Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo & The Girl Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Masterful Mysteries

Not since the Harry Potter novels has a series of books so connected with such a wide variety of readers as the Stieg Larsson mysteries have. Last week, on two successive days, I saw a different person, one male, one female, on the transit system reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in the late Swedish writer’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy. Over the last month, I’ve noticed at least half a dozen folks with eyes glued to that book and several more dipping into the first one in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Considering how few people read at all while taking transit or are content just skimming the free subway newspapers, that’s a pretty impressive statistic. Wondering what’s so great about the Larsson oeuvre? Lots, actually.

Larsson has created, in Lisbeth Salander, one of the most compelling, ferocious and complex protagonists ever to appear in mystery literature. She’s twenty-four when the series opens, a tattooed and pierced young woman who has suffered horrendous abuse in her short life, doesn’t trust a soul, is anti–social to an unparalleled degree, yet affects everyone she comes into contact with, so much so that they become her staunchest defenders.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: Not the Worst Movie Ever Made

The Last Airbender, which went into wide release this week, is based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series produced by the American cable channel Nickelodeon, and broadcast from 2005-2008. Avatar ran for 61 episodes and three seasons, and it was a critical and popular success, resonating with viewers far beyond the network’s very young demographic. I count myself among those adults who, in the summer of 2008, eagerly awaited its concluding episodes. In January 2007, months before the show`s third season had begun, it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening) would write, direct, and produce a live-action feature film adaptation. I greeted that announcement with the usual trepidation of one who hears that a beloved novel has been tagged for Hollywood treatment. And so, having been following the film’s production for over 3 years, and putting my creative concerns aside, I walked into the theatre with genuine anticipation. But it wasn’t ‘the new M. Night Shyamalan film’ that I came to see, nor the summer’s next highly-promoted ‘3-D fantasy epic.’ No, I came to see The Last Airbender, the big screen adaptation of a television series that I genuinely love.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Second Look at HBO's Horrifying The Pacific

Let me be blunt. Films or mini-series about the war in the Pacific in World War II have been few and far between because it was one gigantic horror show from beginning to end. Most that have been made -- save David Lean's Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) -- have been commercial if not critical flops (Terence Mallick's overrated The Thin Red Line (1998), for example). Obviously, the war in the European theatre was no picnic -- the barbarity there was equally deranged -- but at least there were brief glimmers of humanity and dignity within it (and as one European vet tells a returning Pacific vet "I at least got down time in Paris or London"). The war in the Pacific was a seemingly unrelenting bloodbath. Now that I've finished watching Tom Hank's and Steven Spielberg's The Pacific (they were the executive producers), I understand why it never got the ratings or the critical acclaim the European-set predecessor, Band of Brothers (2001), received. The Pacific is a shattering, deeply disturbing nightmare that will haunt you long after it is over. As depicted, both sides committed atrocious acts, innumerable atrocious acts. Nobody comes off well, and the characters we spend 10 or so hours following end up seriously emotionally damaged (those that survive, that is). This is not material that goes down very easily on a Sunday evening before the start of the work week.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Appetite for Destruction: The Media Coverage of the G20 Summit

“The media are all-knowing. They supply a community of knowledge and feelings, and a common morality. Many people, literate and illiterate alike, simply do not read. They receive information from television whether or not they seek that information. It often comes to them in the form of entertainment.”

--Tony Schwartz, Media: The Second God (1983).

Like most people, especially Torontonians, who witnessed the war zone that became our city during the past weekend of the G20 summit, I was appalled by a number of things. One could get into a number of healthy debates over the decision to have the summit in Toronto (given the violent history of these events), the destructive acts of the Black Bloc, or the reaction of the police to those acts. But I was struck more by some other factors that I believe contributed to creating the dark vortex the city fell into while world leaders were discussing the problems of the planet.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Good Intentions: Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project

Herbie Hancock is one of my musical heroes because he’s constantly trying new things and takes none of his talent for playing, writing and arranging for granted. His latest effort is The Imagine Project which is, as he describes it, “an effort to show the power and beauty of global collaboration as a golden path to peace.” This is a well-intentioned album with some successes and failures.

The opening track is John Lennon’s iconic song adapted to a world - beat arrangement, but the vocal track fails to be inspiring let alone take you to that idyllic place that Lennon wrote about back in 1971. Some songs never work well when they’re re-configured; this is one of them. Interestingly, a Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is also included. Performed by Dave Matthews, with the requisite phased-vocal track, I wondered why this song was chosen in the first place. "T.N.K." never had the notion of a “path to peace” for me; more of quiet trip to another, other worldly place after death. (The lyrics are taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reporting For Battle: A Rolling Stone Coup

As a child, Michael Hastings dreamed of becoming a war correspondent.  “I remember drawing a map of the Middle East and watching CNN nightly with my dad,” he recalls, referring to his fifth-grade interest in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict. “One day, I even asked my teacher if I could skip gym class to hear a speech by General Norman Schwarzkopf.“

But it’s his Rolling Stone profile of another general in another war -- Stanley McChrystal, until last week the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- that has provided Hastings with the scoop of a lifetime. Even before the magazine hit newsstands Friday, the online version had pundits across America correctly predicting that the military leader was toast. The story quoted him and his staff dissing President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and several other members of the administration. For Hastings, only 30, this All the President’s Generals moment came while he was back in Afghanistan. I’ll call him Michael, since we’ve known each other for many years and he hails from my town (Burlington, Vermont). That’s why I’ve done several interviews with him, including one last Tuesday when his name suddenly became a household word.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fighting Nostalgia - Two Views on the Jethro Tull/Procol Harum concert: Molson Ampitheatre, June 18/10

I've never been one for the nostalgia musical acts that hit the road every summer (The Monkees, Crosby Stills & Nash, REO Speedwagon, Styx, The Who, to name but a few) because there's too much new music 'capturing my ears' (such as The Killers, Drake, Broken Social Scene, Metric, Cale Sampson, Femi Kuti, Eminem, Jamie Cullum, etc.) for me to wallow too much in the musical acts of the past. That doesn't mean I don't still listen to the music of these performers on CD/MP3, but I just don't have the need to see these acts perform well past their 'best before dates.' The first exception to this rule was two years ago when I got tickets to see Chicago. Now, ironically, I wasn't even a fan, but the tickets were free and the seats were great, so... I came away impressed by the still expert musicianship of the performers, even if the music, with a few exceptions, was really not my style.

Recently, I broke my rule again when I, along with a group of friends (including my Critics At Large colleague Kevin Courrier - see his review of the same show below) got tickets to see Jethro Tull with Procol Harum as opening act. I've always enjoyed the early music of Tull (the last album I bought was 1978's Heavy Horses), so when the opportunity came to see them live I was willing enough to enjoy an evening of, as one of my friends said, "Klassic Rawk!"