Saturday, September 10, 2016

Notes on Gay Life - Looking: The Movie

The English writer-director Andrew Haigh stepped into the spotlight at the end of last year with 45 Years. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play Geoff and Kate, a couple on the cusp of their forty-fifth anniversary whose relationship is shaken by the discovery of the body of the woman he lived with before he became involved with Kate. She disappeared on a hike in the Swiss Alps; her corpse is revealed in a melting glacier, and the thought of her preserved after all these years as she was when he lost her – and, it turns out, pregnant with his baby – prompts Geoff to revisit the life he had before he met Kate and imposes distance between them. 45 Years, which Haigh adapted from David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” is like a classic film from the British New Wave era of the late fifties and sixties: thoughtful, literate, unconventional, understated and impeccably acted. (Rampling won most of the praise and the Oscar nomination, but good as she is, Courtenay is astonishing.)

In fact, 45 Years was an unusual project for Haigh, all of whose other works has been gay-themed. His previous movies were Greek Pete (2009), a documentary portrait of a rent boy, and Weekend (2011), about a footloose gay man (Tom Cullen) whose one-night stand with a stranger (Chris New) turns unexpectedly into a relationship. Weekend was my introduction to Haigh, and though it’s not up to 45 Years I was struck by some of the qualities that drew critics and filmgoers to the later picture, particularly its unblinkered approach to the subject matter, its unsentimental treatment of the characters, the intricacy of the detail and the intimacy of the acting. And Haigh wrote five and directed ten of the eighteen episodes of HBO’s half-hour TV series Looking, a buddy drama created by Michael Lannan about three gay friends living in present-day San Francisco: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer in his late twenties (and the show’s protagonist); Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), his college roommate and an aspiring photographer; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who’s about a decade older and is toiling in the restaurant business with the hopes of finally open his own place. Looking was one of the pleasant surprises of 2014, but it was short-lived: a second season failed to drum up enough viewers to encourage the network to pick it up for a third. (And season two was somewhat disappointing: as is often the case when a TV show with a borderline audience is renewed, Looking jacked up the soap opera element in an effort to make it more commercial.) HBO’s compensation to its fans for canceling the series was a TV movie, recently aired, that Haigh wrote and directed, and I think it’s just as good as 45 Years.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Director Fred Schepisi (1984)

Filmmaker Fred Schepisi.

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.

When I sat down with director Fred Schepisi in 1984, his film Iceman had just been released. In 1993, he would go on to direct Six Degrees of Separation (with Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Will Smith), based on John Guare's stage play. His most recent film was 2013's Words and Pictures, starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Fred Schepisi as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mind Control: Playdead’s INSIDE

Note: This review contains spoilers for INSIDE.
This review is for those who have played INSIDE to completion. If you haven’t, then the following paragraphs – in which I praise this awe-inspiring achievement in design, gameplay, and storytelling and discuss my ideas about what it all means – will make little sense, and will likely ruin for you a game that I’m already considering among my favourites of 2016, and possibly ever. Consider yourself duly warned. (And if you haven’t already, please pick up and play INSIDE at the earliest opportunity – it’s in 2D, it uses two buttons, it’s only about 6-total-hours long, and it only costs $25 across most platforms. No excuses.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Voice That Still Matters - Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic & Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway

A couple of week’s ago I had the pleasure and the ticket money, to hear and see Barbra Streisand’s concert in Toronto. It was the last of a nine-city “tour” called, Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic and the set list was a cross section of her 35 albums with stories about her life in show business. But I wasn’t there for some nostalgic trip down memory lane, I wanted to hear one of the great voices in music and I wasn’t disappointed. Streisand sang every note with passion and commitment. Her 10-piece band was mixed low as her voice filled the Air Canada Centre in front of a packed house: reaching the ceiling. Streisand is a woman with a very high standard of excellence who sets the bar high and maintains it. Witnessing a Barbra Streisand concert means that you enter her world, which is principally about music but also includes political commentary and a word about her foundation which supports many social justice causes and women’s health.

When it comes to the hits Streisand often tells the story of the time she went to see Charles Aznavour, the popular French singer, at a concert in the sixties, but she was disappointed when he didn’t perform her favourite song; a song she really wanted to hear. That changed her life as a performer because she recognized that many people would come to her concert expecting to hear their favourite Streisand track. Consequently, her recent show included five of her all-time hits, “Evergreen,” “People,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” and “The Way We Were,” which opened the concert. All the rest of the songs are her picks: eagerly accepted by an adoring audience. For this particular tour she had 35 albums from which to choose a set list. Has she ever cut a bad record? Let’s put it this way: some records are more successful than others but they all have her stamp of excellence even if the music isn’t always memorable.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Love, Death and Rock & Roll: Rich Cohen's The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

"Menace is most effective when its limits are not known. [Mick] Jagger's 'demonic' persona was not enhanced by the death at Altamont, as some people have supposed; it was destroyed. In the face of one man's real death, Jagger's 'demonic' posture was shown to be merely perverse."

- George Trow, "Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse." The New Yorker, May 29 and June 5, 1978.

In his 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, filmmaker Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) showed how the impudent rebellion of The Rolling Stones' music and their volatile stage performances in the Sixties, which inspired riots everywhere, came from the adolescent impulse to run the table. Unlike The Beatles, who were a still center in a swirling hurricane of love, The Rolling Stones sought out the high winds. They gleefully fanned the flames of discontent until the sweet kick of revolt became a turbulent act of mutiny. But once death greeted them with the passing of co-founder Brian Jones in 1969, and violence and murder answered them at the Altamont Speedway later that same year, the chickens finally came home to roost. From there, it was childhood's end. Their bad boy behavior quickly became a corporate brand of sanctified naughtiness. That branding not only insulated them from the tumult their concerts had created, but it would also rob their music in time of its pulsing vitality. Crossfire Hurricane, taken from the lyrics of their scorching masterpiece, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is in many ways a coming of age story about the taming of artistic danger.

There's also an urgent quest to peel open the riddle behind that artistic danger (and its taming) throughout author and journalist Rich Cohen's (Tough Jews, The Avengers) captivating new book, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (Spiegel & Grau, 2016), and it coils through the narrative like an electrical current seeking ground. Having been drawn to their music at ten, by an older brother who was exiled to the attic of their parents' home with his music, Cohen would ultimately become a writer and journalist covering The Stones as they toured in the Nineties (right at a time where their music was long passed the potency that once stirred him as an adolescent). Using the subject of time as a key metaphor to parse brilliance from longevity, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (a gift title from Keith Richards who realizes that The Stones have been a constant in this young writer's life) is made up of fan notes that are cured in a quick critical eye. Cohen fully understands how the distance his generation has had from The Stones' greatest moments is both a handicap and a blessing. "Time would always separate me from these guys, from this generation," he writes without a trace of bitterness for being born at the wrong time. "Above us, the baby boomers., who consumed every resource and every kind of fun. Below us, the millennials, the children of the baby boomers, who've remade the world into something virtual and cold. The boomers consumed their childhood, then, in a sense, consumed our childhoods, too. They overimbibed, lived to such excess there's nothing left for us but to tell the story." Cohen's story has the power to shrink time so that each song he invokes quickly regains its ability to shock and surprise.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Broadway to the Small Screen: Early TV Musicals

Keith Andes and Barbara Cook in Bloomer Girl (1956)

In the heyday of live TV (the fifties), weekly and monthly series regularly offered abridged versions of plays, and between 1954 and 1956 one show, Max Liebman Spectaculars (a.k.a. Max Liebman Presents), which aired every fourth Sunday evening, produced ninety-minute adaptations of Broadway musicals as well as variety showcases and a handful of original musicals. (Liebman was better known for producing the inspired Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca sketch comedy, Your Show of Shows, one of the high-water marks of early television.) Surprisingly NBC preserved these musicals on kinescope, and several have surfaced on DVDs from Video Artists International, which has added to its repertory a couple of the early Hallmark Hall of Fame musicals and one from Producer’s Showcase. The result is a treasure trove for musical-theatre aficionados like me – especially since some of these shows have never been picked up by Hollywood (Bloomer Girl, A Connecticut Yankee and Dearest Enemy) and others were seriously altered – plots rewritten, scores decimated – in the movie versions. One Touch of Venus, for instance, reached the big screen with only a handful of the delightful Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash tunes intact; the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta and the Oscar Strauss import The Chocolate Soldier were retooled as Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles. (You wouldn’t know from the movie of The Chocolate Soldier that it was originally a musicalization – OK, a bowdlerization – of Shaw’s satirical romantic comedy Arms and the Man.) There is a crummy movie musical called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court starring Bing Crosby, but the longer title, which replicates the name of the Mark Twain comic novel, alerts owl-eyed movie buffs that it isn’t based on the hit show by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, which was produced on Broadway in 1927 and revived in 1943, at the very end of their collaboration.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

( r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
– George W. Bush
In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.