Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Damned Hurt: Albert Maltz’s The Journey Of Simon Mckeever

While writing about Henry Fonda a few years ago, I learned about a movie project he desired to make late in his life, but never did an adaptation of a novel called The Journey of Simon McKeever, written by Albert Maltz and published in 1949. I’d never heard of the book. But I got a copy, and read it. It haunted me for days, and I've wanted ever since to tell people about it.

Simon McKeever is seventy-three and lives meagerly in a Sacramento nursing home; his wife and child, both killed in an explosion, are long dead. Born in Ireland and raised in America, he has labored all his life, and now suffers from crippling arthritis. Yet he resolves to hitchhike, by himself, 400 miles of highway to find the doctor someone says will cure him. Simon is a sober, sensible man who accepts pain and even death, but not uselessness; he’s also a man of great complexity and sensitivity who is plagued by Kafkaesque nightmares in which he finds himself to be “a cockroach after all; not a man, a bug.” But above all, Simon is profoundly, rebelliously alive.

Anyone who has read about the McCarthy-era blacklist knows Albert Maltz’s name, even if they can’t quite remember his work. Born in Brooklyn in 1908, he was one of the Hollywood Ten – a group of screenwriters who, called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during its 1947 investigation of Communist influence in the movies, refused to answer questions, and were subsequently banned from the industry and jailed for contempt. Prior to the HUAC hearing, Maltz had been a playwright in the WPA-era Theater Union; an award-winning short story writer and respected novelist; and a screenwriter who, answering Hollywood’s siren call à la his compatriot Clifford Odets, chalked up some decent credits: This Gun for Hire (1942), Pride of the Marines (1945), Cloak and Dagger (1946), The Naked City (1948).

Friday, January 3, 2014

Hair Club: David O. Russell’s American Hustle

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in American Hustle

The very title of David O. Russell’s American Hustle (from a script credited to the director and Eric Warren Singer) announces a level of ambition that’s been missing from Russell’s movies since his out-of-control 2004 satire I Heart Huckabees. Loosely inspired by the Abscam investigations of the late 1970s, in which FBI agents worked with con men (including a bogus Arab sheik) to ensnare crooked Congressmen by offering them bribes, the new movie has some of the broad canvass and satirical edge of Russell’s masterpiece, the 1999 Iraq War movie Three Kings. But American Hustle’s driving force what makes it one of the most entertaining movies of the swaggering awards-bait season mostly come down to Russell’s skill with the actors and his enjoyment of putting them together and watching them cook, which is what made his comeback pictures The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook stand out. (It was also the best thing about I Heart Huckabees.)

Most of the principal players appeared in one of Russell’s two previous movies, and the performances have the confidence and experimental looseness of actors letting themselves go under the watchful eye of someone they’ve come to trust. Usually, that would be the set-up to describe how some actor has plumbed his inner depths and gone deeper into himself than he’d ever gone before, but Christian Bale who starved himself for both The Machinist and Rescue Dawn and practiced his glower in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, before winning an Oscar for his role as a junkie in The Fighterhas been needing to lighten up for a while, and Russell has gently managed to lead him out of the strobe-lit Method torture chamber inside his head and goad him into having fun onscreen again.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Folkie Flashback: The Music Scene On Screen And Off

Washington Square Park, New York City, 1960s

Mired in controversy worthy of a folk song that laments bruised feelings, raw memories and hard travelin’, Inside Llewyn Davis is intended to capture the spirit of the times 53 years ago in Greenwich Village. The titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) is based on the late musician Dave Van Ronk and performs his signature songs.The screenplay is loosely adapted from his posthumous 2005 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Although I have yet to catch up with the movie myself, I keep hearing that the character comes across as a talented but misanthropic loser.

Van Ronk’s first wife, Teri Thal, denounced the film in a recent Village Voice story. “I didn't expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s,” she wrote. “Llewyn Davis a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living. It's not a calling, as it was for David and for some others.”

Terri Thal and Dave Van Ronk
Thal concludes: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don't believe it. That schmuck couldn't make that music.”

Inside Llewyn Davis attempts to chronicle the days just before a guy newly-arrived from Minnesota changed the entire equation after cleverly tapping into the zeitgeist. Something was happening and you did know what it was, didn’t you, Mr. Dylan? Later, his lyrics for “Tangled Up in Blue” perfectly captured the Village life he found in early 1961: “There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Critics as Readers: The Best Critics at Large Pieces of 2013

This is the time of year when critics love to make lists of their favourite things from the year that's just passed. Even though Ten Best Lists often draw attention to work that might otherwise have been overlooked and undervalued, they still tend to categorize the work rather than bring out the qualities that made it so special. So Amanda Shubert and Kevin Courrier have decided to create a Ten Best List that focuses on reviews by some of the writers at Critics at Large this past year. These are pieces that we feel brought out the love of engagement a critic can have with their subject, and in writing about them we sought to express our own love of engaging with the work our colleagues produce.

But since there are more than ten writers working at
Critics at Large, we couldn't use everyone. That is not a reflection on the work of those who are missing. (Additionally, although founding editor David Churchill left us a couple of good pieces before his tragic and untimely death last April, we decided not to include him in our list because the site had already honoured him with an omnibus of our favourite pieces.) We simply wanted to focus on certain reviews that excited us, and to describe how they made us feel. These pieces are in no way listed in any particular order of preference, and are to be enjoyed with the same zeal as the critics themselves felt in writing them.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ten Plus Three: The Best of 2013

This past year in music was significant for many things, but who would have guessed that British acts of the 1960s would be vital 50 years later? Consider the following artists who all released new albums this year: Justin Hayward, Eric Burdon, Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, Roy Harper, Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and David Bowie. But with the old, we also heard from new artists including Arcade Fire, Serena Ryder, The Sheepdogs and Lady Gaga, all with varying degrees of success. The jazz world had plenty of new releases showcasing the healthy state of jazz and blues music. Classical music, albeit with the smallest portion of the pie, continued to milk the old favourites (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) and the anniversaries of Verdi, Britten and Wagner, all treated with healthy and hefty CD box set re-issues. 

But the year really marked the fallout of EMI’s end in 2012. This year Universal Music Group (artists) and Sony Music (publishing) added EMI’s massive back catalogue to their rosters, which reduced the corporate ownership ranks by one. Nevertheless, smaller labels such as Dine Alone, Yep Roc and New West still managed to maintain a business plan while issuing some pretty good records. The Canadian upstart label Arts & Crafts celebrated 10 years in the business, proving it is possible to have a successful label while maintaining artistic integrity. 

The following is a list of ten previously reviewed favourites, plus three additional releases that were too good to ignore.

Monday, December 30, 2013

“Acting” and Acting - August: Osage County & Philomena

In the first five minutes of August: Osage County, John Wells’s film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts family drama, Meryl Streep devours so much scenery that it’s a wonder there’s anything left but the foundation of the Oklahoma ranch house where Violet and Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) play out their bitter final encounter. Staggering down the stairs, her hair shorn and ragged – Violet, who has been treated for mouth cancer, has an ugly wig that she pulls off her head continually through the course of the picture – she moves from a blinking, befogged state caused by the pills she knocks down her gullet like Tic-Tac to sashaying raucousness to laughter bordering on hysteria. Her braying insults to her reflective, sweet-souled poet husband aren’t sly or compulsive with an undercurrent of ruefulness; nor are they uproarious but horrifying. That is, they aren’t complex in any way; Streep delivers them as if she were wielding a two by four. She may think that she’s channeling Bette Davis or maybe Tallulah Bankhead but she’s a lot closer to Joan Crawford here, with a touch of Claire Trevor as the alcoholic gangster’s moll in Key Largo. This is a disgraceful piece of acting, and it gets worse as the movie goes on: by the end she’s dancing by herself, yelling out the names of the family members who have finally abandoned her, weeping forlornly at the breast of the compassionate native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) who’s the only other person left on the place. Of course, Streep doesn’t need other actors around. She’d probably relish the chance to play all the roles herself.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Treasure Trove of Cultural Delights: Duane Allman's Skydog, Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Peter O'Toole, thirtysomething, Alan Moore's Watchmen

With so much available in any given year, and numerous movies, books, TV series and CDs not yet watched from years past, I am constantly striving to catch up with everything I want to watch, read or listen to. And then there are the newly released musts in any number of fields, and the classics that bear repeat visits. Here are a few of both that I enjoyed in 2013.