Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Pleasures of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks Series

Novelist Peter Robinson.

Although I had previously read with pleasure the British-born Canadian Peter Robinson’s standalone novel, Before the Poison (William Morrow & Co., 2013), I had not dipped into his DCI Alan Banks police procedural series until this summer. My first entry was All the Colours of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart, 2008), and it was a wonderful introduction, particularly for a reader whose primary interest in mysteries is not a whodunit but an exploration of character, relationships, issues or themes. That was followed by several other novels: Bad Boy (2011), Watching in the Dark, (2012), Children of the Revolution (2013), and perhaps the best of them all, the multiple award-winning In a Dry Season (1999). Also, as a highly educated writer with a PhD in twentieth-century British poets and an individual with an eclectic taste in music, his novels are laced with literary and musical associations that are frequently integrated into the narrative as motifs. For instance, the title of the last novel mentioned above derives from a line from a T.S. Eliot poem that Banks himself references. Banks who works in rural Yorkshire in the town of Eastvale may remind some readers of Inspector Reg Wexford and the cultured Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Their creators, both the late P.D. James and Ruth Rendell respectively, were inspirations to Robinson. For the purposes of this review, I will focus primarily on All the Colours of Darkness and In a Dry Season.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Parris is Burning: Interview with Hip Hop Dance Queen Parris Goebel

Dancer/Choreographer Parris Goebel.

Parris Goebel is the reigning queen of the international hip hop dance scene. The triple award-winning dancer and choreographer from New Zealand has several times won the world championships with her The Royal Family megacrew and famed all-female crew ReQuest at competitions held in the U.S. Her explosive, exact and erotically charged movement style pulsates with the rhythms of Maori and Polynesian dance traditions she learned growing up in Auckland: hip hop as ancestral soul.

Jennifer Lopez, who saw Goebel dance on video, was so impressed by her elbow-popping, foot-stomping, hip-circling moves she hired the 23-year-old diamond-toothed Kiwi with the bleached blonde hair to choreograph her 2012 Dance Again world tour. Since then, Goebel has worked with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, choreographing its 2013 Michael Jackson tribute show in Las Vegas, hip hop’s Missy Elliott and Korean pop star, Taeyang. An electrifying performer in her own right, Goebel danced with J-Lo on the season 11 finale of American Idol and appeared in the fifth installment of the U.S dance film franchise, Step Up. Earlier this year, Goebel choreographed Nicki Minaj’s PinkPrint tour and a video for Beyoncé.

Her latest venture is Born to Dance, New Zealand’s first hip hop dance film, directed by actor Tammy Davis of Whale Rider and Black Sheep fame from a script by acclaimed Maori writer Hone Kouka, Steve Barr and Casey Whelan. Goebel choreographed the energized dance sequences performed by members of her own Palace Dance Studios, including Tia-Taharoa Maipi making his screen debut as Tu, the film’s dance-mad male lead. Goebel dances herself in one sequence in which she raunchily fronts a female crew that decimates the men in a forward-charge dance battle.

With a pumped up score by Auckland DJ P-Money, Born to Dance had its world premiere at the recent edition of the Toronto International Film Festival which Goebel attended with Maipi and the film’s other male star, Australian/New Zealand recording star Stan Walker, in tow. The sold out screenings were followed by rave reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, both of which downplayed the pot-boiler plot in favour of the dancing. The latter singled out Goebel for praise, calling Born to Dance “an astonishing Kiwi choreography showcase, the biggest and by far more impressive of its kind to originate Down Under.”

Opening in New Zealand at the end of September where, after four weeks, it topped $1-million at the box office, Born to Dance is looking to get a North American distribution deal following its participation in the American Film Market, Nov. 4 to 11. Meanwhile, Goebel continues to dance in ways that are earning her legions of admirers.

In Toronto, together with Walker and Maipi, she judged a hip hop dance battle featuring students of Jade’s Hip Hop Academy and afterward was besieged by dozens of young dancers wanting to pose with her in fan selfies and get her autograph. Stepping away from the adoring crowd for a quick in-the-street interview, Goebel told me that hip hop dance is not just a series of body locking moves, it’s a communal movement. “And we in New Zealand,” she said, “just happen to be the ones leading it.” Here’s more of that conversation.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Goosebumps the Movie's Meta Monster Story

Ryan Lee, Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, and Odeya Rush in Goosebumps.

This review contains some spoilers for Goosebumps.

Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) is hardly thrilled when his recently widowed mother Gale (Amy Ryan) decides she’s moving their two-person family from New York to Madison, Delaware for a job at the local high school. The town is small but charming. Obviously, big city teenager Zach is bored in the ‘burbs – that is, until he meets Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute girl next door, and her surly and mysterious father (Jack Black). As it turns out, Dad is prolific children’s horror novelist R. L. Stine, famous for penning the Goosebumps stories beloved by real-life 90s kids across the globe. It also so happens that Stine has a dark secret: his fictional monsters are real, brought to life by his supernaturally vivid imagination. To control the herd, Stine keeps his original manuscripts locked in his study until one night, Zach and awkward tag-along buddy, Champ (this is his real name; yes they address how ridiculous that is) accidentally set the monsters loose on the town. Hannah, Zach, Champ and R. L. Stine team up to minimize destruction of the town and put the monsters back where they belong, on paper. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Failed Experiments: Experimenter and The Stanford Prison Experiment

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story.

In May 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, first paired two randomly chosen subjects, a “teacher” and a “learner,” supposedly to study the effect of punishment on memory. The learner sat in a separate room with wires on his forearm, the teacher at a box equipped with switches set to ascending voltages. The teacher read a series of word matches, and the subject was to repeat random matches from memory. An official-looking man in a lab coat instructed the teacher to administer a shock if the learner was incorrect, and to raise the voltage for each successive error. From the learner’s room, very soon, came cries of pain, pleas for release, and finally silence. Only then was the teacher told that the shocks had been false, the learner an actor, and the experiment a ruse to see if and to what extent ordinary people would inflict pain under orders. Ultimately, 65 percent of the teachers went to the highest shock level, while an even larger number went at least to the “dangerous” level.

Ten years later, Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, randomly divided a group of college-age males into “guards” and “prisoners.” A mock prison—three cells, a hallway “yard,” a closet “hole”—was constructed in the bowels of an academic building; the cells were bugged and the hallway surveilled by video. The prisoners were arrested, fingerprinted, taken blindfolded to the prison, stripped, deloused, and dressed in loose smocks sewed with ID numbers. The guards were given opaque sunglasses, matching uniforms, and nightsticks. Within a day, guards had begun to mistreat prisoners verbally and psychologically. Within three days, prisoners were showing signs of extreme stress; two had to be released early. The abuse escalating, Zimbardo shut it all down. A study intended to run two weeks had to be terminated after six days.

By some odd coincidence, the professors who designed and supervised the two most alarming experiments in postwar American psychology were classmates at the same Bronx high school. It’s also coincidence, seemingly, that this year’s Sundance Film Festival hosted the premiers of dramatic films based on both men’s work. The Stanford Prison Experiment was released in July, while Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story is just out. Admirably tackling the question posed to filmmakers by any fascinating real-life event—How do I make a movie out of this?—each tries to wrest narrative and metaphor from scientific inquiry, closed environments, and base human tendency. Presumably the releases were staggered to prevent the films from canceling each other out, but their only real overlap is the disturbing nature of the results examined in each. (And, I suppose, those long-ago Bronx classrooms.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Beasts of No Nation: Sun, Why Do You Shine?

Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in the Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation. (Photo: Shawn Greene/Netflix)

It seems like Beasts of No Nation has been fermenting in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s brain for a long time. Busy until recently with HBO’s True Detective – the second season of which saw him cutting back his involvement from directing to just producing – he has finally had the chance to pursue this project, which he has written, directed, produced, and shot all by himself. That sort of personal dedication speaks to a passionate need to bring this story to life, and that passion is clear in every frame of his harrowing war drama, even if it doesn’t always pay off for the viewer. At least Fukunaga finally got to scratch his itch.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Goodspeed's Musical Capracorn & Verdi’s Shakespeare at the Met

Duke Lafoon (right), with Ella Briggs, in A Wonderful Life at the Goodspeed Opera House. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Considering the unusual kinds of musicals Sheldon Harnick collaborated on with the late Jerry Bock – Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Rothschilds and of course Fiddler on the Roof, all complex period shows with evocative settings – his determination to turn It’s a Wonderful Life into a musical is a little puzzling. Frank Capra’s 1946 movie is so well known that most Americans can probably recite whole sections of the screenplay off by heart, which makes you wonder why anyone would bother adapting it in the first place. And for those of us who aren’t seduced by its all-too-familiar charms, the project just seems untenable. The picture, with its Albert Hackett-Frances Goodrich script (the last of several versions that were floated to RKO, including efforts by Clifford Odets and Marc Connelly), may be the most beloved of all Christmas movies – though, famously, it wasn’t a hit on its original release and didn’t attain its legendary status until the Vietnam era – but it’s also certainly the weirdest. The story may have an angel named Clarence striving to earn his wings and Capra’s usual Christian-flavored populist hokum (the whole town of Bedford Falls turns out at the eleventh hour to save their friend George Bailey from bankruptcy and prison), but there’s a bitterness at its core that’s so jarringly at odds with its depiction of the self-sacrificing hero as to be pathological. Capra crafts sequences of horror and despair that linger in the mind longer after you’ve digested the treacly happy ending, like the one where the alcoholic druggist George works for in his boyhood mixes a lethal medicine by accident for one of his patients (George prevents him from sending it out) or the climactic episode in which Clarence shows George, who’s about to commit suicide, what a cold, heartless town Bedford Falls would have been had he never been born. And in his best scenes Jimmy Stewart gets so deep into George’s anger and disappointment and misery at the way life has cheated him that the upbeat finale simply isn’t convincing.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Not Quite: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Novelist Emily St. John Mandel. (Photo by Dese'Rae L. Stage)

Though it won the prestigious 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award, for best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom in the previous year, as well as this year’s Toronto Book Award, Emily St. John Mandel, author of the dystopian novel Station Eleven, resists her novel being classified as SF. Her reply when it was nominated for the U.S. National Book Award late last year, and referenced as one of the few SF novels so honoured, was to tweet, “I actually don't think of Station Eleven as sci-fi, but am fully prepared to concede that I may be alone in this...”. One reason given by her for this view is that it didn’t contain futuristic technology. As it’s set in the near future, I can’t imagine why it would. Besides, I’m not sure how you would classify a book about our world after it has been almost completely decimated by a plague, as anything but science fiction, but even if you didn’t, Station Eleven, for all its many virtues, falls flat as fully satisfying literature or, for that matter, as successful science fiction.