Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How I Felt toward This Film about Halfway Through: Hostile (2017)

Brittany Ashworth in Hostile (2017).

Writer-director Mathieu Turi’s debut is a zombie post-apocalypse thriller cum meditation on a romantic relationship, brazenly tied together. Despite heartfelt acting and high production values (on a low budget, no less!), the melodramatic direction, tone-deaf dialogue, predictable plot, and overly intellectual transitions had me checking out about a fourth of the way into this under-ninety-minute effort. Elevated horror Hostile (2017) is not.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Unlikely Musicals: Girl from the North Country and Allelujah!

Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt in Girl from the North Country. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The mood of sorrow in Conor McPherson’s beautiful new play Girl from the North Country, reaching down as deep as the deepest well, is both aching and piercing, and when you walk out of the Public Theatre at the end (where it’s about to end its sold-out run) it hobbles you: my step was slower, my mind a little befogged, and I had the impression that I was carrying something heavy and unresolvable with me. Yet the evening is often joyous. The seventeen-member ensemble, each performing at capacity, sings the Bob Dylan songs in Simon Hale’s exquisite arrangements – there are twenty in all – with brio and with full hearts. The music decorates the air and makes the show swing, even when it comments on lost love, even when the narrative context of the lyrics turns them ironic. And though the overarching theme is loneliness, the music also imbues what we see on the stage with an unmistakable feeling of community, in the sense of a common humanity. I found myself thinking of Our Town – with Robert Joy, as the narrator, Dr. Walker, almost taking on the role of the omniscient Stage Manager in the last minutes – and of Spoon River Anthology, as well as of Pennies from Heaven, because of the Depression-era setting and because Girl from the North Country is a Brechtian jukebox musical.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dancing from the Shadows: Akram Khan's XENOS

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

In XENOS, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s solo journey into the heart of darkness, death is a perpetual presence. It haunts the stage in both poetic and elemental ways. A mound of black dirt. A phonograph doubling as a search light. Nothing is sacred. Nothing safe. There is no romancing the inevitable in this poignant meditation on the suffering of First World War soldiers; the soul is excavated, the flesh exposed and the mind racked to breaking point. Love, beauty and all we – as a so-called civilized people – hold dear end up buried and presumed lost. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. XENOS – the word is Greek for "stranger" – is like King Lear distilled to the essence of the howl, howl, howl upon the heath: an unrelenting portrait of life as viewed from the shadows.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Art of the Ordinary: A Revolution in Meaning

Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes, the Stable Gallery, New York City, 1964. (Photo: Fred McDarrah)

Images, our great and primitive passion . . . ” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
Richard Deming's new book Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press) explores a major revolution in the meaning of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Its subtitle sums it up rather nicely: the everyday domain of art, film, philosophy and poetry. Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.

Art of the Ordinary explores how philosophical questions can be revealed in surprising places – as in a stand-up comic’s routine, for instance, or a Brillo box, or a Hollywood movie. From negotiations with the primary materials of culture and community, ways of reading "self" and "other" are made available, deepening one’s ability to respond to ethical, social, and political dilemmas. Deming picks out key figures, such as the philosophers Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Richard Wollheim, poet John Ashbery, artist Andy Warhol and comedian Steven Wright, to showcase the foundational concepts of language, ethics, and society.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Waverly Gallery and the Ineffable Elaine May

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Since her early days with Mike Nichols, Elaine May has occupied a magical space where high comedy overlaps with revue-sketch comedy. At eighty-six she still possesses the combination of qualities that made her Nichols’ inspired collaborator and that made her a rara avis in movies like In the Spirit and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks: razor wit, a loopy, uncategorizable presence, an insistent if quirky humanity, and the impulse to take wild leaps of imagination, sometimes linking traits of character that we don’t expect to find together. She always seems self-invented – as if what we see on screen or on stage is the living embodiment of her writing style. (You could say the same about Christopher Durang, which is the reason that, if you’ve seen him in a role he’s written for himself, it’s so tough to get his voice out of your head when someone else plays it.) As Gladys Green, the New York-Jewish gallery owner she plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, who is sinking into dementia, the pixieish May gives an enchanting performance. One might say that watching her is like getting a master class in acting, but the fact is that she’s so weirdly unlike anyone else that you could hardly tell a young actor to go and do likewise. The only actress I can think of who’s remotely like her is her gifted daughter, Jeannie Berlin, whose career May ignited by giving her the role of the abandoned bride in her unconventional 1972 romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

Friday, November 2, 2018

All Work and No Play: Bohemian Rhapsody

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rock and roll has long seemed wedded to the movies despite the fact that film started a good 50 years before those percussive, jangling refrains entered the mainstream. But the immediacy, intimacy, and gigantism of that shimmering screen is so related to the feeling of excess engendered in rock and pop that it can seem like they have always been intertwined. (A movie like Rebel Without a Cause was so steeped in the youthful mythos of rock that it’s still surprising to realize it was released before rock existed as a mass phenomenon.) Thus it’s no surprise that the lives of rock gods and goddesses have served as fodder for numerous screenplays and treatments. The rock-and-roll biopic is a genre unto itself. The best of these pictures tend to hinge on who portrays the pop deity – if the actor is able to tear into both the myth and reality of their subject, the results can be spectacular, even if the movie itself is so-so. Jamie Foxx was terrific as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing turn as Johnny Cash, and to a lesser extent, Reese Witherspoon’s as June Carter Cash, still haunt me, and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline was a revelation. (Lange also had the great fortune to have Robert Getchell writing sharp, incisive dialogue for her.) Both Paul Dano and John Cusack broke my heart as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, and Beyoncé was mesmerizing as Etta James in the too little-seen Cadillac Records, to name just a few. Even if the movie is out-and-out terrible, a great star turn can make the experience worthwhile. It’s hard to see how Lady Sings the Blues could be much worse, just as it’s almost as hard to see how Diana Ross’s performance could be much better. (Go have the argument whether Lady is a jazz or blues biopic somewhere else: Ross’s performance is pure rock and roll.) But rock cinema is also riddled with great promise greatly denied: Dennis Quaid put all sorts of effort into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, but never really came to life. Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison was stillborn (perhaps due to director Oliver Stone’s apparent belief there’s no greater rock star than himself), and let’s not talk about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Ghosts of October (4): Whistle and I’ll Come To You

An illustration for “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” in M.R. James’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Over the past month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney has highlighted some of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction and film. See Parts 1, 2, and 3
here, here, and here.

“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (the title quotes a lyric from Robert Burns) was written in 1904 by M.R. James, whose ghost stories are as venerated a Christmas tradition in the UK as those of Dickens. James was a Cambridge University provost, librarian, and antiquarian, and his best work grew out of a passion for buried history, with aggressive spirits released from crypts and clods of earth by unwary scholar-diggers. In “Whistle,” a professor named Parkins vacations in a coastal town. At a colleague’s request, he examines a site where lodges of the Knights Templar are known to have stood, to see if the ground appears promising for archeology. While poking about in a nearby cemetery (similar to the one found in The Green Man; Kingsley Amis had read James), Parkins unearths “a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age.” He takes it with him – and perceives, as he walks along the beach toward his hotel, something seeming to follow him through the dusk: “the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance.” That night, in his room, he finds the tube to be a whistle, bearing a Latin inscription which translates as Who is this who is coming? He cleans out the whistle, and blows it. And something comes to him.