Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Road Tested: Tedeschi Trucks Band's Let Me Get By

Tedeschi Trucks Band (Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi) on Austin City Limits, December, 2015. (Photo: Scott Newton)

Last year, when the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead called it a day and retired from the road, many fans of the so-called Jam Band experience probably wondered if their favourite free-form rock bands had a successor. I believe that successor is the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Formed in 2010 by Derek Trucks (formerly of the Allman Bros.) and seasoned Blues musician Susan Tedeschi, the 12-piece band took up the challenge and the demanding road schedule in earnest. Trucks and Tedeschi are married, so the decision to start their own band meant, as working musicians, they could tour together. Let Me Get By (Fantasy) is the TTB’s third studio release in five years and it’s easily one of the best albums in the band’s short history – and one of the best records in the first half of 2016. The CD is a “road tested” collection of songs with rich arrangements and a solid mix of blues, rock and soul music, making it a robust and powerful album.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Hunter’s Dream: From Software’s Bloodborne

I reviewed From Software’s famously difficult Dark Souls four years after its 2011 release date, and was similarly late in getting to its spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released in March of last year. The gaming community was absolutely smitten with this dark and evil-looking follow-up to one of the hardest titles of all time – which struck me as odd. Dark Souls was a somewhat niche experience, suited only to those with extreme patience and perseverance, so why did everyone love Bloodborne? Was it that much easier than its predecessor, allowing a broader audience past its lower barrier of entry? That didn’t bode well at all. I don’t play From Software’s games to have my hand held: I play them to be tested, as a player and as a person, and to emerge from their fiery crucible a stronger and more accomplished gamer. If Bloodborne wasn’t offering that kind of challenge, I couldn’t see why anyone – especially a Souls fan – would give it the time of day.

Then, I played it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Winter’s Tale: Branagh and Dench

Judi Dench as Paulina and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes in The Winter's Tale at the Garrick. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Kenneth Branagh’s new theatre company opened its inaugural season at the Garrick in the West End with productions of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade (double-billed with his one-woman piece All on Her Own with Zoë Wanamaker) and The Winter’s Tale. Luckily those of us who didn’t happen to be in the neighborhood were able to see the latter in HD. It stars Branagh himself and the great, unstoppable Judi Dench. They give luminous performances as King Leontes of Sicilia, whose fit of jealousy plunges his kingdom into darkness, and his wife’s gentlewoman Paulina, the only member of the court unafraid to stand up to him when he accuses his Queen Hermione (Miranda Raison) of adultery and treason and proclaims the baby she births in prison the bastard son of his childhood friend Polixenes (Hadley Fraser).

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Trumpism: A Dangerous Phenomenon

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies and Chinks."
“He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’…” 
– From Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”

– Elizabeth Drew, "The New Politics of Frustration," The New York Review of Books, 01/14/16.

It is tempting to compare the Presidential campaign of the pitchfork-populist billionaire Donald Trump with that of Lewis’ Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic Senator who is elected to the presidency in Sinclair Lewis' It Can’t Happen Here. Parts of this 1935 dystopian novel, in which women and minorities – those “who are racially different from us” – are stripped of their rights, dissent is outlawed, and a paramilitary force and concentration camps are established, may initially appear implausible, but it would be a mistake to dismiss any comparisons as ludicrous or farfetched. A large portion of the novel documents how liberties are stripped away and a draconian dictatorship ensues, but I think the most relevant chapters are the early ones that explore Windrip’s appeal before he was elected President and implemented his totalitarian system.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Network Shows Well Worth Watching: How To Get Away With Murder, Quantico and The Grinder

Viola Davis in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder.

This review contains spoilers.
Perusing the end of the year Best of ranked lists for television, I noticed the continuing trend of almost everybody’s lists – from Time to Entertainment Weekly – consisting almost entirely of cable TV series, with only the occasional network show, such as Empire or The Last Man on Earth, thrown into the mix. I get that; the TV critics find the lack of censorship and unfettered content that is de rigueur on cable television to be enormously appealing. But that doesn’t mean that network fare is worthless, even if characters say "bullcrap" instead of "bullshit" and nudity can only be implied. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a world where only network TV, Canadian or American, existed, but my viewing habits still skew towards broadcast programming, though they don’t make up all my viewing. (I eagerly await the fourth season of The Americans which begins on FX on March 16.) Three of the best bets currently on the networks – How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico and The Grinder – prove, too, that variations on familiar themes can be wrung even there, where novelty is not expected to exist. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #42 (Podcasts): Dr. G. William Jones (1987) and James Earl Jones (1987)

James Earl Jones in John Sayles' Matewan (1987).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, in the late sixties, the momentum of the Civil Rights movement seemed to wane. No leader could fill that vacuum and black voices in the eighties became fragmented. Often the question of black identity and culture came up during interviews. The chapter entitled Black Legacies included conversations with figures like author Toni Morrison, film archivist G. William Jones, and actor James Earl Jones. With the Academy Awards approaching and the controversy over the dearth of black talent among this year's Oscar nominees still heating up and February being Black History Month, it is timely to bring together the latter two interviews, both conducted in 1987.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Animated Short Film

Pixar's Sanjay’s Super Team is one of five films nominated for Best Animated Short Film at this year's Oscars.

Oscar season has begun! While we’re all discussing our picks for this year’s Best Picture and whether or not Leo is finally going to get his Oscar for The Revenant, seeing the nominated short films can sometimes feel like trying to collect all the toys in a series of feature film Happy Meals. Fortunately, ShortsHD has us covered with theatrical releases of this year’s live action and animated shorts in select theatres as well as pay-per-view online streaming. This week, I had the opportunity to catch the Academy’s nominees for Best Animated Short Film at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Here’s my ranking of the five films in this category, from weakest to Oscar-winning: