Saturday, March 5, 2016

History as Mudpie: HBO's Vinyl

Multiple raptures: Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra in Vinyl.

HBO has aired only three episodes of Vinyl, its musical comedy-drama about the struggle of record-company boss Richie Finestra to resuscitate his failing label in the shifting rock market of 1973. But it is so far from being a clear success on any level a smear of silliness and effrontery, of blatant intent and thudding execution that no one is to be scolded for being disappointed with it. Even its more enjoyable aspects, of which there are several, haven’t come into focus. Yet I’ve decided, after the initial turn-off, that I like the show.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Come Fly With Me: La Sylphide Soars at the National Ballet of Canada

Jurgita Dronina and Harrison James in La Sylphide, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre until March 6. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

La Sylphide is the quintessential Romantic ballet, brimming with light-as-a-feather ballerinas on satin pointes, a central male character probing the meaning of existence, a misty landscape ruled by supernatural beings that flit across the imagination and a theme of doomed love. Its historical importance can’t be overstated, and yet Toronto audiences for the most part stayed away in droves when the rarely seen work opened at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday for a limited five-day run.

Rows upon rows of seats lay empty for the North American premiere of Johan Kobborg’s remake of August Bournonville’s iconic 1836 work, which is a great pity because this production soars. With a stellar cast lead by dynamic newcomer Jurgita Dronina, a Russian-born principal dancer steeped in the Bournonville style from her years dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet, plus a trendy mad-for-plaid design by the legendary Desmond Heeley and appropriately moody lighting by Robert Thomson, La Sylphide is a high from start to finish.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

You’re Only as Old as You Feel: The X-Files Season One, 23 Years Later

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in "Ice" from The X-Files' first season.

I was four years old when Chris Carter’s iconic science fiction television series, The X-Files, premiered on Fox in September of 1993 and thirteen by the time it ended. Although I’m retrospectively marvelling at my mother’s parenting, I remember actually watching some of the show during its original run. I came to it well steeped in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel but, while vampires with tortured souls were my jam as a pre-teen, X-Files was still too much for me. I found it creepy and I was far too young to appreciate David Duchovny’s weird, unexpected sex appeal. The launch of the show’s much anticipated tenth season this year got me thinking that it was high time I revisited the series as a horror-loving, cynical adult with a soft spot for blue-eyed men. But how does its first season hold up after more than two decades?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Risk and Reward: The Unique Perils of TV Criticism

Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde in Vinyl on HBO.

If there is one huge difference between being a film critic and reviewing network and cable television it's about time and commitment. After two hours, I can quickly dismiss something like the dramatically inept and politically naive Trumbo, which treats the Hollywood blacklist yet again in an apolitical style that turns the story into an easy-to-digest morality tale between innocent idealists and HUAC, while shrewdly ignoring how Stalinist policies actually infected and divided the American left. It wouldn't have been quite so easy to write it off had it been a TV mini-series. I would have had to give it more time. You can usually tell after a half-hour whether a film will hold together, come to life, or turn turtle. But it's not so easy with a television series.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Film of Mediocrity – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Michelle Yeoh (centre) in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

I was never as big a fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as everyone else was (and that includes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, as well as the film’s director, Ang Lee). I appreciate it for introducing the majority of Western moviegoers to the wuxia genre, and doing so in a way that was palatable to our sense of aesthetics and storytelling while still remaining (mostly) true to the original form. But compared to classic examples like the Shaw Bros’ The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and more highly-evolved entries that would follow like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (2004), I found Lee’s film to be a laboured, overwrought affair whose action sequences (choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping) were like a microcosm of the whole picture: beautiful, but ephemeral and mostly empty.

Imagine the crushing sense of ennui that enveloped me, then, when it became clear that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the Netflix-produced, American-Chinese follow up to Lee’s Oscar-winning original, was just the opposite: an undercooked knockoff with cheap CG effects, connected to the first film seemingly in name only. I won’t be one of those who condemn Sword of Destiny for not being as “brilliant” as its predecessor – I’m knocking it because it couldn’t even manage to be coherent on its own terms.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Buried Child: Sam Shepard and Ed Harris

Ed Harris and Paul Sparks in Buried Child, at the Pershing Square Signature Center. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

When you watch Ed Harris as Dodge, the contrary, irascible patriarch of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, in the current revival at New York City's Pershing Square Signature Center, you realize he was born to play this role – or more aptly, that the role has been waiting around for him to get old enough for it. I didn’t see Joseph Gistirak, who created the character at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1978, or Richard Hamilton, who took it over in the original off-Broadway production, but I did see James Gammon in the 1996 Broadway version, and, playing the old man as a kind of ghost sniping at everyone around him as he continues to haunt the dilapidated Illinois family farmhouse, he performed marvels with that whiskey-soaked, hollowed-out voice. It didn’t occur to me that I’d ever see a better Dodge. But Harris injects the character, who’s stationed in front of his TV set, sneaking hits of apple jack until his son Tilden (Paul Sparks) makes off with his bottle while he’s asleep, with a hilariously mean-spirited life force that makes him seem unkillable, even if you know the play and realize he fades out at the end. Harris became famous for playing a straight-arrow American hero, John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 The Right Stuff, but he’s sometimes used his classical American looks, that rangy cowboy handsomeness, as a starting point for an in-depth portrait – perhaps most vividly as Charlie Dick, husband to Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline in the 1985 Sweet Dreams. He’s also used it ironically, as he did, also early on in his career, as the conscienceless mercenary in Under Fire. His performance in Buried Child belongs in the ironic category. You look at this ornery old codger, who doesn’t have a kind word to say about anybody – except, perhaps, his grandson Vince’s girl friend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga), whose obstinacy he can appreciate (he certifies her “a pistol”) – and see the corruption of the whole frontier legacy. It’s Harris’ scheme to make that corruption richly funny.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Neglected Gem #90: Deep End (1970)

John Moulder-Brown as Mike in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970).

Like steaming breath or moving shadows, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) is impossible to fix in your mind and eye even as you watch it, and afterwards you are uncertain what you’ve seen, let alone what it has meant. Everything occurs as if incidentally, never with a sense of theme being advanced, story developed, or fate fulfilled. The movie is simply happening. Yet not exactly randomly, for it has an intelligence which is encompassing if not controlling; and not in any documentary sense, for it is too not-quite-real for that. Not “unreal,” and certainly not “surreal,” just … not quite real. Deep End is not easy to describe.