Saturday, July 23, 2016

Sophomore Slump: Checking In on UnREAL

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in UnREAL.

At the end of last summer I wrote about three promising new seriesUnREAL, Mr. Robot, and Deutschland 83 – that appeared on television screens over the summer of 2015. One year later, the travails of the first two (Deutschland’s future is uncertain, but a follow-up series probably won’t appear for some time, if at all) offer some insights into how shows can struggle to build on the success of a good first season.

UnREAL, in particular, has caused me to think about a recent suggestion by New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik that “shows get backlash in [Season 2] for flaws that were there in [Season 1] but de-emphasized” because of the thrill felt by critics and audiences alike when they encounter a new show with a unique perspective. It’s a bit of a special case, but True Detective serves as a good example: the first season of HBO’s (now possibly defunct ) anthology crime series met with hysterical raves from just about everyone, except for a few dissenters, which included Critics at Large's Phil Dyess-Nugent. However, those dissenters were vindicated with the advent of Season 2, which featured a new cast and had new directors behind the camera. The main constant was creator Nic Pizzolatto, whose overblown, self-important writing had been a major, if largely unnoticed, flaw from the beginning. With the absence of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to make his dialogue work, or director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction, the flaws with Pizzolatto’s show became glaringly apparent.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sing Street: Junior Musical

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street.

Sing Street is the third of the Irish writer-director John Carney’s low-key urban musicals, following Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). Like Once, it’s set in Dublin (Begin Again took place all over New York), but for the first time Carney’s focus is teenage musicians rather than adult ones. The period is the mid-eighties. His hero, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Perlo), is a fifteen-year-old whose parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) shift him to a Christian Brothers free state school as an economic measure when they’re beset with financial woes. The usual rocky transition to a new environment for a sensitive kid trying to find himself is exacerbated by a bully named Barry (Ian Kenny) who singles Conor out for special attention, but Conor eventually figures out how to deal with him, and as it proceeds the movie treats him with unexpected affection. (His father is a brute.) The bigger bully is the headmaster, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), who humiliates Conor when he wears brown shoes rather than the requisite black ones to school and protests that a new pair isn’t in her parents’ budget, and wallops him when he comes to school wearing make-up – part of his new glam-rock look. The band Conor and his friend Eamon (Mark McKenna) start – Conor plays guitar, Eamon (who’s skillful on several instruments) on bass, with three other kids (Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton and Karl Rice) backing them up – winds up as partly a rebellion against Brother Baxter’s tyranny and the deadly atmosphere of Synge Street School. But Sing Street isn’t really about the power of music to stave off the workaday misery of a Dublin existence, like The Commitments. The band, which they dub Sing Street, begins as a romantic gesture. Conor is entranced by a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who has quit school with the hope of pursuing a modeling career in London and hangs out in the meantime outside a home for girls across from Synge Street – her digs since her dad is dead and her bipolar mother is in and out of psychiatric institutions. To get Raphina’s attention, Conor claims to be in a band and invites her to appear in their videos. Then he has to get an actual band together and shoot an actual video, which neither he nor Eamon knows the first thing about. The loose, seat-of-their-pants approach of the boys – including Conor’s first new friend at the school, nervy Darren (Ben Carolan), who declares himself their manager – is part of the movie’s charm.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Tale of Two Hannibals: Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter

William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (1986).

Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist who moonlights as a cannibal (or is it the other way around?), has been a household name since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. In Jonathan Demme’s thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris, Sir Anthony Hopkins ushered the good doctor into the cultural milieu opposite Jodie Foster’s FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Eleven years later, Hopkins reprised the role in 2002’s prequel, Red Dragon, which explored the relationship between Dr. Lecter and his first FBI pet, the fatally empathetic FBI profiler Will Graham (Ed Norton). While the film received mixed reviews, the unique relationship between Graham and Lecter captivated audiences, paving the way for another adaptation in yet another eleven years. In 2013, Mads Mikkelsen brought the character to the small screen in Brian Fuller’s critically acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Co-starring Hugh Dancy as the newest and shiniest Will Graham, the series finally explored the largely untouched inception of Graham’s friendship with Lecter, culminating three seasons later in a rehashing of Red Dragon’s hunt for serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (Richard Armitage).

Bookended by two other middle-of-the-road titles (namely, 2007’s origin story Hannibal Rising and, at the opposite end of the storyline, 2001’s Hannibal) cinema’s favourite cannibal has had a rich and lengthy on-screen life. But did you know (and I’m looking at you, Millennials) that The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t Hannibal’s big screen debut? And, furthermore, that Red Dragon isn’t the first time a director has tried to tackle the symbiotic relationship between Graham and Hannibal that the TV series ultimately popularized? I didn’t. So imagine my surprise when my monthly trip to Toronto’s Royal Cinema to catch the latest neo-noir film selected by the Neon Dreams Cinema Club exposed me to Michael Mann’s Manhunter – a film I’ve somehow managed to avoid despite my deep adoration for Doctor Lecter’s corpus.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Stranger Things Are Happening on Netflix

(From left) Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in Netflix's Stranger Things.

Here’s something you probably already know: the thing about nostalgia is that it wears off pretty quick. All the recent properties – hell, nearly all properties, recently – that aim for relevance and goodwill by direct association to the things you recognize and love from years past are usually flashes in the proverbial pan. Nostalgia for the stories you loved as a child, or for your childhood itself, has no real lasting value. It offers neither satisfying catharsis nor a profound dramatic payload. It’s simply a warm fuzzy feeling in the moment, and the movies and books and games and comics and music that weaponize it in the service of their own interests are often emotionally empty at best, and deeply upsetting at worst.

So then, I ask myself, what’s nostalgia’s place in pop culture? It would be wrong to dismiss it entirely. It’s a great feeling, however fleeting, and it’s the business of entertainment to make us feel things. How can nostalgia be employed tactfully and tastefully, and to what end? I’ve thought on this long and hard, and to me, the ideal scenario is one in which nostalgia is simply a doorman – a smiling friend who greets us warmly, and waves us through the gateway of the screen into something new and wonderful… into something like Stranger Things.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #44 (Podcast): Bharati Mukherjee (1985)

Author Bharati Mukherjee in 2011. (Photo: Jennifer Roberts)

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, Neil Bissoondath, and Ariel Dorfman) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned. 

In 1985, one of those interviewed was author Bharati Mukherjee. Already the author of two novels and a memoir (with partner Clark Blaise), her first collection of short stories, Darkness, had just been published. Born in Kolkata and educated in India and the U.S., Mukherjee had lived in Montreal and Toronto for over a decade before returning to the United States to accept a university teaching position. To date, she has written eight novels, including Jasmine (1989) and most recently Miss New India (2011). 

In this interview we explore the idea of those sometimes necessary (but painful) trade-offs immigrants have to make in order to become a citizen of another land. The stories collected in Darkness are a living, breathing testament to those conflicts. She tells us, "I'm a comic writer who chases the darkness."

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Bharati Mukherjee as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Comedies: The Chinese Room, How the Other Half Loves, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God

Sue Jean Kim, Brían F. O’Byrne, and Carson Elrod in The Chinese Room. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The Chinese Room by the Irish playwright Michael West, at Williamstown’s Nikos stage, is a sci-fi comedy with serious overtones. Brían F. O’Byrne plays Frank, an inventor of artificial intelligence who discovers that his partner is closing him out of the company they founded together and phasing out some of his creations, “humanoids” like Susannah (Sue Jean Kim), of which Frank keeps the prototype in his house. To preserve the memory that his wife Lily (Laila Robins) is rapidly losing, Frank has transferred it to Susannah. But the combination of Lily’s confusion (she doesn’t remember that she’s at home, and most of the time she doesn’t know who Frank is), the tensions in their marriage that are now being channeled through Susannah’s persona, the bugs in the humanoid model (Susannah keeps faltering and having to be rebooted), and the demands of his little boy, Zack (Elliot Trainor), now exacerbated by his removal from his own company, have turned Frank’s life into chaos. The emissary from Frank’s partner, who arrives to collect the passkey to the system, is a robot known as Daniel (Carson Elrod), and his insistent presence – he’s been programmed not to leave Frank’s house without the item he was sent to retrieve – adds to the mix.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

French Roast: Netflix's A Very Secret Service

Hugo Becker and Mathilde Warnier in A Very Secret Service, currently streaming on Netflix.

Netflix's maturation as a television provider has been meteoric, but the road it's taken has in general been familiar: the same trajectory – albeit under a very different production model – has been travelled by AMC, and HBO before that. But the most exciting features of that journey has been growth in genuinely new directions, largely unexplored by traditional network and cable channels – features that emerge from Netflix's still unique global reach. Even as Hulu and Amazon give Netflix a run for its money in the U.S,, both services remain unavailable beyond American borders where their original shows still find themselves circulating under traditional distribution deals. In Canada, we have seen the recent broadcast premiere of Amazon's Bosch on CTV, and other Hulu and Amazon originals have been licensed to Canadian streaming services like shomi and CraveTV. Netflix, along with Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, has opened a door to a world of international television with already established audiences in the home country – mainly British, but also (among others) Spanish, Italian, French, Scandinavian , South American, Israeli, and a surprising number of South Korean shows – a televisual archive that sometimes spans decades. This newly legal and one-click access to well-subtitled original language productions is certainly unprecedented for North American and global subscribers, but over the past several months, Netflix has been quietly setting the stage for something else entirely: global premieres of new, non-English language series.

Since last summer, Netflix has premiered new, first-run shows from Japan (Hibana), Mexico (Club de Cuervos), and this May, its first French series (Marseilles, a raw but compelling drama starring Gérard Depardieu as an embattled mayor of Marseilles). It has also been securing the worldwide exclusive distribution rights for a number of foreign series, also marketed under its "Netflix Original" brand – on July 1st, the French-language A Very Secret Service, which premiered on ARTE France as Au service de la France last fall, joined the growing list of shows.