Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ten Plus Three: The Best of 2013


This past year in music was significant for many things, but who would have guessed that British acts of the 1960s would be vital 50 years later? Consider the following artists who all released new albums this year: Justin Hayward, Eric Burdon, Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, Roy Harper, Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and David Bowie. But with the old, we also heard from new artists including Arcade Fire, Serena Ryder, The Sheepdogs and Lady Gaga, all with varying degrees of success. The jazz world had plenty of new releases showcasing the healthy state of jazz and blues music. Classical music, albeit with the smallest portion of the pie, continued to milk the old favourites (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) and the anniversaries of Verdi, Britten and Wagner, all treated with healthy and hefty CD box set re-issues. 

But the year really marked the fallout of EMI’s end in 2012. This year Universal Music Group (artists) and Sony Music (publishing) added EMI’s massive back catalogue to their rosters, which reduced the corporate ownership ranks by one. Nevertheless, smaller labels such as Dine Alone, Yep Roc and New West still managed to maintain a business plan while issuing some pretty good records. The Canadian upstart label Arts & Crafts celebrated 10 years in the business, proving it is possible to have a successful label while maintaining artistic integrity. 

The following is a list of ten previously reviewed favourites, plus three additional releases that were too good to ignore.

Monday, December 30, 2013

“Acting” and Acting - August: Osage County & Philomena


In the first five minutes of August: Osage County, John Wells’s film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts family drama, Meryl Streep devours so much scenery that it’s a wonder there’s anything left but the foundation of the Oklahoma ranch house where Violet and Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) play out their bitter final encounter. Staggering down the stairs, her hair shorn and ragged – Violet, who has been treated for mouth cancer, has an ugly wig that she pulls off her head continually through the course of the picture – she moves from a blinking, befogged state caused by the pills she knocks down her gullet like Tic-Tac to sashaying raucousness to laughter bordering on hysteria. Her braying insults to her reflective, sweet-souled poet husband aren’t sly or compulsive with an undercurrent of ruefulness; nor are they uproarious but horrifying. That is, they aren’t complex in any way; Streep delivers them as if she were wielding a two by four. She may think that she’s channeling Bette Davis or maybe Tallulah Bankhead but she’s a lot closer to Joan Crawford here, with a touch of Claire Trevor as the alcoholic gangster’s moll in Key Largo. This is a disgraceful piece of acting, and it gets worse as the movie goes on: by the end she’s dancing by herself, yelling out the names of the family members who have finally abandoned her, weeping forlornly at the breast of the compassionate native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) who’s the only other person left on the place. Of course, Streep doesn’t need other actors around. She’d probably relish the chance to play all the roles herself.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Treasure Trove of Cultural Delights: Duane Allman's Skydog, Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Peter O'Toole, thirtysomething, Alan Moore's Watchmen


With so much available in any given year, and numerous movies, books, TV series and CDs not yet watched from years past, I am constantly striving to catch up with everything I want to watch, read or listen to. And then there are the newly released musts in any number of fields, and the classics that bear repeat visits. Here are a few of both that I enjoyed in 2013.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Keeping Afloat: The Unique Triumph of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Black Flag is a masterclass on efficient sequel-making. Few media so skillfully borrow the positive elements from their predecessors, and so readily discard the negative ones. Gone are the endless loading screens, muddled interface, and frustrating AI of Assassin’s Creed III. No longer do I have to sit through pandering dialogue from characters I don’t care for or understand, or endure boring and buggy missions whose rewards conferred no tangible benefit. Ubisoft has very capably trimmed the fat, and replaced it with nothing but juicy prime cuts. 

They say that context is king, and in order to fully appreciate the considerable achievement that is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a small amount of context regarding its place within its own series (and in current gaming history) is necessary. The quality of the Assassin’s Creed series has followed a definite arc since the release of the first title in 2007. That game showcased exciting potential, even while crippled by repetitive and restrictive design. The sequel (Assassin’s Creed II) realized that potential, and raised the bar in all aspects. The follow-ups (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood & Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) fleshed things out, and – while the series hit its peak at this point – they also began to show their age, retaining superfluous mechanics and bloating themselves with redundant or irrelevant new ones. Assassin’s Creed III marked an unprecedented low point, with oversimplified combat and missions, limp storytelling, an uninteresting setting, a weak protagonist, and a plethora of prohibitive bugs and loading screens. Since Altaïr first donned his hitman’s hood, series developer Ubisoft has consigned the franchise to an annual release schedule, meaning that we can expect a new Assassin’s Creed title every calendar year until “fans don’t want to play them anymore” (which of course is code for “until they’re so terrible we stop paying for them”). I played – or, more accurately, suffered through – Assassin’s Creed III thinking that the series had arrived at that fateful junction even earlier than anticipated. Black Flag, however, is continually showing me how wrong I was, and proving that there’s a lot a dedicated developer like Ubisoft can accomplish in just a year.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Disney Treatment: Saving Mr. Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
The idea of a movie about Walt Disney persuading the English author P.L. (Pamela) Travers to let him adapt Mary Poppins to the screen is so tantalizing that you keep rooting for Saving Mr. Banks to work, long past the point where you can see it isn’t going to. Disney had been wooing Travers for twenty years before he finally got her to come to Los Angeles to collaborate with the screenwriter he’d chosen, Don DaGradi, and the songwriting Sherman brothers. But she kept putting off signing the contract, and her demands were plentiful and persnickety. In Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay, Travers (Emma Thompson) only agrees to make the trip because she hasn’t managed to write anything in years, and her agent convinces her that she badly needs the money. And still she arrives in Hollywood apparently determined that nothing Disney (Tom Hanks) can promise her will challenge her notion that he and his team are going to turn her 1934 children’s classic – a childhood favorite of Disney’s daughters – into something cutesy, sentimental and blandly commercialized.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Waiting Room: HBO's Getting On


If ever a TV show appeared to have made for the express purpose of being buried, it’s HBO's Getting On. An adaptation of an acclaimed British series, Getting On is set in the extended-care ward of a large, Southern California hospital. It’s a workplace comedy, but set in a workplace where the medical personnel are just doing whatever they can to make things easiest on people who have exhausted modern medicine’s ability to do anything to improve their lives. Whether they’re near death or lost in dementia, they’re just waiting out the clock, and so are their caregivers. The show is a black comedy, but a dry, poker-faced black comedy, about doing a job that numbs you to the everyday tragedy of human beings coming to the end of their road.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Ear to the Ground: The Criterion Collection Release of Robert Altman's Nashville

When he died in 2006, Robert Altman was one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic of contemporary American directors. Always with an ear to the ground, he didn't follow fashionable trends, or cater expediently to public taste. Instead, he was gallantly intuitive in an open quest for authentic engagement, the quality of which was often revelatory. Most movies over time – good and bad – fit comfortably into genres with recognizable rules that defined them as genre pictures, so we could easily distinguish a film noir from a screwball comedy. But Altman defied those categorizations by delving into exactly what makes a genre tick. He did this by stripping away a movie's pedigree without losing the flavour of the genre itself. Whether he was doing a combat satire (M*A*S*H), a western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), a detective story (The Long Goodbye), a murder mystery (Gosford Park), or stage drama (Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman keenly re-defined our idea of what makes a genre picture by treating moviegoers, as critic Paul Coates once wrote about Jean-Luc Godard, as critics rather than consumers.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Betrayal: Theatre Lite

Rachel Weisz, Daniel Craig and Rafe Spall in Betrayal

Mike Nichols’ Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal has star power and impressive production values. Ian MacNeil’s set reconstructs itself from scene to scene in geometric pieces that, suggestively, don’t quite connect. Ann Roth’s handsome costumes provide subtle commentary on the three characters, two men and one woman who form the points of a love triangle. And Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is magnificent, especially in the transitions in and out of the pivotal scene in Italy, where Robert confronts his wife Emma with evidence that she’s been sleeping with his oldest friend, Jerry; it creates ghosts behind the backdrops to suggest the idea that the third member of the trio is inescapably present, just out of reach, whenever the other two are alone together. The designs make clear, provocative statements, so Nichols must have communicated a strong vision of the play to his collaborators. Yet the production itself doesn’t seem to be about anything except three actors on a stage.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Television Goes Global, and Other Reflections on TV in 2013

The final episode of AMC's Breaking Bad aired this past September.

The past twelve months have brought an embarrassment of riches to the dedicated television viewer. Not only a number of promising new series, but technological and industry developments have made television viewing richer, more diverse, and more convenient than it's ever been. But even on wholly traditional terms, TV has had a good year. AMC's Breaking Bad came to a powerful and satisfying conclusion. FX's Justified had another strong year, and its fifth season is set to air early in January. After some uneven early episodes, CBS's Americanized Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary went from strength to strength, culminating in a powerful first season, and this fall has proven itself to be much more than the pale shadow of BBC's incomparable Sherlock it threatened to be on paper. In November, TBS premiered The Ground Floor, a new laugh track rom-com/office comedy from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) that has grown more charming and likeable with every passing episode. And a year ago, long before Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine hit the airwaves in September, who could have guessed that the best comedy team-up on television would be Homicide: Life on the Street's Andre Braugher and Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg? All in all, we have a lot to be thankful for this year. Below I review some of the more interesting developments in television in 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bad Timing & Bad Business: Big Star and Badfinger

Big Star
Last night, I was watching the riveting and touching documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (which Phil Dyess-Nugent reviewed in Critics at Large last summer) about the Memphis band from the Seventies that eluded commercial success for any number of reasons that you can easily classify as bad timing. While they vanished after three superb albums, they ultimately reached an adoring audience a decade later as various independent bands took up their torch. The film is a fascinating study of love and dedication that doesn't elude the self-destructive drives that come out of artistic obsession. Director Drew DiNicola paints a fascinating portrait of the group with very few colours in his palette to work with. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote in the Village Voice, Big Star: Nobody Can Hurt Me "honors that sense of mystery, telling the band's story as if whispering it through the cracks in a wall. There's very little footage of the band themselves – their elusive magic found its truest expression in the studio rather than before a live audience." Co-founders Chris Bell and Alex Chilton are now gone, but the remaining witnesses fill in a story of artistic achievement that found a pulse in the shadows. Those shadows became a subterranean force for groups like R.E.M., The Flaming Lips and (especially) The Replacements (who wrote a song called "Alex Chilton"). As Robyn Hitchcock says in the picture, "They were like a letter that got lost in the mail." But Hitchcock also reminds us that the letter finally found its destination in the Eighties. (For me, it took my friend, Adam Nayman, to deliver the mail a few years ago. He wasn't around when the band first released #1 Record in 1972. What was my excuse?)

Badfinger
While I happily mulled over the movie, I was reminded of another Seventies band who had a case of bad timing, but with nowhere near the impact of Big Star – and this band had the benefit of being tutored by The Beatles. When The Beatles departed the stage in 1970, there was no shortage of others who tried to fill the gap they were leaving behind. One tragic case, however, turned out to be a band signed to their Apple label. Badfinger were poised through the early Seventies as the new heir to The Beatles, but their legacy ended in bad business, despair and death. Originally a Swansea, Wales group called The Iveys, they first came to the attention of Beatle roadie Mal Evans who was friends with their manager Bill Collins. Since The Beatles were just signing acts to Apple, Mal convinced the Fab Four that The Iveys were worth the bother. Lead guitarist Pete Ham and rhythm guitarist Tom Evans sang with ringing harmonies that strongly evoked Lennon and McCartney, and when Evans played them an Iveys’ demo tape, the whole studio took notice.“It was their uncanny resemblance to the young Beatles that had made everyone sit up and listen,” recalled Apple employee Richard DiLello. “But it was no conscious aping of their benefactors that had produced that similarity of sound.” The Iveys had inherited the yearning spirit of The Beatles rather than being a facsimile of the band. Their first single was the Beatlesque “Maybe Tomorrow,” which made the Top Ten in Europe and Japan in 1968. Due to its success, The Beatles were interested in grooming the band, but weren’t impressed by their name. Apple associate Neil Aspinall thought of Bad Penny, after Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Bad Penny Blues” which had inspired “Lady Madonna.” Ultimately, Badfinger was taken from “Bad Finger Boogie,” the original title of “With a Little Help From My Friends” (because John Lennon had composed the melody using his middle finger when he had hurt his forefinger).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Angels in the Dark: The Church of the Holy Trinity's A Christmas Story

In 1988, the parishioners of Toronto’s radical Church of the Holy Trinity were in a quandary. Should they continue with The Christmas Story, a theatrical pageant recounting the birth of Christ, or scrap the production? Some in the congregation worried that it was out of touch with such contemporary urban issues as homelessness, a cause close to the church’s activist heart. In retrospect, it seems to have been a fuzzy debate. At its core, the Jesus story is about the disenfranchised. It is a story of the poor and the oppressed asserting themselves within a corrupt political system—in short, a story of social revolution. Today, The Christmas Story remains nothing short of relevant. Now in its 76th year and with performances continuing through to Dec. 22, The Christmas Story, perhaps more than ever, speaks directly to the people of Toronto about important issues affecting them in the here and now. Its central metaphor of a light banishing the darkness can be said to hold urgent meaning for a city increasingly defined by a growing divide between rich and poor, not to mention a debased local government whose leader has—by his own admission—lied and debauched himself, among other indiscretions. Or should we say sins? While the story describes the coming of the Messiah—Hark the Herald Angels and all—the underlying message, as articulated by the time-honoured Christmas carol, is God and sinners will be reconciled. In other words, there’s hope yet.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kick in the Head: Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack

I’ve never been much interested in clothes, but when I was in my late teens or early twenties, I did develop what I thought of as a signature look: jeans, black T-shirt with denim jacket, and boots. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was very pleased with it. I thought of it as stripped-down, direct, and functional in a way that quietly made a statement, and I think I must have worn it for at least a dozen years before a switch flipped in my brain: I suddenly realized that I had unconsciously lifted my wardrobe from Tom Laughlin in the Billy Jack movies—minus the stupid hat. I was mortified; this was long after the brief window when Billy Jack was considered cool had slammed shut, and I had no personal desire to try to jimmy it back open. But it did make me realize that Billy Jack—or, at least, the second of the four movies he headlined between 1967 and 1977, the one that was actually called Billy Jack—had probably been a bigger deal to me, and to my childhood imagination, than I wanted to admit as a grown-up.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Civil War on Page and Screen

The flurry of commentary last month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination just about drowned out all voices noting the sesquicentennial, in the same week, of another seminal presidential moment: Lincoln's delivery of a certain address at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg. One and a half centuries have passed since that two-minute speech, one and a half centuries since the battle that shares its name. And yet, as we roll into 2014 and begin the fourth of a five-year-long anniversary, Americans still face the imponderable question of the meaning of the Civil War. It demands an answer because the Civil War is the defining event of American identity—how we understand it determines how we understand our national character and purpose. It demands an answer from more than just Americans, too, for the question bears on the broader subjects of the viability of democracy, the ethics of war, and the meaning of human life and effort.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Better Life: Brett Ratner's The Family Man (2000)

Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle in The Family Man
Every holiday season, people love to put forth their favourite Christmas movies. Some suggest the redemption melodrama, A Christmas Carol (1951), but I prefer the irreverent comic edge of Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988). Many point to Frank Capra's perennial sentimental staple, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but I've never bought the idea of it being heart-warming. It's a Wonderful Life has always been a film noir in denial. James Stewart plays a decent man driven to suicidal despair by the demands made on him by the small town he lives in. But rather than examine his compulsive need to do for others (rather than satisfy his own needs and desires), the movie has us believe that because of the love of the townsfolk, Stewart gets redeemed rather than trapped by the town and his own neurosis. Brett Ratner's The Family Man, which draws on aspects of both A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, works better. Like those movies, this one also asks: What would you do if you had a second chance? The difference is that Ratner and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman don't turn the story into a simple scenario that presents one kind of life as preferable to the other. The redemption their hero earns is discovering that what he's lost truly makes his life satisfying.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Heart and Soul: Camelot & After Midnight

It’s still taken for granted that the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein altered the American musical theatre, but to my mind none of their collaborations stands on equal footing with those of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who overlapped with them. That’s because, even when Rodgers’s music was at its most lush (South Pacific) or most heart-rending (Carousel), Hammerstein’s words, with their resolute banality and didacticism, kept pulling it down to their populist, fake-real-folks level, whereas Lerner’s extraordinarily literate lyrics elevated Loewe’s beautiful tunes. The Austrian-born Loewe, like Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill, brought the melodic legacy of the fin-de-siècle European operettas, with their swirl of melancholy, to the American stage; you can hear it in ballads like “There But for You Go I” and “From This Day On” (Brigadoon), “I Still See Elisa” and “Another Autumn” (Paint Your Wagon), “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (My Fair Lady), “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” (Camelot). And Lerner, who bore the witty influence of Cole Porter and especially Ira Gershwin but was more of a thinker than either, strove to match him. They were at par on the 1956 My Fair Lady, which is still, I think, the zenith in American lyric writing, and again on the 1960 Camelot, their musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which is currently being revived by Boston’s New Rep Theatre.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Delicious Confection: Soulpepper's Production of Parfumerie

Patricia Fagen & Oliver Dennis in Parfumerie (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The first thing you notice about Soulpepper Theatre’s delightful production of Parfumerie, Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 comedy, is that it is beautiful. Ken MacDonald’s set is a delicious confection of curves and swirls, in ivory and deep pink, setting off Dana Osborne’s rich and evocative costumes. The parfumerie of the title is Hammerschmidt and Company, purveyors of scents, lotions and makeup, as well as various other accoutrements, accessories and gift items (even the items for sale, sprinkled all over the set, are attractive). It is Budapest, in the 1930s, but it could be almost any place or era. This is a tale almost Shakespearean in its elements, a story of love and desire, jealousy and ambition. And Christmas, of course. Mustn’t forget Christmas.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Dreyfus Affair For Our Times: Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy


“The most frightful judicial error that has ever been made.”
- Alfred Dreyfus

Robert Harris is both prolific and versatile. A former journalist, best known for his 1986 account of the hoax surrounding Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries turned to penning novels that generally fall within three categories: alternative history such as Fatherland (1992), which is set in a triumphalist 1964 Nazi Germany that is contemplating a détente with America, and Archipelago (1998) that plays with the conceit that a diary purporting to be that of Stalin chronicles his relationship with a young woman who shortly before his death provided him with a son, one that is alive and in the 1990s is being groomed to seize power; thrillers such as The Ghost (2007) that takes as its premise the story of a professional ghost writer who is hired to replace a predecessor who drowned under mysterious circumstances, and then is assigned the task of completing the memoirs of a recently resigned Prime Minister that will counter the suspicions of war crimes he committed during the Iraq war, and Fear Index (2012) inspired by the global financial meltdown and with a nod to the Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, about a hedge fund operator who has designed computer software which uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear that for a time makes huge profits for its investors until the computer begins to operate on its own independent of human control; historical novels on ancient Rome, Pompeii (2003) and the first two novels of the trilogy that focuses on the orator and politician, Cicero, Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009). His most recent offering, An Officer and a Spy (Random House, 2013), about the notorious injustice visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer in fin de siècle France, fits within the last genre.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Story Time: Neil Jordan's Byzantium

Gemma Arterton & Saoirse Ronan in Byzantium

More than a quarter of a century after he made Mona Lisa, Neil Jordan’s movies still have a mesmeric narrative pull – the pull of stories out of The Arabian Nights. He doesn’t command the respect he once did: no one went to see Ondine, his marvelous update of the legend about the romance between a fisherman and a water spirit, and his latest, vampire tale Byzantium, opened in only a handful of cities. (It’s now on DVD.) But that’s not Jordan’s fault – he’s never stopped being a master filmmaker and a master storyteller. Byzantium, adapted by Moira Ruffini from her play, is astonishing. Its protagonist is Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who travels with Clara (Gemma Arterton), whom she describes in her voice-over narration as “my secret, my muse.” They’re mother-and-daughter vampires, which means that they look like sisters – Clara hasn’t aged since her early twenties, Eleanor since her adolescence. Clara is the pragmatist who supports them by whoring and thievery, while sensitive Eleanor is at odds with the life she’s been thrown into. Clara gave birth to her when she was working in a brothel in the early nineteenth century and had to give her up (or kill her, which she didn’t have the heart for), so Eleanor was raised in a Catholic orphanage where she was taught not to lie. Clara thrives on lying, and she’s brilliant at it, while her daughter is haunted by the fact that her entire life is a lie built around a secret she’s forbidden to reveal. But she can’t help herself – she writes the story of her life and her mother’s on sheets of paper and then lets them float away on the wind.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Further on Down the Road: Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska stars the 77-year-old Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a shambling, broken-down wreck of a man, whose thought processes are clouded by age and years of alcoholism. Woody would probably be spending his declining years sitting on the couch with a beer in his paw, with his inner radio tuned to a frequency that just barely picks up the bitching of his wife, Kate (June Squibb). But he’s received a piece of junk mail that seems to promise him a million dollars, and he gets setting off on foot, trying to get from his Billings, Montana home to the offices of Cornhusker Marketing and Promotions, Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska, so he can collect. (He doesn’t trust the mail.)

Woody has two sons, David (Will Forte), who works in a store selling audio equipment, and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), who is this family’s version of a go-getter: he does reports for the local news, and has recently been given the chance to serve as anchorman, when the regular newsreader gets sick. David, whose girlfriend has just dumped him, looks like a complete sad sack, resigned to settling into a lousy job and a lonely apartment, but there are signs that some part of him still hopes for better things: he’s quit drinking, an impulse that Woody can’t even make sense of in theory. David views Woody as little more than a living reminder of a lot of bad memories, but after he’s picked the old man up while shuffling along the side of the road a few times, he decides to humor him and drive him to Lincoln. It’s the only way to exorcise Woody’s fantasy; it might even be a chance for the son to know something he doesn’t know about his father, or at least, give the old man an excuse to be grateful. Anyway, it’s a change. Once the movie leaves Billings, its defining images are the cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white shots of multiple lanes of highway stretching out across the Midwestern scenery, blights on the landscape connecting nothing to nothing.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Resident Upheaval: The Grim Future of Survival Horror

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Justin Cummings, to our group.

The survival horror genre is broken. Time was, I would open a kitchen cabinet and half-expect something dead to fall moaning on my neck. I’d see leafless branches in my backyard, stretched out against an autumn sky, and swear I could hear a chainsaw. Survival horror video games, especially those in the Resident Evil series, had an insidious way of creeping into my subconscious. Innocent shadows took on sinister shapes, and the dash up the basement stairs was a desperate bid for safety. They don’t do that anymore. And it’s not just that I’ve grown up in the interim – something has happened to the series, and the genre as a whole. Controllers aren’t quaking in the hands of kids these days, and if they are, I think it has more to do with irresponsible parents not knowing what an M-rating is, and less to do with solid game design. So, it’s broken. And the creator of the Resident Evil series, Shinji Mikami, is promising to fix it. The question is: can he?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mini Masterpieces, Mostly: Cannes Lions Awards 2013

For the last thirty years, I’ve had a movie tradition that I don’t share with anyone else. It goes back to 1981, while at Montreal’s Concordia University, when I got a chance to attend a school showing of the Best TV commercials from the Cannes International Advertising festival, saluting the best ads from around the world and put out as a cinematic compilation for our edification. It was a stupendous program (I still remember the highly inventive Australian LEGO ad which copped the top prize that year) and one I made sure to catch each year even after I moved to Toronto soon after, once in a restaurant, the (defunct) Groaning Board which showed them and a couple of times as screeners when I reviewed them. (For a couple of seasons, the program on offer was the London International Advertising Awards, which doesn’t seem to be that different overall then the Cannes batch.) Mostly though I saw them at the Bloor cinema at the end of the calendar year, a tradition which ended briefly when the Bloor closed in 2011 and which after a two year hiatus, has now returned in the new revamped Bloor Hot Docs documentary cinema. Fortunately, its quality remains and except for one bone headed decision, its program is as clever and entertaining as ever.

Now known as The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (are they trying to hide the advertorial bent of the selections?), the program, which has been around since 1954, and based on Cannes since 1984, celebrated its 60th edition in June 2013. It is a jury selected compilation of what are considered the very best ads in the world, from TV, cinema and, increasingly, the Internet. (Astoundingly, more than 35,000 entries were received in 2013.) And after thirty years of viewing the commercials, it’s easy to see certain patterns in how different countries make them, often reflecting what we have to come to know as their national character.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mixed Blessing: Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan

                                       (photo by Pavel Antonov)
The Foundry Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan – which began at LaMama last winter and was picked up for a run at the Public – is clever and tedious by turns. It begins promisingly, with The Lisps, a fine bluegrass quartet, performing a series of ballads before they take their places as the show’s back-up band. (I was especially struck by Eric Farber, who plays “found-percussion and contraptions,” a series of items housed in a suitcase, and whose wildly animated face seems to carry its own light.) The set by Matt Saunders is a series of small box houses built on steps under wooden cut-out clouds; Clint Ramos’s costumes are in an entertaining patchwork of styles. And for a while Lear DeBessonet’s staging keeps you alert and expectant. For instance, when Wang the Waterseller (David Turner) finds shelter for the visiting Gods (Vinie Burrows, Mia Katigbak and Mary Shultz: one black, one Asian, one white) at the home of the local prostitute, Shen Te (Taylor Mac), they fit puppet versions of themselves into the model house while they mime sleeping as they stand upstage of it. At moments like this the production feels collegiate in a good sense – pared-down, imaginative and playful.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Future Looks Bright for Fox's Almost Human

Karl Urban and Michael Ealy stars in Fox's Almost Human

Good old fashioned fun is part of the recipe for the best new dramas of 2013. Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already staked out that territory nicely (and, though it makes me feel a little dirty in admitting it, so has The Blacklist). And even though it came a little late to the party (premiering just three weeks ago), Fox's new science fiction crime police procedural Almost Human, is standing with the best of them. 

Almost Human has an ambitious concept on paper a futuristic drama with high tech wizardry and self-aware androids but at its heart it is a buddy cop show with consistently high production values and two engaging lead actors. Created by J.H. Wyman and produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Almost Human is set in Los Angeles in 2048, in an era when advancements in technology have resulted in a corresponding increase in criminal activity. Our hero is Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban, Star Trek), who returns to the police force after emerging from a 17-month coma, which resulted from a botched raid that cost him his partner, one of his legs, and parts of his memory. Almost two years out of commission, he finds the station a very different place. Every cop is assigned a mandatory synthetic partner rule-oriented and emotionless MX-model androids who seem to be watching the cops as much as watching out for them. With little patience for this new normal, Kennex quickly (and dramatically) dispatches his assigned android, and is then given a different kind of synthetic, one with more personality than the other models and arguably with more personality than Kennex himself.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

For a Song - Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams

This is the season of artists’ autobiographies. Just in time for Christmas we’ve seen books by and about Graham Nash, Donald Fagen, The Kinks’ Ray Davies and more. But by far, whatever pleasures are inherent in the rest, the sweetest, most poetic reminiscence has to be Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams. Isn’t that the way it should be? She doesn’t pull the rug out from underneath anyone, she doesn‘t confess to a lifetime as a heroin addict, or give us any startling revelations about her sex life, but her fine crisp prose tells us just enough details of her climb to the top (and devotion to her craft) to keep us loving the girl singer we grew up with. That’s right, grew up with.

Those of us of a certain age remember the barefoot girl sitting in the dirt with the hogs on Silk Purse, and the sexpot in the red camisole on the front of Rolling Stone magazine. Aah, how that strap slipped off the shoulder! We remember the albums fondly, and the powerful voice held captive in that delicate frame. How could she sing with such gusto? The bands backing her were always fine, one became The Eagles. Her song choices were flawless, and the production by Peter Asher captured the essence of those songs, and still left room for Linda to shine even when the guitar parts were as memorable as on “You’re No Good.” Linda introduced us to a whole generation of songwriters. Warren Zevon, JD Souther, Jackson Browne among others; but she was also on the cusp of the New Wave melding it with her California-rock ethos on an album called Mad Love. Perhaps it wasn’t the grittiest approach to new wave rock, but I assure you it led many listeners (who hadn't gone there yet) to try out Elvis Costello.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines: The Crime Novels of Robert Rotenberg

When I taught Canadian criminal law several years ago to secondary school students, they frequently made references to American law which they had derived from American films and television shows. There were Canadian television shows that portrayed with general accuracy Canadian law – Street Legal in the 1980s and more recently Wonderland on the CBC and The Associates on CTV – but none of them carried much cache for my students. And I could not recall a Canadian legal novel that would have gripped their imagination. But four novels in the last five years by a former magazine editor and a Toronto practicing lawyer for over twenty years, Robert Rotenberg, might have done the trick. Simply put, his police investigations/courtroom novels, that may remind some readers of the structure of the Law and Order series and the courtroom dramas of John Grisham, are a romp: fast-paced and highly entertaining, beginning with a murder, with several police officers and lawyers reappearing throughout. Perhaps the most important character is Toronto itself and its denizens: at one point in Stray Bullets, a character mentions that one of the largest firms in the country is Miller Ford.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hard to Kill: Dallas Buyers' Club


Dallas Buyers’ Club, based-on-a-true-story directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, has a few big things going for it, right from the start. For one thing, it’s based on a true story that hasn’t already been well-aired on TV and in magazines. The principal published source of information about its hero—Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas good ol’ boy and sometime drug dealer, with a rowdy, low-rent social life (and the homophobia that goes with the good ol’ boy territory who contracted HIV in 1985)—is an article that appeared in the Dallas Morning News in 1992, the same year Woodroof died. (The doctor who diagnoses his condition tells him that he has thirty days to get his affairs in order.) The screenwriters actually did some reporting of their own flesh out Woodroof’s story, and this gives the movie some of the fresh-ink feel of investigative journalism.

When Woodroof gets the bad news, he sinks into drugs and drink, though getting sunk there was already a big part of his usual routine. Then he shakes it off and starts buying AZT, which is being used in clinical trials, from a hospital orderly who sneaks it to him on the sly. When the orderly cuts him off, he lights out for Mexico, where he wakes up in a Third World hellhole presided over by an unlicensed American expatriate (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that the AZT helped trigger full-blown AIDS by shutting down his immunity system. Dunne plies him with vitamins and drugs that aren’t legally available in the States, and Woodroof returns to Texas transformed into a man with a mission. He doesn’t shed his homophobia overnight. (A split-second flashback to Woodroof banging a woman with track marks on her arms—the moment, he realizes, that he contracted the disease—seems meant just to take the possibility that he’s a closet case who’s had a secret life on the down-low off the table.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Zappa 101 - A Primer


Marking the 20th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death, I continue to be inspired and entertained by his work and the rich musical legacy he left the world so I've selected ten essential albums (and Kevin Courrier provides an eleventh).  John Corcelli

On one of his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Frank Zappa talked about his “personal relationship with his fans.” He was responding to Letterman’s question regarding the explanatory liner notes to the London Symphony Orchestra release of 1983. In one short answer, Zappa perfectly expressed the unique character of his work and the personal way it had evolved over the years. For me, the strength of Zappa’s music is completely about how I relate to it; the jokes I get and the particular subjects of his songs. Frank Zappa is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re looking for one of the most creative, challenging and rewarding composers of the 20th Century, then the following albums will do the trick:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All Those Years Ago - Mark Lewisohn's Tune In The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1)

Reading Philip Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation in 1982, I was slightly disoriented, yet nonetheless taken, by its references to a British youth and Beatles fan named Mark Lewisohn—disoriented because I, like most Americans, hadn’t heard of him. First glimpsed as an eight-year-old in the summer of 1967, dancing in the back yard to Sgt. Pepper “while trying not to dislodge the cardboard mustache clenched under his nose,” he was last seen as “a serious young man of twenty-two who holds the title ‘Beatle Brain of Britain,’ so labyrinthine is his knowledge of their music and history.”

But within a decade of Norman’s book, the “serious young man” had achieved broad renown as the acknowledged world authority on All Things Beatle. Today, the mustache beneath Mark Lewisohn’s nose is all his own. Among his works of Fab Four scholarship—all venerated for their precision, depth, and integrity—are The Beatles Live! (1986); The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988); The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992); and The Beatles’ London (1994). He’s written liner notes for numerous Beatles reissues, and was intimately involved in the 1994-95 Anthology project. His work on the Recording Sessions book alone—for which he listened to every piece of Beatles tape in their record company’s vault—gives him a depth of archival insight undreamt of by other fans or historians.

And his magnum opus is finally upon us. Close to a decade in preparation, its publication twice delayed, Tune In (Crown Archetype; 932 pp.) is the first installment of a three-volume Beatles biography with the corporate title All These Years. At around a thousand pages, the book both looks and weighs important, and the hefty mass-market version is dwarfed by the “Extended Special Edition”—two equally thick volumes in a box, with nearly twice the page count and many more photographs, incorporating quantities of ancillary research that must have been removed from the mass version with a shovel. Lewisohn tells us the project has not been authorized or in any way controlled by the surviving Beatles, the deceased Beatles’ estates, or the group’s joint company, Apple Corps. Unauthorized Tune In may be, but clearly Lewisohn earned the trust of at least three of his subjects (he never met John Lennon) over his decades of research into the Beatles’ daily lives and guarded archives; and it’s largely because Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr deign not to obstruct his work that we have this book, and the three-part whole it heralds.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Southern Gothic: Beth Henley's The Jacksonian


The plot of Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian, set in a motel in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, is so crammed with incident that it feels a little like a flea market for ideas left over from other plays she hasn’t got around to writing. The main character, Bill Perch (Ed Harris), is a dentist with a taste for his own nitrous oxide and a lackadaisical practice. He’s living at the Jackson while he tries to patch things up with his wife Susan (Amy Madigan), who threw him out for beating her up – hurting her “more than usual,” according to their adolescent daughter Rosy (Juliet Brett) – though Susan’s paranoia where Bill’s concerned mostly stems from his having allowed the doctor to perform a hysterectomy when she was discovered to have an ovarian cyst. Rosy, who narrates the story, is a highly imaginative teenager who ferries back and forth between her parents and campaigns against their getting a divorce. Bill is an object of romantic interest to a motel chambermaid named Eva White (Glenne Headly) when the bartender, Fred Weber (Bill Pullman), calls off their engagement: she wants someone to marry her. She’s miffed that it can’t be Fred, since she gave false testimony to alibi him for a convenience store robbery and murder for which an innocent black man is sitting on death row. But then, she doesn’t think too much of African Americans; she’s rabidly anti-integration, unlike Bill, who deplores his father’s politics (he’s a Klansman) but, out of necessity, continues to live off his checks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chasing Phantoms - From Del Shannon to Neil Young: "Runaway" and "Like a Hurricane"

When I was six and driving in the car with my parents, the radio often provided comfort either by giving me voices in the larger world beyond the roads we travelled, or music that could take me inside the world of the singer. For myself, the rock & roll I heard in 1960 was about finding a place, to paraphrase John Lennon, where I could go when I felt low. The songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly could reach out to the friendless and disenfranchised and invite us to to be part of something larger than ourselves. Even if their tunes were about heartache and loss, the mere sharing of that pain gave credence to the idea that one could transcend it because the music was about giving pleasure. In one of his last recorded songs, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," Buddy Holly playfully teases himself about how foolish he was to be driven crazy by the woman who abandons him. Not only does the singer survive the loss, he understands the price he was willing to pay in the process so he could move on. (It was only in real life, unlike in the nowhere land of the song, that Buddy Holly could lose his life in a plane crash he couldn't control.)