Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film's Greatest Fan: Elwy Yost (July 10, 1925-July 21, 2011)

Elwy Yost (July 10, 1925-July 21, 2011)
Without Elwy Yost, I doubt if I would ever have become a film critic. This is why the news of his passing yesterday hit me with a moment of sadness –  a sadness for the passing of my youth, perhaps, because he was such a big part of it. On February 23, 2011, I wrote a piece on Critics at Large about his son Graham’s fine TV series, Boomtown (2002-2003). But, as a way of an intro to the piece, I had composed something of a tribute to Elwy. The piece obviously wasn't intended to be an obituary, but reading it again the other night, it inadvertently reads like one now. Here is what I wrote:

Growing up in small-town Ontario north of Toronto, I didn't have much to do when it came to the arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, except for some regional theatre, the only way to gain exposure to the arts was through movies or television. In my early years, most of my 'education' came from the movies because in Parry Sound in the 1960s we received only one television station (the CBC affiliate in Barrie, now part of CTV). That education was rather slight: Disney flicks, James Bond double-bills, the latest Don Knotts comedy, plus the occasional interesting picture, such as Patton (1970) and Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969). By the time my family moved to the nearby town of Bracebridge I had yet to see any of Hollywood's great films from the so-called Golden Era. When we finally got cable in Bracebridge (about six months after we moved there), I began to discover the history of Hollywood films. My education really began thanks to TV Ontario (aka, TVO, a Canadian version of the US's PBS) and the shows Magic Shadows and Saturday Night at the Movies. Hosted by Elwy Yost, Magic Shadows was a Monday through Friday show that presented classic movies, uncut, broken into thirty minute chunks. In this pre-video/PVR era you either made sure you were in front of the set by 7:30 or you would miss a segment.

On Saturday nights, Elwy returned with a two-complete-movies theme night. Again showing the films uncut, Yost would offer two movies connected by theme or director or actor. Between each film, he would offer interviews he'd conducted about these films with the stars or directors or critics. To say that Yost was an enthusiast was an understatement. His questions were often simple, never probing, but I didn't care. I was filling my head, finally, with some of the great films of Hollywood and seeing interviews with the people who had made them. I know that thanks to Elwy Yost my appreciation of films developed. At first, I reacted like he did: a fan grooving on Hollywood. It was only later that I understood movies were an art form and I began to develop a critical voice. Yost turned his son, Graham, into a film fanatic too. Elwy told the story on more than one occasion that he let his son stay up late to watch Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time. Elwy even let Graham skip school. The day after, Graham showed up at school with a note explaining that Graham had missed school because Elwy kept him up way past his bedtime watching what many still consider the greatest film ever made.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dull Captain America; A Thunderous Thor

Growing up, my preference in comic books was always geared towards the Marvel Comics universe and not the D.C. Comics’ one. With the exception of the Justice League of America and Batman, I felt that the adventures of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor, with their colourful villains, complex protagonists and the grittiness of a thinly disguised Earth, trumped the mostly bland D.C. heroes and heroines. That includes, I must confess, Superman and Wonder Woman. Batman, though, with his dark psychological back story (his parents murdered before his eyes) and its nuanced present (where Gotham City’s attitude towards its costumed protector was profoundly ambivalent) seemed more in line with Marvel's layered complexity. And the first two Batman movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), both directed by Tim Burton, certainly were impressive achievements. So was the masterful Superman 2 (1980) and aspects of Superman (1978). Over the years, however, most of the many Marvel film adaptations, with one notable exception, never quite jelled into fine or memorable movies, though their cinematic ingredients ought to have ensured otherwise.

The exception was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), which coalesced into a finely acted and directed tale. It perfectly captured Peter Parker’s conflicted nature: a normal teenager trying to balance a work and love life with the responsibility he considered that he owed his late Uncle Ben. In the story, he had to cope with the intense guilt brought on because he failed to use his superpowers to save Ben out of the sheer selfishness of not getting involved in the affairs of man. The rest of the Marvel movies, including the first and third Spider-Man flicks, fell short of that masterpiece. Filmmakers either picked some of the duller Marvel superheroes, Daredevil (2002) and Iron Man (2007), to adapt to the screen, or the directors botched the projects (Fantastic Four (2005)) or both (Iron Man). A few of the movies, the provocative first Hulk (2003), directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Bryan Singer’s well-acted and well-characterized X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) fell somewhere in the qualitative middle. The summer of 2011 marks a revamp of the X-Men franchise (X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the previous movies, which I have not seen) and the premiere of both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, which opens today. Despite its faithfulness to its source material, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the most innocuous and forgettable of all the Marvel movies.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Absent Pater Familias: Starting Over in Beginners

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners
Christopher Plummer might be headed into Oscar territory, but the new film that gives him an award-worthy role lags miles behind the talents of its cast. The autobiographical Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, 2005), tries to cruise along on angst and a surfeit of whimsy that grows increasingly forced. That said, there’s something seductive in the tale of a son’s conflicted feelings about a long-neglectful father who has come way, way out of the closet after the death of his wife, especially when that son is played by the always remarkable Ewan McGregor.

In this instance, he’s a straight 38-year-old graphic artist named Oliver who has trouble making intimate relationships last. His loneliness has roots in childhood, of course, a situation recalled through voice-over narration and flashbacks aplenty. We see a montage of his mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), marrying a guy she knows to be gay, although that word is not yet used to describe homosexuals back in 1955. That choice, in an effort by both of them to pass as “normal,” eventually leaves her miserable and a bit nuts. This condition is never fully explored, but her behavior is a bit beyond amusingly eccentric, especially while visiting art exhibits with young Oliver (Keegan Boos). Her husband, Hal (Plummer), is a museum director who spends less and less time at home, instead seeking clandestine, anonymous encounters with other men.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pathetic Fallacy and Amazing Truth: The Poetry of Mary Oliver

As a society, we don't read poetry like we once did. Although we still study poems in school and acknowledge our poets at prestigious award ceremonies, most of us turn to novels when reading for pleasure and are far more interested in the Giller nominees than the Griffin winner. Reading poetry is so much more labour intensive than reading fiction; it requires a different skill set than the one needed to navigate our fast-paced world. No poet seems to understand this better than Mary Oliver (Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, Beacon Press, 2010).

Back when people did read poetry for pleasure, Alexander Pope proclaimed (in verse!) “True wit is nature to advantage dressed / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.” Had Pope lived 300 years later, I’m sure he would have appreciated the way Oliver advantageously dresses nature to express human emotion. Oliver is famous for her “affinity with the natural world” (her words) and most of her poems draw on images from nature. But Oliver is much more than a naturalistic poet. The parallels she draws between human existence and the organic world imply that we are deeply interconnected.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It Ends With A Bang: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Well, it's over. Now what do we do? For the last ten years, there was always a Harry Potter film to look forward to. And now it's all over. As I outlined last year when I reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the films have had their ups and downs. Mostly, thankfully, ups. After the strengths of Part 1, I thought we were in safe hands with director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves for Part 2. My trust in them has been fulfilled: Part 2 is both visually rich and emotionally moving.

As with Part 1, since I'm assuming most of you have read the books, I will keep the synopsis brief. The film starts (at the precise moment where Part 1 ends) when Harry and company have finished burying Dobby the Elf. Harry questions the goblin, Griphook (Warwick Davis), about the contents of a Death Eaters' vault in the Gringotts Bank on Diagon Alley. Harry cuts a deal with Griphook that he can have the Sword of Gryffindor if he helps Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the bank to retrieve a horcrux from said vault (a horcrux is an everyday object where the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden part of his soul). Davis, who's appeared in multiple roles in all the films (including Professor Flitwick at Hogsworth), is particularly good here. He is the consummate banker looking for his edge. Next, Harry questions the gravely ill wand merchant, Olivander (John Hurt), who explains the history of the wands Harry has acquired. Both of these sequences are strictly expository, but are evidence yet again of the increasing skills of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as actors. As I said in my review of Part 1, if these three had not been able to keep up their end of the bargain, these last two films, which are almost completely focused on them, would have failed.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Return of the Master of Space and Time: Leon Russell

Leon Russell, The Master of Space and Time, is making a comeback. Last year’s album, The Union, with Elton John, produced by T Bone Burnett (with an accompanying film directed by Cameron Crowe), started the ball rolling and next a set of fifty dates with Bob Dylan should put Russell back in the front of peoples’ minds. For those of us who remember him from the old days, this is a welcome return. Leon has a way about him, a piano sound that is instantly recognizable and a voice ... well, more about that later. First, Sound Academy.

I’ve never been to the Sound Academy night club in Toronto before but driving in from Hamilton my wife and I were struck by a number of things. It’s simple to get to, off the Gardiner Expressway, onto Lakeshore, down Cherry Street, across the bridge and to the end of Polson Pier. It is a beautiful setting. On this clear evening, with the sun sparkling on the water, sailboats by the dozens on the lake, planes coming in for a landing at the Toronto Island airport, the ambiance couldn't be better. We sat on the deck with a club soda, soaking in this ambiance, when all of a sudden it hit us. “What is that smell?” There’s a transfer station right across the way, so the smell of garbage hangs over the place. Too bad, everything else about the venue is nearly perfect.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Knife's Edge Between Love and Hate: Soulpepper Theatre Company's The Kreutzer Sonata

“Marriage. The endless rehashing of hurts and hatreds.”
Yuri in The Kreutzer Sonata
The staging couldn't be simpler: a chair, a rug, a side table with a bible, a letter, jug and glass of water. The light from almost directly overhead illuminates this tableau. But within that simplicity exists layers of human emotion that can rip and tear a soul apart. Such is the setting of the Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of The Kreutzer Sonata (it runs there in repertory in Toronto until the end of August). For a 'summertime' show, this work is brave and deeply troubling, because the story it tells is of one man, talking to the audience, describing how murderous jealousy led him to kill his beloved wife.
Leo Tolstoy
Star and director Ted Dykstra (director of this season's Soulpepper productions The Glass Menagerie and Billy Bishop Goes To War) also adapted the work for the stage from a corrosive novella written by Leo Tolstoy in 1888. This is Dykstra's fifth time doing the show – a show that began life in 2009 with The Art of Time Ensemble (a Toronto-based company) and then last year as part of the Toronto Summerworks program (a series of short works that runs throughout August each year). We first see Dykstra standing behind the chair as the lights slowly, painfully come up. It's a startling image, as he looks like a demon emerging from the darkness, which sets the stage for what is to come. Dykstra as Yuri stands slightly hunched as he rests his hands gently on the back of the chair. He (and we) are listening to a portion of “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Beethoven. Finally, the lights come up full (top marks to Lorenzo Savoini for his set and lighting design, plus his costumes – they are all of a piece) and Yuri takes the chair, pours himself some water, crosses his legs and begins.