Saturday, February 6, 2016

Network Shows Well Worth Watching: How To Get Away With Murder, Quantico and The Grinder

Viola Davis in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder.

This review contains spoilers.
Perusing the end of the year Best of ranked lists for television, I noticed the continuing trend of almost everybody’s lists – from Time to Entertainment Weekly – consisting almost entirely of cable TV series, with only the occasional network show, such as Empire or The Last Man on Earth, thrown into the mix. I get that; the TV critics find the lack of censorship and unfettered content that is de rigueur on cable television to be enormously appealing. But that doesn’t mean that network fare is worthless, even if characters say "bullcrap" instead of "bullshit" and nudity can only be implied. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a world where only network TV, Canadian or American, existed, but my viewing habits still skew towards broadcast programming, though they don’t make up all my viewing. (I eagerly await the fourth season of The Americans which begins on FX on March 16.) Three of the best bets currently on the networks – How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico and The Grinder – prove, too, that variations on familiar themes can be wrung even there, where novelty is not expected to exist. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #42 (Podcasts): Dr. G. William Jones (1987) and James Earl Jones (1987)

James Earl Jones in John Sayles' Matewan (1987).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, in the late sixties, the momentum of the Civil Rights movement seemed to wane. No leader could fill that vacuum and black voices in the eighties became fragmented. Often the question of black identity and culture came up during interviews. The chapter entitled Black Legacies included conversations with figures like author Toni Morrison, film archivist G. William Jones, and actor James Earl Jones. With the Academy Awards approaching and the controversy over the dearth of black talent among this year's Oscar nominees still heating up and February being Black History Month, it is timely to bring together the latter two interviews, both conducted in 1987.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Animated Short Film

Pixar's Sanjay’s Super Team is one of five films nominated for Best Animated Short Film at this year's Oscars.

Oscar season has begun! While we’re all discussing our picks for this year’s Best Picture and whether or not Leo is finally going to get his Oscar for The Revenant, seeing the nominated short films can sometimes feel like trying to collect all the toys in a series of feature film Happy Meals. Fortunately, ShortsHD has us covered with theatrical releases of this year’s live action and animated shorts in select theatres as well as pay-per-view online streaming. This week, I had the opportunity to catch the Academy’s nominees for Best Animated Short Film at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Here’s my ranking of the five films in this category, from weakest to Oscar-winning:

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Where the Wild Things (Guit)ar

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, from here to ear. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.)

It feels counter-intuitive that in order to reach the aviary nested inside The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts you must descent several flights of stairs to end up in the basement. But this is where, even in the dead of winter, the birds sing and where they also play, but in ways you'd least expect.

The lower level gallery is aflutter with 70 zebra finches who alight on a forest of open-tuned electric guitars – 10 white Gibson Les Pauls and four Gibson Thunderbird basses – lying strings up on a series of stands erected at the four corners of the temperature-controlled MMFA Contemporary Art Space. Small and grey with tiny toothpick feet and triangular beaks the colour of persimmons, the birds fly on and off the musical instruments, triggering a chordal crescendo of wailing distortion that fluctuates in frequency and intensity in accordance to their perching patterns.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finding the Good-Bad: RedLetterMedia’s Space Cop

Rich Evans in Space Cop, by RedLetterMedia.

I don’t even know how to approach a review of Space Cop. I’ve covered quirky genre indie films and low-budget retro nostalgia-fests, but these categories fail to convey the mad conflux of genre and influence that is Space Cop. It’s part of both categories, and neither of them. I think that to understand it, you have to understand the people at RedLetterMedia who made it – which admittedly doesn’t speak well of the film on its own terms. For an RLM fan, though, it’s exactly as wonderful, idiotic, hilarious, gross, and terrible as you could want.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sondheim Confab: Sondheim on Sondheim

The cast of Sondheim on Sondheim (with Sondheim, on screen) at Boston's Lyric Stage. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

By now there have been almost as many Sondheim revues as Sondheim musicals. The first one, Sondheim: A Celebration, was a one-night-only tribute in 1973, while A Little Night Music was running. It set the tone for subsequent showcases of his songs, combining performances by original cast members, covers (Nancy Walker’s rendition of “I’m Still Here” from Follies has yet to be surpassed) and obscure deleted items: “Silly People” and “Two Fairy Tales” from Night Music, “Pleasant Little Kingdom” from Follies, “Love Is in the Air” and “Your Eyes Are Blue” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was nectar for early Sondheim diehards. Side by Side by Sondheim was put together by Brits and had a successful run in the West End in 1976 (where I saw it) before crossing the Atlantic. Putting It Together also began in London; its 1993 Broadway cast included Julie Andrews and Christopher Durang. Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall (also 1993) was televised in truncated form; luckily the entire concert is available on CD. But TV audiences got to see some amazing pieces, like Madeline Kahn singing “Getting Married Today “ from Company, Liza Minnelli and Billy Stritch performing a totally unknown ballad called “Water Under the Bridge” (written for an unproduced movie called Singing Out Loud), and the Boys Choir of Harlem bringing an unlooked-for poignancy to “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim’s eightieth birthday was the occasion for another event, Sondheim The Birthday Concert (2010), on Live from Lincoln Center; this one had John McMartin recreating his performance of “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, as withering and heartrending as it had been on Broadway four decades earlier. The show’s finale was breathtaking: dozens of alums from Sondheim musicals marched through Lincoln Center singing “Sunday,” the sublime first-act finale of Sunday in the Park with George. A TV doc called Six by Sondheim in 2013 focused on half a dozen significant songs.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back to School: James Kudelka At Ryerson University

Choreographer James Kudelka working with dancers from the Ryerson Theatre School. (Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh)

Ryerson Theatre School scored a coup when it secured James Kudelka to choreograph its annual student showcase for five performances in Toronto this past November. A former artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Kudelka has created large scale works for classical dance companies and more experimental pieces for modern and contemporary troupes across the continent. As a dancer, he has performed with ensembles and alone with a puppet. Last year, at age 60, he directed his first play while maintaining his credentials as a baker of artisanal bread. Always up to a challenge, Canada's self-described sex and death choreographer was eager to accept the Ryerson University invitation if only because it allowed him, again, to do something new. The challenge was to work with 57 third- and fourth-year students with varying degrees of dance and stage experience and make them look like seasoned professionals. He pulled it off. Kudelka Meets Ryerson Dances 2015 emerged as an expertly designed work of abstract dance performed with commitment by a group of young amateurs.