Friday, September 30, 2016

Escape Artist: Paul Rudd and The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring on Netflix.

With his compact frame, large head, and pliable facial features, Paul Rudd has endeared himself almost to every audience since his priceless work in Clueless (1994) and before. Even in pictures that fail to live up to their reputation, he finds a way to rise above. In the Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007), which pushes an interesting idea too far, Rudd steals the show with his portrayal of Seth Rogan's brother-in-law to be. Now he's heading into movie star territory, after his pitch-perfect performance in the under-appreciated Ant-Man from last year. While Rudd's range has yet to be tested, his relaxation, timing, and emotional intelligence make him irrepressible.

In the Netflix movie The Fundamentals of Caring (from earlier this year), Rudd escapes disaster yet again—barely. Rob Burnett's adaptation of the Jonathan Evison novel is a heaping dose of corn served on a platter of schmaltz. As Ben Benjamin, a caregiver to a young man with muscular dystrophy, Rudd is the only thing in the picture that holds your interest. And he alone among the actors emerges unscathed. That he does save his neck is a wonder, given the film's near-shameless sentimentality. We meet Benjamin at the movie's outset as he finishes a social work course and lands an interview with Elsa (Jennifer Ehle), the mother of the aforementioned boy. Trevor (Craig Roberts), her teenage son, is wheelchair-bound and in need of a daytime provider while his mom's at work. Despite Elsa's anal-retentive qualities and Trevor's scare tactics, Ben successfully pleads for the job—he's an unemployed writer who's wife's filing for divorce after a two-year separation.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elevator to Nowhere: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.

It seems to me that the cute SF conceit of a social experiment gone wrong, the “ship in a bottle utopia,” is so overdone – in literature, in film, in gaming – that there simply can’t be anything more to be said with the concept. It was surely a novel idea in 1975, when J.G. Ballard’s book High-Rise took the dystopian threads of Orwell and Huxley and wove a modern genesis for those scenarios, a ground zero for the horrific futures to come. But by the time filmmaker Ben Wheatley was able to scrape together a film adaptation of the novel in 2016, the concept had become so passé as to feel empty and trite. Wheatley’s film is beautifully hypnotic and strange, but can’t escape a feeling of hollow meaninglessness – which is a shame, considering how otherwise adept the movie is.

High-Rise stars an impeccably cast Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, who is among the first to move into a futuristic apartment complex (well, futuristic for the late 1970s setting, anyway) that provides all sorts of luxury amenities and services like an in-house supermarket, swimming pools, gyms, a bank, a hair salon, and more. These cutting-edge features attract hundreds of affluent tenants who slowly become disinterested in the outside world thanks to their building meeting every possible need they could imagine. Of course, all it takes are some intermittent power outages and a rapidly-evolving social hierarchy that equates elevation with status – the higher up your apartment is, the more important you are – to shake the foundation of this happy little enclosed society, until it all tumbles down around them, literally and figuratively. If it sounds like you’ve heard this sort of story before, that’s because no matter what you’re interested in, you surely have – which is in large part the issue with High-Rise. It has almost nothing new or interesting to say. There’s precious little to chew on here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Excavations: Harding Meyer's Archaeology of the Face

Untitled (08-2015) by Harding Meyer. (Oil on Canvas, 89 x 109 cm, 2015)

"I’ve never stopped questioning the very nature of portraiture because it deals exclusively with appearances. I’ve never believed people are what they look like and I think it’s impossible to really know what people are.”
Duane Michaels
Art that stares back at you. How often does that happen? Well, two of the greatest portraits in history, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Warhol’s Marilyn, have been staring at us for five hundred and eleven years and fifty-four years respectively, though each in drastically different ways was able to capture the essence of a woman’s face, as well as the potential meanings hidden behind that face. And now Harding Meyer’s latest mysterious portraits on linen (collected under the title Archaeology of the Face at Toronto's Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery last fall) invite us to once again revisit the facial theatre and view the human masks we all wear in a new and fresh manner. Perhaps an ideal example of his accomplishment might be Untitled (#8-2015), which at almost 6-by-8 feet in scale seems to present us with a face that almost approaches the dimensions of a whole body. A face nearly the size of the body that usually supports it is an intriguing proposition, one that invites a unique kind of aesthetic contemplation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Crime and Punishment: In Conversation with Alison Armstrong

Alison J. Armstrong is a Canadian documentary filmmaker whose most recent work, The Guy With The Knife, rips open a 35-year old Texas murder case, an alleged gay bashing gone wrong, to expose a flawed justice system and an unlikely friendship involving the 17-year old accused of the crime and the seasoned con man whose manipulation of the media secured the teen's harsh 45-year prison sentence. A masterstroke of investigative filmmaking, her riveting film also presents a real-life story of redemption, forgiveness and vindictiveness filmed over eight years. The complexity of the characters, the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, and the close examination of crime and punishment puts the film in league with Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky whose own work is shaped by a fascination for the paradoxical relationship between good and evil. Guided by a search for truth, it is a remarkable achievement. The Guy With The Knife screened recently at the Toronto Independent Film Festival before a sold-out crowd with Armstrong, a CBC freelance radio producer, in attendance. The film is screening tonight at a special event in Houston, and, at the end of October, it will be screened in Berlin. Curiosity about the film has been building since its debut last year in Texas, where all the events, past and present, unfold and the majority of protagonists still live. Armstrong's startling revelation that Jon Buice, the accused in question, may himself have been a victim, locked away for decades on the basis of mass hysteria and falsified evidence, has since prompted a decisive reexamination of his case and drawn an admission by the Texas LGBTQ community that it had been wrong in labelling what he did a hate crime. Gay activists have since fought hard for Buice's release, one of the ironies uncovered by a film that has gone on to reap many awards for best documentary at film festivals across the U.S. In an interview that took place following the September 12 screening in Toronto, Armstrong said her film should also resonate with Canadians. The theme of fairness in judicial proceedings is universal. "For Canadians I hope the film is a cautionary tale about what can happen when the justice system becomes politicized to the extent it is in the United States. Canadian judges, remember, are not elected. They are appointed. There's always the potential for interference." Here's more of that conversation:

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Art of Making Art: Sunday in the Park with George

The cast of Sunday in the Park with George at Boston's Huntington Theatre. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

Continuing its mission to produce the full canon of Stephen Sondheim musicals, Boston’s Huntington Theatre has opened its 2016-2017 season with a solid revival of Sunday in the Park with George – both musically and in terms of stagecraft one of his most demanding pieces. Sunday in the Park, which has a book by James Lapine – who directed the 1984 Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters – is an imaginative account of how the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (Americanized as George in the musical) created his masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. It’s been widely identified as Sondheim’s most personal work – not just a treatise on making art but also a defense of the kind of art that can appear dispassionate and theoretical, by musical theatre’s most famously precise and cooled-out practitioner. In Seurat, whose pointillist approach to painting was condemned by critics and by his fellow artists as cold and pseudo-scientific, Sondheim found the ideal medium for arguing that art that seems to displace emotion can in fact subsume it, and that a man who puts his art ahead of romance and family is not necessarily cold and unfeeling. Dot, George’s model and mistress, leaves him because she feels unattended to, frozen out. She’s carrying his baby, and he’s content to let her new lover, Louis the baker, raise the child as his own. She comes to his studio to ask for a painting he did of her as a souvenir, and to try one more time to get him to convey some feeling for her before she and Louis emigrate to America, where he’s secured a job as a pastry chef for a rich couple. George disappoints her on both counts; he pushes her away, claiming he has to work. “Hide behind your painting,” she exclaims. “I have come to tell you I am leaving because I thought you might care to know – foolish of me, because you care about nothing.” “I care about many things,” he protests. “Things – not people,” she objects. “People, too,” he insists. “I cannot divide my feelings up as neatly as you, and I am not hiding behind my canvas – I am living in it.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dead On: Speechless and The Good Place

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place on NBC.

With many of the new network shows yet to air their first episodes, the 2016 fall television is still young, but comedy has already scored two solid wins: NBC's The Good Place and ABC's Speechless.

The Good Place (NBC) is a fantasy/comedy that stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Eleanor Shellstrop, a perfectly terrible person who, after suffering a premature (and markedly humiliating) death, wakes up in an afterlife deemed to reflect a life lived in self-sacrifice and moral loftiness. As Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers, Damages), the region's designer and current administrator, tells her, only very few human beings ever earn such an agreeable eternity – with the remainder ending up in "the bad place." (Of the bad place, we learn tantalizingly little, except that that's where every artist, all American presidents except Abraham Lincoln, and a shocking disproportion of deceased professional basketball players end up.) For the rest of eternity, Eleanor will live in this posh, upper middle class hereafter, along with 300+ of the world's most morally impeccable individuals. But it quickly becomes apparent that, in this "good place," things aren't quite that simple. For one, Eleanor is clearly there by mistake: some sort of clerical error seems to have swapped her selfish, decidedly unaltruistic life for that of self-sacrificing death-row lawyer. Together with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the bookish philosophy professor picked as her "soulmate," as her unwilling accomplice, Eleanor has to figure out how to keep herself from being discovered or risk being resettled to the "other" place.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Wrong Kind of Easy: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

A scene from The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.

Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is a documentary covering the Beatles’ life as a live band from 1963 to 1966, with interludes on their studio work, and everything about it is easy. Why shouldn’t it be? The Beatles were nothing if not easy – “easy,” as Bob Dylan put it in Chronicles, “to accept.” But there are different kinds of ease. Dylan wrote that the Beatles “offered intimacy and companionship like no other group,” with the implied knowledge that intimacy is one of the scariest things in life, for it contains everything that is possible in human relationships. Intimacy is sometimes looking the other in the face in complete silence and not knowing. Intimacy is risking enough so that, if you lose the other, you might lose yourself. The Beatles’ ease was never the ease of knowing that every landing would be soft, or every revelation safe; theirs was the ease of surrendering, gladly and freely, a part of yourself that you’d never get back. To surrender to something as powerful and lovely as the Beatles, and as laden with promises of sadness and death – that was the intimacy they offered, the terrifying intimacy of lovers.

Though it’s full of screaming and it talks about pressure, Eight Days a Week is the wrong kind of easy. It’s as comfortable as going through high school yearbooks. It is soft, smooth, and shallow – the essence of nostalgia and of anodyne. I want so much more than this movie is giving. But the paradox is that its ease makes it difficult, at least while sitting, as I did, in a packed suburban theater with an adoring audience made mostly of white baby boomers – many of whom, surely, were in the Beatles’ concert audiences as kids – to know what that “so much more” might involve. Because what it does give is clearly useful and heartfelt. What should a film about the Beatles’ touring incarnation, from the arrogant innocence of ’63 to the seared disgust of ‘66, amount to, what should it give? Something you feel only in its absence. Something deeper than this, scarier; some vision taking in both the blissful scream and the bottomless hunger, the vertiginous height and grinding depth of Beatlemania. Something capturing and elaborating glimpses that were caught in previous documentaries: The Beatles Anthology, The Brian Epstein Story, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Something that sniffs out mystery and alienation, that doesn’t seek only a smile, a nod, a surge of warmth, a safe landing. Something not merely familiar, but intimate; something uncanny.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (1987)

A scene from High School (1968), directed by Frederick Wiseman.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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.

When I sat down with d
ocumentary filmmaker director Frederick Wiseman in 1987, he had already directly two dozen films, including Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Meat (1976). and Blind (1987). Since that time, he has released twenty more, including High School II (1994), La danse (2010), National Gallery (2014), and most recently In Jackson Heights (2015).

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Frederick Wiseman as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pop Up: In Conversation with Peter Tunney

DON'T PANIC by Peter Tunney, at NKPR's IT House x Producers Ball lounge at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

During the recent iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival, celebrated mixed-media artist Peter Tunney was out on the street, flinging pasta at a canvas and making sure it would stick. His inspiration was a box of Barilla orecchiette pasta that he had found on the shelf of the Casa Barilla kitchen on the lower level of IT House x Producers Ball, a five-day experiential destination for media and talent during TIFF. Tunney, who left a lucrative career on Wall Street to create inspirational collages sold through his New York and Miami galleries, had taken up a residency at the pop-up and was busy creating one-off works of art celebrating life as an act of spontaneity. “Life is the stuff of art,” Tunney declared as he worked outdoors on Peter Street, turning heads. “It’s got an enormous amount of energy pulsing through it every day, and I am honoring the moment. I am showing gratitude.” When Tunney says thanks he says it loud. His GRATTITUDE billboards, looming large over New York City where he lives, have an extra T on purpose. “It’s a turbo-charged gratitude,” as he is fond of saying. A double jolt of optimism. As an approach to both life and art making you can’t really fault it. A negative world needs positivity and Tunney, 55, is more than happy to provide it as he explained in the conversation which follows:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Poet: Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree

I have to be in the right mood to listen to Nick Cave. When I’m not, I lose my focus and my attention span turns to mush –  and to appreciate his music requires your full attention. But when my mood is right, listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds is highly rewarding. The band’s new album, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd), recorded during the time Cave’s son Arthur fell off a cliff in July 2015, is mournful and enlightening at the same time. (Skeleton Tree is Nick Cave’s 16th studio release.) Cave turns 59 tomorrow and he seems to be going through life with a degree of cautious optimism on this record rather than wallowing in a swamp of emotion. He’s not trying to deny his feelings of sadness and despair, either.

What we experience on Skeleton Tree is Cave’s deep pain mixed with peaceful introspection. On the eight songs that make up the album, Cave is openly exploring his values with lyrics that are eloquent, honest and passionate. The record sounds more like an arranged a series of poems set to music than to a conventional collection of songs. He often uses metaphor and references only a skilled fan of his work would recognize. Admittedly I’m not that well versed in his work to cross-reference his lyrics to past exploits, but I was struck by Cave’s free expression on Skeleton Tree, much like the openness Joni Mitchell put on display on Blue (Reprise) back in 1971. As she told Cameron Crowe in the July 26, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Cave is similarly revealing his doubts about faith, God and his place in the universe in a “defenseless” manner.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Movies For Adults: A Bigger Splash, Dheepan, Maggie’s Plan, Indignation and Hell or High Water

A scene from A Bigger Splash.

The division between films made for adults and those directed at teenagers and young adults seems to be a perpetual reality in cinema today, but it’s even more apparent in the summer when the tent pole superhero movies, sequels and remakes dominate movie screens. Now, I actually go to some of those films, and I quite liked Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, typical of the consistently well-made and smart Marvel Comics adaptations – though admittedly their formulas are becoming tiresome. (Not enough real chances are taken with the characters, unlike in the comics’ source material and the generic long fight scene where our heroes end up bruised but not beaten is becoming cliché. But since A-List talents like Robert Downey Jr., James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender, among others, essay those roles, and since skilled directors like Kenneth Branagh often take on those projects, the films do make a dramatic impact.) But I also have to admit that most people over 50, such as the bulk of the students who take my film courses, have no interest in costumed caped crusaders and the like. They prefer films rife with adult situations, firmly grounded in reality and, ideally, not too sentimental in the end. Here then, are five films made just for their demographic, of varying quality, most of which say something about how we live now. (I could include here Whit Stillman’s period film Love & Friendship, which is based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. It’s certainly dialogue driven but it’s also as arid as Stilman’s other movies (Metropolitan, Barcelona) and saddled with uniformly dull, superficial performances, most notably by the film’s titular star Kate Beckinsale, lamely essaying a scheming, duplicitous widow in late 18th century England.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Marines in Overdrive: Queens for a Year

Jamie Rezanour and Sarah Nicole Deaver in Queens for a Year at Connecticut's Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Queens for a Year, the ironic title of T.D. Mitchell’s new play at Hartford Stage, is a pejorative Marine Corps term for female Marines serving their year-long overseas tour: the idea is that because women are so rare in the service, they get special treatment. The play, set in 2007 and inspired by the case in that year of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, who was murdered by a male Marine she accused of raping her, reveals the true situation. At one point PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) – whose mentor, 2nd Lieutenant Molly Salinas (Vanessa R. Butler), has taken her home to her family to remove them both from the officer Lewis has made a complaint against – explains that all female Marines are relegated by the men in the Corps to one of three categories. Any woman who “fraternizes” willingly or is forced to have sex is a slut; if she refuses and manages somehow to stand her ground, she’s either a dyke or a bitch. If she’s raped and files a complaint, then the brass consider her a problem and look around for reasons to disregard it: her sexual history, her record of using alcohol, the impreciseness of her narrative. (Lewis’ word is doubted because she lost her virginity at fourteen and because she didn’t notice whether the penis that was being shoved down her throat was circumcised or not.) Female officers are no more likely than male ones to stand in her corner: the captain (Jamie Rezanour) Salinas consults for advice warns her to keep her distance from Lewis because associating with her is sure to undermine Molly’s chances for promotion.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Financial Dystopia: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

Novelist Lionel Shriver. (Photo: Andrew Crowley)

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all...”
– Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles
Lionel Shriver has churned out a number of novels that explore the zeitgeist by offering sharp satires. Inspired by the example of her older brother, she wrote about obesity in Big Brother (HarperCollins, 2013) and of the fear of falling sick in America before the Affordable Care Act came into effect in So Much for That (HarperCollins, 2010). She may be most known for her response to the Columbine high school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail, 2003), which explores the psychology of the mother of the perpetrator, an international best seller that was adapted as a film. Her most recent entry, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (HarperCollins, 2016) taps into economic insecurities and to the precariousness of the global markets likely inspired by the 2008 near-financial disaster. In a February piece in the New York Times, Shriver described herself as a libertarian, socially progressive and economically conservative. Her targets are big governments that infringe upon individual liberties through a punitive tax code, the welfare state and government surveillance – and yet she would be on the left end of the Democratic Party on every conceivable social issue. Her conservatism is much more on display in The Mandibles.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Different Perspective: Pamela Adlon's Better Things

Pamela Adlon in Better Things on FX.

Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s new comedy on FX, does an excellent job of summing itself up in its opening scene. Adlon’s character Sam is sitting on a bench, looking at her phone while her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward) stands sobbing next to her. After a little while, Sam looks up and catches the disapproving stare of the elderly woman on the other end of the bench and confronts her, explaining that Duke is crying because Sam won’t buy her a cheap trinket and inviting the older woman to go ahead and buy it for her if she’s so concerned about the little girl. It’s hard not to read that opening scene in terms of star Adlon’s role on Louie, another sort-of comedy on FX in which she frequently appeared as comedian Louis C.K.’s on-again-off-again romantic interest (Louis C.K.’s also heavily involved as a producer on this show, so it seems fair to compare the two programs). In that show, we saw her primarily through the fictionalized Louie’s eyes (both shows feature comedians playing somewhat autobiographical versions of themselves) and at times her character threatened to become a twenty-first century version of the maddening temptress, the woman whom the main character desired but could never really possess. Louie was ultimately much smarter than that, but it’s still refreshing to see Adlon introduce a slightly different version of her character and show us life from her perspective. As the woman on the bench learns, there’s a lot more to Sam than the sardonic, seemingly uncaring front that she presents to the world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

States of Mind: Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs

Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs.

Joachim Trier's previous movie, Oslo, August 31st, offered the devastating depiction of one day in the life of a heroin addict, Anders, as he journeyed from rehab to relapse over the course of twenty-four hours. Along the way, the Norwegian director folded the audience into Anders' conscious experience – his mental states and feelings – in uncanny fashion. Moods of depression and alienation drenched the picture as Anders encountered various persons from his past in disconnected moments. The director displayed a mesmeric ability to create conscious experience through visual, aural, and linguistic means. In one scene, Anders sits alone in a cafe filled with patrons. As Trier slowly zooms in on the man, he begins listening in on the conversations of his neighbors, their chatter coming in and out of our hearing like station frequencies on a radio. He looks through the window at young professionals passing by in all their seeming success, and we sense his resigned envy. His own troubled consciousness imprisons him even as it affords him imaginative empathy with others. But Trier follows each of these people, and we see flashes of the rest of their day and the sadness and alienation that assails them, too. No one is happy. At the end, as Anders lies in oblivion, a montage of the places he visited that day appear, empty now. A similar montage shows up at the end of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but there the image of each place held the memory of romantic magic. Here, only that of emptiness, futility, human vapor.

Louder Than Bombs, which opened last spring in the U.S., finds Trier exploring the realms of phenomenology, depression, and alienation even more deeply. And it reveals a greater mastery of surrealism, point of view, and narrative construction on his part. The film, penned by Trier and his recurring co-writer, Eskil Vogt, concerns the Reed family: Gene (Gabriel Byrne), the father, and his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a professor of sociology, married, and a new father. Conrad still lives at home, finishing high school. Their wife and mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photojournalist, died in a car wreck three years earlier. Now, we find the men at their family home outside New York, still groping their way through the emotional aftermath. That process grows weightier when they learn that Isabelle's colleague, Richard (David Strathairn, ever welcome), plans to publish a lengthy retrospective on her in The New York Times. And, more consequentially, that he intends to reveal that, rather than accidentally driving into an oncoming semi, Isabelle actually killed herself. Other than Richard, only Gene and Jonah know the truth of the matter – they've kept Conrad in the dark. And when Gene learns what's coming, he wrestles with how to tell his younger son, even as Jonah insists on keeping the teenager innocent of it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

If You Must Blink, Do It Now: Kubo and the Two Strings

The publicity for Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t hook me because my eyes deceived me; I saw the trailer and thought the strangely-stylized CGI visuals looked janky and oddly angular, and said no thanks. It wasn’t until the film came out and I heard that it had been made by LAIKA, purveyors of stop-motion magic like Coraline and Paranorman, that I suddenly became interested. That wasn’t odd-looking CG I had seen, it was beautiful stop-motion animation! I was amazed at how starkly different my reaction was to the film’s look once I was processing it through the correct lens – to say nothing of how amazed I was by the craft and power of the final product.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Distilled Life: Art of the Recent Future by Malcolm Rains

Lyttos by Malcolm Rains. (Oil on linen, 2016)

“Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary /
some in the right direction / practice resurrection.”
– Wendell Berry 
It’s not only that Malcolm Rains is a master of many styles and that each one looks the way a spoken dialect in language sounds: he is in fact a master stylist, period. Each of his motifs belongs to a broad and deep painting territory which he traverses and revisits the same way we can return to Rome or Athens to follow our own footsteps and yet still feel it’s a first time encounter. There’s something hauntingly familiar, gently reassuring and yet utterly otherworldly in the way this artist can explore major subjects over a long term career trajectory.

One such subject is a domain he has confidently commanded for over a decade, the kind of crisp representation I can only call objective portraiture. Whether it’s the way fruit occupies space on a table, or the way light is refracted from a glowing metallic surface of pure colour, or the way creased paper can assume the awesome stature of a mountain, one recursive element remains shared by them all: optical splendour and its transmission.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Processed Food: Animated Comedy Sausage Party

Sausage Party features the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill.

When the trailer for Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s computer animated comedy Sausage Party was accidentally played before a screening of Disney/Pixar’s family-friendly fish film, Finding Dory, the gaff reportedly “made star [Seth Rogen’s] day.” Truthfully, it made mine too. It’s easy to see how Sausage Party’s cartoony hot dogs, grinning veggies, and bright-eyed baked goods could be mistaken for the heroes of a children’s film if one wasn’t paying attention but, to be clear: this ballsy comedy written by a seven-man team that includes Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill is only fun for kids 18 and up.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Great Screen Matches: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray

Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in True Confession (1937).

Perhaps the most underappreciated of the great screen couples of the thirties, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray made four movies together at Paramount between 1935 and 1937. (They might have made more, but Lombard died in a plane crash in 1942.) Though her most famous performance is as an heiress in My Man Godfrey opposite that class act William Powell, in her pictures with MacMurray Lombard always plays working-class women, but she has a flickering moonbeam quality, while he’s generally a Yankee everyman. It’s easy to fall in love with her; everything about her is endearing, including her nuttiness. He has the gift of getting an audience solidly on his side, of making us identify with him. (That’s why MacMurray is so effective later on as the dupe in Double Indemnity.) They have a winning casualness when they’re together on screen.

I’d suggest several reasons for the fact that their partnership has been overlooked. MacMurray’s career flattened out when he took the role of the blandly wise, pipe-chomping pop in the TV sitcom My Three Sons in 1960 and stayed with it for a dozen years; by the time the show finally went off the air, his career was pretty much over, and with a couple of exceptions – Double Indemnity and The Apartment, both under Billy Wilder’s direction – no one recalled the movies he’d done before. And the four pictures he did with Lombard have never been ranked among the classics of their era. Moreover, they’re just different enough from each other – and the characters MacMurray and Lombard play in them are just varied enough – that their collaboration isn’t archetypal or easy to categorize.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Force and Gravity and Fire: Dale Chihuly In Conversation

A visitor enjoys Dale Chihuly's Persian Ceiling installation, at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo by

Allow contemporary American glass artist Dale Chihuly to shatter a few myths. The first is that glass, the medium which has made him world famous, collected by many of the world's top museums and coveted by an adoring public which can't get enough of his whimsical designs, is a dainty thing lacking in substance, shallow as a bowl. The second is that it's not art but a craft, useful more than innovative. But one at a time.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who turns 75 this month, Chihuly is used to intense scrutiny of work defying easy categorization. Ever since blowing his first glass bubble in 1965, he has built a career on elevating the centuries-old practice of studio glass blowing to the level of fine art. Produced in his Seattle studio by teams of artisans who execute his designs from drawings on paper – a 1976 car accident left him blind in one eye so what he lacks in depth perception he gains in ideas – Chihuly's grandiose glass installations are exhibited in galleries and enjoyed in public gardens where the sturdiest of his pieces easily withstand the elements. More than vessels, they are undulating sculptures whose wafer-thin transparency catch light and cast shadows, heightening the visual drama. You don't drink from them: you devour them, the eyes feasting on their rich and rarefied beauty. But their magnificence doesn't always win people over. Mention the name Chihuly and opinions are often divided.

A case in point is the Chihuly exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto that runs until January 2. Consisting of 11 massive and immersive installations, the eye-popping show is the brainchild of Diane Charbonneau, the curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art who organized Canada's first Chihuly exhibition in 2013. There, attendance was as strong as the reviews, the Montreal critics generally welcoming Chihuly's oversized glass extravaganzas with open arms. Toronto has so far proven to be a different story.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Notes on Gay Life - Looking: The Movie

The English writer-director Andrew Haigh stepped into the spotlight at the end of last year with 45 Years. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play Geoff and Kate, a couple on the cusp of their forty-fifth anniversary whose relationship is shaken by the discovery of the body of the woman he lived with before he became involved with Kate. She disappeared on a hike in the Swiss Alps; her corpse is revealed in a melting glacier, and the thought of her preserved after all these years as she was when he lost her – and, it turns out, pregnant with his baby – prompts Geoff to revisit the life he had before he met Kate and imposes distance between them. 45 Years, which Haigh adapted from David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” is like a classic film from the British New Wave era of the late fifties and sixties: thoughtful, literate, unconventional, understated and impeccably acted. (Rampling won most of the praise and the Oscar nomination, but good as she is, Courtenay is astonishing.)

In fact, 45 Years was an unusual project for Haigh, all of whose other works has been gay-themed. His previous movies were Greek Pete (2009), a documentary portrait of a rent boy, and Weekend (2011), about a footloose gay man (Tom Cullen) whose one-night stand with a stranger (Chris New) turns unexpectedly into a relationship. Weekend was my introduction to Haigh, and though it’s not up to 45 Years I was struck by some of the qualities that drew critics and filmgoers to the later picture, particularly its unblinkered approach to the subject matter, its unsentimental treatment of the characters, the intricacy of the detail and the intimacy of the acting. And Haigh wrote five and directed ten of the eighteen episodes of HBO’s half-hour TV series Looking, a buddy drama created by Michael Lannan about three gay friends living in present-day San Francisco: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer in his late twenties (and the show’s protagonist); Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), his college roommate and an aspiring photographer; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who’s about a decade older and is toiling in the restaurant business with the hopes of finally open his own place. Looking was one of the pleasant surprises of 2014, but it was short-lived: a second season failed to drum up enough viewers to encourage the network to pick it up for a third. (And season two was somewhat disappointing: as is often the case when a TV show with a borderline audience is renewed, Looking jacked up the soap opera element in an effort to make it more commercial.) HBO’s compensation to its fans for canceling the series was a TV movie, recently aired, that Haigh wrote and directed, and I think it’s just as good as 45 Years.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Director Fred Schepisi (1984)

Filmmaker Fred Schepisi.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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.

When I sat down with director Fred Schepisi in 1984, his film Iceman had just been released. In 1993, he would go on to direct Six Degrees of Separation (with Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Will Smith), based on John Guare's stage play. His most recent film was 2013's Words and Pictures, starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Fred Schepisi as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1984.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mind Control: Playdead’s INSIDE

Note: This review contains spoilers for INSIDE.
This review is for those who have played INSIDE to completion. If you haven’t, then the following paragraphs – in which I praise this awe-inspiring achievement in design, gameplay, and storytelling and discuss my ideas about what it all means – will make little sense, and will likely ruin for you a game that I’m already considering among my favourites of 2016, and possibly ever. Consider yourself duly warned. (And if you haven’t already, please pick up and play INSIDE at the earliest opportunity – it’s in 2D, it uses two buttons, it’s only about 6-total-hours long, and it only costs $25 across most platforms. No excuses.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Voice That Still Matters - Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic & Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway

A couple of week’s ago I had the pleasure and the ticket money, to hear and see Barbra Streisand’s concert in Toronto. It was the last of a nine-city “tour” called, Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic and the set list was a cross section of her 35 albums with stories about her life in show business. But I wasn’t there for some nostalgic trip down memory lane, I wanted to hear one of the great voices in music and I wasn’t disappointed. Streisand sang every note with passion and commitment. Her 10-piece band was mixed low as her voice filled the Air Canada Centre in front of a packed house: reaching the ceiling. Streisand is a woman with a very high standard of excellence who sets the bar high and maintains it. Witnessing a Barbra Streisand concert means that you enter her world, which is principally about music but also includes political commentary and a word about her foundation which supports many social justice causes and women’s health.

When it comes to the hits Streisand often tells the story of the time she went to see Charles Aznavour, the popular French singer, at a concert in the sixties, but she was disappointed when he didn’t perform her favourite song; a song she really wanted to hear. That changed her life as a performer because she recognized that many people would come to her concert expecting to hear their favourite Streisand track. Consequently, her recent show included five of her all-time hits, “Evergreen,” “People,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” and “The Way We Were,” which opened the concert. All the rest of the songs are her picks: eagerly accepted by an adoring audience. For this particular tour she had 35 albums from which to choose a set list. Has she ever cut a bad record? Let’s put it this way: some records are more successful than others but they all have her stamp of excellence even if the music isn’t always memorable.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Love, Death and Rock & Roll: Rich Cohen's The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

"Menace is most effective when its limits are not known. [Mick] Jagger's 'demonic' persona was not enhanced by the death at Altamont, as some people have supposed; it was destroyed. In the face of one man's real death, Jagger's 'demonic' posture was shown to be merely perverse."

- George Trow, "Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse." The New Yorker, May 29 and June 5, 1978.

In his 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, filmmaker Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) showed how the impudent rebellion of The Rolling Stones' music and their volatile stage performances in the Sixties, which inspired riots everywhere, came from the adolescent impulse to run the table. Unlike The Beatles, who were a still center in a swirling hurricane of love, The Rolling Stones sought out the high winds. They gleefully fanned the flames of discontent until the sweet kick of revolt became a turbulent act of mutiny. But once death greeted them with the passing of co-founder Brian Jones in 1969, and violence and murder answered them at the Altamont Speedway later that same year, the chickens finally came home to roost. From there, it was childhood's end. Their bad boy behavior quickly became a corporate brand of sanctified naughtiness. That branding not only insulated them from the tumult their concerts had created, but it would also rob their music in time of its pulsing vitality. Crossfire Hurricane, taken from the lyrics of their scorching masterpiece, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is in many ways a coming of age story about the taming of artistic danger.

There's also an urgent quest to peel open the riddle behind that artistic danger (and its taming) throughout author and journalist Rich Cohen's (Tough Jews, The Avengers) captivating new book, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (Spiegel & Grau, 2016), and it coils through the narrative like an electrical current seeking ground. Having been drawn to their music at ten, by an older brother who was exiled to the attic of their parents' home with his music, Cohen would ultimately become a writer and journalist covering The Stones as they toured in the Nineties (right at a time where their music was long passed the potency that once stirred him as an adolescent). Using the subject of time as a key metaphor to parse brilliance from longevity, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (a gift title from Keith Richards who realizes that The Stones have been a constant in this young writer's life) is made up of fan notes that are cured in a quick critical eye. Cohen fully understands how the distance his generation has had from The Stones' greatest moments is both a handicap and a blessing. "Time would always separate me from these guys, from this generation," he writes without a trace of bitterness for being born at the wrong time. "Above us, the baby boomers., who consumed every resource and every kind of fun. Below us, the millennials, the children of the baby boomers, who've remade the world into something virtual and cold. The boomers consumed their childhood, then, in a sense, consumed our childhoods, too. They overimbibed, lived to such excess there's nothing left for us but to tell the story." Cohen's story has the power to shrink time so that each song he invokes quickly regains its ability to shock and surprise.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Broadway to the Small Screen: Early TV Musicals

Keith Andes and Barbara Cook in Bloomer Girl (1956)

In the heyday of live TV (the fifties), weekly and monthly series regularly offered abridged versions of plays, and between 1954 and 1956 one show, Max Liebman Spectaculars (a.k.a. Max Liebman Presents), which aired every fourth Sunday evening, produced ninety-minute adaptations of Broadway musicals as well as variety showcases and a handful of original musicals. (Liebman was better known for producing the inspired Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca sketch comedy, Your Show of Shows, one of the high-water marks of early television.) Surprisingly NBC preserved these musicals on kinescope, and several have surfaced on DVDs from Video Artists International, which has added to its repertory a couple of the early Hallmark Hall of Fame musicals and one from Producer’s Showcase. The result is a treasure trove for musical-theatre aficionados like me – especially since some of these shows have never been picked up by Hollywood (Bloomer Girl, A Connecticut Yankee and Dearest Enemy) and others were seriously altered – plots rewritten, scores decimated – in the movie versions. One Touch of Venus, for instance, reached the big screen with only a handful of the delightful Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash tunes intact; the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta and the Oscar Strauss import The Chocolate Soldier were retooled as Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles. (You wouldn’t know from the movie of The Chocolate Soldier that it was originally a musicalization – OK, a bowdlerization – of Shaw’s satirical romantic comedy Arms and the Man.) There is a crummy movie musical called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court starring Bing Crosby, but the longer title, which replicates the name of the Mark Twain comic novel, alerts owl-eyed movie buffs that it isn’t based on the hit show by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, which was produced on Broadway in 1927 and revived in 1943, at the very end of their collaboration.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

( r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
– George W. Bush
In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Popular History: Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition

Author Nathaniel Philbrick.

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

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

Friday, September 2, 2016

Kicking and Screaming: The Lifeguard

Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard.

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

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Blind Spots: A Conversation About Don't Breathe

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

jc: Hi Danny!

dm: Hi Justin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

jc: … and didn’t quite hit the mark?