Saturday, April 22, 2017

Recovering a Lost Treasure: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961)

Rita Tushingham as Jo in Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey 

Shelagh Delaney was only nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a 1958 coming-of-age play about a teenage girl set in Delaney’s home town of Salford, Lancashire, but it’s one of the treasures of its patch of British theatre, sometimes called the angry young man movement and sometimes the epoch of kitchen-sink realism. The heroine, Jo – played in the West End by Frances Cuka and on Broadway in 1960 by Joan Plowright – lives with her promiscuous mother, Helen, who sneaks them out of their digs whenever they can’t pay the rent and relocates so often that Jo never has a chance to make school friends. Helen cares about Jo, though they quarrel habitually and Helen’s attention has a habit of wandering. At forty, she finds a man eight years her junior who wants to marry her; he and Jo can’t get n so, she goes off to live with him and leaves her self-sufficient daughter behind. Jo has a fling with a sailor; after he goes off on his ship she discovers she’s pregnant. She sets up house with a gay man named Geoffrey who’s devoted to her, but when he decides to hunt down her mother because he thinks Helen should know about Jo’s condition, he finds himself displaced. Helen’s new husband leaves her for a younger woman (“his bit of crumpet”) and she’s drawn back to the daughter she traded in for a new life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Here Be Monsters: The Comic Book Legacies of Bernie Wrightson, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson

A panel from Swamp Thing, story by Len Wein and art by  Bernie Wrightson, November, 1972.

When comic book geeks gather to talk about the history of the medium and, as is the custom on such occasions, break it up into decades, the 1970s never get any love. In the conventional wisdom’s most widespread take on the subject, comic books caught fire in the 1960s, with the excitement and freshness of Marvel Comics’ re-invention of superheroes on one floor and the rude, gleeful explosion of the undergrounds on another, and solidified those triumphs in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the coming of such maverick genre creators as Alan Moore and Frank Miller and indie upstarts such as the Hernandez Brothers, Peter Bagge, Dave Clowes, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet, but nothing much happened in between except exhaustion and false starts. There’s an alternate history waiting that mirrors the American moviemaking renaissance that accompanied the confused death throes of the studio system in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a story about how the major publishers DC, which decisively lost its first-place status in the marketplace, and Marvel, which came out on top just as it was being abandoned by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the two artists most important (along with writer-editor Stan Lee) for its triumphs in the ‘60s were left so confused that they were willing to try a little bit of anything just to see what might stick.

In the early ‘70s, DC and Marvel wound up showcasing the four-color pop visions of several up-and-coming artists whose distinctive, eccentric styles (and time-consuming, perfectionist work ethics) would have once made them very much at odds with an industry that valued hacks who could meet a deadline and stay within the confines of a house style. At least one of these artists, Neal Adams, with his cinematic compositions and dynamic character poses every panel seemed to set off a sonic boom on the page was perfectly suited to the bulging-vein action hyperbole of superhero comics. But many of the other new stars Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Kaluta, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers were oddballs whose baroque styles drew upon classical illustration and older magazine art. And except for Rogers whose breakthrough came in his collaboration with the writer Steve Englehart on a series of Batman comics most of them did their strongest work when assigned to characters (Conan the Barbarian, the Shadow, Chaykin’s Ironwolf) who were only “superheroes” by circumstance or association. And none of them left behind a stronger legacy than Bernie Wrightson, who, until his death last month at the age of 68, was Godzilla’s closest competitor for the title of King of the Monsters.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Boy Who Slept – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was published by Nintendo on March 3rd.

I finished the storyline of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in an intensive three-week sprint, during which time I played, watched, and thought about pretty much nothing else, and since the day in late March when I watched the credits roll, the game has had another three weeks to settle into my brain. I was surprised to discover that I needed that remove; I needed time to adjust to the experience and realign my understanding of the global context of things. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: I’m now measuring my gaming history in terms of “Pre-BotW” and “Post-BotW.” With this latest iteration of the storied Zelda franchise, Nintendo’s achieved nothing less than a personal best, which means that the rest of the gaming world – and the individual gamers like me within it – will be recovering for some time from the aftershocks of this seismic success.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998)

Sandra Oh in Don McKellar's Last Night (1998).

I was glad to see that Don McKellar’s fine feature debut Last Night (1998) was part of the roster of the large list of Canadian films to be picked for free showings on National Canadian Film Day 150. This annual appreciation of Canada’s cinema is taking place on April 19 across the country, this year showing 150 different films among its 1,700 events, in commemoration of Canada’s forthcoming 150th anniversary. Last Night was originally commissioned by a French film company as one of a series of ten films from ten countries, entitled 2000, Seen By... (2000 vu par...), all offering cinematic views on the Millennium, though Last Night doesn't specifically indicate when it's taking place. McKellar’s Toronto-set, quietly apocalyptic drama, which he wrote and directed, is a unique take on the end of the world as we know it.  It’s also one of the strongest English Canadian film debuts from an outsize talent who, though he has not subsequently carved out a consistent film career, is still making his mark in his native land.

The initial brilliance of Last Night’s concept is that the news that the world is going to end has already been digested and accepted by humanity – the science-fictional aspects of the film’s premise thus don’t need to be explained in any possibly pedestrian or pretentious way – leaving only the remaining question: how will you spend your last hours on earth? The answer is: in many ways. A disparate group of Torontonians each selects a pathway to what some hope will result in something else after the end. (The movie never does spill the beans on that possibility. The only clue that something's off is that the sun never sets.) At the centre of the film is Patrick (McKellar), a lonely cynic who doesn’t want to spend time with his family or friends as the end looms. On the other hand, Sandra (Sandra Oh of Sideways and Grey’s Anatomy) wants merely to connect with her new husband Duncan (Videodrome director David Cronenberg) so she doesn’t die alone. Patrick and Sandra accidentally meet up and slowly bond even as Toronto’s residents go through various actions in their final hours. Some, like Patrick’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie of Hardcore Logo and Battlestar Galactica), are intent in carrying out all their long-held sexual fantasies, and others simply finish their work. Duncan, who works at a gas company, is going through his customer data base and calling them to reassure them that their gas will stay on until the end, a very polite Canadian way of providing reassurance. As the clock ticks down, the movie’s strong emotions bubble to the surface, providing a mélange of poignant, comic, tragic and memorable moments, with the film as a whole leaving an indelible impression.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Singing with the Dead: Soulpepper's Spoon River Revival

Jackie Richardson (centre) and members of the cast of Soulpepper's Spoon River. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

A folk musical resurrecting the dead through song, Spoon River has itself come back to life. Since the beginning of the month, and continuing through April 21, Soulpepper has been giving the winner of the 2015 Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical a series of rousing performances at Toronto's Young Theatre for the Performing Arts, warming hearts all over again. Based on Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology of poems first published in 1914 and adapted for the stage by company artistic director Albert Schultz and composer Mike Ross, this revitalized production of Spoon River has boundless stores of energy in it still.

After the Toronto run this same production, with its cast of 19 strong actor/singer/musicians, will make its New York debut as part of The Soulpepper on 42nd Street Festival taking place, off-Broadway, in July. You don't need a crystal ball to predict how that will go. Macabre the subject matter might be but oh how sweet is this deliverance from the grave. Despite its graveyard setting, Spoon River is so joyously life-affirming that the spirit soars along with the angelic high notes in Ross's strummable, hummable original score. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Come from Away: Forging a Temporary Community

Jenn Colella (left) in Come From Away at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The enormously likable Canadian musical Come from Away, which recently opened on Broadway, dramatizes the role played by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when American air space was locked down in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly forty planes were rerouted to Gander’s small airport. (In the old days, we’re told, it had been a frequent refueling spot; airport personnel can recall crossing paths with Sinatra and The Beatles when their planes made pit stops there.) The locals reached out to seven thousand stranded strangers from all over the world – whose presence nearly doubled the population for five days – providing food and shelter and devising ways to communicate with those who couldn’t speak English. The most inventive, perhaps, is that of the bus driver (Chad Kimball) who notices that a distressed African couple are carrying a Bible. Though he can’t read the words, he has an intricate knowledge of scripture and he figures that chapter and verse are the same in all editions, so he finds an inspiriting passage to convey to them that they’ll be fine.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who supplied book, (folk) music and lyrics, are banal writers, but banality isn’t the worst of theatrical sins; emotional fakery is, and I didn’t detect any of it in Come from Away. The project itself may be sentimental in nature but the production, which was directed by Christopher Ashley, mutes the sentimentality as much as possible; it’s remarkably dry-eyed and its humor is wry and observational. When an Orthodox rabbi can’t eat any of the proffered food, and there’s no local synagogue to help him out, he’s set up in his own kitchen and invited to produce kosher meals – not only for himself and other Jews, but, as it turns out, for some Muslims and a gay vegetarian couple from L.A. The gay men, both named Kevin (Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), are hesitant to admit they’re a couple; they have no idea how redneck a small Maritime Canadian town might be. But when a few too many beers at a bar make them incautious, they’re amused to discover that half their fellow drinkers have gay relatives or friends and use that connection ingenuously to make the Kevins feel more at ease. Bob (Rodney Hicks), an African-American New Yorker, gets over his urban-bred paranoia when his host, the mayor of one of the nearby towns, encourages him to go from yard to yard borrowing his neighbors’ grills and finds that their owners are more than willing to part with them; in Bob’s words, they help him steal their own barbecues.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of  I Who Did Not Die.

"When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.”  Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.

In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again