Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Deluge Delusions: Darren Aronofsky's Noah

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky's Noah

If you want a spiritual understanding of the story of Noah and the Ark, I wouldn't recommend Darren Aronofsky's Noah any time soon – or any time at all, really. The mythical tale of the Deluge from Genesis communicates many truths, ultimately God's power over sin and saving of creation. Aronofsky grasps this basic idea, but then muddies it with New Age extra-biblical concepts, half-baked aesthetic choices, and excruciating melodramatic acting. Hollywood's track record with adapting the Bible isn't great, and Noah's not going to do much to change that. It's a missed opportunity that will leave many scratching their heads, believers and non-believers alike.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Songs We Continue to Sing: Rob Ford and the Culture of Corruption

The night Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto, almost four years ago, he had just won a bitterly fought battle to lead the city, and he did it by marshalling and manipulating a populist rage towards city government. Ford had warned us of a "gravy train" of bureaucratic waste depriving us of our hard-earned taxed dollars. While he positioned himself as city saviour, he also began targeting those he described as 'liberal elites,' a pampered, educated and entitled bunch, whom he saw as the true enemy of the hard-working individual. If Margaret Thatcher had once casually dismissed the notion that society actually existed, Ford went a step further. He talked about the city of Toronto only in terms of the taxpayer rather than in terms of its citizens. Since we all pay taxes – even when we're homeless and buy a cup of coffee – taxpayer was merely a code word for property owner. To Ford, Toronto wasn't a diverse and multiculturally vibrant urban community, made up of those who are privileged and those who aren't; it was instead a dysfunctional corporation he was about to restore to efficiency. His message to the city, where he alone could determine who he'd serve and those he wouldn't, was communicated with obscene clarity on the day of his coronation. CBC Television broadcaster and former NHL coach Don Cherry had arrived in his flamingo pink suit to drape the chain of office around Ford's neck. It was Cherry who helped set the new tone for the city in his opening remarks. "Well, actually I'm wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything," Cherry began with cheers from the crowd in the upper rotunda while city counsellors sat in shock. "I say he's going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I'm concerned – and put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks." One thing certain in those tone-setting remarks: contempt was now public policy.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Another Heiress: Victoria Stewart's Rich Girl

Amelia Broome, Sasha Castroverde, Joe Short, and Celeste Oliva in Rich Girl. (Photo by Mark S. Howard)

Victoria Stewart’s Rich Girl, which is receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage, is a contemporary version of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s superb 1947 dramatization of the Henry James novella Washington Square. Standing in for James’s heroine, Catherine Sloper, a retiring, socially awkward young woman who falls for a fortune hunter, is Claudine (Sasha Castroverde), the titular rich girl who is swept off her feet by an actor and theatre director named Henry (Joe Short). Catherine’s brilliant, icy father, who sizes up her suitor – and whose wisdom about the match is inseparable from what she correctly assesses to be a contempt for her – has become Eve (Amelia Broome), who runs a foundation that employs Claudine and hosts a popular show about finance.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

FX's Fargo: Their Own Private Minnesota

Allison Tolman and Shawn Doyle in Fargo, now airing on FX

It's not a sequel. It's not a spinoff or a remake. Maybe it's more like a reboot? Right now I'm thinking of Fargo, FX's new limited-run television series, as falling into the "inspired by" category. My favourite theory is that its story is a riff on the same "true story" which playfully (and apocryphally) inspired Joel and Ethan Coen's feature. It shares a universe, an aesthetic of darkly comic, casual violence, and perhaps an area code with the Coen brothers classic 1996 film of the same name, but there is little other explicit overlap. (However, careful fans might observe a mysterious briefcase the show's opening scene.) Still, television viewers tuning in will be reminded of the film by the big skies, the unforgettable North Minnesotan dialect and exaggeratedly rounded vowels ("aw geez", "you betcha!"), and the signature pacing and tone. There are significant risks in toying with a beloved and critically acclaimed movie on the small screen, but so far, with nary a wood chipper in sight, FX's Fargo has already begun to stand on its own snow-booted feet.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Notes on the Method: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
Is there anything trickier for an actor than playing a show-business legend? Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) didn’t have to worry about getting down George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice because so few moviegoers would have been able to compare them to the personalities they were depicting – Cohan had made only one obscure film, and by the time Funny Girl came out Brice’s handful of screen appearances were long forgotten. They were stage performers (Brice also had a radio fan base); an established movie star like Cagney or a newly minted movie star like Streisand easily trumped a ghost from an earlier Broadway era. But Judy Davis in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers – both made for television – were playing movie stars of mythic status, so they had to find a way to replicate their eccentric physical presences while simultaneously inhabiting them from the inside, and miraculously both did. Davis, giving perhaps her greatest performance, burrowed so deep into Garland’s persona that when she lip-synched that famous contralto, with its spring-air freshness and warmth in the thirties and forties and its increasingly desperate tremolo in the fifties and sixties, the results were spooky. Rush approximated Sellers’s madly gifted clowning and made up the rest, since whereas the whole world got to see Garland’s neuroses – in A Star Is Born and on her TV show (and you can hear it on the Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall album) – Sellers’s complicated psychology was always completely separate from the characters he played in the movies.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #53: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Kat Dennings and Michael Cera star in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

I recently finished teaching a class on iconic cinema and iconic actors, such as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, among many others. One of my lectures, the last of eight, was devoted to youth culture, examining the iconic nature of everything from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), to the films starring Saturday Night Live alumni – National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) – and, of course, the popular films of John HughesSixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985). The sleeper of the bunch however is the little known Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), a teen romantic comedy that is more authentic then Hughes’s contrived output (Sixteen Candles is a complete mess, actually). With its smart use of indie songs on the soundtrack, from the talented likes of Vampire Weekend and The National, and deft use of underground New York City locations, it’s a movie which packs an emotional, moving punch, albeit in a sweet, understated way.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Unwatchable Watchable: Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

Errol Morris (and his subject) in The Unknown Known

Film director Errol Morris once worked as a private investigator and his best part is his investigative-journalist side – the muckraking detective. While planning a documentary about a forensic psychiatrist who became notorious for his “expert witness” testimony in capital punishment cases, he happened to come across a death row conviction that didn't smell right and made a film (The Thin Red Line) that ended up getting an innocent man released from prison. But Morris’ reputation as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and very likely the greatest living specialist in documentary feature filmmaking, isn't based mainly on 25-year-old headlines generated by his breakthrough movie. It’s based on his being a “stylist” – on his artistic pretensions and the easily recognizable visual and aural tics that make up his style.

Morris has been known to reject the term “documentary” in favor of “nonfiction film,” because he feels that having his movies called documentaries lumps them in with films shown in classrooms and on public television. Frederick Wiseman may well be the most important documentary filmmaker of the past fifty years, but if you happened to walk past a TV set while High School or Basic Training was showing, you could take a glance for a few random seconds and mistake them for a clip from any old TV news show. Morris’ movies look and sound like Errol Morris movies. How impressed you are by the fact that, more and more, they all look and sound like the same Errol Morris movie may depend on whether you use the word “auteur” in casual conversation.