Saturday, January 31, 2015

Vincent Mantsoe: Philosopher of the Physical

Photo: Meinrad Heck

There is a point in NTU when South African dance artist Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe starts laughing. His belly roar punctuates the silence cocooning a solo that, he says out loud to the audience, is about “nothing.” Using spoken word and physical gestures, Mantsoe describes an existential state of being, a place where the soul spins blindly in the darkness of a friendless night, seeking comfort in something concrete. It is a vain pursuit, akin to a dog chasing its tail. This way madness leads. When he laughs it is because he recognizes the absurdity of his situation. Resolution is pointless. He will always dance alone. "Even if nothingness pervades,” he writes in his novelistic program notes, “there is always something taking form ... what may be created in your own mind."

Creating meaning in his own mind, and artfully articulating it through dance, is what distinguishes Mantsoe, a choreographer of conscience who blends street vernaculars with traditional African dance forms. Today a resident of France, he has won many awards around the world for his inventive approach to dance making. For the next few weeks Canadians can experience it for themselves. His two-part show, at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Theatre until tonight, is part of a Canada tour that launched in Montreal and continues through February at venues in Peterborough, Ottawa and Vancouver. Make sure to see him.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Time and Again: SyFy's 12 Monkeys

"She is not your mission. She’s just a puzzle piece." – Dr. Jones to Cole, in the pilot episode of SyFy's 12 Monkeys.
Adaptations of movies to television can be hit and miss, and perhaps the strongest television shows to come from the big screen aren't inspired by the most beloved films. Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights (2004) probably had its fans, but the television series (launched by NBC in 2006, also developed by Berg) made no bones that it was taking off in its own direction, unburdened by the film or book. In fact, I confess that I began watching the series without even knowing about the film, and it so confidently built its world in its extraordinary first season that I've never felt remotely inspired to check out its source material. The other great movie-to-TV adaptation is of course Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There, the series quickly outstripped the famously wrongheaded early-90s film and found its voice precisely in the broader continuing storylines so essential to television storytelling.

But adapting films beloved in their own rights, especially arguably classic films like Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (itself inspired by a then-classic film,
in that instance, Chris Marker's incomparable La Jetée) are a different story, both literally and figuratively. When it's a movie that you love, that you've seen multiple times, and that you know backwards and forwards, that is a tough new row to hoe for a new television series. SyFy has bravely taken that on with its new time travel thriller 12 Monkeys, which premiered two weeks ago. And the results, so far, are genuinely promising.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Attack of the Cyber Mann: Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in Blackhat.

Michael Mann’s new action thriller Blackhat is set in the up-to-the-minute world of  international cybercrime, with a hero (Chris Hemsworth) who’s a computer hacker pitted against an apolitical cyber-terrorist who engineers cataclysms, such as a near-meltdown at a nuclear power planet, in order to cash in on them. The term “blackhat” refers to this villain (played by the Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen), but the character doesn’t have the stature to justify his being the film’s title character; he’s nameless and, for most of the movie, faceless. (We only get a good look at him as the movie is heading into its violent climactic set piece, so we’ll know which of the people on screen the hero is going to try to kill last.) Maybe his speeches about not knowing where, or even who, he is are meant to make his character seem computer-age, but he just comes across as seedy and dazed. Probably Mann just thought the title sounded cool. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mood Disorder: Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night—the latest offering from the Dardenne brothers of Belgium—feels about as long as that, despite clocking in at a little over ninety minutes. The filmmakers have made realism their trademark approach, seeking to give voice to contemporary society's flotsam and shed light on their plight. In this attempt, they mean to channel the neo-realism of De Sica and his fellow Italians. His Umberto D. follows one elderly man as he loses both his Rome apartment and his pride, forced to beg on the streets for rent money. The Dardennes's film also tells a basic story, that of one Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a French wife and mother of two who's being forced from her job at a small company. But De Sica suffuses his film with a tone and technique that flushes out fellow feeling for the titular character. He was a humanist: Umberto Ferrari's character is fully formed and dignity affirmed in our eyes, even as he's debased in the eyes of others. The Dardennes brothers miss this streak. Two Days, One Night lacks a compelling central character, which leaves its simple narrative and conflict moribund.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Neglected Gems #69-70: The Rocketeer (1991) & The Last Starfighter (1984)

Billy Campbell and Alan Arkin in The Rocketeer (1991)

The cinematic “excesses” of the 1980s and early 1990s, so venemously derided by critics today, manifest mostly in the films we still remember – your Rambos, your Conans, your Top Guns – but these big, loud, attention-grabbing blockbusters naturally came with their fair share of imitators, some of which did the job of perfecting escapist entertainment much better than their more lucrative counterparts. Swept aside by petulant studio executives and disregarded by audiences and critics as cheap knock-offs of worthier films, these are stories that Tolkien might have described as “lesser sons of greater houses” – lighthearted adventure films whose excitement, intelligence, and genuine charm have been all but forgotten in the wake of their longer-lasting, more successful kin.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Notes on the Method: Jane Fonda, 1969-1971, Part 2

Jane Fonda as Bree Daniel, in Klute (1971).

In the 1971 Klute, Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniel, a high-class Manhattan hooker who – reluctantly – asks for the protection of a cop named John Klute when she’s stalked by a creep (Charles Cioffi) who turns out to be a killer. Donald Sutherland gives a fine, understated performance as Klute, and the chemistry between him and Fonda (they were an off-screen couple for a few years and made one other picture together, 1973’s Steelyard Blues) is partly what makes the film so memorable, especially once the protagonist and the title character become involved. Klute is far from a romantic comedy, but it has a romantic-comedy set-up: the tensions between the hero and heroine, who come from different worlds – Klute is a small-town Pennsylvania police officer who meets Bree during an investigation into the murder of a friend – and rub each other the wrong way, turn out to be erotic ones. Sutherland’s nerdy looks – the gawky frame, the mongoose neck, the outsize ears – are used here to emphasize his character’s square-shooter persona, the very thing that Bree mocks and tries to undermine, at first reflexively and then as a form of resistance against the danger of losing emotional control. (During this early phase of his career, Sutherland generally played hipsters, most famously “Hawkeye” Pierce in Altman’s M*A*S*H; the fact that his goony appearance didn’t stand in his way is an indication of the way the Vietnam-era made movie stars of actors who would never have landed leading-man roles in any previous period, like Woody Allen and Elliott Gould.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Living Outside the Norms of Time: Remembering Frank Ogden ('Dr. Tomorrow')

He went by many names. Some proclaimed him the "Marco Polo of Cyberspace." Others, "Dr. Tomorrow" from his internationally syndicated newspaper column that appeared throughout North America. Whatever name you gave him, it was generally agreed that Frank Ogden, who died at the age of 92 a few days before the New Year arrived in 2012, was one of Canada's rare creatures – an iconoclast who lived outside the norms of his time. He was not only an elected fellow of the Explorer's Club; he was also the first Canadian member of the World Future Club. From studying voodoo in Haiti, to turning himself into a "cyborg" by having surgically implanted, intra-ocular bionic lenses to improve his eyesight, Ogden was never chained by conventions. In a country not noted for celebrating its prodigies, Ogden created a niche that left both scientists and scholars comparing him to such unconventionally brilliant thinkers as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.