Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Challenging Attraction: Terrence Blanchard's Magnetic

The Terence Blanchard Quintet

Terence Blanchard is a musician who never lets the grass grow under his feet. As a skilled trumpeter and composer on one of the most profoundly difficult instruments in jazz, Blanchard continues to play with a consistent sense of abandon balanced by a love for melody. No less can be said about his new album, Magnetic (Blue Note).

Magnetic is a testament to Blanchard’s musical past, a rich education into the history of jazz shaped by the foundation of his birth, New Orleans. It continued with time in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as he explored the world of hard bop alongside Donald Harrison, saxophone, whom he later partnered with in the late 1980s. It was an important time for Blanchard as he found his sound and started composing. He later signed a recording contract with Columbia and became the rival stable mate of Wynton Marsalis.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bordering On the Miraculous: Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot

Stephen Ouimette (Didi) and Tom Rooney (Gogo) in Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay entitled Being and Nothingness, an existential exploration of human consciousness that in turn had been heavily influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book, Being in Time. The celebrated French thinker had devoured it while a prisoner of war during 1941 and 1942. Ideas of human existence as a state of free-fall, untethered from God, were clearly a part of the early twentieth century zeitgeist. But giving them vivid expression – and lasting relevance – was Irish-born playwright, Samuel Beckett, whose play Waiting For Godot is being and nothingness made flesh.

Originally written in French as En Attendant Godot (literally, While Waiting for Godot), and given its first performance at a small theatre in Paris in 1953, the play is essentially two acts of interminable waiting for an elusive character named Godot by two clownish tramps named Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). A famous early review described Waiting for Godot as being about “nothing happening, twice.” But as can be seen in the superb production of the play now playing at Canada’s Stratford Festival through to Sept. 20, a lot, in fact, does happen. And happens in a way to make you really think.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Celebrity Lives: Untold Stories and I’ll Eat You Last

In Untold Stories, a pair of reminiscences by Alan Bennett that moved from the National Theatre to the West End in the spring, the actor Alex Jennings does an uncanny job of getting both Bennett’s owlish Oxford don’s look and his distinctive sound, the Yorkshire rhythms and the slightly high, thin tone. The title of the play comes from Bennett’s book of (mostly) autobiographical musings; the latest edition is bulked up to more than 600 pages, almost all of it highly readable. (I admit to skimming the 150 or so pages of diary entries.) Both “Hymn” (directed by Nadia Fall) and “Cocktail Sticks” (directed by Nicholas Hytner) are based on anecdotes in the book, but you have to read around in the volume to find bits and pieces of them, and most of “Cocktail Sticks” was constructed for the theatre. Untold Stories is small-scale – my companion described them aptly as aperitifs – but tremendously winning and affecting. I love Bennett’s style, more descriptive here than in his other work for the theatre, and his tone, which is observant without being detached, allusive but not rambling, emotional without being sentimental. And Jennings (best known on this side of the pond for playing Prince Charles in the movie The Queen) renders that tone with impeccable precision. It’s an impersonation but not merely one: he slips inside Bennett as he burrows into his prose.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Laboratory of the Cutting Room Floor: Anticipating Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait

CBS Records announced this past week the forthcoming August release of Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait (which contains session material from that original 1970 album as well as its follow-up, New Morning). It's hard to know what to expect. As another instalment in their Dylan Bootleg Series, which takes us again into their vaults to experience unreleased material, CBS is calling Another Self Portrait an opportunity to "give fans a chance to reappraise the pivotal recordings that marked Dylan's artistic transformation as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began." But the record they've chosen is probably the most reviled in Dylan's catalogue. It also shows us the pitfalls of selling goods defined by the iconic name of the artist rather than by the quality of the material within.

When he released Self Portrait, Bob Dylan essentially pulled a fast one on his fans. And the critics largely hated it. In Rolling Stone, critic Greil Marcus opened his epic review by asking, "What is this shit?" What was this shit? Besides the sly joke of the album's title (he performs mostly covers rather than original material), Dylan positioned the two-record set as a riposte aimed at those who wished to hold him to the mantle of being a spokesman of his generation. "I wish these people would just forget about me," Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984 looking back at Self Portrait. "I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's get on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't given' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else." But the record was also aiming to achieve something more. It represented a somewhat daring, yet failed, attempt to conceptually put his music in the context of the American songbook of Tin Pan Alley. So besides including live versions of his own "Like a Rolling Stone" and "The Mighty Quinn" (from the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival), he performed Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon", Elmore James's "It Hurts Me Too," plus traditional folk material like "Alberta" and "Little Sadie." Self Portrait doesn't fall apart because the concept is bad. It's that Dylan can't fully commit himself to the concept.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Red Sparrow: The Human Side of Spying

“Even now with the Soviet Union long gone, the monster is right beneath the surface.”
– Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

In interviews, Jason Matthews has indicated that he believes that the current Russian state is much different than the former Soviet Union, but one would never know that by reading his debut novel Red Sparrow (Scribner, 2013). The Russia that he portrays under the icy “blond scorpion,” Vladimir Putin, who is a minor character in the novel, is repressive and cruel, a throwback to the Soviet Union. The Cold War may be officially over, but that is not the position of the Russian head of state. Putin is determined to retool the Russian Empire in order to reestablish the glory and prestige that the Soviet Union once exercised and he is willing to resort to any means from placing moles inside the American government to authorizing “wet actions” (murder) in order to achieve that goal. Any expression of dissent or disloyalty is mercilessly punished. The real life murder in a Moscow elevator of the investigative journalist Anna Polikovskaya, and the poisoning in London of a former KBG officer, Alexander Litvinenko, by polonium-20, incidents that are mentioned twice over the course of the novel, are merely the tip of the iceberg of the ruthlessness that characterizes contemporary Russia. While reading the novel, I noticed press reports that only seem to confirm the notion that the rule of law operates only at the pleasure of Putin and that the past is much alive in the present. Any serious rival to Putin is arrested, subjected to a show trial and convicted so that he cannot run for public office. In the novel, the brutal interrogation techniques in the Lubyanka prison are reminiscent of conditions that existed in the past. Even the novel’s central conceit, that young women are sent to courtesan schools to learn the art of seduction espionage and become “sparrows” for the purpose of sexual entrapment, is a relic of the Soviet era since the author has stated in interviews that he has no knowledge of the current Russian state operating them, although he concedes that independent contractors may be performing that service in the Putin era.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Adapted by Kohan (the creator of Showtime’s Weeds) from Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), the New York Times bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series is set in the fictional Litchfield Prison, a women’s minimum security federal penitentiary. Taylor Schilling (from NBC’s short-lived medical drama Mercy) stars as Piper Chapman, who finds herself sentenced to 15 months in prison for crimes she committed 10 years earlier. Piper (or Chapman, as she becomes known as in Litchfield) is joined in prison by a remarkable array of female characters, meaty roles for actresses of all ages and backgrounds. The range of female and minority characters alone would single the series out, but there is little that is gimmicky or derivative about the show.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Memories Are Made of This – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and A Band Called Death

The original members of Big Star: (from left) Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel

Two imperfect but interesting current documentaries, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, both available on Video On Demand, offer a chance to savor some of the complications and ironies of the rock music culture of the 1970s. That was the first full decade when bands were being formed by people who had grown up in the shadow of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and had come of age thinking of rock not as a get-rich-quick scheme or the next logical step in the evolution of rhythm and blues and country music and pop in general, but as a form of self-expression that had its own history and tradition and pantheon. It was also the age of the first generation of rock criticscollege-educated working journalists like Robert Christgau, academics like Greil Marcus, unclassifiable mavericks like Lester Bangswho thought that rock was a subject worthy of interest in itself, to be written about without condescension, anda legacy of having been rock fans during the late ‘60sthat it might be both an art form and a trigger for social revolution. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Faces Have I: The Stepfather, Natural Born Killers & The Controversy Over Rolling Stone Magazine's Cover Photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

"That day's Boston Globe has run a story about the nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital who took care of Jahar [Tsarnaev] those first few days after his capture [for the Boston Marathon bombing]. They were ambivalent, to say the least, about spending too much time with him, for fear of, well, liking him. One nurse said she had to stop herself from calling him 'hon'."

- Janet Reitman, "The Bomber: How A Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam And Became a Monster," Rolling Stone, July 2013.

One Friday afternoon, back in 1987, I set off to review a new suspense film called The Stepfather, a skilfully smart thriller that nobody at the time wanted to see. Directed by Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape) and written by crime novelists Donald E. Westlake (God Save the Mark) and Brian Garfield (Death Wish) with assistance from Carolyn Lefcourt, The Stepfather was about a bland suburban family man, Henry Morrison (Terry O'Quinn), who murders his whole family without anyone noticing (except for his brother-in-law who obsessively hunts him down), changes his identity to Jerry Blake, moves away, and marries into another single family. Although the story was largely fictional, it actually had its roots in something quite true. At the time of The Stepfather's release, a New Jersey husband and father, John List, had been a fugitive from justice for over sixteen years for the crime of murder. In November 1971, he had killed his wife, his mother and his three children and then immediately vanished. For nearly a month, after the crime was committed, nobody noticed his disappearance, or were even aware of the carnage he left behind. That whole month, while his neighbours in Westfield went about their business, John List assumed a false identity and moved to Colorado where he soon remarried. (List was finally apprehended in June 1989 when the story of his murders had been broadcast on America's Most Wanted to his new wife's horrified surprise.)

John List
The length of time it took for the investigators to find List was due to the fact that no one could positively identify him. Most witnesses informed detectives that List was 'too ordinary' in both his looks and his behaviour for them to make a clear identification. Not only was he not what many in the neighbourhood would suspect as a mass murderer, List was also a devout Lutheran, who taught Sunday school, and had once served in the U.S. army during World War II. (List had also been given an ROTC commission as a Second Lieutenant.) While attending university in Ann Arbor, Michigan, List had earned his Bachelor's Degree in business administration with a Master's Degree in accounting to follow. He met his wife in 1951 and then quietly blended into suburban American culture for over twenty years before he went on his bloody rampage. For a nation raised on the idea that killers are only recognizable as the slobbering and stubble-faced monsters of B-suspense dramas, the bland and colourless face of a suburban accountant didn't ring any alarm bells in his neighbourhood.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Showing its Age: Soulpepper's Production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Stuart Hughes, David Beazely & Fiona Reid in Soulpepper's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

When it made its première in 1964, Joe Orton’s first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was a smash hit in London. The debut put Orton on the map, as both a playwright and as one of the radical new voices in British literature. (Terence Rattigan had seen the play at the New Arts Theatre and rated it so highly that he put up £3,000 in sponsorship.) The play was mixture of farce, black comedy and social commentary that, with the advent of The Beatles and the beginning of a new wave of avant-garde artists moving into the limelight, arrived at the start of London’s burst of creativity in music, art, literature and theatre. It was a great time to be young, adventurous and to move from the world of black and white into Technicolor. And had he lived longer (Orton was murdered by his partner in 1967), he may have become as good as Tom Stoppard. But all that ended for him at the age of 34, so we’ll never really know.

In recent years, Soulpepper has revived several of Orton’s plays, Loot (2009) and What The Butler Saw (2010) to great success and full houses. Those two plays were written after Sloane as the playwright began to find a creative groove in which to work. So I suppose it made sense for the company to revive Orton’s first play as part of a “cycle.” But it may not have been the right choice: artistically speaking, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, directed here by Brendan Healy, is showing its age.

Monday, July 22, 2013

New York Musicals: On the Town and Hello, Dolly!

On the Town at the Barrington Stage

Though they’re best known for writing Singin’ in the Rain, the funniest movie musical ever made, the book and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were the most notable proponents – perhaps even the inventors – of the New York musical. During their long-term and prolific collaboration they worked together on On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Do Re Mi and, on screen, It’s Always Fair Weather, all of which unfold against the backdrop of a bustling Manhattan peopled with colorful caricatures of New York types. There’s an exuberance in the way Comden and Green employ specific New York settings: the Greenwich Village of the 1930s in Wonderful Town, the subway in the “Hello, Hello There” number in Bells are Ringing, Stillman’s Gym in It’s Always Fair Weather. Their first Broadway show, On the Town, which just closed in a marvelous production at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, begins and ends in the Navy dockyard, and in between takes us to Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Coney Island and the interior of a taxi driven by a boisterous female cabbie named Hildy. It’s a valentine to the city, seen through the eyes of three young sailors who encounter it for the first time during a twenty-four-hour furlough.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Off the Shelf: Bring it On (2000)

Who would have thought that a film about competing cheerleading squads could be so much fun? Certainly not me. But Bring it On springs plenty of surprises. For one thing, it's not just another hormonal teen comedy about sex. It's also not another self-congratulatory jolt of testosterone about winning the big game. And even if the romantic parts of the story follow in the footsteps of already familiar formula, the picture has a tickling spirit that tweaks you on the nose. Director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jessica Bendinger have put together an affectionate and cheerful look at what is often a catty and competitive sport without turning snide about it. The cheerleaders aren't bubble-headed conformists who fear losing status at the high school. Reed and Bendinger create instead a comic tapestry that dispenses with pom-pom-waving clichés. Bring it On shows the relationship the sport has to interpretive dance, swing, martial arts and even Busby Berkeley choreography. We can see how the standard cheerleading routines at school football and basketball games are only warmups for national competitions that are every bit as difficult as gymnastic events.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lore: Breaking Down the Ideological Barrier

“The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.”
― Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976.

“A vast army of ghosts, cripples and monsters inhabited my dream landscapes, where cities were burned and forests were mowed down by a hail of bombs.”
―Melita Maschmann, Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self, 1964.

In 1933 when Melita Maschmann was fifteen years old, she secretly joined the girls’division of the Hitler Youth in a protest against her wealthy conservative parents. Her goal was to escape from her “childish narrow life,” and attach herself “to something that was great and fundamental.” For almost twenty years, she remained a committed, avowed Nazi supporter experiencing at times “overwhelming joy” as she worked in the press and propaganda sections during the 1930s and supervised the evictions of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms during the war years. By the end of the war, she exposed herself to danger expecting to die since she was unable to imagine “an existence robbed of the possibility an inner life.” Even after she spent three years in prison and underwent the compulsory de-Nazification program, she remained an unrepentant Nazi. Then over the next twelve years she underwent a profound transformation that culminated in her mea culpa memoir, Account Rendered, which attempted to understand not excuse “the wrong and even the evil steps I took.” It was the first time a former National Socialist publicly acknowledged that she had served “an inhuman political system” and admitted that she had not thought for herself. The vast majority, like the parents in the novella and film adaptation Lore, burned any incriminating documents. They regarded Maschmann’s memoir as a form of betrayal and never forgave her.

Cate Shortland's Lore (2012)
Lore (short for Hannelore), the central character of Rachel Seiffert’s “Lore,” one of three interlocking novellas in the 2001 The Dark Room, and Cate Shortland’s 2012 film, Lore, is about the same age as Maschmann was in 1933. The setting for the novella and the film is Bavaria in the spring of 1945. The girl of the title shepherds her four younger siblings that range from about twelve to a baby on a perilous trek through a ruined country under foreign occupation to reach the grandmother’s home outside of Hamburg several hundred kilometres away. The film might be understood as a latter-day Grimm tale: the mother warns Lore to stay from soldiers because they kill all the children. Like Maschmann, she too undergoes a psychological odyssey from Hitlerian delirium to the beginning of awareness about the truth of the Nazi horror, a process in which she is forced to confront the demons of Nazi indoctrination and its consequences. As a result of her harrowing ordeal, Maschmann was permanently scarred. We do not know of course the future of Lore but the evidence from other sources suggests that the offspring and descendants of powerful Nazi officials did experience lives fraught with guilt and shame. Some sought reparation by converting to Judaism.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Strike Three: Brian Helgeland's 42

It’s curious that most American films about baseball, arguably the country’s national sport, have little to do with baseball. It doesn't matter whether you're watching Pride of the Yankees (1942) or The Natural (1984). You never get to fully comprehend what makes the game such a clear mirror of the culture that created it because the movies never want it to be one. Instead, baseball ends up as an inspirational tool to tell tired moral dramas of personal triumph. In The Natural, for instance, based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, Robert Redford gets to hit a ninth-inning home run to save his troubled team as well as his own corrupted soul. (The original novel, on the other hand, had quite the opposite conclusion.) It’s as though baseball heroes need to undergo their own secular Stations of the Cross in order to reach individual redemption. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner gets to heal the emotional and generational rift between him and his dead father by having his dad's spirit come back to play catch with him. In dealing with the scandal of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players fixing the World Series, Field of Dreams (based on WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe) airbrushes out of its story the more troubled, uncomfortable aspects of baseball’s past by portraying the participants of the scandal as innocent victims. (The picture even shamelessly features a black journalist talking worshipfully about baseball being the one constant in American life when, in fact, his race was kept out of the major leagues for half the century.) 

Rather than examine how the game has both ignored and led the political and cultural changes in America, most movies about baseball resist the ties that bind the game to the nation's character in an effort to win over the mass audience with stories about heroism. Baseball has certainly had its iconic heroes, from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Cal Ripkin (just as it has had its tainted ones, from Ty Cobb to Pete Rose to Barry Bonds), but, in movies, we rarely get to see what sets those individuals apart from the rest of us. There's a desire to make them seem ordinary, as though this contrived egalitarianism would make us identify with them more strongly. One baseball movie that did truly confront the complexity of our celebrity worship, Ron Shelton's bracing Cobb (1994), about the violent and racist clutch hitter Ty Cobb, was ignored by audiences and critics alike (just before, ironically, O.J. Simpson's trial would capture national attention).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Male Gaze: The Fall

Gillian Anderson as SDI Gibson in The Fall

When Gillian Anderson was on The X-Files in 1990s, she was often overshadowed in the media, if not on the show itselfby her co-star, David Duchovny. It was Duchovny who was constantly being singled out in the press for being unusually intelligentyou know, for an actorand who stepped away from the series to pursue a movie career. (It was also Duchovny who seemed to go out of his way to select movie roles that seemed to call attention to his lack of range and who, in recent years, has raised the question of just how intelligent someone who can stay interested in his Showtime series Californication can possibly be.) After starring in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth in 2000, Anderson seemed to step away from the spotlight; she worked on the stage in Britain, took sizable roles in a few small films and small roles in a few higher-profile films (The Last King of Scotland, Tristram Shandy), and played Lady Dedlock in the superb 2005 BBC production of Bleak House. She’s been more active, or at least easier for Americans to catch sight of, in the last year or so than at any time since The X-Files went off the air in 2002. Last year, she gave brief but strong, compellingly weird performances in TV versions of Great Expectations (as a spectral, wounded-bird Miss Haversham) and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (as a madam with aspirations to haughtiness), and in the last few months she’s had a recurring role on NBC’s Hannibal and played the leada police detective investigating a serial murder casein the five-hour Irish TV series The Fall.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Repairing the World, One Case at a Time: Howard Shrier’s Miss Montreal

Crime novelist Howard Shrier (Photo credit:

Jonah Geller is back in Howard Shrier’s Miss Montreal (Random House Canada), the fourth book in his series chronicling the adventures of the determined Toronto private eye. Over four novels, including Buffalo Jump (2008), High Chicago (2009), Boston Cream (2012) and now Miss Montreal (2013), Jonah has gone from working for a security agency as a PI to running his own private investigative business, World Repairs, with partner Jenn Raudsepp. (World Repairs is the English term for the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, a Jewish mandate to repair the world and make it a better place by doing good deeds.Or as Shrier puts it, "Jonah Geller: repairing the world, one asshole at a time.") Unlike other Jewish detectives, such as fellow Torontonian Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman, in a series set in small town Ontario and a bit lighter in tone or Harry Kemelman's low key Rabbi David Small books, Jonah is a tough guy: ex-Israeli army, with an exterior that doesn’t countenance any belligerence, including dealing effectively with anti-Semitism, evident in Buffalo Jump when he dispatched a bigot aboard a Toronto streetcar. He’s also something of a tragic figure, saddened by what he witnesses around him and more and more forced into situations where he has had to use violence, something he would rather have put behind him after a calamitous army experience in Israel.

Shrier’s books are consistent in tone and depth, smartly written mysteries that rarely telegraph where they’re going and offer up some interesting regular characters, including openly gay Raudsepp and Dante Ryan, a hit man with a conscience. (I know Dante sounds like a cliché but in Shrier’s skilled hands, he’s not.) Shrier, who is a two-time winner of the prestigious Arthur Ellis award for excellence in crime fiction (Buffalo Jump won for Best First Novel of 2008; High Chicago for Best Novel of 2009), also brings his book’s settings, the cities where their stories largely unfold, to vivid life, as well. They range from a down-at-its-heels Buffalo, whose glory days, if they ever existed, are behind it, to confident and corrupt Chicago to gentler Boston, riven by racial and religious currents as well as differing police jurisdictions. Miss Montreal, which begins with Jonah investigating the death of a Montreal newspaper columnist whom he knew from summer camp when they were both twelve, deftly focuses on Canada’s most unique city, dealing with its perpetual nationalistic French-English divide, current immigration concerns including integrating a sometimes hostile Muslim population as well as hearkening back to the city’s storied past, which was both wide open, in terms of illicit entertainment, and conservative in its social mores. (Shrier, now 56 years-old, began his writing career in 1979 as a crime reporter for the sadly defunct Montreal Star so he knows whereof he writes.) It’s another ambitious but successful book, proof positive that Shrier is one of the finest mystery writers extant. Critics at Large recently interviewed him by e mail in his Toronto hometown.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #42: Weeds (1987)

Weeds, written by Dorothy Tristan and John Hancock and directed by Hancock in 1987, is clumsy, and it has an irregular, unwieldy shape, but it’s brimming with life. You may be excited and touched by it in a way that you aren't by technically much better pictures; it may be awkward and messy but it’s rarely trite. And perhaps the film’s structural problems even work in its favor – you never know what’s coming next. The towering actor Nick Nolte plays Lee Umstetter (a character suggested by the real-life ex-con Rick Cluchey). Lee’s in San Quentin for life, with no possibility for parole, on an aggravated armed robbery charge; he keeps trying to off himself and failing, so, resigned to his life, he decides to find something else to fill up his time besides suicide attempts. Presenting himself at the prison library desk, he asks for a thick book and gets War and Peace; when he’s done, he returns it to the librarian and demands, “Thicker.” Umstetter’s got a quick mind, and before long he’s sampled Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, and turned himself into a genuine, unpretentious intellectual. (It’s hard to imagine anyone more appropriate for this role than Nolte, Hollywood’s peerless combination of masculine instinct and intelligence, in his prime. Someone should have cast him as Ernest Hemingway.) When the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop (which John Hancock helmed for a while) brings its famous jail-tour production of Waiting for Godot to San Quentin, Lee, turned on by the play, decides to write his own, an existential/expressionist drama with music about prison life called Weeds. (The metaphor refers to the inmates.) Then he and his buddies, his wry cellmate Claude (Lane Smith) and the grinning, effusive black entrepreneur Navarro (John Toles-Bey), get the permission of the authorities to produce it. A local journalist, Lillian Binghamton (Rita Taggart), catches the performance and campaigns for Lee’s release. It takes a while – by the time the governor agrees to spring him, all his friends are long gone. Once out on the street, Lee rehabilitates himself by gathering them all together and starting a company, The Barbed Wire Theatre, to produce a revised version of Weeds.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Four Feathers: The Novel and the Films

Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers (2002)

The British Empire was not only the playground for boys’ adventure stories; it provided the backdrop for the A.E.W. Mason novel The Four Feathers, a nuanced exploration of male redemption, one that remained immensely popular from its 1902 publication through to the Second World War. Set during a three-year period, 1882-85, Four Feathers charts the risks and the dangers to which a young man exposes himself in order to atone for his loss of honour. Unlike the adolescent adventure novels of George Henty, among others, Mason’s heroes define themselves less by acts of derring-do than through their quiet, anonymous, patient endurance in the service of others. The novel has spawned seven films – two made during the Great War spoke to current concerns – but the most memorable were the 1939 version produced by Alexander Korda on the eve of another war, reviewed in these pages by Shlomo Schwartzberg, and a 2002 version by Shekhar Kapur. The acclaimed Korda film is more in keeping with the jingoism of the time in which it was made rather than the spirit of Mason’s tale, while Kapur’s adaptation is more faithful to the spirit and intent of the novel.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Master and a Hack

The Weir, directed by Josie Rourke

The supernatural is alive in the work of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Ghosts appear in Shining City and in his movie Eclipse; in The Seafarer a man plays poker against the devil. But these pieces don’t feel like folk fables, because stylistically McPherson is a realist. In The Weir, which was recently revived in a fine production at London’s Donmar Warehouse (it closed to make room for McPherson’s latest, The Night Alive), ghosts are only spoken of, but by the end of the evening they’re so close you can almost hear them breathing. The play is set in a bar in rural Ireland (County Leitrim, to be exact) where four middle-aged pals, including the proprietor, Brendan (Peter McDonald), entertain a newcomer, Valerie (Dervla Kirwan), who has just moved into a house in the area. She’s attractive, evidently single, more sophisticated than the women they know, and the men fall over themselves trying to impress her – especially the sportiest of them, Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), who owns the local hotel and appears to be the richest man in the town. Somehow the conversation turns to local ghost stories. Jack (Brian Cox) tells the first one, about a knocking spirit that was driven away by a priest’s exhortations; legend has it that the house had been built on a “fairy road.” Only after Jack finishes his tale does it occur to the men (the fourth, shy, awkward Jim, is played by Ardal O’Hanlon) that the haunted house they’ve been describing is the one Valerie has moved into, and they’re ashamed and embarrassed about any discomfort they might have caused her. But she doesn’t seem unnerved, and the stories continue.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Live Forever: Black Sabbath's 13

Black Sabbath today
Take one look at the Wiki entry for the subject “heavy metal” and you’ll get almost two dozen sub-genres, including the amusing “traditional” heavy metal genre as if the form has been around long enough to become the cultural equivalent of folk music. A music critic first coined the phrase after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in a British club in 1966. Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s manager at the time, relates the story in the Robert Palmer TV series about the history of rock'n'roll. As Chandler tells it, Hendrix’s performance sounded like heavy metal falling from the sky. His description certainly put into words the feeling one got when hearing Hendrix's music, but it wasn’t enough to describe the blues-based music Hendrix was really playing.

The same might be said for Black Sabbath, the group from Birmingham, England, who started out playing blues-based rock as a bar band. But due to limited opportunities for gigs at the time, the only way Black Sabbath could distinguish itself was by playing louder and, in effect, harder than their competition. Hard rock, the nomenclature I used when I first heard Sabbath in the early seventies, made more sense and was a fair assessment of their edgy, blues-like sound. Heavy metal was a better description for bands such as Metallica or Judas Priest who dispensed with any musical references to blues.

Black Sabbath (1970)
Nevertheless, many fans insist that Black Sabbath founded heavy metal, so I won’t argue the point because a lot of bands were inspired by Sabbath’s first couple of albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid (Vertigo), both recorded and released in 1970. Those records, which I heard in my youth, were so far removed from the commercial sound of Top 40 that they really were inspiring. The Black Sabbath sound, driven by Tony Iommi’s guitar licks, made for music that was dark and mysterious yet catchy thanks to his blues-based style. But I didn’t care for the satanic image Sabbath employed because it lacked the humour of Alice Cooper, the other “hard rock” band my friends and I used to listen to. But Black Sabbath was never far from our collective turntables when I was in high school, even though I preferred the progressive rock of Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. Once punk rock moved in, all those records were quietly put back on the shelf. Black Sabbath continued to do their thing for a few more years after Osbourne went solo, but by that time I had lost interest. In a sense, I outgrew their music.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Legend Plays a Legend: Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore

Christopher Plummer toured in the title role of Barrymore in 1996 and 1997 (I saw him play it in Boston), and it won him a Tony Award when he brought it, briefly, to Broadway. He never really put it on the shelf; he always planned to return to it, and his association with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada enabled him to do so a few years ago. The screen version, adapted from William Luce’s play and directed by Erik Canuel, is a filmed performance – like his Prospero in The Tempest, also shot at Stratford – tricked up with a some bonus footage to make it look a little more like a movie. Canuel’s visual addenda aren’t convincing but they don’t matter in the least, because a film of a tour de force by one of the theatre’s greatest living actors needs no excuse. If Barrymore had been released in the sixties, it would have made the rounds of major cities in special mid-week two-day engagements, like Olivier’s Othello and Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Given the economics of today’s film distribution, it barely got released at all, though you could see it on HBO for a while and now it’s available on DVD.

If Barrymore isn’t much of a movie, well, it wasn’t much of a play either. The setting is the empty stage of the Majestic Theatre in New York in 1942, which John Barrymore, at the end of his life – he died of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver after collapsing on Rudy Vallee’s radio show later that year – has rented for a private rehearsal of scenes from Richard III, in the hopes of resurrecting the stage career he abandoned for the movies. The text, such as it is, is a collage of bits from Shakespeare, memories presented as anecdotes, and musings on his wrecked, alcoholic but highly colorful life as a classical actor and a matinee idol; you might call it autobiographical stand-up with an undercurrent of tragedy. The only other character is Frank (John Plumpis), his prompter, who is alternately an admirer and a nag, and whose own story, briefly touched upon (he was refused for military service because of his admitted homosexuality), injects some irrelevant sentimentality when Barrymore, anachronistically, commends him for his honesty and courage. Frank is a somewhat annoying distraction, but who wouldn’t be when you’ve got Christopher Plummer as Barrymore? Like Canuel’s faux cinematic “touches,” he doesn’t really get in the way.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

You Need to Get Out More: Berberian Sound Studio and This Is The End

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio, a small, oddball British film written and directed by Peter Strickland, is a ‘70s grindhouse homage of a different kind. Such directors as Robert Rodriguez (the Machete films) and Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) have celebrated the supposedly liberating qualities of shamelessly over-the-top violent trash by making their own semi-parodies; Strickland has come up with a scenario that allows him to pay tribute to the enticement of gory Euro-schlock horror pictures, and the hard work of traces of genuine craftsmanship that went into making them, without pretending that 95% of those movies amount to nothing more than grand, unkept promises loosely held together by atmosphere and sadism.

Strickland’s film stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a meek, meticulously sound expert who had come to a “garden shed” of a studio to work on the soundtrack to an Italian torture-porn movie about the interrogation of witches. Except for a delectable, cheeseball-psychedelic opening credits sequence, the audience can only guess at what’s actually on the screen from the sounds we hear, and from Gilderoy’s reactions. The film-within-a-film is called The Equestrian Vortex, and the sound man seems to have been expecting something along the lines of National Velvet. He’s not a man used to employing his talents to heighten the effectiveness of a scene in which a woman has a red-hot poker inserted into her vagina, and if there’s one thing his employers are less interested in than his mild pleas that they honor their agreement to reimburse him for his plane ticket, it’s helping him get his bearings. The director, Santini (Antonio Mancini), is a lecherous dolt who sees the sound man as a new captive audience for his speeches about what he’s really up to. When Gildeory says that he’s never worked on a horror film before, the director haughtily corrects him: “This is not a horror film. It is a Santini film!” – adding that it is “about the human condition.” When Gilderoy has seen enough staged “interrogation” footage to get green around the gills, Santini lectures him: “These things happen, yes. It is history. I hate what they did to these beautiful women. Yet it is my duty to show it."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

J.M. Barrie's Curse

“May God blast anyone who writes a biography of me.”
– J. M. Barrie

Whatever celestial space James Barrie (1860-1937) currently occupies, the sprite likely would look kindly on Marc Forster’s 2004 film Finding Neverland, a gauzy semi-biopic of himself that is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. After all, it is a celebratory idyll of innocent play that began in Kensington Park in 1898 when Barrie first captivated the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with his gift for adventurous story telling. As a short, hyperactive man with a thick mustache, sad eyes and a pipe-smoker’s cough, Barrie certainly would have been pleased with the handsome, clean-shaven and boyish Johnny Depp who portrays him as a charming defender of the (four not five) boys and a gallant protector of their mother. Time is telescoped in the film.  Set circa 1904 when his imaginative games with the boys inspired him to stage his most famous production, Peter Pan, Barrie would have endorsed the film’s sweet, sentimental tone as it skims across a bright Edwardian surface while ignoring the darker undercurrents and psychological perplexities that pervaded his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Arc of a Song: On Broadway

Songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, circa 1966 (Getty Images)

In the history of popular music, or music written since 1900, we currently enjoy an evolution of 113 years worth of the art of the song. I’d like to take a look at one song, “On Broadway,” and four contrasting versions that reflect the times in which they were recorded.

“On Broadway” was written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, two of the most successful songwriters to come out of the famous Brill Building, the songwriter’s haven of New York City. It was first recorded in 1962 by a girl-group known as The Cookies, whose version was more of a light novelty pop song. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who shared an office with Weil and Mann in the Brill Building, took the song to a different, now familiar, version, setting the tune to an R&B rhythm and changing the phrasing to reflect an more nuanced and personal story about a young person looking for hope “on Broadway”. The result of Weil/Mann/Leiber/Stoller collaboration was the remarkable 1963 recording by The Drifters.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Other Voices: Passion Play and Strange Interlude

Passion Play, directed by David Leveaux

Peter Nichols’s 1981 Passion Play begins at the conclusion of a social evening at the home of James and Eleanor, a middle-aged couple with grown-up daughters. Both are connected to the arts: James restores paintings and Eleanor is a classical singer and teacher. They have been entertaining Kate, a photographer in her mid-twenties whose partner, Albert, a close friend of James, has recently died. The scenario is complicated – Albert’s relationship with Kate broke up his marriage to Agnes, who remained friends with Eleanor. It becomes more complicated when, in a moment alone (offstage) with Eleanor in the kitchen, Kate confides that she finds James attractive, and Eleanor repeats it to him. At first this is an academic matter for the couple, who discuss it with amusement on Eleanor’s side and an apparent lack of interest on James’s, though since the thought operates on him as a kind of aphrodisiac – he has an immediate desire to make love to his wife – he’s evidently more interested than he allows himself to believe. (Turning James on isn’t Eleanor’s intention; she’s both surprised and a little embarrassed by his sudden unrestrained ardor. When he tries to catch up with her on the stairs, she protests, “James! I’m a grandmother. You’re a grandfather. There’s a place for that kind of thing. It’s called the bedroom.”) And when Kate arranges lunch with him a few days later, ostensibly because she needs his help in pulling together a book of her work, she makes a direct sexual proposition. The immediate result, over coffee at her place, is nothing more serious than a kiss, but his guilt over it – and, clearly, over his impulse to carry it farther – twists him into knots and prompts him to lie to Eleanor about where he’s been.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

State of the Union: Roland Emmerich's White House Down

When Barack Obama was elected as the first black President of the United States in November 2008, it was a momentous event in American history. And it ignited a fever of idealism not felt since 1960 when John Kennedy first declared the coming of a New Frontier. At that time, JFK's inaugural address provided a promise that the country would begin to live up to its most cherished dreams – the quest for equality that lay in its founding documents. Of course, Kennedy's murder in Dallas in 1963, to be followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, not only seemed to assure that the promise couldn't be kept, but also that the coming of Obama wouldn't be in anyone's rear view mirror. Obama's election victory, arriving after almost four decades of racial segregation, war, assassinations, government corruption and terrorism, was experienced as both euphoric and an impossibly earned reward after years of bitter struggle and loss. Given that climate, it seemed only natural to believe that the movies of the Obama era would be in large supply and perhaps be even richer in content and feeling than those in any other Presidential period before him. But those pictures just didn't materialize. And, in part, it was because Obama, the avatar of another New Frontier, couldn't be found.

If supporters have experienced his presidency since 2008 as cautious, ineffective, and lately, an act of betrayal after the revelations of the government's wire-tapping of its citizens, his enemies continue to exploit that rift by making him seem a non-entity (as Clint Eastwood did at the Republican Convention), a fraud (as Donald Trump implied by demanding his birth certificate), or America's greatest threat (as the Tea Party and people on the conspiracy fringe of the right and left have claimed). In this climate, Obama emerged not as a world leader, but a trapped and inert statesman because, despite what his presidency represented, racism clearly hadn't gone away. The tragic currency of assassinations, embroidered throughout American history, had not really changed either. We're all too keenly aware of what happens to those who become lightning rods for great social change. American idealists seek community, but they also draw out the isolated loner who feels neither a need for community or to be a part of history. He chooses instead to destroy those who offer it to him. Given the danger zone Obama operates in today, he understands fully that if anything were to happen to him due to any bold move he made in public policy, his family would not only lose a father, the country would dissolve in violence and chaos.

In Roland Emmerich's White House Down, about an assault on a black President by a right-wing paramilitary group staging a violent coup, there's no question about the mirror it holds up to the state of the union. The parallels with Obama and his political crucible are unmistakeable. (It could be titled Obama's Revenge.) But its allusions to the current president are all on the surface. With a pulpy plot by James Vanderbilt that borrows from Die Hard, White House Down creates a bogus surrogate for the nation's hopes and fears. In the story, President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is getting plenty of heat over a proposed peace treaty between his allies which would lead to military forces pulling out of the Middle East. In particular, he draws the rage of the retiring Head of Presidential Detail Martin Walker (James Woods) who organizes his own detail to remove the President. Walker seeks revenge for the death of his son who was killed in a black ops mission approved by Sawyer. His conspiracy of mercenaries, also black ops types led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), supposedly speak for the might of the military-industrial complex which sees the treaty as a threat to their control of the region. (How their control is manifested in the Middle East is never explained, or made sense of. And if they were that powerful, why would the President be so bold in blatantly threatening them?)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Not Quite: Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros, which translates as The Passenger Lovers or The Fleeting Lovers) is being billed as a return to the glory days of his early comedies, such as Labyrinth of Passion (1982), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1983) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Those movies, made at the beginning of Almodóvar’s career, were delightfully anarchic and outrageous. At the time they were released, they pushed the envelope with their take on so-called alternative sexualities, and offered unique social and political commentaries on newly democratic post-Franco Spain. Thirty years later, when cable television and even network shows like Glee routinely explore these issues, Almodóvar’s movies merely come across as tame copies of what he did so memorably before and without any real scathing commentary behind them.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Threshold and Trance: Two New Albums by a New Artist

Karine Polwart

I have two new CDs here by an artist named Karine Polwart, and I simply don’t know what to say about them. One is a compilation containing songs from a series of older CDs which were only available in the UK. The other is a new one, her first internationally released album, and both come from Borealis Records, Canada’s folk music label extraordinaire.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Camp Kinderland Then and Now: Commie Camp

Camp Kinderland kids folk dancing in the early 1950s

As a teenager, I spent three consecutive Julys and Augusts in rural New York State at Kinderland, which billed itself as an “interracial, inter-religious, progressive Jewish summer camp.” For me back then, raised in the red diaper baby tradition, the verbiage most often could be translated into one word: fun. Oh, sure, there were subversive activities in this bastion of leftists: Like the time we girl counselors-in-training tied the shoelaces of our male counterparts end-to-end from the back doorknob of their bunk all the way down to Sylvan Lake. That was in retaliation for short-sheeting our beds the previous day.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Zzzzz: More of the Same

Brad Pitt in World War Z
I've never been a big fan of zombies, whether in books or films. While they’re inherently scary, these ravenous creatures who lurch out of the shadows to feed on humanity, they also quickly become boring. (I always found vampires, the often elegant undead who can feel attracted to or alienated from humans, or The Frankenstein / Golem, a supposedly mindless creation that actually may contain a soul, to be far more compelling.) Nevertheless, I've liked a few zombie movies, such as George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), Danny Boyle’s formulaic but well done and effective 28 Days Later (2002) and Dan O’Bannon’s witty underrated The Return of the Living Dead (1985). Others, such as Fido (2006), Zombieland (2009) and most of the sequels to Romero’s zombie movies, weren't so hot. But I've never bothered checking out most of the numerous novels on the subject, more of them than ever being published, it seems, because they appear to be too much of the same old, same old, though I really appreciated Jonathan Maberry’s moving short story "Family Business," from the anthology Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead (2012), It was a touching reminder that zombies were once human like us. On the other hand, I found Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies (2010), wherein a zombie falls in live with a human girl and eventually changes to become well human, to be utterly far-fetched, even within the parameters of zombie stories, and silly, too. (For that reason, I never bothered checking out the film version of the book when it came out earlier this year.) And finally, I found AMC’s The Walking Dead, the hit de jour, to be a supremely dull TV show, bailing out on it after a season and a half.

One novel, however, Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), stood out from all the other zombie apocalypse stories, filmed or written, because it went further in analyzing how a human – zombie war would change our society, solve, sometimes inadvertently, pressing political disputes and make heroes out of some of the most unlikely people. Brooks labelled World War Z an oral history, deliberately patterned on The Good War (1984), the late Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, and it’s apt. World War Z possesses the wide ranging intellectual interests, smarts and empathy of Terkel’s best work. Not surprisingly, the new film version of World War Z does not.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

Monday, July 1, 2013

London Theatre High Points: Two New English Plays

Elizabeth Chan, Benedict Wong and David K.S. Tse in Chimerica

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, which just finished up a run at London’s Almeida Theatre and is relocating to the West End, is constructed as a political mystery in which, thirteen years after Tiananmen Square, an American photojournalist named Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) tries to hunt down the unknown Chinese man with two shopping bags in his hands who faced off one of the tanks. The “Tank Man,” an iconic figure of the protest-turned-slaughter, was the real historical figure Kirkwood began with (just as John Logan began with an authentic literary-historic footnote, the meeting of the models for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in a London bookshop, in Peter and Alice). In her otherwise fictional script, Joe, only eighteen at the time, is one of several people who immortalized him, in a photograph that he snapped from the balcony of his hotel room. So the play is also about the power of the photograph and the many ways in which it can be reinterpreted and manipulated. And it’s an exploration of life in a totalitarian state, of the frightening speed of China’s industrial progress, and of the bizarre relationship between China and the west, represented here by both the U.S. and Britain: the main female character, Tessa Kendrick (Claudie Blakley), who becomes Joe’s lover, is an English market researcher whose specialty is counseling western companies that seek to expand into China. (Kirkwood borrowed the title from Niall Ferguson’s book The Ascent of Money.) The play, which is set at the time of the 2012 presidential election but includes flashbacks to 1989, is also a study of heroism and compromise. It’s insanely ambitious, flawed and overlong. Yet it’s a true political drama, thoughtful and complex, and in Lyndsey Turner’s production one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent at the theater in the last few years.