Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Classic TV: “The Comeback”

Every fall, a plethora of formerly big-name actors (or those who simply aspired to be but never were) make much-hyped, often embarrassing returns to the medium that made them famous in the first place. They often return in the context of a reality show and is “rediscovered” by a younger generation that tries to reclaim the washed-up star as one of their own, lending them an air of cool and generally upsetting universal law. It is in this atmosphere that one can fully appreciate one of the most brutally funny and expertly crafted comedy series ever created for American television, The Comeback.

Launched in the summer of 2005 on HBO, The Comeback was the brainchild of Michael Patrick King, then fresh off the conclusion of Sex and the City’s run on the same network, and starring Emmy winner Lisa Kudrow, who was herself coming off the successful run of Friends. The series, which ran only one season, was not a show-within-a-show, but two TV series that ran within the context of another show. Valerie Cherish is a former late 80s/early 90s sitcom star of the fictional, aptly-titled I’m It! The show, then nine-seven episodes into its run, was cancelled just three episodes shy of the one hundred episodes required for syndication. The show has since been forgotten and Valerie has been looking to return to her glory days ever since. Married to workaholic attorney Mark, she is well-to-do, looks fondly on a career that only lasted three years, and treats her housemaid as a visitor who somehow broke into her mansion. (They are not Karen and Rosario from Will & Grace.) Valerie has taken a role in the fledgling new comedy Room & Bored, and agrees to have a camera crew film her comeback and return to sitcom stardom as one of the conditions of assuming the role. It’s her first major acting project in years.

Valerie’s joy is short-lived as things take a vicious turn in the pilot. Valerie initially auditions for the role of an older roommate to a group of perpetually sunned, biologically gifted quartet of housemates. Needless to say, there are plenty of references to Three’s Company, as the sexual innuendo abounds. Her character is turned into Aunt Sassy, a Mrs. Roper-type who favours tacky track suits and landlady who barges in only to spoil the housemates’ fun. Her screen time is cut, she is continually forced to read lines mocking her alleged old age (Valerie herself is only in her early 40s).

Other characters revolve around and seem to exist only in relation to Valerie, at least from her point of view. It takes several viewings of certain episodes to see the rich inner life of even the more minor characters. Room & Bored’s juvenile creators and head writers are Tom and Paulie G, both of whom despise Valerie and are stuck with her only because the network agreed to green-light the series only if the reality show is given unrestricted access to the series. Needless to say, they engage in sadistically subjecting Valerie to further humiliations major and petty, at one point insisting that she dismiss a group of puppies in character with the line “you see puppies, I see Korean barbecue!” despite her protestations that the insensitivities of that line would be offensive. 

The show’s breakout star is a perky blonde thing name Juna (Malin Ackerman), an aspiring actress with no acting experience whatsoever. Her husband tolerates her activities, if only to get her out of his hair (although he clearly adores her). Her devoted, elderly gay hairdresser Mickey lives in the proverbial glass closet door, but like Mark, is the only person on the show who unconditionally loves Valerie. James Burrows, the legendary director of such classic series as Cheers, Frasier, Will & Grace and (life imitates art!) Friends, makes a handful of appearances as himself, a comic genius who is perpetually bemused by the fact that he has to direct the infantile mess known as Room & Bored.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: Vancouver Latin American Film Festival 2011

For film buffs in Vancouver, every season has at least one or two major film festivals. In the late summer, bridging the gap between the QueerFilm Fest and the major International Film Festival in late September is underrated but no less intriguing Vancouver Latin American Film Festival (VLAFF).

Originally started in 2003 as a vehicle to promote Latin American films, the festival crested the wave of popular Mexican films that gained a global audience at the turn of the millennium, most notably Y Tu Mama Tambien, El Crimen de Padre Amaro and Amores Perros, each of which earned Academy Awards nominations. With Pan’s Labyrinth becoming a major hit a few years later, the emergence of Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Guillermo del Toro on the global stage, and the surprise Oscar win of Argentina’s El Secreto en sus ojos, Latin American film has become a player in world cinema. VLAFF honours this and brings some of the major films of the era into Vancouver.

VLAFF has grown in awareness and stature each year, and has the support of a number of local and national corporate and government sponsors. This year, the list of presenting sponsors and partners include: the City of Vancouver; the BC Council for the Arts; the Province of BC; Scotiabank; the Hamber Foundation, Simon Fraser University (which is also screening a number of films at their many campuses this year); Corona; Smirnoff; Holiday Inn; and the LGBT publication Xtra. Each of the Consulate Generals of Brazil, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela will also take part, as will the tourist ministry of Mexico. A number of other films festivals will also sponsor the event, including the Queer Film Festival, Doxa Documentary Film Festival, Jewish Film Festival and the Al-Jazeera Documentary Channel. As a number of films may touch on human rights issues, Amnesty International have also been announced as a community partner.

VLAFF 2011 will take place from September 1 to September 11, 2011. Films will be played throughout Metro Vancouver, including the following theaters:
  • Granville 7 Cinemas
  • Pacific Cinematheque
  • Roundhouse Community Centre
  • SFU Harbour Centre (Downtown)
  • SFU Woodward’s / Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
  • SFU Burnaby Campus
  • PS Production Services 
Please check VLAFF’s website to check on locations and show times. Take note that tickets are $10 per film, but gala presentation tickets will cost $15. As films will be shown unrated, in compliance with local and federal laws, you must purchase a one-time $2 membership in order to see the films. Online ticket purchases can be made here

For those wanting an intelligent, exciting alternative to the commercial fare now showing on too many multiplex screens near you, VLAFF is a welcome breath of fresh air. A number of films presented at this year’s festival are summarized after the jump.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The German Opera Project: the Bregenz Festival

Much can be said of stripped-down theatrical productions that do not diminish the power of the work. I once saw a production of The Laramie Project presented in the small theatre at the back of a Cuban restaurant, staged by Fighting Chance Productions. It in no way minimized the work’s message and reduced me and my companions to blubbering, quivering, weeping masses. It’s times like that when I love intimate theatre.

And then there’s the Bregenz Festival

What is the Bregenz Festival?

Think of opera. Now think of the phrase “go big or go home”, apply it to the staging, then multiply that to an absurd scale. You have the Bregenz Festival. Or just look at the picture to the left. That, folks, is a big-ass stage.

A competitor to the popular Bayreuth Festival in Germany, this uniquely Austrian opera company takes place every summer on the shores of Lake Constanza, located at the northern foot of the Rhine River. The first Bregenz Festival took place in 1946, a year after the war. Although the town itself did not even contain a theatre or outdoor performance space, the troupe still put together a production on two adjoining bridges and were backed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, who have been supporting and playing at the festival ever since. The Festival contains a number of concurrent performances including outdoor ballet, giving you the option of seeing Swan Lake not only in an outdoor theatre, but on an actual lake.

Over the years, permanent structures were put into place to house the orchestra pit as well as concurrent productions on different stages. Should the weather suddenly turn bad, the performances can move from the Festival Hall to the adjoining Seebuehne hall and house approximately 1,700 attendees, meaning that the performance would not be cancelled that evening and with only part of the audience members being furnished refunds in the event of rain. Now that is some outdoor planning. By 1985, some operas would run at least two seasons and stage structures were solidified so that the formerly outdoor festival would be able to run almost year-round.

What distinguishes the Bregenz Festival’s productions from your usual opera is the sheer audacity of the scale. The dazzling Lake productions are the ones that take place on mammoth outdoor stages that dwarfs the performers, reducing them to the size of ants. The concept of the staging is daring on a literally epic scale, with the floating stage by the lake towering several stories into the sky. Take for instance the picture to the left of the skeleton reading an oversized book the size of a small arena for the 1999/2000 production of A Masked Ball. Also observe the beheaded Statue of Liberty floating above the stage in a modernized version of Aida. You may recognize the giant “Tosca eye” from the James Bond film Quantum of Solace: that’s the opera Bond attends where there’s a chase sequence through the opera hall edifice. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Master Class: Costa-Gavras’s “Z”

The most recent issue of Time Magazine carries the title “The Decline and Fall of Europe”. In light of the austerity protests in Greece and Rome, the rioting in London, and numerous issues surrounding the continent in the Arab Spring, it’s a wonder that more political art hasn’t been created at this time. It’s an opportune moment in history to review one of the greatest political films ever made, Costa-Gavras’s 1969 masterpiece Z.

Z is a film loosely based on the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, the film was an incendiary comment on Greek military rule in that era. The film’s title refers to the Greek term “Ζει”, meaning “he lives”. Superimposed over the screen is this confrontational inscription:

“Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL.”

And that is how you get an audience's full attention within the first two minutes and never let go.

The film is in French and the country in which this all happens is unnamed, but make no mistake about it that this is a thinly veiled account of the Greek military junta in the 1960s. It is no coincidence that Costa-Gavras cast Greece’s leading actress of the age, Irene Papas, in a strongly featured role here. The fact that this is an Algerian-French co-production makes this a companion piece to the equally outstanding 1966 political thriller The Battle of Algiers.

The assassination
The film opens with a chilling government briefing session. The commander warns against an “ideological mold” and that it is imperative for them to “spray”, in order to prevent further subversive activities and / or popular uprisings. The euphemism “spray” as a means of eradication is veiled dialogue instructing the army to “cleanse” the many new diseases in society, reduced to the all-inclusive term “isms”, likening opposing parties to unwanted contagion. And yet, they demonstrations or other expositions of opposing ideals must not be suppressed, for “this is a democracy”. Why is this always what despots and extremist politicians always seem to say the moment they are about to commit something really, really insidious? And so Costa-Gavras sets the tone for his political film classic. Perhaps the most adept descriptor for Z is its original, unused title: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination.

Irene Papas as the politician's wife
This is not a film with distinct personalities. It is no accident that characters wear variations of the same outfits and there is nothing to denote an individual based on ideology, class, or any other distinguishing factors. Everything is just a little faceless, just a little impersonal, and more than a little unnerving because of it. In this cinematic world Costa-Gavras created, extermination is imminent. There are characters here but they do not go beyond their functions: government officials, charismatic opposition leader, his wife, an interrogator, prosecutors, witnesses. This is a film that paints a broad canvas supporting a broader vision. The director is not interested in any of their personalities, which seems to be the failing of so many American-made political thrillers. We do not and should not care about their inner lives, their childhoods, or anything else. Z is presented documentary-style, as if a camera crew were allowed free access to view political machinations at work in destroying all forms of opposition while spouting the term “democracy” as if it were a salve to soothe the burn.
It’s a credit to Costa-Gavras’s vision that he never stoops to speechifying or expounding grandiose ideals in his films. He simply presents the films as versions of events as they are. The personal stories aren’t the point, which was what made Proof of Life and Beyond Borders cinematic and political lame ducks, because a love triangle or conventional Hollywood narrative cannot co-exist against a greater global context. Ideals are not the same as ideas. Z must be savoured and experienced the way the filmmakers present it, with a restless camera that follows the ongoing story to its natural end, and bravely shows that sometimes even the justice system fails. Make no mistake that Z is not fantasia. It is in fact perhaps the most straightforward document of a faceless dictatorship cementing its foothold, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it, even if you live in a “democracy”. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone?)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pop Rewind: the MTV Video Music Awards

With the VMAs taking place this coming Sunday, it’s time to contemplate the videos up for the title of “Video of the Year”. They are:

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
  • Beastie Boys, “Make Some Noise”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Katy Perry, "Firework"
  • Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers”
Each of these is noteworthy and represents creative breakthroughs for some nominees (Tyler, the Creator), commercial breakthroughs for others (Adele) and a long-running history of making great clips (Beastie Boys). I hope that MTV chooses well, as they have in the past.

Here are ten notable past winners for Video of the Year, each of which has blown out the solar plexus at one point of another, and some of the worthy  clips they beat in the year of their victories. Whoever wins has a lot to live up to ... 

1987: Peter Gabriel, "Sledgehammer"

Beat Out: U2, “With or Without You”

1993: Pearl Jam, "Jeremy"

 Beat Out: Nirvana, “In Bloom”; Peter Gabriel, “Digging in the Dirt”, R.E.M., “Man on the Moon”

1995: TLC, "Waterfalls"

Beat Out: Michael & Janet Jackson, “Scream”; Weezer, “Buddy Holly”

1996: Smashing Pumpkins, "Tonight, Tonight" - 

Beat Out: Alanis Morissette, “Ironic”; Foo Fighters, “Big Me”

1997: Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity”

Beat Out: Nine Inch Nails, “The Perfect Drug”; No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Internet Viewing: “Moscow Out”

Some of my friends have asked about my mild fascination with all things Russian, such as luxury shopping at GUM and TSUM and the Eurovision Song Contest (I make no apologies for the latter). Some friends have visited Russia and others have expressed an interest in visiting the former Soviet Union, but aren’t sure what sites to check out.

While there are a number of travel sites that will suggest tours and help you out with visa requirements, sometimes it’s daydreaming about travel in the dog days of August and seeing travelogues that hits the spot. That, and the thought of being stuck on a tour bus with loud tourists isn't to everyone's liking. 

Moscow Out host Martyn Andrews
My favourite English-language Russian travelogue is Moscow Out. It is a weekly Internet webisode series dedicated to all the pleasures in the Russian capital. Hosted by British expatriate and travel expert Martyn Andrews, the program is presented every Friday in English on the Washington DC-based Russian online news outlet Russia Today. The charismatic Andrews is clearly in love with his adopted hometown.

This is not a travelogue where they simply tell you about the major stops such as Red Square, the Bolshoi and the banyas. There is considerably more to the massive city than these central sites. The series is unique and compact, informing viewers of tourist sites that may not be picked up by the major travelogues or tours. The effect is that they encourage and inspire one to get off the tour bus and actually travel with a select guide or by yourself, rather than a massive group, to really explore the city. Andrews brings an economic approach to traveling, by presenting destinations and events with a bit of history, access to the sites, and giving you an idea of pricing. There are webisodes dedicated to such interesting sites as:

Contemporary Moscow skyline, at night
  1. Tsverskaya (formerly Gorky) Boulevard, the high-end retailer street home to free-standing boutiques for haute couture designers;
  2. Contemporary art galleries beyond the Pushkin, including the Garazh Centre for Contemporary Art, the Borscht Gallery and Winzavod, for the more adventurous and lovers of experimental art pieces; and
  3. Serybryany Bor, or “Silver Forest”, the famed forest, park and inner-city beach that is an artificial island planned around a waterway to keep cool (remember that Russian’s continental summer climate is just as unforgiving as their famously long winters);
amongst others.

The programs are becoming increasingly tourist-friendly, presenting a number of options that inspires one to stay longer than the standard one-week package tours. Moscow Out also includes a number of money-saving travel tips that come in handy in the world’s most expensive city, such as restaurant and hotel pricing, discount (donation) entry days at art galleries, brand-name clothing shopping and other delights that won’t break the bank. The producers clearly understand that the city is not just for the mega-wealthy, and that democratic pricing in the current global economy is probably a good idea. To that end, Moscow Out’s has an episode on getting by in the city on a (not literal) dime:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Together Again: Janet Jackson’s Number Ones Tour

[Programming note: original article ran June 11, 2011. This piece is running to coincide with the upcoming August 26 concert in Vancouver.)

The Blogger recalls his first-ever concert. On June 9, 1990, he attended Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation Tour. It became, at the time, the highest-grossing debut concert tour of all time. The Blogger didn’t care that he was sitting far in the back and watching Janet storm across the stage as a well-dressed military ant dancer. He didn’t care that production values dwarfed in the unfortunately oversized stadium (there were thousands of seats still available). He was just so darned happy to be there!

The Blogger has had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty) live at least three more times since: on the janet. tour in 1994, the All For You Tour in 2001, and 2008’s RockWitChu Tour. Janet remains, Nipplegate or not, his favourite Jackson (sorry Michael). 

Ms. Jackson returned to the road this year for a scaled-down tour supporting her greatest hits double-disc set Number Ones, and showcasing her sets in a more toned-down setting. For those of us who grew up watching Janet dance out from under her brother Michael’s shadow and blaze onto the international stage on her own power, and watch her try to return from the Super Bowl Incident, any occasion to see Janet is a trip down memory lane. Here are five reasons why Janet Jackson still matters.

1. Janet dances her ass off. In an interview with her late, great brother Michael, he took one look at his sister in the 80s when she was heavier and said “lookit that butt!” Yes Michael, we can see it, but not because we’re ridiculing its size: we’re seeing it because she can shake whatever yo’ mama gave her. A Janet Jackson concert is an occasion for the world’s biggest dance party. Like Madonna before her, Janet made her name as a first-class dancer who happened to have a penchant for a great hook and melody. The fact that she has co-written every single one of her hits in her entire career speaks to her passion for the marriage of song and dance, and it’s her words – and therefore her conviction – that compels her to move. It’s guaranteed to make you move, too. 

2. Janet sings all her old hits in concert! Say what you will about her admittedly thin singing voice: Janet doesn’t lip-synch. She doesn’t need a back-up tape of her come-hithers and harmonies for those nights when she doesn’t feel up to it. You can hear every breath in her body and see every bead of sweat when she’s on that stage, and that’s from singing everything. This lady works hard. Janet has a vast array of nearly three dozen global Top Ten singles spanning the last quarter-century (it has been 25 years since her groundbreaking R&B album Control first stormed into the pop world). She understands that her fans have different favourites charting the span of her entire career, and she intends to give them the respect they deserve by singing every last hit, even if she has to blend them into medleys to fit them all in. 

The tour’s set list includes such early singles like “Nasty” and “When I Think of You”; iconic club-stompers like “Escapade” and “Rhythm Nation”; more mature work such as “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “If”; and sing-along favourites like “Together Again” and “Let’s Wait Awhile”. No one goes home from a Janet Jackson concert complaining about the songs she didn’t sing. And this time, with no new material to promote, the show is full of nothing but the hits! Everybody wins! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Modern Film Classics: “Madonna: Truth or Dare”

For Dolce

Madonna turns fifty-three today. Fifty-three!

Although she has dabbled in low-key activities since the conclusion of her epic Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2009, and with Lady Gaga reigning supreme over the pop music scene with Adele and Katy Perry, the power of Madonna’s influence must be reiterated.

Madonna became one of the first contemporary pop musicians whose work has produced a sub-field of gender studies entirely onto itself. Leading feminist writer Camille Paglia wrote extensive academic essays on her. The Vatican all but called for her excommunication. MTV, back when it played nothing but music videos, at once revered her and punished her, as she has become the most-awarded MTV VMA Award winner in history and also one of the very first to have her work banned from the network (that would be the videos for “Justify My Love” and “Erotica”).

1990’s Blond Ambition Tour was the concert tour that cemented her iconic status. Intended to cross-promote her blockbuster Like a Prayer album, its follow-up I’m Breathless, and her starring role in her then-paramour Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy film, it was the cultural phenomenon of the summer. When she premiered the Gaultier-designed cone bra in 1990 for her tour, it was one of the first instances where underwear was outerwear, and proved so iconic that the garment is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Gallery. Until then, no one would ever think of wearing just a bikini top and bare midriff as a stage costume. The tour was so controversial that it prompted protests in Rome, almost landed the singer in prison for public obscenity in Toronto, and yet was so highly reviewed as performance art that it became the highest-grossing concert tour of the year. Hell, even Gorbachev – yes, Gorby!! – went to see her show, even though the Soviet Union was still alive and well. (To this, Madonna quipped: “Warren [Beatty]’s gonna be so jealous that I met him first! Hah!”) Rolling Stone magazine named Blond Ambition, despite being released at the start of the decade, the “Greatest Tour of the 90s” in 1999. The tour has become legend, especially since Pioneer signed an exclusive contract to release the concert tour recordings on Laser Disc only, and thus it is not available on DVD. Random clips have been uploaded onto YouTube, but the only place to see high-quality clips of some of these performances are in Truth or Dare.

Madonna became the single most powerful woman in show business. And everyone has, ever since then, tried to follow or out-do her: Gaga, Katy, Britney, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Christina, Gwen. Everyone. And if you asked any of them to name a musical influence, they would each say Madonna.

Truth or Dare, theatrically released in 1991 after a third album in a year and a half, was the document of the concert tour that burned through pop culture. In an era before the Internet became prevalent, the fact that Madonna was letting cameras follow her 24/7 to produce an all-access, no-holds-barred documentary, was unheard of. Camera phones and YouTube were but twinkles in their developers’ eyes. This was as close as we could get to reality TV at the time (asides from Cops on the Fox Network). Twenty years ago, this all-access documentary was considered the ultimate reveal. It’s still a cinematic powder keg twenty years later.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love is King: Sade Live in Vancouver and On Tour

I was warned about attending this show by a close friend who is a major Sade fan. He said “prepare to be taken away. If you have any emotion, bring a tissue”.

Make no mistake that the crowd gathered at Rogers Arena on Saturday, August 13 in Vancouver is not your usual big-arena collective. The crowd skewed older, but testifies to the lasting power of Sade’s sultry sonic output. For those of you whose memories of “vintage” pop music date as far back as Jennifer Lopez’s J. Lo album in 2001: yes, Sade is still a big-name act and one of the few lasting acts in contemporary music. It’s just that their music will never date as badly. Want more proof that people still buy their work? Their last studio album, Soldier of Love, opened at No. 1 in the US last year and sold a million copies. Got it?

That is also not to say that the audience was sedate simply because the vibe was decidedly downbeat before the set started. There was a conspicuous absence of hallucinogenic drugs and no yahoos were dancing around, shrieking drunkenly. None of that is needed, not at a Sade concert. However, the crowd’s benign façade melted away as the house lights were dimmed and the strains of “Soldier of Love” came over the speakers, the audience rose as one to welcome the band. Once Ms. Adu took the stage in a fitted bodysuit showing off a remarkable physique, everyone at Rogers Arena lost their collective minds.

I should clarify that Sade is not just the stunning, alluring singer known as Helen Folasade “Sade” Adu. It is also a collective comprised of founding members Stuart Matthewman, Paul Spencer Denman and Andrew Hale. If you look through the band’s history, their many music industry prizes include a number of Grammys, two of which were awarded to the best vocal performance by … a duo or group. The band is simply named after her and she is the frontwoman for this long-running collective. This is the key to understanding that Sade is a classy outfit and they put on an elegant show. For the purposes of this review, I will refer to Sade Adu the singer as simply “Ms. Adu”. It would be strange to refer to her otherwise as “Helen”, at least within this context.

The first proof that Ms. Adu is a sophisticated lady and that this was a classy affair was right after the opening number, when she addressed the audience by saying that their long absence from the city was not a reflection of how the band felt about Vancouver. She praised how beautiful Lotus Land was, thanked us for coming, and promised us a show. This was at 9:45. To show us that she meant it, we were still screaming for an encore by the time her set ended at 11:45, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The band ripped through an elaborate back catalogue dating back to their debut album, 1984’s Diamond Love. To keep momentum up after the glorious start, the opening strains of “Your Love is King” brought lovers near and far closer together. At one point I thought that there would be a mass exodus of couples from the venue before the show ended, not a reflection of the show’s quality, but a testament to the band’s lasting power to make some of the best baby-making music ever recorded. Adu’s remarkable voice was an instrument so fine it is the equivalent of a 1683 Stradivarius: an extremely rare, classic instrument that only grows finer and achieves greater clarity as time goes by, and deserves the utmost respect.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Modern Film Classic: La Femme Nikita

It’s been twenty years since the year 1991 brought to the cinema a new, stronger female image. The trend was unofficially started by Jodie Foster’s brilliant Oscar-winning performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which still ranks as one of the greatest horror thrillers of all time. Her character may answer to male higher-ups, but she was no shrinking violet and has a will wrought in iron and steel. Just a few months later, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon rode a blue T-Bird into history in the remarkable road film Thelma & Louise. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah in Terminator 2 showed she was steelier in body and mind than any man around her (cyborgs exempted). Each of these women advanced the female cinematic image from pure object of desire into powerful beings that would sooner kill than kiss a man.

Into this mix, one may have forgotten the prototype for the modern femme fatale: Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.

Nikita v. 1: Anne Parillaud
Starring Anne Parillaud in the title role, Nikita documents the journey of a strung-out junkie who kills a policeman during a drug raid. She is a creature so feral and enslaved by her primal instincts that she stabs a policeman through the hand with a pen during a routine questioning. When she is sentenced to life in prison in the film’s opening, she rips the banister off the witness box in the courtroom and requires ten men to restrain her. Nikita wakes up in a nondescript white room fit for a mental patient, and is told that her history has been wiped out. The French intelligence had staged a mock funeral for her and she is given the option of either becoming a trained government assassin, or she will be put in her fake plot, for good. She opts for the former.

Parillaud plays Nikita as the banshee from hell whose bite is far worse than her bark. Uncontrollable and responsive only to force or threats, she actually bites her martial arts instructors. She gets dirty and one gets the sense that she might even eat flesh and blood if that’s what it took to survive. Eventually, she is tamed by a psychologist. The film’s stunning centerpiece is an epic assignment to take out a foreign diplomat at the very restaurant she is taken to for her birthday dinner. In time, Nikita is released and returned to civilian life – albeit under an assumed name and occupation – falls in love, and remains a sleeper assassin. But every so often the phone rings, and a familiar voice summons her with a certain password, and her other life takes over.

The iconic little black dress
Originally released in France in 1990, Nikita was a blockbuster and was unlike anything seen in cinema. While action films of the period concentrated on muscled man as superheroes (think Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme), there were no women portrayed on screen in such a manner. Nikita was not only considered a bold exercise in style, given what then passed as cinema vérité-style technical direction and camera work, but it dared to portray a woman as having more animalist tendencies than men. The Nikita figure wasn’t a formerly benign individual developed into an imposing assassin or fighter a la Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quadrilogy. Considering that this was an era where American cinema was heavily into the Madonna/whore dichotomy in film, Nikita was no mere breath of fresh air. It was, together with the representations in the first paragraph of this essay, a gale force that threatened to blow the doors off the movie house. The film, although it did not break out into the mainstream, was an art-house smash and attained a cult following that led to its presence in pop culture that still continues.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sound Advice: Hi Fashion & “I’m Not Madonna”

Meet the new dance pop duo Hi Fashion.

Formed by the members Jen DM and Rick Gradone, this duo is a deliciously catty pop machine that may very well be performance art in disguise. Every one of their singles could have been collected from the ruminations of the most attitude-filled, delusional drag queens. A creation called “Amazing” pretty much sums up the entire “I don’t care if you don’t like it because I’m amazing” fantasia that, although could have been mined entirely from a transvestite’s internal monologue, might easily have danced out of any reality TV show’s participant’s mouth, masking a deep-seated insecurity and possible psychosis. (Why else would they agree to be on television, dummy?) It’s the duo’s delirium that sets them apart from any other dance or pop acts.

The band’s videos remind me of old 70s and 80s Japanese commercials, but acted out by gender-bending transvestites in faux Amy Winehouse beehive hairdos and Stevie Nicks’s Goth night outfits. The only proper reaction to any of these videos is the following question: “is this on purpose?” (They also remind me very much of Eurovision and most of Eastern Europe’s ideas of what is supposedly cool.)

But their crowning glory remains the dance club smash “I’m Not Madonna”.

This is a knowing, winking but extremely savvy pop single that trumps any self-referential attempts by the Jersey Shore kids. Why? Because their brand of irony is rooted in a need to self-deprecate that is hampered by the fact that they think they’re being smart. The protagonist in “I’m Not Madonna” has the delusion without the irony, and that makes the entire performance that much more exciting and accomplished. They’re not doing it to seem smarter than they already are, and the hell with anyone with doesn’t like it. It reminds me of what Amy Poehler said to Jimmy Fallon during a rehearsal on SNL, when he told her to stop a gag because he didn’t like it: “I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it!”

Before I discuss this sooner, please listen to their Soundcloud here and then join me after the jump.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pop Rewind: Summer Radio, 1991

Every year at this time, a number of entertainment publications ask for people’s memorable “summer songs”. Each year, the countdown of popular favourites changes and a number of them remain immortal. These include Will Smith’s (when he was still the Fresh Prince) “Summertime”, Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”.

But there are is also a subsection of summer songs that, if you hear them, can take you back to a very specific year, and often a time and place. These are the songs that were inescapable at the time, or were simply part of the mix you heard that year. This blog post is dedicated to jogging your memory of summer hits from twenty years ago: the year 1991.

The summer was part of the great early 90s recession in the wake of the S&L scandal, George Bush Sr. was in power, and female role models at the cinema included a kick-ass Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and Thelma & Louise. Cell phones weighed five pounds on average and Apple was still pushing the Macintosh machine. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings were just about to kick off and the term “sexual harassment” became initially the catchphrase of the year, but quickly entered public lexicon and became an offence under employment law legislation. Times have indeed changed when your VCR was set to record Cheers, Roseanne and The Simpsons (although you likely are still doing that to the latter today).

For those of you old enough to remember, a number of these tracks listed were interchanged with Bryan Adams’s ubiquitous blockbuster “Everything I Do” from the Robin Hood soundtrack, Amy Grant’s successful gospel-to-pop crossover, Guns ‘n Roses’ double Use Your Illusion set and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”. While all of these artists have had long-term successful careers or at the very least remain instantly recognizable names (even Grant was referenced in a recent episode of 30 Rock), there are a number of other hits on the radio that summer that were there but you may not have remembered. They remain one-hit wonders and each has earned some recognition and fond memories. These sonic slices of joy deserve to be recognized, and some of them have sadly gone out of print. 

What’s memorable about this summer was that pop radio was carefree and joyful, and the grunge / alt-rock sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam that came to define the 90s was still localized to Seattle, Washington. After 1991 and throughout most of the decade, summer singles were decidedly more downbeat and irony was required to turn street cred into a pop hit.

Here are five of the Blogger’s favourite singles and YouTube clips to jog your memory, or to give you a glimpse into what that summer sounded like, after the jump:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Reading: Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad"

The Blogger has been watching far too much House Hunters International lately and pining for waterfront property in Mykonos, the Amalfi Coast and the like. The image of Penelope waiting on the hills in her home, keeping watch over the Mediterranean, comes to mind. But since Odysseus was away for twenty years, one can’t help but wonder if his wife maybe had better things to do with her time.

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad falls into the area of post-modern literature written to given speculative (and often fun) insight to established literary works from the object’s point of view. Homer’s The Odyssey discusses all of his Odysseus’s exploits as he takes ten years to return home to his wife from the Trojan War (what, he didn’t have Mapquest or GPS back then?). The title is a pun on Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.

Penelope is no shrinking violet, although she seems to be that initially. Betrothed to Odysseus at page 15, she does not love him but they bond quickly and eventually grow to love one another. There is much discussion of how their household ran, and in particular the central role the women play in the household. The home has a dozen maidens at any given moment and a housekeeper or two, to run the entire estate. It illuminates the following comment made by Alan Bennett:

“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket.”

One of Penelope's maidens, tortured
and killed
Atwood’s touch here, unlike in heavier works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, is a light one. Everyone knows that Penelope had dozens of suitors waiting to swoop in and marry her, with the express objective of acquiring her real estate, but not everyone knows that she had maidens who charmed them and slept with them just to keep them away from Penelope. According to Atwood’s narrative, the maidens were slaughtered along with the suitors, for perceived treason and crimes against the household. The maidens are given their own chapters in the text as a Greek Chorus, and they are a singing, teasing, vengeful and comical lot, speaking from beyond the grave. At one point, when they speak, the narration is written as a play, with express stage direction instructing the maidens to dress in sailor outfits. There are also appearances from Odysseus himself, Telemachus as a power-hungry lad with slight Oedipal tendencies, and Helen of Troy as the classical equivalent of a Mean Girl.

The Penelopiad, while a thin novel in terms of volume, is an outstanding exercise in style and is surprisingly, refreshingly comic for an Atwood work. The maidens’ chapters are presented in a variety of styles, including ballad, poetry and traditional folk song metre. One of the chapters reads as a court trial transcript. In fact, it’s their presentation of the narrative, both in traditional and contemporary literary readings, that is the real revelation of the text.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: Vancouver Queer Film Festival 2011

Now in its 23rd year, the annual Vancouver Queer Film Festival will commence two weeks after the Pride activities in town, just ahead our own International Film Festival in the early fall (is it that close already?). An annual celebration of film, it is placed strategically after Pride on the social calendar to catch the residual excitement of the Pride events. Featuring works by and for the LGBT community, the festival is one of the largest amongst its kind in North America and features a number of hard-to-find titles that often become festival favourites, but may not necessarily secure distribution deals. It is an opportunity to show these works to a larger audience, one beyond DVD and the late-night HBO rerun schedule.

A number of films are being grouped under different focuses and titles to cater to the more discerning viewer. Younger-oriented films are marketed under the “Fierce and Under 25” category. The neo-New Wave Queer films are grouped under the heading “New Gender-Queer Cinema”, as a throwback to the 80s heyday of filmmakers such as Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes and Lizzie Borden. There is also the “Celebrate Queer Vancouver” theme which spotlights local history, and a focus on Asian LGBT cinema. For those festival-goers looking for films with a common theme, these focuses help create de facto ready-made themed viewing packages (although tickets to each of these focuses are sold separately). There’s also a tribute to queer director Bruce LaBruce scheduled for the evening of August 14.

Here are some of the noteworthy titles that are playing the VQFF, but take note that it is by no means an exhaustive list:

To Faro (Mein Freund aus Faro)
The opening night gala, this is a cross between Boys Don’t Cry and Fucking Amal, set in Germany, and tells a coming-of-age tale with a transgender twist.

Grown Up Movie Star
A selection from the Sundance Film Festival, this feature tells the tale of a dysfunctional father-daughter dynamic: he is a disgraced, closeted former NHL star, and she’s dangerously rebellious. This is presented as the Centerpiece Gala and is accompanied by a party at The Helm lounge.

Different from Whom? (Diverso Da Chi?)
The closing night gala presentation is an Italian comedy about the efforts of an openly gay human rights activist and a fiercely conservative politician running together for public office to stop the mayor from erecting a wall to encircle and enclose their beloved city.

Going Down in LA-LA Land
Made by the director of last year’s festival favourite Violet Tendencies, this is a romance between an aspiring actor and a famous but closeted TV sitcom star. Hilarity ensues.

Judas Kiss
Starring Saskatchewan native Charlie David, this is the story of a failed film director returning to his hometown to judge a student filmmaking contest and falls in love with one of the contestants. The plotline alone echoes Thom Fitzgerald’s 1997 masterpiece The Hanging Garden.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan
It may surprise you to learn that there is a secret trade in the country where orphaned youth and young men are acquired for sexual purposes by older businessmen, politicians, and military officials. This bold documentary exposes the hypocrisy of Taliban and post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Close-up: the Chosen Family Portraits at the Museum of Vancouver

I like to think that I spent the summer of 1995 in a Russian country home with my own banya. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, but I came awfully close by spending it reading Anna Karenina as part of my advanced summer reading for an IB English literature class. I was immediately struck by the epitaph Tolstoy uses to open his magnum opus:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Every family may have its own quirks and dysfunctions, which in and of itself doesn’t make a family unhappy. What makes a family unhappy is the inability to live with those quirks and dysfunctions, forgive transgresses, and accept each other wholly and completely. This is especially true for the queer community.

As the LGBT community is comprised, like all other social groups such as immigrants, political and religious communities, from members of all backgrounds, the concept of community must naturally extend to form a de facto family structure. The idea of family must by necessity lend support, guidance and unconditional love to each of its members.

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which will be held from August 11 to 21, 2011, recognized this. In 2010, they organized a large-scale art project called “Chosen Family Portraits”. Led by photographer Sarah Race and journalist Sarah Buchanan, the project is a series of photo essays featuring local members of the queer community posing with those they consider their “chosen family” members. These are not their biological family, nor do these subjects by any means reject their blood ties. It is simply a project calling attention to the fact that a lot of queer youth wouldn’t have survived had it not been for the love and support of those nearest and dearest to them. The labours of this project can be seen from August 3 to September 30, 2011 at the Museum of Vancouver. Chosen Family Portraits will also be exhibited as part of the Queer Arts Festival at the Roundhouse Arts and Recreation Centre, from July 26 to August 13. A select number of portraits will be posted on commemorative streetlight posts throughout the city. The project is supported by the City of Vancouver’s 125th Anniversary, the Arts Partners in Creative Development, and the Government of Canada. Seems this family is getting a lot of love.

The subjects of this project include a number of the Blogger’s close personal friends – gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise – who have gathered the members of their own “chosen families” to pose for the portraits. The one I’m fondest of features a certain bow-tied gentleman, posing with a few of our mutual friends, including his (straight) best friend, who married one of my own long-time friends not too long ago. Everywhere I go, whenever I see the picture on the cover of the festival flier, I stop strangers and tell them about these special people. And I wonder how many of the haters are secretly jealous at how happy our own chosen families are, seeing as we’re all alike. In fact, our families might be just like your own biological kin (the ones who still owe you money for that failed business venture and won’t return your calls).

You will find more information on the exhibit here. There are a few more of the 28 portraits after the jump. (Although I’d love to have participated, the sheet number of my chosen family would have been what they called in old Hollywood movies “crowd scenes” and require a stadium.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy Nation: Ace of Base Concert Review

Vancouver is a town notorious for having some of the least animated concert crowds. A friend went to Beck’s December 2002 performance and even he was disgusted by our collective behaviour, intoning sarcastically, “uh, this is the last song of the night, you can get up and dance, if you want to.”

Thankfully, there was no such sign at the Ace of Base-headlined Outgames Closing Party this past Saturday. There was only The Sign.

The show took place at the Plaza of Nations, located at 750 Pacific Boulevard in downtown Vancouver, across the street from BC Place Stadium, which non-locals will recognize from the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Plaza is an open-air square and concert space, the sort of piazza that one expects for outdoor performances in Europe and the American East Coast but is curiously missing from the West Coast, despite the fact that there’s a lot more land to build. The Plaza is also home to Gossip Nightclub, a fun straight bar that occasionally attracts a good cross-sectional demographic. It’s also the site of the Edgewater Casino and is located directly from the visually stunning Olympic Village housing development across False Creek. The mixture of fiberglass-and-steel structures, offset by the iconic stadium and pleasure cruises and yachts swanning along False Creek, made for a perfect outdoor concert.

The crowd at the Ace of Base show was surprisingly more hetero-friendly than one would expect. Since it’s well-known that nostalgic pop music concerts cater to a predominantly gay audience, it’s always a bit surprising to find throngs of straight girls and a few of their boyfriends at an event like this. Nevertheless, the beautiful thing about Vancouver is that increasingly, people look beyond the “labels” attached to gay-dominant events and bring out locals from different social groups, all in the name of partying. I worked the ticket booth at the event and saw first-hand the crowd heading into the venue. Everyone was in for a good time and the band did not disappoint.