Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Always Bet on Red: Amazon's Comrade Detective

Corneliu Ulici and Florin Piersic Jr. in Comrade Detective.

"You don't become a good Communist by going to meetings or memorizing the manifesto. You do it on the streets. You do it with your fists. The rest is bullshit..."
This is how we are introduced to Detective Gregor Anghel, one of Bucharest PD's finest and the man at the centre of Amazon's mind-bending new buddy-cop satire, Comrade Detective. Hardened by the streets, cigarette in hand and draped in a leather jacket, Anghel is a cop who plays by his own rules – at least when he's not quoting from The Communist Manifesto or testing his tactics against the simple mantra: "What would Lenin do?" (before concluding firmly: "Lenin would fuck him up!").

Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (the team behind NBC's short-lived Animal Practice in 2012, and currently working together on Andrew Dice Clay's Dice on Showtime), Comrade Detective begins straightforwardly enough, with Channing Tatum and Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson sitting side by side in a screening room, Siskel & Ebert-style. Tatum flashes a gorgeous smile and together with Ronson they set up what we are about to view: a Communist-era Romanian television series from the '80s, dredged up from the archives, re-mastered, dubbed into English and now ready for its Western debut. Of course, none of that – except for the dubbing – is true. But it is begging to be believed.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bad Behavior: The Treatment, Gloria, Ink

Aisling Loftus in The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

London’s Almeida Theatre revived Martin Crimp’s 1993 play The Treatment in late spring, and I was lucky enough to catch it before it closed. Crimp’s plays are unfamiliar to North Americans, but this is the work of a very gifted playwright – an absurdist comedy roughly in the style of Harold Pinter, but funnier and more sly. Lyndsey Turner’s first-rate production showcased those qualities. In New York City, a young woman named Anne (Aisling Loftus) answers an ad to tell her story to a husband-and-wife producing team (Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma) who are on the lookout for promising film properties. As Anne relates a bizarre tale of a husband who locked her in their apartment, tied her to a chair and gagged her, Jennifer, the female half of the team, adds her own commentary, subtly changing the story to make it more camera-worthy. As the project acquires a screenwriter (Ian Gelder) and a star (Gary Beadle), it undergoes more alterations. Everyone has his or her own take on Anne’s story, including the young intern (Ellora Torchia) in the production company office who winds up playing the leading role in the movie. Eventually we realize that everyone – including Anne – is operating in an entirely self-serving mode, except, ironically, for her notorious husband Simon (Matthew Needham), who is crazy and violent but not toward her, and who is devoted to protecting her from a crazy, violent world. There are no reliable versions of the narrative; everything’s up for grabs, including the truth about whether Anne or Simon is the controlling figure in their marriage. Turner had an excellent cast, including Ben Onwukwe as a blind cab driver and Hara Yannas, doubling as a waitress and a madwoman; Varma, memorable as Ann in the Simon Godwin’s production of Man and Superman at the National, was the standout.

Ellie Kendrick and Colin Morgan in Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Hampstead Theatre’s early-summer show was Gloria, by the American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who made a splash here and abroad with An Octoroon. Gloria, first produced on these shores at the Vineyard Theatre, is a satirical take on the New York publishing world. The first act is set in the editorial offices of a once-trendy magazine struggling to ride the vicissitudes of journalism in the age of the internet. Everyone we meet is miserable, the thirtysomethings because they’ve hung out here too long and feel their lives have gone nowhere, the twentysomethings because they’re terrified of turning into the thirtysomethings. Jacobs-Jenkins has a great ear for the way articulate, entitled, expensively educated young people sound when they’re motivated by ambition and envy; Gloria has the funniest nasty dialogue I’ve heard in an American play since Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar – and I think it’s a better play. The first act is perfect and has a hilarious shock curtain. The second act is very entertaining but its second scene, at a West Coast studio, is a bit of a letdown; the playwright’s depiction of narcissism in Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as original as his portrayal of narcissism in Manhattan. Still, act two includes one scene that should become a classic, in which two former employees of the magazine who are writing memoirs jockey for control over how they’re depicted in each other’s books. The Hampstead gave Gloria a typically spiffy and sharp-witted production, directed by Michael Longhurst, with three men (Colin Morgan, Bayo Gbadamosi and Bo Poraj) and three women (Kae Alexander, Ellie Kendrick and Sian Clifford) covering the thirteen roles. The only actor who seemed out of her league was Alexander, though her performance improved in the movie-studio section. 

Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in Ink at the Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Ink, which followed The Treatment into the Almeida and is bound for the West End in the fall, is James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of The Sun in London in 1969 and the invention of modern populist journalism. Under Rupert Goold’s direction, with a spectacular set by Bunny Christie and gorgeous lighting by Neil Austin, it’s a hell of a show; I saw it on the worst night of London’s surprise June heat wave, without benefit of air conditioning, and I was riveted from start to finish. But the play underneath all of that mesmerizing professionalism is thin and gets thinner as the evening wears on. The first act, which covers the efforts of the brash new editor, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) to refurbish the paper and make it relevant to a late-twentieth-century public, has some of the wit and bravado of the early scenes in Citizen Kane. After intermission, though, things get serious. Having entertained us thoroughly with the cockiness and nerve of Lamb and his team, Graham needs to find a way to indicate what we all knew going in: that Murdoch’s vision of a more democratic media led to Fox News and Donald Trump. But Graham doesn’t have the wherewithal for material that wants to go deep. (I was not among the many fans of his political play This House, which got a production at the National.) First he gets mired in melodrama and then the tone of the play becomes polemical. It loses its shape, and by the end you’re not sure what Graham intended by making Lamb and not Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) the protagonist. Presumably at some point in the process he had it in his mind to make Ink about Lamb’s Faustian bargain, but Murdoch is no Mephistopheles; though he gives Lamb carte blanche to go to any lengths to make The Sun more popular than The Daily Mirror, he actually balks at some of his editor’s tactics. Coyle and especially Carvel are superb, and I wouldn’t change a single member of the supporting cast.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Recent Nordic Noir in Print and Television, Part Two: Finland

Ville Virtanen in a scene from the Finnish television series Bordertown, currently available on Netflix.

Part One of this piece, which looked at recent Icelandic work, was published here on August 8.

Readers of Nordic Noir may not have had much exposure to Finnish authors writing in the genre. This may owe in part to the lack of English translations but the oversight is gradually being remedied. Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish writer whom I have recently encountered and based on her latest, The Exiled, the third book in her series about Anna Fekete, and her previous foray, The Defenceless (both published by Orenda Books in 2016 and 2015), she is a writer who will likely acquire a larger profile. I have not yet been able to access her debut novel, The Hummingbird.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Lighter Company at Barrington Stage

Aaron Tveit (right) and the cast of Company at Barrington Stage. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

To say that a production of a Stephen Sondheim musical treats the material like sketch comedy would normally constitute an insult towards that production and its creative team. However, in the case of Barrington Stage’s version of Company (1970), which stars Aaron Tveit as the only single man among his group of married couples, it’s a savvy move that undercuts the over-the-top reverence that threatens to turn this flawed but often enjoyable show into an unbearable slog. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Neglected Gem #105: Made for Each Other (1971)

Joseph Bologna, Renée Taylor, and Paul Sorvino in Made for Each Other (1971).

THEDA: Read Melanie Klein. They say Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis . . . Well, Melanie Klein is the mother.
VITO: And who are you, the cousin?
– Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, It Had to Be You (1981).
When Joseph Bologna died this week at the age of eighty-two, the obit writers quite reasonably showcased his uproarious performance as King Kaiser, the TV comedy star modeled on Sid Caesar in the 1982 movie My Favorite Year. But though Bologna was a prolific character actor with a long string of credits, much of his energy went toward the writing he did with his wife Renée Taylor for the theatre, movies and TV, beginning with the comedy Lovers and Other Strangers in 1968. That play, a series of sketches on the relationships between women and men, was reconceived as a movie two years later. In the film, the central event around which the action coheres is the wedding of a young couple (Bonnie Bedelia and Michael Brandon) who have, unbeknownst to their traditionalist parents, been living together for more than a year but are now experiencing eleventh-hour trepidation about tying the knot. It’s an entertaining picture with a remarkable cast – Gig Young, Bob Dishy, Richard Castellano, Bea Arthur, Anne Meara, Diane Keaton, Harry Guardino, Cloris Leachman, Marion Hailey and Joseph Hindy play the other characters – and it was the only script Bologna and Taylor produced that garnered much attention. Made for Each Other, about the Loony Tunes courtship of a pair of chronic losers and misfits, which they wrote and starred in the following year, didn’t make it onto many people’s radar in 1971 and it’s been forgotten, but I think it’s amazing – one of the few great comedies of its era. (You can view it complete on YouTube.)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nuclear Waste: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde.

David Leitch is uncredited as co-director of John Wick, when in fact both he and Chad Stahelski helmed the film. Leitch, a career stunt man with an extremely impressive resume (name an action blockbuster between 1998 and now; he was probably involved), was content to offer his action expertise on the Keanu Reeves sleeper hit while Stahelski – himself a stunt man-cum-filmmaker – handled most of the, you know, filmmaking. Now that I’ve seen Atomic Blonde, which Leitch directed by himself, it’s clear which half of that cinematic partnership provided the storytelling skill that made John Wick such a quality film. Hint: it was the other guy. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Purveyor of Thresholds: Why Scott Walker Is God


"See the man with the stage fright
Just standin' up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again."
                                  – from "Stage Fright" by Robbie Robertson
Author Barney Hoskyns has rightly observed that though The Band’s leader Robbie Robertson wrote this 1970 song ostensibly about Bob Dylan, who had stopped touring live in the late '60s, it could also have been about the shy Robertson himself, who had experienced stage fright the year before during The Band’s first live concert. Naturally it could also be about any emblematic singer who has experienced what Levon Helm called “the terror of performing” or any person who, as William Ruhlmann once put it, has discovered “the pitfalls of fortune and fame.” And as the song itself declared so openly, “Since that day he ain’t been the same,” largely as a result of the personal price he had to pay for being able to “sing like a bird.”

But given the year, 1970, and given Scott Walker’s own notoriously famous stage fright (which was known to be almost paralyzing), I’ve always felt that the song especially captured some the core dilemma eating away at Walker himself. Like Dylan, who rejected both the trappings and the demands of celebrity after flying too high and too fast in the '60s, not to mention mangling his motorcycle, Walker also withdrew from the public eye after his own Icarus-like trauma: the discouragement he felt after his first four post-Walker Brothers solo records failed to meet his own exacting (and probably unattainable) expectations.