Saturday, January 30, 2016

Departures: HBO’s Intriguing and Difficult The Leftovers

Margaret Qualley and Justin Theroux in The Leftovers on HBO.

This review contains major spoilers for Season 1 of The Leftovers, as well as some spoilers for Season 2.

Television shows can often inspire devotion bordering on the religious, and the recently-concluded second season of The Leftovers on HBO is no exception. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, and overseen by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, the show has gone from a divisive and little-watched curiosity to one of the most acclaimed (albeit even less-watched) dramas of the past year.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XVI

This story will only be relevant to Canadians. Back in June 1979, Conservative leader Joe Clark had just become Prime Minister and unseated the once popular Liberal Pierre Trudeau to form a minority government. It didn't last long. By March 1980, Trudeau had come back from retirement and brought the Clark government down. Once again, he found himself leading the country, but not with the same romantic zeal into the Eighties that he stoked when he took the nation by storm in 1968.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Chucky's Poor Relation: William Brent Bell’s The Boy

Lauren Cohan in The Boy, directed by William Brent Bell. (Photo: David Bukach/STX)

There was once a really great restaurant review of Guy Fieri’s Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar by Pete Wells for the New York Times that was composed entirely of questions: Had Guy ever actually eaten at his own restaurant? Was he too struck by “how very far from awesome” the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? The spirit of that review of confusion, astonishment is very close to how I feel about William Brent Bell’s horror film, The Boy, which hit theatres last week. In the interest of sparing Wells the flattery of imitation, I’ll do my best to articulate some thoughts on a movie that inherently resists thinking.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Paradise is a Lonely Place: Dylan LeBlanc's Cautionary Tale

Dylan LeBlanc may soon be a household name in contemporary song writing. In spite of the fact that he's only 26 years old, his tales of woe come from an old soul. His new album Cautionary Tale (Single Lock Records) was released on January 15, and it may be his most extroverted collection to date. LeBlanc debuted in 2010 to critical acclaim for Paupers Field (Rough Trade). His melancholy first album had some critics comparing him to Gram Parsons. In fact Emmylou Harris, who sang with Parsons, adds her voice to “If The Creek Don’t Rise.” Soon LeBlanc was opening for prestigious artists such as Lucinda Williams and Laura Marling. After his 2012 album, Cast The Same Old Shadow, LeBlanc was now opening for Drive-By Truckers and Alabama Shakes. But he didn’t handle his early success very well. His new album is a calm, introspective collection of songs about his life after getting over a bout of excessive drinking and reckless behaviour. Cautionary Tale casts himself as a mystic as opposed to just another singer-songwriter seeking redemption.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Grandmaster Returns: Ip Man 3

Donnie Yen as Ip Man in Ip Man 3

Martial arts films – at least those given wide Western releases – are generally pretty formulaic. The hero will more often than not be a representation of a figure from Asian history, like Wong Fei Hung (a real-life master of kung fu who has been played by almost all of martial arts cinema’s greats). The narrative will often be pared down to its barest elements, acting simply as a framework in which spectacular action can occur. There’s always a martial arts school, a master, a young upstart, a rival teacher, and a gaggle of gormless disciples. It’s not accurate to say that if you’ve seen one kung fu film, you’ve seen them all, but it’s fair to say that if you’ve seen one of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films, you’ll know what you’re in for with the third installment.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ghosts: The Body of an American and Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in The Body of an American, at the Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American, currently playing at Hartford Stage, has already been performed at Portland Center Stage in Oregon and at the Gate in London; it’s won four different playwriting awards and is bound for New York. Yet it still feels like a work in progress – like ideas for a play that O’Brien hasn’t worked through. He based it on a series of interactions with journalist Paul Watson, first on e-mail and then during a visit he made to Watson in the Arctic in 2010. Watson reported on war zones throughout the world for The Toronto Star and The Los Angeles Times and early in his career, in 1994, won the Pulitzer Prize for a photograph he took of a dead American soldier, Sergeant William Cleveland, in Mogadishu. (He retired from The Toronto Star last year.) But the play, a two-hander, can’t make up its mind whether it’s about Watson (Michael Cumpsty) or about O’Brien (Michael Crane) writing a play about Watson. The first seems an eminently worthy idea, the second a self-indulgence – especially since, for all of Dan’s claim of identification with Paul, they don’t seem remotely comparable. Considering what Paul has seen in Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq and other places, Dan’s stories about his alienation from his family and his brother’s depression, and in particular his feelings of inferiority in Paul’s presence, his sense that he’s somehow been bested by this reporter, come across as self-aggrandizing and distasteful.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The German Occupation of France: Complexities

German officers at a sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées in July 1940, one month after the Nazi invasion of France.

“One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”
– Anthony Eden, former British Prime Minister, from The Sorrow and the Pity.

French television refused to air Marcel Ophuls’ landmark 4 1/2-hour documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969); its 1971 cinematic release punctured a powerful myth promoted after the war by Charles De Gaulle: that the French nation by and large heroically resisted the Germans during the four-year occupation. Ophuls makes it clear that the majority of Frenchmen were neither supporters of the Germans nor members of the resistance. Rather, they went along quietly with the wartime collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain. Regardless of how they behaved, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of French citizens opted for remaining silent, even those who acted heroically.

In his prologue to The Cost of Courage (Other Press, 2015), Charles Kaiser, a former reporter turned author, describes how he first encountered that strange silence when he met the French family that had lodged his uncle, a GI named Henry Kaiser, in Paris during the last year of the war. From his uncle, Charles heard stories of their heroism: “The most dramatic movie about the war,” the nephew writes, “was the one I learned by heart but had seen only in my head.” Yet when he finally met the surviving members of the Boulloche family as a child in the early 1960s, they were reticent about their war experiences: “It would take me five decades, including two and a half years living in France, to unravel the reasons for the heroes’ silence.” It is the author’s connection with this cultured, upper-middle-class Catholic family, particularly with the daughter, Christiane, that gives The Cost of Courage its distinctive resonance. Only after the death of her siblings is Christiane willing to share with Kaiser the family’s harrowing experiences during the Occupation. Assisted by declassified British documents, letters, diaries and conversations with the children of the next generation, the author narrates a powerful account of one family’s courage, guilt and pain. He supplements their story with the larger historical context of the war. Initially, this device appears jarring, juxtaposing a thriller-like narrative written in the present tense with a more conventional historical overview. But as we become accustomed to it, it begins to work, especially when he is able to weave the two threads together with the onset of the Allied invasion of Normandy.