Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dirk Gently and the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All British TV

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd star in Dirk Gently, on BBC Four

Adapting beloved literary characters to television is a risky business. Often, though, it is a risk well worth taking, as in Steven Moffat’s sublime variation on the classic Conan Doyle characters and stories in Sherlock, which recently aired its second season. This year, the BBC tries its hand at another generation’s literary hero: Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently. The TV version of Dirk Gently first saw the light of day as a 60-minute test pilot that aired in December 2010. Commissioned for a three-part series a few months later, the first new episode premiered on BBC Four on March 5 and its third and last episode aired just this past Monday. With Gently, the result is less explosive than with Sherlock, but then again, the show is working with a smaller palette (smaller budget, and a half hour less screen time per episode – a Gently episode is 60 minutes, while Sherlock episodes run 90) and a much more restricted canon. On the other hand, Moffat was hardly the first to adapt the great detective, and Dirk Gently hasn’t (yet!) been immortalized as a puppet on Sesame Street. Adams’ fans have reason to be apprehensive, and when it comes to this new series, it is really a matter of balancing expectations.

Less of an adaptation of the wickedly funny novels than a new work inspired by the tone, themes, and characters of the two Dirk Gently novels – Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), Douglas Adams’ follow-up to his immensely popular The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels – the new series follows the adventures of Dirk Gently (Stephen Mangan), part hapless private detective and part conman, and his put-upon sidekick, Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd). The show’s creator, Howard Overman, clearly has no ambition to literally translate the novels to the small screen, and the series genuinely succeeds in capturing the spirit, if few of the details, of Adams’ stories.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Neglected Gem #11: Almost Peaceful (Un monde presque paisible) (2002)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Taking place immediately following World War II, Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful is a loving, moving portrait of Jewish survivours of the Holocaust attempting to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives in Paris. Unlike better known Holocaust films (Schindler's ListThe Pianist), which concentrate on survivors' actual, horrific experiences during the war, Almost Peaceful, based on a book by Robert Bober, is a low-key drama that never engages in graphic imagery.

Set in a tailor shop which has just been reclaimed by its owners, the film follows the business' proprietors, Albert (Simon Abkarian) and Lea (Zabou Brietman), and their employees as they rebuild their existences. One pines for family members who will never return; another finds solace in the arms of prostitutes. Others engage in their own affairs of the heart. Beautifully shot and rendered, the evocative Almost Peaceful is firmly placed in the humane tradition of French directors like Fran├žois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants), but with a heart and spirit all its own.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eight is Enough for Now: Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale

Never thought I'd say this. Never thought I'd have to say this. Philip Kerr needs to take another extended break from Bernie Gunther, his series of detective novels set during the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany. Gunther is a private detective. He's a former cop who left the force (forced out?) because he became sickened by what the Nazis were doing to his city, Berlin, his country, Germany, and its people, especially the Jews. The eighth novel in the series, Prague Fatale (Putnam, 2012), was published late last fall in the UK, and will be published on April 17th in Canada (I read the UK edition which I got from overseas). It is, I'm sad to say, the only failure in this series of books.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Infatuated with the Past: Carolina Chocolate Drops' Leaving Eden

The new Carolina Chocolate Drops CD Leaving Eden (Nonesuch, 2012) is an album that seeks to acknowledge the American past with its eclectic mix of jig, blues and ballads, where the historical roots even go far back to the 1870s. Sepia images not only grace the cover and liner notes, the instrumentation is banjo, jugs, fiddles and bones used for percussion. I’m not entirely certain of the band’s intentions regarding their image, but as far as the music is concerned, producer Buddy Miller has captured the soul of a band infatuated with the past and not afraid to show it.

American roots music has much to celebrate in the 21st Century as a new generation of musicians seeks out a tradition that is old and as un-hip as one could imagine. For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who bill themselves as progenitors of Negro Jug Music, the whole notion of being fashionable takes on an image completely removed from the mainstream. In many ways, this North Carolina trio goes beyond categorization. Rhiannon Giddens (vocals / banjo / fiddle), Dom Flemons (vocals / percussion / banjo) and Hubby Jenkins (guitar / banjo) came together in 2005 while trading instruments and playing a particular brand of music associated with the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. The Piedmont region covers an area from New Jersey to Georgia, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. It was in these foothills that Piedmont blues, a mix of ragtime, folk songs and African American spirituals, was born. By the 1920s, guitarists such as Blind Blake developed a sound that was eventually captured on record, thanks to the work of Alan Lomax, the historian who travelled the world with his reel-to-reel tape recorder. His recordings made for the Library of Congress are essential to understanding the history of American roots music.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Demise of the Real B Movie: 21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star in 21 Jump Street

If David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded me why I wanted to become a film critic in the first place, Phil Lord and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street reminded me why I quit. A few weeks back, grindhouse genius Roger Corman said, approximately, that Hollywood had destroyed the low budget, independently made crappy, but fun, B and C movies when they started making them themselves and then lavishing extravagant budgets on them. 21 Jump Street is a case in point. The picture cost $42 million to make, plus marketing costs, and I came out of it wondering what they had spent the money on. It sure hadn't been on production values, because the film looks okay, but it's nothing special. It wasn't for the script which borrows a bit from Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs., puts some ironic makeup on it (it's like putting lipstick on a pig, but never mind) and pretends it's hip and with it. It wasn't in the action sequences which, again, while competent, were also nothing special. And it sure wasn't because the leads were making $20 million each. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, again, are okay (and Tatum actually might have some light comedy chops), but it's ... it's just so drab. Is this the best we can do with all that money? Really?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Memphis: A Musical for Its Time

The hit Broadway musical Memphis, which recently aired on PBS with its original cast intact, has an irresistible swing. Joe DiPietro’s book presents a simplified version of how rhythm and blues crossed over to attract white audiences in Memphis in the 1950s, with characters standing in for demographic groups and points of view. But you feel as you do at certain movies that dramatize key moments in the chronicle of popular music like American Hot Wax or Cadillac Records: the show gets it right emotionally even if you don’t buy it as history, and you get caught up in the visceral excitement of the subject matter. It does a hundred things wrong and still delivers an awfully good time.

Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a white ne’er-do-well who ventures into a black club in his home town in 1951 to hear up close the glorious music he’s been sneaking illicit listens to since he was a boy. There he discovers Felicia (Montego Glover), who looks like a black baby doll with bright button eyes and marcelled jet hair but sings gospel and R&B in an exuberant bourbon-and-molasses voice. Huey can’t hold down a job as a department-store stock boy (he gets distracted and breaks the merchandise) but when he convinces his boss to let him try out in the music department he causes a small-time sensation playing “race records.” The ones he sells to turned-on white customers are his own, of course; the store doesn’t carry music that isn’t white – and his employer is too scandalized to keep him on. But he talks his way into a DJ spot on a local radio station with a combination of sheer bravado and unarguable results: listeners who haven’t heard anything like the kind of music he spins keep calling in to request more. Eventually he gets the station manager (Michael McGrath), a pragmatist with a terrible sidewall haircut, to let Felicia perform one of her songs live on the air, and her brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), who owns the club where Huey first saw her, starts producing her records. But Delray has trouble warming up to Huey. When he and Felicia start a romance, Delray foresees trouble, and he’s right. Though they have to sneak around, mostly after dark, they aren’t careful enough, and the first act ends with redneck thugs beating both of them up in the street. (They aim the worst blows, administered with a baseball bat, at Felicia.) The second act finds Huey as the host of an American Bandstand-style local TV show that gets away with showcasing African American singers and dancers, and Felicia setting her sights on a crossover career in New York City, where she and Huey can live safer lives.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thrilla from Wasilla: The High Stakes of Game Change

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as John McCain and Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change

Greetings from Cloudcuckooland! Here in the not-so-United States of America, many Republican legislatures are proposing draconian laws to insert medically unnecessary transvaginal probes into the private parts of women seeking abortions (Texas and Virginia), or force female employees to tell their bosses if they’re using birth control for controlling births rather than for health concerns (Arizona), or change the legal definition of women who have been raped from “victims” to “accusers” (Georgia), or allow the murder of doctors who provide abortions (South Dakota).

By contrast, claiming to have foreign policy experience because you can see Russia from your house seems rather tame. That is actually only a satirical line in the dead-ringer Tina Fey impersonation on Saturday Night Live. It’s a slight exaggeration of a genuine attempt by Governor Sarah Palin to bolster her credentials as a vice-presidential nominee: She merely said that Russia can be spotted from somewhere in Alaska. The distinction is among many revelations in Game Change, an HBO drama based on the bestselling book by seasoned journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 elections. Viewers may be familiar with the chronology but the picture still unfolds like edge-of-your-seat entertainment.