Saturday, January 27, 2018

Joke-Delivery Systems: Checking in on Some Network Comedies

Dylan McDermott in L.A. to Vegas

The Fox sitcom L.A. to Vegas is a lot like the titular flight that it chronicles: it’s quick, it’s fun without offering much of substance, and it doesn’t ask much of you in terms of investment (financial in the case of the flight, emotional in the case of the show). There something disarmingly straightforward about the title card that appears before each episode: “There are people who fly every weekend from L.A. to Vegas. This is their story.” As that introduction wryly suggests, this is a comedy with very little on its mind other than providing its cast with a vehicle to deliver zingy one-liners.

Friday, January 26, 2018

In Her Own Voice: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alex Borstein and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This review contains minor spoilers for the first season of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Last March, Amazon’s Spring Pilot Season had few bright lights. (Previous seasons boasted an embarrassment of riches for the streaming channel, with many of those entries still going strong – and garnering regular Emmy nods – even years later.) But this March, there was one pilot that shone as brightly as its sparkling lead character: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Created, written, and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), the pilot episode of Mrs. Maisel introduced itself with such energy and style that I am sure I was not alone in my eager anticipation of the series. (Amazon clearly knew what it had, quickly picking up the show for two seasons.) In late November, the first full season (consisting of 8 episodes) premiered, and more than lived up to the promise of its pilot. In the midst of a film and television season awash in cynicism and bile, the arrival of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a winter television wonderland.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid (1998) – The Real Way To Live

A glimpse of Metal Gear Solid, released in September 1998.

Some games can only be understood within the broader context of the franchise they belong to. Load Checkpoint is a gaming retrospective column that explores the evolving sagas of some of the most beloved properties in the business, tracing their histories and the impact they have on the medium as a whole. – Justin Cummings

Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise started small, beginning with the original Metal Gear on the Japanese MSX2 computer system in 1987. An innovative title for the time, showcasing tactical military action, a unique inventory system, and rudimentary stealth mechanics, it was soon ported to Nintendo’s Famicom system and then overseas to the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. While the NES port was crippled by poor dialogue translations and unsupervised design changes, the popularity of the brand – which introduced the world to the super-spy named Solid Snake and his nemesis, Big Boss – was clear enough to warrant a Japan-exclusive sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and would eventually lead to one of the watershed titles of the early 3D era in the late 1990s.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hometowner: Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars

Tom Wilson on stage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 2017, performing as part of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. (Photo: Donna Harper)

Tom Wilson is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters. His edgy tunes, full of wit and street-wise wisdom, grace the discographies of Wilson’s bands – Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, the latter one of Canada’s finest alt-country groups. His autobiography Beautiful Scars (Doubleday Canada), released last fall, uses, like his songs, a mix of sharpness and charm in every chapter. In his economical style he offers great memories about his life in music. But the most revealing part of his story is when he discovers that he’s from the Mohawk Nation, specifically the Kahnawake community in the province of Quebec, which was kept secret from him until 2016.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s all Crete to Me: Heraklion, Greece

Sunset over Dragon Island, Crete, Greece.

Just beyond the coast of Crete, near the port city of Heraklion (Iraklion), is a long stretch of craggy islands that the locals familiarly call The Sleeping Dragon. Cock your head slightly to one side and squint your imagination just a little and it is possible to see the monster's long neck curling under his hoary body.

On the beach, a tanned and muscled Cretan lazily spears hunks of feta and explains the significance of dragons in the rocks. George, it turns out, is a freelance photographer with National Geographic. He has just come back from a few years spent in California and speaks English with an accent that hails from somewhere between Salonika and St. Louis.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool: A Farewell to Gloria

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

The stunning blonde character actress Gloria Grahame brought more than just her trademark pout to movies like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (where Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar), Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. She made her characters’ vulnerability touching and sexy at the same time. But her Hollywood heyday lasted only about a decade, though she continued to work, on screen and on stage, until she died at fifty-seven of stomach cancer and peritonitis in 1981. Annette Bening, who plays Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is inspired casting, just as Michelle Williams was as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and like Williams she gives a magnificent performance, on par with her best work (Bugsy, The Grifters, In Dreams). The movie is about the last two years of Grahame’s life and her relationship with an aspiring young English actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she meets when he’s only twenty-eight. (Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based on Turner’s memoir.) It begins when she collapses in her dressing room during rehearsals for a production of The Glass Menagerie in the English provinces and Peter, no longer involved with her, shows up to bring her home to Liverpool, where his adoring parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take her in and care for her. It’s clear from Peter and Gloria’s reunion that their romance ended badly; we see it in a series of flashbacks to London in 1979, where they met while staying in the same boarding house, and Los Angeles and New York, where he visited her. Her reappearance in his life reactivates his feelings for her, just as he learns what she carefully concealed from him when they were lovers: that she’s dying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Art of the Roast

Checking the color of the coffee beans during the roasting process.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Ellen Perry, to our group.

On June 18, 2007, David Fullerton taught his last high-school English class and went into the coffee business. He had purchased a café on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts – put it on his credit card, in fact – and launched a new roasting operation. He decided that he liked the name the previous owners had given to the café, Acoustic Java, so he kept that – though any connection to music is, at this point, largely metaphorical. But Fullerton likes literature and appreciates a good metaphor: Acoustic Java’s motto is now “As music tames the savage beast, coffee civilizes man unkind”; and its coupons look like concert tickets.

On a January morning, I’m sitting with Fullerton at his second Worcester location, a building that used to be part of the Whittall Mills, a 19th-century carpet company. It’s a typical New England mill, so the roasting area is enormous, and the ceilings are high and supported by sturdy beams. By contrast, the adjacent tasting room is cozy, its brick wall lined with bookshelves and original art; but it also has a capacious view through plate-glass windows into the roasting operations. Fullerton wants to offer his customers “a spectacle . . . an authentic one.” He wants them to see something of what happens to their coffee before Patrick, the barista, pours it into their cup.