Monday, December 31, 2012

Indie & Illicit

With the New Year coming up, the timing seemed apt to reprint a review by Susan Green in Critics at Large about music that topples old orders for new ones.

Keep on Rockin' in the Free World: From Society to Screen

Politically oppressive regimes threatened by the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll are a key factor in two 2009 films set three decades and 1,500 miles apart. Christian Carion’s Farewell (originally L’Affaire Farewell) is a feature that chronicles a true 1981 cloak-and-dagger tale in Moscow, where a Russian KGB analyst’s teenage son cares more about David Bowie than Karl Marx. Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, a docudrama by Bahman Ghobadi, focuses on the many illicit indie bands dodging authoritarian rule in contemporary Tehran. Both productions make for potent cinema that transcends cultures and continents, much like music.

The Velvet Underground helped inspire Czechoslovakia’s bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution, apparently a designation that began to take hold among dissidents when a copy of the Andy Warhol-influenced band’s first album was smuggled into Prague 20 years earlier. In Farewell, French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) smuggles in a cassette of Queen’s News of the World, along with a Sony Walkman, at the request of a KGB mole, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica). In a field far from prying government eyes and ears, his alienated adolescent, Igor (Yvgenie Kharlanov), mimics Freddie Mercury’s moves to “We Will Rock You.”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Acting in the Moment

From time to time, in Critics at Large, Steve Vineberg chooses to examine an actor's body of work. One of his favourite stage performers is Mark Rylance whom he wrote about last winter.

Mark Rylance: Everyman in Extremis

Mark Rylance in Measure for Measure, at the Globe Theatre in 2004.

A friend who saw Christopher Walken play William Hurt’s roommate in the original Broadway production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly in the mid-eighties once told me that Walken was so utterly relaxed that he scarcely seemed to be acting at all. My friend described a moment when Walken, in the middle of listening to a conversation, looked down at his watch, conveyed that he was late for a meeting, and disappeared, his rhythm so natural and free of even the subtlest dramatic rigging that it looked as if he’d improvised it – decided at that moment, on that evening, to leave the stage. I’ve seen Walken on stage twice, and I can imagine what my friend was talking about. Both times he was playing Chekhov, whose brand of naturalism demands that performers throw off theatrical self-consciousness and bury themselves in their characters. When he played Astrov in Uncle Vanya at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late Nineties, he executed one of the two most sublime drunk scenes I’ve ever seen live (the other was by Alan Bates in another Russian work, Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool, on Broadway, the last play he appeared in before he died), and its special quality of improbably sustained distraction, the feeling of not just balancing on eggshells but pirouetting on them, was the result of an almost Zen intensity of relaxation.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Unheralded and Prolific: Michael Winterbottom

If ever there were a director that most resembles the late Robert Altman in both range of material and style (plus unpredictability), it's Michael Winterbottom. Shlomo Schwartzberg did a career overview of Winterbottom in 2011 in Critics at Large.

Remarkable Polymath: The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom

Director Michael Winterbottom
It may be because he’s so prolific, putting out at least one film most years and sometimes more; or maybe because he has no discernable visual style (Bringing Up Baby’s director Howard Hawks didn't either); or simply because he rarely makes a film in the same genre twice in a row; but for whatever reason, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom may be the most unheralded director around. He’s also one of the most interesting ones, too, which makes his below-the-radar state somewhat unjust.

Since he began making TV films in 1989 through to his recently completed film Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, but set in India, which will be released next year, Winterbottom has amassed 25 credits in just 22 years, most of those being feature films. He’s also tackled virtually every genre under the sun (except for horror) from domestic dramas (Family, 1994;Wonderland, 1999) to literary adaptations (Jude, 1996; A Cock and Bull Story, 2006), from westerns (The Claim, 2003) to science fiction movies (Code 46, 2006), film noir (I Want You,1998), to comedy/dramas (24 Hour Party People, 2002), even a unique love story interspersed with hardcore, genuine sex scenes and live concert scenes (9 Songs, 2004). That wide-ranging interest in disparate subject matter and characters might, in a minor filmmaker, result in a lot of diverse movies that didn’t necessarily succeed as art/entertainment. But except for a few duds (the overwrought psychological thriller Butterfly Kiss, 1995; his simplistic fact-based post 9/11 drama The Road to Guatanamo, 2006), most of his output stands out, particularly his very fine topical dramas which centre on war (Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997) and displaced peoples (In This World, 2003), and his more offbeat offerings (Code 46, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs). The other fact you need to know about his movies is that many of them don’t often play commercially in North America or in limited release at best. (I wouldn’t have seen some of his earliest films, such as I Want You and With or Without You, 1999, if they hadn't been featured at a now-defunct British film festival in Toronto which showcased Winterbottom’s movies as its centrepiece.) More likely they’ll pop up at various film festivals before heading straight to pay-TV and DVD. The Killer Inside Me (which had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. but never played in Canada) was released on DVD last year and recently premiered on The Movie Network in Canada, as did A Summer in Genoa. Both premiered on TV at almost the same time as one of Winterbtottom's rarer commercial releases in Canada, The Trip. Remarkably, The Trip has hung on since it opened earlier this summer. The trio offers a chance for film-goers to gain a perspective on the director and his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker.
Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me

The first strike against The Killer Inside Me(2010), a film noir adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, is that it stars Casey Affleck, one of those dreadful actors – Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and Jonah Hill (Get Him to the Greek) are others – who make me want to run the other way when their name appears in the credits of a movie. But he is only one of the myriad problems in this wretched and vile film, one which fails on every possible level.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bourne Films: 21st Century Le Carré

The latest Bourne film (The Bourne Legacy) recently came out on DVD providing a perfect opportunity to post Steve Vineberg's appraisal of the series in Critics at Large.

The Bourne Series: A Touch of the Human

At some point fairly late in The Bourne Identity, the first (2002) film in the series culled from the Robert Ludlum bestsellers, the amnesiac hero known as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) – using impressive secret-agent skills he’s continually startled to find he possesses – figures out that one of an apparently unending series of assassins sent out to hunt him down has located the house where he and his companion Marie (Franka Potente) have spent the night. So he quietly sends their host, an old lover of Marie’s, with his two little kids to safety in their basement, then grabs a rifle and leads the unseen hit man (Clive Owen) out into the woods for a face-off. It may seem like a trivial concern, but I was grateful to the director, Doug Liman, and the screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, for having the decency to remove two innocent children from danger before we had time to get anxious over their well-being. It struck me as almost chivalric on the filmmakers’ part to consider the feelings of the audience – to recognize that you can tense up a thriller without making it a sadistic experience.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Present Day Composer

One of the great electronic composers of the 20th Century, Edgard Varèse, is barely remembered today. Earlier this year in Critics at Large, Kevin Courrier served a reminder.

Edgard Varèse & The Bomb That Would Explode the Musical World

                                       Edgard Varèse
On the night of May 29, 1913, Edgard Varèse sat in attendance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris watching the infamous performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This was an evening considered by some to mark the spiritual birth of the 20th Century. While abuse was being hurled at the stage, and indignation toward this "barbaric" music raged around him, Varèse calmly wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, many composers were already growing tired of tonality. They had already begun resenting the adherence to a single key as the only accepted foundation for musical composition. Arnold Schoenberg, the Austro-Hungarian composer born in 1874, even developed his own solution: the twelve-tone system, an approach allowing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale to be played before the first note is played again. This open-ended arrangement offered composers the opportunity to compose disciplined atonal music that would be equivalent to the most traditional tonal system.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TV News 101

Aaron Sorkin has been on something of a roll since The West Wing and The Social Network. But on the HBO series, The Newsroom, Mark Clamen in Critics at Large finds the roll has come to a slight halt.

The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth to Stupid

Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom, on HBO

Contains minor spoilers for the first episode of The Newsroom.

Tonight the third episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new workplace drama, airs on HBO, and it pains me to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it. When the series – which is set in the anguished world of TV news production, and boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston – premiered two weeks ago, I tuned in with cautious optimism.

On the plus side, the pilot episode marked Sorkin’s return to series television after five long years, since the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired on NBC in 2007. On the negative side, well, Studio 60: a series which, like The Newsroom, came with a great cast (in that case Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a promising premise, and great expectations. Sure, the show had intelligent characters, and the mile-a-minute dialogue that Sorkin so brilliantly employed in his two previous critically-acclaimed shows Sports Night and The West Wing, but Studio 60 quickly became bogged down by Sorkin’s own ambitions. By mid-season, the show’s big ideas about America’s so-called “culture wars” began to dwarf the characters and story, and more often than not its speeches felt like Aaron Sorkin debating Aaron Sorkin: staged political dialogues, voiced by Hollywood actors. It was smart, funny, and looked and sounded great, but it grew progressively more tiresome, until I began to look forward to its inevitable cancellation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Holiday Trash

Since it is Christmas Day, David Churchill recommends what he sees as a perfect holiday adventure tale.

Saturday Matinee Redux: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget extravaganza Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) is a throwback to Saturday matinee adventure movies. I didn't catch up to it on the big screen because the thought of sitting through a sprayed-on copper-skinned, muscled-up Jake Gyllenhaal (usually a scrawny actor in indie films) in an action film was not on the top of my list. It didn't help that the critics had been generally unmerciful in their attacks. What I had forgotten, though, is that there is a herd mentality amongst some film critics. Not wanting to appear unhip, or not with it, too many of them thrust their, um, thumbs into the sky to see which way the wind is blowing. The early critical opinion was not good, so those upraised thumbs quickly turned down and the film's fate was sealed.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Frickin' Christmas

With Christmas almost upon us, here's what a few of us in Critics at Large picked as our favourite holiday picks back in 2010.

Christmas Cheer: Our Seasonal Flicks

For those who celebrate Christmas, we wish you a very Merry one. For those who don't, be cheerful anyway. For everybody who loves watching movies, here's a few of our seasonal favourites.

As a resident of the Green Mountain State, I probably should prefer 1954’s White Christmas, a sentimental cinematic journey set at a quaint Vermont inn, where cast members (including Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) perform the titular Irving Berlin song. Instead, give me a heathy dose of irony with A Christmas Story, the timeless 1983 comedy about an eccentric Indiana family during the early 1940s. This autobiographical slice-of-life in the fictional Parker household was written and narrated by Jean Shepherd, the late-night radio idol of my New York childhood. Dad (Darren McGavin) and Mom (Melinda Dillon) try to deflect the fervent holiday wish of nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) for a toy BB gun, specifically the Red Ryder Air Rifle, with this parental mantra: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” The director, Bob Clark, may be a Canadian with the execrable Porky’s on his resume, but he got the daffy decency of Middle America just right. Billingsley, by the way, is now the executive producer of A Christmas Story: The Musical! Preview performances of the play in Seattle have already begun, hopefully a very merry highlight of the season.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companionand with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Literary Life

Steve Vineberg in this Critics at Large review gives us a taste of the comic neurosis of the literary world.

Lit Wit: Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

Hamish Linklater, Alan Rickman, Jerry O'Connell, Lily Rabe & Hettienne Park in Seminar. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, currently on Broadway, is a hard-boiled comedy about literary life that trades on our fantasies about writers in a highly entertaining fashion. Four aspiring twenty-something writers meet weekly in an Upper West Side apartment to show their work to a celebrated editor and get his response. Kate (Lily Rabe), a Bennington grad from a blue-chip background, is renting the luxurious venue, with its Hudson River view, from her father for an unheard-of low price. (One of her peers describes her lifestyle as “socialism for the rich.”) Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), an insufferable self-promoter with connections, has just returned from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he honed a story that’s under consideration at The New Yorker. Izzy (Hettienne Park) puts sex front and center in her work – she claims it’s the most important element in fiction – and flaunts her own sexuality, though the fact that she’s still living with her parents undercuts the daring of her forays into the adult world. The only member of the quartet without a whiff of privilege is Kate’s friend Martin (Hamish Linklater), who moves into her apartment early in the play because he’s being evicted from his own. Leonard (Alan Rickman), a rude, profanely sardonic, self-styled-hipster narcissist whom they’ve hired at an exorbitant fee, tears into their submissions, dismissing Kate’s after the first sentence as lethally boring and tempering his praise for Douglas’s accomplished style with a slam at his quickness to pander to his readers. (He calls him a whore and recommends he move to Hollywood.) And as he does so, he exposes their fragile egos, their terrors (week after week, Martin declines to pass over any of his own novel for Leonard’s inspection), their jealousies (Kate has a crush on Martin and resents the attention he pays to Izzy, who seduces him effortlessly), and the lengths to which their increasing desperation in this competitive literary hothouse atmosphere drives them.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Icon Transformed

For those who thought the sex kitten image of Marilyn Monroe was set, Michelle Williams brings flesh and blood realism to an image. Kevin Courrier writes about that transformation in a review of Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn in Critics at Large.

The Monroe Mystique: Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
As Meryl Streep went up to collect her golden statue at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, I was one of those she referred to from the stage going, “Oh no, not her again.” The Iron Lady is the insufferably noble Mrs. Miniver returned to us with Greer Garson’s patriotic stoicism repackaged as a modern feminist polemic. Who would have ever guessed that Margaret Thatcher’s life and policies would be seriously perceived as a brave revolt against the male establishment? But that’s how this picture skirts any controversial dramatic take on Thatcher. Just like Patton, four decades ago, The Iron Lady is shrewdly designed with box office consideration to give us a Thatcher that both liberals and conservatives can find acceptable without ever fully delving into the depths of what made her such a divisive figure. As for Streep’s celebrated role as Thatcher, it is so skillfully mannered (with every defiant nuance carefully in place) that her performance becomes as self-righteous as the story. If the rousing sentimentality of Greer Garson’s stiff-upper lip can help countries win wars, I guess Meryl Streep’s grand dame theatrics can win awards.

Friday, December 21, 2012

When Truth Outdoes Fiction

Documentaries can often do stories that would never be thought believable in fiction. A case in point is Shlomo Schwartzberg's review of last year's Oscar-winner for Best Documentary in Critics at Large.

Undefeated: Sometimes a Simple Story is Good Enough

A scene from the Academy Award winning documentary Undefeated

It’s no surprise that Daniel Lindsay’s and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year’s Oscars. This highly inspirational tale of a white volunteer coach guiding an all-black football team to their best season in history can’t help but strike a pleasing, receptive chord in today’s polarized United States, including among the voters who chose it for the Oscar. But while the movie isn’t startlingly original or groundbreaking, it’s a gripping and even, dare I say, heart-warming film that proves once again that truth can often outdo fiction when it comes to edge-of-your seat storytelling.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Clocks That Strike Thirteen

With our recent obsessions with the Mayan Calendar and the end of the world, films have been continually providing us with dystopian outcomes including this ditty reviewed by Susan Green in Critics at Large.

Identity Crisis: The Source Code Switcheroo

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

That’s the opening line in George Orwell’s classic book, 1984. Here it is once more the “cruelest month,” as poet T.S. Eliot contended in The Waste Land, and a similarly bright cold day. Not so sure about the clocks, but the foreboding in those 20th century literary works surely resonates today. The 1949 novel concerns a totalitarian dystopia where the term “memory hole” refers to enforced amnesia and “Newspeak” is language dumbed-down to foster lack of logical thought. Eliot’s twisty 1922 verses include “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” “One must be so careful these days” and other despairing observations.

Two new films, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code(released on April 1st), suggest Big Brother-like societies. In the former production, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, Matt Damon plays a politician who encounters the unseen forces – all wearing fedoras! – that manipulate our lives. Source Code, cleverly written by Ben Ripley and smartly directed by Duncan Jones, is a sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens. His last memory is of flying a helicopter mission in Afghanistan when he’s suddenly transported onto a commuter train heading for Chicago with a bomb onboard.

Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal
But Colter has now become a stranger named Sean sitting with Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty young woman hoping to reconfigure her life by quitting a job and dropping an unworthy boyfriend. They have lovely old-fashioned chemistry in a story propelled by futuristic technology. Meanwhile, he feels panic upon seeing an unfamiliar face (that of actor Frederick De Granpre) staring back at him in a restroom mirror, although still looking like handsome Jake Gyllenhaal to us. When the blast takes place, the soldier is catapulted back to his true self in the present but for some reason confined to a claustrophobic pod in a hush-hush military lab.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Forever Young

Who says that as dancers hit middle age, they should turn in their shoes? Certainly not Deirdre Kelly in this piece on the subject published in Critics at Large.

Oldies But Goldies: Toronto Heritage Dance Recycles Vintage Works Into Something New

Patricia Beatty
The heads in the audience, for the most part, were gray and nodding as around them swirled pre-show chatter touching on the weather, doctor’s appointments and 25th anniversary reunions. It was definitely an older crowd that gathered inside Toronto’s Winchester Street Theatre (80 Winchester Street) on Thursday night for an evening of dance, an art form notorious for its love affair with youth. Many in the house were ex-dancers whose own leaping days were far behind them. They had come not entirely for nostalgia’s sake, although the event gave reason enough for reminiscing: the program at hand promised an evening of revivals by local dance pioneers as well as the welcome return to the stage of some beloved local dancers, long retired. But more enticing (and worthy of a late night) was that this modern dance show, while celebrating the past, was actually something novel, marking as it did the debut of Toronto Heritage Dance, the new kid on the Canadian dance block with a backpack jammed with history.

The brainchild of veteran dance producer Nenagh Leigh in collaboration with Patricia Beatty, Toronto Heritage Dance aims to use work from the not-so-distant past (the oldest work on the current program is just 40) to jumpstart new creations for the 21st century. The idea, elaborated Leigh during a brief intermission chat, is to get audiences used to the idea of preservation as a means of fostering a re-invigorated dance future. Vintage is all the rage in fashion, film and home decor. So why not apply the trend to locally made dance? 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Into the Great Wide Open

A film about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that clocks in around four hours may seem like overkill, but according to Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large, Runnin' Down a Dream does more than satisfy.

Learning to Fly: Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Until I recently caught up with director Peter Bogdanovich’s highly engaging four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007), I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. What Runnin’ Down a Dream helped me realize is how Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, for the last 33 years, have kept some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers create an immediacy that makes each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played.

I think critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine nailed Tom Petty’s appeal and longevity perfectly when he said that “[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] didn’t break from tradition the way their punk contemporaries did. Instead, they celebrated it, culling the best parts of The British Invasion, American garage rock, and Dylanesque singer/songwriters to create a distinctly American hybrid that recalled the past without being indebted to it.” Runnin’ Down a Dream illustrates how Petty and his group have kept that faith despite some definite bumps in the road to challenge it.

Monday, December 17, 2012


One of the many groups and musical artists looking back to an earlier era of music to either re-interpret it (or simply to bathe in its sound) are the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In writing about their last album, John Corcelli, in Critics at Large, tells us what their dip into the past means in the present.

Infatuated with the Past: Carolina Chocolate Drops' Leaving Eden

The new Carolina Chocolate Drops CD Leaving Eden (Nonesuch, 2012) is an album that seeks to acknowledge the American past with its eclectic mix of jig, blues and ballads, where the historical roots even go far back to the 1870s. Sepia images not only grace the cover and liner notes, the instrumentation is banjo, jugs, fiddles and bones used for percussion. I’m not entirely certain of the band’s intentions regarding their image, but as far as the music is concerned, producer Buddy Miller has captured the soul of a band infatuated with the past and not afraid to show it.

American roots music has much to celebrate in the 21st Century as a new generation of musicians seeks out a tradition that is old and as un-hip as one could imagine. For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who bill themselves as progenitors of Negro Jug Music, the whole notion of being fashionable takes on an image completely removed from the mainstream. In many ways, this North Carolina trio goes beyond categorization. Rhiannon Giddens (vocals / banjo / fiddle), Dom Flemons (vocals / percussion / banjo) and Hubby Jenkins (guitar / banjo) came together in 2005 while trading instruments and playing a particular brand of music associated with the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. The Piedmont region covers an area from New Jersey to Georgia, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. It was in these foothills that Piedmont blues, a mix of ragtime, folk songs and African American spirituals, was born. By the 1920s, guitarists such as Blind Blake developed a sound that was eventually captured on record, thanks to the work of Alan Lomax, the historian who travelled the world with his reel-to-reel tape recorder. His recordings made for the Library of Congress are essential to understanding the history of American roots music.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Through the Ages

One way that a critic can delve into why some things work (and don't work) in a production is by divulging the rules that the genre plays by. Steve Vineberg, in Critics at Large, takes three plays from different eras in comedy to do just that.  

Three Comedies from Different Eras

Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, which translated commedia dell’ arte into scripted form, was mostly consigned to the reading of theatre history scholars until Giorgio Strehler, Jacques LeCoq and Amleto Sartori mounted their famous production in Italy in 1947 and brought it back into the public consciousness. In it, an Arlecchino figure – a tricky servant – manages to serve two employers simultaneously without either of them knowing it, and without realizing that they’re separated lovers. (One, the story’s heroine, is disguised as a man.) The play is entertaining but I prefer One Man, Two Guv’nors, Richard Bean’s revision, which was given a tip-top production at the National Theatre in London by Nicholas Hytner that has moved to the West End. (It was recently shown widely on HD.)

Bean has transplanted the Goldoni text to 1963 England – providing just enough distance from the audience’s experience to allow for a stylized period farce – and the scenes are interspersed with songs by Grant Olding, who leads a combo in shiny mauve suits called The Craze. (Olding, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, wears heavy-frame specs like Buddy Holly.) The songs evoke a variety of early-sixties groups, including Herman’s Hermits and, inevitably, The Beatles. The servant with two governors is Francis Henshall, played by the ingenious James Corden, whom aficionados of British film will recall from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing and Hytner’s The History Boys. His employers are a prep-school twit named Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and the woman of his dreams, Rachel Crabbe (Jemma Rooper), who hatch a plan to emigrate to Australia after Stanley kills her twin brother Roscoe in self-defense; in the meantime Rachel pretends to be Roscoe to keep everyone off the scent. That means that she also has to pretend to be engaged to a brainless ingénue named Pauline (Claire Lams) – a match of convenience arranged by Roscoe, who was gay, and Pauline’s Mafioso dad, Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway). Pauline is really in love with a highly dramatic actor named Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby) whose father (Martyn Ellis) is the slippery solicitor Charlie and his friends typically employ to get them out of scrapes. The other characters, rounding out the cast of commedia types, are “The Duck”’s wised-up bookkeeper Dolly (Suzie Toase), the object of Henshall’s amorous inclinations, a Caribbean called Lloyd (Trevor Laird) who runs a pub-restaurant, and a pair of waiters (David Benson and Tom Edden).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Re-Thinking Chekhov

Director Louis Malle, along with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, had already created a whole new genre of film with My Dinner with Andre (1982). By the time they came together again in 1994 to do Uncle Vanya, according to Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large, they created a whole new hybrid of theatre and movies. 

For the Sheer Pleasure of the Text: Criterion's DVD Release of Vanya on 42nd Street

One way of describing Louis Malle's extraordinary Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which Criterion has just released on regular and Blu-ray DVD in a sparkling newly remastered print, is to say that it depicts theater director Andre Gregory's workshop of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But it is neither a documentary nor is it filmed theater. It's not even in the traditional sense of the word a movie. Vanya on 42nd Streetis more like an inspired laboratory where a number of actors plus their director delve into the play by peeling away all of its acclaim, its reputation and various interpretations, plus its legendary hold on modern theater, in order to get to the very root of its tragic realism, to reveal what it is that makes this seminal work last. As if he were setting out to rediscover an old forgotten language, Andre Gregory takes his cast through Vanya for the sheer pleasure of the text; to find out just what this text reveals to the actors about the characters they inhabit. "What Chekhov is about fundamentally is the nature of the quality of [the] passing [of] your life, of what it feels like to be here as we travel across the ocean of life," is how Gregory explains the making of Vanya in the DVD's documentary Like Life. If so, he started with the right play where its tone and substance, the very essence of contemplation, transcends its plot.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Spirit of the West

Pop culture, by its very nature, cannibalizes the larger culture around us. At it's best, it reinterprets and reflects back our collective memory. Nothing does that better than movies, as Shlomo Schwartzberg points out in his review of Rango in Critics at Large.

Rango: Brilliant and Adult

There’s been a recent fuss made by some parents’ groups about the fact that some of the characters in Gore Verbinksi’s brilliant new animated movie Rango are actually, shudder, smoking. They feel that the movie is setting a bad example in that regard and will entice their kids into taking up the deadly habit. I think their concerns are misguided as most of the small fry watching the film will be too busy enjoying the antics of the anthropomorphized creatures on the screen to pick up on that aspect of the movie. But I also feel that maybe, at heart, this isn’t really a children’s movie in the first place. Rango, despite the fact that it’s animated, is actually a really smart and decidedly grown-up send up and homage to classic westerns and other movie genres, one that is chock full of obscure movie in-jokes and adult references and situations. There’s even a mention of brothels in the Los Lobos song that plays over the closing credits of the film. In that light, I’d recommend that adults leave their kids at home or find another animated movie – there’s no shortage of them out there – to take their kids to instead. Leave Rango for us old folk who can best appreciate it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

English Voices

Sometimes the best way to understand a city is through the voices of people who live there. David Churchill discovered that when he came upon Craig Taylor's Londoners and wrote about it for Critics at Large.

In the Key of Studs Terkel: Craig Taylor's Londoners

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square - Photo by David Churchill

Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit cities considered some of the most exciting in the world: New York, Paris, Rome, Bombay and London. Like many before me, I fell in love with each one of them for their own unique reasons. Heck, Paris so inspired me during my one and only (so far) visit that it became the setting, and partial inspiration, for my first novel, The Empire of Death. But it is without question London that has its siren call still singing in my ears. I've only been there twice, but upon my return home each time I've longed to go back so I could continue to explore this great and historic city. Sure, two trips barely scratches the surface of this locale, but for whatever reason (perhaps because England is half my heritage – Irish being the other) it is a city I feel instantly comfortable and at home in, even if they don't seem to know they drive on the wrong side of the road.

Little Driver pub - East London - Photo by David Churchill

When I travel, the first thing I always do is toss my suitcases into my hotel room and go for a stroll around the neighbourhood. The last time I was in London in 2009, I stayed at a lovely little hotel in the east end near the Bow Street Tube station called City Stay (its appeal, beyond good rates, is that they had a kitchen you can cook your own meals in as long as you bring in your own food – it saved me a bundle). Across the road is a terrific working class pub, called Little Driver, which instantly became my local after a long day exploring. (I did an edit on The Empire of Death there while enjoying their perfect-temperature drafts of Guinness. Isn't that what pubs and coffee shops are for, drinking and writing?)

Craig Taylor - Author of Londoners
This is a very long way to introduce a wonderful oral history of London compiled by Craig Taylor, called Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It (Ecco/Harper Collins – 2012), to give it its full title. The book is inspired by the work of the great American oral historian Studs Terkel (WorkingThe Good WarHard Times, and many others). Taylor, an ex-pat Canadian living in London (ironically, he's lived there for several years before he felt comfortable to call himself a Londoner – he didn't think he'd earned it), like me became enthralled with the city, but unlike me he made the decision to make it his new home. As he walked around the city, he began to pick up conversations with the people all around him. He realized there were so many stories, so many voices, that he had to compile the voices in order to, as he says, give us a “snapshot of how London is now.” It sure took him a great deal of time. The project took five years: he burned through 300 AA batteries, and the transcripts took up almost a million words. With the help of his hard-working editor, Matt Weiland, he winnowed the hundreds of interviews down to 90 voices. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to roll this much data into a coherent and compelling text, but regardless of how he did it, he has succeeded admirably.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Cheer

Tis the season to be jolly and to listen to some good tunes chosen in Critics at Large by Susan Green.

Listening: A Retrospective Soundtrack To Live By

As the troublesome decade draws to a close, people are compiling their top-ten lists for various art forms. I’d like to think back instead on a half-century of popular music that was able to, as a traditional gospel line suggests, “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Each tune has stuck with me. Not every one of the past 50 years is represented; some supplied multiple selections -- I could barely escape the 1960s, in fact. It wasn’t easy to choose from among so many worthy contenders. My apologies to the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Jesse Winchester, Bonnie Raitt and countless others. Disco and hip-hop aside, these are a few of a nostalgic Baby Boomer’s highly subjective favorite things:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten

Friendships are built on the love we share of movies, music, books and television. One such program, for Mark Clamen in Critics at Large, was Terriers.

FX’s Terriers: Catch a Ride with a Trickster and a Travelin’ Man

Terriers (on FX)
For the most part, the FX Network was good to me in 2010. By mid-summer, they had already premiered three of my favourite new series of the year: in comedy, the hilarious and deeply original Louis C.K. vehicle, Louie; in animation, the surprisingly funny, edgy, and intelligent spy spoof, Archer; and in drama, the hard-boiled contemporary Western, Justified, based on the work of Elmore Leonard and starring Timothy Olyphant. (All three shows have been renewed and will bring us second seasons in 2011.) But the folks at FX weren’t done yet: on September 8th, they premiered Terriers. Created by screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven) and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, Terriers stars Donal Logue (Life, Grounded for Life) as Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic, who teams up with Britt Pollack, his best friend and mostly reformed thief (played by Michael Raymond-James, True Blood), to open an unlicensed private investigation firm. Based on the early promos for the series, I had initially positioned the series in relation to The Good Guys, the good-natured buddy-cop show created by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), which premiered on FOX over the summer (and was cancelled last month). But halfway through the opening credits of Terriers (and the original theme song written by the show’s composer Rob Duncan), I knew I was going to be delightfully mistaken. With substantial characters and two charismatic stars, some powerful writing and subtle serial nature, Terriers would soon rise to the level of FX’s spring season hit, Justified. While often hilarious, the show was also carefully plotted, and offered a perfect mix of compelling characters, dark humour, and genuine intrigue. Unfortunately, by early December, FX announced that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers. But whatever its future, Terriers will remain one of the few bright spots in what was an often disappointing new fall TV season.

Donal Logue (front) and Michael Raymond-James
Set in a beachfront neighbourhood of San Diego, and shot on location all over San Diego County, Terriers harkens back to the best of old and new noir storytelling. With its DIY private detectives and a cosy California town rife with corruption, conspiracy, and complicated land deals, it has a Veronica Mars—circa Season Two—feel. (I would like to say it’s darker than Veronica Mars, but to be honest, I’m not sure that’s even possible:Veronica Mars put the noir back in neo-noir.) But unlike most of the hard-boiled genre—be it on film or television—the central figure of this story isn't an isolated moral outlier but a pair of detectives, whose deep friendship is often the only point of stability in their ever-shifting universe. Even if, as detectives, Hank and Britt find themselves perennially getting in way over their heads, as friends their world is really never in question. Logue and Raymond-James were real-life friends long before Terriers was ever conceived, and this comes through in their comfortable dialogue and brilliant timing. Most of the show’s best moments happen between Hank and Britt as they sit in their rundown truck (which is the closest thing their struggling detective business has to an office): best friends who simply enjoy one another’s company.

Karina and Donal Logue as Steph and Hank Dolworth
In the end, Terriers is a show that is built on relationships: not only Hank and Britt, but Hank and his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn), Britt and his girlfriend, Katie (Laura Allen), Hank and his former partner, Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar). Over the course of its 13 episodes, each of these relationships deepens and develops before our very eyes. Watch especially for the introduction of Hank’s brilliant and schizophrenic sister for a few episodes mid-season. With the character of Steph Dolworth—played by Karina Logue, Donal Logue’s real life sister—Terriers finally matures into the series it was meant to be. Their sibling chemistry shines in every scene they share, and Steph’s presence brings out the rich humanity and dark humour of the Terriers universe.