Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Forest of Memory: The Provocative Art of Dana Claxton

Cultural Belongings by Dana Claxton, LED Firebox, 2016.

I'm influenced by my own experience as a Lakota woman, as a Canadian, a mixed blood Canadian, and then my own relationship to the natural and supernatural world. Taking that whole bundle of experiences, it all goes in to the artwork, I think that's where the multi-layering comes in, because I've had a very multi-layered life.
– Dana Claxton, 2007

As a person of mixed heritage, Dana Claxton is practically a living mirror of the nation superimposed over the existing nations that were already here in the first place, especially her own uniquely personal family history of indigenous displacement and migration. As such, perhaps her fascination with the hybrid nature of parallel realities comes to her almost as a genealogical birthright. This fact certainly helps to clarify our deep appreciation of her as someone existing at the heart of intersecting forces and the crux of competing cultures, and maybe it explains why she’s such an effective ambassador between seemingly disparate dimensions.

So when she picked up her first camera at the age of sixteen and began to view the world around her, it now seems only natural that she should try to bring into focus the many layers that formed her own character. Born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and raised in Moose Jaw, Claxton is descended on her mother’s side from Kangi Tamaheca and Anpetu Wastewin, who were among the large group of Hunkpapa Lakota who followed Sitting Bull as he walked from the United States to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Sentimental Journeys: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Burn This, Doris Day

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Photo: Deen van Meer)

I’ve been skipping productions of Terrence McNally’s two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune for decades – I didn’t see Kathy Bates with F. Murray Abraham or with Kenneth Welsh in the off-Broadway version in 1987, or Edie Falco with Stanley Tucci in the last revival, in 2002 – but I opted to see the latest one, on Broadway, with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. It’s a lousy play, an American variation on an English kitchen-sink drama that begins with a pair of lovers in bed naked, having sex, and then takes a couple of hours to show them opening up to each other in other ways. The (stock) idea is that they’re both desperately lonely but he’s willing to acknowledge it and she isn’t, and, attempting to persuade her that she should see him as more than a one-night stand, he’s got his work cut out for him because emotionally she’s closed down. It’s an unconventional courtship drama with the same basic structure as Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly (1980), which takes a far more inventive approach to the man’s effort to win over the cautious, distanced woman – and which has far more interesting characters. Talley’s Folly is a comedy with serious undertones; Frankie and Johnny tries for loopy romanticism but ends up glum and monochromatic, though with a sentimental ending.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Museum Must Be Decolonized: The First Monday in May (2016)

A shot from The First Monday in May (2016).

The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dust Bowl: Oklahoma!

 Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma!. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which has moved from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, is being hailed as brilliant and revolutionary, much like the original 1943 version, even though that didn’t do anything that the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Show Boat (or for that matter, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey), hadn’t done before and better.

Revolutionary? Let’s start at the end: in this Oklahoma!, after the cast has sung the title song, our heroes, the bronco-buster Curly (played by Damon Daunno, so slight he looks like he’d split in two if he ever sat astride a horse) and Laurey (a very angry Rebecca Naomi Jones) are dressed in white for their wedding, when Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) crashes in and offers Curly a gift, conditional upon his getting to kiss the bride. Jud and Laurey French-kiss, despite Jud's having previously tried to rape her and threatened her and her family. Curly opens the gift, and it’s a gun (not the booby-trapped “Little Wonder” traditional to stodgy stagings of yore). Jud then stands about ten feet in front of Curley and spreads his arms. Curly shoots him. Curly’s gun is rigged so that Curly (yes, Curly) is spattered with copious amounts of blood, his face crimson and dripping, his white (modern-dress) cowboy suit now mostly red, with a significant portion of blood spattering his bride. Jud is still standing. The rest of the eleven-person cast, who have been sitting around in chairs watching this, intone the next four or five minutes of dialogue with no affect. “Is he dead? He looks dead.” (Uh, he’s still standing, so no, he isn’t dead.) After too much of this, Judd goes upstage and lies down on the floor. Aunt Eller (the redoubtable Mary Testa) then bullies the local marshal and judge into a kangaroo-court trial that finds Curly innocent by reason of self-defense; the ensemble reprises the title tune; and as they sing of the grandness of the land they belong to and the new union they hope to join, Laurey sobs in sorrow, others writhe in misery, some stomp in anger, and Curly plays the guitar in his blood-stained clothes. All is corrupt, all is unclean, all is rot.

Wait, what?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Tootsie: In Name Only

 Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, John Behlmann in Tootsie. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new musical of Tootsie, with a book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has “smash hit” written all over it. It’s slick and rapid-fire. The veteran director, Scott Ellis (who’s also represented on Broadway this season by the revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Studio 54), and his expert cast build the farce perfectly, so that the more complications that are piled on top of the premise – actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), whose temperament has made it impossible for his agent (Michael McGrath) to land him jobs, finally gets one by presenting himself as a woman, Dorothy Michaels – the funnier it is. Rather than set the story in the period in which the movie was made, the early eighties, Horn has contemporized it. There are #MeToo jokes – Michael’s wry aspiring-playwright roommate Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) quips that in an era when women are literally seizing power from between the legs of men, Michael is risking infuriating everyone by pretending to be female. There are jokes about sexual fluidity – when Michael, forgetting momentarily that he’s in drag, kisses his co-star, Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), whom he’s fallen for, instead of scaring her off since she’s not gay, she likes him so much that she decides to try to be gay. It’s all very up to the minute, and the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended screamed with laughter. I would be dishonest if I said that I didn’t have a pretty good time, too. But I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell this Tootsie is about.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Permanent Witness for the Defense: The Legend of K.

The ultimate anti-author, ca. 1919.

A review of the new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial, from Norton, Penguin/Random House.

“A book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.” – Kafka, 1904

“Where faith is lacking, everything seems bare and frigid.” – Max Brod, 1920
If the subtitle of the fascinating new book by Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial (from Norton, Penguin/Random House), about competing cultural agendas sounds like the name of a mystery novel about Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous defense attorney, that’s because it does almost read like a classic Perry Mason plot: “The Case of a Literary Legacy.” And indeed, there are even some characters in this real-life story of courtroom drama who feel like the erstwhile Mason, Hamilton Burger, Lt. Tragg, Paul Drake and even Della Street. There are detectives, combative litigants, accusations of false ownership, desperate pleas, outlandish nationalist claims, ill-advised decisions, questionable motives and selfish assumptions abounding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From the Musical Theatre Canon: The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate and Lady in the Dark

Ellie Fishman and Edward Watts in The Music Man. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man became a classic as soon as it opened on Broadway in 1957, with Robert Preston in the role of “Professor” Harold Hill, the scamming salesman who transforms a pre-World War I Iowa town – and himself – in the course of persuading the locals to purchase instruments and uniforms for a children’s band. Willson, who wrote book, music and lyrics, did as much to develop the archetype of the American snake-oil salesman as Eugene O’Neill had in The Iceman Cometh, though his version was sweeter and came with a bona fide happy ending. (Preston recreated his career performance in the 1962 movie version.) Revivals of the show are generally good news: Susan Stroman’s opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran for two years, and it was so glorious that I saw it twice, once with Craig Bierko playing Hill and once with Robert Sean Leonard, who was even better than Bierko. (Eric McCormack played the role between Bierko and Leonard.) I’m looking forward to seeing Hugh Jackman in the part next season.

In the meantime there’s an exuberant new production at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Jenn Thompson and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, with Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty doing his usual yeoman service as musical director. The Music Man is the ideal show for Goodspeed – big-boned, spirited, infectious, with a lot of wonderful ensemble numbers that show off the way imaginative staging can make a limited space feel like it’s being expanded from the inside. The choreographic high points of this production are “Marian the Librarian” in act one and “Shipoopi” at the outset of act two. But even the staging of the barbershop quartet numbers, especially “Lida Rose,” counterpointed by “Will I Ever Tell You?,” the most tuneful ballad Willson wrote for Marian (Ellie Fishman) and introduced by the four men (Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner and Kent Overshown) strolling down the theatre aisle, is tremendously satisfying. The show moves from scene to scene in a graceful arc aided by the scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, whose inventions compensate for his single mistake, an unfortunate (and anachronistic) painted backdrop more or less in the mold of the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Art Therapy: Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever in Welcome to Marwen.

The almost universal disdain with which Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen was met on its Christmas release aroused my curiosity, but by the time I had a chance to check it out it had vanished. There had been no press screenings and though it was award season, no screeners were sent out. One might have thought that Zemeckis’s name or that of Steve Carell, who plays the lead, would have rescued it from its ignominious demise, but I had to wait until it came out on Amazon Prime to catch up with it. And it turns out to be so good that the stench around it seems like a bad joke. It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp, who was attacked in 2000 by five men at a bar in his hometown in northern New York and abandoned for dead; he survived, but his memory was wiped and he had severe PTSD. His strategy for dealing with it was to construct a doll village on his property that he called Marwencol in which the characters, mostly versions of Mark and women friends from his life after the attack, are reimagined as Allied warriors of the Second World War holed up in a village in Belgium. Hogancamp became known for his photos of Marwencol – and they provided him with a livelihood. The story is familiar to art-house mavens from Jeff Malmberg’s memorable 2010 documentary Marwencol. What Zemeckis brings to it is real directorial finesse and invention – not to mention Carell, in a sensational performance that’s the best thing he’s done thus far.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Dialectics False and True: Captive State and A. I. Rising

John Goodman and Ashton Sanders in Captive State (2019).

Look, some films are just garbage; that’s just a fact. But sometimes when you go dumpster diving you find something that, when looked at from just the right angle, isn’t so much garbage after all.

Captive State (2019) is ambitious and has no lack of “the vision thing.” Writers Rupert Wyatt (who directed) and Erica Beeney attempt to portray a Chicago succumbed to alien colonization by telling the story of Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) and the morally murky father figure he doesn’t want at all, collaborationist Detective William Mulligan (John Goodman), embedding them within a larger plot about an insurgent cell bent on hitting the aliens where it hurts. But – here’s the thing – the audience identification is whipped around from Gabriel, who’s the actual non-collaborationist here, to Mulligan, who’s the hinge of both plots, and back, once Mulligan starts to shake down Gabriel’s apartment building to look for him.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sound and Fury: King Lear

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Of the thirteen or fourteen professional productions of King Lear I’ve sat through, the current Broadway revival, directed by Sam Gold and starring Glenda Jackson, repeating her London comeback performance in the title role, is the worst. It grinds on for a grueling three hours and thirty minutes without, as far as I could tell, any concept to unify it. Gold has given it a contemporary setting. The handsome set (by the gifted British designer Miriam Buether, whose recent credits include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle and Three Tall Women) is black and gold, with a long banquet table midway up the stage that is meant to evoke the regal elegance of the various castles – Lear’s, Albany’s, Gloucester’s – where much of the play takes place, especially in the first half. Much of the time the actors, including those who are not called on for the scene at hand, sit at the table or, more often, on chairs around the periphery of the stage; this is certainly the most static Lear of my theatergoing experience. Gold hasn’t shown much talent for staging in the past, and with twenty actors on the stage he’s truly at sea. He lets them meander or shoves them into corners of the stage; in the opening scene, where almost everyone in the ensemble gathers to witness Lear’s division of his kingdom among his three daughters, the presence of a signer (Michael Arden) cues us that one of the actors is deaf but because he has almost no lines in the scene and he’s been placed in the middle of a clump of actors, I couldn’t tell which one until several scenes later. (It turns out to be Russell Harvard, playing the Duke of Cornwall.) When Lear wanders out into the storm, an abstract gold backdrop flies in. Since there are exterior scenes in the latter half of the play, after the backdrop has flown back out again, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the shift beyond framing the heath and hovel scenes – and since, confusingly, this section of the play includes one exchange that takes place inside Gloucester’s castle, even that idea isn’t followed through.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Interpretation of Dreams: On the Beach at Night Alone

Kim Min-hee in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017).

There seems to a a trend of metafiction in South Korean arthouse. Before Burning (2018) there was On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja / 밤의 해변에서 혼자, 2017), by Hong Sang-soo and starring his real-life mistress (now partner) Kim Min-hee as Young-hee, a former mistress of a great Director (Moon Sung-keun). It’s also a slow burn, with the central affair merely hinted at for most of its running time. But Kim gets two stupendous set-pieces, all facilitated by alcohol, and she burns it all down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Real Tesla: How Visionary Eccentrics Transformed Our World and Why We Need Them to Do It Again, Please

Nikola Tesla’s lab in Colorado Springs, calmly making environmental electricity in 1901.

Review of the new book by Richard Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, released Fall 2018 by Norton, Penguin/Random House. 

Nikola Tesla could have been elected President of The Outsiders Club, if such a thing existed. One of the most gifted and strange individuals who ever lived, his inventions transformed our world and his visions have continued to inspire other great minds for generations. I guess given that is an affirmative review of a serious and important book about a grand thinker, I shouldn’t really start out with the crucial disclaimer that: This is about the real Tesla. This has nothing to do with that twerp Elon Musk who stole his name to brand his company, after more or less stealing the core notions of an electric automobile that Nikola had conceived ages ago, but to whom no one paid any attention. What the hell, there, I said it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Us: Cheap Stuff

Lupita Nyong'o, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele's Us.

The first few minutes of Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, before the opening credits are spooky and unnerving. A little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her family on the beach in Santa Cruz; she’s drawn into a fun house where she sees her mirror image – only the twin is facing the other away. This Magritte-like image is startling; it’s also the best thing in the movie by far. As soon as Peele catapults us some three decades into the future, where grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is back in Santa Cruz vacationing with her own husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph), and the home they’ve rented is invaded by malevolent, scissors-wielding replicas of themselves, Us sinks to that lowest common denominator of horror devices, a series of jump scares.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jack of All Fates, Master of None: Mr. Nobody Ten Years On

Jared Leto and Diane Kruger in Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009).

There’s nothing in the world more terrifying than a restaurant menu. I stick to a handful of oft-frequented establishments precisely to avoid the vertigo of too many options. It’s not that I’m afraid of ordering the wrong thing – just the opposite: Everything looks so equally good that I can’t pin down a standard against which to differentiate them. I often joke to new friends sitting across the table in exasperation that menus open up an existential abyss within me, forcing me to reconsider the very ideas of “choice” and “value.” I used to think that knowing what every dish tasted like would help me make a decision. Then I saw Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation a decade ago this September.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Mustang: Soothing the Savage Spirit

Matthias Schoenaerts in The Mustang.

The first images of The Mustang, of a herd of wild mustangs racing vainly across a western expanse while choppers buzzing overhead round them up and vans cut off their escape route, is reminiscent of scenes from the great 1953 Albert Lamorisse short White Mane. It’s a hell of an opening: majestic and unsettling in equal parts. And it lays the groundwork for the story, which juxtaposes one of these magnificent wild creatures, a restless, apparently unbreakable horse named Marquis (pronounced “Marcus”), with a violent criminal named Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel Oak in the 2015 remake of Far from the Madding Crowd) who’s just been released into the general prison population at the Northern Nevada Correctional Institute after years in solitary. In his session with the prison psychologist (Connie Britton), Roman refuses to answer her questions; he looks like he’s about to implode, and he very nearly does – though she’s a veteran, firm and fearless, so his resistance to her doesn’t impress her. (Britton only has two scenes in the movie, but she makes the most of them.) Finally he gets out “I’m not good with people,” so she assigns him to outdoor work. Where he ends up is the Wild Horse Inmate Program, whose director, Myles (Bruce Dern), with the help of an inmate handler named Henry (Jason Mitchell), teaches prisoners to tame mustangs so they’re fit to be auctioned off for a variety of purposes, including border patrol. The Mustang is about how Roman and Marquis, in effect, tame each other – after a very shaky start. Roman gets so exasperated with the horse’s reluctance to let himself be subdued that, in an astounding scene, he beats him with his fists until Myles has him dragged off. Myles, not surprisingly, proclaims that he never wants to see this inmate again, but Roman manages to redeem himself in an emergency and is re-enlisted in the program.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Art of Interviewing Artists: John Grande’s Art, Space, Ecology

Published by Black Rose Books, 2019.

“There is no such thing as seeing any object or event without the act of seeing being affected both by cultural context and by the personal life experiences of the individual viewer. Every formulation of what an image means or contains is going to be culturally inflected, not just once but twice. First at its source. Then at the point where it is received.” – Edward Lucie-Smith
I first personally encountered the astutely incisive work of John Grande, apart from knowing of his extensive and impressive history as a critic and curator, when I interviewed him at CJRT-FM Radio in Toronto when I was the resident art critic there. It was about 1994, and we engaged in an informative and illuminating discussion about his then-new book Balance: Art and Nature. On the surface, it was about what had commonly come to be called ecological art, often either in large scale sculptural installations in a natural setting or else visually referring to nature and its collision with our cultures. Beyond eco-crisis however, it was also a celebration of art as embodied meaning: a haptic experience involving both human touch and intellect in harmony with each other.

I call it a discussion because though ostensibly in the traditional radio format of questions and answers designed to elicit background on the author and art which could both challenge and entertain the listener with only our words to guide them forward, towards the writing and images it celebrated, it was more. True, it was an interview, but it was also a dialogue, a conversation, an exchange of both energy and ideas, and even a linguistic map capable of achieving what the classical Greeks called ekphrasis: the evocation of the visual experience using language as a device to elucidate understanding of how a certain art work feels. Art is designed to alter our perception of the reality in which we find it, and some critics can clarify that alteration.

Therefore it was with a combination of professional and personal pleasure (twenty five years after I first interviewed him) that I came upon Grande’s newest book and found in it a range of his own insightful interviews with twenty important contemporary artists about the origins and intentions of their work. The title of Art Space Ecology: Two Views/Twenty Interviews, tends to capture some of its context and content in an ideal manner. The two views are, first and foremost, the perceptual and conceptual frameworks brought to bear by an encounter between a great artist and a great critic, and secondly, the new territory opened up between their relative positions and perspectives. This is top-shelf ekphrasis in action, folks.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense: Slapstick Trio

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I fell for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels when I was twelve or thirteen and a friend who’d succumbed before me passed one onto me. I believe it was Right Ho, Jeeves (published in the U.S. as Brinkley Manor), and I was thoroughly smitten – by the sublimely ridiculous plotting, the cast of caricatures, the distinctive language of the upper-class and upper-middle-class eccentrics, and above all the relationship between Bertie Wooster, the fumbling, cracked-brain young protagonist and his unflappable, endlessly resourceful valet Jeeves. Around the same time I discovered that Wodehouse and Guy Bolton had written the books for a series of Jerome Kern musicals in the late teens and the twenties – the ones that preceded Kern’s ground-breaking collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat – and he became one of my literary heroes.

Robert and David Goodale cottoned onto the Jeeves books (there are eleven, in addition to several collections of short stories) in their twenties and Robert fashioned two of them into one-man shows, the second directed by David. Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, their third adaptation, which Hartford Stage is producing currently, is a three-hander in which Bertie (played by Chandler Williams) relates the story of The Code of the Woosters, the sequel to Right Ho, Jeeves, acting it out with the aid of Jeeves (Arnie Burton) and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s manservant Seppings (Eddie Korbich). The conceit of the play, which has been staged by Sean Foley, is that Jeeves provides the theatrical appendages, like a set that either he or Seppings rotates with the aid of a bicycle, while the two men between them play all the other roles. That is, Perfect Nonsense is a play in the mold of the fantastically successful 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps, where the audience watch the actors shifting madly from one role to another with not only comic pleasure but also the appreciation we’d accord a magician’s sleight of hand or an acrobat’s dexterity.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Breaking Down Conceptual Binaries: Maborosi (1995)

Makiko Esumi in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光, 1995).

Grief is a many-faceted thing. I’ve often felt that mainstream portrayals treat it like an illness to be gotten over, rather than what it really is: a new state of being. It becomes an indelible part of one’s life, not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, just another thing. (The explosion of the good/bad experience binary is one of the groundbreaking aspects of Inside Out [2015].) This is one of my biggest issues with First Man (2018) and, in retrospect, Manchester by the Sea (2016). Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari / 幻の光, 1995), the Ozu-tinged fiction feature debut of current art-house darling Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a detailed and deeply empathetic portrayal of one woman carried along by the passage of time, bringing her grief with her.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Musical Evenings: I Married an Angel, Choir Boy, Spamilton

Sara Mearns and Mark Evans in I Married an Angel. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I Married an Angel is the sixth musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to be revived by Encores! The original production opened on Broadway in 1938 at the midpoint of an amazing string of hit R&H shows between 1935 and 1942 that came on the heels of their half-decade at M-G-M: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms and I’d Rather Be Right preceded it and The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls, Pal Joey and By Jupiter followed it. (Only Higher and Higher, in 1940, was a disappointment at the box office.) I Married an Angel had initially been planned for M-G-M, an adaptation of a Janos Vaszary farce about the union of a man and a (literal) angel. (This was the era when Hungarian plays found a home in Hollywood, and some of them, like William Wyler’s The Good Fairy and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, were wonderful.) Jeanette MacDonald, who had just had a success with Love Me Tonight , with its ebullient R&H score, was set to play the earthbound angel. But the project was abandoned, and by the time they resurrected it for Broadway they had taken on a new collaborator, George Balanchine, who’d staged the dances – and ballets – for both On Your Toes and Babes in Arms. So the role of Angel was reconceived for a dancer, Vera Zorina, whom Balanchine himself married during the New Year’s Eve performance.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Dream Teller: Why Brian Wilson Might Be Our George Gershwin

Brian Wilson, 1966, the fragile reason why The Beach Boys matter.

Brian fought hard against the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.
– Lindsey Buckingham (ex-Fleetwood Mac, and hugely influenced by Wilson)
And that, my friends, as Lindsey Buckingham so eloquently described it, is exactly why The Beach Boys matter, and why I’m delighted to find a valid excuse, in the form of Tom Smucker’s concise new book on their cultural role (Why The Beach Boys Matter, from University of Texas Press), to wax rhapsodic on their true stature as serious artists concealed under the shiny veneer of pop music transience. Let me be even more blunt right upfront: The Beach Boys matter because of their founder and resident singer-songwriting genius Brian Wilson, and Brian Wilson matters because he is Brian Wilson, and he has also survived being Brian Wilson.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Neglected Gem: Enchanted April (1992)

Josie Lawrence and Joan Plowright in Enchanted April.

During World War II, two middle-aged women, fed up with their dreary marriages, answer an ad to rent a castle in the Italian countryside for a month; their lives – as well as the lives of two strangers who agree to share the rent – are magically altered. That’s the premise of Enchanted April. There have now been enough comedies of this forest-of-Arden variety to call it a genre – I Know Where I’m Going and Local Hero and High Season and, in a way, May Fools and Where the Heart Is (where the magic setting is a fantastical vision of New York). I’m not sure why, but this is one sort of movie that almost always seems to work: I loved all of those earlier pictures, and Enchanted April is a charmer. (The exception, ironically, is the 1935 movie version of the same material, a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim). Part of the charm lies in the fact that it’s as different from the other movies as they are from each other. The screenwriter, English playwright Peter Barnes, has a quirky turn of phrase, and he keeps throwing in twists and devices (like voice-overs transcribing the characters’ thoughts) that you didn’t anticipate – and often, as in the case of the voice-overs, that you would likely have predicted, wrongly, wouldn’t work. The film isn’t fluid or polished; it skips around a bit, as if the director, Mike Newell, were feeling his way through it. This tentativeness enhances a viewer’s enjoyment; you experience the movie as a series of delightful small discoveries.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life

Robert Pattinson in High Life.
Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death-row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, "Can human life be created in space?" The answer is always no, because of irradiation – almost always.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sea Wall/A Life: Putting It Together

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sea Wall/A Life. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sea Wall and A Life are a pair of monologues, each about forty-five minutes in length, that form a double bill currently at the Public Theatre. The first, written by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), features the English actor Tom Sturridge as Alex, a photographer who loses his eight-year-old daughter Lucy during a family visits to father-in-law’s oceanside summer home in France. The second, written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, links the deterioration and death of the father of the protagonist, Abe, to the birth of his child. Clearly a strenuous set of workouts for the two actors, they’re also an emotional endurance test for the audience. That they combine to form a satisfying evening in the theatre is less a result of the themes they have in common (loss and grief, the relationship between a parent and a child) than of the ways in which they contrast each other. (An incidental commonality between the two halves of the double bill: both reference the TV show ER.) One is set in Europe, the other – in this production, at least – in America; one is a spare single story, the other a cross-hatching of two stories; one is a portrait of the walking wounded, the other the attempt of a man to find meaning by connecting the two essential narratives of his adult life. So although A Life inevitably echoes Sea Wall, their distinctness from each other suggests the hugeness and variety of the experiences of death and of parenthood.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Rise of the Videogame Aesthetic in Cinema

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity (2019).

This piece contains spoilers for Serenity and Aquaman.

When critics first saw Serenity (2019) they lost their minds. Charles Bramesco of The Guardian calls it a “zeppelin crash of a film”; and it broke Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, who wrote a conceptual review that sees it as a career rest stop for lead Matthew McConaughey. Everyone seems to agree that the acting is clichéd, the dialogue stilted, the style overwrought to the point of camp, and the camerawork just plain weird.

But as a counterpoint, I submit for your consideration the idea that writer-director Steven Knight is not introducing us to a guy named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who, asked by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) to kill her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke), suddenly discovers that – spoiler! – he’s a character in a video game. Knight presents us with a video-game world called Plymouth Island whose player-avatar, Baker Dill, discovers the central game plot among the various mini-games.

The difference is subtle but important. If you viewed the movie as the former you invite a traditional critique, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a high-level goof, a collection of clichés assembled as a meta-movie.” But view it first and foremost from the perspective of a video-game aesthetic and Serenity starts to make sense.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bruno and his Friend, the Future: The Collected Stories

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1922.

Review of Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz, a new translation by Madeline Levine, released by Northwestern University Press.

Schulz (1892-1942) had very few friends. The future was one of them.

I suppose I first encountered the brilliant, mesmerizing, disturbing and delightful writing of the Polish genius Bruno Schulz on the installment plan. First, sometime as a teenager in the '60s while also bumping into the similarly magical writing of his contemporary and Czech counterpart Franz Kafka; second, by coming upon a 1977 article by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times; third, by finding a dusty old bilingual English-Polish copy of two of his most famous collections, The Street of  Crocodiles (1934) and the fantastically titled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1935) in a used bookstore in about 1980; fourth, by watching a strange little 21-minute stop-action animated film by the Brothers Quay, loosely based on the aura and mood of Street of Crocodiles, in 1986; and fifth, when this new translation by Madeline Levine of his collected fiction was released late last year by Northwestern University Press.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 & 2)

Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker, and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

I grew up reading Harry Potter. I can still remember the seismic event that was each new book release. When I demonstrated textual analysis to my students, it was my go-to source text for impromptu examples. So imagine how utterly disappointed I was when reading the text of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and realizing that it is, in fact, bad: sentimental, blunt, and (ironically) unrealistic. And diehard Potterheads hate it for breaking with canon at seemingly every turn. I asked a friend who had seen the show in London whether it fares better on stage, and (there was still hope!) she said it does.

Having finally seen it on Broadway, I can say with certainty that the story is still bad, even though the jokes land better. And yet, I still recommend it, because its presentation of magic is a capital “s” Spectacle.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Another Time, Another Planet: Detroit ‘67

Johnny Ramey and Myxolydia Tyler in Detroit '67. (Photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Detroit ’67 (at Hartford Stage) is part of Dominique Morriseau’s ambitious trilogy about African American life in Detroit; the others, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew, are about, respectively, the jazz scene in the post-war years and the decimation of the auto industry after the economic breakdown of 2008. Detroit ’67, of course, depicts the city at its nadir, during the riots and the police violence that reinforced the racial line and shocked the nation. Morrisseau’s instinct for dramatic material is unerring, but having seen productions of all three plays, I have to say that only one, Skeleton Crew, works. She doesn’t have any feeling for either of the two historical periods she’s chosen for the other two: the characters are two-dimensional and you don’t believe in them as representatives of their eras. The muumuus that the costume designer, Dede M. Ayite, has put on one of the two women in the cast, Nyahale Allie, her Afro wig and the Motown soundtrack tell us this is supposed to be 1967, but I didn’t buy it for a moment.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Green Book – Racism: Solved?

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.

Green Book (2018) – directed by Peter Farrelly; written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the main character) based on his father’s letters and tape recordings and an interview with the other main character; shot by Sean Porter; edited by Patrick J. Don Vito; and with music by Kris Bowers – is a tonal, cinematographic, acting, and musical achievement, and a thematic disaster. It's based on the true story of Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) driving Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to performances of his musical trio through the Deep South in 1962 by relying on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guide to the spaces and hours that are safe for a black person to be at. The film features an entirely conventional and by-the-numbers mismatched-buddies road-movie plot that’s revitalized by the two leads’ performances. Mortensen plays Vallelonga as the trashiest kind-hearted Italian man in the Bronx, while Ali’s Shirley is the epitome of tortured dignity and class. But the writing navigates deliberately into a racial minefield, careful to step on every single mine it can find.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Shifting Gears: Private Philanthropy Versus Public Sponsorship in the Arts

The proposed new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

“We used to build temples, but museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life.” – Alain De Botton
Even if a new gallery building design is elegant, aesthetically pleasing and curatorially sound, as the new former Vancouver Art Gallery conceived by Herzog & de Meuron definitely is, unless there is ample cash in the coffers it will never see shovels in the ground, remaining an abstraction or a pipe dream. The only question that remained for the VAG building, soon to be officially renamed The Chan Centre for the Visual Arts once it's in its new location site, was exactly whose coffers the cash came from. Now we know, and the answer is an enhanced relationship between the private and public sectors way too long in the formation, at least in my considered opinion. One important detail to clarify in this whole expansion and patronage support process: the building itself will have a new name, but the gallery inside will still retain its historical identity and name.  The Vancouver Art Gallery will be housed within the Chan Centre.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Call Me Madam: Turn Up the Brio

Jason Gotay and Carmen Cusack in Call Me Madam. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

When Irving Berlin’s musicals entered the realm of political comedy, he and his collaborators tended to keep the mood light; Face the Music (1932), Louisiana Purchase (1940) and Call Me Madam (1950) are more on the order of spoofs than satires. All three boast delightful scores, so it isn’t surprising that Encores! has produced all three – and, fortunately for us, released cast recordings of them. Its current season began the weekend before last with a revival of its 1995 revival of Call Me Madam, marking only the second time the series has remounted a show. Typically, Encores! has met the musical and choreographic demands of the material. Under the expert musical direction of Rob Berman, a veteran of more than thirty of these productions, the orchestra plays exuberantly and the vocal performances are generally as satisfying as comfort food prepared with a loving hand. That’s equally true of the dance numbers, staged adroitly by Denis Jones, who makes the reduced performing space of the City Center stage (which the cast has to share with the musicians) feel like the expanse space of a large Broadway house. Yet the show, particularly in the first act, is a little lackluster.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Neglected Gem: Life with Mikey (1993)

Nathan Lane, Christina Vidal and Michael J. Fox in Life with Mikey (1993).

Life with Mikey was director James Lapine’s second movie, released two years after Impromptu, a high-toned 1991 farce with a dream cast that included Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and Emma Thompson. Lapine was previously known as a prominent Broadway director and librettist, who had collaborated with both Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and William Finn (Falsettos). Impromptu was well-received, although it didn’t set the box office afire. Life with Mikey’s budget was a third of what Impromptu cost, yet it grossed more than three times more as much as that first film. That would seem to qualify it as a success, yet Lapine has never made another film. (He did direct an adaptation of novelist Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions for HBO in 1999.)

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Life with Mikey a “gem.” (All right, more than a bit.) The screenplay, by journeyman Marc Lawrence, who’s written some movies I’ve liked (Music and Lyrics) and many I haven’t (Miss Congeniality, the remake of The Out of Towners), is sitcom fodder glazed with an almost opaque sentimentality, featuring a pot-holed plot that strains credulity. But the movie has lingered in my memory since I first saw it, due to the perfect casting of Michael J. Fox in the title role and the generous, quirky milieu that surrounds him.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Puzzle Pieces

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.

Agnes, the Bridgeport, Connecticut working-class housewife played by Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, seems to live on the periphery of her family. We don’t know how long she’s felt remote from her husband Louie (David Denman) and (to a lesser degree) from her two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works with his dad in his car repair shop, and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who is revving up for college and whose forthright – and somewhat irritating – girlfriend (Liv Hewson) professes to be a Buddhist. Agnes loves her sons; she’s the parent who exercises sensitivity with them, while Louie’s immediate response to anything they do that doesn’t fit into his old-school masculine vision is a mixture of bafflement and stubborn opposition. It’s clear that she cares for Louie, too, but his stubbornness wears her down. When he throws a birthday party for her, she does all the work, and he doesn’t make a fuss over her; if it weren’t for the birthday cake (which she has baked) and candles, you’d think it was just a get-together of friends and family.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Contrarian View: BlacKkKlansman, The Sisters Brothers, Shoplifters and Burning

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

The following contains a spoiler for the film Shoplifters.
 
It’s always illuminating to read film critics’ year end best-of lists in specialty magazines like Film Comment and Sight & Sound as well as mainstream mags and newspapers like Time and The New York Times. Overall, the critical community tends to hew to a predictable pattern, extolling art-house films, both foreign and English-language movies, much more than accessible (but quality) American or Hollywood fare. I’m not referring to Alfonso Cuarón’s superb Roma, his semi-autobiographical tale of his family maid in the '70s, which is a masterpiece and deserves all its accolades, but to other films whose rave reviews leave me cold. Here are four movies that don’t deserve the love they’re getting from critics.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Falling: Free Solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Feature movies about mountain climbing generally fail because they feel the need to gin up an already dramatic situation and trumpet the themes of Man vs. Nature, the Indomitable Human Spirit, etc. The 2004 documentary Touching the Void understood that these themes were implicit in its telling of the ascent of two climbers up the face of the Andean mountain Siula Grande, and thus there was no need to make them explicit. Touching the Void did court controversy because it reenacted its true tale in the Alps, using actors who were also climbers, while an interview of the real climbers recounting their horrific experience provided the movie’s narration. The film was poised between a documentary and a feature film, and some cried foul. Those who did missed out on an amazing film-going experience.

The new film Free Solo, about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free solo” (climb without the aid of ropes or tools except his own hands and feet and a bag of chalk clipped to his back) the sheer face of Yosemite’s grand El Capitan mountain, a rise of about 3,000 feet, uses actual footage of Honnold’s climb, supplemented with Google Earth shots of the mighty peak to show us Alex’s path. It also shows us something of Alex’s life and the preparation needed to accomplish his goal. This Oscar-nominated documentary doesn’t have the artistic wonder that director Kevin Macdonald brought to Touching the Void, but El Capitan provides its own grandeur, and on a scale smaller yet perhaps equally awe-inspiring, so does Hannold.

Monday, February 4, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch on Broadway

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now on Broadway in a production expertly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is only the latest of several stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s well-loved 1960 novel, but it may be the first one by a distinguished dramatic writer with a distinctive style. That turns out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. Sorkin has done a fine job of shaping the material dramatically. Instead of leaving it in the emotional point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, he’s divided the narrative voice among the three children – Scout, her older brother Jem, and their summertime companion Dill (who is Jem’s best friend) – who witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, and defended by Scout and Jem’s father Atticus. It’s effective because it operates simultaneously as a reminder that we’re watching the tale unfold through the eyes of impressionable kids – that it’s a coming-of-age story – and as a Brechtian device. The children take turns relaying the information to the audience as the play moves back and forth between Tom’s trial, which they view as spectators, and their lives in and around the Finch household, including their fascination with their reclusive, never-seen neighbor, Boo Radley. (In the book, Boo is also a source of terror, but Sorkin downplays that element in the service of dramatic economy.) Courtroom settings are notoriously static for stage plays; here the continual shift of focus solves the problem while the narrative jumping around feels right for a story related by young kids. Sorkin, who has an acute ear, extends the dialogue – much of it is straight from the novel – to translate Lee’s wry southern humor and folksiness, which can be as dry as a corn husk and as tart and stinging as bourbon. And he’s toughened up Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels), who now has a surprising forcefulness when he’s cross-examining the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and an even more surprising temper when he’s dealing with her vindictive father Bob (Frederick Weller).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Dealt (2017)

Richard Turner in Dealt. (Photo: Geoff Duncan)

I thought I’d just about finished reviewing documentaries after that last piece. After all, documentaries aren’t usually known for their aesthetic innovations. But then along comes Dealt (2017), about Richard Turner, the world’s most renowned card mechanic (i.e., white-hat card shark), who just happens to have 100% vision loss, and the way that it introduces its subject, follows him through a turning point in his life, and conveys it all with a purposeful cinematicity just begs to be unpacked.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Front Runner: Satire and Beyond

Hugh Jackman (centre) in The F.ront Runner.

Movie-wise, 2018 culminated in the lamest Christmas season in years; aside from Mary Poppins Returns, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, three of the six segments in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Peter Jackson’s extraordinary World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, I didn’t see a single film I could get behind. And the dim slate of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture confirm the widespread disgruntlement about the caliber of last year’s releases. Actually, it wasn’t quite as terrible a year for movies as the list of nominees indicates. It’s just that in 2018, even more radically than in most years, the majority of the interesting films were sidelined – they opened only briefly, and only in a few cities, and didn’t draw the attention they deserved. (Ironically, the other cadre of movies worth checking out resided at the other end of the spectrum: the franchise movies that saturated the cineplexes over the summer, most of which were immensely enjoyable.) This was the year of Blaze, Hearts Beat Loud, The Sisters BrothersPaddington 2, Leave No Trace, Juliet, Naked, Christopher Robin, The Death of Stalin, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Journey’s End. And of The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s movie about Gary Hart’s doomed bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1988, which a friend helpfully steered me to a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing that a movie as good as this one, by a respected director and with a major star (Hugh Jackman), released at the beginning of prestige-movie season (it came out Thanksgiving week), could have slipped by virtually unnoticed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

It’s Been a Hard Day’s Life: Growing Up Berman

Tosh Berman (left) gesturing tantrically with family friend Allen Ginsberg. (Photo: Wallace Berman)

Review of the new memoir, Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman, published by City Lights Books.


"If the first movie your father takes you to as a child is . . .  And God Created Woman, you can be sure of two things. First, that your father is an extraordinary person. Second, that you are destined to lead an extraordinarily interesting life." – Ron Mael, Sparks
Both of Mael’s observations ring totally true in this engaging, endearing, and surprisingly modest chronicle of a life lived under the white hot lights of a radical couple of proto-hippie parents: Wallace and Shirley Berman, an avant-garde artist famed as one of the originators of “assemblage art” and his gorgeous and exceedingly generous (for letting him be who he was) wife and muse. The Bermans were obviously not your average family, and their son Tosh (from the Russian Antosha) is partly the living evidence of a life lived for reasons far beyond the quotidian behavioral realm of domestic security or conventional social structures. His father , and the legendary works of art he made, as well as the stratospheric friendships he cultivated, were a vital transitional link between the beat culture of the '50s and the hippie counterculture of the '60s. Thus young Tosh grew up on the circus high-wire in the big-top tent of accelerated Change.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Wolves and The Engagement Party: Young Talents

The cast of The Wolves. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is set among the members of a teenage girls’ soccer team during a series of pre-game warm-ups. The play’s off-Broadway run in New York two seasons ago was sold out, and now it’s opening all over the country to enthusiastic audiences; I caught the production at Boston’s Lyric Stage. DeLappe has a finely tuned ear for the chatter of adolescent girls – the mix of sincerity and sarcasm, the accidental humor, the push and pull of their discussion of world events, the way their parents’ values and opinions season their own but don’t bury their own tentative perceptions of the world around them, the tension between blasé worldliness and naiveté when it comes to sex. And she knows just how to use language to differentiate them, though the playbill identifies them only by their numbers, and it’s not until the last scene that we learn a couple of their names, when we finally meet one of the soccer moms. She’s the first grown-up we see. The coach, Neil, is in the stands, but he seems to be hungover all the time – at least, that’s how the girls describe him – and in any case he’s very hands-off. So what little coaching they get is from their captain, #25 (Valerie Terranova), and it’s generic; you can feel her reluctance to take on the role of an authority figure.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Triumph of the Capitalist Will: Metropolis (1927/2010)

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) was restored and re-released in 2010. 

Fritz Lang must have been a rare kind of genius. He somehow made Metropolis (1927/2010), an elaborate science fiction film so costly that it bankrupted the production company, during the Weimar Republic – and it’s a classic, to boot. That the sets and effects were done before digital is simply mind-boggling, as are some of the methods to achieve them, on par with a good magic trick. I saw the almost completely restored 2010 version, which still has a couple of scenes missing. Some of the newly discovered footage was maltreated by the archivists, so the rediscovered parts are obvious; in fact, a lot of it is crucial to the plot and characterization, and it’s fascinating to think about how badly marred a film most of the world had been seeing before. It’s accompanied by the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, slightly embellished, which probably worked well for the (supposedly) raucous contemporary audience, but for the home viewer , the omnipresent brass sounds too heavy-handed.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Four Period Pieces

 Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots. (Photo: Liam Daniel)

This piece contains reviews for Mary Queen of Scots,The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and At Eternity’s Gate

The promise of a movie about the struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart, who claimed her right to inherit the throne of England and wound up with her head on an executioner’s block, is the chance to see a dramatic clash between two charismatic actresses. But so far it hasn’t worked out very well for the Elizabeths. In the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots Vanessa Redgrave’s lyrical performance as Mary made a far stronger impression than Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth (a role that she played later – and famously – on television), and in the new version, Mary Queen of Scots without the comma, Saiorse Ronan’s Mary is pretty much the whole show. That’s not the fault of Margot Robbie, who plays Elizabeth, but of Beau Willimon, who wrote the screenplay (based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart), and the director, Josie Rourke. They’ve chosen a dopey faux-feminist take on the historical narrative in which it’s the manipulative men in the two queens’ lives who keep messing everything up. (As if you had to transform the conflict between two female monarchs into a feminist story!) That point of view makes some sense for Mary, who is, at various times, at the mercy of the whims and power grabs of her half-brother James (James McArdle), her protector, Bothwell (Martin Compston), her homosexual husband, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), his father, the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle), and the Protestant reformer-minister John Knox (David Tennant), who uses every opportunity to proselytize against the Catholic Mary. (He manages to rev up the Scottish populace against her “whorish” ways, though she scarcely gets to sleep with anyone.) But the notion that Elizabeth, the most powerful woman in the history of England – perhaps the most powerful monarch after Cleopatra – has to buckle to a bunch of men who are in every way her inferior is dumbfounding. This unfortunate reading of the part diminishes Robbie, who is a fine actress (especially, I think, in The Legend of Tarzan and Z for Zachariah). When these two monarchs finally meet, clandestinely, spark should fly. Instead Rourke stages their tête-à-tête so that they’re not even facing each other until halfway through the scene.