Saturday, October 5, 2013

No Humans Need Apply: Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said

James Gandolfini & Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

If I believed that the characters in Nicole Holofcener’s comedies – Lovely and Amazing, Please Give, Friends with Money and the new Enough Said – could exist in the real world, then most of them, and especially her heroines, would be high on the list of people I’d cross the street to avoid. They’re glib and whiny, and they exude an unpleasant chill. When Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the masseuse who’s at the center of Enough Said, gushes over the Santa Monica house where her new client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), lives, her face freezes in a phony smile. Yet we’re not supposed to think that Eva is hiding her true feelings in order to secure Marianne’s business; we’re supposed to think she’s sincere. And later when she tries to get her college-bound daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) to cuddle with her – it’s her way of making amends for hurting Ellen’s feelings – the offer feels similarly unconvincing, as if she were putting on a show for Ellen’s benefit. Eva comes across like those women in high comedies who don’t actually touch each other’s cheeks when they kiss, but that’s not the way we’re meant to read her. I don’t think that either the actress or the writer-director has any idea how unappealing she is.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Emotion in Motion: ProArteDanza at Fleck Dance Theatre

Anisa Tejpar, Erin Poole and Tyler Gledhill performing Shifting Silence, for ProArteDanza (Photo: Geneviève Caron)

Funky, fast and fierce, ProArteDanza opens with a bang at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre, affirming its status as one of the most exciting small dance ensembles in the country with a new showcase of original work and hard-core dancing that will have you panting for more.

Three eye-grabbing pieces dominate the approximately 90-minute program, which opened to an enthusiastic crowd on Wednesday night and continues through Saturday. Each is by a choreographer with an association with ProArteDanza (literally, for the art of dance) which was founded in Toronto in 2004 as a vehicle for new creation: Shifting Silence, by company artistic associate Robert Glumbek, is a reprise (and Canadian premiere) of a work the Polish-born dancer and choreographer originally created for Ballett Nationaltheater Mannheim in Germany in 2012. Beethoven’s 9th-3rd Movement is a world premiere created jointly by Glumbek and artistic director Roberto Campanella, while Fractals: a pattern of chaos, the third and final piece, is by guest artist Guillaume Côté, the celebrated National Ballet principal dancer recently appointed to that company’s newly created position of Choreographic Associate in recognition of his burgeoning talent as a choreographer.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Live Wires: Showtime's Masters of Sex

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s Masters of Sex

Michael Sheen doesn’t have the world-beaters’ charisma or the easy, sexy charm that people associate with movie stars. He’s certainly a skillful actor, though, and he’s had the luck to be cast in a string of projects, written by Peter Morgan – Stephen Frears’ The Deal and The Queen, in both of which he portrayed Tony Blair, and as David Frost in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. In both films, Sheen played strivers, men whose sheer ambition helped them overcome their limitations and essential mediocrity. These were important men roles that didn’t call for star magnetism, but instead for an actor’s ability to illuminate what might elevate a man who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd to the top of his field. Sheen has another role like that in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which is the best new TV series of the fall season, by a pretty generous margin.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tick, Tick … BOOM! at Toronto’s Studio Theatre

Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, and Ken Chamberland in Tick, Tick ... BOOM! (Photo by Vincent Perri)

First things first. The production of Tick, Tick … BOOM! currently playing at the Studio Theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts is excellent: fast-paced, funny, energetic, well-staged, well-performed and well-sung. It’s a terrific way to spend an evening.

In broad outline, the story of Tick, Tick … BOOM! is kind of old hat: Young artist suffers for his art, agonizes over his future and his talent – is it all worthwhile? – and then, despite all the obstacles, has a great success. What gives this small musical its special frisson, however, is that it’s pretty much autobiographical, and that the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, is better known as the originator of Rent, the sensational, multi-award-winning rock musical (loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème) that ran on Broadway for more than a decade, toured all over the world, and spawned a pretty good movie musical.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Story with Many Stripes: In Conversation with Publisher Prosper Assouline

Publishers Prosper and Martine Assouline (Photo by Jordan Doner)

At a time when electronic versions of books can be downloaded for free, luxury book publisher Prosper Assouline stays the course by continuing to put out titles on a range of subjects which cost top dollar. “My books are expensive,” he says unapologetically. “People, we have discovered, will pay dearly for a book if it is of top quality and beautiful to look at.” While some of his more exclusive books can cost upwards of thousands of dollars each, one of his latest, a history of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company is a comparative bargain at $65. But while the price might be lower than the $7,000 being charged for Gaia, the Special Edition coffee table book Assouline published in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberté, Hudson’s Bay Company is teeming with text and more than 200 images, making the book, with a forward by Canadian-born Vanity Fair editor in-chief Graydon Carter, feel rich indeed. Art, fashion, the performing arts and architecture tend to make up the bulk of the books the Paris-raised, New York-based Assouline has published since launching Assouline, his boutique company with wife Martine in their native France in 1995. But there’s always room for the eccentric and the extravagant, which the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company epitomizes in being a history of the fur trade and the formation of a Canadian identity. An ebullient man who started as an art director in magazines when he was 16, Assouline spoke with Deirdre Kelly at The Bay’s Queen St. W. flagship store in Toronto at an intimate lunch commemorating the launch of the book, recognizable for the iconic Hudson’s Bay multistripe Point Blanket on the cover. Here is some of their conversation: 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Faraway Places: The Jungle Book & The Blue Dragon

Mary Zimmerman's The Jungle Book

The new stage adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book – presumably bound for Broadway sometime in the future – has been launched at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, which has had a successful relationship with its high-profile director, Mary Zimmerman. (She directed Candide there two years ago as well as two previous productions.) Boston is lucky: the show is spirited, musically exuberant and gorgeous to look at, and children should adore it. As Disney’s 1967 animated feature did, Zimmerman’s adaptation takes considerable liberties with Rudyard Kipling’s stories, which were first published in 1893-94, but the narrative is essentially the same: a pack of wolves adopts a white baby and raises him to become a hybrid – part “man cub,” part jungle creature. Kipling focuses on the boy Mowgli’s coming of age, which prompts a crisis of identity – the wolves don’t want him any longer and he receives a cool reception when he returns to the village where he was born. Zimmerman’s book moves Mowgli back to civilization but deals only superficially with the subject of his mixed heritage. What it borrows from Kipling are the boy’s adventures in the jungle – climaxing in his encounter with the three-legged tiger, Shere Khan (Larry Yando), who has been stalking him since he was a baby – and his friendship with his protector, Bagheera the panther (Usman Ally) and the easygoing Baloo the bear (Kevin Carolan).

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Obsessive-Compulsive: Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon

In Don Jon, writer, director and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a comedy about sex as tightly compartmentalized as the life of its main character. Jon is a New Jersey bartender who takes a different girl home from the club every Saturday night and shows up for Catholic mass with his parents the next morning – the center that holds it all together is the hard-core porn he watches addictively on his computer. There’s something disarming about a movie this willing to be lighthearted about sexual compulsion, but Don Jon is not exactly Portnoy’s Complaint. Gordon-Levitt only shows us the clean surfaces of Jon’s obsessions – we don’t get a peak at the tension or the fear underneath, or even a taste of the pleasure principle that drives them.

I always thought that pornography appealed to people for similar reasons; it indulges the mechanics of sex, its kinks and fetishes and its carnal veneer, but it doesn’t get curious about what gets people into bed together in the first place. There’s nothing particularly subversive about two people fucking. On screen, as in life, eroticism is in the drama of emotional risk. Don Jon opens with a promising romantic comedy mis-en-scène when Jon, disillusioned by one-night stands, tracks down Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman whose refusal to go home with him after an evening of dance floor foreplay makes him think she can supply the depth he’s been missing. Their incompatible sexual fantasies – his based on pornography (which she abhors) and hers on weepy romantic pictures (which he disdains) – is the smartest and funniest idea in the film, but Gordon-Levitt doesn’t follow through on its romantic possibilities; instead he sells out Barbara by turning her into an exploitative prude. When Don Jon turns out to be a small-scale redemption story about a guy who learns to stop jerking off and fall in love – and to give up his porn junkie lifestyle – you realize the movie’s not taking any chances. It gives in to erotic phobias instead of dramatizing them.