Monday, September 30, 2013

Faraway Places: The Jungle Book & The Blue Dragon

Mary Zimmerman's The Jungle Book

The new stage adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book – presumably bound for Broadway sometime in the future – has been launched at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, which has had a successful relationship with its high-profile director, Mary Zimmerman. (She directed Candide there two years ago as well as two previous productions.) Boston is lucky: the show is spirited, musically exuberant and gorgeous to look at, and children should adore it. As Disney’s 1967 animated feature did, Zimmerman’s adaptation takes considerable liberties with Rudyard Kipling’s stories, which were first published in 1893-94, but the narrative is essentially the same: a pack of wolves adopts a white baby and raises him to become a hybrid – part “man cub,” part jungle creature. Kipling focuses on the boy Mowgli’s coming of age, which prompts a crisis of identity – the wolves don’t want him any longer and he receives a cool reception when he returns to the village where he was born. Zimmerman’s book moves Mowgli back to civilization but deals only superficially with the subject of his mixed heritage. What it borrows from Kipling are the boy’s adventures in the jungle – climaxing in his encounter with the three-legged tiger, Shere Khan (Larry Yando), who has been stalking him since he was a baby – and his friendship with his protector, Bagheera the panther (Usman Ally) and the easygoing Baloo the bear (Kevin Carolan).

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Obsessive-Compulsive: Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon

In Don Jon, writer, director and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a comedy about sex as tightly compartmentalized as the life of its main character. Jon is a New Jersey bartender who takes a different girl home from the club every Saturday night and shows up for Catholic mass with his parents the next morning – the center that holds it all together is the hard-core porn he watches addictively on his computer. There’s something disarming about a movie this willing to be lighthearted about sexual compulsion, but Don Jon is not exactly Portnoy’s Complaint. Gordon-Levitt only shows us the clean surfaces of Jon’s obsessions – we don’t get a peak at the tension or the fear underneath, or even a taste of the pleasure principle that drives them.

I always thought that pornography appealed to people for similar reasons; it indulges the mechanics of sex, its kinks and fetishes and its carnal veneer, but it doesn’t get curious about what gets people into bed together in the first place. There’s nothing particularly subversive about two people fucking. On screen, as in life, eroticism is in the drama of emotional risk. Don Jon opens with a promising romantic comedy mis-en-scène when Jon, disillusioned by one-night stands, tracks down Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman whose refusal to go home with him after an evening of dance floor foreplay makes him think she can supply the depth he’s been missing. Their incompatible sexual fantasies – his based on pornography (which she abhors) and hers on weepy romantic pictures (which he disdains) – is the smartest and funniest idea in the film, but Gordon-Levitt doesn’t follow through on its romantic possibilities; instead he sells out Barbara by turning her into an exploitative prude. When Don Jon turns out to be a small-scale redemption story about a guy who learns to stop jerking off and fall in love – and to give up his porn junkie lifestyle – you realize the movie’s not taking any chances. It gives in to erotic phobias instead of dramatizing them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Whistle Blowers: John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

“What the gods and all reasonable human beings fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”
– Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth

After publishing two murder mysteries under a pseudonym, John le Carré wrote his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), set during the height of the Cold War only a few months after the Wall was erected, in which he constructed a bleak landscape of the shifting sands of counter-espionage in the secret intelligence world. What was so startling at the time was his challenge to the pasteboard heroes and villains exemplified in the James Bond highly romanticized espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming: that its agents did not stoop to amoral duplicity but promoted democratic values. In The Spy, loyalty was something transient while betrayal became more deeply entrenched. Even though preventing the spread of communism and the acquisition of its secrets were worthy goals, the murky double-dealings of British security increasingly resembled those of their Soviet enemy. Unsparing in its cynicism, the spymaster, Control, explains to the dispirited protagonist Alec Leamas: “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive….We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night….Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” The worst treachery in The Spy comes, not from the enemy, but from the British side. Leamas is sent, he believes, on an under-cover mission to avenge the death of his agents and to eliminate his East German counterpart, who is responsible for those deaths. But in fact Leamas is the unwitting tool of Control, who shows little more regard for human lives than the KGB in executing his machinations to recruit a ruthlessly efficient, anti-Semitic, ex-Nazi killer as a double agent. In the introduction to the fifth anniversary release of The Spy, le Carré, aka David Cornwell, remembers with revulsion these unsavoury characters: “former Nazis with attractive qualifications weren't just tolerated by the Allies; they were positively mollycoddled for their anti-communist credentials.” In the end, the Circus (le Carré’s nickname for MI6) betrays Leamas and Liz, his lover, an idealistic member of the British Communist Party, who is also brutally and pitilessly used by both sides. Yet given the repressive nature of the Communist system, le Carré seems to accept the view that collateral damage of the innocent was permitted so that British people can “sleep safely in their beds at night,” a worldview that is repeated more ruefully in the subsequent George Smiley espionage novels.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fall Season 2013: A Look at Five New Sitcoms

Sean Giambrone and George Segal on The Goldbergs, now on ABC

Even in this era of cable television when a series can premiere at any point on the calendar, September, when the major networks premiere the majority of their new shows, remains a special time for TV viewers. Most of the shows you see this fall won't be here come January, but with a crop of almost 50 new shows coming your way in the next few weeks, it may be difficult to figure out which to check out and which to pass on. Today I'm looking at five new comedies which recently showed up on our airwaves, some more promising than others: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Trophy Wife (ABC), The Goldbergs (ABC), The Crazy Ones (CBS), and Dads (Fox).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Long May You Run: Vanishing Point (1971)

Barry Newman in Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971)

The movie director Richard C. Sarafian, who died last week, was a fascinating, immensely likable man with a long, mostly unlucky career. In the late 1950s, after bumming around New York University (where, as a lark, he took a screenwriting course while flaming out as a pre-med/pre-law student) and the army, he wound up in Kansas City, where he met Robert Altman. The two became drinking buddies and worked together in the theater and on industrial films, and for a while Sarafian was married to Altman’s sister. While still in Kansas City, he directed a shoestring first feature, Terror at Black Falls, and in the early ‘60s, he followed Altman out to the west coast in search of TV work.

In 1965, he got the chance to make another feature, Andy – a low-budget, Neo-realist-style character study about a middle-aged, mentally disabled man that he shot on the streets of New York, using money he received as part of a program by Universal to encourage new talent. The movie won some praise at Cannes, but Universal was apparently so unimpressed with it that, decades later, they turned down a request to allow it to be aired on Turner Classic Movies. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Sarafian devoted most of his energies doing the best he could with various hopeless action-movie projects, including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, The Next Man, the Farrah Fawcett vehicle Sunburn, and Eye of the Tiger (his final feature). The 1990 Solar Crisis, was officially credited to the notorious (and nonexistent) Alan Smithee. In the last twenty or so years of his career, he probably gave audiences most pleasure in his occasional acting appearances in other directors’ films. (His side career began in earnest when he played Willie Nelson’s brazenly crooked manager, Rodeo Rocky, who dresses like a stardust cowboy and talks like Brooklyn, in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. He also played the gangster whose violent degradation serves as an aphrodisiac to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Bugsy.)

Sarafian did make one classic, though –  the “existential,” “psychedelic,” and generally weird road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a film that the white-trash singer-songwriter Mojo Nixon once proclaimed would be on permanent display, as part of a continuous triple bill with Thunder Road and Two-Lane Blacktop, at “the amusement park in my mind.” Febrile, rapturously beautiful to look at, and cheerfully disreputable, it is a movie spawned by a remarkable confluence of talents: the screenplay is credited to “Guillermo Cain,” who was actually the great Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante. The film was shot by John A. Alonzo, who later shot Sounder, Conrack, and Chinatown. (He and Sarafian went way back; Alonzo had an acting role in Terror at Black Falls.) 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Portrait of Blues in Canada: A Photo-Documentary

Colin Linden and Tom Wilson of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (Photo by Randy MacNeil)

"What you see on this site [and in this book (ed.)] is a compilation of photographs taken over a 30 year period. Unlike most contemporary photographers, I have chosen to pursue film photography. While digital provides immediate access without the costs and time associated with developing, I prefer the latitude that film affords me. The bottom line for me is the quality."  – Randy MacNeil

A Portrait of Blues in Canada, a new coffee-table book by Randy MacNeil and Francine Aubrey, highlights the wonderful black and white photography of Randy McNeil. MacNeil is a firm believer in the use of film for his photographs, but apparently doesn’t mind using some digital techniques in the printing. There are several solarized photos spread throughout the book that take on an almost cartoony look when compared to the fine focus and contrast of the prints. But this is nit-picking. For the blues aficionado, especially one north of the 49th parallel, the book is a goldmine.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stations: The Espionage Novels of David Downing

Novelist and historian David Downing offers a powerful evocation of Berlin from 1939 to 1948 in six engrossing novels (each title the name of a continental train station) from the last year of peace before the outbreak of war to when the city became a flashpoint for the Cold War. Zoo Station (Soho Crime, 2007) introduces John Russell, a British citizen, who’s been living and working in Berlin for fifteen years as a freelance journalist. His life as a foreigner with strong German connections presents personal dilemmas. His son, Paul, by his German ex-wife (who went on to marry a Nazi), is an active member of the Hitler Youth, and his lover, Effi Koenen, is a talented young actress making a comfortable living appearing in state-sanctioned plays and films under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels which serve as a cover for her anti-Nazi beliefs.

Another conundrum that Russell faces is how to respond to Soviet overtures. While in Danzig (today’s Gdansk, Poland), Russell is approached by a mysterious Soviet agent, Shchepkin, who asks if Russell would be willing to write some pro-Nazi feature stories for the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda since the Soviet leadership is interested in pursuing a non-aggression pact with the Führer, and these articles could help to prepare the Soviet citizenry for such an about-face alliance. This proposal is just one of the moral quandaries facing Russell given his awareness of the kindertransport of Jewish children, and the intimidation of Jewish citizens, the pillaging of their homes and the fatal beatings of their relatives in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp – as a journalist he visits the camp to briefly interview a badly beaten inmate – by Nazi thugs. Conflicted with being a well-paid propagandist for the Soviets – he was once a communist, and though he still retains his vision of a humane and more equitable world, he has long shed his illusions about the capacity of the Soviet Union to deliver it – and what he sees around him in Germany, Russell questions how he can maintain his integrity, keep his family safe from harm and provide humanitarian assistance to Jewish friends. His decision to work for the Soviets is a Faustian bargain that unfolds throughout the subsequent novels. A journalist, whose work can provide the cover for a spook, and his linguistic skills – he is fluent in German and Russian – render Russell an attractive recruiting target for the different national spy agencies. His response to these myriad pressures, that tests his courage, survival skills and his humanity, is a thick thread woven throughout the series.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Loosening the Stays: Enchanted April

Marla McLean as Lady Caroline Bramble in Enchanted April (photo by Emily Cooper)

Enchanted April, one of this Shaw Festival season’s audience pleasers, has a long and somewhat complicated lineage. This tale of four women whose lives turn around when they share an Italian castle for a month began in 1922 as a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim that became a play three years later and a (rather insipid) movie in 1935. Then the property was forgotten for more than half a century until, in 1991, Mike Newell remade it with Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker as the ladies and Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent and Michael Kitchen in the male roles. This graceful comedy about the regenerative powers of sunshine and leisure prompted a second stage version by Matthew Barber, which appeared briefly on Broadway in 2003 with Molly Ringwald and Jayne Atkinson. It didn’t get much respect but it was quite pleasurable, and the two stars, playing the repressed Rose and the impulsive, determined Lotty (the roles given to Richardson and Lawrence in the film) – who secure the vacation house, advertise for companions, and become fast friends – were splendid. Jackie Maxwell’s production at the Shaw, where (like Guys and Dolls and Lady Windermere’s Fan) it’s filling the spacious Festival Theatre, is also a success.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Lasting Impact and Joy of Cross-Cultural Currents: Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie)

As long as there has been music there has been fertilization of different sounds and rhythms between musicians from various countries and continents. From African slaves bringing their music to America and giving birth to the blues and later jazz to the British, in turns, absorbing American tunes, and melding their essences to proffer their unique brand of rock and roll, music has functioned as one of the best ambassadors for cross-cultural connections and co-operation. Two new documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie) attest to that fact, examining, in turn, a specific sound and one particular song, while offering some provocative theories as to why things turned out the way they did.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Torture Porn: Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners

Hugh Jackman & Jake Gyllenhaal

During Prisoners I felt like I’d been strapped to my chair and was being whipped around through a house of horrors I hadn't signed on for. The director, the Québecois Denis Villeneuve, is extremely accomplished, and the movie is beautifully made, with sequences that are marvels of suspense and mood. He’s working with a superb cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and with a talented cast who create distinctive, interesting characters. But everyone is at the service of material – Aaron Guzikowski’s script – that amounts to the worst sort of gut-wrenching manipulation, sold to us as a meaningful disquisition on evil and how the loss of a child can diminish one’s humanity. Prisoners is a cheap thriller dressed up to look like an important movie, its 150-minute length offered as proof of prestige. It’s loathsome.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lee Child's Never Go Back: Jack Reacher Returns

Never Go Back, Lee Child’s 18th Jack Reacher novel, is just like its predecessors, at least in the broad strokes: Our wandering hero finds himself in deep trouble, meets good people and bad, helps the good and kicks ass on the bad. What is noteworthy about this one for the many, many fans of Child’s thrillers is that Reacher finally makes contact with Major Susan Turner, new head of the 110th MP Special Unit, Reacher’s old command. In the earlier novel 61 Hours, Turner was no more than an attractive voice on the telephone, a voice Reacher describes as "warm, a little husky, a little breathy, a little intimate," and whom he was determined to meet in person.

But the meeting is not what Reacher expected. After making his way from South Dakota to the Virginia headquarters of the 110th, as close to a home as Reacher has ever had – there is a legendary dent in his old desk, where he once bounced his commanding officer’s head – Reacher finds someone else in the unit commander’s office, a nasty piece of work named Lt. Col. Morgan. Reacher receives two pieces of bad news: a 16-year-old incident has somehow resulted in a murder complaint against him, and he is the subject of a paternity suit from a woman he’s never heard of. Furthermore, Susan Turner has been charged with taking a $100,000 bribe, arrested and jailed. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shannon's Deal: The Iceman

Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta in The Iceman

After watching Michael Shannonthe Method Dwight Frye of our times straining to pop not only his eyes but every vein in his head as the dark embodiment of helpless, neurotic super-villainy in Man of Steel, it’s kind of relaxing getting to see him settle down and play a regular, run-of-the-mill cold-blooded professional assassin, with a hundred kills to his credit, in the true-crime docudrama The Iceman. Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a colorless but intense dude who, in 1964, is courting Winona Ryder and dealing in pornographic films. (He tells his bride-to-be that he works dubbing Disney cartoons, a detail that suggests a livelier imagination, and more of a sense of humor, than anything he ever gets to say or do again would suggest. He tells Ryder that his favorite job was Cinderella.) Richard also has a brotherplayed briefly but memorably by Steven Dorffwho is in prison, and who Richard has nothing but contempt for, because the brother killed a little girl. A reference in their dialogue together about having had it tough growing up, and a flashback to their father dispensing punishment with a belt, seems meant to answer any distracting questions the viewers might bring to the table about just how these guys could have gotten so screwed up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Scorsese's Jukebox

Rock music didn't make its true first appearance in movies until 1955 when Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" introduced movie audiences to its power in Richard Brooks' youth drama Blackboard Jungle. This jumping tune, heard over the opening credits, got people hopping with the kind of infectious enthusiasm not seen since the beginning of The Swing Era. Blackboard Jungle was the story of a new teacher (Glenn Ford) who begins a job at a school in the 'wrong' part of town. He initially gets a lot of grief from the underclass students he's trying to teach. But one of his colleagues gets more than just grief. He tries to interest his charges in jazz. But the music of Stan Kenton and Bix Beiderbecke makes no impressionable dent in their not-so-impressionable minds. (The poor teacher is forced to watch his prize collection of records get tossed around the room and smashed to bits.) The picture was noted for introducing to audiences the raw and exciting presence of Sidney Poitier, but the lasting memory is of a public so startled by "Rock Around the Clock" that Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador to Italy, protested Blackboard Jungle's inclusion in the Venice Film Festival that year because (thanks to Bill Haley & The Comets) it incited people to violence.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Adventures in Art, Expedient Creativity and Spirituality: Interview with Pete Townshend

Last June, critic Deirdre Kelly reviewed the Stratford production of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy in Critics at Large as "a feast of the senses." She went on to elaborate that "this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo." Speaking of the composer, Pete Townshend, the founder of The Who, Kelly had an opportunity to talk with him for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The paper ran a portion of her long discussion with the artist. Here today, we supply the rest. Townshend discusses a range of subjects including autism in relation to Tommy, the spiritual guidance of Meher Baba, the generational conflict in post-War Britain and the continued relevance of Tommy today.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Henry James’s Children: Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters

Claire Jullien and Julia Course in Our Betters

Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters, which is receiving an elegant, intelligent and finely acted revival at the Shaw Festival, is a fascinating comedy of manners on an unusual topic: rich American women who travel to Europe to marry poor but titled men. It’s as much about the market economy as Jane Austen’s novels, but the women’s motivations are more unsympathetic than those of Austen’s characters. When Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas marries the unappetizing Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, whom she could never love, Lizzy is appalled but we pity Charlotte’s plight; without money, she can hardly hope to get a better catch, and she’s pragmatic enough to consider herself lucky to have found Collins. But the women we meet in the London of Our Betters – Pearl (Claire Jullien), who is married to Lord Grayston; Minnie (Laurie Paton), who is the Duchesse de Surennes (and now a widow); Flora (Catherine McGregor), who left her husband, the Prince della Cercola, after the death of their child; and Pearl’s younger sister, Bessie Saunders (Julia Course), whom Pearl has matched up with the young Lord Bleane (Ben Sanders) – act out of a combination of vanity, restlessness and self-delusion.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – Just Read the Books

Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The following contains spoilers for The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series.

If I were writing this to let you all know how notably underwhelming the recently released The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is, I know that I’m a little late to the party. Even if you weren’t aware of the film, or author Cassandra Clare’s multi-volume teen fantasy book series that inspired it, you probably heard that resounding flopping sound the movie generated when it premiered in theatres a couple of weeks ago. Just this past Thursday in fact the studio put the planned sequel (based on the second novel City of Ashes) on indefinite hold. It is probably for the best.

Directed by Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid, 2010), and starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower (who played the centuries-old vampire Caius in the Twilight films), City of Bones is a bit of a hot mess: pretty to look at but remarkably frustrating to follow. In fact, that is the most apt word to describe the experience of watching City of Bones: frustrating. The movie – clocking in at over 2 hours – feels both unbearably long and exasperatingly hurried. I’ve read all five published books of the Mortal Instruments series, including Clare’s more readable Infernal Devices prequel trilogy, and even I found the film difficult to follow – and even more difficult to like. I enjoyed the books, mind you, but I confess they don’t live long in your consciousness after putting them down. Clare has produced a believable world on the page, and offers a number of interesting twists on the vampire/werewolf/demon narrative, but little of that makes it onto the big screen. The result is a film that no doubt would anger a fan of the books and confuse the average moviegoer. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Spice of 'Fess: Hugh Laurie's Didn’t It Rain

When he was 19-years-old, Hugh Laurie, a young actor and piano player, heard Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (One Way Records, 1978), an album by one of New Orleans's great musicians. "It changed everything for me," Laurie told The Telegraph last spring in describing what for him was a profound experience. The record captures Longhair late in his life, playing that unique New Orleans gumbo of r&b, jazz, Cajun and blues. After listening to it again recently, I can understand how it would impress a young Laurie because it's everything we came to expect as “definitive” 'Fess. If history is anything to go by, Laurie is trying to capture some of that same authentic New Orleans sound on his new record, Didn't It Rain (Warner, 2013). Produced by Joe Henry, this is Hugh Laurie’s second album with his excellent group, the Copper Bottom Band. (Laurie is 53 years-of-age). As good as this record is, though, I can't get past the "actor as musician" stigma that was present on his first release, Let Them Talk (Warner, 2011), which reached No. 16 on the Billboard charts and went Gold in the UK. Is he hard to take seriously as a musician? Considering all of his work as an actor, most recently with the highly successful House, Laurie could be playing a role like any other, only this time it’s as a singer with affection for blues and cabaret music from New Orleans. From what I’ve read, Laurie does take his music seriously, but perhaps not himself.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Maggie Hope Mysteries: A British Spy During World War Two

Whenever historical and fictional characters interact, the reader must suspend judgement about the truthfulness of the novel. Dialogue will largely be invented as novelists engage their imagination to explore beyond what is in the historical record without violating that record. The reader is looking for authenticity and plausibility. Does the novel, regardless of how compelling the plot and interesting the characters, accurately convey the spirit of the times? These musings came to mind after reading Susan Elia MacNeal’s, absorbing Maggie Hope trilogy (with at least two more in the works) especially the first, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (Bantam Books 2012), and the second, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (2012).

Maggie is a very engaging character: smarter than almost all the men around her, spirited, and strong willed, if a tad naïve, with a determination to succeed “in a man’s world.” She is a math prodigy and saddled with an unusual family pedigree. Believing that both of her British parents died in a car accident when she was very small, Maggie was raised in America by her aunt Edith who works as a scientist for Wellesley College where Maggie has graduated with top marks in math. She delays her doctoral studies at MIT to go to London in 1940 to sell a house that she had recently inherited. Unable to sell it, she takes in roommates to defray the expenses, a decision that will have momentous significance as the plot unfolds. Since these novels fall within the mystery genre, it should not be a surprise that her parents are very much alive, and one of the pleasures of these books is to discover with Maggie their current identity and the pivotal role they will play in her life.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Little Stabs at Happiness: The World's End & You're Next

Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan star in Edgar Wright's The World's End

The first weeks of September are a dozy, uninspiring time for moviegoers. Summer’s over, but fall’s not quite here yet; for serious movie geeks, most of the excitement is generated by the news from high-profile festivals (Telluride, Toronto); in the real world, something like Don’t Tell a Soul or The Exorcism of Emily Rose suddenly has a reasonably good chance to be one of the top box-office draws of its opening weekend. Given the kind of summer it’s been at the movies, it’s perfectly appropriate that a couple of the better popcorn movies still lingering around certain multiplexes in these post-dog days offer the charm of small-scale, ironic apocalypses. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Children of the Revolution: DCI Banks Continues to Please

It probably no longer needs to be said that Peter Robinson is one of the premier writers of detective fiction in the English language, right up there with Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, P.D. James and any other crime novelist that you might care to name. The facts speak for themselves: Children of the Revolution (McClelland & Stewart) is Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, apart from five other standalone works of fiction. His awards and prizes, in several countries, are numerous. And besides all that, there is the BBC series based on his novels (titled, unimaginatively, DCI Banks, but brilliantly cast with veteran actor Stephen Tompkinson in the title role), which Robinson aficionados will be pleased to hear has been renewed for a third season.

In this novel, DCI Banks is called out to a cold, damp death, a man broken and battered on an abandoned railway line 30 metres below an isolated footbridge. He could be a suicide or he could have been pushed over the wall of the overpass, or he could have been beaten and thrown off the bridge. The victim, named Gavin Miller, is a local man, down on his luck and a bit of a loner, though not altogether unfriendly. There is, however, one highly unusual thing about Miller’s death: He was carrying an envelope with £5,000 in new £50 notes in it. As Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman says, “Not something you’d need for a walk in the woods.” (page 9)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Cultural Hodgepodge: The Attack, People Who Eat Darkness, The Mindy Project and Robyn Hitchcock In Concert

Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina on Fox's The Mindy Project, which returns for its second season on Sept 17

Choices, choices. These days there’s so much to watch, read and listen to that it’s pretty difficult to keep up with everything you’re interested in. There are eight network TV shows slated to begin their new seasons in the next couple of weeks which I will be watching, as well as a couple of television series either winding down (Under the Dome, Ray Donovan) or having just begun their new season (Copper). And that’s not including the new TV shows which I have yet to sample. Then there are three alternate history science fiction novels I am currently reading and one more which will be published in October, which will be the subject of a future post. Some new movies, by filmmakers I like – including Ron Howard (Rush), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Stephen Frears (Philomena) and Claire Denis (Bastards) – are coming out later in the year and there are still many CDs that I’ve purchased this summer which I have yet to listen to. Here is a small sample of what I’ve been into recently.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Posing: Lady Windermere’s Fan

Peter Hinton’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw Festival is magnificent to look at. Working with set designer Teresa Przyblyski, costume designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Louise Guinand, Hinton creates a series of images that suggest the work of a variety of painters, mostly but not exclusively impressionists. In the first act, Lady Windermere (Marla McLean) entertains the Duchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo) and her daughter Agatha (Kate Besworth) stage right – each of the two scenes in this act takes up half of the stage, each room carved into the black scrim – while a curtain blows in the breeze behind them, revealing a terrace with a Monet-like drop in the background. The fourth act, with Lady Windermere seated next to a cradle, quotes Mary Cassatt. The second scene in act one, of Lord Windermere’s study, is in black and white; the single touch of color is provided by a large red ball on the desk that punctures the naturalist detail like the absurdist detail in one of Magritte’s surrealist paintings, while the lighting creates an expressionist chiaroscuro.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Jazz of Melancholy: Alan Zweig's When Jews Were Funny

Norm Crosby and Alan Zweig in When Jews Were Funny
In his book The Haunted Smile, Lawrence J. Epstein talks about Jewish comedy as if it were perched at the edge of an abyss. "Their stage style is tinged with sadness," Epstein writes. "It is haunted by the Jewish past, by the deep strains in American Jewish life to be strained – the desire to be accepted and the concern for a culture disappearing – by the centuries of Jewish life too frequently interrupted by hate, and by the knowledge that too often for Jewish audiences a laugh masked a shudder." In the new documentary When Jews Were Funny, director Alan Zweig gets caught up in his own personal quest for the comic sources of that shudder. By turning to an older generation of Jewish comedians – including Shelley Berman, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter and Sheckey Greene – Zweig seeks to identify what makes their work particularly Jewish in nature.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Eloquence: Othello and The Merchant of Venice at Stratford

Othello at Stratford

It might not be the most important thing about the Stratford Festival’s Othello, but it must be said: It’s a beautiful production. Designer Julie Fox and lighting designer Michael Walton – and, of course, director Chris Abraham – have collaborated on a visually stunning set, an apparently simple arrangement of large, blood-red vertical panels, enclosing a raked, diamond-shaped rotating and tilting stage. The three elements – stage, panels and lighting – prove remarkably flexible and evocative.

More important? The excellent performances of the three leads, Bethany Jillard as Desdemona, Graham Abbey as Iago and, especially, Dion Johnstone in the title role. These are not easy parts, for a variety of reasons, but the Stratford cast carries them off with skill and panache.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Shorthand History: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Robin Williams & Forest Whitaker in The Butler
In The Butler, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels use the life of a White House butler, relayed in flashback, to reflect the history of race politics in America from the days of Jim Crow through the election of Barack Obama. It’s such an ingenious idea – and the film is such a moving depiction of the struggle for civil rights – that even when the narrative information feels shoehorned in the movie it still works. Forest Whitaker gives a performance of tremendous warmth and feeling as Cecil Gaines, who leaves the Georgia cotton plantation where he grew up to live in the North. The picture begins in 1926 but for a black family living in the South it might as well be pre-Civil War: as a boy Cecil (played at this point by Michael Rainey Jr.) sees the vicious son (Alex Pettyfer) of the plantation owner, Miss Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), shoot down his father (David Banner) after dragging his mother (Mariah Carey) off to be raped. Out of pity, Miss Annabel takes the boy out of the fields and trains him to be a “house nigger,” inculcating him with the virtues of the perfect servant, who must move with such stealth and grace that the white folks he serves can’t hear him breathe. But he grows up under the menacing gaze of his father’s killer and at fifteen (now played by Aml Ameen) he departs for his own safety. And he lucks out: desperate for food, he breaks into a hotel restaurant, but the man (Clarence Williams III) who finds him is a waiter who takes him under his wing. By the time Whitaker moves into the role, Cecil is working at a high-end D.C. hotel, where his skills attract the notice of R.D. Warner (Jim Gleason), who hires the domestic staff for Eisenhower’s White House.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

40 More Years: "Our Nixon," and Everybody's

A scene from Penny Lane's Our Nixon

I’m not the best person to pass critical judgment on the virtues and defects of Penny Lane’s documentary Our Nixon, which was largely cobbled together out of hundreds of reels of home-movie footage shot during the Nixon presidency by H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Nixon’s special assistant, Dwight Chapin. (Haldeman was especially renowned as an amateur movie historian during his time as part of Nixon’s inner circle; a handful of his home movie footage was included in the 1995 CD-ROM edition of his published White House diaries.) Lane’s intention seems to be to invite audiences to re-examine their preconceived image of Nixon by seeing him, in unguarded, “personal” moments, as a human being, while including just enough of the larger context  in the form of TV interviews with Nixon’s abettors and enablers and snippets of the Watergate tapes  to remind us just who it is we’re watching. It’s not easy to get a clear emotional read on how the director feels about any of what she presents, but I’m guessing that, when she chose her title, she didn’t intend to remind anyone of the title that was given to Hans-Jurgen Sybergerg’s epic experimental film when it opened in the U. S. in 1980: Our Hitler.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Touch of Cloth Cleans Up the Brit Crime Scene

John Hannah and Suranne Jones star in A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth on Sky1

Last year around this time – as the summer was beginning to wane, and the promise/threat of the new fall television season loomed – two new series premiered which called me back to the very beginning of my life as a TV devotee. Ask my 15-year-old self what my favourite comedy shows were and I would have quickly answered Sledge Hammer and Police Squad! Neither series lasted long on the air, but both have lived long in my memory. Last August, my inner TV child got two televisual treats: Bullet in the Face, a new series by Sledge Hammer creator Alan Spenser, and A Touch of Cloth. I’ve already written about the hallucinogenic zaniness of Spenser’s show, but with A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth, the second installment of the planned A Touch of Cloth trilogy, airing in the UK this past two Sundays, the time has come to write on the latter.

A timely spoof of the recently reinvented British crime procedural, A Touch of Cloth reinvents the parody genre for our era’s much more media savvy audiences. The series brings the energy and style of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker 80s classics Airplane! and Police Squad! not only to the UK, but to the 21st century. Though it takes its title from a play on ITV’s long-running procedural A Touch of Frost, A Touch of Cloth casts its satirical net far wider, taking on bleak and bloody detective dramas like Luther and Wire in the Blood, and even groundbreaking classics like Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Saying Goodbye: The Civil Wars

Joy Williams & John Paul White of The Civil Wars
Nothing reveals the volatility of the music business more than the early break up of a band. In the case of the duo known as The Civil Wars made up of John Paul White and Joy Williams, their recent split is also a loss to the music world. The duo started out with great promise in 2009, but has quickly come to an end after four years of considerable success that included two Grammy awards in 2012. When I reviewed Barton Hollow, the band's debut album in 2011, I thought it was one of the strongest independent releases of the year. Ironically, one of the best songs on that album, "Forget Me Not," offered up the hope "Let's write a song for us and sing until we're old and gray." Alas, those hopes were dashed when the group cancelled a European tour last winter citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Obscure Plays at the Shaw

Jeff Irving & Benedict Campbell in Trifles
Probably the earliest feminist work by an American playwright, Susan Glaspell's 1916 one-act Trifles is often anthologized but seldom produced. The Shaw Festival is correcting that error of omission this season with a stark, potent revival in the lunchtime slot at the Court House Theatre, where it's double-billed with an even more obscure piece, A Wife for a Life, the first play by Eugene O'Neill; both are directed by Meg Rose. Glaspell and O'Neill were friends and colleagues: he was first produced by the Provincetown Players, the outgrowth of a literary circle of which Glaspell and her husband (and sometime collaborator) George Cram Cook were prominent members.

Trifles has a lot in common with Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist play. Each was inspired by a scandalous court case in which a woman was convicted of murdering her husband, and each presents the murderess in an entirely sympathetic light. The key difference aside from style  Glaspell is a realist  is that in Trifles we never meet the woman, Mrs. Wright, whose model is the Iowa farm wife, Margaret Hossack, sent to prison for life in 1900 for hatcheting her husband while he slept beside her. The play takes place in the Wright homestead after Mrs. Wright has been apprehended and is awaiting trial. The county attorney (Jeff Irving) and the sheriff (Graeme Somerville) have brought Lewis Hale (Benedict Campbell), who found the body, back to the house to depose him. Accompanying this trio of men are the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Peters (Kaylee Harwood), a relative newcomer to the area, and Mrs. Hale (Julain Molnar, in the role Glaspell played in the original production), who have volunteered to gather a few items to cheer Mrs. Wright in her jail cell. Their conversation while the men are in another room is the dramatic centrepiece. Reading "trifles" on which the men place no value, Mrs. Hale, who has known the accused killer since they were girls together, reconstructs her lonely, oppressed life, and the two women collaborate to suppress the single piece of evidence that would provide the motive the attorney is seeking for his case  and that confirms their empathy for the plight of a kindred soul, her spirit broken by a difficult, isolated life and a joyless, sadistic husband. The item is a broken-necked bird; the symbolism is both overstated and borrowed (from Strindberg's Miss Julie), but the play is undeniably effective. So are the ensemble cast and Camellia Koo's simple wooden set. Molnar's portrayal of Mrs. Hale, whose compassion bleeds through a gruff rural exterior, is a standout.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When White & Black Turns to Grey: Danger Mouse's The Grey Album

It's probably not surprising that Charles Manson, despite his psychopathy, heard the beginnings of a race war on The Beatles' 1968 White Album, especially since the album owes as much to black music as With the Beatles did in 1963. In fact, the music heard here, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, does emulate black discontent rather than the romantic hopes heard in the Beatle cover versions of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" or "Please Mr. Postman." The anger buried within the black sound tapped on The White Album would ultimately find its own distinct voice in 2004. A DJ named Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) had taken samples from The White Album and mixed them with the work of rap artist Jay-Z's The Black Album (2003). Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter in the New York projects a year after The White Album was first released. Besides being one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists, Jay-Z was also the former CEO of DefJam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records. He went on the co-own The 40/40 Club and the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team. Yet even though he was one of the most successful rap artists in America, after his acclaimed 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z decided that he'd had enough of the business in 2003 and wished to retire.