Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jesus As Heartthrob: Stratford Festival's Jesus Christ Superstar

 Paul Nolan as Jesus (centre). Photo by David Hou.

It’s not often I sit in the theatre, head bowed. But toward the end of director Des McAnuff’s powerful re-staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Festival (one of Canada's preeminent theatre companies located in Stratford, Ontario, southwest of Toronto), that’s exactly what I was doing. From that position I could see that my hands were also clasped on my lap as if in prayer. It was involuntary. I was raised Catholic – in the beleaguered Catholic enclave of Derry, Northern Ireland, no less – and so visions of Jesus hanging on the Cross move me in ways of which I’m often not aware. Faced with actor Paul Nolan suspended high above the stage, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ, instantly conjured the yearning of childhood when I used to pine for Jesus, just as the nuns taught me to do. I recalled, sitting there in the darkness of Stratford's Avon Theatre, how before I was 10, I wished for a time machine to whisk me back to Garden of Gethsemane so I could warn him to make a run for it by dawn. Jesus, in other words, was the first big love of my life, the one person I’d do anything to save for all the saving he was said to be doing of me. It’s that idea of Jesus as heartthrob that McAnuff plays up in his revival of the 1971 Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera based loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Christ’s life, and it’s an idea that works miracles. This Jesus Christ Superstar is a hit. It plays at Stratford now through October.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Recent Cinema: Highs and Lows

Montreal's Seville Cinema
News that Toronto’s venerable Bloor repertory cinema was going to close for the summer for renovations has worried a lot of people in the city. Despite assurances from the owners that the Bloor will re-open in the fall, people are understandably concerned that this won’t in fact happen and a historic cinema and landmark will vanish. I, too, hope that won’t occur – I was proud to host its 100th birthday celebration in the fall of 2005 – as I have always been partial to the rep house experience. Growing up in Montreal, I frequented the city’s two major rep cinemas, the suburban Cinema V, which also functioned as something of a cinematheque (for one, it was where I was introduced to the '70s German New Wave movies) and the downtown Seville Cinema, which was known for showing late night cult movies like El Topo and, of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Alas, neither of those cinemas still exists, but I’ve found other ones to attend since I moved in Toronto. (In addition to the Bloor, I also check out the recently refurbished and non-profit Revue Cinema, where I’ve lectured.) To my mind, rep houses are somewhat more authentic than many first run houses. The films are more reasonably priced, as are the concessions, and people seem more interested in cinema for cinema’s sake and not as something to do on the weekend (or for a first date). As a result, they’re less likely to talk during screenings or even text. And while you may not get the best possible print by the time it gets to the rep house and because there are actual human beings doing the projecting (instead of the machines as is the case at most first-run cinemas), glitches can and do happen. But they also happen in first run. I’ve had the disconcerting experience of sitting through movies at the Varsity theatre in Toronto where they suddenly shut down for a minute or two because the machines showing the film thought it was over. Human errors, though, are also part of the rep house experience. (I still can’t quite get used to the fact that Toronto is big enough that a movie can play at the Bloor and still be in first run a few subway stops away. In Montreal, by contrast, if the film was still in first run, the reps could never show it even if they’d booked a movie for a full week.) This musing about the reps is also my segue into reviews of three recent releases, Of Gods and Men and The Lincoln Lawyer, which were seen at the Bloor, and Certified Copy, which I caught at the Revue.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Portrait of the Comedian as a Middle-Aged Man: The Painful Pleasures of FX’s Louie

Louis C.K. and Hadley Delaney in FX's Louie.

Ever wondered what it would look like if you mixed television comedy with indie filmmaking budget and sensibilities? Now that Louis C.K.’s darkly funny series Louie has returned for a second season, you can wonder no more.  Loosely based on his real life (as a 40-something, recently divorced comedian with joint custody of his two young daughters), Louis C.K. has been given unprecedented control over the content and direction of the series. With a promise to FX to keep the budget to shoestring levels, the network has agreed to stay out of his way, leaving C.K. to star, write, direct, edit, produce, and even cast every episode. Gleefully mixing gross-out comedy with existential anxiety, a single episode can casually touch on themes of post-divorce loneliness, the joys and traumas of parenthood, the aging male body, and even mortality itself. Last week’s episode (the second season premiere) may have hinged on an epic bout of flatulence, but it was also one of the most poignantly painful stories Louie has ever told. I’m not sure if Louie is the saddest comedy in the history of television or its funniest tragedy. Either way, it is one of the most original shows on TV today.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Child of Walter Hill: Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, director Walter Hill made a trio of pictures that examined how men (and sometimes women) functioned when they are trapped, for lack of a better term, behind enemy lines. Those pictures were: The Warriors (1979), about a gang in New York, with dozens of other gangs between them and their home turf; The Long Riders (1980), which looked at the James-Younger gang during the planning and execution of their disastrous attempted robbery in 1876 Missouri; and Southern Comfort (1981), which followed a group of National Guardsmen on a training exercise in Louisiana's bayou that gets lost and then are pursued by a group of angry Cajuns. These are three of the greatest action films to be released during that era. Hill’s instincts in all three films could not have been better. He presented the characters in all their strengths and flaws without descending to clichés. Jonathan Liebesman's science fiction action film Battle: Los Angeles (recently released on DVD) is not without flaws, but its greatest strength is that the filmmakers clearly understand Hill's pictures, because this film has many of those three movies' virtues.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Bed-Wetting Good Time For Shitty-Assed Parents: Adam Mansbach's Go The Fuck To Sleep

It’s late. Even for me. We’ve been through eleven bedtime stories, seven lullabies, an entire rendition of “no more monkeys jumping on the bed,” two trips to the washroom, a glass of water, one final snack and lights out. But my otherwise perfect little angel still won’t go the fuck to sleep. Apparently, I’m not alone according to author Adam Mansbach whose Go The Fuck to Sleep (Akashic, 2011) skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon best seller list before it was even available in print. In his bedtime story parody, Mansbach offers a hilarious and refreshingly honest portrayal of parenting which should be appreciated by any parent or caregiver of a toddler who insists on burning the midnight oil.

At first glance, the colourful illustrations of toddlers (by Ricardo Cortés) snuggling up next to kittens, or parachuting past a rainbow, give Go the Fuck to Sleep the essence of a children’s story book - until you notice that the f-bomb accompanies every single page. While you may not want to actually read this book to your little one(s), this profanity laden mockup is really quite innocent. It is more or less a blow-by-blow synopsis of the emotions that accompany not only bedtime, but parenting in general.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Off Escalators & On Oat Bran: the Ups and Downs of the Dukan Diet

My name is Mari-Beth and I’m a self-help junkie. I think the act of reading a self-help book will cause me to be better by osmosis. I’m the kind of person who reads a diet book while eating a piece of cheesecake, with the best intention to start eating healthier … tomorrow. If social anthropologists of the future want to learn about society today, our self-help literature is their gold mine. I mined The Dukan Diet book for insights on nutrition, psychology and culture. Dr. Pierre Dukan, the author, hails from France, the land of the notoriously slim. I have mixed feelings about The Dukan Diet, published in France in 2000, North America in 2011 and currently available in thirty counties. Some aspects are useful at best and interesting at worst; others are amusing at best and appalling at worst. I want to take what works for me and leave the rest, but every time this notion occurs to me I feel judged by Dukan as he continually reaffirms that this is a take it or leave it, all or nothing, kind of diet.

The diet itself consists of four consecutive phases: the “attack” phase (a short period of lean protein only, designed to shed pounds quickly); the “cruise” phase (three days of lean protein plus non-starchy vegetables for every pound you want to lose); the “consolidation” phase (for five days per pound lost you add minimal grains, cheese, fruit, and celebration meals); the “permanent stabilization” phase (for the rest of your life you can eat whatever you like, provided you eschew escalators, take 3 tablespoons of oat bran daily and commit one day a week to consuming only lean protein). We are reminded of the particulars of each phase often throughout the book, as Dukan includes many summaries, explanations and adaptations of his diet for people at diverse stages of life. Honestly, the phases are so straightforward and so well laid out on various websites that you need not read the book if the actual diet is all that interests you. But you would be missing out: Dukan’s assessment of why we are fat is just as intriguing as how he proposes that we change it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dear Jurisprudence: I Like What I See

Casey Anthony in court
Reality TV sucks. I never watch those fake shows about dingy pawn shops, creepy hoarders, tough-guy jobs, hostile cooking competitions, arch-enemy hairstylists, snarky fashionistas, squabbling housewives or ruthless people in a remote jungle forming alliances to “survive.” As the participants ridicule each other and bark orders in a quest for the requisite 15 minutes of fame, they’re all fired up with implied violence or, in some instances, outright viciousness. But I have to confess that one type of non-fiction programming always grabs me: criminal trials. The violence that informs these broadcasts is authentic, albeit offscreen.

I faithfully followed the O.J. Simpson proceedings in 1995, when he was found not guilty of killing his ex-wife and her friend. And right now, I'm among the millions of Americans with eyes trained on an Orlando courtroom, where 25-year-old Casey Anthony – who had been living at home with parents George and Cindy – is accused of murdering her toddler daughter, Caylee. The trial has been going on for a month. The prosecution recently rested and the defense is now focusing on every imaginable twist to prove her innocence and, failing that, to avoid a death sentence. The key to the latter result is whether or not there was indeed premeditation, as listed on Casey’s seven-count indictment.