Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rango: Brilliant and Adult

There’s been a recent fuss made by some parents’ groups about the fact that some of the characters in Gore Verbinksi’s brilliant new animated movie Rango are actually, shudder, smoking. They feel that the movie is setting a bad example in that regard and will entice their kids into taking up the deadly habit. I think their concerns are misguided as most of the small fry watching the film will be too busy enjoying the antics of the anthropomorphized creatures on the screen to pick up on that aspect of the movie. But I also feel that maybe, at heart, this isn’t really a children’s movie in the first place. Rango, despite the fact that it’s animated, is actually a really smart and decidedly grown-up send up and homage to classic westerns and other movie genres, one that is chock full of obscure movie in-jokes and adult references and situations. There’s even a mention of brothels in the Los Lobos song that plays over the closing credits of the film. In that light, I’d recommend that adults leave their kids at home or find another animated movie – there’s no shortage of them out there – to take their kids to instead. Leave Rango for us old folk who can best appreciate it.

I must confess I never thought I’d use the words brilliant and Gore Verbinski in the same blog. This is, after all, the director of the lame Pirates of the Caribbean movies (2003-2007) and the annoyingly shrill Mouse Hunt (1997). He also directed The Weather Man (2005), an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Nicolas Cage drama. Thus, none of his previous credits prepared me for how flat out inventive, original and entertaining Rango actually is.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Not Mischievous Enough For Me: Jill Barber's Mischievous Moon

By the time you read this, chances are I will have been clubbed over the head with a Vinyl Café mug, my hands and feet bound and my unconscious body stuffed into a trunk. When I come to, I’ll find myself in a seemingly abandoned warehouse, which serves as a re-education facility funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. What I’m about to declare is extremely dangerous, contentious, and down-right scandalous: I just don’t understand the appeal of Jill Barber. For this sweet, beautiful, and talented singer has converted everybody to her quivering coos. Everyone but me. Unfortunately her latest album, Mischievous Moon, has failed to change my mind.

Originally based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the popular singer-songwriter now calls Vancouver, B.C. home. Barber first broke into the music scene in 2002 with her debut album A Note To Follow So. An EP, Oh Heart, was then released in 2004. For All Time followed in 2006. Her folksy sound, her signature warbly voice, and (very) mellow acoustics caught the attention of the industry, which nominated her for both the East Coast Music Awards – she took home two in 2007 including Female Artist of the Year - and the Juno Awards. In 2008, Jill released her prolific endeavor, Chances, abandoning the coffee shop folk scene and replacing it with old-fashioned, jazz tinged, romantic melodies. Mischievous Moon (like Chances) also includes collaborations with its producer, Les Cooper, as well as a track co-written with legend Ron Sexsmith.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Neglected Gems #1: Solitude (2001)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success, but years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s no discernable reason for their fate. Neglected Gems will regularly highlight some of these films, which either saw their only showings at film festivals or cinematheques, had shortened commercial runs, or somehow just never made the impression they ought to have made when they came out. Some of them aren't even on DVD. Here's the first in the series.

Solitude is a quiet Canadian film, directed and co-written by Robin Schlaht, about three people trying to find themselves while in retreat at a Saskatchewan monastery. It is as unique as its subject. Based on Connie Gault's short story "The Fat Lady with the Thin Face," the film revolves around Michele (Vanessa Martinez), an aimless 19-year-old girl sent to the monastery by her mother; Linda (Wendy Anderson), a distressed 35-year-old woman fleeing a troubled home life; and Brother Bernard (Jesus of Montreal's Lothaire Bluteau), a monk who is not sure he still believes in God. Each of the characters gets a few scenes (the film is divided into chapters) but there are no great cinematic revelations here. Intriguingly, Solitude is more interested in raising questions about faith, love and spirituality than in answering them. The result, except for Bluteau's overly-mannered mopey performance, is remarkably affecting and authentic.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You Can Never Go Home: Duran Duran and R.E.M.

Duran Duran

There was a time in the world of pop music when two bands, Duran Duran from Birmingham, England and R.E.M. from Athens, Georgia, became the reliable supply to radio stations interested in being hip, yet still accessible with their formats. Both groups started in the late 70s just as punk and new wave music were emerging on commercial radio. These groups basically came to represent what we now call “alternative.”

Duran Duran, who were named after the villain in the 1968 film, Barbarella, directed by Roger Vadim, charted their own course by shaping their music and their appearance in what was called the “New Romantic” movement of British bands such as Spandau Ballet. I simply considered them now a British dance band with good hooks and high production values. To their credit, Duran Duran was one of the first acts to issue 12-inch extended re-mixes to club DJs.

R.E.M. was the genuine, original, college radio rock band. They launched themselves in 1980 with one of their great hits, “Radio Free Europe,” a song that garnered them a lot of attention from the get-go. They, too, had a string of great singles all peddled by the new video channels around the world. The kicker was the fact that R.E.M. made the slow, steady climb to pop stardom, while Duran Duran had immediate success following the release of the soft-porn video, “Girls on Film.” It featured topless women mud wrestling, fighting with pillows among other suggestive sexual depictions. It was released originally as a closed-circuit video for dance clubs, but the newly launched MTV was desperate for content before the video directed by Godley & Crème was released. It was a smash hit leading to a string of singles by the group that brought them international attention.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #16: Robert Stone (1984)

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.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Surpassing the Original: Alexisonfire's Take on Midnight Oil’s "The Dead Heart"


The Australian activist band Midnight Oil has been with us in one form or another since 1972. Over those years, they have always worn their liberal hearts on their sleeves. What I've always liked about the band is that they have walked the walk even when I disagreed with their point of view. For example, bald, tall, lead singer Peter Garrett has probably done more for Australian aboriginal causes, through his music and politics, than any other white man in the country's history. He was elected to parliament for the Labour Party in 2004 and, as with many activists who have moved into politics, has softened some of his more radical stances. Yet, there is still no debate that his and Midnight Oil's hit songs such as “Beds Are Burning,” “Dreamworld,” “Blue Sky Mine,” and, of course, “The Dead Heart,” have done plenty to bring recognition and exposure to some of the more horrific things that the modernization of Australia has caused.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Electric Ladyland: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

A few months ago, I was beginning a lecture series on the evolving role of women in Hollywood cinema from the pre-censorship Hays Code era of the early thirties to the present. To begin the talk, as a way to introduce my overall theme of the enduring power of the female image, I quoted from an essay by feminist scholar Camille Paglia on Elizabeth Taylor from her book, Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992). In that piece, Paglia called Taylor "the pre-feminist woman" who she described as a more substantial screen actress than Meryl Streep. "Cerebral Streep was the ideal high-WASP actress for the fast track yuppie era, bright, slick and self-conscious," she wrote. Whereas, Elizabeth Taylor "instinctively understands the camera and its nonverbal intimacies." Paglia went on to write that Taylor "takes us into the liquid realms of emotion" where "economy and understatement are essential." She says that "an electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens."

While I couldn't claim, in technical terms, that Taylor was the better actress, I understood why Paglia preferred her to Meryl Streep. With Streep, every acting movement is highlighted in the same manner that an operatic diva's high C's are designated to get massive applause. She transforms the fluidity of human emotion into a catalogue of mannerisms: the flick of the hair, an accent, a hand gesture, they all become tics and inflections that call attention to her acting abilities rather than revealing more about the character she is playing. (This is why I usually prefer Streep in comedy where she relaxes her steely control.) Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, is so sexually charged that she becomes (to borrow the Jimi Hendrix title) electric ladyland.