Friday, November 21, 2008
By Andrea Warner
2 stars (out of 5)= It's okay. Probably fans only.
Twilight, based on the first book in Stephanie Meyer’s best-selling series, tells the story of star-crossed couple Edward and Bella, a modern day Romeo and Juliet with less suicide and more blood.
Bella is a recent transfer student and lovely loner (played with classic amounts of teen angst by the compelling Kristen Stewart), and Edward (Robert Pattinson combining the ol’ crazy eye with a dash of Johnny Depp) is the ridiculously beautiful, mysterious boy who sits next to her in Biology. Oh, and he’s a blood-sucking vampire.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) translates the duo’s courtship through a series of painfully silly close-ups and lingering, intense stares. If she’s intentionally being funny, that’s awesome. If she’s, as I suspect, being entirely sincere, these prove to be the first of many moments where the audience laughs inappropriately.
Edward makes some half-hearted attempts to keep his distance from Bella, but he’s “intoxicated” by the smell of her (at one point likening her to his brand of heroin), and can’t stay away. Bella, of course, becomes equally obsessed with Edward and uncovering his secret. What follows is a series of events that alternate between eye-rolling and neat as Edward must save Bella repeatedly from the evils of the world, and then take her half-running/half-flying up beautiful old-growth pines to play amongst the tree tops (the scenery is breathtaking).
A truly inane subplot involving an evil “tracker” vampire who gets a good whiff of Bella and decides she’s his next meal creates a sharp departure that turns this romance into a thriller (using the term loosely) for about 15 minutes. The bad vamps are introduced late in the game, and just serve as yet another way to illustrate Bella as Helpless Girl and Edward as Fierce Protector.
For all the hoopla, even diehard loyalists will likely be disappointed in Twilight’s shoddy production values, bad clown makeup, and ridiculous dialogue. A sequel seems inevitable, so let’s hope for a bit more bite next time.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
By Andrea Warner
4 stars (out of 5)
This, the newest work of art from co-director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), is a modern-day fairytale rooted in the vibrant, seemingly mythical world of India. More Grimm Brothers than Mother Goose, Slumdog Millionaire takes traditional fairytale elements (evil people pretending to be nice? Check. Star-crossed romance? Absolutely. Plucky hero? You bet) and creates a compelling human drama that delights and horrifies with equal aplomb.
The slumdog millionaire of the title is Jamal Malik (the wonderful Dev Patel), a chai-tea runner in a call centre (read: lower-caste) and a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? With each question he’s asked on the show, Jamal’s story unravels — small vignettes in a troubled life that magically supply the answers he needs to get one step closer to winning millions of rupees, and, hopefully, the heart of Latika (Freida Pinto), his childhood friend and a loyal Millionaire viewer.
The film relies heavily on the laziest of story-telling devices: the flashback. And yet, Boyle handles them with such precision, they positively vibrate with energy and purpose. Those flashbacks mostly detail how Jamal and his older brother, the troubled Salim, survive as kids growing up on their own. The circumstances of their adventures are almost always awful, yet the film never loses its sense of humour, nor does it lose sight of the scrappy independence of youth as the boys sneak, steal and swindle a path across India.
Easily one of the best films of the year, Slumdog’s only significant misstep is the rather sudden and extreme rift between the brothers. It’s a plot point that’s hinted at, but arrives so suddenly and so inexplicably, it becomes a jarring — albeit momentary — breakdown in an otherwise brilliant spell.
Four Course Meal
By Andrea Warner
ITSAZOO Productions, a Victoria-based non-profit theatre company, has a reputation for presenting innovative theatre in wildly inventive settings. The group made its Vancouver debut this past summer with Grimm Tales, which turned Queen Elizabeth Park into the secret enclave of fairytale characters with more problems than an entire season of Jerry Springer rejects. The company’s youthfulness (the founders are a few fresh-from-UVic-theatre grads) makes its accomplishments all the more rewarding.
Four Course Meal, the company’s second offering of its first full season in Vancouver, incorporates four one-act plays, all of them written by a variety of new voices. The evening starts off on a tasty note with the quaint fairytale, Milmish. The titular character is part frog, part human, whose parents disagree about how best to socialize her in the “new world,” where most children are perfect, conceived through the “miracle” of mail-ordered gene-selection. The cast is funny and sweet, and Colby Wilson’s particularly hilarious turn as the professor is not to be missed.
Baggage, the second piece, is at turns brilliant and vulgar, but it’s the most nuanced and accomplished of the four. Written and directed by Sebastien Archibald (writer of Grimm Tales), it depicts the entirety of an imagined relationship between two people who have just met, plus all of the hang-ups, insecurities, and, well, baggage that have brought them to this point. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking.
The second half, unfortunately, falls flatter than a soufflé cooked in the midst of a demolition derby. Indiana Jones and the Wannabe Nemeses is a one-man show that strives to be meaningful, deep, and funny, but comes off as bitter, manipulative, and boring. Five Red Balloons fares better, but its high-concept meditation on the inherent evil of man feels more emo than avant-garde. The cast is great, but overall, the piece never resonates as loudly as its writer clearly wishes it would.
Ultimately, Four Course Meal isn’t quite ready to serve as is. But, given the lively sparkle of the first half of the evening, this might be an exercise in restraint: the company offers a lower admission fee if you want to see just the first two acts. Practice quality over quantity and get your dessert somewhere else.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
My review of Influence also appears in this week's WE.
STAGE REVIEW: History and fantasy meld beautifully in ‘Influence’
Victoria-based playwright Janet Munsil might be a genius. At first glance, the ideas behind her new play, Influence, seem too numerous and, well, dull — like some strange introductory English Lit class — to result in anything resembling an entertaining two hours of theatre. And yet, in her capably crafty hands, she makes her audience care about the magic of inspiration and art by interweaving Greek mythology, Romantic poet John Keats, and failed painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
Influence delights in its academics, but takes equal pleasure in blending fact and fiction for a full-bodied re-imagining of a visit by Keats and Haydon to view the Elgin Marbles (ancient Greek statues originally housed in the Parthenon, and the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet). There, the pair meet three tempestuous Greek gods — Athena, Apollo, and Hephaestus — who end up battling over Keats’s fate, as well as settling old scores with each other.
This is an impeccably cast production, but a few standouts include Daniel Arnold, who is a joy as Keats. His desperation is palpable (Keats has just quit his job to become a poet), and his delighted awe at Haydon’s artistic passion makes their mentor-protégé relationship entirely believable. Colleen Wheeler is always wonderful, and her Athena is powerful and appropriately intimidating, given that the character is the God of wisdom and war.
But Influence’s greatest asset is Mike Stack as Haydon, imagined here as obnoxious, self-involved, a borderline mad Willy Wonka wielding a paintbrush. Yet Stack keeps the character relatable, allowing the audience to see that for all Haydon’s bravado, his denial is a fragile bubble in which to hide.
This is Influence’s world premiere, and while there likely are still tweaks to be made (it’s about 20 minutes too long), it has all the makings of a new classic.
And, my Rosebuds piece appears this week as well in WE.
MUSIC: The couple that rocks together, stays together
It’s been a beautifully morose few years for Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, the married musical duo also known as the Rosebuds. Death has had a profound effect on their last two albums: Crisp’s grandmother died while she and Howard were writing their third, 2007’s Night of the Furies; and the death of a neighbourhood fox inspired “Nice Fox,” the best song on their latest album, Life Like. Most recently — three weeks ago, in fact — the couple had to put down their 14-year-old Boxer, Jasmine, the subject of an inspired music video in which they cover Salt N’ Pepa’s “Push It” (it subsequently became a YouTube sensation).
But even with such dark inspirations, Howard is pretty upbeat, looking forward to embarking on a North American tour in support of the Rosebuds’ most thoughtful album yet. The North Carolina-based indie-rock darlings are known for creating albums that sound nothing like their predecessors, and this latest one is no exception. Recorded inside their little two-storey house, Life Like has an extraordinarily intimate acoustic sound that stands in sharp contrast with the electronic/pop-rock stylings of Furies.
WE caught up with Howard a few days before the band’s hometown tour-kick-off show.
“Nice Fox” is about a fox that died in your backyard. Do you take from nature and your surroundings a lot?
Howard: Yeah, I think. We did the [2005 album] Birds Make Good Neighbors, and we didn’t record it in our house, but I wrote everything in the back room of our house. We live in downtown Raleigh, and it actually has 10 acres of woods behind the house, so we actually have a wildlife rescue, sort of, in our backyard. When you’re around that many things, it’s liable to creep up in your imagery. Our last record, Furies, didn’t have much of the animal imagery — it was based more on our trip to Europe and the impending doom of George Bush, stuff like that.
How did you deal with recording this album in your house, turning your living space into your work space and vice versa?
Every day, you have to re-set up everything, which sucks, but it kind of gets you in the mood to work again. [We ended up leaving everything up] and just shutting the door. It was better than driving an hour to the studio every day and driving back. You just make room for it and then try to forget it’s there. It’s a tiny house, too — just two bedrooms. But it was fun.
It’s a pretty unique situation, working so intimately with your partner.
Yeah. It’s good. That part was really convenient. (laughs) But sometimes you need space to think about things for a little bit. When I show Kelly ideas, I like to work them out a little bit and then show them to her, and she does the same thing. But when we’re all over each other in the same space and recording, you don’t get a chance to do that.
Kelly’s time is divided between Raleigh and Brooklyn as she pursues being a stand-up comic. Is it difficult juggling both lives?
Yeah, but not that difficult. Before we got the band going, she was doing a lot of acting and comedy, and then we moved to Raleigh and, before we knew it, our whole support community was music-based. Then we got signed to Merge Records and, accidentally, we were in a band full-time. We went to New York in 2004 to The Onion’s Christmas party, and she ran into all these comics and she was like, “Wow, I forgot about this whole part of my life that I really love,” so she got a sketch group together back in Raleigh and they were amazing, and I was like, “Yeah, we’ve been doing my thing for five years. Let’s do yours.”
I know you’re into sports. I don’t hear many musicians say that.
The whole community in Raleigh is into basketball, so I think that’s a misnomer... in the south, anyway. One of my best friends, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, that’s how we met, was playing basketball… But maybe you’re right. I’ve spent months on the road and never shot a basket. I really know more about the starting lineup of a team than how a song was written.
My review of Quantum of Solace appears in this week's WE.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE
By Andrea Warner
2 stars (out of 5; 3 stars if you've seen Casino Royale)
Casino Royale revitalized the James Bond franchise by fusing ass-kicking action with art-house grace, and its increasingly troubled legacy was reborn!
Or so we thought. Quantum of Solace suffers a severe case of Second Child Syndrome, with several lacklustre action sequences, a preposterous plot, and an arrogant presumption by its writers that audiences would carry the emotional baggage from Royale forward.
Quantum opens moments after Royale ends, with Bond (a steely Daniel Craig) desperate to avenge the death of his lady love, Vesper Lynd. He’s pulled in to help uncover the identity of a top-secret group — comprised of the world’s political, financial, and morally compromised elite — that has infiltrated MI6. Bond’s nemesis is the power-crazed Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, his eyeball-driven acting chewing the scenery), who wants to control the world’s water supply. At Bond’s side is wounded beauty Camille (Olga Kurylenko), also consumed by revenge.
It’s a convoluted mess of a story that fails to resonate in any meaningful way, and not just because the audience is expected to harken back to Royale every 20 minutes. Greene is never adequately established as a chilling villain or credible foil for Bond, Camille’s backstory is predictable, and the chemistry between Kurylenko and Craig barely quickens the pulse.
The one truly awesome sequence juxtaposes scenes from Puccini’s Tosca amidst the unravelling of the secret society’s key players. It’s beautifully shot, and showcases Bond’s brains and balls over his brawn. The cinematography is innovative and clever, but it’s the only moment in the film that manages to rise above its infinitely superior predecessor.
Scarcely shaken, never stirred, there’s only minor solace to be found here.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
By Andrea Warner
The Dresser, the finely crafted 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, has a lengthy history of granting good performers an award-winning tours de force, both on stage and on the silver screen. At its centre is an aging, egomaniacal actor facing his mortality, and the servile, fey dresser who has taken care of him for the last 16 years, all as the London blitz wails in the background. The Dresser is every actor’s dream: an opportunity for the aging lion to roar one last time, and for the young cub to prove his worth and hold his own.
Unfortunately, little of the play’s greatness is evident in the production currently on at Presentation House, and it’s hard to know where the blame should fall.
Dave McIntosh plays Sir — the aforementioned actor and head of a touring Shakespeare company — with almost comic exaggeration, chewing on scenery like a puppy getting its adult teeth. The character should alternate between breaking our hearts and frustrating us with his selfishness. Instead, he’s just exhausting as he launches in for the umpteenth time (between scenes of King Lear, the play he is performing that evening) about his impending descent into death. McIntosh’s performance is one-note and oddly flat, even when he’s clenching his hands and raging with fury.
As Norman, Sir’s dresser, Michael Morabito does a convincing job of smoothing out Sir’s wrinkles (professional and personal) with aplomb. But he also lets the nuances of the script slip by, tossing off some brilliantly funny asides too quickly. Norman’s alcoholism and slipping grip on reality are communicated via increasingly frequent nips from a flask, rather than any real emotional or physical transformation.
The play picks up a bit of steam in the second act, but never recovers from its shaky start. A surer hand from director Jennifer Morabito, and more time spent interpreting the explosive script, would have kept The Dresser from succumbing to its show-within-a-show irony and mirroring Sir’s painfully slow (but ultimately welcome) end.
By Andrea Warner
Brandon Curtis, lead singer of Secret Machines, is in Aspen, Colorado, for the first time, looking into the distance at snow-capped mountains, a jarring contrast to the balmy temperature outside. He calls the city “exotic,” and though that may be an exaggeration, it’s easy to understand why the New York-by-way-of-Dallas transplant is allowing himself a moment to be awed by the unfamiliar landscape.
This has been an overwhelming year for the Dallas-based trio. In the midst of their first tour as newly independent artists, they’re making stops in places the band’s former label, Warner Bros., would have overlooked. The group’s self-described “space rock” borrows heavily from forefathers like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and big, atmospheric, riff-heavy sounds populate their new self-released, self-titled album. With a fresh lease on life as a bona fide indie band comes a line-up change, too: Last year, Curtis’s brother, Benjamin, departed Secret Machines to focus on his new band, School of Seven Bells.
Curtis took a quick break to talk with WE about his new commitment to fiscal conservatism, getting the finger in Milan, and receiving David Bowie’s stamp of approval.
What’s your mindset when you’re going on stage to play a gig?
Brandon Curtis: It’s kind of a strange thing to do night after night. Playing a song that we’ve played for years and feeling like we’re connecting with feelings that existed when we were writing the song, and bringing that to the surface night after night, is odd. There’s some kind of psychological manipulation that I go through to rediscover that state of mind.
Do the fans’ reactions translate from the crowd onto the stage?
Definitely, especially in support slots. Like the Foo Fighters, for example — there were some pretty rabid Foo Fighters fans, and you’d think they would be very tolerant and happy, but they weren’t. They were very anxious and just “Get off the stage, already,” and that creates a very confrontational kind of atmosphere. But, afterwards, it’s like a notch — you know, that time in Milan with the Foo Fighters and the sea of middle fingers.
Obviously, Secret Machines have been through some changes in the last few years. How is that reflected in the new album?
Well, first of all, Phil’s [Karmats] contributions on guitar — he’s a different player and a very different personality than Benjamin, and that’s pretty evident on the album. He has a different way of hearing music and playing. For me, that’s the biggest difference. I don’t think we approached the process any differently based on our business situation, not making a record for Warner Bros.
Was it scary to do it on your own?
With Warner Bros., you have this big, bureaucratic monolith with seemingly endless resources, and we don’t have that anymore. It’s not scary, but it changes the context of things and the way we view the business. We have to be more precise and conservative with time and money. The weirdest thing about Warner Bros. is that the money didn’t come out of anyone’s pockets, so they were very happy to spend it. But when it’s your own circumstances, your own livelihood, it’s a finite amount and it comes from here to go there — you can see where everything’s going. That’s taken some adjustments.
David Bowie asked you to close out the Highline Festival he curated in New York. What does it mean when a big name like that endorses you?
It’s very flattering. We’ve been really fortunate. And someone like David Bowie, who I’ve grown up adoring and wishing to emulate, basically worshipping on some level — you know, someone who represents music and art on the highest level, like a name that doesn’t even equal human to me — and then to have an opportunity to meet someone like that... I’m pinching myself sometimes. It’s fucking great.
I've Loved You So Long
By Andrea Warner
Fractious sisters and women playing “ugly” (read: au naturel) are the twin wonders of cinema in 2008 (see also: Then She Found Me, Frozen River, Silent Light). But, to date, no one has brought such exquisite elegance to the combination as Kristin Scott Thomas, who stars in one of the most resonant films of the year, the beautiful French weeper, I’ve Loved You So Long.
Thomas disappears wholly inside the character of Juliet, a lean, brittle, exposed nerve of a woman who is reunited with her younger sister, Léa (the sweetly hopeful Elsa Zylberstein), after 15 years. Léa is young and vibrant, with the complete package: a happy family, a career as a literature professor, and a beautiful home. Juliet is starting from scratch, her belongings being one suitcase and plenty of emotional baggage.
The 15-year absence is central to the plot twists, and, as the sisters slowly reconnect, Juliet finds herself further entrenched in Léa’s life. The women dance around each other — Juliet guarded and cold, Léa tentative and yearning — and the subsequent revelations provide one emotional wallop after another.
This is a film that wraps its broken heart inside a blanket of books, as almost every character — a multi-ethnic cast of casual intellectuals who read (!) and are more interesting for it — retreats into the world of fiction to make sense of their lives.
If the film makes one misstep, it’s the compulsive need to redeem Juliet in its last five minutes. Thorny issues involving law and morality politicize her journey, weakening the impact of the sisters’ cathartic climax. But, it’s just one flaw in an otherwise perfect facade. C’est la vie.