Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Frank: Seth MacFarlane's Music is Better Than Words

At Capitol Records, the Neumann U47 microphone is known as "The Frank" because it was used to record the voice of Frank Sinatra during the 1950s. For Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and an out-of-the-closet crooner, "The Frank" symbolizes the passion he feels for the music of an era that featured the kind of orchestral arrangements that put Sinatra on the musical map.

Music Is Better Than Words (Universal Republic, 2011) is Seth MacFarlane's auspicious debut on CD. The album is a throwback to a time when vocalists literally sang with the orchestra in the same studio. Sinatra's Capitol recordings in particular captured an emotional dynamic that distinguished them from just about everything else in music. This was partly due to their technical achievements. But it was also due to the arrangements and the close proximity of the vocalist with the band. MacFarlane's record is not a tribute per se, but an attempt to capture the sound and energy of Sinatra's recordings. That's a worthy goal, but it's only as valuable as the music we hear. On Music Is Better Than Words, we hear it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Departures and Arrivals: Watching Movies on Airplanes

Due to a family emergency, I recently spent the equivalent of 34 hours in the air flying overseas to Goa, India and back. Fortunately, I have no fear of flying, but when you spend that much time in airplanes there is only so much sleeping and reading that you can do. I’ve never been one to stare off into space during air journeys, so I watched a lot of movies. Jet Airways, an Indian-based airline, is a very modern service with comfortable seats, good service and individual seat-back video screens. They offer a full array of movies from Hollywood and Bollywood. I’ve never been that much of a Bollywood fan, so I really wasn’t in the mood for those long films with the out-of-the-blue ubiquitous dancing and singing scenes – don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some of the pictures and have liked them, but there’s only one I can hands down recommend, even though it is over three hours long: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), directed by Adiya Chopra and starring Bollywood’s Tom Cruise, Shahrukh Khan – so I brought up the list of Hollywood films. There were a lot.

In the past year, I’ve really have been remiss in seeing the new offerings out of Hollywood (I'm told I haven't missed much), so this journey became an ideal opportunity to catch up on some films I’d intended to see, but never got around to them. Little did I know until I got home that the pictures I watched actually fit two themes that reflected both my journey to Goa and back. The films on offer ranged from ‘70s classics, Chinatown, to hits from 2011 such as Dolphin’s Tale and Puss in Boots. There is a certain restlessness when you are stuck on an airplane, so as I flipped through the list, I ticked off a few I was interested in seeing. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to watch anything I’d already seen (bye bye, Chinatown). So I settled in to watch a number of films, some that both Shlomo and Susan reviewed in Critics at Large when they were first released.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It’s In The Mail…: Recent CDs

Someone recently asked me about a comment I made in a previous review. In a rant about Bob Dylan, I let slip that sometimes it’s hard to listen to some of the music that people send me to review. I remarked something about how I had to force myself to listen to some of it. I still stand by that remark; sometimes it is hard. You really want to dig the new Little Willies CD (which I bought on Friday and haven’t even put into the CD player yet), but then there’s that large stack of CDs that other people have sent me for review. “I’d better get on it,” I think. So, today, I’m going to go through the last batch of CDs that have come in, and tell you exactly what I think about them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred

Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Set in a deliberately indeterminate and impossible era, Archer seems contemporary as far as pop culture is concerned, but still somehow exists in the middle of the Cold War. The Russians and the KGB are the baddies, and the Middle East is nowhere in sight, but storylines involving affirmative action, energy conservation, and sexual harassment complaints seem to place it in our own time. Cars and clothing reference the 60s and 70s, but everyone carries a cell-phone with picture and video capabilities. In the end, it all becomes just another part of the sheer fun of it all. And there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadheads: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure (1999)

Back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, the co-founder and resident guru of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack, Elvis Costello, one of the early progenitors of punk, made a curious comment. "I think it's harder for people who don't subscribe to the cultural phenomenon of the Dead to appreciate some of the quality of the songs," Costello told Rolling Stone. "If somebody else were to take 'Stella Blue,' say, and record it like Mel Torme would record it, you would hear what a beautiful song it was." To some, Costello should be someone who represents a full rejection of the hippie ethos that the Dead were part of, but his remark has an interesting way of cutting through the patina of our musical prejudices. Stripped of their cultural and mythical baggage, the Grateful Dead's songs might actually stand up as some beautifully composed pieces.

I never bought into the phenomenon of the Dead, or the trappings of the Dead worshipers (known affectionately, or derisively, as 'Deadheads') who followed the band from town to town. But I certainly loved some of their music, many of those songs (like "Ripple" or "Ship of Fools") asked us to share their quest for community, which they sought with a true sense of commitment while adding a healthy respect for tradition. I also sometimes heard risk in their music, a dare to go further than their fans might allow. (That risk though had its pitfalls. Performing live the band could either take you soaring into endless waves of cascading melodies or simply bore you blind.) Few have ever made clear why the Grateful Dead had (and, I suppose, continues to have) a lasting appeal, but Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, written in 1999, does. Her book provides a fascinating examination of the times of the Grateful Dead, and answers pertinent questions as to how and why the Dead outlived the doomed counter-culture of the Sixties.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Coriolanus: The Indomitable Roman

In his directorial debut, Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes shows a genuine conceptual talent. He’s made a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, with the title character (played by Fiennes himself), a general in Marine camouflage gear who starts off by defeating the neighboring Volscians, waging an Iraq-style war shot with hand-held cameras. (John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator, Hugo and the stage play Red, wrote the screenplay.) The cinematographer is Barry Ackroyd, and these early sequences are reminiscent of his best-known assignment, The Hurt Locker, with their dusty, metallic lime greens and their kinetic, you-are-there camerawork. Fiennes sets the scenes with TV news headlines and, in one particularly witty episode, he and Logan translate an exchange among Romans about Coriolanus as a Frontline-style debate. When Coriolanus returns from the war, the tribunes who plot his downfall are a pair of smug suits (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who manipulate the Roman people so craftily that instead of being elected consul he’s exiled; his aristocratic pride, which prevents him from abasing himself to them – he won’t show them his battle wounds – is interpreted as proof that he doesn’t prize the good of the populace above his own selfish concerns. In the movie he comes from a distinguished military family: his bellicose mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who boasts that she’d rather lose eleven sons in battle than have one behave like a coward, attends his welcome-home reception uniformed like a WAC.

Coriolanus is one of the plays in which Shakespeare addresses the fickleness of mobs – Julius Caesar and to a lesser extent Timon of Athens are the others – and they’re notoriously tough to pull off. The crowd scenes in Coriolanus, like the ones in Julius Caesar, are more theoretical than dramatic; even though you know that Shakespeare’s right about mobs, it’s hard to buy the moment when a line or two from a charismatic speaker, or even Marc Antony’s oration, sways the Romans to flip their sympathies. It’s even harder to render scenes like these convincing on a big screen when the style you’ve chosen is documentary realism, but Fiennes makes an honorable try. The main problem with the movie is that it lacks tonal variety, a flaw Fiennes and Logan have inherited from the text. Fascinating as it is, with extraordinary scenes and a couple of memorable characters (Coriolanus and Volumnia), Coriolanus must be Shakespeare’s most somber tragedy; even Timon contains more humor, though it’s bitter and caustic. And once the title character, stung to fury by his treatment at the hands of the Romans, defects to the Volscians and allies himself with their leader, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, in a surprisingly believable performance), and the filmmakers have run out of visual invention, the movie slips into an undifferentiated grayness.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Black and White and Red: A Tale of Combat Togetherness

Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails

The homophobia, racism, misogyny and pure backwardness among Republican candidates hoping to relocate to the White House is beyond shocking. Even crazier than Rick Santorum’s desire to ban all forms of contraception is the pledge by Newt Gingrich, who calls Barack Obama a “food stamp president,” to make poor black children clean bathrooms in their schools. He alleges they have no work ethic, so his solution involves abolishing child labor laws and paying slave wages (about 60 cents an hour!) to kids as young as nine for janitorial duty.

In Red Tails, a passion project for more than 20 years from executive producer George Lucas, some presumably poor black kids in the mid-20th century skip toilet patrol but grow up to become brave ace pilots during World War II. The film is a fictionalized account of the real-life 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at a similarly named school in Alabama and served in the segregated U.S. Army Air Corps. Almost seven decades later, the genius behind the Star Wars franchise had to finance the new movie himself at least $58 million because Hollywood studios feared a predominantly African-American cast would limit box-office success.

In tribute to the courage of Lucas and especially of the true Tuskegee heroes, I wish I could report that Red Tails is a masterpiece. But the script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) relies on wooden, cliched dialogue and characters, all seemingly straight out of 1940s B-movies about combat: There’s the wise-cracking chief mechanic (Andre Royo) with his cap turned sideways; a religious fellow (Marcus T. Paulk) who carries a card for good luck that depicts a black Jesus; the 332nd’s never-less-than-wise Major Colonel Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) always puffing on a big Meerschaum pipe like General Douglas MacArthur; and the insidious German Luftwaffe commander who instructs his forces to “Show no mercy!” What? Were these Nazis liable to show mercy if not told otherwise?