Saturday, April 21, 2018

Somebody Needs a Hygge: ABC's Splitting Up Together

Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” complains Billy Eichner in the second season of Julie Klausner’s recently-canceled Hulu show Difficult People . It’s a question that tends to come up more often in the context of half-hour-long shows on cable and streaming services, which have long been outlets for writers and showrunners to test how much serious material, in terms of both content and tone, they can get away with incorporating into a format that’s traditionally skewed towards delivering relatively uncomplicated laughs. I’ve found myself thinking of that question a lot as I watch the early episodes of ABC’s new sitcom Splitting Up Together, a comedy (ostensibly) with a decidedly downbeat premise and some baffling tonal issues.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Me In Particular: The Reappearance of Oscar Z. Acosta

Oscar Z. Acosta, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

In his roughly 39 years of life, Oscar Zeta Acosta recreated himself more than once. From a typical barrio kid growing up in the working-class Mexican-American community of Riverbank, California, he became a clarinetist in the US Air Force marching band; a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama; a creative writing student in San Francisco, mentored by famed baseball novelist Mark Harris; a law-school graduate and member of the California bar; and a Legal Aid Society advocate for the impoverished of East Oakland. And that only takes him up to the beginning of his first book, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), which ends with his transformation into a budding Chicano militant. 

Most of us have known Acosta only as “Dr. Gonzo,” the fire-breathing, drug-scarfing, knife-wielding sidekick created by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), and portrayed by Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of that book. Yet Acosta deserves to be remembered as more than a featured player in the Thompson legend; he left a legacy both historically important and all his own. That legacy is the subject of Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, an hour-long documentary which debuted last month on PBS as part of the VOCES series on Latino arts and culture. The film is a mishmash, frankly imaginative and affably unpretentious, in which the skimpy visual evidence of Acosta’s life (mostly candid photos and news clips) is fleshed out with scripted reenactments played in period costume against sets that suggest workshop theater. The first-person narration is derived from Acosta’s two books, and aside from the compelling footage of the subject addressing protest rallies or courthouse cameras, the documentary’s chief value is that it inspires – in a way that Thompson’s portraiture never did – a curiosity to read the man’s own words.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VIII: A Pirate's Life for Me!

Rare's Sea of Thieves, released in March 2018. (Photo: The Verge)

Sea of Thieves is the latest game from Rare, the developer formerly known as Rareware, who changed their name (and lost most of their intrepid founding members) when their company was absorbed by Microsoft Studios in 2002. Once the undisputed ruler of console gaming in the mid-to-late 1990s, with watershed titles like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 64, and Banjo-Kazooie to its name, Rare’s acquisition by MS cast a dark cloud over the future of the studio. A series of clunkers in the early 2000s (Grabbed By The Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts chief among them) followed their '90s hot streak, which tainted their legacy and spoiled the good will they’d earned among fans. (Several key developers responsible for those earlier, beloved titles would splinter off to form their own studios like Playtonic Games, which released the Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee in 2017 to decidedly mixed reviews.) The Rare logo on a product was once a symbol of definitive quality, a sign that no matter what genre or style the game was, it was sure to have been made with wit, care, and charm. That promise has since lost its credibility, and so Sea of Thieves, which was released in March for PC and Xbox One, had an uphill battle to fight before it even hit store shelves.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Gypsy at Heart: Peggy Seeger's First Time Ever

Peggy Seeger performing in Long Acre, London in the late 1950s. (Photo: Getty Images)

The best part of any story is in the telling, and so it is for Peggy Seeger’s memoir, First Time Ever (Faber & Faber) which was published last December. Seeger, the half-sister of legendary folk artist Pete Seeger, has written about her life with wit and sentimentality. Her story features a large cast of characters including family members, friends and musicians. Though she has amassed many accomplishments as a folk musician, most people may only know of Seeger as the partner of Ewan MacColl, the songwriter, historian and composer of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”, written for her in the first year of their liaison. But her achievements as an artist go much further and now, in her 82nd year, we get to enjoy the stories of her life from the front row.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fake Blues: ABC's Roseanne

Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner in ABC's revival of Roseanne. (Photo: Adam Rose)

One of the truest and weirdest signs of the changing attitudes towards television is the central role that “reboots” of classic shows have taken on in critical discussions of the state of the art. (Everyone is a pop-culture critic now, and that’s truer for TV than it is for most things.) Most of the reboots that have attracted the most attention are of shows from the 1990s, such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Full House, and now Roseanne. It’s easy to see why: they’ve been gone long enough to inspire feelings of nostalgia, but are still recent enough that most of the key members of the casts can be tracked down and put back to work without the aid of walkers or jumper cables. (Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 should probably be counted a remake, like the current version of Hawaii Five-O, because its main cast is new, but players from the original version, notably show creator and star Joel Hodgson, have turned up in cameos to give their blessing to the new kids on the block.)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Romance and Regret: The Age of Innocence

The cast of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of The Age of Innocence (Photo: T. Charles Erickson).

I returned to Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel
The Age of Innocence before seeing Douglas McGrath’s stage adaptation, the latest collaboration between Hartford Stage and the McCarter Theatre Center, currently playing a run in the former space. It’s a diverting read but it’s never been one of my favorites. Wharton retraces Henry James’s steps and, coming seventeen years after The Ambassadors, her book feels shallow and a little obvious. In The Ambassadors the characters’ motivations are concealed behind exquisite screens that keep shifting, and you have to catch those motivations during the shifts, through the minute shafts of light that vanish moments later; his feat is to raise our stake in discovering the truth of these human interactions so high that the epiphany at the end, which is devastating for the hero, Strether, is devastating for us as well. Wharton also builds her novel around a blind American, half-stiffened by his upbringing, who is seduced and altered by the whiff of European exoticism and mystique, in the form of Ellen Olenska, an √©migr√© New Yorker who returns home on the lam from a disastrous marriage to a count. But Wharton spells everything out for us. And her protagonist Newland Archer, who is about to marry the Countess Olenska’s cousin May Welland, doesn’t synthesize our own conflicted feelings, the way Strether does; he comes across as a boob.  When Ellen falls in love with him, you wonder what on earth she could see in him.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Sweet Concoction: Meditation Park

Cheng Pei Pei (left) and Sandra Oh in Meditation Park.

I must confess, I’ve pretty much given up on English-Canadian cinema in recent years. Too many of the movies seem centered around addictions or dysfunctional families, subjects already tilled and brought off successfully by so many filmmakers. And since I don’t trust Canadian film critics on our movies – their raves are suspect as they are generally quite soft on the merits of the local product; I wrote a piece on this subject many years ago where our (then) leading reviewers admitted as much – I’ve opted out of attending  most of those releases. I was impressed by Andrew Cividino’s tough- minded coming-of-age debut feature Sleeping Giant (2015) – he’s a director to watch – but that was about the only one I think I checked out. Until now, when I dropped by my local multiplex a few days ago to see Mina Shum’s Mediation Park – on its last showing there, alas – mainly because it featured two of my favourite Canadian talents, Sandra Oh and Don McKellar, and because I had fond memories of Shum’s own feature debut, Double Happiness (1994), which starred Ms. Oh, in her own feature film debut as a  struggling Chinese Canadian actress attempting to balance family expectations against her own wishes to carve out an original path in life. Mediation Park flips the script with the character at its core, an elderly woman, as Oh’s mother, but, like the heroine of Double Happiness, still trying to deal with how to live and be happy. As with Shum’s debut, the film is also a similarly sharply etched, well-acted character study that is utterly engrossing.