Saturday, May 6, 2017

Late-in-Life Renaissance: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Brett Dalton and Jason O'Mara (foreground), with Elizabeth Henstridge and Clark Gregg (background) in a scene from the 4th season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Every once in a while, I find myself stopping in the middle of an episode of television and asking (occasionally aloud): “Why am I still watching this?” It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with before on this site, and one that has sometimes nagged me throughout the run of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is in the final episodes of its fourth season on ABC. Originally conceived as a spin-off of Marvel’s juggernaut superhero franchise, the show boasted an impeccable lineage, as it was a co-creation of Avengers director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, his brother Jed, and his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen. The show also featured Clark Gregg, rather implausibly reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson, who served as a liaison between his shadowy organization and its super-powered allies and who appeared to have met an untimely fate in the first Avengers movie.

When it premiered in 2013, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the most anticipated new series of its season. It met with a fair amount of critical acclaim and featured frequent tie-ins with the ongoing movie franchise. I found it an enjoyable but somewhat disposable entertainment: the early episodes felt cautious and non-essential, with a case-of-the-week structure, an appealing but rather anonymous cast, and an awkward need to serve a promotional role for whatever major theatrical release Marvel’s movie arm was cooking up. However, that latter function helped the show to make a startling leap late in its first season, when S.H.I.E.L.D. was destroyed in the course of the events depicted in the second Captain America film. The development highlighted some of the show’s quieter achievements, such its ability to build complex relationships among its various characters, and the fallout from that series of episodes helped to set in motion long-term conflicts that significantly raised the stakes and my emotional investment in those characters.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Guy Vanderhaeghe (1982)

Author Guy Vanderhaeghe, with Canadian Governor General David Johnston, receiving his third Governor General’s Literary Award, in 2015. (Photo: Sgt Ronald Duchesne)

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. In 1982, one of those guests with Canadian short story writer (and soon-to-be celebrated novelist) Guy Vanderhaeghe.

When I sat down with Vanderhaeghe in 1982, he had just published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Man Descending. That volume would go on to win the Governor General's Award for Fiction, making him one of the few first-time authors to achieve this. He won this award again in 1996 for his novel The Englishman's Boy. In 2015, his most recent published work, Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, was similarly honoured.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Guy Vanderhaeghe as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Real to Reel: In Conversation with Documentarian Tony Palmer

Filmmaker Tony Palmer is the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Achievement Award at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.

Legendary British documentarian Tony Palmer is the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Achievement Award being handed out tomorrow, May 5, at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival, and for good reason. Born in 1941 and the creator of more than 100 masterfully crafted arts films ranging from The Beatles and Cream to Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Palmer is a director/editor as prolific as he is gifted and brazenly insightful. A critic once said of him that he is the poet of documentary filmmaking, and it is an apt description. His work is magnificent, poignant and honest. Through showing and not telling, it preoccupies itself with the stories of individual performing artists and the times in which they lived. Palmer, who has many accolades to his credit, including 12 Gold Medals from the New York Film Festival, draws a direct connection between environment and art making. It is what sets his movies about culture far above the mainstream.

This week, Toronto audiences can see for themselves why he is a giant in the field. Besides honouring his more than fifty years as a celebrated filmmaker, Hot Docs is showcasing a curated retrospective of Palmer’s extraordinary body of work, selected by programmer Michael McNamara and screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox until Sunday. Titles include Margot, Palmer’s 2005 searing analysis of the life of famed English ballerina Margot Fonteyn (Sunday May 7), Bird on a Wire, a behind-the-scenes look at Leonard Cohen on tour in 1973 which only now is getting theatrical release after being lost for more than four decades (Friday May 5 and Saturday May 6) and All My Loving (1968), Palmer’s groundbreaking BBC series on pop music (which John Lennon personally requested he make) featuring Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix and others against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and other explosive political events rocking the 1960s (Friday May 5).

In Toronto this week, and away from the home he shares in Cornwall with his Italian-born wife, a calligrapher, and their three school-age children, Palmer is introducing his films and, post-screenings, is signing copies of his work on DVD, among them The Beatles and World War II, his brilliant anti-war film, set to iconic Beatles songs as re-recorded by the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John and Jeff Lynne, just released last year after languishing in the vaults since the 1970s (when it was released as All This and World War II). It screened at Hot Docs on Wednesday, for one blistering showing only.

In advance of Wednesday’s screening, Palmer took time out for coffee and a chat touching on his early days as music critic for The Observer, his apprenticeship with Ken Russell and why Frank Zappa remains the bane of his existence. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Take it As it Comes: The Doors at 50

The Doors, Venice Beach, CA, 1969 (Photo: Henry Diltz)

On January 4, 1967, The Doors debuted with their self-titled album on Elektra records. To celebrate the 50th anniversary this year, Rhino, in association with Elektra (Warner Bros), has released a 3 CD + LP limited edition collection featuring the album in mono on LP and CD, the stereo mix and a previously unreleased live performance from the Matrix club recorded in March 1967.

The Doors’ recordings have never been out of print and, considering the number of hits they had that peppered FM radio after Jim Morrison’s death in 1971, their music continues to engage us. Their history has been well maintained in countless books, magazine articles, a feature film by Oliver Stone and documentaries. The most recent doc, 2014's People Are Strange, droopily narrated by Johnny Depp, is a chronological visual study of the group’s earliest years, their growing fan base and outrageous concerts. Consequently, Morrison, the charismatic, chemically altered front man, remains one of the most popular singers in the history of rock and, in my opinion, would remain so even if he hadn’t died in 1971 at the age of 27. His songwriting was unconventional, serious and rooted in the most peculiar places. He wasn’t a Florida beach boy dreaming about girls in bikinis or interested in drag racing. This was a guy who read the poetry of William Blake and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche while dabbling in the mescaline-infused writings of Aldous Huxley, whose book The Doors of Perception suggested the name of Morrison’s band. All this by the time he finished high school and enrolled in the UCLA film school.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Filmmaker Next Door: Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme passed away last Wednesday, April 26, at the age of 73.

For a solid stretch of ten, maybe twelve years, Jonathan Demme had the distinction of being both the hippest and kindest film director in America. To appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment, it helps to concede that it’s somewhat paradoxical. There are no hard and fast rules for rating moviemakers according to their hipness, but the ones to whom the label sticks are likely to have an air of cultish exclusivity to them; interesting music choices help, but so does a challenging, threatening edge, a sense that, say, Jim Jarmusch or Alex Cox or Aki Kaurismaki is not from these parts, and may be talking over the heads of, or having a laugh at the expense of, those who do not get their work. Compared to them, Demme always had an open, smiling, corn-fed quality.

So did David Lynch, arguably the greatest and most original American director to cement his reputation in the 1980s, but after Blue Velvet hit, Lynch began to cultivate his own paradoxical public image as Captain Strange from Middle America. No doubt Lynch’s personality is his own – “authentically” his own, as the kids would say – but a man who unveils a movie as drenched in perverse sexuality and nihilistic violence as Wild at Heart at the Cannes Film Festival while releasing a press bio consisting of the four words “Eagle Scout Missoula Montana” is a man who knows that press attention helps to keep his career going and who has learned how to use what seems weird about him as a conversation starter. Demme never stopped seeming like the genuinely nice boy next door. He was just the boy next door who had more wide-ranging interests and better taste in music and movies than anyone you’d ever met.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Groundhog Day: Angling for the Big Score

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day, written by Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis, is a one-of-a-kind existential comedy with an inspired premise. Phil Connors, a misanthropic, self-involved weatherman, gets stuck in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over again. The day is February 2, and the setting of his private eternity is the tiny town of Punxsutawney, PA, where his bosses have sent him for the fifth year in a row, with a cameraman and an associate producer, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. (It’s the town’s pet groundhog, also named Phil, whose annual encounter with his shadow the northeast looks to in order to determine how much is left of winter.) Of course Phil’s being forced to face the same day over and over again has a point. After he’s gone through a hedonistic phase – recognizing that his actions have no consequences because all remnants of them are erased with the dawn – and a phase of despair – he stages a series of elaborate suicides to release himself from his fate, but they don’t take either – he finally moves on, past himself, to a love affair with the citizens of the town and an embracing of the repetition of the day’s events. He realize that he can use his foreknowledge to help those around them over small and large obstacles and give his own life meaning.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Verve and Verisimiltude: Adrian McKinty’s Irish Police Procedurals

Crime novelist Adrian McKinty.

If we were to read only the sixth and most recent entry of Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series,   Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Seventh Street Books, 2016), and his previous Rain Dogs (2015), we would be gripped by his outstanding opening chapters. In Police at the Station, we are dropped into a tableau that could have emerged from The Sopranos – except it is 1988 in Ulster, during the Irish “Troubles,” in which, over the course of thirty years, 3,600 people were killed by Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, and the Security Forces. Detective Sean Duffy is being prodded forward with guns to his back through a patch of woods to dig his own grave. (The 2009 film, The Crying Game, is perhaps a better comparison.) He knows this scene well. He has been the responding officer on “half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog." Before the reader can wonder whether this series is coming to an end, the next chapter veers back to the beginning of the mess in which Duffy finds himself, the investigation of the murder of a drug dealer shot in the back with a crossbow. In Rain Dogs, Mohammad Ali is visiting Belfast on a "peace tour" and Duffy is on security detail. Ali did visit Ireland twice, and this fictional scene has the feeling of verisimilitude, given McKinty’s description of the boxer and his face-to-face with a bunch of skinheads opposed to him on the grounds of the colour of his skin. It is a marvellously constructed opener even though it has nothing to do with the plot that follows.