Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Power Not Yet Realized: Sampradaya Dance Creations' Pralaya

​ A scene from Pralaya, by Sampradaya Dance Creations. (Photo: OnUp Photography)

"I am the beat of each heart and the rhythm of each breath; I am time, the brilliance of all creation." So begins Pralaya, a multidisciplinary dance presentation which seeks to be timeless despite having rooted itself in a centuries-old epic poem compiling the myths, wars and legends of ancient India. Ponderous and confusing in places, it doesn't quite succeed. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

More Kings, More Turmoil: The Return of The Hollow Crown

Benedict Cumberbatch as King Richard III in The Hollow Crown.

Extending the British television series The Hollow Crown to include all the rest of Shakespeare’s history plays (except King John) is a boon for completists, perhaps. (PBS ran all three parts of Season 2 before the new year.) But moving from the Henriad, which covers the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, to the next chronological section, from the crowning of Henry VI to the crowning of Henry VII, is anti-climactic. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V are masterpieces, and Henry IV, Part 2 contains some great scenes, but the three parts of Henry VI, which Shakespeare wrote – or perhaps collaborated on – at the beginning of his career, aren’t very good plays. I applauded the first act of Ivo Von Hove’s Kings of War, which cut Henry VI to the bone and made it dramatically exciting; after sitting through Dominic Cooke’s version (from an adaptation by him and Ben Power), I admire it even more.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Very Fine Dramatization: Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Malina Weissman, Presley Smith and Louis Hynes star in Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The following contains some spoilers for the first season of Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Adaptations of popular and widely beloved stories – especially children's books – are a tough business. And before I begin, let me be clear: I love Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket books. The first of the Baudelaire orphans novels, A Bad Beginning, appeared in 1999 and the thirteenth and final book, The End, was published in 2006. Collected under the name A Series of Unfortunate Events, the novels are credited to "Lemony Snicket" (the books' melancholy narrator and a slowly emerging character in his own right) and tell the ill-fated adventures of a trio of young orphans – Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire – after the untimely death of their parents in a suspicious fire. As the siblings are shuffled from one incompetent guardian to the next, they struggle ably against the machinations of the scheming and larger-than-life Count Olaf, who is intent on gaining control of their parents' fortune.

The Snicket books speak to the innate intelligence of their young readers – their moral intelligence most of all – and, in the tradition of Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, they are as funny as they are exquisitely painful. Telling stories of love and loss, spirit and struggle, and refusing to sidestep moral ambiguity, the novels mirror, with a deliberately Gothic imagery, that dangerous time between childhood and maturity as the world beyond your parents' sheltering love reveals itself. In short, there is more moral realism in a single Lemony Snicket novel than in all the Twilight books put together – and I am thrilled to be able to say that the television adaptation (which premiered on Netflix earlier this month) not only does its source material justice but will appeal to all ages, whether you've read the books or not.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bathed in Sorrow: Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea 

The classically framed images of the water that open Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, warmly captured by cinematographer Jody Lipes, set its leisurely pace. This is a domestic tragedy in the measured, escalating Eugene O’Neill mode, and like O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night and its fictive sequel, A Moon for the Misbegotten, its milieu is Irish-American New England. Lonergan, a playwright who turned filmmaker a decade and a half ago with You Can Count on Me, is aiming high, and though I don’t mean to suggest that he touches the heights of O’Neill’s great dramas, the movie is an impressive achievement – and a devastating one. The protagonist is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor in the Boston suburb of Quincy, who returns to his hometown, Manchester, on Boston’s north shore, when his brother Joe dies of the congestive heart failure with which he was diagnosed seven or eight years earlier. At the reading of the will, Lee is taken aback to find that, without consulting him, Joe has made him the guardian for Joe’s sixteen-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). (Joe’s alcoholic ex-wife, Elise, hasn’t been in her son’s life – since Patrick was a little boy.) Since Patrick is vehemently opposed to leaving school and friends to relocate to Boston, more than an hour away, the only alternative is for Lee to move back to the place he ran away from after an event that shattered his existence – and his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams), who still lives in Manchester.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Torpor: Pablo Larraín’s Jackie

Natalie Portman in Jackie

In his new film, Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem, No) thinks he's getting behind the aristocratic facade of the former First Lady to reveal a tragic portrait of a woman trapped by an illusion. But all he does is create new illusions that fly like lead balloons. Larraín imposes lethargy on the material that's so thick the characters can't carry the weight of the myths he loads on their backs. The audience is also put in such a state of complete torpor (thanks to all the formal melancholy that is doggedly off-base and off-key) that the movie would be laughable if you could rouse yourself from the funk it puts you in. Working from a calamitous script by Noah Oppenheim, which was originally conceived for an HBO mini-series, Larraín sets a funereal mood complete with an onerous chamber score by Mica Levi that drowns the picture in lugubriousness before you can begin to ask yourself why you should be bowing your head in mourning. Jackie is so relentlessly languid and ill-conceived that it would be a camp favourite if it didn't take itself so seriously.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

All Chaos on the Western Front: Battlefield 1

Battlefield 1, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, was released in October 2016.

The Battlefield series of first-person shooters, developed by DICE and published by Electronic Arts, has almost always been defined by its commitment to realism – or, if not realism, at least verisimilitude. DICE is well-known for making games with impeccable sound design, visual effects, and environmental detail, even if the quality of the gameplay – from the historical scenarios of the Battlefield series to a certain galaxy far, far away – can sometimes waver. Few developers pour as much effort into recreating a “true” wartime experience, which aims to wholly immerse you in the chaos, excitement, and horror of war. And few titles achieve this more completely than last year’s Battlefield 1.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Just Before Dawn: The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris performing at the concert staged in her honour in Washington, D.C. in January 2015. (Photo: Paul Morigi)

As last Friday's presidential inauguration approached, I was planning on writing here about Paul Anka’s rumoured appearance and his performance of the song “My Way”  selected because it’s Donald Trump’s favourite song. (Anka and Trump have been friends for many years.) It was reported that Anka was even going to change the lyrics to reflect the new President and I was curious about which ones he would change. The song starts with “And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain”; I was keen to hear Anka steer himself around that significant line. But the singer cancelled at the last minute, citing family business. Clearly, though, Anka's decision was less about scheduling than about reputation  and I don't blame him. In my opinion, it’s not exactly a good career move for any artist to associate himself with the new President, although Toby Keith would probably disagree with me. Nevertheless, I needed an antidote to Friday's disheartening ceremony and the messy days that lay ahead for the United States and the rest of the world. I found the cure in a recent release about one of country music’s most creative and original voices, Emmylou Harris. Originally a tribute concert featuring an all-star cast whose love and affection for Harris runs as deep as her musical roots, the album is called The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris and it was released last fall by Rounder.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Checkmate: Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe

Madina Nalwanga in Queen of Katwe

Mira Nair's exultant Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of a 9-year-old slum girl, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), from Kampala, Uganda, who escapes her life of poverty by becoming a national chess champion in her teens, is a plucky tale of triumph  a rare inspirational film that doesn't sacrifice its dramatic integrity for easy sentiment. By letting the daily barbarity of slum life commingle with the bulging vibrancy that grows from a struggle to escape it, Nair brings forth an exuberance that's surprisingly nuanced and adds both uplift and credence to the tale of a young woman who seeks to live beyond her circumstances. Queen of Katwe is a feel-good movie that doesn't spare you the hardships that come from also feeling despair and defeat. Collaborating with screenwriter William Wheeler (whose sharp instincts help prevent the story from ever dampening) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who, rather than imposing oppression on the characters, uses a strikingly colourful palette to boldly illuminate their strong need to survive it), Nair gets inside the tale of an unlikely girl who becomes a champion and depicts the various means by which she makes herself one. What Nair accomplishes with an intuitive flare is to show how chess becomes a mirror for Phiona into both herself and her environment so that she can learn to see beyond it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Candide at the NYC Opera

Linda Lavin in New York City Opera's new production of Candide. (Photo:Tina Fineberg)

There was much upset over the closing of New York City Opera in October 2013 when its last-ditch fundraising efforts failed. (Regrettably, it did not go out in a blaze of glory: its final production, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s contemporary opera Anna Nicole at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was fairly ridiculous.) But the company returned from the dead last week with an exuberant and often uproarious revival of Candide at Fredrick P. Rose Hall, as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. This is the third time Harold Prince has directed the Leonard Bernstein musical, with its Hugh Wheeler book (adapted, of course, from Voltaire’s classic satire) and its lyrics by a variety of distinguished writers: Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Bernstein himself. I caught Prince’s first attempt, in 1975, when Eugene and Franne Lee gutted the orchestra of the Broadway Theater to permit a free-roaming playing arena. It got great reviews but I thought the reconstructed space was more interesting than anything that was going on in it. The show was manically overstaged and terminally boisterous, and a production I saw in Stratford, Ontario a couple of years later emulated Prince’s error. Candide had bombed on Broadway in an extravagant (but more conventional) version in 1956, and after two bad experiences with it, I assumed it was unplayable – until Lonny Price staged a concert version that was televised on PBS in 2004. His Candide was scaled way down but visually inventive, and the light touch seemed to free the actors (Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone were in the cast), who performed as if they were guesting on Saturday Night Live.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Post-Revolutionary Aristocrat: Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ astonishing new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016), about a former aristocrat, now a Former Person, who spends over thirty years of house arrest living in the Metropol Hotel is sui generis, one unlike any other novel or memoir of the Stalinist era that I have ever encountered. Classic novels such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and the more recent The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell about the poet Osip Mandelstam, or the powerful memoirs, Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, or the superb Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag by Janusz Bardach, are chock-a-block with deprivation, terror, cold, hunger and the threat of death. By contrast, Gentleman is about a prisoner steeped in elegance and civility living in a bubble seemingly out of place and time.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

House of Cardinals: HBO’s The Young Pope

Jude Law in HBO's The Young Pope.

As a product of Catholic education, I’m always curious to see what the world of art and entertainment makes of the Church, and of religious belief in general. The Catholic Church has always drawn its fair share of unflattering depictions, from the hysterics of Protestant Americans worried about waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century to the pulp conspiracy novels of Dan Brown. HBO’s new series, The Young Pope, which was written and directed entirely by creator Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) and stars Jude Law in the title role, goes for a much more surreal approach. Judging from the pilot, that’s not necessarily much of an improvement on some of the other, more outlandish takes on the Vatican.

The Young Pope received a wave of advance publicity from some of the weirder corners of the Internet when it became the subject of a series of memes, most of which subjected its apparent premise to faint ridicule. On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough fantasy: what would happen to the Catholic Church if and when a younger pope – and an American to boot! – succeeded to the papal throne? Law plays Lenny Belardo, an orphaned boy who’s taken in by a nun (Diane Keaton) and rises to head the Vatican. While there’s not much in terms of plot in the pilot episode, the basic framework of a traditional drama is there: a controversial figure gains power, but the degree to which rival factions are willing to let him exercise it remains in question. Once the pilot premiered, some Internet wags commented on the show’s fundamental similarities to House of Cards (hence the title of this review).

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era

As many of us this week watched President Barack Obama exit the presidential stage with dignity, grace, and even some humour, an inescapable melancholy also permeated the air. Besides the passing of a historic moment in time, one couldn't help but notice the new history about to be made. We were about to watch Donald Trump – a populist demagogue who built his road to the White House by spending years attempting to delegitimize Obama in a Truther campaign that questioned his citizenship – become president. He continued by bullying opponents, toadying up to Russia and hiding his tax returns (which may provide clues to why he plays footsies with Putin), proudly promoting the traits of a sexual predator, exploiting racism and fear, and making promises that pander to anger rather than seeking the means to healing the wounds that stoke that rage. The democratic dream hasn't died and I believe it will survive the man about to be president who has chosen to demean those ideals. But the Obama era, which opened the door to finally laying rest the stained legacy of racism and exploitation, could not close that door on those who sought to ignore it. The idealistic impulse in American exceptionalism is not bathed in light. "America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, lynch mobs and escapes, its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings," critic Greil Marcus writes in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. "The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood." He also reminds us that prophetic voices – from John Winthrop to Martin Luther King Jr. – were "raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present." That is also true of the popular culture that reflects that covenant.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Touch Me And See: Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing

Kwak Do-Won and Jo Han-Cheol in The Wailing.

I’ve spoken before about the blending of genres, tones, and themes that exemplifies the style of directors like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Kim Ki-Duk. It’s a renaissance of cinematic flair that has come to represent the Korean New Wave as a whole for many Westerners since the late 1990s, and results in films that feel – especially to our exhausted, Hollywood-trained eyes – more fresh and vital and surprising than almost anything we produce over here. One of the latest and most emotionally brutal versions of this style might be Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, which swerves from slapstick comedy to supernatural horror with an intensity that might result in whiplash, if it weren’t handled with such care and skill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Walker Evans and Johannes Vermeer Walk Into a Bar

Self Portrait, 1937, by Walker Evans.

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” – Garry Winogrand

The eye of Walker Evans is to the camera what the eye of Johannes Vermeer was to a canvas. Every image they both made is the embodied meaning of a moment in everyday life. Evans may also be the most influential photographic artist of the 20th century, a visionary genius whose unique way of revealing the shadowy substance beneath the surfaces we take for granted has inspired every other photographer since, whether or not they even know his name. I strongly suspect that he was our Vermeer.

Like most people who have developed a deep appreciation for his masterful photographs, I first encountered him while reading James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The curious collision between the agile dissonance of Agee’s poetic prose and the sedate elegance of Evans’ stately imagery, ostensibly designed to illustrate the 1936 text on the American South during the Great Depression, has remained just as powerful after decades. The word "indelible" is not an exaggeration when we apply it to Evans, who lived from 1903 to 1975.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gutsy: Black-ish Takes On Donald Trump's Election

A scene from the January 11th episode of ABC's Black-ish.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the Jan. 11 episode of Black-ish.

There’s been no shortage of ink detailing the ongoing battle between President-elect Donald Trump and NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, whose satirical – and often funny and spot-on – jibes directed at Trump are driving the thin-skinned, infantile soon-to-be (God help us) Commander in Chief nuts. But the January 11 episode of ABC’s sharp sitcom Black-ish trumped Lorne Michaels’s creation with a beautifully written and tellingly observed show that got at the new realities in present-day post-election America and the disturbing and ever more apparent rift between the country’s left and right flanks, as well as the gulf separating those citizens who wanted Hillary Clinton to be their next President and those who were content to make Donald Trump their leader.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I Like to Recognize the Tune: A Doll’s House at the Huntington

Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in the Huntington Theatre's A Doll’s House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

You can set a play by Shakespeare or Molière in any era, but you can’t mess around with the setting of a realist play or it no longer makes sense. Yet contemporary directors keep doing it, subjecting the modern realist classics to time shifts that have the effect of bowdlerizing them. The Abbey Theatre’s touring production of Sean O’Casey’s great tragedy about the Easter 1916 uprising, The Plough and the Stars, which American Repertory Theatre imported to Cambridge last fall, threw it forward into the twenty-first century. In the last act of the Roundabout Theatre’s recent Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s bankrupt Russian aristocrats – a class that was, of course, wiped out or driven into exile by the Russian Revolution – walk out into the world in modern-day outfits. And now we have the Huntington Theatre’s mounting of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (adapted by Bryony Lavery), with an ambiguous setting that is, however, definitely post-1930, judging from the dresses Michael Krass has designed for Nora Helmer (Andrea Syglowski) and her childhood friend Christine Linde (Marinda Anderson).

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seoul Food: CBC's Kim's Convenience

Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang in Kim's Convenience on CBC.

Ins Choi's semi-autobiographical 2011 play Kim's Convenience originally debuted as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival and was later remounted by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company to wide acclaim. Soulpepper's production would go on to win two Toronto Theatre Critics awards in 2012, one for Best Canadian Play and another for Best Actor for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in the role of Mr. Kim. With Soulpepper on board as co-producer, CBC's television adaptation concluded its 13-episode first season on December 27, and it was consistently one of the delights of the 2016 television season, be it American or Canadian.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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. Given the recent American election of Donald Trump, which had all the bizarre intrigue of a Cold War thriller  except that it was a far cry from fiction  it seemed appropriate to resurrect an interview I did with authors Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock. They wrote a series of graphic novels, The Silent Invasion (1986-88), that depicted an America sinking under the weight of paranoia in the Cold War fifties. Ace reporter Matt Sinkage meanwhile tries to solve a conspiracy involving flying saucers and alien abductions which today wouldn't seem too far-fetched.

 Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Uses of Magic: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them & A Monster Calls

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Bored to distraction, my ears ringing from the fearful amplification, I slipped out of Rogue One about halfway through. Not a single sequence seemed to me to have been conceived with any imagination or wit; except for Mads Mikkelsen’s grieving, compromised father, there isn’t a memorable character or performance; and I was utterly perplexed by the lack of humor. What’s the purpose of making a sci-fi fantasy if there’s no distinction between the set-piece scenes and those of any run-of-the-mill, over-budgeted action picture – except for the fact that Rogue One’s are louder? The failings of this one-off entry in the Star Wars franchise seem even more glaring in a year that’s produced truly magical movie experiences like Doctor Strange (which is also one of the best acted of all Marvel pictures), the underappreciated Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton’s best film since Corpse Bride), Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and A Monster Calls.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Post-Mortem: Rogue One

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’m a big fan of Star Wars. I say that not to curry favour with fellow dorks, or to couch the following in any sort of falsely protective pretext. I just want to be clear about my inherent bias here before we proceed. As a person for whom Star Wars has been, and will continue to be, a personal touchstone as well as a cultural one, I have to fight my own apologist impulses. I have to examine this media property that has meant so much to me with the same critical eye as anything else – perhaps an even more sober, unflinching one than usual – because the more I love it and want it to succeed, the higher the standard of quality I must hold it to. (The prequels certainly helped in sobering all of us up in this regard – there’s never been a clearer reminder that this can all go horribly, terribly wrong at a moment’s notice.) I’m not going to make the argument for why Star Wars is special; let us accept this as a matter of fact. I’m instead going to direct my efforts, now and in the future, on examining each new Star Wars film as the individual cinematic work it is, and judge it accordingly. There’s a new one coming every year until the rapture, you guys. We’d better get used to it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney’s first attempt – soon to be followed by the Young Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoff films – at anthologizing the Star Wars cinematic format, adapting the established fiction for different audiences by focusing on smaller-scale storytelling and exploring diverse genres. This prospect was exciting to me for many reasons – not the least of which is that it’s a better way to stretch out Star Wars from here to the end of time (i.e., until it’s no longer profitable) than rehashing the same Campbellian good-versus-evil arcs over and over, but mostly because it’s a core component of why I find Star Wars so exciting in the first place. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the “cantina effect.” For its first 40 minutes or so, the original film was very small in scope, the majority of scenes concentrating on a starry-eyed farm boy yearning to experience the wild and untamed galaxy he knows is just beyond the horizon. But the moment that he steps into the Mos Eisley cantina with Obi-Wan, the movie explodes with possibility. Every bizarre, nonsensical alien creature there, from the thugs at the bar to the musicians playing that now iconic tune, feels real and tactile and alive – and we (along with Luke) are gobsmacked by the breadth of this galaxy. Every alien in the cantina must have a name, and a home planet, and a backstory. And this, in no uncertain terms, is the promise of Star Wars: the hints scattered everywhere you look of all the countless exciting adventures happening just outside the borders of the frame. The films have always been carefully constructed to encourage this kind of extrapolation from their audience, with George Lucas often giving even the lowliest background monster an official canonical name. Those musicians? They’re a bunch of Bith called Figrin D’an and The Modal Nodes. That scarred-up dude at the bar with the death sentence in twelve systems? That’s Dr. Evazan (and his butt-faced friend is an Aqualish named Ponda Baba). And while these names and stories may sometimes have been retroactively grafted by fans and artists onto characters that were originally little more than a bunch of extras wearing cheap Halloween masks, that really only emphasizes the point. Star Wars is a playground for the imagination, which engages us because it’s an almost limitless well from which satisfying space fantasy stories can be drawn.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Can Hear His Music: Testimony by Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson (right) performing on stage with Bob Dylan in 1965.

Last fall, four autobiographies were released by some of the biggest names in music history: Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run), Phil Collins (Not Dead Yet, Live), Brian Wilson (I Am Brian Wilson, A Memoir) and Robbie Robertson, who named his autobiography Testimony (Knopf), after one of his compositions. Of those four, I was most keenly interested in hearing from Robertson, particularly since I couldn’t book him for a CBC Radio Documentary I co-produced with Kevin Courrier in 2008. I assumed he would have offered some first-rate memories that, happily, are now in print. And since I am a fellow Torontonian, many of the places he writes about are familiar to me.

Robertson has penned an idealistic autobiography that is not for fans of revisionist history: “These are my stories; this is my voice, my song.” Testimony is one hell of a tale and a hefty one, at 500 pages. As a young man growing up in Toronto, he was captured by the sounds of rock 'n' roll, country and blues music that never left him. His aboriginal mother, from the Mohawk Nation in Ontario, had a very rich musical family whose strong sense of traditional storytelling was equally matched by their skills as musicians. He reports on his many visits to the Six Nations Reserve in Southwest Ontario, with great affection – “On the banks of the Grand River I found a quiet spot and sat for a while, musical memories swirling around in my head. This is where it had all begun for me,” Robertson recalls from 1966.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Apocalypse Man: Charlton Heston Revisited

In 2008, when actor Charlton Heston died from pneumonia at the age of 84, he had already long characterized himself in movies as something of an icon of American strength and endurance. His profile before the camera always seemed as if it were chiseled in rock and eventually destined for Mount Rushmore – a formidable figure built to scale heights and widen movie screens. Which is why he was the perfect candidate for epics: whether playing the patriarch Moses in The Ten Commandments, the noble Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar in El Cid, or Judah, the Jew who converts to Christianity, in Ben-Hur, he had the broad-shouldered physique and authority to carry the weight of their piety. Even if you could always dismiss the movies, you couldn't quite reject Heston. But his strength was paradoxical. While the strong, silent heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper wore stoicism as their badge, Heston brought a grandeur to his roles, as if he truly believed he were a prophet delivering the word. The disappointment and the pain of defeat in the face of failure were equally epic. Charlton Heston was not be a man to go quietly into the dark night. By the time he was addressing the National Rifle Association at their convention in 2000, holding a raised rifle over his head to declare to Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, that he would have to take his gun "from my cold, dead hands," it wasn't simply political rhetoric. Heston's defiance was theatrical in its intent and scaled as large as the movies he made.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Plot First: Fingersmith

Tracee Chimo and Christina Bennett Lind in Fingersmith. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Alexa Junge’s stage adaptation of Fingersmith, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is currently in residence at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, adheres faithfully to Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel – and considering how twisty the tale is, that’s not a small achievement. The story is about a young woman named Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo) raised by a baby farmer named Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen) in a den of thieves in London after her mother is hanged, who collaborates in a scheme to rob an heiress, Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), of her inheritance. Maud, also an orphan, lives with her uncle (T. Ryder Smith), a purveyor of rare books, in the country. As long as she remains under his wing she has no access to her fortune, but it transfers to her as soon as she marries. So one of Mrs. Sucksby’s acquaintances, a con artist known as Gentleman (Josiah Bania), worms his way into the book collector’s circle of upper-crust clients and woos Maud on the sly. As his plot – to marry Maud, then have her certified insane and thrown in an asylum so he can collect her money – develops, Gentleman persuades her to hire Sue as her personal maid, to advance his case and guarantee him a mole in the household. The two women become intimates: Maud confides in Sue, keeps her in her bed to calm her night terrors, and, a virgin who admits to ignorance about what is expected of her on her wedding night, begs her for sexual instruction. And Sue, the tough, streetwise London “fingersmith” (or thief), surprises herself by falling in love with her mistress and feeling guilt over the doom that she is helping Gentleman lead Maud to. That’s the first section of the novel’s three sections; in the second the narrator shifts from Sue to Maud and the first of the narrative surprises kicks in.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Laughing While Crying: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in BBC3's Fleabag, now available on Amazon.

It’s become something of a cliché, when talking about the contemporary TV landscape, to semi-seriously lament the proliferation of half-hour shows that, while ostensibly comedies, aren’t actually funny. One of the fundamental distinctions of the format of a television episode is that half-hour shows are comedies, while episodes that run the full hour (allowing, of course, for commercials) are traditionally dramas. But the emergence of shows like Transparent and, to some degree, Louie have eroded that distinction, leading to a profusion of programs that, well-written and well-acted as they might be, present themselves as comedies when they often stay closer to the dramatic side of the ledger.

One of those many half-hour shows to fly under the radar is Fleabag, a six-episode series from British playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge that ran on BBC3 last year and is currently available through Amazon. The primary difference is that, unlike its fellow sort-of-not-really comedies, Fleabag is often riotously, scathingly, filthily funny. The show’s an adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s play by the same title, and she also stars as the title character (her odd moniker is a nickname; as with many of the other characters in the show, we never learn her real name).

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2016

Author Julian Barnes. (Photo: Graham Jepson)

As many have also said, 2016 has been a terrible year. One of my consolations has been deriving pleasure from reading, and offered here are some of the best books I have read. One criterion for inclusion on this list is whether they stayed with me long after I read them. In some of the following, that quality became more important than literary excellence. – Bob Douglas 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Author Richard Adams (1988)

Richard Adams, author of Watership Down and Plague Dogs, passed away on Dec 24. (Photo: Greenwood/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock )

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 1988, one of those people was novelist Richard Adams.

On December 24, Richard Adams passed away at the age of 96. Though Adams wrote almost twenty books for both adults and children over the course of his writing career,
he will likely be best remembered for his very first, Watership Down (1972). At the time of our conversation, Traveller   his historical novel of the American Civil War had just been published.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Richard Adams as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

From the Inside Out: Hyper Light Drifter

 Hyper Light Drifter was developed by Heart Machine, and released in 2016.

The floodgates have opened, and independent game developers are enjoying unprecedented access to tools for making and releasing games. Anybody and their dog can make a game nowadays, so for the gamer, it’s just a matter of sifting through the chaff. For every diamond, there’s a lot of rough – it’s a market flooded by cheap imitations, cash-ins, low-effort knockoffs, and the like – and at a glance, it can be tricky to separate the good stuff from the bad. I’ve seen countless pixel art retro-style indie games, and so Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine, which looked like a better polished version of this dime-a-dozen archetype, slipped under my radar. It was only after it surfaced on almost every gaming outlet’s end-of-year “Best of 2016” lists that I sat up and paid proper attention, and by god I’m glad I did: Hyper Light Drifter is a beautifully made work of art and a satisfying, memorable action game. Had I played it in time, it would have made my list too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Harry Callahan and Edward Hopper Walk Into a Bar

Atlanta, 1984, by Harry Callahan.

It’s easy to think that the American artist Harry Callahan was one of the most canonical figures in both fine art and photography as an art form in the 20th century. It’s also logical and natural to think so, since it’s largely true. To be a part of a canon, as Callahan is, or even to initiate one, as his peer Walker Evans did, means, as the critic Harold Bloom has so effectively demonstrated, that you occupy a special place in the cultural stratosphere, a location which requires everyone after you to be placed in a contextual relationship to you and your work. There is a canon in every medium, be it literature, painting, dance or photography. There are also a classical, a romantic and a modernist canon, with, say, Caravaggio, Turner and Hopper, to name only a few, as part of the hierarchy of painting. Just as clearly, photography has its own historical epochs and a similar aesthetic canon: Stieglitz, Evans, Callahan.

As Aldis Browne has astutely and allegorically noticed, “Callahan’s eye was to the camera what the painter Edward Hopper’s was to the canvas."

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

West Coast Wonder: Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker in Vancouver

Goh Ballet's The Nutcracker ran at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts from December 15-20. (Photo: Louis Li)

Vancouver never had a Nutcracker tradition until Goh Ballet gave the city its own version of the holiday classic in 2009, the same year former National Ballet of Canada principal Chan Hon Goh took over the company her dancer parents had founded on the West Coast almost 40 years ago. None of this is apparent, however, from the full houses which greeted the ballet's recent week-long run at the 1,800-seat The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.

The shows, which ended on Dec. 20, were mostly sold out, attracting audiences from as far away as the coastal islands and across the border from nearby Washington State. The draw is a charming ballet that many readily identify with Christmas, if not the entire month of December. Gorgeously nostalgic, the sets and costumes invoke a bygone era when the Christmas festivities came shrouded in glamour and mystery. Drosselmeyer (guest dancer Adonis Daukaev) is here an actual magician whose conjuring and disappearing tricks highlight Christmas as a time of enchanting transformations. With its scenes of dancing snowflakes, bears and sweets, The Nutcracker speaks to the child within, never failing to cast a spell.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Telling Stories: No Man’s Land, The Babylon Line & The Encounter

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land. (Photo by Johan Persson)

Harold Pinter wrote No Man’s Land for John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who performed it in the West End in 1975. The current revival, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, toured in rep with Waiting for Godot for three years before returning to London; I missed it in New York but caught up with it on HD in the NT Live series last week. The play is constructed around a meeting between two old men, a famous writer, Hirst (Stewart), and a minor, down-on-his-luck poet, Spooner (McKellen). Hirst has picked Spooner up at a pub and invited him to his posh Hampstead home for a drink, where Foster (Damien Molony) and Briggs (Owen Teale), his two manservants, who are also his bodyguards and appear to be gangsters (and perhaps also lovers), treat Spooner alternately as an intruder, a prisoner and a house guest. He spends the night locked in the living room; the next morning Hirst, whose memory is failing, claims to recognize him from their Oxford days – and even to have slept with his wife – but calls him by a different name. Spooner goes along with the misapprehension, which suits his purposes. Eventually he attempts to sell himself as a candidate for the post of Hirst’s secretary.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Upside Down: Musings on a Year Watching Television

Pamela Adlon in FX's Better Things.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different...
Neil Gaiman, from The View from the Cheap Seats

2016 has been a long year, an awful year… even (to paraphrase Judith Viorst) a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. As I type this, news of the sudden passing of Debbie Reynolds has emerged close on the heels of the woefully premature death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher – adding to the body count of a year that seemed to be almost gleefully stealing our brightest lights. But, eager as I am to finally see the back of this year, taking on the task of reflecting on the past twelve months of television has been genuinely heartening. It has been an eventful – too eventful – year in the real world, but for television it has also been a time of innovation, and further strengthened my belief that TV has never been as good, as smart, as brave, and as human as it is now. It may feel more like a decade ago, but it was only last January that Louis C.K. unceremoniously gifted us the first episode of his stripped-down and ground-breaking Horace and Pete, and only six months ago that Netflix premiered Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ unabashed and brilliant homage to the best of the 80s, from Steven Spielberg to John Carpenter to George Lucas and Stephen King. And then last September, Netflix pulled the curtain back from its small corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and introduced us to Luke Cage – a series that, despite some plot weaknesses late in its first season, jumped with both feet into our difficult times and provided us with some of the year’s most compelling hours of television. In a year when reality threatened to overtake our imagination, both in menace and absurdity, television kept pace – providing escape, insight, and regular and much-needed reminders that the human race has more up its sleeve than the ever-darkening headlines suggest. A small caveat: what follows is not a complete ranked list of what television has offered these past 12 months, but rather a few reflections on where television has taken me in 2016.