Saturday, June 22, 2013

Frolicking: Frances Ha

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

Frances Ha, which opened yesterday in Toronto, is Noah Baumbach’s homage to the ebullient spirit of Truffaut, set among a circle of young, aspirational twenty-something artists in New York City. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice with a dance company whose dream of a position as a full-time dancer thrives as her ambition flounders. Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) works in publishing at Random House; they met at Vassar, but five years after graduation they are still as inseparable as college roommates. (“We’re the same person,” Frances explains.) When they fall out with each other, Frances spins her wheels to more and more self-destructive effect – she gets fired from the dance company’s Christmas show, her only source of income, and winds up back in Poughkeepsie working part-time student jobs at Vassar for minimum wage – as Sophie moves to Tokyo part-time with her boyfriend and gets engaged.

Friday, June 21, 2013

See Me: Tommy

Robert Markus as Tommy

Tommy is a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind kid, but Des McAnuff has made it a feast of the senses. A multiple Tony award winner and recent Order of Canada recipient who at one point in his storied career played guitar as a Toronto-area rock musician, McAnuff is a high energy director known for plucking from the history of pop music old gems (read Jersey Boys and Jesus Christ Superstar) and making them sparkle anew. His Tommy, at Stratford’s Avon Theatre until the end of September, is no exception. A new, updated version of the celebrated 1993 Broadway production created in collaboration with Pete Townshend of The Who fame, Tommy is a thrilling theatrical experience. The mute sings again.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bigger, Louder and Messier: Man of Steel

Zack Snyder’s new blockbuster Man of Steel is the second attempt to reboot Superman as the hero of his own movie franchise since the Christopher Reeve series went off the rails with Superman III and the embarrassing, Golan-Globus-funded fourth installment. (After that, the character was downsized and farmed out to television in the series' Superboy, Lois & Clark, and Smallville.) The first try, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), didn’t exactly bankrupt the studio, but it’s generally remembered as a disappointment. It took the material very seriously, and many reviewers pointed out that the images of Superman hovering above the Earth, his cape billowing and his head hanging down as if to express his disappointment in us, suggested a zero-gravity Christ. Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, takes the material at least as seriously, and it has none of the leavening of humor that Singer provided; as superhero devotionals go, it’s practically The Greatest Story Ever Told to Superman Returns Life of Brian.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dangerous Collaborations: An Interview with John Malkovich

John Malkovich in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons

In the late eighties, Critics at Large’s David Churchill (1959 – 2013) appeared alongside Kevin Courrier on the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM (now JAZZ 91-FM) in Toronto, where they reviewed current cinema. Among the movies they discussed was Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), an adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel about the sexual conquests and cunning erotic games of two French aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who mercilessly destroy the lives of those around them for their own gratification. As daring and devious as the novel it was based on, Dangerous Liaisons pulled the rug out from under British period drama conventions by using an all-American cast headed by Glenn Close as Merteuil and John Malkovich as Valmont.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gallows Humor: The Internship

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Shawn Levy's The Internship

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn notched a hit eight years ago with The Wedding Crashers, by far the best of the so-called “Frat Pack” movies. It was 2005 and the American economy was still riding its illusory seat atop the housing and investment banking bubble. Wilson and Vaughn’s characters lead, accordingly, a similar carefree, fast-lane lifestyle – hot-shot Washington divorce lawyers by day, clubbing playboys by night. Life is one big party for John Beckwith (Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vaughn), who have never needed to learn about romantic love and commitment because they can score with women so easily. The movie’s setup cleverly symbolizes this conflict  they are near-professional crashers of random wedding receptions. While bride and groom consummate their nuptial love, Jeremy and John are off bedding bridesmaids for another one-night stand. Their growth into men ready for weddings of their own makes for the narrative arc.

Monday, June 17, 2013

America in London

Seth Numrich and Kim Cattrall in Sweet Bird of Youth (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Marianne Elliott is a gifted director (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but in her latest production, a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic, she seems utterly at sea. She tries to render it as straight realism for the first half, and that doesn’t work: her staging feels constricted and has the effect of flattening out the lyrical weave in the dialogue. You get a little respite when expressionistic shadows dance behind the upstage curtains between the first and second scenes (Rae Smith designed both set and lights) but it isn’t until act two that the show breaks out of its naturalistic corset. And then it goes nuts. The actors start to chew the scenery, and a speech by a southern demagogue named Boss Finley (Owen Rae) is televised in a hotel lounge on four TV sets as if it were a scene out of The Manchurian Candidate (although only three or four people are seated in the room), while a heckler who tries to derail Finley’s big moment is dragged inside and beaten savagely by his thugs. The shift in style shakes things up but it doesn’t salvage the show, though it does give you the weird impression that the company has switched plays in mid-performance.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Sublime and the Grotesque: Stephen Fry’s Wagner & Me

Stephen Fry in front of Festspeilhaus in Bayreuth, in Wagner & Me

                                     "Wagner’s music is better and greater than Hitler ever imagined."    
                                                –Wagner & Me

Full disclosure: I have an abiding passion for the art of Richard Wagner. It was not always so. Like many others, I believed that his personal anti-Semitism and the Nazi appropriation of his art had sullied his work. That preconception collapsed as I researched and wrote a substantial chapter on Wagner in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. Perhaps more important was my privilege of attending performances over four nights of the complete sixteen hour Ring Cycle on four occasions, experiences that I can only describe as transportive, even transcendental. It is easy to see why I eagerly anticipated director Patrick McGrady’s documentary Wagner & Me, with the actor (Wilde, 1997), writer (Making History, 1996, an alternative history novel about the Third Reich), and television host Stephen Fry serving as our genial guide. Except for a few blemishes, it was not a disappointment. I was in fact thrilled by it.