Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Message Meets Medium: Collecting Digital Art Through s[edition]

Although I am neither a collector of art, nor a frequenter of social media, somehow s[edition] intrigued me. Launched a few weeks ago, s[edition] is not just a digital art gallery, it’s a gallery for digital art. Here’s the difference: the art you can browse, buy and collect through s[edition] is not a digital representation of artwork, it is art using the digital medium. Like a traditional print, there is a limited number of pieces available. Unlike a traditional print, you can view the creation you purchase in a variety of ways and sizes on your iPad, Blackberry, PC, TV, digital photo frame, or any other connected device. You can store your artwork in s[edition]’s digital vault and access it anytime, anywhere – provided you have the proper hardware and internet connection.

Each piece in your vault is yours and yours alone. It is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and can be “identified, verified and traced.” Skeptics among us might wonder what all the fuss is about. There is a myriad of images you can find for free online and use similarly. Naturally, this begs the age-old question: what makes art, Art? Some say art is anything that's made with love or intention, or simply a thing of beauty. Others say art is something that challenges the way we think about the world. Whatever your definition, s[edition] for certain challenges the way we think about art itself.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To Die For: 50/50 & The Walking Dead (Season Two)

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50.

The French existentialist philosopher and novelist Albert Camus once wrote that the real injustice of life is our recognition that everyone we know and love one day will die. It's what, he said, makes our life truly absurd. But you'd never know this from most of the movies made on the subject. The idea of death its very final reality might be the subject of many stories, yet rarely is its injustice (or absurdity) ever fully acknowledged. When Cary Grant and Irene Dunne lose their adopted child in George Stevens' popular 1941 melodrama Penny Serenade, for example, our sympathies don't concentrate on the dead infant but on the grieving parents instead. We're made to feel for their loss and pain, not the cruel and random taking of a child. It's as if the idea of death a subject that gnawed hungrily at Camus in books like The Plague was too terrifying to confront so movies concentrated instead on the moral struggles of the living.

Terms of Endearment
In pictures like Penny Serenade, the drama isn't worked out so that we come to terms with death, but instead with our trying to avoid it. Melodramas in particular always repress the notion of death, recognizing that our greatest fear of death, besides losing loved ones, is in our own terror of having not lived fully enough, of having perhaps pissed away valuable time that we can't get back. So this is why, especially when you add a recognizable disease like cancer to the mix, the stories resolve with the living having finally learned life's important lessons and then becoming better people. When you watch tear-jerkers like Love Story (1970), Brian's Song (1971), and especially, Terms of Endearment (1983), the survivors settle all rifts, resolve painful grievances, and improve their behaviour. These movies maybe even give us the impression that we can live forever, if we'd just improve our character. They make us feel edified, thanks to those who've died on our behalf, so that our own mortality gets comfortably buried with the bodies being grieved over. However in the recent dramatic comedy, 50/50, not only does death get stared directly in its face, but the picture also dares to laugh at it. Like Camus, 50/50 sees the absurdity in the subject. And it does so without cheapening or avoiding death's victories and temporary losses.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Captors: Eichmann – The Nazi Monster as Performer

Louis Cancelmi & Michael Cristofer in Captors
Evan M. Wiener’s new play Captors (at the Boston University Theater until December 11th) manages to be both emotionally and intellectually engrossing. It tells the story of the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 by three Mossad agents who held him in a safe house outside the city while devising a plan to transport him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Their success was dependent on getting him to sign a release form permitting them to take him out of Argentina, where, under an assumed name, he was a legal resident. Wiener’s narrative, which is based mostly on Eichmann in My Hands, a memoir by one of the agents, Peter Malkin (co-authored with Harry Stein), is divided in two parts. In the first act Eichmann (Michael Cristofer) struggles to reassert power over his captors – mainly Malkin (Louis Cancelmi), the youngest of the three – by reaching across the enforced barrier between captive and captor and getting him to engage in conversation. In the second act Malkin throws over entirely the device of objectivity and uses their relationship to manipulate Eichmann into not only accepting the idea of a trial but welcoming it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 99 Percent Speaks: Observing the Movement for a More Just Society

Thursday, they were enjoying “occu pie.” Their slices appeared to be made with pumpkin or apple but nobody mentioned the ingredients as I watched an Occupy Wall Street live video feed that showed a crowd chowing down at a live Thanksgiving feed in New York City. The multitude was gathered at Zuccotti Park, named Liberty Plaza until 2003, in Lower Manhattan. That’s where the original occupation began on September 17, with many demonstrators camping out round-the-clock in tents to protest the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of Americans while the remaining 99 percent – the rest of humanity – endures varying degrees of hardship.

The Zuccotti inhabitants established a small community of like-minded citizens with a kitchen, a field hospital with volunteer doctors and a library that sheltered thousands of books. All these things disappeared or were destroyed when police evicted the occupiers just after midnight on November 15 on orders from the normally moderate Republican mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Invariably denouncing the occupiers, he has morphed into an enemy of the people. The 33,000-square-foot park within spitting distance of the Stock Exchange now remains the site of lengthy gatherings but no one is allowed to sleep over any more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

Donald Glover and Danny Pudi in Community.

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lukewarm Offering: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore

Vanessa Paradis in Café de Flore

Unlike most of the films emanating from English Canada, French Canadian movies, or at least the ones released outside Quebec, are usually so interesting and provocative that it’s startling when a film from there, such as Xavier Dolan’s overrated 2009 debut J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), turns out to be a dud. In fact, other than Dolan’s misguided effort, and the Quebecois’ continuing and baffling appreciation of the low and crass humour of films like Les Boys and Cruising Bar, both of which have spawned sequels, pretty much everything I’ve seen from there has been worth my time at the cinema. More recently, these have included Denys Arcand's smartly satirical Oscar-winning Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) (2003); Ghyslaine Côté’s Elles étaient cinq (The Five of Us) (2004), a powerful and disturbing look at the ramifications of rape on its victims; Bernard Emond’s deeply philosophical and moving 20h17 rue Darling (8:17 p.m. Darling Street) (2004), which offers much relevant and topical wisdom about Quebec’s economic underclass; Jean-Marc Vallée’s superb and highly imaginative coming-of-age masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005); and Denis Villeneuve’s poignant, emotionally devastating family drama Incendies (Scorchers) (2011), among others. Those French-language movies have managed to be intelligent, accessible and energetic, unlike the usual English Canadian model, which is mostly comprised of stiff, restrained and dull art house fare. (That’s a dictum best exemplified by almost the complete output of Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Chloe)). They also provide proof that Canadian movies can work on many entertaining levels at the same time. That’s why Jean Marc Vallée’s third film, Café de Flore, is such a disappointment; it’s a movie whose appeal lies entirely in the director’s mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just This Side of a Masterpiece: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow

Only Kate Bush could come up with a song-cycle CD based around the idea of snow. Her first new material in six years, 50 Words for Snow (EMI, 2011) is simultaneously recognizable as a Kate Bush album and pushing boundaries in her approach to song craft. I've followed her career ever since her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights,” absolutely knocked me out the first time I heard it in 1978. Her soaring soprano – taking on the voice of the ghost Catherine Henshaw (the tragic heroine in Emily Brontë's novel of the same name) as she pleads with Heathcliff to let her in – was nothing like I’d ever heard in a ‘pop’ song before; she was only 18 when she wrote and recorded it. Her chosen themes for her music throughout her career have always been eccentric. She's taken on the personas of soldiers (“Army Dreamers”), the young son of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (“Cloudbusting”), a woman testing the fidelity of her husband (“Babushka”) and more than one character who was seemingly derived from Victorian or Edwardian romantic literature. She has also been influenced by films, such as The Innocents (“The Infant Kiss”), Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (“The Wedding List”), and horror films (“Hammer Horror”). There is nothing conventional about the material she explores.

Sometimes her material has been downright odd: the song “Pi” on 2005 Aerial CD (it's essentially her singing the numbers for the symbol Pi to its 137th decimal place) is a prime example. So it should come as no surprise that the first song here, “Snowflake,” is sung from the point of view of snow itself; a second song details lovemaking with a slowly melting snowman, “Misty,” and a third, “Wild Man,” examines the discovery and protection of a yeti. But unlike the somewhat blotted Aerial – she’d been away from the music scene for some years when she recorded that and it showed – 50 Words for Snow is just this side of a masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Don’t Want the Dancing to Stop: National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Creating something new out of something already established poses a challenge. You have tradition to contend with, not to mention other people’s expectations – especially true when your source is Shakespeare. In the case of Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has just created a dramatic new dance version of Romeo and Juliet, the solution was to acknowledge all this while still forging ahead. The result is a modern day masterpiece of narrative ballet.

With Romeo and Juliet, Ratmansky  the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now into his second term as artist in residence of New York’s American Ballet Theater  revisits not only literary tradition but also music and dance history.

A commission commemorating the 60th anniversary season of the National Ballet of Canada, his new three-hour work is at Toronto’s Four Seasons of the Performing Arts through Saturday with alternating casts. It's a tremendous accomplishment.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turning Music On Its Head: Tom Waits's Bad As Me

You can always count on Tom Waits to turn music on its head. On Bad As Me (ANTI, 2011), which was released back in October, he once again creates sonic pictures that are bizarre, funny, shocking, yet still remarkably accessible. But like most performers who can't be categorized in the commercial sense of the word, Tom Waits has fully developed a signature sound. As a result, Bad As Me is one of his strongest records.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Absurdists: A Delicate Balance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead & Betrayal

Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in A Delicate Balance. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Among the wide range of plays in revival in London last summer were three absurdist classics – Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The Albee, an attack on upper-middle-class family life, was the first thing he wrote after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and you can see all the marks of an American playwright struggling to follow a runaway critical and popular success: it’s hyper-conscious and overstated and the last act in particular seems to go on forever. Gerald Gutierriez mounted it in New York in the mid-nineties with a brilliant cast (led by George Grizzard and Rosemary Harris as the aging couple, Agnes and Tobias, and Elaine Stritch as Agnes’s bitchy, alcoholic sister Claire) and had the good sense to treat it as a high comedy, which made it work quite marvelously for two of the three acts – the characters’ maddening articulateness made sense. James Macdonald’s production at the Almeida was a more standard reading, like the droning 1973 Tony Richardson movie version with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick, and unless you’re more of an admirer of Albee’s language than I am it’s rough going.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Neglected Gem #8: The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Adrian Grenier in The Adventures of Sebastian Cole
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is a real find, a debut filled with unpredictable characters, an original point of view and fearlessness in both subject matter and the depiction of everyday small-town life. The titular character (Adrian Grenier, Entourage) is an aimless, modern-day Holden Caulfield, minus the cynicism. He is equally unhappy, though, mourning the sudden disintegration of his family, torn asunder when stepfather Hank (Clark Gregg) announces his intention to become a woman. Dragged to England by his bitter British mother (Margaret Colin), who has begun to drink too much, he's returned home to live with Hank/Henrietta, an arrangement that is a mixed blessing for both.

Writer/director Tod Williams doesn't push the story so much as let it unfold. He takes a chance in mixing moods, but the dominant tone is quirky satire worthy of John Irving (The World According to Garp) and just as strikingly unique.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Too Rich To Ignore: Randy Newman's Live in London

Quite a few artists have been revisiting their catalogues lately with new recordings, either in studio or live. Ray Davies recorded some oldies with a local choir, then redid some of the same tunes with special guest stars including Mumford and Sons and Bruce Springsteen. Guy Clark’s latest album is the all live Songs and Stories. And Randy Newman, who is neither dead, nor retired (more on that later) has recorded two volumes of new studio versions of classic tunes, and now presents us with Live in London (Nonesuch, 2011). a multimedia extravaganza of epic proportion. Okay, that may be hyperbole, but let’s call it irony since Mr. Newman is quite familiar with that.

The new set from Nonesuch Records includes a DVD of a live broadcast done for BBC television in June 2008, and a CD of the same show. The recording is beautifully done and the performance enhanced by the presence of the BBC Concert Orchestra under the direction of Robert Zeigler. Newman says he has worked with bad conductors (including himself) and good conductors, and that Zeigler is one of the good ones. The charts are sympathetic with Randy’s solo piano accompaniment, and watching him in shirtsleeves in front of the orchestra (all dressed in black) provides most of the video excitement in the programme.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Paradise Almost Lost: George Clooney Elevates a Mediocre Story

In The Descendants, fans of Alexander Payne may be hoping for the blackest of black comedy, the tone with which the director first made a name for himself. But the equal opportunity satire of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) was already on the wane in About Schmidt (2002), a rather snide effort that simply belittled most of the characters. Despite admirably offbeat performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (2004), too much sentimentality crept into a film that’s periodically lovely in other ways – especially if you’ve imbibed some of the Napa Valley wine that’s central to the plot. But the new project, set in Hawaii, offers a far more conventional story than all of Payne’s previous works put together.

That said, it’s not without charm, thanks to the almost always charming George Clooney in the lead role as a cuckolded husband and somewhat absentee father who must assume primary care of their two daughters when his wife goes into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. He is Matt King, a multicultural real estate attorney whose ancestor, King Kamehameha the Great, united all the islands of the archipelago under his rule in 1810. This contemporary man of royal lineage has trouble uniting with his children – 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a typically alienated teenager – so together they can endure the absence of a hospitalized mother who is unlikely to survive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections on Pauline Kael

The simultaneous publication of Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking) and The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, a Library of America anthology of her movie criticism edited by Sanford Schwartz, restores Pauline Kael's status as the most important film reviewer in the history of the medium. All thirteen of her books, including the last cross-section, For Keeps, which she assembled herself in 1994, are out of print; movies no longer generate the excitement, the intellectual debate and generational ownership, that they did while Kael held her post at The New Yorker – especially in the first decade (1967-1976) of her tenure, when the “Current Cinema” column passed back and forth at six-month intervals between her and Penelope Gilliatt. (Kael got it to herself when she returned to the magazine in 1980 after a brief stint in Hollywood; in the last few years before she retired in 1991, she shared it with Terrence Rafferty.) Reading Kellow’s book and dipping into the Library of America volume brings back some of the feeling of movie-going during the Vietnam era, when Hollywood was undergoing a renaissance no one could have anticipated and the latest imports from Europe enhanced the sense Kael had – and communicated eloquently to her readers – that we were living in a charmed period for the medium. Kael always acknowledged her luck at beginning to write regularly about movies (her appointment at The New Yorker, at the age of 48, was her first extended paying gig) just at the moment when old Hollywood was collapsing and younger, hip directors and screenwriters who sparked a connection with the new, counter-cultural audience were slipping into the crevasses. We were lucky because she understood the cultural significance of what she saw up on the screen and had the critical astuteness that allowed her to evaluate its quality.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beth Griffenhagen's Haiku for the Single Girl: For Those Who Can't Always Get What They Want (But Might Get What They Need)

“I’m sorry Laura,” my colleague sympathizes with me after I finish confiding in her about some romantic woes. It is 8pm on my evening without my daughter and I am, as usual, just hanging around the office. If this isn’t bad enough to begin with, she leans forward, lowers her voice, and says, “you’re going to have to Internet date.” So this is what it’s come to? Internet dating will be added to the certainties of death and taxes?

Now don’t get wrong. I love my crazy little life. I am fully complete without a better half. I would also be perfectly content if I stayed away from the dating game for good. But, every now and then – especially around holidays or whenever I see a Norman Rockwell painting – I tend to feel as though something maybe missing.

Luckily I heard of a charming little publication called Haiku for the Single Girl (Penguin Group, 2011) to get me through the holiday season. (Well, at least until the winter solstice.) Haiku is a bittersweet collection of short poetic meditations, written by Beth Griffenhagen in the true haiku fashion of three lines and seventeen syllables. Each philosophy is accompanied by an illustration by Cynthia Vehslage Meyers. This witty and introspective book resembles a Cathy comic strip meets Sex and the City. (Except – spoiler alert – nobody gets married in the end.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Buried Face of an Age: Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time (1916)

Hugo Ball
Written while sitting on my couch this morning watching TV as the Occupy protesters are being evacuated from various parks around the world.

On February 5, 1916, while a world war was raging around them, a group of artists had just landed in Zurich, Switzerland, to perform in a club called the Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball was a twenty-nine-year-old German poet and Catholic mystic. With him were his lover, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings; Tristan Tzara, a poet from Romania; painter Marcel Janco, Tzara's countryman; Albanian artist Jean Arp; and a medical student named Richard Huelsenbeck, who just happened to have a thing for the drums.

Among the group, who would soon be reborn as Dadaists, Ball was devoted to Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstewerk ("total work of art") which was a radical new philosophy whereby a one-dimensional society could be regenerated through a totality that combined all the arts. "Our debates are a burning speech, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age," Ball would write in his riveting 1916 diary Flight Out of Time, which would be published by Viking in 1974. This search for a specific rhythm took form as a totality of political theater. While the owners of the cabaret looked for pleasing poems that could be read, music that could be performed and songs that could be sung all to boost what had become a sagging clientele at the cafe Ball and his clan had other ideas. He was looking instead for something more tantalizing: a new expressive art form that could put the shock into entertainment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rattigan and Langella: Man and Boy

Virginia Kull, Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Man and Boy at New York’s Roundabout Theatre

The centenary of the British writer Terence Rattigan – one of the monarchs of the English stage before the “angry young man” movement made his approach to playwriting seem hopelessly old-fashioned in the mid-fifties and sixties – has brought several of his forgotten works to light. But Man and Boy, one of his last dramas, was rediscovered six years ago when Maria Aitken staged it in London. She has also helmed the current production at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. This is a fascinating play that doesn’t quite come off, but Frank Langella gives another in a string of tour de force stage and film performances in the starring role, which is written for a mesmerizing actor.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Profile of a Demagogue: J. Edgar Hoover for the Moviegoing Masses

Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

It seems like a case of The Good, the Bad and the Really Awful Timing. Of all the weeks for Clint Eastwood to announce he’s supporting Herman Cain, this one began with the Republican presidential hopeful’s sexual harassment scandal and ended with the filmmaker’s debut of J. Edgar. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the late Federal Bureau of Investigation director, J. Edgar Hoover, still as controversial a figure four decades after his death as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza now running for the Oval Office. Both are examples of how powerful men can survive criticism of their misdeeds in a society that rewards ruthlessness. The question remains, though, has Eastwood created a smart work of art while demonstrating stupid political calculations?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Love Lies Bleeding: A Pop Ballet That Really Pops

The artists of Alberta Ballet rock out to "Benny and the Jets" in Love Lies Bleeding

Jean Grand-Maître took the stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Tuesday night, just moments before Alberta Ballet would perform the area premiere of his full-length Love Lies Bleeding, set to and directly inspired by the music of Elton John. Microphone in hand, Grand-Maître genially asked the capacity crowd how many had come to the ballet for the first time. A roar rippled through the auditorium and the Canadian choreographer smiled. It was a sign that his mandate of creating pop ballets for the Calgary-based company since becoming director in 2002 was indeed working: bums in seats, but more importantly, bums attached to people who might not otherwise be caught dead watching men in jock straps pointing their toes in an undulating sea of ballerinas. But as if wanting to quell any lingering reservations, Grand-Maître told the audience not to worry: “This is not really a ballet,” he continued. “It’s more like a rock concert. So sit back, relax and unleash your inner pop star.”

"Rocket Man": Yukichi Hattori, Company Artists
For the next two hours that is pretty much what happened. The crowd screamed, it sang, it clapped along; some in the house could be seen even dancing in their seats. At the end, it rose en masse to give the ballet an instantaneous standing ovation on top of prolonged applause. To ballet purists it was a somewhat different story. The choreography is more borrowed than original: Bob Fosse meets the cross-dressing Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, meaning lots of crotch thrusts and drag queens galore. Such details have entertainment value, but don’t necessarily advance the art form. Still, there was plenty to like, even admire. It is one of the few ballets to foreground men in ballet as opposed to women and for that is to be applauded as something rare indeed. It also has at its centre an aerial number, choreographed by Adrian Young, which literally sets the dancers flying, a wonder to behold. But the ballet scales heights in other ways: Love Lies Bleeding is the Alberta Ballet’s Tommy, a reference to the ballet inspired by The Who’s rock-opera of the same name created for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970 by resident choreographer by Fernand Nault, a work that first put Canadian ballet on the international map. So while not a new invention, Love Lies Bleeding is ballet for the masses whose popularity may bode well for the future of the art itself, enticing even more bums down the line to wiggle in their seats.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Excess, Baseball and the Irish: The Rum Diary, Moneyball and The Guard

The late French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said that you could tell if a film is shit within the first five minutes. I wouldn’t go that far, but with most movies, you can pretty much sense when a film is working or not. The bigger question is why do certain films, with decent ideas and talented stars, fail while other more modest efforts succeed? Two recent American failures demonstrate the former while a certain Irish comedy sails up the middle and blows the two more expensive efforts out of the water.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell On Wheels: AMC’s New Western Falls Flat

Anson Mount stars in AMC's Hell On Wheels

As I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels this past Sunday night, I slowly began to realize that I was feeling something I had never before felt while watching the premiere of an AMC original dramatic series: I was bored. Reviewing a show based only on its first episode is a risky business, though I do generally feel less guilty about it when it comes to cable shows, with their relatively short seasons and high production values. (The first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premiered almost exactly a year ago – told me everything I needed to know about the show and gave me every reason to keep watching.) And, much to the misfortune of AMC’s new series, I fear the first episode of Hell On Wheels is equally representative of the series as a whole.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t think they were unrealistic. AMC had given us a string of ambitious, structurally and morally complex, shows over the past few years (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), and I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled. Add to that that Hell On Wheels is the first major Western to appear on television since Deadwood went off the air in 2006, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps the inevitable comparisons with Deadwood are unfair – after all Deadwood is as much a Western as The Wire is a police procedural, and there are few shows in the entire history of television that would survive the comparison. But Hell On Wheels, to its own detriment, invites the comparison: with a hero who can barely contain his seething anger, a recently widowed city woman, its lawless, frontier community setting, and its monologuing Machiavellian villain. And speaking for this one viewer, it was difficult to keep memories of Deadwood from rearing up.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Re-Imagined Monk: Eric Reed Trio's The Dancing Monk

With so many different ways of finding the idiosyncrasies in the music of Thelonious Monk, the default position for most jazz musicians is to take the so-called bent notes and bend them further. For pianist Eric Reed, it's a decidedly different approach that smooths out the rough edges of Monk's music by bringing to it more relaxed, less up-tempo arrangements. The Dancing Monk (Savant, 2011) is Reed's recent release of nine tunes from the Monk songbook. Reed wrote the title track.

The trio features Ben Wolfe on bass and (someone new to my ears) McClenty Hunter on drums. It's a solid rhythm section backing the pianist and sounding well-schooled on the music while attuning themselves to the uniqueness of Monk's rhythmic patterns. To the purists, this record may offend those who probably think this band has watered down the great composer's work. But that would be a superficial response because, upon deeper inspection, Reed and the trio have successfully freed up the music and turned it into an inspired experience. All the musical Monkisms are heard, but they are improvised with Reed's distinctive voicings which are closely supported by the rhythm section.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #25: Neil Bissoondath (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM 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 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

In 1984, Paul Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson, a poignant comedy about exile and homesickness, which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York City. The movie ostensibly deals with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. His actions trigger a mixture of homesickness, sadness, and the longings for a sense of place that come when (for political and ethical reasons) you are forced to leave home. With those themes in mind, I devised a chapter called Exiles and Existence where a number of artists (including Jerzy Kosinski and Josef Škvorecký) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned.

Neil Bissoondath
Author Neil Bissoondath, the nephew of authors V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul, is from Arima, Trinidad and Tobago. Although he came from a Hindu tradition, he was schooled in a Catholic high school. During the seventies, political upheaval brought him to Canada where he initially settled in Ontario and studied at York University achieving a Bachelor of Arts in French in 1977. But Bissoondath went on to teach English and soon became an award-winning author. When I spoke to him in 1988, his first book of short stories, Digging Up the Mountains, was just being published. In the book, he examines (as Mazursky did in Moscow on the Hudson) the pain endured when people are uprooted from their homeland.

Curiously, in 1994, he would stir up a significant amount of controversy with his book, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, which called into question the validity of Canada's 1971 Multiculturalism Act. There are noticeable hints leading to his views towards defining ethnicity in our opening remarks. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Musical Noir: City of Angels

Burke Moses (center) stars in "City of Angels" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam

City of Angels is one of the smartest and most literate of modern musicals, though on Broadway in 1990 the production values upstaged Larry Gelbart’s book and the Cy Coleman-David Zippel songs. The show, which Michael Blakemore directed, was such an expensive-looking commodity that it came across as smug, a kind of exclusive club for well-heeled Westchester and Long Island theatergoers. I admired the performances, especially of the two leading men, Gregg Edelman and James Naughton, but it wasn’t until I saw it in a physically pared-down community-theatre edition a few years later that the virtues of the play and the score shone through. At the intimate Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where it’s currently being mounted with the loving care typical of this venue, you can revel in those virtues.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bill Bourne, Michael Jerome Browne, Michael Wrycraft: Blues, Music, Art

The blues in Canada has always taken a particularly northern approach. Maybe it’s because our fingertips and toes have all turned blue at one time or another. Maybe it’s the Canadian way of adapting something specifically based in someone else’s culture and turning it around to suit our own needs. Think about all the great Canadian bluesmen (and women), King Biscuit Boy, Whiskey Howl, Rita Chiarelli, Carlos del Junco, Paul Reddick, Downchild, Dutch Mason, Sue Foley … the list goes on and on. And the fine northern blues tradition continues with two more recent releases.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see Bill Bourne and his Free Radio Band play live at The Pearl Company in Hamilton. (If you ever get the chance, The Pearl Company is a remarkable venue for music.) Bill came out, in front of a small but dedicated crowd, carrying a beat-up old Gibson acoustic. He played an old blues. His long hair swayed, he rocked back and forth, and sang those blues like he owned them. Then, when he brought out the band, he carried on with a generous helping of all sorts of music including echoes of Cajun, African, and flamenco. The new CD, Bluesland, gives you a sample of the breadth of Bill’s music.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Getting it (Mostly) Right: The Day of the Triffids (2009)

Third time is the charm, I guess. It took three goes at The Maltese Falcon before John Huston's 1941 version finally did it justice (the other versions were 1931's The Maltese Falcon and 1936's Satan Met a Lady). The earlier versions went off on wild tangents away from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 noir classic narrative. What Huston decided to do was to take Hammett's novel as is, sometimes dialogue and all, and really use it as the source.What a concept! As a result, he had a film that is still watched today (while the other two are only viewed as almost unwatchable curios) and he came out of it with a career for both himself and star Humphrey Bogart. John Wyndham's 1951 influential science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids (it's inspired several films, including 28 Days Later) was first made into a movie in 1962 which took the novel’s most basic premise and veered it completely off track.

The premise of Wyndham's novel is quite simple. As the story starts, a plant called the triffid is irritatingly menacing the Western world. Triffids are large, carnivorous (they use a poisonous stinger to immobilize and kill their victims), are ambulatory and may be able to communicate with each other. It is suggested that the plant was created in a laboratory in the Soviet Union and that spores for the plant landed in England when a plane carrying them accidentally crash landed. Scientists and others are working diligently to control them. One scientist, Bill Masen, is stung by a 'young' triffid. He is temporarily blinded and sent to hospital. While he is in hospital, a 'beautiful' meteor shower (which he cannot watch) is seen all over the world. The shower causes everybody who looks at it to go blind. The rest of the book details Masen awakening alone in a hospital, determining what has happened, searching the streets of London for sighted people (the unsighted are desperately trying to survive and one technique they use is to capture sighted people and use them as slaves). Masen hooks up with a group of sighted people, but chaos and unrest quickly erupts. A sighted despot named Torrence decides he can set up his own dictatorship in London. Masen, with the help of writer Jo Playton, flees and tries to make their way out of London to somewhere safe, all the while dodging attacks by both triffids and other cruel sighted (and blind) humans. The ending is left open ended whether Masen and humanity will survive.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Le Havre: A Funny Film that Celebrates Harboring the Helpless

Blondin Miguel as Idrissa in Le Havre

Don’t expect to see Scandinavian musicians with extremely pointy shoes and hairstyles. The wacky characters in Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) do not appear in Le Havre, an equally deadpan new film by the Finnish writer-director that has much more of a beating heart. He sets this one in the French port city, where an occasional cell phone is the rare hint of modernity in an otherwise thoroughly convincing early 1950s ambiance. This version of the seaside Normandy town is populated by a quaint citizenry whose clothing, homes, shops and cars are very mid-20th century. In a working-class neighborhood, their normally sedate existence becomes less so due to an issue that has exploded in the 21st-century: undocumented immigrants. These days in America, they’re often dismissively referred to merely as “illegals.”

With In This World (2002), Michael Winterbottom was among the first filmmakers in recent decades to address the plight of refugees in a compassionate way. That docudrama concerned young men from Afghanistan making their way across an often hostile Europe in hopes of a better future than is possible back home. Le Havre centers on an adolescent boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from Gabon who escapes when police discover a huddled mass of Africans in a shipping container on the docks. He’s later spotted hidden in the shallow water behind wooden pilings by Marcel (Andre Wilms), a local man with a marginal career shining shoes in an era of Nikes – along with cell phones, another 2011 touch. Ditto for sensationalist newspaper headlines that suggest the fugitive lad being hunted by cops could be linked to al-Qaeda.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Once Upon A Time and Grimm: Fairy Tales Go Prime Time

Jennifer Morrison (far right) and the cast of ABC's Once Upon A TIme

Fairy tales are the new vampires: this is what a friend of mine told me a couple of months ago after she saw the new fall TV schedule. And indeed, fairy tales do seem to be enjoying a real renaissance of late. Three years into our apparently unending economic downturn, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that popular culture is turning to more and more fantastic and otherworldly settings to tell their stories. And if fairy tales seems destined to displace teen vampires in our cultural zeitgeist, Snow White herself seems fated to be their poster child. Next year alone, Hollywood will be releasing two live-actions retellings of her familiar story: Tarsem Sitongh’s as-yet-untitled project with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen coming out in March, and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman with the Twilight saga’s Kristen Stewart playing a Snow White meets Joan of Arc incarnation of the character. And in 2013, never to be outdone, Disney will be releasing Order of the Seven, another live-action adventure which tells the story from the perspective of the dwarves and re-sets the action to 19th-century China.

But we don’t have to wait until 2012 to experience the fairy tale revolution: over the past two weeks, two new shows have premiered on the small screen, each with its own revisionist take on the familiar stories we all grew up on: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm. But even though both shows operate generally on the same, perhaps familiar conceit – bringing storybook characters into our contemporary world (see 2007’s Enchanted for a recent movie example of this) – the two shows could be hardly be more different in their particular takes on the idea.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood: Vividly Evoking a Complex Past

Non-fiction books really come in two basic flavours. There are the ones written because the author finds the subject or person of interest (Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which is about the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and America’s first serial killer) and hopes to convey that to the readership at large. And then there are the others written for very personal reasons, with the likely hope that readers will relate to the book or at least gain an understanding of a world they may know little about (Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother, convicted killer Gary Gilmore). James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood (Random House, 2010) actually fits into both categories. It’s a powerful look back at his life and background, but it is also a vivid depiction of an era, a city and a culture, one with a family at its centre that aptly fulfills Tolstoy’s dictum, “that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way … ”

It’s also an extraordinarily detailed, raw and painful book, with FitzGerald, whose memory is remarkable, recreating a childhood filled with angst and avoidance, plus a family dynamic for which dysfunctional barely begins to scratch the surface. (Full disclosure: I know James socially, and back in 1989/90 I wrote a few freelance pieces for Strategy, a now-defunct business publication that he edited.) What Disturbs Our Blood is on one level the story of Gerry FitzGerald, a Canadian medical pioneer (who worked with Nobel Prize Winners Banting and Best), and his son, Jack, James’ father, who followed him into medicine, with a different specialty – allergies – and in many ways also replicated the tragic arc of Gerald’s life. James, for his part, became a journalist, but always felt weighed down by his family dynamic of secrecy, which never discussed and barely acknowledged the suicide of his grandfather, and of withholding, with parents – particularly a father – who had no clue how to relate to his three children or even how to show them physical affection. The result, in James’ case, not surprisingly, was a young man, growing up feeling like an outsider in his own skin and in the world at large, feelings exacerbated by his father’s nervous breakdown and physical and emotional decline. Only when James began delving into psychotherapy in his early 30s – and commensurately started a quest to unearth his rich family roots stretching all the way back to Ireland in the 12th century – did he come to some a sort of understanding of the emotional demons afflicting him and his family. This is a memoir you won't soon forget. Critics at Large interviewed him about the book, the reaction of its readers and his thoughts on the difficulties of non-fiction (especially when it’s as complex as What Disturbs Our Blood) succeeding in Canada.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cruel Tease of Lost Promise: The Beach Boys' The Smile Sessions

Probably no pop album experiment has ever developed the legendary mythical status afforded The Beach Boys' ill-fated Smile album. Considering that it's a record that was never finished by the band and shelved in the vaults for years (in fact, it's a work that brought heartache and madness to its creator), Smile built a large appetite over the years for its release. Now it has finally been issued in an epic box-set (The Smile Sessions) complete with 5-CDs of material that includes a facsimile of the original record, plus many CDs of session material that chronicle the album's creation. Included as well is a 2-LP vinyl set of Smile, two 45rpm singles from the work, a book with extensive background material on the making of Smile and its aftermath, and a 24" by 36" poster of Frank Holmes' quaintly evocative cover art (which is duplicated in 3-D on the front of the box itself). A more compact 2-disc set will be out shortly for the more casual and cost conscious fan. Never in the history of pop music though has an incomplete record ever been so lavished in merchandising. It puts the work itself in danger of being buried by the hype. But no amount of hype can hide the troubled atmosphere conjured within its tracks.

Like Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes, Smile is a drug-induced gaze back on the early frontier spirit of the American past; and just like many daring artifacts that tap into the tapestry of that frontier, it's a grand folly, a failure of ambition with scatterings of masterful songs embroidered into its symphonic canvas. But where The Basement Tapes provided a clearly defined map of America's musical past, it also confidently pointed forward to a future that would give birth to the grassroots pop of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967) and The Band's Music From Big Pink (1968), two hugely influential records that changed the course of sixties music. Those informal 1967 recordings in the Big Pink basement in Woodstock also created a camaraderie among the musicians which brought focus to their subterranean experiments. With The Beach Boys' Smile, which began recording in 1966, its progenitor Brian Wilson had no such spirit of fraternity with his mates and the drugs didn't loosen up the dynamics (as it did with The Basement Tapes). Instead it brought paranoia and collapse. As for the album title, Smile couldn't have been more of a misnomer. It became what David Leaf, author of The Beach Boys & the California Myth, aptly called "a cruel tease of lost promise."