Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Effie Gray Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of 'Gray' ? Male Sexual Cruelty On Screen

While there may be a never ending procession of movies in theaters about artists throughout history having to suffer for their art, rarely are there sightings of the women in their lives made to suffer too. Often at the hands of highly creative but beastly mates, when it comes to the treatment of their female significant others.

Not that this reality is in any way a relic of the past. Men who are artistically inclined seem to be given a pass when it comes to the treatment of females. And most notably today in the ho hum attitude towards dubious distinguished dabblers in the arts like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

Of course the opposing argument can be made that art should be separated from personality, however repulsive - or the dastardly deeds of its creators. But an ironic spotlight on the women they've abused historically while being showered with nonjudgmental accolades, might be welcome for a change as well, in movies.

And such could not be more the case than the splendid, lyrically and gracefully crafted and visually sumptuous as art in its own right, period biopic Effie Gray. Written by, co-starring and conceived with uncommon female sensibility by esteemed actress Emma Thompson, Effie Gray exquisitely places front and center this Victorian era woman (played by Dakota Fanning) who endured in emotionally imprisoned, sexless slave marital bondage, a union with the eminently talented but odious John Ruskin. In other words, a different Dakota's Fifty Shades Of 'Gray'?

Ruskin, played with supremely insufferable disdain by Greg Wise, was the leading 19th century English art critic and a prominent painter. He married Euphemia 'Effie' Gray, a provincial young Scottish woman and the child of a family friend residing in a former Ruskin residence. And oddly or rather perversely enough, herself born in the very room where Ruskin's grandfather committed suicide.

But Effie's giddy romantic notions soon turn to perpetual gloom, when Ruskin is filled with disgust on their wedding night by her exposed female body for the first time. Heartbroken but imprisoned in a marriage she cannot escape without scandal - not to mention that the union had been irrevocably sealed economically by her debt ridden family because Ruskin agreed to support them financially, which would then be terminated by divorce - Effie hopelessly suffers through this unconsummated marriage for half a dozen years. Which is further exacerbated by Ruskin's overbearing, contemptuous mother, played with elegant cruelty by Julie Walters.

But Effie finally gathers the courage to defy the oppressive dire circumstances of the day faced by Victorian women, through her friendship and support from a fiercely liberated confidante, Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson). All of which lends a novel historical notion to those many idealistically conceived visions of women in paintings back then, including Effie who herself often served as a model - that they were not only frozen in those frames, but locked up in their own lives as well. Or as becomes evident in the course of this visually resonant film in its own right and in Ruskin's own words, that rather than a beloved human mate 'consider me the luckiest of mortals, granted a muse.'

And though there could have been more deciphering and depth to Ruskin's character rather than bordering on a stick figure emotional villain - in contrast to Effie's vividly fleshed out portrait - some mysterious intimations linger throughout that he may have been a homosexual resentfully locked in a Victorian closet himself. Though the record beyond this film may speak otherwise, and suggest pedophilia instead. With some evidence that Ruskin first became infatuated with Effie when she was around eleven years old - and he in fact wrote a fantasy novel for her at the time, The King Of The Golden River.

And years after their divorce (whose records indicated physical disgust for her, and possibly upon the sight of her pubic hair) at the age of 39, Ruskin became smitten with another child, ten year old Rose La Touche. And when her family refused his request to marry her eventually, Ruskin suffered a series of mental breakdowns. Subsequently stricken with hallucinations after Rose's untimely death, which he obsessively experienced as conversations with the deceased object of desire.

And quite interestingly as a side issue to the film, is that the Ruskin scandalous divorce proceedings are said to have contributed to the now well entrenched perception of suppressed Victorian sexuality that precipitated the entire subsequent Freudian cottage industry direction of psychiatry. Yet a possibly wrongheaded perception, that could have been pedophilia suppression instead.

And in keeping with Thompson's breathlessly captured moments, however fleeting in some cases, is Effie's exchange with the Ruskin household butler George (Russell Tovey) before she effects her elaborate escape forever from her emotional incarceration there. Recognizing her secretive flight, he confides that his name is not really George, but rather John. And that Ruskin made him call himself George instead, because his imperious employer would not tolerate another John on the premises.

And the now defiant and enlightened Effie when George says he didn't mind, declares in a luminous moment of shared class and gender awakened solidarity, 'You should have minded - he took away your name.' As Ruskin did in marriage, taking away as with George, not only her name but her humanity.

And as an upbeat footnote beyond the solemn proceedings of the film, Effie Gray after fleeing her suffocating circumstances, eventually married Ruskin protege painter John Everett Millais. Who was not horrified by her body, and with whom she eventually bore eight children.

Emma Thompson, you rock.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Lesson Review: Bulgaria/Greece Dramatic Co-Production A Class Act On Toxic Neo-Colonialism

Economic crisis cinema in these unrelenting hard times, even when simply subtextual to larger themes, has mushroomed as we've observed, into somewhat of a genre in its own right in this country. But European cinema may be catching up these days with their own end stage capitalism mass misery. And the Bulgarian combo domestic drama/moral thriller The Lesson [Urok] as revelation raises those bitter stakes with its post-Soviet, been there done that reverse requiem of despair under the domination of the dollar, kicking in as well.

And with much more than just classroom lessons to be learned, or maybe not, in the solemn and disturbing The Lesson. And like many other post-USSR films preceding this one edging back down memory lane, and possibly playing out as a kind of second thoughts cinema evolving across Eastern Europe ever since then.

That is, seemingly spontaneously precipitated as sobering reflection since the overthrow of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago - and Eastern Europe turned into a vast, occupied US/Nato military parking lot. And that The Lesson is a Bulgarian co-production with a Greece currently in mass uprising, may in a more immediate economic and sociopolitical hindsight sense, be no mere coincidence.

Nade [Margita Gosheva] is a middle class mother and teacher of preteens, and reluctant family breadwinner married to a slacker spouse. Silently resigned to her fate and struggling to make ends meet translating documents into English for a company that keeps making excuses not to pay her, Nade is likewise an English language teacher - and in a telling narrative thread under the increasing Americanization under the basically unannounced occupation of that country.

While concurrent US values seem to have seeped into the culture as well, epitomized in the new predatory money lust and ruthless greed under the establishment of capitalism. And epitomized in a classroom incident that infuriates the normally passive Nade, when one student steal another's wallet and refuses to confess. Nor does anyone in the class seem to care, or offer witness testimony.

And as a woman who appears to still be imbued with the ethical sense of collective unity under socialism, a frustrated Nade insists that everyone among these indifferent students contribute a portion of their own money to the victim, to compensate for what was stolen. But even this mandatory gesture fails to comfort the teacher, who remains distraught and fixated on this troubling lack of humanity evidently afflicting the next generation.

But Nade is soon caught up in her own personal victimhood, when threatened with eviction and the auctioning of her home within a day for lack of payments to the bank in question. Thus begins a terrifying race against the clock alternately sorrowful and suspenseful quest. And at one point leading Nade in desperation to beg strangers on the street for money, and then reluctantly rolling up her sleeves and scooping coins out of a park fountain so she might run to the bank and avert the eviction within minutes of closing time. Though her troubles are apparently just beginning, as Nade herself is dragged down the rabbit hole of debasement and demoralization.

The Lesson is as potent and gripping in its own way, as the iconic, trailblazing race against the clock 1950 noir D.O.A., as visited upon Edmond O'Brien's Frank Bigelow. But while D.O.A. involved an actual toxin that is frantically confronted, this bleak film's poison is more metaphorical as a component of perplexing survival, though no less penetrating and potentially irreversible - capitalism and socioeconomic corruption of the soul, despite one's best intentions.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Arts Express: Chris Elliott Talks The Rewrite

Chris Elliot may just be the sympathetic sidekick to Hugh Grant's perplexed Hollywood hack turned terrible teacher at a remote Binghamton college in the satirical romp, Marc Lawrence's The Rewrite. But the actor, comedian and writer best known for Late Night with David Letterman, Get a Life, Adult Swim, Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, grabs attention no matter what he's up to on the big or small screen. Elliot met to talk about taking part in The Rewrite, nutty jobs he's had just to get by, other fellow funny guys who've inspired him, and getting stoned on Groundhog Day.

What do you think of the idea in this movie, of rewriting your own life?

CHRIS ELLIOTT: Well, I'd like to think that you can. I think to a degree as a performer I'm trying to sort of recreate and restart.

And you know, change that parameter. I've always wanted to paint, and I can draw. I can do that kind of stuff.

But I couldn't start right now and be a painter. I think I could do it for the fun of it.
But I don't think I could actually go in and commit myself to a lifetime of doing that. At least not at my age.

And I think age does have a little something to do with it, too. Like, how tired you are.

Chris, you've been thought of as more of a comic personality but you also can do a lot of other things. How do you decide when you think something works for you, when it's got a comic and a serious side too?

CE: Well with me, I honestly feel like I have spent the last ten years of my career trying to get smaller and smaller. With what I do comedically.

And I think that's been noticed a little bit. And so I've been able to move from doing kind of the goofy, crazy stuff that I was known for doing in the '80s and early '90s.

And you know, into maybe doing something where I'm a little bit more believable. But I never thought I was a believable actor! I always thought I was just this goofy guy.

There are comedians that I believed on camera. I believed Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bill Murray.

But I never believed myself. You know, when I was actually trying to act.

And so it's taken me a while to find that balance. And I think I did in this movie.

And I think it's because of working with Hugh and with Marc, who keep the reins pulled in pretty tight. That's about it for me.

I don't know, I really believed you in Groundhog Day.

CE: Oh, I was so stoned!

One of the funniest parts of The Rewrite, is Marisa showing up in different places and having all kinds of jobs just to survive during these economic hard times. So was there any time in your own career where you had to do a lot of crazy jobs just to survive?

CE: Yes! Unlike Hugh, I still do work for the money! But I've actually been so lucky, to go from one thing to another.

And my first job was working for Dave Letterman. I worked there for eight years before I had my own TV show, and then a movie.

And I seem to have always been able to have something during the year to make a living. But I have done some horrible movies for a quick buck.

But my crazy jobs weren't even that crazy. I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, and then a PA.

And a runner on a couple of TV shows. So I didn't really have to stretch that.

But right now like everybody, the times in this business have changed. And the numbers have gone down.

Especially for people like me in the business. But I still try to be certainly choosy.

And the idea of working with Hugh on this movie was too much to turn down. So I really did it for...below what I usually get paid!

What do you think of Hugh's idea, that art is as much about being whipped into shape to work, and not just the fun of inspiration?

CE: Well, the whipping is fun too!

Continuing syndicated features of Arts Express: Expression In The Arts are hosted by Prairie Miller, and air locally and nationally on the Pacifica Radio Network and WBAI/Affiliate Stations, including WPRR Public Reality Radio. And if you'd like to Express yourself too, you can write to: ArtsExpressradio@gmail.com

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Arts Express: On Stage With Reimaginings, Revivals, And Revelations

**Nevermore! The Imaginary Life And Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe: A vividly conceived musical fantasy on stage, focusing on the iconic and tragic American poet and author. Scott Shpeley, who plays Poe, phones in to Arts Express to talk about bringing that dark, lush literary voice to life, and the process of becoming Poe - physically, psychologically, emotionally and artistically. And while delving creatively into questions of loneliness and existence, laced with haunting, gothic melodies.

Listen To The Show Here

**Amiri Baraka's Dutchman: A daring and dynamic theater tribute during Black History Month to the late African American dramatist, poet and author Amiri Baraka's controversial 1964 classic. Dutchman's producer and director Woodie King phones in to Arts Express to describe mounting a very new and different staging of the award winning play. Taking the text in a direction not seen or heard before, and what it has to do with nightmares, and the NYC subway as metaphor for the underbelly of slave ships during the Middle Passage. Chris Butters reports.

**The Fantasticks: A conversation with the young star Max Crumm about the longest running musical in the world, how and why. And what is freshly imagined in this latest revival and reinterpretation, originally conceived by Tom Jones over half a century ago. Along with the process of making the character his own, and the nightly exhilaration of breaking through the fourth wall with the audience.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at wbai.org, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Sundance 2015 Wrap-Up Report: Taking On Scientology At Sundance

**Going Clear At Sundance: The Real Deal On What's Going Down Behind Scientology's Secretive Doors. In his Sundance 2015 Wrap-Up Report, Indiewire chief critic Eric Kohn phones in to Arts Express on location in Utah at the Film Festival. With a look at the most controversial entry there, Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief. And how the Scientology cult has been intimidating film critics including Kohn, who dare to report on the documentary's exposure of member manipulation, physical abuse, and torture connected to a space deep within their fortresses - notoriously known as The Hole. While HBO has lawyered up with 160 attorneys in anticipation of doing legal battle with Scientology when they air the film. And, other Festival highlights ranging from white supremacy to the Black Lives Matter movement; the influence of Hollywood at Sundance when it comes to creative impulses versus creative control; and what audiences can look forward to  - or shouldn't -  from these Festival debuts during the coming year at the movies.

Listen To The Show Here

**The Devil's Violinist: Musician and solo performer David Garrett is on the line from LA to talk about his role as 19th century daring innovative rebel musician Niccolo Paganini in this biopic. A celebrity violinist himself, Garrett discusses becoming Paganini in every sense, emotionally and musically; marrying in his own crossover compositions classical and contemporary music; and who exactly is that violinist's devil and does he exist as well today.

**The Working Actor Studio: Jack Shalom in a conversation with Working Actor Studio director, Betsy Daly, about meeting the economic and artistic challenges facing struggling, aspiring actors today. And developing the necessary dramatic skills and tools there, including workshops in improv, scene study and musical theater. And, something rather intriguing known as stage combat.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at wbai.org, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Queen And Country: National Belief System Without A Soul

The second recent movie about making war on Korea and the only one that gets it right without being ridiculous or repugnant - though not without its own satirically sharp observations - is John Boorman's simultaneously bold, bittersweet and elegant Korean War era British screen memoir. Or in other words when it comes to Korea, The Interview, you're no Queen And Country.

The film is adapted from a period in Boorman's own life back in the 1950's, when primarily perplexed young men were begrudgingly conscripted into the army. And to not only unfathomably fight other people's battles in an essentially anti-communist American war in Asia intent on cornering both North Korea and their Red Chinese ally - but to prop up the crumbling British Empire as well, in the distant colonialist realms of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Callum Turner stars as Bill in Queen And Country, a rebellious recruit in league with a rowdy posse on an army base, biding their time with pranks and awkwardly propositioning local women, until such unclear moment when they will be sent into inexplicable battle. Boorman grasps this opportunity to actually mount an incidental battle of his own domestically, ridiculing a military hierarchy ranging from nasty to nonsensical. And pulled off with malevolent glee by the likes of David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant.

And in the midst of the Cold War, Bill's cynical when not irreverent outspoken joint aversion to both 'war and the class system' sends him on a collision course with the military brass, and interrogation by a visiting team from the UK version of the CIA, known as MI5. Which only reinforces his distaste for a national belief system increasingly without a soul.

Boorman, with his incisive analysis of human violence in movies like Deliverance, also brilliantly conjures in a metaphorical narrative thread running through the film, petty, punitive squabbling by the military officers over a stolen clock on the base. Which encapsulates succinctly and rather sadly, the terrible, destructive rationale nations engage in, to perpetuate murderous wars on the planet.

And though Queen And Country never actually proceeds to Korean battlegrounds, there is no need to. As the story evokes the after-effects of the horrors of war right at home - and youth scarred and destroyed psychologically and physically in the process.

And with the title itself reflecting a sorrowful mood of endless and groundless war into the present time. And a confounding lack of confident leadership, conviction or direction, epitomized in the film with the sudden the death of George VI who never actually wanted to be king - and became so unexpectedly following the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII, in 1936. And, ensuing replacement with his daughter Queen Elizabeth, essentially by default.

Along with, in hindsight as a pall cast upon this narrative, that the United States imposed an economic blockade against North Korea these many decades, attempting to starve the country into submission. And perhaps as a vendetta as well, for the US not winning the Korean War. In which the US and its British allies killed one tenth of the population there - 290,000 North Korean soldiers and nearly three million civilians - for perhaps nothing more substantial than possession of a purloined clock.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Slamdance: The Anti-Sundance Film Festival: Rapper Pras Talks Haiti Film with Arts Express

Listen To The Show Here

**Slamdance: The Anti-Sundance Film Festival. Rapper Pras Michel returns to his Haitian roots to explore with his documentary premiering there - Sweet Micky For President - political turmoil in Haiti. Pras phones in to Prairie Miller on Arts Express from Slamdance, Utah to reflect on what he learned while immersing himself in politics there, along with making this movie, and what still remains a mystery. And, will The Fugees ever get back together again.

Update: The film garnered the two top Slamdance Awards: The Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary.

**The Humbling: Better than Birdman, with its more poignant, less pretentious introspective grasp of the raw, revealing truths about art and fame, the film stars Al Pacino, and is adapted from the Philip Roth novel. As it connects the ironic and elusive notions of creativity, existence, self-worth, and celebrityhood. And, when not just simply weird and wicked fun. A commentary.

**My Son The Waiter:
Intrepid Arts Express reporter Jack Shalom catches the bitterweet rantings of standup comic Brad Zimmerman's show. Touching on nearly three decades of waiting tables for better or much worse. Along with insights gleaned from the invisibility of service workers in capitalist society.

**Poetry Corner: A reading of late poet and author Charles Bukowski's Nirvana. A solemn youthful odyssey through the American winter landscape by bus, in search of a place in the world.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at wbai.org, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.