Saturday, January 2, 2016

“And Away…We…Go”: The Frantic, Funny Billy on the Street

Billy Eichner interviews Amy Poehler on Billy on the Street.

Celebrity culture is something that many of us would probably rather not admit to following, and yet it’s both hard to avoid and increasingly something that it’s no longer shameful to confess to liking. Liz Lemon, the alter ego created by Tina Fey on her show 30 Rock, was an intelligent, successful woman and a confirmed feminist, but she also had a weakness for reality TV (a genre which the show occasionally parodied, to great comic effect). Comics such as Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, who have a reputation for creating smart, socially-engaged work, nevertheless present their fictionalized public selves as obsessed with pop culture and largely apathetic towards politics and high art. However, they’re also operating on the implicit assumption that we’ll get the joke, and be able to laugh at their characters’ self-absorption.

Comedian Billy Eichner takes this self-consciousness about pop culture’s paradoxically fascinating and vapid nature and turns it into the centerpiece of his bizarre, oftentimes very funny game show, Billy on the Street. Eichner’s satirizing our obsession with celebrity gossip and the ephemerality of popularity (whether that applies to movie franchises, TV shows, or individual stars), but there’s an undercurrent of sincerity, too, as when he launches into a rant defending the universally-panned Sex and the City 2 in a recent episode. It’s that tension between satire and sincerity, as well as the sheer gonzo bizarreness of the show, that I find so entertaining.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Art from Adversity: Netflix’s Making a Murderer

Steven Avery is the primary subject of Netflix's new documentary series, Making a Murderer.

I didn’t know what I was in for when I decided to watch Netflix’s new documentary miniseries, Making a Murderer. Friends all over social media were praising the series, but I’d never heard of Steven Avery or his 1985 conviction for a violent sexual assault that he didn’t commit. Ultimately, my ignorance was to my advantage; not knowing what was coming for Avery and his family intensified my feelings of shock, frustration, and outrage as the story showcased by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos played out in ten hour-long episodes.

Without spoiling too much for the viewer (you should also feel shocked and outraged by Making a Murderer), the documentary tells the incredible story of Avery’s release from prison after serving eighteen years for a crime he didn’t commit, only to land at the centre of a highly publicized murder investigation. Evidence initially seems to point to Avery’s involvement in the murder of 25-year-old acquaintance, Teresa Halbach, but the ensuing trial is full of mistakes, prejudice, and shady dealings. Making a Murderer takes a bold stance and poses the question: did the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department convict an innocent man as a matter of convenience?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #40 (Podcast): Dave Marsh on Bruce Springsteen (1987)

Bruce Springsteen, on stage during The River tour in 1981. (Photo: Patrick Harbron)

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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Georgia on Its Mind: The Oxford American Annual Southern Music Issue, Winter 2015

In lieu of a top ten list of the best music for 2015, I’d like to pay tribute to one of my favourite magazines, The Oxford American that celebrates the music of the American South every December with a compilation CD and some outstanding music journalism. I’ve been collecting them since a good friend of mine introduced me to the periodical in 2010. This is a magazine worth keeping.

Now in its 17th year, the Oxford American focuses on the history of the southern United States. It is published four times a year but the magazine’s best issue arrives in December. Simply titled the “Southern Music Issue,” the magazine features recordings, past and present, from a particular state or region in the American south. Last year the magazine and accompanying CD featured artists from Texas. This year it’s the music of Georgia, with a 77-minute sampler and some fine storytelling about the State’s musical heritage.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Ten Games of 2015: Monsters, Makers, and MOBAs

Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows is just one of the gaming highlights of 2015.

If you hear anyone bemoaning the state of popular media, grab them by the shoulders and give them a good shake: there can be no doubt that these, right now, are the good ol’ days. 2015 was an incredible year for the pop culture enthusiast, whether you were a cinephile or a book lover, and gaming was no exception. The glut of fantastic, unique gaming experiences on offer this year was so generous that I wasn’t able to get around to many of the most popular ones (Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Just Cause 3, just to name some bigger names). What follows are my favourite of the games I did have time to play, and some of them were so good that I suspect they’ll resurface as all-timers. I implore you to try these games out for yourself, or at least watch them in action on Youtube or

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tour de Force: Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van.

2015 has been an abundant movie year for leading performances by women, but to my mind Maggie Smith walks away with the honors for her work in The Lady in the Van. Smith created the role of Mary Shepherd, an irascible eccentric who spends the last decade and a half of her life living in her van in the driveway of a house owned by the English playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). Bennett first encountered Miss Shepherd in 1970, shortly after he’d bought a house in trendy, gentrified Camden Town (the movie was shot in and around that actual house), but for a long time he resisted writing about their strange acquaintanceship while she was camped in his garden – an arrangement that he’d allowed reluctantly in 1974 as a temporary stop-gap but that became permanent without his ever actually agreeing to it. He eventually dramatized the story in 1999 and Smith starred in it at the National Theatre. I read about it at the time and eagerly anticipated seeing it when she brought it to Broadway, but she never did, so it’s a lovely surprise to see a movie version all these years later, with the same director, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner also staged Bennett’s The History Boys for the National in 2004 as well as the 2006 movie version, and except for Richard Griffiths, who died in 2013, the entire cast of that play shows up in The Lady in the Van. All but Frances De La Tour play cameo roles; she has a delightful supporting part as one of Alan’s neighbors, the widow of the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, a robust specimen of the English bohemian artists’ community of an earlier era. (My favorite of the cameos is by James Corden, as a street market vendor.)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Top Ten Favourite Books of 2015

I have reviewed some of the following selections (link provides); all were read in 2015 and about half were published this year.  – Bob Douglas

All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson (2008) was the first police procedural that I read that feature DCI Alan Banks. I was so gripped by the novel that I continued to read several more from the series but none of them surpassed its originality. We are never in doubt about the identity of the perpetrator but Robinson imaginably unfolds the why and the how by watching an amateur production of a Shakespearean drama about jealousy.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a dual account about an albino child prodigy in Nazi Germany and a blind girl in France before and during World War Two. Werner has an astonishing skill for fixing radios that earns him a place at a training school for the Nazi military elite. Then his talents are put at the service of the Reich to identify the sources of enemy transmissions, a task which will challenge his essential decency and morality. These chapters chillingly recreate the fanaticism and thuggery that we associate with the Third Reich and are among the best in the book. To compensate for her blindness, Marie-Laure’s father builds a model of the neighbourhood for her so that she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When the Nazis occupy Paris, the two of them flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo to live with his uncle who uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure will intersect during the Allied invasion. Despite an unnecessary subplot about a valuable and dangerous jewel and a few stereotyped minor characters, Doerr unfolds a completely new tale about a familiar terrain, one that Dickens might have written had he lived in the twentieth century.