Saturday, July 2, 2016

Staying Close to Shore: Pixar’s Finding Dory

Finding Dory, the latest offering from animation studio Pixar, is set primarily in and around an aquarium/wildlife rehabilitation center, the Marine Life Institute, with the action rarely moving too far from the confines of that locale. In many ways, the setting mirrors the film's ambitions: it’s frequently delightful, but much more circumscribed in terms in scope than Pixar’s best movies, including its predecessor, 2003’s Finding Nemo.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Counterhistory of a Counterculture: Jim Downs' Stand By Me

Gay “Be-In,” Central Park, New York, June 28, 1970. (Photo: Diana Davies, New York Public Library)

Established in the Bay Area in 1970, Gay Sunshine, later Gay Sunshine Journal, was part of the flowering of post-Stonewall gay newspapers that also included Detroit’s Gay Liberator, Philadelphia’s Gay Alternative, Boston’s Fag Rag, and New York’s Come Out! The cover of the paper’s August ’71 issue, drawn in black ink by Bruce Reifel in the lineage of Aubrey Beardsley, depicts a naked man and woman running with raised fists and broken manacles in front of a five-pointed star that we can trust to be red in spirit. The man has a Clark Gable mustache; the woman the long, center-parted hair of Joan Baez or Shulamith Firestone. The caption, GAY BROTHERS & SISTERS UNITE! FREE OURSEVES · SMASH SEXISM, redoubles the Marxist heritage while urging on an already tenuous gay-and-lesbian alliance that in coming years would be further tested by divergent interests and male chauvinism. Although the cover typifies the countercultural naturalism that sought to separate nakedness from titillation, it’s also a reminder of how closely linked political and sexual freedom were in the early years of gay liberation.

Needless to say, the seventies, even before the powerful conservative revanchism that ignited in the decade’s later years, were not years of unchecked liberty for LGBT communities. Governmental repression, public bigotry, internalized oppression, and the constant threat of violence hardly vanished overnight – in many areas change was felt not at all. But in certain neighborhoods in some cities, there were, along with hopes for radical societal transformation, new opportunities for dramatically freer sexual expression. For some, sex itself was revolutionary, a source of unifying pleasure that could militate against shame and repression while challenging fundamental institutions and values: the family, the church, monogamy, patriarchy. It was often impossible to imagine political equality growing without the continued expansion of sexual freedom. “A humane socialism,” Charley Shively wrote in ’74, “must move beyond trade-union economism; it must lose its prudery, and find sexuality.” Or as Edmund White put it in his 2009 memoir, City Boy, “We thought that sexual freedom was the same thing as freedom. We were willing to contemplate the possibility of ‘gay politics’ or ‘gay culture,’ but only if we’d first secured total gay sexual liberty.”

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Toothless: The Shallows

Blake Lively stars in The Shallows, currently in theatres.

The first thing I thought when I saw the trailer for The Shallows was “Great, another Jaws ripoff.” The second thing I thought was “Wow, it looks gorgeous, though.” My thoughts now that I’ve seen the film are, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally unchanged. I’m not an expert on the work of director Jaume Collet-Serra, but I knew enough to expect a trashy piece of summer entertainment that had a distinct visual polish, and that’s exactly what I got with The Shallows.

Collet-Serra directed the 2005 remake of House of Wax, and the late-era Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, making him the perfect candidate for this “Blake Lively fends off a shark for 90 minutes” vehicle, which trades in striking cinematography, a beautifully vapid leading lady, and surprisingly coherent characterization. Not that that sort of thing matters in a film like The Shallows, of course – it’s exactly the same kind of summer schlock as the stuff on the other side of the marquee (like Independence Day: Resurgence, which I’m looking forward to), but on the opposite end of the spectrum. You go over there for your massive explosions and your romantic subplots and your moustache-twirling villains; you sit down for The Shallows for the shark-on-Blake action. Either way, you check your brain at the door.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Old Bottle, New Wine: William Bell’s This Is Where I Live

William Bell's new album, This Is Where I Live, was released by Stax Records on June 3. (Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media)

When the great soul singer Otis Redding died in 1967 one of his logical successors at the time was vocalist William Bell. Born in Memphis, Bell first arrived on the music scene in 1960 and was signed to the Stax label in 1961, the same label Redding signed to four years later. Bell released his first single “You Don't Miss Your Water” (Stax 116), but it barely charted on the Billboard Top 100. Redding recorded his inspired version of Bell’s first single in 1965, which made people look up and take notice. Ironically, even though William Bell had been around for several years, his sound was often compared to Redding, but he wasn’t as dynamic a performer in concert.

Bell sang ballads that were considered torch songs for the R&B crowd and whether they knew it or not, both he and Redding competed for the same audience. The only advantage Bell had on Redding was that he was also a pretty good songwriter. One of his biggest songs, which he co-wrote with Booker T. Jones, was “Born Under a Bad Sign,” a huge hit for Albert King.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

This Spirit Soars: Giselle at the National Ballet of Canada

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Giselle. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Giselle is a work of fantasy, as compelling as anything seen today on Game of Thrones or Outlander, or any other contemporary pop culture enterprise probing the paranormal. No matter that the story of a Rhineland peasant girl who returns to earth as a ghost after dying of a broken heart is now 175 years old. It remains a powerful tale of love and vengeance – ballet as powerful theatre. Certainly, this iconic Romantic work has enabled the National Ballet of Canada to conclude the bumpy 2015/2016 season with a bang. The company’s performance of Giselle at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Arts two Fridays ago was especially sharp, with everyone from ensemble dancers to solo artists turning on the charm to make the ballet come alive for today’s audience. Sir Peter Wright’s 1970 remake is both logical and lively, despite dwelling 50 percent of the time in the land of dead. It is also sumptuously gorgeous. Adolphe Adam’s original 1841 score is a hauntingly beautiful – and readily recognizable – piece of music which the National Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin, made poignantly dramatic. You can’t help but be moved just listening to it. But the ballet is really a feast and on this point Desmond Heeley’s eye-grabbing sets and costumes, bathed in tones of emerald green, burnished gold and lapis lazuli blue, more than deliver. The celebrated designer, a fixture of Canada’s Stratford Festival, died five days before Giselle opened on June 10; the National Ballet used the occasion to pay tribute to Mr. Heeley, dedicating the opening night June 15 performance to his memory.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Musical Revivals in London's West End

Emmanuel Kojo (centre) and members of the cast of Show Boat at London's New London Theatre. (Photo: Johan Persson)

There are three major American musicals in which the main male characters are gamblers, and by chance all three have been revived in London’s West End this season. So audiences who check out Show Boat at the New London and see Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) toss his winnings in the air as he shares his good luck with his wife Magnolia (Gina Beck) may feel a weird déjà vu sensation if they’ve already seen Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell) perform the same action with Fanny Brice (Natasha J. Barnes) in Funny Girl, which moved to the Savoy from its original venue, the Meunier Chocolate Factory. No such scene appears in Guys and Dolls at the Phoenix, but nonetheless it is the quintessential gambling musical.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Night Manager: From Page to Small Screen

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, in AMC's adaptation of' John le Carré's The Night Manager.

“[Pure Intelligence] meant turning a blind eye to some of the biggest crooks in the hemisphere for the sake of nebulous advantages elsewhere.”
– John le Carré, The Night Manager 
“Guns go where the power is…Armed power’s what keeps the peace. Unarmed power does not last five minutes. First rule of stability.”
– Richard Roper, in John le Carré's The Night Manager 
Note: This review contains spoilers.

Part of what made John le Carré’s version of the Cold War so fascinating was the way it avoided a Manichean view of the universe. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt were qualities absent in earlier examples of the thriller from Le Queux, Buchan or Fleming but not in a le Carré Cold War novel. Only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side – decent, compassionate and endowed with a healthy skepticism – and he believed that Karla’s fanaticism would be his undoing. However, Karla defected for the love of his lost daughter. Smiley regarded himself as an archetypal liberal – reasonable with measured responses – but he could sustain a murderous hatred for someone who betrayed him, an antipathy that could cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Smiley became Karla: the Soviet spymaster ordered the murder of agents while Smiley did not. Smiley believed in the power of Western democracy but feared that if his side succumbed to Karla’s methods, the decencies he professed will become illusions and feared that he could lose his own humanity. While he agonized over these moral conundrums, Smiley and the intelligence services were civil servants who pursued their opposite numbers. Communist agents were often ruthless murderers but, unless they were moles inside British intelligence, Smiley (or le Carré) did not regard them as evil villains. Then the Cold War ended and le Carré became an angry man.

That anger radiates throughout le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager (1993). It is as if the author is questioning whether the principles that inspired the West to fight the Cold War were nothing but hollow rhetoric. If its purpose was designed to protect freedom and capitalism, how is Richard Roper – a wealthy and powerful illegal arms and drugs smuggler operating out of the Bahamas to peddle weapons to anyone who will provide him with a profit and admirer of the odious Idi Amin – possible? Masquerading as a respectable business magnate, he is frequently described as “the worst man in the world” – and le Carré is not intending any sense of irony – because Roper’s greed and callousness without any redeeming features, render him a villain rarely depicted in the Cold War novels.