7.27.2008

Made Connections

video

Back in the early/mid 1980's PBS reran a 10 part 1978 BBC history documentary written and presented by James Burke. It was one of the most engaging and informative programs that I'd ever seen. Connections did just what it's name implied – connecting us with the past through a series of seemingly unrelated steps backwards in time to the genesis of an idea. Each episode followed a modern (at least by 1978 standards) technological advance that we all took for granted and deconstructed its evolution from a simple idea to a intricate part of a much-larger present-day system. What sounds boring was anything but. Each episode was mesmerizing. Two subsequent series were produced much later, Connections 2 in 1993 and then a third and final series in 1997, but the first one remained the best.

30 years on, I finally coughed up the $500 for the complete Connections series. I don't know why it's so damned expensive and I wondered whether it would hold up all these years later (or whether I would be staring at the screen in utter horror as I did with another film fav from that era – Remo Williams). I watched the first two episodes of Connections 1 tonight and was stunned by just how well it's aged. If anything, Burke's research and the yarns he spins are more relevant today than ever before. This is a must see documentary about our world and where it (and by association - we) came from. The opening episode, entitled The Trigger Effect, is a haunting cautionary tale about the vulnerability of our massive and complex cities. In an early scene, standing on top of the then-much-taller World Trade Centre, Burke explains that all the people below are virtually unaware of their exposure to danger and chaos if even one small part of the system breaks down. He uses the eastern seaboard blackout of 1965 to show how a tiny electric relay in Niagara Falls tripped and plunged the entire eastern seaboard into darkness. 200 planes were scheduled to land in and around New York that evening and a Scandinavian plane was on final approach when the runways went dark. The flight number?.... 911.

Creepy.

These technological “traps”, as Burke calls them, have grown exponentially since the original broadcast of this program way back in 1978 and our increased reliance on, and belief in, technology makes us ever more vulnerable to a simple system crash. In the 1965 blackout, at least the phones still worked – they didn't a few years ago in our big blackout. What's astonishing to consider is just how quickly a society collapses when technology fails and as we continue to increase the complexity of the systems around us, how we become further ensnared by it.


Don't get me wrong, Connections doesn't dwell on end-of-days doom and gloom. It's mostly an engaging and often humorous exploration of the odd associations between everyday things and the fascinating role historical coincidence, fate and even blind luck had in their eventual arrival in our time. This might be the best historical documentary the BBC has ever put out. Do yourself a favour and give the first couple of episodes a try. Jesus Kadas... you've seen The Dark Knight enough times right?

Missed Connections

I saw your front half through the one-way mirror Saturday evening while sitting alone in my apartment...you glanced up for a moment, teasingly smiled, then turned away for good...

I loved the music you were playing, and I was envious of your friends, but I still felt there was some distance between us.

I became frustrated by your petulance, so I put on some music of my own - George Jones and Tammy Wynette - to try to mimic your soundtrack, but to no avail.

All my friends who have seen you have called you a masterpiece, but I guess I still can't see it - do I need to look closer? Let me...

This is the 6th or 7th time I've tried to connect with you, but it never seems to be the right time. Once, I had had a bit to drink, and I glimpsed you - I thought for sure that it was the right time, but when the music started you just slipped away...

Is it me? Is it you? I want to love you, but I just can't do it. What's wrong with me?

I don't care how stubborn you are, I know there's something great deep down there...right???

Aching to see you again, but scared to even try...
Robert Altman's Nashville - 7 times I've tried, 7 times I've failed...

7.23.2008

Doomsday (2008)

I have seen the future of genre filmmaking, and the future is Neil Marshall. With his latest film, Doomsday, Marshall takes great steps forward from his previous two efforts - the technically flawed but immensely enjoyable Dog Soldiers (2002), and the claustrophobic and nerve-shreddingly taut (easily forgiving a few plot-necessitating lapses in logic) The Descent (2005). With Doomsday, Marshall takes us out of the tight sets that marked the first two films and places us within the confines of a country gone horribly, horribly wrong....Scotland?!?!

The story here centres around bodacious, bad-ass babe Rhona "don't call me Kate Beckinsale" Mitra's Maj. Sinclair, 25 or so years removed from her rescue from the festering, plague-ridden Scotland. You see, all those years ago, a virus - the Reaper virus (with alarmingly similar symptoms to that other big, bad British virus, the Rage virus) to be exact - broke out in Scotland, and spread at such an alarming rate that Britain was forced to quarantine the entire northern half, eschewing bagpipes, haggis and kilts in favour of a relative sense of security. What, Mad Cow isn't scary enough anymore? A massive metallic wall was built encircling the Highlands (in the amount of time of time it took for the virus to spread? I digress...), and the diseased were left to die, or to fend for themselves after the gate was shut. Sinclair's mother pleaded with the occupants of the final army helicopter leaving the zone for her young daughter to be lifted to safety, and after some hesitation, up she went. Flash forward 25 odd years and the Reaper virus has reared its ugly head again, this time on the "safe" side of the wall, and begins to spread like yuppies in Parkdale. Sinclair, now an elite commando, is recruited by a somewhat shady government branch and asked to re-enter the now barren Scotland in search of the mysterious Dr. Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), the touchstone for all research on the cure for the virus, and whose whereabouts are currently unknown. She is given 48 hours to succeed or be left behind the wall for good. So, with this rather protracted, but necessary, setup (the first 25 minutes of the film), we are brought behind the wall.....

And really, not much more can be said, other than HOLY SHIT, there is more adrenaline -pumping action packed in the final two-thirds of the film than I can recall ever having seen before. It is relentless, it is brutal, and it really opened my eyes to the general anemia of the modern day action film (barring Rambo, which is virtually unmatched). The action literally does not stop for a good hour, and by the end I felt exhausted, bruised, and oh so good. There is really far too much to describe, but description would not do the high-octane action justice - it must be seen to be believed. The film has had dissenters, most of whom have labeled it a cheap rip-off. Certainly, while there are very obvious reference points here - the entire Mad Max trilogy (particularly The Road Warrior), 28 Weeks Later, The Warriors, The Cars That Ate Paris - Marshall puts it all in a blender, amps up the violence, adds a unique sense of subtle British humour and a particular political message, that, while not profound, certainly gives the action a bit of weight. And compare Sol's (Craig Conway) post-apocalyptic dystopian family, Kane's medieval fiefdom, and the supposedly safe zone of ersatz PM Canaris' (David O'Hara) Britain and you'll realize that though they differ on the surface, they are altogether identical underneath. Some food for thought there. While the finished product touches on those that have come before, it takes off from there and becomes its own unique, hybridized creature, all sinews and amphetamine rage.

So while Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer keep pumping out PG-rated MTV inspired drivel, I'll keep looking to Marshall to surprise, excite and entertain (and keep on making films that begin with the letter "D"). Good on you, Neil - nice to see the little guys finally win one...

7.21.2008

Four garments and a ladder do not lead us to a corpse - Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsmans Contract Kreviewed


Peter Greenaway’s Draughtsman’s Contract is one little odd piece of filmmaking. This is the director’s first picture and also the first picture of Greenaway’s that I have seen.

The film is set in England in the year 1694 and the costumes, locations, characters and the over all feel of the film are all over exaggerations of the period. Mr. Neville a somewhat renown Draughtsman is asked by a woman to draw pictures of her estate to give to her husband as a gift. A contract is written up between the two that includes times and places the draughtsman will be drawing, room and board, compensation, and of course the details of the Draughtsman and the wife’s private meetings which for lack of a better name are bone sessions. This is the basic plot of the picture; along the way there are hints at a murder mystery that are played here so subtle and in passing that it makes it the loudest thing of the picture. The film is not long and its final scene is the only moment where something of immense consequence is thrust upon the viewer. Fortunately before you have a chance to start caring the film cuts itself off and fades to black leaving you a little dizzy but happy that you took the trip.

From the opening scene I found it difficult to keep up with the dialogue. So sluggish I felt with the slick pace and lightening quick wit that within forty five seconds I opted to watch the picture with subtitles. After about twenty minutes of the film being captioned I felt a little more awake and able to keep up with the characters so I shut it off. The films dialogue is its strongest suit and for a second there you feel like you’re watching a film that is an accurate portrayal of history. It’s not until you stop thinking that this picture is smarter than you then you realize that it really isn’t. It feels like someone blindly poking in the dark and guessing what it must have been like. What saves the picture is that it is blind fun and you’ll find yourself just watching the actors play with each other and with the wordy dialogue. Most of scenes with dialogue are played out in one shot, a testament to the talented cast.

The film is also shot beautifully and the long one piece shots that make up the film are moving drawings themselves as you can tell the camera’s placement was very important to the director. Things like shadow, the contrasting of colours, and symmetry are obviously taken into painstaking consideration, which explains the long shots and blocking of the actors. Many of the shots in this picture should be framed and hung on my wall immediately.

One honourable mention must be given to the obscure character the “Statue”; A naked man who is seen in the background of many shots acting as various statues and sometimes just spying on the guests of the estate. He is never given proper explanation but he is a great distraction and fun to spot. You can probably cut him up and say he’s a representation of you, the viewer, or he’s a device to show how blind all the characters are or something along those lines. I, however, just like watching the guy because he’s surreal and weird.


Greenaway`s Draughtsmans Contract is overall a fun picture when taken not as seriously as it pretends it wants you to. Make sense?

If you do take it as seriously as it pretends to be taken than you will be sadly let down because the film is just pretending such to make you believe to take it seriously and that sir, is the farce of the picture. Pretending the picture is stupid is just to be left as the horse’s arse while everyone else is enjoying a picture that they pretend to be taken seriously only to fulfill the pictures needs but in actuality they are really looking at the picture from another angle, seeing it’s true colours and finally yes, sir, laughing at it in disgust and arousal. Sir.


7.19.2008

Upside Down - Small Retailing in T.O.

The Globe and Mail recently ran a piece about the collapse of traditional retailing strips in the city (The Downside of Up, Saturday July 19th, 2008, T.O. Section). The article focused on the Danforth, Queen St West, and several other corridors where indie retailers were leaving in droves due to the high costs of rent and the soaring municipal tax burden. What the writer failed to point out was the role that the consumer plays in the viability and livability of their own neighbourhoods. Real communities are built around a variety of things. The mix includes residential dwellings, commercial enterprise, public spaces, transportation, social good will, private and public services and government. The glue that holds this all together is the responsibility that each stakeholder has to the greater good and strength of the community. Taxes pay for public services, retailers provide other goods and services, residents maintain their properties and utilize local providers, restaurants, hardware, book, toy and grocery stores. Those commercial businesses in turn employ local people, contribute to local schools, and play a role in the viability of the neighbourhood. An unwritten contract of sorts is struck between these parties and community strengthens or falls apart depending how many opt in and out of their obligations. At least that's the way it once worked.

Retailing has completely changed during our lifetimes. Giant corporate interests have undermined the traditional small local retailer, drawing away an increasingly larger percentage of consumers to vast mazes of concentrated retail conformity literally miles from where they live. These massive retail camps allow corporations to focus, control and manage how people shop by removing them from their communities and recreating the illusion of public spaces in a tightly controlled sales environment. They are designed to sell things and they work. The consequences of this shift is the focus of the Globe's article. Local retailers are left to provide coffee, lottery tickets and cigarettes and slowly die off as more and more storefronts sport either “For Lease” or “Cafe”signs. Less than 10 years ago you could buy a television on Roncesvalles Avenue, a concept that seems almost quaint now. At last count, there were nearly 30 places to get a cup of coffee though and couple more set to open. Community retail has devolved into a nickle and dime industry surviving on scraps of proximity/convenience - resident's buying a coffee on the way to the Rona. Think about it, you can't buy an iPod, a computer or a 2x4 on Roncey.

Unfortunately, this is a lost fight. It was over the better part of 15 or 20 years ago. Community retailing cannot (and will not) recover and a significant rethinking of what constitutes local commerce needs to be undertaken. The corporates have succeeded for two reasons; 1) they are better at marketing and retailing in the 21st century and 2) municipalities & citizens don't connect the viability and livability of their community with sustainable and small-scale supply of goods and services. The ramifications of these facts have not played out quite yet. A lot more “For Lease” signs are coming and traditional urban retail areas will continue to decline. Sooner or later, the City of Toronto's municipal tax burden will overwhelm even the most fortunate of the remaining indie retailers. The Film Buff's municipal tax bill for 900 sq feet in a dank basement is closing in on $13,000 per year and growing almost exponentially. Street parking rates have tripled on Roncey in 4 short years. While Canadian cities have not experienced the hollowing out of their downtown core's residential population to the extent that many American cities have, the same cannot be said about the community retail sector. That exodus has, and continues to happen. Entire blocks of small urban community retail centers now stand virtually abandoned – just drive along stretches of Dupont, Dundas, Bathhurst, St. Clair or any of a hundred other formerly vibrant strips in the city. They're gone, replaced by Home Depots, Walmarts, malls and power-centres with huge free parking lots, 5 or 10 miles away.

Next year, the TTC will replace the streetcar tracks on Roncesvalles, basically closing the street for the better part of the summer. Existing businesses will fail as a result, pushed over a financial cliff that they sit precariously close to right now. When the street is beautified and the tracks silky smooth, the first of a series of corporate stores will pop up, driving rents skyward and surviving indie retail tenants out. 5 years later, Roncey will look like Bloor West Village does now – a vapid Disneyland of corporate retail conformity and blandness. Most people won't care. The Roncesvalles BIA's annual Polish festival will be called a resounding success with 50,000 visitors partaking in a carnival of trucked-in street concessions and merriment. I wonder if anyone will notice that the independent shops are all gone. Probably not.

That's progress for you.

7.13.2008

Californication

Showtime's new series Californication is the product of an industry desperate to reinvent itself to remain relevant in the increasingly fragmented world of “entertainment”. Showtime, a sort of ugly little sister to cable-juggernaut HBO opted to move into the realms of series programming a few years back and scored two recent runaway hits in Weeds and Dexter. They also achieved modest successes with The L-Word and The Brotherhood. Californication was created in an effort to extend that streak but despite a healthy budget and the obvious talents of the cast, the show itself is a tawdry mess.

David Ducovney plays a misanthropic author who drowns his frustrations in liquor and casual sex. When he's not hammered or bedding some vacant tart, he doles out gooey Father-Knows-Best advice to his estranged daughter and tries to reconnect with (read...fuck) her mother. It's all done in that “boy, the drunk-man-whore over there really has a heart of gold, huh?” way that's meant to humanize his deadbeat ways and make him moderately likable. The show has the feel of a bunch of strung-together YouTube segments separated by Agent Mulder's home porn. Boinking a new set of perfect tits (the women attached to them never seem to matter much) occurs with commercial-like 7 to 9 minute regularity in every episode. Back in the old days they used to show commercials for Tide with bright white sheets gently flapping on the clothesline. Now we get to see why they needed cleaning so often.

The trend to R-rated cable programming that started with a few HBO heavy hitters is beginning to feel like it's been squeezed dry. Showtime's current lineup is also taking on the look of a suburban sociopath convention with serial killers, drug runners, philanderers and evil-politico's standing in for the good guys. At the risk of over-analyzing a few escapist television shows, maybe this trend is indicative of something else though. I think we need to come up with a new word that reflects America, circa 2008. Post-Modern doesn't work and Post-911 is too incident specific but the U.S. has morphed into something that I'm guessing will become more evident in future retrospect. In its oddly commercial way, television has always offered up a distorted fun-house/hall-of-mirrors reflection of American society and I think that Showtime has, perhaps even accidentally, plugged into its latest incarnation rather accurately.

It's Robin Hood. Think about it... name a show that doesn't pivot in some way on the actions of an anti-hero. In varying degrees shows like 24, The Shield, Dexter, Weeds, The Family Guy, Prison Break , House, The Office, Curb, Desperate Housewives, etc. are not only about the rejection of the status quo, they often project the pleasures of being released from the moral and ethical bounds of society – free to screw, kill, torture, belittle, and laugh at everyone else. This new Robin Hood persona isn't like the old one. Where the Errol Flynn version robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, this new incarnation becomes the rich and gives it to the poor. They both thumb their noses at the rules but for altogether different reasons. Having watched countless Prince Johns get filthy rich shafting everything that moves, the poor now just want to join the party instead of rectifying the underlaying problems. As a result, shows like Californication, while not necessarily explicitly about fucking everything that moves and never having to face the consequences of those choices, is hardly pointing out the pitfalls either. This Robin Hood doesn't do anything of value. The show isn't badly written, but rather sadly true, at least in its accidental reflection of a society mired in self-indulgence and mindless twaddle. Here's a guy that drives around in a Porche, beds luscious babes, and barfs on art. Wow.... what a lucky bastard.

As usual, I've probably meandered too far from writing a simple review about a a simple series but I can't help but see these programs as examples of society on the cusp of flying up its own ass. I think the term I keep searching for to describe this dreary period is either post-communal or pre-anarchy, but I'm open to suggestions.

7.02.2008

Night of the Sunflowers (2006) PAL Import.

An absolutely inspired debut feature from Spanish director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo that ranks up there for me along with Gone Baby Gone and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a candidate for best of the year. I got this PAL import a few weeks ago and didn't get around to watching it until last night. Night of the Sunflowers is a gripping thriller set in rural Spain and told in 6 chapters with varied time line jumps. An atmosphere of ominous dread and menace pervades the film from start to finish and while it strikes a similar chord in both tone and plot structure to No Country for Old Men, it doesn't suffer from the histrionics that I thought slightly marred the Coen Brother's otherwise excellent film.

Sánchez-Cabezudo explores the nature of violence, revenge, morality and the role that chance plays in life's strange tapestry using multiple perspectives in subtle and measured ways. What's more, he doesn't attempt to provide pat answers to complex questions or decisions. An interesting plot structure has the early leads fading into the background story as new characters are introduced in subsequent chapters. I'm not sure I've seen that before.

Akin to in mood and pacing to fantastic Argentinian film The Aura from last year, Night of the Sunflowers is a equally terrific hidden gem distinctly worthy of a full North American theatrical release and some real marketing money. How this one got passed over by the distributors astounds me. In Spanish with English S/T's

City of Men (2007)

A companion piece of sorts to City of God, the 2002 breakout that established director Fernando Meirelles as a director to watch and featured some of the same actors, including leads Silva and Cunha playing 11-year-olds in the original as 18-year-olds here. City of Men is spun off from a successful Brazilian television series of the same title with Meirelles (the creator of the television series) in the producer's chair this time around.

City of Men is somewhat more humane than City of God offering a softer take on the anarchic culture of the hillside Rio slums. Where the first movie was startling and documentary-like, this picture is more melodramatic and keeps most of the bloodletting off screen. Gone are the rapid jump cuts and shaking camera-work leaving a more traditionally structured melodrama that lacks the energy of the original but retains enough of the character elements to make it worth a watch.

The conflict that pits two fast friends against one another lands with a thud and is a little heavy handed but the film works in spite of some ham fisted writing. Armed child warriors sweeping down the steep terraced hillside like locusts in the night serves as a chilling reminder of how social decay over several generations can turn neighbourhoods into war zones. All in all City of Men rates a 6.5 or 7. Worth a look, but don't run.

7.01.2008

One more reason to love David Lynch

Inspired by Sporgy's previous iPhone rant, I just had to post this video I saw a while ago, but his post jogged my memory. A parody of the iPhone commercials - too good.....

iPhone or Sheep?


On July 11th, the Apple iPhone 3G will be released in Canada.

I know this because Apple and Google emailed me to tell me this... three times so far. I also know this because the marketing juggernaut that is Apple has brought the full intensity of its carpet bombing marketing machinery to bare on us to mark the occasion. The trouble (for them) is.... I'm immune. iDon'tGiveaShit. Google went as far as to “personalize” 230,000,000 webpage hits for me, ME! when I searched “iPhone 3G” AND they did it in 0.13 seconds. Thanks Google! If I properly researched these webpages and looked at each for roughly 15 seconds, I'd be 154 years old when I got done, far too old to operate a phone without hurting myself. Are you beginning to see what I'm getting at here? We are surrounded by things that have no real value. 230 iPhone search hits are too many, let alone 230,000,000. We're being treated like clowns here because we turning into clowns. Just how much TV are you going to watch on your iPhone? It's “widescreen” (like that means anything on something that's just under 3 inches wide).

Ever since I tuned out of the world of broadcast/cable television, I've noticed that I don't care about marketing. It may be just coincidental with the no-cable thing, but I'm fascinated that stuff that would have intrigued me 3 years ago, doesn't anymore. It's funny, we've stopped marketing the stores too.... and we're busier. The iPhone 3G is a handsome product and they'll sell millions of units to be sure, just none to me....because as I said, iDon'tGiveaShit. I know I don't need a $900 phone and no amount of marketing is going to change my mind. You see, the thing is... none of us do. It's just a stupid hunk of bling to play with while your ridiculously empty life slips away on you. It makes far more sense to get a sheep, a point I'll come to below.

I feel released, cleansed and whole, even without an iPhone 3G, actually more accurately, because I'm not going to get an iPhone. I'm thinking 3 “G”'s just aren't enough. I don't want to talk to anyone on a cellphone, let alone on a $900 iPhone 3G. There's a $3000 gold iPhone on eBay which might explain the 3G moniker a little better. If you're so stupid that the $900 price tag doesn't sway you, why not upgrade to the $3G 3G? I'm beginning to think of iPods and iPhones as the tattoos of the electronic world. Once, when only a few knobs sported tattoos, there was a individual uniqueness to them. The smell of a little devil-may-care rough-and-tumble sailor attitude wafted through the air as they passed. Now, everyone has one and they look like inked sheep with white earphones. Individualists Unite! ...as they say.

If you feel the aching need to buy an iPhone, knock yourself out. They come in black and white, just like sheep. The monthly service contract with Rogers will run you around $60 with a 3 year no-exit contract. Total costs? $900 for the phone and $2100 for the contract and Viola!... 3G's.


By the way, I checked what a brand new sheep cost on Google... $25.00 ($30 for a pretty one, delivered) 22,231 hits. It costs about $90 per year to feed and makes a great pet. You can talk to it, go dancing, make a sweater together, have a true friend and then kill and eat it and all for about $300 over three years. I mean, it's not even close... You could have a whole flock of sheep for about the price of an iPhone. Imagine strutting down Roncey with your fuzzy homeys. Totally unique, very hip.


But how would you keep in touch with them when you were at work? I gotta work on that.

Sporgy.