Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You!: The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019)

Park Seo-joon in Saja (2019).

What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) (Keanu Reeves) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song and Dance, Part IV: King of Jazz and Miscast

A scene from King of Jazz (1930).

In their efforts to find ways to showcase talkie performers, in the early days of sound film most of the major studios produced elaborate musical revues featuring their leading contract players. MGM released Hollywood Revue of 1929 (for which Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown furnished the song “Singin’ in the Rain”), Warner Brothers had Show of Shows (which included a speech from Richard III by John Barrymore), and Fox came up with Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 – all decidedly mixed bags, as one might imagine. The only one with an actual concept was Universal’s King of Jazz: it was a loving though tongue-in-cheek tribute to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra staged and shot by the extravagant stage director John Murray Anderson. Anderson sent it flying madly over budget, and after it opened to terrible reviews, it sank quickly at the box office – and neither Anderson nor Whiteman wound up with a movie career. (Whiteman made sporadic appearances in movie musicals over the next two decades, most memorably in Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.) But Criterion’s lovingly restored DVD reveals a charming, inventive early musical in stunning two-tone Technicolor. The palette – pink and carmine and orange, silver and pearly white, eggshell blue bordering on turquoise (true blue wasn’t possible until three-tone Technicolor was developed) – is elegant, Gatsby-ish; Herman Rosse designed both sets and costumes. And the lighting by Hal Mohr, Jerry Ash and Ray Rennahan adds a touch of expressionism, with purplish shadows deepening the images.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Flaccid Fairy Tale: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

The following contains spoilers.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time...  in Hollywood, is a noted departure from his norm. It’s devoid of most of his worst habits, like the repetitive use of racial epithets for sheer shock value, which African American filmmaker Spike Lee has properly called him out on, as well as the mucho macho posturing of his male characters, which has always been a tiresome feature of his films. Those motifs certainly permeated his last two mediocre features, Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015). By comparison to those, this movie is actually quite an amiable effort on his part and a bit more ambitious than some of the season’s other films, such as the vapid Danny Boyle/Richard Curtis alternate-history comedy Yesterday and Jim Jarmusch’s one-note deadpan zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. But its wispy story line is not thought through and ultimately it’s a slight movie that fades away once the credits have finished running.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Song and Dance, Part III: Brigadoon

Matt Nethersole (centre) and the cast of Brigadoon at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

If you love classic American musicals, then you may feel, as I do, a creeping dread when you attend a revival of one and find a credit in the program for “revised book.” I wasn’t aware that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s lovely 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon required revising, but the Shaw Festival’s production uses a 2014 rewrite, first seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, by a playwright named Brian Hill. Hill has apparently sought to make the show more relevant to today’s audiences by turning the protagonist, the American Tommy Albright (George Krissa), into a World War II veteran and altering the motivation for the spell cast on the town of Brigadoon, which Tommy and his friend Jeff Douglas (Mike Nadajewski) come upon when they get lost in the Scottish Highlands during a hunting vacation. As Lerner wrote it, Brigadoon’s late minister asked God to put the town to sleep every night for a hundred years in order to keep it from falling under worldly influences. In Hill’s version, it’s war – and specifically (though it’s unnamed) the tragic Battle of Culloden – that devastated the Highlands and from which the minister wanted to protect his beloved Brigadoon. The director of the Shaw production, Glynis Leyshon, underscores this idea by beginning the show, clumsily, with Second World War newsreel footage. Who first came up with the harebrained notion that if an old dramatic property can’t be linked to contemporary concerns it’s not worth taking down off the shelf? City Center staged Brigadoon two years ago using the original book and the audience gave it a (well-deserved) standing ovation.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Eye of the Beholder: The Extremity of Vikky Alexander

Between Dreaming and Living #8, by Vikky Alexander. (Image: VAG)

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty runs July 6 – January 26, 2020 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The catalogue/book of this show is well worth ordering from the VAG.

Coming of age in the heady photo-conceptualist decade of the 1980s, Vikky Alexander quickly ascended to the upper ranks of the most visually challenging and thought-provoking Canadian contemporary artists. Becoming well known for her insightful investigations of the found and appropriated image, the artificial representation of enclosed nature and the cultural seduction of both space and place, it was almost as if she was holding up a dark mirror to our beauty-obsessed era and showing us who we were really were beneath the surface of all that bright and shiny glitter.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shaw Entertainments: The Ladykillers and Getting Married

Chick Reid and Damien Atkins in The Ladykillers at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: David Cooper)

Performed by overlapping ensembles, The Ladykillers and Getting Married, comedies of very different stripes, are the most sheerly enjoyable shows I saw at the Shaw Festival this season. The Ladykillers is Graham Linehan’s 2011 stage version of the screenplay William Rose wrote for the beloved Ealing comedy from 1955, starring Alec Guinness – fitted out with hilarious fake incisors that made him look like a cadaverous shark – as the brains of a gang of robbers who work out of his rented room in an innocent silver-haired widow’s house fronting a railroad track. (The Coen Brothers remade it in 2004, with Tom Hanks in the Guinness part.) Getting Married is a George Bernard Shaw comedy of manners that’s little known, at least outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the festival has performed it on four previous occasions.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Russian Play: Chekhov Plus Stalin

Mike Nadajewski and Gabriella Sundar Singh in The Russian Play. (Photo: David Cooper)

 “This is Russian love story,” Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh) explains to the audience in The Russian Play, this year’s lunchtime one-act at the Shaw Festival. “Some parts are beautiful but mostly it is shit.” The idea at the heart of Hannah Moscovitch’s wry, surprising play is that what we think of as the archetypal Russian drama – love and melancholy leading inevitably to heartbreak, a vain struggle against fate leavened by improbable hope and seeded with existential comedy – has been transplanted to the Stalin era. (The fact that two of the four characters are named Sonya and Kostya seals the Chekhov connection.) Sonya sells flowers in a shop located on the way to the local graveyard; her lover, Piotr (Peter Fernandes), is a gravedigger. When he returns to his wife in Moscow, she moves to Smolensk, where she’s reduced to selling her blooms in the street.But she meets up with an old beau, Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), who’s become a committed Stalinist. He’s married, too, and their affair is a stormy one. Thus far the play, certainly as Diana Donnelly has directed it, is a comedy: the echoes of Chekhov and Tolstoy are treated as parody, and Singh, who is charming, uses her bright, wide eyes – the eyes of a fairy-tale innocent – for ironic effect. There’s a tonal shift when Sonya is arrested, brought to Moscow, starved and tortured.