Thursday, May 30, 2019

A politically correct Shakespeare in retirement

Kenneth Branagh’s fascination with William Shakespeare has been well depicted in his films, both directed and acted in, over the past 30 years (Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Othello, Henry V, As You Like It, Twelfth Night). And now he has released All Is True (at The Maple Theater and coming in July to WIFF's year-round series), which he both directed and acts in, a kind of summing up of the best-known of all bards, in his years of retirement 1613-1616. The film opens with still, pastoral and lushly photographed images of the countryside around Stratford-upon-Avon. They’re perhaps a bit too static, leading one to think we’re in for a tedious low-key rendition of some story about Will Shakespeare. But prior to that there is a dramatic scene, when we’re told an almost goofy theatrical accident (as often happened in the day) ignited the venerable (and vulnerable) Globe Theater in London and burned it to the ground. Shakespeare was effectively out of work and opted for retirement. The movie continues in a plodding but interesting enough way as Will moves back to his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, and to his rather disconsolate family, who harbors resentment that he abandoned them all those years for a very successful playwright and theatrical career. In reality, we know very little about Shakespeare’s life but we do know – and the film is accurate on these points - that he had three children, one who died at age 11, Hamnet (not Hamlet), and twin Judith and older daughter Susanna. His wife was Anne Hathaway. How much of the rest of the story is accurate is open to question and perhaps there’s a lot of conjecture in this film, written by Ben Elton. Shakespeare (Branagh) is depicted as a soft spoken, diffident man, the opposite of his roaring intellectual genius. As soon as he arrives in Stratford he is put upon by his family. His wife (Judi Dench) won’t sleep with him and his children are sullen at their neglectful father. Shakespeare retreats to his garden and tries to come to terms with the accusations as well as handle tumultuous affairs over his estate. Meanwhile, there are family scandals – Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is accused of adultery against her puritan husband (Hadley Fraser). And Judith (Kathryn Wilder) marries the town carouser (Jack Colgrave Hirst) who has impregnated another woman. But two themes emerge and both have resonance to our modern world. One is feminism - daughter Judith is really the author of poems attributed to the dead Hamnet. And the second is gay politics - Shakespeare apparently had a romantic relationship with the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) who pays him a visit. Add this to the patriarchal neglect of The Bard’s long-suffering wife and family and it all leads one to think that Branagh, in his summing up of Shakespeare’s life, has created a politically correct story for our oh-so-identity-politics-times.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Doris Day, and actresses then and now

There have been few actor’s deaths that have affected me as much as that of Doris Day’s. Written off, especially since the advent of 1960s countercultural-influenced film criticism, as a superficial all-American girl, enmeshed in the post-WWII consumer and suburban materialistic culture, her death sparked some revisionist thinking. For example, the headline for A. O. Scott’s “An Appraisal” in The New York Times was “Doris Day: A Hip Sex Goddess Disguised as the Girl Next Door.” Sex goddess? Whoever would have thought. For me, Day embodied a sunny but smart disposition; only fools would think her superficial. But foolish they were just like the often male characters in her films. A woman, in other words, who was to be reckoned with was at first underestimated, like by James Gannon (Clark Gable) in Teacher’s Pet (George Seaton 1958), or by Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) in Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon 1959). In Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann 1961) Day again plays an upstanding character, an advertising executive (and therefore a woman well ahead of her time), appalled by a competitor (Rock Hudson)’s underhanded tactics. In fact, I can’t think of a role where Day played someone unethical or dastardly. She is the shining light from which all goodness and justness emanates. And, for decades, she carried off her characters’ principles with a smile and shrewdness that eluded so-called sophisticated film critics, who could only see a cheerleading Miss America.  Yes, Day was perky, and emitted acres of sunshine, but she always was hip to her opponents’ sneaky tricks. Day of course also played serious roles, as in Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much. And she was versatile - far more versatile than the vast majority of today’s actresses. She sang, danced, recorded scores of albums. 

It was hard not to think of someone like Doris Day after watching the much-hyped new Netflix movie Wine Country, directed by Amy Poehler and starring her and Saturday Night Live alumnae like Tina Fey, Ana Gusteyer, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Paula Pell. All I knew about Wine Country was the hype and the fact I like wine and I like California’s wine country. And a bunch of broads hitting the road through Napa and Sonoma looked like a blast. Was I wrong. Admittedly I only watched the first hour - it was enough; I could only manage one smile and one LOL. This wasn’t funny, I thought, and left the room. What we have here, folks, is a depiction of a certain kind of contemporary womanhood – women trying to be funny but who are desultory, lacking in style and often vulgar. And there are the tropes – cell phone addiction, prescription drug-taking, middle aged identity crises. And, in the plot line, efforts at dancing and singing that seemed feigned and forced. I thought how Doris Day and a group of her “gals” – Janis Paige, Eve Arden, Audrey Meadows, Polly Bergen - from an earlier time would have performed in similar roles. There obviously would have been an innocence absent from today’s world-weary characters yet that virtue would belie a knowingness that would put any adversaries in their places, all with a sense of style and with smiles, some – very funny – jokes, and delightful sight gags. Ah, but that was then and this is now.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

An art house theatre in your computer

I encourage anyone who really loves film to sign up for The Criterion Channel. The Criterion Channel is an offshoot of the esteemed Criterion Collection, the archive of arguably the most important genre, auteur and foreign films of the past century. The Criterion Channel was born from the ashes of FilmStruck which was, excuse me, struck from the internet after a corporate rearrangement by parent WarnerMedia late last year. It was only available in the US anyway. The Criterion Channel, which launched last month, is available in Canada. I joined as a charter member (having been a subscriber to FilmStruck) and pay only $89.99 US annually. For first time subscribers I believe the price is $10.99 US monthly but an annual sub is discounted at 25% or $99.99. But even if the price is a little more this service is a bargain. This, folks, is the ideal art film lovers’ website, or shall we say, paradise. Where else can you have a library of more than 1000 films – assuming more will increasingly be added -
with some of the most famous names in independent and auteur filmmaking? There is Godard, Fellini, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Haneke, Chaplin, Bergman, Bier, Rossellini, Eisenstein, Wenders, Fassbinder, Lynch, Antonioni, Soderbergh, Malle, Campion, von Trier, Bresson, Kurosawa, Rohmer – well, you get the picture. Personally, I haven’t had it this good since the late lamented Canadian DVD film service folded in 2014. But while dug deep into auteur and foreign films – much more so than the comparatively bland Netflix - it was a general movie subscription service. The Criterion Channel by contrast is exclusively art house…..This past weekend, for example, I watched Adua and Her Friends (1960) by Antonio Pietrangeli, an Italian director I’d never heard of before. The film was a wonderful story of a group of four prostitutes trying to make a clean break from the trade and starring the inimitable Simone Signoret and Marcello Mastroianni. I also finally watched Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), perhaps Varda’s – who just died in March at age 90 – most famous film. And I revisited the Claude Chabrol thriller from 1995 La cérémonie starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert and Jacqueline Bisset…..The Criterion Channel is a feast, available in Canada and the US, and truly a bargain given that you now have an art house theater in your computer.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The unwitting creator of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Red Joan, directed by Trevor Nunn and opening this weekend at the Birmingham Theatre 8 and Main Art Theatre, is based on the true story of a woman, in old age, unmasked as a British spy during the Second World War. Judi Dench plays the elderly Joan Stanley (based on the real Melita Norwood through the novel of Jennie Rooney). It’s an interesting story, and one I’d never heard of, and yet, for me, still raises philosophical or moral issues, though the film’s conclusion makes it seem all is settled. Joan was a research scientist in physics during WW II and seconded to a top-secret lab developing a British nuclear bomb. While there she befriends a campus agitator, Leo (Tom Hughes) who asks her to transfer information to the Russians, who also seek the bomb. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is appalled by the request. But after she sees the results of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki decides, using a miniature camera, to convey diagrams and other information to the Soviets. She maintains her patriotism but thought that giving another country such information would create a worldwide power balance, which in fact became popularly known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). “I was fighting for the living,” she maintains. And upon arrest 40 years later she tells a news conference that ensuring an enemy had the bomb was principled, “because only that way could the horror of another world war be averted.” That is farsighted thinking indeed and how at the time could she have been so sure her actions would result in no future nuclear war? But her intuition proved correct, incredibly so.  MAD became the overriding policy as the West and Communist East Bloc maintained a standoff for 50 years. In that sense Joan Stanley or Melita Norwood should be credited. But it is also extremely ironic that the film and the book and presumably much British popular opinion would applaud this would-be heroine while the philosophy of MAD, writ large by the top echelons of government and Realpolitik, be mocked for decades by, among others, the peace movement. And what if her spying had resulted in a new nuclear war? It just turned out she was kind of lucky. In the film, Dench as the older Joan has a smaller part, the weight of the character is carried by Cookson as the younger Joan, and she is strikingly good. From performing in close-up and in intimate settings with Leo and her then boss, Professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), to the kind of nervous quirkiness as she attempts to deceive authorities while carrying out her spying. And unlike many other films with a young and older character version, both Dench and Cookson’s characters have similar looks and facial features. Also, the sets and costumes are well done. In many period movies there’s usually something about wardrobe that’s off, but here authenticity prevails quite well.