Saturday, July 14, 2018

Altered States: Danny Grossman Dances His Swan Song

Danny Grossman. (Photo: Liliana Reyes)

Nearly 20 years ago, the American-born dancer and choreographer Danny Grossman was in his 50s – then considered an ancient age for a dance artist – and had just had hip surgery to repair the damage brought on by his jumping, swirling, body-slamming profession. While he was recovering, I went to interview him in his Toronto home where I found him walking with the aid of crutches. But not even they could slow him down. Grossman had already – and likely against his doctor’s wishes – tried to dance again and the experience confirmed for him something he had long held true: that dance isn’t just steps set to music; it’s a process of transformation. “It’s a miracle!” Grossman said at the time, bursting out laughing as he threw his crutches to the floor to tentatively trace what looked like an old-fashioned waltz across his living room floor. “I feel no pain! I feel like a kid again!” Conversation grew somewhat more serious as the morning wore on. The operation had made him feel his mortality and looking back at the sizeable body of work he had created for his Danny Grossman Dance Company since its founding in Toronto in 1977 (the troupe stopped performing in 2008), he summed it up like this: “All my work has been about altered states. People are transformed by dance, some by just doing it, others by watching."

Friday, July 13, 2018

Don't Waste Your Time: Let the Sunshine In, You Were Never Really Here, & Disobedience

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. (Photo: IMDB)

As a long-time film critic, I can confess to bringing expectations and biases to the films I see. But I also believe I can be honest in my reactions to preferred filmmakers when their films disappoint me and equally be pleasantly surprised by those directors whose movies I’ve never expected much from. Steven Spielberg is one of my favourite directors but his latest movie, Ready Player One, a loud, empty and dull SF dystopian drama, may be his worst  ever. On the other hand, while I've never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, his Inglourious Basterds, a smart alternate-history World War Two drama, marked a leap into maturity and emotional depth for him -- albeit a short-lived one, as the films that followed, such as The Hateful Eight, fell back into his glib, gratuitously violent and profane modus operandi. Of three films I've seen recently, one filmmaker let me down, one encouraged me to come to a negative conclusion about its director, and one confirmed my suspicions about what its director is lacking.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nothing's Scarier Than Family: Hereditary

Toni Collette in Ari Aster's Hereditary. (Photo: A24)

Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary is one of the few horror films that confronted me with the desire to literally escape the theatre. Hanging on through its teeth-grating suspense and frequent bone-jarring shock was an act of emotional fortitude that I’m still proud of, weeks after seeing the film, and though that description may make the film seem like an Eli Roth-style torture porn marathon (how long can you last??), Hereditary’s thrills are anything but cheap. It’s an amazingly smart and powerful debut from a filmmaker I’ll be excited to watch in the years to come, who walked a razor’s edge of tone and tension to craft one of the finest horror films of the past decade.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Missing Link: Both Directions At Once by John Coltrane

Cover art for John Coltrane's Both Directions At Once. (Photo: Impulse! Records)

After a long hiatus, John Coltrane is back on the jazz charts with a new album called Both Directions At Once (Impulse!). This exciting and previously unheard set of recordings will go down in jazz history as what I characterize as the missing link. It’s like discovering J.R.R. Tolkien wrote another book in the Lord of the Rings series that's meant to fit between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It’s the musical link of what had come before in Coltrane’s growth and where he and his band mates were going. The tracks on this album were done a couple of years before Crescent and A Love Supreme, two of the group’s seminal discs.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cloud Atlas: When the Film Is Better Than the Book

Raevan Lee Hanan with Tom Hanks in the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. (Photo: Lettrboxed)

Cloud Atlas is a film that the critic Roger Ebert had trouble getting, even after seeing it twice, and with good reason: it’s specifically for those who’ve read the book. How else is one supposed to follow the six interwoven plot strands? People often say that the book ruins the movie, that when we read a Harry Potter novel after seeing one of the movies we can't see Hermione Granger as anyone but Emma Watson, for instance. And unless the book offers a clear and distinctive description, that does tend to happen. But lately I’ve found that for books with a strong narrative, what can be worse is that knowing what’s going to happen can ruin the fun. The anticipation of what comes next, and curiosity about how it will be presented, can prevent one from focusing on the here and now.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Music Scenes: The Moderate Soprano, Coming Back Like a Song! & Mood Music

Roger Allam as John Christie in The Moderate Soprano. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano tells the story of the beginnings of the Glyndebourne Festival on the lawn of Captain John Christie’s Sussex estate in 1934. Christie (played by Roger Allam), a Wagner fanatic, is determined to use his fortune to make opera count in England, which has a paltry tradition of housing it and an almost nonexistent history of creating it. (The masterpieces of Benjamin Britten are still in the future.) Christie also wants to open a space for his wife, Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll) – the “moderate soprano” of the title, a decade and a half his junior – to perform. His dream is to see Parsifal on his newly erected stage in the first season; he envisions an English Bayreuth. It doesn’t happen. The experts he hires – two Germans, conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) and stage director Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), and an Austrian, impresario-in-the-making Rudolph Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who is Ebert’s right-hand man – patiently explain to him that the jewel box he’s built, seating about three hundred, is unsuitable for Wagner, unless, Ebert quips, he puts the audience on the stage and the singers in the auditorium. And, though their critical judgment is that his theatre is “completely unsuited to the serious production of opera” and that “the whole thing has the air of the amateur,” they finally agree to try to make it work because it’s their best option, the Nazis having made it impossible for all three of them to continue to work in Germany. But, to Christie’s irritation, they claim that the size of the theatre and Ebert’s special gift for staging Mozart make him the local composer for Glyndebourne’s debut season. Christie doesn’t get Mozart at all, but he capitulates. Glyndebourne opens with The Marriage of Figaro and CosÌ Fan Tutte, and it’s several years before his experts permit any other composer to be sung there.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Incredibles 2: Elastic Boogaloo

Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen Parr with Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr (and Eli Fucile's Jack-Jack). (Photo: IMDB)

It’s strange to think that The Incredibles (2004) isn’t usually included in discussions about the re-emergence of the superhero genre, despite the fact that it predated Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins by a year (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe by a full four years). It falls, somehow, into the no man’s land between Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy – the awkward years, so to speak, before the long-term financial viability of the genre had been established, and before anyone had really figured out how the hell to make these things. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about the relative success of superhero films between the 1970s and now, but the truth is that Brad Bird, writing and directing The Incredibles for Pixar, was the first person to really nail it since Richard Donner’s Superman in ‘78 – creating a film about a superhero family that worked on every level, as emotionally resonant as it was exciting and fun.

It’s even stranger to think that the bias that excludes the movie when we talk about this stuff is probably towards its format as an animated film, despite the fact that the superhero genre’s history rests in the colourful, hyper-stylized pages of comic books. Today, the mega-success of the Marvel films has trained most audiences to expect a certain level of real-life fidelity from the genre, so The Incredibles can still feel like an anomaly – even though it’s much closer in style, theme, and execution to a classic superhero tale than anything Kevin Feige has presided over. Incredibles 2, though, probably has a better shot at mainstream success: 14 years after the original, it’s arriving at a time when audiences are much better equipped to appreciate what it has to offer.