Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unfinished Notes From an Abandoned Book: The Weight (2009)

The Band in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978).

A couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called The Weight. It was about Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), his concert documentary about The Band's farewell Thanksgiving concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. My thought was to send a proposal and a sample chapter to the British Film Institute for their annual chapbook publications on key films. Having just done a CBC Radio documentary on The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink (1968), I was primed to delve into the air of melancholy that lay beneath the spirit of celebration that Scorsese caught while shooting that extraordinary concert. But I decided to abandon the project when there didn't seem to be any interest from publishers. However, I came across some of the notes I'd written in preparation for The Weight which, upon re-reading them, looked apt for a posting.  Kevin Courrier

Friday, August 27, 2010

Life During Wartime: More (Self) Loathing From Todd Solondz

Life During Wartime, the latest film from Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998))  is just more of the same, another putative drama full of caricatured human beings, who generally loath themselves and exist merely to reflect in turn the self loathing of the director. The deep humanity of a Mike Leigh (All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky) is not for Solondz; he’d rather take facile shots at American society, kill off his own characters (as he did with Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener at the outset of the wretched Palindromes (2004)), and offer up a facsimile of feeling and insightful commentary. Life During Wartime, though, is somewhat more competent than his norm, which considering the otherwise deep flaws of the movie, isn’t reason enough to go see this film.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Transfigured Modernism: The Glass Chamber Players' Schoenberg/Glass

The Glass Chamber Players is a new sextet of handpicked musicians dedicated to the music of Philip Glass. Each player was either a soloist or ensemble musician familiar with the music of the American composer and selected for their “talent and passion for music.” This approach to performing and recording has its pros and cons. The group could drop their egos at the door and make the best music possible, or they could argue over seating arrangements. Fortunately, I’m happy to report, the Glass Chamber Players sound like seasoned veterans who’ve been playing together for years, but it’s not perfect. The sextet made their debut last December in New York at the Baryshnikov Arts Center performing two works by Arnold Schoenberg, Verklarte Nacht or Transfigured Night and the Sextet for Strings by Philip Glass. The latter is a new work arranged by Michael Riesman from Glass’s Symphony No. 3. Schoenberg/Glass is a recording of that debut and in many ways it's a remarkable album.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vampire, Werewolf and Ghost Walk Into A Bar: Being Human

Sure, as other critics have recently pointed out, the premise behind the new-to-Canada British TV series, Being Human (2009), does sound like the start of a dusty, old joke. Fortunately, its premise is not as bad as the title of my piece suggests. The show's conceit is that a vampire (Aidan Turner), werewolf (Russel Tovey) and ghost (Lenora Crichlow) decide to share an apartment in contemporary Bristol. Yet, the show, in the best British-series tradition, finds a way to bring both humour and tragedy to its high-concept idea.

It borrows widely from several current and older horror movies and TV shows: the vampire has become unwilling to 'partake' of human blood (Twilight (2008/2010), True Blood (2008/2010)); the nice-guy werewolf struggles with the dual nature of his personality – the desire to be a good man coupled with the need to tear people apart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, David Thewlis in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)); and the sweet, sexy (mildly annoying) ghost who just wants to be able to hold those she formerly loved (Ghost (1990)). It is also visually inspired by John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), because how George the werewolf became a werewolf is not only identical in terms of location (the wilds of Scotland), but when we see his transformations, it is very obviously quoting, sometimes shot for shot, Rick Baker's effects in that film. And yet, this show is still original, bright, sexy, very fresh and, as I said above, sometimes very funny and deeply moving.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As White As in Snow: Jan Troell’s Little Seen Masterpiece

Swedish director Jan Troell received some acclaim and critical notice last year with his fine 2008 film Everlasting Moments, based on the true story of Maria Larsson, a Swedish working class woman in the early 1900s, who wins a camera in a lottery and goes on to become a photographer. But usually his movies, such as Hamsun (1996), his devastating portrayal of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who was branded a traitor because of his naïve support of Adolf Hitler, are little seen outside of his home country. That was particularly the case with his 2001 film, As White as in Snow, a biography of the much less famous Elsa Andersson, Sweden's first aviatrix., But as with Hamsun, the results are equally compelling. Little is known about Andersson, who died tragically in a parachute jump in 1922 at age 24, except that she blazed a small trail for women. Troell begins his film as Elsa (Amanda Ooms) takes the train to her last performance, and then flashes backwards to the key events of her life. It's a conventional approach to biography but the movie is anything but ordinary.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return & Reissue: Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues/Martha & the Muffins' Danseparc

Pop singer Cyndi Lauper is trying to reinvent herself on Memphis Blues, a first-rate collection of blues standards, which is dedicated to blues great Ma Rainey. As usual with Lauper, though, she never takes herself too seriously. You get the impression listening to this record that she’s not so much interested in feeling the blues as she is in presenting herself as some kind of cabaret night club act. The images in the cover booklet certainly point in that direction. Ironically, Lauper has always had the vocal chops to perform this music earnestly and with conviction. This is particularly true on “Romance in the Dark”: a sexy interpretation with just a tinge of sadness. The musicians on this record do inspire Lauper to free herself of any pretense on these songs. On the tracks with pianist Allen Toussaint and guitarist Jonny Lang, the restraint is removed and Lauper is free to carry the lyrics as far as she wants. Alas, that’s not always the case on Memphis Blues, with the notable exception of “ Down So Low.” It’s the strongest track on the record because of the horn arrangement and Lauper’s solid vocal. The album closes with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and it’s a valiant duet with Jonny Lang but it rings false for me because it imitates the blues rather than lives it.

Out of print for many years, the re-issue of Danseparc by Martha & the Muffins is a welcome return to the catalogue. Produced by Daniel Lanois with Mark Gane and Martha Johnson, this album features all of the sonic values of the now famous producer without the clutter. This is a record of well-crafted pop songs in the true sense of the word, something many critics and fans mistook for being light and frivolous. On the contrary, this record has all the mystery and sexual tension of a dance club where young men and women size each other up on the floor. Most of these songs, like "Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing," are about how dance is a tribal ritual where men and women relate to one another (“Watch you move is like sensing the scheme of things pushing apart at the seams/Your gesture is knocking a hole in the air!”). Other songs, such as the title track, contemplate the future in a fearful way (“Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be/Everyday it’s tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need”). I’ve always liked the personal/observer approach that Mark Gane and Martha Johnson use in writing songs with a punk angst but also with an intelligent, earthy design. This album combines substantive lyrics and stories with interesting, slightly experimental music. The remastering on this record serves to refine the tracks rather than “improve them sonically.” Consequently, the songs are less “tinny” and feature more mid-range and bottom end. Unlike much of the synth-pop music of the 80s, M + M wasn’t afraid to let the guitar sound like a guitar rather than a synthesizer, an unfortunate popular diversion during this decade.

The disc features three bonus tracks, a B-side ("These Dangerous Things") to the extended 12-inch of Danseparc, plus a live performance of "Sins Of The Children" recorded  in 1983 at  the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto. I had the privilege of working there and caught that show. As I recall, it was a strong performance in front of an enthusiastic audience, so I hope there’s more from that show to be heard from in the future.

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Justified: Portrait of a 21st Century Lawman

There are some TV shows that come out of the gate with such polish and promise that from the very first episode you know you’re watching something special. Justified is one of those shows. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 2002 short story “Fire in the Hole,” Justified premiered on the FX network on March 16th, ran for 13 episodes, and ended with an explosive season finale on June 8th. Already, it's shaping up to be one of FX’s most consistently solid series since The Shield. A second season has been ordered for 2011. (It airs on Super Channel HD in Canada.)

The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) from Miami back to Harlan, the rural Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town where he grew up. On the heels of a much-publicized shooting incident, Givens reluctantly leaves behind investigations of international drug cartels to face the problems and people he happily left years earlier. Though the story is set firmly in 2010, when we first see Olyphant, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish Givens from Sheriff Seth Bullock, the character he played for three seasons on David Milch’s Deadwood on HBO: they’re both men with well-defined, albeit personal, codes of justice, men who don’t draw their guns unless they intend to use them. Wearing a white Stetson above the stoic and squinting expression of an old West lawman, Givens is a man out of time, or more precisely, a man out of genre. From the Emmy-nominated song playing over the credits (a track by Gangstagrass, a New York-based band known for a unique brand of bluegrass/hip-hop fusion), the tone is set. The show is itself a mash-up—the old West with crystal meth and Smartphones, the story of a 19th century man with a 21st century life.