Saturday, February 5, 2011

Heart & Soul: The Beaches of Agnes & Soul Power

It's commonly held that January is a graveyard month for film releases. If Christmas supposedly brings us plenty of treats, the early New Year generally offers us no party favours. One look at the mean-spirited arrogance of The Green Hornet, or the tone-deaf comedy of Ron Howard's The Dilemma, you'd be tempted to give up movie-going for good. But we have also seen a surprising number of terrific movies open in Toronto in the last month. Besides Sofia Coppola's luminous Somewhere, there is the bittersweet poignancy of Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, the plaintive urgency of Patricio Guzman's ongoing quest to come to terms with Chile's traumatic past in Nostalgia for the Light, plus Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve turning Wajdi Mouawad 's schematic play, Scorched, into a fever dream of familial conflict in Incendies. Movies rarely get much better than that diverse group. But just in case you are all caught up, there are some pictures currently out on DVD that you just might have missed.

In the opening moments of her movie, The Beaches of Agnes, director Agnes Varda tells us that she’s “playing the part of a little old lady.” But there is a fair bit of youthful playfulness still in evidence in this imaginative and affectionate memoir. Varda (Cleo From 5 to 7, Vagabond) is perhaps the least celebrated of the great French New Wave directors of the sixties and she is one of the only females in the group. She left dramatic narrative behind a while back, but in recent years, with The Gleaners and I (2000) and Cinevardaphoto (2004), Varda has been turning out fascinating and idiosyncratic film essays. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda looks back on both her life and career by invoking it through the objects that symbolized the varied loves of her life. That love includes her relationship with director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), as well as her intellectual friends from Paris’s Left Bank and the American counter-culture who she embraced when she began making movies in California in the seventies.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sanctum: Enough with the 3-D, already!

The increasing trend of films being made in 3-D (Toy Story 3) or having 3-D added to the finished movie (Alice in Wonderland) is increasingly tiresome, since, frankly, it’s a technological advance that rarely if ever adds any value to a project. Once in awhile it has a purpose, as in the recently released Tron: Legacy, which is largely set in a world located inside the internet. There, depicting the ‘computer’ world in 3-D as a contrast to our world, in regular, mundane 2-D, makes sense. It didn’t result in a good movie, however, as the sequel to Tron (1982) was basically a loud, empty and finally boring concoction that faded from memory as soon the (lengthy) credits rolled. But Tron: Legacy at least had Jeff Bridges, in a dual role as an evil computer creation and a kindly inventor, who had lost control of the world he originally had intended to build for peaceful purposes. Bridges isn’t great in the parts. He's stiff, partially because of the lame SFX in the computer-generated sections. (He also lazily channels 'The Dude' from The Big Lebowski.) But at least he offers a reason to check out the movie. Sanctum, a 3-D extravaganza which has the distinction of being executive produced by James ‘Avatar’ Cameron (big whoop) can’t boast of having any big stars – unless you consider Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four, W.) to be of that calibre – or any reason whatsoever to check it out.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rediscovering His Home: Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues

Any assessment of a musician, in whole or in part, can only be made with the hard facts. On Low Country Blues, the new release by Gregg Allman, we have the musical evidence of a great and unadorned player. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Allman’s new record features the weathered, but soulful voice of a long, often turbulent life, too.

Low Country Blues is not a bumpin’ and grindin’ record. It’s pure, plain and simple while featuring Allman’s inspired vocals backed by the “Burnett Band” featuring Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion, Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass, Doyle Bramhall II on electric guitar; all rounded out by Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, on piano. The result is a balanced mix with different acoustic colours and shadings. It’s a style Burnett has applied to some of the most significant albums of the past few years such as, Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and Elvis Costello’s under-recognized, National Ransom, released last year. And like those records, which married the innate talent of the artists to their love for genuine American sounds, Burnett has successfully done the same with Gregg Allman. Low Country Blues is the perfect music mix featuring Burnett’s “sound” and Allman’s desire to re-discover the home of his life-long journey found in the blues.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shine a Light: Oscar’s Unlikely Nominees

It’s a funny thing about the Oscars, whose 2010 nominations were recently announced. I’m not one of those film critics who label great performances as Oscar worthy, since the nominations and awards are not a reliable barometer to gauge fine acting. If they were, Dustin Hoffman (Barney’s Version), Lesley Manville (Another Year) and Andrew Garfield and Arnie Hammer (The Social Network) would not have been passed over this year. Yet, I am not completely down on the awards either, for the various reasons I outlined last year. One of their virtues is that they shine a light on films that would otherwise not be seen by too many film-goers. I’m not referring, obviously, to The King’s Speech or Black Swan or even The Kids Are All Right, but about small movies, some from unlikely countries, that don’t have big-name stars, or a studio pushing the film or its actors with all the publicity that money can buy. Here are reviews of three of those smaller Oscar-nominated films, which, though not favoured, may win something on Hollywood's big night.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Defying Genre: Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean

Samual Beam (aka Iron and Wine)
At first glance, the dishevelled and heavily bearded Iron and Wine (aka Samuel Beam) bears a striking resemblance to a Yeti. Yet this folk singer, who inhabits the American Bible Belt with his wife and five children, seems to specialize in defying stereotypes. The prolific, multi-talented, highly educated artist has recently released his fourth full-length album Kiss Each Other Clean. If you’re still not familiar with the name, you may be about to witness a breakthrough. With Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron and Wine should finally gain the exposure he deserves. Over the last ten years, many members of his cult following remain disappointed with his migration away from his earlier trademark acoustic folk sound to multi-instrumental experimentation (and approve even less of his release on a major label, Warner Brothers), but Iron and Wine has done anything but sell out with this new masterpiece.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #12: John Cage (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.

One section of Talking Out of Turn included a chapter examining the role of the experimental art on eighties culture. Contemporary composers like Philip Glass, R. Murray Schafer and John Cage were now having their music felt in pop circles. Cage was perhaps the most influential of those avant-garde composers. He had a huge impact -- both artistically and philosophically -- on popular music (including Frank Zappa, Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko Ono and Brian Eno).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Heavy Metal Thunder: R.E.D. (2010)

There's something strangely satisfying about watching Dame Helen Mirren fire round after round of heavy ordinance at bad guys. In the movie R.E.D. (just released on DVD – the title is an acronym for Retired: Extremely Dangerous), Mirren plays a retired CIA sniper who is forced out of her now-genteel life by circumstances beyond her control. The fact that she doesn't appear in the movie until the one-hour mark is one of this comic thriller's few problems.

At the start of the picture, we are introduced to Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a lonely, also retired, former CIA black ops agent who has fallen in love with the voice of Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman at the benefits office that manages his pension. He is so smitten that he's practically a telephone stalker. She's kind to him, but she's also a little creeped out. After one of his phone calls, his house in a quiet residential neighbourhood is attacked by several assassins. (Yes, his house. The shooters essentially blast the shit out of the place, à la the 'let's shoot a million rounds into that truck' in the Clint Eastwood film, The Gauntlet). He dispatches the killers and then pops up at Sarah's house in Kansas City, insisting that her life is also in danger.

Here, the logic of the film veers off the rails. The first 25 minutes are a little incomprehensible. There seems to be no credible reason for Willis to connect the attack on him to Sarah and then deduce she is now in danger too. Perhaps it's on the cutting room floor. Essentially, he kidnaps her because she doesn't believe he is former CIA. (Does she not know what pension she's dealing with?) They go to New Orleans for no reason I can think of other than New Orleans looks good (except for those New Orleans sequences, the rest of the picture was shot in Toronto – it is fun playing 'spot the T.O. locales'). It's not until she escapes him and then is almost kidnapped by a New Orleans 'police officer' (Moses rescues her) that she finally believes him. As I said, the first 25 minutes are confusing. The attempts to kill Moses seem to be connected to a list of operatives who, many years prior, were sent into Guatemala to extract an American military unit, led by an unnamed rogue officer that supposedly annihilated an entire village. I think Moses was among them, or some old friends were (it really isn't clear) and I think Sarah had pension dealings with some of those men on the list, most of whom now dead.