Saturday, March 26, 2011

When They Were Young: A Coming-of-Age Saga

In any category for failed films with a fascinating premise and stellar cast, 2008’s Flashbacks of a Fool deserves a spot at the top of the list. Although the title perfectly describes the narrative structure and the protagonist, it creaks with obviousness. Daniel Craig plays the fool, a British actor named Joe Scot who has destroyed his once-enviable career with booze, drugs and non-stop anonymous sex – a role model for Charlie Sheen! He lives in a sterile California mansion, where his black housekeeper, Ophelia (American rapper Eve), seems to be the only person who cares enough about him to say: “You’re a disgrace to white folks.”

When his agent drops him around the same time Joe learns that an old chum has died back in the United Kingdom, he hits bottom by getting drunk and wading into the surf off Malibu. Suicide? Apparently not. That watery sequence provides an awkward segue, as the script by writer-director Baillie Walsh suddenly lands on the English coast 25 years earlier. The Scot family – Joe’s mother Grace (Olivia Williams), his Aunt Peggy (Helen McCrory) and little sister Jessie (Mia Clifford) – lives on the beach in a sprawling, slightly funky cabin. The nearest neighbor is a cranky busybody, Mrs. Rogers (Miriam Karlin). Two doors down: the flirtatious Evelyn Adams (Jodhi May), her rarely-seen husband and their neglected daughter Jane (Jodie Tomlinson), who is about eight.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Win Win: Thomas McCarthy’s Moving, Memorable American Tale

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win Win.

Win Win, the latest film from writer-director Thomas McCarthy continues in the same pleasing vein of his two previous movies, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). It, too, is concerned with the lives of ordinary people who sometimes do extraordinary things, much like the recluse (Peter Dinklage) in The Station Agent who affects a motley group of people when he moves to their neighbourhood; to the lonely college professor (Richard Jenkins) in The Visitor who changes lives, not least his own, when he befriends a pair of illegal immigrants in New York. Win Win revolves around Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a lawyer/wrestling coach in New Jersey, who reluctantly takes in Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a young man  who has left his Ohio home to be with his grandfather Leo (Burt Young). The only problem is that said relative, suffering from early-onset dementia, is now in a nursing home, which leaves Kyle with few options but to move in with Flaherty and his family. What McCarthy does with this seemingly thin tale is nothing short of miraculous.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eye of the Tiger: In Defense of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

As a relatively new mother, I was unable to escape the hype surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin, 2011). For weeks, my eyes inadvertently wandered to reviews, mostly scathing, of this alleged “Freudian nightmare” treatise on parenting. While Chua is a successful law professor at Yale, has authored numerous articles and two compelling books on political history and economic issues, she is recognized in most households as mean mommyBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother shocked a nation of parents and non-parents alike over Chua’s “Chinese” method of parenting. Her philosophy encompasses strict rules such as: no TV, no video games, no drama class, and no sleepovers. Children must honour their parents, play either the piano or the violin (perfectly), and they must never receive a grade less than an A. Before the book hit the stores, endless tear-stained reviews poured into the media, many accused Chua of taking her tough-love tactics too far, of being abusive, of being a fanatic and worst of all, of stealing the childhood of two innocent girls.

While the hype seemed very entertaining, I had no intention of reading another parent’s latest musings, mainly due to my strong aversion to the rise of mommy-literature and mommy-bloggers. I feel no need to publicize my child-rearing methods, nor do I have a desire to read the same philosophies of mass-marketed pseudo-intellectuals. Alas, my efforts to avoid the debate came to an end one evening when one especially cheeky rascal tossed a copy of the book in my lap over dinner. As he sat there quite proud of his gag gift, I managed an underwhelmed “thanks,” while I struggled to decipher whether it would fit in my purse with my more important books. When I finally committed to reading –  what I was expecting to be sanctimonious garble I was incredibly surprised. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was frustrating, inspiring, thought-provoking and above all entertaining. It was not filled with the mere tirades of a matriarchal maniac, but instead featured the courageous journey of one tremendous woman determined to create the best life for her daughters as humanly possible. I found myself wanting to defend Amy Chua to the bleeding heart masses.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: The Soloist (2009)

Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr in The Soloist
I was just about ready to give up on Jamie Foxx. Everything he'd done since his rightly celebrated turn as Ray Charles was utterly forgettable. It’s not that he'd been necessarily giving bad performances, but that his acting was begining to resemble doing chores. For example, while playing a composite of Berry Gordy in Dreamgirls (2006), he was so dull that it was hard to believe that the founder of the exuberant Motown Records could have been so dour. Portraying the homeless schizophrenic musician Nathaniel Ayers in The Soloist, however, brought Jamie Foxx back to life.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beauty in Simplicity: Buddy Miller's The Majestic Silver Strings

Americana has become the fashionable label for music that's defined as too country for L.A. and too pop for Nashville. But long before the new definition entered the vernacular, Buddy Miller had already established a sound and feel to his music that was at once a blend of those two different musical sensibilities. On his new release, The Majestic Silver Strings, Miller (with fellow guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz) has re-imagined the music while still remaining true to its roots.

Miller's new album is his first since hooking up with Robert Plant a few years ago and it is a beautiful sounding work that defines "Americana" without paying lip service to the genre. Sure, The Decemberists put out a decent record last month (The King is Dead), but this is the real deal. An album equally at home in the traditions of American roots music, The Majestic Silver Strings sways from the traditional country heard in "Cattle Call," to the rockabilly of "No Good Lover," to cowboy songs such as a tasteful version of the Lefty Frizzell hit "I Want To Be With You Always," sung by guest vocalist, Patty Griffin. Like most of the music on this album, the song is long on charm and short on pretense. Everybody plays with a casual approach that brings out the considerable talent in the band.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #15: Heather Robertson on MacKenzie King (1984/86)

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 genre that came into prominence in the eighties was the pop biography. Due to the growing influence of celebrity shows on television and tabloid journalism, the pop biography transformed the literary form into an open field of speculation where we could imagine aspects of the life told, not just read about the facts in the subject's life. If Christina Crawford's shrill and exploitative examination of being Joan Crawford's daughter represented one pole of this change, there were other writers who brought a playful and more thoughtful perspective to biographical journalism.


author Heather Robertson

In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined iconic figures in styles less formal than previous work. Some of the writers included Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, former leftist David Horowitz on the Ford family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote and Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Willie: A Romance in 1983, Lily: A Rhapsody in Red in 1986, Igor: A Novel of Intrigue in 1989).

Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King

King, a member of the Liberal Party who was first elected Prime Minister in 1921, came under scrutiny in the eighties for his claim to having clairvoyant powers and the rather bizarre relationship he had with his mother. Rather than skirt the claim, Heather Robertson's trilogy, drawn out of both fact and fiction, delved into the psychological underpinnings of the Canadian leader without exploiting any of the prurient fascination in the subject. In this interview, I've cheated somewhat by editing together two different conversations with Robertson in order to provide a wider scope of her perspective on King.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Unexpected Problem: Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific

The touring production of the 2008 Tony-winning revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's South Pacific wrapped its second Toronto production in a year yesterday (it's part of the local company's, Dancap, subscription series). Normally, I wouldn't bother reviewing a show that has closed, but since it will likely set up tent in another city soon (though that city has not yet been announced), I felt there was an issue I had to address.

Full disclosure: I've never been a fan of musical theatre, whether it's on stage or on film, with the exception of Singin' in the Rain (1951), so I attended a little reluctantly. Based on James A. Michener's World War Two-set Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, or rather series of linked stories, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), the musical tells the story of Ensign Nellie Forbush, an American nurse stationed on a fictitious island near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. She's attached to a Navy command post located there. The military men and nurses have not seen combat and while away their time flirting, falling in love and carousing. Well, the men do the carousing, in such songs as “There's Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bloody Mary.” Nellie has fallen in love with an ex-expatriate French man, Emile de Becque. De Becque is a plantation owner on the island who has more than one secret. She's conflicted because de Becque's mysteries are irritating and he's a lot older than her. They sing about their love, break up, fall back in love, break up, make up, bicker, are separated and then finally reunite. The subplot features a navy flier, Lieutenant Cable, who has fallen in love with a local Polynesian girl.