“Blackway” Loses Something In the Translation

How can one of our finest living actors go from prestige pics like Howard’s End,  Remains of the Day and Silence of the Lambs to straight to video (or,in this case, Netflix) dreck like Blackway in a few years?

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That is the thought running through my mind as I watched Anthony Hopkins in Blackway as an aging sawmill worker (no, I don’t make this stuff up) who  teams up with a young woman played by Julia Styles and a mentally slow but physically fiery young man (rising star Alexander Ludwig) to take down the town bully (Ray Liotta, who should be accustomed to playing villains in B-movies by now.)


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Anthony Hopkins (with Alexander Ludwig) in Blackway: “Maybe I shouldn’t have  listed myself as a producer.”

What makes it even worse is that director Daniel Alfredson helmed Parts 2 & 3 of the original Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.)

So who is to blame for this almost lifeless wannabe thriller? Well, I could single out screenwriters Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs who based their script on a novel called Go With Me ( by an author named Castle Freeman Jr.) and, according to website the playlist.net “we get all the plot beats of the novel, and none of the texture.” ( I haven’t read the book myself so I don’t wanna pretend I did.)

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I could even assign part of the blame on Mr. Hopkins himself. He is listed as one of the producers, after all. and after working with Mr. Alfredson on the equally dismal The Kidnapping of Mr. Heineken he must have known what he was getting into. But I think the majority of the responsibility probably lies with the director.

After scanning the Internet Movie Database I notice Mr. Alfredson  is back in Sweden filming a new trilogy. That is probably just as well since his adaptation of the Freeman novel, to quote a popular phrase, loses something in the translation.

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Julia Styles in Blackway: “Wait a minute. This isn’t a new American version of “The Girl Who Played with Fire?



I Got it at the Library: “By Gaslight”

That Stephen Price is a helluva storyteller.

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Steven Price

At over 700 pages, By Gaslight, the second novel by the Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and fiction writer might have been a doorstopper. But like many of the lengthier films I have enjoyed over the years, I was never bored or visually fatigued thanks to the author’s vividly realized prose and memorable characters.

The novel is set in 1880s London (with flashbacks to the American Civil War and the diamond mines of South Africa) and it is a credit to Mr. Price’s impeccable research and richly detailed narrative that I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was written recently and not penned a number of decades ago. (I haven’t read a novel this rich in period detail which transported me back in time since Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan which was primarily set in 1939 Berlin and Paris – the novel also flashes forward to the early Nineties.) 

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The story centres around William Pinkerton, son of the crusty, larger-than-life authoritarian who founded the famed investigative organization, and his hunt in foggy London town for an elusive criminal whose very existence is questionable. There is also a gentleman grifter named Adam Foole, his lady love, Charlotte Reckitt, a giant named Fludd and Molly, a ten year old girl who is wise beyond her years (to say the least).  Each of these characters are given humane and believable back stories, scrupulously sculpted by the author. The result is, yes, characters you both know and care about as well as (or better than) members of your own family.

You don’t have to be Fellini, to paraphrase an old George Carlin routine, to see themes of the often thorny relationship between fathers and sons, the futility and tragedy of war (any war) and the Rashomon – like nature of truth interwoven into the narrative.

Perhaps the ancient adage is true that a prophet (or, in this case, an author) is without honor in his own country because, in one of the first Canadian literary websites I logged onto, the highly respected quillandquire.com, while admitting that the novel is “an engrossing read“, the reviewer says  “… nothing carries us beyond the characters to give their stories thematic resonance of the sort that motivates the great 19th-century novels to which By Gaslight is so indebted … “(Perhaps the writer of this review has been hanging around stuffy Ontario academics too long,)

I much prefer the enthusiastic, uncluttered  response of America’s NPR (National Public Radio): ” … Intense …  threaded through with a melancholy brilliance, it is an extravagant novel that takes inspiration from the classics and yet remains wholly itself.”

Perhaps the best description of the novel is on the back cover of the book itself: ” … darkly mesmerizing,” writes author Jacqueline Baker, “worthy of the great Victorian thriller writers, but Steven Price brings to his prose a sensibility and dazzling skill all his own … perfectly grounded in period and rich in incident and image. Haunting and deeply satisfying. “

Come to think of it, Stephen Price and Esi Edugyan are husband and wife. Could they be CanLit’s new Power Couple (even if they are not based in Toronto)?

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Esi Edugyan and Steven Price: The Canadian Lit Power Couple?

I Got it at the Library: “Certain Women”

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Film-maker/Professor Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt refuses to be rushed.

But you already know that if you have seen Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off. If you are a newcomer to her highly personal and (some might say) idiosyncratic art Certain Women may not be the best introduction. See the two films above first and then see Certain Women and you should feel right at home.

You may have read about the slow food movement. Well, Reichardt’s films are what has been called “slow cinema”. And she determines the pace. (She has edited, written and directed all of the films listed above.)

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Based on a series of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, by the way) Certain Women offers low key character studies of  four women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone), their humdrum existences,  frustrations and small victories. 

Reichardt’s films, like the slow food movement perhaps, are an acquired taste. The film recived a 92% per cent critical approval on the rottentomatoes.com site but fared less successfully among the audience reviewers (RT Audience Critic Phillip Price wrote in part “…  There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting …. “

But as Ms. Reichardt told Nigel Smith of “theguardian.com”‘:  “It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that … 

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More WWTF: “The Duke of Burgundy”

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Mainstream websites such as philly.com, the online division of the  “Philadelphia Inquirer” describes The Duke of Burgundy as a straight-faced homage to 1970s European erotica, full of soft-focus nudity and soft-core kink.” Stephen Rea, in his review of UK auteur Peter Strickland’s film goes on to mention Italian soft-core king Jesus Franco and America’s Radley Metzger as influences on Strickland’s art and calls Duke a throwback to “more innocent times, when actresses with exotic names would strip off their costumes while embracing far-fetched scenarios – and one another.” 

Since I nurse tender feelings towards French film-maker Just Jaeckin’s original 1974 Emmanuelle and its leading lady, Sylvia Kristel, I decided to add it to my Netflix list.

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Sidse Babbette Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy
 Go deeper – to hard-core cinephile sites like cinema-scope.com – and the dedicated viewer will unearth more complex (conservative viewers may call depraved) meanings. Control is a dominant theme – as in Sun  Choke  – but expressed in a much more subtle manner. The narrative revolves around a May- September lesbian couple (Sidse Babbet Knudsen, Chiara d’Anna), their S & M roleplay and lepidoptery. (The film’s title refers to a type of butterfly.)  There are film references and metaphors galore oozing just under the surface  But what a lush and sensual surface it is (cinematography by Nic Knowland).
Since I have not engaged in S & M roleplay personally, some of the references flew by me on the first viewing. (So that’s why the character portrayed by Ms. Knudsen drinks so much water.) Ms. Knudsen’s CV, incidentally, includes TV’s Westworld, Borgen (a Danish political drama in which she plays Denmark’s Prime Minister!) and a small role (opposite Tom Hanks) in the film A Hologram for the King.  Ms. d’Anna (a former geologist, according to “Rolling Stone”, who called the film “the kinkiest arthouse film of the year“) is the younger half of the duo. Both actresses play their roles in refreshingly natural fashion , as writer/director Strickland intended.
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Chiara d’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy
In the interview with cinema-scope. com’s  Jose Teodoro, Mr. Strickland makes the remark ” ….  I’m trying to embrace that disreputable or sleazy impulse, as the film we made clearly started as a Jess Franco tribute, though it ended up as something very different … ”  You’ve been warned (or intrigued).
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WWTF (Wassup With This Flick): SUN CHOKE

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We know Janie (Sarah Hagan) has severe mental health issues, Irma (Barbara Crampton), the housekeeper/stepmother, may be trying to cure her with yoga, holistic exercises and New Age babble and that, in one of her rare forays out of doors (most of the film takes place in a lavish yet sterile Beverly Hills home complete with swimming pool) Janie becomes obsessed with a young woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane) and begins to stalk her. 

Sarah Hagan as Janie

That’s it. The rest may be up to you. Writer/director Ben Cresciman supplies no backstories for any of the characters. He only hints that something very bad happened to Janie (perhaps dating back to her childhood), her mother has died and the father has been largely absent from the scene (in the film he is on an extended trip to Tokyo). Themes of parental neglect, personal control (or the lack of it) and the care and treatment of mental illness are hinted at. But like all works of art, the final interpretation is left up to the individual viewer.

Sara Malakul Lane

All three actresses are committed to Cresciman’s vision. The cinematography (by Matthew Rudenberg) reflects the many moods of the characters and is exquisite and well thought out.

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Barbara Crampton

The problem, for the viewer, may be that, like Janie, you will have problems separating reality from what is going on in Janie’s feverish imagination. Most of the film seems to be from her deeply disturbed point of view. In literature, Janie’s POV is often referred to as “the unreliable narrator”.

If the idea of a film that entertains while it makes you work and if the concept of a film largely set in one environment and only featuring three main characters makes you as a viewer feel claustrophobic, then you are advised to choose something else.

For me, even though I couldn’t always figure out what was going on, the film held my attention to the bitter end (and the ending may be bitter to most viewers) and images from the film replayed themselves in my mind for several days after viewing, the mark of a film that grips and holds my imagination.

Sun Choke was streaming on Netflix as of May 2017


Accepting No Substitute!

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I read an ad in a newspaper for a David Bowie impersonator. He was described as having the looks, the moves and the sound of the late rock icon. 

I saw the real David Bowie at a rock festival in the California desert a number of years ago. The temperature had crested over one hundred degrees that day, the water taps were on the fritz and the first aid tents were full of sun-burned folks in various states of distress. To put it mildly, the crowd was in a raucous, ugly mood. And yet when Mr. Bowie entered the stage, looking elegant as always in a suit and tie and began  to perform “Cracked Actor” with  his usual theatrical flair, a reverent hush fell over the unruly crowd. 

So while impersonators may have the look, the moves and the sound of David Bowie, they will never capture his charisma. The feeling that one is in the presence of genuine and highly respected rock royalty. 

And while I am on the subject how come most of the performers mimicked are white? Oh sure, there is one Tina Turner impersonator that I know of (and Ms. Turner is one of the few performers being copied who is still alive) and a friend tells me there is a Prince impersonator in eastern Canada (good luck with that) but to date I haven’t heard of any touring Tupac acts (although that may change with the upcoming biopic All Eyes on Me) or Notorious B.I.G. imitators.

Maybe I don’t get out much but all I seem to hear about is Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond (!) impersonators , touring Abba tributes and Creedence, Pink Floyd and The Band soundalikes. I suppose this fills the need for people who, for various reasons, were/are unable to see The Real Deal.

But for me, at least, there is no substitute for the genuine original artist/group.