Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Beat Beneath Your Feet: A Conversation with Lindy Hop dancer Nancy Hitzig

Nancy Hitzig & Carl Nelson (photo by Jess Keener)

The Lindy Hop is wildly acrobatic, fun without gravity. But there is an underlying political dimension to the dance that swings. Born in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and practiced throughout the 1930s, Lindy Hop was among the first American social dance forms to bring whites and blacks together for a common cause: the beat beneath your feet. Named for Charles Lindbergh, the legendary aviator whose aerial feats the dance emulates with spectacular air steps, Lindy Hop sparked a cultural revolution back in the day, a subject explored by Alive and Kicking, the 2016 dance documentary examining Lindy’s revival in the disaffected 21st century. The energy is today as manic as ever, but with a whole new set of controversies fuelling the fire. As Toronto-born, London-based Lindy Hop dancer and teacher Nancy Hitzig, a participant in the upcoming International Lindy Hop Championships taking place this week (Aug. 24-28) in Washington, D.C., explains, touch dancing remains as contentious today as it was during the Great Depression.“The basic lead and follow structure of Lindy establishes a conversational connection, making it incredibly complex,” says Hitzig who, in January, will present original choreography she has created for Lindy at The Rag Factory, an intimate performance space on London’s Liverpool St. “But in what other environment do you get to have an informal, but structured conversation with a stranger? In what other environment do you get to hold another human being in your arms in a carefree but respectful way?”

Friday, August 25, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: World of Wonder


This review contains spoilers.

The beginning of War for the Planet of the Apes, in which U.S. soldiers attack apes on horseback on a wooded hill, has the breadth and specific detail, the terror and excitement and pathos, of a classic battle sequence by D.W. Griffith. Like the opening scene of the last movie in the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), where apes on horses hunt down a herd of deer, it’s sumptuously shot and grippingly edited, and its bold visual conception is thrilling. (The cinematographer, Michael Seresin, and the editors, William Hoy and Stan Salfas, all worked on Dawn as well.) Matt Reeves, who helmed both these movies, directed a variety of TV episodes before making his first picture, Cloverfield, nine years ago; at fifty-one, he’s too old to be called the best young filmmaker in America, but since War is only his fourth picture it’s tempting to think of him that way. (After Cloverfield he made Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish child-vampire film Let the Right One In.) He’s a master storyteller and an ace director of actors, and unlike most of our filmmakers, who think only in terms of images and effects, Reeves thinks in terms of complete sequences. That’s not to say that he can’t dream up beautiful, memorable images as well and frame them magnificently: he has a remarkably sophisticated sense for the tension between foreground and background, periphery and center. And he imbues his sequences with so much feeling that you walk away from both his Apes movies shaken up.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Glitterbomb: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t that a hard a sell for me. I’m drawn to outlandish action sci-fi fantasy like a moth to a flame – the weirder and more wondrous the better. But it’s easy to get burned that way, so it’s common these days for me to feel a twinge of excitement when I see a name I like attached to a project, and then immediately quash that excitement with a sober examination of the facts. Watching the trailer for Valerian was like being a juror in the Film Court of my mind. Points in its favour: Luc Besson is clearly back in Fifth Element mode; it stars Cara Delevingne; it looks colourful and vibrant; it’s not based on an existing property that’s been milked bone-dry. Points against: Besson hasn’t made a decent film since the mid-90s; it also stars Dane DeHaan; the visuals look to be heavily reliant on airy CGI; the source material looks trite and derivative. The Film Court ruling was clear: perform two hours and fifteen minutes of public service with minimum expectations (bail to be set at non-3D prices).

If it please the court, I will present my findings herewith.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Newman, Kronos and Presley: Americana On Both Sides

“Welcome, welcome, welcome . . . ," sings Randy Newman like a midway barker inviting us into his tent for a little sermon on the current state of mankind. Dark Matter (Nonesuch) is Newman’s 11th studio album of original songs and one of his most musically ambitious. The record opens with “The Great Debate,” an elaborate piece featuring a cast of characters in a musical battle among climate change, evolution and dark matter. The song is full of Newman’s sarcastic wit about scientists and religious fanatics juxtaposed with the power of gospel music, and, like much of this new album, it swings. By the end of "The Great Debate,” he settles for divine providence -- “Someone is watching me . . . " -- as the angels applaud. Dark Matter isn’t a concept album per se; it’s simply a set of interesting topical songs reflecting Newman’s current observations. Yet even a song about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis featuring John and Robert Kennedy, called “Brothers,” only seems out of place until we realize that the president is more interested in saving Celia Cruz than in a Russian blockade. And speaking of Russians, “Putin” stomps in with Newman’s acid tongue in full force, only to be calmed by the beautiful orchestration behind “Lost Without You.” On this record, one of his best in years, we get a fair share of satire, mockery and beauty all soaked in Newman’s unique sense of Americana, a gumbo of jazz, gospel and revivalist choirs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Always Bet on Red: Amazon's Comrade Detective

Corneliu Ulici and Florin Piersic Jr. in Comrade Detective.

"You don't become a good Communist by going to meetings or memorizing the manifesto. You do it on the streets. You do it with your fists. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
This is how we are introduced to Detective Gregor Anghel, one of Bucharest PD's finest and the man at the centre of Amazon's mind-bending new buddy-cop satire, Comrade Detective. Hardened by the mean streets of Bucharest, cigarette in hand and draped in a leather jacket, Anghel is a cop who plays by his own rules – at least when he's not quoting from The Communist Manifesto or testing his tactics against the simple mantra: "What would Lenin do?" (before concluding firmly: "Lenin would fuck him up!").

Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (the team behind NBC's short-lived Animal Practice in 2012, and currently working together on Andrew Dice Clay's Dice on Showtime), Comrade Detective begins straightforwardly enough, with Channing Tatum and Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson sitting side by side in a screening room, Siskel & Ebert-style. Tatum flashes a gorgeous smile and together with Ronson they set up what we are about to view: a Communist-era Romanian television series from the '80s, dredged up from the archives, remastered, dubbed into English and now ready for its Western debut. Of course, none of that – except for the dubbing – is true. But it is begging to be believed.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bad Behavior: The Treatment, Gloria, Ink

Aisling Loftus in The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

London’s Almeida Theatre revived Martin Crimp’s 1993 play The Treatment in late spring, and I was lucky enough to catch it before it closed. Crimp’s plays are unfamiliar to North Americans, but this is the work of a very gifted playwright – an absurdist comedy roughly in the style of Harold Pinter, but funnier and more sly. Lyndsey Turner’s first-rate production showcased those qualities. In New York City, a young woman named Anne (Aisling Loftus) answers an ad to tell her story to a husband-and-wife producing team (Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma) who are on the lookout for promising film properties. As Anne relates a bizarre tale of a husband who locked her in their apartment, tied her to a chair and gagged her, Jennifer, the female half of the team, adds her own commentary, subtly changing the story to make it more camera-worthy. As the project acquires a screenwriter (Ian Gelder) and a star (Gary Beadle), it undergoes more alterations. Everyone has his or her own take on Anne’s story, including the young intern (Ellora Torchia) in the production company office who winds up playing the leading role in the movie. Eventually we realize that everyone – including Anne – is operating in an entirely self-serving mode, except, ironically, for her notorious husband Simon (Matthew Needham), who is crazy and violent but not toward her, and who is devoted to protecting her from a crazy, violent world. There are no reliable versions of the narrative; everything’s up for grabs, including the truth about whether Anne or Simon is the controlling figure in their marriage. Turner had an excellent cast, including Ben Onwukwe as a blind cab driver and Hara Yannas, doubling as a waitress and a madwoman; Varma, memorable as Ann in the Simon Godwin’s production of Man and Superman at the National, was the standout.

Ellie Kendrick and Colin Morgan in Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Hampstead Theatre’s early-summer show was Gloria, by the American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who made a splash here and abroad with An Octoroon. Gloria, first produced on these shores at the Vineyard Theatre, is a satirical take on the New York publishing world. The first act is set in the editorial offices of a once-trendy magazine struggling to ride the vicissitudes of journalism in the age of the internet. Everyone we meet is miserable, the thirtysomethings because they’ve hung out here too long and feel their lives have gone nowhere, the twentysomethings because they’re terrified of turning into the thirtysomethings. Jacobs-Jenkins has a great ear for the way articulate, entitled, expensively educated young people sound when they’re motivated by ambition and envy; Gloria has the funniest nasty dialogue I’ve heard in an American play since Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar – and I think it’s a better play. The first act is perfect and has a hilarious shock curtain. The second act is very entertaining but its second scene, at a West Coast studio, is a bit of a letdown; the playwright’s depiction of narcissism in Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as original as his portrayal of narcissism in Manhattan. Still, act two includes one scene that should become a classic, in which two former employees of the magazine who are writing memoirs jockey for control over how they’re depicted in each other’s books. The Hampstead gave Gloria a typically spiffy and sharp-witted production, directed by Michael Longhurst, with three men (Colin Morgan, Bayo Gbadamosi and Bo Poraj) and three women (Kae Alexander, Ellie Kendrick and Sian Clifford) covering the thirteen roles. The only actor who seemed out of her league was Alexander, though her performance improved in the movie-studio section. 

Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in Ink at the Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Ink, which followed The Treatment into the Almeida and is bound for the West End in the fall, is James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of The Sun in London in 1969 and the invention of modern populist journalism. Under Rupert Goold’s direction, with a spectacular set by Bunny Christie and gorgeous lighting by Neil Austin, it’s a hell of a show; I saw it on the worst night of London’s surprise June heat wave, without benefit of air conditioning, and I was riveted from start to finish. But the play underneath all of that mesmerizing professionalism is thin and gets thinner as the evening wears on. The first act, which covers the efforts of the brash new editor, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) to refurbish the paper and make it relevant to a late-twentieth-century public, has some of the wit and bravado of the early scenes in Citizen Kane. After intermission, though, things get serious. Having entertained us thoroughly with the cockiness and nerve of Lamb and his team, Graham needs to find a way to indicate what we all knew going in: that Murdoch’s vision of a more democratic media led to Fox News and Donald Trump. But Graham doesn’t have the wherewithal for material that wants to go deep. (I was not among the many fans of his political play This House, which got a production at the National.) First he gets mired in melodrama and then the tone of the play becomes polemical. It loses its shape, and by the end you’re not sure what Graham intended by making Lamb and not Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) the protagonist. Presumably at some point in the process he had it in his mind to make Ink about Lamb’s Faustian bargain, but Murdoch is no Mephistopheles; though he gives Lamb carte blanche to go to any lengths to make The Sun more popular than The Daily Mirror, he actually balks at some of his editor’s tactics. Coyle and especially Carvel are superb, and I wouldn’t change a single member of the supporting cast.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Recent Nordic Noir in Print and Television, Part Two: Finland

Ville Virtanen in a scene from the Finnish television series Bordertown, currently available on Netflix.

Part One of this piece, which looked at recent Icelandic work, was published here on August 8.

Readers of Nordic noir may not have had much exposure to Finnish authors writing in the genre. This may owe in part to the lack of English translations but the oversight is gradually being remedied. Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish writer whom I have recently encountered and based on her latest, The Exiled, the third book in her series about Anna Fekete, and her previous foray, The Defenceless (both published by Orenda Books in 2016 and 2015), she is a writer who will likely acquire a larger profile. I have not yet been able to access her debut novel, The Hummingbird.