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.