Saturday, January 13, 2018

Beyond Raisin: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Any attempt to assess the entirety of Lorraine Hansberry’s career quickly runs into the inescapable fact of her untimely death. Since she was only 34 when she died, Hansberry’s entire legacy has become identified with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Although the play will always retain a firm place in the American theatrical canon, not least because it was the first on Broadway to be written by an African-American woman as well as the first to be staged by an African-American director, that status has also made it a target for a range of criticism, from Pauline Kael’s dismissal of its filmed version as proof “that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family” to attacks on its perceived political and social complacency by George C. Wolfe, who mercilessly mocked it in a section of his play The Colored Museum.

A new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, attempts to reorient our understanding of Hansberry by placing the success of Raisin in the context of Hansberry’s overall life and career. Written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the film airs on PBS on January 19. (I should disclose that I viewed the film as preparation for an interview that I conducted with Strain for my podcast on theatre history.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

War Stories: 1945 and Last Flag Flying

A scene from Ferenc Török's 1945.

1945, by the Hungarian director Ferenc Török, written by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, is a startling piece of work – acerbic and mournful, satirical and humane. It’s set in a tiny Hungarian town just after the end of World War II, when the residents are beginning to get used to the presence of the Russians, some of whom are full of their own new-found power. (One young soldier demands that a civilian alighting from the midday train trade his more elegant hat for the soldier’s rumpled one.) The movie isn’t about the new Soviet presence, however; that’s merely one of the elements Török mixes to create a complex historical portrait. It’s a symbolic ghost story in which the dark secrets of the townspeople – their collusion, for base personal reasons, in the removal of the local Jews to the death camps – come to light when two strangers, Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, enter the town on that same train on mysterious business (burying the dead, as it turns out), unsettling the guilty residents.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

End of Binge: Netflix’s Bright

Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in Netflix's Bright. (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Netflix)

Netflix wants to dominate the movie market. They want you to stay home and watch their original programming – like Bright, a Los Angeles cop movie starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton – instead of leaving your couch and spending money at a multiplex. Bright is a big play for them, meant to be proof that their previous forays into original programming were just precursors to the main event: fresh big-budget blockbusters that you can watch from home. Netflix was convinced that this sure-fire hit, directed by David Ayer and written by Max Landis, would end this argument before it even began. Anyone who’s seen Bright will tell you that it . . . doesn’t do that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here’s Johnny: The Man Who Carried Cash by Julie Chadwick

Johnny Cash and manager Saul Holiff at Saul's Hollywood apartment, circa 1968. (Photo: Ron Joy)

How rare it is to read a biography whose prologue begins with the description of a man’s suicide, but so it goes for Julie Chadwick’s candid and well-researched biography of Saul Holiff, who, for a short and significant time, was the manager of Johnny Cash. It’s an auspicious opening to The Man Who Carried Cash: Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and the Making of an American Icon (Dundurn). While the prologue reveals nothing about the relationship between Holiff and Cash, nor fully explains why Holiff took his own life, it does try to set the stage for the story of a struggling country music artist and his Canadian fixer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

It felt pretty close to doing full penance just getting through all the grisly condescension and sanctimony of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That the picture has been garnering huge acclaim and numerous Best Film awards maybe shouldn't be too surprising given the current political climate. Dialogue in the Trump era has coarsened into Twitter feuds, talking heads on radio (who don't actually talk, but yell), and news anchors on television staking out positions rather than discussing issues, and a poisonous air of tabloid prurience perfumes the culture. People do little reflecting now and plenty more reacting. So Three Billboards keeps itself pretty busy staking out positions and reacting loudly in a cartoon atmosphere filled with ugly caricatures. Instead of reflecting on the current calamity, or even satirizing it cleverly, McDonagh chooses to distort the mood of the country and exploit it for pure effect. And the calculating unpleasantness of Three Billboards, with its queasy mixture of slapstick violence and sentimentality, would be bad enough were it not also trying to say something important. The film deliberately abandons any claim to dramatic realism, or even coherence, in order to manipulate and sway frustrated liberal sentiments and prejudices by crudely calling out "the deplorables" – the yahoos-in-a-basket whom Hillary Clinton identified as Trump's supporters in a misguided campaign speech. But the picture, with dialogue as broadly obvious as a billboard, ends up itself being deplorable by endorsing the same demagogic tactics that made Trump president in the first place.

Monday, January 8, 2018

To Own Your Creation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Children

Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Photo: Shirin Tinati)

Robert Fairchild gives a supremely touching performance as The Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which just ended a brief run at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City. His role in Eve Wolf’s adaptation is a hybrid of dance (which he choreographed) and acting, and Fairchild, the New York City Ballet alum who spent most of the last couple of years playing Jerry Mulligan in the stage adaptation of An American in Paris, is a great dancer who also happens to be a fine actor. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was produced by a company that calls itself Ensemble for the Romantic Century, and Fairchild’s Monster, childlike and exuberant, fragile and openhearted, gets at the Romantic (capital “R”) core of Shelley’s novel, in which a man-made creation struggles to understand his place in the universe and rebels against his creator.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Marvel’s Runaways: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Rhenzy Feliz, Virginia Gardner and Gregg Sulkin in Marvel's Runaways, on Hulu.

On November 21, Hulu premiered Marvel’s Runaways (or Runaways). The Hulu original series has been airing weekly ever since, and its ten-episode first season will be concluding this Tuesday night (January 9). It is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2003 Marvel comic series, and like any adaptation of beloved material, it was anticipated with a mix of excitement and cautious expectation. My own reaction to hearing of the series' going into production early last year was: “Wow, I can’t wait to see how they will screw this up.” Our recent history of comic-book adaptations, which reached fever pitch with the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the large and small screens, and DC’s own parallel efforts (currently in the form of its growing – and consistently uneven – stable of CW’s television series), has done nothing to reassure audiences that such adaptations will be of a reliable quality. (The less said here of DC's big-screen productions the better.  Its television offerings began with Arrow in 2012 and the most successful, in my mind, has been Legends of Tomorrow, whose 3rd season continues next month.)

Like all of Marvel’s current television productions, Runaways takes place within the same continuity universe as the tent-pole movies that show up in theatres every few months, but, in the nine episodes that have aired so far, there have been no sign-posts at all of that universe – and this has been to Runaways’ benefit. As fascinating as it sometimes is to explore the small corner of the MCU the Netflix series have staked out, that ever-enlarging story has been more often a burden rather than a gift when it comes to storytelling, because the pressure of that continuity invariably goes only in one direction. (The flagship Marvel series, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has battled mightily under that weight for five seasons, and most recently has come up with some rather creative solutions: last year setting the latter half of its story in an entirely virtual universe and this year thrusting its heroes into a deep, alternate future.) But absent even the lip service often paid by Netflix Marvel shows to their noisy big-screen cousins, Runaways feels firmly set in a narrative universe all its own, providing the new series the space to find its own unique voice.