Saturday, November 26, 2016

Second Chance at Life: Season Two of CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

One of the fundamental things that distinguish television series from other forms of art, such as novels, movies, and plays, is the fact that their creators divide up their narratives and present them to us in episodic sequence. This extra time gives them greater freedom to present more elaborate plot and characterization, but it also makes the form much more open-ended, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve written before about how shows that start off strong can find themselves slumping in their second season, while long-running, beloved programs like The Good Wife sometimes barely manage to limp over the finish line, despite having a long track record of excellent earlier seasons.

At times, it seems like the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend runs the risk of falling into the former trap as it enters its second year of life. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began as the textbook example of a cult hit: it fused comedy and drama with original musical numbers, garnering a devoted but very small audience, as well as critical acclaim (including from Mark Clamen here at Critics at Large). After the first season wrapped up and the CW decided, against all odds, to renew the show, it began to gain more attention (although that hasn’t necessarily shown up in the ratings for its second season). It’s not hard to see why its fans are so devoted: the first season’s enthusiasm is infectious, and at times it stands out as some of the funniest and most inventive television in recent years.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Shock of the Unexpected...Excerpt From the Prologue to Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's sentimental comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so the public won't be sent into a panic. Of course, the new President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton. From that comedy came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time in which they were made. By delving into the American experience from Kennedy to Clinton, I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back, saying that it would never sell. One Canadian press almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, and later my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, though, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama. For the past number of years, Reflections has also been a hugely successful lecture series. In light of the fact that this week is the 53rd anniversary of JFK's assassination, here is an excerpt from the book's prologue.

- Kevin Courrier

At the end of The Godfather, Part II, in the dead of fall, Michael Corleone makes the comment that history teaches us you can kill anyone. Most people heard in those remarks echoes of the assassination of JFK, even though the murder under discussion takes place three years after the mob leader's observation and Kennedy isn't yet president. For all we know, Michael might be referring to seeing Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the previous summer, for not only did Psycho teach us that you can kill anyone, but the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in a motel shower before the halfway point of the picture also flew in the face of what film history taught us – and the frisson of that moment, that shock of the unexpected, would come to foreshadow the events of the sixties. Director Martin Scorsese recently referred to Psycho in that manner in the Kent Jones documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut. Phillip J. Skerry in his 2009 book, Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema's Most Famous Scene, talks about how the film "ushered in a shift in the cultural paradigm from the bland decade of the 1950s, with its emphasis on togetherness and family values, to the 1960s, that cataclysmic decade of political assassinations, student protests, free speech conflicts, race riots, Vietnam protests, and, above all, violence – in our streets, in our political institutions, in our culture, and most vividly in our media, especially in our films, and in our music." But how could one low-budget thriller with a turbulent twist send such a ripple through the next decade?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Piercing the Jade Gate: Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden

Kim Min-hee (left) and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden.

Unlike Pete's Dragon or Arrival, no matter how much I want to, I can't recommend The Handmaiden to everyone I know. That's not because it isn't excellent – it is – but rather because its subject matter veers too far into the dark, the bizarre, the unseemly, and the explicitly erotic. I adored it, but I wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to tell my parents to go and see it. (It was already uncomfortable enough to share my matinee screening with a gaggle of cheery septuagenarians, who were decidedly more muted on their way out – stunned into silence, no doubt, by the intensity and perverse delight of director Park Chan-Wook’s newest opus. Guess they never saw Oldboy.)

The Handmaiden inverts Park Chan-Wook’s usual style, which cuts the tension of nail-biting dramatic setpieces with bursts of absurd humour, instead providing a soulful journey that’s punctuated with stabs of dark revelation. It’s a film that feels guided by a masterful hand, demonstrating a delicate balance of those disparate tones unseen in anything but Korean cinema (see:Snowpiercer; The Good, The Bad, & The Weird). It's brutal and sweet, icily tense and heartwarming, deeply dark and very funny. And, as if that weren’t enough, it’s probably the steamiest film you can see outside of a straight-up porno theatre.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Denial: Making “Drama”

Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial. (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street Media)

Playing Deborah Lipstadt, the American Holocaust scholar sued for libel in an English court by alleged historian David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier in print, Rachel Weisz carries herself with the uneasy tension of a warrior in repose in Denial. Contemporary movies and TV are loaded with examples of British actors who have so mastered not just the accents but also the verbal rhythms of Americans from different regions that it’s a shock to discover their true origins; it’s one trick that even the great generation of Brits who came up before the Second World War – the Oliviers and Gielguds and Richardsons – could never quite manage. But Weisz doesn’t just sound like a New Yorker. She’s physicalized all the elements of Lipstadt’s identity, including the Jewish part and the feminist part and the teacher-scholar part. (Lipstadt has an endowed chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.) A friend told me that when he watched Jessica Lange dancing in the opening scene of Music Box, set at a Midwestern Hungarian community center, he murmured to himself, “Oh, my God, she’s turned herself into a Hungarian.” That’s how I felt about Weisz playing an American Jew in Denial: it’s in the sound and the look. Lipstadt is an intellectual with a lifelong comfortableness with speaking her mind; Weisz plays her as alert, gutsy, dukes-up. It’s a vibrant, comprehensive portrait.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Interior Paramour: The Abstract Paintings of Michael Davidson

Untitled, 2007, by Michael Davidson.

“What fragments thought is not the handling of solids in space, but the dispersal of decisions in time…”  
Gaston Bachelard, The Dialectic of Duration, 1950.
Consider this a letter from the outpost, that hinterland place where painting still occupies its familiar majestic posture and still looms large on the horizon of creative possibilities when it comes to expressing the ineffable. The great surrealist AndrĂ© Breton once remarked that painting, photography and sculpture were lamentable expedients for exploring the ineffable meaning of existence, but that they would just have to do until something better comes along. He said that in 1927, and nothing better has yet come along.  But everyone is in such a hurry to move on already.

But Michael Davidson is not in a hurry to move on, in fact, quite the contrary: he wants us all to slow down long enough to recognize that the essence of painting, and especially the psychic landscape of abstraction, can never be replaced. This is simply because it is a map of the human mind.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ayckbourn and Osborne: Brit Classics

Nael Nacer, Mahira Kakkar, and Karl Miller in Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company's Bedroom Farce. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The comedies of the ridiculously prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn – eighty plays and counting – have typically proved to be tricky hurdles for American actors. The combination of his brand of banter (which spins, often hilariously, off the banality of middle-class English conversation), the physical demands of his scenarios (which ring inventive changes on typical sex-farce set-ups) and his peculiarly offhand satirical tone (he’s not a cruel playwright but he certainly isn’t warm) make for a challenging combination. Maria Aitken’s production of Ayckbourn’s 1975 Bedroom Farce for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company is performed so delightfully, however, that you can barely see the hoops the eight actors have to jump through to make it work. The title itself is a characteristic Ayckbourn gag: it prepares us for a sex roundelay, when in fact the closest any of the characters comes to infidelity is a harmless, unpremeditated kiss at a party between Trevor (Karl Miller), who’s in the midst of a tiff with his wife Susannah (Katie Paxton), and his ex-girl friend Jan (Mahira Kakkar), who has left her husband Nick (Nael Nacer) at home in bed with an aching back. What the title actually refers to is the set – cleverly designed, in this instance, by Alexander Dodge – which divides the stage into three bedrooms. Stage left is Jan and Nick’s, occupied throughout the play by the unhappily laid-up Nick. Center stage is that of the party givers, Malcolm (Richard Hollis) and Kate (Emma Kaye). The bedroom stage right belongs to Trevor’s parents, Ernest (Malcolm Ingram) and Delia (Patricia Hodges), a homey, conventional couple celebrating their anniversary who, following a disappointing meal at a once-favorite restaurant, retire for a comfy night until their sanctum is unexpectedly invaded by their neurotic daughter-in-law. She doesn’t feel right about going home after she and Trevor have quarreled so extravagantly and vociferously at Malcolm and Kate’s that they managed to drive all the other guests out of the house.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Whole New Lease on Life: Claudia Moore's Older & Reckless

Claudia Moore of MOonhORrsE Dance Theatre. (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk) 

Dance is obsessed with youth, especially in an era where choreography has become more a showcase of superhuman feats of athletic ability than a vehicle of nuanced, non-verbal storytelling. It takes youth and agility to perform today’s bravura dance works. It also takes a toll on the body. Dancers today have shortened careers as a result of the heightened physical demands of their art form. Hips and knees are usually the first to go, followed by backs and shoulders in men who have spent the bulk of their careers powerlifting their female partners. The average age of retirement, according to recent industry surveys conducted in Canada and the U.S., is 29 – and largely because of performance-related injuries. For a long time dancers have quietly accepted that their stage lives will be brief. Most enter the profession already thinking about their exit; what happens after the curtain falls on that final performance preoccupies even the youngest of dancers well before they land their first job. Early retirement is built into the profession. The moment when a dancer reaches maturity as an artist is usually just when most find themselves having to go. The spirit is willing but the body just hurts too much to continue.

But increasingly dancers are pushing back on the idea that dance is a young person’s game. Significantly, the rebels are older artists, dancers over the age of 40, who, endowed with a lifetime of dancing experience, are determined to take dance beyond the virtuosic and into more spiritual and subtly expressive territory. While older dancers have held the spotlight before – Martha Graham, one of the founders of modern dance, performed into her seventies, while Kazuo Ohno, the world’s foremost butoh dancer, took his last bow at age 93 – they were usually one-offs who had defied the odds by continuing to dance into their dotage. The difference is that not only are there many more senior dancers commanding attention now than ever before, they are pushing dance in a new age-positive direction – and being enthusiastically applauded for it. Ballerina Alessandra Ferri’s much-celebrated return to the London stage earlier this year at age 52, following a six-year absence, was a recent case in point. Youthfulness is no longer a primary goal; what matters in dance today is the confidence, poise and abandon which senior dancers embody so well. It’s a growing phenomenon, seen in countries from Sweden to India, and largely because of the baby boomers who have turned the aging process on its head by insisting on working, playing and living hard, well past the age of retirement.