Saturday, May 10, 2014

Migration and Movement: Esmeralda Enrique's De Idas y Vueltas

Esmeralda Enrique in De Idas y Vueltas, at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre (Photo: Hamid Karimi)

The powerful, absolutely top-notch, program of hand-clapping, foot-stomping, throaty flamenco which Toronto’s Esmeralda Enrique presented late last month at the Fleck Dance Theatre inside Harbourfront Centre, explored the idea of human migration, and how when people move, ebbing and flowing like the oceans carrying them from their homelands to a new land of (it is hoped) opportunity, things are lost and things are gained. As a theme for a dance show, essentially an examination of how people move, it fit like the proverbial shoe.

Flamenco is a dance/music hybrid, born in Spain but indelibly stamped with a wide array of influences visited upon it by a whole of host of immigrants past, among them marauding and native sons and daughters returning from the Americas armed with the cadences and rhythms of Cuba, Mexico and other Conquistador countries where Spanish people have traditionally immigrated to and emigrated from over the centuries. Some of these journeys far from home have spawned a genre known as cantes de ida y vuelta, nostalgic immigrant songs given a flamenco accent. Enrique, a Spanish immigrant herself who founded her own company in 1982 shortly after moving to Canada, took a handful of these songs to create an original program of dance, song and live music called De Idas y Vueltas in recognition of its source material. A recipient of two Dora Mavor Moore Awards in addition to the inaugural Young Centre for the Performing Arts Dance Award issued in 2012, Enrique has a proven track record of producing arresting flamenco-inspired programs. But De Idas y Vueltas has to count as among her best. The three-performance run was sold-out, a rarity for a dance show of any scale in Toronto. The lure was Enrique’s reputation as a consummate professional who seeks to preserve the traditions of her cherished flamenco while at the same time offering something new.

Friday, May 9, 2014

All the Living and the Dead: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Early into The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we’re treated to an action sequence in which the eponymous superhero chases down a madman (a barely-recognizable Paul Giamatti) driving a stolen truck containing vials of plutonium. It's a thrilling scene that spins airborne acrobatics and comic punches into pure cinematic gold. You can tell Andrew Garfield’s having the time of his life in the red and blue suit as he cartwheels down the canyons of Manhattan, and his All-American kid quality is infectious. I knew as soon as I saw this sequence that I was in for a treat. But I wasn’t ready for just how affecting the movie would be. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continues to burrow deeper into its characters and their feelings than its parent trilogy, and while its narrative gets a bit messy at points, it's only a function of that same honest emotional mess.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saturday Night Comatose: Liza Johnson's Hateship, Loveship

Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce in Hateship, Loveship

Hateship, Loveship, a low-budget drama directed by Liza Johnson and adapted by the novelist and screenwriter Mark Poirier from an Alice Munro story, opens with the dead-faced Johanna (Kirsten Wiig) dully looking at the old woman she’s been caring for and finally picking up a phone to tell someone that the woman is dead. It’s like the opening of a horror story about an affectless psychopath; has Johanna murdered her own charge? Is this just the latest in a string of victims who made the mistake of getting on her nerves by not dying on her timetable? It turns out that Johanna is a good woman, though her behavior often calls to mind the question that Nora Dunn asked of the hooker played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Miami Blues: “Is she really Princess Not-so-bright?”

Johanna finds a new job working for Mr. MacCauley (Nick Nolte), who lives in a big house in a small town with his granddaughter Sabitha (Hallee Steinfeld, the Mattie Ross of the Coen brothers’ True Grit), whose mother was killed in an accident. Sabitha’s father, Mr. MacCauley’s son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce), is a drug-addicted wastrel living in Chicago. It would be almost be a stretch to say that Johanna and the handsome, directionless Ken barely know each other. But after Sabitha and her mean-girl friend Edith (Sami Gayle) prankishly forge a love note from Ken to Johanna, and Johanna responds to it, the teenage girls set up an email account in Ken’s name and start catfishing her on a regular basis. Before long, Johanna gathers up her savings and heads for Chicago, having also paid to have a load of antique furniture belonging to Mr. MacCauley shipped ahead. When she walks in on the ailing, drugged-out Ken, expecting to start a new life with him in the space that hasn’t gotten a good cleaning since his wife died, he’s fit to be tied, I don’t mind telling you!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Back to Basics: Neil Young's A Letter Home

Neil Young. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

There's a certain irony to the news that Neil Young considers his newest release to be "low-tech." After all, he's been complaining for years that the Mp3 is an inferior audio technology for music, even though all of his music is available in that format. He's even developed an audio system, and player (Pono), that uses FLAC audio files, larger in size and presumably in audio quality. That said, his new album, A Letter Home (Third Man Records), was recorded in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph, quite literally the size of a phone booth. Jack White, who co-produced this album, purchased one for his label storefront in Nashville. In this small space, Young has recorded 11 songs that he considers chestnuts of the folk and country music catalogue. A good friend of mine sent me a pre-release copy on CD no less, although the album has been released on LP. A limited edition package containing CD and LP formats plus a DVD is scheduled for release on May 27.

The album itself has a rawness that resembles the original Edison recordings of the 19th Century rather than anything from 1947. But the spirit of the music and Young's performance is all that matters, and he's really done more here than simply cover the most familiar songs in contemporary music with an antiquated technology. Most other artists might treat this as a novelty, but this is Neil Young, an artist who likes to surprise us. So he's done something comparable to what we heard a few years ago on his album, Le Noise (Reprise, 2010), where he featured new, personal songs enhanced by Daniel Lanois’s interesting soundscapes. Since A Letter Home looks to the technology of the past, the sound is deliberately dreadful. The fidelity is tinny, razor sharp to the ear with little bottom end. It's in mono, which is fine, but the production values are lean. If it wasn't for the performance value, which is strong, this could be considered Young's worst sounding album ever.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Neglected Gem # 54: Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) (2007)

I have a soft spot for time travel films. In the question of time – how it works, what it means, and whether or not we can master it – there is potential for great storytelling, because it taps into the most fundamental questions we can ask. Make no wonder that time is represented so broadly in film, from the nested intricacy of Primer, the numbing repetition of Groundhog Day, to the haunting exploration of La Jetée, and the visceral desperate action of The Terminator or Looper. The subject of time transcends genre, allowing stories of all stripes to emerge, and while they often don’t tell us much about time itself – except, perhaps, not to meddle with it – they do reveal plenty about the artist asking the question. And what we learn about Nacho Vigalondo, the writer and director behind 2007’s Spanish-language Los cronocrímenes (or Timecrimes in English), is that his view of time is very fatalistic indeed.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Of Mice and Men: Depression Dream

James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men (Photo: Richard Phibbs)

Depression plays are a distinctive genre in American theatre, and Of Mice and Men, which John Steinbeck fashioned from his 1937 novel, is perhaps the finest example written by anyone other than Clifford Odets. (Odets was the undisputed master of the form, and Awake and Sing!, produced two years earlier than Of Mice and Men, was his masterpiece.) Steinbeck’s book is practically a play – it’s mostly dialogue and it has a clear dramatic arc – so the transposition was a natural one. The play opened on Broadway while the novel was still on the bestseller lists. The original production starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as the physically strong but mentally challenged Lennie, whom George has known since childhood and has always cared for and protected. There was a marvelous film version in 1940, directed by Lewis Milestone, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. and an Aaron Copland score that I’d call the greatest music ever written for a movie. It was remade in 1992 with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and there have been a couple of TV adaptations, including a memorable version in 1968, directed by Ted Kotcheff, with George Segal and Nicol Williamson. But perhaps because it’s shown up so often on the screen, it’s rarely revived on stage, so Anna D. Shapiro’s beautiful new Broadway production is an occasion. (The last New York mounting was in 1987.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

From Memoir to Film: The Railway Man

Any director who attempts to adapt a memoir into a feature film is confronted with a myriad of challenges. The text will inevitably be telescoped but what to eliminate and what to emphasize, especially given that with the memoir genre, the author’s decision to conceal is as important as what he reveals? Should the film maintain the memoir’s structure of a chronological overview or revert to flashbacks? What about the choice of casting: should the filmmakers be looking for actors with cinematic appeal or attempt to search out individuals who closely resemble in appearance, age and mannerisms the characters in the memoir? And perhaps most important: with the choices above already made, can the film be true to the spirit of the memoir?

The foregoing issues are especially acute because Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man (1995 reissued by Vintage in 2014) is so uneven. In the early chapters, he chronicles his love for the railway in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. What follows, the treatment of POWs, is the best part. As a 22 year-old when he was captured after the British surrender of Singapore, Lomax, along with tens of thousands of POWs in1943, was forced to build the notorious “Death Railway,” as it became known, a 258-mile stretch of train track from Burma to Thailand. The rail line provided the passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. Treated as slaves, the prisoners worked in the torpid heat on a subsistence diet where diseases such as dysentery and cholera were rife. Whenever a POW flagged, he would be beaten. Over 12, 000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. (It should be noted that over twenty-five percent of the American and British Empire POWs died in Japanese captivity while only one percent of the same POWs died in Nazi camps.)