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.