Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki Rides the Wind

There's a scene near the end of the The Wind Rises where a school of Japanese Zero fighter jets soar through blue skies as their main creator and engineer looks on in wonder. The moment feels triumphant and we cheer for the story's main character, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed these magnificent machines against all odds.  

After you leave the theatre it might occur to you at some point that, "hey wait, those planes were heading off to drop bombs and kill innocent people." Such is the ethical and political conundrum Hayao Miyazaki's new film puts you in. The director appears to show little interest in tussling with these issues; he could be accused of dodging a big question if favour of telling a story the way he sees fit.

Miyazaki is a master of visual storytelling and rarely during the film are you left pondering big ethical questions about war and personal responsibility. Instead, you are swept away by his lush animated imagery and emoting characters. The film is visual splendour, which fans of Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) have come to expect.

The Wind Rises, which the 73-year-old Miyazaki says will be his last, follows the biographical story of Horikoshi, a pedantic and grounded airplane engineer whose head is always in the sky. The film shows pre-war Japan and Horikoshi's life from before the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to when those WW2 fighter jets head off to destinations unknown.

Horikoshi, who is too near-sighted to be a pilot, is often visited in dreams by an Italian plane designer named Caproni, who urges him to follow his artistic instincts. Caproni also serves as a springboard for Horikoshi's conscious near the end of the film when he finally ponders aloud the ethical implications of his innovation. This is as close as the film gets to opening that Pandora's box of questions about complicity.

Much of the film, however, is spent detailing the love affair between Horikoshi and Nahoko, who he first meets in a moment of heroism during the earthquake. Their love is rekindled when Horikoshi retreats to a mountain resort after a failed plane prototype costs lives. Despite her poor health, they marry anyways, but this puts their romantic lives in precarious circumstances like a plane experiencing engine failure.

Miyazaki's film is very emotional and as I said you are swept out of the poignant realism of what these planes are ultimately used for. Clearly the director is dealing with issues of letting go and making peace with one's artistic creation. As I mentioned earlier, he claims this is his last film. If true, his career will end in the highest of altitudes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Todd Barry's Crowd Work Tour

Usually when a comedian interacts with the audience, it's in the uncomfortable context of shooting down drunk hecklers or filling stage time when the jokes run dry. Todd Barry, the funniest comedian on the scene today, has embraced this perilous paradigm of audience interaction and turned it on its head.

He's become the self-admitted king of "crowd work" and has devoted entire tours to audience banter. To those who might think this is a cop out from telling prepared jokes, you need to buy his new special from Louis CK's website for $5, like I did, and see it's actually far more challenging than doing a nightly routine of the same set.

Barry is the quickest wit out there and he can spin funny out of the most mundane questions, like: "what do you do for a living?" A digital marketer?  Software programmer? He can work with that. Barry will resist temptation to skip to the next person with a more interesting story and instead dig deeper until he strikes comedy gold.

The special was filmed by Lance Bangs, whose comedy credits are impressively extensive, including specials for Marc Maron and John Hodgman, during a West Coast run last September that started in San Diego and wrapped in Anchorage. Bangs keeps the between-show footage to a minimum, except for exposing Barry's heightened germaphobia with a scene that will make you reconsider where you keep your toothbrush in a hotel bathroom.

The penultimate stop was here in Vancouver and of course there's a disgruntled actor in the audience. Barry's short back-and-forth with him is a prefect microcosm of Vancouver's acting community - they are generally a hard-done-by bunch. Barry shows him sympathy though, as he does with most of his subjects, who reluctantly tell about their jobs and interests. A shallower comedian might rip apart the shy dog-collar artisan in Portland (where else?), but Barry treats everyone with respect. He will only shut you down if you try and steal the show, like the loud-mouthed free range egg lady (also in Portland, of course).

Barry's final date in Alaska is probably his best work on the tour because the variables are so different. Here's a Manhattan guy shooting the shit with a boozy crowd of pipe-fitters in a small club called Chilkoot Charlie's. Yet he never loses the room and it exemplifies Barry's widespread appeal to disparate audiences.

Barry is getting ready to embark on what he's calling his Final Crowd Work Tour and you can find the dates and ticket info at his website. Word of caution: if you're a musician and in some kind of fledgling band, do yourself a favour and don't sit in the front row. Barry will sniff you out and put a laugh target on your chest. Same goes for artisan dog-collar makers.

Friday, March 7, 2014

From the Vaults: The Verdict

Sometimes I wonder if Paul Newman's legacy is becoming better known from the grocery store shelves than from the cinema. I recently purchased a jar of Newman's Own "Sockarooni" pasta sauce and it occurred to me that perhaps a younger generation might only know that smiling face on the label from these fine charity-funding pasta sauces and salad dressings; not as one of the greatest actors of a generation.  

Hopefully the recent addition of 1982's "The Verdict" to Netflix will give younger eyeballs a look at Newman's gifts beyond selling tasty sauces. The film was a critical smash for Newman, legendary director Sidney Lumet and then-budding screenwriter David Mamet, who earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. He lost to the film Missing.

The 1983 Academy Awards, it must be noted, was a powerhouse year and Gandhi cleaned up most categories. But check out its competition: E.T., Tootsie, The Verdict, An Officer and A Gentleman and Das Boot. Diner and Sophie's Choice were also in the mix, which is somewhat mind-boggling because all these films have gone to earn classic or near-classic status.    

Newman himself was on quite a role at the time. He was nominated for Best Actor the year prior for Absence of Malice; lost the same category to Ben Kingsley in '83, but then nailed it two years later when he revived pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson for the Color of Money. The only misstep during this phenomenal stretch was a directorial flop called Harry & Son, which co-starred the much-maligned, at least by me, Robby Benson.

Blue-collar Harry blasts his writerly son. 
In Verdict, he plays a hard-boozing, ambulance-chasing lawyer named Frank Galvin. The kind of guy who crashes funerals to pass out his business card and drinks a raw egg in the morning to kill off the daily hangover (does that actually work?). His friend, Jack Warden, gives him a straightforward malpractice lawsuit that all he has to do is accept a cheque and take his third of it. But Frank's conscience gets in the way.

He decides to fight for the victim, take on the powerful doctors and their high-priced lawyers who have the judge on their side and a moll messing with Newman's life. He doesn't stand a chance right? There's no way he can win this case! Courtroom dramas end the way you expect, but this one has a huge emotional payoff.

Newman is vulnerable; a man who's given up on himself. He had settled into a life of comfortable failure and now he's being forced to confront responsibility and expectation. He would run from it if he could, but there's a girl in a vegetative state that won't allow it. Newman looks tired, defeated and you feel such empathy for him in a scene where he retreats to a bathroom in the midst of a panic attack.

And guess what? He doesn't give up drinking in the end, as shown in a great final scene where he savours both victory and a personal defeat.

I highly recommend this film as well as Sockarooni pasta sauce, which contains "peppers, spices and the whole shebang!" Here you can find recipes using the sauce, like Vegetarian Sloppy Paul's. I'm sure it taste better than it sounds.