Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Espionage Masterpiece: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Damian Lewis, Morgan Saylor, Jackson Place, and Morena Baccarin in Homeland.

The word “homeland” makes me kind of queasy, especially when used by the Bush administration in launching the Department of Homeland Security nine years ago. It’s reminiscent of the beloved Nazi “fatherland.” The less patriarchal “motherland,” preferred by the Soviet Union, sounds just as creepy. But as the title for a new series on Showtime, Homeland makes for a tantalizingly tense television drama in which creepy is a good thing. The brilliant Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a crack CIA agent taking medications to mask bipolar disorder. Mandy Patinkin is a marvel as Saul Berenson, a seasoned spook who’s her mentor. As performers, they’re both at the top of their game.

In the October 2 debut, the inciting incident takes place in Iraq, where Carrie is on an unauthorized covert mission. After a jailed militant awaiting execution tells her that an American POW has been “turned” by al Qaeda, she’s busted before learning more details, put on probation, and reassigned to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Of course, nothing can keep this obsessive woman from the work that gives her life its sole meaning.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Trying To Stop the Killing: Steve James’ The Interrupters

Good documentaries do two things well. They introduce us to stories we should know about (Watermarks, Marwencol), or go deeper behind the scenes of items on the news (Capturing the Friedmans, Inside Job) and they tell us those stories in an innovative and compelling manner often bolstered by their idiosyncratic directors. Would Cave of Forgotten Dreams be as interesting if it wasn't narrated by director Werner Herzog himself? His accented, quirky and wry delivery makes the film stand out from your run-of-the-mill narration. Other fine docs, like Project Nim, tell their tales using the best narrative techniques, including probing interviews and deft use of montage. But sometimes talented filmmakers compromise their talents to, understandably, get their story told. That's the unfortunate case with The Interrupters.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Together Apart: Four Strong Winds, by John Einarson with Ian Tyson & Sylvia Tyson

Four strong winds that blow lonely,
Seven seas that run high,
All those things that don’t change come what may
But our good times are all gone,
And I’m bound for moving on,
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way…

John Einarson has done something remarkable. He has managed to bring Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson to the table at the same time. The alert reader will note that they are not referred to as “Ian and Sylvia Tyson” but as individuals who share a last name. Nevertheless they both talked to Einarson about their careers (together and apart) for a fascinating glimpse into the folk music world in this new book Four Strong Winds (McClelland & Stewart, 2011).

Their presences stand like two Colossi of Rhodes straddling the ‘60s and today. I’m not sure they will ever receive the credit they are due. They had the same manager as Bob Dylan, they played the same clubs as Peter, Paul & Mary, the top-flight musicians who played with them all went on to success (David Rea and David Wilcox among them) … but somehow their biggest hits were scored by other performers. Neil Young’s version of Ian’s “Four Strong Winds” and We Five’s top ten rendition of Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind” are the performances we remember.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The King of Sad Bastard Songs All Grown Up: Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire

The ever prolific king of sad bastard songs, Ryan Adams, has emerged from his “retirement” with new material. Since announcing his hiatus from music in 2009, little was heard from the artist. By 2010, we saw Orion, a metal endeavor, released only on vinyl. That same year also marked the release of III/IV, the shelved sessions from the 2007 Easy Tiger recording with the Cardinals. While I respected Adams’ genre-bending talents, I found the latter album just too loud. (Yes, I’m 70-years-old and can’t stand those kids and their guitars.)

That being said, I didn’t know what to expect when I was forwarded an NPR First Listen of Ashes and Fire (PAX-AM/Capitol). About thirty seconds in, however, I was hooked. Adams makes a full come back with this signature country, Americana mix. Ashes and Fire is Adams’ presenting himself stripped down and soulful. Probably the most refined album of his career. The title track and especially the opener, “Dirty Rain,” contains that slow, familiar, twang evident in Adams’ earlier albums. Ashes and Fire is a solid autumnal delivery that perfectly matches the timing of the album’s release.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Neglected Gems #7: Childhood's End (1997)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why The Lord of the Rings’s Peter Jackson’s mock 1995 documentary Forgotten Silver didn’t become the cult hit it should have been. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

A memorable debut from Jeff Lipsky, co-founder of distributor October Films (Life is Sweet, Breaking the Waves) turned filmmaker, Childhood's End has more in common with frank, uncompromising European cinema than its softer American model. Following a group of Minneapolis teenagers, all on the cusp of adult responsibilities and challenges, Childhood's End sets out to paint a dark but still optimistic portrait of contemporary American youth. 

It's loosely plotted, picking up and dropping its characters in turn, but it never feels underwritten or sloppy. The film, which features Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie) in a small role, concentrates on two main strands: the love affair between Greg (Sam Trammell, True Blood), a hotshot young photo editor, and Evelyn (Cameron Foord), a forthright older woman; and the budding relationship between Evelyn's cynical daughter Denise (Colleen Werthmann) and the painfully shy Rebecca (Heather Gottlieb). Childhood's End is a strongly presented, sexually explicit drama, strikingly well acted and often startling in its intensity. It should have marked Lipsky as a talent to watch but the film barely made a ripple and his subsequent movies, Flannel Pajamas (2006), Once More with Feeling (2009) and Twelve Thirty (2010), none of which have played in my neck of the woods, were similarly neglected.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto .

Monday, October 10, 2011

Legendary Failures: Candide & Follies

Geoff Packard as Candide with the ensemble

The Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s savage 1759 satire Candide has undergone so many alterations since it opened on Broadway in 1956 that it’s practically a work in progress. That’s because the original production, which had a libretto by Lillian Hellman, wasn’t a hit, and no one thought highly enough of it to revive it until Harold Prince, working from a revised book by Hugh Wheeler, staged it in the seventies. Most of the lyrics are by Richard Wilbur but a number of hands have contributed to them over the years, including Hellman, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself. (James Agee, at the end of his life, wrote some lyrics, too, but they were never used.) The latest version, directed by Mary Zimmerman for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, also lists her as adapter.

Still, it would be a mistake to call the show a noble failure. It’s literate and ingenious, and the Bernstein music is glorious, prodigiously varied in style and rich in melodic invention
far more so (if I may venture a sacrilegious observation) than the much more famous score he wrote for West Side Story. But the musical has a history of overproduced and overstated productions. (Prince’s 1973 revival he staged a subsequent one in 1997 that I didn’t catch was heavy-handed and tedious in a way that played hide and seek with the virtues of the libretto.) The only time I’ve ever seen it work was when Lonny Price mounted a fairly elaborate staged reading in 2004 at the New York Philharmonic with Paul Groves as the fate-buffeted naïf Candide, Kristen Chenoweth as his beloved Cunegonde, an aristocrat whom the ravages of war and tyranny reduce to a whore, and Patti LuPone as the inscrutable Old Lady, who claims a past even more brutal and fabled than either of theirs. (The production was televised and is available on DVD.) Price and his company took a cheeky, light-handed approach to the material; it suggested something conceived by gifted undergraduates and performed by pros though the choruses were actually splendid amateurs, from the Westminster Choir College and Juilliard. Voltaire’s hilarious misanthropy was presented in the form not of a high-caloric banquet with an excess of dishes on the table but of a movable feast of delectable hors d’oeuvres. Rather than aiming a cannon at the timeless vices of humankind, the show leveled them by sneak attack.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

R.I.P.: Steve Jobs and R.E.M.

“Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”

Post on YouTube below the video for R.E.M.'s “Losing My Religion.”

I knew neither Steve Jobs nor any members of the band R.E.M. (who announced their break up about a month ago), so why does it feel I've lost people I know? Only one of these passings is truly tragic – the ridiculously unfair early death of Steve Jobs at 56 – and yet it is as if with his passing (and to a lesser extent, the breakup of R.E.M.) that an important part of my past has now, well, passed.

My first computer in 1989 was a Mac Plus. At the time, I was terrified of computers, but a friend had convinced me that Apple's products were the perfect vehicle for someone with my limited computer skills. I took her advice. I pulled the machine out of the box, followed the clear instructions, hooked up the wires, flicked the switch and it started up (okay, I had one brief panic call to the very helpful Apple Help Desk, but that was all). I managed again without any trouble to configure the machine and get it ready to accept programs. That, too, was painless. Within an hour of pulling the computer out of it's box, I was working in Microsoft Word on a device that, to me, was blisteringly fast (I know, don't laugh too hard). At that time, it was the culmination of work begun in 1977 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.