Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lightening Strikes Majestic: Colm Feore's King Lear

Colm Feore as King Lear, at the Stratford Festival.

Colm Feore as King Lear is a force of nature. True, there is artistry behind a performance that ranks among the best of the Canadian actor's career – and given that he has previously played such a variety of roles, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Iago, Oberon, Macbeth and Fagin during his 17 seasons on the Stratford Festival stage, this is no small statement. Other grand men of Canada's theatre scene have worn the mantle of Shakespeare’s flawed and elderly monarch at Stratford over the past decade, among them Brian Bedford and Christopher Plummer whose 2002 performance of Lear a few seasons back was a tour de force, forever etched in memory. But believe it, Feore’s is just as powerful, if not that much better. His Lear, at the Festival Theatre now through Oct. 10, is human-sized, petty but also delicately perfumed with pathos: a King the people can truly relate to.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hollywood Perils: Ray Donovan and The L.A. Complex

The following contains some spoilers.

It’s a mark of the laziness and myopia of most TV critics and the media that as with some movies, some of the best TV shows, particularly on cable, don’t get the ink and coverage they deserve. It’s as if certain shows are designated the ones that supposedly capture the zeitgeist of the moment and are worthy of consideration and thought and the other, often superior, shows are not acknowledged at all. Thus, True Detective, Mad Men, Fargo and, especially Orange is the New Black dominate the entertainment columns to the degree that you’d be hard pressed to think there were any other options to watch on TV. I can’t comment on Fargo as I wasn’t all that eager to check out a TV series based on a contemptuous movie I loathe, but I’ve seen the others. True Detective’s first season was a truly impressive achievement, graced with excellent acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (both deservedly recently nominated for Emmy awards) as cops chasing down a serial killer in rural Louisiana and a smart storyline, laden with fascinating, philosophical observations on life, love and death. But it was also too short (running a mere eight episodes) and, finally, a little too gothic, for my taste. (Kudos also to the HBO series for dispelling those backward Southern stereotypes so prevalent on American television.) The first season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (I have yet to watch season two), set in a minimum security women’s prison, boasted good performances and a different, fresh look at racial and sexual issues behind bars, minus most of the violence which would likely have been the raison d'être of a show set in a maximum security jail. But it was also singularly uneven, burdened with much one dimensional characterization and ponderous dialogue, courtesy of creator Jenji Kohan, who mucked up the promising Weeds a few years back in a similar crass fashion. And I long ago gave up on AMC’s Mad Men, which after its first season revealed itself to be a show with very little on its mind, despite pretensions to the contrary.

Those shows you’ve no doubt read about. But where are the articles on FX’s The Americans, the savvy, original look at Russian sleeper agents hiding out in the U.S. during Reagan’s presidency? Its first two seasons were gripping, unpredictable and very compelling. And then there’s The Bridge, beginning its second season on FX. It was a scary, disturbing look at the many murdered women of Juarez, Mexico and the complicated relationship between two cops, American Sonya Cross (Inglourious Basterds’s Diane Kruger) and Mexican Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) working together to solve a gruesome murder. It may have been a tad too ambitious – I can’t say all its many story threads, which also included the smuggling of Mexicans into the U.S., the realities of the drug trade crossing the border of the two countries, and the endemic corruption in the Mexican police force, completely held together – but it was something new in terms of subject matter and beautifully directed and written, besides. I was very taken with Kruger’s performance as an Asperger's affected cop, a conceit which rings false on paper but is played perfectly by her on the small screen and Bachir’s performance as one of the few honest Mexican cops resonates, too. (James Poniewozik did praise the above two shows in TIME magazine, which does seem to try to cover everything on TV, for their proper use of subtitles, thus adding another layer of authenticity to the proceedings.) And, finally, perhaps the best of the recent cable dramas, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, with Liev Schreiber in the title role, excelling a as a shady Hollywood fixer whose complex, fractured family life is rocked even further when his hated father (Jon Voight), just released from prison, comes back into his life. As a portrait of the excesses of Hollywood, the damage done to the kids abused by priests and of a troubled man, Ray, trying to hold it all together, the series, which begins its second season on July 13, stands out in any number of ways. Yet it, like The Americans and The Bridge, got relatively little of the attention it should have gotten from the press.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When These Dead Reboot: Deliver Us From Evil & Afterlife With Archie

Eric Bana in Deliver Us From Evil

Has there ever been a good horror movie about demonic possession? A few years ago, there was a reasonably clever little sleeper called The Last Exorcism, in the “found footage” style of The Blair Witch Project. In addition to some impressively athletic callisthenics on the part of the possession victim (played by Ashley Bell), it had a decent comic idea at its core: a fake exorcist (Patrick Fabian) who’s grown sick of exploiting the superstitious fears of gullible rubes agrees to take part in a Marjoe-type documentary exposé (shot by the filmmakers whose footage we’re watching) and stumbles into the real thing. Mostly, though, demonic-possession movies take their cues from The Exorcist and use viewers’ own fearful, unresolved feelings about religion and God and the devil to touch easy nerves while congratulating themselves on their fake seriousness.

The new Deliver Us from Evil was directed by Scott Derrickson, whose previous credits include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is very likely the most despicable of all the “inspired by true events” movies. Emily Rose is based on the actual story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died of malnutrition and dehydration while being “cared for” by her parents and a pair of Catholic priests, who interpreted the behavior caused by her temporal lobe epilepsy as signs that she was possessed. Derrickson’s movie treats the priests as heroes who understood that there are things that science cannot explain, and as martyrs to the legal system. (In real life, the priests and Michel’s parents were convicted of negligent manslaughter and given suspended sentences instead of jail time, which is bad enough.)

Deliver Us from Evil is a genre hybrid, a tough-and-gritty New York police drama about a cop—Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana—who encounters supernatural forces in the course of his work and, with the help of a maverick priest (Edgar Ramirez), ends up conducting an exorcism in the interrogation room at his station house, driving demons out of a man who’s been stalking him and his family. There really is a Ralph Sarchie, a 16-year member of the NYPD who, after his retirement from the police department and our reality, co-authored a book about his investigations into the paranormal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Secret is Out: Nancy Walker's Til Now Is Secret

Nancy Walker, Ted Quinlan, Kieran Overs, and Ethan Ardelli (Photo by: Greg King)

There’s always been a sense of mystery to music, which can come from secret places, when notes fall together to form a melody. For Canadian pianist and composer Nancy Walker, “a secret is hidden, mysterious, not fully understood.” Walker’s new release, ‘Til Now Is Secret [Addo Records] offers 10 distinctive tracks that offer a soundscape to our sense of mystery. It’s an album rich in colour and texture, and firmly grounded in the language of jazz, which in itself can be a bit unruly. But Walker’s music vocabulary is strong and varied enough to provide an emotional experience that never wallows. It’s music that celebrates itself while including the audience in that celebration. In other words it’s accessible without any commercial compromises.

On this first-rate recording, Walker [piano] is joined by Kieran Overs, Bass, Ethan Ardelli, drums, Ted Quinlan, guitar and Shirantha Beddage, reeds. It’s a great band, well-tuned and confident: ready to play new music. The album opens with the title track that, according to Walker, “is an anagram that reveals when it was written.” That clue offers up a mystery to its origins, but the music opens up even more ideas than location. It’s a marvelous piece that gently brings you into the album. I can’t tell you how many new artists hit you over the head with their opening track. They could learn a thing or two about the art of sequencing from Walker.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blast from the Past: 3 Modern Games Inspired by Retro Classics

A look at DrinkBox Studios' Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

I was fortunate to have been born during video gaming’s childhood. Had I been born during its infancy, in the mid 1970s, I likely would have been overstimulated before the pastime’s potential had truly revealed itself beyond mere mindless diversion.  Had I been born during its troubled adolescence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would have been denied the precious perspective afforded me by having grown up alongside gaming. My introduction to video games was the heady Wild West days of the early 90s, when developers were still finding their footing, but doing so on firm foundations of success. This is the period of gaming history everyone remembers, when gamers forswore the kinetic din of the arcade in favour of the convenience and intimacy of the home console, and it is to this tumultuous era that so many games now turn for inspiration.

Maybe it’s part of the retromania obsession that current pop culture is busy suffering through, full of Hollywood remakes and vintage typewriters. But maybe a decade of collective revisitation, revision and replication have taught us a few things about taking the old, and making it new again. Maybe now is gaming’s true golden age, when we have the tools to apply the wisdom of the past while avoiding its pitfalls in the present. Games like Guacamelee!, Shovel Knight, and Super Time Force certainly make a strong argument: all three are 2-dimensional platformers, drawing inspiration from a cornucopia of 90s material, and serving up classic gameplay with a modern twist. But is their reliance on nostalgia doing a disservice to players in the present?

Monday, July 7, 2014

June Moon, Jersey Boys, The Mystery of Irma Vep: Pop

Timothy Shew, Jason Bowen, Chris Fitzgerald, Nate Corddry, Rick Holmes in June Moon (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has opened its season with a buoyant revival of June Moon, the only collaboration between George S. Kaufman and sports columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner. It’s a comedy that, like Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, has an irresistible dolt at its center: Fred Stevens (an immensely likable performance by Nate Corddry), a rube from Schenectady who moves to the Big Apple to become a Tin Pan Alley lyric writer. Kaufman and Lardner based it on Lardner’s ingenious epistolary tale, “Some Like It Cold,” in which an aspiring songwriter keeps up a correspondence with a girl he met on the train en route to New York; what begins as a flirtation becomes more for the girl, who – under the guise of banter – thrusts herself forward as a candidate for marriage, while distance and the lure of a Manhattan vamp pull the boy farther and farther away from his pen pal. In its prologue June Moon dramatizes that parlor-car encounter between Fred, as he’s now called, and – also bound for New York – sweet, naïve Edna (“Eddie”) Baker (Rachel Napoleon, who suggests a cross between Lauren Graham and Michelle Lee: daffy but guileless). During the roughly two months’ time frame of the play, Fred and his songwriting partner, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), come up with a hit, “June Moon,” and Fred becomes the plaything of Eileen (Holley Fain), the sister of Paul’s wife Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), who’s on the rebound from the music publisher, Mr. Hart (Timothy Shew), and determined to spend as much of Fred’s money as she can get away with. The cheerful, rhythmic use of vernacular (Lardner’s specialty) and the playwrights’ satirical take on Tin Pan Alley mark the play as a hard-boiled comedy, but it’s a much gentler one than Once in a Lifetime – it’s entirely sympathetic to Fred, who wriggles like a butterfly caught in Eileen’s net, and to Edna, who we know has to wind up with him. Corddry gives the poor, struggling, flat-footed bastard a soul, but we’re primed to love him; we even like his fatuous love song. (Lardner wrote the music and lyrics for “June Moon” and the handful of other songs we hear in the course of the play.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Arab Springs Eternal: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Author G. Willow Wilson (Photo by Amber French)

"They're marching together," said Alif, half to himself. "All the disaffected scum at once. I probably know a lot of them."
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone--"
"They have to share the real world."
"In real life."

– G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

The classification of speculative fiction is self-consciously broad – including within it straight fantasy novels of the classic sort, hard and soft science fiction, alternate history, magical realism, and probably modes of storytelling still unimagined. And yet there is probably no book better suited for the label than G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (Grove Press, 2012). Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Woman's Prize for Fiction, both in 2013, the novel tells the story of Alif – a skilled young hacker of mixed Arab-Indian descent who is more at home online than on the streets of the unnamed Middle Eastern city of his birth. Our hero – his self-given name taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, which is nothing but "a straight line—a wall," he tells us – is young, naive in the way only someone who lives primarily that unseen realm of cloud servers and 1s and 0s can be, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere... but mainly nowhere. Alif's relatively safe world in front of his keyboard explodes into the streets and beyond when the love of his life – a beguiling woman of means and status who he could never, except in the anonymous world of chat rooms and aliases, be with – puts an ancient book in his hands. Dark forces from all realms – some very human, and some very much not – want the book and Alif goes on the run, compelled to peer into the city's shadowy mystical history and even shadowier political realities.

Set against the background of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen weaves Muslim theology, contemporary political realities, and the unmoored life of a computer coder into a compelling modern fable that transcends its geographic and religious content. Wilson – an American-born convert to Islam – successfully mobilizes her own singular background with a simple talent for storytelling to create a novel that effortlessly crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries. A delightful and often horrifying mixture of legend, religion, history, and politics – including a genuinely affecting love story – Alif the Unseen is the kind of book you will be recommending to friends even before you finish reading it.