Monday, March 27, 2017

Social Problem Plays: The Price and Sweat

Mark Ruffalo and Jessica Hecht in The Price at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Arthur Miller’s plays may have been inspired by Ibsen’s realist dramas, but he rarely seemed able to get at the great unresolvables beneath their well-made social-problem surface. They creak and they clang as the banalities slide into the grooves his dramaturgy has made for them – even when the ideas themselves haven’t always been thought through. (After all these years and God knows how many productions, I’m still not sure exactly what’s being indicted in Death of a Salesman, and, as for The Crucible, however much one might deplore HUAC and the blacklist, it wasn’t much like the Salem witch hunts. For one thing, as Elia Kazan’s wife Molly Day Thacher pointed out in a famous letter to Miller, there actually were Communists in show business.)

The Price, Miller’s last major play, first produced on Broadway in 1968 and currently in revival by the Roundabout Theatre, is particularly clunky. Two brothers meet in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone where Victor, the younger, took care of their father in the twilight years that followed the stock market crash and the death of his wife – two disasters from which, according to Vic, the old man never recovered. A talented scientist, Vic sacrificed his dreams of a research career and joined the police force in order to support him while his brother Walter went to medical school and on to a distinguished and affluent career. Now the building is being torn down and Victor is hoping to secure a good price for the antique furniture from an appraiser whose name he found in the phone book. He’s tried to contact his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade and a half and who hasn’t answered his calls. Just as he’s about to make a deal with the appraiser, Solomon, who’s something of an antique himself, Walter shows up in time for the first-act curtain, and the two brothers – as well as Victor’s wife Esther – learn, as the ten-ton ironies fall about the play’s title, just how high a price we pay for the choices we make in our youth. The second act of the play is mostly a long pitched battle between the estranged brothers, who spell each other with revelations and corresponding accusations. By the time the play is over, it’s long since turned into a very slow tennis match with hammers for rackets.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life, and Death, with Archie: The CW's Riverdale

Cole Sprouse (as Jughead Jones) and K.J. Apa (as Archie Andrews) in Riverdale on The CW.

 This review contains some spoilers for The CW's Riverdale
The Archie comics of my childhood were comfort food: safe, unchallenging and so predictably consistent that issues could recycle old stories practically word-for-word without disappointing. Without any pretence of continuity, one story would have Betty and Veronica be inseparable BFFs and in another "arch" rivals (terrible pun intended). At one point, my sister and I tried to catalogue how many individual Archie comics we had, and they numbered over a thousand. Thumbing through them now (they still sit in several boxes in my parents' basement), every story is somehow both familiar and forgettable at the same time – which, as I recall, was precisely their appeal. In recent years, the comic has taken some decisive steps towards reinventing the 76-year-old franchise, largely under the helm of its new Chief Creative Officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Aguirre-Sacasa was tapped for the role after the critical and popular success of his "for mature readers only" series Afterlife with Archie, which placed Archie and the gang into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled Riverdale. These firm steps into the 21st century notwithstanding, for me the world of Archie Andrews remains the one I was brought up on: a timeless, largely consequence-free universe with cheerleaders, chocolate malts and burgers, 50s-era morality, and innocent adolescent love triangles. At least that was the case until Riverdale, The CW's new teen drama.

Riverdale premiered at the end of January, but I confess it took me until this past week to finally check it out, my curiosity finally getting the better of me after I discovered that the broadcast series was streaming on Netflix here in Canada. (Canadians can view the first half of the season there, with new episodes appearing weekly.) Created by Aguirre-Sacasa himself (who, in addition to his work in comics, has also penned episodes of Glee and Big Love, as well as being one of the credited screenwriters for 2013's Carrie remake), the new series takes Riverdale High's familiar characters (Archie, the typical American teen; Jughead, his best pal; Betty, the sweet girl next door; Veronica, the spoiled rich girl) and throws them headlong into a Riverdale that has more in common with Veronica Mars's Neptune, California, than the town I'd grown to love as a kid. If you, like me, have only sugar-coated memories of idyllic, sunny suburban Riverdale, what you'll find on Riverdale will likely shock you – but stick around, because that shock with quickly turn into a unique, multi-textured delight.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Podcast: Interview with John Sayles (1983)

Linda Griffiths (left) and Jane Hallaren in John Sayles' Lianna (1983).

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. In 1983, one of those guests was American independent filmmaker and screenwriter John Sayles.

When I sat down with Sayles in 1983, Lianna (starring Canadian actor and playwright Linda Griffiths) had just been released. Lianna was the second film Sayles directed, his follow up to his critically acclaimed debut, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980). Since 1983, Sayles has directed sixteen features, including Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996), Sunshine State (2002), and most recently Go for Sisters (2013).

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with John Sayles as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.


Friday, March 24, 2017

The Business of a Woman's Life – Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

 Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

My story begins, dear reader, with a description of a not-so-distant journey that took me through the sky to the isle of Manhattan, and ultimately inside the workings of a most extraordinary intellect. The destination was that seat of high repute and learning, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. I entered through its glassy doors off Madison Avenue as the autumnal sky above streaked plum and apricot, the colours dancing rich and vibrant on the shadowy walls. After perusing the rare gilt-edged books and illuminated manuscripts lining what had once been banker J.P. Morgan's private library, I ascended to the second storey aboard a chrome elevator. Turning right, I spied a treasure of a different stripe, a simple cotton and wool dress, patterned over with the petals of pale blue flowers. It guarded the entrance of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, a unique collaboration between the Morgan and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in England. Commemorating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth in 1816, the intimate exhibition closed in January, but not without creating a lasting impression.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Man vs. Nature – Kong: Skull Island

Tian Jing, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, and Thomas Mann in Kong: Skull Island.

I had one expectation going into Kong: Skull Island, and it was a fervent hope that the film wouldn’t cleave to the story we’ve all already seen more times than we can count. I went in ready to condemn the film if any of the following were depicted: the big ape and the titular island become separate entities; the humans want to capture or control him in any way; or his murderous rage is soothed by his fascination with a beautiful blonde ingenue. I’m pleased to report that Skull Island contains none of those story beats, and is distinct enough from all the other iterations of the King Kong story to justify its own existence.

But if it isn’t any of those things, then what the hell is Skull Island, exactly? This is a movie about King Kong, isn’t it?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In God’s Country: The Joshua Tree by U2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted images of the inner-vinyl labels of side one and side two of U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (Island). It was my way of marking the 30th anniversary of the release of one my prized albums. And I don’t mean compact disc either. This was a vinyl pressing, gatefold jacket and lyrics insert edition as it was intended on March 9th, 1987. I was thirty-years younger and listening to jazz exclusively, since pop music and rock 'n' roll in general wasn’t engaging my ears at the time. But U2 was the exception. I was immediately impressed when they launched in Canada in 1980 thanks to the support of CFNY radio and The New Music television program, long time sources of new groups in the post-punk age of my generation. By posting the inner-label images on my Facebook page, I wanted to remember the record as a two-sided experience where you centered your focus to the rotation of the long-play album and flipped it to side two. In those days, music was a little more precious in its physical form. Digital files are simply no match for the texture and engagement in a record. To those pundits who fail to see the value in “things” such as vinyl albums, you’re way off the mark and rude to think that “things” are worthless, backdated forms of media.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Off the Shelf: Lunch with Charles (2001)

Theresa Lee and Nicholas Lea in Lunch with Charles.

Lunch with Charles is a relaxed and genial romantic comedy about a number of couples who begin to feel dislocated and dissatisfied with the lives and partners they've chosen. Making his feature film debut, writer-director Michael Parker sets in motion a charmingly low-key Feydeau-style farce that's sprinkled with granola and cured in heady coastal air. Set in British Columbia, a province most easterners wrongly assume to be catatonically relaxed, Lunch with Charles examines with a droll undercurrent a number of partners who fear they've lost the itch for love, but turn out to be anything but sedate. The movie puts these mismatched duos, who are from different cultures as well as different walks of life, on a collision course that leads them to question the choices they've made in their lives.