Saturday, January 18, 2014

Seeing in the Dark: Distinctive Voices in Nordic Noir

Readers of Phantom likely concluded that Jo Nesbo decided to end the high octane series with its brilliant but flawed detective, Harry Hole, given its grim ending. After all, the author revealed that “Harry will not have eternal life, that he will not rise from the dead.” But with the publication of Police (Random House, 2013), the tenth Harry Hole novel, Nesbo seems to have changed his mind - or has he? At the outset, the maverick Hole is not present unless he is that closely-guarded patient in a coma. To follow what transpires in this densely-plotted and disturbing thriller, the reader must read the previous novel first: the plots, characters and themes that coursed through that book are present in Police. For almost half of this intricately-plotted story, without Harry’s leadership, an elite and covert group of specialists are secretly working to put the pieces together and catch a serial killer who lures a police detective on the anniversary to the scene of the very crime the officer investigated but failed to solve. There, the unsuspecting officer is gruesomely dispatched in a manner similar to that of the victim of the unsolved crime. Removing Harry from the action may be a risk but it allows Nesbo to furnish incisive character studies of the ensemble players who have always languished in his shadow – secondary figures like Beate Lonn, the brilliant head of forensics, who has the uncanny ability to never forget a face, and Stale Aune, the mild-mannered psychologist who misses the adrenaline rush of helping hunt down Harry’s monstrous criminals.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Goin' South: Blackie & the Rodeo Kings' SOUTH

Goin’ South is something we northerners think about all the time. Sure, we head up north to the cottage in the summertime. We like to sit on the dock, dangle our feet in the cool water, maybe drop a line in or do a little canoeing but when the snow comes it’s all about south. Musicians in Canada have been thinking about the south forever. South is where you need to make it. South is where all the influences come from. Even if we’re influenced by Neil Young or Joni Mitchell we had to watch them travel to California before we paid them much attention. The Band had four Canadians and it was the lone southerner who had the biggest impact on their sound. I mention The Band because they are the group people point to as the precursor to Blackie & the Rodeo Kings whose new CD came out this week. It’s called SOUTH and you can hear echoes of The Band in the title track. The ragged but spot on harmonies, the organ, the solid bass and lots of guitar. However don’t think that B&RK is just a copy of Levon’s old group!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Time Killer: HBO's True Detective

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective.

Knowledgeable TV watchers inked True Detective in as the first cultural event of the year as soon as news of it began to filter out last spring. In an industry where it’s unusual for even ambitious series to have just a few people at the helm insuring unity of personal vision and style, the series was conceived by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto, who also wrote all eight episodes, all of which were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. (Fukunaga previously made the fine 2011 feature adaptation of Jane Eyre.) The main characters, a mismatched pair of police detectives working a homicide case in Louisiana in the mid-80s, are played by a couple of movie stars: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Even now that the barriers that used to separate movie and TV careers have eroded, it’s unusual to see a couple of big names as successful and adventurous as these two agreeing to headline a weekly TV show, and McConaughey and Harrelson won’t be sweating out the wait to see if the series gets renewed; like Ryan Murphy’s conceptually audacious (albeit deranged) American Horror Story, this is an anthology series, designed to tell one story over the course of a season, then return to tell a different one, with a different set of characters, in the same basic genre. This ought to be a good way to attract talented people who are reluctant to tie themselves to a regular TV schedule (although Murphy has made a fetish of bringing back certain actors, from season to season, in different roles); it’s also a smart way to get past what’s always been the great creative trap of American series TV, which has demanded that creators keep drawing their stories out past the point of dramatic tension and common sense for as long as it remains profitable to keep their shows on the air, instead of thinking in terms of stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything about True Detective sounds great in theory. And to a degree that I don’t remember seeing on American TV before, that’s just what it is: a show that’s absolutely bursting with pride at how great it is in theory.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

When Ordinary People Come to Terms with the Extraordinary: Revisiting David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999)

Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story
As I watched Alexander Payne's new film, Nebraska, in which Bruce Dern plays Woody, a craggy old man banking his final hopes on some junk mail scam that promises him a million dollars if he hoofs it to Billings, Montana to collect it, the picture's plainness left me with a bad case of sensory deprivation. I bailed some thirty minutes in. The smallness of the characters and Payne's need to italicize every irony didn't leave me quite as steamed as his Martian take on family life did in his last movie, The Descendants, but (despite the fine performance here by Dern), the journey undertaken in Nebraska sets up an inevitable ending before we even arrive there. So, following Woody's example, I sought fortune elsewhere and fled the theatre. And I began thinking back to another, somewhat similar road movie that has continued to cast its elliptical spell over me like some fairy tale recovered again years later in my grandparent's treasure chest. David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) is a straight-forward account of one man's journey to seek closure towards the end of his life, but it's by no means simple. This lovely, poignant tale of a stubborn coot who wishes to mend his fractured relationship with his brother – and the world – before he dies examines what happens when ordinary people come to terms with the extraordinary.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sensualist: Kill Your Darlings

Dane DeHaan & Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings

In Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas’ feature film debut, Daniel Radcliffe plays the young Allen Ginsberg, whose friendship with the charismatic daredevil Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) during his first year at Columbia University represents his artistic and sexual coming-of-age. Krokidas, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Austin Bunn, has taken the true story of Lucien Carr’s role in the formation of the New York City Beat Generation – he was a sort of ringleader and muse for Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs – and his grisly murder of his gay stalker David Kammerer, and refracted it all through Ginsberg’s perspective. Krokidas doesn’t have the directorial chops to make this movie work. It meanders and drifts, coming in and out of focus, and its glazed druggy-jazzy set pieces are pandering and heavy-handed. (The structural problems also come from the script.) And visually, it’s a poky little production, awkwardly pasted together – you don’t have to be a technical expert to see it. The difference between Kill Your Darlings and a run-of-the-mill bad movie from a freshman director is that Krokidas has really interesting ideas; he just doesn’t know how to execute them yet. But Daniel Radcliffe does: his performance, which is crystal clear in every scene, gets to the emotional core of what Krokidas as a writer-director can’t express. He keeps you watching.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Note on Acting Categories

I'm continually surprised during award season to observe which actors land in the categories of leading actor and actress and which are consigned to the ranks of supporting players. In the era of the big Hollywood studios – the Academy Awards were first handed out in the late 1920s – the dividing lines were easily drawn: if your name appeared above the title of a movie (either in the credits or on billboards) you were eligible for a Best Actor or Actress nomination and if it fell below you weren’t. Since most A-list pictures were vehicles for established stars, there wasn’t much room for argument. The only actors who tended to be ignored were children, who only occasionally garnered nominations and then only in supporting categories, however large their actual roles. (The Academy usually covered their contributions with specially constructed pint-sized statuettes.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Intelligence and Helix: New Science Fiction TV for 2014

A scene from Helix, now airing on the SyFy Channel

For the television audience, January sometimes brings some belated Christmas presents. TV's mid-season is no longer the place where networks dump the shows not quite good enough for September, and cable networks never really much cared about the old schedules anyway. This past week, two new science fiction dramas premiered: Intelligence (CBS/CTV) and Helix (Syfy). Both shows boast some familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, but whereas the former feels uninspired and derivative, the latter shows some real promise in its early episodes.