Saturday, August 2, 2014

Deception: Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight

The title of Woody Allen's new romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight promises more than it delivers. Not only is there little in the way of a romantic impulse to be found here, you'd be hard pressed to find that the picture even has a pulse. As if suffering from tired poor blood, Magic in the Moonlight comes across as a weary exercise in willed enchantment. Set in 1928, the movie begins in Berlin where an illusionist Wei Ling Soo performs feats of magic, including making an elephant disappear, to the strains of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience. After the show, we discover that Wei Ling is actually Stanley (Colin Firth), a British cynic and misanthrope, who not only castigates his employees, but even casually dismisses his admirers.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Authenticity: Begin Again

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again

The title of the backstage musical Begin Again sets out its theme and hints at the narrative structure of the first act. The movie starts off in a Manhattan club on open mike night, where Gretta (Keira Knightley) sings one of her own tunes, “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” It’s impossible to take your eyes off Knightley, but her style is reluctant, self-effacing, and her untrained voice keeps sinking into a befogged, winey cavern; what fuels the performance is her feeling (mostly anger). Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music producer, sits at the bar, getting plowed, but he’s struck by her song.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

He's a Complicated Man: Black Dynamite

Reviewing the feature-length blaxploitaton spoof Black Dynamite in the New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote that the entire 84-minute movie would make a great five-minute YouTube clip. (In fact, the project had started with a suitable-for-YouTube trailer that the filmmakers whipped up before bothering to write a script for the feature.) Released in 2009, Black Dynamite stars the six-foot-two, 225-pound actor and martial artist Michael Jai White as the title character, a larger-than-life tough guy with a perpetual glower, an enormous gun, a moustache so large and flamboyant that it wouldn't look out of place on Captain Hook, and a healthy suspicion of The Man. (“When a cracker tells Black Dynamite not to do something, he does it, Jack!”) The movie was spun off into an animate series for Adult Swim, whose first season aired in 2012 and has finally been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. (A second season is forthcoming.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Setting the Record Straight: Interview with Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn

Author Mark Lewisohn (Photo by Michael Priest)

Mark Lewisohn has been fascinated by The Beatles ever since he was a pre-schooler in his native England, hearing for the first time their string of number ones on British radio. Hooked from the start, Lewisohn went on to become, and it’s no exaggeration, their number one fan. In 1979, the year before the senseless killing of John Lennon in New York, he started researching them professionally, going on to publish several books on them before coming to collaborate directly with them when researching The Beatles’ Anthology and, later on, liner notes for Paul McCartney’s solo projects. But his major opus is Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1), the first in a three part history which was published late last year, and to great critical acclaim. An unauthorized biography, and yet one written with the benefit of insider knowledge, Tune In revisits The Beatles’ story with an attention to detail that is staggering. Volume one starts with The Beatles’ ancestors in another century and ends on New Year’s Day 1963, just as The Beatles are on the cusp of world-wide fame. Ringo joins the band only on page 672, to give an idea of its scope. “It is my life’s work,” says Lewisohn, at 55 the world’s only full-time Beatles historian who expects to be well into his seventies when the whole of the project is finally completed, sometime in 2028. He is presently researching the second volume which will include 1964, the year The Beatles first came and conquered America, appearing in February of that seminal year on the Ed Sullivan Show before more than 73-million viewers, and in August, on screens around the world, with the release of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night. That was 50 years ago and 2014 is already awash with commemorative projects looking back on the impact The Beatles had – and continue to have – on popular culture. In February was the Grammy tribute which reunited the two remaining Beatles again in concert before a television audience. This summer, meanwhile, has been given over to re-screenings of Richard Lester’s now iconic black-and-white comedy, including the one taking in Toronto tomorrow night at the vintage Revue Cinema. Lewisohn, making his first Canadian appearance since the release of Tune In, will be in attendance, illuminating aspects of the film he knows so well, having already started researching it for his next book. Joining him for the pre and post Beatles’ talks will be Piers Hemmingsen, Canada’s foremost authority on all things relating to the Fabs. It happens that the two Beatles’ scholars are friends, and Lewisohn, after revisiting A Hard Day’s Night, will be off vacationing with Hemmingsen at a lakeside cottage. One can only imagine the campfire stories. But before heading off into the Canadian wilderness, Lewisohn kindly agreed to be interviewed for Critics at Large by Deirdre Kelly, a fellow Beatles fan. Here is some of their conversation:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hercules, Inc: Brett Ratner’s Hercules

The cinematic summer of 2014 continues to surprise me. I signed up to review a bushel of blockbuster chaff, expecting little more than the lowest-common-denominator dreck that usually fills theatres during these mid-year months. But so far, there’s been nothing but wheat: X-Men was great, Edge of Tomorrow became a sleeper hit, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t half as silly as its title. Even Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame), is a fun, if sometimes over-serious film. I’m almost tempted to say that it looks as though Hollywood is prioritizing visual, narrative, and emotional coherence in order to attract moviegoers! What a novel concept. Granted, I haven’t seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet – I don’t want to speak too soon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Transcriptions: A Small Family Business, Venus in Fur, 700 Sundays

Nigel Lindsay (front) in A Small Family Business, at London's National Theatre (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The National Theatre is currently reviving Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play A Small Family Business, and the NT Live series enabled audiences to look at it worldwide last month. It’s a play about the dedication to greed and self-interest associated with the eighties, set among middle-class Londoners over the course of the week during which Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay) takes over his father-in-law’s furniture business, which employs a number of his relatives. Jack’s watchwords for the company’s new era are honesty and trust, but he finds out, bit by bit, that every one of his new business associates is corrupt in some way, and that the creed of compromise has spread in some way even to his wife (Debra Gillett) and daughters (Rebecca McKinnis and Alice Sykes). The revelations of corruption grow more outrageous as the play goes on, and finally – inevitably – Jack himself is swallowed up by it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpacking an Inherited Past: Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat

Director Arnon Goldfinger and Edda Milz von Mildenstein in The Flat

Memory is a tricky business, all the more so when the memories involve the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds of academic texts have struggled with the complicated dynamics of inherited memory, but Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat (Ha-dira, 2011) dramatizes the messiness of familial memory without pretense, building to a complex portrait of the said and the unsaid things that contribute to our family narratives. It is Goldfinger's second documentary feature – his first, the widely-acclaimed The Komediant released in 1999, documents a family of American Jewish vaudeville performers from the 1930s onwards. With The Flat, Goldfinger moves closer to home, in the most literal way. A cross-generational tale of history, mystery, and trauma (both personal and historical), The Flat never fails to hold the viewer's attention. It is a deceptively small story with world historical scope.