Friday, March 24, 2017

The Business of a Woman's Life – Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

 Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

My story begins, dear reader, with a description of a not-so-distant journey that took me through the sky to the isle of Manhattan, and ultimately inside the workings of a most extraordinary intellect. The destination was that seat of high repute and learning, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. I entered through its glassy doors off Madison Avenue as the autumnal sky above streaked plum and apricot, the colours dancing rich and vibrant on the shadowy walls. After perusing the rare gilt-edged books and illuminated manuscripts lining what had once been banker J.P. Morgan's private library, I ascended to the second storey aboard a chrome elevator. Turning right, I spied a treasure of a different stripe, a simple cotton and wool dress, patterned over with the petals of pale blue flowers. It guarded the entrance of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, a unique collaboration between the Morgan and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in England. Commemorating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth in 1816, the intimate exhibition closed in January, but not without creating a lasting impression.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Man vs. Nature – Kong: Skull Island

Tian Jing, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and Thomas Mann in Kong: Skull Island.

I had one expectation going into Kong: Skull Island, and it was a fervent hope that the film wouldn’t cleave to the story we’ve all already seen more times than we can count. I went in ready to condemn the film if any of the following were depicted: the big ape and the titular island become separate entities; the humans want to capture or control him in any way; or his murderous rage is soothed by his fascination with a beautiful blonde ingenue. I’m pleased to report that Skull Island contains none of those story beats, and is distinct enough from all the other iterations of the King Kong story to justify its own existence.

But if it isn’t any of those things, then what the hell is Skull Island, exactly? This is a movie about King Kong, isn’t it?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In God’s Country: The Joshua Tree by U2


A couple of weeks ago, I posted images of the inner-vinyl labels of side one and side two of U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (Island). It was my way of marking the 30th anniversary of the release of one my prized albums. And I don’t mean compact disc either. This was a vinyl pressing, gatefold jacket and lyrics insert edition as it was intended on March 9th, 1987. I was thirty-years younger and listening to jazz exclusively, since pop music and rock 'n' roll in general wasn’t engaging my ears at the time. But U2 was the exception. I was immediately impressed when they launched in Canada in 1980 thanks to the support of CFNY radio and The New Music television program, long time sources of new groups in the post-punk age of my generation. By posting the inner-label images on my Facebook page, I wanted to remember the record as a two-sided experience where you centered your focus to the rotation of the long-play album and flipped it to side two. In those days, music was a little more precious in its physical form. Digital files are simply no match for the texture and engagement in a record. To those pundits who fail to see the value in “things” such as vinyl albums, you’re way off the mark and rude to think that “things” are worthless, backdated forms of media.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Off the Shelf: Lunch with Charles (2001)

Theresa Lee and Nicholas Lea in Lunch with Charles.

Lunch with Charles is a relaxed and genial romantic comedy about a number of couples who begin to feel dislocated and dissatisfied with the lives and partners they've chosen. Making his feature film debut, writer-director Michael Parker sets in motion a charmingly low-key Feydeau-style farce that's sprinkled with granola and cured in heady coastal air. Set in British Columbia, a province most easterners wrongly assume to be catatonically relaxed, Lunch with Charles examines with a droll undercurrent a number of partners who fear they've lost the itch for love, but turn out to be anything but sedate. The movie puts these mismatched duos, who are from different cultures as well as different walks of life, on a collision course that leads them to question the choices they've made in their lives.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Return to La Grande Jatte: The Latest Sunday in the Park with George

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I didn’t expect to be reviewing another production of Sunday in the Park with George so soon after the Huntington Theatre’s season opener last September, but who could resist checking out a Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford? Sarna Lapine – niece of the book writer, James Lapine, who did the original Broadway staging in 1984 – worked it up out of the sold-out one-night-only 2016 concert version, and though it’s fully designed, it retains some of the intimacy it must have had in concert. Sitting in the front of the mezzanine at the newly refurbished Hudson Theatre, which dates from the turn of the twentieth century, I felt very close to the actors, especially in the two-character scenes between Gyllenhaal’s Seurat and Annaleigh Ashford’s Dot. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a raked rhomboid with an upstage curtain hung like a circus tent that holds Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash’s projections. In the 2008 revival, which came to New York by way of the Meunier Chocolate Factory in London, the projections felt like a cut-rate approach to a musical that was so visually vibrant in 1984, especially in the first-act finale, “Sunday,” where Seurat puts together his canvas A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – which he had painted exactly a century before Lapine and Stephen Sondheim wrote their musical. But in this production of Sunday in the Park, the combination of Boritt’s and Yarden’s designs is elegantly understated and quite beautiful.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Electioneering at the Vatican: Robert Harris’ Conclave

Author Robert Harris. (Photo: Karen Robinson)

"Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them."
– Robert Harris, Imperium
As a former political reporter, Robert Harris has considerable knowledge of the corridors of power and an understanding about the frailties and flaws of those who exercise it. He brings those qualities, along with a passion for detailed accuracy and compelling plots, to his historical and contemporary political thrillers. One only has to think of Ghost Writer and its film adaptation Ghost, Harris’ thinly-veiled, withering portrait of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; An Officer and a Spy, whose protagonist, Georges Picquart, was the French officer who initially fingered the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus, but whose investigation convinced him that an injustice had occurred thereby invoking the wrath of his superiors; or The Fear Index whose protagonist, Alex Hoffman, a mathematics nerd who runs a vastly successful algorithmic hedge fund, whose vulnerabilities set him up for a financial and emotional crash. Harris' latest foray, Conclave (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is an engaging investigation into the political machinations and personal liabilities of those seeking the Keys of St. Peter when the Catholic cardinals assemble to elect a new Pope at Vatican City.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Courage, Compassion, and Hopelessness: The White Helmets

A White Helmets volunteer in Aleppo after an airstrike (Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

For the last six years, death has rained from the sky onto the people of Syria. Unchallenged by any regional or foreign powers, the air force of Bashar al-Assad, more recently supplemented by the attack jets of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, have purposely slaughtered civilians in a bid to wipe out the Syrian opposition. Amid chemical attacks, crude “barrel bombs” dumped out of helicopters onto playgrounds and schools, and “double-tap” strikes that target rescuers who rush to save the victims of a first wave of bombings, Syria’s people have been systematically slaughtered. The world has largely shrugged in indifference.

While horrifying images of the ruins of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, capped off the grim parade of news that darkened 2016, a more hopeful story has emerged from the recent rise to prominence of the White Helmets, as the members of the Syria Civil Defense organization are known. These unarmed volunteers don their signature headgear and desperately attempt to pull survivors from the rubble of civilian targets flattened by Putin and Assad’s fighter jets and attack helicopters. Amid Syria’s seemingly endless agony, they’re a rare beacon of humanitarian spirit.