Saturday, March 2, 2013

Neglected Gems #35: Soapdish (1991)

The 1991 Soapdish is consistently inventive and high-spirited. The script by Andrew Bergman and Robert Harling takes us into the world of daytime soaps – a delectable subject for burlesque that Tootsie (released nine years earlier) didn’t come close to exhausting. Soapdish lacks Tootsie’s polish and style, and it doesn’t offer the same kind of emotional satisfaction, but it has its own teeter-totter, whirligig pleasures.

Sally Field, parodying herself good-naturedly, plays Celeste Tolbert, the reigning – and grasping – queen of the soaps. Star of The Sun Also Sets for the last couple of decades, she wins the daytime Emmy years after year (yes, the script includes a Sally Field acceptance speech, though it’s tamer than you’d hope). But her love life is going to pot. And though she doesn’t know it, she’s in danger of having her throne usurped by Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), who plays “Nurse Nan” on the program and is fed up with being stuck in the background. Holding sex at arm’s length like the fruits the gods tempted Tantalus with, Montana entices the show’s horny young producer, David (Robert Downey, Jr.), into helping her oust Celeste. Working around the head writer, Rose (Whoopi Goldberg), who’s also Celeste’s best friend, he dreams up a scheme for having “Maggie,” Celeste’s character, stab a homeless person, assuming that act will lose her the audience that adores her. His plan is short-circuited, however, by Celeste’s discovery, on the set, that the extra cast as the homeless woman is her own niece, Lauren (Elizabeth Shue), who ends up joining the show as a regular. So David casts around for alternative attacks and decides to unseat Celeste by hiring the last person she’d want to play opposite: her one-time lover, Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), whose character she had written out of the show nearly twenty years ago.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Finally, Just Another Example of Israel Bashing: Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers

At first glance, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, his seemingly probing interview documentary with the six living former heads of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet (roughly akin to the FBI), all besides its current head Yoram Cohen, would seem to make for startling revelations as he goes behind the scenes of an agency few know much about. (The famed Mossad, Israel’s equivalent to the CIA, with its rescue of the Jewish hostages at Entebbe or the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and other such remarkable feats of derring-do usually gets all the international headlines.) But gradually, one begins to notice a sameness to all the interviewee’s political views and, more significantly, an agenda held by the filmmaker which ultimately holds his country up to the worst possible light. It’s not that Israel should be immune to criticism, even from its highest placed civil servants. It’s more that a look at the complexities and nuances of Israeli life and actions should reflect that complexity, instead of coming across as an excuse to beat up on the country to an unbalanced degree. But The Gatekeepers, which lost out to Searching for Sugar Man for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, refuses to do that, preferring to place all the blame and onus on the Palestinian-Israeli impasse or the fraught relationship with Iran, among other issues, on one side instead of examining how we got here from there. That blinkered, myopic and highly biased point of view ultimately dooms The Gatekeepers to mere propaganda and polemic instead of its being crafted as the powerful, informative documentary it ought to have been.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stay Up Late: V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, John Dies at the End

Chase Williamson, as Dave, in John Dies at the End

One of my favorite movie books is J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, which was first published in 1983 when the midnight movie as countercultural phenomenon was about to go the way of all flesh, displaced by the convenience and insular charms of home video. Hoberman captured the special appeal of midnight movies when he wrote of “epic, environmental films – really crazy ones,” that “instead of dreaming, you could spend the night with these visions.” One of the earliest and most prolific creators of midnight hits was George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968 and played the international midnight circuit for years, and who followed it up with both the sequel Dawn of the Dead and his riff on vampire mythology, Martin. And the midnight horror movie reached an apotheosis in 1985 with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, which, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, was probably ultimately seen by far more people who caught it on video than in a theater. Not all the major midnight hits were horror movies, but most of them – Eraserhead, El Topo – were nightmares of some kind, and even the congenial, geek-show vaudeville of early John Waters and the communal-utopian The Rocky Horror Picture Show, drew much of their appeal from their fans’ sense that they were identifying with people who could have starred in their parents’ nightmares.

Even without an actual, theater-going subculture for the movies themselves to tap into, there remains a special, hip allure to a horror or fantasy picture that can generate a plausible “midnight” vibe – that seems as if it would be a natural to tap into that audience, if it still existed. The Toronto International Film Festival, which has managed for years now to cling tight to a reputation as the premiere film festival for that select group that actually attends film festivals to see movies, still programs its “Midnight Madness” lineup every year, and now that several of last year’s entries have trickled into theaters (and onto Video On Demand), civilians and people who couldn’t schedule their vacations for September can get a taste of what passes for hip horror these days. The ABCs Of Murder and John Dies at the End, and another recent horror picture, V/H/S, may provide some hints about the current state of the midnight movie gene and how today’s indie-genre filmmakers are trying to tap into it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Murder Gene: Defending Jacob, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Good Father

There is a general belief that having a genetic predisposition for violent behaviour and growing up in an aggressive environment can be lethal. In the novels Defending Jacob by William Landay (Delacorte Books, 2012), We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Counterpoint 2003) and The Good Father by Noah Hawley (Double Day 2012), the second condition is absent yet horrific crimes are perpetrated. The mystery is not about the identity of the perpetrators – in two of them the reader is informed at the outset and in the third, early on he has a sneaking suspicion – but rather why these murders were committed, to what extent genes play a role and, perhaps most interesting, the response of the fathers when their sons are charged with murder.

The science of behavioral genetics is most explicitly raised in Defending Jacob when the fourteen year old son of the Assistant DA, Andy Barber, is accused of knifing a classmate to death. Although Andy is a successful lawyer, who with his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob, enjoys a comfortable suburban lifestyle until the son’s arrest, he harbours a secret that he has never told his family. His own father, whom he has not seen since he was a child is serving a life term for murder, and his grandfather and great-grandfather were violent men, both incarcerated for many years. With Jacob’s trial approaching and the possibility that his family history will be raised, he has no choice but to inform his family. They visit a scientist, who, while assuring them that “predisposition is not predestination,” solicits a DNA test from the three generations to determine whether their genes might be encoded for violence. Although Andy considers this “junk science,” he accedes to the request even though he insists that he has never been violent at any time in his life. That may or may not be true but in his understandable belief that Jacob is innocent, he will do anything to prove it. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Keeping Promise: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell's Old Yellow Moon

Confidence and a refined sense of music making is the foundation of Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch, 2013), this superb new album from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. It’s a welcome return for these musicians who first collaborated on Elite Hotel (1975), one of Harris’ most popular and familiar albums. Crowell was a member of the Harris’ Hot Band in the mid-70s and oddly enough this is their first album. Old Yellow Moon is a no-nonsense country music record from start to finish. It features the busiest fiddler in music, Stuart Duncan and some members of the original Hot Band. The production values are strong and the song selection is mix of new and old with just a dash of nostalgia to keep everybody honest. And honesty is a key value to this record and for these two experienced artists.

I first heard Emmylou Harris on Elite Hotel and her stand out version of the Lennon/McCartney ballad, “Here, There and Everywhere.” It was one of those songs that crossed over into pop with just enough Nashville twang to gratify the purists. Since that release, and some 26 albums later, Emmylou Harris has been one of the most interesting vocalists in music. Her unmistakable voice is a sweet, earnest sound makes you sit up and take notice. But she’s no pushover because she’s rocked with the best of them. Consider her work with Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, or Steve Earle. Not to mention her electric band with Buddy Miller, called Spyboy, Harris has been successful at blending the edgy side of rock 'n' roll with the sweeter, gentler sounds of country.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Caesar Must Die: Shakespeare Behind Bars

Giovanni Arcuri (centre) and members of the cast, in a scene from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die

“That was amazing,” the woman next to me at the New York Film Festival screening of Caesar Must Die last fall said to me as the lights came up. The new film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is the kind of experience that makes speaking acquaintances out of strangers. It was shot in Italy’s Rebibbia Prison, a maximum-security facility that houses mostly Mafiosi and drug traffickers, some of whom have been sentenced to “life meaning life,” a colorfully insistent Italian idiom meaning life without parole. At Rebibbia, Fabio Cavalli conducts a theatrical workshop that produces classic plays performed by prisoners, who audition just as they would in any other theatre. The show the Tavianis depict is Julius Caesar, in a free-form translation that Cavalli coaches his actors to read in their own regional accents. But Caesar Must Die isn’t exactly a documentary. The Tavianis apply their trademark expressionism: we hear the thoughts of the prisoners as they lie on their cots, sometimes in that overlapping concatenation we associate with the brothers’ masterpieces, Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Simone Zampagni has lit the film, which is mostly in black and white, expressionistically. Only a few sequences are shot in the rehearsal hall or in performance. (We see only the last few scenes and the curtain call of the actual performance: shot in color, they bookend the picture.) Mostly the actors perform in the corridors of the prison, in the yard or in other common spaces, or else in their own cells, so the reality of the prisoners’ lives bleeds into Shakespeare’s narrative – which is, of course, about violence and power, betrayal and vengeance, ideas that, as we don’t need to be told, have peculiar resonance for these men. Sometimes they’re clearly prisoners acting roles and commenting on their meaning, as when Salvatore (Sasà) Striano, playing Brutus, explains to his cellmates what happened in Rome after Caesar’s death and one of them, a Nigerian, relates it to his own country’s history. At other times they seem indistinguishable from the characters they’re portraying, partly because there’s no stylistic discrepancy between Shakespeare’s scenes and the private (and clearly scripted) exchanges among the prisoners. The movie is simultaneously expressionistic and Pirandellian.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pure Liquid Sunshine: Grupo Corpo at Harbourfront Centre

Members of the Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo, performing Imã (All photos by José Luiz Pederneiras)

Dance to blast away the February blahs. Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre is not marketing it as such. But there’s no question that the two hours recently spent in the presence of Brazil’s dynamic Grupo Corpo dance company, a feature of Harbourfront’s ongoing World Stage series at the Fleck Theatre, instantly lifted the spirits. The dancing by the 22-member ensemble is bouncy, bright, infectiously happy – pure liquid sunshine. The dancers themselves appear loose limbed, even rubbery, propelled by a love of dance which makes them a true delight to watch. The movement is mostly the message, and it’s physically daring and expressive, fantastically athletic and sensual all at once. Nothing appears capable of stopping the forward-motion drive. Whether pirouetting, leaping or doing a samba on the spot, the dancers are nothing but remarkable specimens of human achievement: the survival of the fizziest.