Saturday, September 18, 2010

Into the Deep End: Robert Plant’s Band of Joy

Band of Joy, Robert Plant’s highly anticipated new album, drops you into the deep end: a record that combines the swamp of Louisiana with the Celtic Highlands of Scotland. Produced by Plant and the ever-versatile Buddy Miller, Band of Joy is probably the best combination of musical colours Plant has used yet, surrounding him like a woolen blanket.

Originally, Band of Joy was the name of Plant’s first serious rock band and they were only together for a couple of years from 1966 to 1968. He was just 18 years of age when he fronted the group along with John Bonham on drums. He took Bonham to Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and formed Led Zeppelin: a band that musically re-imagined the blues with close attention to their English folk roots. Both Plant and Page were able to absorb many musical forms and adapt them to Led Zeppelin. This record widens the musical pallete to include sounds that Led Zeppelin dare not tread: gospel, soul and country-blues.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fizzle and Pop: Easy A

Emma Stone in Easy A (2010).
The filmmakers of Easy A have a clever idea working Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter into a comedy about the impact of high school gossip. But they don’t seem to know what to do with it. Clean-cut Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) gets overheard saying that she recently lost her virginity (although she hadn’t) and, within hours, it’s all over school. Her reputation is both sullied and enhanced (depending on who you ask). But her false confession leads several boys (including a gay friend who desperately wants to be recognized as straight) to seek her out and pretend that they lost their virginity with her – they’re so desperate they even pay her. Before long, the benefits of being perceived as the school sex queen pale when she begins to resemble Hester Prynne (even leading to her affixing the scarlet ‘A’ to her clothing).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest: A Fully Satisfying Conclusion to Stieg Larsson's 'Millennium' Trilogy

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy, after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. A finer, more satisfying dénouement to the mystery series would be hard to imagine.

Having now finished all three books, which revolve around Lisbeth Salander, an angry and highly antisocial young woman who has been horribly mistreated by the Swedish legal and medical systems, and her friend and protector, crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, I can only add more bouquets of effusive praise to what I wrote about the first two novels. Suffice it to say that the concluding ‘Millennium’ novel, in a series which had already managed to touch on everything from Sweden’s vicious sex trade to the country’s past flirtation with Nazism to the prevailing sexist atmosphere in most of that nation’s major institutions, among many other subjects, widens the scope even further by unveiling a political and constitutional scandal that makes Watergate look like a minor kerfuffle. (This is not a spoiler as much of this was revealed in the previous two books, particularly in The Girl Who Played With Fire). And The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest does all this without ever losing the thread of the unique, moving but unsentimental relationship between Salander and Blomkvist. It literally picks up minutes after the exciting conclusion of The Girl Who Played with Fire when – SPOILER ALERT – Salander confronts her vicious father, a Soviet double agent who defected to Sweden, with dire results. That confrontation rips the lid off many a long-held secret as the chickens -- namely, the revelations behind the myraid injustices endured by Salander -- finally come home to roost.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Learning to Fly: Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Until I recently caught up with director Peter Bogdanovich’s highly engaging four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007), I didn’t realize how much I had taken for granted my love of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While I have collected and enjoyed Petty’s music for years, I’ve never taken the time to contemplate why his best songs (and there are many) have always brought me such happiness. What Runnin’ Down a Dream helped me realize is how Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, for the last 33 years, have kept some of the idealistic dreams of the sixties alive. They didn’t, however, do it by showing a nostalgic reverence for the era and its music. Rather they captured the music’s urgency, its uncompromising demand for freedom which lies right at the heart of all rock & roll. Whether it’s in an anthem like “I Won’t Back Down,” plaintive ballads like “Southern Accents,” or a scorching rocker like “You Wreck Me,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers created an immediacy that made each song sound both fresh and fully alive with possibility. For those who remember the joy they felt when a great song came through their tiny earphone on their transistor radio, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers brought that instant delight to the music they played.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Actor's Life: Kevin McCarthy

“They're here already! You're next!”

Kevin McCarthy, who passed away on September 11th, was a journeyman actor who worked constantly from his uncredited debut in Winged Victory (1944) right up until earlier this year when, at the age of 96, he starred in the short film Drawback. He is and always will be best remembered for playing Dr. Miles Bennell in the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for which the line quoted above is his best (and probably only) remembered line of dialogue. Journeyman actor he may have been, but his talent always shone through in whatever he did. A committed stage actor, his filmed credits were mostly guest shots on TV shows. His first was The Ford Theater Hour (1949), but many other shows he guested on from the 1960s through the 1990s are still remembered today: The Twilight Zone (1960), Ben Casey (1961), The Fugitive (1966), Burke's Law (1966), The Man From Uncle (1966), The Invaders (1967), Mission: Impossible (1971), Columbo (1973), Hawaii Five-O (1976), Flamingo Road (1980-1982 – he had a role for the show's entire run), Matlock (1989) and Murder, She Wrote (1992). There were dozens of others – shows you've heard of and ones nobody but agents and trivia buffs remember.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Attic of My Dreams: Richard Thompson's Dream Attic

Richard Thompson's Dream Attic calls up the familiar sounds of Fairport Convention: an eclectic mix of instruments with just enough American blues and Celtic jigs to compliment one another, and it’s probably no fluke. As a result, Thompson gives way to the ensemble rather than his extended guitar solos. (The band features Pete Zorn on flute, saxophone, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Joel Zifkin is prominent on violin and the rhythm section features electric bass player Taras Prodaniuk up front in the mix.)  As one of the most unique and interesting players in music, Thompson makes his short solos count within the context of the song. This is evident on "Demons In Her Dancing Shoes," a tightly arranged sea shanty about the girls of Chapel Street in London. Thompson does stretch out on the moody “Crimescene,” but it’s a short, pointed solo expressing the blood and darkness of a murder.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Singularly Humane Filmmaking of Mike Leigh

British writer-director Mike Leigh, whose latest film Another Year makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, is the most generously humane filmmaker working today.

His films, and Another Year is no exception, invariably present sympathetic multi-faceted portraits of ordinary Britons, middle-class, lower middle-class or working-class folk, who are simply trying to get through life, be they the disillusioned socialists of High Hopes (1988), the determined chef trying to make a go of his own restaurant in Life is Sweet (1990) or the troubled families coping on a run down council estate in All or Nothing (2002). The beauty of Leigh’s films – and most of them are fully successful efforts – is that his protagonists are drawn so sympathetically and with such complexity that you feel that you know them and come to care about them deeply. That’s not nearly so common in our current cinematic age of crass, facile and empty movies like Kick-Ass, Life During Wartime and Grown Ups, to name just three of the year’s most offensive movies. (Leigh also made a film called Grown-Ups for TV in 1980 but any commonalities between it and the puerile Adam Sandler movie stop at the title.) I actually saw the word humane used by a reviewer to describe Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, which only goes to suggest how one can pervert the English language. Solondz’s films are anything but humane while Leigh's movies are suffused with humanity.