With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Miss Sloane misses mark – review

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I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

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More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

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The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

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Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

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That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Cheadle reaches Miles Ahead – a review

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I don’t know much about jazz other than to say that almost everyone who has ever been considered a giant in the genre spent a lot of time facing very dark demons; demons so dark as to put rock & rollers to shame. Such was the case with Miles Davis.

In a quadruple-threat performance as writer, director, producer and star, Don Cheadle has created an interesting film that touches on a brief period in the jazz icon’s life through a never-ending series of timeline jumps that takes a little bit to get into.

The main plot of Miles Ahead revolves around a Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) looking to get a glimpse into Miles Davis, who five years earlier, went into seclusion to nurse his drug addiction and failing muse. Desperate for a story, Braden inadvertently allows a scheming manager of another jazz performer to steal a tape of Miles’ comeback music, sending Braden and Davis on a chase caper worthy of the Scooby Doo gang.

Interspersed throughout this caper, Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman weave flashbacks of Davis’s relationship with dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Through whispered voices, they seem to suggest Davis might have suffered mental illness, and they show the musician’s slide into drug addiction through pain medication taken for a degenerative hip disorder.

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As a director, it seems Miles Ahead is Cheadle’s attempt at creating jazz in a visual form.

Scenes bounce back and forth. Visions flit through Davis’s mind. There is almost an ad lib feel to the performances as the actors seem to react rather than perform. And yet, once the piece gets moving, it feels whole.

That said, this is but the briefest of songs in a larger repertoire that was Davis’s life, and in many ways, I wanted to understand better what was behind the great artist’s fall from grace. As such, the movie feels very light despite its heavy subject matter and in several scenes, degenerates to slapstick cops-and-robbers. As biopics go, this is not Ray or Ali.

The choppiness of the scenes and lightness of plot also means that we never really get a good sense of most of the characters or the actors’ performances.

McGregor’s Braden doesn’t act, so much as mug from scene to scene, reacting to the antics of Cheadle’s Davis and the chaos that swirls around him. In fact, the one decision he does make—trying to steal the tapes himself—is a colossal failure and about the last decision he makes.

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Similarly, Corinealdi’s Taylor largely remains a mystery to the audience. A creative spirit in her own right when she first meets Davis, she quickly falls into the role of cheated-upon wife who struggles to cope with a brilliant husband who is rapidly falling apart. The arguments could easily have been lifted from Ray, and for all I know, were lifted from Get On Up, the James Brown biopic also penned by Baigelman.

For his part, Cheadle eats up the screen with his portrayal of Davis at two very different times in his life. There were times when I almost couldn’t tell you that this was the same actor in each role.

The Davis of the 1960s is Cheadle as we know him; a cool customer who possesses the room in which he stands. The fallen Davis of the 1970s, however, is an entirely different creature, prone to lash out rather than control with a stare. And full marks to the make-up team for the physical transformation into the older Davis.

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This movie won’t be for everyone, and in fact, I have no idea who it is for.

There isn’t enough music for the jazz fans. Not enough character depth for the serious drama fans. And it feels too dated for those interested in amusing drug-laced comedies.

And yet, it works.

And for a budget of less than half-a-million, why wouldn’t Cheadle at least try?

I’m glad he did.

See also:

Miles Ahead (Angelica Jade Bastien)

Ode to a Jazz Giant (The Guardian)

Miles Ahead (Rolling Stone)

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

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I may have to give up comedy writing. Based on the sold-out sketch comedy show I saw last night at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern—part of the annual Fringe Festival—I am a flailing hack or self-deluded pretender.

Brought to us by the disturbed mind of Justin Haigh under the umbrella of Spoon vs. Hammer, Behold, the Barfly is a delightful show that is possibly the most consistently funny sketch comedy performance I have seen in ages, and if its run is limited solely to Toronto Fringe, we all lose out.

Trying not to spoil any of the sketches, let me just say that they are all really solid…even the ones that opened weak only to demonstrate that this was done on purpose. As a comedy fan and writer, I often found myself anticipating the direction of a sketch only to be surprised by a solid twist that never felt manipulative or like a bad M. Night Shyamalan moment.

The casting was amazing, each performer bringing his or her unique absurdity to the performance, and presenting the sketches with such vitality that they almost felt improvised (in the good sense). These are performers comfortable with their material, which is critical for sketch comedy.

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Ned Petrie is the classical Everyman who just wants to be loved (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Ned Petrie is clearly the anchor for this show. He does one delicious take after another on the Everyman, a stoic witness to the world gone mad. Eric Miinch is the clown, doing his damnedest to break up his scene partners with ad libs that enhance rather than disrupt the scenes in which he finds himself.

Elizabeth Anacleto is the shape-shifter, becoming whatever her role requires with mercurial fluidity even when required to shift smoothly within a single sketch. Marsha Mason—whom I should note I know personally—is a talent who can say more with a single facial expression than with the best written dialogue.

Jeff Hanson and Steve Hobbs are mesmerizing on stage, each one bringing an intensity to their performances that cannot be ignored, especially in one particularly disturbing turn by Hobbs. Kevin MacPherson and Sarah Thorpe, meanwhile, ably glue the entire construction together, the former largely coming in from left field at every turn.

If I have one criticism of the show, it is that it completely under-utilizes the amazingly talented women in the cast, the male performers generally taking the most significant roles.

As a male comedy writer, I completely understand the challenge of consciously writing female roles without looking like you’re writing female roles. It is not sufficient to simply lop the penis off a male character.

If Haigh and his team are given the opportunity to remount this show—dear comedy gods, let this be so—I would hope he takes time to tap more deeply the talents of these wonderful women.

In the meantime, if I want to keep writing comedy—because it’s all about me—I am seriously going to have to up my game.

Behold, the Barfly Cast

Seamless casting: (L to R) Hobbs, Thorpe, MacPherson, Miinch, Petrie, Mason, Anacleto, Hanson (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Behold, the Barfly continues at Monarch Tavern until July 10. After that, we can only hope.