Saturday, December 26, 2009

"It's Complicated"

I saw this rom-com for the freedom fifty-five set with two friends tonight at a late screening. It's a very well-written comedy about love in late middle age and like the kitchen our heroine is building, there's a few sharp knives of wit hidden in its well-oiled drawers.

The film stars the great Meryl Streep who has shown much flair for romantic comedy in recent years ( Mamma Mia!) as Jane Adler, a divorced woman in her '50s with a successful bakery business, three great kids, a gaggle of girlfriends and a large, beautiful and suddenly very empty house as her youngest heads off to university.

On the weekend of festivities for their son's graduation, Streep and her ex-husband find themselves alone in the bar of a hotel where they're both housed, pre-commencement. He has remarried: she has not. His second wife is at home with her young child, which, conveniently for the plot, is not his. It's the Adler's first dinner together alone, in a decade. A few bottles of wine later, complications ensue.

As befits a comedy for middle-aged people, the action is divided between the kitchen and the bedroom. Streep is preparing to renovate both with the help of an architect who has more than a professional interest in her. Steve Martin comports himself with admirable restraint as Streep's other love interest.

The ex-husband, played brilliantly by Alex Baldwin, is a somewhat louche legal lion who has realized, a decade later that the kitten he ran off with has long since become a cat and he already had a much nicer one and kittens in his former home. His appropriately tiger-tattooed second wife is marching him off to the fertility clinic at a point in his life when his children from his first marriage are finishing college. His longing for the comfort of his former life is palpable: you feel him wanting not only to sleep with Jane but to just come home where he knows he belongs and stay there, raiding the fridge with his grown kids and drinking wine in the garden.

This is a romance: all weddings and nice hotel rooms and witty friends and homes beautiful and an endless procession of culinary delectations. You know the Adlers belong together in cosy, late night domesticity: but there's a fly in the ointment. It's not the obstacle of Mr. Adler's current marriage which seems like one of the warmer rooms in hell, but rather the fact he's the kind of man who is only truly in love when he's after something he knows he shouldn't be having at the moment. The former Mrs. Adler knows him too well to be so unwise the second time around. Her wisdom tinges the film with sadness, a problem in a vehicle that requires by its very nature for love in all its heady blindness to conquer all.

I'm the target audience for this sort of thing and I enjoyed it. Unlike the lovely pastry Streep's character offers guests throughout the film, the ending was bittersweet and a little flat: not in the best way for such a frothy confection of a film to end in my view, but it's a small quibble with a mostly charming offering.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


OK peeps, this Sunday I am helping host the second OPEN SCREEN DOOR, sponsored by Film Training Manitoba, OnScreen Manitoba and the Winnipeg Film Group.

This month's feature film script is LIPSTICK AND A REVOLVER: THE PEGGY TAYLOR STORY by Winnipeg writer CAM PATTERSON.

This is an epic WWII drama based on the true story of a Canadian woman who was a spy for the Resistance during WWII. Alicia Johnston is going to play Peggy. Come on down and support your local screenwriters!

1:00 pm
Admission is free ( we take donations!)

East of Berlin

Hannah Moscovitch's much-hyped new play is currently on at MTC Warehouse and last night I ventured out with two hard-core theatre goers to see what the fuss was about. My companions loved it as did much of the audience but I felt rather lukewarm about yet another post-WW II drama.

It's a well-constructed three-hander about the son of a Nazi death camp doctor raised in blissful ignorance in Paraguay and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who grew up in New York. Set in the mid-sixties its a love triangle with a dark twist.

Rudi is fed the poisoned fruit of truth about his past by Hermann with whom he has a complex and sexually charged friendship. Overwhelmed, Rudi flees Paraguay for Germany to study medicine and explore his family's dark roots. Brendan Gall, all twitchy neurosis off the start, speeds through the text at a gallop. It's a credible performance but the break-neck pace left me with little time to empathize with him and left his character with little time to make any discoveries.

Diana Donnelly does some nice work and is deft with the darker comedic aspects of her role, but I didn't really see the emotional evolution of her relationship with Rudi.

The stand-out of the show is Paul Dunn in the role of Rudi's friend Hermann. It's a brilliant performance full of flashes of the emotional underpinnings beneath his character's wit and revelations. I was left feeling far more for Hermann than for the suffering Rudi.

The set by Camillia Koo is a marvel of suggestion, the rows of charred tomes and vaguely threatening objects suggesting a dark and hidden history. The lighting and sound were both used rather in the manner of B movies, telegraphing emotions the audience should have been left to feel from the text and the performances. The score was particularly overwrought.

I don't know if the brusque pacing was the director's decision or if the actors were just worried about holding our attention for 90 uninterrupted minutes. More time for discoveries would have gone a long way towards making this well-worn territory connect better emotionally with the audience.

Ah, Jews and Germans after WWII: I saw the NIGHT PORTER a long time ago which dealt with similar subject matter in a much more gripping and subversive fashion. It's not that you can't write about the past but rather that this play felt like it had been written in the past. Perhaps that's why the mostly grey haired audience connected so well with the material. If the play had been written in the late 60s, it would have been novel but it's fifty years later. I infinitely preferred SCORCHED: a truly brilliant and contemporary take on war and its aftermath.

Moscovitch has some half-dozen commissions from various theatres across the country for new work. I'd like to see what she does with a less shop-worn subject.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel...a triumph of style and substance

Ok, I freely admit it, I'm a fashion victim. I couldn't wait to see this film about the life of couturier and fashion icon Coco Chanel, made in France with the assistance of the house of Chanel.

An orphan trained to sew by nuns, Chanel was ambitious and talented with her voice and with a needle. However she lived in an era when few women worked: most were kept. Career options: seamstress, mistress, dancer or actress were seen as a last recourse for impoverished or disgraced girls and widows. Marriage was the only respectable occupation outside a convent. Thus, disposition rather than ability ensured success or failure. Acquiescence, beauty and charm were regarded a woman's chief's virtues.

Coco is played to perfection by Audrey Tantou, (Amelie). The film is essentially a character study and Tantou's performance is stunning. Chanel is willfully eccentric, proud, stubborn, bad tempered and forthright to the point of rudeness. Tantou makes a damaged and difficult woman not only compelling but entirely sympathetic.

We meet Chanel in her early 20s, trying to figure out who she is and how she can possibly achieve her ambition of escaping a life of grinding poverty and obscurity and become rich, respected and famous.

Like"Bright Star" "Coco Avant Chanel" attempts to suggest visually, the tropes and incidents that informed the aesthetic of the artist Chanel became. Much of the film is an is an amble seen through Chanel's eyes. Her gaze directs us along the marble halls of a wealthy older man she's sleeping with and takes us through the demi-monde of the actresses and industrialists he entertains on his estate, at the racetrack and at the theatre. It is a beautiful film, shot in a muted palette at a languid pace, portraying the decadence and elitism Chanel rebelled against.

If you're after an action picture's endless plot turns, this is not likely to be your cup of coffee. If you're interested in watching a beautifully drawn portrayal of a brittle and brilliant iconoclast and her time, you're in for a treat.

Chanel was a a throughly modern woman who came of age on the eve of the Great War. She revolutionized not only women's dress but what it was possible for a woman to do in the fashion business. She was the first female couturier with a house that bears her name to this day. She won for herself the respect and freedoms; financial, aesthetic and social that were, at the time, only accorded men.

Ladies, the next time you slide into a black jersey dress you can actually eat dinner in or a two piece skirt suit with a box jacket and knee length skirt you can actually walk in, thank the chain-smoking, irritating and utterly brilliant woman who rose from an orphanage to international renown by replacing corsets, clutter and constraint with sober, elegant fluid clothes for working women.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

LABYRINTH OF THE PLAY begins at Cinematheque tomorrow night

I just wanted to let you know about a collaboration between Winnipeg Cinematheque ( and the Manitoba Association of Playwrights called LABYRINTH OF THE PLAY which opens tomorrow night at the Cinematheque.

In honour of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights Rory Runnels invited members of MAP to select films that influenced their writing. Between now and December 6th, six films will be screened with short introductions by various Manitoba playwrights citing the influence of the selection on their work.

My selection opens this presentation tomorrow. It is Denys Arcand's first English language feature: LOVE AND HUMAN REMAINS based on Brad Fraser's landmark play: UNIDENTIFIED HUMAN REMAINS AND THE TRUE NATURE OF LOVE.

The screening begins at 7:00 pm at ArtSpace, 100 Arthur Street.

On Sunday, November 8th at 1:00 pm at the KING'S HEAD PUB, Winnipeg Film Group presents the firat OPEN SCREEN DOOR a staged public reading of a new, unproduced screenplay by a Manitoba writer. First up is Jonas Chernick's comedy feature, KOSHER SEXY set to go to camera this spring in Winnipeg with Sean Garrity directing. I am one of the organizers of OPEN SCREEN DOOR. These events are popular in Toronto and Vancouver as a way to connect actors, writers, producers, directors and audiences but this is a first for Winnipeg. This city has a great film community and we hope the workshop and the feedback will help us continue to grow our local film industry. Two great film events to check out in Winnipeg this week.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I saw a beautiful film this week, Jane Campion's "Bright Star" a biopic about English romantic poet John Keats' love affair with Fanny Brawne and the writing it inspired. It was as if Campion tried to capture the essence of the beauty and romanticism of Keats' poetry in every frame. The film was stunningly, achingly, stupidly beautiful.

Keats died young and the terrible loss of all he was and he might have become was beautifully realized in the performance of Abbie Cornish. Cornish portrays Fanny Brawne, Keats' muse as a talented, confident, young woman who throws herself into love with Keats. They are a fine pair.

The supporting cast including Paul Schnieder as Keats' somewhat loutish and irresponsible friend Charles Brown are all fine. Campion uses their talents to successfully convey the claustrophobia of of close quarters in the household the Brawnes shared with Keats and Brown and all the troubles that come from too much intimacy.

Fate conspires against Keats and Brawne but beauty remains in their wake.

The rest of the week was taken up with teaching, finishing a play, carving pumpkins and building a better chicken costume.

Hopefully I'll get to PTE next week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poe: Last Days of the Raven

Friday night I went to Cinematheque to see "Poe: Last Days of the Raven".
The film was written, co-produced, co-directed and stars Brent Fidler, a Canadian actor based in Los Angeles.
The film script was apparently based on his play about the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

I know from personal experience how hard it is to get a first feature done in this country and my hat is off to any and everybody who manages to achieve this feat. Whenever I go to see one of these things I want to love it.

It apparently took 24 years to get this film made and that's part of the problem.

It began promisingly and creepily enough with a drunk and dissipated Poe being robbed in an alley by thugs and then found by friends. The child Poe in the theatre watching the dissolution of his parent's marriage and the death of his mother was effective. We then go to Mr. Fidler playing Poe as a very young man and this was where the trouble started.

In the more than two decades since Mr. Fidler initially took to the stage in this role, he like the rest of us, has gotten - well, older. Poe died at 40. Mr. Fidler is at least 10 years past that and seeing him in bed with the thirteen-year old bride who was all too convincingly her age ( Poe married his young first cousin when he was 23) went well past creepy. Mackenzie Gray does good work as Poe's estranged guardian but he and Fidler are far too obviously of the same vintage for us to buy Gray as a father figure. Poe's young love interests all look more like his daughters.

The script was in dire need of a story editor to create a workable cinematic adaptation from the original material. This isn't a filmed play a la BRAVO or the CBC . Nor is it cinematic enough to be convincingly a movie based on a play. It's a bit of both and sadly neither.

Fidler recites the poems well but the recitals are poorly integrated into the narrative and often just bring the action to a grinding halt. The end result of all this work is a disjointed and wildly uneven film.

Mr Fidler is clearly an accomplished actor. If he had played only the dying Poe and cast someone else as his more youthful counterpart and worked with a story editor to come up with a better script, his labour of love would have been less lost on the audience.

5 O'Clock Bells

My folks KNEW Lenny Breau. I grew up listening to his music and hearing stories about his messy life. So it was with excitement and some trepidation that I went to see MTC's first production of the season about the life of the late, great guitarist Lenny Breau.

Pierre Brault wrote and performed this piece. He creates the family, wives and musicians who surrounded Breau using their differing voices like strings on a guitar to riff about Lenny's talent and troubles.

This is an elegantly constructed play with a spare effective set and a fabulous lighting design. Brault is a fine writer and the script is impressive. The colours of the lights meld beautifully with the vocal colourings Brault uses to distinguish the dozen or so people he creates onstage. The relationship between Breau and his mother is especially movingly portrayed.

The one colour we don't see or feel much of onstage is black. Brault plays Breau as a man-child. He doesn't shy away from the darker side of Breau's life but he never seems consumed by daemons as Breau was. The ending is blue but not a really dark shade for a genius whose too-short life ended face down in a pool.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall into Winnipeg's Winter Theatre Season

Snow landed in Winnipeg this weekend but the fall/winter theatre season began back in September with A WINTER'S TALE produced by TOM TOM THEATRE and a staging of a Dostoyevsky short story TO THE COUNTRY by the Winnipegger Ensemble over at the Gas Station Theatre.

After a summer on the Fringe circuit watching people work out of a suitcase, I was struck by the production values that are possible when companies are stationary and have arts council or university department budgets.

Fringe shows have to be set up and struck in 15 minutes for each performance. They get three hours to tech into the theatre in every city, no matter what. Most productions tour with minimal or no set and very basic lighting and costumes. After three months of viewing work made within these constrictions, I can't say that I've seen anything so far this season to equal what Jonno Katz ( The Accident) did with a bare stage or what Erik de Waal (Blue is the Water) achieved with a piece of fabric, a chocolate voice and a great story.

TO THE COUNTRY featured interstitial film by deco dawson, and a lovely, two sided, fun-house set. It was a charming adaptation if a bit precious for my taste, anchored by a particularly fine performance by Ross MacMillan as a hapless suitor.

The production of A WINTER'S TALE staged in the terrific new theatre at the University of Winnipeg made inventive use of an airy paper set, contemporary costumes, live music and a puppet in the role of a child. It was an enjoyable, well directed show, although it lacked the emotional impact of other productions I've seen of the play. Like its paper set, this TALE was lightweight.

The two independent productions were followed FemFest, billed as an annual festival of plays by women for everyone.

I saw three things at the festival: a reading of scenes from a group of new local plays in development, a staged workshop of a new play LOVE FOR SALE and Laura Harris' production of PITCH BLONDE about the life of Judy Holliday, particularly her testimony at the McCarthy hearings.

PITCH BLONDE was an apt choice at a moment in history where there's a global hunt for "terrorists" under every bed or at least in every airport. I'd seen Laura perform the piece on tour earlier this summer and I felt the intelligent writing and strong performance deserved a bigger house than the show got the night I attended it in Winnipeg.

The short readings featured two pieces about women in the "sandwich generation", one historical piece, the follow up to a hit Fringe play about an art school model, and a piece about a woman with a gambling problem.

I have to say I wondered why one of those plays wasn't chosen for a staged workshop over LOVE FOR SALE which was clearly in a nascent stage of development.

The convenience store on Christmas Eve seemed tossed up around a disjointed, if interesting grab bag of characters, situations and ideas. Both the structure and the relationships between the characters felt arbitrary and contrived. Tonally, the piece was all over the place: the writer couldn't seem to decide if she was writing a comedy, a farce or a drama. There were some fine monologues, some good ideas and some genuinely engaging characters ( the shop clerk, the impoverished single parent, the old Jewish lady in the nursing home hilariously portrayed by Nancy Drake) but the writer needs to focus this story if the current hodge-podge is going to metamorphose into something more coherent.

This week both CHERRY DOCS and 5 O'CLOCK BELLS opened in Winnipeg. I heard great things about 5 O'CLOCK BELLS from theatre lover and Winnipeg fringe devotee Brian Carroll while I was in Ottawa this summer. I'm also anxious to see what Graham Ashmore, an actor whose work I've consistently enjoyed is going to do with the role of the lawyer in CHERRY DOCS which I saw played by R.H.Thompson in Toronto some years ago. I'm looking forward to catching both shows.