Saturday, November 28, 2015

TIME Magazine: Sticking to the Old Ways, Fortunately

TIME magazine’s recent announcement that it has hired film critic Stephanie Zacharek to replace the late Richard Corliss, its longtime reviewer who passed away early this year, is welcome news for those of us who still buy magazines, value their continuity, and don’t want to see film critics thrown overboard in some misguided attempt to keep up with the times. When publications as diverse as Newsweek, Variety and The Village Voice canned their longtime critics, in recent years, including such stalwarts as David Ansen, Todd McCarthy and J. Hoberman , the future of film criticism, wobbly as it was in terms of overall quality, seemed even more dire. With the ascent of newer reviewers who don’t actually want to bring a real critical eye to their work (they don’t really deserve to be called film critics as they don’t/can’t criticize films but only praise them) and so many amateurs blogging their misguided, superficial and uninformed opinions on movies, there did not seem to be a place for the talented likes of Ms. Zacharek, who has toiled for the Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice, among others. Yet, here comes TIME which could have opted for a rotating slate of film critics, or no critics at all, attempting to keep the old ways going, allowing a prickly, original voice to carry the torch previously held aloft by TIME film critics, including Corliss, Richard Schickel (now retired), Jay Cocks and James Agee. Not only that, instead of routinely directing the readers of the print edition to go online to read most of the magazine’s critical reviews, as they used to recently do, they’ve of late opted to put most of those reviews in print instead and ceased tub-thumping for exclusively online content in the print publication, They still have separate online content, of course, but I no longer get the impression that it is paramount nor perceived by TIME’s editors, as more important to them then the weekly sent out to subscribers or sold on the newsstand. TIME’s decision to hire Zacharek comes on the heels of the startling announcement that Playboy magazine plans to phase out its nude pictorials, the ones that gave it cultural cachet when it was launched by Hugh Hefner in 1953. No doubt, those pictorials aren’t seen as nor are they as racy anymore in an age when mainstream pornography is aired regularly on (pay) TV (in Canada, at least), but it’s the exact opposite of what TIME has done, in terms of honouring its traditions. Playboy is turning itself into Esquire or GQ – profile pieces, interviews and lifestyle concepts geared towards an upwardly mobile male readership – while TIME tries to maintain important aspects of what it has traditionally done for decades. I think the latter has more merit and should be commended for not bending to the internet’s seemingly implacable Borg-like will.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Bridge of Spies: Phony Baloney

Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies.

The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, where, in 1957, the slippery British-born Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) manages to elude the FBI for the last time before he’s caught, is both excitingly and wittily filmed. Rylance, a much-lauded stage and recently TV star (he played Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall) who hasn’t been tapped by the movies until now, turns the tension between Abel’s hyperawareness and his calm, almost languid air into a sort of music-hall routine with a whiff of melancholy. But as soon as Abel is sent to prison to await trial for espionage and James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is urged by his law firm to act as his defense attorney, the movie flattens out. How did Spielberg and the writers, Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, manage to turn the fascinating, twisty story of Abel – the Cold War spy who ended up being traded to the Soviets for both the captured pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American economics student in Berlin arrested for suspicion of espionage – into a civics lesson? Somehow, instead of releasing the storytelling master in Spielberg – the director who could make the three-hour Munich so gripping – Bridge of Spies brings out his earnest, big-studio-era, socio-sentimental side. Janusz Kaminski’s period cinematography is gorgeous and vivifying, but the movie behind it is as glazed as Always, his 1989 remake of A Guy Named Joe, with Richard Dreyfuss in the Spencer Tracy part. And this time around he’s got Tom Hanks, who plays Jim Donovan as if he were Tracy.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Revisiting The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

What is a Witcher? With the roaring success of this year’s medieval fantasy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, most gamers know all about Geralt of Rivia and his flair for demon hunting, but it wasn’t too long ago that we were asking ourselves this question. In 2011, Polish video game developers CD Projekt RED released their first crack at a console game, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Assassins of Kings took a relatively unknown story from a relatively unplayed PC game (simply titled, The Witcher) and ran with it. Obviously, CD Projekt RED had a lot of narrative gaps to fill in for their rapidly growing fanbase.

Acclimatizing the Pontar Valley’s sudden influx of Xbox 360 gamers to The Witcher 2‘s environment was no easy task but CD Projekt RED delivered. With the help of gorgeous cinematics (my favourite, an introductory one titled “What is a Witcher?”), a detailed inventory menu, and the expansive journal entries favoured by the best lore-heavy RPGS, Projekt RED rendered playing The Witcher 1 almost entirely unnecessary. For newcomers looking to immerse themselves in The Witcher 3’s award-winning open world, however, Witcher 2 is a crucial starting point –  not just for the backstory it offers but also because it’s a really phenomenal game in its own right.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Winter's Tale: A Riveting Reinterpretation

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter's Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

In choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s riveting reinterpretation of The Winter’s Tale, a new full-length ballet which the National Ballet of Canada presented this past week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, the dancer portraying King Leontes, the troubled and troubling monarch at the heart of Shakespeare’s brilliantly convoluted story, collapses the palm of his hand and ripples the fingers in imitation of a spider. It’s not a move typically associated with ballet but on this occasion it serves as a fluent example of the art form’s ability to communicate powerful emotions and universal themes without the use of words.

The expressionistic gesture renders in physical terms the metaphor of the spider conjured by Leontes in the play when describing an onslaught of jealousy. Suspecting that his good wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, the suddenly sick-at-heart King of Sicilia says he feels as though he has drunk a cup “with a spider steep’d” and this has cracked “his gorge, his sides,/With violent hefts.”

Leontes’ deluded belief that an infidelity has indeed occurred is the pivot on which the rest of the play turns, veering sharply from a scene of domestic bliss to one of tragedy. Shakespeare’s late career problem play will later shift back to comedy mode once the King, in a sense, kills the spider gnawing at his sanity. The antidote will be love and forgiveness whose powers of redemption Leontes rediscovers in due time. These are large ideas, fundamentally Christian in nature, and the wonder of The Winter’s Tale is that they endure even when translated into the mute art of dance.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Falling for Dance, Canadian Style

DanceBrazil performed Jelon Vierira’s Malungos at Toronto's Fall for Dance North festival. (Photo: Andrea Mohin)

Toronto fell big time for the inaugural Fall for Dance North festival that took over the city’s Sony Centre earlier in the autumn. An initiative of artistic director Ilter Ibrahimof and executive director Madeleine Skoggard, the two-part program showcased exciting new dance creation from across Canada, and other points around the world including New York where the Fall for Dance franchise launched in 2004. Like the original, Fall for Dance North (so-called because of the event’s revamped presence north of the 49th parallel) offered up a variety of dance styles at a cost of $10 a ticket. The Sony Centre, which seats approximately 3,200, was sold-out for each of the three performances that took place from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 – proof that if you make dance affordable the people will come. But that wasn’t the only reason the festival packed them in.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Steve Jobs: Turn It Off

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs.

In Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, released a couple of months ago, you can feel the documentarian Alex Gibney struggling to find a shape for the story of this icon – a way of bridging the gap between his narcissism and callousness and the heroic status he occupies in the minds of millions of people. And the impossibility of building that bridge becomes the focus; the tone of the doc is as quizzical as it is critical and astonished. I found the movie’s ambling approach a little frustrating, but mostly I admired its refusal to pretend to have worked out a finished portrait of Jobs, and the material Gibney comes up with is fascinating. By contrast, the dramatic feature Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin (based on Walter Isaacson’s biography) and directed by Danny Boyle, exudes an air of gleaming confidence and it has a carefully groomed look – I’d say vellum-bound. (The production design is by Guy Hendrix Dyas and the cinematography is by Alwin K├╝chler; Elliot Graham edited it.) But these two A-list filmmakers and their A-list star, Michael Fassbender, don’t even get close to creating a convincing portrait of Jobs or of the empire he created, was exiled from, and eventually returned to as its reigning monarch.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #39 (Podcast): Doris Kearns Goodwin (1987)

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at her home in Concord, Massachusetts in 2014. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.