Saturday, January 9, 2016

Neglected Gem #87: Metallic Blues (2004)

Avi Kushnir in Metallic Blues (2004).

I first saw Metallic Blues (2004) a decade ago when it had its run on the festival circuit, and, though I recall enjoying it, I mainly remembered it for its thematic and structural overlap with Eytan Fox's Walk on Water. It was striking to see two very different films coming out of Israel's relatively small film industry in the same year, both set primarily in contemporary Germany, each dealing with questions of Holocaust memory (and trauma) through the lens of characters of a later generation and with scripts that shifted confidently between Hebrew, English, and German. The ideas prompted by this confluence of features was, and remain, intriguing – but side by side, Metallic Blues seemed the smaller, and therefore, less memorable of the two films. No doubt Fox's movie remains as powerful, but I expect time and distance have done Metallic Blues more favours.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Julie Walters (1983)

Julie Walters, with Kevin Courrier, in 1983. (Photo by Roger Cormier)

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.

One of those interviews was with actress Julie Walters. Walters was in Toronto promoting Educating Rita at The Festival of Festivals (now The Toronto International Film Festival) when we met to speak in her hotel room. Julie Walters, currently in theatres playing a supporting role in Brooklyn, has enjoyed a long acting career, beginning on television in the UK in the 70s. Educating Rita (1983) was her first feature film, and her turn as a young working-class woman (a role she'd originated on the London stage) brought her fame and accolades internationally. On screen, she acted opposite Michael Caine and they both won Golden Globes for their roles that year. (They were also nominated for, but did not win, Oscars for Best Actress and Best Actor Academy Awards for their roles.)

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Julie Walters as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.

Tom Fulton was the host and producer of On the Arts for CJRT-FM in Toronto for 23 years, beginning in 1975.
Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy 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. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Seriously Underdeveloped Bride: Sherlock’s New Year’s Special

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, "The Abominable Bride."

Six years ago today, on January 7, 2010, Kevin Courrier, David Churchill and Shlomo Schwartzberg launched Critics at Large with the aim of providing a place for new critical writing outside the narrowing constraints of the media industry. Since then, we have published a new piece of criticism every day (on films, books, television, theatre, dance, and popular and high culture of all genres), and have gathered a still-growing group of writers – both established and emerging – from across the continent. Over 2,200 posts later, Critics at Large continues to be committed to providing a space when a true diversity of voices can resound. It is particularly meaningful to mark the anniversary of the site with a piece by Danny McMurray on Sherlock. The BBC series was dear to David, who we lost to illness in the spring of 2013, and we at Critics at Large will read Danny's analysis with pride and with loving memories of David. 

Mark Clamen
Managing Editor,
Critics at Large

Kevin Courrier
Critics at Large

Note: This review contains spoilers for Sherlock's "The Abominable Bride".

Fans have waited almost two years since Sherlock, the BBC’s beloved modern-day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, closed out its 3rd season with the shocking return of Holmes’ nemesis, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott). To some frustration, the latest episode, titled “The Abominable Bride” and billed as a feature-length holiday special, does little to further the plot showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat left us with two Januarys ago. Instead, the holiday special takes the form of an “alternate reality” story that transports Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and partner Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) to the lush, gothic Victorian London from which their characters were born.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Neglected Gem #86: My Life on Ice (2002)

The French filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau have collaborated on a series of gay-themed movies; My Life on Ice was released after their charmingly offhand picaresque The Adventures of Félix (2000). It’s a freshly conceived coming-of-age movie about a Rouen teenager named Étienne (played by Jimmy Tavares), who skates competitively but whose latest obsession is making home movies with his video camera that chronicle his life. The French title is My vraie vie à Rouen (My True Life in Rouen); My Life on Ice isn’t much of an improvement, but it does suggest, rather clumsily, the idea that Étienne is in a fragile, on-the-brink state – that he’s being kept on ice until his real (adult) life begins. He uses his camera to record the transition, putting himself on it most of the time, though occasionally he focuses on his widowed mother, Caroline (Ariane Ascaride), who works at a bookstore, or his paternal grandmother (Hélène Surgère), who is eager to talk about his father (his mother is more reluctant), or his best friend Ludovic (Lucas Bonnifait), who has begun to experiment sexually, or his geography teacher, Laurent (Jonathan Zaccaï), who becomes Caroline’s lover. Étienne records his own daily life, and all the things that are important to him – like a visit to his father’s grave, which he professes is a meaningless excursion while the camera reveals what he isn’t willing to admit about his own emotions. Ducastel and Martineau manage to sustain the tentative, exploratory tone and unsophisticated visual style of the film. It has the feel of a student filmmaker’s continuing project, yet it never feels shoddy or clunky. The cinematographers, Mathieu Poirot-Delpech and Pierre Milton, fix it so the movie looks quite handsome but homemade. Ducastel and Martineau carry off the greater feat of allowing Étienne to tell his own present-tense story – without the benefit, say, of a distanced adult voice-over perspective (the usual solution) – that is, however, informed by their adult sensibility, their sense of what we need to know to understand this boy’s tale. The movie is a highly accomplished narrative trick.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Syfy’s The Expanse: Stumbling Boldly Into The Future

Steven Strait (as James Holden) on SyFy's The Expanse.

I went through the usual roller coaster ride of emotion when I heard that Syfy was adapting James SA Corey’s incredible sci-fi book series, The Expanse, into a television show. At first, I was elated: here was a chance to see Holden and Miller in the flesh, and to see the wonderfully rich and detailed near-future world of the novels come to life! Then, the doubt crept in: how could any TV series, no matter how well funded, possibly do it justice? The novels wove a rich tapestry of futurism and escapism, balancing complex themes of racism, authority, and even the nature of consciousness with a propulsive sense of adventure. I don’t care how big your budget is, that’s a feat that’s nearly impossible to replicate from the page to the screen. Then came the final reservation: I’ll watch it, knowing that it likely won’t be what I want it to be, but since that expectation is unreasonable, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt – and hopefully it will find ways to surprise me.

Surprise me, it did. As curators of science fiction programming, an all-too-rare commodity, Syfy’s quality record has been patchy at best: for every intelligent, worthwhile pilot, there are two ghost-hunting shows; for every Defiance, there’s a Fangasm. The Expanse, though, feels like an effort with some oomph behind it. It’s clear in every frame that the network wants it to succeed – and much more notably – wants it to be good. I’m not fully sold on all of the show’s elements, which we’ll get to, but off the bat I have to say that as a huge fan of the source material, I was very impressed.

Monday, January 4, 2016

King Charles III: Plain Verse

Tim Pigott-Smith as the Prince of Wales in King Charles III, at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. (Photo Sara Krulwich)

Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III begins in the not-too-distant future, after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is about to succeed to the throne. Bartlett’s notion is to present a story of royal intrigue, in the days following the longest reign of any monarch in English history, as a five-act verse play (in iambic pentameter and blank verse, of course), and it’s cleverly packed with allusions to Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. Charles ruminates in soliloquy on kingship, like Richard II and Henry IV; his last soliloquy, after his son William (Oliver Chris) and daughter-in-law Kate (Lydia Wilson) have manipulated him into abdicating in William’s favor, is inspired by Richard’s prison speech in the final act of Richard II. William is, naturally, in the position of Bolingbroke to Charles’ Richard, but he and Kate are also versions of the Macbeths, with scheming Kate urging her husband on in his reticent moments: “My nervous future King! . . . Become the man I know you are and act,” and later, “I lifted you, my one, / To where by right of birth you ought to be.” William’s kid brother Harry (Richard Goulding), who falls in love with a proletarian, Jess (Tafline Steen), is a debased version of Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, and his scenes, like the ones in Shakespeare that involve lower-class characters, are mostly in prose. The anti-monarchy protesters – including Jess – who pop up in force when Charles’ refusal to sign a bill creates an unresolvable tension between him and Parliament suggest the chaos in the streets after Caesar’s murder in Julius Caesar. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost with a not immediately apparent identity.

This is all fun, but the elements of parody don’t determine the tone of the play. And it isn’t really a satire either, though the first half seems to be tending that way. What it turns into after intermission is a political melodrama. Bartlett has some good narrative ideas, like depicting Charles as more liberal than either the prime minister, Mr. Evans (Adam James), or the leader of the opposition, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf): the bill he won’t support limits the power of the press, and Charles, though he doesn’t put it in exactly this way, finds it fascist. But as an examination of English politics and specifically the strange relationship between the royals and the government, King Charles III is intriguing but doesn’t go very deep.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Misfire: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin

Shu Qi in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin.

The Assassin, the latest film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is, bafflingly, one of the best reviewed foreign language films of 2015. (The British film magazine Sight & Sound ranked it as the best film of 2015, based on a poll of 168 critics from around the world.) Much of that praise, no doubt, comes from the consistently high (and sometimes deserved) esteem his films are held in – but even by those lights, his atypical martial arts epic, which comes out on DVD in North America on Jan. 26, is a failure, utterly undeserving of the fulsome raves it’s garnered from the critical establishment. Yes, it looks ravishing – courtesy of ace cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing (In the Mood for Love, 2000; Renoir, 2012) – and it is intelligently conceived, but it’s also a dull slog through a time and place Hou fails to do proper justice to.