Saturday, May 7, 2016

To the Bitter End? Reflections on Quitting TV Shows

Chris Noth and Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife, which will air its final episode tomorrow night on CBS.

How many times have you found yourself struggling to finish a novel, or gritting your teeth through the last quarter of a movie that’s gone from promising to painful over the course of its running time? We've all bailed on something that’s failed to keep our interest, but usually if we’ve invested a certain amount of time and gotten a decent amount of enjoyment out of a particular work, we stick it out to the end in order to be able to assess it in its totality.

However, that way of analyzing the relative costs and benefits of staying with a work until it’s over tends to go out the window with television. I’ve been wrestling with the decision to quit or keep watching a number of shows recently, something which is at least in part a function of this so-called era of Peak TV, in which there’s always something else on that’s more vital and compelling (or so we’re told, at least, by friends and critics alike). True, the knowledge that a show may have entered a death spiral, at least in terms of quality, is usually discouragement enough to keep us from committing to more of it. At the same time, the longer-term, more involved nature of the medium means that we come to grow attached to characters (and perhaps the actors portraying them) more readily than we might in a two-hour movie or play, and are therefore willing to forgive some lapses in quality. Besides, expectations for how TV shows treat plot have changed over the last decade or so: where once we expected them to just carry on until they ended, now we operate, for better or worse, on the assumption that there will be some sort of narrative and/or thematic payoff to longstanding storylines and character dynamics, even if they have grown increasingly strained and implausible by the end. TV’s rise in prestige means that there’s an increasing tendency to want shows to feel artistically complete.

Friday, May 6, 2016

UVPD: Uncanny Valley Police Department – Revisiting L.A. Noire

Detective Cole Phelps in Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire.

This month marks five years since Team Bondi’s one hit wonder, L.A. Noire, was released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles to critical acclaim. Its innovative game design and ground-breaking facial animation technology caused a stir in its heyday, earning the game an astonishing “perfect” rating from UK’s The Guardian and a score of 89/100 from Metacritic. While L.A. Noire undeniably set a new standard for certain areas of video game development, its use of Depth Analysis’ MotionScan technology to capture and recreate realistic facial expressions seemed to cause a baffling rash of critical blindness in 2011. L.A. Noire was a nifty game. But perfect? Definitely not.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Distilled Cinema: Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!

Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Temple Baker in Everybody Wants Some!!.

I’ll concede that filmmaker Richard Linklater didn’t need to follow up his audacious and experimental 2014 film Boyhood with something equally ambitious. He could be forgiven for taking an artistic break, after that 12-year-plus ongoing project, and making something lighter and less taxing. But I cannot for the life of me conceive what he was thinking by proffering Everybody Wants Some!!, a lifeless, pointless and utterly unoriginal concoction that will, no doubt, soon be completely forgotten by anyone but his most diehard fans.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Character Study: Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.

In 1989, Miles Davis published his autobiography with co-writer Quincy Troupe. It’s an invigorating read as Davis talks about his life in music and why he chose a career in jazz, “The greatest feeling I ever had in my life, with my clothes on, was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, MI, back in 1944.” Davis was referring to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker the seminal progenitors of be-bop, a highly inventive and stylized extension of jazz music.

While he cites that moment as a turning point in his artistic career, Davis also opens up about a dark period in his life from 1975 to 1980. This chapter is particularly important because Miles completely lost that precious moment he experienced in 1944 and turned to alcohol, sex and drugs. He put down his horn, closed himself off from the world and bottomed out: “I became a hermit, hardly ever going outside. My only connection with the outside world was mostly through watching television, which was on around the clock … the house was filthy and real dark and gloomy.” He goes on to say “sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.” Davis’ drug of choice at the time was high quality cocaine. He writes, “after a while, all of this got routine and boring, but only after I had had my fill of it.” Which leads us to the center of Don Cheadle's first directorial effort, Miles Ahead.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

New Jack Kitty: Key & Peele’s Keanu

Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Keanu (right) in Keanu. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Films based on sketch comedy groups – from Monty Python & The Holy Grail to Wayne’s World – often use an episodic style where the story is really just a placeholder that allows gags to happen. Although this is appropriate considering the rapid-fire sketch DNA they share, and makes for the kind of light, low-risk entertainment that is often satisfying enough on its own, deep down it has always disappointed me. I like stories, especially funny ones. I like my funny stories to be well-told, and to have characters that grow and change and teach me things, just like characters in a drama or an adventure movie would. I would count Monty Python & The Holy Grail among my favourite comedies of all time, but even as the Pythons deliberately eviscerated the typical formula (including a narrator, for example, but having him hacked to death by a knight on horseback, and interrupting the climactic battle scene with modern-day bobbies who take our heroes into custody), I craved a real resolution to Arthur’s quest. Surrealist British genre subversion aside, I don’t ever see any real reason that comedies can’t be as smart and as interesting as any other kind of movie.

That’s why Keanu, written and produced by sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long, long time: it manages to tell a compelling story with actual characters that is also gut-bustingly hilarious.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Anything Goes: Cole Porter at the Goodspeed

Desirée Davar (as Erma), and members of the Goodspeed cast, in Anything Goes. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

East Haddam, Connecticut’s fabled Goodspeed Opera House initiates its 2016 season with Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s breezy 1934 musical set aboard a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic. And though the Goodspeed voyage, under Daniel Goldstein’s direction, isn’t without its obstacles, overall it’s a pleasurable one. The libretto to Anything Goes was originally written by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, though Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse revised it before the Broadway premiere, and over the years it’s been re-revised continually: every time it’s newly mounted in New York it’s tinkered with and the song list altered to add or substitute Porter jewels from other shows. Since the 1962 production (with Eileen Rodgers and Hal Linden), the 1987 production (with Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin) and Kathleen Marshall’s ebullient, deluxe 2011 production (with Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell) have all been recorded, Porter aficionados can check them against each other and evaluate the addenda and omissions. In terms of the libretto, there are three versions – the 1934, the 1962 (by Bolton himself) and the 1987 by Crouse’s son Timothy and John Weidman, which Kathleen Marshall hewed to and which Goodspeed has chosen to produce as well. (If you want to know what the show sounded like in 1934, get a copy of the 1989 EMI studio recording overseen by John McGlinn, who conducts the London Symphony Orchestra behind a disparate ensemble including opera diva Frederica Von Stade and the peerless Jack Gilford.)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #43 (Podcast): Ariel Dorfman (1983)

Author Ariel Dorfman.

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.

In 1984, Paul Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson, a poignant comedy about exile and homesickness, which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York City. The movie ostensibly deals with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. His actions trigger a mixture of homesickness, sadness, and the longings for a sense of place that come when (for political and ethical reasons) you are forced to leave home. With those themes in mind, I devised a chapter called Exiles and Existence where a number of artists (including authors Jerzy Kosinski, Josef Škvorecký, and Neil Bissoondath) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned. 

In 1983, one of those interviewed was Chilean-America author, academic, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman. Now more widely known for his 1991 play Death and the Maiden, at the time I sat down with Dorfman his recent book Widows had just been published in English by Pantheon Books. It was his first novel to be translated into English.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Ariel Dorfman as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.