Saturday, December 10, 2016

Off the Beat: NBC’s Hairspray Live!

Derek Hough and Maddie Baillio in NBC’s Hairspray Live! (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

When NBC decided to revive the tradition of presenting live musicals with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, it hit upon a successful formula for drawing in viewers during the holiday doldrums. The Sound of Music Live! and its successor, Peter Pan Live! were deliberately old-fashioned affairs, presenting well-worn favorites performed on a soundstage devoid of audience members, just as productions featuring the likes of Mary Martin had done decades before. Granted, they were plagued by technical problems, and the celebrities whom network executives cast as the leads didn’t measure up to the Broadway veterans who were relegated to supporting roles, but for the most part audiences didn’t seem to care. Last year’s live performance of The Wiz suggested that NBC was starting to learn from its mistakes, starting with its choice to produce a show that, while not as well-known as its predecessors, gave a talented cast of African-American performers a chance to shine. It looked like NBC would slowly but steadily improve on its initial formula, year by year, for as long as it chose to continue its live musical revivals.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Class and Celebrity in Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress

Patricia Hearst (centre) leaving from San Francisco's Federal Building after received her seven-year sentence, on April 12, 1976.

The year 2016 may be remembered as the one in which celebrity became a vital touchstone in American culture. Most notably was the grotesque upset Presidential victory of Donald Trump in which a reality-TV concept, complete with the dramatic, over-the-top meanness and coarseness – as evidenced by the boisterous rallies and venomous post-truth tweets – helped propel him to the White House. On a lesser scale, this year witnessed both a spotty, award-winning television movie, The People v. O. J. Simpson, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 biography, Run of His Life , and the superior documentary, O. J.: Made in America, in which Simpson notoriously utters, “I am not black, I’m O.J.,” a statement that underscored his celebrity status. Sadly, it is possible to draw another connection between a seismic political event and an infamous crime story. In her 2010 book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, journalist Rebecca Traister investigated the 2008 Presidential election and found bile-filled examples of visceral misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton that included, affixed to t-shirts, “I wish that Hillary had married O.J.” Thirdly, this year marked the publication of Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday), which directly links a series of crimes in the 1970s with celebrity and class.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Poképaradise: Pokémon Sun & Moon

Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon (developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo) were released in November 2016.

For those who think that Pokémon is that dumb game you play on your phone, endangering yourself and others in pursuit of imaginary monsters like some schizophrenic wackjob, allow me to clarify something: Pokémon GO is not Pokémon. The promise of GO was an exciting one – that the charm and addictive fun of the actual, real Pokémon games could be translated into a virtual “real-world” setting – but it quickly became obvious that GO was as shallow and dispensable as any flash-in-the-pan mobile game. GO is designed like the ubiquitous Candy Crush Saga and most other mobile shovelware in that its core gameplay loops are designed for sustained repetitive mindlessness: something to keep your fingers busy on the subway or the toilet, devoid of player agency, the need for critical thought, or any form of true interactive engagement. The real Pokémon, the one that’s been almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Nintendo’s handheld consoles afloat since 1998, is a series of brilliantly designed RPGs that are aging like fine wine – and still finding ways to improve on their central mechanics nearly 20 years after their first incarnation.

As Nintendo’s portable Game Boy platform has evolved, so too has the software designed to sell that hardware. With the North American release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue in 1998, developer Game Freak helped Nintendo revitalize the Game Boy and established a precedent for one of the most successful franchises in gaming history, spawning a tie-in cartoon, a collectible card game, and countless huggable plush representations of the game’s titular “pocket monsters.” Released every few years as colour-matched titles with minor differences (which encourage players to trade with and battle against their friends), every game in the series has embraced the core appeal of setting off on an adventure to find, capture, and train all the Pokémon in the game’s fictional world – verbalized famously in the tagline of the original game as “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” Since they've enjoyed nearly two decades of success, there’s a lot of pressure on each new title to deliver fresh, interesting material while maintaining that central fun factor that’s kept the series alive for so long – pressure which, until recently, hasn’t prompted the results many series stalwarts have hoped for. The latest pair of games is called Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, released in November of this year, and they inject the franchise with the innovation and invigoration it’s been sorely lacking for years. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ten Years After: Back to Winehouse

Amy Winehouse's second, and final, studio album Back to Black was released on October 27, 2006.

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”  John Updike
Before long, the brilliant album Amy Winehouse released ten years ago this past October will have lived longer that she herself did. Back to Black (Island Records, 2006) was then and still is now a singular achievement with few sonic peers in the realm of pop music. This is especially ironic because it was never intended to be a pop record at all and instead merged jazz, blues, R&B, funk, ska, soul, hip hop, "Wall of Sound" 60’s girl groups and something else without a name into an amazing witch’s brew with many imitators but few equals.

Having just completed a book on this album, its historical roots, brilliant producers and back-up band, I am amazed by the record now as I was when I first heard it a decade ago. Almost as strange is the fact that she passed away nearly a half a decade ago this year, and took with her one of the most oddly gifted and mesmerizing torch song talents to come along since Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day and Sharon Jones.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Neglected Gem #94: Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers (1984)

Nick Mancuso and Peter Coyote in Heartbreakers

Many claim the subject of male bonding, and the way women become the battlefield where men act out (and often avoid) their competitiveness with each other, to be the domain of John Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands). But I often found the verbal punch-ups between macho guys in his pictures to be ultimately quite wearying. In Bobby Roth's seldom-seen Heartbreakers, the guys aren't frustrated blowhards and the women they're drawn to aren't mere victims of their bluster. Roth sets up his drama, which is set in Los Angeles, in terms of the dynamics that both trap and propel his characters into the relationships they choose, away from the ones they choose to avoid, and into the damage they're not conscious of causing each other. Heartbreakers is less about finding fault in the battle of the genders and more about indulging a curiosity about that battle and what it reveals of the warriors who engage in it. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Life: Tumbling into Obscurity

Brad Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce in the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life. (Photo: by Joan Marcus)

I would never willingly miss seeing David Hyde Pierce, so I hastened to the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life, a new play by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kauffman at City Center. And for the first forty minutes (half of the play’s brief running time) it’s a worthwhile excursion for the actor’s fans. Pierce plays Nate Martin, a gay New Yorker – transplanted years ago from his native Ohio – who has just parted company with his latest boyfriend; it’s not the first time they’ve broken up so whether or not this split is permanent is up in the air. The play begins with a twenty-five-minute monologue, which Pierce delivers with witty understatement, in which Nate mostly discusses his checkered romantic history: short-term relationships that ended because of dissatisfaction – sometimes trivial-sounding – on his side. We expect that the play is going to focus on his attempts to get past his failure to sustain a relationship, or else his inability to pull out of his usual pattern, and since Pierce is a master at playing befuddled men struggling to get unstuck, and since he has the surest high-comic style currently on view, I was impatient to see how Nate’s story would unfold.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

East End Identity Crisis: The Infidel (2010)

Archie Panjabi, Omid Djalili and Amit Shah in The Infidel (2010).

"Look not at what a man has done, but what he hopes to do."
– Mahmud's four-year-old daughter, in The Infidel.
The Infidel (2010) tells the story of Mahmud Nasir (played with grumpy charm by British comedian Omid Djalili), an East London British-Pakistani family man, who discovers upon the recent death of his mother that he was adopted and (to his dismay) that he was born Jewish. The resulting crisis of identity leads him to try to track down his birth parents, with the help of his equally ill-tempered American Jewish neighbour Lenny (Richard Schiff, of West Wing fame). At the same time, his moderate Muslim life is unsettled by the imminent visit of his son's future father-in-law, a hard-line Egyptian cleric named Arshad Al-Masri (played by Israeli actor Yigal Naor, HBO's House of Saddam), who is coming to make sure that his daughter's new family are, as Mahmud's precocious four-year-old daughter puts it, "Muslim enough." These twin pressures lead to a slapstick process by which Mahmud alternately tries on both identities, and finds that neither truly fits. It is an amusing – sometimes hilarious – fable, told with a gentle, prodding eye on hypocrisy and all the holier-than-thou ways we often police one another's behaviour without taking our own into account.

Produced in the UK on a small budget, The Infidel was directed by Josh Appignanesi (whose only other feature is 2005's haunting Jewish-themed Song of Songs) and written by David Baddiel. In 2010, the movie created some buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately became a modest hit in theatres worldwide (even inspiring a 2015 Bollywood remake). In 2014, Baddiel launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his own stage musical adaptation of the script, which would eventually premiere at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East replete with songs by Erran Baron Cohen. But it is the original film that bears revisiting, especially at the close of this dark year.