Monday, September 19, 2022

The Church of Baseball: How to Work a Miracle

“Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time.” – Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball.

I love Ron Shelton’s movies the way I love those of the legendary 1940s filmmaker Preston Sturges. Both are quintessentially American writer-directors with a wild sense of humor and a gift for using language in astonishingly fresh ways. Both work intimately with hip, canny character actors to create small worlds that are somehow simultaneously wittily devised and vividly familiar. Sturges may be more off-kilter (though Shelton can be just as nutty) and Shelton less skittish about betraying emotion (though he’s never sentimental), but both come to their material with an attitude of wry amusement and sublime common sense   You can trace both men’s approach to the same master comic voice: Mark Twain’s.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Anything Is Possible Once the Sun Goes Down: Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010)

Chun-Yao Yao in Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010).

Writer-director Arvin Chen’s feature debut, Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北, 2010) – the Mandarin title is a pun on “one night in Taipei” – is a whimsical and slightly farcical romantic comedy that I believe could only have been made in Taiwan, and it’s on YouTube. The key to its tonal success lies in the characterization. It’s my favorite Taiwan film.

In Taiwan, we have this thing we do in social situations: we play dumb instead of taking the initiative, lest we propose something that someone doesn’t want to do, but would go along with anyway just to be polite. The film captures this idea perfectly, which is why it’s one of the few contemporary films to nail a natural-sounding Taiwanese Mandarin. In fact, almost the entire film features characters who don’t know each other very well sharing a scene, and playing dumb describes most of the dialogue.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Importance of Being Earnest and Too True to Be Good: The Gift of Gab

Martin Happer and Julia Course in The Importance of Being Earnest. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Tim Carroll’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival is no doubt giving pleasure to a great many theatregoers this year.  No one has ever, to my knowledge, written a funnier play than Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of Victorian manners, and Carroll’s mounting honors both the wit and the style of the text. It is also – thanks to Gillian Gallow’s set (with its multiple frames), Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and especially Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes – lovely to look at.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

So it Goes: Accommodating the Sublime

W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

“Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made. And there I wait in hope of learning something of the story of its making.” – John Berger

Where to begin with the two greatest English landscape painters in history? So great that even an art critic is challenged to find the most accurate ways to extol their truly magnificent achievements? Well, in a diversionary tactic during which I can gather my far-flung thoughts into something resembling coherence, I may start by mentioning that persistent readers of Critics At Large, or even occasional readers with a canny eye, will notice that I have long been intrigued by dualities, polarities, alternates, dichotomies, parallels, binaries, opposites and what Dr. Jung called synchronicity. Far from being merely coincidence, or even what the good doctor called meaningful coincidence, he further explained that synchronicity occurs when two archetypes (images or ideas shared by all of us in the collective unconscious) arise at the same time in roughly the same place.

And so it is with two great painters, Joseph Turner (1775-1851), more commonly identified by the way he signed his works, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable (1776-1837), the paired and most recognizable icons of landscape representation and also the two most daringly innovative risk takers in the history of painting. That history contains a basic template for presenting images to our insatiably hungry eyes: portrait (close to), still life (nearby), landscape (far from). But in the case of these two exemplars, both of whom were surprising emissaries for a fledgling modernism just then on the cusp of occurring with the advent of the French invention of the camera in about 1839, and the resulting plunge into overall pictorial abstraction continuing to this day, we have a unique case of merging the three formats into one single vertiginous entity.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Silver Screen Time Machine: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020)

Tosa Kazunari in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020).

Somehow, Kato doesn’t freak out.

The essence of time travel is narrative. Like the unread pages of a good book, the future has already happened; it just hasn’t yet happened to you. The metaphor applies doubly to filmmaking, which usually takes a narrative and shoots it out of order. Continuity must be maintained, and character and emotional arcs made convincing. If they aren’t, paradoxes manifest, the cinematic world collapses, and viewers branch off from the storyworld prematurely, each into their own individual lifeworlds.

2020’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら “We at the End of the Droste”), director-cinematographer-editor Yamaguchi Junta’s feature debut, realizes this metaphor in the most direct way. Beyond is shot to look like it was done in a single take, using just one phone, tripod, boom mic, the world’s longest power cord, and lots and lots of stopwatches. To give you a sense of its flavor, it was inspired by One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな! “Don’t Stop the Camera!”), Ueda Shinichiro’s 2017 smash hit about a group of people tasked with making a one-shot microbudget zombie film. There are cuts in Beyond – of course there are cuts; it’s a time travel film – but to keep up the illusion, the requisite plot complications have to develop organically from the situation the characters find themselves in, and from who they are as characters, as people. Writer Ueda Makoto does a hell of a job in just 70 minutes.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Crowd Pleasers: Damn Yankees and Gaslight at the Shaw Festival

Jay Turvey with the Ballplayers in Damn Yankees, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross might have entered the pantheon of Broadway songwriters if fate hadn’t extinguished their star so fast. Adler was thirty-one and Ross twenty-eight when George Abbott commissioned them to write the score for The Pajama Game (1954), adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents, about the tensions between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory. It was a legendary show: Abbott and Jerome Robbins co-directed, a young Bob Fosse staged the dances, and it ran for three years. (A boisterous movie version in 1957, helmed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, captures the spirit of the original, with all but two members of the Broadway cast reprising their performances.) In 1955 lightning struck again for Adler and Ross with Damn Yankees. Adapted by Abbott and Douglass Wallop from Wallop’s book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees was as big a hit as The Pajama Game. But six months after its triumphant premiere, Ross died suddenly of lung disease. Adler never had another success, alone or with a collaborator, though his lovely score for the South Africa-set musical Kwamina, which he wrote for his wife, Sally Ann Howes, is ripe for rediscovery. (Its interracial love story was undoubtedly too controversial for 1961.)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Revisiting Stratford: The Miser and Girls & Boys

Colm Feore, Lucy Peacock and Qasim Khan star in The Miser, at Canada's Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

This summer I was able to cross the Canadian border for the first time since COVID, on a trip framed by brief visits to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Regrettably, my timing at Stratford didn’t allow for the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem comedy I love that gets produced only infrequently. But I did manage to check out artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy The Miser (at the Festival Theatre) in a contemporary adaptation by Ranjit Bolt that has been embellished further with Ontario references. In Bolt’s version Molière’s title character, Harpagon, is called Harper, and his children, Élise and Cléante, who desire to marry the people they love without risking being disinherited by their parsimonious papa, are called Eleanor and Charlie. The director’s note in the program argues that the subject of greed and the generational tensions make The Miser relevant to a 2022 audience. Of course you can make that case for any of Molière’s best satires; human nature, after all, hasn’t changed much through the centuries. I’m not sure, though, that the present-day setting adds anything to the play or sharpens its thrust.