Saturday, June 16, 2012

Small Delights Along the Mainstream

A scene from Disney's John Carter, starring Taylor Kitsch

Back in the heyday of the big Hollywood studios, when every major company prepared an A picture and a low-budget B picture for each week of the year, no one expected that every movie would be a major event.  Movies provided a variety of pleasures, and it wasn’t a big deal if you caught some of them on the fly – a lightweight vehicle tailor-made for a beloved star, a disposal musical showcasing a few terrific dancers or a handful of inventive production numbers, an ingeniously plotted murder mystery or film noir, a romantic comedy or an action picture with a smart, wisecracking screenplay. And though there are far fewer choices now and the vast majority of releases aren’t worth any intelligent viewer’s time or money, movies still provide a spectrum of pleasures.  The problem is that the economics of filmmaking has taken many of them off the radar. Studios put the weight of their publicity machines behind only a selected few of the movies they bankroll, theatre owners play along, and, good or bad, a media event like Marvel’s The Avengers literally crowds other, smaller pictures out of the megaplexes.  If you don’t live in a big, art-house-friendly city like New York or Boston or Toronto, you don’t get a chance to see anything that isn’t given a wide release, i.e., anything that isn’t groomed to be a hit.  The only chance that a terrific little movie like Of Gods and Men or 50/50 or Margaret has of finding an audience is by word of mouth once an adventurous or lucky viewer stumbles across it on DVD.  (Margaret, which was cheated of any chance at awards from critics’ groups by a studio that stubbornly refused to send out screeners of it at the end of last year, is finally coming out on DVD in July.)

But even mainstream pictures that might offer audiences some entertainment – movies that moviegoers in most locations can actually get to – often fall by the wayside.  When so much emphasis is placed on box office receipts, the stink of failure comes off movies that don’t make an immediate mark.  And even movie reviewers, whose job is supposed to be to guide the public around the distractions, to persuade readers of viewers or listeners that the movie with the loudest media coverage or the biggest numbers isn’t necessarily the one worth putting down twelve or fifteen bucks for, aren’t immune to the smell. Critics don’t generally reserve their nastiest barbs for a loathsome hit like The Hunger Games. They save them up for modest programmers like Man on a Ledge or expensive box-office bombs like John Carter.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hippie in a Hypnotic Place and Time: Songs that Made Sense

Early Fleetwood Mac: Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood, (back row), John McVie and Christine McVie

“It’s the same kind of story that seems to come down from long ago...”

With news of Bob Welch’s death last week, I was transported back to 1974. That’s when I first heard his former band, Fleetwood Mac, while living in the theoretically sleepy Vermont village of Huntington Center with my young daughter Jennie and a part-collie named Red Cloud. Our small red cabin in the woods was up a steep, twisting dirt road at the foot of a 4,083-foot-high mountain called Camel’s Hump. Local people were wary then of counterculture types, like me, who came to the area seeking a back-to-the-land existence in their midst. Undaunted, we newcomers were busy letting our freak flags fly, in the parlance of the 1960s.

First, Jennie and I planted a circular vegetable garden intended to evoke the shape of a yin-yang sign. I was always consulting the I Ching, so everything around me simply had to be fraught with relevant symbolism. As someone who had grown up in cities and suburbs, I also was keen on exploring nature and began to examine every weed in bloom around the cabin. With a newly purchased wildflower guide and a compendium of medicinal herbs, I was able to identify each plant before determining if it had any healing properties. Bunches of them were soon hanging from a rough-hewn wooden beam in my rustic kitchen.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When Passion Overwhelms Skill: Season Five of Mad Men

Caution. Many, many spoilers are included.

I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination. 

One of the main themes of the just-wrapped Season Five of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men was about examining characters who pursued their passion at the expense of their skills. There were other ideas percolating away below the surface, but this was the major thrust that Weiner pursued in what I think is the strongest season in the series since the first. In the show, it wasn't always career choices; sometimes it was cringe-worthy wrong personal decisions that more than one character made which often led to disaster, or at the very least, a life-changing experience. Though I will occasionally discuss individual episodes (especially those that were great or bad), I'm more interested here in dissecting how Weiner developed his season-long theme through individual characters.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Bull in the China Shop: Richard Stursberg's The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC

I’ve had the privilege of working at the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, for over nine years. Richard Stursberg’s tenure was much shorter and in his book, The Tower of Babble (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012), he takes it upon himself to explain his six years as the Vice President of English Services. Throughout the memoir, he takes pride in the decisions he made during his tenure (the Globe & Mail’s John Doyle describes it as a time when he “took the CBC kicking and screaming into the 21st Century”) and it’s an appropriate description. But after reading Stursberg’s personal account in The Tower of Babble, one is left cold.  Stursberg is a man who may present himself as the media equivalent of Henry V, but he comes across as Richard III in this lengthy diatribe. 

Stursberg is a fascinating person to watch, where his rough personality is often matched by his remarkable knowledge of the media landscape and his intelligence. It’s quite the mix of qualifications that has landed him in a number of powerful Canadian arts organizations, such as Telefilm and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But because he’s a sharp, contemporary thinker whose drug of choice is ratings (what he considers the only measure of the success of any Canadian film or radio or television show), he also became the bull in the china-shop of Canadian Culture. Countless stories reveal his forthright attitude that any art form is a waste of time if the mass audience doesn't embrace it (which was his mantra from the get-go).Whether you disagree with this notion or not, it doesn't matter to Stursberg who, for hundreds of pages in his memoir, cites a rating share, or the cost of producing a program, on virtually every page to defend his argument. This becomes rather tiresome to the reader because even though he makes the point and does so in a sensible, well-argued way, his argument wears thin for the most obvious reason. It signifies a bottom line approach to broadcasting with no room for negotiation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HBO’s Veep: Close, But No Cigar

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Veep, on HBO.

This past Sunday, HBO aired the eighth and final episode of its new comedy Veep. Back in April, HBO premiered two new original comedy series: Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, and Veep, a political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated U.S. Vice President. Both series were almost immediately renewed for second seasons. As I wrote about at the time, Girls launched strong, with Dunham’s pilot effectively putting on display all the reasons why I knew I would keep watching. Veep, on the other hand, fell decidedly flat. Perhaps, I thought at the time, it was a question of my differing levels of expectation. I had few expectations for Girls and the original look and feel of the series made it easy to get excited about. But if Girls benefited from having few familiar names or faces behind it, Veep likely suffered if anything from its too exciting pedigree. Veep not only marked the return of Louis-Dreyfus to the world of edgy comedy (after five long seasons as the star of CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine. a traditionally-structured laugh track sitcom that I could never get myself to watch with any regularity), it was also created by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer/director behind the BBC’s The Thick of It, and its spin-off feature film In the Loop. (The Thick of It chronicles the efforts of a backbench British MP who, through no power or talent of his own, has risen beyond his own capacities. The show details, among other things, his struggles to merely keep his job – which he often succeeds at, more through a clumsy grace than strategy.) The Thick of It (which aired intermittently from 2005 to 2009) is like a post-HBO version of the BBC’s Yes Minister. With its mockumentary format, Iannucci’s signature profanity and the show’s improvised feel, The Thick of It was a popular and critical success, and the promise of bringing that raw energy to HBO in a new political satire, set in D.C. instead of London, perhaps set the bar rather high for the new series. But whatever the reasons, those first episodes of Veep left me cold. The potential of the series was visible (co-stars included Tony Hale, in perhaps his best role since Arrested Development ended in 2006, and Anna Chlumsky, who’d appeared in In the Loop in 2009), but all of its elements – strong as they were – didn’t come together enough to grab me. And following the scatologically-themed punch line to the second episode, I set the show aside for several weeks, only returning to those missed episodes in anticipation of this week's season finale. What I found when I returned was a series that was slowly beginning to find its way.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Political Melodrama: The Columnist

John Lithgow and Grace Gummer in The Columnist

John Lithgow gives a fine performance as political analyst Joseph Alsop in David Auburn’s new play The Columnist (currently receiving a Broadway production under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club).  Alsop’s career began in the 1930s but Auburn focuses on his decline in the sixties, beginning with the KGB’s photographing him in bed with one of their plants, a young Soviet man (Brian J. Smith), on a trip to Moscow, through his intensified conservatism during the Vietnam War, when he turned his syndicated column into an ongoing tirade harassing Lyndon Johnson for not taking a tough enough stance on the war.  The play locates JFK’s assassination – it occurs just before intermission – as the moment that turned Alsop bitter and remote; he had been one of Kennedy’s most enthusiastic supporters (he was sure Kennedy would find a way to solve all of the problems plaguing America in the early sixties, including Vietnam and the Cold War) and a close friend.

Auburn balances the deterioration of Alsop’s journalistic reputation – as his colleagues, including his brother and one-time collaborator Stewart (Boyd Gaines) and the gifted young war correspondent David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), who wins a Pulitzer at thirty, find his political position increasingly remote and irrelevant – with the disintegration of his marriage.  His wife is Susan Mary Alsop, a widow and a long-time friend who marries him knowing that he’s gay but, we learn eventually, hopeful that she can get him to return her sexual affections.  In Auburn’s version of events, it’s not just her self-delusion that wears away at their marriage but his increasing emotional unavailability to her while he forges a close relationship with her daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer).  Lithgow’s strongest moments, not surprisingly, are the ones where Joe lets down his guard and reveals the kind of feelings he prefers to keep to himself: shame and embarrassment when his Soviet lover, Andrei, seems hurt at Joe’s suggestion that he was pimped by a friend at the American Embassy (Andrei is faking it:  he was pimped out, though not by the Embassy); anguish at Kennedy’s death, which he won’t show until Susan Mary and Abigail have both left the house; shock when, after he and Susan Mary have separated (messily), Abigail admits to him that she figured out his sexual orientation long ago and assumes everyone else did too.  Another highlight of the performance is the scene where Joe turns mean after Susan Mary confesses that she’s lived in hope that his “nature” would change.  The marvelous actress Margaret Colin is cast as Susan Mary, and I wish I’d seen her play this scene, but at the matinee I attended her understudy, Charlotte Maier, stepped in, and she was merely serviceable in the role.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Neglected Gem #17: Forgotten Silver (1995)

Peter Jackson and Costa Botes in Forgotten Silver.

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 impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

New Zealand film pioneer Colin McKenzie receives his due from two of his countrymen in this documentary, which unearths his ‘lost’ 1917 silent film Salome and shines a light on a remarkable career that saw McKenzie pioneer the use of sound and colour in motion pictures years before Hollywood did the same. The only problem is that McKenzie never existed, a ‘fact’ that allows co-directors/co-scripter’s Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Costa Botes to spoof the whole craze for discovering obscure films and restoring the reputation of neglected filmmakers.

With the usual experts dutifully trotted out to pay homage to McKenzie, including film historian Leonard Maltin and then Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, Forgotten Silver, which was made for New Zealand TV, emerges as an uncanny deadpan take on the typical PBS or A&E biography. Utilizing wonderful ‘faked’ footage from McKenzie's life, it's the flip ‘serious’ side of This is Spinal Tap – and just as entertaining.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, and is currently teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.