Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ohhhh Canada: Critics At Large Celebrates Canada 150

Celebrating birthdays is complicated enough when you're discussing people, let alone when you start talking about a nation. For a few months, the idea of doing a special series of pieces reflecting the complicated and controversial history of our Confederation was kicked around. But these days there is no one person who is a driving force at Critics at Large to bring consensus and focus to these kinds of ambitious plans. So the notion languished passively and died on the vine. We ended up doing an ad hoc number of random pieces that became part of an informal Canada 150 series. Since my turn to write was coming up today, I had to ask myself if I wanted to do something – anything – about why Canada mattered. But I had too many ideas and none that jumped out as inspired. So while recently culling together some of my own Critics at Large writing for a summer project I've been working on, I began reading a number of other critics who said things in the heat of reviewing that touched on some fascinating aspects of what it meant for them being Canadian. In a matter of moments, I began lifting selections from those reviews dating back to our beginnings in 2010. In those works, Canada was a leitmotif that I had the urge to embroider into a motley quilt of cultural discourse. Not all our writers are included here, as some over the years had little to say about Canada, while others make repeat appearances because some idea of Canada predominated in their work in a way that looms larger than it might have when the piece was once a review. As I was the one to do the writing today, I throw down the first gauntlet with a selection from a book review I did back in 2010.

-- Kevin Courrier, July 1/17.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Neglected Gems #102/#103: Two Small Comedies from 1999

Dan Hedaya, Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in Dick (1999).

The inspired silliness of Dick emerges equally from the script by Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin, from Fleming’s breezy direction, and from the cast of clowns who perform it. It came out in the middle of the summer of 1999 and it’s the ideal summer comedy – though its jokes are so grounded in the culture of the Watergate era, when it’s set, that it never developed much of an audience, even among boomers when it got to the rental stores. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, both charming, play Betsy and Arlene, a pair of D.C. teeny-boppers. The Vietnam War appears on Betsy’s radar for the first time when her druggy older brother Larry (Devon Gummersall) gets his draft notice. Generally she doesn’t seem to have anything on her mind. Arlene, who harbors a crush on the bland pop singer Bobby Sherman, is, by comparison, the intellectual of the pair: she wears glasses – though she trades them in for contacts halfway through the picture – and we can tell when she has a thought because she blinks. They’re not usually her own thoughts, but at least she can repeat the popular anti-war clichés, which is more than Betsy can manage. Betsy’s the kind of bright-faced, all-the-lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home girl who, when her friend suggests they tell President Nixon to stop the war, flashes her prettiest smile and says, “Okay,” as if Arlene had just decided they should snack at McDonald’s. (To be truthful, McDonald’s gets a more enthusiastic reaction from Betsy: she looks almost transported as she murmurs, “Fries, fries.”)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Critic’s Crypt: The Dark Appetites of Thirst (2009) and Raw (2016)

Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-ky and Kim Ok-bin in Thirst (2009)

Some of the most effective horror storytelling happens in the clash between our civilized façades and the primal urges that lurk beneath. In confronting the uncivilized, the uncouth, the unspoken, and the unholy, we expose the uncomfortable truth: that we are much more like animals than we’d care to admit. We are all of us base and feral, and the fear we experience in the cinema seat is really prompted by that curtain of pretense lifting away, so that we come face to face with our true reflections. This is why horror is among the most thematically honest forms of fiction, and why films like Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) are so brutally effective.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Go Big or Go Home: Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto performing at the Echo Music Awards in Berlin, Germany, in April, 2017. (Photo: Tobias Schwarz)

When the British vocalist Adele first graced the airwaves with her beautifully powerful voice, few music critics thought the strength of her voice and the openly personal nature of her songs could be matched. To some music fans Adele set a new standard of excellence that couldn’t be met by anybody of her caliber -- until now.

Beth Ditto's debut record Fake Sugar (Virgin) is a powerful pop/rock record that taps all the same emotional notes as Adele, without the sentimentality. Even though the album was released June 16 without much fanfare it is one of the strongest debut albums I’ve ever heard. It has a balance of intensity and emotional maturity with some mighty fine musical hooks to boot. Produced by Jenn Decilveo, Fake Sugar is virtually faultless in its execution. The mix is a marvelous collection of thumping downbeats and disco-infused pop numbers all supported by Ditto’s tough, honest and relentless attitude towards love, identity and society. And underneath all that angst she expresses is an earthy honesty that is more Patti Smith than Katy Perry. While I appreciate the performance art of Lady Gaga, who has an equally strong voice, I’m put off by her overproduced music and highly commercial sound. Her songs don’t have the depth of Beth Ditto. Fake Sugar is accessible pop, but it’s not trying to reach a musical compromise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXIII

In the last couple of months, like many viewers, I've been watching David Lynch's return and resurrection of Twin Peaks. Without going into great detail for those who haven't yet dipped in, I can safely say there isn't anything on television anywhere that comes close to what's going on here. Of course, that said, the show has also been a source of frustration, as much as a font of devious delight and pure shock. But partly that is due to the fact that Lynch has broken the wall of serial television. That wall (in both good and bad shows) always provides the predictable dramatic arcs, climaxes and cliffhangers which in the age of streaming give us full comfort and safety, plus the freedom to binge-watch. But who could binge-watch this? Time itself becomes something close to elastic on Twin Peaks, where even stasis sometimes has to be considered a twist in the story.

Monday, June 26, 2017

New Work from London

 Paddy Considine and Genevieve O'Reilly in The Ferryman at the Royal Court. (Photo: Johan Perrson)

This article contains reviews of The Ferryman, Don Juan in Soho and La Strada in the West End and Common at the National Theatre. The review of The Ferryman contains spoilers.

Audiences leap to their feet at the end of The Ferryman, the new play by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) that has recently transferred to the West End after a sold-out run at the Royal Court. And why wouldn’t they? Butterworth and the director, Sam Mendes, have stockpiled enough heart-tuggers in three and a quarter hours to make the manufacturers of the nineteenth-century potboilers that used to reduce audiences to mush look like amateurs. The setting is northern Ireland in 1982, during the prison hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and others. The hero, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), is a warm, hard-working, life-loving Irish farmer with a huge family whose brother’s body has just been discovered ten years after his disappearance. Quinn is sure that he was killed by the IRA for some unidentified offense of which he was innocent. (The play is certain of it, too, though Butterworth never even tells us what he might have been fingered for.) The ruthless IRA man, Muldoon (Stuart Graham), blackmails the Carneys’ parish priest (Gerald Horan) into revealing what he learned in confession from the dead man’s widow, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), whom Quinn and his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) took in along with her son Oisin (Rob Malone) when her husband vanished. Caithas been in love with her brother-in-law for years; Muldoon threatens to tell Mary unless Quinn agrees to keep his suspicions about who killed his brother to himself.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part II: Jessica Shattuck’s Women in the Castle

Author Jessica Shattuck. (Photo: Grace Kwon)

Two pivotal scenes, spanning over sixty years, remain in the mind long after reading Jessica Shattuck’s character-driven, historically informed (with excellent sources acknowledged at the back), and moving Women in the Castle (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2017). The first occurs in the prologue set in 1938 Germany, on the cusp of Kristallnacht, in a Bavarian castle during the von Lingenfels’ annual family party. Although some of the guests sport Nazi insignias, a number of others are assembled in the study of the host, Albrecht, plotting active resistance to Hitler’s zealotry – fearing that if things go wrong, their families will suffer. His wife, Marianne, interrupts and, fully cognizant of Hitler’s madness and thuggery, challenges them to take action. When her charismatic childhood friend, Connie Fledermann, appoints her the “commander of wives and children,” she accepts.