Thursday, November 15, 2018

Runaway Train: John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina

Svetlana Lunkina as Anna Karenina in John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina. (Photo: Kiran West)

John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina, at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Sunday, is a classic novel turned into a train wreck of a ballet. Running over three hours in length and said to have cost $1.9-million to produce, this meandering two-act narrative dance – the first co-production between the National Ballet of Canada, the Bolshoi and the Hamburg Ballet – is not just overlong but overdone. Superfluous scenes, anachronistic details, misplaced humour, histrionics and a surfeit of clichés not only try the patience, they threaten to kill empathy for one of the greatest female characters ever created in the whole of art.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How I Felt toward This Film about Halfway Through: Hostile (2017)

Brittany Ashworth in Hostile (2017).

Writer-director Mathieu Turi’s debut is a zombie post-apocalypse thriller cum meditation on a romantic relationship, brazenly tied together. Despite heartfelt acting and high production values (on a low budget, no less!), the melodramatic direction, tone-deaf dialogue, predictable plot, and overly intellectual transitions had me checking out about a fourth of the way into this under-ninety-minute effort. Elevated horror Hostile (2017) is not.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Unlikely Musicals: Girl from the North Country and Allelujah!

Kimber Sprawl and Sydney James Harcourt in Girl from the North Country. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The mood of sorrow in Conor McPherson’s beautiful new play Girl from the North Country, reaching down as deep as the deepest well, is both aching and piercing, and when you walk out of the Public Theatre at the end (where it’s about to end its sold-out run) it hobbles you: my step was slower, my mind a little befogged, and I had the impression that I was carrying something heavy and unresolvable with me. Yet the evening is often joyous. The seventeen-member ensemble, each performing at capacity, sings the Bob Dylan songs in Simon Hale’s exquisite arrangements – there are twenty in all – with brio and with full hearts. The music decorates the air and makes the show swing, even when it comments on lost love, even when the narrative context of the lyrics turns them ironic. And though the overarching theme is loneliness, the music also imbues what we see on the stage with an unmistakable feeling of community, in the sense of a common humanity. I found myself thinking of Our Town – with Robert Joy, as the narrator, Dr. Walker, almost taking on the role of the omniscient Stage Manager in the last minutes – and of Spoon River Anthology, as well as of Pennies from Heaven, because of the Depression-era setting and because Girl from the North Country is a Brechtian jukebox musical.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dancing from the Shadows: Akram Khan's XENOS

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

In XENOS, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s solo journey into the heart of darkness, death is a perpetual presence. It haunts the stage in both poetic and elemental ways. A mound of black dirt. A phonograph doubling as a search light. Nothing is sacred. Nothing safe. There is no romancing the inevitable in this poignant meditation on the suffering of First World War soldiers; the soul is excavated, the flesh exposed and the mind racked to breaking point. Love, beauty and all we – as a so-called civilized people – hold dear end up buried and presumed lost. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. XENOS – the word is Greek for "stranger" – is like King Lear distilled to the essence of the howl, howl, howl upon the heath: an unrelenting portrait of life as viewed from the shadows.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Art of the Ordinary: A Revolution in Meaning

Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes, the Stable Gallery, New York City, 1964. (Photo: Fred McDarrah)

Images, our great and primitive passion . . . ” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
Richard Deming's new book Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press) explores a major revolution in the meaning of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Its subtitle sums it up rather nicely: the everyday domain of art, film, philosophy and poetry. Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.

Art of the Ordinary explores how philosophical questions can be revealed in surprising places – as in a stand-up comic’s routine, for instance, or a Brillo box, or a Hollywood movie. From negotiations with the primary materials of culture and community, ways of reading "self" and "other" are made available, deepening one’s ability to respond to ethical, social, and political dilemmas. Deming picks out key figures, such as the philosophers Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Richard Wollheim, poet John Ashbery, artist Andy Warhol and comedian Steven Wright, to showcase the foundational concepts of language, ethics, and society.



Monday, November 5, 2018

The Waverly Gallery and the Ineffable Elaine May

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Since her early days with Mike Nichols, Elaine May has occupied a magical space where high comedy overlaps with revue-sketch comedy. At eighty-six she still possesses the combination of qualities that made her Nichols’ inspired collaborator and that made her a rara avis in movies like In the Spirit and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks: razor wit, a loopy, uncategorizable presence, an insistent if quirky humanity, and the impulse to take wild leaps of imagination, sometimes linking traits of character that we don’t expect to find together. She always seems self-invented – as if what we see on screen or on stage is the living embodiment of her writing style. (You could say the same about Christopher Durang, which is the reason that, if you’ve seen him in a role he’s written for himself, it’s so tough to get his voice out of your head when someone else plays it.) As Gladys Green, the New York-Jewish gallery owner she plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, who is sinking into dementia, the pixieish May gives an enchanting performance. One might say that watching her is like getting a master class in acting, but the fact is that she’s so weirdly unlike anyone else that you could hardly tell a young actor to go and do likewise. The only actress I can think of who’s remotely like her is her gifted daughter, Jeannie Berlin, whose career May ignited by giving her the role of the abandoned bride in her unconventional 1972 romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

Friday, November 2, 2018

All Work and No Play: Bohemian Rhapsody

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rock and roll has long seemed wedded to the movies despite the fact that film started a good 50 years before those percussive, jangling refrains entered the mainstream. But the immediacy, intimacy, and gigantism of that shimmering screen is so related to the feeling of excess engendered in rock and pop that it can seem like they have always been intertwined. (A movie like Rebel Without a Cause was so steeped in the youthful mythos of rock that it’s still surprising to realize it was released before rock existed as a mass phenomenon.) Thus it’s no surprise that the lives of rock gods and goddesses have served as fodder for numerous screenplays and treatments. The rock-and-roll biopic is a genre unto itself. The best of these pictures tend to hinge on who portrays the pop deity – if the actor is able to tear into both the myth and reality of their subject, the results can be spectacular, even if the movie itself is so-so. Jamie Foxx was terrific as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing turn as Johnny Cash, and to a lesser extent, Reese Witherspoon’s as June Carter Cash, still haunt me, and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline was a revelation. (Lange also had the great fortune to have Robert Getchell writing sharp, incisive dialogue for her.) Both Paul Dano and John Cusack broke my heart as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, and Beyoncé was mesmerizing as Etta James in the too little-seen Cadillac Records, to name just a few. Even if the movie is out-and-out terrible, a great star turn can make the experience worthwhile. It’s hard to see how Lady Sings the Blues could be much worse, just as it’s almost as hard to see how Diana Ross’s performance could be much better. (Go have the argument whether Lady is a jazz or blues biopic somewhere else: Ross’s performance is pure rock and roll.) But rock cinema is also riddled with great promise greatly denied: Dennis Quaid put all sorts of effort into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, but never really came to life. Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison was stillborn (perhaps due to director Oliver Stone’s apparent belief there’s no greater rock star than himself), and let’s not talk about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Ghosts of October (4): Whistle and I’ll Come To You

An illustration for “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” in M.R. James’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Over the past month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney has highlighted some of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction and film. See Parts 1, 2, and 3
here, here, and here.

“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (the title quotes a lyric from Robert Burns) was written in 1904 by M.R. James, whose ghost stories are as venerated a Christmas tradition in the UK as those of Dickens. James was a Cambridge University provost, librarian, and antiquarian, and his best work grew out of a passion for buried history, with aggressive spirits released from crypts and clods of earth by unwary scholar-diggers. In “Whistle,” a professor named Parkins vacations in a coastal town. At a colleague’s request, he examines a site where lodges of the Knights Templar are known to have stood, to see if the ground appears promising for archeology. While poking about in a nearby cemetery (similar to the one found in The Green Man; Kingsley Amis had read James), Parkins unearths “a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age.” He takes it with him – and perceives, as he walks along the beach toward his hotel, something seeming to follow him through the dusk: “the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance.” That night, in his room, he finds the tube to be a whistle, bearing a Latin inscription which translates as Who is this who is coming? He cleans out the whistle, and blows it. And something comes to him.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Shakespeare x 2: Measure for Measure and King Lear

Petr Rykov and Anna Khalilulina in Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre’s Measure for Measure. (Photo:Johan Persson)

The collaboration by the English company Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre from Russia on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure runs for an uninterrupted hour and fifty minutes, and it holds the attention. That is, until the climactic scene where first Isabella and then the Duke of Vienna expose the sexual blackmail Angelo, the Duke’s surrogate during his (supposed) absence, has attempted on Isabella, the convent novice whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to execution for fornication, according to the antiquated law Angelo has elected to reactivate. All the actors are Russian, and two of them, Anna Vardevanian as Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev, are first-rate. Their two big scenes – the one in which Isabella pleads for her brother’s life and the one in which Angelo presses his sexual attentions on her – are mesmerizing.  Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan has chosen to stage the sexual extortion as a near-rape; he’s far from the first director to do so, and given the sexual politics of this era he certainly won’t be the last. But though the staging is extremely effective, it’s mostly the intensity and variety of the two performances that make both encounters so gripping. And the slimming down of Shakespeare’s text (which mostly affects the scenes built around the madam, Mistress Overdone, played by Elmira Mirel, and her associate Pompey, played by Alexey Rakhmanov) help to shape the production so that it leads inexorably to the centerpiece Angelo-Isabella scenes.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Being and Nothingness: Miranda July's The Future (2011)

Hamish Linklater and Miranda July in The Future (2011).

Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of nothingness. Oukontic nothingness is the kind you’d normally think of when you read the word “nothing,” defined as pure lack, the kind for which, as Gertrude Stein once said, “there is no there there.” The other kind is meontic nothingness, and it’s a nothingness you can do things with, like (to use a simile) the compressed air in a submerged submarine relative to the surrounding water. In terms of the extremes of cinema, oukontic nothingness could be used to characterize films that have no value, or films that are utterly inept at conveying whatever they’re supposed to: Gotti (2018), for instance. Meontic nothingness, on the other hand, could be another way to describe pure cinema, the je ne sais quoi that tells you, “This is a work of cinematic art.” The Future (2011), written and directed by and starring Miranda July, is an ingenious work of meontic nothingness.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Radio Daze: Fond Memories of an Aggravating Angel

Photo by John Marsonet.

“To deal with the history of cultures means to abandon oneself to potential chaos and yet to retain a deep belief in the basic ordination and meaning of things. It is a very serious task. One requiring a great lightness of spirit.” Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi

I definitely miss being on a weekly radio program. From about 1988 until the end of the 20th century, I was the visual art critic for CJRT-FM in Toronto, a wonderful community-based station with an eclectic mix of programming and hosts covering every aspect of popular culture, from classical music, folk and jazz, to BBC-imported Goon Shows and compelling ideas-based documentaries. The program on which I appeared every Wednesday to review an exhibition, interview an artist, curator or museum official, discuss an architectural design site and occasionally assess art books of mainstream interest, was appropriately called On the Arts, and that’s exactly what it was, with a day each week exclusively devoted to music, films, theatre, art, design, books and art politics.  It just now seems so perfectly 20th-century, in fact, that kind of diversity of interests, since independent public radio (and television for that matter) has become such a rare thing to behold or behear. (Critics At Large has been sharing excerpts of the program as podcasts.)

One of the other joys of my radio days was the fact that it was through this medium that I was able to cross paths with a delightful friend of over thirty years, the late, great Kevin Courrier, who passed away (or went to spirit, as he would have called it) in mid-October of this year. The path to Kevin, however, first led me to encounter the irascible, sardonic, sarcastic, infuriating and brilliant Tom Fulton, Kevin’s co-host at CJRT-FM and his mentor of many years: the man who Kevin said helped him “find his voice.” Kevin in turn helped me find my own voice, guiding me through the odd vagaries and quirks of the radio broadcast medium of expression.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ghosts of October (3): The Hour After Westerly

Author Robert M. Coates.

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

To read, see, or otherwise experience a great ghost story is to feel the slow descent of a benign curse. But we who are addicted to the art of the ghostly know, for we are always being reminded, that most ghost stories fail. They simply don’t scare. Worse, they don’t haunt. They give us plenty of whimsy and cliché. What they don’t give us is the vibration, both fearsome and pleasurable, of imaginative contact with the otherworldly. We search for works of poetic imagination which skillfully convey the feel of quiet and disquiet, of distant forms and impalpable presences, and which will leave something inside of us: their ghosts, in a word. And seldom, so seldom, do we find it.

But eventually we may discover that our operative addiction is being fed sub rosa by works which, though they have little or no supernatural element, are nonetheless haunted. It’s inspiriting (no pun intended) to find that, if our antennae are so attuned, “ghostly” needn’t be a matter of content. It can also be one of style, approach, apperception; or it may be embedded thematically, in narratives of characters who realize they are becoming, or have become, ghosts of a kind. While some variant on “the fantastic” – the term used by structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov in his 1970 study of that title – might do for taxonomic purposes, I’ve always preferred to call this undeclared subgenre simply “the ghost story without ghosts.”

Monday, October 22, 2018

Trying to Make the Old New Again in Oklahoma! and A Star Is Born

Jordan Barbour and Jonathan Luke Stevens in Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival  (Photo: Jenny Graham)

Every few years or so someone mounts a major revival of Oklahoma! (1943) or Carousel (1945) on Broadway or in the West End – or in the West End and then on Broadway – and critics fall over themselves proclaiming that this rendition of a Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster is fresh and relevant and reaffirms their rock-bound standing in the musical-theatre canon. But no production in my experience has managed to transcend the tinny, pedantic banalities of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics or the embarrassing pseudo-populist vernacular, which makes the fake poetry in The Grapes of Wrath sound like Walt Whitman by comparison. God knows I should have known better, but I checked in on the latest Broadway Carousel, directed by Jack O’Brien. But though the choreographer, Joshua Peck, came up with one thrilling number (“Blow High, Blow Low,” showcasing the dazzling high stepping of Amar Ramasar as Jigger Craigin), the dialogue, with its hopeless attempt at mimicking the sound of turn-of-the-century Mainers, sank the performances of the talented cast, Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Lindsay Mendez and Renee Fleming among them. (Plus there was no fucking carousel.)

There are two new versions of Oklahoma! these days, one on each coast. I skipped Daniel Fish’s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (which prompted The New York Times’s Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, in “conversation” on the front page of the arts section, to outdo each other with kudos) but sat through Bill Rauch’s, which is selling out the big house at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Rauch is artistic director. Rauch and Fish seem to be in competition for the most up-to-date twenty-first-century revival of a classic musical. At St. Ann’s Ado Annie is in a wheelchair, but Rauch has cast a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens, as Ado Andy, and a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, as Curly. Two same-sex couples versus one disabled actor: Rauch wins the virtue sweepstakes hands down.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Spear That Smote You: Phoenix (2014)

Nina Hoss in Phoenix (2014).

The danger with allegories, especially historical allegories, is that they can subsume the story with which they’re spun. To defend against this, it’s not enough to offer some telling details, which ultimately only hints at an underlying specificity; such an allegory has to string together coherent narratives in two distinct registers at once in a high-strung balancing act. Phoenix (2014) manages this remarkable feat, and both narratives are outstanding to boot.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Ghosts of October (2): Vanished! A Video Séance

Victoria Seifert as Voirrey Irving in Vanished! A Video Séance (1999).

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Part 1 here
 
In 1931, a tiny, furry creature with humanoid hands, voice, and intelligence was said to have materialized at Doarlish Cashen, a remote farm near the village of Dalby on the Isle of Man, two hours’ boat ride from England’s west coast. The farm’s inhabitants, the Irving family, had begun to hear scuffling and chattering in their attic, followed by a high-pitched, gibbering voice. Quickly picking up English from its hosts, the voice’s owner gave its name as Gef, and claimed to be an 80-year-old marsh mongoose brought to England in the previous century. Initially reticent, Gef soon came into view and moved about the house freely. Despite its causing no end of poltergeist mischief (midnight cacophonies, food stolen, messes left), the Irvings became attached to the creature, and it to them. Word of the family’s fantastic guest reached the village, and then the mainland, where Gef became a sensation in the popular press and psychical societies. Many visitors came, some going away convinced of the unbelievable, others that a hoax was on; Harry Price, the preeminent ghost hunter of the day, investigated with admirable pomp, holding séances and writing a book. (As much showman as scientist, Price was cagily inconclusive in his findings.) But neither solid confirmation nor a definitive debunking was presented, and after a few years, the public fascination with the case faded. So, apparently, did Gef.

Vanished! A Video Séance (1999) begins on a whistling wind and an image, only briefly held, of Doarlish Cashen – a rough, charmless place, in open country. Then we watch the textured skin of a female neck work up and down in excruciatingly slow motion to the magnified sounds of swallowing, which evolve into a series of primordial growls and roars. This wordless prelude lasts perhaps a minute, though it seems longer, long enough for you to do two things – discern that these are the sounds of a spirit entering the body and voice-box of a human host; and reflect on the abstractness of what you are seeing and hearing. In successive shots, the Irvings – father James (Julian Curry), mother Margaret (Rosemary McHale), and teenage daughter Voirrey (Victoria Seifert) – explain that they have been called up to relate incidents in their lives from years ago. Unless you know something of the backstory, you will have no idea of who these people are, or why they’ve been summoned. But you will wait to find out, because the tone is so plain and grave, the actors so fixated. This will not be a conventional spook show.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Diversions: The Drowsy Chaperone and Sherlock’s Last Case

The cast of Goodspeed Opera House's production of The Drowsy Chaperone. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Drowsy Chaperone is one of the high points in twenty-first-century American musical theatre. First produced on Broadway in 2006 in a rambunctious, irresistible production that is still the best thing director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has ever done, it’s a parody of a 1920s musical comedy framed, ingeniously, by a commentary by a middle-aged musicals buff known as Man in Chair. The conceit is that this character, who finds most contemporary theatre unsatisfying – and the modern world exasperating – is sitting alone in his apartment, trying to coax himself out of the blues by listening to his favorite show recording, of a silly, lighthearted musical called The Drowsy Chaperone. Bob Martin, who wrote the book along with his fellow Canadian, Don McKellar, was the original Man in Chair; the ebullient, sometimes loony songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and the lyrics often make you laugh out loud – a genuine rarity.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kevin Courrier (1954-2018)

Kevin Courrier, November 23, 1954-October 12, 2018. (Photo: John Marsonet)

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Kevin Courrier on October 12 after a three-year battle with cancer. Kevin co-founded Critics At Large in January 2010 along with Shlomo Schwartzberg and the late David Churchill and served as editor-in-chief until his illness compelled him to retire early this year. He also contributed hundreds of pieces, mostly on movies and music. Even after he was no longer able to write for the website, he continued to be heard here – literally as well as figuratively – on podcasts that had originated as interviews with a wide range of artists on the CJRT-FM radio show On the Arts throughout the 1980s.

Kevin was a fine writer and a formidable critic. He had a grasp of the popular arts that was simultaneously dazzlingly broad and effortlessly deep. He was a compendium of information about music and movies and he had a precise memory that never faltered, even in his final months. He had a rare – one might say unparalleled – gift for making unexpected and resonant connections between disparate works and ideas, unshakeable common sense, and the ability to make the complex lucid, whether on larger canvases (his books on Randy Newman, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart) or smaller ones (his work on this website, the culmination of a career in journalism). These same qualities were apparent in the extraordinarily popular classes on film he gave to audiences of seniors in a variety of Toronto venues.

We offer below a small selection of reviews and articles that showcase his remarkable talent. We will miss his voice.

– The editorial team of Critics At Large

Out of This World: John Coltrane in Seattle (1965) September 24, 2015 

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America June 23, 2016

You Probably Don't Even Hear It When It Happens: The Sopranos & The Death of the Gangster Hero August 26, 2016

A Change Is Gonna Come: The End of the Obama Era January 20, 2017

Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" July 11, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War October 1, 2017

Deplorable: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri January 9, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Behind the Mirror: The Cinematic Uncanny of Michael Curtiz

A scene from Michael Curtiz's final film The Comancheros (1961).

“Hide in the mirror. No one will look for you there.”  – Ljupka Cvetnova

“Movies are magic.”  – Van Dyke Parks

When I was coming of age in the mid-60s in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, there wasn’t much to do apart from reading books and watching television. Well, there were some other activities, but they were illegal back then. And one of the accidental benefits of primitive television in the days, before the advent of cable, TCM and Netflix, was the ironic fact that old movie studios used to provide the bulk of late-night programming in the form of classic films from the golden age. Especially late-late-late night television, for the likes of me, for whom there was no better way to come down from the excitement of attending all-day outdoor rock festivals with ten stellar bands.

As a result I caught magical glimpses of some of the great cinematic gems and enjoyed many of my favourite flicks in a film festival occurring only in my own mind. It turned out that many of my favourites were produced and directed by the same quietly titanic but toweringly talented individual. Back then I was also able to actually rent 16-mm versions, along with the projector, from our local library (another thing of the past) and even to order the films themselves by mail order from outfits called Blackhawk and Castle Films. I used to screen these at home for friends, often with my own substituted soundtracks, in the case of some grand silent masterpieces.

Where to begin to unravel the wildly multi-phrenic universe of one of the most gifted and underrated geniuses in film history: Michael Curtiz? Perhaps by asking a basic question: what might all the following drastically divergent and highly stylized visual entertainments have in common? Just one single but remarkable thing, which was the result of the commercial ascendancy of Hollywood after both the end of the First and the Second World Wars, when a flood of talented newcomers washed up on its sunny shores from a conflict-ravaged Europe.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Modernists: Naked and Uncle Vanya

Tara Franklin and James Barry in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of Naked. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Among the virtues of the Berkshire Theatre Group is its dedication to reviving forgotten plays, both American and European. The BTG summer season included The Petrified Forest, and currently you can see an excellent mounting of Luigi Pirandello’s Naked. Italy’s famous modernist playwright, who invented a new style of theatre, theatre of identity (usually known simply as Pirandellian theatre), with Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921, wrote Naked the following year. It was a remarkably prolific time for Pirandello, who turned out fourteen plays and a novel between 1921 and 1929; Naked was one of three plays he wrote in 1922 alone, including his second masterpiece, Henry IV. But I’d never read or seen it before. It’s rarely performed, and though I have six or eight Pirandello plays on my shelves, Naked isn’t among them. BTG is using the Nicholas Wright translation, which was produced at the Almeida in London nearly twenty years ago 2000 with Juliette Binoche and then in New York with Mira Sorvino.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Writing as a Sensual Act: In Conversation with Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is Advice for Future Corpses. (Photo: Robbie McClaran)

Sallie Tisdale, a literary libertine, is laid out on a divan in a downtown Toronto bar called Harmony Lounge, gorging on cakes and finger sandwiches. It's not that she's ravenous – she just had lunch – it's just that she is loath to deny herself pleasure, any pleasure – food, liquids, sex. Especially sex.

The author of Talk Dirty To Me, a book celebrating orgasms, pornography, fantasies, prostitution and other things that make the libido go bump in the night, became a cause célèbre immediately upon its publication in 1994. She has since authored nine non-fiction books, as well as dozens of articles for The New Yorker, The New Republic and Harper's magazines. Her latest title is Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, published by Touchstone Books in June.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Breach (2007)

Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper in Breach (2007).

Like his previous film, the 2003 Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray’s Breach is a true-life narrative that builds to the uncovering of a fraud. In Shattered Glass the fraud was Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), the wunderkind journalist for The New Republic, who, it turned out, had concocted most of his stories. In Breach it’s Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a CIA operative whose 2001 arrest revealed him as the most egregious spy in American history. Both of these movies are extremely suspenseful, but not in conventional ways, because there’s no surprise about the identity of either of the two perpetrators. Once a Forbes writer (Steve Zahn) starts to unravel one of Glass’s articles, we know where the film is going, and the only revelation in Breach – which comes in the early middle of the movie – is that the reason the CIA sets the aspiring young agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe), in Hanssen’s office and on his tail isn’t, as Eric is originally told, that his new boss is a pornographer but that he’s a traitor. What appears to draw Ray to both his subjects is astonishment that they could have been who they were and gotten away with what they did for so long. What creates the suspense in both pictures is the way they move from incredulousness to certainty: both ours and that of the other major male characters – Eric in Breach, Steve Glass’s editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) in Shattered Glass – who have the charge of bringing them down.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Ghosts of October (1): The Green Man

Albert Finney, Sarah Berger and Linda Marlowe in the BBC's The Green Man (1990).


Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney will highlight one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film.

Even those of us who seek to avoid the intentional fallacy may be susceptible to the true (or “true”) stories that surround cherished works. The best of them add a dash of predestination, and suggest creativity mystically mingling with other invisible elements of our world. Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man (1969), one of my favorite novels of the supernatural, engendered one of the best such true-slash-“true” stories I know of. Trailing the novel are one short memoir, two television adaptations, and at least enough frisson to warm a pot of tea – making the novel not merely a discrete artwork, but also the main hall in an eccentric house of adaptation and spinoff. (As it happens, the novel is named for a house – the country inn, tended by a sex-obsessed alcoholic and haunted by a centuries-old curse, which is its main setting.)
 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Lee Chang-dong's Burning: The Stories We Tell Ourselves about Telling Ourselves Stories

Yoo Ah-in in Lee Chang-dong's Burning (2018).

We’ve never seen a metafictional film quite like this before. Beyond the knowingness of Deadpool (2016) and reticent where Adaptation (2002) is giddy, Burning (Beoning/버닝, 2018) is a silk-smooth character study from acclaimed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong (who co-wrote it) that morphs midway through into a Hitchcockian thriller, before ending in the realm of social commentary – if you can figure it out, that is. The filmmaking is assured to the point where long takes go unnoticed, and the impeccable pace makes the 148-minute running time feel all too short, especially given how tight the plot is, as you’ll see from the length of the plot summary below.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Operation Finale: Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann

Ben Kingsley as Adolf Eichmann in Operation Finale (2018).

Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazis’ Final Solution, in Operation Finale – which tells the tale of his 1960 capture in Buenos Aires at the hands of Mossad and Shin Bet – showcases the virtues of the British classical approach to acting. It’s a marvel. His line readings have a shivering preciseness, but there’s an exquisitely layered richness to them, too, like plucked strings that release a multitude of embedded sounds, many of them surprising, some of them mysterious. It’s like a concert by a musical genius who constantly scrambles your expectations by shifting tempo and articulating passages in ways no has thought of before. When, imprisoned in a safe house on the outskirts of the city while his flight to Jerusalem to stand trial is delayed, Eichmann asks Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), the Shin Bet agent who effected the kidnaping, for information on the well-being of his family, you don’t know how to read what sounds like pleading in his tone, because he’s such a master manipulator that he could be softening up the man he refers to as “Herr Captor” – appealing to his humanity in order to get concessions out of him. Even the inflection he gives to that phrase, “Herr Captor,” is hard to interpret: its respectfulness, its acknowledgement of who has the power, is complicated with slivers of wit and something that sounds like it’s just on the edge of derisiveness.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Our Endless Blind Date with Mary Shelley

Elle Fanning as an imaginary Mary lost in dreams, in Mary Shelley (2017).

Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the publication of this exotic, bizarre, thought-provoking and psychologically complex concoction by a precocious teenager, a new biography of Mary Shelley arrives to tantalize us further with her tangled web of masculine mythology and proto-feminism writ large. In addition to being timely, In Search of Mary Shelley, from Pegasus and authored by renowned poet Fiona Sampson, has the added virtue of admitting that the search goes on for the true essence of this strange girl, and that it’s unlikely anyone will ever know the real core of this scarily prescient modernist daughter of two radical parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Macabre Mary lived from 1797 to 1851.

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; I was lucky to catch it 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. 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; 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.