Saturday, September 3, 2016

Popular History: Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition

Author Nathaniel Philbrick.

The American Revolution never really goes out of style as a subject for works of both fiction and popular nonfiction, but its popularity does move in cycles, based on either external events or the emergence of especially popular dramatizations of particular episodes from its history. One example of the former came with the rise of the Tea Party early in President Obama’s administration, which sparked an ongoing debate over what the legacy of the Founding Fathers (and the slaves, women, and members of the lower classes whom their prominence tends to obscure) means for the United States today. More recently, the smash Broadway hit Hamilton has offered a new perspective on those same individuals, adding some nuance in its depiction of their sometimes petty infighting and frequent hypocrisy on matters of race.

Nathaniel Philbrick has been one of the best chroniclers of colonial and early American history, including the Revolution. His Bunker Hill (Penguin, 2013) was a thrilling exploration of a series of episodes from the Revolution’s early days that had formerly seemed overfamiliar to anyone with even a passing interesting in the birth of the republic. Philbrick combines a talent for developing a strong narrative drive and well-defined sense of character with respect for the meticulous work of historiographical research. The end result was a book that was both a compelling read and a sharp reappraisal of some of the founding myths to which Americans cling. For instance, his account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord revealed that, far from a glorious victory that showcased the natural skill of plain American militiamen, it was a much more confused and ugly affair in which the Minutemen as often as not came off as inexperienced and woefully inadequate. Philbrick hardly needed to make clear that such an unpalatable truth stood as a contradiction to a certain political orientation’s tendency to see the gun-toting common (white) man as the origin, backbone, and last sure defense of American liberties. Philbrick’s new book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Penguin, 2016) tries to do some similar myth-busting, but it’s marred by odd narrative choices and a rushed, truncated conclusion. As the title suggests, Philbrick frames the book as a sort of double biography of Washington and Arnold during a particular period of the war, starting in the summer of 1776 and ending soon after Arnold’s spectacular betrayal of the Patriot cause in 1780. It’s often a thrilling read: one of the late chapters features a detailed account of the attempts made by John Andre, the British officer who was one of Arnold’s contacts, to escape Patriot territory and make it to British-occupied New York City. A last-minute error led to the revelation of Arnold’s treachery and hairsbreadth escape to British lines, while Andre was ultimately executed.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Kicking and Screaming: The Lifeguard

Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard.

In The Lifeguard, Kristen Bell plays Leigh, a not-quite-thirty-year-old who, reeling from linked disappointments in her Manhattan journalistic job and in her personal life – she feels that her contributions are undervalued at the paper and her editor, whom she’s been sleeping with, turns out to have another, more serious romantic attachment – decides to leave New York. She returns to the small Connecticut town where she grew up, moves in with her parents (Amy Madigan and Adam LeFevre), and gets back her old job as a lifeguard at a community pool. Leigh thinks she’s retrenching, but she’s actually retreating. She reconnects with her best friends from high school, Mel (Mamie Gummer), who’s now vice-principal and married to John (Joshua Harto), and Todd (Martin Starr), who’s gay and single. When Leigh starts to hang out with a pair of disaffected teenagers, Little Jason (David Lambert), the son of the pool maintenance man, Big Jason (John Finn), and his friend Matt (Alex Shaffer), who are making plans to quit school and move to Maine, Mel and Todd, too, get caught up in the seductive limbo of not-quite-adolescence, not-quite-adulthood. Mel is nervous about compromising her authoritarian status vis-à-vis the boys, especially when Todd and Leigh agree to buy beer for them and ask them to score them some pot in return. But Mel is experiencing her own terrors about moving on with her life: though she and John have been trying to get pregnant, suddenly she gets cold feet, worried that she’s inadequate to take on motherhood. Her realization that Leigh and Little Jason have become lovers puts her in an untenable position, and she responds hysterically. For Leigh, the affair is the most radical turn in her defiance of the clock and a sort of glue that makes it harder than ever for her life to get unstuck.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Blind Spots: A Conversation About Don't Breathe

In August 2016, Sony Pictures had an advanced screening of Fede Alvarez's new horror flick, Don't Breathe. Justin Cummings and Danny McMurray both jumped at the opportunity. Instead of fighting to the death over who got to cover the film – as is tradition among critics – they opted instead to try to co-author a review....and the following is the result. Critics at Large is not responsible for any adverse effects that may result from reading this spoiler-heavy conversation between two semi-sober, horror-loving sickos…

jc: Hi Danny!

dm: Hi Justin!

jc: This is strange. I’ve never done anything like this before.

dm: Same! I make a point of never conversing with people so this is new and uncomfortable territory.

jc: It’s okay, horror films about murderous rapists are what bring us together! To start, tell me about your horror background. We both get jazzed up about these kind of films; what are some of your go-tos?

dm: The first horror film I can remember watching is The Silence of the Lambs. Could we call that a horror movie now? Nonetheless, I was probably 7 and was properly horrified. I had to turn it off. As I got older, the tides turned and horror became probably my favourite genre. The good ones get deep into your head and that's kind of cathartic sometimes. The bad ones are hysterical. Wherever a horror movie sits on the good-to-bad spectrum, I love that anything can happen at any time; horror films consistently boast the least predictable kind of storytelling. I watch them all – Asian horror, zombie films, 90s slashers, smaller indie pieces. My favourite is probably 1974’s Black Christmas. How about you?

jc: Much respect for Black Christmas, what an esoteric choice! You're right on the money with your description of what the genre does best, too – its mandate to surprise and move the audience at all costs is what I think makes it an incredibly pure form of cinema. Ultimately, no matter what the movie is, we're all sitting in that dark room together because we want to experience something that jolts us out of our humdrum lives. For me, the ones that provide the juiciest jolts are things like Suspiria, Ringu, Alien, and even recent fare like It Follows. It's gotta get under my skin for it to work.

dm: Yeah, It Follows was a brilliant little gem! Tight storytelling, great camera work. Lately, I've noticed a trend toward these smaller indie companies telling these very minimalist stories. Small cast, small set, very focused plot. It Follows did that really well. It didn't mess around with the spirit world or demonology or any of these massive plot points with endlessly messy implications. Recently, I found both Green Room and Hush were really great examples of minimalist horror movies. They succeeded by doing less. I think Don't Breathe tried to do what they did...

jc: … and didn’t quite hit the mark?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Frozen Music: John Ballantyne’s Persistent Reality

John Ballantyne's Tower Stairs.

“Music is constant. Listening is intermittent.”– John Cage.
Paintings such as John Ballantyne’s are invitations to a ritual of looking that engages our imaginations far above and below the apparently straightforward substance of the images represented. They are what they appear to be: placid architectural spaces, portraits of both interiors and exteriors, still life’s with rooms and buildings instead of fruits or flowers, designed and built landscapes at once tightly contained and yet fully open to conjecture. As such they also aspire to be accurate diagrams of something impossible to behold, something which the poet Goethe once offered as an ideal definition of what architecture is and what it does: frozen music. In Ballantyne’s work we witness a certain kind of mathematical precision which is not strictly realistic per se but in fact actually arrives at quite a different destination: a metaphysical dwelling place for the frozen music of form and content. Another primary and recurring focus of his work is the frequent element of illuminated objects which remind of us of the original meaning of the word photo-graphis: drawing with light.

Fiat Lux! some of these images seem to whisper, let there be light, and the purity of Tower Stairs is a good place to begin contemplating the precious qualities not only of painting with light but also paintings of light itself as a subject, and of its palpable yet often invisible personality in our lives. The artist has observed that he sees painting as a tentative step towards realizing “the self”, and to express that process he uses “simple exteriors or interiors of buildings accentuated with light, light as a metaphor, a means of illuminating the subject and, at the same time, symbolizing enlightenment”. But just as enlightenment is not actually as complicated as it first appears to be, these lux meditations are definitely not quite as simple as they first appear to be. He investigates what lies beneath the surface of things and arrives at what the philosophically inclined might call things-in-themselves. This artist is building a staircase to heaven without ever leaving the earth. While Ballantyne’s kind of themes and these accurate depictions of the recognizable world around us are often called photorealism or pictorial realism, I find it more accurate and rewarding to perceive them as magic realism. Either way, the artist’s persistent commitment to capturing the essence of appearances and the mysteries below the surface is laudable in an age still avidly absorbed by both the abstract and the conceptual. As for their visual references or aesthetic geneology, while some viewers may tend to identify a resonance with the Canadian realists Colville or Pratt, or the Americans Wyeth or Hopper, I tend to veer toward their affinity with other more magic realists such as Fransoli, Guglielmi or Helder. They are similarly crisp and tidy, presented in bold outlines, with forms defined by soft but stark lights and gentle but profound shadows.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Doing Time: HBO's The Night Of

John Turturro and Riz Ahmed in HBO's The Night Of.

Note: the following post contains some spoilers.

In HBO's eight-part procedural drama, The Night Of, which concluded this past Sunday night, everyone is doing time. This temperamental thriller, which is based on the 2008-09 BBC series, Criminal Justice, is about the grinding wheels of the system and how it wears down its servants as much as it does the suspects. Unlike True Detective, which imposed a weary existentialism on a conventional crime story, The Night Of reaches inside the conventions of the detective genre to create a darkly lit tone poem where justice becomes merely a flicker of light. The mini-series, written by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, is clearly set in post-9/11 New York with its mood of suspicion and fear regarding race and religion, but it also reflects an exhaustion where ideals and purpose have been replaced by expedience. That exhaustion contributes to some of the dramatic weaknesses of The Night Of, but if the story sometimes falls into a kind of stasis, the characters don't. The Night Of is about people who've been lulled to sleep but slowly get woken by a dawning nightmare of what they've become.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Helen McCrory gives an exquisite portrayal of Hester Collyer, the shattered heroine of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 The Deep Blue Sea, in Carrie Cracknell’s fine production at the National Theatre. (Audiences can see it worldwide in the NT Live series in September and October.) Filmgoers on this side of the Atlantic might or might not recognize McCrory from some of her character work in the movies, but in England she’s a star, and deservedly so. This is the third major performance I’ve seen her give at the National: she was the drifting, wounded daughter in Stephen Beresford’s The Last of the Haussmans and an unforgettable Medea (also under Cracknell’s direction). McCrory is an almost frighteningly intelligent actor, and perhaps her most distinctive feature is a wry wit that can be withering; amusement transforms that porcelain face – breaks it up, lends it an almost mandarin quality. As Hester, the wife of a judge who left him nearly a year ago for a younger man with whom she lives in a middle-class apartment house, pretending for reasons of propriety to be married to him, McCrory uses that wit as a means of showing the acuteness of her character’s self-understanding. She’s profoundly and irretrievably in love with a man she knows is incapable of reciprocating because he lacks depth and because his masculine pride and need to protect himself get in the way. I’ve seen two other masterful actresses in this role: Vivien Leigh in Anatole Litvak’s 1955 film version and Blythe Danner in a revival at the Roundabout Theatre in 1998. Leigh brought the role the wracked romanticism for which she was famous; it may be the only one of her post-Blanche DuBois performances that truly showcased her gifts. Danner made the sexual nature of Hester’s feelings for Freddie Page audaciously explicit. McCrory, like Danner, delves into the character’s passion; what sets her apart is a divided consciousness – the sense that Hester is watching herself in a mirror, bewildered by the recklessness of her own actions. It’s the combination of her helplessness and her awareness that make McCrory’s Hester heartbreaking.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

B-Movie Fun On TV: FX’s The Strain

Note: the following post contains some spoilers.

I don’t know if the shortened ten episode third season of FX’s The Strain, (less than the first two 13 episode seasons), which begins tonight, signals the end of the series’ run. If it did, it would match up neatly with the trilogy of books written by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) and Chuck Hogan, which I have not read. (The authors, who are executive producers on the series and wrote the intriguing pilot which Del Toro also directed, have indicated that a three to five season run of The Strain would be optimum.) I do know that I look forward to seeing if the motley group of defenders of New York City, beset by a plague of gruesome looking vampires, will prevail in the end, even as the metropolis seems slowly to be falling to the undead. If season one of The Strain introduced the concept, where a plane landing in New York from Germany is found to contain almost an entire load of dead passengers and crew, except for a few mysteriously alive (and infected) survivours, who begin to infect the populace at large, season two upped the ante as a specific group of (anti) heroes united to fight off the invaders, even as a second faction of vampires, with their own agenda, claimed to be aiding the humans in their fight. Season three, from what I gather, will suggest that the city as a whole has been written off by the outside world, which makes the fight to save it all the more desperate and crucial. Whatever the case, I hope The Strain will continue to offer up its unique brand of B-Movie (TV) thrills, social commentary, humourous asides, and, yes, a bit of acceptable silliness in the process.