Saturday, June 25, 2011

Handled With Care: Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' Kings and Queens

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings is the collective name for Canadian musicians Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden. The group came together a few years ago with a mutual interest in the music of Willie P. Bennett. Bennett was a singer-songwriter who composed some great songs; a combination of blues and rural sounding ballads that made him popular in folk music circles in Canada in the late 1960s. The band’s name comes from the title of Bennett's 1979 album. Bennett's popularity soared after Blackie & the Rodeo Kings released an album of his compositions called, High or Hurtin: the Songs of Willie P. Bennett, in 1996. Suddenly everybody in contemporary folk music was hearing Willie P. Bennett songs. This initial union thus provided the founding members with a band, a name and a reason to continue working together. Six albums now make up the discography of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.

Their seventh album, Kings and Queens (Dramatico, 2011) is their newest and finest record to date. It features collaborations with some of the band's most favourite female singers. The result is 14 songs with 14 "Queens" as guests. On one level, since this recording is being done in the 21st Century, the collaborators don't have to be in one location to work. A vocalist can lay down a track without leaving their home. For this album, with so many guest singers, the technology has served the music quite well. Rather than feel like a haphazard collection of tracks from different locations, the record comes across as a carefully prepared work. The tunes are sublime, mystical, personal and buoyant. Each performance is articulated and nuanced with nothing being left to chance. I understand it took them months to complete the sessions due to all the conflicting schedules, but it was definitely worth the time. On Kings and Queens, the artists are treated with respect and handled with care.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bad Teacher: D for Dismal

Bad Teacher, the new comedy starring Cameron Diaz as a scheming teacher, is the latest mediocre example of what passes for humour in American movies today. Whether they’re atrocious films like Get Him to the Greek and Grown-Ups, bad ones like The Hangover or mediocre movies like Date Night, that waste superior talents (Tina Fey, Steve Carrell), genuinely funny comedies are in short supply. That may explain why relatively minor movies like Midnight in Paris and Bridesmaids which at least possess a modicum of wit and style are getting such acclaim. Compared to the usual comedic tripe on our movie screens, they can't help but come across as veritable comic masterpieces. The only redeeming aspect of Bad Teacher is that this one didn’t seem to please the audience much, either, at the promotional screening I attended. Maybe, despite their generally setting a low bar for what makes them laugh, even filmgoers are starting to run out of patience with desperately unfunny, contemptuous films like Bad Teacher. Let’s hope so because this one deserves a failing grade at the box office.

The title of Bad Teacher is no doubt meant to echo Bad Santa (2003), Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant, transgressive assault on Christmas with Billy Bob Thornton as a drunken Santa who cases the department stores he works at in a bid to rob them after hours. But this new R-rated comedy isn’t especially gutsy, raunchy or all that smart, either. And unlike Bad Santa, which never softened Thornton’s disreputable character even when he (sort of) befriended an asocial kid who believed Santa was real, Bad Teacher wants to let filmgoers leave happy, so Diaz’s ‘nasty’ Elizabeth Halsey turns out not to be so bad, after all. What a surprise.

Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz
I like Cameron Diaz. She's a real talent who stood out in last summer's forgettable Knight and Day, and who, of course, shone in the Farrelly Brothers’ There's Something About Mary (1998), one of the few great (R rated) comedies, along with Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006) that Hollywood has given us in recent years. Her role as the sweet and sexy Mary showcased her savvy comedic talents to perfection. But in Bad Teacher, she – along with virtually the whole cast – is saddled with a one-note character, an ostensibly ‘bad’ girl who concocts numerous shady, unethical schemes to acquire the $10,000 she desperately needs to get a boob job so she can land a rich husband. The last thing she wants to do is teach her pupils anything at all, much less show any concern for their dreams and aspirations.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gutting The Killing

I have wasted 13 hours of the only life I'm ever going to have on a self-important piece of crap called The Killing. Brought onto AMC as their next 'great show' to go with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, The Killing started strongly, as I outlined here. The premise was simple. Set in a rain-soaked Seattle, The Killing was about an attractive young girl, Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), who was kidnapped and killed by an unknown assailant. The story was broken into three strands: Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and their boys dealing with the tragedy of Rosie's death; the cops, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireilles Enos and Joel Kinnaman), investigating her murder; and the election campaign between the young uniter, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), and the moustache-twirling corrupt current mayor, Lesley Adams (Tom Butler). Rosie's body was found in the trunk of a car owned by the Richmond campaign. Each episode represented one day of the investigation.

Michelle Forbes
Fine. Okay. Good start. Then things started to go terribly wrong. The rain fell and fell and fell and fell. People wandered around rooms so under-lit that it is impossible to see what was going on. To use a line my colleague, Kevin Courrier, likes to use at times like this, I wanted to give them all flashlights. After the revelation of Rosie's death, the whole show's various arcs took on layers of grief and never did anything with them. The Killing has been celebrated by its fans because they claim 'it is the first show to actually get at the truth of the grief a family goes through after the lost of a child.' What The Killing actually did was hit one note of bereavement and then played it again and again and again and again. Michelle Forbes is a wonderful actress whose work I have always enjoyed (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, Durham County, Battlestar Galatica, etc). She brings a vibrancy to anything she's ever been in, but here she is asked to play a rag doll. With her hair permanently draped over her eyes, she locks her gaze on the middle distance and then... nothing. That's where she starts; that's where she ends. This is an unplayable character. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From Despair to Enlightenment: Marianne Faithfull's Horses and High Heels

Marianne Faithfull sums up her life and her music in one simple statement: “I don’t really do conventional.” The singer/ songerwriter’s controversial past and avant-garde sound are anything but ordinary. This British Chanteuse began her career in the 1960s as a sweet-voiced teenager. But after 47 years in the business, including a decade of harrowing drug abuse and heartache, Marianne Faithfull has once again lent her now bourbon soaked, vintage vocal chords to her 23rd solo album Horses and High Heels. The album is nothing less than a culmination of pretty much all the inspiration and wisdom possessed by this iconic artist.

Born the daughter of a military officer/psychology professor and a dancer in London in 1946, by the 1960s, Marianne Faithfull was developing a name for herself in the coffee house scene. After meeting the Rolling Stones' music producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham at one of their launch parties in 1964, Marianne’s career (and lifestyle) soon became larger than her talents. That same year, her first single, “As Tears Go By,” co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, earned her recognition as a pop singer in her native United Kingdom; but her stunning beauty and diverse talents also opened the door to a side career on the silver screen (The Girl on a Motorcycle, Hamlet). Yet Marianne Faithfull fully embraced her newfou
nd life as a pop star, groupie and eventually the rock star girlfriend to Mick Jagger.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chaplin's The Great Dictator: Still Brave But Not Funny

Critic at Large’s David Churchill recently wrote on how disappointed he was upon re-visiting a film, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique on DVD, and finding that his fond memories of the movie when he first saw it on television many years earlier, had faded, replaced by a film he now didn’t much like at all. I had something of a similar experience when I re-watched Charlie Chaplin’s acclaimed 1940 comedy The Great Dictator, recently released in a spanking-new, extras-laden DVD from Criterion. But unlike David, I still like aspects of the movie; they’re just not the ones I most appreciated upon first viewing the film.

The movie is famous (or infamous in some circles) for courageously spoofing Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler, at a time when the United States was beset by isolationist/anti-Semitic forces determined to keep the United States out of the Second World War. Hollywood had almost entirely ignored the war and the beginnings of the Holocaust except in the odd movie (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Mortal Storm) which as often as not excised the anti-Semitic underpinnings of what was going on in Germany, going so far as to label Nazism’s victims in The Mortal Storm as ‘non-Aryans’ rather than Jews (even though scenes using the latter word had been filmed). In addition, Hollywood’s Jewish moguls had been read the riot act by Joseph Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, who had warned them that any movies attacking the Nazis could only make it worse for the Jews in Germany and at home in the U.S.. (Germany was also Hollywood’s best overseas market for film consumption.) The moguls complied with Kennedy’s unofficial threat and, as was so often the case when it came to their religion and identity, shamefully tamped down any overt references to what was going on with their co-religionists in Germany and Europe. Then along came Chaplin, a box-office behemoth, who wasn’t even Jewish, with a self-financed movie that not only daringly assailed Hitler but also dared to deal with the verboten cinematic subject of the persecution of the Jews. (I knew that the movie was also initially strongly supported by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who hoped that it would sway Americans to support the war but I didn't know that after near riots upon its release in Latin America, accompanied by cries from the mobs to 'kill the Jews', he backed away from the film. That's just one of the many informative tidbits on the DVD's commentary track, which is ably done by Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran.) Thus, a DVD release of The Great Dictator is laden with historical baggage that does not accrue to too many other movies. In that light, I have to look at the film in two ways: as a critic examining a potential work of ‘art’ and as a writer looking at the original, audacious realities of this milestone film. The former, thus, disappoints me, as well while the latter, if anything, impresses me more than ever.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gone Bananas: Sara Gruen’s Ape House

Ape House is not actually Sara Gruen’s second novel. But it seems like it. Gruen clearly recognizes the pressure of following up a successful novel. One of the characters in Ape House, Amanda, is trying to do just that. This self-reflexivity is just one example of Gruen’s heavy-handed attempt at being clever in a novel that is still a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Her first two books, Riding Lessons (2004) and Flying Changes (2005), had relatively low profiles; while Water for Elephants (2006) was such a popular success that it was recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Like all of Gruen’s books, Ape House continues to educate us about animals’ capacity for emotion. While Water for Elephants is a historical novel, Ape House has a decidedly modern plot with blatant references to mainstream pornography, gaudy reality television, and email hacking. Ape House is not nearly as elegantly written as Water for Elephants, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for in exhilaration.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cinema of Remembrance: A Deadly Season in the Deep South

Forty-seven years ago this month, Jake Blum was 18 when he volunteered for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive, just as three other young civil rights workers went missing in Neshoba County. Soon to become a sophomore at Yale University, he traveled south as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which worked with the Congress for Racial Equality to attract more than 1,000 activists to a state that then had the lowest percentage of registered black voters in America.

“There was a lot of fear,” recalls Blum, now 65 and a Vermont resident. “They were so used to being treated as second-class citizens. There had been lynchings and fire-bombings. Being in Mississippi was kind of a long, dark night.”
That scenario is made clear in Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, a thorough 2008 documentary that updates the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, all under age 25. They had disappeared after spending the night in jail for a supposed speeding ticket in the town of Philadelphia, but their bodies weren’t found until six weeks later. Chaney, who was the only African-American in the trio, had been tortured and buried alive.