Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Truth is Out There

If there is one area of science-fiction that continues to be fascinating, it's the idea of time travel and parallel worlds. One show that delves deftly into that subject, Fringe, caught the attention of Mark Clamen in Critics at Large

Fringe: This is the Way the World Ends (Again)

David Noble, Joshua Jackson, and Anna Torv star in Fringe

I’ve been watching Fringe for years, even since it premiered on Fox in 2008, but I’ve never written about it. Now – with the fourth season finale set to air this Friday and with the recent surprise announcement of a fifth and final season – seems like an ideal time to weigh in on a show that has grown into the most consistently entertaining science fiction series currently on network television. Fringe is essentially a sci-fi procedural that follows a small FBI team – Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a civilian consultant Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek), and his father, research scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – in their investigation of paranormal occurrences, which often turn out to be science experiments gone awry (the results of so-called “Fringe” science.) When Fringe premiered, the comparisons to X-Files were obvious: a Fox series involving two paranormal investigators working with the FBI tracking monsters or strange diseases every week, with a slowly burgeoning romantic tension between our lead characters. The superficial parallels were self-evident – and likely intentional on the part of Fringe’s creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci (all of whom also worked on Alias) – but it would be several seasons before Fringe would rightly earn the X-Files banner – learning all the right lessons from the earlier series, and even exceeding it in many ways.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Le Noise

In honour of Neil Young's new book of memoirs, Waging Heavy Peace, we run this review by John Corcelli in Critics at Large of one of Neil's most uncompromising records.

Knocked Out Loaded: Neil Young’s Le Noise

Neil Young’s Le Noise is a centered, focused and authentic recording designed to both inspire and knock you on the head. Young has also knocked himself on the head. Le Noise features the kind of raw ambiance that he hasn’t achieved since Ragged Glory (1990). And he’s served it up with some serious lyrical content. Young has had a career of tripping up his muse to continually stir up his creativity. In fact, looking over his long body of work, he’s spent decades shifting both his and our expectations of where he would go next.Freedom (1989), which contained electric and acoustic versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” dipped into a variety of musical styles. That album led unexpectantly to the quietly conceived best selling Harvest Moon three years later. Next, he rocked out with the members of Pearl Jam on Mirror Ball in 1995 before following that with the under-recognized country/roots record Silver & Gold (2000). Five years later, he returned with the beautifully rendered and reflective Prairie Wind.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Just about every blockbuster is coming out in 3-D whether it warrants it or not. By the time Shlomo Schwartzberg had seen Sanctum, the line was drawn.

Sanctum: Enough with the 3-D, already!

The increasing trend of films being made in 3-D (Toy Story 3) or having 3-D added to the finished movie (Alice in Wonderland) is increasingly tiresome, since, frankly, it’s a technological advance that rarely if ever adds any value to a project. Once in awhile it has a purpose, as in the recently released Tron: Legacy, which is largely set in a world located inside the internet. There, depicting the ‘computer’ world in 3-D as a contrast to our world, in regular, mundane 2-D, makes sense. It didn’t result in a good movie, however, as the sequel to Tron (1982) was basically a loud, empty and finally boring concoction that faded from memory as soon the (lengthy) credits rolled. But Tron: Legacy at least had Jeff Bridges, in a dual role as an evil computer creation and a kindly inventor, who had lost control of the world he originally had intended to build for peaceful purposes. Bridges isn’t great in the parts. He's stiff, partially because of the lame SFX in the computer-generated sections. (He also lazily channels 'The Dude' from The Big Lebowski.) But at least he offers a reason to check out the movie. Sanctum, a 3-D extravaganza which has the distinction of being executive produced by James ‘Avatar’ Cameron (big whoop) can’t boast of having any big stars – unless you consider Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four, W.) to be of that calibre – or any reason whatsoever to check it out.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fixing a Hole

It's been almost a half a century since The Beatles created another seismic dent in the culture when they released their album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. While its considered by many to be there best album, not everybody agrees, including Kevin Courrier in this post from Critics at Large.

Magical Retreat: Sgt. Pepper After 45 Years

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in June 1967, is a lovely confection, a beautifully self-conscious neon sign that celebrated with ample imagination the romantic ideal, where the possibility of true love could transcend all of our problems. (If only.) And in that summer, which came to be termed 'The Summer of Love,' Sgt. Pepper's seamless and mellifluous tone made it appear as if that possibility was indeed well within our grasp. However, the idea for the record, following up on their concept single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” (two radically different renderings of childhood and originally destined for the album) came out of the opposite sentiment, a 'Summer of Hate' that took place the previous year.

That particular summer, American cities (as they had almost every summer in the mid-Sixties) were burning in reaction to the continued racial unrest. The escalation of the war in Vietnam had also all but diminished President Johnson's War on Poverty. In short, the tenor of violence was becoming exactly as black activist H. Rap Brown had described it then – as American as apple pie. Amidst this chaos, with the mounting frustration over the dashed ideals of the New Frontier of the early Sixties, The Beatles became easy targets for the angry and the disillusioned. You could say they were even, to a large degree, at the apex of those very ideals being dashed. So their 1966 tour, filled with torpor and turmoil, reached its bottom end with record burnings in the Deep South after John Lennon had remarked that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In that summer, The Beatles found themselves no longer in control of their meteoric success. When they first chose to engage their audience in 1962, with their first single “Love Me Do,” the goal wasn't simply to become entertainers, but to put new demands on the pop audience. They set out to take popular music and their fans to another place. And in the coming years they did just that – and more.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cultural Intersections

Despite the folly of Francis Coppola's film about the Cotton Club, this famous Harlem club which featured the best in hot jazz, Steve Vineberg pointed out in Critics at Large how Cotton Club Parade rescued the history and the music.

Jazz Babies: Cotton Club Parade

In the 1920s and especially the ‘30s, the Cotton Club in Harlem represented the intersection of white and black popular culture – talented white songwriters like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote material for extraordinary African American performers like Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Avon Long, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (who also, of course, performed Ellington’s own compositions and those of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn). The club was on the corner of Lenox and 142nd Street; originally the Club Deluxe, it was opened by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, in 1920, and when it failed a white gangster, Owen “Owney” Madden, and his syndicate bought it up, renamed it and staged a flamboyant reopening in 1923. The bitter irony was that, for the next seventeen years – as long as the Cotton Club operated – it welcomed white audiences only; even the families of the performers were denied admission. Yet for a black musician or dancer, appearing there meant you had catapulted into the white show-business world. (If you want to find out more about The Cotton Club Revues, Jim Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era, published in 1977, is helpful. Stay away from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club, which is fiction – and lousy fiction at that. And of course you can get the original recordings remastered on CD, some of which come from live broadcasts. One you don’t want to skip is Fields and McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Ellington’s band, sung by his favorite vocalist Ivie Anderson, she of the bourbon-and-water contralto, and featuring a tasty solo by soprano sax player Johnny Hodges at the beginning a truly sublime one at the end by trumpeter Lawrence Brown. It’s heaven.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Master of the Cool Pose

It's easy for a good critic to perceive what is obvious about an artist's sensibility from first glance. But what about when you take a longer gaze in order to get beneath the painter's pose? Amanda Shubert, in her fascinating and penetrating review of Alex Katz's work in Critics at Large, discovers what she calls "a man with an unquenchable thirst for the substance of beauty, vitality and allure..."

Beyond the Pose: Alex Katz Prints at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

"Self-Portrait," Alex Katz, 1978. Aquatint. 
Alex Katz is probably best known as the master of the cool pose.  His close-cropped portraits of family and friends, with their bright, flat hues and glints of sunlight, tap into the glamorous simplicity of billboard advertisements and the allure of movie stills, both of which were aggressively visible when Katz burst onto the New York art scene in the early 1960s. Alex Katz Prints at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, jointly organized with Vienna’s Albertina and on view through July 29, opens with a witty self-portrait in which the artist appears in a snappy white jacket like a Hollywood movie star sporting one of those vague, effortless million dollar smiles.  The thing is, when you get close to the prints, you don’t see the master of cool at all: you see a man with an unquenchable thirst for the substance of beauty, vitality and allure that realistic images can both fleetingly disclose and at the same time never quite contain.  The delicious contradiction of his work – intimacy and impersonality, quietism and desire – is all there in the sensuality of his technique, and the MFA’s enjoyably overstuffed retrospective allows you to get a glimpse of the dynamic fusion within the cool, deliberate Pop Art style. (No reproduction will show it to you in quite this way.)  The disappointment is that beyond putting the art on the walls the curators don’t give you much to go on in looking beyond the surface.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Last night's big winner at the Emmy's was the post-9/11 cable drama Homeland. Susan Green explained  why it deserved these accolades last year in Critics at Large.

An Espionage Masterpiece: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

The word “homeland” makes me kind of queasy, especially when used by the Bush administration in launching the Department of Homeland Security nine years ago. It’s reminiscent of the beloved Nazi “fatherland.” The less patriarchal “motherland,” preferred by the Soviet Union, sounds just as creepy. But as the title for a new series on Showtime, Homeland makes for a tantalizingly tense television drama in which creepy is a good thing. The brilliant Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a crack CIA agent taking medications to mask bipolar disorder. Mandy Patinkin is a marvel as Saul Berenson, a seasoned spook who’s her mentor. As performers, they’re both at the top of their game.

In the October 2 debut, the inciting incident takes place in Iraq, where Carrie is on an unauthorized covert mission. After a jailed militant awaiting execution tells her that an American POW has been “turned” by al Qaeda, she’s busted before learning more details, put on probation, and reassigned to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Of course, nothing can keep this obsessive woman from the work that gives her life its sole meaning.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sex and Politics

Tonight at the Emmy Awards, one of the TV movies up for a number of statues is the HBO picture from early this summer, Hemingway & Gellhorn, which David Churchill and Kevin Courrier turned into the first podcast review on Critics at Large.

Critics at Large Podcast #1: Philip Kaufman's Hemingway & Gellhorn

Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen star in Hemingway & Gellhorn

(NoteIf the player doesn't appear for you above, you can also listen to the podcast here.)

During the 1980s, Critics at Large’s Kevin Courrier worked as assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM (now JAZZ 91-FM) in Toronto. Between 1987 and 1989, Critics at Large’s David Churchill was asked by Kevin to join him on the show to review the current cinema. During that era, one of the filmmakers who had a major impact on both critics was Philip Kaufman, director of such superior films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and others. So, when Kaufman’s first new work in eight years, Hemingway & Gellhorn, debuted this past May on HBO, they thought it might be time to temporarily resurrect their radio review segment with Critics at Large’s first podcast.

Hemingway & Gellhorn tells the story of the tempestuous relationship between author Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn as they fall in love during the Spanish Civil War, and then tear each other apart in the years that followed.
The podcast was produced by Sean Rasmussen.

- originally published on July 14, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Genre Pleasures

The kinds of pleasures we get from movies can vary from picture to picture. In this terrific piece of writing from David Churchill in Critics at Large, he is able to take two similar films (with very different tones and approaches) and clearly point out how both can make such good entertainment.

Spy vs. Spy: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“He's a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”
George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Failure for a terrorist is just a dress rehearsal for success.”
Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

George Smiley and Ethan Hunt are in the same profession. They are spies working clandestinely to keep certain evils, be they communism or individual madmen, from destroying the very fabric of Western civilization. The two movies these characters appear in, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (based on a novel by John Le Carré) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (the fourth film based on the 1960s TV series), both opened last Friday. What's fascinating about each is that they represent two completely different schools of thought in the depiction of the world of the spy. One, Tinker Tailor, is a cerebral drama about the attempt to uncover a mole (double agent) at the very top of British Secret Service in 1973; the other, M:I – GP, is an action-packed film set in the present day about the attempt to stop a madman from unleashing a nuclear missile on the US. What is equally fascinating is they start in exactly the same way and even in the same city, and yet after those first few opening moments they peel off in two completely different thematic directions.
In M:I – GP, an agent, Trevor Hanaway (played by Lost's Josh Holloway), is in Budapest, Hungary. He and other members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are there to intercept a courier who has acquired the launch codes for a nuclear weapon. He is betrayed and shot by a beautiful assassin. In Tinker Tailor, an agent, Jim Prideaux (played by Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong), is in Budapest, Hungary. He is there because the head of the Circus (British Secret Service), known only as Control (John Hurt), has sent him to meet up with a source who claims to know the name of the mole. It is a trap, and Prideaux is shot by a sweaty waiter. Both films and where they are heading are determined in their establishing shots of Budapest.

M:I – GP was filmed partially in Imax (if you can, see it this way – it is visually spectacular), and the first image we have of Budapest is a sun-filled vista of the beautiful old city as a helicopter shot zooms us into the start of the action. The audacity of this beautiful, embracing shot tells us very quickly what we are in store for. Before we can completely orient ourselves, we hit the ground running as we follow Hanaway as he evades a group of thugs, falls from a building, and springs to his feet just in time to be easily plugged by the beautiful assassin (Léa Seydoux, one of the daughters at the start of Inglourious Basterds).

Gary Oldman as George Smiley
Tinker Tailor features the exact same vista of old Budapest, but instead of being sunny, the sky is drab and grey (as the film itself will be throughout). The cityscape is shot from a fair distance back and so it flattens the image and removes the beauty. We are introduced to Prideaux as he waits with another man for the source to arrive. The air is filled with tension that extends to the sweating waiter to the fidgety man who waits with Prideaux to the suspicious Prideaux himself. He decides to leave, and as he does so, the waiter (who's actually a Russian agent) panics, pulls a gun and shoots wildly. His first shot misses, killing a mother as she nurses her child (the drab horror of what this world represents is quickly established by a very brief and deeply disturbing shot of the baby continuing to feed at her breast as she slumps, dead, in her seat). He shoots again and finally hits his target.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Wealth of Choices

Even thought CD sales aren't what they used to be and music downloads are becoming more prominent, Shlomo Schwartzberg in this Critics at Large piece draws attention to the music magazines that are helping keep CDs alive and well.

So Much Richer: The Diversity and Variety of Modern Music

It arrived later than the other music magazines but the French cultural/political magazine Les inrockuptibless Best of the Year music issue is an illuminating read and listen, both because it’s so different than the Anglo-American annual music lists but also because it provides incontrovertible proof that when it comes to music, unlike other art forms, the critics are on so many different pages.

Charmingly titled Best of Musique 2011 (an apt mix of English and French) and accompanied by a CD of 16 of the mag’s favourite tracks, entitled La bande-son 2011(Soundtrack of 2011), Les inrockuptibles’ top 100 discs, 50 reissues and 100 tracks certainly offers a cornucopia of sonic richness. But I was especially intrigued by its deviations from Uncut and Mojos top of the year lists. Generally of the top 50 albums cited by those British music mags, about half or so of the CDs chosen differ from each other. They shared a common preference for such albums as Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest, Wilco'sThe Whole Love, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues,Tinariwen's Tassili and Radiohead's The King of Limbs but Mojo also picked Glen Campbell's Ghost on the Canvas and Nick Lowe's That Old Magic as among their best discs of the year whileUncut went for the likes of Ry Cooder's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX's We're New Here. But Les inrockuptibles went even further in charting its own path with some surprising choices on tap. I would expect them to choose some home-grown discs, from French artists François & the Atlas Mountains and Daniel Darc – the Brits tend to ignore most non-English music outside of Africa – but how did they come to focus on an Oklahoma group called Other Lives, which I don’t recall being mentioned by either Uncut or Mojo (who supposedly keep a close eye on the musical output of their Anglo cousins). Other Lives was not the only American band whose album (Tamer Animals) was mentioned by Les inrockuptibles as among the year’s best; other choices included both predictable ones from Bon Iver, Tom Waits and Fleet Foxes as well as left field choices, not picked by the Brits, like M83, Hanni El Khatib and Salem, American artists whom I’ve never heard of. Surprisingly, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So Whatthough featured on both Mojo and Uncut's best lists, was absent from Les inrockuptibles's chart They also focused on Canadian artists like Drake and Timber Timbre who were shut out of the British magazine lists. (Feist's Metals made both the French mag and Uncut's top list but was overlooked by Mojo.) And of course being neighbours and all, lots of British choices, including the releases from Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey, Gruff Rhys, The Horrors, James Blake and Cat’s Eyes, not all of whom placed high in their local lists. Interestingly, Harvey's (overrated to my mind) Let England Shake was Les inrockuptibles's eighth best disc but placed number one with both Mojo and Uncut.

The Black Keys
I should mention Les inrockuptibles’s number one choice, The Black Keys’ fine El Camino, which didn’t factor in the top 50 lists of Mojo orUncut at all. That’s likely because those magazines go to press earlier than the French magazine’s music year end issue does, in November and thus they don’t consider albums released in December for their lists. (El Camino was released in early December in the UK and North America). I’m betting it would have qualified though as The Black Keys’ previous album Brothers was in Mojo’s top ten of 2010 (number eight) and placed at number 28 in Uncut’s Top 50. To my mind that taints the British lists, though the album may end up on their best of 2012 lists as most of its sales and presence would be in 2012 calendar year. Back home in the U.S., El Camino did place highly in publications like The Village VoiceTime magazine,SpinRolling Stone and (online) Paste magazine.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mind Games

Writing a good biography requires sometimes acknowledging details that aren't so pleasant. While Tim Riley does that with some of the life of John Lennon in his recent biography, he leaves out other names that raises some questions that Kevin Courrier addressed in this Critics at Large entry.

Stealing Voices & Naming Names: Tim Riley's Biography of John Lennon

Just about the only scene I enjoyed in Walter Hill's action comedy 48 Hrs (1982) was when Nick Nolte's bleery-eyed cracker cop reluctantly visits prison to spring the slick hustler Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him capture Hammond's former partners in crime. As Nolte approaches the cell, Murphy is listening to his Walkman, oblivious to Nolte – hell, oblivious to the world – while lost in the falsetto notes of Sting's affected soul strutting in The Police's hit song "Roxanne." Murphy is singing along, note for note, not only matching Sting, but surpassing him. What comes across initially as parody quickly takes hold as the only true version of the song. The notes Murphy hits are exactly the same as Sting's, but you actually believe Murphy's tale of a streetwalker. He may be thinking of someone he loves, or perhaps, a broken girl that he left on the outside before he started doing time. (Sting never convinces you that he even knows a streetwalker. He merely convinces you that he walks on the street.)

While it's hardly an example of divine retribution, of stealing back what Pat Boone once stole from Little Richard, but whenever I now hear The Police singing "Roxanne," I crack up. I can't hear Sting anymore. It's Eddie Murphy's voice that replaces him in my mind. No need to Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner, as Howard Hampton put it once in one of his delightfully cranky essays, Sting's no longer worthy of being a trophy. In 48 Hrs, a film that shrewdly exploited racial tensions for cheap laughs, and provided what critic Pauline Kael rightly called "an eighties minstrel show," Eddie Murphy came to own "Roxanne," turning it from a minstrel number into a real soul song. (Nick Nolte, who could care less, rips the headphones from Murphy's head before he can even finish the song.) Yet that's the sheer beauty of getting to test the worth of an artist's voice, to see if you can steal what they've claimed as their own. It's partly what drives cover bands, too, who try to both emulate their idols and – potentially – steal the thunder of the idols they adore. But you can't steal someone's thunder if it's not put there to steal.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


One of the more popular art house movies of the past year is Terrence Davies adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, which has just come out on DVD. Unfortunately, for Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large, Rattigan is done no favours here. 

The Deep Blue Sea: Reduced Rattigan

Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea

Among the various revivals staged to pay tribute to the English playwright Terence Rattigan around his 2011 centenary, possibly the most unwelcome is his countryman Terence Davies’ film of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. Davies is a pictorialist, not a dramatist; the movies that made his reputation, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992, were art-house chotchkes, with images that looked too much like tableaux and characters he hadn’t bothered to fill in. You could see the influence of the Brechtian-Freudian writer Dennis Potter (Pennies from HeavenThe Singing Detective), especially in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which contained a number of pub sing-alongs, but he didn’t move through his ideas to any sort of life underneath. Davies is the filmmaker equivalent of the Robin Bailey character in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can, who collects pop mementos that, lovingly preserved in an airless setting, removed from any context that might have given them meaning, have become a kind of living dead.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pop Fantasies

If our obsessions with pop, as fans, can create a multitude of fantasies, it's fitting that choreographers can put those fantasies to dance as Deirdre Kelly points out in this Critics at Large review.  

Love Lies Bleeding: A Pop Ballet That Really Pops

The artists of Alberta Ballet rock out to "Benny and the Jets" in Love Lies Bleeding

Jean Grand-Maître took the stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Tuesday night, just moments before Alberta Ballet would perform the area premiere of his full-length Love Lies Bleeding, set to and directly inspired by the music of Elton John. Microphone in hand, Grand-Maître genially asked the capacity crowd how many had come to the ballet for the first time. A roar rippled through the auditorium and the Canadian choreographer smiled. It was a sign that his mandate of creating pop ballets for the Calgary-based company since becoming director in 2002 was indeed working: bums in seats, but more importantly, bums attached to people who might not otherwise be caught dead watching men in jock straps pointing their toes in an undulating sea of ballerinas. But as if wanting to quell any lingering reservations, Grand-Maître told the audience not to worry: “This is not really a ballet,” he continued. “It’s more like a rock concert. So sit back, relax and unleash your inner pop star.”

"Rocket Man": Yukichi Hattori, Company Artists
For the next two hours that is pretty much what happened. The crowd screamed, it sang, it clapped along; some in the house could be seen even dancing in their seats. At the end, it rose en masse to give the ballet an instantaneous standing ovation on top of prolonged applause. To ballet purists it was a somewhat different story. The choreography is more borrowed than original: Bob Fosse meets the cross-dressing Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, meaning lots of crotch thrusts and drag queens galore. Such details have entertainment value, but don’t necessarily advance the art form. Still, there was plenty to like, even admire. It is one of the few ballets to foreground men in ballet as opposed to women and for that is to be applauded as something rare indeed. It also has at its centre an aerial number, choreographed by Adrian Young, which literally sets the dancers flying, a wonder to behold. But the ballet scales heights in other ways: Love Lies Bleeding is the Alberta Ballet’s Tommy, a reference to the ballet inspired by The Who’s rock-opera of the same name created for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970 by resident choreographer by Fernand Nault, a work that first put Canadian ballet on the international map. So while not a new invention, Love Lies Bleeding is ballet for the masses whose popularity may bode well for the future of the art itself, enticing even more bums down the line to wiggle in their seats.

Monday, September 17, 2012

New Worlds

The graphic novel has grown in stature from its time from merely being considered comic books that are left behind with childhood. Catharine Charlesworth, in her first piece for Critics at Large, examined one of the best recent examples.

A Wordless World: Shaun Tan’s Approach to the Silent Graphic Novel

Opening Shaun Tan’s The Arrival feels like cracking the spine on an old, treasured photo album. Both written and illustrated by the Australian artist, the entire book looks as if aged by time and travel: from the cover, with its seemingly-tattered binding and leathery texture to the washed-out sepia tones of the illustrations. This motif is entirely appropriate, as The Arrival reflects on immigration, of the wonder and confusion of making a new life in a foreign land. The narrative follows a nameless protagonist: a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter in their monster-ridden homeland to travel overseas in search of work, in hopes of making enough money to bring his family to live with him. The Arrival tells a classic immigrant story, and Tan’s design choices help him to convey it in a way that appears both familiar and fantastical.

Unlike most graphic novels, The Arrival tells its story entirely in illustrations. A wordless graphic novel, it contains no speech bubbles, no textual narration – no real written language of any sort. Because of this, the characters lack – in the traditional sense – any explicit internal dialogue or distinctive voice. Yet Tan has done this intentionally. His lack of detailed personality makes Tan’s hero a sort of Everyman: a character onto whom the audience can project their own experiences of immigration and transnationalism. The story at the heart of The Arrival has been told before, in many different tongues. To make this fantastical version accessible to cultures worldwide, Tan tells it in the transcendent language of images. The only written “words” in the book are in a made-up alphabet. These represent, rather than any particular phrases, the idea of writing, and its ability to baffle, humble, and alienate one who does not understand it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Childhood's End

Some failed films nevertheless have fascinating premises, as in the case of this independent feature reviewed by Susan Green last year in Critics at Large.

When They Were Young: A Coming-of-Age Saga

In any category for failed films with a fascinating premise and stellar cast, 2008’s Flashbacks of a Fool deserves a spot at the top of the list. Although the title perfectly describes the narrative structure and the protagonist, it creaks with obviousness. Daniel Craig plays the fool, a British actor named Joe Scot who has destroyed his once-enviable career with booze, drugs and non-stop anonymous sex – a role model for Charlie Sheen! He lives in a sterile California mansion, where his black housekeeper, Ophelia (American rapper Eve), seems to be the only person who cares enough about him to say: “You’re a disgrace to white folks.”

When his agent drops him around the same time Joe learns that an old chum has died back in the United Kingdom, he hits bottom by getting drunk and wading into the surf off Malibu. Suicide? Apparently not. That watery sequence provides an awkward segue, as the script by writer-director Baillie Walsh suddenly lands on the English coast 25 years earlier. The Scot family – Joe’s mother Grace (Olivia Williams), his Aunt Peggy (Helen McCrory) and little sister Jessie (Mia Clifford) – lives on the beach in a sprawling, slightly funky cabin. The nearest neighbor is a cranky busybody, Mrs. Rogers (Miriam Karlin). Two doors down: the flirtatious Evelyn Adams (Jodhi May), her rarely-seen husband and their neglected daughter Jane (Jodie Tomlinson), who is about eight.

Felicity Jones and Harry Eden in a rock ‘n’ roll rapture
It’s 1972 and Joe (Harry Eden) is a 15-year-old pretty boy but rather a blank slate, especially compared with all those around him. His sweet-natured best friend Boots (Max Deacon) has more evident personality. The girl they both covet, Ruth (Felicity Jones), is smart, vibrant and an ardent fan of glam rock. They regularly all meet up in the downtown arcade, though the geography is so ill-defined it’s not clear where downtown might be located in relation to the seaside community or to her posh home. (Perhaps this confusion can be attributed to the movie’s South African locations.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Media Mirrors

The horrible events of the G20 conference in Toronto are still in the news with court cases continuing to mount over the police conduct during the summit. Kevin Courrier decided to write about the media when he examined the issues surrounding the G20 for Critics at Large.

Appetite for Destruction: The Media Coverage of the G20 Summit

“The media are all-knowing. They supply a community of knowledge and feelings, and a common morality. Many people, literate and illiterate alike, simply do not read. They receive information from television whether or not they seek that information. It often comes to them in the form of entertainment.”

--Tony Schwartz, Media: The Second God (1983).

Like most people, especially Torontonians, who witnessed the war zone that became our city during the past weekend of the G20 summit, I was appalled by a number of things. One could get into a number of healthy debates over the decision to have the summit in Toronto (given the violent history of these events), the destructive acts of the Black Bloc, or the reaction of the police to those acts. But I was struck more by some other factors that I believe contributed to creating the dark vortex the city fell into while world leaders were discussing the problems of the planet.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gothic Shadows

The term gothic gets used indiscriminately when it is seldom understood. in his book, That Line of Darkness, author Bob Douglas not only delves into the true meaning of gothic, but also its applications historically. David Churchill interviewed Bob Douglas for Critics at Large earlier in the year.

The Gothic Shadow – Bob Douglas's That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War

When people talk about 'gothic' culture today it could apply to pretty much anything with dark clothes, dark hair and pale skin. Author and historian Bob Douglas, on the other hand, has a deeper awareness of the true origins of the Gothic tradition. He has written about that tradition, as well, in a fascinating study titled That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011). In the book, Douglas uses the Gothic literary conventions – especially those contained in Bram Stoker's Dracula – as a means to understanding the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, right through to and including World War One. Douglas's full study doesn't stop with the Great War; however, he is currently working on a second volume that covers both the Nazi and Stalinist era up until the post 9/11 culture.

James FitzGerald, the author of the award-winning memoir What Disturbs Our Blood (who we interviewed last year) aptly writes about That Line of Darkness that "Douglas reminds us, with erudite, page-turning prose, how life is forever imitating art. Forbidden, atavistic desires lurk under the thin skin of our civilization, and with equal parts horror and fascination, we are transfixed." Douglas has himself been transfixed by this project. Since 1998, when it began as a study of art in ten different historical periods, the book soon became what is now an epic and engrossing historical study of how the demonization of the other and blood purification became a compelling metaphor that continues to haunt the culture. Bob Douglas, whose website is, will be giving a talk on Thursday January 26, 7PM to 8:15 atPalmerston Library two blocks west of Bathurst just off Bloor St. Recently, he had a few minutes to talk to us as well about the project.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bad, Better & Baffling

Often in Critics at Large, Shlomo Schwartzberg likes grouping films together when he reviews. In this case, he matched a bad one with a better one and concluded with an addendum to one that still baffled him.

Trio: The Debt, Submarine and a final comment on The Tree of Life

Despite being the locus of so much American media coverage, Israel doesn’t figure very prominently in U.S. TV and cinema. Since those productions are expected to travel abroad and make money, likely their creators, for the most part, would rather avoid dealing with the subject for fear of losing sales in anti-Israel markets or risk alienating European audiences, who don’t much like the Jewish state. If they didn’t think like that, at least one James Bond movie would have had a Tel Aviv setting. In fact, except for the regular character of ex-Mossad agent Ziva David on TV’s NCIS, and the odd Israeli reference in Alias or a few scenes in Charlie Wilson’s War – which was nonetheless careful not to identify Jerusalem as actually being part of Israel, much less its capital  the country is rarely even mentioned at all. Thus, it’s most surprising that Miramax decided to remake the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov (The Debt), which revolves around three Mossad agents sent to capture a key Nazi in 1965, and what happens afterwards.. But The Debt, despite its potentially juicy plot, is a rather lacklustre affair that never feels as authentic as it wants to be.

The film begins in 1966 with the triumphant trio, David Perez (Sam Worthington), Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas), returning home from East Berlin and their mission to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christiansen  Mr. White in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), known as ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau.’ (That’s an obvious nod to the sadistic Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, whom the Israelis actually tried, but failed, to capture over the years.) Declaring Vogel dead, shot by Rachel when he tried to escape, they’re greeted as national heroes. Flashforward to 1997, and the now-elderly Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciaran Hinds) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) are shaken when a man, in an asylum in the Ukraine, claims to be Vogel. What really happened in Berlin? Did Vogel indeed die? That’s the gist of The Debt, which straddles two timelines as it tackles the big issues: guilt, vengeance, truth and what debt, if any, the agents owe to their country and themselves.

Sam Worthington in The Debt
I've not seen the original Israeli film, but the remake, written by three different screenwriters (Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) seems to downplay its Talmudic, questioning concerns, in favour of too many generic and badly directed action sequences. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) botches the agents’ initial foray into Berlin as they plot to snatch Vogel, and the film in general possesses none of the tension that was second nature to Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), which expertly laid out a true life, and highly suspenseful, Mossad mission to eliminate all the Palestinian terrorists who were involved in the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes and their coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Munich also had a specific, wry Jewish flavour, notably in the key scene when the agents, over a brisket dinner, get to know each other and their backgrounds. The Debt, by contrast, never feels all that genuine, a decision hindered further by not having any actual Hebrew spoken in the film, though the agents speak German when in Berlin. (The movie was partially shot in Tel Aviv, but Israel never comes alive on screen.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Classic Folly

There are some stage musicals that become classic not because they work, but because (for whatever reason) audiences fall for them. Which may explain, in part, why On a Clear Day You Can See Forever caused Steve Vineberg some grief in his review in Critics at Large.

Befogged: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

David Turner, Jessie Mueller, & Harry Connick Jr. in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo: Nicole Rivelli)

It’s rather fascinating to sit through the new Broadway revival of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner musicalOn a Clear Day You Can See Forever because you keep trying to get into the heads of Peter Parnell (who revised the book) and Michael Mayer (who re-conceived and staged it). They must have thought it would work, but it’s hard to imagine how, even given the level of delusion on which the Broadway musical theatre sometimes operates – think of Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan musical The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and didn’t someone just close a musical based onBonnie and ClydeOn a Clear Day has a sumptuous score, but the book has always been trouble. When it began in Boston in 1965, before the original leading man, Louis Jourdan, had been replaced by John Cullum, Lerner was struggling with so many plot strands that the show ran nearly four hours, and after he’d trimmed it down to a presentable length for its Broadway opening it felt truncated, still excessively busy and random, as if he’d taken an axe to whichever overgrowths he could get at rather than melting the whole scenario down to a viable dramatic form.

The premise is complicated, to say the least. A psychiatrist named Mark Bruckner is approached by a nervous, chattering young woman named Daisy Gamble who hopes he can hypnotize her to stop smoking. He puts her under – she’s so susceptible that he barely has to say anything before she’s snoozing in his chair – and when he regresses her he discovers she had a previous life as an aristocrat in late-eighteenth-century London whose sexy portrait-painter husband wouldn’t stay faithful to her. In the course of interviewing Daisy’s witty, literate, elegant, independent-minded alter ego, Melinda Wells, Mark finds himself falling in love with her. So he spends as much time as he can with Daisy, who falls for him, mistakenly believing he’s courting her twentieth-century self – the only personality she’s aware she possesses. Mark is certainly a relief from her square fiancé Warren, who’s looking for employment with the company that can offer the best pension and who is happiest with Daisy when she’s at her most conventional.

Kristin Chenoweth as Daisy (2000)
The hyperactive plot also includes a previous suitor whom Melinda rejects for being a rake (just what her husband, Edward, turns out to be); an eighteenth-century shipwreck (end of act one) that is echoed in a narrowly averted air disaster (end of act two); and a press field day over Mark’s publication of his new, not-so-scientific thoughts about reincarnation that culminates in his being fired from the institute that has employed him. There’s even a brief appearance by a Greek magnate of incalculable wealth who wants to fund Mark’s research in the hopes that it will yield information on what his subjects will become in their next lives; the magnate has the cockeyed scheme to leave himself his fortune. (Now there’s a subplot Lerner should have hacked off, along with the number it generated, “When I’m Being Born Again.”) From all reports the glue that kept all these elements from flying off into the stratosphere in the original production was the star, Barbara Harris. And I’m guessing that it’s a combination of the songs (like “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” – which Audra McDonald has covered exquisitely – and “She Wasn’t You” and “Melinda” and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have” and “Come Back to Me” and the title number) and the spell Harris casts even over the Broadway cast recording that fools people into thinking there might be a good musical lurking somewhere underneath the mess. The 1970 movie version, Vincente Minnelli’s penultimate picture, was awful; even Barbra Streisand, in her prime, wasn’t much good as Daisy/Melinda. (And she and her leading man, Yves Montand, had so little chemistry that they barely seemed to be in the same film.) Encores! produced it as one of its polished staged readings in 2000 with Kristin Chenoweth, and she was charming (less so in the English sections), but the production mostly offered a glimpse of all the reasons why no one should ever revive On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.