Saturday, July 14, 2012

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

Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen star in Hemingway & Gellhorn

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

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

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

The podcast was produced by Sean Rasmussen.

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beyond Precious: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom

Having just finished teaching a course on the great American cinema of the ‘70s, and spending weeks immersed in fine films by directors at their creative peaks (Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and many others), it was something of a rude jolt to be brought back to earth having to deal with the generally underwhelming current crop of American directors. While Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese are still around and often doing good work – creatively Coppola is missing in action – there are only a handful of relevant moviemakers (David Fincher, Curtis Hanson) from the next generation who make movies that speak to the way we live today. And when you’ve tasted the highs of The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Nashville or Shampoo, why would you want to make time for the enervated films of Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff), the scattershot ones of Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) or the contemptuous movies of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Life During Wartime)? But of all the annoying/irritating minor talents being unduly praised to the skies, usually only by certain film critics, none is likely more of a chore to sit through than Wes Anderson. His latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, is really more of the same: a hermetic, arid, mindless film that defies you to truly care about anything that’s happening on screen.

If you had to pick one word to define his films, such as Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tanenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), it would be precious. Not in the very valuable meaning of the word, but in the affectedly dainty or over-refined definition. With the exception of his debut movie, the sweet, likeable Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s films are enshrined baubles that may look pretty – he doesn’t stint on the art direction – but beyond surface appearances have little of value on offer.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #30: Douglas Adams (1987)

author Douglas Adams

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 executive producer of On the Arts
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.

When I interviewed author Douglas Adams in 1987, who knew that, besides his vastly eclectic interests, he would also be something of a pioneer in technological innovation with his fascination for Apple Macintosh computers. He saw the decade as a launching pad for a number of technological feats which would bear fruit in the years to come. Adams, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001, had an equally diverse career as an English writer, dramatist (which included being a script editor of Doctor Who) and a humourist. Most people know him as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a best selling 'trilogy' of five books (selling over 15 million copies), which began as a BBC Radio comedy in 1978. (His contributions to British radio are commemorated in The Radio Academy's Hall of Fame.)

The day he came in to talk, he had just written Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency which he described as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who-dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic." In Adams' hands, Gently is not your typical private detective. He's more interested in quantum mechanics, conjuring tricks and consuming pizza than fiddling with fingerprint powder; a "Holistic Detective" who believes in the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things." (The book was followed by a sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul in 1988. He began working on another novel, The Salmon of Doubt, but he died before completing it.) Naturally with someone whose interests are so vast, we began our interview discussing obsessions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Divided Self in the Divided Country: Three portraits of Israel

Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben, in Life in Stills

We are pleased to welcome Barbara Shainbaum as a guest contributor to Critics at Large.

Themes of the divided self in the divided country, reflecting different sides of the Israeli psyche, surfaced in three thought-provoking documentaries shown at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

It was, actually, another Hot Docs film, All Divided Selves that set up the framework for me. Scottish filmmaker Luke Fowler’s experimental, fractured, but at times brilliant, archival collage examined Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing and his landmark book, The Divided Self, that theorized insanity could be understood as a reaction to a self that is split. Schizophrenia was viewed as a result of wrestling with two identities – one defined for us by our families, and the other, our true identity, as experienced by ourselves. When both aspects of the self clash, internal fracturing occurs, causing a divide. This phenomenon can also happen to countries and cultures, in this case, Israel, a country split by grappling with issues of identity and memory.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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

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

Monday, July 9, 2012

Playwrights of Promise: Lucy Boyle and Mike Bartlett

Heather Lind & Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep
In The Blue Deep, which just concluded a two-week run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Blythe Danner plays Grace, a recent widow whose daughter Lila (Heather Lind) comes for an unannounced visit to their country house in Sag Harbor after walking out on her boy friend in L.A. Grace, who runs an art gallery in Manhattan, is impatient with Lila’s tentative, waffling lifestyle – she hasn’t settled on a career – but the real conflict between them turns out to be over their responses to Lila’s father Bill’s cancer and eventual death. Throughout his illness Grace determined to remain upbeat, while Lila’s grief (in Grace’s opinion) paralyzed her and made her unhelpful, and now Lila insists on dwelling on her sadness rather than moving ahead. However, the truth is that the loss of her husband has so devastated Grace that she’s terrified to think about him; it’s a hole in the middle of her life that she keeps circling, pretending it isn’t there while she’s struggling to avoid being sucked into it. It’s the blue deep.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth to Stupid

Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom, on HBO

Contains minor spoilers for the first episode of The Newsroom.

Tonight the third episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new workplace drama, airs on HBO, and it pains me to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it. When the series – which is set in the anguished world of TV news production, and boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston – premiered two weeks ago, I tuned in with cautious optimism.

On the plus side, the pilot episode marked Sorkin’s return to series television after five long years, since the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired on NBC in 2007. On the negative side, well,  Studio 60: a series which, like The Newsroom, came with a great cast (in that case Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a promising premise, and great expectations. Sure, the show had intelligent characters, and the mile-a-minute dialogue that Sorkin so brilliantly employed in his two previous critically-acclaimed shows Sports Night and The West Wing, but Studio 60 quickly became bogged down by Sorkin’s own ambitions. By mid-season, the show’s big ideas about America’s so-called “culture wars” began to dwarf the characters and story, and more often than not its speeches felt like Aaron Sorkin debating Aaron Sorkin: staged political dialogues, voiced by Hollywood actors. It was smart, funny, and looked and sounded great, but it grew progressively more tiresome, until I began to look forward to its inevitable cancellation.

But in the years since Studio 60’s cancellation, Sorkin has more than proven he’s still got chops, with three Academy Award-nominated screenplays for Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010) and Moneyball (2011), winning the Oscar for The Social Network.  Hence my tempered expectations for The Newsroom. Unfortunately, my ambivalence was more than validated by the first two (of ten) episodes. In the end, The Newsroom seems to be a kind of beautiful mess – but a mess nonetheless.