Saturday, October 1, 2016

Grieving and Laughing: Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi

Given its subject matter, it seems inevitable that Tig Notaro’s new show on Amazon, One Mississippi, would at one point feature a montage scored by a song from Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 masterpiece Carrie & Lowell. Stevens’ album is a beautiful, if oftentimes bleak, reflection on his difficult relationship with his late mother Carrie, as well as his loving and supportive sometime stepfather. Like Stevens’ album, Notaro’s new show depicts a process of grieving a recently deceased mother and coming to grips with the long-term effects of her successes and failures as a parent. However, One Mississippi isn’t always quite as tonally adept in its depiction of this process, and it veers from some profoundly affecting highs to the occasional bizarre, confusing low.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Escape Artist: Paul Rudd and The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring on Netflix.

With his compact frame, large head, and pliable facial features, Paul Rudd has endeared himself almost to every audience since his priceless work in Clueless (1994) and before. Even in pictures that fail to live up to their reputation, he finds a way to rise above. In the Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007), which pushes an interesting idea too far, Rudd steals the show with his portrayal of Seth Rogan's brother-in-law to be. Now he's heading into movie star territory, after his pitch-perfect performance in the under-appreciated Ant-Man from last year. While Rudd's range has yet to be tested, his relaxation, timing, and emotional intelligence make him irrepressible.

In the Netflix movie The Fundamentals of Caring (from earlier this year), Rudd escapes disaster yet again—barely. Rob Burnett's adaptation of the Jonathan Evison novel is a heaping dose of corn served on a platter of schmaltz. As Ben Benjamin, a caregiver to a young man with muscular dystrophy, Rudd is the only thing in the picture that holds your interest. And he alone among the actors emerges unscathed. That he does save his neck is a wonder, given the film's near-shameless sentimentality. We meet Benjamin at the movie's outset as he finishes a social work course and lands an interview with Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), the mother of the aforementioned boy. Trevor (Craig Roberts), her teenage son, is wheelchair-bound and in need of a daytime provider while his mom's at work. Despite Elsa's anal-retentive qualities and Trevor's scare tactics, Ben successfully pleads for the job—he's an unemployed writer who's wife's filing for divorce after a two-year separation.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elevator to Nowhere: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.

It seems to me that the cute SF conceit of a social experiment gone wrong, the “ship in a bottle utopia,” is so overdone – in literature, in film, in gaming – that there simply can’t be anything more to be said with the concept. It was surely a novel idea in 1975, when J.G. Ballard’s book High-Rise took the dystopian threads of Orwell and Huxley and wove a modern genesis for those scenarios, a ground zero for the horrific futures to come. But by the time filmmaker Ben Wheatley was able to scrape together a film adaptation of the novel in 2016, the concept had become so passé as to feel empty and trite. Wheatley’s film is beautifully hypnotic and strange, but can’t escape a feeling of hollow meaninglessness – which is a shame, considering how otherwise adept the movie is.

High-Rise stars an impeccably cast Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, who is among the first to move into a futuristic apartment complex (well, futuristic for the late 1970s setting, anyway) that provides all sorts of luxury amenities and services like an in-house supermarket, swimming pools, gyms, a bank, a hair salon, and more. These cutting-edge features attract hundreds of affluent tenants who slowly become disinterested in the outside world thanks to their building meeting every possible need they could imagine. Of course, all it takes are some intermittent power outages and a rapidly-evolving social hierarchy that equates elevation with status – the higher up your apartment is, the more important you are – to shake the foundation of this happy little enclosed society, until it all tumbles down around them, literally and figuratively. If it sounds like you’ve heard this sort of story before, that’s because no matter what you’re interested in, you surely have – which is in large part the issue with High-Rise. It has almost nothing new or interesting to say. There’s precious little to chew on here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Excavations: Harding Meyer's Archaeology of the Face

Untitled (08-2015) by Harding Meyer. (Oil on Canvas, 89 x 109 cm, 2015)

"I’ve never stopped questioning the very nature of portraiture because it deals exclusively with appearances. I’ve never believed people are what they look like and I think it’s impossible to really know what people are.”
Duane Michaels
Art that stares back at you. How often does that happen? Well, two of the greatest portraits in history, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Warhol’s Marilyn, have been staring at us for five hundred and eleven years and fifty-four years respectively, though each in drastically different ways was able to capture the essence of a woman’s face, as well as the potential meanings hidden behind that face. And now Harding Meyer’s latest mysterious portraits on linen (collected under the title Archaeology of the Face at Toronto's Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery last fall) invite us to once again revisit the facial theatre and view the human masks we all wear in a new and fresh manner. Perhaps an ideal example of his accomplishment might be Untitled (#8-2015), which at almost 6-by-8 feet in scale seems to present us with a face that almost approaches the dimensions of a whole body. A face nearly the size of the body that usually supports it is an intriguing proposition, one that invites a unique kind of aesthetic contemplation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Crime and Punishment: In Conversation with Alison Armstrong

Alison J. Armstrong is a Canadian documentary filmmaker whose most recent work, The Guy With The Knife, rips open a 35-year old Texas murder case, an alleged gay bashing gone wrong, to expose a flawed justice system and an unlikely friendship involving the 17-year old accused of the crime and the seasoned con man whose manipulation of the media secured the teen's harsh 45-year prison sentence. A masterstroke of investigative filmmaking, her riveting film also presents a real-life story of redemption, forgiveness and vindictiveness filmed over eight years. The complexity of the characters, the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, and the close examination of crime and punishment puts the film in league with Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky whose own work is shaped by a fascination for the paradoxical relationship between good and evil. Guided by a search for truth, it is a remarkable achievement. The Guy With The Knife screened recently at the Toronto Independent Film Festival before a sold-out crowd with Armstrong, a CBC freelance radio producer, in attendance. The film is screening tonight at a special event in Houston, and, at the end of October, it will be screened in Berlin. Curiosity about the film has been building since its debut last year in Texas, where all the events, past and present, unfold and the majority of protagonists still live. Armstrong's startling revelation that Jon Buice, the accused in question, may himself have been a victim, locked away for decades on the basis of mass hysteria and falsified evidence, has since prompted a decisive reexamination of his case and drawn an admission by the Texas LGBTQ community that it had been wrong in labelling what he did a hate crime. Gay activists have since fought hard for Buice's release, one of the ironies uncovered by a film that has gone on to reap many awards for best documentary at film festivals across the U.S. In an interview that took place following the September 12 screening in Toronto, Armstrong said her film should also resonate with Canadians. The theme of fairness in judicial proceedings is universal. "For Canadians I hope the film is a cautionary tale about what can happen when the justice system becomes politicized to the extent it is in the United States. Canadian judges, remember, are not elected. They are appointed. There's always the potential for interference." Here's more of that conversation:

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Art of Making Art: Sunday in the Park with George

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George at Boston's Huntington Theatre. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

Continuing its mission to produce the full canon of Stephen Sondheim musicals, Boston’s Huntington Theatre has opened its 2016-2017 season with a solid revival of Sunday in the Park with George – both musically and in terms of stagecraft one of his most demanding pieces. Sunday in the Park, which has a book by James Lapine – who directed the 1984 Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters – is an imaginative account of how the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (Americanized as George in the musical) created his masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. It’s been widely identified as Sondheim’s most personal work – not just a treatise on making art but also a defense of the kind of art that can appear dispassionate and theoretical, by musical theatre’s most famously precise and cooled-out practitioner. In Seurat, whose pointillist approach to painting was condemned by critics and by his fellow artists as cold and pseudo-scientific, Sondheim found the ideal medium for arguing that art that seems to displace emotion can in fact subsume it, and that a man who puts his art ahead of romance and family is not necessarily cold and unfeeling. Dot, George’s model and mistress, leaves him because she feels unattended to, frozen out. She’s carrying his baby, and he’s content to let her new lover, Louis the baker, raise the child as his own. She comes to his studio to ask for a painting he did of her as a souvenir, and to try one more time to get him to convey some feeling for her before she and Louis emigrate to America, where he’s secured a job as a pastry chef for a rich couple. George disappoints her on both counts; he pushes her away, claiming he has to work. “Hide behind your painting,” she exclaims. “I have come to tell you I am leaving because I thought you might care to know – foolish of me, because you care about nothing.” “I care about many things,” he protests. “Things – not people,” she objects. “People, too,” he insists. “I cannot divide my feelings up as neatly as you, and I am not hiding behind my canvas – I am living in it.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dead On: Speechless and The Good Place

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place on NBC.

With many of the new network shows yet to air their first episodes, the 2016 fall television is still young, but comedy has already scored two solid wins: NBC's The Good Place and ABC's Speechless.

The Good Place (NBC) is a fantasy/comedy that stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Eleanor Shellstrop, a perfectly terrible person who, after suffering a premature (and markedly humiliating) death, wakes up in an afterlife deemed to reflect a life lived in self-sacrifice and moral loftiness. As Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers, Damages), the region's designer and current administrator, tells her, only very few human beings ever earn such an agreeable eternity – with the remainder ending up in "the bad place." (Of the bad place, we learn tantalizingly little, except that that's where every artist, all American presidents except Abraham Lincoln, and a shocking disproportion of deceased professional basketball players end up.) For the rest of eternity, Eleanor will live in this posh, upper middle class hereafter, along with 300+ of the world's most morally impeccable individuals. But it quickly becomes apparent that, in this "good place," things aren't quite that simple. For one, Eleanor is clearly there by mistake: some sort of clerical error seems to have swapped her selfish, decidedly unaltruistic life for that of self-sacrificing death-row lawyer. Together with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the bookish philosophy professor picked as her "soulmate," as her unwilling accomplice, Eleanor has to figure out how to keep herself from being discovered or risk being resettled to the "other" place.