Saturday, April 11, 2015

Taming the Beast: Cavalia's Odysseo

A lone horse saunters onto the sand-strewn stage under the 125-foot White Big Top at the edge of Toronto’s waterfront which opened to the public earlier this week. The animal is one of 72 steeds giving heft and direction to Odysseo, the second equine show created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle following the outstanding success of Cavalia in 2003. Like that first now internationally touring production, Odysseo uses horse power to drive its unique theatrical presentation into the stratosphere. Original music by composer Michel Cusson, a towering set design by Guillaume Lord, atmospheric lighting by Alain Lortie and large-scale video projection on a rear screen as big as three IMAX theatres combined, round out a theatrical production as transporting as it is awe-inspiring in its command and control of unbridled nature. This Quebec-made production, first unveiled in Toronto in 2012 and back in the city until May 10, gives new meaning to telling a tail.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Due Midwest: Battle Creek

Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel star in Battle Creek, on CBS.

Russ: "You can't be a cop and be this naïve. It's just not possible."
Milt: "I agree"
                               – Battle Creek (Series Pilot, "The Battle Creek Way")
I wasn't planning on writing on CBS's recent series Battle Creek, despite its notable pedigree – co-created by Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan and House's David Shore. In the months leading up to its mid-season, March 1st premiere, mentions of Battle Creek in the press were afterthoughts in the build-up to the much more highly anticipated Vince Gilligan series, AMC's Breaking Bad spinoff/prequel, Better Call Saul. Indeed, the story behind the CBS series promised to be more interesting than the series itself: CBS dusted off a shelved spec script Gilligan wrote in 2002, years before Breaking Bad made Gilligan one of Hollywood's hottest commodities, and optioned Battle Creek into series just days before the acclaimed AMC hit aired its final episode. The story behind that story became more interesting still when months later, David Shore, creator of Fox's long-running cranky medical drama House, came on board to co-develop the new series with Gilligan. But as interesting as that story was, the premise of the new series remained altogether familiar, and even unremarkable: a mismatched buddy-cop comedy/drama set in a beleaguered police department. By the time the series premiered last month, I confess I'd completely forgotten to watch out for it, distracted by the evolving brilliance of Better Call Saul (whose 10-episode first season came to a triumphant close a few days ago). It was almost three weeks later that I finally watched the premiere episode, following an offhand recommendation from a friend. True to its lineage, Battle Creek turned out to be much more than the sum of its parts. It boasts a charismatic ensemble of actors, sharp and often hilarious writing, and a unique combination of unabashed sentimentality undercut with bitingly sharp edge. I quickly consumed all previously-aired episodes and the series soon joined a very short list of television shows I watch almost as soon as it airs. Unfortunately though, the series has been suffering from consistently weak ratings from the beginning and seems destined to join another, less vaunted, list of mine: television shows cancelled before their time.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Lower Depths: American Crime

Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco in American Crime, on ABC.

The current TV schedule is clogged with shows that use geopolitical and corporate paranoia, apocalyptic fantasies, and the never-ending battle between those guided by faith and ideology and the members of the reality-based community as the grist for sprawling murder-mystery conspiracy thrillers, such as American Odyssey, Dig, Fortitude, and whatever is taking up space right this minute on SyFy. American Crime, which was created by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley for ABC, is vastly different. It’s set in a tawdry, exhausted, post-crash America, with a cast of characters who are in the process of being ground up not just by The System, but by life itself. In the unglamorous setting of Modesto, California, a young man named Matt Skokie has been murdered; his wife, Gwen (Kira Pozehi), has been badly beaten and spends the first few episodes in a coma. In a TV landscape where the heroes are searching for answers or stumbling across clues that unlock mysteries that will dictate the fate of whole civilizations, American Crime is full of people who are doing their damnedest to keep the truth hidden, even from themselves.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Neglected Gem #74: Daughter of the Nile (1987)

I’m not too surprised that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s moving and memorable drama Daughter of the Nile (1987) isn’t highly regarded by the cinematic cognoscenti who so admire his work. Compared to his best known and praised films – Dust in the Wind (1986), City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) – Daughter of the Nile is a quick ride of a movie, mostly devoid of Hou’s static long shots, (overly) leisurely pacing and slow buildup to mood and emotion. (Significantly, film programmer James Quandt, who wrote the film notes for the recent Hou retrospective at Toronto's TIFF Cinematheque at Bell Lightbox (formerly Cinematheque Ontario), never mentions the film; it is one of the few Hou titles not referenced in his lengthy piece.) In short, Daughter of the Nile is a film that those filmgoers who like their movies to actually move will be happy with. Not incidentally, it’s also a rich, evocative tale that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Risk and Reward: Dark Souls & The Balance of Difficulty in Gaming

A scene from From Software's Dark Souls II.

“Hand-holding” is the anathema of modern game design, viewed by many as the ball to which creative, risk-taking design is chained. It’s a necessary evil: developers will want their game to reach as many players as possible, and in capturing a market outside of those who already play games frequently, they must introduce their complex mechanics to a layperson who may never have held a controller in their hands before. Guiding them along with clunky, immersion-breaking tutorials or pop-up hints – holding their hand, as it were – may be helpful for them, but it’s also patronizing and frustrating for those who can pick up a game’s mechanics quickly, or those who enjoy the process of sussing it out. Think of it this way: the first screen of Super Mario Bros never included a prompt that said “Press A to jump”, did it?

And because games are such a massively lucrative global market, this design philosophy has become ubiquitous, permeating almost every new studio title that is released. It’s an alarming trend, indicative of an increasingly profit-fueled industry that is content to deliver lazily-designed games so long as they move enough copies (the parallels with Hollywood are, of course, too obvious to explore). Nintendo’s recent The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example, was rightfully slammed by industry critics for its blandly repetitive and lackluster design, and its reliance on hand-holding to teach its simple mechanics – something that was particularly upsetting considering the ingenious design of early Zelda titles, which encouraged exploration and risk-taking. Even if their hand-holding isn’t as widespread as that, most games will at least include a section at the outset that explicitly tells the player how to play the game, usually through a box of text that most people won’t even bother to read. No matter how right these developers are about how stupid their demographics might be, nobody likes being told what to do. They just want to play the game.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lerner and Loewe and a Touch of Cy Coleman

Vanessa Hudgens stars in Gigi, at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gigi, which is now being revived on Broadway, has a long lineage. Initially it was a story by Colette, written in 1945 and set around the turn of the century, about a teenage Parisienne (the title character) who comes from a family of highly respected courtesans and is being brought up by her grandmother, Mamita, and trained by her great-aunt Alicia to follow in their footsteps. (Her mother took another path: she’s a singer in the ensemble of the Opéra Comique and barely present in her daughter’s life.) When Gaston Lachaille, a millionaire playboy who, through his friendship with Mamita, has been a sort of big brother to Gigi all her life, realizes that she’s grown into a beautiful and desirable young lady, Alicia and Mamita make complicated legal arrangements with him to take over her care. But Gigi has a mind of her own and, though she has fallen in love with Gaston, she resists the life of a rich man’s mistress. The story is a delightful comedy about the tension between social and sexual mores on the one hand and emotional authenticity on the other, and about impulses that flout convention – and upset the apple cart everyone has been riding without thinking much about it.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Notes from the Other Side: The Evil Hours and The Invisible Front

US soldiers participating in the Yoga For Veterans program. (Photo: Give Back Yoga Foundation)

“No other people in history has sent as many (soldiers) as far away with as little sacrifice demanded of the average citizen as we do. No other people in history is as disconnected from the brutality of war as the United States today. Were the truth of war to become apparent to Americans, we wouldn’t continue to train, equip, and deploy warriors the way we do. Nor would we ask them when they came home if they killed anyone.”
—David F. Morris, The Evil Hours.
“Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”
—Homer, The Odyssey, cited by Yochi Dreazen in The Invisible Front.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was officially recognized in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in large part because of a decade-long campaign by Vietnam veterans to secure wider knowledge and research into the affliction they suffered. But as David J. Morris asserts in his compelling The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), psychological trauma has always been “part of the human condition,” but badly misunderstood. Part memoir, cultural history, investigation into the scientific research and critique of modern treatment, Morris interweaves the wisdom of psychoanalysts, poets, novelists and historians, with his own struggle with post-traumatic stress. Recognizing that most PTSD sufferers are not veterans, Morris supplements his “biography” with the stories and insights of non-military victims of PTSD, including natural disaster survivors, mountain climbers, and raped women, thereby imbuing his study with a wider human dimension.