Saturday, July 15, 2017

Unstitched: Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled

Note: There are spoilers in this review.

In Don Siegel's 1971 Southern Gothic melodrama, The Beguiled, which is set in rural Mississippi in 1863, the middle of the American Civil War, an injured Union soldier named John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is rescued by 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a student at an all-girls' boarding school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). The headmistress is initially reluctant to board the wounded McBurney but she finally agrees to take him in until he heals, at which point she can turn him over to the Confederates. But during the time that he's convalescing, in a locked music room and consistently under watch, he begins to cultivate intimate relations with the young women in the house who have not previously experienced the presence of a man. They include the independent-minded but emotionally scarred schoolteacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and a sultry teenage student, Carol (Jo Ann Harris), who teases and flirts with McBurney. The soldier has also stirred feelings in Miss Farnsworth, who keeps her emotions locked up like her girls; it's implied that her stifled demeanor hides the incestuous relationship she once had with her late brother. McBurney spurns her sexual attentions while encouraging relations with Edwina and acting on his lust for Carol. When Edwina catches him in bed with Carol, her fury over his betrayal results in her knocking a pleading McBurney down the stairs and severely breaking his already wounded leg. In order to keep him alive, Miss Farnsworth instructs the girls to preparing him for the amputation of his broken limb, which draws the wrath of the desperate soldier towards the women who have taken him in.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Musicals Round-up Part II: New York

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes star in Bandstand. (Photo: Nathan Johnson)

This article contains reviews of Bandstand (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre), War Paint (Nederlander Theatre), and Pacific Overtures (Classic Stage Company).

Ben Platt’s Tony Award for his portrayal of the anxiety-ridden teen hero of Dear Evan Hansen was no surprise, and he deserves all the recognition he’s received. But the fact that Corey Cott didn’t even receive a nomination for Bandstand constitutes highway robbery. Cott played the Louis Jourdan role in the Broadway retread of Gigi two seasons ago, and he was so callow and insipid that the character barely made sense. But when you see him as Danny Novitski, Bandstand’s haunted hero, who returns from WW2 and puts together a jazz band made up of fellow vets – responding to a competition for the best song honoring the contributions of the military, the prize for which is an appearance in a new M-G-M musical – you can hardly believe it’s the same performer. He brings the role a late-forties, early-fifties-style hard-edged sensitivity – part Dana Andrews, part Frank Sinatra. He gets you by the throat and the heart in his first, self-defining number (called “Donny Novitski”) and you’re right there with him for the next two and a half hours.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Friendly Neighbourhood – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s title is pretty apt, considering it’s not only a high-school drama, but the return of Marvel’s primary poster boy to the warm embrace of their Cinematic Universe. Since Sam Raimi’s original run at the series, which culminated with 2007’s confused, schizophrenic Spider-Man 3, we’ve been subjected to attempted reboot films in 2012 and 2014 that failed to inspire either critical praise or box-office dollars. In more than just the comic-book sphere, Sony Pictures has been desperate for a hit, and everyone’s favourite wall-crawler just wasn’t cutting it. So – in a shocking display of foresight, creative integrity, and financial savvy – Sony execs inked a deal with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man to be recast and featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a first appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. As it stands now, the MCU is officially Spidey’s home, and Sony will take home all the profit from his appearances (save merchandising rights, which Marvel was smart to grab in the deal).

This works to our benefit as moviegoers in a few ways, not the least of which is that a beloved character is finally in the hands of creators who know what the hell to do with him. That Peter Parker (Tom Holland) will be allowed to participate in the ongoing shenanigans of the MCU is another plus, given that franchise’s monster success and its proven ability to deliver smart, emotionally driven superhero stories. With Civil War, Spidey already felt at home – and with Homecoming, he truly settles in.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Prog-Americana: Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes' new album, Crack-Up, was released on June 16th by Nonesuch Records. (Photo: Sean Pecknold)

Seattle’s Fleet Foxes have continued to nurture their own course in music without bucking to popular trends or the pressures of commercial necessity. Their new album, Crack-Up (Nonesuch), six years in the making and only their third full-length album, is a grand affair with sweeping musical dynamics and tales about Greek nymphs, personal doubt and the fragility of life. It was recorded in six different studios in six different cities in the United States and clocks in at 55 minutes. I mention these facts because Crack-Up is best heard in one sitting. It's symphonic-like in structure; most of the tracks segue from one to the other, joining the individual parts of the whole work. As with many of the prog-rock albums of the seventies, the music, tales and their structure suggest a concept album, but Fleet Foxes are known as contemporary folk band in most circles, so Crack-Up is a roots hybrid; grand in scope but without the spectacle and technical self-indulgence of progressive rock.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe"

Throughout the early sixties, tragic teen ballads – beguiling and haunting mini-operas cured in the melodrama of adolescent angst – dominated the charts. Most were extravagant tales of woe and heartbreak like The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," where the rejected biker/lover dies proudly on his wheels, while others included Frank J. Wilson's "Last Kiss," where Frank's girl dies not-so-proudly because of her boyfriend's faulty wheels. Other earlier sagas of loss were downright perverse. Mark Dinning's 1960 hit "Teen Angel" got the sixties off to a fiendishly grim start. His bizarre story concerns the singer's girlfriend, who gets leveled by a train after she rushes back to her stalled car to rescue her high school ring. (Perhaps today you'd have to substitute a cell phone for the prized jewelry.) And if "Teen Angel" weren't already more than enough, Johnny "Mr. Bass Man" Cymbal came along that same year with "The Water is Red," where the singer's girl gets torn apart by a shark while swimming at the beach. The boyfriend, with chivalry as his shield, bravely wades through the bloodied waters, not to just gather up her torn remains, but to take on (with his pocketknife, no less) this early relative of Jaws. By the jaded seventies, then, it was no surprise that Randy Newman parodied, with expert precision, this strangely popular genre in "Lucinda." Drawing from the slow blues style of Ray Charles, he tells us of a woman who accidentally gets chewed up by a beach-cleaning machine. Lying in the sand in her graduation gown with some boy she just met that night, Lucinda seems to have fallen asleep just as the mechanical contraption started chugging along. Her companion tries vainly to wake her up, but it's to no avail: Lucinda is doomed to lie under the sand. (Given her fate, and the style of the song, Newman may also be parodying murder blues ballads such as "Sleeping in the Ground.") Later in the decade, Warren Zevon went Newman's macabre tale one better with his hilarious satire "Excitable Boy," revisiting the song as if the narrator might be Ted Bundy (and he's backed with affirmative "ooh-wah-ooh's" by Linda Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes in the manner of gregarious high school cheerleaders ). 

If these tragic pop dramas of the past were always bathed in tears (linking them in a significant way to the romantic heartbreak heard in fifties doo-wop), there was one popular tragic song in the summer of 1967 that drew from different sources, avoiding melodrama altogether and casting a spell on listeners for decades. Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" was a quiet Southern Gothic ballad about suicide and other mundane matters of the day which get shared over the dinner table with the biscuits and peas. Where "Leader of the Pack," "Teen Angel" and "Last Kiss" could have been ripped from the headlines of city tabloids, "Ode to Billie Joe" was as cryptic and mysterious as an old Appalachian murder ballad. What made it even more curious was that the summer of 1967 was hardly a quiet one. Some were celebrating a Summer of Love with the Monterey Pop Festival, but in his book, The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus (in discussing "Ode to Billie Joe") reminds readers that a number of calamitous events were taking place that summer besides growing flowers in your hair and heading west. Fifty years ago today, the day after Gentry recorded her single, twenty-six black citizens were killed in protests in Newark, New Jersey. Detroit almost doubled that number two weeks later. Arthur Penn started a revolution in American movies with the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde, a picture about two Depression-era bank robbers that implicated us in the murders we watched on screen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Musicals Round-up Part I: Niagara-on-the-Lake and London

Kristi Frank and Michael Therriault in the Shaw Festival production of Me and My Girl. (Photo: David Cooper)

This article contains reviews of Me and My Girl (Shaw Festival), Dreamgirls (West End), and On the Town (Regent’s Park).

Michael Therriault is so thoroughly winning and energetic in Me and My Girl at the Shaw Festival that you feel he could carry the production on his back if he had to. The musical is built as a vehicle for the performer who plays Bill Snibson, the Lambeth Cockney who discovers he has inherited an earl’s title and is expected to relocate to Mayfair, and the diminutive Therriault, with his pop-eyed charm and apparently elastic body, claims squatter’s rights to every scene he’s in. Therriault is a well-known Canadian musical-theatre actor (he played Gollum in the musical of Lord of the Rings both in Toronto and in the West End), but the only time I’d seen him before this summer was in Studio 180’s production (in Toronto) of Parade, as the Jewish factory owner Leo Frank, framed for the rape and murder of one of his employees in pre-World War One Atlanta. He was superb, but the role was so downbeat that I didn’t immediately make the connection to the song-and-dance man who plays the lovable, insouciant Bill. Therriault’s peculiar gift is for balancing charisma with modesty – like Dick Van Dyke, though his musical-comedy gifts are more extensive than Van Dyke’s and he’s more believable as a Cockney than Van Dyke was in Mary Poppins.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Changing the Narrative in Canadian History: Three Recent Canadian Studies

The Scream by Kent Monkman. (2017, Acrylic on Canvas)

If you are a Canadian, you will undoubtedly know that Aboriginals have not joined in the joyful acknowledgement of Canada’s sesquicentennial. Several native men and women have articulated that this occasion that celebrates Confederation, itself a product of a colonial mentality, is shameful because the framers regarded Aboriginals with contempt. One commentator argued that the Canadian historical narrative had to change. On the evidence of two of the books under review – Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (University of Toronto Press, 2017) by Peter H. Russell and The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016) by Charlotte Gray – the narrative about the relationship between the British and later Canadian governments and the Aboriginal peoples is changing. Russell (full disclosure: I personally know this distinguished political scientist) fully understands Aboriginal disenchantment with the 1867 Constitution Act – it offered them nothing – and based on the evidence in The Promise I suspect that Gray would also appreciate their refusal to participate in this event. Although Tim Cook’s Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Allen Lane, 2017) does not address the Aboriginal issue, he does challenge a dominant narrative about Canadian identity that has emerged since the celebration of the country’s centennial in 1967.