Monday, May 31, 2010

Blast Furnace Soul: The Black Keys' Brothers

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney certainly spell it out on their new release with a cover that states, “This is an album by The Black Keys." The name of this album is Brothers with the back cover announcing: “These are the names of the songs on this album” and “These are the guys in the band.” Why they felt obligated to indicate precisely what the recording was all about remains part of the mystery surrounding the band and for that matter the music.

This record is a super-heated, funk-based album featuring 9 of 14 tracks recorded at the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. The Muscle Shoals “sound” always inspired many a struggling musician. The Rolling Stones were reborn here after recording "Brown Sugar" in 1969. Paul Simon wrote and recorded most of the songs from his debut-self titled, solo album featuring “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” bringing the power of gospel music and mixing it with the southern R&B with a dash of country for good measure. Due to its size, which isn’t much larger than the one-room Sun Studios in Memphis, Muscle Shoals requires your full attention as a musician. The close confines can either work against you, or help you focus if you’re a member of a multi-piece band. Ironically The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, can’t possibly do much work “off the floor” like a rock-n-roll band because they’re a duo. But what they do accomplish with this record is the “feeling” of a spontaneous band session.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost and Found: The 13th Warrior (1999)

My original intent with John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior (1999) was to have it be the third in the 'pantheon' of Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies (MMWinMM), because there's one scene early in the film which was truly great. I remembered the rest of it as being a bit of a mess. To confirm this, I decided to rewatch it (after first seeing it sometime in early 2001 on videotape). Imagine my surprise that in 2010 I found it quite entertaining.

Set in the early 10th century, The 13th Warrior tells the story of Ahmed (Antonio Banderas), a Mesopotamian prince who is exiled as a 'diplomat' to the Norseland for indiscretions in Babylon. With the assistance of Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) as his guide and interpreter, they find themselves welcomed into the Norse king's home shortly after he has died. Almost immediately, it is announced that a distant community has been attacked by an unknown evil force that has laid waste to the village. A shaman proclaims that 13 warriors must go to defeat this threat. Twelve would be Norse, one must not be a Northman, so Ahmed is quickly co-opted into the group. The biggest problem is that he cannot understand a word they say and they cannot understand him (this leads to the MMWinMM which I will get to in a minute).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Democratic Vistas: Vaclav Havel's The Art of the Impossible

A friend of mine earlier in the year lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many, especially on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots haven’t gone away. (Neither has the right-wing version currently propping up the Tea Party.) I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but (unlike Naomi Klein) he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power. (In saying so, I'm also not forgetting the economic mess the previous administration left for Obama to clean up.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Do The Right Thing! The Contentious Issue of Politically Correct Casting

There’s been much ado about some casting choices in recent Hollywood projects, not because the actors chosen are necessarily bad but because, say their critics, they’re not the right colour for the roles.

First off, many people are upset that white actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) is the lead in the just-released film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, since he’s demonstrably not of Persian (or Iranian, as it’s known today) origin. Then comes news that The Last Airbender, the soon-to-be-released movie from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs) -- based on an Asian - inspired TV series, called Avatar: The Last Airbender -- will also be a largely whitewashed affair. This follows on the heels of the announcement that white filmmaker Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) has cast a black actor, The Wire’s Idris Elba as Heimdall, one of the Norse gods in Branagh’s upcoming adaptation of Marvel’s Thor.

Each of these movies has provoked a backlash. Though, predictably, in our politically correct climate. the Marvel comic fans objecting to Elba’s casting in Thor are deemed to be suspect, if not outright, racist in their concerns. while those protesting the casting in Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, are deemed to have valid concerns about the casting decisions. Would I be labeled racist if I suggest that they all have legitimate reasons for being unhappy with the choices made in the adaptations of their favorite TV show, comic book or video game (Prince of Persia)?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lifting the Veil: The Rolling Stones’ Remastered Exile on Main St

Recorded in the basement of a mansion in the south of France during the summer of 1972, this double-album was The Rolling Stones’ “blues” record from start to finish. Save for the contractual hit singles, such as “Happy” and “Tumbling’ Dice,” this album freed up guitarist Mick Taylor to play his best licks as a contributing member of the band and not just the sub for Brian Jones (best heard on their cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”).

Considering the risk of re-mastering, this version of Exile, produced behind a veil of murk and mirth, the veil has finally been lifted revealing a remarkable mix of excellent arrangements. On “Tumbling Dice”, one of the stock favourites in The Rolling Stones’ songbook, has been cleaned up to show off the great background vocals and sweet guitar licks in between. The under-recognized “Sweet Black Angel” shows off its true colours with subtle hints of harmonica and xylophone once buried in the mix, now brought out of the darkness. And I suppose the mystery and darkness of Exile will piss off a lot of fans of the original mix. This was an album you played in the dark and experienced while passing a reefer and bottle of Jack Daniels.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

TV Series Finale: Lost Lived and Died By Its Characters

In the fall of 1983, I was helping a friend move out of our shared apartment. She had this big comfy chair that had been a royal pain in the arse to get up the apartment's very narrow staircase, so to move it out I suggested we throw a rope around it and lower it over a small second-floor balcony at the front. I volunteered to do the lowering. It wasn't that heavy, so I was up there alone. I lifted the chair over the railing and started to lower it. After a second, I noticed that the chair's legs had caught on the balcony's slight overhang, so I put my thighs against the railing and swung the chair out.

Then the railing collapsed. I fell about 18 feet, but God intervened that day, because the chair landed on its side and I landed, ass down, on the chair's arm. It broke my fall. I still bounced off and landed on the ground knocking myself out. I have no memory of the actual fall, but one of my friends who witnessed it said I did a perfect swan dive. I also have only fragmentary memories of the next hour, and that was only when I moved or was moved by the paramedics.

It was something like this. I blank blank blank blank remember blank blank blank each time blank blank me onto blank blank and then onwards to blank blank, my memory only completely coming back blank when they crashed me through blank doors of the Emergency room. Because of the well-placed chair, I came through the fall with only a concussion, whiplash (that I still suffer from to this day) and some bruises, but no breaks and more importantly, alive and not paralyzed. To this day, I sometimes reflect on that fall and wonder why I survived or why it happened, and when I'm feeling all "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"-like (1962) wondering if I did survive or am I really living this life in the seconds before I hit. It was this spirituality that was at the core of the now-completed TV show Lost, a show that started with a group of people surviving a horrific plane crash on an isolated island.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Eclectic Introspection: Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record

Soaring to the top of the Independent music charts in Canada probably wasn’t the intention of Toronto’s Broken Social Scene. This band, well known for having several familiar Canadian musicians, such as Feist, in and out of its line-up for the past 10 years, probably wanted to make another record as removed from the mainstream as everything they’ve collectively and individually recorded since the release of You Forgot It In People in 2002. But the talent-base of B.S.S. is simply too strong to fight against and thus the release of Forgiveness Rock Record, the band’s remarkable album of 2010.

Some bands come and go but for the grace of fans who expect the same music every time they hear them. For B.S.S., the fans have always loved their versatility as musicians and their eclectic mix of music, because they were far more introspective than Arcade Fire and much less driven by ego than trying to create a sound that stood out from the rest of the corporate-rock set. I’m happy to report that this album still has the eclecticism of B.S.S. only more refined. Having worked on and recorded the compositions for the bulk of 2009 under Chicago-based producer John McIntire, B.S.S. has excelled as songwriters and as a band.

This album is tight, taut and interesting to the ear. It features a mix of hard-driving songs with a couple of genuine, radio-friendly, hits: “Forced to Love” and “All to All”. “Sweetest Kill” which borrows a riff from “Lover’s Spit” is a dream pop delight. The arrangements on Forgiveness Rock Record are musically interesting and balanced. I always thought the vocals were buried in the mixes of the earlier records, perhaps with good reason, but this time the blend is far better. This is an album that celebrates the collective known as Broken Social Scene. It’s a family reunion of sorts, due to the disparate and diverse schedules of its members. Five years after their last one, Forgiveness Rock Record may be, dare I say it, the band’s most commercial recording to date. But I’m confident that even the most diehard fan will “forgive” the band of such an indulgence.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director. In 2008, with Kevin Courrier, he produced a CBC radio documentary for Inside the Music about You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Final Cha-Chung: Remembering Law & Order

In a May 17 episode that probably should have been titled “Kinky Town,” writer Ed Zuckerman provided Law & Order with a hilarious whodunit about denial, betrayal, sneaky finances and some very bizarre sex games. It serves as a wonderful next-to-last chapter for the venerable weekly examination of New York City’s criminal justice system, just cancelled by NBC after two decades. Bewilderingly, this decision comes one season short of granting creator-executive producer Dick Wolf’s fervent wish: to boast that his series is the longest-running scripted primetime drama ever on network TV, thereby beating the 20-year run of Gunsmoke.

The Mother Ship, as everyone in the industry refers to the original cops-and-courts show that predated its spinoffs, wasn’t exactly sinking. The ratings may have been less than spectacular, but the current ensemble cast arguably is the most effective in eons. Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson, playing the lead detectives, demonstrate as much great chemistry as Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth did trading wisecracks while investigating murders, robberies, kidnappings and crimes of passion from 1992 to 1995. The performances delivered by Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza, as the hands-on prosecutors, also crackle with energy. He’s a sort of combination of his predecessors, the subtle Michael Moriarty and fiery Sam Waterston; She portrays the best prosecutorial sidekick since Jill Hennessy, only with less innocence. Reliably solid Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson -- respectively, the cranky district attorney and wise precinct commander -- never fail to amaze.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Troublingness: Terry Gilliam's Cursed Films - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Other Works

Terry Gilliam's (or rather "A Film From Heath Ledger & Friends", as it is officially credited) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is his most coherent work since 12 Monkeys (1995). This comes as a relief after the complete, unwatchable botches Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Tideland (2005). Does that make it a good film? Probably not, but it was far more enjoyable than I was led to believe.

The DVD, released May 11th, comes with a touching introduction from Gilliam as he outlines his thinking behind the film. He wanted to do a joyous and fun film, along the lines of Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Bergman's 1982 Fanny and Alexander (his words, not mine on this Bergman film), that was a sort of playful compendium of many of the things he'd done before. He then briefly discusses the tragedy of Ledger's untimely death during the production in January 2008. A plan was hatched to finish the film (outlined below) and filming was completed. Tragedy wasn't finished with the film yet. The film's producer, Canadian William Vince (producer of Capote), died of cancer at the age of 45.

It has always been said that a "troublingness" (I know, it's not a word, but in the whacked world of Gilliam films it seems appropriate) has plagued almost every film Gilliam has made. Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Brothers Grimm were all swamped by fights between Gilliam and releasing companies resulting in the pictures almost never being released; The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was not completed due to a combination of storms wiping away all sets, lead actor Jean Roquefort unable to ride a horse because of severe back pain and the collapse of financial support (the whole catastrophe was outlined in the great 2002 documentary Lost In La Mancha). Supposedly he's resurrected this one and will shoot it soon with Ewan MacGregor and Robert Duvall - good luck to him. The less said about the virtually unreleased Tideland the better.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whodunit!: Clue: The Movie

Thank goodness for videotape. After watching Clue: The Movie (1985) for the first time this past weekend I find myself conflicted, not unlike a guilty man pleading innocence before an unforgiving jury of his peers. On one hand I found myself thoroughly enjoying the cavalcade of familiar faces, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull etc., chewing up the scenery, while on the other hand I couldn't help but think about how much I would have despised the film if I'd caught it during its original theatrical run.

Jonathan Lynn's film used an interesting advertising tactic to raise curiosity; he offered viewers three different endings which would be equally distributed and randomly attached to every film print. Surprise! The problem with this tactic is that with any other film it would promote repeated viewings but by the halfway mark in Clue you should realize that this film's conclusion will prove somewhat irrelevant. It never really mattered if it was Colonel Mustard in the observatory with the candlestick or Ms.Scarlet with the knife in the kitchen. Being offered one of three endings gave the impression that ‘whodunit’ was a question we cared to have answered. We were being told a joke for an hour and a half but the filmmakers missed the punch line. No wonder most critics panned it and its box office numbers were lackluster upon its initial release.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Elvis Costello’s Cultural Boycott of Israel: Rank Hypocrisy and Naiveté

Elvis Costello’s recent decision to cancel his two upcoming shows in Israel because of his concerns about the plight of the Palestinians, and Israeli government policy towards them, is problematic and offensive on so many levels; I scarcely know where to begin. But let’s hear from the man himself, who just recently told The Jerusalem Post, "I know from the experience of a friend who is from Israel and from people who have worked there that there is a difference of opinion there among Israelis regarding their government's policies. It seems to me that dialogue is essential....The people who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish policy of the government. It's like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn't like Bush's policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pat Metheny's Rube Goldberg Concert at Massey Hall: May 13, 2010

I can't say I've ever been a big or even moderate fan of Pat Metheny, but whenever I've heard his music I've always been impressed by his playing. My wife has been a fan for years, though, so when it was announced he would be playing Massey Hall she suggested we go (she hadn't seen him for a long time and she wanted me to see him perform). Expecting Metheny and a band (he has in the past played with great players, so the possibility of watching Metheny exchanging licks with other talented musicians sounded promising), we bought tickets and on May 13th headed back to Massey (after our last visit there on March 9 to see Jamie Cullum). We went in completely blind to what he was doing on this tour.

The stage was simple, with packing crates visible near the stage, a piano on one side, two vibraphones and a single cymbal on the other. A couple of Persian-style rugs covered the stage and a clumsily arrayed red curtain covered the back of the stage. About 15 minutes late, Metheny took the stage by himself, sat down, bent over his guitar and proceeded to play the first of three pieces. It was masterful playing, full of ingenious rhythms and great musicianship. Then a roadie charged out, gave him a guitar with what looked like a stumpy second fret sticking out of the top. It turned out to be a combination guitar and harp called a Pikasso. Custom-built for Metheny by Torontonian Linda Manzer, it had 42 strings that allowed Metheny to play guitar and harp simultaneously. That should have been a clue. Twenty minutes passed and he had yet to say a thing to the audience other than mouthing some genuine-looking "thank yous."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marking Time: Willie Nelson's Country Music

Willie Nelson's varied musical history ranges from the Gypsy Swing of Django Reinhardt to the honky-tonk of Hank Williams. His diverse output includes pop, jazz and country music. Last year, for instance, Nelson released one of the best country albums of 2009 with Asleep at the Wheel. It was a straight-ahead inspired recording from the first note to the last. For 2010, Nelson has released a pure, unadorned masterpiece simply called, Country Music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. It features Buddy Miller on electric guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Jim Lauderdale singing harmony. It's been released on Rounder Records, one of the best advocates of contemporary country and folk music for many years. The cover features an image of a large empty barn and the sessions were recorded in Nashville. So everything about this album spells "country." Musically, Nelson covers songs from his own catalogue as a songwriter, and pulls a few selections from the pens of Ray Price, Doc Watson and Hank Williams. The outstanding tracks for me, though, are three traditional songs arranged by Burnett and Nelson. These are "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," "I am A Pilgrim," and "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Nelson's aging voice on these songs is the unpretentious marking of an important and reflective time in his life, now that he's over 75 years. So in spite of his varied musical history, the man is most comfortable under the influence of "country music."

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The World's Most Obscene Pop Song: The Story of Louie Louie

Thoreau believed that an American popular tune could be quoted meaningfully in a symphony in the same way that an American colloquialism could work in a sentence. But it's unlikely that Thoreau would have considered "Louie Louie" a worthy example of this. While "Louie Louie" began as a lovely calypso tune written and recorded by Richard Berry, one of Los Angeles' most influential R&B performers, his composition would soon become the ultimate sex-joke song -- and it dogged his career. Although it was considered obscene because of its barely intelligible lyrics (and recorded by just about everyone: The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Barry White -- even Iggy Pop), the lewd interpretation is due to The Kingsmen, a Top 40 cover band from Portland, Oregon.

One night in 1963, during a concert date, Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely witnessed a group of people dancing in orgiastic ecstasy around the jukebox before the band hit the stage. The song playing was something called "Louie Louie" by The Wailers (no relation to Bob Marley's group). The Kingsmen decided that they wanted some of that same action, and so they set out to learn the song. Ely made a mistake, however, by giving the band the wrong arrangement of the Wailers' interpretation. The arrangement was crude with a relentlessly thumping beat pounded out on the guitar and organ. Nevertheless, the song had the desired effect at The Kingsmen's concerts. The band cut a single of "Louie Louie" in May 1963, with the hope of having their first hit song. With its famous opening notes of DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA -- DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA, and Ely slurring every insinuating word he could dream up, the only recognizable lyrics were the song's title.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fearless Etheridge: Fearless Love

I’ve always had great respect for Melissa Etheridge. She entered the music business as a hard-edged rocker often compared, at best, to Janis Joplin or at worst, to Bruce Springsteen. So many great singers have lost the “comparison” battle and faded into obscurity, but not Etheridge. She stayed focused on important political, environmental, and sexual orientation issues that continue to have a strong appeal for her fans. By taking those risks, Etheridge stood above the commercial expectations and forged her own direction overcoming the weight of the publicity of her first marriage and her greatest battle, defeating cancer in 2005.

Fearless Love is her first album of new songs in a couple of years, and it’s as strong as any she’s ever written and released. The title track drives hard like a U2 song as Etheridge yearns for “a fearless love; I won’t settle for anything else." On "Drag Me Away," her most personal song in years, she talks about her fight for life and love with allusions to fighting cancer: "I will not be a hostage to my own dis-ease," she says. Fearless Love is as powerful a “coming out” record as Etheridge has ever written, but this time the feelings are raw. Instead of anger we get a deeper expression of the ache she has suffered over the recent years. I wish the production wasn’t so over-the-top save for the closer, "Gently We Row," a fine example of Etheridge’s strength as a vocalist. I understand that she’s performing some of these songs solo, which is a much more preferable and intimate way to hear them.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost and Found: John Huston's The Dead

It’s a good thing that I have friends with sharp tastes in movies. Otherwise I would have been totally oblivious to the news last fall that John Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” was finally available on DVD. (It was pretty much ignored by DVD reviewers despite getting two nominated Academy Awards upon its release almost 25 years ago.)

Huston was a prolific director of many substantial and influential pictures based on literature including his 1941 debut The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), the underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985). His career had small triumphs like A Walk with Love and Death (1969) and Wise Blood (1979), along with ambitious failures such as Moby Dick (1956), Freud (1962) and Fat City (1972), and basic bummers like the musical Annie (1982). The Dead was a triumph of adversity given that Huston was near the end of his life and directing most of the picture from a wheelchair between toots of air in an oxygen tent. Along with Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), The Dead is a nothing less than a masterful summing up picture.

Joyce’s short story gathered in his remarkable anthology Dubliners (1916) brought together a series of tales that make up a moral history of his home city. The book amounts to an astonishing collection of contemplative prose. Each story, concluding with “The Dead,” reveals what critic Harry Levin called “a progression from childhood to maturity, broadening from private to public scope.” In achieving this, Dubliners has more than a passing acquaintance with mortality. In the opening story, “The Sisters,” a young boy overhears a conversation about the death of a priest that has profound impact on his life whereas the concluding story “The Dead” is about how the chance hearing of a song at the conclusion of the Feast of Epiphany in 1904 invokes the memory of a deceased lover.

John Huston’s The Dead is a significant chamber work, re-imagined through Chekhov, that builds to an epiphany where the past gathers profound weight in the present. The story begins at the Dublin home of two old spinsters and their niece who are hosting their annual dinner party for friends and relatives. As the group wines and dines, sharing music and poetry, their casual conversation begins to uncover assumptions, perceived injustices, and judgments. Social proprieties slowly wither as the evening progresses. Huston directs these scenes as if he were a casual observer quietly peeling away the undercurrents of friction between family and friends. Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) arrives with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) and we soon learn that Gabriel, an academic, is uncomfortable with his station in life. He fears that he’s a man who knows everything and yet understands nothing. Gabriel comes to confront that contradiction just as he and Gretta are departing for the evening. When she hears tenor Bartell d’Arcy (Frank Patterson) sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a traditional Irish ballad which tells the story of a young girl who is made pregnant by a man and then seeks refuge after giving birth, the poignant stillness of Bartell’s voice freezes her on the staircase and transports her beyond the evening to a place beyond time.

When they return to their room, Gabriel feels sexually drawn to his wife but still finds her distant and melancholy. When he questions her reasons for this detached mood, she tells him the story of a young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who once sang her that song, but died of consumption at 17. Hearing the song that evening leads her to believe that he may have died for her. As Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel begins to feel insignificant in both his marriage and life having never felt anything so deeply rendered before. In the story, after Gretta reveals what the song has invoked in her, Joyce describes Gabriel’s state of mind in a stream of astonishingly suggestive passages. Huston alters it into a soliloquy that rides on a riverbed of recollection filled with self-doubt. Aided by Alex North’s delicate score, which does subtle variations on “The Lass of Aughrim,” Huston undercuts our desire to turn memory into nostalgia by illuminating just how fleeting time, purpose and loss can be. His son, Tony Huston, also did a masterful job of adapting the story making only minimal changes that captured the substance of the text without losing Joyce’s plaintive voice.

Ironically, when The Dead came out on DVD on November 3, 2009, ten minutes of footage was missing from the picture. The distributor, Lionsgate, quickly promised the complete version later that month, but I have yet to check out whether that’s been done. And so far, there’s no way to know since nobody’s talking about this neglected gem. In coming back to life, The Dead is still sadly in purgatory.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Song: Three Takes of K'Naan's Wavin' Flag

The first time I heard K'Naan's song "Wavin' Flag" earlier this year it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was initially pulled in by the song's music hook and great chorus.

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back

But, I was ultimately deeply moved by the song's verses.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Trotsky and Robin Hood: Hollywood Does It Better

Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky is the latest misfire in the continuing disaster that is English Canadian cinema. Jay Baruchel plays the film's titular character, a 17-year-old Jewish Montrealer named Leon Bronstein, who is convinced that he is the reincarnation of the late Soviet Jewish Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, who, of course, was born Leon Bronstein, too. Charting out his life’s path, or rather copying the life’s path of Trotsky, Leon is determined to make a difference, whether it’s trying to get the employees at his father’s factory to go on a hunger strike for better working conditions or attempting to unionize the students at his curiously white bread Montreal West public high school. Along the way, he ignites the political passions of a jaded leftist lawyer (Michael Murphy) and pursues a ten years older woman named Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), who has the same name as, you guessed, the older woman Trotsky eventually married. Does this sound silly enough yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Imagination Working: Graham Parker's Imaginary Television

Graham Parker’s emergence on the late 70s music scene was perfect timing, except for the arrival of Elvis Costello. While all the attention went, and deservedly so to Costello, Parker worked twice as hard to find his way into the so-called, New Wave music generation. He formed one of the finest bands anywhere called The Rumour and proceeded to release a series of albums full of angst, humour and social consciousness. One of the best albums of the 70s was Parker's debut Howlin' Wind (1976), helmed by Nick Lowe just prior to his producing Costello’s My Aim Is True. Whether Lowe was trying to get a similar sound for Costello I’ll leave to your ears. To me, he was, but that has more to do with Lowe’s style as opposed to a “Nick Lowe Sound” per se. Nevertheless Graham Parker & The Rumour earned the love and respect of fans looking for rock ‘n roll music with a difference.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Back Pages: Commemorating Gerde's Folk City

Today’s adolescents swoon for Justin Bieber. My genre of choice as a teen was acoustic and dominated by geezers, like the already middle-aged Pete Seeger. Until April 5, 1961. That’s when a new kid in town stole my heart after a friend at New York University brought me to a gathering of the school’s folk music society to hear a fledgling singer from Minnesota.

Musicians we admired in those days generally had a smooth delivery -- or aspired to -- but Bob Dylan’s voice was appealingly rough around the edges. “He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his back porch,” critic Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times a few months later. “All that ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

There Will Be Blood: Ed Sanders' The Family

author Ed Sanders.

There have been a number of books on the Manson murders and how they (along with the violence at the 1969 Altamont rock festival) brought the utopian hopes of the ‘60s to a bloody conclusion. But there are none more chilling, observant, and chock full of insights than Ed Sanders’ The Family. Originally written in 1971, Sanders had been an active participant in the ‘60s counter-culture through his poetry and involvement in the satirical folk band, The Fugs. His book explains with shocking clarity how a psychopathic petty criminal, who had spent many years in San Quentin, could organize a group of middle-class disciples to commit horrific acts of violence. In The Family, Manson is portrayed as the shadow Maharishi Yogi, living out the darker implications of the communal lifestyle being celebrated in the hippie communities. When he justified his crimes by saying that they were inspired by certain songs on The Beatles’ White Album, it wasn’t just the psychotic ravings of a paranoid. The White Album did have its shadow side. There were elements of the music that reflected both the beginnings of the break-up of The Beatles, a band that had nurtured the utopian hopes of the hippies, as well as the violent upheavals happening around the world when the record came out in the fall of 1968.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Beat of the Meter: Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep

Adapting poems to music is a tricky thing. You have the poet’s intentions regarding meaning and rhythm juxtaposed with the composer’s ideas for music to words that didn’t require them in the first place. At least that’s what a poet might think.

Natalie Merchant has released 26 tracks on 2 CDs adapting poems written for children that is absolutely remarkable for its originality by putting, not only musical notes to words, but styles, genres and diverse time signatures to each one. These songs come in the form of traditional folk music ballads ("Calico Pie") to Klezmer music ("The Dancing Bear"). "The Man in the Wilderness" written by Mother Goose is adapted as a Parisian folk tune. It’s a gorgeous example of how imaginative Merchant is as a composer. Sure the natural meter of the poem can suggest a beat for the music, but to take a children’s poem from the nursery to a French café requires a particular talent rarely heard in contemporary pop music. The Fairfield Four make a couple of appearances on this album ("The Peppery Man" and "Calico Cat"). "The Blind Men and the Elephant" also has just enough Southern feel to send you to heaven-on-earth. Five years in the making, Merchant’s time was well spent creating an album that is thoughtful, funny and eclectic. The package includes an excellent book with the poems and a short biography of the poets. A single CD version of Leave Your Sleep is available, but I highly recommend investing in this deluxe edition.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mortality Lurking: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Buy For Me the Rain

Back when I was a kid in Pickering, there used to be a drug store up at our shopping plaza that sold deleted 45s. They cost about ten cents each and occassionally I'd grab things that changed the temperature in the room. I found singles that never hit AM radio in Toronto like - believe it or not - Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," and a trippy track called "Tomorrow's Ship" by The Sparrow. Who are The Sparrow, you ask? They were nobody in 1966 -- but, within two years, they became Steppenwolf.

One day in 1967, just before we moved to Oshawa, I found this song called "Buy For Me the Rain" by a group called The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I never heard of it (or them). But I liked the band name (did they come equipped with brooms?) and besides there was nothing else of interest at the drug store that day. When I took it home, I was immediately struck by the simple elegance of the track and the urgency of the singing on it. "Buy For Me the Rain" was like listening to the Kingston Trio with strings (but good strings). This was a love song, but like most traditional folk music, mortality lurked in the grooves. The opening melody, which is established on what sounds like a harpsichord, was doubled by a banjo and it provided a cheerful ambient bed for the urgent pining of the lyrics.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Screw's Loose: The Dubious Credibility of Loose Change

Note: News that a group of so-called leading American deniers, who impute an inside government job as being responsible for 9/11, are touring several Canadian universities, where their legions of believers are most manifest, prompted Critics at Large to weigh in on Loose Change, the ridiculous movie that has become the cinematic bible of those in the movement. Here are some thoughts on the film by David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and Kevin Courrier:

Loose Change (An American Coup), the latest version (2009) of the 'documentary' that claims to prove 9/11 was an inside job, is so easy to dismiss it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Beyond the fact this thing is dull as dishwater (I almost fell asleep watching it), it is poorly researched. If you look at what it does say, it's despicable. The film's creators claim the levelling of the two towers and WTC 7 (the smaller, nearby building) were all brought down by controlled demolition. On September 11, 2001, my wife was working at an engineering firm. Like many that day, the staff huddled around TVs watching the footage. When the towers came down, several of the structural engineers said "it's pancaking." They went on to tell my wife that in the event of a catastrophic event (such as super-hot heat from a fire that would cripple the building's core, causing it to collapse - heat generated by something like a load of jet fuel exploding), these buildings were designed to come down like that so that they would do as little damage as possible to the surrounding area. Granted, several other buildings were damaged and had to be destroyed, but if not for the original design the destruction would have been even worse. And if this was a 'controlled demolition,' it is probably one of the biggest botches of all time. A real controlled demo should not damage any surrounding buildings.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Proudly Presenting The End Of The World: Joe Dante's Matinee

Joe Dante's love and admiration for monster movies is fairly obvious. Look no further than The Howling (1981) or Gremlins (1984). Evidence can even be caught in The 'Burbs (1989). What's fascinating about Matinee (1993) is that it is both an endearing homage to the director's influences and an evaluation of how we've come to love being scared.

Dante's love letter to late '50s and early '60s creature features has some interesting notions up its sleeve. When director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) premieres his newest film MANT (a film within the film) to mass hysteria in a small Florida town, Dante appears to be having the time of his life. While Dante finds humor in the monster movies that once frightened a nation he never neglects their cultural significance. The black and white homage he's crafted has an absurdly comedic premise and hilarious dialogue which is all unmistakably played for laughs. But Dante also gives his tribute a historical context and allows for us to understand why people would be afraid of something we find so funny in retrospect. Fifty years ago, audiences weren't really horrified simply because they saw fifty foot beasts running amuck in major metropolitan areas. They screamed with terror because many of these flicks acted as cautionary tales for a country on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Power of Positive Swing: Rob McConnell 1935-2010

As the soaring alto sax solo of P. J. Perry pours over me, I remember Rob McConnell with great affection for his drive to swing and his sense of humour. In the liner notes to the first Tentet album on Justin Time [Just 150-2], McConnell writes of the arrangement "Two Bass Hit," "This chart has evolved into our major saxophone feature (wanker)." McConnell always took life on the lighter side. Alas, the darker side, liver cancer, took his life on May 1, 2010.

Born on Valentine's Day in London, Ontario, Canada during the Great Depression, McConnell took up the valve trombone in high school. Unlike the classic slide instrument, it's an instrument you have to muscle your way through just to stay in tune. The valves allow you to sound just like a trombone without hurting yourself or anybody in front of you. McConnell formed the superlative Boss Brass in 1968, a band that did not feature saxophones for the first two years. McConnell wanted to focus on arrangements in order to create a bold new sound for the late 1960s. It was a time in Canadian music when rock and roll controlled the airwaves and small group jazz was sequestered to clubs with little radio airplay. To form a big band at that time took some artistic and financial courage. But the name caught on and with the help of Ted O'Reilly, one of Canada's best jazz ambassadors, the band became a staple in the national scene, later touring the world with its unique presentation.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Band of Brothers 2: The Pacific

The HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers (2001), is one of the finest depictions of men in combat I've ever seen, so when executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks announced they were doing a sequel of sorts about the conflict in the Pacific (to be called, not surprisingly, The Pacific), I was simultaneously intrigued and concerned. Intrigued because the Pacific conflict is a much more ill-defined war featuring much more hand-to-hand bloodshed. I know far less about it than I do about the European theatre of war. The war in the Pacific was a series of horrifically violent conflicts where both sides did some nasty things. Most of it was fought on islands and atolls nobody in North America had heard of back then, and most of us would still have trouble pinpointing them on a map today. I was concerned because sequels (even if it really wasn't one) are usually inferior. Lightning rarely strikes twice.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Melville's Trickster: Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man

“Melville is not a civilized, European writer,” film critic Pauline Kael once wrote in praising Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film adaptation of Billy Budd. “He is our greatest writer because he is the American primitive struggling to say more than he knows how to say, struggling to say more than he knows.” In 1857, Melville’s particular struggle took the form of his very strange and experimental novel, The Confidence-Man.

The Confidence-Man, published on the eve of the American Civil War, caused quite the uproar. Perhaps Americans saw the novel as inappropriate, or even an affront to the unsettling issues the nation was then confronting. A swift and satirical discourse on a variety of moral and political concerns, The Confidence-Man was an oddly structured comic allegory about a shape-changing grifter who boards a Mississippi riverboat on (of all occasions) April Fool’s Day. The grifter victimizes an assortment of passengers in a series of scams on a trip that takes them from St. Louis to New Orleans. Once he wins his marks’ trust, he cons them with promises of charity and virtue. But even as the con man’s charm tests their resolve on a number of subjects, his ultimate goal is to reveal his fellow passengers’ deeper (and often contrary) desires. Melville introduces characters who change identities so rapidly that the reader is confronted with a portrait of the American frontier as perceived through a series of disguises. The novel operates on so many levels, with Melville playing clever games with both fact and fiction; it’s no surprise some readers become so dizzy that they desperately wanted off the boat.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Contemporary Nostalgia: Christian Scott's Yesterday You Said Tomorrow

At 26, New Orleans’ musician Christian Scott seems older than his years, if not in a first-rate technique, in attitude and focus. His new release entitled Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is a very mature record. To my ears it sounds remarkably contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. In jazz, this blend is often a creative mistake or coincidence. For Christian Scott it is intentional: “I wanted to create a record that has all the qualities of the documents of that era (The 1960s) as they relate to our time.” For Scott, this era was a time of musical and socio-political commentary in the best tradition, as it were, of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. For me, as a Canadian, that’s less important to me as a citizen. What matters is the music: how it’s written, played and recorded. For Scott the genius of the 1960s jazz recordings of this era is Rudy Van Gelder whose studios in New Jersey housed the greats of Modern Jazz from Miles Davis to Thelonious Monk, with frequent visits from Mingus and Coltrane. The album opens with a modal groove and a tune called “K.K.P.D.” It sets up the mood of the album with an improvised guitar introduction by Matthew Stevens. Scott doesn’t come in until the middle of the song thus waiting for his turn in this collective effort. Stevens takes an emotional solo during “The Last Broken Heart (Prop 8)” that is in keeping with the slow theme expressed by Scott’s muted trumpet. That track is followed up with an up-tempo, funk groove from the young rhythm section led by drummer Jamire Williams. It’s refreshing to hear such great playing unsoiled by ego or technique. The keeper is a cover of Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” from his first solo album from 2006. This sprite instrumental captures Yorke’s yearning vocal. Recorded over 4 days last April 2009, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is one of the best jazz albums of 2010.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Quick Cut and Fade to Black: The Passing of Dede Allen

I just read about the death of an American moviemaking titan most of the world has never heard of. But without her, many of the films between 1961 and 2000 that are now considered classics may not be remembered today. Her name was Dede Allen (1923-2010) and she was one of the most skilled film editors to ever pick up a pair of scissors.

Here's a brief list of the films she worked her magic on (and her abilities were magical): Bonnie and Clyde, The Hustler, Slaughterhouse-Five, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Night Moves, Slap Shot, Reds, The Breakfast Club, Henry and June and Wonder Boys. Hers was a singular skill, she brought a passion and a vision to her craft that is only matched by very few editors in the modern era (Thelma Schoonmaker comes to mind). Without her, it could be argued that Bonnie and Clyde would not have the impact it has. Mixing reaction shot, slow motion and cutaways, her decisions helped that film's finale become the legend it is. Even the slow-moving Reds has a visual rhythm that would not have existed without her. Considering how incredibly talented she was, it's quite amazing she worked on so few films (according to IMBD, 31 titles from 1958 to 2008, plus her first credit in 1948). Perhaps too many directors were intimidated by her abilities and therefore she was not given the amount of work she deserved. But when she worked, even if you didn't know her name, you knew you were in the hands of a master. Even something as relatively innocuous as The Breakfast Club "moves" because her hands were in the editing suite (and it is to John Hughes' credit that he hired her because of her work on Dog Day Afternoon, a very talky movie of another sort). The greatest crime of all is that, though nominated three times (Dog Day Afternoon, Reds and Wonder Boys, but not, unbelievably, for Bonnie and Clyde), she never won an Oscar. Maybe it wasn't just directors who were afraid of her, maybe so were her fellow editors.

Too many of today's films seem to be cut to ribbons, thrown into the air and stitched back together again (I'm looking at you, The Dark Knight). The ability to build story through cutting rhythm is increasingly a lost art, and with the death of Allen there's one fewer genius out there.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Two Costellos: Elvis Costello Live at the El Mocambo & Live at Hollywood High

What a difference three months makes! The two recorded 1978 Elvis Costello shows – Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High – are completely different from each other in tone, attitude and musicianship but, more importantly, they mark the coming of age and the maturation of Costello as a significant presence on the musical scene.

Costello, coming off a derided show in New York, landed in Toronto for a late night set, scheduled for March 6 at the city’s fabled El Mocambo club. The concert was to be broadcast live on radio; when news got out, the city erupted into a frenzy. People began lining up almost half a day before the 11:30 pm show, in the generally vain hope of scoring one of the 300 tickets available (minus those going to industry and record folk, of course).

By the time Costello hit the stage, expectations were remarkably high. To say he exceeded them was an understatement. Live at the El Mocambo, all 49 minutes of it (not including the encores which were not broadcast or recorded), is one of the best live shows ever put to disc, right up there with the 1971 Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East. As with that show, you can only wish you’d been there when you listen to it.