Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Political and the Personal: The Crime Novels of Todd Babiak

Author Todd Babiak.

The political and the personal underpin and course through Todd Babiak’s harrowing sometimes violent Come Barbarians and its sequel, Son of France (HarperCollins 2016). A former Albertan journalist and the author of light social satire novels, Babiak, after having read the oeuvre of John le Carré and a smattering of Graham Greene, turned to the crime/thriller genre without sacrificing the quality writing of his earlier literary works. Like his protagonist, Christopher Kruse, Babiak moved with his family to southern France. Like Kruse, Babiak learned early the art of self-defence and became a security agent who in the course of his work needed to “hurt” people. But now with a family, Babiak jettisoned that life, but draws upon that personal experience to create Kruse, his most rounded character. During the year in France, he absorbed its ultra-nationalist politics that provides the backdrop for both of these compelling thrillers.

Friday, April 15, 2016

When Two Become Two: Netflix's Love

Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust in Love, currently streaming on Netflix.

 This review contains spoilers for the first season of Love

Netflix is positioning itself to become the go-to venue for down-to-earth stories of modern, urban love. In November, they gave us Asiz Ansari's poignant and personal Master of None, and in February they premiered Love – starring comedian Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs (Community). Surface similarities aside (both depict Millennial-aged characters and their struggles for love and money, with pointed reflections on dating in the era of Facebook and texting, and a surprising number of key scenes which take place around craft service tables), Love quickly distinguishes itself from its onscreen neighbour with its psychological nuance and its dogged willingness to let its characters make poor and morally problematic decisions.

Co-created by co-star Rust, former Girls-writer Lesley Arfin, and Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up), Love is neither a straightforward romantic comedy nor an "anti-rom-com" in the fashion of FX's You're the Worst or the Apatow-directedTrainwreck. ( As I wrote in my review of the FX comedy back in 2014, the thing about anti-rom-coms is that, for better or for worse, they almost always end up being rom-coms.) In contrast, Love is more interested in being real than in being subversive.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Reanimating a Beloved Corpse: Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Lily James as Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There are so many times in my life where I wish I had a time machine. It would have a vast array of applications, both big and small, from correcting gaffs in my own life (looking at you, English degree) to visiting some of history’s greatest moments. Today, I would like a time machine so I can visit Jane Austen around 1814 and inform her of her looming 2016 screenwriting credit for Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There would be lots of explaining to do:
–  "... so because of this ‘public domain’ idea, in 202 years you're going to be credited as a writer on a zombie movie."
– “Why are they called ‘zombies?”
– “I think it’s a Haitian voodoo thing!”
– “And they eat brains? Why brains?”
– “I… ah… you know, I don’t know, Jane. It’s canon. I’m sure it’s on the Wikipedia page.”
– “Should I have included zombies in the original?”
– “No. Definitely not.”
As a fellow spinster writer, I feel a kind of kinship with Jane Austen. I’d like to think she’d be pleasantly amused by this news – more so, I’m sure, with the assurance that the reviews aren’t great and yet not a single critic faults her for the film’s problems. It’s almost as if she wrote all the good parts of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’s screenplay and somehow we all know it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Going Dark: The Choices Narrow as Another Video Store Closes in Toronto

Happier days at Queen Video in Toronto.

The recent closing of the flagship store of Queen Video in Toronto, after nearly thirty-five years in business, was illuminating on so many levels, from what it augured for the future of film viewing at home to what people were most interested in snapping up as the store sold off most of its 50,000 titles (some were transferred to the still-existing Queen Video outlet, further north in the city). As I picked through the detritus of what was still left on the premises on Queen Video’s last day, after a 23-day sell off of stock when DVDs were down to $1 a pop, I was saddened that another great rental outlet was closing even and, more significantly, aware of what that closing actually meant.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cooder-White-Skaggs at Toronto's Massey Hall (April 11, 2016)

Ricky Skaggs, Mark Fain, Sharon White, Joachim Cooder & Ry Cooder in NYC in Nov. 2015. (Photo: Chad Batka)

There was something going on at Massey Hall in Toronto last night – something physical, and something decidedly spiritual. It wasn’t your ordinary concert. Although Massey Hall has hosted more than its share of special shows, there was something different about this one. Everyone knew it. The anticipation ran high. My friends on Facebook were posting last week about how excited they were, how they felt "like 12-year-olds waiting for Christmas." When I sat down in my seat you could hear folks all ‘round talking about how they had been counting down the days. Then, at 8:00 on the dot, as is customary at this hallowed hall, Ricky Skaggs, his wife Sharon White, and Ryland P. Cooder came onto the stage. They were followed by Ry’s son Joachim, Sharon’s sister Cheryl, their dad Buck White and Ricky’s longtime bandmate Mark Fain. It was truly a family affair.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cagney: Dancin’ Fool

Josh Walden, Robert Creighton and Jeremy Benton in Cagney. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Jimmy Cagney was one of the spryest and most distinctive dancers ever to make movies, but only a fraction of his dozens and dozens of Hollywood pictures showed off that particular corner of his super-size talent. He made six musicals in all, and only two are well known: Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won the 1942 Oscar for his portrayal of George M. Cohan, a vaudevillian from a theatrical family who became the first American-born purveyor of musical comedy, and the 1955 bio of Ruth Etting, Love Me or Leave Me, in which Doris Day gets all the numbers and Cagney plays (memorably) her gangster boyfriend, Martin Snyder. TCM junkies who have toted up hours watching the Busby Berkeley spectaculars from the thirties are familiar with Footlight Parade (1933). Cagney plays a producer-director of elaborate curtain-raisers for talkies who has to step in at the eleventh hour for a drunken actor to perform the ineffable “Shanghai Lil” opposite Ruby Keeler, bafflingly cast as a Chinese waterfront barfly who’s remained true to her wandering sailor beau. Like several of Cagney’s numbers in Yankee Doodle Dandy (“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and the title song), “Shanghai Lil” is a high point in American film musical history, mostly because of his contribution. Cagney had a long movie career, but it’s a pity he didn’t get to star in more musicals. In my personal pantheon of film-musical performances, his George M. Cohan sits right at the top, next to Barbra Streisand’s as Fanny Brice – another musical-theatre icon from the early twentieth century – in Funny Girl. What the two portrayals have in common is that, unlike in more recent dramatizations of musicians, neither star makes an effort to mask his or her patented style or explosive personality to sound like the real-life character.

The off-Broadway show Cagney (at the Westside Theatre) isn’t a compendium of moments from the handful of Cagney musicals, though it does include “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a medley of other songs from Yankee Doodle Dandy presented in the context of a World War II USO tour. It’s a new musical bio with its own original score, like Funny Girl or The Will Rogers Follies, and it doesn’t expend much time on Cagney’s movie musicals. Footlight Parade doesn’t merit a mention; aside from Yankee Doodle Dandy, only The Seven Little Foys – a 1955 Bob Hope movie in which Cagney made a cameo appearance as Cohan – shows up. But since Cagney is a musical, and Robert Creighton, who plays him (and who worked on the music and lyrics with Christopher McGovern), is a song and dance man, it’s Cagney the dancer we have in our heads when we leave the theatre. The choreographer Joshua Bergasse has recreated some of Cagney’s routines and invented others, and the six-member ensemble includes three superb male dancers: Creighton, Jeremy Benton as Hope and Josh Walden as Cagney’s brother Bill. (The others are all perfectly proficient, but Bergasse has built the choreography around these three.)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Beauty in a Box: Ballet Jörgen’s The Sleeping Beauty

Saniya Abilmajineva and the dancers of Ballet Jörgen in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Lawrence Ho)

Watching Ballet Jörgen’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty in Toronto recently brought to mind IKEA, an association prompted by artistic director Bengt Jörgen’s Swedish heritage and the fact that his version of the mother of all classical ballets is compact and collapsible, much like a BJURSTA extendable table. Though inspired by Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s majestic score (heard on tape), Jörgen has broken free of constraints imposed by tradition, slashing scenes (like the longer than long Prologue) and condensing the usual three acts into a quick paced two. But smaller doesn’t mean less. Camillia Koo’s spare but effective sets and costumes sparkle under Rebecca Picherack’s honeyed lighting design, and while there are just over 40 dancers (the 22-member ensemble augmented by 24 children and youth recruited from local dance schools), the impression is of an engagingly unified and committed ensemble performing with the vigour and professionalism of a full-sized company. At the centre of it all is a sparkling ballerina by the name of Saniya Abilmajineva whose brilliant command of technique and playful elegance made this version of The Sleeping Beauty something of a revelation.