Saturday, March 31, 2012

Paltrow's Pantry

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Who said cooking wasn't an art? There's no question that we enjoy a well-cooked and imaginatively made meal more than something tossed off. Eating a meal can also be as sensually pleasurable as devouring a good book, or consuming good music. When a celebrity attaches their name to a cookbook, though, one has to ask whether it's the dishes or simply the name. Mari-Beth Slade in her Critics at Large review discovered that acting wasn't Gwyneth Paltrow's only specialty.



Trusting a Skinny Chef: Gwyneth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter Cookbook

It’s Saturday morning at 6:45am and I just finished eating one (okay, two) of the oatmeal raisin cookies that I made from Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness. I was introduced to the concept of “breakfast dessert” while visiting friends in Montreal a few years ago and, as someone always looking for socially acceptable ways of consuming more sweets, I immediately loved the idea. Then, while visiting Turkey last year, I was served Turkish delight after dessert…a dessert dessert! I think it’s the European way of prolonging every meal and lingering over food and conversation. Paltrow would approve. Her recipes are about preparing food with love for those we love: using wholesome ingredients to pleasurably create scrumptious dishes. So if my mother saw what goes into these oatmeal raisin cookies, even she might approve of having them for breakfast.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Web TV

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

The reach of the Internet has dramatically changed how we watch television programming. Not only can we retrieve old shows no longer in syndication on network television, but we can now watch programs designed specifically for the web. Mark Clamen took us for a fascinating guided tour of that landscape back in 2010.


Life After Dr. Horrible: A Rough Guide to Original Web Programming


The story goes like this: it was late December 2007 in Hollywood, and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) was walking the picket line during the 100-day WGA writers’ strike when he began to think about how he could bypass the studios and networks altogether and self-produce a TV show which could be delivered directly to his fans. Walking the line with him was Felicia Day, an actor/writer who Joss knew from the 7th season of Buffy. At the time she was halfway through the first season of her own web series, The Guild, which had become particularly successful. Inspired by her experience, Joss’ little idea grew more and more ambitious. And thus the world’s first Internet musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was born.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Withering Scrutiny of Gil Scott-Heron

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

The Sixties produced a great many incendiary performers, but perhaps none with quite the longevity of Gil Scott-Heron. So when he died in 2011, both Susan Green and John Corcelli decided to address his legacy.

Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P.

When Gil Scott-Heron died last week at age 62, he left behind a planet on which revolutions inevitably will be televised. They’re already being televised, you-tubed, texted, Facebooked and Tweeted in places like Iran, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. To freedom-seeking residents of the Middle East and North Africa, information carried by the media and every social network brings comfort in the knowledge that the whole world is watching.

 Gil Scott-Heron in 1974
But even though the whole world was watching Chicago police beat up unarmed protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, perhaps TV seemed like an enemy without much redeeming value back in 1971. That’s the the year the singer-songwriter released his most famous composition, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The spoken-word piece, from his debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album, targeted the distractions and manipulations of advertising that promised to “put a tiger in your tank” or “fight germs that may cause bad breath.” He also ridiculed what passed for entertainment four decades ago. But nightly news coverage of the Vietnam War, the black liberation movement, inner city turmoil and the villainous Nixon administration presented additional fodder for his withering scrutiny.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Under the Skin

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

At one time, the darkness in director Roman Polanski's life often overshadowed his work. Today his life isn't any less complicated, but his films have an element of wry perspective on the human condition. It was quite evident in his last picture The Ghost Writer and it's certainly present in his adaptation of the play Gods of Carnage which Sony has just released on DVD. The DVD release also contains special features including Actors' Notes (a featurette on the making of Carnage), the cast on the Red Carpet and a funny and informal conversation in front of a live audience with John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz about their work in the film. Steve Vineberg below comments on both the play and the film.

Carnage: Beneath the Veneer

Roman Polanski's Carnage
The French playwright Yasmina Reza writes masterfully calibrated comedies of manners in which the central joke is the precariousness of the order carefully maintained by bright, complacent bourgeois; you wait for the moment when it flies off the track like a short-circuited toy train. Her brand of high comedy carries the influence of theatre of the absurd – it’s flavored with the acrid taste of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee – but she stays within the realm of realism. In Art, the play that put Reza on the map, the source of the tension in the friendship of three middle-aged male friends is an abstract expressionist painting that one of them pays an exorbitant amount for and displays proudly on the wall of his Paris apartment, while the others think it’s nonsense. The play is a comedy of menace, to use the critic Martin Esslin’s term for Pinter’s work: the rancor lies, coiled like a rattler, just beneath the jocular bantering. (In the hilarious 1998 Broadway production, Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina looked like they were having the time of their lives sparring with Reza’s glittering verbal arsenal.) God of Carnage is closer to Albee, specifically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with a much lighter touch. The set-up is irresistible. After one middle-school kid slams another with a hockey stick in response to an insult, effecting, considerable, though reparable, damage, their parents meet in an upper-West-Side Manhattan apartment to talk as reasonable adults. The reasonableness lasts barely half an hour. By the end of the play, all reason has been abandoned and all four psyches have been laid bare, along with the tattered seams of both marriages – and the stage is strewn with debris.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Mystical Quest of Werner Herzog

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Just about every blockbuster being released today is being issued in 3D whether it truly warrants it or not. As for Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams which explores the wall drawings in the Chauvet Cave in France, it's used to enhance work over 30,000 years old. But as Susan Green suggests in her probing examination of the movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is also yet another mystical quest of this idiosyncratic German director.  



Where The Wild Things Were: Forgotten Dreams Remembered

Werner Herzog and his fellow filmmakers in the Chauvet cave

Werner Herzog’s wonderful 2007 documentary about scientists studying the Antarctic is Encounters at the End of the World, which refers to a remote frozen outpost at the bottom of the planet. But the title suggests another, more ominous meaning: Au revoir, Earth! The German director’s latest effort could well have been called Encounters at the Beginning of the World, thanks to the French limestone cliff where other scientists investigate hundreds of primitive rock paintings and engravings that date back at least 30,000 years. Instead, his new film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a thrilling exploration of civilization’s Aurignacian Culture origins showcased in 21st-century 3D. 

Bison
Herzog has swapped the Encounters zoologists, volcanologists, and physicists for Dreams archeologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists, as well as live penguins for pictures of long-dead mammoths, bison, panthers, hyenas, lions, and rhinos. Yes, lions and rhinos in the South of France!. Why not? It’s a lovely and fertile spot, near the Ardeche River, where all manner of wildlife – both hunters’ prey and predators – would have gathered back in the day. The Chauvet Cave, sealed off and hidden by an avalanche since the Ice Age about 20,000 years ago, was discovered by three spelunkers in 1994. Upon spotting the drawings, later determined to be the oldest ever found, one of them exclaimed the French equivalent of ”They were here!”


Monday, March 26, 2012

Avatar & The Future of Science Fiction

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

One of Shlomo Schwartzberg's most passionate areas of interest is science fiction which is where his first posts began for Critics at Large shortly after the release of James Cameron's huge hit Avatar. Beginning with a critique of the film, it led Shlomo into a fascinating and expanded two-part exploration into why Hollywood rarely gets science fiction right. It's reprinted below in its entirety.


The Trouble With Avatar 

Can Hollywood ever get science fiction right? I ask this because I am baffled by the praise emanating from most critics towards James Cameron’s wretched 3D extravaganza Avatar. The story in this lengthy (2 hours, 40 minutes long) science fiction tale is simplicity (or simple mindedness) itself.

A cabal of scientists, mercenaries and corporate types are occupying the planet of Pandora and planning to get their hands on a precious mineral that they say Earth needs desperately. Our hero, Jake (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is chosen to link up with one of the humanoid species, the Na’vi, who live on the planet, in order to get into its brain and attempt to communicate mankind’s 'peaceful' wishes to get the mineral even though it is found beneath the Na’vi’s holiest site. Needless to say, the Na’vi neither wants to move off the land nor allow the humans to drill for the mineral. But Jake, who can inhabit the virtual body of a Na’vi, and thus walk and run, begins to sympathize with the gentle humanoid species and slowly starts to turn against his military masters.

Amalgamating the worst parts of Terrence Malick’s loopy and New-Agey The New World and the black and white corporate / environmental world views of Naomi Klein / David Suzuki, Avatar is rife with bad dialogue (the Na’vi use unlikely words like ‘moron’ and the soldiers sound remarkably like present day grunts) and obvious symbolism – good natives, bad occupiers, all to the service of a tedious, cardboard cut-out story that barely leaves any emotional ripple in its wake. Oh, did I mention that it’s purportedly set in 2154, in a world where people speak exactly the same type of English as in our present, where the United States seems to be the only country in space? The technology, other than the avatar link ups between human and Na’vi, isn’t particularly novel, either. The soldiers wear watches, for God’s sake, something most 20somethings don’t even do anymore.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Not So Mad About Mad Men

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

As the fifth season of Mad Men begins tonight after a somewhat lengthy hiatus, there has been almost unanimous anticipation. Therefore we thought it would be in keeping with the spirit of Critics at Large to reprint here some of the more skeptical views of both Kevin Courrier and David Churchill on the previous season of Mad Men.

Tabula Rasa: The Return of Mad Men

I wish I could share the enthusiasm expressed by many who have been eagerly awaiting the return of the hit series Mad Men, whose fourth season premieres tonight on AMC. But I’m not sure what there is to be so enthusiastic about except the show’s tantalizing ambitions, ambitions that have never travelled far from the shallow end of the pool.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s and examines the lives of the advertising men who work on Madison Avenue in New York City at the firm Sterling Cooper. Created by former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner in 2007, Mad Men does have a clever premise; creative ad men selling us dreams of an American life they themselves can’t possibly live. The main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the firm, isn’t even who he claims to be. He’s a con artist living out his own fantasy while selling products to others. Placing a con artist at the center of a story of self-made men is definitely appetizing. It draws significantly on the corruption of the American ideal where you can make of yourself anything you wish. In doing so, Mad Men tries to examine the changing mores of American middle-class culture from the post-War comforts of suburbia to the social upheavals of the sixties. But I’m afraid that the show ultimately fails to live up to its promise. Rather than capture an era in turmoil, or characters at crossroads between what they sell and who they are, Mad Men fixates itself on the details of the period, the minutiae of sixties kitsch, to compensate for its lack of dramatic coherence. Rather than go deeply into the characters behind the facade, the show chooses to illuminate the facade. In short, I think Mad Men is itself a slick bit of advertising.

When the show first debuted in July 2007, I was initially excited by the set up including the program’s fixation on the drinking, cigarette smoking, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism because it was a significant part of the American culture of that time. I was also old enough to remember visiting my mother who was a secretary at an affiliate of the CTV Television Network. The people of Mad Men to a degree occupied portions of my memory about the ambience of a media environment where ideas and ambition commingled in a haze of smoke, booze and flirtations. I took the rigorous attention to details in Season One to be merely a set-up for the payoffs to follow in subsequent years. But something truly went wrong between the first two seasons.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

J.C. on Broadway

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Who would have thought that a musical that came to define the shift from the Sixties counter-culture into the Jesus culture of the Seventies would still be popular today? But the Stratford Festival's production of Jesus Christ Superstar was a huge success last summer. It recently opened to mixed reviews on Broadway but here are Deirdre Kelly's observant views on the original show.  

Jesus As Heartthrob: Stratford Festival's Jesus Christ Superstar

 Paul Nolan as Jesus (centre). Photo by David Hou

It’s not often I sit in the theatre, head bowed. But toward the end of director Des McAnuff’s powerful re-staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Festival (one of Canada's preeminent theatre companies located in Stratford, Ontario, southwest of Toronto), that’s exactly what I was doing. From that position I could see that my hands were also clasped on my lap as if in prayer. It was involuntary. I was raised Catholic – in the beleaguered Catholic enclave of Derry, Northern Ireland, no less – and so visions of Jesus hanging on the Cross move me in ways of which I’m often not aware. Faced with actor Paul Nolan suspended high above the stage, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ, instantly conjured the yearning of childhood when I used to pine for Jesus, just as the nuns taught me to do. I recalled, sitting there in the darkness of Stratford's Avon Theatre, how before I was 10, I wished for a time machine to whisk me back to Garden of Gethsemane so I could warn him to make a run for it by dawn. Jesus, in other words, was the first big love of my life, the one person I’d do anything to save for all the saving he was said to be doing of me. It’s that idea of Jesus as heartthrob that McAnuff plays up in his revival of the 1971 Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera based loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Christ’s life, and it’s an idea that works miracles. This Jesus Christ Superstar is a hit. It plays at Stratford now through October.

Paul Nolan (Photo by David Hou)
McAnuff’s Jesus is a long-haired, falsetto-voiced, enigmatic bisexual-seeming rock star: early David Bowie crossed withMötley Crüe. It’s not a far-fetched comparison: the original London cast featured in the role of Jesus Ian Gillan, lead singer of Deep Purple who went on to briefly front Black Sabbath. Judas Iscariot was played by Murray Head, most recognized as the singer of the international hit (from the musical Chess written by Rice and ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus), “One Night in Bangkok.” Here Judas is played by Josh Young, a darkly handsome actor and singer with a gorgeously shaped and musky voice – the sound of incense burning – and a Jim Morrison swagger. This show isn’t a musical as much as a resurrected memory of rock lords past.

Maybe that’s also why I was journeying within myself while watching it.

I am old enough to remember when “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, one of several hit songs spawned by Jesus Christ Superstar, was climbing the pop charts and getting ample airplay during my pre-teen summer. I also (confession time) was once in a school production of Jesus Christ Superstar directed by a way-cool priest at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College (we girls were bused in) and starring a young Mary Ellen Mahoney as Mary Magdalene. I was 15 and in the chorus, playing variously a harlot, a palm waver and a leper. When Stratford musical director Rick Fox got those electric guitars wailing again, I was fully back in the 1970s, remembering when Jesus seemed an improbable subject for a rock opera, but proved to be an “exact fit”: The world’s first pop idol.


Friday, March 23, 2012

The Blues of Blind Willie Johnson

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

The blues is as much a feeling as it is technique or even style. Perhaps more so because the listener has to believe in the singer not just recognize their abilities. When it comes to gospel blues authenticity is even more essential if we are fully grasp the power of possession taking hold of the performer. It was that intangible quality that Kevin Courrier was trying to examine in his first Critics at Large post on the music of Blind Willie Johnson.

The Pure Grain of the Voice: Blind Willie Johnson

Walt Whitman once wrote that “a perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.” But I’ve also heard singers who can achieve that same kind of alchemy. They take you past style, technique, even past the song itself, so that you become moved by the pure grain of the voice.

When I was writing about Don Van Vliet (i.e. Captain Beefheart) in my book Trout Mask Replica, which was about his strange and incomparable 1969 album, I was trying to get inside what made his voice, a lascivious growl straight out of the blues, so pure, so compelling. Some people said they heard Howlin’ Wolf, a singer whose power Robyn Hitchcock once compared to a DC3. There were others who insisted that he was possessed by the raucous spirit of Richard Berry (not the Berry of “Louie Louie,” but the sly narrator of the Robins’ hit “Riot on Cell Block #9”). Others detected a little Muddy Waters, maybe a pinch of the attitude of Charley Patton, possibly the jagged rhythms of Robert Pete Williams. Not bad company and not entirely wrong. But, for me, Beefheart’s voice didn’t bring to mind influences as it did of a man inhabited by a spirit. “I was never influenced,” he once said. “Possessed, but never influenced.” Which is why when I was listening to Trout Mask Replica, I heard the soul of the Texas-born gospel/blues singer Blind Willie Johnson haunting the record. Johnson’s voice, possessed of an unearthly power, holds an unfathomable mystery in its texture, as does Beefheart’s singing on Trout Mask.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bernie Gunther Noir

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Today in Critics at Large, David Churchill reviews the latest in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther saga which he finds disappointing. Back in 2010, however, he examined with sharp insight the enthusiasm he felt for the earlier books in the series.  

A Well Not Dry: Philip Kerr's Field Grey

If this were (and I'm not saying it is) the last book in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, I would still be a very satisfied reader. It's not that Field Grey is the best of the now-seven novels, but there's a mournful, elegiac quality to this book that suggests a fascinating road perhaps leading to an end. The majority of the book is set in Germany in 1954 as Gunther tells stories to interrogators. This one begins shortly after the close of the last novel, If The Dead Rise Not (2009 – reviewed by mehere). Gunther is not-so reluctantly coerced into helping a pretty, young female Castro rebel escape from Cuba to Haiti (Gunther, in the best noir tradition, has always been a sucker for a pretty face). During the journey across the Caribbean, Bernie's boat is captured by the American Coast Guard. Through slightly contrived circumstances, Bernie is identified, arrested and imprisoned first in New York, then Germany. He is suspected of war crimes.

Gunther has always been a fascinating character. A detective before and during the Nazi years in Berlin, he is no Nazi (he despises them – well, actually, Bernie hates pretty much everybody: Americans, British, Russians/Communists and the French, particularly the French), but he is a survivalist, so he didn't always stand up to Nazis. The times he didn't step up, he would have certainly been killed if he had. Sometimes he witnessed and even participated in some pretty bad things, but his moral code of trying to do the right thing as much as possible repeatedly saved both his skin and his soul. Bernie did some of the things he is accused of (shooting unarmed partisans in Eastern Europe during the war), but only after they had slaughtered many innocents themselves.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fanfare for the More Than Common Librarian

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Currently in Toronto, Canada, the public libraries are on strike for the first time since the mid-Eighties. While people often take libraries for granted and the people who work in them, there are also individuals who have come to denigrate and devalue them over the years. Perhaps sensing the profession not getting the due respect it deserves, Laura Warner stepped up in Critics at Large to clear the air and get the picture straight. 

Far More Than Shushing and Checking Out Books: For the Love of Librarians and Public Libraries


My name is Laura and I am a librarian.

Upon revealing my profession to strangers I am almost guaranteed the following reaction: “Oh, but you don’t look like a librarian.” Yes, many have extremely strong, and learned, stereotypes about these professionals and the places they work. Many probably assume that their local librarian is a shy, shushing, anal-retentive, nerdy bookworm who lives with several cats. She probably likes knitting, wears cardigans, collects and categorizes things, and has sensible shoes. (Note: I tend to refer to a librarian as a “she” because the profession does seem to attract the fairer sex. In my library program we outnumbered the dudes about ten to one. I still do not understand why more post-undergraduate straight men don’t take advantage of this opportunity.) With regard to these stereotypes: okay, I’m busted. I’m guilty of most of those characteristics. (With the exception of the cats and the sensible shoes part.) The problem with the librarian and library stereotypes, though, may not be that we do not possess any of these characteristics, but that we possess so much more.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spy Comix

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Critics occasionally talk about things they love but can't defend aesthetically and describe them as guilty pleasures. In writing about Archer, Mark Clamen gets at the pleasure he gets from the show while dispensing with the guilt.

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred



Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

Jessica Walter, in the Archer studio
With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bringing Light to Darkness

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

We often take pictures to preserve a piece of history either of the people we love, or the events we become part of that we want to remember. There are some photographers, however, who take pictures of things we'd like to forget but need to remember and address. Susan Green's probing piece on photographer Lewis Hine is about one of those people.  

A Witness to Shame: The Visual Legacy of Lewis Hine

Addie Card, just a slip of a girl when Lewis Hine snapped an iconic portrait of her in 1910, told him she was 12. But the investigative photojournalist, hired to document then-legal child labor in America, learned the barefoot waif’s actual age – ten – from others employed at the same Vermont cotton mill. Even more of a shock, she had started toiling there as an eight-year-old. In his accompanying text, he described the motherless-fatherless kid as an “anemic little spinner.”

May 1910: Addie Card at a cotton mill in North Pownal, Vermont

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

When Toronto's Cinematheque polled a list of the best films in the first decade of the 2000's from a number of film critics and curators back in 2010, there were a significant number of good movies that weren't selected. This omission was hardly a question of an oversight, or the faulty memory of a number of film programmers, but rather a statement that - at the very least - the Cinematheque was saving the art form from the philistines of populist cinema. Their list prompted a few of the writers at Critics at Large to comment on the whole affair including Kevin Courrier who drew upon Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience, one of his favourite books of criticism, to address what he felt were the Cinematheque's elitist views.       



The Church of the Cultured Mind: The Cinematheque's The Best of the Decade List

“I have had enough serious interest in the products of the ‘higher’ arts to be very sharply aware that the impulse which leads me to a Humphrey Bogart movie has little in common with the impulse which leads me to the novels of Henry James or the poetry of T.S. Eliot…To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must be first of all a personal one. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man.”

--Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, 1955.

We seemed to have come a slippery distance from the time when critic Robert Warshow eagerly expressed curiosity about an impulse, or a justification to make a connection between what is often deemed “high culture” and “low culture.” One look at the TIFF Cinematheque Best of the Decade list tells you that there is no desire, or curiosity, to connect with anything but their own church of refined taste. This is why it is really immaterial to discuss what’s on their list of the best films of the past decade. In examining their choices, I’m sure that we can all find things we love (The Gleaners and IYi Yi), things we dislike (Syndromes and a CenturyCaché), even things we didn’t see – and perhaps might want to (Songs from the Second Floor). What is more important, as the previous writers on this site attested, is to discuss what isn’t on it – and why.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dangerous Words

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

One of the great power of books is how the author's voice can often possess us, making us believe in the imagined world they've drawn us into. For Andrew Dupuis, that book just happened to be Ray Bradbury's cautionary tale about a world without books.

Smoke Without Fire: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953 & 1966)

Books used to scare me. Ray Bradbury’s famed science-fiction masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 recently reminded me of why. Books are highly influential especially when you let them fester. I remember nights in elementary school spent past my bedtime re-reading line after line of Mark Twain, or Robert Lewis Stevenson, to the point where Long John Silver and “Injun Joe” would chase me in my sleep. These works were brimming with creativity and adventure and sparked a curiosity that was bewildering, but their painted words also had the misfortune of scaring me stiff. Bradbury’s novel was set in a future where firemen reek of kerosene and burn books rather than cherish their beauty. Upon reading it, for the first time, I, too, re-discovered my worn out love for the printed page. I also discovered, quite accidentally, that a film adaptation made in 1966 existed. Initially I thought the film’s existence alone was contradictory to the book’s divine message. But after watching the film, I realized I was both right and wrong.