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Monday, Sep 22, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

The Mercy Lounge and its even bigger venue sister downstairs, the Cannery Ballroom, combine to provide great music venues. There’s lots of space on stage and off, but wear your comfortable shoes, as seats are few. Downstairs, you can sit on the other side of a brick wall to the Ballroom, a wall perforated with open windows to let the music through, and rest your aching mules while sinking in to a broken down vinyl seat at a table. There’s a whole string of ‘em along the wall.


We started our final evening of the American Music Fest diggin’ the Duhks, a powerfully talented stew of young Winnipegians. Watching this good looking group of young people started me thinking about how I (KZ of the SZ/KZ team, that is) like the food on my plate. (This will make sense in a moment.)  See, I like to mix things up. To the embarrassment of my mate when we dine at restaurants, I’ve gottta stir, swirl, and glop it all together—deee-lish!


That’s what the Duhks are like: a plate full of all the good stuff, all mixed up. You’ll get rock (with a violin that sounds like an electric guitar), cabaret (with that tinge of the dark, somewhat perverse, rather intellectual approach which makes for the best of cabaret), foot-stomping Celtic, and a spicy bit of Afropop (wherein the fiddle becomes a thumb piano). Sarah Dugas’ versatile pipes can belt out gospel with the best of ‘em, followed by some good ol’ Louisiana Cajun. Sarah and Tania Elizabeth will sing to you in French and sing to you in English, but the band’s instruments sing in more tongues than any mere multilingual human can.


Their rousing finale merged into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, no doubt a nod to Robert Plant, who’s been making the rounds at the American Music Fest this year. He and Alison Krauss won the Album of the Year for Raising Sand. As for “Whole Lotta Love”, we rather liked the Duhks version of this rock classic better. Sorry, Robert.


For those of you who like the piles on your plate all neat in their own places, think of the Duhks as a belly-busting buffet—you get it all, however you like it. Dig in.


Downstairs for the Glen Campbell tribute—with Jim Lauderdale, Chuck Mead, Raul Malo and many others—wherein the man himself came out and sang not only some of his own stuff—songs with that melted, gooey cheese dripping all over them—that is: songs that everyone loves (and everyone sings along with). The country star covered Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Live)”, as well. The man looks and sounds good. Indeed, he seems like he’s hardly changed over the years - such is the nature of old souls, aged yet ageless, somehow.


We squeezed our way back upstairs for Buddy Miller, who’d bring on Bonnie Bramlett for some rocking harmonizing. Standing right up front, tempted to take a sip from that cool, bottled water at Buddy’s feet, we were experiencing the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Row at its best: hot, crowded, and friendly. (The guy behind me was a hootin’ and hollerin’ in the manner of fan appreciation. Now that’s good company, unlike the guys at Day 1 at The Basement.) 


At Mercy and Cannery, the bartenders are friendly, the fellow out in the parking lot collecting the $3 parking fee is friendly (swear it’s the same guy as last year), the musicians who make their way unassumingly amongst you, give a nod and let you through, or mutter a simple ‘scuse me, when making their way—all unassumingly polite. You are in good company in these places.


Day 3 at the 3rd & Lindsley, Jim White sang that a bar was just a church that serves beer. Well, down here in the buckle of the Bible belt, we never set foot in a church - technically speaking, that is—but we shared hours and hours of sweet fellowship with the music-loving faithful.


God looked down and saw that it was good.


* * *


Our wish list for next year’s Americana Music Fest:


Give Casey Driessen a showcase (we caught up with him on our volition).


Bring Trent Summar back, and give him a Friday or Saturday night showcase. The few who saw him on a Wednesday, we think it was, last year, enjoyed him mightily. More Dale Watson too, please. You can never get enough Texas honky tonk. Less quiet, mellow stuff and more barn burners would liven these nights up even more.


Invite the stellar musicians that comprise BeauSoleil. Perhaps a Cajun night with the Red Stick Ramblers might be in order. Marcia Ball would fit in nicely there too to broaden the taste of the Louisiana stew.


And finally, we hope that Nashville doesn’t run out of gas at next year’s Fest. Driving downtown to meet up with folks, we passed lines of cars blocks long, waiting to fill at gas stations that were pumping painfully slowly. Cops were guiding traffic. People were standing outside their cars, waiting. It was a site reminiscent of the ‘70s gas crises, though unlike many of our compatriots who had to hitch rides to showcases, we were lucky that we had enough in the tank to get us to Kentucky, north of the crises, come the time we had to leave this lovely land that is Nashville, Tennessee.


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Saturday, Sep 20, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

We snagged the best table at the 3rd & Lindsley. This is a really good venue when you’ve got a table up close to the stage—that is, under the speakers that will, if aimed right at you, blast you to a pulp by the end of the evening. The lighting is harsh, but you’ll only notice that if you’re trying to photo shoot.


Jim White started us off this evening rather sweet and mellow. Or rather, a bit bitter and mellow (the tangy bite of his satirical lyrics are balanced with a mix of musical sugar). A master of the pedal last night, up there all by himself, he interspersed his songs with amusing storytelling. Intimate and comfortable.


A swift setup and in no time the Red Stick Ramblers dragged us kickin’ and hollering down to the Louisiana bayous. Consummate musicians, those of us stuck in our seats were doing the butt cheek dance while the women in the back grabbed one another and twirled. Just when your soul feels it might burst from all that Cajun-sustaining food, they bring it to a rousing end. Damn, that’s right—it’s a showcase, it ended about four hours too soon.


Time is a funny thing though, ain’t it? Jim White takes his 45-50 minutes with you and it’s like you were sitting on the porch all summer evening, enjoying the song of the crickets and the company of a good friend, while sharing a bottle. The Red Stick Ramblers made time go by faster than a speeding semi barreling down I-65 between Chicago and Nashville. And then Peter Bradley Adams and his band came on…


Set up takes a while, and we’re wary. Signifiers indicate this might be a… mellow set. Really mellow. A guitar case is opened and a Soviet-era looking poster is taped to the case for all to see. “HOPE”, it demands. Oh, yeah, that’s the latest Obama poster. 


Ironically, we spent more time writing over this set than any other, this evening—that is, passing notes back and forth to one another. “This is the sort of polite, mopey, singer-songwriter lite that sounds at home in a Starbucks line. Very sincere, slightly dazed-looking female back-up singer; even more seemingly sincere, deep lead singer. There are other musicians on the stage, but their sound is so muddy, one only knows from sight that they’re working… Rather depressing, really.” (That was a long note.) “I could help out that back-up singer, a few notches or 20.” “I could give the lead a decent haircut”, “Well, the bass player is cute” and so on. That’s a 45 minutes of our lives we want back.



Mike Farris and his amazing band answered our prayers and gave us more soulful sound in their all-too-short set than mere physical boundaries such as time and earthly bodies can contain. Lord, they resonate. If you see this man and his band once in your life, it will be music you’ll hear in your head when you’re clinging to the last vestiges of this mortal world—it is truly a joyful sound. It’s gospel, yes, but it’s that universal gospel that moves even the most cynical soul. Farris and the McCrary Sisters are singing their salvation—and yours—and you will be moved, no matter how firmly you keep to your convictions, wherever they’re grounded. Their Deep South sound heavily steeped in the sounds of New Orleans and Memphis will take you to Heaven and you won’t be able to sit down. Rarely do we, considered outsiders by many in this country, feel so welcome—and so damned happy to be human—than in the company of these highly talented people.



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Friday, Sep 19, 2008
by Sarah Zupko and Karen Zarker
Words by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.

Day 1


Seated way in the back, the Ryman’s notoriously excellent acoustics failed, somehow, for Levon Helm’s Ramble. Couldn’t hear the horns, couldn’t hear Helm’s singing all that well, either. Hope the folks who were filming that event for DVD had a better time of it than we. Several songs in, and we stepped out to see what else was shaking on the opening night of the festival.


We stopped at the Basement—a cramped, somewhat down-in-the-heels place reminiscent of some of Austin’s less than pristine venues (we’re talking about you Emo’s). But hey, we come for the music. Alas, we never got to hear it, as two big mouthed, drunken louts “Whooo hoo’d” at everything and everyone—and the music hadn’t even started. Some pretty little thing was setting up on the stage, her clingy dress showing her form rather nicely for anyone with eyes in their head. But the Louts seemed to feel compelled to assist anyone there who might be blind, and “Whooo hoo’d” her for our benefit, as well. Bet she felt flattered, boys, thank you very much. Impossible to hear one’s own thoughts in this tiny space with these damned fools bellowing, we knew we’d never get to enjoy the music, either. Sorry, the Belleville Outfit, the everybodyfields, the Dedringers and Patrick Sweany, but the Basement seemed content to indulge the Whoo Hoos, and not you. We moved on before the show even started, cursing under our breaths.


Soon after we were pulling up chairs to the long tables at the Station Inn (with a car, it’s very easy to get around Nashville for these showcases). Many years prior we’d stopped here for some bluegrass and the feel was as if we stepped into a revival tent. We’d best be converted, or perhaps move on. Rather intense, in that regard, on that day.


It’s in this modest and yes, intense setting that PopMatters’ favorite Mike Farris holds a regular Sunday night gig. We saw him live on a large stage at the Mercy Lounge at last year’s Americana Music Fest—with plenty of room for his band of won’t-be-denied New Orleans-style horns and his trio of gorgeous back-up singers, The McCrary Sisters. Lord, how their sound filled every square inch of space in that large hall, wrapped around us and gave us a squeal-inducing squeeze. Yow!  We’ll be seeing him soon back at 3rd and Lindsley.


But this night, we were at the Station Inn in to hear artists new to us. Donna Beasley is lovely, if you like your decaf in the morning watered down with skim milk and just a granule or two of sugar. Looks good coming to the table, but alas, the brew is weak. An early morning kept us from staying for what appeared to be a folksy line-up tonight.


The first day at the Americana Music Festival was, alas, a bust for us. Others with more endurance and tolerance might say otherwise.


Day Two


Day two started with the incomparable Casey Driessen at the cozy Douglas Corner Café. Now that’s a great venue for hearing really good music. You talk during someone’s set there, you’ll be hushed by the hard core, knowledgeable music devotees surrounding you. And get your butt in that chair, now, ‘cause the artists start on time. Ah!  Perfect.


We’re figuring that when Driessen was a young man he sought out and found the Devil. He said, “Mr. Devil, I’ll give you my soul if you let me play this violin like no other living man.”  The Devil looked him up and down slowly—didn’t take long, as he’s a little fella—sucked on the smoking piece of straw in his mouth and said, “Son, you can keep your soul. You’re gonna need it when you step out on that stage.  But I’m gonna make that violin play you.”


And indeed it does. That sassy violin grabs Driessen by the scruff of the neck and has him shaking on his toes. We swear it thinks it’s the smartest thing in the room, and dares you to try to keep up with it. Ever hear an instrument do a call and response, making it look so damned easy conversational-wise with itself?  Uh huh. Keep up with us, here. Any chance you get to see this man perform live- er, this violin play this man—go, and give yourself one hell of a treat.


Some head shaking appreciation of Driessen over a cocktail at the quiet, elegant bar at Maggiano’s, and then we made our way to the Ryman, again, for the Americana Awards show.


Thank you, Americana Music Festival, for those second row, center seats, where we were in good company with many notables. Joan Baez, on hand to receive the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, sat behind us and Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Mike Farris were just to our left. No complaints about acoustics this night. We could hear the sweat flying.


Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA


Ryan Bingham’s voice sounds like a truck tire on a gravel road, complete with rocks flying up and hitting the fender—it’s a good country sound.


Courtesy of the AMA

Courtesy of the AMA


When Steve Earle walked out we thought it might be the ghost of Allen Ginsberg, such is his middle-aged resemblance. Mr. Earle, please leave New York. It’s softened your sound and taken the edge off the anger that makes us wanna listen.


(You can see the awards results listed below.)


All the while there was Buddy Miller, sweet and modest, playing with the band. You’ll see this talented man everywhere, in the band, with nary a notice ‘til he steps up the mic and makes you smile so broadly.


Courtesy of the AMA

Jason & The Scorchers - Courtesy of the AMA


So, too, Joe Ely (a personal favorite) gives his all, every time we see him, every venue—from a room full of the reverent to singing over the fools blathering in the back, too damned ignorant to know what they’re missing. The man is pure, raw talent, and he makes you zero in on his songs and listen close, the rest of the world be damned.


Earlier in the day, on our way to Jack’s Bar-B-Que, we think we saw a construction crew on the roof of the Ryman, applying reinforcements in anticipation of Mike Farris (another personal favorite) and his kickass band. One song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” had the crowd testing the integrity of the Ryman’s construction. We swear that building was jumping. Wonder if they taped the stained glass windows, lest they shatter.


Speaking of building-shattering performances, Jason & The Scorchers did not hold back even for the sacred old Ryman—damn near twirled and leapt off the stage right into our second row laps. Tommy Womack has a write up in the program about Jason & the Scorchers that is high caliber music writing. If we find an online link to it, we’ll plug it in here for your reading pleasure. Heck, if we had a scanner…


After a lengthy chatty Awards ceremony, we headed south to 3rd and Lindsley for the Joe Ely set. Yep, Ely is one of those people we’re almost willing to follow to the ends of the earth. We were exhausted by this time, but 3rd and Lindsley has lots of tables and chairs (hallelujah) to rest our weary bones.


The always delightful Rosie Flores was dazzling the crowd with her sassy vocals and mean guitar when we stepped into the cozy place. James Intveld joined her for a few duets of pure honky tonk.


That set the stage nicely for Ely, who mostly played solo. Favorites like “All Just to Get to You” and “Me and Billy the Kid” roused the crowd and a new number “Homeland Refugee” proved equally compelling. The real treat of the evening was Ryan Bingham appearing on stage about halfway into the Ely set to sing a few songs with the Texas legend. They reprised their duet, “Southside of Heaven”, from early in the evening at the awards show and sang a few more off Bingham’s debut release.


Bingham’s dry, crusty Texas twang rests ever so nicely next to Ely’s more polished tones and they clearly feed off each other’s energy. Here’s hoping these two form a more permanent musical partnership and head out onto the road together. They just need to be sure to bring along ace accordionist Joel Guzman (Ely’s frequent musical partner) as Ely’s tunes—anyone’s, really —benefit enormously from the fiery, soulful solos and flourishes of this instrumental master.


AWARD WINNERS


  • Album of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant/Raising Sand
  • Artist of the Year: Levon Helm
  • Duo/Group of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
  • Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
  • New Emerging Artist of the Year: Mike Farris
  • Song of the Year: “She Left Me for Jesus” by Hayes Carll and Brian Keane Additional Lifetime Achievement Honors were given to:
  • Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music—Joan Baez
  • Lifetime Achievement / Songwriting—John Hiatt
  • Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement / Executive—Terry Lickona
  • Lifetime Achievement / Performance—Jason & The Scorchers
  • Presidents Award—Jerry Garcia
  • Lifetime Achievement / Instrumentalist—Larry Campbell
  • Trailblazer / Nanci Griffith
  • Lifetime Achievement / Producer / Engineer—Tony Brown

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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2008
Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.


He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.


Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart. 


Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.   


Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.


In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.


This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].


Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.


So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.


You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.


You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.


Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.


You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].


Tell me about your dream diary.  Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music. 


So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.


They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.


I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own.  What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom?  Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.


So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.


What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.


Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.


Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.


If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.


Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
[laughs]


So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…


I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
[laughs]


Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.

Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?

Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.


How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.


Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.


So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.


Why?
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.


Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…


Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Yes.


Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.


So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.


Tagged as: exit, shugo tokumaru
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Friday, Sep 12, 2008
This is the end, my friends. TIFF 08 fades away with a whimper and few Oscar prospects.

The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival has ended, for me, with a sad whimper. There was no single film that took my breath away, proving, I think, that truly superlative achievements are very hard to come by these days. While there was a lot of passion, and a dazzling array of star power shining on the Canadian red carpets, there was a lack of quality, overall and a feeling of slight disappointment in the eyes and on the lips of industry folks I chatted with as well as the ticket-buying public.


I managed to get in a few truly great viewings (The Wrestler and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale were two of the finest of the fest), several middle-of-the-road tedious films, and only a couple that were truly atrocious. But nothing can beat the overall “festival experience” of being where the celebrities are, where the buzz happens, and where other film fans from all over the world convene to wait in line for hours and hope for a miracle. Sometimes seeing some of these peculiar little films can be an eye-opening occurrence (I’ve Loved You So Long was my biggest surprise this year), while others still can be a total bust.


So, to wrap up my second consecutive year of covering the fest, I have compiled a list of the best and the worst of this festival (not just the films, either!), and ended it all with a spate of five mini-reviews to give you all the low-down on what you should keep an eye out for and others that you should avoid like the plague, as well as a top ten list of what was hot and a quick mention of what just absolutely sucked. Thank God for coffee, Diet Coke, and energy bars.


First, some short takes:


Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) (dir. Philippe Claudel, 2007, France)

“I was afraid of betraying the prison experience,” said the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas of her role as a woman released from prison after 15 years, in director/author Philippe Claudel’s moving feature debut. The actress talked at the film’s premiere of “fears of being overwhelmed by my own emotion, of having done some terrible crime. I was afraid my own feelings would get in the way of playing the role”. Thomas was nominated for an Oscar 12 years ago for her part in Anthony Minghella’s epic The English Patient, and in a just world, she will be back for her tour-de-force French-speaking portrait of a woman stilted in her grief and regret (Claudel talked of her “delicious little accent”). “I think we all have a fear of isolation and abandonment,” she added. “It’s our job to use it, that’s my job.”


The Other Man (dir. Richard Eyre, 2008, United Kingdom/USA)

The biggest let-down of the entire festival. What should have been a knock-out, with a pedigree to die for (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, even though the film was barely 90 minutes long. Eyre was on hand to talk about how the film was just finished last week, and it shows. Neeson blusters and barks and guffaws with a hammy ridiculousness (“Gucci loafers!” he furiously bellows in one over-the-top scene), and Linney is barely there, but its co-star Antonio Banderas that got the biggest (unintentional) laughs as a playboy who Linney is cheating on Neeson with. He likens himself to “fellow cosmopolitans and fashionistas” in one particularly hysterical scene, as he befriends Neeson’s character, who is out to meet the man who is schtupping his woman. This flop crawls at a snail’s pace and is hopelessly stage-bound, off-kilter, and badly-written and directed. By the time the ludicrous, emotionally-manipulative “twist” happens at the end, I was numb. “How did you find out about me,” whines a transparent Banderas. “You were on a file called ‘love’,” retorts Neeson. Shoot me, please.


Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (dir. Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, France)

Kings and Queen, which also starred Christmas players Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Denueve, and Emanuelle Devos, is one of the most underrated, emotionally-complicated films of the last few years, so it is no surprise that French master Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film of supreme emotional maturity, familial tensions and pure invention that gorgeously tells each of the film’s character’s stories and allows for a spectacular acting showcase for each of them. The narrative juggles a towering cast, moments of hilarity and tender, moving drama, that all plays out with surgical precision. As the Vuillard matriarch, Denueve gets her best role in years, while Amalric proves that he is one of the finest working actors in the world. Alternately cathartic, dysfunctional and compelling, American family sagas need to start taking on this modern French sensibility that Desplechin has become so adept at executing. This will be released in theaters by IFC in January, and there is no other way to experience this cinematic magic than on the big screen, so seek it out!


Skin (dir. Anthony Fabian, 2008, United Kingdom/South Africa)

Poor Sophie Okonedo. She’s given two capable performances in two of the biggest duds of the fest, The Secret Life of Bees (which she was the single good thing about), and this tedious small-scale drama set in apartheid-ridden South Africa. What could have been a canny entry into the discussion on gender, race and class, instead devolves into a hot mess of histrionics (courtesy of the over-blown presence of Sam Neil as Okonedo’s white father). Based on a true story of Sandra Laing, and her fight to be classified as a white woman, even though her skin was brown (due to something called “polygenic inheritance”), this film fights to be relevant despite its predictable African inspirational music and long gazing shots of the countryside that we’ve seen a million times in a million better movies. This would be right at home on Lifetime Television, where Okonedo might have at least gotten a little bit of positive attention.


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (dir. Jodie Markell, 2008, USA)

One of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” screenplays has been brought to (surprisingly) vivid life by director Jodie Markell (HBO’s Big Love, Joshua and the underrated indie Sweet Land). Markell has a flair for staging the material, and star Bryce Dallas Howard channels her inner Vivien Leigh, but male co-star Chris Evans, unfortunately cannot act his way out of a paper bag. This doesn’t really tread any new ground -– Williams’ milieu is fraught with melodramatic, mentally-unstable Southern Belles, but if you are a fan of the playwright, this isn’t a bad attempt at conceiving his work for a more contemporary audience and very nicely shot. Howard’s temperamental, sarcastic performance definitely is one of the more exciting actresses of her generation, who keeps choosing great material like this, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay and As You Like It. Ellen Burstyn, Mamie Gummer, and Ann-Margret co-star as random Southern women with some sort of panic-stricken dilemmas they must face.


Top Ten Things I Loved About TIFF 08

01. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler


In what could have been an offensive joke of a performance, Rourke captures hearts with his tender, tough portrait of a man coming apart. Will he capture the Oscar?


02. The Burning Plain


You either love the styles of writer-director Guillermo Arriaga or you hate them (he is responsible for the equally polarizing Babel and 21 Grams), but you cannot deny he is writing more expansive women’s roles than just about any other writer-director out there. He should be applauded, as should Charlize Theron and a career-best Kim Basinger.


03. Cultural Hybridity


Almost all of the films I saw, whether they were period pieces, biography films, or simply daring original works, explored the intersecting themes of borders opening; of lines on the maps being erased. They were beautifully humanist takes on what it’s like to live in a world where everyone’s concept of home is shrinking, and where cultures are bleeding into one another. It’s comforting to see that our modern master filmmakers are perceptively mirroring this global, transient realism onscreen.


04. Star Wattage and Accessibility


Where else are you going to be two feet away from Viggo Mortensen but at TIFF? More than I have seen before, the big guns were brought out for promoting films, for selling films, and for getting the word out there. Be it in the form of press conferences (where I sat directly in front of powerhouses like Queen Latifah stumping for Secret Lifes of Bees), or just walking down the street, there were actors and directors practically littering Yonge Street. Also, the graciousness of these actors and directors to do question and answer sessions with large festival audiences, as well as the frenzied red carpets, and just being present in general at screenings is unparalleled.


05. France


Alors! Staggering in their artistic consistency and integrity, the films from our great French directors at TIFF this year (Olivier Assayas, Phillip Claudel, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Agnes Varda), proved that the country sets the bar much higher for their popular entertainment than we do here, they have a standard of excellence that needs to be emulated. The French directorial vision is typically beautifully art-directed; stunning acted and has, across the board, an emotional pull that is sorely lacking in the American entries this year.


06. Volunteers and Employees


Mostly all friendly and knowledgeable, these tireless enthusiasts had to wrangle not only the public, but the celebrities and the press and industry crowd. A thankless job, where they are paid nothing, but they do it with a smile on their face, for the love of film.


07. Talking to Strangers


Whether it was in line, or on the street to get directions, Canadians are friendly. You are standing in line sometimes for hours to get a decent spot, and are forced, in many ways, to chat up your neighbors. The shocker? They are usually extremely pleasant, excited, and just as knowledgeable about film as you are. A refreshing element to the proceedings that can sometimes be more fun than the films themselves.


08. That Blindness Did Not Stink


People tore this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel to pieces at Cannes, and critics had their knives sharpened for it here in Toronto, but Fernando Meirelles pulled it off. Don’t be fooled by those who would dissuade you from seeing it; Blindness is brutal, yet powerfully undeniable filmmaking. And between this and Savage Grace Julianne Moore shows (again) that she is the bravest American actress working.


09. The Queen Mother Restaurant


Canadian food is hit or miss, and that’s being polite (poutin, anyone?). Thank god for the Lao-Thai fusion at this quaint café in the best neighborhood in the city. Affordable, delicious, fresh food and no-nonsense, friendly service (inside or out on the patio) makes this the go-to spot for all visitors. Of note, particularly is their phenomenal brunch. I am not even going to tell you how many times I ate there this week.


10. The Return of Debra Winger


She was only in about four scenes of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, but in her scant screen time, she conducted a master class in scene-stealing as the mother of the title character and Anne Hathaway’s noxious Kym. Yes, it may be the “mother” role, but Winger is understatedly elegant, and rock-solid. Here’s to hoping this high-profile release gains her some traction on the awards circuit, in tandem with Hathaway. It’s a small, quietly fuming turn that should be lauded for its poetic simplicity.


The Things I Did Not Love About TIFF 08

01. Jerks on BlackBerrys and I-Phones


Since everyone at the press and industry screenings are apparently so important they couldn’t turn off their phones for five seconds, other people, who were actually trying to work during the festival got treated to a sea of tiny illuminated screens that never went off and, when in combination, produced an obnoxious glow that distracted everyone from everything. At one especially terrible session, a young woman sitting next to me was actually texting on an I-Phone with one hand, and scrolling through her favorite web content with her other hand. This is not an exaggeration.


02. The Lack of Prestige Films


Toronto has been unquestionably known as the launching pad for Oscar nominees. Last year they showed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, and Atonement (among a score of others), to smashing success and a parade of little gold men. In previous years, they brought out such Oscar war horses as Chariots of Fire, and American Beauty and led the way to glory. This year, none of the movies shown here look primed to be contenders. No one really loved the line-up.


There’s always hope for next year.


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