Thursday, April 26, 2018

Neglected Gem: Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Luis Tosar (left) and Javier Bardem (right) in Mondays in the Sun. (Photo: MUBI)

The title of the Spanish movie Mondays in the Sun sounds like a reference to people who live a life of ease. In fact, it’s ironic: the men whose stories comprise the narrative used to be co-workers at a portside dockyard until they were laid off, so now they spend weekdays lying in the sun because they have no jobs to go to. They are Santa (a thickly bearded Javier Bardem); José (Luis Tosar), whose wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) currently brings home the only household money; Lino (José Angel Egido), so scared he’s losing potential work to younger men that he dyes his hair when he goes down to the unemployment office; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), a drunk whose wife has left him, though he pretends she’s out of town visiting relatives. Rico (Joaquin Climent) and Reina (Enrique VIllén), who used to work alongside their friends, were laid off a year later, when the dockyard finally shut down. Rico took his severance pay and opened a bar, while Reina has managed to land work as a security guard, which makes him, relative to his companions, flush – at least, enough to buy them drinks. (Santa’s pride resents this gesture, just as he resents his former co-workers’ signing an agreement with their employers that he and others opposed.) Then there’s Sergei (Serge Riaboukine), a Russian who emigrated to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed and his career as an astronaut came to an abrupt end. Now he’s among the Spanish unemployed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Steinbeck in Sunglasses: A Novelist Named Dylan

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo: CNN)

“Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody, when I paint my masterpiece…”
Robert Zimmerman, AKA Bob Dylan

In my 2008 book entitled Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer Songwriter, I had a chapter on Mr. Dylan, who apart from various differing personal tastes, most people can now agree is one of the pre-eminent artists of our era, of several eras in fact. His chapter opened the book for obvious reasons: he etched the template for what a singer-songwriter in the contemporary age is capable of achieving, assuming that songwriter lives long enough to become an elder statesman of his or her ancient craft, as he has done. The chapter on him was called "The Storyteller: To Be On Your Own", and it encapsulated for me, without my even realizing it ten years ago, what made him not just a pop/rock star but both a novelist and an island unto himself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Country, Traumatized: Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot

Lior Ashkenazi in Foxtrot. (Photo: TIFF)

Israeli culture minister Miri Regev’s recent attack on Samuel Maoz’s movie Foxtrot, on the grounds that it’s a slur on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is both misguided – only a very narrow reading of the film could come to that conclusion – and ominous in that it suggests that future government-funded movies may now be the possible victim of pre-censorship, if Regev decides to vet future projects on what she thinks they should or shouldn’t do. (She’s floated the idea of ‘loyalty’ oaths for artists.) Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have put a dent in the success of Foxtrot, which cleaned up at the Ophirs (Israel’s Oscars) and is now wending its way through North America to almost entirely positive reviews. The movie deserves them, too, as it’s quite an impressive achievement.

Monday, April 23, 2018

New Plays by Major Playwrights: Good for Otto and Mlima's Tale

Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in David Rabe's Good for Otto. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

David Rabe’s Good for Otto premiered at the Gift Theatre in Chicago in 2015 but only now is it receiving a New York production, off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center – and with an amazing cast that includes Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, Mark Linn-Baker and Laura Esterman. Rabe’s 1971 The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is one of my favorite plays, and I love his screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), but his other well-known theatre pieces – In the Boom Boom Room, Hurlyburly, and the second and third parts of his Vietnam trilogy, Sticks and Bones and Streamers – feel rigged to me, and compulsively overwritten. He doesn’t get much attention these days, and I’m afraid I stopped following his work long ago. (The last play of his I saw was Those That River Keeps when American Repertory Theatre produced it in 1993 with Jack Willis and Paul Guilfoyle.) Clearly I should have been watching more closely. Good for Otto is messy and overlong – it runs just over three hours – but it’s a lovely, full-hearted play, and Scott Elliott’s vibrant, varied staging and the marvelous work of the actors showcase it affectionately.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Masculine Toxicity in Dirk Kurbjuweit's Fear

Author Dirk Kurbjuweit (Photo: Julian Nitzsche)

About halfway through Dirk Kurbjuweit's unsettling psychological thriller, Fear (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and published by the House of Anansi Press, 2017) the narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a Berlin architect, recalls a Christmas dinner he and his wife, Rebecca, hosted for his extended family a few years earlier before the central narrative occurs. His sister was dating a Romanian, a supporter of the dictator, Ceausescu, who, having fled his country after the 1989 revolution, ended up in Berlin as the owner of a gym. As a supporter of self-justice, he dismissed Germans, declaring that their only interests were "stuffing their faces and watching their pensions," that there were no "real men" with "the guts to defend themselves." His bravado constitutes a litmus test for what defines manhood.  At the time, Randolph is silently contemptuous of this disdain for civility and of his "ignorant, brutish view of democracy."

On the surface this fascinating tableau is inconsequential as the Romanian exile never reappears, but it does highlight an important theme in the novel: the tension between the values of civility and the rule of law pitted against vigilante justice when there appears no other option for a family terrorized by a stalker. Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear based on his own experience of being stalked.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Somebody Needs a Hygge: ABC's Splitting Up Together

Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” complains Billy Eichner in the second season of Julie Klausner’s recently-canceled Hulu show Difficult People . It’s a question that tends to come up more often in the context of half-hour-long shows on cable and streaming services, which have long been outlets for writers and showrunners to test how much serious material, in terms of both content and tone, they can get away with incorporating into a format that’s traditionally skewed towards delivering relatively uncomplicated laughs. I’ve found myself thinking of that question a lot as I watch the early episodes of ABC’s new sitcom Splitting Up Together, a comedy (ostensibly) with a decidedly downbeat premise and some baffling tonal issues.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Me In Particular: The Reappearance of Oscar Z. Acosta

Oscar Z. Acosta, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

In his roughly 39 years of life, Oscar Zeta Acosta recreated himself more than once. From a typical barrio kid growing up in the working-class Mexican-American community of Riverbank, California, he became a clarinetist in the US Air Force marching band; a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama; a creative writing student in San Francisco, mentored by famed baseball novelist Mark Harris; a law-school graduate and member of the California bar; and a Legal Aid Society advocate for the impoverished of East Oakland. And that only takes him up to the beginning of his first book, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), which ends with his transformation into a budding Chicano militant. 

Most of us have known Acosta only as “Dr. Gonzo,” the fire-breathing, drug-scarfing, knife-wielding sidekick created by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), and portrayed by Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of that book. Yet Acosta deserves to be remembered as more than a featured player in the Thompson legend; he left a legacy both historically important and all his own. That legacy is the subject of Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, an hour-long documentary which debuted last month on PBS as part of the VOCES series on Latino arts and culture. The film is a mishmash, frankly imaginative and affably unpretentious, in which the skimpy visual evidence of Acosta’s life (mostly candid photos and news clips) is fleshed out with scripted reenactments played in period costume against sets that suggest workshop theater. The first-person narration is derived from Acosta’s two books, and aside from the compelling footage of the subject addressing protest rallies or courthouse cameras, the documentary’s chief value is that it inspires – in a way that Thompson’s portraiture never did – a curiosity to read the man’s own words.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VIII: A Pirate's Life for Me!

Rare's Sea of Thieves, released in March 2018. (Photo: The Verge)

Sea of Thieves is the latest game from Rare, the developer formerly known as Rareware, who changed their name (and lost most of their intrepid founding members) when their company was absorbed by Microsoft Studios in 2002. Once the undisputed ruler of console gaming in the mid-to-late 1990s, with watershed titles like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 64, and Banjo-Kazooie to its name, Rare’s acquisition by MS cast a dark cloud over the future of the studio. A series of clunkers in the early 2000s (Grabbed By The Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts chief among them) followed their '90s hot streak, which tainted their legacy and spoiled the good will they’d earned among fans. (Several key developers responsible for those earlier, beloved titles would splinter off to form their own studios like Playtonic Games, which released the Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee in 2017 to decidedly mixed reviews.) The Rare logo on a product was once a symbol of definitive quality, a sign that no matter what genre or style the game was, it was sure to have been made with wit, care, and charm. That promise has since lost its credibility, and so Sea of Thieves, which was released in March for PC and Xbox One, had an uphill battle to fight before it even hit store shelves.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Gypsy at Heart: Peggy Seeger's First Time Ever

Peggy Seeger performing in Long Acre, London in the late 1950s. (Photo: Getty Images)

The best part of any story is in the telling, and so it is for Peggy Seeger’s memoir, First Time Ever (Faber & Faber) which was published last December. Seeger, the half-sister of legendary folk artist Pete Seeger, has written about her life with wit and sentimentality. Her story features a large cast of characters including family members, friends and musicians. Though she has amassed many accomplishments as a folk musician, most people may only know of Seeger as the partner of Ewan MacColl, the songwriter, historian and composer of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”, written for her in the first year of their liaison. But her achievements as an artist go much further and now, in her 82nd year, we get to enjoy the stories of her life from the front row.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fake Blues: ABC's Roseanne

Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner in ABC's revival of Roseanne. (Photo: Adam Rose)

One of the truest and weirdest signs of the changing attitudes towards television is the central role that “reboots” of classic shows have taken on in critical discussions of the state of the art. (Everyone is a pop-culture critic now, and that’s truer for TV than it is for most things.) Most of the reboots that have attracted the most attention are of shows from the 1990s, such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Full House, and now Roseanne. It’s easy to see why: they’ve been gone long enough to inspire feelings of nostalgia, but are still recent enough that most of the key members of the casts can be tracked down and put back to work without the aid of walkers or jumper cables. (Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 should probably be counted a remake, like the current version of Hawaii Five-O, because its main cast is new, but players from the original version, notably show creator and star Joel Hodgson, have turned up in cameos to give their blessing to the new kids on the block.)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Romance and Regret: The Age of Innocence

The cast of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of The Age of Innocence (Photo: T. Charles Erickson).

I returned to Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel
The Age of Innocence before seeing Douglas McGrath’s stage adaptation, the latest collaboration between Hartford Stage and the McCarter Theatre Center, currently playing a run in the former space. It’s a diverting read but it’s never been one of my favorites. Wharton retraces Henry James’s steps and, coming seventeen years after The Ambassadors, her book feels shallow and a little obvious. In The Ambassadors the characters’ motivations are concealed behind exquisite screens that keep shifting, and you have to catch those motivations during the shifts, through the minute shafts of light that vanish moments later; his feat is to raise our stake in discovering the truth of these human interactions so high that the epiphany at the end, which is devastating for the hero, Strether, is devastating for us as well. Wharton also builds her novel around a blind American, half-stiffened by his upbringing, who is seduced and altered by the whiff of European exoticism and mystique, in the form of Ellen Olenska, an émigré New Yorker who returns home on the lam from a disastrous marriage to a count. But Wharton spells everything out for us. And her protagonist Newland Archer, who is about to marry the Countess Olenska’s cousin May Welland, doesn’t synthesize our own conflicted feelings, the way Strether does; he comes across as a boob.  When Ellen falls in love with him, you wonder what on earth she could see in him.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Sweet Concoction: Meditation Park

Cheng Pei Pei (left) and Sandra Oh in Meditation Park.

I must confess, I’ve pretty much given up on English-Canadian cinema in recent years. Too many of the movies seem centered around addictions or dysfunctional families, subjects already tilled and brought off successfully by so many filmmakers. And since I don’t trust Canadian film critics on our movies – their raves are suspect as they are generally quite soft on the merits of the local product; I wrote a piece on this subject many years ago where our (then) leading reviewers admitted as much – I’ve opted out of attending  most of those releases. I was impressed by Andrew Cividino’s tough- minded coming-of-age debut feature Sleeping Giant (2015) – he’s a director to watch – but that was about the only one I think I checked out. Until now, when I dropped by my local multiplex a few days ago to see Mina Shum’s Mediation Park – on its last showing there, alas – mainly because it featured two of my favourite Canadian talents, Sandra Oh and Don McKellar, and because I had fond memories of Shum’s own feature debut, Double Happiness (1994), which starred Ms. Oh, in her own feature film debut as a  struggling Chinese Canadian actress attempting to balance family expectations against her own wishes to carve out an original path in life. Mediation Park flips the script with the character at its core, an elderly woman, as Oh’s mother, but, like the heroine of Double Happiness, still trying to deal with how to live and be happy. As with Shum’s debut, the film is also a similarly sharply etched, well-acted character study that is utterly engrossing.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Robert Leuci (1985)

NYPD detective and novelist Robert Leuci, aka "Prince of the City." (Photo by Don Hogan Charles/New York Times)

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 1985, I sat down with former New York City police detective and novelist Robert "Bob" Leuci.

A police officer for the NYPD (working alongside officers like Frank Serpico), Leuci rose to national attention after becoming an informer for widespread investigation into police corruption in 1971. His controversial role in that investigation was documented in Robert Daley's 1978 book Prince of the City, which was later adapted into Sidney Lumet's 1981 film of the same name. (In the film, Treat Williams plays a fictionalized version of Leuci.) At the time of our conversation, Leuci had retired from the NYPD and had just published his first novel, Doyle's Disciples. He would publish seven more novels in the years to come, as well as a critically acclaimed 2004 memoir, All the Centurions, which chronicled his two decades as a narcotics detective. Robert Leuci passed away in 2015 at the age of 75.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Robert Leuci as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.



Friday, April 13, 2018

The Assassination of Art Nuko by the Curator John O’Brian

Cruising down the Rideau in Ottawa by Carl Chaplin.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Kirk Tougas, to our group.

Obviously an exaggeration, but a Vancouver artist has been "disappeared" by guest curator John O’Brian in BOMBHEAD at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Rephrased, perhaps an alternate title could be Shadowboxing with History: How Curators Can Erase Artists, but between erasure and assassination, let’s settle on the latter.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jaegermeisters – Pacific Rim: Uprising

Jaegers charge into battle in Pacific Rim: Uprising.

I have no cynicism in my heart for a film like Pacific Rim. Unlike most movies – even those that aren’t city-smashing kaiju-mecha blockbusters – it knows exactly what it is and what it aims to achieve, and does so with gleeful enthusiasm. It’s hard for that enthusiasm not to rub off on you as yet another one of Guillermo del Toro’s twisted fantasies splashes across the screen like a meteor of colour and violence, and even without del Toro’s direct involvement, a sequel set in the world he established in 2013 is a welcome addition to cineplexes trapped in the late-winter doldrums.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Quiet Place: Never Let Up

(from left) Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds and John Krasinski in A Quiet Place.

In the wittily titled post-apocalyptic horror picture A Quiet Place, most of humankind has been wiped out by blind monsters, fitted out with terrifying incisors and highly developed ears, that prey on anything they can hear. (These imaginatively designed creatures are the brainchild of animator Alberto Martínez Arce.) The focus of the screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and director John Krasinski is the Abbott family, who have managed to survive by living a silent existence in their house at the edge of the woods and foraging there and in deserted stores during the day. They haven’t completely evaded the monsters: one killed the youngest Abbott child when he couldn’t resist trying out a battery-operated airplane he’d found in the Walmart toy department. Since then Lee (Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), their daughter Regan (played by the talented young deaf actress Millicent Simonds, who was Rose, the little girl in Wonderstruck) and their son Marcus (Noah Jupe) have managed to steer clear of them, complying with the complicated procedures and warning systems Lee, a technology expert (the film doesn’t identify his actual profession), has put in place, while he spends part of every day in the basement, trying to locate other survivors and working on a hearing device for his daughter. Regan is very smart and has begun to rebel against her parents’ dictates, which, of course, increases the already heightened menace. She also feels responsible for her younger brother’s death – she gave the airplane to him, not realizing he would pocket the batteries as well – and is sure that Lee blames her.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mirror Mania: 68 and 18

Memphis March, Beale Street (Memphis, Tennessee, March 29, 1968).

“History may not repeat itself but it often rhymes.” – Samuel Clemens (supposedly)

“Now if 6 turned out to be 9, I don't mind . . . ” – Jimi Hendrix (definitely)
I know, it seems hauntingly familiar to me too: the year 1968 and its warped twin brother, 2018, appear to be the weird mirror images of something both good and bad at the same time. Like Chuck Dickens once almost said, it was the best of times and it is the worst of times. 1968 was already, all by itself, a totally paradoxical blend of the best that humanity was capable of as it faced a hopeful future and the worst it was still saddled with as it dragged its ragged past forward. Two images in particular sum up for me the bizarre irony of the state of Western civilization in that magical year, and because I suspect everything that occurs to us is the result of our own binary fixations and polarities, such dueling images often encapsulate our condition with woeful accuracy.

If the 20th century could stand up and walk into a psychiatrist’s office, lie down and describe its dreams, what would be the best way to determine its obvious neuroses and even its underlying psychoses? We might ask the 20th century, once it settles down on the couch, which might take a while considering how restive it was: by the way, whatever happened to beauty and harmony, what has become of some semblance of an orderly consensus on what constitutes truth or reality? Why does the contemporary world look and sound so strangely off-kilter, so inordinately stressed out and so . . . discombobulated? How could “we” be so advanced that we actually traveled to the moon and yet be so primitive that we still harboured mind-boggling racial hatreds?

Monday, April 9, 2018

Three Tall Women and Anna Christie: Pulitzer Prize Winners

Glenda Jackson, Alison Pill and Laurie Metcalf in Three Tall Women. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, but the original production was off Broadway (at the Vineyard Theatre), and until Joe Mantello’s luminous new revival with Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill – in the roles created by Myra Carter, Marian Seldes and Jordan Baker – it has never been performed on Broadway. I saw the Vineyard show and liked it quite a bit, though I remember finding the writing in the second act rather theoretical and pre-arranged. In act one the three characters – one in her early nineties, one in her early fifties, and one in her late twenties – have specific, realist roles, despite the fact that Albee calls them A, B and C. A is a wealthy, fading widow, estranged until recently from her son, incontinent and subject to sudden tantrums, childlike behaviors and episodes of dementia. B is her caregiver, whose mordant humor buoys up her worn patience with A’s erratic conduct. C is an emissary from A’s lawyer’s office, summoned because C’s affairs are in deplorable order. But in act two the old woman has had a stroke and lies unconscious in her bed while A, B and C embody her as an ingénue, as middle-aged and as a dowager, the two older women warning the youngest one, with a mixture of wisdom and perhaps a little sadistic glee, what she’s in for.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Spy in the Family: Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know

 Karen Cleveland, author of Need to Know (Photo: Jessica Scharpf)

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” – E. M. Forster, "What I Believe" (1938)
I thought of E. M. Forster's controversial dictum while reading Karen Cleveland’s fast-paced and engrossing spy thriller, Need to Know (Doubleday Canada, 2018). In this instance, however, husband substitutes for "friend." Vivian Miller, a counterintelligence analyst for the CIA in Washington, has developed an algorithm which will enable her department to identify Russian sleepers. But she is plunged into a serious crisis when secretly navigating through the hacked computer of a mid-level Russian handler. Initially, she's thrilled to discover photographs of five agents until she realizes that one of the faces is that of her husband, Matt. At that moment, her world begins to spin out of control.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Falling Flat: NBC’s Rise

Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor in Rise. (Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC)

Towards the end of the third episode of NBC’s new high-school theatre drama Rise, an anxious mother (Stephanie J. Block), desperate for assurance that teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) is taking risks with her son’s future for the right reasons, asks him what he believes in. Before Radnor’s character could answer, my wife leaned over to me on the couch and deadpanned, “He believes in the kids.”

Three guesses what Lou says next.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Errol Morris (1988)

A scene from Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988).

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 1985, I sat down with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

At the time of our conversation, his groundbreaking and award-winning film The Thin Blue Line had just been released. Depicting the story of a man falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit, The Thin Blue Line eventually led to the man's release a year later. It was Morris's third feature documentary. He has since directed more than dozen features, including A Brief History of Time (1991), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) and the Academy award-winning The Fog of War (2003).

– Kevin Courrier

Note: Apologies for the intermittent audio issues with the segment. They were the result of technological issues at the time of the original interview. 

Here is the full interview with Errol Morris as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Collaboration is Key: ABC’s Deception

Jack Cutmore-Scott and Ilfenesh Hadera in Deception.

“As with any good magic trick, they each had a role to play.” – Cameron Black, Deception
A celebrity magician consults with the FBI to help solve crimes: hands up if you think you’ve seen this show before. Well, you’re not wrong. The formula – if not this particular recipe – is tried and true. In recent years alone, a neuropsychiatrist (Perception), a pathologist (Rosewood), a tech billionaire (APB), a mathematician (Numb3rs), a crime novelist (Castle), a disgraced “psychic” (The Mentalist), a “reformed” con man (White Collar), an international criminal mastermind (The Blacklist), a magician and a crime novelist (Houdini & Doyle), and even a mystical time traveller (Sleepy Hollow) have shown up to help the police. (This brief list doesn’t even begin to recount the endless parade of eccentric “consulting detectives” that have come and gone since the days of Arthur Coyle Doyle – only half of whom are named “Sherlock.”) Besides the shifting specialties of the outsider, these series are also differentiated by the quirks and charisma of the (almost universally male) lead character, as well as the baggage they show up with. But all share a basic presupposition: law enforcement, whether they want it or not, needs outside help to do their jobs. Because he isn't limited either by stale “in the box” thinking or by institutional handcuffs, the amateur invariably provides what the cops need, just when they need it. These shows know just about enough about the actual work of law enforcement to paint the institutions of justice with varying levels of casual disdain. That said, while some of these shows are smart, entertaining fare (Castle, Numb3rs), they are also just as regularly insulting to the audience’s basic intelligence (Rosewood, and especially APB). Deception, which premiered on ABC four weeks ago, is shaping up to fall in the former category, so far successfully sidestepping many of the more insidious shortcomings of the formula.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Check Out Time – The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address by Joseph Rodota

The Watergate complex was designed by architect Luigi Moretti in 1963 and consists of six buildings and 10 acres of land.

For me the singular political event of the 20th century was the Watergate break-in of 1972. Everything we believed about the trustworthiness of the office of the American President was crushed single-handedly when six hired henchmen broke into the Democratic National Committee offices. On that day, June 17th, the story that became “Watergate,” and its fallout, marked the end of the sixties and tarnished the highest office of the land. I believe it was the end of American idealism and, considering where we are today in 2018 under POTUS 45, it hasn’t been the same since that fateful day that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation two years later.

I’m quietly infatuated with all things about Watergate. I was 14 years of age when it all unfolded so dramatically in 1972, having just completed my first year of high school. I watched the hearings on television and I read the newspaper -- which I usually skipped, except for the comics -- daily. I saw the movie All The President’s Men in the theatre upon its 1976 release and I never missed an opportunity to watch it again on TV. I had the VHS tape and bought it again on DVD. I’ve read the original book and the follow-ups by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1976). I’ve devoured Woodward’s book on his famous source, Deep Throat, called The Secret Man (2005), and his excellent book on Alexander Butterfield, called The Last Of The President’s Men (2015). I have paperback versions of the complete hearings and the Nixon transcripts. I also watched the original broadcast of the David Frost–Richard Nixon interviews on television in 1977; saw Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon, in Toronto with Len Cariou as Nixon and  Ron Howard’s motion picture version in 2008. I took a pass on Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) since it looked so heavy-handed. Nevertheless, I’m always interested in learning more about the Watergate saga and now I have a great new book to relish, The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address (Harper Collins) by Joseph Rodota. It’s a history of the Watergate complex and the people who lived and worked there. I would consider it the Grand Hotel of its genre, an intriguing story of the tenants, visitors and businesses that found themselves in Washington, D.C., at one of the most interesting and engaging locations in the U.S. Capitol. But Rodota’s tome best suits the serious history buff rather than the casual reader, since one needs to know something about American politics since 1965 to fully appreciate the author’s tale.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enemy at the Gates: Cline & Spielberg’s Ready Player One

Tye Sheridan in Ready Player One. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

When Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was released in 2011 to a cavalcade of positive press, its nostalgia-fueled story (commonly compared to The Matrix and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was understood to be harmless, enjoyable fluff, a beach read for the YA crowd and anyone who enjoyed a good pop culture reference. The book depicts a dystopian future in which everyone escape their depressing lives by retreating to the Oasis, a virtual reality simulation that spans an entire galaxy of artificial experiences. People spend their whole lives plugged in: going to school, shopping, earning currency, customizing their avatar, and engaging in video game experiences, from war simulations to racing tournaments. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday – a pastiche of late-80s and early 90s tech and gaming gurus from Gary Gygax to Steve Jobs – reveals upon his death that he’s hidden an “easter egg” somewhere in the Oasis which holds the key to a vast fortune and total control of the whole simulation. A community of die-hard Oasis junkies who call themselves “gunters” (“egg-hunters”) dedicate their lives to deciphering the clues Halliday left behind, while a corporation called IOI is also hunting for the egg, using its vast resources to wrest control of the Oasis from the population at large. Gunters, including the novel’s protagonist, Wade Watts (aka Parzival in the Oasis), take it upon themselves to become experts on every single 1980s property that Halliday enjoyed, in the hopes that this knowledge might reveal a clue about the egg, leading to a bizarre situation in which a group of teenagers from 2044 are self-imposed scholars of obscure 1980s pop culture – memorizing dialogue from John Hughes films, obsessing over solutions to Atari 2600 games, and arguing the finer points of Rush’s oeuvre.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Lobby Perspectives: Grand Hotel and Lobby Hero

 Irina Dvorovenko and James Snyder in the Encores! production of Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Vicki Baum’s vivid page-turner Grand Hotel, a chronicle of intersecting lives at an expensive Berlin hotel, came out in 1929. (New York Review Books Classics reissued it two years ago after it had been out of print for many years; it’s well worth a look.) The celebrated Oscar-winning movie M-G-M culled from it was released three years later: a high comedy crossed with a melodrama, it featured a glittering line-up of stars in roles with which they were associated for years – Greta Garbo as the neurotic, fading ballerina; John Barrymore as the bankrupt baron, reduced to a life of thievery, who becomes, briefly, her last great love; Joan Crawford as the flapper stenographer; Lionel Barrymore as the dying bookkeeper who wants a glimpse of the high life before he expires; Wallace Beery as the industrialist who commits fraud in a frantic last-ditch bid to save his company; Lewis Stone as the doctor, a casualty of the Great War, who observes the others from a cynical distance. The movie is a resounding entertainment, a luxurious soap opera that provided the blueprint for many subsequent star-studded pictures about strangers whose lives cross momentarily but unforgettably over a few days in an extravagant setting.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Spin Control: A Wrinkle in Time

Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time .

We can't take any credit for our talents,” says Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) in A Wrinkle in Time. “It's how we use them that counts.” Mrs. Whatsit is one of three powerful cosmic beings who guide thirteen-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid) on a quest to battle evil and rescue her father (Chris Pine), a scientist who disappeared five years ago, while conducting experiments out of his home laboratory, discovering new planets, and generally messing around in the realms of the unknown. This movie adaptation of the beloved 1962 children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle was directed by Ava DuVernay, who first attracted attention with I Will Follow (2011), which was made on a $50,000 budget, and Middle of Nowhere, made in 2012 for $200,000. Her big one, the phenomenally successful Selma (2014), starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, cost $20 million, practically chump change for a big studio movie with name actors, acres of extras, and a period setting. Those movies established DuVernay as a director who had a talent for working with actors and telling down-to-earth stories depicting adult emotions.

A Wrinkle in Time is her belly flop into the deep end – a lavishly mounted fantasy film with lots of special effects and a budget of $100 million. The movie scarcely taps into DuVernay’s talents as a filmmaker, but it comes thickly swaddled in her talents as a publicist and self-promoter. During its much-anticipated long march into theaters, A Wrinkle in Time was lauded for being the first movie directed by a woman of color to have a budget that rose into nine figures. The politely “meh!” reviews the movie has garnered confirm that media professionals have received the message that it would be very bad manners to wonder aloud how many good movies that money could have paid for instead.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Black Panther: Watch the Throne

Danai Gurira and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther.

Ryan Coogler elevated the debased Rocky franchise with his 2015 Creed, injecting intelligence as well as brio into the narrative of the second-generation fighter who finds a mentor in Rocky. Creed was an exciting boxing movie, a moving coming-of-age story and a satisfying romantic drama with the talented and stunning Tessa Thompson as a bracing match for Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic Adonis Johnson. It was a first-rate entertainment – and Coogler coached a fine performance out of Sylvester Stallone that refurbished his reputation, too.

Coogler’s follow-up to Creed, the Marvel adventure Black Panther, is every bit as good. The Marvel pictures are often mash-ups of comic-book and classical mythology; Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, adapting the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, mix in a little James Bond, a little J.R.R. Tolkien by way of the Peter Jackson movies, and cleverly seed in some contemporary political references. The story begins by reprising, from last year’s excellent Captain America: Civil War, the death of T’Chaka (John Kani), the king of a small African nation called Wakanda, in a U.N. bombing. Following tradition, before he can succeed his father T’Chaka’s son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must best any challenger. He triumphs over M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the mountain-dwelling Jabari tribe, who feels T’Challa is callow and untried. But then another opponent announces himself: Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a.k.a. Killmonger, the abandoned son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu – killed in a skirmish with T’Chaka and his best friend Zuri in Oakland, California (where he was working undercover). Erik was raised in America and trained as a black-ops agent, and now he demands his right to fight T’Challa for the Wakandan throne. The issue that divided T’Chaka and N’Jobu was isolationism. The discovery of a metal called vibranium has permitted Wakanda to make staggering technological advances, but it has been the country’s policy for years to maintain absolute secrecy about them and have little contact with other nations. N’Jobu urged his brother to join the world and offer to share its vibranium. Erik wants to use the substance to make himself an unprecedentedly powerful leader. Both he and T’Challa have supernatural powers as a result of a forest herb, so in Marvel terms they’re also fighting to carry the name Black Panther.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Put a Cork in It



The cork forests of the western Mediterranean region are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. They are home to over 13,000 species of plants and animals, and several endangered species; and they are wintering grounds for the migratory birds of northern Europe, including virtually the entire European population of common cranes. They are key to defending the arid climates of southern Europe and North Africa against forest fires and erosion. And we should be exploiting them more.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Idiot Savants: Netflix’s Game Over, Man!

Blake Anderson, Anders Holm, and Adam Devine in Game Over, Man!.

The Comedy Central sitcom Workaholics was brilliant for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that almost all of it – co-creation, writing, directing, and acting – was the brainchild of just four people: Anders Holm, Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine, and Kyle Newacheck. The collective drug-fueled lowbrow ingenuity of this self-proclaimed “Friendship Family,” formed in the mid-2000s as a sketch group called Mail Order Comedy, made Workaholics a uniquely hilarious take on situational stoner TV, and catapulted several members of the crew to much bigger careers in film and television.

As barely-fictionalized versions of themselves, the trio of Anders, Blake, and Adam smoked, drank, and slacked their way through seven seasons of insanely unhinged comedy, centering around this inseparable triumvirate of dumb-ass stoner man-children. Taking notes on everything from Napoleon Dynamite to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Seinfeld, Workaholics was the proof of concept for a winning comedy formula that hinged on the lovable, self-effacing personalities of its leads and their natural, effortless chemistry with one another. I’m pleased to say this formula maintains its staying power through the transition to a larger platform and a bigger budget with the Netflix film Game Over, Man!, which is chock-full of the same extreme gross-out slapstick as Workaholics, but, crucially, also contains just as much cleverness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Only the Brave: Under the Radar

Josh Brolin (left) in Only the Brave.

Perhaps it was the generic action-movie title that buried Only the Brave, Joseph Kosinski’s account of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Prescott, Arizona’s firefighters. Behind that title is one of the most poignant films of last year, which I missed in theatres last fall and caught up with recently on DVD. Josh Brolin (in the best performance I’ve seen from him) plays Eric Marsh, whose exasperation with the way his uncertified crew get shunted to the side whenever official hotshots are summoned to the scene of a fire – though his expertise on the subject of managing fires has proven, over and over again, to be superior to theirs – provokes him to fights to obtain the official seal, and he succeeds. That effort takes up roughly the first half of the movie. The second half is about what happens to them after they become the Granite Mountain Hotshots. (Diehard movie buffs may recognize Prescott as the setting of Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 rodeo movie, Junior Bonner .)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Heartbroken: Tom Petty’s American Dream

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, October 27, 2006, Greek Theater Berkeley, California. (Photo: John Medina)

“The men and women who produced works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a kind of mirror.” – Marcel Proust
Celebrity is s mask that eats into the face. Although it was the novelist John Updike who made that marvelous observation, I’ve always felt it was something that the incredibly well-known musician Tom Petty may have wholeheartedly believed. He seemed to rather enjoy being popular, but he also seemed to absolutely hate being famous.

I have to admit, it really pisses me off that another great talent has bitten the dust as a result of a severely avoidable folly. First Prince, now Tom Petty: the scourge of prescription medications and their intentional or accidental abuse seems way worse than the imaginary threat of psychedelics, alcohol or massive pot use in the musical world ever did.

I mean, those of us who followed Petty's long career of course knew about the challenges he faced as a heroin addict in the '90s, perhaps even across that whole decade, but once the 21st century dawned and he was still here, having achieved a kind of elder rock statesman status, it appeared to the more hopeful amongst us that maybe he had outrun the shadowy demons that had pursued him. But alas, instead it was those industrially legal and insidious substances that took this great one away from us, and nothing nearly as tragically romantic as the loss to junk of so many other rock, blues or jazz titans from Charlie Parker to Jerry Garcia.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Julius Caesar: Crowd Scenes

Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Nicholas Hytner’s modern-dress Julius Caesar at London’s snazzy new theatre, The Bridge, goes by like a shot. It runs for a slimmed-down two hours without an intermission, barreling from one location to another as the story line zips along; the scene shifts are so boisterous and eruptive that there’s no chance that an audience will lose interest. (The one that takes us from Caesar’s home to the Senate, which is signaled by a scarlet sheet hauled over the main playing area, is especially theatrical. Bunny Christie designed the set and the lighting is by Bruno Poet.) In any case the crowd at The Bridge never gets a chance to lag behind the action, since they – at least the spectators you can see in the HD transmission – are on their feet like the standees at Shakespeare’s Globe, being hauled and shoved around as if this were a piece of immersive theatre. (Strictly speaking, it isn’t.) I wouldn’t enjoy having to stand (and be manipulated) for a couple of hours, but from my comfortable movie-theatre seat I had a pretty good time.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Biographer David Robinson on Charlie Chaplin (1985)

(from left) Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

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 1985, I sat down with film critic and biographer David Robinson about the recent publication of his book on the life of Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin: His Life and Art (originally published by McGraw-Hill in 1985, revised in 1992 and 2001, and currently in paperback by Penguin).

Along with Chaplin's own My Autobiography (1964), Robinson's official biography would later be used as source material for Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic Chaplin, which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the famed comedian and film director. Robinson was the main film critic for The Times of London from 1973-1990, and his books include Hollywood in the Twenties (1968), a 1970 volume on Buster Keaton, and World Cinema: A Short History (1981).

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with David Robinson as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.



Saturday, March 24, 2018

Class Clown: NBC’s A.P. Bio

Glenn Howerton as high school teacher, Jack Griffin, in A.P. Bio.

There’s a forced wholesomeness to some network television that’s enough to make you want to puke. The commercially motivated impulse to create entertainment that appeals to some imaginary Middle-American audience easily suckered by anodyne content and blatant moralizing can often lead to a product that feels cynically calculated, rather than the genuine result of a sincere outlook.

That’s part of why I’ve found NBC’s A.P. Bio so refreshing, at least insofar as its early episodes have proven willing to buck that trend. Created by Saturday Night Live alum Mike O’Brien, the comedy follows Jack Griffin (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton), a former Harvard philosophy professor who’s been forced to retreat in ignominy to Toledo, Ohio, where his old friend Ralph Durbin uses his role as principal at a local high school to get Jack a sinecure teaching Advanced Placement Biology. The concept is fairly straightforward but nevertheless promising: O’Brien is obviously reversing the well-worn trope of the enthusiastic teacher who takes a group of apathetic and often underprivileged kids and gets through to them, inspiring them to achieve their full potential. Instead, the kids are all nerdy, straight-arrow overachievers and the teacher’s an unrepentant asshole (there’s a running gag in which Jack will finish whatever he’s eating as he enters the classroom and then carelessly hurls the remnants in the general direction of the garbage can, which he misses every time).

Friday, March 23, 2018

Psychoanalyst as Sentimentalist: Julia Kristeva's The Samurai

Julia Kristeva in 2008.

Celebrated as the Simone de Beauvoir of our time, Julia Kristeva is a well-known psychoanalyst, literary critic and bi-continental professor whose first novel, The Samurai (Columbia University Press, 1992), a thinly disguised roman à clef, first appeared in Paris just over 25 years ago. Since then the semiotician of desire, as she has also been called, has published five more works of fiction. But this first foray, a not entirely satisfying effort which Barbara Bray translated into English, remains noteworthy for having recreated, in literary terms, the turbulent intellectual atmosphere of Paris in the mid-1960s, along with its pitfalls.

The period of the novel mirrors the time Kristeva, born 1941, first arrived in Paris from Bulgaria as a young research student. Not long after, she became an integral part of the vibrant scene of literary critics, semioticians and psychoanalysts then taking literary theory and criticism in a new, some might say convoluted, direction. Not surprisingly, her novel is steeped in post-modern murkiness. It is deliberately obfuscating and, at times, also obtuse. Kristeva wrote it as a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, even though, at its heart, it is a love story whose autobiographical elements suggest but never quite deliver on a promise of subjective truth.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Endurance Test: Tomb Raider

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider.

The cross-pollination between video games and cinema is something I’ve spoken about here before. A generation of filmmakers raised on games has started to make those influences more immediately apparent in their work, which is to say nothing of the way cinema has informed the way modern games are designed and presented. This evolving media genealogy makes director Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider feel less like an anomaly and more like an inevitability.

As an almost direct adaptation of 2013’s game of the same name, which also sought to reboot the Lara Croft brand from scratch, Tomb Raider is a film infused with the language of video games, but unfortunately much is lost in translation; you could say the film’s dialect is clumsy and uneducated. It lifts action sequences wholesale from the game (featured heavily in the film’s marketing) which retain none of the tension imparted by actually controlling Lara; it borrows characters and storylines from the game but fails to mine them for the same entertainment value; and it discards some of the only narrative and tonal elements that made the game feel distinct from its source material (namely, the Indiana Jones franchise). The result is a film that will appeal neither to fans of the game, who have already paid for a richer version of the same experience, nor to general moviegoing audiences, who will be bored by the film’s cut-and-paste plot and generic action sequences.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Time for Another Round – The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History by David McPherson

 

As a life-long Torontonian and former clubgoer in my youth, I was enthused to learn that a book about one of my favourite venues, the Horseshoe Tavern, was finally being published. The Horseshoe is one of Toronto’s most important musical treasures, having graced the city’s culture since 1947. But while I share David McPherson’s excitement around the famous club and its revolutionary music programming, I cannot say the same about his book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History (Dundurn Press). His writing is inconsistent, graced with too many clichés, section breaks using (* * *), and wiseguy remarks that undermine his extensive research so much that his book has little impact.

McPherson’s conversational style is well-intended. He’s a fan and his respect for the place is sincere, but his niceness often undermines his storytelling. I’ve never understood why self-conscious writers feel they have to endear themselves to the reader in order to place their argument into context: “Come with me now dear reader, on this journey . . . ” Considering all the research and first-person interviews McPherson has done, it makes no sense for him to pare down the 80-year history of the Horseshoe into fewer than 200 pages. Why not savour the experience rather than race through it as quickly as possible? One should be proud of one’s efforts, not embarrassed by them; after all, until another book is written about the Horseshoe, this is the authoritative one.