Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Still Savoury Nut: James Kudelka's Nutcracker at 20

 James Kudelka's The Nutcracker is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

The Nutcracker not only lives on, it's gotten better with age. Having just seen the 20th anniversary production of James Kudelka's version of the seasonal ballet classic as performed by the National Ballet of Canada, I can say that the passing years have lent the home-grown production a lovely patina. The choreography, while still devilishly tricky, has softened to the point that interpretative performances trump the pyrotechnics. Individual dancers in command of entertaining acting skills (Harrison James, Dylan Tedladi, Meghan Pugh and Stephanie Hutchison, for instance) better stand out and the story, which previously tended to get lost in the shadows of Santo Loquasto's ravishing sets and costumes, is easier to follow. Not that there is much of a story to tell.

E. T. A. Hoffmann's original 1816 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King book, the inspiration behind Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1892 ballet, provides the general idea of a broken Nutcracker who comes to life at night to battle with toy soldiers against an army of bayonet-wielding rats. But the real source material appears more to be earlier ballet versions in which tropes like a growing Christmas tree and a tiara-wearing Snow Queen are now deeply embedded components of The Nutcracker narrative. Kudelka knows the formula but still ended up creating a ballet that forges its own path. Instead of a girl's coming-of-age story, as is typically the case with most Nutcracker ballets, Kudelka's version is a portrait of two squabbling siblings, a girl and a boy, Marie and Misha (played, respectively, by Jacqueline Sugianto and Adam Hone), who unite in dream to conjure the fantasy that takes them on a journey of the imagination through a land of ice and snow.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Until Dawn, and Then Some

Ashley (Galadriel Stineman) and Chris (Noah Fleiss) find time to fall in love between fending off monsters and murderers.

It’s winter. You and six friends are vacationing at a friend’s remote cottage when tragedy strikes: two of your friends, twin sisters, disappear in the woods under suspicious circumstances, never to be seen again. Exactly one year later, their older brother invites you all back to the cottage to carry on partying in spite of his sisters’ absence, claiming he’s “over it.” Do you go? Most would politely decline, recognizing such a bizarre request as being, at the very least, in poor taste and, at worst, a cry for help. Good horror stories are not built on common sense, however, and Until Dawn’s seven protagonists unanimously pull on their winter gear and march up the mountains of Alberta to indulge their grieving buddy, unaware of the danger waiting for them.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015: My Cultural Year in Review

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons in the second season of Fargo.

It’s been a long year. We’re coming close to the end. As Mr. Lennon said, “So this is Christmas, and what have we done?” Well we’ve listened to a lot of music, and read a lot of books. Watched some movies. And some TV. Maybe my favourite TV show has been Fargo, Season 2 of which I have just finished, and I have to say I loved every minute of it. The first season was interesting, had a few surprises, like when Officer Molly got shot but the second season was where we found out just what happened at the Sioux Falls massacre. The concept of going back twenty years to explain this was sheer genius. If you haven’t watched Fargo, I recommend you start from the beginning. See the movie first and marvel at the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. Next try the first season to see how beautifully the television producers have translated North Dakota and environs to the small screen. Billy Bob Thornton was the perfect villain, and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson was extraordinary. Her expressive eyes just captured the viewer and never let you go.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Eminently Forgettable: Atom Egoyan’s Remember

Martin Laudau and Christopher Plummer in Remember.

He may be one of Canada’s best known directors but Atom Egoyan’s film oeuvre is more than a little underwhelming. Except for the fascinating screenplay for his debut feature, Next of Kin (1984), about a young man posing as another couple’s child, who they gave up for adoption; the last half hour of Exotica (1994), which revolves around the murder of a young child and builds to a strong emotional climax and some powerful scenes in the murder mystery Where the Truth Lies (2005), Egoyan’s movies, including Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia’s Journey (1999), Ararat (2002) and Chloe (2009) tend towards the arid, intellectually obtuse and singularly uninteresting. He’s generally not a stupid filmmaker but he is tone deaf to how people actually speak and live. His fifteenth feature, Remember, which will open in the United States in February, is one of a handful of his films not written by him (it’s credited to Benjamin August, a producer and casting director), but it’s of a piece with his usual mediocre output, albeit with an added dose of ridiculousness thrown into the mix.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Saga Begins Again – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and BB-8 (centre) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This review contains major spoilers for The Force Awakens.

The stars (and wars therein) have aligned: my 100th review for Critics at Large is of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ continuation of the space opera blockbuster series created (and subsequently ruined) by George Lucas. This is significant because Star Wars is the film series that has most inspired me from a young age, fostering my lifelong fascination with science fiction, storytelling, special effects, and cinema in general. It’s immensely gratifying to me that these stories of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away are back in theatres, inspiring a new crop of wide-eyed kids. Just to put the true generational nature of this phenomenon in perspective: Star Wars is almost forty years old this year! I sat down for this newest incarnation and saw an almost totally even split between grey-haired veteran fans, t-shirted nerds around my age, and younglings small enough to need booster seats. And I know from experience that the latter is who these films are truly for.

The Force Awakens really only had to achieve one thing (apart from making a shit-zillion dollars for Disney): be better than Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Star Wars fans have been through the emotional ringer already, becoming incredibly excited about their long-dormant series returning, and having their devotion rewarded with some of the worst filmmaking ever projected in public cinemas – a trilogy of inept prequel films that represented a baffling and infuriating corruption of the adventurous, exciting films they knew. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being wary of Abrams’ attempt, as promising as it looked in the trailers. I had been burned badly before.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Old Times: Acting Exercise

Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best in Old Times at the Roundabout Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Though I’m not really a Pinter guy, I can admire the craftsmanship of plays like The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Betrayal. And some actors respond to the challenges of his language in exciting, even startling ways, as Ben Kingsley did in the 1983 movie version of Betrayal and Kristin Scott Thomas did in the West End revival of the same work in 2011. But though they’re often compared, his other three-hander Old Times has remained, through the years, stubbornly opaque for me – and I don’t mean ambiguous or mysterious. In it, a couple, Deeley and Kate, play host to Anna, who was Kate’s roommate years earlier, and in the course of their post-dinner conversation we not only hear about a side of Kate that Deeley has never encountered but we also learn that Deeley and Anna may have met each other in a pub around the same time. In both cases Anna’s version is so odd as to seem manufactured. The received wisdom about the play is that it’s about the nature of memory, but Anna’s memories aren’t convincing and the suggested transformations of the characters in the course of the evening aren’t suggestive, the way they are in Strindberg’s dream plays (which may be one of Pinter’s influences). It feels academic to me – an acting exercise – and it seems to end before Pinter has worked out where he wants to take the audience.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bolshoi Babylon: Light on Pretty

Nick Read and Mark Franchetti's documentary Bolshoi Babylon airs on HBO on Monday, December 21.

Nick Read and Mark Franchetti were in Russia in the winter of 2013 looking to make their first documentary film about a prisoner accused of murder in the northern reaches of the country. But while there they got the call that another, perhaps more explosive, story had just broken thousands of miles south: an acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Franchetti, the Moscow-based correspondent for London’s The Sunday Times, and Read, an award-winning British cinematographer and director who had previously covered the war in Iraq and the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, wasted no time in shifting gears. While neither at that time was a dance fan, both could see that an act of barbarism inflicted on the seemingly beautiful world of the ballet was itself a compelling blood-and-guts story.

Once in Moscow, they got permission to bring their cameras inside the famed 250-year old theatre and started interviewing subjects for a new documentary that ended up taking them close to a year to complete. Bolshoi Babylon, which screens on HBO on Dec. 21, goes behind the scenes of one of the world’s most famous classical dance companies to show the dark side of an art form that most people think of as light, airy and divorced from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.