Saturday, March 27, 2010

Arthur Miller's The Price: Reflections From a First-Time Director

“…everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself; he go to church, start a revolution, something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.”

--Arthur Miller, The Price.

When I read those words, I knew I had to direct The Price, a play written in 1968 from the hand of the great American playwright Arthur Miller. They were spoken by Gregory Solomon, a 90-year-old furniture salesman who is about to purchase a huge room of furniture from Victor Franz, a man unloading a burden, in more ways than one.

The Price is one of Miller’s most under-recognized and least appreciated works. It’s the story of two brothers who, after 16 years of estrangement, try to reconcile in the attic of the family residence, where their old furniture is to be sold. Debuting in 1968, the play ran on Broadway for about a year before closing and toured a number of countries before being retired from the stage. I don’t think it was intentional. Miller’s other plays such as The Crucible, All My Sons and the most familiar, Death of a Salesman, became part of the American canon of drama, appearing on student reading lists for years. His plays also became part of the standard repertoire of amateur and professional theatre companies around the world and more recently on television and motion pictures. The Price is in the same company as those works because it offers insight into the relationships between fathers and sons, memory and the consequences of making choices.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Greenberg: Less Than Meets the Eye

Noam Baumbach’s Greenberg is, unlike his other features, a movie where, ultimately, there’s much less than meets the eye. Of all the directors toiling in the American independent movie scene, Baumbach, with movies like Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy and The Squid and the Whale, has managed to be one of the savviest and most entertaining of filmmakers. He eschews the heavy handedness of self-conscious movies like Lance Hammer’s Ballast and Lee Daniels’ Precious, while opening a window on characters who warrant the attention. Baumbach's protagonists also have little in common with the mopey whiners in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, or any of the caricatured, grotesque folk at the centre of the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). Greenberg, however, will likely test the patience of even Baumbach’s staunchest fans.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Memoriam: Robert Culp and Jim Marshall

One was an iconic 1960s TV star, the other was unknown as a personality, but the photographs he took captured the musical icons of 1960s in a way few others have. Robert Culp and Jim Marshall passed away on March 24th -- one 79, the other 74 -- yet for some reason, Culp's passing, though sad, had no impact on me. He was an actor I enjoyed in repeats only. Because I grew up in one-TV-channel small town Ontario, I never saw his best known works (I Spy, the legendary “The Demon with the Glass Hand” from The Outer Limits) when they first ran. He always seemed more of my parent's era than mine. But reading about Jim Marshall’s death, even though he was only five years younger than Culp, left a deeper impression. Ironically, I never knew his name until today, but his images have been with me (in one way or another) all my life. Many of his most famous shots became record album covers, magazine and newspaper spreads, and they were flashed on TV in the 1960s right up until the present day. The two Marshall pictures posted above are not only part of my permanent memory bank; they have always been two of my favourite musician photographs.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cherry Bombs: The Runaways

Given that The Runaways, a new film about the late ‘70s all-girl hard rock band, is written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, who cut her teeth doing videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Christine Aguilera and The White Stripes, it’s rather surprising that The Runaways’ music ends up so secondary to their story. Their story doesn't come to much either. Sigismondi gets so caught up in art school impressionism that she loses touch with the theme of the material. Instead of providing the propulsion needed in depicting a young rock band finding its chops, The Runaways gets lost in a haze of rock video clich├ęs and amorphous trysts between lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and lead guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). The picture develops about as much fizz as stale ginger ale.

The Runaways were a group of underage Southern California female misfits who were molded by L.A.’s freak Svengali Kim Fowley into a pre-punk outfit that confronted their audience, in both song and image, with a provocative jail-bait allure. What they provided was a clever reversal of the male rockers’ sexual obsession with young girls that was often depicted in songs like Andre Williams’ hilarious “Jail Bait,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.” These brash and provocative girls turned that prurient fascination back on the audience with trashy rock like “Cherry Bomb” (a saucy re-write of “Wild Thing”) and “You Drive Me Wild.” While clearly influenced by the polymorphous glam of David Bowie and Sweet, The Runaways also had some of the tough effrontery of The Ramones and The New York Dolls. Fronted by Cherie Currie, a blond punk chanteuse in lingerie, The Runaways had solid back-up with Joan Jett’s surly rhythm guitar, Lita Ford’s stinging lead runs and Sandy West’s kicking-over-the-trash-can drumming. Kim Fowley brought together a group of disaffected middle-class teenagers and made their disaffection part of their group identity. But, the irony is, that fierce independence was built on their total fealty towards him.

Part of this theme does get into the movie, but Sigismondi lacks the dramatic instincts to shape the material in such a way that the group – as a group – makes any sense. We don’t really get to see how the girls bond under Fowley’s sadism. She not only takes great liberties with their story (the film is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir), Sigismondi doesn’t develop that core relationship with Fowley which would ultimately lead to the band’s break-up. Sigismondi chooses instead to focus on the dynamic between Currie and Jett so that the rest of the band becomes invisible supporting players. For the first third of the picture, though, both Fanning and Stewart give credible performances. Fanning has a quiet insolence that makes her a shrewd choice to play Currie. (It’s a shame, though, that she gets stuck playing out conventionally dramatic family scenes with her jealous sister and alcoholic father.) Stewart thankfully loses some of those mannerisms that marred her starring roles in Twilight and Adventureland. She downplays Jett’s tough-girl image and illuminates instead the pleasures she gets from her impudent behaviour. Michael Shannon is on hand to play Kim Fowley and though it seems like the ideal Shannon role, he devours so much scenery that the camera has to duck. Michael Shannon is too perfect for Fowley and his abusive attributes come across more as an actor’s stunt than a true performance. (He looks like a brooding Lurch doing Max Cady out of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Imperfect Art of the Adaptation

Adapting a work from a novel, graphic novel or any other source for a movie or TV show is a challenging problem. So many decisions are required when the writer approaches the original work. Neither the complete plot nor all the characters can be used, but what do you reject and what do you keep? These were clearly the issues facing the writers of the new adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps (broadcast on the BBC in December 2008 and on PBS in March 2010) and the 2003 version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill's 1999 graphic novel (it is now in seemingly permanent repeat on AMC), when they approached these works.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Toiling in the Trenches: For the Love of Movies

People who toil in the trenches of film criticism know what it’s like to be courted or dissed by publicists and festival organizers. There’s also that love-hate thing with readers. Moreover, it’s a lonely line of work to sit for hours in a darkened theater and then tap away on a keyboard while staring at another screen. Your eyes and tush begin to ache.

Boo hoo.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show

Before I saw Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show at the Toronto International Film Festival a couple of years ago, what I'd hoped for was a highly entertaining look at an old-fashioned traveling festival. Surprisingly, the picture turned out to be even broader than I imagined. While taking his inspiration from Buffalo Bill's famous tent shows, Vaughn also set out to tour young talented stand-up comics across the United States where they could ply their trade on a nightly basis. Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is an entertaining, yet poignant examination of the makings of a comedian.

Although Vaughn is the presiding spirit over the tour, which took place in September 2005, he serves more as the impresario of the event. Helmer Ari Sandel, who directed the ingeniously funny comic short West Bank Story (that parodied West Side Story within the Arab-Israeli conflict) provides more than just an inside look of the tour. He goes within the very dynamics of how a comedian makes things funny - even issues that under other circumstances wouldn't be funny at all. Vaughn first pays tribute to the many performers who have been a huge part of his career, including director/writer/actor Jon Favreau, actor Peter Billingsley, and country singer/actor Dwight Yoakam. But most of the picture is about a number of novice comedians who are trying to find their footing on a nightly stage.