Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best of CAL 2016

Back in January 2010, when David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and I came up with the idea of Critics At Large, we envisioned a daily online arts journal that would provide us the freedom to write – a freedom we were beginning to lose in magazines and newspapers. Growing rapidly tired of working in a field where desperate careerism and craven expedience was being rewarded, we wanted to remain true to the pleasures of critical writing. We also wanted to discover who our readers might be. Over the last seven years, many things changed in both our writing and in our audience. For one thing, Critics At Large grew to be less a haven for frustrated writers and more a home for a diverse and hopeful group who saw us as a possibility. We began attracting a motley crew from various backgrounds who helped change the magazine for the better. A number of men and women, young and old, experienced and not, came to shape our identity as a journal rather than take on the identity we originally gave it. Along that path, we attracted veteran arts critics who wanted to continue to address the work that inspired them, but we also drew inexperienced voices trying to find out the true value of having one to speak with. When I read individual pieces each day, I marvel at the sheer range of material and the keen passion each writer brings to their subject. As for our readers, they have not only been rapidly growing, but the diversity of opinion in the magazine has helped us reach out to a much wider readership.What became most important for me, as one of its co-founders, was watching Critics At Large grow beyond my own expectations into a continually morphing organism that embraces the freedom our writers bring to it. For those who believe that criticism is not about everyone having the right opinion, but instead a means by which the writer and reader mutually discover their own personal relationship to a work, I think we are succeeding in getting there. As a way to celebrate that goal, and I suppose to demonstrate it, here is a look back at some of my own favourite pieces from the past year. Rather than commenting on the writer and their work, I've selected specific quotes that I think best reflects their value to me as critics. As I continue on as both writer and reader, I can truly say that I'm proud to call them colleagues.

Kevin Courrier
Critics At Large


"The way [Jessica] Lange plays Mary, you can never predict when she’s going to salt in the character’s anger and bitterness. I thought I knew this role by heart, but she gives it an entirely new set of accents...She makes a throwaway line like 'I wanted to say something. What was it? I’ve forgotten' a small, tragic defeat, an acknowledgement of all the things that have slipped away from her, all the things she’s lost. Her explanation to Cathleen that the prescription she sent her to fetch at the drugstore is 'a special kind of medicine' she needs for her hands because nothing else takes away the pain has a wondrous, fairy-story tone, as if she were feeling her way through a dark, misty wood. When Edmund, returning home, gets exasperated over her having entrusted gossipy, tactless Cathleen with this mission because all the neighborhood will know about it and she responds, going on the offensive, by implicitly blaming him for her addiction, she resembles an ancient Fury floating toward him on the air. Kent stages some of Lange’s most poignant moments, like her speech about her inability to pray anymore to the Virgin Mary, on a bench downstage left. They’re like great close-up moments in a movie, and at these times the lyrical quality of her presence harks all the way back to Lillian Gish in the D.W. Griffith and Victor Sj√∂strom silent that really set the bar for great camera acting, and set it for all time."

"There is none of the charged (and necessary) kinetic energy that an actor like Jackie Chan (The Legend of Drunken Master, 1984) or a filmmaker like Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) would have brought to the table, leaving Hou to impress with his, no doubt, realistic depiction of the (so called) actions unfolding but lulling the viewer with inert set pieces in the process. (There’s practically no need to bring up the Japanese master of martial arts epics, the late great Akira Kurosawa or his Seven Samurai: The Assassin doesn’t begin to evoke that indelible 1954 masterpiece). Hou does generally spare the audience his often overlong takes but his decision to shoot most of the martial arts scenes in long shots also reduces them, for the most part, to ineffectiveness. The other action sequences are all in excessive close ups, which also doesn’t help. His decision to begin the film in black and white before switching to colour and filming mostly in full frame, except in one scene where a close up of a flower blossoms to a wide screen, may have a point (the black and white starkness of Nie’s options, the life choices that don’t allow her to blossom herself) but they’re still distracting, cinematic parlour tricks that add nothing germane to the story. And while it might have seemed a good idea to make Nie, a Hamlet-like killer prone to indecisiveness, as plot fodder for a martial arts movie it can’t help but render most of the film stillborn."

"To me, the new album will probably garner similar comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s unforgettable disc, What’s Going On (1971). But the difference is that while Gaye was expressing his anger and astonishment with an often brutally changing America, Kiwanuka is completely self-centered in his observations. The first five songs, which are slow grooves, have a natural intensity balanced by light string arrangements and plenty of Hammond B3 organ to soften the mix. The opening track 'Cold Little Heart' is just over ten minutes long, and it takes a few musical liberties, but the music shifts in tone and texture so much that the risk is worth it...Although he may not be specifically referring to the current state of his world’s social dysfunction, he feels it and we feel it too. The most overtly striking song to discuss the problem of race is 'Black Man in a White World' with its deceptive simplicity of rhyme and reason. We are no less affected by the persistent handclaps and the repeated line “I’m a black man in a white world” with its penetrating chant. It’s the most explicit song about identity as you’ll ever hear and was the bold first single released last spring. A video of the song offers some impressions that seem to capture Kiwanuka’s inner turmoil as he sings, 'I’m in love, but I’m still sad, I’ve found peace but I’m not glad, all my nights and all my days, I’ve been trying the wrong way.' In the end we’re not really sure what that 'wrong way' is for the young singer."

"It’s gentle, sentimental and sweet. Director David Lowery tells a simple, genuine story with a careful hand, never tipping the film’s sweetness too far into the saccharine, and taking time to pause, to linger, and to drink in the majesty of the Pacific Northwest – and of the magical things that may live there. The cast is full of likeable characters, from Bryce Dallas Howard’s park ranger, Grace, to Karl Urban’s “villain,” Gavin (who is less an actual villain and more a good person making rash decisions that he believes are for the best). Fegley is remarkable as Pete, feeling less like a true feral child and more like a sweet boy who wants to be more than that. But the most likeable character by far is Elliot, who absolutely steals the show. I was skeptical about the blend of CGI and live action when he first appears, driving away a pack of wolves from the frightened and lonely Pete, but the moment Pete reaches out to touch him and his soft green fur ripples outward in a brightly joyful emerald hue, I fell in love. Elliot is Falkor-like, canine; snuffling around and chasing his tail, capering like a goof and running in his sleep, vocalizing in howls and growls that perfectly represent any household dog. His face is hugely expressive (and beautifully designed, with wonderful detail and an underbite that dials down his scary factor considerably). He’s an amazing cinematic creation, who – once I got over his first appearance – I never stopped believing was real."

"Inspired by a Blaxploitation-era comic book hero (Luke Cage first appeared on the pages of Marvel Comics in 1972), Luke Cage picks up on the noir tone of Jessica Jones and – its bass-driven theme music and retro title-card notwithstanding – hearkens less to the 70s than to the 20s. (As the story built itself up in the early episodes, I was most often reminded of Dashiell Hammett and Red Harvest, where a lone wild card – the unnamed Operative who narrates the novel – inexorably turns the status quo of a corrupt town on its head.) That said, with its almost exclusively non-white cast and a Harlem setting that is effectively a character itself, Luke Cage is powerfully set in our own era. The story quickly lays out a field of insiders and outsiders, those who know Harlem and those who don't. The streets binds even the worst enemies together in deep, cultural and generational ways. Even as the gangsterland intrigue ramps up between Cottonmouth and his gun- and drug-dealing rivals, characterization never takes a backseat (especially in its depiction of the tortured relationship between Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah, played powerfully by Emmy-winner Woodard, whose political life lies in tension with her complex relationship with her family's long criminal history in the neighbourhood). By the middle of the season, Luke Cage was already among the most entertaining and compelling hours of television I've seen in a long while."

"This time around, Saye has tended to portray Romeo as a romantic absorbed in the book of poems held in hand at the start of act one and a dreamer given to staring off into space, doubtless wondering at Cupid's winged flight. His Romeo is not a street fighter like his friends, Benvolio (Dylan Tedaldi) or Mercutio (Jack Bertinshaw); he lacks their brio and randy sexuality. More of an innocent, he reluctantly picks up a sword to fight back at Tybalt (McGee Maddox) in the second act and is slayed with remorse after issuing the fatal blow. Whether by design or an inhibiting case of nerves (entirely understandable given the circumstances), Saye's low key Romeo was nevertheless not without his charms. He had youth on his side, along with a chargeable nature that made him compelling to watch. As in the Shakespeare original, Romeo is a young man given to bouts of melancholy. Juliet is the light (the sun that rises in the east) dispelling his darkness. Saye intuitively captures his character's life-affirming transformation, guided by his effortlessly radiant partner. When Saye's Romeo and Meiss' Juliet first clap eyes on each other in the first act ballroom scene they instantly recognize in one another their missing half. The encounter is played out through a locking of eyes, hands, limbs and lips. Their touching is electric, tingling members of the audience and fuelling the bedroom pas de deux that follows with jolts of passion." 

7) Phil Dyess-Nugent: The Man Who Talked Too Much: Gary Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show (March 30/16)

"If you’ve seen or even heard about the show, you know that the real Sharon Stone and the real Roseanne made time in their then-busy schedules to help sell these little moments of TV comedy gold. The Larry Sanders Show’s satirical veracity – the mechanics of both how a TV talk show looks and feels and what goes into its making feel startlingly right and informed – extended to the casting of actual celebrities to play themselves, often in scenes that go way past 'good-natured ribbing.' The comic fearlessness of the regular cast and writing staff compelled actors ranging from Burt Reynolds (who, in the midst of his own tabloid divorce to Loni Anderson, turned up on the show as a version of himself who was eager to guest host because he needed the money so badly) and Ryan O’Neal to Lori Loughlin and David Duchovny to dig deep and give performances that matched the level of the material...Larry Sanders stays funny because its real subjects are the eternals: the deranging effects of the desire for sex and fame and money and power, and the humbling effects of failure and embarrassment and disappointment and public shame. Shandling didn’t invent the idea of a comedy that would rip the lid off the TV talk show, any more than he invented the idea of celebrity cameos...One of Larry Sanders’s great strengths came from Shandling’s wisdom in adding another eternal theme to Larry’s character: the desire to be good and do good, to become exceptional. Unlike Buffalo Bill and Jackie Thomas, Larry Sanders never feels condescending, because it allows Larry and his fellow neurotics to flirt with higher motives than they’re usually capable of realizing."

"When Edna O’Brien published her debut novel The Country Girls in 1960, a coming-of-age novel, it was banned and reviled in Ireland because of its frank portrayal of female sexuality and a woman’s struggle for self-determination in the face of social legal constrictions. Since that time O’Brien has written novels, plays, short stories and a memoir that have expanded and deepened these themes. In 1994 she added a political dimension in House of Splendid Isolation, wherein she explored the mindset of an escaped IRA self-confessed murderer and plumbed his humanity beneath the crimes he had committed. Most recently, the grande dame of Irish literature at the age of eighty five has just published her twenty-fourth book and most ambitious, The Little Red Chairs (Little, Brown and Company, 2015) and found little humanity in a mass murderer, responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing. (Even before the text begins, O'Brien informs us that the title refers to the 11,541 empty red chairs set out in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serb forces in the early 1990s. Six hundred and forty-three of the smaller chairs in the sombre tableau were dedicated to children killed at the time.) Even though her settings are in rural Ireland and London with a brief, hair-raising foray into The Hague, Red Chairs has a global reach as countless numbers from the streams of refugees – the unending diaspora fueled by war, fundamentalism and hatred – make appearances not through impersonal media coverage but as fully fleshed human beings who are given distinct individual voices through the artistry and sensitivity of O’Brien. As a result, she has written a reimagined exploration of alternative history and a harrowing, extraordinary novel."

9) Danny McMurrayReanimating a Beloved Corpse: Burr Steers' Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (April 14/16)

"[I]f the Pride and Prejudice parody is neither Pride and Prejudice nor a wholly successful parody, what exactly is it? Maybe it would have saved itself if it had, at least, been a standout action film. The fight scenes are decently choreographed and entertaining enough when they take place during some of Austen’s most recognizable dialogue, but the film’s PG-13 rating is too safe and reins the film’s gore and violence in a little too tightly for the action angle to take centre stage. The end result is three disparate parts that are adequate without being strong enough to stand on their own, ultimately contributing to a muddled and unremarkable whole. The original story has no time to breathe; the action has no momentum and is hampered by the wet blanket of a half-hearted romance. It’s amusing in the way a high school improv team can be amusing, but in the end nothing really gels. The strange resultant sludge that is this movie’s plot is worth wading through for the performances of the supporting cast, however. Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) plays a Lady Catherine de Bourgh transformed from the stuffy, condescending aristocrat we know and hate to an eye-patch wearing, legendary samurai warrior. Strangely, this Catherine de Bourgh, holding a severed head and screaming into the night, winds up being somehow less intimidating than the original Austen character, in the most welcome way possible. Appropriately enamoured with Headey’s very cool Lady Catherine is Matt Smith’s Parson Collins. Smith, known for his acclaimed turn as The Doctor on BBC’s Doctor Who from 2010-2013, turns what is arguably the most unpleasant, insufferable character in literary canon into one of the best parts of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He plays for comedy here and he succeeds; Collins is awkward, clueless, and weird without being overly creepy. You don’t quite want him to marry any of the Bennet sisters but you don’t totally want him to leave the screen either."

10) Micheal Lueger: 90s Redux: The People V. O.J. Simpson (February 27/16)

"The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story follows the familiar story of Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, his trial, and his ultimate exoneration, but it does so in a way that’s admirable for examining how the affair devolved into such a circus, instead of adopting the same exploitative tone that characterized so much of the proceedings. The opening scenes of the series place it in the context of the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots that tore apart portions of Los Angeles, and throughout the episodes that have aired so far, Alexander and Karaszewski show how race and memories of police brutality remained a constant factor, first as an unspoken element of Simpson’s arrest and then as a crucial aspect of the defense’s strategy. Unfortunately, when the show touches on the media-circus aspect of the trial, it sometimes stumbles. The most egregious example has to do with the Kardashian children; it makes sense that they’d appear in the series, since Simpson’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian plays a central role in the narrative, but at times it feels like we’re being beaten over the head with the idea that the Simpson trial spawned the vapid celebrity culture epitomized by his daughters and son. Connie Britton’s minor role as Faye Resnick, a member of Nicole Brown Simpson’s social circle who cashed in on the murder by quickly publishing an untrustworthy and salacious tell-all memoir about her, also doesn’t quite work for me. Britton’s a great actress, and she’s enjoyable in the role, but tonally it feels like she’s in another series, a sort of pitch-black high comedy that’s at odds with the more grounded feel of the rest of the show."

11) Devin McKinney: The Wrong Kind of Easy: Eight Days a Week (September 24/16)

"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."

"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. This physicality alone is not only arresting but also mesmerizing, since it provides a confrontation with the spirit of the face which parallels what in the aesthetics of landscape is called genius loci, the spirit of place. In ancient Roman mythology this term also denoted a protective spirit holding the attributes of a place in a numinous way, suggesting a magical power residing in that location. That’s also what a great portrait is and does. I was instantly struck by the haunting similarities between these Meyers and the enigmatic fresco faces preserved by ash after the volcanic eruptions at Pompeii in the year 79 CE. At first seemingly equally expressionless, like the Meyer portraits they harbour secret layers of feeling beneath apparently sedate surfaces, and like them, Meyer’s weathered layers suggest a process of preservation and excavation."

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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