Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fever Dream

A film's dramatic flaws can, from time to time, be compensated for by the pure excitement of the film-making itself, as Shlomo Schwartzberg pointed out in his 2010 review of Black Swan in Critics at Large.

Exciting and Visceral Cinema: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan

With American cinema in the perpetual doldrums, it’s fallen to a handful of directors to provide quality movie-making that doesn’t insult the intelligence and displays an original and striking mindset. David Fincher’s superb The Social Network was one such recent release, as was Spike Jonze’s perceptive 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are. Now, talented filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (PiRequiem for a Dream) weighs in with Black Swan, which does for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake what Jaws did for sharks, that is, brilliantly reveal the dark undercurrents roiling beneath a placid surface.

Set amidst the hot house atmosphere of a New York ballet company, Black Swan focuses on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who, like everyone else in her group, hopes to land the starring role in an upcoming revisionist new production of Swan Lake. Driven company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is interested in utilizing Nina as the ballet’s lead, but bluntly points out to her that while he’s sure she can play the innocent White Swan of the ballet, essaying the Black Swan, representing the darker side of human nature, is, he fears, out of her emotional range. He gives her the role anyway, but a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has conveniently just joined the company, is being held in reserve as an alternate, just in case Nina can’t pull the part off. Pushed by her disturbed perfectionist mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, and none too stable in her own right, cracks begin to appear in Nina’s world. It revolves around her cutting herself, imagining plots against her – which may indeed exist – and, just possibly, undergoing a split personality, thus replicating the plot of Swan Lake. Needless to say, as opening night fast approaches, things come to a messy, powerful head.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Paying Tribute

When a number of artists, both veteran and contemporary, paid tribute to Bob Dylan last year in a four-disc omnibus for Amnesty International, Kevin Courrier wrote in Critics at Large about the daunting task of paying tribute to the artist's voice while not losing your own.

The Author's Voice: Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International

Film critic André Bazin
The French film critic André Bazin once offered that the reason we get so few great movies from great books is that film directors are intimidated by the author's voice. He speculated that the film adapter, who obviously loves the work of fiction, feels in danger of falling short of the book's greatness. Therefore, Bazin thought, it was much easier for filmmakers to make great movies out of ordinary books, bad books, or even pulp fiction. It's an interesting theory. He's right, for example, that there are few great films made out of classic writers such as Dostoyevsky (remember William Shatner in Richard Brooks' woebegotten The Brothers Karamazov?), Virginia Woolf (let's just give a huge pass to Michael Cunningham's nod to Woolf in The Hours), or Tolstoy (War and Peace with Rod Steiger, anyone?). But Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) have provided some pretty terrific pictures. Coppola's The Godfather may be the best example of a great film coming out of a mostly lousy book. The only exception to Bazin's rule perhaps is Charles Dickens, celebrating his 200th birthday this year somewhere in the great beyond, who has had more good movies made from his books than any other great writer. But that's likely due to Dickens writing in a popular dramatic style; that is, constructing his stories in a manner that anticipated the model for film narrative which D.W. Griffith would build upon in his first silent pictures. (Outside of Dickens, Henry James and James Joyce might be two other exceptions.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Often times a play that doesn't work comes off because of a mesmerizing performance by one of the actors. Steve Vineberg wrote about such an instance about Frank Langella in Man and Boy for Critics at Large.  

Rattigan and Langella: Man and Boy

Virginia Kull, Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Man and Boy at New York’s Roundabout Theatre

The centenary of the British writer Terence Rattigan – one of the monarchs of the English stage before the “angry young man” movement made his approach to playwriting seem hopelessly old-fashioned in the mid-fifties and sixties – has brought several of his forgotten works to light. But Man and Boy, one of his last dramas, was rediscovered six years ago when Maria Aitken staged it in London. She has also helmed the current production at New York’s Roundabout Theatre. This is a fascinating play that doesn’t quite come off, but Frank Langella gives another in a string of tour de force stage and film performances in the starring role, which is written for a mesmerizing actor.

Monday, January 28, 2013


When culture critic Robert Hughes' tragic death occurred last summer, it went as unnoticed as Shlomo Schwartzberg's smart appraisal in Critics at Large.

Robert Hughes: Another Iconoclast Departs

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

I first encountered the writings of the late art critic Robert Hughes, who recently died after a long illness at age 74, when he wrote for TIME magazine. As a long time subscriber to the magazine, I’d always paid attention to film, book and music and theatre critics, in TIME and elsewhere, but I had never really read or liked art criticism until Hughes came on the scene. Reading someone discoursing on artists I was mostly unfamiliar with – I wasn’t one for art galleries in my younger years – I sensed two salient points about him. One is that he didn’t suffer fools, or in his case bad art and bad artists, gladly, just like my other favourite curmudgeons, Harlan Ellison and the late Christopher Hitchens; and two, he brought the very highest standards of criticism to his writing. TIME has generally had critics a cut or two above the bland norm – currently Lev Grossman on books, James Poniewozik on television and Richard Zoglin on theatre fulfill that function adequately – but Hughes was something new. He was scathing – his critiques of artists like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, whom he delightfully called 'The Princeling of Kitsch,' made an indelible impression on me. (Many years later I saw an exhibit by artist/ photographer Jeff Wall, a similarly themed modern figure, in Chicago and though I couldn’t entirely dismiss his oeuvre, I did feel that I was being confronted by a fraud. I suspect subconsciously Hughes’ trenchant criticism of modern art was percolating in the back of my mind.) But it wasn’t until I read his eye-opening book Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (Oxford University Press, 1993) – detailing the then corrosive effects of political correctness on the political and artistic climate in the United States – that I fully realized how gutsy, vital and important Hughes was to the current discourse on culture and politics among intelligent and open-minded people.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


The best books have a way of getting into our bloodstream, sometimes even creating conflicting responses, just as this book did for critic Mari-Beth Slade in Critics at Large.

Ferocious and Precocious: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers

Since I’ve begun writing for Critics at Large it’s become apparent that negative reviews garner a lot more attention than positive ones. Since I love attention, I had my mind made up to dislike this novel. I thought it was a sure thing. Superficially, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 2011) is a violent, empty western, dominated by male characters and curtly short chapters. But ultimately, it’s an insightful novel filled with the themes that drive each one of us – family, money, sex and the pursuit of happiness. There are some parts where I cackled garishly; others where I clutched the book to my chest with an understanding sigh.

Having a brother myself, one of the things I most understood was the tacit communication between the Sisters brothers. Throughout the narrative, Eli and Charlie simply have to look at each other to have a conversation. For professional hit men who often find themselves in complicated situations, this is a real asset. Because they are family, the relationship between Eli and Charlie is complex and deWitt does a superb job of depicting this relationship. Particularly in the opening chapters, the characterization of the Sisters brothers is magnificent. We’re naturally drawn to Eli, who narrates the story and attempts to villainize Charlie. However, since deWitt paints Charlie as so full of the logic that Eli seems to lack, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly accept Eli’s portrayal of Charlie as bad guy. Within a few short pages, the reader is shown insights into both Eli’s and Charlie’s individual personalities as well as the way they interact. Eli himself says it best early on as he ponders “the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

Road Maps

We all know that history is more than a collection of facts. History, as demonstrated in Kevin Courrier's review of The Dustbin of History in Critics at Large, can also provide road maps to events still in the process of being defined.

Rummaging Through the Dustbin: Greil Marcus's The Dustbin of History (1996)

For all the value we assign to history, both as a field of study in school and for understanding the ways of the world, it's also dead meat. Our best friend's marriage ends and we say it's history. Sports commentators, eager to create an air of finality, always remark: "With that goal in overtime, the playoff series becomes history." One goal and everything that came before it is now superfluous. The winning team moves on; the losing team is history. History might even be worse than dead meat because (to paraphrase Johnny Rotten) it's got nooooo future. It's history.

In high school, we often treated the subject as a function of correcting mistakes. The teacher told us that if we studied what took place back then, then maybe we could prevent it from happening again. Know it and you can control it. History was something you could beat by simply having all the right facts.With certain truths on your side, you could freeze an epoch in order to properly dissect it. But why should history's dustbin become such a convenient dumping ground for facts left behind like last week's garbage? This is the central question in Greil Marcus's uneven, yet fascinating book The Dustbin of History (Harvard University Press, 1996), which sets out to provide a road map to find some answers.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Coming of Age

When a favourite artist takes a hiatus and then plans a comeback, we cross our fingers and hope it was worth it. Laura Warner writing in Critics at Large in 2011 found Ryan Adams' return to recording worth the wait.

The King of Sad Bastard Songs All Grown Up: Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire

The ever prolific king of sad bastard songs, Ryan Adams, has emerged from his “retirement” with new material. Since announcing his hiatus from music in 2009, little was heard from the artist. By 2010, we saw Orion, a metal endeavour released only on vinyl. That same year also marked the release of III/IV, the shelved sessions from the 2007 Easy Tiger recording with the Cardinals. While I respected Adams’ genre-bending talents, I found the latter album just too loud. (Yes, I’m 70-years-old and can’t stand those kids and their guitars.)

That being said, I didn’t know what to expect when I was forwarded an NPR First Listen of Ashes and Fire (PAX-AM/Capitol). About thirty seconds in, however, I was hooked. Adams makes a full come back with this signature country, Americana mix. Ashes and Fire is Adams’ presenting himself stripped down and soulful. Probably the most refined album of his career. The title track and especially the opener, “Dirty Rain,” contains that slow, familiar, twang evident in Adams’ earlier albums. Ashes and Fire is a solid autumnal delivery that perfectly matches the timing of the album’s release.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Super Superhero

Many people were puzzled when a new Spider-Man franchise began last summer. Why reboot what was (for the most part) done fine by Sam Raimi? Steve Vineberg explained in Critics at Large why the new Spider-Man deserves to stand alongside the original.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Adolescent Hero

Andrew Garfield stars in The Amazing Spider-Man
As Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield wears his sensitivities – crippled pride, a sense of abandonment, guilt and anger, and especially romantic fervency – like open wounds.  You don’t wonder that the leading jock bully at his high school, Flash (Chris Zylka), targets Peter:  emotionally he’s the perfect punching bag.  Peter’s parents (played, in flashbacks, by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), a distinguished geneticist and his wife, were killed in a suspicious plane crash when Peter was a little boy, and though the uncle and aunt who raised him (Martin Sheen and Sally Field) have worked hard to give him both a loving upbringing and a strong moral foundation, his orphaned state has left him incomplete, and you can see it in his face, which is pocked with anxiety and etched with loneliness. Garfield is gifted but he hasn’t always been used well:  neither Never Let Me Go nor Red Riding Trilogy did a thing for him, and he was all wrong as Biff Loman in the Mike Nichols revival of Death of a Salesman last season – and when he isn’t cast right he goes phony.  But he showed a talent for mining adolescent feelings in The Social Network, and as Peter, a genius loser in whom a bite from a genetically enhanced spider in the lab of his dad’s old partner, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), releases both a physical prowess he never dreamed of possessing and an accompanying sexual confidence, he’s magnificent.  Garfield locates the vulnerabilities of an ostracized teenage boy with unerring precision and then uses the fantasy narrative to build on them – and employs his gangly body to suggest at first awkwardness, isolation and masochism and then athleticism and physical invention.  One friend made a brilliant comparison between Garfield and the young Anthony Perkins of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, and I can’t think of an actor since Perkins who’s been able to go quite so far with the bruised emotional palette of a young man who feels way too much.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

For the Ages

There are some singers who have voices that don't seem to come from this time; they seem mysterious and ancient. That quality accounts for David Churchill's reaction upon hearing Cold Specks, whose album he reviewed for Critics at Large.  

Doom Soul: Cold Specks' I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Al Spx, aka Cold Specks

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness
 – James Joyce, Ulysses

The first time I heard of Al Spx (the pseudonymous name of the Etobicoke-raised singer/songwriter
– and Cold Specks is another of her made-up names – she now lives in London, England), I was listening to Metro Morning on CBC Radio in Toronto last February. Host Matt Galloway, whose musical taste I rarely find interesting (his middlebrow views which he thinks are so multi-culti can be frequently infuriating), introduced the first single, "Holland," from her soon-to-be-released album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (it came out last month). The thing that stopped me cold (no pun intended) was not the song (he hadn't played it yet), but rather the term he used to describe the type of music she plays. Al Spx calls it: doom soul.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hitchcock & Chaplin

Making sense of an artist's body of work, and its history, is complicated by time. When you live through the artist's life the experience of their work is much different than if you didn't live through their time. Kevin Courrier examined that aspect of understanding art when he reviewed two films by two of cinema's earliest practitioners in Critics at Large.

Pioneers Making History: Criterion's Release of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps & Chaplin's The Gold Rush

A few years ago, when I was working on my book Artificial Paradise, about the dark side of The Beatles' utopian dream, I was speaking to a friend who was a clerk in a Toronto music store. In the midst of our conversation about my work, he described to me his own experience hearing The Beatles' music. "The first album I really discovered was Revolver," he told me. "Then I went back to With The Beatles and later found Rubber Soul." What was jarring, of course, was that he began his quest with one of their later 1966 albums, arguably their best, before jumping back to their second record in 1963, a fiercely eclectic songbook primer of hard rock, balladry and R&B, before landing in 1965 on the band's most radical reinterpretation of American rhythm and blues and folk. What startled me most was his seemingly arbitrary dance through history. And it left me wondering how he could ever begin to make sense of it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gene Ritchings' Winter in a Summer Town

The world of print journalism and dramatic television aren't worlds apart. Just ask David Simon of The Wire and Treme. Or better, yet, as Susan Green writes in Critics at Large, read Gene Ritchings' novel, Winter in a Summer Town.  

Don't Fugeddaboutit: The World of a Jersey Shore Wordsmith

Author Gene Ritchings
Full disclosure: Gene Ritchings was our saving grace. In the late 1990s my Critics at Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, and I went down to New York City for ten days to research a book about NBC’s Law & Order. We’d gotten permission and a promise of access from the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, but that blessing did not necessarily mean instant acceptance in the Big Apple. We were interlopers who needed to conduct interviews that arguably might be more in-depth (and perhaps even invasive) than those done by the usual entertainment media briefly visiting the set. 

Initially, the crew seemed to eye us with suspicion and the actors barely noticed our existence – until Ritchings, the production coordinator, took us under his wing. He also bent a few rules to help us navigate the bureaucracy and frenetic schedule that any TV series must establish to keep functioning. “We try to ward off the occasional feeling of being beleaguered and overextended and overworked because that’s the life we chose,” he said then.

After almost 15 seasons at Law & Order, Ritchings returned to a life that’s equally turbulent: journalism. It’s the career he first embraced at 18 and the New Jersey native has now also written a new novel, Winter in a Summer Town, that taps into his early experiences in print media without becoming a full-blown autobiography. The teen protagonist, Eddie Bonneville, lands a newspaper job covering the Garden State county where he has grown up with profound feelings of anger and alienation. The kid almost kills another student in a boxing match, then struggles to reinvent himself as a coming-of-age citizen committed to nonviolence. That goal is continually challenged by the systemic local political corruption he encounters as a novice reporter and by the wild zeitgeist of the era, the late 1960s.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Not all directors keep their mojo as Shlomo Schwartzberg discovered when he wrote in Critics at Large about Susanne Bier's Academy Award-winning feature, In a Better World.

Susanne Bier's Trite and Middlebrow In a Better World

In a Better World/Haevnen
Twenty years ago, I happened to catch a debut feature at the Montreal World Film Festival called Freud Leaving Home. I was so impressed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s powerful and caustically funny tragedy of a very dysfunctional Swedish Jewish family that I, and another film critic, called the head of the Toronto International Film Festival to strongly urge that, if there was still room, they add Bier’s movie to their upcoming festival lineup. The call was to no avail and for awhile, at least, Bier’s films didn’t find their way to TIFF. I caught her third movie, Like It Never Was Before (1995), in Montreal, too and appreciated the provocative and moving tale of a middle-aged man who leaves his family for another, younger man, at least in part to recapture his youth. So, by the time, Toronto’s film festival began showcasing Bier’s work, with Open Hearts (2002), she was something of a known quantity to me. Toronto has chosen to feature her work since then, including presenting her eleventh film, In a Better World (2010), which won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But something’s been increasingly lost in recent years. As Bier’s critical and popular star has risen, conversely her films have diminished in impact and quality. In a Better World continues in that disappointing vein. 

Mikael Persbrandt in In a Better World
The movie revolves around two families. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who spends much of his time abroad, practicing in a Sudanese refugee camp. Separating from his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), he’s somewhat removed from the lives of his two boys, particularly his 12-year-old son, Elias (Marcus Rygaard), who’s routinely bullied at school. Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) has just moved back to Denmark from London with his businessman father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). The two are still recovering from the death of Christian’s mother from cancer, with the boy blaming his father for ‘lying’ to him about the real state of his mother’s illness. Obviously, he harbours a lot of anger, which he releases somewhat when he confronts Elias’ tormenters. As the boys try to cope with schoolyard bullying at its most vicious, Anton has to deal with a problematic situation in the refugee camp. It concerns whether he should treat and save the life of a warlord who, horrifyingly, terrorizes his people by cutting open the stomachs of the women he's raped and impregnated in order to determine the sex of his child. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Promise Lost

It can be fully acknowledged that television (especially on cable) will tackle subject matter that even movies seldom touch. But that doesn't mean they always do it well, as Mark Clamen pointed out in Critics at Large when he encountered the first season of Showtime's The Big C.

The Big C Gets a C+

It is no longer necessary to make the point that television is currently a lot better than film. TV series are drawing not only A-list actors (Glenn Close and William Hurt on Damages, Sally Field in Brothers and Sisters, Holly Hunter on Saving Grace, to list just a few), but also A-list directors (Agnieszka Holland has directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, and most recently, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of the much-anticipated Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night). Television has come a long way, and TV viewers are richer for it.

To a large degree, the increasing richness of television can be traced to its overall honesty – television’s willingness to show us things which are uncomfortable or ugly, and its ability to illuminate the details which make the lives of our favourite characters so intriguing. But there are shows with all the right ambition, shows which, despite their potential and intriguing subject matter, fail to live up to their own promise. The Big C is one of these shows.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sean Penn Redux

With Sean Penn currently starring as Mickey Cohen in the new Gangster Squad, it seemed timely to revisit a 1996 interview with the star by Kevin Courrier about acting and directing which was posted in Critics at Large last fall.

The Pennultimate Challenge: Five Reasons Why Sean Penn Wanted to Give Up Acting and Become a Director (1996)

Sean Penn
Back in June, Mark Clamen wrote about a new Sean Penn film, This Must Be the Place, which had opened all over Europe, but had yet to have a theatrical release in North America. "This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common)," Mark wrote. "The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves." Mark finally gets his wish when this Italian/French co-production opens next month in North America. Of Penn's performance, Mark wrote that "Penn plays the character with a low-burning intensity...[his] performance ultimately reveals an eminently likable man, but it takes much of the movie to get to know him." That "low-burning intensity" of Sean Penn became the subject of a profile written by Kevin Courrier in 1996 when he spoke with him at a Toronto Film Festival round-table when the actor, promoting his second film as a director, The Crossing Guard, was considering abandoning acting for the director's chair. In the piece, Courrier takes five of Penn's reasons for the career shift and examines their merit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


It's baffling that a work as excitingly theatrical E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime has produced such lame adaptations. First it was the misguided Milos Forman film and now, according to Steve Vineberg writing last summer in Critics at Large, it is the musical.

Ragtime at the Shaw Festival: History Lessons for the Already Enlightened

In his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow uses the ragtime era – roughly the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War – to investigate the confluence of contradictory impulses as America begins to hog the world spotlight. Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan embody the American dream in its quintessential (Horatio Alger) form, but their domination implies the oppression of wage slaves and the muting of voices that aren’t white and Christian. In Doctorow’s narrative scheme, the white-bread, well-off New Rochelle family, which has no reason to expect to meet anyone who isn’t exactly like them, crosses paths with African Americans (Mother finds a black baby buried but still breathing in her garden and takes in both mother and child), Jewish immigrants (in Atlantic City, Mother makes the acquaintance of Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant who brings his little girl to America and winds up becoming a filmmaker) and the forces of radicalism (Younger Brother, Mother’s sibling, hears Emma Goldman orate in Union Square and later volunteers himself as a bomb maker for the mightily abused black man Coalhouse Walker, a one-time ragtime pianist and the baby’s father).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pods 'R' Us

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always had a ripe metaphor applicable to any age. But in 2007, The Invasion was not one of the acclaimed of the four versions. David Churchill, writing in Critics at Large, thought there was more to this version than met the eye.

When the Real Pod People Intrude: Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion

In my last post, I talked about the two-dozen plus DVDs I picked up for a buck each at the Rogers rental shutdown. As I stated, a few of the films I grabbed I assumed would be pieces o' crap, such as Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion (2007 - starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) which I had heard nothing but bad things about. It was the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I bought it for $1 to watch at some point just to complete the “collection.” So imagine my surprise when, except for the completely destroyed ending and idiotic bits here and there throughout the film, I found The Invasion well-acted, credibly made and far more pointed than I was expecting it to be.

In the first two versions, the invasion was literally a space-born spore that came to earth (never explained in the Don Siegel's effective 1956 version; carried to our planet on the solar winds in Philip Kaufman's brilliant 1978 version). Abel Ferrara's weak 1993 Body Snatchers also left it unclear where the spores came from, but suggested environmental problems – not space spores – on a military base caused the pods to evolve and take over people. In Hirschbiegel's version, spores have attached themselves to a returning space shuttle which experiences a catastrophic failure. When the shuttle breaks up on re-entry, it spreads the spores across the US (especially around Washington, DC, where most of the film is set) attached to the shuttle's wreckage.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Politics of Experience

If there was a film last year that didn't get the audience it deserved, it was Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret. Kevin Courrier, in Critics at Large, wrote about it in the context of movie violence.

True Blood: Margaret & The Experience of Violence

"I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them – murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn't write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!"

– "A Conversation on Film With Leo Tolstoy" quoted in the appendix of film historian Jay Leyda's Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film (Princeton University Press,1960); and later reprinted in Roger Ebert's Book of Film (W.W. Norton, 1997).

In September 2001, it was my twentieth year as a film critic covering the Toronto International Film Festival. It was also the year of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Before the carnage took place, I'd already been seeing a number of pictures that dealt with the subject of violence. But my response to the violence was as varied as the films themselves. South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's drama Address Unknown, for instance, attempted to tackle the cultural stigma of Korean women who had had children out of wedlock with American USO soldiers stationed in Seoul. But the director quickly lost sight of the more ambiguous ramifications of the story. Kim's unbridled rage instead got the better of him. There were so many florid scenes of mutilation and brutality that it overshadowed any compassion we might have had for the characters. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013


The fact that for choreographer, Wayne McGregor, dance could also be something of a science experiment in his piece Entity, served as part of what fascinated critic Deirdre Kelly last year in her review in Critics at Large.

The Science Of Dancing: Wayne McGregor’s Entity

Entity, choreographed by Wayne McGregor (Photo: Ravi Deepres)

Talk about a ‘Eureka!’ moment: A dance performance that is also a science experiment, the focus of study being the body in motion. Audiences, put your thinking caps on.

Entity is the name of the brain puzzle of a dance in question, and it is an entirely new choreographed creature, owing its genesis to the mind as much as the body.

Choreographed in 2008 by Wayne McGregor (choreographer-in-residence at the Royal Ballet in England, and represented by his 10-member strong Random Dance troop, the resident company of Sadler’s Wells in London), the hour-long piece concludes its month-long Canadian tour in Toronto tonight at Harbourfront Centre: Run to get a ticket.

The result of 10 years of scientific inquiry, Entity is a hybrid born of a question (What happens inside the brain when people dance?) and of a collective desire, by both the choreographer and the international cast of extraordinary dancers, for extreme movement exploration. This exploration is made even more complicated by the fact each dancer has a distinct stage personality and presence.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Their are actors who never can escape the roles and images they create on the screen. Two of those, who Susan Green discussed in this piece from Critics at Large, couldn't be more inconically different.

Random Viewing II: Beauty and the Brute

As an adolescent, I was glued to CBS every Friday night for The Twilight Zone. After weaning myself from the addiction to attend college and then live without a television in young adulthood, it’s been possible to catch up with missed episodes whenever the US network SyFy holds a marathon – which the cable channel did during the recent holidays. Although thinking that by now I’ve seen the entire Rod Serling oeuvre, I tuned in and found one of the best stories the show ever produced: “Two,” which first aired in mid-September 1961, addresses the issue of mutually assured destruction. Such topics apparently were popular with the peacenik intellectuals who penned and directed these scripts during a Cold War era marked by nuclear weapons proliferation.

Friday, January 11, 2013


One of the pleasures of being a film critic is when a director, whose work has never meant much to you, surprises you with a movie you never saw coming. One of the huge disappointments of being a film critic is when a director, whose work you've admired, goes stale. Shlomo Schwartzberg discussed one of those directors who went stale in Critics at Large.  

When a Director Loses His Mojo: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya star in The Skin I Live In

If you had told me a decade ago that Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow would have made two of the best films of recent memory, namely Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, I wouldn’t have believed you. Their body of work, except for his debut Reservoir Dogs and her second feature Near Dark, never looked to deliver on the promise that they could direct anything that great again. But they did. And if you had suggested that Spanish wunderkind Pedro Almodóvar would become one of the dullest, least interesting directors around, I would have scoffed as well. Yet that’s exactly what happened with him. The Skin I Live In, his latest movie, provides more evidence of a filmmaker who’s become stale in terms of imagination, presentation and content.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Profound Disbelief

It's one thing to write a bad musical, but it's quite another to use questionable source material. Hence the review below from Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large.

You Want to Make a Musical Out of That?: Far from Heaven, New Girl in Town

Charlie Plummer, Alexa Niziak, and Kelli O’Hara in Far From Heaven (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The biggest deal at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer is a new musical of the 2002 Todd Haynes movie Far from Heaven starring Kelli O’Hara, who has taken a couple of weeks off from her Broadway show Nice Work If You Can Get It to perform in the Berkshires. Any chance to see O’Hara, a pure-voiced, remarkably expressive singer who is also a first-rate actress, is worth taking, and in the role of Cathy Whitaker – played on film by Julianne Moore – she sings superbly and conveys affectingly the bafflement of a quietly elegant, optimistic 1950s New England housewife who suddenly discovers that all of her assumptions about her life and her community are false. Moore, whose beauty is somehow touching and remote at the same time, brought to the part a sense of profound alienation; O’Hara, who has a gift for plumbing the depths of conventional characters, comes at it from a different perspective.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Perfumed in Malice: Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaiasons

Too many costume dramas get trapped in the costumes and forget the drama. That's not the case with Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons which Kevin Courrier wrote about last year in Critics at Large.

Love and Revenge: The Blu-ray DVD Edition of Dangerous Liaisons

Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, Les Liaiasons Dangereuses, is a diabolically unique book, a sly narrative about devious sexual games and merciless erotic warfare, told in the form of highly confidential letters between two French aristocrats – the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – former lovers turned wicked schemers who set out to wreck the love lives of others just for the sport of it. The letters read like a series of confessionals where the artifice of their style carries the sharp pungency of juicy gossip, cadenced whispers delicately perfumed in malice. Les Liaiasons Dangereuses peeks under the accepted customs of the aristocracy only to uncover the latent sexual aggression, an arousal of decadence, that ceremonial behaviour masks. Naturally, the novel ended up condemned, banned and burned over the years as if the French aristocracy set out to destroy traces of themselves tucked away in those exchanges.

Director Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's Tony Award-winning stage play, based on the de Laclos's novel, was never in danger of being condemned, banned, or burned. But it sure does full justice to the book's wickedness. Perhaps, since Frears (having already directed My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) is a true modernist, he goes beyond providing a cleverly detached voyeurism and goes instead for the emotional and erotic power buried in the material. Most period costume dramas linger on the decor so we can swoon over all the pageantry, or they take the moral high road of Peter Greenaway'sThe Draughtsman's Contract which dispenses with the impacted eroticism in sexual gamesmanship in exchange for cerebral muscle-flexing (paraphrasing critic Terrence Rafferty, Greenaway is the beach bully as aesthete who kicks art in our faces). Frears, however, shows far more daring, setting up the combatants and their rules of engagement so that we can watch their masks melt away. We ultimately come to feel the full consequences of their carnal games. The artifice gives way to real flesh and blood, blood that even literally spills by the end, as Frears cuts the chords that hold the characters aloft.