Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Circa's Opus

Circa's Opus at the Brisbane Festival (Photo: Michel Cavalca)

The circus recently came to town. But instead of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), 15 aerial-born Australian gymnasts and four barefoot musicians, all members of France’s acclaimed Debussy String Quartet, wowed the eyeballs of everyone packed into Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts. The occasion was the North American debut of Circa, a troupe of gravity-defying wonders currently on a world tour. The Brisbane-based company was in Toronto from Nov. 12 through 16, presented by Canadian Stage, and tonight and through Nov. 26 is in Montreal performing at La Tohu, the circus theatre on Jarry St. E. The show there is the same as was recently seen here – Opus, an 85-minute non-stop piece of acrobatic dance theatre that is a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience: equal parts brute strength and soul-tingling poetry. It shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ghosts and the City: Hulu's Deadbeat

Andrew T. Jackson and Tyler Labine star in Hulu's Deadbeat

Hulu may have been one of the first streaming services available online (and still offers some of the widest selections of rebroadcast television content from American network and cable sources), but Hulu Plus, its subscription-based younger brother, is still lagging behind the other streamcasters (Netflix, Amazon Prime) for original scripted programming. Hulu Plus has garnered some well-deserved praise for bringing some exclusive UK exports to its American viewers: not only the delightful Moone Boy (Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy set in small-town Ireland in the late 80s) and Showcase's Endgame, the cancelled-too-soon Canadian cult hit, but also co-producing The Wrong Mans, starring Gavin & Stacey's and soon-to-be CBS's Late Late Show host James Corden, with the BBC. (I'll save the details of my unabashed enthusiasm for Corden and the comically intense Wrong Mans for when its much-anticipated second season airs in 2015.) Last spring however Hulu Plus stepped firmly into new and exclusive original programming with the low-key, under the radar, paranormal comedy Deadbeat, which demonstrated the potential for Hulu to play with the big boys.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sly Fox: The Phil Silvers Show

Billy Sands, Phil Silvers, and Paul Ford in The Phil Silvers Show

Last summer, one of The New York Times’ fourth-string film reviewers wrote a blunt little screed complaining about how many old TV shows are now readily available for viewing thanks to home video, streaming sites, and “classic TV” cable channels such as MeTV, Antenna, and Cozi (whose appeal is probably based on nostalgia for the golden years of Nick at Nite and TV Land as much as it’s based on the days when the shows on such channels were actually new). Some of the writer’s objections to specific shows were based on political correctness: surely those who appreciate Mad Men for its glacial pace, lavishly furnished period anomie, and tsk-tsking attitude toward the male chauvinism of our fathers and grandfathers must view the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden as “more sad than funny,” Gilligan’s Island is chock-full of “dismaying stereotypes,” and watching Green Acres can make you feel that rural people in the red states are a bunch of rubes, which is an unacceptable message for a TV show to be peddling unless it’s The Daily Show. Mainly, though, the Times seemed to be concerned that too many people are pissing their lives away binge-watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when they could be doing something constructive, like organizing a recycling drive or watching Rectify.

I’m not sure that the ready availability of fifty-year-old sitcoms is the major societal problem that the Times thinks it is. When it comes to popular culture, I’m of the Libertarian persuasion: the stuff should be out there where anyone who wants it can get their hands on it, and if that makes it easier for those with a tendency toward substance abuse to get a hold of the hard stuff, that’s their cross to bear. From the censorious tone of the Times article, it’s not clear that its author—who I prefer not to refer to by name, because I have a theory that he might really be Candyman—knows that the best comedy of the early years of TV is less faded now than the first season of True Detective, and that some of it is still hard to find. In the case of the great early work of Sid Caesar and the Your Show of Shows crew, Ernie Kovacs, and Steve Allen, we’re dependent on the efforts of cultural archeologists digging through private collections of kinescopes, since much of that material predates the network practice of archiving programs that were originally thought to have no long-term financial value.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Price of Truth: Kill the Messenger

Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in Kill the Messenger

If last summer’s scenes from Ferguson, M.O. – the corpse of a black man lying in the street; cops armoured up like special forces; residents rioting in a failed neighborhood – drew our outrage, they didn’t earn our surprise. The whole affair was just yet another installment of the forces of law and order versus America’s poor and marginalized – those pictures could have been L.A. in the wake of Rodney King, or the whole country after the killing of Dr. King. With Kill the Messenger, director Michael Cuesta shines the spotlight on a particularly appalling chapter of this saga, telling the story of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. America’s “War on Drugs” ranks as one of its most self-destructive and inept policies in history; through it, criminal law has led to social engineering, as entire urban enclaves have crumbled due to the cycling of its young men of color in and out of prison on possession charges. Through Webb, Cuesta revisits an even darker wrinkle in this narrative. But what starts out as a moderately compelling investigative thriller turns into an even more thoughtful, ruminative portrait of a crusading reporter, his private battles, and what it means to have integrity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hack Ascendant: Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman

Birdman, the latest effort from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, occupies a strange space between the real and the imagined. Its narrative about the efforts of washed-up Hollywood celebrity Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) to remain relevant and keep his quickly-unravelling life under control functions as both a fascinating black comedy, and a Bizarro meta-effort to genuinely revitalize the career of its star. Casting an aging performer in a film about an aging performer requires a tricky balancing act of self-awareness and immersion, and parsing it is likely prohibitively challenging for the average moviegoer. It’s too bad, because those people will miss out on one of the most unique, funny, and poignant films of the year.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Awake and Sing!: Loveless Intimacy

Awake and Sing!, directed by Melia Bensussen, at the Boston's Huntington Theatre Company (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In a brilliant 1946 essay about Awake and Sing!, Robert Warshow called Clifford Odets the “poet of the Jewish middle class,” and when you hear his dialogue spoken from the stage of the Huntington Theatre in its deeply moving revival of the play you know exactly what Warshow meant. Odets – working from his own first-hand knowledge of Jews fighting to forge an identity in America, his consciousness of the hand-to-mouth struggle of families during the Depression, his Communist principles, his devotion to Chekhov, and his Stanislavskian training as a company actor in the Group Theatre – created a new kind of American drama. In 1935 he was twenty-eight and working at astonishing speed. In that year alone he churned out the agit-prop labor play Waiting for Lefty (which mixed Brechtian and naturalist elements and brought audiences literally to their feet, chanting, “Strike!” at the end along with the actors) and two magnificent realist dramas, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost. The best of the three – the best thing Odets ever wrote – is the Bronx-set Awake and Sing!, where the Berger family, in Warshow’s phrase, “live on top of one another, in that loveless intimacy which is the obverse of the Jewish virtue of family solidarity.” It’s a matriarchy that Bessie Berger rules over with increasingly desperate tyranny as the family threatens to come apart. Her husband Myron, who dropped out of law school for financial reasons, is a well-meaning, gentle-souled man who long ago ceded authority to his wife and who, in these hard times, has lost his breadwinner role, his work days cut back to three. When Hennie, their elder child, gets pregnant by an out-of-towner she can’t track down (either he gave her a false name or he lied about the company that employed him), Bessie marries her off post-haste to an adoring recent immigrant with a decent job who never questions the baby’s paternity. When Ralph, the younger child, falls in love with a poor girl, Bessie throws up obstacles; so does the girl’s family, and the romance dwindles. Ralph is close to the other inhabitant of this tenement apartment, his grandfather, Jacob, a Marxist who, though he himself is cowed by his daughter, fans the flame of the boy’s dreams and urges him to go out and change the world “so life won’t be printed on dollar bills.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Welcome Return to Form: James Ellroy’s Perfidia

He’s back! After a five year absence, James Ellroy has a new novel out, Perfidia (Knopf, 2014), and while it is a return to the characters who inhabited his earlier, and superb, L.A. Quartet series of books (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, 1987-92), it’s also a return to form for the writer. His last series, the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover, 1995-2009), which played out on a national canvas of American history, the JFK assassination, the war in Vietnam etc., struck me as mostly lackadaisical, even pallid, as if Ellroy couldn't quite put his heart into it, realizing that authors like Don DeLillo (Underworld) had already visited the environs he was writing about and he thus couldn't and didn't do much that was new with the themes inherent in the books. (I did finish reading the trilogy so it was hardly a complete botch.) But with Perfidia, the first of a new quartet, titled The Second L.A. Quartet, the profane, vulgar and exciting Ellroy we all know and love is back to his old tricks; if Perfidia isn't exactly a literary stretch for the author, it’s nonetheless a book that plays to his strengths as a writer, offering up memorable characterization, staccato, powerful writing and a profane street level view of Los Angeles’ mean streets and institutions that is uniquely and memorably Ellroy’s own.