Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #6: Erica Jong (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

During the eighties, feminism (like any political movement) was faced with the difficulty of evolving and diversifying in order to accommodate different views and the possibilities of reform. Some of those eclectic voices to emerge in feminism became part of a chapter in my book called The Many Faces of Feminism. One of those interviews was with author Erica Jong. In the seventies, Jong put herself on the literary map with her controversial roman a clef Fear of Flying (1973), which took on sexual taboos with complete irreverence. Her novel was narrated by its protagonist, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a twenty-nine-year-old poet who had published two books of poetry. On a trip to Vienna with her second husband, she decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with another man. When I spoke to her in 1984, she had just published a sequel titled Parachutes and Kisses. The idea of sexual independence for women was the centerpiece of Fear of Flying, but the notion of sexual freedom and what that means in the eighties became the basis of our discussion of Parachutes and Kisses. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Style and Substance: The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is one of those rare prestige productions; a rich meal without an ounce of stuffing. The picture delves instead beneath the formality of good taste and into the substance of compelling dramatic conflict. Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams, The Damned United) cleverly draws from the psychological underpinnings of classic drama where acting a role becomes part of the process of self-discovery. He applies that process to the study of an unlikely friendship between Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unfulfilled Australian actor turned speech therapist, hired by Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, to cure her husband’s speech impediment. The picture, which sparkles with wit and intelligence, may have a conventional structure, but the story undoes the refuge of convention. The unorthodox means by which Lionel transforms Albert’s stammer into clear, eloquent diction is heightened by both personal and historical events. The resolution of that personal conflict offers no hiding place from the dark days ahead as Britain enters the Second World War.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Survivor - Natalie Cole's Memoir: Love Brought Me Back

The autobiography can take many forms. It can be a memoir, a diary, or a detailed history of one’s life. It can also be a confessional, or a series of stories shaped to reveal a person’s foibles and how they were overcome. For Natalie Cole, the American singer, you get a mix of every style in her new book, Love Brought Me Back (Simon & Schuster, 2010). What the mixture doesn't provide is depth. This short tome basically offers the story of Cole’s contraction of Hepatitus C, how it nearly killed her, and how she was saved by a transplant in 2009. Now 60, Cole tells the story with the aid of David Ritz, one of the busiest writers in the celebrity biography field. Ritz has helped a ton of musicians write their stories, including Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Paul Shaffer and Grandmaster Flash.

Natalie Cole’s father was Nat “King” Cole, the American performer equally at home playing jazz or singing traditional pop songs. Cole’s warm vocal tone and classy presentation made him one of the African-American pioneers in the 1960s, landing a very popular television variety show on network TV. His songs continue to be heard around the world on MOR radio stations. He died of lung cancer in 1965 at the height of his career leaving his wife and his daughters Natalie, Carole (aka Cookie), Nat Kelly and his twin daughters Timolin and Casey. Natalie was 15 years old at the time. It was an event that changed the lives of both siblings. As Cole admits, “the impact of losing my dad at age fifteen was incalculable. Some twenty years later, while in rehab, I was told by a wise counselor that I still hadn’t mourned the loss.” Cole was addicted to drugs at an early age, specifically heroin. Even though she kicked it, her severe usage damaged her liver so that by the time she was 58, during a routine check-up, it was discovered she had Hepatitis C. Her doctor prescribed heavy medication, namely interferon, an anti-viral medicine.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 2): No Ordinary Family

ABC's No Ordinary Family
Today, we continue with my mid-year review of the new fall television season. Back in early September, I listed several new shows from this current fall TV season that I planned to watch. Yesterday I wrote about Outsourced, a new comedy series that surprised me by exceeding almost every expectation I had, and next time I’ll write about Terriers, a recently-cancelled series which more than met every high expectation I might have had for it. Today however I’m writing about No Ordinary Family, a sci-fi/comedy/drama which despite its imaginative premise and talented cast has disappointingly fallen well below my expectations.

In No Ordinary Family (ABC, CTV), we meet an average and mildly dysfunctional American family that survives a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest and emerges with superpowers. Prior to the crash, the Powells were drifting apart: the parents were communicating less and less with one another and with their two high-school age kids. All of this however begins to change after the plane crash. In fact, what becomes quickly apparent is that these new powers seem designed to fill in the gaps in their personalities, bolstering them in precisely the ways that would fix their individual weaknesses. And so Stephanie, a wife and mother (Julie Benz) who works long hours and can’t find time to spend with her family, is given the gift of super-speed; Jim, a husband and father (Michael Chiklis) whose career choices have left him feeling emasculated, develops super-strength and near physical invulnerability; Daphne (Kay Panabaker), a typically self-involved teenage girl who rarely looks up from her cell phone, finds herself able to read minds; J.J., a teen boy (Jimmy Bennett) who struggles in school because of an undiagnosed learning disability, is given vast intuitive intelligence, and so on. While on paper this may seem to promise a nice poetic balance for the series, it is this initial decision that leads the series to fall flat from a dramatic standpoint.  We are introduced, albeit for about 5 minutes, to a family with real issues that most viewers can identify with, but then just as quickly the show cheats both the characters and the viewers of any genuine engagement with any real, human struggles, inadvertently undercutting much of the potential emotional realism of its stories and characterizations.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 1): Outsourced

Ben Rappaport as Todd on NBC's Outsourced.

At the beginning of September, I looked ahead at this current fall TV season, singling out a handful of new shows that had grabbed my attention. As the halfway point of the 2010-2011 television season approaches, it seems only appropriate that I let you know how those expectations worked out for me.  Since I’ve already written at length about AMC’s The Walking Dead and my fellow critic David Churchill has weighed in on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, over the my next few posts,  I’ll be returning to three of those shows: Terriers (FX), which rose admirably to meet my expectations; No Ordinary Family (ABC), which has fallen consistently short of them; and Outsourced (NBC), which far exceeded any limited expectations I might have had. While to my profound disappointment, FX announced yesterday that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers, both No Ordinary Family and Outsourced have already been picked up for second seasons. First up: NBC’s Outsourced.

Outsourced (NBC, Global)

While the 2009 season introduced three of my favourite current sitcoms—Community (NBC), Modern Family (ABC), and the unfortunately-titled-but-somehow-wonderful Couger Town (ABC)—the 2010 season has been an utter disappointment comedy-wise. With one exception, I haven’t added any new sitcoms to my ‘watch’ list this year. And that one exception is Outsourced.  Based on John Jeffcoat’s well-received 2006 indie romantic comedy of the same name and set in Mumbai (but filmed on a lot in L.A.), Outsourced is NBC’s fish-out-of-water/workplace comedy. Ben Rappaport plays Todd, a 25-year-old Kansas City native sent to India to run a call centre for an American novelties company. I confess that I initially tuned into Outsourced with a kind of morbid curiosity. The advance press and promos for the show make it look like a train-wreck: clumsy, unfunny, and probably culturally offensive to boot. Coming to the show with these expectations, I was surprised to find a consistently funny, well-written show, with likeable actors and often touchingly human situations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Three From The Shelf: Shattered Glass, Secret Ballot & Beijing Bicycle

With the holiday season approaching, people naturally flock to their DVD stores to rent movies suitable to the occasion. Here are three pictures (not related to Christmas) that didn't necessarily bring joy to the world in their time, but might now light up your viewing pleasure.

After the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times in 2003, there probably wasn't a more timely film that same year than Shattered Glass. Unfortunately, it barely got the time of day. The story of journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a writer for the liberal publication The New Republic, who cooked up over 90 percent of the stories he published, happened not long before Blair started his own brand of faux journalism. Directed by Billy Ray (Breach), Shattered Glass is an engaging, intelligently laid out story of how a young and eager journalist on the rise charmed his way into the editorial bosom of a prestigious magazine (at about the time that eagerness and charm began taking precedence over brains). Christensen gives a performance both cunning and subtle, playing a quietly obsequious cipher who finally hits a wall. Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor who provides that wall, gives an equally understated performance. As an investigative drama, Shattered Glass doesn't break any new ground, but it sure smashes a lot of illusions.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Double Dose 'o Disney: A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Disney's marketing acumen has always been top-notch. Whether it was releasing a new animated film (as they just did with Tangled), or opening the vault to re-release (in an approximate 7-year cycle) one of their classic animated feature films (the recent Blu Ray of Fantasia, for example), Disney has always had a knack for keeping their name front and centre with, if nothing else, a new generation of children. So, the recent back-to-back releases of the DVDs of their A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) were equally timely.

Released last Christmas to generally iffy reviews, Robert Zemeckis's latest motion-capture (mo-cap) experiment, A Christmas Carol, was held back for its first DVD release until just last week, a year after its theatrical launch. This is generally not the way things happen anymore. Usually, a film is in the theatres and then three to five months later it comes to On Demand and DVD. But Disney isn't stupid. A DVD release of A Christmas Carol in April or May would have been just dumb. Nobody would have rented it, so Disney wisely bit the bullet, held it a year, and are now cashing in.