Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love, Fire and Misty: Ratmansky at the Met

Misty Copeland in Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. (Photo: Andrea Mohin)

Misty Copeland, the most popular ballerina in the land right now, and one of only a handful to have become a household name even among non-balletomanes, reprised her lead role in Firebird at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York last week. True to her billing, she burned up the stage. Dressed in a cherry bomb red unitard and a plumed headdress of different coloured feathers, Copeland attacked Alexei Ratmansky’s incisive choreography with an incendiary technique that propelled the dancer forward through a series of searing shapes that electrified the imagination. Partnered by the wonderfully assured and attentive Marcelo Gomes, Copeland’s explosive performance flew upwards on air-borne jumps and galvanic leaps that seemed as supernatural as the magical bird at the heart of this most vivid retelling of the Russian fairy tale. Her percussive pointe work pecked and pawed and her expressive porte de bras fluttered and unfurled in an amazing display of bodily acting that brought the mythical creature to life.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Off the Shelf: Bruce Cockburn's Inner City Front (1981)

Bruce Cockburn, 1972. (Photo: Ron Bull)

In 1970, Bruce Cockburn had launched his first solo album. On it, he happily celebrated the virtues of rural life. In the years to follow, as his records evolved, he even began to introduce jazz (Night Vision) and reggae rhythms (Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws). On his album covers, Cockburn was occasionally seen perched under a tree with his acoustic guitar and surrounded by a gentle sprinkling of snow, or maybe next to a warm fireplace, as he was on his third album, Sunwheel Dance. His songs were both poetic and spiritual – at times, even mystical – as he discovered Christianity, yet they were continuously evocative and sly glimmers of quiet intelligence sparkled through the lyrics. Until 1980, Bruce Cockburn seemed happy to continue personifying the quiet comforts of Canada’s untamed landscape. But then, one day…. he moved to Toronto. After some personal changes in his life, including a divorce, Bruce Cockburn came to the city and his music was transformed dramatically with a record called Inner City Front – the first album he’d produce himself. It was a full-out electric record featuring a full band rather than just some guest musicians. The music within the grooves of Inner City Front was also a hybrid of rock, jazz, electronica and reggae. There was only one ballad – and it was right at the end of the record. Inner City Front had signalled a shift in the life and art of one of Canada’s most original and gifted performers. And the album would provide the groundwork for many of the sophisticated pop songs that Bruce Cockburn would record during the Eighties.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mate or Die: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster

Jessica Barden and Colin Farrell in The Lobster.

LOBSTER: A clawed crustacean of the order Decapoda and family Nephropidae. Characterized by muscular tails and large front claws, lobsters have been known to live upwards of 70 years due to their unusual expression of the DNA-repairing enzyme, telomerase, into their adult lives. Widely consumed as seafood.

THE LOBSTER: Not to be confused with an actual lobster (although they share some similarities, namely their astonishing longevity), The Lobster is the English-language feature debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps). The dystopian dark comedy was filmed in Ireland and co-produced by companies in Ireland, Greece, France, the Netherlands, and the UK. With an incredible score borrowed from the likes of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, it is consumed selectively by small audiences with a taste for absurdity and cultural criticism.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XVIII

Looking as androgynous and funky as Little Richard in Jimi Hendrix's duds, Prince wrote music that was sexually charged, playfully lewd and enthusiastically impudent. In other words, he was precisely the tonic the Eighties needed. "Prince is bad," Johnny 'Guitar' Watson once remarked. "It's like seeing Sly [Stone], James Brown and Jimi Hendrix all at once." Right at a time when sex was again becoming a mortal sin, Prince turned sex into a quest for salvation. His album, Dirty Mind (1980), was a blissfully torrid celebration of eroticism. His band, both racially and sexually integrated, was supercharged, just as Sly & the Family Stone had been before them. Also like Sly, Prince mixed musical genres which caused mass confusion at radio stations that couldn't decide whether he was R&B or rock. By the time his third album, 1999, came out in 1982, however, it didn't seem to matter. The infectiously coy "Little Red Corvette" shot into the American Top 10. Thanks to MTV and the video culture it bred, Prince became the first black crossover artist (along with Michael Jackson) to help broaden the network's musical palette.

At the height of his success in 1984, Prince made his movie debut in the R-rated Purple Rain. James Dean had made his astonishing debut in East of Eden almost thirty years earlier, playing a misunderstood loner. Prince (calling himself 'the Kid'), followed the same pattern, portraying a moody, struggling artist. Purple Rain mythologized his status in the pop world, and one song from its soundtrack ("Darling Nikki") generated the type of controversy that captured the attention of Mary Elizabeth 'Tipper' Gore. She was so horrified when her young daughter bought the record with a song about a guy who meets a woman masturbating with a magazine that she helped launch the PMRC in order to toilet train pop performers. So in both memory and tribute to the artist known as Prince, it seems fitting to send him off with one of what Gore would call the "Filthy Fifteen" songs which launched the censorious body that Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder and John Denver stood before Congress to fight.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On Finishing Last: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.

Shane Black has been operating, to use the gaming term, on "god mode" for most of his career. He's one of those filmmakers whose most dismal failures (see: 1987’s The Monster Squad) are still sharper, funnier, and cleverer than anything else on the marquee. This isn't to say he's immune to failure, far from it; even when his films are as smart and compelling as The Long Kiss Goodnight, for example, they're likely to do just as well at the box office as that one did (which is to say, not at all). In lieu of significant financial returns, Black has carved out a nonetheless comfortable niche as a purveyor of genius-level shlock, a peddler of pulp with aspirations of grandeur that, like the characters in his noir-tinted screenplays, never gets the riches and recognition he (probably, mostly) deserves.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) is one of my favourite films, and it’s hard not to see The Nice Guys as a spiritual successor. They’re similar on the surface: a washed-up detective takes a rough-and-tumble type under his wing to help uncover a mystery lurking at the edge of civilized society, set against the glitz, glamour, and hidden agendas of the City of Angels. Everyone has a secret. And everyone has a price. It’s a noir potboiler setup so familiar that, were it not for Black’s talent at executing this kind of stuff (and the relative lack of noir mysteries in cinemas, especially at this time of year), it would be downright boring. Thankfully, a tight script, a great cast, and a consistently charming sense of humour save it from the same fate that Black’s other works have suffered.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Complications: Lucy Prebble's The Effect

Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson in The Effect, at New York City's Barrow Street Theater. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

In The Effect by the young British playwright Lucy Prebble, a woman and a man in their twenties who have volunteered to take part in a six-week clinical trial for a new anti-depressant fall in love and start breaking the rules governing the procedure: first they wander out of bounds and then they have sex. The play, which is being given a fine production under David Cromer’s direction at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village, is intriguing and enjoyable, though – at least at a first viewing – a bit elusive. The first act takes the form of an unorthodox romantic comedy in which Connie (Susannah Flood) and Tristan (Carter Hudson) struggle to interpret their feelings, and each other’s feelings, when they’re aware that their emotional and sexual responses may be the consequence of the drug they’re being fed every morning, the dosage of which is being increased gradually. That is, the drug they may be taking, or only one of them may be ingesting, because some of the volunteers are in fact being given placebos. Dr. Lorna James (Kati Brazda), who is administering the trial for Dr. Toby Sealey (Steve Key), is also aware of these variables, though not, as it turns out, of all of them. She and Toby debate the other possibility – that it’s sexual attraction that is altering Connie and Tris, not the drug, and if that’s the case their incipient relationship may be corrupting the data. Love is so complicated and unpredictable to begin with that the idea of a play where drugs may be adding another layer of lunacy to romantic chemistry is irresistibly playful. There are more complications too. Lorna and Toby once had an affair, at a moment when her life was falling apart. And – unlike the subjects of the trial – she has a history of depression.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cold War, Warming Up: FX’s The Americans

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in FX's The Americans.

One of the unique aspects of television as a popular medium is its ability to foster and deepen longstanding relationships between a given program’s audience and characters. Whereas a movie generally has to establish a connection within a two to three-hour time frame, TV shows can build on our emotional ties to characters and the situations in which they find themselves over years. Done properly, this sustained engagement can lead to especially satisfying – or devastating – payoffs to long-running plot or character dynamics, as well as an increasing sense of connection to shows that might initially come off as a bit distant and chilly. This has especially been the case for me with FX’s superb The Americans.