Wednesday, January 2, 2013

This 'n That: Intriguing Discoveries Made in 2012

This isn't a top ten for 2012. Rather, it's an overview of things I discovered this year, one more than 45 years old, and some as current as last year. I thought about writing stories on all of the below, but never got around to it. They interested me anyway, so here they are, in short-form.

Favourite Films Seen in 2012: Martin Scorsese's Hugo and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

A lot has been written about both films in 2011, but I never got around to seeing them in theatres until well into 2012. I am so grateful I decided to see Hugo in 3D. It is without doubt the best use of the device to assist storytelling I have ever seen. Scorsese's celebration of the early days of cinema, told through the eyes of a young boy living in an early-19th century Paris train station, is magical on many levels. The performances are terrific (Asa Butterfield and Chloƫ Grace Moretz, as the children act their age and seem to exist in early 20th century, and not hyper Hollywood kids acting older than their years; Ben Kingsley is exquisite as a man who rediscovers his dreams; and Sasha Baron Cohen as a by-the-book train station police man is perfect). Scorsese's handling of the 3D pulls you into the world as opposed to making you too aware of the artifice. An all-round joy of a film.

Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes Stieg Larsson's turgid, generally poorly written material and makes something of substance out of it. Daniel Craig as Blomqvist and Rooney Mara as Lisander are revelations. Craig is especially compelling in a later scene in the film where he is so unwilling to give someone offence, even if it could cost him his life (this from a man who plays James Bond!). Avoid the Swedish version; this is the one to watch.

Favourite DVD Discovery: Joe Cornish's Against the Block (2011)

I rented this before the death of the DVD shop. This British horror film proves you can make this type of film be about character development and the collapsing of the British class system when something worse (an alien invasion) occurs, and not just the boo-gah boo-gah. The fact it's set in a poverty-stricken council block ups the ante. A group of thugs (or so we think) who set out to mug a young white woman as she makes her way home are sidetracked when an alien invasion begins right in front of them. The whole “we will conquer this together” scenario used here, where the woman and the thugs band together to “save the world,” has been done before, but never with such, at first, distrust and bitterness, moving towards some well-earned mutual respect. Joseph Boyega, the thug's leader, is completely believable as he moves from angry young man, to a credible leader. He should become a big star because of this. He hasn't so far, but I predict he will.

Oddball Book Discovery of 2012

Near my home is a city-run facility where you can drop off things not collected by the recycling bins: plastic bags, styrofoam, batteries, etc). They also have a few knocked-together bookshelves where you can leave books that anybody is permitted to take away. Over the years, I've found some unbelievable treasures, such as the first novel by William S. Burroughs (writing under the name William Lee), Junkie, which I later discovered sells for between $500 and $1000, depending on condition. On another journey there, I came across a pile of old 1960s era paperbacks with some pretty cheeseball covers (Your Happiest Years by Dick Clark (yes, that Dick Clark), All Hands on Deck (the film spin-off novel for a Pat Boone film), Where the Boys Are (another film spin-off); etc.). The most intriguing of the lot was The Venus Probe by one David St. John. The Venus Probe was a not-badly written 1966 thriller featuring an American CIA spy named Peter Ward. The premise is that the evil Commies (SovComs and ChiComs, as they are called here) have kidnapped seven Western scientists and military men. The plan is to make them become the crew of a mission to land on Venus – whose conditions, in this book, resemble Earth's except with more extremes in temperature. Our intrepid hero, Ward, is tasked with finding the men and rescuing them. After travelling around the world, he finds the kidnapped men in a huge biosphere underwater facility in the Pacific Ocean. This is clearly inspired by James Bond films such as Thunderball and Bond novels such as You Only Live Twice (it wasn't made into a film until 1967). What was most intriguing about this time-waster was that David St. John is listed on the cover as a “former CIA agent.” For once that isn't just hype, because David St. John was one of several pseudonyms used by one E. Howard Hunt. Hunt was indeed a CIA agent, and World War II vet, but he was also the “mastermind” behind the botched Watergate break-in that brought down the Nixon administration. In his off hours, Hunt found time (including long after he was released from prison) to write over 80 novels, most of this genre. He used a variety of names and wrote about a different number of anti-commie American superspies. Curiously, his first Peter Ward novel, On Hazardous Duty (1965), featured a break in at an office that supposedly reads like a warm-up to the Watergate event! The Venus Probe is not as interesting as the man who wrote it, but he was by no measure a bad thriller writer. In fact, he was definitely better at that than B 'n E.

Favourite TV Show Enjoyed at One Go: Fringe (2009-2013)

J.J. Abrams can have a spotty reputation as a TV show creator because he clearly is great at the initial premise, but not so good on follow through: case in point, Lost (though I think the final season saved that show's ass). So, when he launched Fringe in 2009, I was skeptical. It sounded like a rehash of The X Files with alternate worlds, etc. It seemed a premise for massive confusion. And yet, the one or two episodes I stumbled upon seemed intriguing, so in October, I dove into the Season One box set. Generally thought of as the “weak season” because of its reliance on the X-Filean “monster of the week” premise, I still found myself intrigued. The cast was pretty great, led by John Noble (Denethor in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), as a deranged scientist, Walter Bishop. Anna Torv (an Aussie actress unknown to me until this, though she seemingly had a small role in The Pacific) as Agent Olivia Dunham; Joshua Jackson (a Canadian actor I'd heard of but never saw act before) as Walter's estranged son, Peter; and a handful of others, rounded out the fine cast. The myth was slowly introduced in Season One about an alternate universe featuring an Earth almost identical, but not quite, to our own. Season Two, when the show running was handed to Akiva Goldsman (screenwriter of choice for director Ron Howard), was when the premise locked in. The show has since been extremely consistent marching effectively towards some sort of well-conceived conclusion sometime in the new year. The dual characters, and the differences in them have stretched the acting skills beautifully, especially of Torv. One on-going guest star for the first three seasons was Leonard Nimoy (his last on-screen acting before he recently retired). During two full episodes, Torv's Dunham is taken over by Nimoy's William Bell. Torv was required to imitate not only Nimoy's body language, but the way he speaks too. She was both hilarious and bang on. It's things like this, plus the overall arc about the danger of meddling in “another world” that continue to make this show so well thought-out. I currently just started mainlining Season Four with a hope of catching up to Season Five before the show comes to an end sometime in February (a friend has downloaded the first eight episodes of Season Five for me – the final season is only 13 episodes long).

Best Single-Song Performance I saw in 2012: Annie Lennox and David Gray on The Graham Norton Show

The Graham Norton Show is a frequently funny, very politically incorrect BBC talk show hosted by a very gay Graham Norton. It shows in Canada nightly on BBC Canada at 10pm, Monday to Friday. Since the show is only weekly in the UK, this means BBC Canada, infuriatingly, tends to show the same cycle of 10 episodes again and again for several weeks before they move on to another 10. The upside, if you have missed any episodes, is you sure can catch up. This is true of this episode from 2009 that I first saw in 2012 featuring Annie Lennox and David Gray doing a duet on Gray's “Full Steam Ahead.” The first time I saw this earlier in the year, I flicked on the show about half way through their song, and it riveted me. I spent the next two weeks or so watching the start of Norton's episodes to see if it was the Lennox episode that night. I guess I could have tracked it down on YouTube (as I've done below), but I just wanted to see it on a regular TV screen. Why? It's an amazing performance. Lennox and Gray's voices are perfect together. They mesh so brilliantly in a song that Gray (who wrote it; it's from his 2009 album Draw the Line) says is his look at the economic collapse of 2008. Sure, fine. That's there, I guess, but how I perceived the song the first time I heard it all the way through was about the emotional collapse of a long-term relationship between a couple. An artist may think he's doing one thing, but then when he makes it into a male/female duet, as he does here, it becomes something he never intended. Also, sometimes in performance one song just hits a 'perfect groove' and here Lennox and Gray do just that. Lennox sings at stool with mic, while Gray plays and sings behind a piano. A full band accompanies them. There is something crackling and fiery about their performances, and I'm convinced that Gray understood this because about three-quarters of the through the song he bounces hard in his his bench because he knows they've just hit it out of the park. His response to Lennox at the finish of the song is a clear acknowledgement of the power of their one-song performance. You can view it below (plus get a taste of Norton's show at the end).

Best Guests on a Talk Show: Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek on The Graham Norton Show

In the same cycle as Lennox and Gray was a priceless Graham Norton episode from 2011 featuring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and British comedian Jimmy Carr. On the show to promote the Puss 'n Boots animated film, Banderas and Hayek have a comfortable flirtatiousness between them. Sitting very close together (Carr is a good three feet away) they are obviously old friends who enjoy taking the mickey out of each other. There's is also a ton of sexual tension (something that Carr voices to them, though they deny it). It's a lively, lovely bit of television. The YouTube breaks it into three parts, so make sure you watch all three. Hayek tells a cheeky, playful, hilarious story about her adolescent prayers she made to a saint at a holy shrine in Part Two. Also in Part Two, Hayek talks about her acting as producer of the TV show Ugly Betty, a show that I became addicted to in repeats on TeleLatino this fall. Guests on The Graham Norton Show have so much more freedom on this show than they ever do on any US talk show.

This is Part One only:

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and its Eye.

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