Friday, September 23, 2016

Praying vs. Preying

"Brace yourself..."

Here's a video that's got me cogitating in all sorts of directions. Give it a look if you haven't already seen it -- it's only 2 minutes long -- and I'll get to my thoughts after that.

First direction: might as well get the obvious out of the way and admit -- this is all kinds of freakin' weird. Or, to put it more generously, ironies abound. No need for enumeration, I don't think, but if you need to prime the pump, the man being blessed by these African-American religious leaders recently suggested the best way to de-escalate racial tensions might be to ramp up stop-and-frisk tactics.

Second direction: I kinda dig it. Warmed my weak frightened heart, just a touch. I've participated in this variety of prayer -- "receiving a blessing" "the laying on of hands" what-have-you -- and it really can be a "blessing" to all involved.

In fact, I urge you to give it a go. Hey, we've become so bloody fragmented and isolated that our idea of "communication" is tweeting vitriolic zingers past each others' heads. As a species, we have not "evolved" past what we are seeing in this video -- I would argue quite the opposite.

Having said that . . .

Third direction: this particular activity can be the foulest variety of horseshit. To give just one for instance: it is by now uncontested that pedophilia is an issue within religious institutions. So I will go out on a limb and suggest that there are pedophiles who have received exactly this sort of blessing, which further enabled them to feel blessed to keep on doing everything they were doing. I do not mean to suggest this presidential candidate is guilty of said crime -- but I am saying this particular participatory ritual often blinds all the participants to the very worst of transgressions.

Which leads me to . . .

Fourth direction: when asked about satanic imagery in heavy metal music, born-again Christian Alice Cooper snorted. "The Devil isn't some big scary guy with horns on his head. [silky tones] He's your beeeeest frieeeend! He would neeeeeever hurt yooou!"* Whether you think of the devil as strictly a metaphor embodying our worst impulses, or as an actual ethereal being wreaking havoc on humanity, Furnier's observation has significant insight which I believe is easily ignored to our own peril.

Which lands me on . . .

Final direction: Prayer. I pray (still). And because I am Mennonite, Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" has pretty much been forged into a nail and, while still white-hot, driven through my forehead. The one bit that will haunt me right into the grave, because it did my grandparents, and theirs before them (etc):
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."

My forebears didn't read that and think, "Right: The Son of God is speaking metaphorically."

They read that as a straightforward, no bullshit command.

And as one squeaky Dissenter pleading with the rest of praying Christendom, I say: Please -- go and do likewise.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Guitars I Dig: Steve Vai's "Evo" and Brad Gillis' "Shovel"

I've been getting a big kick out of reading Thomas Scott McKenzie's Power Chord: One Man's Ear-Splitting Quest To Find His Guitar Heroes (A).

McKenzie's shtick is so brilliant it almost feels obvious, prompting forehead-slapping and "Why didn't I think of that?" lamentation. He begins his account as a collector of cheap knock-off guitars that decorate his apartment -- strictly for veneration, as he can't play more than a few fumbling notes. He enlists in lessons, and discovers that a startling number of "guitar heroes" from the '80s have shifted from stage to music shop studio -- where they are happy to accept your money and impart wisdom and anecdote for the allotted time.

Given where I'm at, McKenzie's book is hitting the readerly sweet-spot rather satisfyingly.

And thanks to this passage, I am now acquainted with two more guitars I dig: Steve Vai's "Evo" . . .
Photo from Vai's website.
. . . and Brad Gillis' (of Night Ranger, Ozzy Osbourne) '62 Strat.

Photo credit.
If you want an axe -- sorry: "shovel" -- like Gillis's, you've probably missed your chance. Vai, on the other hand, is tight with Ibanez, so if you're of the same collecting disposition as Scott McKenzie you, too, can possess your very own Evo -- though you'll have to resort to your own Kleenex stuffing.

Links: meet Thomas Scott McKenzie; purtier pictures of Evo.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years

The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 YearsThe Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A massive culling of mostly-pertinent sound-bites from interviews gone by. The tone drifts into the catty frequently enough to keep the reader turning pages. No major revelations for inexhaustible Trekkies (though I do owe Joel an apology -- Nicholas Meyer does indeed relate an incident where Kim Cattral arranges a racy photo-shoot on the bridge that Leonard Nimoy puts the kybosh on), but the overall readerly experience remains fun. Speed-reading quotient: 60%.

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Monday, September 05, 2016

Hell Or High Water

Brad Wheeler (staff writer for Toronto's national newspaper (The Gloat & Wail)) dubs Hell Or High Water "the Coen Brothers for squares" -- a summary judgment I can in no way wrap my head around.
"I'm a brother, you're a brother..."
I enjoyed the flick, and apparently so did Wheeler ("maybe the best middle-of-the-seat drama of the summer") so I assume his tongue is somewhat planted in cheek. The reflexive referral to the Coens, however, is baffling.

The plot hinges on acts generated partially by human cunning, and partially by human brute stupidity -- by movie's end sheer dumb luck factors into the success or failure of the chief protagonists. You could say these are characteristics of Coen plots, but these are characteristics of most plots. Set Pride & Prejudice in Texas and cast Jeff Bridges as Mr. Bennett and perhaps this, too, would qualify as "Coen Brothers for squares."*

Still, I'm glad Wheeler made the comparison. There is indeed a familiar quality to the proceedings, and I was puzzling over it for quite some time after the lights had come back up. The movie is heavy on dialogue, and has a patter and rhythm that I associate with another Texan: Larry McMurtry. I'd put the script, by Taylor Sheridan, in league with McMurtry in his late-prime -- post-Lonesome Dove, basically. The only thing missing is an exceedingly strong female lead, to throw the inner narratives of the four male protagonists into utter disarray.

"Middle-of-the-seat drama" is a judgement I will second. Hell Or High Water is entertainment adults can enjoy, and well worth the various impertinences risked when taking a night at the cinema.

*"Coens 4 Squares" -- seems to better fit the first two seasons of Fox's Fargo, no?

Friday, September 02, 2016

Concert Performances: Peter Gabriel

Postings have been light-to-the-point-of-facile lately, I realize -- not a lot of mulling or meditating, or even revising, before I hit "post." We're getting the elder bundled up and out the door for college, so that's just the way it goes. I do appreciate you sticking around, though.

And maybe that's not a bad segue into this next category of keepable DVDs: concert performances.
Just a sampling (sigh)...
Man, I've got stacks of those. In any given night of any given year I'll reach yet again for something I've already seen a half-dozen times. When it comes to rock 'n' roll, there are some performers I prefer to watch in the bloom of their youth. The Ramones, for instance -- I'll take London in '77 over River Plate in '96 any day you give me, thank you.

I'm surprised, though, by just how many performers I enjoy watching as they stay in the game into their twilight years. Led Zeppelin: I love The Song Remains The Same, but to be honest, I've given Celebration Day, their '07 one-off, more viewings. Plant and Page were never ones to jump around the stage, even in their youth -- the musicianship remains the same, you might say.

The crown jewels in this collection belong to Peter Gabriel -- 1994's Secret World Live . . .
. . . and 2003's Growing Up Live.
The setlist doesn't vary much from concert to concert. And watched back-to-back the experience can be a little gloom-inducing -- ten years takes its toll, after all. Peter transforms from a nimble-footed, dark-haired dude in his forties to a fella who's plainly in his fifties. No shame in that, of course -- the shame would be to pretend otherwise.

Perhaps what's most striking in these concerts is the choreography and staging, via iconic Canuckle-head Robert LePage. Beneath his direction the transformation of ten years is conducted movingly with both candor and grace -- a gift to all involved, including not just the accomplished performers assembled, but the audience as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Commentary by Steven Soderbergh"

I've sat through two of Steven Soderbergh's DVD commentaries: a film-geek's dream-come true, Point Blank, with director John Boorman . . .
Marvin's shoes provide an interesting anecdote (believe it).
 . . . and his own The Limey, (a personal fave) with scriptwriter Lem Dobbs.
Terence Stamp's costuming, on the other hand, is unremarked upon.
The back-and-forth with Dobbs is quite the curiosity. Dobbs seems to have a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana-and-change. Given the business he's in, I can hardly blame him. But he's combative and critical, while Soderbergh is largely . . . amused.

If you've the temperament and time you can devote the better part of a weekend to Dobbs' personality and read this interview. I'd hoped Soderbergh would be up for another three rounds with Dobbs, for Haywire (another fave), but Soderbergh is at that stage in life where he's only interested in what he's interested in -- which is good enough for me. He's one of those rare film people with interesting things to say, and thanks to him I'll actually be adding to my collection of DVDs.

B&W photo of Lee Marvin comes from this site, which has quite the trove of behind-the-scenes curiosities of older, cooler films. Check it out.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

"Commentary by Roger Ebert"

Roger Ebert did scene-by-scene commentary for six films: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Floating Weeds, Dark City, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, and Crumb. I lack only two of these titles, which I'll get to in a moment.
" asleep, like much of the current audience..."
Watching the films with the commentary on tends to be a bit complicated, emotionally. There's the business of his voice, first of all, which was taken away some years before the rest of him. It brings to mind an observation he made about himself -- regarding a tape recording of his father's voice, which he kept close through the years but never listened to because the effect of hearing his father again would be too heartbreaking. Some of that element is in play when I revisit these flicks. I recall watching Crumb shortly after Ebert lost his voice, and feeling tetchy and angry through the duration of the experience. And of course, since he's died, there have been a handful of films I wish he'd lauded or panned -- because his voice on the matter seemed to resonate so much more than others'.

Also complicated: the two Rogers we get, depending on the movie in question. Citizen Kane and Casablanca bring out Professorial Roger, giving us the authoritative goods on the flick in question. Although he can unearth the unexpected in these uninterrupted monologues, much of what he says can seem obvious to a viewer who has also seen the films a few dozen times.

Then there's Casual Roger -- the Ebert that joined Crumb director Terry Zwigoff on the couch for a bit of back-and-forth as the film unspooled. One gets the impression Ebert did this soundtrack as a favour to Zwigoff, a director he championed early. Where Zwigoff sees mistakes and creative decisions he laments, Ebert sees an entertaining exploration of character. And where Zwigoff sees a character with deficits that frequently wreak personal havoc on himself and the people around him, Ebert sees someone commendable in his candor.

It's probably obvious which Roger I prefer. I'm missing Floating Weeds and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, and I expect I shall spring for the forthcoming Criterion re-release of the latter -- because I imagine his recollection of the experience of closing off the '60s with Russ Meyer and a gaggle of gorgeous actors is probably quite entertaining -- if not necessarily insightful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About The Meaning Of Life

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of LifeYour Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life by Steven Hyden

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here we are, again, with the nights growing longer, the weather slowly turning cool. Summer is wrapping up, fading into yet another memory fated to grow increasingly smudgy until it finally disappears with the ponderer. I know of no better way to stave off the seasonal melancholy than to pick up and read yet another cheeky meditation on the earth-shaking significance of rock 'n' roll music -- and Steven Hyden's Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About The Meaning Of Life more than qualifies.

Hyden's shtick is of a piece with Steve Almond, Carl Wilson, Chuck Klosterman, Andrew Beaujon and many, many others. As with the aforementioned, Hyden free-wheel riffs off the flotsam and ephemera of pop culture at large, spinning narrative significance into not just the rivalries (perceived or real) under examination, but within the larger sea of noise that surrounds us all, whether from forgotten TV shows or the back alleys of the internet.

The most magisterial of these meditations is chapter 9: Competing With Yourself and Losing: Roger Waters vs. The Rest of Pink Floyd in which Hyden manages to tie together such seemingly disparate pop-cult strands as Waters' contentious history with Pink Floyd and the fans, the Jay-Conan folderol over the "legacy" of the Tonight Show, and the 1987 NFL players' strike -- all to settle the question, "What is, or isn't, a rock group?"

There were still 116 pages left in the book after this tour de force. And though I had no difficulty reading to the book's conclusion, much of the momentum was lost after Chapter 9. Some of that was my own generational baggage (Biggie vs. Tupac = whatevs (and how sad is that?)). And some of that is just the nature of the beast -- even Almond and Klosterman struggle in the back stretch.

Regardless, for the low cost of a signature CD you, too, can enjoy hours of entertaining "cultural criticism, personal anecdote and music history" (book-flap) -- surely the best way to savor the fading glow of the evening's bottle of wine, and the season's close.

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"What's more fun than hanging out with comedians?"

"Nothing. Nothing. That's the sad part." - exchange between Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn, Comedian (2002).

I vacillated between adding this disc to the list, or banishing it to the bin of unremarked-upon DVD detritus. Back in the day, the documentary felt like a revelation. Besides following Seinfeld's surprisingly bumpy return to the stand-up stage, we got a joshy commentary from the comedian and his friend. But then, prior to 2002 the opportunity to eavesdrop on droll exchanges between Jerry Seinfeld and buddy Colin Quinn was something only another friend or a stand-up devotee could chance into. Now it's an internet staple.

But I gave it another look last week -- the theatrical release, as well as with Seinfeld and Quinn's running commentary -- and it still (snicker!) stands up. And it's all thanks to Orny Adams.

The poor guy leads with his chin. And, given his chosen profession and the people this choice obliges him to hang out with, he gets it on the chin -- again and again and again. He's young, he's anxious not just for success but for validation -- that ephemeral end-point that, people who are older and wiser realise, simply does not exist. Older and wiser folk also recognise that this yearning fuels his ambition, so they tolerate the accompanying histrionics.

To a point. I was not at all surprised by the ease and glee with which older comedians took to lancing the boil of Adams' festering id. But I was surprised by their equanimity -- for every put-down there's a validation of what the kid gets right, or a recognition that, yes, this turmoil is indeed a recognizable and inescapable part of the journey.

Much is made of Adams' clueless solipsism. But there's another cluelessness on display -- the sort that slowly takes over when someone becomes a standout success. Both bear close examination.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cherished DVDs: Welles Criterion

I've got three Criterion DVDs, and these are two.
If you're surprised I don't have more, so am I. Criterion caters to the arty-farty crowd, to which I cheerfully cop pretensions. Even when Criterion re-releases kitsch, camp or meatball action films, it pads the prime attraction with serious commentary -- printed and recorded. Sauce for the goose, you'd think.

They tend to be pricey affairs, however -- costly enough to force reconsideration. Does this release truly qualify for the limited shelf-space on my Wall Of Plastic? More often than not, the answer is a clear "no."

I have owned close to a dozen, in my day -- but after a viewing or two I've given them away to friends whose passion for the particular flick greatly exceeds my own. Those are gifts worth giving, let me tell you.

I can't think of anyone, however, who might be into these two Orson Welles enterprises. Mr. Arkadin and F Is For Fake qualify as curiosities to most cinéastes -- good for a look or two, depending. I find them both rather troubling, in ways that some of Welles' more celebrated features are not. The short explanation: it seems to me Welles was haunted by the elusive spectre of authenticity.

And if you think about that for any length of time, you become haunted as well.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Cherished DVDs, First Entry

Let's get the obvious ones out of the way: the Star Trek movies -- TOS crew, naturally.

Someone else's collection, not mine...
Full disclosure: I own 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 (STNG: First Contact) and 11 (J.J. Abrams' first), and I've thrown away all the boxes -- for reasons beyond my fathoming, Paramount persistently opts to deliver Trek content in the ugliest and most ungainly packaging possible.

As for extras, Shatner and Nimoy's commentary on 4 is worth the listen (by Shatner's own admission, theirs was a relationship that frequently waxed and waned, but at this point they were apparently friendly with each other and happy to spend the time together). But Nicholas Meyer's director commentary on The Wrath of Khan is stellar. He is critical of his own errors in judgment, as well as indulgences he allowed some of the principal actors. He beautifully articulates the high-wire act every director has to walk when dealing with the studio, the franchise, and even a star like Shatner.

That any of these films made it to the screen is nearly miraculous -- that a few of them managed to be entertaining, beyond miraculous.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Cherished DVDs: I'm Listing Again!

Look at this mess.

What a racket, what a shake-down.

Everything I thought as I made these many, many purchases was dead wrong. "If it's good, I'll watch it more than once." "I could see myself watching this while the wife is afield." "Oh, the kids will definitely want to see this when they're older."

The biggest lie of them all: "If I don't buy it, there's probably no other way I'll get to see it." Ka-ching!

A great percentage of discs are still handy to have around -- the Disney/Pixar stuff, basically. Even if grandkids don't ever enter my family picture, some occasion usually presents itself in the form of kids-of-friends, or other family members. So I don't begrudge those purchases -- we already got our money's worth throughout the girls' childhood.

I would estimate that at least 75% of the DVDs I own will never be played/seen by me a second time.

Of these, even the uber-classic movies I just knew I'd queue up at least once a year, are just . . . taking up space. The Godfather trilogy, for instance. Millennials are getting a bad rap because they get twitchy within minutes of the opening sequence -- but sheesh: so do I. Who wants to sit through over three hours of a single movie -- one of three -- when there's all this fabulous television to catch up with?

And now with streaming and on-demand being what it is, the catalog of possibilities is far larger than I ever could have imagined when I initially forked over the $5-$25.

Still and all, there are a handful of movie DVDs I value -- deeply. In some cases you can easily get the movie on demand, but there remains a larded pantry of wonders on the DVD extras. In other cases, it's just a fondness unique to the fetish of the particular package in question.

So this is me, coming out of "listing" retirement and announcing my list of cherished DVDs. Might be a top-10, I don't know. We'll see. What I won't do is put them in any particular order, with the exception of Number 1 -- because there is a particular DVD among the bunch that delivers maximal marginal utility.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

"Well, that was fun."

I thought I should get it out there right away, as we were exiting the theatre. I've sometimes held on to my opinions, usually a clear sign that I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong with the movie. I didn't want to be Daddy Downer, yet again. I knew what was wrong with this movie, yet I enjoyed it regardless. Might as well own up to that fact, I figured, and give the young 'uns permission to express their own delight.

The girls weren't having any of it. "That's the third time they've used this plot! The third time in a row!" "So have people stopped scoring movies altogether? Is it all just, 'Greatest Hits,' all the time?" "You mean, 'It's all Marvel, all the time!'" Etc., etc.

All very true, of course. There were a few negative observations of my own I could have added -- principally: the fighting was a bore. I mean, just how many exciting songs can you create using the same three chords and 4/4 timing?

Still, I couldn't get over just how much I enjoyed the interaction between Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty. There weren't any surprises in the dialogue, but TOS dialogue could hardly claim to have broken any screenplay templates.

What was evident was that these young(er) actors had grown to completely embody these cherished characters from another age -- and it was a delight to see. We've lost three of the principals, and Shatner has embodied himself for so long he's utterly dwarfed what made Kirk Kirk. But the way these four played off each other finally got me thinking, This could actually go somewhere.

Odds are stacked against this ever happening. Star Trek works best as television, and these are big names on the big screen. Whether or not there is ever another Star Trek movie in the pipeline is always an open question.

But if someone can persuade me that there's an artful hack writing original Star Trek novels worth reading, I do believe I'd be envisioning this younger cast wearing the primary colours.

"Same questionable taste in civvies -- gentlemen, I believe we're good to go!"

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Cartel, Don Winslow

The CartelThe Cartel by Don Winslow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to wonder if watching Oliver Stone's manipulation of Savages wasn't a game-changer for author Don Winslow. In Stone's hands, it became quickly obvious to viewers that any concern for the fates of the American protagonists at the centre of this drug-deal-gone-bad caper was almost comically misplaced. The Yanks were typical kids -- in their mid-20s, maybe, but acting out like early adolescents in a gated community while the parents are on vacation. Brooding, petulant, narcissistic, self-indulgent on any front that occurred to them -- um, were we supposed to care?

The Mexican heavies, on the other hand -- what was going on with them? Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro played their respective roles with a ruthless cool that hinted rather chillingly at the desperation roiling beneath the veneer. The more we saw of them, the more we wanted to know. They seemed to hold the actual moral centre to the story, and yet they were the villains.

Then again, I haven't read the novel -- it could be Winslow was well on his way to blowing into flame the moral heat that takes hold of anyone with a little familiarity of how the so-called "Drug Wars" are conducted outside the borders of the United States. 

The Cartel is all about "the Mexican heavies." There is a single American protagonist -- Art Keller -- whom the reader cares about only to the degree that Keller learns to care about particular victims of the Drug Wars. And wow, are there ever victims -- scores of them. Their particular stories, within the larger story (morally-compromised Good Guy chases morally-haunted Bad Guy), are filled in with a deft and sympathetic touch. As the novel progresses, so does the body-count -- into the hundreds of thousands.

The litany of the dead does, at certain points, over-burden the narrative velocity. But how could it not, unless the author was finally indifferent to the scene he strives to describe? Winslow is clearly anything but indifferent, and that seething, personally invested indignation is what sets this work head and shoulders above his earlier fare.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Van Gogh's Death

When I visited Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum last fall, I wondered if this account of Vincent's death mightn't have gained some traction.

"Do I not look 'upbeat'?"

Answer: nope, not one iota.

This is the Vanity Fair piece. If VF's "Hardy Boys" narrative bugs you, consult Naifeh/Smith's recent biography for a more authoritative accumulation of detail and arcana, presented in measured tones. You'll find this (as presented) plausible and even likely "alternative" account in an appendix, buried beneath 900+ pages of the rest of Vincent's troubled life.

I can't recall if the Museum's gift shop was selling Naifeh/Smith's bio (I can't imagine they weren't -- it has the authority of heft, if nothing else). But I would have thought the museum's curators would have been keen to add their own footnote to their public narrative (note how, at the conclusion of the VF piece, one curator concedes the scenario's plausibility).

When it comes to capturing the public imagination, it seems nothing succeeds like suicide.