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.