Saturday, March 31, 2012

Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and Bent: Comedy is Alive and Well in the Midseason

Krysten Ritter and James Van Der Beek in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

With the television season running year-round these days, the midseason is no longer the networks’ dumping ground for shows not strong enough to make the cut in the fall. Today I’m looking at two new, but very different comedies which more than prove the point that great television doesn’t always begin in September. (Let’s not forget that Parks and Recreation and even All in the Family were midseason replacements when they were first launched!) ABC’s Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 will premiere on April 11, and NBC’s Bent is already more than halfway through its short, six-episode freshman season.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Of Culture, High and Low – Footnote and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba in Footnote

It may seem like an unusual subject for a movie, but it’s apt that Joseph Cedar’s Israeli film Footnote – a provocative story of a father and son who are both scholars – deals with the specifics of academia and the vagaries of scholarship, since Israel is one country that values higher education, so much so that it punches above its weight when it comes to winning Nobel Prizes and the like. Footnote is also one of the more welcome Israeli features since it offers up a nuanced view of a country that is the sum of more than the divisive politics and tensions that seem to solely define it in most mainstream media coverage of the region.

Footnote, which swept Israel's top film awards (The Ophirs), garnered an Oscar nomination for best Foreign-language film, and won Best Screenplay at Cannes, also marks a maturation of Cedar’s talents. It is his most compelling, original and best-made movie yet, albeit one that falls short of the finest recent Israeli cinema. An Orthodox Jew, a rarity among the mostly secular filmmakers in Israel, Cedar began his career delving into the religious underpinnings of Israeli society. His debut movie Time of Favor (2000) was a slick but interesting thriller about a religious Jewish plot to blow up The Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, and the charismatic rabbi (Assi Dayan) whose sermons inadvertently inspired some of his more diligent students to interpret his words as a literal call to arms. Campfire (2004), based on Cedar’s time living in a religious settlement, was a choppy but fascinating look at the unique Jews who populate such places, seen through the eyes of a widow and her two young daughters who join a West Bank settlement. Beaufort (2007) was a powerful though admittedly familiar tale of an Israel Defense Forces unit about to vacate the high ground of a hard-won battle to capture a Crusader castle, a symbol of Israel’s ultimately futile invasion of Lebanon. Footnote (2011) goes further afield; it’s a drama that, though it deals with Talmudic discourse, is neither concerned with religion nor conflict, except through the passive aggressive one playing out between father and son.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Our Waking Dreams: Movies in the Digital World (Hugo, The Artist, & The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

While watching the Academy Awards this year, I was struck by an ongoing motif that seemed to run throughout the evening. Often it was impacted in the periodic jokes of host Billy Crystal, but I could also detect it in the asides by various presenters. There was a constant reference to the early origins of cinema being made just when technology has dramatically transformed the art form – and continues to do so at warp speed. Not only could a viewer detect some concern over whether the technology would come to diminish the quality of the dramatic material, the nominated movies seemed to embody the very argument that was at the heart of the show.

When I was growing up the only way you could watch movies was when they opened in theatres. Movies on television were limited then and they were often burdened by commercials. The limited window of opportunity that theatres offered you to see the picture was partly what built your enthusiasm and anticipation in going to the movies. If the picture was really good, you feared that once it abandoned the movie house you might never get to experience it again. (Part of what got me interested in collecting movie soundtracks was so I could listen to the dramatic score and evoke my favourite scenes from the film.) It was also true that when you saw something really bad, you got worried it might disappear from your city before you had a chance to try it again to test your first reaction to it. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taking Wing: The Seagull at the National Ballet of Canada

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in The Seagull. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Think of The Seagull and the fowl metaphors immediately take flight. So let’s just give into them in describing a ballet that soars as a result of choreography that wings through time and dancers who so completely inhabit their characters they end up nesting inside the imagination, hatching ideas, feelings, and all sorts of artistic pleasure: A rare and beautiful bird.

Although I have not seen a fraction of the more than 200 ballets that the American-born choreographer John Neumeier has created since becoming director of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973,  I think this full-evening, two-act work has to count as among his best works.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fighting Ageing Every Step of the Way: Ben Babchishin's Short Videos on Music and Ageing

Bill Bourne, in a scene from For the Record Featuring… Bill Bourne.

I first came across the filmmaker Ben Babchishin on the Internet. It’s complicated. Master folk muscian Bill Bourne was playing in town at The Pearl Company and I had agreed to go to see him. That day my wife was out of town, so when I got home from work I took her car to run a couple errands. I drove up to the used CD shop in town to pick up something I had ordered, and as I turned left I was t-boned by a teenaged girl who was late for work. “Don’t call the police,” she begged. It was her second accident in a month. As I looked at my wife’s car, the rear passenger door bent neatly in half, I was glad not to be hurt, but wondered how I would ever explain this. The car and I limped home; I spent 2 hours on the phone with insurance companies, and thought … I’m not going out tonight. Then I decided that music might be healing, and took my car to The Pearl Company. My ride there was tentative, every intersection a challenge … but by the end to the night, Bourne and his band had cheered me up. My wife’s car was still a mess when I got home.

I was taken by Bourne, bought his Bluesland CD, and found it enjoyable. I was searching for the name of his guitar player on the Internet when I discovered a DVD called For the Record Featuring … Bill Bourne. I contacted the site, and quickly had a reply from Ben Babchishin, the filmmaker. He offered to send me a copy. He asked me about other music I liked. He told me about another film he’d made for Bravo TV, Mae Moore & Lester Quitzau: In Their Own Backyard. When I told him that I knew about Quitzau and Moore he said he would send that film too. He told me about some of the roadblocks he encountered too. When he suggested to the producers at Bravo he wanted to do a documentary on Valdy, they had replied, “Unhunh … who’s Valdy?”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Animal Crackers: Hijinks

The cast of Animal Crackers with Mark Bedard (centre). Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Animal Crackers is scrappy but entertaining, and it’s fun to be reminded not only of the early days of the Marx Brothers but also of the freewheeling (and almost free-form) flapdoodle musical comedies of the 1920s. Animal Crackers opened on Broadway in 1928, before the Depression altered the style of the musical, seeding in elements of satire, urban sophistication and bittersweet elegance. It was written by two of the most skillful purveyors of loony-bin wisecrackery, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and no doubt it was rewritten many times in rehearsal to accommodate the Marxes’ improvisations. Marx aficionados know thick swatches of the dialogue by heart – most of it made it into the 1930 movie version, where it’s played at a dizzying speed that offsets the early-talkie staginess. (The Marxes’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, also began as a Broadway show.) What gets sacrificed in the Paramount version are the secondary romantic couple – no great loss – and most of the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs. The OSF production, which was directed by Allison Narver, not only restores them but tosses in a few others, like “Three Little Words” (one of the best known of their songs, and the title of the M-G-M musical bio with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton as the two tunesmiths) and “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Cabaret of Emotion: Ndidi Onukwulu's Escape

The Vancouver songstress Ndidi Onukwulu (pronounced In-DEE-dee On-noo-KWOO-loo) integrates jazz, rhythm and blues, world, folk, and bluegrass – to name a few genres – into a sound that is silky and soulful, whimsical and relevant. You just have to picture a young Billie Holiday crossed with Cat Power. Escape (Emarcy/Universal Music) is her third album following up on the successful No I Never (Festival Distribution, 2008) and Contradictor (Outside Music, 2008). Recorded and released in France in 2011, Escape arrived on our shores last winter and offers listeners a continuation of Onukwulu’s natural niche for song. But this time with a more polished, mature, and even French togetherness.