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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Live from Abbey Road show seven (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) has an incredibly diverse line-up this week.  Cheers to the show’s staff for presenting Modern American mainstream pop next to what’s been called the new Celtic soul sound and classic British hard rock to create another eclectic episode.


Matchbox Twenty‘s Paul Doucette admits at the outset to being “a dork for the Beatles”, and imagines he’ll have every nook and cranny of Abbey Road’s studio one committed to memory before the band finishes its session! The entire band goes into the details behind the creation of the track “How Far We’ve Come” (off of 2007’s Exile on Mainstream) before launching into an incredible live version of it. It’s the balance between these bits of trivia and the live performances that Live from Abbey Road really gets right.


In addition to rehearsals and performances of “I Can’t Let You Go” and “Bright Lights”, Matchbox Twenty pulls out its Lennon and McCartney cover. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is something the band “tacked on” to “Bright Lights” because the two songs shared some elements, but add-on or no, it’s a beautiful bit of homage.


The Script is a trio from Dublin that includes former studio musicians, had a single of the week in the UK and toured with last episode darlings the Hoosiers. These interview clips give an interesting, detailed background on the first song too. “We Cry”, it is explained, is a song that came from walking down one of the meanest streets in Ireland and wanting to express to its inhabitants the idea that, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. The song itself, as well as the performance shown here, is brilliant. The Script’s other performance, “Man Who Can’t Be Moved” is a gorgeous love song so perfectly realized that if I wasn’t watching it, I wouldn’t believe it was recorded live.


Joe Eliott starts Def Leppard‘s segment by explaining how the industry has changed so dramatically since the 1980s. When Def Leppard began, bands had five albums in which to prove their staying power, often not breaking through until the third or fourth. In the ‘90s, however, the standard procedure became to cut a band if its second release wasn’t a million-seller. He theorizes that there’d be no Def Leppard if there hadn’t been a third record (which was, by the way, Pyromania!). And that would be a shame, as the band makes quite clear as it fires up “Rocket” from 1987’s Hysteria.


The band members give their all on a cover of “Rock On” and it’s amazing! Then, they play a new one called “C’mon C’mon”, from this year’s Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, and it’s not only good, it’s a prime example of rock and roll in top form. At one point during the interviews, Elliott is saying that they all saw Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Queen growing up, and guitarist Viv Campbell states matter-of-factly “Rock and Roll was a religion back then. It was something that you focused on and it changed your life.”


As the world has become increasingly focused on “product” and “the next next big thing” it’s lamentable to watch those beliefs dying out. No worries, though. Some say the old ways still yet survive, and with musical diversity like what’s shown each week on Live from Abbey Road, I predict a re-awakening!



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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

It’s never pleasant when something that was lightweight (albeit cheesy) and fun is forced into profit sharing mode. Put another way, when a franchise has to jerryrig its purpose in order to pump out another meaningless sequel/tre-quel/quad-cast, there’s very little entertainment fuel left for the fire. Take the latest unnecessary Mummy movie about to hit theaters this Friday (1 August). Here’s a flaccid little excuse for escapism that has the audacity to squander two of the finest talents ever to grace a Hong Kong action epic, and then it dumps the series’ signature character in favor of a last act battle between zombies and statues (trust us - it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds).


No one begrudges a movie star from earning a paycheck. Even our most celebrated and seasoned actors (Sir Ben Kingsley, are you listening?) have been known to lower their standards in order to up their income bracket. That being said, their profiteering doesn’t always have to be so obvious, or god-awful. This year alone, we’ve seen the aforementioned Oscar winner playing a crosseyed cornjob in Mike Myers seminal stink bomb The Love Guru. Joe Montegna - The Simpsons’ Fat Tony and Broadway’s original Ricky Roma - went effete for a turn as Larry the Cable Guy’s buddy in Witless Protection. Heck, even John Turturro took another break from indie angst to revisit popcorn land in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (last year, it was Transformers).


Naturally, there are some who would never consider such a step down, or who simply bow out before they can capitalize on their newfound fiscal fame. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a perfect example of this high idealism in Rachel Weisz. Back in 1999, when Stephen Sommers was hired to bring the old school Universal creature up to date, his choice for the female lead - Evie Carnahan - was a fresh faced British actress with some minor onscreen credits. In 2001, when The Mummy Returns arrived, Weisz was more well known. Four years later, Oscar awarded the hard working performer for her turn in The Constant Gardener. Even then, Weisz expressed interest in reprising the role for this latest turn. Clearly, somewhere along the way, cooler aesthetic heads prevailed.


This happens a lot. Stephen Spielberg wanted Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones’ Dad for the latest installment of the action hero’s serial on steroids adventures. The temperamental Scottish legend said “No”. Similarly, Michael Keaton dropped out of the Batman movies when Tim Burton bailed. There are also instances where series staples are unceremoniously “dropped” from the planned follow-up. Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo, was told by original Mummy man Sommers that a follow-up was in the works, and they there were plans on bringing his character back. Fast forward a few years and Egypt is out, Jet Li is in, and the entire narrative was jet set over to China. That really must suck - especially when you’re the character everyone is supposedly clamoring for.


Of course none of this matters in a monster movie. All we really care about is the spook show. The Mummy films were never what you’d call frightening. They were more like heightened hype-horror - excess which might have been terrifying were the obvious strings and zippers not constantly reminding you of the schlock value. Sommers is an expert at such goblin grandstanding. Look at Van Helsing (you’d be wise NOT to take that advice literally). It took every famous fiend in Hollywoodland and transformed them into a computer generated free for all where logic and fun were shuttled aside and sacrificed for more and more Dracula-babies. Such showboating is standard operating procedure for this cinematic kid in a celluloid candy story. Unfortunately, in turning things over to Cohen, Sommers and the series went from the frying pan to fiasco’s fires.


Cohen completely misses the purpose of the Mummy franchise. He thinks he’s making Indiana Jones: The Far Less Professional Years. He handles action sequences with all the grace of someone who once made a movie about a killer airplane (Stealth - look it up) and uses every camera trick and editing ploy in the book in hopes that no one will notice the ineptness. When you have characters careening down a Shanghai street, their fireworks truck poised precariously to explode, one should be on the edge of their seat, not shrouding their eyes in dull skepticism. Not all spectacle stuntwork has to seem plausible, by Cohen’s take on this material gives one’s suspension of disbelief a major high impact workout.


Even worse is the aforementioned corpses vs. ceramics showdown. Like the infamous pygmy mummies from the second Sommers film, the amount of visual overkill on display is enough to give audiences a virtual headache. As every mainframe in California renders the ridiculous undead melee, Cohen keeps his camera as far away from the reality - literally and figuratively - as possible. This means that, at any given moment, the epic finale of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor looks like the final ant confront from a high octane version of Phase IV. Even worse, when we do eventually get close-ups, it’s hard to tell the motion capture performers from the computer generated fighters.


The last straw, however, has everything to do with the regional relocation and Vosloo-less casting decisions. Jet Li is, without question, one of the genre’s greats. His work with Jackie Chan in this spring’s The Forbidden Kingdom was that half-baked hackwork’s sole saving grace. Even as he approaches middle age (and a self-imposed desire to work in ‘straight dramatic films’ only), he can still kick major hinder. Now, add in a frequent female co-star of the mighty martial artist, the equally amazing Michelle Yeoh, and you’ve got a match made in Shaw Brothers heaven. When they square off, swords blazing and skills matched, it should resonate with heavy Hong Kong energy.


But Cohen blows it again, thwarting the choreography and avoiding the whole “wire fu” thing for some overcranked Ridley Scott-ishness and incompetent framing. Even the skeletons and statues are treated with more respect. To say that Li and Yeoh are wasted here suggests that anyone entering this latest Mummy massacre will actually have heard from them (or better still, recognize their non-Tinsel Town turns before the lens). Instead, they are merely the fodder for another pointless chapter, a ‘no one asked for it’ return trip to a place that wasn’t that interesting the first two times through. Weisz was right to bail - especially in light of how horribly underwritten this updated Evie ends up being (Maria Bello as her replacement is just bad).


About the only person to come out of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor not reeking of friendly yeti feces (don’t ask) is Brendan Fraser. Sure, the 39 year old is given a college age son in the film (it’s a soap opera level of biological time teasing) and he’s reduced to little more than a comedic foil for the foolishness surrounding him, but the ladies sure do love his shirtless musk (there was an audible girlie gasp in the theater when his semi-chiseled form got a loving close-up). Indeed, he’s got a Teflon talent which tends to wick away any lasting impact from his frequently incomprehensible career move - Dudley Do-Right? Monkeybone?  As a perfect example of unnecessary coffer stuffing, this latest Mummy installment will probably be profitable enough to warrant yet a fourth foray into sarcophagus. And if part three is any indication of quality, the next cloth wrapped creature feature will be even more uninspired.


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Some might consider it a bit of a comedown: that after six books of poetry and at least one novel published by a major publisher (Knopf Canada’s Between Mountains in 2004), that Maggie Helwig has decided to publish a follow-up with a small Canadian press in Coach House Books. I was curious, so I asked the publisher about it and was told, “Maggie’s always loved what we do, and that, paired with the fact that we publish a lot of books set in or about Toronto, made us the right home for Girls Fall Down.” Fair enough. It’s still strange, though, that a novel that’s tied not only to Toronto as a setting, but has a framing device involving post-9/11 paranoia couldn’t find a home in a much bigger pond.


Girls Fall Down is about a mysterious gas or poison (or virus, take your pick) that has infiltrated the Toronto subway system in the year 2002 and is causing teenaged girls to become sick with strange rashes and vomiting. Helwig metaphorically makes reference to the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995 (and acknowledges that she was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Underground in the Acknowledgments section), but it could be a metaphor for any random attack by plague, whether it’s anthrax or the case of SARS that Toronto was overcome with in 2003.


However, the book is really a love story about a diabetic photographer named Alex, who is slowly losing his sight from his disease, and a woman named Susie, who is on her own crusade to find her missing schizophrenic brother. The pair had briefly been lovers in the late 1980s, but that affair was shattered by Susie, who packed up and moved to Vancouver without so much in the way of a forwarding number or address. So when they meet again under coincidental circumstances, it makes for a compelling love story.


It would, perhaps, be more compelling if Helwig didn’t relegate portions of the story to flashback status, making it hard to tell at which point in the relationship the action is taking place. The framing device is annoying too, and interjects itself in weird places in the narrative; it also doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the main action: a simple story of rekindled desire. When the loose threads of the two distinct stories tie up, at the end of the novel, it seems forced and laboured, if not padded. And the action more or less stops on a dime, leaving dear readers hanging as to what happens next. Does Alex go totally blind? Do he and Suzanne stick together in the end? Tough to say. All we get are tantalizing hints that things seem to be on the verge of going wrong.


That said, where Girls Fall Down succeeds is in the actions of its two main protagonists, both of whom might remind readers of Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife. In fact, much of the thrill of the novel comes from the fact that Alex is diabetic and could go off into a stupor at any time, any inappropriate time, unless he’s on top of his blood sugar levels. This leads to a bit of paranoia in the narrative: that Alex is about to do (or say) the Wrong Thing at the Wrong Time. It’s like watching a train wreck about to unfold.


Overall, Girls Fall Down is a fun, quick read. But anyone expecting any profundities about terror and what it means in the nature of romance might come away from the book a bit disappointed. One could have done away with the rashes and puking, and come up with a much shorter and easier to digest story about love and its fleeting moments of panic. Helwig might be playing in the minor leagues here, but, after reading Girls this reviewer comes away with the impression that with a little more focus and an eye on the ball, she could hit the next one out of the park.


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Felix Salmon linked to this article about the fraud of wine connoisseurship.


In 1976, an esteemed all-French jury gathered in Paris for a blind tasting to compare eight of France’s greatest wines against a dozen upstarts from California. In an upset worthy of Hollywood, the United States trounced France, winning top honours in both the red and white categories.
Now, Hollywood has finally found its way to the story. Not one but two films based on the so-called Judgment of Paris will duke it out for attention this year….
The event’s significance has predictably been interpreted the same way ever since: California had vaulted its way into the wine stratosphere. True. But if there’s justice, the films will also be a reminder – in these boom times for wine snobbery – of a message far more overdue…. Without the benefit of a glance at the label, wine connoisseurship is so much hot air and bluster.



Perhaps in the past, wine tasters could pretend to a comprehensive expertise, but with the globalization of the wine trade, that kind of mastery has become impossible.


There is no myth about wine more enduring than that of the Olympian taster, the man or woman who can, with one sip, instantly peg a wine down to the vineyard, harvest year and grape blend. Such legendary stunts, when not actually apocryphal, almost always sound more impressive than they are.
Scratch the surface and you’ll usually find the field of potential wines was implicitly very limited. Until about 40 years ago, when Bordeaux and Burgundy were the be-all and end-all, the “blind wine” was virtually always pulled from a tiny list of well-known estates in the hearts of those regions – the Moutons, the Cheval Blancs and the Romanée-Contis. If you had tasted enough of those wines from a bunch of recent vintages (not difficult and not a financial hardship in those pre-hyperinflation days), you could acquit yourself pretty well. There was no fear, say, of somebody slipping in a Chilean cabernet (a style of wine, incidentally, that defeated Bordeaux once again in a repeat of the Paris tasting a few years ago using an all-European jury).



This is suggestive of what Morgan Meis argues in the essay I linked to yesterday: “It is difficult simply to keep up with the vast global cultural output, let alone to make determinations and judgments.”


I always have the impulse to link to these sorts of essays, which expose connoisseurship as essentially phony, without any basis in some kind of objective form of discrimination. Maybe I’ve read too much postmodernist theory, or suffer from living in postmodern times, but it’s hard to recognize an objective basis for critical authority: the credibility of the critic always seems to be more at stake than the nature of the work being evaluated. (Apparently I have become a pretty committed relativist, or rather, I’ve become infected with anti-elitist tendencies which find expression in an urge to want to democratize aesthetic judgment.) Would anonymous reviewing ameliorate this? Without a particular critic’s established ethos to supply credibility, the question of why one should take any particular opinion seriously would be inescapable. We don’t have time to give every piece of anonymous criticism the same shot—when we have the urge to consult a critic, we need criteria for selecting which ones to pay attention to. These criteria will inevitably take the form of branding, capitalism’s preferred solution for helping customers sort through a surfeit of information.


When I indulge the urge to denounce connoisseurship, I usually focus on the critics who seem preoccupied with their own egos, with monetizing their personal brand and masking their commercial motives with bogus paeans to art’s objective purity or beauty. But perhaps I shouldn’t blame these connoisseurs who are merely meeting a demand for their style of opinionmaking. When connoisseurship springs up in regard to a particular type of experience, it indicates an influx of gullibility, and a sudden social need for authoritative voices. This happens when the experience in question ceases to be undertaken for its own sake and becomes enlisted in status-driven posturing. Yes, the connoisseurs exploit and exacerbate the insecurity which generate the initial demand for their dubious services, but ultimately, no consumers are required to take critics seriously. But we always choose to, because critics help police class boundaries, and give us parameters with which to locate ourselves in the social hierarchy, which on an official level supposedly does not exist. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that taste never transcends politics to achieve some sort of objectivity, nor is it a totally subjective matter of merely personal import; it draws up class boundaries while preserving the illusion of self-determination that’s central to capitalist ideology, since social mobility as a motive requires ambiguous class boundaries. Critics and connoisseurs dispense sumptuary laws, because the state, under capitalism, cannot.


It follows that critics and connoisseurs are only as credible and convincing as their class allegiances are obvious. Connoisseurs have no choice but to be snobs.


 


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008


According to this site, “Stockholm is built across 14 islands and is often called the Venice of the North.” Water covers one third of the city area.


You might wonder what that has to do with the pictures at the top. And well might you, should you possess a peripatetic mind. Seeing as water and train tracks are composed of entirely different matter—liquid and solid—which often don’t easily co-exist. So what is the connection? It lies in this . . .


Navigating Stockholm’s 14 islands presents the peripatetic in Stockholm’s clutches with a conundrum that only Stockholm’s vast network of trains and subways can solve. With, of course, the aid of a strategically-placed tunnel and bridge (or . . . three or fifteen or twenty-nine).


 


 


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