Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Uneasy Mix: Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone

Note: The following contains spoilers.

Here’s the thing. Any premise involving matters of the heart that pops up in a French film is automatically believable simply because the French never, or almost never, cop out when it comes to purveying honest, adult emotions on screen. So in that vein, the love affair between Ali, a rough hewn boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie, a troubled, angry woman (Marion Cotillard) who has lost her legs in a tragic accident in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) is utterly authentic, even when he's fucking her sans her prosthetics. In any other movie, and particularly an American one, The Sessions excepting, that type of scene would likely come across as awkwardly staged, self-conscious, even risible, but in Rust and Bone, those scenes have both a surprising gentleness and a distinct erotic charge. The problem is that the rest of the film’s plot threads don’t tie up with this one. Rust and Bone is an admirably ambitious movie that, outside of its leads' story, simply doesn’t hold together. It’s an uneasy mix of the tough and tender.

Friday, December 28, 2012

American Actor: Interview with Devin McKinney (The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda)

Critical biographies today either get caught up in tabloid prurience, create academic labyrinths rather than clear thinking, or trade in simple details and facts rather than drama and insight. Against that tide comes Devin McKinney's highly readable and imaginative biography of actor Henry Fonda, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martins Press, 2012). McKinney already wrote the best book on The Beatles (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and Memory, Harvard University Press, 2003) and this new work shares with that one a lyrical strength that allows his probing perceptions to take flight. McKinney has a gift for creating his own magic circles with the kind of prose that illuminates Fonda's work. He does that by taking us, with poetic precision, inside the varied characters Fonda played while simultaneously examining how he became part of the larger American imagination. Each chapter delicately weaves the dark shadows of his personal life into the iconic parts Fonda created. "Fonda becomes the body and voice of a satisfied man's paranoia, the good man's bad urge, the hero's despairing shade, and the patriot's doubting conscience," McKinney writes. "In him and through him, the hidden becomes visible, specters are raised, and shadows begin to move on their own."

Those shadows that move on their own include memorable roles in unforgettable pictures like You Only Live Once (1937), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Wrong Man (1956) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), where Fonda revealed a man whose conflicts "made him a vital artist and emotional mystery...[who] pulled off the amazing feat of being not only what he appeared to be but also what he didn't appear to be." For McKinney, Fonda's sense of solitude, the darker, haunted and isolated American behind the mask of eternal optimism, was "deep and his style glamorous enough to constitute one ideal of the American character." Audiences could embrace that ideal because "it was strong, appealing, and reducible to its most favorable qualities."

Devin McKinney. (Photo: Joe Mabel.)

McKinney's writing on Fonda's acting is also assured and sharp, a quality missing in most film criticism now where the importance of acting in a picture takes second place to the enshrining of the film director, as in the tidy elegance of his description of Fonda's marvellous work in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve. Fonda plays Charles "Hopsie" Pike, a student of snakes but a neophyte in the study of sex, who gets undone and turned on by the sexiest card sharp played by Barbara Stanwyck. "From his first appearance in white dinner jacket, we sense we're watching not a new Fonda, but a Fonda detailed and sharpened, made comedically exact and brought newly alive," McKinney writes. "He is beautiful as he sits and reads his book, with humor in his beauty, precision in the lines of his body... His face is magnificently solemn, impervious to the flutterings of the avaricious debs at surrounding tables, sweet predators who want his body, his money, his mouth, and perhaps even a bit of his strange, private mind."

Devin McKinney and I spoke recently from his home in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flamboyant Disreputability: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which is set before the American Civil War and stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave who strikes up a partnership with a dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz), has been called a “spaghetti Western,” both by Tarantino (when it was still in the planning stages) and by those (such as Spike Lee) who have publicly disparaged it as “disrespectful” to the memory of those who were caught under slavery’s boot heel. It says something about the disconnect between the two camps that they’re using that term at all. In the ‘60s, American film writers who described the operatically violent Westerns shot (often in Spain) by Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as “spaghetti Westerns” were being derisive towards a subgenre that was widely seen as decadent, shoddy, and, oh yeah, disrespectful towards the proper, legendary West of John Ford, John Wayne, and Gunsmoke.

In recent years, critics who have re-evaluated and upgraded the work of Leone and other filmmakers who worked in the genre have largely abandoned the term in favor of the more staid label “Italian Western.” As a movie addict with a voracious appetite and encyclopedic (but non-judgemental) attitude towards popular culture, Tarantino still uses it. He appreciates it for the way it instantly telegraphs the look and feel of a hallucinatory, overheated world fueled by sadism and blood revenge, with violent rituals enacted by characters in period costume accompanied by the sound of psychedelic electric guitars. Lee, a self-styled provocateur, but one who plays by the establishment’s rules – his idea of a bold gesture is a three-hour, $30 million biopic, sanctified by the onscreen presence of Nelson Mandela, depicting a controversial and divisive figure from recent American history as a black saint – hears the term “spaghetti Western” in reference to a movie with an ex-slave hero, and can’t imagine how that combination can be anything but a dance on Harriet Tubman’s grave.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From Ballet to Bharatanatyam: Dance in Toronto Breaks New Ground in 2012

Piotr Stanczyk in Hamlet at the National Ballet of Canada (Photo: Corbin Smith)

With the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world, 2012 was a year tinged with doomsday prophecies if not apocalyptic visions. But in dance, the zeitgeist was reversed. Instead of calling it quits, artists whose métier is choreographed movement instead ushered in a new era of renewal, presenting dance pieces that pushed forward into new directions. This feeling of regeneration was wide-spread, affecting a diversity of genre from ballet in the West to bharatanatyam in the East, all traditions re-considered and re-calibrated to make them more relevant and reflective of the times. Accepted notions of beauty were also re-investigated and re-invigorated, with some dance artists exploring the beast within as a way of unbalancing the audience, stripping away complacency, in presenting dance as a conduit for exploring the human condition. This transformational trend in dance was global but proponents of it reached Canada as a result of inspired artistic directors at the helm of the country’s leading and experimental dance troupes. looking to rejuvenate the domestic dance scene with work signalling, if not the end of dance as we have come to know it, then certainly its rebirth. Among them was Karen Kain who, as head of the National Ballet of Canada, this year ushered in the North American premiere of Hamlet by Ballett Mannheim artistic director Kevin O’Day – a dark and difficult and occasionally obtuse work that pushed both the ballet dancers and their audience members to the far-most edges of their comfort zone. For that, Canada’s former prima ballerina needs to be applauded. In adding non-traditional ballets to her company’s roster, Kain is helping to strengthen the dramatic, emotional and technical range of her dancers. Composer John King's electro score is largely improvised, forcing the dancers constantly to be on edge. No two performances are alike as a result of the dancers having to adapt the choreography to suit the music on a given night. There's nothing safe or predictable about it, for neither spectator or performer. And yet the NBOC took to it well, seamlessly holding together the fragments. Dancers include principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk, alternating with Guillaume Côté and Naoya Ebe in the eponymous role of the Shakespearean prince immobilized by analyzing situations he instead needed to act upon, performed acrobatic stunts on one hand but also soft shoe shuffles as part of his character’s schizophrenic relationship with both himself and his dysfunctional society. Stancyzk’s Ophelia was Sonia Rodriguez. 2012 was Rodriguez’s season to shine. Besides garnering standing ovations for her role in Hamlet, the wife of Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning, a working mother of two, went from strength to strength in the company’s revival of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which she played the female lead. She rounded out the season getting a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. The ballerina is back, but as new and revitalized artist. (See also my book!)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day & more

Led Zeppelin at O2 Arena in 2007 (Photo by Ross Halfin)

A long time ago, when giants walked the earth, there was a rock and roll outfit called The Yardbirds.  They hailed from England (London, in particular), as did most of the giants. They were Keith Relf, blond and good-looking, who sang and played harmonica; Paul Samwell-Smith bassist; Chris Dreja rhythm guitar; and Jim McCarty drummer.  Their lead guitarist was named Tony “Top” Topham.  Nobody paid much attention to these Yardbirds until Topham went back to school and was replaced by Eric Clapton.  You will have heard the name.  But the story is just beginning.  Clapton didn’t like the ‘pop’ direction his band-mates were taking (he was a bluesman), so he left for bluer pastures and along came Jeff Beck.  It was these Yardbirds I first spied on television blasting their way through “I’m a Man”.  I had to own that record, and rushed out the very next day to buy the single.  Seventy-seven cents for two songs.  An extraordinary deal!  But the story continues.  A second lead guitarist was brought in, to complement Jeff’s other-worldly solos: Jimmy Page, session-man extraordinaire who had played on so many successful British recordings he can’t remember the number. Paul Samwell-Smith retired to a production career. Chris Dreja took up the bass.  Jeff Beck felt crowded, and left. These Yardbirds recorded another ‘pop’ album and then Keith Relf decided to play folk music.  Management tried to rebuild The New Yardbirds didn’t really happen, but Jimmy Page found a new gang: John Bonham on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and a blond and good-looking singer named Robert Plant.  Led Zeppelin was born.  And the world has never been the same.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Misérables: Blockheaded Blockbuster

Isabelle Allen and Hugh Jackman in Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, now in theatres

Les Misérables is one of those blockbuster musicals that has never received or needed critical approval, like Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia! and the entire oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The same can be said of a handful of American musicals, most recently Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but mostly it’s a European-import phenomenon. By the time Les Mis began its first Broadway run twenty-five years ago, its effect was a bifurcation of the musical genre into shows – a handful every season – that essentially perpetuate the traditions of the Broadway musical and those, like those listed above, that target tourists, groups and devoted repeat attenders. If you score with that sort of hit, critics are extraneous. I saw Spider-Man early in its notorious preview run, while Julie Taymor was still associated with it, and the immense theatre that housed it was packed to the gills with kids in Spider-Man costumes chaperoned by their parents. A couple of the cast members had already sustained injuries, the show had become simultaneously a scandal and a media joke, but it was clear that no matter how long it stayed in previews (months, as it turned out) and how dreadful the reviews would be (pretty dreadful), parents would continue to truck in from the suburbs or from out of town with their eager offspring and keep the musical running at capacity.

I’ve seen some of these shows out of some combination of professional obligation and curiosity (I skipped Miss Saigon and I just can’t get myself to one of Webber’s shows, because the music drives me insane) – including Les Mis, which I checked out during the first of its national tours. (It’s been in revival so often, and there have been so many national tours, that it feels like the show has been running non-stop for a quarter of a century.) I ducked out at intermission, which came after nearly two hours; I felt I’d got my money’s worth. The Trevor Nunn staging was impressive: he worked ingeniously against the revolve and some of the stage pictures were nifty. But except for the “Master of the House” number, performed by the innkeeper Thénardier, all of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music blended together into The Ballad or The March, and by ten p.m. I figured I’d heard plenty. I confess I’ve never been a fan of the material anyway. A friend once assured me that, as a lover of Dickens, I’d be sure to respond to Victor Hugo, but I tried the novel twice and couldn’t get very far; I felt oppressed by the layers of banal detail. Nonetheless, historically it’s an important work because it embodies the elements of Romanticism. It has an outlaw hero: Jean Valjean, who goes to prison for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his nephew from starving and who is dogged by the intractable Inspector Javert for breaking his parole. Its sympathies are populist, it’s loaded with melodramatic plot twists, and it’s set against the teeming background of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. And with all that spectacle and all those characters in high dudgeon, it’s been a favorite of moviemakers: Tom Hooper’s new movie of the musical marks the eighth film version. (Half have been in French, half in English.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best in Music for 2012

Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney perform at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief

For me, this past year in music marked the last stand for the old guard of rock ‘n roll, the consistency of pop and the evolving world of jazz. The old guard for the 12-12-12 benefit concert where Mick Jagger exclaimed “This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled,” signified the so-called staying power of The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and The Who whose connection with the victims of Hurricane Sandy was as thin as Chinese paper. Even though they played well, I was struck by how disconnected their music was from the event. For instance, it was a rather poor choice for McCartney to include a full-on, pyrotechnical presentation of “Live and Let Die” to an audience who just came through a devastating natural disaster. But that didn’t seem to bother the 40-plus-years-of-age audience or deter people from donating their hard earned money.

Pop music continued on its merry way with Canadian’s Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber racing up the single’s charts. Yet the big seller of 2012 was Gotye’s “Someone That I Used To Know” which spent 24 weeks in the Billboard Top 10. Maroon 5, Fun and Rhiana also made some noise, but this year didn’t have the standout voice of Adele until the end of the year when she released the James Bond movie song, “Skyfall.”

Jazz still lingered large in 2012 with significant records from Ravi Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling who are now becoming the seasoned veterans of the new generation of younger musicians. Students! The faculty is in great form.

Finally, 2012 saw the passing of one of pop’s biggest stars, Whitney Houston, someone who could hold a candle to the fabulous Etta James (she died in January). But we also lost Dave Brubeck, Johnny Otis and Ravi Shankar, Doc Watson and the late-great Levon Helm: musicians who invested their lives in an art form of which we are all the more richer.

The albums I've listed below stood out for interpretation, sound quality, thoughtfulness and the element of surprise. All of them have been previously reviewed in Critics At Large: