Saturday, September 15, 2012

Undressing: Shakespeare and Romantic Comedy

Emma Thompson & Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing.

When Kenneth Branagh adapted Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing for the screen in 1993, he had the good sense to shape it like a romantic comedy. Romantic comedy may be a modern genre, but Much Ado has all the same elements – most importantly, two lovers who begin as antagonists and find their way through the friction to a romance that is deepened by the challenges they pose to one another. It also has some of the funniest romantic banter in the history of theater and Emma Thompson, as the unstoppably witty Beatrice, blazes through those lines with the exuberant physicality of an English screwball heroine.

Much Ado may be the forerunner to all romantic comedy, but there’s another association between Shakespeare’s comedies and the modern genre: that like the lovers in Twelfth Night or As You Like It, the characters in romantic comedies often court through disguise. From Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime Shop Around the Corner and Preston Sturges’ mischievous The Lady Eve to the rollicking cross-country romance of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with its notes of darkness, romantic comedies are about the roles we play to win love and the risks we take in finally shedding our disguises to earn that love. (Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild both move through a series of disguises as the movie progresses and they fall in love with the men they try to con.) The love stories are quests for fulfilment, where the characters, through romantic surrender, throw off the defenses they have become all too comfortable in and with it the need for disguise.

Clare Danes & Billy Crudup in Stage Beauty.
Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty (2004) is a romantic comedy about a Restoration staging of Shakespeare’s Othello where the cross-dressing disguises of Shakespearean comedy become the conceit through which the romantic partnership plays out. Set in London, at the moment when the ban against women acting on the stage was reversed, its lovers are Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the last celebrity among actors who played the women’s roles, and Margaret Hughes, or Maria (Clare Danes), the first professional actress on the English stage. Stage Beauty makes those links between Shakespeare’s plays and modern romantic comedy explicit in a deliciously subversive and wittily postmodern exploration of the performance of gender and the enigma of sexuality and desire.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bullet in the Face: Deranged and Violent, But Terribly Fun

Max Williams and Neil Napier in Bullet in the Face, on IFC

The TV universe is full of shows that seem designed to appeal to those who favour hallucination over reality. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim’s staggeringly long-running Aqua Teen Hunger Force (re-titled in recent seasons as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 and this past summer, in its 9th season, as Aqua Something You Know Whatever) certainly seem to have embraced the coveted “too impatient for linear narrative, too stoned to change the channel” demo with some success – but it is rare for a live-action series to go that route. Enter Bullet in the Face: a Canadian-produced noir parody series, created by Alan Spencer and starring former pro hockey player Max Williams alongside veteran actors Eric Roberts and Eddie Izzard, which had its 6-episode first season air in mid-August on IFC in the U.S. and Super Channel in Canada, beginning on September 17th.

Williams plays Gunter Vogler, a German-accented sociopathic mob enforcer whose life takes a sudden turn when he gets shot in the face and wakes to find that an experimental medical procedure has left him wearing the face of a cop he recently killed. It's all part of an insane scheme by Police Commissioner Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) to use Vogler to take down her city's underworld in one fiery swoop. Of course Vogler turns out to be impossible to control and the plan leaves dozens of bodies in its wake, innocent and guilty alike. (A few samples of his general outlook: when his ‘partner’ tells him that the city is being torn apart because of lack of manpower, Vogler retorts “Then use children.” When asked if he ever “gets tired of being so relentlessly evil all the time”, he replies “Of course. That's why I take naps.”) Williams’ crazed energy more than carries the show through its manic plotlines, but Eddie Izzard, as the agoraphobic crime boss Tannhäuser, is given many of the show’s best and most over-the-top lines. (Asked at one point by a lackey to explain why he’s decided to blow up the city’s hospitals, Tannhauser explains that “It's what King Herod would have done.”)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Pennultimate Challenge: Five Reasons Why Sean Penn Wanted to Give Up Acting and Become a Director (1996)

Sean Penn
Back in June, Mark Clamen wrote about a new Sean Penn film, This Must Be the Place, which had opened all over Europe, but had yet to have a theatrical release in North America. "This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common)," Mark wrote. "The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves." Mark finally gets his wish when this Italian/French co-production opens next month in North America. Of Penn's performance, Mark wrote that "Penn plays the character with a low-burning intensity...[his] performance ultimately reveals an eminently likable man, but it takes much of the movie to get to know him." That "low-burning intensity" of Sean Penn became the subject of a profile written by Kevin Courrier in 1996 when he spoke with him at a Toronto Film Festival round-table when the actor, promoting his second film as a director, The Crossing Guard, was considering abandoning acting for the director's chair. In the piece, Courrier takes five of Penn's reasons for the career shift and examines their merit.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Full Carnival Drag: How Music Works by David Byrne

Musician David Byrne

Over the past couple of weeks I have been to a backyard concert featuring Jacob Moon and Suzie Vinnick; a Tribute to the Music of Pink Floyd at Hugh’s Room in Toronto; and led a discussion on the importance of music in the life of the church. We talked about the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of music and experienced all of those aspects in the concerts. I also spent a long time trying to arrange a song on the guitar. Then David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), appeared on the shelves. I bought it immediately.

David Byrne is the brainy and gangly leader of Talking Heads, a band which even during its lifespan seemed to exist outside the pop music world. Against contemporaries like The Clash, Elvis Costello and The Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads were…ummm…artsier and maybe even geekier. Byrne’s angular dance moves and odd vocalizing was, at times, off putting, but, with Tina Weymouth’s bass and Chris Frantz’s drums providing a funky bottom to the sometimes political lyrics, the band managed to successfully combine art school ideas, rock ‘n’roll rifts and whimsy. The whimsy and art were multiplied in Byrne’s solo career as he added influences from World Music and performance art to his resume. He has published a number of books, one on the use of Power-Point, another on his habit of taking a bicycle with him when he tours. How Music Works contains a chapter expanded from a talk, another one from an introduction to a picture book about CBGB, and yet another which began life as an article in WIRED magazine, and much more.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shot Between the Eyes: Bob Dylan's Tempest

Bob Dylan performing at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards on January 12, 2012. (Photo: Christopher Polk)

After 35 studio albums, hundreds of songs and the so-called endless touring, does Bob Dylan have anything new to say? Or is he repeating himself?

On Tempest (Columbia 2012), Dylan's new album released today, the answer may lie in the writing credits, namely the contribution of Robert Hunter, lyricist with the Grateful Dead. Hunter made a serious contribution to Dylan's last album, Together Through Life (Columbia 2009), indicating a collaboration that may suggest Dylan is running out of ideas for songs. That said, the first single and opening track on Tempest,  “Duquesne Whistle,” offers the bittersweet story of love that presents yet another Dylanesque turn of phrase: "You're the only thing that keeps me going/You're like a time bomb in my heart." Strictly speaking, it's not the story of a relationship that gives him a “lethal dose” but it reflects a matured songwriter who may prefer to wax nostalgic. And if collaborating with Hunter frees up the artist, then so be it.

“Duquesne Whistle” speaks to me of trains constantly on the move and considering Dylan's hard work touring the world over the years, the superficial meaning isn't lost. But as the band shuffles beautifully along and Dylan repeats the phrase "that Duquesne train gonna rock me night and day," I can only come to that conclusion on first glance. (A deeper meaning may take some time to reveal itself.) Nevertheless, the ten songs on this record are strong on first listen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Overplaying Shaw: The Millionairess at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Steven Sutcliffe and Nicole Underhay in The Millionairess (Photo by David Cooper)

The two productions of Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival this summer are both wearying. Eda Holmes, who directed Misalliance, and Blair Williams, who staged The Millionairess, seem to be laboring under the misperception that if you make these plays more frantic and emphatic, then somehow their ideas will be clearer and the texts will seem funnier, when in fact there’s no special trick to penetrating their ideas, and all the overstatement numbs out the comedy. And the concepts are puzzling. Holmes has set Misalliance in 1962, for unconvincing reasons that she lays out in a director’s note; the characters don’t sound remotely as if they belonged in the sixties (the play was written a few years before the First World War), so Judith Bowden’s sets – which don’t really seem to belong to any historical era – and costumes just make you scratch your head. The Millionairess is performed without English accents, so when one of the characters refers to an American with whom he got involved in a business deal, you just wonder what he’s supposed to be. Canadian?

Shaw bills The Millionairess as a “Jonsonian comedy,” which would explain the outrageous character names, but the cast performs it as if it were Kaufman and Hart, and it’s such a silly play that I don’t imagine it matters. I’ve seen it three times over the years at roughly twenty-year intervals and each time even the plot fails to stick in my brain. The main character, an imperious and impossible heiress named Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, marries two men, one before the play begins and one just after the final curtain, both of whom manage to pass her late father’s test and make money out of the small pile she deeds to them. In between she throws another suitor down the stairs for making an unkind comment about her papa and takes over two businesses and turns them into triumphs. The narrative doesn’t cohere very well (probably that’s why I can never recall how it goes) but it makes a number of typically Shavian observations about economics. The best thing in it is the third act, wherein Epifania offers herself for a job at a sweatshop and starts to make improvements in it before she’s even begun work. It’s not in the same style as the rest of the play, and in the production at the Shaw it’s the only scene that’s largely performed (at least, by Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher, as the sweatshop owner and his wife) with some restraint.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reinventing the Vampire Myth: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain Trilogy

Pan's Labyrinth is a favourite film of mine from the last ten years. Director Guillermo del Toro crafted an adult fairy tale set in Spain near the end of World War II, which brought together realistic elements of the battle between the still-fighting Republicans and now-in-charge Fascists, and combined it with the fantasy world created by a lonely young girl who is brought to a Fascist stronghold by her mother. The mother has married the violent Captain in charge of the garrison and he has insisted they join him in the forest (the mother is pregnant with the Captain's child). To the little girl, the fantasy world is filled with magical creatures that are both good and malevolent (sometimes within the same creature). In this world, she is thought to be a lost princess who must perform various tasks to prove she is who they believe her to be.

Beyond being a wonderful tale that combines real horror (the violence perpetuated on each side in the Spanish battles is pretty brutal) with fantasy, del Toro created creatures that borrowed elements from stories we've heard before and gave them a mighty twist. The twists created a visual world unlike anything we've ever seen on film. He also created a fantasy world for the girl that is far closer to the original Grimm's Fairy Tales than the more sanitized versions that came out later. The fantasy world is no less disturbing and violent than the one in the real world, but here, at least, the young girl's importance is acknowledged where, in the real world, she is viewed as nothing more than a nuisance who is barely tolerated.