Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #27: Christopher Dewdney (1984/87/88)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One section of the book dealt with Occupying the Margins, a chapter that examined the role of marginal art on eighties culture. By the Eighties, contemporary composers like Philip Glass, R. Murray Schafer and John Cage had already made a significant impact in pop circles with the help of David Bowie, Brian Eno and The Talking Heads. There were also sound poets like Bob Cobbing and bill bissett who expanded the notion of what was considered verse. While Canadian writer Christopher Dewdney is not a sound poet, he does look at language the way a geologist might examine layers of rock. Being the son of the renowned archaeologist, Selwyn Dewdney, none of this should perhaps come as a surprise. But throughout the Eighties, Christopher Dewdney shifted between works of non-fiction (The Immaculate Perception, 1986) , fiction and poetry (Radiant Inventory, 1988). Since we talked frequently during the decade and covered most of those books, I've fused together three excerpts from those talks into one post.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Spook in Afghanistan: Blood and Gifts

Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Ruiz and Jefferson Mays in Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center

The compelling Blood and Gifts, by the American playwright J.T. Rogers, focuses on the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States between 1981 and 1991. The protagonist is Jim Warnock, a thirty-something CIA operative based over the border in Pakistan, whose assignment is to supervise the covert arming of Afghan resistance fighters. His official liaison with themujahideen is the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which – for political reasons of their own – has jockeyed successfully for control of the distribution of American aid and has chosen to back the most extreme of the Afghan fighters, the violent right-wing Islamist Hekmatyar. But Warnock reaches out to one of the other commanders, Abdullah Khan, taking clandestine road trips into the mountains where Khan and his men are camped out and funneling weapons his way (as well as boom boxes and rock ‘n’ roll for Khan’s impetuous young second-in-command, Saeed) in exchange for intel.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are: Battling Beasts on the Big Screen

The Grey certainly is a far cry from Never Cry Wolf. In the new thriller, the CGI and animatronic canis lupus creatures are preternaturally immense, relentless carnivores with an appetite for human flesh. The earlier film by Carroll Ballard, which came out in 1983 and was adapted from Farley Mowat’s wonderful 1963 book of the same title, makes the case that wolves feed primarily on rodents. Both movies are in the Arctic adventure genre. The chief distinction may be that the older story is about man learning to understand and coexist with nature while the current release depicts man versus nature in a bloody mismatch.

Yet The Grey, which stars Liam Neeson as the alpha male among a pack of survivors stranded in the vast Alaskan tundra after their transport plane crashes, is a surprisingly meditative saga. As they try to elude the snarling predators by trekking through deep snow without weapons, these guys somehow find time to debate whether or not there is a God. If the answer is yes, we see little evidence that a supreme being is on their side. In addition to the threat of territorial wolves, the men are just as likely to face doom in the form of hypoxia, storms, heights and river rapids amid the beautifully photographed (by Masanobu Takayanagi) vistas of British Columbia, standing in for America’s largest and least populated state.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Frank: Seth MacFarlane's Music is Better Than Words

At Capitol Records, the Neumann U47 microphone is known as "The Frank" because it was used to record the voice of Frank Sinatra during the 1950s. For Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and an out-of-the-closet crooner, "The Frank" symbolizes the passion he feels for the music of an era that featured the kind of orchestral arrangements that put Sinatra on the musical map.

Music Is Better Than Words (Universal Republic, 2011) is Seth MacFarlane's auspicious debut on CD. The album is a throwback to a time when vocalists literally sang with the orchestra in the same studio. Sinatra's Capitol recordings in particular captured an emotional dynamic that distinguished them from just about everything else in music. This was partly due to their technical achievements. But it was also due to the arrangements and the close proximity of the vocalist with the band. MacFarlane's record is not a tribute per se, but an attempt to capture the sound and energy of Sinatra's recordings. That's a worthy goal, but it's only as valuable as the music we hear. On Music Is Better Than Words, we hear it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Departures and Arrivals: Watching Movies on Airplanes

Due to a family emergency, I recently spent the equivalent of 34 hours in the air flying overseas to Goa, India and back. Fortunately, I have no fear of flying, but when you spend that much time in airplanes there is only so much sleeping and reading that you can do. I’ve never been one to stare off into space during air journeys, so I watched a lot of movies. Jet Airways, an Indian-based airline, is a very modern service with comfortable seats, good service and individual seat-back video screens. They offer a full array of movies from Hollywood and Bollywood. I’ve never been that much of a Bollywood fan, so I really wasn’t in the mood for those long films with the out-of-the-blue ubiquitous dancing and singing scenes – don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some of the pictures and have liked them, but there’s only one I can hands down recommend, even though it is over three hours long: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), directed by Adiya Chopra and starring Bollywood’s Tom Cruise, Shahrukh Khan – so I brought up the list of Hollywood films. There were a lot.

In the past year, I’ve really have been remiss in seeing the new offerings out of Hollywood (I'm told I haven't missed much), so this journey became an ideal opportunity to catch up on some films I’d intended to see, but never got around to them. Little did I know until I got home that the pictures I watched actually fit two themes that reflected both my journey to Goa and back. The films on offer ranged from ‘70s classics, Chinatown, to hits from 2011 such as Dolphin’s Tale and Puss in Boots. There is a certain restlessness when you are stuck on an airplane, so as I flipped through the list, I ticked off a few I was interested in seeing. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to watch anything I’d already seen (bye bye, Chinatown). So I settled in to watch a number of films, some that both Shlomo and Susan reviewed in Critics at Large when they were first released.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It’s In The Mail…: Recent CDs

Someone recently asked me about a comment I made in a previous review. In a rant about Bob Dylan, I let slip that sometimes it’s hard to listen to some of the music that people send me to review. I remarked something about how I had to force myself to listen to some of it. I still stand by that remark; sometimes it is hard. You really want to dig the new Little Willies CD (which I bought on Friday and haven’t even put into the CD player yet), but then there’s that large stack of CDs that other people have sent me for review. “I’d better get on it,” I think. So, today, I’m going to go through the last batch of CDs that have come in, and tell you exactly what I think about them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred

Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

Jessica Walter, in the Archer studio
With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Set in a deliberately indeterminate and impossible era, Archer seems contemporary as far as pop culture is concerned, but still somehow exists in the middle of the Cold War. The Russians and the KGB are the baddies, and the Middle East is nowhere in sight, but storylines involving affirmative action, energy conservation, and sexual harassment complaints seem to place it in our own time. Cars and clothing reference the 60s and 70s, but everyone carries a cell-phone with picture and video capabilities. In the end, it all becomes just another part of the sheer fun of it all. And there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadheads: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure (1999)

Back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, the co-founder and resident guru of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack, Elvis Costello, one of the early progenitors of punk, made a curious comment. "I think it's harder for people who don't subscribe to the cultural phenomenon of the Dead to appreciate some of the quality of the songs," Costello told Rolling Stone. "If somebody else were to take 'Stella Blue,' say, and record it like Mel Torme would record it, you would hear what a beautiful song it was." To some, Costello should be someone who represents a full rejection of the hippie ethos that the Dead were part of, but his remark has an interesting way of cutting through the patina of our musical prejudices. Stripped of their cultural and mythical baggage, the Grateful Dead's songs might actually stand up as some beautifully composed pieces.

I never bought into the phenomenon of the Dead, or the trappings of the Dead worshipers (known affectionately, or derisively, as 'Deadheads') who followed the band from town to town. But I certainly loved some of their music, many of those songs (like "Ripple" or "Ship of Fools") asked us to share their quest for community, which they sought with a true sense of commitment while adding a healthy respect for tradition. I also sometimes heard risk in their music, a dare to go further than their fans might allow. (That risk though had its pitfalls. Performing live the band could either take you soaring into endless waves of cascading melodies or simply bore you blind.) Few have ever made clear why the Grateful Dead had (and, I suppose, continues to have) a lasting appeal, but Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, written in 1999, does. Her book provides a fascinating examination of the times of the Grateful Dead, and answers pertinent questions as to how and why the Dead outlived the doomed counter-culture of the Sixties.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Coriolanus: The Indomitable Roman

In his directorial debut, Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes shows a genuine conceptual talent. He’s made a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, with the title character (played by Fiennes himself), a general in Marine camouflage gear who starts off by defeating the neighboring Volscians, waging an Iraq-style war shot with hand-held cameras. (John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator, Hugo and the stage play Red, wrote the screenplay.) The cinematographer is Barry Ackroyd, and these early sequences are reminiscent of his best-known assignment, The Hurt Locker, with their dusty, metallic lime greens and their kinetic, you-are-there camerawork. Fiennes sets the scenes with TV news headlines and, in one particularly witty episode, he and Logan translate an exchange among Romans about Coriolanus as a Frontline-style debate. When Coriolanus returns from the war, the tribunes who plot his downfall are a pair of smug suits (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who manipulate the Roman people so craftily that instead of being elected consul he’s exiled; his aristocratic pride, which prevents him from abasing himself to them – he won’t show them his battle wounds – is interpreted as proof that he doesn’t prize the good of the populace above his own selfish concerns. In the movie he comes from a distinguished military family: his bellicose mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who boasts that she’d rather lose eleven sons in battle than have one behave like a coward, attends his welcome-home reception uniformed like a WAC.

Coriolanus is one of the plays in which Shakespeare addresses the fickleness of mobs – Julius Caesar and to a lesser extent Timon of Athens are the others – and they’re notoriously tough to pull off. The crowd scenes in Coriolanus, like the ones in Julius Caesar, are more theoretical than dramatic; even though you know that Shakespeare’s right about mobs, it’s hard to buy the moment when a line or two from a charismatic speaker, or even Marc Antony’s oration, sways the Romans to flip their sympathies. It’s even harder to render scenes like these convincing on a big screen when the style you’ve chosen is documentary realism, but Fiennes makes an honorable try. The main problem with the movie is that it lacks tonal variety, a flaw Fiennes and Logan have inherited from the text. Fascinating as it is, with extraordinary scenes and a couple of memorable characters (Coriolanus and Volumnia), Coriolanus must be Shakespeare’s most somber tragedy; even Timon contains more humor, though it’s bitter and caustic. And once the title character, stung to fury by his treatment at the hands of the Romans, defects to the Volscians and allies himself with their leader, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, in a surprisingly believable performance), and the filmmakers have run out of visual invention, the movie slips into an undifferentiated grayness.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Black and White and Red: A Tale of Combat Togetherness

Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails

The homophobia, racism, misogyny and pure backwardness among Republican candidates hoping to relocate to the White House is beyond shocking. Even crazier than Rick Santorum’s desire to ban all forms of contraception is the pledge by Newt Gingrich, who calls Barack Obama a “food stamp president,” to make poor black children clean bathrooms in their schools. He alleges they have no work ethic, so his solution involves abolishing child labor laws and paying slave wages (about 60 cents an hour!) to kids as young as nine for janitorial duty.

In Red Tails, a passion project for more than 20 years from executive producer George Lucas, some presumably poor black kids in the mid-20th century skip toilet patrol but grow up to become brave ace pilots during World War II. The film is a fictionalized account of the real-life 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at a similarly named school in Alabama and served in the segregated U.S. Army Air Corps. Almost seven decades later, the genius behind the Star Wars franchise had to finance the new movie himself at least $58 million because Hollywood studios feared a predominantly African-American cast would limit box-office success.

In tribute to the courage of Lucas and especially of the true Tuskegee heroes, I wish I could report that Red Tails is a masterpiece. But the script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) relies on wooden, cliched dialogue and characters, all seemingly straight out of 1940s B-movies about combat: There’s the wise-cracking chief mechanic (Andre Royo) with his cap turned sideways; a religious fellow (Marcus T. Paulk) who carries a card for good luck that depicts a black Jesus; the 332nd’s never-less-than-wise Major Colonel Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) always puffing on a big Meerschaum pipe like General Douglas MacArthur; and the insidious German Luftwaffe commander who instructs his forces to “Show no mercy!” What? Were these Nazis liable to show mercy if not told otherwise?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Out From The Fringes: Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience

Janet (Esther Jun) and Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee).

A good friend of mine once invited me to a play because she needed to see some “life.” And to her, theatre was all about “life.” Kim’s Convenience, a new Canadian play about a Korean family in Toronto, is certainly full of “life.”

Written by Ins Choi, Kim's Convenience, which debuted at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company on Thursday, is the story of the Kim family led by patriarch Appa, his wife Umma and their children, Jung and Janet. Appa originally left South Korea and immigrated to Canada with his wife and unborn son and they open a convenience store. In a poignant and funny interlude in the middle of the play, Appa, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Umma, played by Jean Yoon, perform a memory scene under spotlight. They recall looking at the convenience store with great hope and so they try to come up with a name. (By the time they settle on Kim’s Convenience, Appa has considered several names including “Kim Horton’s”.) This scene, which resonates in the play, is a beautiful distillation of the dream every new Canadian hopes for in making a better life in a new land.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Separation: Marriage and Divorce – Iranian Style

Iran may be a fundamentalist totalitarian regime, but many of Iran’s filmmakers are among the world’s best at exposing the deficiencies and flaws of their country on film. Their exposés have to survive state censorship, police harassment, the banning of their work and, sometimes, as in the case of leading director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside) even being sentenced to jail. Panahi is serving six years (and is banned for 20 years from making films) just for standing up for his beliefs. I am not altogether convinced that this isn’t something of a shell game on the part of the Iranian regime, which may ban or censor their indigenous cinema at home but seem, suspiciously, to be unable to ever prevent those movies from showing abroad at film festivals and in Western commercial release. (Panahi’s latest movie This is Not a Film was even made while he was under house arrest and facing possible jail time.) The fact that some Iranian films, such as those of now exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence, Gabbeh) have a French distributor does mean that these films have a life beyond the reach of the censor, which perhaps explains why those movies were shown in 1997 in political arch-enemy Israel’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, to acclaim locally and anger at home.(I attended that festival and was more than a little taken aback when I saw those movies listed in the festival guide.) Makhmalbaf himself indicated in a letter to the Iranian press that the showings in Israel had been approved by government officials, which, if true, was an interesting development in the otherwise fractious Iranian-Israeli relationship. Notably, Iran’s best known filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy), whose films are generally apolitical, runs into fewer problems with the authorities than any of his other famous cohorts.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which just won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film, and in 2011 picked up the Silver Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, differs somewhat from his country’s norm in that he was able to make his movie without any government funding at all. Thus he could avoid the trap of having to sneak his critiques into his film, and was also able to attack the religious character of the state more forthrightly than any filmmaker before him. He was still banned, temporarily, from making his movie after he publicly voiced support for Makhmalbaf and the imprisoned Panahi, statements for which he later apologized, perhaps only so he could get his film completed. (Interestingly, it's very likely that A Separation, Iran's submission for Academy Award recognition, will be competing against Israel's Oscar entry, Joseph Cedar's religiously themed Footnote, for the Best Foreign Language Film award next month in Hollywood.)

Peyman Moaadi and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi
Melding the powerful drama of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) with a provocative Rashomon-like storyline, A Separation, which Farhadi produced, wrote and directed, begins in a judge’s office as separated couple Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) make their case for custody of their eleven year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to take the girl abroad (the film implies that Simin’s not Iranian-born and, perhaps, particularly unable to deal with the societal restrictions women face in the strictly religious Iranian Republic) but Nader refuses to consider that option, as he feels obligated to take care of his Alzheimer’s’ afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). That decision has prompted Simin to ask for a divorce, even though, as she puts it, her husband is a ‘decent’ man. But the disinterested magistrate denies that request, forcing her to stay in Tehran, and move in with her parents while Termeh stays with Nader. It’s when Simin helps arrange for a caretaker a young, pious and poor woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help Nader’s father that things escalate. A succession of events sees Nader throw Razieh out of his home, only to be blamed later on for her miscarriage, caused she says when she fell down the stairs. Did he cause it, did he even know she was pregnant? A Separation is full of hidden secrets, withheld information and a couple at the centre of it all who no longer know how to communicate with each other, if they ever did at all.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBC's The Hour: A Period Drama Whose Time has Come

Ben Whishaw stars in The Hour on BBC

In the years before the US dominated the international scene, and decades before Jack Bauer started putting severed heads in bowling bags, a ripping spy story could be told without suitcase nukes and hacksaws. Giving us a glimpse into the early days of BBC television, at its heart BBC’s The Hour (broadcast by the BBC in the UK this past summer, by BBC America in the US this fall, and now available on Netflix in Canada) is just such an old-fashioned spy drama – complete with government operatives in identical trench coats, tapped telephones, and messages hidden in crossword puzzles.

Period dramas – and British period dramas especially – used to have a very particular reputation on this side of the ocean. In the years before premium cable, discerning television viewers could reliably turn to PBS and its stable of British dramas: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; Brideshead Revisited; any of a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. (And even as recently as this past fall, PBS has a well-justified hit with its broadcast of ITV’s Downton Abbey.) But however entertaining and distracting, one thing period dramas rarely have been is topical. If anything The Hour – despite the action taking place well over 50 years ago – may well suffer from too much topicality. Against the backdrop of a waning superpower trying to shore up its influence in a volatile Middle East with an unpopular and arguably illegal war, domestic journalists accused of unpatriotic activity for questioning a sitting government, a culture of suspicion and surveillance of average citizens, a lesser show than The Hour might almost buckle beneath the weight of its relevance. But it never does. With one short six-episode season under its belt, and a second season on its way in 2012, The Hour is a charming and eminently watchable drama told with understated production design, unassuming sexual tension, minimal but effective violence, and an ensemble of compelling characters.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

These Guys Are Pigs: Men Who Dance

George Stamos and Dany Desjardins at the Dancemakers Studio

Exploring the animal within is one way of describing what’s going on in Liklik Pik, a 60-minute multi-media work by Montreal-based choreographer and dancer George Stamos.

In particular, it’s his inner pig which appears most to fascinate Stamos who, together with dancing partner Dany Desjardins, wears a pig mask as part of his exploration of the complex relationship between humans and animals.

The piece, which debuted Tuesday night as part of the TwoByFour festival of original duets which Dancemakers is presenting at its Centre of Creation studios inside Toronto’s Distillery District through to the end of the month, also uses grunting and snorting as well as the childhood ditty, This Little Piggy Went to Market (spoken here in snippets of French), to cement the pig as the work’s totemic theme.

But such literalness aside, Liklik Pik (the title appears derived from the Tok Pisin language of Papua, New Guinea, in which pik is the word for "pig") also works on a level of poetic association, using voice narration, repetitive movement, music, ambient sound and video projection to present the multidimensional bond with a disarming level of success.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Childhood’s End: Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo

Shame on those who, during their puberty, murdered the person they might have become.
- Jean Vigo, Towards a Social Cinema.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a movie about the collapse of the conventional romantic paradigm, there’s a particularly haunting moment midway through when Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and her fiancé Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is making a film about their courtship and marriage, meet at a waterside dock so that he can propose to her on camera. As they debate back and forth about whether they will, or whether they won’t, he puts a life buoy over her head and pins her arms. He traps her in what looks like a huge wedding ring. But she quickly dispenses with it and chucks it into the water below. As it sinks to the bottom of the sea, we can read the name L’Atalante on the buoy. Aside from making a direct reference to the final (and only) feature film in the terribly brief career of French director Jean Vigo, Bertolucci is also paying tribute to the sad passing of the romantic stirrings of our youth, of a childhood’s end; while keeping faith with a carnal appetite that made Jean Vigo a patron saint for the New Wave that Bertolucci was once part of in the early Sixties.

The Criterion Collection, in their own significant way of honoring the work of Jean Vigo, has recently released a sumptuous DVD package of his complete work.The discs as well include a number of invaluable supplementary materials, all proving that Vigo was indeed one of the most instinctually radical of film directors until his tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1934. In just under three hour of film footage (three shorts and one feature), Jean Vigo becomes before our eyes this luminously idealistic figure, a Byronic pop artist, who set out to preserve the innocent rebellion of childhood. The anarchistic and zealous pining for transcendence from authoritarian rule and dogma brought forth in Vigo a vivacious need to celebrate pure freedom; expressed not only in the content of his movies, but also in his flamboyant expressiveness, an expressiveness that echoed the spontaneity of true invention. While his work shares some of the revolutionary fervor found in the early Russian cinema, it does so without the latter’s schematic design. To experience Vigo is to feel instead like a balloon caught up in a quick breeze and pulled into states of elation that make sensual desire palpable.

Jean Vigo
Vigo’s impetuous and tragic life was equaled by no one except maybe actor James Dean in the Fifties. While both became iconic figures of youthful revolt and romantic allure, Vigo is James Dean without the crippling neurosis, the brooding contortions. If Dean was, in truth, a rebel with a cause – a need to be loved and accepted – Vigo was the rebel without one. He became what French film director Jacques Rivette called “an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world.” In The Complete Jean Vigo, we watch a young artist discover the playful child in himself until the sojourn ends with L’Atalante, where he seeks ways to preserve that playful child in an adult world with adult emotions and adult circumstances.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lit Wit: Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

Hamish Linklater, Alan Rickman, Jerry O'Connell, Lily Rabe & Hettienne Park in Seminar. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, currently on Broadway, is a hard-boiled comedy about literary life that trades on our fantasies about writers in a highly entertaining fashion. Four aspiring twenty-something writers meet weekly in an Upper West Side apartment to show their work to a celebrated editor and get his response. Kate (Lily Rabe), a Bennington grad from a blue-chip background, is renting the luxurious venue, with its Hudson River view, from her father for an unheard-of low price. (One of her peers describes her lifestyle as “socialism for the rich.”) Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), an insufferable self-promoter with connections, has just returned from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he honed a story that’s under consideration at The New Yorker. Izzy (Hettienne Park) puts sex front and center in her work – she claims it’s the most important element in fiction – and flaunts her own sexuality, though the fact that she’s still living with her parents undercuts the daring of her forays into the adult world. The only member of the quartet without a whiff of privilege is Kate’s friend Martin (Hamish Linklater), who moves into her apartment early in the play because he’s being evicted from his own. Leonard (Alan Rickman), a rude, profanely sardonic, self-styled-hipster narcissist whom they’ve hired at an exorbitant fee, tears into their submissions, dismissing Kate’s after the first sentence as lethally boring and tempering his praise for Douglas’s accomplished style with a slam at his quickness to pander to his readers. (He calls him a whore and recommends he move to Hollywood.) And as he does so, he exposes their fragile egos, their terrors (week after week, Martin declines to pass over any of his own novel for Leonard’s inspection), their jealousies (Kate has a crush on Martin and resents the attention he pays to Izzy, who seduces him effortlessly), and the lengths to which their increasing desperation in this competitive literary hothouse atmosphere drives them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Lady’s Mettle: A Memory of Maggie

Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

In the early 1980s two Brits at The Socialist Worker newspaper designed an immense movie poster for a faux updated version of Gone With the Wind. Instead of Vivien Leigh in the arms of Clark Gable, the image depicted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being carried by President Ronald Reagan under the promo “The most EXPLOSIVE love story ever.” At the bottom, another tagline: “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it!” The context was that this dynamic trans-Atlantic duo had been pushing humankind to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The symbolic Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ticked dangerously close at eight minutes to midnight.

Dialogue in The Iron Lady, however, never seems to include the word “nuclear” and Ronnie appears as a mere Post-it note rather than a poster in the examination of the Maggie’s career. There’s one brief snippet of them dancing together. Much of late 20th-century history, in fact, flies by as a footnote to her magnificent obsession: the belief that, in a time of rampant misogyny and sharp class distinctions, a woman from humble circumstances could remake a rather liberal society into an ultra-conservative empire. After knee-capping the trade unions at home, Thatcher turns her attention to empire in 1982 by ordering the United Kingdom to wage war against Argentina over control of the Falklands a chain of islands located just off the coast of South America, almost 8,000 miles from London. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Throwing Down the Gauntlet – The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

In the late Fifties, Ornette Coleman, a Texas-born saxophone player who would eventually sojourn to L.A., took a leap into space with a quartet that completely abandoned form when they played jazz. With drummer Billy Higgins, Walter Norris on piano and Don Cherry playing trumpet, The Ornette Coleman Quartet first shook up the jazz world with the aptly titled Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958). But, by the next LP, when Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, adding Charlie Haden on bass, his blues-based harmonically free improvisations dramatically opened up a whole new direction for the music.

When Coleman then appeared at the Five Spot nightclub in New York in the early winter, he inspired a small riot among jazz artists and critics. This 1959 skirmish would in many ways resemble the much larger one Igor Stravinsky had instigated in 1913 with his radical ballet score Le Sacre du Printemps. Why the commotion? By abandoning harmony on The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman sought rhythm the way abstract expressionist painters went after sensation. At the Five Spot, therefore, his melodies were experienced by the audience as if they were swirling in a musical maze, driven by an acceleration of tempo, which challenged these stunned listeners to follow along as he gleefully rejected jazz's adherence to strict time. "It was like I was E.T. or something, just dropped in from the moon," Coleman later recalled.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Gothic Shadow – Bob Douglas' 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 http://www.thatlineofdarkness.com, will be giving a talk on Thursday January 26, 7PM to 8:15 at Palmerston 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, January 12, 2012

Dreamy: Joe Henry's Reverie

Joe Henry and I have something in common. The esteemed producer, songwriter and musician is also crazy about a unique jazz record called Money Jungle, which was recorded in one day in 1962 and it featured three of the most compelling people in music: Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. It was the only time they all ever came together in the studio. The result was an intimate record of Ellington compositions, some played for the first time. To me, it was remarkable how these three artists were able to get along, let alone the skill in which they played. To my knowledge, it wasn’t necessarily a super group either. Yet it was far from being a regular session.

Reverie (ANTI-, 2011) is Joe Henry’s attempt to capture the immediacy, excitement and love he heard on Money Jungle, but it’s not a jazz record by any stretch. It’s a pop album with a difference. And it’s that difference, in feel, phrasing and songwriting that makes Reverie one of best new records I’ve heard. But I didn’t come to this album as a fan of Henry’s music; it was his excellent work as a producer that made me look up and take notice.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Alternative Air Force: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

The Napoleonic wars form the backdrop of many classic works of historical fiction. Epic battles, perilous sea voyages and political machinations lend themselves easily to countless adventures, several of which have translated to screen adaptations in recent years – think Master and Commander, or Horatio Hornblower. The era seems to provide no shortage of inspiration to the budding writer. One seems hard-pressed to find anything that would make an already fascinating period of history more exciting.

Well, what about dragons?

At first, this idea conjures up unsettling memories of unfortunately gimmicky dragon movies (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire). The notion of playing this premise straight would seem even more outlandish, but Naomi Novik's His Majesty’s Dragon does just that – and does it well. Trying to weave the iconic fantasy beasts into such well-trodden literary ground seems a gutsy choice for a first novel, but Novik has managed: first published in 2005, it is the first book in the Temeraire series, which has now reached six novels and will last for at least seven. While perhaps not the most challenging read, the novel still manages to pose enough questions and provide enough seafaring fun to please both fans of the fantastic and historical fiction buffs with a quirky imagination.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dale Carnegie Reconsidered

Unless you’re embarking on a career in monk hood, chances are, you may have to interact with other people at some point during the day. And you are not guaranteed an easy ride. Even if you are someone who loves people, and understands people, the best of us can still be emotional, unpredictable, and unstable. Whatever the complexities in our behaviour, we are always forced to interact with others. So there is always a probability of friction. (And not always the friction that Harlequin’s are made of.)  Interpersonal skills, let's face it, are as necessary in job interviews as they are at family dinners. Because of this challenge, I recently picked up Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1981).

Carnegie originally self-published his work in 1936 and it went on to sell over fifteen million copies. With so many social trends, and self-help crazes, coming and going, I was especially curious as to why and how this work still had a home on bookshelves today. Perhaps there's a good reason. It offers very relevant common sense about how to strategize with phenomenon that will never change: inherently complex human emotions.

How to Win Friends is divided into four sections: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, Six Ways to Make People Like You, How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, and Be a Leader. In each portion, Carnegie delivers several concise essays, each one concluding with a sound principle to support each objective. For instance, in the first section, he examines the art of handling people. Carnegie reminds us that the best communication comes with an effort to understand the other. But the advice that resonated most with me was to “never assume” that you understand. This chapter suggests not to judge someone who maybe short tempered, or otherwise unpleasant, because we might not have any idea of what they are going through. They could be going through hell, a break-up, a rough morning, the loss of a loved one. Carnegie tells us that “[i]nstead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do.” 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Klezmer Fable: Shlemiel the First

Shlemiel the First may be the best practically unknown musical comedy of the last twenty years. In the mid-nineties, during his tenure as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robert Brustein adapted the script from a play Isaac Bashevis Singer had culled from some of his own folk fables. The music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek was written for a klezmer band, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, and in a further burst of inspiration Brustein hired the choreographer David Gordon, who helms the witty Pick Up Performance Company, to stage it on a marvelous ramshackle expressionistic set by Robert Israel. It was the highlight of A.R.T.’s 1993-1994 season, and audiences tumbled for it; the company brought it back the following year.

 But when it closed the second time, the show vanished; the infectious songs have never been recorded (though one or two of them have been playing in my head for a decade and a half) and except for a production in San Francisco, as far as I know it’s never been produced again. That is, not until last month, when Gordon restaged it on a modified version of Israel’s set at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. (The set is pretty much what I remember from 1994, but Skirball’s stage is more compact than the one at A.R.T.’s Loeb Center.) Getting to see it again was an unexpected holiday treat.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pod Culture: The Reagan Era (Excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors)

First things first. Although technically yesterday was the second anniversary of Critics at Large, today commemorates when we actually began two straight years (and counting) of daily posts on the arts. We started with only three writers feeding coal into this literary furnace and today we have thirteen active scribes who've taken up the shovel. Thank you and congratulations to all –especially those of you who have been actively reading and supporting our efforts every step of the way.

To kick off our third year, here's an excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism, my latest book currently in progress (which also explains my periodic absence from
Critics at Large). But it just so happens that I'm also about to begin a nine-part lecture series on Reflections a week from Monday at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto (see details here). While I considered posting material from the Introduction ("If History's Taught Us Anything...") which covers the first lecture where I examine The Kennedy Era (through The Godfather, Part II and The Manchurian Candidate), the section was just too long to include here. Therefore, I'm jumping ahead instead to a portion from The Reagan Era where I discuss Phil Kaufman's 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a post which is still long but I beg your indulgence).

I know that, in the literal sense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in
The Carter Era, but Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors is not a literal interpretation of the American movies in each Presidential period. I work from the notion that since movies operate like waking dreams there is an unconscious nation that lies beneath the conscious one. In this post, I've tweezed together the opening portion from the book's introduction and the section on Invasion from the chapter Mourning in America: The Reagan Era. The students from my recent film criticism class, who composed terrific reviews of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, will no doubt recognize most of this material from a review of the movie that I also wrote for the class. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

No Fun: Magazine's No Thyself

In the late 1970s, when it came to music, I was a fan of everything British: Folk, Prog Rock, Punk and New Wave. I was first attracted to the Manchester-based band, Magazine for its combination of punk attitude and musical sophistication. Their albums offered fans a cocktail of the darker, more violent side of punk supported by tight, tuneful music. I was 20 years-of-age when they debuted and I was hooked. Magazine was fresh, clever and danceable. Howard Devoto was a hilarious front man for a band that had a unique sound with a running bass-line that pushed the music to the edge. It was strongly supported by John Doyle's crisp drumming and John McGeoch’s effective technique on guitar.

Among other things, Magazine had attitude and this sense of arrogance was quite evident at a Toronto concert I attended in 1980. Howard Devoto, as the band's lead singer, wasn't particularly good as a vocalist, but he had charisma and "talked" his way through the songs. It was a good show, free of pretension with all eyes on Devoto snaking his way through the set. He was less antagonistic than John Lydon of P.I.L. for example.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reminding Us Why We Love The Movies: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

I must confess, I resisted seeing Michel Hazanaviciu’s The Artist for the longest time, fearing and assuming that the idea of making an honest-to-goodness silent movie in 2011 was merely a gimmick, like Mel Brooks’ tepid Silent Movie (1976). Well, I was fortunately wrong about that. Not only is The Artist one of the year’s best movies, it’s also a timely reminder of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place oh so many years ago. And though of late I have mostly fallen out of love with the movies because so many of them have been so bad, more so, perhaps in this past year than ever before, The Artist also reminds me that, when done exceptionally well, films like this can rejuvenate an art form that is well-worth seeking out and appreciating.

The other thing The Artist has in common with 2011’s best movies is that it’s not afraid of evoking emotions in the viewer. Those other stellar films, including Of Gods and Men, The Illusionist, Incendies, War Horse, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, even the year’s finest documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Project Nim, all laid their feelings bare on screen, prompting the audience to fall in love with their protagonists, fear the outcome of their fates and be compelled to follow them though their often dangerous adventures in living and surviving. (Even Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, his somewhat disappointing follow-up to Sideways, was, despite being a touch too manipulative and pat, an honest and often powerful attempt at delineating the emotional turmoil that roils a family when the mother is grievously injured in an accident.) Those films stand out while so many other critically acclaimed films, such as Meek’s Cutoff and Another Earth, are, by comparison, arid and emotionally pinched movies. They seem almost determined to keep the viewer at an emotional distance; at best, asking you simply to admire them intellectually. (Terence Mallick’s The Tree of Life, another vastly overrated movie of 2011, does contain emotions but it’s such an incoherent mess that those feelings come across as stillborn.) Genuflecting at the altar of dry movies like those, as so many film critics do, is a denial of what makes cinema so emotionally potent and why it became such a significant art form. Be it Sunrise, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Casablanca, The Apu Trilogy, The Godfather, The Stunt Man or The Social Network, the finest films over the last century display the strong emotions of love, regret, anger, violence and joy. I won’t refuse a movie's ability to wash over me and to enfold me in its emotional embrace providing it's sincere and truthful; that’s why I, and so many others, at least, go to the movies. And it’s also why The Artist is a movie for the ages.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Extremely Fat Birds and Nimble Young Tanks: Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Douglas Adams observes the countryside and remarks:

“If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because somebody’s already done it.”

The whimsical chapter that follows includes a dizzying helicopter ride and treacherous hike through the mountains in search of a rare species of overweight booming parrot. I didn’t know parrots could boom before reading Last Chance to See. But that’s what I love about the book: how the unexpected comes intertwined with understated humour. While I’m busy laughing, I don’t realize I’ve learned something – something even more bizarrely wonderful for being true.

Last Chance to See takes the British humourist Adams, along with his zoologist coauthor, Mark Carwardine, on a series of global misadventures in search of some of the world's nearly-extinct species. Ostensibly with the goal of recording a BBC radio series of the same name, the pair visits these animals in their natural habitat, hoping to raise public awareness – and action – before these creatures vanish for good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The End of Bored to Death and How to Make It in America: Bidding Farewell to HBO’s Brooklyn Duology

Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk in HBO's How to Make It in America.

A new year is upon us and HBO viewers certainly have a lot to look forward to in 2012: the official launch of Luck (starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte) at the end of January; the US premiere of the new Ricky Gervais BBC/HBO comedy, Life’s Too Short, in February; and a brand new season of Games of Thrones in April. But it turns out that HBO’s full schedule comes at the cost of two of my favourite, if less often celebrated, comedies: at the end of December HBO announced that Bored to Death and How to Make It in America would not be returning in 2012. Despite airing on HBO, both series have lived pretty much under the radar since their respective premieres, and their sleeper status unfortunately did not save them from the chopping block.

Ever since the shows first premiered a couple of years ago – Bored to Death in September 2009, with How to Make It in America taking over its timeslot in February of the next year – I’ve always thought of them as a pair: both shows were Brooklyn-centred comedies, and both, more significantly, came with Jewish male actors playing explicitly Jewish main characters. Even in this post-Seinfeld century, it is still rare to find shows with explicitly Jewish lead characters, and here suddenly were two! (No, Howard Wolowitz doesn’t count!) To be fair, Jason Schwartzman’s character on Bored to Death is perhaps a more familiar New York Jewish type (in the Woody Allen vein), but Bryan Greenberg’s Ben Epstein on How to Make It in America just may have been the single hippest Jewish male character in TV history. Despite its cancellation, I hope that this promises more cool, attractive and relatively non-neurotic Jewish characters in years to come.

HBO doesn’t like to cancel shows – to its credit this is the same network that gave David Simon five full seasons of The Wire and has supported Simon’s Treme into a confirmed third, and likely fourth and final season, despite their respective struggles in the ratings – but when HBO does cancel shows, it is often heartbreaking. (Part of me will never quite forgive HBO for cutting Deadwood short after only three seasons.) With only three seasons of Bored to Death and two seasons of How to Make It in America, HBO has cut down two great shows, both still in their prime.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Incoherent Text: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

In the very early 1980s, film critic and academic Robin Wood wrote an article, called “The Incoherent Text,” about the nature of films from the 1970s. In it, he attempted to analyze Hollywood films, from directors like Scorsese and Coppola, which he felt said several things at once. Wood used Scorsese's Taxi Driver as his prime example saying that the film simultaneously condemned and celebrated Travis Bickle, the psychotic central character. He went on to describe how many of the seminal films of the 1970s had this as their dominant storytelling mode. The only problem with Wood's thesis was that it, too, got lost in incoherence, to the point where it was near impossible to follow his argument in any linear fashion. I'm not proposing that Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in any way, shape or form a seminal film; I mean strictly that it is for a large part of its running time an incoherent mess.

Where a film like Taxi Driver has a point of view, divided though it may be, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, for most of its first half, has none. The plot is next to impossible to follow leaving you confused, irritated, and generally bored. Basically, if I've got this straight (and most of this came from the second half of the film, not the first), Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), Sherlock's legendary antagonist, has set in motion a series of events (basically, a series of bombings throughout European capitals that are blamed on various groups) that, in 1891, will cause the outbreak of a world war. Since he has bought up the interests and shares in many munitions and medical supply companies throughout Europe, a world war will make him a very wealthy man. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) cottons on to this and, with the reluctant assistance of Dr. Watson (Jude Law), is bound and determined to thwart him.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Carnage: Beneath the Veneer

Roman Polanski's Carnage
The French playwright Yasmina Reza writes masterfully calibrated comedies of manners in which the central joke is the precariousness of the order carefully maintained by bright, complacent bourgeois; you wait for the moment when it flies off the track like a short-circuited toy train. Her brand of high comedy carries the influence of theatre of the absurd – it’s flavored with the acrid taste of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee – but she stays within the realm of realism. In Art, the play that put Reza on the map, the source of the tension in the friendship of three middle-aged male friends is an abstract expressionist painting that one of them pays an exorbitant amount for and displays proudly on the wall of his Paris apartment, while the others think it’s nonsense. The play is a comedy of menace, to use the critic Martin Esslin’s term for Pinter’s work: the rancor lies, coiled like a rattler, just beneath the jocular bantering. (In the hilarious 1998 Broadway production, Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina looked like they were having the time of their lives sparring with Reza’s glittering verbal arsenal.) God of Carnage is closer to Albee, specifically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with a much lighter touch. The set-up is irresistible. After one middle-school kid slams another with a hockey stick in response to an insult, effecting, considerable, though reparable, damage, their parents meet in an upper-West-Side Manhattan apartment to talk as reasonable adults. The reasonableness lasts barely half an hour. By the end of the play, all reason has been abandoned and all four psyches have been laid bare, along with the tattered seams of both marriages – and the stage is strewn with debris.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Durable & Road Traveled: The Best Music of 2011

You could say that 2011 marked a solid year for the veteran musician. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Chick Corea, David Crosby, George Clinton, Paul Anka, Ricardo Muti, Guy Clark and Roy Harper all turned 70-years-of-age last year. They are not only still active, but have remained creative and performing regularly, which says a lot for their artistic tenacity. Richard Thompson, Paul Kelly and Loudon Wainwright III each released a box set representing some of their best work. Then we had two albums from Kate Bush all in one year: remarkable.

I had the privilege of listening to a lot of great music this year. The new generation of musicians showed great promise as Feist, The Civil Wars, Adele and Amos Lee all released solid records. But it's these particular albums I've listed below that stood out for interpretation, sound quality, focus and the element of surprise. All of them have been previously reviewed in Critics At Large: