Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Dream Teller: Why Brian Wilson Might Be Our George Gershwin

Brian Wilson, 1966, the fragile reason why The Beach Boys matter.

A Review of Why The Beach Boys Matter, Tom Smucker’s new book from University of Texas Press.
Brian fought hard against the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.
– Lindsey Buckingham (ex-Fleetwood Mac, and hugely influenced by Wilson)
And that, my friends, as Lindsey Buckingham so eloquently described it, is exactly why The Beach Boys matter, and why I’m delighted to find a valid excuse, in the form of Tom Smucker’s concise new book on their cultural role (Why The Beach Boys Matter, from University of Texas Press), to wax rhapsodic on their true stature as serious artists concealed under the shiny veneer of pop music transience. Let me be even more blunt right up front: The Beach Boys matter because of their founder and resident singer-songwriting genius Brian Wilson, and Brian Wilson matters because he is Brian Wilson, and he also survived being Brian Wilson.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Neglected Gem: Enchanted April (1992)

Josie Lawrence and Joan Plowright in Enchanted April.

During World War II, two middle-aged women, fed up with their dreary marriages, answer an ad to rent a castle in the Italian countryside for a month; their lives – as well as the lives of two strangers who agree to share the rent – are magically altered. That’s the premise of Enchanted April. There have now been enough comedies of this forest-of-Arden variety to call it a genre – I Know Where I’m Going and Local Hero and High Season and, in a way, May Fools and Where the Heart Is (where the magic setting is a fantastical vision of New York). I’m not sure why, but this is one sort of movie that almost always seems to work: I loved all of those earlier pictures, and Enchanted April is a charmer. (The exception, ironically, is the 1935 movie version of the same material, a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim). Part of the charm lies in the fact that it’s as different from the other movies as they are from each other. The screenwriter, English playwright Peter Barnes, has a quirky turn of phrase, and he keeps throwing in twists and devices (like voice-overs transcribing the characters’ thoughts) that you didn’t anticipate – and often, as in the case of the voice-overs, that you would likely have predicted, wrongly, wouldn’t work. The film isn’t fluid or polished; it skips around a bit, as if the director, Mike Newell, were feeling his way through it. This tentativeness enhances a viewer’s enjoyment; you experience the movie as a series of delightful small discoveries.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life

Robert Pattinson in High Life.
Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, "Can human life be created in space?" The answer is always no, because of irradiation – almost always.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sea Wall/A Life: Putting It Together

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sea Wall/A Life. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sea Wall and A Life are a pair of monologues, each about forty-five minutes in length, that form a double bill currently at the Public Theatre. The first, written by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), features the English actor Tom Sturridge as Alex, a photographer who loses his eight-year-old daughter Lucy during a family visits to father-in-law’s oceanside summer home in France. The second, written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and acted by Jake Gyllenhaal, links the deterioration and death of the father of the protagonist, Abe, to the birth of his child. Clearly a strenuous set of workouts for the two actors, they’re also an emotional endurance test for the audience. That they combine to form a satisfying evening in the theatre is less a result of the themes they have in common (loss and grief, the relationship between a parent and a child) than of the ways in which they contrast each other. (An incidental commonality between the two halves of the double bill: both reference the TV show ER.) One is set in Europe, the other – in this production, at least – in America; one is a spare single story, the other a cross-hatching of two stories; one is a portrait of the walking wounded, the other the attempt of a man to find meaning by connecting the two essential narratives of his adult life. So although A Life inevitably echoes Sea Wall, their distinctness from each other suggests the hugeness and variety of the experiences of death and of parenthood.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Rise of the Videogame Aesthetic in Cinema

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Serenity (2019).

This piece contains spoilers for Serenity and Aquaman.

When critics first saw Serenity (2019) they lost their minds. Charles Bramesco of The Guardian calls it a “zeppelin crash of a film”; and it broke Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, who wrote a conceptual review that sees it as a career rest stop for lead Matthew McConaughey. Everyone seems to agree that the acting is clichéd, the dialogue stilted, the style overwrought to the point of camp, and the camerawork just plain weird.

But as a counterpoint, I submit for your consideration the idea that writer-director Steven Knight is not introducing us to a guy named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who, asked by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) to kill her abusive current husband Frank (Jason Clarke), suddenly discovers that – spoiler! – he’s a character in a video game. Knight presents us with a video-game world called Plymouth Island whose player-avatar, Baker Dill, discovers the central game plot among the various mini-games.

The difference is subtle but important. If you viewed the movie as the former you invite a traditional critique, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “a high-level goof, a collection of clichés assembled as a meta-movie.” But view it first and foremost from the perspective of a video-game aesthetic and Serenity starts to make sense.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bruno and his Friend, the Future: The Collected Stories

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1922.

Review of Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz, a new translation by Madeline Levine, released by Northwestern University Press.

Schulz (1892-1942) had very few friends. The future was one of them.

I suppose I first encountered the brilliant, mesmerizing, disturbing and delightful writing of the Polish genius Bruno Schulz on the installment plan. First, sometime as a teenager in the '60s while also bumping into the similarly magical writing of his contemporary and Czech counterpart Franz Kafka; second, by coming upon a 1977 article by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times; third, by finding a dusty old bilingual English-Polish copy of two of his most famous collections, The Street of  Crocodiles (1934) and the fantastically titled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1935) in a used bookstore in about 1980; fourth, by watching a strange little 21-minute stop-action animated film by the Brothers Quay, loosely based on the aura and mood of Street of Crocodiles, in 1986; and fifth, when this new translation by Madeline Levine of his collected fiction was released late last year by Northwestern University Press.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 & 2)

Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker, and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

I grew up reading Harry Potter. I can still remember the seismic event that was each new book release. When I demonstrated textual analysis to my students, it was my go-to source text for impromptu examples. So imagine how utterly disappointed I was when reading the text of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and realizing that it is, in fact, bad: sentimental, blunt, and (ironically) unrealistic. And diehard Potterheads hate it for breaking with canon at seemingly every turn. I asked a friend who had seen the show in London whether it fares better on stage, and (there was still hope!) she said it does.

Having finally seen it on Broadway, I can say with certainty that the story is still bad, even though the jokes land better. And yet, I still recommend it, because its presentation of magic is a capital “s” Spectacle.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Another Time, Another Planet: Detroit ‘67

Johnny Ramey and Myxolydia Tyler in Detroit '67. (Photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Detroit ’67 (at Hartford Stage) is part of Dominique Morriseau’s ambitious trilogy about African American life in Detroit; the others, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew, are about, respectively, the jazz scene in the post-war years and the decimation of the auto industry after the economic breakdown of 2008. Detroit ’67, of course, depicts the city at its nadir, during the riots and the police violence that reinforced the racial line and shocked the nation. Morrisseau’s instinct for dramatic material is unerring, but having seen productions of all three plays, I have to say that only one, Skeleton Crew, works. She doesn’t have any feeling for either of the two historical periods she’s chosen for the other two: the characters are two-dimensional and you don’t believe in them as representatives of their eras. The muumuus that the costume designer, Dede M. Ayite, has put on one of the two women in the cast, Nyahale Allie, her Afro wig and the Motown soundtrack tell us this is supposed to be 1967, but I didn’t buy it for a moment.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Green Book – Racism: Solved?

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.

Green Book (2018) – directed by Peter Farrelly; written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the main character) based on his father’s letters and tape recordings and an interview with the other main character; shot by Sean Porter; edited by Patrick J. Don Vito; and with music by Kris Bowers – is a tonal, cinematographic, acting, and musical achievement, and a thematic disaster. It's based on the true story of Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) driving Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to performances of his musical trio through the Deep South in 1962 by relying on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guide to the spaces and hours that are safe for a black person to be at. The film features an entirely conventional and by-the-numbers mismatched-buddies road-movie plot that’s revitalized by the two leads’ performances. Mortensen plays Vallelonga as the trashiest kind-hearted Italian man in the Bronx, while Ali’s Shirley is the epitome of tortured dignity and class. But the writing navigates deliberately into a racial minefield, careful to step on every single mine it can find.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Shifting Gears: Private Philanthropy Versus Public Sponsorship in the Arts

The proposed new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

“We used to build temples, but museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life.” – Alain De Botton
Even if a new gallery building design is elegant, aesthetically pleasing and curatorially sound, as the new former Vancouver Art Gallery conceived by Herzog & de Meuron definitely is, unless there is ample cash in the coffers it will never see shovels in the ground, remaining an abstraction or a pipe dream. The only question that remained for the VAG building, soon to be officially renamed The Chan Centre for the Visual Arts once it's in its new location site, was exactly whose coffers the cash came from. Now we know, and the answer is an enhanced relationship between the private and public sectors way too long in the formation, at least in my considered opinion. One important detail to clarify in this whole expansion and patronage support process: the building itself will have a new name, but the gallery inside will still retain its historical identity and name.  The Vancouver Art Gallery will be housed within the Chan Centre.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Call Me Madam: Turn Up the Brio

Jason Gotay and Carmen Cusack in Call Me Madam. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

When Irving Berlin’s musicals entered the realm of political comedy, he and his collaborators tended to keep the mood light; Face the Music (1932), Louisiana Purchase (1940) and Call Me Madam (1950) are more on the order of spoofs than satires. All three boast delightful scores, so it isn’t surprising that Encores! has produced all three – and, fortunately for us, released cast recordings of them. Its current season began the weekend before last with a revival of its 1995 revival of Call Me Madam, marking only the second time the series has remounted a show. Typically, Encores! has met the musical and choreographic demands of the material. Under the expert musical direction of Rob Berman, a veteran of more than thirty of these productions, the orchestra plays exuberantly and the vocal performances are generally as satisfying as comfort food prepared with a loving hand. That’s equally true of the dance numbers, staged adroitly by Denis Jones, who makes the reduced performing space of the City Center stage (which the cast has to share with the musicians) feel like the expanse space of a large Broadway house. Yet the show, particularly in the first act, is a little lackluster.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Neglected Gem: Life with Mikey (1993)

Nathan Lane, Christina Vidal and Michael J. Fox in Life with Mikey (1993).

Life with Mikey was director James Lapine’s second movie, released two years after Impromptu, a high-toned 1991 farce with a dream cast that included Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and Emma Thompson. Lapine was previously known as a prominent Broadway director and librettist, who had collaborated with both Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and William Finn (Falsettos). Impromptu was well-received, although it didn’t set the box office afire. Life with Mikey’s budget was a third of what Impromptu cost, yet it grossed more than three times more as much as that first film. That would seem to qualify it as a success, yet Lapine has never made another film. (He did direct an adaptation of novelist Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions for HBO in 1999.)

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Life with Mikey a “gem.” (All right, more than a bit.) The screenplay, by journeyman Marc Lawrence, who’s written some movies I’ve liked (Music and Lyrics) and many I haven’t (Miss Congeniality, the remake of The Out of Towners), is sitcom fodder glazed with an almost opaque sentimentality, featuring a pot-holed plot that strains credulity. But the movie has lingered in my memory since I first saw it, due to the perfect casting of Michael J. Fox in the title role and the generous, quirky milieu that surrounds him.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Puzzle Pieces

Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle.

Agnes, the Bridgeport, Connecticut working-class housewife played by Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, seems to live on the periphery of her family. We don’t know how long she’s felt remote from her husband Louie (David Denman) and (to a lesser degree) from her two sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works with his dad in his car repair shop, and Gabe (Austin Abrams), who is revving up for college and whose forthright – and somewhat irritating – girlfriend (Liv Hewson) professes to be a Buddhist. Agnes loves her sons; she’s the parent who exercises sensitivity with them, while Louie’s immediate response to anything they do that doesn’t fit into his old-school masculine vision is a mixture of bafflement and stubborn opposition. It’s clear that she cares for Louie, too, but his stubbornness wears her down. When he throws a birthday party for her, she does all the work, and he doesn’t make a fuss over her; if it weren’t for the birthday cake (which she has baked) and candles, you’d think it was just a get-together of friends and family.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Contrarian View: BlacKkKlansman, The Sisters Brothers, Shoplifters and Burning

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

The following contains a spoiler for the film Shoplifters.
It’s always illuminating to read film critics’ year end best-of lists in specialty magazines like Film Comment and Sight & Sound as well as mainstream mags and newspapers like Time and The New York Times. Overall, the critical community tends to hew to a predictable pattern, extolling art-house films, both foreign and English-language movies, much more than accessible (but quality) American or Hollywood fare. I’m not referring to Alfonso Cuarón’s superb Roma, his semi-autobiographical tale of his family maid in the '70s, which is a masterpiece and deserves all its accolades, but to other films whose rave reviews leave me cold. Here are four movies that don’t deserve the love they’re getting from critics.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Falling: Free Solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Feature movies about mountain climbing generally fail because they feel the need to gin up an already dramatic situation and trumpet the themes of Man vs. Nature, the Indomitable Human Spirit, etc. The 2004 documentary Touching the Void understood that these themes were implicit in its telling of the ascent of two climbers up the face of the Andean mountain Siula Grande, and thus there was no need to make them explicit. Touching the Void did court controversy because it reenacted its true tale in the Alps, using actors who were also climbers, while an interview of the real climbers recounting their horrific experience provided the movie’s narration. The film was poised between a documentary and a feature film, and some cried foul. Those who did missed out on an amazing film-going experience.

The new film Free Solo, about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free solo” (climb without the aid of ropes or tools except his own hands and feet and a bag of chalk clipped to his back) the sheer face of Yosemite’s grand El Capitan mountain, a rise of about 3,000 feet, uses actual footage of Honnold’s climb, supplemented with Google Earth shots of the mighty peak to show us Alex’s path. It also shows us something of Alex’s life and the preparation needed to accomplish his goal. This Oscar-nominated documentary doesn’t have the artistic wonder that director Kevin Macdonald brought to Touching the Void, but El Capitan provides its own grandeur, and on a scale smaller yet perhaps equally awe-inspiring, so does Hannold.

Monday, February 4, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch on Broadway

Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, now on Broadway in a production expertly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is only the latest of several stage adaptations of Harper Lee’s well-loved 1960 novel, but it may be the first one by a distinguished dramatic writer with a distinctive style. That turns out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. Sorkin has done a fine job of shaping the material dramatically. Instead of leaving it in the emotional point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, he’s divided the narrative voice among the three children – Scout, her older brother Jem, and their summertime companion Dill (who is Jem’s best friend) – who witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, and defended by Scout and Jem’s father Atticus. It’s effective because it operates simultaneously as a reminder that we’re watching the tale unfold through the eyes of impressionable kids – that it’s a coming-of-age story – and as a Brechtian device. The children take turns relaying the information to the audience as the play moves back and forth between Tom’s trial, which they view as spectators, and their lives in and around the Finch household, including their fascination with their reclusive, never-seen neighbor, Boo Radley. (In the book, Boo is also a source of terror, but Sorkin downplays that element in the service of dramatic economy.) Courtroom settings are notoriously static for stage plays; here the continual shift of focus solves the problem while the narrative jumping around feels right for a story related by young kids. Sorkin, who has an acute ear, extends the dialogue – much of it is straight from the novel – to translate Lee’s wry southern humor and folksiness, which can be as dry as a corn husk and as tart and stinging as bourbon. And he’s toughened up Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels), who now has a surprising forcefulness when he’s cross-examining the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and an even more surprising temper when he’s dealing with her vindictive father Bob (Frederick Weller).

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Dealt (2017)

Richard Turner in Dealt. (Photo: Geoff Duncan)

I thought I’d just about finished reviewing documentaries after that last piece. After all, documentaries aren’t usually known for their aesthetic innovations. But then along comes Dealt (2017), about Richard Turner, the world’s most renowned card mechanic (i.e., white-hat card shark), who just happens to have 100% vision loss, and the way that it introduces its subject, follows him through a turning point in his life, and conveys it all with a purposeful cinematicity just begs to be unpacked.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Front Runner: Satire and Beyond

Hugh Jackman (centre) in The F.ront Runner.

Movie-wise, 2018 culminated in the lamest Christmas season in years; aside from Mary Poppins Returns, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, three of the six segments in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Peter Jackson’s extraordinary World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, I didn’t see a single film I could get behind. And the dim slate of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture confirm the widespread disgruntlement about the caliber of last year’s releases. Actually, it wasn’t quite as terrible a year for movies as the list of nominees indicates. It’s just that in 2018, even more radically than in most years, the majority of the interesting films were sidelined – they opened only briefly, and only in a few cities, and didn’t draw the attention they deserved. (Ironically, the other cadre of movies worth checking out resided at the other end of the spectrum: the franchise movies that saturated the cineplexes over the summer, most of which were immensely enjoyable.) This was the year of Blaze, Hearts Beat Loud, The Sisters BrothersPaddington 2, Leave No Trace, Juliet, Naked, Christopher Robin, The Death of Stalin, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Journey’s End. And of The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s movie about Gary Hart’s doomed bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1988, which a friend helpfully steered me to a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing that a movie as good as this one, by a respected director and with a major star (Hugh Jackman), released at the beginning of prestige-movie season (it came out Thanksgiving week), could have slipped by virtually unnoticed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

It’s Been a Hard Day’s Life: Growing Up Berman

Tosh Berman (left) gesturing tantrically with family friend Allen Ginsberg. (Photo: Wallace Berman)

Review of the new memoir, Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman, published by City Lights Books.

"If the first movie your father takes you to as a child is . . .  And God Created Woman, you can be sure of two things. First, that your father is an extraordinary person. Second, that you are destined to lead an extraordinarily interesting life." – Ron Mael, Sparks
Both of Mael’s observations ring totally true in this engaging, endearing, and surprisingly modest chronicle of a life lived under the white hot lights of a radical couple of proto-hippie parents: Wallace and Shirley Berman, an avant-garde artist famed as one of the originators of “assemblage art” and his gorgeous and exceedingly generous (for letting him be who he was) wife and muse. The Bermans were obviously not your average family, and their son Tosh (from the Russian Antosha) is partly the living evidence of a life lived for reasons far beyond the quotidian behavioral realm of domestic security or conventional social structures. His father , and the legendary works of art he made, as well as the stratospheric friendships he cultivated, were a vital transitional link between the beat culture of the '50s and the hippie counterculture of the '60s. Thus young Tosh grew up on the circus high-wire in the big-top tent of accelerated Change.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Wolves and The Engagement Party: Young Talents

The cast of The Wolves. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is set among the members of a teenage girls’ soccer team during a series of pre-game warm-ups. The play’s off-Broadway run in New York two seasons ago was sold out, and now it’s opening all over the country to enthusiastic audiences; I caught the production at Boston’s Lyric Stage. DeLappe has a finely tuned ear for the chatter of adolescent girls – the mix of sincerity and sarcasm, the accidental humor, the push and pull of their discussion of world events, the way their parents’ values and opinions season their own but don’t bury their own tentative perceptions of the world around them, the tension between blasé worldliness and naiveté when it comes to sex. And she knows just how to use language to differentiate them, though the playbill identifies them only by their numbers, and it’s not until the last scene that we learn a couple of their names, when we finally meet one of the soccer moms. She’s the first grown-up we see. The coach, Neil, is in the stands, but he seems to be hungover all the time – at least, that’s how the girls describe him – and in any case he’s very hands-off. So what little coaching they get is from their captain, #25 (Valerie Terranova), and it’s generic; you can feel her reluctance to take on the role of an authority figure.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Triumph of the Capitalist Will: Metropolis (1927/2010)

Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) was restored and re-released in 2010. 

Fritz Lang must have been a rare kind of genius. He somehow made Metropolis (1927/2010), an elaborate science fiction film so costly that it bankrupted the production company, during the Weimar Republic – and it’s a classic, to boot. That the sets and effects were done before digital is simply mind-boggling, as are some of the methods to achieve them, on par with a good magic trick. I saw the almost completely restored 2010 version, which still has a couple of scenes missing. Some of the newly discovered footage was maltreated by the archivists, so the rediscovered parts are obvious; in fact, a lot of it is crucial to the plot and characterization, and it’s fascinating to think about how badly marred a film most of the world had been seeing before. It’s accompanied by the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, slightly embellished, which probably worked well for the (supposedly) raucous contemporary audience, but for the home viewer , the omnipresent brass sounds too heavy-handed.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Four Period Pieces

 Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots. (Photo: Liam Daniel)

This piece contains reviews for Mary Queen of Scots,The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and At Eternity’s Gate

The promise of a movie about the struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart, who claimed her right to inherit the throne of England and wound up with her head on an executioner’s block, is the chance to see a dramatic clash between two charismatic actresses. But so far it hasn’t worked out very well for the Elizabeths. In the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots Vanessa Redgrave’s lyrical performance as Mary made a far stronger impression than Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth (a role that she played later – and famously – on television), and in the new version, Mary Queen of Scots without the comma, Saiorse Ronan’s Mary is pretty much the whole show. That’s not the fault of Margot Robbie, who plays Elizabeth, but of Beau Willimon, who wrote the screenplay (based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart), and the director, Josie Rourke. They’ve chosen a dopey faux-feminist take on the historical narrative in which it’s the manipulative men in the two queens’ lives who keep messing everything up. (As if you had to transform the conflict between two female monarchs into a feminist story!) That point of view makes some sense for Mary, who is, at various times, at the mercy of the whims and power grabs of her half-brother James (James McArdle), her protector, Bothwell (Martin Compston), her homosexual husband, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden), his father, the Earl of Lennox (Brendan Coyle), and the Protestant reformer-minister John Knox (David Tennant), who uses every opportunity to proselytize against the Catholic Mary. (He manages to rev up the Scottish populace against her “whorish” ways, though she scarcely gets to sleep with anyone.) But the notion that Elizabeth, the most powerful woman in the history of England – perhaps the most powerful monarch after Cleopatra – has to buckle to a bunch of men who are in every way her inferior is dumbfounding. This unfortunate reading of the part diminishes Robbie, who is a fine actress (especially, I think, in The Legend of Tarzan and Z for Zachariah). When these two monarchs finally meet, clandestinely, spark should fly. Instead Rourke stages their tête-à-tête so that they’re not even facing each other until halfway through the scene.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Behind Closed Doors: The Limits To Freedom of Expression

Thomas Couture’s 1873 contemplation The Thorny Path, aka the courtesans’s carriers.

A review of the new book The Thorny Path: Pornography in Twentieth Century Britain by Jamie Stoops, from McGill-Queens University Press.

“The thorny path bears some of the sweetest flowers in life, and when with naked feet we walk upon a flinty soil, we often find diamonds.” – Elizabeth Prentiss, 1843.

“The pornographer’s path is thorny and there may yet be some unforeseen hitch, but you will see we have not been idle.” – Special Operations, British Intelligence, 1943.
Tastes in good taste and bad come and go like shifting weather patterns. Except that it is psychological weather, maybe even metaphysical meteorology. Cole Porter hit the proverbial nail on the social head in his satirical song, “Anything Goes," in 1934:

     Times have changed . . .
     In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
     Was looked on as something shocking
     But now, God knows,
     Anything goes.
     Good authors, too, who once knew better words
     Now only use four-letter words
     Writing prose;
     Anything goes . . .
     If Mae West you like
     Or me undressed you like,
     Why, nobody will oppose . . .
     Anything goes.

The mention of authors was pertinent indeed, since this was only six years after D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on trial for obscenity, and only twelve years after James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses suffered a similar fate in 1922.  History has since redeemed both works, of course, and we are still left to wonder how works of art of such subtle insight into the human condition could ever have been considered pornographic in the first place. Nobody knows.

The fascinating new book from McGill-Queens University Press, The Thorny Path by Jamie Stoops, can legitimately be called a seriously scholarly study of smut. A high-minded book, true, yet also an utterly accessible tome about a supposedly low-minded subject, by a serious academic who has made a career out of wondering where the acceptable edges of social behaviour might be located, it reminds us all that “obscenity” is not only in the eye of the beholder but also mostly in the mind of the thinker.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

CAL's Ninth Anniverary and Interview with Robertson Davies (1985)

Kevin Courrier's interview with Robertson Davies was conducted in 1985.

This week marks the ninth anniversary of Critics At Large. On January 7, 2010, Kevin Courrier, with Shlomo Schwartzberg and the late David Churchill, launched this site as a daily online arts journal that would provide veteran and new critics an independent space to publish outside the constraints of conventional media. That we are still going strong after nine years is a testament to Kevin's vision and personality. Since we lost Kevin in October, this anniversary is a bittersweet time for all of us here at Critics At Large. Throughout his three-year struggle with cancer, Kevin continued to lead us with passion and purpose, regularly contributing as a critic and equally powerfully as our first and always best reader. Kevin was a colleague and a mentor and a friend to each of us. I will remember him always as the man who found no greater pleasure than in guiding others to find their own unique voices, as he did himself in his decades-long career.

With every new year, as our editor-in-chief Kevin had a tradition of re-reading our previous year's pieces and selecting among them the ones that resonated most powerfully with him. With his untimely passing still so present for all of us, we felt that there was no better way to close the previous year and begin this new one with the sound of his voice.

During the '80s, Kevin was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto, and throughout that decade conducted countless interviews with artists of all fields. Over the years, we have published numerous interviews here on Critics At Large. Today, I have chosen the one with author Robertson Davies (conducted in 1985, around the time of the publication Davies's novel What's Bred in the Bone, previously appearing here only in transcribed excerpts) because the short conversation powerfully demonstrates the depth and intimacy Kevin created in every conversation he had, on radio and off.

Kevin lived better – more fully, more intentionally – than anyone I have ever met and his work and life will never cease to be an inspiration for me – as a critic, as a lover of the arts, and as a human being. I can't think of no better way to begin a new year and our tenth year of publication than to spend a few minutes with Kevin, one more time.

Mark Clamen
Critics At Large

Here is Kevin Courrier's interview with Robertson Davies as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Blaze: Inspiration

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biography of the Austin-based country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael David Fuller), who died in 1989 at the age of thirty-nine, leaves you in a haze. When I shut it off, close to midnight, I found myself shuffling aimlessly around my apartment, not knowing what the hell to do with myself; I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read, and God knows I couldn’t think of watching anything else. I finally called the one friend I knew had seen it and was as gobsmacked by it as I was, because only talking about it could settle me down. How did Hawke become a director of this caliber? (His documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which came out in 2014, was quirky and interesting, but it didn’t provide any clues that he was heading in this direction.) Blaze has a dreamy, contemplative quality layered onto the mood of an all-night rock ‘n’ roll binge, and it’s as fresh and experimental as the early French New Wave pictures – but instead of blending movies and literature, it’s a heady mix of movies and music, and it’s quintessentially American, with a rough-hewn, bardic Beat poeticism. Hawke starts with his hero (Ben Dickey), gets on his wavelength, and moves in closer and closer. He approaches his subject from several angles – mostly in scenes focused on his relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), in musical performances (generally in sparsely attended low-rent joints), and in the stories his musician friends Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) tell about him in a long, rambling interview with a radio D.J. (played, appropriately enough, by Hawke himself). Not a single scene is worked through conventionally in either the writing – Hawke and Rosen wrote the screenplay, based on her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley – or the direction. The rhythms are unfamiliar and take some getting used to, and the film goes on too long, as if Hawke just didn’t want to let go of his subject. I didn’t blame him. By the end I felt I knew Foley inside and out, and I was so mesmerized by him, and by the peculiar melancholy of the picture, that I too wanted to hang on just a little bit longer.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Elaborate Simplicity: Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is the author of Simple. (Photo: Chris Floyd)

If you're familiar with Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks and you make a few of the recipes in Simple, you might find yourself tempted to suggest modifications to his title. Simple for Ottolenghi might be more apt, or perhaps Simpler than NOPI. (Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully's 2015 NOPI: The Cookbook offered such notoriously elaborate recipes that even some admiring reviewers admitted that they would probably only use it for special occasions.) Coming only two years after Diana Henry's collection of the same name, it's particularly difficult to deny that Ottolenghi's notion of simplicity is . . . involved.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2018 in Games: Detectives, Dads, & Dang Ol' Cowpokes

There’s no way you could contain 2018 in a list, no matter how long. The year was too chaotic, and too much incredible art rose up to counter the encroaching dark. I’m pretty much done with numbered lists in general – so no "Top Ten" this year. Instead, I thought it would be useful to find new angles to help contextualize and categorize the video games that kept me enthralled. Enjoy, and here's to a 2019 filled with even more game-making and game-playing.