Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hit Me With Music: The Soundtrack to Kevin MacDonald's Film Marley

"Hit me with music," is Bob Marley's triumphant call in the song, "Trenchtown Rock," heard on the soundtrack to Kevin MacDonald's documentary, Marley (Island/Tuff Gong, 2012). (The film recently debuted in Toronto on May 3rd as part of the Hot Docs Festival, while Marley himself died of cancer 31 years ago, yesterday.) One thing you can say about his music, too, which is chronicled on this two-CD set from the early, ska numbers of the 1960s ("Simmer Down" and "Small Axe") to the more popular works of the 1970s, ("One Love" and "Redemption Song"), is that it never seems to go out of style. Bob Marley's work has now transcended the artist who created it. According to his widow, Rita Marley, that's "because he put his all, his heart and soul and his life, into his music, this is why it has the opportunity and the authority to live after him."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Just Another Tired Action/Superhero Movie: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers

Coming out on the heels of his inventive horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, I’d certainly hoped that writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Serenity) would work his cinematic magic on The Avengers, the much-anticipated Marvel superhero movie which brings together various characters from the Marvel universe: Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk among them, as the new crime fighting unit called The Avengers. Unfortunately, this latest superhero movie is just another tired, pedestrian film whose elaborate special effects pretty much bury anything original, witty or creative inherent in the material. In short, it’s the same old thing: an impersonal franchise movie with little entertainment on offer.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Neglected Gem #13: Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1997)

Alfonso Cuarón’s 1997 Great Expectations transposes Dickens to contemporary America without violating the spirit of the original. This is the third movie version of the beloved novel: there was an unmemorable Hollywood adaptation in 1934 (with Jane Wyatt as Estella), and David Lean made a deservedly famous one in England in 1946, paring down the book’s nearly five hundred pages but remaining very faithful to the story. His edition, an exceedingly handsome, high-style rendering, is almost a model for how to adapt Dickens: he gets so close to the way the classic scenes in Great Expectations look and feel to a reader’s imagination that, if you saw his movie when you were young enough, you may no longer be able to distinguish between his setting of the graveyard opening or Pip’s first view of Miss Havisham’s mouse-eaten wedding cake and the one you first envisioned when you read the book. But there are other approaches to adapting literature, and it’s a pity that critics were so quick to either jump on Cuarón’s or dismiss it outright when it was released. It’s a stunner.

The screenwriter, Mitch Glazer, has a nutty accuracy about his Dickens. Back in the late eighties, he wrote Scrooged, the updated Christmas Carol built around Bill Murray as an ambitious, mean-spirited, workaholic TV-exec Scrooge, and none of the many other film and TV versions of the story, except perhaps for the one from the early fifties featuring Alastair Sim, deserves to be talked about in the same conversation. Glazer brought out the best in the director, Richard Donner, who dreamed up surprising images to match the wondrous script, but in Great Expectations his collaborator came equipped with his own magic touch. In his previous picture, A Little Princess, Cuarón fitted out Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s story with sections – a fable within a fable – from Hindu mythology. Great Expectations is even better.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fringe: This is the Way the World Ends (Again)

David Noble, Joshua Jackson, and Anna Torv star in Fringe

I’ve been watching Fringe for years, even since it premiered on Fox in 2008, but I’ve never written about it. Now – with the fourth season finale set to air this Friday and with the recent surprise announcement of a fifth and final season – seems like an ideal time to weigh in on a show that has grown into the most consistently entertaining science fiction series currently on network television.

Fringe is essentially a sci-fi procedural that follows a small FBI team – Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a civilian consultant Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek), and his father, research scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – in their investigation of paranormal occurrences, which often turn out to be science experiments gone awry (the results of so-called “Fringe” science.) When Fringe premiered, the comparisons to X-Files were obvious: a Fox series involving two paranormal investigators working with the FBI tracking monsters or strange diseases every week, with a slowly burgeoning romantic tension between our lead characters. The superficial parallels were self-evident – and likely intentional on the part of Fringe’s creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci (all of whom also worked on Alias) – but it would be several seasons before Fringe would rightly earn the X-Files banner – learning all the right lessons from the earlier series, and even exceeding it in many ways.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Is It Really Saying? Soulpepper Theatre Company's You Can't Take It with You

Less than half of the cast of Soulpepper's You Can't Take It With You (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 75-year-old farcical play You Can't Take It With You is beautifully staged, immaculately acted and frequently one-liner funny.


You knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn't you? Director Joseph Ziegler has made a major blunder with his production. He took the material and played at face value what, in 2012, should have been processed through some sort of 21st century critical filter. Otherwise all he's doing is staging, at best, a dusty museum piece; or, at worst, a play that verges on being mildly racist. You Can’t Take it with You is more than just dated, it’s downright misguided. In 1936, when this Pulitzer Prize-winning play first hit Broadway, it was probably considered an entertaining piece of wish-fulfilling escapist fluff; something to pass the time during the latter stages of the Depression. Two years later, Frank Capra made it into a movie which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and Capra won for Best Director. I remember seeing the film version many years ago, and finding it endearingly funny. Not so much now.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Lyons: Lavin the Great

Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa stars in The Lyons

Linda Lavin is familiar to long-time TV buffs as the star of Alice (for ten years beginning in the mid-seventies, she played the waitress role Ellen Burstyn had created in the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and as Peter Gallagher’s demanding Jewish mother, a recurring part on the appealing teen melodrama series The O.C. But New York theatre audiences know her as one of the great stage performers. Last season, in a revival of Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories, as a distinguished writer and N.Y.U. writing teacher who is betrayed by her most gifted student (Sarah Paulson), she gave the kind of performance that, in Broadway’s heyday, would have been legendary: you would have read about it in the columns of the prestigious New York theatre critics alongside the work of Alla Nazimova and Pauline Lord and Ethel Barrymore. I’ve seen only a handful of American actresses in a lifetime of New York theatregoing with Lavin’s stage technique and mesmerizing command; Blythe Danner has it, and Cherry Jones and Stockard Channing, and Donna Murphy in musicals, and after them the list starts to thin out. (There’s also Lily Tomlin, but her one-of-a-kind style and the genre she works in make her a special case.) Lavin suggests what Stella Adler might have been like in the Group Theatre productions of the 1930s – but that’s really a guess, based partly on the fact that Lavin’s combination of high-octane theatricality and emotional depth points toward the lineage of the Yiddish theatre (Adler’s father Jacob was a celebrated Yiddish actor and she got her early training working with him) and partly on the fact that the magnificent Clifford Odets parts Adler created, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing! and Clara Gordon in Paradise Lost, could just as easily have been written for Lavin – and someone should be smart enough to let her play them. But Lavin’s also got a vaudevillian side. She’s got the force of a mature Shelley Winters (the Shelley Winters, that is, of Lolita and the Paul Mazursky pictures Blume in Love and Next Stop, Greenwich Village) and Kay Medford’s irony of Kay Medford, but she’s far more elegant than either of these women. I’d compare her to Gertrude Berg, the radio and early TV star (The Goldbergs), but that link doesn’t suggest the undercurrents of lunacy that you see in her current performance as Rita Lyons in the new Nicky Silver comedy The Lyons.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Neglected Gem #12: Nothing Personal (1995)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

In Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, a truce was called between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Force. As Nothing Personal makes abundantly clear, peace doesn't mean old hatreds are forgotten; as exemplified by a traitorous Protestant power-broker (Michael Gambon), it can be even unclear who the opposing sides are.

John Lynch and James Frain in Nothing Personal
 At first, it's hard to tell Nothing Personal's characters apart, because director Thaddeus O'Sullivan simply picks up everyone's lives in flux, revolving around family, socializing and politicking. Of course, that's the point: the Protestants and Catholics aren't that different from one another but, like the artificial boundaries that divide their Belfast neighbourhoods, the crevice between the creeds seems insurmountable. When Liam (John Lynch), a Catholic single father, discovers his young son has entered the ‘dangerous’ Protestant sector, he sets off after him, precipitating a confrontation with his enemies – most notably with Kenny, a young Protestant hit man (Ian Hart, who's chilling).

Loosely plotted, but very visceral, Nothing Personal gets at the constant tension, fear and potential for violent outbreak that was and still, to some degree, is the Northern Irish reality. But it also allows for the presence of decency. Nothing Personal is also concerned with the sins of the fathers becoming the sins of the sons, like the similarly themed In the Name of the Father, but, to my mind, even more so than Jim Sheridan’s movie, it better balances the personal and political.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and is currently teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.