Saturday, December 1, 2012

Four Neglected Gems (#30-33): The Last Letter (2002), Like a Bride (1993), Shake Hands with the Devil (2007) & The Emperor's Club (2002)

Frederick Wiseman's The Last Letter
As we get into the winter and holiday season, there's no better time to gather indoors to catch up with movies we may have missed. In this case, Shlomo Schwartzberg suggests four films we may not even know.

- editors of Critics at Large.

The Last Letter (La dernière lettre) (2002) is the only fiction film by famed documentairan Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, La Danse) is not really a stretch for the talented filmmaker since it feels just as authentic as anything he's ever done. First staged by Wiseman with France's acclaimed Comedie-Francaise, it has now been brought to the screen with all its devastating power intact.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Strong and Free: Three New Albums from Canadian Singer-Songwriters

Singer-Songwriter Jon Brooks (Photo by Kevin Kelly)

It’s not easy being a singer-songwriter these days.  Especially in Canada, where there are just so many of them.  How do you separate yourself from the crowd?  Is talent enough to make a difference?  Does the label you’re on count?  If I had the answer to these questions, I’d be a successful singer-songwriter myself, instead of being content with playing my tunes to my wife and sons in the basement, and writing about the rest of the gang.

On Saturday night, I attended one of Michael Wrycraft’s tribute shows at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. This one celebrated the songs of Tom Waits.  It was in fact Wrycraft’s seventh Tom Waits tribute!  Performers like Scott B & Gord Cumming, Melwood Cutlery, Annabelle Chvostek and Chris Cuddy with Don Rooke took up the challenge of forgoing their own songs for those of Mr. Waits.  It is always a surprise to hear the lovely and gentle melodies that exist below the rasp of Waits’ own voice, and Saturday night was no exception.  Beginning with the amazing powerhouse who is Ariana Gillis covering “Bad As Me” there was no turning back for anyone.  The York University orchestral pop ensemble Copycat proved their name by simulating Waitsian vocalizing over some extraordinary instrumentation, and Jon Brooks closed the show by prowling around the stage like a wolf playing his Taylor and howling at the moon.  It was a wonderful night. 

It also demonstrated how hard it must be to be a singer-songwriter these days. After all, Annabelle Chvostek has just released one of the best albums of the year, and here she was singing Tom Waits songs!  I’ve had Jon Brooks’ CD Delicate Cages (Borealis Records) on my desk for a few months wondering what to say about it.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Secrets of Subversion: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years"

One night in the late Seventies, on their network television show, Donny and Marie Osmond decided to perform a nostalgic tribute to the glorious days of our youth. Decked out in spangles and bell-bottoms, the duo picked a contemporary pop standard they believed caught the mood of nostalgia. As they began, they traded lines of the song as if exchanging precious memories:

You're everlasting summer
You can see it fadin' fast
So you grab a piece of somethin'
That you think is gonna last
Well, you wouldn't know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand.

Despite the bitter and acrimonious tone of the lyrics, the siblings' performance was upbeat and grossly energetic. They exchanged smiles, tossed individual lines to each other and reached out their hands as if eagerly anticipating their high school reunion. By the time they reached the chorus and were singing in harmony, their mood turned curiously exuberant:

Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the tears
Have you had enough of mine?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Abundance of Rewards: Brad Mehldau's Ode and Where Do You Start?

Brad Mehldau Trio

Brad Mehldau is probably the boldest and busiest musician in jazz today. This past year alone, he’s released a solo piano DVD, and two albums with his trio: Ode (Nonesuch, 2012) and Where Do You Start (Nonesuch, 2012). Support from the record company notwithstanding, certain questions can arise by such choices. Does Mehldau risk overexposure of his work? Does he have anything relevant to say? Or is he simply looking to cash in while the going is good? For me, it all depends on the work itself. I’ll let the marketers take care of their end. For Mehldau, the 42-year-old pianist and composer, it lies in his insatiable desire to express himself with frequency. So why not release two albums in the same year? Why wait if the moment strikes? And in jazz sometimes its best to strike while the proverbial muse inspires you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When a Physical Book Becomes a Symbol: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

In February 1989, a fire-storm erupted over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. It had been building for weeks, but finally burst into full-blown crisis when Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, meaning that any Muslim was compelled to kill Rushdie over the supposedly blasphemous novel. The fatwa did not just apply to Rushdie, though. Anybody who edited, published, translated or dealt with the publication of the novel in any way could also killed. People were murdered, including a few of Rushdie's translators. Rushdie went into hiding for years, moving a total of 56 times in the first few months alone.

Though Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, the fatwa has never been officially lifted. This past year, he published a memoir in novel form of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton. At the time, what got me mobilized, beyond my utter belief in freedom of speech (and yes, I defend the right of some offensive fool to say whatever they like just as much I defend my right to tear his or her arguments apart), was when bookstores in the US and UK, such as Barnes and Noble, began to fearfully remove the book from their sales racks. My reaction to that news was to head out to a bookstore in Toronto and immediately buy a copy. Since the chain stores now seemed too terrified to sell the book, I went down to Queen Street West to the (now-defunct) Edwards Bookstore. (I don't remember if Coles or WH Smith removed it from sale or not, but I wanted, in this case, to give my business to an independent bookseller.) They had new copies on sale, but before I took one up to cash I decided to check out their 'reduced' tables. Back in the day, Edwards Books was a treasure trove of great books on many subjects, but it was their bargain tables where I found so many wonderful ones I could regularly afford. As I glanced through the tables, my eye caught sight of two or three books without dust jackets, spines up. From a distance, there seemed to be pieces of white tape over the spines of these books. Out of curiosity, I looked closer. It wasn't tape, I realized, but white thread had been used to sew up damage on their spines. I got closer and looked at the title. I took an involuntary step back. They were all repaired copies of The Satanic Verses. I picked up the one that had the most elaborate work. The repair job was immaculate, like it had been done by a surgeon (they looked like stitches). Bisecting the word Verses (you can see an image further down the text). This white thread held together what looked like a scalpel-like cut right through the letter R of Verses. The others copies were repaired too, but none as intriguingly as this.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chekhov Vaudeville

As its name suggests, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a parody of Chekhov. It’s been a while since Durang has written one of these delirious literary/dramatic-literary burlesques; this one harks back to The Idiots Karamazov (which reimagines Dostoevsky’s Karamazov brothers as the Tyrone family from Long Day’s Journey into Night) and his one-act take-offs of The Glass Menagerie and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (titled, hilariously, A Sty in the Eye). Vanya and Sonia is messy and overextended and it seems to stall in the middle of the second act. But it’s a vaudeville, so its structural problems don’t matter all that much – especially when it has so many funny lines and Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce in the leads. Fitted out in a deluxe production staged by Nicholas Martin at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space, it made me laugh louder than any other recent comedy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Calculated Irony: Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos

The cover of Donald Fagen's fourth solo album, Sunken Condos (Reprise, 2012), features an illustration of a giant fish tank, only this time a glass condo glistens in the deep water like a typical castle. The CD jacket unfolds to reveal the interior of a condo unit just under the surface with the figure of a woman either about to succumb due to a lack of oxygen, or to become a mermaid. Her eyes are closed and her fetal-like position could also mean she’s about to be re-born. The ambiguity is not lost on me, but the cover, like most of Steely Dan’s records, are distinguished by their simple illustrations and colour schemes. (Covers as a tease to what the music might be about) For this album, the cover tries to satirize climate change to the extreme.

Six years after Morph the Cat, Fagen is clearly back. Despite the years between them, each record is a well-developed, thoughtful recording distinguished by the sound of Fagen’s smooth voice coupled with the most sophisticated arrangements in pop. Sunken Condos is no exception to the rule. But while this album may be outstanding in sound, the songs themselves fail to stand out. One could conclude that this is an album of songs that intentionally look inward. The evidence is found in the song, “Weather in My Head”: