Monday, September 25, 2017

The Treasurer: Mother and Son

Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in The Treasurer. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Max Posner’s The Treasurer, which is receiving a tip-top production by David Cromer for Playwrights Horizon (at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York City), is a lopsided comedy-drama that begins as an exploration of the guilt a middle-aged son (Peter Friedman) feels over his lack of affection for an aging mother (Deanna Dunagan). What I mean by “lopsided” is that Posner’s play doesn’t head at its theme directly; it keeps getting derailed and turned around. It’s absurdist in style, but acknowledging that fact doesn’t resolve its shaggy-dog quality. And by the end of its ninety-five minutes I realized that I didn’t want a resolution – that its meandering is part of its charm and also part of what makes it touching.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spontaneous Combustion: The Gestural Paintings of Marija Jaukovic

I Don’t Know Anything / I Know Nothing by  Marija Jaukovic (2015, oil on panel 4 x4 ft.)

“What is this life, so full of care, have we no time to simply stand and stare?” – W.H. Davies

If we do force ourselves and take the time to stop and actually stare at reality, we notice right away that the longer we stare the more blurred it becomes around the edges, until eventually the borderline between being awake and being in a dream dissolves entirely. That is ultimately the true purpose of any visual art that does more than merely decorate reality, or even portray it accurately, and instead provides us with a window, one not looking outward, but looking inside, where every borderline disappears before our extended gaze and thoughts themselves become forms. What great paintings offer us is a balsamic reduction of reality. Whether we actually use it to spice up our daily lives is of course up to us.

Some paintings are an immediate seduction for the eye. Like dancing in the dark, or dancing with your own shadow on the wall, they invite the mesmerized viewer into a sensual theatre at once microscopic in scale and yet as large as a galaxy of forms. Removing all limits to our perception as well as our conception, the boldly compelling and subtly captivating paintings of Marija Jaukovic expand or contract depending on the consciousness of the observer. Their paradoxical stance, somewhere in between the domains of a savage abstraction and emotive expressionism, offers us a glimpse of an interior realm where form and feeling are fused in an erotic embrace of practically tantric dimensions. The spirit of a mid-20th century movement known as Art Brut hovers over her recent work like a misty vapor descending from history’s archive of images and ideas, as does the ghost of its principal progenitor, Jean Dubuffet. Like that visionary French painter, the Toronto-based Jaukovic makes a wealth of psychic content from the raw material of apparently povera sources. That is their primary paradox, and their principal appeal: their secretive stagecraft is the ability to manifest a maximum of visual and visceral impact while utilizing a minimum of economical means to do so. As such, they ironically introduce us to a unique zone of maximal minimalism.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

One Hell of a Show: NBC’s The Good Place Returns

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell

Warning: This review covers the entire first season of
The Good Place, as well as the premiere of Season Two. It contains extensive discussion of plot points from throughout the show’s run thus far.

Setting a television comedy in the afterlife seems like an excellent way to set yourself up for failure. Since there is, by its very nature, a distinct sense of finality about the place, it’s hard to see how you might tell a long-running story that’s set there. Furthermore, since most religious traditions view existence after death as primarily a matter of receiving one’s just reward or punishment for their actions on the mortal plane, it’s not clear how you might develop a sense of character, or achieve any sort of narrative progression or tension. However, that’s just what Michael Schur and the creative team of NBC’s The Good Place achieved on the first season of the show.

As Mark Clamen noted in his initial review of The Good Place’s premiere, Schur’s metaphysical comedy had a rather tentative beginning. I found myself watching the first few episodes primarily out of curiosity as to how – or if – the show’s premise would develop, as well as for the performances by Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. However, as the larger scheme behind Schur’s premise began to reveal itself, and as the characters who inhabit this decidedly off-kilter version of heaven became more fully realized, The Good Place became far more than a pleasant-enough entertainment with a veneer of philosophical sophistication.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Soul Survivors: Interview with Clement Virgo (1995)

Sharon Lewis as the DJ in Rude.

As part of our Canada150 series, where we celebrate the country's birthday, we have been featuring periodic articles and interviews focusing on Canada's artistic accomplishments. Although film-maker Clement Virgo is originally from Jamaica, he came to this country when he was 11 and would in time become one of our prominent directors. Beginning his adult years as a window-display artist in the fashion industry in the late eighties, he soon became a resident at the Canadian Film Centre's Summer Lab in both 1991 and 1992. While there he produced three short films: A Small Dick Fleshy Ass Thang (1991), Split Second Pullout Technique (1992), and Save My Lost Nigga' Soul (1993) which won the prize for Best Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. While at the Centre,Virgo also developed a script which in 1995 became the basis for his first feature, Rude.

Rude is a triptych about three characters seeking redemption and survival over an Easter weekend in an expressionistic version of an inner city neighbourhood. General (Maurice Dean Wint) is a painter and former drug dealer just released from prison who has to fight the transgressions of his past, while his brother, Reece (Clark Johnson), gives in to the temptation of becoming a criminal. Maxine (Rachael Crawford) is a window dresser struggling with depression since she ended a pregnancy and lost her lover, Jordan (Richard Chevolleau), a boxer who has his own inner struggles that culminate in an act of gay-bashing. This whole triad is tied together by the excoriations of Rude (Sharon Lewis), the DJ of a local pirate radio station. While Rude had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, it would later that same year win the Best Canadian Feature Film in Perspective Canada at TIFF, and would be nominated for eight Genie Awards, including Best Picture, at the 1996 event. At TIFF 2017, Rude was selected to be screened in the Cinematheque section.

Clement Virgo's follow-up feature, The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), would earn him an Emmy nomination, while the controversial, Lie With Me (2005), would stir strong reaction for its explicit sexual content at the 2005 edition of TIFF. Along with directing the popular award-winning boxing drama, Poor Boy's Game in 2007, Virgo went on in 2015 to co-write and direct the six-part miniseries adaptation of  Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel, The Book of Negroes, for CBC Television which also went on to further acclaim when it was screened in the United States.

When I first spoke to Clement Virgo, a few days before the TIFF premiere of Rude in 1995, we touched on a number of subjects including Bryan Singer's clever caper drama, The Usual Suspects (which he saw at Cannes that year), the place of spirituality in black films, and how he felt his pictures differed from the heated dramas on screen at the time (Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society) about contemporary black culture.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Eyes Up, Guardian: Destiny 2

Destiny 2, developed by Bungie, was released on September 5.

I purchased Destiny 2 under a certain degree of duress. My experiences with the original Destiny, first launched by Bungie in 2014, were strongly mixed; I was often frustrated by its obtuse and player-hostile systems, and many of Bungie's choices in managing the IP prompted a raised eyebrow, and yet I count the shared social experiences I had with my friends throughout the game's multiplayer challenges as some of the best and most memorable in my whole life. I was hardly the only player to feel this way, and though many of the issues the game launched with were eventually patched out in future expansions, Destiny never really felt like the complete online shooter experience we all expected it to be. The fact that we were being asked this September to purchase a fully-priced sequel, instead of a new expansion on the original game that included improvements and changes, was galling in the extreme.

Destiny 2's reception has been glowing from the jump, which I found surprising (didn’t everyone have the same gripes as me?), but now that I've played it, I understand why. Its changes seem subtle and intuitive on the surface, but actually disguise a bone-deep redesign that streamlines Destiny's systems, excises its unnecessary cruft, and prioritizes player satisfaction. It's far too early to comment on the game's long-term sustainability, but even at launch this is the strongest the IP has ever been, and these things only ever get better as they go.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Enterprising Venture: Seth McFarlane's The Orville

(from left) Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in The Orville.

This review contains very minor spoilers for the first two episodes of Fox's The Orville.

Cards on the table: until I watched the second episode of The Orville, this review was looking like it was going to be a rant. Last week's premiere episode of Seth McFarlane's much-ballyhooed piss-take on the Star Trek franchise was a frustrating disappointment. Too mild to be a send-up and not original enough to fly on its own steam, the first hour of The Orville presaged a series with no idea what it was. It seemed more rip-off than either satire or homage – and I left feeling that the network was using the "spoof" label as window dressing for brazen creative laziness. But then I tuned into this Sunday's second episode and, with my expectations now suitably re-adjusted, I had a genuine blast. What a difference a week makes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Author Morley Torgov (1982)

Author Morley Torgov.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian author Morley Torgov.

At the time of our conversation Torgov's novel The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick had just been published. The next year, he was awarded Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the novel. A well-received film adaptation was released in 1988. His most recent novel is The Mastersinger from Minsk (2012), the second book in his Inspector Hermann Preiss mystery series. In 2015, Morley Torgov received the Order of Canada.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Morley Torgov as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.

Monday, September 18, 2017

On the Shore of the Wide World: Still Life

Mary McCann and Leroy McClain in On the Shore of the Wide World.(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

On the Shore of the Wide World, receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is the English playwright Simon Stephens’s exploration of the effects of a tragic accident on a family in a Manchester town in 2004. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Holmes (Wesley Zurick) is hit by a motorist and killed. His death drives his father, Peter (C.J. Wilson) and his mother, Alice (Mary McCann) apart and exacerbates the tensions between them and Peter’s parents, Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) as well as bringing to light the unsettling qualities in their relationship. Shortly before he was killed, Christopher walked in on his alcoholic grandfather strong-arming his grandmother and, in dismay, confided in his older brother Alex (Ben Rosenfield), whom he adored. The aftermath of the boy’s death and the evident crumbling of his parents’ marriage drive Alex to move to London with his new girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan). Meanwhile both Peter and Sarah, who have so much difficulty communicating with each other, are drawn – not romantically but out of a need for confidants – to other people. Peter, who restores old houses, has been hired by the pregnant Susan (Amelia Workman), and she’s the first person outside the family with whom he shares the story of Christopher’s death. (This conversation also marks the first time the audience hears about it, for reasons I can’t quite work out; this choice doesn’t seem to enhance the drama.) Stranger – and more intriguing – is the friendship that grows up between Alice and John (Leroy McClain), the driver of the car that knocked Christopher down on his bike. John’s attempt to reach out to the mother of the boy he inadvertently killed and her responding to him (reluctantly at first) are reminiscent of part of the plot of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, though here it develops in a different direction.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part One: Partial Amnesia

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, centre, in his final address to the people on Dec. 21, 1989.

“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.”Olen Steinhauer, The Confession
One of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer during my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story of one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals. (His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bussed in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I have heard over the last two years.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Watching and Worrying – David Thomson's Television: A Biography

Television can’t be an easy thing to write a book about, given its rapid ongoing evolution into new forms – given, too, the sheer unconquerable volume of sound and image, brilliance and nonsense that have coursed from the small screen since it buzzed to something like life in the late 1930s. But David Thomson, one of our best historian-critics, is also one of our most ambitious writers. Among his more than 30 books are two major critical histories of film, one focusing on Hollywood (2004’s The Whole Equation), the other taking a more global vantage (2012’s The Big Screen). His mammoth Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975, is now in its sixth edition, and he writes a detailed, eccentric, irresistible “personal introduction to 1,000 films” (2008’s “Have You Seen … ?”) with the same bell-ringing ease that Johnny B. Goode brought to playing a guitar. So it’s with a rueful smile and admiring shake of the head that we who know Thomson’s tendencies to great scale and world-encompassing thought, as well as his vast knowledge and masterly ability to combine fact and reverie, regard his latest book and say that yes, of course he has the stuff to write a critical history of television, and he will earn the right, if anyone will, to give it a title as provocatively blunt and accurate as Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson; 412 pp.). 

Friday, September 15, 2017

See You At The Curtain Call: Twin Peaks – The Return (2017)

Despite my best efforts, there are a few unavoidable spoilers within

“'We are like the spider,' said the king. 'We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe. That is why it is said, "Having created the creation, the Creator entered into it.". This is true for us. We create our world, and then enter into that world. We live in the world we have created.'"
– Thomas Egenes & Kamuda Reddy, Eternal Stories from the Upanishads

"We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?” 
– David Lynch

I think it's safe to say that there hasn't been anything on television close to what director David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost unleashed the last few months in their 18-part serial Twin Peaks – The Return. More than being simply a sequel to the original 1990 ABC series, Twin Peaks, which focused on the murder investigation of the high school senior Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), or a mere continuation of the follow-up 1992 film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which examined the circumstances leading to that murder, Showtime's Twin Peaks – The Return was an abstract murder mystery that resisted solutions and begged even more questions. It was like finding yourself seeped in a David Lynch compendium where you experienced the full body of his work – including Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – as one long amorphous trance as plot lines vanished, dramatic moments imploded, and nightmarish visions suddenly erupted and took hold. Twin Peaks – The Return was the source of much frustration because within that Lynchian theme park of devious delight were also hours of flattened-out kitschy comedy that not only tested your patience, but drew some of his worst instincts, those that had already been on display in Wild at Heart, and parts of Lost Highway. Yet the baggy unevenness of Twin Peaks – The Return wasn't simply a case of the director's intuition taking a holiday and intermittently going wrong. Lynch, who works almost entirely from his unconscious, seemed to be refusing to make any kind of conscious judgement over the material. It was as if he'd decided instead to run the table with whatever came into his mind (bad or startlingly good) to see where it might lead him – and also, of course, the viewer. Knowing that there was an audience out there both nostalgic and fiendishly curious to return to Twin Peaks after such a long hiatus, Lynch turned this epic tale into something more than a conclusion and resolution to the story. Twin Peaks – The Return was a turbulent meditation on the past, on the nature of nostalgia, on the tropes of television serial drama, and on death itself.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

You'll Float Too: Andy Muschietti’s IT

Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, and Jack Dylan Grazer in IT.

I’m neither a Stephen King devotee nor a person who grew up with the 1990 TV movie based on his landmark novel It, so unlike many filmgoers who are bleating their nostalgic bias into any internet forum they can find, a new feature length film version appealed to me greatly. I love the creepy premise of a picturesque town in Maine that is besieged by an ancient evil that poses as a ghoulish clown in order to kidnap children. I generally admire the creativity and weirdness of King’s work, despite its inconsistency in quality. And as summer slowly transitions into autumn – the season of Halloween, the season of horror, my favourite season – my appetite for an entertaining horror film grows ever more fierce.

IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. The story of IT, about a group of young teens who call themselves “The Losers Club” discovering the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and fighting against It, only represents the first half of the novel. The second half portrays the same group of kids almost three decades later, as the evil force in their hometown of Derry re-emerges to feed once again. Muschietti made a conscious choice to split the story into two films, with the closing credits of IT listing the film as “Chapter One”. Since the 1990 film is criticized for attempting (and failing) to cram both halves of the novel into one made-for-TV movie, Muschietti has clearly made the right decision – especially since the pacing and structure of his adaptation feel spot-on. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Faith and Fury: The Strange Saga of Al Green

Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green by Jimmy McDonough was published by Da Capo Press on August 29th.

“Beware of men who speak well of you, my brother.” – Al Green

Music critic Jimmy McDonough seems to have taken that sage advice from Green to heart. Few people who personally encountered the great soul singer Al Green would be in danger of speaking very well of either him or their meeting. For the rest of us, safely at a distance and accessing his soul strictly through the remarkable records he created, he remains a towering figure in music for over the last five decades. From his first album, Back Up Train, in 1967 to his twenty-ninth release, Lay It Down, in 2008, he has traveled far from his gospel roots through the soul vibe, then suddenly back to gospel in the late '70s, and then just as suddenly back to soul again. All along the way, he’s been feverishly running away from something and passionately running towards something, and often those two were the same something.

The dichotomies that link gospel, blues, soul and funk are never-ending. They are the living proof that coal becomes crystal under pressure. They are also, in their cores, different names for the same thing: a head-on collision course between faith and fury. And no one ever exemplified the paradox at the heart of these great African-American musical traditions quite as forcefully as the Reverend, revered and feared Al Green. He was both a gifted genius and a tortured psychopath who personified both the heights and depths of what it means to be a human being. Brilliant and besotted, he was, in the end, almost beyond the ability to grasp it with any real sense of clarity, since his mercurial personality shifted in and out of focus from moment to moment. And few books can qualify for the term “warts and all” quite as much as Jimmy McDonough’s new, breathtaking life of Green.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Neglected Gem # 107: They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Sally Gray and Trevor Howard in They Made Me a Fugitive (1947).

Sometimes serendipity allows you to come across a movie you might otherwise never have known about. That was what happened earlier this year when I was doing some research for a class I was teaching on American film noir. One article I read mentioned significant noirs from other countries, including a 1947 British film I was utterly unfamiliar with entitled They Made Me a Fugitive. I didn’t use that movie for my lecture but shortly afterwards I came across a DVD of it at my local library and snapped it up, believing I was meant to see it. Good thing I did, because even among the generally high quality of the genre, They Made Me a Fugitive stands out.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Master Acting Classes: The Fisher King (1991)

Few would remember now, but the 1991 summer movie season was dominated by movies about thoughtless, self-absorbed yuppies who find redemption: Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, William Hurt in The Doctor. The only one of the these pictures that wasn’t fatuous, trite and infuriating was The Fisher King. In it, Jeff Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a smug, cynical New York talk-radio host with a habit of mocking his callers. When he lectures one of his regulars (Christian Clemenson) on the worthlessness of the yuppie scum who frequent a watering hole called Babbitt’s – the name is an allusion to Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel, a satirical portrait of a Yankee bourgeois – proclaiming that they deserve to be wiped out, the caller takes him at his word and unloads a rifle on the crowd at the bar before shooting himself. One of his victims is the wife of a Hunter College humanities prof named Henry Sagan (Robin Williams), who dies in his arms. The tragedy triggers a psychotic break in Sagan: after a year of catatonia, he holes up in a boiler room in his old apartment building, calling himself Parry and identifying himself as a knight in search of the Holy Grail (“Parry” for “Parsifal”). When Jack, whose role in the Babbitt’s slaughter shook him up so badly that he has been hiding out at his girl friend’s and mostly inside a bottle of Jack Daniels, is set upon by violent youths in Central Park on what used to be called a wilding spree, it’s Parry who rescues him. Jack finds out Parry’s history from the super in his building and decides that it can’t be a coincidence – that trying to help Parry is the only way he can get his own life back, “pay the fine and go home,” as he puts it to his girl friend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At first he thinks a few bucks will do the trick, but all Parry does with the money he proffers is to hand it off to another homeless man. Then, with Anne’s help, Jack arranges for Parry to have a date with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a publishing-company employee whom Parry worships from afar. Bizarrely, the evening is a triumph: Parry and Lydia, a peerlessly awkward waif who inhabits her own universe, turn out to be a match made in romantic-comedy heaven. But the thought that he might find love again stirs up Parry’s repressed memories of the night he lost his wife, and his old enemy, the Red Knight, a personification of all his demons of guilt and grief that only he can see, intervenes. Parry winds up in a psychiatric ward, once again imprisoned in a catatonic state – and Jack still hasn’t earned his own redemption. So he does the only thing remaining to him: dressing up in Parry’s ragtag-knight outfit, he carries out the task Parry set him earlier in their acquaintance. He scales the wall of the Medieval castle-like Fifth Avenue residence of a wealthy recluse, swings through the window like a parody of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, and lifts a trophy Parry saw in a photo that he’s convinced is the Holy Grail.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amazon's The Tick: Bigger, Bluer, Darker

Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman in The Tick.

“Evil wears every possible mitten.” – The Tick
Ben Edlund’s “big blue bug” is back. Last seen in the very short-lived Fox live-action series back in 2001, The Tick is currently enjoying its third small-screen adaptation, proving the old adage that like Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice, every decade gets a Tick to call its own. The new series, created by Edlund, premiered on Amazon Video on August 25 with half of the 12-episode first season With a darker vision, bigger budget, and richer narrative canvas, Amazon’s The Tick fits more comfortably into our current television universe than either the still-classic 1994 Fox animated series or the ill-fated Patrick Warburton-helmed 2001 sitcom, but it also comes with enough of its signature energy to be a welcome new arrival.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Fizzling Out: Burn All Night at Club Oberon

As I walked out of Burn All Night, a new musical running at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon, I found myself feeling oddly upbeat about the fact that I’d just seen a thoroughly average piece of immersive mainstream theatre. As I’ve written before with regards to the ART’s production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, this increasingly popular style of staging plays in such a way as to draw the audience into the dramatic action offers at least one potential answer to the question of how theatre can distinguish itself as it competes with a myriad of entertainment options for audiences’ attention. Contrary to the title, this latest offering won’t set the world on fire, but there are elements of its music and staging that partially counteract its glaring weaknesses as a play.

Burn All Night ultimately tries to make a statement about the impending global cataclysm that, thanks to our poisonous politics and abuse of the environment, seems at times almost inevitable. However, the real disaster here is Andy Mientus’s book, which follows the romantic entanglements and personal conflicts of four young people. The main character, Bobby (Lincoln Clauss), is a stereotype, the wide-eyed naif who ditches the stifling atmosphere of Real America for the boundless possibilities of New York City. The backward, provincial hellhole from which he escapes? Pittsburgh. I’m no Steelers fan, but I’m still not clear on what’s so awful about this metropolis of western Pennsylvania, and Mientus doesn’t help matters by giving Bobby a series of phone conversations with his widowed mother that mostly make you feel bad for the poor woman, who’s stuck worrying about her absent son while the world ends.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Agony and the Artistry: Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway

Photo: Robert Capa/Magnum.

“At some point in the unfolding of his brilliant career, a tragedy began to take shape”: so begins Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (Knopf; 738 pp.). What follows is the history of that tragedy. More, perhaps, than any previous Hemingway biography – save Paul Hendrickson’s harrowing Hemingway’s Boat (2011), which is more a psycho-factual exploration of selected themes than biography per se – Dearborn’s is a chronicle of physical and mental agonies, some fateful, others self-inflicted. In this telling, as tragedy takes its shape, it misshapes the life. It’s a more than valid view of this particular figure. Even in his prime, when he was kicking ass and taking names, beaming out from front pages and basking in celebrity, Hemingway was moving toward a violent end almost too easy to see, with hindsight, as predestined. The end seemed foretold in family dysfunction – suicidal father, mother whose outsize presence and personal ambition both influenced and infuriated her son. It was encouraged by ego, money, and acclaim after the first stunning short stories and history-making novels. It was urged from the 1930s onward by alcoholism, physical self-abuse, and a tendency to disastrous accidents. It burgeoned in the lengthening depressions, cognitive degeneration, and inferior work of his last decade. And it came, finally, in the early hours of July 2, 1961, when Hemingway took his life with a shotgun in an isolated house in the mountains of Idaho, three weeks short of his sixty-second birthday.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol III: Indie Darlings

Sonic Mania was released by Sega on August 15.

Sonic Mania is the ultimate exercise in nostalgia. Sonic the Hedgehog never escaped the 1990s the way his rival Mario did, so it only makes sense that he should give up his decades-long struggle to invent a new identity and just return to his roots instead. Sega – Sonic’s irresponsible, absentee parent – made this happen this year in such an unusual, unlikely way that it would have been an interesting story even if the result weren’t an absolute delight.

The name Sonic Mania hints at more than just the excitement of Sonic fans' seeing their favourite gaming mascot back in the limelight (in a positive way for once). One of those very fans, developer Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, took it upon himself to design and program a Sonic game that both recreated and expanded upon the original Sega Genesis titles from his childhood. Whitehead was given the extraordinary chance to present his prototype to Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka, who reworked Whitehead’s proposed title “Sonic Discovery” into something that reflected the singular nature of this passion project, something that was “by the mania, for the mania.” With help from indie developers Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, and with the blessing and bankroll of both Iizuka and Sega, Whitehead’s dream of creating a Sonic game that was worthy of the original series actually came true.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Criss-crossing Abbey Road: Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield

When John Lennon released his solo album Plastic Ono Band in 1970, he concluded the record with a tune called “God.” The song laments everything he no longer believed in, including “Beatles,” which he stutters out at the end of a long list of disenchantments. “The dream is over,” sings Lennon, and while that may have been true for him at the time, months after the break-up of his band, it wasn’t the case for the millions of fans who adored The Beatles and believed in them. The current crop of believers can be easily found on YouTube as they compile so-called Beatles albums from the Lennon, McCartney-Harrison-Starr solo years in the early seventies. The notion isn’t without merit, as many of the songs on the early solo records were being written in the final months of the band’s career. One such compiler, in a nod to the red and blue Beatles compilations issued by Apple in 1975, has created his own “orange” and “green” albums. Another fan by the name of Marc Bridson has created The Beatles fantasy albums featuring the Fab Four’s solo tracks, collected in an effort to preserve the band in ways they never expected. Strangely, it works . . . but only for dreamers.

Fifty years after the release of Sgt. Pepper and another forty-plus years after the break-up of the world’s most popular rock band, Rob Sheffield’s timing couldn’t be better. In his recently released memoir, Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World (Dey St.), Sheffield turns the story of the Beatles on its cultural head. Rather than write another chronological history of the band, leaving that task to scholars such as Mark Lewisohn, Sheffield tells the story of the group from his unique perspective. He literally begins at the end when Paul McCartney says, “Thanks, Mo” at the conclusion of “Get Back” on Let It Be. For Sheffield it’s a great place to start because it captures a “quintessential Beatle moment” when the band calls it a day and the fans get to enjoy the meaning of their musical and cultural impact. Looking back as a fan, Sheffield says, “The Beatles’ second career has lasted several times longer than the first one . . . The world keeps dreaming the Beatles, long after the Beatles themselves figured the dream was over.” Clearly, timing is everything.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Podcast: Elspeth Cameron on Hugh MacLennan (1981)

Author  Hugh MacLennan in 1984.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1981, I sat down with Canadian biographer and poet Elspeth Cameron, whose biography of author Hugh MacLennan had just been published.

Cameron would go on to make a career of writing about Canadian literary figures, and Hugh MacLennan: A Writer's Life was her first book. (The biography was nominated for a Governor General's Award that same year.) She followed it up with, among others, biographies of Irving Layton (1985), Robertson Davies (1991), and Earle Birney (1994). In 1997, her memoir No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change won a W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Elspeth Cameron as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Poetic Absurdity: The Genius of Beatrice Lillie

Beatrice Lillie (aka Lady Peel) in Exit Smiling (1926).

There’s a tradition of eccentric English actresses who made improbably triumphant careers for themselves in the twentieth century. One was the great high-comic technician Gertrude Lawrence, who couldn’t sing a note without quavering yet became a musical-comedy star, performing songs by Noël Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Another was Margaret Rutherford, who embodied a kind of British dottiness – an unassailable uprightness and forthrightness, like that of a nanny shepherding her charges through the park – even when she was playing Agatha Christie’s sleuth Miss Marple. But my favorite was Beatrice Lillie, who was born in Toronto in 1894 but became a star in the West End twenty years later and performed on stage and occasionally in movies and on television for just over half a century. (Her final appearance was in the ill-advised 1967 musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie, in the role of the white-slaving villainess Mrs. Meers. It was hardly a worthy valedictory, though she did get to wear chopsticks in her beehive hairdo and execute a modest tap dance to get a stubborn elevator moving.) Canadian she may have been by birth, but no one could have captured so acutely a specifically English brand of silliness, though possibly the fact that she was officially an import from elsewhere in the Dominion may partly explain the fact that her portrayal of English aristocratic hauteur was always parodic – even though in real life she married a baronet (she was Lady Peel) and lost a son, a naval officer, in World War II.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Stripping Away the Cobwebs from Castle Bran

Bran Castle is situated on the border between  Transylvania and Wallachia.

Castle Bran, purportedly the inspiration for Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, is less than 200 kilometers from Bucharest. On a major holiday weekend in August, our tour bus set out from the capital to drive us through Transylvania to this magnificent thirteenth-century edifice, whose foundation seems an extension of the rocky ground with a palace emerging from it. Unfortunately, Romanians gathering from near and far blanketed the mainly two-lane highway, preventing us from reaching our destination until early evening. Nonetheless, I was excited to visit this historic site that has spawned so many misconceptions. While our guide – one of the best during the tour – rightly acknowledged that Stoker never visited Transylvania, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and that the connections between Bran Castle and Stoker were tenuous at best, he did think that the fortress Poenari, 200 kilometers away in Wallachia, the domicile of Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler, was associated with Stoker’s novel. While he was right about the one-time owner of Poenari, he was wrong about its link with Dracula. His mistake is understandable given the plethora of disinformation about the subject.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Man of a Thousand Faces: Eric Clapton Crossroads (1988)

Back in 1970, when Eric Clapton ducked for cover under the name Derek and the Dominos, he actually revealed more of himself than he had earlier in his best music with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream. On the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the passion that drove his voice and his playing also had the element of losing control – as he did playing "Crossroads" with Cream on Wheels of Fire – where the music took hold and pulled him kicking and screaming into its tumult. Since Clapton's addictions, I believe, emerged from that plunge into desperate pleasure, it didn't surprise me that as he tackled the substances, the substance of his music became more careful and craftsman lite. While there may indeed be legitimate reasons for not touching the flames that ignite both your follies and your genius (after all, Derek and the Dominos were decimated by drugs and self-destruction), it may be that Clapton never really had a fully defined personality, a self that might have carried him through his addictions without letting him lose his spark.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Neglected Gem #106: Bad Timing (1980)

Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel in Bad Timing (1980).

The feeble pun of its title is the least of several apparent strikes against Bad Timing, the once-controversial psychological thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg. (At one point it carried the subtitle A Sensual Obsession, which didn’t help.) Among its other off-putting elements are dialogue that often evokes bad New Yorker fiction; a soundtrack which, while wide-ranging (Pachelbel, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, The Who, Harry Partch), is intrusively, even obnoxiously, employed; and a star, Art Garfunkel, whose presence places a question mark at the center of the movie. But for all that, Bad Timing is gripping and lasting, a steel trap whose fingers close slowly but surely. Roeg’s choices, though they often jar against the unwritten rules of psychological thrillers, dramatic realism, or simply agreeable narrative, never feel confused or hedged. The movie knows what it is doing; you may take it, leave it, or, like me, come back every few years to look again.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Partners in Quick-Time – Uncharted: Lost Legacy

Nadine (Laura Bailey) and Chloe (Claudia Black) in Uncharted: Lost Legacy.

Uncharted: Lost Legacy is the result of developer Naughty Dog's making a ton of money on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and deciding to keep that money train a-rollin’, despite the fact that they had publicly declared it to be the final game in the series. You can’t argue with clear market demand, and though the curtain had fallen on Nathan Drake’s personal saga, it was fairly unsurprising to learn this past June that a fifth Uncharted title was in development – this time centering around Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black), treasure hunter and erstwhile Drake love interest. Lost Legacy is a fully stand-alone side story about Frazer teaming up with mercenary Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) to find an artifact called the Tusk of Ganesh in wildest India and prevent a political fanatic from sparking civil war. It makes determined efforts to function as its own game, whose success doesn’t depend on the famous series protagonist – and at that, at least, it succeeds.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fleetwood Mac, the Time Ghost: Rumours Turns 40

Fleetwood Mac (circa 1968): John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green Jeremy Spencer.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” – Christine McVie

The recent release of a new duo album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of the phenomenal pop band they belong to. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by Peter Green, but Christine Perfect-McVie had already been on the scene in her own remarkable British blues band, Chicken Shack, even before her talented husband became the stellar bass player for one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been ten years since I published my book on the weird evolutionary leaps of Fleetwood Mac from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, and now suddenly I’m having to try and convince my publisher that they definitely deserve a 50th-anniversary update to their twisted saga. I suspect my editor can barely believe that they’re still together, despite the fact that Stevie Nicks has made one of her frequent departures to pursue her solo muse (herself) and Lindsey Buckingham has released an eponymous duet with the other sultry blonde in the group, my far-more-favourite British blues chick turned pop-diva, Christine McVie.

Even more incredibly, or at least ironically, Fleetwood Mac is being given a special award next year which cements their acclaim in even more glowing terms: the Recording Academy’s 2018 MusiCares Person of the Year, an honour that will be extended to the veteran rockers in conjunction with the 60th Grammy Awards. Amazingly, the Grammys themselves are only ten years older than this stalwart but grizzled crew of pop wizards. The award singles out musicians both for their artistry and for their frequent philanthropic contributions, with previous recipients including Dylan, McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hitting the Jackpot: Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

Evan Buliung (centre) with members of the company, in Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Let there be no confusion. In Guys and Dolls, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical at Canada's Stratford Festival until the end of October, men are men and women are, well, the dolls in the musical comedy Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser created almost 70 years ago when gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression were a whole lot less complicated than they are today. Based on newspaper man Damon Runyon's 1930s collection of short stories about the denizens of New York's Depression-era underworld, the show is a throwback. But a rollicking one that makes no apologies for wanting to revel in stereotypical portraits of gangsters, gamblers and showgirls with seam-stockinged gams.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Prince of Broadway: Overstuffed and Undernourished

 Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper and Tony Yazbeck in Prince of Broadway. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new revue Prince of Broadway, built around the career of Harold Prince, is like an all-you-can-eat buffet at a mediocre restaurant. It runs just over two and a half hours and contains thirty-five songs from sixteen musicals (plus a finale, “Do the Work,” written especially for the show by Jason Robert Brown, who also contributed arrangements and orchestrations), presented in mostly tepid reproductions intended to conjure up the feel of their sources, one after another. (Susan Stroman, who co-directed with Prince and choreographed, has barely left her mark on them.) The entire project is misconceived. It makes sense to plan an evening around the work of a theatrical artist whose work is distinctive and unified; that’s what the joyous 1999 Fosse! did, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ and several Stephen Sondheim revues. But you can’t get a sense of the shows Prince has directed by restaging numbers from them: a pair of singers in working-class Victorian costumes standing in front of a flat don’t suggest the spectacle of Sweeney Todd (1979) and eight actors in shtetl garb dancing briefly across the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre are more like a parody of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) than an evocation of it. You’d need the original set designs and, more importantly, the original performers to provide any indication of what these musicals meant. Prince of Broadway doesn’t even distinguish between the shows Prince directed and the ones he only produced, like Damn Yankees (1955), West Side Story (1957) and Fiddler – as if there were no difference between what directors and producers do. In a lengthy program note, Prince credits dozens of collaborators, yet the revue implicitly tells us that he was the creative force behind every one of these shows, even when other people devised their staging and helmed their rehearsals. This is a vanity production that verges on the delusional.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Another America: Remembering Dick Gregory 1932-2017

I arrived home this past week from a short holiday in Florida to the sad news that activist and comedian Dick Gregory had gone to spirit at the age of 84. Although in recent years, Gregory existed more on the periphery of mainstream culture, a barely remembered figure of an earlier era of Civil Rights reforms and anti-war ferment, he was nevertheless still being sought out by eager young videographers who'd visit his home as if on a pilgrimage. With the goal of consulting with a famous relic of another America, they sought him out for help in making sense of the current one. But often the Gregory you'd find on YouTube of their quests from those endless sojourns was a ranting hermit caught up in Truther campaigns who saw conspiracies in everything including "faked" moon landings, 9/11, Prince's death (which he believed was murder), the Rodney King beating tapes (the C.I.A. and the Australian "secret police" were behind the people who filmed it), Bill Cosby being framed for sexual assault because he was attempting to buy a major media company, etc. Yet Dick Gregory's flights of fantasy, often painfully funny to watch (especially since his proteges didn't possess his knowledge and experience of history), did little to diminish his authenticity as a powerful advocate for justice. Whatever outlandish tale Gregory would tell those budding militants, he seemed to speak for the idea of a country that they felt was in jeopardy of disappearing, and it was that very notion of a nation, containing a citizenry that he was once a prominent part of, that these willing apprentices appeared to see rapidly vanishing before their eyes. The fact that Gregory died as white supremacists and American Nazis marched freely and candidly in Charlottesville makes their view even more vividly painful to consider.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Beat Beneath Your Feet: A Conversation with Lindy Hop dancer Nancy Hitzig

Nancy Hitzig & Carl Nelson (photo by Jess Keener)

The Lindy Hop is wildly acrobatic, fun without gravity. But there is an underlying political dimension to the dance that swings. Born in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and practiced throughout the 1930s, Lindy Hop was among the first American social dance forms to bring whites and blacks together for a common cause: the beat beneath your feet. Named for Charles Lindbergh, the legendary aviator whose aerial feats the dance emulates with spectacular air steps, Lindy Hop sparked a cultural revolution back in the day, a subject explored by Alive and Kicking, the 2016 dance documentary examining Lindy’s revival in the disaffected 21st century. The energy is today as manic as ever, but with a whole new set of controversies fuelling the fire. As Toronto-born, London-based Lindy Hop dancer and teacher Nancy Hitzig, a participant in the upcoming International Lindy Hop Championships taking place this week (Aug. 24-28) in Washington, D.C., explains, touch dancing remains as contentious today as it was during the Great Depression.“The basic lead and follow structure of Lindy establishes a conversational connection, making it incredibly complex,” says Hitzig who, in January, will present original choreography she has created for Lindy at The Rag Factory, an intimate performance space on London’s Liverpool St. “But in what other environment do you get to have an informal, but structured conversation with a stranger? In what other environment do you get to hold another human being in your arms in a carefree but respectful way?”

Friday, August 25, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: World of Wonder

This review contains spoilers.

The beginning of War for the Planet of the Apes, in which U.S. soldiers attack apes on horseback on a wooded hill, has the breadth and specific detail, the terror and excitement and pathos, of a classic battle sequence by D.W. Griffith. Like the opening scene of the last movie in the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), where apes on horses hunt down a herd of deer, it’s sumptuously shot and grippingly edited, and its bold visual conception is thrilling. (The cinematographer, Michael Seresin, and the editors, William Hoy and Stan Salfas, all worked on Dawn as well.) Matt Reeves, who helmed both these movies, directed a variety of TV episodes before making his first picture, Cloverfield, nine years ago; at fifty-one, he’s too old to be called the best young filmmaker in America, but since War is only his fourth picture it’s tempting to think of him that way. (After Cloverfield he made Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish child-vampire film Let the Right One In.) He’s a master storyteller and an ace director of actors, and unlike most of our filmmakers, who think only in terms of images and effects, Reeves thinks in terms of complete sequences. That’s not to say that he can’t dream up beautiful, memorable images as well and frame them magnificently: he has a remarkably sophisticated sense for the tension between foreground and background, periphery and center. And he imbues his sequences with so much feeling that you walk away from both his Apes movies shaken up.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Glitterbomb: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t that a hard a sell for me. I’m drawn to outlandish action sci-fi fantasy like a moth to a flame – the weirder and more wondrous the better. But it’s easy to get burned that way, so it’s common these days for me to feel a twinge of excitement when I see a name I like attached to a project, and then immediately quash that excitement with a sober examination of the facts. Watching the trailer for Valerian was like being a juror in the Film Court of my mind. Points in its favour: Luc Besson is clearly back in Fifth Element mode; it stars Cara Delevingne; it looks colourful and vibrant; it’s not based on an existing property that’s been milked bone-dry. Points against: Besson hasn’t made a decent film since the mid-90s; it also stars Dane DeHaan; the visuals look to be heavily reliant on airy CGI; the source material looks trite and derivative. The Film Court ruling was clear: perform two hours and fifteen minutes of public service with minimum expectations (bail to be set at non-3D prices).

If it please the court, I will present my findings herewith.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Newman, Kronos and Presley: Americana On Both Sides

“Welcome, welcome, welcome . . . ," sings Randy Newman like a midway barker inviting us into his tent for a little sermon on the current state of mankind. Dark Matter (Nonesuch) is Newman’s 11th studio album of original songs and one of his most musically ambitious. The record opens with “The Great Debate,” an elaborate piece featuring a cast of characters in a musical battle among climate change, evolution and dark matter. The song is full of Newman’s sarcastic wit about scientists and religious fanatics juxtaposed with the power of gospel music, and, like much of this new album, it swings. By the end of "The Great Debate,” he settles for divine providence -- “Someone is watching me . . . " -- as the angels applaud. Dark Matter isn’t a concept album per se; it’s simply a set of interesting topical songs reflecting Newman’s current observations. Yet even a song about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis featuring John and Robert Kennedy, called “Brothers,” only seems out of place until we realize that the president is more interested in saving Celia Cruz than in a Russian blockade. And speaking of Russians, “Putin” stomps in with Newman’s acid tongue in full force, only to be calmed by the beautiful orchestration behind “Lost Without You.” On this record, one of his best in years, we get a fair share of satire, mockery and beauty all soaked in Newman’s unique sense of Americana, a gumbo of jazz, gospel and revivalist choirs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Always Bet on Red: Amazon's Comrade Detective

Corneliu Ulici and Florin Piersic Jr. in Comrade Detective.

"You don't become a good Communist by going to meetings or memorizing the manifesto. You do it on the streets. You do it with your fists. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
This is how we are introduced to Detective Gregor Anghel, one of Bucharest PD's finest and the man at the centre of Amazon's mind-bending new buddy-cop satire, Comrade Detective. Hardened by the mean streets of Bucharest, cigarette in hand and draped in a leather jacket, Anghel is a cop who plays by his own rules – at least when he's not quoting from The Communist Manifesto or testing his tactics against the simple mantra: "What would Lenin do?" (before concluding firmly: "Lenin would fuck him up!").

Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (the team behind NBC's short-lived Animal Practice in 2012, and currently working together on Andrew Dice Clay's Dice on Showtime), Comrade Detective begins straightforwardly enough, with Channing Tatum and Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson sitting side by side in a screening room, Siskel & Ebert-style. Tatum flashes a gorgeous smile and together with Ronson they set up what we are about to view: a Communist-era Romanian television series from the '80s, dredged up from the archives, remastered, dubbed into English and now ready for its Western debut. Of course, none of that – except for the dubbing – is true. But it is begging to be believed.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bad Behavior: The Treatment, Gloria, Ink

Aisling Loftus in The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

London’s Almeida Theatre revived Martin Crimp’s 1993 play The Treatment in late spring, and I was lucky enough to catch it before it closed. Crimp’s plays are unfamiliar to North Americans, but this is the work of a very gifted playwright – an absurdist comedy roughly in the style of Harold Pinter, but funnier and more sly. Lyndsey Turner’s first-rate production showcased those qualities. In New York City, a young woman named Anne (Aisling Loftus) answers an ad to tell her story to a husband-and-wife producing team (Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma) who are on the lookout for promising film properties. As Anne relates a bizarre tale of a husband who locked her in their apartment, tied her to a chair and gagged her, Jennifer, the female half of the team, adds her own commentary, subtly changing the story to make it more camera-worthy. As the project acquires a screenwriter (Ian Gelder) and a star (Gary Beadle), it undergoes more alterations. Everyone has his or her own take on Anne’s story, including the young intern (Ellora Torchia) in the production company office who winds up playing the leading role in the movie. Eventually we realize that everyone – including Anne – is operating in an entirely self-serving mode, except, ironically, for her notorious husband Simon (Matthew Needham), who is crazy and violent but not toward her, and who is devoted to protecting her from a crazy, violent world. There are no reliable versions of the narrative; everything’s up for grabs, including the truth about whether Anne or Simon is the controlling figure in their marriage. Turner had an excellent cast, including Ben Onwukwe as a blind cab driver and Hara Yannas, doubling as a waitress and a madwoman; Varma, memorable as Ann in the Simon Godwin’s production of Man and Superman at the National, was the standout.

Ellie Kendrick and Colin Morgan in Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Hampstead Theatre’s early-summer show was Gloria, by the American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who made a splash here and abroad with An Octoroon. Gloria, first produced on these shores at the Vineyard Theatre, is a satirical take on the New York publishing world. The first act is set in the editorial offices of a once-trendy magazine struggling to ride the vicissitudes of journalism in the age of the internet. Everyone we meet is miserable, the thirtysomethings because they’ve hung out here too long and feel their lives have gone nowhere, the twentysomethings because they’re terrified of turning into the thirtysomethings. Jacobs-Jenkins has a great ear for the way articulate, entitled, expensively educated young people sound when they’re motivated by ambition and envy; Gloria has the funniest nasty dialogue I’ve heard in an American play since Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar – and I think it’s a better play. The first act is perfect and has a hilarious shock curtain. The second act is very entertaining but its second scene, at a West Coast studio, is a bit of a letdown; the playwright’s depiction of narcissism in Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as original as his portrayal of narcissism in Manhattan. Still, act two includes one scene that should become a classic, in which two former employees of the magazine who are writing memoirs jockey for control over how they’re depicted in each other’s books. The Hampstead gave Gloria a typically spiffy and sharp-witted production, directed by Michael Longhurst, with three men (Colin Morgan, Bayo Gbadamosi and Bo Poraj) and three women (Kae Alexander, Ellie Kendrick and Sian Clifford) covering the thirteen roles. The only actor who seemed out of her league was Alexander, though her performance improved in the movie-studio section. 

Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in Ink at the Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Ink, which followed The Treatment into the Almeida and is bound for the West End in the fall, is James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of The Sun in London in 1969 and the invention of modern populist journalism. Under Rupert Goold’s direction, with a spectacular set by Bunny Christie and gorgeous lighting by Neil Austin, it’s a hell of a show; I saw it on the worst night of London’s surprise June heat wave, without benefit of air conditioning, and I was riveted from start to finish. But the play underneath all of that mesmerizing professionalism is thin and gets thinner as the evening wears on. The first act, which covers the efforts of the brash new editor, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) to refurbish the paper and make it relevant to a late-twentieth-century public, has some of the wit and bravado of the early scenes in Citizen Kane. After intermission, though, things get serious. Having entertained us thoroughly with the cockiness and nerve of Lamb and his team, Graham needs to find a way to indicate what we all knew going in: that Murdoch’s vision of a more democratic media led to Fox News and Donald Trump. But Graham doesn’t have the wherewithal for material that wants to go deep. (I was not among the many fans of his political play This House, which got a production at the National.) First he gets mired in melodrama and then the tone of the play becomes polemical. It loses its shape, and by the end you’re not sure what Graham intended by making Lamb and not Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) the protagonist. Presumably at some point in the process he had it in his mind to make Ink about Lamb’s Faustian bargain, but Murdoch is no Mephistopheles; though he gives Lamb carte blanche to go to any lengths to make The Sun more popular than The Daily Mirror, he actually balks at some of his editor’s tactics. Coyle and especially Carvel are superb, and I wouldn’t change a single member of the supporting cast.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.