Friday, July 20, 2018

Acting Without Fear: First Reformed & A Very English Scandal

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. (Photo: IMDB)

The daring of Ethan Hawke’s recent movie performances – in Born to Be Blue, where he played the great, drug-addled jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker; in Maudie, where he played Everett, the difficult, armored fish vendor who employs the whimsical Nova Scotia artist Maudie Lewis as a housekeeper and winds up marrying her; and now in writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – is spellbinding. In his mid-forties, he’s become one of our greatest actors, consistently exploring territory beyond what he’s tried before. I voted for him as best actor in the Boston Society of Film Critics last year and the year before; every year brings its share of first-rate performances, but it seems to me that no one else is going as far or as deep as Hawke in inhabiting a set of utterly unalike personalities, and that his range expands each time out.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Striking the Right Notes: The Music Man Plays Stratford

Daren A. Herbert as Professor Harold Hill in Stratford's The Music Man. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Donna Feore’s jaunty new production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (at Stratford’s Festival Theatre until Nov. 3) skirts the evangelical in telling the story of a salesman so good he sells a small town on the promise of a boy’s band without sounding a note to vouch for his musical credentials. Harold Hill, played by a supercharged Daren A. Herbert, making his Stratford debut, turns his sales pitch into a fiery sermon of shame that easily cows the residents of River City, Iowa, into buying his idea that music will be their salvation.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Purveyor of Thresholds: Joachim Waibel Shifts Gears

An untitled colour field from Waibel's Four Elements series.

Painters are people too. That’s what it sometimes comes down to. After producing an overwhelmingly captivating and almost spiritually compelling body of work such as The Stalingrad Series, one designed to stop us in our tracks with its emotional intensity, Joachim Waibel naturally felt the need to engage in something that offered some relief from the darkness. As much for himself as for us, the viewers, he needed to take a pause, collect his thoughts and feelings, go on a bit of a painterly vacation and, dare I say it, to relax.

But rather than do what most of us might do, travel to Cuba or Mexico for a couple of weeks on the beach, the artist’s idea of a break is to immediately commence a series of paintings that encompass a drastically different emotional palette. Waibel doesn’t make his art works for you or me, he makes them for himself, not unlike the way a bird sings to communicate with its own environment, not to entertain us with pretty music. For the painter, his studio is his beach.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Melody in the Machine: Beautiful Things (2017)

Andrea Pavoni Belli in his echoless chamber in Beautiful Things. (Photo: Giorgio Ferrero)

Beautiful Things (2017) is a musical of machinic assemblage and desire, a rapturous becoming-object, a euphoric celebration of accelerationism, and a vision of the role of the human in a world dominated by our technological children, who have dispensed with sentience, that cumbersome redundancy. Directed, produced, and edited by the two-man team of Giorgio Ferrero (who also wrote and helped with music and sound production) and Federico Biasin (who also shot it), this wondrous documentary exploration of how humans mesh with the machine order has impeccable production values, despite costing only 150,000 euros, employing only three other crew members, and spending only six months in production, one month of which was for editing – a process made possible wholly due to the Venice Biennale College workshop.

Monday, July 16, 2018

More New Plays: Consent, Artney Jackson, & Straight White Men

Sian Clifford in Consent. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Consent by Nina Raine (Tribes), a West End transplant that began at the National Theatre, is a thesis play with a thesis no one is likely to dispute: that the law reconfigures real life out of recognition. Raine has devised a series of clever dramatic strategies to work through this idea. The main characters are two couples, best of friends, with young children. Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a defense attorney; he and his wife Kitty (Claudie Blakley) have just had a baby, their first. Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (I saw Pete Collis, standing in for Adam James) are both lawyers. The action begins at a dinner party that Ed and Kitty have staged partly to introduce her oldest friend, an actress named Zara (Clare Foster) who’s desperate to find a man to settle down with, to Tim (Lee Ingleby), a prosecutor. At first Raine draws our attention to the detached, dispassionate way in which the criminal lawyers discuss their cases, talking about their clients in the first person, as if they were playing the roles of the people they represent:

EDWARD: So what have you been up to, lately?
JAKE: Me? Oh, I’ve raping pensioners.
EDWARD: Charming.
JAKE: Yes, I tie them up, I fuck them, and then I nick their stuff.
RACHEL: Quite a few of them, apparently.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mail critic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Altered States: Danny Grossman Dances His Swan Song

Danny Grossman. (Photo: Liliana Reyes)

Nearly 20 years ago, the American-born dancer and choreographer Danny Grossman was in his 50s – then considered an ancient age for a dance artist – and had just had hip surgery to repair the damage brought on by his jumping, swirling, body-slamming profession. While he was recovering, I went to interview him in his Toronto home where I found him walking with the aid of crutches. But not even they could slow him down. Grossman had already – and likely against his doctor’s wishes – tried to dance again and the experience confirmed for him something he had long held true: that dance isn’t just steps set to music; it’s a process of transformation. “It’s a miracle!” Grossman said at the time, bursting out laughing as he threw his crutches to the floor to tentatively trace what looked like an old-fashioned waltz across his living room floor. “I feel no pain! I feel like a kid again!” Conversation grew somewhat more serious as the morning wore on. The operation had made him feel his mortality and looking back at the sizeable body of work he had created for his Danny Grossman Dance Company since its founding in Toronto in 1977 (the troupe stopped performing in 2008), he summed it up like this: “All my work has been about altered states. People are transformed by dance, some by just doing it, others by watching."