Saturday, July 21, 2012

One Step Beyond: Matthew Chapman's The Ledge

The image of a man standing on the edge of building, contemplating taking his life, is one that has appeared repeatedly in film and TV shows over the decades (including the recent Season Two finale of the terrific BBC series, Sherlock). Most of these stories, with suicidal characters driven by personal or financial despair, almost always feature a cop or social worker trying to talk the person down. But what if the individual is not on that ledge of their own accord, but pressured to be there by a third party? What if they are told that they must jump by 12 noon – or someone else will die in their stead? Would you jump to save that person, or would self-interest kick in? Such is the premise of Matthew Chapman's intriguing 2011 movie The Ledge (not to be confused with Asger Leth's 2012 Man on a Ledge).

This is one of those films I picked up for $1 this past spring when my local Rogers' video store shutdown. (I had watched the trailer at the start of another movie and was intrigued by the premise.) The cast looked promising too, with Terrance Howard as the cop, Hollis Lucetti, trying to talk the guy down; and Liv Tyler as Shana Harris, the object of the jumper's affection. The jumper is Gavin Nichols, played by Charlie Hunnam, a British actor (doing American here – the film takes place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) unknown to me though he is one of the main stars on FX's Sons of Anarchy. Patrick Wilson (A Gifted Man, Watchmen) as Joe Harris (Shana's cuckolded husband) is the one who made sure Nichols stood on that ledge. But let me rewind the story here (because that is what the picture does). It starts with Nichols stepping out on the ledge and a short time later Lucetti appears to try to talk him out of it. Lucetti has his own issues (he thinks his children are not his) which is established in a short prologue before Nichols takes his ledge stroll. Lucetti is also surprised at how casual Nichols is, not conforming to the usual attitude of the despair-filled would-be jumper. So he intuits that Nichols is not there of his own accord. Nichols soon cops to this, telling Lucetti that he has been told he must jump by noon or someone else dies (it is 10:30AM according to a large clock across the way). He then tells Lucetti his story.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Off the Shelf: Don Hannah's The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1998)

When first reading playwright Don Hannah's terrific debut novel, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Random House, 1998), I was immediately reminded of a scene from Michael Tolkin's provocative film, The Rapture (1991), where a born again Christian tells a convert who is having her doubts about her faith that all she has to do is let God forgive her. But the convert then answers back, "Yes, but who forgives God?" In his movie, Tolkin's point is that if we look for signs of God's perfection in the world, and in ourselves, and we find instead something less noble and unholy, how do we reconcile ourselves with God? In The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a group of individuals try to seek out the sacred but are continually forced to confront the profane.

The story takes place in Membartouche, a fictional small town in New Brunswick which seems quaint, but in reality it is teeming with frustrated individuals who feel at the short end of life's very fickle stick. Sandy Whyte, a repressed homosexual, is a pillar of the local church who has suffered humiliation and tries to take refuge in Bach and the religious hymns of his childhood. But his obsession with beauty takes an ugly turn when he kidnaps and holds hostage a young boy whom he worships. Gloria is Sandy's cleaning lady, a woman once ridiculed for having laid eyes on the Virgin Mary as a child, who has a family reunion dinner in honour of her gay brother Raymond, a man dying of AIDS, which stirs up her family's concealed hostilities. Annette is a pregnant teenager who desires an abortion, but when she accidently informs Margaret, a fundamentalist Christian at a right-to-life hotline, Margaret makes it her mission to convince Annette to keep her child. But we quickly come to realize that Margaret's efforts aren't based so much on her religious beliefs, or any altruistic motives, they come instead from a desire in her to transcend her own memories of the horrible sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: Adolescent Hero

Andrew Garfield stars in The Amazing Spider-Man

As Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield wears his sensitivities – crippled pride, a sense of abandonment, guilt and anger, and especially romantic fervency – like open wounds.  You don’t wonder that the leading jock bully at his high school, Flash (Chris Zylka), targets Peter:  emotionally he’s the perfect punching bag.  Peter’s parents (played, in flashbacks, by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), a distinguished geneticist and his wife, were killed in a suspicious plane crash when Peter was a little boy, and though the uncle and aunt who raised him (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) have worked hard to give him both a loving upbringing and a strong moral foundation, his orphaned state has left him incomplete, and you can see it in his face, which is pocked with anxiety and etched with loneliness. Garfield is gifted but he hasn’t always been used well:  neither Never Let Me Go nor Red Riding Trilogy did a thing for him, and he was all wrong as Biff Loman in the Mike Nichols revival of Death of a Salesman last season – and when he isn’t cast right he goes phony.  But he showed a talent for mining adolescent feelings in The Social Network, and as Peter, a genius loser in whom a bite from a genetically enhanced spider in the lab of his dad’s old partner, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), releases both a physical prowess he never dreamed of possessing and an accompanying sexual confidence, he’s magnificent.  Garfield locates the vulnerabilities of an ostracized teenage boy with unerring precision and then uses the fantasy narrative to build on them – and employs his gangly body to suggest at first awkwardness, isolation and masochism and then athleticism and physical invention.  One friend made a brilliant comparison between Garfield and the young Anthony Perkins of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, and I can’t think of an actor since Perkins who’s been able to go quite so far with the bruised emotional palette of a young man who feels way too much.

Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Andrew Garfield
I had a wonderful time at this latest Spider-Man picture, which was directed by Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), but I don’t understand the Beatles-vs.-Stones arguments it seems to have generated. Many fans of it feel compelled to put down the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, while many Raimi apologists pronounce it extraneous because it replays much of the plot of the 2002 Spider-Man. Both positions seem silly to me. Raimi’s movies were steeped in comic-book mythology and his visual style was ideal for the material; Spider-Man 2 in particular contained sequences (like the one in which Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man stops a subway train from falling into space and the grateful passengers reciprocate by succoring his exhausted body) in which the pop imagery had an almost miraculous emotional resonance, the way it does in the 1976 King Kong and in Tim Burton’s Batman – the only two comic-book movies I can think of that are even better.  Wittily, in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 the sticky webs Parker generated stood in for his sexual coming of age, simultaneously confusing and embarrassing and powerful.  The scenes between Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson came straight out of romantic comedy.  Spider-Man 3 was an amalgam of mostly lousy ideas, but it was the kind of mistake almost every franchise makes at least once; it showed, perhaps, that Raimi had outgrown the series, but I don’t think he should be crucified for it.  The Amazing Spider-Man, which was designed by J. Michael Riva and shot by John Schwartzman, looks lovely, and the action sequences are very entertaining, but Webb doesn’t have Raimi’s consistency at creating marvelous images, and there’s no controlling metaphor. Moreover the villain isn't very interesting. It's Connors who is emotionally scarred from having been born without his right arm and obsessed with fixing human weaknesses, including his own. Under the effects of a serum he develops from mutant lizards using Dr. Parker's research (which Peter finds and makes available to him), he turns into a giant reptile. The best thing about the Lizard is his look: the artists who designed him had the cleverness to make him look like something the great special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen might have come up with.  (When the Lizard chases Peter down at school, bursting out of the sewers through a toilet in the boys’ bathroom, fans of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer may remember how much more effective the Sunnydale High School graduation scene was, where the Mayor transformed himself into a huge, voracious snake.)  But playing opposite the disarming Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy, Peter’s classmate and the daughter of the chief of police), who has crack comic timing and a voice like a hollowed-out bubble, Garfield is able to paint a portrait of an adolescent hero that both goes deeper than the Raimi-Maguire Parker and spans a broader spectrum.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stand and Deliver: Soulpepper's Production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow

Ari Cohen & Jordan Pettle star in Soulpepper's production of Speed-The-Plow (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

“They’re only words; unless it’s true” – Charles (Speed-The-Plow)

Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company obviously loves the words of David Mamet. They've already produced a first-rate Oleanna and a solid Glengarry Glen Ross in recent years, proving the American playwright’s work is still relevant. Speed-The-Plow can now be added to that list of productions Soulpepper does with great energy and efficiency. Mamet’s plays feature smart, fast-talking characters with razor sharp wit and a focused point of view. In Speed-the-Plow, which debuted in 1988, we get a layered work that’s about loyalty, personal integrity and morality set in the one place that least values those attributes: Hollywood. In Soulpepper’s efficient and uncluttered production, we’re given just the right amount of hope to believe that Hollywood is still about making good films, regardless of the ego-driven executives who produce them.

The play opens with the main characters, Bobby Gould (Ari Cohen) and Charlie Fox (Jordan Peddle), agreeing to produce a movie that will put “asses in seats” and provide them with enough money “to piss on.” Gould was recently promoted in the fictional studio, to produce movies with a budget under 30 million dollars. Fox, who’s worked for Gould for over ten years, is the highly ambitious junior looking to join the Hollywood elite with the new film. Cohen and Peddle work extremely well together bashing each other with pseudo-compliments and the kind of “buddy-buddy” language Hollywood-types like to speak. Both actors relish the language and their timing is excellent. At no point in the play did I ever doubt their strong relationship.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It’s About You (or is it about John Mellencamp? Or is it about Kurt Markus?)

John Mellencamp in a scene from It's About You

On John Mellencamp’s most recent tour, the “opening act” was an edited-down version of the film It's About You. I didn’t see the tour when it played near here because ticket prices were pricey. This is an ongoing problem: Premium prices put some artists beyond the reach of their fans. I had only recently joined the throngs of Americans (and Canadians) who list John Mellencamp as one of the favourites. Johnny Cash, for instance, called him “one of the 10-best songwriters working today” (or, at least that’s the story filmmaker Kurt Markus tells, quoting bassist Dave Roe who heard it from the Man in Black himself). I wish that Markus had got Roe to tell that story on film!

It’s About You was released on Blu-Ray and DVD last week, and it makes a tidy little package. Only 80 minutes long and shot on super8 by photographer Kurt Markus and his son Ian, and then processed to look aged, it is a thing of beauty for those viewers who like raw and intimate studies. It’s like looking into a personal photo album, but with live action and music added. There are moments when there is no light in the room, as producer T-Bone Burnett closes the drapes in the Sun Studio. But Markus keeps the camera rolling anyway to capture pixels moving amongst darkness but no subject to be clearly seen. As frustrating as that might be to the viewer in one way, it is a moment of clarity in another. Mellencamp’s guitar and voice become central, and the moving pixels simply accompany the song. Then the curtains open and there he is.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher: Handmade Vaudeville

Christian Borle (far right) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher (All photos by  Sara Krulwich)

The entrancing Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from the Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson novel, is an origin story for James Barrie’s Peter Pan, just as the blockbuster musical Wicked imagines the origins of the two witches in The Wizard of Oz. The complicated plot, which is set out quickly in the opening minutes (you have to listen sharply), involves two ships, the Neverland and the Wasp. The first carries a trio of orphans who are, unbeknownst to them, due to be sold into slavery, as well as Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the feisty, adventure-loving daughter of Lord Aster (Rick Holmes), who is on the second ship, discharging a mission for Queen Victoria to hurl a trunk full of “star stuff” – highly dangerous stardust (its ability to make wishes come true can transform ambitious men and women into tyrants) – into the world’s oldest active volcano. (The writers were obviously thinking of The Lord of the Rings.) Molly, trained by her father to be a starcatcher, befriends the most sensitive of the orphans, a nameless lad (Adam Chanler-Berat) who doesn’t trust adults – in his experience, they always lie – yet cherishes a dream of home and mother. It is only in the second act, when the action moves to an island, that he acquires the name Peter Pan (first Peter and then Pan). Here he tangles with the pirate known as Black Stache (Christian Borle), before he’s become Captain Hook. You recognize other elements of the Barrie tale: Smee (Kevin Del Aguila) is Stache’s inseparable second-in-command, there’s a ticking crocodile, and the Indians are islanders called Mollusks. Nana the dog has her counterpart in Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (played in drag by Arnie Burton), who speaks in stiff-upper-lip English clich├ęs and wears her hair in a bun that looks oddly like a dog’s ear.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Batman: The Brave and the Bold – Let Fly the Hammers of Justice!

Batman and Plastic Man battle some super-intelligent apes in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Batman has long been my favourite superhero. And I’m not alone: Hollywood has long favoured the Caped Crusader – giving us a half dozen major motion pictures in the past two decades alone. In five days, the long-awaited conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly intense, philosophical Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, will open in theatres worldwide. But Batman’s life on the small screen has been just as varied. Beginning with the famously campy Adam West series in the mid-sixties, and reaching perhaps its zenith with the classic Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman have been a television staple for more than four decades. Last August, the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold ended its three-season run on the Cartoon Network – but I confess that it was only over the past few weeks that I finally gave the series a real look. And with Nolan’s sure-to-be blockbuster movie waiting in the wings, this is as good a time as any to let you know why you should check it too.

Based on the long-running DC comic series of the same name, The Brave and the Bold is unique among the many Batman titles in that it specifically focuses on Batman teaming up with other heroes of the DC universe. The animated series follows this same mandate, bringing Batman together with one or more other costumed heroes in his famous battle against villainy and evil in all their incarnations. But Batman: The Brave and the Bold (hereafter BtBatB) was unique in another way, in that it controversially marked a return to the lighter, more tongue-in-cheek Batman stories of an earlier generation. It’s brighter in tone, snappier in dialogue, and unapologetically cartoonish in its animation style. And truth be told, in 2008 when I dutifully tuned in for its premiere episode, I hated it.