Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Boston Phoenix Remembered

The Boston Phoenix folded four and a half months ago, not quite half a century after it began as two separate publications, The Phoenix and Boston After Dark. (They merged in 1972.) It was one of the few remnants of the age into which it had been born, when arts criticism was completely separate from celebrity journalism – when most critics would have been insulted by the comparison – and young reviewers, working for meager paychecks, were struggling to find ways to talk about the exciting new developments in the arts, especially movies and the newest kid on the block, rock ‘n’ roll. Significantly, the Phoenix went into publication around the same time as Rolling Stone, and many of the early writers published simultaneously in both venues.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Hovering Dream: The Mark Morris Dance Group in Toronto

Mark Morris Dance Group performing L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Photo by Ken Friedman.)

Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Dance Group closed the 2013 edition of Toronto’s Luminato Festival last weekend with a bang. The 20-member company performed the Canadian debut of one its signature works, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, set to the eponymous George Frideric Handel oratorio. On this occasion, it was played live by Toronto’s baroque orchestra and chamber choir, Tafelmusik, and conducted by Jane Glover with soloists Karina Gauvin, Shannon Mercer, Thomas Cooley and Douglas Williams gorgeously singing the set of odes by English poet, John Milton.

Recognized as one of the greatest American choreographers of the late 20th century, Morris is inspired by music, first. To have at his disposal an orchestra of such a high calibre, every inch as committed to the music at hand as he is, produced fireworks. The audience at Toronto’s Sony Centre jumped to its feet following the first of three shows which commenced last Friday night. As the crowd dispersed into the night, people could be heard exclaiming how moved they were. (The words “beautiful” and “spectacular” hung in the air.) Morris, who took a curtain bow with his dancers, grinning from ear to bearded ear, dressed in sandals, a long scarf and flowing white shirt with pants, was likely not surprised. Since its debut in 1988 as a sprawling, epic-style work performed in bare feet which he created when he was a 32-year-old dance director of Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has risen to among the top of the heap of original dance creations. The work is a modern masterpiece.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Everybody's Talkin': We Steal Secrets

The prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has done his best work when—as with Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—he’s had a morally uncomplicated story that moves in a straight line, and the sources, in the form of interview subjects, to supply fresh details about it. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines movie made newly relevant thanks to the adventures of Edward Snowden, is about how a few courageous truth-tellers and whistleblowers risked their own freedom, and maybe even their lives, to strike a much-needed blow against the security state. Or maybe it’s about how a vain, showboating egomaniac, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and a miserably alienated Army private with gender-confusion issues, Bradley Manning, upended the workings of government and possibly endangered lives, just to make themselves feel important and take a measure of revenge against a world that had never made them feel welcome.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Pull of Family, The Duties of Faith: Fill the Void

Irit Sheleg, Hadas Yaron and Chaim Sharir in Fill the Void

Even though Israeli politics and society is increasingly being affected by the growing number of ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jews in the country, its cinema has only recently begun to deal with the often contentious and contradictory aspects of Orthodox Judaism there in a complex, nuanced way. Ironically, the first Israeli film that called attention to Haredi realities in Israel was Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999), a portrait of two Orthodox Jewish women stifling in the patriarchal excesses of their religion. While it’s Gitai’s only good film, as his customary claustrophobic style fits the material to a T, it is highly critical of Orthodoxy and, more significantly, was lambasted for inaccuracies in its depiction of Orthodox Jewish life. (I’m a secular Jew so I can’t attest to that.)

More recently, Israeli films on Haredim and orthodoxy have balanced criticism of Orthodox intolerance (Avanim, 2004) with serious examinations of deep faith and its moral challenges (My Father, My Lord, 2007). Other films, notably those by Joseph Cedar, an Orthodox Israeli film director, have tried to get at the way Orthodox Jewish actions can potentially, even dangerously impact upon outside secular Jewish society (Time of Favor, 2000), or have looked at how internal Orthodox Jewish life in the settlements (Campfire, 2004) affects those who actually choose to live there. And some satirical films,  like The Schwartz Dynasty (2005), cast a wide net over all of the disparate strands of Israeli Orthodox Jewish life, from how to determine if a deceased Jew is actually Jewish before he can be buried in a Jewish cemetery – many Russian Jews who have moved to Israel cannot prove their parentage – to the vigilantism some Orthodox Jews engage in when they object to butcher shops selling pork and other non-kosher meat. The latest Israeli film to deal with Orthodox Jews in Israel, Rama Burshtein's award winning and fascinating Fill the Void (2012), like 2004’s Ushpizin, comes from within the religious community, directed by an Orthodox Jewish woman and blessed by her rabbi, no less.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Thing of Wonder: National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program

The National Ballet of Canada performing George Balanchine's Theme and Variations.

It’s not every day you get a news hook attached to your dance review. But here you go, and hot off the presses: National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Guillaume Côté has just been appointed to the newly created position of choreographic associate, the company announced Sunday following the final performance of his No. 24, an eight-minute pas de deux performed to a live accompaniment of Niccoló Paganini’s virtuosic violin solo, Caprice 24.

No. 24, which was performed by three separate casts over a five-day run, was one of three works on the Mixed Program which opened last week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The other works were Jorma Elo’s Pur Ti Miro, a revival of the work which the Finnish choreographer first created on the National Ballet dancers in 2010; James Kudelka’s decidedly unballetic but indisputably powerful The Man in Black, inspired by an unusual series of hurtin’ songs by the late Johnny Cash; and, for the glittering finalé (and that is meant literally given the the abundance of faux diamonds which lent sparkle to the ballerinas’ necks and ear lobes), George Balanchine’s 1947 neo-classical masterpiece, Theme and Variations.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tragic Heroes: Othello and Hamlet

A scene from Nicholas Hytner’s Othello, (Photo: John Persson)

Starring Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, Nicholas Hytner’s brilliant new Othello – his swan song as artistic director of the National Theatre – is set in a contemporary Middle East war zone. Shakespeare wrote the Moor as a general in the Venetian army who brings his bride, Desdemona, to Cyprus during wartime, but he routs the Turks at the top of the second act and we barely hear another word about the conflict. (He remains in Cyprus with his troops to maintain the peace.) It’s significant that Othello is a triumphant warrior; it explains the respect he has been accorded by the Venetian senate in spite of his race. And his friendships with Iago and Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) derive from their shared careers: Iago is Othello’s ensign, Cassio his newly appointed lieutenant – an appointment that rankles with Iago, who thinks he should have been awarded the post. In Hytner’s version we’re reminded constantly that we’re on a military outpost. Once we leave Venice, Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set stays firmly within the barracks, with its concrete walls, its chain-link fence, its ugly, utilitarian, sparsely furnished offices and bedrooms, shifting from one locale to the next with militaristic precision. (She manages the remarkable feat of making the immense stage of the Olivier Theatre feel claustrophobic.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dead Man Talking: The Films of Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano
Over the last thirty years, Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano has had an illustrious career directing and starring in comically violent gangster melodramas, such as the international hits Sonatine (1993), Hana-Bi (1997) and Outrage (2010). With a sense of humour as stoic as that of a statue, Kitano carved out for himself a deadpan action figure who's bemused by the utterly chaotic world around him. He also packs into his characters plenty of that Clint Eastwood character armour while adding a pinch of Charles Bronson's rugged muscularity. (His inexpressiveness is so imposing that when he speaks it's as if those taut muscles have created logjam in his throat.) But Kitano's impersonal and non-communicative qualities aren't just part of the current chic of being cool and ironically detached. There's also something rather maudlin at work in this facade. Likewise, his brutality isn't an expression of latent, unexplored psychopathic tendencies; it supposedly comes from some deeper, nobler place. He might shoot, maim and kill – but that's okay, because he's acting for the love of a dying woman (Hana-Bi), or the honour of a good friend (Violent Cop). His 2000 comedy, Kikujiro, has been described as a departure from the earlier mold. Well, it is, and it isn't.