Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

Donald Glover and Danny Pudi in Community.

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lukewarm Offering: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore

Vanessa Paradis in Café de Flore

Unlike most of the films emanating from English Canada, French Canadian movies, or at least the ones released outside Quebec, are usually so interesting and provocative that it’s startling when a film from there, such as Xavier Dolan’s overrated 2009 debut J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), turns out to be a dud. In fact, other than Dolan’s misguided effort, and the Quebecois’ continuing and baffling appreciation of the low and crass humour of films like Les Boys and Cruising Bar, both of which have spawned sequels, pretty much everything I’ve seen from there has been worth my time at the cinema. More recently, these have included Denys Arcand's smartly satirical Oscar-winning Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) (2003); Ghyslaine Côté’s Elles étaient cinq (The Five of Us) (2004), a powerful and disturbing look at the ramifications of rape on its victims; Bernard Emond’s deeply philosophical and moving 20h17 rue Darling (8:17 p.m. Darling Street) (2004), which offers much relevant and topical wisdom about Quebec’s economic underclass; Jean-Marc Vallée’s superb and highly imaginative coming-of-age masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005); and Denis Villeneuve’s poignant, emotionally devastating family drama Incendies (Scorchers) (2011), among others. Those French-language movies have managed to be intelligent, accessible and energetic, unlike the usual English Canadian model, which is mostly comprised of stiff, restrained and dull art house fare. (That’s a dictum best exemplified by almost the complete output of Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Chloe)). They also provide proof that Canadian movies can work on many entertaining levels at the same time. That’s why Jean Marc Vallée’s third film, Café de Flore, is such a disappointment; it’s a movie whose appeal lies entirely in the director’s mind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just This Side of a Masterpiece: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow

Only Kate Bush could come up with a song-cycle CD based around the idea of snow. Her first new material in six years, 50 Words for Snow (EMI, 2011) is simultaneously recognizable as a Kate Bush album and pushing boundaries in her approach to song craft. I've followed her career ever since her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights,” absolutely knocked me out the first time I heard it in 1978. Her soaring soprano – taking on the voice of the ghost Catherine Henshaw (the tragic heroine in Emily Brontë's novel of the same name) as she pleads with Heathcliff to let her in – was nothing like I’d ever heard in a ‘pop’ song before; she was only 18 when she wrote and recorded it. Her chosen themes for her music throughout her career have always been eccentric. She's taken on the personas of soldiers (“Army Dreamers”), the young son of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (“Cloudbusting”), a woman testing the fidelity of her husband (“Babushka”) and more than one character who was seemingly derived from Victorian or Edwardian romantic literature. She has also been influenced by films, such as The Innocents (“The Infant Kiss”), Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (“The Wedding List”), and horror films (“Hammer Horror”). There is nothing conventional about the material she explores.

Sometimes her material has been downright odd: the song “Pi” on 2005 Aerial CD (it's essentially her singing the numbers for the symbol Pi to its 137th decimal place) is a prime example. So it should come as no surprise that the first song here, “Snowflake,” is sung from the point of view of snow itself; a second song details lovemaking with a slowly melting snowman, “Misty,” and a third, “Wild Man,” examines the discovery and protection of a yeti. But unlike the somewhat blotted Aerial – she’d been away from the music scene for some years when she recorded that and it showed – 50 Words for Snow is just this side of a masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Don’t Want the Dancing to Stop: National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Guillaume Côté and Elena Lobsanova in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Creating something new out of something already established poses a challenge. You have tradition to contend with, not to mention other people’s expectations – especially true when your source is Shakespeare. In the case of Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who has just created a dramatic new dance version of Romeo and Juliet, the solution was to acknowledge all this while still forging ahead. The result is a modern day masterpiece of narrative ballet.

With Romeo and Juliet, Ratmansky  the former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, now into his second term as artist in residence of New York’s American Ballet Theater  revisits not only literary tradition but also music and dance history.

A commission commemorating the 60th anniversary season of the National Ballet of Canada, his new three-hour work is at Toronto’s Four Seasons of the Performing Arts through Saturday with alternating casts. It's a tremendous accomplishment.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turning Music On Its Head: Tom Waits's Bad As Me

You can always count on Tom Waits to turn music on its head. On Bad As Me (ANTI, 2011), which was released back in October, he once again creates sonic pictures that are bizarre, funny, shocking, yet still remarkably accessible. But like most performers who can't be categorized in the commercial sense of the word, Tom Waits has fully developed a signature sound. As a result, Bad As Me is one of his strongest records.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Absurdists: A Delicate Balance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead & Betrayal

Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in A Delicate Balance. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Among the wide range of plays in revival in London last summer were three absurdist classics – Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The Albee, an attack on upper-middle-class family life, was the first thing he wrote after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and you can see all the marks of an American playwright struggling to follow a runaway critical and popular success: it’s hyper-conscious and overstated and the last act in particular seems to go on forever. Gerald Gutierriez mounted it in New York in the mid-nineties with a brilliant cast (led by George Grizzard and Rosemary Harris as the aging couple, Agnes and Tobias, and Elaine Stritch as Agnes’s bitchy, alcoholic sister Claire) and had the good sense to treat it as a high comedy, which made it work quite marvelously for two of the three acts – the characters’ maddening articulateness made sense. James Macdonald’s production at the Almeida was a more standard reading, like the droning 1973 Tony Richardson movie version with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick, and unless you’re more of an admirer of Albee’s language than I am it’s rough going.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Neglected Gem #8: The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Adrian Grenier in The Adventures of Sebastian Cole
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is a real find, a debut filled with unpredictable characters, an original point of view and fearlessness in both subject matter and the depiction of everyday small-town life. The titular character (Adrian Grenier, Entourage) is an aimless, modern-day Holden Caulfield, minus the cynicism. He is equally unhappy, though, mourning the sudden disintegration of his family, torn asunder when stepfather Hank (Clark Gregg) announces his intention to become a woman. Dragged to England by his bitter British mother (Margaret Colin), who has begun to drink too much, he's returned home to live with Hank/Henrietta, an arrangement that is a mixed blessing for both.

Writer/director Tod Williams doesn't push the story so much as let it unfold. He takes a chance in mixing moods, but the dominant tone is quirky satire worthy of John Irving (The World According to Garp) and just as strikingly unique.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre