Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Vocabulary of Bullets: The Punisher

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle in The Punisher, on Netflix.

Country, I was a soldier to you.
I did what you asked me to.
It was wrong, and you knew.

Country, now I'm just a stranger to you.
A number, a name; it's true.
Throw me away when you're through.
– "I Wish It Was True" by The White Buffalo/Jake Smith
Now, that’s more like it. After two long years, we finally get a Marvel/Netflix series worthy of the promise demonstrated by the first season of Daredevil and the audacious Jessica Jones. (The last 18 months have given us an uneven sophomore season of Daredevil, the missteps at the end of the otherwise impressive Luke Cage, the terminally sluggish Iron Fist and the fun, action-packed, but ultimately forgettable Defenders team-up miniseries in August.) Frank Castle – a.k.a. The Punisher, played again by Jon Bernthal – was the best thing by far in Daredevil’s second season, and now he is back in The Punisher. If you (like me) lost faith in Netflix’s small urban corner of the MCU sometime during your viewing of Iron Fist (I abandoned the show in the middle of its 8th episode and have never looked back), this first season of The Punisher is likely to bring you back to the fold. Though bloodier by far than any other Netflix/Marvel outing, Punisher offers its most character-driven story since Jones, and its most relevant since Luke Cage.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Books into Misbegotten Movies: Wonderstruck and Murder on the Orient Express

Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley and Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck.

Todd Haynes got the 1950s in Carol, but he doesn’t even come close to getting the 1920s in Wonderstruck, his movie of Brian Selznick’s children’s book, which Selznick himself adapted. The gimmick in the novel is that it cross-cuts – as anyone who has read The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) knows, Selznick is an overtly cinematic writer – between 1977 and 1927. In the 1977 scenes, a boy from rural Minnesota named Ben, who has recently lost his mother and has been taken in by his aunt and uncle, runs away to seek the man he believes is his father in New York City, following a clue he discovered among his mother’s things. In the 1927 scenes, a girl named Rose runs away from her overprotective father, first to find her famous stage- and movie-star mother Lillian Mayhew and then, when that doesn’t work out very well, her older brother Walter, who works at the Museum of Natural History. Rose was born deaf; Ben was born deaf in one ear, but he’s struck by lightning that takes away the hearing in his other one. That’s a hint of, or perhaps a metaphor for, the greater connection they turn out to share when the two stories come together.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Elizabeth Waterston (1987)

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on November 30, 1874.

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian editor, critic and biographer Elizabeth Hillman Waterston.

On this day in 1874, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born. Montgomery is best known as the author of Anne of Green Gables (1908) and a series of related novels and short stories, including Chronicles of Avonlea. Among Waterston's vast and varied writing are several books devoted to the life and work of L.M. Montgomery, including five volumes (and two complete collections) of Montgomery's journals, which she co-edited with Mary Henley Rubio. When Waterston and I spoke in 1987, The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. II. had just been published by Oxford University Press.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Elizabeth Waterston. as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Injustice for All: Justice League

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot in Justice League.

If awards were given out for excellence in setting the cinematic bar as low as possible, like some kind of bizarro-world Hollywood limbo contest, then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would have run away with all of them. Everything was in Justice League’s favour to succeed where its predecessor failed. This was it! This one was for all the marbles. The marketing was proud to show us a confident new direction for the DC Extended Universe that would diverge from the dour, mirthless tone of its previous films, offering a new way forward with colour and levity and likeable characters, which was totally their idea in the first place and not at all based on the success of those other crappy comic book movies. The news of the recent tragedy in director Zack Snyder’s personal life, horrible as it was, came with a silver lining for diehard fans in the form of replacement director Joss Whedon, who was sure to steer the ship into warmer waters by injecting the film with his trademark self-deprecating humour and wry character work. The stage was set for a proper course correction, and the opportunity was ripe to subvert the expectations of everyone in the audience with a working brain.

That Justice League – in which newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) join the established trinity of Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the recently “deceased” Superman (Henry Cavill) – does manage to subvert expectations, but in the wrong direction, is a whole new kind of disappointing. I thought I was spent; I didn’t realize there was still enough gas left in the emotional tank for this movie to burn through in a single flatulent spurt of acceleration that ended with me wrapped around a telephone pole. I thought it would be impossible to be disappointed by Justice League. I was an idiot, apparently.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nostalgia Is What It Used To Be: My Dear Departed Past by Dave Frishberg

Dave Frishberg's autobiography My Dear Departed Past was published by Backbeat Books earlier this year.

I was about twenty pages into Dave Frishberg’s autobiography when the Hoagy Carmichael song “Stardust” lurched into my head. Specifically, the lines from the opening verse, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by." Perhaps it was simpatico because Frishberg’s favourite book was The Stardust Road, written by Carmichael in 1946. That autobiography, by one of America’s best songwriters, made “a big impression” on Frishberg, whose particular songwriting style comes out of Tin Pan Alley, although he doesn’t admit that in My Dear Departed Past (Backbeat Books). But his book does reveal his influences in a nostalgic way.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Brigadoon: Love and Loss

Robert Fairchild in Brigadoon at New York's City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon was the fourth collaboration between Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), but it was the one that put them on the musical-theatre map. It ran for nearly two years and became a staple of regional and community theatres; there were three revivals on Broadway within a decade and a half of the end of its original run. Now it’s revived only rarely, having somehow acquired the reputation of being syrupy and old-fashioned, like a Rudolf Friml or Sigmund Romberg operetta from the twenties. That’s inaccurate. I think it’s a beauty, and that the score is one of the glories of the golden age of Broadway musicals. The 1954 movie adaptation – directed, with a surprising lack of conviction, by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse – didn’t get at the show’s charm; nor did a 1966 TV version with Robert Goulet and Sally Ann Howes, though it did have the great dancer Edward Villella repeating his performance from the 1963 New York City Center production in the principal dance role, Harry Beaton. But anyone lucky enough to catch one of the performances of the staged concert of Brigadoon, once again at City Center, between November 15 and 19 got a taste of what made – and makes – the musical so special. Christopher Wheeldon, the deservedly lauded director-choreographer of the 2015 An American in Paris, staged the show exquisitely with no set except for a bridge, some simple projections, and a motif of hickory branches that he used in the choreography and, in one dialogue scene, to stand in for the arms of chairs. Though obviously a far more modest presentation than his work for An American in Paris, this Brigadoon was so evocative and imaginative that I’m tempted to say that it was just about as good. The music director was Rob Berman, conducting the Encores! orchestra. Visually, musically and emotionally it was a thrilling evening of musical theatre.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Grammar of Refuge: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck.

“It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door.”
– Tacitus, quoted by a character in Go, Went, Gone.

As I write, German politics is on the cusp of a political crisis. Angela Merkel has provided a beacon of stability and pragmatism, if not vision and eloquence, for the last dozen years in governing the economic powerhouse of the European Community. Earlier this autumn, her centrist Christian Democrats lost sixty-five seats in the Reichstag while the extreme-far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), gained ninety-four seats – with thirteen percent of the vote – primarily in the former GDR. The AfD, which chillingly speaks about the Volk that evokes a dark period in German history, capitalized on voter fear of immigrants after Merkel allowed over one million migrants in 2015-16 to enter Germany, even though the people who voted for AfD were relatively untouched by the flow of refugees. Merkel’s inability so far to forge a coalition that sidelines the AfD may result in Germans heading back to the polls – perhaps giving that xenophobic, anti-Islam party more seats.

In this dispiriting time, a tonic that I would offer is the originally fresh novels of Jenny Erpenbeck, The Visitation, End of Days and the latest in her loose trilogy, the extraordinary and timely Go, Went, Gone (New Directions, 2017, translated by Susan Bernofsky). Erpenbeck, who was born and grew up in the former East Berlin, is attuned to the turbulence of German history in the twentieth century. The Visitation narrates that history through the lives of the successive inhabitants of a grand house by a lake who end up being dislodged because the changing political environment renders their continued presence dangerously precarious. The novel is reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. End of Days is a cleverly constructed novel that spans a century from Galicia at the turn of the twentieth century to the united Federal Republic of Germany that is perhaps refracted through the long life of one woman. I say “perhaps” because Erpenbeck repeatedly kills her off then revives her, the first time just after her birth by slightly changing the circumstances that led to her death, later as a desperate teenager who commits suicide, then as a middle-aged victim of a Stalinist purge.