Saturday, February 20, 2016

Thumbs down!: The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney in Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, may be their most lacklustre film to date. The story, set in 1951, revolves around the goings-on when movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped and harried studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to retrieve him before the plug has to be pulled on the studio's expensive Biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!: The Story of the Christ, which stars Whitlock. Hail, Caesar! has a lot of potential as a screwball comedy, skewering as it does everything from self-centered actors to pretentious directors to the leftist politics of the time but the movie is pretty much dead on arrival. The actors are bored and mostly boring, the set pieces, made up fake movies of various genres, musicals, high comedies, Westerns etc., are flat and unimaginative, and the whole production barely makes a comedic ripple. Remember how disinterested and indifferent the Coens were when they won the Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men? Imagine a movie made with that same spirit of ennui and you have Hail, Caesar! in a nutshell.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Price of Nonconformity in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent

Author Ludmila Ulitskaya.

In 2009, the Russian historian Vladislav Zubok (whom some may recall was the perceptive Soviet commentator in the original 1998 CNN landmark series, The Cold War) published Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. The monograph is an exploration of a generation of artists, scientists and thinkers who adopted the pre-revolutionary values “to regain autonomy from an autocratic regime.” Born in the 1940s, they were too young to remember war and Stalinist repression. Coming of age in the heady days of the Khrushchev Thaw, they welcomed his de-Stalinization initiatives, were sobered by the “soft” repression of the Brezhnev stagnation but still believed that the 1968 Prague Spring with its promise of “socialism with a human face” could turn into a Moscow Spring. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia dashed their hopes. After carefully charting and documenting that painful trajectory from Boris Pasternak’s death to the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, and examining the differences and tensions between the liberal Westernized dissidents and the nationalist, often anti-Semitic Slavophiles, Zubok concludes that “their behaviour, with few exceptions among the principled dissidents, was checkered by conformism, cowardice, mutual denunciations, cynicism and hypocrisy. Quite a few of them were unable to resist pressures from the secret police, let alone the temptations of self-aggrandizement, vanity and profiteering.” Zubok tempers that harsh assessment by indicating that the dissident movement “deserve(s) empathy not condemnation” and did contribute to the glasnost policies of openness initiated by Gorbachev. Zudok’s conclusion encapsulates the sentiments expressed throughout Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel, The Big Green Tent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, translated by Polly Gannon). His study is therefore an excellent companion piece to her novel. I had hoped that Zubok might have documented more fully his allegation that many of the dissidents were co-opted by the KGB, a phenomenon that Ulitskaya fully explores in Green Tent

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Daniel Day-Lewis (1988)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Lena Olin in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields.

One of those interviews was with actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis was in Toronto promoting his role in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At the time of our conversation Day-Lewis was on the cusp of his most famous role, portraying Irish writer and painter Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989).

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Daniel Day-Lewis as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.

Tom Fulton was the host and producer of On the Arts for CJRT-FM in Toronto for 23 years, beginning in 1975.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Endurance: Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant. (Photo: Kimberley French/20th Century Fox)

In Francois Truffaut's probing essay, "What Do Critics Dream About?" which opens his book of movie reviews, The Films in My Life, he writes, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse." Of course, Truffaut (as both movie director and critic) is talking about the kind of visionary work where artists who break the bounds of convention risk not only alienating an audience, but also their own sanity in order to make their movie "pulse." That would include Erich von Stroheim's 1924 epic tale of avarice (Greed), Abel Gance's thrillingly lunatic Napoleon (1927), Orson Welles' groundbreaking Citizen Kane (1941), Bertolucci's equally inspired and crippling 1900 (1976), Martin Scorsese's ambitious musical, New York, New York (1977), Francis Coppola's metaphoric dirge Apocalypse Now (1979), Michael Cimino's amorphous western Heaven's Gate (1980), Werner Herzog's lunatic Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Terrence Malick's madly idiosyncratic The Tree of Life (2011). Whether any of these films achieve the artistic heights their directors intended is not the point. They were clearly movies perfumed in the joy or agony of their creator's need (or megalomanical desire) to stretch the art form  and if they didn't always work, they often made better films possible in those they inspired. But when it comes to Alejandro G. Iñárritu's epic adventure The Revenant, which has been piling up awards and accolades for its own daring, perhaps another category should be considered: the job of making cinema. For unlike the previously mentioned work, Iñárritu conceives his films (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful and Birdman) as highly controlled endurance tests where the risks become self-consciously employed and (despite the director's enormous skill) the material turns into a mountain of familiar dramatic clichés. Based in part on Michael Punke's novel, which draws on the experiences of the fur trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass, The Revenant is an epic and artful tale of revenge and redemption, but the motor running this mystical journey is fueled by the same blood lust that powers most commercial exploitation action films.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Getaway: Campo Santo’s Firewatch

Video games are expensive. They’re expensive to develop, to publish, and to manufacture. Your average title, regardless of which gaming system you use, will usually run you anywhere from sixty to eighty dollars or more (in Canada). They’re sometimes cheaper if you shop digitally, instead of trucking to the store to buy a physical disc copy, but it takes patience and a discerning eye to watch out for these infrequent deals. So, naturally, since they can often only afford a few games per year, many gamers are very careful to make sure they’re going to get full value for their gaming dollar.

So the question then is: how do you judge value in a game? It’s easy to associate hundreds of hours of playtime with significant dollar value (and even if your game offers “only” sixty hours’ worth of play time, you’re at least breaking even). This has led to an industry trend of developers artificially padding out their games with time-consuming filler content so that they satisfy this “gameplay hours = dollar value” formula, which is leaving little room for smaller, more compact, and more focused games to compete. An indie developer with a staff of just twelve people may have an excellent game to offer, but they can’t hope to sell more copies than Fallout – so they are being forced to carve out their own niche, catering to a smaller market with shorter, cheaper games. Good thing, too, because allowing these games to exist in their own category means that the occasional special title will shine out, and generate even more buzz than the big dogs.

Case in point: Firewatch, by San Francisco indie dream-team developer Campo Santo, which is available on PS4 and PC for $20, and which has demanded tons of media attention since its announcement last spring. I say “dream team” because the staff at Campo Santo boast impressive resumes, having worked on critically-acclaimed titles like The Walking Dead, Bioshock II, Ori & The Blind Forest, and Mark of the Ninja (not to mention those with experience outside the realm of gaming, like Rich Sommer of Mad Men fame, and revered illustrator Olly Moss, whose custom poster designs have been a staple in the film world for nearly a decade). This gathering of talent is a large part of why Firewatch has been on everyone’s radar, but the primary reason it caught my attention was its setup: it’s 1989 and you play as Henry, a volunteer lookout in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, who escapes his troubled past by retreating to these bucolic surroundings, only to find himself caught up in a strange mystery once he ventures into the woods. His – that is to say, your – only connection to humankind is through his handheld radio, which transmits the voice of his boss, Delilah. As Henry, you face strange and emotional questions, and make interpersonal choices that can deeply affect your only meaningful relationship, which only exists at the other end of your radio.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Classic and a Rarity: Fiddler on the Roof and Cabin in the Sky

Lori Wilner (left), Jessica Hecht and Danny Burstein in Fiddler on the Roof. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I fell in love with Fiddler on the Roof when, at thirteen, I heard the original cast album; by the time I saw it on Broadway I knew the wonderful Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score by heart and I’d read Joseph Stein’s libretto through several times. (Those were the days when Random House regularly published new playscripts in deluxe hardback copies furnished with production photos.) Zero Mostel had already been replaced in the role of Tevye by the distinguished Group Theatre alumnus Luther Adler; I caught it again on the road a few years later with Herschel Bernardi. In my senior year at college Norman Jewison’s movie version came out, with the robust, warm-toned Israeli actor Topol in the starring role. It managed not only to reproduce the glories of the stage version (including, of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography) but to make a link, in the final moments, to the next chapter of the story of the Jewish diaspora: the exiles from the Russian shtetls, borne away on a raft in the film’s most exquisite image, would be the first generation of Jewish-Americans.

In his magnificent new Broadway revival, Bartlett Sher tries to make the leap to the twenty-first century by bookending the show with his leading man, Danny Burstein, in a parka reading from a book about the Jews of Anatevka before – and after – he dons the hat and prayer shawl of Tevye the dairyman. This frame is meant to situate the story in the larger one about refugees that is still, of course, with us. But it’s too vague to work and frankly, why would you want it to? If you felt the need to imply that the narrative of Fiddler on the Roof is only one chapter in a broader story, then the direction you’d have to head in would lead to the Holocaust – and that would be a truly terrible idea. The subject matter of the musical is rich enough; it doesn’t need generalization. Its great virtue is its specificity.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Two Halves Dance As One: Allen and Karen Kaeja and lifeDUETS

Allen and Karen Kaeja in lifeDUETS. (Photo by Zhenya Cerneacov)

For over a quarter century, Allen and Karen Kaeja have kept it real with contact improvisation, a no rules technique enabling them to move without premeditation. Relying on instinct more than memory to execute a step, as improv dancers they inhabit an animal state and are alive to every sensation alighting on the flesh. Vivacity of expression and being fully in the moment are qualities the Kaejas are best known for, and the choreographers they have commissioned to create new work for their lifeDUETS series have been wise to harness that raw energy for the dances they have designed for them to interpret.

Commemorating the married couple's 25 years as dancers and choreographers, the aptly named lifeDUETS features brave new work, one each by Benjamin Kamino and Tedd Robinson, daredevil choreographers both. The two-pronged program debuted in Toronto in October to packed houses and critical acclaim and is now going on the road. LifeDUETS will open Atlantic Ballet's upcoming festival of indie dance, IMPACTfest, in Moncton on Feb. 16, and next year will travel to the West Coast for performances in Vancouver. There's a reason the Kaejas are in demand.