Writer/Director Whit Stillman Makes a Brilliant Match with Jane Austen in his New Film, “Love and Friendship”

Whit Stillman has been often called the Waspy Woody Allen. As in some of Allen’s earlier work, Stillman’s films are, at their core, autobiographical. Mostly taking place in New York, these films depict with clarity, intelligence, sensitivity, and gentle humour and irony the manners, mores, morality, and style of a certain subset of New York society. That is to say, waspy upper-class and upper-income preppies, trust funders, and Hamptonites — and the women who want to date them, bed them, and marry them.

In such terrific 1990s films as Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, Stillman, from an insider’s perspective, sets up the strict societal rules within which his characters must operate. Stillman then slyly comments upon and satirizes theses very same societal conventions, especially through his alter ego, played by the sardonic Chris Eigeman (who appeared in each of the aforementioned films).

In Love and Friendship, Whitman has rediscovered his unique singular voice. Stillman has taken Jane Austen’s pre-Pride and Prejudice minor epistolary novel, Lady Susan, her characters, and some of her very sharp observations, and has crafted a brilliantly funny and pointed comedy of manners … or ill manners.

Austen/Stillman’s dialogue sparkles and pops with cutting observations and insightful yet cynical societal comments.

It’s positively Oscar Wilder-ian.

Take, for example, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) describing an unsuitable suitor as “too old to be governed, too young to die.” Or when she positively describes her one true friend and confidante, American-born Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), as “an American who has none of the uncouthness, but all of the candor.” Yet another time, Lady Susan describes Americans (who at the time had recently became independent of England) as “ingrates,” and wisely states that “only by having children we can understand that dynamic.”

So smart!

The film is in part a late-18th century costume comedy set in various lavish English country estates, replete with servants and large estate rooms. In terms of setting, think Downton Abbey.

But instead of the moral and honorable Lady Mary, Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan is a totally captivating, cunning, scheming, and seductive widow, dressed in gorgeous, long and flowing black dresses. She exudes style and grace, and her manners are outwardly impeccable. But due to her unfortunate impecunious state, Lady Susan’s only goals goal in life are to secure a rich husband for herself and her only daughter, Frederica.

In my opinion, this is Beckinsale’s best film role. She is simply brilliant as the very strong, intelligent, and manipulative Lady Susan, who knows and understands the strict societal rules under which she must survive and attempt to succeed. And she does it all without losing her independent spirit or compromising her strong sexual desires.

Chloe Sevigny’s portrayal as Lady Susan’s co-conspirator in societal crime is also excellent. As is the role of the idealistic suitor for Lady Susan, Reginald. Played by Xavier Samuel, Reginald is totally smitten with the beautiful Lady Susan. This brings much horror to his wealthy sister and even wealthier parents, who rightfully fear that the conniving Lady Susan is only interested in Reginald’s bank account and material assets, not in his heart.

Comic relief is provided by the outrageous Sir James (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy and young(ish) land owner. His cluelessness about all things “normal” (describing peas as green little balls), his bizarre discovery that the estate Churchill is not a separate Church and Hill, and his off-the-wall commentary of the Twelve Commandments steal the show.

Ironically, the buffoonish Sir James delivers Whitman’s underlying core message that morality, or what is right, should supersede mere societal mores or fashion.

Throughout the screening, the packed audience at the Varsity Cinema chuckled and responded to every brilliant repartee and riposte. This is a film worth seeing more than once, chock full of witty lines and laugh-out-loud ironic asides. (Some of which I unfortunately missed on first viewing.)

I predict this brilliant script will be nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Welcome back, Sir Whitman of Stillman.   

“A Bigger Splash” is a Very Sexy, Erotic Thriller on the Sicilian Island of Pantelleria

Italian director Luca Guadagnino has taken the original 1969 French psychological thriller La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) and has, quite literally, fleshed out the main characters.

The film stars Tilda Swinton in the lead and Ralph Fiennes as her hot, younger lover Matthias Shoenaerts, as well as Dakota Johnson as Swinton’s former lover as the sexual ingénue. They spend most of the film naked, or semi-naked, in and around the villa’s sumptuous pool — swimming, sunning, fighting, and shagging.

Guided by a sexually charged screenplay penned by American writer David Kajganich, Guadagnino has helped Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes craft some of their best, most memorable, and, in my opinion, most Oscar-worthy performances in years.

Swinton (Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Michael Clayton) is superb as Marianne, a female David Bowie-like rock star who is recuperating from throat surgery and chilling out in a gorgeous, sprawling villa in the island’s hills. Along with her is her bearded and brooding lover, Paul (Belgian actor Matthias Shoenaerts).

Under doctor’s orders, Swinton has been forbidden to use her voice, so she, as Marianne, must wordlessly express her feelings throughout the film: of love, anger, fear, doubt, confusion, jealousy, betrayal, contentment, and orgiastic ecstasy. To do so, Swinton draws upon all her formidable acting skills. It is truly a tour de force of artistic achievement.

In the past, Swinton has typically played weird, asexual androgynous roles. As rock star Marianne, who George (Ralph Fiennes) describes as someone who loves to “fu*k, fu*k, and fu*k”, she is very sexual and sensuous. In one of the opening scenes, she and her lover Paul are naked in the pool. Swinton’s back is against the wall, and Paul thrusts inside her with her fully exposed and wonderful breasts all ablaze. A great scene that perfectly sets the stage for the wild ride to follow.

Fiennes, normally known for his powerful and dramatic roles in The English Patient, Schindler’s List, and The Constant Gardener, lets it all hang out as the bearded, bombastic, and brash George Hawes. A wild and crazy music producer, George is a control freak with a devilish, snake-like smile. He is hedonistic, egotistical, sexist, selfish, narcissistic, abrasive, and, for most of the film, annoyingly obnoxious.

But he is very hard to look away from. He is, simply, captivating. George’s over-the-top, cock-walking, Jagger-like dance at poolside to The Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” is one of the true highlights of this film.

In other words, Fiennes, as George, is channeling the headline-grabbing Trumpster. I am not sure that this portrayal is by design or just mere coincidence.

Talk about art imitating life.

Seen through flashbacks, the viewer learns that years ago, George helped produce Marianne’s music. They were also coke-sniffing lovers. As George ruefully admits, he lost Marianne back then because he cheated on her. He was always “slutting around.” As a last attempt at controlling Marianne’s life and fate, George introduced his then-young documentary filmmaker friend, Paul, to Marianne.

Now fast forward back to the present. George invades Marianne and Paul’s idyllic and monogamous hideaway, nymphet daughter Penelope in tow. George has an agenda, and so does the sly Penelope. Both George and Penelope will force Marianne and Paul to deal with their respective addictions.

Ugly truths are revealed. Chests are bared. This story will not end well.

Interestingly, this story is set among the more serious and contemporary one of foreign migrants escaping the Middle East and trying desperately to reach Italy’s shores. And dying in the process.

As George tries to rekindle Marianne’s love for him during a shopping trip, the television in the background reveals that several migrants have drowned off the shore Pantelleria Island, the same on which the villa sits. Those who survived the voyage from nearby Tunisia have been penned in detention centres on the island.

Was the screenwriter and director trying to make a more important point? That the lives and loves of these languorous four do not amount to a Sicilian hill of beans in the greater scheme, or “Bigger Splash,” of things?

Or did the film director simply intend to take the original La Piscine and go deeper, bigger, and bawdier?

a bigger splash

The Incomparable Errol Fisher Brings His Great Jazz Act to Yorkville’s “70 Down”

As I have previously reported, the Seddiqi Brothers, Alex and Wally, owners of 70 Down, are gradually transforming their place from a very popular Thursday-through-Saturday urban-hip after hour’s club to a more mainstream Middle Eastern bistro.

Now, with the help of very talented local entertainers, 70 Down is also a jazzy, R&B dinner club on Friday and Saturday evenings. Just last night, I stopped by around seven-thirty and stayed to watch Errol Fisher and the Errol Fisher Band play a great set until ten.

Back in the day, in the 70s and 80s, Errol owned and operated a very successful dinner jazz club. Appropriately called Errols, it was located on Richmond Street East, near the then-legendary jazz place The Montreal Bistro. In my younger days I used to hang out at Errols, who of course would perform regularly at his own club.

Errol was awesome then. He is still awesome now.

It was great to see and hear the incomparable Errol Fisher go “old school” and sing some memorable James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Bob Marley’s “Jammin.” Ya, Mon! Joining the party were some of Errol’s long-time woman friends, and we danced away the night to Errol’s voice, superbly backed by Larry Gould on guitar and Jeff Beauchamp on bass.

The evening was magic.

Errol and the Errol Fisher Band play every other Fridays at 70 Down. A very talented and amazing entertainer, it is a show definitely worth checking out.

Mitch Wolfe Enters the Strangely Hypnotic World of Marnie Kay and Meets the Lovely Lovegistics Sisters, Ashley and Jennifer Goulart

Apparently, all roads lead to Kasa Moto. Just a few days after running into the brilliant publisher/writer Marnie Kay outside the Four Season’s d/bar, I ran into this very same gorgeous person at Kasa Moto. This glamourous and simply fabulous woman seems to be everywhere. For some unfathomable reason I always seem to be drawn to these types of otherworldly women, like Ulysses to the Sirens’ call. They are hypnotic, captivating, and totally irresistible. (Pictured above, Marnie Kay on the left.)

In the middle sits the raven-haired Jennifer Goulart, a member of the famous podcasting sister team of Jennifer and Ashley Goulart. Their show, Lovegistics: The Science of Love, is an addictive listen. Their most recent dialogue on the pros and cons of Bumble vs Tinder, and thoughts on love, sex, and all that jazz was very stimulating. These women know how to deliver great audio!

I suppose that in the Lovegistics vernacular, I am “old school.” Though like most dudes, I like “cake by the ocean” or “pie under the sky.”

Be sure to check out the fantastic and enlightening podcast at www.lovegistics.org.

Predictions revisited — and what’s next for Trump, Bernie and Hillary

As I predicted here in February when Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary, Trump went on to take the GOP nomination. OK, I also said Bernie Sanders would take down Hillary Clinton before the Democratic convention. But I stand by my belief that Trump will destroy Clinton in the general election for president.

I also have been writing for months that Clinton is “toast.” The polls are finally catching up with me.

After months of head-to-head polls, in which Clinton had a double-digit lead over Trump, a recent Quinnipiac poll had Trump tied with Clinton in the two crucial swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania.

The same poll saw Trump besting Clinton 43-39 in the bell weather state of Ohio. Note that no presidential candidate has won the presidency since 1960 without winning at least two of these three critical states.

Predictably, Clinton’s highly paid spin doctors quickly dismiss this poll as an anomaly, put out by an outlier polling group.

That is, until the following day, when the better-known Reuters-Ipsos group published roughly the same result. But this poll had Trump virtually tied with the stumbling Hillary, nationwide!

But the best poll was yet to come, showing Trump leading by 10 points against Clinton with Hispanics.

According to this poll, Trump’s populist economics, which appeal to working class white Americans, is also resonating with Hispanics who are just as concerned about bread and butter issues. They don’t like the idea of illegal immigrants taking jobs their jobs, either!

Before the New York primary, Trump seemed stuck at under 35 per cent support, among supposedly angry white American working class men and women.

But after New York primary gave Trump a majority, it became clear that his support was widespread and broad-based: Young and senior, women and men, urban and suburban. He garnered support from key Hispanic and ethnic groups as well.

Then Trump won decisive majorities in the nearby northeastern states of New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, and beat Cruz for good in the conservative evangelical state of Indiana.

With no remaining opposition, Trump romped to victory in the West Virginia primary.

All this time, Clinton has been stumbling badly.

She is a terrible and unlikable campaigner. The more people see and hear her speak, the more people are turned off.

In March in Ohio, Clinton blundered terribly. In attempt to suck up to climate change eco interests, she bragged insensitively that she would, “put a lot of coal miners and coal businesses out of business.”

Well, in May those comments came back to bite her in the posterior in West Virginia coal country. Sanders beat Clinton badly, while other Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Trump.

Typically, Clinton refused to properly apologize for those comments, citing that they’d been taken “out of context”.

The fact is that for the last few months, Hillary has been getting beaten by a 70-something socialist, forced to fight Sanders from her left and Trump from the right.

The GOP establishment is grudgingly unifying behind Trump because many Republicans hate Hillary more, and his numbers are clearly improving.

My political instincts tell me that even the above polls are behind the curve.

I believe Trump is leading Cinton now by more than 10 points.

And I predict even her last remaining fire wall — that of black men and women — will fall.

Courtney Maria (aka “Courts” Shanahan): Kasa Moto’s Chief Bartender

The second floor patio of Kasa Moto, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Yorkville, is one of the most beautiful and popular patios in all of Toronto. It overlooks the chichi shops of Yorkville and provides an amazing view of the Toronto skyline to the south.

But many of us Kasa Moto regulars do not just come to the patio for the view or even the so-called beautiful people all fapitzed (Yiddish for dolled-up) in their four-inch Stuart Weitzman’s and tight, clingy white jeans. And those are just the guys.

We come because the Kasa Moto servers and bartenders are some of the best in Toronto’s booming hospitality industry.

The Queen B of bartenders is my friend, Courts Shanahan. She is experienced (having been in the business for nearly ten years), professional, quick, responsive, smart, warm, and gracious. Prior to her current Kasa Moto gig, Courts ruled the bar at the Toronto Four Seasons’ d/bar, one of my other favorite haunts. Her knowledge of wine and spirits is encyclopedic and very impressive. With such a wide array of drinks up her sleeve her two favorite libations are: the Apple Martini (3 oz. apple sours, ½ oz. vodka, 2 oz. lemon juice), and the Kasa Moto Caesar (2 oz. Shishito pepper-infused vodka, Sirracha, Yuzu ponzu, Walter’s Caesar mix, Wasabi, rimmed with salt and a garnished with a house-made pickle).

Courts has to wear many hats, acting as both a mixologist and psychologist to her clients. She is also a friend, a confidante, and, on occasion, a discrete and trusted adviser relating to matters of the heart.

And not only does she remember the names of regular habitués of Kasa, but also their liquid pleasure. In my case, it’s pretty easy: Diet Coke on the rocks with a twist of lemon. Neither shaken nor stirred. But gently poured.

By day, Courts is a kick-ass software app developer. Who knew?

Though her nightly bartending job is highly intense and stressful (especially on the warm summer nights of Thursday to Saturday), Courts always greets me and treats my fellow Kasa Moto types with a warm smile and easy manner.

And frankly, after a tough day in Toronto’s ultra-competitive rat race, that makes all the difference.

Courts Shannon

Canadian Comic Genius Anne Marie Scheffler Goes Back in Time—From “MILF Life Crisis” to “Suddenly Mommy”—at the Social Capital Club on Toronto’s Danforth

I first experienced Anne Marie’s brilliant comic artistry a few weeks ago when she performed her new one-woman play, MILF Life Crisis, at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. (Read the full review.) In the show, Anne Marie finds herself suddenly divorced with two young boys in tow and is thrown back into the casual hookup/Tinder dating pool—with uproariously funny results.

In her original one-woman show, Suddenly Mommy, Anne Marie jumps back in time to the origins of her tragicomic journey. One moment she is a naïve, innocent young woman looking to “get lucky” with some handsome dude; the next she is pregnant with child (by said new guy), who is also moving in with his nasty teenage stepdaughter. Instant family. (Watch clips from Suddenly Mommy.)

Anne-Marie Suddenly Mommy

Oy Vey! Two years later, another baby boy joins this hilariously dysfunctional family

Anne Marie’s character (coincidentally called Anne Marie) is completely unprepared for motherhood: the late night feedings, the constant demands by her selfish kids to be fed at least once a day, the lack of sleep, the non-existent sex. Anne Marie comes to the funny yet sad realization that unlike her hero, Céline Dion, she cannot have it all. (That is, a kick-ass acting career and well-behaved, well-trained, and well-fed children.)

Some of the funniest, gut-busting, and heart-wrenching scenes involve Anne Marie channeling the great diva Céline as she advises her, in Quebecois-inflected English, how she navigates a fabulous Vegas career with raising her beautiful son, René Charles. It is, simply, comic gold.

In Suddenly Mommy, Anne Marie brings back her wise lesbian mother/friend Terry (we enjoyed her in MILF Life Crisis) who bluntly throws a lifeline to the drowning young mother. Terry wisely advises, “No matter what you do, Anne Marie, your kids will hate you.” While Anne Marie’s other close girlfriend, the super-hot supermodel Chanel, surveys the scene of Anne Marie’s mud-stained boys under foot and her expanding waistline says, “What happened to you, Anne Marie? You used to be a ‘small,’ now, you are (horrors!) a ‘medium’.” She absurdly advises Anne Marie to get out, before it’s too late.

Anne Marie also introduces us to her sister Belinda. She’s the perfect mom. Martha Stewart on steroids. The type who churns her own butter and feeds her perfect children wholesome and freshly prepared food, all from scratch.

In Suddenly Mommy, the jokes, sketches, and laughs come fast and furious. (They of course hit home to us married and single dads as well. You’re not the only one who is sleep-deprived and sex-starved, Missy!)

The show is a very smartly written, beautifully paced, and wonderfully acted piece of comic theatre. And the very sexy Anne Marie does a great impromptu striptease on stage, shaking her bodacious booty. Bonus.

Deep down, Anne Marie is a great mom with adoring kids and an audience that cherishes every step of her crazy journey. I, for one, can’t wait for the sequel when her oldest, Nathan, is now a strapping high-school senior who knocks up the head cheerleader … and Anne Marie is “Suddenly Grandmommy.” Epic.

But for now, Anne Marie is returning to the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto with her outrageous MILF Life Crisis from June 7 to 11. I am once again bringing my single, recently separated, sex-starved, angry, but fabulous-looking female friends. This show speaks to them and the horny men who harass them on Tinder.  I hope to see you there.