Friday, November 30, 2012

Dvd Review: The Ice House

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to assume that the recent BBC, Warner Home Video DVD release of the 1997 two part TV movie adaptation of best selling crime novelist, Minette Walters' first novel, The Ice House has something to do with the fact that it features the young Daniel Craig. And, since it just happens that the older Daniel Craig is returning to the big screen as Bond, James Bond, the resulting attention certainly couldn't hurt. Still, cynicism aside, whatever the reason for the current release, it is certainly welcome.

The Ice House is a taut, well paced crime drama in the best traditions of the British "who done it," filled with the kinds of revelations that are surprising, yet develop organically from the narrative. An unidentifiable body is found in an ice house on the estate of woman whose husband had disappeared some ten years earlier. She had been suspected of murdering him, but his body had never been found, and the detective in charge convinced of her guilt had reluctantly left the case unsolved. Now he is sure the newly discovered body is the husband and is out to prove it. Add some sensationalistic plot elements like lesbianism and spousal abuse and you have the makings of a smart piece of work with just enough spice to titillate viewers.

Corin Redgrave, the older Jolyon from The Forsyte Saga, plays the detective in charge with the measured competence one expects from the archetypical British police officer. Craig plays McLoughlin, his younger associate, and it is made very clear early on that he is the center of attention. He has something of a back story. His wife has left him. He has been drinking. And, his first spoken line introduces him with perhaps the most memorable line in the film. Craig doesn't disappoint, his performance is as good an indication that he would be going far as one could hope for.

The rest of the cast, although not particularly well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is excellent. Penny Downie plays the wife with appropriate emotional distress. Kitty Aldridge and Frances Barber play the friends who have moved onto the estate to live with her. Aldridge is a sarcastic tough talking radical; Barber is a softer character. The three form a protective support group in a hostile community where the locals assume that not only is the one a murderer, but that three women living together must be lesbians.

The two parts of the film run nearly three hours.  There is also a bonus feature on author Minette Walters which follows her has she plans, researches, writes and revises what was to be her seventh crime novel The Shape of Snakes. She comes across as a vibrant lively woman with a real commitment to getting things right in her fiction. She visits a prison to see how visitors are treated. She talks to a pathologist to get information about what can be learned from a body. She scouts locations for the novel much the way filmmakers would.  Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the film is her acknowledgement that three quarters of the way through the book, she still hasn't decided on the killer.  Although the nearly 45 minute film has little to say about The Ice House, it offers a fascinating insight into at least one novelist's modus operandi.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dvd Review: Rashomon, Criterion Collection

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I must confess that my first acquaintance with the subject matter of Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic Rashomon came not from the film itself, but from the 1964 American adaptation, The Outrage. This was unfortunate, because that early experience had something of a retarding effect on my appreciation of what Kurosawa had done when I finally did get to see the original. The Outrage, set in the 19th century American west, was culturally familiar. The cultural idiom of Rashomon, especially its acting, was unfamiliar at best, if not completely alien. It was a cultural ignorance that took a number of viewings over the years to overcome, but since great art given the chance will make its greatness felt, it was an ignorance that didn't last.
Watching it now in a 2008 restoration on DVD from the Criterion Collection, it is hard to believe that there was a time when I didn't appreciate Kurosawa's brilliance. From its intellectually challenging script, its innovative use of the camera, its stylized performances, and its aesthetic play of light and shadow, Rashomon is a virtuoso performance.

Based on two stories, "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," by Ryuwanosuke Akutaga, the film tells the story of a rape and murder from four different points of view. A Samurai warrior and his wife traveling in an isolated wooded area are accosted by a bandit. He overcomes the warrior and rapes the woman.  There is a fight and the husband is killed. What happens after that is subject to the interpretation of each of the people involved (the dead husband speaks through a medium) as well as a wood cutter who chanced across the scene and watched in hiding. Each has a different version of the events. If one of these is the 'true' narrative, there is no indication. In the end, the viewer is left with the understanding that truth in this case, perhaps in all cases, is unknowable.
It is a bleak vision of the human condition emphasized from the very beginning with its shots of the wrecked Rashomon gate drenched in a terrific rain storm as the wood cutter and a priest sit in dismay in the aftermath of the bandit's trial. The woodcutter goes on to tell the story to a newcomer who shows up to get out of the storm. This, of course, removes the story one more step from the actual event, and raises even more questions about the nature of truth .

The scene then shifts to the woodcutter in a sun drenched woods as he walks axe on shoulder only to discover first a woman's hat, then the hat of a Samurai, and eventually the body. The camera follows the woodcutter in a lengthy dolly shot as he treks through the foliage, spots of bright sunshine, deep shadows; it is a setting that seems poetically symbolic. Add to this a score that at times builds with the intensity of Ravel's "Bolero" and the scene takes on a sense of portentous dread. There is an interesting explanation of how the scene was shot in some excerpts from the documentary The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa's cinematographer which is included as bonus material on the DVD.
The excerpt ends with Kurosawa saying that it is the camera that has "the starring role" in the film. Indeed, there is something paradoxical about its visual ambience. Its black and white simplicity belies the inherent opacity of its narrative. Indeed the stylized acting does much the same thing. Nothing is as simple as it seems it should be. It is an interesting   juxtaposition of form and content that mirrors the film's themes.

As usual with the films in the Criterion Collection there is an abundant selection of bonus material. Besides the excerpts from the Miyagawa documentary, there is a short interview with director Robert Altman, an hour long documentary with members of the crew and cast called A Testimony as Image, a radio interview with Takashi Shimura who played the woodcutter, the original and a re-release trailers, and audio commentary by film historian Donald Richie. There is also a booklet which includes an essay by Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography, and translations of the two Akutagawa stories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: Fat Chance, Robert H. Lustig

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Over the years expanding waist lines have generated a plethora of books aimed at slimming them down. There is nothing like an evangelizing 'get off your couch and eat right to lose weight' manual, especially one that promises maximum results with minimum effort, to get overweight readers into action. Action, that is, at least for some initial weight loss, at least until that water weight is gone. Year after year there comes book after book making promise after promise, and they work for awhile, but they never seem to solve the problem.

From the layman's point of view, facing a variety of often conflicting claims all defended with supposedly scientific testing, it becomes nearly impossible to make a judgment about the validity of any of them. Even simply trying to eat healthily, let alone trying to do so and lose weight, becomes a problem when yesterday's scientific gospel, becomes today's mythology. Remember when all fats were taboo. Remember the food pyramid. Remember olestra. So when a new entry in the fight against obesity genre comes along, one can be forgiven for some skepticism. They all sound so sure of themselves.
Like all the others, Fat Chance, Robert H. Lustig's entry in the anti-obesity sweeps offers answers, and his answers are nothing if not persuasive. But still, while he goes out of his way to demonstrate just where the others have gone wrong and how his answers will solve the problem, one has to wonder. What he says makes sense, but is it practical? What he says about the problem is convincing, but are his solutions simply utopian dreams?  

Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist. Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, Director of the UCSF Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health Program and member of the UCSF Institute for Health Policy Studies and the Obesity Task Force of both the Endocrine Society and the Pediatric Endocrine Society. He is not lacking in authority to speak on the subject. His video with the punning title Sugar: The Bitter Truth has 2,948,953 views at last count. If you have an hour and a half, you'll find that this is a man with both wit and knowledge, but perhaps most importantly a man with a mission. Lustig is at war with obesity, and Fat Chance is another volley in that war.

Obesity is the problem. Dieting and exercise as recommended by weight loss gurus in past years don't work because they fail to take into account basic human biochemistry, a process he explains in detail, perhaps more detail than the layman (at least this layman) can easily digest. His conclusions on the other hand are clear. All calories are not created equal. The body doesn't deal with them all in like manner. Sugars in all forms are a problem. Processed foods, all processed foods, are the villains. They overload us with sugar; they under load us with fiber. We don't get enough exercise. The solution to the obesity pandemic then is obvious. Don't feed yourself and your family any foods with added sugar (that is any processed food that comes in a package or container). Eat fresh fruit and vegetables for fiber. Make sure you and your children exercise.

The book ends with a discussion of the changes in public policies and personal values necessary to facilitate ideal solutions on a large scale. Drastic changes in eating habits will have effects beyond the individual. After all if we all stop eating processed foods what happens to all the workers and General Mills and Coca Cola? If we ban high fructose corn syrup, in his mind perhaps the worst of the offenders, what happens to the farmer? Are the politicians going to abandon all those mid-western votes? How will fresh fruits and vegetables be made available in poor neighborhoods where there may be no access to a super market, let alone a farmer's market? What reaction will libertarians have to the "nanny state" telling them what they should or should not eat? The kinds of changes his solutions demand may well be necessary, but they may also be a long time, if ever, coming.

If you buy into Lustig's arguments in Fat Chance not only will you be kissing Coke goodbye, but you'll be giving up orange juice as well. You won't ever go through a McDonald's drive thru or feast on a large fries. If you eat at a local restaurant, you'll tell the waiter to keep the bread off your table. You'll eat desert once a week at most, but you'll eat a hell of a lot of legumes. These are symbols of what will have to be major life style changes for most 21st century Americans, at least those with the 34 inch waists . Whether those changes are any more likely to last over the long haul than those diets and exercise regimes most of us never manage to stick with after a month or two is the real question. Of course we'll never know if we don't try.