Saturday, February 2, 2013

Off the Shelf: James Toback's Tyson (2008)

Boxer Mike Tyson didn’t have the rhythmic swing of Muhammad Ali, or the dazzling force of Joe Frazier – he was instead a powerfully built blunt instrument. But because of that imposing physique, it was assumed by some that Tyson was illiterate, that all he could do was fight. In his documentary film, Tyson, director James Toback (Fingers, Black and White) delivers a surprising and fascinating account of this troubled fighter’s life by allowing Mike Tyson to speak for himself. And it turns out, he is anything but illiterate. For the full length of the movie, Toback simply places Tyson in front of the camera and (with the occasional inclusion of archival footage), we hear the story from this troubled boxer first-hand  Toback's choice of subject is hardly surprising; he has always been something of an enigmatic and unpredictable talent himself. Most of his movies, good (Two Girls and a Guy) and bad (Harvard Man), approach movie-making as if they were tests of character, where his streaks of reckless improvisation could add this element of danger to the dramatic tension in the story. With Tyson, he sublimates his usual improvisational style and lets Mike Tyson seize the moment to nakedly reveal himself.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Kirk Wallander’s Last Hurrah: Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man

"The genre is often misunderstood. It is not just about finding out whodunit, it is about understanding the world through the lens of crime and justice."

- Henning Mankell as reported by Alison Gzowski in The Globe and Mail, March 28, 2011.

Kurt Wallander is a forty-year-old police detective whose personal life is unravelling: his marriage is over; he is estranged from his daughter, Linda, and his visits to his curmudgeonly father, who has never forgiven him for joining the police force, are fraught with tension. Wallander drinks too much, a condition that puts his professional life in jeopardy. His mentor on the police force is dying. Moreover, he is convinced that Sweden is changing for the worse. It is becoming more violent: a group of youths set fire to a refugee camp, a Somali refugee is murdered and an elderly couple is tortured to death. Before the woman dies, she utters one word “foreigner.” Wallander believes that the official asylum policy is a mess as opportunists are conflated with bona fide refugees; the absence of any distinction makes it easier for nationalists and racists to tar all foreigners.

The foregoing is the gist of Faceless Killers, the first of ten Wallander novels (excluding those in which Wallander is a minor character) culminating in The Troubled Man (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) that has deservedly earned vast international critical acclaim and commercial sales. Besides his lucid writing, two reasons may explain why Henning Mankell, particularly his Wallander novels, is the most widely known Swedish writer since August Strindberg. As suggested above, Mankell believes that a once homogeneous society of civic minded citizens, who supported its once humanitarian ideals and progressive social policies, proud of being the moral conscience on the international stage, was disappearing before an increasingly multicultural society in which violent crime had connections with growing globalization and the seismic changes resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

In The White Lioness, the murder of a Swedish woman is linked with killers who were former KGB officers, and South African apartheid supporters are using Wallander’s homeland as a base to prepare for an assassination of Nelson Mandela to incite a civil war in South Africa. Sweden is chosen because as the fascist Boer explains, it “is a neutral insignificant country...[where] the border controls are pretty casual.” (Some of the action occurs in South Africa which Mankell knows well since he divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique where he heads the national theatre.) In The Man Who Smiled, he investigates a powerful businessman, regarded as a pillar of the community, who may be involved in the transplant of body organs from individuals specifically killed for that purpose. No wonder in One Step Behind, Wallander muses: “Irrational violence was almost an accepted part of daily life these days….Bosnia had always seemed so far away, he thought. But maybe it was closer than they realized.” Mankell is superb in the manner with which he demythologizes Sweden, the benign liberal country.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

That's a Wrap: The Past and Present State of Post-Apocalyptic Cinema

Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth (1985)

Last month, Turner Classic Movies – after almost 19 years on the air, still the best friend a movie freak with a cable box has ever had – had a witty idea for breaking up its holiday schedule of shoving candy canes into viewers’ stockings. On December 21, 2012, the date enshrined in urban myth as the Day of Judgment as predicted by the Mayan calendar, TCM filled its daytime schedule with movies about the threat of the end of the world, or its aftermath. Watching a slew of them served to underline how much the post-apocalypse genre has changed since it ceased to be a vehicle to address nuclear anxieties. Post-apocalyptic films and TV shows now have an angry, fatalistic, nihilist attitude, with costume and set designs out of a survivalist training manual. That may sound like a no-brainer, but during the Cold War, post-apocalyptic science fiction was largely a humanistic genre. The end of the world isn’t what it used to be.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love in Excess: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley stars in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

If you’d asked me last year which contemporary director I’d most like to see adapt Anna Karenina, I would have named Joe Wright. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies and directed the majestic BBC miniseries of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, would have been a close second. Yates has a magical feel for the epic scope of Victorian fiction – a quality he excavates out of J.K. Rowling’s already Dickensian material – and perhaps more than any other recent director he has succeeded in transmuting the addictive pacing of the capacious novel form to the seriality of television and the film series, capturing the velocity of the novels rather than trying to outdo them. But it’s Wright’s films that distill and remediate the pleasure that novel reading can give us. In Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), the experience of reading as both subject and visual motif suffuses the movies with a gently expressive awareness of the translation from page to screen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Welcome to Utopia

Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde, in Channel 4's Utopia

A mysterious and possibly prophetic graphic novel, two brightly-dressed killers armed with small gas canisters and bottles of bleach, the suggestion of an ever-diminishing global food supply, four unlikely allies thrust into a worldwide conspiracy because of an online comic book forum: welcome to Channel 4’s Utopia – a pre-apocalyptic conspiracy thriller from the pen of playwright and TV writer Dennis Kelly.

Writing about television comes with its own unique challenges: the best TV shows tell long, even open-ended stories, and it is often difficult to assess them while they’re still in progress.  As I sit down to write this, I’m still questioning whether it would perhaps be better to wait until Utopia’s full season has played out in its entirety. (It’s now aired only two of its promised six episodes, after all.) Waiting however comes with its own risks: I already regret, for example, not writing immediately about the first episode of ABC’s now-cancelled Last Resort. (To be candid, I have also regretted weighing in too soon. See A Gifted Man, where almost everything that was so impressed me in the pilot episode made the series frustrating and tedious by the middle of its first, and thankfully only, season.) Sometimes, as with Last Resort, a first episode is so unprecedented, so “fall off your seat” shocking, that you can’t stop talking about for the rest of the week. Visually arresting, unrepentantly violent, and darkly funny, Utopia is like nothing else currently on television. From its opening scene, you already know you’re seeing something entirely new.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Marry Me a Little: The Sondheim Jukebox Musical

Phil Tayler and Erica Spyres in Marry Me A Little at the New Repertory Theatre (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)

A jukebox musical is constructed around the pre-existing catalogue of a composer or a songwriting team or a musical group. The English phenomenon Mamma Mia! popularized the genre – and it remains the prime example of all that’s wrong with it. The plot, a loose reimagining of an Eduardo De Filippo comedy that also had a brief life as an Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane Broadway musical called Carmelina, is gathered around hit songs by the rock group ABBA; you could say the songs are thumbtacks holding up the story. But since they weren’t written to express the emotions of the characters or to define them – the two main purposes of songs in a conventional musical – the show lurches every time it comes to a stop at a number because the lyrics don’t really fit the dramatic situation. For that reason the most successful jukebox musicals are revues like Smoky Joe’s Café (which features the songs of Leiber and Stoller), where the book doesn’t have to justify the songs. (Jersey Boys has mistakenly been called a juxebox musical; in fact, it’s a particularly uninspired version of the musical biography that we’re familiar with mostly through movies like Lady Sings the Blues, The Buddy Holly Story and Ray. Musical bios are backstage musicals – that is, the songs are performed by characters who are professional musicians, so they aren’t meant to stylize the feelings of those characters.)

The little-known 1981 Marry Me a Little is the earliest jukebox musical I’m aware of, and its musical selection is unorthodox. So is its form: it’s a revue with a narrative; that is, there’s no dialogue. (You might also call it a through-sung jukebox musical.) Craig Lucas and Norman René raided Stephen Sondheim’s songbook for obscure tunes that had been cut from his shows or that he’d written for projects that never got off the ground, and split them between two characters (played by Lucas and Suzanne Henry) exploring their mostly romantic feelings as they sit alone in their separate Manhattan apartments. Revived off Broadway last fall with one new addition to the score – “Rainbows,” which Sondheim wrote for an intended movie version of Into the WoodsMarry Me a Little no longer had the cachet of bringing to light unknown Sondheim songs, since so many have been recorded since and included in revues; it’s safe to say that no musical theatre composer’s oeuvre has been so thoroughly mined for hidden treasures since Cole Porter’s or George Gershwin’s. And “Happily Ever After,” one of Sondheim’s two discarded efforts to find a finale for Company before he hit on “Being Alive” (the other being “Marry Me a Little”), has been restored to the score in recent revivals.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inspired Flight: Cylla von Tiedemann's What Dances in Between

Fire Bird, by Cylla von Tiedemann (Ink Jet Print, 2012, 22” X 33” Dancer’s name: Anastasia Shivrina)

What Dances in Between, the title given to Toronto-based photographer Cylla von Tiedemann’s exhibition of dance images at the Al Green Gallery through February 9, captures the essence of the quasi-retrospective as having no strict beginning or end: a creative journey that, like the dancers in her kinetically charged photographs, is caught in mid-flight.

In this presentation of both old and new images – 55 in total dating from the mid-1980s to the present day – the German-born von Tiedemann, a recipient of a Canada Council-issued Jacqueline Lemieux Prize for her contribution to dance in Canada, appears herself as an artist in flux. The work ranges from photography created from film and assiduously applied dark room techniques to imaginative experiments with digital photography and image manipulation using collage. One wall of the show which opened January 10 shows the now 59-year old photographer more recently pirouetting back to her roots, shooting dancers again with film in the outdoors. The energetic Fire Bird, a 2012 ink jet print showing the dancer Anastasia Shivrina looking as if she is leaping into the branches of a tree, is one of the most recent photographs in the show – a dancer, befitting the context of this show, captured between earth and sky.

Photographer Cylla von Tiedemann
Shooting dancers beyond the artificial setting of a theatre or studio is challenging because the backdrop itself becomes a moving target, changing focus and direction depending on shifting weather patterns and the transition of day into night. The resulting images represent a balancing act combining inspiration and a mastery of technique, two distinct prongs of the artistic process which this show, in its entirety, has brought to together in the work of a particular artist.