Saturday, May 16, 2015

Parting Clouds: Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Now that he's reached the age of sixty, French director Olivier Assayas's work thankfully hasn't settled into austerity, but instead continues to give off a youthful inquisitiveness that remains quietly passionate and quirkily insightful. Rather than becoming reserved and pedantic in his observations, Assayas continues to sparkle with a wry and active curiousity. He rejects easy irony for a more open-ended bemusement that belies the affliction of time and collapses the gap that often exists between generations. In Irma Vep (1996), Assayas presented a middle-aged film director (Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud) who tried to capture a past classic by remaking Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les vampires (1915-16) only to discover his flailing efforts had more to say about the state of the present. In his richly meditative Summer Hours (2008), a group of siblings begin to dread the disappearance of their childhood memories, along with their summer home, after their mother dies, only to soon recognize that those memories can be transformed by the generation that follows. Something in the Air (2012), which didn't get half the audience it deserved, looks back at the political and cultural turmoil of the early Seventies and examines a young activist who can't reconcile the rigidity of fixed ideologies with the fluid sensuality of the pop culture he loves. Assayas's films are almost always about the flux of life where meanings don't get imposed but are drawn from an expansive embrace of experience.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Israel’s Cinematic Ambassador: Eran Riklis' Dancing Arabs

Director Eran Riklis.

Toronto and Canadian audiences may not know it but Canada is the only country, to date, outside of its home country Israel, that will get to see Eran Riklis’ new film under its original title of Dancing Arabs. Mildly contentious, I suppose, but it seems to be a no-no for foreign distributors, says the genial, relaxed Riklis, in Toronto for the film’s opening of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “I’m very happy that in Canada they kept it because the French changed it to Mon fils (My Sons), the Spanish to Mis Hijos (My Sons), the Germans changed it to My Heart Dances, the U.S. to A Borrowed Identity. I’m thinking I’m holding the world record [for film titles].” So what he does mean by the title, which chronicles the experience of Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), an Israeli-Arab boy from a small town who is accepted into a prestigious Israeli arts academy in Jerusalem where he is the only Arab in attendance? “It’s very complex," says Riklis, “it’s a variety of things, the fact, this notion, you’re part of the minority, you kind of dance to please the majority in life, [as in] normal classic dance [which is] two steps forward, one backwards. If you want to take it really a little bit more extreme, it’s almost like being the jester in a way, [who] has to dance for the master. It’s a complex relationship.”

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Neglected Gem #75: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

Stanley Tucci and Rupert Everett in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999).

I’ve seen so many productions – professional and amateur – of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that, much as I love the play, for some time I’ve been fairly sure I could live my life happily without seeing another. But Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film of it is so fresh and so supremely acted that my first impulse on leaving the theatre was a desire to come back again with other friends to show it off to them. Hoffman has turned Shakespeare’s Athens (which doesn’t even try to pass for ancient Greece) into turn-of-the-century Italy (“Monte Athena”). That turns out to be an inspired choice, right from the opening sequence where the feast is being prepared for the wedding of the duke, Theseus (David Strathairn), and his bride, the stranger queen Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau, whose French accent makes a suitable division from Strathairn’s American-ness). Italians would, of course, of course, focus on the sensuality of the food; the glimpses we get of the duke’s kitchen are lush. Those aren’t the very first images. As we hear the famous Mendelssohn music drift in, we see the fairies –beams of light dancing over a violet dawn that turn into butterflies as the morning light takes over the sky. There’s a tendency (unfortunate, I think) in modern productions of Midsummer to de-emphasize the ethereal quality of the supernatural elements and make them not only carnal – which they certainly are – but earthy, even brutal. Some of the directors who have gone in that direction may have taken their cue from Jan Kott’s essay “Titania and the Ass’s Head” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary. But it would be a waste to put the play on screen and ignore the resources that enable filmmakers to make the kind of magic you can’t conjure on the stage.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Peeling Away: This is a Costume Drama at the Fleck Dance Theatre

What is revealed by what is concealed? That’s the question posed by This Is a Costume Drama, a brave new work by Toronto’s DA Hoskins that goes below the surfaces to expose some pretty uncompromising truths about the world in which we live today. It’s a strip show, both literally and figuratively, and it’s a powerful accomplishment: defiant, irreverent, hugely comedic, inventively choreographed and staged. Clothes are put on and discarded in pursuit of carnal knowledge as well as knowledge of the self. Skin becomes its own form of drama, its own form of artifice; images of nudity are permeated by sex but not shame. Morality is M.I.A. This Is a Costume Drama, a world premiere that opened at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre on April 29, goes beyond the Biblical dilemma of nakedness as a loss of innocence, examining the human condition after the expulsion from Eden. Post-paradise, identity is a social and political construct, molded by individual taste and desire more than anything resembling faith or belief in a higher order. Everything of substance has been peeled away, exposing a loss of human dignity.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Bleeps and Bloops No More – 33 1/3: Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack

Andrew Schartmann’s extensive, thoughtful treatise on Japanese composer Koji Kondo and his work on the soundtrack to the original Super Mario Bros game is probably the most unusual entry in the 33 1/3 music chapbook series. Most commonly, a passionate critic will defend an album of their choosing, as our own Kevin Courrier has in his 33 1/3 entry on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. But the soundtrack to a 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System game, even one so popular that it spawned an entire home console empire, can’t really be called an “album” – it’s more a collection of simple 8-bit melodies and sound effects. This also marks the first time the book series has considered video games as a medium with music worth exploring and celebrating. As Schartmann demonstrates, Kondo’s work on this seminal game – and the legacy of industry influence that followed – is much more than the primitive bleeps and bloops we all remember.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Goodspeed’s Guys and Dolls: Half a Loaf

Nancy Anderson as Miss Adelaide and Mark Price as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. (All photos by Cloe Poisson)

When I reviewed the Shaw Festival’s fine production of Guys and Dolls two years ago I observed that this 1950 Frank Loesser-Jo Swerling-Abe Burrows show is the rare musical in which act two is even better than act one. (Most musicals, even terrific ones, are saddled with second-act troubles.) That distinction is abundantly clear in the production currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where it opens the new season. For the first half, the Goodspeed Guys and Dolls – directed by Don Stephenson, with musical direction by Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty – is disappointing. The staging feels cramped, especially during the “Runyonland” opening. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are mix-and-match, with a lot of glaringly bad choices: the hot pants on the Hot Box Girls in the farmyard number “A Bushel and a Peck” don’t flatter their bodies, and what the hell is Benny Southstreet (Noah Plomgren) doing in a zoot suit? Much of the acting is overly broad, especially Mark Price’s as Nathan Detroit, and – in roles that are normally understated – John Jellison as Arvide Abernathy and Karen Murphy as General Cartwright, both on the Salvation Army side of the cast of characters. And O’Flaherty must be using the arrangements from the 1992 Broadway revival, which speed up the tempo (at least on some of the numbers). I thought that was a lousy idea then and I still think so. It seems doubtful that the audiences at the Goodspeed would get bored if “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” were played at the tempo Loesser envisioned. This is, after all, one of the great musical-theatre scores, and familiarity hasn’t worn it down.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Unsentimental History: Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall

David Ben-Gurion (left) and Golda Meir as she shakes hands with Moshe Sharett (right) after signing Israel's Declaration of Independence, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948. (Photo: Frank Scherschel)

The trouble with unilateral action is that it holds out no hope of real or lasting peace because of its denial of justice to the other party.
– Avi Shlaim, Epilogue to the 2014 edition of The Iron Wall
I should begin this review with a disclaimer: I am a news junkie. I was raised by journalists, and the first thing I do in the morning is check my top three news sources. In the last decade, I’ve also begun to do a quick check of Twitter and whatever is dominating my Facebook feed (for actual news, not of the Kardashian-related variety). So I like to think that I am relatively well-informed about what is going on in the world, and fairly up-to-date on major developing stories. Nevertheless, there are moments in every news junkie's life when you open up the paper/webpage/link and have what can only be described as a “WTF moment.” I had one about a year ago when I opened up the New York Times app and saw that Russia had invaded Ukraine – that WTF moment led me down the rabbit hole of books on Russian foreign policy. This is the only appropriate response I have ever been able to formulate for my WTF moments: to recognize that my surprise and shock is largely a result of my own ignorance, and attempt to repair that particular problem. For the most part, what happens in the world – in various countries and between them – is only shocking if we don’t know the history that has led up to it. Knowing some of the history behind a place, people, or policy usually reveals that however crazy certain developments look on the surface they are in fact a reasonable (though not necessarily positive) evolution of what has come before.