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London Theater Review: ‘Ballyturk’ with Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea

Artemis:

As a fan of Disco Pigs, I wish desperately I could go to Europe to see this!

Originally posted on Variety:

Two cheerfully ludicrous characters stuck in the same place play extravagantly with language and each other as they jockey for position and kill time. And although their seemingly mad activities gradually reveal an internal logic, they have no one literal “meaning.” If Enda Walsh’s new play “Ballyturk” sounds a lot like “Waiting for Godot,” Walsh’s own grandly staged, high-octane production with dazzlingly fast-paced performances by Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are more like Beckett on Benzedrine.

In fact, the Beckett to which it is most deeply indebted is his bitterly comic “Play,” a twenty-minute wonder in which characters trapped in funeral urns ceaselessly race through their relationships with one another. But where those characters were in Purgatory, Walsh’s men — simply named 1 and 2 (Murphy and Murfi, respectively) — are less precisely located. That is, at least, until the arrival of 3 (Stephen Rea) who demands that one of…

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The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

If you want to start reading about history in general and the history of England in particular, you will wade into dangerous waters. I suppose it’s because different people gravitate towards different styles. Some like the historical novel. While I love fictional stories set in historical realities (my favorite book ever is The Scarlet Pimpernel), I dislike novels about historical figures. I prefer to read actual history books when it comes to the lives of actual people. Novels like The Other Boleyn Girl are simply not for me.

Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets is just the type of book I’d recommend to someone embarking on a journey through English history. It is accessible enough for newbies, but it has the heft and substance of a well-researched historical study.

As its title implies, The Plantagenets focuses on the family that ruled England through three turbulent centuries. It opens with the 1120 boat disaster that killed William Ætheling, son and heir to Henry I of England, and grandson to William the Conqueror. Throwing the line of succession into a crisis, Henry names his daughter Matilda as heir and marries her to Count Geoffrey of Anjou, the founder of the Plantagenet bloodline.

Through the centuries, The Plantagenets would produce kings and queens who were capable of astonishing acts of daring as well as acts of cowardice and cruelty. Few of them were in tune with the plight of the poor, but some were more capable of commanding the poor’s allegiance than others. Through times of war, through times of famine, through the drafting of the Magna Carta, through the Crusades, and through the most devastating plague the human race has ever seen, The Plantagenets asserted their rule in England and vied for prominence on the European continent.

Jones’ narrative is endlessly engrossing. There are episodes of derring-do, as a prince sneaks through the night with a small contingent of loyal followers to take control of the throne that is rightfully his. There are also episodes of great humanity and love, as a grieving King builds a memorial to his deceased queen in 12 crosses spread throughout his land.

Because of his focus on the monarchs, Jones is unable to veer into the lives of other major figures. Thomas Becket and William Marshall, among others, could easily dominate books on their own. The Queens of England are also fascinating figures whose lives are as fascinating as those of their Kings. Isabella of France, for example, led an invasion against her husband. Eleanor of Aquitaine has captured the fancy of writers and historians through the ages. These figures all make splendid appearances in The Plantagenets, but I felt the need to seek out even more books to focus on them individually. That isn’t a fault on Jones’ part, but a testament to how much time he had to cover, and how tight his storytelling is.

The Plantagenets concludes with the rise of Henry Bolingbroke. Since there is more Plantagenet fun to be had, there is a sequel in the works. Due for release in October, The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors will pick up where The Plantagenets left off. In the UK, this sequel is titled The Hollow Crown, after the flawless 2012 BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (also awaiting a sequel that will cover the three parts of Henry VI along with Richard III).

Jones’ book is a vivid and compelling tale of a family that has lost ground through the ages to the more famous Tudors. I recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in the topic. The Plantagenets proves that truth is often more outrageous than any fiction.

The Conjuring

With the upcoming release of Annabelle, I decided to check out its predecessor The Conjuring, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren.

In the 70s and 80s, the Warrens made a name for themselves as supernatural investigators. Most famously, they looked into the Amityville case. The Conjuring deals with an earlier case, involving the Perron family. Mother Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) begins to discover mysterious bruises on her body when the family moves into a new house. Soon the family dog dies. The daughters are attacked by unseen forces. Though Ed Warren is uncomfortable taking the case due to its effect on Lorraine, the couple nevertheless agrees to visit the Perrons to try to help.

Unlike the upcoming Annabelle, The Conjuring boasts a well-known, solid cast. The gravitas of Farmiga, Wilson and Taylor keep the scares grounded in reality, and director James Wan paces the film extremely well. It is a small haunted house film that takes itself seriously (I loathe the post-Scream self-aware, winking school of horror, despite the fact that I liked Scream itself). The Conjuring is not game-changing, and it doesn’t bring anything new to the sub-genre, but it does deliver very well.

The Conjuring is available on DVD/blu-ray and Annabelle opens next month in theatres.

The Roosevelts (Ken Burns)

Ken Burns’ 14-hour opus, The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait, has been heavily promoted by PBS over the summer.

My history with Ken Burns documentaries varies. I think that he is a great documentarian ALWAYS, but some topics interest me more than others. Hi Baseball documentary was of zero interest to me, but his famous The Civil War remains my favorite documentary of all time.

With The Roosevelts, Burns turns his attention to a topic that interests me greatly: the story of one of America’s most prominent and influential families. Many historical figures fall flat when hit with the glare of a documentary (let alone a 14-hour one). You turn on the TV, then soon realize that as consequential as this person was, his/her personal life simply doesn’t feel compelling. Many great people led incredibly mundane lives.

The Roosevelts were not such people. They were larger-than-life. If an author had written the Roosevelts as fictional characters, he/she would be taken to task for having them witness Lincoln’s funeral procession, go to war in Cuba, kill endless wild animals in the American West, then produce two men who would become President of the United States. It would just be too much story to make up for one family. Yet that is exactly who the Roosevelts were.

The first episode chronicles the childhood of Theodore Roosevelt. Doctors feared for the boy’s health, but he refused to be idle. Instead, he went into politics, spent some years hunting and cattle ranching in the West, then led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Due to his fame as a war hero, as well as his prominence in New York politics, the young Teddy rose quickly through the ranks to become one of the most important men of his time. In the meantime, another branch of Teddy’s family produced a pampered and adored young boy: Franklin Delano.

What makes Ken Burns so successful as a documentarian is his choice to eschew corny re-enactments in favor of actual photographs, combined with the voice-over readings of his subjects’ actual words. His style has become so widely known that it is regularly parodied by Jimmy Kimmel and others. Here, the words of the Roosevelts bring them to life and humanize them, while still showing us how exceptional they were. For example, Teddy would fall hard for his first wife, then lose her in childbirth, then went on to distance himself from the daughter they shared. His exuberance and near manic drive was fueled in part by a deep depression, one that forced him to keep moving to outrun his inner demons.

The chronicle of a family and a nation, The Roosevelts is engrossing, well-researched and the kind of all-encompassing portrait that will feed the appetites of history freaks such as myself. All the episodes are available on PBS platforms through the end of September, and the DVD/blu-ray release is available for purchase this week.

Gilmore Girls

Recently, it was announced that Gilmore Girls would become available on Netflix starting October. A couple of my friends had been hesitating to start this series, and I think Netflix offers them an easy way to try it. Then one of them asked me, “Why do you like this show so much?”

As a feminist and a lover of the arts, it’s hard to accept the portrayal of women in fiction. Setting aside the obviously offensive objectification of women onscreen, I’m more disturbed by the subtle ways in which female characters are ill-served. Take, for example, a series that was hailed in its time as a smart, honest portrayal of women: Sex and the City. To my mind, that show was nothing resembled smart or honest. Sure, it gave us the heretofore unconceivable revelation that women like sex, but beyond that, the women were all cartoons. They sat around musing about clothes and men… and that’s it. They were caricatures of what writers think women are, rather than real women.

Gilmore Girls took a different approach. Though all promotional materials for the series feature Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel (who play mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore), there are actually THREE Gilmore girls. The jawdroppingly amazing Kelly Bishop plays Emily Gilmore, Lorelai’s mother, and the third part of the narrative triangle that drives the series.

The first season begins when 32 year old Lorelai discovers that her brilliant daughter Rory has been accepted into Chilton, an very exclusive and very expensive private school, one which only takes the most brilliant minds to prepare them for Ivy League colleges. Lorelai, a single mom, ran away from home when she was 16 due to her unplanned pregnancy, and has avoided contact with her upper crust parents ever since. Now, all that stands between her beloved Rory and the school of their dreams is the money and influence that Lorelai walked away from years before. Her parents, Richard and Emily, are very curious about their granddaughter, and they agree to pay for Rory’s schooling… on the condition that Lorelai and Rory have dinners with them EVERY Friday night until Rory graduates.

Though Richard and other male characters feature prominently on the show, the series is true to its title. The women of the Gilmore family are front and center, and the complexities of their lives and personalities are a joy to behold. Unlike other fictional portrayals of women, which focus almost exclusively on their relationships to men, Gilmore Girls is concerned with these women’s relationships to each other, as well as their ambitions, their dreams, their shortcomings, and their shared bond. Emily resents Lorelai- every day- for leaving home, and makes regular disparaging remarks about Lorelai’s choices. But she also loves her daughter deeply and tries (mostly without success) to connect with her. The saddest moments in the series are when Emily realizes the myriad of ways in which Lorelai has kept her out of the most important moments of her life, as well as Rory’s. For her part, Lorelai feels a great deal of contempt for everything that her mother believes and represents. Though she tries to cope with humor, her jokes have a bite that makes it clear she is not ready to come back into the family fold. Lorelai loves Rory, and considers that they are best friends, which makes it all the more baffling when Rory connects with her grandparents to a much greater degree than Lorelai herself. As for Rory, she’s trying to navigate the world through the dueling influences of her mother and grandmother, but she mostly takes after her bookish grandfather.

It is interesting to me that the women all have different life goals, and that these goals matter to the series. Emily wants to be a woman of influence in her local society scene. Lorelai wants to complete her interrupted education and save up money to start a business of her own. Rory wants to be a world-class journalist. The show CELEBRATES these women’s ambitions instead of mocking and/or punishing them, or worse, ignoring them altogether in favor of their romantic encounters. Rory is the first television teen I’ve seen that delights (as I did) in reading and studying rather than buying clothes or looking for a cute guy to date. One scene in the pilot rang particularly true, as it mirrored one from my own life: Rory, oblivious or uncaring about the reaction she’ll receive, opts for a long school uniform skirt. Most teenage girls (particularly as perceived by male writers) would be written to raise the hems on their skirts or try to sneak in a little make-up to school. Not Rory, and not me, and not many of us who fall outside of the stereotype that plagues so many female teenage characters. While most such characters can’t think beyond this week, Rory (like many teen girls) cares about her future, and works hard to achieve her career ambitions.

This insightful portrait of what it means to be a girl and a woman is owed to series creator and writer Amy Sherman Palladino, who wrote the lion’s share of the show’s 153 episodes. Clearly, she feels empathy for each of the women she is writing, and it shows. They are multi-faceted, flawed, and exceptional, all at the same time. Gilmore Girls unapologetically celebrates girlishness without ever being reductive about what girlishness is (many people make the mistake of equating girlishness with vapidity). The show has a wit that is fast and unrelenting (scripts were reportedly twice as long as regular 1-hour programs), full of obscure and not-obscure references. The speed brings to mind His Girl Friday, and Lorelai/Rory have more than a little in common with Hildy Johnson. Despite the fast dialogue, storylines are developed slowly, with resentments and arguments boiling up over the course of seasons (one notable argument in Season 6 was 6 seasons in the making!).

The fictional Connecticut town in which the characters reside, Stars Hollow, is fully realized with an almost Simpsons-level of attention to town residents. When the Gilmores need to eat out, or get their car repaired, viewers know the characters they will encounter in each location, just like we know Homer Simpson is going to see Moe when he steps out for a drink or Lenny when he goes to work. It is notable that the people of Stars Hollow exist in a hyper-reality of sorts, and a hilarious, loony one, at that. They are the “medy” part of “dramedy” here, since the Gilmores represent that “drama.”

I purchased the series on DVD, and I would definitely recommend that interested viewers catch it on Netflix next month. It is one of the few series I have watched all the way through multiple times, and the structure of the show, as well the writing and the acting just get better each time.

The Decoy Bride

My undying love for David Tennant made me seek out his 2011 film The Decoy Bride. Also starring the always charming Kelly Macdonald, I figured I would be in for a decent time.

Macdonald plays Katie, who grew up in the isolated island of Hegg. She is heartbroken and has sworn off men after a recent breakup. Unbeknownst to anyone, movie star Lara Tyler (Alice Eve) has arrived on Hegg, fleeing from paparazzi trying to get shots of her nuptials to author James Arber (David Tennant). Lara has selected Hegg because of its inaccessibility and because it was the setting for Arber’s only book, a lengthy tome purporting to be a realistic portrait of Hegg and its residents. In actuality, Hegg residents mock the book, literally wiping their asses with it. Katie is tasked with writing a guidebook that represents a TRUE portrait of the island. Upon arriving on Hegg, Lara’s handlers realize that the media has discovered their location, and they quickly make plans to use Katie as a decoy bride to divert them.

I don’t like romantic comedies. Rather, I should say: I don’t like MODERN romantic comedies. While most genres have matured and expanded in interesting ways since the dawn of film, romantic comedies have devolved into nearly unwatchable tripe. Where we had Cary Grant, now we have Seth Rogen. Where we had Katherine Hepburn or Irene Dunne, now we have Katherine Heigl. Where we had Howard Hawks or Frank Capra, now we have Judd Apatow. Gone are the sassy, sexy women of old romantic comedies, who have been replaced with angry female leads, characters that exist to be punished for wanting a career. Gone are the debonair male leads, who were replaced by slobs that I am told are “lovable.”

But these are American romantic comedies. Abroad, things are better. Tennant is no Cary Grant, but he has his charm. Macdonald conveys a great deal of sweetness and warmth even though she plays a character that would read very bitter on paper. The Scottish setting itself is interesting, since it departs from the usual suburban or office settings of romantic comedies. The inhabitants of Hegg are funny, and they want to cash in on the newfound attention that the media has brought to their island.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give this talented cast much to do. To its credit, The Decoy Bride doesn’t take the American route of demonizing movie star Lara in order to raise up Katie, Lara is kind and good. There is no reason that James shouldn’t want to marry her, except that he just can’t shake off thoughts of Katie. That being said, all these genuinely charming characters are stumbling around from one inexplicable plot point to the next, simply because the plot dictates it, culminating in an improbable and underwhelming conclusion. No one does anything that remotely approaches logic in this film. In some rom-coms (Bringing Up Baby comes to mind), this screwball lack of concern for logic can really work, but it doesn’t in this film. It just leaves viewers scratching their heads.

I would recommend The Decoy Bride as a rental or if you can catch it on TV, particularly due to the likeability of the performers. It’s far from perfect, but still better than most rom-coms today.

Sinister

Spoilers ahead. I’m doing you a favor.

I’m a horror movie fanatic. You put any group of people into a scary situation, and I’m THERE! I went into Sinister wanting to love it. When it opened with a home movie in which an entire family was hanged from a tree, I thought, “I will absolutely love this movie.”

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer investigating the case of the aforementioned family. He moves into their old home because why not? Soon, he discovers a box full on home movies, and starts watching them, discovering that each film contains the murder of an entire family. Each mass murder took place in a different place and a different time, and the police has not connected them. A strange figure in a strange mask appears in each film. Also in each case, one of the family’s children disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Some have accused the film of falling into the horror trope of making the characters do illogical, stupid things for no reason. There is certainly that. But the bigger problem with Sinister is that it doesn’t deliver on the promise of that opening scene. The snuff films watched by Ellison are grainy, disturbing, silent, and as the title implies, sinister. They are genuinely horrific. Unfortunately, Sinister is not anywhere nearly as scary as those home movies. The pacing feels strange and the scares in Ellison’s life are shrug worthy. At one point, another character suggests the house has a squirrel problem. If your primordial monster, the terror of families since time immemorial, can be confused with a squirrel, that’s a problem.

Sinister
is a film that has its moments, but in the end (ESPECIALLY when “Extended” footage from the home movies is revealed), everything becomes too ridiculous even for the most generous viewer.