Saturday, January 8, 2011

Random Viewing II: Beauty and the Brute

As an adolescent, I was glued to CBS every Friday night for The Twilight Zone. After weaning myself from the addiction to attend college and then live without a television in young adulthood, it’s been possible to catch up with missed episodes whenever the US network SyFy holds a marathon – which the cable channel did during the recent holidays. Although thinking that by now I’ve seen the entire Rod Serling oeuvre, I tuned in and found one of the best stories the show ever produced: “Two,” which first aired in mid-September 1961, addresses the issue of mutually assured destruction. Such topics apparently were popular with the peacenik intellectuals who penned and directed these scripts during a Cold War era marked by nuclear weapons proliferation.

The spare “Two” is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a man and a woman, quite possibly the last people left on Earth, cross paths in a badly damaged town that’s devoid of all other living things. They’re soldiers from disparate armies, dressed in different military uniforms, not able to understand each other’s language. Hers might be Russian, though it’s difficult to say since she utters only one word throughout the half-hour they’re on screen. Both are searching desperately for food and struggling to survive. They fight. He slugs her. She’s knocked out. A simple desire for companionship then begins to supplant his wariness, and the former enemies edge their way into an uneasy truce that might ensure survival of the human race.

Bronson and Montgomery in "Two"
At first, I thought these were unknown young thespians until realizing – Yikes! – it was Charles Bronson and an uncharacteristically brunette Elizabeth Montgomery, who was best known in the late 1960s for appearing as a kooky blonde housewife with special powers on the ABC sit-com Bewitched. He looks incredibly handsome, before his face became so weathered and morose under that menacing mustache. More importantly, their Twilight Zone performances are surprisingly subtle in a series that too often would opt for stilted theatrics. He could really act, something I never would have suspected given his thuggish roles in the subsequent quartet of vigilante Death Wish movies (1974, 1982, 1985 and 1987). Then again, I always tended to steer clear of any release with Bronson’s name in the credits.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Justifiable Paranoia: Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

On the first anniversary of the launch of Critics at Large, we welcome a new critic, Laura Warner, to our group.

For the first 18 years of my life, I was trapped in the thick of an essence that paralyzed half of my family. One that confused and frustrated me: senseless fear. (Or, at least, what I had thought to be senseless all this time.) The cynicism, the distrust of one’s neighbours, the paranoia, and the reluctance to try anything out of the ordinary (or off the straight and narrow) was suffocating. The family members I speak of, my mother and grandparents, who escaped East Germany in 1958 and immigrated to Canada soon afterward, were not overly religious or political, there was no identifiable set of values that anchored them to this crippling existence. So what was wrong?

Two winters ago I stumbled upon the answer to this question. There had been a significant buzz about a recent literary phenomenon, the translation of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (Melville House, 2009). Originally published in Germany in 1947, Fallada’s novel captures the perils experienced by a populace who have been often, due to their unfortunate national affiliation, overlooked through wartime literature: the German citizens of Berlin. Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone examines the variety of human reactions to war’s most infectious epidemic, fear, and one couples’ mission of resistance. In my incessant quest to understand more of a culture that was so deeply imbedded in my mother and my grandparents I purchased the book. From it, I discovered not only a literary breakthrough, but saw the shareholders of my childhood in a new light.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Steady Hands: Robby Krieger's Singularity

Released last year and nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album, Robby Krieger’s Singularity is an fascinating mix of rock instrumentals that show a real feel for jazz rhythm. The album features Krieger on different guitars tapping into flamenco, classical and electric instruments and featuring some very interesting alumni who once played with Frank Zappa. Namely bassist Arthur Barrow, keyboardist Tommy Mars, horn players Walt Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Sal Marquez, and percussionist Vinnie Colaiuta. I was immediately struck by the line-up on paper and thrilled to hear the ensemble on record. While the album features some bombastic titles such as, “Russian Caravan,” “Event Horizon” and “Solar Wind,” the sound is anything but overbearing. Krieger and company perform without pretense and in a highly structured way. Consequently, Krieger’s participation as leader is folded into the music rather than being the front & center man with his back-up band.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Great Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Bette Davis

I call it serendipity. When you write a blog with six other talented critics, sometimes you are going to hit on a similar theme at the same time. A couple of days ago, Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote about character actors, focused around the passing of the great Pete Postlethwaite. I had no idea he was planning the piece as I began to formulate an item on some of the Golden Era of Hollywood's finest actors. But, so it goes. Over the holidays, I was in a bookstore in Kelowna, British Columbia plowing through the discount bin when I chanced upon a short book called Ingrid Bergman by one of the preeminent film writers working today: David Thomson (who is also the author of Suspects). Topping out at only 113 pages, the paperback, from Penguin Books and first published in 2009, sold originally for $18.95 Canadian. It was in the reduced bin, a year after it came out, for $2.00. I eagerly tucked it under my arm and kept digging. Another popped out, this one called Gary Cooper, same original price, but 122 pages. I turned over this second $2.00 treasure and saw that, under the overall title of Great Stars, there were four books in the series all written by Thomson. The other two were on Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Could I be lucky? (Right now, my colleague Kevin Courrier is probably laughing his ass off, because he knows about my uncanny knack for finding book and/or DVD treasures like this for next to no money.) I kept digging and out came Davis, and shortly after, as I dug near the end of this bin, there was Bogart looking at me. For $8.00 I had four promising short biographies of some of Hollywood's best actors written by one of film criticdom's finest writers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Random Viewing: A Walk On the Moon (1999)

Among the least significant films released in 2010, Conviction is about a high school dropout who completes undergraduate studies and earns a law degree in a two-decade effort to free her innocent brother (Sam Rockwell) from prison. In the lead role, Hilary Swank gives her usual earnestly heroic performance. Nuance is nowhere to be found.

But the disappointing drama marked a reunion of director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray, who had worked together with far greater success to create 1999’s A Walk on the Moon. While surfing the 200-plus channels available on my television in the early hours of New Years Eve, I decided to revisit the autobiographical movie, not seen by me since the previous century and millennium. One compelling reason: a comparison with Taking Woodstock, Ang Lee’s 2009 saga from the perspective of a young man who leads organizers to a potential site for their fabled music festival – Max Yasgur’s farm – in hopes that the extravaganza will rally the local economy and save his elderly parents’ failing nearby motel.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite: The Value of the Character Actor

The untimely death of British actor Pete Postlethwaite, at the age of 64 of cancer, was a loss for moviegoers, not least because Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, The Usual Suspects) was one of those skilled character actors, who often enliven dull or mediocre movies when they appear on screen.

William Demarest in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
It’s a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the talkies, when stalwarts like Edward Everett Horton (Trouble in Paradise, Top Hat, Shall We Dance), William Demarest, (best known as Uncle Charley on TV’s My Three Sons, but a delightful regular in most of Preston Sturges’s stellar comedies, including The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) and Thelma Ritter (Pickup on South Street, Rear Window), amongst many others, often stole the film whenever they appeared on screen.

In more recent years, Dan Hedeya (Blood Simple, Clueless), Tony Shalhoub (Quick Change, Galaxy Quest), Hank Azaria (The Birdcage, Mystery Men), Oliver Platt (Pieces of April, Frost/Nixon), Richard Jenkins (Flirting with Disaster; Me, Myself & Irene) and Parker Posey (Kicking & Screaming, A Mighty Wind) have filled that bill nicely. Last summer, we also lost Maury Chaykin (War Games, Unstrung Heroes), one of the great character actors of all time.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #9: Josef Skvorecky (1988)

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. 

One section of the book featured interviews with artists who had been exiled from their homeland. In 1984, Paul Mazursky made a profoundly funny (and poignant) film called Moscow on the Hudson which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York. The movie ostensibly dealt with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. Since the Cold War era was in its twilight years in the eighties, I drew together a number of interviews with those who, like the musician in Moscow on the Hudson, became exiles.The chapter had a number of them, such as Jerzy Kosinski, Cuban poet Herberto Padilla, and playwright Ariel Dorfman, reflecting on the mixed blessings that come when, because of political and ethical issues, you are forced to leave home. One of those interviewed was Czech author Josef Skvorecky who, over the years, had written about the legacy of Stalin (The Engineer of Human Souls) and the impact of jazz on Czech culture (The Bass Saxophone).  In 1988, Skvorecky had just written a book called Talking Moscow Blues, a book of essays on jazz, literature and politics. Our talk came at a significant time when Gorbachev was ushering in the thaw of the Cold War during perestroika.