Saturday, December 20, 2014

Incongruous Encounter: Frank Sinatra Meets Randy Newman

There have been some naturally skeptical reactions to the notion of Bob Dylan doing a cover album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. With a voice that is more a rough in the diamond than the reverse, his about to be released Shadows in the Night stands to prove an interesting challenge that hopefully will yield better results than his crooning of Christmas carols a few years back. But Shadows in the Night got me thinking about another incongruous encounter between Sinatra and another unlikely performer long before he died.

I think it's safe to assume that when Frank Sinatra created Reprise Records in 1960, he didn't envision a line-up that would eventually include Tiny Tim, Jimi Hendrix, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Neil Young, The Fugs and Randy Newman. However, by 1970, there they were, not to mention a host of others just like them – and here was Frank Sinatra situated among them. Curiously, at the time, Sinatra was also in need of a hit song. So he turned to an unlikely collaborator from his label: Randy Newman.

Frank Sinatra has been a best-selling artist for Capitol Records since 1953 after a long string of sensational albums. Sinatra possessed the kind of dreamy, forlorn voice that could reach down to the very essence of tenderness in a sad song. When he interpreted such indelibly sorrowful tunes as "I Can't Get Started," on No One Cares (1959), or "Willow Weep for Me," on Frank Sinatra Sings Only for the Lonely (1958), he would embody the song's anguish so effortlessly it was if the compositions were singing him. Sinatra had perfected a distinctly romantic style, a sexiness born of both heartbreak and despair. He played out the role of the lonely guy at the bar, nursing his glass of scotch, then imparting a lasting story of regret to you alone. In doing so, Sinatra could keep alive a slight flicker of romantic desire, hushed yearning or grievous moment that became more deeply intoxicating with every line he sang.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Not Yet One for the Books: TNT's The Librarians

Rebecca Romijn and Noah Wyle on The Librarians on TNT

A latecomer to the 2014-15 television schedule, The Librarians premiered on TNT last week – and the small amount of press leading up to it intrigued me. Not because it was on TNT, whose other entries this year – the Michael Bay-produced The Last Ship and almost unwatchable Legends (who thought putting Sean Bean opposite Ali Larter was a good idea?) – were overblown and melodramatic. But simply because the premise of The Librarians sounded just goofy enough to be appealing: an adaptation of a trilogy of made-for-television fantasy-adventure films that I'd never seen, about a character named "The Librarian" that TNT had produced between 2004 and 2008. The movies starred Noah Wyle (now on TNT's Falling Skies, which is about to air its fifth and final season) as the eponymous character, and had unapologetically pulp titles, like The Librarian: Quest for the Spear and The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice. The press threw around references to Indiana Jones and Joss Whedon's Angel, but to my mind it sounded like a cross between The Middeman and SyFy's recently-departed Warehouse 13 – and that was good enough for me. The new series would star Rebecca Romijn (X-Men) as Col. Eva Baird, a counterterrorism agent assigned to watch over a new group of talented but inexperienced operatives as they negotiated a world of unseen magical and diabolical forces. And with Sleepy Hollow just going on mid-season hiatus, I had a goofy, fantasy/adventure-shaped hole in my TV-watching schedule.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sleuthing in the Holidays: The Burning Room, Thin Air and Murder on the Île Sordou: A Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal Mystery

In Michael Connelly's latest, The Burning Room (Little, Brown and Company), Los Angeles Police Department detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch is still attached to the Open-Unsolved Unit, which is usually tasked with solving cold crimes from many years before. But in this case, the victim, a one-time mariachi musician, has just died. Ten years before, a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting had hit him. It cost him his legs and lodged next to his spine, from where it could not be safely removed, taking a decade to kill him. Bosch and his brand-new partner, newly appointed detective Lucia Soto, are assigned the case. But when the bullet is finally removed from his body, it suddenly becomes clear that the victim was shot with a hunting rifle, making it extremely unlikely they’re dealing with a drive-by gone awry. Starting from scratch on a 10-year-old case is difficult enough, but Bosch is not thrilled with his new partner, who was the heroine of a shoot-out in the street, but has no experience as a detective, let alone in homicide. Bosch’s boss makes it clear that the senior detective should pass along his knowledge and skills. But Bosch soon finds that Soto has an agenda of her own: She is determined to solve a 20-year-old arson case in which five of her friends died. Bosch agrees to help her, though their current case must come first. It’s a treat – as it always is in a Harry Bosch novel – to watch the veteran detective play the system using his vast network of informants, friends and former colleagues to overcome the resistance of the police bureaucracy and the outright hostility of his bosses. The detectives’ two investigations eventually step on some prominent toes, and they are told to back off, but you know they won’t. And they don’t.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mother's Day: The Babadook

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis star in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook

The low-budget Australian horror movie The Babadook is about the relationship between Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single mother whose husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth, and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Actually, saying that it’s “about” the two characters kind of understates the matter. The movie doesn’t have any more supporting characters than seems absolutely necessary, and the other people who do drop in—Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and her daughter, a sympathetic neighbor (Barbara West), a co-worker of Amelia’s (Daniel Henshall) who briefly takes an interest in her—don’t hang around; they say their lines, establish their connection to the mother and son (or their lack of same), and vanish, at least until they’re needed again. At one point, when a couple of wordless bit players get the film frame to themselves during an outdoor scene, I felt strangely grateful for the sight of them, as if they’d arrived to keep me company on a desert island.

Usually, movies this under-populated just feel cheap and claustrophobic, but first-time director Jennifer Kent has a game plan: her narrow focus, and her fascinatingly jittery, anxious camera work and editing, result in a genuinely frightening little movie, with a near-Expressionist intensity. The style is a reflection of the mindset of the heroine, who can never get enough sleep. Her son, who’s obsessed with inventing weapons, such as a handmade crossbow, to protect them from something evil and menacing, is in a constant wide-eyed manic state, so that the other characters tend to assume there’s something the matter with him. (Veteran horror movie audiences, meanwhile, may leap to the assumption that he’s some kind of demon child, out of The Omen or Village of the Damned.) The movie has what feels like an in medias res opening, with Amelia so exhausted that it’s hard to imagine what the family’s “normal” existence might be like.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Double-Time Swing: Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

The thing to understand before you see Whiplash is that it isn’t at all like Amadeus or Inside Llewyn Davis or Ray – not just because it isn’t a biopic, but also because it shares little with those films in their exploration and exultation of a life spent making music. Instead it’s a harsh, heart-pounding ride through the dark side of music, that plays more like a thriller than a movie about jazz drums.

The film follows drum major Andrew (Miles Teller) in his struggle to become the number one percussionist at the fictional, Julliard-esque music academy he attends in New York. As a character later points out, if Andrew is the best at his school, then that means he’s the best in New York, which means he’s among the best in the world – and he will accept nothing less. The person who is both prime motivator and immovable obstacle to this goal is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tyrannical bandleader of the school’s competitive studio ensemble, who takes Andrew under his wing and nearly breaks him in the process.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pas de Trois: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in This is Our Youth (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

As the late adolescents in the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson are improbably loose and funny together, like performers with strikingly disparate styles who’ve been working together so long they can anticipate each other’s moves. It’s slacker vaudeville. This play, which was Lonergan’s breakthrough, was first produced off Broadway in 1996, with Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton and Missy Yager; it had a limited run but received so much praise that it reopened two years later (with Mark Rosenthal stepping in for Hamilton), and Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin picked up the roles when it was mounted in the West End in 2002. This new production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with an acute sensitivity to the play’s complex tonality, is the first time the play has been seen on Broadway. Though the Sunday evening performance I attended was full, overall it hasn’t been drawing crowds – and it deserves to sell out. I saw a tape of the 1998 revival, and though Ruffalo was very funny as the drug-addled misfit Warren, I ran out of patience for the characters. You could see Lonergan’s talent for dialogue and for rendering the milieu, upper-middle-class Manhattan Jewish teens in the early 1980s, very bright but derailed, with highly successful career-focused parents with whom they have brittle, sometimes ugly relationships. (Lonergan’s superb 2011 film Margaret has the same geographical and social setting, though it takes place three decades later.) But the play felt insubstantial. Shapiro’s production is both funnier and more poignant – and it gives a much sharper sense of how good the script is.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part One): Sean Michaels' Us Conductors

Leon Theremin poses with one of his inventions.

There are two schools of thought regarding the writing of historical novels. The first and the most widespread belief is that the novelist should not knowingly violate the historical record but should use his or her imagination to consider what might have happened when no documentary evidence exists. This might include the invention of fictional characters that are in a position to observe and recount the expressed feelings of historical actors; a writer can enter into their minds or flesh out the personalities and biographies of individuals when there is little historical documentation. The novelist in short can enter a domain from which the historian is excluded. Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (HarperCollins, 2011), the story of the preparation for the first Leningrad performance in 1942 of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the besieged city, exemplifies this literary tradition and will be discussed in a subsequent review.

A second perspective is that the novelist has every right to pick and discard from the historical record whenever it suits his purposes. Sean Michaels, a Montreal-based author who founded the music blog, Said the Gramophone, and the 2014 winner of the Giller prize for fiction for his debut novel, Us Conductors (Random House Canada), illustrates this iconoclastic approach. In his Author’s Note, Michaels explicitly acknowledges that his novel about the Russian engineer, physicist and inventor, Leon Theremin is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies,” making it difficult for the reader to know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin unless one reads Albert Glinsky’s Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (which Michaels recommends for anyone who wants an accurate rendering of the life of Leon Theremin). Theremin is most famous for the invention that bears his name: an electrical musical instrument played by moving one's hands in the space between two antennae, one hand controlling the pitch, the other the volume. The theremin, forerunner of the synthesizer, was often used in soundtracks for science fiction films because of its other worldly sound, and an advanced version was used in the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations.” I would recommend Steven M. Martin’s documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and the CBC radio documentary “Out of Thin Air." The former highlights the theremin’s cultural applications and provides archival and the then-current 1993 footage of Theremin himself. The latter explains how the theremin operates and we hear some wonderful offerings by Clara Rockmore in YouTube performances and from a modern theremist. Most readers are unlikely to read the biography, or watch the film which does contain historical inaccuracies and omissions – or may not even care about Us Conductors' historical shortcomings because, it is, after all a novel. But I do and that is why I am motivated to write this review.