Saturday, January 16, 2016

High Spirits, Low Ratings: ABC’s Galavant

Joshua Sasse and Timothy Omundson in ABC's Galavant.

If a cast of committed, engaging performers do a funny musical number in the Enchanted Forest, and no one’s watching, does it make a sound? That is more or less the question facing ABC’s oftentimes delightful but unfortunately low-rated musical comedy Galavant, created by writer Dan Fogelman and with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

Galavant is now in the middle of its second season, and no one seems more surprised by that fact than its own creative team, as evidenced by the opening number of the first episode, aptly titled “A New Season.” In keeping with the show’s overall aesthetic, the song’s full of self-referential moments, such as the acknowledgement of the cost to the network of bringing on more guest stars or the writers’ disbelief that they couldn’t even garner an Emmy nomination for Best Song – all taking place within an episode whose full title is “A New Season aka Suck It Cancellation Bear,” a dig at a TV website that had predicted all-but-certain doom for the show after its truncated first season.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hateful, Indeed: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. (Photo: Allstar/The Weinstein Company)

“I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. I think something is wrong with him... It’s just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word.”
– Director Spike Lee, in a 1997 interview following the release of Tarantino's film Jackie Brown.

I don’t usually agree with Spike Lee, whose defamatory depiction of Jewish characters in his early movies (Mo’ Better Blue, 1990; Get on the Bus, 1996), before 9/11, was offensive in its own right, but when it comes to Quentin Tarantino’s overuse of the word "nigger," Lee is spot on. In Tarantino’s films it’s generally uttered as much for shock value – and the word can still shock, even in our day and age – and cheap provocation than for veracity or to make a salient point in the story. I didn’t count how often it was used in Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was utilized more than the 109 times it popped up in his last movie Django Unchained (2012). But it’s also only one problematic aspect of a movie that, even held up against Tarantino’s limited palette of themes and tones, is a singularly redundant, unnecessary and, yes, hateful movie.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Boldly Go: Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty, created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, recently completed its 2nd season on the Cartoon Network.

Although animated series Rick and Morty wrapped up its second season in October of 2015, the cult hit has recently moved to a new, coveted time slot on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on Sunday nights at 11:30pm. It’s been renewed for a third season with a yet to be announced air date, estimated somewhere between late 2016 and mid-2017. In the interim, incorporating Justin Roiland (Gravity Falls) and Dan Harmon’s (Community) madcap cartoon show into your Sunday viewing schedule is a worthwhile investment of time. Arguably the cleverest cartoon series currently in production, Rick and Morty is full of bold jokes, intelligent writing, and just enough heart to keep it anchored without becoming saccharine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Too Serious: Zappa and Jazz by Geoff Wills

Frank Zappa and George Duke, backstage, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid 1970s. (Photo by Herb Nolan)

In 1973 Frank Zappa delivered one of his many humorous statements when he said, “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny” on his album Roxy & Elsewhere. Zappa’s sarcastic quip had a certain resonance. By the early seventies jazz music was transforming into a blend between the electric sounds of rock and the confluence of funk. Fusion, as it came to be called, was inspiring a new generation of musicians (Jaco Pastorius, Al Di Meola et al) and testing the mettle of the “purists” who preferred the acoustic sounds of Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. For author, musician and psychologist Geoff Wills, Zappa’s comment didn’t make sense because the composer regularly worked with highly skilled musicians who played jazz or came from that school. In his autobiography, Zappa declared jazz to be “the music of unemployment” – further feeding Wills' need to “clarify the often confusing nature of [Zappa's] relationship with” the genre.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Choosing Peace: The Strange Genre Subversion of Undertale

Undertale operates based on a simple premise, which is actually just a question: do you really have to kill every foe you encounter in a video game?

Violence in all media is generally an easy way to generate conflict, and therefore drama. But Undertale, created almost entirely by a single programmer/designer/composer named Toby Fox, seeks to challenge the basic assumption that violence is the only way to create meaningful conflict in a game. Within the familiar framework of a retro-styled RPG, it allows for peaceful resolution of every encounter you find yourself in. If you decide to kill your foes instead of convincing them not to fight, those choices are reflected in the game world, which becomes either more hostile or more welcoming depending on how wantonly murderous you decide to be. It’s a fascinating inversion of a familiar genre.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Carol: Women Under Glass

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol, directed by Todd Haynes.

For the first half of Carol it seems as if the director, Todd Haynes, is going to make it work. Haynes stepped into movies with one of the most startling curiosities of the eighties, a short called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story populated by Barbie and Ken dolls, but at feature length his movies always seem theoretical – and rigged – like a doctoral dissertation you can’t get behind because it scrambles any instinctual reading of the material. That’s especially true of the project he returns to every two or three pictures, where he tries to replicate glossy Hollywood melodramas of the forties and fifties but moves into the foreground the subversive qualities that (some say) directors like Douglas Sirk slipped into the margins of their movies. Since I can’t take Sirk’s movies seriously, Haynes’ takes on them probably wouldn’t interest me much anyway. But he was certainly an entertainer, and though he asked his audience to accept some stupefying plot points, God knows he didn’t try to pass theory off as drama. Haynes’ most highly regarded film, Far from Heaven (2002), defied common sense at every narrative turn. His plan was to set the movie in the suburban 1950s with a Jane Wyman-type heroine (played by Julianne Moore, whose performance is the movie’s only saving grace) and give her a husband who’s a closeted homosexual and a lover who’s an African-American gardener. It might have been an interesting proposition, but not if the gardener (Dennis Haysbert) talked like he’d just time-traveled back from the twenty-first century and certainly not with Dennis Quaid as the husband. Haynes needed an actor who read as straight but who could be convincing as a gay man, like Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye. (Or Taylor Kitsch in the second season of True Detective, who seemed to have based the early scenes in his performance on Brando in Huston’s movie.) Quaid is preposterously miscast – like, say, Michael Douglas as  Liberace in the TV movie Behind the Candelabra – so all you get is the idea of a straight man who’s secretly gay. And when Haynes throws in a butch little girl and an effeminate little boy as Moore and Quaid’s kids, the obvious reversal of sexual expectations becomes dopey and childish. It’s the by now familiar problem of drama that goes straight to the symbolic level before it’s been worked through on the narrative level. Far from Heaven flattered viewers by making them feel smart for getting what he was up to without engaging them in the storytelling.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Maajid Nawaz’s Memoir: From Islamist to Liberal Democrat

Author and politician Maajid Nawaz. (Photo by David Levene)

“Here I am back in Mecca. I am still travelling, trying to broaden my mind, for I have seen too much of the damage narrow-mindedness can make of things, and when I return home … I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.”
– Malcolm X, Letter to James Farmer 
It is not surprising that in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening (WH Allen, 2012), Maajid Nawaz cites Malcolm X, given the correlation in the arc of their lives. Whereas the African-American leader’s path gave way from being a petty criminal and long-term incarceration to becoming an influential minister and separatist political activist to evolving into a humanist in the final stages of his life, Nawaz’s journey led him from being a British-born angry teenager of Pakistani descent, who found his voice of rebellion through American hip-hop, to the upper echelons of the radical organization Hizb-al Tahrir, and his subsequent imprisonment in Egypt and disenchantment with Islamism. What both men shared in common was their ability to challenge their deepest convictions despite the personal costs they endured.