Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

The dusty Old West

Sometimes at meal times, particularly if we’re at a restaurant, our family likes to play games. Usually it’s the alphabet game (name a category, and then we go around coming up with words that belong to that category for each letter of the alphabet). Last night, however, Madeline started a “favourites” game—favourite song, favourite book, favourite movie, etc.

I find favourites like this are often difficult to determine, as things like favourite album or movie are constantly in flux as time passes. But tonight, as I was looking up something mostly unrelated, I came across the classic closing scene of Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven (spoiler alert), which reminded me how much I love that movie. Last night over supper I named Dances with Wolves as my favourite movie, but Unforgiven comes pretty close. It occurs to me now that I have a thing for films set in the “Old West” (or if not in the “Old West” as such, then in dusty corners of the U.S.). Consider some of these favourites:

  • Dances with Wolves
  • Unforgiven
  • There Will be Blood
  • No Country for Old Men (dusty corners, not Old West)

Well, that’s only four. My mind’s gone blank. I was sure there were more. At any rate, these movies have consistently remained favourites over the years. And it’s not westerns that I like—in fact, most Westerns I don’t like, and those Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly never did it for me. It’s more about setting and feel than genre.

(Thought of some others, though they’re not favourites on the same level: Lonesome Dove [tv miniseries, but still...]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

Films of other types come and go from my lists of interest. There are the comedies I’ve loved, but they boil down more to nostalgia (in the form of quoting large portions of the scripts) than anything else.

Anyway…

Spotify or Rdio

Was it a month ago now that Spotify became available in Canada? Or longer? It hasn’t been very long, at any rate, but it has received a great deal of attention. It was an “event.” It’s not clear to me why it was an event, as Rdio, which is essentially the same service, has been available in Canada for a couple of years (I’m a subscriber). Clever marketing on Spotify’s part, I suppose.

Nevertheless, I jumped on the Spotify bandwagon: I gave them my email address and waited for my invitation. When it arrived I was initially impressed by their artist selection, but after some comparison I realized that except for a few exceptions (at least in terms of my taste in music), Rdio has more or less the same selection.

In fact, after a week or two of using only Spotify, I drifted back to Rdio and nearly forgot about Spotify altogether until tonight. What drew me back to Rdio was its mobile app, which is far superior to Spotify’s mobile app. Rdio’s mobile navigation is much more intuitive and it doesn’t force me to shuffle an artist’s songs. Perhaps this is simply an issue of me not understanding the interface, but it was enough to put me off, as I use Rdio most often when I’m driving.

Spotify’s one strength (that I can see) is its playlists. Rdio has recommendations and radio stations, but they are hit and miss. Spotify’s playlists are consistent in their sound. Right now I’m listening to a playlist called “Mellow Dinner” and that’s exactly the feel I’m getting.

But good playlists are not enough for me to give up my Rdio subscription.

Lucy

Dixie and I watched Luc Besson’s new film Lucy a couple of days ago.

The philosophical question behind it is interesting: what would humans be like if we used more of our brains? This question is based on the suggestion (which my oldest daughter tells me is false) that humans only use about 10% of their brain capacity.

Lucy addresses this question with the story of Lucy, who unwittingly and against her will finds herself involved with a Chinese drug ring, who surgically implants a bag of a powerful new drug in her stomach. The bag is unintentionally punctured and the high concentration of the drug entering her blood stream begins to “awaken” her brain to its full capacity.

Besson’s answer to this question is, unfortunately, the standard fare. In film, more of our brains for some reason always means what we (in our current state of minimal brain usage) would consider superpowers—telekinesis, telepathy, etc. I’ve never understood why such an assumption is made. I suppose it makes for a more “exciting” film, but what possible connection could there be between neural synapses and moving inanimate objects from a distance?

Even more curious, in Besson’s vision a human with increased brain usage becomes increasingly robotic. This gift—if it can be called that—is ultimately about gaining knowledge, even to the point of omniscience and a godlike status. At the same time, this “super”-human is almost completely without compassion. This new god-creature is only interested in passing on its vast newly-gained knowledge, even as people are dying violently around it.

Beyond the superpower clichés, the film lacks direction. It’s never clear exactly what Lucy is doing or why: is she saving the world? is she seeking vengeance for this unwanted gift of brains? or is it really unwanted? Who knows. There are interesting hints at a new stage of evolution/new creation, which have potential, but they are never explained or explored.

I found it to be quite a bleak vision. Perhaps that was the point. Or perhaps Besson simply needed an interesting plot-line to fuel some CGI fun. I’m not sure. I’d like to see a film in which increased brain power results in more compassion and a human simply becoming more human.

Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

I picked up The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien again last night (the blurb on the back says, “J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific letter writers.” How could they possibly know this?) and came across some interesting stuff regarding an American film adaptation that was in the works in the late 1950s. Tolkien was given a treatment of the film to read. His comments are scathing and more or less completely disapproving.

A few simple words stood out to me: “He [the film writer] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights…”(271). As good as Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were, I’ve always thought that they included far too much fighting, too many battle scenes. As I recall, in the books the details of battle are generally limited and implied. The films focus quite a bit on battle heroics (and in The Hobbit Jackson went to far as to make warrior-heroes out of character who had no business being such), but as I suspected, Tolkien would likely not have approved. (And on a personal note, I’ve always found those portions of the films to be the most dull.) I believe in The Hobbit we don’t really see any of the battle up close at all, but see everything from Bilbo’s vantage point away from the fray. I suspect we won’t get that from Jackson’s third Hobbit instalment. “Showing a preference for fights,” indeed.

Something else of note: the Black Riders’ signature ‘screams’ as heard in the films, are unnecessary. From the same letter: “The Black Riders do not scream but keep a more terrifying silence” (273).

Fans were miffed when they discovered that there would be no Scouring of the Shire in Jackson’s adaptation. It seems that was omitted from the 1950s proposal, too, but Jackson may have followed Tolkien’s advice in this case (I assume Jackson and his team would have read at least those letters that were relevant to making a film version):

[The writer] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death.In that case I can see no good reason for making him die. Saruman would never have committed suicide: to cling to life to its basest dregs is the way of the sort of person he had become. If [the writer] wants Saruman tidied up…Gandalf should say something to this effect: as Saruman collapses under the excommunication: “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!” (277)

This is, if memory serves, more or less what Jackson did.

Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

Yesterday, on her birthday, I took Madeline, one of her friends, and her siblings out to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here’s my short review: apart from the book, it’s an exciting, well-made film. Smaug is fantastic. Martin Freeman is, once again, wonderful as Bilbo (I think he is, all around, the best cast actor in all the Tolkien films). And, once again, there were too many lengthy, chaotic battle scenes for my taste, but I suppose some people like that sort of thing. I was annoyed with where Jackson ended this film—there are ways the audience could have received a little more, at least partial, closure—but it made sense from a marketing standpoint. All in all, I give this film a positive review.

Here are some lengthier reflections:

I think it was the film reviewer for The Globe and Mail that said “all goodwill Jackson earned with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is lost,” or something to that effect. I think he’s probably right. In terms of what those you might call Tolkien purists, the omissions, changes, and additions to Tolkien’s books in the LotR films were for the most part forgivable and forgiven. The first film in The Hobbit trilogy took some more egregious liberties with Tolkien’s story than the LotR films. This second in the series takes the liberties to the next level, to the point that in its details the film becoming a different story than the book, even if the overall plot is the same. I remember when I first heard that The Hobbit was going to be a two-part film. I thought that was already a bit much, given that the entirety of The Hobbit novel is shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings. Then he changed it to a trilogy! I now know why and how: more orcs, more fighting, inferred elements of the book added, more orcs, more fighting, more stubborn dwarves, more orcs, a new love interest (what would the spawn of an elf and a dwarf look like?), more fighting…

I’m of the opinion that as a rule the book is better than the film, but I also realize that by nature books and films will by necessity tell the same story differently. A literary/film theory about why this is so is beyond my skill. It just seems evident that this is the case: a film essentially has to be different than the book. There’s a good reason Tolkien would never hand over the film rights to his books (and it’s not clear to me how or why his estate, after his son Christopher made his disgust with the LotR films clear, gave up the rights to The Hobbit as well). As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that a true-to-the-book film version probably wouldn’t have connected with a broad audience. For instance, it’s a children’s story whose plot moves along very quickly. And detailed battle scenes are, as in all of Tolkien’s work, lacking. In addition, in making the LotR films first, Jackson was almost forced into making the connection between them and The Hobbit clearer; in the interest of the film franchise, he could not make a children’s film version of The Hobbit after making LotR.

That’s not to say that I’m happy about the changes to the story. But I try to look at the movies as something other than an adaptation. The problem isn’t with the films so much, or even director Peter Jackson. The problem is with me and everyone other diehard Tolkien fan who has read these books numerous times and for whom the events and characters played out in a certain way in my imagination (augmented by Tolkien artists I knew prior to the films, as well as the 1977 Hobbit animated adaptation). Does Gandalf look like Ian McKellen does in the films? Yes. Does he speak and behave the way Ian McKellen does in character? Not really. Same goes for most of the other characters. (This is why I think Martin Freeman is great, because he gets it all pretty close to my imagination.) The reality is that, with the exception of some of the egregious changes to Tolkien’s stories, there is little Jackson could have done that would have completely pleased fans. The LotR films got fairly close, though I like them less after repeated viewings. With The Hobbit it’s almost as if Jackson came to terms with this and just forged ahead with what he thought would be a great film loosely based on the book.

Is The Hobbit a faithful interpretation of the book? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes.

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)

Concert review: Dylan with Knopfler.

So I went to a Bob Dylan concert and I could barely understand a word he said.

No surprises there, of course. Dylan came through Edmonton with his band and Mark Knopfler last Tuesday, and I went with a friend. Dylan played an outdoor show in Lloydminster in August which I had wanted to attend, but that didn’t work out. I think an outdoor show would have been better, but I wouldn’t have seen Knopfler.

It wasn’t clear to me whether Knopfler was opening for Dylan or playing with Dylan and his band. As it turned out, it was more of a double-billing. Knopfler essentially played his own full-length concert before Dylan. And that’s perhaps how it should be. Dylan may be a legend, but Knopfler’s no slouch either.

The Knopfler set was excellent. I didn’t come to see Knopfler; he was a bonus and I had no idea what to expect. He played what was as far as I could tell mostly new material. Only his encore went back to his Dire Straits days. That song (“So Far Away”) sounded vaguely familiar, but it was the cheering from the audience that clued me in. Knopfler’s sound (new album released just a couple of weeks ago, I think) these days hovers around the Celtic–mandolins, flutes, fiddles, etc–with a touch of country blues, but always with his signature finger-picking stratocaster sound. The Edmonton Journal Review said that “Their flute and fiddle tunes sometimes bordered on Zamfir and Titanic cheese.” False. This is only cheese if you have something against the flute and fiddle in the first place. Don’t bring Zamfir or Titanic (i.e. the James Cameron film) into this. There was no cheese in Knopflers music. But there was bittersweetness, melancholy, and much beauty, and at times it bordered on the spiritually moving (I may or may not have closed my eyes prayerfully at one point).

Knopfler was appreciative of and engaging with the audience–thanking us, telling us he was having a great time. Whether he was or not doesn’t matter. He engaged us (you can probably anticipate where this is going). His sound was tight, crisp, and well-mixed, and their technicians made good, mood-appropriate use of the stage lights. After Knopfler’s show I was that much more of a Knopfler fan.

Dylan… I went in with high expectations, low expectations, and not knowing what to expect. I had various stories about how Dylan does not interact with the audience at all, that I wouldn’t recognize any of the songs, that he is either on or off and if he’s off he’s really off. So here’s the lowdown: it was underneath a number of issues, a great concert. Actually, it was really only one issue: sound. It was way too loud. This is a common problem at concerts, but Knopfler managed to be loud without having all his music become a wash of lows. I wish I had remembered to bring earplugs–I don’t know how many concerts I’ve been too where it was clear that plugging my ears provided the perfect filter, presenting me with crisp, balanced sound and distinct instruments. But I didn’t want to sit with my fingers in my ears all night. Well there was also the lighting–which mostly had kind of a streetlights-in-Paris kind of feel, which is nice, but does not work well in such a large setting–and the fact that when Dylan was sitting at the keyboard he was nearly indistinguishable from the stage set.

He didn’t really interact with the audience. I was suprised to see him get up from his keyboard and walk around stage singing. He may have even gestured at the audience, though with my eyesight at my seats I couldn’t really tell. He even spoke outside of introducing the band: he bleated something about not playing his best or something (which I later learned was an apology for a poor cover of a Gordon Lightfoot song).

It was true what they said about not recognizing the songs: pretty much every song had a new arrangements. The only songs remotely close to the original were “Watching the River Flow” (the opening number) and “Summer Days” (from Love and Theft). With the rest of the songs it took some careful listening to Dylan’s semi-intelligible, and in the words of the Edmonton Journal writer, “raspy, cram-all-his-lyrics-into-one-sentence delivery” to discover what song he was doing. The set included “Things Have Changed,” his Oscar-winning 2000 song, but with a polka beat; “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”; “Tangled Up in Blue”; “Thunder on the Mountain.” The set included 15 songs total. I recognized most of them, but here’s perhaps the biggest oddity of the evening: he did not play a single song from his recently released album Tempest. Sort of bizarre, but then maybe by the time an album is recorded an artist is sick of those songs. Only slightly less disappointing than the mix was his one-song encore. It was “Blowing in the Wind,” mind you, but one song? Not a good encore.

I think the Edmonton Journal headline was right–”Knopfler outshines Dylan at Rexall Place concert”–but not because Dylan and his band played a poor set. Underneath the poor mix was a great band playing some excellent arrangement of classic Dylan songs. I’m glad I got to see Dylan. I even bought a t-shirt. And you know what? I’d go to another one of his concerts in a heartbeat (but maybe I’d opt for an outdoor show), though I have the feeling there won’t be many more of those.

But Knopfler earned an album sale or two from me.

To Rome with Love (Review in a Nutshell)

Dixie and I saw Woody Allen’s new film, To Rome with Love, tonight. The film spans a day or two in the lives of four couples who live in or are visiting Rome. It’s not getting great reviews: its metascore is 55 and Rotten Tomatoes has declared it rotten with a 45% rating. I can see why. It was funny throughout, and the story lines are clever at several points, but the film lacks the energy and edginess of Allen’s best work. To Rome seems somewhat meandering and slapped-together.

But I’m with Roger Ebert on this one. He gives it 3 stars out of a possible 4 and says:

“To Rome With Love isn’t great Woody Allen. Here is a man who has made a feature every year since 1969, give or take a few, and if they cannot all be great Woody, it’s churlish to complain if they’re only good Woody.”

It’s a poor film when compared to other Woody Allen films; that it comes on the heels of last year’s wonderful Midnight in Paris doesn’t help.

And as I watched the film, I began to realize something. The plots of the four independent stories, some of which border on the absurd, are closer in feel to the material in Allen’s books of short stories, essays, and plays from the 70s and early 80s than to what one has historically found in his films. For instance, the Roberto Benigni’s story line, in which his character, who is a normal, almost dull individual, becomes famous for no other reason than having become famous, put me immediately in mind of “The Metterling Lists,” a satirical essay analyzing the laundry lists of a man named Metterling. Those books were a delight, but that kind of thing may not translate well into film.

Early 90s Canadiana.

I was doing dishes and listening to Arcade Fire’s last album, The Suburbs, and the wailing background guitar part on the song “Empty Room” sounded a lot like old-school Sloan. (It’s not impossible that Arcade Fire was influenced by the sound of Sloan, as they’re both Canadian bands–Sloan from Halifax, Arcade Fire from Montreal.) So I switched to Sloan’s debut album Smeared, which in my recollection was the first popular foray into grunge by a Canadian band. Smeared was released in 1992 on Geffen Records, almost 2 years after Nirvana’s Nevermind (also on Geffen) and a year after Pearl Jam’s Ten.

Remember the glory days of The Eagle & Child, when we would play “Name that Film” or “Name that Song” based on a couple of lines or lyrics, and I would give the winner a star or, later, a pilcrow? That was awesome. Anyway, my listen to Sloan prompted a Facebook edition of “Name that Song,” with these lyrics:

She wrote out a story about her life
I think it included something about me
I’m not sure of that but I’m sure of one thing
Her spelling’s atrocious
She told me to read between the lines
And tell her exactly what I got out of it
I told her affection had two F’s
Especially when you’re dealing with me

The lyrics are from “Underwhelmed,” the first single off of Smeared. Clever lyrics, catchy hooks, and grunge: the right mix for me at the time. I loved it immediately and purchased the album (on cassette!) which quickly became my favourite.

Here comes some early-90s Canadiana: I first heard the song “Underwhelmed” when CBC’s Street Cents played the official music video during an episode. Here it is:

This was back in Street Cents’ glory days, with Jonathan Torrens, Jamie Bradley, and Lisa Ha hosting, as well as Ken Pompadour, Buyco, and products that were “fit for the pit.” (I’m a Jonathan Torrens fan to this day.)

On their second album, 1994′s Twice Removed, Sloan left the grunge sound behind, switching to a more Beatles-esque alt-pop sound. It was a great album, though I thought the Chart 1996 reader’s poll declaring it the greatest Canadian album of all time to be more than a bit audacious.

And that, folks, is a bit of a stroll down memory lane, all thanks to Arcade Fire.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel only tells the truth about tea and biscuits.

Dixie and I went and saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on Saturday. We were easily the youngest people there. I realize that the target demographic is probably retirees, but I was nevertheless quite astounded at (impressed by?) the number of people that fit the demographic in the theatre. I felt a little out of place. Dixie felt right at home. She sat next to an older lady who thought Dixie had come with some of the seniors (from a nursing home, perhaps?). “Nope,” Dixie said, “I’m on a date.”

Anyway, it was a nice story overall and interesting setting, but I didn’t think the movie told the truth in several places. Lots of individualism and the American dream transplanted to India, and those stories are untrue as far as I can tell.

But here is one place the film did tell the truth:

Indian Man (referring to English Breakfast tea): You call it “builder’s tea”?

Evelyn (Judi Dench): Yes. We dunk biscuits into it.

Man: Dunk?

Evelyn: Means lowering the biscuit into the tea and letting it soak in there and trying to calculate the exact moment before the biscuit dissolves, when you whip it up into your mouth and enjoy the blissful union of biscuits and tea combined. It’s more relaxing than it sounds.

Indeed. Biscuits (particularly the Maria ones) are a delight when dunked in tea.