Saturday, November 1, 2014

It Was Only a Car (And a Dog): Keanu Reeves in John Wick

I like surprises. I recognize this isn’t a universally-shared sentiment, but I think that a pleasant, well-executed surprise can lift the fog of a dreary day, and that’s enough reason to like them right there. Of course, if they’re also vehicles for the comeback of one of my favourite action stars, then they’re that much more enjoyable.

The diametric opposite to the origin story, John Wick portrays the seasoned killer character forced to come out of retirement. The film opens at the end, with a dying, post-rampage Wick (the seemingly-ageless Keanu Reeves, wearing patchy stubble and the same “whoa dude” haircut he did in 1989, except when it’s slicked back hitman-style) stumbling out of a bullet-riddled Escalade and replaying a rose-tinted memory of his wife on his iPhone.Then we run backwards in time and see his blossoming relationship, before his wife is overcome by an unnamed illness. There’s a brief funeral scene, Wick looking like a gaunt and grieving lizard all in black, and then he’s barely home again before a pet carrier is delivered to his door, with a note from his dead wife and an adorable puppy inside. Her posthumous gift is meant to allow him to grieve through the focus and love he would devote to this helpless creature, and they form an immediate bond as they shop for kibble and do therapeutic donuts in an airfield. But covetous eyes are watching, and soon, Wick’s car, dog, and peace of mind are under attack. As plots go, it’s stupid – but delightfully so. The film never lets a flimsy premise get in the way of fun or excitement. If I’m honest, I actually love the plot. This kind of film doesn’t need any more substance than “Bad guys kill Keanu’s dog; Keanu goes on murderous rampage,” and I’ll argue until I’m hoarse that a baby beagle is a much more plainly sympathetic character than some underdeveloped family-member-in-danger. If someone murdered my dog, I might feel the need for a little rampagin’ too.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Off the Shelf: The Deep End (2001)

The Deep End gives off a sweet malevolence; it softly seduces you even as it fills you with dread. Unlike some popular thrillers, The Deep End doesn't nudge you with mechanical scare tactics to provide tension. The picture is both intelligently suspenseful and an incongruously witty chamber drama. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the co-writers and co-directors, quietly and shrewdly build our apprehension by having us slowly come to empathize with a main character who paves her road to hell with the best of intentions.

Tilda Swinton (I Am Love, The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays Margaret Hall, a lonely housewife in Lake Tahoe, who spends her days dutifully carrying out all those mundane domestic chores of motherhood. Her husband, meanwhile, is a naval officer who spends his days carrying out his duties at sea. In short time, though, Margaret finds herself at sea emotionally when she discovers that her eldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is gay. She also comes to see that his lover, Darby (Josh Lucas), is a rather disreputable character who might bring harm to her son. Margaret initially pleads with Darby to stay away from Beau, but he ignores her, and later makes a midnight creep from Reno to Lake Tahoe. When Beau gets into a skirmish with his lover on the family dock, Darby is accidently killed. In the morning, Margaret finds the body and assumes that her son has committed murder. While Beau has no knowledge of of what happened, Margaret does what any loving mother might do; she tries to clean up the mess and protect her family. Based on the little-known 1940s novel, The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (which was also the source for Max Ophuls 1949 film noir, The Reckless Moment), The Deep End is largely anchored by Swinton's complexly layered performance.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Manner of Style and a Style of Manners: Remembering Oscar de la Renta

Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) 

Manners never go out of style, and for that reason Oscar de la Renta, a great fashion designer who was also big on manners, will forever be remembered as a style icon. I came to witness first-hand the man’s elegance, reflected in both his demeanour and his drop-dead gorgeous dresses, on more than one occasion. As The Globe and Mail’s fashion reporter, I interviewed him in Toronto in 2002 at Canadian launch of his fruity-floral perfume, Intrusion by Oscar de la Renta. He autographed the modernist bottle for me. I also travelled to New York several times to attend his fashion shows, writing about them for my paper’s Style section. I remember one of the them vividly, both for what went down the runway and for what was happening behind the scenes. The gossip first.

The Dominican-born designer who became an American citizen in the 1969, dressed Hollywood stars (Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker), American first ladies (Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama) and wealthy socialites (Nancy Kissinger and Lady Lynn de Rothschild). He was the Oscar who owned the Oscars; his gowns dominated the red carpet. Just before his death on October 20 at age 82, he had designed the wedding dress worn by Amal Alamuddin at her September wedding to heartthrob George Clooney. Oscar de la Renta was always relevant, always au courant. Which would explain why his shows were standing-room only affairs. Even to be seen at an Oscar de la Renta show was enough to make the participant seem a part of fashion. A-listers wanted to be seen in the front row to make their own stylish selves be known through association. Not that C.Z. Guest needed to have tried so hard.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soul Mates: The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins

In director Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play twins who’ve grown apart as adults after life’s taken them in different directions. But after a suicide attempt at the film’s outset lands Milo (Hader) in a L.A. hospital, the pair find themselves under the same roof again. Maggie (Wiig) insists that he recuperate with her back at their childhood hometown in upstate New York. She’s returned there upon marrying, and the movie charts the ways in which our place and family origin serve as both a haven from the wider world’s chaos and the ongoing cause of a different, deeper turbulence. Casting Hader and Wiig—two crack comedians—proves a stroke of genius. After seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I knew Wiig could make a comic-dramatic turn. But I had no idea she was capable of the range of expression she displays here, nor the kind of psychological character study she puts on. Even more so with Hader, who has the more complex role and riskier scenes. And with Johnson and Mark Heyman’s first-rate script at their disposal, the pair is by turns hilarious and affecting. The Skeleton Twins is a funny, poignant, deeply touching look at the complicated way our siblings can become our best friends in adulthood—those who uniquely understand our pain and help us sort through the mess we make of life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No More Home Sweet Home: Waxing Apocalyptic with the Creators of Refuge

All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, and Toronto celebrated recently with the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, which fired a volley of low-budget horror cinema at eager film audiences across the city. There was something for everyone in that abyss of genre delights, from slasher flicks to end-of-the-world mood pieces like the thriller Refuge.
Refuge is set in a grim future in which most of humanity has been exterminated by an unnamed plague, and follows a small family in their daily struggle for food, water, and safety. Father Jack (Carter Roy) watches over wife Nell (Amy Rutberg) and eight-year-old daughter Birdie (Eva Grace Kellner, Boardwalk Empire), and their existence is peaceful, if mundane – until Jack takes a wounded man named Russell (Sebastian Beacon) into their care, whose friends soon come looking for him.
Justin Cummings sat down with husband and wife scream-team Andrew Robertson (Director, Screenwriter) and Lilly Kanso (Producer) for an exclusive interview for Critics at Large.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Skylight and Ether Dome: The Social and the Personal

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Much as I value the literacy, intelligence and technical finesse of the English playwright David Hare, I often find his plays heavy going. The political apparatus at the heart of most of the ones I’ve encountered, from Plenty to Stuff Happens, swings like a censer, blanketing the stage with the whiff of importance; generally I find that he needs a more elastic movement, a lighter step. But Skylight, the 1995 drama that was revived in the West End last summer – in a production by Stephen Daldry, bound for Broadway, that the NT Live series has been transmitting in HD – is a fine piece of work. Bill Nighy (in the role he followed Michael Gambon in eighteen years ago) plays Tom Sergeant, a successful restauranteur whose wife and partner Alice has died of cancer. Carey Mulligan is Kyra Hollis, who came into the Sergeants’ lives as an eighteen-year-old girl, took over the management of one of their restaurants, and became virtually a member of the family. She also became Tom’s lover; they conducted an affair for six years before Alice found out, at which point Kyra, unable to face her, walked out on them both. When Tom finds her again, a year after Alice’s death, Kyra is living in a chilly flat she’s taken over from a friend and teaching high school to working-class kids. She isn’t expecting her old lover to come back into her life, though he’s certainly on her mind: unbeknownst to Tom, his eighteen-year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) dropped by to see her just hours earlier to beg her to rescue his lonely, rootless father. By the end of the first act, Kyra and Tom seem to have reconciled. Act two explores the reasons the reconciliation comes too late to take hold.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Book to Read to Your Child, or to Yourself: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A hoopoe in flight

When I was about eight or nine years old, my father and I realized that our tradition of reading together had to change. We had long left behind picture books, and he had little patience for the transitional books that are suggested for children of that age – books written for children who are just learning to read for themselves, books usually remarkable for their recycled narratives and limited vocabulary. Perhaps he had came across Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the time he'd spent traveling in the Middle East, or because it was the height of the Rushdie affair, or perhaps it was because, as a parent who was often away overseas, he wanted to read me a book written by an author who was separated from his own children. Either way, that was when I met Haroun.
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.