Thursday, December 19, 2019

NT Theatre hype, and I lost only $20

I’ve generally been well disposed towards the increasing number of National Theatre Live events screened by Cineplex, part of a strategy to get audiences to come to the theatre and counter an ever-growing number of home-streaming services. Yes, the price is a little extra - I paid $18.95 for the current production of Fleabag, the one-woman play by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But, hey, it’s for a production from Britain’s premier theatre, and the price is much better than regular theatre tickets to see the production live. (Some of those tickets were inflated to as high as £600 (over $1000 CAD/$780 US)). My problem was the length of pre-screening time that was filled with National Theatre promotions. In fact I started to think of it as propaganda since it was advertising disguised by high-culture narratives. At first I thought, ‘Ok I don’t mind a little bit of info about NT productions’ but the hype kept going - for a full half hour! Here we think we’re getting so-called cultural entertainment and yet we're bombarded with what is essentially advertising, and for much longer than for the average “crass” Hollywood movie……As for Fleabag itself, this is the of-the-moment play in England which has captured (or enraptured) audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and spurred the hit TV series of the same name. I was a little skeptical about all the fuss but went to see it anyway. My dubiousness proved correct. In the play, Waller-Bridge comes on stage and sits on a stool and begins regaling her character’s life, that of a young single woman in contemporary London. She runs a failing cafĂ© which has a live guinea pig (guinea pig?) and only one down-and-outer as a regular customer who orders tea. In other words, it’s despair city. Meanwhile she moans about her boyfriend and yes, does hilariously describes a pick-up on the London Tube. But there’s not much else that is funny in this portrayal (which Waller-Bridge also wrote) of a Millennial’s quotidian life. In fact, the latter half of the play borders on melancholy and almost evokes pity. Yet the live audience, many of whom probably paid highly inflated ticket prices, cheered upon the playwright-actor’s stage entrance and then hung on to her every word, trying to wring out any possible laughs. Thank goodness I only paid $20 for my ticket and not a hundred or much more to attend the live theatre performance.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Great acting amidst head-banging plot

I wanted to like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story for a number of reasons. Baumbach is one of my favorite contemporary directors with on point works about modern mores in films like The Squid and the Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2013) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). If there is one director who captures the essence of the moods, interests and values of the contemporary American intellectual it’s Baumbach. And with one of today’s foremost actresses, Scarlett Johansson, as well as the seemingly everywhere Adam Driver the movie showcases some of today's very top talent.  Sprinkle in such perennial favorites as Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Wallace Shawn and this movie is so appetizing you can almost taste it. But after viewing its 136-minute length on the big screen (courtesy WIFF’s monthly series at the Capitol Theatre; the film is now on Netflix) I came away not filled with brilliant portraits of erudite characters’ contradictions and life’s cul-de-sac moments but of being beaten blow-by-blow by a very ugly divorce case. Having said that, there is a lot of greatness in this film. Without exception the acting is superlative. Johansson as Nicole Barber is amazing in portraying her mood swings – often contained in long shots – such as when describing her marriage in a first meeting to lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Dern as Fanshaw  herself gives a wholly brilliant performance as a take-no-prisoners counsel who also polemically targets the state of divorce procedures and power imbalance between men and women.   And there’s Adam Driver, “Mr.Nuance” with a thousand inner feelings that emerge in warmth, despair, anger and pain. In the plot, Driver as Charlier Barber, is a Brooklyn theatre director who’s ambitious and successful. But his wife Nicole Barber, a one time Hollywood screen actress, feels she’s playing second fiddle. She longs to move back to California. The marriage increasingly breaks down and before we know it both spouses are meeting lawyers and Driver in particular faces tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Which raises some questions. How come we don’t see Nicole’s lawyer’s bills? In fact, the onus is all on Driver to prove he’s a reliable father to get custody and he has to rent an apartment in LA. So, despite Fanshaw’s treatise about gender discrimination, is the movie unwittingly portraying how men are in fact the ones discriminated against by the courts? Politics aside, the plot descends into somewhat predictable bitterness and outright anger, ironically for two people who still have positive feelings for one another.  All this, again, is fine acting. The problem is that, for the audience, it starts to  become head-pounding and probably quite uncomfortable for anyone who in fact has gone through a divorce.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Irishman is all De Niro and Pacino

The best things about Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated The Irishman (now on Netflix) are Robert De Niro facial expressions and Al Pacino’s looks and demeanor. Or rather De Niro’s non-expressions. His character as Frank Sheeran, infamous one-time Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa’s (Pacino)’s bodyguard, is that of having a poker face par excellence. This display is hilarious and I felt like applauding De Niro’s effort, or lack thereof, or in fact his astounding effort to be effortless! As for Pacino’s Hoffa, well, he may not look exactly like the stout Hoffa of old but he certainly doesn’t look like Pacino and he assumes a character that might pass for the bombastic labor boss. In the annals of crime dramas and popular American lore, it probably was only a matter of time until someone got around to making a movie about Hoffa’s disappearance. And here we have it. Clocking in at almost 3 and a half hours, Scorsese, basing the movie on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses – one of scores of books (and interpretations about the Hoffa case and speculation about how Hoffa died) – the movie is an otherwise biopic taking us from Sheeran’s early days as a hit man in the Philadelphia mob up to the Hoffa disappearance in the summer of 1975. And there are all the usual tropes along the way – clothes and cars and scenes of domestic life including families gathered around laminate kitchen tables - during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Women have beehive hair styles and men ugly polyester leisure suits. It’s all pretty proforma and mildly interesting. But De Niro and Pacino are the real show-stoppers here though Joe Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino is also a bit of a hoot (just thinking of Pesci makes me smile). So, this is the “Corrupt Union” version of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. I’m not sure the movie warranted its length. I’m less and less a fan of biopics since I know the scenes are artificially created, and I’m picky enough to know that this movie, though largely centered around a Detroit incident, wasn’t filmed here. In fairness, most of the settings worked though a big miss was the location of the Machus Red Fox restaurant on Telegraph Rd; in the movie there are hills behind it! Another annoyance was Scorsese’s Doo-wop soundtrack. Scorsese has long been Doo-wop obsessed and the score seems out of place among the shirt and tie clean cut criminal crowd. Oh well, The Irishman moves along at a good enough clip and there are enough characters and well done small plots leading to the big one to satisfy most moviegoers. And I do like the story’s conclusion about how Hoffa’s body was disposed of, one I agree with having read about the case. And, no, it wasn’t under the Meadowlands’ stadium end zone.

Finally, after waiting all fall, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story with Adam Driver and Scarlett
Johansson is hitting the big screen locally. The Windsor International Film Festival is the organization showing it, at three times this Thursday, downtown at the Capitol Theatre. Kudos to WIFF and its special association  with Netflix, which also allowed WIFF to host several screenings two weeks ago of The Irishman