Friday, November 2, 2018

All Work and No Play: Bohemian Rhapsody

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rock and roll has long seemed wedded to the movies despite the fact that film started a good 50 years before those percussive, jangling refrains entered the mainstream. But the immediacy, intimacy, and gigantism of that shimmering screen is so related to the feeling of excess engendered in rock and pop that it can seem like they have always been intertwined. (A movie like Rebel Without a Cause was so steeped in the youthful mythos of rock that it’s still surprising to realize it was released before rock existed as a mass phenomenon.) Thus it’s no surprise that the lives of rock gods and goddesses have served as fodder for numerous screenplays and treatments. The rock-and-roll biopic is a genre unto itself. The best of these pictures tend to hinge on who portrays the pop deity – if the actor is able to tear into both the myth and reality of their subject, the results can be spectacular, even if the movie itself is so-so. Jamie Foxx was terrific as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing turn as Johnny Cash, and to a lesser extent, Reese Witherspoon’s as June Carter Cash, still haunt me, and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline was a revelation. (Lange also had the great fortune to have Robert Getchell writing sharp, incisive dialogue for her.) Both Paul Dano and John Cusack broke my heart as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, and Beyoncé was mesmerizing as Etta James in the too little-seen Cadillac Records, to name just a few. Even if the movie is out-and-out terrible, a great star turn can make the experience worthwhile. It’s hard to see how Lady Sings the Blues could be much worse, just as it’s almost as hard to see how Diana Ross’s performance could be much better. (Go have the argument whether Lady is a jazz or blues biopic somewhere else: Ross’s performance is pure rock and roll.) But rock cinema is also riddled with great promise greatly denied: Dennis Quaid put all sorts of effort into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, but never really came to life. Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison was stillborn (perhaps due to director Oliver Stone’s apparent belief there’s no greater rock star than himself), and let’s not talk about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Ghosts of October (4): Whistle and I’ll Come To You

An illustration for “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” in M.R. James’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Over the past month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney has highlighted some of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction and film. See Parts 1, 2, and 3
here, here, and here.

“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (the title quotes a lyric from Robert Burns) was written in 1904 by M.R. James, whose ghost stories are as venerated a Christmas tradition in the UK as those of Dickens. James was a Cambridge University provost, librarian, and antiquarian, and his best work grew out of a passion for buried history, with aggressive spirits released from crypts and clods of earth by unwary scholar-diggers. In “Whistle,” a professor named Parkins vacations in a coastal town. At a colleague’s request, he examines a site where lodges of the Knights Templar are known to have stood, to see if the ground appears promising for archeology. While poking about in a nearby cemetery (similar to the one found in The Green Man; Kingsley Amis had read James), Parkins unearths “a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age.” He takes it with him – and perceives, as he walks along the beach toward his hotel, something seeming to follow him through the dusk: “the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance.” That night, in his room, he finds the tube to be a whistle, bearing a Latin inscription which translates as Who is this who is coming? He cleans out the whistle, and blows it. And something comes to him.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Shakespeare x 2: Measure for Measure and King Lear

Petr Rykov and Anna Khalilulina in Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure. (Photo:Johan Persson)

The collaboration by the English company Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre from Russia on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure runs for an uninterrupted hour and fifty minutes, and it holds the attention. That is, until the climactic scene where first Isabella and then the Duke of Vienna expose the sexual blackmail Angelo, the Duke’s surrogate during his (supposed) absence, has attempted on Isabella, the convent novice whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to execution for fornication, according to the antiquated law Angelo has elected to reactivate. All the actors are Russian, and two of them, Anna Vardevanian as Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev, are first-rate. Their two big scenes – the one in which Isabella pleads for her brother’s life and the one in which Angelo presses his sexual attentions on her – are mesmerizing.  Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan has chosen to stage the sexual extortion as a near-rape; he’s far from the first director to do so, and given the sexual politics of this era he certainly won’t be the last. But though the staging is extremely effective, it’s mostly the intensity and variety of the two performances that make both encounters so gripping. And the slimming down of Shakespeare’s text (which mostly affects the scenes built around the madam, Mistress Overdone, played by Elmira Mirel, and her associate Pompey, played by Alexey Rakhmanov) help to shape the production so that it leads inexorably to the centerpiece Angelo-Isabella scenes.