Saturday, June 30, 2012

Transcendence

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.

Ever have one of those days when you hear a song and you can't get it out of your head? You might not even know why it has taken residence there, but it just won't vacate the premises. Susan Green had one of those moments a couple of years ago with a song called "The High Road."

Roads Not Taken: The Tug of Broken Bells

Every now and then, a song gets up in my head. Lately, that empty space has been reserved for “The High Road,” an ethereal and esoteric ballad by Broken Bells. Before an invasion of the brain snatchers, I was only marginally familiar with Danger Mouse, a multi-instrumentalist producer who reverts to his given name of Brian Burton for the collaboration with James Mercer, lead singer-songwriter of the Shins -- previously not on my limited musical radar. This cut from the new band’s eponymous debut album is literally mesmerizing; I feel compelled to close my eyes and let it carry me away every time. Maybe I’ve got some sort of zen thing going: An experience beyond rational thought; a universal spirit that can zip through each of us, bringing enlightenment.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Other Me: Paul McCartney's Thrillington

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.

Paul McCartney is turning 70 years old this year and he's showing no signs of retiring behaviour. Having recently released a huge CD/DVD box set of his 1971 Ram, the listener can find within it a fascinating instrumental version of Ram called Thrillington. This album, along with a number of other known and lesser known recordings, Paul McCartney has laid claim to an avant-garde sensibility that was largely overlooked in favour of his more demonstrative former writing partner in The Beatles. This subject of McCartney's avant-gardism is currently being taken up in the form of a CBC Radio documentary being produced by Kevin Courrier and John Corcelli. This review of Thrillington ran two years ago in Critics at Large.
  

Thrillington (1977)

It’s been commonly assumed over the years that it was John Lennon who was the true avant-garde performer in The Beatles and Paul McCartney was - literally - the straight man. That view developed mostly out of Lennon’s bold outspokenness in both his personality and music, while McCartney submerged his personality in the craft of writing songs. Lennon possessed a romantic spirit, but it was one that made his art real and intimate to the listener. McCartney however was perceived as whimsical and impersonal (i.e. a light-weight). Of course, this is a rather simplistic perception because Lennon was equally whimsical in “Bungalow Bill”; just as McCartney could rock hard in “I’m Down.” It was McCartney after all who came up with the tape-loop experiments that Lennon incorporated into “Tomorrow Never Knows.” McCartney was also the first to create a sonic collage called “Carnival of Light” (still unreleased) before Lennon and Ono did their own “Revolution #9” on the White Album. During that period, John Lennon stayed home to live a more isolated domestic existence, while Paul McCartney was going to art shows and listening to Stockhausen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Song and Dance

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.

Revivals often provide the possibility of making old material seem new again, a prospect Steve Vineberg set out to explore in this review of two classic musicals.

Musicals in Revival: Anything Goes & How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Except for Kiss Me, Kate, no Cole Porter show has been revived as often as Anything Goes, the 1934 shipboard musical he wrote with P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Wodehouse and Bolton penned the original script, about a shipwreck; when the cruise ship the S.S. Morro Castle went down in a fire weeks before rehearsals were scheduled to start, marking the worst maritime disaster of the decade. Lindsay, who was also directing, and Crouse quickly refashioned the plot as a romantic farce about a young man who stows away on a ship to stop one of its passengers, the girl he loves, from marrying the man her mother has picked for her and through the device of a purloined passport ends up being mistaken for a celebrated gangster.

The book of the musical as it was finally produced is peerlessly silly, though every time it’s mounted afresh on Broadway someone is hired to tinker with it: the version that is currently intoxicating Manhattan audiences carries credits to Crouse’s son Timothy and Stephen Sondheim’s sometime collaborator John Weidman. Even the Porter score gets treated as a work in progress. All productions include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night” and the title tune, and since the sixties “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot and Blue and “Friendship” from Du Barry Was a Lady are common bonuses. The 2011 edition adds “Easy to Love” (which Porter wrote for the film Born to Dance) and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” (from an obscure British play called O Mistress Mine) while restoring the often excised “There’ll Always Be a Lady Fair,” “The Gypsy in Me” and “Buddie, Beware.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Puzzle Game

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.

You can't really argue that a fannish attachment to the arts is essential for one to grow to love the arts. But growing beyond that initial fetish is key in developing both perspective and discrimination. Those are the qualities that Catharine Charlesworth encountered with Ernest Cline's Ready Player One


Take a Gamer's Holiday: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Whether you recall the 1980s with a laugh, a cringe, or a roll of the eyes, it’s hard to help smiling at the joyful nostalgia that permeates Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Written by the director of the 2008 film Fanboys, the novel speaks to that demographic in its native tongue, presenting a vision that will appeal to those with a taste for cyberpunk, oddball grail quests, flying DeLoreans, or old school gamer lore.

The premise seems simple: in the near future, a billionaire game developer leaves his entire fortune to whomever can solve a series of puzzles within his massively multiplayer virtual reality game, known appropriately as the OASIS. Since the challenge is open to all, everyone from basement dwellers to multimedia conglomerates clamor for a chance to control this digital universe, which has become the preferred platform for socializing, schooling, and marketing for much of the first world.

Enter Wade Watts, named in the alliterative tradition of such nerdy heroes as Clark Kent and Peter Parker. A teenager gamer living atop a stack of RVs, his family life and aspirations were decimated by the socio-economic collapse of the United States. To escape, he dreams of finding success and glory in the OASIS. Seeing the contest as his opportunity, he begins his hunt through the series of clues left by the game developer – who, it turns out, obsessed over 1980s popular culture. In this way Ready Player One takes a paradoxical approach to speculative fiction: in a bleak future, advanced technology seems unable to stop humanity’s steady decay, yet provides refuge in the form of retro gaming and classic movies.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Vulnerability

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.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is currently teaching a course through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson on the golden era of American movies in the Seventies. While Blue Valentine is a contemporary film, Schwartzberg in his tempered praise for the picture certainly sees qualities that reflect various aspects of that former decade.


Acting Heaven: Blue Valentine

For a movie to succeed, usually all its most important elements, from the direction to the screenplay to the acting have to gel. A weak screenplay can sink a good concept, indifferent direction can undermine a strong story and problematic or bad acting can ruin a movie that might otherwise have been a fine effort. Yet sometimes superb performances can either enhance an otherwise mediocre film or occasionally bring an ordinary movie to heights that it would otherwise not scale. In the former category, Lucy Punch’s work in both Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and in Dinner for Schmucks, the American remake of the French film Le Diner de Cons, is an exemplar of that dictum. As an avaricious British prostitute in Allen’s lame film and as Steve Carrell's crazy American stalker in the uninspired remake, Punch, who is English, ran the gamut from drama to comedy and did it successfully and memorably in two accents. (The same compliment can be laid at the foot of James Franco for his diverse performances in 127 Hours and Howl; he’s the only reason to check out 127 Hours, the slight but fact based tale of a man driven to a desperate act when pinned under a rock in a deserted mountain area and he commands the screen in Howl, an otherwise uneven recreation of the 1950s obscenity trial of avant garde poet Allen Ginsberg.) In the latter category, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are so amazing in Blue Valentine that they elevate the film to many moments of greatness, particularly in the half dozen or so scenes where they’re at their rawest or most vulnerable.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Michael Jackson: The Show He Never Gave

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.

Michael Jackson had been under such intense scrutiny in his final years especially over the unsettling aspects of his personal life that his art often became obscured in the process. When Kevin Courrier set out to review Kenny Ortega's film This is It in Critics at Large, about the rehearsals for the tour Michael Jackson never did, he decided to reconsider the work as well as the man.     

This is It: Some Final Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I recently caught up with Kenny Ortega's 2009 documentary Michael Jackson's This is It and I was more than pleasantly surprised that it wasn't an act of exploitation. Now I wouldn't yet put Ortega in the same league as Bob Fosse (Cabaret), but This is It certainly proves that great choreographers can sometimes make pretty good film directors. The movie documents Jackson's rehearsals and preparations for the concert he was about to launch for July 13, 2009. When he died on June 25th, the only remnants of what might have been were captured by Ortega's film team shooting Jackson running through musical numbers, auditioning and directing the dancers, the conceptual stage design work, and some interviews with those who took part in the preparation for the show that never was.

What's particularly staggering - and thrilling - about this extremely entertaining picture is that it manages to both fundamentally shape the process of Jackson's art as well as demonstrate it. That is, we see Michael Jackson (who looks in peak form) working out the program as well as executing the numbers. This is It also shows that the concerts were designed as a Michael Jackson musical primer that covered his entire career dating back to the Jackson Five. Ortega stages the numbers, too, as if he's imagining what they'd look like in their finished form. He thinks like a dancer so the images move fluidly with the music. (The footage was filmed at the Staples Center and Los Angeles Forum arenas in California.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Page to Screen

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 all have favourite books that we feel get mangled by their film adaptations. But, as David Churchill points out in his perceptive piece below, the art of adaptation by its very nature is an imperfect one.

The Imperfect Art of the Adaptation

Adapting a work from a novel, graphic novel or any other source for a movie or TV show is a challenging problem. So many decisions are required when the writer approaches the original work. Neither the complete plot nor all the characters can be used, but what do you reject and what do you keep? These were clearly the issues facing the writers of the new adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps (broadcast on the BBC in December 2008 and on PBS in March 2010) and the 2003 version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill's 1999 graphic novel (it is now in seemingly permanent repeat on AMC), when they approached these works.

Writer Lizzie Mickery had a double problem when she came to adapt Buchan's The 39 Steps: the original novel of 1915 and the great Hitchcock film version of 1935. If she was faithful to the novel, she'd disappoint the fans of Hitch's version; if she was too slavish to Hitchcock (who only took the barest of bones of the novel), people would complain that the original novel was yet again being ignored. The novel's premise is simple. Richard Hannay (played in the 2008 version by Rupert Penry-Jones - Adam Carter in the Spooks/MI-5 TV series) lets a freelance spy, Franklin Scudder, into his apartment when Scudder frantically pounds on his door claiming to be in mortal danger. He explains that he has discovered German plans to kill the Greek Premier and also steal the British plans for the coming outbreak of World War I. Hannay lets Scudder remain in his apartment for a few days, but one morning Scudder is murdered and Hannay is suspected. He decides to flee and follow the lead Scudder was pursuing with the intention of foiling the German plans. The novel is a first-person narrative describing his adventures, much of which he spends alone.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Deliverance: 40 Years Later

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.

This weekend, communities along the Chattooga River, which splits Georgia and South Carolina, are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of John Boorman's powerful drama Deliverance with the first-ever Chattooga River Festival. Not all the locals are in a festive mood with the idea though. Many still don't care to be reminded of the film’s portrayal of their populace as both uneducated and incestuous hillbillies. The film did however help to create a $20 million rafting and outdoor sports industry along the Chattooga. Kevin Courrier took a look at the lingering terror of this controversial classic a couple of years back in Critics at Large.

The Body: Revisiting Deliverance

Poet and author James Dickey was once asked by TV host Dick Cavett what his novel Deliverance was about. “It’s about why decent men kill,” he answered dryly. That’s certainly the plot of both the 1970 novel and John Boorman’s feature film (1974). But it’s also like saying Macbeth is about why kings get ambitious. The power of Deliverance actually lies somewhere beyond the plot into something more mysterious and vulnerable like the body.

The story is about four Atlanta businessmen – the macho wilderness man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the beefy, insecure insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty), the affable musician Drew (Ronny Cox) and the thoughtful Ed (Jon Voight) – who decide to canoe down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River in Georgia in order to “commune” with nature before the river valley gets flooded and displaces the mountain locals. With the exception of Lewis, who is a man’s-man like the deerslayer of James Fenimore Cooper (or De Niro’s Michael in The Deer Hunter), and Ed (who has joined Lewis on a few expeditions); the other men are complete innocents. The locals they encounter are also deeply reserved folks isolated from the world these suburban males inhabit and some – like the young boy who duets with Drew on the famous “Duelling Banjos” – are part of inbred families. Lewis and friends, feeling their own false sense of superiority over the inhabitants, still take on the river as if to tame the body of water. What they discover along the way, however, is that nature can’t be tamed and the body is a vulnerable entity.


Friday, June 22, 2012

I, Me, Mine

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.

It's perhaps not said enough that books and movies that claim to be exercises in soul-searching often end with the search concluding somewhere around the navel. This observation wasn't lost on Susan Green when she tackled the popular Eat Pray Love for Critics at Large.   

Peripatetic In Cinematic Prose: Eat Pray Love

An Israeli woman once told a friend of mine that there is no Hebrew term for “alone.” The only equivalent phrase, she explained, translates as “I am with myself."

I have no idea if it’s true, but what a brilliant concept. My friend is plagued by the fear of being lonely. The same could be said of author Elizabeth Gllbert in her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, now a film starring Julia Roberts. More in the book than on screen, the lead character has been waging a lifelong battle with personal demons. Anxious to flee a contentious divorce and unsatisfactory affair, she takes off from New York on a journey to find freedom from perpetual torment. Intended as a year of living without sex, her quest begins with the pleasure of great food in Italy, before moving on to spirituality at a guru’s retreat in India and renewal of passion in Indonesia. So much for celibacy.

The literary version of Gilbert has stopped taking her medications, under the assumption that the trip’s adventures would fill up the space usually reserved for misery. After ten days in Rome, the “Pinkerton Detectives” -- how she has anthropomorphized depression and loneliness -- once again track her down. The movie dispenses with such gloomy thoughts of clinical despair. Just as well. Julia Roberts has a cheerful persona, with a boisterous laugh that’s surely one of her most endearing attributes. The cinematic Liz feels guilty about breaking up her marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and sad about her deteriorating relationship with David (James Franco). But that’s only boyfriend baggage, not the gravitas of chemical imbalance or family dysfunction or whatever keeps most depressives in its grip.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Absurdism

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 intrigue of revisiting classics is seeing how artist attempt to bring new life and new interpretations of what we already know. Steve Vineberg caught three of the more absurdest classics when he was in England and wrote about them for Critics at Large.

Absurdists: A Delicate Balance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead & Betrayal

Imelda Staunton and Lucy Cohu in A Delicate Balance. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Among the wide range of plays in revival in London last summer were three absurdist classics – Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The Albee, an attack on upper-middle-class family life, was the first thing he wrote after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and you can see all the marks of an American playwright struggling to follow a runaway critical and popular success: it’s hyper-conscious and overstated and the last act in particular seems to go on forever. Gerald Gutierriez mounted it in New York in the mid-nineties with a brilliant cast (led by George Grizzard and Rosemary Harris as the aging couple, Agnes and Tobias, and Elaine Stritch as Agnes’s bitchy, alcoholic sister Claire) and had the good sense to treat it as a high comedy, which made it work quite marvelously for two of the three acts – the characters’ maddening articulateness made sense. James Macdonald’s production at the Almeida was a more standard reading, like the droning 1973 Tony Richardson movie version with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield and Lee Remick, and unless you’re more of an admirer of Albee’s language than I am it’s rough going.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Eyes Have It

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.

Brian de Palma has often been compared to Alfred Hitchcock by many critics in a pejorative way as if he were merely a copyist. What Kevin Courrier suggests instead in Critics at Large is that both directors used voyeurism as a dramatic strategy and took it different places.  

Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma

Voyeurism has always been an integral part of the appeal of motion pictures. However, over the years, the taboo of watching and staring into the lives of others was made largely acceptable by movies that didn't implicate us in our peeping. But Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma changed all that. They turned that taboo of staring and watching into a dramatic strategy where both directors forced us to face our own perverse fantasies and forbidden desires.

I first set out to examine this theme in a course I taught last winter at Ryerson University through the LIFE Institute. Partly, the idea for the series was due to my interest in both directors. Their films not only shaped my fascination as a moviegoer, but their work also implicitly led to my eventually wanting to be a critic. Being a critic then showed me that there were are also significant differences in their respective strategies. Where Hitchcock set out to become a master entertainer of exciting spy thrillers and dramas, De Palma questioned with ironic humour the very nature of what makes exciting drama. If Hitchcock desired (and won) a mass audience that made him one of the most highly regarded and respected commercial directors, De Palma became the opposite. He would often alienate audiences because of his ironic desire to treat movie conventions and storytelling in an irreverent way. In doing so, he deliberately (and cheerfully) undermined our desire for a happy resolution to the picture. Hitchcock may have been a genius at manipulating our responses by pulling the rug out from under our expectations in his dramas; but De Palma, in borrowing some of Hitchcock’s cinematic language (as well as the language of Buñuel, Polanski and Godard), used conventional drama to take us deeper and further into more contemporary issues of sexual fear and political unrest.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Todd's World

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.

With Todd Solondz's new film Dark Horse gathering acclaim among critics, we thought we'd look back today at Shlomo Schwartzberg's critical appraisal of the director's body of work when he reviewed Solondz's last picture.


Life During Wartime: More (Self) Loathing From Todd Solondz

Life During Wartime, the latest film from Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse(1995), Happiness (1998))  is just more of the same, another putative drama full of caricatured human beings, who generally loath themselves and exist merely to reflect in turn the self loathing of the director. The deep humanity of a Mike Leigh (All or NothingHappy-Go-Lucky) is not for Solondz; he’d rather take facile shots at American society, kill off his own characters (as he did with Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener at the outset of the wretched Palindromes (2004)), and offer up a facsimile of feeling and insightful commentary. Life During Wartime, though, is somewhat more competent than his norm, which considering the otherwise deep flaws of the movie, isn’t reason enough to go see this film.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Passion

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.

Some great films have a way of staying with us over the years, as if the experience of watching it changed who we were, perhaps even deepening our apatite for the art form. One such experience happened to David Churchill who wrote about it in Critics at Large.   

Essential Cinema: Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

As part of the grand opening of the TIFF/Bell Lightbox facility in Toronto, they compiled a list of the 100 most essential films of all time. Over the course of the next few months, these films will be screened in pristine prints, at one of their five cinemas. Screening tonight is the second showing of what I consider one of the greatest films ever made – and named number one on the Essential Cinema list – Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). But there is a caveat. The reason it became one of my favourite films is a bit convoluted.

In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was studying film at the University of Toronto. In more than one course, the professors showed Dreyer's silent film, usually in scratched 16mm prints with an equally rough soundtrack. At those screenings, I came to understand the power of the film: the tight close ups on Joan (Maria (Renée) Falconetti – in a great performance) as she is hectored by her accusers; the lack of any establishing shots thus contributing to our own dislocation and disorientation; the inspired shooting and editing techniques that come out of German Expressionism; the use of only the actual transcripts from her trial 500 years previous for the dialogue cards, etc. Yet, through all those screenings (probably three or four times during four years of university), I never understood why, even then, it was considered one of the greatest films ever made. Sure, it had its power, but 'great'? It just didn't strike me. I was to discover, in time, that whenever I saw it in those years, there was always one important element missing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

S is For Substance

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 original TV show Law & Order might be long gone from the air-waves (except in syndication), but before it departed, Susan Green wrote a thoughtful and perceptive appraisal of one of its lead performers, S Epatha Merkerson.


An Equally Important Performer: S Epatha Merkerson Departs Law & Order


She has outlasted four district attorneys, six prosecutors and eight pairs of detectives, but Lieutenant Anita Van Buren will soon follow in their footsteps when she departs from her Manhattan NYPD job. What’s not known is if that exit might come in the form of a resignation or death, since the longtime Law & Order character has been battling cancer in the most poignant subplot of this NBC show’s twentieth season.

Feel free to insert that familiar scene-separating electronic interlude here: Cha-chung!

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson, 57, who has portrayed Van Buren since 1993, recently announced her decision to quit the series after 16 years. But she actually goes further back than that with the program, having appeared as the mother of a very young victim in “Mushrooms,” about a cruel mistake that leads to a child’s murder. Written by Robert Palm, this stunning first-season episode reveals illiteracy as a culprit in the case of an adolescent who shoots an infant; unable to read, the boy went to the wrong place when a drug lord hired him to assassinate someone at another address written on a scrap of paper.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Voice of the Disinherited

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.

Bruce Springsteen is back out on tour with a new album to promote and performing with who is left from the E-Street Band. Even if every new record is acclaimed, or panned, his legacy as an iconic American artist is still firmly in place, as attested to in Andrew Dupuis' thoughtful examination in Critics at Large.

Who’s the Boss? Bruce Springsteen’s Promise

When I was younger I thought with blistering sincerity that Bruce Springsteen was justtoo American. While I was only ever familiar with his hit song “Dancing in the Dark,” from his 1984 record Born in the USA, that iconic album cover of his denim-clad posterior presented him prominently before a star-spangled backdrop. Ignorantly, I wrote him off as flag-waving, gun-toting American without much to offer outside of trail-blazing patriotism, something of little use to an adolescent Canadian boy growing up in the suburbs. As with anything else I've learned growing up, I was at least partially wrong in my earlier years. (So was Ronald Reagan, as you may recall, but for a different purpose.) Bruce Springsteen is without a doubt a patriotic American, but in a way I never would have suspected. The performer known as “The Boss” made himself the voice of the disinherited in America.

His popular label “The Boss” always seemed peculiar to me. I never understood why my dad referred to Springsteen with the label he also used to describe the man he was working for. But I was naïve. My dad was planting the seeds of an uprising in my unwilling ears. In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (2010), we can see perfectly why Springsteen is known as “The Boss.” The documentary, which explores the trials and tribulations behind that career-defining album, opens a window into how The Boss shrugged off guaranteed rock stardom and fought valiantly, passionately and perhaps insanely for what he believed in. The Promise captures a moment in time over thirty years ago when a fresh-faced musician did the unthinkable: He became his own boss.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Heart Like a Wheel

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.

Since the late Kate McGarrigle is being honoured tonight in Toronto, it seemed fitting to run Kevin Courrier's tribute to the singer/songwriter written for Critics at Large shortly after she passed away.


Love As An Open Argument: Remembering Kate McGarrigle

When I heard the news yesterday about the death of Kate McGarrigle from cancer, it really cut to the quick. “It’s like getting kicked in the gut, you know,” Sylvia Tyson remarked upon hearing the news. I know what she meant. Over the years, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the folk singing siblings from Quebec, had written and performed a distinct body of beautiful songs that had the capacity to share wounds and open sores that their soaring voices could quickly heal. Their temperaments were radically different – Anna the hopeful romantic; Kate the skeptic – but the blending of their differences often created a harmony unique to popular song. Calling the McGarrigle sisters’ material “tart and tuneful,” J.D. Considine in Rolling Stone said their work married “the resonance of folk to the emotional immediacy of everyday life.” What Kate and Anna McGarrigle did was give the genre a different lease on everyday life. They wrote personal songs without resorting to solipsism. They wrote romantic songs without bending to sentimentality. They could be funny and sarcastic without being smug.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gestural Language

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.

While dance is in part about interpretive movement, it is also about narrative. In the case of the Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre, as Deirdre Kelly smartly points out in Critics at Large, it is also about memoir.

Searching for Identity: Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre

Katherine Duncanson, Sashar Zarif, Viv Moore, Marie-Josée Chartier, Sylvie Bouchard (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
The lights dim, the theatre fills with darkness, smoke and the sound of a hollow wind banging a door against its frame. A figure emerges from the shadows, moving slowly into view. With his hand he touches his open mouth before pushing the hand forward, palm-up, as if offering up to the audience the words he softly sings under his breath. With this simple gesture, Toronto dancer and choreographer Sashar Zarif sets the stage for his Solos of My Life, presented in conjunction with Toronto independent dance producer Danceworks whose three-performance run at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre in Toronto ends tonight. The title is misleading as the hour-long piece isn’t a solo, but more a series of danced vignettes performed with (in alphabetical order) Sylvie Bouchard, Marie-Josée Chartier, Katherine Duncanson and Viv Moore, women meant to embody the people he has known, loved, maybe even feared in his life: dance as memoir.
Sashar Zarif (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
Story-telling in dance has a long tradition, with mime and song often used to give meaning to the wordless art of the body. In telling his personal history, basically a narrative exploring his forced migration from his Persian homeland and the subsequent search for identity, Zarif goes further, employing a self-created form of gestural language that pulls from ancient Indian dance traditions as well as from the modern dance: Think deep-seated second-position plies meshed with percussive Kathak-inspired foot stomps and dancing eyes. Add bum-jumps, crab-crawls and sky-writing and you get the point. Almost.

Sashar Zarif (Photo: Dani Tedmuri)
While there’s much to admire here – the commitment of the individual performers for one, not to mention the evocative sound-score featuring created and partly performed live by Zarif with a heavily costumed Duncanson in collaboration with the always-fascinating Eric Cadesky and Arun Srinivasan’s dramatic lighting design – Solos For My Life come across as movement experimentation that lacks a clear idea as to how its results are to be ingested, analyzed, interpreted by the viewer. As such, it’s a personal journey that very much remains personal, rarely succeeding in striking a chord of empathy with the viewer as a result of being ultimately unclear about what it is trying to say. To compare it to a written narrative, what the so-called stories embedded inside this work might be served by, this is an imaginative recreation of a life that is richly atmospheric and populated by interesting characters – not the least being Zarif, a compelling performer with an empathetic stage presence – but whose weak thematic core undermines a sense of focus and relevance, qualities that might have prevented the piece from drifting without an evident conclusion: a work with too much beginning and middle and not enough end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dylanology

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.

Bob Dylan has been a paradox ever since he first burst on the music scene over fifty years ago. He continues to elude easy categorization, but is nevertheless an endless mystery to fathom. One book that plumbed the depths of that mystery is by critic Greil Marcus simply titled Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 which Kevin Courrier reviewed for Critics at Large.


Mind Out of Time: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

For close to fifty years, Bob Dylan has transformed himself into any number of incongruent characters while keeping his fans both baffled and infuriated in the process. Critic Greil Marcus is one of those baffled and infuriated fans. But rather than worship at Dylan's altar, or burn him in effigy, Marcus has instead assembled a fascinating chronicle of reviews, stories, asides and rumours about Dylan that he has written over the last four decades. In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs, 2010), Marcus has created a riveting and imaginative collection of criticism where he not only traces a popular artist's erratic career through a chronology of pieces, his book also becomes an engagement where sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game.

While Marcus shapes the arc of Dylan's work, as one would untangle a long, convoluted mystery, we also witness how Dylan has equally shaped him as a writer. "I was never interested in figuring out what the song's meant," Marcus writes in the introduction. "I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it - I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Betrayal

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.

There's probably nothing worse than finding a film that you love for its delicate means of touching your emotions suddenly get turned into musical that's a feel-good melodrama. But that's what Steve Vineberg discovered when he saw the recently Tony Award-winning musical Once.

Once and Next to Normal: Words and Music

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti star in the stage production of Once

The Broadway musical Once is an adaptation of the enchanting Irish not-quite-romantic musical film from 2007 written and directed by John Carney, with songs by the two stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Carney used to be the bassist for the Irish band The Frames, and Hansard was its lead singer. (He also played the guitarist, Outspan, in the congenial 1991 movie The Commitments.) Hansard has a long, woebegone face pebbled with a rust-colored beard; his eyes are immense, with the peeled look of billiard balls. In Once he plays The Guy, a Dublin busker who holds down a day job at his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop and plays guitar and sings when the work day is done and there are still crowds on the streets he can entertain with popular standards. At night, when there’s hardly anyone around so he’s usually entertaining himself, he performs his own compositions, poignant ballads of romantic masochism delivered in a startlingly impassioned style that quavers into an expressive falsetto in the most intimate sections. During one of these twilight interludes he meets The Girl (Irglová), who hears one of his tunes, “Say It to Me Now,” and intuits that it was written for an ex-lover he hasn’t gotten over. The Girl is a Czech émigré who lives with her mother and her young daughter, sells magazines and roses on the street, and occasionally lands a job cleaning houses. But more importantly she’s a musician herself: she can’t afford a piano of her own but a congenial music-store owner lets her come by and play one of his models. When she and The Guy become friends she takes him by the store and plays a little Mendelssohn for him. He can see she’s the real thing – just as she could when she heard him on the street. So they play a duet, a song of his called “Falling Slowly,” harmonizing on the vocals. They sound so heavenly together that you’re sure they belong together, not just as musicians but as a couple, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter in Walk the Line.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in a scene from the film
Once is a small-scale lyrical movie that seems to take its rhythms from Hansard’s songs. And the poetic rightness of Hansard and Irglová as a couple is as much linked to the sweet (and unconventional) sounds they make together as Astaire and Rogers' was to their inspirited compatibility as dance partners. Irglová has the face of a thoughtful pixie, and you grow to love the way the phrasing of her Czech-accented English can suddenly acquire an Irish tonality. The Guy and The Girl comprehend music in the same way. In one scene, he persuades her to let him hear one of her tunes, and after some protest she performs a love song, “The Hill,” with so much feeling boiling up inside it that she can’t complete it; she breaks down in tears. When he asks her if she wrote it for the husband she left behind in Czechoslovakia she says yes and adds, “He didn’t like it. He’s an idiot.” She doesn’t have to explain, to The Guy or to us, that any man who can’t appreciate the beauty of that song is an idiot, and unworthy of her. And we can see by the way The Guy gazes at her when she sings it that he can see and hear what her husband wasn’t able to. He looks dazed, as if he’d been sprinkled with fairy dust.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Empathy

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.

It's not a given that great film directors be humane. Often what confounds people is when there are artists whose works they love turn out not to be lovable in their personal lives. In the movies of British director Mike Leigh, Shlomo Schwartzberg  finds a director whose work strongly reflects his humanist sensibility.


The Singularly Humane Filmmaking of Mike Leigh
British writer-director Mike Leigh, whose latest film Another Year makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, is the most generously humane filmmaker working today.

His films, and Another Year is no exception, invariably present sympathetic multi-faceted portraits of ordinary Britons, middle-class, lower middle-class or working-class folk, who are simply trying to get through life, be they the disillusioned socialists of High Hopes (1988), the determined chef trying to make a go of his own restaurant in Life is Sweet (1990) or the troubled families coping on a run down council estate in All or Nothing (2002). The beauty of Leigh’s films – and most of them are fully successful efforts – is that his protagonists are drawn so sympathetically and with such complexity that you feel that you know them and come to care about them deeply. That’s not nearly so common in our current cinematic age of crass, facile and empty movies like Kick-AssLife During Wartime and Grown Ups, to name just three of the year’s most offensive movies. (Leigh also made a film called Grown-Ups for TV in 1980 but any commonalities between it and the puerile Adam Sandler movie stop at the title.) I actually saw the word humane used by a reviewer to describe Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, which only goes to suggest how one can pervert the English language. Solondz’s films are anything but humane while Leigh's movies are suffused with humanity.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Peter Jackson's Folly

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.

There are times as a critic when you can get more out of a bad movie than some good ones. It's rare, of course, but David Churchill had one of those episodes early on at Critics at Large when he reviewed with consideration Peter Jackson's commercial and critical failure The Lovely Bones. 

A Consideration of The Lovely Bones

I grew up in Parry Sound in the 1960s. I was part of a big pack of kids who would play outside until after dark throughout the summer, completely unconcerned about our safety, not oblivious to it, just unconcerned. However, we also all knew to 'stay away from Johnnie'. Johnnie was probably a pedophile. He was a man in his forties who lived alone in a big house up the street from our home. We would always see him walking quickly through our neighbourhood, a hand always in his pocket, watching the kids as we played. We nicknamed him Johnnie Walker (no offense to the fine scotch producers). We just all knew to stay away from him. Creepy and weird, he certainly was, yet our parents were seemingly oblivious to him and what he might be, but we weren't. Yet we sure as hell never told our parents about him. We wanted to be able to play unfettered. Granted, he didn't, that we know of, ever actually act on his obvious compulsions, so the light of adult suspicion was never cast upon him. These reflections came to mind as I watched Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, because there is a major character in the film that reminded me of Johnnie.