Monday, April 28, 2014

The Family Romance

Although we live in an age of sexual explicitness, perhaps than in any other period of human history, it doesn't mean we have solved the mysteries of sex and repression. Writer Amanda Shubert found that out when she reviewed Adore (an adaptation of Doris Lessings The Grandmothers) for Critics at Large.   

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Power of the Performance

God knows there have been many great productions of Hamlet (and some bad ones, too), but Steve Vineberg writing in Critics at Large hasn't seen a Hamlet performance of quite the calibre of Rory Kinnear.

Hamlet of Hamlets

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, which was transmitted in HD in 2010 and recently had an encore screening, is set in a distinctly modern police state where the omnipresence of security is such a familiar sight in the court of Denmark that the characters have stopped noticing them. Polonius (David Calder) and Ophelia (Ruth Negga) talk freely in front of one guard, though the topic of their conversation is her romantic relationship with Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), and when Polonius confronts her about it, he produces a file containing photos of them together. Spying is a natural impulse to Polonius, who sends Reynaldo (Victor Power) off to France to check on his son Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) and later gives his daughter a walkie-talkie concealed in a Bible so that he and King Claudius (Patrick Malahide) can hear how Hamlet reacts when she returns his love gifts. The way Calder plays the old counselor, he has a passion for spying. He’s proud of himself for his ability to tender this service to his king – though when he tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” he pauses, unsettled, and you wonder if, just for a moment, he contemplates the possibility that he’s violated his own principles (at least since Claudius took over the throne). After Hamlet kills him by accident in his mother’s bedroom and Claudius can’t get him to stop clowning long enough to tell him where he stowed the body, one of the king’s men opens an attaché case full of torture instruments, and Hamlet, who has been handcuffed, acquiesces. Instead of being a fop (as he’s usually played), Osric (Nick Sampson) is the same military man who had a hand in Hamlet’s deportation to England – where he was supposed to be executed on the English king’s orders – and when he invites Hamlet to take part in the duel with Laertes, it’s obvious to us that he’s in on the conspiracy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Happy Gazing

Racing car movies for some reason seldom work as drama, but Ron Howard's Rush certainly did. Phil Dyess-Nugent suggested how and why in his review from Critics at Large.

Face Value: Ron Howard's Rush

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard's Rush

Like many people who have spent their entire adult lives, and then some, working in Hollywood, Ron Howard has a frame of reference shaped far more by movies than real life experience or history. As a child actor, Howard made a career out of gazing, in awe and worshipful confusion, at those who had mastered adult life, and as a successful, middle-aged movie director, that’s still his specialty. This can be a problem when he insists on making movies about people who have one foot in common, everyday experience, set in a world that is meant to be our own. I don’t remember ever having had a worse time at the movies than Backdraft (1991), his battling-firefighter-brothers movie, with a story thread about political corruption and a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure; the movie had a lot of problems to choose from, but the one at its core was its embarrassing, confident assumption that everyone still feels about firemen the way they did when they were eight years old. (If it had been released ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, it might have been acclaimed for its Zola-like realism.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Poirot R.I.P.

As Agatha Christie's iconic detective Hercule Poirot came to a conclusion on television, Shlomo Schwartzberg revisited the series in Critics at Large with fond nostalgia.

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot


Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ghosts

We all know the way that songs can haunt us our whole life where they can immediately invoke a time and place that's buried in memory. But Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large also examines how the songs sometimes haunt their creator.

Chasing Phantoms - From Del Shannon to Neil Young: "Runaway" and "Like a Hurricane"

When I was six and driving in the car with my parents, the radio often provided comfort either by giving me voices in the larger world beyond the roads we travelled, or music that could take me inside the world of the singer. For myself, the rock & roll I heard in 1960 was about finding a place, to paraphrase John Lennon, where I could go when I felt low. The songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly could reach out to the friendless and disenfranchised and invite us to to be part of something larger than ourselves. Even if their tunes were about heartache and loss, the mere sharing of that pain gave credence to the idea that one could transcend it because the music was about giving pleasure. In one of his last recorded songs, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," Buddy Holly playfully teases himself about how foolish he was to be driven crazy by the woman who abandons him. Not only does the singer survive the loss, he understands the price he was willing to pay in the process so he could move on. (It was only in real life, unlike in the nowhere land of the song, that Buddy Holly could lose his life in a plane crash he couldn't control.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mendacity and Truth

When it comes to aesthetics and politics, nobody blurred the line between the two and created unresolvable arguments concerning both like Leni Riefenstahl. Bob Douglas writing in Critics at Large takes no prisoners in his provocative examination of her life and work.

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl

“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pop Obsessions

In the early years of television a program's fan base could never fully influence a network's decision to keep it on the air. But now in the age of social media, a fan can let his pop obsessions be felt by its creator Veronica Mars is a perfect example as it is now a film thanks to those fans of the television show. Why the obsession with it? Mark Clamen goes into detail last year in Critics at Large before the film was released.

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Firefly – were barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Zeitgeist Redux

Mad Men has just begun its seventh and final season. Many are split on whether or not the show has successfully caught the temper of the era of the Sixties. Even so, the late David Churchill (who passed away just before Season Six got under way) got to the divided heart of the matter in this review of Season Five in Critics at Large.

When Passion Overwhelms Skill: Season Five of Mad Men




Caution. Many, many spoilers are included.

I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Resurrection: Pete Townshend on Tommy

Since it is Easter, it seemed appropriate to turn to a rock opera with its own Christ story that continues to be resurrected: The Who's Tommy. Deirdre Kelly spoke to its creator Pete Townshend last fall when the production was enjoying a successful run at the Stratford Festival.

Adventures in Art, Expedient Creativity and Spirituality: Interview with Pete Townshend

Last June, critic Deirdre Kelly reviewed the Stratford production of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy in Critics at Large as "a feast of the senses." She went on to elaborate that "this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo." Speaking of the composer, Pete Townshend, the founder of The Who, Kelly had an opportunity to talk with him for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The paper ran a portion of her long discussion with the artist. Here today, we supply the rest. Townshend discusses a range of subjects including autism in relation to Tommy, the spiritual guidance of Meher Baba, the generational conflict in post-War Britain and the continued relevance of Tommy today.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Objects of Love

There are movies that serve as literal adaptations of the novels they are based on. But there are others, like Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame De..., that also seem to call up other books that better speak to its sensibility. Writing about the Ophuls' picture in Critics at Large, Amanda Shubert finds its antecedent in Tolstoy.  

Risk and Rapture: The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray DVD of The Earrings of Madame De…

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame De...

Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame De is built around a pun. Madame De (or Madame De— as it is written in text) is also Madame Deux. Two men – her husband, Monsieur De—, and her lover, the Ambassador – divide her. She is a double woman in the sense that she is duplicitous, but even this is only one half of her character, for Madame De—’s coquettish charms belie her emotional depth. The story revolves around a pair of earrings the wealthy and elegant Madame De— sells back to the jeweler to pay off her debts. A wedding present from her husband, the earrings are returned by the jeweler to Monsieur De— who buys them a second time and gives them rather cavalierly as a parting gift to a mistress of whom he has begun to tire. The mistress pawns them at the gambling table overseas, and in a storefront window they catch the eye of a foreign diplomat. The Ambassador sails to the European country where he has just been stationed, and immediately encounters Monsieur and Madame De— in high society. Fascinated by her, he arouses her vanity, her passion and then her love; he gives her the precious earrings as a gift. Madame De— is astonished to see her jewels once again, and she deceives the Ambassador about their provenance to protect his pride; only when the Ambassador learns the truth, from Monsieur De— who sees the Ambassador as a harmless suitor and the gift of the earrings as a genial mistake, his love dries up. He suspects Madame De— of being as faithless and vacant as the jewels, an object of glittering beauty to be passed from owner to owner, just at the moment when the love she feels elevates her beyond her vanity. For the Ambassador, the charming innocence of Madame De— has vanished, but we begin to perceive that beneath her deceptions is the true innocence of a woman falling in love for the first time. Madame De— renounces the world and dies a martyr, a heart-shaped earring in each hand.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Progenies

The great iconic actors have a way of being reborn in the lives of future generations - often with chilling similarities. Susan Green in Critics at Large examines the examples of James Dean and River Phoenix.

Phoenix Descending: The Young and the Restless and the Doomed

River Phoenix (1970-1993)

As a starstruck little girl, I experienced a broken heart when 24-year-old James Dean died in an automobile accident on September 30, 1955. From that day on, I began each entry in my diary with “Dear Jimmy.” A somewhat similar sadness took hold when drugs claimed the life of 23-year-old River Phoenix on Halloween 1993. But in starstruck adulthood, I no longer kept a diary with which to deny the untimely deaths of sensitive young actors.

Like Dean, Phoenix projected vulnerability, intensity and an edgy sense of potential self-destruction in his films. These qualities, which graced them both with a charisma lacking in most of their otherwise talented Hollywood peers, almost made tragedy seem inevitable. From a troubled adolescent in Stand by Me(1986) to the anguished son of fugitive parents in Running on Empty (1988), Phoenix brought that special something to the screen. In director Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), he portrays a character with narcolepsy. Never very lively while awake, he abruptly falls asleep anywhere, anytime – much like a junkie nodding out. It’s an uncanny performance in a strange movie based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Common Ground

Our obsessions with pop figures sometimes takes on the staging of a turf war when it comes to defending their work against others who claim similarity. That was nowhere more than in the case of Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. When Lou Reed died last year it prompted Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large to examine the common ground occupied by both artists.   

The Wild Side: Lou Reed vs Frank Zappa

Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (illustration by Chris Grayson) 

It's curious how we recall certain moments only when death intervenes and creates a rent in our day. The sad passing of Lou Reed this past Sunday, at the age of 71, took me immediately to a typical party I attended as a teenager on a Saturday night back in the early Seventies. There's no significant reason to remember this party and I hadn't even thought about it since the night it happened. But that's what death does. It brings dormant moments back to life. On that evening, it was the first time I became aware of Lou Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, just happened to be playing on the turntable and I remember most the nursery rhyme beauty of the opening track, "Sunday Morning," the slashing guitar that droned under the driving beat of "I'm Waiting for the Man," and the pulsating intensity of "Heroin," where John Cale's shrieking violin seemed to create an electric blanket to surround Reed's determined voice and speaking for his heightened nervous system; the sensations brought on by milk-blood flowing in the veins (all of which made Steppenwolf's popular song "The Pusher" seem even sillier and more self-conscious by comparison). I also loved the Celtic melody that underscored "Venus in Furs" while the flattened out timbre of Nico's voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties" made me momentarily forget the party I was attending.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Illuminating Backdrop

Director Sophia Coppola doesn't make movies driven so much by plot as they are by mood and suggestion. Nick Coccoma examines in Critics at Large how that quality enhances her latest film.

Mimetic Desire: The Bling Ring

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola’s first movie, The Virgin Suicides (1999), treated a cadre of teenage sisters and their relationship with the material and moral strictures surrounding them. With The Bling Ring she comes full circle in a way, but the detours she’s taken in the intermediary years bring her to a very different vantage point. Once again, a group of adolescent girls (plus one boy) are the main characters; once again, the effect of materiality and culture is the theme. But her take on this material is informed now by her intervening films, Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), and Somewhere (2010). Without those reference points, you could slip and pass off The Bling Ring as a pointless affair. So did the woman next to me in the theater when I saw it, who pronounced it the worst movie she’d ever seen (did she forget the Baz Luhrmann movie playing next door?). But with Coppola’s oeuvre hanging as an illuminating backdrop, The Bling Ring reveals itself as perhaps her most biting, damning portrait of society yet.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Connecting the Present to the Past

The detective novel is not a genre you normally look to for reflections into the personal life of the writer, but as Bob Douglas points out in Critics at Large, Sara Paretsky's work is the exception.

Concentric Circles in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels

“No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.”
– P. D. James, Talking about Crime Fiction

Anyone primarily interested in a whodunit crime novel may not find it in the writer Sara Paretsky. In her long-standing series that made its debut in 1982 with Indemnity Only introducing the female protagonist V. I. Warshawski, dead bodies do appear regularly but the identity of the perpetrator is rarely the novels’ most compelling feature. When a murder does occur early, for example in Body Work (2010) and the accused is an Iraqi veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress after the rest of his unit was killed in a firefight, Warshawski is also hired by the young man’s parents to prove his innocence. The tough, sharp-tongued but compassionate private sleuth is frequently engaged by clients to investigate a person’s disappearance.   

The impression from reading these novels is that the resolution of the mystery constitutes the most inner circle, one that is surrounded by a series of other circles including Warshawski’s personal life and her commitment to address social injustices. Finally, and, most interestingly, is the historical circle in which she connects the present to the past, which is found in a number of Paretsky’s later novels, especially her most recent,Critical Mass (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013). The historical arc, which provides greater depth and resonance, should not surprise since she has a PhD in history from the University of Chicago.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Man in the Shadows

Not all pop artists who make significant contributions to the work of others get the recognition they perhaps deserve when releasing their own work. Devin McKinney examines the work of one such artist in this review from Critics at Large.

When the Mystique Evaporates: Bobby Whitlock

"Derek and the Dominos", Oct 1970:  (from left) Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton

“Bobby Whitlock” is familiar as a name, if not quite an identity, to any fan of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ On Tour with Eric Clapton; Whitlock played and sang on all of those 1970 albums. Born in Memphis, whose clubs seasoned his soul vocals and guitar and keyboard skills, Whitlock was protégé to Booker T. Jones at Stax Studios before joining the band that developed around highly-touted husband-wife soul shouters Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. From there, he grew tight with Bramlett fans and sidemen George Harrison and Eric Clapton – whence his recruitment as a Domino and subsequent appearance on All Things Must Pass. For a few years, Bobby Whitlock soared with the eagles; and while the getting was good, he recorded two solo albums, Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet, both released on ABC Dunhill in 1972.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rabble-Rousing

The political legacy of former President Lyndon Johnson has long been overshadowed by the tragedy of Vietnam. As a result, a more nuanced view of Johnson's term, where his liberalism was put in jeopardy by his support of an unpopular war, has been next to impossible. Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large examines those difficulties in seeing LBJ clearly in his review of All the Way.

Politico: Robert Schenkkan's All the Way

With the U.S. government in shutdown and voting rights in peril in a number of red states, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about All The Way, Robert Schenkkan’s chronicle of the year between Jack Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 re-election of LBJ, which just wrapped up a sold-out run at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. (The title is, of course, derived from his campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”) The political landscape covered by the play’s three hours is thorny: as the curtain falls, many of the architects of the Civil Rights movement feel betrayed by the president, who has overseen the passage of the Civil Rights Act but has had to excise the section on voting rights, and who failed to support the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats with full voting privileges at the Democratic Convention. J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) has ramped up his campaign to discredit Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, ferrying tapes of his motel-room adulteries to his wife Coretta (Crystal A. Dickinson). And LBJ has turned his back on his aide, Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), after Jenkins was arrested, drunk, for solicitation in the men’s room of the Washington YMCA during the celebratory aftermath of the election. The play is about the political costs of social gains, about the balancing act of power, careerism and social change, and its subject is the last great old-style political animal to occupy the White House. But I don’t imagine there was anyone sitting in the house at Wednesday’s matinee who wouldn't opt for the world of Schenkkan’s play, where social progress is held dear, over the one we walked back into at the end of the afternoon.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Strange Hybrid

There's probably nothing worse in a dramatic series when it loses its nerve and jettisons its strongest ideas, as David Churchill discovered watching the BBC mini-series Exile.

When Mash-Ups Won't Mash: BBC's Exile

Jim Broadbent & John Simm in Exile

Exile is a strange hybrid. On one hand, it is a heart-felt family drama about the troubling nature of illness in the aged. On the other, it is a thriller whose main character tries to unravel crimes from the past in Ramsbottom, a town outside of Manchester, England. The biggest problem this BBC miniseries from 2011 (released on DVD last month by BFS Entertainment) faces is that it never finds the necessary connective tissue between the two genres they have mashed together. It is almost as if they don't have the faith that a story about a disgraced man, Tom Ronstadt (John Simm – the British Life on Mars), forced to come back to his childhood home and face up to the fact his once vibrant, talented newspaper-man father, Sam Ronstadt (Jim Broadbent – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), is in an Alzheimer's Disease death spiral, would be enough to hold an audience.

Friday, April 11, 2014

B-Movie Shakespeare

Joss Whedon has brought great emotional sophistication to popular themes in mass culture (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but could he do the same to the great literature of the Bard? Amanda Shubert examines the mixed results of his Much Ado About Nothing in Critics at Large.

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

The material is not the problem. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable comedies, and it’s also completely within Whedon’s range. It may not have vampires and demons (Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel) or space-age cowboys and aliens (FireflySerenity), but it distills the qualities that make Whedon’s supernatural and extraterrestrial epics such compelling mythographies of real life experience. It’s a comedy that brings romantic happiness to the brink of disaster and back again, where erotic desire can be the source of complete wreckage as well as matrimonial union, and jealousy, hatred and rage are the shadow-presences of the profoundest love. That’s the attitude Whedon took towards high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the emotions of the teenage characters were so volatile they combusted into paranormal activity. On Angel, where the titular vampire with a soul (played by David Boreanaz) moves from the suburb of Sunnydale to Los Angeles and fights the criminal underworld of monsters as a sort of noir detective, the point is that everyone, not just Angel, has a demon lurking within – it’s the nature of being human. Whedon has a way of putting horror and science fiction movie scenarios in quotation marks while at the same time showing you the real emotion underneath them. The bad guy in the first season of Buffy is a centuries-old vampire called The Master with an apocalyptic endgame. He’s pure camp, but when a prophecy surfaces that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will die at The Master’s hands Whedon plays against all our expectations: Gellar channels the heartbreak and fury of a sixteen year-old girl forced to stare down her own death. The tone turns on you – suddenly you’re watching the real substance of nightmares.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sojourn Through the American Heartland

Usually when a Coen brothers' film opens, there's quite a fanfare among their followers. With their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, it began that way and then it disappeared into history like its main character. Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large wishes that it had hung around longer.

The Coen Odyssey: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

In his memoir, ChroniclesBob Dylan wrote that “a folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.” What he meant was that you had to let the songs sing you rather than the other way around. When Dylan would perform a traditional tune about the slave market, like "No More Auction Block," he wanted to sing it from inside the experience of the black man being sold into bondage. "With a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it," he said in 1966. "[But] you may have to lean forward a little." Becoming a character in a song like "No More Auction Block" requires a fair bit of leaning, and maybe sometimes even donning a few nifty disguises, but that's how Bob Dylan transformed American topical music into a fervid national drama that the listener had a stake in.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beyond Cable

More and more people are abandoning cable, or at least, turning online to stream and download television shows. One popular site to take advantage of this is Netflix, which launched House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Mark Clamen examines the latter in Critics at Large.  

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Houdini of the Dance

For those who never considered choreography as the art of the magic, you need to read Deirdre Kelly writing in Critics at Large about Claudia Moore.

Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Dancer Claudia Moore

Claudia Moore (photo by Tamara Romanchuk)
By calling her latest show Escape Artist, Claudia Moore conjures an intriguing picture of herself as a kind of Houdini of the dance. Technically an illusionist, the death-defying escape artist alluded to in the title strives to be free of restraints, be they handcuffs, straitjackets or cages in a sea of sharks to name some of the claustrophobic situations these suspenseful performers have been employing since their arrival on the pop culture scene at the end of the 19th century. Moore, a seasoned dancer who is artistic director of her own MOonhORsE Dance Theatre company, obviously loves the concept. But her solo show of four commissioned works which played at Toronto’s Dancemakers Studio in the Distillery District during the last weeks of October (including a Hallowe’en performance where the audience was invited to come in costume) did not take the shackle and bust theme literally. In other words, no real chains only imagined ones.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Magic Bullets

One of the most unresolved crimes, at least as far as conspiracy theorists go, is the JFK assassination in 1963. Besides the dozens of books on the subject, there are many films which Phil Dyess-Nugent delved into in Critics at Large last fall on the fiftieth anniversary.

Vicious Circles: The JFK Conspiracy Films


Immersing oneself in the conspiracy mythology that has grown up around the assassination of President Kennedy means hearing, again and again, confident assertions of things that have been repeatedly shown to be untrue. Oswald couldn’t shoot straight, they say, and no one could get off the number of shots he supposed fired in the space of time he had using the weapon he would have used. There's also exhaustive, detailed arguments that completely unravel upon close inspection (such as all the mocking elaborations on the impossible trajectory of the bullet that passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally that fail to take into account the fact that, as you guess just from looking at photos of the two men riding in the presidential limousine, Kennedy’s seat was a few key inches higher than Connally’s).

There was never any valid intellectual reason for doubting that Lee Harvey Oswald was the president’s killer, just as there’s never been any valid intellectual reason for doubting that the plays and poetry credited to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. Arguments that somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s work always come down to snobbery; they’re emotionally necessary for people who can’t deal with the fact that the greatest English writer was a mutt. The belief that Kennedy must have been the victim of a conspiracy must be very reassuring to people who can’t wrap their minds around the idea that some mutt with a mail-order rifle changed the course of history. That helps to explain why high-profile conspiracy proponents – people who claim to think that powerful forces, maybe even the government itself, murdered the president and got off scott free, never seem to be as furiously angry and despairing as you’d expect them to be. Given the chance to spout off, an Oliver Stone or Mark Lane is more likely to come across as remarkably at peace, even smug. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t live in a world where chaos reigns and things are out of man’s control. They know something you don’t know.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

All the Right Notes

It's been a great era for documentaries and, according to Shlomo Schwartzberg in Critics at Large, especially music docs.

The Lasting Impact and Joy of Cross-Cultural Currents: Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie)


As long as there has been music there has been fertilization of different sounds and rhythms between musicians from various countries and continents. From African slaves bringing their music to America and giving birth to the blues and later jazz to the British, in turns, absorbing American tunes, and melding their essences to proffer their unique brand of rock and roll, music has functioned as one of the best ambassadors for cross-cultural connections and co-operation. Two new documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie) attest to that fact, examining, in turn, a specific sound and one particular song, while offering some provocative theories as to why things turned out the way they did.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Speaking Out

Today, sadly, marks the first anniversary of the passing of critic David Churchill who co-founded Critics at Large with Kevin Courrier and Shlomo Schwarzberg. To remember him, we offer one of his final pieces where he examines the firestorm that erupted over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

When a Physical Book Becomes a Symbol: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

In February 1989, a fire-storm erupted over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. It had been building for weeks, but finally burst into full-blown crisis when Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, meaning that any Muslim was compelled to kill Rushdie over the supposedly blasphemous novel. The fatwa did not just apply to Rushdie, though. Anybody who edited, published, translated or dealt with the publication of the novel in any way could also killed. People were murdered, including a few of Rushdie's translators. Rushdie went into hiding for years, moving a total of 56 times in the first few months alone.

Though Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, the fatwa has never been officially lifted. This past year, he published a memoir in novel form of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton. At the time, what got me mobilized, beyond my utter belief in freedom of speech (and yes, I defend the right of some offensive fool to say whatever they like just as much I defend my right to tear his or her arguments apart), was when bookstores in the US and UK, such as Barnes and Noble, began to fearfully remove the book from their sales racks. My reaction to that news was to head out to a bookstore in Toronto and immediately buy a copy. Since the chain stores now seemed too terrified to sell the book, I went down to Queen Street West to the (now-defunct) Edwards Bookstore. (I don't remember if Coles or WH Smith removed it from sale or not, but I wanted, in this case, to give my business to an independent bookseller.) They had new copies on sale, but before I took one up to cash I decided to check out their 'reduced' tables. Back in the day, Edwards Books was a treasure trove of great books on many subjects, but it was their bargain tables where I found so many wonderful ones I could regularly afford. As I glanced through the tables, my eye caught sight of two or three books without dust jackets, spines up. From a distance, there seemed to be pieces of white tape over the spines of these books. Out of curiosity, I looked closer. It wasn't tape, I realized, but white thread had been used to sew up damage on their spines. I got closer and looked at the title. I took an involuntary step back. They were all repaired copies of The Satanic Verses. I picked up the one that had the most elaborate work. The repair job was immaculate, like it had been done by a surgeon (they looked like stitches). Bisecting the word Verses (you can see an image further down the text). This white thread held together what looked like a scalpel-like cut right through the letter R of Verses. The others copies were repaired too, but none as intriguingly as this.