Saturday, November 4, 2017

Running On: This Is Us and the Demands of Network Drama

When I wrote about This Is Us last year, I noted that the NBC drama, along with creator Dan Fogelman’s now-defunct Fox baseball show Pitch, represented a more adventurous approach to storytelling, at least for traditionally risk-averse network television. To a large degree, that’s just the nature of the medium; it’s hard to achieve the sort of narrative freshness and surprise that the most popular cable shows rely upon, because a network show’s season is almost always considerably longer. The typical network drama produces over 20 episodes, as opposed to approximately 13 for a cable drama like FX’s The Americans. At their best, shows like The Good Wife or Buffy the Vampire Slayer have made a virtue of necessity, employing a case-of-the-week format that allowed them to create compelling self-contained episodes, such as Buffy’s “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling,” or entries in the series that unexpectedly become launching points for major arcs, such as Good Wife‘s “Red Team/Blue Team,” which kick-started one of that show’s creative high points.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Neglected Gem # 109: Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson in Hunger (1966)

Per Oscarsson has mostly been forgotten now, but in the sixties and seventies he was considered one of the great Swedish actors of his generation. Stage-trained (he was a notable Hamlet), he had a strongly theatrical presence on camera, and a daring style that was grounded in psychological realism but stretched imaginatively beyond it. In Jan Troell’s The New Land he had a striking presence in the small role of the minister who joins the community of the Swedish settlers in Minnesota, bringing comfort and relief to the devout Kristina (Liv Ullmann), who has suffered from the lack of a spiritual adviser since emigrating with her husband Karl-Oscar (Max von Sydow). Sam Peckinpah employed him in the part of the itinerant handyman in his 1966 TV adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, where his jangling, inwardly focused performance was on par with the brilliant ones given by Jason Robards and Olivia De Havilland as his farm-owning employers. Oscarsson died in 2010; his last appearances were as Holger Palmgren in the Swedish film and TV versions of the Stieg Larsson thrillers.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Critic's Crypt: On a Century of Horror Cinema, Part I

I’m never one to shirk my responsibilities as a festive moviegoer. Certain times of year call for certain cinematic experiences, and when crisp, melancholy October rolls around I like to ring in the season by cloaking myself in the darkness of the horror genre. There’s no better environment in which to contemplate mortality than amongst the autumn leaves, as they die their violently colourful deaths.

In October of the Year of Our Lord 2017 I watched no fewer than twenty-one horror movies. They spanned a myriad of subgenres across nearly a century of cinema, from the supernatural to the psychological to the downright silly. There’s no way to cover them all in a single Critic’s Crypt, so I’ve broken them down by decade and attempted to chart a course through the murky, tempest-tossed waters of horror history. Follow me, brave spookophile, into these briny and limitless depths!

– Justin Cummings

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sensual and Strong: The Return of the Canada All Star Ballet Gala

Maria Kochetkova and Carlo Di Lanno, both of San Francisco Ballet, dancing the pas de deux from Christoper Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, one of a dozen premieres presented at the Canada All Star Ballet Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Second time strong. The follow-up edition to last season’s inaugural Canada All Star Ballet Gala gained in power with a sophisticated showcase of classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballet as performed by 17 new-generation ballet luminaries from nine of the world’s leading classical dance companies. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina, the Bolshoi Ballet star who today is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, curated the three-hour program whose one-time only performance played to a capacity audience at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Saturday night. She produced the show and also danced in it, raising her own barre high while making way for emerging talents like Anastasia Lukina from the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, and Dmitry Vyskubenko from the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, both 19 years old. The evening delivered on a promise of new discoveries.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Alberto Manguel (1983)

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. Today, in honour of Halloween, it seems timely to revisit the day, in 1983, when I sat down with Argentine-Canadian novelist, essayist and translator Alberto Manguel.

Author of non-fiction texts such as A History of Reading (1996) and most recently Curiosity (2015), in his long career Manguel has edited numerous anthologies of short fiction. At the time of our conversation in 1983, his first such volume, Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature, had just been published. The massive book collected short works of fantasy, many appearing in English for the first time, from the sinister to the humorous, from authors like Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Julio Cortázar, and Charles Dickens. In 2016, Manguel took over as director of the National Library of Argentina.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Alberto Manguel as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Seder: Night of Revelations

The cast of Seder at the Hartford Stage. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Sarah Gancher’s new play Seder (Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT) is dense and complicated – and I mean that as a compliment. Set in Budapest in 2002, it strives to find a way to dramatize the entire blighted history of Hungary from the Holocaust through the country’s reincarnation as a Communist state after the Second World War and its wholesale rejection of that ideology after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The protagonist is Erzsike (Mia Dillon, in a fine, restrained performance), a Jew who survived the war in Budapest but lost her father in a concentration camp. In the post-war days, the only job she could land was as a janitor at 60 Andrássy Street, which had been the headquarters of the notorious Arrow Cross – the Hungarian Nazis – and where the AVO, the secret police of the Hungarian Communist Party, were now interrogating people in the basement using the same instruments of torture. Her boss, Attila (played by Jeremy Webb in flashbacks), promoted her to secretary and began a long affair with her; she permitted it because his generosity helped her to support her family – a co-worker, Tamás (Liam Craig), whose marriage to her Attila himself arranged when she got pregnant, and her three children. She has long kept the secret that her eldest, Judit (Birgit Huppuch), who adored Tamás, was not his daughter. Judit has always resented her mother for cuckolding Tamás and, she thinks, driving him to drink. At nineteen, after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, she left home. And though she maintains a relationship with her sister Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), who still lives with their mother, and her brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), she does not speak to Erzsike, who is agonized by their estrangement, and has forbidden them to tell her anything about the life she’s led since she walked out. As it happens, she’s allied herself with the center-right party Fidesz, which is working to eliminate all remnants of Hungarian Communism. She is on the board of the recently opened House of Terror Museum in the building at 60 Andássy, which Erzsike visits in the opening scene – only to discover her own photo in the “gallery of murderers.” Her own daughter hung it there: it’s her conviction that no one who worked in that environment during the AVO presence could possibly have failed to know what atrocities were being perpetrated in its basement, and so even the secretaries and janitors were complicit.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Monsters Among Us: Netflix's Mindhunter

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter

If the average citizen ever comes across [the psychopath] in his reading, he ordinarily imagines raving madmen and consigns them to the care of hospital psychiatrists. Or, if the citizen is a little more sophisticated, he thinks in terms of crime and daring escapades, and relegates the perpetrators to the province of the police. He does not know – he has not been told – that the psychopath is the enemy of his life, the adversary of his welfare. He does not know – he has not been told – that the psychopath is the harbinger of social and political distress, the carrier of a plague of wars, revolutions, and convulsions of social unrest.
– Robert Lindner, Must You Conform? (1956)

When the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, recently took out over 500 people at a country music event, people struggled in vain to find a motive. Since there was nothing in recent history with which to compare this horrific deed, people sought the most obvious clues to define his actions. Was he recruited by ISIS? Could he have been a white supremacist? Since Paddock was described in the news as 'a quiet and loving man' by all who apparently knew him (as if silence automatically guaranteed sanity), the question remained: what made him commit such a monstrous act? When you spend many months acquiring a huge arsenal, meticulously planning both your location and your prey, and then you present a horrific display of mass murder, clearly there's a lot more going on than being a 'quiet and loving' guy. At the very least, his actions reveal that he didn't like people very much. But since no one found a convenient label with which to define his actions, Paddock was quickly dropped from the headlines and returned to the oblivion where he once resided. He disappeared from the news as if he had never been there.