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Jan 21/11

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The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Somewhere (Movie); Blue Valentine (Movie); Salon V Group Show (Art); Kim Dorland and Bonnie Baxter (Art)

Plus Art News: about Simon Carter

Somewhere (Movie) written and directed by Sofia Coppola; starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning; with Chris Pontius, Amanda Anka, Paul Greene, Romulo Laki and many others.

Say you or I wanted to make a movie about some Hollywood action hero. We all know how empty the life is, right? The booze, the drugs, the divorce, the custody issues, the easy sex, the lack of meaningful relationships. Lots of movies have done it – showbiz bios as well as fictional versions. You can count on some heavy drama to drive home the hell of it all. I can just imagine the scenery-chewing, the rip-roaring brawls, the searing dialectics, the stinging repartee that you or I would put into our movie.

Not Sofia Coppola. She shows you almost the opposite of what you’re expecting. Long stretches of nothing much. For instance, a lone Ferrari racing around a deserted track somewhere in the middle of nowhere. A guy sitting on his couch, drinking and smoking cigarettes. He picks up a pear, looks like he’s going to eat it. You think: aha! But he puts it down. Lots of shots of cars driving on freeways. These scenes last way too long. (Doesn’t this lady know what an establishing shot is?) You’re thinking: ok, we’ve got the point, let’s move on. But no, the camera refuses to budge.

Eventually it hits you: this is what life is about most of the time. Nothing much happening – just waiting and wondering.

Which is what Stephen Dorff does most of the time, as the action hero, Johnny Marco. He never seems too sure what’s going on; he’s not what you’d call really present in the here and now. One of the more articulate spokespersons for the art of cinema this guy is not. At a press conference, his responses are mostly shrugs, grins and monosyllables. He doesn’t have anything to say, other than to offer good wishes, to a hopeful young actor who asks for advice. He arrives home in his suite in one of those older, funky hotels in LA, and finds parties going on but he doesn’t seem to know many of the party people. The only person who provides any kind of day-by-day stability in his life is Marge (Amanda Anka), mainly a disembodied voice on the phone (presumably from his management), who tells him where he’s supposed to be on any given day. He never even shows much initiative when it comes to sex. He doesn’t have to. Bare-breasted women are always throwing themselves in his path and he’s not unwilling to make the most of those opportunities – except when, as often happens, he falls asleep in medias res.

Gradually you begin to realize that Johnny’s emptiness is the real thing, not a glamorized or hyped-up version. He is, you might say, just some guy. He lucked into a line of work that pays him way too much and he doesn’t quite realize how it all happened. He seems to be at the pinnacle of success – or what most people would regard as such – but he’s like any ordinary person who feels that what’s happening to him isn’t quite what it was supposed to be; yet, he doesn’t know what that would be.

The great thing about all of this is that Ms. Coppola makes her point by not making it. Her movie says what it says by not saying it. Maybe, then, this is film-making influenced by the theatrical craft of people like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. You keep thinking that something ominous is going to happen. Johnny gets abusive messages on his cell phone; he’s suspicious about an SUV that often follows him. One of his buddies (Christ Pontius) gets friendly with Johnny’s eleven-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) in a way that makes you uncomfortable. But no, this movie isn’t going to develop along those kinds of plot lines.

Instead, it’s going to dwell on the quiet moments and let you figure out for yourself what they mean. Like the time Johnny and his daughter sit in the lobby of his hotel and an old guy with a guitar (Romulo Laki) serenades them with a quaint, gentle version of "I Just Wanna Be Your Teddy Bear." Or another time in the hotel lobby when Johnny addresses the keyboard of the tinny old piano and plunks out a halting rendition of the aria from J.S. Bach’s "The Goldberg Variations". One of the most striking shots shows Johnny sitting alone in a special effects makeup room. His head has been encased in plaster to make a mold and there’s nothing happening except the heavy breathing from his nostrils. You keep expecting him to freak out, but he waits and endures, just as we do. (Only one scene strikes a wrong note for me: an encounter with a masseur [Paul Greene] seems not to serve any purpose unless to make the point – unnecessarily – that there’s nothing queer about our Johnny.)

Even in Johnny’s relationship with his daughter, not much is explained. (Given the character's circumstances and appearance, surely I’m not the only one for whom Heath Ledger comes to mind.) One gathers that dad and daughter don’t see a lot of each other, given that he doesn’t seem to know that she’s been taking private skating lessons for three years. When he’s stuck with her unexpectedly for a week or so, their way of relating to each other isn’t quite like any father-daughter situation you’ve ever seen. Maybe she’d like to browse through some of the many unread scripts on hand and recommend a few? Johnny’s friendly, palsy, you might say, but, in some ways, he seems more like a babysitter or an older brother than a dad. He obviously loves the kid but he doesn’t do parenting very well.

Which makes for some marvellous stuff.Of course, none of it would work if you didn’t have an exceptionally gifted young actress in the role of the daughter. Elle Fanning plays along with Johnny perfectly. She’s always upbeat, capable, ready to get-up-and-go. This kid can even turn out eggs benedict if the occasion calls for it. Only once does she let the mask slip and show you the vulnerable, insecure kid inside. It’s one of just two emotionally wrenching moments in the movie. Those two short scenes pack all the wallop any movie needs and they’re all the more effective in that they’re surrounded by such an emotional wasteland.

Rating: B (for "Better than most")

 

Blue Valentine (Movie) written by Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis; directed by Derek Cianfrance; starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams; with John Doman, Mike Vogel, Faith Wladyka, Ben Shenkman, Jen Jones.

A girl and a guy are standing on the street at the entrance to a dress shop. It’s nighttime and it looks like this is their first date. He’s strumming the ukelele and singing "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love" in a cracked voice. She’s tap dancing to his music and laughing. The charm is irresistible.

Literally irresistible – in so far as that’s the scene, as featured in the preview, that made me see the movie. Alas, that scene is a flashback to five years ago. Now the young couple are married, they have a kid (Faith Wladyka) and the music’s sounding a bit off key. Ok, I can accept the loss of the charm. I’ve lived long enough, at this point, to get a whiff of the rumour that sometimes things go wrong with beautiful young lovebirds. That could make for interesting watching if, say, you got some idea of what was wrong.

But all you get here is a lot of moping and whinging. As troubled marriages go, this is not Ingmar Bergman. Michelle Williams is given to such declarations as: "I can’t take this shit any more!!!" And this one: "I just can’t do this any more!!!" Do what??? I’m asking. You mean you can’t act any more in soap operas where women vent their bad moods for no discernible reason??? Presumably, she’s got something against her hubby. But what? He’s a decent guy, he’s not the deepest well on the ranch but he works hard to make a living. Not to mention, he’s really sweet, especially to kids and dogs and old people. Not bad looking either. Turns out he drinks a bit too much sometimes, but the only occasion when that causes a problem is when she pretty much brings it on.

So why does this girl have a burr under her saddle? Maybe it goes back to her past. She had a boyfriend (Mike Vogel) who got pretty abusive but, again, I’m not sure what went wrong between them. Something about a sexual encounter. I couldn’t make out what exactly happened in explicit terms. Maybe some hipster who reads Don Savage’s column could explain it to me. I totally got it, though, that her dad (John Doman) was egregiously horrible. So that explains why she rushed into marriage with a guy she later decides isn’t good enough for her? In case that much back story isn’t gruesome enough, we get to see an innocent guy violently beaten up and we sit in on a medical procedure we’d rather skip.

You can see why Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams wanted to be Executive Producers – to make sure the movie got made. They must have been drooling at the acting opportunities. Like that drunken scene in the motel room. Every movie about a disintegrating life – whether a single or married one – needs to have a scene in a motel room where everybody's smashed -- even the walls: they're plastered with Academy Award nomination forms. As producers, though, Ms. Williams and Mr. Reynolds make good actors. Otherwise, they’d have looked more closely at the material to see how it would strike anybody who wasn’t performing it. And maybe they’d have vetoed some of the arty stuff. Like the extreme close-ups with the wildly gyrating hand-held camera. Talk about a movie that makes your stomach turn!

Rating: D minus (where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

Salon V Group Show (Art) by various artists; at the Propeller Centre, 984 Queen West; until January 30 www.propellerctr.com

Lots of intriguing invitations to solo shows land in the mailbox here. Since time doesn’t permit attendance at many of them, I jump at a chance to see the work of several good artists in one show . Witness Salon V at the Propeller Gallery: some 144 works by 79 artists. A veritable embarras de richesses. (But why don't they publish a list of the artists? It would make life so much easier for a viewer who otherwise has to stumble around scribbling names on a scrap of paper and trying to get the spellings right!)

Obviously, it's impossible to comment here on all the fine work. What follows, then, is a brief account of my impressions of some works that leapt out at me.

The first thing that catches your attention, just inside the front door, is Valerie MacIntosh’s large painting, in a somewhat cartoonish style, featuring what look like the mountains of China, the prow of a ship emerging from them, tourists standing at its rails, other Asian motifs scattered here and there, and the word "VAROOM" exploding from it all. It’s not exactly what I would call beautiful but it has a compelling effect. I’m guessing it says something about the artist’s feelings on tourism.

For sheer beauty and for the way they glory in the watercolour medium, I’m always impressed by the works of Dominique Prvost: horizontal panels of colour that suggest but do not depict landscapes. By somewhat similar means and yet in an entirely different medium, a work by Susan Card on clay, in a metal frame, achieves an arctic effect: washes of an ocean green on most of the surface but, at the top, chips of white like icebergs.

In a more urban mode, an exuberant Cubist-influenced painting caught my eye with its vivacious take on a city neighbourhood, even before the name of an artist I know caught my eye: Barry Coombs. Also in the mode of human-made structures, Susan Dain’s semi-abstract compositions of blocky, rectangular shapes seen in locks on waterways appeal very much to someone who especially loves the way some artists find the hidden beauty in objects that our eyes customarily skim over without stopping.

For some reason, I was attracted to photographs this time more than in other shows. You had to stop and think about the implications of Mark Belvedere’s portrait of a tycoon, his feet up on a boardroom table, a cigar in his hand and his body entirely naked except for a pair of dress shoes and socks. Phil Babcock’s blurry building, its outlines barely discernible in a fog, catches a city mood that’s familiar but not often emphasized in art. A group of workers hovering around a car in a carwash, by Drew Williamson, says something about the working world. Jesse Johnston’s photo of Asian athletes asleep while sprawled in their seats on a bus makes a compassionate study of an aspect of human nature. Will Wallace produces a dazzling abstract of lights and darks with his photo of sunlight streaming through the walls of a barn. I wouldn’t have thought that any photo of Toronto’s skyline would impress me at this point but there’s something special about Ross Winter’s "View from the Gardiner". What makes it work so well is the tight focus on the cluster of buildings, without any land and virtually no sky.

For exquisite painting of people, you couldn’t do better than Gillian Iles’ "Part of Waiting to Be Found". It shows two middle-aged tourist-types, emerging from a peculiar tunnel-like background. Both of them are lurching off to the side, out of the picture. Quite apart from the excellence of the technique, it offers a glimpse of people caught in a fraught moment that they probably wouldn’t expect to be recorded for posterity. A portrait that I like very much for its painterly quality is Anne Schotman’s face of a man in patchy blobs and streaks. Its eroded look expresses something of a human being’s fear of verging on the state of non-being. Sara Caracristi’s paintings of groupings of people in public places – on benches, on escalators – as seen from above, in bird’s-eye views -- says something to me about the pathetic anonymity of people in such situations. An eery emptiness is expressed in Emma Hesse’s painting of a railroad platform where a dumpy lady stands with her back to us, as if she doesn’t quite know what to expect. A somewhat similar feeling comes through in Teri Donovan’s mixed media piece that shows a woman of the 1940s or 50s sitting in her kitchen. Her wistful expression seems to say that she knows her style and her setting are going to be whisked away, partly by a cloud of stuff billowing up around her like pink icing.

Moving into the less representational genres, Maya Foltyn’s abstracts in black, white and beige, with lots of sand included, have a very tactile appeal in addition to their visual allure. Then there’s Garth Scheuer’s eye-catching "Folds of Colour": arrangements of what looks like sheets of corrugated plastic, in neon colours, emerging from black backgrounds. Some pieces of conceptual art (I think that’s what it’s called) caught my fancy. Ian MacKenzie does a droll number with the letters T-R-U-T-H arranged neatly but in scrambled order within a rectangle. His "Think Outside the Box" message emblazoned on the lid of a coffin has the extraordinary effect of forcing you to obey its command. (Kind of like those "We Made You Look" ads for billboards.) You have to love Joseph Muscat’s beguiling sculpture "He Said, She Said" in rough wood, vaguely humanoid in shape, with a roll of paper coming out of the mouth, pencils supplied, and slots to deposit your messages in the "belly" and the "butt" of the creature.

I recently read about a contemporary art dealer who only liked art he couldn’t understand. For me, Peter Barelkowski’s work would certainly meet that criterion: a large canvas, mostly white, with fine lines scratched into it representing something that looks like a cow with pinkish teats and a blob of ghastly red by the tail. Inside the "cow" are rectangles that look like rooms with ladders in them (the ladder being a frequent motif in Mr. Barelkowski’s work, I believe). Scattered elsewhere in the painting are simple chair-shapes. You could look at that one for a long time without figuring out what it means but it is worth the looking.

Call me a dupe for minimalism, but one of the works that I like best in the show is Kathy Goldman’s square of some dark colour, possibly charcoal or black or midnight blue, with a few smudges of red in the lower right quadrant. A work like that mesmerizes me with its many potential associations, both visual and emotional.

 

Art News

The British painter, Simon Carter, is the artist whose work I remember most vividly from Art Toronto (as mentioned in my round-up of last year on the page "Highs n' Lows of 2010"). Looks like others are similarly impressed! Mr. Carter has been chosen as the Artist of the Month, for Jaunary, by Axis Web. Go to www.axisweb.org and click on "Artist of the Month". There you'll find an erudite explanation of the importance of Mr. Carter's work in the context of British landscape tradition. Quite apart from all that brainy analysis, I love the work just because it's so exciting to look at and so pleasing to the eye!

 

KIM DORLAND: "Nocturne" and BONNIE BAXTER: "Jane's Journey" Angell Gallery, 12 Ossington Ave, Toronto. January 22 to February 19, 2011 www.angellgallery.com

"The paint on this one will be dry for twenty-four hours...Did I say 'wet' or 'dry'? I meant 'wet'."

Those are the words I heard -- presumably from a harrassed artist -- on sneaking a look at these two shows before they officially opened.

As you may remember, Kim Dorland's spooky owl won our prize for freakiest work in Art Toronto (see review on page dated Nov 11/10). His work in this show continues in the same vein. We get lots of green ghoulish faces and emaciated humanoids. It all strikes me as a boy's nightmare world. But there's a cinematic whimsy running through much of it. For instance, a hoard of luminous green bunnies scampering through a dark forest. Or a three-dimensional tree house in a bleak setting with a path leading up to it that glows with a subtle magic. One of my favourite pieces shows just a clump of white birch trunks against a black surround. It's one of the relatively soothing pieces in the show but even it doesn't lack a certain undertone of menace. Too bad the show couldn't have been scheduled to open on Hallowe'en.

In the smaller room, Bonnie Baxter's photographs show mostly scenes of pristine wilderness, although some offer glimpses of urbanity. All very typical Canadiana -- except that in the foreground of every photo there's a woman, her back to us, wearing a dorky, blonde curly wig. Sometimes we get her whole outline, sometimes just head and shoulders and, in one case, only the wig lying abandoned on the ground. Just a goofy pretence? Maybe not. Maybe it has something poignant to say about the place of the ordinary, disaffected person up against the almost overwhelming spectacle of our world. Or maybe it says something very different to you. But my guess is that it does say something.

 

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