Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fall Slump: When Good Comedies Stumble

Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, now airing its third season on Fox

Many television shows drag on far too long, but there is something especially unsettling about watching it happen to a sitcom. While no less upsetting when a favourite drama goes awry, (see: Battlestar Galactica, circa Season 3), the best of dramatic television often succeeds and fails in taking the story in new directions, which means a viewer can easily parse where and how it goes wrong. With ever-growing regularity, TV dramas have enthusiastically embraced television's rich storytelling potential, working in shifting themes, character growth and evolving situations into their long stories. To single out just one current series: FX's Justified has had four strong seasons even if one or two stand out more than the rest and it has done this by allowing its main characters to go in and out of new situations, interacting with different and often stand out amazing new actors who come on board for a single season's story alone, leading (for example) to Margo Martindale's Emmy-winning turn in Season 2. As a result, Justified can not only survive the death of main characters and the moral decline of others, it can thrive because of it. But mainstream situation comedy is, well, still largely dependent on its situation even the best and most accomplished among them are often by necessity static. Static doesn't mean stagnant however. (Bart and Lisa Simpson's perennial and perhaps even purgatorial childhood is still the exception and not the rule.) Having established its fundamental tone, central characters, and key relationships, there are innumerable and endlessly creative situations to work within. ABC's Modern Family, now its fifth season, is perhaps the best example of how strong writing and acting can do amazing stuff within clear and largely preset parameters. 

I tend to return weekly to many of my favourite network comedies as much for feelings of comfort and familiarity as anything else. But when you begin to suspect that the show itself isn't living up to its side of the contract, that trust can often only stretch so far. And this puts even their biggest fans in a particular bind a feeling not unlike when a close friend has overstayed their welcome on your couch. While some returning shows have been having exceptional fall seasons CBS's Elementary is simply rocking its sophomore season some returning comedies are making me eye the door for the first time: How I Met Your Mother, in its ninth (!) and final season; New Girl, in its third year; and most disappointingly, The Mindy Project, growing tired only in its second season.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Warming Up With Canadian Bluegrass: The High Bar Gang and The Barn Katz

What could possibly warm the heart (as well as the hands) on a brisk Canadian autumn day like a dose of bluegrass? That’s right…bluegrass! The American roots music that Wikipedia describes as a “sub-genre of country music” blahblahblah. Sure, it’s true, bluegrass was “inspired by the music of Appalachia…has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English traditional music” and all the rest but the last part of Wikipedia’s definition is the important part. Bluegrass was “later influenced by the music of African-Americans through incorporation of jazz elements.” Huh? “Jazz elements”? Thassright folks, jazz! Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, cutting sessions, musicians who were master of their instruments trading off with each other, blowing free. Using the song structure as a foundation for wherever their imagination and talent would let them go. You can feel the heat rising from the guitar strings and mandolin strings, the banjos, the stand-up bass as each member of the band takes a shot at transforming the melody into something new and exciting. If you don’t warm up at a bluegrass show then you’re probably already dead.

I was invited one evening to attend a recording session at Grant Avenue Studios in central Hamilton. Grant Avenue is a residential street, the studio building an old brick house. Inside, it’s magic. The recording booth to the left, the playing room straight ahead. Up the stairs there’s an instrument room with so many guitars on the wall it makes your head spin. Joe Clark was going to record with his old buddy Don Rigsby. There were only a handful of family members and friends invited. It was extraordinary, the high lonesome sound of harmonies and virtuosity. It’s a night I’ll never forget. Only trouble is, it’s over, I carry the memory but I wish I could hear it again, and again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

All Wet: J.C. Chandor's All is Lost

Scale in movies can be a funny thing. The writer-director J. C. Chandor’s first feature, the 2011 Margin Call, was mostly set in Manhattan, featured a lot of good actors, and had an important, charged subject: the amoral, cutthroat capitalist culture that set the stage for the global economic meltdown. It felt like a small, intimate movie, though, probably because it was mostly talk and lacked serious star power. Chandor’s new movie, All Is Lost, has a single, nameless character, who, after a brief introductory voice-over that sets a solemn, doomy tone, speaks only a very few words in the course of the film, words like “Help!” and “Fuuuuck!!”. But because this character – “Our Man,” he’s called in the closing credits – is out on the high seas and is played by the iconic movie star Robert Redford (at whose Sundance Film Festival Margin Call premiered), All Is Lost has an epic feel to it. For 100 minutes, you’re focused on Redford’s efforts to stay alive after his sailboat is damaged, and after he’s finally forced to abandon it in favor of an inflatable life raft. The movie tells you nothing about “Our Man;” even his voice-over reveals only that he tried “to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right,” and that he believes he failed, though he would appreciate being awarded points for the effort. Most of the reviews of this phenomenally well-reviewed picture take the position that it doesn’t matter who this man is, though it must help a lot of people to care about him that he’s the 77-year-old Sundance Kid.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Neglected Gem #48: Roger Spottiswoode's The Best of Times (1986)

Robin Williams and Kurt Russell in The Best of Times 

The Best of Times is a wonderful little movie – a small-town comedy inspired by the great Preston Sturges send-ups of the forties (Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) but sweeter and less manic, as if Jonathan Demme had lent his humanity to the enterprise. But when it opened in 1986, backed by a half-hearted advertising campaign by Universal that made it sound like a teen farce, this daffy romantic comedy about grown-ups obsessed with the glories and errors of their youth – the rare movie that wasn’t aimed at adolescents – of course it sank.

The filmmakers, Roger Spottiswoode (director) and Ron Shelton (screenwriter), had already proven themselves; their previous collaboration, with Clayton Frohman as co-writer, had been the political drama Under Fire in 1983. Except for the prevailing intelligence, the sureness of tone and style, and the canny attention to character that the two pictures share, you wouldn’t have been likely to guess they came from the same collaborators. The Best of Times is set in a mythical SoCal town called Taft that has withered in the shadow of next-door Bakersfield; the symbol of its degeneration is the 1972 football game between the rival high schools, the one match in all these years that Taft had a chance at winning because of its star quarterback, Reno Hightower, but lost at the hands of Jack Dundee, who fumbled Reno’s last-minute pass. More than a decade later, Jack (Robin Williams) still lives in a perpetual flashback, reliving that fumble. Vice-president of a local bank, he takes furtive breaks in a back room to run Super 8 footage of his moment of shame; it’s his favorite topic at home, to the endless consternation of his wife Ellie (Holly Palance), and he talks about it incessantly in bed with the amiable town prostitute, Darla (Margaret Whitton), who practices a highly individual form of psychosexual therapy in a trailer on the outskirts of Taft. (Darla and Jack’s scenes play like a warm-up for the sexual encounters between Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, which Shelton wrote and directed two years later.) But the disastrous game isn’t just Jack’s private obsession: the town hasn’t let him forget it, and his boorish, honking father-in-law (Donald Moffat, perfectly cast), who runs the Bakersfield bank that employs him, never lets a visit go by without slipping in some mocking reference to that fateful day in ’72. So, at Darla’s urging, Jack decides to provide a context for a possible reprieve – for himself and for Taft. He sets up a rematch.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sweet Irony: The Reconciliation? by My Darling Clementine

Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King of My Darling Clementine

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the country group known as My Darling Clementine has made it a means to an end. On their new release The Reconciliation? [Five Head], an exceptional band with relish and love plays every possible musical hook in traditional country music. But on closer inspection, a respectful tribute to a particular country sound is revealed.

My Darling Clementine is made up of principals Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, a husband and wife duo named after the classic song of 1884. But they aren’t from rural America; they're from Derbyshire, England. Yet you'd never know their British roots listening to this superb release. Inspired by the works of Townes Van Zandt and the classic male-female duets of American country music as best performed by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, King set out to write and record a series of songs about relationships. The result is a concept album that asks the question "the reconciliation?" and answers it 12 different ways.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two New Musicals: Big Fish and The Landing

Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin in Big Fish

The new musical adaptation of Big Fish has a deluxe, hyper-bright look and some of the niftiest stagecraft I’ve seen on a Broadway stage. The characters who will pop up later in the stories spun by the hero, Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), are projected onto witches’ cloaks; a field of daisies – Edward’s gift to the girl of his dreams, Sandra (Kate Baldwin) – is transformed into a 3D backdrop; the set designer (Julian Crouch), the costume designer (William Ivey Long) and the projection designer ( Benjamin Pearcy) assemble witty trompe l’oeil collages. The director-choreographer, Susan Stroman, comes up with fresh ideas for one number after another; her work is a compendium of dance styles. The problem is the uninspired musical at the center of all this visual magic.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Dancer Claudia Moore

Claudia Moore (photo by David Hou)

By calling her latest show Escape Artist, Claudia Moore conjures an intriguing picture of herself as a kind of Houdini of the dance. Technically an illusionist, the death-defying escape artist alluded to in the title strives to be free of restraints, be they handcuffs, straitjackets or cages in a sea of sharks to name some of the claustrophobic situations these suspenseful performers have been employing since their arrival on the pop culture scene at the end of the 19th century. Moore, a seasoned dancer who is artistic director of her own MOonhORsE Dance Theatre company, obviously loves the concept. But her solo show of four commissioned works which played at Toronto’s Dancemakers Studio in the Distillery District during the last weeks of October (including a Hallowe’en performance where the audience was invited to come in costume) did not take the shackle and bust theme literally. In other words, no real chains only imagined ones.