Friday, October 31, 2014

Off the Shelf: The Deep End (2001)

The Deep End gives off a sweet malevolence; it softly seduces you even as it fills you with dread. Unlike some popular thrillers, The Deep End doesn't nudge you with mechanical scare tactics to provide tension. The picture is both intelligently suspenseful and an incongruously witty chamber drama. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the co-writers and co-directors, quietly and shrewdly build our apprehension by having us slowly come to empathize with a main character who paves her road to hell with the best of intentions.

Tilda Swinton (I Am Love, The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays Margaret Hall, a lonely housewife in Lake Tahoe, who spends her days dutifully carrying out all those mundane domestic chores of motherhood. Her husband, meanwhile, is a naval officer who spends his days carrying out his duties at sea. In short time, though, Margaret finds herself at sea emotionally when she discovers that her eldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is gay. She also comes to see that his lover, Darby (Josh Lucas), is a rather disreputable character who might bring harm to her son. Margaret initially pleads with Darby to stay away from Beau, but he ignores her, and later makes a midnight creep from Reno to Lake Tahoe. When Beau gets into a skirmish with his lover on the family dock, Darby is accidently killed. In the morning, Margaret finds the body and assumes that her son has committed murder. While Beau has no knowledge of of what happened, Margaret does what any loving mother might do; she tries to clean up the mess and protect her family. Based on the little-known 1940s novel, The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (which was also the source for Max Ophuls 1949 film noir, The Reckless Moment), The Deep End is largely anchored by Swinton's complexly layered performance.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Manner of Style and a Style of Manners: Remembering Oscar de la Renta

Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) 

Manners never go out of style, and for that reason Oscar de la Renta, a great fashion designer who was also big on manners, will forever be remembered as a style icon. I came to witness first-hand the man’s elegance, reflected in both his demeanour and his drop-dead gorgeous dresses, on more than one occasion. As The Globe and Mail’s fashion reporter, I interviewed him in Toronto in 2002 at Canadian launch of his fruity-floral perfume, Intrusion by Oscar de la Renta. He autographed the modernist bottle for me. I also travelled to New York several times to attend his fashion shows, writing about them for my paper’s Style section. I remember one of the them vividly, both for what went down the runway and for what was happening behind the scenes. The gossip first.

The Dominican-born designer who became an American citizen in the 1969, dressed Hollywood stars (Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker), American first ladies (Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama) and wealthy socialites (Nancy Kissinger and Lady Lynn de Rothschild). He was the Oscar who owned the Oscars; his gowns dominated the red carpet. Just before his death on October 20 at age 82, he had designed the wedding dress worn by Amal Alamuddin at her September wedding to heartthrob George Clooney. Oscar de la Renta was always relevant, always au courant. Which would explain why his shows were standing-room only affairs. Even to be seen at an Oscar de la Renta show was enough to make the participant seem a part of fashion. A-listers wanted to be seen in the front row to make their own stylish selves be known through association. Not that C.Z. Guest needed to have tried so hard.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soul Mates: The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins

In director Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play twins who’ve grown apart as adults after life’s taken them in different directions. But after a suicide attempt at the film’s outset lands Milo (Hader) in a L.A. hospital, the pair find themselves under the same roof again. Maggie (Wiig) insists that he recuperate with her back at their childhood hometown in upstate New York. She’s returned there upon marrying, and the movie charts the ways in which our place and family origin serve as both a haven from the wider world’s chaos and the ongoing cause of a different, deeper turbulence. Casting Hader and Wiig—two crack comedians—proves a stroke of genius. After seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I knew Wiig could make a comic-dramatic turn. But I had no idea she was capable of the range of expression she displays here, nor the kind of psychological character study she puts on. Even more so with Hader, who has the more complex role and riskier scenes. And with Johnson and Mark Heyman’s first-rate script at their disposal, the pair is by turns hilarious and affecting. The Skeleton Twins is a funny, poignant, deeply touching look at the complicated way our siblings can become our best friends in adulthood—those who uniquely understand our pain and help us sort through the mess we make of life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No More Home Sweet Home: Waxing Apocalyptic with the Creators of Refuge

All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, and Toronto celebrated recently with the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, which fired a volley of low-budget horror cinema at eager film audiences across the city. There was something for everyone in that abyss of genre delights, from slasher flicks to end-of-the-world mood pieces like the thriller Refuge.
Refuge is set in a grim future in which most of humanity has been exterminated by an unnamed plague, and follows a small family in their daily struggle for food, water, and safety. Father Jack (Carter Roy) watches over wife Nell (Amy Rutberg) and eight-year-old daughter Birdie (Eva Grace Kellner, Boardwalk Empire), and their existence is peaceful, if mundane – until Jack takes a wounded man named Russell (Sebastian Beacon) into their care, whose friends soon come looking for him.
Justin Cummings sat down with husband and wife scream-team Andrew Robertson (Director, Screenwriter) and Lilly Kanso (Producer) for an exclusive interview for Critics at Large.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Skylight and Ether Dome: The Social and the Personal

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Much as I value the literacy, intelligence and technical finesse of the English playwright David Hare, I often find his plays heavy going. The political apparatus at the heart of most of the ones I’ve encountered, from Plenty to Stuff Happens, swings like a censer, blanketing the stage with the whiff of importance; generally I find that he needs a more elastic movement, a lighter step. But Skylight, the 1995 drama that was revived in the West End last summer – in a production by Stephen Daldry, bound for Broadway, that the NT Live series has been transmitting in HD – is a fine piece of work. Bill Nighy (in the role he followed Michael Gambon in eighteen years ago) plays Tom Sergeant, a successful restauranteur whose wife and partner Alice has died of cancer. Carey Mulligan is Kyra Hollis, who came into the Sergeants’ lives as an eighteen-year-old girl, took over the management of one of their restaurants, and became virtually a member of the family. She also became Tom’s lover; they conducted an affair for six years before Alice found out, at which point Kyra, unable to face her, walked out on them both. When Tom finds her again, a year after Alice’s death, Kyra is living in a chilly flat she’s taken over from a friend and teaching high school to working-class kids. She isn’t expecting her old lover to come back into her life, though he’s certainly on her mind: unbeknownst to Tom, his eighteen-year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) dropped by to see her just hours earlier to beg her to rescue his lonely, rootless father. By the end of the first act, Kyra and Tom seem to have reconciled. Act two explores the reasons the reconciliation comes too late to take hold.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Book to Read to Your Child, or to Yourself: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A hoopoe in flight

When I was about eight or nine years old, my father and I realized that our tradition of reading together had to change. We had long left behind picture books, and he had little patience for the transitional books that are suggested for children of that age – books written for children who are just learning to read for themselves, books usually remarkable for their recycled narratives and limited vocabulary. Perhaps he had came across Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the time he'd spent traveling in the Middle East, or because it was the height of the Rushdie affair, or perhaps it was because, as a parent who was often away overseas, he wanted to read me a book written by an author who was separated from his own children. Either way, that was when I met Haroun.
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Rich Musical Journey: Celebrating 20 Years of Rough Guide CDs

A few years ago, I was browsing in one my favourite used CD shops in Toronto (now defunct, alas) and noticed a CD from Israel. Nothing special there necessarily, but I was struck by the fact that the disc was put out by the UK-based Rough Guide label. A British label releasing Israeli music, at a time and from a continent rife with so much anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, attitudes intrigued me – and even more so, when after purchasing the disc, I found out that the compiler of The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel was a well-travelled Torontonian by the name of Dan (or Daniel) Rosenberg. Not knowing much about how music compilers did their work and being aware that a piece on Rosenberg would be of interest to The Canadian Jewish News, a publication I wrote for at the time, I penned an article on how the disc came to be and on the man himself. And from that moment on, I continued to pick up, buy and listen to the music released the Rough Guide label. (Rough Guide is one of four labels that makes up the World Music Network record label, which also includes Introducing, Think Global, and Riverboat Records –the latter recently celebrating its 25th anniversary) Today marks exactly 20 years since the first Rough Guide CD was released on October 25, 1994, and, now, as the possessor of most of the Rough Guide discs – more than 200 of them, with many still in print – I salute a label that has introduced me not only to so much world music I would know nothing about otherwise but has also educated me on the myriad permutations of that complex genre. It has been a musical journey well worth taking.