Saturday, January 14, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock (1986)

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. Given the recent American election of Donald Trump, which had all the bizarre intrigue of a Cold War thriller  except that it was a far cry from fiction  it seemed appropriate to resurrect an interview I did with authors Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock. They wrote a series of graphic novels, The Silent Invasion (1986-88), that depicted an America sinking under the weight of paranoia in the Cold War fifties. Ace reporter Matt Sinkage meanwhile tries to solve a conspiracy involving flying saucers and alien abductions which today wouldn't seem too far-fetched.

 Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Uses of Magic: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them & A Monster Calls

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Bored to distraction, my ears ringing from the fearful amplification, I slipped out of Rogue One about halfway through. Not a single sequence seemed to me to have been conceived with any imagination or wit; except for Mads Mikkelsen’s grieving, compromised father, there isn’t a memorable character or performance; and I was utterly perplexed by the lack of humor. What’s the purpose of making a sci-fi fantasy if there’s no distinction between the set-piece scenes and those of any run-of-the-mill, over-budgeted action picture – except for the fact that Rogue One’s are louder? The failings of this one-off entry in the Star Wars franchise seem even more glaring in a year that’s produced truly magical movie experiences like Doctor Strange (which is also one of the best acted of all Marvel pictures), the underappreciated Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton’s best film since Corpse Bride), Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and A Monster Calls.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Post-Mortem: Rogue One

Diego Luna, Felicity Jones and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’m a big fan of Star Wars. I say that not to curry favour with fellow dorks, or to couch the following in any sort of falsely protective pretext. I just want to be clear about my inherent bias here before we proceed. As a person for whom Star Wars has been, and will continue to be, a personal touchstone as well as a cultural one, I have to fight my own apologist impulses. I have to examine this media property that has meant so much to me with the same critical eye as anything else – perhaps an even more sober, unflinching one than usual – because the more I love it and want it to succeed, the higher the standard of quality I must hold it to. (The prequels certainly helped in sobering all of us up in this regard – there’s never been a clearer reminder that this can all go horribly, terribly wrong at a moment’s notice.) I’m not going to make the argument for why Star Wars is special; let us accept this as a matter of fact. I’m instead going to direct my efforts, now and in the future, on examining each new Star Wars film as the individual cinematic work it is, and judge it accordingly. There’s a new one coming every year until the rapture, you guys. We’d better get used to it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney’s first attempt – soon to be followed by the Young Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoff films – at anthologizing the Star Wars cinematic format, adapting the established fiction for different audiences by focusing on smaller-scale storytelling and exploring diverse genres. This prospect was exciting to me for many reasons – not the least of which is that it’s a better way to stretch out Star Wars from here to the end of time (i.e., until it’s no longer profitable) than rehashing the same Campbellian good-versus-evil arcs over and over, but mostly because it’s a core component of why I find Star Wars so exciting in the first place. It’s what I’ve taken to calling the “cantina effect.” For its first 40 minutes or so, the original film was very small in scope, the majority of scenes concentrating on a starry-eyed farm boy yearning to experience the wild and untamed galaxy he knows is just beyond the horizon. But the moment that he steps into the Mos Eisley cantina with Obi-Wan, the movie explodes with possibility. Every bizarre, nonsensical alien creature there, from the thugs at the bar to the musicians playing that now iconic tune, feels real and tactile and alive – and we (along with Luke) are gobsmacked by the breadth of this galaxy. Every alien in the cantina must have a name, and a home planet, and a backstory. And this, in no uncertain terms, is the promise of Star Wars: the hints scattered everywhere you look of all the countless exciting adventures happening just outside the borders of the frame. The films have always been carefully constructed to encourage this kind of extrapolation from their audience, with George Lucas often giving even the lowliest background monster an official canonical name. Those musicians? They’re a bunch of Bith called Figrin D’an and The Modal Nodes. That scarred-up dude at the bar with the death sentence in twelve systems? That’s Dr. Evazan (and his butt-faced friend is an Aqualish named Ponda Baba). And while these names and stories may sometimes have been retroactively grafted by fans and artists onto characters that were originally little more than a bunch of extras wearing cheap Halloween masks, that really only emphasizes the point. Star Wars is a playground for the imagination, which engages us because it’s an almost limitless well from which satisfying space fantasy stories can be drawn.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Can Hear His Music: Testimony by Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson (right) performing on stage with Bob Dylan in 1965.

Last fall, four autobiographies were released by some of the biggest names in music history: Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run), Phil Collins (Not Dead Yet, Live), Brian Wilson (I Am Brian Wilson, A Memoir) and Robbie Robertson, who named his autobiography Testimony (Knopf), after one of his compositions. Of those four, I was most keenly interested in hearing from Robertson, particularly since I couldn’t book him for a CBC Radio Documentary I co-produced with Kevin Courrier in 2008. I assumed he would have offered some first-rate memories that, happily, are now in print. And since I am a fellow Torontonian, many of the places he writes about are familiar to me.

Robertson has penned an idealistic autobiography that is not for fans of revisionist history: “These are my stories; this is my voice, my song.” Testimony is one hell of a tale and a hefty one, at 500 pages. As a young man growing up in Toronto, he was captured by the sounds of rock 'n' roll, country and blues music that never left him. His aboriginal mother, from the Mohawk Nation in Ontario, had a very rich musical family whose strong sense of traditional storytelling was equally matched by their skills as musicians. He reports on his many visits to the Six Nations Reserve in Southwest Ontario, with great affection – “On the banks of the Grand River I found a quiet spot and sat for a while, musical memories swirling around in my head. This is where it had all begun for me,” Robertson recalls from 1966.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Apocalypse Man: Charlton Heston Revisited

In 2008, when actor Charlton Heston died from pneumonia at the age of 84, he had already long characterized himself in movies as something of an icon of American strength and endurance. His profile before the camera always seemed as if it were chiseled in rock and eventually destined for Mount Rushmore – a formidable figure built to scale heights and widen movie screens. Which is why he was the perfect candidate for epics: whether playing the patriarch Moses in The Ten Commandments, the noble Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar in El Cid, or Judah, the Jew who converts to Christianity, in Ben-Hur, he had the broad-shouldered physique and authority to carry the weight of their piety. Even if you could always dismiss the movies, you couldn't quite reject Heston. But his strength was paradoxical. While the strong, silent heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper wore stoicism as their badge, Heston brought a grandeur to his roles, as if he truly believed he were a prophet delivering the word. The disappointment and the pain of defeat in the face of failure were equally epic. Charlton Heston was not be a man to go quietly into the dark night. By the time he was addressing the National Rifle Association at their convention in 2000, holding a raised rifle over his head to declare to Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, that he would have to take his gun "from my cold, dead hands," it wasn't simply political rhetoric. Heston's defiance was theatrical in its intent and scaled as large as the movies he made.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Plot First: Fingersmith

Tracee Chimo and Christina Bennett Lind in Fingersmith. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Alexa Junge’s stage adaptation of Fingersmith, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is currently in residence at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, adheres faithfully to Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel – and considering how twisty the tale is, that’s not a small achievement. The story is about a young woman named Sue Trinder (Tracee Chimo) raised by a baby farmer named Mrs. Sucksby (Kristine Nielsen) in a den of thieves in London after her mother is hanged, who collaborates in a scheme to rob an heiress, Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind), of her inheritance. Maud, also an orphan, lives with her uncle (T. Ryder Smith), a purveyor of rare books, in the country. As long as she remains under his wing she has no access to her fortune, but it transfers to her as soon as she marries. So one of Mrs. Sucksby’s acquaintances, a con artist known as Gentleman (Josiah Bania), worms his way into the book collector’s circle of upper-crust clients and woos Maud on the sly. As his plot – to marry Maud, then have her certified insane and thrown in an asylum so he can collect her money – develops, Gentleman persuades her to hire Sue as her personal maid, to advance his case and guarantee him a mole in the household. The two women become intimates: Maud confides in Sue, keeps her in her bed to calm her night terrors, and, a virgin who admits to ignorance about what is expected of her on her wedding night, begs her for sexual instruction. And Sue, the tough, streetwise London “fingersmith” (or thief), surprises herself by falling in love with her mistress and feeling guilt over the doom that she is helping Gentleman lead Maud to. That’s the first section of the novel’s three sections; in the second the narrator shifts from Sue to Maud and the first of the narrative surprises kicks in.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Laughing While Crying: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in BBC3's Fleabag, now available on Amazon.

It’s become something of a cliché, when talking about the contemporary TV landscape, to semi-seriously lament the proliferation of half-hour shows that, while ostensibly comedies, aren’t actually funny. One of the fundamental distinctions of the format of a television episode is that half-hour shows are comedies, while episodes that run the full hour (allowing, of course, for commercials) are traditionally dramas. But the emergence of shows like Transparent and, to some degree, Louie have eroded that distinction, leading to a profusion of programs that, well-written and well-acted as they might be, present themselves as comedies when they often stay closer to the dramatic side of the ledger.

One of those many half-hour shows to fly under the radar is Fleabag, a six-episode series from British playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge that ran on BBC3 last year and is currently available through Amazon. The primary difference is that, unlike its fellow sort-of-not-really comedies, Fleabag is often riotously, scathingly, filthily funny. The show’s an adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s play by the same title, and she also stars as the title character (her odd moniker is a nickname; as with many of the other characters in the show, we never learn her real name).