Saturday, January 21, 2017

House of Cardinals: HBO’s The Young Pope

Jude Law in HBO's The Young Pope.

As a product of Catholic education, I’m always curious to see what the world of art and entertainment makes of the Church, and of religious belief in general. The Catholic Church has always drawn its fair share of unflattering depictions, from the hysterics of Protestant Americans worried about waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century to the pulp conspiracy novels of Dan Brown. HBO’s new series, The Young Pope, which was written and directed entirely by creator Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) and stars Jude Law in the title role, goes for a much more surreal approach. Judging from the pilot, that’s not necessarily much of an improvement on some of the other, more outlandish takes on the Vatican.

The Young Pope received a wave of advance publicity from some of the weirder corners of the Internet when it became the subject of a series of memes, most of which subjected its apparent premise to faint ridicule. On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough fantasy: what would happen to the Catholic Church if and when a younger pope – and an American to boot! – succeeded to the papal throne? Law plays Lenny Belardo, an orphaned boy who’s taken in by a nun (Diane Keaton) and rises to head the Vatican. While there’s not much in terms of plot in the pilot episode, the basic framework of a traditional drama is there: a controversial figure gains power, but the degree to which rival factions are willing to let him exercise it remains in question. Once the pilot premiered, some Internet wags commented on the show’s fundamental similarities to House of Cards (hence the title of this review).

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era

As many of us this week watched President Barack Obama exit the presidential stage with dignity, grace, and even some humour, an inescapable melancholy also permeated the air. Besides the passing of a historic moment in time, one couldn't help but notice the new history about to be made. We were about to watch Donald Trump – a populist demagogue who built his road to the White House by spending years attempting to delegitimize Obama in a Truther campaign that questioned his citizenship – become president. He continued by bullying opponents, toadying up to Russia and hiding his tax returns (which may provide clues to why he plays footsies with Putin), proudly promoting the traits of a sexual predator, exploiting racism and fear, and making promises that pander to anger rather than seeking the means to healing the wounds that stoke that rage. The democratic dream hasn't died and I believe it will survive the man about to be president who has chosen to demean those ideals. But the Obama era, which opened the door to finally laying rest the stained legacy of racism and exploitation, could not close that door on those who sought to ignore it. The idealistic impulse in American exceptionalism is not bathed in light. "America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, lynch mobs and escapes, its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings," critic Greil Marcus writes in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. "The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood." He also reminds us that prophetic voices – from John Winthrop to Martin Luther King Jr. – were "raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present." That is also true of the popular culture that reflects that covenant.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Touch Me And See: Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing

Kwak Do-Won and Jo Han-Cheol in The Wailing.

I’ve spoken before about the blending of genres, tones, and themes that exemplifies the style of directors like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Kim Ki-Duk. It’s a renaissance of cinematic flair that has come to represent the Korean New Wave as a whole for many Westerners since the late 1990s, and results in films that feel – especially to our exhausted, Hollywood-trained eyes – more fresh and vital and surprising than almost anything we produce over here. One of the latest and most emotionally brutal versions of this style might be Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, which swerves from slapstick comedy to supernatural horror with an intensity that might result in whiplash, if it weren’t handled with such care and skill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Walker Evans and Johannes Vermeer Walk Into a Bar

Self Portrait, 1937, by Walker Evans.

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” – Garry Winogrand

The eye of Walker Evans is to the camera what the eye of Johannes Vermeer was to a canvas. Every image they both made is the embodied meaning of a moment in everyday life. Evans may also be the most influential photographic artist of the 20th century, a visionary genius whose unique way of revealing the shadowy substance beneath the surfaces we take for granted has inspired every other photographer since, whether or not they even know his name. I strongly suspect that he was our Vermeer.

Like most people who have developed a deep appreciation for his masterful photographs, I first encountered him while reading James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The curious collision between the agile dissonance of Agee’s poetic prose and the sedate elegance of Evans’ stately imagery, ostensibly designed to illustrate the 1936 text on the American South during the Great Depression, has remained just as powerful after decades. The word "indelible" is not an exaggeration when we apply it to Evans, who lived from 1903 to 1975.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gutsy: Black-ish Takes On Donald Trump's Election

A scene from the January 11th episode of ABC's Black-ish.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the Jan. 11 episode of Black-ish.

There’s been no shortage of ink detailing the ongoing battle between President-elect Donald Trump and NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, whose satirical – and often funny and spot-on – jibes directed at Trump are driving the thin-skinned, infantile soon-to-be (God help us) Commander in Chief nuts. But the January 11 episode of ABC’s sharp sitcom Black-ish trumped Lorne Michaels’s creation with a beautifully written and tellingly observed show that got at the new realities in present-day post-election America and the disturbing and ever more apparent rift between the country’s left and right flanks, as well as the gulf separating those citizens who wanted Hillary Clinton to be their next President and those who were content to make Donald Trump their leader.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I Like to Recognize the Tune: A Doll’s House at the Huntington

Andrea Syglowski and Sekou Laidlow in the Huntington Theatre's A Doll’s House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

You can set a play by Shakespeare or Molière in any era, but you can’t mess around with the setting of a realist play or it no longer makes sense. Yet contemporary directors keep doing it, subjecting the modern realist classics to time shifts that have the effect of bowdlerizing them. The Abbey Theatre’s touring production of Sean O’Casey’s great tragedy about the Easter 1916 uprising, The Plough and the Stars, which American Repertory Theatre imported to Cambridge last fall, threw it forward into the twenty-first century. In the last act of the Roundabout Theatre’s recent Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s bankrupt Russian aristocrats – a class that was, of course, wiped out or driven into exile by the Russian Revolution – walk out into the world in modern-day outfits. And now we have the Huntington Theatre’s mounting of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (adapted by Bryony Lavery), with an ambiguous setting that is, however, definitely post-1930, judging from the dresses Michael Krass has designed for Nora Helmer (Andrea Syglowski) and her childhood friend Christine Linde (Marinda Anderson).

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seoul Food: CBC's Kim's Convenience

Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Andrea Bang in Kim's Convenience on CBC.

Ins Choi's semi-autobiographical 2011 play Kim's Convenience originally debuted as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival and was later remounted by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company to wide acclaim. Soulpepper's production would go on to win two Toronto Theatre Critics awards in 2012, one for Best Canadian Play and another for Best Actor for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in the role of Mr. Kim. With Soulpepper on board as co-producer, CBC's television adaptation concluded its 13-episode first season on December 27, and it was consistently one of the delights of the 2016 television season, be it American or Canadian.