Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best in Music 2014

Rosanne Cash's album The River & the Thread is on John Corcelli's 'Best of' list for 2014 (Photo by Stephen Lovekin)

I’m always impressed by the love and passion other people have for music, usually matched by my own. Time to share! So, here are some of my most notable music moments in 2014.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Middle Earth Mêlée – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Nearly all the film analysts here at Critics at Large have taken a crack at the second of Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogies centering around Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his colourful, high-energy adventure through Middle Earth to The Lonely Mountain (and back again). While my colleagues have enjoyed the movies overall, they've rightly censured the films for the flatness and protraction of their battle sequences, their over-reliance on CGI and technical gimmickry, and the folly of trying to stretch a small adventure novel into a blockbuster trilogy. Peter Jackson's hardly a perfect filmmaker, and one could argue that this latest trilogy of bloated epics is the least worthy of his works (although I would hope that those who’ve seen The Lovely Bones would beg to differ). I don't think many of these directorial choices are necessarily good ones, but as a filmgoer and (an admittedly rabid) franchise fan I must take what I'm given. So: how well does The Battle of Five Armies do what it sets out to do?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Musicals: Into the Woods and Annie

Meryl Streep and Mackenzie Mauzy in Into the Woods

Rob Marshall’s new movie of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Into the Woods has an insurmountable problem: the show it’s based on. The appeal of this musical, which mixes several fairy tales, has always eluded me. It contains an ingenious opening number in which Sondheim sets all the narratives in motion, and a couple of other songs (Cinderella’s interior monologue, “On the Steps of the Palace,” and “Agony,” a duet between Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes) are OK if somewhat overworked. But the  whole thing is too damn clever by half, with lyrics that tend to make the characters sound as if they’ve been reading self-help manuals.  And by the time the show picks up again after intermission and the characters go back into the woods because their happy endings have begun to fray, the same fate has befallen Sondheim’s inventiveness. The very concept is stupid: if taking to the woods is a metaphor for coming of age, then no one gets to do it twice. And you don’t have to darken a fairy tale dark in order to modernize it; the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen originals are plenty dark enough. Moreover, Sondheim’s idea of “dark” is, to my ears, merely homiletic: “Children Will Listen,” “No One Is Alone.” If I have to pick a revisionist fairy-tale musical, I’ll take Once Upon a Mattress. Revue-sketch comedy trumps pop psychology any day of my week.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part Two): Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

The first part of this piece which begins with Bob's review of Sean Michaels' Us Conductors, a novel about Leon Theremin was published here on Critics at Large on December 14. The piece continues here with a look at Sarah Quigley's 2011 novel, The Conductor.

While Leon Theremin was working in the relative safety of a sharashka (a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system), the Nazis surrounded Leningrad and cut its links with the outside world. The goal was to erase the city, in Hitler’s words, “from the face of the earth." The epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement was a time of unimaginable horror: air-strikes raining down; bodies, often dismembered, frozen in the snow; neighbour distrusting neighbour; and people feeding on glue, sawdust, leather, dogs and cats, while others resorted to cannibalism. Most people attempted to subsist on less than one slice of purloined bread a day. Hunger alone killed 800,000 people by the time the Germans retreated.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Traveling Women: Wild and Tracks

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon gives a fine, intelligent performance as Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who spent three months walking the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means of cleansing herself of the wayward, self-destructive life she’d been living, sleeping around and shooting heroin. It sounds like a showy, Oscar-bait role, but Witherspoon (who was also one of the producers) doesn’t play it that way; she keeps her wit sharp and her character carefully grounded in the grittiness of the material but not its (potential) melodrama. And that’s how the performance has been set up, first by novelist Nick Hornby, who adapted Strayed memoir, Lost: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, using a series of flashbacks to sketch in the life that led her here, and director Jean-Marc Vallée, who understates the sensational parts of her story. (He and Hornby restrict the drugs and the promiscuity to perhaps two slivers each of narrative.) Vallée is the Québecois filmmaker who made a splash – deservedly – in Canadian film circles with his 2005 coming-of-age picture C.R.A.Z.Y. and then went international with Young Victoria and last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. I loved Young Victoria, a gentle, complicated historical drama (also a coming-of-age story) but had mixed feelings about the other: engrossing and original as it was, it was pitched close to the melodramatic edge that Vallée is so cautious about steering clear of in Wild, and the film, as well as its two highly touted central performances (by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), kept tipping over that edge. The actors were splendid as long as they leaned away from it, toward the humor of their outrageous, opposite-number characters. I have no mixed emotions about Wild. The filmmaking – the way Vallée and his co-editor, Martin Pansa, slip almost subliminally in and out of the past – is stunning. (John Mac Murphy, credited as editor on both Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, is a pseudonym for Vallée.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. X

Singer Joe Cocker, who sadly died over the holidays at 70 after a battle with lung cancer, could get to the bottom of heartache in a song like no other. Listening to him perform, with his gravel voice, was like hearing Louis Armstrong cured in a blue funk. Containing a melancholic soul that rivalled Billie Holiday, Cocker's ecstatic surrender to the naked emotion in a romantic number, at its best, could transcend masochism. Of all his memorable tracks from "Hitchcock Railway" to his soulful take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," his gospel tinged "Do I Still Figure in Your Life?" asks with maybe the greatest urgency the most poignant demand of his audience.

Film director Carlos Saura has made many dazzling dance pictures before, from Carmen (1983) to Flamenco (1995), but Iberia (2005) may be his most erotic work. Using a studio outfitted with minimalist backdrops of scrims, curtains and mirrors, Saura adapts sections of composer Isaac Albeniz's "Iberia" suite for a number of the biggest stars in the Spanish dance and music world to perform. Yet like Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense (1984), Saura makes us conscious of the artifice he's creating, letting us see the cameras, the lights, and the recording equipment, only then to employ the magic of performance to evaporate the artifice. Saura isn't content just capturing that alchemy, though, he goes further inside the process of performance art itself and, while using expressionistic techniques, reaches the purest essence of dance to create a fully realized expression of love for the sensuality of movement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Biblical Bore – Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director Ridley Scott’s latest epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, makes Moses the second biblical patriarch to have his story butchered by Hollywood this year. The first, of course, was Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s deluded treatment last spring. Scott’s film doesn’t punish its audience with caustic melodrama the way the second half of Noah did. He’s a better craftsman than Aronofsky, and his visual palette more sensible – the movie’s landscape has the craggy wildness you associate with the Old Testament universe. But it matches its predecessor for clouding the meaning of the central narrative themes and injecting bizarre, half-baked spirituality into them. The result is a rare feat: a movie that’s at once both bloated and a fiasco.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Neglected Gem #67: Quick Change (1990)

Bill Murray in Quick Change

Quick Change takes twenty minutes or so to find its tone. In the opening sequence, Grimm (Bill Murray), dressed in a clown suit, robs a bank, holds the customers and employees hostage, and rigs it so his two accomplices, his girl friend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and his pal Loomis (Randy Quaid), hidden among the hostages, are the first to be released – along with Grimm himself, in a second disguise as a whining nerd. But the combination of Grimm’s actions and Murray’s ironies plays a little uneasily; I didn’t laugh much until these three cleared the bank and were putting one over on the exasperated police chief (Jason Robards). At that point, the movie, which Murray co-directed with the screenwriter, Howard Franklin (adapting a book by Jay Cronley), relaxes into a pleasantly off-kilter New York obstacle-course farce with the structure of an anxiety dream. As the trio tries to make their way to the airport with their loot, everything conspires to block their path. Their plan is to divert the cops, who think Grimm’s still inside the bank, until they can make it out of the country, but while Grimm’s talking on a pay phone to the chief, Loomis accidentally leans on the car horn, blowing their cover. Then they get lost and can’t find anyone to give them directions; when they do, finally, he turns out to be another thief (Jamey Sheridan), who holds them up. Their car is towed and smashed, they land a cabbie who doesn’t speak English, they duck into a warehouse full of gangsters – while Grimm, a burned-out city planner, views each encounter as further proof of the hatefulness of New York. That’s why, he explains, he engineered this robbery – to get them safely beyond the city’s scummy reach.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game

Filmgoers, like gamers, are natural puzzle-solvers – we like to try and stay one step ahead of a mystery, or piece together a disjointed narrative, or guess at a film’s ending before it arrives. There isn’t much to unravel in The Imitation Game, a film which depicts the life of mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his attempts to crack the German Enigma code at the secret Bletchley Park facility in World War II, but the way the film positions society’s smartest (and most socially awkward) members as the world’s last hope against the Nazi menace is almost as much a love letter to geeky hobbyism as it is a biopic of the world’s first computer scientist. The film isn’t complex enough to be a puzzle unto itself, but so many puzzles abound for the characters to solve – crossword and code-message alike – that it feels like a celebration of how using brains, and not brawn, is often what wins a global war.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lost Lake: Broken Gates

Tracie Thoms and John Hawkes in Lost Lake, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Lost Lake, the new play by David Auburn (Proof, The Columnist), is very conventional, but I quite enjoyed it. It’s a two-hander with a familiar set-up: two strangers thrown together under unusual circumstances move from being (roughly) adversaries to becoming (unorthodox) friends because the tensions and uncertainties in their disparate lives bond them. They are Veronica (Tracie Thoms), a New York City nurse and single mother who rents a cabin in the woods upstate for a week in the summer for herself, her two young kids and her daughter’s friend; and Hogan (John Hawkes), whose cabin it is. (The three children remain offstage presences.) When Veronica arrives, she finds that Hogan hasn’t fixed up the premises as he’d promised; the phone doesn’t work and she has to retreat up the road to get a decent cell phone signal. She doesn’t realize that he’s in dire straits, financially and emotionally – that, in fact, he’s living in his car, having run away or been thrown out by his brother and sister-in-law. (He says he was thrown out, but, as we learn along with Veronica, he’s an unreliable source of information about his own situation.) He doesn’t know that she is also in extremis: she’s just lost her job and, for complicated reasons, is in the midst of trying to get the review board to agree not to rescind her nursing license.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fun for the Holidays: Select Offerings in Music, Collections, Books, DVDs and Magazines

Real World 25, from Peter Gabriel's Real World label is one of many great gift possibilities this holiday season.

It’s the holidays, the stressful time of year when you scurry about trying to match the right gift with the right person. There’s so much to choose from out there, in music, books, collections and DVDs... so where do you begin? Here are some selections I think you’ll like, something for every kind of taste.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Incongruous Encounter: Frank Sinatra Meets Randy Newman

There have been some naturally skeptical reactions to the notion of Bob Dylan doing a cover album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. With a voice that is more a rough in the diamond than the reverse, his about to be released Shadows in the Night stands to prove an interesting challenge that hopefully will yield better results than his crooning of Christmas carols a few years back. But Shadows in the Night got me thinking about another incongruous encounter between Sinatra and another unlikely performer long before he died.

I think it's safe to assume that when Frank Sinatra created Reprise Records in 1960, he didn't envision a line-up that would eventually include Tiny Tim, Jimi Hendrix, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Neil Young, The Fugs and Randy Newman. However, by 1970, there they were, not to mention a host of others just like them – and here was Frank Sinatra situated among them. Curiously, at the time, Sinatra was also in need of a hit song. So he turned to an unlikely collaborator from his label: Randy Newman.

Frank Sinatra has been a best-selling artist for Capitol Records since 1953 after a long string of sensational albums. Sinatra possessed the kind of dreamy, forlorn voice that could reach down to the very essence of tenderness in a sad song. When he interpreted such indelibly sorrowful tunes as "I Can't Get Started," on No One Cares (1959), or "Willow Weep for Me," on Frank Sinatra Sings Only for the Lonely (1958), he would embody the song's anguish so effortlessly it was if the compositions were singing him. Sinatra had perfected a distinctly romantic style, a sexiness born of both heartbreak and despair. He played out the role of the lonely guy at the bar, nursing his glass of scotch, then imparting a lasting story of regret to you alone. In doing so, Sinatra could keep alive a slight flicker of romantic desire, hushed yearning or grievous moment that became more deeply intoxicating with every line he sang.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Not Yet One for the Books: TNT's The Librarians

Rebecca Romijn and Noah Wyle on The Librarians on TNT

A latecomer to the 2014-15 television schedule, The Librarians premiered on TNT last week – and the small amount of press leading up to it intrigued me. Not because it was on TNT, whose other entries this year – the Michael Bay-produced The Last Ship and almost unwatchable Legends (who thought putting Sean Bean opposite Ali Larter was a good idea?) – were overblown and melodramatic. But simply because the premise of The Librarians sounded just goofy enough to be appealing: an adaptation of a trilogy of made-for-television fantasy-adventure films that I'd never seen, about a character named "The Librarian" that TNT had produced between 2004 and 2008. The movies starred Noah Wyle (now on TNT's Falling Skies, which is about to air its fifth and final season) as the eponymous character, and had unapologetically pulp titles, like The Librarian: Quest for the Spear and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice. The press threw around references to Indiana Jones and Joss Whedon's Angel, but to my mind it sounded like a cross between The Middeman and SyFy's recently-departed Warehouse 13 – and that was good enough for me. The new series would star Rebecca Romijn (X-Men) as Col. Eva Baird, a counterterrorism agent assigned to watch over a new group of talented but inexperienced operatives as they negotiated a world of unseen magical and diabolical forces. And with Sleepy Hollow just going on mid-season hiatus, I had a goofy, fantasy/adventure-shaped hole in my TV-watching schedule.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sleuthing in the Holidays: The Burning Room, Thin Air and Murder on the Île Sordou: A Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal Mystery

In Michael Connelly's latest, The Burning Room (Little, Brown and Company), Los Angeles Police Department detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch is still attached to the Open-Unsolved Unit, which is usually tasked with solving cold crimes from many years before. But in this case, the victim, a one-time mariachi musician, has just died. Ten years before, a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting had hit him. It cost him his legs and lodged next to his spine, from where it could not be safely removed, taking a decade to kill him. Bosch and his brand-new partner, newly appointed detective Lucia Soto, are assigned the case. But when the bullet is finally removed from his body, it suddenly becomes clear that the victim was shot with a hunting rifle, making it extremely unlikely they’re dealing with a drive-by gone awry. Starting from scratch on a 10-year-old case is difficult enough, but Bosch is not thrilled with his new partner, who was the heroine of a shoot-out in the street, but has no experience as a detective, let alone in homicide. Bosch’s boss makes it clear that the senior detective should pass along his knowledge and skills. But Bosch soon finds that Soto has an agenda of her own: She is determined to solve a 20-year-old arson case in which five of her friends died. Bosch agrees to help her, though their current case must come first. It’s a treat – as it always is in a Harry Bosch novel – to watch the veteran detective play the system using his vast network of informants, friends and former colleagues to overcome the resistance of the police bureaucracy and the outright hostility of his bosses. The detectives’ two investigations eventually step on some prominent toes, and they are told to back off, but you know they won’t. And they don’t.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mother's Day: The Babadook

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis star in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook

The low-budget Australian horror movie The Babadook is about the relationship between Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single mother whose husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth, and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Actually, saying that it’s “about” the two characters kind of understates the matter. The movie doesn’t have any more supporting characters than seems absolutely necessary, and the other people who do drop in—Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and her daughter, a sympathetic neighbor (Barbara West), a co-worker of Amelia’s (Daniel Henshall) who briefly takes an interest in her—don’t hang around; they say their lines, establish their connection to the mother and son (or their lack of same), and vanish, at least until they’re needed again. At one point, when a couple of wordless bit players get the film frame to themselves during an outdoor scene, I felt strangely grateful for the sight of them, as if they’d arrived to keep me company on a desert island.

Usually, movies this under-populated just feel cheap and claustrophobic, but first-time director Jennifer Kent has a game plan: her narrow focus, and her fascinatingly jittery, anxious camera work and editing, result in a genuinely frightening little movie, with a near-Expressionist intensity. The style is a reflection of the mindset of the heroine, who can never get enough sleep. Her son, who’s obsessed with inventing weapons, such as a handmade crossbow, to protect them from something evil and menacing, is in a constant wide-eyed manic state, so that the other characters tend to assume there’s something the matter with him. (Veteran horror movie audiences, meanwhile, may leap to the assumption that he’s some kind of demon child, out of The Omen or Village of the Damned.) The movie has what feels like an in medias res opening, with Amelia so exhausted that it’s hard to imagine what the family’s “normal” existence might be like.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Double-Time Swing: Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

The thing to understand before you see Whiplash is that it isn’t at all like Amadeus or Inside Llewyn Davis or Ray – not just because it isn’t a biopic, but also because it shares little with those films in their exploration and exultation of a life spent making music. Instead it’s a harsh, heart-pounding ride through the dark side of music, that plays more like a thriller than a movie about jazz drums.

The film follows drum major Andrew (Miles Teller) in his struggle to become the number one percussionist at the fictional, Julliard-esque music academy he attends in New York. As a character later points out, if Andrew is the best at his school, then that means he’s the best in New York, which means he’s among the best in the world – and he will accept nothing less. The person who is both prime motivator and immovable obstacle to this goal is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tyrannical bandleader of the school’s competitive studio ensemble, who takes Andrew under his wing and nearly breaks him in the process.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pas de Trois: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in This is Our Youth (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

As the late adolescents in the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson are improbably loose and funny together, like performers with strikingly disparate styles who’ve been working together so long they can anticipate each other’s moves. It’s slacker vaudeville. This play, which was Lonergan’s breakthrough, was first produced off Broadway in 1996, with Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton and Missy Yager; it had a limited run but received so much praise that it reopened two years later (with Mark Rosenthal stepping in for Hamilton), and Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin picked up the roles when it was mounted in the West End in 2002. This new production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with an acute sensitivity to the play’s complex tonality, is the first time the play has been seen on Broadway. Though the Sunday evening performance I attended was full, overall it hasn’t been drawing crowds – and it deserves to sell out. I saw a tape of the 1998 revival, and though Ruffalo was very funny as the drug-addled misfit Warren, I ran out of patience for the characters. You could see Lonergan’s talent for dialogue and for rendering the milieu, upper-middle-class Manhattan Jewish teens in the early 1980s, very bright but derailed, with highly successful career-focused parents with whom they have brittle, sometimes ugly relationships. (Lonergan’s superb 2011 film Margaret has the same geographical and social setting, though it takes place three decades later.) But the play felt insubstantial. Shapiro’s production is both funnier and more poignant – and it gives a much sharper sense of how good the script is.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part One): Sean Michaels' Us Conductors

Leon Theremin poses with one of his inventions.

There are two schools of thought regarding the writing of historical novels. The first and the most widespread belief is that the novelist should not knowingly violate the historical record but should use his or her imagination to consider what might have happened when no documentary evidence exists. This might include the invention of fictional characters that are in a position to observe and recount the expressed feelings of historical actors; a writer can enter into their minds or flesh out the personalities and biographies of individuals when there is little historical documentation. The novelist in short can enter a domain from which the historian is excluded. Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (HarperCollins, 2011), the story of the preparation for the first Leningrad performance in 1942 of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the besieged city, exemplifies this literary tradition and will be discussed in a subsequent review.

A second perspective is that the novelist has every right to pick and discard from the historical record whenever it suits his purposes. Sean Michaels, a Montreal-based author who founded the music blog, Said the Gramophone, and the 2014 winner of the Giller prize for fiction for his debut novel, Us Conductors (Random House Canada), illustrates this iconoclastic approach. In his Author’s Note, Michaels explicitly acknowledges that his novel about the Russian engineer, physicist and inventor, Leon Theremin is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies,” making it difficult for the reader to know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin unless one reads Albert Glinsky’s Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (which Michaels recommends for anyone who wants an accurate rendering of the life of Leon Theremin). Theremin is most famous for the invention that bears his name: an electrical musical instrument played by moving one's hands in the space between two antennae, one hand controlling the pitch, the other the volume. The theremin, forerunner of the synthesizer, was often used in soundtracks for science fiction films because of its other worldly sound, and an advanced version was used in the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations.” I would recommend Steven M. Martin’s documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and the CBC radio documentary “Out of Thin Air." The former highlights the theremin’s cultural applications and provides archival and the then-current 1993 footage of Theremin himself. The latter explains how the theremin operates and we hear some wonderful offerings by Clara Rockmore in YouTube performances and from a modern theremist. Most readers are unlikely to read the biography, or watch the film which does contain historical inaccuracies and omissions – or may not even care about Us Conductors' historical shortcomings because, it is, after all a novel. But I do and that is why I am motivated to write this review.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Grand Tradition: Danny Medakovic's Jolley Cut

It was the day after life changed in Hamilton, Ontario. On the Friday, there was a giant mudslide onto the highway, caused by a broken water main. Traffic was crazy. It took an hour to get through an intersection! Then Saturday, the McMaster Marauders played in the Vanier Cup. A really, really tall Carabin stood up just as our kicker let fly a field goal attempt that would have put Mac in front with only a minute to go. And on Sunday, an illegal block 10 yards away from the play cost us a Grey Cup when a ninety yard run back for a touchdown was called back. Life stopped. The breath of half a million Hamilton and area Tiger-Cat fans just…stopped. There is no joy in Mudslide-ville. On this…the day after…there’s nothing to do but listen to some good old Hamilton folk music and put all that other stuff behind us.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Neglected Gem #66: Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (2001)

Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (2001) is set shortly after the 1849 California Gold Rush and loosely based on Thomas Hardy's emotionally devastating 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. But Winterbottom doesn't simply adapt Hardy's powerfully evocative moral drama and recast it in the emerging American West, he cures the film in the poetically elliptical style of Robert Altman's imagined frontier of McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). Altman's film, which starred Warren Beatty as a gambler with a vision and Julie Christie as the pragmatic madam he loved, was a dreamy, effusive view of the ruggedness of settling the land. The Claim doesn't share the fulsome lyricism of McCabe, but like Altman's western, Winterbottom allows the story to unfold through an evocatively shifting tableau of conflicting moods.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Curtain Closes and Opens Again: Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

Irina Baronova and Anton Dolin in Le Fils Prodigue

I know we are called Critics At Large, but I thought I had better issue a disclaimer that the following piece will hardly be critical. My reason for wanting to write on Irina Baronova, the legendary Russian ballerina who died in 2008 at age 89, is because I am in awe. Her daughter, the Hollywood actress Victoria Tennant, recently published a sumptuous book about her mother (Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, University of Chicago Press). After I more or less stumbled across it (I found it languishing on a colleague’s desk, undeservedly gathering dust), I instantly fell into a state of rapture. Irina Baronova and Les Ballets Russes is a fittingly gorgeous tribute to a dancer whose glamourous blonde beauty was as celebrated as the precision of her classical technique.

At 256 pages, this biography in words and pictures features 335 colour plates documenting a brilliant life in dance and along way, and because Baronova was intrinsically linked with some of its greatest achievements, the Golden Age of Ballet as experienced during the first half of the 20th century. Just cracking the cover provides an insight into the electrifying mystique of an era dominated by such choreographers as George Balanchine and Mikhail Fokine, to name two of the principal architects of the modern ballet. Baronova had worked closely with these two giants of the dance, among many others, and wrote about them in her 2005 autobiography, Irina: Ballet, Life and Love. Tennant mentions that earlier book at the beginning of hers, describing how her mother’s failing eyesight in old age ultimately prevented her from reading the book she had written. Each day after breakfast, she would lounge on a divan to listen to her daughter read it to her, one thrilling page at a time. Tennant is one of three children born to Baronova and husband, the late British theatre agent Cecil Tennant who died in 1967 as a result of a motoring accident. After her mother’s death in New South Wales in Australia, where she had lived in 2000, she moved there to be close to her second child, her namesake Irina. She soon received a package in the mail from her sister in which were plastic bags holding countless photographs and other memorabilia from Baronova’s life at the eye of a ballet storm.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Trite and Tiresome Trip: Force Majeure

I’ve always been puzzled and annoyed as to why certain foreign language films get distribution in Canada while other, often more deserving, movies, don’t, leaving filmgoers to catch them (if they can) at various film festivals and, sometimes, later on DVD. Claire Denis’s best films (Vendredi Soir, 35 Rhums) did not play commercially here (though they did in the U.S.) but one of her worst movies Bastards did. Similarly, Jan Troell’s very fine movie The Last Sentence, his spiky biography of anti-Nazi Swedish publisher, Torgny Segerstedt, only made the festival circuit while Force Majeure (Turist in its Swedish release) by Troell’s fellow Swede, Ruben Östlund, not only received a commercial release but is doing well at the box office. It’s even Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which means it could get nominated and actually win that lofty prize. That would be unfortunate, as Force Majeure is one tiresome, irritating and ultimately trivial concoction, a movie that’s not nearly as smart or as meaningful as its creator, no doubt, considers it to be. In fact, if the title wasn’t already taken, I’d call it "Much Ado About Nothing."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Crippled: The Theory of Everything

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

I haven’t found a theory to explain everything in the universe, but I have come up with a theory about The Theory of Everything: it’s a shallow, tame adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir, diluted to the point of tedium in order to appeal to a broad audience, content to pass over the interesting and challenging aspects of Stephen Hawking’s life in order to present a clichéd love plot. But that’s just a theory – you’ll have to see it as well before we can make this an empirical exercise.

The film begins in the 1960s, when a young and able-bodied Hawking (a very admirable Eddie Redmayne) is studying astrophysics at Cambridge. His infatuation with literature student Jane (button-cute Felicity Jones) coincides with the first stirrings of his impending motor neuron disease, and we follow them as they marry, build a family, and finally separate due to the strain the disease places on them both.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Side Show and Allegro: Another Go-Round

Ryan Silverman, Emily Padgett, Erin Davie and Matthew Hydzik in Side Show (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Opening on Broadway in 1997, Side Show lasted only about three months; the current revival, staged by Bill Condon, is the first version I’ve had a chance to see. Written by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (book and lyrics), it’s a semi-fictionalized account of the lives of the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, born in England to an unmarried barmaid and then displayed in America by abusive adoptive parents. In the musical, an unemployed talent scout named Terry Connor sees them in a side show in San Antonio in the early days of the Depression, gets his song-and-dance-man pal Buddy Foster to teach them to sing and dance, and encourages them to sue the proprietor – Sir, their foster father – for their freedom. They win, and Terry puts them on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Journalist’s Legacy: Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone

Anthony Shadid (1968-2012) in Libya, March 2011. Photo by Fohlen Corentin.

There are some people who, at least retroactively, define a period in your life; you look back from a later vantage point and realize that they impacted you in ways that you were completely unaware of, and that their influence on your life continues to evolve. Anthony Shadid is one of those people for me.

In 2002, I was a raw almost-adult living in California as the Second (or al-Aqsa) Intifada raged in Israel and Palestine. My father was covering events there for an American newspaper. One day, on the way home from school, I heard a brief mention on the radio: “A journalist for [my father’s newspaper] was shot by Israeli forces outside the residence of Yasser Arafat. His status is unknown.” And I completely freaked out—several frantic phone calls to the Foreign Desk later, I got through to my father, sounding tired and exhausted. “It was Anthony,” he said. “We got him out, and he’s in surgery.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Pining Spirit: Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist

This piece is an edited and revised version of a script I wrote for the radio documentary "Dream Time: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist" for CBC Radio's Inside the Music

Back in 1970, the passions of the Sixties counter-culture seemed spent. The Beatles, who had inspired the communal spirit of that age, had bitterly broken up. For one thing, John Lennon had just declared that the dream was over. George Harrison then wistfully told us that all things must pass. But not so in Canada. That same year, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn gently urged us to go to the country. Joni Mitchell lamented getting back to the garden in her song about the Woodstock Festival. And in Stratford, Ontario, a town known for its Shakespearean Festival, a group of musicians, actors and a café owner converged to create a folk/rock ensemble calling itself Perth County Conspiracy. Every night, in a local haunt called The Black Swan, run by proprietor Harry Finley, musicians Richard Keelan and Cedric Smith began to work their magic at midnight. With a collection of politically irreverent and mystical songs, they created a challenging theatrical experience for those curious Stratford Festival patrons looking for something a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Neglected Gem #65: My Son the Fanatic (1997)

Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic

Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for My Son the Fanatic (which he adapted from one of his stories) takes you right back to the glory days of Cinema Four, in the mid-eighties, when he and Stephen Frears turned out My Beautiful Laundrette and Neil Jordan made Mona Lisa and five or six times a year something fresh and provocative came out of England or Ireland. It has the kind of complicated humor you find in Kureishi’s best novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

In fact, one of the big influences on Kureishi and his collaborator, the director Udayan Prasad – like Kureishi, a gifted Anglo-Pakistani with an eye for the mixed pleasures of the cultural mix – is Mona Lisa; the other is Taxi Driver. The irresistibly warm, larger-than-life actor Om Puri, who’s sort of a Pakistani equivalent to Topol (the star of the screen version of Fiddler on the Roof), plays Parvez, a London taxi driver who revels in the joys of assimilation. He listens to Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong – though his wife Minoo (Gopi Desai), who’s more traditional, complains that the music he loves is “too trumpety.” Parvez finds himself drawn, sexually and emotionally, to one of his customers, a white whore named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). His best friend, Fizzy (Harish Patel, in a merry performance), runs a successful restaurant; he’s a very model of the immigrant whose new life has turned out to be a triumph. And Parvez’s son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is engaged to a young white woman, the daughter of a police chief. But whereas Parvez hears a welcoming note in his new in-laws’ reception of Farid’s family, Farid hears condescension and implicit resentment (and he’s probably correct). So he walks out on his fiancée, who seems to love him very much, and embraces fundamentalist Islam. He gets involved with a group of young Muslims whose loyalties are to a rather dim leader; they elect Parvez’s home as the guru’s guest house during his visit to England. They also cook up some trouble: a violent attack on the local prostitutes, whom they see as an embodiment of Anglo vice.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hizzoner: Dan Harmon

Dan Harmon (left) with members of the cast of Community

The TV creator Dan Harmon has a devoted fan base of comedy geeks and other nerds who revere him for his offbeat sensibility—Gillian Jacobs, one of the cast members on Harmon’s best-known project, Community, credits him with “reaching out to people who aren’t used to be reached out to”—and his equally offbeat career path. Luckily for normal people who might investigate Harmon’s corpus to see what all the noise is about, he’s also a brilliantly original comic talent whose work acquired new depth over the course of the three (out of five) seasons of Community that he wrote on and supervised. When the show premiered in 2009, it looked like a scattershot gag comedy about a bunch of misfits—a smarmily charismatic phony lawyer, a sanctimonious leftie, a movie addict whose immersion in cinematic unreality is sometimes indistinguishable from autism, a fervently Christian single mom—who form a study group at a low-rent community college. Harmon gradually turned it into a forum where he could parody all manner of obsessions from science fiction tropes and role-action game playing to My Dinner with Andre, and he also dug ever deeper into the characters, using their developing relationships with one another to illuminate their fears, delusions, and insecurities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Heart of Darkness: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher

Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote started out as a literary biopic about the novelist that became something more: an unsettling examination of the title character’s jealousy, self-absorption, and manipulative relationship with Perry Smith, the chief subject of In Cold Blood. His follow-up picture, Moneyball (2011), had a comic tone that belied a similar interest in a solitary male figure – in that case, baseball general manager Billy Beane. With Foxcatcher, he brings these two movies together in a sense, borrowing the dark mood and material from the former, the athletic subject matter from the latter. The film treats Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an amateur wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics; his brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo); and the twisted connection they develop with blue blood millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell). The picture’s really not a sports movie. If Truman Capote’s neuroses came to overshadow the enjoyment of his writing, here the warped psyches of the main characters – especially Mr. Carell’s – occlude the thrill of athletic glory entirely. The film is a picture of a Freudian nightmare. It works by mood and feeling, needling under your skin and leaving a corrosive taste in your mouth.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rags to Ruin: Blue Ruin

Macon Blair in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin
I love it when indie films show up on Netflix, untethered by restrictive studio release structures and desperate for a wider audience. It often means that I can catch up on films I missed from earlier in the year – like the dark, tense, and oddly beautiful Blue Ruin.

A police cruiser pulls up alongside a dilapidated Pontiac, parked by the boardwalk. Our protagonist, Dwight (Macon Blair) – shaggy, bearded, and filthy – is sleeping inside after a night of scavenging trash bins for food. We think, oh no, the jig is up, but the cop’s not here to arrest him or tell him to get lost. She speaks softly to him, calling him by name, telling him to come with her to the station so she can deliver a hammer blow to what’s left of his life: the man who murdered his parents has been freed from prison. This is the setup of Blue Ruin, directed and written by independent filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, and it’s both the beginning and the end for poor Dwight.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Schwartz and Dietz, Comden and Green

Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon, and Tracey-Ullman in The Band Wagon (All Photos by Joan Marcus)

Of the great songwriters and songwriting teams of the twenties, thirties and forties, perhaps only Arthur Schwartz (music) and Howard Dietz (lyrics) have fallen into obscurity. That’s less because Schwartz often collaborated with other lyricists (especially Dorothy Fields) than because the shows he and Dietz wrote together haven’t survived.  Some were revues, which are always too topical for revival – The Grand Street Follies of 1926 and 1929, The Little Show and The Second Little Show, Three’s a Crowd, At Home Abroad, Inside U.S.A. The others produced some lovely songs but they divided up into only moderate successes and downright failures. The musical the partners are best known for, The Band Wagon, was reportedly one of the last great revues, brittle and sophisticated – and it boasted a superb score. It was the last show to co-star Fred Astaire and his first and apparently most brilliant dancing partner, his sister Adele, who had played opposite him in the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face and whose insouciant flapper personality was iconic for the Jazz Age. After The Band Wagon closed, Adele married a lord and retired from show business, and Fred performed solo in only one more play, Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce, before he trekked west to try his hand in Hollywood.

The irresistibly companionable and hilarious movie entitled The Band Wagon has no connection to the 1931 Broadway show except for the songwriters. Arthur Freed, who ran the musicals unit at M-G-M in the forties and fifties, had the idea of devising a movie to take advantage of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook. George had been dead for nearly a decade and a half when An American in Paris was released in 1951, and it was such a huge hit, even garnering the Academy Award for Best Picture, that two years later Freed produced The Band Wagon (1953), which essentially did the same for Schwartz and Dietz. (Vincente Minnelli directed both movies.) The team wrote one new song for the picture, “That’s Entertainment,” and Schwartz supplied the music for the “Girl Hunt” ballet, a Mickey Spillane parody that comes almost at the end of the film.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Perils of Resistance: The Last Sentence and This Life

Pernilla August and Jesper Christensen in The Last Sentence

One of Toronto’s less acknowledged film festivals, the European Union Film Festival, is just wrapping up its tenth edition (it ends today). Somewhat fanciful in nature, it is comprised of entries, one per country, from the 28 countries who comprise the European Union. (Countries that never joined the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, are unrepresented here. Admission is free, though this year patrons are being allowed to book specific films online if they commit to a $10 donation.) But there is no overarching theme in the programming, which can include features, documentaries, even shorts (last year’s UK program) from this year or recent years. Nevertheless, as in most film festivals, themes can be found. The two Scandinavian movies I checked out, Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’s This Life, hailing from Norway’s neighbors, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, both deal with resistance against the Nazis and tell little-known stories about genuine heroes. But only one of them attains the level of art.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelop – or at least threatens – the tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Meditations on Love and Death: L'Enfer (2005), Autumn in New York (2000) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)

Karin Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Béart in L'Enfer

Danis Tanović's Oscar-winning debut, No Man's Land (2001), drew most of its intrigue from the comic dilemma of two men – a Bosnian and a Serb – reluctantly sharing a trench in a time of war. L'Enfer (2005) is a densely absorbing thriller where three women reluctantly share a spiritual trench in a completely different kind of war. Based on Krysztof Piesiewicz's screenplay, which was originally conceived for the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and loosely inspired by the second part of Dante's Inferno, L'Enfer is about the kind of erotic unhappiness that burns. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) is a married woman who comes to believe that her photographer husband is having an affair with one of his clients. Anne (Marie Gillain) is a young student who is obsessed with one of her professors, a married man who has just split up with his wife. Celine (Karin Viard) is a spinster caring for her invalid mother who begins receiving strange advances made to her by a young man (Guillaume Canet) she meets in a bar.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Transforming Tradition: Bill Clifton's Red Shadows

One of the best parts about listening to music is discovering something new and finding out it was created a generation ago. So it is for Toronto-born pianist, composer and arranger, Bill Clifton. Clifton is not a household name or even a recognized name in the mainstream jazz, but his story and his life in music is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, thanks to his second cousin, Michael.

Bill Clifton was born in Toronto in 1917. He grew up in house filled with music entering the Royal Conservatory to study piano at age seven. In high school he was exposed to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, early bandleaders looking to advance jazz in clever arrangements that were accessible to a wide audience. Those big band sounds that went beyond the commercial pop songs of the day inspired Clifton to focus on jazz piano and the study of harmony. By 1939 he got a job with one of the pre-eminent bands of the day, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Years earlier, Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” for piano and orchestra, so this was definitely a great start to a career in music. Once established in New York City, Clifton became the session player for Whiteman but also put in quality time with Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and others, including radio work with Bing Crosby at CBS. He also played piano at NBC radio as part of the house band, so times were pretty good well into the 1940s.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sleuths: Peter Robinson's Abattoir Blues, John Sandford's Deadline and Deborah Crombie's To Dwell In Darkness

One of the things I like best about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire-based series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is its terrific ensemble cast, especially the ambitious and troubled DI Annie Cabbot (Banks’s on-again, off-again lover) and tall, beautiful Jamaican immigrant DS Winsome Jackman. Even such relatively minor regular characters as DCs Dougal Wilson and Gerry Masterson, Area Commander Catherine Gervaise, and London DCS Richard (Dirty Dick) Burgess – not to mention the various bad guys, witnesses and victims – are well drawn and utterly believable. As Abattoir Blues opens, army veteran Terry Gilchrist’s dog apparently discovers a large bloodstain – and what appears to be brain matter – in the hangar of a long-abandoned airfield. Meanwhile, Cabbot and Wilson are investigating the case of a stolen tractor, which Cabbot maintains is no job for the Homicide and Major Crimes unit. But as Wilson points out, the new police commissioner thinks rural crime is major. Also, it is a very expensive tractor. As those two get on with their investigation, Jackman heads for the hangar to check out the bloodstain. Cabbot and Wilson end up seeking two young men who may be connected to the tractor-theft, and who are now missing. Jackman and Banks’s inquiries soon cross paths with Cabbot and Wilson’s, especially when a horrible truck accident during a sudden snowstorm produces a particularly grisly discovery. The investigation takes Banks and his team all over the countryside, but also into the worlds of high finance, hobby farming, meat rendering, smuggling, property development and, as unlikely as it sounds, spelunking. And while all that is going on, we see some serious interest developing between Winsome and former soldier Gilchrist. Keep an eye on them in future novels.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Such Thing As Stupid Questions: What If? by Randall Munroe

“Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.”
– Disclaimer, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What if everyone on earth jumped up and down at exactly the same time? No, seriously – what would really happen? What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at nearly the speed of light? What if you tried to build a periodic table of the elements out of the actual elements comprising it? I don’t know. Of course I don’t know. But I know who you can ask.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and now full-time self-employed internet cartoonist, spends a great deal of time putting his well-honed scientific mind to work on the What If blog section of his wildly popular site,, where users submit strange hypothetical questions that he does his best to answer as scientifically as possible. Munroe has kept this blog active for so long that he has now collected enough material to fill a book – one that proves both insightful and hilarious to read.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Old Man and the Old Moon: Small-Time Charmer

Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen in The PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Old Man and the Old Moon

The PigPen Theatre Co. has been touring around its musical fairy tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon; I missed it at Williamstown last summer but caught up with it in the ArtsEmerson series in Boston. PigPen consists of seven men who got together as freshmen drama students at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, which makes them around twenty-five. And indeed the spirit of the piece, which they devised in collaboration with their director, Stuart Carden, is undergraduate in the best sense: it feels freshly minted, and it’s devoid of even the smallest taint of cynicism or smugness.

The narrative is a shaggy-dog fable about how the phases of the moon evolved. An old man (Ryan Melia) is tasked with filling up the moon every night with liquid light. Then one day his wife (Alex Falberg), stirred by a familiar piece of music she hears on the wind, sails off to follow it, and the old man, distraught, abandons his post to try to find her. He has a series of adventures on the way:  he gets a ride on a war ship and replaces its captain when he’s killed in battle, he gets swallowed up by an enormous fish, and so on. Meanwhile the moon wanes and finally fades out entirely; the nighttime sky is sunk in darkness, there’s nothing to control the tides, and chaos ensues.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Very Human Princess: Louise J. Wilkinson's Eleanor de Montfort

My first entrée to the adult section of the public library where I grew up was Queen Elizabeth I. I don't remember how I first encountered Good Queen Bess – doubtless it was some reference in another book, probably a novel. But when I grew frustrated with the books available in the children's section (a brightly lit annex attached to the main building full of primary colors), most of which featured cartoon illustrations of the Spanish Armada, the kindly library suggested (somewhat doubtfully) that I should check the grown-up books. I still remember climbing the staircase that connected the children's annex with the main library – I had to climb the carpeted steps, past the posters for Laura Bush's literacy campaign, to get to the marble and wood chamber of treasures. The big-people librarian wouldn't give me an adult card (I was ten or eleven, and the circulation desk came up to my nose) but my mother arranged for me to have access on my children's card. It was a small library – to get to the non-fiction and history you went up a circular staircase to a balcony with carved wood railings that circled the entire room. I still remember where the Elizabeth books were – right across from the entrance, on a top shelf that I needed a footstool to reach. And there I plopped my small self to read about Elizabeth, her tragic mother Anne Boleyn, her insane sister Mary and the treacheries of her cousin, Jane Gray.

Eventually I burned out on the Tudors, and somehow – probably at the suggestion of the librarians, bless their souls – I moved on to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth I is an easy hero for a young girl. After all, she was a Queen in her own right! Eleanor of Aquitaine was slightly more complicated. She also exercised power in her own right, but often had to use the sort of 'soft power' available to women in the medieval period. I still love both Elizabeth and Eleanor, but I have learned in the intervening twenty years how unusual they both were. Most women in the pre-Modern period didn't wield great international influence, or even much autonomous domestic influence. But that doesn't mean that they were not important and influential in both international and domestic spheres. As Louise J. Wilkinson demonstrates in Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (2012) powerful women abound. But unlike Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it takes dedication to learn about these influential, flawed, and fascinating women  of the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case for Eleanor de Montfort, granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and an absolutely spectacular character in her own right.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Circa's Opus

Circa's Opus at the Brisbane Festival (Photo: Michel Cavalca)

The circus recently came to town. But instead of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), 15 aerial-born Australian gymnasts and four barefoot musicians, all members of France’s acclaimed Debussy String Quartet, wowed the eyeballs of everyone packed into Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts. The occasion was the North American debut of Circa, a troupe of gravity-defying wonders currently on a world tour. The Brisbane-based company was in Toronto from Nov. 12 through 16, presented by Canadian Stage, and tonight and through Nov. 26 is in Montreal performing at La Tohu, the circus theatre on Jarry St. E. The show there is the same as was recently seen here – Opus, an 85-minute non-stop piece of acrobatic dance theatre that is a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience: equal parts brute strength and soul-tingling poetry. It shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ghosts and the City: Hulu's Deadbeat

Andrew T. Jackson and Tyler Labine star in Hulu's Deadbeat

Hulu may have been one of the first streaming services available online (and still offers some of the widest selections of rebroadcast television content from American network and cable sources), but Hulu Plus, its subscription-based younger brother, is still lagging behind the other streamcasters (Netflix, Amazon Prime) for original scripted programming. Hulu Plus has garnered some well-deserved praise for bringing some exclusive UK exports to its American viewers: not only the delightful Moone Boy (Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy set in small-town Ireland in the late 80s) and Showcase's Endgame, the cancelled-too-soon Canadian cult hit, but also co-producing The Wrong Mans, starring Gavin & Stacey's and soon-to-be CBS's Late Late Show host James Corden, with the BBC. (I'll save the details of my unabashed enthusiasm for Corden and the comically intense Wrong Mans for when its much-anticipated second season airs in 2015.) Last spring however Hulu Plus stepped firmly into new and exclusive original programming with the low-key, under the radar, paranormal comedy Deadbeat, which demonstrated the potential for Hulu to play with the big boys.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sly Fox: The Phil Silvers Show

Billy Sands, Phil Silvers, and Paul Ford in The Phil Silvers Show

Last summer, one of The New York Times’ fourth-string film reviewers wrote a blunt little screed complaining about how many old TV shows are now readily available for viewing thanks to home video, streaming sites, and “classic TV” cable channels such as MeTV, Antenna, and Cozi (whose appeal is probably based on nostalgia for the golden years of Nick at Nite and TV Land as much as it’s based on the days when the shows on such channels were actually new). Some of the writer’s objections to specific shows were based on political correctness: surely those who appreciate Mad Men for its glacial pace, lavishly furnished period anomie, and tsk-tsking attitude toward the male chauvinism of our fathers and grandfathers must view the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden as “more sad than funny,” Gilligan’s Island is chock-full of “dismaying stereotypes,” and watching Green Acres can make you feel that rural people in the red states are a bunch of rubes, which is an unacceptable message for a TV show to be peddling unless it’s The Daily Show. Mainly, though, the Times seemed to be concerned that too many people are pissing their lives away binge-watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when they could be doing something constructive, like organizing a recycling drive or watching Rectify.

I’m not sure that the ready availability of fifty-year-old sitcoms is the major societal problem that the Times thinks it is. When it comes to popular culture, I’m of the Libertarian persuasion: the stuff should be out there where anyone who wants it can get their hands on it, and if that makes it easier for those with a tendency toward substance abuse to get a hold of the hard stuff, that’s their cross to bear. From the censorious tone of the Times article, it’s not clear that its author—who I prefer not to refer to by name, because I have a theory that he might really be Candyman—knows that the best comedy of the early years of TV is less faded now than the first season of True Detective, and that some of it is still hard to find. In the case of the great early work of Sid Caesar and the Your Show of Shows crew, Ernie Kovacs, and Steve Allen, we’re dependent on the efforts of cultural archeologists digging through private collections of kinescopes, since much of that material predates the network practice of archiving programs that were originally thought to have no long-term financial value.