Saturday, February 13, 2016

Laughing at a Frightening World: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

The third season of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver premieres tomorrow night on HBO.

Our world has always been a scary place, but the rise of cable news and the Internet has amplified our sense of it as a hopeless case that’s rapidly falling apart. However, the pernicious effects of our contemporary news media go beyond fostering alarmism and fear; their emphasis on chasing the latest sensational story, and the single-minded focus that media outlets often display once they’re locked in on that story (think of CNN’s infamous infatuation with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370), tend to crowd out deeper, more detailed analysis of long-term trends and under-reported phenomena.

For much of the 2000s, we at least had two nightly television shows that attempted to counter the hysteria and hype. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert scythed through the triviality, sanctimony, and unacknowledged bias that mars so much of our media coverage, using humor as a means to ridicule these flaws. Stewart launched a frontal assault, especially on Fox News, which he came to call “Bullshit Mountain” for its ugly track record of stretching the truth to whip up controversy where none should have existed. Colbert, on the other hand, was more indirect in his criticism, satirizing Fox News and its ilk by creating a self-involved, ostensibly conservative persona who resembled commentators such as Bill O’Reilly (he was so convincing in this fake role that I can recall at least one friend mentioning that his grandmother believed Colbert was sincere, and admired him for it).

However salutary an effect Colbert and Stewart might have had on political discourse in this country, they couldn’t keep at it forever, and in late 2014 and the summer of last year, respectively, they both stepped down to pursue other gigs. Fortunately, one of Stewart’s former “correspondents” (and, for a time, interim host), John Oliver, launched his own show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, on HBO in early 2014, and it’s built upon the legacy of The Daily Show to become a worthy successor. The show is now entering its third season, which begins tomorrow night.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Time-Hopping Fun of DC's Legends of Tomorrow

Arthur Darvill (right) and members of the cast of Legends of Tomorrow.

There is no question that DC is doubling down on its efforts to compete with Marvel's multi-platform media juggernaut – and with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice coming in March, and Suicide Squad and Justice League in the wings, that fight is about to come to the big screen with a vengeance. So far, however, its small screen offerings have been lighter and less compelling than Marvel's recent, more creative, successes – most notably, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Agent Carter. With the premiere of Legends of Tomorrow on The CW last month, DC now has four primetime shows on the air. Legends of Tomorrow joins Arrow (now in its fourth season) and The Flash (currently in its second) on The CW, while Supergirl premiered on CBS in the fall. Latecomer though it is, Legends just may be the best of its lot to date – it certainly is the most fun.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Live Action Short Film

A scene from Basil Khalil's Oscar-nominated short film Ava Maria

With two and a half weeks to go, there’s still plenty of time to develop some opinions on the Oscar nominated films. Although not slated for pay-per-view distribution until the 23rd of February, the Oscar nominated short films are still screening in select movie theatres. This week, I’m tackling the five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, ranking them from weakest to strongest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Road Tested: Tedeschi Trucks Band's Let Me Get By

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi) on Austin City Limits, December, 2015. (Photo: Scott Newton)

Last year, when the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead called it a day and retired from the road, many fans of the so-called Jam Band experience probably wondered if their favourite free-form rock bands had a successor. I believe that successor is the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Formed in 2010 by Derek Trucks (formerly of the Allman Bros.) and seasoned Blues musician Susan Tedeschi, the 12-piece band took up the challenge and the demanding road schedule in earnest. Trucks and Tedeschi are married, so the decision to start their own band meant, as working musicians, they could tour together. Let Me Get By (Fantasy) is the TTB’s third studio release in five years and it’s easily one of the best albums in the band’s short history – and one of the best records in the first half of 2016. The CD is a “road tested” collection of songs with rich arrangements and a solid mix of blues, rock and soul music, making it a robust and powerful album.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Hunter’s Dream: From Software’s Bloodborne

I reviewed From Software’s famously difficult Dark Souls four years after its 2011 release date, and was similarly late in getting to its spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released in March of last year. The gaming community was absolutely smitten with this dark and evil-looking follow-up to one of the hardest titles of all time – which struck me as odd. Dark Souls was a somewhat niche experience, suited only to those with extreme patience and perseverance, so why did everyone love Bloodborne? Was it that much easier than its predecessor, allowing a broader audience past its lower barrier of entry? That didn’t bode well at all. I don’t play From Software’s games to have my hand held: I play them to be tested, as a player and as a person, and to emerge from their fiery crucible a stronger and more accomplished gamer. If Bloodborne wasn’t offering that kind of challenge, I couldn’t see why anyone – especially a Souls fan – would give it the time of day.

Then, I played it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Winter’s Tale: Branagh and Dench

Judi Dench as Paulina and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes in The Winter's Tale at the Garrick. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Kenneth Branagh’s new theatre company opened its inaugural season at the Garrick in the West End with productions of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade (double-billed with his one-woman piece All on Her Own with Zoë Wanamaker) and The Winter’s Tale. Luckily those of us who didn’t happen to be in the neighborhood were able to see the latter in HD. It stars Branagh himself and the great, unstoppable Judi Dench. They give luminous performances as King Leontes of Sicilia, whose fit of jealousy plunges his kingdom into darkness, and his wife’s gentlewoman Paulina, the only member of the court unafraid to stand up to him when he accuses his Queen Hermione (Miranda Raison) of adultery and treason and proclaims the baby she births in prison the bastard son of his childhood friend Polixenes (Hadley Fraser).

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Trumpism: A Dangerous Phenomenon

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies and Chinks."
“He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’…” 
– From Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”

– Elizabeth Drew, "The New Politics of Frustration," The New York Review of Books, 01/14/16.

It is tempting to compare the Presidential campaign of the pitchfork-populist billionaire Donald Trump with that of Lewis’ Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic Senator who is elected to the presidency in Sinclair Lewis' It Can’t Happen Here. Parts of this 1935 dystopian novel, in which women and minorities – those “who are racially different from us” – are stripped of their rights, dissent is outlawed, and a paramilitary force and concentration camps are established, may initially appear implausible, but it would be a mistake to dismiss any comparisons as ludicrous or farfetched. A large portion of the novel documents how liberties are stripped away and a draconian dictatorship ensues, but I think the most relevant chapters are the early ones that explore Windrip’s appeal before he was elected President and implemented his totalitarian system.