Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Storyteller in Word and Music: Jimmy Webb at Hugh’s Room, Oct.15, 2011

Jimmy Webb has written some of the most popular songs of the past fifty years. He also wrote some of the most heavily criticized songs of the past fifty years. And some of them are the same songs! When he took the corner stage at Hugh’s Room on Saturday night it was in front of a small group of fans with very few critics. The people loved him, and he returned the favour.

I’ve seen Jimmy four times, in two different venues. In an intimate club like Hugh’s Room, where everyone has just feasted on the Concert Special (which includes pasta and cheesecake), he’s a more relaxed raconteur. On a big stage in a theatre he is slightly more formal, but only slightly. The show began (after the beer and pasta and cheesecake) with a besuited Webb walking onto the stage taking his place at the grand piano and placing a notebook on the piano-stand. He noodled a bit and complimented the room. It’s his favourite place to play, he says. Then he launched into “The Highwayman” the ballad which launched the country supergroup of Cash, Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson. After the song, he told the first of his long suite of stories. Walking into the studio to find Waylon asleep on a couch, cowboy hat covering his face, Webb reported on their dialog. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version; after a few exchanges, Jimmy told Waylon, “I’m in the Country Songwriters’ Hall of Fame,” Waylon snorted and replied “Zat right…what country?”

Friday, October 21, 2011

Look, Up in the Sky! It’s a Jurassic Park for Our Times

One friend liked to call me Bird Nerd. For another, the teasing term was Birdbrain. That was back when I first became interested in the little feathered creatures descended from dinosaurs. Though I never went on any far-flung birding adventures as the characters in The Big Year do, I bought a field guide and binoculars to spy on the chickadees, blue jays, sparrows and cardinals that visited my neighborhood. I even learned to recognize some distinctive avian songs, much like Brad Harris (Jack Black) does in the film – which takes its title from an annual competition to witness more species than anyone else. A regular among the throngs that race to every site where rare birds have been spotted, he also is a contender in this contest.

Brad’s top rivals are Stu Pleisser (Steve Martin) and Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a world-renowned champion in the sport who’ll stop at nothing to win. Even though a triumph brings only bragging rights, no prize money, male egos are at stake. For the better part of 365 days, the trio traipses through all kinds of weather to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas and beyond.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lost Flyboys: First Light (2010) and Battle of Britain (2010)

Sometimes you wonder why certain movies get transferred to DVD, especially projects broadcast on British TV that never ran on television here, featuring actors you've never heard of. It's not that First Light (2010) is a terrible film; it's just that it's innocuous. And considering the story it’s telling, it shouldn't be.

In 1940, 18-year-old Geoffrey Wellum (the unknown-to-me Sam Heughan – in fact, the only actor I'd heard of in this film is Gary Lewis who played Billy Elliot's dad in Billy Elliot) managed to successfully enlist in the RAF just in time to be thrust into the middle of the Battle of Britain. He was an untrained, untried Spitfire pilot taken under the wing of the unit he's assigned to. He rapidly adapts and wins the respect of his squadron by demonstrating natural talents in the air. It takes him awhile before he is permitted to fly in combat, but with the dwindling number of fliers dropping like, well, flies, they finally let this young, shy man take part in a sortie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Gifted Man: A Truly Gifted Show

Jennifer Ehle and Patrick Wilson star in A Gifted Man

Barely four weeks into the new fall TV season, and we’ve already seen our first causalities: NBC’s neither sexy nor smart The Playboy Club, ABC’s dead-on-arrival Charlie’s Angels remake, and NBC’s workplace comedy Free Agents, have all been cancelled. (Perhaps I was alone in this, but I was rather charmed by Hank Azaria and Free Agents, and I regret that it wasn’t given more time to mature). In the end, however, I expect the 2011 fall TV season will likely be remembered for highly anticipated and expensive disappointments like Terra Nova, and impressively original cable fare like Homeland. (About Terra Nova, perhaps the less said the better, but Homeland deserves a special mention, and not only for the compelling case that Susan Green recently made on this blog. Showtime’s Homeland marks the return of Damian Lewis to television, last seen when NBC’s brilliant but short-lived series Life came to an untimely end in 2009. Lewis’ talent to portray quietly dangerous men with unfathomable internal lives is on full display in Homeland, and his presence alone would make the series worth your time!)

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to wade through CGI Brachiosaurs and 60s-era stewardesses to find great television. Every once in a while, good TV can play by established rules, and still bring something refreshingly new, smart, and entertaining to the small screen. This season that show is CBS’s A Gifted Man, and hopefully it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A Gifted Man is a medical drama with a twist, and so far it seems to be doing almost everything right. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Agents of Change: HBO's Enlightened & Take Shelter

Laura Dern in Enlightened.

In the early fall of 1909, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were invited to speak at a conference in the United States at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was then celebrating its twentieth anniversary. The unspoken hope was that maybe these two fathers of psychoanalysis could address issues of anxiety and delirium which left many in the medical profession baffled and helpless. Many fascinating guests were in attendance for the talks. Besides philosopher and psychologist William James and America's prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, activist and anarchist Emma Goldman, who three years earlier began speaking out for women's rights and birth control, turned up with an entourage to disrupt the proceedings. In the five lectures that Freud would deliver during his stay, he would discuss 'the talking cure' and his work with Anna O. who suffered from a diagnosed hysteria those doctors in Vienna couldn't identify.

Freud and Jung at Clark University, 1909
But if the gathered throng had hoped for a simple solution to the emotional problems erupting in the modern age, Freud served to disappoint and anger the captive audience. Besides introducing them to his concept of infantile sexuality, where he suggested that traumatic memories stem from "the enduring, repressed wishes of childhood" which are "almost invariably of a sexual nature," he went on to claim that there was no cure from "the original animality of our natures." Author Gary Greenberg (Manufacturing Depression), who recounted this famous event in a fascinating and perceptive article ("The War on Unhappiness")  for Harpers magazine in 2010, aptly described how the tumult created by these lectures would effect American psychiatry in the years to come. "Freud had come to the land of unbridled optimism to inform its inhabitants that a fragile equipoise between repression and abandon was the best they could hope for, and perpetual uncertainty their lot," Greenberg wrote. "The dourness of this message is probably what he had in mind when, as his ship pulled into New York Harbor, he turned to Jung and said, 'Don't they know we are bringing them the plague?'"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hanging Out with the Apple Family

Sweet and Sad at the Public Theater in New York City/Photo by Joan Marcus

Sweet and Sad is the second in a series of plays written and directed by Richard Nelson that sets a family living in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley against the political backdrop of contemporary America – specifically the Democratic north east. That Hopey Changey Thing brought together the Apples Richard, a Manhattan lawyer; his sisters Barbara, Marian and Jane; their uncle Benjamin, who lives with the unmarried Barbara; and Jane’s actor boy friend Tim Andrews at Barbara’s house in upstate Rhinebeck during the 2010 mid-term elections. Sweet and Sad takes place on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and ends with the same group leaving Barbara’s to attend a local memorial concert at which Benjamin, who is also an actor but who has been suffering from amnesia following a heart attack, will be reading Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “The Wound-Dresser.” These are intimate, small-scale pieces that attempt to accomplish something that seems to be increasingly difficult in the American theatre:  to depict three-dimensional characters responding to the political realities of present-day life without preaching or striking attitudes, using their relationships as a dramatic structure for reflecting their feelings.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Subtext and Translation: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at Soulpepper

Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler in Ghosts. Photo by Sian Richards

If Henrik Ibsen's plays often seem dated for contemporary audiences, it’s because he was writing about a society that shunned anybody caught having extra-marital affairs and (even worse) contracting VD. He believed, as a playwright, that he had a duty to write about the ultra-conservative Norwegian society and expose it in a new, more dramatic way. Writing from 1850 to 1899, Ibsen is considered the first "modern" dramatist whose caustic characters and real-life subject matter paved the way for George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. He heralded the birth of realism and, much like the simultaneous changes that took place in music and art, his work made waves around the world.

So any kind of consideration of the history of modern plays usually begins with Ibsen. His work is pretty well on every drama student's reading list along with Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck and An Enemy of the People. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has already proven an affinity for Ibsen. In 2005, they presented an excellent version of The Wild Duck, offering audiences a chance to see and hear Ibsen’s under-recognized masterpiece.