Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Was His Song: William H. Macy's Rudderless


In the opening scenes of William H. Macy's bracing debut film, Rudderless (2014), Sam Manning (Billy Crudup), a divorced advertising executive in Oklahoma, has just landed a large account and is in the mood to celebrate his success. He immediately calls up his son, Josh (Miles Heizer), an Oklahoma University student, whom we've just watched record in his dorm a number of songs he has written, to join him at a local bar. Although Josh is reluctant to go, Sam insists. When he doesn't arrive, Sam figures his son stood him up and leaves him a message admonishing his behavior. Just as he's about to leave, however, Sam looks up at one of the television monitors in the bar to witness breaking news about an outbreak of campus violence that he later discovers has claimed the lives of a number of students including his boy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Lives of Others: Netflix's Sense8

Doona Bae and Aml Ameen in Netflix's Sense8.

One week ago today, Netflix's new fantasy/science fiction drama Sense8 became available, and I suspect most everyone who's watched past the third episode have already finished the season. (I also anticipate a good many didn't survive the first hour.) It is, more than any recent Netflix series, essentially a 12-hour motion picture of literally global scope. It tells the story of eight strangers from across the globe who are all simultaneously awakened to the fact that they are linked, mentally and emotionally, to one another. As each struggles with the dramas of their own lives, they must also figure out how to band together against powerful forces that aim to identify and destroy them for what they are.

Sense8 is also the first TV project from Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling team behind The Matrix films, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis are joined by television writer and creator J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). This unique team-up has resulted in a highly original and powerful television series, but its pedigree is perhaps the least of the reasons for why you should check it out. Critics has been decidedly mixed in their responses, calling the show alternatingly "maddening" and "beautiful," "confusing" and "poetic." It is, to be sure, at times each of those things but one thing Sense8 could never be called is "boring."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

To Be: The Stratford Festival's Hamlet


Some people say William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is his best play. Some say it is the best play in the English language. Personally, I’d lean toward the latter. The Bard’s great tragedy has it all, wrapped in one poetic, dramatic package: politics, family and political intrigue, jealousy, revenge, incest, madness, a ghost – all are integral parts of the work. Hamlet also contains several meaty, challenging roles, most especially the protagonist and title character, which may be the most demanding part in theatre, and is certainly one against which great actors define themselves. And whatever else you say about it, Hamlet is undeniably the most quoted work in the English language, and includes the single most quoted line: “To be or not to be.” The text is extraordinary. It seems as though every other line has entered our everyday language, in whole or in part: “To thine own self be true”; “To sleep, perchance to dream”; “Brevity is the soul of wit”; “Sweets to the sweet”; “Good-night, sweet prince”; “The lady doth protest too much”; “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”; and, of course, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The list is nearly endless.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Choreography of Dissent

Dominion at Canadian Stage.

Dance as a form of protest is something of a retread trend right now. Choreographers from around the world, and representing a wide range of genres, are again using the wordless art of the body to draw attention to important societal and political issues. Non-purposeful dance, or dance in the abstract, performed for the sheer enjoyment of interpreting music through movement, is not for them. As seen recently in Toronto where several international choreographers chanced to perform in various venues within weeks of each other during the last week of April and the first week of May, they are more interested in returning to dance as a form of cultural expression dealing with themes of oppression and suffering rooted in the experiences of actual people.

The choreographers in question included Luyanda Sidiya, a participant of Canadian Stage’s month-long Spotlight South Africa dance and theatre festival, whose double bill at the Bluma Appel Theatre on April 22, featured Dominion, an unflinching portrait of militaristic dictatorships in the modern era. The masterfully crafted piece presented the likenesses of Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe as part of a damning critique of the protest cycle which starts with revolution and ends with repression only to repeat itself endlessly and at great cost to the people who must bend and sway with every turn of the political wheel. Dominion, and its sister piece Umnikelo, a work that almost nostalgically celebrates the unfettered energy, grace and beauty of African tribal dance, spoke to the thwarted idealism of post-apartheid South Africa (which includes the xenophobic violence sparked by anti-immigrant rage which had South Africa in the headlines ironically during the week that that the Spotlight South Africa performances were taking place in Toronto) while responding to the broader issue of abuses of power on a global, if not universal, scale. Communicating the profound message of the work was the ensemble of dancers who make up the Johannesburg-based Vuyani Dance Theatre company of which Sidiya, 31, is artistic director and chief choreographer. The all-black company is remarkably fluent, able to voice several dance languages at once, from Western-style modern dance and ballet to Zulu and other traditional dances of South Africa including Umxhentso, a healing dance of the Xhosa people. Sidiya is a member of that tribe. During a post-performance discussion, Sidiya, winner of the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, a leading South African arts prize recognizing artistic excellence in an emerging talent, said that dance for him is a blend of the personal and the political; it is a form of truth-telling. “Dance is an offering of thanks,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to connect with another person and inspire a shift of perspective.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Unsung and Unknown - The Wrecking Crew & I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

The Wrecking Crew.

It's largely held to be true that when The Beatles invaded America in 1964, one of the seismic impacts they had was in wiping out the Sixties rebirth of Tin Pan Alley. An ambitious group of songwriters (Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, 'Doc' Pomus and Mort Shuman) were all situated in the Brill Building in New York City there looking to sell hit songs. And many great ones they did indeed sell. But The Beatles proved that by writing your own tunes and playing your own instruments you needn't be solely dependent on other songwriters to provide your material. Pretty soon, just about anyone who could pick up a guitar started performing and composing – but not all of them could do both. In Los Angeles, there lurked a famous collection of somewhat anonymous session musicians – dubbed 'The Wrecking Crew' – who played on an abundance of familiar hits by The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, not to mention just about every hit song produced by Phil Spector, including The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," The Crystals' "He's a Rebel" and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." Totally unsung, and yet playing key roles in songs ranging from "God Only Knows," "California Dreamin'," "The Beat Goes On," "Last Train to Clarksville" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" to Frank Zappa's masterful orchestral absurdity Lumpy Gravy (1967), the Wrecking Crew were sonic dreamers and dedicated trench soldiers who conjured up a storehouse of memorable hooks, even if, as a nameless group, they existed in the dark.(The album covers for bands like The Monkees didn't even credit them as the players on the record.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Comedy, Verbal and Physical: The Beaux’ Stratagem, Hay Fever, & The Play That Goes Wrong

Member of the cast of The Beaux’ Stratagem at London's Nation Theatre. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

George Farquhar’s delightful Restoration comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem is about two young men, Aimwell and Archer, described as “two gentlemen of broken fortune,” who arrive at a scheme for setting themselves up, they hope, for life. Touring the English provinces, they trade off, one pretending to be a gentleman of means and wooing a rich lady, while the other playacts the role of his servant. In Litchfield, the setting of this comedy of manners, it’s Aimwell’s turn to be the suitor. He casts his eye on Dorinda, while Archer finds himself falling for her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sullen. Unfortunately, Mrs. Sullen is trapped in a miserable marriage to a drunkard and spendthrift whose only evident reason for making the match was his wife’s money. Farquhar’s play comments on the market society that produces such dismal unions; when Aimwell finds himself actually falling for the target of his “stratagem,” he repents his dishonesty and makes a clean breast of it to Dorinda. The play is lighthearted, though, even in its political background. The English and French are at war and the English are holding the French troops in Litchfield as prisoners, but the bonds they constrain them are silken ones: they’re free to roam about and enjoy the pleasures of the town.

The play was first performed in 1707, but Simon Godwin’s richly entertaining production at the National Theatre seems to be set later – the costumes by Lizzie Clachan are Georgian, perhaps just because the clothes from that period are more lush and the shapes trimmer and more flattering. (No one who sees Clachan’s gorgeous outfits is likely to complain about the shift.) She also designed the triple-tiered set, which is built on four staircases and doubles as the home of Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker), the mother of Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and Sullen (Richard Henders), and the inn where Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfield) have put up in Litchfield. This scaffold-like construction is convenient for the frequency of scenes in which characters overhear each other’s conversations as well as serving as a kind of metaphor for the interplay of classes. Archer is playing the part of a servant (though, when Mrs. Sullen observes that his manners are “above the livery of a footman,” he covers the discrepancy by confessing that he was born a gentleman) and becomes friendly with Lady Bountiful’s valet, Scrub (dour-looking Pearce Quigley, who reads his lines in a tossed-off, lightly ironic tone that’s very funny), while flirting, in the early scenes, with the innkeeper’s amiable daughter Cherry (Amy Morgan).

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Old-School Spy in the Espionage Novels of Charles McCarry

Novelist Charles McCarry. (Photo by Bill Keefrey)

It is surprising that Charles McCarry is not as widely read as other espionage writers, even though he does command respect from writers like Olen Steinhauer and Alan Furst. Critics have linked him with John le Carré, likely because both writers once served in their respective intelligence agencies. McCarry worked as a field agent under deep cover for the CIA from 1958 until 1967 in Europe, Africa and Asia, experiences that provide his novels with an authentic atmosphere. But I find the comparison odd since no one would confuse McCarry’s sympathetic portrayal of the CIA – affectionately dubbed “The Outfit” in his novels – and his belief that the country’s intelligence agencies are the best bastion for the defence of the American way with le Carré’s conviction that the intelligence methods of both Western and Communist countries were vile and morally senseless. Le Carré likely would not have written that Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism is "a lie wrapped up in a sham surrounded by a delusion,” a statement uttered by the head of the Outfit in Second Sight (1991). Yet both writers share a similar passion in delineating plots that identify and root out the moles that are deeply buried in the higher echelons of their respective secret agencies.