Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ellie Greenwich

Overlooked this past week was the death of songwriter Ellie Greenwich. Along with husband Jeff Barry, Greenwich wrote some of the best pop anthems out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. Her best known works included the thrilling “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the giddily melodramatic “Leader of the Pack,” the glorious “River Deep, Mountain High,” and (my personal favourite) “Be My Baby.”

Produced by Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” was a hit single in 1963 for The Ronettes. Brian Wilson, who called the tune “the greatest pop record ever made,” built the foundation of The Beach Boys' music on that very song. In subsequent years “Be My Baby” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (even the Library of Congress added it to the United States National Recording Registry in 2006). What makes this song so great? In the early ‘60s, girl groups routinely sang about love and heartbreak. Many of the Brill Building songs expressed the anguish of broken hearts and doubts of fulfillment (as in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”). But Barry & Greenwich, in “Be My Baby,” wrote a number where a woman stakes her claim to both stand up to her man and also let him know that if he let her go, he’d be the loser. Who could argue? The memorable opening gunshot of the drumsl, thumping defiantly like a beating heart, ushers in the urgency of Ronnie Spector’s desire. When she pleas for the guy to be her baby, she’s not talking about him doing it maybe next week, she says be my baby, NOW!

“Be My Baby” goes way past seduction into making the listener feel like an idiot for ever considering refusing her. Spector’s voice is so erotically charged that you are hypnotically entranced by the possibilities in the promises that the song offers. In Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese used “Be My Baby” over the opening credits of his fever dream about a petty hoodlum who gets seduced by both the Church and the Mob. The Ronettes here get turned into sirens luring the protagonist (Harvey Keitel) into sin and guilt. What other song would have had the potency to make moral rot look so seductive?

The only other pop song from that period that caught the deeper yearnings within adolescent desire was perhaps The Beatles' exquisite “Eight Days a Week.” Not bad company.

Treat yourself:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward Kennedy and Legacies

It was more than a little disconcerting when I woke up the other morning to the news that Edward Kennedy had passed away. When my clock radio went off, the station was replaying his 1968 eulogy for his murdered brother Bobby. So I came to consciousness rather groggy and thinking that I’d gone back in time. I clearly remember that June morning 41 years ago and waking to turn on my radio to see if Robert Kennedy had won the California primary. It was the primary that would have secured him the Democratic nomination at the party convention in Chicago that August. But what I heard instead was random screaming and horrific voices saying, “Get the gun!” Without a news announcer to provide any context, I knew what had happened. The depressive inevitability of what followed lingered like a bad hangover. But this time, once I realized that it was 2009 and Edward Kennedy had died in his bed due to cancer and not an assassin’s bullet, I was strangely relieved that he got to have a full life. His story now seemed complete. Well…almost.

Edward Kennedy was the youngest son of Joseph P. Kennedy and the one least likely for greatness. Most of his life, he’d lived in the shadow of three older brothers for whom great expectations were a matter of course. But Edward lived, as did his father, to watch them instead die tragically. First, Joe Jr., the favourite one, was destined to be the first Irish Catholic President. He died in a secret air force mission during the Second World War. John Kennedy did become President only to fall to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, 1963, before he could finish out his first term. And then there was Bobby, the re-born idealist, picking up the broken pieces of his late brother’s legacy, also being killed by an assassin before he could realize his dreams. Teddy saw it all – then all eyes turned to him. Besides being a witness to tragedy, the legacy fell upon him like a burden. Watching him try to be the man his brother’s were was equally tragic. Edward Kennedy was not presidential material and he knew it. But he felt compelled out of family necessity to be somebody he wasn’t. Yet something self-destructive (alcoholism) and destructive (the horrible death of Mary Joe Kopechne) derailed those plans so that he could eventually find himself. Once he did, he was able to fulfill the Kennedy legacy in ways that no one could have imagined.

For one thing, he’d served in the Senate for 46 years and became the most effective liberal legislator in American history. Kennedy prevented Reagan’s odious 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. His recent fight over proper and humane health care had begun in 1969 when he backed health insurance. His bipartisan pragmatism was also refreshing in an age when people prefer to stubbornly dig in their heels and draw lines in the sand. (He had given support to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill.) Kennedy had also demonstrated how to put down the gloves and work effectively with opponents like John McCain on immigration reform, and with Senator Orrin Hatch in providing health care for children.

It seemed that once Edward Kennedy closed the book on his presidential pursuits in 1980, he shook the family burden from his shoulders and became his own man. In the process, he would fulfill the legacies of both JFK and Bobby. Of course, while his older brothers could conceal their weaknesses, Edward wore his on his sleeve. He was a living map of both the idealistic zeal and the horrible folly of the Kennedy family. So when he died the other day, it closed the book on the family chapter. But his final gesture may be his lasting one. When he threw his support behind Barack Obama, he was saying that although idealists can die, both tragically and naturally, ideals don’t.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

DVD Review: Duplicity

Maybe Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is too smart for his own good. In his latest film, Duplicity, he features Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, two of the screen’s sexiest stars, as corporate spies with a romantic history where they try to pull off the ultimate con. Despite this juicy premise, however, Gilroy gets so caught up in machinations of the con that he forgets the romance. Duplicity is a romantic comedy made without a romantic impulse.

Although Gilroy, who began writing screenplays for genre pictures like Delores Claiborne, Proof of Live and the Bourne movies, has a knack for sharp storytelling, he seems (as a director) to lack the instinct for good pop entertainment. He directs the material as if it’s beneath him. In Michael Clayton, his first directed picture, George Clooney portrayed Clayton, a “fixer” in a large corporate law firm in New York who tidies up messes made by clients and then circumvents any potentially damaging stories that could reflect badly on the firm. One day, his mentor Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a breakdown handling a settlement suit for a large agrochemical company and threatens to rat out the client. Clayton is then brought in to silence his friend.

Although it's refreshing that Michael Clayton takes a different route than most conventional legal dramas like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, the picture doesn’t illuminate the core relationship between the litigators and clients. Moreover, it stretches credibility: Given his emotional condition, would Edens ever be given a case this sensitive to handle? Furthermore, as my friend Steve Vineberg smartly pointed out, Clayton seems in the end more upset that the company tried to kill him rather than caring about what they did to Edens. Clayton never really gets to develop a moral conscience. Tony Gilroy shows a gift for intelligent plotting in Michael Clayton, but seemingly little interest in the catharsis of drama.

Gilroy repeats the same mistakes in Duplicity – except this time he’s made a romantic comedy that lacks romanticism. The story begins with Ray Koval (Clive Owen), an MIB agent, who meets CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) in Dubai. One night, she seduces him and then steals some classified documents in his possession. Years later, we see that Ray is now a corporate spy in New York who works for Equikrom, a consumer product corporation. He gets renunited with Claire while she's doing undercover counter-intelligence at a rival company. When her company announces a new major product development, we see that their meeting was not by chance. It turns out that they both plan to wait for an opportunity to cheat their companies and sell the secret to the highest bidder for their own gain.

Owen and Roberts match up beautifully here, but Gilroy doesn’t develop the heart of the story. Because of the nature of their jobs, the idea in Duplicity is that they can’t trust each other. So as they become more intimate, the more they want to trust each other, but can’t. We're to understand that duplicity works on both fronts: their work and their love life. But since Gilroy is less interested in the romantic charm of his performers, he muffles all the erotic sparks they give off. As well, Gilroy once again gets carried away with creating a dense plot, one filled with flashbacks and flashforwards just as he did in Michael Clayton. Before long, as the movie grows less coherent, you become less interested in it.

The point Gilroy seems to be making by the end is that corporations are too savvy to be taken by amateurs. Gee. What a profound downer. But its Gilroy whose the loser. He gets so caught up in the rouse that he fails to see that in Duplicity he’s conned the audience out of a good time.


Monday, August 24, 2009

What's Left?

A friend of mine recently lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots (seen recently hampering the Afghan election) haven’t gone away. I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power.

This observation was further developed in an article in the Sunday Toronto Star by Angelo Persichilli, the political editor of Corriere Canadese, as he speculated on the recent NDP convention. He noticed that the New Democratic Party, in trying to find some relevancy on the Canadian political landscape, was invoking Obama’s name (as if Jack Layton represented Canada’s great hope for social justice). Persichilli suggested that the current economic crisis had “broadened the ideological spectrum” by forcing liberals and conservatives to move further left in fighting the recession. He saw that they were adapting policies historically the domain of the NDP (i.e. the nationalization of troubled corporations and government intervention in the market). Persichilli was criticizing the NDP though for abandoning those values because they were being endorsed by the “enemy” (i.e. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives). Elaborating on that point, Persichilli posed some lucid observations:

“The traditional left is looking to Obama for political inspiration. But Obama has repackaged economic ideas borrowed from George W. Bush. It was Bush who started the corporate welfare binge, giving billions of public dollars to banks and corporations like those in the auto industry. Obama supported this and now his administration is involved in running some of these enterprises and shaping the new economy. Layton, in contrast, chose to vote against the last federal budget without even reading it, consequently becoming irrelevant.”

What Persichilli is essentially saying is that the NDP position is formed more by what it opposes rather than what it actually supports. This is why he believes that Jack Layton prefers “positioning to principle.” None of this, of course, excuses the responsibility the right-wing corporate policies (or overreaching unions) share in creating this current mess. But the left or, in this country, the NDP need to (as Persichilli asserts) “go back to NDP basics and represent the clearly defined interests of the working class.” According to Persichilli, Layton should “drop old ideas based on the conviction that ‘American imperialism’ is the source of all the world’s problems and that socialism is the solution to all of them.” But is this likely to happen? I wish I knew.

In his 2007 book What’s Left? British left-wing activist Nick Cohen expressed these same concerns in a larger context. He looked around in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and saw some of the left acting as apologists for the Iraqi insurgents. Cohen also wondered why Palestine was the major cause for the left and not, say, the Sudan, China or Zimbabwe. (He also was curious as to why the left couldn’t, or didn’t, wish to define what kind of Palestine they wanted to see emerge. It was far easier to criticize solely the Israeli occupation.) Cohen perceived a left that had grown reactionary, rather than responsive, in the wake of 9/11. In that sense, it’s easy to see why the hopes around Barack Obama became so intense during the election campaign. But I wonder, in the years ahead, if the world continues to act out its long battle between secular democracy and religious totalitarianism, if Obama’s constituency will continue to support him with the same zeal. In the wake of 9/11, it was easy to lay all the blame on Bush. But, if the world doesn’t change, who will get the blame further on down the road now that Bush is gone?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Walrus is Paul

Indeed. The Walrus is Paul...that is, Paul Newell. Who the hell is Paul Newell, you ask? I don't really know but he's managed to pull off a stunt that is more than a little uncanny.

Back in January 1994, when The Beatles were planning their Anthology documentary, Paul McCartney acquired two tape cassettes of John Lennon demos from his widow Yoko Ono. These songs, "Free as a Bird," "Real Love," "Now and Then" and "Grow Old With Me" were home recordings of songs that Lennon never completed or released commercially. "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" were made into "Beatle" songs by having the surviving group (with the help of producer Jeff Lynne) provide backing. In the case of "Free as a Bird," they also added new verses and altered the original meaning of the song. (Lennon was writing about his feeling of personal liberation at receiving both his Green Card and the legal settlement of The Beatles' affairs; Paul McCartney added a verse that made the song appear to be about Lennon's nostalgia for the better days of the group.)

In March 1995, the three began work on "Now and Then" even recording a rough backing track that was to be used as an overdub. But, after two days of recording, they stopped work on the song and scrapped any more "Beatle" music. For one thing, George Harrison felt that it would be too much work because they would have to add more verses than they did to "Free as a Bird." There was also a technical defect in the original recording. (Blogger Jeff Chandler will likely complain that there is more than just a technical defect at work in the tune.) But I suspect that they didn't want to complete the song because, like most of Lennon's late music, it was all about his relationship with Yoko. There wasn't a larger perspective in the track that would invite the evocation of the band. They would end up feeling like Lennon's sidemen.

Although rumours continued throughout 2005 and 2006 that McCartney and Starr would release a complete version of the song in the future, it was highly unlikely to happen. But in 2007, a mystery musician named Paul Newell got his hands on the demo and apparently finished what the band couldn't. He not only cleaned up the technical issue that was hampering The Beatles' efforts, he completed the instrumentation on the track, playing guitar, keyboards and drums. What is unsettling about "Now and Then" is that it sounds like a Beatles song - even though they don't play on it. Although it's not a very good track, you can't entirely pull yourself away from the soft ghostly pining in Lennon's voice. "Now and Then" is made even more eerie though by the fact that Paul Newell has invoked the ghosts of The Beatles themselves.

When the group was doing "Free as a Bird," they rationalized their involvement in recording it by pretending that John was going on holiday and he told them to finish it while he was away. My friend Greig Dymond commented, upon hearing Newell's version, that "it's as if Newell is pretending that the whole band was going on holiday and they left it to him to complete it - even though he never met them." Newell posted "Now and Then" on YouTube where you can puzzle out how he faithfully copied Ringo's drum style and Harrison's soft-slide efforts towards the end:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Rube Goldberg Experience

There are practical, useful inventions - and then there are inventions calibrated solely to sweep you up in the process of how they work. The individual who came up with this precisely timed set piece seemed to care little about the invention's ultimate goal (a clue: there are easier, less time consuming ways to accomplish the invention's final act) and more about its ability to carry it out. The inventor keeps you in suspense, waiting for one false step to trip it up. The dime doesn't drop, but your jaw might.

TO READERS: Part of the fascination in doing daily blogs is working quickly to get my thoughts on the page. In the process, of course, mistakes get made due to working so quickly. I found some typos and gramatical errors in some earlier copy and have gone back to clean the mess. Sorry for that mess. (If some of you care to go back you'll find the copy - hopefully - a little cleaner.) Most of my friends are much more gifted as writers than me, but if I chisel away I can generally make myself pretty clear. But if anything stands out, don't hesitate to let me know. I'm going to try and exercise the same editorial copy-editing I do when I'm preparing a professional piece for publication.

By the way, I'm happy to see more comments appearing. Thank you. Please join in if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Film Review: District 9

The new science-fiction film District 9 has a clever, rather amusing opening premise. Where the alien mothership in Spielberg’s Close Encounters found a welcoming home in the hearts of the American misfits and dreamers of the ‘70s, the spacecraft that appears in District 9 above Johannesburg (in the waning days of apartheid in the ‘80s) finds the exact opposite. If E.T. were aboard, they’d quickly send him home - if not kill him. As it turns out, aboard this ship is a crew of crustacean-shaped creatures (pejoratively called “Prawns” by the South Africans) who are lost, hungry and (before too long) crowded like illegal refugees into ghettos.

While the irony is obvious, director Neill Blomkamp thankfully doesn’t employ a heavy hand in milking it. But, sadly, he doesn’t really develop it, either. Blomkamp begins District 9 in a mock documentary style that looks back to 1982 when the ship arrived, hovering like a cloud over the city, and how the alien refugees became unruly and unwelcome in their new country. But he doesn’t delve into the promising story he sets up. For instance, Blomkamp doesn’t develop the tribal conflicts that were very much part of the collapsing apartheid system as a means to show how both blacks and whites could easily project their grievances on the creatures. The space folk instead are presented simply as a metaphor for the oppressed. They also seem to have very few people on their side. (Maybe if they’d looked like the dolphins in The Cove?) None of the political implications are fully examined, either, and before too long the picture is nothing more than a routine action story. (It’s like a high tech version of Alien Nation.)

The story follows the ambitious bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who is promoted to the role of eviction landlord. He is charged to move over a million “prawns” into a more outlying district so that they will no longer be offending the locals. But while performing his task, Wikus accidentally ingests a can of alien fluid. Soon he starts to transform into a prawn himself (the way Jeff Goldblum turned into the fly). When the military realizes that Wikus is slowly turning into an alien, he becomes part of a medical experiment to find ways to exterminate the space folk. But Wikus escapes from the lab and hides out in the ghetto. His goal is to help the prawns get home providing they can help change him back into his human self.

All through District 9, Blomkamp provides the mechanics of an exciting adventure story, but the picture isn’t terribly exciting to watch. The action might be technically impressive but the picture is ugly and impersonal because the characters are no more than stock genre types. You get the feeling that Blomkamp’s picture would work better in a shorter form because the film’s meaning gets sized up quickly in its concept. (Peter Jackson, who produced District 9, was impressed with Blomkamp’s short film treatment of the story called Alive in Joburg.) The director tries to broaden his story by providing little sub-plots about Wikus’s pining for his grieving wife, or featuring a wise scientist prawn’s mentoring his young son, yet there are no epiphanies reached in these moments. They nothing more than recycled and tired clich├ęs from apocalyptic B-movies.

District 9 succeeds as a technical challenge more than anything else. Since the battle scenes between the creatures and the humans are believably effective, the movie will likely satisfy the SF techno-fans. But the movie has such a ripe and irresistible premise that the rest of us will probably feel deprived of something more. District 9 is a science-fiction adventure story without a vision.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

DVD Review: Tyson

Boxer Mike Tyson didn’t have the lyrical swing of Muhammad Ali, or the dazzling force of Joe Frazier, but he was something of an enigma. Because he appeared as a powerful blunt instrument, it was assumed by some that he was illiterate, that all he could do was fight. In his latest film, Tyson, director James Toback (Fingers, Black and White) delivers a fascinating account of this troubled boxer’s life by allowing Mike Tyson to speak for himself. And he is anything but illiterate. For the full length of the movie, Toback simply places Mike Tyson in front of the camera and (with the occasional inclusion of archival footage), we hear the story from the troubled boxer firsthand. James Toback has always been something of an enigmatic talent himself. Most of his movies, good (Two Girls and a Guy) and bad (Harvard Man), approach movie-making as tests of his character. There’s been a streak of reckless danger in Toback that is both unsettling and fascinating which is why his movies are so erratic. With Tyson, he sublimates his usual improvisational style and lets Mike Tyson seize the moment to nakedly reveal himself.

It’s hard to believe now but early in Tyson’s career many scrambled to associate themselves with this solidly built young man with the gapped-tooth lisp. He was unbeaten 15 times in his first year as a pro fighter due to a left hook that hit opponents as quickly as a gun shot. (He rightly earned the name Kid Dynamite.) In 1986, Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion in pro boxing by dropping World Boxing titleholder, Trevor Berbick, in the second round. His original mentor and manager Cus D’Amato had taken a brutal street kid and turned him into a successful and intimidating fighter. But after D’Amato’s sudden and tragic death, Tyson fell into the hands of Bill Cayton and promoter Don King, who was more the carny barker than mentor. Before long, Tyson’s problems fully erupted. His tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens ended. He fired his skillful trainer Kevin Rooney which ultimately lead to the deterioration of his abilities. And then, in 1992, the rape conviction that landed him in prison.

In Tyson, he talks about all of this with a surprising candor that at times is thoughtful, occasionally brutal, even self-mocking. But unlike Barbara Kopple’s wonderfully insightful documentary, Fallen Champ, Toback's Tyson doesn’t put the fighter and his life into the context of the boxing world with its history of corruption and brutality. It’s instead a personal portrait that seeks to reveal the many sides of Mike Tyson’s personality. James Toback, who cast Tyson in a small role in Black and White (where Robert Downey Jr. played a gay man who unwisely hits on the fighter), identifies with the contradictory elements in his subject – as he had years earlier in his friendship with football star Jim Brown. But Toback keeps his own peculiarities out of the picture. Tyson is a clear and clean confession by a man who doesn’t make excuses, or lay claim to our sympathies. The movie asks you to take the man – with all his gifts and flaws – face on. Tyson is an unsettling revelation.

Here's the trailer:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Les No More: Tribute to Les Paul

One of great pioneers of the electric guitar, Les Paul, died yesterday at 94. It’s hard to imagine anyone from The Beatles, Jeff Beck to Jack White without him. But he was not only an extraordinary and fluid player, he also invented the solid body of the electric guitar. His innovation of overdubbing tracks. to create the sound of multiple performers, was a revolutionary process that would leave Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa forever in his debt. Paul went on to invent tape delay and phasing effects which not only enhanced his own performances, but the very process of recording music.

His playing style featured notes that lept off the fretboard like Django and his chording sequences stylistically wed jazz scales and the rhythms of what would become rock and roll. Paul did a series of great pop recordings with his wife Mary Ford in the early ‘50s. Their most famous being “How High the Moon” seen in this TV clip where he gets to demonstrate the overdubbing process.

Watch here:

In the end, there was no finer and classier guitar stylist. The continued popularity of the Gibson Les Paul rightly commemorates his legacy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Film Review: The Cove/Julie & Julia

The fervid enthusiasm for The Cove, a partisan documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, is so intense that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s calculated approach to the slaughter of these mammals you're guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. In an attempt to quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists, The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses the nakedly visceral techniques of melodrama to outrage its viewers. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read, it appears to be working.

Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are rightly appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks). But due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the techniques of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the group organize their battle plan like a commando army. And the footage they get is so horrifying it leaves you in a state of helpless anger. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, doesn't it seem crudely manipulative to use this footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters? (I somehow doubt that footage of a group murdering sharks would have the same impact on the movie audience.)

The Cove is also an examination of the grief and guilt that O’Barry feels about his former job of training dolphins for exhibition. (He trained the mammals used on the ‘60s television program Flipper.) While there’s no question of O’Barry’s sincerity at wishing to amend for his past acts by now preventing the current killing, the slick style of the film works against his intent. Psihoyos uses techniques no different than the ones employed to invoke sentimentality on Flipper. Besides directing the movie, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society, which is to say that the film has an ecological agenda that it wears proudly on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this The Cove traffics in bad faith the way Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be both a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two styles don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is a powerful and effective bit of agit-prop that outrages and disgusts. But ultimately its goal is to get the audience cheering when the bad guys are outed. Because of its arm-twisting techniques, the one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.

I’m also a little perplexed by all the praise Meryl Streep is getting for her over-controlled performance as cookbook author Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s new romantic comedy Julie & Julia. Streep’s acting in recent years has been reduced to a catalogue of mannerisms. Those tics and inflections continue to call attention to her acting abilities rather than revealing more about the character she is playing. Meryl Streep has become the ultimate control-freak where every acting movement gets highlighted in the same way an operatic diva’s high C's are designed to get massive applause.

In Julie & Julia, all of Julia Child’s eccentricities and formal presentations end up concentrated in a selection of vocal inflections and self-conscious gestures. Streep’s energy becomes so concentrated in getting those details down that her performance has no lyricism, or cohesion. (She is far more effective in comedies like Death Becomes Her, or routine action films like The River Wild, partly because she gets to act with her whole body rather than breaking her role down into character bits.) When a tape of Dan Ackroyd parodying Julia Child on Saturday Night Live appears in Julie & Julia, his impersonation lays waste to Streep’s performance because you can feel Child’s soul in it. Now Magazine film critic Susan Cole was sharp to pounce on that:

“As you’re chuckling along…you realize that, as the gifted cooking instructor Child, Meryl Streep is herself doing an impersonation, and that does two things. You laugh, much like you laugh at Aykroyd, every time Streep is onscreen, but that in turn vastly reduces the emotional stakes. You just can’t get that invested in the character.”

You don’t really get too heavily invested in Julie & Julia either. It contains that genteel romanticism common to Nora Ephron’s work (Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle). (It still amazes me that I have female friends who don’t recognize that if you reversed the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan roles in Sleeping in Seattle, you would have a very creepy stalker picture.). Yet even though there’s a quaint air throughout, where well-meaning people struggle to find recognition and love, Julie & Julia has a certain delicate charm that her other films lacked.

The movie is made up of two stories that run parallel. One is a contemporary story where Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a frustrated young married woman living in Queens and growing tired of her self-centered friends and a New York government job that deals with the aftermath of 9/11. To find herself, she’s encouraged by her editor husband Eric (Chris Messina) to start a blog. She decides that the blog will be about her journey in cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This task ultimately leads her to write her own book about the experience. Intercut with Julie’s story is one about Julia Child’s excursion to Paris with her diplomat husband Paul (a touching Stanley Tucci), where she falls in love with French cuisine and ultimately sets out to write a book that introduces it to Americans.

Since Streep’s performance is so dominant, it might be easy to overlook the fine, subtle work of Amy Adams. If Streep compartmentalizes her character, Adams is completely fluid in letting Julie’s fluctuating moods flood into hers. She is so vividly alive that I wish the film had just been about her trying to invoke Julia Child in order to find her own voice. I think that’s what Nora Ephron is aiming for in Julie & Julia anyway. But judging by the results, she only gets halfway there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)

Back in 1995, my career as a journalist had hit a very hard wall. Suddenly, after 15 years of producing, co-hosting and movie reviewing in radio, I could not find work anywhere in the field. Some of my misery was caused by circumstances completely out of my control. Some of it was also caused by circumstances I set in motion. (In a couple of other cases, I ended up at the mercy of the control of others.) I became aware during that time of a different and disturbing climate emerging in the media. And it had little to do with the standards I encountered when I first came in. Most of what I was seeing now was a kind of survivalism. People spent more time trying to figure out what they needed to do to keep their job rather than continuing to develop their talents at their job. In that kind of environment, I knew my chances of continuing to make a living as a journalist and film critic were in peril.

When I found myself suddenly "unhirable," it was also a strange sensation. After all, it wasn't like the skills I had been developing over the years had suddenly vanished. So why was I suddenly persona non gratis? I decided that it might be a good idea to write an article about this survivalist mentality and use what had happened to me as an illustration of it. (Besides, I had to start thinking of other ways to make a living using what I knew.)

I quickly got an editor at Toronto Life magazine interested in publishing it. All I had to do now was write it and he'd take it from there. Unfortunately, during that time, I lost my apartment due to the running out of funds. Since there were no Internet cafes in which to compose copy in those days, I could write very little, and often it was sporadic. The process took longer than I originally planned. The other problem, of course, was my anger at the circumstances before me. But the last thing I wanted the piece to be was just an ugly rant. Unfortunately, everything I wrote became coloured by my growing displeasure at what happened. As a result, I kept delaying the finished product (while continuing to write sketches of where I wanted the piece to go).

Ultimately, the article never came to be because I went to Boston for a number of months and when I returned I began writing books. I even mananged to review movies at CBC Radio again for about six years until a regime change sent me back out on my ass. Recently, while moving some old files into my new computer, I came across some of the article's early sketches. I thought they held up pretty well and seemed darn relevant today. I had already used some of the unfinished article in a couple of my books because parts of the argument fit nicely into certain sections of Dangerous Kitchen and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. So here is a short portion of the piece that was once titled (to the Toronto Life editor's great amusement) "How to Burn Bridges (Without Knowing That You Have Any Matches)." In this section, I tried to describe the process that I felt lead to the Survivalist Culture emerging in the mid-'90s:

“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the barriers between what was considered high and low culture had begun to wither. It was possible to be simultaneously open to the classical Indian sounds of Ravi Shankar and still be in tune with the driving force of The Rolling Stones – without being considered a snob or somebody lacking in taste. The prosperity of the time had brought a wealth of cultural alternatives into the mainstream. But when the affluence of the ‘60s turned into the severely pinched ‘70s, our culture began to move dangerously inward. Before long, our reality wasn’t shaped by the outside world that we once openly experienced. The self and our own well-being was now the only reality worth recognizing. Self-worth was also no longer determined by ideas, thoughts and abilities, but by our status within our social and working environment. Worthiness was earned, too, by emulating whatever (or whoever) was popular and smoking hot – and ignoring whatever and whoever wasn’t. A social amnesia (where something could be popular one minute and forgotten the next) evolved out of this stargazing. By the ‘80s, solipsism quickly became the yardstick by which politics, art and popular culture were measured.

The upheaval of the ‘60s and early ‘70s had sought alternatives to this kind of conformity by encouraging individual dissent within the boundaries of a collective culture. By the ‘80s, though, a desperate need in the middle-class to survive – at any cost – planted the seeds of what would soon become yuppie careerism. Driven by desperation, some of those individuals turned to the self-serving banalities of pop psychologists. The spoken goal of this was self-knowledge, but the hidden desire was to find ‘enlightened’ ways to regain lost prosperity and find social acceptance. What was sacrificed in this process was a more complex understanding of behaviour, provided to us by hundreds of years of literature, philosophy and psychology. A generosity of spirit that comprised a worldview wider than the contours of our own navel was also deemed expendable. Diversity of opinion began to dissolve as well, in favour of a bland homogeneity that welcomed received wisdom rather than intelligently thought through arguments. In this new age, it was more important to shape the public’s taste into something that could make dollars rather than sense. So when the latest fad stopped proving lucrative, it was abandoned. We soon saw how a crippling economic recession would not only narrow our pocket-books, but also the tolerance for intelligent and open debate about important issues.

The ‘80s and ‘90s would often be defined by the entrepreneurial phrase ‘Go For It!’ This particular kind of junk-bond philosophy, which ate away at our economic infrastructure, extended itself, as well, to how we thought. Pretty soon, even in the places where creativity was once encouraged, even nurtured, you could find yourself becoming obsolete. The first thing that I decided to do, when it was apparent that the sharks were out and there was blood in the water, was to find a new place to swim.”

And that was as far as I got in that section.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Day John Wayne Met Paul McCartney

No doubt there have been stranger meetings than this, but the incongruency of the Duke handing out a Grammy to Beatle Paul (for the music for Let it Be) is still something strange to behold. Even stranger, perhaps, is (as Greig Dymond wisely pointed out) Paul taking the stage with wife, Linda, when she had nothing to do with the music. (Greig rightly suggests that Yoko would have made better sense.) But then, in 1971, John and Yoko weren't on - shall we say gently - friendly terms. If Paul's terse thank you speech seems too abrasive only consider that the movie he just won for captured the break-up of The Beatles. And the music was badly mangled (without Paul's permission or involvement) by Phil Spector.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Film Review: Funny People

To describe Funny People as funny is applying a misnomer – there’s no funny people in it. Unfortunately, that seems to be the movie's point. Director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) has now become an industry onto himself - he writes, produces and directs scatological comedies (Superbad, Pineapple Express) with an underlay of social commentary. Now he wants to make his own version of Terms of Endearment (not my idea of a ringing endorsement). But instead of a dysfunctional family finding its mettle in the face of cancer, we have instead a group of desperate comedians learning to value life with all its emotional commitments. But where Terms of Endearment hit a nerve in some people, perhaps because they were moved by the sentimental notion of a determined mother (Debra Winger) desperately bringing her bickering family together (while bravely confronting her own mortality), Funny People is filled with stoners and malcontents learning life’s lessons. The picture drowns in its own wetness.

The story follows George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a successful infantile comedian (much like Sandler himself) who has made a number of hits out of low-brow infantile comedies (much like Sandler himself). Although he’s rich, famous and popular, the undercurrent is that - hold your breath – he’s actually an unhappy man with no close friends and divorced from the woman he truly loves (Leslie Mann). To make matters more miserable, Simmons has been diagnosed with leukemia. His doctor provides an experimental medication that gives him a slim chance for survival. As Simmons ruminates over the fame and ruin of his life, he decides to go back to his roots in the small comedy clubs where he made his success. It’s there that he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), an aspiring young comic who works during the day in a deli (where most comics seem to get their start). Wright shares an apartment with his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill), another stand-up on the rise, and TV star Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), an annoyance who happily gloats about his financial and sexual success.

The night Simmons and Wright meet, Simmons delivers a morose set of comedy routines that Wright (who follows) parodies. Simmons watches the young upstart make fun of his work and later decides that this kid should write routines for him. While becoming Simmons’ assistant, Wright comes to learn about his boss’s condition. The picture examines how Simmons mentors Wright to be a good stand-up, just as Wright gets Simmons to stand up to his responsibilities and reach out to those who care, and to those he cares for.

For about the first hour, Funny People appears to be showing us how very funny people are actually truly desperate, lonely people. But there’s nothing fresh about that particular revelation (which was also given a thorough working over a couple of decades ago in Punchline, with Tom Hanks and Sally Field), nor is it a very compelling one. The desperation should already be obvious to us in the routines themselves. That's part of the reason why, in the most basic sense, we laugh at jokes about people slipping on a banana peel. By casting Adam Sandler, a comic who turns self-admiration into a form of hubris, as a man trying to plumb the depths of his soul, Judd Apatow has started with the wrong comedian. Sandler’s form of comedy, like Jerry Lewis’s, is not based on the pain of the nerd – but the rage of the nerd. Cruelty and sadism are the motivating instincts, the worm turning on a world that’s scorned him. This form of comedy (also displayed by The Three Stooges) has its roots in Jewish comedy where Jewish pride and defiance is firmly perched at the edge of the abyss. (It’s not surprising then that Sandler’s best line in Funny People comes when he tells a Jewish woman who finds guys on J-Dates that, being Jewish, he’s suspicious about being on any list.) But the film only raises the underpinnings of that style of Jewish comedy without ever really exploring it.

Adam Sandler also lacks the depth of, say, a Richard Pryor, who could make you understand his rage and profound disbelief as a black American while making you laugh at how confounding he finds white folks. In Funny People, George Simmons is nothing more than Happy Madison on downers. As for Seth Rogan, I fear he’s suffering from overexposure (like Jack Black). His genial stoner sensibility is starting to become tiresome and dull. The casting of Jason Schwartzman, one of the most narcissistic of bad actors, as a narcissist, is only another kind of hubris. Leslie Mann, who was truly sparkling while teamed with the appealing Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, is given the thankless part of the ex-wife who has to see what she missed by giving up on Simmons. As if to punish her further, Apatow hands her Eric Bana as the husband. While it’s unique to hear Bana in his native Australian tongue, the tongue is as heavy and dull doing comedy as it is speaking in a drama.

All of Judd Apatow’s films are slickly constructed comedies designed to draw subversive laughs while ultimately making us accept status quo values. Which is why we likely remember more fondly Steve Carell’s desperate fumbling into sexual fulfillment in The 40-Year-Old Virgin rather than his earnest confession of his virginity to Catherine Keener, the woman he loves. We probably got more pleasure watching – and believing – the strains of comic tension in the marriage between Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in Knocked Up, rather than the dubious notion that the only satisfying relationship Katherine Heigl could get is Seth Rogan. Since Funny People tries more for pathos than laughs, it sags. (And at 2 ½ hours, the picture is an albatross.)

Naturally, given that we are in the world of male comics, the bulk of the humour here is penis jokes (of which there are more than in any Hollywood comedy in memory). But I don’t think I’ve heard so many jokes about erected cocks in a picture that turns out to be so flaccid.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rogers World (Part Two)

For those of you who might be entertaining getting the Rogers Rocket Stick, which enables you to take the Internet with you anywhere (as long as there are cell phone towers to beam the signal), a word of warning.

The stick, which fits into the USB port of your laptop, is easy to use but expensive - and lethal to flash drives. When using the stick it is important that you do not operate any flash drive, or memory stick, below it - especially if you have any audio material (like music) on it. I tried the Rocket on a 30-day trial basis. Although it made it simple to write and e-mail from just about anywhere, I generally used it when I wasn't simultaneously listening to the hours of music I loaded on a memory stick to save room in my computer hard-drive. One day, not so long ago, I was in a rush to get downtown so I decided to check e-mail while listening to tracks on the flash drive. First, the Rocket idled, unable to connect to the Internet. Then, the song I was listening to ("Mykonos" by Fleet Foxes, now burned into my memory) started to skip and then it stopped playing altogether. I disengaged from the Rocket to see what was happening only to witness sheets of music (9,000 songs to be exact) disappear into the Twilight Zone. At which point, I yanked out the memory stick. The Rocket then finally connected to the Net. Hmmm. After I did my e-mail, I went back to the memory stick only to find that indeed all that music WAS GONE.

In trying to find out what happened, and if the Rocket stick had a hand in this mass murder, I called computer places, talked to knowledgeable friends, but no one could account for it. Most said the Rocket likely had no part to play. Getting no definitive answer, I called Rogers and spoke to their tech people. Now these folks are SUPPOSED TO KNOW. The tech assured me that the Rocket could do no such thing and suggested that a virus might be the culprit. Sitting in despair, with no answers to satisfy my hunch that the two were related, I turned to the Rocket's manual. And there on Page One, at the bottom of the page, it warns that the stick gives off an electro-magnetic signal and should not be operated within short distance of any device with audio files operating. (They also included hearing aids and pacemakers - but in that area, I was safe.) In short, the Rocket operated like a bulk eraser.

I have since informed the Rogers' sales staff and their call centres of one the Rocket's more destructive attributes - and that their tech staff should be aware of this. (Especially if it is on Page One of the manual.) So just in case you're thinking of getting one - and nobody warns you - do not operate it while simultaneously running a flash drive below it. Or your files may disappear - in a flash.