Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: Another (Opposing) View

In yesterday’s Critics at Large, Mark Clamen weighed in on what is likely to become a major cult hit, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, He liked the movie. I didn’t. Here’s why.

I should point out that, unlike Mark, I haven’t read the graphic novels upon which the movie is based. But since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is apparently quite faithful to its source material, I don’t think that matters all that much. More to the point, I don’t get what’s so great about this film, whose story has nerdy, anal and self-involved Torontonian Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) falling for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a new (American) girl in town and, in order to keep her, being forced to fight  to the death with her seven evil exes. That’s pretty much the whole story and after ex- number two showed up on the scene, I was getting bored of the whole affair.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: Remembering Patricia Neal

There are three reasons why I fell in love with the science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) when I was nine years old. One was the quiet, thoughtful presence of Michael Rennie as Klaatu, the man from space, who came to Earth to warn us of our destructive habits (i.e. nuclear warfare). The second reason was the eerie score by Bernard Herrmann which introduced me to the wondrous and evocative world of electronic music. The third reason was actress Patricia Neal, who became Klaatu's soul mate in getting the proper attention paid to the consequences of ignoring his warning. Her most famous scene, of course, would be preventing his robot Gort from destroying the planet through these famous words: Klaatu barada nikto. But I was taken by something else in Patricia Neal, who died a few days ago from lung cancer at the age of 84.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hill Street Blues: Still a TV Standout

It still holds up. Nearly 30 years after the groundbreaking series Hill Street Blues revolutionized and reinvigorated a moribund, sanitized and dull American TV landscape, the indispensable cop show is as impressive as it was when it debuted as a mid season entry on NBC in early 1981. Much has been made about how the drama, created by Steven Bochco and set in a precinct situated in a decaying and unidentified U.S. city, likely Chicago, influenced future television dramas for the better, chiefly because of its gritty, handheld look, overlapping dialogue and complex characterization. But that’s not its chief attribute; after all Robert Altman had pioneered much of Hill Street’s innovations ten years earlier with M*A*S*H (1970). Hill Street Blues stood out because it forthrightly tackled social issues that were rarely dealt with on TV cop shows before but have become a staple of quality TV dramas since its seven year run ended in 1987. The ethnic and racial tensions underlying day to day life in Hill Street precinct were a constant focus of The Shield. The bureaucratic obstacles facing Hill Street’s street cops and brass were part and parcel of the plotlines in The Wire. And the strong ensemble performances, and the varied personalities on view each week, were what distinguished everything from St. Elsewhere (which did for hospitals and the medical drama what Hill Street Blues did for the cop show genre) to ER, The Sopranos and Deadwood. That’s high praise indeed but it’s warranted.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Four TV Shows You Should Watch With Your Kids

Television viewers have never had it so good. In this age of DVDs, digital cable, and iTunes downloads, there is almost no end to what is available. A few weeks ago, I recommended five recently cancelled TV shows that you should definitely watch. Today I turn my attention to a different kind of programming: four quality shows that you should watch with your kids. Popular culture produced for children doesn’t always have a reputation for quality, and Saturday morning shows even less so. But it isn’t all Hannah Montana or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As with adult fare, it is usually simply a question of knowing where to look. Each of these shows is perfect for kids 8-12 years old, but they are all worth checking out, with or without child supervision!

All of the shows I discuss below have finished their runs. Although these series were not necessarily cancelled before their time, they may still have passed unnoticed. Children’s programming is often underappreciated, but each of these shows, in their own unique ways, demonstrates the real strengths of television as a storytelling medium. Even when its target audience can’t legally drive, television continues to create cleverly constructed worlds, with fully-defined characters, intelligent dialogue, and compelling stories.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Swinging Hard: James Blood Ulmer's InAndOut

In the history of music and in particular the guitar, James Blood Ulmer is the link between Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman. He’s the musician responsible for pursuing music as a free-jazz experience based on the blues. Born in South Carolina in 1942, Ulmer developed his unique guitar style by playing everything from R&B, blues, jazz and soul music. But instead of focusing on one style, he came up with his own sound and incorporated everything he learned. Consequently, when listening to his music, one is equally impressed by his technique and the “outside” musical choices he makes.

InAndOut, his latest album on the German label In+Out, is no less satisfying for its groove-based jazz ("Eviction"), and its Mississippi blues ("No Man’s Land") to heavy jungle funk ("Baby Talk"). Bringing all of the styles together is Ulmer’s unmistakable style and a kick-ass rhythm section, namely Aubrey Dayle on drums and Mark Peterson on electric bass. But this isn't just your ordinary rhythm section, Ulmer uses a solid ensemble that interacts while the beat kicks with crisp and efficient support. The weakest track on the record is a simple song called "Maya." Alas, Ulmer’s voice hasn’t aged well over the years and this tune sounds strained to me. But the band comes right back with a straight-ahead blues boogie called, “My Woman,” with a great John Lee Hooker style vocal. “High Yellow” is a Monk-inspired bop-tune with great interplay and Ulmer’s loose soloing. This number really swings hard. The record closes with “Backbiter,” another instrumental that showcases the group’s element of surprise. InAndOut is not only good, improvisational music, it’s Ulmer's most accessible record in several years.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This is It: Some Final Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I recently caught up with Kenny Ortega's 2009 documentary Michael Jackson's This is It and thankfully it isn't an act of exploitation. Now I wouldn't put Ortega in the same league as Bob Fosse (Cabaret), but This is It certainly proves that great choreographers can sometimes make pretty good film directors. The movie documents Jackson's rehearsals and preparations for the comeback he was about to launch on July 13, 2009. When he died on June 25th, however, the only remnants of what might have been were captured by Ortega's film team shooting Jackson running through musical numbers, auditioning and directing the dancers, the conceptual stage design work, and some interviews with those who took part in the preparation for the show that never was.

What's particularly staggering - and thrilling - about this extremely entertaining picture is that it manages to both fundamentally shape the process of Jackson's art as well as demonstrate it. That is, we get to see Michael Jackson (who looks in peak form) working out the program as well as executing the numbers. This is It also reveals that the concerts were designed as a Michael Jackson musical primer that would cover his entire career dating back to the Jackson Five. Ortega stages the numbers as if he's imagining what they'd look like in their finished form. He thinks like a dancer so the images move fluidly with the music. (The footage was filmed at the Staples Center and Los Angeles Forum arenas in California.)