Saturday, June 5, 2010

Martin Campbell: Hollywood's Best Unknown Director

When you put your hard earned bucks down at the box office for a film directed by New Zealand-born/England-trained Martin Campbell you are generally assured of a very good return on your investment. Since the 1980s, Campbell has crafted a series of episodic TV episodes and motion pictures that actually put the motion back into pictures.

Campbell first came to my attention in 1983 when he co-directed the twelve-part series, Reilly: Ace of Spies about Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill), considered England's first and best spy. Set during the first 25 years of the last century, the show was both exciting and sexy. Campbell directed the most vital episodes, 2 through 4, 8 and 9 and the finale. The secret to this show (and every film and TV show he's made) was not the espionage and action, but the way that Campbell helped the actors construct their characters within the tension. Every show that Campbell has touched has always been first and foremost about the characters.

He next made an impact on me with another six-part series, Edge of Darkness (1985 - basis for the Mel Gibson movie just-released on DVD that Campbell also directed). Again the solving of the mystery of why Ronald Craven's (Bob Peck) daughter (Joanne Whalley) was murdered right in front of him took a back seat to the people. What mattered to Campbell was examining the grief and pain that Craven's character was living through as he tried to get revenge for his dead daughter (I'll talk about the remake later). Campbell's first film in the US, Criminal Law (1988), was a bit lame, but a lively cable movie, Cast A Deadly Spell (1991), that successfully combined the hard-boiled detective and fantasy genres (trust me, it worked) put him back on track.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Family Legacies: Jeremiah Zagar's In a Dream

Is it just my imagination or have families that are not crazy become as rare as the northern hairy-nosed wombat? Environmentalists believe only about 113 of these marsupials still exist in Australia. Dysfunctional homo sapiens, on the other hand, now number in the billions worldwide. The word ‘dysfunction’ is relative, of course. But when it comes to my relatives, there’s madness aplenty running through our intermingled bloodlines.

So, somehow it did not surprise me to learn that a distant cousin I’ve never met -- Jeremiah Zagar -- made a documentary titled In a Dream that chronicles the meltdown of his nuclear family. My maternal grandmother was a half-sister of his maternal grandfather, ancestors who both died before we were born. In the 20th century, the entire clan left Poland (just a few steps ahead of the Nazis, who would obliterate their Jewish shtetl) and landed in America. Later, my immediate kin remained in New York while his settled in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Four Films About Love

Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient

"Love means never having to say you're sorry," the dying Ali McGraw told hubby Ryan O'Neal in that popular tear-jerker Love Story (1971). But not only did the movie excuse you from having to apologize, it also saved you from the complexity of love’s transgressions. Love Story said that love could transcend all of life’s tragedies and could cure us all of life’s ills – it might even ennoble us. Lou Rawls once sang that “love can be a hurtin’ thing,” but if you want a hit movie about painful subjects, love best be a healin’ thing. Hence, redemptive dramas like Terms of Endearment (1983) or Ghost (1990) became box office triumphs whereas more ambivalent pictures like James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) didn’t (in this picture’s case, it was also criminally underrated).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making Your Own Sound: Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I was recently having lunch with Critics at Large colleague John Corcelli and he was telling me about reading this “exhaustive but fascinating” new biography of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. While enthusiastically describing the various ways the book identified Monk as the originator of be-bop jazz, John got me thinking about one of my favourite books about jazz, one that didn’t dispel the myths surrounding those legendary figures, but rather examined the source of their power: Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991).

The way Dyer writes about jazz, the sound of the music burns through the lines on the page like some subliminal jukebox. Dyer’s not so much a soloist improvising on a tune; instead, he evokes the feeling of the music and the sound at the core of the individual who plays it. “Jazz was about making your own sound,” he explains, “finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running.”

Geoff Dyer writes, in eight very succinct and visually evocative vignettes, of some great – and very different – jazz artists: Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Art Pepper. And Dyer weaves quite an impressionistic tapestry. But Beautiful illustrates the different kinds of artistic temperaments responsible for this uniquely American music. For in his view, jazz music was the perfect artistic expression for talented and inspired outsiders who often demonstrated very idiosyncratic behavior. And, in America, most of these outsiders who discovered and created jazz were black. But Beautiful is both illuminating and inventive because Dyer – a novelist who wrote The Colour of Memory (1989) and The Search (1993) – has constructed this biographical journey in the style of a novel. Drawing on anecdotes, scenes from documentary films, photographs and conjecture, Dyer concocts his drama out of snapshot impressions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: The Triumph of Love

During the horrific 9/11 attacks, I was covering the Toronto International Film Festival for Boxoffice Magazine in Los Angeles. Like most catastrophes, I can still remember where I was before and after the terrorists struck. There were also two movies that framed the event, and as it turned out, they were movies that would both be eventually produced and abandoned. The night before, I had gone to Roy Thompson Hall to see Fred Schepisi’s stunning adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders (which David Churchill wrote perceptively about for Critics at Large back on January 15th); the other, which I viewed on September 12th, was Clare Peploe’s marvelous adaptation of Pierre Marivaux’s 18th-Century play, The Triumph of Love.

Watching a movie was probably the last thing I wanted to do that day, but I had a job to do. While fully understanding that I was - on one level - "enjoying" the picture, I was also aware that I felt distant from the screen, unable to let anything penetrate the state of shock that I was in. It was much worse trying to write the collection of reviews that were due at the conclusion of TIFF. Writing essentially seemed like an insignificant act, a negligible gesture in the face overwhelming horror. While I eventually got my enthusiasm for reviewing back, it took a few years to return to The Triumph of Love. When it barely made a dent at the box office and closed quickly, I had to wait for the DVD release to fully acquaint myself with the pleasure of experiencing it, which was more than I could do in 2001. I came to realize upon watching the DVD that the sensual lyricism of the material couldn't be fully appreciated right after a day of mass murder.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blast Furnace Soul: The Black Keys' Brothers

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney certainly spell it out on their new release with a cover that states, “This is an album by The Black Keys." The name of this album is Brothers with the back cover announcing: “These are the names of the songs on this album” and “These are the guys in the band.” Why they felt obligated to indicate precisely what the recording was all about remains part of the mystery surrounding the band and for that matter the music.

This record is a super-heated, funk-based album featuring 9 of 14 tracks recorded at the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. The Muscle Shoals “sound” always inspired many a struggling musician. The Rolling Stones were reborn here after recording "Brown Sugar" in 1969. Paul Simon wrote and recorded most of the songs from his debut-self titled, solo album featuring “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” bringing the power of gospel music and mixing it with the southern R&B with a dash of country for good measure. Due to its size, which isn’t much larger than the one-room Sun Studios in Memphis, Muscle Shoals requires your full attention as a musician. The close confines can either work against you, or help you focus if you’re a member of a multi-piece band. Ironically The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, can’t possibly do much work “off the floor” like a rock-n-roll band because they’re a duo. But what they do accomplish with this record is the “feeling” of a spontaneous band session.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost and Found: The 13th Warrior (1999)

My original intent with John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior (1999) was to have it be the third in the 'pantheon' of Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies (MMWinMM), because there's one scene early in the film which was truly great. I remembered the rest of it as being a bit of a mess. To confirm this, I decided to rewatch it (after first seeing it sometime in early 2001 on videotape). Imagine my surprise that in 2010 I found it quite entertaining.

Set in the early 10th century, The 13th Warrior tells the story of Ahmed (Antonio Banderas), a Mesopotamian prince who is exiled as a 'diplomat' to the Norseland for indiscretions in Babylon. With the assistance of Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) as his guide and interpreter, they find themselves welcomed into the Norse king's home shortly after he has died. Almost immediately, it is announced that a distant community has been attacked by an unknown evil force that has laid waste to the village. A shaman proclaims that 13 warriors must go to defeat this threat. Twelve would be Norse, one must not be a Northman, so Ahmed is quickly co-opted into the group. The biggest problem is that he cannot understand a word they say and they cannot understand him (this leads to the MMWinMM which I will get to in a minute).