Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hasta La Vista, Gringos: Oliver Stone Goes South

Talk about verisimilitude! Oliver Stone’s first crack at capitalism run amok was Wall Street, in 1987. That hit film came out one year after Salvador, his feverish drama about a boozy photojournalist covering war-torn Central America. This month, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (read Kevin Courrier's review here), a sequel that’s also raking in big bucks at the box office, is hot on the heels of his 2009 examination of a region closer to the Equator than El Salvador: Latin America. South of the Border, a documentary, travels with him through six countries as he interviews democratically elected leaders whose left-leaning perspectives probably alarm the U.S. government.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Comedy of Malice: David Fincher's The Social Network

David Fincher’s new movie, The Social Network, gives off an exhilarating buzz. With a tip-top script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) that goes snap, crackle and pop, the picture has some of the razor-sharp timing of classic screwball comedy. But you’ll never make the mistake of confusing this movie for a romance. The Social Network – which is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the billionaire founder of Facebook, the on-line social network that currently boasts over 500 million active users – is a movie about mercenary genius nerds. While the movie doesn’t celebrate their unethical guile, it does pretty far into the scheming brains of social outsiders who find devious ways to get on the inside. Just imagine Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) for the computer age.

Fincher and Sorkin aren’t out to make any claims about the value of Facebook; they’re more interested in the motivations of those who could have imagined it. Basing the story loosely on author Ben Mezrrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (2009), the biggest irony Fincher and Sorkin present is how Zuckerberg, who had but one friend – his Facebook business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) – and made many enemies (too numerous to count), could possibly set up such a social phenomenon. The irony is so rich and woven into the texture of the story that Fincher and Sorkin wisely let it simmer.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Looking Back: Summer Movies at the Rep Cinema

The advent of DVD has been a mixed blessing when it comes to the patterns of film releases at second run, or repertory theatres. Because the window from theatrical to DVD release has been consistently narrowing, the process of a movie going from first to second run has been accelerated as well. Most films, including hits like Inception, are getting to the reps a mere few months after they open commercially. The problem, however, is that with these quick DVD releases, films end up playing only one or two months at the rep house before they disappear for good. Most repertory cinemas are loath to screen a new film when it’s already on DVD, presuming (probably correctly) that too many patrons won’t want to see it on screen if they can rent it for less money at their video shop. All this serves as a prelude to my review of some summer movies that I caught at my local rep house, the venerable, 105 year old Bloor cinema, in September. One of those films, the disappointing The Kids Are All Right, was covered off by Critics at Large’s Susan Green. Here are four more films to consider (though one of them should be avoided) when they get to DVD. But if you can, try to see them on screen. That’s still the best way to appreciate movies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Essential Cinema: Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

As part of the grand opening of the TIFF/Bell Lightbox facility in Toronto, they compiled a list of the 100 most essential films of all time. Over the course of the next few months, these films will be screened in pristine prints, at one of their five cinemas. Screening tonight is the second showing of what I consider one of the greatest films ever made – and named number one on the Essential Cinema list – Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). But there is a caveat. The reason it became one of my favourite films is a bit convoluted.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Knocked Out Loaded: Neil Young’s Le Noise

Neil Young’s Le Noise is a centered, focused and authentic recording designed to both inspire and knock you on the head. Young has also knocked himself on the head. Le Noise features the kind of raw ambience that he hasn’t achieved since Ragged Glory (1990). And he’s served it up with some serious lyrical content. Young has had a career of tripping up his muse to continually stir up his creativity. In fact, looking over his long body of work, he’s spent decades shifting both his and our expectations of where he would go next. Freedom (1989), which contained electric and acoustic versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” dipped into a variety of musical styles. That album led unexpectantly to the quietly conceived best selling Harvest Moon three years later. Next, he rocked out with the members of Pearl Jam on Mirror Ball in 1995 before following that with the under-recognized country/roots record Silver & Gold (2000). Five years later, he returned with the beautifully rendered and reflective Prairie Wind.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nowhere Land: "Heartbreak Hotel" and "There's a Place"

On the 40th Anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Let it Be album, here is a lengthy excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Greenwood-Praeger, 2008):

When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic: good times lay ahead. With that primary assurance, a captivating pact was also struck with listeners. The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley's simple pledge told us we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. But the song did more than just rock around the clock. Youth riots broke out in movie houses after it was featured in the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), an otherwise cautionary story about juvenile delinquency. In the same year as Bill Haley, The Penguins, a quietly graceful doo-wop group with ultimately only one hit up their sleeve, promised us a world of feasible pleasures when they asked us in "Earth Angel": Will you be mine? In answer, people danced with their hips moving just a little bit closer to their partners'. When Elvis Presley first decided to shake his hips on national television, nations of eager teenagers were given permission to do likewise -- and shake them they did.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Enigma: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009)

After spending 14 years researching and writing Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (coming out in paperback in November 2010), Robin D. G. Kelley was probably surprised that the book received limited acclaim. As an academic whose written many books about the African-American experience (Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class), I believe Kelley wanted to get this story right by working hard at researching the details of Monk’s life from the time he was born until he died. But I think he would have been more successful if he approached the life of this groundbreaking jazz pianist through his art rather than as a subject for biographical study. Consequently, Kelley fails to generate enough critical ideas of his own other than what he learned from all of the facts, interviews and tapes that he accessed. Kelley’s impressions of Monk and his music become stifled in sluggish linguistics with only a few bright lights of analysis and opinion.