Friday, October 28, 2016

Let's Get Small: Netflix's Easy

Malin Akerman and Orlando Bloom in Easy.

The Netflix series Easy was created by the independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), who also directed, produced, and edited it, and is the sole writer credited on each of its eight half-hour episodes. It’s an anthology series set in Chicago, a collection of self-contained stories about the relationship and career problems of a couple dozen characters, some of whom make fleeting appearances in one episode but may return play a more prominent role in another. Many of the characters are involved in some kind of creative work, from acting or writing to setting up an illegal dare one say, “indie” brewery. And most of them are in their twenties or thirties and either just getting the hang of adult life or struggling with the conflict between reaping the rewards of committing to a long-term relationship or starting a family and settling into a rut and closing off other unexplored possibilities. (There are also a few older characters who are weighed down by regrets and blown chances: Jane Adams as an aging actress and Marc Maron as an autobiographical cartoonist who’s one part Robert Crumb to two parts Marc Maron.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Threequel Thursday – The Exorcist III & A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

Ed Flanders and George C. Scott in The Exorcist III (1990).

The Halloween movie season is, for me, as much about discovering new favourites as revisiting old ones. Classics like Suspiria, Poltergeist, Halloween, and Evil Dead 2 are like friends I welcome back each year with open arms and a beaming heart, and I’m ever eager to add new friends to that group. That’s why I make time every October to fill in the gaps in my horror repertoire that represent the sequels, prequels, and other continuations of movies I already know and love. Over time I’d heard many good things about two such cinematic hellspawns, which both happened to be the third entry (aka “threequel”) in a series that suffered from a sub-par sequel: The Exorcist III (1990) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Love Me T.O.: In Conversation with Author Piers Hemmingsen

A Beatles' press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens before they took the stage on Aug. 17, 1965. (Photo: John Rowlands)

Canadian Beatles authority Piers Hemmingsen served as guest curator on the multimedia BEATLES 50 T.O. exhibition, and this Saturday he will give a talk at Toronto's Market Gallery, where the show continues until Nov. 12, explaining his role and the role Canada played in making the Fabs famous in North America. The author of the recently self-published book, The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania!, Hemmingsen is a retired computer programmer who spent the last seven years investigating the topic. He knows what he's talking about.

His sizeable tome -- an expansive 468 pages -- grafts little-known fact to revealing interviews with such important early Beatles figures as Paul White, the former Capitol Records Canada singles promoter who in 1963 was the first to release a Beatles' record – "Love Me Do" – in North America. Canadians reacted.

More than 100,000 eventually signed on to join the Toronto edition of a Beatles fan club that ended up being the biggest of its kind in the world. The U.S. had nothing comparable. When the Beatles touched down in New York in February 1964 for the first of three Ed Sullivan appearances, Toronto sent down two of its teenagers to handle the deluge of fan mail. Beatlemania had erupted on the continent and Canada helped make it happen, ushering in the pop-centred British Invasion which would come to shape the 1960s.

Those sparks flew for the first time over 50 years ago with Toronto, or T.O. as it is familiarly known, emerging as the North American city where the Beatles played the most during their touring years. Their last concert in Canada took place at Maple Leaf Gardens, the city's major hockey arena, in 1966. That transitional year forms the focus of When the Beatles Rocked Toronto whose displays of rare Beatles memorabilia, including the infamous "butcher" album cover, Hemmingsen organized, borrowing from public and private archives across the country as well as his own collection.

"The Beatles’ story is a great story. They were never happy to live with what they had already recorded and they always strived to improve with each new release," says Hemmingsen during a conversation which took place earlier this week in Toronto. "There was a start and an end, just like life. Their messages of love and peace are universal messages that will reverberate for a long time to come."

Here's more of that conversation:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Extreme Home Makeover – The Amityville Horrors, Old and New

James Brolin and Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror (1979).

I’m going to open with a confession: despite moonlighting as a film and television critic, I have a notoriously bad memory for film and television. Friends and coworkers regularly quote movies and TV shows to me, often ones I’ve seen and loved, and I respond with a blank stare. I used to try to maintain my cultured façade by discreetly Googling the reference in question but I’ve given up on that as I’ve gotten older (… mostly because sometimes I get caught). My abysmally bad memory is how I wound up writing this piece. My colleague Justin suggested I do a Critic’s Crypt piece: maybe I could compare an original with a remake. The horror genre is rife with remakes! So I said, “Sure! I’ll write on The Amityville Horror! I love that movie.”

Upon re-watching “that movie,” I’ve recognized that I don’t actually love it. Rather, I fell into the trap of misremembering a classic – and it cost me five hours of my life. Let this be a lesson.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Minimalists: New Plays by Simon Stephens and Steve Martin, and Camelot in Westport

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Simon Stephens' Heisenberg, at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In his two-hander Heisenberg, Simon Stephens sets out to provide a dramatic illustration of Heisenberg’s principle that the more precisely you measure an object, the more it eludes your attempts. His guinea pigs are Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a seventy-five-year-old Irish butcher and lifelong bachelor residing in London, and Georgie Burns (Mary Louise Parker), a transplanted American thirty-three years his junior who approaches him in the street, a complete stranger, and kisses him on the neck – an action that occurs just before the play begins. Georgie explains that from behind Alex looked so much like her recently deceased husband that she couldn’t help herself; she also identifies herself as a waitress at London’s legendary restaurant Ottolenghi. In their second encounter, at his shop, she recants, insisting that everything she’s told him was a lie. Now she says that she works at a receptionist in an elementary school, that her husband left her and their son has emigrated to America, cutting off all contact with her. After Georgie and Alex become lovers, she asks him for money to look for her son in Hackensack, his last known location. Did she decide to try to get money out of Alex after sleeping with him, or was he a mark she targeted from the outset?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

New Harlem Renaissance: Marvel's Luke Cage

Mike Colter as Luke Cage, in Marvel's Luke Cage on Netflix.

Five months have passed since the events of the first season of Jessica Jones, and the scene has now shifted uptown from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem, where Luke Cage (Mike Colter, The Good Wife) has been keeping to himself, working two minimum-wage jobs and living anonymously above a Chinese restaurant. He has revealed his abilities to 'Pop' Henry (Frankie Fraison), a paternal figure who runs a barbershop where Cage works, but otherwise is largely content to sweep hair and wash dishes. All that changes when a kid from the shop, also under Pop's wing, gets caught up in some dirty business with local drug dealer and club owner, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards). Cage stops laying in the cut and steps – hoodie, bulletproof skin and all – on to the streets. There is a lot that is great about Luke Cage, even more that is very good, and, unfortunately much that is ultimately disappointing.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #46 (Podcast): Robert Altman (1983)

David Alan Grier, Matthew Modine and Michael Wright in Robert Altman's Streamers (1983).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM 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 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g., Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, featured interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Louis Malle) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. One of those interviews was with filmmaker Robert Altman, who I sat down with in 1983 to speak about his new film, Streamers.

The films of Robert Altman's films constantly had the buzz of Vietnam behind them, whatever their explicit subject matter e.g. MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975) – but Streamers, a screen adaptation of David Rabe's play of the same name, was Altman's first film to deal directly with the conflict. Though Streamers isn't among Altman's best movies, his thoughts about the project and about the Vietnam conflict were fascinating.

– Kevin Courrier.

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