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.”