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