Saturday, January 21, 2012

Out From The Fringes: Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience

Janet (Esther Jun) and Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee).

A good friend of mine once invited me to a play because she needed to see some “life.” And to her, theatre was all about “life.” Kim’s Convenience, a new Canadian play about a Korean family in Toronto, is certainly full of “life.”

Written by Ins Choi, Kim's Convenience, which debuted at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company on Thursday, is the story of the Kim family led by patriarch Appa, his wife Umma and their children, Jung and Janet. Appa originally left South Korea and immigrated to Canada with his wife and unborn son and they open a convenience store. In a poignant and funny interlude in the middle of the play, Appa, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Umma, played by Jean Yoon, perform a memory scene under spotlight. They recall looking at the convenience store with great hope and so they try to come up with a name. (By the time they settle on Kim’s Convenience, Appa has considered several names including “Kim Horton’s”.) This scene, which resonates in the play, is a beautiful distillation of the dream every new Canadian hopes for in making a better life in a new land.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Separation: Marriage and Divorce – Iranian Style

Iran may be a fundamentalist totalitarian regime, but many of Iran’s filmmakers are among the world’s best at exposing the deficiencies and flaws of their country on film. Their exposés have to survive state censorship, police harassment, the banning of their work and, sometimes, as in the case of leading director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside) even being sentenced to jail. Panahi is serving six years (and is banned for 20 years from making films) just for standing up for his beliefs. I am not altogether convinced that this isn’t something of a shell game on the part of the Iranian regime, which may ban or censor their indigenous cinema at home but seem, suspiciously, to be unable to ever prevent those movies from showing abroad at film festivals and in Western commercial release. (Panahi’s latest movie This is Not a Film was even made while he was under house arrest and facing possible jail time.) The fact that some Iranian films, such as those of now exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence, Gabbeh) have a French distributor does mean that these films have a life beyond the reach of the censor, which perhaps explains why those movies were shown in 1997 in political arch-enemy Israel’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, to acclaim locally and anger at home.(I attended that festival and was more than a little taken aback when I saw those movies listed in the festival guide.) Makhmalbaf himself indicated in a letter to the Iranian press that the showings in Israel had been approved by government officials, which, if true, was an interesting development in the otherwise fractious Iranian-Israeli relationship. Notably, Iran’s best known filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy), whose films are generally apolitical, runs into fewer problems with the authorities than any of his other famous cohorts.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which just won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film, and in 2011 picked up the Silver Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, differs somewhat from his country’s norm in that he was able to make his movie without any government funding at all. Thus he could avoid the trap of having to sneak his critiques into his film, and was also able to attack the religious character of the state more forthrightly than any filmmaker before him. He was still banned, temporarily, from making his movie after he publicly voiced support for Makhmalbaf and the imprisoned Panahi, statements for which he later apologized, perhaps only so he could get his film completed. (Interestingly, it's very likely that A Separation, Iran's submission for Academy Award recognition, will be competing against Israel's Oscar entry, Joseph Cedar's religiously themed Footnote, for the Best Foreign Language Film award next month in Hollywood.)

Peyman Moaadi and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi
Melding the powerful drama of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) with a provocative Rashomon-like storyline, A Separation, which Farhadi produced, wrote and directed, begins in a judge’s office as separated couple Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) make their case for custody of their eleven year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to take the girl abroad (the film implies that Simin’s not Iranian-born and, perhaps, particularly unable to deal with the societal restrictions women face in the strictly religious Iranian Republic) but Nader refuses to consider that option, as he feels obligated to take care of his Alzheimer’s’ afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). That decision has prompted Simin to ask for a divorce, even though, as she puts it, her husband is a ‘decent’ man. But the disinterested magistrate denies that request, forcing her to stay in Tehran, and move in with her parents while Termeh stays with Nader. It’s when Simin helps arrange for a caretaker a young, pious and poor woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help Nader’s father that things escalate. A succession of events sees Nader throw Razieh out of his home, only to be blamed later on for her miscarriage, caused she says when she fell down the stairs. Did he cause it, did he even know she was pregnant? A Separation is full of hidden secrets, withheld information and a couple at the centre of it all who no longer know how to communicate with each other, if they ever did at all.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBC's The Hour: A Period Drama Whose Time has Come

Ben Whishaw stars in The Hour on BBC

In the years before the US dominated the international scene, and decades before Jack Bauer started putting severed heads in bowling bags, a ripping spy story could be told without suitcase nukes and hacksaws. Giving us a glimpse into the early days of BBC television, at its heart BBC’s The Hour (broadcast by the BBC in the UK this past summer, by BBC America in the US this fall, and now available on Netflix in Canada) is just such an old-fashioned spy drama – complete with government operatives in identical trench coats, tapped telephones, and messages hidden in crossword puzzles.

Period dramas – and British period dramas especially – used to have a very particular reputation on this side of the ocean. In the years before premium cable, discerning television viewers could reliably turn to PBS and its stable of British dramas: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; Brideshead Revisited; any of a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. (And even as recently as this past fall, PBS has a well-justified hit with its broadcast of ITV’s Downton Abbey.) But however entertaining and distracting, one thing period dramas rarely have been is topical. If anything The Hour – despite the action taking place well over 50 years ago – may well suffer from too much topicality. Against the backdrop of a waning superpower trying to shore up its influence in a volatile Middle East with an unpopular and arguably illegal war, domestic journalists accused of unpatriotic activity for questioning a sitting government, a culture of suspicion and surveillance of average citizens, a lesser show than The Hour might almost buckle beneath the weight of its relevance. But it never does. With one short six-episode season under its belt, and a second season on its way in 2012, The Hour is a charming and eminently watchable drama told with understated production design, unassuming sexual tension, minimal but effective violence, and an ensemble of compelling characters.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

These Guys Are Pigs: Men Who Dance

George Stamos and Dany Desjardins at the Dancemakers Studio

Exploring the animal within is one way of describing what’s going on in Liklik Pik, a 60-minute multi-media work by Montreal-based choreographer and dancer George Stamos.

In particular, it’s his inner pig which appears most to fascinate Stamos who, together with dancing partner Dany Desjardins, wears a pig mask as part of his exploration of the complex relationship between humans and animals.

The piece, which debuted Tuesday night as part of the TwoByFour festival of original duets which Dancemakers is presenting at its Centre of Creation studios inside Toronto’s Distillery District through to the end of the month, also uses grunting and snorting as well as the childhood ditty, This Little Piggy Went to Market (spoken here in snippets of French), to cement the pig as the work’s totemic theme.

But such literalness aside, Liklik Pik (the title appears derived from the Tok Pisin language of Papua, New Guinea, in which pik is the word for "pig") also works on a level of poetic association, using voice narration, repetitive movement, music, ambient sound and video projection to present the multidimensional bond with a disarming level of success.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Childhood’s End: Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo

Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become.
- Jean Vigo, Towards a Social Cinema.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a movie about the collapse of the conventional romantic paradigm, there’s a particularly haunting moment midway through when Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and her fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is making a film about their courtship and marriage, meet at a waterside dock so that he can propose to her on camera. As they debate back and forth about whether they will, or whether they won’t, he puts a life buoy over her head and pins her arms. He traps her in what looks like a huge wedding ring. But she quickly dispenses with it and chucks it into the water below. As it sinks to the bottom of the sea, we can read the name L’Atalante on the buoy. Aside from making a direct reference to the final (and only) feature film in the terribly brief career of French director Jean Vigo, Bertolucci is also paying tribute to the sad passing of the romantic stirrings of our youth, of a childhood’s end; while keeping faith with a carnal appetite that made Jean Vigo a patron saint for the New Wave that Bertolucci was once part of in the early Sixties.

The Criterion Collection, in their own significant way of honoring the work of Jean Vigo, has recently released a sumptuous DVD package of his complete work.The discs as well include a number of invaluable supplementary materials, all proving that Vigo was indeed one of the most instinctually radical of film directors until his tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934. In just under three hour of film footage (three shorts and one feature), Jean Vigo becomes before our eyes this luminously idealistic figure, a Byronic pop artist, who set out to preserve the innocent rebellion of childhood. The anarchistic and zealous pining for transcendence from authoritarian rule and dogma brought forth in Vigo a vivacious need to celebrate pure freedom; expressed not only in the content of his movies, but also in his flamboyant expressiveness, an expressiveness that echoed the spontaneity of true invention. While his work shares some of the revolutionary fervor found in the early Russian cinema, it does so without the latter’s schematic design. To experience Vigo is to feel instead like a balloon caught up in a quick breeze and pulled into states of elation that make sensual desire palpable.

Jean Vigo
Vigo’s impetuous and tragic life was equaled by no one except maybe actor James Dean in the Fifties. While both became iconic figures of youthful revolt and romantic allure, Vigo is James Dean without the crippling neurosis, the brooding contortions. If Dean was, in truth, a rebel with a cause – a need to be loved and accepted – Vigo was the rebel without one. He became what French film director Jacques Rivette called “an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world.” In The Complete Jean Vigo, we watch a young artist discover the playful child in himself until the sojourn ends with L’Atalante, where he seeks ways to preserve that playful child in an adult world with adult emotions and adult circumstances.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lit Wit: Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

Hamish Linklater, Alan Rickman, Jerry O'Connell, Lily Rabe & Hettienne Park in Seminar. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, currently on Broadway, is a hard-boiled comedy about literary life that trades on our fantasies about writers in a highly entertaining fashion. Four aspiring twenty-something writers meet weekly in an Upper West Side apartment to show their work to a celebrated editor and get his response. Kate (Lily Rabe), a Bennington grad from a blue-chip background, is renting the luxurious venue, with its Hudson River view, from her father for an unheard-of low price. (One of her peers describes her lifestyle as “socialism for the rich.”) Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), an insufferable self-promoter with connections, has just returned from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he honed a story that’s under consideration at The New Yorker. Izzy (Hettienne Park) puts sex front and center in her work – she claims it’s the most important element in fiction – and flaunts her own sexuality, though the fact that she’s still living with her parents undercuts the daring of her forays into the adult world. The only member of the quartet without a whiff of privilege is Kate’s friend Martin (Hamish Linklater), who moves into her apartment early in the play because he’s being evicted from his own. Leonard (Alan Rickman), a rude, profanely sardonic, self-styled-hipster narcissist whom they’ve hired at an exorbitant fee, tears into their submissions, dismissing Kate’s after the first sentence as lethally boring and tempering his praise for Douglas’s accomplished style with a slam at his quickness to pander to his readers. (He calls him a whore and recommends he move to Hollywood.) And as he does so, he exposes their fragile egos, their terrors (week after week, Martin declines to pass over any of his own novel for Leonard’s inspection), their jealousies (Kate has a crush on Martin and resents the attention he pays to Izzy, who seduces him effortlessly), and the lengths to which their increasing desperation in this competitive literary hothouse atmosphere drives them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Lady’s Mettle: A Memory of Maggie

Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

In the early 1980s two Brits at The Socialist Worker newspaper designed an immense movie poster for a faux updated version of Gone With the Wind. Instead of Vivien Leigh in the arms of Clark Gable, the image depicted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being carried by President Ronald Reagan under the promo “The most EXPLOSIVE love story ever.” At the bottom, another tagline: “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it!” The context was that this dynamic trans-Atlantic duo had been pushing humankind to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The symbolic Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ticked dangerously close at eight minutes to midnight.

Dialogue in The Iron Lady, however, never seems to include the word “nuclear” and Ronnie appears as a mere Post-it note rather than a poster in the examination of the Maggie’s career. There’s one brief snippet of them dancing together. Much of late 20th-century history, in fact, flies by as a footnote to her magnificent obsession: the belief that, in a time of rampant misogyny and sharp class distinctions, a woman from humble circumstances could remake a rather liberal society into an ultra-conservative empire. After knee-capping the trade unions at home, Thatcher turns her attention to empire in 1982 by ordering the United Kingdom to wage war against Argentina over control of the Falklands a chain of islands located just off the coast of South America, almost 8,000 miles from London.