Saturday, June 4, 2016

Total Depravity: AMC’s Preacher

Dominic Cooper stars in Preacher, on AMC. (Photo: Lewis Jacobs)

The rise of nerd culture to a dominant position over the last decade or so has been enough to give one an inkling of what it must have been like to watch the final triumph of early Christianity over pagan Rome. A small movement with a keen sense of its own oppression has ascended to dominance, turning its beliefs and enthusiasms, once considered odd and marginal, into the norm. Whereas expressing an interest in things like comic books and science fiction would once have been an invitation for ridicule and even bullying, such things are now firmly in the mainstream. Indeed, nerd culture has managed to become so dominant that some of its fans have begun to act in the same manner as their former oppressors. For instance, film critics (especially female ones) who dare to criticize an entry in the endless parade of superhero movies often find themselves facing vicious criticism, even personal threats.

A more benign manifestation of nerd-dom’s newfound power appears in the recent wave of television adaptations of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic-book franchises, including hits such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. AMC’s new drama Preacher, which is based on a comic series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, aims to tap into the audience for those shows. It even comes complete with an aftershow, Talking Preacher, that’s dedicated to discussing the latest episode and is hosted by Chris Hardwick, whom one can always count upon to be uncritically enthusiastic about anything nerd-related. I mention all of this because, since I saw the pilot, I’ve been trying to account for the mostly positive critical response to a show that’s alternately too glib and self-important, too frantic and slow-moving, in its first episode.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Grating Expectations: ABC's The Family

Rupert Graves, Liam James, and Joan Allen in The Family on ABC.

You can usually tell when a movie is bad in about the first half-hour. But how can you be sure when a television series has suddenly turned turtle? I lasted only a few episodes into the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, the spin-off to AMC's The Walking Dead, which depicted the zombie apocalypse beginning to grip LA. It seems the writers and producers wanted us to believe that there was no news media (or social media) even covering it. As we witness the carnage and mayhem of flesh-eaters pawing for their next victim, nobody once turned on a radio, a television set, or even checked their Twitter (or Facebook) feed to find out what's going on. I decided then that the writers didn't know what was going on either and I bailed. Yet no one seemed to care if the world of Fear the Walking Dead appeared fake. It went on to become a huge hit that's just finished its second season. The lack of a believable society with coherent character development didn't seem to matter to viewers or critics – as long as we could sit happily in dread waiting out the suspense for the next bit of chomping. A terrible movie can be shaken most times minutes after you leave the theatre. But a bad television show can linger for weeks because you probably invested far more time hoping for the best. Perhaps that's why viewers often bring such lowered expectations to television. It lessens the blow if things go bad. As Bob Dylan once said, "If you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Movies generally have about two hours to make their case, but a TV show has to create a narrative that holds you for weeks. To do that, a series needs to build momentum in the plotting to keep the viewer in a state of continuous anticipation. The narrative therefore doesn't grow out of the characters' motivations – it's more often the other way around. And it can come at the expense of dramatic credibility. Unlike many other viewers, I just couldn't believe the premise of Breaking Bad, where an unassuming high school chemistry teacher with the luck of Job finds out that life can be much worse when he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The show's solution of turning him into a meth dealer out of financial desperation seemed too self-consciously imposed on the character. To me, it did nothing more than create a running motor for a downward spiraling vortex where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) gets pulled into a life of criminality for the sake of the family (rather than convincingly demonstrating why this was his only option). In Dexter, the moralism got even thicker. The program's creators turn their detective serial killer into someone who kills only those who are worse than him so that viewers can be spared being implicated in the darkness of his psychopathy. What makes something like The Americans such a compelling series drama is that in finding a precarious balance between character drama and plot momentum (a gift that The Sopranos also shared) they came to challenge and complicate our notions of right and wrong rather than boiling things down to 'the dark side of human nature.'

But if Breaking Bad and Dexter still got by in the compelling confines of their suspense plots, ABC's The Family devises new ways of falling to pieces in just telling a story. After missing for a decade, the young son of a mayor in Maine, Claire Warren (Joan Allen), returns home. Adam Warren (Liam James) is initially greeted with joy and relief by the clan who assumed he'd been kidnapped and murdered by a local pedophile (Andrew McCarthy). In the days after his return, however, suspicions arise about his true identity and whether forces of betrayal and corruption have placed an impostor in the family home conveniently at the moment when Claire is about to run for governor. Before the idiocies in the plot turn The Family into inadvertent camp, the notion of having a child return to his home after being presumed dead for years was novel. Often we get stories of how families cope with their enduring loss, but seldom on what the effects might be if their wishes came true and they ultimately come home. The one interesting dramatic idea gets torpedoed by a series of melodramatic plot twists that defy belief.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Cracked: Christoph Marthaler’s Une île flottante at Montreal's FTA

Christoph Marthaler’s Une île flottante opened Montreal's Festival TransAmériques on May 26. (Photo: Simon Hallström)

There’s a moment in Christoph Marthaler’s absurdist bilingual play, Une île flottante, when you wonder what came first, the chicken or the egg? The question is relevant as a way of understanding the power behind a comedic tour de force whose German title, Das Weiss vom Ei, translates as egg white, the food that binds other ingredients together. But before exploring that conundrum, let’s first establish that there are no chickens in the two-hour-plus play, presented with surtitles, that opened the ongoing avant-garde Festival TransAmériques in Montreal last Thursday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing Verse for the Universe: Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger

Paul Simon new album, Stranger to Stranger, will be released on Friday, June 3rd. (Photo: Myrna Suarez) 

Whenever I read about the music of Paul Simon I rarely see the word “innovator," but if the word could be used to describe someone with a good pair of ears and a street-wise sense of rhythm, Simon would definitely fit the description. His catalogue is full of “innovative works” – from the Gospel feel of There Goes Rhymin Simon (1973), the African-flavoured Graceland (1986),  to the electronically embellished Surprise (2006) – which prove that Paul Simon is a composer whose sense of innovation, if not subtle, is carefully articulated. But his songs have such wide-ranging appeal even the most astute listener can forget that Simon brings an adventurous sense to all of his music by constantly changing the so-called “Paul Simon Songbook” formula he established in the sixties. Over the years he’s become a builder of songs by establishing a beat or rhythm, writing the all-important first line and telling a story. His new record is no exception. Stranger To Stranger, (Concord) which is Simon’s 13th solo recording, is another fresh and inventive album of songs that mashup metallic percussion with backward tapes, sotto voce narratives and cosmic sounds from another world all laced with his whimsical sense of humour.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Inexcusable – X-Men: Apocalypse

Jennifer Lawrence (in blue) and Oscar Isaac (in gray) in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Batman v Superman made me angry . It was an affront to my sensibilities, both as a nerd who cares about how comic book characters are portrayed, and as a conscious human being who paid real, hard-earned money for my ticket. X-Men Apocalypse, the newest entry in Bryan Singer’s comic book saga, isn’t the kind of bad superhero movie that makes you angry. It’s mostly just the kind that makes you sleepy. Consider it like free time: if you have any plans to make, or philosophical ruminations you’d like to ponder, or quiet meditation to catch up on, or any particularly interesting games to play on your phone, then your screening of X-Men Apocalypse can function as a twelve-dollar relaxation getaway (albeit with a few violent CGI explosions). I think thanks are due Bryan Singer, for giving us all a safe space in which to ignore his crappy movie, and focus on the things that really matter, like what you want to have for dinner that night. Thanks, Bryan!

I gave Singer’s last X-Men film, Days of Future Past, a glowing review. I haven’t seen it since, so perhaps the bloom will have fallen off the rose by now, but I genuinely liked the film at the time, and made a point of referencing the intelligence of its storytelling and how it treated both its source material and its audience with respect. It’s kind of amazing that in two years the situation has totally flipped with this new sequel: Singer has abandoned everything that made his franchise interesting or unique, and I’ve abandoned the franchise as a result. I’m done with this X-Men crap; I’m out. If it’s all going to be the same stuff – the same character relationships that never evolve, the same mutants using the same powers, the same tired origin story beats we’ve seen a million times before – regurgitated with less passion and engagement each time, then there’s nothing these X-Men movies have to offer anymore. I came away from Apocalpyse feeling baffled: it’s boring, bloated, familiar, and pointless.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Three Musicals: My Paris, Anastasia, Presto Change-O

Mara Davi and Bobby Steggert in My Paris, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The music in My Paris is breezy but it gives off the unmistakable whiff of melancholy and regret. It’s on the cusp of light jazz, honky-tonk and folk; it’s reminiscent of the sort of thing Django Reinhardt used to play in Paris in the twenties and thirties, but most of the time it sounds like the music chanteurs like Charles Aznavour and Charles Trenet are famous for. That’s no surprise, since Aznavour himself wrote the score, and even though Jason Robert Brown’s translations saddle it with banalities, sometimes of the self-help brand (one second-act number is called “You Do It for You”), the music is a good enough reason to check out this new musical about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. (It was workshopped at the Goodspeed Opera House last summer.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Human Cost of Policing and Security in the Novels of Robert Wilson

Novelist Robert Wilson. (Photo: Gabriel Pecot)

“He felt empty and immensely distressed. Police work did this to him. When it was all over, there was nothing left but disappointment. Mystery gone, quest terminated. All that was left was an overwhelming sense of loss and pointlessness.”
Robert Wilson, The Ignorance of Blood, 2009.
“You can’t kill someone, even if it is in the heat of the battle and remain the same. Once you’ve felt that kind of savagery and done that kind of damage to a fellow human you can never re-enter the world of men. You are always going to be separate, an outsider. Some can live with it, others can’t.”
Robert Wilson, You Will Never Find Me, 2015. 
I suspect that most readers of Critics at Large are not familiar with the British novelist, Robert Wilson. My goal in this review is to change that condition by sharing my own excitement for this unique voice. Wilson occupies a space somewhere between writing police procedurals and thrillers. In his early novels written in the first person, he sounds a little like Raymond Chandler but as he progresses, the best work of Alan Furst comes to mind. Whether his novels are set in West Africa (the Bruce Medway quartet), in Portugal (where he lived for a time), in Seville Spain, or in London UK, Wilson writes with authority, offering both shrewd political and social commentary and astute psychological insights. Moreover, he writes well spicing his narratives with lovely images that regularly invite a re-read.