Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Second Mother: Discovery

Camila Márdila and Regina Casé in The Second Mother, directed by Anna Muylaert.

The Brazilian film The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?), about how the relationship of a long-time live-in domestic and her employers changes when her college-age daughter comes to live with her, is a quiet and unobtrusive piece of pure naturalism. The writer-director, Anna Muylaert, barely seems to impose a style of her own on the material, an unconventional comedy of manners, but the quality of her observations is uncannily shrewd, and the movie’s treatment of the subjects of class and family is trenchant. The setting is São Paulo, where Val (Regina Casé) has worked for thirteen years as housekeeper for a high-powered socialite, Bárbara (Karine Teles), and her retiring artist husband Carlos (Laurenço Mutarelli) and nanny for their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). Val is devoted to the family – especially to Fabinho, who is around eighteen but still likes to be treated (by Val, if by no one else) like a little boy, coddled and cradled in her arms; he sometimes steals into her bedroom at night to sleep there. (She protects him, sometimes even from his parents: when his mother finds his stash of weed and voices her concern that he’s getting high too often, he denies it’s his, so Bárbara tosses it in the garbage. Val retrieves it and returns it to Fabinho on the sly.) Bárbara pays Val well, and she’s convinced that she and Carlos treat her like one of the family, and Val likes to think so too. But we can see the limits of her sensitivity: when Val gives her a coffee set for her birthday, Bárbara makes a show about saving it for a special occasion, but when Val tries to incorporate it into her employer’s birthday party, Bárbara gets annoyed. This is a remarkably layered episode – we note Val’s generosity in using her money to buy a gift for her and the implication that she thinks of Bárbara as more than just her boss, but when she takes Bárbara at her word she’s clearly crossing an invisible social line. Usually Val doesn’t make this kind of mistake: she treats both her employers with grateful deference. And Muylaert refuses to score easy points against them. When Val’s daughter Jéssica (Camilla Márdila) shows up in São Paulo to take her college entrance exams and asks if she can stay with her, at least until she gets settled, Bárbara agrees without hesitation, though she comes to regret it almost immediately.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cheesy Kids' Stuff: The Danny Kaye Show

Danny Kaye and Mary Tyler Moore on The Danny Kaye Show.

In a time as besotted as ours with pop culture nostalgia, when people with a hundred years' worth of recorded entertainment available at their fingertips insist that anything they liked as kids is a "classic" and regard anything outside their generational frame of reference as a likely source of camp hilarity, it's hard not to find it fascinating whenever any performer once regarded as a big deal sinks out of view and doesn't bob back to the surface within six months. What's Goonies and Grease 2 got that George Raft doesn't? (Don't answer that.) Consider the case of Danny Kaye. When Kaye died, less than thirty years ago, there was a whole generation that knew him, if they knew him at all, as a faded children's entertainer. Kaye's movie career was over by 1970, but in the mid-'70s, he co-starred in a couple of TV musicals, playing Geppetto to Sandy Duncan's Pinocchio and Captain Hook to Mia Farrow's Peter Pan. They felt like an extension of his ubiquitous work promoting UNICEF, the international children's charity that had tapped him as its Goodwill Ambassador back in 1954.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Nightmare of Storytelling: Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare

I have this vivid recollection of a dream I had when I was probably 6 or 7. It was sometime before my parents separated and I was sleeping in my first-ever bedroom with the pink wallpaper and the unicorn lamp someone painted for me. As a kid, I watched a lot of reruns of Adam West's Batman after school. One night, I had a dream that Batman had died and we were holding a funeral for him in my living room. I was barred from attending but I crept down the stairs from my bedroom in the dream, as kids do, and watched the funeral from the stairs. Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was crying next to the casket; Burt Ward’s Robin looked lost; my grandparents were, for some reason, devastated. Suddenly, someone kicked the front door down. It was the Purple Man, in the first of his many appearances in my childhood dreams, and he was pointing a gun. He looked a lot like Rorschach from Watchmen, before I even knew what a Rorschach was. In a later dream, he turned out to be my dad. Riddle me that; I still don’t know what it means.

Did you find that story boring? Were you indifferent and wondering how it was relevant to this review? Perfect. Now imagine hearing about it for 91 minutes.

The sad truth is that no one wants to hear about your dreams unless they’re being paid and Netlfix’s newly-added horror documentary, The Nightmare, illustrates this fact well. The latest from director Rodney Ascher, The Nightmare tells the story of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis and the eerily similar nightmares they’ve independently converged on. Sleep paralysis is a bizarre phenomenon that renders one unable to move or speak during the transitional periods between sleeping and waking. It’s often accompanied by vivid and disturbing nightmares. The medical and scientific hypotheses surrounding sleep paralysis are fascinating but you won’t find them here. In fact, it’s almost 25 minutes into The Nightmare before anyone mentions sleep paralysis at all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Adieu, Sylvie

Sylvie Guillem performing Technê in Life in Progress, at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

As a seasoned dance critic and author of a history of the ballerina, I am often asked who my favourite dancer is. I never hesitate. The answer is Sylvie Guillem. I saw the goddess of the dance perform in a full-length ballet only once, in 1990 when the Paris-born ballerina was at the peak of her powers. But it was the kind of experience I needed to have only once to know that Guillem was the era’s supreme objet d’art.

The ballet in question was Don Quixote which Guillem’s mentor, the great Rudolf Nureyev, had staged for the Paris Opera using original choreography by Marius Petipa. Guillem was Kitri, the feisty female lead whose elegantly assured dancing is peppered with intricate pointe work, lightening quick jumps and whipping wrists that flutter a fan. Guillem danced the role as if she were born to it, sparking thunderous applause and a standing ovation for herself and her partner, Patrick Dupond.

Nureyev had invited me to this performance and insisted I meet him backstage so he could introduce me to his protégée. I remember that the spitfire I had watched in amazement only moments ago looked shy and retiring in Nureyev’s presence. Clasping her willowy arms behind the back of her tutu and shifting her weight back and forth in satin toe shoes scuffed and bruised from almost two hours of non-stop dancing, she waited anxiously behind-the-scenes to hear what Nureyev had to say.

The Russian devilishly bided his time, letting her squirm. After Nureyev had made her France’s top-ranking dancer, raising her to the position of étoile, the Paris Opera Ballet’s highest position, when she was just 19 years old, Guillem had a year earlier decamped to the Royal Ballet in London to become a principal guest artist. While Nureyev had obviously gotten over his feelings of betrayal, inviting Guillem back to dance in his ballet, he still wanted her to know who was boss.

Her fans crowed around her and she smiled at them but was clearly distracted. Her eyes were always on Nureyev. When he finally but slowly walked up to her everyone went silent. Grabbing hold of her pale hands, he looked Guillem in the eyes and declared in a voice that was barely above a whisper that she had been magnifique. You could feel the nervous tension rushing out of her in an exhalation of relief. She had been great, but she would believe it only when said from on top.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This Job’ll Kill Ya: Cooties

Elijah Wood fending off a zombie child in Cooties.

A lot was riding on Cooties for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in being good and done with the zombie horror craze, so when I heard about the conceit of this latest effort, I thought, ok, this is it. This is the last twist on the genre that hasn’t been done yet. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on the strength of its bonkers premise alone. It really is an incredible idea for a zombie film: a batch of contaminated chicken nuggets transmits a virus to schoolchildren that turns them into murderous, flesh-hungry fiends, and a group of teachers must band together to survive and escape. Amazing! The mind boggles at why the world of horror comedy hasn’t taken a crack at this already, except that it’s only in recent years that the distribution platforms exist to push something this outwardly “offensive” through into theatres and homes as an independent, niche genre film, rather than having to try and convince a studio to bankroll it – or to have it die a slow death running in seedy midnight movie circles.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, at London's Barbican Theatre. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Tickets went on sale for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet a year before it opened at the Barbican, and sold out faster than any play in London theatre history. Cumberbatch’s formidable success on British TV – and world-wide – as a twenty-first-century Holmes in Sherlock has made him fantastically popular, but he’s not just the actor’s equivalent of a rock star; he’s a magnificent performer, in apparently every medium. (The best of his film work has been biographical: as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.) The production of Hamlet in which he’s been starring kicked off this season’s NT Live series yesterday, and it’s no doubt the series’ major draw.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Female Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

Author Jane Thynne.

This review contains some spoilers for Jane Thynne's A Winter Garden and The Scent of Secrets.
Over a month ago at the Berlin airport, I picked up a copy of the novel, A Winter Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Jane Thynne, an author with whom I was not familiar. I was most interested in finding out whether she had anything new to say about the deeply-lined runes of the Third Reich. Apart from a few academic studies that Thynne acknowledges, I do not recall any novelist that explores as she does the intensity of Nazi misogyny and contempt for women. When I finished it, I ordered the next book in the series, The Scent of Secrets (Doubleday Canada, 2015). In the UK, the same novel is published with the title, A War of Flowers. Unfortunately, the cover of The Scent of Secrets is almost identical to that of A Winter Garden. On the plus side, either Thynne or her publishers made the astute decision to hook the reader by publishing the prelude and chapter of the subsequent entry in the last few pages of the book. She succeeded with me.