Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bathed in Sorrow: Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea 

The classically framed images of the water that open Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, warmly captured by cinematographer Jody Lipes, set its leisurely pace. This is a domestic tragedy in the measured, escalating Eugene O’Neill mode, and like O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night and its fictive sequel, A Moon for the Misbegotten, its milieu is Irish-American New England. Lonergan, a playwright who turned filmmaker a decade and a half ago with You Can Count on Me, is aiming high, and though I don’t mean to suggest that he touches the heights of O’Neill’s great dramas, the movie is an impressive achievement – and a devastating one. The protagonist is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor in the Boston suburb of Quincy, who returns to his hometown, Manchester, on Boston’s north shore, when his brother Joe dies of the congestive heart failure with which he was diagnosed seven or eight years earlier. At the reading of the will, Lee is taken aback to find that, without consulting him, Joe has made him the guardian for Joe’s sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). (Joe’s alcoholic ex-wife, Elise, hasn’t been in her son’s life – since Patrick was a little boy.) Since Patrick is vehemently opposed to leaving school and friends to relocate to Boston, more than an hour away, the only alternative is for Lee to move back to the place he ran away from after an event that shattered his existence – and his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in Manchester.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Torpor: Pablo Larraín’s Jackie

Natalie Portman in Jackie

In his new film, Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem, No) thinks he's getting behind the aristocratic facade of the former First Lady to reveal a tragic portrait of a woman trapped by an illusion. But all he does is create new illusions that fly like lead balloons. Larraín imposes lethargy on the material that's so thick the characters can't carry the weight of the myths he loads on their backs. The audience is also put in such a state of complete torpor (thanks to all the formal melancholy that is doggedly off-base and off-key) that the movie would be laughable if you could rouse yourself from the funk it puts you in. Working from a calamitous script by Noah Oppenheim, which was originally conceived for an HBO mini-series, Larraín sets a funereal mood complete with an onerous chamber score by Mica Levi that drowns the picture in lugubriousness before you can begin to ask yourself why you should be bowing your head in mourning. Jackie is so relentlessly languid and ill-conceived that it would be a camp favourite if it didn't take itself so seriously.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

All Chaos on the Western Front: Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, was released in October 2016.

The Battlefield series of first-person shooters, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, has almost always been defined by its commitment to realism – or, if not realism, at least verisimilitude. DICE is well-known for making games with impeccable sound design, visual effects, and environmental detail, even if the quality of the gameplay – from the historical scenarios of the Battlefield series to a certain galaxy far, far away – can sometimes waver. Few developers pour as much effort into recreating a “true” wartime experience, which aims to wholly immerse you in the chaos, excitement, and horror of war. And few titles achieve this more completely than last year’s Battlefield 1.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Just Before Dawn: The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris performing at the concert staged in her honour in Washington, D.C. in January 2015. (Photo: Paul Morigi)

As last Friday's presidential inauguration approached, I was planning on writing here about Paul Anka’s rumoured appearance and his performance of the song “My Way”  selected because it’s Donald Trump’s favourite song. (Anka and Trump have been friends for many years.) It was reported that Anka was even going to change the lyrics to reflect the new President and I was curious about which ones he would change. The song starts with “And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain”; I was keen to hear Anka steer himself around that significant line. But the singer cancelled at the last minute, citing family business. Clearly, though, Anka's decision was less about scheduling than about reputation  and I don't blame him. In my opinion, it’s not exactly a good career move for any artist to associate himself with the new President, although Toby Keith would probably disagree with me. Nevertheless, I needed an antidote to Friday's disheartening ceremony and the messy days that lay ahead for the United States and the rest of the world. I found the cure in a recent release about one of country music’s most creative and original voices, Emmylou Harris. Originally a tribute concert featuring an all-star cast whose love and affection for Harris runs as deep as her musical roots, the album is called The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris and it was released last fall by Rounder.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Checkmate: Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe

Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe

Mira Nair's exultant Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of a 9-year-old slum girl, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), from Kampala, Uganda, who escapes her life of poverty by becoming a national chess champion in her teens, is a plucky tale of triumph  a rare inspirational film that doesn't sacrifice its dramatic integrity for easy sentiment. By letting the daily barbarity of slum life commingle with the bulging vibrancy that grows from a struggle to escape it, Nair brings forth an exuberance that's surprisingly nuanced and adds both uplift and credence to the tale of a young woman who seeks to live beyond her circumstances. Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie that doesn't spare you the hardships that come from also feeling despair and defeat. Collaborating with screenwriter William Wheeler (whose sharp instincts help prevent the story from ever dampening) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who, rather than imposing oppression on the characters, uses a strikingly colourful palette to boldly illuminate their strong need to survive it), Nair gets inside the tale of an unlikely girl who becomes a champion and depicts the various means by which she makes herself one. What Nair accomplishes with an intuitive flare is to show how chess becomes a mirror for Phiona into both herself and her environment so that she can learn to see beyond it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Candide at the NYC Opera

Linda Lavin in New York City Opera's new production of Candide. (Photo:Tina Fineberg)

There was much upset over the closing of New York City Opera in October 2013 when its last-ditch fundraising efforts failed. (Regrettably, it did not go out in a blaze of glory: its final production, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s contemporary opera Anna Nicole at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was fairly ridiculous.) But the company returned from the dead last week with an exuberant and often uproarious revival of Candide at Fredrick P. Rose Hall, as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. This is the third time Harold Prince has directed the Leonard Bernstein musical, with its Hugh Wheeler book (adapted, of course, from Voltaire’s classic satire) and its lyrics by a variety of distinguished writers: Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Bernstein himself. I caught Prince’s first attempt, in 1975, when Eugene and Franne Lee gutted the orchestra of the Broadway Theater to permit a free-roaming playing arena. It got great reviews but I thought the reconstructed space was more interesting than anything that was going on in it. The show was manically overstaged and terminally boisterous, and a production I saw in Stratford, Ontario a couple of years later emulated Prince’s error. Candide had bombed on Broadway in an extravagant (but more conventional) version in 1956, and after two bad experiences with it, I assumed it was unplayable – until Lonny Price staged a concert version that was televised on PBS in 2004. His Candide was scaled way down but visually inventive, and the light touch seemed to free the actors (Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone were in the cast), who performed as if they were guesting on Saturday Night Live.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Post-Revolutionary Aristocrat: Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ astonishing new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016), about a former aristocrat, now a Former Person, who spends over thirty years of house arrest living in the Metropol Hotel is sui generis, one unlike any other novel or memoir of the Stalinist era that I have ever encountered. Classic novels such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and the more recent The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell about the poet Osip Mandelstam, or the powerful memoirs, Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, or the superb Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag by Janusz Bardach, are chock-a-block with deprivation, terror, cold, hunger and the threat of death. By contrast, Gentleman is about a prisoner steeped in elegance and civility living in a bubble seemingly out of place and time.