Saturday, August 6, 2016

Out of Focus: USA’s Mr. Robot (Season Two)

At the end of my most recent review, which looked at some of the problems facing Lifetime’s surprise 2015 summer hit UnREAL, I mentioned some concerns about USA’s Mr. Robot, a show that’s also experiencing troubles in its second season. At the time, I’d only seen the season debut, a lengthy double-header that felt scattered and lethargic but which appeared to be planting the seeds for some interesting developments later on. Unfortunately, this season has so far remained as sluggish and unfocused as its initial episode, prompting me to wonder whether it’s lost its way. Mr. Robot’s first season ended with a spectacular hack that crippled the global financial system but left the perpetrators of that coup scattered and confused. Following that up was going to be a difficult task, even if the show’s unique visual style and Rami Malek’s outstanding performance as the main character, hacker Elliot Alderson, hadn’t attracted so much attention and caused the next season to become so highly anticipated. That success has apparently led to creator Sam Esmail being given near-total creative control over the show, which also suggests that we can blame him for the new season’s flaws.

The fundamental issue with the second season of Mr. Robot so far is its lack of focus. As I mentioned when I briefly brought up Mr. Robot at the end of my review of UnREAL’s second season, the most compelling scene in the season premiere (technically the second of two closely-connected, back-to-back episodes) involved a character who had only occasionally registered on the show up until then (and who has since faded back into only intermittent relevance). The season’s now five episodes in, and various characters are still trapped in wildly divergent narrative arcs, none of which promise to intersect in any meaningful way any time soon. This unfocused quality stems in large part from the vacuum created by Elliot’s withdrawal into a cloistered life while he tries to deal with his mental illness and the consequences of his massive hack into corporate conglomerate E Corp. In the first season, we tended to hear or see that name rendered as “Evil Corp,” which is Elliot’s name for them and a reflection of the fact that we’re mostly seeing the show’s events through his fractured psyche. However, working with such a far-flung cast of characters in so many different storylines dilutes the power of experiencing the world through Elliot’s mind and diminishes the show’s unique voice. There’s a theory floating about that his isolation is related to yet another forthcoming narrative twist, one akin to the revelation of the identity of “Mr. Robot” in the first season; if the theory’s true, Esmail hasn’t executed the skew in perspective with sufficient skill to make it worth the slog through a world less tinged with Elliot’s unique sensibility.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Reinvigorated: A Chorus Line at Canada's Stratford Festival

"Dance Ten, Looks Three" is a funny little number at the heart of A Chorus Line that makes light of the plastic surgery undertaken by a super talented but previously flat-chested dancer in order to get a leg up, so to speak, on her profession. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, the song is a barely veiled act of desperation that’s been played for laughs ever since the late Michael Bennett first staged his hit musical on Broadway in 1975. In reviving A Chorus Line for Canada’s Stratford Festival this season, director/choreographer Donna Feore honours that tradition, and then some. Her punchy production, at the Festival Theatre until the end of October, gives the show’s rich veins of humour plenty of room to rush forward and invigorate the dramatic action. Feore is a masterful hand at character as well as comic timing and the performance she coaches out of Julia McLellan, the singer/dancer/actress playing the pneumatically enhanced Val, emerges as a show stopper that tickles the audience to the point it shouts out loud, roaring with approval. Enthusiasm for this powerful production continues right through to the gold-spangled finalé in which the remaining group of dancers high-step it to a repeat of "One," the song that perhaps best of all captures A Chorus Line’s chiseled focus on the individual within the group. It also serves to capture what’s great about this particular show. It is, to quote from Kleban’s lyrics, a singular sensation – an invigorating, compassionate, oftentimes hilarious hi-octane joy ride that while reverential of the Bennett original, succeeds in taking the musical in new directions. A Chorus Line reinvigorated.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Blood & Stone – Two DLC Adventures for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this series. I wrote about The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt in glowing terms. My friend Danny McMurray wrote about its predecessors in similarly reverent tones. As an intellectual property, the stories of everyone’s favourite witcher, Geralt of Rivia, have exploded in popularity and success, and I would say that’s due mostly to the accessibility of The Wild Hunt and the unmatched quality of its execution. It’s a gaming experience that – vast and time-consuming as it already is – cries out for sequels, expansions, and added content. Like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, it crafts a world that is fascinating to visit, and stokes the fires of the imagination by hinting at myriads of other untold stories hiding just beyond the border of what you can see. Kudos (and lots of money) are due to CD Projekt Red and their refreshing approach to DLC, because that’s just what they’ve given us with two paid expansions for the base game, called Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine. The first expansion, Hearts of Stone, was released in October 2015 and costs $11. It takes place in the same areas as the base game, but adds new characters, monsters, gear, abilities, and a roughly 12-hour storyline in which Geralt is hired by a mysterious merchant named Gaunter O’Dimm (although he likes the moniker “Merchant of Mirrors”) to contend with a bandit captain enchanted with the power of immortality. This is the more story-heavy of the two expansions, since the added gameplay elements like powerful sword runes and extra Gwent cards – while useful and well-conceived – are less significant than the added narrative portions. It’s clear where the budget went: the story of this bandit captain, Olgierd Von Everec, is poignant and powerful, with humour and intrigue sprinkled throughout.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fad or Fantastic? Niantic’s Pokémon GO

It’s a sunny afternoon on a quiet residential street. Two adults pass each other on the sidewalk, each buried in a smart phone. One tosses a furtive glance over her shoulder and stops walking, seemingly stepping aside to send a text message that requires all of her focus. The other does the same a few feet away, casually leaning on a fire hydrant and pretending to check some Important Business Meeting information in his google calendar. They make eye contact and exchange an embarrassed glance before chuckling nervously, finishing their business, and walking away.

Welcome to the world of otherwise respectable grown up people playing Pokémon GO, the revolutionary augmented reality gaming phenomenon developed by Niantic for iOS and Android operating systems, based on the 1990s Nintendo video game and television series. The game is simple: using your phone’s GPS capabilities, Pokémon GO superimposes a game map onto a map of your current location. Pokémon (collectable “pocket monsters”) appear as you move around in real time and can be caught, indexed, and “levelled up” to battle against other players. Different Pokémon can be caught in different locations, depending on the type of terrain. The game makes further use of GPS technology by highlighting real life landmarks in your area, transforming museums, murals, and libraries into shared gaming hubs that serve as either supply caches or battle arenas. Reality is further “augmented” by Pokémon GO’s innovative use of the smart phone camera—when you encounter a Pokémon, they appear up close and personal in front of whatever real life backdrop your phone happens to be facing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dark Ice/Light Heart: The Works of Bruno Kurz at the Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery

After Storm 1 by Bruno Kurz

We are very pleased to welcome a new visual arts critic, Donald Brackett, to our group. The piece below is an edited excerpt from his catalogue essay.

From the moment I first set eyes on this series of luminous images by Bruno Kurz I began to hear the sounds of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, a string sextet in one movement composed in 1899 and first performed in 1902 to the astonishment of those in attendance. I can’t account for this, and luckily I don’t have to, but these darkly intimate painterly gestures manage to convey a certain musical quality not unlike that of expressionistic and atmospheric soundtracks for dark, disturbing but beautiful films usually unfolding in cool northern climes. One almost expects the cloaked figure from a Bergman film to come looming out of their mysterious expanses. There is a lot of dark ice in these paintings, but they also have a light heart. And it beats in pure colour. These works are virtual diagrams of that limitless limit. Hallucinatory, reverie inducing, simply splendid, they invite us to view the transfiguration of the commonplace. Perception itself is their true subject. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Podcast: David Churchill's Dating and the Movies Documentary

In the mid-Eighties, I had an idea for a magazine article on what kinds of movies people chose to see when they went out on dates. Partly, this was inspired by my own wrong-headed, but totally innocent, decision to take a date in high school to see Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (it was on a Dustin Hoffman double-bill with of all things The Graduate). After getting the piece published, I began to think of it further as a radio documentary. While working on On the Arts at CJRT-FM, I started thinking about who I'd interview when I saw that my late colleague and friend, David Churchill, seemed even more interested in the idea. So he took over writing the project with myself producing and Adrienne Markow hosting.

Since it is David's birthday today, and we miss him dearly, it seemed apt to share his work with the rest of you.

Thanks to Susan Green, Avril Orloff, Michael Rechtshaffen, Mary Frances Ellison, Laurie Lupton, Geoff Pevere, Mary McIntyre, Andrew Dowler, Sharon Clapp, Deborah Viner and Eric Montgomery for sharing some pretty unusual dating stores and even more unusual dating films.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is David Churchill's Dating and the Movies as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1988.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

New Productions: Chekhov, Shakespeare, Wilde

Moya O’Connell and Neil Barclay in Uncle Vanya at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Uncle Vanya, staged by Jackie Maxwell (in her final season as artistic director), is the crown jewel among the offerings at the Shaw Festival this summer. (At least, among the shows I was able to see; unfortunately, I arrived too early to catch either Sweeney Todd or Strindberg’s The Dance of Death.) The production draws you in from the opening moment, where the old nanny, Marina (Sharry Flett, infusing the character’s grandmotherly warmth with ironic humor), calls Dr. Astrov (Patrick McManus) on his drinking, and you don’t break free of its spell until long after you’ve wandered out of the Court House, the ideal Shaw venue for Chekhov’s delicate, impressionistic “scenes of country life” because of its intimacy. (It’s where the company also performed a memorable Cherry Orchard in 2010.)