Saturday, December 31, 2011

Profound Disbelief: Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth

I’m beginning to wonder if Miriam Toews isn’t something of a one-hit wonder. At this point in her career she has completed five novels, including Irma Voth (Knopf Canada, 2011). So far, the only one that has wholly impressed me has been A Complicated Kindness. Toews has a knack for molding vivid characters, except this time she’s gone too far. I struggled to make sense of the title character. On one page Irma does not comprehend simple irony; on the next she is gushing about “excruciating existential dilemmas.” Irma’s background does shed some light into her cryptic character. She was raised in a conservative Mennonite community on the Canadian prairies until her family moved to Mexico several years before the novel opens. In the present tense of the novel, she works as an assistant for a leftist independent filmmaker making a movie about Mexican Mennonites. So given her eclectic background, we might expect her to have a slightly incomprehensible personality. But even though I agree that just because someone is unsophisticated doesn’t make them incapable of sophisticated thought, I don’t think Toews creates a very convincing case for Irma Voth.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Movies and Time: Christian Marclay's The Clock

For those of us unrepentant film addicts who can track the passage of our lives by the movies we’ve seen, Christian Marclay’s The Clock provides a unique sort of enchantment. Marclay, a California-born visual artist and composer, has assembled a twenty-four-hour film made up of film (and some TV) clips about time. Most of them actually mark the time: the first time I caught a section of it, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last July, my watch read 3:09 p.m. as I stepped into the projection room and as soon as I’d settled myself on one of the couches, I heard a voice from screen bemoaning the lateness of the 3:10 train to Yuma. Many of the scenes  some are as short as a single shot  contain images of clocks and watches, but Marclay’s day-long montage considers time in every conceivable form and interpretation.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas, Dylan and Music that Matters



“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? / another year over, a new one just begun...”

Christmas is like that isn’t it? John Lennon got it right. There’s the implied long wait, the excitement building, then the event, and it’s over. So this is Christmas? Now it’s over, and what have we done? Well, if you’re anything like us, at our house, you’ve simply had another year run by uncontrollably past. It could be that your Christmas was like John’s old partner George's was when he was “simply having a wonderful Christmas time...ding, dong, ding, dong...” I’m certain that for many that describes it. We move from one party to the next, eating too much, drinking too much, obviously spending too much. What began as a simple birthday party for the son of God, has turned in to this big...thing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse: The Artist/Entertainer at his Peak


With The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, both released this holiday season, the two creative (but not mutually exclusive) sides of director Steven Spielberg, the entertainer and artist, are on display on our movie screens. And though the films differ in quality, they’re both accomplishments that showcase him, once again, as one of the finest filmmaking talents in the world, if you weren't already aware of that fact. Many people aren't.

The two movies also share one thing in common, they’re both European stories that, as a positive sign of Hollywood’s recognition that foreigners make up a huge share of the overall box office, have not been Americanized in the slightest. Of course, being big budget, special effects extravaganzas, as only Hollywood could really afford to make, they are still in English. That’s the other economic reality. Hollywood still won’t take chances on subtitles fearing turning local audiences off of their movies.

I actually grew up with the adventures of Tintin, the young intrepid Belgian reporter, created by the Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi), over 23 comic books, as my grandparents (who moved there from Poland) and my mother, who was born there, were from that country. When I was young, reading them in their original French, my memories of the strip were that they contained exciting, exotic adventures, were populated by eccentric/amusing characters and were drawn with a simple but effective style. That last might seem too hard to duplicate on screen but Spielberg, utilizing performance capture animation, pulls it off flawlessly.

Performance capture animation requires photographing actors, particularly their facial and physical expressions, and then grafting them as animated figures on the screen making them look like actors playing the roles. (Motion capture is the process of photographing the whole person. The use of it for film is performance capture.) Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) was one such movie but it was a rather impersonal, cold project. The Adventures of Tintin is a warmer, personality driven effort and much more pleasing and entertaining as cinema. It’s a refreshingly different looking movie, too, an animated flick that looks like it’s been bred with a live action movie, adding up to something unique on screen. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Performing Without Inhibition: Wim Wenders' Pina


"Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost."
                                             Pina Bausch

Watching Wim Wenders' hauntingly poignant and unique film about the choreographic genius of Pina Bausch, I was reminded that when I was younger I didn’t want to run away and join the circus; I wanted to join Tanztheater Wuppertal, the internationally acclaimed German dance troupe that Bausch directed from 1973 until her untimely death in 2009.

I saw her extraordinary dancers, culled from all corners of the globe, for the first time in 1984 during a rare visit of the troupe to Toronto. The piece was The Rite of Spring, and the stage was covered with spoil (dirt, peat and other detritus) that turned to mud soon after the dancers started marking it with the sweat of their extraordinary effort. Together with the approximately 2,000 spectators who thronged to the theatre that night, drawn by Bausch’s reputation as an award-winning dance artist, I watched spellbound from the edge of my seat, eyes wide open, a lump in my throat.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The School for Scandal at the Barbican, Butley in the West End

Ensemble members in various states of dress and undress stride cheekily up and down in a runway-style pre-show before settling down to the text in Deborah Warner’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s unbeatable comedy of manners The School for Scandal at the Barbican. This opening promises fun, but after about ten minutes of the actual play you realize you’ve been led down the garden path. Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler), who presides over the metaphorical school of the title, a crew of self-involved gossips who pick the reputations of London high society like vultures pecking at corpses, makes out with Snake (Gary Sefton) and shares a line of coke with him; that’s about the level of Warner’s invention. The hip-contemporary underwear-dominated costumes supervised by Binnie Bowerman quickly give way to the eighteenth-century outfits you see in most versions of the play, though every now and then someone walks onstage with an anachronistic costume piece, or someone pulls out a cell phone, and the transitions between scenes are flashy strobe-lit video projections that operate as Brechtian interruptions. It makes perfect sense to update the setting of The School for Scandal (originally produced in 1777), but I don’t get the nervous, ADHD shift between the play’s real setting and modern day  though Warner is hardly the first director to try this sort of post-modern theatrical trick.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small: A Movie That Growls “Merry Christmas”

There are several moments in We Bought a Zoo that may be reminiscent of a far better film also about a man with a plan who arrives in a remote town and is charmed by the eccentric people living there. Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, which came out in 1983, was set on the coast of Scotland. Peter Riegert played a conflicted oil company executive way back then and he appears all too briefly as a newspaper editor in the current release, directed by Cameron Crowe. The star this time around is Matt Damon, portraying a recently widowed journalist named Benjamin Mee fleeing Los Angeles and arriving somewhere in rural Southern California with his two children.

Newspapers throughout the nation are withering away, plus Benjamin’s adventure beat becomes too difficult to maintain because it requires a lot of traveling. With two kids to raise on his own, he simply quits the job. Meanwhile, his brooding 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) has just been expelled from school for stealing and their city home is plagued by noisy neighbors. A real estate agent shows several properties to him and his precocious daughter Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, cute enough to stop mugging for the cameras already!). But none are right for them until they spot a ramshackle country house on 18 gorgeous acres – and adjacent to an almost-defunct Rosemoor Wildlife Park, in dire need of renovation and revival. The family also desperately in need of revival suddenly must contend with lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Forged in the Stars: Neil deGrasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries)

I first stumbled upon Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious love of space when I saw him interviewed on that most intellectual of science television programmes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tyson spoke with the articulation and intelligence born of years as a professional astrophysicist, yet with the youthful enthusiasm of a twelve year-old who dreams of exploring the galaxy. Whether working as an undergraduate lecturer or as director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson has committed himself to conveying a wonder and understanding of astronomy to the lay-person. Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries) succeeds in this goal, depicting the vast and often daunting study of astronomy as a subject of fascinating awe, and as something we all can – and should – attempt to discover ourselves.

Published in 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company, Death by Black Hole assembles several dozen of Tyson’s essays from Natural History magazine, spanning from 1995 to 2005. These range from a discussion of how technology helps humans explore the universe, to how science informs and interweaves with human culture. As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Death by Black Hole takes an inquisitive approach to science, with each essay built around a unique space-based problem. While each chapter can stand alone, the book also manages to maintain enough intrigue and momentum to compel me to read several chapters at a stretch. Though an interest in astronomy certainly helps, the book makes a great introduction to the topic, owing its success to Tyson’s humorous and entertaining approach.

Friday, December 23, 2011

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Finally, Not Satisfying


First, we had Stieg Larsson’s best selling Millennium trilogy of books. Then, the three Swedish movies based on them. And now, Hollywood has set its sights on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the film adaption of the first book in the series – on the valid assumption that the project was worth doing since American audiences don’t generally go to foreign language films. But despite a first rate director, David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network), screenwriter, Steve Zaillian (Mission: Impossible, Schindler’s List), and a star-studded cast, including Daniel Craig (the new James Bond, Munich) and Christopher Plummer (The Insider, The Last Station), the movie doesn’t quite cut it, which is unfortunate since the Swedish movies failed to do justice to Larsson’s terrific novels. The American movie didn’t dash my hopes entirely – Fincher’s film-making is generally top notch – but it wasn’t what it should have been, either.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #26: Ralph L.Thomas (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

The concept of heroes and villains was greatly simplified in the eighties so I wanted a chapter in the book (Heroes and Villains) that featured artists who examined that idea with a little more complexity. One such individual, film director Ralph Thomas (Ticket to Heaven), had just tackled a Canadian icon: Terry Fox. It had been just three years since Fox, a young athlete who had lost a leg to cancer, decided in 1980 to run cross-Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Tragically, the cancer soon spread and he had to abandon the run after 143 days where he had done 5,373 kilometres (or 3,339 miles). Within a year, he was dead, leading to the annual Terry Fox Run which is now held in over 60 countries each year as the world's largest fund-raiser for the disease.

In his movie, The Terry Fox Story (1983), where amputee actor Eric Fryer played Fox and Robert Duvall portrayed his trainer, Bill Vigars, Thomas certainly set out to capture what made Fox such a distinctly heroic figure, rather than building a momument to him. While the film, in retrospect, would have likely done better on television (as it resembled a TV movie in many ways and was released in the U.S. on Home Box Office), it was given a theatrical run in Canada and people simply didn't run to see it. Nevertheless, The Terry Fox Story went on to win six awards at the 1984 Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards) including Best Picture.

We did the interview shortly before the awards ceremony.where Thomas was still searching for clues in understanding why his picture didn't strike the same popular chord that Fox himself had a few years earlier.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spy vs. Spy: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“He's a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”
George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Failure for a terrorist is just a dress rehearsal for success.”
Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
George Smiley and Ethan Hunt are in the same profession. They are spies working clandestinely to keep certain evils, be they communism or individual madmen, from destroying the very fabric of Western civilization. The two movies these characters appear in, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (based on a novel by John Le Carré) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (the fourth film based on the 1960s TV series), both opened last Friday. What's fascinating about each is that they represent two completely different schools of thought in the depiction of the world of the spy. One, Tinker Tailor, is a cerebral drama about the attempt to uncover a mole (double agent) at the very top of British Secret Service in 1973; the other, M:I – GP, is an action-packed film set in the present day about the attempt to stop a madman from unleashing a nuclear missile on the US. What is equally fascinating is they start in exactly the same way and even in the same city, and yet after those first few opening moments they peel off in two completely different thematic directions.

In M:I – GP, an agent, Trevor Hanaway (played by Lost's Josh Holloway), is in Budapest, Hungary. He and other members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are there to intercept a courier who has acquired the launch codes for a nuclear weapon. He is betrayed and shot by a beautiful assassin. In Tinker Tailor, an agent, Jim Prideaux (played by Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong), is in Budapest, Hungary. He is there because the head of the Circus (British Secret Service), known only as Control (John Hurt), has sent him to meet up with a source who claims to know the name of the mole. It is a trap, and Prideaux is shot by a sweaty waiter. Both films and where they are heading are determined in their establishing shots of Budapest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beauty & the Beast: Pauline Butcher's Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa

Until recent years, most of the books about the late American composer Frank Zappa, including my own (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa), have been attempts to provide a proper context for his work. Simply put, for many, the name Frank Zappa only conjures up images of a deranged freak who warns us not to eat the yellow snow. What gets lost in that somewhat uniformed view is a much deeper and complex understanding of how Zappa brought to popular music a ferocious desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture. He created in his work, until his death from prostate cancer in 1993, a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy.

By infusing the canon of 20th Century music with his scabrous and outrageous wit (influenced by comedian Lenny Bruce and the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones), Zappa presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire turning that history into a wildly theatrical display of Dadaist farce. He poked fun at middle-class conformity (Freak Out!), the Sixties counterculture (We're Only in it For the Money), Seventies disco (Sheik Yerbouti), the corporate rock industry (Tinsel Town Rebellion), and the fundamentalist narcolepsy of the Reagan era (You Are What You Is). Beginning with his band The Mothers of Invention in the Sixties, Zappa built a formidable career in rock & roll by combining a wide range of styles, including serious contemporary music (inspired by Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Charles Ives), jazz (Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus), rhythm & blues (Guitar Slim, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson), doo-wop (The Channels), and social and political parody. His career essentially had its roots in the artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism in the late 19th Century beginning with the absurdism of Erik Satie, and then continuing with the birth of serialism that ushered in the modern era of the 20th Century. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Strange Bedfellows: Collaborators

Collaborators – a new play by John Hodge

Many artists in Stalin’s Soviet Union were branded enemies of the state; the lucky ones were robbed of their livelihood but spared their lives. But Stalin had a peculiar fondness for the novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whom he shielded from the periodic purges that doomed so many others. He even got Bulgakov a job at the Moscow Art Theater at one point – though when his late plays were deemed unacceptable for production, Stalin didn’t intervene. The unorthodox and surprising relationship between the dictator and the author was the starting point for Collaborators, a play by John Hodge (the screenwriter of Trainspotting) that is currently receiving a production at the Cottesloe, the intimate black-box space at London’s National Theatre. (It was shown internationally in HD earlier this month.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Neglected Gem #9: Jupiter's Wife (1995)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

A sleeper at the 1995 Montreal Film Festival, Jupiter's Wife had its genesis in documentarian Michael Negroponte's curiosity about Maggie, a middle-aged homeless person he spotted in Central Park walking her four dogs. She told him tales about being the daughter of the late actor Robert Ryan and having friends among New York's upper class. Remarkably, all of her stories weren't complete fabrications, as Maggie turned out to be both more and less than she claimed.

Following her around during her daily routine, investigating her background, talking to the people who knew her, Negroponte slowly creates a unique, charming portrait of a rather special person – one who in her own way broke ground for women. Maggie's life is ultimately tragic and sad, but the accomplishment of Jupiter's Wife (shot in video and blown up to 35mm) is that it goes beyond the usual stereotypes of the homeless.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.
  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Take a Gamer's Holiday: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Whether you recall the 1980s with a laugh, a cringe, or a roll of the eyes, it’s hard to help smiling at the joyful nostalgia that permeates Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Written by the director of the 2008 film Fanboys, the novel speaks to that demographic in its native tongue, presenting a vision that will appeal to those with a taste for cyberpunk, oddball grail quests, flying DeLoreans, or old school gamer lore.

The premise seems simple: in the near future, a billionaire game developer leaves his entire fortune to whomever can solve a series of puzzles within his massively multiplayer virtual reality game, known appropriately as the OASIS. Since the challenge is open to all, everyone from basement dwellers to multimedia conglomerates clamor for a chance to control this digital universe, which has become the preferred platform for socializing, schooling, and marketing for much of the first world.

Enter Wade Watts, named in the alliterative tradition of such nerdy heroes as Clark Kent and Peter Parker. A teenager gamer living atop a stack of RVs, his family life and aspirations were decimated by the socio-economic collapse of the United States. To escape, he dreams of finding success and glory in the OASIS. Seeing the contest as his opportunity, he begins his hunt through the series of clues left by the game developer who, it turns out, obsessed over 1980s popular culture. In this way Ready Player One takes a paradoxical approach to speculative fiction: in a bleak future, advanced technology seems unable to stop humanity’s steady decay, yet provides refuge in the form of retro gaming and classic movies.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Delectable Pastry: Soulpepper Theatre Company's Parfumerie

Oliver Dennis & Patricia Fagan in Parfumerie by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company

Recently, I apologized to an actor friend of mine because I'd missed a play he was in. He laughed and said, “Oh, don't worry about it. It's just a pastry; a confection. It's nothing that serious.” I thought, but didn't say, “A piece of frothy fun, done well, can be as good and as important as a great tragedy.” That thought came to mind as I left Soulpepper Theatre Company's 2011 Christmas show, Parfumerie by Miklós László: it's frothy fun with a serious edge (it's playing until December 30th in Toronto's Distillery District). Parfumerie may be unknown to most people, but it is actually the basis for not one, not two, but three movies, plus a Broadway musical. Do the movies The Shop Around the Corner (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998) ring a bell? They're all based on this obscure Hungarian play written in 1937 by Miklós László (the musical was 1963's She Loves Me).

The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and directed by comic master Ernst Lubitsch, is one of my favourite movies. So when I heard in 2009 that Soulpepper had found and resurrected the original play, (the new translation was created specifically for Soulpepper by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins) I was intrigued. I waited too long and it was sold out. Last year, Soulpepper remounted their fine production of A Christmas Carol, so I thought I was out of luck. Fortunately, Parfumerie did so well in 2009 that they have decided to alternate it every second year with A Christmas Carol

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Less is More: This One's For Him – A Tribute to Guy Clark

In November 2011, Guy Clark turned 70. All our heroes are turning 70, or 75; I guess that means I’m ageing too. I don’t feel like it, except when I try to do the same old things I always did. Like stand up, or bend over! To celebrate Guy’s birthday, his friends, led by Tamara Saviano, created the tribute album, This One's For Him. Now Guy Clark is one of those heroes who needs to be celebrated, although I’m pretty sure he’d be uncomfortable with the attention.

Last time I saw Guy Clark was at Guelph’s marvellous River Run Centre. I had an appointment to meet with his accompanist and pal Verlon Thompson. Guy was asked from the audience if he was going to come out and sign CDs after the show, and he said, “Well,” in his slow Texas drawl, “do ya want me to?” And sure enough he came out, and stood quietly against the wall, looking ever so much like he couldn’t figure out what all the excitement was about. He took the gushing compliments with an “aw shucks” attitude, and scribbled his signature on a dozen or two CD inserts. He’d done his job, sung his songs and played his guitar, told his stories and entertained us for a couple hours. It was time to go, but the “Master Songwriter” (as his web site calls him) schmoozed for our benefit. He was the old pro.

This One’s For Him is a two-disc set that feels almost like one of Guy’s own records, except everybody else is singing the songs. The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas using a core group of musicians including Shawn Camp, Verlon Thompson, Lloyd Maines, Jen Gunderman, Glen Fukunaga, Glenn Worf, Kenny Malone and Larry Atamanuik, among others. These names will be familiar to regular listeners of Texas songwriter music. They’ve played around and are all masters of their craft. The tone is acoustic, warm, and comfortable, all the way through from the first sound on Disc One. I say first ‘sound’ because before he launches into “Old Time Feeling” Rodney Crowell says “Let’s give her a good go and make ol’ Guy proud of us…” It lends an air of honesty and intimacy to the proceedings which remains throughout both discs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Luck: David Milch’s Return to HBO is a Sure Bet

Dustin Hoffman as Chester 'Ace' Bernstein in Luck on HBO

On January 29th, the first season of David Milch’s new HBO show, Luck, will begin – and it shows every sign that it can live up to the best that both Milch and HBO have to offer. Though we’ll have to wait six weeks to see new episodes of the show (which boasts screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in their first regular roles in a TV series), this past Sunday HBO gave audiences a sneak peek at the new series when it aired its pilot episode.

Coming out of the gate strong, this show takes its time, and respects its audience, subjects, and characters the way that only a show which is truly meaningful to its creators can. Knowing a subject too well can be a liability when making a drama. (David Simon’s intimacy with Baltimore was an asset for most of the run of The Wire, but if the final season staggered just a bit, it was likely because Simon was just a little too close to the world of the Baltimore Sun that he introduced in that fifth season) But here, it seems, Milch’s lifelong association with the racetrack only seems to give him the confidence necessary to take it slow. A story that was basically five decades in the making, it paints a patient portrait of a unique world.

David Milch on the set of Deadwood
In December 2007, one month into the Writers Guild of America strike that would bring Hollywood to a standstill for three and a half months, David Milch – most famous as the creator of HBO's groundbreaking Western Deadwood – gave a series of impromptu lectures before a small audience of fellow writers and strikers at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. (An astute soul taped the talks, and they have been available online ever since. For the singular insight they offer into one of television's most creative and dangerous minds, I cannot recommend them more.) Interspersed with anecdotes about his first sexual encounter and his decades-long struggle with drugs and alcohol, the extemporaneous lectures touched on everything from Milch’s philosophy of writing, the deep ambivalence TV writers feel towards their bosses, and the essence of the creative process, to the life of St Paul and the nature of religious faith.  And Milch also spoke about two very personal television projects that he’d been kicking around for a long time, both of which were extremely personal to him, and neither of which (he implied) he expected to ever see the light of day. One was a show about the racetrack. Luck is that show.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Rump of the Sixties: The Doors – A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years by Greil Marcus

Looking over the pieces I've written in the last year, I've spent a good deal of time dealing with the troubling legacy of the Sixties. Even my next book, which I'm now writing and preparing for publication, begins with the early promise of that decade and follows the subsequent ones as if tracing the endless ripple of a pebble tossed in the sea. My preoccupation is not based on my age either (although I grew up in the Sixties), or holding on to some sense of nostalgia for better times. I'm also not locked into the glory days of my youth (they weren't very glorious to begin with) and clinging to some talisman against the bitter cold. Although there are some people I know who decided to stop listening to music, reading books, and seeing movies that didn't conform to the values they treasured when they were young, I'm not grappling with the Sixties, either as an idea or a time and place, as a means to avoid the realities of the current decade. Quite the contrary.

As far as popular culture goes, for me, it still lives and breathes in the present. For instance, I'd love to write more about contemporary music; why I'm mesmerized by Matthew Friedberger's sinewy guitar that snakes its way through The Fiery Furnaces' "Two Fat Feet" from their debut 2003 album Gallowsbird's Bark; how Seattle's Fire Theft seems to effortlessly embody in their single "Chain," an emotional hailstorm, the void left by Nirvana; or, the impish joy I hear in Rachel Nagy's libidinous "very nice" that kicks off The Detroit Cobras' "Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby)," a full-tilt boogie that would make John Lee Hooker smile; on how I'm moved in the most peculiar way by The Handsome Family's "Weightless Again," a song that both laments and justifies suicide in a manner as wistfully satirical about the subject as Steely Dan's "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"; or why Okkervil River, on I Am Very Far, and the Decemberists, on The King is Dead, continue to rehabilitate our notions of what constitutes musical Americana.

As much as I continue to enjoy new music, it's still too immediate, too much of its time, for me to reflect back on it with any real authority. It has yet to trace its own path into the future where it might find a meaning for itself beyond what it represents now. What I enjoy in writing about Sixties culture is the task of putting to the test the relics that have stood the test of time, as well as the things that haven't; that is, figuring out what new meaning continues to breathe life into work that could have (and maybe should have) expired a long time ago. In a sense, that's the underlining theme of The Doors A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years (Public Affairs, 2011), where critic Greil Marcus ponders the dark magic of the L.A. group The Doors, a rock band dead for over forty years now, but hardly gone from cultural relevance. In examining what they mean today, indeed how they've endured both on the radio and as part of the embroidery of the lost Sixties, Marcus not only reveals the obvious (that they weren't really a group of their time), but that they somehow (despite this) characterized their time, and took on the leaner, meaner, violent side of that decade's demise. (As Marcus reminds us, they weren't one of the 'love' bands.) And their best music, like that pebble in the sea I mentioned earlier, continues to ripple along as if they never went away.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Grandstanding: Other Desert Cities

Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Jon Robin Baitz’s critically acclaimed new Broadway play Other Desert Cities is an American family drama with an eleventh-hour revelation. Structurally and generically it harks back to the Victorian-era well-made plays that Ibsen and Chekhov each took a hand in sabotaging but that survived nonetheless into the twentieth century, where they furnished a model for American playwrights like Arthur Miller (who added a Freudian element) and later a blueprint for TV serials. Baitz must think he’s creating something new because he’s stocked his play with political content, but it’s a screechy, grandstanding melodrama in which every hinge creaks.

The setting is Palm Springs, where Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s two grown-up children have come out to spend Christmas with them. Lyman (Stacy Keach) is a retired ambassador and he and Polly are still conspicuously active in Republican circles. (Polly is played by Stockard Channing, but I saw her understudy, Lauren Klein.) Before they entered politics both Wyeths had Hollywood lives, Lyman as a handsome leading man while Polly and her sister Silda (Judith Light), transplanted Texas girls, wrote a series of popular detective movies. The team split up when the two sisters stopped getting along well enough to collaborate, and their animosity is more apparent than ever now that Silda, a recovering alcoholic, has moved in with Polly and Lyman. Their son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) produces a TV show called Jury of Your Peers in which the jury is made up of celebrities. Their daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) is a journalist who has just completed a manuscript. When the family is assembled she announces that it’s a memoir about the family, centered on the tragedy they’ve never recovered from: during Vietnam their eldest, Henry, became involved with a radical anti-war group that bombed a recruitment center, killing a homeless man, and out of guilt and despair Henry drowned himself. Brooke has never forgiven her parents for turning their coming-apart son away when he sought their help after the bombing, nor has she recovered, after all these years, from the feeling that Henry, her hero, abandoned her when she was a little girl, not even leaving a note for her when he chose to take his life. This event which almost destroyed her family haunted her into her shaky adulthood – she’s had a breakdown and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. In researching the book she’s used her aunt as a resource. Silda has her own axe to grind: her fury that her sister and brother-in-law’s fervent loyalty to the GOP cause prompted them to see their own son, whom they struggled to bring up in their political image, as a traitor for defecting to the left wing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In Darkness: A Harrowing Tale of Enlightenment

Milla Bankowicz and Robert Wieckiewicz in In Darkness

My mother and her closest kin came to America from Poland, a nation that was invaded a dozen years later by the Nazis. In 1942 virtually all Jewish residents in the shtetl of her little hometown, Goniadz, were killed outright or sent to the gas ovens of the Treblinka death camp. Their homes were ransacked by Catholic anti-Semites, who rejoiced with the local priest as they helped the Gestapo wipe out an entire community.

She’s not around any more but I wonder what her opinion would have been of In Darkness, about a sort of proletarian Polish version of Oskar Schindler named Leopold Socha. With his help, ten people survive for 14 months (beginning in May 1943) in the filthy, rat-infested sewers under Nazi-occupied Lvov, where fellow Jews are systematically obliterated by the Gestapo. This sort of topic was always raw for a woman who could never concede that there might conceivably be such a thing as a good Pole.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wordless World: Shaun Tan’s Approach to the Silent Graphic Novel

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Catharine Charlesworth, to our group.

Opening Shaun Tan’s The Arrival feels like cracking the spine on an old, treasured photo album. Both written and illustrated by the Australian artist, the entire book looks as if aged by time and travel: from the cover, with its seemingly-tattered binding and leathery texture to the washed-out sepia tones of the illustrations. This motif is entirely appropriate, as The Arrival reflects on immigration, of the wonder and confusion of making a new life in a foreign land. The narrative follows a nameless protagonist: a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter in their monster-ridden homeland to travel overseas in search of work, in hopes of making enough money to bring his family to live with him. The Arrival tells a classic immigrant story, and Tan’s design choices help him to convey it in a way that appears both familiar and fantastical.

Unlike most graphic novels, The Arrival tells its story entirely in illustrations. A wordless graphic novel, it contains no speech bubbles, no textual narration – no real written language of any sort. Because of this, the characters lack – in the traditional sense – any explicit internal dialogue or distinctive voice. Yet Tan has done this intentionally. His lack of detailed personality makes Tan’s hero a sort of Everyman: a character onto whom the audience can project their own experiences of immigration and transnationalism. The story at the heart of The Arrival has been told before, in many different tongues. To make this fantastical version accessible to cultures worldwide, Tan tells it in the transcendent language of images. The only written “words” in the book are in a made-up alphabet. These represent, rather than any particular phrases, the idea of writing, and its ability to baffle, humble, and alienate one who does not understand it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Not Quite Magical: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s modern children’s classic The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is both an impressive achievement and a disappointing movie. On the one hand, it marks something of a return to form for director Martin Scorsese, who’s floundered of late with choppy films like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed  (2006), and superficial ones like Shutter Island (2010). Yet, while he directs the picture with supreme self-confidence, he doesn’t quite bring the right light and airy tone to the movie's subject matter.

That story owes something to the magic of early cinema, and also to the recent steampunk genre, which marries Victorian attitudes to advanced technology to create alternate worlds that are similar but not quite like our own. (It’s a pallid genre that usually leaves me cold, but in Hugo it actually possesses some frisson and verve.) It’s also a classic tale of a boy finding himself, growing up and learning that life contains both hardships and joys.

The earliest parts of the film fare the best as Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan (Rango) and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Shutter Island, Inglourious Basterds) craft a unique world, mostly set in the main train station in Paris in the early 1930s. Shot in 3D, Hugo is a live action movie with a lovely animated, fantastical look and feel. I’m still not a fan of the process, but this is one case where it nevertheless adds something to the whole.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young, sensitive boy who lives in the train station where he makes sure the giant clocks run on time, and does his level best to stay out of the clutches of the station’s police inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) – a disaffected war veteran who loves to catch the boys who hide out at the station and send them to (presumably nasty) orphanages. When Hugo is caught stealing by toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), events are set in motion whereby he will find out who the mysterious Georges really is, meet Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and discover where the broken automaton brought to him by his inventor father (Jude Law) actually came from. (It was his attempt to steal parts for the robot which saw him caught by the store owner.) That journey is compelling and richly depicted, but also emotionally flat.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stealing Voices & Naming Names: Tim Riley's Biography of John Lennon

Just about the only scene I enjoyed in Walter Hill's action comedy 48 Hrs (1982) was when Nick Nolte's bleery-eyed cracker cop reluctantly visits prison to spring the slick hustler Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him capture Hammond's former partners in crime. As Nolte approaches the cell, Murphy is listening to his Walkman, oblivious to Nolte hell, oblivious to the world while lost in the falsetto notes of Sting's affected soul strutting in The Police's hit song "Roxanne." Murphy is singing along, note for note, not only matching Sting, but surpassing him. What comes across initially as parody quickly takes hold as the only true version of the song. The notes Murphy hits are exactly the same as Sting's, but you actually believe Murphy's tale of a streetwalker. He may be thinking of someone he loves, or perhaps, a broken girl that he left on the outside before he started doing time. (Sting never convinces you that he even knows a streetwalker. He merely convinces you that he walks on the street.)

While it's hardly an example of divine retribution, of stealing back what Pat Boone once stole from Little Richard, but whenever I now hear The Police singing "Roxanne," I crack up. I can't hear Sting anymore. It's Eddie Murphy's voice that replaces him in my mind. No need to Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner, as Howard Hampton put it once in one of his delightfully cranky essays, Sting's no longer worthy of being a trophy. In 48 Hrs, a film that shrewdly exploited racial tensions for cheap laughs, and provided what critic Pauline Kael rightly called "an eighties minstrel show," Eddie Murphy came to own "Roxanne," turning it from a minstrel number into a real soul song. (Nick Nolte, who could care less, rips the headphones from Murphy's head before he can even finish the song.) Yet that's the sheer beauty of getting to test the worth of an artist's voice, to see if you can steal what they've claimed as their own. It's partly what drives cover bands, too, who try to both emulate their idols and potentially steal the thunder of the idols they adore. But you can't steal someone's thunder if it's not put there to steal.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ridley Second Guessing Ridley: Ridley Scott's Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven

I was tempted to label this particular post as “Produced and Abandoned,” but I couldn't quite justify a film that cost $130 million to make and grossed $211 million worldwide as being “abandoned.” And yet, on the basis of the theatrical cut which was released in 2005, Ridley Scott's crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven was, pun intended, sacrificed on the altar of commerce. Released at 145 minutes, the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a god-awful mess. Incoherent and simplistic, the film faded from my memory pretty quickly after I saw it on DVD in 2006. In fact, the only things I remember from the film were some good action scenes and two reasonably credible performances: one by Orlando Bloom in the lead; and the other, uncredited, by Ed Norton as King Baldwin (his character is a leper and so we never see his face as it is hidden by a silver mask).

All of which was too bad, since the premise was promising. Balian (Bloom) is a blacksmith in a small French village who one day is approached by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey reveals to the pauper Balian that he is in fact Godfrey's abandoned bastard son. Godfrey convinces him to join him and his men as they travel to Jerusalem to defend the city they, the crusaders, have held for 100 years. En route, they are set upon and Godfrey is critically wounded. Balian takes over and, after a shipwreck and other travails, arrives in Jerusalem. As the heir to Godfrey, Balian inherits villa and land outside of Jerusalem that appears to be infertile. Using his knowledge of landscape, he and his servants find water and make the property thrive. At the same time in Jerusalem, he is introduced to the ongoing political turmoil of the city. King Baldwin is a Christian king respected by the Muslims and Jews as he has always treated all three religions with equal respect. Behind his back, the Templars and others are plotting to overthrow him and seize the city for themselves. Prime villains here are Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). Through their villainy, the 100-year long peace between the Christians and the Muslims implodes. The Muslim leader, Saladin (Nasser Memarzia), is an honourable man, and after a great conflict, allows the remaining crusaders and their families, including Balian, to leave Jerusalem unharmed. There's more, but that's the basic premise.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trailer Park Tragedy: Hume Baugh's Crush

Crush, at the Factory Theatre Studio in Toronto from December 1-11.

As my theatre going consort predicted prior to our viewing of Hume Baugh’s Crush, “I’m prepared for dark, dark, dark.” Let's just say he was well-prepared. Originally debuted at Summerworks in 2008, the freshly revised “trailer park tragedy” about “love, loneliness, and the lies we tell ourselves” opened at the Factory Theatre on December 1st under the director Mark Cassidy. It is indeed dark. Until December 11th, theatre goers can be both frustrated and entertained by the self-inflicted sadness of three characters.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jazz Babies: Cotton Club Parade

In the 1920s and especially the ‘30s, the Cotton Club in Harlem represented the intersection of white and black popular culture – talented white songwriters like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote material for extraordinary African American performers like Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Avon Long, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (who also, of course, performed Ellington’s own compositions and those of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn). The club was on the corner of Lenox and 142nd Street; originally the Club Deluxe, it was opened by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, in 1920, and when it failed a white gangster, Owen “Owney” Madden, and his syndicate bought it up, renamed it and staged a flamboyant reopening in 1923. The bitter irony was that, for the next seventeen years – as long as the Cotton Club operated – it welcomed white audiences only; even the families of the performers were denied admission. Yet for a black musician or dancer, appearing there meant you had catapulted into the white show-business world. (If you want to find out more about The Cotton Club Revues, Jim Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era, published in 1977, is helpful. Stay away from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club, which is fiction – and lousy fiction at that. And of course you can get the original recordings remastered on CD, some of which come from live broadcasts. One you don’t want to skip is Fields and McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Ellington’s band, sung by his favorite vocalist Ivie Anderson, she of the bourbon-and-water contralto, and featuring a tasty solo by soprano sax player Johnny Hodges at the beginning a truly sublime one at the end by trumpeter Lawrence Brown. It’s heaven.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Windmills of His Mind: Remembering Paul Motian 1931-2011

Paul Motian (1931-2011)

On November 22, 2011 the jazz world lost Paul Motian, one its best musicians. The drummer, who was born in 1931, was still active in his 80thyear with a recent gig at the famed Village Vanguard in New York. It was a testament to his endurance as one of the most important players of the Modern Jazz era.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Motian started playing the drums at the age of twelve. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War moving on to the Manhattan School of Music in 1954. His early professional years were spent in the company of Lennie Tristano, the innovative be-bop pianist that led to a meeting with Tristano’s student, Bill Evans. It was an important era in the post-bop, modern era of jazz which was suddenly interested in expanding the palette beyond Charlie Parker’s ideas. The music was becoming more introspective and harmonically sophisticated. In 1957, he made his first record with Evans and bassist Teddy Kotick called, New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Opening Your Ears: Stan Rogers' Fogarty’s Cove


First time I met Stan Rogers I was watching my friend John play at a little coffeehouse at the Jewish Community Centre in Hamilton. John was in the middle of a song, probably “If I Was a Carpenter,” when the door swung open and a giant silhouette back-lit by the streetlights proclaimed, “hi! I’m Stan Rogers, just back from playin’ little honky-tonks and bars all across northern Ontario…and I’d be happy to play for you!” John never quite recovered.

Next time I met Stan was at Bill Powell’s third floor apartment just off Gore Park in downtown Hamilton. I was there to audition for a folk festival. I knocked on the door, heard a voice call, “come on in; it’s open!” Stan was listening to a young duo. I took my guitar out of its case to tune up. The duo left. Stan said, “Before you start, I have to show you something.” We walked the length of the apartment to the front bedroom. Bill Powell, painter, head of Creative Arts, founder of Festival of Friends, and all 'round local legend, lay stark naked, passed out on the bed not unlike Santiago at the end of The Old Man & the Sea

Friday, December 2, 2011

Not So Jolly: Cinematic Carnality and Corruption

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame

Profoundly damaged men are the focus of two new films with one-word titles and bleaker-than-bleak outlooks. Just in time for the holidays! In Shame, the troubled New York City protagonist is Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), addicted to anonymous and increasingly rough, grim sex. The central character in Rampart, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), is a longtime Los Angeles cop whose lies, brutality and arrogance have begun to erode his very being. Joy to the world!

While both movies are hard to watch, Shame provides some measure of compassion for the handsome Brandon as he navigates between his upscale office job and a secret life of compulsive seduction, masturbation, hookers and porn. Director Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan and gives the dire proceedings a deceptively stylish look, does not provide any examination of what early experiences might have dragged a person into such self-destructive lower depths.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Courage and Cowardice: Criterion’s release of The Four Feathers (1939)

The Four Feathers – the classic 1939 Alexander Korda production recently released by Criterion in a spanking, spiffy new digital restoration – is an uneven, but entertaining movie; one that doesn’t entirely balance its large scale and very impressive battle sequences with its quieter, dialogue-driven scenes. More significantly, it sends out a mixed message about courage, cowardice and doing what one believes in.

Based on A.E.W. Masons’ 1902 novel, and brought to film an extraordinary seven times, this version, directed by Zoltan Korda, Alexander’s brother, is the most famous one, an adventure film cast in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s lauding of all things British, including its imperialistic adventures abroad. The latter is the subtext of The Four Feathers, which centres around Harry Faversham (John Clements), a sensitive young man whose family tradition  has seen all its men serve in the military. When his unit is sent to Egypt – to engage the Sudanese in an attempt to retake Khartoum, captured by Arab armies a decade earlier – he resigns his commission. That act, which he carries out because of a fervent wish to concentrate on his home life, such as his impending marriage to Ethne (June Duprez), a daughter of a general, has him labelled a coward by his three closest friends. They each send him a white feather as a sign of their disapproval of his ‘cowardice.’ (White is the colour of peace, of course, but that option doesn’t seem to exist in the gung-ho build-up to war.) But it’s the final feather, the fourth one, given to him by Ethne, albeit not without him daring her to do so, that prompts him to take drastic action to regain his honour.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Message Meets Medium: Collecting Digital Art Through s[edition]


Although I am neither a collector of art, nor a frequenter of social media, somehow s[edition] intrigued me. Launched a few weeks ago, s[edition] is not just a digital art gallery, it’s a gallery for digital art. Here’s the difference: the art you can browse, buy and collect through s[edition] is not a digital representation of artwork, it is art using the digital medium. Like a traditional print, there is a limited number of pieces available. Unlike a traditional print, you can view the creation you purchase in a variety of ways and sizes on your iPad, Blackberry, PC, TV, digital photo frame, or any other connected device. You can store your artwork in s[edition]’s digital vault and access it anytime, anywhere – provided you have the proper hardware and internet connection.

Each piece in your vault is yours and yours alone. It is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and can be “identified, verified and traced.” Skeptics among us might wonder what all the fuss is about. There is a myriad of images you can find for free online and use similarly. Naturally, this begs the age-old question: what makes art, Art? Some say art is anything that's made with love or intention, or simply a thing of beauty. Others say art is something that challenges the way we think about the world. Whatever your definition, s[edition] for certain challenges the way we think about art itself.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To Die For: 50/50 & The Walking Dead (Season Two)

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50.

The French existentialist philosopher and novelist Albert Camus once wrote that the real injustice of life is our recognition that everyone we know and love one day will die. It's what, he said, makes our life truly absurd. But you'd never know this from most of the movies made on the subject. The idea of death its very final reality might be the subject of many stories, yet rarely is its injustice (or absurdity) ever fully acknowledged. When Cary Grant and Irene Dunne lose their adopted child in George Stevens' popular 1941 melodrama Penny Serenade, for example, our sympathies don't concentrate on the dead infant but on the grieving parents instead. We're made to feel for their loss and pain, not the cruel and random taking of a child. It's as if the idea of death a subject that gnawed hungrily at Camus in books like The Plague was too terrifying to confront so movies concentrated instead on the moral struggles of the living.

Terms of Endearment
In pictures like Penny Serenade, the drama isn't worked out so that we come to terms with death, but instead with our trying to avoid it. Melodramas in particular always repress the notion of death, recognizing that our greatest fear of death, besides losing loved ones, is in our own terror of having not lived fully enough, of having perhaps pissed away valuable time that we can't get back. So this is why, especially when you add a recognizable disease like cancer to the mix, the stories resolve with the living having finally learned life's important lessons and then becoming better people. When you watch tear-jerkers like Love Story (1970), Brian's Song (1971), and especially, Terms of Endearment (1983), the survivors settle all rifts, resolve painful grievances, and improve their behaviour. These movies maybe even give us the impression that we can live forever, if we'd just improve our character. They make us feel edified, thanks to those who've died on our behalf, so that our own mortality gets comfortably buried with the bodies being grieved over. However in the recent dramatic comedy, 50/50, not only does death get stared directly in its face, but the picture also dares to laugh at it. Like Camus, 50/50 sees the absurdity in the subject. And it does so without cheapening or avoiding death's victories and temporary losses.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Captors: Eichmann – The Nazi Monster as Performer

Louis Cancelmi & Michael Cristofer in Captors
Evan M. Wiener’s new play Captors (at the Boston University Theater until December 11th) manages to be both emotionally and intellectually engrossing. It tells the story of the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 by three Mossad agents who held him in a safe house outside the city while devising a plan to transport him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Their success was dependent on getting him to sign a release form permitting them to take him out of Argentina, where, under an assumed name, he was a legal resident. Wiener’s narrative, which is based mostly on Eichmann in My Hands, a memoir by one of the agents, Peter Malkin (co-authored with Harry Stein), is divided in two parts. In the first act Eichmann (Michael Cristofer) struggles to reassert power over his captors – mainly Malkin (Louis Cancelmi), the youngest of the three – by reaching across the enforced barrier between captive and captor and getting him to engage in conversation. In the second act Malkin throws over entirely the device of objectivity and uses their relationship to manipulate Eichmann into not only accepting the idea of a trial but welcoming it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 99 Percent Speaks: Observing the Movement for a More Just Society

Thursday, they were enjoying “occu pie.” Their slices appeared to be made with pumpkin or apple but nobody mentioned the ingredients as I watched an Occupy Wall Street live video feed that showed a crowd chowing down at a live Thanksgiving feed in New York City. The multitude was gathered at Zuccotti Park, named Liberty Plaza until 2003, in Lower Manhattan. That’s where the original occupation began on September 17, with many demonstrators camping out round-the-clock in tents to protest the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of Americans while the remaining 99 percent – the rest of humanity – endures varying degrees of hardship.

The Zuccotti inhabitants established a small community of like-minded citizens with a kitchen, a field hospital with volunteer doctors and a library that sheltered thousands of books. All these things disappeared or were destroyed when police evicted the occupiers just after midnight on November 15 on orders from the normally moderate Republican mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Invariably denouncing the occupiers, he has morphed into an enemy of the people. The 33,000-square-foot park within spitting distance of the Stock Exchange now remains the site of lengthy gatherings but no one is allowed to sleep over any more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

Donald Glover and Danny Pudi in Community.

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lukewarm Offering: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore

Vanessa Paradis in Café de Flore

Unlike most of the films emanating from English Canada, French Canadian movies, or at least the ones released outside Quebec, are usually so interesting and provocative that it’s startling when a film from there, such as Xavier Dolan’s overrated 2009 debut J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), turns out to be a dud. In fact, other than Dolan’s misguided effort, and the Quebecois’ continuing and baffling appreciation of the low and crass humour of films like Les Boys and Cruising Bar, both of which have spawned sequels, pretty much everything I’ve seen from there has been worth my time at the cinema. More recently, these have included Denys Arcand's smartly satirical Oscar-winning Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) (2003); Ghyslaine Côté’s Elles étaient cinq (The Five of Us) (2004), a powerful and disturbing look at the ramifications of rape on its victims; Bernard Emond’s deeply philosophical and moving 20h17 rue Darling (8:17 p.m. Darling Street) (2004), which offers much relevant and topical wisdom about Quebec’s economic underclass; Jean-Marc Vallée’s superb and highly imaginative coming-of-age masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005); and Denis Villeneuve’s poignant, emotionally devastating family drama Incendies (Scorchers) (2011), among others. Those French-language movies have managed to be intelligent, accessible and energetic, unlike the usual English Canadian model, which is mostly comprised of stiff, restrained and dull art house fare. (That’s a dictum best exemplified by almost the complete output of Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Chloe)). They also provide proof that Canadian movies can work on many entertaining levels at the same time. That’s why Jean Marc Vallée’s third film, Café de Flore, is such a disappointment; it’s a movie whose appeal lies entirely in the director’s mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just This Side of a Masterpiece: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow

Only Kate Bush could come up with a song-cycle CD based around the idea of snow. Her first new material in six years, 50 Words for Snow (EMI, 2011) is simultaneously recognizable as a Kate Bush album and pushing boundaries in her approach to song craft. I've followed her career ever since her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights,” absolutely knocked me out the first time I heard it in 1978. Her soaring soprano – taking on the voice of the ghost Catherine Henshaw (the tragic heroine in Emily Brontë's novel of the same name) as she pleads with Heathcliff to let her in – was nothing like I’d ever heard in a ‘pop’ song before; she was only 18 when she wrote and recorded it. Her chosen themes for her music throughout her career have always been eccentric. She's taken on the personas of soldiers (“Army Dreamers”), the young son of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (“Cloudbusting”), a woman testing the fidelity of her husband (“Babushka”) and more than one character who was seemingly derived from Victorian or Edwardian romantic literature. She has also been influenced by films, such as The Innocents (“The Infant Kiss”), Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (“The Wedding List”), and horror films (“Hammer Horror”). There is nothing conventional about the material she explores.

Sometimes her material has been downright odd: the song “Pi” on 2005 Aerial CD (it's essentially her singing the numbers for the symbol Pi to its 137th decimal place) is a prime example. So it should come as no surprise that the first song here, “Snowflake,” is sung from the point of view of snow itself; a second song details lovemaking with a slowly melting snowman, “Misty,” and a third, “Wild Man,” examines the discovery and protection of a yeti. But unlike the somewhat blotted Aerial – she’d been away from the music scene for some years when she recorded that and it showed – 50 Words for Snow is just this side of a masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Don’t Want the Dancing to Stop: National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Creating something new out of something already established poses a challenge. You have tradition to contend with, not to mention other people’s expectations – especially true when your source is Shakespeare. In the case of Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has just created a dramatic new dance version of Romeo and Juliet, the solution was to acknowledge all this while still forging ahead. The result is a modern day masterpiece of narrative ballet.

With Romeo and Juliet, Ratmansky  the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now into his second term as artist in residence of New York’s American Ballet Theater  revisits not only literary tradition but also music and dance history.

A commission commemorating the 60th anniversary season of the National Ballet of Canada, his new three-hour work is at Toronto’s Four Seasons of the Performing Arts through Saturday with alternating casts. It's a tremendous accomplishment.