Film critic Pauline Kael once famously wrote, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
A genre-specific update these days might read: Horror films are so seldom watchable that we should appreciate anything that isn't contemptible torture porn.
INTRUDERS, a modest European thriller from Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), has a couple of things going for it. First, it has Clive Owen in the lead, which never hurts. And second, it sticks to old-fashioned scary movie tropes, staying well clear of gratuitous gore or ironic hyperviolence played for laughs.
The film tells two stories, actually, separated by time and distance but connected in an eerie fashion. In the first story, a young boy in Spain (Izan Corchero) is menaced by a hooded figure who steals into his room at night. The boy calls the monster Hollow Face, and his mother Luisa (Pilar López de Ayala) seems to know something about the manifestation. But she isn't talking, and the boy is forced to hide alone under the covers and ignore the blood dripping from the ceiling.
Meanwhile, in London, 13-year-old Mia (Ella Purnell) is being stalked by the same creature, only this time Hollow Face must contend with Mia's dad (Owen), a construction worker who may have his own connection to the monster.
The American Dance Festival closes its 2012 performance season this weekend at the Durham Performing Arts Center, with two nights of the Mark Morris Dance Group, accompanied by the fine trio of the MMDG Music Ensemble. Compared to some of the ferocious, rowdy and ridiculous programs preceding it, this one is a rather mild-mannered—but it is such a treat to have live music for the dancing that one simply revels in the pleasurable experience.
The evening opens with the highly amusing 1982 dance, Canonic 3/4 Studies, set to “Piano Waltzes” by Harriet Cavalli, and various (uncredited) bits by other composers, arranged for solo piano (Colin Fowler). Is it possible to be gloomy in 3/4 time? I don’t think so. The good humor begins with a single male dancer cavorting alone; he soon is joined by eight more. They frolic through many permutations of step and turn to the lovely beat, before leaving him alone again. Morris excels at putting the heart into mathematical, musical studies of permutations and combinations, and this dance is no exception.
We see that same interest in the other works, especially the 2011 Festival Dance that closes the evening. The waltz, march and polka of Johan Nepomuk Hummel’s "Piano Trio No. 5 in E major (Op. 83)" are played delightfully by Colin Fowler, piano, Anna Elashvili, violin, and Julia McLaine, cello. As the 12 dancers make their sweet patterns in space, the women’s circular skirts froth to reveal a glow of red inside, indicating the heat inside the formality. Bits of various courtly and romantic dance styles going back hundreds of years mix and match with balletic lifts and turns, all unified by Morris’ sweeping arm curves, delicate footwork, interlacing lines and sly humor. The dance both begins and ends with brief tableaux of two dancers wrapped together in big hugs, further emphasizing unity and joy.
Preceding Festival Dance is the second piano-only work, Silhouettes, which shows off Morris’ penchant for mirroring and reversals in the choreography. The very interesting music is Richard Cumming’s "Silhouettes, Five Pieces for Piano." Here Samuel Black and Domingo Estrada, Jr., apparently sharing one pair of pajamas between them, frisk through the many ways to make one out of two, or a whole out of two halves. It’s not challenging, but very pleasing, and one could look at Estrada’s bare and gleaming chest pretty much forever.
The meat of the evening to this viewer (my neighbor across the aisle fell asleep!) was Rock of Ages, a 2004 dance for two men and two women set to the "Piano Trio in E flat, Adagio, D 897" (“Notturno”), by Franz Schubert. The backdrop, glowing in lighting by Nicole Pearce, and the rich, subtle costuming in violet blues and bluey greens (Katherine M. Patterson), immerse you in the magic of the twilight hour, just before Venus rises. Its exquisite melancholy offers a fitting farewell to this season of the great American Dance Festival… farewell, until we meet again.
Step Up Revolution, the fourth installment in the Step Up franchise, ditches the bogus high-culture/low-culture clash that fueled earlier installments. The story? Sean (Ryan Guzman), head of a flashy flash mob, romances Emily (Kathryn McCormick), whose father (Peter Gallagher) plans to tear down Sean’s Miami ’hood for a luxury development.
Let’s face it: Pop influences rule the arts commercially, and hip hop has dominated the music charts for three decades. That battle is over. As always, the two white-bread leads must channel the ethnic other (Black, Hispanic, Asian) in the class struggle. Guzman may have a Spanish surname, but he is virtually indistinguishable from Channing Tatum, the star borned from Step Up el primero.
Which raises the question: Four films about dancers, and no gay people (except for the unspoken homoerotic bond between Sean and his BF, Eddy)?
Having said all this, Step Up Revolution is the best entry in the series. Although people still have to follow their dreams yadda yadda, those dreams include community empowerment and art as political protest. And, rather than just a Very Special Episode of America’s Best Dance Crew, choreographer Jamal Sims stages some spectacular numbers, including a thumping disruption of a City Council meeting with The Mob in black suits and fedoras (they have a bigger tech budget than the crews from previous SU movies).
In this jittery moviegoing time, I say beats, not bullets.
Writer/director Whit Stillman's films are populated by wealthy young people—preppies, snobs, One Percenters in the larval stage—and we shouldn't really like them.
And yet we do. In fact, we come to sort of love them, and if Whit Stillman can claim anything on his deathbed, it's that: He made yuppies loveable.
Stillman's loosely connected 1990s trilogy of films—Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco—feature young members of the privileged classes making their way into the wider world. Stillman returned to theaters earlier this year with Damsels in Distress, a more broadly funny take on his template of arch, literate comedy.
METROPOLITAN and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO have been reissued to Blu-ray this by the Criterion Collection this week, with restored picture, sound and a few modest extras. There's something fragile and rather lovely about Stillman's brand of melancholy cocktail comedy, and it's nice to have him back in the mix.
Metropolitan is Stillman's first film, a true indie which he wrote, filmed and financed himself. Shot guerilla-style in New York City, the story follows a group of upper-class, overeducated college students as they make the circuit of Manhattan debutante balls and after-parties.
Tom Townsend (Edwards Clements) is the odd man out in this group, whose secret is that he isn't really rich at all, and lives with his divorced mom in a modest flat downtown. The others in the group each have their roles—the jaded dandy, the intellectual nebbish, the “good girl”....
Metropolitan won an Oscar nomination for its over-articulate screenplay, but what really endures is the comic empathy underneath. The characters know that their social schedule is a rickety artifact of old money tradition. Debutante balls? Really? But they go through the motions anyway—it's what one does—and sublimate their fears of the real world into airy bon mots. It's about the sadness of things ending, really, but loyalty and decency prevail.
On Thursday night, Durham's Motorco Music Hall was filled with local style mavens looking to cheer on their favorite Triangle fashion designers, as the venue hosted its first reFASHIONED show.
And cheer they did as a slew of regional designers sent models out on the runway to show off their latest collections. Ten designers all showcased their stuff, starting with T-shirt designs from such folk as Nyla Elise, Runaway Clothes and Johnny Swank's House of Swank.
The show then went on to feature designers who deal with refurbished and recycled material, like Belindabilly, Rocket Betty, Gypsy Witch and handbag designer JenJen, who caused quite the "WTF?" reaction from the audience as models in lucha libre wrestling masks (also designed by JenJen) hit the catwalk carrying bags.
The entire event was organized by biologist/ vintage clotheshorse Kala Wolfe, who also organizes dtownMARKET, which happens biweekly at Motorco.
Wolfe hopes to have these designers—many of them also vendors at dtownMARKET—and others involved in future fashion shows she'd like to put on at the music hall.
Says Wolfe, "I think it's really important to bring them all together and kind of show them the respect that they deserve and give them a bigger audience."
The Paul Taylor Dance Company took the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center last night for their annual visit to the American Dance Festival, which concludes this evening. The mainstay company brought out a crowd expecting to see virtuosic performances from the principal dancers, and Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young and Michelle Fleet didn’t disappoint them.
The real star, however, was the flawed program.
A bit long with four pieces and two intermissions—and lengthened more by a curtain mishap that required repairs—the program spanned a half-century of Taylor’s choreography; from the 1962 frolic Aureole to this year’s insectoid fantasy Gossamer Gallants. It could have cohered, though, woven together by interrogations, illustrations and blissful avoidances of the sexual codes and morays of each dance’s particular era. Except for one catastrophic piece, that is.
The balletic Aureole, a piece revived from ADF’s Connecticut College era, opened the evening. Costumed as though they’d stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish painting, two women in white flanked Trusnovec cradling Young in his arms. After dancing the brief equivalent of an unfurling banner, the pair of women scampered off, indicating their decorative role in the piece. In Aureole, only the two male dancers have agency.
Francisco Graciano plays a kind of social dandy, thumbing imaginary lapels and cantering around the stage with the trio of women in admiring pursuit. Trusnovec, however, is the statuesque, ideal loner. His solo declares this succinctly. Making straight lines with outstretched arms and pointed legs that recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Trusnovec falters into curvatures only once at the beginning of the solo, betraying his loneliness. But he maintains his stoic poise thereafter.
After he releases her, Trusnovec—who could be mistaken for a weak-side linebacker—executes a breathtaking set of kicks while leaping up and down on one foot. The DPAC is truly a cavernous space but the audience around me leaned back in their seats as, with his fifth and sixth kicks, he neared the front of the stage. And we were in row M.
The full cast celebrates his capital-R Romantic triumph with flying, diagonal entrances and exits to the finale of Handel’s Concerti Grossi.
As the curtain rose for the five dancers to receive their applause, there was a loud thump sound and about half of one side of it vanished, so a pause became an intermission. But the DPAC crew hastily mended the stage’s missing tooth.
Then the curtain rose on Big Bertha, a watershed Taylor work dating to 1970. Set to calliope and band machine music and featuring Robert Kleinendorst as a hermaphroditic dominatrix bandleader made gigantic by red leather high-heeled boots, Big Bertha is hardcore in every sense of the word. And, following Aureole, it viciously rips through the older dance’s lyrical courtship rituals and patriarchal gender roles so that the awful guts of raw animal desire can burst out. This would be David Lynch’s favorite Paul Taylor work.
The set features a huge circus contraption, pipe organs sticking out the top and Barnum and Bailey lettering trumpeting a five-cent charge, all lit with white bulbs like those infesting antique carousels. Big Bertha, the bandleader, stands upon a little spangled dais. To an excruciating metallic scratching noise, she removes a baton from out of her throat with a robotic motion. Yeah, there won’t be a happy ending to this one.
A quintessential 1950s family enters—mom, dad, and bobbysoxer daughter—out for a fun night at the fair. Dad deposits a coin into Big Bertha to activate her, and the daughter does a lively mélange of period dance moves as her parents watch. Mom tries to join in the fun but trips over her own feet and prissily withdraws into her husband’s consolation.
It’s difficult to tell whether the bandleader is merely going through its animatronic sequence or exerting puppeteer control over the family. Before the time allotment of the coin expires, causing the bandleader to slump and prompting Dad to fish in his pocket for another nickel, Big Bertha appears to hypnotize the family into unison movement.
With the second coin, Bertha assumes control. Dad performs a jerky, drunkard’s dance to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” His baseball swings gradually become aggressive sexual advances toward his daughter and, after he assuages his wife’s anxiety over this, a vicious smack across Mom’s face.
The dance descends into increasingly horrific scenes of incest and abuse during which Bertha wields her baton in a variety of lewd ways, the wife strips to become a burlesque harlot and the husband takes his daughter around back to emerge tattered, dragging her bloody, limp body around. Explosive sparks mark the final tableaux to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Judging by the audience’s audible discomfort, this demonstrative degradation of the family unit is as startling today as it was more than 40 years ago. Big Bertha’s exaggeration of the romantic yet rigidly hetero-normative power relationships underlying Aureole erupts toward its logical endpoints. The man, tumescent with power, must possess any woman who presents herself as able. Regardless of whether the daughter’s aware that her fun dance is a mating ritual, she must innocently perform it and forcibly surrender to whomever she attracts. And the mother must play the whore in order to deal with it all, seeing that sexuality is the only agency in this skewed dynamic. It’s Lynch’s “unspeakable horror behind the white picket fence,” sixteen years before Blue Velvet.
Taylor’s self-implication through Big Bertha’s role as choreographer provides the dance’s most fascinating aspect. He turns the critique against himself, pointing out the darkness inherent in his mechanical, controlling position. He frightens himself. Taylor demonstrates that the moment mechanical routines are no longer viewed as such they can become monstrous pantomimes.
Unfortunately the raw, layered messages of Big Bertha were decisively erased by the back half of the program. In a way, the piece that followed the intermission—Gossamer Gallants, which the company premiered this year—takes animal desire literally. The dancers are costumed as black fruit flies (males) and virid lacewings (females).
It’s not really a surprise that Charles Dickens’ larger-than-life characters, comic settings and twist-filled plots would make for good musical theater, though it is a bit odd to find his novels, with such focus on class strife, transmuted into family-friendly entertainment. Oliver!, the Tony-award winning musical based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist and playing through Sunday at the North Carolina Theatre, is emblematic of Broadway’s tendency to elevate emotional spectacle over social critique.
Containing a number of catchy songs and charismatic performances, director Richard Stafford’s production follows the familiar tale of the 19th-century orphan Oliver Twist (Sam Poon) and his adventures around London. Broadway veteran Kevin Gray brings wit and charm to sleazy thief Fagin, and Clayton native Nicholas Craft is great as young pickpocket the Artful Dodger. The set, a giant block of rotating buildings, is the exactly the sort of thing you’d like to see in a big musical production.
However, Oliver! simplifies much of the danger of the novel’s criminal world. Fagin is more clown than threat, and the London underworld never feels very dangerous. There are exceptions: Crime boss Bill Sykes (Stephen Tewksbury) is menacing, and there’s a subplot involving his abused girlfriend (Heather Patterson King) that feels lifted from a much darker play.
If this show's general levity is a flaw, it’s a flaw built into the genre himself. Certainly there is much humor in the source material, but the big-budgeted musical’s need to provide spectacle and entertainment unfortunately elides more trenchant material about class and poverty.
In any other universe, The Dark Knight Rises would be hailed as the apex of superhero moviemaking, a work of such technical breadth and narrative depth that it would redefine its genre. The problem, of course, is that the final leg of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy follows its two mega-hits predecessors, the now-oddly underrated Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Is it possible for any finale to live up to such hype and expectations? Probably not, but try and somewhat succeed as it might, The Dark Knight Rises could have done better.
In assessing the scope and influence of Nolan’s seminal series, it’s interesting to note that today there remains more demand than ever for such populist popcorn-munching fare as The Avengers, Spider-Man and Superman (indeed, the second Man of Steel reboot since Batman Begins comes out next year). Nolan’s films didn’t commandeer the genre, but instead served as the rising tide that lifted all the other comic book boats.
Indeed, Nolan’s Batman trilogy is evolutionary more than revolutionary. The Batman mythos, particularly the fact that he’s a superhero without super powers, afforded Nolan a canvas to paint not only portraits about the fractured human psyche but also broad strokes about contemporary America. The dumbest thing about Rush Limbaugh’s latest blather (other than its source)—claiming that the use of the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (a comic book character created in 1993) is a not-so-thinly veiled attack on Mitt Romney’s past work with the financial services company Bain Capital—is that Nolan’s entire Batman series has been a pulpit for post-9/11 neoconservative orthodoxy.
Nolan broadens his focus to more provocative lengths in The Dark Knight Rises. The film opens with the Batman in winter, eight years after the end of The Dark Knight and taking the fall for the murder of District Attorney Harvey Dent. The myth behind Dent’s death prompted an expansion of police powers that locked away thousands of criminals and largely restored order to Gotham City’s streets. And with the return of good times, the city’s corporate community has never had it better.
Batman remains in hiding, as does Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), now a Howard Hughes-like recluse whose intervening lack of fitness has left his body hobbled from those years of leaping and falling from Gotham’s high-rises. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a “wartime commissioner” on the cusp of being replaced during this era of peace and prosperity, remains haunted by the lies that helped bring about that peace and beleaguered by a fear of evil that he knows will never totally disappear.
Thus arrives Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, masked evildoer who holds himself out as the maniacal savior of Gotham’s poor and working class but whose actual aim is the annihilation of Gotham City itself. It’s no coincidence that the initial steps in Bane’s dastardly plan involve a complex co-opting of the city’s financial services industry and corporate boardrooms. And if that symbolism is too vague for you, Bane’s debut onto the public stage involves his eye-popping razing of a professional football game, a terrorist act preluded by a complete rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Bane lords over a state of anarchy armed with a nuclear bomb harvested from a scrapped clean energy project originally financed by Wayne (take that, Greenies!). He frees the criminals, and anything of value is declared common property. Kangaroo courts presided over by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, now appearing in all three of Nolan’s Batman films) are convened to try would-be dissidents to this new social and economic construct. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, Bane’s bomb is designed to explode on its own at the end of five months.
That’s also about as long as The Dark Knight Rises seems to last. An unfortunate byproduct of Nolan’s rising esteem as a filmmaker is the license to indulge that comes with it, a penchant for bloat that occasionally crept into The Dark Knight before going full-blown in Nolan’s Inception. The relatively economical 141-minute running time of Batman Begins has now metastasized into 165 minutes of amorphous atmospherics punctuated by Han Zimmer’s blaring power chords.
"In the end, you deliver some of your energy to another human being." —Shen Wei
Our eyes met for half a moment. Smeared in pink from eyes to toenails, she turned her head aside.
That panning motion continued into a casual tumble onto her back, sliding through the tempera paint that covered the floor of the Plexiglas box that contained her. Twirling upon shoulder blades and spine in the bright pigment like an ice dancer, she stopped herself gently by planting a foot into a corner of the box.
I walked away, shouldering through the audience to reach an adjacent gallery where late-Renaissance masterpiece paintings looked down upon the frenetic movements of differently colored dancers on 7-square-foot floor panels. Everyone but the dancers and the paintings was smiling.
This performance of Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Undivided Divided, which concludes tonight, occupies much of the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Although no stranger to site-specific dance, the American Dance Festival has perhaps never set it on this scale, partnering with the NCMA to bring Shen’s multi-sensory delight to the white galleries of the museum.
It’s an exciting moment for many reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun to see superb choreography in an unconventional space. It’s also exciting to have to deal with the voyeuristic nature of being in a dance audience out in the open.
Just as exciting is how the moment fits into both Shen’s career and the development of the ADF. He’s played a huge role throughout the last decade of the festival. In a way, the arc of his career since his stunning debut at the 2000 ADF, from which his company was formed, matches the arc of the festival itself over the same span, during which now-retired director Charles Reinhart (whose wife Stephanie co-directed from 1993 until her death in 2002) has left after 43 years at the helm.
Both the festival and one of its most closely affiliated choreographers are necessarily transforming, facts made spectacularly evident in Undivided Divided.
The visual arts—specifically painting—have been a part of nearly every piece Shen has staged since his debut. Taking everyone’s breath away—I still have my program from it—Near the Terrace (2000) set Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux’s imagery into motion. Pieces such as Rite of Spring (2003), Connect Transfer (2004), the Re- Triptych (2009) and last year’s ADF premiere Limited States feature dancers applying paint to the stage surface and/or altering an image on the surface through their movement across it. The lasting mark of an arm sweep across the floor became a Shen Wei trademark image.
To this point, visual media other than painting have played less integral and effective roles in Shen’s work, even hinting at a disablingly self-conscious trend. His Tibetan photography, though gorgeous, served as an oddly undermining backdrop to sections of Re-. The static photographs dwarfed the choreography, denying it a comparable dramatic level. The narrative energy of his 2005 Chinese opera Second Visit to the Empress dissipated in his effort to give costumes, set and music their simultaneous due. The movement suffered as something of an afterthought.
Brian Brooks Moving Company
American Dance Festival
Reynolds Industries Theater
Brian Brooks makes a big production out of very little material. He choreographs all of the dances, which initially give the impression of being big and glitzy, for the aptly named Brian Brooks Moving Company. And he does it with a limited vocabulary that depends on virtuosic physical expression for what interest it arouses.
The dancers are supremely fit body-machines, capable of many rapid repetitions without pause. The body and certain aspects of its capabilities (such as, how close can one get to perpetual motion?) seem to be the main area of exploration for Brooks. And aggression. There’s a lot of aggression, playful and not, in the dances in the BBMC program in Reynolds Theater at the American Dance Festival this year.
Big City (2012) opens the program. Seven dancers amid a forest of hanging, articulated shiny metal tubes, perform to a relentless score by Jonathan Pratt. Like rats in a crowded cage, or workers in Manhattan, all seven struggle ceaselessly for dominance, success and survival among the glittering canyons of the sharp-edged city. They do the same things again and again and again, and since those things are not all that interesting, and since the pace changes only to become a little more frenetic, I became very tired of it well before the curtain lowered on the last man moving.
One section stands out, however. Brooks writhes and rolls among the shiny rods, never touching a one, his hands and feet making stepping stones along the path he creates for the diminutive Jo-anne Lee, who treads them, balancing with outspread arms as he turns beneath her.
In the solo I’m Going to Explode (2007), Brooks shows off his muscular skills as a suited white-collar worker having a minor freak-out before putting his jacket back on and trudging back to his job. It’s clever but shallow. Again, the idea runs out before the dance stops.
Descent (2011) includes more memorable images—as opposed to forgettable blurs of repetitive motion—than any of the other pieces included here. The power of these images was greatly enhanced by the striped lighting designed by Philip Treviño, but there’s nothing in the way of dramatic build. A scene in which dancers cross the dim stage while fanning lengths of colored gossamer cloth aloft into the light seduces the eye; the smoke-like curls of cloth recall the stage smoke puffing into the first scene, in which a walking dancer carries on another angled stiff across his shoulders. As the pair moves slowly through the striped light, they are joined by two more pairs, drifting. Other than that instance, it was not clear how the scenes related to each other.
I had been looking forward to Motor (2010), which received several positive reviews after its performance at the Joyce Theater in New York last year. The set looked fantastic in photos—all reviewers commented on it—and the subject seemed ideal for BBMC. However, in this program, only an excerpt is performed, and there is no set. Brooks and David Scarantino dance a duet. Their hopping abilities are extraordinary. They move around the stage in unison, on one leg each, and the leg-changes are so cleverly managed that one hardly sees them. It’s quite a feat—dancesport—and perhaps it makes sense within the context of the full dance. As it was, it seemed like Mark Dendy or Larry Keigwin Lite. Very Lite. Definitely less filling.
This is the third time I seen Brian Brooks Moving Company perform, and the third time I’ve seen the same tropes and movement sequences repeated throughout the evening, to much the same surface effect. Brooks and company do what they do very well, but what they touch no deep chord of emotion, nor light up the synapses with syncretic understanding. And the work is not entertaining enough to keep this viewer happy in the shallows of movement for movement’s sake.