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Jan 20/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new 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: For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard (Play); The Ways and The Start of the Affair (Short Stories) Foxcatcher, Boyhood, The Interview (Movies)

For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard (Play) written by Michael Ross Albert; directed by Jim Warren; starring Daniel Pagett, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Geoffrey Pounsett and Caroline Toal. NSTF Toronto; Jan 7-18.

The Next Stage Theatre Festival always delivers some very good theatre to warm things up in January. It’s a juried offering of short plays, some of which have previously been hits in the Toronto Fringe and others which have been judged worthy of special attention by the Fringe staff. An earlier version of For a Good Time, Call Kathy Blanchard, by Michael Ross Albert, has played New York’s Fringe Festival One of my reasons for seeing this Toronto version is that a family member is involved, which prevents my saying much about it. However, a few comments are in order.

The play features four young adults who are all somewhat on edge and who happen to find themselves together one calamitous evening. First, there’s Lawrence (Daniel Pagett), who has come to his mother’s home, thinking it’s empty and hoping to use it for his own purposes tonight. But he finds his cousin, Mary (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) in residence. She’s claiming to look after the house while her aunt, Lawrence’s mother, is in hospital. Then Sky (Geoffrey Pounsett), Lawrence’s brother-in-law, arrives because his wife has thrown him out and he has nowhere else to spend the night. Lastly comes Amanda (Caroline Toal), a friend Lawrence has invited to come by for a special reason.

Meanwhile, the house is being renovated. Everything is lopsided and off kilter. There’s been a disastrous fire. Lawrence’s mother is in hospital and may be dying. There appears to be some mystery about what has happened to her. Everybody has secrets itching to come out into the open. Some people are trying to catch a crucial game in the Stanley Cup finals but the tv keeps conking out. Sky, a contractor, is trying to carry on with the renovations; the sound of his power tools drowns out people who are trying to have serious discussions.

There’s a helluva lot happening here. In that respect, the play exemplifies an honourable tradition of comedy that goes back at least as far as Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You. The stage is alive with crazy goings-on. Playwright Michael Ross Albert knows how to build them to an effective climax and to include poignant moments along the way. Some deep meanings are touched on. However, I found myself wondering if any of these people were real. They’re all so kooky that they seem like inhabitants of a sitcom. Is it possible that the playwright grew up getting his ideas of humanity from tv rather than from real people?

 

Short Fiction:

The Ways by Colin Barrett, The New Yorker, Jan 5/15

This is my first encounter with a fresh new voice. Mr. Barrett introduces us to three young Irish siblings whose parents have died. The twenty-five-year-old brother is more or less the boss now, but he doesn’t pay any more attention than necessary to his younger sister and brother, who spend most of their time avoiding school and goofing off. You might consider it a kitchen-sink drama without much merit except for the vivid way it conveys the scrappy reality of these slangy young people. But then, in the second last paragraph, the thoughts of the younger brother express the meaning of it all with an impact that takes your breath away.

The Start of the Affair by Nuruddin Farah, The New Yorker, Dec 22 & 29/14

James, a retired professor from Johannesburg, has bought a restaurant in Pretoria that specializes in North African cuisine. While his employees run the place, he sits at a table and watches the customers. It’s the good-looking young males who interest him most. In particular, Ahmed, a Somali refugee who runs an iffy store nearby. James begins to see that Ahmed needs a lot of help adjusting to his new life. Gradually we see a friendship being developed by infinitesimally cautious acts of charity; intimacy is nurtured by tiny gestures. In an utterly believable and convincing way, the author shows how things are leading to what is almost inevitable. I found myself wondering, though, whether the story would be so notable if it were about two men in a more familiar context: two Caucasian men, say, in a North American city. Maybe not. Many readers know that story too well. Which is not to denigrate this story on the basis of its particularity. Sometimes it’s the particulars that lead us to the universals.

 

Foxcatcher (Movie) written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; directed by Bennett Miller; starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; with Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Vanessa Redgrave

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won an Olympic gold medal for wrestling in 1984. It’s now 1987 and he’s living a rather humdrum life, training at his gym and hoping for another big win. Out of the blue comes a phone call from John du Pont (Steve Carell), the scion of America’s richest family. Seems Mr. du Pont has a fantasy about building a prize-winning wrestling team. There’s some sort of odd patriotism involved: Mr. du Pont feels that this is the one great thing he can do for America. He persuades Mark to come and train wrestlers in the spiffy new gym that Mr. du Pont has built on the family estate (It’s called Foxcatcher because his illustrious forebears loved fox hunts.)

This is a true story; it mostly happened just this way. Mark Schultz did take up Mr. du Pont on his offer and settled into life at Foxcatcher. Up to this point, the only problem – or source of conflict – in the situation was that Mr. du Pont also wanted Mark’s older brother, David (Mark Ruffalo) on the team. But David, also a champion wrestler and a coach, was content back home with his wife and kids. Without David’s help, then, Mark forged ahead, urging on the chosen wrestlers with the vision of more Olympic gold.

I’m thinking: oh no, is this going to be another "Rocky?" Well, it is, to some extent. There’s the theme of the plucky athlete, or athletes, striving for glory. But that note is under-played; there's not a lot of hype about it. And the actual wrestling sequences are mercifully (from my point of view) brief.

What the movie’s mainly about is the relationship between a very rich older man who forms a bond with a hunky younger man. I kept thinking of Behind the Candelabra, the HBO movie about Liberace’s relationship with his young "chauffeur", Scott Thorson. In Foxcatcher, though, there’s not so much talk, virtually none of the elaborate verbal emoting that you get in Candelabra. Mr. du Pont is a taciturn, guarded guy who keeps his thoughts and feelings to himself for the most part. We’re often left to guess what’s going on with him.

Same could be said for the movie itself. Not much is explained. Sometimes we get glimpses of scenes where it’s hard to tell what’s happening. Elliptical editing means that many a scene ends abruptly and you don’t get the point of it until another scene further down the line. Maybe this is meant to reflect the way Mark sees it all. Sometimes you see Mr. du Pont in shooting practice with local cops. What’s that about? Another time, some military types are delivering an armoured tank to his door. Huh?

Some of the scenes are mute; you may not hear anything that’s being said; you may be looking at the action through a window. Music is used sparingly – which makes it all the more effective when it does appear. You begin to notice that there’s an eerie quality to its absence. Without a lot of dramatic build-up, there’s an attenuated quality to the proceedings. (When you read up on the story, you find out there was a lot more going on: Mr. du Pont was involved in other philanthropic ventures. But the film quite rightly focusses on the wrestling, given that it leads to the culmination of his story.) For lack of big thrills, the movie isn’t a crowd-pleaser. Still, there’s almost a palpable suspense to the strange goings-on.

What holds it all together is the enigmatic persona of Mr. du Pont as given to us by Steve Carell. Who knew that he was such a superb actor? His face is an unending source of mystery. It’s like he’s looking at us from behind a mask, seldom revealing what’s going on inside him. But you know he’s seen a lot. The look in his dark eyes is both hollow and haunting. He seems like somebody who knows he can buy anything he wants – except for the one thing that he desperately needs: a sense of achievement, a sense of having done something noteworthy for his country. From time to time, there is the faintest gleam of hope in his eye that maybe, just maybe, he can finally grab that elusive satisfaction through his support for these strapping young athletes.

His interest in them certainly has suggestions of homoeroticism. He clearly enjoys grappling with these sculpted bodies when he gets a chance to join in their practice sessions. But he’s a very repressed guy. It’s hard to picture him easing up enough to have sex with anything other than his right hand. You get some clue, in a few short scenes with his controlling mother,as to why he might be so uptight

Probably the best you can say about the other actors is that they measure up to Mr. Carell’s phenomenal performance, without stealing the show from him. Channing Tatum, who is on screen far more than Mr. Carell, has shed nearly all of the charm and glamour of his previous roles. While his acting strikes true notes in the facial and vocal respects, I found his movements as lumbering, muscle-bound lummox a bit too much like acting. You might say that the role of the older brother, David, is not a very auspicious one for Mark Ruffalo; David is not an especially interesting guy. And yet, one of his scenes is remarkable. He’s being asked, by a documentary filmmaker, to say some flattering things about Mr. du Pont. We see Mr. Ruffalo stumbling and mumbling, stopping and starting, trying unsuccessfully to deliver what the cameraman wants. How often do you get to watch an actor showing you how good an actor he is by playing a guy who can’t act for the camera?

One person who certainly can is the woman who plays Mr. du Pont’s mother. We get just two or three glimpses of her and there’s only one scene in which she has any lines of consequence. She has no patience with nonsense and, even if she looks like she has spent her life sucking lemons, her authority is as quiet as it is inexorable. I kept thinking: where did they get this amazing woman with the huge blue eyes and the strong jaw? Who is this person who can be such a powerful presence on camera, even if she’s just sitting in her wheelchair? Just before her last moment on screen, it hit me: Vanessa Redgrave!

 

Boyhood (Movie) written and directed by Richard Linklater; starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater; with Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Tom McTigue, Richard Andrew Jones, Zoe Graham

So...I finally got to see the one that everybody’s raving about and that’s shaping up to be a big winner. And I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to resort to a DVD. We were able to catch it at a second-run movie theatre.

My first impression: it should have been called "This American Life" – if that title hadn’t been taken by the series that's featured on National Public Radio and in other places. In the first part of the movie, it seems to be not so much about one boy’s childhood as about a whole way of life for a certain segment of the American population. We have here a single mother with two young kids, a mostly absent father. A couple of stepfathers enter the picture, then a stepmother and a half-brother. It’s about how everybody tries to manage the difficult balancing act of keeping the complicated relationships on an even keel, adjusting to each change that comes along, each new residence, new job or life situation. Through the years (about twelve, I think), there is the changing face of America in the background: the response to 9/11, the foreign policy of George W. Bush, then the election of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, we take note of the changes in technology: from clunky portable phones to cell phones, from monster computers to laptops. And the changing styles, haircuts, clothes and fads.

It certainly is a remarkable achievement that writer/director Richard Linklater used the same actors as the members of the core family throughout the twelve-year span that it took to make the movie. As far as I know, nothing like that has ever been done in a feature film. We get to watch as the adults, just like the rest of us, lose their youthful shine, put on weight and acquire wrinkles, start looking tired and frustrated. With the younger people, you see the move from childhood to the development of pimples and breasts, the experimentation with alcohol, drugs and sex.

But the movie didn’t thrill me quite as much as it did the rest of the movie-going public. Could it be that this is simply a case of the old curse of too-high expectations? It often happens that, when you hear a lot of hype about a movie – or a book or a play, for that matter – it can’t live up to the billing. In this case, though, there are certain specifics that may have dimmed my enjoyment somewhat.

In a movie that covers the actual span of twelve years in the life of the actors, you’re going to expect something like a documentary approach. You want it to have something of an improvisational feeling, a spontaneity. Sometimes you get that feeling of authenticity in this movie but too many of the scenes struck me as laboured and contrived. There are a couple of scenes where bullies taunt the young hero, Mason – once in a washroom and once at a beer bash – and in both cases, the young actors are not skilfull enough to make the situations seem natural. In another instance, a teacher (Tom McTigue) delivers a lecture to Mason about discipline and ambition. The long tirade feels too much like a set piece. And then there are the stepfathers. One of them (Marco Perella) is clearly an odious creep from the first glimpse of him on screen, with the result that the eventual revelation of his villainy comes as pure melodrama. The other guy (Steven Chester Prince, I think) is nice enough on first meeting but, without much reason, he too turns into an ogre. In both cases, it’s a corny old dramatic device that brings out the beast in these guys: alcohol.

By contrast, however, almost all the scenes with Nathan Hawke, as Mason’s father, have a vitality and spontaneity that seem completely real and believable. Take the scene where he’s picking up his kids at the home of his ex-wife’s mother. The grandmother and the dad are standing there on the front steps, as the two kids run inside to get their stuff, and you can almost feel the cringe-making tension as the two adults both try to think of things to say by way of seeming friendly and amicable, in spite of the bad memories and conflicted feelings that you know they’re both suppressing.

In spite of many good scenes like this, I felt that the movie – at two hours and forty minutes – lagged at times. That could be because it’s very episodic; there doesn’t seem to be anything much pulling it forward, other than the passage of time. In retrospect, though, I can see that the thread running through it – or the plot, if you like – is young Mason’s gradual discovery of the world, his dawning realization that this is what life is like and his attempt to deal with it accordingly. He’s often inclined to ask questions like: what’s all this supposed to mean, anyway?

At first, though, it’s his precocious sister who seems the more interesting person (Lorelei Linklater). She gets the neat quips, while Mason seems to looks on mutely. When he does eventually emerge from the shadows, you can appreciate him as a sensitive and thoughtful young man who tries to steer a steady course between what people expect of him and his own expectations of himself. A theme that crops up more than once, as a matter of fact, is the question of whether or not a person should care what other people think of him or her.

Not that you’re going to get much comment on the subject from Mason. One of his most telling remarks comes when a girlfriend (Zoe Graham) is arguing with him. He asks: what is the point of trying to say things? Why try to explain what you’re thinking or feeling? Words, according to him, are "stupid." If that doesn’t make for a Hamlet of eloquence, we do get a very believable portrait of a contemporary young man.

 

The Interview (Movie) written by Dan Sterling, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen; starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang.

Given the international uproar about it, I approached this movie with mixed feelings. What conquered my misgivings was that it happened to be the only remotely interesting movie available at a certain time and in a certain situation.

You probably know the general idea of it. James Franco plays the vain, preening host of a cheesy tv talk show that features celebrity gossip. Seth Rogen is the show’s producer. To their amazement, they find out that Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, loves their show. Hoping that this will boost the credibility and legitimacy of their show, they put out a request for an interview with Kim Jong-un. To their amazement, a positive answer comes from on high – provided that they ask only the questions that have been prepared by Kim Jong-un’s staff. Elated, the tv guys boast to the world about their journalistic coup. Now the CIA wants them to take the opportunity to assassinate Kim Jong-un. It’s a proposal that our two heroes cannot easily refuse. Of course, there are multiple complications and arguments about how the deed will be done.

Much of the comedy is extremely crude in the twelve-year-old-boy mode. For instance, there’s a repeated play on the similarity between "ain’t us" and "anus." Human excretory functions are mentioned more often than in four years of study in medical school. Slapstick and farce abound. As in almost all comedies involving young male actors these days, there’s some flirting with the subject of gayness. The actors often do things (kisses, etc) that actors would have rejected in earlier times. These guys play around with this stuff to show how hip and cool they are.

Admittedly, there’s something genuinely entertaining about the rapport between Mr. Franco and Mr. Rogen. With his flakey, vapid tv host, Mr. Franco gives us some of the most outlandish over-acting you’ll see anywhere other than in a cartoon. It’s such an extreme caricature that I kept wondering if he was basing it on some famous tv host that I don’t know about. On the other hand, maybe Mr. Franco, having done honourable duty as a serious actor all these years, decided he was going to ham it up as much as he liked this time just for the hell of it. If you look at it that way, the shtick is amusing. The best thing about it is that it makes Mr. Rogen look good as the more reasonable member of the team, the one who's trying to be unflappable – so much the better, then, when he's the one caught with his pants down.

While the movie does devolve into some very viollent excesses, there are some interesting and surprising turns in the human relations department. Kim Jong-un, well presented by Randall Park, turns out to be more interesting than you’d expect. That takes the plot in some imaginative directions. Good work is done as well by actors Diana Bang, as one of Kim Jong-un’s closest aides, and Lizzy Caplan, as the sexy CIA contact.

Still, I felt vaguely uneasy about the whole thing. Should we be making fun of the possibility and the desirability – so blatantly expressed – of killing the real, living head of a real country, no matter how hostile that leader’s intentions toward us? Would it have been better to have the plot aimed at the supposed leader of a fictional country (as in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator), even if we all knew the identity, in reality, of the intended target? Well, no. I think this movie, for its edgy quality, needs to be about a real person and a real country. One might only wish that the leader and the citizens of that country had a sense of humour about themselves. But then there’d be no point to the movie, would there?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com