Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Formula Film with a Human Face: The Criterion Collection Release of Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill

When Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill came out back in 1983, it was understandable (especially if you were a political activist in the Sixties) if you found yourself appalled at just how glib and superficial the whole treatment of the period was. In it, a group of former college radicals gather for a weekend when one of their former comrades, Alex, who has lost his way, commits suicide. As they bury him, they dredge up the good ol' days and reflect on what has happened to each of them since. This would have been perfectly compelling if The Big Chill had believably suggested that any one of these people were ever once radical, let alone political activists. The level of ease they reach together in that South Carolina home, even when they rub each other the wrong way, doesn't take into consideration the uneasy course the country has taken since they last took up sides against it. The group seems more caught up in what middle-age and their choice of occupation has done to them rather than what has happened to the United States by 1983.

For a movie supposedly about the politics of a turbulent period, there is little to find that's political in it. With no sense of what happened in the land between their time as committed activists and now, there's not even a comprehension of how some of the counter-culture (especially the Weathermen) began turning criminal, even psychopathic, like the political revolutionaries in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, or the bombers in Jean-Luc Godard's prescient La Chinoise (1967), as the decade drew to a close. The shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in the early Seventies are never alluded to on this mournful weekend, and the picture never once mentions a President. The country itself is what ends up missing-in-action in The Big Chill. For all their former activism, and their engagement in the world, the collective gathered here are only interested in their state of mind and their own well-being rather than the state of the country. You're never convinced that this group was ever made up of idealists who, by the Eighties, turned into narcissists. They suggest instead refugees from one of Werner Erhard's human potential encounter groups rather than anyone who did time in the SDS. Despite the death of one of their own, which provides the very title of the picture, there is little in the way of a chill in the air considering where America actually was when the film came out.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Actors Rule: The Last of Robin Hood and Love Is Strange

Dakota Fanning and Kevin Kline in The Last of Robin Hood.

In The Last of Robin Hood, Kevin Kline plays the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn in the last two years of his life, 1959-1961, when he fell for an aspiring L.A. actress named Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning). Beverly is only fifteen, but years of acting classes and singing and dancing training and auditions have given her physical confidence and a mature, working-woman comportment, and her mother Flo (Susan Sarandon) encourages her to dress like someone in her twenties. Flo has also secured a fake birth certificate for her, presumably so that she can do an end-run around the laws governing the hiring of minors. When the movie begins Bev is dancing in the chorus of a Gene Kelly movie. (The script doesn’t identify it, but it’s Marjorie Morningstar.) Flynn, a womanizer with a well-known penchant for young women, eyes her at the studio – he’s filming Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore story, in which he plays John Barrymore – and sends his friend, the costume designer Orry Kelly (Bryan Batt, from the TV series Mad Men), over to the set of the Kelly picture to bring her over to meet him. On the pretext of having her audition for a Broadway play he’s signed to perform in, he invites her to his lodge for dinner and champagne and takes her to bed. He doesn’t find out she’s underage until his young assistant, Ronnie Sheldo (Matt Kane), realizes that the reason she looks so familiar to him is that she was several years behind him at Hollywood High. But by that time Flynn is smitten; though his lawyer, Melvin Belli (Ric Reitz), warns him he’s playing with fire, he won’t consider giving her up.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's a Man's World: David MacKenzie's Starred Up

Jack O'Connell in Starred Up.

The 24-year-old English actor Jack O’Connell gives a startling performance as a violent convict in the prison movie Starred Up. The title refers to the practice of transferring underage prisoners from “Young Offender Institutions” to adult prisons when they prove too unmanageably violent. O’Connell’s Eric Love, who has just been dropped into the same maximum security facility where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is serving time, is a coiled spring, a ruthless street fighter who’s ready to lash out with his fists and feet at any perceived threat or provocation. (And not just his fists and feet: no sooner has he checked into his new digs, than he sets to work building a homemade weapon. At another point, going down fast and with no other method of inflicting punishment available to him, he fastens his teeth onto a guard’s crotch.) But he’s also a kid, and the face riding his muscular body is clear and open, occasionally breaking into an impish, childlike grin that can stop your heart. When he decides that a fellow prisoner who has entered his cell might be a danger to him, he flips out and leaves the guy splayed out, bloody and unconscious, on the floor of his cell. Then, taking the scene in and deciding that he’s overreacted, he’s like someone coming to after a blackout episode. He hauls the man he’s just attacked on his back and goes looking for help, explaining that there’s been an “accident.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When Dreams Come True: Joseph O'Connor's The Thrill of It All

Joseph O’Connor is Sinead O’Connor’s brother. It’s true. I just discovered this yesterday when I was nearly finished reading his new book, The Thrill of It All. It’s about an ‘80s rock band called Ships in the Night and it has nothing to do with Sinead O’Connor, except that her name shows up in a later chapter as one of the contemporary rock stars the reunited Ships are hanging with. Why do I mention this at all? Not sure, really. Interest? I’ve read three of Joseph O’Connor’s books now. I picked up Star of the Sea on a whim in a Dublin bookshop because I just loved the cover, and it was written by an Irishman, and there I was in Ireland, so… I thought it somehow appropriate. It was a stunning and totally engaging read. Remarkable. I couldn’t wait to get to a Canadian bookshop and pick up another of his books. Trouble was… no one had any. A couple of years later Redemption Road appeared, to great reviews. I couldn’t really get into it. A disappointment. I’ll try it again now, after finishing The Thrill of It All.

Named after a Roxy Music song from their 1974 album Country Life, The Thrill of It All tells the story of this band of misfits. (Why is it named after that Roxy Music song? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.) Robbie Goulding is an Irish-born teenager who picks up a guitar, and forms a band with Vietnamese orphan Francis Xavier Mulvey (more about him later). They enlist the beautiful cellist Sarah-Therese Sherlock and her brother Sean, a tradesman who plays the drums. Together they are the Ships. This is their story. The book is structured like one of those rock star biographies that are appearing everywhere these days. Before Christmas, we’ll see Mick Fleetwood, Jerry Lee Lewis, another volume of Neil Young’s ramblings, and more. So why would anyone who cared about the rock’n’roll life read a fictional book over the real thing? Well, because O’Connor is a good writer, and I’m not so sure about Mick Fleetwood. Keith Richards turned out to be a great story-teller, as did Ray Davies and Pete Townshend. If you were in the right mindset Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace was fascinating, and Bob Dylan? Well, I can’t wait for Volume Two of his Chronicles, but sometimes these books are a complete waste of time. The Thrill of It All is somewhere in the middle of this milieu. Well written, the tales are completely believable. The inner workings of a band are, hmmm, shall we say labyrinthine A band is put together in much the way O’Connor describes it. Two like-minded guitar strummers jam together in one or the other’s living room until their parents kick them into the garage, or the basement, or better yet the other fellow’s house! They recruit a bass player and a drummer and then they start playing little gigs at the school, or the local pub. I’ve done it and so have hundreds of thousands of other teachers, accountants, and other used-to-wanna be rock stars.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Neglected Gem #63: Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith

Film and TV novelizations are often maligned, and rightly so. It’s hard to view screen-to-book adaptations as anything more than a merchandising ploy, and in many cases that’s exactly what they are: cut-rate rehashes of material that’s better suited to the screen than the page. It doesn’t help that novelizations crop up most frequently in the SF and fantasy spheres, devaluing the public legitimacy of those genres. Look at it this way: nobody ever turned Citizen Kane into a book.

Helped in no small part by filmmaker George Lucas’ moneymaking acumen, Star Wars remains one of the most exploited intellectual properties in media history. Seldom have such finite film sources generated such a large volume of extra-curricular material, from games to toys to books. But with so many adaptations, some diamonds are bound to stand out in the rough, and can sometimes even surpass the source material in quality. Matthew Stover’s novelization of the 2005 film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is based on the screenplay penned by Lucas, but it provides both a more compelling version of the film’s story and a glimpse into what makes Star Wars such an enduring (and lucrative) media franchise – which is something the film utterly failed to do.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ibsen Gone Wrong: A Master Builder

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in A Master Builder

André Gregory’s staging of Uncle Vanya (in the David Mamet translation), rehearsed over nearly five years and brought to the screen in 1994 by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, is one of the great achievements in modern American cinema. (I’d say it’s the best movie of the nineties, as well the best rendering of Chekhov I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see.) But Gregory and Jonathan Demme come a cropper with their film of A Master Builder, from Wallace Shawn’s version of Ibsen’s 1892 play, even though Gregory rehearsed it with his cast for even longer than he and his actors worked on Vanya. Ibsen is notoriously difficult to pull off, and Master Builder poses even more daunting challenges than the plays he wrote between 1879 (A Doll House) and 1890 (Hedda Gabler). Some of those texts – The Lady from the Sea and The Wild Duck – have symbolist leanings, but essentially he’s working within a realist framework and with the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama, which he alters in daring ways that made Victorian audiences uneasy. Master Builder, though, moved Ibsen more firmly toward the symbolism of works like Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken. Yet Gregory and his cast – with a single concession – treat it as if it were Chekhov, with disastrous results.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cultural Musings: On Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, TV Guide magazine, The Maze Runner and the Longevity of Nick Cave

Film critic Leonard Maltin, promoting the now-final edition of his long-published Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

The rise of the Internet and, in its wake, social media, has meant, I think, that no one bit of entertainment – be it a movie, TV show, record album or book – lasts for very long in the public consciousness. One month Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine will be the film du jour, then Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and then a different movie, which soon makes way for yet another and so on. The same with all other art forms, the result being that very little of anything makes a permanent or lasting impact anymore. Yet, at the same time, one gets used to certain artists, books or publications popping up on an annual basis. So it came as something of a shock when picking up Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide to read in his introduction that this is to be the last one of these annual guides.