Saturday, January 7, 2012

No Fun: Magazine's No Thyself

In the late 1970s, when it came to music, I was a fan of everything British: Folk, Prog Rock, Punk and New Wave. I was first attracted to the Manchester-based band, Magazine for its combination of punk attitude and musical sophistication. Their albums offered fans a cocktail of the darker, more violent side of punk supported by tight, tuneful music. I was 20 years-of-age when they debuted and I was hooked. Magazine was fresh, clever and danceable. Howard Devoto was a hilarious front man for a band that had a unique sound with a running bass-line that pushed the music to the edge. It was strongly supported by John Doyle's crisp drumming and John McGeoch’s effective technique on guitar.

Among other things, Magazine had attitude and this sense of arrogance was quite evident at a Toronto concert I attended in 1980. Howard Devoto, as the band's lead singer, wasn't particularly good as a vocalist, but he had charisma and "talked" his way through the songs. It was a good show, free of pretension with all eyes on Devoto snaking his way through the set. He was less antagonistic than John Lydon of P.I.L. for example.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reminding Us Why We Love The Movies: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

I must confess, I resisted seeing Michel Hazanaviciu’s The Artist for the longest time, fearing and assuming that the idea of making an honest-to-goodness silent movie in 2011 was merely a gimmick, like Mel Brooks’ tepid Silent Movie (1976). Well, I was fortunately wrong about that. Not only is The Artist one of the year’s best movies, it’s also a timely reminder of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place oh so many years ago. And though of late I have mostly fallen out of love with the movies because so many of them have been so bad, more so, perhaps in this past year than ever before, The Artist also reminds me that, when done exceptionally well, films like this can rejuvenate an art form that is well-worth seeking out and appreciating.

The other thing The Artist has in common with 2011’s best movies is that it’s not afraid of evoking emotions in the viewer. Those other stellar films, including Of Gods and Men, The Illusionist, Incendies, War Horse, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, even the year’s finest documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Project Nim, all laid their feelings bare on screen, prompting the audience to fall in love with their protagonists, fear the outcome of their fates and be compelled to follow them though their often dangerous adventures in living and surviving. (Even Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, his somewhat disappointing follow-up to Sideways, was, despite being a touch too manipulative and pat, an honest and often powerful attempt at delineating the emotional turmoil that roils a family when the mother is grievously injured in an accident.) Those films stand out while so many other critically acclaimed films, such as Meek’s Cutoff and Another Earth, are, by comparison, arid and emotionally pinched movies. They seem almost determined to keep the viewer at an emotional distance; at best, asking you simply to admire them intellectually. (Terence Mallick’s The Tree of Life, another vastly overrated movie of 2011, does contain emotions but it’s such an incoherent mess that those feelings come across as stillborn.) Genuflecting at the altar of dry movies like those, as so many film critics do, is a denial of what makes cinema so emotionally potent and why it became such a significant art form. Be it Sunrise, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Casablanca, The Apu Trilogy, The Godfather, The Stunt Man or The Social Network, the finest films over the last century display the strong emotions of love, regret, anger, violence and joy. I won’t refuse a movie's ability to wash over me and to enfold me in its emotional embrace providing it's sincere and truthful; that’s why I, and so many others, at least, go to the movies. And it’s also why The Artist is a movie for the ages.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Extremely Fat Birds and Nimble Young Tanks: Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Douglas Adams observes the countryside and remarks:

“If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because somebody’s already done it.”

The whimsical chapter that follows includes a dizzying helicopter ride and treacherous hike through the mountains in search of a rare species of overweight booming parrot. I didn’t know parrots could boom before reading Last Chance to See. But that’s what I love about the book: how the unexpected comes intertwined with understated humour. While I’m busy laughing, I don’t realize I’ve learned something – something even more bizarrely wonderful for being true.

Last Chance to See takes the British humourist Adams, along with his zoologist coauthor, Mark Carwardine, on a series of global misadventures in search of some of the world's nearly-extinct species. Ostensibly with the goal of recording a BBC radio series of the same name, the pair visits these animals in their natural habitat, hoping to raise public awareness – and action – before these creatures vanish for good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The End of Bored to Death and How to Make It in America: Bidding Farewell to HBO’s Brooklyn Duology

Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk in HBO's How to Make It in America.

A new year is upon us and HBO viewers certainly have a lot to look forward to in 2012: the official launch of Luck (starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte) at the end of January; the US premiere of the new Ricky Gervais BBC/HBO comedy, Life’s Too Short, in February; and a brand new season of Games of Thrones in April. But it turns out that HBO’s full schedule comes at the cost of two of my favourite, if less often celebrated, comedies: at the end of December HBO announced that Bored to Death and How to Make It in America would not be returning in 2012. Despite airing on HBO, both series have lived pretty much under the radar since their respective premieres, and their sleeper status unfortunately did not save them from the chopping block.

Ever since the shows first premiered a couple of years ago – Bored to Death in September 2009, with How to Make It in America taking over its timeslot in February of the next year – I’ve always thought of them as a pair: both shows were Brooklyn-centred comedies, and both, more significantly, came with Jewish male actors playing explicitly Jewish main characters. Even in this post-Seinfeld century, it is still rare to find shows with explicitly Jewish lead characters, and here suddenly were two! (No, Howard Wolowitz doesn’t count!) To be fair, Jason Schwartzman’s character on Bored to Death is perhaps a more familiar New York Jewish type (in the Woody Allen vein), but Bryan Greenberg’s Ben Epstein on How to Make It in America just may have been the single hippest Jewish male character in TV history. Despite its cancellation, I hope that this promises more cool, attractive and relatively non-neurotic Jewish characters in years to come.

HBO doesn’t like to cancel shows – to its credit this is the same network that gave David Simon five full seasons of The Wire and has supported Simon’s Treme into a confirmed third, and likely fourth and final season, despite their respective struggles in the ratings – but when HBO does cancel shows, it is often heartbreaking. (Part of me will never quite forgive HBO for cutting Deadwood short after only three seasons.) With only three seasons of Bored to Death and two seasons of How to Make It in America, HBO has cut down two great shows, both still in their prime.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Incoherent Text: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

In the very early 1980s, film critic and academic Robin Wood wrote an article, called “The Incoherent Text,” about the nature of films from the 1970s. In it, he attempted to analyze Hollywood films, from directors like Scorsese and Coppola, which he felt said several things at once. Wood used Scorsese's Taxi Driver as his prime example saying that the film simultaneously condemned and celebrated Travis Bickle, the psychotic central character. He went on to describe how many of the seminal films of the 1970s had this as their dominant storytelling mode. The only problem with Wood's thesis was that it, too, got lost in incoherence, to the point where it was near impossible to follow his argument in any linear fashion. I'm not proposing that Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is in any way, shape or form a seminal film; I mean strictly that it is for a large part of its running time an incoherent mess.

Where a film like Taxi Driver has a point of view, divided though it may be, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, for most of its first half, has none. The plot is next to impossible to follow leaving you confused, irritated, and generally bored. Basically, if I've got this straight (and most of this came from the second half of the film, not the first), Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), Sherlock's legendary antagonist, has set in motion a series of events (basically, a series of bombings throughout European capitals that are blamed on various groups) that, in 1891, will cause the outbreak of a world war. Since he has bought up the interests and shares in many munitions and medical supply companies throughout Europe, a world war will make him a very wealthy man. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) cottons on to this and, with the reluctant assistance of Dr. Watson (Jude Law), is bound and determined to thwart him.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Carnage: Beneath the Veneer

Roman Polanski's Carnage
The French playwright Yasmina Reza writes masterfully calibrated comedies of manners in which the central joke is the precariousness of the order carefully maintained by bright, complacent bourgeois; you wait for the moment when it flies off the track like a short-circuited toy train. Her brand of high comedy carries the influence of theatre of the absurd – it’s flavored with the acrid taste of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee – but she stays within the realm of realism. In Art, the play that put Reza on the map, the source of the tension in the friendship of three middle-aged male friends is an abstract expressionist painting that one of them pays an exorbitant amount for and displays proudly on the wall of his Paris apartment, while the others think it’s nonsense. The play is a comedy of menace, to use the critic Martin Esslin’s term for Pinter’s work: the rancor lies, coiled like a rattler, just beneath the jocular bantering. (In the hilarious 1998 Broadway production, Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina looked like they were having the time of their lives sparring with Reza’s glittering verbal arsenal.) God of Carnage is closer to Albee, specifically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with a much lighter touch. The set-up is irresistible. After one middle-school kid slams another with a hockey stick in response to an insult, effecting, considerable, though reparable, damage, their parents meet in an upper-West-Side Manhattan apartment to talk as reasonable adults. The reasonableness lasts barely half an hour. By the end of the play, all reason has been abandoned and all four psyches have been laid bare, along with the tattered seams of both marriages – and the stage is strewn with debris.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Durable & Road Traveled: The Best Music of 2011

You could say that 2011 marked a solid year for the veteran musician. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Chick Corea, David Crosby, George Clinton, Paul Anka, Ricardo Muti, Guy Clark and Roy Harper all turned 70-years-of-age last year. They are not only still active, but have remained creative and performing regularly, which says a lot for their artistic tenacity. Richard Thompson, Paul Kelly and Loudon Wainwright III each released a box set representing some of their best work. Then we had two albums from Kate Bush all in one year: remarkable.

I had the privilege of listening to a lot of great music this year. The new generation of musicians showed great promise as Feist, The Civil Wars, Adele and Amos Lee all released solid records. But it's these particular albums I've listed below that stood out for interpretation, sound quality, focus and the element of surprise. All of them have been previously reviewed in Critics At Large: