Saturday, August 5, 2017

Making Formula Work: Recent Disney Films

Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) in Moana.

At one point in Moana, Disney’s animated offering for the holiday season of 2016, the title character, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, reprimands the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for referring to her as a princess. Unimpressed, Maui indicating her clothing and dim-witted pet chicken Hei Hei retorts, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s a telling line: screenwriter Jared Bush & company are having a laugh at the expense of the traditional Disney formula and surreptitiously congratulating a certain segment of the audience for getting the joke, but they’re also acknowledging that, mutatis mutandis, Moana still fundamentally adheres to that formula.

As a father and uncle to young children, my moviegoing habits have of necessity included a heavy dose of Disney in recent years. However, I’ve been continually surprised, especially when considering these movies in conjunction with their parent company’s juggernaut Marvel and Star Wars franchises, at how consistent they are in terms of quality and style. Films from Disney’s various subsidiaries have dominated at the box office in recent years, especially since its acquisition of Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios. That matters, not least because the company’s success contributes to a larger phenomenon whereby blockbusters increasingly crowd out the sort of mid-budget, creatively adventurous work that used to lend added variety and excitement to the cinematic scene. (Meanwhile, low-budget indie projects increasingly seem to find their outlet on small-screen platforms such as Netflix and its competitors.) Despite dire predictions from the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas a few years back, this top-heavy reliance on blockbusters hasn’t destroyed the movie industry yet, nor has it caused audiences to abandon theaters in disgust. Part of the answer may lie in that same formula that movies like Moana as well as more recent offerings such as the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and Cars 3 both rely upon and wink at.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Filmmaker Mira Nair (1988)

A scene from Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1988, one of those people was film director Mira Nair.

When I sat down with Nair, her debut feature film Salaam Bombay! was winning her praise worldwide. (In 2011, the film was included in The New York Times' s list of "The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.") She would go one to direct many more popular and acclaimed films, including Mississippi Masala (1991), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and most recently Queen of Katwe (2016).

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Mira Nair as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Love Craft: The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick.

The Big Sick, which chronicles a barely fictionalized version of the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and therapist/writer Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), has to be one of the best romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. Applying the label of that genre, and all the baggage that comes with it, feels wrong in this case, because part of what makes The Big Sick so brilliant are the ways in which it subverts and elevates the genre it belongs to. It’s a romantic comedy in the sense that it’s hopelessly romantic and ruthlessly funny, but it’s also much more than those surface-level elements, so I’m not sure what else to call it. I guess it’s enough to say that it’s one of the more finely crafted films, full stop, that I’ve seen all year.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tomorrow Never Knows: The Private Music of Paul McCartney

Be prepared to be shocked. Paul McCartney considered as an avant-garde musician? As usual, truth is stranger than fiction, and certainly more interesting than myth. Thrillington, recorded in 1971, was merely the second of several secret identities that McCartney cleverly used to further his creative ambitions while still delivering the bright and shiny pop goods we have all come to identify with his illustrious name. The first persona was the world famous Sergeant Pepper, the second was Percy Thrillington, the third was the relatively unknown and more recent Fireman: all are reflections of the complicated artistic world of this highly innovative and experimental musician. Yes, that’s right, Paul is experimental. Even Thrillington, an orchestral concurrent rendition of his complete 1971 Ram album under a completely fictional composer’s name, is, in its own quirky way, a totally avant-garde experiment in anti-pop.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In a Groove: Revisiting High Fidelity (2000)

John Cusack as vinyl collector Rob Gordon in High Fidelity 

Chances are, if you've ever spent a great deal of time in a used record store (in the days when there were used record stores), you will probably recognize the crackpot characters that populate Stephen Frears's frisky comedy, High Fidelity. I would also venture to guess that you might see something of yourself in the adolescent obsessions on display – especially if you are a music enthusiast. Based on Nick Hornby's delightfully funny novel, High Fidelity is about how pop music might sow the seeds of love but can't bear the fruit to nourish and sustain our relationships.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Didacticism and Virtue at the Shaw Festival

Shawn Wright and Jeff Irving with the cast of Androcles and the Lion at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

At every performance of the Shaw Festival’s production of Androcles and the Lion, George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 dramatization of the Aesop fable, a member of the audience is picked to play the lion. Other theatregoers who have been handed colored balls before the play begins are invited to throw them onto the stage at will, interrupting the dramatic action and prompting a variety of responses from the actors, who have to tell an anecdote or recite a section of Shaw’s preface to the play or share any thought that pops into their heads. This process is in the service of what Tim Carroll, the Shaw’s new artistic director, calls “two-way theatre,” which is intended to break down the barrier between the actors and the audience. Carroll directed Androcles, but his mission is visible in the productions he didn’t stage, too. In Wilde Tales, the lunchtime show, adapted by Kate Hennig from four Oscar Wilde fairy tales and directed by Christine Brubaker, children from the audience sit along the sides of the Court House stage with signs and other props; their participation is encouraged at certain points in the action. In Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George, directed by Kevin Bennett (who trained with Carroll during his tenure as associate director at Shakespeare’s Globe in London), the house lights remain on during the performance and the cast interacts with members of the audience – especially those who are sitting right on the stage of the Royal George – just as actors at the Globe play up to those groundlings who have found standing room right below the thrust, within easy reach of the performers. Five of the six plays I saw at the Shaw began with a member of the staff – an assistant stage manager or head dresser or what have you – addressing the audience and providing some tidbits of information about his or her job.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Living Spaces: The Family Camera at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum

The Dewan family visiting Niagara Fall, August 1980. (Photo courtesy of Deepali Dewan)

There is a fascinating photography exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) this summer with a partner site at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM). The Family Camera is based on the premise that family snapshots play a key role in defining, celebrating and memorializing the idea of family, even if some of those photographs are missing. Many of them record the migration process to Canada of a wide variety of families, and the photographs have been taken not only in Canada but in countries from which the families have migrated. This is an exhibition that is rich in storytelling and history, large and small.