Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tectonic: The Quantum Paintings of Curtis Cutshaw

Stream by Curtis Cutshaw. (Oil Enamel, Earth and Rust on Multiple Birch Panels, 2016)

“We are gazing at the solemn geography of human limits.”  Paul Eluard

There is an undeniable elegiac quality to the elegant and enigmatic paintings of Curtis Cutshaw, a Calgary-based artist whose work over the last fifteen years has followed a deep and discernible trajectory exploring an organic interior dimension which is at once compelling for the heart and captivating for the eye. When he first began being represented by the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery in 2000, he was already investigating a hidden realm of seed-like forms and spore-like structures, through an almost mystical presentation of their patterns and formations. These early works seemed to hover in a shadowy neon domain, a powerfully theatrical stage set within which curtains of pure matter were being pulled aside to spectacularly reveal their atomic identities, often with the optical drama of scientific slides, providing us a glimpse of what takes place inside matter itself: they appeared to portray the secret life of energy. Even back then he was clearly establishing himself as a master of both physical depiction and metaphysical reflection, and as a purveyor of quantum paintings par excellence.

Monday, February 27, 2017

All the Criticism That's Fit to Print: Revisiting The Rolling Stone Record Review and The Rolling Stone Record Review II

Led Zeppelin (courtesy of Getty Images).

In March 1969, writer John Mendelsohn was given the assignment for Rolling Stone to review the debut album of Led Zeppelin, a high-octane blues-rock outfit that had just emerged out of the ashes of The Yardbirds – a popular British Invasion band with a string of hits behind them including "Heart Full of Soul" and "For Your Love." Although there were no great expectations that this new ensemble would make history, Mendelsohn's words came to suggest that they might just become history. Chalking up their sound to formula, Mendelsohn remarked that Zeppelin "offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn't say as well or better..." Robert Plant's "howled vocals" were described as "prissy" on their cover of Joan Baez's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," and Mendelsohn went on to add that "[Plant] may be as foppish as Rod Stewart, but he's nowhere near so exciting." Jimmy Page gets complimented as an "extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist," but he's also singled out as "a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs." Criticizing them as wasting their talent on "unworthy material," Mendelsohn saw little from that first record that suggested that Led Zeppelin would be talked about fifty years later. "It would seem that, if they're there to fill the void created by the demise of Cream," he wrote, "they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention."

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Penguins Can't Dance: APB

Justin Kirk and Natalie Martinez in APB on FOX.

We've now seen three episodes of FOX's new crime drama APB and I'm going to call it: APB is the most depressing seemingly upbeat show on television. Ostensibly following the now-too-familiar model of the independent consultant working with police detectives to solve crimes (CastleThe Mentalist, Numb3rs, etc.), APB is somehow so derivative and insipid that it takes most of its progenitor shows down with it – no easy feat!

Created by television writer and producer David Slack (Person of Interest) and developed by Matt Nix (Burn Notice), APB gives us a hero tailor-made for 2017: a "maverick billionaire" who is convinced he knows better than anyone how to fix what ills American society. In the series' opening scenes, tech mogul and engineer Gideon Reeves (Justin Kirk, Weeds) watches his friend get gunned down in a liquor store robbery in urban Chicago, gets frustrated by the slow response of 911 and the police, and decides that the best way to get "justice" is to take over the neighbourhood's underfunded precinct. He accomplishes this by publicly paying off the city's $89 million police pension deficit – with a personal cheque! – and by bullying/shaming the city's mayor and city council. Over a weekend, he brings in an eager young team of coders and engineers who upgrade the 13th District's obsolete equipment, providing (among other things) shiny new tasers, military-grade vests, and bulletproof squad cars. (Paperwork? Irritating, and apparently pointless. Tasks like logging evidence? Civil rights? Not in Gideon's district!) What follows is precisely what you'd expect if you've ever seen a single episode of Numb3rs: every week offers a new crime, and a new problem, that only our hero's unique talents can solve. Along the way, sure, Gideon learns a lesson or two about 'real' law enforcement, but ultimately the show never wavers on its basic premise that this is what we need to really fix our broken society.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Canada All-Star Ballet Gala: From Russia with Love

Svetlana Lunkina and Ruslan Skvortsov in The Pharaoh's Daughter.

There's a lot of talk about Russia right now, about its extraordinary influence on other countries' political structures and growing impact on world affairs. That talk resonates on the front pages of newspapers. And, recently, it could also be heard at the ballet, where a program billed as masterpieces of the classical repertoire despite also being composed of works from other nations was Russian to the core. It couldn't help but be. Canada All-Star Ballet Gala, a one-night only performance that took place at Toronto's Sony Centre on February 11, owed its grandeur and impeccable styling to the great choreographers schooled at Russia's Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg more than a century ago. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina knows that tradition well.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Neglected Gem #96: Adventures of Don Quixote (1933)

Feodore Chaliapin as Don Quixote in G.W. Pabst's Adventures of Don Quixote (1933).

Adventures of Don Quixote is one of the true curiosities in movie history, and not only because it’s the one adaptation of Cervantes’ book by a major filmmaker that was actually completed. Orson Welles died without finishing his, and Terry Gilliam’s closed down early in the shoot when he hit one insurmountable difficulty after another (all of which are chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha). This 1933 film is the work of the great German director G.W. Pabst, best known for his silent films with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. He filmed three versions of the novel, one in French, one in English and one in German; all three starred the great Russian opera basso Feodor Chaliapin, who turned out to be both a magnificent camera subject and a mesmerizing actor. He doesn’t get to sing Mussorgsky (Chaliapin was celebrated for his Boris Godunov), but he does sing, and even though the music by Jacques Ibert is mediocre, these abbreviated arias are among the movie’s high points. Chaliapin had appeared in a couple of silent movies, but Don Quixote was his only major movie role, and his last. (He died in 1938.) If his name rings a bell today, it’s probably because his son, who bore his name, played the marvelous old grandfather in Moonstruck who asks his dogs, with magisterial impatience, “Why do you make me wait?” before taking them for their evening constitutional. (Chaliapin Jr. died in 1992.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Podcast: Helen Shaver on Sam Peckinpah (1985)

Rutger Hauer and Helen Shaver in a scene from Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend (1983).

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.

Earlier this week, film director Sam Peckinpah would have celebrated his 92nd birthday. It therefore seems appropriate to share this conversation I had with Canadian actress Helen Shaver very soon after Peckinpah's death in December 1984. Shaver had been one of the stars of Peckinpah's final movie, The Osterman Weekend (1983), and here she speaks about what it was like to work with the famed director.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the conversation with Helen Shaver as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – Terror On The Bayou

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was released by Capcom on January 24.

In my very first piece for Critics At Large, I bemoaned the state of the survival-horror genre, and the Resident Evil series of games in particular. Japanese developer Shinji Mikami, who helped to define the genre with the first Resident Evil game in 1996, had grown stagnant, straying in his design and philosophy from the core tenets that made that landmark game so popular. In short, his contributions to the series just weren’t scary anymore, and though his next (non-Resident Evil) effort The Evil Within was critically well received upon release, it too was lacking in imagination and innovation and is remembered now as a mostly forgettable mashup of earlier RE titles and other popular horror properties like Silent Hill. A shake-up was long past due – and apparently all it took for that to happen was Mikami's retiring from publisher Capcom so that others could take up the mantle, and achieve what he couldn’t.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Jazz in the Abstract: Strange Attractors by Ugly Beauties

The members of Ugly Beauties: Marilyn Lerner, Matt Brubeck and Nick Fraser. (Photo: Karrie North)

Back in the late 1940s, it wasn’t unusual to hear jazz at the Long Island house of American painter Jackson Pollock, who was inspired by the freedom and improvisational qualities of the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. In a way, it was his soundtrack to the changing face of post-war America. While he didn’t listen to music while he worked, his wife Lee Krasner said. in 1967, that he listened to jazz in marathon sessions in between projects: “He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records…day and night for three days running until you thought you would climb the roof! The house would shake.” (From Helen A. Harrison's "Jackson Pollock and Jazz: Inspiration or Imitation?")

By 1950, as the form developed, bebop music provided an aural canvas within a framework. Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, only had about 3 minutes of recording time, on a typical 78-RPM record, to express a theme, improvise on it and then return to the theme and end the tune. Many of the Parker tracks, especially on the Savoy record label, swung hard with extraordinary musical ideas that broke with the past while exploring new possibilities in the music by way of individual expression. In a sense, then, while the tunes had structure with a beginning, middle and end, the solos were abstract: improvised riffs never to be repeated or written down. Bebop was fluid music – full of soul, surprise and risk, much like the art that Pollock created in his “on the floor” paintings, such as Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Electric Blues: Bette Midler in The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Release of The Rose

Bette Midler in The Rose (1979).

When Bette Midler takes the stage as The Rose in Mark Rydell’s 1979 movie of the same name, singing the rocker “Whose Side Are You On?,” her face, mashed up as she spits out the lyrics, is ferocious. She’s not trying to look beautiful; on the contrary, she’s owning her odd-duck looks, facing off the stadium audience, daring them not to love her for who she is. There’s no grandeur to her self-presentation, just fuck-you bravado and sexual aggressiveness, but then she makes a connection with a handsome young man at the edge of the stage and she breaks into an unexpected toothy smile, as if she’s found a date for the high school prom. At other times her smile can look voracious, even predatory. Her whole face seems to be pushed toward her nose, and both her dramatic eye make-up and her frizzy hair accentuate the bones in that face, though when Vilmos Zsigmond’s lighting attaints its softest neon glow, her hair is like an aureole that turns her into a pop Madonna. You can’t pin down her look, and God knows you can’t pin down her performance to one thing. When we first see her, stepping off the tour’s private plane, she’s dressed like Janis Joplin in a broad-brimmed hat with gauze dripping from the back and a thin, wavy pink dress and shades, and she’s so drunk that she can’t stay upright: she has to hold onto the railing, and she misses a step or two, as if the stairway were melting under her. This is the wayward, unmoored side of Rose. We see it again on the plane when she sings a cozy, growling, sloshed version of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” – a song she learned off a Furry Lewis side – with a muted guitar accompaniment, then peers out the window, disoriented, bursting into tears.  And again late in the picture, when her manager and promoter Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates) tells her he’s setting her adrift (it’s his way of scaring her into submission) and she looks away from him, her face wavering on the edge of another realm.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

There Will Be Burgers: Michael Keaton in The Founder

When Michael Keaton made his memorable feature film debut in Ron Howard's agreeably funny 1982 comedy, Night Shift, he played Billy "Blaze" Blazejowski, Henry Winkler's high-strung co-worker in a New York City morgue, who described himself as an "idea man." Endlessly bouncing from side to side, as if hot coals were consistently biting at his feet, Billy Blaze was a whirligig of a hustler and budding entrepreneur, a frugging Sammy Glick, whose eyeballs popped out like headlights in a speeding car at the thought of inventing edible paper. His role in the film was to snap Winkler's sleeping nebbish back to life, and Keaton himself was wide awake, an endlessly riffing jack-in-the-box with the relentless beat of "Jumping Jack Flash" on constant repeat in his brain pan, sending comic bolts through the picture. As he plays Ray Kroc, an Illinois travelling salesman in the mid-fifties down on his luck trying to sell five-spindled milkshake machines to fast-food outlets across America, the blaze has gone out of Keaton's bluster and the beat has gone out of his step, but he's replaced it with the shrewd acumen of finely tuned opportunism.  Nipping religiously from a little flask, Keaton's Kroc is Billy Blaze with his headlights dimmed and Norman Vincent Peale setting the beat instead of The Stones, but his shark's teeth haven't lost their razor bite. When Kroc sets his eyes on a tiny burger enterprise in San Bernardino, California, run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who have begun to revolutionize the concept of fast-food service, he senses opportunity the way a vampire smells blood. Unlike Billy Blaze, who wanted to feed the world his teeming ideas, Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc wants to feed off the ideas of others and then take all the credit for himself. With a prowess that's canny, Keaton plays Kroc as a cipher magnate who, in time, creates a billion-dollar empire by branding an international restaurant chain that never had to bear his own name.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Half-Dead: FX’s Taboo

Tom Hardy in FX's Taboo.

On its face, FX’s new drama Taboo seems an intriguing proposition. It’s clearly modeled on the sorts of dark, thrilling narratives that have captured readers’ imaginations since at least The Count of Monte Cristo. However, this show, a collaboration between Steven Knight, Chips Hardy, and star Tom Hardy, falls short of its inspirations.

The Monte Cristo comparison springs to mind because, as with Dumas’s classic story, Taboo is about the return of a mysterious hero, long thought dead, and the unfolding of his plan for revenge. Hardy plays James Delaney, who surprises his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and everyone else from his past life when he suddenly returns to England for his father’s funeral. It soon emerges that Delaney’s father holds the deed to a small piece of coastline on the far side of the world (the Pacific Northwest, to be exact). Although this rocky, faraway plot seems worthless, a surprising number of people expresses interest in taking it off Delaney’s hands, including Zilpha and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), the family lawyer (Nicholas Woodeson), and Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), chairman of the East India Company.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Psychic Cost of Spying in Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy

Author Charles Cumming. (Photo: Toby Madden)

“A part of himself dried up inside. I began to think he had a piece missing from his heart. Call it decency, call it tenderness. Honesty perhaps.”
– Charles Cumming, A Colder War
"The constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guessing is exhausting. It is bad for the soul."
– Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy
The first epigraph refers to Thomas Kell, an on-and-off MI6 agent, the major protagonist of Charles Cumming’s engrossing trilogy that began with A Foreign Country, followed by A Colder War and the recently published A Divided Spy (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). The second epigraph is voiced by Alexander Minasian, a senior Russian officer of SVR (foreign intelligence), who played a minor role in A Colder War and is Kell’s principle adversary in the current novel. Kell holds Minasian responsible for the death of his girlfriend and fellow spy, Rachel Wallinger. Despite Kell’s desire for revenge, the two official antagonists have much in common, primarily a capacity for self-reflection and recognition that the price of spying, the burden of emotional baggage, is something they both bear. Kell admits at one point that spying is a “sickness that hallowed him out.” He has given twenty years of his life to the Service that costs him his marriage and his girlfriend and feels a seething anger not only toward the Kremlin but his own agency, which betrayed him when they suspended him from duty for his passive involvement in “the aggressive CIA interrogation of a British national in Kabul.” Although Cumming is acutely aware of the personal price of spying, he is not cynical about its value as he was in his early novels,when he patterned his fiction on John Le Carré. Cumming still regards his mentor in high regard – Kell references his work in Spy – but he is clearly finding his own distinctive voice in the Thomas Kell novels. I should mention that I read Spy prior to reading War, and I realize that although Cumming provides the reader with all the necessary backstory, reporting is not the same as experiencing. I knew that certain events would transpire in War but that knowledge was more than compensated by the pleasure of experiencing its fast-paced narrative about Kell’s search for a mole – perhaps stronger than Spy – and perceptive insights into the professional and personal costs of living a life in the shadows. Yet the novel under review is richly steeped in strengths that will reward the reader.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Talking Out of Turn #50 (Podcast): Lindsay Anderson (1984)

Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell on the set of If....

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, I did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it. 

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g., 
Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting alongside Clive Barker). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I were trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. The book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of finding itself no longer able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an empire. So, England elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, ultimately neither Reagan and Thatcher came close to restoring anything glorious. But both were larger-than-life figures and both did change the political landscape dramatically. 

In this section of Talking Out of Turn, which looked at the political turmoil in England, I wanted to include individuals who predated Thatcher as well as those who were her contemporaries. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to speak to a few artists who spanned those generations: authors Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way) and Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), and film directors Stephen Frears and Lindsay Anderson. Together, they helped flesh out the past and the present of Britain's years of political turmoil.

Like Sillitoe, Lindsay Anderson knew how to rail against the Empire with films like If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973). Since he was of an older generation than Sillitoe, his look back in time (as a way of anticipating what was to come) has the virtue of giving us a unique perspective on what changed in England in his lifetime. Anderson passed away in 1994. In 2004, an edited collection of his writings, entitled Never Apologise, was published.

– Kevin Courrier.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Aesthetics of the Forbidden: The Photography of Thierry Kuntz

The following is a collaborative work by Donald Brackett and Thierry Kuntz. The text is by Donald Brackett and all photographs are by Thierry Kuntz.

Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies it was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term "censor" can be traced to the office established in Rome in 443 B.C.E. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honourable task. We can easily explore its strange evolution throughout all the arts and culture fields in history: visual, literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political. Perhaps the first act of censorship was the ancient Greek condemnation of the philosopher Socrates, and among the most recent are the fatwas against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. In between, it seems that we have long been told by the powers that be just what we can read or watch. We will ask the simple questions: why are certain things not allowed? and who gets to decide on our behalf what is good or bad for us?

This is a contemporary exploration of the emblem, an ancient communication device which combines words and images in order to convey usually moral lessons. Perhaps the digital internet age is an ideal time to reexamine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and -- perhaps even more importantly -- how much we haven’t really changed at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Un’altra, Per Favore! – John Wick: Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is aptly titled. This sequel picks up exactly where the 2014 original left off, showing the titular aging assassin (Keanu Reeves) tying up the loose ends from his last scuffle with the New York Russian mob – which is to say, getting his 1969 Mustang Mach 1 back from them, in a garage-based action showdown that’s probably the most hardcore bit of table-setting ever shown in a sequel, before finally settling down for his much-anticipated retirement. Reeves makes it clear that Wick expects this to last about as long as we do: when a slimy Italian crime lord named Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) shows up at his door demanding that he honour an old pact, he doesn’t seem that surprised. Like the first film, Chapter 2 wastes no time whatsoever. Its brutally efficient storytelling style delivers exactly what fans of the first film have come to see, and then some. Chapter 2 feels like director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves were given carte blanche to make a sequel that inspired, fascinated, and excited them, and they’ve clearly done so – it’s the Judgment Day to John Wick’s Terminator, and any action fan worth his or her salt will know how big a compliment that is.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Great Screen Matches: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart

Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

Of the great Hollywood women of the 1930s, Margaret Sullavan is the forgotten one, though she was a staple in M-G-M pictures of the era. She had a firefly quality – a flickering glimmer – and the salient characteristic of her performances was the courage that kept her going in the face of her own fragility. She was a feast for the camera – her slender frame was ideal for both clinging, satiny gowns and fussy, elaborate get-ups, which she wore with a kind of gallantry. (“Gallantry” was the film critic Pauline Kael’s word for her, and it’s perfect: it expresses the exquisite tension between her tremulous lightness and her resoluteness in launching herself into the scary world.) Her voice was high and cottony, with an accent somewhere between New York and mid-Atlantic – the made-up accent, still taught in some acting schools, that’s supposed to stand for ambiguous cosmopolitanism in American performers – and the words always seemed to be pushing through some kind of obstacle, like honey dripping through the comb. 

Sullavan was brilliant opposite Herbert Marshall in The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler, whom she later married) and opposite Henry Fonda (to whom she had been married) in The Moon’s Our Home, a marvelous romantic comedy partly written by the on-again, off-again couple Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell that cast Sullavan as a movie star and Fonda as a famous writer who meet and fall in love without knowing each other’s identity. It’s an inspired idea for a screwball comedy, since the premise of those pictures, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is the tension between the sexual and emotional attraction of the hero and heroine and their adversarial relationship. In The Moon’s Our Home, Fonda and Sullavan are biased against each other on principle – the pompous, posturing celebrity writer, the frivolous, narcissistic Hollywood baby – and can only see what’s beneath the surface if they can’t see the surface. But terrific as Fonda and Marshall were at partnering Sullavan, she was best with Jimmy Stewart, with whom she made four films between 1936 and 1940. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Universe All Its Own: FX's Legion

Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller in FX's Legion.

“Something new needs to happen soon.” – David Haller, in the first episode of FX's Legion.

I'm fairly certain no one has looked at the current line-up of television shows and thought, "What we really need are more superheroes." With multiple series airing on cable, network, and streaming channels, I'm not sure we've ever had as many competing superhero shows at the same time before. Ranging from the light, and sometimes emotionally stunted, stories of the CW's so-called Arrowverse (the best of which remains the consistently delightful Legends of Tomorrow), to the dark depths Netflix has mined for its growing stable of Marvel shows, to NBC's Powerless, an ensemble office comedy set in the bright palettes of DC's Silver Age, the shows themselves are as diverse in tone (and quality) as the vast sweep of contemporary television itself. In that vein, even the most dedicated comic book fan might not have noticed (or cared) that last Wednesday FX premiered another superhero series.

Created by novelist-turned-television-writer Noah Hawley (Fargo, The Unusuals), Legion tells the story of David Haller (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens), a mutant who finally begins to accept the reality of his extraordinary psychic abilities after years in a psychiatric facility where he has been treated for his (perhaps) misdiagnosed schizophrenia. After escaping from the institution, he finds himself hunted by a secret government agency, which is intent on capturing him and harnessing his abilities to its own ends, until he falls in with a ragtag team of equally maladjusted mutants. So far, so familiar: on these terms, Legion would appear to be telling a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story – one character's struggles, internal and external, with his still untamed super-abilities – but this is also where the familiarity ends. Legion is indeed, as Haller himself wishes for aloud in the show's first hour, something new.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Home: Lion

Dev Patel in Lion

is a magnificent piece of humanist filmmaking, so powerfully affecting that you carry it with you out of the moviehouse, as if the protagonist, the transplanted Indian boy Saroo, were someone you knew personally who’d shared with you his strange and improbable life story. (When I reread my notes from viewing the film almost a month ago, I started tearing up all over again.) In fact, it’s a true tale: Luke Davies’s fine screenplay adapts Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home. The director, Garth Davis, made his name on commercials, and directed four episodes of Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake; aside from a documentary, Lion is the only feature film he’s done. But he’s had towering role models: the early section, with the luminous Sunny Pawar as the little-boy protagonist, suggests De Sica’s neo-realist classics – especially the 1948 Shoeshine – and the transcendent films of the Indian director Satyajit Ray.

Friday, February 10, 2017

When The Music Stopped: HMV Canada Goes Under

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an impassioned post about the closing of a branch of Queen Video, one of Toronto’s few remaining DVD rental outlets, and how that limited rental choices further for film buffs. Since then, another multifaceted DVD store, 7-24 Movies & More, has bitten the dust. It had a weekly 3-for-$8 Monday-Thursday special rental price, which beat its competition but, alas, it had to move because rent at its location had gone up precipitously and its (supposedly) loyal clientele didn’t follow it to its new location. Now HMV Canada has gone into receivership and all 102 locations of the chain (which sells CDs, DVDs, vinyl and collectibles) will be extinct, officially as of April 30, but likely sooner. Coming on top of other recent closures of fine music outlets in Toronto – Sunrise’s two downtown locations in 2014 (it still has ten stores in the province of Ontario, but only one in North Toronto); Vortex Records, one of the city’s best used emporia, in 2015; Refried Beats, the other great used CD (and DVD) shop in Toronto, in 2016; and now HMV – it’s clear that for fans of CDs, and the vast repository of music available in that format, the future is going to be very different than it is now. And not in a good way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neglected Gem #95: The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A scene from The Boy and the Beast (2015).

The Boy and the Beast (Bakemono no Ko) is the story of Ren (Aoi Miyazaki), a nine-year-old Tokyo runaway who abandons his family life when his mother dies in a car accident. After years of living as a homeless urchin, one day Ren stumbles out of the bustling Shibuya streets into a world of humanoid beasts called Jutengai, and becomes the reluctant pupil of an arrogant, lazy, bear-like beast-man called Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho). The reigning Lord of Jutengai is preparing to reincarnate himself as a god, and a successor must be chosen. The two candidates for the job, selected for their strength of both body and character, are the noble boar-man, Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), and Kumatetsu, whose fighting prowess is extraordinary but whose personality is sorely lacking. Ren – whom Kumatetsu names “Kyuta” in reference to his young age – establishes an instantly adversarial relationship with the blustering bear-man, who lacks the patience and compassion to act as a proper teacher. Neither knows, or could acknowledge even if he were aware, how desperately they need one another – but it’s instantly plain for all to see that these two loners, hardened by years of solitary survival, are a perfect pair. Only together do they have a chance of readying Kumatetsu for his match against Iozen, which will decide who rises up as Lord, and only together can they ready Kyuta to re-enter the world he left behind.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Piety: Martin Scorsese's Silence

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence.

No question: Martin Scorsese's religious epic, Silence, is aptly named. Unlike his last feature, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), with its frenetic, speed-freak pacing, or the pilot of the HBO series, Vinyl, where the editing rhythms were so percussive that they became assaulting, Scorsese's new picture unfolds with a quiet and solemn reverence, as if we were in church, and the atmosphere is hushed. Silence has a lulling seductiveness going for it (the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is both lush and vibrant), so it's clear that the asceticism of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel has drawn the director – once again – into a sojourn in search of spiritual values and truths, but the drama itself turns out to be no more substantial than in The Wolf of Wall Street. If the sensational highs of sex, cocaine and larceny were the driving force of that picture, rather than an attempt to bring the audience to a dramatic understanding of how Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) swindled his way to the top of Wall Street, the piety of religious faith becomes the drug of Silence, substituting for a rendering of spiritual belief. Scorsese may be aiming for the formalist poetry of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), where a man of God gets tested by those who reject him, but the result is actually closer to Carl Dreyer's Ordet (1955) where spirituality is reduced to pedantic dogma.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tinariwen: From the Desert to our Hearts

The members of Tinariwen. (Photo: Thomas Dorn)

Mali is a land-locked country located in Western Africa – in fact, it’s the eighth-largest country on the continent. Its chief export is gold and, while its official language is French, it is also the host of over forty languages, one of which, Bambara, is generally heard on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Mali’s expansive regional diversity features a portion of the Sahara Desert to the northwest, which is the home, if you can call it that, of the Tuareg people, a partly nomadic group, often dressed in blue, that inhabits most of the Sahara from Niger to Tunisia, including Morocco, Algeria and Burkino Faso. But the Tuareg only account for about 3% of Mali’s population. Out of this tiny populace comes one of the most interesting and popular musical groups, Tinariwen ("deserts”), a nine-piece band featuring traditional Tuareg instruments mashed-up with electric guitars and percussion. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib formed the ensemble in the late seventies while living in exile in Libya. As world music started to spread across the continent and airwaves, to North American and European audiences, Tinariwen started making a strong impression. Their first album was released in 2000, with a brilliant cover featuring a photo of a red sand dune and a tiny figure with his hands in the air. By their third release, Water Is Life (World Village), we finally got a cover featuring the weathered faces of the group dressed in their native clothes. By 2012, following extensive touring away from Mali, the band released their most successful album to date, Tassili, which was recorded in a national park in Algeria without the use of electric guitars, principally to let listeners feel the Tinariwen sound as it originated around campfires and tents. That year it went on to win a Grammy for Best Album in the World Music category.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Shirley Booth: Only the Lonely

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952).

Shirley Booth played the titular domestic on the TV sitcom Hazel for just five years, 1961 through 1966, but it so defined her that it obscured everything she had done before – twenty-five years of starring roles on Broadway and a handful of movies that included her Oscar-winning performance in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952. It was that film that brought her to Hollywood, to recreate the role she’d played on stage two years earlier (which had won her the second of her three Tony Awards). Booth broke through in 1935 in George Abbott and John Cecil Holm’s comedy Three Men on a Horse; her stage work, varied and prolific, included The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotton and Van Heflin (she played the hard-boiled photographer Liz Imbrie), My Sister Eileen,Goodbye, My Fancy, The Time of the Cuckoo and Desk Set, as well as a trio of musicals: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, By the Beautiful Sea and Juno, Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. (When Hollywood optioned them, Hepburn took over the Booth parts in The Time of the Cuckoo – renamed Summertime – and Desk Set.) She had a long career – about half a century, though much of it remains inaccessible to us except through photographs.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sliding toward Fascism in Jo Walton’s Counter-History Trilogy

Paintings of Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on display in Moscow at a party hosted by pro-Kremlin activists to celebrate Trump's election victory in November 2016. (Source: Twitter)

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell 

Recent events, not only in America but throughout Europe, have raised the possibility that liberal democracy, the relatively brief experiment – in terms of human history – is in trouble. For a generation, after the German Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded, it inspired hope. Currently, however, it is threatened by the spectre of illiberal authoritarianism. Liberal democracy requires liberty and the rule of law, and celebrates pluralism based on gender, ethnic and racial equality. What knits these principles together is a respect for truth, a cornerstone principle that requires an independent vibrant media to hold power to account. Illiberal authoritarianism sanctions the powerful to define reality and possess a monopoly on truth. Rather than respect for others, authoritarian regimes set up a “we” – the ordinary, decent people – against the threatening others: “Mexicans and Muslims in the U.S., Kurds in Turkey, Poles in Britain, Muslims and Jews all over Europe, as well as Sinti and Roma, refugees, immigrants, black people, women, cosmopolitans, homosexuals, not to mention ‘experts,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘mainstream media’,” as the astute scholar andjournalist, Timothy Garton Ash, describes. He assails these developments as rampant Trumpismo.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Underpowered: NBC’s Powerless

Superheroes are ubiquitous on film and television these days. Movie studios’ production slates are full of films mining every last corner of the Marvel and DC universes, while some TV outlets, such as Netflix and the CW, have entire blocks of programming centered around serialized adaptations of comic-book properties. While many of these are well executed – the Marvel movies, in particular, have settled into a rhythm, delivering consistently enjoyable if not especially novel entertainment – there have been some unpleasant side effects. The dark, gritty tone and overbearing self-seriousness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have become de rigueur for many franchises, even as they seem to grow increasingly unconcerned with the CGI-rendered carnage inflicted on countless screaming extras during the inevitable climactic battle that’s become a standard plot point in virtually every film.

NBC’s Powerless, which premiered on February 2 and airs at 8:30 ET on Thursday nights, pokes fun at that and many other superhero-movie tropes: at one point, a character laments that superheroes have gone from thwarting robbers to fighting massive battles against supervillains, leaving ordinary people with little to play. That sums up the fundamental premise of this sitcom, which stars Vanessa Hudgens as go-getter Emily Locke, who’s just moved to Charm City to take a new job at Wayne Security. The company (which, yes, is owned by that particular Wayne from the comic books) is supposed to devise new products that will help protect non-super civilians from the daily butchery visited upon them by titanic battles between good and evil. It’s run by Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce’s cousin, and, perhaps inevitably for a workplace comedy in 2017, populated by a variety of quirky misfits, such as Ron (Ron Funches), Teddy (Danny Pudi), and Van’s disaffected secretary Jackie (Christina Kirk).

Friday, February 3, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Poet Lorna Crozier (1985)

Poet Lorna Crozier, in 2009. (Photo: Gary McKinstry)

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. In 1985, one of those guests was Canadian poet Lorna Crozier, who today holds the Head Chair in the Writing Department at the University of Victoria.

Born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan in 1948, Crozier has authored fifteen books (The Weather, Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence) that have focused primarily on relationships and language. Alongside her partner, poet Patrick Lane, she has also co-authored No Longer Two People (1979) and the anthology, Breathing Fire (2004). In 2011, Crozier was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

When we spoke over thirty years ago, she had just published a very personal collection of work titled The Garden Going On Without Us.

 Kevin Courrier 

Here is the full interview with Lorna Crozier as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Princes, Let Sleeping Beauty Sleep: Passengers

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers.

Passengers, written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, isn’t a very good sci-fi film. It’s also not a very good romance. It touches on thought-provoking themes that it doesn’t bother to explore, it wastes some lovely production design (and some talented leads) on a tepid story, and it squanders numerous opportunities to surprise and thrill its audience. Moreover, whatever improvements might have been made that could have coaxed out the film’s true potential, they would all be for naught, thanks to a single terrible decision that lies at the story’s core, poisoning the whole movie from the inside out.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Alchemy of the Image: New Inversion Paintings by Michael Burges

Michael Burges, Reverse Glass Painting No. 1. (Acrylic and plexiglass on aluminum, 2016)

“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” – Robert Irwin

From the moment I first viewed the luminous paintings of Michael Burges I was tempted to say: in vitreous veritas. There, I’ve said it: in glass is truth. It’s a kind of truth, however, which we look through, rather than at, and it both contains and conveys a magical force that frees the eye from the interference of thoughts. It’s not that I often erupt into Latin phrases, but somehow the images seemed to invite me into a sanctified kind of realm, one requiring a new (or even ancient) tongue to adequately describe it. 

Although it is possible to say that all painting to some degree has alchemy at its core, insofar as raw pigments are transformed into fluid images in a somewhat magical manner, most painted images merely suggest in a metaphorical manner this poetic process at work. But rather than only evoking the transmutation of physical matter into mental images, the mesmerizing paintings of Michael Burges literally and actually embody the alchemical process itself. They also usher us into an archaic theatre of pure seeing. The forgetting they invite is actually more of an anamnesia, a waking up, which seems to restore our lost senses.