Monday, December 31, 2012

Back to the 70s: Pippin and Annie

Patina Miller as Leading Player in Pippin
Pippin opened on Broadway in the fall of 1972, toward the end of what was unmistakably the Year of Bob Fosse. His film of Cabaret rethought the syntax of the movie musical, both stylistically (the numbers were Brechtian commentaries on theme, character and historical setting rather than expressions of emotion) and visually (he was the first director of film musicals to employ editing as a rhythmic element). On television he collaborated with his Cabaret star, Liza Minnelli, on an inventive, highly theatrical one-woman revue called Liza with a ‘Z’. And he returned to Broadway, where he’d received his training as a choreographer and then as a director, with Pippin. I saw it a few months after graduating from college and I recall it as the first truly schizoid experience I ever had at the theatre. The staging was mesmerizing, exactly the feat of wizardry that the opening number, “Magic to Do,” set the audience up to expect, but the material itself – Roger O. Hirson’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s songs – was threadbare. And since Fosse’s trademark theme, which he imposed on everything he worked on, was the discrepancy between the razzle-dazzle surface and the shoddy, corrupt underneath, the show seemed constantly to be commenting on its own inadequacies, reminding us that what we were watching was merely trompe l’oeil executed by a seasoned (and cynical) magician. It was a hell of a spectacle, and it wasn’t much fun.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Bodies Bible: A Revolutionary Book About Lady Parts

Vilunya Diskin & Jane Pincus
Good-bye 2012. Good riddance. In the United States, you’ve been the year of reprehensible ideas: mandated vaginal probes, outlawing contraceptives, “legitimate rape,” rape-generated pregnancies as something “God intended to happen.” You were the year of the War on Women. Those who struggled for equality and self-determination in past decades couldn’t believe so much darkness might now be encroaching on hard-fought enlightenment... 
Courtesy of the psychedelic zeitgeist, people in my generation explored the unknown depths and heights of our minds during the 1960s. But many women witnessed the doors of perception opening to reveal some truths elsewhere in the human anatomy. Feminism was busy being born, along with babies, for gals who previously had limited knowledge of their reproductive systems in a male-dominated society that would soon react to the shockwave of gender liberation. As a popular slogan of the era trumpeted, sisterhood is powerful. In December 1970, an iconic and inspiring work emerged that eventually would find its way into some four millions homes: Our Bodies, Ourselves, which covers a range of topics on women’s health, started out as a 193-page newsprint publication that was stapled together. It had been written by a dozen women, many of them moms, living in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. Their goal was to make information about about female anatomy, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and other related subjects accessible to everyone.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Uneasy Mix: Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone

Note: The following contains spoilers.

Here’s the thing. Any premise involving matters of the heart that pops up in a French film is automatically believable simply because the French never, or almost never, cop out when it comes to purveying honest, adult emotions on screen. So in that vein, the love affair between Ali, a rough hewn boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie, a troubled, angry woman (Marion Cotillard) who has lost her legs in a tragic accident in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) is utterly authentic, even when he's fucking her sans her prosthetics. In any other movie, and particularly an American one, The Sessions excepting, that type of scene would likely come across as awkwardly staged, self-conscious, even risible, but in Rust and Bone, those scenes have both a surprising gentleness and a distinct erotic charge. The problem is that the rest of the film’s plot threads don’t tie up with this one. Rust and Bone is an admirably ambitious movie that, outside of its leads' story, simply doesn’t hold together. It’s an uneasy mix of the tough and tender.

Friday, December 28, 2012

American Actor: Interview with Devin McKinney (The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda)

Critical biographies today either get caught up in tabloid prurience, create academic labyrinths rather than clear thinking, or trade in simple details and facts rather than drama and insight. Against that tide comes Devin McKinney's highly readable and imaginative biography of actor Henry Fonda, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martins Press, 2012). McKinney already wrote the best book on The Beatles (Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and Memory, Harvard University Press, 2003) and this new work shares with that one a lyrical strength that allows his probing perceptions to take flight. McKinney has a gift for creating his own magic circles with the kind of prose that illuminates Fonda's work. He does that by taking us, with poetic precision, inside the varied characters Fonda played while simultaneously examining how he became part of the larger American imagination. Each chapter delicately weaves the dark shadows of his personal life into the iconic parts Fonda created. "Fonda becomes the body and voice of a satisfied man's paranoia, the good man's bad urge, the hero's despairing shade, and the patriot's doubting conscience," McKinney writes. "In him and through him, the hidden becomes visible, specters are raised, and shadows begin to move on their own."

Those shadows that move on their own include memorable roles in unforgettable pictures like You Only Live Once (1937), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Wrong Man (1956) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), where Fonda revealed a man whose conflicts "made him a vital artist and emotional mystery...[who] pulled off the amazing feat of being not only what he appeared to be but also what he didn't appear to be." For McKinney, Fonda's sense of solitude, the darker, haunted and isolated American behind the mask of eternal optimism, was "deep and his style glamorous enough to constitute one ideal of the American character." Audiences could embrace that ideal because "it was strong, appealing, and reducible to its most favorable qualities."

Devin McKinney. (Photo: Joe Mabel.)

McKinney's writing on Fonda's acting is also assured and sharp, a quality missing in most film criticism now where the importance of acting in a picture takes second place to the enshrining of the film director, as in the tidy elegance of his description of Fonda's marvellous work in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve. Fonda plays Charles "Hopsie" Pike, a student of snakes but a neophyte in the study of sex, who gets undone and turned on by the sexiest card sharp played by Barbara Stanwyck. "From his first appearance in white dinner jacket, we sense we're watching not a new Fonda, but a Fonda detailed and sharpened, made comedically exact and brought newly alive," McKinney writes. "He is beautiful as he sits and reads his book, with humor in his beauty, precision in the lines of his body... His face is magnificently solemn, impervious to the flutterings of the avaricious debs at surrounding tables, sweet predators who want his body, his money, his mouth, and perhaps even a bit of his strange, private mind."

Devin McKinney and I spoke recently from his home in Pennsylvania.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flamboyant Disreputability: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which is set before the American Civil War and stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave who strikes up a partnership with a dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz), has been called a “spaghetti Western,” both by Tarantino (when it was still in the planning stages) and by those (such as Spike Lee) who have publicly disparaged it as “disrespectful” to the memory of those who were caught under slavery’s boot heel. It says something about the disconnect between the two camps that they’re using that term at all. In the ‘60s, American film writers who described the operatically violent Westerns shot (often in Spain) by Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as “spaghetti Westerns” were being derisive towards a subgenre that was widely seen as decadent, shoddy, and, oh yeah, disrespectful towards the proper, legendary West of John Ford, John Wayne, and Gunsmoke.

In recent years, critics who have re-evaluated and upgraded the work of Leone and other filmmakers who worked in the genre have largely abandoned the term in favor of the more staid label “Italian Western.” As a movie addict with a voracious appetite and encyclopedic (but non-judgemental) attitude towards popular culture, Tarantino still uses it. He appreciates it for the way it instantly telegraphs the look and feel of a hallucinatory, overheated world fueled by sadism and blood revenge, with violent rituals enacted by characters in period costume accompanied by the sound of psychedelic electric guitars. Lee, a self-styled provocateur, but one who plays by the establishment’s rules – his idea of a bold gesture is a three-hour, $30 million biopic, sanctified by the onscreen presence of Nelson Mandela, depicting a controversial and divisive figure from recent American history as a black saint – hears the term “spaghetti Western” in reference to a movie with an ex-slave hero, and can’t imagine how that combination can be anything but a dance on Harriet Tubman’s grave.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From Ballet to Bharatanatyam: Dance in Toronto Breaks New Ground in 2012

Piotr Stanczyk in Hamlet at the National Ballet of Canada (Photo: Corbin Smith)

With the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world, 2012 was a year tinged with doomsday prophecies if not apocalyptic visions. But in dance, the zeitgeist was reversed. Instead of calling it quits, artists whose métier is choreographed movement instead ushered in a new era of renewal, presenting dance pieces that pushed forward into new directions. This feeling of regeneration was wide-spread, affecting a diversity of genre from ballet in the West to bharatanatyam in the East, all traditions re-considered and re-calibrated to make them more relevant and reflective of the times. Accepted notions of beauty were also re-investigated and re-invigorated, with some dance artists exploring the beast within as a way of unbalancing the audience, stripping away complacency, in presenting dance as a conduit for exploring the human condition. This transformational trend in dance was global but proponents of it reached Canada as a result of inspired artistic directors at the helm of the country’s leading and experimental dance troupes. looking to rejuvenate the domestic dance scene with work signalling, if not the end of dance as we have come to know it, then certainly its rebirth. Among them was Karen Kain who, as head of the National Ballet of Canada, this year ushered in the North American premiere of Hamlet by Ballett Mannheim artistic director Kevin O’Day – a dark and difficult and occasionally obtuse work that pushed both the ballet dancers and their audience members to the far-most edges of their comfort zone. For that, Canada’s former prima ballerina needs to be applauded. In adding non-traditional ballets to her company’s roster, Kain is helping to strengthen the dramatic, emotional and technical range of her dancers. Composer John King's electro score is largely improvised, forcing the dancers constantly to be on edge. No two performances are alike as a result of the dancers having to adapt the choreography to suit the music on a given night. There's nothing safe or predictable about it, for neither spectator or performer. And yet the NBOC took to it well, seamlessly holding together the fragments. Dancers include principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk, alternating with Guillaume Côté and Naoya Ebe in the eponymous role of the Shakespearean prince immobilized by analyzing situations he instead needed to act upon, performed acrobatic stunts on one hand but also soft shoe shuffles as part of his character’s schizophrenic relationship with both himself and his dysfunctional society. Stancyzk’s Ophelia was Sonia Rodriguez. 2012 was Rodriguez’s season to shine. Besides garnering standing ovations for her role in Hamlet, the wife of Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning, a working mother of two, went from strength to strength in the company’s revival of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which she played the female lead. She rounded out the season getting a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. The ballerina is back, but as new and revitalized artist. (See also my book!)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day & more

Led Zeppelin at O2 Arena in 2007 (Photo by Ross Halfin)

A long time ago, when giants walked the earth, there was a rock and roll outfit called The Yardbirds.  They hailed from England (London, in particular), as did most of the giants. They were Keith Relf, blond and good-looking, who sang and played harmonica; Paul Samwell-Smith bassist; Chris Dreja rhythm guitar; and Jim McCarty drummer.  Their lead guitarist was named Tony “Top” Topham.  Nobody paid much attention to these Yardbirds until Topham went back to school and was replaced by Eric Clapton.  You will have heard the name.  But the story is just beginning.  Clapton didn’t like the ‘pop’ direction his band-mates were taking (he was a bluesman), so he left for bluer pastures and along came Jeff Beck.  It was these Yardbirds I first spied on television blasting their way through “I’m a Man”.  I had to own that record, and rushed out the very next day to buy the single.  Seventy-seven cents for two songs.  An extraordinary deal!  But the story continues.  A second lead guitarist was brought in, to complement Jeff’s other-worldly solos: Jimmy Page, session-man extraordinaire who had played on so many successful British recordings he can’t remember the number. Paul Samwell-Smith retired to a production career. Chris Dreja took up the bass.  Jeff Beck felt crowded, and left. These Yardbirds recorded another ‘pop’ album and then Keith Relf decided to play folk music.  Management tried to rebuild The New Yardbirds didn’t really happen, but Jimmy Page found a new gang: John Bonham on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and a blond and good-looking singer named Robert Plant.  Led Zeppelin was born.  And the world has never been the same.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Misérables: Blockheaded Blockbuster

Isabelle Allen and Hugh Jackman in Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, now in theatres

Les Misérables is one of those blockbuster musicals that has never received or needed critical approval, like Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia! and the entire oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The same can be said of a handful of American musicals, most recently Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but mostly it’s a European-import phenomenon. By the time Les Mis began its first Broadway run twenty-five years ago, its effect was a bifurcation of the musical genre into shows – a handful every season – that essentially perpetuate the traditions of the Broadway musical and those, like those listed above, that target tourists, groups and devoted repeat attenders. If you score with that sort of hit, critics are extraneous. I saw Spider-Man early in its notorious preview run, while Julie Taymor was still associated with it, and the immense theatre that housed it was packed to the gills with kids in Spider-Man costumes chaperoned by their parents. A couple of the cast members had already sustained injuries, the show had become simultaneously a scandal and a media joke, but it was clear that no matter how long it stayed in previews (months, as it turned out) and how dreadful the reviews would be (pretty dreadful), parents would continue to truck in from the suburbs or from out of town with their eager offspring and keep the musical running at capacity.

I’ve seen some of these shows out of some combination of professional obligation and curiosity (I skipped Miss Saigon and I just can’t get myself to one of Webber’s shows, because the music drives me insane) – including Les Mis, which I checked out during the first of its national tours. (It’s been in revival so often, and there have been so many national tours, that it feels like the show has been running non-stop for a quarter of a century.) I ducked out at intermission, which came after nearly two hours; I felt I’d got my money’s worth. The Trevor Nunn staging was impressive: he worked ingeniously against the revolve and some of the stage pictures were nifty. But except for the “Master of the House” number, performed by the innkeeper Thénardier, all of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music blended together into The Ballad or The March, and by ten p.m. I figured I’d heard plenty. I confess I’ve never been a fan of the material anyway. A friend once assured me that, as a lover of Dickens, I’d be sure to respond to Victor Hugo, but I tried the novel twice and couldn’t get very far; I felt oppressed by the layers of banal detail. Nonetheless, historically it’s an important work because it embodies the elements of Romanticism. It has an outlaw hero: Jean Valjean, who goes to prison for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his nephew from starving and who is dogged by the intractable Inspector Javert for breaking his parole. Its sympathies are populist, it’s loaded with melodramatic plot twists, and it’s set against the teeming background of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. And with all that spectacle and all those characters in high dudgeon, it’s been a favorite of moviemakers: Tom Hooper’s new movie of the musical marks the eighth film version. (Half have been in French, half in English.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best in Music for 2012


Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney perform at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief

For me, this past year in music marked the last stand for the old guard of rock ‘n roll, the consistency of pop and the evolving world of jazz. The old guard for the 12-12-12 benefit concert where Mick Jagger exclaimed “This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled,” signified the so-called staying power of The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and The Who whose connection with the victims of Hurricane Sandy was as thin as Chinese paper. Even though they played well, I was struck by how disconnected their music was from the event. For instance, it was a rather poor choice for McCartney to include a full-on, pyrotechnical presentation of “Live and Let Die” to an audience who just came through a devastating natural disaster. But that didn’t seem to bother the 40-plus-years-of-age audience or deter people from donating their hard earned money.

Pop music continued on its merry way with Canadian’s Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber racing up the single’s charts. Yet the big seller of 2012 was Gotye’s “Someone That I Used To Know” which spent 24 weeks in the Billboard Top 10. Maroon 5, Fun and Rhiana also made some noise, but this year didn’t have the standout voice of Adele until the end of the year when she released the James Bond movie song, “Skyfall.”

Jazz still lingered large in 2012 with significant records from Ravi Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling who are now becoming the seasoned veterans of the new generation of younger musicians. Students! The faculty is in great form.

Finally, 2012 saw the passing of one of pop’s biggest stars, Whitney Houston, someone who could hold a candle to the fabulous Etta James (she died in January). But we also lost Dave Brubeck, Johnny Otis and Ravi Shankar, Doc Watson and the late-great Levon Helm: musicians who invested their lives in an art form of which we are all the more richer.

The albums I've listed below stood out for interpretation, sound quality, thoughtfulness and the element of surprise. All of them have been previously reviewed in Critics At Large:

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Conversation with Photographer Albert Watson

Jack Nicholson, from Albert Watson's Icons series, 1998 (All photos courtesy of the IZZY Gallery)

New York City-based celebrity photographer Albert Watson is a master of his profession. His images have appeared on more than a hundred Vogue covers and countless other publications from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine, many of them featuring now iconic portraits of rock stars, including David Bowie and Eric Clapton, in addition to Hollywood actors like jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood and other notable high-profile personalities, including Steve Jobs, Mike Tyson, Kate Moss, Sade and Christy Turlington. Exhibited in art galleries and museums around the world, among them the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, Watson recently made his Canadian debut at Toronto’s IZZY Gallery (106 Yorkville Ave; izzygallery.com) with a retrospective show called ARCHIVE, which closes on December 27. Aged 70 and with a career spanning 40 years, Watson is one of the few internationally acclaimed photographers still working exclusively in film, processing it himself in his dark room. All of his hand-processed images now hanging in Izzy Sulejmani’s gallery are for sale, enabling collectors as well as fans of Watson’s work to own something by one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time, according to Photo District News. “Photography is quick communication,” he told critic Deirdre Kelly during a recent visit to his New York City office lined with some of the images for which Watson is celebrated. “People easily get it.” 

Here’s more of their conversation.
 
Photographer Albert Watson (Photo by Gloria Ro)

dk: These are wonderful digs you’ve got here in TriBeCa, close to the Hudson River and flooded with natural light. I am assuming this is where you work?

aw: We don’t shoot here, no. I no longer have a studio of my own. We had a huge one in the West Village from 1987 to 2008, about 26,000 square feet. But I sold it to a hedge fund guy. Now, we don’t actually have a studio. We don’t need one. About 25 or 30 years ago, light in a space was fairly important. But nowadays you can replicate the light in a studio with technology. The business has changed, which is why we moved here. We’re now much more focused on supplying work for galleries and museums – fine art work and producing prints and making platinum prints. We make all our prints in the office and rent studios when we need them. Everyone told me that I would miss having my own studio. But I’ve spent my whole life working in Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Milan and other centres, including Toronto, and I’ve become quite used to photographing in other people’s studios. Where I work doesn’t have to be my own space. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Two Views: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman as Bilbo and a room full of dwarves

Today, we have two of our critics weighing in on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Neither David Churchill nor Shlomo Schwartzberg know what the other wrote, so this is a bit of a voyage of discovery for them now that the two reviews are up. 

Finishing a Patchwork Quilt

Over the years, there seems to be a building hatred for Peter Jackson, especially in the critical universe, because, as some have said, “he no longer has any street cred.” No, I have no idea what that means (expect maybe they expected him to make low budget splatter movies his whole career). It's just empty verbiage trotted out when they have really nothing to say. It's the critical world equivalent of businessmen who spout phrases like, “new paradigms,” “moving forward,” etc. Granted, Lovely Bones (2009) was a failure with some good ideas, as I outlined here; while King Kong (2005) divided critics too; but the real vitriol began when Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001. There was so much sneering at the first film among the Toronto-based critical community that one reviewer for a major publication was heard to tell another critic he'd put it on his Top 10 not because he actually liked it, but because he didn't want to get nasty letters from Tolkien/Jackson fans. How craven! Was he afraid he'd be banished from the in crowd who thought Jackson had lost his “street cred?” Probably, but what is completely clear is that this critic, who is still employed by a major publication, has no ethics. If you hate it, state it and say why.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Born Again: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Phil Dyess-Nugent, to our group.

Soap opera fans have a term – SORAS (for “Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome”) – to describe the process by which a child character who’s too young to have a very dramatic romantic life may be sent away to boarding school or summer camp, disappear from the show for a while, and then return, suddenly being played by a 24-year-old actor. Following the careers of some movie actresses, it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s been an outbreak of SORAS in Hollywood. Actresses who make a strong impression as children – Christina Ricci, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman – may turn into leggy, intimidatingly sultry-eyed sirens, with a speed that could snap your neck. In some cases, as with Ricci, they may go from seeming eerily mature and self-assured at eleven to working hard to not overwhelm male actors who fit in all too well in a movie culture where guys can extend their boyhood into their fifties. Jennifer Lawrence was already twenty when she starred in Winter’s Bone in 2010, but there, as in this year’s mainstream hit The Hunger Games, she projected a flinty resourcefulness and inner strength, while coming across as a frightened little girl who was in over her head. Good as Lawrence was, nothing she did in those movies can prepare you for the daring and emotional range of her performance in the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, from a script he adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lyricism, Two Ways: Children of Paradise and Umberto D.

The Blu-ray release of the gorgeous Criterion discs of Children of Paradise and Umberto D. highlight the end of one era and the beginning of another in European movies. Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis), with a screenplay by Carné’s favorite collaborator, the poet Jacques Prévert, came out just as the Second World War was ending, and considering the restraints under which French filmmaking was confined – political, esthetic and financial – during the Occupation, it seems remarkable that these two men could have come up with a movie so lush and with such a broad narrative sweep. (It took two years to make.) Children of Paradise is a three-hour-and-ten-minute historical melodrama set in the Paris theatrical world of the 1820s and its subject is the line, easily blurred, between art and life. Carné’s bailiwick was the romantic-fatalistic vein of French movies in the 1930s, and though other directors worked it too – Julien Duvivier in Pépé le Moko and even occasionally Jean Renoir (especially in La bête humaine) – Carné was its undisputed master. That’s Carné’s Port of Shadows we see being unspooled in the movie house in the Dunkirk sequence of Atonement, while James McAvoy is wandering around behind the screen in a fever: Joe Wright, the director, is playing carefully against the romanticism of Carné’s movie, with its moody, doomed hero, to suggest that this kind of gesture is gone forever, that in the world of Dunkirk it’s become a mockery. Carné and Prévert reached the height of this irresistible style and mood in Daybreak (Le jour se lève), which came out just before the war. (Jean Gabin, the poster child for this genre, was the leading man in all four of these movies.) Children of Paradise, which has the good sense to slip it into a faraway historical period, is its last gasp.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Critic's Notes & Frames, Part II


Joni Mitchell draws on the intimacy of Nina Simone's version of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue" (which also begins on piano with a Christmas tune) to tell a tale of independence that doesn't so much have a destination in mind, but rather a sense of place that's only uncovered in the journey. While her feet would indeed learn to fly, the ground was never certain beneath her. Don Quixote had his windmills while Mitchell had the road in which to tilt forward. Those fascinating elliptical tales of romantic entanglement and creative struggles that followed Blue (1971) might just have started right here on that "River."


Monday, December 17, 2012

I Could Go On Singing: Giant and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Brian D’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin in Giant at the Public Theater in New York (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Considering that Show Boat is one of the most phenomenally successful musicals in history, it’s surprising that it’s taken nearly a century for someone to get around to adapting another Edna Ferber novel to the musical stage. Like Show Boat, Giant, which she wrote in 1952, is a vivid soap opera that sprawls across two generations. Ferber has been out of fashion for a long time (though her books are still highly readable); most people who are familiar with the material would know it through the famous 1956 movie version, directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and, in a posthumous performance, James Dean. The giant of the title is Texas, where Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) brings his Virginia bride Leslie (Taylor) to live on his enormous ranch, Reata: he has to get used to her independent-mindedness and her social conscience and she has to get used to the ways of Texas, which is crass, self-adoring, patriarchal and racist.

The movie, which runs on for three hours and twenty minutes, is uneven in every conceivable way: visually, in the storytelling and in the acting. Stevens was past his prime when he made it; he’d begun to equate length and subject matter with prestige, in that distinctly Hollywood way. (Giant has approximately the same running time as a double bill of his two best pictures, Alice Adams and the Astaire-Rogers classic Swing Time, both of which he made in the mid-thirties.) Still, like the book on which it’s based, Giant is very absorbing, and even though it’s a mammoth Oscar-boosting extravaganza, it doesn’t try very hard to convince you that it’s an important drama. By contrast, the musical, which began at the Dallas Theater Center and made it to New York’s Public Theater last month, is more inflated than the loudest-crowing, most self-righteous Texan in its cast of characters. Moreover, it’s something that you could never call a single one of those Texans: it’s a twenty-four-carat phony.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Giving the Gift of Culture: Presents for the Holiday Season


Being Jewish I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I often feel sorry about the financial pressures the holiday imposes on so many of my friends and co-workers. They simply cannot afford to purchase gifts for so many different people on their gift list. Fortunately, I do sense that the trend of late has seen them cutting back on spending, opting for inexpensive books and the like. In that spirit, I herewith offer some suggestions, many off the beaten track, for presents that won’t break your bank account.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Wonder: Life of Pi


After the dullest year for movies I can remember in four decades of professional reviewing, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi restores the thrill of filmgoing. Adapted by David Magee from the beloved novel by the writer Yann Martel, who was born in Spain to French-Canadian parentsit tells the story of an adolescent Indian boy (played by a talented young actor named Suraj Sharma) who survives the wreck of a Japanese cargo ship and sails the Pacific on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. Lee’s approach to the material is to treat it like a fable, with lush, hothouse colors – the magnificent cinematography is by Claudio Miranda – contained within precise, sharply defined lines, and oftentimes magically layered imagery that’s accentuated by the 3D process. (During one shot, of a sky pocked with stars reflected in the depths of the ocean so that they suggest exotic blossoms living beneath the water, I had to restrain myself from shouting out loud.) Lee and Miranda’s influences appear to have been Henri Rousseau, Odilon Redon and perhaps the American painter Morris Louis; the style veers between symbolism and surrealism. Pauline Kael cited Louis in her review of Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece The Black Stallion, another fantastical story about a boy and an animal who are castaways from a shipwreck, and The Black Stallion is certainly the movie I thought about most frequently during Life of Pi, especially in the shipboard scenes during the storm that is the occasion for the ship’s destruction. (We never find out the cause of the wreck, and neither, to their consternation, do the insurance investigators who interview Pi after he eventually reaches dry land, in Mexico.) Both stories involve the training of a wild animal – in this case a dangerous carnivore in a severely restricted space – but otherwise they’re quite different, since Life of Pi is primarily a tale about faith.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Royal Whiplash: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

With The Hobbit heading to the big screen this weekend (and Shlomo's review shortly to follow!), Tolkien's beloved young adult novel finds itself back in demand. Many adults are likely picking it up for the first time, and who can blame them? Grown ups reading kid or teen books is hardly a new idea, as many of them are simply good stories, regardless of the way publishers choose to categorize them. As a bookseller I often encountered people who were surprised to learn that darker tales, like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, could be shelved as "Teen Fiction". Recent years have seen many other examples of these books picking up an older readership, and subsequently being made into (often less successful) film adaptations: Coraline, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and certain other series that I'm disinclined to name aloud.

One 'young adult' author I've followed for some time is Garth Nix, a prolific writer of fantasy series including the Abhorsen trilogy, The Keys to the Kingdom, and The Seventh Tower, among others. As all of these demonstrate a propensity for strange and epic worldbuilding, with each universe’s set of abstractions and absurdities taken as mundane by their inhabitants. Nix's new novel, A Confusion of Princes (HarperCollins, 2012), is a foray into Space Opera territory that I knew would be grand and intricate. His fantasy background spills over, with his treatment of technology living up to Clark’s Laws. Going in I hoped this was to be the first book in a new series, and by the end I felt certain it would have worked better that way. The massive tomes of Harry Potter gave the lie to the idea that kids won't read big books (not that I believed it to begin with), and with multiple series under his belt, I'm not certain why Nix chose this route here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best of Television 2012: Mayan Apocalypse Edition

Stephen Colbert's election coverage is just one of many high points of the year in television

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, December typically marks the time when we all reflect on the year that was. But this year, with the Mayan-prophesied end of days just eight days away, we perhaps have more reason than ever to look back. With everyone from the Vatican to NASA remaining resolutely sceptical, many are still counting down to December 21, 2012. (December 21 is also the day that Resident Evil: Retribution comes out on Blu-ray – so clearly portents of doom lurk everywhere!)

But whether or not there will actually be a 2013, the time seems right for me to share all those moments of 2012 that made me grateful to own a television. While the new fall season has a few bright spots (I would include ABC’s musical/drama Nashville in that short list), TV’s very best moments of 2012 were found in its continuing shows. And so, in honour of what may be the last eight days of human existence, here are eight shows (in no particular order) that you may want to check out before our world (perhaps) comes to an explosive end.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Textile Giants: BIG at The Royal Ontario Museum

Adinkra Wrapper, a Ghanaian toga measuring 3 metres long, currently on display at the ROM in Toronto

In fashion, size matters. Clothing, especially ready-to-wear, is tailored to conform to universal standards of small, medium or large. It is sold to fit, or not fit when showcased on slender silhouettes slinking down an international fashion runway, an impossible ideal for most. Not everyone can squeeze into fashion’s modern-day obsession with Lilliputian proportions, and so, when small is the season’s biggest trend, then follow the diets, purgings, eating disorders and assorted guilt trips which make fashion a curse, if not a monumental pain. Size is definitely a sensitive issue where fashion is concerned, which makes it all the more provocative for the Royal Ontario Museum to have called its latest textiles and costume exhibition, BIG.

Unquestionably, this is an adjective inspiring fear and loathing in any fashionista worth her skin-tight jeans and equally teeny stilettos. But rest easy. As created by co-curators Alexandra Palmer (the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan Fashion Costume Curator), Sarah Fee and Anu Liivandit, BIG, in this case, is a good thing. It suggests capaciousness of ideas, mammoth accomplishments in the textile arts over several centuries involving thousands upon thousands of hours of manual labour and brand name contemporary designers whose reputations are boulder-esque: Tom Ford, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, to name a few.

BIG, in other words, is a bang.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Time Well Spent: The Education of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2010 (Photo by Joe Giblin)

Dave Brubeck was the last of the great ambassadors of jazz. Throughout the 1960s, he and his famous quartet would travel the world playing concerts and spreading the word that jazz was more than just an American music. He knew throughout its history that it was a music that drew on all genres. For Dave Brubeck was also a curious composer, one who was intimately interested in learning and using the native sounds and rhythms of Japan, Turkey, Russia and France, in his own work.

His tenure with the French composer Darius Millaud opened his ears to what was possible by learning orchestration, instead of classical piano technique. Brubeck’s openness and eclecticism is one of the most important reasons why he should be remembered. For his was a continuing journey for knowledge. His death last week, at age 91, was the end of that long journey, and in some ways it was the end of a jazz renaissance.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Election Day with the Apple Family: Sorry

J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins in Sorry (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Since I was a fan of both the first two parts of Richard Nelson’s Apple family tetralogy, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad, I would like to report that with Sorry, which he wrote to coincide with the presidential election, he hits another ball out of the park. But it’s something of a disappointment, despite the obvious intelligence of the writing and the usual skill of the acting. (As with the earlier entries, Nelson also directed.) Nelson’s coup with the first two plays is that he managed to create a plausible, compelling family of New York state liberals whose conversation veers easily and provocatively into the political. The plays aren’t doctrinaire or preachy; they’re political dramas by virtue of their setting (That Hopey Changey Thing opened around the time of the mid-term elections, Sweet and Sad on the tenth anniversary of 9/11) and the savvy of the well-read, articulate, deep-thinking quartet of main characters: a brother and three sisters meeting up at the home of one (now two) of the sisters in upstate Rhinebeck. But Sorry doesn’t manage the balance of the personal and the political with the grace and fluidity of the earlier plays (though the 9/11 content of Sweet and Sad, to be truthful, was its weak point). For an hour the election is barely mentioned and then, abruptly, the dialogue picks it up. For the first time in the Apple series, when the characters begin to discuss politics, I don’t quite believe it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Long May They Stand: Arhoolie Records Celebrates 50 Years

Santiago Jimenéz, Jr. performs with La Familia Peña-Govea at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in February 2011

On November 3, 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. LP stands for Long Play because these records ran at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and contained a lot of music, compared to what had been available before. These days people fill up 80 minutes of a CD with remixes and ‘bonus tracks’ (many of which we could live without) or create interminably long downloads for their iPods. But in the sixties, it was the LP, or album (so called because they replaced the actual ‘album’ collection of 78s which made available long music pieces on a set of 10” records that had to be changed one after the other). I digress. On November 3 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. It wasn’t the first LP ever, but it was an important one, 250 copies of Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster. The records had arrived. It was a big moment for Chris Strachwitz and his partner Wayne Pope who sat around the kitchen table gluing printed cover slicks onto black jackets, stuffed the discs into the jackets and inserted a booklet of notes and lyrics: 250 copies.

The whole project had been a labour of love. Blues songster Lipscomb had been recorded in the field in Texas. Blues writer and historian Mack McCormick, had introduced Strachwitz to Lightning Hopkins (via Sam Charters) with the intention of a live recording which never took place, but Mance Lipscomb was a major substitute. Strachwitz pulled together the financing and named the label Arhoolie which means something like a “field holler” an appropriate name for the kinds of authentic Americana music the label would release over its fifty years. From first recording Country Joe McDonald’s famous “Fixin’ to Die Rag” to discovering (or at least making known) Mexican performers, sacred steel players, and down home blues singers, Strachwitz remained true to his vision right up to They All Played For Us, the soon-to-be-released recording of their 50th anniversary celebration at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

All Those Years Ago: Remembering John Lennon & Johnny Ace

Had John Lennon been killed in a car accident, suffered a heart attack, died of cancer, or simply passed away from old age, it would have been tragic, but somehow comprehensible. But when Mark David Chapman shot him dead in front of his home thirty-two years ago today, the cruel irony of events rippled back to our first discovery of The Beatles and why they mattered for so many of us. After all, Chapman wasn't just an aimless loner like Lee Harvey Oswald; like us, he was a fan of the group. His intent to commit murder grew out of an initial love he had for The Beatles. It was not simply a hatred borne out of social alienation. His act therefore touched disturbingly on what it truly means when our pop obsessions come to define our most private reality.

While fans tried to cope and wrestle with the loss of John Lennon, the surviving Beatles had an even more difficult time doing so. When it came to addressing the tragedy through their music, those problems often became self-evident. George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" was the first attempt to comment on the murder and what it meant to someone who, indeed, shared all those years ago. Recorded in May 1981, for his Sometime in England album, the song's first problem was this inappropriately jaunty melody that you could have easily mistaken for "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The lyrics weren't much better. In the final verse, Harrison goes from chastising those who don't believe in God to condemning people who thought Lennon was "weird." It's as if he were saying that if only people believed in God then maybe Lennon would still be alive today ("They've forgotten all about God/He's the only reason we exist/ Yet you were the one that they said was so weird/All those years ago").

Friday, December 7, 2012

Failing to Hit the High Notes: A Late Quartet

Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet

There’s a significant difference between documentary and fictional films. Though both are constructed to tell stories, one has the advantage of truth, which can make your film more compelling if the story’s a real corker and if you’re a good director. The other must be rendered from life situations but play out convincingly on screen. But in terms of feeling, authenticity and emotion, the end result isn’t always equally effective. That’s certainly the case with A Late Quartet, a drama that doesn’t come close to reaching the impact of filmmaker Yaron Zilberman’s documentary debut Watermarks (2004).

Watermarks told the fascinating story of a champion Viennese Jewish swim team that was essentially exiled from the country by the Nazis in 1938 and what happened when they went back to Austria over sixty years later. It had it all: a little-known tale that dispelled stereotypes of Jews not being competent athletes, compelling subjects who riveted the screen, and a poignant resolution that reverberated after the credits were done. A Late Quartet has none of these welcome elements. In fact it’s a rather pedestrian, even simple story that isn’t elevated at all, despite its mostly top-notch cast.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Revolution Was Televised: Alan Sepinwall Takes On TV’s New Golden Age

It has become almost cliché in some circles to proclaim that television – American television in particular – has never been better. Quality television is no longer, as it was for decades, confined to BBC adaptations of Jane Austen or Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. In the past fifteen years, television has grown into a genuinely popular art form, finally embracing all of its strengths as a medium: the ability to tell long, complicated stories rich in complex characters, compelling writing, and morally and narratively risky storylines. With new technological innovations (DVDs, Netflix, DirecTV) and the rise of the new business models that came with satellite TV and the ever-expanding cable universe, television is no longer a disposable medium. Shows are produced not only to be watched, but to be re-watched. We used to rent the shows we watched, but now we can literally own them. Television series like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad actually reward our attention, instead of discouraging it. The more you watch these shows, the richer they become. The impact of these shows successes – both artistically and commercially – is being felt across the whole television universe, and that story is far from over. That television has decidedly entered a new Golden Age is apparent to all of us who love the medium – what is less talked about is that TV criticism has grown up just as much in that same period. This new age of television has been paralleled by the rise of new and exciting forms of writing about television – and Alan Sepinwall is among the best of the new breed.

In his new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, Sepinwall takes on the last fifteen years of television, and promises to tell “the story of that transformation in both the medium and how we saw it, through the prism of the best and/or most important shows of the era.” There are few people as perfectly situated to tell that story as Alan Sepinwall, and the book delivers what he promises and more. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Neglected Gem #34: Amos and Andrew (1993)

When it was released in 1993, Amos and Andrew got the kind of venomous reviews the press saves up for small-potatoes pictures the studios have already pretty much abandoned, and it vanished from theaters in a couple of weeks. It’s easy to see what infuriated the reviewers: E. Max Frye’s movie burlesques the social attitudes of affluent whites and affluent blacks. (Even the title, with its reference to the golden-age radio show Amos and Andy, is a racial gag: contemporary African-Americans tend to find the show, with its black vaudeville cast and passé black types, embarrassing or offensive.) The only character who escapes Frye’s satiric aim is Amos Odell (Nicolas Cage), a petty crook who gets picked up in a small New England island town – a summer haven for wealthy tourists who keep houses for the season – when, markedly deficient in geography, he thinks he’s cleared the Canadian border. Andrew is Andrew Sterling (Samuel L. Jackson), a celebrity – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker – who has bought one of the houses on the island. But when his new neighbors, the Gillmans (Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin), out for an evening stroll, see him through his living-room window hooking up his stereo, they jump to the conclusion that he’s an intruder trying to steal it. They don’t know the house has been sold since last summer; they assume he’s holding one of the teenage sons of their former neighbors hostage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11 – C@L Books

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AA46LS6
The ramifications of 9/11 are still being felt today. And those ramifications will continue to be felt for generations to come. Everyone's world changed irrevocably on that morning. Eleven years later wars are still being fought as a result and nut cases who think it was an inside job continue to spout their poison. Twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years from now, someone will still be looking at the historical and political meaning of this tragedy.

Critics at Large (under the imprint C@L Books) is thrilled to announce the publication is our very first e-book single: Past Tense, Forever Present: Remembering 9/11. Edited by David Churchill, and with original water colours by Andrew Dupuis illustrating the collection's evocative themes, the book includes seven newly revised versions of essays first published on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and four entirely new pieces written specifically for this publication.

These eleven essays look at 9/11 from a cultural perspective, examining its impact on the arts, social media, and on our lives as arts journalists caught up in the horrible calamity of that day.

Authors include: David Churchill, Mark Clamen, John Corcelli, Kevin Courrier, Susan Green, Deirdre Kelly, Mari-Beth Slade, Andrew Dupuis, David Kidney, Shlomo Schwartzberg, and Steve Vineberg.

The e-book is now available on Kobo and on Amazon for immediate download to Kindle. Both are priced at only 99 cents.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Golden Boy: Art vs. Commerce

Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Michael Aronovin Golden Boy (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
 
When you read about the Group Theatre, the legendary company that introduced Stanislavskian acting to the American theatre in the 1930s, you can’t help wondering what their performances were really like. You can get some sense of this pioneering Method acting style when you watch John Garfield, the only one of the troupe who became a movie star, or Lee J. Cobb, who went on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway (and revisited the role years later on television) and the gangster Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront, or the few remnants Morris Carnovsky, the Group’s master actor, has left us of his work, in featured movie roles and TV appearances. But the first time I really got a feel for the Group Theatre style was when a PBS documentary about them included a clip I’d had no idea even existed: Luther Adler’s screen test from the mid-thirties, which replicated a scene that he and Phoebe Brand had played together on stage in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! (Adler and his sister Stella, the children of the celebrated Yiddish Theatre star Jacob Adler, were two of the Group’s leading actors; Brand, who married Carnovsky, came out of retirement to play Nanny in Vanya on 42nd Street.) The clip is maybe two minutes long, and you can’t even see Brand’s face, yet it’s a revelation. Certainly the acting is grounded by a rock-bound naturalism, but it’s more heightened than I’d imagined, more theatrical – in the best way. The scene is between Moe Axelrod and Hennie Berger, one-time lovers who are still desperate for each other but so resentful and defensive that they circle each other warily like nervous animals, every now and then reaching out a paw to swipe one another; and the two actors aren’t afraid to go for broke. You can hear the stage training in the broad vocal palette, in Brand’s free use of tremolo (a more old-fashioned choice than I would have guessed, but extremely effective here) to underscore her character’s woefulness and in the nobility in Adler’s stature and in the way he holds his face to the light.  (Among the Method actors of the next generation of Method actors, Ben Gazzara notably retained that quality.) You believe fully that you’re watching the characters, yet you don’t forget you’re watching actors. Perhaps no Method actor could make you forget that until Marlon Brando.

I thought of Adler’s screen test during Golden Boy, Bartlett Sher’s magnificent new Broadway production of the 1937 Odets play that was the Group’s biggest hit. (Adler played the title role, Carnovsky was his father, and Cobb, Garfield and Brand were all in the company, as well as the Hollywood actress Frances Farmer and two future directors, Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt.) Odets trained as an actor with the Group but early on he began to write plays for them; seven were produced during the Group’s decade-long existence (it finally collapsed in 1941), including Waiting for Lefty, Paradise Lost and of course Odets’s masterpiece, Awake and Sing! He was the closest they had to an official playwright-in-residence, and Golden Boy is his most personal play. Before he wrote it, and again afterwards, he spent time in Hollywood, where he knew his talents were being squandered, as Hollywood squandered the gifts of so many of the great east-coast writers in the thirties and forties, but which offered him a luxurious lifestyle that, like so many others, he found hard to resist. The battle between what you do for your soul and what you do to make a buck is at the heart of Golden Boy, in which Joe Bonaparte, the working-class son of Italian immigrants, a talented violinist, becomes a boxer, a choice that breaks his own heart as well as his father’s and imperils his soul.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Monkees: The Revenge and Resurrection of Tin Pan Alley

There was a time when it was seen as cool, and definitely hip, to disparage The Monkees. Perceived by some as the Justin Biebers of their time, they were even called "The Pre-Fab Four," cheap imitations of The Beatles and defined as teeny-bopper fodder. Yet despite the crass commercial packaging and their faux A Hard Day's Night-style TV show, The Monkees (who early on had seasoned session men playing their instruments) were more than just a marketing executive's idea of a wet dream. They were used essentially as a volley shot, a cannon blast that reached back to the American Revolution and aimed towards a series of British Invasion bands, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Were they simply a fad? Maybe they were conceived that way. But The Monkees turned out to be the revenge and resurrection of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley was the name given to a publishing company located on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. From 1880 to 1953, this block became something of an epicenter for both songwriting and music publishing in America; and it provided the foundation for what became the standards in American song penned by composers like Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser and Yip Harburg. Composers and lyricists were hired on a permanent basis to provide an industry for popular music. For until the emergence of Tin Pan Alley, European operettas had been the predominant norm and influence on American songs.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Four Neglected Gems (#30-33): The Last Letter (2002), Like a Bride (1993), Shake Hands with the Devil (2007) & The Emperor's Club (2002)

Frederick Wiseman's The Last Letter
As we get into the winter and holiday season, there's no better time to gather indoors to catch up with movies we may have missed. In this case, Shlomo Schwartzberg suggests four films we may not even know.

- editors of Critics at Large.

The Last Letter (La dernière lettre) (2002) is the only fiction film by famed documentairan Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, La Danse) is not really a stretch for the talented filmmaker since it feels just as authentic as anything he's ever done. First staged by Wiseman with France's acclaimed Comedie-Francaise, it has now been brought to the screen with all its devastating power intact.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Strong and Free: Three New Albums from Canadian Singer-Songwriters

Singer-Songwriter Jon Brooks (Photo by Kevin Kelly)

It’s not easy being a singer-songwriter these days.  Especially in Canada, where there are just so many of them.  How do you separate yourself from the crowd?  Is talent enough to make a difference?  Does the label you’re on count?  If I had the answer to these questions, I’d be a successful singer-songwriter myself, instead of being content with playing my tunes to my wife and sons in the basement, and writing about the rest of the gang.

On Saturday night, I attended one of Michael Wrycraft’s tribute shows at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. This one celebrated the songs of Tom Waits.  It was in fact Wrycraft’s seventh Tom Waits tribute!  Performers like Scott B & Gord Cumming, Melwood Cutlery, Annabelle Chvostek and Chris Cuddy with Don Rooke took up the challenge of forgoing their own songs for those of Mr. Waits.  It is always a surprise to hear the lovely and gentle melodies that exist below the rasp of Waits’ own voice, and Saturday night was no exception.  Beginning with the amazing powerhouse who is Ariana Gillis covering “Bad As Me” there was no turning back for anyone.  The York University orchestral pop ensemble Copycat proved their name by simulating Waitsian vocalizing over some extraordinary instrumentation, and Jon Brooks closed the show by prowling around the stage like a wolf playing his Taylor and howling at the moon.  It was a wonderful night. 

It also demonstrated how hard it must be to be a singer-songwriter these days. After all, Annabelle Chvostek has just released one of the best albums of the year, and here she was singing Tom Waits songs!  I’ve had Jon Brooks’ CD Delicate Cages (Borealis Records) on my desk for a few months wondering what to say about it.