Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cinema as Deep Healing: August at Akiko's (2018)

Alex Zhang Hungtai in August at Akiko's (2018).

August at Akiko’s (2018) is the debut feature from Christopher Makoto Yogi, who also wrote and edited, and it’s nothing short of transcendent. It's a crime against the art of cinema that it has yet to find a distributor, and I was lucky to catch this at the 2018 Taoyuan Film Festival. I have often felt a film to be limited by its need to follow a plot, which is why Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors. But Malick’s films still have a plot; he just distracts us from it at every step of the way. His films therefore only come together at the level of auteurist vision, without which they would merely be three-hour-long scattershot images with soundtrack and voiceovers. Yogi gives us the real deal, and nothing distracts us from being immersed in this plotless marvel.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Secret Garden (1993)

Kate Maberly, Andrew Knott and Heydon Prowse in The Secret Garden (1993)

Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden is the second film version of the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel about a young girl who’s sent to live in the English countryside after her parents die in colonial India. The first was directed by Fred Wilcox at MGM in 1949, in glistening black and white and (in the garden sequences) the intense storybook Technicolor we remember from The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis and National Velvet. Done up in the lavish MGM bound-classics style, it’s a handsome production that provides a deluxe Gothic mansion, a stunning carriage ride through the moors in a heavy evening rain, and – best of all – the formidable child actress Margaret O’Brien (the morbidly fanciful Tootie of Meet Me in St. Louis) as contrary Mary Lennox. Though Wilcox’s technique is a trifle shaky (the camera’s not always in the right place), and the late scenes drip into melodrama, the movie is highly satisfying.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Note Regarding Scheduling at Critics at Large

Dear reader,

This note is to let you know that after nearly nine years of daily publication, Critics at Large will be moving to a more relaxed publishing schedule.

This is a necessary choice not just to maintain the health and sanity of our volunteer workforce, upon whom the operation and maintenance of this site depends, but also to help enhance the quality of writing that we publish. Our writers can now take the time they need to choose topics that inspire them, and can feel free to write to their fullest potential.

We feel strongly that the quality of the content we produce is paramount. That much we vow to maintain, no matter the frequency of postings. And it goes without saying that none of this would be possible without you, the reader  so please accept our heartfelt thanks for your years of dedicated support, and your continued interest.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us.

-The Critics at Large Team

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Contemporary Relevance of Jake Tapper's The Hellfire Club

Jake Tapper signing copies of his new thriller, The Hellfire Club. (Photo: Harrison Jones/GW Today)

Jake Tapper's debut historical political thriller, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown & Company 2018), opens at dawn on March 5, 1954 with an echo of the Chappaquiddick incident reset in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. A rookie congressman, Charlie Marder, wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. The body of a young cocktail waitress lies nearby in a ditch. As he tries to make sense of what has happened, an influential lobbyist known to Marder passes by, incinerates the evidence and whisks Charlie away.

With this harrowing start, before Marder or the reader can figure out whether he has been set up, Tapper backtracks three months to when Marder, a Columbia University professor with a well-connected New York GOP lawyer for a father, is chosen to fill a seat left vacant by the mysterious death of a congressman. Initially, Marder appears to demonstrate the idealism of the eponymous character in the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as he questions on the House floor whether an appropriation earmarked for a big tire company is ethical given that it manufactured defective gas masks that Charlie witnessed first-hand when he served in the war overseas. But he does not have the mettle, the will or, to be fair, the allies to resist a powerful committee chairman who humiliates him, forcing him into a series of compromises of backroom deals which lead to Marder's actually voting for a bill that will enable that company to produce something decidedly toxic.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honey at the Spencer Fair

A stand showing some of the honey entries at this year's Spencer Fair. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

Every year at the Spencer Fair, the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Beekeepers Association puts on an educational display that includes candle-rolling and an observation hive  the latter basically a couple of hive frames covered with honeybees and encased in glass so that people can see the insects at work. The observation hive is extremely popular with children, who focus intently on locating the queen bee and almost always shout with delight when they find her. (This year, she was marked with a red dot on her back, which made her a lot easier to find and also indicated that she was born in 2018.) The children were mesmerized by the hive right up until somebody delivered a couple of two-week-old baby goats to a nearby display, at which point they drifted  or, in some cases, raced  away.


Friday, September 14, 2018

Neglected Gem: Ransom (1996)

Mel Gibson (with Brawley Nolte) in Ron Howard's 1996 version of Ransom. (Photo: IMDB)

Ransom was one of the few exciting American movies released in 1996 – not just gripping but conceptually exciting. And it was the first genuinely adult movie made by Ron Howard. The script, by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, adapts a long-forgotten picture from 1956 starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed as a wealthy young couple whose little boy is kidnapped. (This version, which has an exclamation point at the end of the one-word title, shows up occasionally on TCM.) In the original, Ford is about to fork over the half a million dollars demanded by the kidnapper when a newsman covering the story (Leslie Nielsen) persuades him that he’s just as likely to get his son back without it, and – though the script never clarifies this thinking – that in fact the boy is in less danger if Ford doesn’t deliver the ransom. So Ford gets on TV – on the weekly show his vacuum-cleaner company sponsors – and announces that the half million is going on the head of the kidnapper if he harms the boy in any way. Eventually everyone turns against Ford for making this stand, except for the reporter and a loyal servant (Juano Hernandez) and the chief of police; even Reed, who’s doped up on sedatives, deserts him. But in the movie’s point of view, Ford has a superior take on the situation, and he turns out to be right when, in the final scene, the boy wanders in, completely unharmed. This Ransom! (which was released to theatres but feels like it was made for a TV anthology series like Playhouse 90) is a pure-fifties social problem picture, and its theme is straight out of the Arthur Miller translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: the strong must learn to be lonely.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Photo Finish: A Conversation with William Ewing

Curator and author William Ewing, shown here at his exhibit called Edward Steichen: In High Fashion. (Photo: Youtube)

Without ever having clicked a shutter, Canada’s William Ewing has earned an international reputation as one of the great luminaries of modern photography. In the more than four decades since opening his first gallery in his native Montreal, the now-74-year old photography expert has created exhibitions, written books – including an international bestseller – and directed a prestigious Swiss museum, all devoted to the ephemeral art of photography. That's right, ephemeral.

"I think it would shock most people to know that 80 per cent of photographs disappear," said Ewing, speaking by phone on a fast-moving European train in between assignments. "People feel that because they are so ubiquitous that they will go on and on. But most are destroyed or are lost or are torn up by one's kids. And few photographs are documented. And usually little is written about them."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

M*A*S*H: Novel into Film into Sitcom, and Notes on the Long Run

The cast of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. (Photo: IMDB)

“Richard Hooker,” whose real name was Richard Hornberger, had been a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, during the Korean War. Failing to interest a dozen or so publishers in his sheaf of random anecdotes about cutting soldiers and cutting up in America’s least-understood modern conflict, he partnered with sportswriter W.C. Heinz, who took a hired gun’s silent pay to whip the sheaf into shape. It was published, in 1968, as MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors, and a few days ago – for no reason other than that an episode of the associated sitcom was on television, and that I was eager to avoid doing some actual work – I retrieved the paperback of the novel that I’d had, but not read, since high school. I remembered some things about the book and had forgotten others. Remembered: the characters, while similar to those who populate Robert Altman’s 1970 film adaptation, bear almost no resemblance to those of the long-running (1972-83) TV version. Forgotten: the style and matter of the novel are cool and mordant in a mostly appealing way – albeit with much of the sexism that makes the Altman film offensive, but without a hint of the sanctimony that so defined the series in its last several seasons.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Art of War: Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry charge into battle in Apocalypse Now Redux. (Photo: Getty)

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film that needs no introduction. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, had a legendary troubled production history of this Francis Ford Coppola, documented in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. The film features only the second leading performance by Martin Sheen (after 1973's Badlands) while also including known commodities such as Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. It’s a lush piece of episodic cinema (shot by Vittorio Storaro) that ends in a world even more surreal than the build-up, or even the novella, could prepare us for. Captain Willard (Sheen) takes on a mission to find and kill super-soldier Colonel Kurtz (Brando) deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, and his numerous and wide-ranging but almost always antagonistic encounters along the way show him and us the true face of the Vietnam War. In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch released an extended and re-edited version called Apocalypse Now Redux, and that’s the one I saw.

It struck me about midway through that, in contrast to most war films, which glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge in 2016), Apocalypse Now isn’t actually about war per se. It’s about the absurd tragedies that occur when a rational strategy or cultural institution is guided by humans and their inherent irrationalities. War is but the most extreme case.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Barbara Harris, Pixie Sorceress

Barbara Harris in 1967. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Barbara Harris, who died a few weeks ago, was an improviser down to her soul. A native Chicagoan, she was a founding member of the first improv troupe in America, The Compass Players, helmed by her then-husband Paul Sills in the mid-fifties; when the company morphed into The Second City she accompanied it on tour to Broadway. In New York she starred in Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad and in a pair of musicals for which she provided the raison d’être: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane in 1965 and the short-story anthology The Apple Tree by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in 1966. (She won the Tony Award – for which she had been nominated twice before – for The Apple Tree.) But she lost interest in stage work because, she said, it was really the exploration that takes place in rehearsal that excited her; she found repeating herself on stage every night stultifying. So, after playing opposite Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns in 1965 – where she’s the only actor who doesn’t succumb to the depressing inauthenticity of the material (she’s utterly charming) – and repeating her stage performance in Oh Dad, Poor Dad in 1967, she turned her attention full-time to movies. Her pixelated presence and off-the-beam focus and slightly dazed quality seemed perfect for the era. She was nominated for an Oscar for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? in 1971, likely because of one scene, the audition that her character, Allison Densmore, gives for Dustin Hoffman. (It’s the only scene in the movie worth remembering.) And she landed some leading roles over the next decade, though the only picture most movie lovers have seen her in is Nashville (1975), where she plays Albuquerque, the loony-bird aspiring singer who saves the Parthenon show in the final reel with her rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” after the beloved country-western icon Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is shot. Her last starring part was in Hal Ashby’s disastrous Second Hand Hearts opposite Robert Blake in 1981. She made four more movies and retired from the screen in 1997, then moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to teach acting. She’d outlived the epoch she was made for, God knows she’d outlived Hollywood’s capacity for figuring out how to cast an actress who fit no known mold, and once again she’d run out of patience. If the game was no longer about keeping the spark of inspiration alive, Barbara Harris didn’t want to play.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Legal (and Moral) Battles Continue: The Good Fight

Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo in CBS's The Good Fight. (Photo: IMDB)

Note: This piece contains spoilers.

As we await the start of a new network fall season, it’s becoming clearer and clearer how entrenched the old school, non-cable channels have become. More doctor and cop shows (New Amsterdam, The Rookie) and reboots and updates of previous series (Magnum, P.I., Murphy Brown) are on the agenda and very few, if any, groundbreaking shows seem to be on the network horizon. In fact, except for the short-lived (one-season) Fox comedy The Grinder, my favourite network series have been the same for four seasons now. (They are ABC’s black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder and CBS’s Elementary). But this doesn’t mean that cable shows, despite freer use of explicit language, sex and violence, are necessarily better. I don’t, for example, get all the acclaim for BBC America’s Killing Eve, whose first eight-episode season centered around an MI–5 agent (Sandra Oh) hunting down a female assassin all over Europe. Oh is wonderful in the role but I don’t buy the series’ plotting and it comes perilously close to exaggerated theatrics even though it’s not trying to be satirical. FX’s Pose, which chronicles the intersection of big business and the Harlem drag-ball scene in New York City in the late eighties, boasted a large cast of (many) transsexual actors in key roles but dramatically was more than a little slack and nearly undone by the one-note performance of Evan Peters as a ‘straight’ man intrigued by one of the girls. Both those series got more ink and acclaim than comparatively better shows on cable, like The Good Fight, the nominal sequel to CBS’s The Good Wife, which turns out to be one of TV’s best current efforts.

I must admit I was reticent at first to watch the show, which has been on for two seasons now and been renewed for a third season for next spring, mainly because I never saw the point of a sequel to The Good Wife, which, to my mind, was for its seven-season run, the finest network show on the air. (It was a bit wobbly in its final season but quickly righted itself. And it ended on a satisfactory and not overdone final note, which simply left the characters continuing their lives without feeling the need to wrap everything up in one great big bow.) Yet The Good Fight, which brings significant regular and supporting characters from that series over to this one, manages to be fresh, funny and gripping in ways that differ from its nominal predecessor. It’s also very relevant to what’s going on in Trump’s divided America.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Sound(s) of Silence: Comparing Notes

Author, professor, and musicologist Adam Ockelford. (Photo: Getty)

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." – Elvis Costello

Guilty as charged. Yep, I guess I’m definitely one of those Declan grumbled about who attempts to dance about architecture. The same quote has often been attributed to the artist/comedian Martin Mull, but since the subject is using language to try and define or describe sounds, let’s leave it in Costello’s sarcastic hands for now. It somehow just feels right coming from him.

In Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music, a captivating new book by Adam Ockelford, newly published by WW Norton and distributed by Penguin/Random House, a noted musicologist asks some thought-provoking questions. How does music work? Indeed, what is (or isn’t) music? We are all instinctively musical (not so sure about that one) but how and why? There would seem to be two kinds of books about music -- maybe more but at least two: those that try to describe music in a certain context and those that try to define music in all contexts. I suppose I’m even more guilty of Costello’s criticism, since often I not only write about music itself (as in my recent Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones books) but I go so far as to write about people who write about music. Thus, writing about writing about sounds: a double offense as far as Costello’s credo goes.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Juliet, Naked: Getting it Right

Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd in Juliet, Naked. (Photo: IMDB)

Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel Juliet, Naked has an irresistible premise. Its heroine, Annie, lives in an English seaside town, working at the local museum. Her long-time live-in boyfriend, Duncan, teaches university classes in film and TV but his obsession is an indie musician named Tucker Crowe who mysteriously disappeared from the rock scene years ago after releasing a heartbreak album called "Juliet", stirred into existence by a high-profile break-up with a beautiful model. Duncan and other Tucker Crowe fanatics gather on a website, spending hours dissecting his lyrics and speculating about his life. When Crowe’s old recording company releases an album of Juliet demos called "Juliet, Naked", and sends Duncan a pre-release copy, he goes into fandom overdrive, penning a review that proclaims it a masterpiece, Annie, who is feeling increasingly remote from Duncan, publishes her own critique for the website under a pseudonym, declaring it dreary and half-baked without the sophisticated musicianship that distinguishes the album it was just a preparation for – and Tucker Crowe himself e-mails her from America to second her opinion. Unexpectedly, these two, both at loose ends in their vastly different lives, become (e-mail) pen pals, and then circumstances bring him to England, where they finally meet.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Against All Odds: Into the Breach

Into the Breach by Subset Games was released on Nintendo Switch on August 28 2018. (Photo: Gamespot)

Historically, I’m terrible at strategy games. I can grasp the rules of chess, but I’m never able to think ahead and avoid my king’s inevitable demise. I rule over my fiefdoms in Risk with the same short-sighted bluster as the worst despots in history, charging into conquests that end with me fleeing back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I love the story and graphics and atmosphere of StarCraft, but I can barely complete the main campaign without cheat codes (never mind compete against other players online). So it was a rather big surprise to find myself sinking hours and hours into Subset Games’s Into the Breach, which is one of the toughest strategy games I’ve ever played.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Accurate Sounds – Robert Hilburn's Paul Simon: The Life

Paul Simon in a promotional photo for his 2018 farewell tour. (Photo: KeyArena)

With his farewell tour ending September 22 in Queens, NY and a new album coming out this Friday, Paul Simon remains current. To coincide with the tour, Simon granted L.A. Times music writer Robert Hilburn more than 100 hours of interviews for a new biography released last May, according to the press release from Simon & Schuster. But rather than hook a new album and a farewell tour to a book for commercial purposes, Hilburn goes much deeper by writing a balanced study of his subject. His focus, and it’s a good one, is to identify and explain the driving impulses behind Simon’s creativity. Naturally that’s an easier task with the co-operation of the person you’re writing about.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Blunt Force Trauma (2015)

Ryan Kwanten in Blunt Force Trauma (2015). (Photo: IMDB)

Two people stand at opposite ends of an arena in designated spots. They wear Kevlar vests and belts with pistols stuck into them, sometimes in a holster, mostly not. A referee hovers somewhere above, and at a predetermined signal, the two open fire on each other. The first to leave their spot loses.

In the world of Blunt Force Trauma (2015), the American-Colombian coproduction helmed by Ken Sanzel, these underground dueling sessions, organized like MMA fights, can be found across the American South and Latin America, in empty factories, abandoned train depots, and isolated underground parking garages. Contenders duel not for honor, but for money and, if they’re good, for fame. The best of them, Zorringer (Mickey Rourke), is so high up there that he lives on a Colombian mountain and has an associate pick his opponents from all over and drive them to him. John (Ryan Kwanten) is a promising hotshot who wants a duel with Zorringer, and to get it he goes from place to place dueling, winning, and hoping to get The Invite. At one place, he meets (but doesn’t duel) Colt (Freida Pinto), a fiery duelist who doesn’t wait for her opponent to stagger away but keeps firing till they drop out. Colt is seeking the Red Wolf, a legendary duelist who killed her brother, and she hitches a ride with John. They head south, following reports of the Red Wolf’s duels.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Unfollowed: Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Bo Burnham's debut feature Eighth Grade. (Photo: IMDB)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Joe Mader, to our group.


Bo Burnham’s first feature Eighth Grade has been celebrated as an empathetic, heart-felt look at female adolescence in the age of social media. Credit for his seeming success has gone to the performance of Elsie Fisher as his heroine Kayla. Her face is almost never offscreen during the 93-minute running time, and Burnham’s script is successful at capturing the awfulness, awkwardness, and daily humiliations eighth-graders, and girls in particular, are subject to. But despite the digital morass of posts and likes and follows and heart emojis, and up-to-date scenarios such as active-shooter drills, the movie doesn’t bring much new to past portrayals of tortured teenhood such as John Hughes comedies or even Rebel Without a Cause.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Judith Marcuse (1982)

Photo by  David Cooper.

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1982, I sat down with Canadian choreographer and dancer Judith Marcuse.

At the time of our conversation, Judith Marcuse's dance program Playgrounds was premiering in Toronto. Marcuse's career as a dancer began 20 years earlier at London's Royal Ballet School, but she would soon return to her native Montreal with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. In 1972, she turned primarily to choreography, and over the decades has created over 100 original works, many addressing a variety of social issues (e.g., the environment, teen suicide, bullying and homophobia). In 2007, she founded, and still co-directs, the International Centre of Art for Social Change in association with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. 

 – Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Judith Marcuse as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1982.



Saturday, September 1, 2018

After A.A. Milne: Christopher Robin

Pooh (Jim Cummings) and Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). (Photo: IMDB)

I’m not much of a fan of the director Marc Forster (Monsters' Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner), and except for Johnny Depp’s intimate, impassioned pressed-violet portrayal of James M. Barrie I find his 2004 Finding Neverland, about Barrie’s relationship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her four sons (one of whom inspired the creation of Peter Pan), fudged and sentimentalized. So I was caught off guard by his new movie, Christopher Robin, which is also linked to a children’s literary classic. It imagines a grown-up version of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), returned from the Second World War and so focused on his banal office life – a life of drudgery and enslavement to a lazy, tyrannical boss (Mark Gatiss) who takes credit for Christopher’s ideas – that he has no time for his wife Evelyn (a quietly affecting Hayley Atwell) or their somber, intent little girl Madeline (played by a talented young actress with a marvelous name, Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is in dire trouble but doesn’t realize it, so he gets a visit from his childhood companion Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) and finds himself back in the woods with Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and Baby Roo (Sara Sheen). I know; it sounds awful. In fact, it sounds like Steven Spielberg’s disastrous 1991 Hook, where it’s the adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has turned into a corporate type who needs to be rescued from a values-blind, dead-ended existence. Yet somehow Christopher Robin turns out to be lovely – sweet, not treacly, and understated.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Politics of Acting: Argentina’s Norma Aleandro in Conversation

Norma Aleandro in The Official Story (La historia oficial, 1985).

When the junta took over Argentina in 1976, it ate away at the heart of this South American nation, slowly obliterating all who stood in its way. Among the terrorized who have lived to tell the tale is the celebrated Argentinian actress, Norma Aleandro, now 82. I first learned of her plight from the 1985 Luis Puenzo film, The Official Story, a powerful exposé of the desaparecidos, the missing ones, who disappeared, never to be found again, during the "dirty war" waged by those opposed to the military dictatorship. Aleandro had come to Toronto for the gala screening and agreed to sit down with me for an interview.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Neglected Gem: A Great Day in Harlem

Art Kane's famous 1958 photo for Esquire Magazine. (Photo: Getty)

Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem centers on a legendary photo that appeared in Esquire Magazine, in a special 1958 issue on jazz, the brainchild of the new graphics editor (and future director and screenwriter) Robert Benton. A young art director named Art Kane came up with the idea of gathering every jazz musician who could be rounded up in front of a Harlem brownstone, underneath the 125th Street railroad station, and pitched it successfully to Benton. And somehow, at ten a.m., an hour when most respectable jazzmen are fast asleep, dozens of them showed up, huddling in groups, happy for the chance to socialize with their buddies. The only trick, relate Kane and his assistant, Steve Frankfurt, was to get them to shut up and look at the camera.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Her Majesty: The Soul of Aretha


“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way the hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty. American history wells up when Aretha sings. Because she captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and also the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation and transcendence.” – Barack Obama, Kennedy Center, 2015

Somehow, in a way that might forever remain inexplicable, Aretha Franklin managed to alter the landscape of soul music by transforming herself into both a rock icon and a pop goddess. For me, there were three key hinges to her remarkable swinging stylistic door. The first was synthesis: she was the perfect corporate merger between sacred gospel music and secular blues music. Next was reconciliation: she was the ideal reconciliation between and rhythm and blues music and rock and roll music. And finally, transcendence: she was the unexpected redemption of spiritual soul music by perfectly pure pop music.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Wachowskis Unbound: The Simulacra of Speed Racer (2008)

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer. (Photo: IMDB)

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich wrote, “Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.” While the first film this brings to mind may be The Matrix (1999), the Keanu Reeves-narrated documentary Side by Side (2012) explains how every film is now digital, and shows how every single element is fundamentally manipulable. Non-documentary cinema (and even some forms of documentary) has lost its grounding in to the real, in form and therefore in substance, something that most cinephiles lament – witness the loathing of TV motion smoothing. But what if a film were to celebrate its (oxymoronic) simulacral nature? What if, instead of trying to pass as realistic, a film embraced its artificiality? Well, then we might get Speed Racer (2008).

Monday, August 27, 2018

Durang Double Bill: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You & The Actor's Nightmare

Harriet Harris as the titular Sister Mary Ignatius in Durang's Berkshire revival. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

When I taught Christopher Durang’s one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You my first year at College of the Holy Cross, more than thirty years ago, several of my students clamored, with competitive fervor, to tell anecdotes about the fearsome nuns whose reigns of terror they’d suffered through. The play, first performed in 1979, is absurdist, and the titular sister’s intolerance for anything less than the most pure, doctrinal (and bloodthirsty) vision of the universe is ultimately psychotic, but my students recognized her immediately. And indeed, even in Durang’s most outrageous work, there’s always a tinge of realism mixed in with the lunacy.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Margie Gillis (1987)

Margie Gillis dancing to Tom Waits's "Waltzing Matilda" in 1978. (Photo: Jack Udashkin)

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1987, I sat down with Canadian dancer and choreographer Margie Gillis.

At the time of our conversation, Margie Gillis was already an international name in modern dance and choreography. We spoke of her show, New Dreams, which was premiering in Toronto, and about the new demands of balancing her fame with her artistic ambitions. In 2011, Gillis was awarded the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and, in 2013 became an Officer of the Order of Canada.

 – Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Margie Gillis as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.



Saturday, August 25, 2018

Counterbalance: The Clarity of Costas Picadas

"Hyperbola 3", from the Hyperbola series by photographic artist Costas Picadas. (Photo: Odon Wagner Gallery)

“The photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”  Diane Arbus

Welcome to the future history of photography: a utopia of pure images, a somewhat surreal realm in which our presumed yet arbitrary borderlines between the real and the imagined are deftly erased by the aesthetic prowess and technical skill of the artist. These splendidly pale gems are chromogenic prints, colloquially known as c-prints, but they are digital c-prints, where the image content is exposed through lasers rather than chemicals. Created in limited editions of five, with variable scales, and face-mounted to plexiglas, they are also invitations to a fresh kind of visual experience consisting of crystal-clear clarity. What Arbus did for faces and figures the Greek-born and New York-based Picadas seems to do for places and buildings: he reveals their inner essence by scratching gently at their surfaces to unearth their architectural facades, either their secret countenance or their psychic landscape. His dream-like vistas, with portions either fading into or out of optical focus, offer the viewer a whole new and vastly expansive dimension of hidden significance. They are retinal balms that soothe the weary eyes of our digital age, and yet they too are digital gifts, pulling us into the otherworldly architectonic realm of the everyday world we inhabit.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Neglected Gem: Ma Saison Préférée (1993)

Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil in Ma Saison Préférée. (Photo: IMDB)

The family dynamics in André Téchiné’s Ma Saison Préférée (My Favorite Season) are messy, complicated, and utterly plausible. Émilie (Catherine Deneuve) is married to her law partner, Bruno (Jean-Pierre Bouvier); their kids, Anne (Ciara Mastroianni) and Lucien (Anthony Prada), who’s adopted, are grown, though still in residence. The marriage has become perfunctory, and when Émilie’s estranged younger brother Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), a neurologist in another town, comes back into the picture, he initiates an argument between them that provokes a separation. Antoine has a habit of inciting arguments. He and Émilie have a close, eruptive relationship; at this point they haven’t spoken in three years, but when their mother (Marthe Villalonga) has a stroke and comes to stay with Émilie and Bruno, Émilie seeks Antoine out. The thinking among the members of Émilie’s family is that he’s crazy, and that he gets her acting crazy too; Bruno can’t abide him. So she lies to Bruno that she happened to run into him on the street and invited him to dinner to patch things up between them. Antoine tries to act like the perfect guest and not stir the waters, but he slips and exposes the lie. Bruno’s fury provokes Émilie; she’s so fed up with his disapproval that she says the worst things she can think of to hurt his feelings – she tell him that he suffocates and exhausts her, that she tells him lies to give herself a break from him. It isn’t true, but it does the trick.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Neglected Gem: David Lynch's Dune (1984)

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Muad'dib in Dune. (Photo: IMDB)

In any list of the worst book-to-film adaptations, you’ll find David Lynch’s Dune somewhere near the top – universally acknowledged as a shallow, baffling, unsatisfying adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, which suffered from an infamously tortured production process. In fact, to even call it “David Lynch’s Dune” is to invoke the spectre of this troubled development, which left Lynch so disgruntled that he hid behind the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym and even modified his writing credit to read “Judas Booth” (a mash-up of Judas Escariot and John Wilkes Booth) in subsequent cuts of the film. Pointing the finger at studio interference and a lack of creative control – including being denied final cut – Lynch seemed to respond to Dune’s critical and financial failings by dodging the issue of quality within the material itself and instead focusing on the ways in which he had been stifled. Dune remains a strange black mark on his filmography, frequently cited as his worst film and a disaster from top to bottom – which I think does a tremendous disservice to the things that make it not just a worthy addition to the Lynch canon, but to the epic fantasy genre as a whole.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Larger Than Life: The Big Note by Charles Ulrich

Frank Zappa, whose legacy is catalogued in Charles Ulrich's The Big Note. (Photo: IMDB)

This coming December 4th marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Frank Zappa. Just before he died of cancer at the age of 52, he was interviewed by NBC Today Show correspondent Jaime Gangel, who asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “It’s not important to be remembered” was his direct reply. Nevertheless, when you’re dead, you have no more say in the matter. The Big Note (New Star) by Charles Ulrich could be described as the final say in the matter of Frank Zappa’s music, a scholarly 800-page encyclopedia of all things Zappa.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

To Seek and Be Called: Nostalghia (1983)

Oleg Yankovskiy in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. (Photo: Getty)

Nostalghia (1983) is often considered, along with Ivan’s Childhood (1962), to be a minor Tarkovsky, the latter due to its relative conventionality, the former because of how far it goes in the other direction. Written by Andrei Tarkovsky with famous Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, this film is a mood piece in the strictest sense of the term, in that its core theme is the feeling of “nostalghia,” which alludes to a Russian emigrant longing for the fatherland, and in the fact that every cinematic element is either sacrificed for this theme or indentured into its service. What results is a work of devastating beauty just ripe for the GIFing.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Fanny Brice: Brains and Talent

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach, pictured in 1928. (Photo: Getty Archives)

In William Wyler’s 1968 Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand gives one of the two or three greatest musical-comedy performances ever put on film as Fanny Brice, the Brooklyn burlesque comic who became a Broadway star when Florenz Ziegfeld tapped her to appear in his Follies in 1910. But Streisand’s is a reimagined Brice – more crafted, funny in a more modern mode, and more of a camera creation (even though Streisand had originated the role on stage and this was only her first picture). The real Fanny Brice, who can be glimpsed in only a handful of movies – Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with her, so when she retired from the stage in the 1930s she wound up on radio, where she played Baby Snooks for years – and heard in a couple of dozen recordings. (Jasmine Records has collected them all, including a couple of Baby Snooks routines, on Fanny Brice: The Rose of Washington Square. The song “Rose of Washington Square,” which she performed in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic in 1920, is not, alas, among them.)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Donny Osmond Does an Encore

Donny Osmond, in his prime. (Photo: Billboard)

The story of Donny Osmond is not an easy one to tell in a short space. A book might be better. Although the former teen idol seems to have been around forever, he just this year turned 60. Yet his life has had as many chapters as someone twice his age.

The first, and the most widely known, is filled with descriptions of his life as a jet-setting member of the internationally known Osmonds. You remember, the singing brothers from Utah? The Mormons in bell bottoms, sequins and big-collared shirts? The guys whose squeaky-clean image helped push them to the top of the recording industry? At one time, they scored nine gold records in a single year. Their rivals were The Jackson 5, brothers too, but black. The teen magazines pitted one against the other.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Podcast: Interview with Tom Laughlin (1985)

Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor in the 1971 cult hit Billy Jack. (Photo: Handout/NY Daily News)

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1985, I sat down with actor, director and screenwriter Tom Laughlin.

At the time of the interview, Tom Laughlin was in Toronto filming The Return of Billy Jack, a planned follow-up to his Billy Jack films of the previous decade, in which he bucked the trend of 1970s film antiheroes by portraying a genuinely positive heroic figure who protected animals and children against racist thugs. The Return of Billy Jack would unfortunately never be released.

– Kevin Courrier

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



Friday, August 17, 2018

Refugees: Leave No Trace

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. (Photo: IMDB)

Intimate, graceful and sorrowful, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And it’s a total surprise, because I found Granik’s last picture, Winter’s Bone, phony pretty much from start to finish. A study of an adolescent girl (Jennifer Lawrence) growing up in abject poverty in the Ozarks, it was relentlessly gray and cheerless, the characters reduced to editorial signposts proclaiming the director’s vision. The whole movie reminded me of the scene at the end of Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger visits his clandestine lover Jake Gyllenhaal’s parents after Gyllenhaal’s death: Ang Lee wanted to make the point that these people were dirt poor, so the walls were bare. But it’s an elemental human impulse to try to import some comfort to even the grimmest surroundings – a hospital room, a jail cell. The only scene in Winter’s Bone that felt lived-in was one where a group of people gather to make music. By contrast, there isn’t a single moment in Leave No Trace – the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who lives, homeless and itinerant, with her father, Will (Ben Foster), in the woods of the Pacific Northwest – that seems inauthentic. It has a varied and rich emotional palette. Perhaps the magnificent visual palette of the landscape (shot by Michael McDonough) helped keep Granik honest.