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.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #4: Pauline Kael (1983)

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 (e.g. 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 1986 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.
 
Pauline Kael
There was also a discussion with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael who two years earlier had returned to writing after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood.  Kael's career began at a fortuitous time in movie history during the sixties when Godard, Truffaut, Bertolucci and Arthur Penn dramatically changed the face of the art form. Her reviews also changed the intent and style of criticism. She fought the auteur school of Andrew Sarris that was worshipful of film directors. She created instead an intuitive and personal approach to criticism based on examining her responses to the work and illuminating that experience in the context of art, politics, popular culture and literature. In a sense, she acted on D.H. Lawrence's sharp observation in his Classic Studies in American Literature: "Never trust the artist, trust the tale."
 
When we met to talk at the Windsor Arms hotel in Toronto, during her book tour for her compendium, 5001 Nights at the Movies, the Reagan decade was already beginning to have its deadening impact on the movie industry. I had only been reviewing professionally for about three years and was already beginning to witness a decline in quality pictures as well as the decline of a critical and discerning audience. With that question rattling in my brain, we began the interview.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trauma's Twins: Interview with Tim Cook (The Madman and The Butcher)

Author and Great War historian Tim Cook, who won the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book, Shock Troops (2008), a book that examined the horrific impact World War One had on Canadian fighting forces in the battles of Hill 70, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, returns to both the horror and that defining conflict in The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Penguin, 2010). Where Shock Troops delved into the emotional trauma WWI exacted on our troops, The Madman and The Butcher looks at two key figures who embodied its aftermath.

The Madman and The Butcher is basically a double biography, with contrasting chapters, about the relationship between Sam Hughes, Canada's War Minister during the first 2 1/2 years of WWI, and Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corp commander who was recognized as a great general, one who doggedly sought to solve the challenges of fighting trench warfare. With deft precision, Cook compares the conflict between Hughes (the madman) and Currie (the butcher) while leading up to one of the most famous libel trials in Canadian history. Where Hughes was brash and outspoken, attacking Currie's reputation, Currie was quiet, thoughtful and traumatized by what he witnessed. After the war, Hughes accused Currie of being a butcher of his own men and he took the full brunt of Hughes's accusations despite being a superior tactical officer.

While talking to Tim Cook at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, I wanted to first understand what drew him to these two vastly different personalities.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love & Other Drugs: Avoiding the Harsh Realities

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway
The TV ads for Love & Other Drugs, the new film from director Edward Zwick (Glory, Defiance), leave one key plot point out of the movie’s hard sell. The female lead, played by Anne Hathaway, has Parkinson’s Disease, the incurable and debilitating illness that eventually destroys a person’s motor symptoms and is most recognizable by the physical tremors that its sufferers display. The late Pope John Paul II had it, as does actor Michael J. Fox, who is the most identifiable Parkinson’s sufferer in the United States. But the makers of Love & Other Drugs would prefer that Parkinson’s not be part of the movie’s pitch for audiences even though it’s an important element of the romantic comedy/drama. That omission from the TV spots is both illuminating and indicative of why the movie itself falls far short of offering something new and original on screen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misfits: I Don’t Think We’re in Smallville Anymore


Two weeks ago, Misfits began its much anticipated second season. When the show premiered last fall in the UK on Channel 4, it was nothing short of a phenomenon. This past June Misfits surprised everyone, including the show’s young stars, when it won the BAFTA for Best Drama, beating out BBC favourites Spooks (aka MI-5 in North America), Being Human, and Jimmy McGovern’s exquisitely powerful The Street. Part teen drama, part science fiction, part inner-city portrait, the premise of the show is deceptively familiar: five young delinquents suddenly find themselves with superpowers. We’ve all seen comparable stories before, be it on Smallville, Heroes, The X-Men, or more recently, this season’s No Ordinary Family on ABC. And while on paper Misfits might bear a passing resemblance to these more conventional offerings it has very little in common with any of them. The series is intelligent, darkly comic, intensely suspenseful, and always extraordinarily fun. Think of it as Heroes meets The Breakfast Club, with a large dash of Trainspotting.

Set against a grey, urban landscape peppered with alienated youth, decaying infrastructure, and economic despair, Misfits is, ironically, more grounded in reality than many other less fantastical shows. The show’s writing is sharp and hilarious, invariably profane, and refreshingly unadorned. (Series creator Howard Overman is credited with penning every one of the first season’s 6 episodes and it looks as if the same will be true for the current season.) The five young actors—largely unknown before they were cast in the show—don’t have the cheek-bones, jarring athletic builds, and model good looks that populate what passes for teen dramas on American television, but they are consistently superb in their roles. The charisma of Robert Sheehan, the young Irish actor who plays Nathan on the series, could carry the show on its own, but each of our ‘heroes’ is a well-drawn and profoundly human character.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The End In Sight: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

As we approach the end of the long road that is the Harry Potter film series with the release this past weekend of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, I want to make one thing clear. From the beginning, I've been a fan of J.K. Rowling's books and the Warner Brothers adaptations. That does not mean, however, I've set my critical faculties aside when it comes to either the novels or the films. There have been moments in all of them when my patience has been tried just as much as my enthusiasm has been elevated. For example, it is no accident that the best film, Alfonso Cuarón's absolutely sublime Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), is based on the best of the books. Everything in both works brilliantly, and yet screenwriter Steve Kloves (writer of all the films except Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), while staying true to Rowling’s template, was unafraid to strip away extraneous plot and characters. Only occasionally have I regretted some of the excisions made for all the films.

We have been very fortunate with Harry Potter on the big screen. The closest to bad that the series got was Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and that was partially because it was based on the weakest book in the series. With this second novel, Rowling didn't seem to have a strong handle on the story, or where she was going with it, so both versions meandered and only found their respective legs during the finale. No offence to Columbus, but he's a hack. I will always have respect for him on one level – his choice of the three leads was inspired – but he lacks visual inventiveness and can be quite sloppy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Borrowed Time: Listening to John Lennon's Signature Box Set

“I’ve always been slightly jealous of the world for having had more time with my father than I did” – Sean Lennon

Sean Lennon makes a valid point considering that he was just 5 years old when his father died. Consequently, our own memories of John Lennon resonate differently. But, in considering the music, we have to take into account Lennon’s relationship with his family and his openly political activities. This is especially true when you examine his entire body of work, as collected in the recently released Signature Box Set. Remastered by the same team that did the excellent work on The Beatles’ mono and stereo box sets from last year, this collection reflects the same standard of audio excellence. The set features Lennon’s singles, demos and completed albums, including a brochure of essays from Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon and his half-brother, Sean.  The set also includes a book examining Lennon’s short life and a print of one of his ink illustrations. I took the time to listen to these albums once again in chronological order just as they were intended.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Beyond Rangoon

It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.(Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last week, after spending 15 of the last 21 years imprisoned, adds another layer of poignancy for the contemporary viewer.)

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Next Three Days: Paul Haggis’s Botched Remake

Over the years, movie remakes have gained something of a disreputable reputation among filmgoers. But while there are no shortage of remade turkeys (Breathless, Vanilla Sky), many other remakes have been quite good, even great. The makers of The Birdcage (1996) did a nice job of translating La cage aux folles (1978), that funny French farce about a gay couple (one of whom dresses in drag) pretending to be straight to American shores. It deftly substituted political divisions for the class ones in the Gallic movie. Likewise, the folks behind Unfaithful (2002) perfectly captured the darkness and passion lurking behind placid bourgeois exteriors that allowed Claude Chabrol’s French original, La Femme infidèle (1968), to stand out from the pack. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), notwithstanding Brad Pitt’s grating, excessive performance, was a terrific extension of Chris Marker’s brilliant apocalyptic, time-travel SF short, La jetée (1962). And, of course, John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) improved on the 1931 movie of the same name (and another made in 1936 called Satan Meets A Lady), so much so that very few people are aware that Huston’s was actually a remake, let alone the third version.

Diane Kruger & Vincent Lindon
By those lights, The Next Three Days, an American adaptation of Fred Cavayé’s fine 2008 debut French thriller Pour elle (For Her) ought to have been a slam dunk since its premise was so striking and plot friendly. The French movie revolved around an ordinary Parisian teacher, Julien Aucler (Vincent Lindon), whose wife Diane (Diane Kruger) has been imprisoned for murder. She’s innocent, but damning circumstantial evidence means she’s going to be locked up for many years to come. Determined to do right by his wife, and their young son Oscar (Lancelot Roch), and utterly convinced of her innocence, he sets out to see if he can find a way to bust her out of prison and escape the country with his family. Great idea, terrific execution; a foolproof template for a remake, you’d think. That is if Hollywood hadn’t made two mistakes in the process: 1) They handed over the reins of the project to Paul Haggis, hack director (Crash) and screenwriter (Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale); and 2) they decided to deviate from the tight and economical 96 minute French movie and delivered a bloated, excessive 135 minute American version in its place. Big surprise: the remake sucks.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yesterday Don’t Matter If It’s Gone: An Actor’s Legacy

Jake Weber
Although the challenges of Jake Weber’s acting career are nothing compared to the vicissitudes of his real life, the fact that CBS has just canceled Medium – now in its seventh season – probably means he’ll be looking for work in the near future.

Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and an English professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, describes his former student as “incredibly intelligent, very gifted and just a down-to-earth, personable, wonderful, calm guy. It’s so easy to communicate with Jake.”

On the television series, Weber’s role has been that of a calm guy named Joe DuBois whose spouse, portrayed by Patricia Arquette, communicates somewhat uneasily with the dearly departed. While raising three daughters in Arizona, he’s a technology wizard and she uses her clairvoyance to help the Phoenix prosecutor.

“My character is a man of science and his wife sees dead people,” Weber says. “But the crime and spooky stuff are a way to explore an American marriage.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Transsiberian (2008)

With the release last weekend of the latest Tony Scott/Denzel Washington runaway train flick, Unstoppable, I thought it was appropriate to look back at another (sometimes) runaway train film that did not receive the love, nor a proper theatrical release in North America: 2008's Transsiberian.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island), Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes, the original version of Vanilla Sky), Kate Mara (127 Hours) and Ben Kingsley (also Shutter Island), Transsiberian looked to have the goods to at least get a proper release. However, at its widest, the film managed to make it into only 154 theatres in Canada and the US (not one in Toronto, though, as I have no memory of this picture ever opening here). It made all of $2.2 million at the North American box office before being consigned to DVD/Cable TV/airplane oblivion. Don't get me wrong, this is no masterpiece, nor even a lost treasure, but it is a credible, entertaining thriller that, after a logy start, picks up steam and rattles on very successfully to its conclusion. And it has some things that are missing from the vast majority of big-budget action pictures that do get a proper release: reasonably believable characters and mostly logical thrills.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Solitary Man: The Crucible of Michael Douglas

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction.

For most of his movie career, Michael Douglas has built his box office success as the everyman who always gets his way – even when he loses. Whether he's playing a financial sleaze in Wall Street (1987), or the cocky adventurer in Romancing the Stone (1984), Douglas always finds a way to lure the audience to his side. But it's not because he has the suave romantic allure of an Errol Flynn, or that he plays creepy in the appealingly baroque style of James Woods, or performs in the high-wire theatrics of Nicolas Cage. Douglas builds his appeal by turning the everyman into a solitary man. His pictures almost always feature him as the sharp cookie who has everything, a loving family in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Disclosure (1994), or the financial world at his beck and call in Wall Street, but somebody is always out to take it all away. Even though he has put the wheels in motion towards his own destruction, he becomes exonerated as the victim of forces beyond his control. Perhaps that's the key to the appeal of these movies; the mass audience is never asked to wonder what Michael Douglas has done to earn all this grief.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #3: Margaret Drabble (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.

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. (See some of the others here and here.)


author Margaret Drabble
During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of no longer being able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an Empire. So (just as in the United States) England also elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher, both larger than life figures, never came close to restoring anything glorious. But they did both change the political landscape dramatically. In their midst. many spoke out against their policies - including author Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way). 

In one section of Talking Out of Turn, I looked at England during that decade. And I wanted to include individuals who both predated Margaret Thatcher and were also contemporaries of her. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to have spoken to author Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), film directors Lindsay Anderson (If...) and Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette) and they helped flesh out the past and the present. But Margaret Drabble was a writer who crossed over from both the Seventies to the Eighties. She not only became an outspoken critic of the Thatcher government, she also understood the price her policies would exact in the future. In this 1987 interview, Drabble delved into the effect of Thatcherism on human values. The Radiant Way, her study of three friends begins right on the eve of the Thatcher era. It was her first work of fiction in seven years.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rescue Me: Flawed But Arresting


The following blog contains spoilers.

Is Rescue Me the best flawed show on television? I’d argue it is, but ever since its debut in the summer of 2004, the FX series (from the same cable network that brought you The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Damages) has divided audiences, who either like its incisive drama and outrageous humour or decry its juvenile tendencies and perpetually adolescent characters. Actually, they’re both right as this maddeningly uneven TV series can be as frustrating as it is engrossing.

Centering on the actions of the firefighters of Ladder Company 62 (aka 62 Truck), a Harlem-based firehouse, post 9/11, Rescue Me is an ambitious show that tries, and often succeeds, in capturing a specific moment in time: that of the slowly recovering shell-shocked New York City and the attendant worries, fears and attitudes held by those brave heroes who paid such a high price during the September 11 terrorist attacks. (An estimated and unprecedented 343 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers.) But this is no reverent show, extolling people only at their heroic best. The firemen, led by Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) are a profane, womanizing and, in the case of Gavin, an alcoholic lot, as apt to cheat on their partners as they are to risk their lives by running into a burning building.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Classy Affair: Charlie Haden's Quartet West's Sophisticated Ladies

In 1992, Charlie Haden's Quartet West released a remarkable jazz album. It was called Haunted Heart and it featured the bass player’s quartet with Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Alan Broadbent on piano and Larance Marable on drums. The album was a soundtrack to Los Angeles, without the pictures, although it portrayed L.A. in a cinematic way. The album opens with the Warner Brothers fanfare composed by Max Steiner and segues into a composition called "Hello My Lovely" played by the quartet. Even better was the use of period recordings from the 1940s. Songs by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern and Billie Holiday were brilliantly woven into the texture and tone creating a moving picture in the mind.

Two years later, Quartet West released a follow-up album called Always Say Goodbye featuring a thematic presentation based on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. This time the quartet was featured playing period recordings by sax great, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Stafford, Chet Baker and the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring Ray Nance on violin. A musical excerpt from the Warner Brothers movie, The Big Sleep, including dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, concluded the album. This album also created an interesting concept rarely tried in jazz: the mash up.

This new release, Sophisticated Ladies, further re-interprets the past, but this time featuring the contemporary voices of Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Renee Fleming and Ruth Cameron, Haden's wife. Of course, with this much talent crowding the room, the results are uneven. But it's still remarkable what some singers, if they're prepared, can bring to a song. Therefore, the successful tracks on Sophisticated Ladies are by the better singers. Namely, Wilson, Krall and Fleming. The other three fail to dazzle my ears and perhaps it's because the material isn't suitable to the vocalist. For instance, Norah Jones does her best with "Ill Wind," one of the best torch ballads in the American Songbook, but I'm not convinced the wind is blowing her "no good." As for Melody Gardot, on "If I'm Lucky," a rarely recorded song by Edgar De Lange, she seems to be getting bad vocal coaching. Her vibrato styling on this song spoils the purity of the melody.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #2: David Cronenberg (1983)

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 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.

The horror film genre in the eighties had grown significantly more popular because horror writers, like Stephen King, were pumping out books that were already infused with a film sensibility. But the success of thillers like Friday the 13th and The Nightmare on Elm Street also brought on a deluge of dread-inducing suspense pictures that were essentially about people bent on, what my friend Alex Patterson once called, head-pulling rampages. Although these films and their imitators were often lauded for their subversiveness, they were actually quite morally conservative, fitting snuggly into the Reagan era. After all, in those movies, why was it the sexually active teenagers who always got snuffed out and it was the virgin who became the hero that vanquished the killer? Many of these horror movies did more to re-enforce our fears and prejudices than help us come to terms with transgression. 

David Cronenberg.
What true horror became in the eighties and what it began to mean in artistic terms was part of a discussion I had with one of its practitioners, David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), in 1983. As a Canadian director who began his career in the seventies making low-budget thrillers, Cronenberg was just about to release his first big-budget commercial movie, The Dead Zone, which was adapted from a best-selling Stephen King novel. He was also about to be honoured at the Festival of Festivals (the original name of the Toronto International Film Festival) and had programed a series on science-fiction films for that year's event. We began the interview talking about the changing face of horror right at that moment when, in retrospect, he was beginning to move beyond the genre.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance: Canadian Military Disasters on Film and TV

Every Remembrance Day, between 1990 and 2007, I used to ask men of a certain age (usually in their 70s to 80s) if they had served in World War II. I wasn't buttonholing old men on the street, they were either those selling poppies or, since I worked in retail during the first ten years of that time period, some of my regular customers. Most of them told me that they had. I always said “thank you for what you did for all of us who've come since.” Some smiled and said they were glad to have done it. Others acknowledged my response and said nothing else. One year, however, a dear customer of mine, who I will call Mr. Clark, came into the store. I asked him that question and when he said he had, I thanked him. He looked at me and said, “I'm not proud, David, of what I did in the war.” Before I could stop myself, I asked him why and he answered, “I was a bombardier in the war. On more than one occasion I knew that our targets were strictly civilian. I knew we were deliberately bombing innocent women and children. And on more than one occasion, I managed to convince my pilot to divert over rail yards or factory areas, and not continue targeting the innocent. If our CO had ever got wind of it, I would have been court martialled.” Court martialling in World War II meant prison and disgrace.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Well Not Dry: Philip Kerr's Field Grey

If this were (and I'm not saying it is) the last book in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, I would still be a very satisfied reader. It's not that Field Grey is the best of the now-seven novels, but there's a mournful, elegiac quality to this book that suggests a fascinating road perhaps leading to an end. The majority of the book is set in Germany in 1954 as Gunther tells stories to interrogators. This one begins shortly after the close of the last novel, If The Dead Rise Not (2009 – reviewed by me here). Gunther is not-so reluctantly coerced into helping a pretty, young female Castro rebel escape from Cuba to Haiti (Gunther, in the best noir tradition, has always been a sucker for a pretty face). During the journey across the Caribbean, Bernie's boat is captured by the American Coast Guard. Through slightly contrived circumstances, Bernie is identified, arrested and imprisoned first in New York, then Germany. He is suspected of war crimes.

Gunther has always been a fascinating character. A detective before and during the Nazi years in Berlin, he is no Nazi (he despises them – well, actually, Bernie hates pretty much everybody: Americans, British, Russians/Communists and the French, particularly the French), but he is a survivalist, so he didn't always stand up to Nazis. The times he didn't step up, he would have certainly been killed if he had. Sometimes he witnessed and even participated in some pretty bad things, but his moral code of trying to do the right thing as much as possible repeatedly saved both his skin and his soul. Bernie did some of the things he is accused of (shooting unarmed partisans in Eastern Europe during the war), but only after they had slaughtered many innocents themselves.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

Vampires might get all the good press, but the fact is that zombies have also been enjoying a renaissance of late. There have never been so many quality zombie films: beginning with the phenomenal success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2003, Edgar Wright’s riotous Shaun of the Dead in 2004, the triumphant return of zombie-auteur George Romero with Land of the Dead in 2005, and Andrew Currie’s biting satire Fido in 2006. In the book stores, we’ve got Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). (The film adaptation of the latter is now in pre-production, with Brad Pitt in the lead role.) But there has always been one realm the zombies have failed to successfully (de)populate: the small screen. With the Halloween premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombies have finally come to our living rooms.

Last year, AMC retired its original motto “TV for Movie People” and introduced its current slogan, “Story Matters Here.” In the 90-minute pilot of The Walking Dead, both principles are in full effect. Developed for television by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running black-and-white comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is set in the weeks after a zombie apocalypse decimates the human population. While it is unclear how much the show will be following the plot of the comic series (now in its seventh year), its writer Robert Kirkland is on-board as a writer for this first season. Darabont himself wrote and directed the first episode, and it is a masterpiece of restrained storytelling. True to the comic book source material, Darabont lets the visuals tell the story. The early scenes are given hardly any incidental music, and long stretches of the first episode pass without a word of dialogue. This slow, cinematic build-up—as eerie as it is suspenseful—lets the landscape reveal itself, both to the viewer and to our lead character, on its own terms. Check your zombie expectations at the door: there are no cheap scares, no cartoonish violence, and no pounding music. The Walking Dead is a show about character and story: this is a story about the living, not the dead.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lasting Impressions: Interview with author Ross King (Defiant Spirits)

When we generally think of The Group of Seven, we envision a group of naturalist landscape artists enraptured and captivated by the Canadian shield. Rarely does the idea ever cross our mind that these artists, who included Tom Thomson (who died in 1917 before the Group formally began in 1920), A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley, were not solely defined by the Canadian wilderness.

In his book, Defiant Spirits (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), author and art historian Ross King does argue that that far from being woodsy ruralists the Group was more aethestically shaped by the explosion of modernist Impressionism in Europe, which included the work of Cézanne and Van Gogh. Furthermore, while the notion of being defiant and rebellious is seldom associated with being Canadian, Defiant Spirits explores how the dynamic paintings of the Group revealed a group of divergent painters who flaunted convention and were driven to interpret the rugged landscape of their country.

Besides writing Defiant Spirits, Ross King, who won the Governor-General's Award for The Judgment of Paris, a study of French Impressionism, also curated a show of the Group of Seven at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (which runs until January 30, 2011) in Kleinberg, Ontario. The purpose of the exhibition, as with his book, is to dig deeper into the idealized mythology of their work and explore instead the eclectic blend of styles that made them a part of the international avant-garde in the early 20th Century. We began our conversation at the Douglas & McIntyre office in Toronto by having Ross King first define the myth of the Group of Seven and why it developed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Sound Mind: Tackling In Treatment

If my head ever needs shrinking, I’d know which guy to trust. He’s Irish, lives and practices in the same Brooklyn brownstone, has a gift for listening, does not hesitate to provide insights and has been through enough misery himself to understand the suffering of others. Unfortunately, this psychoanalyst is merely a fictitious character named Paul Weston on In Treatment, an HBO series now in its third season. I have to admit I’m addicted.

The minimalist drama is derived from BeTipul, a popular show broadcast in Israel for just two years. The American version’s 2008 and 2009 episodes essentially were just translations from the Hebrew scripts into English. For 2010, original material is required. So far, the process has been seamless, thanks to writers such as Rodrigo Garcia, son of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and author Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake got her a 2003 Pulitzer Prize). Actor Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer. The fine casts have included Hope Davis, John Mahoney, Blair Underwood, Laila Robbins, Josh Charles, Alison Pill and Embeth Davidtz. In addition, directors such as Melanie Mayron (Melissa on thirtysomething), Chris Misiano (Law & Order), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue) contribute to the classy credentials that set In Treatment apart from so much television trash.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Broken Sidewalk: HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire.

Now 8 episodes into its 12-episode run, HBO's Boardwalk Empire (created by Terence Wintner, a writer on The Sopranos), is an unfocused mess. Telling the story of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, king of Atlantic City in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire tries to embrace both the mantles of The Sopranos coupled with the period cool surrounding another Soprano alum's show, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. But it just doesn't work for an untold number of reasons. Thompson was a real person who was simultaneously a crook and a politician (better crook than politician). Well, he's almost real. Based on Eunuch 'Nucky' Johnson, Thompson is not the problem with the show. As played by perennial supporting player, Steve Buscemi, 'Nucky' is actually a compelling character to have at a show's centre, and Buscemi is quite wonderful in the role. Buscemi has made a career out of playing second-banana weasels in innumerable movies, but this is his first legit lead and he makes the absolute most of it. You can actually believe that, because of his power, a man as unattractive as 'Nucky' can and does have innumerable women throwing themselves at him.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest: A Lame Ending For The Stieg Larsson Film T‏rilogy

The following review contains spoilers.

It doesn’t end well. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, the third adaptation of the famous Stieg Larsson trilogy, is probably the least of the three movies, which is a big disappointment considering that its predecessor, The Girl Who Played With Fire, finished on a high note.

The last film in the series, begins like the book, immediately after the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, with a grievously wounded Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in the hospital and her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), getting ready to expose the Swedish higher-ups who subjected the mohawk-wearing punk hacker, both directly and indirectly, to all manner of abuse over the years. As Blomkvist and his allies tighten the net around the rogue government agency behind Salander's tribulations, the subject herself, set to go on trial for attempted murder of her abusive father, tries to cope with her injuries. She’s also seeking revenge on her tormenters. Larsson’s final novel upped the ante in all the themes that had gone before in a nail biting fashion but the film version, directed by Daniel Alfredson, who also helmed the previous movie, plods where it should move and concludes on a decidedly underwhelming note.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lasting Value: Jason Moran Trio's Ten

On Ten, Jason Moran's trio works the music with cohesion and commitment. Like Keith Jarrett's group, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, Moran's music takes you on an imaginary excursion and returns you safely to home. Their kind of symbiosis, if you will, can usually take years of playing in order to perfect. But they are now inheriting the kind of experience that Jarrett's trio has been earning since the early 1980s.

For Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, the unity is almost fully developed which comes as a surprise considering the leader’s age of 35 years. But the band has had 10 years honing their chops playing together, off and on, since the release of their Moran's second record, Facing Left (2000).

Ten offers a mix of original music and a couple pulled from the jazz songbook. "Crepuscule with Nellie" is one of Thelonious Monk's most eloquent ballads dedicated to his wife. It's not intended to be a tune a band can riff on; it's meant to be played straight without soloing. But this trio has the skill to change the song anyway they like and they succeed. It's a very bold interpretation of the music, but it works because of the great inter-play by the band and Moran's arrangement. It's still Monk but with a little extra.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #1: Jerzy Kosinski (1982)

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.

Jerzy Kosinski
The interview with author Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird, Being There) took place in 1982 while he was promoting his novel, Pinball. The book was written in response to the murder of John Lennon a couple of years earlier. It's the story of a female fan who hunts down a popular rock star by seducing a former classical pianist to help her in the search. The novel examines the motivations of the pop fan: Is she moved more by the artist, or his art? Our talk also came shortly after the release of Warren Beatty's Reds (1982), which examined the life of the American Communist journalist John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World) who covered the Russian Revolution. In the film, Kosinski played the Soviet ideologue Zinoviev.

Jerzy Kosinski was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by living under a false identity. He wrote about that experience in The Painted Bird (1965). Many of his books took up the theme of anonymity and invisibility which, ironically, came to a head in the late eighties when he was being accused of plagiarizing some of his work. He ultimately committed suicide in 1991. His final note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity." Before Eternity knocked, we discussed the subject of anonymity and visibility.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Be of Good Cheer: Levity Lives!

I would have loved to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30th in Washington, D.C. Glued to my TV for three hours, it seemed clear that Comedy Central’s extravaganza on the National Mall was a truly delightful experience for those 150,000 or so ardent fans of civil discourse.

The crowd’s signs were clever, evidence of the intellect and wit that energizes viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. “I doubt this sign will change your opinion” is one I spotted. “Death to nobody!” read another. Pop culture references abounded with absurdist placards such as “Soylent Green is people” and “Mr. Obama, what are you doing about Twilight?”  My personal favorite: “Ruly Mob.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Beat Goes On: William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & My Queen Karo

William S. Burroughs
Unquestionably, the Beat Generation of the 1950s blazed a trail for hippies to follow a decade or two later. So we’ve essentially got the idiosyncratic subject of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within to thank for the dangerously unbridled youngsters of My Queen Karo, a Dutch feature set in Amsterdam during the early 1970s. In both films, the zeitgeist involves questioning authority, resisting conformity, criticizing the establishment and expressing a sometimes forced a joie de vivre.   

Burroughs comes across as a contrarian whose dour demeanor does not indicate much joy in a life plagued by heroin addiction. More happily, he is heralded as the godfather of the post-World War II movement that witnessed legendary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso busily expanding the boundaries of American culture. But first-time director Yony Leyser layers on one too many talking heads: Patti Smith, John Waters, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Diane DiPrima, Gus Van Sant and a number of biographers, among others. Some, but not all, offer valuable insights into an enigmatic person few really seem to have known very well. Also on hand is David Cronenberg, whose 1991 big-screen version of Burrrough’s Naked Lunch stars Peter Weller, who serves as narrator of the 90-minute documentary.