Saturday, October 26, 2013

What’s Left Untasted: The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet

Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner in Life is Sweet

The irrepressible couple at the center of Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990) – released on Blu-ray and regular DVD this year by the Criterion Collection in an impeccably restored digital print – are Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Andy (Jim Broadbent), working class parents whose good-natured pleasure in daily life is laced with melancholy. Faithful to family life, they have no illusions about the compromises they’ve had to accept to raise their twin daughters, Nicola (Jane Horrocks) and Natalie (Claire Skinner), who at twenty-two are a solid four years older than their parents were when they were born. Humor and hope keep them tethered. Andy is susceptible to grand schemes for the future, as in the rusted junkyard lunch wagon he buys for a marked-up fee with the fantasy of striking out in his own business; Wendy accepts his foibles with her infectious laugh, a programmed response to life’s little absurdities. But their best qualities blinker them, too. Wendy, with all her girlishness and her resolute positivity, doesn’t know what to do with Natalie’s ambiguous sexuality – she wears men’s clothes and works as a plumber – or Nicola’s bulimic, depressive stupors which, in spite of living under her family’s roof, haven’t improved. And Andy often can’t see what’s right in front of him: it’s the price he pays for clinging to impossible aspirations. Food is the film’s theme and its central metaphor: life may be sweet, but so much of it goes untasted.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Future Nostalgia: The Crucible of Paul McCartney

At the age of 71, Paul McCartney continues to build his legacy, never content to coast on the sizeable reputation he built as part of one of popular music's most significant groups. But as he goes forward, with a new album – called New – which John Corcelli will be reviewing in Critics at Large in a couple of weeks, it's curious how much McCartney draws from his past in order to move forward with a more contemporary sound. He performs as a man who knows full well that he can't out-jump his own shadow so by embracing it he casts his reflection forward. Yet just as he dabbles in keeping current, there is still a relentless quest in his music to get back, to seek a place of refuge while continually defining his musical future. (The latest album has four producers on it to help him do so.) Once was a way to get back homeward, he once sang confidently in 1969 on "Golden Slumbers." But for Paul McCartney, all his life, getting back homeward became an illusive task. As his career scaled musical heights not imagined, McCartney always looked to the past for some point of reference, or maybe for some profound meaning to make sense of how far he'd come as an artist. Who could blame him? With The Beatles, he not only was living out a dream, but the dream took on a life that made him feel larger than he truly was. His songs once had a power that they couldn't attain now that he was on his own. Writing in The Beatles was about more than just honing his craft. It fulfilled McCartney's ambitions and gave full shape to his creative impulses; it completed him. With the band gone after 1970, looking back could have seemed futile. But without a burning sense of the past, McCartney couldn't see a future in front of him.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Indifference: Randy Moore's Escape From Tomorrow

After Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow played at the Sundance Film Festival, it received a ton of adulatory press, most of it focused on the audacity of Moore’s stunt: he shot his film, about a man coming unglued during a family vacation to Disney World, at Disney World and Disneyland, using small cameras and digital recorders to surreptitiously shoot inside the parks without permission. Given how touchy Disney is about threats to its image, most of the people who raved about the movie in Colorado last January seem to have assumed that it would never get any kind of general release. (The idea that their readers would be unlikely to ever check out the movie for themselves must have made them feel free to really let fly in their praise of its outrageousness and richness.) One online writer, Erik Davis, reported that “many are calling [it] the ultimate guerrilla film.’” Maybe so, but it’s also one of the ultimate examples of a movie that’s more fun to fantasize about than it is to sit through.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Concentric Circles in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels

“No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.”
P. D. James, Talking about Crime Fiction

Anyone primarily interested in a whodunit crime novel may not find it in the writer Sara Paretsky. In her long-standing series that made its debut in 1982 with Indemnity Only introducing the female protagonist V. I. Warshawski, dead bodies do appear regularly but the identity of the perpetrator is rarely the novels’ most compelling feature. When a murder does occur early, for example in Body Work (2010) and the accused is an Iraqi veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress after the rest of his unit was killed in a firefight, Warshawski is also hired by the young man’s parents to prove his innocence. The tough, sharp-tongued but compassionate private sleuth is frequently engaged by clients to investigate a person’s disappearance.  

The impression from reading these novels is that the resolution of the mystery constitutes the most inner circle, one that is surrounded by a series of other circles including Warshawski’s personal life and her commitment to address social injustices. Finally, and, most interestingly, is the historical circle in which she connects the present to the past, which is found in a number of Paretsky’s later novels, especially her most recent, Critical Mass (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013). The historical arc, which provides greater depth and resonance, should not surprise since she has a PhD in history from the University of Chicago.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

David Bowie Is X 3

Pop icon David Bowie is the subject of the David Bowie is exhibit currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Three of our critics, Deirdre Kelly, John Corcelli and Kevin Courrier, attended the show and each of them contribute their thoughts to this review.

It was the summer of my 15th year and my mother, to get me out of the house, and perhaps also to make me realize there was a wonderful world waiting for me outside it, sent me to London, England, where she had some friends who would put me up for a few hot weeks. I already knew the British capital to be the crux of all things cool. I was a Beatles fan, and, well, pretty much a fan of everything else with an English accent. But The Beatles were long over by 1975, and I was on to the next big thing which, to my constantly changing teenage self, meant glitter rock in the form of Marc Bolan of T. Rex, David Essex, Elton John (before he became respectable), Queen and – of course – David Bowie. Bowie was the pin-up in my bedroom, and I choose the word deliberately because he was, at the beginning of his career, not a boy, not a girl, but a deliciously subversive blend of both.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Be a King: The BBC Series The Hollow Crown

The magnificent BBC series The Hollow Crown, which PBS’s Great Performances ran over four weeks, is an epic undertaking: productions of all four of the histories that constitute what scholars call Shakespeare’s Henriad, shepherded by major English directors. The Henriad begins with Richard II, in which King Richard’s cousin Bolingbroke, exiled for half a dozen years, returns with an army when Richard confiscates his lands after Bolingbroke’s father’s death and pillages his estate to fund a war against Ireland. Bolingbroke claims that all he wants is what is rightfully his, his father’s legacy, but his army overruns the kingdom and his cause gathers allies who were formerly Richard’s friends, and Richard knows that the only logical consequence of a successful insurrection against his throne is the loss of the crown to his rival. Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the title character of Shakespeare’s two-part sequel. But Henry IV is about the end of the king’s life and reign, and its protagonist is his heir, Prince Hal. At the end of Part I Hal comes of age on the battlefield; at the end of Part II he leaves behind the wastrel’s life among the London taverns and whorehouses to succeed his father on the throne of England. In the final play of the tetralogy, Henry V, his kingship is tested, once again in battle, as he leads his country against France, emerging in triumph and with the hand of the French princess, Katherine.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Greek Tragedy - Canadian Style: Soulpepper's Farther West

Soulpepper's production of Farther West (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

John Murrell has a long-established and fully justified reputation as a playwright who creates good roles for women and places them in well constructed works based on historical Canadian subjects. So it makes perfect sense that he would create a play about Canadian prostitutes in the 19th century. Farther West, first produced in 1982 (directed by Robin Phillips and starring Martha Henry) and now running at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Nov. 9, won Murrell a second Chalmers Award, the first coming for 1977’s Waiting for the Parade. It is the story of May Buchanan, a prostitute who worked her way from small-town Ontario westward across Canada in the 1870s and ’80s. She started at 14, on the advice of her father, who had just found her having sex with a much older neighbour: “You can’t carry on like that here, girl. You better move on. Better start moving, farther west.”

Director Diana Leblanc’s production is striking, starting even before the opening: a naked couple is entwined on-stage as the audience takes its seats. No question, nudity is powerful, and the tableau leads convincingly and appropriately into the play proper. Astrid Janson’s set, though simple – a painted scrim backdrop, a sloped platform – is made striking by Graeme Thomson’s lighting, and it should be noted that a river, or rather a creek, runs through it. Janson’s costumes are grittily realistic, nicely matching the tone of the first act, at least. The scenes in Vancouver switch to a sort of nasty melodrama that takes us into a somewhat over-the-top ending.