Monday, April 28, 2014

The Family Romance

Although we live in an age of sexual explicitness, perhaps than in any other period of human history, it doesn't mean we have solved the mysteries of sex and repression. Writer Amanda Shubert found that out when she reviewed Adore (an adaptation of Doris Lessings The Grandmothers) for Critics at Large.   

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Power of the Performance

God knows there have been many great productions of Hamlet (and some bad ones, too), but Steve Vineberg writing in Critics at Large hasn't seen a Hamlet performance of quite the calibre of Rory Kinnear.

Hamlet of Hamlets

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, which was transmitted in HD in 2010 and recently had an encore screening, is set in a distinctly modern police state where the omnipresence of security is such a familiar sight in the court of Denmark that the characters have stopped noticing them. Polonius (David Calder) and Ophelia (Ruth Negga) talk freely in front of one guard, though the topic of their conversation is her romantic relationship with Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), and when Polonius confronts her about it, he produces a file containing photos of them together. Spying is a natural impulse to Polonius, who sends Reynaldo (Victor Power) off to France to check on his son Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) and later gives his daughter a walkie-talkie concealed in a Bible so that he and King Claudius (Patrick Malahide) can hear how Hamlet reacts when she returns his love gifts. The way Calder plays the old counselor, he has a passion for spying. He’s proud of himself for his ability to tender this service to his king – though when he tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” he pauses, unsettled, and you wonder if, just for a moment, he contemplates the possibility that he’s violated his own principles (at least since Claudius took over the throne). After Hamlet kills him by accident in his mother’s bedroom and Claudius can’t get him to stop clowning long enough to tell him where he stowed the body, one of the king’s men opens an attaché case full of torture instruments, and Hamlet, who has been handcuffed, acquiesces. Instead of being a fop (as he’s usually played), Osric (Nick Sampson) is the same military man who had a hand in Hamlet’s deportation to England – where he was supposed to be executed on the English king’s orders – and when he invites Hamlet to take part in the duel with Laertes, it’s obvious to us that he’s in on the conspiracy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Happy Gazing

Racing car movies for some reason seldom work as drama, but Ron Howard's Rush certainly did. Phil Dyess-Nugent suggested how and why in his review from Critics at Large.

Face Value: Ron Howard's Rush

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard's Rush

Like many people who have spent their entire adult lives, and then some, working in Hollywood, Ron Howard has a frame of reference shaped far more by movies than real life experience or history. As a child actor, Howard made a career out of gazing, in awe and worshipful confusion, at those who had mastered adult life, and as a successful, middle-aged movie director, that’s still his specialty. This can be a problem when he insists on making movies about people who have one foot in common, everyday experience, set in a world that is meant to be our own. I don’t remember ever having had a worse time at the movies than Backdraft (1991), his battling-firefighter-brothers movie, with a story thread about political corruption and a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure; the movie had a lot of problems to choose from, but the one at its core was its embarrassing, confident assumption that everyone still feels about firemen the way they did when they were eight years old. (If it had been released ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, it might have been acclaimed for its Zola-like realism.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Poirot R.I.P.

As Agatha Christie's iconic detective Hercule Poirot came to a conclusion on television, Shlomo Schwartzberg revisited the series in Critics at Large with fond nostalgia.

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot

Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


We all know the way that songs can haunt us our whole life where they can immediately invoke a time and place that's buried in memory. But Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large also examines how the songs sometimes haunt their creator.

Chasing Phantoms - From Del Shannon to Neil Young: "Runaway" and "Like a Hurricane"

When I was six and driving in the car with my parents, the radio often provided comfort either by giving me voices in the larger world beyond the roads we travelled, or music that could take me inside the world of the singer. For myself, the rock & roll I heard in 1960 was about finding a place, to paraphrase John Lennon, where I could go when I felt low. The songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly could reach out to the friendless and disenfranchised and invite us to to be part of something larger than ourselves. Even if their tunes were about heartache and loss, the mere sharing of that pain gave credence to the idea that one could transcend it because the music was about giving pleasure. In one of his last recorded songs, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," Buddy Holly playfully teases himself about how foolish he was to be driven crazy by the woman who abandons him. Not only does the singer survive the loss, he understands the price he was willing to pay in the process so he could move on. (It was only in real life, unlike in the nowhere land of the song, that Buddy Holly could lose his life in a plane crash he couldn't control.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mendacity and Truth

When it comes to aesthetics and politics, nobody blurred the line between the two and created unresolvable arguments concerning both like Leni Riefenstahl. Bob Douglas writing in Critics at Large takes no prisoners in his provocative examination of her life and work.

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl

“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pop Obsessions

In the early years of television a program's fan base could never fully influence a network's decision to keep it on the air. But now in the age of social media, a fan can let his pop obsessions be felt by its creator Veronica Mars is a perfect example as it is now a film thanks to those fans of the television show. Why the obsession with it? Mark Clamen goes into detail last year in Critics at Large before the film was released.

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Firefly – were barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.