Saturday, February 18, 2017

Half-Dead: FX’s Taboo

Tom Hardy in FX's Taboo.

On its face, FX’s new drama Taboo seems an intriguing proposition. It’s clearly modeled on the sorts of dark, thrilling narratives that have captured readers’ imaginations since at least The Count of Monte Cristo. However, this show, a collaboration between Steven Knight, Chips Hardy, and star Tom Hardy, falls short of its inspirations.

The Monte Cristo comparison springs to mind because, as with Dumas’s classic story, Taboo is about the return of a mysterious hero, long thought dead, and the unfolding of his plan for revenge. Hardy plays James Delaney, who surprises his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and everyone else from his past life when he suddenly returns to England for his father’s funeral. It soon emerges that Delaney’s father holds the deed to a small piece of coastline on the far side of the world (the Pacific Northwest, to be exact). Although this rocky, faraway plot seems worthless, a surprising number of people expresses interest in taking it off Delaney’s hands, including Zilpha and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), the family lawyer (Nicholas Woodeson), and Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), chairman of the East India Company.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Psychic Cost of Spying in Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy

Author Charles Cumming. (Photo: Toby Madden)

“A part of himself dried up inside. I began to think he had a piece missing from his heart. Call it decency, call it tenderness. Honesty perhaps.”
– Charles Cumming, A Colder War
"The constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guessing is exhausting. It is bad for the soul."
– Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy
The first epigraph refers to Thomas Kell, an on-and-off MI6 agent, the major protagonist of Charles Cumming’s engrossing trilogy that began with A Foreign Country, followed by A Colder War and the recently published A Divided Spy (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). The second epigraph is voiced by Alexander Minasian, a senior Russian officer of SVR (foreign intelligence), who played a minor role in A Colder War and is Kell’s principle adversary in the current novel. Kell holds Minasian responsible for the death of his girlfriend and fellow spy, Rachel Wallinger. Despite Kell’s desire for revenge, the two official antagonists have much in common, primarily a capacity for self-reflection and recognition that the price of spying, the burden of emotional baggage, is something they both bear. Kell admits at one point that spying is a “sickness that hallowed him out.” He has given twenty years of his life to the Service that costs him his marriage and his girlfriend and feels a seething anger not only toward the Kremlin but his own agency, which betrayed him when they suspended him from duty for his passive involvement in “the aggressive CIA interrogation of a British national in Kabul.” Although Cumming is acutely aware of the personal price of spying, he is not cynical about its value as he was in his early novels,when he patterned his fiction on John Le Carré. Cumming still regards his mentor in high regard – Kell references his work in Spy – but he is clearly finding his own distinctive voice in the Thomas Kell novels. I should mention that I read Spy prior to reading War, and I realize that although Cumming provides the reader with all the necessary backstory, reporting is not the same as experiencing. I knew that certain events would transpire in War but that knowledge was more than compensated by the pleasure of experiencing its fast-paced narrative about Kell’s search for a mole – perhaps stronger than Spy – and perceptive insights into the professional and personal costs of living a life in the shadows. Yet the novel under review is richly steeped in strengths that will reward the reader.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Talking Out of Turn #50 (Podcast): Lindsay Anderson (1984)

Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell on the set of If....

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, I did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it. 

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g., 
Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. The book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of finding itself no longer able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an empire. So, England elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, ultimately neither Reagan and Thatcher came close to restoring anything glorious. But both were larger-than-life figures and both did change the political landscape dramatically. 

In this section of Talking Out of Turn, which looked at the political turmoil in England, I wanted to include individuals who predated Thatcher as well as those who were her contemporaries. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to speak to a few artists who spanned those generations: authors Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way) and Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), and film directors Stephen Frears and Lindsay Anderson. Together, they helped flesh out the past and the present of Britain's years of political turmoil.

Like Sillitoe, Lindsay Anderson knew how to rail against the Empire with films like If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973). Since he was of an older generation than Sillitoe, his look back in time (as a way of anticipating what was to come) has the virtue of giving us a unique perspective on what changed in England in his lifetime. Anderson passed away in 1994. In 2004, an edited collection of his writings, entitled Never Apologise, was published.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Aesthetics of the Forbidden: The Photography of Thierry Kuntz

The following is a collaborative work by Donald Brackett and Thierry Kuntz. The text is by Donald Brackett and all photographs are by Thierry Kuntz.

Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies it was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term "censor" can be traced to the office established in Rome in 443 B.C.E. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honourable task. We can easily explore its strange evolution throughout all the arts and culture fields in history: visual, literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political. Perhaps the first act of censorship was the ancient Greek condemnation of the philosopher Socrates, and among the most recent are the fatwas against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. In between, it seems that we have long been told by the powers that be just what we can read or watch. We will ask the simple questions: why are certain things not allowed? and who gets to decide on our behalf what is good or bad for us?

This is a contemporary exploration of the emblem, an ancient communication device which combines words and images in order to convey usually moral lessons. Perhaps the digital internet age is an ideal time to reexamine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and -- perhaps even more importantly -- how much we haven’t really changed at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Un’altra, Per Favore! – John Wick: Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is aptly titled. This sequel picks up exactly where the 2014 original left off, showing the titular aging assassin (Keanu Reeves) tying up the loose ends from his last scuffle with the New York Russian mob – which is to say, getting his 1969 Mustang Mach 1 back from them, in a garage-based action showdown that’s probably the most hardcore bit of table-setting ever shown in a sequel, before finally settling down for his much-anticipated retirement. Reeves makes it clear that Wick expects this to last about as long as we do: when a slimy Italian crime lord named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his door demanding that he honour an old pact, he doesn’t seem that surprised. Like the first film, Chapter 2 wastes no time whatsoever. Its brutally efficient storytelling style delivers exactly what fans of the first film have come to see, and then some. Chapter 2 feels like director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves were given carte blanche to make a sequel that inspired, fascinated, and excited them, and they’ve clearly done so – it’s the Judgment Day to John Wick’s Terminator, and any action fan worth his or her salt will know how big a compliment that is.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Great Screen Matches: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart

Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

Of the great Hollywood women of the 1930s, Margaret Sullavan is the forgotten one, though she was a staple in M-G-M pictures of the era. She had a firefly quality – a flickering glimmer – and the salient characteristic of her performances was the courage that kept her going in the face of her own fragility. She was a feast for the camera – her slender frame was ideal for both clinging, satiny gowns and fussy, elaborate get-ups, which she wore with a kind of gallantry. (“Gallantry” was the film critic Pauline Kael’s word for her, and it’s perfect: it expresses the exquisite tension between her tremulous lightness and her resoluteness in launching herself into the scary world.) Her voice was high and cottony, with an accent somewhere between New York and mid-Atlantic – the made-up accent, still taught in some acting schools, that’s supposed to stand for ambiguous cosmopolitanism in American performers – and the words always seemed to be pushing through some kind of obstacle, like honey dripping through the comb. 

Sullavan was brilliant opposite Herbert Marshall in The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler, whom she later married) and opposite Henry Fonda (to whom she had been married) in The Moon’s Our Home, a marvelous romantic comedy partly written by the on-again, off-again couple Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell that cast Sullavan as a movie star and Fonda as a famous writer who meet and fall in love without knowing each other’s identity. It’s an inspired idea for a screwball comedy, since the premise of those pictures, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is the tension between the sexual and emotional attraction of the hero and heroine and their adversarial relationship. In The Moon’s Our Home, Fonda and Sullavan are biased against each other on principle – the pompous, posturing celebrity writer, the frivolous, narcissistic Hollywood baby – and can only see what’s beneath the surface if they can’t see the surface. But terrific as Fonda and Marshall were at partnering Sullavan, she was best with Jimmy Stewart, with whom she made four films between 1936 and 1940. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Universe All Its Own: FX's Legion

Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller in FX's Legion.

“Something new needs to happen soon.” – David Haller, in the first episode of FX's Legion.

I'm fairly certain no one has looked at the current line-up of television shows and thought, "What we really need are more superheroes." With multiple series airing on cable, network, and streaming channels, I'm not sure we've ever had as many competing superhero shows at the same time before. Ranging from the light, and sometimes emotionally stunted, stories of the CW's so-called Arrowverse (the best of which remains the consistently delightful Legends of Tomorrow), to the dark depths Netflix has mined for its growing stable of Marvel shows, to NBC's Powerless, an ensemble office comedy set in the bright palettes of DC's Silver Age, the shows themselves are as diverse in tone (and quality) as the vast sweep of contemporary television itself. In that vein, even the most dedicated comic book fan might not have noticed (or cared) that last Wednesday FX premiered another superhero series.

Created by novelist-turned-television-writer Noah Hawley (Fargo, The Unusuals), Legion tells the story of David Haller (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens), a mutant who finally begins to accept the reality of his extraordinary psychic abilities after years in a psychiatric facility where he has been treated for his (perhaps) misdiagnosed schizophrenia. After escaping from the institution, he finds himself hunted by a secret government agency, which is intent on capturing him and harnessing his abilities to its own ends, until he falls in with a ragtag team of equally maladjusted mutants. So far, so familiar: on these terms, Legion would appear to be telling a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story – one character's struggles, internal and external, with his still untamed super-abilities – but this is also where the familiarity ends. Legion is indeed, as Haller himself wishes for aloud in the show's first hour, something new.