Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: Haute Cuisine (2012)

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

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

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Film Review: Rolling Thunder (1977)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: In Praise of Hatred (2008) by Khaled Khalifa

The setting for this novel is Syria during the early 1980s when the Assad regime cracked down on rival sects and political protestors with mass killings, political assassinations, and large-scale arrests. It was a brutal time in Syria's modern history, although now dwarfed by the current civil war. The conflict of the '80s has no name to fix it in history, but tens of thousands were killed by the government before the protests died down.

The central character in Hatred is an unnamed teenage girl living in a typical upper-middle-class Aleppo household who becomes radicalized and joins an underground group distributing anti-Assad leaflets. Khalifa is writing about a violent political upheaval, but he hasn't written a political novel. Taking a page from fellow Syrian writer Rafik Schami's playbook, Khalifa has written a novel about the psychological underpinnings and motivations of the troubles that afflict the Arab world. Khalifa also follows Schami's lead in creating a multiverse of stories that weave in and out of the central story, in this case the progress of the heroine from troubled teenager to political prisoner. Khalifa is nowhere near as good a writer as Schami. His prose isn't as magical or imaginative, and at times his writing is more polemical than literary. Like Schami, however, he argues that Syria's tragedy (and that of other Arab states) is a reflection of suffocating traditions, tribal loyalties, sectarian hatreds, and a political class that sees self-aggrandizement (for the individual and his clan/tribe/family) as the raison d'etre of political power.

Khalifa, Schami and Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz have used the role of women in Arab society to symbolize and explain the anxieties and injustices of their respective countries. In Schami's The Calligrapher's Secret (my review), the calligrapher of the title wants to modernize the Arabic language but fails spectacularly due to his brutal, and traditional, treatment of his wife. In Hatred, the heroine's drift into fundamentalism and loathing for other sects and those she sees as being insufficiently pious, is clearly shown to be a symptom of her sexual frustration and sense of confinement as a female walled in by restrictive customs and a savagely patriarchal culture. This point is made very clear in a section of the novel called "Embalmed Butterflies", which is a neat description of the kind of life lived by the novel's female characters, almost all of whom suffer from the cruelties of gender slavery. Novelists like Khalifa, Schami and Mahfouz show that the gender slavery imposed on women in some Muslim countries has an equally pernicious influence on the overall health of the country. In their novels we can see that all the tyrannical orders and blind, spiteful crimes of tradition and honour that women suffer within the four walls of their fearfully guarded homes, are transferred to the population as whole, only with far more devastating effect. The protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square are a neat example of this: the authorities responded to protests against the old order with brutal violence, and both sides took advantage of the chaos to sexually assault women participating in or covering the protests. It seems that democracy and equality needs to begin in the households of Syria and Egypt before it can spread to the body politic.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Justin Trudeau is a Shallow Gay Drug-Dealer

Justin Trudeau: the face that launched a thousand attack ads.
In the world of politics, the mud your enemies sling at you can sometimes say more about them than it does about you. Such is the case with the Conservative Party of Canada's ceaseless attack ads aimed at Justin Trudeau. Ever since Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, the Conservatives have kept up a steady barrage of radio and TV ads that portray him as someone who's unfit to be a leader.

The first item of interest with these ads is that the Tories seem to have no interest in going after Thomas Mulcair, the actual Official Leader of the Opposition. If you weren't familiar with Canadian politics you'd swear that Trudeau was the opposition leader. All of the Harper government's fear and fury is directed at Trudeau, which is an admission that he's the one most likely to cause damage to the Conservative majority in the next election. The Tories were so concerned about Trudeau that they began the attack ads within days of him becoming Liberal leader, which is a bit panicky since the next election won't take place until 2016. But on the other hand it's not very surprising given the Stalinist character of the Stephen Harper regime. Harper seems to be filled with loathing and fear when it comes to opposition or dissent of any kind. He has famously muzzled government scientists from saying anything that might contradict the official Tory line that global warming is a fairy tale, oil pipelines are underground nature trails, and the tar sands are run by Willy Wonka. Harper believes that his real and perceived enemies must be harried and slandered constantly. All this is in addition to the equally constant Tory propaganda ads that masquerade as info pieces about government programs (my piece on that scandal here). The air of cold sweat paranoia that hangs over Harper's government and its attack ads is breathtaking in its intensity. Here's a sample:

The anti-Trudeau attack ads have three goals; the first is to argue that Justin is simply too inexperienced for the role of PM. One ad blends Trudeau quotes that make him sound shallow or clueless with snippets from his CV that purport to show he's unqualified for the country's top job. A comparison with Harper's CV reveals that Harper came into office with even less to recommend him. After graduation from university, Harper went straight into the warm, amniotic fluid of right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups. For a  brief time he headed the National Citizens Coalition, a single-purpose lobbying group that only exists to write screechy press releases about the horrors of big government and taxes. In short, Harper has never callused his hands with anything other than work for various right-wing entities, and his most famous quote from this period is his complaint (to an American audience) that "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it." And a quick glance through a list of his public utterances before he was elected show that he was happy to flirt with the idea of a separate Alberta. Trudeau has never made any anti-Canadian statements, he has two degrees (he was working on a third when he quit to go into politics) to Harper's one, and he spent a few years working as a high school teacher. Although to be fair, Thomas Mulcair wins any battle of the CVs between the three leaders.

More curious, and more revealing of Harper's psyche, is the attack ad's attempt to portray Trudeau as weak and effeminate by showing him strolling some kind of catwalk (a charity fundraiser for the Canadian Liver Foundation), and then having his name drawn across the screen in a font normally found on the covers of women's romance novels. This is the Justin Trudeau who has a wife and three kids, and who in a charity boxing event beat the crap out of Patrick Brazeau, a senator with the burly body of a bouncer (and a Harper appointee who has since been suspended from the Senate on fraud charges). One look at Harper tells you that the worst beating he ever handed out was to a box of butter tarts. Harper likes to do his manliness by proxy; previous PMs made do with minimal security details, but one of Harper's first moves was to give himself a security crew befitting a Third World tyrant: armoured limos and lots of muscly guys with mics in their ears. Add in the Harper government's fondness for military adventures and ceremonies, and you have a portrait of a PM who seems to be overcompensating for something. And let's not forget his narcissistic rebranding of the Government of Canada as the "Harper Government", or his taste in decorating which includes wall-to-wall portraits of himself on every available surface. Harper comes across as man who never got over being wedgied in high school by members of the football team, and who has troubles on the home front that a deferential Canadian press has swept under the rug. All of Harper's repressed anger and resentment seems to come out in the attack ad, which screams out as an example of the revenge of the nerds against the cool kid in school.

The Dear Leader happily contemplates pictures of Himselfness.
The most recent attack ad (I've only heard the radio version) has a "mother" (actually an actor) worrying that Trudeau wants to make it easier for kids to get marijuana. The worried mom concludes that Justin isn't the kind of person who's fit to be a leader. Ironically, days after the attack ads aired the Tories floated the idea of softer penalties for cannabis possession. Hypocrisy in politics isn't new or exclusive to the Tories, but this latest ad shows their pathological fear and hatred of Trudeau, who is in line with public opinion on the issue of marijuana.

I'm no fan of Justin Trudeau (as usual, I'll be voting NDP in the next election), but the unending vilification of him by the Tories speaks volumes about the bullying, juvenile attitude of the party and its leader. The treatment that's being meted out to Trudeau is just one more symptom of Harper's essentially anti-democratic philosophy. Whether it's proroguing Parliament or bringing in an unfair "Fair Elections Act" or deriding Trudeau's ambition to lead the country, Harper is making it clear that he's the one lacking leadership qualities, but he's perfect in the role of ruler.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film Review: Reality (2012)

There's a certain sub-genre of films that takes a caustic look at people's lust for fame on the small screen. Titles like The King of Comedy, A Face in the Crowd, EDtv, and Being There come to mind, and now Reality, an Italian film by Matteo Garrone, the director of Gomorrah, stakes a claim to being the best of the bunch. Set in Naples, the central character is Luciano, a fishmonger who fancies himself a bit of an entertainer, largely thanks to his wife and extended family who think his silly drag act is hilarious. The film begins at a massive and eye-poppingly garish hotel/wedding hall/banquet centre, the kind of place that provides one-stop shopping for all your tacky wedding needs. Luciano is there with his wife and kids to attend a wedding, and he's about to make one of his beloved appearances in drag when a "celebrity" comes upon the scene. Enzo is the celebrity, a recent winner of Italy's Big Brother TV show (called Grande Fratello in Italy and insanely popular). Enzo has been paid by the hotel to press the flesh at the various weddings, sign some autographs, pose for pictures, and generally bless the weddings with the fairy dust of his fame. Luciano is smitten by his exposure to Enzo and, egged on by his family, he ends up auditioning for Big Brother. He actually makes it through to the next round of auditions, and his neighbours in his working-class area of Naples greet that news by treating him as a celebrity-in-waiting. It's from that point on that Luciano begins a slow and sad descent into something just short of madness. He starts to believe the show's producers are spying on him to find out what he's really like as a prelude to making their decision on his suitability for the program.

Reality succeeds brilliantly because it doesn't give in to the temptation to make its characters or the story too excessive, which is usually what happens when filmmakers take a swipe at TV. Films that take a critical look at TV normally set the ridicule dial at 11 and the subtlety knob at 0. That can make for some loud and preposterous films, Network probably being the best example. Reality keeps its feet on the ground, and becomes all the more powerful because Luciano's transformation from solid worker, loving husband and doting father to deranged wannabe reality TV star carries real emotional weight. Garrone avoids the usual trap of making fun of what's on TV or the people who create programs like Big Brother. We see glimpses of the show and the people behind it, but the emphasis is on how the will-o-wisp appeal of fame can drive the weak, the foolish and the greedy over the edge. In a revealing moment after his second audition, Luciano tells his family that the show's psychologist talked to each potential contestant for five or ten minutes, but in his case the shrink talked to him for an hour. Luciano takes this as a sign that he's on the short list. It's only later that we realize that the psychologist probably sensed something a bit "off" in Luciano's character and decided to give him a more rigorous analysis. Luciano does finally make it to the set of Big Brother, but it's not an appearance that anyone, including the audience, is expecting.

No film about television has ever looked this good. A conventional approach would have been to portray Luciano's world as drab and colorless, in contrast to the bright and shiny land of TV. Luciano lives in a world bursting with colour. The opening sequence at the wedding hotel looks like an explosion in a paint factory, as does a later trip to a water park, and Luciano's home and workplace are both eye-catching, the latter for its decrepit grandeur (it's an apartment in a decaying palazzo) and the former for its location in a lively square. The film isn't offering the tired thesis that its main character is seeking an escape from bland routine. What seems to grip Luciano is the idea of having a bigger stage on which to be himself.

The actors are all excellent, but there has to be special mention of Aniello Arena who plays Luciano. Arena made the film while on day passes from prison where he's serving a life sentence for a triple murder. He was formerly a member of the Neapolitan mafia and his victims (he denies the crime) were rival gangsters. Here's a story on him from the Guardian, and here's a trailer that gives a good taste of the film and it's excellent score.