Saturday, October 18, 2014

Neglected Gem #64: In Dreams (1999)

In Dreams is sensuously creepy and compelling. Annette Bening plays Claire Cooper, an adaptor and illustrator of fairy tales, who suddenly finds her head filled with horrifying images she can neither prevent nor interpret, though she knows they’re linked up with the disappearance of a little girl. When the child’s body turns up, she realizes that she’s channeling a serial killer. And unlike the murderers whose crimes run like private movies in the brain of the character Antonio Banderas plays in Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador, this one is conscious of his psychic connection with Claire – his next target turns out to be her daughter, Rebecca. When she can’t stop Rebecca’s inevitable fate, Claire tries to kill herself in her car, but she survives and grows more and more removed from the people around her – her husband (Aidan Quinn), the detective (Paul Guilfoyle) in pursuit of the killer, the surgeon (Dennis Boutsikaris) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) who treat her – because they don’t believe her story. She becomes unmoored, stalked by a man who’s somehow managed to worm his way into her skull and is leaving her maddening hints about how he lost his own bearings and what he’s going to do next.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Good, Some Less So: A Look at the New Sitcoms of 2014

John Cho and Karen Gillan star in Selfie, on ABC

Amid the high profile dramas that are debuting on the small screen this season (Gotham and How to Get Away with Murder), comedies are flying a little under the radar. Last year saw well over a dozen new network comedies launched, and a year later we've had a few heartbreaking cancellations (Trophy Wife, The Crazy Ones, and Enlisted) and one break out, consistently deserving hit, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (The Andy Samberg comedy premiered with such a strong comic voice and sense of itself that its eventual success was visible in the first 5 minutes of the pilot. So far, its sophomore season has continued in the same vein.) This fall the networks are offering only a handful of new sitcoms, and today I'll be taking a look five new comedies, in order of their relative promise: Black-ish (ABC), Selfie (ABC), A to Z (NBC), Marry Me (NBC), Mulaney (FOX).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Dogs of Comedy: Revisiting Christopher Guest's Best in Show (2000)

When you're as sick as I was this past weekend, you find yourself craving comfort food of all sorts. For comfort comes not only from good hot soup, steamy liquids and plenty of sleep, but it also arrives in choices of films to watch. Rather than turn to the dramatically complex (though I did watch the extraordinary new Blu-ray restoration of the four hour and ten minute director's cut of Sergio Leone's gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, which I'll write about next week when I'm fully healthy), I look instead to comedy, the genre that helps us come to terms with pain and misery because we come to laugh at its absurdity. Christopher Guest's mock documentary Best in Show (2000) got the call this past weekend.

It's often been acknowledged – especially in ads – that dog owners not only have a lot in common with their pooches, they sometimes live their lives through them. You can usually size up a dog owner, too, just by watching the type of canine they have at the end of the leash. Dogs can either act out the most regal aspects of the owner's personality, or, as in the case of pit bulls, the owner's latent aggressions. In Best in Show, Christopher Guest satirizes this symbiotic and idiosyncratic alliance by casting it in the colourful arena of a dog show. Using the same spry ensemble of comic actors (Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Fred Willard) that he first worked with in his 1996 debut Waiting for Guffman, in Best in Show, they prove to be even more eccentric than their pets.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bending Genres: Elizabeth Shepherd's Signal and Lily Frost's Motherless Child

Is it jazz or is it pop? In the case of Elizabeth Shepherd and Lily Frost, two gifted singers from Canada, one genre definitely informs the other. The challenge for listeners  and critics – is to dismiss the genre fencing and simply appreciate the music in and of itself. For Shepherd and Frost, whose recent releases cross-reference pop and jazz, the two have become very good at blending  and bending – the genres into music that is accessible and interesting.

The Signal (Linus) is Elizabeth Shepherd's fifth, full-length album. Originally cast as pseudo-chanteuse upon her debut, the McGill University graduate has constantly challenged everybody's notion of category. She's tread the line between straight up jazz (Start to Move, 2006) to her exceptional performance of "I Am The Walrus" on Michael Occhipini's Shine On tribute to the music of John Lennon. To some extent, her new release carries some of that musical buoyancy along with a large dose of mystery. Led by the percussive drive of John McLean, The Signal is Shepherd's funkiest release to date. The polyrhythms lead the way as Shepherd weaves her voice in between the beats. The overall sound of the album is occasionally too locked into a steady groove, but the title track breaks the pattern nicely. It's a sublime duet with vocalist Alex Samaras peppered with narration by CBC Radio host, Laurie Brown. It's the best-arranged song on the album, and arranging is a skill in itself – just consider the work of Rob McConnell or Gil Evans, two jazz legends.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Off The Shelf: Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013)

Rose Byrne in James Wan's Insidious (2010)

Before this week I only knew James Wan as the director of Saw (and producer of almost every one of its sequels), which didn’t exactly bode well for the rest of his filmography. Though Saw (2004) functioned as a mostly-effective mystery-horror yarn, the sequels quickly descended into exploitative dreck, bringing the term “torture porn” into our pop culture lexicon. Is that really an achievement to celebrate? I can’t say – but it did leave me unprepared for the quality of two of his more recent directorial efforts, Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), films that veer away from serial-killer mind games into supernatural territory.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Country House: Chekhov in the Berkshires

Blythe Danner in The Country House (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In Donald Margulies’s new play, The Country House, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Blythe Danner plays Anna Patterson, the matriarch of a theatrical family. A famous actress, Anna has returned to the Williamstown Theatre Festival – and to her summer home in the Berkshires – a year after losing her daughter, also an actor, to cancer. The family assembles in this house of memories. Anna’s son Elliot Cooper (Eric Lange) is a difficult, obstreperous man who can’t get parts because no one wants to work with him and who has stumbled into middle age without finding a romantic partner. At this juncture he’s suddenly decided to become a playwright; he’s planning to ask his unsuspecting family to read his first effort aloud. His brother-in-law Walter Keegan (David Rasche), who parlayed a successful career as a stage director into an even more enviable one as a filmmaker, shows up with his new, younger fiancée, Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant) – also an actress – a beauty whom everyone is drawn to despite their discomfort with the way Walter has moved on so speedily after the death of his wife. Nell draws the admiration of both Elliot – who acted with her one summer, years earlier, and has romanticized that brief friendship into unrequited love – and another celebrity appearing that summer in Williamstown, Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), the star of a hit sci-fi TV series whom Anna, with motives that are not entirely pure, has invited to sleep on the living-room couch while his house is being fumigated. The only person in the house who isn’t charmed by Nell is Walter’s daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), a Yale student, the only character on stage without either a theatrical career or an interest in obtaining one. Susie is incensed at what she sees as her father’s disloyalty to her mother’s memory, and when Michael falls for Nell, she has even more reason to hate her stepmother-to-be, since she’s had a crush on the handsome actor since she was a little girl.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Streak of Light through Damascus: Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon

Author Samar Yazbek (Photo: AFP / Joel Saget)

There are novels about revolution, and there are revolutionary novels. Both kinds of novels have their own appeal; novels about revolution allow us to feel like we are a part of contemporary or historical events, and their fictional frame introduces a human and subjective quality to events that history texts are often lacking. Novels about revolution, at their best, allow for greater ambiguity than reportage, and they are incredibly valuable as such – one such example is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. Revolutionary novels are not the same thing – they are ‘revolutionary’ not necessarily because they depict a revolution, but because they change the way we think about a person or a place, or because they illuminate individual people in ways that cause us to question or rethink what we know either about certain places, certain classes, or certain figures. Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon is a revolutionary novel, set in a Syria before the current revolution began, but which is enriched by our recognition that the world of Cinnamon may be one that no longer exists.

Yazbek is a remarkable figure in her own right. Born into an upper-class Alwaite family (the same religious sect as the notorious Syrian ‘President’ Bashar al-Assad), Yazbek grew up being conditioned to support the regime, which is often credited with dramatically improving the social and economic status of the Syrian Alawi community, and with ensuring their safety (Alawites have historically been persecuted by other Muslim groups). Yazbek broke with her family when she began to protest against the regime in 2011, a political stance that initiated a cycle of social ostracization and military detention that she could only break by leaving Syria for Paris with her daughter. Her most famous work is a non-fiction account of her experiences as a protestor and dissident, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, but Yazbek has a pedigree in fiction as well. She belongs to that small group of writers who deserve to be classified as both a writer of revolution, and as a revolutionary writer.