Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Don McKellar Hot and Cold: The Grand Seduction and Sensitive Skin

Brendon Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch in The Grand Seduction

Considering his myriad credits as actor, screenwriter, playwright and director, a true Renaissance man, it comes as something of a surprise when you realize that The Grand Seduction (2013) is only Don McKellar’s third film as a director. That’s all the more shocking when you take into account that his debut feature, the quietly powerful and moving apocalyptic science fiction movie Last Night (1998), was simply stunning. (I chose it as one of the best Canadian films of all time when polled by the Toronto International Film Festival.) But perhaps it’s due to the vagaries of a local film industry that has become more fixated on box office of late that when McKellar’s second movie Childstar (2004), an uneven but smart comedy about a spoiled American child actor on the loose in Toronto, did very badly commercially (I heard five figures in total box office) that it took nearly a decade for McKellar to get another cinematic shot behind the camera. Fortunately, if he needed an impressive calling card to remind people out there of how good he is then The Grand Seduction fits the bill nicely.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Golden Guys: The Expendables 3

I was tired of The Expendables (2010) before I even saw it. Who wants to watch two hours of senile old Grandpa waving his gun around, pretending the war’s still on? With their “we may be old, but we can still be badass” mentality, the first two Expendables films swung and missed spectacularly. This was especially offensive to me as a passionate fan of the films that Stallone and Schwarzenegger used to make. Here, in the twilight of blockbuster season, I found a film that neither satisfied nor subverted my expectations, but was content to provide a simple, entertaining experience, and to hell with everybody else’s opinions. The Expendables 3 is exactly what it aims to be, and thank God they’re finally aiming in the right direction.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Never, Never: Finding Neverland

Under Diane Paulus’s leadership, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater – once a bastion of the avant-garde – has become a clearing house for Broadway-bound shows. In the two years since she took over as artistic director, Paulus has sent three plays on to New York: her own revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin, and the first part of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ biography, All the Way. All have been sell-outs; Boston is evidently thrilled to be a tryout town once again, as it was for most of the last century. But even though I didn’t care for most of the productions I saw at A.R.T. in its old form, Paulus’s blatant commercialism is a little unsettling, especially since All the Way (which began its journey across the country at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is the only one of these ventures that didn’t bear her name as director.

Her latest is Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie that covers the period during which J.M. Barrie conceived his 1904 stage play Peter Pan. If you watched the Tony Awards this year you already know about the show, because – in that benighted telecast’s most bizarre moment – we were treated to a preview of the musical, which opens on Broadway next season: Jennifer Hudson sang one of the tunes to four little boys standing in for the Llewelyn-Davies brothers for whom Barrie becomes a surrogate father. Appearances notwithstanding, Hudson is not expected to take over the role of James Barrie, which is being played by Newsies star Jeremy Jordan.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Guns of August: 100 Years Later

The Flag by Byam Shaw (1919)

These reflections were inspired by the two-day conference “1914-1918 The Making of the Modern World” held at the Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs on July 30 and 31, 2014. Speakers presented papers on a wide variety of topics, both national and international, on military, political, social and artistic themes associated with the Great War and its legacy. The conference concluded with a visit to the residence of the Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, at Queens Park and later that evening with an emotional evening of military formations, music and speakers at Varsity Arena packed with 6000 people. I will not attempt to address all topics and speakers but will focus on one thread, albeit never explicitly stated: the frequent disconnect between how veterans and civilians experienced and recalled the war and the contemporary and later attempts to depict it in art and popular culture.

Apart from commemorations, my impression is that most public awareness about the Great War is derived from films – All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli to name just a few – or from novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. What they all have in common is their anti-war message, that this war, as opposed to the Second World War, was not only a tragedy but a waste. Even Margaret Macmillan in her masterfully-delivered keynote overview on the origins and legacy of the war used the word “waste” to signify the human losses and the problems that it created: among them, that without the war, Russia would have evolved into a constitutional monarchy and the Bolsheviks would have never come to power; without Germany’s defeat, Hitler and Nazism may not have occurred, and no Second World War. And the problems in the Middle East that continue to bedevil us are in part a legacy of the war.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unanswered Questions: The Riddle of the Topical Song

"Every folk song is religious in the sense that it is concerned about the origins, ends, and deepest manifestations of life, as experienced by some more or less unified community. It tends to probe, usually without nailing down definite answers, the puzzles of life at their roots."

–  John Lovell, Jr., Black Song: The Forge and The Flame.

Some years back, while I was in high school, FM radio still held the promise of surprise, along with a keen sense of artistic danger always lurking. There was the prospect of discovering something you might not have the good fortune to hear again. Late one night, on Toronto's CHUM-FM, I first encountered Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy" from their 1969 album, Willie and the Poor Boys. This epic song, which concluded the first side of their fourth LP, described an act of mob violence without identifying the mob (or the subject of their anger), and it had all the insistence of a news bulletin interrupting regular programming. With a portentous melody built upon the foreboding chords of a dirge, "Effigy" carried some of the same apprehension that the news reporter's commentary did in Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast just before the Martians started vaporizing the citizens of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Listening to "Effigy" that evening before bed, I kept expecting the song to conclude just like that news reporter's broadcast did – with death – where the mob would ultimately catch the singer before he could finish documenting the crimes he was witnessing. Songwriter and singer John Fogerty continually outpaced the urgency of what he was seeing until all that was left in his dying questions was why this was all taking place. His chiming guitar, with the clawing force of a chainsaw, soon cut through those questions just like the Martians' vapour ray did through Grover's Mill. His fears quickly faded into the long night as if he'd been finally caught and silenced by the mob. And I never heard "Effigy" on the radio again.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dancing With Puppets and Pulling the Strings: James Kudelka's Malcolm

 James Kudelka (right), and Malcolm. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

James Kudelka danced with a puppet this year. Malcolm was his name and while their dance wasn’t quite a pas de deux there was no mistaking theirs was a unique partnership. Kudelka might have seemed in control of the movements, but it was more Malcolm pushing him into new theatrical territory. With a puppet quite literally in his hands, no strings attached, Kudelka has moved beyond the boundaries of traditional dance performance, eschewing the kinetic to focus more on the art form's more subtle, expressive side as well as it's capacity for creating an empathetic relationship with its audience. It's something of an emerging trend right now. On the West Coast, choreographer Crystal Pite has been incorporating puppets into her work of late, including her re-interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest – The Tempest Replica – which Canadian Stage presented in Toronto in April. In Quebec, Robert Lepage has long used Japanese-inspired puppets in his theatrical productions. On Broadway, War Horse created a sensation last season with machine-driven puppets which helped to tell a story of loss of innocence and the brutality of war. Today's puppets, in other words, aren't just child's play. With Kudelka, to get back to the point, the puppet is a conduit for intimacy, stuffed cloth made substantial, and in more ways than one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blues For Mr. Happy: Remembering Robin Williams

Robin Williams as Parry in The Fisher King.

In The Fisher King (1991), which has the distinction of being the movie that Terry Gilliam was put on Earth to direct, Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a rich, successful radio shock and aspiring sitcom actor who, with his sexual magnetism, long-haired, piratical look, and penthouse apartment, is like the Howard Stern of Howard Stern’s dreams. After goading a regular phone-in caller who proceeds to shoot up a Manhattan bar, Jack’s life and career fall apart; he’s too guilt-stricken to continue what he’s been doing but too cynical and bitter to imagine how to change. He stumbles across a chance for redemption when he meets Parry (Robin Williams), a crazy homeless man who used to a professor of classics until he lost his wife in the massacre at the bar. Parry has fallen in love with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a mousy accountant he’s never met but who he scuttles after as she slogs to and from the publishing house where she works. Jack decides that if he can get the two of them fixed up, he’ll have repented for his sins and can get back to his rightful place at the top of the fame ladder.

It’s Bridges’ job to keep the audience hooked from the first frames to the last, by being convincingly nasty and self-involved at the start so that Jack’s search for redemption seems like enough of a challenge to be dramatic, while also being sufficiently compelling (and attractive) that nobody watching him will simply say, “Fuck this guy.” But it’s the actor playing Parry who has the greatest potential to send the movie hurtling off a cliff at any minute. He has to get his laughs without making it seem as if the movie is holding someone mentally ill up to ridicule; he has to make the fact that Parry is stalking a total stranger seem moonstruck-romantic, and never creepy. Happily, the role is squarely in Williams’ wheelhouse. He’s able to use the fast-talking, free-associational style he developed doing stand-up comedy—the style that the name “Robin Williams” automatically brings to mind—and fold it into the character, using it as the high-speed ranting of a literate crazy person, whose tongue is racing to keep up with the speed of his mind.