Monday, July 6, 2015

Hard Problems: Temple and The Hard Problem

Simon Russell Beale and Shereen Martin in Temple, at London's Donmar Warehouse. (Photo: Johan Persson)

American political plays tend to simplify the issues to the level of a high-school social studies class and rarely bother to dramatize them. (There are exceptions, of course, like Clybourne Park and Smart People, both satirical takes on race.) Steve Waters’ Temple, at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is the kind of political drama we go to the Brits for: a work of penetrating intelligence, sound dramatic structure and verbal wit that engages equally with ideas and characters. Temple is set in the Chapter House of St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 2011 Occupy protests, on the morning after the Chapter has voted – after a late, contentious meeting – to reopen the cathedral for the noon Eucharist service. The Dean (Simon Russell Beale) elected to close it after the protesters were routed from the London Stock Exchange into the courtyard of St. Paul’s two weeks earlier and decided to pitch their tents there. He was offended by their presence but felt there was no alternative but to close the doors, a decision he now regrets. His choice to reopen has provoked his younger, left-leaning Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) to resign. He sees Occupy as an invigorating populist impulse akin to that of the early Christians and anticipates violence by the police against the protesters (as there has been in other cities) once the City of London has taken out an injunction against them, as it now seems inevitable they will. Moreover, he’s skeptical about the Chapter’s motives; after all, St. Paul’s, with an obviously expensive upkeep, is losing thousands of dollars in revenues every day it remains shut. (Anyone who’s visited the cathedral knows admission isn’t cheap.) The Dean receives a second resignation from his Virger (Anna Calder-Marshall), a woman in her sixties who’s been at her job through the tenure of two previous deans and whose devotion to St. Paul’s – she believes that Sir Christopher Wren shares with only Winston Churchill the distinction of being the greatest of all Englishmen – is a matter of family tradition: her father was in the Night Watch that protected it during the Blitz. Occupy has unseated her; St. Paul’s, she feels, has become a place she no longer recognizes.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Neglected Gem #78: Conrack (1974)

Most movies about the process of education tend to be fatuous, but there have been some notable exceptions. The subject has produced three masterpieces – Padre Padrone, Aparajito and The Wild Child – as well as The Miracle Worker, The Corn Is Green, the documentaries High School and To Be and to Have, and in recent years The History Boys, The Class and Monsieur Lazhar. Martin Ritt made two wonderful ones back to back: Sounder (1972), adapted from William H. Armstrong’s children’s book set among black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, and Conrack, which came out two years later. Sounder was acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, but not many people paid attention to Conrack, perhaps because Ritt and the screenwriters, his frequent collaborators Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch Jr., took such a leisurely approach to the material, Pat Conroy’s vivifying memoir The Water Is Wide, about the months he spent teaching elementary-school black kids on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The picture feels almost meandering, pleasantly so, because it borrows its rhythms from the pace of island life and from Conroy’s unruffled, experimental methodology when he discovers that the boys and girls in his class, criminally neglected by previous teachers who presumably substituted busy work for actual instruction, know virtually nothing. When he asks someone to identify the name of their country, not one hand goes up. The movie’s title comes from the name the students give Conroy because it’s the closest they can come to pronouncing his real one – an error that he bows to philosophically, gets used to, and finally is charmed by (as are we).

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Crossing Moral Boundaries in the Historical Mysteries of Joseph Kanon

Novelist Joseph Kanon. (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Vehicles: I’ll See You in My Dreams and Bessie

Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams.

If Blythe Danner had come into movies in the thirties instead of the seventies, she would have been a star. In Lovin’ Molly (1974) and Hearts of the West (1975), she was as elegant as Claudette Colbert, as funny-sexy as Jean Arthur (and with something like Arthur’s cracked alto) , as quicksilver as Margaret Sullavan, and a transcendent beauty. And, as her performances on the PBS series Theater in America, as Nina in The Sea Gull and Alma in Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, demonstrated, she had the talent of a young Katharine Hepburn. But though she’s had – and continues to have – a triumphant career as a stage actress, and though, early on, she played leading roles in some TV movies (she was remarkable in A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story and especially Too Far to Go, based on some John Updike stories), this summer’s I’ll See You in My Dreams is her first starring role since Lovin’ Molly. She’s shown up in a lot of films in between, sometimes giving performances of glowing intelligence in bum roles (Brighton Beach Memoirs), sometimes lighting up a whole picture in a supporting part (The Last Kiss, where she played the role of the middle-aged woman terrified of growing older that Stefania Sandrelli had created in the Italian version). But only now, at seventy-two – and still a stunning camera subject – has she landed a film role that really seems to acknowledge what she is: America’s greatest living actress.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Last Days at All Saints': Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco and Tony Shalhoub, in the final season of Showtime's Nurse Jackie.

Tony Shalhoub is a great actor, with an easy mastery of his craft and an ability to instantly connect with an audience that enables him to perform miracles. As the star of the detective series Monk, Shalhoub played a broken man trying to put himself back together, a quiet, recessive man whose grief over the unsolved murder of his wife asserted itself in the form of a steady flood of tics, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. If Adrian Monk had been played by a different actor, it’s likely that he would have worn out his welcome with the audience, but Shalhoub made him funny and touching, and kept doing it, week after week, for an eight-year run. It was a remarkable feat, but before the show had run its course, even a fan could wish that Shalhoub had the chance to take a break from making a potentially annoying character seem charming and instead take a chance on playing one with a presence as big as his talent. In the seventh, concluding season of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, Shalhoub plays Dr. Bernard Prince, who takes over as chief doctor in the ER of Manhattan’s All Saints’ Hospital after the departure of the dim but sweetly well-intentioned Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) and immediately establishes himself as the star of the show.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pulling Off a Miracle: The Sleeping Beauty at Toronto's Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts

The Sleeping Beauty (Photo by Sian Richards)

A ballet based on a fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty celebrates the victory of order over chaos, a theme the National Ballet of Canada expressed with particular exuberance during the week of performances of the 19th century classic that opened at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 10. The company was down 18 dancers as a result of injuries, a number representing almost a quarter of its artistic staff, and so the necessity of transforming a situation of adversity into one of triumph wasn't just a fiction. It was a matter of artistic survival. The wounded ran the gamut from seasoned performer to newcomer: principal dancers and soloists right down to the corps de ballets. It is unusual for so many dancers to be sidelined at once, and in the days leading up to opening night the situation looked dire. The classical repertoire's most famous ballet is also its most opulent. It typically requires legions of dancers to do it justice, and Rudolf Nureyev's lavish version which the National Ballet has been dancing since 1972 is no exception. Pulling it off requires the resources of a large classical dance company and with 66 dancers the National Ballet is the biggest in the land. So what do you do when suddenly your numbers are less than 50? You panic, or, if you are Karen Kain, you think on your feet and pull off a miracle.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Over The Hill: Aging Action Stars and the Culture of Tolerance

Harrison Ford in Ender's Game (2013).

When is the right time to give up the craft? How much does age affect your ability to execute your art? With artisans or musicians, it’s when your body fails, when your fingers can no longer keep up with your mind, or when you’ve exhausted your contribution to the medium and you feel that there’s nothing more you can add. Perhaps it’s both, or more. But for actors – especially stars of action cinema – it’s a different story. Money and special effects can go a long way to help Hollywood’s ever-sagging elite stave off the rigours of time, and artificially extend their influence over pop culture.