Saturday, June 3, 2017

Neglected Gem #101: A Civil Action (1998)

John Travolta in A Civil Action

If you’re a big fan of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, the 1995 bestseller about how the Boston lawyer Jan Schlichtman forfeited a civil-action suit against two chemical companies, Grace and Beatrice, for polluting the water supply in Woburn, Massachusetts, then the movie adaptation may drive you crazy. The writer-director, Steve Zaillian, takes major liberties with both the narrative and character of Schlichtman (played by John Travolta); he pares down Harr’s long, winding report of the case and shapes it into a melodrama – much as the writers on the TV series The Practice did when they borrowed the story for an arc centered around the firm’s proletarian lawyer, Jimmy Berlutti (Michael Badalucco). But I’m not sure how a filmmaker could remain faithful to Harr’s material and make it dramatic at the same time. The book bogs down in the middle – just as the case itself did – in endless scientific testimony, and it never recovers its momentum. Despite its colorful, complicated hero, who becomes so obsessed with the case that he drives his firm into bankruptcy, A Civil Action is an obstacle course for a moviemaker. Zaillian’s film may bowdlerize its subject in the course of streamlining it, but it’s a snappy, ingeniously crafted piece of rabble-rousing dramaturgy – a cross between a Warner Brothers urban potboiler from the thirties and a meaty thesis picture like Twelve Angry Men, which gives a large cast of talented actors plenty to do.

Friday, June 2, 2017

To Have and to Hold: The Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Edition

Dreaming Pepper: The Beatles in costume.


Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in North America exactly 50 years ago today. Among the many things that were possible then and are impossible now is the unanimity that welcomed The Beatles’ eighth album as a culminating event in cultural history – if not History. “The closest that Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815,” critic Langdon Winner famously wrote at the time, “was the week that the Sgt. Pepper album was released.” An assertion so sweeping wouldn’t survive an hour in the social-media wind tunnel of today: experts both bona fide and instant would descend on it with annotated lists of other, far more unifying events. (Thus missing, as experts often do, the rhetorical value of overstatement: there’s a reason those words are still being quoted today.) But one unity Sgt. Pepper undoubtedly did effect was a new fusion of High and Low, of marketplace and ivory tower. It was embraced not only by pop fans, who kept it at #1 throughout the Summer of Love, but also highbrows previously dismissive of popular taste. Composer Ned Rorem believed the album announced “a new and glorious renaissance of song,” while literary scholar Richard Poirier called it “an eruption … for which no one could have been wholly prepared.” Wagner and Eliot, Monteverdi and Joyce were invoked for comparison.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Gods & Monsters – Alien: Covenant & the Enigma of Ridley Scott

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant.

I find Ridley Scott’s career as a filmmaker endlessly fascinating, and endlessly confusing. Who else in popular cinema has made such a name for himself yet squandered that artistic reputation with as many misfires and disappointments? I don’t think the man has made a really good movie since Black Hawk Down in 2001, and even that endorsement comes with its own list of qualifications and asterisks. It’s gotten to the point where I’m viewing his back catalogue, full of films that were personal touchstones in my cinematic education, with sudden suspicion. Has he ever actually made a truly great movie?

There’s only one Ridley Scott film that, no matter how many times I put it through the ringer, always comes out clean on the other side. So if he can be said to have made a perfect movie, an unassailable jewel of form and function, it’s Alien. It can be incredibly frustrating to face down yet another entry in the Alien franchise when it’s still unclear why exactly we would want or need one, after the purity and simplicity of that slasher flick in space from 1979. With the benefit of hindsight, I guess it’s easy to identify Scott’s insistence on returning to this material as a fervent need to recapture the magic that launched his career in the first place (not to mention a need to cash in on his prior success and good will after so many failed attempts at trying something different). But I believe Scott’s capable of much more than that, and his refusal – even at this late-career stage – to capitalize on that potential has worn very thin indeed.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Covering Tom Waits and Bob Dylan

The music of Tom Waits offers a wide palette for singers, but rarely do instrumentalists cover his songs. Dirt In The Ground (Independent) is the second album of Waits covers by the jazz ensemble known as Innocent When You Dream. The band is led by New York native Aaron Shragge, who plays a dragon mouth trumpet, a modified horn specifically shaped to “expand the trumpet’s melodic capacity,” according to his description. The result is a warmer, more ancient sound to the instrument that complements the worldly and melodic sounds of Waits's music. The quintet’s first release was back in 2010, on the simply titled Innocent When You Dream: Celebrating The Music of Tom Waits (Collective Records). While I missed that release, I was pleased to discover this new record of eleven Waits songs beautifully rendered in all their splendour by Shragge’s band. The quintet features Jonathan Lindhorst on tenor sax, Ryan Butler on guitar, Nico Dunn on drums, and Dan Fortin on bass. Three tracks on the album also feature Joe Grass on pedal steel guitar. The album was recorded in Montreal at Studio 270 and the results are wonderful. The band understands the earthiness of Waits's music from the bottom up as opposed to a top-down approach that only works if you’re playing for a vocalist. This quintet has a lot more freedom to play Waits as a joyful grind with melody. Highlights include the quintet’s versions of “Chicago” and “Down In The Hole,” but I also love the ballads “Ol 55” and “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Delightful Diversion: Shaw Festival's Me and My Girl

Michael Therriault and Elodie Gillett in the Shaw Festival production of Me and My Girl.  (Photo: David Cooper) 

Me and My Girl, the 1930s musical with a revised book by British writer and comedian Stephen Fry, knocked them dead, as they used to say in the theatre, when it opened Saturday night at the Shaw Festival. The audience jumped to its feet for a roaring standing ovation which rightly praised Ashlie Corcoran's rollicking direction along with the crackerjack cast featuring Michael Therriault and Kristi Frank in lead roles.

The show, which continues at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 14, has launched new artistic director Tim Carroll's first season at the helm of Shaw, the Niagara-the-Lake theatre festival committed to staging the dramatic works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw along with the other works from the Shavian era, with a bang. There's no shortage of enthusiasm here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

New Takes on Modernist Classics

Dani De Waal, Miles Anderson, and Mary VanArsdel in Heartbreak House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This piece contains reviews of Hartford Stage's Heartbreak House, Irish Repertory Theatre's The Emperor Jones, National Theatre's Hedda Gabler, and John Golden Theatre's A Doll’s House, Part 2.

When Andrew Long strides onstage in Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage as captain of industry Boss Mangan, made up and bewigged to look like a parody of Donald Trump, the production utterly loses its moorings. I guess that the director, Darko Tresnjak, couldn’t resist – but he should have. George Bernard Shaw’s “fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” as the playwright billed it, written during the First World War but not performed until 1919, is a one-of-a-kind high comedy: Shaw’s take on Chekhov transforms him in the process, but the experiment has an equally transformative effect on Shaw. The dialogue sounds like Shaw, the sly challenges to accepted social and political attitudes smack of Shaw, but the air of fatalistic melancholy (inspired by the fact of the war) is distinctly Chekhovian, and the result is a play unlike anything else Shaw ever wrote. Transposing a replica of Trump out of Saturday Night Live isn’t meant to transport the play to the present day (the actors are still wearing Edwardian outfits) but to make it relevant to contemporary audiences, as if one of the undisputed masterpieces of the modern theatre didn’t already offer enough to engage them. And the decision to Trump Mangan makes nonsense out of the proceedings. Every time he makes a comment about politics, the audience laughs – not because it’s witty or the actor has mined its comic potential but because we make the connection to Trump, even though the connection isn’t real but merely a red arrow inked by Tresnjak on the surface of Shaw’s text. Everything the character says and does, everything about the way he looks and the way he sounds, takes us out of the play.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Spirit of David McCullough in The American Spirit

David McCullough, author of The American Spirit. (Photo by William B. McCullough)

“We must all read history…”  – John Adams, in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail  
“Make the love of learning central to your life.” – David McCullough in The American Spirit
Most people may know David McCullough for his rich baritone voice as the narrator of Ken Burns’s landmark PBS series, The Civil War, or as the host for twelve years of The American Experience. He is also well known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams – the latter adapted into an engrossing HBO series. He has written prize-winning studies on the young Teddy Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. He was the subject of a wonderful portrait as a historian, raconteur and family man in the 2008 documentary Painting with Words, which is included on the John Adams DVD. In 2006, he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can earn. Most recently, he has turned his attention to collecting his finest speeches over almost thirty years delivered at university commencements, historical societies, both Houses of Congress and the White House. The result is the lovely The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017) which says as much about himself as about the subjects of his mini-essays.