Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Dumb Fun Sub Movie Is Better Than None: Hunter Killer

Gerard Butler (left) in Hunter Killer.

If you hadn’t already guessed from the film’s name and poster typeface, Hunter Killer is a retro action B-movie in the techno-fetishistic style of a Tom Clancy adaptation. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) ascends from the rank and file to captain his first submarine on a mission to investigate a missing American sub, which they find sunk alongside a Russian sub. Unable to contact Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the U.S. sends out a Navy SEAL recon team, which discovers that Zakarin is being held captive at a Russian naval base in a coup led by war-hungry Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Naturally, the sub and the SEALs are brought together to form a mission to extract Zakarin. Needless to say, they succeed by a hair.

There are numerous resemblances to The Hunt for Red October (1990): some crew are rescued from the downed Russian sub, whose captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) proves indispensable for navigating the U.S. sub into the Russian naval base, and for getting it out in one piece; a stateside bureaucratic argument over how to deal with the coup results in both prepping for war and greenlighting the maverick rescue op, which is also headed by a black admiral (here played by Common); there’s a traitor in the Russian crew, though here it’s only a minor plot point; and, heck, the Russians even speak English amongst themselves.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Halves: Man in the Ring and The Lifespan of a Fact

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson in Michael Cristofer's Man in the Ring. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Cristofer’s new play Man in the Ring, receiving its premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, is the biography of Emile Griffith, the middleweight boxing champ of the late fifties and sixties, born on St. Thomas. It’s a fascinating story about a man whose life is haunted by demons – of Benny “Kid” Paret, who died as a result of the Griffith’s last victory over him in the ring, and, in Cristofer’s portrait, of his bisexuality. (Cristofer recreates the vicious beating Griffith received outside a gay bar in 1992.) Cristofer’s dramatic strategy is to tell it in flashback through the point of view of an aging Emile (John Douglas Thompson), living in New York with Luis (Victor Almanzar), a younger man who nurses him through his struggles with dementia pugilistica.

Michael Greif has given the work an exciting production, gracefully staged and visually beautiful. David Zinn designed the set, which is delineated at the wings by staggered fire-escape balconies and upstage by a curved cyclorama on which Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully’s projections evoke the period urban feel as well as echoing key moments in the play, Brechtian style. Zinn relies on muted colors, blacks and browns and sepias, while Emilio Sosa’s costumes provide exotic flashes of color that link back to Emile’s island birthplace. The brilliant lighting design is by Ben Stanton, who takes a leaf from Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman’s book: blinding, crackling flashbulbs heighten the fight scenes. Matt Tierney created the vibrant sound design, and Michael McElroy arranged the music, Caribbean hymns and folk songs that, like the titles, have a Brechtian function. The supporting cast is flawless; the standout performances are by the charismatic Kyle Vincent Terry as young Emile, Almanzar as both Luis (who was Griffith’s adopted son) and a male lover, and Sean Boyce Johnson as Benny Paret, but Starla Benford as Emile’s mother, Emelda, and Gordon Clapp as his manager, Howie Albert, are also memorable. Towering above them is the majestic John Douglas Thompson. His portrayal of the physiologically and psychically impaired Griffith, who stumbles through the play like a wounded colossus, howling like Lear against the immovable universe, is surely one of the highlights of the theatrical season, here or anywhere.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Soundtrack for The Immobile Flaneur: The Seductive Music of Nas Hedron

“Music is frozen architecture and architecture is frozen music.” – Goethe

Museum of Dreams. That was the title that my friend and fellow broadcaster the late Kevin Courrier and I gave to an episode of a pilot for a radio program we were working on together a few years back. The program was called Musical Chairs, with each weekly episode devoted to a particular theme and featuring drastically diverse musical examples evoking a given subject. That particular installment was about “The City,” and it offered a wide range of international music, including songs, instrumentals, pop, folk, jazz, classical and avant-garde, all of which personified life in an urban setting: what it meant to be city dwellers, all of us strangers living together in close proximity. My notion was that every city was a kind of museum collecting all the dreams, and even perhaps the nightmares for that matter, of all the inhabitants it had hosted throughout its history. Maybe even the dreams of future inhabitants would be stored in this urban museum, people who hadn’t even arrived there yet.

We had songs by Bruce Cockburn from Inner City Front, a concerto by Aaron Copeland called "Quiet City," The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Summer in the City," Ornette Coleman’s "Skies Over America" jazz suite, Scott Walker’s enigmatic "Farmer in the City," Stevie Wonder’s "Living For the City," and the mysterious chamber work by American composer Charles Ives, "Central Park in the Dark," among others. The idea being to freak out as many listeners as possible by exploring one single, simple subject and theme, the city and its sounds, through as many divergent threads of musical styles as possible. In between tracks, Kevin and I would chat about how and why we each had chosen our alternating selections to play for the other (and the audience). If only I had known back then (mid-'80s) about the music of Nas Hedron, we could have programmed a whole episode, maybe even several, come to think of it, merely by playing a flock of Hedron’s own shimmering compositions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Found Footage: Mountain (2017) and Shirkers (2018)

A scene from Jennifer Peedom's Mountain (2017).

I want to discuss two films that, to a significant degree, are stitched together from previously existing footage.

Mountain (2017) is a feature-length video essay, directed by Jennifer Peedom and mostly shot by Renan Ozturk, on the symbolic relationship between human and mountain. Mountain porn is to be expected – the gorgeous, absolutely stunning vistas and panoramas and drone shots – but what is not expected is just how much this 74-minute-long film effortlessly includes: mountaintop cyclists and motorcyclists, skiers with and without parachutes, tightrope walkers, shots of individual snowflakes (turns out they’re not flat), lava, nosediving helicopters, vertigo-inducing helmet-cam shots of regular and free solo climbers, an athlete wipe-out reel, a critique of extreme sports online branding, and a critique of mountain tourism. Not to mention the poetry of Willem Dafoe’s narration, taken from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. It’s truly an awesome experience.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Magic Season – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

We can all agree that the more franchises crowd the multiplexes, the more difficult it is for other sorts of pictures to get seen – indeed, to get made at all. Still, some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies this year have been at the latest entries in various series: Incredibles 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, even the much-maligned Solo. However, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald towers above the others. It confirms that, visually and emotionally, this particular franchise is on the same level as the recently concluded Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Remembering Kevin Courrier: A Friendship Cemented Through Music

Kevin Courrier passed away on October 12. He would have turned 64 years old today.

I was already very interested in movies when I became friends with Kevin Courrier, the late co-founder of Critics At Large, in the late eighties/early nineties, not long after I graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto and began reviewing films professionally on a freelance basis. We bonded over our affinity for American filmmakers Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, who were disdained by many of our colleagues, and shared a love of other directors, such as Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) and Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien, Vanya on 42nd Street). But I think I learnt more about music from Kevin than from anyone else. As much as Kevin knew cinema, and he certainly did, I’d say he knew music even better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weeps Happiness: The Dysfunctional Drama of the White Album

The Beatles' "Mad Day Out" (July 28, 1968). (Photo credit: Apple Corps Ltd.)

Devin: I'd love to follow up on that White Album idea for CAL we discussed at the Toronto gathering. I'll write back more in the coming weeks as today I am caught up in medical appointments. But I wanted to let you know right away that I'm in.
By the way, Habs is short for Les Habitants which were, at one time, the farmers of Quebec in the 17th Century.
Best to you both.

– An email from Kevin Courrier, July 24, 2018.

This is the modified text of a talk delivered at “The Beatles’ The White Album: An International Symposium,” Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ, November 11, 2018. It was, and is, dedicated to Kevin Courrier.

*   *   *

All art is, at once, surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
– Oscar Wilde

With Wilde’s words in mind, listen again to the White Album, or simply its opening. About seven seconds into the first track, “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” as we hear the descent of a jet – a masterful, momentous sound, universally recognized – there’s another, much odder sound: a sound that is not monumental at all, and that no one could recognize. If you know The Beatles, you know the sound; you can hear it in your head this moment if you try. But what is it? A throat imitating a guitar? A guitar imitating a throat? It’s like something out of Spike Jones. Yet it isn’t to any apparent purpose, comedic or musical. It’s simply there. It has always been there. And whether we’ve thought about it or not, it has influenced how we hear every sound that follows it.