Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dead On: Speechless and The Good Place

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place on NBC.

With many of the new network shows yet to air their first episodes, the 2016 fall television is still young, but comedy has already scored two solid wins: NBC's The Good Place and ABC's Speechless.

The Good Place (NBC) is a fantasy/comedy that stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Eleanor Shellstrop, a perfectly terrible person who, after suffering a premature (and markedly humiliating) death, wakes up in an afterlife deemed to reflect a life lived in self-sacrifice and moral loftiness. As Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers, Damages), the region's designer and current administrator, tells her, only very few human beings ever earn such an agreeable eternity – with the remainder ending up in "the bad place." (Of the bad place, we learn tantalizingly little, except that that's where every artist, all American presidents except Abraham Lincoln, and a shocking disproportion of deceased professional basketball players end up.) For the rest of eternity, Eleanor will live in this posh, upper middle class hereafter, along with 300+ of the world's most morally impeccable individuals. But it quickly becomes apparent that, in this "good place," things aren't quite that simple. For one, Eleanor is clearly there by mistake: some sort of clerical error seems to have swapped her selfish, decidedly unaltruistic life for that of self-sacrificing death-row lawyer. Together with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the bookish philosophy professor picked as her "soulmate," as her unwilling accomplice, Eleanor has to figure out how to keep herself from being discovered or risk being resettled to the "other" place.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Wrong Kind of Easy: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

A scene from Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.

Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is a documentary covering the Beatles’ life as a live band from 1963 to 1966, with interludes on their studio work, and everything about it is easy. Why shouldn’t it be? The Beatles were nothing if not easy – “easy,” as Bob Dylan put it in Chronicles, “to accept.” But there are different kinds of ease. Dylan wrote that the Beatles “offered intimacy and companionship like no other group,” with the implied knowledge that intimacy is one of the scariest things in life, for it contains everything that is possible in human relationships. Intimacy is sometimes looking the other in the face in complete silence and not knowing. Intimacy is risking enough so that, if you lose the other, you might lose yourself. The Beatles’ ease was never the ease of knowing that every landing would be soft, or every revelation safe; theirs was the ease of surrendering, gladly and freely, a part of yourself that you’d never get back. To surrender to something as powerful and lovely as the Beatles, and as laden with promises of sadness and death – that was the intimacy they offered, the terrifying intimacy of lovers.

Though it’s full of screaming and it talks about pressure, Eight Days a Week is the wrong kind of easy. It’s as comfortable as going through high school yearbooks. It is soft, smooth, and shallow – the essence of nostalgia and of anodyne. I want so much more than this movie is giving. But the paradox is that its ease makes it difficult, at least while sitting, as I did, in a packed suburban theater with an adoring audience made mostly of white baby boomers – many of whom, surely, were in the Beatles’ concert audiences as kids – to know what that “so much more” might involve. Because what it does give is clearly useful and heartfelt. What should a film about the Beatles’ touring incarnation, from the arrogant innocence of ’63 to the seared disgust of ‘66, amount to, what should it give? Something you feel only in its absence. Something deeper than this, scarier; some vision taking in both the blissful scream and the bottomless hunger, the vertiginous height and grinding depth of Beatlemania. Something capturing and elaborating glimpses that were caught in previous documentaries: The Beatles Anthology, The Brian Epstein Story, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Something that sniffs out mystery and alienation, that doesn’t seek only a smile, a nod, a surge of warmth, a safe landing. Something not merely familiar, but intimate; something uncanny.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (1987)

A scene from High School (1968), directed by Frederick Wiseman.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields.

When I sat down with d
ocumentary filmmaker director Frederick Wiseman in 1987, he had already directly two dozen films, including Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Meat (1976). and Blind (1987). Since that time, he has released twenty more, including High School II (1994), La danse (2010), National Gallery (2014), and most recently In Jackson Heights (2015).

– Kevin Courrier

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


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pop Up: In Conversation with Peter Tunney

DON'T PANIC by Peter Tunney, at NKPR's IT House x Producers Ball lounge at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

During the recent iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival, celebrated mixed-media artist Peter Tunney was out on the street, flinging pasta at a canvas and making sure it would stick. His inspiration was a box of Barilla orecchiette pasta that he had found on the shelf of the Casa Barilla kitchen on the lower level of IT House x Producers Ball, a five-day experiential destination for media and talent during TIFF. Tunney, who left a lucrative career on Wall Street to create inspirational collages sold through his New York and Miami galleries, had taken up a residency at the pop-up and was busy creating one-off works of art celebrating life as an act of spontaneity. “Life is the stuff of art,” Tunney declared as he worked outdoors on Peter Street, turning heads. “It’s got an enormous amount of energy pulsing through it every day, and I am honoring the moment. I am showing gratitude.” When Tunney says thanks he says it loud. His GRATTITUDE billboards, looming large over New York City where he lives, have an extra T on purpose. “It’s a turbo-charged gratitude,” as he is fond of saying. A double jolt of optimism. As an approach to both life and art making you can’t really fault it. A negative world needs positivity and Tunney, 55, is more than happy to provide it as he explained in the conversation which follows:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Poet: Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree

I have to be in the right mood to listen to Nick Cave. When I’m not, I lose my focus and my attention span turns to mush –  and to appreciate his music requires your full attention. But when my mood is right, listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds is highly rewarding. The band’s new album, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd), recorded during the time Cave’s son Arthur fell off a cliff in July 2015, is mournful and enlightening at the same time. (Skeleton Tree is Nick Cave’s 16th studio release.) Cave turns 59 tomorrow and he seems to be going through life with a degree of cautious optimism on this record rather than wallowing in a swamp of emotion. He’s not trying to deny his feelings of sadness and despair, either.

What we experience on Skeleton Tree is Cave’s deep pain mixed with peaceful introspection. On the eight songs that make up the album, Cave is openly exploring his values with lyrics that are eloquent, honest and passionate. The record sounds more like an arranged a series of poems set to music than to a conventional collection of songs. He often uses metaphor and references only a skilled fan of his work would recognize. Admittedly I’m not that well versed in his work to cross-reference his lyrics to past exploits, but I was struck by Cave’s free expression on Skeleton Tree, much like the openness Joni Mitchell put on display on Blue (Reprise) back in 1971. As she told Cameron Crowe in the July 26, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Cave is similarly revealing his doubts about faith, God and his place in the universe in a “defenseless” manner.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movies For Adults: A Bigger Splash, Dheepan, Maggie’s Plan, Indignation and Hell or High Water

A scene from A Bigger Splash.

The division between films made for adults and those directed at teenagers and young adults seems to be a perpetual reality in cinema today, but it’s even more apparent in the summer when the tent pole superhero movies, sequels and remakes dominate movie screens. Now, I actually go to some of those films, and I quite liked Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, typical of the consistently well-made and smart Marvel Comics adaptations – though admittedly their formulas are becoming tiresome. (Not enough real chances are taken with the characters, unlike in the comics’ source material and the generic long fight scene where our heroes end up bruised but not beaten is becoming cliché. But since A-List talents like Robert Downey Jr., James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender, among others, essay those roles, and since skilled directors like Kenneth Branagh often take on those projects, the films do make a dramatic impact.) But I also have to admit that most people over 50, such as the bulk of the students who take my film courses, have no interest in costumed caped crusaders and the like. They prefer films rife with adult situations, firmly grounded in reality and, ideally, not too sentimental in the end. Here then, are five films made just for their demographic, of varying quality, most of which say something about how we live now. (I could include here Whit Stillman’s period film Love & Friendship, which is based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. It’s certainly dialogue driven but it’s also as arid as Stilman’s other movies (Metropolitan, Barcelona) and saddled with uniformly dull, superficial performances, most notably by the film’s titular star Kate Beckinsale, lamely essaying a scheming, duplicitous widow in late 18th century England.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Marines in Overdrive: Queens for a Year

Jamie Rezanour and Sarah Nicole Deaver in Queens for a Year at Connecticut's Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Queens for a Year, the ironic title of T.D. Mitchell’s new play at Hartford Stage, is a pejorative Marine Corps term for female Marines serving their year-long overseas tour: the idea is that because women are so rare in the service, they get special treatment. The play, set in 2007 and inspired by the case in that year of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, who was murdered by a male Marine she accused of raping her, reveals the true situation. At one point PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) – whose mentor, 2nd Lieutenant Molly Salinas (Vanessa R. Butler), has taken her home to her family to remove them both from the officer Lewis has made a complaint against – explains that all female Marines are relegated by the men in the Corps to one of three categories. Any woman who “fraternizes” willingly or is forced to have sex is a slut; if she refuses and manages somehow to stand her ground, she’s either a dyke or a bitch. If she’s raped and files a complaint, then the brass consider her a problem and look around for reasons to disregard it: her sexual history, her record of using alcohol, the impreciseness of her narrative. (Lewis’ word is doubted because she lost her virginity at fourteen and because she didn’t notice whether the penis that was being shoved down her throat was circumcised or not.) Female officers are no more likely than male ones to stand in her corner: the captain (Jamie Rezanour) Salinas consults for advice warns her to keep her distance from Lewis because associating with her is sure to undermine Molly’s chances for promotion.