Thursday, July 31, 2014

He's a Complicated Man: Black Dynamite

Reviewing the feature-length blaxploitaton spoof Black Dynamite in the New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote that the entire 84-minute movie would make a great five-minute YouTube clip. (In fact, the project had started with a suitable-for-YouTube trailer that the filmmakers whipped up before bothering to write a script for the feature.) Released in 2009, Black Dynamite stars the six-foot-two, 225-pound actor and martial artist Michael Jai White as the title character, a larger-than-life tough guy with a perpetual glower, an enormous gun, a moustache so large and flamboyant that it wouldn't look out of place on Captain Hook, and a healthy suspicion of The Man. (“When a cracker tells Black Dynamite not to do something, he does it, Jack!”) The movie was spun off into an animate series for Adult Swim, whose first season aired in 2012 and has finally been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. (A second season is forthcoming.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Setting the Record Straight: Interview with Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn

Author Mark Lewisohn (Photo by Michael Priest)

Mark Lewisohn has been fascinated by The Beatles ever since he was a pre-schooler in his native England, hearing for the first time their string of number ones on British radio. Hooked from the start, Lewisohn went on to become, and it’s no exaggeration, their number one fan. In 1979, the year before the senseless killing of John Lennon in New York, he started researching them professionally, going on to publish several books on them before coming to collaborate directly with them when researching The Beatles’ Anthology and, later on, liner notes for Paul McCartney’s solo projects. But his major opus is Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1), the first in a three part history which was published late last year, and to great critical acclaim. An unauthorized biography, and yet one written with the benefit of insider knowledge, Tune In revisits The Beatles’ story with an attention to detail that is staggering. Volume one starts with The Beatles’ ancestors in another century and ends on New Year’s Day 1963, just as The Beatles are on the cusp of world-wide fame. Ringo joins the band only on page 672, to give an idea of its scope. “It is my life’s work,” says Lewisohn, at 55 the world’s only full-time Beatles historian who expects to be well into his seventies when the whole of the project is finally completed, sometime in 2028. He is presently researching the second volume which will include 1964, the year The Beatles first came and conquered America, appearing in February of that seminal year on the Ed Sullivan Show before more than 73-million viewers, and in August, on screens around the world, with the release of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night. That was 50 years ago and 2014 is already awash with commemorative projects looking back on the impact The Beatles had – and continue to have – on popular culture. In February was the Grammy tribute which reunited the two remaining Beatles again in concert before a television audience. This summer, meanwhile, has been given over to re-screenings of Richard Lester’s now iconic black-and-white comedy, including the one taking in Toronto tomorrow night at the vintage Revue Cinema. Lewisohn, making his first Canadian appearance since the release of Tune In, will be in attendance, illuminating aspects of the film he knows so well, having already started researching it for his next book. Joining him for the pre and post Beatles’ talks will be Piers Hemmingsen, Canada’s foremost authority on all things relating to the Fabs. It happens that the two Beatles’ scholars are friends, and Lewisohn, after revisiting A Hard Day’s Night, will be off vacationing with Hemmingsen at a lakeside cottage. One can only imagine the campfire stories. But before heading off into the Canadian wilderness, Lewisohn kindly agreed to be interviewed for Critics at Large by Deirdre Kelly, a fellow Beatles fan. Here is some of their conversation:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hercules, Inc: Brett Ratner’s Hercules

The cinematic summer of 2014 continues to surprise me. I signed up to review a bushel of blockbuster chaff, expecting little more than the lowest-common-denominator dreck that usually fills theatres during these mid-year months. But so far, there’s been nothing but wheat: X-Men was great, Edge of Tomorrow became a sleeper hit, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t half as silly as its title. Even Hercules, directed by Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame), is a fun, if sometimes over-serious film. I’m almost tempted to say that it looks as though Hollywood is prioritizing visual, narrative, and emotional coherence in order to attract moviegoers! What a novel concept. Granted, I haven’t seen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet – I don’t want to speak too soon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Transcriptions: A Small Family Business, Venus in Fur, 700 Sundays

Nigel Lindsay (front) in A Small Family Business, at London's National Theatre (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The National Theatre is currently reviving Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play A Small Family Business, and the NT Live series enabled audiences to look at it worldwide last month. It’s a play about the dedication to greed and self-interest associated with the eighties, set among middle-class Londoners over the course of the week during which Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay) takes over his father-in-law’s furniture business, which employs a number of his relatives. Jack’s watchwords for the company’s new era are honesty and trust, but he finds out, bit by bit, that every one of his new business associates is corrupt in some way, and that the creed of compromise has spread in some way even to his wife (Debra Gillett) and daughters (Rebecca McKinnis and Alice Sykes). The revelations of corruption grow more outrageous as the play goes on, and finally – inevitably – Jack himself is swallowed up by it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpacking an Inherited Past: Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat

Director Arnon Goldfinger and Edda Milz von Mildenstein in The Flat

Memory is a tricky business, all the more so when the memories involve the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds of academic texts have struggled with the complicated dynamics of inherited memory, but Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat (Ha-dira, 2011) dramatizes the messiness of familial memory without pretense, building to a complex portrait of the said and the unsaid things that contribute to our family narratives. It is Goldfinger's second documentary feature – his first, the widely-acclaimed The Komediant released in 1999, documents a family of American Jewish vaudeville performers from the 1930s onwards. With The Flat, Goldfinger moves closer to home, in the most literal way. A cross-generational tale of history, mystery, and trauma (both personal and historical), The Flat never fails to hold the viewer's attention. It is a deceptively small story with world historical scope.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Sheer Delight: Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes

Of late, Eytan Fox, Israel’s finest filmmaker (Yossi & Jagger, 2002), Walk on Water, 2004), seems to be juggling light and heavy topics in his work. His tragic love story The Bubble (2006), chronicling a fraught romance between two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, was followed by Mary Lou (2009), his made- for-TV frothy musical/drama about a lovelorn drag queen. And Yossi (2012), his sad but hopeful sequel to Yossi & Jagger precedes his latest movie Cupcakes (2013), a bouncy and utterly joyous film about an amateur group of singers who set out to win an international song contest with a simple tune crafted when one of their group has her husband leave her.
That aspect of the story sounds depressing but Cupcakes is deliberately staying away from a downbeat theme, or for that matter, from the political end of things – Israel, even now during its war with Hamas, cannot be defined solely by politics – in favour of a positive message about staying true to yourself and following your dreams. If this were an American movie, you can imagine how sentimental and predictable it might have turned out to be. But Israeli cinema does not traffic in such obvious formulas and Cupcakes never strikes a false or corny note. No surprise there as Fox remains one of the most consistent movie-makers around.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Marking Time: Richard Linklater's Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's Boyhood

In the opening scene of Richard Linklater's audaciously conceived memoir, Boyhood, the camera captures the dreamy face of six-year-old Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), lying on the grass and staring up at the scattered clouds, as if they could carry him past the temporal plane of his early childhood. The rest of the picture is, of course, about carrying Mason Jr. (as well as the audience) past our more conventional notions of temporal time. In Boyhood, Richard Linklater traces the early life of a young boy into adolescence, and he accomplished this by periodically shooting the movie over a twelve-year period, thus allowing us to literally follow his life (along with that of his family and friends) from the time he is six until he is eighteen. Being no stranger to the emotional struggles of adolescence (Dazed and Confused), or determining what's permanent and what's fleeting in time's passing (The Before Trilogy, Tape), Linklater also tries to find imaginative ways to dramatically render what's cerebral (as he once demonstrated in Waking Life). The full body of his work indeed gets effortlessly diffused throughout the two hours and forty-six minutes of Boyhood. But for all its daring originality, where Linklater introduces into film narrative a radical new approach to dramatic naturalism, the actual drama of Boyhood gets largely swallowed up by its concept. Boyhood ends up marking time rather than uncorking the ephemera of life that time marks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Going Down Swinging: Remembering Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
The jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died July 11, was an easy artist to pigeonhole. It pleases me to believe that, because I unfairly pigeonholed him for years, admiring his playing but thinking of him as a sidekick to the great saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. When Haden was twenty-two, he played on Coleman’s third album, the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). Haden continued to play with Coleman on bandstands and on tour and on such albums as This Is Our Music (1960), Free Jazz (1961), Science Fiction (1971), In All Languages (1987), and the 1971 set of duets, Soapsuds, Soapsuds. He also came together with three other Coleman acolytes—Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, and Ed Blackwell—to form Old and New Dreams, a free-jazz super-group devoted to interpretations of the master’s early repertoire.

I discovered Coleman and Haden in my late teens, long after the revolution in sound that Coleman had begun in the 1950s had been won, or at least fought to a standstill. Moldy figs—a group that, in Coleman’s case, included such unlikely counter-revolutionaries as Miles Davis—no longer called the man a charlatan who was most likely insane, at least not out loud, where people could hear them. At the time, I didn’t know anything about jazz, old or new, and lacked easy access to the stuff. For myself and a lot of other people like me, who were into wild, abrasive rock, the electricity and crazy force of Coleman’s music, and the music of such disciples as the guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, provided the clearest gateway into the music. Both those guys would drop massive, album-length statements—in particular, Ulmer’s Odyssey (1983) and Jackson’s Red Warrior (1991)—that mesmerized listeners at the nexus point between rock and jazz like the Monolith from 2001. But neither demonstrated the range of interests and abilities that Haden displayed over the course of his career, until his shadow loomed almost as large as Coleman’s own. (Haden’s own connections to rock were also familial: he had four children, musicians all, including Petra and Rachel Haden of the great lost ‘90s indie band That Dog. Petra also recorded an awesomely weird “a cappella” version of the single greatest rock album of all time, The Who Sell Out.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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

Director David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton.

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

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

Fiddler on the Roof (Photo by Diane Sobolewski).

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Repercussions of Violence: Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage

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

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VIII

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Brain Freeze: Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer

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

Kevin Courrier,
Critics at Large.  

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #34: JG Ballard (1987)

author JG Ballard.

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 radically 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 who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

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) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply 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 uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. I'll let the readers judge their merit rather than marketing folks.

One chapter in the book dealt with biographical fiction and how during the Eighties many biographies that filled book shelves were confessional melodramas. But there were also a number of other artists I talked to who found more creative ways incorporating memoir by using it to further understand themselves rather than simply documenting their time. JG Ballard (Crash, The Unlimited Dream Factory), a British novelist, short-story writer and essayist was one such individual who sometimes wrote fiction to get inside aspects of his own life and experience. Born in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1930, Ballard wrote about the Japanese attack on the city in 1943 in his 1984 book, Empire of the Sun (which Steven Spielberg would turn into a film in 1987). During the Japanese occupation, Ballard lived in an internment camp with his family where he would also do his schooling. In the film, however, his family gets separated from him and the story recounts his survival without them.When Ballard came in to talk with me, he had just published The Day of Creation. In this book, a doctor with the World Health Organization in Central Africa discovers how a civil war deprives him of patients so he devotes himself instead to bringing water to the region which ultimately forms a dangerous obsession. Both books are about the effects of war on the individual and the trauma of loss, but finding truth in personal experience is where we started our conversation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Human Make Good Movie: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

2016: a virus (dubbed “simian flu”) is transferred from apes to people, and signals the collapse of human civilization. Now, ten years later, only isolated pockets of survivors remain to comb through the overgrown wreckage of San Francisco, fighting to stay warm, get someone on the radio, and turn the lights back on. To the latter end, a group led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) ventures across the Golden Gate into Muir Woods, where a hydro dam might still be salvageable for power, and where – unfortunately for all involved – a generation of hyper-intelligent apes has begun to form a society led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee whose marvelous mind was gifted to him in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The two fledgling cultures come to realize that their differences might be too profound to overcome, and the stage is set for monkeys to wield machine guns while riding bareback through pillars of flame. No, seriously.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Playwrights: Benefactors, A Great Wilderness, The Normal Heart, A Little Night Music

Walton Wilson, David Adkins, and Barbara Sims in Benefactors (Photo by Emily Faulkner)

Eric Hill’s compelling production of Benefactors at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn space in Stockbridge provides audiences with an opportunity to become acquainted with an intelligent, intriguing text by Michael Frayn that doesn’t receive many revivals. (It won the Olivier Award for best new play in 1984.) The play, set between 1968 and 1970, is a four-hander about the relationship between David (David Adkins), an architect with a commitment to providing housing for the poor, and his wife Jane (Corinna May) and their neighbors across the road, Colin (Walton Wilson), a journalist, and Sheila (Barbara Sims). David and Colin have known each other since university, and when they find themselves living in close proximity the two couples and their children are constantly in and out of each other’s houses. Colin is a difficult man with a contrary temperament and a tendency to belittle his wife; self-effacing, easily intimidated, and somewhat in awe of David and Jane, Sheila barely opens her mouth at first when the quartet gets together for dinner. But she begins to spend more and more time hanging out with Jane during the day, and eventually confides her fears that Colin is going to leave her. To help her develop a life of her own, Jane encourages David to hire Sheila as a secretary – to take over the work Jane herself has been doing for him – and the shift ushers in a new phase of their lives.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed: The Navigator of Gothic Landscapes

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most distinctive, award-winning authors and among its most prolific. She has published over fifty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction including a memoir. Although consistently innovative, her fiction roughly divides into the Gothic that began in 1980 with the publication of Bellefleur, and intense realism. Her most recent novels The Accursed (HarperCollins 2013) and Carthage (HarperCollins2014) are representative of these categories and illustrate the range of her creative writing. She began working on The Accursed in the 1980s, put it aside, and did not return to it until 2012. The following is a review of that novel while a subsequent entry will explore Carthage.

Just as in the preface of the first foreign language edition of Dracula (1901) Bram Stoker attests to the authenticity of the events, however improbable, described in the novel so The Accursed begins with an “author’s note” written purportedly in 1984 by an amateur historian, M.W. van Dyck II. Similarly, the structure of The Accursed – its letters, private journals, diaries, a sermon, and a patchwork of narratives delivered with their own unique voice – resembles that of Dracula; this is a feature that Oates likely intended because there are scattered allusions to her predecessor’s great Victorian novel, especially in two of the most vividly rendered chapters set in the Bog Kingdom, the dark netherworld of Princeton's privileged monde. Moreover, to reinforce the Gothic flavour, Oates suggests echoes of the beast people in The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells and the seductive Countess in the Bog Kingdom, whose namesake is the protagonist of Camilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Her debt to American Gothic is abundantly evident in how she reworks themes from the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For good measure, she sprinkles references to the spiritualist Madam Blavatsky.

Oates frames The Accursed using a manuscript with the same title written by the aging M.W. van Dyck who serves both as editor and writer of chapter commentaries. After dismissing previous professional works on the subject, van Dyck lists his qualifications for documenting the so-called Crosswicks Curse, which afflicted the college town of Princeton, N.J. in the years 1905 and 1906. He has a personal stake in the investigation: he was born in Princeton in 1906 to parents afflicted by the curse. Being a native Princetonian, a descendant of one of the town’s most august families, and a graduate of its university (where Oates still currently teaches), van Dyck claims that he is “privy to many materials unavailable to other historians.” Oates’ conceit is its greatest strength but readers, who are not devotees of the author, will require some stamina to complete this fascinating but daunting novel.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lightening Strikes Majestic: Colm Feore's King Lear

Colm Feore as King Lear, at the Stratford Festival.

Colm Feore as King Lear is a force of nature. True, there is artistry behind a performance that ranks among the best of the Canadian actor's career – and given that he has previously played such a variety of roles, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Iago, Oberon, Macbeth and Fagin during his 17 seasons on the Stratford Festival stage, this is no small statement. Other grand men of Canada's theatre scene have worn the mantle of Shakespeare’s flawed and elderly monarch at Stratford over the past decade, among them Brian Bedford and Christopher Plummer whose 2002 performance of Lear a few seasons back was a tour de force, forever etched in memory. But believe it, Feore’s is just as powerful, if not that much better. His Lear, at the Festival Theatre now through Oct. 10, is human-sized, petty but also delicately perfumed with pathos: a King the people can truly relate to.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hollywood Perils: Ray Donovan and The L.A. Complex

The following contains some spoilers.

It’s a mark of the laziness and myopia of most TV critics and the media that as with some movies, some of the best TV shows, particularly on cable, don’t get the ink and coverage they deserve. It’s as if certain shows are designated the ones that supposedly capture the zeitgeist of the moment and are worthy of consideration and thought and the other, often superior, shows are not acknowledged at all. Thus, True Detective, Mad Men, Fargo and, especially Orange is the New Black dominate the entertainment columns to the degree that you’d be hard pressed to think there were any other options to watch on TV. I can’t comment on Fargo as I wasn’t all that eager to check out a TV series based on a contemptuous movie I loathe, but I’ve seen the others. True Detective’s first season was a truly impressive achievement, graced with excellent acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (both deservedly recently nominated for Emmy awards) as cops chasing down a serial killer in rural Louisiana and a smart storyline, laden with fascinating, philosophical observations on life, love and death. But it was also too short (running a mere eight episodes) and, finally, a little too gothic, for my taste. (Kudos also to the HBO series for dispelling those backward Southern stereotypes so prevalent on American television.) The first season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (I have yet to watch season two), set in a minimum security women’s prison, boasted good performances and a different, fresh look at racial and sexual issues behind bars, minus most of the violence which would likely have been the raison d'être of a show set in a maximum security jail. But it was also singularly uneven, burdened with much one dimensional characterization and ponderous dialogue, courtesy of creator Jenji Kohan, who mucked up the promising Weeds a few years back in a similar crass fashion. And I long ago gave up on AMC’s Mad Men, which after its first season revealed itself to be a show with very little on its mind, despite pretensions to the contrary.

Those shows you’ve no doubt read about. But where are the articles on FX’s The Americans, the savvy, original look at Russian sleeper agents hiding out in the U.S. during Reagan’s presidency? Its first two seasons were gripping, unpredictable and very compelling. And then there’s The Bridge, beginning its second season on FX. It was a scary, disturbing look at the many murdered women of Juarez, Mexico and the complicated relationship between two cops, American Sonya Cross (Inglourious Basterds’s Diane Kruger) and Mexican Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) working together to solve a gruesome murder. It may have been a tad too ambitious – I can’t say all its many story threads, which also included the smuggling of Mexicans into the U.S., the realities of the drug trade crossing the border of the two countries, and the endemic corruption in the Mexican police force, completely held together – but it was something new in terms of subject matter and beautifully directed and written, besides. I was very taken with Kruger’s performance as an Asperger's affected cop, a conceit which rings false on paper but is played perfectly by her on the small screen and Bachir’s performance as one of the few honest Mexican cops resonates, too. (James Poniewozik did praise the above two shows in TIME magazine, which does seem to try to cover everything on TV, for their proper use of subtitles, thus adding another layer of authenticity to the proceedings.) And, finally, perhaps the best of the recent cable dramas, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, with Liev Schreiber in the title role, excelling a as a shady Hollywood fixer whose complex, fractured family life is rocked even further when his hated father (Jon Voight), just released from prison, comes back into his life. As a portrait of the excesses of Hollywood, the damage done to the kids abused by priests and of a troubled man, Ray, trying to hold it all together, the series, which begins its second season on July 13, stands out in any number of ways. Yet it, like The Americans and The Bridge, got relatively little of the attention it should have gotten from the press.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When These Dead Reboot: Deliver Us From Evil & Afterlife With Archie

Eric Bana in Deliver Us From Evil

Has there ever been a good horror movie about demonic possession? A few years ago, there was a reasonably clever little sleeper called The Last Exorcism, in the “found footage” style of The Blair Witch Project. In addition to some impressively athletic callisthenics on the part of the possession victim (played by Ashley Bell), it had a decent comic idea at its core: a fake exorcist (Patrick Fabian) who’s grown sick of exploiting the superstitious fears of gullible rubes agrees to take part in a Marjoe-type documentary exposé (shot by the filmmakers whose footage we’re watching) and stumbles into the real thing. Mostly, though, demonic-possession movies take their cues from The Exorcist and use viewers’ own fearful, unresolved feelings about religion and God and the devil to touch easy nerves while congratulating themselves on their fake seriousness.

The new Deliver Us from Evil was directed by Scott Derrickson, whose previous credits include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is very likely the most despicable of all the “inspired by true events” movies. Emily Rose is based on the actual story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died of malnutrition and dehydration while being “cared for” by her parents and a pair of Catholic priests, who interpreted the behavior caused by her temporal lobe epilepsy as signs that she was possessed. Derrickson’s movie treats the priests as heroes who understood that there are things that science cannot explain, and as martyrs to the legal system. (In real life, the priests and Michel’s parents were convicted of negligent manslaughter and given suspended sentences instead of jail time, which is bad enough.)

Deliver Us from Evil is a genre hybrid, a tough-and-gritty New York police drama about a cop—Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana—who encounters supernatural forces in the course of his work and, with the help of a maverick priest (Edgar Ramirez), ends up conducting an exorcism in the interrogation room at his station house, driving demons out of a man who’s been stalking him and his family. There really is a Ralph Sarchie, a 16-year member of the NYPD who, after his retirement from the police department and our reality, co-authored a book about his investigations into the paranormal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Secret is Out: Nancy Walker's Til Now Is Secret

Nancy Walker, Ted Quinlan, Kieran Overs, and Ethan Ardelli (Photo by: Greg King)

There’s always been a sense of mystery to music, which can come from secret places, when notes fall together to form a melody. For Canadian pianist and composer Nancy Walker, “a secret is hidden, mysterious, not fully understood.” Walker’s new release, ‘Til Now Is Secret [Addo Records] offers 10 distinctive tracks that offer a soundscape to our sense of mystery. It’s an album rich in colour and texture, and firmly grounded in the language of jazz, which in itself can be a bit unruly. But Walker’s music vocabulary is strong and varied enough to provide an emotional experience that never wallows. It’s music that celebrates itself while including the audience in that celebration. In other words it’s accessible without any commercial compromises.

On this first-rate recording, Walker [piano] is joined by Kieran Overs, Bass, Ethan Ardelli, drums, Ted Quinlan, guitar and Shirantha Beddage, reeds. It’s a great band, well-tuned and confident: ready to play new music. The album opens with the title track that, according to Walker, “is an anagram that reveals when it was written.” That clue offers up a mystery to its origins, but the music opens up even more ideas than location. It’s a marvelous piece that gently brings you into the album. I can’t tell you how many new artists hit you over the head with their opening track. They could learn a thing or two about the art of sequencing from Walker.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blast from the Past: 3 Modern Games Inspired by Retro Classics

A look at DrinkBox Studios' Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

I was fortunate to have been born during video gaming’s childhood. Had I been born during its infancy, in the mid 1970s, I likely would have been overstimulated before the pastime’s potential had truly revealed itself beyond mere mindless diversion.  Had I been born during its troubled adolescence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would have been denied the precious perspective afforded me by having grown up alongside gaming. My introduction to video games was the heady Wild West days of the early 90s, when developers were still finding their footing, but doing so on firm foundations of success. This is the period of gaming history everyone remembers, when gamers forswore the kinetic din of the arcade in favour of the convenience and intimacy of the home console, and it is to this tumultuous era that so many games now turn for inspiration.

Maybe it’s part of the retromania obsession that current pop culture is busy suffering through, full of Hollywood remakes and vintage typewriters. But maybe a decade of collective revisitation, revision and replication have taught us a few things about taking the old, and making it new again. Maybe now is gaming’s true golden age, when we have the tools to apply the wisdom of the past while avoiding its pitfalls in the present. Games like Guacamelee!, Shovel Knight, and Super Time Force certainly make a strong argument: all three are 2-dimensional platformers, drawing inspiration from a cornucopia of 90s material, and serving up classic gameplay with a modern twist. But is their reliance on nostalgia doing a disservice to players in the present?

Monday, July 7, 2014

June Moon, Jersey Boys, The Mystery of Irma Vep: Pop

Timothy Shew, Jason Bowen, Chris Fitzgerald, Nate Corddry, Rick Holmes in June Moon (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has opened its season with a buoyant revival of June Moon, the only collaboration between George S. Kaufman and sports columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner. It’s a comedy that, like Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, has an irresistible dolt at its center: Fred Stevens (an immensely likable performance by Nate Corddry), a rube from Schenectady who moves to the Big Apple to become a Tin Pan Alley lyric writer. Kaufman and Lardner based it on Lardner’s ingenious epistolary tale, “Some Like It Cold,” in which an aspiring songwriter keeps up a correspondence with a girl he met on the train en route to New York; what begins as a flirtation becomes more for the girl, who – under the guise of banter – thrusts herself forward as a candidate for marriage, while distance and the lure of a Manhattan vamp pull the boy farther and farther away from his pen pal. In its prologue June Moon dramatizes that parlor-car encounter between Fred, as he’s now called, and – also bound for New York – sweet, naïve Edna (“Eddie”) Baker (Rachel Napoleon, who suggests a cross between Lauren Graham and Michelle Lee: daffy but guileless). During the roughly two months’ time frame of the play, Fred and his songwriting partner, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), come up with a hit, “June Moon,” and Fred becomes the plaything of Eileen (Holley Fain), the sister of Paul’s wife Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), who’s on the rebound from the music publisher, Mr. Hart (Timothy Shew), and determined to spend as much of Fred’s money as she can get away with. The cheerful, rhythmic use of vernacular (Lardner’s specialty) and the playwrights’ satirical take on Tin Pan Alley mark the play as a hard-boiled comedy, but it’s a much gentler one than Once in a Lifetime – it’s entirely sympathetic to Fred, who wriggles like a butterfly caught in Eileen’s net, and to Edna, who we know has to wind up with him. Corddry gives the poor, struggling, flat-footed bastard a soul, but we’re primed to love him; we even like his fatuous love song. (Lardner wrote the music and lyrics for “June Moon” and the handful of other songs we hear in the course of the play.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Arab Springs Eternal: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Author G. Willow Wilson (Photo by Amber French)

"They're marching together," said Alif, half to himself. "All the disaffected scum at once. I probably know a lot of them."
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone--"
"They have to share the real world."
"In real life."

– G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

The classification of speculative fiction is self-consciously broad – including within it straight fantasy novels of the classic sort, hard and soft science fiction, alternate history, magical realism, and probably modes of storytelling still unimagined. And yet there is probably no book better suited for the label than G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (Grove Press, 2012). Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Woman's Prize for Fiction, both in 2013, the novel tells the story of Alif – a skilled young hacker of mixed Arab-Indian descent who is more at home online than on the streets of the unnamed Middle Eastern city of his birth. Our hero – his self-given name taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, which is nothing but "a straight line—a wall," he tells us – is young, naive in the way only someone who lives primarily that unseen realm of cloud servers and 1s and 0s can be, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere... but mainly nowhere. Alif's relatively safe world in front of his keyboard explodes into the streets and beyond when the love of his life – a beguiling woman of means and status who he could never, except in the anonymous world of chat rooms and aliases, be with – puts an ancient book in his hands. Dark forces from all realms – some very human, and some very much not – want the book and Alif goes on the run, compelled to peer into the city's shadowy mystical history and even shadowier political realities.

Set against the background of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen weaves Muslim theology, contemporary political realities, and the unmoored life of a computer coder into a compelling modern fable that transcends its geographic and religious content. Wilson – an American-born convert to Islam – successfully mobilizes her own singular background with a simple talent for storytelling to create a novel that effortlessly crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries. A delightful and often horrifying mixture of legend, religion, history, and politics – including a genuinely affecting love story – Alif the Unseen is the kind of book you will be recommending to friends even before you finish reading it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Law & Order: An Actor’s Paradise

Back in 1998, Susan Green and I wrote the only companion book on the popular legal drama Law & Order. Besides being in the rare and charmed position of having the show's creator, Dick Wolf, give us complete access to cast and crew, we were also allowed complete autonomy to write what we wanted. With that freedom in mind, we both opened up to the possibilities the book offered in terms of content. For instance, we thought why not have other voices besides ours. We quickly conceived a chapter which would include a number of other people who also had an intelligent and probing perspective on the program. After soliciting a number of people, we were thrilled to see that all of them agreed to take part. They included civil rights attorney William Kunstler, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and theatre and film critic Steve Vineberg. Unfortunately, our publishers didn't share our enthusiasm for broadening the scope of the book and all the pieces were turned down. Speaking with Steve Vineberg recently on the phone, however, he reminded me that he still had that piece he wrote, which was about how a number of great performers provided what he termed an actor's paradise on the show, and it was still unpublished. Since Steve now writes for Critics at Large, that terrific essay has now finally found the home it was once denied.

Kevin Courrier
Critics at Large.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Acting Naturally: An Interview with Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr (Photo by Kevin Winter)

Does the world’s greatest drummer really need an introduction? Not really. Who hasn’t heard of Ringo Starr? The one-time Beatle? The charismatic actor of A Hard Day’s Night and The Magic Christian? The Fab who right out of the gate, following the break-up of The Beatles at the end of the 1960s, defied all expectations by having, at least for a while, the best solo career of his fellow band mates? Despite a dark period marked by drug abuse, alcoholism, and artistic shiftlessness (while simultaneously being a decadent globe-trotting European playboy in the late 1970s through to the end of the 1980s), The Ringed One’s glory days are many, continuing even now, with the 25th anniversary tour of his All-Starr Band which kicked off at Casino Rama in Ontario on June 5. 

This time around, his group of ace musicians and former hit-paraders includes Todd Rundgren, Greg Rolie of Journey and Santana, Electric Light Orchestra drummer Gregg Bissonnette, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page. Ringo plays the skins, but he also sings, often standing solo in front of his band with a microphone in hand, his once awkward vocal performance (John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to write songs for him to suit his limited range) now polished through years of practice and professional coaching. An old dog who is more than capable of learning a new trick. Just how old is he? Well, next week, on July 7, Ringo turns (gulp!) 74. And yet as the millions who saw him on television this past February, performing as part of the Grammy’s 50th anniversary tribute show honouring the Beatles where he was accompanied by Sir Paul, the only other surviving Beatle, can attest, age has not withered Ringo Starr, neither his drive or appeal. Not only is he touring, performing in Dallas tonight, Vancouver on July 15, Los Angeles on July 19 and other dates in between, he is presently working on a new record which he is producing himself and planning to release in early 2015. 

He is also the subject of an exhibition of self-portraits which opened at New York’s Soho Contemporary Gallery on June 19, with additional exhibitions of his art work on display now at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago and the Ocean Gallery in Stone Harbor, N.J. There’s also an upcoming TV special, Ringo Starr: A Lifetime of Peace and Love, a tribute concert featuring performances by Joe Walsh, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Brendan Benson, Bettye LaVette, Peter Frampton, Kenny Aronoff and others that will air July 13 on AXS TV. Taped in January in Los Angeles, according to a report in USA Today, the concert launched the Ringo Starr Peace & Love Fund , a division of the David Lynch Foundation, “which provides Transcendental Meditation instruction to tens of thousands of at-risk students in underservedschools, women who are survivors of domestic violence, and veterans with post-traumatic stress.” How does he do it? What is the secret of his success? A good attitude for one thing, he tells Deirdre Kelly in a rare one-on-one interview. A belief in the power of love, for another. Speaking of which, for his birthday on July 7, Ringo is asking fans to pause at noon, local time, to share in a “peace and love” moment. He’ll be participating in one of those himself, in front of the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. The reason? “I really do believe in all you need is love.” Here’s more of that conversation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cradle of Lust: Baby Doll (1956)

Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956)

Last week, in my roundup of movies set in Mississippi, I left out one of my all-time favorites, the Elia Kazan-Tennessee Williams collaboration Baby Doll (1956). The oversight fell all the more stinging when, the day before my piece appeared, Eli Wallach died. Wallach, who was 98, appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows, in addition to his legendary stage career; a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he was probably best remembered by general moviegoers for having played Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But he made his screen debut in Baby Doll, as a Sicilian whose fiery temper and sense of justice are tempered by his suavity and sure knowledge that, in rural Mississippi, he is surrounded by people who will do business with him so long as it suits their purposes but who regard him as The Other. It may have been the biggest star performance Wallach ever gave in a movie; it was almost certainly the sexiest.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Borealis of Canadian Talent

James Gordon performing at Kitchener's Registry Theatre in 2010.

There’s a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, and (wait for it) a flock of seagulls! But what does one call a whole bunch of Canadian artists? Well, I’d like to make a pitch for a borealis! That’s right, a “borealis of Canadian musicians.” Why? Because the aurora borealis is the name for the Northern Lights, and Canada is…northern; and because Borealis Records is responsible for so many of the records released north of the 49th parallel! You shouldn’t really call what these people do ‘Americana’ but no-one seems to have affixed the ‘Canadiana’ tag to anything, so we’ll just call them ‘roots’ music and be done with it. But ‘roots’ could mean anything couldn’t it? I mean, we all have roots in something or another and so, too, do these releases. First up Linda McRae.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raucous Reich – Wolfenstein: The New Order

My colleague and fellow SF enthusiast Shlomo is an avid aficionado of alternate-history fiction, relishing stories in which significant historical events are given the “what if” treatment: what if Lincoln or Kennedy had survived their assassinations? What if Russia had been the first to land on the moon? What if the September 11th terrorist attacks had never happened? Perhaps the most well-known example is the enduringly fascinating question of “What if the Nazis had won World War II?”, which has been explored in countless books, films, graphic novels, and video games – notably in the last case through the classic first-person shooter (FPS) series called Wolfenstein. The latest incarnation, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is the most well-equipped of the series to tackle this intriguing premise, and does so with intensity, humour, polish, and no small amount of teeth (though I’m not sure it would be up Shlomo’s strasse, so to speak – I expect his review of the game would be altogether different).