Saturday, September 1, 2018

After A.A. Milne: Christopher Robin

Pooh (Jim Cummings) and Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). (Photo: IMDB)

I’m not much of a fan of the director Marc Forster (Monsters' Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner), and except for Johnny Depp’s intimate, impassioned pressed-violet portrayal of James M. Barrie I find his 2004 Finding Neverland, about Barrie’s relationship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her four sons (one of whom inspired the creation of Peter Pan), fudged and sentimentalized. So I was caught off guard by his new movie, Christopher Robin, which is also linked to a children’s literary classic. It imagines a grown-up version of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), returned from the Second World War and so focused on his banal office life – a life of drudgery and enslavement to a lazy, tyrannical boss (Mark Gatiss) who takes credit for Christopher’s ideas – that he has no time for his wife Evelyn (a quietly affecting Hayley Atwell) or their somber, intent little girl Madeline (played by a talented young actress with a marvelous name, Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is in dire trouble but doesn’t realize it, so he gets a visit from his childhood companion Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and finds himself back in the woods with Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Baby Roo (Sara Sheen). I know; it sounds awful. In fact, it sounds like Steven Spielberg’s disastrous 1991 Hook, where it’s the adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has turned into a corporate type who needs to be rescued from a values-blind, dead-ended existence. Yet somehow Christopher Robin turns out to be lovely – sweet, not treacly, and understated.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Politics of Acting: Argentina’s Norma Aleandro in Conversation

Norma Aleandro in The Official Story (La historia oficial, 1985).

When the junta took over Argentina in 1976, it ate away at the heart of this South American nation, slowly obliterating all who stood in its way. Among the terrorized who have lived to tell the tale is the celebrated Argentinian actress, Norma Aleandro, now 82. I first learned of her plight from the 1985 Luis Puenzo film, The Official Story, a powerful exposé of the desaparecidos, the missing ones, who disappeared, never to be found again, during the "dirty war" waged by those opposed to the military dictatorship. Aleandro had come to Toronto for the gala screening and agreed to sit down with me for an interview.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Neglected Gem: A Great Day in Harlem

Art Kane's famous 1958 photo for Esquire Magazine. (Photo: Getty)

Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem centers on a legendary photo that appeared in Esquire Magazine, in a special 1958 issue on jazz, the brainchild of the new graphics editor (and future director and screenwriter) Robert Benton. A young art director named Art Kane came up with the idea of gathering every jazz musician who could be rounded up in front of a Harlem brownstone, underneath the 125th Street railroad station, and pitched it successfully to Benton. And somehow, at ten a.m., an hour when most respectable jazzmen are fast asleep, dozens of them showed up, huddling in groups, happy for the chance to socialize with their buddies. The only trick, relate Kane and his assistant, Steve Frankfurt, was to get them to shut up and look at the camera.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Her Majesty: The Soul of Aretha

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way the hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty. American history wells up when Aretha sings. Because she captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and also the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation and transcendence.” – Barack Obama, Kennedy Center, 2015

Somehow, in a way that might forever remain inexplicable, Aretha Franklin managed to alter the landscape of soul music by transforming herself into both a rock icon and a pop goddess. For me, there were three key hinges to her remarkable swinging stylistic door. The first was synthesis: she was the perfect corporate merger between sacred gospel music and secular blues music. Next was reconciliation: she was the ideal reconciliation between and rhythm and blues music and rock and roll music. And finally, transcendence: she was the unexpected redemption of spiritual soul music by perfectly pure pop music.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Wachowskis Unbound: The Simulacra of Speed Racer (2008)

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer. (Photo: IMDB)

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich wrote, “Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.” While the first film this brings to mind may be The Matrix (1999), the Keanu Reeves-narrated documentary Side by Side (2012) explains how every film is now digital, and shows how every single element is fundamentally manipulable. Non-documentary cinema (and even some forms of documentary) has lost its grounding in to the real, in form and therefore in substance, something that most cinephiles lament – witness the loathing of TV motion smoothing. But what if a film were to celebrate its (oxymoronic) simulacral nature? What if, instead of trying to pass as realistic, a film embraced its artificiality? Well, then we might get Speed Racer (2008).

Monday, August 27, 2018

Durang Double Bill: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You & The Actor's Nightmare

Harriet Harris as the titular Sister Mary Ignatius in Durang's Berkshire revival. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

When I taught Christopher Durang’s one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You my first year at College of the Holy Cross, more than thirty years ago, several of my students clamored, with competitive fervor, to tell anecdotes about the fearsome nuns whose reigns of terror they’d suffered through. The play, first performed in 1979, is absurdist, and the titular sister’s intolerance for anything less than the most pure, doctrinal (and bloodthirsty) vision of the universe is ultimately psychotic, but my students recognized her immediately. And indeed, even in Durang’s most outrageous work, there’s always a tinge of realism mixed in with the lunacy.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Margie Gillis (1987)

Margie Gillis dancing to Tom Waits's "Waltzing Matilda" in 1978. (Photo: Jack Udashkin)

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian dancer and choreographer Margie Gillis.

At the time of our conversation, Margie Gillis was already an international name in modern dance and choreography. We spoke of her show, New Dreams, which was premiering in Toronto, and about the new demands of balancing her fame with her artistic ambitions. In 2011, Gillis was awarded the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and, in 2013 became an Officer of the Order of Canada.

 – Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Margie Gillis as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.