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.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Zeitgeist Redux

Mad Men has just begun its seventh and final season. Many are split on whether or not the show has successfully caught the temper of the era of the Sixties. Even so, the late David Churchill (who passed away just before Season Six got under way) got to the divided heart of the matter in this review of Season Five in Critics at Large.

When Passion Overwhelms Skill: Season Five of Mad Men

Caution. Many, many spoilers are included.

I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Resurrection: Pete Townshend on Tommy

Since it is Easter, it seemed appropriate to turn to a rock opera with its own Christ story that continues to be resurrected: The Who's Tommy. Deirdre Kelly spoke to its creator Pete Townshend last fall when the production was enjoying a successful run at the Stratford Festival.

Adventures in Art, Expedient Creativity and Spirituality: Interview with Pete Townshend

Last June, critic Deirdre Kelly reviewed the Stratford production of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy in Critics at Large as "a feast of the senses." She went on to elaborate that "this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo." Speaking of the composer, Pete Townshend, the founder of The Who, Kelly had an opportunity to talk with him for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The paper ran a portion of her long discussion with the artist. Here today, we supply the rest. Townshend discusses a range of subjects including autism in relation to Tommy, the spiritual guidance of Meher Baba, the generational conflict in post-War Britain and the continued relevance of Tommy today.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Objects of Love

There are movies that serve as literal adaptations of the novels they are based on. But there are others, like Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame De..., that also seem to call up other books that better speak to its sensibility. Writing about the Ophuls' picture in Critics at Large, Amanda Shubert finds its antecedent in Tolstoy.  

Risk and Rapture: The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray DVD of The Earrings of Madame De…

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame De...

Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame De is built around a pun. Madame De (or Madame De— as it is written in text) is also Madame Deux. Two men – her husband, Monsieur De—, and her lover, the Ambassador – divide her. She is a double woman in the sense that she is duplicitous, but even this is only one half of her character, for Madame De—’s coquettish charms belie her emotional depth. The story revolves around a pair of earrings the wealthy and elegant Madame De— sells back to the jeweler to pay off her debts. A wedding present from her husband, the earrings are returned by the jeweler to Monsieur De— who buys them a second time and gives them rather cavalierly as a parting gift to a mistress of whom he has begun to tire. The mistress pawns them at the gambling table overseas, and in a storefront window they catch the eye of a foreign diplomat. The Ambassador sails to the European country where he has just been stationed, and immediately encounters Monsieur and Madame De— in high society. Fascinated by her, he arouses her vanity, her passion and then her love; he gives her the precious earrings as a gift. Madame De— is astonished to see her jewels once again, and she deceives the Ambassador about their provenance to protect his pride; only when the Ambassador learns the truth, from Monsieur De— who sees the Ambassador as a harmless suitor and the gift of the earrings as a genial mistake, his love dries up. He suspects Madame De— of being as faithless and vacant as the jewels, an object of glittering beauty to be passed from owner to owner, just at the moment when the love she feels elevates her beyond her vanity. For the Ambassador, the charming innocence of Madame De— has vanished, but we begin to perceive that beneath her deceptions is the true innocence of a woman falling in love for the first time. Madame De— renounces the world and dies a martyr, a heart-shaped earring in each hand.

Friday, April 18, 2014


The great iconic actors have a way of being reborn in the lives of future generations - often with chilling similarities. Susan Green in Critics at Large examines the examples of James Dean and River Phoenix.

Phoenix Descending: The Young and the Restless and the Doomed

River Phoenix (1970-1993)

As a starstruck little girl, I experienced a broken heart when 24-year-old James Dean died in an automobile accident on September 30, 1955. From that day on, I began each entry in my diary with “Dear Jimmy.” A somewhat similar sadness took hold when drugs claimed the life of 23-year-old River Phoenix on Halloween 1993. But in starstruck adulthood, I no longer kept a diary with which to deny the untimely deaths of sensitive young actors.

Like Dean, Phoenix projected vulnerability, intensity and an edgy sense of potential self-destruction in his films. These qualities, which graced them both with a charisma lacking in most of their otherwise talented Hollywood peers, almost made tragedy seem inevitable. From a troubled adolescent in Stand by Me(1986) to the anguished son of fugitive parents in Running on Empty (1988), Phoenix brought that special something to the screen. In director Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), he portrays a character with narcolepsy. Never very lively while awake, he abruptly falls asleep anywhere, anytime – much like a junkie nodding out. It’s an uncanny performance in a strange movie based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Common Ground

Our obsessions with pop figures sometimes takes on the staging of a turf war when it comes to defending their work against others who claim similarity. That was nowhere more than in the case of Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. When Lou Reed died last year it prompted Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large to examine the common ground occupied by both artists.   

The Wild Side: Lou Reed vs Frank Zappa

Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (illustration by Chris Grayson) 

It's curious how we recall certain moments only when death intervenes and creates a rent in our day. The sad passing of Lou Reed this past Sunday, at the age of 71, took me immediately to a typical party I attended as a teenager on a Saturday night back in the early Seventies. There's no significant reason to remember this party and I hadn't even thought about it since the night it happened. But that's what death does. It brings dormant moments back to life. On that evening, it was the first time I became aware of Lou Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, just happened to be playing on the turntable and I remember most the nursery rhyme beauty of the opening track, "Sunday Morning," the slashing guitar that droned under the driving beat of "I'm Waiting for the Man," and the pulsating intensity of "Heroin," where John Cale's shrieking violin seemed to create an electric blanket to surround Reed's determined voice and speaking for his heightened nervous system; the sensations brought on by milk-blood flowing in the veins (all of which made Steppenwolf's popular song "The Pusher" seem even sillier and more self-conscious by comparison). I also loved the Celtic melody that underscored "Venus in Furs" while the flattened out timbre of Nico's voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties" made me momentarily forget the party I was attending.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Illuminating Backdrop

Director Sophia Coppola doesn't make movies driven so much by plot as they are by mood and suggestion. Nick Coccoma examines in Critics at Large how that quality enhances her latest film.

Mimetic Desire: The Bling Ring

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola’s first movie, The Virgin Suicides (1999), treated a cadre of teenage sisters and their relationship with the material and moral strictures surrounding them. With The Bling Ring she comes full circle in a way, but the detours she’s taken in the intermediary years bring her to a very different vantage point. Once again, a group of adolescent girls (plus one boy) are the main characters; once again, the effect of materiality and culture is the theme. But her take on this material is informed now by her intervening films, Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), and Somewhere (2010). Without those reference points, you could slip and pass off The Bling Ring as a pointless affair. So did the woman next to me in the theater when I saw it, who pronounced it the worst movie she’d ever seen (did she forget the Baz Luhrmann movie playing next door?). But with Coppola’s oeuvre hanging as an illuminating backdrop, The Bling Ring reveals itself as perhaps her most biting, damning portrait of society yet.