Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stars Through the Rain: Soirée des Étoiles/A Night With the Stars

Naoya Ebe (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

Rain fell heavily on the makeshift stage inside a tent set up outside on the Saint-Sauveur High School parking lot, and for most of the day local volunteers were kept busy sponging up puddles in anticipation of the evening’s highly anticipated international dance gala. It was a scenario that at first seemed to spell disaster for Soirée des Étoiles/A Night With the Stars, a two-hour program featuring leading dancers from The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and The National Ballet of Canada and Quebec intended to conclude the week-long Festival Des Arts de Saint-Sauveur (FASS) with two performances on Aug. 12 and 13. Tickets had been sold out weeks in advance and fears ran high that the star-studded talent, some of whose legs are insured for millions of dollars, could take a spill on the sodden stage. But not even the added burden of soaked-through front-row seats could dampen the spirits of the organizers. The show must go on, and without delay. Mais, oui! "Of course we have our fingers crossed," said executive director Etienne Lavigne anxiously before the curtain rose on the first of the gala’s two nights of performances. "Let's hope the weather cooperates."

It did, the rain letting up for the duration of the Friday night performance, which spelled a huge relief to ballet fans who had travelled great distances to attend the 25th-anniversary edition of the popular Francophone summer arts in the picturesque resort town of Saint-Sauveur, about a 45-minute drive north of Montreal. The lure was the opportunity to experience dance talent rarely seen in Quebec, if not the rest of Canada. The brainchild of Guillaume Côté, the National Ballet principal dancer and associate choreographer who assumed the role of FASS artistic director in the fall of 2014, the gala gathered together dancers from as far as London and New York to perform in close proximity to nature. Not a ballet dancer’s usual gig. Saint-Sauveur is not La Scala. But on this wet summer's night you could easily have confused the two based on dancing flair alone.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Harold Russell (1981)

Harold Russell and Marlene Aames in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

It's Remembrance Day today and Critics at Large has decided to pay tribute by posting a special interview as a podcast. When Canadian-born Harold Russell appeared in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a powerful and moving drama about servicemen returning home from World War II, he was an army instructor who had training with the U.S. 13th Airbourne Division in North Carolina. Russell, who became an American after moving to Massachusetts with his family in 1921, lost both his hands when trying to detonate an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Given two hooks to replace them, Russell went on to attend Boston University as a full-time student and, a non-actor, was later featured in an Army film titled Diary of a Sergeant about rehabilitating war veterans. When Wyler saw the film, he immediately cast Russell in the moving role of Homer Parrish, a Navy sailor who lost both his hands during the war. For his role, Russell won an unprecedented two Academy Awards, one for Best Supporting Actor and a special award created by the Board of Governors who wanted to salute him for his wartime sacrifice. Russell authored two books, Victory in My Hands (1949) and The Best Years of My Life (1981). After the release of the latter, Russell came to Toronto, where I had a chance to talk on CJRT-FM's On the Arts about his work on Wyler's seminal film. Harold Russell passed away in 2002, at the age of 88.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Harold Russell as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Earwitness: Looking at Sound with Finnbogi Pétursson

Sphere, by Finnbogi Pétursson, 2003, (Photo taken at Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh)

“One can look at seeing, one cannot listen to hearing.”  – Marcel Duchamp

What do we mean when we characterize  Finnbogi Pétursson as an artist who captures the shape of time? First and foremost, that he draws with it as a raw material within his medium, that of sculptural installation utilizing mixed media, and predominantly focused on the frozen music of pure sound as it colonizes pure space. By “drawing” with sound through projections of its pure activity as a sine wave, he modifies the space in and around his pieces in subtle yet dramatic ways that clearly chart the trajectories of time through the experiences of light, shadow and silence.

Petursson reveals the shape of time in a manner remarkably similar to the musical compositions of Morton Feldman, even though he is not approaching his subject or theme from a strictly musical perspective but rather through one that engages us in the phenomenology of our perceptions.

Strictly speaking, he is most concerned with the architecture of perception itself, especially that of the threshold where sound comes from and disappears back to, and from where light invades darkness before retreating into itself again. Silence and darkness, light and sound, are the four principal elements with which he is choreographing his beautifully compelling sculptures.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Game of Chance: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Some forty-five years after its initial release, Robert Altman's seductive and allusive 1971 western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, still has the potency of a dream you don't wish to wake from. And as dreams distort the familiar, Altman's picture also alters our sense of reality and transforms the genre's myths we've come to recognize into a lingering reverie of the past. Despite a script, based on an Edmund Naughton 1959 novel (McCabe), Altman doesn't just tell a story here; he lets one unfold intuitively as our narratives often do in life and from directions we can't predict and with outcomes we can't anticipate. The howling wind that opens the film may push gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) towards his fate in the growing town of Presbyterian Church (just as it will later bury him in the snow), but Altman is also playing a game of chance, and destiny is as much a crap shoot as the changing weather. While the camera pans right, the credits move horizontally to the left, turning our field of vision into a peripheral map that's always in search of a focal point. It sets us up beautifully for an elliptical tale where the meanings are delineated from between the lines of the story. Robert Altman might draw from the sources of the western, but he does it as if he were trying to uncork an old undiscovered bottle that once stored its essence.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Power Overwhelming: Marvel’s Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange.

Something I'll call "power balancing" is always a problem for writers working on fantastical fictional stories. How do superpowers stack up against, say, mutant powers? How does a universe like the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue to function with even a shred of internal logic when you throw magic into the mix? According to Doctor Strange, the answer is: you work according to formula.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Marvel has had over a decade of practice refining this particular formula, and they're damn good at it by now. Audiences know what they're in for, and the studio has become extremely adept at delivering exactly that (sometimes, if we're deserving, with a little extra on the side). Moviegoers know to expect a hero like Dr. Stephen Strange (an Americanized Benedict Cumberbatch), the goateed egotistical millionaire genius who learns to fight for something greater than himself. They know to expect underwritten and uninspiring villains like Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who pay lip service to having three-dimensional personalities but always devolve into comically evil archetypes. They know to expect passive, uninteresting love interests like Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They know to expect huge, gut-punching climactic setpieces in which a portal opens above a massive city centre and threatens to swallow up all the normies. (If they're paying attention, they may even expect supporting players like Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo and Tilda Swinton's Ancient One, who elevate the material just by being there, punching way above the weight of the movie they're in.) But there's a comfort and a stability in this; these Marvel movies are becoming almost as episodic as their Saturday afternoon source material. Comic book movies are getting ever more, well, comic-book-y – and it's taken almost 20 years for audiences to adjust, but I'm chuffed that we've finally arrived at a general acceptance of how weird and goofy and light and fun this material should be.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Bits and Pieces: Love, Love, Love and Tiger Style

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Love, Love, Love. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Love, Love, Love
is a Mike Bartlett play from 2010 that is only now receiving its first American production, by the Roundabout Theatre in its off-Broadway space (Laura Pels Theatre). Bartlett, who wrote Cock and Wild, as well as the acclaimed King Charles III, is one of the most talented of the current generation of English playwrights, and I had a fine time at this play for the first two acts, which are a highly stylized comedy of manners. In act one, set in a north London flat in 1967, a straight arrow named Henry (Alex Hurt) invites a woman he’s been seeing, Sandra (Amy Ryan), home for dinner, only to see her fall for Kenneth (Richard Armitage), the hippie kid brother he’s been putting up, with escalating exasperation. In act two, set in 1990, Sandra and Kenneth are married and living comfortably in suburban Reading with their two teenagers, Rose (Zoe Kazan), who is anxious about everything, and Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), who’s affable and skin-deep. The marriage falls apart by the end of the act, after they’ve owned up to infidelities on both sides.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Unexpected Destinations: Showcase's Travelers

The cast of Travelers, now airing on Showcase in Canada and available soon on Netflix worldwide.

This review contains spoilers for the first episode of Travelers.
Time travel seems to be the genre that keeps on giving this year, with Timeless and Frequency already premiering and Kevin Williamson's new series adaptation of Time After Time still waiting in the wings. And three weeks ago, Canada's Showcase specialty channel (which, well ahead of the current curve, already gave us four strong seasons of Continuum) returns to the time travel trough with Travelers, created by Stargate television franchise co-creator Brad Wright and starring Eric McCormack ( Will & Grace). Like Continuum, Travelers is Canadian through and through. Filmed in Vancouver (though, unlike Continuum, set in an unnamed American city), the main cast is exclusively Canadian – in addition to the Toronto-born McCormack, it includes Medicine Hat's MacKenzie Porter, Mississauga's Nesta Cooper, Flin Flon's mixed-material-artist-turned-actor Jared Abrahamson, Edmonton's Patrick Gilmore, Vancouver's Reilly Dolman, and notably former star of CBC's Da Vinci's Inquest Ian Tracey – with the behind-the-scenes talent drawing from the deep well of similarly Canuck writers and directors.

Travelers premiered on Showcase on October 17 and has aired three episodes so far. Once its 12-episode first season concludes, the show will launch internationally on Netflix, which co-produces the new series. In addition to its exclusive "Netflix originals" – like Stranger Things, House of Cards, Lady Dynamite, Sense8, and its growing catalogue of Marvel shows – Netflix has been venturing more deeply into international co-productions of late, a model whereby the series first airs locally and the streaming service holds all international distribution rights (the same model that gave us the French-produced A Very Secret Service this past summer). Travelers, like CBC's recently-announced Anne of Green Gables adaptation Anne, will air week by week north of the 49th parallel before gracing the small screens of Netflix subscribers worldwide, which means we Canadians have a kind of exclusive preview of the new series.