Saturday, October 10, 2015

Black Mass: Not Enough Color

Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, in Black Mass.

As James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Johnny Depp levels a cobra’s hooded gaze at his enemies and at those he suspects might become his enemies. That isn’t much of a distinction, and it doesn’t take much to cross it. Depp gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance as a charismatic sociopath, and in some scenes he’s very frightening. But he needs more colors, and I don’t think that’s his fault but the fault of the screenplay, which Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth culled from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. I haven’t read the source material, but Depp is obviously faithful to the Bulger you saw in the news every day during his 2013 trial and who emerges in last year’s riveting documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. The prosthetics have transformed Depp’s face so that he looks eerily like Bulger, but this kind of real-person camouflage, impressive as it is, always misses the point. (God knows it did when Steve Carell was buried under his make-up in Foxcatcher: the combination of Carell’s vocal tics and that artificial face, constructed to replicate that of a true-life lunatic most people couldn’t identify anyway, made him look and sound like an automaton.) Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper, is a prestige project, carefully assembled and made with obvious integrity. But it would be a more satisfying movie if Depp were slyer, more ironic – if he loosened up and had more fun with the part. You don’t want Jack Nicholson’s Bulger-inspired turn in The Departed, whose behavior was so clownish and preposterous that you couldn’t believe his gang didn’t just stage an insurrection and take him out, but you do need to get more of a sense of the character’s charm and of an outrageousness that isn’t just linked to a pathological taste for violence.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Beatles Confidential: Mark Lewisohn In His Own Write

The Beatles arriving at New York's JFK Airport on Feb. 7, 1964. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

Mark Lewisohn, the world’s only full-time Beatles historian, is a right scholar. In July, when the sun was shining and most Londoners were outdoors basking in the rarity of a cloudless English morning, the bespectacled Briton was ensconced inside the fortress-like British Library, quietly perusing a half century’s old clippings file having to do with the National Theatre’s 1967/68 stage version of In His Own Write, the 1964 book by John Lennon whose birthday it is today. Victor Spinetti, the Welsh actor who had appeared in such Beatles films as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, had directed the play for which Lennon had written additional material, and the reviews had been mixed. The comedian discussed the production in papers released to the public following his death in 2012. National Theatre stalwarts, Sirs Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier, also had referenced In His Own Write in correspondence of their own. Lewisohn, who makes it his business to know everything there is to know about the Beatles “It’s my life’s work,” he proudly declares   has read them all. But on this particular day he was on the lookout for additional details that would give him the full, unabridged picture   the who, where, how and why   of what actually had happened. “I go anywhere where I can find something new, new to me anyway,” he said during a coffee break in the library’s light-filled canteen. “I’ve been researching the Beatles since the late 1970s, and the fact that there are still things new to me is extraordinary. But that is very much the nature of this subject: there’s so much material to be found.”

Some of that new material, recently unearthed, will be exposed much later in future volumes of All These Years, the mammoth three-volume Beatles’ history Lewisohn was contracted to write in 2004 after first establishing himself as the world’s most foremost authority on the band. His previous books on the Beatles, each praised for their depth and breadth of knowledge and the brisk insightfulness of their prose, include The Beatles Live! (1986), The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988), The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992), and the co-authored (with Piet Schreuders and Adam Smith ) The Beatles’ London (1994). As well, Lewisohn worked as a researcher and consultant on the 1994-95 Beatles Anthology project, collaborating closely with Beatles producer George Martin in producing the three double-CD audio release. He has written liner notes for the Beatles’ re-releases and for Paul McCartney’s solo albums. All his experience and understanding of the Beatles is brought to bear on his unauthorized Beatles’ biography whose first volume, Tune In, was published last year to critical acclaim. The highly anticipated second and third volumes are projected to follow sometime in the next decade. The precise publication dates are unknown. The release of the books depends very much on the pace of the research, which Lewisohn admits is slow. But, as he explained in a conversation touching on the enduring appeal of the Beatles, and why the remaining members of the world’s greatest band appear to want nothing to do with his definitive history, Lewisohn explained that scholarship of the sort he is committed to pursuing just can’t be rushed: “This project is about leaving no stone unturned, and that’s a time-consuming process. If I stop researching today because everyone’s saying, ‘Hey, I want to read it now’ I could miss some vital thing that must be written into this history. Content is paramount.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Beginner’s Guide to The Shining (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Listicle)

The impossible path travelled through The Overlook Hotel by Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his Big Wheel is one of the many puzzling features of Stanley Kubrick's classic, The Shining (1980).

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are starting to change colour, everything you never wanted now comes in a “Pumpkin Spice” option, and many of us are beginning our month-long horror movie binges in honour of Hallowe’en. Maybe this is your first year participating in this ritual and you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you’re trying to impress some new friends with your carefully honed critical eye (read: ability to read Wikipedia). Or maybe, like me, you’re feeling the itch to have a horror movie night but you’re lacking the time, energy, or desire to actually get dressed and entertain people so you prefer to connect with like-minded strangers on the internet. Whatever the case, I’ve got you covered with everything you need for a satisfying critical viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 horror film, The Shining

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Chrissie Hynde: Reckless Indeed

Chrissie Hynde performing at the Irving Plaza, New York City, 1994. (Photo by  Ebet Roberts)

“The idea of me writing anything at all was ludicrous. My head was disorganized, a tangle of crossed lines. I couldn’t conclude a thought on a postcard… I wasn’t a poet. I wasn’t a writer. To begin a paragraph and find my way to a conclusion – Gretel tracking a breadcrumb trail would fare better… My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition and, if I couldn’t find a word in my dumb guy vocabulary, I would make one up.”

This is Chrissie Hynde describing how she approached being asked to write rock criticism for NME circa 1974. It would be a few more years before she stormed the charts herself in a band called The Pretenders. The self-evaluation holds true though, even today. The quote is from page 147 of her 312 page autobiography Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday, 2015). I laughed when I read it, because it echoes what I was thinking as I plowed through the book. It seems like she scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper and then pasted them together in more or less chronological order. Characters are introduced and then disappear, their ultimate relationship to Ms Hynde left undescribed, or maybe hinted at in a vague way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Foolhardy: The Walk

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, in The Walk.

While Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was suspended on a high wire strung across the Twin Towers, a girl behind me at my screening of The Walk whispered "I hate this movie." I know how she feels, and not because the film is bad. It's not. What it is is manipulative, in the way only Robert Zemeckis can be – and when he tilts his camera from Philippe's feet down to the bustling Manhattan streets thousands of feet below for the twentieth time, I stopped being engaged and started being nauseous. Do not – I repeat, do not – go to see The Walk if you get vertigo, or if you ate shellfish beforehand, or if you're averse to 3D. (I met two of those criteria.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Nova Pilbeam: The Girl Was Young

Nova Pilbeam with Leslie Banks in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). She passed away in July at the age of 95.

When she died in mid-July at the age of ninety-five, the English actress Nova Pilbeam had been retired for six and a half decades, and long forgotten. She appeared in only fourteen feature films, but in three of them – released in a row, between 1934, when she was only fifteen, and 1937 – she was startlingly and unconventionally good. In an age of affected child performances, she was completely natural, with effortless poise and an unobstructed path to her emotions that any Method-trained American actor would envy.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Resonating Impressions from Berlin, 2015

A section of the Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photo by Bob Douglas)

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
– Helen Keller
Berlin from my experience is one of the most stimulating cities in the world. As a long-time teacher and student of modern German history, Berlin possesses a fascination for me. Ian Buruma’s Wages of Guilt: Memories of Guilt in Germany and Japan (1994) contrasts Germany’s efforts at reparation with Japan’s denial of its aggression during the war. Nowhere in Germany has any city taken more responsibility to address this vital issue than Berlin. For fiction, Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper (1983), where we meet a diverse gallery of characters from both sides of the Wall, and his novel set after reunification, Eduard’s Homecoming (2000) are both insightful portraits of different periods in Berlin’s history. In the latter, the protagonist returns home from California after he inherits property in what was East Berlin, and is forced to examine both his family history during the Nazi era and his own actions, questioning whether he is just another West German opportunist who is taking advantage of the misfortunes of East Germans.

I still regret that I never travelled there before November 1989. Nonetheless, I have visited the city three times: in the early 1990s shortly after the Wall, the most tangible symbol of the Cold War, came down; ten years later; and for over a week at the end of this summer. Each time, the city resembles, at least in part, an urban palimpsest as it physically and spiritually tries to remake itself after the ordeal of the Third Reich and the tensions of a divided city during the Cold War. For example, the first time we exited from the U-Bahn at the old city centre, Potsdamer Platz, the area was desolate grassland that had lain fallow during the Cold War because it was situated right along the Wall. The second time, modern architecture featuring the Sony Centre, a monolith of glass and steel with a huge tent-like conical roof, showcasing the history of German film (an exciting exhibition), began to spring up. Currently, the building boom with both commercial skyscrapers and high-end residential housing has turned the Platz into the business-entertainment centre of Berlin. And that is just one site, as cranes continue to operate throughout the city both building and renovating. As thrilling as the first two trips were, the latest was the richest in large part because I carried with me a copy of Berlin by Norbert Schürer (Interlink Books, 2015) and participated in four of the eight thematic, reasonably priced, walking tours offered by Insider Tour.