Saturday, April 23, 2016

Able Archer: How Comedies Mature (or, at least, Age Gracefully)

The seventh season of FX's Archer premiered on March 31st.

I’ve spent approximately 30 hours of my life watching a goofy cartoon about a super-spy’s ridiculous adventures. That might seem like a waste, were it not for the fact that, as it progresses through its seventh season, the FX comedy Archer remains one of the funniest things on TV. In its most recent seasons, that’s been a function of its willingness to significantly tweak – I won’t say reinvent, because it remains fundamentally the same show – its basic formula to stay fresh. It’s a reminder of how even shows that are light, trifling entertainment (and it’s no disparagement to Archer to call it that) can find ways to develop and even, in their way, grow.

As Mark Clamen’s 2012 review of the show for this site indicates, Archer isn’t exactly highbrow. It’s frequently violent and crude (albeit loaded with surprisingly intelligent references, a trademark of creator Adam Reed’s work). While it functions as a satire of the James Bond franchise and all of the hyper-masculine trappings that go with it, it’s still often gleefully immature and politically incorrect. It’s also a great showcase for the voice-acting talents of a number of underappreciated actors, including H. Jon Benjamin in the title role of secret agent Sterling Archer, Aisha Tyler as his long-suffering girlfriend Lana, and Jessica Walter as his mother (she’s essentially reprising her role from Arrested Development here, but she does it so well that it doesn’t matter). Perhaps the best example of how Reed understands how to utilize his talent is his use of Judy Greer, who’s so well-known for playing second bananas that she’s gamely made fun of herself for it. In Archer, she gets a chance to shed that bland persona, playing the deeply demented Cheryl (or Carol, or any of a variety of other names), a role that provides some of the strangest, and occasionally most disturbing, jokes on the show.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Time's Marrow: Anthony Hamilton's What I'm Feelin'

Anthony Hamilton newest album is What I'm Feelin'. (Photo: LaVan Anderson)

We are pleased to welcome Dylan Hicks as a guest contributor to Critics at Large.

Late last year, R&B singer Anthony Hamilton enjoyed some internet attention for gospel, doo wop, and other old-school rejiggerings of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” and 2 Chainz’s “Watch Out.” The videos, showing Hamilton performing either with his road band or a cappella with his background singers, the HamilTones, were as much settings as covers, or at least the lyrics were often loosed altogether from their original musical contexts. Links were no doubt prodded in part by the comedy of anachronism, and as such the interpretations were related to novelty groups like Big Daddy, who in the eighties and nineties covered then-current hits in fifties styles. But Hamilton's spirit was of continuity rather than incongruity, with his message being that music, particularly in the hands of virtuoso vocalists, is endlessly malleable because – in some essential, time-blurring way – it’s all the same stuff. A similar spirit pervades Hamilton’s albums, including the just-released What I’m Feelin’ (RCA Records). His music is frequently referential but not retrogressive, steeped in the past but not wistful for it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Alien Conspiracy: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Season Two

Ellie Kemper in Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Dear Reader,

By the time you are reading this, I will have finished the recently released second season of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I may also have won the lottery, or gotten dressed perhaps even both. Whatever the case, it’s important to note that, at the time of my writing, I have only seen ten out of this season’s thirteen episodes that follow on the success of the 2015 Netflix exclusive series written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (30 Rock, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot). At this juncture, season two’s stage appears to be set and its various storylines are careening toward a conclusion. While I’m open to the unlikely possibility that the next three episodes could upend everything I thought I knew about Kimmy Schmidt, the recurring themes evident in this season have led me to a bold and all-encompassing conclusion: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, at its core, is a story about aliens.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Blended Sound: Lola by Carrie Rodriguez

Carrie Rodriguez's new album, Lola, was released by Luz Records in February.

If it’s right to judge a book by its cover, then perhaps it’s right to judge an album by the musicians who play on it. That’s probably an unfair assessment but I think Carrie Rodriguez can make a case for her new album, Lola (Luz Records). Her new record features a band called The Sacred Hearts – featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, Viktor Kraus on bass, Brannen Temple on drums, David Pulkingham on nylon string and electric guitars, and Luke Jacobs on lap & pedal steel guitars. Raul Malo, the leader of The Mavericks, sings a lovely duet with Rodriguez on track one, and Max Baca, founder of the Grammy Award-winning band called, Los Texmaniacs, plays on the last two cuts. It’s a group that has a fully informed country sound, with enough Mexican influence to make it special. The record was recorded in Austin, Texas, and it sounds like they left the door to the studio open to get that mystical part of the world into the room.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Ascent of Man-Cub: Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.

I don’t understand Hollywood’s obsession with realism. I mean, I understand it mechanically – as our capacity to create more detailed visual effects grows with technology, so does our desire to push the envelope and chase that ethereal “photo-realistic” carrot – but realism in film is so often employed with little regard for the tone, style, or intent of a particular story. The examples are far too numerous to name, but it’s everywhere if you pay attention. (This obsession is shared by the gaming industry, too, whose foamy-mouthed quest for ever more ridiculously detailed visuals has been leaving smart and satisfying game design in the dust for decades.) Jon Favreau’s mega-budget amalgamation of Disney’s 1967 animated Jungle Book feature and the original writings of Rudyard Kipling was immediately off-putting for this reason: this is a fairy tale, heavy on whimsy and light on subtext, about a boy raised by wolves who is mentored by a panther and sings with a bear. Why did it need to look so realistic? Why did we need another version of this story with Avatar-esque visual fidelity and what seems like a tenth of the style or charm? You painstakingly animate an incredibly convincing CGI jungle cat and then manipulate his mouth to match Ben Kingsley’s voice work and, instead of being wowed by the verisimilitude, my brain plummets straight into the uncanny valley. Did we learn nothing from Babe?

I suppose all the more kudos are due to Favreau and his band of intrepid visual effects artists, because his Jungle Book – while never shrugging off the weird tonal clash between the realism of the visuals and the whimsy of the story – is engrossing, charming, and utterly gorgeous. I frequently forgot that I was looking at a young actor (Neel Sethi) clambering around on a green-screen sound stage; the computer-generated flora and the fauna that occupy it are that instantly convincing, and Sethi, who plays Mowgli with perfectly charismatic precociousness, plays off his CGI counterparts with natural ease. The Jungle Book, more than any film I’ve ever seen (yes, including Avatar), deserves to be seen in 3D – Favreau uses it far more to add depth to the frame and fill his environments with detail and life than to indulge in gimmicks and have things poke through the fourth wall at you. The illusion, as tenuous as it might seem from the outside, is rarely shattered while you’re in the theatre. It’s a remarkable achievement in technical effects.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Arnold Wesker (1932-2016)

Playwright Arnold Wesker (1932-2016) at the Durham Book Festival in 2008. (Photo: Simon James)

The angry young man movement, which attacked England’s obstinacy about holding onto its vision of itself as an empire after the Second World War and quarreled with the bourgeois gentility of the mid-century English drama, detonated the British theatre in the mid-1950s. But except for John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer are still performed as Tony Richardson’s film versions continue to represent the exciting early years of the English New Wave, the playwrights who came out of that movement have mostly been forgotten. One of them, Arnold Wesker, died last week at the age of eighty-three. His output included fifty plays as well as fiction, poetry, essays and memoirs, but only in the first five years of his theatrical career did he write plays – five of them – that made both critics and audiences sit up and take notice – though unlike Osborne’s plays or Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, they never developed lives beyond English shores. They were The Kitchen (1957), which the National Theatre revived in 2011, Chips with Everything (1962), and – book-ended by these two – the plays known as “the Wesker trilogy,” Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959) and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960).

The trilogy – in particular the first and third plays – is about the golden promise of socialism and how its true believers handle the fallout when, inevitably, it smashes up against the realities of the world. Political idealism is a great subject, yet only a handful of playwrights have chosen to dramatize it since Sophocles in Antigone. Clifford Odets took up the challenge in Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost, both written in 1935, and John Guare in his Lydie Breeze plays in 1982, and more recently it’s provided one of the themes for Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays (which were written to coincide with significant American political moments) and Temple by the talented young English playwright Steve Waters. The Wesker trilogy is a kind of British equivalent to the Odets plays, and just as Odets found his home with the Group Theatre, the Wesker plays were produced at the Royal Court, the heart and soul of the angry young man movement.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Frank Oz (1986)

Audrey II and Rick Moranis in a scene from Frank Oz's Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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 1986, one of those interviews was with director Franz Oz, who was in Toronto promoting his musical comedy Little Shop Of Horrors, a film featuring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and a 15-foot-tall talking plant. At the time, he would have been better known for his work with Jim Henson, voicing Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal on The Muppet Show and Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert on Sesame Street. Little Shop of Horrors was Oz's first feature film that didn't involve Henson.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Frank Oz as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.