Wednesday, August 10, 2011

(No.164) Stratford Festival & Woody Allen

I have never been a particular follower of the work of American movie director and writer Woody Allen although I have wondered about the fashion of recent years which seems to require self-regarding movie critics to delight in trashing Allen and his movies.

Now in his mid-70s Woody Allen seems to have caught his second wind as a film maker. He left New York, his longtime home and setting for his movies, and made his last four movies outside the U.S.

The Allen movie that recently signaled extra public and critical attention was the 2008 comedy-drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Shot in Spain (Barcelona and Oviedo) its focus is two Americans -- Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johannson) who spend a summer in Barcelona. Each gets mixed up with a Spanish artist played by Javier Bardem. His role is very different from his chilling depiction of the hitman in the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, a role that also won him a best-supporting Oscar. His relationships with both Vicky and Cristina in the Allen movie are complicated by the reappearance of his mentally unstable ex-wife (Penelope Cruz, Bardem's actual spouse).

This Allen movie was better received than his more recent movies both at the box office and critically and was widely nominated for various awards. It won most of them including Best Supporting Actress for Penelope Cruz. It also seemed to set the stage and provide encouragement for the making of Allen's very successful 2011 movie Midnight In Paris, a romantic comedy made with twice the budget of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It is still playing in some independent cinemas. There are a number of thematic similarities to Vicky Cristina Barcelona but it is, for Pat and me, an even better film. It has already become Allen's most successful movie measured by in-theatre box office -- and I can see why.

While Pat and I very much enjoyed revisiting Paris locations used in the film (the Barcelona locations were less prominent in the previous movie, for us a disappointment), the basic appeal of the film is its story and performances. As is customary with his movies Allen wrote as well as directed both.

In Midnight In Paris a successful Hollywood screen writer, tired of writing his commercial film scripts (Owen Wilson, perfect for the part) visits Paris with his irritating and shallow fiance (Rachel McAdams) and her politically right wing parents. He's trying to write a serious novel but they are dismissive of the effort. He has long been fascinated by the famous artistic figures who lived and worked in Paris of the 1920s.

He discovers quite by accident that each night at midnight he is able to enter this world starting from a certain street in Paris. The famous people he encounters and his relationship with a girlfriend of Pablo Picasso (Marion Cotillard) are the emotional heart of the film. His encounters with the past are handled in a very convincing way by Allen. His depictions of the (now) famous from the past are both clever and accurate without being overdone.

Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen's 41st film, is well done and more to the point very enjoyable -- and not just for those who like Paris or are interested in the city as it was in the legendary post-war 1920s. Much of the central city remains largely unchanged in appearance today, hence an important part of the movie's charm.

Film critics, with their overwhelmingly favourable reviews of the movie, seem (as so often happens with criticism that seeks to be fashionable) to have deliberately jogged the critical pendulum arc about Allen and his work.

Pat and I think Midnight In Paris is well worth seeing in the theatre or through rental or purchase.

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Several works by Moliere, the 17th century French actor and playwright, have come down the centuries as important art and are still performed both in French and in translation. The Misanthrope, a comedy of manners presented by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario this season may be the Moliere work best known to modern audiences.

The Stratford version of The Misanthrope is the 1980s translation into English verse by the American Richard Wilbur, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner. The play was still in preview when we saw it earlier this week; its formal opening is Aug.12.

The play's central character is Alceste, a French aristocrat who is "the misanthrope". He courts Celimene but is wedded firmly to what he regards as his honesty, integrity and principles and to his cynicism about the motives of people generally.

Alceste believes he must always tell his peers the truth as he sees it whether it is polite or not and regardless of the impact it has or the reaction it elicits. The play revolves around his unwavering adherence to this approach whether in love or in relationships with male friends. The play concludes with Alceste forsaking Celimene.

The elaborate costumes in this Stratford production, designed by Robin Fraser Paye, add considerably to the stage impact perhaps because they are 18th century in period rather than the play's 17th century origin.

The cast handle the dialogue very well, delivering the verse naturally and with sharpness and, as Hamlet directed, trippingly on the tongue. The performances are excellent and of a high standard.

Brian Bedford, the longtime Stratford Festival leading player, directed and performed as Lady Bracknell in the 2009 season's very pleasing version of one of our favourite comedies: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. He then took it to Broadway in New York for a limited run (see "Wilde, Coward & two festivals", column No. 35 posted to RickardsRead.com on June 28,2009).

Bedford was to have performed the role of Oronte in The Misanthrope but illness forced him to the sidelines. He's been replaced by Peter Hutt who Pat and I enjoyed as Buckingham in Stratford's production of Richard III several years ago. Once again Hutt is excellent.

Ben Carlson played John Worthing in Bedford's "Earnest" production. In The Misanthrope he plays the lead role of Alceste and he is impressive. His misanthropy is convincing, reeking of bloody-mindedness and tunnel vision. Sara Topham as Celimene works hard to keep up with his performance. Juan Chioran as Alceste's friend Philinte deserves a special mention: he delivers his lines with a smoothness, clarity and energy that is a model to be emulated.

David Grindley's direction is effective and he makes excellent use of both superior pacing and the Festival Theatre's thrust stage.

Both Pat and I enjoyed this production of The Misanthrope even more than we had expected. It provides a rewarding time in the theatre.

*****

The Misanthrope is one of 12 productions in this season's Stratford Festival. The play runs through Oct.29, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, one of the 4 venues used for Stratford's productions.

Information can be obtained and tickets ordered online, by email or by telephone:

online: www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com

email: orders@stratfordshakespearefestival.com

telephone: 1-800-567-1600 and 1-519-273-1600

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by Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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