Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cowardly Bravery: Robert Zemeckis' Flight

I have very mixed feelings about Robert Zemeckis' (Back to the Future, Cast Away) return to live-action film-making after 12 years away making his trilogy of motion-capture (mo-cap) films – The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Mixed feelings – not because I miss the fact he abandoned it for so long (although frankly, I never understood his obsession with mo-cap even though I'm one of the few people I know who actually likes his dead-eyed “village of the damned” movie The Polar Express) – because his return to live-action film-making is such a mixed bag.

In the first few seconds of his new movie, Flight, Zemeckis makes sure we understand that he's abandoning “cartoons,” and PG ratings of any sort. Denzel Washington plays “Whip” Whitacker, an airline pilot of many years and our first shot of him is as he awakens with a hangover. A buck-naked airline attendant rolls out of bed beside him and she heads to the washroom (you can hear her peeing in the background). His cell phone rings. He picks up and immediately begins an argument with his ex-wife. During the conversation, he drinks the remnants of a bottle of beer, and he liberally drops F-bombs left, right and centre. The airline attendant, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), returns from the loo, smokes the remainder of a joint and lets him know they are due at the airport within the hour to work on a flight from Orlando to Atlanta. He mumbles assent, does a line of cocaine and, with the soundtrack playing Joe Cocker’s cover of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” he dresses and heads to the airport: The confident cock of the walk.

We are barely four minutes into the film.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Sessions & Midnight’s Children: Intimate Drama Surpasses Epic Tale

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Hollywood has always liked the inspirational saga, usually involving perpetually losing sports teams coming from behind to capture a championship or a teacher turning things around at a troubled, dysfunctional school. Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is a little different. It’s the true story of a man, afflicted by polio when he was young, who decides to lose his virginity as an adult, by hiring a sex surrogate no less. Fortunately what sounds like a potentially tasteless sex farce or would be in certain hands is actually a touching drama about two people whose intimate interactions change each other’s lives for the better. And for once the kudos about the skilled acting on tap in a movie is true.

The film, an American independent production but one tailor-made for Hollywood which picked it up for distribution, begins with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, Deadwood, Winter’s Bone), who is featured as the subject of a news report that shows him receiving his journalism degree despite his handicap. It then picks his life up in 1989 Berkeley, California, as he's being wheeled around in an iron lung, which is his home for most of the day. But Mark, who is also a poet, is determined to experience sex, first falling in love with one of his nurses, who flees when he tells of his feelings. He then decides to ask advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy), his friendly local priest, who gives him the go-ahead for pursuing carnal pleasures. Mark then reaches out to sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt, Mad About You, A Good Woman) who offers him six sessions in order so he may both consummate the act and, more importantly, learn to be good at pleasing a woman. Most of the film centers on their sessions and how they get to know each other both in and outside the bedroom.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Post-Halloween Neglected Gem #27: Parents (1989)

Bob Balaban moved from character actor to director with this little-seen 1989 movie, which shares a DVD with a 1990 thriller called Fear. Parents is post-David Lynch, with visual references to Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and soundtrack references to Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. It’s sensationally funny and creepy. The movie is a black-comic nightmare of growing up in middle America in the 1950s. The talented young actor Bryan Madorsky, who has enormous brown eyes, a serpentine neck, and a gaunt face that bulges above his ears, plays Michael Laemle, a Massachusetts kid who hates the Indiana suburb his family has moved to. He feels alienated in his new class (his weary teacher, wittily played by Kathryn Grody, barely submerges her disdain and condescension in pseudo-sweet commonplaces) and frightened by his sprawling split-level home, with its stucco fireplace, its deck, its barbecue, its unfamiliar “dark places.” (The art director, Andris Hausmanis, has given Balaban a real fifties special: the wall hangings – Eisenhower-era exotica – brought back my own childhood as powerfully as the recordings on the soundtrack, which include “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” “Purple People Eater,” and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.”) Michael’s dad, Nick (Randy Quaid), tells him that the only dark place he has to be careful of is his head. Beefy Nick, who looks Brobdingnagian next to Michael, doesn’t dig this skinny, meek kid, who always seems to be watching him with a mixture of curiosity and dread, and who has begun to shy away from eating the juicy red meat Nick broils on his barbecue and his wife Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) fries up on her stove. Nick can’t figure out how he and Lily could have produced this weirdo.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Phoenix Descending: The Young and the Restless and the Doomed

River Phoenix (1970-1993)

As a starstruck little girl, I experienced a broken heart when 24-year-old James Dean died in an automobile accident on September 30, 1955. From that day on, I began each entry in my diary with “Dear Jimmy.” A somewhat similar sadness took hold when drugs claimed the life of 23-year-old River Phoenix on Halloween 1993. But in starstruck adulthood, I no longer kept a diary with which to deny the untimely deaths of sensitive young actors.

Like Dean, Phoenix projected vulnerability, intensity and an edgy sense of potential self-destruction in his films. These qualities, which graced them both with a charisma lacking in most of their otherwise talented Hollywood peers, almost made tragedy seem inevitable. From a troubled adolescent in Stand by Me (1986) to the anguished son of fugitive parents in Running on Empty (1988), Phoenix brought that special something to the screen. In director Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), he portrays a character with narcolepsy. Never very lively while awake, he abruptly falls asleep anywhere, anytime – much like a junkie nodding out. It’s an uncanny performance in a strange movie based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

We Created a Monster: James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

It’s been over 80 years since Frankenstein (1931) was unleashed upon the world and I have sad news for you: James Whale’s film isn't scary. I'm sure it was frightening at some point in time but that ship has sailed and we’re left with a once-feared monster that we now embrace with open arms. Frankenstein would not have survived in its popularity were it just a great horror movie. What sets this film (and its immediate sequel 1935’s Bride Of Frankenstein) apart from the rest is the care Whale attached to the details of every frame. This was and always will be a work of art. Stories, such as that of a crazed doctor creating life from death, just aren't shared like this anymore.

With great skill and humour, Whale treated the film stock as if it were his canvas; his own laboratory. The monster’s make-up by Jack Pierce is iconic in its simplicity, sketching stitches and brushing bolts to craft a beautiful monstrosity played by the then-unknown Boris Karloff. The sets are meticulously detailed with matchstick forests, laboratories of smoke and mirrors, castles and graveyards filled with twisted architecture; all warmed by harsh shadows and painted backdrops that appear like moving expressionist paintings.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Revivals, Part I: Cyrano de Bergerac & An Enemy of the People

 Douglas Hodge and Clémence Poésy star in Cyrano de Bergerac

Many famous actors have had their fling at playing Edmond Rostand’s hero Cyrano de Bergerac, but the best one I’ve ever seen, hands down, is Christopher Plummer in the 1973 Broadway musical Cyrano. In his second go-round with the role – he’d sampled it as a young actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the same season he played Hamlet – he was mesmerizing, and hilarious. (Runner-up would be a tie between José Ferrer in the 1950 film version and Steve Martin in the updated 1987 movie Roxanne, which is my favorite version of the material.) The most recent Broadway Cyranos have been disappointments: first Kevin Kline in 2007 and now the British actor Douglas Hodge, in the new production at the Roundabout. Kline made the bizarre choice to underplay the role of the seventeenth-century wit, poet and soldier, who, feeling he can’t court the girl he adores, his cousin Roxane, because of the size of his nose, provides her handsome suitor Christian with the words to win her heart. The flamboyant Cyrano is surely one part you should never underplay. Hodge doesn’t make that mistake, and physically, at least, he meets the challenges of the character’s celebrated panache, especially in the first-act scene where he engages in swordplay with the disdainful Valvert (Samuel Roukin) while he composes a poem. (He completes the last line as he deals his opponent the triumphal thrust.) It’s Hodges’s vocal work that comes considerably short of the mark. He does well with the famous speech to the dullard Valvert, anticipating the swordfight, in which he demonstrates a dozen ways in which a man of imagination might approach the matter of insulting his nose. Hodge has a voice like scraped stone, and he knows how to use it cleverly. But this Cyrano is rendered in verse, yet Hodge insists on playing against the meter. Worse, he has a fondness for delivering his lines in a sentimental tremolo that cuts Cyrano’s romantic stoicism. He doesn’t appear to have understood the character – or else (as I suspect) he’s simply indulging himself.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Celebrating 20 Years: In Conversation With George Randolph, Founder of Toronto's Randolph Academy For the Performing Arts

George Randolph with David Mirvish
Chances are, if you’ve gone to the theatre anywhere in North America lately, you’ve witnessed something of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts in action. Since its founding in a Toronto church basement 20 years ago, the performing arts school has produced two generations of theatre professionals modeled after the old Hollywood tradition of the Triple Threat – that is, a performer who, in equal measure, can sing, dance and act. First coined by the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney when they were kids performing in musicals some 70-years ago, the Triple Threat was a relatively unused term in Canada until George Randolph, an American-born hoofer, came to Toronto to literally shake things up. Trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the former dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal arrived in Toronto in the 1980s at time when the city was being transformed into Broadway North. The big shows of the Great White Way were then crossing the border in record numbers, lured by local theatre impresarios like Garth Drabinsky and Ed Mirvish. Audiences were hungry for them, but the country didn’t have the manpower to sustain them. Theatre professionals here were either dancers or singer or actors. Rarely were they all three at once. They hadn’t had the training. Spying an opportunity, Randolph threw himself headlong into the void, eventually creating a signature Triple Threat program that is today the envy of much of the theatre world as he explained recently in conversation with Deirdre Kelly. Read on to find out how the Randolph Academy started and where it’s going next.