Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Singing for the Love of Singing - Harry Dean Stanton's Partly Fiction

Harry Dean Stanton? He’s that actor right? (Yes, over 200 movies.) And now they’ve made a documentary about him. It’s called Partly Fiction because Kris Kristofferson wrote this lyric, and maybe it’s about Stanton. It certainly seems to describe him:

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

I watched the trailer for the film, and when asked by David Lynch how he would describe himself, Stanton replies, “As nothing. There is no self.” Lynch presses, “How would you like to be remembered?” and Stanton says, “Doesn’t matter.” Throughout the trailer, and I assume the rest of the film, Harry Dean Stanton maintains the same attitude. He does the least possible in his films and perhaps in his life. I saw him on a TV special one time, I think it might have been a tribute to Jack Nicholson, and he sang with Art Garfunkel. I remember the event, vaguely, but I recall no specifics. Just that I watched it. I remembered it, but not well. I think Stanton would be pleased.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Restart Last Checkpoint: How Nintendo Surprised The World at E3 2014

In January, I wrote in the voice of a bruised and battered soldier who was tired of fighting a war in which he had no stake. This was an accurate (if slightly hyperbolic) way to describe how many people felt towards Japanese video game giant Nintendo, and the way that, in the past several years, the company had seemingly lost its way, abandoning both the fundamental creative ideals that made them famous, and the demographic of young, wide-eyed dreamers who helped them do it. In 2013 Nintendo reported appalling sales figures for their latest gaming console, the Wii U, and company president Satoru Iwata took a massive pay cut. Many were worried that this heralded the beginning of the end, but I had a feeling that Nintendo would persevere – they’ve always been insular enough (and wealthy enough) to weather even the stormiest of markets. What I didn’t expect, and what Nintendo delivered to a world of shocked and smiling consumers at this year’s E3 event, was a company that, even from the lofty peak of success upon which they nest, had been listening and learning all along.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Classic Musical and a Comedy About Musicians: Fiddler on the Roof and Living on Love

Fiddler on the Roof (photo by Diane Sobolewski).
Working on one of those Goodspeed Opera House sets (designed by Michael Schweikardt) that are small miracles of permutation and economy, Rob Ruggiero’s production of Fiddler on the Roof refurbishes the great Broadway show for a more intimate space without sacrificing its dramatic power, the musicality of its Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score, or the breadth of Joseph Stein’s book. (Parker Esse has reproduced the Jerome Robbins choreography – which, given its distinctness and celebrity, is probably the best idea. I assume it’s also a copyright requirement.) With Adam Heller giving a superb performance as Tevye the dairyman, who carries on informal conversations with God as he hauls his cart through the streets of the Russian town of Anatevka, the Goodspeed Fiddler is all that one might hope.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Repercussions of Violence: Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage

The first thing that I noticed about Joyce Carol Oates’ gripping, almost visceral novel, Carthage (HarperCollins, 2014) is that the title resonates with associations from the ancient world. There is Virgil’s jilted Dido, queen of Carthage, spurned by Aeneas, who put service to nation above love. Carthage is also the city state in North Africa where the Romans soundly thrashed the Carthaginians and then covered the area with salt so that nothing could grow. Both of these associations reverberate throughout the novel which is mainly set in the small town of Carthage in upper state New York. It is about the damage individuals inflict on one another and the toxic repercussions of war in a small American town. The individuals most affected are either forcibly relocated or move away so that they can get on with their lives. Metaphorically, Carthage has become covered with salt.

Structured in three parts, Carthage begins with Zeno Mayfield and a search party who are on the hunt for Mayfield’s missing nineteen-year-old daughter, Cressida, in the Adirondack woods. The first part chronicles in 2005 the mysterious circumstances leading up to and surrounding the girl’s assumed murder. The night before, Cressida – a spiky, brainy and troubled loner – had uncharacteristically gone to a rowdy lakeside tavern, where she met and left with her older sister Juliet’s ex-fiancĂ©, Brett Kincaid, a onetime Carthage High football star, now a decorated Iraqi War hero. Suspicion falls upon him the morning after Cressida’s disappearance when he is discovered passed out in his pickup in a nature preserve and her blood is found in the truck. Given that her body is not found, the legal procedures and the grieving process in her family become more complicated. What begins as both a carefully crafted suspense thriller and family drama expands into a layered exploration individual culpability and how violence affects families, especially women. Oates suspends judgement by letting her characters provide their own perspectives in alternating passages and sometimes whole chapters.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VIII

A couple of years ago, I started included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with various critics, performers, writers and friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that sometimes others have posted and that I've commented on:

I know this is going to sound sacrilegious in some circles, but I was never that wild about The Ramones (Hackamore Brick's 1970 One Kiss Leads to Another had more imagination for me than Rocket to Russia). But, having said that, there are a couple of Ramones tracks that found their way onto my playlist. One was "She Talks to Rainbows" from their 1995 album, ¡Adios Amigos!. This number seems to harken back to the psychedelic period of the Sixties, except for its punk attitude. If this song had been sung in the Sixties, the lady who talks to trees rather than her lover would have been celebrated for having a higher consciousness. The Ramones, to their eternal credit, are left baffled and blue.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Five Came Back: How the Second World War Changed Five Directors

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War marks the second time in a row the film critic and historian Mark Harris has got hold of a great book subject. His 2008 volume, Pictures at a Revolution, uses the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar – Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night – to talk about the death of the old Hollywood, which still believed in the values of the big-studio era of the thirties, forties and fifties, and the shift to the new Hollywood, with its link to counterculture audiences. Harris’s strategy is ingenious, and the book is one of the best historical studies of a movie era ever published. In Five Came Back – another quintet – he turns to the work that John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra, “the most influential and imaginative American film directors to volunteer for service,” did for the Armed Forces during the Second World War.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Brain Freeze: Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer

Well, it was bound to happen one day. And today is that day. We try our best to run new reviews daily and we've succeeded for the past four years in doing so. With a growing archive, however, it sometimes gets hard to remember whether we've already reviewed a work - especially if that work has had a problematic release schedule. Of course, we sometimes deliberately run two reviews of the same film, play, or book, when there are contrary opinions at issue. But until today, it was never inadvertent. Justin Cummings had already reviewed Snowpiercer back in June (before it opened theatrically in Canada) and I simply forgot that he had done so for a number of reasons that don't require delving into here. So sit back and enjoy Phil Dyess-Nugent's sharp take on a problematic film. My apologies to Justin. His equally smart review can be found here.

Kevin Courrier,
Critics at Large.  

Snowpiercer, the first English-language production directed by the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, blundered into the news last year, when it was reported that its North American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, intended to cut twenty minutes from the director’s version. The resulting explosion of outrage and indignation got Weinstein to back off. The movie has mostly gotten great reviews since it opened in America, and it’s tempting to think that some of that is a show of support for the director and his commitment to his full, 128-minute vision, like the Best Picture award that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association lavished on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil prior to its North American release, when the director was still battling Universal Pictures over which version would make it into theaters in the U.S.

With Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), Bong established himself as one of the freshest, boldest new filmmakers of recent years, and the ambitious Snowpiercer is his first feature since 2009’s Mother. So it’s easy to pick sides in a fight between him and Harvey Weinstein. I myself remained excited about Snowpiercer even after I saw a trailer for it that, if it had been for a movie that had sprung from the loins of some heavyweight American shlockmeister like Michael Bay, would have set off alarm systems at Indiewire and inspired a dozen editorials about the death of film. Well, I thought to myself when Bong’s name appeared at the climax of a chaotic flood of butt-ugly images and baffling moments, probably whoever cut this together had no idea how to suggest the nuances of the complete work.