Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a small tribute to his life and fight for more than one kind of justice.

Although he certainly was not an uncontroversial man, but Dr. Henry Morgentaler was a man who expanded a woman's right to real reproductive freedom. Just learning about him defending himself rhetorically against the self-righteous forces who presume to smear him and anyone who needs him is, when he is not being physically attacked by fanatics, is just part of his heroic life that started with surviving the Holocaust. You can listen to a great CBC Radio documentary about his life on this link.

In doing so, he reformed the justice system by fighting off how he was screwed around by the Canadian criminal courts, which arbitrarily overruled his jury acquittal in the 1970s for no other reason other than they didn't like the decision, which is in defiance of a hard fought tradition of British Commonwealth justice. Regardless of your opinion about abortion, every Canadian who values the integrity of criminal justice in their country should appreciation what Morgentaler fought and suffered for. 

To understand that contribution, check out this National Film Board of Canada film, Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair. It gives a whole new perspective of this man and how his fight helped everyone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blood Pressure: A Personal Review.

When I go to the Hyland Cinema, or any movie theatre for that matter, I always check out Rotten Tomatoes' score for the film in question and I typically have full array of opinions to access for a consensus statement.

This Sunday, I had a slightly different experience with a Canadian feature film, Blood Pressure. Like too many native features, this one has has only 2 reviews on RT, although they are both positive and one of them is from the Toronto Star. As a result, I was coming to this movie this movie relatively blind, and the result is exactly the kind of cinematic experience I want from London's only art house theater.

The story is about a frustrated woman, Nicole (Michelle Giroux), who has a pharmacist job under the thumb of a hard ass manager who seems determined to crush out any human interaction and compassion on the job.  Her family life is worse with a coldly distant husband, her teenage kids are a pair of spoiled brats and she is left feeling there is nothing special in her life. One day, she gets a mysterious letter out of nowhere with an offer to help her change her life if she obeys one simple instruction to signal her willingness to begin.  She does so, and that begins a series of letters with gifts and instructions that get increasingly more lavish and bizarre until she finally gets her answers that leads to even more disturbing choices.

Part of what makes this film so effective is that Giroux's performance enables us to enter into Nicole's psyche as we experience her spiritual conflict about her private miseries even as we appreciation what she does have.  That makes that letter writer feel so seductive as Nicole is pulled in irresistibly with the sheer mystery of it, which is given an enthralling visual cue as the text appears around as she reads.  As the stakes rise and the requests become ever stranger, you are left wondering whether Nicole is being sucked into an abyss that will destroy her. Along the way, Giroux creates a life journey with touchingly funny touches as she is led out of her comfort zone as she tries out a gun range, a fancy new dress and scouts out a stranger her corespondent wants her to shadow.

Unfortunately, when that letter writer is finally revealed, the story takes a less enticing flavour as he reveals his true intentions behind the letters, leaving Nicole with a strangely agonizing moral decision. Now, the story revolves around how much as this woman has changed and what she is willing to do. That in itself is a intriguing plot thread, but it lacks the compelling mystery with the letters.  Still seeing Nicole making her choices and finding friends and hidden answers where she least expects them will push you along; unfortunately it's for an climax that feels too conventional.  That said, the very end has a real punch as the true emotional cost of her adventure finally hits home even as her shaken family comes together.

All in all, discovering a film like this, warts and all, is worth a Sunday night's ticket.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Fred Rogers and Hollywood's Planned Cinematic Tribute

When we hear such awful stories like those women held prisoner for years in a house in Cleveland, which is one of many we've heard about, that, along with Steve Harper and his cronies' antics on Parliament Hill, can give you a really low opinion of humanity.

With that in mind, it is gratifying to see Hollywood plan to celebrate someone who was truly good in seemingly every way, Fred Rogers, with a biopic film about him. After all, when right wing neanderthals  like Fred Phelps and Fox News loathe a man of such love and humane principles as Rogers, then you know he has earned the right to be considered an American saint of Television.  Just that famous quote now about we should "look at the helpers" is enough to give strength to people in the face of tragedy is a glorious tribute to his goodness.
It's funny how a guy like that with only a decades long TV series could created such a sweet alternative to the frenetic "bombardment"  created by lesser minds in the medium.  Furthermore, it's especially gratifying to know that the CBC helped get the ball rolling starting the show's first incarnation, which inspired his assistant, Ernie Coombs, to do the same in Canada as Mr. Dressup. Heck, just knowing that he both liked both Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live parody, "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" and Night of the Living Dead, which was inspired by a spot on his show about going to the dentist, says a lot what an open minded man he was.

Does he look like Rogers to you?
With all that being said, I've always thought that it is a great acting challenge to portray a good, wholesome man than a flawed one since the former can bore the audience if there is minimal internal conflict. In that regard, Christopher Reeve and Chris Evans managed to pull that thespian trick off as Superman and Captain America respectively and a Rogers biopic will demand similar skill.  To that end, I always like to default to an unknown actor since he could depict the man without the presupposition of any screen presence of an established star.  However, given the whole Hollywood fixation about stars, selecting one is inevitable. Obviously, another suggestion, Steve Carrel, is out; casting a comedian like would undercut the drama. I would go for Ed Norton, he has roughly the same build of Rogers and his roles can have the same feel of charm and dramatic gravity.

For a major test, I am certain that Norton could do a dramatization of this classic moment when Rogers charmed a crusty US Senator to save the Corporation of Public Broadcasting's public funding in 1969. Only a man with a gentle presence and eloquence could do what Rogers did with persuasion and a song and only an actor of such quiet skill like Norton could recreate it. 

As it is a no-brainer to have this as a major scene in the film, then it should be a deciding factor and I bet an actor who played a white trash neo-nazi in American History X would relish this kind of different role. I just hope that the film will include the Canadian role in this story and give it it's proper due.

Until then, we can also know that Rogers' legacy lives on with his production company now producing a sequel animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which endeavors to recreate the original series charm for new generations. For myself, I welcome that effort and I hope it can help new generations of children that Rogers devoted his life to.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Value of an Informed Opinion

Trust them, or hidden marketers?
When one thinks about the arts, why is it that some people sneer at the idea at consulting informed opinions about the subject?  If someone buys a car or a house and does not consult some resource to see if what is the best to get and what to avoid, they are considered suckers. Yet, when it comes to something so simple like buying a movie ticket, the idea of checking out what a critic says about the film is too often treated like nothing to consider.

Even worse, the idea of ignoring critic is too often treated like some grandiose declaration of freedom from some supposed self-important cultural dictator who is telling what people to read or see. I am reminded of a story Roger Ebert told when he had a conversation with a person who asked his opinion of some film and when Ebert said that he thought it one of the best of that year, the person declared that they certainly would not see that movie because of that recommendation.

That kind of attitude fundamentally is as philosophically pathetic as those people who protested New Coke in the 1980s like it was some grand civil rights cause instead simply a high profile whining of a mere soft drink product change. In this case, saying "I don't pay attention to critics" is usually not much more than a blind embrace of ignorance.  Do these people really want to waste their money on movies that they don't like and what is so wrong of being forewarned?

For me, movies cost too much to typically waste my money on the bad ones and I want only to see the ones that are worth it.  Furthermore, those who think they are making totally uninfluenced choice of seeing a film by ignoring critics are kidding themselves; what they are exposing themselves to instead are the intense marketing campaigns, be it trailers, TV commercials or celebrity interviews, or their friends who could be similarly and ignorantly influenced by such persuasion. The movie companies spend millions to market their films, regardless of whether they deserve it or not and to unthinkingly treat that kind of pushing as inconsequential to one's decision is to allow it to achieve its ultimate goal to fool you thinking that seeing a particular film is entirely your idea.

By contrast, to pay attention to the critics is to more likely consult people who make it their business to find if something is worth your time and money.  That is not some kind of  "snobbery" or "elitism," that is just plain common sense and it will likely give you an enriching cinematic experience to try new material because you are judging on reports of merit, not because you are beaten over the head with advertising. For myself, watching a film's score on Rotten Tomatoes is often all the promotion I need and want as I enjoy its roller coaster ride and see where it will finally end up. With RT with 100+ reviews for major films, the old excuse of "That's just one person's opinion" is shot down with satisfying efficiency.

In short, when deciding about films to see, you will either be influenced by your peers as sheep, manipulated by marketers as a puppet, or influenced by hopefully disinterested critics' informed opinions as an intelligent human being.  It is not a perfect or foolproof arrangement, but its one that respects your intelligence and values your judgement rather than be someone to fool.