Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wrath and Art of Harlan

There are some artists who not only don't compromise in their work, they don't even feel comfortable being accommodating  Shlomo Schwartzberg, writing in Critics at Large, examines the work of one of those iconoclasts, Harlan Ellison.

Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream

Writer Harlan Ellison turns 78 today and if you don’t know who he is, you should. I mention his birthday, as well, because he’s dying, or at least that’s what he told The Daily Page in an interview in September 2010, just before his appearance at a science fiction convention in Wisconsin, reportedly his last public appearance. "The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. “I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West – I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it. My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel ... When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Now it’s not for me to question Ellison’s comments – as of this writing, he’s still around nearly two years later – and his health problems are likely quite serious – he had a crucial heart bypass operation in 1996. Nor has he published an original collection of stories since Slippage in 1997 (Troublemakers, his 2001 collection was mostly made up of previously published material with new introductions aimed at a younger demographic who likely didn’t know his work.) But this is not what this post is all about. It’s a celebration of one of America ’s most unique, uncompromising and fascinating talents, who’s been a constant in my life since high school.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pods Revisited

While Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a plot with a choice metaphor that has allowed it to be relevant to a number decades since the first film in the Fifties, the most recent version was the most maligned in the press. David Churchill, in Critics at Large, however thought that many rushed to judgement.

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.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Revisiting Rubber Soul

It's been over half a century since The Beatles recorded and released what many consider to be their masterpiece. Kevin Courrier, in Critics at Large, not only examined what made the album their best, but the progeny that came in its wake.

A Masterpiece and its Spiritual Cousins: Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds and Aftermath

Over 45 years ago,The Beatles released Rubber Soul which is arguably their best album.While taking over 113 hours to record, compared to the one-day they took putting together their debut Please Please Me (1963), Rubber Soul was startlingly innovative taking the R&B genre beyond its purist roots. Unlike many other white pop artists, especially the ones who merely paid reverence to the style and attitude of black blues and R&B, or channelled the essence of the form (as did Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac), The Beatles sublimated rhythm and blues into their continually expanding musical fabric. And the record would irrevocably change the direction and sound of pop music.

With a densely intelligent collection of love songs, Rubber Soul confronted a variety of issues: the cost of romantic desire (“I’m Looking Through You”), the power of love to heal (“The Word”), as well as to hurt (“Girl”); contemplation (“In My Life”); and the deep regrets of loss (“Nowhere Man”). On the record, The Beatles broadened their musical identity, too, by introducing an original interpretation of classic R&B (specifically the Memphis Stax soul sound) while refusing to become defined by black music (as many other British blues bands had). The Beatles instead defined their own interpretation of American black music.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Tragic Ballads of Eugene O'Neill

If there was a playwright whose plays could open up wounds (and sometimes provide the salve to heal them), it was Eugene O'Neill. Nick Coccoma, in Critics at Large, examined the nature of those wounds while exploring the Catholic themes within them.

Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O'Neill
A few years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that featured several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them was Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns onscreen that he hadn’t always had a passion for the writer. “I felt,” he explains, “that he enjoyed being indulgent – there’s a great indulgence in him.” Plummer felt drawn to the British playwrights instead, preferring their understated approach to O’Neill’s sturm und drang. But the latter bled Irish blood, and while the English may button down their emotions and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. Plummer’s observation is right on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a tortured artist. But this truth, as Plummer himself admits, misses the bigger point: that O’Neill’s indulgence inevitably bowls you over, the way Plummer’s performance of James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night does over the documentary’s next few minutes, or Jason Robard’s ones, or Vanessa Redgrave’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a naked vulnerability that demands respect – it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious in its insistence to be heard. He single-handedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabs you by the throat in the process. When you listen to it, his language becomes, as Plummer put it, “uncannily one’s own.”

Dorothy Day
And his anguish was real, after all. Scarred by his mother’s morphine addiction, he, like the other men in his family, struggled with severe alcoholism. Tuberculosis nearly killed him and he took to the seas to escape his inner demons. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he would regale his friend and sometime-sweetheart Dorothy Day with drunken recitations of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” He “would sit there, black and dour,” she recalls in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, “his head sunk as he intoned, ‘And now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear drippings stagnate.’” The poem’s theme – of God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner – fascinated the (at the time) agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He, in turn, urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. The effect it had on her was undoubtedly more than he imagined – Day, of course, had a major conversion to Catholicism and became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her communal life of prayer and works of mercy with the poor of New York – and the national movement it sparked – led historian David O’Brien to dub her “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Vatican to open her cause for canonization.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Twee Side of Torment

Last spring saw the return of film director Whit Stillman (Barcelona) with his first film in 13 years. Susan Green caught up with it for Critics at Large and found it to be a mixed blessing.

A University’s Odd Universe: Where Damsels Go To Dance

Carrie MacLemore, Annaleigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Greta Gerwi star in Damsels in Distress

Mix 1930s screwball comedy with 1950s kitsch, while providing a wink and a nod to a smattering of contemporary concerns. What do you get? Damsels in Distress, the first film from writer-director Whit Stillman in 13 years. Back then, he was a young indie darling thanks to his award-winning Metropolitan(1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), with a less acclaimed Barcelona (1994) tossed in for good measure. Now middle-aged, his interests remain rooted in the discreet charm of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as a Disco denizen refers to her fading social milieu. This fascination may be the perfect fit for a filmmaker whose mother was a genuine debutante and whose godfather was the man who coined the term WASP to describe White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The Sixties are now half a century behind us but they haven't truly gone away as Steve Vineberg points out in his review of The Last of the Haussmans in Critics at Large.

Vestige of the '60s: The Last of the Haussmans

Helen McCrory, Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear in The Last of the Haussmans

The Last of the Haussmans, the second National Theatre production to be transmitted this season in the HD series NT Live, is the first play written by the actor Stephen Beresford, but you’d never guess because it’s bursting with confidence and it has a distinctive vision. Like the Lisa Cholodenko movies Laurel Canyon and The Kids Are All Right, it’s a high comedy that focuses on the repercussions of the sixties, but it doesn’t go soft (as Laurel Canyon did) or rigid (as The Kids Are All Right did); it’s a resolutely fair-minded satire that turns unexpectedly poignant. The great Julie Walters gives an exuberant, high-style performance as Judy, a hippie whose tireless quest for self-exploration led her to abandon her two children to be raised by her parents. Now she’s in her sixties, they’re fortyish, and brother and sister are drawn to the house on the Devon Coast she inherited from her parents when she undergoes surgery for melanoma. Libby (Helen McCrory), the elder sibling, has been raising her fifteen-year-old daughter Summer (Isabella Laughland) by herself – until Summer’s long-absent dad decides to re-enter her life and invites her to spend part of the summer with him and his new wife in France. Libby is on the rebound from her latest unsuccessful amour. Her brother Nick (Rory Kinnear) is a gay man in a perpetual state of heartbreak; he’s also a recovering junkie. Their relationship with their mother is sometimes strained, often ironic, and irresolvably complex. The other characters are Judy’s doctor, Peter (Matthew Marsh), who is cheating on his wife with Libby, and a laconic nineteen-year-old named Daniel (Taron Egerton) who arouses Peter’s paternal instincts, Nick’s libido and Summer’s teenage interest, but develops his own crush on Libby. However, the household revolves around Judy, who is just as free a spirit, just as outrageous and irrepressible and infuriating, as she must have been when she walked away from her children to join an ashram decades ago.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


If there is a writer who can shape the contours of a character precisely through dialogue, it's Elmore Leonard. John Corcelli wrote about Leonard's particular gifts last year in Critics at Large.

Straight Talk: Elmore Leonard's Raylan

One of author Elmore Leonard's great gifts, as previously demonstrated in Maximum Bob and Get Shorty, is his unique ability to shape his characters specifically through their dialogue. In Raylan (HarperCollins, 2012), Leonard’s 30th novel, the story of a sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall, the author continues his talk-driven style in fine fashion. Raylan Givens, is the lead character in the FX series, Justified, that just ended its third season. (The series is based on the characters in Leonard’s short story, "Fire In The Hole," published in 2001. The first episode of the series is an adaptation of that story.) Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, whose claim to fame was as the sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood, the superb, but short-lived HBO series. (Interesting how he went from a law enforcer in one era to a U.S. Marshall in the modern era)

The character of Raylan Givens often reads like the John Wayne of old: a man with grit and a moral code. For Leonard, whose characters are often flawed, that cliché isn’t celebrated. Givens is good, but he drinks too much, often gets into fights that he loses, and is often a little too flexible with the law. He wears a cowboy hat at all times, even though it’s not part of the uniform, and fancies himself a ladies' man. But most of all, he considers his actions in the light of criminal activity as “justified.” And the way Leonard shapes his stories the reader can’t help but agree. It’s Given’s strong moral code that engages you. Givens is a Marshall, after all, whose job is to collect felons on the lam and bring them to jail. It’s a job he does well even if he bends the rules from time-to-time.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Political Mirrors

At last night's Academy Awards, Ben Affleck's Argo took away the top prize. it was a prize many early on thought would go to Zero Dark Thirty. In this recent post in Critics at Large, Kevin Courrier suggests why Argo lingers longer in the memory.

The Hindsight of Time: Ben Affleck’s Argo

Ben Affleck's Argo
There are a number of good reasons why many of the post-9/11 movies (In the Valley of ElahWorld Trade CenterReign Over Me) have failed to come to terms with the aftermath of that tragic moment and the subsequent wars that followed. Besides depicting those events through conventional melodrama employed only to stir audience empathy, these films actually leave little to the imagination.While trying to make sense of a time that is still being played out, each movie leaves scant room for reflection. This might be why Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the mission to kill bin Laden, fails to resonate with the power the subject warrants. Despite all the heated debate about the picture’s point of view on torture, for example, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) actually backs away from the dramatic core of that subject.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


We all have guilty pleasures. But why should they be guilty ones? David Churchill shows no signs of embarrassed glee when discussing Tobe Hooper's nutty Lifeforce in Critics at Large.

Lovably Loony: Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce

I said in a previous column that I would occasionally pull down a DVD from my personal collection, re-view it and see if it still deserves a place on my shelf. Today it’s Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985). The film is crackpot, insane, daffy, goofy, ridiculous and, what can I say, an absolute tub of fun. Bear with me as I try to describe the plot. It's breathtaking in its insanity.

The film begins as the space shuttle, Churchill (and no, I don't love the film because they named the space shuttle after me), is on a mission to Halley's Comet on one of its rare visits through our solar system. Within the comet's corona, they find a gigantic spaceship. Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and his team discover inside the ship two sets of apparently dead life forms: thousands of giant desiccated bat-like creatures and three seemingly perfectly preserved humanoids (one female and two males). They radio to Earth that they have collected the humanoids and will return with them. Then, radio silence. The Churchill returns to Earth, but nobody answers the hail. Another shuttle is sent up to investigate. They find the crew dead, Carlsen missing, but the three humanoids still aboard, untouched.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Family Units

The depiction of family life on television has changed dramatically from the models of the technology's early years in the Fifties. Shlomo Schwartzberg examined that change in a piece on Modern Family for Critics at Large.

The (Funny) Way We Live Now: Modern Family

The cast of Modern Family

Note: The following contains Spoilers

Modern Family (ABC), like The Big Bang Theory (CBS), is an excellent comedy that offers up likeable, compelling characters while not forgetting to make the viewer laugh. But while The Big Bang Theory is an old-fashioned – in style – comedy, with a laugh track, videotaped before a live audience with a two camera system, Modern Family is a more modern creature, a filmed on location, single-camera show without a laugh track. But just as The Big Bang Theory also uses hip lingo and au courant situations,Modern Family displays a taste for old-school humour, pratfalls, slapstick and the like. Melding those two disparate elements make it a very unique series indeed. The best two comedies on television both can claim that stature, allowing each to make their distinctive mark.

Friday, February 22, 2013

In the Bathtub

One of the American independent films from last year which is seeking acknowledgement this year at the Oscars is Beasts of the Southern Wild which gathered enthusiasm from film reviewer Susan Green in Critics at Large.

Down on the Bayou: A Resilient Demimonde and a Determined Child

In John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 classic adapted from a John Steinbeck novel, Ma Joad proclaims the populist message: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” She’s trapped in what was a genuine climate-propelled diaspora during the early 1930s. A severe drought had devastated states like Oklahoma known as “The Dust Bowl,” where growing food was soon an impossibility. Untold thousands of subsistence farmers hoped to resettle in more hospitable regions of the country while remaining nostalgic about their prairie roots.

The equally beleaguered characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild face homelessness after a hurricane floods “The Bathtub,” their hardscrabble habitat on the wrong side of a Louisiana levee. Across the divide, oil refineries pump out pollution. “Ain’t that ugly over there?” asks a little African-American girl named Hushpuppy, the movie’s amazing protagonist. “We got the prettiest place on Earth.” Although that place might look like a trash heap to outsiders, it’s beloved by those who have carved out a meager but unfettered existence there. She also intuits things beyond her day-to-day concerns, delivering a voice-over narration with a populist message that’s equally ecological: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right.”

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mothers and Sons

South Korea has a national cinema that is now laying claim internationally. One of those directors, Bong Joon-Ho, furthered that claim in 2010 with Mother, which is reviewed below by Kevin Courrier in Critics at Large.

The Ties That Bind: Bong Joon-Ho's Mother

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is devastatingly good. It begins as a story about a middle-aged single mother in a small South Korean town with a mentally-challenged son who gets incarcerated for the murder of a young woman. But it ultimately goes far beyond the basic mechanics of melodrama. For Bong, the director of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2007), genre is merely the starting point for a more searing examination of the family ties that bind.

The umbilical chord that holds a mother to her son is also the link between a country divided and a society not far removed from the rituals of authoritarianism. Like Germany in the post-war and Berlin Wall years, Korea is also a severed nation. But unlike the post-war German directors, like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used genre pictures as a means to express their guilt and hopelessness, Bong Joon-Ho uses conventional narrative to uncork the violence and pain of being estranged. Given that authoritarianism imposes ritual, Bong is naturally drawn to genres that have rules – but rules he feels compelled to break. The Host, for example, begins as a humorous, wily tribute to '50s monster movies like Creature of the Black Lagoon and Godzilla, but it quickly becomes a surprisingly stirring drama about family honor and loyalties. When a slimy reptilian monster (a product of chemical pollution) kidnaps the daughter of a rather dim-witted father, he goes on a torturous mission to get her back. The Host evolved into that rare horror film, one that became inconsolably poignant. Mother shares many of The Host’s virtues, as well as some aspects from his first film, Memories of Murder, a procedural about a Korean serial-killer.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Movie Magic

One of the many films up for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, Life of Pi, is a huge hit and, according to Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large, one of the best of the last year.

State of Wonder: Life of Pi

After the dullest year for movies I can remember in four decades of professional reviewing, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi restores the thrill of filmgoing. Adapted by David Magee from the beloved novel by the writer Yann Martel, who was born in Spain to French-Canadian parentsit tells the story of an adolescent Indian boy (played by a talented young actor named Suraj Sharma) who survives the wreck of a Japanese cargo ship and sails the Pacific on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. Lee’s approach to the material is to treat it like a fable, with lush, hothouse colors – the magnificent cinematography is by Claudio Miranda – contained within precise, sharply defined lines, and oftentimes magically layered imagery that’s accentuated by the 3D process. (During one shot, of a sky pocked with stars reflected in the depths of the ocean so that they suggest exotic blossoms living beneath the water, I had to restrain myself from shouting out loud.) Lee and Miranda’s influences appear to have been Henri Rousseau, Odilon Redon and perhaps the American painter Morris Louis; the style veers between symbolism and surrealism. Pauline Kael cited Louis in her review of Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece The Black Stallion, another fantastical story about a boy and an animal who are castaways from a shipwreck, and The Black Stallion is certainly the movie I thought about most frequently during Life of Pi, especially in the shipboard scenes during the storm that is the occasion for the ship’s destruction. (We never find out the cause of the wreck, and neither, to their consternation, do the insurance investigators who interview Pi after he eventually reaches dry land, in Mexico.) Both stories involve the training of a wild animal – in this case a dangerous carnivore in a severely restricted space – but otherwise they’re quite different, since Life of Pi is primarily a tale about faith.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Since David Churchill knows as much about wine as he does about arts criticism, there was no one better to set loose on Oz & James in Critics at Large. 

Bloody Nora That's Good: Oz & James Big Wine Adventure: California

James May & Oz Clarke
Growing up lower middle class in small town Ontario, I never had any exposure to fine wines, or for that matter, wine at all (except for the occasional bottle of Mateus or Baby Duck my parents would buy). Beer and whisky were the preferred beverages around my home for the adults in my life. How it came about that I now make my living writing and talking about wine would have made my 14- or 15-year-old self laugh his arse off. But that's what I do. In 1990, I was working in a wine and spirits retail store. The manager, for some reason, asked if I wanted to set up a fine wine corner in the store. I knew nothing about the beverage, so why he asked me I have no idea. But, since I was bored doing little more than stocking shelves with Bacardi Rum and working cash, I said sure.

Monday, February 18, 2013


The interest in Sherlock Holmes has never really waned over the years (including the 2012 novel, The House of Silk) which lead Shlomo Schwartzberg to suggest some significant reasons as to why in Critics at Large.

Sherlock Holmes Redux: The Great Detective Lives On

Sherlock, the recent brilliant BBC-TV series re-imagining and updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories to the present day are, of course, not the only times The Great Detective has been re-worked for television, films and books. And as a long-time aficionado of the Holmes canon – and someone who had the privilege in 1987 of writing a tribute piece in The Toronto Star to Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal hero on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Holmes’ first appearance in print – I must confess I’ve more often than not been happy with how the adaptations of Holmes’ adventures have turned out in print and on screen. These include the distinguished Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies (14 movies made between 1939-46); Billy Wilder’s cynical, but entertaining The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and Murder by Decree (1979), which cast Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson, investigating the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. Two other productions feature men who think they’re Sherlock Holmes: the allegorical and moving 1971 movie They Might Be Giants, with George C. Scott, and The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, a surprisingly decent 1976 TV movie with Larry Hagman. Interestingly, both of those featured a female Watson, thus anticipating this fall’s CBS series Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) as Holmes, and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels) as Watson. The post Conan Doyle novels have also often been good, with Nicholas Meyer’s excellent Holmes’ pastiches, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) and The West End Horror (1976) at the top of the heap. (Meyer's third Holmes pastiche, The Canary Trainer: From the Memoirs of John H. Watson (1993), though worthwhile, isn't as inspired.) In fact, I can only think of a few duds (though I have studiously avoided most of the Holmes in America novels as that seems to me an attempt to pander to an audience that should be content with the London- or European-set adventures of the man). I’m not enamored of a couple of films, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), nor of Caleb Carr’s 2005 novel, The Italian Secretary. (Carr, who wrote The Alienist, has always been better at the idea than the execution, which is a polite way of saying he’s not a very good writer.) Mostly, though, the results in bringing back Holmes and Watson have been pleasing to watch or read. The latest Holmes novel, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, as well as the recent DVD release of a criminally underrated Holmes movie, the 1976 film adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, bear that out.

The House of Silk (Little, Brown & Co. – 2012) is the first new Holmes novel to have been authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (they only approved of The Italian Secretary), which means the detective himself won’t undergo too drastic a change in the novel. He can’t thus be cast as physically frail or beginning to lose his faculties as he was in the powerful Michael Chabon Holocaust-themed novella The Final Solution (2004), an unfortunately named story as it’s also what the Nazis called The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, their euphemism for the proposed genocide of the Jews (I don’t know if Chabon or his publisher came up with that distasteful title). Nor can one expect the fantastical elements of Neil Gaiman’s inspired, award-winning short story, A Study in Emerald (2003), which successfully and chillingly melded the world of Sherlock Holmes with that of horror master H.P. Lovecraft. (It was the only story that stood out in the themed Holmes/Lovecraft anthology Shadows over Baker Street.) And in fact, despite the easy breeziness of Horowitz’s book, and its convincing recreation of Victorian England, I was wondering what would allow The House of Silk to distinguish itself from the many Holmes novels that preceded it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Most people are familiar with Fleetwood Mac, but few know that they began as a blues band in the late Sixties (or that "Black Magic Woman" is originally a Fleetwood Mac song, not a Santana composition). Even fewer, however, know the middle period of the band that preceded the era of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. That era included singer/songwriter Bob Welch who died earlier this year. Susan Green wrote thoughtfully and perceptively about his time in Fleetwood Mac in Critics at Large.

Hippie in a Hypnotic Place and Time: Songs that Made Sense

Early Fleetwood Mac: Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood, (back row), John McVie and Christine McVie

“It’s the same kind of story that seems to come down from long ago...”

With news of Bob Welch’s death last week, I was transported back to 1974. That’s when I first heard his former band, Fleetwood Mac, while living in the theoretically sleepy Vermont village of Huntington Center with my young daughter Jennie and a part-collie named Red Cloud. Our small red cabin in the woods was up a steep, twisting dirt road at the foot of a 4,083-foot-high mountain called Camel’s Hump. Local people were wary then of counterculture types, like me, who came to the area seeking a back-to-the-land existence in their midst. Undaunted, we newcomers were busy letting our freak flags fly, in the parlance of the 1960s.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Facebook Journal (Part Two)

When Kevin Courrier first signed up on Facebook last summer, he had no idea just what he was going to do with it. In time (that is, in short time), he created a salon with a number of 'friends' whereby many things minor and major were discussed and posted. Here is a sample from Part II:

The Facebook Salon, Part II

Earlier in the month, I included a sampling from my Facebook page which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with friends about social and cultural matters. Some have described it as a salon. Here is more of the same. As before, it also includes borrowings of songs and photos that others have posted and that I've commented on:

Joni Mitchell draws on the intimacy of Nina Simone's version of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue" (which also begins on piano with a Christmas tune) to tell a tale of independence that doesn't so much have a destination in mind, but rather a sense of place that's only uncovered in the journey. While her feet would indeed learn to fly, the ground was never certain beneath her. Don Quixote had his windmills while Mitchell had the road in which to tilt forward. Those fascinating elliptical tales of romantic entanglement and creative struggles that followed Blue (1971) might just have started right here on that "River."

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Facebook Journal (Part One)

When Kevin Courrier first signed up on Facebook last summer, he had no idea just what he was going to do with it. In time (that is, in short time), he created a salon with a number of 'friends' whereby many things minor and major were discussed and posted. Here is but a sample.

The Facebook Salon

I was rather late joining the Facebook revolution (which seems to have now been passed on to Twitter). There was nothing personal in my decision to resist. I welcome innovative technological changes providing we use our powers of discrimination in using them so that we become accountable rather than blind consumers. For me, however, I discovered that what worked best was creating a virtual salon, an ongoing soiree where all my 'friends' could be part of a never-ending discussion on a variety of subjects. Sometimes these items were created by me. At other times, I shared items posted by others. On occassion, it's a quick review of a movie, a song, or a book. It can also be a cartoon, a painting, or a photo with a short comment. Here is a sampling:

...or Barfly for Brats.

Having just seen Spielberg's Lincoln earlier today, I can see why some of my colleagues and friends have found it dull. But I think there's a strong emotional undercurrent in this picture below its formal theatrical structure. And it held me to the very end. In a sense,Lincoln holds up a mirror to the ideals of the current Obama-era by imagining the country Obama inherited but can't yet claim for himself. The picture carries the weariness of unfulfilled prophesy; of the tiredness we also registered on Obama's face during his first debate with Romney.

Lincoln looks back at how the stain of slavery was abolished, but it also connects with us in the present with Obama (who is the true inheritor of the vision Lincoln has for his country). Only Obama can't act on that inheritance with the shrewd political skills of a Lincoln because he is cornered by the lingering racism that Lincoln's amendment couldn't abolish. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner shrewdly submerge the drama of Lincoln's life into a more contemplative examination of the troubled paths taken by Lincoln, his allies, and his adversaries, to keep those promises; promises that would continue to resonate unresolved in the years to follow the Civil War.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Debates of the Heart

Last Valentine's Day, two of our writers at Critics at Large, one married and the other single, decided to air their views on its very merits. The results weren't what you might expect.

Being single when February 14th rolls around usually grants you fair ground for eye rolling, moping, or even resorting to the fetal position. More so, like many single or otherwise, you may even take it to the next level: smugness. Of course, that leaves you easily feeling morally above the entire notion of a day noted for celebrating romantic love. But even if you are happily attached, you don’t need a day to express your gratitude –  especially when this once commemorative occasion has been molested and taken over by greeting card outfits. I, however, would like to take a moment and defend this occasion. Not only as a pleasant distraction from the otherwise perilous struggles of everyday life, but also as a symbol of hope for the most painful, beautiful, and powerful human experience. 

Before I come off as a lofty fool, let me assure you: I’m as dysfunctionally single as I possibly could be without a hope in the world. For starters, I come equipped with young child, an interesting living arrangement, and an excess amount of checked baggage. I refuse to Internet date and I work in a profession that’s almost eighty per cent women. (Good luck with the organic encounters.) If that’s not hopeless enough, as I sit in a cozy neighbourhood coffee shop writing this, my mannerism here mirrors that of when I’m on a date. I take a sip of my cappuccino, along with a mouth full of my hair. I take a bite of my banana bread, half of which ends up in my lap. Then I just start unconsciously muttering to myself to the point where the gentlemen next to me feels the need to leave...quickly. It’s just not happening.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


One of the seminal texts of Group Theatre and the Method acting style is Golden Boy which Steve Vineberg revisited in Critics at Large late last year.

Golden Boy: Art vs. Commerce

Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Michael Aronovin Golden Boy (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

When you read about the Group Theatre, the legendary company that introduced Stanislavskian acting to the American theatre in the 1930s, you can’t help wondering what their performances were really like. You can get some sense of this pioneering Method acting style when you watch John Garfield, the only one of the troupe who became a movie star, or Lee J. Cobb, who went on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway (and revisited the role years later on television) and the gangster Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront, or the few remnants Morris Carnovsky, the Group’s master actor, has left us of his work, in featured movie roles and TV appearances. But the first time I really got a feel for the Group Theatre style was when a PBS documentary about them included a clip I’d had no idea even existed: Luther Adler’s screen test from the mid-thirties, which replicated a scene that he and Phoebe Brand had played together on stage in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! (Adler and his sister Stella, the children of the celebrated Yiddish Theatre star Jacob Adler, were two of the Group’s leading actors; Brand, who married Carnovsky, came out of retirement to play Nanny in Vanya on 42nd Street.) The clip is maybe two minutes long, and you can’t even see Brand’s face, yet it’s a revelation. Certainly the acting is grounded by a rock-bound naturalism, but it’s more heightened than I’d imagined, more theatrical – in the best way. The scene is between Moe Axelrod and Hennie Berger, one-time lovers who are still desperate for each other but so resentful and defensive that they circle each other warily like nervous animals, every now and then reaching out a paw to swipe one another; and the two actors aren’t afraid to go for broke. You can hear the stage training in the broad vocal palette, in Brand’s free use of tremolo (a more old-fashioned choice than I would have guessed, but extremely effective here) to underscore her character’s woefulness and in the nobility in Adler’s stature and in the way he holds his face to the light. (Among the Method actors of the next generation of Method actors, Ben Gazzara notably retained that quality.) You believe fully that you’re watching the characters, yet you don’t forget you’re watching actors. Perhaps no Method actor could make you forget that until Marlon Brando.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

L.A. Plays L.A.

There may be plenty of sun in Los Angeles, but there's plenty of shade, too. David Churchill took on the shadiness in a piece in Critics at Large about the dark corners of the City of Angels.

The Evil That Men Do: Chinatown and L.A. Confidential

Los Angeles has always had a knack for attracting men (and it's almost always men) who saw an opportunity to take the City of Angels and try to remake it in their own image. These self-made men also didn't get to that position by being kind, or by doing the right thing. In fact, they rarely possessed any kind of moral compass; often they were sociopaths if not downright psychopathic. I'm speaking of people like William Mulholland, William Randolph Hearst and other 'captains of industry.' These titans, these monstrous icons, would later have streets, buildings and cities named after them, but their crimes, the terrible things they did, would largely be forgotten. Of course, this is a familiar story of any big city. Toronto, for example, has a street and various schools named Jarvis. But you wouldn't want to pull back the veil of the Jarvis clan in the 18th and 19th centuries because you might not like what you would find. The hothouse climate of LA, though, seems to attract an inordinate number of them.

Inevitably, when these guys went about their business, other people, often innocent people, paid dearly. It is even said by some that the tragic Elizabeth Short may have been killed by famous men who used her for their own ends and then disposed of her. (Short, whose nickname was Black Dahlia, is a famous-in-death young woman who came to Hollywood in 1946 looking for fame and all she found was murder by dismemberment in 1947. Short's murder has never been solved and has become the basis of many books and films, including Ulu Grosbard's interesting, but flawed 1981 picture True Confessions and Brian De Palma's reviled 2006 The Black Dahlia.) Besides the Dahlia story, Hollywood has rarely had the cojones to tackle stories about these men right in L.A.’s own backyard. But over the years, filmmakers like Philip Kaufman – in his 1993 film Rising Sun – and Robert Altman – in his 1973 picture The Long Goodbye –have all addressed what these legendary giants do either directly, or indirectly. But it wasn’t the prime focus of those works. Two great films, however, both of which I consider masterpieces, have confronted these men straight on: Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997).

Monday, February 11, 2013


While 9/11 became part of the texture of many television dramas, it was Rescue Me that dealt with the tragedy in the most direct way. Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote about the show and its legacy in Critics at Large a year before it wrapped up.

Rescue Me: Flawed But Arresting

The following blog contains spoilers.

Is Rescue Me the best flawed show on television? I’d argue it is, but ever since its debut in the summer of 2004, the FX series (from the same cable network that brought you The ShieldNip/Tuck and Damages) has divided audiences, who either like its incisive drama and outrageous humour or decry its juvenile tendencies and perpetually adolescent characters. Actually, they’re both right as this maddeningly uneven TV series can be as frustrating as it is engrossing.

Centering on the actions of the firefighters of Ladder Company 62 (aka 62 Truck), a Harlem-based firehouse, post 9/11, Rescue Me is an ambitious show that tries, and often succeeds, in capturing a specific moment in time: that of the slowly recovering shell-shocked New York City and the attendant worries, fears and attitudes held by those brave heroes who paid such a high price during the September 11 terrorist attacks. (An estimated and unprecedented 343 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers.) But this is no reverent show, extolling people only at their heroic best. The firemen, led by Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) are a profane, womanizing and, in the case of Gavin, an alcoholic lot, as apt to cheat on their partners as they are to risk their lives by running into a burning building.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Character Director

There are some movie directors who make unassuming films that aren't formula entertainment. One of those artists, Irvin Kershner, when he died in 2010, almost went unnoticed himself. Kevin Courrier, in Critics at Large, delves into why.

The Invisible Artist: Irvin Kershner 1923-2010

When George Lucas tapped director Irvin Kershner, who died last Saturday at 87 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, to direct The Empire Strikes Back (the sequel to Star Wars), Kershner asked him, "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot-shots, why me?" Lucas replied, "Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Lucas wasn't kidding. Nor was he simply pandering to the veteran director. Although Irvin Kershner had been making movies in Hollywood since the late fifties, he certainly wasn't typical Hollywood. He didn't make the most obvious commercial entertainments, but rather he examined with thoughtful consideration what constitutes commercial entertainment. Which is one reason why The Empire Strikes Back was a significant improvement over its predecessor.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Yesterday's Papers

With Fox news having recently dropped Sarah Palin from their staff of commentators, it seemed timely to look back at Susan Green's review in Critics at Large of the HBO film Game Change.

Thrilla from Wasilla: The High Stakes of Game Change

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as John McCain and Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change

Greetings from Cloudcuckooland! Here in the not-so-United States of America, many Republican legislatures are proposing draconian laws to insert medically unnecessary transvaginal probes into the private parts of women seeking abortions (Texas and Virginia), or force female employees to tell their bosses if they’re using birth control for controlling births rather than for health concerns (Arizona), or change the legal definition of women who have been raped from “victims” to “accusers” (Georgia), or allow the murder of doctors who provide abortions (South Dakota).