Thursday, July 28, 2016

Course Correction: Star Trek Beyond

Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek Beyond.

It may seem strange to say, but Star Trek Beyond is sort of the movie we need right now. In a month that has seen more atrocities committed than most of us can stomach, and the needless shooting of yet another black citizen in the U.S. just this week (and then the trailer, that almost felt like a response, for a Marvel Netflix series about an invincible black man), it’s encouraging to see that even our summer blockbusters have the good taste to be about unity, harmony, and hope. Even in the guise of fluffy escapism, Beyond is one of the pieces of entertainment out there right now that helps us address the problems we’re battling in the real world – the problems that prompted Roddenberry to create the brand in the first place. In that sense, Beyond feels the most like real Star Trek of any of these "nuTrek" films – and that also makes it the best of them, too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lovesick Movie: I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light.

Hank Williams was born in a two-room cabin in Mount Olive, Alabama in 1923. He was an over-active child whose enthusiasm for constant play was subdued by the gift of a guitar at the age of seven. The cheap instrument was from his mother and could be considered a blessing and a curse for the young boy who was one restless soul. Williams took lessons from a black street singer by the name of Teetot who taught him a few blues licks and how to sing. He also learned how to drink and to quell his hyperactive soul with alcohol, in between writing songs. By the time he was 21 years old he had his own band, his own radio show and a growing audience. Hank Williams sang about God, love and loss, and having a good time, which was quite the appeal in post-war America. His sound was a mix of country, swing and the earliest form of rockabilly that appealed to the teens. As a man he was charming but reckless with his health and his two wives. He died young while riding in the back seat of one his prized Cadillacs. It’s the kind of stuff that would make a great movie – unfortunately that movie isn’t I Saw the Light, starring Tom Hiddleston as Williams.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rules of Engagement: Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky

Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is the kind of procedural thriller that clears your head while simultaneously keeping you in breathless suspense. Guy Hibbert's compelling script with its taut intelligence gets into a great subject here: drone warfare. What Eye in the Sky sets out to unravel with sharp slivers of nuance is the moral ambivalence felt by those who execute high-tech strikes against Islamic extremists. Operating from a distance and using drone aircraft and sophisticated camera surveillance, pilots, soldiers and politicians get pulled into the queasy voyeurism of a video battleground. They may be in complete control of the hardware to reduce the collateral damage of innocent human life, but we see that people will always unwittingly stray into the target area. Eye in the Sky skillfully maps out their dramatic strategy, while implicating us as witnesses, but the picture is about our inability to control human behaviour  no matter how sophisticated the technology is. Unlike Hood's earlier Rendition (2007), which focused on the CIA's practice of extraordinary rendition, Eye in the Sky doesn't craft its tale so that every little detail falls neatly into place. Rendition was so concerned about being on the right side of every issue that the audience barely had to break a sweat picking sides. By the end, Eye in the Sky brings comfort and certainty to no one.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Hither and Yon: Theatre Round-Up

The Cast of Goodspeed's Bye Bye Birdie. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

This piece contains reviews of Bye Bye Birdie (Goodspeed Opera House), Alice in Wonderland (Shaw Festival), The Stone Witch (Berkshire Theatre Group), and Romance Novels for Dummies (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

Framed by Daniel Brodie’s nostalgic projections that reminds us what we saw on TV in 1960, the revival of Bye Bye Birdie at the Goodspeed Opera House is a little uneven but quite enjoyable, and I don’t think that the director, Jenn Thompson, can be faulted for most of the problems. Time hasn’t been kind to Michael Stewart’s book, a satirical take on the pop-cultural phenomenon of Elvis Presley and his imitators that felt fresh as the country cartwheeled into the sixties and for at least a few years thereafter. Stewart was inspired by Presley’s 1957 army induction. When Birdie is drafted, Rosie, the quick-witted secretary to his combination manager-songwriter Albert Peterson, comes up with the idea of picking one teenage girl from the legion of Conrad’s fans to receive a goodbye kiss from him on The Ed Sullivan Show, guaranteeing that the song with which he serenades her, “One Last Kiss,” will become a big enough hit to bankroll Albert’s departure from the music business and enable him to marry Rosie – a fiancĂ©e almost as long-suffering as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls – and realize his original dream to become an English teacher. The adolescent they pick at random, Kim McAfee, has just become pinned to her jittery boy friend, Hugo Peabody. Conrad’s descent upon her small Ohio town, Sweet Apple, doesn’t just unnerve Hugo; it puts all of the teenagers into a state of hormonal hysteria. Albert’s possessive mother, Mae, who views Rosie as competition, arrives on the scene, too, to block her marital plans.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 1): Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. (Photo: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Since Ken Burns adapted David McCullough's book, The Great Bridge, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, to an Academy Award winning Brooklyn Bridge (1981), he has produced and directed numerous masterful feature length documentaries for PBS. His signature trademarks are a combination of still photos, archival film footage, unseen actors reading the words of historical characters, apt American music and an array of historians, journalists and (if possible) surviving contemporaries who offer compelling anecdotes and insights into the era, an issue and the characters. Burns avoids dramatic re-enactments. His oeuvre includes The Statue of Liberty (1985), the iconic The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997), Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The Central Park Five (2013). Most recently PBS has aired Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015), a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of cancer, the one film Burns did not direct because he was so personally connected to the subject: his mother died of cancer when he was a young boy. In 2016, he returned to directing and producing the thrilling Jackie Robinson that excelled in weaving together sport, politics and race.

It is, however, Burns’ 2014 mammoth seven-part, fourteen-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on the private and public lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, that is the one I will be discussing today – focusing mostly on the second generation of Roosevelts. As with many of the films cited above, Burns collaborated with biographer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the elegant and accessible script and is one of the historians – along with Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and journalist George Will – who offers trenchant insights. Actor Peter Coyote won an Emmy award for his compelling narration. The stellar cast of actors’ voices include Meryl Streep for Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Giamatti for Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann for FDR, an astute choice since he persuasively played the role in the television series Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977).

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Sophomore Slump: Checking In on UnREAL

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in UnREAL.

At the end of last summer I wrote about three promising new seriesUnREAL, Mr. Robot, and Deutschland 83 – that appeared on television screens over the summer of 2015. One year later, the travails of the first two (Deutschland’s future is uncertain, but a follow-up series probably won’t appear for some time, if at all) offer some insights into how shows can struggle to build on the success of a good first season.

UnREAL, in particular, has caused me to think about a recent suggestion by New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik that “shows get backlash in [Season 2] for flaws that were there in [Season 1] but de-emphasized” because of the thrill felt by critics and audiences alike when they encounter a new show with a unique perspective. It’s a bit of a special case, but True Detective serves as a good example: the first season of HBO’s (now possibly defunct ) anthology crime series met with hysterical raves from just about everyone, except for a few dissenters, which included Critics at Large's Phil Dyess-Nugent. However, those dissenters were vindicated with the advent of Season 2, which featured a new cast and had new directors behind the camera. The main constant was creator Nic Pizzolatto, whose overblown, self-important writing had been a major, if largely unnoticed, flaw from the beginning. With the absence of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to make his dialogue work, or director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction, the flaws with Pizzolatto’s show became glaringly apparent.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sing Street: Junior Musical

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street.

Sing Street is the third of the Irish writer-director John Carney’s low-key urban musicals, following Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). Like Once, it’s set in Dublin (Begin Again took place all over New York), but for the first time Carney’s focus is teenage musicians rather than adult ones. The period is the mid-eighties. His hero, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Perlo), is a fifteen-year-old whose parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) shift him to a Christian Brothers free state school as an economic measure when they’re beset with financial woes. The usual rocky transition to a new environment for a sensitive kid trying to find himself is exacerbated by a bully named Barry (Ian Kenny) who singles Conor out for special attention, but Conor eventually figures out how to deal with him, and as it proceeds the movie treats him with unexpected affection. (His father is a brute.) The bigger bully is the headmaster, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), who humiliates Conor when he wears brown shoes rather than the requisite black ones to school and protests that a new pair isn’t in her parents’ budget, and wallops him when he comes to school wearing make-up – part of his new glam-rock look. The band Conor and his friend Eamon (Mark McKenna) start – Conor plays guitar, Eamon (who’s skillful on several instruments) on bass, with three other kids (Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton and Karl Rice) backing them up – winds up as partly a rebellion against Brother Baxter’s tyranny and the deadly atmosphere of Synge Street School. But Sing Street isn’t really about the power of music to stave off the workaday misery of a Dublin existence, like The Commitments. The band, which they dub Sing Street, begins as a romantic gesture. Conor is entranced by a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who has quit school with the hope of pursuing a modeling career in London and hangs out in the meantime outside a home for girls across from Synge Street – her digs since her dad is dead and her bipolar mother is in and out of psychiatric institutions. To get Raphina’s attention, Conor claims to be in a band and invites her to appear in their videos. Then he has to get an actual band together and shoot an actual video, which neither he nor Eamon knows the first thing about. The loose, seat-of-their-pants approach of the boys – including Conor’s first new friend at the school, nervy Darren (Ben Carolan), who declares himself their manager – is part of the movie’s charm.