Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Run, Tom, Run: Tom at the Farm

I'm new to the work of director Xavier Dolan, who is new to the world, having been born in 1989. Despite not yet reaching 30, the Quebecois Dolan recently finished his sixth full-length movie. Tom at the Farm/Tom a la Ferme is his fourth; while it was released in 2013, it only got its stateside viewing last week.

Tom at the Farm is an adaptation of the Michel Marc Bouchard play, and actors Lise Roy and Pierre-Yves Cardinal reprise their stage roles. I haven't seen or read the play (the San Francisco Public Library's copy is currently MIA), so I don't know how closely this version follows it. Regardless, it stands on its own as an artsy thriller.

After the sudden death of his boyfriend Guy, cosmopolitan Tom (Dolan) leaves Montreal to attend the funeral in Guy's distant, rural hometown. He finds Guy's dreary childhood farmhouse (a place with no cellphone reception, always a red flag in movies) and meets Guy's mother, Agathe (Roy), who doesn't know who he is, and Francis (Cardinal), the older brother Guy never mentioned, who knows exactly who he is. Guy left home at sixteen, and the story that has been relayed to Agathe from Francis is that Guy (proper name Guillaume, as Francis firmly insists on calling him) was straight and had been in a long-term relationship with a co-worker named Sarah.

Cardinal, Roy, and Dolan at an awkward funeral

Francis violently forces Tom to play out this lie, and this eventually leads to him also violently keeping Tom at the farm. Cardinal brings such a frightening, alluring mixture of subtlety and raw physical power to the brutish Francis that it's clear why Dolan brought him on for the film. While Tom's first instinct is to get away from this hick bully, he's also drawn to Francis. Francis reminds him of Guy, both in appearance, and, it's hinted, in the sexual roles they find themselves playing. When the two fall into a perfect tango and Francis asks Tom who taught him to dance, he doesn't answer and doesn't need to. This might shed some light on Tom and Guy's relationship, but more so and alarmingly, it seems to illuminate what Francis and Guy's was.

Soon, it's not just the fact that Francis removed his car's wheels that's keeping Tom at the farm. When Tom uses the farmhouse's landline to call the real Sarah, it's not a plothole that has made him forget he had that option all along despite his useless cellphone. But whether he's made the choice to stay willingly or has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, the farm is still a place of danger. Shortly after a revelation chillingly scored to Corey Hart's cheesy 80s hit "Sunglasses at Night," Tom must rethink his decision.

Dolan's been called narcissistic for shots like this, but he is very pretty. 

I can see Tom at the Farm being one of those "love it or hate it" pieces: it's beautiful and intense, but its lack of defined answers will be aggravating for some. This is a movie where everything is implied, and you have to put the pieces together yourself or even just say "screw it" and commit to your own interpretation with little to no evidence. What does an empty table mean? What about twin beds pushed together? Lise Roy's excellent performance feeds into this ambiguity - it's clear she's anguished, but it's uncertain what she knows about either of her sons.

Tom at the Farm is currently playing at the 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Midsummer Night in Silicon Valley and Hollywood

Puck and Oberon react to a phone (photo by Evelyn Huynh)

A Midsummer Night's Dream has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, and I've gone to performances by Silicon Valley Shakespeare (formerly Shady Shakespeare) for many years, so I had to see their production of Shakespeare in Hollywood, a play about a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ASAP. It opened last Friday and runs through the end of August. Written by Ken Ludwig, the work was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The set-up is that after the events of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck (lively Lucy Littlewood) screws up transporting himself and Oberon (stately Walter Mayes) back to their forest, instead landing them in 1930's Hollywood, where Max Reinhardt's film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is starting production. The duo soon find themselves cast as themselves in the movie, which is plagued by missing actors, push-back from the studio, and threats of censorship. Puck enjoys the movie star life (especially the Rolexes and sunglasses), and Oberon finds himself falling for the film's Hermia, Olivia de Havilland (April Culver). And, of course, that magic flower makes an appearance and creates some romantic chaos.

How movies get made (photo by Evelyn Huynh)

The script itself is clever and sweet, and SV Shakespeare does a wonderful job with it, doing a lot with their talented cast and small budget. Everyone feels perfectly cast, from our two otherworldly stars to the exasperated Reinhardt (Roger Hooper) and the priggish villain (James Lucas).

Ludwig's version of Reinhardt's production is fictionalized (Reinhardt couldn't speak English at the time, Jean Muir is replaced by a fun character played by Danielle Williams, etc.), but I still wanted to revisit the 1935 movie after leaving the outdoor theater at Sanborn Park. I'd tried to watch it before. Tried. But despite seeing many, many Dream productions of varying quality, the Reinhardt version's hacked-up script and weird acting idiosyncrasies threw me off. And I got through all of A Midsummer Night's Rave.

Bad trip from Midsummer Night's Rave or puppet from the '35 Dream?

But after Shakespeare in Hollywood, I decided to give it another try. It's not on Netflix or Amazon streaming, but you can rent or buy it on YouTube. It's probably at many libraries, too, but I was in a hurry.

When I watched/tried to watch it before, after wincing through the reassembled dialogue of the first scenes, I made it to the fairies' introduction before noping out of there. First we meet Mickey Rooney (already a showbiz vet at fourteen) as Puck in a jarringly rushed and dubbed "whither wander you" scene. Rooney's is an odd performance to watch, because he handles the Shakespearean language so well but his manic over-acting feels amateurish (he "cackles like a drunken hyena at no one in particular" as Film School Rejects put it). I'm guessing this has to do with the state of the craft in the awkward vaudeville/silent film/talkies transitions era. Acting was still adjusting to this new medium.

Then we have the entrance of Titania (Anita Louise), whose prancing, giggling, and high-pitched random sing-songing was off-putting to me, accustomed to more serious Titanias (her speeches on the natural world's confusion and the mother of the baby she's raising are left out and pared down, respectively). "Please just hand Oberon the baby," I silently pleaded as she erratically gamboled, seemingly moments away from an ambulance ride from Coachella. Fortunately, she levels out later in the film.

Pretty as hell, though.

De Havilland and Muir are well cast as Hermia and Helena, but I don't know if the scene establishing their friendship was not filmed or just not in the cut I saw (apparently there are several). Dick Powell doesn't seem quite comfortable as Lysander (he supposedly tried to get out of the role) and Ross Alexander is fine as Demetrius. The traditional cherry-on-top of the play, the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play, gets short-changed by having the lovers' funny commentary and Theseus's reasoning for seeing it in the first place changed.

I think this film works better as an artifact of 1930s silver screen gorgeousness than as a Shakespeare production, but that might not be entirely fair on my part. Because I know the source material so innately, all of the film's edits and reorganizing stand out to me, creating plot holes and lack of context, but I can't know how the finished product reads to someone new to the story.

Hippolyta is not interested in whatever Theseus has to say.

And there were elements I really liked. Mainly: the beauty. The film is composed almost entirely of moments that look like Erte or Mucha at their best. The forest alone is certainly worthy of the "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" speech. Reinhardt lingers on sylvan scenes of deer, fairies, owls, and flowers all lit by moonlight and fireflies. Without CGI, the special effects are gauzy twinkle-lights and multiple exposures (and a Shetland pony with a unicorn horn headband). Especially impressive are the trains of fairies, including the contested scene mentioned in Shakespeare in Hollywood in which one of Titania's white fairies succumbs to one of Oberon's black fairies (more about that dance here).

As in the 1981 TV movie, this Titania and Bottom (James Cagney) are both so great with the little kids playing fairies that you kinda want them to make it work and have a laid-back fairy family in the woods. Also re: Cagney, seeing the film made me even more impressed with the Cagney and Joe Brown impersonations done in Shakespeare in Hollywood by Shawn Andrei (disclosure: former co-worker from a long time ago) and Erik Browne.

I'm glad I finally finished this A Midsummer Night's Dream, even if it's not the perfect A Midsummer Night's Dream, which probably only exists in my mind. Watch it if you want to see something beautiful and interesting, and see Shakespeare in Hollywood if you're in the Bay Area and want to have a good time.

1935 Oscar Winner: Best Unicorn

Silicon Valley Shakespeare production photos from their Facebook
1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream screenshots complements of my laptop's print screen button