Archive for January, 2011

Identity: Id’s Always A Struggle

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2011 by JonH

Right from the outset Black Swan develops at a frenetic pace. The motion of the camera work in the opening scene as it follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dizzying visual metaphor of things to come.

Part Psycho with the overbearing/protective mother, part Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Black Swan depicts the downward psychological spiral of an up-and-coming dancer of a prestigious New York ballet company who begins to succumb to paranoid schizophrenia induced by various pressures.

From pulling a hangnail to its logical (or rather, horrific extremes) to crushing her mother’s hand in a door, appendages, especially hands, sure take a beating in this movie. Though I’ve seen more graphic, the images of violence made me wince. As nauseating as some of these scenes are the scenes of sensuality and exploitation at the hands of the dance company’s leader, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), or the emotional manipulation of her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) are equally as provocative.

Leroy, in an attempt to discover a new Swan Queen to take the place of the previous queen, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the upcoming season, identifies the positive aspects of Sayers’ abilities to perform the role of the White Swan, but insists that her grasp on what it takes to properly perform the role of the character’s alter-ego, the Black Swan is tenuous at best. He insists that inhibitions, specifically of the sexual variety, are what hold her back. His sexual manipulation of her is executed in a precise manner in order to induce the response he wants. Leroy seduces her while they dance, abandoning her as she begins to succumb, and then declaring that it should have been him that was seduced not her. He also has her up to his apartment and asks her provocative questions about her sexual history, but then dismisses her suggesting that she learn she go home and masturbate. Leroy’s motives are always only for the good of the role not for his own personal sexual satisfaction. Sayers, like Beth MacIntyre, is only a means to an end. The end, for Leroy, is to put on a successful ballet.

Sayer’s mother is a failed former ballerina that manipulates, controls, and lives vicariously through her daughter. By enclosing and coddling Nina in a world of long forgotten innocence — her own innocence – she inadvertently socially handicaps Nina and disables any possibility of emotional support as the downward spiral begins.

Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a tragic film of emotional manipulation; of an adult that never truly grows up, and is trapped in the world of what others see her as. Nina Sawyers yearns to satisfy both her mother and her director, but she’s also desperate for independence from the rigid confines of their expectations. Sawyers only outlet for this is through Lily (Mila Kunis), a rival dancer in the troupe. But even Lily’s affection becomes a double edged sword in Nina’s delusional world.

Each of the three main characters that stand opposite to Nina Sawyers occupies an element of Freudian psychoanalysis. Leroy, the teacher, represents the Id. He is the aspect of Nina’s subconscious that yearns for her to let go. Erica, the mother, is the super-ego. She is moralizing and rigid, and is the rule-following component of Nina’s life; Lily, the friend, represents Nina’s ego. This is who she wants to be. She literally sees herself in Lily.

It’s nice to see Winona Ryder in a role that’s got some teeth, and the supporting cast does a great job in helping to establish Nina’s insecurity. In terms of the main character, Natalie Portman does an exceptional job portraying Nina Sawyers in her evolution, and subsequent consumption, into the character of the Black Swan.


I Sent Stephen Hawking an Email Once . . .

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , on January 25, 2011 by JonH

But, it didn’t quite turn out the same way . . .

An outlier in the true sense of the word, John Moffatt has the distinction of being the first Trinity College, Cambridge student in over 400 years to earn his PhD in physics without having first received an undergraduate degree. This is especially intriguing considering his inauspicious beginnings: in the days during the Second World War, after finishing high school European students would apply to enter a preparatory program for university, which consisted in part of an interview. Moffat’s interview, which, ironically, was with a mathematician, went so badly he was utterly humiliated. With his hopes of attending university quickly fading, Moffat shifted his attention to becoming an artist, a passion he’d had as a child. With a sense of adventure, direction, and motivation most only dream of having, he picked up and moved to France to study painting with the Russian artist, Serge Poliakoff.

Moffat soaked up the lessons quickly with Poliakoff, and soon the two were exhibiting their works side by side in galleries throughout France. Unfortunately, Moffat, realized all too clearly the limitations of trying to earn a living as an artist, and after only a year in France left back home for Copenhagen to ponder what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

It was during this time of self-reflection (or whatever you call it when you have no idea what you should be doing with your life) that he picked up two books which were to set the tone for the rest of his life: The Nature of the Physical World, and Spacetime and Gravitation, both by Sir Arthur Eddington.

Bam! The lights went on; the apple fell; “Eureka,” he yelled as he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street naked (not really, that was Archimedes . . . ). Physics had entered John Moffat’s life, and its impact was utterly transcendental:

“After reading the books, I began having strange visions of the structure of the universe and the fabric of spacetime as revealed by Albert Einstein,” he writes. “In these daydreams, I tried to comprehend how the universe was structured. These daydreams were intuitive forms rising from my subconscious rather than conscious attempts to understand the universe. The visions seemed to indicate some primal urge developing within me to connect with the stars and galaxies of the universe” (25).

After a year of intense self study (where he says he learned the equivalent of four years of study in physics and mathematics all the while working to help support his family) Moffat managed to get a job with the Copenhagen University Geophysics Institute. Now immersed and employed in the scientific field, he managed to write a paper that drew the attention of Neils Bohr. Indeed, it was this meeting with the famous Danish physicist that compelled the young autodidact to write Einstein in the first place. You see, Bohr and Einstein disagreed about the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics. Bohr felt it was based on probabilistic outcomes; whereas Einstein felt that this was tantamount to god rolling dice. During their meeting, Bohr referred to his German counterpart as an alchemist (evidently a disparaging remark that implied someone was wasting their time on nonsense.) Evidently put off by Bohr’s remarks, on a whim Moffat wrote Einstein to discuss the elder physicist’s theories.

Upon receiving a return letter postmarked from Einstein’s home in Princeton, New Jersey handwritten by Einstein himself, Moffat was encouraged by what was said, and thus embarked on a journey around the world, studying and discussing physics with a veritable who’s who of famous physicists. Moffat, now in his late 70s, is currently a resident affiliate member at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario.

A reasoned, thoughtful memoir of John Moffat’s experience as a physicist, “Einstein Wrote Back” provides fascinating insight into not only some of the physics’ world’s most intriguing individuals (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Pauli, Gell-Man, Schrodinger, Salam, Heisenberg), but also illustrates how competitive science can become as rival theories clash.

Why not support a local, independent bookstore, and pick this book up at Audreys downtown, or Greenwoods’ on the Southside?

Those Wacky Swedes . . .

Posted in Surveys and opinions with tags , on January 24, 2011 by JonH

When a hockey team is rebuilding it’s important for management to ensure that they bring in the right players. These players should embody the right blend of maturity and experience as well as youth and zeal. Each should offer a different skill set, but passion for the game, and the team, should be the unifying factor between them all. All of these pieces should complement one another, and help strengthen the bond between teammates.

For all of this to work ala “Boys on the Bus” it’s essential that these new Oilers build a sense of camaraderie, friendship, and that special bond that can only exist between true friends. Last year we saw it between Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano; earlier this year we saw it between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle; now we’re seeing it between Magnus Paajaarvi and Linus Omark.

Granted the team is struggling right now — that’s to be expected — but I think if management can keep these guys together for a few years as they mature they’re going to make Edmonton a force in the NHL again. They’re fast, skilled, and colourful. And on that note, I have to say the Swedes are quickly becoming my favourite of the Oilers. They have the right blend of skill, speed, and most importantly, a refreshing sense of humour. What does he mean, you ask? Click to the 4:05 point of this video of Magnus Paajaarvi showing some people around his condo in Edmonton, and watch the magic unfold . . .

When Justice Needs a Laxative

Posted in Review with tags , , on January 18, 2011 by JonH

In a trial by jury evidence is presented for and against an individual in court after which the jurors are instructed by the judge to carefully weigh and deliberate all that they’ve witnessed and heard. Excused and then led to the privacy of a room located close by, they are to attempt to reach a consensus of either guilt based on the evidence provided by the plaintiff, or innocence based on the idea of reasonable doubt as established by the defendant. If consensus isn’t established one way or another it’s declared to be a “hung jury” and the proceedings could be declared a mistrial. Based on the teleplay of the same name, the 1957 film, 12 Angry Men explores just how difficult consensus building can be.

The film opens with a slow pan up the steps of the courthouse, and up the columns toward the roof where the words, “The Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good” are clearly marked in somber lettering overlooking the busy street below. The opening scene is followed by a long shot following people as they move from room to room, gradually panning to the left ending at court room 228 (interesting choice of numbers). The third scene provides the back story for the movie. It’s a long and complex case the judge intones. “Premeditated murder is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You’ve listened to the testimony. You’ve had the law read to you and interpreted as it applies in this case. It’s now your duty to sit down and try to separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead. Another man’s life is at stake.”

As the 12 jurors leave the courtroom and settle into the backroom to begin their deliberations the mood appears almost relaxed. The evidence is clear enough and the state has an eyewitness to the crime. We’re led to believe that it’s an open and shut case, and that sense is compounded by the deliberate and almost casual demeanor the jurors have. They’re merely there to go through the motions. With the exception of one man, who is pensively looking out the window, everyone is interacting to one degree or another. It’s this one man’s dissenting voice, which casts a pall over the otherwise certain outcome of the proceedings.

Juror number eight, played by Henry Fonda, casts a vote of innocence during the initial go-round, but he’s not so much voting for the boy’s innocence as much as he’s voting for the opportunity for justice to run its course. This means a careful and studious review of the facts, not just as they were presented, but as they may have been misrepresented. Fonda’s character casts doubt merely by asking whether it’s possible or not for the state’s witnesses and the evidence that was presented to have been wrong. What’s refreshing is that he doesn’t formulate some clever, unanticipated argument no one else thought of, he just wants to talk about the case for a while. He feels the accused boy’s life is worth at least a discussion, and he’s willing to put himself in the unenviable position of being the only one who thinks so.

Given that it’s over 50 years old it would be natural to assume that the film’s method of producing dramatic tension might seem a bit out of date; in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In a day and age where access to information is ubiquitous, it’s a refreshing approach for a movie to use dialogue (information through speech), rather than action, as means to propel the drama. To do so in an unpretentious fashion makes it seem even more contemporary than some contemporary films, if you get what I’m saying. (I’m of the opinion that a truly contemporary film would somehow go about using dialogue in an overly complex manner, which, no doubt, would necessitate the need for simultaneous flashbacks just to drive the point home.)

Granted, there are moments of over acting, but it quickly makes sense when you consider the screenplay was developed from a teleplay. Director Sidney Lumet does a remarkable job at invoking a palpable sense of claustrophobia. With the exception of the opening few minutes and the last few minutes of the movie all of the drama takes place on two sets: the jurors’ room and the adjoining bathroom. By using very minimalist set design the actors use their environment very much like that of a stage. Minimalism transcends set design in this film. It also extends to the characters. You only find out two of the jurors’ names, and that’s at the end of the film and only in passing. This is because naming the jurors would have added a level of depth to their characters that would have detracted from their true purpose in the film, which is to function as an allegory of the human condition.

As a movie 12 Angry Men is a well done, thoughtful examination of consensus building; as an allegory it represents the innate biases (hate, guilt, and naivety, to name a few) human beings share and must transcend to achieve the ideal of a fair and equitable society.

Follow up on the Arena Discussion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 13, 2011 by JonH

The City of Edmonton recently released a document outlining the results of a survey that had been conducted gauging the overall interest Edmontonians have for the proposed arena district.

The document seems to present a fairly unbiased summary. Read it here.

Some interesting discussion pertaining to the document can be found on the hockey site, Hockey’s Future. Read some of that discussion here.

For a refresher on what our thoughts on the arena project are, please refer to the article posted on our website.

What are your thoughts?

True Hit

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , on January 8, 2011 by JonH

I have a confession, and it’s one that many people could probably make. I have a crush on Joel and Ethan Coen. You know the Coen Brothers. The directing duo of movies like Blood Simple, the Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men, to name a few. These guys just know how to make a movie with rich characters and plop them right in the middle of interesting circumstances. Take their latest, True Grit, an adaptation of the 1968 novel of the same name written by Charles Portis.

Here we meet Mattie Ross, played exquisitely by Hailee Steinfeld, a precocious 14-year-old girl who sets out to secure the services of the most merciless Deputy Federal Marshal in the state, Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, in order to track down the man who murdered her father in cold blood: Tom Chaney (played in a particularly inbred fashion by Josh Brolin). Ross sees Cogburn, the crusty old veteran marshal, as a man of true ‘grit’ and ability, and a man that will do what needs to be done regardless of the consequences. This is made evident in Mattie’s eyes when she witnesses Cogburn being cross examined by a defendant’s attorney during a court appearance. Cogburn, it would seem, has no issues with killing. Ross offers Cogburn $50 in advance to track Chaney down and $50 once brought in and hanged. Initially, he doesn’t take the young girl seriously and declines her request, but soon capitulates and agrees to track Chaney down. Cogburn tells Ross to meet him the following morning at 7:00 am after which the two will set off.

Most likely because he doesn’t want to expose her to any danger, Cogburn has no intention of taking Ross with him and instead forges an alliance with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon. Earlier, LaBoeuf had come onto the scene and met with Ross explaining his plan to hunt Chaney for a crime he’d committed in the State of Texas against a senator, but Ross rebuffs his suggestion that the three work together to capture the outlaw. Despite this the two men make off for Chaney without the girl; however, not to be denied the opportunity to see the man that murdered her father captured, Ross goes after Cogburn and Laboeuf and eventually catches up with them just after they cross a river. The river crossing is where, in my mind, Mattie’s “true grit” is revealed. It’s with this action that it can be argued that both she and Cogburn are kindred spirits in that each will do whatever needs to be done to achieve a specific, desired end.

The acting in this movie is first rate. In the case of Hailee Steinfeld, it’s difficult not to be drawn into the way she speaks and how she acts with such authority. Her portrayal of Mattie Ross fluctuates between innocence and intellectual manipulation to reluctance and sheer fright: this kid can act. And what can you say about Jeff Bridges? It’s a powerful role he plays straddling the drunken U.S. marshall with loyalty towards his work and the father-like feelings he obviously begins to develop for Mattie. Matt Damon injects a bit of humour into the movie with his portrayal of the Texas ranger, but there’s something wonky about that moustache. As for the minor characters, you only need to look as far as Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper to see that they also pull their weight. You’re left thinking that the Coen Brothers must really be actors’ directors. They seem to be able to coax brilliant performances from everyone.

Interestingly, a note about the use of language in the film: none of the characters use contractions. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, but it lends an interesting tonality to the movie. In the context of aural stimuli, one drawback, however, is the music. Aside from that which played as the credits rolled, and the Johnny Cash used for the trailer, I honestly don’t remember anything else. Obviously, it wasn’t obtrusive, but equally as obvious was its lack of impact. I like memorable musical themes in movies, or at least having some sort of residual memory of the role it played during a movie, but with True Grit I had neither. In the end, though, that’s a minor complaint because through Mattie Ross’s affinity for quoting proverbs, and Rooster Cogburn’s proclivity for violence, to Ranger LaBoeuf’s passion for justice and the cruel and wicked ways of Ned Pepper, the Coen brothers have fashioned a great return to the American tradition of the Western genre.