Saturday, August 20, 2016

Play It Again: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Jamie Parker as Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

The more you think about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the odder it becomes. It’s a two-part play, which serves as the long-awaited sequel to J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series of books about the world of a young wizard (as well as the often excellent movie adaptations), but it’s not entirely clear to me why it seemed so essential to Rowling and her collaborators that this be the case. The play is credited to Jack Thorne, who recently adapted the film Let the Right One In for the stage. However, Thorne, Rowling, and theatre director John Tiffany all share credit for the story. It’s currently running in the West End in London, and a Broadway transfer seems inevitable.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Still Bourne: Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne.

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment of the espionage franchise and the third in which Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have teamed up (the fourth, a spin-off, saw Jeremy Renner in the lead). It's been an exhilarating partnership so far, producing the most taut chase scenes, desperate hand-to-hand struggles, and precision minimalist acting from an ever-expanding cast of characters. I'm happy to report that the latest film retains these features. Greengrass' action direction is uncanny, with several bravura sequences that will leave you slack-jawed. In one, Bourne races through the streets of Athens on a motorcycle in the middle of a full-scale popular uprising, replete with Molotov cocktails, tear gas, fire hoses, and pitched battles between rioters and armored police. It is a staggering, visceral piece of direction. Your sensory apparatus can hardly register the kinetic movement. The only thing I've ever seen that surpasses it is the final minutes of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and perhaps Joe Wright’s Dunkirk sequence in Atonement. Damon continues his disciplined approach to the role; Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steps into the shoes of the villain, nefarious CIA chief Robert Dewey; and Alicia Vikander gets the acting style of the franchise just right in the role of Heather Lee, Dewey’s protege.

But despite this craftsmanship and professionalism, Jason Bourne lacks the human conflict that lay at the core of the previous Damon films, a struggle that connected all of the movies’ elements into a tightly congealed ball. If you recall, the first movies trace the story of how Bourne--suffering from amnesia--comes to remember his past life as a CIA assassin even as he evades the Agency’s desperate attempts to eliminate him. His identity crisis was a moral crisis--he wanted to know the truth of his life so as to atone for the murders he committed. The problem was, he couldn’t escape being an assassin--he kept being forced to use his deadly abilities on the various black ops agents that came after him. Despite his desire to lead a quiet life, he had to keep killing, for the those agents would never have arisen if it weren’t for Bourne himself. He was the prototype, the first experiment in Dick Cheney’s 'dark side' operations. And so killing those agents and exposing their superiors was the only way to undo his painful legacy. That it fit in with his identity quest is what made the movies deeply compelling. This emotional weight lent a further urgency and excitement to the action sequences: the stakes were high.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Feeling of Magic: Pete's Dragon

Pete’s Dragon was not on my radar. I have little patience for Disney’s current scheme to remake its classic properties in live action, being the kind of curmudgeon who still clings to the belief that these stories are better told through animation, and that CGI will never achieve the same impact and charm as practical effects. I guess I should have learned by now that they know what they’re doing.

If any of those properties were ripe for remaking, Pete’s Dragon fits the bill. The 1977 Disney original, about a boy who escapes his abusive hillbilly parents to live with a dragon in the woods, was a flop in every regard – so much so that it’s widely forgotten as part of the Disney canon. This 2016 update instead makes Pete (Oakes Fegley) the victim of a car crash that kills his parents and strands him in the woods, where the dragon – which he names Elliot, from the dog in his favourite book – befriends and takes care of him. Pete’s not the only one who’s seen Elliot before: tales abound in nearby Millhaven of dragons that haunt the forest, and resident coot and spinner of tall tales, Meacham (Robert Redford), has always claimed to have seen one. He insists there was a feeling of magic when he met the titular beast. It was a feeling that snuck up on him, making him drop his rifle and simply stare in wonder, and a feeling that forever changed the way he looked at the whole world. It takes a while, but Pete’s Dragon slowly begins working that same magic on you, and the moment that you see Pete soar into the air astride his furry friend – both of them whooping, howling, exulting in the sheer joy of it – you’re as entranced as Meacham was.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Palpable Poetry: The Works of Pierre Coupey at the Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery

Pierre Coupey's After Rilke IV.

The piece below is an edited excerpt from his catalogue essay.

If seeing is believing, then surely two vibrant and dynamic works such as After Rilke III and After Rilke IV, intensify belief, occurring as they do in the almost operatic space where poetry becomes a palpable presence. They are among the few works by Pierre Coupey that have a literal or suggestive title, serving as a signpost to their destination. It’s not that they veer too closely to the programmatic, or offer a concrete story for the viewer to “read,” if only because they reference one of the most hermetic poets of the last century, but they do offer a tantalizing piece of spiritual bait for those of us who enjoy our mysteries served with a hint of metaphor. After all, Rilke is the keen-eyed observer who first interpreted the aesthetic purpose and historical importance of Cezanne when he remarked on that great painter’s work that, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.” And like the poet they reference, these two works, along with their companions, take us immediately to the place where they were made: the very edge of pictorial expression, where no one can go any further, as if arriving at a coast where the land itself disappears.

Although Coupey’s roots and sources derive from Montreal, his point of origin, his major work has been done in Vancouver and he could be considered a West Coast artist. Upon closer inspection, however, one sees that his work eschews any dualism of east and west, and moves from a “third coast” of the mind. There is after all, no east or west in dreams, and his paintings evoke the retinal charms of a certain optical abandon associated with the unconscious. Finally we can envisage a ticket to that ultimate foreign country which Rosalind Krauss identified as the optical unconscious, and which another poet, Wallace Stevens, evoked so magically in his poem “Of Mere Being,” in which he called upon us to imagine “the palm at the end of the mind beyond the last thought” and to listen carefully to the creatures that dwell there in that distance, singing in the palm a song without human meaning, a foreign song. That is what these paintings are singing, a song without words in a language of free-floating forms. All, or most, of this gifted senior painter’s works are untitled and identified numerically, and with good reason: on the third coast of the mind, and in the palm of the mind that makes such works, language pales by comparison to the outright clarity of declarative statements made by each piece. As the artist himself puts it: “The majority of the works in this show are titled Untitled and numbered –– to put the stress on just the bare facts of the paintings themselves: how they were made, what forces went into their desire to be clearly themselves. To relieve them of words, of these words. To let them be paint.” Letting them be paint is the essence of letting us see what we are seeing, just that and only that. Yet language still seductively tempts us to approach the works, with its paltry ammunition in hand, as a kind of talisman that refuses to help us grind the images down into literal, or literary, meaning. Instead they playfully unfold in that Rilkean danger zone of extremity while we adjust to their absolute flatness and utter absence of illusion. If anything, they are all about the meaning of meaning itself, not merely about one meaning or another from the menu available to the modernist canon. They are, perhaps, exactly the drastic measures our drastic
times require.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Deal with Art in The Art of the Deal: Funny or Die’s Donald Trump “Biopic”

Johnny Depp and Michaela Watkins in Funny or Die’s Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie.

Although one would be hard pressed to say Donald Trump is a stranger to popular media, February 10th 2016 brought the celebrity businessman a seemingly unprecedented level of attention. For starters, he had just won the New Hampshire Republican primary by a landslide, defeating rivals Kasich, Cruz, and Jeb Bush while simultaneously baffling reasonable people everywhere. To coincide with this momentous (and frankly kind of horrifying) occasion, Trump was in the headlines of digital media outlets for a second reason: he had been portrayed in a new biopic by no less than Johnny Depp himself. Collaborating with a team of famous faces, director Jeremy Konner (Drunk History) and writer Joe Randazzo (The Onion) bring the story of Trump’s humble beginnings to the small screen. Or so production company Funny or Die would have you believe. Unbeknownst to people born after the year 1987, Donald Trump once wrote a book. More accurately, I should say “Donald Trump” once “wrote” a “book.” While he denies it through his teeth nowadays his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, which sold well despite being largely bullshit in light of his numerous bankruptcies, was mostly (if not entirely) written by journalist Tony Schwartz—who describes the experience, in retrospect, as “put[ting] lipstick on a pig.” In Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, Funny or Die crafts an outlandish 50-minute satire, presenting it as a long-lost companion piece to Trump’s and Schwartz’s bestseller. (Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, formerly available for free on Funny or Die’s website, was exclusively launched on Netflix on August 1, 2016.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Issues: And No More Shall We Part and Wild

Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina in And No More Shall We Part. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In And No More Shall We Part, the final show at Williamstown’s Nikos Stage this summer, Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina play a married couple, Pam and Don, struggling with her decision to commit suicide after her treatment has failed to halt the progress of her cancer. She is resolute, while he is reluctant, but against his better judgment he’s agreed to help her. The play begins on the night she has earmarked as her last and flashes back to the day she first broached the subject with him; their most volatile argument on the topic; and the special last dinner he’s arranged for her, when he learns that – against his express wishes – she’s cancelled the invitation to their grown-up kids (fearing that including them might make them legally liable for aiding her in taking her own life).

Molina and especially Kaczmarek give measured, intelligent performances under Anne Kauffman’s direction, but the drama itself, by the Australian playwright Tom Holloway, is painfully banal and uninspired. I’m sure Holloway is sincere and has deep feelings about the material, but he’s got nothing to contribute to the subjects of assisted suicide and the trauma of bidding farewell to a loved one except warmed-over sentiments. The two actors’ best efforts don’t produce much more in the way of character than Pam’s steadfastness and exhaustion, Don’s terror of abandonment and tendency to mask the brutality of the truth; Holloway doesn’t even provide a sense of what their various relationships with their two children might be like, since the kids, offstage presences, are merely a device. (The play doesn’t bother to tell us how the kids responded to the news of their mother’s decision, or what it might have been like for them – or for Pam – to say their ultimate goodbyes.) Since it’s a realist play, these pretty obvious omissions are a little bizarre. Moreover, the placement of the flashbacks feels random. The single moment in the play that’s truly poignant, i.e., poignant because of the way it’s been created and not because of the subject matter, is one where, after Pam, having taken the pills, persuades Don to leave her alone in bed to drift off over a book, and he camps outside the closed bedroom with his hand caressing the door. (The idea is that he won’t re-enter until the morning, when he can report truthfully that he simply came in and found her dead.) At this point, however, Holloway cuts to the flashback of their last meal together, which undercuts the emotional effectiveness of the image of Molina with his hand on the door and seems to have no dramatic logic.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

MOR: Showtime's Roadies

The Showtime series Roadies is an ensemble comedy set amid the barely controlled chaos surrounding a tour by a successful, veteran stadium-rock group, the Staton-House Band. The series was created by Cameron Crowe, who directed the first three episodes and wrote the pilot, and it represents his return to conquered territory after a string of projects—the pretentiously vapid Vanilla Sky and the theoretically more audience-friendly Elizabethtown and Aloha—that bombed with critics and audiences alike. Although Roadies is set in the present day, its set-up and tender, hagiographic attitude towards rock and roll as a cultural force hearken back to Almost Famous (2000), Crowe’s semi-autobiographical ‘70s nostalgia trip about a 15-year-old rock journalist (played by Patrick Fugit, currently driving out demons on Cinemax’s Outcast) coming of age while on the road with a band called Stillwater.

In Almost Famous, the hero was mainly focused on the rock stars, and their groupies; this time, the central figures are those wonderful people working behind the scenes to make sure the fans get to see their musical heroes. But even if you’ve never seen a movie about the music business before, you’ll be familiar with these characters. Carla Gugino is Shelli, the perpetually over-worked production manager who’s always dashing from one crisis to the next, who’s just enough older than most of the people working under her for her sexy warmth and glowing smile to have a faint maternal tinge. The one-man fireworks display at the center of it all is the veteran tour manager Phil, a grinning, all-embracing bear of a man who dispenses advice and anecdotes in a way that tells you that he’s the spirit of the music incarnate. The “Blue Collar Comedian” Ron White has a firm handle on his character and has no trouble communicating Phil’s self-image and infectious love of his own bullshit, but Crowe doesn’t have much faith in the audience’s ability to figure anything out for itself, so White is required to growl, “When you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at rock and roll in America!” (He is, someone says, “being paid a lot of money to hug people and make them feel good about the old way.”)