Saturday, June 6, 2015

Neglected Gem # 77: Anna and the King (1999)

Anna and the King
marks the fourth time the movies have revisited Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam, based on the memoirs of the Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, who tutored the children of Siam’s King Mongkut in the mid-nineteenth century. The first adaptation, in 1946, with Irene Dunne as a stiff-necked Anna, smiling that knocked-on-the-noggin Irene Dunne smile, and Rex Harrison done up in ballooning silk knee pants as the King, was rather preposterous. (Lee J. Cobb as Harrison’s Kralahome, or Prime Minister, with burnt amber all over his face and chest, was one of the prime kitsch elements.) But the big, handsome production was very enjoyable nonetheless. The hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musical version, The King and I, came to the screen in 1956, with Yul Brynner repeating his Broadway performance as the monarch whose efforts to bring his tiny country into the modern world has to overcome the obstacle of his own obstinacy, and Deborah Kerr taking over where stage star Gertrude Lawrence had left off. This time it felt as if everyone associated with the project had been knocked on the head. And those who associate the story of the Siamese ruler and the governess with Brynner’s cutesy pidgin English (which won him the Academy Award) and “Getting to Know You” may have little desire to check out this version, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat in the leading roles. (Disney released a cartoon version of the musical earlier the same year – an embarrassing reminder, even for those of us who didn’t make it past the trailers, of how icky some of the songs are.) And that would be a pity, because Anna and the King, adapted by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes and directed by Andy Tennant, does almost everything right that the earlier versions did wrong.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dead End: A Dissenting View on Mad Max: Fury Road

The influence of marketing divisions on movies right now is so pervasive that what sometimes passes for reviewing could just as easily have been dreamed up in the boardroom. When The Globe and Mail calls Australian director George Miller's return to the action genre in the new Mad Max: Fury Road "a double-barreled shotgun enema to the senses," is that kind of macho hyperbole (fitting to the genre) giving me an idea of what to expect, or is it choice ad copy to sell it? As for the metaphor, who thinks enemas are very pleasurable to begin with, let alone what you are looking for in a good movie?

I know it's not so much that film critics are eager to line up behind the product driven views of executives. Their taste in formula pictures after all is shockingly bad. But the climate reviewers are now working in is not designed for informed criticism, but instead for a style of consumer reporting. After all, if audiences today are being treated (in the crudest sense) as if they were nothing more than consumers, in that same way some of us are now thought of as 'taxpayers' rather than citizens, there is less need to ask questions as to what art is and why it is. Once when I was reviewing Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001) for CBC Radio, his adaptation of Sylvia Nassar's fascinating biography of mathematician John Nash, I wanted to describe why the movie was such a failure of imagination by describing how Howard turned Nassar's nuanced take on Nash's life and illness into a banal and conventional redemption story. My producer told me to forget the book and just tell the listening audience whether or not they should go to the film. In other words, leave out the context and just whip out a thumb to go yea or nay. It turned into a huge battle which I eventually won, but over time more episodes of this nature would ultimately cost me my job. And here we're talking about a radio network in the public sector not pressured by advertisers. But the mindset of regarding listeners as consumers was already in place.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

No Pain, No Gain: Andrew Bujalski's Results

Kevin Corrigan and Cobie Smulders in Results.

It’s no secret that talented directors who work on big studio movies often have to go against their personal tastes and instincts in order to accommodate the demands of their bosses, who have their own ideas about what a movie has to include in order to be salable. The same is sometimes true of well-known indie directors, even those who work on a smaller scale on very personal material, if their recent work has generated more good reviews than box office revenue. Noah Baumbach’s recent While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller as a documentary filmmaker whose creative crisis, which manifests itself in his ability to complete his sprawling, ten-years-in-the-making magnum opus, is all mixed up with his fear of growing older and losing his freshness and edge. For its first two-thirds, the movie offers a spiky, original satirical take on a particular form of contemporary anxiety, but it loses its way in the last half hour—partly because Baumbach goes soft on his hero, but also because the tone goes haywire in a slapstick climax that feels as if it parts of it might have been included to provide footage for the trailer, in the hope that it might trick some people into thinking they were getting something a little less like The Squid and the Whale and a little more like Along Came Polly.

The writer-director Andrew Bujalski doesn’t show any inclination for playing this game; he certainly doesn’t have any knack for it. His new feature, Results, has been called a “rom-com,” in some cases by reviewers complaining that it’s a pretty misbegotten excuse for a rom-com. It’s true that Results doesn’t play by the usual rules of that genre, but I don’t think that’s due to incompetence, or that Bujalski is trying to “subvert” the genre either. I think he’s indifferent to genre. Results starts out with a man in a fish-out-of-water situation: Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a suddenly rich, recently divorced New Yorker who finds himself in Austin and, looking to somehow reboot his life (and end his loneliness) takes out a gym membership. This brings him into contact with two people with whom he has nothing in common: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner of the gym, and Kat (Cobie Smulders), a tightly wound trainer whose anger issues are exacerbated by the fact that she’s heading towards thirty without ever having had “a real job” or “a real boyfriend.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You Can Never Go Home: John Maclean's Slow West

Michael Fassbender and Kodi-Smit McPhee in Slow West.

The mythic loner of the Western has always reflected that split in the psyche of the American character where the hopes of nationhood are continually set against the rights of the individual. The Founding Fathers dreamed up a nation with a standing promise to create a country built on equality and true governance. But the hero of the Western, the one who stood tall to wrest nationhood from the anarchy of the outlaws, best supported D.H. Lawrence's idea that "the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." All of which explains why the gunslinger who brings about the law that creates governance doesn't really get to benefit from it. He never comes to live in the home he helps create. Unlike the gangster figure of the Depression Era who chose to live outside the law, and expressed what Robert Warshow described as "that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself," the hero of the Western always sought Americanism, and permanent roots, even though, deep down, he knew he'd never have them.

For someone like John Wayne, the idea of home became downright elusive if not an illusion. Despite leading an obsessive search for his niece kidnapped by Comanches in The Searchers (1956), Wayne's Ethan Edwards eventually delivered her home and alive, but Ethan didn't get to share the spoils of residence, instead he's left framed outside the door against the vast country that spawned him. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), his Tom Doniphon, in a drunken rage, burns down the home he was building for the woman (Vera Miles) he silently loved when he discovered that she had fallen instead for the lawyer (James Stewart) who taught her to read and to dream of a country she could become a citizen of. But Tom Doniphon can't share in that dream of citizenry, he can only exist in its shadow, secretly and silently saving Stewart from the superior gunman Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He has to lurk in a dark alley with his rifle aimed at this vicious killer with the purpose of preserving the rule of law so that it will triumph over the brutal vigilantism of Liberty Valance.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Neglected Gem #76: The Sandlot (1993)

The cast of The Sandlot (1993).

I was furious to learn that the late Roger Ebert had once described The Sandlot as a summertime version of A Christmas Story, because that particular revelation, which I had thought was my own unique take, was how I had planned to open this review. Though they’re both seasonal coming-of-age stories set in the 1950s and 60s, sweet glimpses of a narrator’s childhood through a smudged nostalgic lens, The Sandlot doesn’t enjoy the same “classic” status that A Christmas Story does – although it’s easily just as good, which makes it a perfect candidate for the Neglected Gem treatment.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Backstage Musicals in London: Gypsy and Sunny Afternoon

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. (Photo: Johan Persson)

It’s easy to argue for Gypsy, first produced on Broadway in 1959 and currently enjoying a sold-out revival in London’s West End, as the greatest of all American musicals. (Closest contender: Fiddler on the Roof.) Arthur Laurents’s book, suggested by the memoirs of the stripper queen Gypsy Rose Lee, is in the vein of John O’Hara’s for Pal Joey. Like that 1940 landmark musical, Gypsy has a seedy backstage milieu – second-rate vaudeville houses across the country at the twilight of vaudeville, when talkies were stealing away their audiences, and finally burlesque theatres – and an anti-heroic protagonist. But though Pal Joey’s script is colorful and sexy, the second act is a bit of a shambles (the distinctive characters and the marvelous Rodgers & Hart score bring it home), and the show lacks depth. An exposé of naked show-biz ambition, Gypsy, which has a superb score by Jule Styne (music) and a young Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), is almost O’Neill-like in its intensity and darkness.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Magnificent Century: The TV Show Iran, Israel, Vietnam and the Rest of the World is Watching

Turkish television's Magificant Century has reportedly over 200 million viewers worldwide.

In our current age of interconnectivity, the vast majority of media is almost universally accessible, at least by those privileged enough to have internet access. We are no longer surprised to find out that Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones is almost as popular in England or Russia as it is in the United States or Canada. But while downloads and online streaming have increasingly allowed us to make educated forays into foreign cinema and television, those of us in the English-speaking world often remain woefully ignorant of trends – or manias even – sweeping the rest of the world. Just recently, as the result of a spontaneous Facebook post, I discovered that my guilty television pleasure is in fact a worldwide phenomenon. For years now I have been captivated by the show known in English as Suleiman the Magnificent or, more literally translated from the original Turkish (Muhteşem Yüzyıl), Magnificent Century. I watch it dubbed into Syrian Arabic, where it goes by the title Harim as-Sultan (The Sultan’s Harem); it has also been made available (dubbed or subtitled) in over a dozen other languages. The plot of the show is deceptively simple: it is the story of Sultan Suleyman (1494-1566, reigned 1520-1566) and his relationship with Hurrem Sultan, the Christian slave girl who eventually became his wife and a powerful political influence.