Saturday, April 12, 2014

Harmony in Motion: Contemporary Dance in Toronto

Aleatoric Duet No. 2 from he/she

Three different programs of contemporary dance by three different companies took place within days of each other in Toronto at the end of March: Dichterliebe, a revival of a 2012 suite of 16 dances set to 16 sung sections of Robert Schumann’s same titled song cycle (the lyrics are by the late-Romantic German poet Heinrich Heine) which Coleman Lemieux & Co. presented at their Citadel theatre and studio complex in Regent Park; he/she, an evening of new and revised work by Peggy Baker Dance Projects at the Betty Oliphant Theatre, and Around, a new 60-minute work by Dancemakers artistic director Michael Trent which the company, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, performed as an ensemble at its Distillery District-located Centre for Creation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Art vs. Propaganda: Bethlehem and Omar

Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar’i in Bethlehem

It’s always been highly illuminating to compare Israeli and Palestinian films about their intractable conflict. While I’ve never seen an Israeli film – from Cup Final (1991) to The Bubble (2006), The Syrian Bride (2004) to The Band's Visit (2007) – that has failed to humanize the Palestinians, Israel’s Arab neighbours or its own Arab citizens (and I’ve seen many Israeli films, as a film critic and chief programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival), the Palestinian record is much spottier in that regard. Rashid Masharawi’s Palestinian film Ticket to Jerusalem (2002), a documentary-fictional hybrid, presented a fair, even sympathetic view of young Israeli soldiers, as did Michel Khleifi’s acclaimed Wedding in Galilee (1987), at least until its 360-degree turn into a strident vilification of the same. (It’s as if someone told the filmmaker that he was being too kind to his Israeli characters and needed to adjust the picture.) But otherwise, the norm is more along the lines of Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005), about a pair of would-be suicide bombers setting out to wreak havoc in Tel Aviv. At best, Abu-Assad could only bring himself to condemn suicide bombings as counterproductive and harmful to the Palestinian cause and not as the moral failings or criminal acts they actually are, and he showed not the slightest interest in the possible Israeli victims of the film’s planned terror attack. (The most notable exception to this traditionally myopic view of Israel is Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack (2012) wherein an Arab-Israeli surgeon discovers that his wife committed a suicide bombing and must come to terms with the truely heinous actions of his spouse. Startlingly, Doueiri, a Lebanese filmmaker, spent almost a year living in Israel in order to better understand his country’s “enemy”.) Abu-Assad’s latest film, the 2013 Oscar-nominated Omar, about a young man coerced into becoming an informant for Israel’s security services, is likewise spun out of that one note. Fortunately, we also have Yuval Adler’s similarly-themed Israeli cinematic counterpart Bethlehem (2013) as a provocative point of comparison. It’s a superior film in every way: nuanced, complex and empathic to both sides of the political and human equation in a way Omar doesn’t even attempt to be.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Neglected Gem #52: BBC's Gormenghast (2000)

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in BBC's Gormenghast

2001 was a good year for epic film adaptations of classic fantasy literature. It was the year that the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy premiered, but it was also the year that the BBC series Gormenghast first aired in the U.S. (It had played in the U.K. the year before.) Directed by Andy Wilson and adapted by Malcom McKay, Gormenghast is based on novelist Mervyn Peake’s trilogy a “fantasy of manners" set in an isolated earldom called Gormeghast. (Peake envisioned a longer series of books but died before he could get past the third, Titus Alone. The TV version sticks to the events of the first two, the 1946 Titus Groan and the 1950 Gormenghast, which was very sensible.)

The story begins with the birth of the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan, Titus. (Ian Richardson plays his father, a melancholy bibliophile whose spirits and sanity do not survive the destruction of his library.) All the inhabitants of Castle Gormenghast seem to be mad, yet most of them have style, and Gormenghast is an entertainment for those able to set aside 21st-century attitudes towards democracy and royalty, or at least bend them a little, for the sake of a wallow in pure style. Although the cast is packed with comic monsters, the villain is the lowly born boy who would tear it all down and incite revolution: Steerpike, “a diabolically clever little monster” played by that specialist in louche dandies, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Return to Frantic City: A Conversation with Teenage Head and Geoff Pevere's Gods of the Hammer

Teenage Head in 2008: (from left) Frankie Venom, Jack Pedler, Steve Mahon, Gord Lewis (Photo by Stephanie Bell)

The last time I saw Teenage Head, Frankie Venom was swinging from the pipes over the stage, and Gordie Lewis’s guitar sound was circumnavigating my eardrums. Now here we are in the pristine white event space of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, sitting in civilized rows around a raised platform (call it a stage) on which sat four current (or ex) members of the band along with pop critic Geoff Pevere, the author of the new book on the band, Gods of the Hammer, and Hamilton Spectator columnist Graham Rockingham waiting for A Conversation With…Teenage Head. “A Conversation”! Who would've thought? 

Look around. The crowd is here, black leather jackets have given way to wool overcoats, and Converse All Stars have been replaced with loafers. The ladies look good, high heels, black stockings, short skirts, very sophisticated. Wait, there’s a guy in denim, wearing a baseball cap, he’s carrying an armload of old Teenage Head paraphernalia. Oh good, we’re not completely civilized. Someone in front of us accidentally kicks over her glass of dry white wine. Oh good, the floor’s sticky. Sure in the old days it would’ve been a bottle of beer, or even a tableful of draft, that was dumped, and for sure we wouldn’t have wiped it up carefully with polyester napkins, and paper serviettes, we would've simply waited for it to evaporate. The event is part of Hamilton’s GritLit Festival. Now ten years old it celebrates the work of Canadian writers (in general), and Hamilton writers particularly. Peter Robinson (creator of Inspector Alan Banks) was here Thursday, Emma Donoghue (Room and Frog Music) stopped by Friday, and Michael Winter, Catherine Bush and a host of others have participated through the weekend. Tonight though, it’s Geoff Pevere and everybody’s favourite punk band Teenage Head.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cold Conflict – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The pantheon of superhero films from the last decade that have dominated and defined global box offices often feel bloated with a sense of self-importance, despite their ludicrous premises (see: Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, etc). Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as modest as its protagonist, Steve Rogers, at least as far as such a thing is possible in a blockbuster superhero action feature, and this makes for a refreshingly sober, unaffected entry into the ever-growing Marvel film canon.

As a Canadian and an X-Men fan, I’ve seldom been compelled by Captain America’s character. He’s one of the less “super” superheroes and feels irrelevant to today’s pop culture zeitgeist. This is of course addressed with the fish-out-of-water humour from The Avengers, which depicts Cap’s difficulty integrating into modern society after having been frozen in stasis since World War II. The Winter Soldier takes place two years after the events of that film, and drops this “Can Cap Adapt?” arc in favour of a more relevant and topical story. Cap no longer labours to fit in; he’s now concerned with aligning his 1940s sensibilities with a world of modern conflict, in which the moral boundaries are far less clear, and this existential grappling makes him suddenly much more interesting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Threepenny Opera Con Brio

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Productions of The Threepenny Opera usually stumble over the paradox that though it’s a great play, technically it’s not a very good one. The script by Bertolt Brecht is massively overwritten, with long passages of dialogue that no translation from the German (I’ve encountered several) has succeeded in rendering without awkwardness. The comic scenes may have been partly improvised in rehearsal when the show was first mounted in Berlin in 1928, or else Brecht may have built them around the vaudevillian talents of his cast; now the exchanges between the gangster Macheath (Mack the Knife) and his gang, Mackie and his pal, Chief of Police Tiger Brown, Brown and Jonathan Peachum, the ruthless boss of all of London’s beggars, and Peachum and his equally devious wife just sit on the page, challenging actors to figure out how to make them funny. Yet the play, a raucous social satire that updates John Gay’s eighteenth-century satirical burlesque The Beggar’s Opera, is vibrant, theatrical to the gills, and every time the action pauses for one of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s songs, you know you’re watching and listening to one of the signal achievements in modern theatre. Weill’s music is thrilling: glittering and acid, robust and plaintive, simultaneously redolent of the music hall, the salon and the jazz club.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Hugh Bonneville: Twenty Twelve and W1A

Hugh Bonneville stars as Ian Fletcher in Twenty Twelve and W1A, on the BBC.

As Downton Abbey fans worldwide eagerly await the popular ITV period drama's fifth season, it is a good time to point viewers to W1A, a new BBC comedy series whose brief first season will conclude this Wednesday April 9. W1A stars Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher, the new-minted Head of Values for the BBC. Bonneville is returning to a character made famous (at least for British audiences) on BBC's Twenty Twelve, where Ian Fletcher was Head of Deliverance for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Both series not also demonstrate Hugh Bonneville's talent in a contemporary setting far removed from his gracious, and sometimes other-worldly turn as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey but also put Bonneville's quiet but immense charm and comic ability on display.