Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Serial and the New Podcast Revolution

Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed (centre, top and bottom)

In radio and podcasting circles, the rather geeky milieu that I travel in, there is a bit of thing happening. It's a podcast called Serial, which follows the real-life case of the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999, and the arrest and imprisonment of her alleged killer, ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer of Serial, was approached by the family of the imprisoned man to look into the conviction. We follow Koenig as she picks apart the case. Koenig claims to not know where it will end. Is an innocent man in jail for a crime he didn't commit? Is the real killer still on the loose? Tune in, or rather, subscribe to Serial, and find out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Glass Cannon: David Ayer’s Fury


Five men operate an M4 Sherman tank in the autumn of World War II, struggling to keep themselves and each other alive. Gordo (Michael Peña), Bible (Shia LaBoeuf), Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and their commander Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) lose their front gunner, and he is replaced by the squeaky-clean Norman (Logan Lerman), who must abandon his naïve sense of morality if he is to survive with the others. This is the setup for Fury, directed by David Ayer, which doesn’t do much of anything other than make a great deal of noise, but it does so with expertise and intensity.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Double Stoppard: India Ink and The Real Thing

Rosemary Harris, Bhavesh Patel and Romola Garai in Indian Ink  (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Indian Ink is one of the few plays by the staggeringly prolific Tom Stoppard that never made it to New York in the aftermath of its West End run, so the Roundabout Theatre’s decision to mount it in its smallest (off-Broadway space), the Laura Pels Theatre, is a happy one for theatregoers. I can’t think why it didn’t open in Manhattan in the nineties (it was staged in London in 1995), especially since Arcadia, written two years earlier, was so successful there. Perhaps potential producers thought they were too similar – though that’s not generally a reason for withholding a new play that follows a well-received one. (Quite the opposite.) In Arcadia a pair of contemporary academics try to determine the events that occurred on an English country estate in 1809 where Lord Byron may or may not have been one of the house guests, while we see what really happened, the truth that the scholars can only guess at. In Indian Ink, an English professor named Eldon Pike annotates a new edition of the work of a poet, Flora Crewe, long dead, whose younger sister Eleanor – now an old woman – constitutes her only remaining family. Hopeful about following up with a biography, he searches for one of three paintings of his subject, two of them nudes, two of them done during the few months she spent in India, mostly in Jummapur. Among the people he contacts, aside from Eleanor, are the son of the Indian painter, Nirad Das, whom Flora befriended and posed for, and the son of the local Rajah who invited her to visit him in the course of her stay. Eleanor doesn’t approve of Pike’s long-term project and in her quiet way does what she can to quietly thwart his research. “Biography,” she argues, “is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” And Stoppard confirms her analysis by – as in Arcadia – showing us what really happened to Flora in India, in a series of flashbacks that place one fragment of information on top of another until, gradually, we see it all. (We also discover chapters in Eleanor’s life that we hadn’t suspected, and that explain how she began as a Bohemian, like her sister, and metamorphosed into a conservative colonial.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Opposition to Hitler

The compelling 1959 German film Die Brucke (The Bridge) tells the useless courage of seven German teenagers hastily conscripted into the Nazi army and assigned the responsibility of defending an old stone bridge in the last few days of the war. The High Command knew that the Americans would overrun it and the sergeant in charge of the boys was ordered to pull them back once the Americans arrived, but he was killed by the Gestapo and six of the boys died while the one survivor, who is able to tell the tale that became the basis for a novel and this film, is brutalized by the experience. The first part of this capsule summary is most people’s awareness of the final stages of the war: young men used as fodder to carry out Hitler’s maniacal order that everyone should be participate in the defence of the Volk or die. The second part, that members of the High Command only offered a token of resistance while trying to save lives, including their own, is not as familiar. Military opposition constitutes one subject of University of Toronto scholar, Randall Hansen’s new book, Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie (Oxford, 2014) even though its dense military chapters can be a daunting read. Its central argument is that opposition to the Fuhrer inside the Reich during the final year of the war, that included both military and civilian resistance, was much more pervasive than has previously been known.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #64: In Dreams (1999)


In Dreams is sensuously creepy and compelling. Annette Bening plays Claire Cooper, an adaptor and illustrator of fairy tales, who suddenly finds her head filled with horrifying images she can neither prevent nor interpret, though she knows they’re linked up with the disappearance of a little girl. When the child’s body turns up, she realizes that she’s channeling a serial killer. And unlike the murderers whose crimes run like private movies in the brain of the character Antonio Banderas plays in Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador, this one is conscious of his psychic connection with Claire – his next target turns out to be her daughter, Rebecca. When she can’t stop Rebecca’s inevitable fate, Claire tries to kill herself in her car, but she survives and grows more and more removed from the people around her – her husband (Aidan Quinn), the detective (Paul Guilfoyle) in pursuit of the killer, the surgeon (Dennis Boutsikaris) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) who treat her – because they don’t believe her story. She becomes unmoored, stalked by a man who’s somehow managed to worm his way into her skull and is leaving her maddening hints about how he lost his own bearings and what he’s going to do next.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Good, Some Less So: A Look at the New Sitcoms of 2014

John Cho and Karen Gillan star in Selfie, on ABC

Amid the high profile dramas that are debuting on the small screen this season (Gotham and How to Get Away with Murder), comedies are flying a little under the radar. Last year saw well over a dozen new network comedies launched, and a year later we've had a few heartbreaking cancellations (Trophy Wife, The Crazy Ones, and Enlisted) and one break out, consistently deserving hit, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (The Andy Samberg comedy premiered with such a strong comic voice and sense of itself that its eventual success was visible in the first 5 minutes of the pilot. So far, its sophomore season has continued in the same vein.) This fall the networks are offering only a handful of new sitcoms, and today I'll be taking a look five new comedies, in order of their relative promise: Black-ish (ABC), Selfie (ABC), A to Z (NBC), Marry Me (NBC), Mulaney (FOX).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Dogs of Comedy: Revisiting Christopher Guest's Best in Show (2000)


When you're as sick as I was this past weekend, you find yourself craving comfort food of all sorts. For comfort comes not only from good hot soup, steamy liquids and plenty of sleep, but it also arrives in choices of films to watch. Rather than turn to the dramatically complex (though I did watch the extraordinary new Blu-ray restoration of the four hour and ten minute director's cut of Sergio Leone's gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, which I'll write about next week when I'm fully healthy), I look instead to comedy, the genre that helps us come to terms with pain and misery because we come to laugh at its absurdity. Christopher Guest's mock documentary Best in Show (2000) got the call this past weekend.

It's often been acknowledged – especially in ads – that dog owners not only have a lot in common with their pooches, they sometimes live their lives through them. You can usually size up a dog owner, too, just by watching the type of canine they have at the end of the leash. Dogs can either act out the most regal aspects of the owner's personality, or, as in the case of pit bulls, the owner's latent aggressions. In Best in Show, Christopher Guest satirizes this symbiotic and idiosyncratic alliance by casting it in the colourful arena of a dog show. Using the same spry ensemble of comic actors (Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Fred Willard) that he first worked with in his 1996 debut Waiting for Guffman, in Best in Show, they prove to be even more eccentric than their pets.