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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

Sex, Drugs, Stomach Churning Violence, and Rock & Roll

The Brave One (dir. Neil Jordan, 2007)

Major spoilers ahead


If you think that you’ve already seen Jodie Foster play a part like Erica in The Brave One, there might be a grain of truth in your sentiment: Foster has previously cornered the market (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) on playing damaged women pushed to their absolute limits, often in extraordinary situations.


Foster’s multiple takes on the archetypal female victim who manages to overcome insurmountable odds has won her two Oscars and made her one of the only true box office forces of her age bracket. Erica is one of the actresses’ most full-blooded creations to date that can stand alongside similarly solid turns like her Sarah Tobias in The Accused, and the iconic Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.


While Irish director Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire, The Crying Game) doesn’t usually work in this contemporary American milieu, he is able to capture a fresh, contemporary New York City, where Erica’s story takes place, in its vivacious, seething glory.


“I walk the city”, states Foster’s radio talk show personality (in a voice over that begins cheesy, but eventually finds a steady rhythm and a heart). Indeed, Erica’s life revolves around her experiences of being a New Yorker and running across a veritable stable of all sorts of quirky city dwellers. Mainly, though, her life is perfect: she is engaged to David (Lost’s Naveen Andrews, whose chemistry with Foster is hot), a doctor who dotes on her. They are one of those couples that you want to hate because they are just so perfect.


As much as you might want to hate them or are sickened by their magazine-ad lifestyle, the horrifying incident that happens (at the beginning of the film) to the couple is not something you would wish on your worst enemy. In one of the worst cases of cinematic bad timing I have seen, Erica and David’s seemingly mundane walk in Central Park with their dog turns nightmarish when they run afoul of some street punks who are out to cause trouble.


When things get out of hand, a fight breaks out, and when all is said and done, David is killed and Erica is left in a coma for three weeks. The vicious beating scene is enough to make viewers turn away in disgust, and this can’t possibly be an accident; the filmmakers must want their audience to understand the brutality of a crime like this has an everlasting effect on its victims.


In a bold move, shot by the great cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot with urgency, Jordan chooses to weave together shots of the bloodied, dying couple being brought into the ER as they are clinically worked over with a tender, erotic love scene. While Foster has never really been one to play sexy convincingly (or at all, for that matter), her openness as a performer during this brief encounter is not only surprising, but also a little bit brave.


With the face and body of a real woman over 40, Foster is unafraid of letting the camera see her imperfections, which are few and far between. The woman gets better with age; in every way. This is the actresses’ least self-conscious performance, her most assured, and her most relaxed – despite the heavy subject matter.


After awakening, Erica begins to exhibit signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the film follows her journey into the dark recesses of the mind in the aftermath of tragedy. As she deals with an uncaring police force, which could care less about her predicament as they feed her stock lines like the galling “be patient”, Erica is smart enough to realize that she will never get the results she needs for closure relying on the conventional system. This is a system that keeps victims waiting and clinging to banal hopes. Erica decides to take matters into her own hands and buys a gun.


Perhaps this is Jordan’s comment on America’s obsession with guns and how easy it is to get them (though in the film the manor in which Erica gets her hands on one is ludicrous). Once she kills a rampaging man in a liquor store, there’s no turning back.


There is a nice sense of pacing through the first hour, with the tension properly ratcheted up – but as the second hour lumbers on predictably, the film suffers from all of the usual genre clichés: too-snappy banter and inappropriate flirting, comedic bad men who practically beg to be murdered, and the star becoming a mythical avenging angel.


This is not Flightplan or Panic Room (not to disparage them, they’re immensely entertaining)—while these films both might seem, on a surface level, to be cousins to The Brave One (the marketing looks almost identical), they have no common denominators other than Foster playing a woman who manages to turn the tables. This well-acted, sure-to-be popular entertainment has now become Foster’s forte, and this time out she is supported by a stellar cast: Terrence Howard as a homicide detective who becomes intrigued by Erica, the marvelously wry Nicky Katt as his partner, Mary Steenburgen, Jane Adams, and even Zoe Kravitz (daughter of rocker Lenny and Lisa Bonet), all savor their smallish supporting turns.


Foster’s connection to violence and bloodshed on film is a mysterious one (and one that was played out in her real life when an obsessed fan shot President Ronald Reagan to impress her), but it is a subject matter that she somehow continually re-defines: from a rape victim in The Accused, to a child prostitute liberated from her life of destitution by a psycho in Taxi Driver, to a fledgling FBI agent who hunts down a killer of women in Lambs, the actresses’ willingness to confront violence and it’s taboos in such a whip-smart fashion must be commended. The polarizing public opinion on the subject of revenge and vigilantism plays out in the film much like it does in real life: it provokes very strong reactions, even from those who have nothing to do with it – much like The Brave One likely will.


If this film does not secure Foster the means to finance her long-planned Leni Riefenstahl biography, nothing will. Here’s to hoping we see a lot more of the new, riskier Foster.


Next up, Toronto Day One continues with: The Coen Brothers’ weird and slightly boring No Country for Old Men, Ang Lee’s gorgeous, melodramatic Lust, Caution, and the deft Joy Division biopic Control by Anton Corbijn.


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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

The death of the western as a viable film genre remains, even to this day, a perplexing motion picture issue. It could be argued that the glut of horse opera product that flooded the pop culture market between 1940 and 1980 extinguished any artistic or commercial viability the category had left. Indeed, Hollywood loved to spread the oater’s morality play mandates as thinly as possible. Part of the reason was popularity. Until political correctness condemned its conceits, kids played Cowboys and Indians and the pioneers were looked upon as great land emancipators, not the catalysts for cruel, cutthroat genocide. How the mythos went from machismo to mass murder is definitely a topic for another time. But it does help explain why the sagebrush saga has seen better days. Along with a draught of compelling creativity, post-modern audiences just aren’t eager to revisit our country’s more primeval past.


Perhaps that’s why James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is so strict in its storyline dynamics. This second version of Elmore Leonard’s short story (the first, in 1957, featured Glen Ford and Van Heflin) revolves around a simple rancher who, in a desperate act for much needed money, decides to escort a rogue outlaw to the title train, an express that leads to prison, and eventually, the gallows. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally considered for the project, but Mangold managed to score a box office bonanza when he cast Christian Bale (Batman himself) as Civil War veteran Dan Evans and Russell Crowe as suave train robber and ruthless killer Ben Wade. Rounding out the supporting parts with Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, and Alan Tudyk, he had performers worthy of pulling off the impossible—making this manner of film compelling to a consumed-by-CGI audience.


For the most part, he succeeds in spades. 3:10 to Yuma has its off moments, and its unexplored potential, but for the vast majority of its running time, this is an excellently made and superbly acted throwback. Mangold is not out to deconstruct the genre ala Unforgiven, nor is he trying to contemporize or reimagine his homage ala The Quick and the Dead. Instead, this is the kind of mild mannered, if action packed, movie that the Italians targeted with their spectacular splatter spaghetti updates. After an exciting opening stagecoach hold up, the narrative becomes a series of metaphysical standoffs waiting for some glorified gunplay to forward the momentum. This is a good looking film, one that captures an Old West authenticity that’s unique among its motion picture peers. This is a grubbier, dustier western, a movie that frequently mentions the hardship and the horror of eking out an existence on the fringes of a still-forming nation. 


In that regard, one has to stop and mention the magnificent work of Christian Bale. Playing a Northern veteran of the War Between the States (with his own humiliating past to protect), there’s a real desperation in his performance, a quiet helplessness that carries over to his gaunt face and hobbled physicality. Missing a foot and more considered than confrontational, Evans makes for an unusual hero. Not only do we need him to buffer Wade’s craven cult of personality, but we hope he will find his inner strength as well. The combination creates real tension, and gives Bale lots of room to play. In turn, he’s both pathetic and powerful, a presence that demands attention even if all it results in is nothing more than mockery. With a scraggly beard and sullen eyes, we witness the kind of alienation and angst we’d expect in a post-modern movie. But thanks to his amazingly accomplished acting, it all becomes part of a much more meaningful whole.


Crowe, on the other hand, is quite the quandary. He’s supposed to be larger than life, a charmer who’d enjoy conning you as much as killing you. Instead of delving deep into his character’s psychosis, or the rationale behind his antisocial stance, the actor merely grandstands. You can practically hear him having too good of a time, a leprechaun-ish lilt in his voice almost mocking everything the movie stands for. It’s a brave creative choice, since it could easily alienate the audience. After all, Wade will go through a last act change that pushes our perspective of him into fairly uncharted territory. One can indeed question whether Crowe actually prepares us for this possibility. When he turns on the intensity, he’s as grave as they come. But in the lighter moments, when he’s joking and jesting, we’re stuck stewing over the man. His rogue routine raises enough questions to turn his character into quicksand—substantive at first, but with some rather shaky foundations underneath.


The rest of the company is crafty and first class, with Ben Forster literally stealing the film as Wade’s trusty and treacherous sidekick Charlie. He’s evil personified, a man metering out his own idea of justice one blazing six-shooter at a time. When he appears onscreen, all bets are automatically off, especially during the opening/closing action sequences. He’s ruthless, with just a touch of feyness to render every act doubly despicable. He’s unpredictable and yet totally calculated, a lethal combination indeed. He acts as a counterweight to the cavalier tone taken during some of the movie’s more trite moments. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s venerable veterinarian is a wonderful reminder of the definite dangers involved. Whether it’s repairing bullet wounds or reminding the posse of their purpose, he’s a wonderful voice of reason. Add in Peter Fonda’s grizzled grimness (including a rather nasty backstory) and a real flair for bullet bravado, and you’ve got a really fine cinematic sentiment.


There are a couple of minor misgivings however. The entire subplot with the son, an ungrateful little knave that eventually comes around to his dad’s way of thinking, asks too much of an already perplexed viewer. Why this kid loves the outlaw life and vicarious violence is only suggested, though it appears to be derived from a love of dime novels and press puffery. He’s worked back into the overall tone about halfway through, even if we’re not sure why he’s around. Then there’s the Civil War angle. Bale wears his service literally, the war wound haunting and hobbling him. Yet other characters who mention their part in the conflict do so without a lick of significance, as if their conscription in the nation-defining event was similar to going down to the local saloon for a snort. It’s confusing, and lacks closure. Still, 3:10 to Yuma does a direct job of both bending and blending archetypes. Luckily, the narrative avoids most of the standard stock personas, even if Crowe ends up bedding one of the cleanest looking whores in all of Arizona.


Most of the praise goes to Mangold, however. He keeps things lively, and never forgets that a contemporary audience likes their wicked weaponry in full muffle blast mode. The gunfights are staged in a highly kinetic manner, the participants constantly plotting and moving in an attempt to avoid that hot kiss of lead. The finale is probably the best two on twenty showdown in the history of the genre, made even more effective by the emotional bond we feel with these characters. Even better, this director lays out the basics for a possible genre rebirth. All that’s required is a simple story, capable stars, an acknowledgement of the current medium trends, and a filmmaker that’s capable of meshing them all together. The results can only hope to be as effective as 3:10 to Yuma. In the realm of remakes, this one surpasses its still significant sources.



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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

When mediawork was first founded it was, in many ways, the only game in town for those who wanted a public space to discuss the changes that digital technologies were having on society. The astonishing growth of academic programs in the region since 1994 has seen a proliferation of conferences, seminars, residencies and symposia on all facets of this transformation. In 2001, mediawork moved on to become a publishing initiative and the planned spontaneity of its meetings has been put to the side, at least for the foreseeable future.


Peter Lunenfeld.


Peter Lunenfeld

Peter Lunenfeld


Peter Lunenfeld’s media work: The Southern California New Media Working Group brought a cerebral glamour to the digital community forming in Southern California in the early 1990’s. He was the philosopher and theorist at the centre table in the cafe, speaking in perfectly formed footnotes and making connections and links, both social and intellectual, long before it was really apparent that society itself, the internet reinforcing real world communities, was going to be the outcome of so much experimentation with digital tools. Peter’s gatherings always had the quality of being at a cool Parisian cafe in an avant garde movie. The gatherings were alive: one was an art happening at a Hollywood nightclub, another a dusk party at the Schindler House on Kings Road, most were on Saturday afternoons at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he’s on the core faculty of the graduate Media Design Program. 


He’s in the position of thinking about and critiquing tools and the works of art they produce, and the commercial implications of the tools and the art, while everything is forming, and in flux. The lifelong student of myth, Joseph Campbell, said that taking symbols at face value, giving them a literal meaning rather than grasping for what they suggested metaphorically, was like going into a restaurant and eating the menu instead of the meal. Peter is a theorist in a symbolic environment in a time when the menu, now, may literally be the meal.


I approach criticism as a way to elucidate that which I admire about art rather than simply trying to fit it into a preconceived straightjacket. I’d like to think that I’ve been able to explore that ferocious pluralism ... which so characterizes our era. This is disconcerting to those who pine for the certainties of movements, schools, or avant-gardes that marched in lockstep, one after the other. These days, you’re on your own, it’s up to the individual user to craft his or her own frameworks. Part of the job of the critic is to offer models for this process.


...I’m fascinated by the post-utopian periods of aesthetics and technology. The utopian moment of a medium or field is intoxicating, of course—when the cinema or AI, rock’n'roll or robotics, the portapak or the Web, is going to change the world that very instant. But no one movement or technology can support that level of hype. Often, it’s after the general public’s attention has been raised and then dashed that artists, technologists, and yes, even entrepreneurs, can go back into the wreckage and make interesting, even lasting interventions.


Peter Lunenfeld, interviewed at Frontwheel Drive


 


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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

I have had so little time to read lately that I’m blogging on consecutive days about material I heard on the radio in my morning wake-up stupor. Today, the BBC news hour on WNYC spent an eternity covering the death of Pavarotti, one of the famed three tenors. In the middle of the segment, I shut my eyes for what I thought was only a moment, because they were still yammering on about him when I drifted back into consciousness. Then I realized nearly 15 minutes had passed and I was going to be late for work.


The interminable segment was something I was trying very hard to block out, but one comment made by one of the newsreaders nonetheless stuck with me: She noted that though Pavarotti was often criticized for his limited repertoire and refusal to take risks and test the limits of his ability, he should be praised for having done as much as any other singer to bring opera to the masses. Not to be too elitist (or perhaps too philistine) but why is that particularly praiseworthy? What difference does it make whether or not the masses are exposed to opera, an aristocratic indulgence held over from previous periods of opulence and saturated with the mores of a rigid caste system? Is it some great favor to the masses that Pavarotti can make it appeal to them by apparently simplifying it? It seems somewhat condescending for one—“He was so great, even the masses could appreciate it”—and it implies that what the masses were already preoccupying themselves with was vulgar. Thank God they at least got to hear a little Pavarotti in their time. I’ve got nothing against Pavarotti’s singing, which I’m sure is impeccable. Reaching a mass audience is an achievement of a sort, but it’s not automatically an important or laudable one. It seems more a symptom of what media makes possible and the extent to which we as a society all feel obliged to pretend to care about high art.


The expanded coverage for Pavarotti’s death and the condescension in the reportage seem to be part of some cultural instinct to kowtow to certain recondite art forms that have little broad cultural significance other than serving as class boundary markers. We’re supposed to revere Pavarotti for having transcended those boundaries, but all he really did was remind us that they persist.


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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

Excellent article by Cory Doctorow in the Guardian explaining why DRM can literally never be foolproof and can always be defeated. Also worth noting is this wonderful article in the Boston Globe by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland about why arts education is so important and why it’s not for the reasons that you think.


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