Friday, August 31, 2012

Time Warp

Some films just don't age well. One such specimen is Clarence Brown's 1933 Night Flight. Despite the strong cast, David Churchill found himself entering a time warp in this Critics at Large review. 

Dated: Clarence Brown’s Night Flight

Within the ongoing blizzard of DVD/Blu-Ray releases for the latest blockbusters, I'm happy to see that some of the major companies still feel the need to open their vaults to artifacts from a bygone era. They root around and pull out a film from a dusty corner, clean it up and put it out into the world. Such is the case with Warner Brothers who a couple of weeks back released the MGM-produced 1933 film Night Flight. Sometimes, however, these films are generally forgotten for a variety of reasons and, if I'm being honest, Night Flight probably should have been one of them.

In fact, if not for its pretty amazing cast – John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and Helen Hays; the director Clarence Brown, who made several Garbo flicks in the silent era and the 1930s, plus the '40s family classics National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946); not to mention, the author of the source material, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince) – this one probably would have stayed put.

John & Lionel Barrymore
The premise is built somewhat like Grand Hotel, released the year before, except instead of being centred on unrelated characters in various hotel rooms, the focus is the cockpits of three separate bi-planes. Night Flight takes place in an era when it was considered dangerous, if not suicidal, to fly at night. In South America, an upstart airmail company – the Trans Andean-European Airmail Service – decides to push the odds and get the mail to its destination faster than any other means available at the time. John Barrymore plays the boss who insists on this endeavour. His number two, a kind and well-meaning Lionel Barrymore (yes, Mr. Potter from It's A Wonderful Life playing a good guy!), is always trying to persuade him that this action is folly. But he insists. Three planes will fly at night. One from Santiago, Chile, over the Andes to Buenos-Aires; the second from the southern tip of Argentina to Buenos-Aires; and then once those two arrive, the third plane will collect their mail and fly it to Rio de Janeros. The mail bags contain more than just simple postcards. A vital package, containing vaccine to cure an unnamed infantile paralysis disease wreaking havoc on the children of Rio, is in the bag from Chile. There's also a ship waiting to take other mail to Europe.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Living Dead

Greil Marcus pointed out in his book on The Doors with some humor that while The Grateful Dead could inspire a legion of fans known as Deadheads, the big band jazz world of Benny Goodman didn't produce equally zealous fans in his parents' era known as Goodmanheads. Carol Brightman's book, reviewed in Critics at Large by Kevin Courrier, gets at some of the answers as to why that is so.

Deadheads: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure (1999)

Back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, the co-founder and resident guru of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack, Elvis Costello, one of the early progenitors of punk, made a curious comment. "I think it's harder for people who don't subscribe to the cultural phenomenon of the Dead to appreciate some of the quality of the songs," Costello told Rolling Stone. "If somebody else were to take 'Stella Blue,' say, and record it like Mel Torme would record it, you would hear what a beautiful song it was." To some, Costello should be someone who represents a full rejection of the hippie ethos that the Dead were part of, but his remark has an interesting way of cutting through the patina of our musical prejudices. Stripped of their cultural and mythical baggage, the Grateful Dead's songs might actually stand up as some beautifully composed pieces.

I never bought into the phenomenon of the Dead, or the trappings of the Dead worshipers (known affectionately, or derisively, as 'Deadheads') who followed the band from town to town. But I certainly loved some of their music, many of those songs (like "Ripple" or "Ship of Fools") asked us to share their quest for community, which they sought with a true sense of commitment while adding a healthy respect for tradition. I also sometimes heard risk in their music, a dare to go further than their fans might allow. (That risk though had its pitfalls. Performing live the band could either take you soaring into endless waves of cascading melodies or simply bore you blind.) Few have ever made clear why the Grateful Dead had (and, I suppose, continues to have) a lasting appeal, but Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, written in 1999, does. Her book provides a fascinating examination of the times of the Grateful Dead, and answers pertinent questions as to how and why the Dead outlived the doomed counter-culture of the Sixties.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Art of Getting Along

No doubt most people today have forgotten Dale Carnegie's famous tome about winning friends and influencing them. Laura Warner in Critics at Large, on the other hand, finds the book still relevant.

Dale Carnegie Reconsidered

Unless you’re embarking on a career in monk hood, chances are, you may have to interact with other people at some point during the day. And you are not guaranteed an easy ride. Even if you are someone who loves people, and understands people, the best of us can still be emotional, unpredictable, and unstable. Whatever the complexities in our behaviour, we are always forced to interact with others. So there is always a probability of friction. (And not always the friction that Harlequin’s are made of.)  Interpersonal skills, let's face it, are as necessary in job interviews as they are at family dinners. Because of this challenge, I recently picked up Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1981).
Carnegie originally self-published his work in 1936 and it went on to sell over fifteen million copies. With so many social trends, and self-help crazes, coming and going, I was especially curious as to why and how this work still had a home on bookshelves today. Perhaps there's a good reason. It offers very relevant common sense about how to strategize with phenomenon that will never change: inherently complex human emotions.

How to Win Friends is divided into four sections: Fundamental Techniques in Handling PeopleSix Ways to Make People Like YouHow to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, and Be a Leader. In each portion, Carnegie delivers several concise essays, each one concluding with a sound principle to support each objective. For instance, in the first section, he examines the art of handling people. Carnegie reminds us that the best communication comes with an effort to understand the other. But the advice that resonated most with me was to “never assume” that you understand. This chapter suggests not to judge someone who maybe short tempered, or otherwise unpleasant, because we might not have any idea of what they are going through. They could be going through hell, a break-up, a rough morning, the loss of a loved one. Carnegie tells us that “[i]nstead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do.” 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Jewish Voices

Countries such as Italy, France and Hong Kong have always had their cinema celebrated (and righteously so) by critics. But there's also a strong national cinema in Israel attested to in this piece for Critics at Large by Shlomo Schwartzberg.

Of Culture, High and Low – Footnote and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba in Footnote

It may seem like an unusual subject for a movie, but it’s apt that Joseph Cedar’s Israeli film Footnote – a provocative story of a father and son who are both scholars – deals with the specifics of academia and the vagaries of scholarship, since Israel is one country that values higher education, so much so that it punches above its weight when it comes to winning Nobel Prizes and the like. Footnote is also one of the more welcome Israeli features since it offers up a nuanced view of a country that is the sum of more than the divisive politics and tensions that seem to solely define it in most mainstream media coverage of the region.

Footnote, which swept Israel's top film awards (The Ophirs), garnered an Oscar nomination for best Foreign-language film, and won Best Screenplay at Cannes, also marks a maturation of Cedar’s talents. It is his most compelling, original and best-made movie yet, albeit one that falls short of the finest recent Israeli cinema. An Orthodox Jew, a rarity among the mostly secular filmmakers in Israel, Cedar began his career delving into the religious underpinnings of Israeli society. His debut movie Time of Favor (2000) was a slick but interesting thriller about a religious Jewish plot to blow up The Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, and the charismatic rabbi (Assi Dayan) whose sermons inadvertently inspired some of his more diligent students to interpret his words as a literal call to arms. Campfire (2004), based on Cedar’s time living in a religious settlement, was a choppy but fascinating look at the unique Jews who populate such places, seen through the eyes of a widow and her two young daughters who join a West Bank settlement. Beaufort (2007) was a powerful though admittedly familiar tale of an Israel Defense Forces unit about to vacate the high ground of a hard-won battle to capture a Crusader castle, a symbol of Israel’s ultimately futile invasion of Lebanon. Footnote (2011) goes further afield; it’s a drama that, though it deals with Talmudic discourse, is neither concerned with religion nor conflict, except through the passive aggressive one playing out between father and son.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Memory Play

The theatre is filled with great monsters. But usually they are fictional creations rather than real monsters with real horrors in their repertoire. One such case is the play Captors, reviewed in Critics at Large by Steve Vineberg, where the subject was Adolf Eichmann.  

Captors: Eichmann – The Nazi Monster as Performer

Louis Cancelmi & Michael Cristofer in Captors
Evan M. Wiener’s new play Captors (at the Boston University Theater until December 11th) manages to be both emotionally and intellectually engrossing. It tells the story of the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 by three Mossad agents who held him in a safe house outside the city while devising a plan to transport him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Their success was dependent on getting him to sign a release form permitting them to take him out of Argentina, where, under an assumed name, he was a legal resident. Wiener’s narrative, which is based mostly on Eichmann in My Hands, a memoir by one of the agents, Peter Malkin (co-authored with Harry Stein), is divided in two parts. In the first act Eichmann (Michael Cristofer) struggles to reassert power over his captors – mainly Malkin (Louis Cancelmi), the youngest of the three – by reaching across the enforced barrier between captive and captor and getting him to engage in conversation. In the second act Malkin throws over entirely the device of objectivity and uses their relationship to manipulate Eichmann into not only accepting the idea of a trial but welcoming it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Disappeared

It's been almost fifty years since the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive that sought to end racial segregation in the South and to register black voters. Last year, Susan Green reviewed in Critics at Large a powerful documentary about those events and the tragic deaths of three Civil Rights workers.

Cinema of Remembrance: A Deadly Season in the Deep South

Forty-seven years ago this month, Jake Blum was 18 when he volunteered for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive, just as three other young civil rights workers went missing in Neshoba County. Soon to become a sophomore at Yale University, he traveled south as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which worked with the Congress for Racial Equality to attract more than 1,000 activists to a state that then had the lowest percentage of registered black voters in America.

“There was a lot of fear,” recalls Blum, now 65 and a Vermont resident. “They were so used to being treated as second-class citizens. There had been lynchings and fire-bombings. Being in Mississippi was kind of a long, dark night.”
That scenario is made clear in Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, a thorough 2008 documentary that updates the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, all under age 25. They had disappeared after spending the night in jail for a supposed speeding ticket in the town of Philadelphia, but their bodies weren’t found until six weeks later. Chaney, who was the only African-American in the trio, had been tortured and buried alive.

The three bodies are discovered
The U.S. government stepped in when the state refused to go after the 18 members of the Ku Klux Klan who had carried out the killings. With nine of them either released or acquitted, seven others were convicted in 1967 on federal conspiracy charges rather than homicide and given light sentences. The judge told reporters: "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved."
Why care about a three-year-old film that revisits an almost half-century-old crime? Well, for one thing, the underlying issue is relevant again, with 31 Republican-dominated state legislatures introducing bills to suppress voting rights, measures that would primarily target low-income and minority communities. In 1980, Ronald Reagan announced his presidential candidacy in Mississippi’s Philadelphia as a signal of coded support for the good ole days of good ole boys. Ever since, the political party of Abraham Lincoln has increasingly assumed the racial discrimination role once reserved for Dixiecrats.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hollywood Biographies: True and False

If there are two good examples of how Hollywood can capture the life of an artist perfectly, and how they can completely miss the mark, Kevin Courrier found them in Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin bio Beyond the Sea and Taylor Hackford's Ray about R&B legend Ray Charles.

Getting it Wrong, Getting it Right: Beyond the Sea and Ray

Whenever Hollywood produces a film biography of a famous figure it’s seldom about the nature of their genius. More often than not, it’s a redemption story. Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, contained little of the John Nash one found in Sylvia Nasar’s intelligently absorbing 1998 biography. Where she thoughtfully examined how the schizophrenia of this mathematical genius became permanently intertwined with his gift, the movie is about how John Nash gets redeemed by love. Often an assumption gets made by producers that audiences won’t respond to the unique gifts of the film’s subject so they conceive a concept perceived as accessible to a mass audience – a concept that ensures box office success and potential awards. The irony, of course, is that without the special gifts of a John Nash there wouldn’t be a movie about him in the first place. Back in 2004, there were two radically different movies made about two great American musical figures (Bobby Darin and Ray Charles) that attempted to get at what made these artists fixtures in American popular culture – but only one of those films got there.

Friday, August 24, 2012

High-Octane Shakespeare

Mark Clamen, the television critic for Critics at Large, had a double-treat when he was visiting London last summer when he happened to find a way to combine his love of Doctor Who with Shakespeare.

A Giddy Thing: Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre (August 29, 2011)

There are worse ways to spend a summer night in London than in a lush West End theatre watching a high-octane Shakespeare production, but I have to confess that my girlfriend and I hadn’t actually planned for it. Coming on the heels of a much more orderly two and a half weeks in France, our time in London had a satisfying seat-of-your-pants feel to it, since it was essentially a pit stop en route from Paris to our final destination in Scotland  But even months earlier, when all we’d confirmed about our time in the UK were our arrival and departure dates, there was one thing we were certain of: we knew exactly where we would be on Saturday August 27 at 19:00 GMT. That night we’d be sitting in front of a TV screen watching the much-anticipated fall premiere of Doctor Who. The preceding episode of the season had aired way back in early June, and I have no shame in confessing that our twin geek hearts were genuinely aflutter with the mere idea of watching the show’s return live on British soil. (Europe is lovely yes, but we’d let our travelling interfere with our TV watching quite enough at that point in our month-long trip!) And so perhaps you can imagine our excitement when, while looking for the entrance to the Charing Cross tube station, Jessica and I stumbled serendipitously upon Wyndham’s Theatre. There, on the marquee, were the shining faces of David Tennant and Catherine Tate – both of Doctor Who fame! – headlining as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. No doubt all the stars in heaven had conspired to bring us to this very moment: these were our last two days in London, and it turned out to be the last week of the show’s 3-month run. We simply had to see this play.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who
And so, on the morning of Monday August 29, Jessica and I got up early and stood in line for that day’s lottery, hoping to secure two of the few remaining seats for that evening’s sold-out performance. We weren’t alone, it turned out. The line outside the theatre that morning was well-populated, but buoyant. Many were coming to see the show for a second time, and true to form, the conversations we had were less about Elizabethan theatre than that Saturday’s Doctor Who episode. In the end, we left with two standing room tickets, and were grateful for them! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the Tate Modern and following a quick visit to a nearby pub, we got to the theatre a half hour early (as we’d been advised to do by the lovely woman and rabid David Tennant fan, we’d met in line that morning) in order to secure a good standing spot for ourselves. It turned out we needn’t have worried: Wyndham’s is a fairly intimate space (especially in the Stalls), and the back of the house had a clear, unobstructed view of the whole stage. And so we waited, and watched, as every seat in the sold-out house slowly filled up.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

On the Boardwalk

With the new season of Boardwalk Empire on the way shortly, it seemed timely to look back at an early piece in Critics at Large where David Churchill brought up concerns that continue

Broken Sidewalk: HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Now 8 episodes into its 12-episode run, HBO's Boardwalk Empire (created by Terence Wintner, a writer on The Sopranos), is an unfocused mess. Telling the story of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, king of Atlantic City in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire tries to embrace both the mantles of The Sopranos coupled with the period cool surrounding another Soprano alum's show, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. But it just doesn't work for an untold number of reasons. Thompson was a real person who was simultaneously a crook and a politician (better crook than politician). Well, he's almost real. Based on Eunuch 'Nucky' Johnson, Thompson is not the problem with the show. As played by perennial supporting player, Steve Buscemi, 'Nucky' is actually a compelling character to have at a show's centre, and Buscemi is quite wonderful in the role. Buscemi has made a career out of playing second-banana weasels in innumerable movies, but this is his first legit lead and he makes the absolute most of it. You can actually believe that, because of his power, a man as unattractive as 'Nucky' can and does have innumerable women throwing themselves at him.

Steve Buscemi
The problem is poor clarity in the writing and ill-defined secondary characters, even those, such as Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Arnold Rothstein (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series – Michael Stuhlbarg) who existed. The water is muddied early when we are introduced to returning WW1 veteran Jimmy Darmody (an opaque Michael Pitt). The show is so obsessed with getting the look of 1920s Atlantic City right (the first episode was poorly directed by Martin Scorsese) that it forgets that the viewer needs to discover and care for/loath the regular characters. How can you really give a damn, for example, when it took me three episodes to figure out that Jimmy wasn't one of 'Nucky' Thompson's brothers, but just a friend/Man Friday. Historical characters flit in and out (such as, Chris Mulkey playing the corrupt mayor of nearby Jersey City, Frank Hague), to no other effect than to show them as corrupt and corpulent. None of the episodes that I've seen (four of the eight) are clear about what point it is trying to make other than 'Nucky' is a plucky guy who's good at collecting cash and making necessary alliances with whomever he needs to in order to keep his happy, corrupt carousel spinning. And of course there's a cop, of sorts, always in the background (played with a pole firmly planted up his ass by Michael Shannon) trying to bring 'Nucky' down.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Monkey Business

Man versus ape is still a viable subject for films. In the case of Shlomo Schwartzberg's review of two very different stories, the factual documentary edged out the drama.

Man vs. Ape: Fact Trumps Fiction

A scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The five original movies in the Planet of the Apes series, which came out between 1968-1973, were entertaining fun, though only the first one, Planet of the Apes (1968) – which was loosely based on Pierre’s Boulle’s novel La planète des singes (Monkey Planet – 1963) – could actually be called a quality film. Yet as enticing as the concept of apes taking over the Earth with mankind reduced to the status of ‘animals’ was, the films copped out when it came to explaining how apes actually came to dominate our planet. In a nutshell, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) saw three apes escaping from future Earth when it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb and reaching our present day Earth through a time warp. While there, one of them gave birth to a son, who, in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), eventually led the rebellion that brought the apes to power. But how apes gained super intelligence and learned to speak was never dealt with since the time travel scenario neatly avoided that subject. It was one of those wrap-around puzzles – human astronauts travelled into the future and landed on a planet run by apes, eventually destroyed the planet but not before some intelligent apes escaped and came to present-day Earth and created the future where apes ruled until human astronauts landed on the planet. It never made real sense. The latest movie in the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, aims to remedy that conundrum. But though it offers a (tepid) explanation for how and why the evolution of the apes began, it’s not a very satisfying answer (I won’t spoil that revelation for you), much like the film itself.

Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes
As was the case with Tim Burton’s undistinguished remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an overly earnest, lackadaisical science fiction movie, populated by gifted actors who either condescend to the material or are stuck with roles that waste their abilities. They pale in comparison with Charlton Heston, the powerful force in the original Planet of the Apes. Though Heston was never a great actor, he had genuine presence and could, as he also did in Ben-Hur and The Omega Man, command the screen as a lone wolf confronting an indifferent and dangerous world. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we’re saddled with James Franco (Howl, 127 Hours) who, frankly, doesn’t work very hard at his role as noble scientist Will Rodman, toiling for a nasty pharmaceutical company on a cure for Alzheimer’s, who eventually sets in motion the genesis of the superior ape(s). (His relationship with a kindly veterinarian, played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Frieda Pinto is equally perfunctory.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Metheny World

Sometimes it takes a fascinating concert to give you a fuller perspective on an artist that at first assumed. David Churchill had such an awakening at a Pat Metheny concert a couple of years ago.

Pat Metheny's Rube Goldberg Concert at Massey Hall: May 13, 2010

I can't say I've ever been a big or even moderate fan of Pat Metheny, but whenever I've heard his music I've always been impressed by his playing. My wife has been a fan for years, though, so when it was announced he would be playing Massey Hall she suggested we go (she hadn't seen him for a long time and she wanted me to see him perform). Expecting Metheny and a band (he has in the past played with great players, so the possibility of watching Metheny exchanging licks with other talented musicians sounded promising), we bought tickets and on May 13th headed back to Massey (after our last visit there on March 9 to see Jamie Cullum). We went in completely blind to what he was doing on this tour.

The stage was simple, with packing crates visible near the stage, a piano on one side, two vibraphones and a single cymbal on the other. A couple of Persian-style rugs covered the stage and a clumsily arrayed red curtain covered the back of the stage. About 15 minutes late, Metheny took the stage by himself, sat down, bent over his guitar and proceeded to play the first of three pieces. It was masterful playing, full of ingenious rhythms and great musicianship. Then a roadie charged out, gave him a guitar with what looked like a stumpy second fret sticking out of the top. It turned out to be a combination guitar and harp called a Pikasso. Custom-built for Metheny by Torontonian Linda Manzer, it had 42 strings that allowed Metheny to play guitar and harp simultaneously. That should have been a clue. Twenty minutes passed and he had yet to say a thing to the audience other than mouthing some genuine-looking "thank yous."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gadji Beri Bimba

As the Occupy movement was trying to find a focus for its own form of democratic protest, Kevin Courrier decided to write a piece for Critics at Large about another protest that took place almost 100 years earlier with no prime focus but with a lasting impact.

The Buried Face of an Age: Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time (1916)

Hugo Ball
Written while sitting on my couch this morning watching TV as the Occupy protesters are being evacuated from various parks around the world.

On February 5, 1916, while a world war was raging around them, a group of artists had just landed in Zurich, Switzerland, to perform in a club called the Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball was a twenty-nine-year-old German poet and Catholic mystic. With him were his lover, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings; Tristan Tzara, a poet from Romania; painter Marcel Janco, Tzara's countryman; Albanian artist Jean Arp; and a medical student named Richard Huelsenbeck, who just happened to have a thing for the drums.

Among the group, who would soon be reborn as Dadaists, Ball was devoted to Richard Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstewerk("total work of art") which was a radical new philosophy whereby a one-dimensional society could be regenerated through a totality that combined all the arts. "Our debates are a burning speech, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age," Ball would write in his riveting 1916 diary Flight Out of Time, which would be published by Viking in 1974. This search for a specific rhythm took form as a totality of political theater. While the owners of the cabaret looked for pleasing poems that could be read, music that could be performed and songs that could be sung – all to boost what had become a sagging clientele at the cafe – Ball and his clan had other ideas. He was looking instead for something more tantalizing: a new expressive art form that could put the shock into entertainment.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Loony-Bin Wisecrackery

Nobody could deliver wisecracks with the speed and sly effrontery of The Marx Brothers. Steve Vineberg reminds us of their lasting potency in his review of Animal Crackers last winter in Critics at Large.

Animal Crackers: Hijinks

The cast of Animal Crackers with Mark Bedard (centre). Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Animal Crackers is scrappy but entertaining, and it’s fun to be reminded not only of the early days of the Marx Brothers but also of the freewheeling (and almost free-form) flapdoodle musical comedies of the 1920s. Animal Crackers opened on Broadway in 1928, before the Depression altered the style of the musical, seeding in elements of satire, urban sophistication and bittersweet elegance. It was written by two of the most skillful purveyors of loony-bin wisecrackery, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and no doubt it was rewritten many times in rehearsal to accommodate the Marxes’ improvisations. Marx aficionados know thick swatches of the dialogue by heart – most of it made it into the 1930 movie version, where it’s played at a dizzying speed that offsets the early-talkie staginess. (The Marxes’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, also began as a Broadway show.) What gets sacrificed in the Paramount version are the secondary romantic couple – no great loss – and most of the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs. The OSF production, which was directed by Allison Narver, not only restores them but tosses in a few others, like “Three Little Words” (one of the best known of their songs, and the title of the M-G-M musical bio with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton as the two tunesmiths) and “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Forced Whimsy

Movies that tackle getting older are seldom brave about dealing with mortality straight on. They head instead for sentimentality and coy paternalism. One such example, Beginners, Susan Green addressed in Critics at Large.

The Absent Pater Familias: Starting Over in Beginners

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners
Christopher Plummer might be headed into Oscar territory, but the new film that gives him an award-worthy role lags miles behind the talents of its cast. The autobiographical Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, 2005), tries to cruise along on angst and a surfeit of whimsy that grows increasingly forced. That said, there’s something seductive in the tale of a son’s conflicted feelings about a long-neglectful father who has come way, way out of the closet after the death of his wife, especially when that son is played by the always remarkable Ewan McGregor.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sam Peckinpah's Flickering Luminosity

When talking about the depiction of women in film, not many would find a sympathetic eye in the work of American director Sam Peckinpah. But Amanda Shubert, writing in Critics at Large, not only found sympathy in his sometimes harsh depictions of machismo but also a romanticism that created a meeting of equals when it came to gender.

Brutal Sympathy: Women in Peckinpah’s Westerns

Teresa (Sonia Amelio) and General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) in The Wild Bunch 

Can a filmmaker obsessed with machismo also be feminist? With Sam Peckinpah, you wonder. His luminous westerns – Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) – are lyric meditations on machismo. They’re about cowboys, outlaws, drifters and rodeo stars caught in a changing world, and the last flaring up of their spirits before they are pinioned by the machinery of that change. But they are also about how those men relate to the women they encounter on their journeys, women, like them, trapped by circumstance and fighting to retain some glimmer of their humanity. The gloriously spacious landscapes of the American west (shot in each case by Lucian Ballard), with the teeming blues and yellows of wide skies and sweeping country, express the paradoxical entrapment these characters feel, their longing to break free and their uncertainty of what they’d be breaking free to, but they also infuse the movies with a kind of moral spaciousness. The characters, male and female, have room to be who they are, without judgment before the eyes of the camera. That’s the romanticism of Peckinpah’s westerns, and it often comes out in romantic plots that bring together pairs of lovers in sublime meetings of equals. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Being Elvis

Today is the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Besides still being an iconic American figure containing all the contradictions that make up the country itself, he remains a significant artistic and cultural figure who changed the country and popular music. Kevin Courrier examined the contradictions of being Elvis a couple of years ago in Critics at Large.

One Night of Sin

Although Elvis died over thirty years ago, he’s still very much alive in many parts of the popular culture and always turning up in the most interesting ways. Whether he's brought up in comparison to Michael Jackson’s recent death, or alluded to in television dramas, novels, songs and visual art, Elvis continues to mutate into every kind of wish fulfillment. He never really left the building.

The list of pop culture references is too long to indulge here, but one notion clearly fascinates me. I always think of Elvis in relation to Marlon Brando. While both emerged out of the rebellion of the ‘50s, they also embodied America’s noblest democratic principle, the idea that a man can make of himself anything he desires. With that goal, or course, comes the eventual failure to live up to that quest for pure freedom that both men created in their work. Their failure to do so came, in part, because of our need to tame in them what we loved most in their distinctiveness; that is, we sought to make them ordinary, to be more like us. But their failure is also due to their own inability to maintain their distinctiveness, the very quality that attracted us to them in the first place. Although both became iconic figures in mass culture, they each ended up horribly isolated and trapped. They even at times became parodies of themselves as if to deny that iconic status, as if to mock it and make it less real. Perhaps that why it’s no accident that these charismatically handsome men would, in succumbing to those pressures, eventually become bloated.

Both Elvis and Brando played with a sense of sin. Brando’s best roles (A Streetcar Named DesireOn the WaterfrontReflections in a Golden EyeThe GodfatherLast Tango in Paris) mischievously broke down our expectations of what constituted entertainment. He took on parts that had the potential to upset us and he overturned any notion that we knew who he was. On the other hand, Elvis was never the star in his movies that he was on stage, in particular, before the army. The sense of sin he initially set loose, beyond the wiggle of his hips, was the playful idea of getting a complacent generation shaking. But then, what? Like Brando, in the ‘60s, Elvis stopped shaking things up and was relegated to bland genre parts in films that emasculated him. Elvis's sin, to paraphrase Dylan, was his lifelessness. But as pop critic Greil Marcus once said about Elvis, it was sin that brought him back to life.

That was never more true than in his 1968 television comeback special. While watching The Beatles and The Rolling Stones capture the ground that he’d abandoned to a career in Hollywood, he was now faced with the challenge of making new demands on his audience. By 1968, that audience was older and had grown nostalgic. Elvis was the ‘50s after all, so how relevant could he be next to The Doors? To find out, Presley slimmed down, got decked in leather, and gathered together with the men in which he began making his career. And there, performing in a concert in the round with an electric guitar, he finally reclaimed himself (and his audience) by making some of the best music of his life. Where else, too, would he find the desired elixir but in the blues. The restorative power of the blues was the very source that partly powered Elvis's ascension in the beginning.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


There has always been a strong relationship between French and American cinema with both usually benefiting from the melding of ideas and style, as illustrated below in Shlomo Schwartzberg's review of one more recent example.

Un prophète: Jacques Audiard’s Thrilling ‘Ride’

Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (A Prophet) is one of the most strikingly original French movies of recent release and in a country that regularly puts out superb films, that’s saying a lot. It’s also unusual in that its antecedents aren’t the typical art house fare that most current French filmmakers pay homage to and excel at. Un prophète (A Prophet) draws instead from the commercial prison dramas that have long been the staple of Hollywood and independent American cinema.

The film begins with a young fresh faced North African Muslim man, Malik el Djebena (Tahar Rahim, making his film debut), entering the rough French prison system. He’s been convicted of fomenting violence against the police – a charge which may or may not be true – sentenced to six year of jail and thrown into an environment that will see him used a pawn in a long running internecine and low level war between Arab and Corsican prison inmates. Both those groups have their grievances against the larger French society, within and without the prison walls. The Corsicans, whose country is technically occupied by France but given semi – autonomous status as one of the country’s 26 regions, are agitating for full independence, with the inmates from Corsica demanding to be treated as political prisoners. The Muslim prisoners and the community at large face the brunt of French discrimination and their own inability or refusal to fit into France’s secular culture and society. Malik, who is illiterate, begins in the film as an ‘innocent’ who likely will face a difficult time in the stir, but as the movie ends is revealed as a master manipulator and fixer. How he gets that way is the gist of this complex, ragged and intricate drama, which recently won the César award for Best French film at home and is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars on Sunday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


It's one thing to be in attendance at a movie that's a disaster, but when that screening is part of movie history, it's also something of a cultural event. David Churchill got both in this remembrance.

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the Death of the Auteur Theory

The “pantheon” of worst films is usually topped by fare such as Edward D. Wood Jr’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). No question. It is truly terrible. But naming a picture like that the “worst film ever made” is too easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The man had no talent so it was easy for him to make a truly awful movie. What I think should be considered when creating a list of the worst films ever made are the filmmaking skills and ambition of the director. Michael Cimino had both. His The Deer Hunter (1978) won the Oscar for Best Picture, and his debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), was a quality character-driven action picture that starred Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. The film he made after The Deer HunterHeaven’s Gate, gets my nomination for the worst film ever made because Cimino had talent and ambition. He was also (and still remains) a megalomaniac.

And just in case you think I’m now shooting fish in a barrel, labeling a film “the worst ever made” by jumping on the bandwagon of what everybody already knows, I was actually at the Toronto debut screening on November 20, 1980. Most people never saw the full version on the big screen since it was pulled from release after that evening and only briefly returned in a severely cut form (the long version is now on DVD; the short version is not). Going in, I knew very little about what had happened the night before at its world premiere in New York City (and the savage review it got from The New York Times critic Vincent Canby). Sure, I admit, I had heard a brief report on the radio that the screening had not gone well, but that was all I knew (remember, this was prior to texting and Google and we had to rely on newspapers, radio and TV). I thought little of the report since I preferred to make up my own mind.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Virtual Time Machine

The best pop songs catch us up in a dream sometimes larger than the songs themselves. If one song uncorks the hopes of an era another (with similar passion) can nail the despair crippling another - as in the two songs Kevin Courrier wrote about below in Critics at Large.

Dream Pop: "Be My Baby" & "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

The other morning while having breakfast, I put my Mp3 player on shuffle because I always enjoy the element of surprise. After all, you never know what to expect from song to song. As I was preparing my coffee and cereal, I was first treated to an excerpt from Anton Webern's beautifully spacious Symphony op. 21, which was followed by The Channels' elegiac 1956 doo-wop song, "The Closer You Are," and then the LA punk band, X, with their propulsive 1982 track "Blue Spark." While it's always enjoyable to create a virtual time machine out of music, where you can be dropped any place in time, these three tracks didn't pull me out of the moment of making my breakfast. They instead added something new to the daily routine, an incongruent and appealing soundtrack which roused me from slumber. Once the brittle harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka stopped their song cold, though, the next track to follow was The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." At which point, I forgot what I was doing and breakfast went into suspended animation for a little over two minutes.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Continental Absurdities

We're all familiar with the description of comedy of manners, but do we really know what it is? Steve Vineberg looks at two plays below that surely have come to define the genre.

Comedies of Manners: The Admirable Crichton & Heartbreak House at the Shaw Festival

James Barrie’s comedy of manners The Admirable Crichton has spawned so many movies that it’s in the collective imagination even if people no longer recognize its title. Gloria Swanson starred in a Cecil B. DeMille silent version called Male and Female in 1919; there was a breezy, vaudeville-style musical adaptation called We’re Not Dressing in 1934 with Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Ethel Merman and Burns & Allen; and a faithful English film, released in North America as Paradise Lagoon, came out in 1957. Lina Wertmüller’s Marxist variation, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, received undeserved acclaim in 1975. Yet, serviceable as it is, the play itself is rarely revived. The Shaw Festival is mounting it this season, for the first time in thirty-five years.

The premise is ingenious. An English lord with liberal ideas  he has a habit, wearying to his family and embarrassing to his domestic staff, of inviting the servants to tea  winds up shipwrecked on a desert island with his daughters, an indolent young member of the leisure class who is paying court to one of them, and a pair of servants, including his indispensable valet Crichton. Because only Crichton possesses the practical skills to keep them alive and thriving, he becomes the ruler of the island community and his employer, the Earl of Loam, is demoted to the position of servant  until they’re rescued and returned to England. Loam learns through experience what Crichton has been protesting all along: that class boundaries can’t be traversed, even though the make-up of the upper class may shift according to Darwinian dictates. (Except for Paradise Lagoon, the film versions don’t stick to Barrie’s high-comedy ending. We’re Not Dressing adopts romantic-comedy mode  Lombard is the snobby heiress who has to be brought down to earth by Crosby’s unpretentious sailor  and Swept Away, which is rather nasty, takes great pleasure in putting down the rich bitch, Mariangela Melato, by showing that she can’t resist the sad-eyed macho prole played by Giancarlo Giannini. Male and Female veers away from comedy of manners early on straight into melodrama.)