Saturday, March 21, 2015

Get On Up: Shot in the Arm

Get On Up, the James Brown biopic, is full of life, most of it supplied by Chadwick Boseman, the remarkable actor and dancer who gets down Brown’s startlingly kinetic presence. Boseman didn’t make much of an impression as Jackie Robinson in the bland 42, but he’s mesmerizing as the charismatic and tyrannical Godfather of Soul. Brown’s sense of himself as a one-man band whose fellow musicians – and wives - he sees as no more than necessary echoes of his presence alienates everyone around him, even, eventually, his best friend and loyal colleague Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who sticks around longer than anyone else. But his musical inventiveness is as outsize as his personality. The musical numbers, directed with a great deal of skill by Tate Taylor, do exactly what they need to do: they replicate the excitement of seeing James Brown.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Cost of Sacrificing Liberty for Security: Guantánamo Diary

A Guantanamo detainee being led by a guard in March 2002. (Photo: Andres Leighton)

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Benjamin Franklin cited by Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantánamo Diary.
On November 20, 2001, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer and telecommunications specialist from Mauritania, received a visit at his house from two Mauritanian officers summoning him to answer questions at the country’s intelligence ministry. “Take your car,” one of the men told him, as Slahi stood in front of his house with his mother and his aunt. “We hope you can come back today.” He has not returned. After spending a week in a cell in his native country, the authorities found no evidence against him. However, at the behest of the Americans, Slahi was rendered to a black site in Jordan for six months, and then flown blindfolded, shackled and diapered to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for two weeks; from there he was transported to Guantánamo in Cuba where he remains incommunicable to this day. Three years into his detention, Slahi wrote in basic idiomatic English he obviously picked up from his guards – his fourth language and acquired in Guantanamo – a manuscript which was immediately classified. It took years of litigation and negotiation by Slahi’s pro bono lawyers to force the military to declassify a redacted version, heavily black-barred (that sometimes goes on for pages, some of it to conceal the identity of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blame it on Hamilton: A Celebration

It’s Tuesday after Juno week in Hamilton. The big poster designed by Tom Wilson still overlooks James Street. Swag bags are emptied though, and the blue boxes are filled with was passed for swag in some of those bags. Booklets, ads, tickets are blowing down the road. All that remains are the memories. Memories of that week when all the clubs were full of people, and music was played everywhere. Even Limeridge Mall had an event. A music event! Not a sale. The libraries had an event, believe it or not. Hamilton Public hosted a concert in the round on their 4th floor. And McMaster Libraries did a demonstration of electronic instruments for attendees! Give your head a shake. I was there, participating, demoing the Makey Makey and my colleagues showed off the Atari Punk Console, the Little Bits Synth Kit and a theremin that was also built from a kit. The theremin was the big draw. After people bought their beer at the bar they were pulled over by the sounds of alien invasion coming from the weird black box. They then stayed to twist the knobs of the punk console or bang away on the banana piano. Yep, it’s a piano with bananas for keys (or forks, or tofu, or even raw meat). Fun wow!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Storybook Movies: Paddington and Cinderella

The English filmmaker Paul King, who wrote and directed Paddington, seems to have come out of nowhere. (His résumé includes only one previous feature – something called Bunny and the Bull, which never opened in the U.S. – and a handful of obscure TV credits.) And he comes fully formed, with style, sensibility and a level of inventiveness and filmmaking expertise that ought to make other novice directors green with envy – or inspire them to go and do likewise. Paddington, based on the Michael Bond children’s books about a Peruvian bear who’s adopted by a family of Londoners (King and Hamish McColl worked up the screen story), is so accomplished visually, so funny and enchanting, that watching it makes you feel a bit delirious.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Neglected Gem #73: Speed Racer (2008)

Emile Hirsch in Andy and Lana Wachowski's Speed Racer.

Is there such a thing as a “delayed-onset masterpiece”? Is it possible for a film to be purposefully designed to achieve “cult favourite” status some five-to-ten years after its initial release? It hardly seems like such a thing could (or would) be done intentionally, but it’s hard to ascribe any other methodology to the directing work of Andy and Lana Wachowski. Maybe they’re just continually a few years ahead of the curve?

I’ve described their films as flawed but inspired, and the more I consider their body of work, the less I find that these flaws detract from the experience – whether it’s the Orwellian dystopia of V for Vendetta or the neo-noir cyberthrills of The Matrix and its sequels, the only real issue I have that remains constant is overindulgence. The Wachowskis seem to allow their creativity to get the best of them, and after intoxicating themselves on a subject, attempt to cram all the ideas that emerge into the final product, for good or ill. Perhaps it’s their ability to operate as a duo that stops this from completely crippling each film – keeping each other in check is doubtless one of their many talents – but it does result in longer runtimes and more complicated plots than are necessary to communicate the most exciting and valuable parts of their projects. In every other sense, the Wachowskis have cemented themselves as ingenious and artful filmmakers, providing a unique vision on par with Guillermo del Toro or even Steven Spielberg. With the Wachowskis, you never know what you’re going to get, but you can be sure it’ll be unlike anything else on the marquee.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Playwrights With and Without Agendas: Reverberation and The Colored Museum

Luke Macfarlane and Aya Cash in Reverberation. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Reverberation, which just closed at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, is the first play I’ve seen by Matthew Lopez, whose The Whipping Man was well received in New York in 2011. Reverberation is a brand-new play about the debilitating consequences of grief and the interplay of loss and sexuality. Its thirty-five-year-old protagonist, Jonathan (the Canadian-born actor Luke MacFarlane, best known for the TV series Brothers and Sisters), has lived alone in Queens since his partner of fifteen years, Gabriel, was beaten to death in front of his eyes. His grief has paralyzed him.  He works out of his apartment, rarely venturing outside; he doesn’t keep up with friends; he turns down his parents’ offer to visit them in Oregon for Thanksgiving or Christmas. His only ongoing contact with the world is in the form of one-night stands with men he meets on Grindr, and he prefers them to visit him and gets rid of them when the sex is over. That’s what happens in the opening scene, where he has an intense sexual encounter with Wes (Carl Lundstedt), who’s twenty-three and so knocked out by the experience that he’s eager to see Jonathan again. “You fuck like you invented it,” he tells Jonathan, and a month or two later, when he gets up the nerve to come around to see him again, he’s both more graphic and more lyrical about what made Jonathan a more powerful, and also more poignant, lover than anyone else he’s known. By then we’ve figured out that Jonathan’s sexual performance is his way of holding onto his life with Gabe – of channeling those emotions once more – but he can only parcel them out in discrete, limited interactions. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XIII

In Steven Knight's Locke (2014), which recently came out on DVD and Blu-ray, Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who, the day before he must supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham, learns that a colleague with whom he had a one-night stand with seven months earlier has gone into premature labour with their baby. Despite his huge job responsibilities and his wife and children still awaiting him at home, he decides to drive to London to be with the woman carrying his child.

From the moment Hardy makes a crucial turn in his car onto a highway of his choice, he never veers from its destination despite the demands over the phone from all the important people in his life. For just over 80 minutes, as we stay focused almost entirely in close-up on Hardy's face, he remains steadfast and glued to the road, as if it were a lifeline pulling him towards a liberation that comes at a price. While he fields a never ending series of desperate phone calls, and hears voices that compete with the ones already in his head, Hardy sustains a tightrope act not easy for an actor to pull off in such a minimal dramatic concept. Yet he finds a way to enlarge the confined space of the vehicle by drawing us into his battle with larger worlds outside that car: one world which has defined him, one that has harnessed him, and another that holds a mystery for which there is still no easy conclusion.