Saturday, September 23, 2017

One Hell of a Show: NBC’s The Good Place Returns

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell

Warning: This review covers the entire first season of The Good Place, as well as the premiere of Season Two. It contains extensive discussion of plot points from throughout the show’s run thus far.

Setting a television comedy in the afterlife seems like an excellent way to set yourself up for failure. Since there is, by its very nature, a distinct sense of finality about the place, it’s hard to see how you might tell a long-running story that’s set there. Furthermore, since most religious traditions view existence after death as primarily a matter of receiving one’s just reward or punishment for their actions on the mortal plane, it’s not clear how you might develop a sense of character, or achieve any sort of narrative progression or tension. However, that’s just what Michael Schur and the creative team of NBC’s The Good Place achieved on the first season of the show.

As Mark Clamen noted in his initial review of The Good Place’s premiere, Schur’s metaphysical comedy had a rather tentative beginning. I found myself watching the first few episodes primarily out of curiosity as to how – or if – the show’s premise would develop, as well as for the performances by Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. However, as the larger scheme behind Schur’s premise began to reveal itself, and as the characters who inhabit this decidedly off-kilter version of heaven became more fully realized, The Good Place became far more than a pleasant-enough entertainment with a veneer of philosophical sophistication.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Soul Survivors: Interview with Clement Virgo (1995)

Sharon Lewis as the DJ in Rude.

As part of our Canada150 series, where we celebrate the country's birthday, we have been featuring periodic articles and interviews focusing on Canada's artistic accomplishments. Although filmmaker Clement Virgo is originally from Jamaica, he came to this country when he was 11 and would in time become one of our prominent directors. Beginning his adult years as a window-display artist in the fashion industry in the late eighties, he soon became a resident at the Canadian Film Centre's Summer Lab in both 1991 and 1992. While there he produced three short films: A Small Dick Fleshy Ass Thang (1991), Split Second Pullout Technique (1992), and Save My Lost Nigga' Soul (1993), which won the prize for Best Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. While at the Centre,Virgo also developed a script which in 1995 became the basis for his first feature, Rude.

Rude is a triptych about three characters seeking redemption and survival over an Easter weekend in an expressionistic version of an inner-city neighbourhood. General (Maurice Dean Wint) is a painter and former drug dealer just released from prison who has to fight the transgressions of his past, while his brother, Reece (Clark Johnson), gives in to the temptation of becoming a criminal. Maxine (Rachael Crawford) is a window dresser struggling with depression since she ended a pregnancy and lost her lover, Jordan (Richard Chevolleau), a boxer who has his own inner struggles, which culminate in an act of gay-bashing. This whole triad is tied together by the excoriations of Rude (Sharon Lewis), the DJ of a local pirate radio station. While Rude had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, later that same year it won the Best Canadian Feature Film in Perspective Canada at TIFF, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards, including Best Picture, at the 1996 event. At TIFF 2017, Rude was selected to be screened in the Cinémathèque section.

Clement Virgo's follow-up feature, The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), would earn him an Emmy nomination, while the controversial, Lie With Me (2005), stirred strong reaction for its explicit sexual content at the 2005 edition of TIFF. Along with directing the popular award-winning boxing drama Poor Boy's Game in 2007, Virgo co-wrote and directed the six-part miniseries adaptation of  Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel, The Book of Negroes, for CBC Television, which went on to further acclaim when it was screened in the United States.

When I first spoke to Virgo, a few days before the TIFF premiere of Rude in 1995, we touched on a number of subjects including Bryan Singer's clever caper drama, The Usual Suspects (which he had seen at Cannes that year), the place of spirituality in black films, and how he felt his pictures differed from the heated dramas on screen at the time (Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society) about contemporary black culture.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Eyes Up, Guardian: Destiny 2

Destiny 2, developed by Bungie, was released on September 5.

I purchased Destiny 2 under a certain degree of duress. My experiences with the original Destiny, first launched by Bungie in 2014, were strongly mixed; I was often frustrated by its obtuse and player-hostile systems, and many of Bungie's choices in managing the IP prompted a raised eyebrow, and yet I count the shared social experiences I had with my friends throughout the game's multiplayer challenges as some of the best and most memorable in my whole life. I was hardly the only player to feel this way, and though many of the issues the game launched with were eventually patched out in future expansions, Destiny never really felt like the complete online shooter experience we had all expected it to be. The fact that we were being asked this September to purchase a fully-priced sequel, instead of a new expansion on the original game that included improvements and changes, was galling in the extreme.

Destiny 2's reception has been glowing from the jump, which I found surprising (didn’t everyone have the same gripes as me?), but now that I've played it, I understand why. Its changes seem subtle and intuitive on the surface, but actually disguise a bone-deep redesign that streamlines Destiny's systems, excises its unnecessary cruft, and prioritizes player satisfaction. It's far too early to comment on the game's long-term sustainability, but even at launch this is the strongest the IP has ever been, and these things only ever get better as they go.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Enterprising Venture: Seth McFarlane's The Orville

(from left) Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in The Orville.

This review contains very minor spoilers for the first two episodes of Fox's The Orville.

Cards on the table: until I watched the second episode of The Orville, this review was looking like it was going to be a rant. Last week's premiere episode of Seth McFarlane's much-ballyhooed piss-take on the Star Trek franchise was a frustrating disappointment. Too mild to be a send-up and not original enough to fly on its own steam, the first hour of The Orville presaged a series with no idea what it was. It seemed more rip-off than either satire or homage – and I left feeling that the network was using the "spoof" label as window dressing for brazen creative laziness. But then I tuned into this Sunday's second episode and, with my expectations now suitably re-adjusted, I had a genuine blast. What a difference a week makes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Author Morley Torgov (1982)

Author Morley Torgov.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian author Morley Torgov.

At the time of our conversation Torgov's novel The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick had just been published. The next year, he was awarded Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for the novel. A well-received film adaptation was released in 1988. His most recent novel is The Mastersinger from Minsk (2012), the second book in his Inspector Hermann Preiss mystery series. In 2015, Morley Torgov received the Order of Canada.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Morley Torgov as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.

Monday, September 18, 2017

On the Shore of the Wide World: Still Life

Mary McCann and Leroy McClain in On the Shore of the Wide World.(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

On the Shore of the Wide World, receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is the English playwright Simon Stephens’s exploration of the effects of a tragic accident on a family in a Manchester town in 2004. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Holmes (Wesley Zurick) is hit by a motorist and killed. His death drives his father, Peter (C.J. Wilson) and his mother, Alice (Mary McCann) apart and exacerbates the tensions between them and Peter’s parents, Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) as well as bringing to light the unsettling qualities in their relationship. Shortly before he was killed, Christopher walked in on his alcoholic grandfather strong-arming his grandmother and, in dismay, confided in his older brother Alex (Ben Rosenfield), whom he adored. The aftermath of the boy’s death and the evident crumbling of his parents’ marriage drive Alex to move to London with his new girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan). Meanwhile both Peter and Sarah, who have so much difficulty communicating with each other, are drawn – not romantically but out of a need for confidants – to other people. Peter, who restores old houses, has been hired by the pregnant Susan (Amelia Workman), and she’s the first person outside the family with whom he shares the story of Christopher’s death. (This conversation also marks the first time the audience hears about it, for reasons I can’t quite work out; this choice doesn’t seem to enhance the drama.) Stranger – and more intriguing – is the friendship that grows up between Alice and John (Leroy McClain), the driver of the car that knocked Christopher down on his bike. John’s attempt to reach out to the mother of the boy he inadvertently killed and her responding to him (reluctantly at first) are reminiscent of part of the plot of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, though here it develops in a different direction.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part One: Partial Amnesia

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, centre, in his final address to the people on Dec. 21, 1989.

“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.”Olen Steinhauer, The Confession
One of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer during my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story of one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals. (His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bussed in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I have heard over the last two years.