Saturday, March 12, 2011

Off the Shelf: Lantana (2001)

The Australian psychological thriller Lantana, like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) and P. T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999), is a movie that examines the emotional torpor and malaise of an ensemble. But this drama by director Ray Lawrence (Bliss) and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (based on his play Speaking in Tongues) doesn't make its individuals such easy targets of scorn and moral judgment (like The Ice Storm). It doesn't provide condescending views of spiritual bankruptcy either (as did Magnolia). Lantana, which is named for a spiky weed that covers Australia, is thought-out in more dramatically compelling and complex ways than Magnolia. It develops the connections between these disparate characters rather than imposing those connections for the sake of its own conceits.

Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is an unhappily married detective who is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), a recently divorced woman. Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), because she suspects that Leon is seeing someone else. Dr. Somers, meanwhile, is still recovering from the shock of the murder of her daughter. She even has her own suspicions that her emotionally remote husband (Geoffrey Rush) is being unfaithful. The only happy couple appears to be the unemployed but genial Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his sturdy wife Paula (Daniela Farinacci). But when a disappearance and possible murder takes place, everyone's life becomes affected and altered.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Carrey's Triumph: I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

Over the years, Jim Carrey has been the most exhausting of prodigious talents. From Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) to The Cable Guy (1996), Carrey could quickly wear a viewer down. With his vast collection of quick-witted jack-in-the-box character masks, he was the Tasmanian Devil of comic actors, spinning madly out of control and wiping out everything in his path. But he wasn't just some dervish comedian chewing the scenery. Carrey became the scenery. Often loudly dominating the action, he left his co-stars (especially poor Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy) looking like they were desperately trying to escape the picture to avoid being run over.

To me, Jim Carrey always worked best served in small doses (as he was brilliantly on TV's In Living Color); or perhaps, had he been around in the thirties, he would have been perfectly electrifying featured in those review skit comedies like The Big Broadcast of 1932. But most of his feature films were either broadly aggressive burlesque comedies, or painful attempts to make him into a normal guy (The Majestic); broaden his appeal (The Truman Show), or sanctimoniously tame him (Liar Liar). Except for his perfect pairing with Jeff Daniels in the hilarious Dumb and Dumber (1994), Jim Carrey has been an overheated comedy machine rather than an actor. But in his latest film, I Love You Phillip Morris, Carrey has finally found a part that integrates with perfect precision his multiple character roles into one coherently whole person. It's Carrey's triumph. Unfortunately, due to its subject matter, distributors have done their damnedest to make sure an audience never discovers it. Don't make their mistake.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nothing New Here: And Everything is Going Fine

Spalding Gray: And Everything is Going Fine (2010)
I was lucky enough to see the late monologist Spalding Gray on three different occasions when he came to Toronto with his shows, Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999), where he wittily expounded on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the pains of aging to becoming a father late in life. (I still remember with relish his encounter with the elderly Richard M. Nixon in a doctor's office and his initial thought that someone was wearing a Nixon mask in the waiting room.) His monologues were fast-paced, insightful and cleverly laid out, especially considering that they were in effect just Gray usually sitting behind a desk and talking for 90 minutes or so. And yet, despite his frankness on stage, particularly about his mother’s suicide and his own thoughts and worries that he, too, would end up doing the same, his finally ending his life in early 2004, at age 62, still came as a shock to me. I figured, as I’m sure so many other people did too, that Gray was successfully utilizing his monologues as a therapeutic catharsis to help keep his demons at bay. And truth be told, for many years, he did. Of course, no one could have foreseen the 2001 car accident in Ireland, which left him with physical and mental injuries and eventually drove him to the permanent despair that is suicide. Critics at Large’s Susan Green got a taste of what was troubling Gray when she interviewed him in 2002.

Last year, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Ocean’s Eleven), who had cast Gray in King of the Hill (1993), playing ironically enough a suicide victim, and directed the film adaptation of Gray’s Anatomy (1996), premièred his documentary on Spalding Gray, entitled And Everything is Going Fine at the Slamdance Film Festival. It’s now in general release, but sad to say, it likely won’t please Gray’s legion of fans, or Soderbergh’s for that matter.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Alfreds: Fiction and Fact

The most curious object I inherited from my late father is a skeleton key attached to a round metal tag that reads “Bates Motel,” along with the room number 1. I’m not sure how he came to own this movie memento, although his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock – they shared the same first name – predated the 1960 release of Psycho by at least two decades, with big-screen thrillers such as Suspicion (1941).

Beginning in 1955, every Sunday night Dad was glued to our black-and-white Zenith with a round picture tube for the half-hour anthology program Alfred Hitchcock Presents on CBS. A year later, he began subscribing to the legendary director’s monthly Mystery Magazine

My father would have been happy to learn that there’s a plan afoot for a film based on the 1990 nonfiction book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Anthony Hopkins reportedly is in talks to star as the portly filmmaker; Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) might direct from a script by John McLaughlin (Black Swan). An earlier attempt to launch this project, with Helen Mirren playing Hitchcock’s wife Alma and Ryan Murphy (Eat Pray Love) at the helm, failed to come together for some reason.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Saturday Matinee Redux: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget extravaganza Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) is a throwback to Saturday matinee adventure movies. I didn't catch up to it on the big screen because the thought of sitting through a sprayed-on copper-skinned, muscled-up Jake Gyllenhaal (usually a scrawny actor in indie films) in an action film was not on the top of my list. It didn't help that the critics had been generally unmerciful in their attacks. What I had forgotten, though, is that there is a herd mentality amongst some film critics. Not wanting to appear unhip, or not with it, too many of them thrust their, um, thumbs into the sky to see which way the wind is blowing. The early critical opinion was not good, so those upraised thumbs quickly turned down and the film's fate was sealed.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #14: Richard Ford (1989)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One of my favourite books of criticism is D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1924) in which he addresses the varied works of American writers James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. In this panoramic and illuminating study, Lawrence examines how a number of gifted authors came to terms with the experience of a young country still in the process of finding its identity. "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," Lawrence wrote in the opening chapter. "It can't pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their very own selves." What he was describing was the elusive spirit of place invoked in the American literary experience. Some sixty years later, another American writer, Richard Ford, was also trying to invoke some idea of the American identity in the bleak landscape of Montana. It was there that he explored the sensation of being rootless and what that revealed of the American character in the eighties.

author Richard Ford
This particular chapter of Talking Out of Turn, curiously enough, was the only one to feature only writers (it also included Timothy Findley and poet Daphne Marlatt). As for Richard Ford, in one of my last radio interviews at CJRT-FM, we discussed that spirit of place in a series of short stories titled Rock Springs.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Remembering Kenneth Mars

Actor Kenneth Mars died recently, at age 75, after a long career in show business. He is best known for starring in films such as Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), where he played the persistent police inspector with the prosthetic arm. He also had roles in TV shows, ranging from guest spots on such varied series as Harry O and Will & Grace to a regular part on Malcolm in the Middle. He also did voice work on the animated TV series The Little Mermaid and Fievel's American Tails. But it’s in two specific parts that I’ll always fondly remember him.

One of those roles, as the Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ uproarious 1968 film The Producers, was one of his earliest appearances, but I can’t imagine anyone forgetting the actor once they saw him do his stuff.  Liebkind is the fulcrum of the movie wherein shady producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and wound-up accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) plot to sell multiple shares in the worst theatrical production they can conceive. Their expectation is that it will tank and they can then run away with all the investors’ monies. Unfortunately for Bialystock and Bloom, the musical, provocatively called Springtime for Hitler, is a big hit. The scene where Liebkind, a former Nazi and current pigeon breeder, and the musical’s creator, entertains his two Jewish guests (who need him to sign onto the project) and fulminates about how ‘the fuhrer’ was a better house painter than Winston Churchill, is hilarious. Mars plays it straight in this comedy – a deranged guy who really believes in his cause and, somehow, dare I say it, makes this unlikely character, a Nazi no less, likeable. It’s a gusty performance in a bold satire that is usually acknowledged for its remarkable musical finale, with dancers forming a giant swastika on stage. It is Mel Brook’s raspberry to the all-WASP Busby Berkeley musicals of his youth. But it’s Mars, in his deft incarnation of Liebkind, who even more so than the perpetually hysterical Bloom and entertainingly conniving Bialystock, stands out in a performance for the ages.