Saturday, April 1, 2017

Jury’s Still Out: NBC’s Trial & Error

Nicholas D’Agosto and John Lithgow

NBC’s long-running sitcom The Office left its mark on contemporary television in a number of ways, not least in the sudden emergence of a number of mockumentary-style comedies, most notably NBC’s Parks and Recreation and ABC’s hit Modern Family. However, it’s striking that both of these shows seem to have essentially discarded the sub-genre’s main conceit: the idea that everything we see and hear is being recorded by a camera crew that exists within the world of the show. The Office spent a considerable portion of its final season acknowledging that there had been other characters, long familiar to the denizens of Dunder-Mifflin but completely unknown to us, present throughout the show’s run, and it dealt with some of the logical complications that might ensue from that situation. Parks and Modern Family, on the other hand, became almost Brecht-lite; characters speak directly to the audience, calling our attention to the show’s artificiality, but there’s rarely any pretense that they’re actually talking to a person behind the camera.

It’s hard not to think of the quirks of the mockumentary sub-genre while watching NBC’s new Trial and Error, which premiered on March 14 and airs on Tuesday nights. In large part, that’s because creators Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller seem to have attempted to reverse-engineer the success of The Office and Parks and Recreation; the latter’s influence is especially evident from their attempts to quickly establish the show’s setting, a fictional South Carolina town called East Peck, as a quirky but lovable backwater, à la the equally fictional Pawnee, Indiana. Here, the conceit that everything that we see is the result of a camera crew following around the characters is frequently acknowledged, oftentimes to satisfying comic effect.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Reset, Reborn, Renewed: Toronto Fashion 2017

Sid Neigum (centre right) and models, on stage at Re\Set Fashion in Toronto, February 6.

If fashion is about reinvention then Toronto is right on trend. Over the past few months several new initiatives – five and counting – have risen from the ashes of Toronto Fashion Week, which died a sudden death when its New York owner, sports and entertainment marketing conglomerate IMG, abruptly pulled the plug last July, citing a loss of local sponsorship necessary for keeping the biennial event alive. One door closes and another one opens.

Enter Re\Set Fashion, an installation-style fashion event which unfolded in the recently renovated Great Hall on Queen Street West in Toronto in early February. A designer-focused alternative to the frenetic runway show, the concept was developed by Dwayne Kennedy, co-founder and fashion director of The Collections among other local fashion events, in collaboration with Toronto Fashion Week founder Robin Kay. Taking place on Feb. 6 and 7, the two-day experiential fashion event took the form of Instagram-friendly static presentations which, besides being a more flexible and intimate model than the traditional catwalk show, is also more cost-effective to produce. Models looking like human mannequins simply walked out onto a dais and posed under strategically placed lights, a refreshing and dynamic alternative to the usual hype and freneticism. Tapping into the see-now-buy-now, Re\Set also offered up a pop-up retail component aimed at encouraging members of the paying public to get up close and personal with the latest in Canadian style. The strategy worked. Re\Set packed them in, leaving everyone feeling they were part of something new. Designer participants ranged from newcomers like Elle AyoubZadeh, creator of fledgling Toronto-based fashion footwear brand, Zvelle, to rising stars like the award-winning Alberta-born womenswear designer Sid Neigum, who soon after showed his monochromatic 3-D silhouettes at London Fashion Week, garnering a rave review in Vogue and a multi-million dollar deal with the international luxury online retailer, Net-a-Porter. Canadian fashion lives!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Terminal Velocity: Train to Busan

Yoo Gong, with Soo-an Kim, in Train to Busan.

I’m so sick of zombie movies. They’re as played out as any genre can be, and I didn’t think that there was anything new to be done or said with them. Imagine my surprise, then, when South Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan was consistently hailed as one of the best films of 2016. I’ve made my love of Korean cinema pretty clear in the past, so it should go without saying that I was intrigued – and now that the film has landed on Netflix here in Canada, I finally got the chance to investigate.

The film, directed by Sang-Ho Yeon, has not changed my opinion on zombie movies. I still think that the dead rising to eat the living – though it’s been a worthy avenue for gory chills and social commentary for decades – has aged into a tired and tedious concept (which only becomes more absurd when the light of slick modern filmmaking and special effects is shone upon it). But I had a great time watching Train to Busan, and it was far less because of the subject matter and much more because it was simply a well-written, well-staged, and well-executed film. In effect, it’s a zombie flick for people who don’t really like zombie flicks – which means it was just what I wanted to see.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fugitive Glances: The Paintings of David Lasry

Silence I by David Lasry. (Acrylic on canvas, 2015)

“I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of this fact.” – Claude Levi-Strauss
When I look at vibrant paintings of Belgian artist David Lasry, such as his Silence I and Silence II, I can’t help feeling that I’m being shown an X-ray of matter itself and being brought into an intimate conversation between the physical world and the immaterial world. Though clearly not representational in any conventionally realistic manner, they are nonetheless a re-presentation of either thought patterns or a diagram of pure energy. As a result, they are more actual than realist, surpassing a scientific image of the interior of matter by sharing brief glimpses into what feels like an embodied meaning: a portrait of energy, a distilled life of electrons, and a powerful landscape at the sub-atomic level. Endless flux.

I’m not a fortune teller, of course, but as an art critic and curator, there is at least one thing I can safely predict: the further we proceed into the flickering digital lights of the pixilated 21st century, the more important paintings will eventually become in all our lives. Lately I’ve become rather immersed in reconsidering what I like to call the magic of the painted cloth: the alluring textile domain of handmade images on canvas, and the larger context of works of art in the age of digital reproduction. This is alchemy in action, captured in the frozen music of paint, and shared in fugitive glances.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Neglected Gem #99: The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Merrie Spaeth, Peter Sellers, and Tippy Walker in The World of Henry Orient (1964).

In Nora Johnson’s 1958 novel The World of Henry Orient, set in Manhattan, the title character – a celebrity “pop pianist” with a glitzy, undisciplined technique, who plays Carnegie Hall and is a favorite of the gossip columns – barely appears. He is mostly just talked about, wondered over, or spied upon. No matinee idol, he is described as “fat and bushy-haired, with a pouting lower lip . . . unwashed . . . carrot-headed.” Only once, and in the worst possible circumstances, is he seen up close by either Marian or Val, the teenage girls and best friends who for their own reasons have decided to be obsessed with him. “The world” becomes the girls’ code name for the exciting adulthood they are certain awaits them, while Henry Orient, insignificant and even absurd as an individual, assumes enormous importance as the symbol of their aspirations. Val, the more adventuresome of the girls, and herself a gifted pianist, presciently frets that meeting the man himself “might destroy everything,” because he’s less a person than “the voice of my conscience. He’s so awful, and yet he seems to mean everything good.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Social Problem Plays: The Price and Sweat

Mark Ruffalo and Jessica Hecht in The Price at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Arthur Miller’s plays may have been inspired by Ibsen’s realist dramas, but he rarely seemed able to get at the great unresolvables beneath their well-made social-problem surface. They creak and they clang as the banalities slide into the grooves his dramaturgy has made for them – even when the ideas themselves haven’t always been thought through. (After all these years and God knows how many productions, I’m still not sure exactly what’s being indicted in Death of a Salesman, and, as for The Crucible, however much one might deplore HUAC and the blacklist, it wasn’t much like the Salem witch hunts. For one thing, as Elia Kazan’s wife Molly Day Thacher pointed out in a famous letter to Miller, there actually were Communists in show business.)

The Price, Miller’s last major play, first produced on Broadway in 1968 and currently in revival by the Roundabout Theatre, is particularly clunky. Two brothers meet in the attic of a Manhattan brownstone where Victor, the younger, took care of their father in the twilight years that followed the stock market crash and the death of his wife – two disasters from which, according to Vic, the old man never recovered. A talented scientist, Vic sacrificed his dreams of a research career and joined the police force in order to support him while his brother Walter went to medical school and on to a distinguished and affluent career. Now the building is being torn down and Victor is hoping to secure a good price for the antique furniture from an appraiser whose name he found in the phone book. He’s tried to contact his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade and a half and who hasn’t answered his calls. Just as he’s about to make a deal with the appraiser, Solomon, who’s something of an antique himself, Walter shows up in time for the first-act curtain, and the two brothers – as well as Victor’s wife Esther – learn, as the ten-ton ironies fall about the play’s title, just how high a price we pay for the choices we make in our youth. The second act of the play is mostly a long pitched battle between the estranged brothers, who spell each other with revelations and corresponding accusations. By the time the play is over, it’s long since turned into a very slow tennis match with hammers for rackets.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life, and Death, with Archie: The CW's Riverdale

Cole Sprouse (as Jughead Jones) and K.J. Apa (as Archie Andrews) in Riverdale on The CW.

 This review contains some spoilers for The CW's Riverdale
The Archie comics of my childhood were comfort food: safe, unchallenging and so predictably consistent that issues could recycle old stories practically word for word without disappointing. Without any pretence of continuity, in one story Betty and Veronica would be inseparable BFFs and in another "arch" rivals (terrible pun intended). At one point, my sister and I tried to catalogue how many individual Archie comics we had, and they numbered over a thousand. Thumbing through them now (they still sit in several boxes in my parents' basement), every story is somehow both familiar and forgettable at the same time – which, as I recall, was precisely their appeal. In recent years, the comic has taken some decisive steps towards reinventing the 76-year-old franchise, largely under the helm of its new Chief Creative Officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Aguirre-Sacasa was tapped for the role after the critical and popular success of his "for mature readers only" series Afterlife with Archie, which placed Archie and the gang into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled Riverdale. These firm steps into the 21st century notwithstanding, for me the world of Archie Andrews remains the one I was brought up on: a timeless, largely consequence-free universe with cheerleaders, chocolate malts and burgers, 50s-era morality, and innocent adolescent love triangles. At least that was the case until Riverdale, The CW's new teen drama.

Riverdale premiered at the end of January, but I confess it took me until this past week to finally check it out, my curiosity finally getting the better of me after I discovered that the broadcast series was streaming on Netflix here in Canada. (Canadians can view the first half of the season there, with new episodes appearing weekly.) Created by Aguirre-Sacasa himself (who, in addition to his work in comics, has also penned episodes of Glee and Big Love, as well as being one of the credited screenwriters for 2013's Carrie remake), the new series takes Riverdale High's familiar characters (Archie, the typical American teen; Jughead, his best pal; Betty, the sweet girl next door; Veronica, the spoiled rich girl) and throws them headlong into a Riverdale that has more in common with Veronica Mars's Neptune, California, than the town I'd grown to love as a kid. If you, like me, have only sugar-coated memories of idyllic, sunny suburban Riverdale, what you'll find on Riverdale will likely shock you – but stick around, because that shock with quickly turn into a unique, multi-textured delight.