Sunday, April 30, 2017

Verve and Verisimiltude: Adrian McKinty’s Irish Police Procedurals

Crime novelist Adrian McKinty.

If we were to read only the sixth and most recent entry of Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series,   Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Seventh Street Books, 2016), and his previous Rain Dogs (2015), we would be gripped by his outstanding opening chapters. In Police at the Station, we are dropped into a tableau that could have emerged from The Sopranos – except it is 1988 in Ulster, during the Irish “Troubles,” in which, over the course of thirty years, 3,600 people were killed by Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, and the Security Forces. Detective Sean Duffy is being prodded forward with guns to his back through a patch of woods to dig his own grave. (The 2009 film, The Crying Game, is perhaps a better comparison.) He knows this scene well. He has been the responding officer on “half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog." Before the reader can wonder whether this series is coming to an end, the next chapter veers back to the beginning of the mess in which Duffy finds himself, the investigation of the murder of a drug dealer shot in the back with a crossbow. In Rain Dogs, Mohammad Ali is visiting Belfast on a "peace tour" and Duffy is on security detail. Ali did visit Ireland twice, and this fictional scene has the feeling of verisimilitude, given McKinty’s description of the boxer and his face-to-face with a bunch of skinheads opposed to him on the grounds of the colour of his skin. It is a marvellously constructed opener even though it has nothing to do with the plot that follows.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ghosting: Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

In the last few years, when attending various parties and gatherings, I started noticing some unusual new social behaviour among people (often women) that I'd never encountered before. When engaged in a conversation that took on its own momentum from the various subjects it raised -- as opposed to the more careful chatter where familiar anecdotes and social gossip provided ample protection from revealing yourself -- there would reach a point when the person I was talking to would simply disappear without a word. Unlike in the past, where a fascinating conversation could lead to friendship, a relationship, or simply a nice evening that the person you were talking to recognized as she disappeared from your life, these folks would simply vanish. There was no way to discern whether it was something you said, fear of a particular kind of intimacy, or even a perfectly legitimate need to move on. The simple courtesy of closing a conversation was replaced by what someone who had acted towards me in this manner justified as 'ghosting.' The point of 'ghosting' seems to be to remove yourself from a conversation without acknowledging that you are in the process of having one. By asserting control in a situation not predicated on needing it, you can protect your sense of self by making yourself disappear. You experience each encounter as one in a series with equal value, where nuance and feeling are erased, or perhaps never even considered. It 's as if the conversation left no residue because the person who does the ghosting never offers a clue to why she needs to disappear. Just as I've started to wonder how much technology and social media and phone texting have had to bear on this capacity to control the uncontrollable, Olivier Assayas's new picture, Personal Shopper, picks up on this new phenomenon in a fascinating way.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Dancing Machine: Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe's Meeting

Alisdair Macindoe & Antony Hamilton in Meeting, at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre until April 30. (Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti)

In Meeting, man doesn't just encounter a machine; man is like the apparatus itself, a whirring, ticking, mechanized instrument measuring and maneuvering through space. Created and performed by Australian choreographer Antony Hamilton together with fellow Aussie Alisdair Macindoe, designer of the 64 custom-made robotic instruments encircling the performance on the stage floor, the roughly hour-long dance is a showcase of mental and physical stamina, utterly fascinating to watch.

Part of Spotlight on Australia, a six-week festival of interdisciplinary dance, theatre and circus art which Canadian Stage is presenting through May 7, Meeting opened this week at the Berkeley Street Theatre – the same night as Tamara Saulwick's Endings, an evocative and elegiac theatre piece about death. Meeting closes on April 30, and is a must-see for anyone interested in knowing why dance from Down Under is in a class of its own.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Driving It Home: The Fate of the Furious

Dwayne Johnson in The Fate of the Furious. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Universal Pictures)

Thank god for The Fate of the Furious. Thank god for stick shifts, nitrous, and roaring engines. Thank god for fisticuffs, explosions, and cheesy one-liners. Thank god for beautifully toned bodies and huge flexing muscles. Thank god for Dwayne Johnson! Thank god that one of the highest-grossing worldwide franchises is as sensational, self-aware, and exciting as this. If you’re not on board, I understand – it’s easy to be cynical about the blockbuster movie market, and sometimes it’s hard to just relax and have a good time. But boy oh boy, are these Furious movies ever a good time. I don’t understand exactly how they keep getting better and better… but they do!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Palimpsest: The Overlapping Visions of Hans Sieverding

Untitled 16.1.2017 by Hans Sieverding. (Acrylic on Canvas, 2017)

“Like a great poet, Nature knows how to produce the greatest effect with the most limited means.” – Heinrich Heine
The accomplished Germany-based painter Han Sieverding is a senior-career artist whose overall body of work indicates both a purity of intention and a persistence of invention. The continuity in his image-making practice is very impressive in that it reveals an ongoing and restless search for new forms of expression which are all embodied within the tightly disciplined aesthetic approach of modernism. He possesses a vitality and energy which younger artists can only dream about as they struggle with their perpetual appetite for newness and novelty and are seduced ever further into the digital domain and its post-sensation agenda.

These vividly alive paintings palpitate: one can almost feel them breathing beneath their swirling liquid surfaces as they flow across the canvas and arrive at their whirlpool-like destinations. Executed in acrylic on canvas, a water-based medium that arose in the 60's and permitted more rapid drying and thus more effective ways of creating transparency and more multi-layered viewing experiences, they simply prompt me to call them palpable. They are definitely immersive and deeply sensorial: we are surrounded and enveloped by their presence and become drawn into their drama, which often appears to almost memorialize the moment in which they were made.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Out of Vogue: Joan Juliet Buck and The Price of Illusion

Joan Juliet Buck and her father, Jules Buck, in London, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Joan Juliet Buck)

The shiny surfaces in The Price of Illusion reflect a high-gloss world of celebrity and glamour which the author, former Vogue and Vanity Fair editor and writer Joan Juliet Buck, has polished to brittle brilliance. As the title of her recently published memoir suggests, the book is less a hedonistic romp through a high life made fabulous by the ubiquitous presence of Hollywood royalty and designer labels, and more an archly ironic reflection on the pitfalls of vanity and a preoccupation with appearances. Witty and stylishly written, it is an absorbing and entertaining read, a richly sashed window looking onto a whirlwind time. It has just the right amount of A-list love affairs (Donald Sutherland and Brian De Palma figure large) mixed in with insider fashion gossip concerning the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé and André Leon Tally, to make it juicy, even as the narrative skirts the edges of personal tragedy.

"It is a morality tale," says Buck, 69, during a recent telephone call from her home in the Hudson Valley countryside outside New York. The bucolic setting is deliberate. Buck recently chose it over Manhattan to be as far away from her former life in the fast lane as she could comfortably get. A pop-culture chronicler whose four-and-a-half-decades-long career started at age 23 when she became the London correspondent for Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine and then features editor for British Vogue and a foreign correspondent for Women's Wear Daily the same year, she speaks through drags of an ever-present cigarette, a habit picked up around the time a young Tom Wolfe made her the subject of "The Life and Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl," his essay about the 1960s counterculture. Her voice sounds dry, and slightly gravelly. But her intelligent commentary is as sharp as her prose. "I was always looking for the truth,"she exhales. "But growing up I didn't have many guidelines."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Iconic Shows of the 1960s: Hello, Dolly! and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at Broadway's Shubert Theatre. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Hello, Dolly! opened in January 1964 and stayed open for just under seven years. It wasn’t the best musical on Broadway in those years – it was no Fiddler on the Roof – but it represented, and continues to represent, the end of the golden age of Broadway musicals. It was a big, brassy star vehicle, built around the rather specialized talents of Carol Channing but flexible enough to be refitted for the long line of older women who made comebacks in the role of the widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. (The source material for Michael Stewart’s book was the Thornton Wilder comedy The Matchmaker.) There was some controversy when Barbra Streisand, at only twenty-seven, inherited the role in the 1969 movie, but her stupendous performance was its lifeblood; the movie, directed in a stifling, museum-piece style by Gene Kelly, would have sunk under its own weight without her. And it contained one of the great moments in movie-musical history: in the middle of the title song – certainly the best-known item in the Jerry Herman score – Streisand, decked out in a golden Gay Nineties gown with feathers on her head, harmonized with Louis Armstrong, whose cover had been as big a hit as the show itself.

The new revival, starring Bette Midler as Dolly and David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy but parsimonious Yonkers shop owner who is supposedly her client but really the object of her own romantic machinations, arrives with more anticipation than any Broadway show in years. Advance hype aside (and God knows there’s been plenty), how could it not? Midler hasn’t appeared in a book musical since she played one of Tevye’s younger daughters in the original run of Fiddler, before she became famous; aside from the (non-musical) solo performance I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers in 2013, her only New York appearances have been in a couple of revues – one of which, Clams on the Half Shell, I was lucky enough to see back in 1975. Her Broadway comeback, at seventy-one, is not going to disappoint her legion of fans. She plays Dolly with one foot firmly planted in the Jewish vaudeville tradition, grinning that famous cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, and the highlight of her performance is indeed culinary: in the middle of act two she dispatches a stuffed chicken with dumplings at a table stage right with hilarious gusto while most of the rest of the ensemble, gathered in a courtroom upstage after the evening’s hijinks at Manhattan’s Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, waits for her to finish so the plot can take its final turn. And she could hardly have landed a funnier scene partner than Pierce, who revivifies a role that has generally brought out little in the men who’ve played it besides a side of undernourished, overbaked ham. Pierce’s first-act number, “It Takes a Woman,” performed with a male chorus, is one of the evening’s surprising highlights – the choreographer, Warren Carlyle, has staged it wittily – and “Penny in My Pocket,” written for the original Horace, David Burns, but cut out of town, has been restored to give Pierce a second-act number.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sugar and Spice: CBS's Superior Donuts

Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler in Superior Donuts.

"You know, Fawz, in this crazy and uncertain world, what could be more comforting than a doughnut and a cup of coffee? To be the one to bring that to people … there could be no higher calling than that. " – Arthur, in Superior Donuts
I began watching CBS's new midseason sitcom Superior Donuts the night it premiered back in February, and at the time I never expected to enthusiastically recommend the show to anybody. Adapted from a 2008 stage play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County ), for its first two episodes Superior Donuts seemed to be an entirely watchable, and not especially notable, multi-camera sitcom. Set in a struggling doughnut shop in urban Chicago, the show's main selling point seemed to be the welcome return of television veteran Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Numb3rs) to primetime comedy. Now 82 years old, Hirsch's last regular television role was the aged son to the immortal lead character in ABC's Forever (cancelled in 2015 after a single season). Though there are few gaps in the actor's almost six-decade-long career, you'd have to reach back to 1997's George and Leo (where he co-starred with Bob Newhart) to see him helm a network comedy series. Here, Hirsch slips almost too seamlessly into the role of Arthur Przybyszewski, the grumpy and grizzled 75-year-old doughnut shop proprietor. Joining Hirsch are an ensemble of other recognizable faces, including Katey Sagal (Married… with Children, Sons of Anarchy), as Randy DeLuca, a local beat cop and daughter of Arthur's now-deceased best friend; comedian Maz Jobrani as Fawz, an Iraqi-born self-made entrepreneur and real-estate developer; and David Koechner (Another Period), as underemployed shop regular Tush. If you watched only those first two episodes, you saw a sincere, well-delivered but entirely unremarkable example of the soundstage laugh-track sitcom – with the television veterans serving to make you feel like you'd seen this all before.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Recovering a Lost Treasure: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961)

Rita Tushingham as Jo in Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey 

Shelagh Delaney was only nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a 1958 coming-of-age play about a teenage girl set in Delaney’s home town of Salford, Lancashire, but it’s one of the treasures of its patch of British theatre, sometimes called the angry young man movement and sometimes the epoch of kitchen-sink realism. The heroine, Jo – played in the West End by Frances Cuka and on Broadway in 1960 by Joan Plowright – lives with her promiscuous mother, Helen, who sneaks them out of their digs whenever they can’t pay the rent and relocates so often that Jo never has a chance to make school friends. Helen cares about Jo, though they quarrel habitually and Helen’s attention has a habit of wandering. At forty, she finds a man eight years her junior who wants to marry her; he and Jo can’t get n so, she goes off to live with him and leaves her self-sufficient daughter behind. Jo has a fling with a sailor; after he goes off on his ship she discovers she’s pregnant. She sets up house with a gay man named Geoffrey who’s devoted to her, but when he decides to hunt down her mother because he thinks Helen should know about Jo’s condition, he finds himself displaced. Helen’s new husband leaves her for a younger woman (“his bit of crumpet”) and she’s drawn back to the daughter she traded in for a new life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Here Be Monsters: The Comic Book Legacies of Bernie Wrightson, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson

A panel from Swamp Thing, story by Len Wein and art by  Bernie Wrightson, November, 1972.

When comic book geeks gather to talk about the history of the medium and, as is the custom on such occasions, break it up into decades, the 1970s never get any love. In the conventional wisdom’s most widespread take on the subject, comic books caught fire in the 1960s, with the excitement and freshness of Marvel Comics’ re-invention of superheroes on one floor and the rude, gleeful explosion of the undergrounds on another, and solidified those triumphs in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the coming of such maverick genre creators as Alan Moore and Frank Miller and indie upstarts such as the Hernandez Brothers, Peter Bagge, Dave Clowes, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet, but nothing much happened in between except exhaustion and false starts. There’s an alternate history waiting that mirrors the American moviemaking renaissance that accompanied the confused death throes of the studio system in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a story about how the major publishers DC, which decisively lost its first-place status in the marketplace, and Marvel, which came out on top just as it was being abandoned by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the two artists most important (along with writer-editor Stan Lee) for its triumphs in the ‘60s were left so confused that they were willing to try a little bit of anything just to see what might stick.

In the early ‘70s, DC and Marvel wound up showcasing the four-color pop visions of several up-and-coming artists whose distinctive, eccentric styles (and time-consuming, perfectionist work ethics) would have once made them very much at odds with an industry that valued hacks who could meet a deadline and stay within the confines of a house style. At least one of these artists, Neal Adams, with his cinematic compositions and dynamic character poses every panel seemed to set off a sonic boom on the page was perfectly suited to the bulging-vein action hyperbole of superhero comics. But many of the other new stars Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers were oddballs whose baroque styles drew upon classical illustration and older magazine art. And except for Rogers whose breakthrough came in his collaboration with the writer Steve Englehart on a series of Batman comics most of them did their strongest work when assigned to characters (Conan the Barbarian, the Shadow, Chaykin’s Ironwolf) who were only “superheroes” by circumstance or association. And none of them left behind a stronger legacy than Bernie Wrightson, who, until his death last month at the age of 68, was Godzilla’s closest competitor for the title of King of the Monsters.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Boy Who Slept – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was published by Nintendo on March 3rd.

I finished the storyline of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in an intensive three-week sprint, during which time I played, watched, and thought about pretty much nothing else, and since the day in late March when I watched the credits roll, the game has had another three weeks to settle into my brain. I was surprised to discover that I needed that remove; I needed time to adjust to the experience and realign my understanding of the global context of things. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I’m now measuring my gaming history in terms of “Pre-BotW” and “Post-BotW.” With this latest iteration of the storied Zelda franchise, Nintendo’s achieved nothing less than a personal best, which means that the rest of the gaming world – and the individual gamers like me within it – will be recovering for some time from the aftershocks of this seismic success.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998)

Sandra Oh in Don McKellar's Last Night (1998).

I was glad to see that Don McKellar’s fine feature debut Last Night (1998) was part of the roster of the large list of Canadian films to be picked for free showings on National Canadian Film Day 150. This annual appreciation of Canada’s cinema is taking place on April 19 across the country, this year showing 150 different films among its 1,700 events, in commemoration of Canada’s forthcoming 150th anniversary. Last Night was originally commissioned by a French film company as one of a series of ten films from ten countries, entitled 2000, Seen By... (2000 vu par...), all offering cinematic views on the Millennium, though Last Night doesn't specifically indicate when it's taking place. McKellar’s Toronto-set, quietly apocalyptic drama, which he wrote and directed, is a unique take on the end of the world as we know it.  It’s also one of the strongest English Canadian film debuts from an outsize talent who, though he has not subsequently carved out a consistent film career, is still making his mark in his native land.

The initial brilliance of Last Night’s concept is that the news that the world is going to end has already been digested and accepted by humanity – the science-fictional aspects of the film’s premise thus don’t need to be explained in any possibly pedestrian or pretentious way – leaving only the remaining question: how will you spend your last hours on earth? The answer is: in many ways. A disparate group of Torontonians each selects a pathway to what some hope will result in something else after the end. (The movie never does spill the beans on that possibility. The only clue that something's off is that the sun never sets.) At the centre of the film is Patrick (McKellar), a lonely cynic who doesn’t want to spend time with his family or friends as the end looms. On the other hand, Sandra (Sandra Oh of Sideways and Grey’s Anatomy) wants merely to connect with her new husband Duncan (Videodrome director David Cronenberg) so she doesn’t die alone. Patrick and Sandra accidentally meet up and slowly bond even as Toronto’s residents go through various actions in their final hours. Some, like Patrick’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie of Hardcore Logo and Battlestar Galactica), are intent in carrying out all their long-held sexual fantasies, and others simply finish their work. Duncan, who works at a gas company, is going through his customer data base and calling them to reassure them that their gas will stay on until the end, a very polite Canadian way of providing reassurance. As the clock ticks down, the movie’s strong emotions bubble to the surface, providing a mélange of poignant, comic, tragic and memorable moments, with the film as a whole leaving an indelible impression.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Singing with the Dead: Soulpepper's Spoon River Revival

Jackie Richardson (centre) and members of the cast of Soulpepper's Spoon River. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

A folk musical resurrecting the dead through song, Spoon River has itself come back to life. Since the beginning of the month, and continuing through April 21, Soulpepper has been giving the winner of the 2015 Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical a series of rousing performances at Toronto's Young Theatre for the Performing Arts, warming hearts all over again. Based on Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology of poems first published in 1914 and adapted for the stage by company artistic director Albert Schultz and composer Mike Ross, this revitalized production of Spoon River has boundless stores of energy in it still.

After the Toronto run this same production, with its cast of 19 strong actor/singer/musicians, will make its New York debut as part of The Soulpepper on 42nd Street Festival taking place, off-Broadway, in July. You don't need a crystal ball to predict how that will go. Macabre the subject matter might be but oh how sweet is this deliverance from the grave. Despite its graveyard setting, Spoon River is so joyously life-affirming that the spirit soars along with the angelic high notes in Ross's strummable, hummable original score. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Come from Away: Forging a Temporary Community

Jenn Colella (left) in Come From Away at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The enormously likable Canadian musical Come from Away, which recently opened on Broadway, dramatizes the role played by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when American air space was locked down in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly forty planes were rerouted to Gander’s small airport. (In the old days, we’re told, it had been a frequent refueling spot; airport personnel can recall crossing paths with Sinatra and The Beatles when their planes made pit stops there.) The locals reached out to seven thousand stranded strangers from all over the world – whose presence nearly doubled the population for five days – providing food and shelter and devising ways to communicate with those who couldn’t speak English. The most inventive, perhaps, is that of the bus driver (Chad Kimball) who notices that a distressed African couple are carrying a Bible. Though he can’t read the words, he has an intricate knowledge of scripture and he figures that chapter and verse are the same in all editions, so he finds an inspiriting passage to convey to them that they’ll be fine.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who supplied book, (folk) music and lyrics, are banal writers, but banality isn’t the worst of theatrical sins; emotional fakery is, and I didn’t detect any of it in Come from Away. The project itself may be sentimental in nature but the production, which was directed by Christopher Ashley, mutes the sentimentality as much as possible; it’s remarkably dry-eyed and its humor is wry and observational. When an Orthodox rabbi can’t eat any of the proffered food, and there’s no local synagogue to help him out, he’s set up in his own kitchen and invited to produce kosher meals – not only for himself and other Jews, but, as it turns out, for some Muslims and a gay vegetarian couple from L.A. The gay men, both named Kevin (Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), are hesitant to admit they’re a couple; they have no idea how redneck a small Maritime Canadian town might be. But when a few too many beers at a bar make them incautious, they’re amused to discover that half their fellow drinkers have gay relatives or friends and use that connection ingenuously to make the Kevins feel more at ease. Bob (Rodney Hicks), an African-American New Yorker, gets over his urban-bred paranoia when his host, the mayor of one of the nearby towns, encourages him to go from yard to yard borrowing his neighbors’ grills and finds that their owners are more than willing to part with them; in Bob’s words, they help him steal their own barbecues.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of  I Who Did Not Die.

"When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.”  Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.

In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On the Road: Violet at the American Repertory Theater

Coordinating anything in incessantly busy Harvard Square is difficult, but trying to mount a professional-grade production of a musical on a moving bus traveling around the square seems like an exercise in pure masochism. Nevertheless, director Sammi Cannold has pulled off this trying logistical task, staging Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet in a variety of locations around the square, most notably a bus that stands in for the one that’s the main setting of the show. What’s far more impressive, however, is how Cannold has managed to scale her production to its intimate setting, giving what could have been a shallow gimmick some vital depth. Cannold’s production comes as part of American Repertory Theater’s “Mini Series,” a number of small-scale performance events geared towards tiny audiences that, depending on the show, range in number from twenty-five observers to a lone spectator. It’s not the first time Cannold has directed the show in this way: she did an earlier version in the same manner at Stanford in 2013.

Violet has some lovely music, and the Roundabout Theatre’s 2014 revival with Sutton Foster in the title role featured a strong cast, as Steve Vineberg noted for this site at the time. I mostly agree with Steve’s take on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, especially with regards to some flaws in the plot, based on Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which book writer Crawley does little to alleviate. Violet follows its eponymous lead character on a journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma, where she hopes to meet a faith healer who can cure the disfiguring facial scar that resulted from an incident in her childhood and causes people to react to her with shock and disgust. Along the way, she meets not one but two handsome soldiers who fall in love with her. That part’s fairly straightforward, but there’s also another narrative strand, told in flashbacks that weave in and out of the present-day story, involving Violet’s relationship with her father. It might have partly been a function of the unique staging (more on that in a moment), but I found parts of this backstory confusing, especially in the scene when it merges with her quest in Oklahoma and leads her to believe that she’s been cured.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Dance in the Raw: Denmark's Kitt Johnson at Toronto's World Stage

Kitt Johnson in Rankefod, which opened the World Stage Redux festival in Toronto on April 4. (Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen)

Performing Rankefod, a mesmerizing dance piece which opened the World Stage Redux live performance series at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre last week, Danish solo dancer and choreographer Kitt Johnson fully inhabits a minutely observed world of nature, truncating and twisting her half-naked body to conjure creepy-crawly lifeforms pre-dating human existence. An examination of the evolutionary process, it's a tour de force.

A small woman with an enormous stage presence, the former elite athlete at the helm of Copenhagen's internationally acclaimed X-act dance company combines Japanese Butoh with elements of German Expressionist dance theatre to hone a vision of raw and elemental life. The series of grotesque images she unleashes through Rankefod, a Danish word meaning a small crustacean marine creature, are so powerfully and convincingly conceived they discombobulate, completely. Aliens from our own planet.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thy Brother’s Peeper: The Ascension of My Brother, My Brother, & Me

Justin, Griffin, and Travis McElroy. (Photo courtesy of Seeso)

Adapting a podcast into a television show might seem like a strange idea, but if anyone can make such a bizarre transition work, it’s the McElroy brothers. Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy – with frequent contributions from their father Clint – have emerged as media superstars in the past few years, reigning over an empire of websites and audio podcasts so expansive that they’ve earned a Midas-like reputation. Everything these guys touch turns to pure comedy gold, and they took the extra leap to prove it by returning to their humble, bucolic hometown of Huntington, West Virginia to tape a TV version of their biggest and most influential work: My Brother, My Brother, & Me, their “advice show for the modern era.”

I’m a bit obsessed with podcasts. They occupy the majority of my walking-around time (which, as a car-less Toronto urbanite, is substantial), and I tend to burn through a few hour-long episodes on the daily. As a medium, they’ve absolutely exploded in popularity, so I’m spoiled for choice: when I’m feeling intellectual there’s NPR’s Radiolab or Invisibila, or Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History; when I crave gripping narrative, I can sink into classics like Serial, This American Life, or Karina Longworth’s smoky Hollywood history lessons on You Must Remember This; and when I’m in a movie-loving mood I can celebrate the best with The Canon, or the worst with The Flophouse. But few things can balance out my mood – and make me look like a grinning madman on public transit – like a good comedy podcast, and the brightest star in that particular firmament must be MBMBAM (or, affectionately, “Ma-Bim-Bam”). It’s one of the funniest shows in any medium that I’ve ever enjoyed, full stop. And that’s entirely due to the trio of brothers who host it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones (centre) and the Dap-Kings. (Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Here is an excerpt from Donald Brackett’s upcoming book, Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, which is being published by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

“The heart of youth is reached through the senses; the senses of age are reached through the heart.” – Nicholas-Edme Retif 
“Too short, too fat, too black and too old . . . ” – perennial refrain from record producers responding to Sharon Jones in the early days of her music career.
Following their traditional performance pattern, when The Dap-Kings started a concert by playing a few instrumentals to get the crowd warmed up to a fever pitch and ready for their main attraction, they would introduce her by having the bass player boom out: “Ladies and gentlemen, 110 pounds of soul excitement, Miss Sharon Jones!” She was all of that and more, with not an ounce of falsehood in her.

This is a tale of triumph over adversity and the lifelong commitment to a pure and positive spirit. This is the saga of Sharon Lafaye Jones, May 4, 1956 – November 18, 2016, and her 60 years of raw, untutored, ramshackle, rambunctious and infectious energy. Performing at a concert in 2014, the year she was valiantly fighting off the pancreatic cancer that would eventually claim her only two busy years later, and going onstage to perform one of her typically boisterous and sensual sets, she was asked how it felt to be suddenly performing with a totally bald head. Not for Jones the feeble world of either wigs or hiding from reality. As reported somewhat jubilantly by Max Blau of Spin Magazine, she declared, “It’s going to be different. I’m just going to go with it. That’s what soul music is all about!” Sharon Jones was definitely different, and she was definitely what soul music was all about. She went with it, all right, all the way.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Just When I Thought I Was Out....Revisiting Showtime's Homeland

Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Rupert Friend in Homeland

There's an infamous scene in Francis Ford Coppola's misbegotten The Godfather, Part III where the aging Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), having survived an assassination attempt, tells his family in a tone of bitter betrayal, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." The implication is that Michael's criminal life was all due to the pressure of others rather than a choice he made out of family loyalty. I think we're expected to be so sympathetic towards Michael that we can ignore the little detail that he was redeeming himself by laundering money through the Vatican Bank and cutting the other mob bosses out of the huge profits he was due to receive from investing in an international real-estate company (one that would make him its largest single shareholder). Many actors and comedians have gained some comic mileage from that line – including Steve Van Zandt as Silvio in The Sopranos, who entertained Tony's crew by doing a spotless imitation of Pacino. But the remark might be more appropriately spoken by CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) on Showtime's Homelanda dramatic thriller loosely based on the Israeli television series Hatufim (Prisoners of War). As a bipolar operative, her struggle to claim a happy and independent life for herself is constantly being threatened by a psyche she's not sure she can trust. If anyone has honestly earned Michael Corleone's complaint, perhaps it's Carrie. Just when she's trying to have a normal life, she is constantly being pulled back into action by the agency – and often by her former boss and mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), another character who would be happy to own Corleone's sentiment. What has made the past three seasons of Homeland intriguing and suspenseful has partly been how her hunger to seek a normal life has created fallout for the agents she works with and cares for.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Hairy Ape: Alienation, Claustrophobia, Isolation

 Bobby Cannavale (centre) and the cast of The Hairy Ape, at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Eugene O’Neill began writing realist one-acts in the teens and became, in his late career, the greatest realist playwright in the history of American theatre. But in the twenties and thirties he was wildly experimental. His first forays into expressionism were full-length one-acts, The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922), that, coincidentally, are playing simultaneously in New York at the moment. I’ll be writing about the Irish Repertory Theatre revival of The Emperor Jones in a couple of weeks; The Hairy Ape is the talented English director Richard Jones’s reconstruction of the production he mounted at the Old Vic last season. The current cast, headed by Bobby Cannavale, is American, but Jones has brought his other London collaborators with him: set and costume designer Stewart Laing, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, composer and sound designer Sarah Angliss and choreographer Aletta Collins. But he’s reconfigured the show for the Park Avenue Armory, and the immensity of the space changes the meaning of the play – or rather develops, in the last section, a quite different set of images to embody that meaning. (I didn’t see Jones’ Hairy Ape in London, but I’m familiar with the Old Vic space: it’s substantial, but it doesn’t dwarf the actors.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

You Can’t Go Home Again: T2 Trainspotting

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting.

Note: the following post contains spoilers.

Contrary to my usual inclination when it comes to sequels, I had high hopes for T2 Trainspotting. That’s mainly because all the folks who were involved in the original brilliant and audacious Trainspotting (1996), one of the best films of the 90s, were back for the sequel, which, like the first movie, is based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Porno. (Porno is Welsh's 2002 sequel to his 1993 novel Trainspotting.) Once again director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and the quartet of actors who played a group of Scottish heroin addicts and their pals in the 80s  Ewen Bremner (Spud), Ewan McGregor (Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) – were to be on screen, twenty years later in real life and in the movie. Their return offered hope that lightning would strike twice and the film would match or at least come close to replicating the unique nature of the original. But T2, though it tries gamely to fashion something new out of old characters, falls flat, rendering what might have been a master stroke, an indelible sequel, into something more conventional, sedate and, ultimately, forgettable.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dance Evolution: The National Ballet of Canada's Mixed Program

Evan McKie and Tanya Howard in Wayne McGregor's Genus. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Science and art perform an intriguing pas de deux in the work of Wayne McGregor, the British-born choreographer for whom dance provides a malleable framework for ongoing investigations into the mind-body relationship. Known for his angular and precisely articulated movement vocabulary, the 47-year-old trailblazer, who early on trained in modern dance in New York, has collaborated with cognitive scientists, cardiologists, polar explorers and robotics specialists to create visually exhilarating work.

His principal laboratory is his London-based Company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance), which travels the world, disseminating McGregor's inquisitive and experimental approach to ballet and making him one of the world's most in-demand choreographers. His kinetic intelligence has brought him recognition from top academic institutions, including Cambridge, which in 2004 gave him a year-long residency as a research fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology, and Plymouth University, which in 2013 bestowed upon him an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree. Appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011, McGregor is also something of a hero among dancers.

News that he would be returning this season to the National Ballet of Canada to stage Genus, his 2007 meditation on the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, had company members sharing their unadulterated glee through Facebook and Instagram during the rehearsal period earlier this winter. Dancers love McGregor because he offers them a brave new world of physical expression, combining extreme athleticism with lyricism, drama and emotional vulnerability. Weaned on 19th-century depictions of grace and elegance, they devour his dangerously off-kilter pieces whole.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Neglected Gem #100: Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tequila Sunrise (1988).

Tequila Sunrise is a riff on the themes of friendship and betrayal put together by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, The Last Detail). Towne had directed only one previous picture, Personal Best – the most sensuous and perhaps the best movie ever made about athletic competition (the main characters are a pair of female pentathletes training for the 1980 Olympics who are also lovers) – in 1982. Tequila Sunrise is plotted with remarkable density and elegant fluidity, the film moves so fast, especially for the first three-quarters, that it makes your head spin. You come out feeling exhilarated and giggling with delight at the sun-soaked SoCal ambiance and the sexy, slightly absurd intensity of the romantic triangle at the movie’s center. It features juicy, glamorous star performances from Mel Gibson as Dale “Mac” McKussic, a dope dealer trying to go straight; Kurt Russell as Nick Frescia, his boyhood pal, now a narc; and Michelle Pfeiffer as Jo Ann Vallinari, the beautiful restaurateur they both fall for. All of this might not be much more than a first-class romantic melodrama from the forties would have offered – but it’s more than enough. In pure entertainment terms, the picture’s a knockout.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Femina Ex Machina: Ghost in the Shell (1995) vs Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Scarlett Johansson from Ghost in the Shell (2017) and her anime counterpart from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Note: This review contains spoilers for both versions of Ghost in the Shell
Before The Matrix, there was Ghost in the Shell (1995), the Japanese anime film based on the 1989 manga of the same name. The title refers directly to the major themes of the story, which depicts a cyberpunk future in which the line between human and machine is growing ever more blurred as cybernetic enhancements become commonplace. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the avatar of this evolution; her body is entirely synthetic except for her human brain, cradled in a metal casing that allows her to plug directly into the internet. Her soul – her personality, thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity – is the “ghost” that hides in the manufactured shell that is her body.

You can see where the Wachowskis got their inspiration for the story of Neo: the cyberpunk setting, the idea of “jacking in” to a network via a needle-like plug to the brainstem, the blending of analog and digital technologies that lead naturally to philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and identity. There’s been a heartwarming cross-pollination of media influences between Japan and the U.S. since before the 1960s, when Kurosawa and Leone were cribbing one another’s work, and that tradition hasn’t changed. With Ghost in the Shell, whose own influences extend from Arthur Koestler to René Descartes – and its 2017 remake, which we’ll get to – it’s clear that there really aren’t any new ideas under the sun. All that matters in this arena are the clarity, power, and poetry with which these old ideas are expressed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Un-American: The Ed Palermo Big Band

The Ed Palermo Big Band, with Ed Palermo (centre). (Photo: Chris Dukker)

Over the last 25 years or so, pop songs have entered the jazz world with abundance as a younger generation of musicians seeks out new music to arrange and perform. Though the so-called American Songbook, featuring standards that have stood the proverbial test of time, is still played with gusto at the educational level, the age of the music has shifted from the thirties and forties to the eighties and nineties. While original compositions abound for the current generation of arrangers, the challenges of rethinking a standard like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” don’t necessarily have the appeal of, say, those of rethinking “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears. Generally speaking pop songs offer a creative chance for a new arrangement or a way of pushing the music beyond the three chords of the original. One of the best at stretching the limits of pop is Ed Palermo. His current release on Cuneiform Records, called The Great Un-American Songbook, Volume 1 & 2, is an ambitious 2-CD set of 21 pop songs arranged for his big band. The musical results are lively, passionate and just outside enough to engage the most experienced listener.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXII

If there was one songwriter in rock 'n roll who had an endless gift for memorable (and enjoyable) anthems it was Chuck Berry, who died recently in his home at the age of 90. Whether it was his pledge of allegiance in "Rock and Roll Music," his testament to roots in "Back in the U.S.A.," or the happily defiant "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry was the supreme storyteller, rock's Johnny Appleseed, a smooth talker and a smooth walker. Born in St. Louis, Berry drew his musical influences from a variety of genres. The swagger of "You Can't Catch Me" is unthinkable without Louis Jordan. The bravado of "Little Queenie" would have been right at home in the tough urban blues of Muddy Waters. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" might have been a country music dream imagined by Bob Willis and the Playboys. His lesser-known "Havana Moon" has the swooning balladry of Nat King Cole (and it inspired Richard Berry's "Louie Louie").

Monday, April 3, 2017

The New Yorkers: Prohibition Musical

Scarlett Strallen and the cast of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Halfway through the first act of The New Yorkers, the Cole Porter musical Encores! unearthed at City Center two weekends ago, the French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée saunters onstage to perform “Love for Sale,” the lament of a Manhattan streetwalker and certainly the most frequently covered song in the score. (It was Porter’s own favorite among all his songs, though the frankness of the lyric kept it off the radio for years.) Aimée’s style is an odd mix of early Billie Holiday and Astrid Gilberto, her phrasing is quirky – partly because of her semi-submerged accent – and she manages to be both worldly and woeful and innocent and newly minted at the same time. She’s the damnedest singer, and when she raises one hand and starts to trace her trills in the air like Ronee Blakley performing “Dues” in Robert Altman’s Nashville, the audience seems to be in thrall to her. I sure was. She stops the show, though her character is virtually unwritten. (She’s identified in the playbill merely as “A Lady of the Evening.”) She returns in act two for a reprise of “Let’s Fly Away,” but that’s it.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A German Family that Refused to Conform: Joachim Fest’s Not I

The Fest family: (from left, back row) Winfried, Hannif, Wolfgang, and Joachim and (front row) Elisabeth, Christa, and Johannes.

“One sometimes had to keep one’s head down, but try to not look shorter as a result!”
“They [Germans] have lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.”
Johannes Fest, father of Joachim Fest, from Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood
Throughout his professional career, first as a radio journalist and later as an historian and as a biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, Joachim Fest was haunted by the question: How did Germany, a country almost obsessed with culture, descend into Nazi barbarity? In his final and most personal work before his death in 2006, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Other Press, 2014), Fest explores the reverse question: How was it possible that his family maintained its moral bearings and did not succumb to the mass hysteria engulfing the country? The answer starts with his uncompromising father, who is, at least in the first half of the book, the central figure of this remarkable memoir that tracks the author’s life into young adulthood. Fest, the son, takes the title of his book from his devout Catholic, proudly Prussian, father, whose inspiration is derived from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Even if all others do, not I.” The author pays tribute to his father (and mother) by serving up a memorable tale of courage and stoic endurance of “the revolting Nazi period” reminding us that simple human decency is possible even during an oppressive tyranny.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Jury’s Still Out: NBC’s Trial & Error

Nicholas D’Agosto and John Lithgow

NBC’s long-running sitcom The Office left its mark on contemporary television in a number of ways, not least in the sudden emergence of a number of mockumentary-style comedies, most notably NBC’s Parks and Recreation and ABC’s hit Modern Family. However, it’s striking that both of these shows seem to have essentially discarded the sub-genre’s main conceit: the idea that everything we see and hear is being recorded by a camera crew that exists within the world of the show. The Office spent a considerable portion of its final season acknowledging that there had been other characters, long familiar to the denizens of Dunder-Mifflin but completely unknown to us, present throughout the show’s run, and it dealt with some of the logical complications that might ensue from that situation. Parks and Modern Family, on the other hand, became almost Brecht-lite; characters speak directly to the audience, calling our attention to the show’s artificiality, but there’s rarely any pretense that they’re actually talking to a person behind the camera.

It’s hard not to think of the quirks of the mockumentary sub-genre while watching NBC’s new Trial and Error, which premiered on March 14 and airs on Tuesday nights. In large part, that’s because creators Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller seem to have attempted to reverse-engineer the success of The Office and Parks and Recreation; the latter’s influence is especially evident from their attempts to quickly establish the show’s setting, a fictional South Carolina town called East Peck, as a quirky but lovable backwater, à la the equally fictional Pawnee, Indiana. Here, the conceit that everything that we see is the result of a camera crew following around the characters is frequently acknowledged, oftentimes to satisfying comic effect.