Saturday, July 27, 2013

Red Sparrow: The Human Side of Spying

“Even now with the Soviet Union long gone, the monster is right beneath the surface.”
– Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

In interviews, Jason Matthews has indicated that he believes that the current Russian state is much different than the former Soviet Union, but one would never know that by reading his debut novel Red Sparrow (Scribner, 2013). The Russia that he portrays under the icy “blond scorpion,” Vladimir Putin, who is a minor character in the novel, is repressive and cruel, a throwback to the Soviet Union. The Cold War may be officially over, but that is not the position of the Russian head of state. Putin is determined to retool the Russian Empire in order to reestablish the glory and prestige that the Soviet Union once exercised and he is willing to resort to any means from placing moles inside the American government to authorizing “wet actions” (murder) in order to achieve that goal. Any expression of dissent or disloyalty is mercilessly punished. The real life murder in a Moscow elevator of the investigative journalist Anna Polikovskaya, and the poisoning in London of a former KBG officer, Alexander Litvinenko, by polonium-20, incidents that are mentioned twice over the course of the novel, are merely the tip of the iceberg of the ruthlessness that characterizes contemporary Russia. While reading the novel, I noticed press reports that only seem to confirm the notion that the rule of law operates only at the pleasure of Putin and that the past is much alive in the present. Any serious rival to Putin is arrested, subjected to a show trial and convicted so that he cannot run for public office. In the novel, the brutal interrogation techniques in the Lubyanka prison are reminiscent of conditions that existed in the past. Even the novel’s central conceit, that young women are sent to courtesan schools to learn the art of seduction espionage and become “sparrows” for the purpose of sexual entrapment, is a relic of the Soviet era since the author has stated in interviews that he has no knowledge of the current Russian state operating them, although he concedes that independent contractors may be performing that service in the Putin era.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Adapted by Kohan (the creator of Showtime’s Weeds) from Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), the New York Times bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series is set in the fictional Litchfield Prison, a women’s minimum security federal penitentiary. Taylor Schilling (from NBC’s short-lived medical drama Mercy) stars as Piper Chapman, who finds herself sentenced to 15 months in prison for crimes she committed 10 years earlier. Piper (or Chapman, as she becomes known as in Litchfield) is joined in prison by a remarkable array of female characters, meaty roles for actresses of all ages and backgrounds. The range of female and minority characters alone would single the series out, but there is little that is gimmicky or derivative about the show.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Memories Are Made of This – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and A Band Called Death

The original members of Big Star: (from left) Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel

Two imperfect but interesting current documentaries, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, both available on Video On Demand, offer a chance to savor some of the complications and ironies of the rock music culture of the 1970s. That was the first full decade when bands were being formed by people who had grown up in the shadow of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and had come of age thinking of rock not as a get-rich-quick scheme or the next logical step in the evolution of rhythm and blues and country music and pop in general, but as a form of self-expression that had its own history and tradition and pantheon. It was also the age of the first generation of rock criticscollege-educated working journalists like Robert Christgau, academics like Greil Marcus, unclassifiable mavericks like Lester Bangswho thought that rock was a subject worthy of interest in itself, to be written about without condescension, anda legacy of having been rock fans during the late ‘60sthat it might be both an art form and a trigger for social revolution. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Faces Have I: The Stepfather, Natural Born Killers & The Controversy Over Rolling Stone Magazine's Cover Photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

"That day's Boston Globe has run a story about the nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital who took care of Jahar [Tsarnaev] those first few days after his capture [for the Boston Marathon bombing]. They were ambivalent, to say the least, about spending too much time with him, for fear of, well, liking him. One nurse said she had to stop herself from calling him 'hon'."

- Janet Reitman, "The Bomber: How A Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam And Became a Monster," Rolling Stone, July 2013.

One Friday afternoon, back in 1987, I set off to review a new suspense film called The Stepfather, a skilfully smart thriller that nobody at the time wanted to see. Directed by Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape) and written by crime novelists Donald E. Westlake (God Save the Mark) and Brian Garfield (Death Wish) with assistance from Carolyn Lefcourt, The Stepfather was about a bland suburban family man, Henry Morrison (Terry O'Quinn), who murders his whole family without anyone noticing (except for his brother-in-law who obsessively hunts him down), changes his identity to Jerry Blake, moves away, and marries into another single family. Although the story was largely fictional, it actually had its roots in something quite true. At the time of The Stepfather's release, a New Jersey husband and father, John List, had been a fugitive from justice for over sixteen years for the crime of murder. In November 1971, he had killed his wife, his mother and his three children and then immediately vanished. For nearly a month, after the crime was committed, nobody noticed his disappearance, or were even aware of the carnage he left behind. That whole month, while his neighbours in Westfield went about their business, John List assumed a false identity and moved to Colorado where he soon remarried. (List was finally apprehended in June 1989 when the story of his murders had been broadcast on America's Most Wanted to his new wife's horrified surprise.)

John List
The length of time it took for the investigators to find List was due to the fact that no one could positively identify him. Most witnesses informed detectives that List was 'too ordinary' in both his looks and his behaviour for them to make a clear identification. Not only was he not what many in the neighbourhood would suspect as a mass murderer, List was also a devout Lutheran, who taught Sunday school, and had once served in the U.S. army during World War II. (List had also been given an ROTC commission as a Second Lieutenant.) While attending university in Ann Arbor, Michigan, List had earned his Bachelor's Degree in business administration with a Master's Degree in accounting to follow. He met his wife in 1951 and then quietly blended into suburban American culture for over twenty years before he went on his bloody rampage. For a nation raised on the idea that killers are only recognizable as the slobbering and stubble-faced monsters of B-suspense dramas, the bland and colourless face of a suburban accountant didn't ring any alarm bells in his neighbourhood.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Showing its Age: Soulpepper's Production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Stuart Hughes, David Beazely & Fiona Reid in Soulpepper's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

When it made its première in 1964, Joe Orton’s first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was a smash hit in London. The debut put Orton on the map, as both a playwright and as one of the radical new voices in British literature. (Terence Rattigan had seen the play at the New Arts Theatre and rated it so highly that he put up £3,000 in sponsorship.) The play was mixture of farce, black comedy and social commentary that, with the advent of The Beatles and the beginning of a new wave of avant-garde artists moving into the limelight, arrived at the start of London’s burst of creativity in music, art, literature and theatre. It was a great time to be young, adventurous and to move from the world of black and white into Technicolor. And had he lived longer (Orton was murdered by his partner in 1967), he may have become as good as Tom Stoppard. But all that ended for him at the age of 34, so we’ll never really know.

In recent years, Soulpepper has revived several of Orton’s plays, Loot (2009) and What The Butler Saw (2010) to great success and full houses. Those two plays were written after Sloane as the playwright began to find a creative groove in which to work. So I suppose it made sense for the company to revive Orton’s first play as part of a “cycle.” But it may not have been the right choice: artistically speaking, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, directed here by Brendan Healy, is showing its age.

Monday, July 22, 2013

New York Musicals: On the Town and Hello, Dolly!

On the Town at the Barrington Stage

Though they’re best known for writing Singin’ in the Rain, the funniest movie musical ever made, the book and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were the most notable proponents – perhaps even the inventors – of the New York musical. During their long-term and prolific collaboration they worked together on On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Do Re Mi and, on screen, It’s Always Fair Weather, all of which unfold against the backdrop of a bustling Manhattan peopled with colorful caricatures of New York types. There’s an exuberance in the way Comden and Green employ specific New York settings: the Greenwich Village of the 1930s in Wonderful Town, the subway in the “Hello, Hello There” number in Bells are Ringing, Stillman’s Gym in It’s Always Fair Weather. Their first Broadway show, On the Town, which just closed in a marvelous production at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, begins and ends in the Navy dockyard, and in between takes us to Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Coney Island and the interior of a taxi driven by a boisterous female cabbie named Hildy. It’s a valentine to the city, seen through the eyes of three young sailors who encounter it for the first time during a twenty-four-hour furlough.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Off the Shelf: Bring it On (2000)

Who would have thought that a film about competing cheerleading squads could be so much fun? Certainly not me. But Bring it On springs plenty of surprises. For one thing, it's not just another hormonal teen comedy about sex. It's also not another self-congratulatory jolt of testosterone about winning the big game. And even if the romantic parts of the story follow in the footsteps of already familiar formula, the picture has a tickling spirit that tweaks you on the nose. Director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jessica Bendinger have put together an affectionate and cheerful look at what is often a catty and competitive sport without turning snide about it. The cheerleaders aren't bubble-headed conformists who fear losing status at the high school. Reed and Bendinger create instead a comic tapestry that dispenses with pom-pom-waving clichés. Bring it On shows the relationship the sport has to interpretive dance, swing, martial arts and even Busby Berkeley choreography. We can see how the standard cheerleading routines at school football and basketball games are only warmups for national competitions that are every bit as difficult as gymnastic events.