Category Archives: Film

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

Continue reading Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

Shakespeare @ Stratford on YouTube

Since 1953, the little Ontario town of Stratford has hosted what is arguably North America’s premier repertory theater.  Down the decades, every summer the Stratford Festival has presented world-class productions of plays by William Shakespeare, along with other classics of the world stage and new, cutting-edge efforts.  (Not to mention musicals ranging from vintage Broadway to The Who’s Tommy.)

As with so many other performing arts institutions, Stratford’s 2020 season is currently on hold.  To fill the gap, the Festival’s YouTube channel kicked off free screenings of its Stratford on Film series last night — Shakespeare’s birthday — with an intense, gripping 2014 production of King Lear:

 

Each film of the series (an effort to film all of Shakespeare’s plays in ten years) will be available to view for 3 weeks, scheduled as below:

  • King Lear (2014): April 23 to May 14
  • Coriolanus (2018): April 30 to May 21
  • Macbeth (2016): May 7 to 28
  • The Tempest (2018): May 14 to June 4
  • Timon of Athens (2017): May 21 to June 11
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015): May 28 to June 18
  • Hamlet (2015): June 4 to 25
  • King John (2014): June 11 to July 2
  • Pericles (2015): June 18 to July 9
  • Antony and Cleopatra (2014): June 25 to July 16
  • Romeo and Juliet (2017): July 2 to 23
  • The Taming of the Shrew (2015): July 9 to 30

My wife and I have been regular attenders at the Stratford Festival for over 15 years.  We return again and again because of the Festival’s consistently high quality  — an acting company of impressive craft, dedication and emotional heft, working together on the unique thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and other more intimate venues, creating utterly immersive artistic experiences.  (And all in a welcoming, delightful small town environment.)   We hope to return later this summer to see Richard III, Wolf Hall and Spamalot (!)  but in the meantime we agree: the Stratford on Film series is the next best thing to being there, and a first-class way to drink in Shakespeare’s luminous genius.

— Rick Krueger

A Story of Friendship: Star Trek

As young children, my older brother and I watched the original Star Trek series on Saturday mornings.  We weren’t big TV watchers as a family, but Star Trek was special.  To make it even better, it was the local PBS that aired Star Trek, presenting it free of all commercials.  

Every Saturday, Todd and I awoke very early and watched the rerun for that week.  This would have been around 1975, almost a decade after the show first aired.  After each episode, Todd and I would talk, always mesmerized by the possibilities of space, life, and a billion other things.  How much of the galaxy had this crew explored?  Were they the modern Lewis & Clark?  What happened when someone transported from one place to another?  How smart were the computers?  Were the Klingons the Soviets and the Romulans the Chinese?  Or, maybe the other way around?  Why did we only see the military aspects of Starfleet?  What about the colonists, the pioneers?  How did time travel work?  If the Enterprise found itself sent back to Earth, why did it happen to arrive the same year the show was being filmed.

Pretty serious stuff for an eight year old sitting with his much admired thirteen year old brother.  

I had no idea at the time, but the show’s founder and creator, Gene Roddenberry had actually described Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars” when he first shopped it to studios.  It would be set, though, on the space equivalent of an aircraft carrier, a mobile community as diverse as Gunsmoke’s Dodge City, he continued in his show treatment.  The crew, roughly 203 of them, would be as diverse as possible, asserting that racial prejudice and ethnic strife would be things of the past in the non-specified time of Star Trek.  Only later did the show writers decide it took place in the 2260s.  From its beginning, however, Roddenberry’s Star Trek represented a brash Kennedy-esque liberalism, a confidence that America could teach the world the principles of civilization, tolerance, and dignity.  [Sources: Whitfield and Roddenberry, THE MAKING OF STAR TREK (1968); and Paul Cantor, Gilligan Unbound (2003) and The Invisible Hand of Popular Culture (2012)]

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Rocketman Reaches the Stars

Rocketman

The Elton John biopic, Rocketman, opened this weekend, and it is an amazing film. From 1970 through 1976, his music was inescapable on radio: AM top 40 radio was saturated with Elton songs, and FM progressive rock stations played his deeper album cuts. For several years, Elton John was the biggest musical star on the planet.

So it makes sense, given the success of the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, to give Sir John the same treatment. However, Rocketman is a far more successful film. It begins with Elton stomping down the hallway of a rehab center in an outrageous devil costume with horns and wings. He bursts into a group therapy session, confesses his many sins, and begins talking about his life. As he opens up more and more about his childhood and early career, he gradually removes various parts of his costume, until he eventually looks like everyone else in the group.

What makes Rocketman such a memorable experience is director Dexter Fletcher’s decision to make this a musical, and not a documentary. His willingness to play loose with the chronological sequence of John’s hits, and let them serve the overall narrative of his life may annoy some fans, but it works. Throughout the movie, there are surrealistic sequences of singing and dancing that are wonderfully entertaining.

For example, a very young Reg Dwight (Elton’s real name) is asked to play a song in the local pub. He begins playing piano tentatively, but at the urging of his family quickly rips into “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. The walls of the pub recede, and an young Elton – several years older – is running through a carnival belting out the lyrics while followed by a troupe of choreographed dancers. It’s a thrilling moment that drives home his promise and talent.

Another highlight is the moment when he and lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin first meet and agree to work together. As Elton tries out the first few chords of “Your Song” while peering at Bernie’s handwritten lyrics, the audience is swept up into the excitement of their discovery that they are going to be huge.

No rock biopic would be complete without the star’s obligatory descent into drugs and paranoia, and Rocketman pulls no punches. As he gets bigger and bigger, and more and more people depend on his touring to fuel their greed, he gradually succumbs to every temptation given him. And this is where Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton deserves praise: his vocals are extraordinary, and his portrayal of Elton’s slow descent into drug and alcohol-fueled madness is harrowing. He truly deserves an Oscar for his work.

Of course, Elton’s sexual preferences are no secret, and they are an integral part of the story from the beginning. There are some love scenes that, quite frankly, would never have made it to the screen a few years ago. That said, everything in the movie is there for a reason, and nothing is gratuitous. His brief marriage to Renate is covered sympathetically, and his brotherly bond with Bernie is a constant source of strength and stability throughout the turmoil of his career.

The final scenes where Elton confronts his demons, both chemical and familial, are uplifting and satisfying. If you grew up in the 1970s as I did, or you are simply a fan of Elton, Rocketman is a fitting tribute to one of the most talented composers and performers of our lifetime.

Forthcoming: Angelico Book on Christian Humanism

I’m very excited to announce that I have a forthcoming book (sometime this fall) from Angelico Press.


BEYOND TENEBRAE: Christian Humanism IN THE TWILIGHT OF THE WEST.


(initial) table of contents if you’re interested:
PrefaceIntroduction: Beyond Tenebrae

Section I: Conserving Christian Humanism• Humanism: A Primer• Humanism: The Corruption of a Word• The Conservative Mind• Burke and Tocqueville• What to Conserve?• Conserving Humanism
Section II: Personalities and Groups• T.E. Hulme: First Conservative of the Twentieth Century• Irving Babbitt’s Longings• Irving Babbitt and the Buddha• The Christian Humanism of Paul Elmer More• The Order Men• Willa Cather• Canon B.I. Bell• The Conversion of Christopher Dawson• Christopher Dawson and the Liberal Arts• The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson• Nicholas Berdyaev’s Unorthodoxy• Theodor Haecker: Man of the West• The Inklings• Two Tolkiens, Not One• Sister Madeleva Wolff• Peacenik Prophet: Russell Kirk• St Russell of Mecosta• Eric Voegelin• Eric Voegelin’s Gnosticism• Eric Voegelin’s Order• Flannery O’Connor• Clyde Kilby• Friedrich Hayek’s Intellectual Lineage• Ray Bradbury at His End• Shirley Jackson’s Haunting• Wendelin E Basgall• Julitta Kuhn Basgall• Ronald Reagan’s Ten Words• The Optimism of Ronald Reagan• Walter Miller’s Augustinian Wasteland• Alexander Solzhenitsyn as Prophet• The Ferocity of Marvin O’Connell• The Good Humor of Ralph McInerny• The Beautiful Mess that is Margaret Atwood; Conclusion: Confusions and Hope

Libertarian Transformers

For some reason people gasp when I mention the dominant Libertarian themes in Transformers 4 : Age of Extinction. Buried beneath inane comedy and not so sleek Budweiser advertisements are some stunning Hayekian/Misesian ideas. Contrasting to the first three Transformers movies, Age of Extrinction refuses to glamorize military. Instead of Marines fighting evil aliens in Middle-East, we have CIA black ops oppressing a Texan inventor. From Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) emphasizing to the black cloaked agents to get off his property, to ignorant bureaucrat Harold Attinger (played by Kelsey Grammer) destabilizing planet with his foreign policy, Michael Bay’s U-Turn on politics is evident.

Govt propping up bad guys in an alien war, or private firms profiting from war, or having an elected US President become subservient to career bureaucrats – this movie cuts close to reality. How a private weapons manufacturer, Joshua Joyce (played by Stanley Tucci), changes his mind when confronted with reality. But, a bureaucrat constantly refusing to confront his own folly is worth noting. Hollywood illustrating how private sector can get corrupted by govt incentives is not so common. Not to mention, Kelsey Grammer comforting the US President by claiming the all-powerful alien bounty hunter as his “asset”, a genuine black comedy moment!

An individualistic inventor honestly trying to stabilize the world, while govt busy-bodies propping up chaos, sounds like the movie appeals to all our civilized human instincts. Café intellectuals might disagree, but Hollywood is among the best Western institutions, they spread liberal ideas across the globe. Niall Fergurson’s interesting work ‘The West and the Rest’ quite aptly quotes the French philosopher Régis Debray — “more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army”.

 

Bjoern Kommerell [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Brilliant and Profoundly Catholic Daredevil | The American Conservative

True to superhero convention, Murdock did not merely lose his sight. He unwittingly traded his normal eyesight for finely honed perceptions in his four remaining senses as well as superior resistance to pain and heightened acrobatic agility. When asked if he “sees,” he replies, and I’m paraphrasing, “somewhat but as though the world is on fire.” When the viewer gets a brief glimpse of what Murdock “sees,” we immediately recognize a medieval vision of the angelic, the sainted, and the holy. Halos appear everywhere.
— Read on www.theamericanconservative.com/birzer/the-brilliant-and-profoundly-catholic-daredevil/

Dedra and I just watched all three seasons plus the eight-episodes of The Defenders. As I’ve mentioned before, Daredevil is the single best thing on screen, big or small, and I just can’t–for the life of me–understand why Netflix cancelled it. It seems–and I don’t mean to be conspiratorial–that it must have been too Catholic for the moneymakers at Netflix. Maybe? Regardless, watch it. So stunning. Jeph Loeb has been a favorite writer of mine for a long, long time, and Charlie Cox is just stunning.

Save Daredevil!

Netflix Will Keep ‘Friends’ Through Next Year in a $100 Million Agreement – The New York Times

Netflix cancels Daredevil, the most thoughtful and heroic show of the last decade, but spends $100 million to stream reruns of a brain dead, amoral, insipid sitcom. What a commentary on the state of modern culture.

The streaming service and AT&T struck an agreement that raises the yearly licensing fee for the show by more than three times.
— Read on www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/business/media/netflix-friends.html