Saturday, March 5, 2011

No Fun: Wanda Jackson's The Party Ain't Over

In 2004, former White Stripes band member, Jack White produced Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose. The album was an excellent mix of traditional country and contemporary pop. At age 70, Lynn also proved to be a versatile singer as White shaped the sound of the songs to reflect her experience and yet capture something new in her voice. Van Lear Rose succeeded on so many levels that it was one of the most successful selling albums in Lynn's career. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, it won Best Country Album and it peaked at number 24 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Looking to capture some of that same magic, White hooked up with veteran rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson last year to record The Party Ain't Over, an album whose best intentions sadly fall short. Jackson was born in 1937 in Oklahoma and was encouraged to take up music at an early age by her father. By 1956, she had learned to sing and play guitar earning a regular radio show in Oklahoma City. After graduating high school, she launched a full-fledged career in music that was a mix of country and rock 'n roll. She was known as the “Queen of Rockabilly.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Adjusted: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is not your ordinary mess of a movie. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the plot deals with material pretty familiar from much of science-fiction. It delves into the idea of fate versus free will and whether or not our destiny is our own. But what looked from the trailers to be your typical paranoid thriller turns out to be essentially a romantic story. But the many styles at work in this film ultimately cancels the movie out. The Adjustment Bureau is too busy adjusting itself.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young rising star running for the Senate in New York, who keeps finding ways to mess up his career ambitions. On the night he loses the election, he happens upon Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room (hiding from security) while he's practicing his concession speech. Within seconds, he believes he's met the love of his life. Unfortunately, their brief tryst is interrupted by aides whisking him to the podium. But one day, he meets Elise again on a bus heading to work and he seeks to hook up with her. The problem however is that he soon encounters a bureau of men dressed in fedoras who work for "the Chairman." These dapper business folks zap people's memories to keep them on their destined path in life. Apparently, Norris and Elise were never supposed to meet again after that first encounter. The rest of the film features David trying to outwit the Bureau while the fedora brigade keeps trying to throw roadblocks in his path.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fifty-Two Years and Countless Cats: Good-Bye, My Friend

Someone very close to me died last week. Suze Rotolo, whom I met in 1958, had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer shortly before publication of her book A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway, 2008). The autobiography includes details of her several years with Bob Dylan. She was known around the globe as the pretty girl on the iconic cover of his second album, 1963’s A Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. To me, Suze was a politically savvy, artistically inventive, thoroughly unpretentious, loyal, smart, warm, witty, whimsical, mischievous kindred spirit. And we shared an unbridled passion for kitties, many of which found homes with us over the decades.
Camp Kinderland. Suze next to Susan on the far right.
We met when she was 14 and, 11 months older, I already had turned 15, both of us counselors-in-training at the leftie Camp Kinderland in Upstate New York. Every Sunday afternoon in the fall, we would head for the Village together to rendezvous with our like-minded pals at Washington Square Park, where young bohemians gathered by the hundreds to sing and play folk music. As high school seniors in 1960, Suze and I spent our Saturdays picketing Woolworth stores in Manhattan to support the sit-ins by black college students at segregated lunch counters in North Carolina. We’d find sympathetic passersby willing to boycott the retail chain, take our leaflets and sign petitions provided by the Congress of Racial Equality. On May 19 that year, we volunteered as ushers at a Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy rally in Madison Square Garden. Before it even started, someone invited us backstage to shake hands with one of the speakers, Eleanor Roosevelt – a photo op and unforgettable moment of personal history.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Poet's Touch: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists

Memories. They can provide refuge or anguish. But they can also protect or betray their owners. Memories can spark nostalgic laughter between friends, or can be so sad they make one want hide carefully away from it all. Johanna Skibsrud’s Scotiabank Gillar Prize winning novel The Sentimentalists (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), beautifully examines the profound affect memories can have not only an individual, but all those close to him.

The novel is guided by an unnamed narrator who, following a personal crisis, returns to the stay with her father, Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam War veteran living in the fictional town of Casablanca, Ontario. Napoleon shares a house owned by Henry, the father of Owen, a fellow soldier who served beside Napoleon, who was mysteriously killed on an evening in October 1967. The town itself serves as a backdrop for ghosts, sitting by the shores of a man-made lake, and what lies beneath is the former town, where houses rest like sunken ships. The story moves between the present and the past, between Fargo, ND, the fictional Casablanca, ON, and the battlefield. The first half of the novel is a series of reflections presented by Napoleon's daughter. The narrator reminiscences over her childhood, her sister Helen, their mother and their travels between Fargo and Casablanca. There are bittersweet motifs of a loving, but distracted father; once a simple man who was complicated by the horrors of war. But those memories create a tribute of misunderstandings and misgivings that eventually lead to the demise of his relationships with others and himself.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When Criticism Backfires: I Spit On Your Grave (1978/2010)

Roger Ebert’s review of Meir Zarchi's 1978 film I Spit On Your Grave (aka, Day of the Woman) in 1980 created both the controversy and the reputation this film holds to this day. How does a critic do that? One, by either giving the micro-budgeted film a rave review and the film finds its audience from there. Or two, he rips it to shreds, calling it, “A vile bag of garbage.” He then goes on to tear the film to such ribbons that over the years a certain type of film-goer thinks, “Let me see that for myself.”

Guess what? Scenario two is the one that occurred. In fact, this film would never have been remade in 2010 without Ebert's eviscerating review of the original. In hindsight, he would have been better off ignoring it entirely. The problem with Ebert's review (it's available online) is that what he was really reviewing was the vile audience he saw it with, not the film. Briefly, both versions of I Spit On Your Grave tell the story of a young woman, Jennifer Hill (Camille Keaton, in the 1978 version; Sarah Butler, in the 2010 version), who rents a cottage on a river outside of very small town. She's a writer seeking privacy to write; she doesn't get it. Instead, she attracts the attention of four losers in the town who at first taunt and then rape her repeatedly. After they fail to kill her, she recovers and enacts a brutal revenge on all of them. In early February, Anchor Bay released both versions of the film, with commentary tracks and short documentaries, on DVD and Blu-ray.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Master Shot: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

While most of the hubbub at last night's Oscars concentrated on such worthy pictures as The King's Speech (which won Best Picture) and The Social Network, one of the best movies from last year actually didn't get a nod of recognition from the Academy. Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, based on Robert Harris's best-selling political thriller, The Ghost (2010), is a shrewd suspense drama which demonstrates that Polanski still has some clever tricks up his sleeve. And he's having a ball unveiling them. The fact that the film barely caught the imagination of the Academy, or the audience (except for a number of critics), just adds to the irony of the story itself.

The plot revolves around a British ghost writer (Ewan McGregor), whose name we never know, who has been given the assignment of completing the memoirs of his country's former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Although his agent tells him it's the opportunity of a lifetime, the previous ghost, a former aide to the PM, recently turned up mysteriously dead on the beach. Hence, the current job opening. Making matters worse, on the day the new ghost arrives, Rycart (Robert Pugh), a former British foreign minister, accuses Lang of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA (which, according to Rycart, leaves the former leader open to charges of war crimes). While Lang seeks refuge to avoid the reach of the International Criminal Court (which turns out to be the U.S.), his ghost writer begins to uncover clues in the memoir left by his predecessor that might possibly implicate Lang.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Good Terms with the Muse: Bruce Cockburn’s Small Source of Comfort

Bruce Cockburn’s 30th album is called Small Source of Comfort. It’s an interesting title taken from the song “Five Fifty-One” by a musician and songwriter who’s been making consistent, high quality music since the late 1960s. But Cockburn is a rather nomadic artist keen to challenge himself as much as he challenges his fans. Consequently, this new album, his first in five years, is a mix of familiar sounds while simultaneously looking forward. It features poignant songs about love, loss, and what you could call introspective instrumentals. (As usual for a Cockburn release, it also features printed lyrics in English and French, plus the date and geographic location of each song.)

Not typical of a Cockburn release, though, is humour. It’s to be found on the song “Call Me Rose” which is about Richard Nixon being re-incarnated as a single mother. Written in Montreal in 2009, it’s a track that speaks about Karma in a most original way. Who would have thought that Richard Nixon would ever be re-incarnated, let alone as a single mother with two kids? Well, Cockburn did. According to his notes, it came easily to him. Which begs another question, after 30 years, how does he keep coming up with new songs? Perhaps he’s on good terms with his muse or, to be more practical, he’s constantly thinking, dreaming and writing it down, as is the case with “Call Me Rose” as a fully- formed song.