Saturday, January 3, 2015

Agit-Plop: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen's The Interview

Probably the biggest irony concerning Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's political satire, The Interview, is that the controversial events surrounding it, and the global political ramifications its been linked to, will be more memorable in time than the film itself. Who knew that it would take a stoner comedy from Sony Pictures to help launch a terrorist cyber war on the Western world from hackers allied with North Korea – an act that would end up with the film being pulled before its Christmas Day release? After an initial act of censorship, and President Obama slapping the studio and movie venues on the wrist, The Interview is now playing in selected theatres. But is the picture itself worth all the bother? Well, no. But like most things that get censored, the reasons being offered are more troubling – and more illuminating – than the film creating the fuss.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Rolling Deep in 2015: James Corden and The Wrong Mans

Mathew Baynton and James Corden star in The Wrong Mans.

The final weeks of 2014 were bittersweet. Two of the smartest, most original shows in late night television – Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson – aired their final episodes within hours of one another. Though the shows could not be more different – the first, with tightly-written and sharp political satire, and the second loosely improvisational, sublimely ridiculous and deliberately untopical – their two stars may have been the most genuine late night hosts ever to sit behind a desk. Even if "Stephen Colbert", the character Colbert played so brilliantly for 9+ years, has taken his last bow, we certainly haven't seen the last of Stephen Colbert (though the precise date of his taking over for David Letterman on CBS's The Late Show has still to be announced). However, I can't express how deeply I will miss Craig Ferguson's intimate, deeply human presence on my TV screen, perhaps more especially his tour de force chemistry with "Geoff Peterson", the gay robot skeleton sidekick voiced so brilliantly by comedian Josh Robert Thompson for the past four years. Ferguson and Thompson were like nothing else on American late night television. But, at the same time, these closing doors open others for the coming year.  The Late Late Show will remain a fixture on CBS, as the also-accented James Corden takes over hosting duties in March. Even though we have been given tantalizingly little about what Corden's version of the show will look like, the choice of the British comedian for the job reveals that someone at CBS is doing their job right. Corden is a Tony- and BAFTA-award winning actor and writer, a man whose face an average North American viewer may recognize but whose name won't ring any bells. Across the pond in the UK, he's most famous for co-starring and co-creating Gavin & Stacey, a wildly popular BBC romantic comedy that aired 2007-2010 – though his starring turn opposite Meryl Streep in the recently released film adaptation of Into the Woods should draw some much deserved attention. (Fellow Critics at Large's writer Steve Vineberg has called Corden alternately "irresistible" and "irrepressible" and there is no doubt he is both.) Fortunately, even for those without a taste for Sondheim or fractured fairy tales, there is a simple way to get a glimpse into what Corden promises to bring to American television: tune into Hulu and check out James Corden's wildly entertaining The Wrong Mans, which launched its second season last week.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Booked: Reflections on Jonathan Yardley's Retirement

Over three decades, Jonathan Yardley has written over 3,000 book reviews for The Washington Post. He retired in December. (Photo by Linda Davidson)

I don’t know what ongoing changes in technology and the media landscape are going to do to the state of publishing in this country, but I do feel that I lucked out in growing up at a time when it was possible for a kid with limited resources, far from the center of action, to have a favorite book reviewer. I’m not talking about critics, those people who write big books and give names to decades and generations, but regular, working reviewers, the ones who, instead of being able to pick their subjects, have to be prepared to take on anyone in the room. I’m paraphrasing Wilfrid Sheed, who proudly claimed the designation “reviewer” for himself, but he was (slightly) giving himself anti-airs. Sheed wrote a whole slew of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive book reviews of his time, but he doesn’t quite fit into the mold of regular reviewer, if only because, thanks in part to the publishing-world allure of his family name, most of his output was, thankfully, collected between hard covers when he was still alive to bitch about the royalties.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best in Music 2014

Rosanne Cash's album The River & the Thread is on John Corcelli's 'Best of' list for 2014 (Photo by Stephen Lovekin)

I’m always impressed by the love and passion other people have for music, usually matched by my own. Time to share! So, here are some of my most notable music moments in 2014.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Middle Earth Mêlée – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Nearly all the film analysts here at Critics at Large have taken a crack at the second of Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogies centering around Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his colourful, high-energy adventure through Middle Earth to The Lonely Mountain (and back again). While my colleagues have enjoyed the movies overall, they've rightly censured the films for the flatness and protraction of their battle sequences, their over-reliance on CGI and technical gimmickry, and the folly of trying to stretch a small adventure novel into a blockbuster trilogy. Peter Jackson's hardly a perfect filmmaker, and one could argue that this latest trilogy of bloated epics is the least worthy of his works (although I would hope that those who’ve seen The Lovely Bones would beg to differ). I don't think many of these directorial choices are necessarily good ones, but as a filmgoer and (an admittedly rabid) franchise fan I must take what I'm given. So: how well does The Battle of Five Armies do what it sets out to do?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Musicals: Into the Woods and Annie

Meryl Streep and Mackenzie Mauzy in Into the Woods

Rob Marshall’s new movie of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Into the Woods has an insurmountable problem: the show it’s based on. The appeal of this musical, which mixes several fairy tales, has always eluded me. It contains an ingenious opening number in which Sondheim sets all the narratives in motion, and a couple of other songs (Cinderella’s interior monologue, “On the Steps of the Palace,” and “Agony,” a duet between Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes) are OK if somewhat overworked. But the  whole thing is too damn clever by half, with lyrics that tend to make the characters sound as if they’ve been reading self-help manuals.  And by the time the show picks up again after intermission and the characters go back into the woods because their happy endings have begun to fray, the same fate has befallen Sondheim’s inventiveness. The very concept is stupid: if taking to the woods is a metaphor for coming of age, then no one gets to do it twice. And you don’t have to darken a fairy tale dark in order to modernize it; the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen originals are plenty dark enough. Moreover, Sondheim’s idea of “dark” is, to my ears, merely homiletic: “Children Will Listen,” “No One Is Alone.” If I have to pick a revisionist fairy-tale musical, I’ll take Once Upon a Mattress. Revue-sketch comedy trumps pop psychology any day of my week.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part Two): Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

The first part of this piece which begins with Bob's review of Sean Michaels' Us Conductors, a novel about Leon Theremin was published here on Critics at Large on December 14. The piece continues here with a look at Sarah Quigley's 2011 novel, The Conductor.

While Leon Theremin was working in the relative safety of a sharashka (a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system), the Nazis surrounded Leningrad and cut its links with the outside world. The goal was to erase the city, in Hitler’s words, “from the face of the earth." The epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement was a time of unimaginable horror: air-strikes raining down; bodies, often dismembered, frozen in the snow; neighbour distrusting neighbour; and people feeding on glue, sawdust, leather, dogs and cats, while others resorted to cannibalism. Most people attempted to subsist on less than one slice of purloined bread a day. Hunger alone killed 800,000 people by the time the Germans retreated.