Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hope for Network Drama? This Is Us and Pitch

Justin Hartley (centre) in This Is Us. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

It’s become something of a truism in TV criticism that the networks have ceded virtually all of their creative prestige (and, increasingly, their ratings) to cable and streaming outlets such as FX, HBO, and Netflix. With the recent conclusion of The Good Wife, which at its height was arguably the best thing on TV, there didn’t appear to be much worth watching. A new slate of network shows that featured multiple time-travel thrillers and another Kevin James-fronted sitcom didn’t threaten to shake up this dynamic very much. However, two new shows, NBC’s This Is Us and Fox’s Pitch, offer some suggestions for the direction in which networks might have to go if they want to produce material that can compete in the era of so-called “Peak TV.” This isn’t a coincidence: both are narratively adventurous and rely heavily on flashbacks and plot twists, and both were created (or, in the case of Pitch, co-created with Rick Singer) by Dan Fogelman. Fogelman has established a track record as a writer and producer capable of creating movies and TV shows that are entertaining and unique; his romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love was one of the few enjoyable examples of that genre in recent memory, and the late, underappreciated Galavant was an oftentimes delightful TV musical that presaged the cult success of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Curtis Hanson: A Career in Perspective

Eminem and Curtis Hanson (right) on the set of 8 Mile in 2002. (Photo: Eli Reed)

Film director Curtis Hanson, who died in September at the too-young age of seventy-one, was stuck in B-movie territory for a decade and a half before he graduated, in 1987, with the thriller The Bedroom Window. (One of his last B-pictures, Losin’ It, about three SoCal high-schoolers who drive to Tijuana to get rid of their virginity, was coarse and chaotic but very likable. One of them was played by Tom Cruise, just months before Risky Business made him a star, and I’ve never enjoyed watching him as much since.) Once he made it to the majors, so to speak, Hanson made eleven pictures, and I like all or part of every single one except for his first hit, the witless 1992 Gothic The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – it was efficiently directed, but the dunderheaded script was insurmountable. What made him so reliable a filmmaker was a combination of his bred-in-the-bone understanding of genre conventions, his transparent love of actors and his undervalued gift for getting fine work out of them, and his relaxed finesse as a storyteller. This last is no surprise: from his first days in movies, the early seventies, he was a screenwriter as well as a director, penning the compulsively watchable, enjoyably amoral Canadian mystery The Silent Partner (directed by Daryl Duke and starring Elliott Gould, Susannah York and Christopher Plummer) in 1978 and contributing to the scripts of Samuel Fuller’s White Dog and Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf in the early eighties. And he kept his hand in: he wrote The Bedroom Window and co-wrote the best picture he ever turned out, L.A. Confidential, with Brian Helgeland, as well as one of his last movies, Lucky You, with Eric Roth.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Demonic Double Bill – The Omen & The Exorcist

Lee Remick, Gregory Peck and Harvey Stephens (centre) in The Omen (1976).

Critics At Large is pleased to present the second installment of CRITIC’S CRYPT, a new column in which our writers compare, contrast, and explore two horror films that are linked by a common element. This time around, Justin Cummings brings together The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973).

The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) are connected by more than just the stink of a demonic presence. Both are about children who act as vessels for evil spirits, yes. Both revolve around the perversion of the sacred and the innocent, true. Both are pretty damn terrifying, of course. But – despite their differences in quality and execution – the thing that most strongly links these films is a core theme that I think goes under-discussed in most conversations about these two classics: parenthood.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Season of the Witch: Adam Winguard’s Blair Witch

When the audience at San Diego Comic Con’s advanced screening of The Woods filed in to catch the latest offering to the “found footage” horror genre, they had no idea that they were actually sitting down to the long-rumoured sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Until that moment, every promotional piece for the film—from the trailer to the movie posters—had been labelled with Blair Witch’s fake name, The Woods, in an effort to throw fans off the trail and deflect the criticism director Adam Winguard knew he would face for resurrecting the 17-year-old franchise. Whether or not it was cowardly for Winguard to dodge due criticism for his work by hyping up a fake movie, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of his plan. The Woods intrigued and excited horror fans. A month after Blair Witch’s release, however, the film is regarded as a box-office flop. Many chalk up Blair Witch as just another unnecessary sequel that regurgitated The Blair Witch Project’s plot without offering anything new. Yet despite the deluge of negative reviews that I’ve been wading through, I have to confess that I love this film and I think it's brilliant.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Secret Life of Energy - New Works by Zhang He

Zhang He's Bouquet

“Wonder is not only our starting point; it can also be our destination.”- Sharman Russell

Energy. The source of all things, material and immaterial. If energy (chi) has a signature, it could resemble the abstract calligraphic dance of paint in the hands of Zhang He. If the creative principle or force behind nature were potentially an algorithm, a program for infusing the formless with structure, then its designer’s autograph might resemble the vibrant paths of these bold images. Both Rejoicing and Becoming, which might be different words for the same phenomenon, seem to be signed by a free form force of nature. At the abstract or atomic level, energy is a trickster, what indigenous peoples call a shapeshifter: one second it’s a leaf, the next minute it’s a tree, the next century it’s a mountain. He’s paintings feel like a portrait of the trickster in action, and they give what used to be called action painting a new lease on life, a secret life. There is an atomic ambiguity at work here, and whether they metaphorically depict trees, flowers, tidal waves or volcanic eruptions, as Abundance, Bouquet, Between Waves or Fireworks all seem to do, they each share the element of exploding into an eternity of colour. Consider for a moment the rich potential of two surreal sciences: erotic botany, or the intimate study of the porno-blossom; and crypto-botany, or the exploration of mythical and non-existent plants. Now imagine paintings that appear to depict the secret inner life of flowers and to quietly steal into their leafy bedrooms during their silent romantic romping. Now look at the vividly riotous yet somehow elegantly sedate paintings of Zhang He. You get the picture, literally and figuratively. They possess an abstract eroticism. To properly witness his ecstatically embracing flower shapes in their clustering clouds of damp colour is to almost blush at having interrupted a private rendezvous between roots, soil and sunlight. You can almost feel his brushstroke petals breathy quivering. Abundance, Fruition and Peaks, for example, all give us an organic snapshot of energetic growth occurring before our eyes, or even inside our eyes.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Judy Garland Sings: Chasing Rainbows

Ruby Rakos (centre left) and the cast of Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Ruby Rakos is so good as the teenage Judy Garland, née Frances Gumm, in the new musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz that she alone justifies the trip to see the production at the Goodspeed Opera House. As a vocalist Rakos can harness both a belter’s power and a crooner’s sweetness; if you think you’ve heard enough covers of “Over the Rainbow” to last a lifetime, you might reconsider when you hear her marry delicacy to emotionality in the show’s finale. In her youth Garland had a remarkable ability to use that powerful, controlled alto to channel a depth of emotion that was startling in an adolescent. (She was sixteen when M-G-M cast her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and took her career into the stratosphere.) That’s why, in the musical, her mother, Ethel Gumm (Sally WIlfert), relentlessly promotes her as the little girl with the grown-up voice – though that description shortchanges her other quality, a rousing Midwestern-flavored ebullience that gave her swing numbers, like “Everybody Sing” (from The Broadway Melody of 1938) and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” (from Listen, Darling) a soaring, look-ma-no-hands vocal athleticism. Rakos gets all of that without ever trying to imitate Garland; and because she’s a real actress as well as an accomplished singer, she also gets her subject’s vaudevillian wiseacre side and her neediness, that almost frighteningly intense wide-eyed dreaminess. And she can hoof. Not only can you see why she was cast; you can’t imagine a search for a young Judy that could turn up anybody else in her class.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Spooky Action at a Distance: Timeless and Frequency

Peyton List stars in Frequency, new this season on The CW.

This television season, joining a crowded time-travel-themed field already occupied by Doctor Who, Legends of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys and The Flash (which is owning its time travel elements even more deeply in its current third season), are ABC’s adaptation of the 1979 film Time after Time and Fox’s Adam Pally-helmed sci-fi/comedy Making History, NBC’s Timeless and The CW’s Frequency. We’ll have to wait until early in 2017 for the first two, but last week the first episodes of Timeless and Frequency premiered. With only one episode apiece having aired, both are entertaining additions to the genre, but Frequency is off to the much more promising start.