Saturday, October 13, 2012

The ABCs of Neil Young: Two Views of Waging Heavy Peace

This is the third or fourth book I’ve read about Neil Young. One was Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, which began life as an authorized biography and quickly ended up being done at an arm’s length (Shakey, or rather, Bernard Shakey is Young’s pseudonym). The next one was called Long May You Run (by Daniel Durcholz and Gary Graff), and it’s a good companion to have on hand while reading Young’s just-published autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Penguin Books), since it is an illustrated history filled with pictures, posters, memorabilia and more. Then there’ve been special issue magazines, and whole sections on Neil in books about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But now we have the man’s own perspective. Neil Young’s own words … and, just like Bob Dylan’s long-awaited Chronicles (Volume One came out in 2004), it puts a whole new spin on what we know about its author.

Friday, October 12, 2012

When Mash-Ups Won't Mash: BBC's Exile

Jim Broadbent & John Simm in Exile

Exile is a strange hybrid. On one hand, it is a heart-felt family drama about the troubling nature of illness in the aged. On the other, it is a thriller whose main character tries to unravel crimes from the past in Ramsbottom, a town outside of Manchester, England. The biggest problem this BBC miniseries from 2011 (released on DVD last month by BFS Entertainment) faces is that it never finds the necessary connective tissue between the two genres they have mashed together. It is almost as if they don't have the faith that a story about a disgraced man, Tom Ronstadt (John Simm – the British Life on Mars), forced to come back to his childhood home and face up to the fact his once vibrant, talented newspaper-man father, Sam Ronstadt (Jim Broadbent – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), is in an Alzheimer's Disease death spiral, would be enough to hold an audience.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

True Blood: Margaret & The Experience of Violence

Anna Paquin as Lisa, in Margaret

"I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them – murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn't write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!"

– "A Conversation on Film With Leo Tolstoy" quoted in the appendix of film historian Jay Leyda's Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film (Princeton University Press,1960); and later reprinted in Roger Ebert's Book of Film (W.W. Norton, 1997).

In September 2001, it was my twentieth year as a film critic covering the Toronto International Film Festival. It was also the year of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Before the carnage took place, I'd already been seeing a number of pictures that dealt with the subject of violence. But my response to the violence was as varied as the films themselves. South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's drama Address Unknown, for instance, attempted to tackle the cultural stigma of Korean women who had had children out of wedlock with American USO soldiers stationed in Seoul. But the director quickly lost sight of the more ambiguous ramifications of the story. Kim's unbridled rage instead got the better of him. There were so many florid scenes of mutilation and brutality that it overshadowed any compassion we might have had for the characters. 

Then there was Patricio Guzman's documentary El Caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case). The director meticulously put together a stinging indictment of the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in 1998 and extradited for trial to England on charges of torture and murder. Guzman, a former Chilean exile, had been adamantly chronicling his country's turbulent history for over three decades. Ever since he filmed the coup of General Pinochet, which toppled the socialist Salvador Allende government in 1973, in his stunning epic 3-part documentary, The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979), Guzman had been making himself the caretaker of his homeland's national memory. While it lacked the accumulative power of The Battle of Chile, where we witnessed with horror as a cameraman captured his own death, The Pinochet Case was still a vividly personal and painful examination of the fallout from a nation's descent into totalitarian horror.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Urban Poetry: Film and Photo in New York at the Art Institute of Chicago

Louis Faurer. Times Square USA, 1950
In 1900, the Philadelphia-born painter Robert Henri moved to New York City to teach at the New York School of Art, where he encouraged his students to go out into the city streets with their sketchbooks and record what they saw there. Henri’s ‘quick sketch’ – a fast impression of urban life that could be worked up later into a print or a painting – sparked an era of American realist art as gritty and grimy and flush with everyday spectacles and stories as the city itself. Film and Photo in New York, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through November 25, looks at the work of six New York City photographers between 1920 and 1950 who took Henri’s quick sketch to a new level by using a camera, instead of a pencil and paper, to record their urban vignettes. Pioneers of street photography, each of these artists – Paul Strand, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt, Morris Engel, Weegee and Robert Frank – created images that were investigations of New York City as a dynamic, unruly, always-evolving subject, a kind of playground for the eye where a momentary glimpse could tap into a richly complex social experience. They also each experimented with film as a way of extending those investigations. The Art Institute’s exhibition looks at the way these artists approached the snapshot and the moving image as two ways of recording urban life.

Helen Levitt. New York, 1940
It’s a novel idea to examine this period of street photography by looking at how photographers used the burgeoning possibilities of film to elaborate on or enhance what they could do with still images, and the Art Institute certainly has the collection to support this topic. (All the works in the exhibition are drawn from the permanent collection, which includes a number of works that are on view for the first time.) The comparisons here are fascinating. Take, for example, the fiendishly accomplished and oft-neglected Louis Faurer, whose nocturnal photographs of Times Square are lit fantastically by the ambient light of billboard advertisements. The pictures have an almost surreal sheen, and, saturated with fragments of text from neon signs and theater marquees that create ironic and often funny counterpoints, they work kind of like found poems. By photographing the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, Faurer shows us a city that is itself marvelously and garishly theatrical – it’s always performing itself. (In this way they recall the New York City paintings and prints of the Depression-era satirist Reginald Marsh.) Meanwhile, the film by Faurer included in the exhibition, Time Capsule, a silent documentary shot in the 1960s, splices together movie footage of Times Square to provide a dazzling glance into the kinetic swirl of the city. Faurer’s flash impressions of the myriad incandescent bulbs that shoot the street full of light gives you the sense of a city vibrating with life. The subject is the same as in the photographs, but the movie camera allows Faurer to go even further in recording experiences in the process of unfolding, and to convey the sense of the artist folded into them, one among the crowd.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Neglected Gem #26: Just Tell Me What You Want (1980)

Ali MacGraw and Alan King in Sidney Lumet's Just Tell Me What You Want

Sidney Lumet's underrated caustic comedy Just Tell Me What You Want is one of the final gasps of the American cinema of the 1970s, the decade in which it was made, and another example of what was, in retrospect, the last Golden Age of American moviemaking. It was a time when the films were inventive, honest and, most significantly, made relevant commentaries on American society and its concerns.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Speedy: Hit and Run and Premium Rush

Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard star in Hit and Run

At the end of August, while critics and buffs were bemoaning the arid movie summer, two blithely enjoyable entertainments, Hit and Run and Premium Rush, opened more or less unnoticed and died a quick death at the box office. Hit and Run, written by Dax Shepard and directed by Shepard and David Palmer, pays tribute to Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express, though it’s more closely linked to now-forgotten off-the-beam seventies road pictures like Slither and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Like them it’s a whacked-out charmer. (It also reminded me in some ways of the terrific Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot from 2008, which opened almost nowhere, though the tone of Hit and Run is much lighter.) Kristen Bell is Annie Bean, who lives in a dusty northern-California town with her boy friend Charlie (played by Shepard, who is also Bell’s main squeeze off screen). She teaches Intro to Sociology courses at a local college, but her chair, Debbie (Kristin Chenoweth), lands her an interview at an L.A. university for a job opening her own department in conflict resolution, which is what her doctorate is actually in. The job, if she wins it, would be a coup, since she designed her own discipline and so when she went on the market there were no teaching jobs in the country that might have allowed her to teach in her area of specialization. Despite Debbie’s insistence – she doesn’t want to Annie to end up like her, in a dead-end job, kept afloat on tranquilizers – Annie is reluctant to make the move because Charlie, who hails from L.A., is in witness protection after testifying against a pair of bank robbers. Still, Charlie insists that she go down for the interview; he even says he’ll drive her himself, despite the danger. When Annie’s ex, Gil (Michael Rosenbaum, the Lex Luthor of TV’s Smallville), finds out he goes into hyperprotective mode: he’s sure that Charlie’s situation hides a shady past and he’s under the delusion that he can get Annie back. So he gets his cop brother, Terry (Jess Rowland), to do some checking, finds out Charlie’s real name, and lets the men he testified against know where he is. Gil’s a jerk and an idiot, but he turns out to be right about one thing: unbeknownst to Annie, Charlie’s no innocent. The men he testified against were his partners; he drove the getaway car. And the only reason they aren’t in prison is that the brains behind the gang, Neve (Joy Bryant), was Charlie’s girl at the time – he turned state’s evidence in exchange for her release – which, as it turned out, rendered his testimony untrustworthy. Now she’s dating Alex (Bradley Cooper), the violent loony bird Gil gets in contact with in an effort to eliminate the man he still thinks of as his rival for Annie’s affections. He figures that once Alex disables Charlie, he can step in and drive Annie to L.A. himself, proving how indispensable he is.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Vegas, Revolution, and Elementary: Something Old, Something Borrowed, Something New

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller star in Elementary, a new drama series on CBS

The 2012 fall television season is in full swing – most of the new TV series have premiered and many old favourites are back with new episodes. Back at the beginning of September I have to admit that I was far less excited about the new shows than I have been in many years. Few jumped out at me, and for the first time in a while, there wasn’t a single standout show I was eagerly awaiting (as I had anticipated The Walking Dead and Awake in years past). It seemed like if anything, Fall 2012 was destined to be a season of more-of-the-same: a post-apocalyptic story with conspiracy undertones reminiscent of Lost and Terra Nova, an Americanized Sherlock, at least two Modern Family-inspired sitcoms, a new ode to Justified complete with a gun-toting cowboy/sheriff who plays by own rules, and yet another Matthew Perry comedy!

To my delight and surprise more than a few of these shows have far exceeded my admittedly low expectations. Today I’m looking at three network dramas – Vegas (CBS), Revolution (NBC), and Elementary (CBS) – which, while classic examples of some well-worn television tropes, have so far turned out to be remarkably rich variations on those themes. (Next week, I’ll weigh in similarly on some of the networks’ best new comedy offerings.) 2012 may not be a year for creative risk, but it may turn out to be the year of slow and steady, with more than enough solid network fare to keep you warm throughout the fall.