Tuesday, June 28, 2016

This Spirit Soars: Giselle at the National Ballet of Canada

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Giselle. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Giselle is a work of fantasy, as compelling as anything seen today on Game of Thrones or Outlander, or any other contemporary pop culture enterprise probing the paranormal. No matter that the story of a Rhineland peasant girl who returns to earth as a ghost after dying of a broken heart is now 175 years old. It remains a powerful tale of love and vengeance – ballet as powerful theatre. Certainly, this iconic Romantic work has enabled the National Ballet of Canada to conclude the bumpy 2015/2016 season with a bang. The company’s performance of Giselle at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Arts two Fridays ago was especially sharp, with everyone from ensemble dancers to solo artists turning on the charm to make the ballet come alive for today’s audience. Sir Peter Wright’s 1970 remake is both logical and lively, despite dwelling 50 percent of the time in the land of dead. It is also sumptuously gorgeous. Adolphe Adam’s original 1841 score is a hauntingly beautiful – and readily recognizable – piece of music which the National Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin, made poignantly dramatic. You can’t help but be moved just listening to it. But the ballet is really a feast and on this point Desmond Heeley’s eye-grabbing sets and costumes, bathed in tones of emerald green, burnished gold and lapis lazuli blue, more than deliver. The celebrated designer, a fixture of Canada’s Stratford Festival, died five days before Giselle opened on June 10; the National Ballet used the occasion to pay tribute to Mr. Heeley, dedicating the opening night June 15 performance to his memory.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Musical Revivals in London's West End

Emmanuel Kojo (centre) and members of the cast of Show Boat at London's New London Theatre. (Photo: Johan Persson)

There are three major American musicals in which the main male characters are gamblers, and by chance all three have been revived in London’s West End this season. So audiences who check out Show Boat at the New London and see Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) toss his winnings in the air as he shares his good luck with his wife Magnolia (Gina Beck) may feel a weird déjà vu sensation if they’ve already seen Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell) perform the same action with Fanny Brice (Natasha J. Barnes) in Funny Girl, which moved to the Savoy from its original venue, the Meunier Chocolate Factory. No such scene appears in Guys and Dolls at the Phoenix, but nonetheless it is the quintessential gambling musical.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Night Manager: From Page to Small Screen

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, in AMC's adaptation of' John le Carré's The Night Manager.

“[Pure Intelligence] meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere.”
– John le Carré, The Night Manager 
“Guns go where the power is…Armed power’s what keeps the peace. Unarmed power does not last five minutes. First rule of stability.”
– Richard Roper, in John le Carré's The Night Manager 
Note: This review contains spoilers.

Part of what made John le Carré’s version of the Cold War so fascinating was the way it avoided a Manichean view of the universe. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt were qualities absent in earlier examples of the thriller from Le Queux, Buchan or Fleming but not in a le Carré Cold War novel. Only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side – decent, compassionate and endowed with a healthy skepticism – and he believed that Karla’s fanaticism would be his undoing. However, Karla defected for the love of his lost daughter. Smiley regarded himself as an archetypal liberal – reasonable with measured responses – but he could sustain a murderous hatred for someone who betrayed him, an antipathy that could cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Smiley became Karla: the Soviet spymaster ordered the murder of agents while Smiley did not. Smiley believed in the power of Western democracy but feared that if his side succumbed to Karla’s methods, the decencies he professed will become illusions and feared that he could lose his own humanity. While he agonized over these moral conundrums, Smiley and the intelligence services were civil servants who pursued their opposite numbers. Communist agents were often ruthless murderers but, unless they were moles inside British intelligence, Smiley (or le Carré) did not regard them as evil villains. Then the Cold War ended and le Carré became an angry man.

That anger radiates throughout le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager (1993). It is as if the author is questioning whether the principles that inspired the West to fight the Cold War were nothing but hollow rhetoric. If its purpose was designed to protect freedom and capitalism, how is Richard Roper – a wealthy and powerful illegal arms and drugs smuggler operating out of the Bahamas to peddle weapons to anyone who will provide him with a profit and admirer of the odious Idi Amin – possible? Masquerading as a respectable business magnate, he is frequently described as “the worst man in the world” – and le Carré is not intending any sense of irony – because Roper’s greed and callousness without any redeeming features, render him a villain rarely depicted in the Cold War novels.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nerd Culture: HBO’s Silicon Valley

T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch in Silicon Valley on HBO.

As I wrote in my most recent review for Critics at Large, it seems these days as though the nerds have won. In both economic and cultural terms, many occupations and enthusiasms that would once have been looked down upon, or at least greeted with incomprehension, are now both mainstream and quite lucrative. In the TV world, the result has been a wave of new(ish) shows that reflect their cultural dominance, from the rapidly multiplying horde of superhero shows to darker fare like USA’s Mr. Robot. By contrast, a show like The Big Bang Theory feels almost quaint in its depiction of its nerdy protagonists as social outcasts whose goofily eccentric interests and behavior are virtually incomprehensible to the nice, normal Americans who watch network sitcoms.

However, not many shows have attempted to tackle the economic side of the rise of nerd-dom, at least not before the appearance of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which is about to wrap up its third season. Co-created by Mike Judge (of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head fame), John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, it’s a remarkably funny and perceptive comedy that takes satiric aim at the industry that’s come to dominate so much of our daily lives.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Garage Freak: All the President's Men at 40

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men (1976).

Just recently, my wife and I took a road trip through Virginia, and on our itinerary was an outwardly unremarkable building in Arlington. Meaning to complete a kind of circle begun 15 years ago – when a friend who’d attended college in Washington D.C. took me over to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood to see the Watergate complex – I wanted to visit a parking garage at 1401 Wilson Boulevard. It was here, in 1972 and 1973, that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met the anonymous source who a Post editor called “Deep Throat,” after the Linda Lovelace porn movie then in circulation.

In a nutshell: On June 17, 1972, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. From that starting point, over the next year, Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, assembled leads from hundreds of sources into an escalating, expanding narrative of corruption centered on the dark heart of Richard Nixon’s White House. “Woodstein” and the Post were not alone in doing heroic Watergate work, but they were the ones who kept the story going when everyone else assumed it was nothing but (in the words of Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler) “a third-rate burglary”; it was their tenacity that effected the slow public unraveling of Nixon’s black-souled presidency.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America

O.J. Simpson with his award as college football's outstanding player of 1968, in Jan 1969. (Photo: Bill Ingraham)

If there's one prevailing image of O.J.Simpson – a leitmotif forever defining his life – it is of a man constantly on the run. It doesn't matter whether he rapidly escaped the projects of Potrero Hills, in San Fransisco, as an adolescent, or dazzled crowds with a game tying 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 1967 playoff between his team USC and UCLA (an unforgettable play that inspired Arnold Friberg's famous oil painting, O.J. Simpson Breaks for Daylight), Simpson is always seen in perfect flight. As a striving track athlete, he broke records with his speed at the NCAA track championships in Provo, Utah, in 1967. When he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the NFL in 1969, he would set new marks for rushing. (In 1973, he became the first player to break the 2,000-yard rushing mark in scoring 2,003 total yards with 12 touchdowns.) Because of his lightning reflexes, he even acquired the sobriquet 'Juice' because of the electricity he generated on the field. He was swift of feet moving through a brief film career that included clunkers like Capricorn One (1978) and the popular Naked Gun trilogy in the Eighties, just as he was rapidly bounding through airport departure lounges in numerous Hertz television ads. O.J. Simpson never seemed to stand still so we could get a fix on him. Not at least until he went on trial for murder in 1994 in the death of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In Ezra Edelman's riveting five-part ESPN documentary, O.J.: Made in America, we get a penetrating examination of a star athlete who captured the public's imagination with the swiftness of his charm. But behind that mask of winsomeness was a lost man and a cipher who became a tragic projection of America's greatest stain – racism – where through his veil of celebrity, he could manipulate his image (and, in turn, be manipulated by others) into anything he needed it to be. O.J.: Made in America is a searing piece of political journalism and it has some of the runaway stature of Norman Mailer's best work and maybe Randy Shilt's ...And The Band Played On, where the larger social themes emerge out of the drama and with a startling immediacy. Although it was purely coincidental that O.J.: Made in America premiered on television days after the death of Muhammad Ali, you can't separate one from the other. If Muhammad Ali was a powerful and discomfiting figure who dramatically brought the issues of racism and celebrity into the forefront of popular culture (and even rubbed our faces in it while boasting about his strength and beauty as he knocked out Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson), O.J. Simpson in Edelman's work becomes the anti-Ali, a star who desperately chose to become the invisible servant of a nation that offered him celebrity success if he could be a black man who wished to be white. At Ali's funeral, there were many who preferred to remember him as floating like a butterfly rather than stinging like a bee. That's possibly because he not only – as Cassius Clay – took on the religion of segregation, the Nation of Islam, and changed his name, but he also stood up to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted. As a proud black man, he wouldn't go fight in a country where "they didn't call me nigger." Ali relinquished his championship title, and urged other black athletes to stand up for their rights (as John Carlos and Tommie Smith did when they raised their black-gloved fists at the award-winning ceremony of the 1968 Mexico Olympics). He even risked going to jail for his actions. The celebrity of Muhammad Ali was borne out of the defiance of one man holding America accountable for its broken promises. But O.J. Simpson, who sped through the doors that Ali opened, ignored the country's dashed ideals and went for the gold. Unlike Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where the author visibly railed against being both ignored and turned into an expedient symbol, in O.J.: Made in America, we see the reverse happening. O.J. Simpson is a visible celebrity athlete who turns into an invisible man by allowing himself to become an expedient symbol for whatever and whoever will make him accepted and loved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

For the Horde!: Warcraft

The world of (Duncan Jones') Warcraft.

It’s been common in recent years for big blockbuster films to enlist low-budget directors whose indie cred can ensure the success of a new franchise, which is a trend I find sort of fascinating. Disney, in particular, has proved itself fond of this tactic: Colin Trevorrow and Rian Johnson both only had a small feature or two to their names when they were scouted for the second and third films in the new Star Wars trilogy; James Gunn’s IMDB page boasted only a few forgotten genre titles like Slither (2006) and Super (2010) until he launched a global phenomenon with Guardians of the Galaxy; and Joss Whedon stepped up to the plate for The Avengers with nothing but some beloved cult TV shows and a few screenwriting credits under his belt (and managed to hit a total home run, not only making that film a box office smash, but defining the tone and style of most Marvel titles to follow). At this point, I’m fully expecting to see Alex Garland direct a reboot of Masters of the Universe or something.

The latest addition to this club is Duncan Jones, whose expertise at crafting smart, intimate, independent sci-fi films like Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) has somehow qualified him to direct a $160 million fantasy epic based on Blizzard’s Warcraft series of computer games. I’m not complaining, because the formula continues to work in his (and our) favour: while Warcraft is big and loud and heavily plotted, with cringeworthy dialogue and limited characterization, it’s also shot through with the passionate, quietly surprising intelligence that typifies Jones’ work. It’s a crazy mess of a film, but I kind of adored it.