Saturday, April 13, 2013

Eytan Fox’s Yossi: Modest Israeli Sequel Touches the Heart

Note: this review contains spoilers.

A friend once pointed out he gains a much better understanding of the complexities of Israeli society through the prism of the works of director Eytan Fox, Israel’s best filmmaker. That’s because many of Fox’s movies tackle and pull off the tough feat of actually juggling the myriad strains of that fascinating country. Those films have ranged from The Bubble (2006), a sobering look at the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as filtered through a love affair between two men, personifying each side to Walk on Water (2004), a powerful examination of German-Jewish and gay-straight relations as showcased through the experiences of a burnt out Mossad operative. But some of Fox’ movies are smaller scaled, none more so than his 2002 movie Yossi & Jagger, which was the first of his films to make an international splash.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The American Absurdism of Carl Stalling

When it came to writing music for animated cartoons, Carl Stalling wrote some of the most outrageously impudent material heard this side of Spike Jones. Thanks to Stalling, it wasn't unusual in a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies cartoon to hear a happy collision of bassoons, trombone slides, mysterioso strings, violin glissandos and his memorable "boinnngg!" sound created on the electric guitar. Together, these instruments created a bold, anarchic sound for some of the wittiest and purest examples of American absurdism.

In his Memoirs of a Useless Man, the Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi said that "dramatic fables" should contain "the great magic of seduction that creates an enchanted illusion of making the impossible appear as truth to the mind and spirit of the spectators." This idea probably best describes the ultimate goal of animation. Even more than dramatic realism, the cartoon demands a suspension of disbelief. And if music is essential to movie drama, it is no less a significant component in animation. As Roy Prendergast accurately pointed out in Film Music: A Neglected Art, the element of exaggeration in cartoons already had its antecedent in the 18th Century comic operas of Carlo Gozzi and others (like Mozart). The rapid, almost frantic rhythm of opera buffa demanded that the music keep pace with the action. This is no less true of animation. Most North American animators looked to the 20th Century neoclassic style already heard in contemporary artists like Igor Stravinsky rather than the 19th Century romanticism preferred by most Hollywood composers. "In dramatic films of the 1930s and '40s the chromaticism of the nineteenth century was appropriate because of the music's tendency to de-emphasize small-scale musical events, thereby drawing the listener's attention to a large sense of movement," Prendergast writes. "Cartoons, on the other hand, are usually nothing less than frantic movement consisting of a series of small-scale events, and the music in cartoons plays at least an equal role with the animation and story in establishing the humourous success of events."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nothing but Vacancy: Room 237

“I’m not saying we didn’t go to the moon. I’m just saying that what we saw [of the moon landing] was faked, and that it was faked by Stanley Kubrick.”
– some lunatic in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick released his first film in five years, a horror movie based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel The Shining. At some point in the late ‘60s, Kubrick entered a phase in his career where every new project was a huge effort, drawn out over several massively hyped years, to top everything he’d done before, and everything that anyone in movies, and maybe popular culture itself, had done in that vein before. So, just as Dr. Strangelove was taken for the ultimate black comedy of the anti-nukes, antiwar era, and 2001: A Space Odyssey the ultimate sci-fi head trip, and The Shining’s immediate predecessor, Barry Lyndon, was supposed to be the most painterly, lavishly costumey costume drama of all time, The Shining arrived in theaters with the expectation that it would be the greatest horror movie ever made; anything else would be a letdown. The early returns pointed to it being a letdown.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not Worth the Price: Admission

Tina Fey, Nat Wolff and Paul Rudd in Admission

As lamentable as most American cinema is these days, I think that the comedy genre has fared the worst of all in Hollywood. That’s mainly because while horror and science fiction movies rarely suggest quality in the first place, comedy films always hold out great promise of screen success, because there is no shortage of talented comedic actors (Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Owen Wilson, Cameron Diaz) around and some dramatic actors who display a flair for it (Ryan Gosling, Kristin Bell, Johnny Depp). And while a few quality comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Wedding Crashers (2005) and I Love You, Man (2009) occasionally pop up, by and large the movies that result, from the frantic, tiresome likes of The Hangover (2009) and Bridesmaids (2011) to the missed opportunities of Seeking A Friend For the End of the World (2012) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) to the outright disasters of Get Him to the Greek (2010), Grown Ups (2010) and Pineapple Express (2008), are wretched and unfunny. (I actually pointed out how consistently bad American film comedy was in a post from September 2010; clearly, nothing has changed in the interim.) And if they’re not outright failures, sometimes the films, like Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) or Date Night (2010), are merely fitfully amusing. The latter is the most evident trait of Admission, which strands skilled movie newcomers like Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, as well as veterans like Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn in an underdone, predictable and, finally sappy comedy that betrays the promise of its main concept.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sex, Lies, and Videotape: La Ronde in Toronto

Maev Beaty and Mike Ross in Soulpepper's adaptation of La Ronde (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Dedicated, with love, to the dear memory of David Churchill

Arthur Schnitzler wrote the play known as La Ronde in 1897 but it would be many years before it was staged, and even then it was considered a scandal. Originally written in German under the tile Reigen, a word like the French La Ronde meaning a dance in the round, it concerns 10 characters engaged in 10 distinct but intertwined acts of erotic coupling. In 1900, Schnitzler printed it as a text for friends and close associates, aware that his subject matter was risqué for the time. In 1903, it was printed for general circulation but was banned for the first time by censors a year later. The play wasn’t strictly about sex, but about how sex cut across social barriers, linking people from different backgrounds. The setting was fin-de-siècle Vienna and while affairs among members of the various social strata took place, the citizenry didn’t want this open secret openly aired.

In December 1920, a brave staging of the play took place in Germany followed by another, in February 1921, in Vienna. Both events were greeted by near universal outrage. The play sparked near riots in the theatres where they were staged. The attacks escalated into virulent anti-Semitism targeted at Schnitzler who was publicly denounced as a Jewish pornographer who later went to court to defend himself against charges of immorality. He eventually withdrew the play from the public.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing and Romantic Comedy

Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake in Much Ado About Nothing, at the Duke on 42nd Street (Photo: Richard Perry)

Ben Jonson wrote satirical comedies, Shakespeare romantic ones – and then, later in his career, the two plays that scholars have categorized as problem comedies, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Of his romantic comedies, Twelfth Night runs deepest, but Much Ado About Nothing has been the most influential. Almost the entire history of Hollywood romantic comedy, beginning with the first screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, in 1934, flows from its font. These movies were the consequence of the newly enforced Production Code, which forbade the hero and heroine of a romance to jump in bed together before marriage without tragic consequences (invariably for the woman). The Hays Code office, as it was popularly known, sought to neuter romance, but screwball comedy came up with a formula that kept it sexy as well as witty. The protagonists begin as adversaries – like Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night – distanced by both class and temperament, yet we can feel the sexual chemistry between them. Each has to learn to get past first impressions as well as to compromise, to come halfway toward the other. Their reward is a happy ending in each other’s arms, when, to use screenwriter Robert Riskin’s metaphor in Capra’s picture, the Walls of Jericho (blankets on a clothesline) erected to keep them discreetly separate from each other in a series of motel rooms come down after the hero and heroine are safely wed.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Art Without Heart: Sam Shepard’s True West

Stuart Hughes and Mike Ross in True West (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Caution: Spoilers are included.

True West by Sam Shepard is considered one of the great American plays reflecting the country’s changing idealism in the late 1970s. For the playwright, you could say the American Dream never existed in the first place, especially with Shepard having struggled with the family farm and a father who drank too much. Shepard’s life is perhaps best seen as one that was, paraphrasing Richard Gilman on the movie American Graffiti, “only tougher, shrewder, more seeded with intimations of catastrophe in the midst of swagger.”  True West, written in 1980, was Shepard’s seventh play and it’s considered a work that intentionally looks at the clash of one idealistic man against his wayward, independent brother. The dramatic conceit is to use the strained relationship of two brothers, Austin and Lee, as a political and social device offering Shepard’s commentary on the false underpinnings of American culture. After seeing True West you immediately see the author’s disenchantment. It’s an edgy play that wears its political heart on its proverbial sleeve.

Toronto’s Soulpepper production, which opened April 3rd, is adorned with that edginess from start to finish. Right from the opening lines to the dramatic standoff between the brothers, played by Stuart Hughes (Lee) and Mike Ross (Austin), the masculine swagger rarely lets up. On this point, director Nancy Palk and the cast understand Shepard, his point-of-view and his social commentary. It’s also a production that easily finds the black humour of the playwright, which is almost absurdist in its evolution during the course of the play’s 90-plus minutes. Stuart Hughes is marvellous as Lee, the older, pragmatic and slightly reckless brother. Austin is the younger, straight-laced member of the family who’s working on a screenplay for a Hollywood movie. He’s left the distractions of Los Angeles and settled into his mother’s suburban house in central California. She’s on vacation in Alaska asking her youngest son to look after the plants while she’s away. Lee shows up, unexpectedly, after spending a long time in the desert. “I been spendin’ a lot a time on the desert…had me a Pit Bull there for a while but I lost him.” He barely accounts for himself in the story and his vagueness adds colour to his mysterious character.