Saturday, April 5, 2014

Time, Power and Song: Time After Time, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Hair

It's still difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend that we lost our dear colleague and Critics at Large co-founder David Churchill a year ago today. For David was not only my best friend, he was also my counsel. If I tried to recall the number of times this past year I wanted to pick up the phone to get his advice on a piece, request an idea for one, or hear him come up with a brainchild for a series to run, I would quickly lose count. Never mind that every day I went to edit and post a piece, I would look at our homepage and be reminded that he was here and not here. 

I've been wanting to keep his presence on Critics at Large continuous despite mortality making that task next to impossible. Fortunately, his wife, Rose, lent me a box of his writing – both published and unpublished – that allowed me to at least try the impossible. And it was quite a trip dipping into the volume of his work and going all the way back to his film reviews from his university days. Perhaps the bonus was finding in the box the notebook he kept in the mid-Eighties. In it, I discovered handwritten comments he had compiled at a number of screenings we went to together. Sometimes he even had very precise notes to counter my own opinions on pictures we would ultimately disagree on when we finally reviewed them on the radio at CJRT-FM's On the Arts. Reading them today quickly stoked those moments on air when I heard those views for the first time. Reading his quickly scribbled assertions had an alchemical way of bringing his voice back into the present. 

Today I want to reach back to his university reviews where I found it bracing (and not terribly surprising) to discover that David's conversational voice was indeed as recognizable as it became years later on Critics at Large. Last week, Rose commented to me that David was all there right from the beginning. She was saying that he didn't grow into his voice. Judging by the pieces below, I would have to agree. To prove the point, I've decided to include film reviews first published in 1979 from the newspaper, one of the University of Toronto's journals at that time. David's temperament and wit are easily recognizable to anyone who knew him. Since I also want to treat these pieces as if they were copy he just e-mailed me this morning, they are presented as edited from their original source.

Kevin Courrier,

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Latest Great Expectations

Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch in Mike Newell's Great Expectations

It would never have occurred to me to cast Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, but he’s superb in The Invisible Woman,which he also directed. And you can scarcely recognize him in the opening scenes of the latest version of Great Expectations (2012) where he plays the convict Abel Magwitch, who alters the life of the protagonist, Pip, bankrolling his ascension to the life of a London gentleman in payment for the boy’s kindness to him during his attempted escape. Fiennes’s performance is small-scale – as readers of the novel know, Magwitch drops out of the story early on, not to return until the final act – but he’s as good as Finlay Currie in the classic David Lean film from 1946 or Robert De Niro in the underappreciated Alfonso Cuarón remake from 1998, which updates the story to contemporary Florida and Manhattan. David Nicholls, the screenwriter (he wrote When Did You Last See Your Father?,which I liked, and One Day, which I didn’t), and Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), the director, focus the first part of the movie on the mistreatment of Pip (Toby Irvine) at the hands of most of the adults in his life.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Last of the Great Gadflies: Remembering Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1923-2014)

There are two kinds of legendary screenwriters: the folks on Olympus, who (like Robert Towne) pen masterpieces on subjects that are important to them, with every word in perfectly in place, and the gadflies, who live on the money they get for bringing some wit and craftsmanship to commercial assignments and eat out on their collection of great stories. (There is considerable overlap between the two camps.) Citizen Kane was written by a gadfly, Herman J. Mankiewicz; part of Towne’s legend is how much time he’s spent away from his own dream projects to parachute into film sets and work as a script doctor, sometimes on such projects as The Godfather and Bonnie & Clyde, more often on a vast wasteland of junk. Towne once tried to work out his feelings about his career as a much-sought-after, richly paid writer-for-hire, but he needed to assign the protagonist a profession that would reflect what he himself felt about the work but that seemed to him more glamorous, and maybe less morally reprehensible, than trying to tone up the screenplays of Orca and 8 Million Ways to Die. This is how he came to write and direct the 1988 Tequila Sunrise, a movie whose hero is a drug dealer.

Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who died last week at the age of 91, may have been one of the last of the great gadflies. A nephew of Philip Barry, Semple wrote plays and short magazine fiction when he was young, but he found his niche in his forties, when the producer William Dozier hired him to “create” the Batman TV series. Semple had previously worked with Dozier on a series spin-off of Charlie Chan called Number One Son, which was set to go into production when ABC decided it didn’t want a show with an Asian-American hero; according to Semple, the Batman job was Dozier’s way of making it up to him. Semple wrote the first four episodes and the screenplay for the 1966 Batman movie, and stayed on as “Executive Story Editor” throughout its three seasons on the air. He devised and and maintained the poker-faced, Pop Art campiness of the show—the mock-stolid Batman of Adam West pitted against the hamminess of the guest villains, the fight scenes punched up with written sound effects flashing on the screen. All of which is to say that he played an enormous role in making self-aware pop irony mainstream—a accomplishment that it’s easy to have mixed feelings about today, though it must have been fun and refreshing at the time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Art of Contemplation: The Seagull at The Huntington

The cast of the Huntington Theatre Company's production of The Seagull, in Boston, MA. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Of his four dramatic masterpieces, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is the most autobiographical. It’s a transparent wrestling match in which he works through his personal issues: the tortured experience that is writing, the frustrations of practicing rural medicine, the tragic conflict between artistic purity and celebrity vanity. The Huntington Theatre Company’s current production, starring Kate Burton and her son, Morgan Ritchie, illustrates how the play is itself a contemplation of life. And its singular feature--its unique conceptual vision--is to highlight how this rumination takes place in a meditative milieu. The tragicomic melodrama – the interpersonal conflicts the characters experience – occurs within a sublime pastoral atmosphere, one that gives the audience its own taste of the good life. That the characters can’t access that beauty, though, only reaffirms our inability to live it fully.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Flawed Theory: Particle Fever

The CERN Large Hadron Collider, in Mark Levinson's documentary Particle Fever

The challenge of Particle Fever is to distil a hugely complex subject into something we can grasp and appreciate: the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson particle, and through it a deeper understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe. It rises to the challenge, presenting a deeply momentous scientific undertaking with passionate clarity. But I’m not sure it will convert those who are not already scientifically-inclined. For those of us who retain the thirst for knowledge we cultivated as children, however, it’s an exciting ride. The film focuses on the theoretical and experimental physicists who gather at Europe’s CERN from all corners of the globe in 2008, before the switch was first flipped on the Large Hadron Collider – a singular moment in the history of science, where literally everything we thought we knew about the universe and how it worked was up in the air. These scientists were buzzing with excitement at the prospect of gathering some truly unprecedented data, using the largest and most complex tool ever designed by human hands. As one physicist remarks, it’s “history happening right before our eyes.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Cocoanuts: Marx Brothers Redux at OSF

Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) in The Cocoanuts (Photo: Jenny Graham)

When The Marx Brothers came to Hollywood in the late twenties, their first two movie projects were adaptations of hit musical comedies they’d starred in on Broadway, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had a big success with Animal Crackers two years ago, so this season they've included The Cocoanuts in their schedule, and it’s driving audiences into a state of sublime lunacy. I had a good time at Animal Crackers, though it was a bit of a mess. (Friends report that as the run went on it grew crazier and more unhinged.) But you’d have to be a curmudgeon to register a complaint about The Cocoanuts, which Mark Bedard has adapted from the 1925 script by George S. Kaufman and (uncredited in the OSF program) Morrie Ryskind, with songs by Irving Berlin.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bildungsroman: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray DVD Release of Blue is the Warmest Color

When Steven Spielberg awarded the Palme d’Or to Blue is the Warmest Color – released on DVD this year by the Criterion Collection – last May, he remarked that the jury had taken the exceptional measure of bestowing it not upon one artist but three: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, and Abdellatif Kechiche. Directed and written by Kechiche, who adapted it from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel of the same title (with the help of his regular collaborator Ghalia Lacroix), Blue is a coming-of-age story of startling intimacy. At its core is a love affair between two women, Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a high school girl whose deep appetite for sensual experience is flared by a momentary chance meeting with a blue-haired stranger on a city street, and Emma (Seydoux), the punkish art student who captures Adèle’s curiosity and then her passion. This picture is as entirely a collaboration as Richard Linklater’s Before movies, which he co-created with his stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, or as My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street were between Wallace Shawn, André Gregory and Louis Malle, but Blue is the Warmest Color is yet more electrically and originally sensual and more philosophically capacious. It reminded me of at least a dozen pictures I love, but it’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before: it’s a groundbreaking erotic drama.