Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Films of 2010: It Was Not a Very Good Year



2010 will likely go down as one of the very worst years ever in film, at least, in the twenty plus years I’ve been reviewing movies in Toronto. And while I like doing Best of the Year lists, compiling this one only served to remind me of how bad things were at the cinemas, both on the commercial end of things (Get Him To the Greek, Kick-Ass) and art house environs (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Tempest); those movies were equally painful to sit through. It was a strong year for documentaries, though (La danse, Inside Job, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Marwencol and others) and French films (Carlos, Un prophète, Micmacs). But American feature films were especially weak and negligible (The Social Network and Black Swan were about the only ones that stood out.) More to the point, once I factor in the films mentioned on my year end list below, there were only a few others (Another Year, The King’s Speech, Mother, Splice, Get Low, Trigger) that were worth my time. Usually there are three times that many good features to consider. But enough gloom and doom, without further ado here are my twelve top films of 2010, most of them reviewed on Critics at Large, the ones that excited, provoked, entertained and engrossed me in equal measure.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some of the Best: Favourites of 2010


Unlike other critics, I've always kind of enjoyed compiling a list of favourites from the previous years. It gives me a chance to look back on the year and examine what I've read, seen or listened to. Some of what follows was not necessarily part of 2010, but I only got around to it this past year. In fact, one example is over 70 years old. A few I've written about on the blog in 2010, but not all. So, sit back, relax and, hopefully, enjoy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Man of the West: Ian Tyson's The Long Trail

Ian Tyson is a Canadian singer/songwriter of great artistic reputation. He penned some of the country’s most familiar songs, such as “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon”. In his autobiography, The Long Trail (Random House, 2010), written with Jeremy Klaszus, Tyson admits that his “childhood memories are lost to too many miles and too many whiskey bottles.” In spite of that condition, Tyson’s ability to recall his life seems unaffected.

The Long Trail reads like a conversation, albeit, one-sided. It’s as if Tyson has invited the reader into his den or kitchen and reminisced. This approach has Tyson endearing his readers without fuss or pretense. It’s a life of mischief, horses, the outdoors, women, travel and the so-called, Western frontier. It’s a life full of mistakes, but no regrets; yet one that still seems ordinary.

At first glance, it appears that Tyson has had a better relationship with horses than he he’s had with people. He often refers to horses by name with references to their heritage and how much he paid for them. But this would be a simplistic conclusion to reach. Tyson is great storyteller because he’s also a great songwriter and that combination has served him well in this book. He’s been able to pen some of the best songs about love, life and the West for years. And while The Long Trail offers some insights into his artistic process, it seems as wide open a book as the countryside Tyson eloquently talks about.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part Two)

 
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it became apparent from a recent film course that I taught, Key Filmmakers of Our Time, that outside of North America, excepting, perhaps for France, too many important foreign language films were not readily available on DVD. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses,Three Brothers) and  the lateTaiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day). (Key Canadian films, such as Rejeanne Padovani, Joshua Then and Now and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould were also either never put out on DVD or are now out of print.) And of those foreign films that did get put out on disc, a lot of them fell through the cracks or were ignored because most DVD reviewers were more interested in promoting the big Hollywood blockbusters. In that light of rectifying a wrong, here are a few more foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Forgotten Foreign Language Gems (Part One)

It became apparent from a recent film course that I taught, Key Filmmakers of Our Time, that outside of North America, excepting, perhaps for France, too many important foreign language films were not readily available on DVD in Canada. This included films from major directors, such as Italy’s Francesco Rosi (Illustrious Corpses, Three Brothers) and the late Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day). (Key Canadian films, such as Rejeanne Padovani, Joshua Then and Now and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould were also either never put out on DVD or are now out of print but that’s a story for another blog.) And of those foreign films that did get put out on disc, a lot of them fell through the cracks or were ignored because most DVD reviewers were more interested in promoting the big Hollywood blockbusters. In that light of rectifying a wrong, here are some foreign language films that are well worth searching out at your local quality video store.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #8: Margaret Atwood (1984)

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 now starting to take 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.

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. 

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to critics who ran against the current of popular thinking in the eighties. That chapter included discussions with film critic Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) who wrote a book about gay cinema before the horror of AIDS changed the landscape; also Jay Scott, who would later die from AIDS, spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; and author Margaret Atwood who turned to literary criticism in her 1983 book Second Words. She discussed -- from an author's perspective -- the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worst during this decade. 


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Cheer: Our Seasonal Flicks

For those who celebrate Christmas, we wish you a very Merry one. For those who don't, be cheerful anyway. For everybody who loves watching movies, here's a few of our seasonal favourites.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deserving Better: The Film Adaptation of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version

In Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times, his new biography of author Mordecai Richler, Foran makes mention of the fact that noted Canadian producer Robert Lantos optioned Richler’s last novel Barney’s Version pretty much as soon as it was finished in 1998. The initial plan was for Richler to write the screenplay with his friend, director Ted Kotcheff, behind the camera. They had already worked together on two other Richler adaptations, the superb The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), and the uneven, but still highly engaging, Joshua Then and Now (1985). I’d like to think that in some alternate universe that pairing did indeed come to pass where the film adaptation of Barney’s Version came out before Mordecai died in 2001 and garnered praise as one of the finest Canadian movies ever (and picking up a slew of awards, besides). But, alas, in our real world, Lantos wasn't happy with Richler’s drafts and after the writer died, the movie took a long time coming before finally seeing the light of day in 2010. Unfortunately, it did so saddled with a mediocre director, a neophyte screenwriter, and with far too many significant and damaging changes made from the book.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is it Such a Wonderful Life?


Back in December 1990, on the CBC radio show Prime Time, host and film critic Geoff Pevere and I decided to re-assess the popularity of Frank Capra's Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life (1946). We felt that it was ample time to examine why this particular picture had become such a holiday classic. Neither of us actually hated the film; in fact, we thought some of the small town neurosis that David Lynch would expertly dissect years later in Blue Velvet (1986) had its roots in It's a Wonderful Life. But we were baffled that audiences over the years had viewed this movie as an uplifting and heart-tugging affair. To us, there was something much more unsettling lurking in this material, a looming shadow that the picture ultimately sought to avoid. So we decided to head straight for the darkness. Someone should have warned us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Subject Over Style - Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times

Nearly ten years after his death, Canadian writer/provocateur Mordecai Richler is still in the news. Two Montréal city councilors are facing flack from Quebec nationalists for daring to suggest that the city name a street after one of its most famous native sons. The film adaptation of Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, is opening wide on Christmas Eve. And writer Charles Foran has penned the ultimate Richler bio, Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada, 2010), a problematic but fascinating look into the life of one of the most original, free thinking and courageous writers of our age. 

As a Montreal-born Jew, though one who came along almost thirty years later than Mordecai and grew up in the suburban (but mostly Jewish) City of Cote St. Luc, far from his St.Urbain Street haunts, I have always found Richler to an interesting enigma. And not the least because my own community had such ambivalent feelings towards him. As I wrote in my 2001 obituary for him in the Jerusalem Report magazine, the Jewish community went from being uncomfortable with his often scathing, satirical, warts-and-all portraits of his people to viewing him as something of a hero, even someone to be proud of, because of his forthrightness in confronting Quebec’s separatist and/or intolerant French nationalists. Mordecai was particularly scathing in his disdain for the province’s asinine language laws which decreed that English, one of Canada’s two official languages, be deemed second rate or non-existent on street and business signs. You get a vivid sense of how strongly he felt about those oppressive laws in his superb non-fiction book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem For a Divided Country (1992). 

I must confess that I, too, changed in my early views about Mordecai Richer. Though my Jewish high school, Bialik, featured The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) on its curriculum, many of the Jews around me, including my parents, disapproved of him and being an insecure and somewhat sheltered young person, I was uncomfortable with how he wrote about his own. (I still maintain that the non-Jews in Duddy Kravitz come across consistently better than the Jews in the book.) Later, I loosened up and began to recognize that Richler was, in fact, proud of being a Jew – like most Jewish writers but not actors, singers etc., he never anglicized his name – and, in fact, was dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy, self-serving nature and bombast of the Jewish establishment and its most prominent citizens. That’s something that I can relate to, having had more than a little, and mostly unpleasant contact with some of those very same types of Jewish machers. (That’s Yiddish for movers and shakers.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pulling Punches: The Fighter

When David O. Russell directed Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), he took familiar genre material and then with flair and originality not only made it less familiar, he made it dazzling. In Flirting with Disaster, about an adopted man (Ben Stiller) who sets out to find his birth parents, Russell turned this hilarious sojourn into a whole new version of screwball heaven. (His first picture, Spanking the Monkey, a 1994 comedy about incestuous urges, served merely as a warm-up.)

Three Kings began as a satire about the 1991 Iraq War as seen through the eyes of three grunts who live average lives, but are looking for glory. When they seek to steal gold from Saddam’s bunker to enrich their own coffers, they find instead that their lives are dramatically altered when their quest becomes a rescue mission to save the lives of refugees. As a war movie, only Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) was its equal in the undaunting way it blended tragedy and farce.

Russell faltered with the highly ambitious, but tone-deaf, 2004 comedy ♥ Huckabees which began as a fascinating existential mystery, but then got bogged down in a chaotic, shambling satire about corporatism and environmentalism. (Since the corporate heads, the environmentalists and the philosophers all end up as fools; it was tough to figure out just what Russell was lampooning here.) Even so, Russell was certainly an original who turned corners that you never saw coming. You felt like you were experiencing traditional stories opened up in radically new ways.

In The Fighter, however, David O. Russell walks a straighter line. The movie is about the rise of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) to become Welterweight Champion. But Russell pulls no rabbits out of his hat this time; he pulls his punches instead. It begins as a riveting character study of how Ward, from the working-class neighbourhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, had to overcome a complicated family dynamic to be the boxer he was destined to be, but the picture soon retreats into traditional inspirational territory. Which is another way of saying that The Fighter is sure to be a holiday hit.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Refreshing a Classic: Soulpepper Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol


Every Christmas, in every major theatre centre around the world, there seems to be a version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the boards. On Broadway, you might see Star Trek's Patrick Stewart; on London's West End, any number of accomplished British actor have essayed the role; and five times in the last nine years, the acclaimed theatre company, Soulpepper, has mounted a production in Toronto (this year, it runs until December 30th).

The problem that any adaptor, director or actor doing this work faces is trying to find ways to make it fresh. Thanks to the book, and of course the brilliant Alastair Sim film version from 1951, we all know the material by heart, so it is difficult to have any measure of surprise for the audience. There's also never a need, ever, to warn people about spoilers ahead. Heck, we all know the last line: “God bless us, everyone,” and that it's delivered by Tiny Tim.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Listening: A Retrospective Soundtrack To Live By

As the troublesome decade draws to a close, people are compiling their top-ten lists for various art forms. I’d like to think back instead on a half-century of popular music that was able to, as a traditional gospel line suggests, “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Each tune has stuck with me. Not every one of the past 50 years is represented; some supplied multiple selections -- I could barely escape the 1960s, in fact. It wasn’t easy to choose from among so many worthy contenders. My apologies to the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Jesse Winchester, Bonnie Raitt and countless others. Disco and hip-hop aside, these are a few of a nostalgic Baby Boomer’s highly subjective favorite things:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Music From the Other Side of the Fence: Remembering Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 1941-2010

Avant-garde artist and musician Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, died early Friday at the age of 69 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. The news was broken by the Michael Werner Art Gallery, which exhibited his abstract paintings after he left the music business in the early 1980s. With a gravel voice and a musical style that blended jazz, blues and abstract expressionist rock into a surreal blend, Captain Beefheart was hardly popular but he was one of the most original voices in popular music.

I first discovered him in 1969 through my love of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa would produce Beefheart's atonal masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Although quite a contentious album, this 1969 two-record set had far ranging influence in both punk and alternative rock. Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have written a chapbook on Trout Mask Replica for the Continuum Press 33 1/3 music series. As a way of paying tribute to Beefheart, here are some edited passages from that book - which is still available at better bookstores:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #7: D.M.Thomas (1981)

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.

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

The conventional biography was subverted in different ways during the eighties. Wallace Shawn, for example, with playwright Andre Gregory and film director Louis Malle concocted My Dinner with Andre (1982), a film about two men having dinner and discussing philosophical issues set in the dramatic context of a performance piece. Author David Young, in his book Incognito (1982), stumbled upon a box of old photographs that he found in an attic of an old house he purchased. He decided to write a fictional biography based upon the sequence of photos he discovered. Thriller writer William Diehl (Sharky's Machine, Chameleon), a committed pacifist, wrote lurid pulp as a means to exorcise the violence within himself. What many of these artists in the eighties were attempting to do was to link to their work to a larger collective memory; a shared mythology enhanced by an expansive popular culture.

author and poet D.M. Thomas
In 1981, poet and novelist D.M. Thomas worked with historical fact to create a vivid and powerful work of fiction that would link the psychological insights emerging in the work of Sigmund Freud with the terror of the Holocaust during WW II. He did it in a novel called The White Hotel. The White Hotel was broken into three movements opening with the erotic fantasies of Lisa, one of Freud's patients, which overlapped with the convulsions of the early part of the 20th century leading to the Holocaust. Over the years, many film directors including Terrence Malick (The New World, Tree of Life), Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch (even Barbara Streisand) have attempted to put The White Hotel on the screen. But its dreamy horror has yet to be fully conceived as cinema. In one of my first professional radio interviews at CJRT-FM, D.M. Thomas explained how he created such a potent fiction out of this unsettling reality.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waterlogged: Julie Taymor's The Tempest

Helen Mirren and Felicity Jones in The Tempest
In the Shakespearean canon, The Tempest, reportedly his last written play, stands out as one of his weakest works. It’s essentially a simple tale about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who’s been exiled to a deserted island for over a decade with his daughter, Miranda. As The Tempest opens, by use of magic, Prospero has stranded his enemies – who usurped his post – and some others, on various parts of the island. There, they endeavour to make their way back to civilization even as Prospero instructs his child on life and love, and commands the resentful half-man/half-monster Caliban and the loyal sprite Ariel to torment their reluctant guests. It all builds to, not a climax, exactly, but a mild confrontation between the parties concerned, and then a flat and dull happy ending. Slapdash, superficial and thin, The Tempest, even when staged well, as it was at Stratford this past summer (see my review here), cannot surmount its many failings and shortcomings. But when you let a talentless filmmaker like Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) tackle the project, the results are considerably worse.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ten for 2010: The Best Music of the Year

As the year winds down, I'd like to add my top 10 list to the pile of so many lists that we, in the media, love to prepare. It gives us the opportunity to distinguish good work and remind loyal readerslike youof some high quality art. In my case: music.

First, a word about how I created this list: Music is my religion. I judge it based on the following criteria: interpretation, sound quality, and the element of surprise, focus and the producer. What follows is a list of ten albums for 2010 that distinguished themselves. All of them have been reviewed in Critics At Large. (Click on the album title to read the full review.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in Transit: The Tourist

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist
In the opening scenes of The Tourist, based on a little seen 2005 French film, Anthony Zimmer, a mysterious elegant woman, Elise (Angelina Jolie), is seen walking through the streets of Paris while she is being followed by a group of men who work for the International Police. After she sits down at a cafe, Elise gets a letter from a equally mysterious man named Alexander Pearce, who is identified as a former lover of hers. He tells her to board a train and pick out a man who resembles him and make the police believe that this individual is the true Pearce. The guy she picks is a self-effacing American tourist, Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher and spy thriller buff, who gets in over his head when he becomes almost immediately smitten with her. By the time they arrive in Venice and he shares her hotel room (but not her bed), Frank gets targeted by some gangsters that Pearce robbed of a sizable sum of money. Before long, Frank is running for his life and trying to figure out why everybody is out to kill him.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)
These opening scenes, luxuriously lit by John Seale, whet your appetite for the kind of sophisticated romantic thrills you used to get in wisecracking fare like North by Northwest (1959) and Charade (1963). But The Tourist turns out to be all thumbs and lost in transit. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who took us pretty far inside the tormented life of a cipher in his sharp political exposé The Lives of Others (2006), has no feel for the casual, superficial pleasures offered by romantic thrillers. Despite having two sexy stars in the lead, von Donnersmarck gives you no clue as to why these two misfits would ever fall in love.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and the Current State of the Thriller

As a genre, whether in books or films, the thriller is in a terrible state. And no, it's not all Dan Brown's fault. Over the last 20 years, the thriller has devolved to the point where it is often just this side of science fiction. I love good science fiction, so this is certainly no diss of that genre, but when thriller writers and filmmakers feel compelled to produce more and more outlandish plots just to get attention, you know something is wrong in the state of Denmark (and yes, I would consider Hamlet a thriller, one of inaction perhaps, but still a thriller).

Herewith are some of the basic plots of a few thrillers in the last 30 years: a group of former Nazis clone Hitler (Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil – 1976); a group of scientists raise the Titanic to obtain a rare mineral that the US government can then use to create a sound wave to knock down Soviet missiles (Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic – 1976); Hitler's right-hand-man Rudolph Hess has survived the war and is now a super villain in South Africa attempting to launch a nuclear device at Israel (Greg Iles' Spandau Phoenix – 1993); a virulent form of the Ebola virus is stolen by an evil group planning to let it free on the world (Ken Follett's White Out – 2004); a plan to destroy the Vatican with antimatter is hatched by a madman who also wants to be Pope – and, oh yes, the novel's hero jumps out of a helicopter using a tarp as a parachute! (Brown's Angels and Demons – 2000); a group of people over centuries try to hide the fact Jesus married and fathered children after his crucifixion – the Catholic Church does everything in its power to eliminate those who know (Brown's The Da Vinci Code – 2003); a madman tries to show that a plan to keep The Word from the whole world is the result of a conspiracy by the Masons – many of whom are at the top of the US government (Brown's The Last Symbol – 2009, just released in paperback in October 2010). 

I could go on, but my point is that even though many of these books are pretty terrible and generally poorly written (and yes, I admit over the years I've read all of these), it just doesn't seem to matter. All of these writers (except Levin, who died in 2007) continue to write and frequently make it onto the bestseller lists around the world. And one, Dan Brown, as we all know, became a phenom because of The Da Vinci Code. I know I'm not going to convince anybody that this genre is bereft when the plots have become this idiotic because these books continue to sell and sell and sell. (Want proof? Look at the New York Times Review of Books Fiction Bestseller List for Sunday, December 12, 2010 – nine of the fifteen listed are thrillers.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Good For Goodness Sake: Santa's Screen Gems


On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me....a hidden treasure on DVD or VHS. Whether looking for gifts to put under the tree or simply movies to rent when holiday television programming is skimpy, here are a dozen suggestions in no particular order for older, sometimes forgotten releases that still make sense. They aren’t necessarily full of holiday cheer, but devoted cineastes tend to be happiest if good tidings are tempered by a little gloom:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #6: Erica Jong (1984)

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.

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.


During the eighties, feminism (like any political movement) was faced with the difficulty of evolving and diversifying in order to accommodate different views and the possibilities of reform. Some of those eclectic voices to emerge in feminism became part of a chapter in my book called The Many Faces of Feminism. One of those interviews was with author Erica Jong. In the seventies, Jong put herself on the literary map with her controversial roman a clef Fear of Flying (1973), which took on sexual taboos with complete irreverence. Her novel was narrated by its protagonist, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a twenty-nine-year-old poet who had published two books of poetry. On a trip to Vienna with her second husband, she decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with another man. When I spoke to her in 1984, she had just published a sequel titled Parachutes and Kisses. The idea of sexual independence for women was the centerpiece of Fear of Flying, but the notion of sexual freedom and what that means in the eighties became the basis of our discussion of Parachutes and Kisses. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Style and Substance: The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is one of those rare prestige productions; a rich meal without an ounce of stuffing. The picture delves instead beneath the formality of good taste and into the substance of compelling dramatic conflict. Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams, The Damned United) cleverly draws from the psychological underpinnings of classic drama where acting a role becomes part of the process of self-discovery. He applies that process to the study of an unlikely friendship between Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unfulfilled Australian actor turned speech therapist, hired by Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, to cure her husband’s speech impediment. The picture, which sparkles with wit and intelligence, may have a conventional structure, but the story undoes the refuge of convention. The unorthodox means by which Lionel transforms Albert’s stammer into clear, eloquent diction is heightened by both personal and historical events. The resolution of that personal conflict offers no hiding place from the dark days ahead as Britain enters the Second World War.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Survivor - Natalie Cole's Memoir: Love Brought Me Back

The autobiography can take many forms. It can be a memoir, a diary, or a detailed history of one’s life. It can also be a confessional, or a series of stories shaped to reveal a person’s foibles and how they were overcome. For Natalie Cole, the American singer, you get a mix of every style in her new book, Love Brought Me Back (Simon & Schuster, 2010). What the mixture doesn't provide is depth. This short tome basically offers the story of Cole’s contraction of Hepatitus C, how it nearly killed her, and how she was saved by a transplant in 2009. Now 60, Cole tells the story with the aid of David Ritz, one of the busiest writers in the celebrity biography field. Ritz has helped a ton of musicians write their stories, including Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Paul Shaffer and Grandmaster Flash.

Natalie Cole’s father was Nat “King” Cole, the American performer equally at home playing jazz or singing traditional pop songs. Cole’s warm vocal tone and classy presentation made him one of the African-American pioneers in the 1960s, landing a very popular television variety show on network TV. His songs continue to be heard around the world on MOR radio stations. He died of lung cancer in 1965 at the height of his career leaving his wife and his daughters Natalie, Carole (aka Cookie), Nat Kelly and his twin daughters Timolin and Casey. Natalie was 15 years old at the time. It was an event that changed the lives of both siblings. As Cole admits, “the impact of losing my dad at age fifteen was incalculable. Some twenty years later, while in rehab, I was told by a wise counselor that I still hadn’t mourned the loss.” Cole was addicted to drugs at an early age, specifically heroin. Even though she kicked it, her severe usage damaged her liver so that by the time she was 58, during a routine check-up, it was discovered she had Hepatitis C. Her doctor prescribed heavy medication, namely interferon, an anti-viral medicine.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 2): No Ordinary Family

ABC's No Ordinary Family
Today, we continue with my mid-year review of the new fall television season. Back in early September, I listed several new shows from this current fall TV season that I planned to watch. Yesterday I wrote about Outsourced, a new comedy series that surprised me by exceeding almost every expectation I had, and next time I’ll write about Terriers, a recently-cancelled series which more than met every high expectation I might have had for it. Today however I’m writing about No Ordinary Family, a sci-fi/comedy/drama which despite its imaginative premise and talented cast has disappointingly fallen well below my expectations.

In No Ordinary Family (ABC, CTV), we meet an average and mildly dysfunctional American family that survives a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest and emerges with superpowers. Prior to the crash, the Powells were drifting apart: the parents were communicating less and less with one another and with their two high-school age kids. All of this however begins to change after the plane crash. In fact, what becomes quickly apparent is that these new powers seem designed to fill in the gaps in their personalities, bolstering them in precisely the ways that would fix their individual weaknesses. And so Stephanie, a wife and mother (Julie Benz) who works long hours and can’t find time to spend with her family, is given the gift of super-speed; Jim, a husband and father (Michael Chiklis) whose career choices have left him feeling emasculated, develops super-strength and near physical invulnerability; Daphne (Kay Panabaker), a typically self-involved teenage girl who rarely looks up from her cell phone, finds herself able to read minds; J.J., a teen boy (Jimmy Bennett) who struggles in school because of an undiagnosed learning disability, is given vast intuitive intelligence, and so on. While on paper this may seem to promise a nice poetic balance for the series, it is this initial decision that leads the series to fall flat from a dramatic standpoint.  We are introduced, albeit for about 5 minutes, to a family with real issues that most viewers can identify with, but then just as quickly the show cheats both the characters and the viewers of any genuine engagement with any real, human struggles, inadvertently undercutting much of the potential emotional realism of its stories and characterizations.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 1): Outsourced

NBC's Outsourced
At the beginning of September, I looked ahead at this current fall TV season, singling out a handful of new shows that had grabbed my attention. As the halfway point of the 2010-2011 television season approaches, it seems only appropriate that I let you know how those expectations worked out for me.  Since I’ve already written at length about AMC’s The Walking Dead and my fellow critic David Churchill has weighed in on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, over the my next few posts,  I’ll be returning to three of those shows: Terriers (FX), which rose admirably to meet my expectations; No Ordinary Family (ABC), which has fallen consistently short of them; and Outsourced (NBC), which far exceeded any limited expectations I might have had. While to my profound disappointment, FX announced yesterday that due to low ratings it was not going to renew Terriers, both No Ordinary Family and Outsourced have already been picked up for second seasons. First up: NBC’s Outsourced.

Outsourced (NBC, Global)

Ben Rappaport as Todd
While the 2009 season introduced three of my favourite current sitcoms—Community (NBC), Modern Family (ABC), and the unfortunately-titled-but-somehow-wonderful Couger Town (ABC)—the 2010 season has been an utter disappointment comedy-wise. With one exception, I haven’t added any new sitcoms to my ‘watch’ list this year. And that one exception is Outsourced.  Based on John Jeffcoat’s well-received 2006 indie romantic comedy of the same name and set in Mumbai (but filmed on a lot in L.A.), Outsourced is NBC’s fish-out-of-water/workplace comedy. Ben Rappaport plays Todd, a 25-year-old Kansas City native sent to India to run a call centre for an American novelties company. I confess that I initially tuned into Outsourced with a kind of morbid curiosity. The advance press and promos for the show make it look like a train-wreck: clumsy, unfunny, and probably culturally offensive to boot. Coming to the show with these expectations, I was surprised to find a consistently funny, well-written show, with likeable actors and often touchingly human situations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Three From The Shelf: Shattered Glass, Secret Ballot & Beijing Bicycle

With the holiday season approaching, people naturally flock to their DVD stores to rent movies suitable to the occasion. Here are three pictures (not related to Christmas) that didn't necessarily bring joy to the world in their time, but might now light up your viewing pleasure.

After the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times in 2003, there probably wasn't a more timely film that same year than Shattered Glass. Unfortunately, it barely got the time of day. The story of journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a writer for the liberal publication The New Republic, who cooked up over 90 percent of the stories he published, happened not long before Blair started his own brand of faux journalism. Directed by Billy Ray (Breach), Shattered Glass is an engaging, intelligently laid out story of how a young and eager journalist on the rise charmed his way into the editorial bosom of a prestigious magazine (at about the time that eagerness and charm began taking precedence over brains). Christensen gives a performance both cunning and subtle, playing a quietly obsequious cipher who finally hits a wall. Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor who provides that wall, gives an equally understated performance. As an investigative drama, Shattered Glass doesn't break any new ground, but it sure smashes a lot of illusions.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Double Dose 'o Disney: A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)


Disney's marketing acumen has always been top-notch. Whether it was releasing a new animated film (as they just did with Tangled), or opening the vault to re-release (in an approximate 7-year cycle) one of their classic animated feature films (the recent Blu Ray of Fantasia, for example), Disney has always had a knack for keeping their name front and centre with, if nothing else, a new generation of children. So, the recent back-to-back releases of the DVDs of their A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) were equally timely.

Released last Christmas to generally iffy reviews, Robert Zemeckis's latest motion-capture (mo-cap) experiment, A Christmas Carol, was held back for its first DVD release until just last week, a year after its theatrical launch. This is generally not the way things happen anymore. Usually, a film is in the theatres and then three to five months later it comes to On Demand and DVD. But Disney isn't stupid. A DVD release of A Christmas Carol in April or May would have been just dumb. Nobody would have rented it, so Disney wisely bit the bullet, held it a year, and are now cashing in.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #5: Robert Towne (1988)

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.

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.

One section of the book deals with film directors who began confronting the changing face of the industry in the Eighties. By 1988, screenwriter Robert Towne had become one of Hollywood's most gifted, intelligent and in-demand writers. He emerged out of the Sixties as a key "script consultant" on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and in the Seventies on The Godfather (1972). Towne soon became an influential screenwriter himself as that decade went forward (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo) and turned to directing in the eighties (Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise). When we chatted in 1988, while he was promoting Tequila Sunrise, an entertaining romantic melodrama starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, neither of us could guess that he would make only two more movies (Without Limits, Ask the Dust) in the next couple of decades.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Exciting and Visceral Cinema: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan

With American cinema in the perpetual doldrums, it’s fallen to a handful of directors to provide quality movie-making that doesn’t insult the intelligence and displays an original and striking mindset. David Fincher’s superb The Social Network was one such recent release, as was Spike Jonze’s perceptive 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are. Now, talented filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) weighs in with Black Swan, which does for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake what Jaws did for sharks, that is, brilliantly reveal the dark undercurrents roiling beneath a placid surface.

Set amidst the hot house atmosphere of a New York ballet company, Black Swan focuses on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who, like everyone else in her group, hopes to land the starring role in an upcoming revisionist new production of Swan Lake. Driven company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is interested in utilizing Nina as the ballet’s lead, but bluntly points out to her that while he’s sure she can play the innocent White Swan of the ballet, essaying the Black Swan, representing the darker side of human nature, is, he fears, out of her emotional range. He gives her the role anyway, but a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has conveniently just joined the company, is being held in reserve as an alternate, just in case Nina can’t pull the part off. Pushed by her disturbed perfectionist mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself, and none too stable in her own right, cracks begin to appear in Nina’s world. It revolves around her cutting herself, imagining plots against her – which may indeed exist – and, just possibly, undergoing a split personality, thus replicating the plot of Swan Lake. Needless to say, as opening night fast approaches, things come to a messy, powerful head.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Invisible Artist: Irvin Kershner 1923-2010

When George Lucas tapped director Irvin Kershner, who died last Saturday at 87 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, to direct The Empire Strikes Back (the sequel to Star Wars), Kershner asked him, "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot-shots, why me?" Lucas replied, "Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Lucas wasn't kidding. Nor was he simply pandering to the veteran director. Although Irvin Kershner had been making movies in Hollywood since the late fifties, he certainly wasn't typical Hollywood. He didn't make the most obvious commercial entertainments, but rather he examined with thoughtful consideration what constitutes commercial entertainment. Which is one reason why The Empire Strikes Back was a significant improvement over its predecessor.

If Lucas created spectacle out of the pop treadmill of space action serials, Kershner gave his own film a sumptuousness that linked it to classic fairy tale. Star Wars was content being an entertainment machine that kept the audience peaked, but The Empire Strikes Back dug deeper into the underpinnings of the story while giving the characters flesh and blood emotion. It was the most dramatically charged and enchanting picture of the entire series. "I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces," Kershner once said. "There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." That landscape was often filled with the temperament of a film maker who seldom settled for the outlines of what the stories gave him.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Separating Paranoia From Heightened Consciousness: Doug Liman's Fair Game

Conspiracies are as old as the dawn of civilization. They consistently intrigued Shakespeare. Bye-bye, Julius Caesar. Tough luck, Macbeth. Some speculate on the true identity of the Bard himself; Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, due out in late 2011, will address this controversy. But, in the modern era, the very notion of a conspiracy theory gained credence immediately after the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. We have not been the same since. Nowadays, everyone’s suspicious of everything. On the lunatic fringe, there are the Truthers (Who really attacked the World Trade Center?), the Birthers (Where was Obama actually born?) and, a cherished chestnut, People Who Suspect the Fluoridation of Water is a Communist Plot.

Yet, for those of us with more reasoned fears, it’s often difficult to separate paranoia from heightened consciousness. To quote Kurt Cobain, who must have borrowed it from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” That certainly is the case for Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame in Fair Game, a sympathetic biographical film tracing the D.C. couple’s nightmare at the hands of the vindictive Bush administration. Although unseen except in genuine news footage, the chief perpetrators are Karl Rove and the even more powerful Dick Cheney (On a Baghdad battlefield, this contemporary Richard III might plead: “A heart, a heart. My kingdom for a heart!”). But the Central Intelligence Agency — where Plame is an undercover operative until exposed for devious purposes — comes across as a bastion of back-stabbers.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chasing Away the Christmas Blues: Shelby Lynne and Annie Lennox's Christmas CDs

Music at Christmas time has the potential to either warm the soul -- or wear out the heart. We're bombarded with the stuff right after Halloween in every mall and in every store. And it's a real shame that music has to become intolerable under the guise of the Christmas spirit (a spirit one can have a hard time invoking while shopping in the jewelry section). During the season, though, I always reach for two distinctly classic albums that help steady the Christmas chatter: Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You, with its rocking good tunes, and A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, which casts a jazzier Christmas spell. Both albums stir peaceful memories of Christmas past without all the hustle and bustle. But there are also two new albums competing for a spot on my player: Shelby Lynne's Merry Christmas (Everso Records, 2010) and Annie Lennox's A Christmas Cornucopia (Decca Records, 2010). Both releases don't let commercialization get in the way of a good record so I'm pleased to report that these new albums are first-rate.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Songs My Mother Taught Me: Roky Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil

In 1966, the 13th Floor Elevators launched what came to be known as psychedelic rock with their hit single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." It's quite likely that the band's lead singer/songwriter Roky Erickson had no idea that the song's title would end up overshadowing the future that lay ahead of him. I also doubt that given the horrors of what did lay ahead, he (and the legion of fans who followed him) ever considered a day when a record would come out of that experience with the power and emotional force of True Love Cast Out All Evil (released last April). It's one of the strongest and strangely affecting CDs of the year.

For those who miss albums that are conceived as albums (rather than merely a collection of songs), True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautifully crafted one with a suggestively stirring arc. It's an informal anthropological portrait of an artist trying to re-connect all the broken pieces of memory and truth and finding out how elusive that process can be. Produced by Will Sheff and featuring his band Okkervil River, True Love is a song cycle that attempts to provide a chronicle of a life that has been blasted apart. To his credit, however, Sheff doesn't solemnize the process, nor does he create an inspirational tribute to Erickson's survival. He rather lets Erickson's songs tell the story, an elliptical series of parables about one man testing his faith against an unforgiving world where fate had cast him. Roky Erickson learned his love of music from his mother, a woman who was both religiously devotional and righteously mad. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a haunting evocation of a parent's gift to her son, a present that shares equal portions of inspiration and insanity. (As he says in "Bring Back the Past": "Moody tunes whistle in my ears/And throw me up and down/Dreams and scenes from joy to tears/Could screw me to the ground.")

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rewriting History The Right Way: The Tudors


At the recent Gemini Awards (Canada's version of the Emmys), The Tudors deservedly took home the prize, for its third season, as Best Series. Almost immediately, there was much gnashing of teeth and wrenching of clothing by the chattering classes because they felt “it wasn't Canadian enough.” I know it was not an earnest drama like Wild Roses, or an insufferable comedy, such as the Canadian-set and overrated Little Mosque On the Prairie, or Corner Gas, but I always thought that the definition of "Best" was the best produced program that year. Since there was a lot of Canadian money involved (it was an Irish/Canadian co-production), and a wealth of Canuck talent was on display both in front of and behind the camera (for example, Jeremy Podeswa (Fugitive Pieces), directed several episodes throughout the show's four year run), in my books, The Tudors qualified as Canadian. Okay, it didn't "tell a Canadian story" (obliquely, I think it did, because the actions of Henry VIII in the 16th century still has an impact on Canada today), but who cares? Are we that blinkered that we should only be telling Canadian stories? And who decides what those are?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

One Brain, Two Ears: Stereo vs Mono

There's a rather humorous video on YouTube making the cyber-rounds as of late. It's called "Bob Dylan Wants You to Embrace Mono" put out by Columbia Records to promote their new release of the box-set Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings, which contains the first 8 albums by Bob Dylan in mono. The movie is presented as an educational film from the 1960s using a ton of archival footage of teenagers at play. In between, a pseudo-professor talks about recorded sound and how the brain is tricked into hearing things in mono as opposed to stereo, which, it is suggested, is bad for your brain (click here for the video). The argument is good one as we come to terms with technology and the ever-changing marketing of music around the world. But what appears to be a commercial, corporate gimmick to sell more CDs has real value when assessing how we hear music and what the new technology has granted us regarding the quality of those sounds.