Saturday, June 2, 2018

Coming to an End: Recent Series and Season Finales

Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover, and Brian Tyree Henry in FX's Atlanta, whose second season ended May 10. (Photo: FX)

Note: This review contains spoilers for the recent series and season finales of Barry, Atlanta, and The Americans.

Late spring has always been an important time for television. Broadcast networks have traditionally timed their season finales to coincide with the crucial May “sweeps” period, when Nielsen collects data on viewership that help to determine ratings. More recently, the finish of the eligibility period for the Emmys, which comes at the end of May, has become a major milestone: the profusion of shows on every conceivable channel and platform means that a nomination can help raise a program’s profile, and those nominations often evince a bias towards whatever’s been airing most recently. It’s impossible to keep up with everything on television these days, but a number of recent season finales – and one major series-ending episode – offer a snapshot of what’s going on in the world of premium and cable shows.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Painted Veil (2006)

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in The Painted Veil. (Photo: IMDB)

My friend Michael Sragow, who currently writes for the online edition of Film Comment, quipped cleverly when the third adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil was released at Christmas of 2006 that it was the best movie of 1934. He didn’t mean it as a putdown, at least not entirely: the movie, which was written by Ron Nyswaner and directed by John Curran, provides many of the pleasures of old-style Hollywood filmmaking. But Maugham’s 1925 story – about a shallow, self-involved Englishwoman (Naomi Watts) in twenties London who marries a humorless adoring laboratory doctor (Edward Norton) to get away from her mother, moves with him to Shanghai, where she has an affair with a womanizing diplomat from home (Liev Schreiber), and has to pay for her transgression when her husband finds out – is a moral tale in which the adulterous heroine gets punished and learns her lesson. The first movie version actually did come out in 1934, with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall in the leads; it was beautifully lit and very dull, and it had a tacked-on happy ending. (Garbo’s most luminous performances were sometimes set in dross, but this isn’t an example.) The second was a 1957 CinemaScope release called The Seventh Sin, with Eleanor Parker and Bill Travers, which I haven’t seen. That the property remained on the shelf for half a century in between evidences the difficulty of making it appealing for a contemporary audience. (Several filmmakers tried their hand at adapting it in the interim, including Philip Kaufman.)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Terry Jones (1987)

Julie Walters (right) in Terry Jones's Personal Services (1987).

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 1987, I sat down with film director, screenwriter, actor and comedian Terry Jones.

At the time of our conversation, Terry Jones was promoting his new film Personal Services, which had recently gained some notoriety by being banned in Ireland. Jones, who, along with Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese, and Michael Palin, formed the famous Monty Python comedy troupe on television and film, had previously directed two Monty Python films – Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) – both of which were also, at the time, "banned in Ireland." Personal Services, which starred Julie Walters in the lead role, was Jones's first non-Python directorial effort.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Terry Jones as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Half-Witted & Scruffy-Lookin' – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Disney, and Kathleen Kennedy in particular, must now serve two masters. Lucasfilm’s market – though it is an absolutely massive one – is as fractured and divided as anything else in North America right now. Star Wars fandom is split in two, and every move Kennedy makes has to cater either to one group or to the other, because nothing she does can possibly make both sides happy.

This was the reason I wasn’t excited for Solo: A Star Wars Story. It's serving a different fanbase: the guys on the other side of the aisle; the ones The Last Jedi left behind. As the origin story of cinema’s most famous silver-tongued scoundrel, Solo is for those who never want Star Wars to change; who want to relive their nostalgic attachments again and again forever; and who hated Rian Johnson’s film because it was something other than a nakedly indulgent power fantasy aimed straight at them. Solo has clearly positioned itself as a comforting reset to the status quo these fans pine for, tailor-made to placate this aging demographic that’s so petulant, its constituents might literally boycott a franchise because it insulted them by daring to grow in new and interesting directions. The upshot here is that no matter where you land on this franchise, I think we can all agree that for recognizing this rift in her marketshare, and for pivoting so quickly and capably to capitalize upon it, Kathleen Kennedy is a fucking genius.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Past Master: Richard Crouse's Elvis is King. Costello's My Aim Is True

Elvis Costello, in a publicity still for his debut album in 1977. (Photo: Getty Images)

I turned 19 years of age the day My Aim Is True (Stiff) by Elvis Costello was released on July 22, 1977. It was one month before another Elvis, by the name of Presley, died. And while the two events seemed to be unrelated, for Richard Crouse, movie critic and music lover, it was the end of one era and the beginning of the next in the history of rock n’ roll. In his short but concise study of Costello’s debut album, he writes that My Aim Is True was the perfect antidote for the Pink Floyd-Led Zeppelin “bombast . . . free from any prog rock pretension.” Crouse’s book, titled (intentionally in lower case), elvis is king. costello’s my aim is true (ECW Pop Classics), dives into one of the most important stories in music history in detail without sentimentality. It’s a refreshing look at Costello’s bold entry into the music scene whose timing, according to Crouse, was spot on. He writes that My Aim Is True is “a perfect blend of artist, music and zeitgeist.”

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Seagull: Desecrated Drama, Fake Cinema

Saoirse Ronan and Corey Stoll in Michael Mayer's film adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull. (Photo: IMDB)

Of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The SeagullUncle Vanya,Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – the earliest,The Seagull, seems to be the hardest to pull off. For years I thought the toughest challenge was the last one, The Cherry Orchard, because it has the most abrupt tonal shifts and because in a few odd places the playwright stretches his usual naturalism toward something else – symbolism, perhaps, though not the way Ibsen infuses realism with symbolism in parts of The Wild Duck. (I’m thinking especially of the unsettling sound effect in the second act of The Cherry Orchard, the dissonant chord of the stringed instrument the characters hear in the distance as they sit in the wood.) But I’ve been fortunate to see a couple of superb productions in the last few years, one at the Shaw Festival in Ontario and one at the National Theatre in London. The Seagull continues to fox directors, though it’s such an appealing play, with its two generations of bohemians and its tragic young lovers, that it’s easy to see why people are determined to stage it – to figure out how to get past the obstacles, like the overstated symbolism of the dead bird and the way Chekhov fast-forwards two years between the third and fourth acts. And it’s not as though it never works.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Seeking Redemption in Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts

The late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series, including Greeks Bearing Gifts. (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

"We live in a new era of international amnesia. Who we were and what we did? None of that matters now that we're on the side of truth, justice, and the American way of life." 
 Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts
The sardonic voice above is that of Bernie Gunther, the protagonist of Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam/Wood, 2018) the thirteenth entry of the wisecracking one-time Berlin detective and later private investigator by the late Philip Kerr, who recently died of cancer at the age of sixty-two. Kerr first introduced us to the cynical Gunther in his Berlin Noir trilogy: March Violets (1989),The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991), set respectively in 1936, 1938 (just before Kristallnacht) and 1947, in which he first explored the legacy of Nazism. From the beginning, Kerr was strongly influenced by the American hard-boiled novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His razor-sharp dialogue, astringent character profiles and first-person narratives have been distinctive trademarks of the series.

Kerr turned to other fiction for fifteen years before returning with The One from the Other (2006), in which Gunther poses as a Nazi war criminal as he pursues former powerful Nazis to South America. In Field Gray (2010), Gunther is commandeered to join the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, and serve on the Eastern Front, where he is horrified by the war's atrocities and captured by the Soviets and, as a POW, toils in an uranium mine where most of the captives do not survive. Yet Gunther prevails, returns to Berlin, and is dragooned into solving a crime for the ideological zealot Reinhard Heydrich, who holds a particular fascination for Kerr: this talented and exceedingly ruthless Nazi potentate first appeared in Pale Criminal, later re-surfacing in Prague Fatale (2011) and last year's Prussian Blue. In the latter novel, Gunther repressed his scruples to also serve the loathsome Mafia-like strongman, Martin Bormann.