is back in the day when Cinema Scope's Mark Peranson was picking them, mostly - and no one would show up. Films you'd never see anywhere else: I remember attending a screening of Bela Tarr's seven-hour long Satantango, one of the most ambitious, achingly beautiful, provocative film projects out there, and the audience was me, my friend Marina Sonkina, future programmer Tom Charity, and maybe three other people. That continued for years: major new film events, or super-cool repertory picks like Cronenberg's Rabid, Romero's Martin, Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess, and Larry Fessenden's Habit, all of which I saw as part of a series of vampire films there - with only about five or six people in the audience. It was enough that when Tom Charity introduced Cassavetes' magnificent Love Streams, coincidentally on my birthday, I interviewed he and Alan Franey about both the film and the then-very-disappointing lack of interest in the cinema. None of us knew what to make of it.

Then *I* began hosting the odd film event there, and my feeling of attachment deepened. It became much harder for me to actually get my bum on the seat, mind you - moving back to Maple Ridge in 2009 greatly reduced my abilities to make it out - but I still feel very fond of the cinema, and still scan each new program for interesting films, knowing full well that I probably won't get out to see them. That's part of the reason that I write about the films there less than I once did. Another issue is that to preview a movie these days, you basically have to watch an online screener, which, with my crappy computer monitor, slow and jolty hi-speed connection, and general lack of time spent in my own apartment, is not really something I crave doing.

Perhaps the final reason I'm less passionate about writing about film there though is a happy one: they no longer seem to need the attention, need the press so much; more often than not, screenings sell out. There's the sense that finally the place has caught on. Tom Charity, in private conversation awhile back, chastened me for plugging a recent Ed Wood porno screening instead of the major Orson Welles retrospective that was staged both at the Vancity and the Cinematheque, but what can I say, I really didn't feel like Orson Welles needed the help. (Apparently he did - attendance wasn't very good, I gather - but hopefully I can be forgiven for assuming people would go to those films without my praises).

Anyhow, I'm glad to see that finally people have figured out how cool a place the Vancity Theatre is, generally speaking. You still have to kinda tell folks now and then where it is - but only the sort who don't know where the Cinematheque is either. There are several upcoming movies of note this summer: I've been wanting for awhile to expose my girl to Taxi Driver, for example, or to revisit Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing - and what better way than on the screen?

Actually there is a bunch of cool rep stuff upcoming, like Midnight Run, a really fun 1980's bounty hunter comedy with Robert de Niro and Charles Grodin, which people seem mostly to have forgotten about. (There has been talk of a sequel, so that could be especially fun, if the film is coming just in time for part two; I don't actually know what's happening on that front). Trainspotting, too, is a very worthy film to revisit, though I took it in again just a couple months ago, so I might not make it out to that.

Can't say much about the new films upcoming, mind you, mostly because I haven't seen any of them. There was a lot buzz about Violent when it played the VIFF. Sublime Frequencies fans should make it out for the documentary on Cambodia's neglected rock'n'roll. The trailer for Khalil Gibran's The Prophet - an animated anthology film from the director of The Lion King - was pretty impressive, though it's an atypical choice for the Vancity; surely it will please the masses, though! Plus there are some interesting-sounding bicycle themed films that should do well by Vancouver audiences (see here and here); and there's even a new Joshua Oppenheimer film - the fellow who made The Act of Killing - which, as it happens, is currently playing.
This is all to bring me round to talking about Madame Bovary, alas. Caught it yesterday; believe it's the first film I've made it to there since that last horror festival, back in March. There's plenty that's curious about the film. It obviously owes at least some debt to the films of Lars von Trier, replacing the expected cool detach of classical European arthouse with motile handhelds and what often seems to be natural light. This brings out the von Trierian aspects of the protagonist's sufferings: her dissatisfaction, what it drives her to, the judgment of the community, the cruelty and hypocrisy of the men she deals with: it all plays rather like Dogville or Breaking the Waves or a relatively sex-free Nymphomaniac. Too bad Sophie Barthes is nowhere near the filmmaker that von Trier is, though! I liked her previous film, the oddball item Cold Souls, well enough - and was happy to see Paul Giamatti continue his collaborations with her here - but Madame Bovary barely managed to involve me in its title character's plight. Maybe it's that the film frames the story with Emma Bovary's suicide, so that even if you haven't read the novel, you know where things are going from the gitgo; or maybe there's material missing from the sequences of the title character's early years, that would have engaged me in her hopes and her disappointments more - but I had a really hard time making the necessary identifications with the main character. My only point of connection was Emma's passion for shopping as a remedy for smalltown drudgery; I'm as "je suis Madame Bovary" as they come, which makes the lack of emotion I felt at her downfall kind of puzzling. I wanted to feel so much more, and to see more, too - to see the mechanisms of cinema used to increase my identification with the character, which I guess would mean more closeups of gorgeous clothing and maybe some hotter sex scenes... (Mia Wasikowska does do a nude scene but Jesus, Barthes should watch Roeg's Don't Look Now to see what a filmed sex scene can look like).

In the end, I'm really not sure what was missing, but I just couldn't care that much about this film. Emma Bovary just seems like a mediocre person, bored by her husband and community, betrayed by the promises and lies of commerce, and taken advantage of by horny men, so that her final fate seems less a tragedy than a shabby end to a shabby life. Wasikowska's performance, further, seemed mannered and self-conscious throughout - I generally like her but felt at all times like I was watching an actor emoting rather than a character suffering. The Belgian sets are gorgeous, as are the textiles, and *I* would have considered fucking Ezra Miller, who has the mien of a doomed romantic poet, but you know what, this film really isn't very good...

So go figure: I finally make it out to the Vancity Theatre, for the first time this summer, and I'm totally disappointed. About the only point of interest is that I find myself in agreement with Ken Eisner, for once (though not about the "stately cinematography;" my impression of the camerawork was quite different - I could have used a bit more stateliness, in fact).

As the Japanese would say, shikata ga nai. 
Note to self: read the article about how "I am Madame Bovary and You are Chewbacca" sometime soon. (It has references to HP Lovecraft!).