Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl

“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

If Dreams Were Wishes: The Young Rascals' Once Upon a Dream

The Young Rascals? I never would have dreamed it.  So how in the world did this happen?  These guys weren’t even speaking to one another for years, decades even. Felix Cavaliere played a short set of familiar tunes in front of a band of hired guns at last year’s Hippie-Fest.  Five or six songs was all, and he sounded in great voice.  YouTube videos showed Eddie Brigati re-tuning his vocal cords; and Dino Danelli together with Gene Cornish was on tour with The New Rascals. But this was the four guys together on one stage, like a real band, playing the hits (and the not-quite-hits) from fifty years ago. Felix, Eddie, Dino and Gene on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.  How in the world did this dream come true?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam: A Masterly Conclusion to her Trilogy

Margaret Atwood's new novel MaddAddam has just been published (Photo by Chris Young)
You may remember that Oryx and Crake, the first novel in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, is narrated by Snowman, a survivor – he thinks he may be the only human survivor – of the gruesome plague that has recently swept the Earth, leaving it deserted and ruined, inhabited by giant pigoons and wolvogs.

Snowman, who in the pre-Flood days was named Jimmy, tells the stories of Oryx, his great love, and Crake, his best friend. He interacts with the Children of Crake, bio-engineered, peaceable humanoids who lead simplified lives, don’t eat meat and have never felt greed (or clothing). He also recounts the events leading up to the pandemic, when the world was ruled by corporations and the population was divided into the privileged elite, corporate employees (and managers and scientists) who lived in strong-walled Compounds, and everyone else, the inhabitants of the pleeblands, the slums and suburbs outside the Compounds. The Corporate Security Corps, or CorpSeCorps, was the all-purpose police force, army and intelligence service. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

He's Not Dead Yet!: Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos

Writer Harlan Ellison’s not dead yet. In a piece I wrote about Ellison last year in Critics at Large, and in reference to his statement in September 2010 that he was dying, I speculated, only half jokingly, that he was still alive because the Angel of Death was scared to try and take him. The truth, as indicated in a recent interview on the cultural Vulture web site, entitled "Harlan Ellison Isn't Dead Yet," turns out to be somewhat more prosaic. Harlan, who is now 79, has been suffering from some physical ailments and emotional ones, too, which had laid him low for a long while, with only the odd short story (the Nebula ward winning "How Interesting: A Tiny Man") to his credit. But fans of the man and his work can rejoice. His first full length work since his fine short story collection Slippage (1997) has surfaced, in the form of a graphic novel. Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos (DC Comics) is an often riveting tribute, in many ways, to his formative influences as a writer.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Artist as Apostate: Bob Dylan in 1966

The burning of Beatles records and magazines in the American South in 1966.

Back in 1966, John Lennon was worried about whether he'd be killed as The Beatles criss-crossed America in a summer filled with race riots and a heated controversy over a comment he made about the group being more popular than Jesus Christ. But there was another performer, one who was confused with being a prophet, having similar qualms that summer: Bob Dylan. Not only did the events in that season of hate alter the path of Dylan's career, it dramatically transformed the artist himself. He went from being a man making history to one who feared becoming its pawn. That summer determined not only his retreat from pop stardom, where a reluctant avatar suddenly saw the possibilities of betrayal, it also changed the game. With Dylan's Another Self Portrait, which contains unreleased sessions of music that make up two albums (Self PortraitNew Morning) during his retreat from his audience between 1969 and 1971, and on sale in stores today, you can hear in many of its songs the desire for solace. But the quiet in their sound, the soft beauty of "Pretty Saro," the contemplative quest in "Went to See the Gypsy," is deceptive. Another Self Portrait also has room for the tragic seduction of "House Carpenter," and the plaintive account of brutal murder in the traditional "Little Sadie." What all these songs have in common is that they portray a man seeking refuge in the more subtle confinements of the chamber room. But he couldn't hide from a world he helped create.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Shaw Musicals 2013: Guys and Dolls & The Light in the Piazza

Everyone knows that Guys and Dolls is a great American musical, but more often than not productions of it are disappointing – cartoonishly overstated, terminally cute, or generally misguided (which is the word I’d use to describe Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1955 movie version). The 1992 Broadway revival was a popular and critical hit, but I didn’t derive much pleasure from it: the cast, headed by Nathan Lane and Faith Prince, seemed to be working way too hard, the staging was uninventive, and the tempo of Frank Loesser’s songs was slowed down, as if on the assumption that the audience couldn’t otherwise keep up with the witty lyrics. Oddly, amateur mountings of the show often locate its vaudevillian spirit and its robust style – phantasmagorical (the Damon Runyonland milieu) but with a strong underpinning of romantic feeling – better than professional ones, which tend to substitute slickness for charm. But Tadeusz Bradecki’s production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is expertly staged and choreographed (by Parker Esse) and vastly entertaining. It gets the balance right: it’s raffish without pandering, open-hearted but not sentimental.

The show takes a little while to kick in. “Runyonland,” the instrumental ensemble number that Loesser supplied in place of an overture, begins intriguingly with silhouettes behind the scrim, but when that scrim flies up to reveal Peter Hartwell’s set, a semi-abstract black-and-white cityscape of midtown Manhattan, your heart sinks – not because it’s monochromatic (Sue LePage’s colorful costumes play vibrantly against it) but because it’s ugly. And, as usual, the company isn’t large enough to fill the huge Festival stage, so the number doesn’t do what it was written to do, set the mood and style of Runyon’s bustling, eccentric world of gamblers and minor-league show-biz pros and street hustlers (as adapted by book writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) – even with Shaw veteran Guy Bannerman exiting as a gesticulating blind man and then reappearing a moment later as a pretzel vendor. In the first dialogue exchange, among the goofball gamblers Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison) and Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and the vigilant cop Lieutenant Brannigan (Bannerman again), the actors seem to have been directed to act like Loony Tunes figures.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Renaissance Man: Andrew Vaughn's Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-plain

It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk/That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and tucked behind your couch/And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line/That keeps you on the back roads by the rivers of my memory/That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

- Glen Campbell, "Gentle on My Mind."

Sure, it was Glen Campbell who made the song famous. But it was John Hartford who wrote those words and the music that made them memorable. He was the tall, lean banjo player with the grin and the easy-going personality that backed Glen up on Campbell’s summer replacement show. Hartford had recorded his own version of the song which Campbell heard on the radio and decided to try his luck with a cover version. In 1967, they both won Grammy Awards, two each; Hartford for writing and for his own recording, Campbell for Best Country & Western Recording and Best Male C&W Vocal Performance. Hartford always said that “Gentle On My Mind” bought his freedom. He was more than a one hit wonder though, and not because he wrote dozens of hit songs. Hartford was a renaissance man in his own way; musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, dancer, folklorist, historian, and probably a handful of things we don’t know about. He had a comic side, although writing comic sketches for the Smothers Brothers wasn’t his forte, they kept him around for his razor sharp wit.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Back Without Nostalgia: Joe Boyd's White Bicycles

Joe Boyd isn’t the most recognizable name in music to most people, yet he was responsible for some of the most important psychedelic folk music of the 1960s including Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. In Boyd’s charming and entertaining memoir White Bicycles, first published in 2006, he recounts his years as a producer and tour manager to many of these musical acts. The book not only offers keen insights into some of those unusual pop artists, it's also rich in anecdotal stories that illuminate the period. Boyd was born in Princeton, New Jersey to a middle-class family. As he reports, “When I was a eleven, we became the last family on our street…to get a TV set…in the autumn of 1954 my brother Warwick and I discovered the real reason we needed it: Bob Horn’s WFIL-TV Bandstand [that] beamed out of Philadelphia every afternoon after school.” The charisma of Horn as host and the vintage r&b and early rock ‘n roll to which Boyd was exposed via the daily high school dance program, changed his life.

Besides being inspired by a TV show, later hosted by Dick Clark, there was also a familial connection. His grandmother, Mary Boxall Boyd, was a concert pianist who taught him piano as a child. But Boyd preferred to place himself under the instrument and listen to his grandmother play Mozart. “I would sit under her grand piano while she practiced. She viewed me as a soul mate…I took lessons from her until I was thirteen, but never thought of myself as a musician. Listening…became a part of my being.” In his final push to a becoming a “producer”, Boyd read the exploits of Ralph Peer, a field-recording producer who was the first person to document blues and country artists for OKeh Records in the 1920s. Boyd goes on to describe his times during his Harvard University days booking Lonnie Johnson for a rare campus gig that launched the bluesman’s career in 1962 to a new audience. It was his love of rural blues music that put Boyd in the forefront of bringing white audiences in touch with virtually forgotten musicians such as, Sleepy John Estes, the Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. As a concert producer and promoter, Boyd’s assertive personality eventually put him into the recording studio. But he spent most of youth travelling the southern U.S. with a major stop in New Orleans. Boyd writes, “As jazz moved from swing towards bebop in the late ‘30s, a group of white fanatics set about rescuing traditional New Orleans jazz from obscurity, much as we were trying to do blues…as the fashion shifts and the beat changes, the intellectuals and wallflowers who have admired the music’s vitality and originality move in to preserve or resurrect the form.” Such was the case in New Orleans, demonstrated by Alan and Sandy Jaffe who established Preservation Hall, and its world famous Jazz Band.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #46: Chéri (2009)

Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend in Chéri

Brilliantly directed, ravishing to look at, and built around a stunning performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, Stephen Frears’s film of Chéri ought to have grabbed some attention in the midst of all the blockbusters the critics hadn’t been enthusing over in the summer of 2009, but it didn’t. Frears works from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton – his collaborator on his only previous period picture, 1989’s Dangerous Liaisons. The setting is once again France but the period is la belle époque, the years just before the First World War, perhaps the last era that still seems charmingly remote and pre-modern to us. The source is mostly Colette’s 1920 novel about a love affair between Léa, a cocotte nearing fifty and a young man half her age, nicknamed Chéri, the illegitimate son of an old friend from the Paris demi-monde. There’s an obscure 1950 French film of the material, and Kim Stanley played Léa in a Broadway adaptation back in 1959, so the story should be brand-new to audiences discovering it on DVD.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rainer on Film: An Actor's Critic

Back in the good old days when American movie criticism was dominated by a few dozen intelligent people who could write and who were knowledgeable and really cared a lot about movies, plus Richard Schickel and even he could sometimes make sense so long as the movie he was weighing on in didn’t have a man with a gun riding a horsie in it the National Society of Film Critics used to publish these lively anthologies, bringing together previously published reviews and profiles and think pieces written by its members, organized around a theme. (One of them, the 1990 Produced and Abandoned, edited by Michael Sragow and devoted to celebrating worthy obscurities “the best films you’ve never seen”featured a cover illustration of a dusty-looking guy who looked as if he’d stepped out an Edward Hopper painting, leaning against an unoccupied ticket-taker’s booth, with a blissful smile suggesting that the promise of seeing something amazing made all the hungry suffering he had to bear seem worth it. That’s as good a way to describe what it felt like to be a hopeful movie freak in 1990.) In 1981, the Society put out a collection called The Movie Star, and that book was my introduction to Peter Rainer, whose essay “Acting in the Seventies” did a terrific job with a great subject. Rainer appreciated the value of “classic” movie-star acting, as demonstrated by a master like James Cagney or Cary Grant “I like Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart, his ‘best’ performance, but I love him in North by Northwest.” but he also grasped what had changed after Brando and the rise of the Method and then the counterculture, which led to a new generation of actors who thought of movie acting as a vehicle for true creative expression, and whoin the cases of actors such as Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, and the young Robert De Niro don’t “keep a respectful distance” from the characters they play.

And Rainer also recognized the importance of a parallel track of new hip comics Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, the Saturday Night Live crew who established themselves in nightclubs and concert stages and on record albums and on TV, and who were beginning to cross over into movies, often in dramatic parts: “They don’t even crack up in the middle of one of their own skits to show they’re only fooling. They’re too obsessed to crack up. They represent craziness without sentimentality. Their comic personalities are woven around the put-on, and improvisation becomes a way of scrounging up idiosyncrasies that will, hopefully, connect with the audience. Young people who don’t identify with these comics still connect with the craziness.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Performance, Perspective, Emotion: Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

It’s a truism that when actors make a career shift into directing, the strength of the movies they make is usually in the performance factor. The most recent example is Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet from last Christmas, a silly, sentimental comedy about retirees at a home for aging musicians that manages to stay afloat through a combination of the actors in front of the camera and the musicians on the soundtrack. Sarah Polley is a beguiling case, though. The movies she’s directed, Away from Her and especially Take This Waltz, find not only their shape but also their meaning in the performing rhythms of their female stars, Julie Christie and Michelle Williams respectively. In Away from Her, the more conventional of the two pictures (though hardly conventional by comparison to anyone else’s movies), about a woman’s entering an Alzheimer’s facility and her husband’s learning to accept it, Polley, a gifted actor herself, seems at first to be surrendering the movie to Christie – a choice that only makes sense for a debut filmmaker working with one of the greatest instinctual camera performers in the history of the medium. But it’s not as simple as that. The way Polley gets at the character’s altered approach to ordering the world around her while retaining the essential mystery of what she’s going through – since the prevailing consciousness of the movie is really that of the husband (beautifully played by Gordon Pinsent), not the wife – shows the already considerable skill and dominant presence of a talented director. (The balance Polley achieves with the two principal characters recalls Richard Eyre’s work with Judi Dench as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted writer Iris Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as her husband in the unjustly ignored Iris.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Political Realism: The Thrillers of Alex Berenson

"There were some lines he could not cross. He couldn’t murder the people he had been charged with protecting. He couldn’t play God and sacrifice one of his countrymen in the hope of saving others.”
          -Alex Berenson, Faithful Spy

“After so much violence, killing came to him naturally. He always imagined that he could take off the killer’s mask as he wished. But he found the mask had become his face.”
          -Alex Berenson, The Secret Soldier

From these epigraphs, it might appear that John Wells, a sometimes CIA operative, sometimes a freelancer, a Special Ops soldier and the chief protagonist in Alex Berenson’s seven thrillers from 2006 to 2013 (with another to be released in 2014), is a close cousin to Jack Bauer, the antihero of the television series 24. In reality, Wells is a much more complicated and layered character. We first encounter him in Faithful Spy (2006, published like all of his novels by G. P. Putnam’s & Sons) as a deep cover jihadist who has spent ten years in Afghanistan, speaks perfect Arabic and Pashtun, has endured privations and the cold, and has converted to Islam in order to become the first (and only) CIA mole to penetrate Al Qaeda. It is 2001 and he is fighting American troops. To establish contact with them for the first time, he kills fellow jihadists and has an American officer shoot him in the arm so that his story as the sole survivor of an American attack will have credibility with Al Qaeda. Ayman-al-Zawahiri, the then No. 2, trusts him enough to send him to the States to assist a master spy who is putting together plans for a massive attack. As he doesn't know any of the details, the rest of the novel recounts how he uncovers this plot and prevents a plague bacterium and “dirty” nuclear device from exploding, a potential catastrophe that would have been far more devastating than 9/11. Yet because of his extensive training and lethal instincts he is able to accomplish these Herculean feats, despite serious assaults on his own body; assistances comes only from his handler and love interest, Jennifer Exley, who works in the CIA. The bureaucrats in the organization mistrust Wells because he is at best a loose cannon, at worst a turncoat, a Kurtz-like figure who has gone over to the heart of darkness. They feel that if he was that close to Al-Qaeda, he should have provided the intelligence that might have averted the 9/11 attacks. His determination to redeem himself for that failure is chiefly what motivates his derring-do deeds.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County: Indistinct

Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County

Last year the Williamstown Theatre Festival premiered a new musical based on Todd Haynes’s movie Far from Heaven – a perplexing choice, since the material (whatever one thinks of it) is so rarefied and dependent on cinematic reference points that transposing it could only alter the meaning, or at least reduce it to a series of social-problem-melodrama clichés. This year WTF mounted another new musical, based on Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, and that’s puzzling too, though for a different reason. Waller’s novel about a short-lived affair between a married Iowa farm woman who’s an Italian émigré and an itinerant photographer is basically a Harlequin romance for the women’s-book-club set, with sufficiently self-conscious style to make readers believe that it should be taken seriously. It’s a suffocatingly bland volume, with characters who are barely more than ciphers, and the only thing that makes the 1995 movie version more distinctive is the miscasting of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in the two principal roles. (Eastwood directed the picture.) So why bother turn this story into a musical?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nobody Home: The Absence of Dramatic Realism in World War Z, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Blue Jasmine and In a World...

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

You can see the pervasive impact of marketing on contemporary movies today simply by observing just how many pictures are driven more by their advertising concept than the actual drama itself. In the big budget apocalyptic picture World War Z, for instance, where zombies are overtaking humans, the undead have more dramatic motivation than the people trying to stay alive. In one scene, Brad Pitt plays a father desperately attempting to get medicine for his asthmatic daughter who is suffering from an attack. But as soon as he finds a pharmacy, not only does he forget to administer the medicine, her attack magically disappears and the movie forgets all about it. The audience hardly notices though since they are eagerly awaiting the next zombie attack. But this kind of dramatic deficiency isn't just the domain of the Hollywood blockbuster, where the sheer size and spectacle becomes the only form of engagement the mass audience seems to want from movies. This lack of realism is also germane to the success of many independent and art house features.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is a picture of human behaviour – adult and child alike – that one might have perceived at the age of ten, but the film isn't actually an examination of that behaviour. Anderson's idea of whimsy is to enshrine the sort of adolescent narcissism that most of us learn to outgrow. All of his films (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) avoid confronting the pains of moving into adulthood because they are about protecting the tender preciousness of staying young. In other words, his pictures are a treacly tribute to arrested development. Yet when I hear audience and critics applauding Moonrise Kingdom for its charm, I can only guess they are responding to its quirky solipsism, where the characters don't so much reveal themselves in the dialogue, but rather the dialogue comes to define their quirkiness. People may want to see their own preciousness celebrated rather than examined through drama. This could explain why Wes Anderson's work, over the years, has become a successful commodity that marketing executives can sell as 'unique.'

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot

Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #45: What Just Happened? (2008)

Robert De Niro and John Turturro in Barry Levinson's What Just Happened?

Barry Levinson’s 2008 What Just Happened? approaches Hollywood venality, greed and ego with a razor edge, an elegant style and a distanced wit – a killer combination. It’s adapted from What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, a juicy, deftly written and economical (150-page) memoir by producer Art Linson, who lays out the process of getting movies made in the film industry and tells amazing and often scathing stories about some of the ones he worked on, like Great Expectations, Fight Club, The Edge and Pushing Tin. (He has an earlier book, A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood.) Here’s Linson holding forth on the subject of the pitch:

For those of you who have never been in a pitch meeting, it’s nothing much different from door-to-door sales except the financial stakes are higher. You must convince the guy with the checkbook that he needs whatever soap you are selling. I’m not sure anyone actually needs to buy an idea for a movie. If you buy an idea, you have to pay to have the script written. Writers are expensive. In most instances the scripts are badly done and only a small percentage ever get filmed. Because of the high turnover factor, the executive who winds up buying the script probably won’t even have his job by the time the wretched thing gets made and is ready for release. Either someone else will be the beneficiary of its success, or the poor sucker who was fired will inevitably be blamed for supporting it. Under these rules, I’m always amazed at the optimism that’s displayed so early on for something that might not pay off for years. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Too Fast To Live, Too Old To Get Funding: Passion and The Canyons

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams star in Brian De Palma's Passion

Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader are both survivors of the ‘70s “movie brat” era, both bold directors still intent on pushing the outside of the envelope even as they tiptoe toward or past their seventieth birthday, and both continue to have to dance and cajole and plead and scheme just for the chance to make another movie. De Palma’s latest, Passion, is a French-German co-production based on a movie from just three years ago, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (Crime d'amour). This is the director’s first film since 2008’s furiously angry Iraq War screed, Redacted, whose best scenes updated the black-comedy absurdist slapstick of the Vietnam-era Greetings and Hi, Mom! to the time of George W. Bush. The only politics in Passion are of the office variety; it’s about the setbacks and humiliations that Isabelle, a marketing executive played by Noomi Rapace, suffers at the hands of her “mentor,” a bitch on wheels named Christine, played by a blond Rachel McAdams.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Summer in the City: A Musical Notebook

In the 1997 film My Son, the Fanatic, based on a Hanif Kureishi short story, Parvez (Om Puri) is a Pakistani-born taxi driver and secular Muslim. His family life takes an unexpected downturn, however, when his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) converts to fundamentalist Islam. Parts of the picture play like the reverse of the familiar story of the teenager faced with intolerant parents and so turns to music for comfort. In My Son, The Fanatic, it's Parvez who heads to the basement because of his intolerant son to find refuge playing his favourite R&B records. One of those tracks happens to be Percy Mayfield's sumptuous 1950 song, "Please Send Me Someone to Love" ("Heaven please send to all mankind/Understanding and peace of mind/And if it's not asking too much/Please send me someone to love"), which stayed perched on the black music charts for 27 weeks. Director Udayan Prasad takes this soft and pleading ballad, written four years before the United States Supreme Court would outlaw racial segregation in schools, and turns it into a secular prayer.

Andy Warhol would have been 85 this year. Lou Reed and John Cale's remarkable Songs for Drella, a song cycle portrait of their former mentor, is the perfect tonic and tribute to the late painter and film-maker. Reed and Cale, a fractious pair even on a good day, hadn't spoken to one another for years until Warhol's memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 1, 1987. It was painter Julian Schnabel who suggested they create a memorial piece for Warhol. So they set about writing songs that told Warhol's story, and in early January 1989, Cale and Reed, despite their troubled friendship, recorded the album. (Cinematographer Ed Lachman would also film a stunning live performance, but without an audience, on December 4–5, 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Songs for Drella (a nickname contraction of Dracula and Cinderella) has a touching delicacy ("Style it Takes"), features honest self-examination ("It Wasn't Me"), a periodic defiance ("Work"), and sometimes, even a jolting and blistering unapologetic anger ("I Believe"). It's as if Reed and Cale could only bring Warhol to life when they finally faced each other and settled their scores. From the grave, Andy Warhol found a memorable way on Songs for Drella to make them brothers again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Almighty Johnsons: Family Dysfunction of Heavenly Proportions

(bottom left, clockwise) Timothy Balme, Emmett Skilton, Dean O'Gorman & Jared Turner in The Almighty Johnsons

Like many other stories, this one begins with a 21st birthday party (albeit set in a New Zealand locale with accents and culture somewhat exotic to North Americans). Expecting a big, beer-driven blowout, Axl Johnson (Emmett Skilton) gets a little more than he bargained for: apparently he and his brothers are reincarnated Norse gods, and now it’s his turn to enter the family business. With a title guaranteed to make any fourth grade boy involuntarily snigger, The Almighty Johnsons is like nothing else on television. Despite its over-the-top premise that Norse deities incarnated themselves into human beings, packed up from Norway in the 19th century, and emigrated to New Zealand, the ensemble comedy-drama has a refreshing lack of pretension, and leans on smart writing and appealing acting instead of special effects and melodrama. In an era with more teen vampires, werewolves, witches, and wizards than we know what to do with, this New Zealand export stands out with its narrative restraint, charm, and a maturity that exceeds that of its often emotionally-stunted characters.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Chosen: Too Much

Jeff Cuttler and Ben Rosenbach in The Chosen

The stage version of Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen at Barrington Stage Company pushes and pulls and preaches at you. It’s overwritten and overdirected (by Aaron Posner, who also did the adaptation with Potok) and a lot of it is overacted, too; you walk away feeling manhandled.

The book, which came out in 1967, is pedantic and repetitive, but it’s also authentically moving, and it catches you up in its unusual story. Set against the background of the last year of the Second World War and the formation of the State of Israel, it’s the story of two teenage boys in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who become improbable friends and whose twin coming of age illumines the value of two radically different approaches to raising sons. The narrator, Reuven Malter, is an Orthodox Jew finishing his high school education at a parochial school. He’s very bright, especially at math, and his only parent, his father David, a Hebrew school teacher, Talmudic scholar and early Zionist (Reuven’s mother died when the boy was very young) hopes he might become a professor; but Reuven has his eye on the Rabbinate. Father and son have a close, confidential relationship. Danny Saunders is the son of a Hasidic rabbi who brought him up – for reasons Potok doesn’t make clear until the end of the book – in silence, forcing him to look for answers to his questions in his heart and soul. Reb Saunders hardly speaks to Danny except during Talmud study or in synagogue, at which time he challenges the boy to find the mistakes he deliberately sprinkles among his verbal commentaries, a public test that Reuven, invited to attend services, finds appalling but that Danny is inured to and enjoys. Reuven is quick-witted, skillful and thoughtful, but Danny is a prodigy with a photographic memory, and his unbounded intellectual curiosity feels trapped in the restricted learning environment of the Hasidic community. So he steals off to the public library to read on his own, where – before he and Reuven cross paths on their own – Reuven’s father becomes his intellectual mentor, recommending Hemingway and Dostoevsky to him. Freud, however, he finds on his own. There’s a rebellious streak in Danny, who’s expected, as his father’s son, to become the next tzaddik, or community leader; his dream is to study psychology. (If this summary sounds familiar to you but you know you haven’t read the novel, then you may have had the misfortune of seeing the 1981 movie version, with Robby Benson bizarrely miscast as Danny and Rod Steiger tearing it up as Reb Saunders.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spare Parts: The Criterion Collection Release of Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984)

In British director Alex Cox's 1984 debut cult film, Repo Man, which the Criterion Collection has recently released on regular and Blu-ray DVD, people are long past being stirred by the sunny allure of Los Angeles. They're now well into its shady violence. The L.A. of this cheerfully nihilistic picture isn't even that sunny anymore. The neon-bright daylight skies (shot by the crack cinematographer Robbie Müller) could be lit by the same florescent bulbs that adorn a 7-11. The night scenes come across as black ink blots brightened by sparsely placed street lamps that make the city look about as desolate as its inhabitants. According to Cox, whatever appeal Los Angeles had in its past, by the Eighties it's nothing more than a junk yard of spare parts where people are essentially hanging on to whatever junk they've got left.

This maniacally funny science fiction comedy basically tells us that the dashed dreamers who once littered this west coast paradise are now hostile predators brutally protective of their possessions. And since it's a pretty common joke that people in L.A. only travel in their cars, it's the car that has now become the vehicle of their rage (just as it was in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend). Since the Hollywood hits of the Eighties were usually 'buddy movies' like Lethal Weapon (1987) and 48 Hrs. (1982), Alex Cox satirizes how in those weepies for men the buddies settle their personal conflicts to learn important life lessons about civility. Repo Man features two guys who really don't give a shit about civility (or each other). The only life lesson they learn is the tools to repossess a car in record time to survive the economic downturn. Cox's punk ethos, which is far less self-conscious than it became later in Sid and Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987), is totally refreshing and it clears your head. Repo Man – gratefully – doesn't set out to improve anybody.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Neglected Gem #44: Monkeybone (2001)

The Freudian comic fantasy Monkeybone is so inventive and enjoyable that I’ve never understood why it was treated as an extravagant embarrassment on its 2001 release. It’s messy and inconsistent, and at times the plot gets so complicated that, clever as it is, it begins to seem a little like a tin can tied to the movie’s tail. But since most Hollywood comedies come up with barely half a dozen good jokes, a movie with as many fresh comic ideas as this one – most of them gloriously visual – seems less a liability than a gift horse. Sam Hamm (Batman) adapted the script from Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel Dark Town, and Henry Selick, who collaborated with Tim Burton on A Nightmare Before Christmas, directed. It’s about a cartoonist named Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) whose agent (Dave Foley) has just landed him an animated series on Comedy Central. Stu, who’s decent and retiring – he has a peek-a-boo bang that hides his right eye, as if he weren’t sure he wanted to expose his whole face to prying eyes – isn’t interested in the fame or the franchising. But he figures that this new peak of success provides him with the perfect opportunity to propose to his girl friend, Julie (Bridget Fonda), the doctor whose sleep clinic rescued him from his lifelong nightmares and whose encouragement helped him to channel his demons into art. The strip – and now the projected series – revolves around Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a monkey who is pure libido and embodies the randy, crass impulses that sweet Stu represses, popping up unbidden like a jack in the box with an erection. The day Stu signs for the TV show, he and Julie get into a car accident and Stu winds up in a coma. While his self-involved sister Kimmy (Megan Mullaly, who seems miscast) makes plans to cut his life support, deep inside his head Stu is stuck in Downtown, a crazy-carnival land ruled by Morphos (Giancarlo Esposito), the monarch of nightmares. His only means of escape is to steal an exit pass from Death (Whoopi Goldberg) that will boot him back to the waking world. He accomplishes the task but at the last minute his mischievous alter ego Monkeybone grabs it and, free at last of his controlling master, surfaces in the hospital in Stu’s body.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Summer Pleasures: Pacific Rim, Joyland and Under the Dome

A scene from Pacific Rim, now in theatres

The late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (More than Human) once opined, in defense against critics who said all science was bad, that "ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud." That dictum, now known as Sturgeons' Law and usually stated as "90% of everything is crap," is actually true, though there are times in certain art forms  sixties rock, seventies American cinema when the over-all high quality belies that statistic. Of course the 10% that isn't crud isn't necessarily stellar, either. Great art, be it a film like Richard Linklater's Before Midnight or an album like The Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East, isn't easily made, but there is enough out there that is at least worth your time, even if it falls short of what it could have been. Here are some recent efforts worth checking out.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Call of the Mild: The Wolverine

The first time Hugh Jackman played Wolverine, in his first American movie (and only the third movie his career), Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), a star was born. The character of Wolverine an endlessly regenerating Canadian wild man who can sprout razor-sharp claws from his knuckles, and who has a three-note emotional range, brooding, seething, and full explosion was a product of a period in the mid-70s when Marvel comics writers were trying to adjust to a changing pop culture landscape in which movie stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing judge-jury-and-executioner types as righteous heroes. Comics fan were hungry to see him on the screen, but comics fans and lots of other people are always hungry to see things on screen that would probably look pretty silly if almost anyone tried to create a reasonably plausible, live-action version of them.

Somehow, Jackman managed to make everything about Logan that’s the superhero equivalent of his slave name, what people call Wolverine when he’s not bounding through the air eviscerating people seem both believable and attractive, from the redwood-sized chip on his shoulder to his inherent nobility to his lupine-rockabilly hairdo and facial hair. It was the kind of performance that makes you eager to see what else the actor can do, and at the same time makes you want to know when you can see him play that character again. The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold from a script written by Mark Bombeck, Scott Frank, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie, marks Jackman’s fifth time out wearing Logan’s spiked claws and gelled hair horns. He was 31 when X-Men came out, and he’s 44 now, which, given the fact that Logan doesn’t visibly age, might have been a problem at an earlier point in our history. It’s a funny thing that people, or at least some movie stars, age so much slower than they used to, but it’s also a lucky thing, since it now takes so many lifetimes to get a movie made. In four fewer years that it’s taken Jackman to play Wolverine in three X-Men movies and two solo outings, Sean Connery had played James Bond five times, walked away from the franchise, come back to play him one more time, and walked away again.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shadow and Light: The Fiftieth Anniversary of With The Beatles (1963)

When The Beatles' second album, With The Beatles, was released almost fifty years ago in the UK, it stayed at the top of the pop charts for a startling 21 weeks. If you consider that it was released on November 22, 1963 (on the day President Kennedy was assassinated), and was ignored by their British label's subsidiary, Capitol Records, in the United States, the feat was extraordinary. Yet despite the circumstances, or perhaps, in part, because of them, the sounds within those grooves caught the times like few other albums ever did – and changed them. With The Beatles arrived on that cold late fall day amidst a national tragedy, and yet it became a tonic. The songs would mix joy seamlessly with sorrow, their brightness overshadowed darkness, as four white boys exuberantly celebrated their love of black music.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Curdled Comedy of Manners: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s 45th movie as director, is also surprisingly one of his most memorable, largely but not only because of Cate Blanchett’s powerful lead performance as a mentally ill socialite fallen upon hard times. Allen’s track record for most of the last 20 years has been pretty mediocre, with the majority of his movies scanning at best as irrelevant. Even the few good films, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), seemed less fresh or creative than earlier Allen movies like Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1985), and Radio Days (1987), not to mention classics like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). So who would have expected Blue Jasmine to be as unique, disturbing and honest as it is?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tennessee Williams’s Swan Song: The Two-Character Play

In its current form – that is, as it’s being performed by Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif at New World Stages in New York – The Two-Character Play was the last work Tennessee Williams produced; it opened in 1975. But he struggled with it for nearly a decade; quite different versions of it appeared in London in 1967, in Chicago in 1971 (under the title Out Cry), and in New York in 1973. It’s a meta-theatrical psychodrama about a pair of co-dependent siblings, Felice and Clare, down-on-their-luck actors who tour around the country in repertory. As the play begins they find themselves in some dilapidated theatre on their own (their staff having quit on them after weeks, or perhaps months, of working without salary), performing a piece, written by Felice, simply called The Two-Character Play. The play within the play is also about a brother and sister, also named Felice and Clare, agoraphobic recluses living in their childhood home in the South after their parents’ violent deaths.

The Two-Character Play, which shows the heavy influence of Beckett and especially of Waiting for Godot, certainly sounds like Williams, but it isn’t very good; it’s both rambling and strained. You don’t get drawn into the hermetic world of Clare and Felice the way you get pulled into the run-down motel-room existence of The Man and The Woman in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, another two-hander and one of the playwright’s early one-acts. Here we hardly need to be told that the play is a metaphor for life or that at the end, after the (invisible) audience has departed, the characters are going to be locked in the theatre, holding onto each other for dear life as the last special fades. Yet you can understand why a couple of adventurous, unconventional actors like Dourif and Plummer (who proposed the project to Dourif) would want to explore it, and it’s worth seeing the production, which Gene David Kirk directed, for their performances.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Delightfully Fluffy: Blithe Spirit at Stratford

Susie Burnett as Edith and Seana McKenna as Madame Arcati (Photo by David Hou)

I had planned to skip the Stratford Theatre Festival’s Blithe Spirit. It seemed to me like a piece of fluff, and there were so many “serious,” “worthy” plays to be seen at the festival. But I had a space in the schedule, and Noël Coward’s 1941 screwball farce was there, so off I went. As you might expect, it was a great decision, however inadvertent. Blithe Spirit is fluffy, but it’s delightful fluff, directed by Brian Bedford with a sure hand, performed with comic panache by a terrific cast, and all of it set in Simon Higlett’s gorgeous jewel of a set. My apologies to Mr. Bedford. I should have known better.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

McGehee and Siegel

What Maisie Knew

The response – quite reasonable, I thought – from a friend who hadn’t read Henry James’s What Maisie Knew to the recent movie version was “Shouldn’t those parents have been thrown in jail for child abuse?” Apart from the usual difficulty in adapting James to the screen (or the stage) – that almost none of his novels is inherently dramatic – this particular one, which he wrote in 1897, poses special problems because of the way our culture now perceives the role of parents in the lives of their children. The novel’s narrative trick is that it’s entirely in the point of view of the little girl, Maisie (she’s ten when the book begins, about thirteen when it ends), whose parents, who are splitting up, use her as a pawn to wound and manipulate each other. But the novel is a high comedy, and its central joke (if you want to call it a joke) is that precocious Maisie knows a great deal more than one might imagine – and, of course, acquires more knowledge as the story goes on. She’s the protagonist, and her qualities of character – as well as insight and an astonishing gift for assimilating information in a game in which the rules seem constantly to be shifting, these include boundless optimism, patience, elegance of expression and a deep capacity for love – make her a true heroine. James is less concerned with what is done to her than with how she handles her situation.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Disenchantment: Two Shakespeare Plays at Stratford

Daniel Briere (Romeo) and Sara Topham (Juliet) at the 2013 Stratford Theatre Festival (All Photos by David Hou)

There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet is so popular with teenaged audiences. And with theatre companies hoping to attract teenaged audiences, of course. To begin with, the plot is relatively straightforward, for Shakespeare, anyway; the action is frequent and noisy, and it’s all about young love – tragic, heart-breaking, parentally disapproved-of young love.

In the Stratford Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, British director Tim Carroll has given us a forthright production. This quality is partly a function of his theory of “original concept” Shakespeare, plays done as closely as possible to the way they would have been produced in the Bard’s era: with declaimed texts, plain sets, Renaissance-style costumes and a fair bit of interaction between the cast and the audience. The audience also shares the lighting with the actors, apparently to give the effect of an afternoon performance at the open-air Globe theatre. (Though original practices – in Stratford’s case, at least – do not include boy actors playing the women’s roles and standing room only for the audiences. And there is electrical lighting; you don’t want to go overboard with this stuff.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Neglected Gem #43: The Tall Guy (1989)

Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy (1989)

Mel Smith, who died a couple of weeks ago, was one of those living legends of British comedy who never managed to crack the American market. (He was a youngish legend, felled by a heart attack at just 60 years old.) Smith became a TV star as part of the cast of Not the Nine O’Clock News, an early-‘80s sketch comedy series that also launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones. Its humor was assumed to be too British and topical to export; instead, there was an Americanized HBO version, Not Necessarily the News, which is best remembered as the testing ground for Rich Hall’s “Sniglets”. His long-running series with Griff Rhys Jones, Alas Smith and Jones, was broadcast on A&E for a few years, but Smith and Jones’ attempt to take their act to the movies, the 1985 sci-fi comedy Morons from Outer Space, was a washout.

In 1989, Smith began directing movies himself, with The Tall Guy, a romantic comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson. On the basis of The Tall Guy, George Lucas hired Smith to direct the expensive, sprawling period comedy Radioland Murders, one of those highly touted Lucas dream projects (such as Howard the Duck and Willow) that make it seem impossible that this guy ever had a commercially viable idea in his life, and that pretty much finished Smith in Hollywood. He did have a hit in 1997 with a big-screen spinoff of Rowan Atkinson’s TV character Mr. Bean, but that was a watered-down version of a pre-sold property, and anyway, Mr. Bean is a mostly-mute sweetums played by a comedian who was meant to always be mean-spirited, talkative, hyper-articulate, and snarling (as in the Blackadder shows).

Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, in Alas Smith and Jones
Though it both pains and confuses me to say it, George Lucas did have one good idea in his life: Smith should have been besieged with offers from people who’d seen The Tall Guy. (It may be remembered that the best idea Lucas ever had that was related to the Star Wars franchise was to hire Irvin Kershner to direct one of them.) The fact that Smith was apparently never besieged with offers to direct big movies may, in fact, be directly connected to the fact that not too many people ever saw The Tall Guy. After the shoot wrapped, it took a few years before the movie was released in England, and then another year for it to come to the U.S. When it opened here in the fall of 1990, it had the aura of a neglected movie that had just missed the bullet of a direct-to-video release, and many of the reviews reflected that. It was the first produced feature film screenplay by Richard Curtis, and it has a mixture of cornball innocence reflected in the kind of goofy touches (such as a montage of all the characters celebrating the hero and heroine’s coming together by singing along to Madness’ “It Must Be Love”) that only a beginner would include in a movie that’s made all the more disarming with its sophisticated, satirical take on its theatrical milieu, which is that of a couple of world-weary insiders. (I seem to remember Gary Giddins, who reviewed it in the Village Voice, dismissively brushing it away with the observation that there were silly clips from the movie running alongside the closing credits.)