Saturday, November 6, 2010

Broken Sidewalk: HBO's Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire.

Now 8 episodes into its 12-episode run, HBO's Boardwalk Empire (created by Terence Wintner, a writer on The Sopranos), is an unfocused mess. Telling the story of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, king of Atlantic City in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire tries to embrace both the mantles of The Sopranos coupled with the period cool surrounding another Soprano alum's show, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. But it just doesn't work for an untold number of reasons. Thompson was a real person who was simultaneously a crook and a politician (better crook than politician). Well, he's almost real. Based on Eunuch 'Nucky' Johnson, Thompson is not the problem with the show. As played by perennial supporting player, Steve Buscemi, 'Nucky' is actually a compelling character to have at a show's centre, and Buscemi is quite wonderful in the role. Buscemi has made a career out of playing second-banana weasels in innumerable movies, but this is his first legit lead and he makes the absolute most of it. You can actually believe that, because of his power, a man as unattractive as 'Nucky' can and does have innumerable women throwing themselves at him.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest: A Lame Ending For The Stieg Larsson Film T‏rilogy

The following review contains spoilers.

It doesn’t end well. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, the third adaptation of the famous Stieg Larsson trilogy, is probably the least of the three movies, which is a big disappointment considering that its predecessor, The Girl Who Played With Fire, finished on a high note.

The last film in the series, begins like the book, immediately after the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, with a grievously wounded Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in the hospital and her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), getting ready to expose the Swedish higher-ups who subjected the mohawk-wearing punk hacker, both directly and indirectly, to all manner of abuse over the years. As Blomkvist and his allies tighten the net around the rogue government agency behind Salander's tribulations, the subject herself, set to go on trial for attempted murder of her abusive father, tries to cope with her injuries. She’s also seeking revenge on her tormenters. Larsson’s final novel upped the ante in all the themes that had gone before in a nail biting fashion but the film version, directed by Daniel Alfredson, who also helmed the previous movie, plods where it should move and concludes on a decidedly underwhelming note.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lasting Value: Jason Moran Trio's Ten

On Ten, Jason Moran's trio works the music with cohesion and commitment. Like Keith Jarrett's group, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, Moran's music takes you on an imaginary excursion and returns you safely to home. Their kind of symbiosis, if you will, can usually take years of playing in order to perfect. But they are now inheriting the kind of experience that Jarrett's trio has been earning since the early 1980s.

For Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, the unity is almost fully developed which comes as a surprise considering the leader’s age of 35 years. But the band has had 10 years honing their chops playing together, off and on, since the release of their Moran's second record, Facing Left (2000).

Ten offers a mix of original music and a couple pulled from the jazz songbook. "Crepuscule with Nellie" is one of Thelonious Monk's most eloquent ballads dedicated to his wife. It's not intended to be a tune a band can riff on; it's meant to be played straight without soloing. But this trio has the skill to change the song anyway they like and they succeed. It's a very bold interpretation of the music, but it works because of the great inter-play by the band and Moran's arrangement. It's still Monk but with a little extra.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #1: Jerzy Kosinski (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Jerzy Kosinski
The interview with author Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird, Being There) took place in 1982 while he was promoting his novel, Pinball. The book was written in response to the murder of John Lennon a couple of years earlier. It's the story of a female fan who hunts down a popular rock star by seducing a former classical pianist to help her in the search. The novel examines the motivations of the pop fan: Is she moved more by the artist, or his art? Our talk also came shortly after the release of Warren Beatty's Reds (1982), which examined the life of the American Communist journalist John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World) who covered the Russian Revolution. In the film, Kosinski played the Soviet ideologue Zinoviev.

Jerzy Kosinski was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by living under a false identity. He wrote about that experience in The Painted Bird (1965). Many of his books took up the theme of anonymity and invisibility which, ironically, came to a head in the late eighties when he was being accused of plagiarizing some of his work. He ultimately committed suicide in 1991. His final note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity." Before Eternity knocked, we discussed the subject of anonymity and visibility.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Be of Good Cheer: Levity Lives!

I would have loved to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30th in Washington, D.C. Glued to my TV for three hours, it seemed clear that Comedy Central’s extravaganza on the National Mall was a truly delightful experience for those 150,000 or so ardent fans of civil discourse.

The crowd’s signs were clever, evidence of the intellect and wit that energizes viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. “I doubt this sign will change your opinion” is one I spotted. “Death to nobody!” read another. Pop culture references abounded with absurdist placards such as “Soylent Green is people” and “Mr. Obama, what are you doing about Twilight?”  My personal favorite: “Ruly Mob.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Beat Goes On: William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & My Queen Karo

William S. Burroughs
Unquestionably, the Beat Generation of the 1950s blazed a trail for hippies to follow a decade or two later. So we’ve essentially got the idiosyncratic subject of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within to thank for the dangerously unbridled youngsters of My Queen Karo, a Dutch feature set in Amsterdam during the early 1970s. In both films, the zeitgeist involves questioning authority, resisting conformity, criticizing the establishment and expressing a sometimes forced a joie de vivre.   

Burroughs comes across as a contrarian whose dour demeanor does not indicate much joy in a life plagued by heroin addiction. More happily, he is heralded as the godfather of the post-World War II movement that witnessed legendary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso busily expanding the boundaries of American culture. But first-time director Yony Leyser layers on one too many talking heads: Patti Smith, John Waters, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Diane DiPrima, Gus Van Sant and a number of biographers, among others. Some, but not all, offer valuable insights into an enigmatic person few really seem to have known very well. Also on hand is David Cronenberg, whose 1991 big-screen version of Burrrough’s Naked Lunch stars Peter Weller, who serves as narrator of the 90-minute documentary.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mind Out of Time: Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010

For close to fifty years, Bob Dylan has transformed himself into any number of incongruent characters while keeping his fans both baffled and infuriated in the process. Critic Greil Marcus is one of those baffled and infuriated fans. But rather than worship at Dylan's altar, or burn him in effigy, Marcus has instead assembled a fascinating chronicle of reviews, stories, asides and rumours about Dylan that he has written over the last four decades. In Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs, 2010), Marcus has created a riveting and imaginative collection of criticism where he not only traces a popular artist's erratic career through a chronology of pieces, his book also becomes an engagement where sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game.

While Marcus shapes the arc of Dylan's work, as one would untangle a long, convoluted mystery, we also witness how Dylan has equally shaped him as a writer. "I was never interested in figuring out what the song's meant," Marcus writes in the introduction. "I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it - I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that."

Although Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 bears some resemblance to Marcus's last book When That Rough God Goes Riding (see Critics at Large review here), which took us through the equally uneven career of Van Morrison, that book shifted back and forth through time as if Marcus was randomly picking Morrison's albums from the shelf to see if they still added up. By contrast, Bob Dylan is a more linear tale. Yet the very nature of Dylan's art has a way of pulling the rug out from any assumptions concerning what happens next, so Marcus's book becomes (to invert the title of one Dylan album) a mind out of time.