Saturday, December 31, 2016

Movie Musical as Theory: La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has won several critics’ prizes and is sure to be an Academy Award contender, which is good news for those of us who love musicals since its success is likely to generate new ones. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm for the movie. It’s amiable and well-intentioned, it looks lovely (Linus Sandgren lit it, and the production design is by David Wasco), and God knows you can’t fault the two charming stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. For this L.A.-set romantic tale of Mia, an aspiring actress who goes to auditions when she’s not working as a barista, and Sebastian, an aspiring jazz musician who wants to open his own club, where he can play the music he loves. Chazelle spins off from what must be his favorite musicals: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and (in one number) Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. I adore those movies, too, but unlike them La La Land rarely leaves the ground. Chazelle, who is about to turn thirty-two, has made only two previous movies, and La La Land is an immense improvement over his last, the highly acclaimed Whiplash, which I found eminently phony from start to finish. (I didn’t buy either the college-age drummer hero, played by Miles Teller, who is so dedicated to his art that he doesn’t have time to get laid, or his sadistic teacher, played by Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons, who would have been fired years ago for his relentless abuse of his students. And I found the relationship between these two characters incomprehensible.) But La La Land just isn’t the real thing. It feels like someone’s doctoral dissertation on movie musicals.

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 5 Games of 2016: Finales & Friends

A look at FROM Software's Dark Souls III.

Once again, the biggest video game titles of the year have slipped me by. Among many others, I missed out on Final Fantasy XV, Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Hitman, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, and Gears of War 4. These games dominated industry commentary and global markets alike, much like Hollywood blockbuster sequels elbowing their way into the spotlight every summer – and like those blockbusters, they have grown more and more tedious in my eyes. In a market overstuffed with as much repetition as variety, I have to be ever more careful about where I spend my gaming dollar, and none of the titles I listed intrigued me enough to justify spending almost a hundred dollars (and who knows how many hours of my life) on any one of them. But that’s not to say that I didn’t play anything in 2016. Far from it. In fact – if only in terms of sheer quality – this might have been one of the best years for gaming in recent memory. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Games I played in 2016 (along with some honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut).

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Art of the Song 2016: The Year’s Best Singles

The members of A Tribe Called Red. (Photo: Falling Tree Photography)

Sometimes a single track can go a long way… to inform, entertain and genuinely change the way we think of ourselves. This past year’s political, environmental and social events were certainly magnified by a U.S. Presidential candidate who raced all the way to the bottom and won. But out of all that muck, these songs in particular cleared the haze and showed us some light. They graced us with humour and passion. They spoke truth to power and put the spotlight on the rich subtleties of life. We’re going to need a lot more of them in the years ahead.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Curve Ball: Paul Verhoeven's Elle

Isabelle Huppert and silent witness in Elle

In the opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by an assailant in a ski mask while her grey tabby cat quietly looks on. What Michèle feels about the violent assault, and how she will respond to it, are initially as mysterious to us as trying to read the thoughts of the feline who witnessed it. Afterwards, Michèle simply cleans up the mess and proceeds to have a hot bath, where, in the soap bubbles, she gathers the rising blood from her genitals into a miniature sculpture – and soon afterwards shares a contentious dinner with her son where they argue about the woman in his life. For those used to seeing genre films where rape, murder and betrayal get answered and explained in predicable ways, and can (in the worst pictures) even get exploited to heat up our blood lust, Elle goes completely against the grain. Rather than play to the most melodramatic kind of cause and effect – where sociology and dogmatism replace polymorphous sexuality and psychopathology – Verhoeven sets up a maze of possibilities to characterize a woman who doesn't get pinned down and defined by her circumstances. Not only will that approach upset those who have specific, narrow views of what constitutes rape victim response, but Elle doesn't even tell you if Michèle's behaviour grows out of the trauma of the assault. In fact, the more we get to know her, the more we see that any number of disturbing and bizarre moments have shaped her life. Elle builds its strength and its power by throwing curve balls at our expectations so that we have no choice but to take the character – and the movie – on its own terms rather than the terms we wish to impose on it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

One on One: Moonlight

Mahershala Ali (right) and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight.

I’ve never seen a coming-of-age movie quite like Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. It’s the story of an African-American kid from a poor neighborhood in Miami told in three parts, each one capturing the boy, Chiron, at a different age: nine, sixteen, twenty-six. (Given the three-act structure, it’s not surprising to find out that the source material is a play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.) In act one Chiron, known as Little and played by Alex Hibbert, lives with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who turns tricks for crack money. Tiny and delicate, Little is bullied by the other boys; the only one of his peers who shows him any kindness is Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him how to stand up for himself in a fight. Little is hiding from the other kids in an abandoned house sometimes used by junkies when Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, finds him and takes him home to his girl friend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) for a meal. Little is shy – and stubborn – to the point of non-communication; it isn’t until the next day that Juan and Teresa get him to tell them where he lives, and when Juan drives him home Paula isn’t grateful for his generosity, since he’s the man she buys rock from. Still, Little, who has no male role models and has to negotiate his mother’s substance-fueled moods, adopts Juan and Teresa as surrogate parents, and they’re tender and patient with him, riding out his silences and answering the questions he can’t ask anyone else. The other boys make fun of the way he walks and holds himself and call him a faggot; their merciless ragging has the effect of causing him to struggle with his sexuality before he’s old enough to even see himself in sexual terms. When he asks Juan and Teresa what a faggot is, Juan tells him it’s “a word used to make gay people feel bad,” and in the macho street culture of the neighborhood Juan’s instinctive egalitarianism and lack of bias, which come from his openheartedness, feel like a small miracle. He and Teresa are a gift to this brooding, complicated kid, who alternates between avoiding everyone’s gaze and seeking to make direct contact, his huge, demanding eyes fixed on Juan or Teresa or Paula or Kevin. Juan treats Little like a son, counseling him that he has to make up his own mind about who he’s going to be. He never lies to the boy; when Little finds out that he deals dope to his mother and confronts him about it, Juan doesn’t deny it, though for the first time you can see the shame in his face. Clearly he’s not the right paternal figure to get the kid through his troubled childhood, but he’s the only one Little’s got.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Oh What Fun? The Troubling Origins of “Jingle Bells” and the Problem of Christmas Entertainment

Few, if any, Christmas songs are as widely known and capable of eliciting such instantaneous recognition as “Jingle Bells.” The short, simple song conjures up images of an old-fashioned holiday, feeding nostalgia for a Currier & Ives version of the past full of universal and uncomplicated Christmas cheer.

The reality, however, is far different. Dr. Kyna Hamill of Boston University has recently made some surprising discoveries regarding “Jingle Bells” that challenge our cozy assumptions about its nature and origins. Hamill spoke with me as part of a regular podcast series, the Theatre History Podcast, on In our conversation, which you can listen to here, she explains that what began as a matter of local interest eventually turned into a much deeper research project, one with surprising conclusions.