Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dammit, Janet – The Rocky Horror Show Penetrates Stratford

Dan Chameroy as the incomparable Dr. Frank N. Furter. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Corsets and garters and ripped fishnets, oh my! The Rocky Horror Show bursts at the seams and not just on the Stratford stage, where the scantily clad rock musical – making its festival debut – will be in a permanent state of dishabille at the Avon Theatre until Nov. 11. Cross-dressers, latex-glove lovers, falsies-wearing wannabes, all the freaks are out in force at late-night presentations of the 1973 cult classic where audience participation is not only a given, it’s a main component of this uproariously ribald show. (Viewer discretion strongly advised.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Journey's End: Battle Scars

Asa Butterfield in Journey's End (2017). (Photo: IMDB)

The British director Saul Dibb’s World War I film Journey’s End is a fine, mournful piece of work, but it opened without fanfare early in the year and closed almost immediately. Dibb has made only a handful of movies; I don’t think his last one, an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française, was released at all on this side of the ocean, though it has Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Margot Robbie in the cast. (It’s set in World War II.) In Journey’s End he’s working with a screenplay by Simon Reade based on the 1928 R.C. Sherriff play, one of the most downbeat of all war dramas. The major WWI play produced in America in the twenties was Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’s What Price Glory?, which is raucous and funny – a hard-boiled comedy – except for the middle act, a poetic lament that takes place in the midst of a bloody battle. But in England it was Journey’s End, a relentlessly tragic glimpse of the war from the point of view of a doomed group of British officers in a trench in Aisne, France, just before Operation Michael (though it was warmly received when it moved to Broadway in 1929).

Allegory, Atmosphere, and Artifice in Damien Chazelle's La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land. (Photo: IMDB)

Richard Brody on his New Yorker blog has a problem with Damien Chazelle. He’s disconcerted at how tightly Chazelle frames and edits the spontaneity of jazz in Whiplash (2014), and, on the same theme, by the scene in La La Land (2016) where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring musician, bloviatingly mansplains jazz to Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actor he has fallen in love with, by talking over the live jazz. (The “very, very exciting” ending of that “speech” just adds insult to injury.) Brody also has complaints about the dance numbers, which, being tightly choreographed and rehearsed, for him belie the spontaneous joy that supposedly ignites dancing in the streets. Aside from the mansplaining, I think it’s fine. After all, we're here not to experience jazz but to enjoy a film. And Chazelle’s camerawork does an exhilarating job of guiding the audience’s gaze, transforming the spectacle before us from a stage performance to a cinematic one.

Besides, the opening dance number isn’t supposed to be realistic (it is a musical, after all). It sets the mood of the film, and it also sets the scene: Tinseltown, where dreams and their spectacle are in the air. But something strange is going on in this particular musical. At certain points throughout, the film seems to flicker in and out of realism, which is probably the root of the inorganic quality of the musical numbers noted by Steve Vineberg in his review on this website. Let's call the film's boundary between realism and fantasy an atmospheric framing device, i.e., it is devised to create the fantastical atmosphere of the musical, its hard boundaries, apart from the intermittent flickering, evident in the first and penultimate scenes. The function of the opening dance number, which initiates the frame, explains why Sebastian and Mia aren’t a part of it, even though they are the main characters. All the wondrous, fantastical parts of the film take place within this frame, and the movie's main "obstacle" (so artificial as to seem to have been thought up in some screenwriting workshop) must be imposed from outside, leading to two of three egregiously artificial plot points, which we’ll get to later. The flickering of the boundaries of the frame and its overlap with the boundaries of the leading couple’s relationship can be observed when Sebastian, singing “City of Stars” on a pier, starts dancing with an old lady. Her husband gets offended, because the device’s boundaries don’t extend to include the elderly couple; he reacts as one would in a realist film, whereas she's drawn into the fantasy.  The meta qualities of La La Land, which have led many to call it a love letter to classic musical films, owe a great deal to this device.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Eight Million DPM – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Director J.A. Bayona, contemplating his Trevorrow-esque career trajectory. (Photo: IMDB)

My initial impression of Jurassic World (2015) was largely positive; I saw it as a fun reworking of the franchise’s formula that succeeded in being entertaining even when it failed at being coherent. The bloom’s since come off the rose: with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see past the film’s cynical, calculated maneuverings, which aim to capitalize on the affection you might have felt for Spielberg’s dinosaur films without bothering to earn that affection itself. In that way, it’s a lot like John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), whom Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldbum) criticizes for the hubris of thoughtlessly “standing on the shoulders of geniuses.” Director/writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t only show little respect for the material he’s in charge of – he also proves over and over again that he’s not very good at realizing it for the screen. His parks, like Hammond’s, have proven to be failures. Thankfully, though, nobody (in the real world, anyway) is being devoured as a result of his negligence.

I wish that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, directed by J.A. Bayona, had found enjoyable ways to play with the dinosaur toys he and Trevorrow inherited from Spielberg. I’ve long since let go of any hope that the franchise will recapture the intelligence, tension, and dramatic stakes of the first film; that would require a full reset, a shift in tone or genre, and a filmmaker with a unique vision at the helm. Instead, all I want is for the Jurassic World films to become the shlocky, ridiculous creature features they clearly ought to be. But like its predecessor, Fallen Kingdom wants to have its cake and eat it too, attempting to deliver both exciting dinosaur action and dramatic sci-fi storytelling and succeeding at neither.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Fashion & Architecture, Redefined: Iris Van Herpen and Philip Beesley at the Royal Ontario Museum

Transforming fashion and space at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: PBAI/LAS)

Nature, fashion and technology fuse together in an innovative two-part exhibition showcasing the futuristic designs of Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen and the interactive architecture of Canada’s Philip Beesly. Parallel shows, Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion and Philip Beesley: Transforming Space, are at the Royal Ontario Museum until October 8 and are a must-see for anyone interested in conceptual design as it relates to the human form and its relationship with both man-made and natural environments.

Van Herpen and Beesley have partnered on a number of projects since 2012; the ROM presentation  consisting of a touring exhibition of Van Herpen’s avant-garde designs, organized and curated by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Groningen Museum in the Netherland,s and two sculptural “living labs” which Beesley created with a team of pioneering researchers – represents their 11th collaboration.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Remembering Harlan Ellison: What He Meant to Me

Author Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writer Harlan Ellison, who passed away at 84, either on June 27 or June 28 – reports differ – reportedly in his sleep. That means he died on my 59th birthday or shortly thereafter, thus allowing me to mark a milestone of another sort, a recognition that his presence, as a cultural and personal influence, has been with me for more than 40 years, my having discovered him at age 15 or 16, when I was still in high school. That’s longer than most of my friendships. (The only other writer I’ve read as deeply is Stephen King but it’s not the same type of relationship.) I am not sure exactly when I discovered him or which books of his I read first – though many of my copies of Ellison were the Pyramid editions with the artsy covers and his name in big bold letters at the top – but I know as soon as I did cotton onto Harlan Ellison, I almost became fixated on him. I picked up his collections, of course, but pretty much bought any magazine that featured his name on it or anthologies to which he contributed. I also tried to catch him on TV, NBC’s Tomorrow (with Tom Snyder) and CBC’s 90 Minutes Live in those days, ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher later on, where he was scintillating, and I still recall how excited I was when CBC’s flagship radio show As It Happens chose to interview Ellison when Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president in 1980. Harlan wasn’t too happy about that event, as you can imagine, notably having been on the wrong side of the president when he was governor of California and put Ellison on his enemies’ list. Hell, I even joined Harlan Ellison’s fan club, which sent out neat booklets, extolling his latest projects and the like, and which I still possess. I’ve never done that for anyone before or since.

I remember my first interview with the man (three in all) when I was in university, for The Loyola News at Concordia University, and being so intimidated by his voice (and reputation) on the other end of the telephone line that I only took five of my allotted ten interview minutes. (The ensuing interviews were for The Montreal Suburban weekly community newspaper and the Toronto-based daily paper The Financial Post, now The National Post.Once I got involved with Critics at Large, as co-founder of this nearly ten-year-old daily website, I penned three more pieces on Ellison, beginning with a very long one encapsulating everything I knew and wanted readers to know about why he was so important, fittingly titled "Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream" (a variation on one of his best known short stories, "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream"). I also reviewed his fine graphic novel Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos and, for his 80th birthday, put forth a primer to his work and what I felt you should read, in his fiction, non-fiction and editorial capacities. So when it came down to writing this tribute to such an important figure in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t have much left to say on the specifics of his life and work. I’ll speak therefore to why I feel he mattered so much to me.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Three New Works: The Sound Inside, The Closet, and Born for This

Will Hochman and Mary Louise Parker in Adam Rapp's The Sound Inside. (Photo: Carolyn Brown)

The Sound Inside, on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a two-hander by Adam Rapp about the unexpected friendship between a middle-aged Yale creative writing professor and her most intriguing and perplexing student, a freshman who shows up at her office without an appointment and overcomes her irritation with his refusal to play by the rules by hooking her on an idea for a novel he’s writing. My response to the play while it was going on in a sense emulated the professor Bella Baird’s reaction to the student, Christopher Dunn: I was both fascinated and exasperated. Rapp has structured the piece as a narrative that Bella is relating to us; Rapp – or perhaps the director, David Cromer – underscores this idea, unnecessarily, by showing her putting sentences down in a notebook (at least, some of the time) after she speaks them, and the frame of the play, in which she describes herself in the third person as a woman facing an audience in an auditorium, suggests that her story about Christopher has been published and she’s reading it publicly. But in the opening scene especially, the storytelling keeps interrupting the drama, and the exchange between Bella and Christopher is more interesting than her report of it. I understand that the play is about writing: about the art of fiction that, when it’s really cooking, writes itself, transforming private emotion into prose, and about how personal experience gets converted into narrative. (Presumably the title alludes to both these ideas.) But what’s compelling on the stage is the conversion of narrative into drama. In The Sound Inside Rapp, searching for a way to show us how writing works – a noble mission, and God knows a difficult one – repeatedly forestalls the drama, though the play contains patches of beautiful writing.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

What to Listen to if You Like to Cook (and Eat) – Part II

Rosalind Bentley's Great Aunt Lucy and one of her cookbooks, featured in Gravy's "Hostesses of the Movement". (Photo: Gravy Archives)

Amer: So would you fast on Yom Kippur?
Lehmann: Yes.
Amer: And you’d break your fast with . . . 
Lehmann: Pork roast.
  Gravy, Episode 14: “The Last Jews of Natchez

Gravy is the name of a print publication and an affiliated podcast, both produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Gravy, the podcast, is actually not where you want to turn for recipes or cooking advice – though you might come away from the episode “Hostesses of the Movement” with an overpowering desire to make, or hunt down, lemon icebox cookies. (Here, let me help you with that.) Instead, Gravy is a collection of radio documentaries on the food culture of the American South. Episodes range from nineteen minutes to just over an hour long – with the vast majority coming in at under half an hour. Each is dedicated to a single topic, so it’s a cinch to select what interests you and to skip what doesn’t.