Monday, September 19, 2022

The Church of Baseball: How to Work a Miracle

“Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time.” – Ron Shelton, The Church of Baseball.

I love Ron Shelton’s movies the way I love those of the legendary 1940s filmmaker Preston Sturges. Both are quintessentially American writer-directors with a wild sense of humor and a gift for using language in astonishingly fresh ways. Both work intimately with hip, canny character actors to create small worlds that are somehow simultaneously wittily devised and vividly familiar. Sturges may be more off-kilter (though Shelton can be just as nutty) and Shelton less skittish about betraying emotion (though he’s never sentimental), but both come to their material with an attitude of wry amusement and sublime common sense   You can trace both men’s approach to the same master comic voice: Mark Twain’s.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Anything Is Possible Once the Sun Goes Down: Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010)

Chun-Yao Yao in Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北 2010).

Writer-director Arvin Chen’s feature debut, Au Revoir Taipei (Yi Ye Taibei / 一頁台北, 2010) – the Mandarin title is a pun on “one night in Taipei” – is a whimsical and slightly farcical romantic comedy that I believe could only have been made in Taiwan, and it’s on YouTube. The key to its tonal success lies in the characterization. It’s my favorite Taiwan film.

In Taiwan, we have this thing we do in social situations: we play dumb instead of taking the initiative, lest we propose something that someone doesn’t want to do, but would go along with anyway just to be polite. The film captures this idea perfectly, which is why it’s one of the few contemporary films to nail a natural-sounding Taiwanese Mandarin. In fact, almost the entire film features characters who don’t know each other very well sharing a scene, and playing dumb describes most of the dialogue.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Importance of Being Earnest and Too True to Be Good: The Gift of Gab

Martin Happer and Julia Course in The Importance of Being Earnest. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Tim Carroll’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival is no doubt giving pleasure to a great many theatregoers this year.  No one has ever, to my knowledge, written a funnier play than Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of Victorian manners, and Carroll’s mounting honors both the wit and the style of the text. It is also – thanks to Gillian Gallow’s set (with its multiple frames), Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and especially Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes – lovely to look at.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

So it Goes: Accommodating the Sublime

W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

“Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made. And there I wait in hope of learning something of the story of its making.” – John Berger

Where to begin with the two greatest English landscape painters in history? So great that even an art critic is challenged to find the most accurate ways to extol their truly magnificent achievements? Well, in a diversionary tactic during which I can gather my far-flung thoughts into something resembling coherence, I may start by mentioning that persistent readers of Critics At Large, or even occasional readers with a canny eye, will notice that I have long been intrigued by dualities, polarities, alternates, dichotomies, parallels, binaries, opposites and what Dr. Jung called synchronicity. Far from being merely coincidence, or even what the good doctor called meaningful coincidence, he further explained that synchronicity occurs when two archetypes (images or ideas shared by all of us in the collective unconscious) arise at the same time in roughly the same place.

And so it is with two great painters, Joseph Turner (1775-1851), more commonly identified by the way he signed his works, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable (1776-1837), the paired and most recognizable icons of landscape representation and also the two most daringly innovative risk takers in the history of painting. That history contains a basic template for presenting images to our insatiably hungry eyes: portrait (close to), still life (nearby), landscape (far from). But in the case of these two exemplars, both of whom were surprising emissaries for a fledgling modernism just then on the cusp of occurring with the advent of the French invention of the camera in about 1839, and the resulting plunge into overall pictorial abstraction continuing to this day, we have a unique case of merging the three formats into one single vertiginous entity.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Silver Screen Time Machine: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020)

Tosa Kazunari in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020).

Somehow, Kato doesn’t freak out.

The essence of time travel is narrative. Like the unread pages of a good book, the future has already happened; it just hasn’t yet happened to you. The metaphor applies doubly to filmmaking, which usually takes a narrative and shoots it out of order. Continuity must be maintained, and character and emotional arcs made convincing. If they aren’t, paradoxes manifest, the cinematic world collapses, and viewers branch off from the storyworld prematurely, each into their own individual lifeworlds.

2020’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら “We at the End of the Droste”), director-cinematographer-editor Yamaguchi Junta’s feature debut, realizes this metaphor in the most direct way. Beyond is shot to look like it was done in a single take, using just one phone, tripod, boom mic, the world’s longest power cord, and lots and lots of stopwatches. To give you a sense of its flavor, it was inspired by One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな! “Don’t Stop the Camera!”), Ueda Shinichiro’s 2017 smash hit about a group of people tasked with making a one-shot microbudget zombie film. There are cuts in Beyond – of course there are cuts; it’s a time travel film – but to keep up the illusion, the requisite plot complications have to develop organically from the situation the characters find themselves in, and from who they are as characters, as people. Writer Ueda Makoto does a hell of a job in just 70 minutes.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Crowd Pleasers: Damn Yankees and Gaslight at the Shaw Festival

Jay Turvey with the Ballplayers in Damn Yankees, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross might have entered the pantheon of Broadway songwriters if fate hadn’t extinguished their star so fast. Adler was thirty-one and Ross twenty-eight when George Abbott commissioned them to write the score for The Pajama Game (1954), adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel 7-1/2 Cents, about the tensions between labor and management in a Midwestern pajama factory. It was a legendary show: Abbott and Jerome Robbins co-directed, a young Bob Fosse staged the dances, and it ran for three years. (A boisterous movie version in 1957, helmed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, captures the spirit of the original, with all but two members of the Broadway cast reprising their performances.) In 1955 lightning struck again for Adler and Ross with Damn Yankees. Adapted by Abbott and Douglass Wallop from Wallop’s book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees was as big a hit as The Pajama Game. But six months after its triumphant premiere, Ross died suddenly of lung disease. Adler never had another success, alone or with a collaborator, though his lovely score for the South Africa-set musical Kwamina, which he wrote for his wife, Sally Ann Howes, is ripe for rediscovery. (Its interracial love story was undoubtedly too controversial for 1961.)

Monday, August 15, 2022

Revisiting Stratford: The Miser and Girls & Boys

Colm Feore, Lucy Peacock and Qasim Khan star in The Miser, at Canada's Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

This summer I was able to cross the Canadian border for the first time since COVID, on a trip framed by brief visits to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Regrettably, my timing at Stratford didn’t allow for the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem comedy I love that gets produced only infrequently. But I did manage to check out artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy The Miser (at the Festival Theatre) in a contemporary adaptation by Ranjit Bolt that has been embellished further with Ontario references. In Bolt’s version Molière’s title character, Harpagon, is called Harper, and his children, Élise and Cléante, who desire to marry the people they love without risking being disinherited by their parsimonious papa, are called Eleanor and Charlie. The director’s note in the program argues that the subject of greed and the generational tensions make The Miser relevant to a 2022 audience. Of course you can make that case for any of Molière’s best satires; human nature, after all, hasn’t changed much through the centuries. I’m not sure, though, that the present-day setting adds anything to the play or sharpens its thrust.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Getting Gerried by Nature: Gerry

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gerry (2002).

This review contains major spoilers for Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2002).

In 2002, Gus Van Sant followed his aggressively mediocre Finding Forrester (2000) with the aggressively experimental Gerry (2002). It doesn’t have opening titles, and for most of its 103 minutes the only two people we see are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who both play guys named Gerry. (I’m going to use the actors’ names to avoid confusion.) There’s even a running joke about how the name “Gerry” gets turned into a vague, all-purpose word. (Affleck, Damon, and Van Sant co-wrote as well as co-editing.) A few examples: “I crow’s-nested up here to scout-about the ravine ’cause I thought maybe you gerried the rendezvous”; “We could have just bailed early, you know. There were so many gerrys along the way”; “And then we gerried off to the animal tracks.” The first 20 minutes are just long takes of Matt and Casey driving and then walking in the California semi-desert with minimal dialogue.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Shining On Brightly: The Power of Sharing the Spotlight

(W.W. Norton Press)

“The Beatles, like Duke Ellington, are virtually unclassifiable musicians.” – Lillian Ross, writing in The New Yorker in 1967.

How can one possibly explain the majestic presence of music such as Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s  “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge”? Or the shimmering beauty of Lennon/McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and their entire “Abbey Road Medley”? What secret alchemical equation is behind the binary Odd Couple Code in the creative arts that makes such great collaborations so fruitful? A team of rivals, often incompatible and yet somehow incomparable, whose rivalry makes the team grow stronger and succeed far in excess of what either competitive team member could achieve alone, is an often mystifying but vastly entertaining cultural phenomenon. As long as they maintain the precarious balance required to equally channel their dramatically opposite energies in the same direction, that is.   

Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration, the wonderful book by Thomas Brothers from W.W. Norton, is one of the most informative and inspiring places to begin examining this remarkable ability for two artists to meld into a unified field, a single creative force in tandem. The odd-couple metaphor of a relational golden mean suggests something hidden but potentially profound, something we could even call reciprocal maintenance. This arrangement of forces basically requires both partners to take turns, maybe even alternate, at being the dominant prevailing portion of the whole, pivoting frequently to allow the opposite partner to assume the same majority role as often as possible. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

New Work at the Goodspeed and Williamstown: Anne of Green Gables and we are continuous

Juliette Redden and D.C. Anderson and cast in Anne of Green Gables. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 children’s novel – the most popular work of literature ever to come out of Canada and the first in a series of nine books – the new musical Anne of Green Gables (at the Goodspeed Opera House) is the latest effort to make a classic story feel contemporary. The narrative, about a willful, self-dramatizing orphan girl named Anne Shirley who is adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pair of aging unmarried siblings on Prince Edward Island, by accident (they’d requested a boy to help work their farm) and winds up winning over the entire town of Avonlea, is easily recognizable. But the playbill identifies the setting vaguely as “the start of a New Century,” and the playwright-lyricist, Matte O’Brien, has circled the proto-feminist elements in red and added a not-too-convincing queer subtext to Anne’s friendship with her classmate Diana Barry, to whom she provides intellectual encouragement and helps to pry out of the grasp of her stiflingly conventional mother. The ensemble, boys and girls from their peer group, has been costumed (by Tracy Christensen) to look like teenagers from the turn of the twenty-first century, and Matt Vinson’s music has a generic 1970s, Stephen Schwartzish folk-rock feel. (Three or four of the tunes are quite pretty.) The disjunction between the chorus numbers and the plot appears to have been inspired by the potent Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening, but there it had a point. The Frank Wedekind play Sater and Sheik adapted was so far ahead of its time when it was written in 1891 that it took much of the twentieth century for the culture to catch up to it, so when, on Broadway in 2006, the teenagers in Victorian outfits sang out their plaints of abuse and sexual confusion to rock rhythms, the strange period mix sounded exactly right. But you have to work at making Anne Shirley and the citizens of Avonlea, adolescent and adult alike, sound like they could have been at home two decades ago. 

Monday, August 1, 2022

Karen Kain’s New Version of Swan Lake Fails to Fly

Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in Swan Lake. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

As far as highly anticipated world premieres go, Karen Kain’s Swan Lake had an extraordinary amount of buildup, making it – from a box office perspective alone – a hit before it even opened. Originally scheduled for 2020, and delayed two years because of the pandemic, the $3.5-million production, a presentation of the National Ballet of Canada, sold out its two-week run in advance of its debut at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on June 10. This is unprecedented for any ballet outside The Nutcracker, let alone one whose merits had yet to be assessed. At the end of the day, those merits were found to be wanting, making this Swan Lake, after all the hype, a total letdown.

What was wrong with it? In brief, everything.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Random Notes on Actors

Matthew Mcfadyen and Colin Firth in Operation Mincemeat.

For anyone who follows British actors – and that includes just about everybody I know who’s turned on by actors these days – Operation Mincemeat (on Netflix) is a banquet. It features Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton and Jason Isaacs, with Alex Jennings, Hattie Morahan, Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn (from The Dig) in supporting roles and Simon Russell Beale, in a cameo, the latest first-rank actor to in recent years to play Winston Churchill. Across the board, the performances are superlative. The movie, beautifully directed by John Madden from an ingenious, immensely satisfying script by Michelle Alford (adapting book by Ben Macintyre), is a true-life World War II spy story and romantic melodrama. In 1943, British Intelligence Fleet Commander Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen, with a bushy mustache) whips up a scheme to mislead the Germans into thinking that the Allies are directing their attention to Greece while in truth they’re focusing on Sicily. Cholmondeley’s plan is to dress up a corpse as an English agent, plant phony documents on him, and have him wash up in Spain, in the Gulf of Cadiz, and then make sure that Allied moles get news of his discovery to Hitler’s ears. Working with Commander Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Hester Leggett (Wilton), head of the Admiralty’s secretarial unit, he appropriates a suicide named Glyndwr Michael for the dead man, renames him Major William Martin, and manufactures a biography for him that includes a romantic backstory. Jean Leslie (Macdonald), a widow working under Hester, gets involved when she offers her own photo to stand in for the sweetheart photo in Martin’s wallet. (Then they throw in a love letter.) Isaacs plays Admiral John Godfrey, their consistently wrongheaded boss, who is skeptical about the operation from the get-go and suspicious of Montagu because he’s convinced his left-leaning brother Ivor (Gatiss) is a Soviet spy. (The fact that the Russians are fighting on the same side as the Allies hasn’t calmed him down.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Anxious Object: The Sublime Void and Art in the Age of Anxiety

The Sublime Void (Ludion Press, Antwerp / DAP, 1993); Art in the Age of Anxiety (MIT Press/Morel Books, 2021)

“Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps there was always a vast alien expanse between an epoch and the great art which it produced. What distinguishes works of art from all other objects is the fact that they are, as it were, things of the future, things whose time has not yet come.” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Art in the age of anxiety explores the ways in which everyday devices, technologies and networks have altered our collective consciousness. We are all living in an age where anxiety has become a part of our daily life.” – Omar Kholeif, curator.

When my wife Dr. Mimi first gave me these two books as a birthday gift, it was not immediately apparent how intimately connected, as if by some subterranean river of meaning, both of them were to me in the present, nor how substantially that meaning would expand exponentially over time to encompass almost every aspect of what tenuously living in both the 20th and 21st centuries actually might signify. That gift might just be the unexpected case where profundity drops down on us, apparently carried on winds that at first are not quite even discernible by us, until later on, one day, it comes crashing through the roof of our skulls and rearranges the furniture in our minds.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Epiphany: Death and Community

The cast of Epiphany. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The new Brian Watkins play Epiphany, which closed last weekend at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is wildly ambitious and wildly erratic, and the two hours without intermission really began to feel long by the final half-hour. You’d have to account it a failure, but it’s an imaginative, fascinating one, a phrase I wouldn’t apply to, say, the generously reviewed POTUS or The Minutes. There were certainly some high points in the New York theatre season: The Lehman Trilogy, Girl from the North Country and Skeleton Crew, all of which I saw before COVID (the first during its run in London’s West End, the last at Boston’s Huntington Theatre), the Lynn Nottage/Ricky Ian Gordon opera of Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel and the Mint Theater’s recent revival of Elizabeth Baker’s 1909 Chains. A Case for the Existence of God didn’t reach down deep enough, but it had ideas and a pair of splendid actors, Kyle Beltran and Will Brill. The other shows I saw weren’t much good and left little or nothing behind to contemplate. But you couldn’t say the same about Epiphany, which was directed by Tyne Rafaeli. It’s often very funny and occasionally quite moving, and it tickles the brain.

Friday, July 15, 2022

A Few Brief Thoughts on Some (More) Interesting Short Films

A scene from Ottó Foky’s Scenes with Beans (1976).

It’s been a year and a half since my last shorts roundup, and the pandemic is still ongoing; the only difference is that people are starting to not care anymore. I wonder if it has something to do with how the internet has diminished our attention spans and memories. In any case, here in chronological order of premiere date are the shorts I watched that engaged me enough to want to finish them and write about them. If I don’t provide a link, I saw it on MUBI.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Chains: A Resurrection from the Mint Theater

Laakan McHardy and Jeremy Beck in Chains. (Photo: Todd Cerveris)

The Mint Theater Company, an off-Broadway house in the business of reviving obscure European and American plays, has been on my radar for several years, but I had never seen one until they began to stream shows from their archive while the New York theatre was shut down by the pandemic. The plays themselves were interesting, but what struck me was the high quality of the productions. To be honest, I felt foolish for not having checked out Mint much earlier. (They’ve been around since 1995.)

Their current offering – their second since the reopening of live theatre and their first back in their home space on Theater Row – is Chains, a 1909 realist play from England by Elizabeth Baker. Baker had been inspired to try her hand at playwriting by the work Harley Granville-Barker was presenting at the Court Theater during his three seasons as artistic director. Chains was her first effort, but it’s a sophisticated piece of dramatic writing: skillfully structured, compelling in subject matter and character, illuminated by indisputable authorial intelligence. The social setting is the lower middle class residing in the London suburbs in the years before the First World War. The chains of the title are those imposed by duty, pragmatism and convention. The protagonist, Charley Wilson (played by Jeremy Beck), is a clerk suffocated by the dullness of his job and the dim prospects of improving his lot. He and his wife Lily (Laakan McHardy) live in genteel poverty, taking in boarders to alleviate some of the financial strain. They’re counting on his getting a raise, but instead his company, on the unconvincing excuse that they’ve had a bad year, reduces his pay. When their current boarder, Fred Tennant (Peterson Townsend), decides to walk away from his job and try his luck farming in Australia, his courage and optimism affect both Charley and his sister-in-law Maggie Massey (Olivia Gilliatt), who has become engaged to a man she doesn’t love in order to escape the shop where she’s employed. Everyone else who hears the news of Fred’s decision holds onto the conservative notion that a sure thing, however suffocating to the spirit, is better than a risk; they’re inured to the idea that work isn’t supposed to be pleasant. Only Charley and Maggie identify with his bid for freedom.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick – Pablum

Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun, which came out in 1986, was a Reagan-era special if there ever was one. It harked back to the flyboy epics of the late silent and early talkie era but eliminated everything that had made the best of them – Wings, Hell’s Angels, Only Angels Have Wings – witty, exciting and romantic, like three-dimensional characters and actors who drew on their own dimensionality to make them memorable, and substituted high gloss and displays of masculinity that would have looked embarrassing in Medieval times. There was plenty of action, but I can’t remember a single flying sequence that truly engaged the senses, let alone the brain. I would have skipped the long-delayed sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, but the director is Joseph Kosinski, whose true-life firefighter picture, the 2017 Only the Brave, is an unknown gem. So I opted to check it out. And it’s perfectly well directed, which is to say that you can sit through it without dozing off or looking for excuses to visit the lobby of your local Cineplex. But aside from the pristine cinematography by Claudio Miranda (who also lit Only the Brave and Kosinski’s Netflix sci-fi film, Spiderhead, which came right on its heels) and the climactic dogfight, Top Gun: Maverick is a stupid movie and a desperate exercise in picking the bare bones of a one-time commercial success that wasn’t any good to start with.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Ain’t Misbehavin’ and B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching: Something About Race

Allison Blackwell, Jarvis B Manning Jr., Maiesha McQueen, Arnold Harper II and Anastacia McCleskey in Ain't Misbehavin'. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The 1978 revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ walked away with the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award and jump-started the careers of Nell Carter and Andre De Shields. It also introduced Fats Waller, composer and ragtime pianist, to a new generation of music lovers. Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived the show and directed the original production, compiled Waller’s signature songs and some less recognizable ones in a tribute to the musical Harlem of the twenties, thirties and forties. I remember being startled by the number of tunes I already knew but had no idea Waller had written – often with Andy Razaf as lyricist. I could identify him as the composer of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the title song, but I hadn’t associated him with “Squeeze Me” (lyrics by Clarence Williams), “I Got a Feeling I’m Falling” (co-written by Harry Link, with lyrics by Billy Rose), “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” or the iconic “Black and Blue,” the unforgettable Louis Armstrong cover of which plays a vital role in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Transitions: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

Jude Law and Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

The third chapter of the Fantastic Beasts series, The Secrets of Dumbledore, begins with an exquisite piece of fairy-tale storytelling.  In the forests of China, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – the English magizooogist (i.e., scholar of and caretaker for magical creatures) at the center of the narrative, set in the 1920s – oversees the birthing of a calf by a rare equine animal known as a Qilin, pronounced Chillin. The mother has a woven golden mane and a face like a mask; her tender calf is skeletal, a golden glow pulsating through his fragile skin. When the minions of the series’ villain, Gellert Grindelwald, attack, felling the mother, Newt struggles to save the baby Qilin, but he fails. He has to watch, helpless, as the calf is kidnaped and the mother expires, a single tear rolling down her cheek. It’s only then that Newt sees what everyone has missed in the chaos:  that she actually gave birth to twins.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

White Knight: The Batman

Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman and Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman. (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.)

In his 1957 architectonic study Anatomy of Criticism, structuralist Northrop Frye sketches a taxonomy of literary heroes. Those of the Mythic mode, he argues, are gods: they’re superior in kind to other characters and to their environment. They defy the laws of nature and possess divine gifts. Examples include Zeus, Bacchus, and Shiva. In a tragic narrative, they die. In a comic one, they rejoin the heavenly realm. (The Christian narrative is neither tragic, nor comic, but ironic: Christ is crucified, yet raised to the Father on the third day.)

The heroes of the Romantic mode are superior to others and their environment only by degree. Their actions are marvelous, but they themselves are human beings. In tragedy, their deaths are elegiac and tied to the decay of the created order (think Beowulf). In comedy, they ride off into a pastoral setting (e.g., the cowboy in a Western).

Following this schema, contemporary superheroes dwell in a gray area between the Mythic and Romantic modes. Some, like Superman, are gods – different from us in kind. Others, like the X-Men, are mortals but possess mutations that give them supernatural powers. And still more, like Iron Man, don’t have genetic enhancements so much as advanced technology, making them more Romantic than Mythic.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Tease: Andy Warhol in Iran

Nima Rakhshanifar and Henry Stram in Andy Warhol in Iran. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The first play to be mounted on Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain stage in three years is a two-hander, Andy Warhol in Iran, inspired by the artist’s 1976 trip to Tehran to snap Polaroids of the Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, in preparation for painting her portrait. (Barrington Stage commissioned the piece, which is one of several new plays promised in this post-COVID season.) The two characters are Warhol – played by Henry Stram, who appeared in Richard Jones’s productions of The Hairy Ape and Judgment Day at the Park Avenue Armory – and a revolutionary named Farhad (Nima Rakhshanifar). Farhad is part of a group that hatches the idea of kidnaping Warhol from his hotel room and holding him hostage as a way of telegraphing their cause. Their scheme isn’t worked out very well, and neither, I have to say, is the plot of Brent Askari’s play, where the kidnaping is implausibly amateurish (Farhad wields a toy gun painted to make it look less obvious) and Warhol continues to cower in fear even after he figures out that he’s in absolutely no danger.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Headtrip: Everything Everywhere All at Once

from left: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Theories of the multiverse go as far back to ancient Greek philosophy, though we associate them today with the hard sciences. Part of the discussion, historically, involves speculation about whether ours is the best of all possible worlds. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (one of the most important early modern philosophers) made this idea the cornerstone of his work The Monadology. There, the German polymath addresses theodicy, or the problem of evil. He speculates that the world we inhabit must be the best of all possible worlds, since God – who is good and who could have chosen to make any world he wished – made this one. The presence of evil, then, must have some mysterious, salutary effect – perhaps contrasting goodness for us, so we appreciate it all the more. In a world without evil, he surmises, we wouldn’t be able to recognize goodness, since it would just be the banal, uniform state of affairs. A fish doesn’t notice water unless it’s thrown on land.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Goodspeed Reopens with Cabaret

Aline Mayagoitia as Sally Bowles in Goodspeed's Cabaret. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

One of the most exasperating developments of the last several decades of theatre is the rewriting of classic plays and musicals, because the originals simply disappear – it’s as if they never existed. In the twenty-first century the alterations have mostly come out of an attempt to make the texts more palatable to contemporary audiences, which have a tendency to cheer every time a character in an older setting makes an anchronistic comment transparently inserted to produce precisely that response. Audiences are increasingly being manipulated into becoming Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when someone on stage in a show set in the forties or fifties sounds as if they’re describing Trump. Will we ever again get to see a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that ends the way Tennessee Williams wrote it, with Stanley beginning to make love to Stella to distract her from the institutionalization of her sister Blanche, rather than replicating the unconvincing ending of the (otherwise magnificent) Elia Kazan movie, where Stella rushes upstairs to Eunice and the audience pretends that she’s actually thinking of walking out on her husband? It’s hard to believe that 1951 audiences didn’t see that rewrite for exactly what it was: a sop to the Production (Hays) Code Office. Now audiences, shamelessly coddled by recent versions of the play, are encouraged to believe that Stella has suddenly acquired a feminist consciousness.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Otherworldly: The Haunting Icons of Fatima Franks

Red Army II, 2022 digital print on metal, 48 x 48 inches.

“Art ceases to be solely a form of self-expression alone in the electronic age. Indeed, it becomes a necessary kind of shared research and of internal probing.” – Marshall McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968).

1. Singularity

The powerfully evocative and resonant works of Fatima Franks are encountered by the entranced viewer as a truly nuanced hybrid of Eastern and Western traditions. In fact, it strikes me that they reveal a salient truth about the artistic urge to make images and our human appetite to absorb them into our nervous systems as a kind of remedy to the stresses of everyday living: the fact that there is no East or West in the immersive dimension of dreams. I instinctively refer to her otherworldly visions as icons, but not in the liturgical and canonical sense of that word, rather in the neutral sense of being iconic: a picture, image or other representation residing in analogy. She is also a visual storyteller par excellence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Off the Shelf: Law & Order, "American Dream" (1993)

Željko Ivanek (left) and Michael Moriarty in Law & Order, "American Dream"

The recent reboot of Law & Order is singularly dispiriting – the writing has as much life as unleavened dough and the acting of the jobbed-in actors rarely rises above the mediocre. The regulars (Camryn Manheim, Anthony Anderson and Jeffrey Donovan as “order” and Sam Waterston, Hugh Dancy and Odelya Halevi as “law”) are working very hard to pretend not to notice that no one has written characters for them to play. Only Waterston has evidently thrown in the towel: he gets more mummified with every episode. I doubt it’s his own fault:  he may be pushing eighty-two, but he just gave the performance of his career as George Shultz in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Self-Renewal: New Tricks by Christopher House

Christopher House in New Tricks. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Canadian modern dance innovator and Order of Canada recipient Christopher House officially became a senior citizen when he turned 65 in 2020. That’s the age of retirement in Canada and after 25 years as artistic director and chief choreographer of Toronto Dance Theatre, House exercised his prerogative and announced he was quitting the company.

He had planned to have a big send-off – a retrospective season showcasing some of the work he had created over the decades for one of the country’s leading modern dance troupes, in addition to a couple of new commissions made especially for him to dance in. But then the pandemic rudely disrupted what was to have been his grand finale, compelling House to leave his position without the anticipated fanfare.

The curtain never did come crashing down on his dancing career, which in retrospect is a good thing. Without a fixed ending, House has just kept on going, creating, and performing now as an independent solo artist. New Tricks, a multipart work whose premiere took place at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance during the last two weekends of March, is the first choreography he has made since becoming a pensioner, and it's among the best he has produced in years.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Disintegration of the American Theatre: A Report from the Front

The cast of The Minutes, the new play by Tracy Letts at New York's Studio 54.

This is a review of The Minutes. It includes spoilers.

For the first half of its ninety-minute running time (sans intermission), Tracy Letts’s new play The Minutes (at Studio 54) is an inconsequential but frequently hilarious chronicle of a meeting of the government of a small town called Big Cherry located in an unspecified state. Working on David Zinn’s evocative set, the fine director Anna D. Shapiro – whose Broadway credits include Letts’s August: Osage County as well as The Motherfucker with the Hat and the beautiful 2014 revival of Of Mice and Men – and a flawless cast flesh out the idiosyncrasies, the long-festering petty tensions and the various ineptitudes of this motley group, two of whom (played by Blair Brown and the delightful Austin Pendleton, whose timing is both eccentric and unequalled) have served on the town council for decades. There are three main points of focus. One is the attempt of Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) to obtain funding for an accessible fountain in the town center, which goes down because hardly anyone in the room has any interest in Hanratty’s spirit of inclusiveness: as Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the most forthrightly insensitive person in the room, expresses it, the definition of “disabled” is an inability to do things that “normal” people have no trouble with. The second is the proposal of Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman) to institute a game called Lincoln Smackdown for the annual town heritage festival in which attendees try to knock down someone dressed as Abraham Lincoln (who, in real life, had no connection to Big Cherry). Meanwhile the newest addition to the council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of the TV series Schitt’s Creek), who missed the last meeting because he was out of town for his mother’s funeral, is struggling to catch up but hits a brick wall: another member has been unaccountably ousted, and he can’t get anyone to tell him why. Equally mysteriously, the town clerk (Jessie Mueller) has not distributed the minutes from the previous week that might explain his absence. Whenever Peel tries to stop the proceedings and address the mystery, the mayor (played by Letts himself) shuts him down on one pretext or another.

Friday, April 8, 2022

A Rejuvenated Sleeping Beauty at the National Ballet of Canada

Harrison James and Heather Ogden with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Teresa Wood)

As a harbinger of spring, the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of The Sleeping Beauty was an especially happy occasion. The first lavishly designed full-length ballet to open on the Four Seasons Centre stage since the March 2020 lockdowns, it burst on the eye like a garden of suddenly blooming flowers. Oh the sumptuousness of it all. And how sorely such choreographed extravagance, the ultimate in escapism, has been missed during the bleak days of the pandemic.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

A Dance to the Music of Time: 4-Dimensional Sculptures by Joachim Waibel

Nude portraits of antique clocks without their hands, silently holding their vigil and thus calmly reminding us of Henri Bergson’s bold 1911 admonition: “Time is invention, or it is nothing at all.”

“For reasons not at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that before we really know where we are, we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”  – Anthony Powell, 1955.

When the French novelist Marcel Proust finally published his long-awaited seven-volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time in 1913, after labouring meticulously, some would say obsessively, over his work for almost as many years as there were volumes, he was sharing with us the culmination of his devotion to memorializing not just memory but the actual passage of time itself. He had attempted and clearly succeeded in producing almost a balsamic reduction of himself and his reveries in words that are at once poetic and precise. Further, he had achieved a landmark, not only in literature but in the poetics of psychological introspection, coming in the end to almost perfectly embody the ethos of poet Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry: the search for the inexplicable.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Street Dance on Stage: In My Body by Bboyizm/Crazy Smooth

 Bboyizm dancers in Crazy Smooth’s In My Body. (Photo: Jerrick Collantes)

Hip hop is a ruthlessly athletic dance form that pushes the body to the limits. The acrobatic moves, requiring immense stores of physical prowess and stamina, are so demanding that break dancing is set to become an Olympic sport when the games resume in Paris in 2024. The fast footwork, head spins, aerial flips and floor drops take a toll. Not for nothing are break dancers called b-boys and b-girls, names connoting the youthful vigour needed to pull it off. Crazy Smooth, aka Yvon Soglo, knows.

The Benin-born, Gatineau-based break dancer has been involved in hip hop culture since 1997, going on to form Bboyizm, an award-winning street-dance company that has been instrumental in the preservation and proliferation of street dance in Canada since its founding in 2004. Today, at age 41, he’s still a b-boy, but a b-boy with knee problems and a middle-age crisis on his hands. How to keep dancing when the spirit is willing but the body is getting weaker with each advancing year? It’s a question that drives In My Body, a thrilling interactive street dance work whose Toronto premiere took place at the Bluma Appel Theatre, inside the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, on March 17.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Under the Radar: Charlatan, All Hands on Deck and Dream Horse

Ivan Trojan and Juraj Loj in Charlatan.

Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan is based on the little-known story of Jan Mikolášek (an authoritative performance by Ivan Trojan), a Czech herbalist and faith healer who was arrested by the Communist government on a trumped-up murder charge in the 1950s. As a young man in the 1930s (played by Trojan’s son Josef), Jan is trained by an aging healer (Jaroslava Pokorná) to interpret the ailments of the sick by “reading” their urine; his apprenticeship is in direct defiance of his farmer father, who locks him in his room to keep him at home. Jan takes a hatchet to the bedroom door – and almost uses it on his father. When the old woman, Mühlbacherová, dies, he takes over her practice and his herbal treatments become so famous that during the war he is even called upon to dispense curatives to high-ranking Nazis. He gets in hot water from both sides: a Czech Gestapo officer (Joachim Paul Assböck) whose little girl he couldn’t save arrests him and beats him, and after the war he’s charged with collaborating. His protector is the Czech president, Zápotocky (Ladislav Kolár), who is one of his patients. But after the president dies Jan and his assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), are put on trial as charlatans and murderers.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Movie Artists: The Worst Person in the World & Cyrano

Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World.

Socialists are quick to point out that we’ll still have problems after the revolution – they’ll just be more interesting. With our material conditions satisfied, we’ll have the time and means to engage more passions, take more adventures, and pursue more lovers. Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World, gives us a tantalizing window into this world. Its vision is a society where young people can afford sleek, modernist flats, pursue fulfilling avocations, and indulge the varieties of self-expression – all while holding jobs in the service sector. Who needs heaven when you can have social democracy? With this picture, Trier brings his Oslo Trilogy to a poignant close. The series began in 2006 when he and co-writer Eskil Vogt released Reprise, a Joycean exploration of artistic ambitions between friends that introduced audiences to Anders Danielsen Lie. Lie’s become something like Trier’s muse: the actor’s appeared in each of the Oslo pictures – devastatingly so in the second, Oslo, August 31st (2011). There he portrays a heroin addict who journeys from rehab to fatal relapse in the course of a day. Along the way, Trier folded in elements of existentialism and phenomenology that created a haunting mood of angst. He deepened that philosophical exploration with Louder Than Bombs (2015), an American film that explored the death of a photojournalist through the fragmented consciousness of her kin.

Monday, March 28, 2022

New on Criterion: The Last Waltz (1978)

The Band on stage in The Last Waltz (1978)

In the forty-four years since Martin Scorsese released The Last Waltz, his film of The Band’s final concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, the movie hasn’t lost any of its visceral excitement, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a keepsake of one of the signal events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the greatest concert movie ever made. (The other contenders, in my view, would be Bert Stern’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which inspired Scorsese; Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense; and Scorsese’s one-of-a-kind 2019 Rolling Thunder Revue, which casts a backward glance at the all-star show, headed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, that circled the continent in 1975 and 1976.) The new Criterion disc of The Last Waltz is as beautiful to look at as the film was in theatres in 1978. The veteran Hollywood production designer Boris Leven, borrowing the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata and framing it with a trio of chandeliers, transformed Winterland into something that looks like a remnant of the Romantic era, and Michael Chapman, who had worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver, lit it, while some of the most talented cinematographers in America (Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, David Myers, Bobby Byrne, Michael Watkins and Hiro Narita) manned the other six cameras covering the spectacle. It was the first concert film with a shooting script, which Scorsese had drawn up; the stories about the filming, where his meticulous planning met the inevitable challenges and accidents of a once-in-a-lifetime event that had to be captured spontaneously, are sometimes funny and always thrilling. (You won’t want to skip the extras on the Criterion disc, which include two audio commentaries, a 1978 Canadian television interview with Scorsese and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, a twenty-fifth-anniversary doc about the making of the movie, and a supremely articulate new interview with Scorsese conducted by film critic David Fear. There’s also a single outtake, a twelve-minute jam session that occurred at the end of the concert and is the only surviving piece of archival footage.)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Aiming High: The National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program

Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James in After the Rain. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A departure, a beginning, a wobble, a blast from the past. The ebb and flow of life united four works seen on the mixed program that the National Ballet of Canada presented at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last week. Amid two world premieres – one each by company principal dancer Siphe November and guest choreographer Alysa Pires – was the company debut of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and a reprise of Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations as the evening’s frolicsome conclusion. But one at a time.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Post-What: Just What Was Modernism, Anyway?

“By 'modernity,' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the so-called eternal and the supposedly immutable . . . “ – Charles Baudelaire, poet of the inexpressible.
It is very important, perhaps even crucial for some of us, that we come to have a full and clear grasp of what modernism actually was before even dreaming of approaching the thorny question of what so-called postmodernism might mean. Let’s not be too hasty here. Like most advanced forms of alternative thinking, at least on the surface, modernity emerged as a discussable notion during the mid-19th century in Europe, specifically France, which had already long established itself as a vanguard socially, politically and culturally, especially with the invention of the camera in about 1840. But also like most advanced ideas, the concept of the modern was imported by America and drastically enhanced before being blown up to global proportions.

In the context of art history, modernité, and the designation of modern art covering the early period from roughly 1860-1870, first entered the lexicon in the head, hands and pen of French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose 1864 essay entitled “The Painter of Modern Life” tossed his invented neologism like a conceptual hand grenade into the cultural marketplace. The radical symbolist poet, and possibly the first modern art critic, referred to “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis and the responsibility which art has to capture and explore that experience.” 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Acting and Actors – The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act

The 1935 Broadway production of Awake and Sing!

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury Publishing) is a gossipy, entertaining and informative history of Stanislavskian acting – how it developed in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre and how two of Stanislavski’s associates, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, imported it to American shores, where, through its dissemination by the Group Theatre in the 1930s, it became the Method. Butler has rounded up an impressive amount of material and presents it coherently and compellingly. I didn’t realize how little I knew about the tensions between Stanislavski and the M.A.T.’s co-director, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko; about the role each of the personalities who were drawn into Stanislavski’s circle played in the development of his approach to acting; about the effect Stalin’s rise to power had on the M.A.T. generally and on Stanislavski specifically – or certainly about Boleslavsky’s intriguing and rather crazy biography. No account I’ve read deals so clearly and in such dramatic detail with the break in the Group Theatre, when Stella Adler, its most gifted actress, challenged the weight Lee Strasberg, one of the company’s co-founders, placed on affective memory, where the actor digs into his or her past to unearth emotional dynamite to blast open a scene. Adler and Strasberg became the most important American acting teachers of the twentieth century. The Method’s examination of the differences in their styles and approaches and that of Sanford Meisner, another Group alumnus who became a famous and influential teacher, is fascinating. He identifies Adler’s greatest quality as her gift at script analysis; her book, compiled posthumously from her class notes, on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and to a lesser extent the one on American playwrights, bear him out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Straight from the Heart: L-E-V

L-E-V Dance Company performing Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart. (Photo: Stefan Dotter for Dior)

Even though Valentine’s Day had come and gone by the time Israel’s L-E-V contemporary dance company appeared at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the beginning of March, hearts were everywhere, starting with the company’s name, the Hebrew word for heart. Even the techno beat dance it presented – Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart – had the word in the title. Then there were the tattoo-like costumes worn by the six turbo-charged dancers. Designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Christian Dior Couture, the stockinged-feet unitards were emblazoned with a bleeding heart on the left side of side of the chest. Spot a pattern? 

Monday, March 14, 2022

New from Criterion: Love Affair (1939)

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer's shipboard first meeting in Love Affair (1939).

The filmmaker Leo McCarey has been largely forgotten, but his Hollywood career spanned four decades and bridged the silent and talkie eras. Like Frank Capra, he received his training in silent comedy: he directed more than seventy-five shorts, and he was responsible for the collaboration of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. When movies began to speak, he put his expertise at working fast and off the cuff to great effect – he directed the most brilliant of the Marx Brothers’ early Dadaist masterpieces, Duck Soup (1933), as well as helming pictures that starred W.C. Fields, Mae West and Eddie Cantor. His thirties output included two memorable comedies, Ruggles of Red Gap (with Charles Laughton as an English butler in the Wild West) and The Awful Truth, where Cary Grant strives to win back his ex-wife,  played by Irene Dunne. It also includes the romantic melodrama Love Affair, starring Dunne and Charles Boyer, which Criterion has just put out in a glistening print restored from sources in the Museum of Modern Art collection.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Last Stop: Ballerina Sonia Rodriguez’s Farewell Performance in A Streetcar Named Desire

Sonia Rodriguez as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Blanche DuBois, one of the most memorable female characters born of the theatre, is a hot mess of narcissism, nymphomania and other neuroses wrapped in white satin. A nervous breakdown just waiting to happen. The vaporous southern belle at the centre of John Neumeier’s ballet version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire requires a seasoned dancer who can peel back the layers to expose the fragility behind the tragedy of her fall. Sonia Rodriguez is that dancer.

Born in Canada, raised in Spain and trained in Monaco, the National Ballet of Canada principal is one of the country’s greatest dancer-actresses. She doesn’t just perform a part; she inhabits it, bringing it fully, palpably, to life. That’s her legacy, what she will be remembered for after leaving Canada’s largest ballet company following an illustrious 32-year career.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Divertissement: Death on the Nile

Sophie Okonedo in Death on the Nile.

Watching Kenneth Branagh’s entirely entertaining remake of Death on the Nile, the Agatha Christie mystery, I thought I’d finally guessed what he and the screenwriter, Michael Green, had been going for in their 2017 adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Death on the Nile, which revolves around the murder of an heiress named Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) on her honeymoon – which is also an extended wedding party on a boat on the Nile – is played as a combination of high comedy and melodrama. In Orient Express the tone went out of whack: Green and Branagh took the material, which was inspired by the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby, way too seriously, so the high comedy (a feature of Christie whodunits) got lost and the narrative played as if the filmmakers thought they were making a tragedy. The movie was glum, and once the train got stopped in its tracks halfway through, the glumness hung in the air like a bad smell. Even a first-rate cast, headed by Branagh himself as the vain Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, couldn’t rescue it.