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.