Saturday, June 17, 2017

Embracing the Banal: Two Celebrity Bios by Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn

Gene Wilder

If you are a huge admirer of the diverse talents of the gifted comic actors the late Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn, you won't find much evidence of those qualities in their digressive and disappointing memoirs: Wilder's Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art and Hawn's A Lotus Grows in the Mud (both released in 2005). One of the biggest ironies of popular celebrity autobiographies is that whenever the authors go to great lengths in telling us how they struggled through personal trials and tribulations, very little of what makes them appealing as artists comes across. They are out to prove that, deep down, they are really ordinary folks just like us. They, too, face insecurities, damaged relationships and death.

Although some readers might find comfort in recognizing some of their own traits in these stars, the fact is that celebrities don't abide like average people. Artists make their living doing work that springs largely from their passions and abilities; the general public earns its living by having a job. Celebrities appearing ordinary, though, is part of what makes this genre so popular. Like most TV talk shows, these books contain an abundance of familiar anecdotes about learning life's important lessons, rather than revealing what makes them so compelling in their craft. Wilder and Hawn aren't negligible talents. Yet A Lotus Grows in the Mud and (to a lesser degree) Kiss Me Like a Stranger fall into the same category of celebrity bios as those written by much lesser talents. The memoirs share a dogged impulse to strip away the appealing ingredients of their own distinctive gifts and embrace the banal.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Wonder Woman: Myth and Man

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros)

Chris Pine has so much unfussy charm and is at home in so many different kinds of movies (and periods) that it’s easy to underrate him – to assume that he merely coasts on his good looks and camera savvy. He’s certainly got plenty of both, but he’s like a young Joel McCrea: his humor is in his natural responses to the untoward situations his characters find themselves in (even when he’s playing Cinderella’s prince in Into the Woods) and his sexiness derives from his unwavering presentness – his ability to be all there, physically and emotionally, in every scene. The only time I didn’t buy what he was doing on screen was in Hell or High Water, and there the fault was with Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, not with Pine. Some of his best work has gone virtually unseen – in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, where he was the best of all the movie Jack Ryans, and in The Finest Hours, where he played a Coast Guard sailor on a dramatically against-the-odds rescue mission, and especially in the gentle post-apocalyptic three-hander Z for Zachariah, where he shared the screen with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Director Denys Arcand (1986)

Rémy Girard in Denys Arcand's Le déclin de l'empire américain (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. In 1983, one of those people was French-Canadian film director Denys Arcand.

At the time of our conversation, his film Le déclin de l'empire Américain (The Decline of the American Empire) had just been released. The movie would go on to win nine Genie Awards (including Best Motion Picture) and become the first Canadian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Arcand also wrote and filmed two sequels, 2003's Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) and 2007's L'age des ténèbres (Days of Darkness). Both movies would also be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, with Les Invasions winning – and becoming the first Canadian film ever so honoured. 

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Denys Arcand as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Time Waits for No One

Coming back to Ryerson University to teach a film course for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer over a year ago, I decided to start with a class about the nature of time. Even though I had had the idea shortly before I became sick, it had acquired some poignancy during the months of treatment. Time wasn't just the philosophical exercise I first considered, but a tangible entity that I was growing quite intimate with. I came to see that you can't beat time because – to paraphrase George Harrison – time flows on within you and without you. We may try to organize time through our calendars and appointment books to construct a linear path of going forward through the weeks, months and years. But we can run out of time despite what our daytimer tells us. When we are awake, we are conscious of time passing. Yet we sleep for eight hours a night and it never seems like eight hours when we open our eyes to the morning.

Time is independent of our existence whether we are conscious of it or not. It may be one reason why some of us fear going to sleep at night because it's then that our futile control over time slips out of our grasp. As we enter the world of dreams, time shifts into realms of abstract reality. It's movies that allow us to experience time in that abstract reality, as if we were to find ourselves in a waking dream. Perhaps that's why some people fear movies and choose to attend only some pictures, while avoiding others that may disturb their sense of order. Unlike in the other arts such as literature, theatre, opera and the visual arts, where we can experience a work in linear time – giving us full control of what we read, watch and hear – movies are about surrendering our control to the eye of the camera and the sensibility of the person behind the lens.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kicking Up The Dirt: New Albums by Andrew Combs & Paul Weller

With a voice that is a cross between Don McLean and Ray LaMontagne, Andrew Combs's effervescent sound is impossible to resist. His new album Canyons On My Mind (New West) is a charmer, to say the least. But behind all that charm is a lot of gold, as we learn how serious this young songwriter from Texas reveals himself to be. The first track is an edgy rock song called “Heart of Wonder” with its Andy MacKay (Roxy Music) sax solo, but it’s a bit of a ruse. Combs is a country artist, after all, so I don't think he’s going to fool anyone with his fondness for glam-rock. So he mixes it up on this record with a variety of 11 songs that sound fresh to my ears. For instance, “Rose Colored Blues” could have been recorded in the mid-sixties with its simple string arrangement and up-tempo, “countrypolitan” feel. It’s really nice to hear a new generation proudly wearing their Glen Campbell t-shirts in the studio. On each track he sounds focused and committed. There's nothing worse than hearing a singer who isn’t fully committed to his or her own songs.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part I: Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue

Novelist Philip Kerr. (Photo: Alberto Estevez)

A new release of a Philip Kerr novel is always a welcome addition to an oeuvre of more than thirty books, including his highly received Bernie Gunther novels. From the 1989 publication of March Violets to Prussian Blue (Marian Wood Books/Bantam, 2017), Kerr has now churned out twelve novels about the acerbic-tongued German detective who has led a checkered life in the trenches of World War One, as a homicide Berlin cop working for Kripo (the criminal division of the German police), as a private detective, as a reluctant member of the SS during World War II, as a Soviet POW, and as a fugitive living under aliases in places such as Argentina and France. Throughout, Kerr’s historical research is impeccable, enabling him to convey vividly the atmospherics of the times and delineate adroitly the historical actors. Because his focus is on character and hard-boiled Chandlerian dialogue – the cynical wise-cracking Gunther rarely abstains from verbal jousts with often powerful personalities – Kerr astutely avoids providing unnecessary expository information unless it is revealed through the characters and is vital to our understanding of the period.