Friday, April 11, 2014

B-Movie Shakespeare

Joss Whedon has brought great emotional sophistication to popular themes in mass culture (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but could he do the same to the great literature of the Bard? Amanda Shubert examines the mixed results of his Much Ado About Nothing in Critics at Large.

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

The material is not the problem. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable comedies, and it’s also completely within Whedon’s range. It may not have vampires and demons (Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel) or space-age cowboys and aliens (FireflySerenity), but it distills the qualities that make Whedon’s supernatural and extraterrestrial epics such compelling mythographies of real life experience. It’s a comedy that brings romantic happiness to the brink of disaster and back again, where erotic desire can be the source of complete wreckage as well as matrimonial union, and jealousy, hatred and rage are the shadow-presences of the profoundest love. That’s the attitude Whedon took towards high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the emotions of the teenage characters were so volatile they combusted into paranormal activity. On Angel, where the titular vampire with a soul (played by David Boreanaz) moves from the suburb of Sunnydale to Los Angeles and fights the criminal underworld of monsters as a sort of noir detective, the point is that everyone, not just Angel, has a demon lurking within – it’s the nature of being human. Whedon has a way of putting horror and science fiction movie scenarios in quotation marks while at the same time showing you the real emotion underneath them. The bad guy in the first season of Buffy is a centuries-old vampire called The Master with an apocalyptic endgame. He’s pure camp, but when a prophecy surfaces that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will die at The Master’s hands Whedon plays against all our expectations: Gellar channels the heartbreak and fury of a sixteen year-old girl forced to stare down her own death. The tone turns on you – suddenly you’re watching the real substance of nightmares.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sojourn Through the American Heartland

Usually when a Coen brothers' film opens, there's quite a fanfare among their followers. With their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, it began that way and then it disappeared into history like its main character. Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large wishes that it had hung around longer.

The Coen Odyssey: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

In his memoir, ChroniclesBob Dylan wrote that “a folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.” What he meant was that you had to let the songs sing you rather than the other way around. When Dylan would perform a traditional tune about the slave market, like "No More Auction Block," he wanted to sing it from inside the experience of the black man being sold into bondage. "With a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it," he said in 1966. "[But] you may have to lean forward a little." Becoming a character in a song like "No More Auction Block" requires a fair bit of leaning, and maybe sometimes even donning a few nifty disguises, but that's how Bob Dylan transformed American topical music into a fervid national drama that the listener had a stake in.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beyond Cable

More and more people are abandoning cable, or at least, turning online to stream and download television shows. One popular site to take advantage of this is Netflix, which launched House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Mark Clamen examines the latter in Critics at Large.  

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Houdini of the Dance

For those who never considered choreography as the art of the magic, you need to read Deirdre Kelly writing in Critics at Large about Claudia Moore.

Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Dancer Claudia Moore

Claudia Moore (photo by Tamara Romanchuk)
By calling her latest show Escape Artist, Claudia Moore conjures an intriguing picture of herself as a kind of Houdini of the dance. Technically an illusionist, the death-defying escape artist alluded to in the title strives to be free of restraints, be they handcuffs, straitjackets or cages in a sea of sharks to name some of the claustrophobic situations these suspenseful performers have been employing since their arrival on the pop culture scene at the end of the 19th century. Moore, a seasoned dancer who is artistic director of her own MOonhORsE Dance Theatre company, obviously loves the concept. But her solo show of four commissioned works which played at Toronto’s Dancemakers Studio in the Distillery District during the last weeks of October (including a Hallowe’en performance where the audience was invited to come in costume) did not take the shackle and bust theme literally. In other words, no real chains only imagined ones.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Magic Bullets

One of the most unresolved crimes, at least as far as conspiracy theorists go, is the JFK assassination in 1963. Besides the dozens of books on the subject, there are many films which Phil Dyess-Nugent delved into in Critics at Large last fall on the fiftieth anniversary.

Vicious Circles: The JFK Conspiracy Films

Immersing oneself in the conspiracy mythology that has grown up around the assassination of President Kennedy means hearing, again and again, confident assertions of things that have been repeatedly shown to be untrue. Oswald couldn’t shoot straight, they say, and no one could get off the number of shots he supposed fired in the space of time he had using the weapon he would have used. There's also exhaustive, detailed arguments that completely unravel upon close inspection (such as all the mocking elaborations on the impossible trajectory of the bullet that passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally that fail to take into account the fact that, as you guess just from looking at photos of the two men riding in the presidential limousine, Kennedy’s seat was a few key inches higher than Connally’s).

There was never any valid intellectual reason for doubting that Lee Harvey Oswald was the president’s killer, just as there’s never been any valid intellectual reason for doubting that the plays and poetry credited to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. Arguments that somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s work always come down to snobbery; they’re emotionally necessary for people who can’t deal with the fact that the greatest English writer was a mutt. The belief that Kennedy must have been the victim of a conspiracy must be very reassuring to people who can’t wrap their minds around the idea that some mutt with a mail-order rifle changed the course of history. That helps to explain why high-profile conspiracy proponents – people who claim to think that powerful forces, maybe even the government itself, murdered the president and got off scott free, never seem to be as furiously angry and despairing as you’d expect them to be. Given the chance to spout off, an Oliver Stone or Mark Lane is more likely to come across as remarkably at peace, even smug. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t live in a world where chaos reigns and things are out of man’s control. They know something you don’t know.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

All the Right Notes

It's been a great era for documentaries and, according to Shlomo Schwartzberg in Critics at Large, especially music docs.

The Lasting Impact and Joy of Cross-Cultural Currents: Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie)

As long as there has been music there has been fertilization of different sounds and rhythms between musicians from various countries and continents. From African slaves bringing their music to America and giving birth to the blues and later jazz to the British, in turns, absorbing American tunes, and melding their essences to proffer their unique brand of rock and roll, music has functioned as one of the best ambassadors for cross-cultural connections and co-operation. Two new documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie) attest to that fact, examining, in turn, a specific sound and one particular song, while offering some provocative theories as to why things turned out the way they did.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Speaking Out

Today, sadly, marks the first anniversary of the passing of critic David Churchill who co-founded Critics at Large with Kevin Courrier and Shlomo Schwarzberg. To remember him, we offer one of his final pieces where he examines the firestorm that erupted over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

When a Physical Book Becomes a Symbol: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

In February 1989, a fire-storm erupted over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. It had been building for weeks, but finally burst into full-blown crisis when Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, meaning that any Muslim was compelled to kill Rushdie over the supposedly blasphemous novel. The fatwa did not just apply to Rushdie, though. Anybody who edited, published, translated or dealt with the publication of the novel in any way could also killed. People were murdered, including a few of Rushdie's translators. Rushdie went into hiding for years, moving a total of 56 times in the first few months alone.

Though Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, the fatwa has never been officially lifted. This past year, he published a memoir in novel form of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton. At the time, what got me mobilized, beyond my utter belief in freedom of speech (and yes, I defend the right of some offensive fool to say whatever they like just as much I defend my right to tear his or her arguments apart), was when bookstores in the US and UK, such as Barnes and Noble, began to fearfully remove the book from their sales racks. My reaction to that news was to head out to a bookstore in Toronto and immediately buy a copy. Since the chain stores now seemed too terrified to sell the book, I went down to Queen Street West to the (now-defunct) Edwards Bookstore. (I don't remember if Coles or WH Smith removed it from sale or not, but I wanted, in this case, to give my business to an independent bookseller.) They had new copies on sale, but before I took one up to cash I decided to check out their 'reduced' tables. Back in the day, Edwards Books was a treasure trove of great books on many subjects, but it was their bargain tables where I found so many wonderful ones I could regularly afford. As I glanced through the tables, my eye caught sight of two or three books without dust jackets, spines up. From a distance, there seemed to be pieces of white tape over the spines of these books. Out of curiosity, I looked closer. It wasn't tape, I realized, but white thread had been used to sew up damage on their spines. I got closer and looked at the title. I took an involuntary step back. They were all repaired copies of The Satanic Verses. I picked up the one that had the most elaborate work. The repair job was immaculate, like it had been done by a surgeon (they looked like stitches). Bisecting the word Verses (you can see an image further down the text). This white thread held together what looked like a scalpel-like cut right through the letter R of Verses. The others copies were repaired too, but none as intriguingly as this.