Saturday, September 5, 2015

In the Wake of Joni (Part Two): Wendy McNeill’s One Colour More, Rickie Lee Jones’s The Other Side of Desire and Eleni Mandell’s Dark Lights Up

Last week I started a review of new releases by women who I think have been influenced by Joni Mitchell. This week three more titles from women who, like Joni, pursue their muse with creative enthusiasm and fearlessness. All three albums were released this year.

Wendy McNeill is from Calgary, Alberta, currently living in Sweden. She’s one of the freshest songwriters and performers in Canadian music today. And, like most “over-night success stories, she’s been working at her craft since 1997. Her latest release One Colour More (Hidden Pop) is an eclectic delight to the ears that was first released in Europe. The move to Sweden has paid off because the album is a blend of dream pop, cabaret and folk tunes wonderfully fused together. The adventuresome record reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s music because McNeill isn't interested in just one sound: Each song has its own pallet. This record floats with Italian flare on “In Bocca al Lupa” (into the wolf's mouth) then quickly settles down with a Parisian ballad, “Owl and Boy,” a funny tale about matchmakers. McNeill’s songs are imaginative stories that have a certain mystic charm, as heard on “Papusza and the Crows.”

Friday, September 4, 2015

Spies, Hackers, & Reality Stars: Summer TV Roundup

Shiri Appleby and Josh Kelly on Lifetime's UnREAL.

The growth of television over the last decade-and-a-half has been remarkable. A medium once derided for its vacuity has expanded to dominate much of high culture as well as low, with serious publications featuring detailed exegeses on the nuances of dramas such as Breaking Bad and comedies such as Parks and Recreation. At the same time, TV’s rise has resulted in an explosion of new programming, especially scripted content, leading major critics such as Linda Holmes and Alan Sepinwall to wonder whether, in the latter’s words, there is “too much good scripted television.”

One corollary of scripted TV’s rise has been its expansion to new platforms at the same time that the broadcast networks, once the only game in town, have become increasingly boring and formulaic. “Prestige” television is generally understood to have migrated to outlets such as premium cable, online venues such as Netflix and Amazon, and some basic cable channels such as FX and AMC. However, the proliferation of scripted TV hasn’t stopped there. One of the most notable developments of this past summer has been the appearance of a number of very good shows on unlikely or little-known basic cable channels. The appearance of these shows suggests that even networks that seemed to have found comfortable, if unambitious, niches for themselves are looking to add some of the luster conferred by a quality original series to their reputations. None of these shows represents a radical reinvention of the form, but all of them offer a fresh approach to the now-familiar tropes of television drama.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Neglected Gem #82: Hollywood Homicide (2003)

Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett in Hollywood Homicide (2003).

Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide is breezy, low-key and smoothly crafted. It’s Shelton’s Hollywood movie (he co-wrote it with Robert Souza), so though it presents a no-big-deal police-procedural plot involving an ex-con (the excellent Isaiah Washington), now managing rappers, who hires an ex-cop (Dwight Yoakam) as a hit man to kill off a band no longer interested in his services, it has a hip, free-wheeling spirit and an almost put-on, not-quite-of-this-world feel. (A car in a chase smashes through what looks like a brick wall but turns out to be a movie-set drop – a good variation on a joke from the king of Hollywood-on-Hollywood pictures, Singin’ in the Rain.) The heroes are two LAPD cops who execute their job with alacrity even though each has more pressing matters on his mind. The older, Joe (Harrison Ford), has a real-estate business on the side that he’s hoping will heft him out of his current financial hole (he pays alimony to three ex-wives). He’s constantly taking calls on his cell, and he even brokers a deal to hook up one of the suspects – the owner of the club where the rappers were murdered – with a past-his-prime producer (Martin Landau) who wants to get rid of his Beverly Hills crib. K.C. (Josh Hartnett), the young stud with whom he’s lately been partnered, gives yoga classes to a room full of nubile females, and tells Joe he’s thinking of quitting the force and becoming an actor. (He throws together a showcase of A Streetcar Named Desire with himself as Stanley Kowalski.) K.C. became a cop because his dad was one and died mysteriously on the job. But though he tracks down his dad’s killer in the course of the movie, Shelton is smart enough not to let that subplot take over or alter the tone. The pieces of the plot fit together, but Hollywood Homicide is directed so that you don’t give them much thought. (You might, of course, if they didn’t fit together.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Swedish / American Charm: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Author Katarina Bivald. (Photo by Cecilia Bivald)

I don’t usually read books that are designated ‘chick lit’, but I will admit the distinction is an arbitrary one on my part. (I don’t avoid movies labeled 'chick flicks' and don’t, in fact, recognize that distinction. A good movie is a good movie, so why segregate films or books by the supposed gender they are aimed for?) However, I’ve had such a bad run on my reading this year, including the disappointments of Dan Simmons’ sloppily and badly written Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Fifth Heart and Richard Price’s new novel The Whites, written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt and much more conventional than his understated, original masterpieces Clockers, Samaritan and Lush Life. Thus, when my bookstore co-worker, Claire, whose opinion I respect, mentioned in passing that Katarina Bivald’s debut novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Vintage Publishing) was worth my time, I decided to give it a try. The result was, as the publicists would phrase it, a decidedly good read.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Off The Shelf: There’s Something About Mary (1998)

Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary (1998).

The R-rated comedy that also qualifies as a great film is a rare breed. Comedies, according to popular wisdom, are as hard to pull off as dramas, if not more so – and so raunchy, adult-themed comedies face the uniquely difficult task of being funny, smart, and provocative all at once. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, directors of slapstick comedies like Dumb & Dumber, Kingpins, and The Three Stooges, might not outwardly appear to have mastered this tricky balance, but their 1998 gross-out masterpiece, There’s Something About Mary, tips their hand. It’s a film that everyone remembers for a single, horrifically uncomfortable sight gag, but it stands up amazingly well under critical scrutiny. Successors to the Farrelly throne, like the ultra-popular Judd Apatow and his league of friends and collaborators, have gotten it half-right: they make memorable R-rated comedies with funny performances and clever gags, but these films often fall apart in narrative structure, or simply in terms of using film as a medium to its fullest potential. In short, there’s really something about There’s Something About Mary, which sets it apart not just as a fantastic comedy but an excellent film.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Ibsen and Barrie Rarities at the Shaw Festival

Moya O'Connell and Ric Reid in The Lady from the Sea, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

The Lady from the Sea is an infrequently performed late Ibsen, one of those realist plays of his that teeters on the edge of symbolism, like The Wild Duck. (He wrote it in 1888, between Rosmersholm and Hedda Gabler.) The character who has earned the title moniker among locals in a Norwegian seacoast town is Ellida Wangel. She is married to a devoted doctor but has grown increasingly distant from him and hasn’t quite taken on the burden of stepmother to his two daughters, Bolette and Hilde. He assumes that the problem is her inability to get over the death of their own child (she hasn’t slept with him since), but it’s more complicated. Ellida is haunted by a lost love, an American sailor to whom she was engaged but who ran away to escape imprisonment for the murder of a ship’s captain. The connection she feels to the unnamed American is powerful, primal and also terrifying, because she senses that he is drawing her into the sea itself, where they threw their wedding rings when they plighted their troth. In the course of the play the stranger returns and calls on Ellida to fulfill her promise to him, refusing to recognize her as a woman married to another man.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

In The Wake of Joni (Part One): Iris Dement's The Trackless Woods, Melody Gardot's Currency of Man and Laura Marling's Short Movie

Joni Mitchell (Photographed as part of the Saint Laurent's Music Project)
Last month I was celebrating a friend’s birthday with some fine wine, good company and a lot of music. At the time, Joni Mitchell was in the news having recently lost her voice after collapsing into a coma at home. My friend and I shared some worry over our favourite singer; an artist “we grew up with” all those years ago. The party lingered until we put Court & Spark on our stereo set to honour and celebrate Joni’s beautiful voice. As I said to my friend, who is three weeks older than I am, what can you say about a songwriter who believes that “there’s comfort in melancholy” as she sings on Hejira one of the most prized albums in our collections. I understand that Mitchell is doing much better having suffered an aneurysm that took her to hospital. She’s at home and she’s slowly recovering.

News of Joni’s improving health got me to thinking about some of the women who could be considered disciples or in her creative shadow. Since I’ve completed the principle writing of my book on Frank Zappa, I’ve been able to take the time to listen to some new recordings and revisit some older releases from earlier this year. I have six records all written and performed by women who have found their individual voices without compromise; free to express themselves, they each carry that special “something” that seems to hold that Joni Mitchell temperament.