Sunday, February 18, 2018

Witness for the Affirmation: Ronald K. Brown in Toronto for Black History Month

Members of Ronald K. Brown's Evidence dance company performing Four Corners. (Photo: Saya Hishikawa)

Shoulders rippled like water, hips swayed like trees in a summer breeze, spines slithered like snakes and feet, bare yet sure, beat out intricate rhythms like maracas upon the stage floor. This was movement so luxuriantly tactile you wanted to wrap your own body in it. But there was no tearing it off the backs of the dancers in Evidence, the New York dance company led by acclaimed American choreographer, Ronald K. Brown who has also created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Company and Philadanco, among other leading contemporary dance companies in the U.S.
As seen recently at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto, where Evidence performed during the first weekend in February following a 12-year absence, the six-member ensemble embraced Brown’s fusion of traditional West African, Caribbean and modern western dance styles (including the black American vernacular dances from Soul Train) with an air of self-possession that made the movement theirs, and theirs alone. Tall, small, slim and curvy, they performed Brown’s exuberantly physical and intensely contemplative choreography with a commitment that felt fresh and alive. Their dancing rolled and sung. It radiated heart. The dancers looked regal without pretension, and beautiful without vanity. This was dance in which meaning and movement forged an intimate partnership, and a strong visceral connection, with the audience.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Critical Drinking – Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars


Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, Lili Fini Zanuck’s documentary, is a well-intentioned film seeking to understand the complicated life of the British guitarist. But when Zanuck tries to make connections between Clapton’s addictions and his failed relationships while he pursued a career in music, she gets too bogged down in the details and misses the bigger, redemptive picture. Zanuck is best known as a film producer and the wife of the late Richard Zanuck, who died in 2012. She won an Academy Award for producing Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 and she’s directed a few music videos including Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” and “Pilgrim.” But this is her first full-length documentary, produced for Showtime, which recently made its debut on television. The movie premiered in 2017 at TIFF. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Post: The Old Hollywood Machinery

The Post, about how its daring 1971 coverage of the Pentagon Papers put The Washington Post in the front rank of American newspapers, is a newspaper picture with a pedigree. Steven Spielberg, working with his usual team of experts – cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn (working with Sarah Broshar), production designer Rick Carter and composer John Williams – directed from a screenplay that Liz Hannah co-authored with Josh Singer (co-writer of Spotlight). And his cast, headed by Meryl Streep as publisher Kay (Katharine) Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, presents the most impressive collection of character actors, culled from stage, movies and TV, on screen in the past year, all of them working at the top of their game. Bruce Greenwood plays Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary under JFK and LBJ, who ordered the Pentagon Papers, forty-seven volumes that documented the history of White House obfuscation about the Vietnam War; Matthew Rhys (of The Americans) is an uncanny visual match for former Marine Daniel Ellsberg, who, having drafted the study in 1966, brought it to light by having a copy left on the desk of a general assignment reporter at The New York Times. Bob Odenkirk is Ben Bagdikian, assistant managing director for national affairs at The Post, who guesses that Ellsberg – a one-time colleague of his at the RAND Corporation – is the source of the leak and tracks him down so that, when an injunction from Attorney General John Mitchell ties the hands of The Times, preventing it from offering any further coverage, The Post can pick up the ball. Tracy Letts is The Post’s chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe; Bradley Whitford, looking like an old-world southern gentleman in a bow tie, is Arthur Parsons, a composite character based on several Post advisers who discourages Graham from publishing articles about the papers; Jesse Plemons (of Friday Night Lights) is the senior legal counsel for the paper, whose youth amuses Bradlee. Sarah Paulson plays Ben’s sculptor wife Tony. Carrie Coon plays editorial writer (and future editorial page editor) Meg Greenfield and Jessie Mueller is Judith Martin, who, when the main part of the narrative begins, has been denied an invitation to cover presidential daughter Tricia Nixon’s wedding because she crashed Tricia’s older sister Julie’s wedding three years earlier. The ubiquitous Michael Stulhbarg, who also appeared in two other high-profile Christmas-season releases, The Shape of Water and Call Me by Your Name, is Abe Rosenthal, managing editor at The Times. David Constabile and Johanna Day are Graham’s close friends Art and Ann Buchwald.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love Thy Neighbour: Paddington 2

I haven’t seen the first Paddington film from 2014, but after sitting through its sequel, that feels like a mistake I should rectify not because I feel like I missed some crucial backstory, but simply because I need more films like this in my life. Paddington 2 is a sweet and charming piece of family entertainment, never stooping to the treacly in its celebration of kindness, friendliness, and tolerance. It treks into some dark places in its effort to brighten up the world, while staying lively, fun, truthful. . . and full of marmalade. I loved it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fabula: The Mythological Mind of Joachim Waibel

Telephone, Sculptural Object, 2015: rotary phone, tarred and feathered.

“You never see further than your headlights. But you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
Joachim Waibel works with fabricated dreams. A mixed-media visual artist and poet, his art practice is interdisciplinary and multi-faceted and has one common denominator: he uses whatever symbolic form in whatever medium best conveys his philosophical interests at the moment of creation. From drawing and painting to photography and film, from conceptual sculpture to concrete poetry, his creative approach is living proof that the medium is the message. Originally from Germany, where he was born in 1959, he relocated to North America in 1973 and has since explored many avenues of self-expression, in keeping with his eclectic cultural upbringing and diverse experiences as a maker. He is very German but he is also an international citizen of a conceptual country without borders. He is in fact a neo-faber, a new maker, and his active Vancouver-based studio is exploring fresh and flexible ways to operate above and beyond the traditional gallery system. He is also a postmodern renaissance man of sorts. A new maker of what? A maker of tall tales told visually, of fabula, the original name for all our stories and narratives. Out of the seductive stories that he weaves he also manufactures a steady stream of hypnotic miniature worlds for us to contemplate and even to dwell in temporarily.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Barenaked Lady: The Life and Times of Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker, the dancer who shook Paris to the core.

Her ass, if you'll pardon my French, made Josephine Baker famous. It was as expressive as her face and she bared it on the stage of the Folies Bergère in Paris for all to see, when she made her European debut in 1925 wearing only a belt of bananas. Everyone wanted a piece of it impresarios, politicians, journalists, even royalty and while she exercised ultimate control, her croupe, as the writer Georges Simenon affectionately called it, succeeded in wiggling its way into the popular imagination as a brash new symbol of the times. Her dancing was natural, untaught, rhythmic, sensual, writes the late Jean-Claude Baker, in Josephine: The Hungry Heart, and she could do it for hours without sweating.

La Baker, as her adoring French fans called her, personified the shedding of inhibition that came with the Jazz Age.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Film Critic as Moral Haranguer: A.O. Scott on Woody Allen

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam (1972).

Though I often disagree with his esthetic judgments, I have always had a great deal of respect for the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott – for his intelligence, for his literacy, for his skill at advancing an argument, and above all for the quality of his prose. And until now I’ve always thought him fair-minded. But his article, “Coming to Terms with Woody Allen,” which appeared in print in the Times on Friday, February 1, is shocking: a spurious and opportunistic personal attack masquerading as an analysis of Woody Allen’s movies. (You can access it online here.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Yes They Can: Naomi Alderman's The Power

The 2017 publication of Women & Power: A Manifesto by the eminent classical scholar Mary Beard offers a witty and caustic literary and historical overview of how women have been ridiculed, demeaned and silenced. She begins with the moment that Telemachus in The Odyssey told his mother Penelope to shut up, go to her room and resume her own work leaving public speech to men. Eventually, Beard spotlights the moment over two millennia later when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced for quoting from a letter by Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King), while others, like Bernie Sanders, were not. Beard is a particularly apt scholar to pen this manifesto considering the inflammatory vitriol that has been hurled at her for her speaking publicly about controversial issues. Her manifesto could be read in conjunction with Naomi Alderman's speculative-fiction novel, The Power (Little, Brown and Company, 2017) since she speculates what would happen if men were removed from their perches of power, demeaned, violated and silenced.

The Power is couched as "a historical novel" written by Neil Adam Armon. It is framed by an exchange of letters thousands of years into the future between Neil, who pleads for patronage from an address at "The Men Writers Association," and a woman called Naomi. He explains to her that he has written a novelized history after his academic studies have been ignored. Naomi’s responses, especially in the back end, are flecked with ridicule, charged with sexual innuendos, and downright condescending. Even before we read the novel within the novel, this literary conceit signals that we are entering into a vastly changed reality: the traditional schematics of sex and power are reversed with women exercising the real power while men are the disrespected other.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Familiar Formula: Fox’s The Resident

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a doctor on a network drama seems like he’s kind of an asshole, but his unconventional approach ends up getting results that no one else can achieve. He’s also sexy and brooding, clearly haunted by a past that he won’t open up about, but which has turned him into the person he is today. If that sounds familiar, you’ve hit on the central problem with The Resident, Fox’s new medical drama. In an era of so-called “Peak TV,” where there’s a show for virtually every taste, this one (co-created by Amy Holden Jones, Hayley Schore, and Roshan Sethi) feels too generic to stand out and merit the requisite investment of time and attention.

That’s too bad, because in this case the asshole doctor in question is played by Matt Czuchry, who’s distinguished himself through his work in supporting roles on Gilmore Girls and The Good Wife. Cary Agos, his character on the latter show, was a fascinating combination of conflicting impulses, someone whose aggressive ambition concealed unexpected complexity and humanity. He brings much of the same charisma to his role here as Dr. Conrad Hawkins, the titular resident. When new hire Devon (Manish Dayal) arrives for his first day on the job, Conrad’s predictably awful to him, but Czuchry lets us see how he’s testing this inexperienced and overconfident naif (Devon’s straight out of Harvard) to make sure he’s not going to get someone killed.

Friday, February 9, 2018

All the Money in the World and Phantom Thread: Another Planet

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World.

All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s movie about the 1973 kidnapping of sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III – known as Paul – garnered considerable attention when, following the sexual harassment claims against Kevin Spacey, Scott replaced him with Christopher Plummer in the key role of Getty Sr., Paul’s grandfather – considered in his time to be the wealthiest man in the history of the world – and re-edited the movie at the eleventh hour. But the movie died at the box office anyway, and that’s a real shame because it’s a first-rate psychological study. In the opening voice-over, Paul (Charlie Plummer) begs us to forgive the behavior of his family because, he explains, they’re rich and the rich live on another planet. Hollywood has turned out many cautionary fables over the years that present the very rich as embodiments of the American dream gone sour. (Perhaps the latest famous example is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.) David Scarpa, who wrote the screenplay for All the Money in the World (based on John Pearson’s book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty), takes a different approach: he depicts extreme wealth, wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams, as a pathology. Plummer’s J. Paul Getty may be a supporting part – the main characters are Paul’s desperate mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has to fight to get her ex-father-in-law to agree to pay her son’s ransom, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-CIA man whom Getty dispatches to negotiate with the kidnapers – but he’s at the heart of the film. And Plummer hovers over even the parts of the movie he’s not in, the way Brando hovered over The Godfather even during the many scenes when he wasn’t on screen. Plummer, who turned eighty-eight right around the time the picture was released, gives a performance that deserves to become legendary. We’ll never know what Spacey brought to the part, but when you watch Plummer you can’t imagine why Scott cast Spacey in the first place; it seems as if he’d be completely wrong for it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) – Engulfed In Truth

Raiden, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001).

 “Our beloved monsters . . . enjoy yourselves.” – Colonel Campbell

By 1999, only a year after the release of Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima’s plans for its sequel were already fully formed. Titled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and developed for Sony’s Playstation 2 console, this sequel aimed to surpass its predecessor in every possible way, offering new gameplay mechanics and technical upgrades that would take advantage of the PS2’s upgraded power, and a narrative experience that would attempt no less than a deconstruction of the medium itself. Prior to its release in 2001, anticipation for this new chapter in the Metal Gear saga reached a fever pitch in both Japan and North America.

Initial reactions, however, were starkly divided. While it was praised for its technical achievements, many players were put off by the game’s lengthy and convoluted cutscenes, some of which were described as “incomprehensible.” Fans of the coherent (if complex) plot of Metal Gear Solid were baffled by the tangled, surreal structure of MGS2, which built up so many betrayals and reversals that it became difficult to separate fact from fiction within the text of the game itself. And most infamously, nearly everyone who had enjoyed the series so far were disappointed when, after an introductory chapter starring Solid Snake (David Hayter), the game’s protagonist viewpoint shifted to a new character, code-named Raiden (Quinton Flynn), whom you control for the remainder of the 12-to-15 hour experience. Many were strident in their criticism of this choice, to the point of refusing to play (and even boycotting) the game.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Well-worn Experience: Dance Hall by Jerry Granelli

Drummer Jerry Granelli in the studio. (Photo courtesy of DL Media)

I don’t know if it’s been properly proven but the adage that some things get better with age can often apply to a musician. In the case of Dance Hall (Justin Time), the new album from drummer Jerry Granelli, experience makes for great music. On this session, the producer is Lee Townsend, whose know-how makes him one of the best sound designers in the business. Dance Hall features guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford, two of the most interesting and, I will say, distinguished musicians of the past 30 years. On electric bass is J. Anthony Granelli, Jerry’s son and long-time music director. To bring all this musical experience into one studio to record cover songs, no less, speaks to the essence of Granelli’s respect for and personal appreciation of popular song. As he says in the liner notes, “the key for me was not doing covers, but finding songs that were personal to my journey” and what a journey it has been for the famous drummer, who turned 77 on December 30th.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

"My God, What a Woman!" Sarah Bernhardt Revisited

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Floria Tosca in an 1887 stage production of Victorien Sardou's La Tosca.

The great – and inimitable – Sarah Bernhardt was a bird of many colours. Once the reigning symbol of France, she was the daughter of a courtesan, herself trained in the silken ways of harlotry. An art nouveau icon (vividly immortalized by the painter Alphonse Mucha) whose first ambition was to be a nun, she wore pants and played men's roles, though she was eminently feminine. An actress who was also a writer, a painter and a sculptor, she was the first international superstar.

The Divine Sarah, as she is called in the dazzling biography The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt (Knoft, 1991) by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale (a former piano duo turned biographers, both now deceased), was the greatest performer of her day. Following an excellent convent education secured for her by her mother Julie (Youle) Bernard, a Jewish demimonde from Amsterdam who bore Sarah and her two younger sisters illegitimately, Bernhardt (the name is derived from grandfather Bernard and grandmother Hart) trained at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she was born in 1844. She started her career at the Comédie-Française, but was fired after only three years because of her outrageous temper.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Bad Dates and Una: Bad Dates and Worse Ones

Haneefah Wood stars in Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Ericson)

Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates was a hit for the Huntington Theatre in 2003, so the company has elected to resurrect it this season on its mainstage, which means that it programmed two one-woman shows back to back. (Mala closed last week in its South End space.) Bad Dates is by far the superior play – and the superior performance, by the bright-eyed, charismatic L.A. actress Haneefah Wood. It’s enjoyable if not memorable entertainment. I knew I’d seen Julie White in the show fifteen years ago but couldn’t recall a thing about it except the premise – a middle-aged single woman tells the audience about a succession of eagerly anticipated evenings with men that, one after the other, go wrong. The play hails from the Sex and the City era and the character shares with that series’ narrator-protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, an obsession with expensive footwear and a frankness about life in Manhattan for an attractive thirtysomething with a career who’s trying to find the right man – though in this cases Haley Walker, who manages a relatively high-end restaurant for some shady people, is also raising a teenage daughter on her own.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Grown-ish: Smart, Funny, and more than merely Serious-ish

Trevor Jackson and Yara Shahidi in Grown-ish.

Grown-ish has been a weekly delight in my household since it first premiered on January 3. As a regular viewer of Black-ish, I’ve known about the college-set spinoff of ABC’s hit family comedy since last May, when its (literal) parent series aired an underwhelming backdoor pilot for the show near the end of its third season. It wasn’t the weakest episode of Black-ish’s otherwise strong season – that award goes to its cringe-worthy season premiere, set awkwardly within a half-hour advertisement for Disney World – but outside of spelling out the broad situation and setting of the new series, which would follow the Johnsons’ eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) to nearby fictional Southern California University, it gave few indications what was to come. But as we approach the midway point of Grown-ish’s “freshman” season (the 7th of 13 episodes airs this Wednesday), a couple of things have become clear: the first is that Yara Shahidi (who has been capably playing her own age since she was introduced as a 14-year-old in 2014) has proven herself wholly capable of helming her own series, and the second is that Grown-ish has quickly developed its own tone and voice, already making it much more than a Black-ish side project.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Down That Lonesome Road: Sophie Huber's Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)

Actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Back in 1984, I was scheduled to do a taped radio interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton from his hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival. Having been a character actor with memorable supporting parts in numerous films from Cool Hand Luke to The Rose, Stanton had just landed his first real starring role in Wim Wenders' laconic drama, Paris, Texas, where he played a lost soul estranged from his family who wanders out of the desert one day to reunite with them years after disappearing. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was eager under the circumstances to get Stanton plenty of publicity despite the fact that the actor wasn't the least bit comfortable being thrust into the spotlight. Despite his reluctance to be showered with attention, however, he could be thorny. I didn't help my cause that day by accidentally missing the initial press screening and having to attend the Festival one (which was taking place just before I was to go meet Stanton). Paris, Texas turned out to be over 2-1/2 hours long which meant I had to leave the film a half-hour early to make the interview in time. While I wasn't comfortable having to depart the picture early, I still felt confident enough to do the interview after what I had seen. But maybe what I shouldn't have done was tell Stanton that I had had to leave before the film ended because from the time we started rolling tape, he rolled back into a cocoon. Looking at me with complete indifference, he let me ask about fifty questions in ten minutes – questions went beyond Paris, Texas back through his earlier film career and even into his life in music – to which he provided cryptic one-word cryptic answers. Finally exasperated, I turned off the tape recorder and Harry Dean looked at me with the satisfied grin of someone who had just won a round of arm wrestling. As I looked up to say, "Well, that's it," he answered back quickly, "It sure is." He grabbed his jacket and departed the hotel room with such speed that it was if he wanted to leave no trace of ever having being there. For years, I was baffled that we hadn't managed to get past our great divide, but having recently seen Sophie Huber's lovely and satisfying documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, I came to recognize something I probably missed that day. For an actor whose career lit up the background shadows of movies, being visible and being recognized came with certain obligations by those who wished to engage him. As Stanton never said a word, or looked into a camera lens, without making that moment matter, you were expected not to take those moments lightly either. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Justice Served at the High Temple of Art: The Connoisseurship of Paul Magriel

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer from the Greek Hellenistic Period (3rd to 2nd Century B.C.) from the Met that enthralled Paul Magriel.

Of the millions who flock yearly to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, only a handful know what to look for, and how. It always drove Paul Magriel crazy. "The random business of people walking in, taking in 25 paintings, one after the other, it's just mind-boggling," the self-taught art connoisseur once fumed. "You have to separate your time, your consciousness and your visual sensibility and be so specific about what you're doing and how you're doing it that you get some benefits, otherwise it's such a waste. It's not only a waste – it's an abuse of the artist. You're not giving him justice."

To make sure justice is duly served at the high temple of art that is the Met, in 1982 Magriel began leading unofficial tours of its varied and rich collections. A regular visitor of the museum for more than five decades, he had been dismayed to see so many people shuffling through the Met as if it were a cultural shopping mall, plugged into their Acoustiguides, staring in a daze at dozens of pictures at a time, buzzing around the big exhibits heavily publicized by the museum, and ultimately ignoring the store of treasures in the Met's incomparable holdings of roughly three million objects. He started by taking friends, one or two at a time, on tours that concentrated on his own favorite objects, a range far-reaching in style, theme and material, but all chosen for having given him immense pleasure. After developing four 90 tours of about 25 objects each, word quickly spread.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Frederik Pohl (1987)

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013).

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 1987, I sat down with renowned science-fiction writer and editor, Frederik Pohl.

Last Monday, we lost another science-fiction and fantasy icon, author Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969; The Dispossessed, 1974), who passed away at the age of 88. I was never privileged to speak with Le Guin, but her passing called up a conversation I had with one of her contemporaries, fellow science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl. Over the course of his 75-year writing career, Pohl authored and co-authored (collaborating with such writers as Isaac Asimov, C. M. Kornbluth, and Arthur C. Clarke) more than 65 novels and dozens of short story collections. In 1987, Pohl had just published his novel Chernobyl, a book conceived and written only months after the terrible disaster at its nuclear plant. Pohl passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Frederik Pohl as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane

Future Relics: Image Object #1: “How to Want What You Have”(Cabinet interior view)
Carpet, painting, poem, rulers, teacups, light bulb, coin, pocket watch, film canisters

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane is an imagined exhibition curated by Donald Brackett.

1. Exhibiting the Living Archive
One day after an especially long and arduous shift in the dream factory, the art critic arrived home to discover his mailbox stuffed with letters from artists, from painters and icon makers to be more exact, each one proposing a highly appealing yet physically impossible exhibition. They had the tone of epistles from an extinct race, and from a long ago time, each one lamenting their personal sentence to The Outpost. Comparisons between Kafka's "In The Penal Colony" would not at all be out of order here, for sure enough, each icon maker does in fact bear a personal tattoo identifying his or her affiliations in the hierarchy of art history: a dream tattooed.

So it came to pass that either in their own media or in a different one unknown to them, they were choosing to express, albeit only metaphysically since most of the concepts could never be realized by the curator, their feelings as exiles from the mainstream of twenty-first-century culture, in that traditional form of lamentation so richly played out in the classical period.

It then became clear that they were all “painters,” of course, because only painters among all icon makers have been awarded a fugitive status rare in aesthetics, and only because of the insistent glare of the present digital domain. Both the notion of the "fugitive status" and also the notion of the archive of collected artists’ musings on "impossible to realize" Utopian visual projects, emerged as a result of ongoing triadic conversations among the art critic, the curator and the artist.

In the shadow of the ghost of history, while pondering these relationships, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps extinction is only an intermission, an interruption, an ellipsis between one stage of our cultural narrative and another. It was at this point that I became accidentally familiar with the seductive faux-archival work of Benny Profane.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Poet Patrick Lane (1987)

Patrick Lane giving the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria in 2013. (Photo courtesy of UVic Photo Services)

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 1987, I sat down with Canadian poet and novelist Patrick Lane.

Over his 50+-year career, Patrick Lane has published more than two dozen books of poetry. In 1978, he won the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and has since been nominated twice again for the same honour. In 2014, Governor General David Johnston inducted him into the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian poetry and literature. When I sat down with Lane in 1987 his book Selected Poems had just been published. His most recent book of poetry was Washita, in 2014. In two weeks, on February 13, his much-anticipated second novel Deep River Night will be published by McClelland & Stewart.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Patrick Lane as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Farinelli and the King: Identity as a Straitjacket

Mark Rylance (with Melody Grove) in Farinelli and the King. (Photo: Marc Brenner and Simon Annand)

Farinelli and the King, currently on Broadway, marks the seventh time I’ve seen Mark Rylance on stage. In the play, written by his wife Claire van Kampen, he plays Spain’s King Philippe V – bipolar according to historical record but mad as a hatter in the stage version – who is cured, more or less, when his second wife, Isabella (Melody Grove) persuades the gifted castrato singer Carlo Farinelli (Sam Crane) to abandon his London career and move to the Spanish court in Madrid. Rylance may be the funniest comic actor I’ve ever seen live (in the all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, where he played Olivia, in David Hirson’s La Bête, and especially in Matthew Warchus’s 2008 production of the farce Boeing-Boeing), but I’m not always as enthusiastic when I see him in straight roles. He was certainly effective in a supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, for which he won an Oscar last March, but the problem with his grandiose, scenery-chewing “straight” appearances, as Richard III (which he played in rep along with Twelfth Night) or as Philippe V, is that if you see several of them you get hip to his trademark affects – the stuttering, the interpolated “uhs” and “ums,” the brusquely cut-off phrases, the flattening out of questions so they sound like statements of fact, the deliberate end-line drops, and so on. Part of Rylance’s vocal genius is that he’s witty enough to employ for ironic effect what would be merely bad habits in most actors, like the end-line drops and refusal to put question marks at the end of questions, but what can be endlessly amusing in a comedian can become tiresome in a dramatic actor. And I’m afraid that, early in Farinelli and the King, I ran out of patience for his bag of tricks.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

We Migrants: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

Author Mohsin Hamid. (Photo: Ed Kashi)

Mohsin Hamid's most recent and timely novel Exit West (Riverhead Books, 2017) is set in a nameless, besieged country likely in the Middle East where Saeed and Nadia, the book’s protagonists (and the only two characters named), meet in an evening class and embark on a courtship. Initially, they reside in "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." That is soon to change as their tentative, gentle relationship contrasts with their country teetering on the lip of a precipice as it disintegrates into war.

In the first half of this remarkable novel, Hamid charts their growing relationship amid the backdrop of a city spiralling out of control, requiring the young lovers to leave. Although the graphic details he provides feel authentic, Exit West is not a realistic novel à la Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. There is an abstract quality about the vagueness of its setting, its characters, and its narrative that Hamid renders in exquisite prose with occasionally longish, orotund sentences. He is primarily focused on highlighting the universality of societies at war with themselves and how civilians respond to the chaos closing in on them.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Joke-Delivery Systems: Checking in on Some Network Comedies

Dylan McDermott in L.A. to Vegas

The Fox sitcom L.A. to Vegas is a lot like the titular flight that it chronicles: it’s quick, it’s fun without offering much of substance, and it doesn’t ask much of you in terms of investment (financial in the case of the flight, emotional in the case of the show). There something disarmingly straightforward about the title card that appears before each episode: “There are people who fly every weekend from L.A. to Vegas. This is their story.” As that introduction wryly suggests, this is a comedy with very little on its mind other than providing its cast with a vehicle to deliver zingy one-liners.

Friday, January 26, 2018

In Her Own Voice: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alex Borstein and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This review contains minor spoilers for the first season of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Last March, Amazon’s Spring Pilot Season had few bright lights. (Previous seasons boasted an embarrassment of riches for the streaming channel, with many of those entries still going strong – and garnering regular Emmy nods – even years later.) But this March, there was one pilot that shone as brightly as its sparkling lead character: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Created, written, and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), the pilot episode of Mrs. Maisel introduced itself with such energy and style that I am sure I was not alone in my eager anticipation of the series. (Amazon clearly knew what it had, quickly picking up the show for two seasons.) In late November, the first full season (consisting of 8 episodes) premiered, and more than lived up to the promise of its pilot. In the midst of a film and television season awash in cynicism and bile, the arrival of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a winter television wonderland.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid (1998) – The Real Way To Live

A glimpse of Metal Gear Solid, released in September 1998.

Some games can only be understood within the broader context of the franchise they belong to. Load Checkpoint is a gaming retrospective column that explores the evolving sagas of some of the most beloved properties in the business, tracing their histories and the impact they have on the medium as a whole. – Justin Cummings

Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise started small, beginning with the original Metal Gear on the Japanese MSX2 computer system in 1987. An innovative title for the time, showcasing tactical military action, a unique inventory system, and rudimentary stealth mechanics, it was soon ported to Nintendo’s Famicom system and then overseas to the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. While the NES port was crippled by poor dialogue translations and unsupervised design changes, the popularity of the brand – which introduced the world to the super-spy named Solid Snake and his nemesis, Big Boss – was clear enough to warrant a Japan-exclusive sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and would eventually lead to one of the watershed titles of the early 3D era in the late 1990s.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hometowner: Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars

Tom Wilson on stage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 2017, performing as part of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. (Photo: Donna Harper)

Tom Wilson is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters. His edgy tunes, full of wit and street-wise wisdom, grace the discographies of Wilson’s bands – Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, the latter one of Canada’s finest alt-country groups. His autobiography Beautiful Scars (Doubleday Canada), released last fall, uses, like his songs, a mix of sharpness and charm in every chapter. In his economical style he offers great memories about his life in music. But the most revealing part of his story is when he discovers that he’s from the Mohawk Nation, specifically the Kahnawake community in the province of Quebec, which was kept secret from him until 2016.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s all Crete to Me: Heraklion, Greece

Sunset over Dragon Island, Crete, Greece.

Just beyond the coast of Crete, near the port city of Heraklion (Iraklion), is a long stretch of craggy islands that the locals familiarly call The Sleeping Dragon. Cock your head slightly to one side and squint your imagination just a little and it is possible to see the monster's long neck curling under his hoary body.

On the beach, a tanned and muscled Cretan lazily spears hunks of feta and explains the significance of dragons in the rocks. George, it turns out, is a freelance photographer with National Geographic. He has just come back from a few years spent in California and speaks English with an accent that hails from somewhere between Salonika and St. Louis.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool: A Farewell to Gloria

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

The stunning blonde character actress Gloria Grahame brought more than just her trademark pout to movies like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (where Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar), Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. She made her characters’ vulnerability touching and sexy at the same time. But her Hollywood heyday lasted only about a decade, though she continued to work, on screen and on stage, until she died at fifty-seven of stomach cancer and peritonitis in 1981. Annette Bening, who plays Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is inspired casting, just as Michelle Williams was as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and like Williams she gives a magnificent performance, on par with her best work (Bugsy, The Grifters, In Dreams). The movie is about the last two years of Grahame’s life and her relationship with an aspiring young English actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she meets when he’s only twenty-eight. (Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based on Turner’s memoir.) It begins when she collapses in her dressing room during rehearsals for a production of The Glass Menagerie in the English provinces and Peter, no longer involved with her, shows up to bring her home to Liverpool, where his adoring parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take her in and care for her. It’s clear from Peter and Gloria’s reunion that their romance ended badly; we see it in a series of flashbacks to London in 1979, where they met while staying in the same boarding house, and Los Angeles and New York, where he visited her. Her reappearance in his life reactivates his feelings for her, just as he learns what she carefully concealed from him when they were lovers: that she’s dying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Art of the Roast

Checking the color of the coffee beans during the roasting process.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Ellen Perry, to our group.

On June 18, 2007, David Fullerton taught his last high-school English class and went into the coffee business. He had purchased a café on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts – put it on his credit card, in fact – and launched a new roasting operation. He decided that he liked the name the previous owners had given to the café, Acoustic Java, so he kept that – though any connection to music is, at this point, largely metaphorical. But Fullerton likes literature and appreciates a good metaphor: Acoustic Java’s motto is now “As music tames the savage beast, coffee civilizes man unkind”; and its coupons look like concert tickets.

On a January morning, I’m sitting with Fullerton at his second Worcester location, a building that used to be part of the Whittall Mills, a 19th-century carpet company. It’s a typical New England mill, so the roasting area is enormous, and the ceilings are high and supported by sturdy beams. By contrast, the adjacent tasting room is cozy, its brick wall lined with bookshelves and original art; but it also has a capacious view through plate-glass windows into the roasting operations. Fullerton wants to offer his customers “a spectacle . . . an authentic one.” He wants them to see something of what happens to their coffee before Patrick, the barista, pours it into their cup.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Going in Circles: Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel

Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel 

It's been decades since Woody Allen was the comic voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider. In those first seventies films (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper), Allen not only cleverly tweaked the WASP stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity; he also satirized them as role models. The eager audiences who strongly welcomed Allen's verbal and physical slapstick – a whirling affront to cultural and sexual repression – also came to relax around their own neurosis and self-doubt. Describing him as "the first post-Freudian movie comedian," critic Pauline Kael said that Allen was "the first to use his awareness of his own sexual insecurities as the basis for his humor, and when he turned psychodrama into comedy he seemed to speak – to joke – for all of us." But all of that changed once he won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978. The massive success of that seminal comedy about neurosis found Woody Allen no longer perched on the outside of mainstream culture. Once accepted by the insiders of Hollywood (for a film that was partly a poison-pen letter to L.A.), he seemed to feel that he had to earn his keep in the Insider's Club. Now viewing making comedy as something akin to embracing the Golden Calf, Allen began to strive for seriousness and started emulating those dramatic artists he worshiped as his betters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fakery: Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.

Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Sacramento teenager whose quirks include her insistence on renaming herself Lady Bird. At the Catholic school she attends, she’s an underachiever, though she’s smart and creative; her social circle is pretty much restricted to her best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who’s overweight and as much an outsider as she is. At home she’s constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose anxiety over money since Lady Bird’s dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job has turned her into a sour, one-note nag. The movie covers Lady Bird’s senior year, when she falls for two boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), one after another, both of whom disappoint her in different ways, flirts with social acceptance by fibbing her way into a friendship with a cool kid (Odeya Rush), and, behind her mother’s back (but with the collusion of her sympathetic father), applies to NYU, a college beyond the family’s financial means. It is, like most coming-of-age narratives that focus on the high school experience, about the protagonist’s figuring out who she is (and who she isn’t).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VI: Gotta Go Fast!

Awesome Games Done Quick took places in the Washington, D.C. area, January 7 through 14.

It’s late January, which means another Games Done Quick event has come and gone. This year, the speedrunning community beat 2017’s total by raising almost $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week-long event. As a colleague of mine so aptly put it, this is one of the few times of the year that we can collectively be proud to be part of gaming society, canceling out the toxicity and pettiness of normal gaming culture with an event fueled by togetherness, commiseration, and hope. I want to celebrate that spirit with this look at some of my favourite moments from this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a real-life high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that propelled Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons a poker face like her clients, but it reveals even less about what's going on with her than the faces of the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mala: Less Is Less

Melinda Lopez stars in Mala.. (Photo:  Paul Marotta/ArtsEmerson)

Melinda Lopez’s solo performance Mala (produced by the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion) is a reflection on the aging and deaths of her Cuban émigré parents and especially of her mother, who, her body weakened, her mind softening, overcome by terror and anger, calls her daughter mala (a bad person). The idea of the piece is that Lopez’s exhaustion with her mother’s demands and her uncertainty about how to handle her make her question whether or not she is that thing her mother accuses her of being. But the self-interrogation at the core of the play is disingenuous. There was  never a moment during Mala’s eighty-minute running time when I believed that Lopez seriously questioned her own virtuousness as she related her tireless at-home care for her mother, her anticipation of what it would be like for the older woman to slip away from life (as her father already had), her response to her mother’s apparent obliviousness – understandable, of course,  under the physical and psychological circumstances – to Lopez’s uninterrupted devotion. The piece is a celebration of Lopez’s sensitivity; her sensitivity is, in fact, the tissue of which the play is constructed. And I grew very weary of it, and finally resentful that I was set up in scene after scene to admire it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that cover the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Raisin: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Any attempt to assess the entirety of Lorraine Hansberry’s career quickly runs into the inescapable fact of her untimely death. Since she was only 34 when she died, Hansberry’s entire legacy has become identified with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Although the play will always retain a firm place in the American theatrical canon, not least because it was the first on Broadway to be written by an African-American woman as well as the first to be staged by an African-American director, that status has also made it a target for a range of criticism, from Pauline Kael’s dismissal of its filmed version as proof “that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family” to attacks on its perceived political and social complacency by George C. Wolfe, who mercilessly mocked it in a section of his play The Colored Museum.

A new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, attempts to reorient our understanding of Hansberry by placing the success of Raisin in the context of Hansberry’s overall life and career. Written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the film airs on PBS on January 19. (I should disclose that I viewed the film as preparation for an interview that I conducted with Strain for my podcast on theatre history.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

War Stories: 1945 and Last Flag Flying

A scene from Ferenc Török's 1945.

1945, by the Hungarian director Ferenc Török, written by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, is a startling piece of work – acerbic and mournful, satirical and humane. It’s set in a tiny Hungarian town just after the end of World War II, when the residents are beginning to get used to the presence of the Russians, some of whom are full of their own new-found power. (One young soldier demands that a civilian alighting from the midday train trade his more elegant hat for the soldier’s rumpled one.) The movie isn’t about the new Soviet presence, however; that’s merely one of the elements Török mixes to create a complex historical portrait. It’s a symbolic ghost story in which the dark secrets of the townspeople – their collusion, for base personal reasons, in the removal of the local Jews to the death camps – come to light when two strangers, Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, enter the town on that same train on mysterious business (burying the dead, as it turns out), unsettling the guilty residents.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

End of Binge: Netflix’s Bright

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in Netflix's Bright. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Netflix wants to dominate the movie market. They want you to stay home and watch their original programming – like Bright, a Los Angeles cop movie starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton – instead of leaving your couch and spending money at a multiplex. Bright is a big play for them, meant to be proof that their previous forays into original programming were just precursors to the main event: fresh big-budget blockbusters that you can watch from home. Netflix was convinced that this sure-fire hit, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, would end this argument before it even began. Anyone who’s seen Bright will tell you that it . . . doesn’t do that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here’s Johnny: The Man Who Carried Cash by Julie Chadwick

Johnny Cash and manager Saul Holiff at Saul's Hollywood apartment, circa 1968. (Photo: Ron Joy)

How rare it is to read a biography whose prologue begins with the description of a man’s suicide, but so it goes for Julie Chadwick’s candid and well-researched biography of Saul Holiff, who, for a short and significant time, was the manager of Johnny Cash. It’s an auspicious opening to The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon (Dundurn). While the prologue reveals nothing about the relationship between Holiff and Cash, nor fully explains why Holiff took his own life, it does try to set the stage for the story of a struggling country music artist and his Canadian fixer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

It felt pretty close to doing full penance just getting through all the grisly condescension and sanctimony of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That the picture has been garnering huge acclaim and numerous Best Film awards maybe shouldn't be too surprising given the current political climate. Dialogue in the Trump era has coarsened into Twitter feuds, talking heads on radio (who don't actually talk, but yell), and news anchors on television staking out positions rather than discussing issues, and a poisonous air of tabloid prurience perfumes the culture. People do little reflecting now and plenty more reacting. So Three Billboards keeps itself pretty busy staking out positions and reacting loudly in a cartoon atmosphere filled with ugly caricatures. Instead of reflecting on the current calamity, or even satirizing it cleverly, McDonagh chooses to distort the mood of the country and exploit it for pure effect. And the calculating unpleasantness of Three Billboards, with its queasy mixture of slapstick violence and sentimentality, would be bad enough were it not also trying to say something important. The film deliberately abandons any claim to dramatic realism, or even coherence, in order to manipulate and sway frustrated liberal sentiments and prejudices by crudely calling out "the deplorables" – the yahoos-in-a-basket whom Hillary Clinton identified as Trump's supporters in a misguided campaign speech. But the picture, with dialogue as broadly obvious as a billboard, ends up itself being deplorable by endorsing the same demagogic tactics that made Trump president in the first place.

Monday, January 8, 2018

To Own Your Creation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Children

Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Photo: Shirin Tinati)

Robert Fairchild gives a supremely touching performance as The Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which just ended a brief run at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. His role in Eve Wolf’s adaptation is a hybrid of dance (which he choreographed) and acting, and Fairchild, the New York City Ballet alum who spent most of the last couple of years playing Jerry Mulligan in the stage adaptation of An American in Paris, is a great dancer who also happens to be a fine actor. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was produced by a company that calls itself Ensemble for the Romantic Century, and Fairchild’s Monster, childlike and exuberant, fragile and openhearted, gets at the Romantic (capital “R”) core of Shelley’s novel, in which a man-made creation struggles to understand his place in the universe and rebels against his creator.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Marvel’s Runaways: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Rhenzy Feliz, Virginia Gardner and Gregg Sulkin in Marvel's Runaways, on Hulu.

On November 21, Hulu premiered Marvel’s Runaways (or Runaways). The Hulu original series has been airing weekly ever since, and its ten-episode first season will be concluding this Tuesday night (January 9). It is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2003 Marvel comic series, and like any adaptation of beloved material, it was anticipated with a mix of excitement and cautious expectation. My own reaction to hearing of the series' going into production early last year was: “Wow, I can’t wait to see how they will screw this up.” Our recent history of comic-book adaptations, which reached fever pitch with the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the large and small screens, and DC’s own parallel efforts (currently in the form of its growing – and consistently uneven – stable of CW’s television series), has done nothing to reassure audiences that such adaptations will be of a reliable quality. (The less said here of DC's big-screen productions the better.  Its television offerings began with Arrow in 2012 and the most successful, in my mind, has been Legends of Tomorrow, whose 3rd season continues next month.)

Like all of Marvel’s current television productions, Runaways takes place within the same continuity universe as the tent-pole movies that show up in theatres every few months, but, in the nine episodes that have aired so far, there have been no sign-posts at all of that universe – and this has been to Runaways’ benefit. As fascinating as it sometimes is to explore the small corner of the MCU the Netflix series have staked out, that ever-enlarging story has been more often a burden rather than a gift when it comes to storytelling, because the pressure of that continuity invariably goes only in one direction. (The flagship Marvel series, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has battled mightily under that weight for five seasons, and most recently has come up with some rather creative solutions: last year setting the latter half of its story in an entirely virtual universe and this year thrusting its heroes into a deep, alternate future.) But absent even the lip service often paid by Netflix Marvel shows to their noisy big-screen cousins, Runaways feels firmly set in a narrative universe all its own, providing the new series the space to find its own unique voice.