Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Science Of Dancing: Wayne McGregor’s Entity

Entity, choreographed by Wayne McGregor (Photo: Ravi Deepres)

Talk about a ‘Eureka!’ moment: A dance performance that is also a science experiment, the focus of study being the body in motion. Audiences, put your thinking caps on.

Entity is the name of the brain puzzle of a dance in question, and it is an entirely new choreographed creature, owing its genesis to the mind as much as the body.

Choreographed in 2008 by Wayne McGregor (choreographer-in-residence at the Royal Ballet in England, and represented by his 10-member strong Random Dance troop, the resident company of Sadler’s Wells in London), the hour-long piece concludes its month-long Canadian tour in Toronto tonight at Harbourfront Centre: Run to get a ticket.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Toronto’s production of War Horse: Much Spectacle But Not Much Heart

Alex Furber and 'Joey' in Toronto's production of War Horse (Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

Toronto is a theatre town that's used to hoopla, but the first Canadian production of War Horse to hit the city has pulled out all the stops. Opening night, reportedly attended by Canada’s Governor General, was glitzy and glamourous and certainly the cavernous 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre was a perfect venue for this larger-than-life production. And though much of it was impressive and even occasionally awe-inspiring, I’m not sure that the spectacle didn’t overwhelm the human core of the play.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Monroe Mystique: Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
As Meryl Streep went up to collect her golden statue at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, I was one of those she referred to from the stage going, “Oh no, not her again.” The Iron Lady is the insufferably noble Mrs. Miniver returned to us with Greer Garson’s patriotic stoicism repackaged as a modern feminist polemic. Who would have ever guessed that Margaret Thatcher’s life and policies would be seriously perceived as a brave revolt against the male establishment? But that’s how this picture skirts any controversial dramatic take on Thatcher. Just like Patton, four decades ago, The Iron Lady is shrewdly designed with box office consideration to give us a Thatcher that both liberals and conservatives can find acceptable without ever fully delving into the depths of what made her such a divisive figure. As for Streep’s celebrated role as Thatcher, it is so skillfully mannered (with every defiant nuance carefully in place) that her performance becomes as self-righteous as the story. If the rousing sentimentality of Greer Garson’s stiff-upper lip can help countries win wars, I guess Meryl Streep’s grand dame theatrics can win awards.

But Margaret Thatcher at least provides a definitive personality for an actress to play. Imagine the challenge for Michelle Williams who was far more deserving of an award for playing the elusive Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Since Monroe’s sexuality, in screen siren terms, was both passive and polymorphous, no one has ever been able to quite capture her appeal on the screen until now. In her review of Norman Mailer’s 1973 book Marilyn, Pauline Kael accurately described the Monroe mystique this way:

“She would bat her Bambi eyelashes, lick her messy suggestive open mouth, wiggle that pert and tempting bottom, and use her hushed voice to caress us with dizzying innuendos. Her extravagantly ripe body bulging and spilling out of her clothes, she threw herself at us with the off-color innocence of a baby whore. She wasn’t the girl men dreamed of or wanted to know but the girl they wanted to go to bed with.”

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Neglected Gem #10: Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996)

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.

The long-running, bloody Bosnian conflict is the backdrop for this forceful anti-war drama, which opens and closes with newsreel footage of politicians dedicating monuments to friendship among Yugoslavia 's various factions. In each case, the dignitary cutting the ribbon cuts himself instead. That gives an idea of the tone of this cleverly named film, which largely takes place in an abandoned tunnel in which a group of Serbs are besieged by Muslim soldiers. But the movie opens in a hospital ward where the tunnel survivors try to keep their old hatreds alive. It also flashes backward to the pre-war relationship between a Serb named Milan (Dragan Bjelogric) and a Muslim named Halil (Nikola Pejakovic) who later become bitter enemies. With some scenes worthy of Vonnegut at his most hallucinatory, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, ably guided by director Srdjan Dragojevic, barrels its way forward, forcing the audience to pay attention. The film, which won the best film award at the Stockholm fest and was Yugoslavia 's foreign-language Oscar entry, is somewhat clichéd and a little more pro-Serb than necessary, but it packs a genuine punch.

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 just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He is currently teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Runs in the Family: Soulpepper's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night

Gregory Prest, Nancy Palk, Joseph Ziegler & Evan Buliung. Photo: Michael Cooper

Until last week, I had neither seen nor read Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. In fact, going in I knew only four things about it: It is very autobiographical. O'Neill is the basis for the consumptive character, Edmond. He wrote it in 1942 and then expressly forbid it to be published until 25 years after his death (a wish that was, thankfully, broken by his wife – it was first published and performed in 1956, only three years after his death). And it is considered one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language. After seeing Toronto-based Soulpepper Theatre Company's production (onstage February 23rd to March 31st), I understand why.

In 1912, an Irish-American family spend the day together hurling accusations and recriminations at each other as the matriarch, Mary Tyrone (Nancy Palk), slowly spirals back into a morphine-influenced psychosis. The patriarch, James Tyrone (Joseph Ziegler), is a miserly, alcoholic, formerly popular stage actor who regrets the fact he reached for and managed to grab the brass ring of success, a brass ring that became a false god. The eldest son, Jamie (Evan Buliung), follows his father onto the stage where he too achieves a measure of success on Broadway. His self-loathing, which he steeps in a steady supply of booze and whores, comes from the knowledge that whatever success he had was from riding his father's coat tails. The youngest son, Edmund (Gregory Prest), tries and fails to escape it all. He has the soul of a poet and travelled the world in an attempt to find meaning in his existence. For his efforts, he manages to contract tuberculosis and has returned to his parent's home, cap in hand, looking for help to regain his health.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Dangerous Method: Analysis as Comedy

Keira Knightley & Michael Fassbender star in A Dangerous Method

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, psychoanalysis, long a staple of thrillers and drawing-room melodramas, found its way into stage and screen comedy. Not only did we gain admittance into the characters’ conversations with their analysts (the therapy session was almost a staple of Paul Mazursky’s early movies) but the protagonists of movies like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and plays like John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect spoke naturally in the intricate, unshackled language of the analysand, casting their own chaotic lives and messy relationships in Freudian terms. These movies and plays, which simultaneously satirized analysis as self-involved navel gazing and took it seriously, were intended for literate, sophisticated audiences for whom therapy was as much a part of living in experimental times as leftist politics and smoking pot. David Cronenberg’s marvelous A Dangerous Method, which Christopher Hampton adapted from his play The Talking Cure (based on John Kerr’s book The Most Dangerous Method), is the ultimate analysand comedy. It would have to be, since the characters are Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jung’s most infamous patient (and lover) Sabina Spielrein. It’s an ingenious idea: what better subject is there for comedy than the early days of psychology, when the pioneers made up the rules as they went along and violated them at the same time?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Whole Wide World Within the Grooves

By the time I was four, I had developed a promiscuous interest in music. Without understanding the meaning of the first songs I discovered, such as Frankie Laine's romantic confession "Moonlight Gambler," or Marty Robbins' fateful ballad "The Hanging Tree," I was drawn by the unusual texture of the sound in those tunes. Laine, a hyperbolic performer, used a number of strange effects in his song. A high-pitched whistle, drenched in reverb, opened the track. To my young ears that whistle seemed to be signalling forlornly to some distant train arriving into a lonely, abandoned station. It was soon followed by another voice making click-clop noises, as if a majestic horse were coming over the hill to intercept that oncoming train. And all of this was taking place before Frankie Laine opened his mouth to sing. It was clear that I was responding to more than just a song – but instead to a whole other world of sound reverberating around me, creating a spot in my imagination, and inviting me to share in the music's distinctive peculiarities. But these were my parents' and my relatives' records. I didn't really discover rock 'n' roll until my mother's cousin, Jimmy Mahon, came to live with us in 1959.