Saturday, February 20, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Ripley's Game

Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game (2002) is both a 'produced and abandoned' and an 'off the shelf' candidate. I've now watched it three times over the last five years, and this picture gets better with each viewing. Each visit to Ripley's world pulls back layer after layer after layer of what it means to be human. It is almost criminal that this picture was never released in North America, because Ripley's Game is everything Anthony Minghella's much-praised, but inferior, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) was not: disturbing, compelling, funny (in a rather sick way) and wonderfully acted. It also holds a mirror up to the rest of us and dares the viewer: Take a look. This, too, is humanity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Scorsese's Labyrinth: Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is less an adaptation of author Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller than it is a virtual funhouse of the director’s favourite film noir tropes – only there’s no fun in it. As he did in his ridiculous re-make of Cape Fear (1991), Scorsese gets so absorbed invoking the work of various film stylists - including Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) - that he can’t find a style of his own to take us inside the drama. Working from a dense but convoluted script (by Laeta Kalogridis), Shutter Island is a cluttered labyrinth that begins as an ingenious detective story but slowly shifts into a psychological character study. However, Scorsese gets so jazzed on creating a surreal atmosphere, aided by the atonal sounds of Ligeti, Penderecki and John Adams, that he clouds the clarity of the story. If it wasn’t for the good work by many of the performers, desperately breathing life into their stock roles, the picture would sink under the weight of the director’s B-movie fetishes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Salty Dogs: Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd's Handsome Cabin Boy

I’ve always loved sea shanties (much to the amusement of my friend David Churchill). Maybe this odd affection dates back to my childhood because the first record I ever owned was “Blow the Man Down.” But I’ve always been taken by their mournful melodies, the unusual tales they told (sometimes ghostly, often times weird) and the singers sounding like long, lost adventurers dead drunk on the sea.

Sea shanties would appear in odd places, too, like The Byrds doing “Jack Tarr the Sailor” on The Ballad of Easy Rider (1969), or Harry Nilsson performing the mock shanty “Black Sails” on Pussy Cats (1974). But my favourite sea shanty album is Blow Boys Blow (1960) by Ewan MacColl & A.L. Lloyd. This collection of classic tunes has a number of uproarious salty stories ("Do Me Anna"), sea adventures ("Banks of Newfoundland") and character portraits ("Old Billy Riley"). The most memorable song, though, is "Handsome Cabin Boy." The story in this tune falls into the category of strangely funny. A young girl finds her way onto a ship by disguising herself as a boy. The disguise works fine until, one day, she becomes pregnant. So...who impregnated the Handsome Cabin Boy? MacColl and Lloyd explore the dilemma with self-conscious bemusement and a crooked smile.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Deviation From the Norm: Irwin Chusid's Songs in the Key of Z (2000)

"You can't have progress without deviation from the norm," composer Frank Zappa once wrote. Glancing back on the history of popular music, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it contains a long list of deviators. Out of their time, and breaking and remaking all the rules, these innovators dauntlessly set out to change history. While gleefully altering our perceptions of the world, these artists deviate most from the norms we take for granted. American outsiders are the most compelling to watch since they tend to transform themselves along with their work.

In 1925, Louis Armstrong, already a major jazz performer, decided to turn the music on its ear with a series of masterful recordings with the Hot Five and Seven. By reconstructing jazz into a soloist's art form, Armstrong was conveying a secret to all Americans: It's more exciting to stand out from the crowd than it is to join it. A few decades later, a young saxophone player from Kansas City named Charlie Parker decided to answer Armstrong's invitation by breaking the rules of standard harmony. While riffing at lightning speed, Parker ingeniously played within the chords themselves. Soon after, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios in Memphis and made the cocky claim that he sounded like nobody else. Within a few years, he effortlessly altered the face of American music.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Catch Us If You Can: An Appraisal of Having a Wild Weekend (1965)

Although The Beatles got all the credit for spearheading the British Invasion into America in 1964, the first rock band to literally tour the United States was The Dave Clark Five. Driven by a heavy sound that Time Magazine compared to an air hammer, The Dave Clark Five sold in excess of 50 million records and appeared a record 12 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. So, given these accomplishments, why didn't they reign supreme? First of all, musically the band was nowhere near as talented as the Fab Four. Their songs ("Glad All Over," "Bits and Pieces") were driven by a pounding Big Beat, but their timbre ultimately grew deeply monotonous. They were also a colourless group, indistinct in comparison to the madcap Beatles. "Sure they were crude and of course they weren't even a bit hip, but in their churning crassness there was a shout of joy and a sense of fun," wrote critic Lester Bangs in appreciation. Given that their greatest appeal was in that spirit of simple fun, it was a huge shock to discover that in their first movie, Having a Wild Weekend (1965), they would end up providing such depth. To borrow film critic Andrew Sarris's comparison: Having a Wild Weekend is to A Hard Day's Night (1964) what Sarris says Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) is to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an uneven, but emotionally richer experience than the former.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lovably Loony: Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce

I said in a previous column that I would occasionally pull down a DVD from my personal collection, re-view it and see if it still deserves a place on my shelf. Today it’s Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce (1985). The film is crackpot, insane, daffy, goofy, ridiculous and, what can I say, an absolute tub of fun. Bear with me as I try to describe the plot. It's breathtaking in its insanity.

The film begins as the space shuttle, Churchill (and no, I don't love the film because they named the space shuttle after me), is on a mission to Halley's Comet on one of its rare visits through our solar system. Within the comet's corona, they find a gigantic spaceship. Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) and his team discover inside the ship two sets of apparently dead life forms: thousands of giant desiccated bat-like creatures and three seemingly perfectly preserved humanoids (one female and two males). They radio to Earth that they have collected the humanoids and will return with them. Then, radio silence. The Churchill returns to Earth, but nobody answers the hail. Another shuttle is sent up to investigate. They find the crew dead, Carlsen missing, but the three humanoids still aboard, untouched.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Death Defying Acts (2008)

There are few directors who can capture the fragile nuances of human emotion quite like Gillian Armstrong. In Mrs. Soffel (1984), she dipped into the deep well of longing that a repressed wife (Diane Keaton) developed for an incarcerated man (Mel Gibson). In High Tide (1987), Armstrong elicited, with great subtlety and sadness, the unrequited yearnings a young daughter (Claudia Karvan) had for a mother (Judy Davis) who had abandoned her years earlier. In her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1994), Armstrong went even farther than the previous adaptations of the classic novel. She captured, with both compassion and insight, the strong family bond of the March family while delicately illustrating the diverse desires and hopes of the growing sisters. In her best work, Armstrong’s great gift is for working between (and within) the lines of the story.

Her latest film, Death Defying Acts (2008), is also about emotional bonds – between mother and daughter; men and women – only it’s not nearly as cohesive, or as satisfyingly worked out. Yet there is still something shimmering about this picture, something ghostly that helps compensate for some of the movie’s dead spots. Part of the picture’s alchemy has to do with the fact that the story is about magic – both what is real and what is fake. Magician Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) is visiting Edinburgh, Scotland in 1926 to offer $10,000 to anyone who can help him contact his dead mother and reveal to him her last words. Thirteen years after her death, Houdini is still possessed by the fact that he wasn’t at her side when she passed away. Meanwhile, two con artists, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), have been desperately making their living fleecing customers with a bogus psychic show. (While Mary performs the tricks, Benji sneakily gathers information from the audience needed to help her mother pull off the scam.) When Houdini comes to town, they immediately zero in on the possibility of winning the money. What ensues is a romantic entanglement between Mary and Houdini that’s interrupted by the knowledge that Benji may possess magical gifts that go far beyond scamming.