Saturday, March 22, 2014

Beauty and Barbarism: Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

With The Wind Rises, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has achieved a feat befitting a master: he has crafted his final film into an elegiac farewell that at once communicates what it means to be an artist, while also being an artistic triumph itself. When I urge friends to see it, they deride the notion that a “cartoon” could be good. Pity. This animated movie is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart, with narrative magic married to tonal complexities to form a sublime milieu. It's not a perfect movie, though, and its romantic idealism tries to find redeeming grace among irredeemable evils. It simultaneously breaks your heart and renews your belief in the transcendence of the human spirit.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Monumentally Dull: George Clooney's The Monuments Men

George Clooney and Matt Damon in The Monuments Men

It’s an unusual criticism to make of a movie that it doesn’t aim low enough. But that’s the problem with The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s new movie about a team sent by FDR to Europe in the final years of the Second World War to root out the art the Nazis stole from the countries they conquered and protect any more of the cornerstones of western civilization from being damaged. Using as source material the non-fiction book by Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Clooney and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov – his collaborator on Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March – have set about to make a wartime adventure in the square style of big-studio entertainments of the fifties and early sixties, but they’ve done it without an ounce of cheeky wit or romance. Clooney has made the movie with a sort of middle-brow integrity, but what it really needs is showmanship – an instinct for melodrama, which he lacks entirely. He and Heslov start with a sensational story and a tantalizing cast – the seven “monuments men” are played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin and Clooney himself as Frank Stokes, the head of the mission – and then strip the movie of just about everything that might have made it fun to watch.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

To Get to The Other Side: The Bridge

Kim Bodnia and Saga Noren star in the Swedish-Danish series The Bridge

The TV series The Bridge, a Swedish-Danish co-production that first aired in 2011, begins with the discovery of what appears to be the dead body of a Swedish politician. He has been cut in two; the corpse is lying at the exact spot on the Oresund Bridge that marks the point where the borders of Copenhagen and Malmo meet. Sofia (Saga Noren), a Swedish homicide detective, and Martin (Kim Bodnia), a Danish detective, both arrive at the scene, and it’s only after Sofia has brashly claimed the case for herself, with Martin’s happy consent, that it’s found that the “body” is actually two halves of two different dead women. Sofia and Martin end up working together on the case, which expands as it becomes clear that a serial killer with a larger agenda is at work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Masterclass Concert: Robben Ford at Mohawk College, March 7

Guitarist Robben Ford

Robben Ford has played guitar with some of the greats. Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, and Miles Davis! Those names are legendary, but Robben Ford? Not so much. He is an extremely tasty guitarist with a long career behind him, and judging by his brand new CD he should have a long career ahead of him. But last Friday he came into Hamilton to offer a guitar masterclass to the students of Mohawk College, and he stuck around to play a concert at Mohawk’s McIntyre Theatre.

The show started at 8pm but the doors opened an hour earlier while ushers walked up and down selling raffle tickets as a fun-raiser for the music programme. The prizes? Autographed posters from last year’s guest guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and a signed Robben Ford Epiphone guitar. This is an annual event which has also featured Larry Carlton. The lights soon dimmed and after a few notices the opening act came on stage. Bump City is a student band, under the direction of Darcy Hepner, which plays the music of Tower of Power. Don’t Google them, you’ll find another Bump City entirely, also a tribute to Tower of Power band but made up of much older musicians. This group appeared to have an average age of 20, and each member was filled with the energy and enthusiasm you might expect. Their half hour set showcased three different vocalists, and a horn section that was together, and had all the moves down just so. Special props to their guitarist (Braden Varcoe) who made a guest appearance during Mr. Ford’s set. But more about that later. I’ve never been much of a Tower of Power fan, but Bump City acquitted themselves beautifully and kept their promise (from their Twitter site) to “make you shake your squib cakes all night long.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

All This Useless Knowledge: Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

The work of H.P. Lovecraft is one of popular fiction’s favourite aesthetics-du-jour. We’re still apparently enamoured with zombies, dystopias, and teenagers murdering one another, and whenever we need a cut-and-paste horror setting, Lovecraft is the first well we draw from. His lurid and eloquent prose certainly invites (and deserves) imitation, but few works have managed to bottle his particular brand of dreadful, elegant, creeping horror. With Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer comes closer than anyone I’ve ever read.

A mysterious place known only as Area X has been isolated from humanity for decades. The government sends out expeditions to explore it and record their discoveries. Some expeditions came back dazed, unsure of what they’d seen. Some came back and contracted terminal cancer. Some came back and committed mass suicide. Some never came back at all. Annihilation follows the twelfth group, which is composed of four women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist (our narrator). The characters are named by specialization and never physically described, their expertise and attitudes being the only salient information the author provides. The setting is likewise left ambiguous: Area X, and whatever lives there, might be a product of nuclear warfare, or government experimentation, or alien invasion, or any other recognizable science fiction trope. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Musical Vaudeville: Encores! Production of Little Me

Rachel York and Christian Borle in Little Me (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Encores! at New York’s City Center opened its three-musical season at the beginning of last month with a spirited, uproarious revival of the 1962 Little Me, directed by John Rando, whose work for the series has included some of my personal favorites (On the Town, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Irving Berlin’s Face the Music). The source material for Little Me is a book by Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame) that takes the form of a fictional memoir by a scandalous dame named Belle Poitrine – poitrine is French for chest – who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s pretty much an overlong one-joke comedy, the joke being the obvious discrepancy between the innocent version of events Belle is offering and the truth that glares at you between the lines. I got tired of the novel and of Belle after about a hundred pages and put it down. But the book of the musical, by Neil Simon, though it’s overstuffed – act one is ninety minutes long – is consistently funny. Simon divided the character of Belle between an aging millionairess (impersonated in Rando’s production by the feisty Judy Kaye) and her indomitable younger self (Rachel York, belting happily and effortlessly carrying off an ingénue role she ought to be about a decade and a half too old for). Belle goes to jail for murder, resurfaces as a stage personality on the basis of her notoriety – note that Little Me predated Chicago by thirteen years – entertains the troops in the Great War and stars in silent movies, among other adventures.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Feathers In their Caps: Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in Swan Lake

Evan McKie & Svetlana Lunkina (with the National Ballet of Canada) in Swan Lake. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

The highly anticipated debuts of principal guest artists Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in James Kudelka's version of Swan Lake readily explains why Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was packed to the rafters last Saturday night (March 8). McKie who self identifies as a dancer-actor is the Toronto-born principal dancer with Germany's Stuttgart Ballet who is internationally celebrated for his ability to dramatize a role, and make it matter. Last month, the 30-year-old McKie headlined the Paris Opera Ballet, a first for a Canadian ballet dancer. In April, he will be a featured performer with the New York City Ballet where doubtless his long lyrical lines, his buoyant jumps and aristocratic mien will get audiences there as excited as they have been this past week for his homecoming in Toronto. Russian trained, McKie has also performed with the Bolshoi, making him a choice partner for Lunkina, a star ballerina of the Bolshoi who made headlines last year when she announced she was quitting Russia for Canada following a series of malevolent threats made against her and her family at a time when the Bolshoi was rocked with violence, an acid attack on its artistic director, Lunkina's former partner Sergei Filin, being one. McKie's undisputed talent as a gifted dramatic dancer notwithstanding, she was the one everyone had come to watch. The house was filled with ex ballet dancers and au courant balletomanes, all eager to see the controversial Russian ballerina show her stuff. She did not disappoint.