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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review, Reviewed

Andy Daly as Forrest MacNeil, consuming “an upsetting number of pancakes,” on Comedy Central's Review.

We critics are fundamentally damaged souls. Driven by a compulsive need to authoritatively analyze, categorize, and rate everything with which we come into contact, we’re chronically unable to enjoy life, and we find ourselves pushed ever further into isolation and embitterment by our profession.

That’s one possible interpretation of the message of Andy Daly’s pitch-black satire Review, which just concluded its second season on Comedy Central. Daly’s show is bleak, extremely cruel to its central character, and deeply skeptical of the profession of the critic. However, it can also be incredibly funny, and that by itself is almost enough to atone for everything else.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Shadows in the Night: Dylan’s Sinatra

Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty

The title of Bob Dylan’s latest CD, Shadows in the Night, may sound sinister until you listen to it and realize that the allusion is to the shades of romantic despair, not the shadows of film noir. This is Dylan’s Sinatra album: every song on it was recorded at one time by The Voice, though you have to be a genuine aficionado to recognize some of the cuts. They include only two by the most celebrated composers in the Great American Songbook: one by Irving Berlin (“What’ll I Do”), one by Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening”). And though Dylan is going for the feel of the doomed-romantic concept albums Sinatra recorded for Capitol in the fifties, with evocative names like No One Cares and Point of No Return, In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, only a couple of the songs he’s selected actually appeared on them. Instead he draws on a variety of Sinatra ballads to assemble his own version of a Sinatra concept album. The project is a surprise in many ways. But not because you don’t expect that he’d love these songs; if you’ve read his autobiography, Chronicles, then you know that the breadth of his musical tastes stretches even beyond the genres for which he’s famous: rock, folk, country, blues. It’s a surprise partly because he’s never tried anything like it before – and because, approaching these numbers for the first time, he gets spookily close to them. Dylan isn’t trying to be Sinatra, but by the mysterious process of digging a trench for himself inside the heart-bruised lyrics and aching melody lines, he ends up inhabiting the emotions of every one of these songs.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Return to Camp Firewood – Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Jason Schwartzman and Janeane Garofalo in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, on Netflix.

It’s been fourteen years since David Wain and Michael Showalter’s film Wet Hot American Summer achieved thoroughly “meh” ticket sales at the box office and forever split the world’s population into two rival camps (and I’m not sorry for the pun): people that loved Wet Hot American Summer and people who just didn’t. This July, Netflix gave us the opportunity to go back to camp and start the debate anew with the eight-episode exclusive series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The setting, both temporally and geographically, is the same. The unflattering costumes are the same. Even the adult cast members, some of which have risen to meteoric stardom in the years since the original feature film, are the same and it’s worth noting that every single one of them returned to reprise their roles. If that isn’t a testament to the intensely positive filming experience they had in 2001 (no lie: it’s detailed in the completely charming documentary Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot American Summer), I don’t know what is.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Devastating: Asif Kapadia’s Amy

Amy Winehouse at age 14, from Asif Kapadia’s Amy.

Watching Asif Kapadia's powerful and devastating documentary Amy, which encompasses the trajectory of the late Amy Winehouse’s career, I was struck anew by how the best documentaries go beyond expectations to deliver something that often becomes seminal and relevant in a way more ordinary documentaries do not. In other words, if you are a halfway talented filmmaker and tackle decent subject matter, your doc will be worthwhile. It’s the ones that display more ambition and are helmed by master talents that ultimately make a deeper mark. Amy is one such documentary, a tragic screen portrait that will have you in tears by its end.

By the time the talented jazz chanteuse died in July 2011, at the age of 27, directly from alcoholism but more accurately from years of drug abuse, we had seen her rise and fall on TV and in newspaper headlines, almost incessantly documented by tabloid journalists and rapacious paparazzi. And while she was hardly the first pop/rock star to die from an excessive lifestyle, she likely was the most studied and displayed before us, like a deer trapped in the headlights before being hit by the car. There was almost an inevitability to her passing and I suspect it was heightened, even caused in significant ways, by how pervasive was the coverage of her every wrong move and reckless action. And if there is one thing we know about social media and its often parasitic hangers on, it’s that if you’re a public figure, you can’t get away forever with abusing yourself and not expect to, unsympathetically, be pilloried for doing that. Amy Winehouse, too often, appeared negatively in the public eye, even when she should have known better than to display herself, warts and all. It didn’t help, of course, that her biggest supporters and truest friends, were jettisoned by her in her ascension up the pop charts. The other major difference between her and previous musical talents who had the same fate, is that we could catch her out doing it, when nearly thirty five years earlier, an Elvis Presley would destroy himself largely out of sight of his fans and the media.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Land of Wolves: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario

Emily Blunt in Sicario, directed by  Denis Villeneuve.

Sicario (which, as we learn in the first frames, is the Spanish word for “hitman”) opens with an FBI raid on a suburban house in Arizona. It’s led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who discovers, thanks to a hole punched through drywall by a shotgun blast that was meant for her head, that the home was not just a hub for Mexican drug cartel activity, but also a repository of their victims. She is thrown into a joint-agency operation targeting the head of the cartel, organized by CIA “consultant” Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious associate, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). She’s kept in the dark; Matt tells her they’re flying to El Paso, but the plane takes them across the border to Ju├írez – as gritty, dark, and dangerous a slum as has ever been captured on film. When she turns to Alejandro for answers, his reply is, “You’re asking me how a watch is made. For now, just keep your eye on the time.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Left Feet: An Opening in Time

Deborah Hedwall and Patrick Clear in An Opening in Time at the Hartford Stage. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Christopher Shinn’s An Opening in Time is about a middle-aged man and woman, once colleagues on the faculty of a high school, who nearly became lovers when both were married to other people. Now widowed, Anne returns to the town she once lived in, partly to be closer to the son who has stopped talking to her but mainly, it turns out, in the hope that she can rekindle the spark of romance spark with Ron, who is now divorced. Shinn has spoken about the influence of The Winter’s Tale on the writing of this play, and certainly the idea links up with Shakespeare’s theme of interruption and delay and his double vision of time as both thief and healer. But An Opening in Time, which is having its premiere at Hartford Stage in a clunky production by Oliver Butler, is more interesting to contemplate than to watch. I don’t know Shinn’s other plays (Dying City garnered some notice) but this one is crippled by banality and by dramaturgical clumsiness. The characters have to keep explaining themselves to each other because the writing doesn’t develop them dramatically.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Share The Music: The Hugh's Room Tribute to The Guess Who

A week ago Friday, my friend Michael Wrycraft, designer (of album cover art) extraordinaire, organized another of his infamous tribute shows. The venue? Hugh’s Room, one of the best sounding clubs in Toronto. The performers? We’ll get to them in a moment. The people being paid tribute? Canadian all–stars The Guess Who: Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Jim Kale and Garry Peterson. They’re the originals, the four guys who stormed out of Winnipeg playing rock’n’roll with a decidedly Canadian flavour. Sure their first big song was a cover version of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' hit “Shakin’ All Over,” but we Canadians didn’t know that. We didn’t even know who this band that had captured the airwaves was. The label just said “Guess Who?” Little did we know it was a way to introduce Chad Allan & the Expressions. So the label added the definite article and the band was born. Chad Allan left, replaced by pianist/lead singer Burton Cummings and the rest is history. Hit after hit, The Guess Who dominated the Canadian charts for years. They survived the loss of Randy Bachman, his replacement[s] Greg Leskiw, Kurt Winter, and eventually Dominic Troiano and their legend survives reunion concerts, and artificial bands touring in their name. Why? It’s all because of the songs.