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.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Blessed(?) Distraction

Let's focus for a moment on geek franchises -- shall we?

Star Trek Beyond: I am not at all primed to see this, though if it affords me a chance to hang with my elder daughter I will happily stand in line and pay for the experience. She remains excited as the date of release draws closer -- she even expresses fondness for the previous movie, a bold but lonely position to take in our family. Chris Pine's cute-factor has exemplary cachet with her, I suspect.

But let's be honest: it's not looking promising. The actors are in full dog-and-pony-show mode, and the reveals they're letting slip are decidedly underwhelming. Example 1: Sulu is gay! The Onion AV, in a rare critical lapse, dubs this "a sweet tribute to George Takei." George, meanwhile, is having none of it -- citing this as the thoughtless sort of gratuity that characterizes franchise low-points.

Takei suggests Nimoy would have balked at this as well, and I believe he's right. Gay Sulu is an egregious retcon of the original timeline, in which Sulu is straight as an arrow. Whether Sulu's sexuality serves any purpose in the forthcoming narrative remains to be seen, of course. But as it stands this flourish has more than a whiff of the sort of "why not?" thinking that went into the franchise's most lamentable creative decisions, like Kirk's death(s).

"Perhaps it plays better on the big screen."

Moving on to Example 2: Simon Pegg had a hand in the screenplay! On the face of it this is good news. Pegg's understanding of geek and nerd psychology is impressively deep, as evidenced in his memoirs and previous screenplays. And he speaks highly of director Justin Lin -- but then Pegg speaks highly of everyone, in his unique, simultaneously jocular and pained manner, and this is where doubts set in. The takeaway for me, alas, is that Pegg tried to quit three times, and swears he'll never write for the franchise again.

"Rewrites, Mr. Pegg! We need those rewrites!"

Still and all: my daughter is excited. And maybe she's right to be -- after all, I've been wrong on this matter before.

On the other hand, if Pegg's script includes an abundance of penis jokes, her ardour for the film might cool dramatically. This is the daughter who sat through Deadpool with me, and although I was a giggling fool throughout the duration, the best she managed was a pained smile. Daughters don't laugh at dick jokes when their father is in the room, I guess.

"Dick jokes? Naw, man: I'm all about ..."
I enjoyed the movie, and could even stand a second viewing to catch some of the stuff that flew past my notice the first go-round. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter how blue or "meta" the exercise gets -- it's still a Marvel movie.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Spinning My Wheels

Tuesday morning. I checked the clock and figured I had enough time to squeeze in a quick bike ride.

Seven kilometres out of town I dropped my water bottle. I slowed to a stop, then dropped myself (damn cleated pedals!).

Realizing I posed the greatest threat to my own personal safety, I turned around and went home.
It's only a flesh-wound.
I cleaned myself up, put on the suit, got in the car and drove down to my younger daughter's high school commencement. The emotional churn would have to be expressed some other day, some other way.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

Medusa's WebMedusa's Web by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Tim Powers novel, which I bought after reading Cory Doctorow's recommendation on Boing-Boing. Actually, "recommendation" is an understatement. Doctorow's recommendations are stoked with the heat of religious fervor (his byline "Medusa's Web: Tim Powers is the Philip K Dick of our age" may not contain any exclamation marks, but by now most readers unconsciously insert three) and I've learned to be cautious to the point of skittishness when he shills for an author. Still and all, if even a street preacher hits enough of the right notes -- and Doctorow does, beginning with Dick and moving on to Old Hollywood, House of Usher, occult histories and parallel realities fighting for domain -- I will stop in my tracks and give due consideration to The Product on offer.

Comparing Powers to Dick is, occasionally, apt. Like Dick, Powers' concern with character takes a second place to the preeminent concern with environment. Powers' Hollywood is a locale where addiction is the norm -- in this case, the desired "high" occurs when occult dabblers enter a two-dimensional spectral plane, resulting in temporal disruptions of increasing violence in the Here And Now. There are hapless virtuous types and their opposing villains, and mysterious agents roaming the back alleys, but I found the emotional drama surprisingly thin. I didn't particularly care how things turned out for the protagonists, but it seemed clear from the outset that Powers did -- he was straining for resolution. And this is where he departs from the phildickian template.

I read to conclusion because I was curious how -- indeed, if -- Powers was going to manage this feat. As the book wound up the environment became increasingly harrowing, and though I remained apathetic to the characters' fates I easily imagined the shock of discovering myself in a similar environment, flailing wildly to find purchase in some larger, grounding reality. So: we return again to Dick.

Powers achieves a resolution of sorts. Readers who care about the characters will care about the finale. I didn't, on both scores. But Powers' evocation of environment was persuasive enough that I'm curious to read (a little) further. I found Hide Me Among The Graves and Three Days To Never on the sale table. I'm not sure which I'll reach for next -- if you have recommendations, I'm all ears. In the meantime, stay tuned for more.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Tommy Womack, Namaste

Neither age nor affliction have dimmed Tommy Womack's formidable talents as singer-songwriter -- quite the opposite, in fact. Mr. Womack's acuity of perception and inexhaustible good humour are in full effect in Namaste, his latest album. Fans of "Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood" (that'd be all of us, I believe) should head over to the Digital Content Overlord of their choosing, to pick it up and give it a spin.

Or, if you're the cautious, streaming sort, listen to "The End of the Line"; "It's Been All Over Before"; "God, Pt. 3"; and "When Country Singers Were Ugly" and let the music carry you into a better Friday.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sitting In The Barber's Chair, Gazing Wistfully Across The Cultural/Ethnic Divide

"Oh, yeah," says the gal cutting my hair, "my parents are the original Wops."

Me: (Reminding myself that it's okay for them to say this stuff): Is that right?

"Believe it. You know what a Wop is, don't you?"

. . . erm, ah . . . uh-heh-heh . . . 

"W.O.P. -- 'With Out Papers.' Both of 'em. Came over in the early '70s. Trudeau didn't give 'em a second glance. Trudeau senior, of course. Couldn't do that, today, I'll tell you. Left the old country so they could work here 'til they died."

They've passed on, then?

"No! That's what I'm saying! I'm always, like, 'Mom, Dad -- take a vacation already. Go see the family. When you're dead it's too late.' And they're like, 'Well somebody's gotta pay for the house.' Please. They've covered it three times already."

Sure, but what parent wants to take advice from their kid?

"I know, right? Like this paste I'm putting in your hair -- I'm forever telling the Guidos, 'Enough with the pomade, use this already!' You think they listen? Gotta stick with the pomade. 'My father's father used this stuff.' Honestly."

Now I'm wondering a) how did this girl, born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, pick up a Jersey accent? and b) how I can parlay this delightful style of repartee to fit the Mennonite scene?

"Na, oh ba yo! The Mennos I come from -- but don't call them that to their faces, seriously, don't -- it's always, 'Pegs or buttons? Which is more prideful?' And never mind the zippers! Grülijch sagt, but what a bunch of schlengls and bengls! Erm, but just be careful you don't say that in front of them, of course."

Doesn't translate so well, alas.