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January 2, 2017

DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard


Cover Jericho of Scotland Yard.jpgFrom its title you'd expect Acorn Media's new DVD, Jericho of Scotland Yard to be your typical police procedural. However, while the action in the series' four feature length episodes does revolve around police solving cases, the show is so much more.

While the series originally aired on television in 2005 there is nothing dated about it 11 years later. Set in London of the 1950s the show creates a dark and mysterious world through which the lead actors move through. Inspector Michael Jericho (Robert Lindsay) is the new darling of the media for his exploits in capturing notorious criminals. We're introduced to him via a news reel informing us he's been awarded a commendation for bravery.

The opening of the first episode also introduces us to his long suffering Sergeant, DS Clive Harvey (David Troughton) and his new, very green constable, DC John Caldicott (Ciaran McMenamin). While the latter comes on the job idolizing his new boss, Harvey has worked with Jericho long enough to know his boss's demons and his flaws.

While each case the three officers deal with is a distinct investigation and interesting in their own right, just as intriguing is the continuing story of Jericho's life. The London he moves through is a dark and mysterious place. He lives in a three story walk up above a local store in Soho - a seedy part of town in the 1950s - and seems more comfortable with the jazz musicians and prostitutes who ply their trade in his neighbourhood than with any other class.
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The creators of the show made the decision to mix location and studio shooting together for the exterior shots of London. This has allowed them to create a Soho of shifting colours and moving shadows which not only reflects Jericho's moods, but creates a noir ambiance that suits the sleazy underworld he and his team have to trawl through in their investigations.

With the majority of location exteriors being shot either in overcast conditions, if not raining, or at night, this is a city where the sun is rarely seen. This moving through darkness is further stressed in the final episode set in the famous fog of 1952 which resulted in so many deaths and almost completely closed the city.

The writers have also done a wonderful job in creating stories which reflect the turbulent times London was beginning to experience in the 1950s. Everything from post war immigration from Jamaica and the rise of British neo-Nazis to soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to homosexuality are dealt with intelligently. Even more importantly the subjects are dealt with appropriately for the time period.

Of course one of the great pleasures of watching a show like this is seeing all the different people who make guest appearances as villains and victims. Some of them are fairly instantly recognizable, but a few might drive you crazy as you try to figure out where you've seen them before. It helps to remember this one was shot more then a decade ago and they all look a lot younger than we're used to seeing them.

Jericho of Scotland Yard is a well written and intelligent police procedural with some wonderful added twists to take it out of the realm of your typical cop show. Highly enjoyable, and very entertaining, this two disc set containing all four episodes of the series will make a nice change from the average murder mystery.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard)

July 7, 2016

DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken


The Family Fang, being released on DVD July 5 2016 by Anchor Bay Entertainment isn't a movie about a stereotypical family. Sure there's two kids and a mom and a pop, but any similarities between them and the idealized world of American fantasy, ends with that equation.
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The movie is told through the eyes of the Fang children, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman). Annie and Baxter are both struggling to come out from under the shadow that was cast on them by their parents. While both children have grown up to have success in their chosen fields - she's an actor he's a writer - they are both currently having troubles.

Through a series of old film clips we begin to understand how their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken ) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) used the children as props in their experimental performance art pieces. They would stage events in a public place in order to provoke those watching and film the resulting mayhem and reactions.

While initially the children were in on the plans, as the movie develops, we see how as they aged their parents would start using them without their knowledge to make the "moment" more real. While the children know they didn't receive what would be called a normal upbringing, it's only when their parents are reported missing and they start watching old footage are uncomfortable memories triggered.

However, it all comes to a head when Annie and Baxter, Caleb refers to them as A & B, meet with an old colleague of their parents. He gives them a rough cut of a documentary he was making about the Fangs and their work which contains a very disturbing revelation about how Caleb viewed his relationship with his kids.

Adapted from Kevin Wilson's book of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire The Family Fang constantly takes you by surprise. Initially the movie is quirky and funny as we're introduced to some of the family's movie projects starring the young Annie and Baxter. They are genuinely funny and provocative, just what good performance art and happenings should be. Even the opening scenes with Annie and Baxter as adults are quite funny.

However, both of them are pushing the limits of their existences, and what we're laughing at is other people's reactions to the damage they're inflicting upon themselves, both literally and figuratively. The pathos revealed by these scenes gradually helps us to develop a truer picture of what both of them are struggling to overcome as adults.

Bateman's direction throughout the movie is spot on. Not only does he set each scene wonderfully, he also allows the story to develop at the perfect pace. Viewers are given the right amount of time to absorb the information they need to understand what's going on beneath the surface for each character. However, he never lets anything drag. What's nice is how when the pace speeds up it seems to be a reflection of the characters' needs - not an attempt to force something to happen for the sake of have something happen.

As you would expect from quality of the cast the performances are wonderful. Bateman and Kidman have managed to create the perfect brother and sister chemistry on screen and their scenes together are wonderful. There is an ease about them together on screen which speaks to a long familiarity - not always friendly, but able to know how the other person is going to react - that you only find between siblings.
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As the parents, Walken and Plunkett are equally good. Walken is of course ideal for the role of the driven artist who has forgotten something about humanity - nobody else has as an intense a stare. However, he also manages to instil a degree of humanity into his role - we may not feel any sympathy for him, but we do come to understand him and how he thinks in sort of a round about way.

Plunkett makes a good foil for Walken. For, while she is caught up in Caleb's artistic ambitions she has not completely lost sight of her humanity and the fact her children aren't merely props. However, this doesn't stop her from going along with his plans to the extent she even curtails her own artistic ambitions. There's is an undercurrent of fear to her performance which gives the viewer clues there might be something more than what we see on the surface for all the characters.

The Family Fang does a magnificent job of exploring the delicate dynamics of art and interpersonal relationships. Can you really justify anything in the name of art - or is there a line if crossed which turns behaviour into abuse? We also see, with beautiful subtlety, how adult survivors of abuse learn to take control of their lives. There's no big moment or blinding revelation, it's just a process of acceptance and then learning how to get on with life.

The Family Fang is funny, poignant, and a little disturbing. It will make you think about life, art, and the human condition - which when you come to think of it is the purpose of art. This is the best kind of art film - it has no pretensions to anything beyond telling its story and does so in the simplest and most straightforward manner it can. However, the sum of its parts add up to something beautiful that moves us as only art can.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken)

June 29, 2016

DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6


Vera Sets 1to5 sm.jpgNow available on DVD Vera: Sets 1 -5 Collection and Vera: Set 6 from Acorn Media are something of an oddity in the police procedural canon. While we're all used to the eccentric and rumpled detective, the idea that a woman can be just as disheveled but brilliant is not a concept most are used to seeing on television.

Well, meet Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) of the Northumberland and City Police based in and around Newcastle on Tyne in Northern England. She lives alone in a run down farmhouse and drives an old fashioned Land Rover. Both used to belong to her late, and mostly unlamented father. In the series's first episode, and when we first meet Stanhope, she's dealing with the disposal of her dearly departed's ashes.

Not your typical grieving daughter, she enlists the aid of her aide, Detective Sergeant (DS ) Joe Ashworth David Leon, for the job. This is our first indication Stanhope might not be either your typical police officer or have had what would call a normal upbringing. However untypical she may or may not be, we soon find out Stanhope is a brilliant police officer capable of combining an uncanny ability to reason with natural instincts in order to find solutions to the murder cases that show up on her desk.

It's a good thing she's good at her job, because her interpersonal skills aren't what you'd call great. Abrasive and quick tempered she bullies and inspires her staff in about equal measure to get the job done. While not all those who work with her respond well to that form of motivation, she does manage to earn the respect and loyalty of those who work with her the longest and closest. The main reason being is they see no matter how much she demands of them, she demands even more of herself, and they end up not wanting to disappoint her.
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Of course those joining her team have to go through a period of adjustment as we see in season 5 when her longtime sergeant Ashworth is promoted and replaced by DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty) and Detective Constable (DC) Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo - most recently seen as Luca in the final season of The Good Wife) join the team. While the latter was with the team for one episode earlier, (in Season 4) watching them become acclimatized to the atmosphere created by DCI Stanhope is almost as much of an event as watching murders being solved.

Stanhope isn't just some cranky and mean spirited task master. Nobody would work for her if that was the case. However, it takes an actor of the exceptional talents of Blethyn to bring this multidimensional character to life. Blethyn is one of those gifted with the ability to convey incredible depth of feeling with nothing more than a single glance or a look. Watching her as she copes not only with her personal issues, but the lives of the people touched by horrendous crimes, one can't help but see her character's emotional depth.

The compassion she shows for those who life spits upon is about equal to the scorn she can heap upon those whose selfishness causes others misery. Blethyn not only shows us both aspects of her character, but how it makes perfect sense for a police officer of her experience to feel this way. While the plots and shows are wonderfully done, with excellent supporting characters in every episode, watching Blethyn's tour de force performance as DCI Stanhope is enough to keep anyone captivated through all six seasons.

Vera is one of those rare detective shows where what happens almost doesn't matter as much as how the story unfolds. The acting is so superlative you can sit back and watch the same episode over and over again and not be bored. While neither the box set, Vera Set 1-5 Collection or the Vera Set 6 have much in the way of special features - text interviews and photo gallery in the former - the shows themselves are special enough to make these worth owning.
(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6)

November 17, 2015

DVD Review: Restless


Cover DVD Restless.jpgOriginality in spy dramas is becoming rather hard to find in both television and film. How many ways can you tell the same story anyhow? However, the new DVD of the BBC two part mini-series Restless from Acorn Media, shows how you can put a new twist on familiar themes.

Set in both wartime Europe and North America of the 1940s and 1970s Britain, the show tells the story of a mother and daughter's attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to the former during the war. However, before that can begin, Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) has to convince her daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery) of three things: Sally was a British spy in WWll, her real name is Eva Delectorskaya and somebody is out to kill her.

In order to cure her disbelief Delectorskaya allows her daughter to read the file she has compiled which tells the story of how she became a British spy in the first place. The Delectorskaya family were Russian immigrants living in Paris before the war. Young Eva's (Hayley Atwell) brother was working for British intelligence until he was beaten to death by French fascists. After his death Eva was approached by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) with the offer of British passports for both her and her father if she agrees to come to England and become a spy.

While this information, and further descriptions of her life in WWll, convince Ruth her mother is not the woman she thought she was, it doesn't begin to explain why she thinks anyone is hunting her in the present. That portion of the story is slowly but surely revealed over the course of the two part mini series. It turns out there was a traitor in Delectorskaya's department, who was responsible for the deaths of many of her team, and almost succeeded in having her killed during the war.

While there's no way of revealing much more of the storyline without being a spoiler, the action in the 1970s revolves around mother and daughter searching for her former boss, Romer - played by Michael Gambon in the present. Delectorskaya claims he's the only one she can trust and he should be able to answer the question as to who is after her.

What makes this series work so well is the combination of exemplary scripts and fine acting we've come to expect from these types of productions. As the young versions of Romer and Delectorskaya Sewell and Atwell are wonderful. Underneath Sewell's calm and suave exterior one can sense a well of hidden tensions and stresses. Even when he's supposedly relaxed, his motto of "trust no one, not even me" makes him constantly alert. You can imagine him sleeping with one eye and ear open.

Atwell is particularly impressive. We see her progress from grieving sister to an eager and excited young spy going about her training and her work. However, we gradually see her realize how dirty the job can be as she has to use herself as bait to seduce a top level American civil servant (Before 1941 the British were doing everything possible to convince the Americans to enter the war). However, the scales only really begin to fall from her eyes when she begins to believe there's a traitor on her team.
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Atwell does a wonderful job of showing her character's gradual hardening. We can see it mainly in her eyes, as the excitement at doing her job is gradually replaced by first a guarded watchfulness and then fear. As one by one the rest of her team are killed she must find a way to hide herself away in order to stay alive, her moves become more and more calculated. Everything she does is designed to make sure she won't be found.

In the present Rampling does a magnificent job of showing how this watchfulness has turned into full scale paranoia. She's jumping at shadows, seeing threats in everything. Yet there's a core of steel to her still, and if someone's out to get her she's determined to not go down without a fight.

For those used to seeing Dockery as her genteel character in Downton Abbey Ruth Gilmartin will either be a welcome change or a shock. Here's she's a single mom, and PHD student whose thesis is on the history of German anarchism in post war Germany. The father of her child has connections with the German urban terrorist Badder Meinhoff group and she's every inch the intellectual, free spirited, liberated woman of the early 1970s.

She does a wonderful job of showing someone coping with the fact her mother isn't who she said she was and then steeling herself to helping her track down Romer. Along the way she learns, that no matter how strong she thinks she might be, it's nothing compared to her mother. Learning your mother has killed people, and is obviously capable of doing it again if necessary, isn't easy.

Restless is not your typical spy thriller. Yes there's action and intrigue, but as with other really good British shows of this type there's just as much paperwork and cerebral activity as anything else. However, that doesn't reduce the amount of tension the show is able to successfully build or slow down the pace of the action. Without a doubt this is one of the best shows of its type released in recent years.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Restless)

October 16, 2015

DVD Review: Chasing Shadows


Chasing Shadows, being released on DVD by Acorn Media October 20 2015, is not your average police procedural. In fact its not really your average television show period. Normally a show's lead character might have a few problems, but usually he or she might be physically attractive or have some other sort of obvious redeeming quality which helps an audience like them.

That's not the case with Detective Sergeant (DS) Sean Stone, Reece Shearsmith. Not only is he socially inept and have the horrible habit of always speaking the truth, he also has the communication skills of a person used to living inside their own head. While he may not have asperger's syndrome, he has an incredibly difficult time communicating with anyone around him.
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When we first meet Stone his superiors are trying to fete him for catching a serial killer at a press conference. Unfortunately Stone has other ideas and proceeds to say he and the whole Criminal Investigation Division (CID) failed as they would have been able to save the final victim if they'd investigated properly. According to him a proper investigation would have liaised with the Missing Persons Bureau in order to identify those people most at risk for being targeted by serial killers.

Naturally this goes down a treat with the brass and Stone quickly finds himself being permanently seconded to Missing Persons. Here he is assigned a new partner, Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) a civilian, who works for Missing Persons. According to Stone, the key to finding those who are being targeted by killers is to identify patterns; patterns that show a common thread between potential victims.

While there's no denying Stone knows what he's doing his difficulties with communication drives both Hattersley and the police officer, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Carl Pryor, (Noel Clarke) assigned to supervise his work, to distraction. However over the course of the two, two-part episodes, this disc contains, both Pryor and Hattersley come to appreciate Stone's brilliance even if his single mindedness drives them both a bit crazy.

What makes this show fascinating is how the writers have been able to integrate the way the three begin to learn to work together as they solve two complex cases involving missing persons. While Stone continues to exasperate both Pryor and Hattersley, we watch as all three of them begin to learn how to work together. While this means the latter two have to start granting Stone some leeway, we also see him making an effort to communicate.

The two cases they investigate, Only Connect and Off Radar, while both involving missing persons, are quite different. In the first a teenage girl has been missing for only a couple of days, but Stone believes she's in danger. Three other teenagers the same age have previously gone missing and turned up dead. When it turns out the others were all found at abandoned buildings owned by the same bankrupt construction company, all had been members of an Internet Chat Room dedicated to suicide and the first three deaths had all been staged to make it look like they had hung themselves; he's sure the latest has been targeted by the same killer.

Off Radar involves a lawyer who disappeared almost a year ago. What piques Stone's interest is the lawyer doesn't fit into any of the accepted categories for a missing person. When they begin to retrace where he was last seen they discover he disappeared exactly where two other people had been killed by a convicted serial killer. This leads them to assume their missing person was murdered by the same man.

In each case Stone, Hattersley and Pryor have to do the kind of meticulous work we hardly ever see in police shows. While there is a dose of action in each episode, much of the case work involves sifting through records, documents and paying attention to the minutest discrepancies in people's habits that might give a clue as to what happened to them. It turns out that breaks in patterns are just as important as the patterns themselves.
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What makes this show work, aside from the great scripts, is the quality of the acting. As Stone Shearsmith gives an amazing performance of a brilliant man with no social skills. Unlike depictions of Sherlock Holmes, another detective who has troubles with personal relations, there's nothing romantic or heroic about Stone. Shearsmith's depiction is so ordinary, so underplayed, we can't help seeing Stone as an object of pity, not as someone to emulate.

While he aggravates Hattersley no end, Kingston does a great job of showing how her character begins to understand how to communicate with Stone and of realizing there's something broken inside of him. Her patience, empathy and willingness to challenge him help open a few cracks in his armour eventually. It takes almost all four parts of the two episodes, but you can see them start to develop a working relationship.

As Pryor, Clarke works sort of as the meeting point for the other two characters. While he and Hattersley build a relationship initially based on their mutual frustration with Stone, he also knows he has to figure out a way to work with his DS. What it comes down to for Pryor is that Stone gets results, which is what matters. He may want to throttle him occasionally, but he knows he can trust Stone to almost always be correct.

Chasing Shadows isn't going to be for everyone. If you like action and shootouts this won't be for you. However if you want wonderfully acted and brilliantly scripted television, you'll love it. The only problem is there's only the four chapters. We can only hope they make more.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Chasing Shadows - A Very Different Cop Show)

February 22, 2015

DVD Review: The Last Pogo Jumps Again


When people talk about the early days of punk rock London, England and New York City (NYC) always feature prominently in their conversations. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City in New York and the 101 in London are club names spoken of with almost as much reverence as the names of the musicians who made the venues famous. However, in 1976, about twelve hours north of NYC, across the border in Canada, the sleepy little city of Toronto, Ontario was starting to wake up and discover it wasn't just a cultural outpost for Europe and the US. In a country with no record labels of its own, where theatre performances were primarily touring road shows from England and the US and the only films being made were deliberately awful so they could be used for tax write offs by their investors, an explosion was needed to jump start its circulation.

That explosion was punk, and the epicentre was a few square blocks in the city's downtown core. From 1976 - 1978 the first wave of punk hit Toronto with all the grace and power of a beer bottle thrown from a fire escape exploding on the street below. Sure there were casualties, but the aftershocks sent reverberations through the cultural make-up of the city, and by extension the country, which helped to redefine the arts in Canada forever. Those who didn't live through the times, or even the six or seven years following them, might not realize the impact punk and its Do It Yourself ethos had on Canadian culture.

The documentary film, The Last Pogo Jumps Again (named for an infamous concert in 1978 called The Last Pogo which gathered a number of local bands together for a final two day blow out concert at the immortal Horseshoe Tavern after the owners balked at letting promoters book any more punk bands - it ended with the police shutting the bar and fans smashing the furniture) directed by independent directors and producers Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts does an amazing job of not only recreating the atmosphere of the times, but also in depicting the scene and its major players warts and all.
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Probably very few outside of Toronto have ever heard of Nazi Dog (Steven Leckie) and The Viletones, The Curse, The Demics, The Diodes, The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, The B-Girls or many of the bands who appear in the film. A couple of them managed to attain some status beyond the city's borders; Martha and the Muffins were fortunate enough to sign with a British label. (The irony of having to buy a Toronto band's album as a British import was a sad commentary on the state of the Canadian record industry at the time) Those few bands, Teenage Head and The Diodes, who did manage to get record deals were screwed over by the industry. In spite of the former selling over a 100,000 copies of a single album, they never really made it big or any money.

Through present day interviews with former members of the various bands, the promoters who booked the spaces for them to play and various others who were part of the scene, the film makers chronicle the key years of 1976 - 78, punk's fermentation in Toronto. At three and a half hours (cut down from its original five) you'd think this movie would be over long, but you don't notice the time passing at all. The people, the subject matter and the way the movie has been pieced together pulls you in so beautifully you're completely involved with the story. For those of you who want even more, there's a DVD of special features included in the package which is the over 100 minutes cut from the film.

What makes the movie so fascinating, and so poignant, is the wonderful mix of personalities and people we meet. Some of them remain the defiant and witty selfs they were nearly forty years ago. They are still working on their own terms as artists but not hanging on to whatever brief glory they had in the past. They have obviously moved on with their lives but continue to draw upon the same creative energy which fuelled them in the beginning. Unfortunately others haven't been so fortunate. We see men who have obviously had their lives ravaged by booze and drugs. Guys who once lit up a stage and a room with their presence who now look like wrecks of their former selves.
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It's unfortunate because these were the men and women who were directly responsible for bands like Arcade Fire and The Metrics being able to forge careers. Without them there wouldn't have been an independent music scene in Canada. Back in the 1970s the major labels, CBS, RCA and the others, all had affiliates in Canada. However, none of them, save CBS, could sign a Canadian band without approval from head office in Los Angeles. While they might have all been signing New York punk bands, none of them were interested in Toronto. This forced most of the bands to form their own labels and produce their own records. Heck The Diodes even built their own club, The Crash & Burn, as there were almost no venues initially for the bands to play in.

One thing the documentary makes clear, is that the punk scene in Toronto wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful as it was without the men who became known as The Garys. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier got seriously into promoting music when they took over operation of a run down cinema on Toronto's main drag, Yonge St. In 1976 they booked The Ramones into The New Yorker for their first ever Canadian concert. They were followed by The Talking Heads, Wayne County, The Cramps and Tom Waits. When the New Yorker became too expensive, they moved onto the Horseshoe tavern and threw it open to local as well as international bands. They went onto to open The Edge, which continued to mix local talent with out of town groups like Gang of Four, B-52's, XTC and even Nico - former Velvet Underground singer.

However, concert promoters can only nurture a scene, they don't create it. Without the individuals who had the nerve to want more than what was on offer at the time and to do something about it, there wouldn't have been anything to promote. The Last Pogo Jumps Again delves into the heart of that scene and tells us the stories of the people who made it beat to its unique drum. The legacy of Toronto's punk scene can be heard and seen in everything from cover bands in Japan playing songs by Teenage Head, Nirvana's cover of a Viletones song and a thriving independent music and arts scene in Canada forty years later. As Steve Leckie says near the end of the movie, "Punk maybe dead but its still bleeding". You can buy this fascinating piece of music history through its web site's shop. Its worth every penny and more.

A version of this review first appeared at Blogcritics.org as The Last Pogo Jumps Again: Punk Toronto Lives)

November 3, 2014

DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders


It's been a long time since the hay-days of punk rock in New York City, and even a longer time since the original line up of the New York Dolls took to the stage. Yet that period, since the dolls formation in 1972 and the subsequent punk scene centred around the East Side of Manhattan starting in 1976, produced some of the most influential and controversial pop music artists of the late 20th century. One of the most enigmatic and talented figures of the era was the Doll's original lead guitar player, singer songwriter Johnny Thunders

Born John Anthony Genzale in 1952 he died under strange circumstances in a New Orleans Hotel on April 23 1991. Known for his heroin habit and hard living it has been generally assumed he died of a drug overdose. To those not familiar with his story Thunder's life and death can be dismissed as just another case of a rock and roller wasting his life and potential via a needle in his arm. However, as the documentary Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders from director Danny Garcia recently released on DVD and distributed through MVD Entertainment Group shows, there's more to his story than you'd think.

The documentary is the usual mix of interviews and archival footage we've all come to expect from this kind of film. However, director Garcia and his editing team have done a great job of seamlessly cutting the interviews and other footage to give us a chronological account of Thunders' life. They've also done an excellent job of establishing the background against which his early career played out against. New York City was a much different place in the 1970s and early 1980s than it is today. Close to bankrupt, crime riddled, Manhattan, especially its Lower East Side, was a haven for drug dealers and struggling musicians needing cheap housing. It was here, in old warehouses and cold water walk-ups the new music scene developed.
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As the movie follows Thunders' musical trajectory over the course of his life, from high school bands through his membership in the New York Dolls, the seminal punk band The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell and his attempts at a solo career, we learn how he was not only a dynamic performer, but also a prolific and accomplished song writer. As his former bandmate in The Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain says when talking about arguably Thunders' best known song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory", when someone like Bob Dylan says they wish they wrote a song, you know its great.

However, even more importantly we learn how much he was loved and/or respected by those who knew him. While he might have careened through most of his adult life addicted to drugs, the majority of those interviewed in the movie only speak of how much he meant to them. Sure, he pissed them off at times, and he was impossible at other times, but they still stuck by him and remember him with affection and or sorrow. The impression we are left with is of a vulnerable individual who was his own worst enemy, but was deeply loved in spite of his faults.

While there is no escaping the fact drug and alcohol abuse was responsible for killing his potential for a financially successful career, there's also no denying the influence he had on popular music. He might never have achieved fame in North America save as an underground star, he toured extensively through-out Europe and Japan both as a member of his various bands and as a solo act and his music influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols to Morrissey. Any question you might have about Thunders' abilities will be laid to rest by the archival footage of his solo acoustic performances. There is something so incredibly raw and vulnerable about the sight and sound of him standing on stage with his guitar it can bring tears to your eyes.

When he was able to open himself up to his music, rid himself of the demons which tormented him and drove him into the arms of addiction, he shone with the light of true inspiration. It would be easy to dismiss Thunders as another example of a great talent gone to waste through the deprivations of drugs and alcohol, but as the movie makes clear his death was more than a case of another guy simply overdosing. Garcia and his crew were able to obtain a copy of the coroner's report on Thunders' death and it puts things in an entirely different light as it indicated his body showed all the signs of him being in the later stages of leukaemia.
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Interviews with friends who saw him in the months leading up to his death confirm they were worried about his health. He had admitted himself to a detox centre and was on a methadone program in an attempt to get himself clean, yet he looked to be sicker than ever. Phyllis Stein, the former partner of his long time friend and fellow Doll and Heartbreaker, the late Jerry Nolan, talked about the last time Nolan saw Thunders before he left New York City for New Orleans. She says Nolan came home shaken and described Thunders as being covered with bruises where there shouldn't have been any. Stein then tells us how her mother had died of leukaemia when she was a child, and how in the later stages of the disease she displayed the same symptoms.

Yet in spite of knowing he was very sick, and probably knowing he was dying, from all accounts Thunders was doing his best to get clean. Instead of doing his best to continue with his seemingly endless quest to escape reality, he seems to have in the end resolved to at least attempt to meet his death face on. Nobody knows for sure what happened the night he died in a New Orleans hotel. The police never looked into why his room had been picked clean of all his money and possessions, or why riga-mortis had frozen him in a foetal position when they finally found him. They just dismissed it as another junkie death.

As Searching For Johnny - The Legend of Johnny Thunders makes perfectly clear, Thunders was more than just another junkie. Nearly 25 years after his death he is still remembered and talked of fondly by his friends and those he played music with. Music he wrote more than thirty years ago is still being played and sought out around the world. You might not be able to put your arms around a memory, but this movie helps to keep the memory of Johnny Thunders alive and reminds us of what he meant to both popular music and those who loved him. If you've never understood what all the fuss is about, watch this movie and it will give you at least a glimmer of understanding into the life and times of one of rock and rolls' great talents. If you did know of him, or know him, watching this movie will break your heart all over again.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders)

August 2, 2014

DVD Review: Secret State


Intrigue, adventure and mystery - it sounds like the promotional line for a new adventure story or action film. However, your average Hollywood big budget extravaganza has nothing on a well told story of back room political manoeuvring for covert action, intrigue and the well placed knife in the back. If you think monsters from space or mysterious creatures from the depths of sea are frightening, they're nothing compared to the political operative who can smile to your face while contemplating your downfall. While American television has recently seen its share of political scheming, very few can compare to the British when it comes to depicting the machinations behind the scenes in government.

Of course it helps they have a few more centuries of experience to draw upon, an Officials Secrets Act which would drive conspiracy theorists on this side of the Atlantic crazy and a Old Boys network based on class which still believes in the right of titled to rule. Stir that pot of ingredients in just the right manner and you come up with something terrifying in its believability. The recently released DVD package of Secret State from Acorn Media combines the above elements with an amazing script and an impeccable cast to create almost two and half hours of spell binding television.

Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is sent out to give his government's response to an explosion at a petrochemical plant which not only resulted in worker fatalities, but destroyed the surrounding neighbourhood. His job is to assess the damage and reassure the population his government will provide appropriate compensation. With the Prime Minister meeting with the American company who owns the plant in Huston to negotiate compensation, Dawkins is the one taking the heat from press and citizens alike. When reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) lets him know the company who owns the plant had known about the problem which caused the explosion he is livid. He phones the Prime Minister on board his plane returning from America for reassurances about compensation, but during the conversation their call is cut off and then the plane vanishes.
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When the wreckage of the plane is found Dawkins is declared interim Prime Minister until a new party leader can be selected. This is where the first rounds of what will be an ongoing political battle are fought. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ros Yeland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Treasury Minister Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves) want the top job. However, party whip (the guy who makes sure all party members toe the line) John Hodder (Charles Dance) thinks their best bet for re-election is Dawkins.

The infighting leading up to the choosing of Dawkins as new leader is fun, but it's nothing compared to what happens after he's chosen leader and leads the party to an unexpected re-election. For while there's no denying Dawkins' appeal to the voters, he has one flaw that alienates the movers and shakers in industry, financial circles, the military and the intelligence community - he speaks his mind. Even worse, he usually tells the truth to people who don't want to hear it. Things start to really become interesting when he not only pushes to find out the truth of what happened to the Prime Minister's plane, but tries to pressure the American Petrochemical company into paying compensation to the victims of the explosion.

When Dawkins attempts to do an end run around the financial and military establishment by reaching a deal with India for financing and firing the head of military intelligence for provoking a war with Iran the moves against him go into overdrive. He is now considered a threat to the established order and in a move spearheaded by Durrell and Yeland his own party seeks to have removed from office. His life is complicated even further when the military leaks confidential information about a mission he was involved with while a peace keeper in the Bosnian conflict to the reporter Kane where half his squad was killed.

This attempt to discredit him personally is a relatively minor incident as we watch the full weight of the spy industry in Great Britain be brought to bear on him. The threads of plot and intrigue twist and turn in ways that might leave you gasping for breath. However, what will really take your breath away is how believable the show manages to make all of them seem. These aren't the rantings of some conspiracy theorist, they are stark realities about how the world works and how a few powerful people can bring down governments and orchestrate events to suit their needs.
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What's wonderful about this show is no matter how convoluted the story might sound most viewers should have no trouble keeping up with its sudden twists and turns. While there's nothing simplistic about the script, nor does it condescend to its audience by leading them around by the nose, it doesn't make make things unnecessarily complicated. It takes sufficient time to not only introduce the various plots, but also the characters involved in each strand. Once we are familiar with which characters are associated with each strand of action we can quickly identify what's going on and why. By keeping everything tightly compartmentalized until the end when everything converges we have no trouble keeping track of the net which is slowly closing around Dawkins.

What helps keeps us riveted to the screen is the cast led by Byrne. As the ex army officer who almost unwillingly steps into the job of Prime Minister, he gives one of the best performances I've seen from him. The supporting cast of Drance, Le Touzell, Graves and everybody else involved, are equally convincing. While the reptilian gaze of Drance's,character as he plots his every move to Le Touzell's and Grave's elegant way of smiling to someone's face while plotting just where to put the knife in their back are frightening, all of the performances are also realistic and believable. What's truly terrifying about most of what you watch is how matter of fact everybody is while going about the business of putting their own interests above those of the people they supposedly represent.

Chris Mullen's novel A Very British Coup was first adapted for television in 1988. In the special features included on the DVD Mullen explains why he and the producer's decided to create a new adaptation now. He's updated the story line to reflect the changing world political climate and the new pressures being brought to bear on politicians. However, as the story makes clear, as far as he's concerned some things about the British political system have never changed.

Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, Secret State is a compelling argument that there is always more going on behind the scenes in politics than any of us will ever know. Beautifully acted, elegantly written and seamlessly directed it is probably the best tale of political intrigue you'll ever watch. One warning, allow yourself time to sit down and watch all four episodes at once, you're not going to want to wait to find out how it ends.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Secret State)

July 19, 2014

DVD Review: Case Histories, Series 2


Some detective stories are primarily character driven while others are driven by their plots. While both ways of approaching a story can be interesting and provide satisfactory viewing for an audience, the best shows not only find a balance between the two, but somehow manage to integrate them. The term pathetic fallacy is a literary device wherein the author uses natural events to reflect what's happening in the plot of their story. In detective stories the best marriages of plot and character are those where the former holds a mirror up to the latter, reflecting some aspect of his life back at him. It might not be exactly the same as a thunder storm indicating a world out of joint, but it does help to create the kind of emotional and psychological depth required to make a show all the more realistic and intriguing.

In the second instalment of the mystery stories inspired by the writer Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Series 2, now available on DVD from Acorn Media we see just how effectively this technique can be utilized to make gripping television. Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) is a former cop turned private investigator. Driven off the Edinburgh police force for turning in crooked colleagues he now makes his living doing everything from finding lost dogs to tracking down missing persons and solving murders. As the lead character in the series we not only follow him as he works his cases we also delve into his emotional and mental state.

He might start out with every intention of being professionally detached when investigating a case but inevitably he not only becomes emotionally involved but is reminded of his own troubled past. He can tell himself all he wants that he won't take a personal interest, but in each of the three episodes in "Series 2" (Started Early, Took My Dog, Nobody's Darling and Jackson and the Women) it doesn't take much for him to cross over the line and open his heart.
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While the first two cases begin innocuously enough, a daughter seeking out her birth mother and a young woman wanting him to check up on her fiancee to make sure he's not having an affair, in each instance his natural empathy leads him to places he doesn't necessarily want to travel. In Started Early, Took My Dog he finds himself once again immersed in uncovering the dirty laundry of the Edinburgh police as the search for the birth mother leads him back to an old case involving a murdered prostitute, the officers involved with the original investigation and the mystery of what happened to the child who was found in the apartment with the dead woman. How this case from the past relates to both his client and the death of another prostitute in the present forces Brodie into making a decision based on what he deems best for the parties involved rather than what the law and his own financial considerations demand.

In Nobody's Darling Brodie's life is complicated by his daughter's return from Australia where she had been living with his ex-wife. With her living with him temporarily we watch as he tries to negotiate both raising a girl entering adolescence and once again finding himself involved in a case which turns out to be far more complicated then he first thought. What starts out as a simple checking up on a possibly unfaithful partner, turns into an investigation of a suspicious death. Along the way Brodie also finds himself becoming the suspect in a murder inquiry when a bookie who hired him to investigate why money was going missing from his shop turns up dead. It doesn't help Brodie any that he won 60,000 pounds from the same bookie the day he was killed by placing a 1500 pound bet on a 40-1 long shot hardly anybody else had backed.

The title of the final episode of the series, Brodie and the Women, refers not only to the case he take on, but to the complicated relationships he has with the women in his own life. While a young man asks him to re-open the investigation into the death of his mother, she was originally thought to have been the victim of a serial killer, he also has to deal with the fact his assistant, Deborah (Zawe Ashton) has finally had enough of not being paid and quit, trying to reconnect romantically with his one friend on the police force Detective Inspector (DI) Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbignton) and his ex-girlfriend, Julia (Natasha Little) turning up very pregnant.
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Playing a character with as many complexities as Brodie requires an actor of singular quality. A person who can not only show subtle shifts of emotion merely with his eyes and face, but who can also wear his heart for all the world to see without descending into melodrama. As Brodie Isaacs not only allows us to witness the character's inner turmoil play out behind his eyes, he also shows us there is more than one dimension to this man. Too many actors will fixate on one aspect of their character and ride it like a wave, but Isaacs understands there is more to a person than simply their past or one emotion. Empathy does not mean just be able to feel people's pain, it also means having the ability to share joy and other positive emotions. When Brodie is happy, his whole face lights up as if he's illuminated from the inside out.

However, while Isaacs performance is enough to make the series worth watching, its more than just a one man show. The scripts work to bring out the many facets of his character through his interactions with both the people in his life and the way he reacts to the situations in his life. From the over protective father learning how to let his child grow up, the man frightened of committing to a relationship, to the person with a sense of justice based on the needs of the individual rather than what others might demand of him, the scripts allow us to see all sides of Brodie while also telling three great stories.

The special features part ot the DVD set include some fascinating interviews with the cast and crew. Of most interest is the one with Isaacs, for not only does he star in the show he is also one its producers. He's able to to give viewers a perspective on the show from both sides of the camera we don't normally hear. He covers everything from the choice of music in the film to how they developed new scripts not based on books by the author while attempting to stay true to the characters and themes she developed.

It's not often you'll find any television show, let alone something as genre specific as a mystery show, where plot and character are as seamlessly integrated as they are in Case Histories, Series 2. Not only are the mysteries Brodie attempts to solve intriguing to watch, they are a reflection of the inner turmoils he's constantly dealing with. Whether it's a case of him deliberately seeking out this type of work as some sort of redemption or whether the universe is just messing with him doesn't really matter. The result is some of the most well acted and beautifully scripted television you'll see this year.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Case Histories Series 2)

June 22, 2014

DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set 2


The troubled Private Investigator (P.I.) or police detective with a dark secret has started showing up in so many television shows and movies the role has come close to being a cliche. Troubled marriages, drinking and drug problems, intimacy issues and the old favourite post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the job seem to abound on both the big and small screens. It's to the point where they play as big a part in the stories as the actual crimes being solved these days. It's as if after years of ignoring the fact cops and P.I.s are humans, scriptwriters and producers are making up for lost time by giving them as many foibles as possible. Unfortunately this means it has now become somewhat difficult to take all these variations on the same theme seriously. They've too obviously become just another plot device.

In fact it takes a very special performance to make this type of character and the show he's featured in believable. Jack Taylor, Set 2, being released by Acorn Media on Tuesday June 24 2014 not only contains just such a performance, the three feature length episodes contained in the set create the perfect context for the character in question. Jack Taylor (Iain Glen) is an alcoholic former Garde (police officer) in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Thrown off the force for drinking and punching a politician, he's now struggling to keep his head above water taking on cases privately.

In "Set 1" we discovered he came by most of his problems because of a dysfunctional home life. His mother was a survivor of Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries, work houses for "fallen" young women run by the Catholic Church, and had been badly twisted emotionally by her experiences. This affected not only her own behaviour, but the way she treated her son and husband. In the first episode of "Set 2", The Dramatist, Taylor and his mom are trying to reconcile. She is recovering from a stroke she he's been on the wagon for six months. There's a beautiful scene with the two of them sitting by the water's edge, him eating yogourt for his stomach and her laughing at the idea of him trying to eat healthily.
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However, this one bit of brightness in his life is soon eclipsed by a case he's drawn into involving the apparent overdose/suicide of a young theatre student at the local university. Aside from his friend Garde Kate Noone (Nora-Jane Noone) the local police believe the death was an accident or at worse suicide. The one disconcerting element is a quote from a play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, by Irish playwright John Synge found on the girl's body and the fact she was dressed in a costume and make up. One of the professors at the university isn't convinced it was a suicide and hires Taylor to look into the matter. Along with his assistant Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) Taylor starts to investigate the young girl's life at university and the people she associated with. When a second young woman turns up dead with in a similar fashion - overdosed, dressed in costume and a quote from the same play carved into her back - the police realize the first girl was murdered as well.

While there's nothing straightforward about the case, the almost ritualistic aspects of the girls' murders bears all the indications of a serial killer at large, it takes a bitter twist at the end and dregs up some of Taylor's sordid past. However, while this case might be personally haunting for our PI, the second one in the series rips open the scab on a society wide problem in Ireland, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The Priest starts with Taylor being asked to investigate when the body of a decapitated priest is found kneeling in front of the alter in a church. He discovers that not only had the dead man abused alter boys, he had also raped a nun. Through investigation he also discovers the horrible truth about child abuse, the crime doesn't usually end when the abuse stops and the victims are scarred for life.

This is quite a disturbing episode and probably shouldn't be watched by those recovering from abuse as it could trigger some nasty responses. However, like the entire series the episode is also handled with intelligence and compassion. It might be difficult to watch, but it makes clear the horrible nature of the crime committed against the children who suffered at the hands of those who were supposedly responsible for keeping them safe. It also shows how when the problem is ignored and the victims not treated, the repercussions can last for generations.
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The final feature in the set, Shot Down, has Taylor on the run from his guilt over something which happened in the previous episode. He's pretty much living rough and taking work where he finds it while travelling across the west of Ireland. Which is how he stumbles onto a young girl running through a forest covered in blood. It turns out she had found the body of her murdered mother and has blocked out most of her memories of the event. Taylor suspects she's also a witness to the events of her mother's death and worries her life might be in danger. He convinces her extended family of Irish travellers (gypsies) that he should hang around and try to figure out what the girl witnessed.

In dealing with helping the girl remember what happened to her Taylor is also forced to confront his what's happened to him recently. The relationship which develops between him and the child helps him overcome his guilt about those events and allows him to achieve a kind of redemption. While it's hard to describe the essence of what Taylor goes through without giving away key details of the stories being told, the arc his character travels over the course of the three episodes describes an emotional and spiritual roller coaster which has to be seen to be believed.

It takes a special kind of actor to bring this life and Glen, with his craggy face and whisky steeped voice, is phenomenal in the role of Taylor. He's not afraid to show us all aspects of the man he plays, his weaknesses and his strengths. While we are able to sympathize with some of the things Taylor goes through, Glen also manages to show us how he has a drunk's penchant for self pity and denial. However, there has to be a reason people like Garde Noonan and his assistant Farraher don't give up on him, and Taylor also manages to show us the heart of the good man who beats beneath the crumpled, slightly degraded exterior.

Jack Taylor, Set 2 might be shy on special features, an interview with one of the directors about the show and some photo galleries, but its compelling and well acted television. The stories are drawn from the gritty realities of Irish life, not from the romantic notions of green hills and folk songs. They might be hard to watch at times yet there is no denying the power of the stories and the strength of the cast. While all the actors involved do a wonderful job in their roles, the reality is they are merely satellites in orbit around Glen's stellar work in the lead role. There aren't many opportunities to see a tour de force performance these days, but Glen as Taylor will have you leaning into the screen watching his every move and listening to his every word.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set Two)

January 24, 2014

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders, Series 6


There's nothing like the beautiful English country side. Rolling hills, farmland and tracts of lovingly preserved forest. How idyllic to live amongst these pastoral pleasures in some quaint village filled with cottages and other old world charm. No sir, there's nothing like the pleasures of the English country life; disembowelment, dismemberment, and all sorts of other fun associated with murder and mayhem. For behind the exterior of village greens and manor houses lurk the same passions, hatreds and greed which lead people into committing slaughter everywhere.

Probably no other television series in recent memory has managed to cash in on this premise with more success than the British TV mystery series Midsomer Murders. Since it first took to the airways in 1997 it has been captivating audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, thanks to the people at Acorn Media its possible for fans of the series to bring home some of the earlier seasons on DVD exactly as they were shown on British television originally. Midsomer Murders, Series 6 is one of only a few of these new packages, and the five feature length episodes contained on its three discs are perfect examples of why the show continues to be popular to this day.

First off, it's hard not to be impressed by the bucolic settings of each episode. The producers have not only been given access to what seems like every stately manor home in and around England, they also have been given the run of almost every picturesque village in the Mid-lands. However, they're also not shy about making sure we see not everyone is living the ideal country life of horse back riding and gardening. No, we see there can just as much, if not worse, squalid poverty in the country as in the city. The contrast being the well off country dwellers and those who are feeling the bite of the new economy is used to great effect in the fourth episode of this series, "A Tale Of Two Hamlets".
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Another reason for the series's continued popularity is how well each episode is written. With each of them clocking in at slightly over 90 minutes, the show's writers have plenty of time to both develop the plot and the characters in each episode. While each show might start off with a murder, there's no telling in which direction the writers are going to take you after that. The show develops in the same rolling, twisting fashion as the roads winding through the scenery. There're sudden curves, hidden stops and even the occasional switchback to be dealt with. With plenty of time to tell their stories the writers can play out sub-plots and scenarios which act as red herrings and throw up many a false trail.

Then of course there's the characters in the series. From the regulars, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his side kick Detective Sergeant (DS) Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Barnaby's long suffering wife and daughter, Joyce (Jane Wymark and Cully (Laura Howard and pathologist Dr. Bullard Barry Jackson to all the special guest stars who populate the various episodes. In fact part of the fun of watching the show is playing "where the hell have I seen that actor before" every time a familiar face pops up on the screen.

This set is no exception as the fun with actors begins in the first episode, "A Talent For Life", as the amazing ageless Honor Blackman shows up as Isobel Hewitt, a senior citizen refusing to surrender meekly to the aging process murdered by someone close to her. Could it be one of her family members wishing to sell off her estate in order to regain some of the money they've lost over the years from her escapades? However, things aren't quite as straightforward as they seem as a second body is discovered, the local doctor, near hers. With his reputation as a "ladies man" could it have been a jealous husband seeking revenge on him, and Hewitt was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was she the target and he was the innocent victim?
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Which is when of course our detectives take over and the real fun of this show begins. It's always wonderful to watch Nettles as the seemingly unflappable and stolid country police inspector play into people's prejudices about "country bumpkin cops". With his headstrong DS running interference, keeping the locals on their toes, Barnaby gradually pulls back the veneer of genteel respectability to reveal all the little secrets they've so carefully hidden. They might not be entirely germane to the investigation, but it's still fun to watch everyone squirm and realize he's not the stupid plod they thought he was.

Episode three of Series 6, "Painted in Blood", has Nettles in fine form, playing up the country cop role, when he and DS Troy are told to stand aside in favour of two officers from the national crime squad when his wife discovers the body of a fellow student in her water colour class lying dead in the village green. It's a wonderful example of how Barnaby plays on people's expectations and uses them against them. He's not even above using his DS for these purposes. For when the members of the national crime squad flatter Troy by including him in their investigation, in order to use him for their own purposes, Barnaby plays along while waiting patiently for his DS to realize he's being used. This not allows him to carry on the investigation without any interference, when Troy comes to his senses it also allows him access to information the others have uncovered.

There aren't many television shows produced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean which have played as long as Midsomer Murders. Even though it has undergone an almost complete cast change from the time "Series 6" aired, the show retains the same appeal it had back in 2003 when these were filmed. However, while many of the same elements are retained, the country setting, the secrets hidden behind genteel exteriors and the remarkable collection of actors who appear in each episode, the combination of Nettles and Casey as Barnaby and Troy and the chemistry the two actors enjoy on screen is something that can't be replicated. The opportunity to watch these earlier episodes again on DVD is something not to be missed. There are many police shows, but it's safe to say there are none quite like Midsomer Murders. While these packages don't have the special features some sets come with, don't let that detract you from purchasing them if you're a fan of the series. The episodes are special enough on their own merits.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Midsomer Murders Series 6)

January 7, 2014

DVD Review: Broken


There are some books you always remember for the way in which they opened your eyes to the world around you. They might have stripped away your innocence in the process, but they also reassured you that no matter how bad things could get, there were always some people doing their best to bring some balance to the world. The first book I remember providing me with that experience was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Its harsh depiction of the American South in the 1930s of hatred and racism were mitigated by the simple beauty of the coming of age story it told. It's one of those books you can still read today and find it as relevant as when it was first published in 1960.

If anyone had any doubts about the durability of Lee's book and the theme's it expresses, you need look no further than the film Broken which was recently released on DVD from Film Movement. Transferred from the American South to suburban England and from the 1930s setting of the original to the present day, Broken uses much the same form and structure of "Mockingbird". Both feature a single father lawyer raising two children with the help of a live in nanny, and the eleven year old girl, Skunk, (Eloise Laurence) being the main character whose eyes we see the world through.

However, while wrongful accusations of sexual misconduct do play a significant role in propelling the movie's story as it did in the book, the themes the movie explores are quite different from those the book deals with. The movie is also far more complex than the original story and nothing is as cut and dried as we'd like it to be or as first impressions might lead us to believe. As the movie progresses and our understanding of the characters involved increases we begin to understand, as Skunk does, there's a lot more to people than what meets the eye. Actions, which taken out of context might seem senseless, while still not completely rational or normal, are at least explainable.
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Skunk and her family, her father Archie (Tim Roth) brother Jed and au pair Kasia live on a cul de sac in North London with two other families, the Oswalds and the Buckleys. The Buckley's son Rick (Robert Emms) suffers from some undisclosed mental illness. Unlike the other two families, who are obviously professional class, the Oswalds, father Bob (Rory Kinnear) and his three daughters are at first glance, for lack of a better word, white trash.

The movie opens with Skunk witnessing what seems like a completely unprovoked brutal attack on Rick by Bob. Skunk is standing in the middle of the road talking to Rick about washing his father's car, when we see Bob come storming out of his house ripping his shirt and tie off. While completely focused on his target he greets Skunk as he passes her and then proceeds to beat Rick up. The next thing Skunk sees is Rick being taken away by the police. What Skunk doesn't know is what led up to the events.

Bob's fourteen year old middle daughter has been playing with a condemn she'd stolen from her eldest sister's purse. Knowing her father would be furious with her for having a condemn, and not wanting to get her sister in trouble either, when he discovers the wrapper in her room she claims Rick used it when he had sex with her. The recently divorced and overly protective Bob goes ballistic, beats up Rick and then phones the police to charge him with having sex with a minor. When it's discovered the girl is still a virgin the charges against Rick are dropped, but his imprisonment results in him regressing and ending up having to be institutionalized.

Against this background Skunk is also having to negotiate the tricky business of heading into her first year of the British equivalent of secondary school and her first boyfriend, Dillard. She also has to experience watching somebody whose she's come to think of as a permanent fixture in her life walk out as her au pair breaks up with her long standing boy friend Mike (Cillian Murphy). However, the fear and unease she feels about her first day of school is somewhat mitigated when she discovers Mike is one of her teachers. Unfortunately she also runs afoul of an extortion ring run by Osbourne's youngest and eldest daughters, the consequences of which send shockwaves through her entire community.

Like the book it is freely based on Broken is a deceptively simple sounding story. On the surface it can be seen as a coming of age of story in which the scales of innocence begin to fall from the eyes of a young girl. Yet the title itself is also a key to understanding the actions of the film's characters as we gradually realize how most of their behaviour is dictated by how they've been broken by life and circumstances. All the events of the film occur because of a character's fear based on their life experiences which have left them damaged in some way. Those who initially come across as unsympathetic are revealed to be just as damaged as those who we feel sorry for in the beginning.
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What makes this work so well is the universal excellence of the performances. Laurence, who had never acted prior to appearing in this role, is brilliant as Skunk. Her reactions to everything she sees are letter perfect and she comes across as one of the most real children I've ever seen on screen. Gawky, slightly geeky, but excited by life, she does a magnificent job of depicting the child turning into an adult. She manages to bring to life both the anger and fear she feels at the adult world she doesn't understand and her excitement at entering this new world and all the while retaining the enthusiasm and naivety of the child she still is.

As her father Archie, Roth gives one of his most understated and powerful performances. Normally an actor we associate with a variety of twitches and near neurotic behaviour, here he delivers a beautiful and powerful portrait of a devoted father whose life revolves around his children. When his wife abandoned him with two children he obviously poured all his love into them, and shut himself off from feeling anything for anybody else. It comes as a complete surprise to him when he discovers he can actually have feelings for someone other than his kids. However, he doesn't realize the impact beginning a relationship with his children's au pair will have on Skunk. He doesn't realize how much she fears it might end up result in another person leaving her.

One of the best performances in the film comes from Kinnear as Bob Osborne. Over the course of the film our image of him as a violent bully gradually evolves into a man desperate to protect his family from a world he's seen fuck him over totally. Unlike his neighbour Archie who is able to demonstrate his love for his children through affection, Osborne, can only use his anger as a shield to protect them. When they are threatened or hurt he lashes out uncaring of the consequences following his instinct to keep them safe in only way he knows how. Kinnear does an amazing job of bringing all the different facets of this deeply troubled and broken man to life. We might not like his behaviour, but we can't help but be sympathetic to the the depth of his passion and the very real love he feels for his children.

Broken is one of those wonderful movies that come along only once in a while. Not only is it beautifully written and acted it's a multilayered story which works on a number of levels. We see the world from the perspective of children trying to make their way in a strange and sometimes confusing adult world and from that of the adults trying to understand what their children are going through. While there are moments of heartbreak and sporadic violence throughout the film, overall it is also a beautiful story of compassion and love. You might not see a better or more well acted movie this year.

(Article original published at Empty Mirror as Film Review: Broken, starring Tim Roth & Cillian Murphy)

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film


When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
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So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
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Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987


I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 12, 2013

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8

It wasn't until I sat down to write this review I found out the man whose books the main characters in this DVD were based on, Reginald Hill, had died in January of 2012. I had the good fortune to interview him a couple years prior to his death and naturally we talked about his two most famous characters, Detective Superintendent (Det. Supt.) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (D.I) Peter Pascoe. He talked of them with affection and it seemed to me they had taken on a life of their own outside his books. While the television adaptions of his characters were made during his lifetime, seeing them on the TV screen going about their business after the death of their creator makes it even more certain they will live on.

Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8 first aired in 2004 on British television and is now coming to DVD thanks to BBC Home Entertainment. The four feature length episodes included in this series weren't based on any of the books Hill wrote for his characters. However, the characters he created were so strong, and made such an indelible impression on their followers, the creators of the TV series obviously felt as long as they did a good job with bringing the characters to life they would succeed.

When you consider the fact Hill had had no intention of making either character an ongoing feature in his books, and Dalziel had only been created to act as a foil for Pascoe in the original book, it's quite remarkable the life these two characters have taken on. The challenge facing anybody bringing them to the screen is the fact they are competing with every reader's vision of them. Key to success in this is a combination of casting and what you do with the characters. You can find the perfect actors for each role and still fail by giving them inappropriate material to work with.
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Thankfully in this case the casting and the writing work together wonderfully. Warren Clarke as Dalziel is not only physically appropriate for his character, in size, shape and appearance, he also has the ability to give us glimpses of what goes on emotionally under the craggy exterior. On the surface Dalziel is all old school bluster. The type of cop who looks like he's willing to turn a blind eye to a suspect getting a few bruises during interrogation if it ensures he finds the guilty party in the end. However, what we come to realize through watching the four episodes is the bluster and bullying - which also applies to the way he treats his underlings as well as his suspects - are only because he feels personally responsible if he isn't able to solve a crime.

We see a perfect example of this in the episode entitled "The Price Of Fame" on disc one. For while the duo are tracking down the killer of a young woman who works at a holiday resort who had ambitions of becoming a "star", Dalziel is also trying to figure out who kidnapped a teenage girl. He had been taken off the case because he'd been too rough on a witness. However he'd promised the girl's mother he'd find her, and his failure to do so is eating away at him. We watch as events in the murder case trigger fresh perspectives on the kidnapping and lead him to figuring out who actually committed the first crime.

In all four episodes the writers give Clarke ample opportunity to give us a complete portrait of this complex character. On the surface he might appear to be all bluster but underneath lurks an intelligent and compassionate mind. To the casual observer it might appear odd that this rather oafish and old school copper would inspire loyalty and respect in his younger and more sophisticated junior officer, but the more we learn about Dalziel, the more we understand why Pascoe appreciates working with him so much.
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As Pascoe Colin Buchanan is faced with the difficult job of sharing screen time with a character who could easily overshadow him. Thankfully both the writers and the actor recognize the best way to deal with this situation is to make Pascoe the rock upon which the wave of Dalziel breaks. Pascoe doesn't just meekly stand there and let his boss role all over him, but he isn't stupid enough to try and out bluster him. No his weapons are sly wit and cool intelligence, and he uses both to slow Dalziel down and to challenge his more outrageous suggestions.

However, like his boss, there's more to Pascoe than meets the eye. Although he's not given as many opportunities in these four episodes to show his character's depth, as Dalziel plays a larger role, Buchanan does let us see some cracks appear in the calm facade periodically. What's interesting is most of them are related to his boss. Whether as expressions of concern for his well being or frustration with his behaviour, Dalziel is able to create cracks in his junior's equanimity far more often than the job. Which isn't to suggest Buchanan plays him like some cold fish who doesn't show any disgust or anger over the crimes they have to deal with. However, he's able to show how Pascoe brings a level of detachment to the job which prevents it from becoming personal.

The four episodes on this disc are all well written and interesting murder investigations. However, those responsible for the series know people are watching the shows as much as for the way they bring the two main characters to life on the screen as they are for the actual investigations. In response they have created four investigations which allow the actors playing the lead characters to do just that through the course of carrying out their duties. It's this balancing act of story and characterization which made Hill's books more than just the usual run of the mill police procedurals. While the shows might not be based on actual stories Hill wrote, they definitely capture what made his books so popular.

While the two DVD set doesn't come with any special features, like behind the scenes looks at the making of the show, it shouldn't detract from anybody's pleasure at watching them. These wonderfully acted and well scripted shows are special enough in their own right. Anybody who liked the characters on the pages of the books, will take great pleasure in watching them on the small screen at home.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8)

August 27, 2013

DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition


I remember reading someone describing San Francisco as being a country separate from the rest of the United States. However, not only is it different from the rest of the country, its even quite different from the rest of the State of California. How else could you explain the city home to The Grateful Dead, Grace Slick and City Lights Book Store being part of a system which elected both Ronald Regan and Arnold Shwarzenegger as Governor? To the rest of the country the city has always represented freedom or licentiousness personified depending on your perspective. It was here flower power and drugs bloomed the strongest in the 1960s and the sexual revolution flourished most during the early years of the 1970s.

While outsiders might have had their own ideas of what went on in the city by Pacific Ocean, it took an insider to tell the story of the people and the places where it all happened.Armistead Maupin wrote with honesty and objectivity about an era now coloured by the spectre of AIDS and managed to capture both the innocence and sadness of the times. His books were love stories, comedies and historical records of a time of excitement and exploration which will probably never come again. In 1993 the first of these books was made into a television mini-series. Now, twenty years later, the series is being honoured with the release of a newly packaged and remastered special edition, Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Acorn Media.

As you may have figured out the story takes place in the mid 70s when the sexual revolution was peaking with gay rights. Literally fresh off the bus from Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is both shocked and thrilled by what she sees around her. While she's nowhere near ready for the club scene and the rotating partners that goes with it, she loves the freedom and opportunities the city has to offer. Her entrance into life in San Francisco is eased along when she responds to an add for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. With landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) playing den mother to its collection of tenants, Barbary Lane and its inhabitants quickly becomes the focal point of the story.
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Via Mary Jane we meet the very liberated Mona Ramsey, (Chloe Webb) her gay sometime room mate Michael "Mouse" Toliver (Marcus D'Amico) and the happily straight Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). It's through Mona, Mary Jane lands her first job in the city, secretary to the head of the advertising firm her neighbour works for, Edgar Halcyon. (Donald Moffat)

With Barbary Lane as the nexus for the story we travel all over the city and the surrounding areas, meeting people from all social backgrounds. We watch the central characters' struggles with life and love as they look for just the right person to share their lives with. What makes the show so special is the wonderful depth to each character. From country club going Halcyon to seemingly carefree bachelor Hawkins, there is more to each of them than we first realize. While books are known for the way in which they allow characters to develop, it's rare to see the same thing in a television series. Normally a show like this would be more caught up in what the people do than in who they are. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

The script carefully takes us through each characters' experiences and uses them to give us a more complete picture of who they are. Even better is how each of the actors allows themselves to be guided by the script. As a result watching the people on screen is like getting to know people in real life. The more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand and appreciate them, just like we would with anyone else new in our lives. It's in this way we gradually see the nice man hiding behind the swinger in Brian Hawkins as he shows unexpected compassion and empathy towards the various women he encounters in bars and bed.

We also learn how vulnerable and insecure both Mouse and Mona really are. Webb does a wonderful job of showing the cracks in her character's veneer of coolness and the sense of loss she seems to be carrying with her. D'Amico does a great job of portraying the looking for love in all the wrong places Mouse. Unlike many of the gay men he meets, he's not interested in one night stands, but is looking for his one true love. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be having much luck as his partners keep turning out to be inappropriate or far less interested in commitment than he is.
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Of course at the centre of everything are Dukakis and Linney. While Singleton's brittle innocence is a bit trying at times, Linney does a remarkable job of showing her character's gradual willingness to be more open and accepting. She gradually learns to set aside her Cleveland morality and learn the value of loyalty and friendship, no matter how odd those friends might be. As for Dukakis, she looks like she was born to play Anna Madrigal. On the surface outrageous and eccentric - she gifts each new tenant with a carefully rolled joint made with the pot she grows in her garden - she has a secret buried beneath her poetry quoting exterior and a sentimental streak as a wide as any of the youngsters in her charge.

Watching her gradually developing relationship with Halcyon is a thing of beauty. Both Dukakis and Moffat do a wonderful job of showing how love isn't only for young people. While he gradually reveals the man who has hidden behind propriety and suits all his life, she lets us see the tender heart beating beneath Madrigal's eccentricity. These two old pros steal the show away from the youngsters without even trying, and their scenes together are some of the best in the series.

With the show having been originally aired in 1993 even digital remastering isn't able to compensate for any of the original deficiencies in sound and audio. Still, all things considered, the quality is more than adequate for watching on a home theatre system if you remember to set your system for stereo transmission instead of surround sound. While the special features on the disc are limited to video of rehearsal and a couple of behind the scenes shots, the booklet included in the DVD package provides a great deal of information about the series and the book its based on.

Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition is a wonderful reminder of just how great character driven television can be when performed and scripted well. Its also a beautiful trip back in time. While the show makes no secret of how many people during the 1970s were more concerned with self-gratification than anything else, we also see how there was also a level of innocence sadly lacking today. It was a time of exploration and self-discovery as well and never has this strange dichotomy been captured on film quite as well as is done here. This is one of those rare times when the adaptation does a book proud. It not only captures the action of the original but the spirit as well.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition)

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn


When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

July 5, 2013

DVD Review: Falcon


The troubled cop with a mysterious past and a serious drinking/drug problem has become so commonplace in television shows and movies the character is now verging on cliche. It takes a script of incredible quality and an exceptionally talented actor to make both the role and the program work. Audiences are no longer going to be satisfied with being shocked by the sight of a cop snorting cocaine, there has to be something more to the character than just his or her addictions or troubles.

For those looking for that little bit extra, they need look no further than Falcon, a new release from Acorn Media. Each of the two DVDs in this set contains a full length, 90 minute, movie set in Seville Spain following Detective Jefe Javier Falcon (Marton Csokas) as he delves into two very delicate murder investigations. While Csokas' character definitely has his problems, he buys mysterious packets of white powder in back alleys and ingests them by mixing their contents into glasses of water and drinking them down, the show doesn't make a big deal out of his drug use. Normally a show will make it furtive and ugly, but here it's all sort of matter of fact. He buys his drugs, goes home, mixes it up and drinks it down.

We don't have any idea when he started doing it, or even any indication as to why. We do know he's had one failed marriage, but he's an obviously well respected and appreciated police officer who seems to get on well with both his co-workers and his superiors. Even his relationship with his sister is perfectly normal and healthy. Then, while investigating the death of a wealthy restaurant owner in The Blind Man of Seville, he comes across a picture of his father among the dead man's possessions.
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It turns out Falcon's father is a famous painter whose works hang in one of the national galleries of Spain. Falcon lives in his father's old house which also contains his father's old studio and paintings never displayed. In his will he had asked Falcon to burn all of the paintings not in galleries. There was no explanation as to why, but Falcon still hasn't carried out his father's wishes even though he's been dead for some time now. However, when the murderer kills the man who used to be his father's agent, Falcon realizes he's going to have start exploring family history to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Complicating matters is the fact Falcon has started an affair with the widow of the first murder victim. Conseulo Jimenez (Hayley Atwell) was the man's second and much younger wife and while a suspect at first she cleared when it became obvious the murders were rooted deeply in the past. Not only is she able to provide Falcon with comfort, but with clues as to what the mystery might be about. When a prostitute her husband frequented turns up dead posed in the same position as the model in Falcon's father's most famous series of paintings there can be no doubt the murders have something to do with Falcon's own family.

When the secret behind the murders is finally revealed it's far more shocking than anything either we or Falcon could have expected. However, not only does it explain the nature of the murders and why the murdere did what he did, the secret also offers some explanation for Falcon's behaviour. His addictions, his inability to form close relationships and his seeming indifference to other people's feelings are all rooted in the events which culminated in the murders.

The second feature, The Silent and the Damned, takes place three months later. Falcon has been off work since the conclusion of the previous case and still might not be fully recovered. This doesn't stop him from throwing himself enthusiastically into the investigation of what looks to be the suicide of a prominent businessman. However, there are those who don't want him looking into it too closely, and pressure is brought on the commissioner of police to have replaced with someone easier to manipulate. His second in command, Jose Luis Ramirez (Charlie Creed-Miles) is put in charge of the investigation, while Falcon is told to look into the death of a vagrant found under a bridge.

Ramirez is considered malleable as his youngest daughter is ill and he can't afford to lose his job as he needs every cent he can make for her treatment. However, this doesn't stop him from realizing something is being covered up, especially when Falcon discovers a connection between the body of the supposed vagrant and the man who committed suicide. As the two men carefully dig deeper into the mess, with Falcon doing his best to shield his junior's involvement in order to protect his career, they discover layers upon layers of corruption designed to cover up the perversions of important members of the business community and government.

The two features included in Falcon are much more than your typical television murder mystery or police procedural. While they contain all the elements common to detective shows as the cops do their best to solve murders, they are also character studies of the finest quality. In particular the character of Falcon is far more complex and interesting than almost any other police detective you'll see on television. As the troubled detective Csokas gives a magnificent and subtle performance. Somehow he's able to convey the emotional turmoil broiling beneath the controlled surface Falcon presents to his co-workers and others only occasionally allowing anything resembling an emotional reaction to show through. Even when something pushes up through the cracks, be it anger or anguish, he suppresses it as quickly as it surfaced.
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With so much time spent alone with Falcon, or while he's working, we only realize how different he is from others when he is taken out of his usual context. Watching him visit with Ramirez at home and seeing the contrast between Falcon's isolation and Ramirez's bustling family life is out first indication of how much he has cut himself off from the world. However, it's only when he visits with Jimenez at home with her two boys, we see how frightened he is of feeling anything at all. He can't even allow himself to stay and enjoy the glimpse of normalcy sitting down to a family dinner would offer and flees instead of joining them.

He literally staggers as he walks away from her house he's so overwhelmed by the fear of letting down his barriers, the fear of letting anyone in and the fear of someone actually getting to know him. He wears his guilt and self-loathing like a shroud. Consumed by his own demons, he can't for the life of him see anyway out or any hope for salvation. Walking the winding, ancient, streets of Seville at night, Falcon seems to be trying to find his way out of a maze which has no beginning or end. Solving murders seems to be almost a form of atonement for whatever it is he thinks he might have done.

The wonderful thing about modern technology is now even at home we can appreciate the production values of movies in ways we were never able to before. In the case of Falcon having a wide screen television allows the viewer to appreciate the amazing cinematography which turns Seville into more than just the backdrop for the shows. Almost a character in itself the city sometimes appears to have a life of her own separate from those who walk her avenues. Streets dating back to when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, barely wide enough for a donkey cart, and the crumbling facades of buildings whose mortar has been baked by the centuries of sun contrast with modern freeways and apartment blocks.

The 16:9 widescreen presentation of the DVD only makes the visual impact of the two features all the more stunning. Those with home theatres will find this plus the 5.1 surround sound make it easy to forget either of these productions were made for television. Included in the package are three short bonus features. While the first is your basic, behind the scenes type thing, the second and third which look at the characters of Falcon and Seville respectively are definitely worth watching. The nine minute trip through the streets of Seville will make you wish you could find your way over there and wander them yourself, but also helps put Falcon's world into perspective.

The two features contained in the DVD set Falcon are far more sophisticated and accomplished than most police procedurals made for television. At 90 minutes each, The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned are able to not only allow their respective stories to unfold at a far slower pace than usual for television detective stories, but give us the opportunity to become for more intimate with the lead characters. In fact, the quality of acting, the artistry of the camera work and the intelligence of the script make both features superior to most of what you'll see in the cinema let alone television.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Falcon

June 23, 2013

DVD Review: Jack Taylor


The ex-cop, private investigator with a drinking problem shows up so many times in television shows, movies and books the characterization has become almost a cliche. It's unfortunate because the traumas and horrors encountered by detectives who deal with violent crimes could be enough to leave them sufficiently emotionally crippled and psychologically scarred there's a good possibility they would turn to alcohol or drugs to deaden their feelings. Like anyone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder they will never be able to forget what they have witnessed and if extremely unlucky, will be cursed with having to relive experiences we can't even begin to imagine on a regular basis. Trying to deaden the pain or reduce the vividness of the memories would be a natural reaction.

Reducing this type of disorder to a cliche, or making light of it in any way, diminishes the suffering these people undergo. There's nothing romantic or funny about drinking to forget or the lives of quiet desperation lived by those attempting to hide from their pasts. So the way in which the lead character in the three DVD set Jack Taylor, Set 1, being released by Acorn Media Tuesday June 25 2013, is depicted not only adds to the realism of the show, but helps make it all the more powerful.

Set in County Galway on the west coast of Ireland, Jack Taylor, Set 1 tells the story of ex Garda (policeman) turned private eye Jack Taylor, played by Iain Glen. Each of the three discs are a separate 90 minute episode and investigation. This not only allows plenty of time for the plot to unfold, but also gives ample opportunity for us to get to know Taylor. The opening instalment, The Guards, begins with Taylor still a police officer. Even then we see his drinking is a problem as he's sipping from a mickey while sitting in his car with his partner waiting to catch speeders. We also see he has a definite self-destructive bent, as he sets off after a speeding car and doesn't break it off even when his partner points out the car they're chasing contains a minister in the Irish government. He not only continues the chase, but forces the car to stop and when the minister gets out of the car to protest, Taylor punches him in the face.
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Needless to say the next shot we see of Taylor he's no longer a member of the Garda. In a quick voice over he informs us he's become a private investigator and how private investigators aren't common in this part of the world. In fact the impression we receive is the idea of someone doing this kind of work is not looked on kindly by the Garda and part of the reason he might be doing the job is because it will piss people off. While he's obviously still bitter about being tossed from his old job, especially as we find out the politician he punched is currently under investigation for corruption, part of him still clings to his old identity as a member of the force.

This is brought home by his walking around in an overcoat which is official Garda issue uniform and the fact an artist friend of his painted a portrait of him titled "Once A Garda". The implication being while he might not be a member of the force any more, he can't shake himself free of the his old life. We even see him try to cross a police line, as if from force of habit, when he walks by a crime scene on the waterfront.

He still has friends on the force and is able to make use of them to find out information when he needs to. So when a woman hires him to investigate the whereabouts of her missing teenage daughter he makes use of those connections to find out details of the mysterious suicides of four young women, each of whom have been found washed up on shore in the same place, the crime scene he tried to get a closer look at down at the waterfront.

Over the course of his investigation we discover some important details of Taylor's personal life. His childhood had been unpleasant, to say the least, as his mother's oppressive view of christianity had driven his father away when he was young and she continues to make no secret of her disdain for him and her son. Taylor is not only an alcoholic, he's also a binge drinker. He can drink himself into blind stupors which result in him not being able to remember what he'd done or where he'd been. His way of dealing with any extreme emotion is to start drinking and not stop until he's passed out and not feeling anything.

Yet, over the course of the three episodes; The Pikemen, where he comes up against a group of vigilantes going around killing people for crimes they believe have gone unpunished, and Magdalen Martyrs, where he investigates cases of abuse which took place at the infamous Magdalen laundries - Catholic homes for so-called wayward girls, we also learn he has a highly developed sense of justice. He's not one of these people who sees the world as black and white, with good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other. However, nothing sets his back up more, or makes him more determined to find out what really happened, when people in positions of power assume they are able to act with impunity.

Whether its a corrupt businessman using his influence and wealth to ensure people turn a blind eye to his activities, The Guards, a father emotionally blackmailing his son, The Pikeman, or the Catholic church trying to cover up abuses carried out by clergy, Magdalen Martyrs, doesn't matter to him. They all have to be called to account no matter what the cost. Unfortunately it usually turns out Taylor is the one who pays most of the cost. His relentless quest for truth doesn't come without casualties, and unfortunately even when he's not directly responsible for what happens he can't help shouldering the guilt.
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Glenn's portrayal of Taylor is a finely crafted depiction of a man whose desire to right the wrongs of the world is constantly in competition with his penchant for self-destructive behaviour. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the pain caused by what Taylor has witnessed over the years is almost palpable it's so intense. The more we watch Glenn's performance the deeper we are drawn into Taylor's world until we start to see things through his eyes. It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing at times, but it also ensures the show attains the kind of quality and verisimilitude you don't often experience in television police procedurals.

There's nothing romantic about waking up not knowing what you've done and where you've been. However, some people know no other way of dealing with the emotional pain they carry with them. As a cop, and now as a private investigator, Jack Taylor has witnessed the worst humans inflict upon each other. The helplessness he feels at his inability to prevent them translate into both rage and grief which he can only partially assuage by bringing those responsible to justice. Catching the crooks doesn't undo the murders they've committed or the abuse they inflicted and the only way he has of coping is by doing his best to deaden his own emotions.

Jack Taylor, Set 1 is an unflinching look at one man's valiant effort to combat his own demons and to set right as many of the world's wrongs as he possibly can. Taylor is not your typical private eye and this is not your usual police drama. However, it is one of the best and most intriguing crime shows you're liable to see in a long time.

(Article originally at Blogcritics.org as Jack Taylor, Set 1

June 13, 2013

Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming


As more and more people are turning their computers into the centre piece of their home entertainment systems there has been a corresponding increase in the number of companies supplying either content or hardware. The Blu-ray player I just purchased not only plays discs, but wirelessly connects to the internet allowing direct access to Netflix through televisions. For the nominal fee of $7.99 (CDN) per month I can watch a wider variety of television programs and movies than I would ever be offered by my local cable company for a fraction of the price. True, not everything on the market is available nor are the majority of the programs current, but having to deal with commercials and being able to watch the shows whenever I want compensates for any deficiencies in content.

However, what if you're interests lie beyond what Netflix has to offer? What if you've grown spoiled watching the higher quality programming that only ever seems to show up on PBS or is only available on DVD or Blu-ray?. Well, Acorn Media, the supplier of great DVD sets featuring the best of British, Canadian, Australian and American programming, has started their own network, "Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming"

Currently Acorn TV runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering 18 separate series a week with a new series being rotated in every week. Each series runs for thirty days giving you plenty of time to watch however many episodes it may involve. For example until June 30 2013 you can watch the complete Doc Martin Special Collection which includes all five seasons of the television show and the movies featuring characters from the show. As this set lists for $124.99 (US) that's quite the deal.

Like most of these services Acorn offers everybody a free thirty day trial, but the $2.99 monthly/$29.99(US) yearly price for the service is quite a bargain. Of course if you want to watch the service on something other than your computer monitor it will cost you a little bit more if you don't already have one of four streaming players the service is currently offered on. The best deal is a combined offer featuring your first year of Acorn TV and the Roku streaming player for $79.99(US). Roku doesn't only offer Acorn TV, it will give you access to a multitude of streaming channels ranging from sports to music. Of course you'll have to pay for each additional channel, but compared to what cable companies charge and the ability to watch what you want when you want it, this is still a much better deal than any provider of regular TV can offer.

As of now you can also watch Acorn TV on your iPhone or iPad, as long as they're equipped with the Safari browser; Apple TV; ( but you also need either an iPhone or an iPad to make the connection) the Barnes & Noble Nook device with an Acorn TV application downloadable from the Barnes & Noble web site or a Google TV Box equipped with Google's Chrome Browser.

Now the technical details are out the way, we can turn to the quality of the programming on offer. First of all you should know while the current format seems rather limited, there are plans in the works to not only increase the amount of content available by five - making 90 different series available at once - they also plan on dropping the thirty day time limit for each program. However, it's not mentioned anywhere if they plan on continuing to add additional shows on a regular basis. Of course, if you have any experience with the quality of programming offered by Acorn Media, you know chances are you'll want to watch the majority of what's on offer. In addition, since many of their packages are complete series, one program can be the equivalent of ten DVDs worth of episodes with each being a minimum of an hour in length. Even my basic math skills tell me that adds up to a heck of a lot of viewing hours.

With quantity covered, what about quality? Judging by what's on offer for the current thirty day period not only will there be something for just about everybody, you can be guaranteed no matter what you watch will be feature some of today's finest actors. This month alone features programming ranging from classics seen on past episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre to items from the current and yet to be released Acorn catalogue. For example you can watch PBS's 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, all 17 episodes of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection with individual segments featuring actors like Colin Firth, the newest instalment of perennial favourite Midsummer Murders: Set 22 and the not yet released on DVD, Falcon, staring Martin Csokas.

Currently the only drawback I can see with Acorn TV is its limited availability. However, its still a relatively new service and they say they are looking into ways of increasing access. If you already have one of the streaming devices mentioned above and you like British television than adding the Acorn TV channel to your system is a no brainer. The cost makes it probably the best bargain going right now. If you need any more incentive, they are also offering free shipping to anywhere in the continental United States if you decide you want to own a DVD copy of the show you've been watching once you've signed up. Three dollars a month is not very much to pay for checking out between 18 and 22 different television programs.

If you enjoy the best television has to offer in drama, comedy, documentaries and history than you can't help but appreciate Acorn TV. It's the specialty channel to end all specialty channels and you don't have to pay a cable company for installation or for a bunch of stations you'll never watch in order to enjoy it. Even watching it on my 17 inch laptop's monitor and listening to the audio through headphones has made it obvious this service isn't like anything else out there. Netflix and the others may offer a few British television shows, but none of them come close to being able to match Acorn TV for variety and quality.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming)

May 7, 2013

DVD Review: Cloudstreet


What do Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the late Heath Ledger have in common? Their all part of the seemingly endless supply of talented actors who were born and started their careers in Australia. For such a small and seemingly isolated part of the world they have a remarkably thriving film and television industry. It hasn't hurt to have their neighbour New Zealand being home to some of the biggest film productions of the past decade. But Australia was doing well enough on its own prior to Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Still, all we in North America usually see are Australia's exports at work in productions over here. The opportunities to see any of the movies or television series made for local consumption are slim. Thankfully Acorn Media has expanded beyond packaging programming only from Great Britain. Recent years have seen some of the better programming from Canadian television show up in their catalogues, and now we're beginning to see shows from Australia. Cloudstreet, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by best selling Australian author Tim Winton was released in the fall of 2012 on DVD in a three disc package. The first two discs contained all six episodes of the original television series while the third is special features.
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The story follows the fortunes of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, over the course of more then a decade. Both families have been plagued by bad luck and poor decisions which at the beginning of the series find them in desperate straights. Things start to look a little better for the Pickles when husband Sam (Stephen Curry inherits a house and some money from his older brother. Number One Cloudstreet has been empty for a while and has its own history of misfortune which we discover over the course of the series, but initially it looks to be an upturn in the Pickles' family fortunes. However when Sam loses the money betting on horses the family is left in almost as dire straights as before they took over the house.

In an effort to help cover their expenses Sam decides to rent out half the house. The Lambs have been having their own run of bad luck. Their middle boy, Fish, had almost drowned, and although they managed to bring him back from the dead, the experience left him brain damaged. Unable to make a go of it farming because of drought they find themselves homeless and living out of their car until they answer the Pickles' advertisement for tenants. To the astonishment of their landlords the Lambs decide to operate a grocery/general store out of their half of the house as a way of making ends meet and turn their half of the grounds into a small farm.

The first two episodes are primarily spent introducing us to the characters who will dominate the rest of the series. Oriel (Kerry Fox and Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell and their six children make for a crowded and noisy house when combined with Sam and Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis and their three children. Aside from the friction created by so many people living in one large ramshackle house, the Lamb's protestant work ethic lifestyle doesn't blend well with the Pickles more relaxed attitudes towards work. While Sam manages to land a job working at the Royal Mint, Dolly prefers to spend her days sleeping and her nights drinking and carousing in bars. A house full of people who rise at the crack of dawn doesn't mix well with her lifestyle.

Aside from the two families, there's another character who makes its presence felt, the house itself. While its been empty for a while, at one point it was some sort of boarding school for young Aboriginal girls. The comment you hear from the lawyer who gives Sam the deed to the place is, the previous owner had tried to "civilize" them, but it hadn't worked out. There's some dirty secret hidden in the walls of the house, and one room in particular seems to be particularly haunted. It sits empty on the top floor of the house its only occupant an old upright piano left over from the attempts at "civilizing" and what appears to be the ghosts of two young girls who lived there. For something drives Fish Lamb to bang at the piano and moan and cry as if he's feeling the pain the room remembers.
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This rather fantastic device of the house being a living breathing thing is reflected in the cinematography of the show. At times the camera operates so we see the scene as if we were a specific character as the angle the camera shoots at reflects his or her perspective. Or there is one scene in which the child Fish and his older brother Quick are travelling in a row boat at night. Seeing the stars reflected in the water Fish pictures them travelling through the night sky and then the boat is floating among the stars. It's a beautiful, almost surreal scene.

It's these elements, and the special effects used to animate the house on occasion to help reflect the emotional depth of the action on screen, which help prevent the story from becoming an exercise in sentimentality. Far too many of these type of programs, where we follow the fortunes of a family, or in this case two families, end up being soap operas which become tedious to watch after one or two episodes. In this case the combination of filming techniques and special effects with superlative performances from every member of the cast and a gritty story ensures it never cross the line over into the mawkishness of a soap opera.

As mentioned earlier the third disc in the set is a collection of bonus materials connected to the television show. While the special features range from what went into the show's making to a copy of the preview used on television to promote the series and are interesting enough, they still only serve to compliment what's on the rest of the discs in the package. As far as this type of short termed series goes, this is one of the best I've ever seen. If you are able to have the opportunity of buying a copy of the DVD set or seeing Cloudstreet in any manner, jump at the chance, you won't regret it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Cloudstreet on Blogcritics.)

April 17, 2013

DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection


Some movies don't age well. You see them twenty, thirty years after they were made and they feel dated. The plot doesn't work, the characters aren't relevant and because whoever was making the film was so conscious of being hip and cool everything sounds and looks out of date. In fact, that's what usually happens when the mainstream tries to capture the underground or outsider subculture on camera. They make something based on trends and fashion and didn't bother to go beneath the surface. However, when a movie is made where those involved understand what's happening in the world they are attempting to recreate on the screen and do their best to bring that to life, you end up with something enduring. It's not a good 80s film or a good punk film, its just a good movie.

A great example of a movie made during the early part of the 1980s that was part of a particular sub-culture and has stood the test of time is Repo Man. Just re-released in a brand new remastered edition as part of The Criterion Collection in a two disc special edition DVD set, the movie sparks with a life and creative anarchy you don't often see in a mainstream movie. It's a reminder of how there was a time when the words independent film meant small budget and experimental, not Hollywood patting themselves on the back at Sundance.

Directed by Alex Cox Repo Man is set in Los Angles of the early 1980s. Not the glamourous LA, or even the fake seediness of Sunset Strip, but the down and out of the dispossessed and directionless. The story follows a young punk, Otto(Emilio Estevez), as he stumbles through life failing at work and romance. A chance meeting with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) draws him into the world of repossession men. Bud takes Otto under his wing and teaches him the basics on how to survive in a job where they basically steal people's cars. If you miss more than three car payments chances are you'll wake up one morning to find your car has been repossessed by these erstwhile agents of finance companies.
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Into this world comes a mysterious Chevy Malibou. With a reward of $20,000 going to whomever manages to repossess the car it quickly becomes the focus of everyone's attention. Both the guys who work with Bud and a couple of mysterious dudes named the Rodriguez Brothers are after it for the reward. There's also a bunch of really obvious government agents, led by a female agent with a metal hand, who are going to stop at nothing in order to get their hands on it. When Otto meets a young UFO enthusiast, who is somehow mixed up with the car, she tells him it is carrying the remains of four aliens a scientist has snuck out of a secret American base. However it quickly becomes apparent what's in the car's trunk is a little more lethal than dead alien corpses.

While in a normal movie the car and its contents would quickly take over as the central focus. Either it would become some sort of race to save LA from whatever was in the car or about a couple of brave people trying to prevent the government from covering up some big secret or other. What we have is the Chevy Malibou careening its way haphazardly in and out of the action and only staying on our lead's radar because of the money its worth. For Bud it represents his ticket to independence and becoming his own boss. For Otto, well, we're never quite sure if it means anything to him. He likes the rush of stealing cars legally and doesn't seem to be thinking beyond that.

The movie depicts an America where all that matters is you make your payments on time. Credit is the glue holding society together Bud intones with great seriousness to his pupil Otto. To him its a sure sign of how badly America has stumbled when people run out on the money they owe. Driving past a street filled with down and outs, drunks and the homeless he wonders out loud how much money they owe and accuses them of running away from their responsibilities. "Most of them don't even use their Social Security numbers" he says to Otto. Of course he's ignoring the fact these people have fallen so far through the cracks it's doubtful they're ever going to be worrying about their credit rating ever again.

Ironically, while the movie is obviously set in a specific era, the message about the dangers of what happens when a society is encouraged to live beyond its means is perhaps even more resonant with audiences today then when it was originally released. With America still recovering from the fallout of overextended banks calling in loans and ruining thousands of people who were living far beyond their means, the picture painted of economic hopelessness is way too familiar. The music, the clothes and the hair styles may be close to 30 years old, but nothing much else has changed.

While previous editions of Repo Man, even those digitally remastered, haven't always been of the best quality that's not the case here. The movie lives up to Criterion's claims of having hand cleaned an original negative of the film prior to digitally to cleaning it up digitally in order to give viewers the highest quality images possible. Not only does it look great played through a home theatre system, it sounds great as well. The balance between soundtrack and dialogue is perfect as everything comes through crystal clear through a 5.1 surround sound system.
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The soundtrack itself is great. With the inestimable Iggy Pop having written the movie's theme song and bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks contributing numbers, its probably one of the most accurate representations of the LA punk rock scene of the early 1980s you'll hear on screen. The music also reflects the general anarchic nature of the film and helps propel listeners along for the ride.

The two disc package the folks at Criterion have put together for this release is much better than the usual special features accompanying films these days. Along with the newly remastered version of the film, disc one contains interviews done in 2012 with cast members and Iggy Pop talking about their memories of working on the film. Iggy Pop is his usual candid self, talking about how grateful he was to director Cox for giving him the gig considering the shape his career was in at the time. The second disc features Cox and his two producers talking about the process involved just trying to have the picture made and an interview with Harry Dean Stanton. Both of these were recorded in 2005 and included on an earlier reissue of the movie. The second disc also includes a version of the movie Cox cut for television. I guess that's there for the morbidly curious, but to be honest I can't see the attraction. I guess the only fun in watching it would be seeing how inventive they were able to be in finding replacements for dialogue not permitted on regular television.

The real treat among the extras is the booklet included with the set. Put together like the underground comics which flourished during the 1980s, it contains all sorts of goodies. One of my favourites is the couple of pages of Repo Man the comic book written and drawn by Cox. He claims to have given up on that project as it was easier to make a film than go to all the painstaking work involved with drawing a comic. The booklet is filled with anecdotes about the making of the moving, the actors and the musicians and is almost worth the price of the set on its own.

It's hard to believe watching Repo Man that it was made by Universal Studios. Not only does it feel more like an independent movie than most of the so called independent movies being made today, it epitomizes the spirit of free wheeling anarchic artistic creation I've always associated with punk rock. It's this latter detail which makes the movie as interesting to watch today as it was when it was first released. In spite of it being set in a very specific time and place there's nothing dated or antique about this film. So, kick back and get ready to enjoy the wild and weird ride and remember: "A repo man's life is always intense".

(Article first published as DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2013

DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien wasn't the first book I read, but it was pretty close. After Paddington Bear, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish companions must have been a close second. To be honest it was so long ago I can't even remember the first time I read the book. I do know, each time I go back to read the book is how surprised I am to discover how much of a children's book it is. For unlike The Lord Of The Rings The Hobbit is written in very simple language and told in the broad tones of a child's adventure story. It's also very British, full of expressions and sayings familiar to any child who had spent time at boarding school or reading boy's adventure stories.

When I heard director Peter Jackson was going back for another kick at the can by directing a movie version of Tolkien's first book I admit to being rather surprised. It seemed like a lot of cost and expense to tell what is a rather simple story. On top of that, it's just not as adult a story as the other books so he'd have to sexy it up somehow to give it a wider appeal.

The initial announcement that Jackson was going to film it in two parts only added to my doubts about the venture, so hearing it was being expanded into a trilogy made me wonder what the heck he was doing. However, I was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all I had been sceptical of the whole Lord Of The Rings trilogy and had then like his adaptation. So when I walked into my video store and saw a copy of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey on the shelves, I didn't even think twice about buying a copy.
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I'm going to try and avoid giving away any of the surprises in store for you if you haven't seen it yet, but I'm going to have to mention some things in passing in order to comment on what he's done with the narrative. First of all he has made the decision to have an older Bilbo writing out the story just prior to the birthday party opening The Fellowship of the Ring. In this way he's able to give the back story of the destruction of Dale and the kingdom under the mountain by Smaug right off the top.

Instead of hearing about the events second hand as we do in the book In this way Jackson utilizes the power of the camera to show us what happened. Of course once you've seen how he's prepared to adopt the narrative to suit the needs of his media, you're not going to be as surprised by some of the other changes he introduces later in the film. The most major change is how some subplots are made more important. In the book the troubles in Mirkwood Forest concerning somebody called the Necromancer are only briefly mentioned and at one point Gandalf leaves the company to go off and deal with the matter.

While we don't hear anything more about it in the book, Jackson is obviously going to be dealing with it on screen as the trilogy progresses. Extrapolating from various tidbits of information included in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the latter's appendixes he not only introduces the sub-plot, but a new character, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown, one of Gandalf's wizard compatriots. While this plot line has little to do with the story being recounted in The Hobbit, it is a piece of the overall story concerning Middle Earth and the finding of the Ring. Purists might decry it as being filler, but if done properly it will help place Bilbo's adventures with the dwarfs in their proper context.

Jackson has also drawn upon the appendix ofLord of the Rings dealing with the history of the dwarfs to create an entirely new subplot. It involves vengeful Orcs and their really nasty chieftain who has a personal grudge against the dwarfs Bilbo's travelling with dating back to a run in with them at the Mines of Moria after they had been evicted by Smaug. It looks like they'll be having meeting up with him all the way through the trilogy. I can see these Orcs being part of the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the story.

I don't know if these two additions to the story are what have caused people to be unhappy with the movie, but if that's the case, they really need to calm down. Not only do they not detract from the story, they help to bring the world the movie is set in to life. For through them we learn more about the history of the dwarfs and events happening in the world beyond their quest. Jackson and his design people have done a wonderful job of bringing this world to life and making audiences believe in the reality of Middle Earth technically. As long as the new information is introduced in the rest of the movies with same effortlessness as it was in this one, it can only make the experience of watching these movies that much more enjoyable.
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As with Lord Of The Rings Jackson has used an international cast of British, Irish, Scottish, New Zealand, Australian, Canadian and American actors. While Sir Ian McKellen reprises as Gandalf, and a few familiar other faces from the other movies show up, the rest of the lead cast are all new to Middle Earth. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins. His transition from the very proper middle class gentlehobbit, who thinks adventures are nasty inconvenient things which cause you to be late for dinner, to adventurer facing down Orcs is perfectly believable. For it's not until the end of the movie he even begins to feel like he belongs with his companions. Up until then he makes it perfectly obvious he has his doubts about the whole operation and given half a chance he'd turn around and go back home.

As the King seeking to regain his grandfather's and father's throne under the Lonely Mountain Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield with the perfect mixture of arrogance, pride and fearlessness. He doesn't ask you to like him, in fact he doesn't really care if you do or not. However, you can't help but respect his bravery and the way he feels personally responsible for his people. You have the feeling while revenge against Smaug is important, it's not the only thing driving him. It's just as important to him for his people to be restored to their rightful places.

Of the other twelve dwarfs, the two most prominent are Ballin, played by Ken Stott and Bofur played by James Nesbit. Ballin is a mixture of elder statesman and councillor to Thorin, having been with him through all his adventures. He is the one who Thorin might listen to when it comes to accepting advice and who the others look to for explanations as to why Thorin is doing something.

Bofur at first appears to be a bit of a clown, always ready with a joke or prank. However, Nesbit is too good an actor for his character to be one dimensional, and we find out Bofur's humour comes from a well of compassion and empathy. He's the one who is the most supportive of Bilbo and pushes him to stay the course. It would take far too long to run through the entire cast of dwarves, but there are no weak links in this chain of actors to drag the rest down. Watching them in action you get a real sense that no matter what, they are each prepared to die for the others and would follow Thorin into a dragon's mouth. Which is a good thing I guess.

A lot has been made of the movie being shot in 3D and at an increased rate of frames per second. (Normally film is shot at between 25 and 29 frames per second while The Hobbit is being shot at 45) Now while I do have a high definition plasma TV, I don't have 3D capability. However, as far as I can tell you don't lose anything by not having 3D, as visually the movie is still stunning. The increased speed of the film seems to make the picture sharper as details and colours stand out more. Comparing it to my extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring I did notice a substantial difference in picture quality.

The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus features. The majority of the bonus features are the video blogs shot by Jackson during filming over the course of 2011. So you actually get to meet actors who aren't in the first film but will be appearing in the second movie and are given some clues as to what to expect in the future. You'll also notice that most of the way through the special features everybody from Jackson to the cast only refer to two films. It's obvious the decision to expand to three movies wasn't made until they had almost finished the editing process on part one and realized how much footage they actually had.

If you've been holding off buying a copy of the DVD or Blu-ray of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because of what other people have been saying about it, do yourself a favour and see it for yourself. Personally I think Jackson has done not only a marvellous job of adapting the book to the screen, but of bringing the world of Tolkien to life. His decisions seemed to be based on how I can make the world and the story more believable for those watching not how can I make this more spectacular. As far as I'm concerned Tolkien's legacy is in safe hands as this is one of the best examples of adapting a book to the screen I've seen.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Blogcritics.)


April 3, 2013

DVD Review: Dirk Gently


Fantasy and science fiction can come in all shapes and sizes. From outer space to inner space they cut a wider swathe through literary creation than almost any other genre. You can usually count on reading some of the most imaginative stories and meeting outlandish and odd characters in science fiction and fantasy novels. However, even by those standards the work of British author Douglas Adams was decidedly eccentric.

Most famous for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequence, Adams' quirky sense of humour and delightful understanding of the absurd made his books a pleasure to read. They also offered a kind of satirical running commentary on life in Great Britain during the 1980s. While the "Guide" captured the most attention, being made into first a television series and then a movie, it was two books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, set on earth which best showed off Adams' ability to stretch the fabric of reality in a truly original manner.

The title character, Private Investigator Dirk Gently, has a firm belief that all events are somehow interconnected. No matter how tangential something appears to be in relationship to the case he's working on, in the end it will prove as deeply significant as if it were the murder weapon. While this allows him to justify rather dubious billing practices, like charging someone for the replacement of his refrigerator while investigating the disappearance of their cat, he also turns out to have a remarkable success rate as well. Even though Adams died in 2001 Gently lives on thanks to the BBC series Dirk Gently now available on DVD from Acorn Media
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The two disc set contains four episodes, each approximately an hour long, with the only draw back being there are only four episodes. For the creators of the television adaptation have done an excellent job in recreating the absurdist atmosphere of the books and taking viewers into the heart of Dirk Gently's universe. After basing the first episode on events in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency they made the wise decision of creating three new cases for Gently to investigate instead of trying to stretch the second book, plus the unfinished third novel The Salmon of Doubt, over three episodes.

Key to the success of the series is the casting of Stephen Mangan in the title role. Not only does he carry off the more extreme elements of his character without overacting, he also manages to make him more than a one dimensional mad scientist. Like many hyper intelligent people, Gently lacks even the most basic of social skills and has difficulty in understanding why certain behaviour might be considered in a) rather bad taste and b) illegal. Most people upon taking an interest in somebody else wouldn't stalk them or break into their house to obtain samples of their handwriting in order to know how to best manipulate a situation to make her interested in him.

This less than endearing habit is complemented by his raving egomania and the deep seated belief that he's always right. His conviction of the latter is so strong that even when he is wrong he manages to find a way to prove he was right. The bending and folding of logic and reason out of all shape are a site to behold when he maps out why his wrongness is actually proof of his being right. Eventually those he's arguing with, usually his stolid business partner Richard MacDuff, played by Darren Boyd, become so frustrated with him they surrender to the inevitable and admit he was right and they were wrong.

In another actor's hands we would have become sick of watching this type of character probably before the end of the first episode. However Mangan is somehow able to inject just the right amount of humanity into his characterization to make him likeable. We see how most of the time he doesn't understand how what he's doing is both wrong and potentially hurtful. There's a strange sort of innocence about him which makes him seem more like a child whose not yet learned the social skills required for smooth sailing among his peers in the adult world than someone who is being deliberately hurtful or mean.

While most of those Gently comes in contact with end up either recoiling in disgust, trying to kill him or arresting him, his partner MacDuff is one of the few who seems to be able to abide his company on a permanent basis. While Boyd plays him as a conventional, not so bright but nice guy, we also see he has genuine affection for Gently. He's one of the few to recognize Gentry's emotional vulnerability and understand how his anti-social traits are actually defence mechanisms.
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Like a concerned parent he monitors Gently's behaviour and tries to smooth over all the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake. This doesn't prevent him from occasionally feeling like ripping Gentry's head off or treating him like a spoiled child. In fact the give and take between the two characters as they attempt to solve the cases crossing their desks over the course of the discs provide the majority of the humour in the series. For in spite of what appears to be his rather callous attitude towards the human race, the cases he takes on are serious and sometimes dangerous.

While the local police think killing Gently would fall into the category of justifiable homicide, that's only because, much to their dismay, he manages to solve crimes which stump them. They might be okay with his success rate if he wasn't so obvious with both his disdain for their methods and the pleasure he takes in proving them wrong. You see, Gently is perfectly serious in his use of the theory of interconnectedness for solving crimes. His ability to see patterns where none apparently exist are helped by his belief in everything being possible. Even when it means in order for events to have played out the way in he envisions them time travel was involved.

For, while we sometimes forget due to becoming caught up in the fun of watching Gently in action, these episodes are a mixture of science fiction and mystery stories. So no matter how outlandish a theory Gently might come up with in answer to a particular investigation, the chances are he's right and everyone else is wrong. Part of the pleasure of watching each episode is watching Gently going madly off in all directions, yet still being able to discover the truth. Even better, he's able to make even the most fantastic conclusions sound perfectly logical and we have no trouble accepting time travel as a fact of life in the world he lives in.

Those looking for any special features with this set will be disappointed as there aren't any. While it's not in surround sound, only stereo, the show is in wide screen and looks and sounds fine played through a surround sound system and on a wide screen television. What's most important though is how well the series manages to capture the spirit of the books its based on. While the scripts reflect both the absurdities and fantastical elements of Adam's stories what really brings the world to life is the acting job of the two actors in the lead roles.

Not only do the two characters compliment each other in the series, but the men playing them do a magnificent job of finding ways to balance the other actor's performance. Separately they might not have too much success, but together Gently and MacDuff seem to be a recipe for success. You might not want them looking for your lost cat, but if there's a strange murder to solve or your husband is acting particularly odd, they're the team for you. Not only will they find out what's going on, but you'll have a lot of fun watching them figure it all out.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Dirk Gently on Blogcritics.)


March 22, 2013

DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1


The end of WWl brought about a mini social and cultural revolution. The old order had proven itself corrupt by embroiling the countries of the world in a war which decimated an entire generation. Even before the war had ended one monarchy had been deposed, Russia, and German's Kaiser lost power with the war's end. However, the biggest revolt was among those who survived the war and were determined to live their lives to the fullest. The Roaring Twenties earned their name from the way those living through them roared through life in an attempt to experience as much of everything as possible.

It was among women the biggest revolt took place as they dared do things undreamed of before the war. In a society where it had been considered indecent for a woman to be seen smoking in public, the idea of one having a career, taking lovers and generally acting like a man would have been especially scandalous. However, in the 1920s women enjoyed freedoms as never before. While some might have disapproved of their behaviour, it didn't stop many of them from having lives of their own. It's one of these independent women of the 1920s who is the lead character of a new mystery series on DVD from Acorn Media, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Series 1.

Phryne (pronounced Frynee) Fisher (played by Essie Davis) is the creation of Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. Each of the thirteen episodes on the four discs in this set are an adaptation of one of Greenwood's novels. Set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties each features the seemingly fearless and indefatigable socialite and heiress Fisher solving a different murder. However, unlike heroines of a similar background who have appeared in other writer's books, Miss Fisher is a completely modern woman. She has a healthy libido with no hesitations about taking any man who catches her eye to bed and a taste for alcohol, cocaine and hash brownies.

We meet her as she's just moved back to Sydney Australia. As the series evolves we learn she had served as a nurse during the war and then settled in Paris when her ambulance group was disbanded. While she had been brought up relatively poor as a child, as a result of extensive casualties within her family during the war she winds up inheriting enough money to enjoy a life of leisure. Her reasons for returning home are tied into events which had taken place during her childhood, events that will come back to haunt her as the series progresses.

Her younger sister had disappeared when they were both children and while somebody was arrested in connection to the crime, it was never proven he was the killer nor was her body ever recovered. He had been charged with attempting to kidnap another young girl who managed to escape before he could do anything to her. The man responsible is about to be released from jail and Miss Fisher has returned to Sydney in part to convince those in charge not to let him out and perhaps find out more about her sister's fate.

Her investigating career begins by accident when she is been invited to lunch at an old friend's house only to discover upon arrival the husband of the house has died under mysterious circumstances. In the process of uncovering the culprit she has time for a fling with an expatriate Russian dancer, expose an illegal abortion ring and a drug kingpin. Flushed with her success she decided to go into business as a private detective.

The first episode also introduces us to the other regular characters in the series. She takes on one of the maids from the household of the murder victim as a lady's companion. Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rather naive and sheltered young woman who has had a very strict Catholic upbringing. While she's uncertain how some of her new employer's behaviour will go over with her priest, she's also slightly in awe of her and her freedom. Over the course of the series we watch as Dot loses some of her naivety and discovers her own strengths and courage.

The other two main characters are members of Sydney's finest. Inspector Jack Robinson ( Nathan Page) and Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Initially Robinson treats Miss Fisher with the condescension one might expect from an experienced police officer confronted with what he considers a socialite out looking for thrills. However, he soon grows to both respect and admire her, both for her skills as a detective and as a person. It still doesn't prevent him from becoming frustrated and annoyed by her, but he does treat her like an equal and learns to trust her.

What makes this series special is the acting and the interrelationships between the characters. Davies and Page as the two leads have a wonderful chemistry reminiscent of some of great screen couples of the past. While Miss Fisher has a rotating series of lovers, her relationship with Inspector Robinson gradually evolves over the course of this first season into something more than just colleagues and friends. However, both of them are hesitant about making any sort of commitment to anybody because of events in the past. His first marriage has just ended in divorce and Fisher, as we learn in one episode, has experienced an abusive relationship. It's obvious they have reached a point where they might have to make a decision about the direction their relationship takes, but what that will be is still in up in the air.

While each episode is a self-contained mystery, as the series progresses the mystery surrounding Fisher's younger sister begins to play a larger role in her life. Although she had ensured the man she believes responsible for her sister's death is locked up for life, Fisher is still haunted by the fact her body was never found and he was never proven to be the one responsible. So when he sends her a letter from jail offering to give her information about her sister in exchange for Fisher helping to have his sentence shortened, she is torn. However, just when she decides to put it behind her, events happen that forces her to deal with the case. The last three episodes of the series see her and Inspector Robinson working together to solve the decades old crime.

Included in the four DVD set are some quite extensive special features as well a the thirteen episodes. There's a look at the work involved in recreating 1920s Sydney, from set, costume and props design to a history of the cars and trains used in the show. As well as interviews with the four lead actors talking about their characters and their experiences working on the show there is also a very entertaining interview with Greenwood, the books' author.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a well scripted and directed set of murder mysteries, but what makes it a joy to watch are the performances of the lead actors, especially Davis. (If you've seen The Girl With Pearl Earring you'll be hard pressed to recognize her as the same actor who played Colin Firth's wife in the movie) She is beguiling and pleasure to watch on screen. Not only does she play the flighty socialite to perfection, but she has the remarkable ability to allow us to see beneath her devil may care exterior to show the vulnerable and sensitive person beneath. It's not often we are treated with seeing such a strong multi-dimensional female character in the lead role of a television series played by an actor more than equal to the task.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1 on Blogcritics.)


March 14, 2013

DVD Review: Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green


When we use the expression never gets old its usually in relationship to a joke or prank meaning its something we're always going to find funny. Of course if you drop the never so it's just "gets old", then the joke has worn thin and is no longer funny. You'd think if you repeated the same joke over and over again, or the same routine, it would eventually get old. You'd think after almost three decades, who knows how many movies and concert films, a couple of books and saturating the Internet with pod casts and Internet Television the duo of Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes and their barely pubescent humour would have gotten old.

Heck, they even admit as much with the title of their podcasts, Jay And Silent Bob Get Old. The show's subtitle, "No Trench Coats, No Hair Extensions, Bound For The Grave", is a not so subtle hint, despite the use of their on screen personae's names in the title, that whatever the show is about it won't feature their drug dealing alter egos. However, judging by the DVD set, Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green from SModcast Pictures and Industrial Entertainment, made during two live broadcasts of the "Get Old" show in Ireland, that doesn't meant it won't feature the irreverent humour which has made them the poster boys for slackers and stoners the world over.

The premise of the show, Smith and Mewes siting and talking, doesn't sound like the makings of great video. Even recorded live in front of an audience in a bar in Dublin Ireland its hard to see how two guys yakking at each other are going to be able to grab, let alone hold, the attention of the attention deficit disordered hordes who buy DVDs. And who knows, maybe it won't, but don't be put off by the apparently static format as our dynamic duo turn chat about Pancake (Shrove) Tuesday into something close to grounds for excommunication. That they happen to be in very Catholic Ireland just adds extra spice to the conversation.
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Of course if you thought them talking about Shrove Tuesday was skirting close to the edge, wait until the second show when they cover Ash Wednesday, Easter, the consecration of the Eucharist and Smith talking about the days when he was an alter boy. (cannibalism and zombies feature heavily) Listening to them talk about this in front of what you know is a predominately Catholic audience has part of your mind wondering how this is going over with the crowd and another part being amazed at their audacity. What's even more astounding is almost the whole crowd is laughing along with them. For in spite of the fact what comes out of their mouths might sound offensive, there is a kind of innocence about them which makes it almost impossible to be insulted by what they say.

There's no other explanation for people to find it hysterical watching Mewes acting out, in incredibly graphic detail, how his attempts to have sex in the front seat of a Cooper Mini resulted in him having to have major dental surgery. The majority of time this is the type of thing I'd find crude and completely lacking in humour. Yet, unlike most people, when either Smith or Mewes do something along those lines we are either laughing at them or the circumstances. They never say or do anything which can be construed as hurtful towards anyone else. They make themselves and their actions the objects of ridicule.

By talking so blatantly about sex they take it out of the realm of being dirty or pornographic and make it something we can talk about everyday. By not making a big deal about it, by making it seem perfectly normal and ordinary to explain how giving oral sex in the front seat of a Mini Cooper can result in broken bridge work, they remove any taint of evil or nastiness people usually hang on sexual activity.
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Of course it's also bloody hilarious to watch Mewes contort himself into the various positions necessary for two people to have sex in the front seat of a Mini. For let's be real, we can make all the philosophical comments we like about the demystification of sex but the reality is Smith and Mewes are funny. I laugh more watching the two of them sitting and talking than I do watching most of what passes for comedy on either television or in movies. I could search for some sort of intellectual justification about what makes them funny, but the reality is I'm much happier just sitting back and laughing my ass off at them.

However, there is a thread of seriousness underlying what they're doing. At one point, and I can't remember if its in the first or second show, Smith brings up the subject of why they began doing this pod cast in particular in the first place. It was designed as a project to give Mewes the means to stay sober and drug free. What's amazing is the fact they treat this subject as irreverently as they do everything else. There's no preaching or self-flagellation - you're not going to get any "Oprah" moments with Smith and Mewes - which makes it all the more honest and real. You also begin to realize the depth of the bond between the two men and the amazing friendship underlying the silliness and banter.

Aside from the two shows recorded live in Ireland they've also included a second disc which contains a recording of the pod cast in Las Vegas featuring a visit from "adult film stars" Kathy Morgan and Cassie Young. That's best left to your imaginations until you've watched it yourself. They've also included an extra ten minutes of the game they play with audience members at the end of each show called "LETUSF@CK". This involves individuals from the audience having theme inspired "air" sex with Jason Mewes. Examples taken from the Irish shows, "Lord Of The Pants" and "When Irish Brown Eyes Are Smiling" should be enough to give you the general idea.

Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O' The Green is everything you'd expect from a collaborative effort between Smith and Mewes. It's side splittingly funny, offensive, scatological and an all around great time. It's also a very long way from getting old.

Article first published as DVD Review: Jay And Silent Bob Get Irish - The Swearing O' The Green on Blogcritics.)


February 26, 2013

DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection


There are some actors who have the ability to make everything they do seem effortless. Somehow they manage to make their characters seem like a natural extension of themselves. Whether on screen or on stage they bring a grace and elegance to everything they do that is marvel to behold. As a result their performances are of a quality most actors only dream of achieving. While any role he's ever played would serve as an example, watching Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret in the four DVD set Maigret, Complete Collection from Acorn Media, is a wonderful opportunity to see this in action.

Inspector Jules Maigret was the creation of the Belgian born author Georges Simenon. Setting him loose upon the streets Paris France, Simenon used Maigret to serve as our guide to the dark side of life in the City of Lights. The strip clubs and seedy hotels of Montmartre, the Left Bank, the very proper bourgeoisie and even the world of French politics are all backdrops for the cases Maigret tackles. His occasional sojourns into the countryside outside of Paris reveal that Simenon understood greed, jealousy, fear and mistrust can grow as easily amongst farmland as it does cobblestones and concrete.

While Simenon wrote his Maigret books in the years between WW l and WW ll, this television adaptation seems to be set in post WW ll France. With Budapest Hungary standing in for Paris (Former communist countries haven't had time to replace their old architecture with modern buildings and its easier to find locations which look like mid 20th century Europe there than anywhere else) we are immersed in a world of somewhat battered elegance. Old and new clash with the middle classes and above doing their best to hold off changes being foisted upon them by those who want what they consider their fair share. It's a world drug addicts, prostitutes and strippers move through as easily as bankers, business men and aristocrats with the latter doing their best to ignore the former's existence.
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Maigret, while leading a stolid middle class life with his devoted wife, is equally comfortable moving through the corridors of power as he is strip clubs and seedy bars. In fact one has the feeling he is sometimes more comfortable in the company of those he's supposed to be investigating than those he reports to. At the very least he is definitely far more sympathetic to honest criminals and prostitutes than he is to hypocritical members of the middle class and his political masters who are more concerned with appearances than truth.

A wonderful example of this is seen in the first episode of the series in which Maigret is in the middle of a long term investigation involving a series of jewel store robberies that have been plaguing Paris for years. He is convinced he knows who is behind the crimes, but he has been unable to collect the proof he needs to put the man behind bars. You'd think he'd have a slightly antagonistic relationship with his suspect, yet the two men treat each other with the utmost respect and courtesy. When his long time opponent is found shot to death in his apartment, Maigret treats the case like its an investigation into the murder of a friend.

The cases are a diverse mix of circumstances and locations, and while the majority of them revolve around murder, there is also some political intrigue and corruption included which make for a nice change of pace. What's refreshing about the series is no matter what the crime, the writers have ensured we realize how much of a police investigation is drudge work. Clues are discovered from careful examinations of files, researching a person's history and going door to door to try and talk with potential witnesses. Maigret and his team of three detectives work long hours on a case sifting through evidence and piecing together the facts. This doesn't mean there's no action. Far from it in fact as the boring stuff takes place off camera and we only see them acting on the information they've uncovered.

Still, there's very little of the type of action North American audiences are used to in their police shows. The joy in this show is watching Maigret's interaction with the various characters he interviews and comes in contact with over the course of his investigation. Watching Gambon come to a slow boil and struggling not to let it show when Maigret is dealing with a particularly odious political boss or allowing his incredulousness at someone's obvious fabrication to show through the arching of one eyebrow is more fun than any car chase or gun battle you'll ever see.
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One of the other treats of this series are some of the other actors who show up in various episodes. Most memorably is the episode where Maigret is investigating the death of a young night club stripper. Not only is the stripper played by Minnie Driver but the same episode features a young morphine addict played by the wonderful Michael Sheen and the stripper's boss is played by Brenda Blethyn. The series originally aired in 1992 and 1993 so it was before any of the three had achieved the level of notoriety they enjoy today, but one can see in each of their performances why they have gone on to be so successful.

However this is still Gambon's show and no matter who is playing opposite him he remains the centre of our attention. The amazing thing about his performance is he doesn't even have to be doing anything to command our attention. Yet, even when he's sitting behind his desk he's undoubtedly Maigret. From the way he tamps down his pipe to the how he lifts an eyebrow in quizzical interrogation when hearing something mildly perplexing, he is his character. He's not the type of actor who has to resort to gestures or raising his voice to display emotions. Even on those occasions when he is demonstrative, raising his voice in anger or banging a table in frustration it's never too much or appears to be anything other than the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Gambon as Maigret is one of those tour de force performances which come around far too infrequently and are a privilege to watch.

While Maigret, Complete Collection does not have any of the bonus features most of us have come to expect from DVD sets, it does come with an 8 page booklet which contains a biography of author Georges Simenon, a history of the books the series is based on and information about other film and television adaptations of the Maigret books. However the twelve episodes contained on the four DVDs in this box set already contain one of the best bonuses you could ask for. The performance of Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret. Be prepared to be amazed and astounded by some of the finest acting for television you'll ever see.

( Article first published as DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection on Blogcritics)



February 15, 2013

DVD Review: Bonekickers


There's something British television does really well that we don't seem to do over here in North America. They create a show with a finite number of episodes that not only has the cast involved in different adventures in each instalment but has a through line tying the series together. As a result you have a series with a definite beginning, middle and end instead of shows which continue on long past the time when the writers have stopped finding anything original for the cast to do. There's the added bonus of the show's creators not being forced to write with one eye on the ratings and the other on advertising revenue in order to ensure its continued existence.

A wonderful example of this in action is the series Bonekickers available on DVD from Acorn Media. Told over six one hour episodes we follow a team of four archeologists as they investigate a variety of secrets from the ancient world when faint traces of the past bubble to the surface. History is never buried too far beneath the surface and shows up in surprising places. Out team is based in one of the oldest cities in England, Bath, so it's not too surprising for a builder to uncover rare artefacts in some unused park land slated for a housing development.

Three of the team; the leader Professor Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton (Hugh Bonneville) and Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester) have worked and known each other for years. The fourth member of the team, Vivian Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has been hired on as an intern to help out and gain experience. Right from the start Davis, and the audience come to understand, the people she's working with march to the beat of a very different drummer than most of the world. To say they each have their own eccentricities is putting it mildly.
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One of the wonderful things about this series is how with each episode we find out more and more about the characters. The writers do a very careful and intelligent job of not only developing each of them and the interrelationships among the team, but also revealing bits and pieces of their history as it becomes relevant. We learn fairly early on Magwilde's mother was a famous archaeology professor as well. However something awful happened to her and she attempted suicide and now lives the life of a catatonic in a nursing home. Over the course of the series we gradually learn what happened to Magwilde's mother and the impact it has had on her.

As archaeologists are a type of detective it makes sense for this show to be part mystery, part fantasy and all adventure. The writers also manage to find ways in each episode to show how history is all around us literally by having the finds show up everywhere from the seashore to parkland. They also makes sure we understand how the past and present interconnect. Whether it's somebody looking to history to further their own goals by twisting it to suit their needs or how our lives were shaped by events which happened thousands of years ago, they manage to make us understand we ignore the past at our peril. What's even better is they do this through the action and plots of each episode. You never have the feeling they are lecturing you, instead the shows offer examples of how important it can be to know history and understand it.

Aside from history we also learn a lot about the techniques and methods used in archaeology. A mixture of painstaking detail work and high tech science go into helping our team uncover the secrets stored in a fragment of wood or a piece of cloth. From the site of a mysterious battle field which saw the slaughter of Knights Templer to the remains of what seems to be a slave ship in a tidal estuary they are able to take what looks like scraps and recreate events that happened hundreds if not a thousand years ago. No secret, no matter how well hidden, is safe and no mystery will stay unsolved for long when our team puts their minds to it.

Unfortunately there turns out to be any number of powerful people who either would like certain secrets left buried or want mysteries solved for their own nefarious purposes. While it does require some suspension of disbelief on the audience's part, somehow each find Magwilde and her team work on, ends up having a bearing on the mystery surrounding what happened to Magwilde's mother. Her mother was being used by a very powerful group of people in an effort to find one of England's most potent artefacts, Excalibur, the supposed legendary sword of King Arthur.
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Almost against her will Magwilde finds herself being drawn into the hunt for the sword as well. As more and more evidence accumulates pointing to its possible whereabouts she also begins to receive mysterious messages and packages encouraging her and offering help. As each episode passes, and they uncover yet another link from the past to the sword, the mystery within the mystery grows. Who are these people offering help? What did her mother discover that ruined her reputation and cause her to attempt suicide? Will Magwilde go down the same path of self destruction, or will she be able to find the solution and come out the other side?

What makes this series work is a combination of good writing and acting. The way the scripts have been worked everything that happens seems completely plausible. From the journey our archeologists go on in their quest to discover the sword's whereabouts to how they come across the various clues over the series which helps them solve the ultimate mystery. While it might seem like a string of coincidences that five seemingly unrelated archeological digs should have something in common, the writers have come up with very plausible reasons how each of them connect to the sword.

Complimenting this is the fact each of the actors have created wonderfully believable characters. From Bonneville's wise fool Dr. Parton, Graham's driven Magwilde, Lester's loyal and stolid Ergha to Mbatha-Raw's slightly wide-eyed but never naive Davis, each of them could have easily been types instead of real people. Thankfully both the script and the actors worked together to make them multidimensional people with both flaws and strengths. Over the six episodes we find out just as much about the characters through the actor's performances as we do through the script as they show us as many sides of their character as possible.

Bonekickers comes in a three DVD set with each disc containing not only two episodes, but extensive special features on each episode. In fact there's over 100 minutes of special features which look at script creation, special effects and where the ideas for the stories came from. This has to be some of the more in depth and extensive special features for a television series I've seen in a while and for those interested in what goes into the show's making it will be fascinating watching.

However, the real reason to watch or own this series is not the special features. It's because the thing is so damn good. Not only is it well acted and well scripted, its exciting, intelligent and funny. There some fairly graphic violence occasionally so you might want to screen it before letting young children watch, but it would also be well worth their while to see this because it makes history so fascinating. In this world so obsessed with the future paying so little attention to the past, it's a joy to watch something which recognizes the significance of history. A lesson worth remembering.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bonekickers on Blogcritics.)



February 7, 2013

DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2


What separates the really good police procedural television shows from the rest of the pack? Now a days everyone has a stable of really good script writers working for them and no show would dream of ever just having a straight ahead who done it anymore. However that doesn't mean most of them aren't still following a familiar formulae. A crime is committed and police try and solve the mystery and catch the bad guys. Since they're all doing roughly the same thing with equally well written and directed stores, it usually comes down to the actors to make a show stand out from the rest of the crowd.

At least that's the case with Above Suspicion, Set 2 now on DVD from Acorn Media. As in the show's first season the cast is headed up by Ciaran Hinds as Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) James Langton and Kelly Reilly as Detective Inspector (DI) Anna Travis. Two superior actors individually, taken together on screen they feed off each other talent and energy in a display that makes for brilliant viewing.

The daughter of a late colleague of Langton, Travis was a fresh Detective Constable when she first came to work with him. She was been instrumental in helping him solve two high profile and grisly murders. While he might have initially had a kind of paternalistic protective attitude towards her because of who her father had been, their relationship has gradually changed over the course of the last series into something with the potential for being less platonic. Right from the start of the three episode series on this DVD, Deadly Intent, we can't help notice the amount of tension that continues to exist between the two characters.
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Travis has been assigned to assist in the investigation of a very high profile murder. An ex police officer has been found dead in a drug dealer's apartment. While the priority is solving the murder, Langton and his team also have to figure out what the ex-cop was doing there. When they start checking into his background, what he'd been up since he left the police, they find a rather complicated picture. Not only did the man have a fiancee, but he had also recently married another woman. He had been employed as the second woman's driver for only a month before they were married. On it's own this is suspicious. Added to the facts his wife isn't exactly upset by the news her husband is dead and she's a lot better off than he was, the police begin to wonder what's the secret behind their relationship.

In the meantime the forensics team has turned up some very disturbing evidence at the crime scene. They find traces of the drug fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. According to a cop from the drug squad fentanyl is a death sentence on the street because its so strong. When mixed with cocaine or heroin to increase the former drugs' potency its been the cause of many an accidental overdose. As Langton's team gathers more evidence they discover there were three other people on the scene when the shooting happened. Was this a deal gone bad? Was the fentanyl part of the deal? Were the streets of London, England all of a sudden going to be flooded with this dangerous drug?

The deeper they get into the investigation the more threads they have to follow. With pressure coming from on high for a speedy resolution Langton and his whole team become tenser. Unfortunately this is the type of atmosphere which leads to mistakes being made and clues missed. Recently promoted to DI, Reilly's Travis is much more confident in her abilities then she was when we first met her. Unfortunately this causes her to become a little cocky and headstrong and make mistakes. On top of that, instead of discussing her ideas with her direct superior, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Lewis (Shaun Dingwall), as she's supposed to, she repeatedly goes over his head and goes straight to Langton.

The result is the man who is supposed to co-ordinating the case isn't being given information he needs to conduct the investigation properly. In an interesting transformation from the previous episodes the character of Travis is not quite as likeable as she once was. Reilly does an excellent job of portraying somebody who has gotten just a little too full of herself. She's also appears to be far less innocent in she's not adverse to using her attractiveness to get what she needs from male officers. We see this in the way she deals with the man in forensics who is handling the case and her team's contact in the drug squad.
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This of course leads to increased tension between Travis and Langton. When he discovers she tells the drug squad about the fentanyl before she had let Lewis know about it he has to take her down a peg or two. Unfortunately he also let's his own feelings show by making a snide comment along the lines of "Is there no one on this investigation who doesn't want to go out with you?" when the guy from the drug squad asks her out for a drink. While he's being sarcastic when he makes the comment, from the way both Hinds' and Reilly's characters react after he says it, we know there's a hell of a lot more going on than either character shows.

It comes to the surface late one night when the two are alone in the office. Langton has obviously been drinking, not drunk but loose, and he shows Travis a picture of his late wife. After telling her how devastated he was after his wife died he then starts to tell Travis how he feels. While we're fairly certain she feels much the same way, she retreats behind a smile and almost runs from his office. While it looks like she's trying to let him down gently, much like she's been turning down the other men who have asked her during the show, we also have the impression she's keeping something back. As if she's afraid to admit what she's feeling even to herself.

Both Reilly and Hinds give wonderful multilayered performances throughout the show. On the surface they both come across as hardened detectives intent on doing their job. Both can be cutting and callous, but there's the impression this is a shell they have built up to protect themselves from what they have to deal with in their job. For on the occasions their characters let their guards down we see an incredible amount of vulnerability. In some ways they have both been damaged, by the job and life, and have learnt how to hide their pain from the world. You have the feeling that in each other they may just have found the one person who would understand what they're going through. Unfortunately the opportunity for them to find this out may never present itself.

Above Suspicion, Set 2 contains the three episodes of the series Deadly Intents. Also included on the disc are interviews with the cast and crew who discuss both how their characters have progressed since the first series and the show itself. There is also an interview with Lynda La Plante the author of the books the series is based upon and the screenwriter for the show. To be honest, while I'm a fan of her work, I'm not a big fan of La Plante personally. As I've seen interviews with her before I passed on this one. However, if this interview is anything like others it would be worth watching if you haven't heard her talk about her work before. She is intelligent and capable of offering good insights into her work without spoiling the story.

There are plenty of police procedurals on television that are probably equally well written and directed as Deadly Intent. However it's not often you have the opportunity to see actors of the calibre of Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly performing in them. Even better is the fact they aren't performing in a void and the supporting cast more than holds their own. Still Hinds and Reilly are the stars of the show for good reason. They turn what would have otherwise been a good police procedural into something special.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2 on Blogcritics)



January 30, 2013

DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series


Organizing something as complex and involved as an Olympic Games is a task almost beyond comprehension. Not only do the organizers have to be able to provide venues for all the different sports and accommodate the thousands of athletes and associated individuals who will be participating in the games, they have to also consider the impact of hosting the even larger number of people who will be coming to watch the games. As if this wasn't hard enough, it all has to be done while ensuring they have minimal impact on the daily life of the city hosting the games. On top of all everything there are also the security concerns that are a fact of life in the modern era.

Everything from catering to traffic considerations must be taken care of. The country chosen to host an Olympic Games, especially the hugely popular Summer Olympics, must dedicate its best and brightest minds to the organizational responsibilities. Only those with the ability to cope with the multitude of details needing careful attention in a calm and rational manner will be able to rise to the occasion. At least that's the impression one has when one looks at the sheer size of the job involved in bringing an Olympic Games off successfully.

Is it possible for Games to succeed in spite of those organizing them? No matter how incompetent and ineffectual the collection of civil servants and outside consultants who have been assigned the task of coordinating the millions of details are, can the Olympics come off anyway? Available on DVD through BBC America this premise is fully explored in Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series. Originally aired in England during the two years leading up to London's hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics this biting satire goes behind the scenes at the (hopefully) fictional offices of the ineffectual team in charge of "Deliverance".
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Charged with such tasks as ensuring the traffic lights will work in favour of athletes travelling from one venue to the other, what to do with the various venues after the games have ended, co-ordinating various coincidental cultural events and making certain the opening ceremonies' fireworks don't trigger surface to air missiles, the men and women of the Deliverance team prove how even the ineffectual and incompetent can occasionally do things right. Even if only by accident.

In spite of the serious tone adopted by the narrator of the documentary, we realize early on this is going to be an examination of the ridiculous in action. We're whisked right into the thick of things with quick introductions to the key players as they arrive for their Monday morning planning session. Doing his best to keep this bizarre ship and crew on course is Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher. Played with beautiful low key understatement by Hugh Bonneville, Fletcher is the epitome of the earnest civil servant trying to come to grips with a job he might be capable of doing if only he had competent help. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent his people aren't really sure what they're doing.

They're fantastic at coming up with explanations for why things have gone wrong, or why something hasn't worked out quite as expected, but actually getting things done on schedule and correctly is more a matter of luck than skill. The most commonly heard answer to "Can that be ready for Friday?" is "Oh certainly" (pause) "Do you mean this Friday?". Even the rather simple task of escorting a visiting delegation from Brazil - Rio De Janeiro is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics - on a tour of the Olympic Stadium is fraught with difficulties. In a kind of metaphor for Fletcher's team's chances of success, the bus driver hired to ferry them all to the stadium gets hopelessly lost and they end up driving aimlessly through the streets of London before finally reaching their desired destination.
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While the majority of Deliverance team are career civil servants - the last couple of episodes see them all more concerned with what they're going to be moving onto next rather than making sure their jobs are completed satisfactorily - they have turned to an outside professional to help with promotional events. Head of Brand Siobhan Sharpe, played with perfect borderline psychosis by the hilarious Jessica Hynes, is responsible for communicating the big picture vis a vis little pictures to the general public. Or something like that anyway. As Sharpe seems incapable of speaking in anything other than partial cliches or meaningless catch phrases, we're never quite sure either what she is talking about or her actual function.

It might be something to do with publicity. She does have a team of so called creative people at her disposal from the public relations firm Perfect Curve. However they all do such a grand job of giving new meaning to word vague we're never quite sure if they know what they're doing. For the grand kick off marking the two year countdown until the opening ceremonies Sharpe commissions a conceptual artist to create a commemorative piece of art. He comes up with a functional wide up clock that runs backwards from the date of the opening ceremonies. Therefore, on the date the Olympics are scheduled to open the clock will read a date and time two years in the past. Forced to try and improvise an explanation for the press as to its significance Fletcher is left gasping out words about marking the journey they've all undertaken and similar nonsense.

There are times when watching the series you want to reach into your television and grab people by the throat and shake them. Or simply throttle them they are so annoying. On other occasions you're left stunned by the depth of their ineptitude and wonder how on earth they could have been entrusted with anything as important as organizing something as major as an Olympic Games. However, it gradually dawns on you over the course of the series, they really aren't actually responsible for anything too important. As we hear reports on what other committees are working on we realize our team is responsible for doing necessary drudge work nobody else can be bothered with.

While the included special features are limited to interviews with the primary cast and crew, it's fun to watch the cast talking about their characters and what went into creating the series. Without skillful actors, an intelligent script and tight direction this sort of show could easily have descended into something idiotic and not very funny. Thankfully by having everybody play their roles completely straight, letting the circumstances and their characters create the comedy, the humour is never forced or dumb. After all, these are serious people doing a serious job who take themselves and what they do very seriously - even if nobody else does. If you like satire and enjoy laughing at hapless civil servants than you'll love Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series on Blogcritics)

December 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Point


Quick pop culture quiz. Name the first full length animated feature produced specifically for television. Need a hint? It was based on an album of pop songs and first aired in 1971. Unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard of either the movie or the man who wrote the music it was based on. The Point, based on the album of the same name by American song writer Harry Nilsson and directed and animated by Fred Wolf was first aired on ABC with a cast that included Dustin Hoffman in the lead role.

Like its creator the film has unfortunately almost been forgotten, existing only as a faint memory for those who remember one of the times it was broadcast. However, with the movie being given a new life on DVD by the MVD Entertainment Group hopefully both Nilsson and The Point will gain some of the recognition they richly deserve. After the initial broadcast Hoffman's voice had to be overdubbed out of the production due to contractual conflicts. So the voice you now hear in the key role of narrator/father is that of former Beatle Ringo Starr. Aside from that, you'll be seeing the movie just as it was originally broadcast.

To today's sophisticated audience I'm sure the animation will look excessively primitive. For everything was still drawn by hand in the early 1970s. So instead of the detailed and lifelike cartoons we have grown accustomed to thanks to computer generated animation, this has a very rough sketch like quality to it. Backgrounds are primarily washes of colour while foregrounds and characters will seem like crude drawings compared to today's offerings. However, once you allow yourself to become wrapped up in the story, you'll find the technical details won't matter. In fact, the rather sur-real quality they create actually helps create the fantastical atmosphere which is part of the movie's charm.
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Told as a bed time story by a father (Starr) to his son, The Point recounts the adventures of Oblio and his dog Arrow. Oblio is born in the town of Point, which gets its name from the fact everybody and everything has a point. From the pyramid shaped buildings to the tops of each person's head there's not a round object in the place. That is until little Oblio is born without a point. Naturally his difference is quite the talking point (get used to it, there are any number of play on words around the word "point" employed in the movie) but things only come to a head when Oblio and Arrow show up The Count's son in a game of ring toss. The Count forces the King of Point to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forrest for being in contravention of the law stating everybody in Point must have a point.

So little Oblio and Arrow venture into the Pointless forrest where they meet with all kinds of strange and mysterious individuals. From the beatnik like "Rock Man" - a large creature made of stones who espouses a kind of hip philosophy of acceptance - to the triple headed pointed man, each help the young boy see that you don't need to be pointed to have a point. As Nilsson had originally told the story through song on his album The Point the action of the move is aided and accentuated by his music. Sometimes whimsical and often fantastic, when combined with the animator Wolf's visuals the songs are what give this movie its real magic.

Whether simply expounding on the relationship between a lonely boy and his pet with "Me And My Arrow", expanding on the themes of the story, "Think About Your Troubles", or exploring the differences between reality and fantasy in "Are You Sleeping", the songs both help tell the story and create an emotional bond between the viewer and Oblio. Like the movie itself the music never lectures or pontificates, instead it helps us see there is more than one way of looking at the world. In the town of Point Oblio was subject to the law that different is bad. However, out in the rest of the world he discovers there are all sorts of creatures without points but that doesn't prevent them from having a point.

What's nice about this movie is the time it takes allowing Oblio to make his discoveries. Over the course of the movie we watch as he comes to the realization that different is not bad and therefore he is of worth. Unlike a lot of stuff today where everything is about the quick fix, this movie understands we all need time to accept new things and to learn how to appreciate them. Especially when it comes to learning new things about ourselves that go against everything we've been told. If you've been made to feel different or odd all your life learning to like yourself and understand you have value is not easy. Watching Oblio take this journey will be edifying for anyone, young or old, who has ever felt out of place and different.
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Included along with the movie on the DVD are special features about both the movie and Nilsson. Hopefully the biographical details about Nilsson and the testimonials to his talent included in these features will encourage a new generation of people to explore his music. Unfortunately he pretty much stopped recording after the death of his great friend John Lennon in 1980 and instead worked on trying to get tougher gun laws passed. Still, when he died of heart failure in 1994 he left behind a legacy of 13 studio albums and four movie soundtracks - including the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye starring Robin Williams.

The special features also include an interview with animator Fred Wolf who not only describes the process they went through to create the movie, but how Nilsson managed to convince ABC to make it. After many fruitless attempts to made an appointment with the head of the studio, he found out the man was taking a plane from Los Angeles to New York City. Nilsson proceeded to phone airline after airline until he found out which flight the man was on and then booked the seat next to him on the plane. By the end of the flight he had convinced the man that his station should produce and air a cartoon that hadn't even been filmed or scripted yet.

To eyes used to the high tech computerized animation of today The Point will look decidedly primitive. However the message of tolerance conveyed by the music and the movie are still as relevant today as they were in 1971. There's also a certain amount of charm and wonder to be found in watching something that was entirely drawn by hand and then filmed frame by frame as this was. Take the time and sit down with a child and watch The Point, you might be surprised to find out how much you both enjoy it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Point on Blogcritics

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition


I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
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While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72


In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005


It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

October 4, 2012

DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1


How often have you heard two people working together closely referred to as being just like a married couple? It doesn't seem to matter whether they're two men, two women or two people of the opposite sex either. It usually refers to a type of working relationship where the couple have become so comfortable working with each other they can complete each other's sentences or casual bickering hides a depth of feelings between them. These types of relationships often develop in jobs where the two have developed a great deal of trust in each other over the years. It's not surprising to find this type of relationship between police officers who have been partnered for an extended period of time.

Of course this type of camaraderie doesn't develop overnight, and in some instances might not ever develop. Even the most ideal partnerships had to have had their start somewhere and gone through a certain amount of growing pains. Trust isn't earned overnight after all and not everyone who you're partnered with is automatically going to be compatible. In fact, as in any sort of relationship, there's always the chance a partnership between two cops isn't going work out. Vexed, Series 1, released on DVD by Acorn Media, is a British police procedural featuring two officers in the initial stages of a partnership. Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Bishop (Lucy Punch) has just moved to London with her husband in the hopes of advancing both their careers. She's a dedicated, hard working and ambitious officer with hopes of climbing the career ladder. So being partnered with an experienced officer, Detective Inspector Jack Armstrong (Toby Stephens) should fit her plans perfectly.
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Unfortunately she soon discovers DI Armstrong is quite content to coast through life enjoying himself as much as possible. Which means doing his best to make certain police work interferes with more important matters, like being fitted for a suit, as little as possible. While DI Bishop is quite prepared to put in whatever extra hours are required to solve a case, Armstrong works strictly to the clock. He could be in the middle of a murder investigation, but when quitting time comes he's off the case and happily ensconced in his favourite cafe before the clock finishes striking the hour. In fact he's managed to work things so well he almost never has to set foot in the police station and does everything from interviewing witnesses to receiving pathology reports while enjoying a good meal and a glass of wine.

To the highly ambitious, by the book and do everything according to the rules Bishop this type of behaviour doesn't sit very well. Normally in this kind of show it becomes a case of opposites attracting and the two officers, at the least, develop a good working relationship based on mutual respect. They might be different but they sure do work well together. However that's not the case here. Investigating what appears to be the work of a murderer who preys on lonely women, Bishop discovers Armstrong is not only lazy, he's also callous, judgemental and quick to jump to conclusions. However, that doesn't stop her from taking his advice and renting the flat of one of the murder victims. This leads to a very funny scene of her being led around the apartment by an estate agent with the victim's body still laid out on the floor. Armstrong's best contribution involves advice on the placement of the couch and TV so they can be used to cover up the blood stain on the carpet.

However, when you don't have anyone else to talk to, as is the case for the newly arrived to London Bishop, if you spend the entire day in close contact with a person you develop a kind of intimacy almost in spite of yourself. Which is how she ends up confiding in Armstrong her worries about her husband's infidelity. When they discover the murderer has cracked the computer system of a shopping rewards program - earn points and win prizes - by using the shopping habits revealed by people's receipts to pick out targets, they both use the system to find out information for personal reasons. Armstrong wants to find out information about a girl he's interested in picking up while Bishop is hunting for proof her husband is fooling around.

Somehow or other the two still manage to find a way to solve the murders, even though their first two suspects are completely innocent. However, they end up making more than a bit of a mess of their personal lives leaving them both single. While this doesn't necessarily improve their working relationship, they try to make the best of it as neither has anyone else in their lives. The more we get to know both characters, the more we realize they each could stand to learn a little from the other. If Armstrong were ever to start thinking of anything more than just his own personal self-gratification and take a lesson from Bishop in dedication he has the potential to be a decent cop and a good person. On the other hand if Bishop were to take a leaf from Armstrong's book and be a little more relaxed she might not have quite the number of problems she does on the home front.

The three episodes in Series 1 see the two officers solve a series of murders, protect an investment banker convicted of bilking clients for millions against the threat of assassination and deal with the kidnapping of the member of an all girl pop music trio. Somehow they manage to solve each case almost in spite of themselves, and at the same time begin to grudgingly respect each other. At times it seems like the crimes they solve are almost incidental to the action. However, just when you're about to wash your hands of the two of them, they remind you that you have to have some policing skills to have obtained the rank of Detective Inspector. When Armstrong can be stirred from his navel gazing and Bishop can bring her head down out of the clouds they end up working quite well together.

Both Punch and Stephens are gifted comic actors. On top of that they both know how to straddle the line between keeping a character likeable in spite of their flaws instead of allowing them to slip into being insufferable. They are helped by scripts that never descend to the level of having them deliver one liner jokes. Instead the comedy develops out of the interplay between the two characters and their behaviour in given circumstances, Even better is the fact the writers have gone out of their way to give the characters enough material to work with that neither of them are completely one dimensional. So occasionally we see a spark of genuine emotion from Armstrong instead of his usual glibness and cracks in Bishop's veneer of professionalism.
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Even better, is that when it comes right down to it, they are still police officers, and when they have to they take their jobs seriously. While the show is primarily a comedy, it doesn't cheapen itself by taking the subjects of murder or kidnapping lightly by treating them as jokes. We're meant to laugh at the foibles of the two main characters not the victims or the crimes. Even when Armstrong makes demeaning comments about those in the episodes with them, we aren't invited to laugh along with him. Rather we are invited to laugh at him for being so insensitive and rude.

The course of some relationships run smoother than others. In the case of the working relationship between DI Bishop and DI Armstrong in the British police comedy Vexed there are definitely a number of bumps in the road over the course of the three episodes in Series 1. However in spite of the inevitable humour resulting from their clashes, and the occasional bungles they make of their jobs because of them, the seriousness of their work is never in doubt. Not only is this show a lot of fun, but it will also surprise you with its grown up attitude to police work. While there's not much in the way of special features included with the set, a photo galley and the show's trailer, you won't miss them. Watching a police procedural comedy that knows how to take crime seriously is enough of an attraction that you don't need any extra incentives to watch this show.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1 on Blogcritics.)

October 1, 2012

DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1


There was a line in the recent movie Paul which reminded me how wide the cultural gap is between Great Britain and the United States. Two British tourists are talking to an American State Trooper who when being informed they are from London England says,"I've heard of that. Isn't that the place cops don't have guns?" When the tourists answer in the affirmative the cop then asks "What do they do when they want to shoot someone?" and is left speechless when told they try not to. So, if there's going to one thing about British television police shows that will always make them alien to American viewers it will be the almost complete absence of casual gun play.

Times have changed in England and its probably more common for officers to carry weapons then it once was. One of the latest releases from Acorn Media, Special Branch: Set 1, is not only set in the 1970s but was filmed then as well. Those were the days of the unarmed British Bobby walking the beat and even the officers of the British Police force's domestic counter intelligence agency, Special Branch, didn't carry weapons as a matter of course. If they needed them they were available, and they were all trained in their usage, however they could go an entire fifty minute episode without once either drawing a gun or one even showing up in the course of the proceedings. Can you imagine an American show about FBI agents where guns aren't used in an episode?
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It's ironic therefore to find out in the special feature included in this four disc set, interviews with the two lead actors in the series, George Sewell (Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Craven) and Patrick Mower (DCI Tom Haggerty), it's revealed this series was shot in the hopes of selling it to the American market. Unlike most British television shows at the time it was shot on film instead of video and on location instead of in the studio in order to make it more appealing to American viewers. Unfortunately the producers were told it wasn't violent enough for the American market and it was never picked up..

One of the big differences you'll notice between this show and its American counterparts are the two lead characters. DCI Craven grew up in the rough East Side of London and freely admits to having seen the inside of many a police station when he was young. However a stint in the army straightened him up and having served in Military Intelligence on return to civilian life a job with Special Branch was a natural fit. When the show opens he's already a fifteen year veteran of the force. While DCI Haggerty is no less rough around the edges, he's also young and brash and a recent transfer to the department. While he fancies himself a bit of a lady's man and gets under Craven's skin periodically with his occasional relaxed attitude towards regulations, he's as dedicated an officer as Craven.

While both characters have the kind of tough attitude that was often common in police shows during the 1970s, think Starsky & Hutch, they hardly ever go rushing into a room with guns blazing or get into knock down drag out fights. In fact a great deal of their work is spent sifting through evidence, trailing suspects or keeping people under surveillance. Even when they confront a suspect or arrest someone they very rarely employ physical violence. That's not to say they won't rough somebody up on occasion. However, those times are few and far between and usually only because something has happened to make the case personal for the officer. One episode see's Haggerty's father fall victim to a mugger who is preying on elderly people who have just arrived in town by train. Needless to say when they finally track down the assailant he doesn't use kid gloves on him.

There are two other major differences between this show and its American counterparts from the same time period. The first major difference is there are times the episodes end inconclusively, without the matter under investigation being resolved. In one episode they pull a man in for questioning who had been arrested and served time for blackmail. First they want to know why he has a loaded unregistered pistol and a fake passport secreted in his apartment. However Craven is really trying to find out how the man obtained the information which allowed him to blackmail his victim five years ago. But the episode ends inconclusively when the suspect first attempts suicide and then escapes from his hospital bed. While this might confirm he has something to hide, Craven still isn't any closer to finding out the information he's after.
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The other way in which this show differs is the risks it takes with its subject matter. I doubt the topic of homosexuality would ever even have come up let alone be a factor in an American police show from this period, except maybe for bad jokes. Here the subject is raised when a high ranking civil servant has to report secret documents missing and has to cover up they were stolen from him by "gay bashers" pretending to be male prostitutes. Craven and Haggerty have to cross examine the man on a number of occasions to finally get the truth from him. While they are angry with him for misleading their investigation by not being honest in the first place they are remarkably nonjudgemental about everything else. He's still after all a victim and on top of that his career has just been ended in scandal.

This isn't the only time the show takes risks with its content. The number of mix raced couples on television in the early 1970s were few and far between as I remember, but Craven's girlfriend for the majority of the first year is of Jamaican descent. As a nurse her life is almost as hectic as his and there is a certain amount of friction between the two of them because of the demands their jobs place on them. However there's only the occasional reference made to the race issue. During one episode Craven asks her to move in with him and she wonders what his bosses would have to say about him living with a person of colour, but most of the time nothing is made of it at all.

Obviously the show is somewhat dated, there's not a computer to be seen anywhere and the rest of the technology at their disposal is equally quaint to our eyes. However that means they are still reliant on good old fashioned police work to find their answers and we get to watch them out on the streets of London chasing down leads. Although they were using the latest in cameras and sound equipment to film these shows, you'll notice some flaws in both the visuals and the sound. While the job of transferring it from tape to DVD is probably as good possible that doesn't prevent the occasional line appearing on the screen indicative of the age of the original print. However, none of these flaws are going to detract from the pleasure you'll take in watching the episodes from the show's first season.

Special Branch: Set 1 is both an interesting artefact of television from a bygone era and fun to watch. While the episodes are probably more action oriented than we're used to from police shows produced by British television, they still take enough time to allow plots to unfold naturally and for characters to be properly developed. They also change up the way in which the story is told from time to time, so we're not always following the police around. Sometimes the focus is on the subjects they have under observation and the story unfolds by following them with occasional interjections by the officers of Special Branch. All in all this is a lot of fun to watch and well worth picking up.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

September 25, 2012

DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White


London, England in the nineteenth century was a city of contrasts. In the well to do areas the world looked to be a beautiful place with wide tree lined avenues for people to stroll along. Yet travel only a few miles across town and you'd find slums crammed full of people and streets so filthy and dingy you'd wonder how anything could live. Instead of wide open spaces full of light and air, the tenements crowding the streets blocked out the sky and human and animal waste were piled in the streets. Here living was a desperate struggle for survival as men and women fought for whatever scraps of food and money they could lay their hands on.

For a young woman the easiest way to make a living was to sell her body. For the affluent men of the time, the seedy side of Victorian life was an adventure. A place where they could throw off the constraints society forced upon them and pretend to be free. There were even books published for the discerning gentleman informing them of places and people of interest. This is the world we are drawn into in The Crimson Petal and the White being released on DVD September 25 2012 by Acorn Media Group.

We are introduced to the two worlds and their point of intersection by the lead characters in the mini series; Sugar, (Romola Garai) a much sought after prostitute and William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) the upper middle class son of a soap manufacturer who thinks of himself as a poet. When Rackham is cut off by his father for refusing to work in the family business he seeks solace in the arms of Sugar. Her name is much bandied about by men of his acquaintance and she even has her own listing in one of those above mentioned books for discerning gentlemen..
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Rackham quickly becomes obsessed with Sugar and she, seeing him as a potential way out of her life as a prostitute, encourages his interest. He uses her as a means to escape his reality of impending poverty and a wife (Amanda Hale) Agnes Rackham, who suffers from a type of mental illness. In order for him to be of use to her Sugar first must find a way to save Rackham from himself. Through a combination of flattery and encouragement she manages to convince him that he won't be untrue to his "poetic" temperament by working for his father. Soon, not only has he won himself back into his father's good graces, but he's become instrumental in breathing fresh life into the family business. Of course his father would probably be shocked and appalled if he were to find out the majority of the his ideas - including the complete redesign of the company's catalogue - are the work of a prostitute.

With Sugar becoming indispensable, Rackham first establishes her as his mistress in her own apartment by purchasing her from her madame, Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) and eventually moves her into his house to become his daughter's governess. As his mistress Sugar is living the life she always dreamed of, out of the slums and in her own apartment in a lovely part of the city. However, when she's moved into his house as governess, she's all of a sudden reduced in status again to someone of little importance. For not only must she know her place as a servant, Rackham starts to take her for granted, forgetting how much she'd been responsible for his prosperity. She also see first hand that he will never leave his wife for her, no matter how ill she becomes or how much Sugar does for him.

While a bare bones plot outline might make the story sound like some sort of Dickens era soap opera its far more sophisticated and intelligent than not only any soap opera you've seen, but the majority of what you'll see on television these days. From the technical side of the production through the script to the acting, this mini series is special. The first thing you'll notice is the almost surreal way the seamy side of London is depicted. We walk through streets that are universally grey and claustrophobic. Everywhere the camera looks we see people in various states of desperation. The narrow and dirty streets crammed with dirty tenements are filled with beggars, prostitutes, drunks and those who just seem like they've nowhere else to go.

Sugar is the only flash of colour in this dingy prison and as we see the world through her eyes we begin to understand her desperation to escape. The first time Rackham follows her back to her room at Castaway's brothel, she seems to float in front of him. The camera work creates an almost surreal effect by reducing everything around her to a blurry soft focus and exaggerating both the colours and flow of her costume. Through the camera, Rackham's eyes, we see her as some sort of exotic bird with tail feathers enticing us ever onward. Ignoring the filth around him he sees only the promise Sugar represents. The irony is that while Rackham sees Sugar the prostitute as the means by which he can escape the repressiveness of Victorian society and its middle class values, she sees in him her chance for a life of safe respectability.

While the performances of all those involved in the production are wonderful, Anderson is almost unrecognizable as Sugar's Madam Mrs.Castaway, O'Dowd as Rackham, Garai as Sugar and Hale as Mrs. Rackham are superlative. O'Dowd, probably best known to most as the policeman boy friend in the movie Bridesmaids, is a revelation in a serious role. He somehow manages to convey his need for what Sugar has to offer him while simultaneously being sincere in his expressions of love for his wife. For Sugar, who has pinned all her hopes on him rescuing her from a life of poverty, finding out the depth of his affection for his wife is quite the blow to her ambitions. However, she also finds herself thrust into the role of Mrs. Rackham's protector and does her best to help her.
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Lest you get the impression Sugar is the cliched "hooker with the heart of gold", it only takes remembering how carefully Garai's character orchestrated everything to make herself indispensable to Rackham. However, we do see that while she doesn't have much respect for her clients, in fact she dreams of taking murderous revenge on most of them, including Rackham, we also see her compassion for those who she sees as being mistreated by the world. In her relationship with Mrs. Rackham, Garai does a remarkable job of being completely sincere in her feelings of pity for the other woman, while a part of her obviously would prefer if she were to just vanish. There is a blade of steel inside of her from having lived in the survival of the fittest streets of London, and while she may be sympathetic to others, we have the feeling that she's not going to let anybody get in her way of her dream of a new life.

Of course she also recognizes the feelings of being caged that Mrs. Rackham suffers from as being identical to how she felt about her old life. However, as Hale so magnificently shows, Mrs. Rackham's prison is caused by the pressures and expectations of society on her to behave in a certain manner. Hale manages to walk the line between overacting and playing somebody suffering from delusions and extreme nervousness wonderfully. It would have been easy to play this type of character as a single note, in a constant state of hysteria. However she makes her a far more believable character by showing us glimpses of the person she had been before she became afflicted by her illness. This is important because if we didn't see anything redeemable in her, Rackham's love for her wouldn't have been believable.

In the bonus features that are included on the second of the two discs in this package, we hear from both the actors and the technical people about how they approached their job on this shoot. While nobody goes into tremendous detail, the production designers and cinematographer do explain the techniques they used and the effects they were trying to achieve. In their interviews both Garai and O'Dowd explain the approaches they took to try and humanize their characters. I would have liked to hear more of how O'Dowd, whose background is mainly comedy, might have changed his approach for this role from what he's done in the past, but he just talked about how he tried to inject some humour into his character.

British television is no stranger to costume dramas set in the Victorian era as there have probably been adaptations for the small screen of every Dickens novel ever written. However, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other show set in this period. It goes deeper into the darkness that lay beneath the surface of the times including the effects sexual and emotional repression had on people. Through a combination of superlative acting, a great script and inventive production techniques these issues are brought to light through telling the story of the relationship between an ambitious prostitute and an upper middle class gentleman. Less a tale of star crossed lovers and more a story of what happens when world's collide and the upheavals that ensue. While its not something to watch with the whole family, it can be quite graphic at times, its definitely not your typical costume drama, which makes it one of the most exciting television programs you'll see in a long time.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White on Blogcritics.)

September 24, 2012

DVD Review: Bob Dylan And The Band: Down In The Flood


There are some things we just naturally associate with each other in life and pop culture. Just as you can't think of ham without cheese it's almost impossible to think of Lennon without McCartney or Jagger without Richards. The latter being two of the most famous song writing teams in the history of contemporary pop music and the nucleus of their respective bands. While there is precedent for the association of two individuals either as a songwriting team or as a performance group in pop culture the marriage of Bob Dylan and The Band was something unique in the history of popular music.

Since the release of his first record in 1962 Dylan was a highly successful solo act claimed by the folk music community as not only the inheritor of Woody Guthrie's role as voice of the people, but seen by his audience as the guiding light leading the way to a better future. On the other hand, The Band, (Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm) were the creation of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Although Hawkins was originally from Arkansas he carved out a career for himself in Canada and put together a band made up of four young Canadian musicians and a drummer (Helm) from his home state. Under his tutelage The Hawks, the name Hawkins gave to all his bands, learned how survive in bars and play a mixture of rock and roll, blues, rockabilly and R&B.
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A new DVD, Bob Dylan And The Band Down In The Flood, from the Chrome Dreams label of Britain, being released in North America by the MVD Entertainment Group on September 25 2012, purports to take an in depth look at this unlikely marriage of folk and rock and roll. From their infamous tour of 1966, their hibernation in Woodstock, the triumphant tour in 1974 to their final act during The Last Waltz, this documentary picks over the roughly eight years Bob Dylan and The Band were associated with each other in painstaking detail.

Now, don't watch this movie expecting to see tons of footage of Dylan and The Band in performance as it was not authorized by either of them. The movie is primarily made up of interviews with those who either had some sort of association with them or had written about them for the music press. There's Romping Ronnie (Hawkins) himself, John Simon, the producer of their first two albums, 1966 tour drummer Micky Jones, and supposed authorities like Barney Hoskins (The Band's biographer), Sid Griffin (referred to as the archivist of The Basement Tapes) and journalists Derek Barker from Isis and Anthony De Curtis from Rolling Stone

The early part of the film splits between telling us about The Hawks and what Dylan was up to from 1964 until 1966 when he hooked up with the boys. It does a credible job of recapping the basic facts of both their careers but stumbles for the first time when explaining how they found each other. The best they can come up with is that once the Hawks had split from Hawkins and began performing as Levon & The Hawks and that Dylan must have got wind of them somehow.
It goes from there to telling how Robertson and Helm came up to New York City to meet with Dylan and were basically hired on the spot.

I found it hard to believe Dylan would have hired a band sight unseen - or at least without checking them out somehow. Anyway, one thing that we do know for sure is that Levon wasn't thrilled with giving up being band leader and becoming somebody's backing band again and quit. Which is how it came about that Jones was hired as drummer. His main contribution to the film and the history is to confirm that during the 1966 tour they would play louder and louder as the booing became louder. He also recounts what he knows about Dylan's famous motorcycle accident as it affected him directly. After he and the Hawks had returned to the States from England he was still under contract to Dylan and was supposed to be going on tour with them again. However Dylan called him just after the accident to let him know his services were no longer required. According to Jones Dylan had told him he was in traction and all future touring plans were on hold indefinitely.

If you've seen any of the movies made about the 1966 tour, including the superlative I'm Not There, you're not going to learn anything you didn't know already. There's the usual speculations about drugs and Dylan burning out in answer to why the tour was cut short, but the movie doesn't really have anything new to add about what happened. They do show some footage from that time, but again its stuff that has appeared elsewhere first as it all looks and sounds very familiar.
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When the scene shifts to upstate New York and The Band and Dylan settling into Woodstock the movie again stumbles out of the blocks in telling the story. Instead of anybody offering up any sort of explanation of what really happened to Dylan in his motorcycle accident we go from Jones telling us Dylan phoned him to Dylan inviting The Band to hang out in Woodstock to jam and record. For a guy who was supposedly in traction the photos we're shown of Dylan at this time show him looking surprisingly spry. Just the fact he was able to play and record enough music for what turned out to be the double album of The Basement Tapes make you wonder how hurt he really was. However they just skirt over reality to get on with the myth making. It may seem trivial to you, but this sort of stuff drives me crazy and it makes me question people's credibility as "authorities" if they've never bothered chasing down the facts of the matter.

Ironically the one guy interviewed who comes across the best is not mentioned in the liner notes, Robert Christgau. Critic for almost every major publication in the US, including The Village Voice and Playboy he comes the closest to putting the relationship between The Band and Dylan in perspective. For after that period when they hung out together in 1966 they pretty much went their separate ways until 1974. However, that time was instrumental in changing the paths of both their careers.

The final bit of the movie deals with the reuniting of Dylan and The Band. They talk a little about the one studio album they made together, Planet Waves, the tour of 1974 and then finish off with the Last Waltz. They don't really offer any special insights, or any new footage, about any of these events. In fact that's pretty much the case with the DVD all the way through. For those not familiar with the story of Bob Dylan and The Band it does a competent job of telling the history of their association and placing it in its appropriate historical context. While everything the film has to say about the subject has been covered before, this is probably the first time it all has been put together in one movie.

As far as Bonus features go the DVD includes biographies of the various people interviewed for the documentary and the entire interview with Micky Jones from which were drawn his contributions to the movie. It's been over 40 years since The Band broke up yet they still remain linked in the minds of many with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood might have most of the facts about their on again off again nearly decade long association, but at the end you're still left wondering why it is we continue to make this association.

Is it merely the power of Dylan's name and his personal mythology that elevates anybody associated with him to the same near mythical status? Or were The Band that influential a group in their own right? While I have my own opinions on that matter, this movie didn't offer any compelling reasons for either argument. Somehow though, Dylan and The Band, who only released three albums together and really only toured together once, remain as iconic in pop music as others who have contributed far more. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Band, but rather than providing reasons for cementing their place in musical history, this movie left me questioning their significance.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Boy Dylan & The Band by Bob Gruen

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983


It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
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This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
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As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax


In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
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Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 29, 2012

DVD Review: Above Suspicion: Set 1


There are those who because of their position in society, or through personal arrogance, believe they will always be above suspicion. These are the types of people who think they can get away with murder and usually attempt to do so. Haven't you ever noticed how many serial killers are the ones nobody ever suspects of being able to commit horrendous crimes? Of course when it comes to those who believe their position in society allows them to do whatever they want, that's a different story, but the results are usually the same thing; people end up dead and the police are left trying to puzzle out who was responsible.

A new police procedural from British television released on DVD by Acorn Media, appropriately called Above Suspicion: Set 1, deals with just these types of crimes. Like most of these shows from Britain there are only two cases in a series, but in this instance each case is three episodes long. Disc one contains the pilot, simply called "Above Suspicion" while disc two's investigation is called "The Red Dahlia". Both cases involve fairly gruesome murders that display both a horrifying disregard for human life and a very deliberate brutality. Both are the types of cases you feel sorry for any police who have to work on them. Not only for what they are exposed to, but when they do catch the person, having to even be in the same room as somebody who could do these types of things.
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That's especially true for the first episode of the series as the lead character is a pretty young officer just starting out on her career, Detective Constable (DC) Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly). Due to illness in his squad she finds herself temporarily assigned to Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Langton's (Ciaran Hinds) murder team. On her first day working with him she's told to meet him at a crime scene where a body of a young women has been found. Unfortunately for her the body has been on location for quite a while and is a maggot strewn mess. Throwing up at a crime scene is not the best way of impressing your new superior officer and neither is feinting during the postmortem autopsy, both of which DC Travis manages to do on her first day.

Thankfully for the young cop her new boss is willing to cut her a very little amount of slack as he used to know her father. However, as she soon finds out, Langton drives his team almost as hard as he drives himself. The corpse they met over is only the latest in a series of women who have been killed in the same manner over the last twelve years. Each of them were found with their arms tied behind their backs and strangled with their own tights. Even worse is it's obvious from the way the tights are tied the killer strangled them while looking into their eyes. The only difference between this most recent murder and the rest is all the previous victims had been prostitutes while this one wasn't.

What is really good about this series is focuses on the nuts and bolts of police work. The hard slog and drudgery the police have go through to find their suspect. However they at least have a few fresh clues now. A closed circuit camera picked up a picture of the newest victim as she was talking with somebody inside a grey Mercedes outside a nightclub. So you see the police tracking down and talking to anybody who could have seen the car and can confirm whether or not the girl got in. Once they confirm she actually drove off in the car - they then have to try and track down the car. They also find other clues which send them off all over the place to interview potential witnesses, including sending Travis to Spain to interview an ex vice squad cop who might have some information that will help the investigation. While this trip has all the appearances of being a wild goose chase it sets them on the track that eventually leads them to the killer.

In the second case, "The Red Dahlia" we again see how it's the nitty gritty of tracking down every single lead that eventually pays off. This time they are dealing with somebody copying a series of murders that took place in Los Angeles in the 1940s and were never solved called the Black Dahlia murders. At first there's only one victim, but the body has been brutalized. Not only did the murderer cut the young woman in half he's drained all of her blood and removed some of her organs. Even more appalling is the fact the postmortem reveals the victim had been tortured and some of the surgery had been done on her while she was alive. Things start to turn really ugly when the murderer starts to send first letters and then tape recordings to a reporter at a newspaper bragging about what he's done and warning the police he's only just getting started.

However. like all who think they are invincible and smarter than anybody else he makes mistakes. Even though they're minor, they're enough to set the police on a trail that eventually lead them to him. Now, the way the show has been scripted lends the program credibility, however it's the acting, especially of the two leads, that makes this series so powerful. As the rookie detective getting her feet wet, Reilly is wonderful. After her less than auspicious first day on the job we watch as she gradually gains confidence. When she goes to interview the witness in Spain she runs into problems as he refuses to speak to her because he's insulted they sent some "little girl" out to talk to him. The way she convinces him to talk leaves you no doubt as to her toughness and ability to think on her feet. Although, probably the thought of returning to face her boss empty handed was enough to motivate her to try nearly anything.
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For Hinds as DCI Langton doesn't have any patience with people who don't do what their supposed to do. While we find out there are instances when his bark in worse than his bite, it still doesn't pay to have him pissed off at you. However Hinds does a magnificent job of showing what's behind the bark; the human who is sickened by the depravity he sees in his work and his need to bring those responsible to justice. Travis finds that out to her chagrin that pissing him off is still not a great idea when she has a brief fling with the reporter who had received the messages from the killer in "The Red Dahlia". While she's asleep he gets up to get a drink and comes across her notes on the case and proceeds to read and copy them. The first she finds out about it is when Langton shows up at her door the next day brandishing the morning's newspaper containing a lead article filled with information the police hadn't released to the press. She only narrowly avoids being suspended from the investigation because she's able to convince a potential witness to talk over the phone when nobody else is able to get her to open up.

It's interesting to watch how the dynamic between the two characters changes over the course of the two cases. At first Langton treats her in as close to a fatherly manner as would be possible for him. However, gradually you can see that changing as he brings her more and more into his inner circle of trusted officers. Not only does he start recognizing her value as an officer, but he starts seeing her as something other than the daughter of a late colleague. The more Travis starts to get know Langton, and begins to realize what fuels his impatience, the more she begins to appreciate him as both an officer she can learn from and as a human being. It will be very interesting to see how this relationship is developed in future episodes of the series.(Of which one has already been televised in England and another is being filmed so hopefully we will be seeing them on DVD within a year or so)

Special features on the disc include an interview with Lynda La Plante who both wrote the books the show was based on and the screenplays for the show. As she's also the person who created Prime Suspect, the TV show that first brought Helen Mirren to wide public attention, she is able to offer insights into the making of the show that only a person with a lot of experience in the world of television can proffer. There's also an interesting, if rather morbid, bit about how they made the dummies for the corpses in "Red Dahlia". Finally there are interviews with both the cast regulars and some of the special guests who appear in the series, which provide some interesting tidbits of information about the process of making the show.

Above Suspicion: Series 1 is not your typical police procedural. First of all the crimes they deal with are particularly gruesome. (If you have a sensitive stomach or are at all squeamish do not do what I did and make the mistake of watching either episode while eating - maggots don't improve your appetite.) However there is nothing gratuitous about anything they show. It's necessary for us to see what DC Travis experiences in order for us to fully appreciate how she's feeling during the investigation and to understand what it is that drives Langton so hard. It's dark, gritty and not very pleasant at times, but it's also probably one of the best acted and produced/directed police procedurals I've ever seen. You may have to avert your eyes at times, but you won't want to miss watching this and any future episodes that come to disc.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion - Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2012

DVD Review: Injustice


Have you ever wondered how defence attorneys can defend people who are obviously guilty of heinous crimes like murder or rape? Especially when, in spite of all the evidence, they somehow manage to get them acquitted? Some lawyers will tell you that everyone deserves a defence as that's an integral part of the judicial system - people are after all presumed innocent until proven guilty. In fact the prosecution has a far harder job than the defence attorney as he has to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that a person is guilty. If a jury has any doubts about a defendant's guilt they have to find in his or her favour. Yet doubt about guilt is not the same as proving innocence, sometimes it just means the case against a person wasn't conclusive enough for the prosecution to persuade the jury the accused was guilty - even if they were.

So, it's not necessary for defence attorneys to believe their clients are innocent, it's just necessary for them to believe they can convince a jury there isn't enough evidence to find them guilty. However, that's not always the case. In the five part mini-series Injustice, being released on DVD Tuesday August 28 2012 by Acorn Media, we meet barrister William Travers (James Purefoy) who has always believed in his clients' innocence. (In British law there are two different types of lawyer; a solicitor represents a person in all matters outside of court while barristers are hired specifically to represent them in court) Even his opponents in the crown prosecutor's office (British equivalent of district attorney but not a political office or appointment) admit he always believed his clients were innocent.
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All that changed at some time before the series starts. Travers had defended an animal rights activist accused of setting a car bomb which blew up the small child of the scientist it was intended to kill. While the circumstantial evidence was substantial, he was able to get the accused acquitted by giving credence to the defendant's claim the police had coerced the confession he initially gave them. Closed circuit television tapes showed two officers entering his cell but unlike all the other times they had visited there were no audio or video tapes recording what happened while they were in there. When that was combined with the fact there was no conclusive evidence proving he had committed the crime the accused was set free. However, for some reason Travers suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after the trial, left London and his successful practice, and moved with his family to the small town of Ipswich. While he continued on as a barrister, he refuses to handle murder trials ever again.

So his wife Jane (Dervia Kirwan) is surprised and worried when he agrees to defend a friend of theirs from university who has been accused of murdering his much younger secretary whom he had been having an affair with. She had given up a successful career with a publishing house in London in order to help him start over again, and is slightly put out that he's all of a sudden agreeing to go back and work in London again. However, she's mainly worried whether or not he'll be able to handle the pressure of working on such a high profile case again, figuring that was what caused his breakdown after the bombing case.

While we find out what's really troubling Travers through a series of flashbacks (there's no way I'm telling you anything about them) and that he's nowhere near as well as he claims he is, on the surface he seems to be the consummate professional. The one thing he does insist on when he agrees to take his old friend's case is if at any time he receives the impression his client is guilty he will quit immediately. It's while he's preparing to go to London to start work the police discover the body of the man he defended in the bombing case. He had been shot in the head at point blank range and, as the cop heading up the investigation, Detective Inspector (DI) Mark Wenborn (Charlie Creed-Miles) says, it looks like he'd been executed.

While DI Creed-Miles hunts for clues as to who might have killed his victim, Travers is investigating who else could have possibly wanted to kill his friend's secretary. She had been murdered in the hotel room the two of them had been sharing. He had gone out to get her something from a restaurant around the corner and claims to have found her dead when he returned. Closed circuit cameras confirm he had left the hotel and show him going into and out of the restaurant at around the time he claims to have been out of the room. Aside from the secretary being murdered he also claims his laptop computer was stolen from the room, and it contained information about the business dealings of the oil company he worked for. Could there have been something on the computer important enough for somebody to kill the secretary? That's what Travers wants to find out. If he can convince the jury somebody else had a motive for killing the young women, his friend will look less like a suspect.
James Purefoy and Dervla Kirwan in Injustice.jpg
The series is basically split between Travers's and DI Wenborn's investigations. It is an incredible study in contrasts. For while Travers is compassionate, intellectual and sophisticated, Wenborn is his exact opposite. He's not above threatening or blackmailing individuals to get the information he needs and is generally a nasty piece of work. As his superior says to a junior officer whose been partnered with him, don't take it personally, the guy hates everybody. Even their home lives are completely opposite. Travers is a dotting father and loving husband who's happiest in the bosom of his family. Wenborn on the other hand is emotionally abusive to his wife to the extent she's started shop lifting and the only time he pays attention to his infant daughter is to tell his wife to make her shut up. All in all we know which of them we prefer.

So when Wenborn starts to find circumstantial evidence tying Travers to the murder of his former client you don't want him to succeed in building a case against him. For even if Travers is guilty, the idea of this little creep taking down such a nice guy feels wrong. Especially as the man who was murdered could still have been guilty of killing a little boy. For while he was found innocent by the jury, there was still plenty of evidence that pointed to his guilt. Yet, should that matter if Travers is guilty? Where's the justice in somebody taking the law into their own hands?

What's amazing about this series is how it manages to raise these questions about the nature of justice while telling the story of the two investigations at the same time. It's like watching a top notch detective story and a debate on morality at the same time. Even better is how the show's creator's have managed to handle this without ever throwing the subject up in your face. Not once do any of the characters talk about it, yet it's an ever present subtext which comes out through the natural development of the story and the character's behaviour.

Both Purefoy as Travers and Creed-Miles as Wenborn, do exemplary jobs in their respective roles. While it's easy to hate the police officer for the creep he is, we also come to have a little bit of grudging respect for him as he doesn't care who he pisses off, he just wants to solve the crime. While he may have very few redeeming qualities as a human being, as his boss says, he gets results and usually catches the crooks with strong enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Travers on the other hand is someone we like and admire. Yet Purefoy's performance is such that we know there is something wrong with him. He seems like he's holding himself just a little too tight, or saying he's fine as if he's trying to convince himself as well as the person asking him. When we start to see what he's hiding, those moments he lets his guard down, it still doesn't make him any less likeable, and in some ways even increases our sympathy towards him.

While I know most of us have come to expect special features with DVDs these days, don't let the lack of any save for a photo gallery from the show in this set put you off. Injustice is not the type of mini series you're used to seeing as it takes you into very grey moral territory and leaves you stranded there to find your own way out. The acting, script and overall production is everything you've come to expect form this type of show from British television. However, be warned, once you start watching you will not want to stop, so start early in the evening if you don't want a late night. However, its worth the loss of sleep to watch something of this calibre.

(First published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Injustice)

August 17, 2012

DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6


There are some actors whom you grow so accustomed to seeing in a particular role it becomes hard to visualize them playing anything else. So when you eventually see them in another part you end up spending a lot of time trying to see if they've managed to create a different character for this new situation. In far too many cases these days film and TV actors simply play variations of themselves when on screen and don't bother with such mundanities as creating a character. Sure they may be able to cry or be angry on demand, but they're doing it as themselves not as the person who they're supposedly portraying. So when I sat down to watch the DVD of Judge John Deed: Season 6 from BBC America, released August 14 2012, I have to admit I was initially more concerned with how much of Inspector George Gently I'd see in Martin Shaw's performance as Deed then the plot of the show.

While Shaw had impressed me with his performances in George Gently, I hadn't seen him in anything else and had no idea what he was capable of. Thankfully it didn't take more then about fifteen minutes of the first episode for me to have completely forgotten he'd ever been the other character. Everything from his vocal mannerisms to the way he held himself as Deed was different from what he had done in the other role. What's even more amazing is how subtle all the differences were. It wasn't as if he assumed an accent, limp or other immediately obvious trait, it was just he did a whole bunch of little things differently which when combined added up to being a different character.
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It's a good thing too, for even more then in George Gently, this series is built around his character. John Deed is a high court judge in England. He is also something of a maverick who has no problems with rocking the boat and ruffling the feathers of his fellow judges. In order to rise to the position of a high court judge in England, or anywhere else for that matter, one has to be a pretty entrenched member of the legal establishment. Usually this means you haven't made any waves in your previous career as a lawyer. Judges are supposed to be impartial arbitrators who base their decisions upon the letter of the law. However, as we all know, there are plenty of grey areas in the law which allow judges a great deal of latitude when handing down their judgements. Thus it's almost impossible for a judge's personal opinions not to play a role in their findings. Why else would the appointment of judges be such a contentious issue in most countries?

As we discover in the two episodes in Judge John Deed: Season 6, "War Crimes" and "Evidence of Harm", Deed's reputation for rocking the boat are well known and something of a concern to his political masters. In fact they do their best to try and keep him out of harms way by designating him for assignments like being Britain's representative at an International Tribunal in the Hague. In "War Crimes" he's one of three judges hearing a case against a British soldier being charged as a war criminal for the killing of Iraqi citizens while on duty. Complicating matters for Deed is the fact his sort of ex-partner Jo Mills (Jenny Seagrove) is the soldier's defence attorney.

For some added spice, we find out Deed has also been targeted for assassination by a radical Islamic organization. Prior to taking the case in the Hague he was one of three judges hearing the case of a white supremacist charged with hate crimes against Muslims who ended up being acquitted. Ironically Deed had thought the man guilty, but he was outvoted by the other two judges. As if these factors weren't enough, Deed also has to deal with the fact his government is doing everything it can to coerce the British soldier to plead guilty. Of course the more pressure exerted on him to play ball, the more Deed is determined the soldier be given a fair trial. It almost seems the more somebody attempts to steer him in a particular direction, the harder Deed will attempt to go the other way.

This is reinforced in the season's second episode, "Bodily Harm". This time Mills asks him to look into the reasons why a client of hers was all of a sudden denied legal aid in a case he was pursuing against a pharmaceutical company. He, and other soldiers in the British army, were given a vaccine for protection against biochemical weapons. Unfortunately he and quite a few others became seriously ill after receiving the vaccine. When it turns out the judge who ruled on the decision to withdraw the legal aid has connections to the company in question, Deed agrees to attempt to head a review of his findings. Attempt being the key word because he finds himself running into serious opposition from his judicial colleagues, the government and the company in question.
Martin Shaw as Judge John Deed.jpg
It's the latter he needs to worry about the most. For he soon discovers of the two scientists who first raised the question about a connection between illness and the vaccine one has died under mysterious circumstances and the other is too terrified to talk. When his daughter who is doing research for him is robbed, and all that's stolen is her laptop containing her notes, his suspicions increase. What he doesn't know is both he and Mills are under full scale surveillance and every word they say to each other about the case, and more personal exchanges, are being recorded by the same people who robbed his daughter. They've even gone as far as placing a bug on his dog's collar. As in the previous episode, this is a man who keeps a boxers heavy bag in his office after all, we find out the more people try to make him back off, the more he comes out swinging. He takes his role as an arbitrator of justice very seriously. Any attempt to subvert its fair and equal dissemination only increases his determination to see it carried out properly.

While this show is up to the usual high standards one has come to expect from British television when it comes to this type of show in terms of script and overall quality, the show hinges upon its central character. Thankfully Shaw is up to the challenge of not only carrying a series but of making a recurring character with the potential for growing stale always interesting. In this, the series' concluding episodes, we see the many facets of the man. His personal life is complicated due to the fact he has a roving eye, and while his dedication to the ideal of justice is admirable, he also tends to be arrogant and stubborn. While his self assurance might prove initially attractive to some women, the ego accompanying it isn't quite as appealing.

What's amazing about Shaw's performance in the role of Deed is he's able to communicate this so easily to the viewers. While it would have been easy to create a character who is simply a white knight charging off to rescue the world, Shaw manages to show how positive character traits can, under certain circumstances or when taken to the extreme, become negatives. While we admire the character of Judge Deed, we also see him for the flawed individual he is, which not only makes him more human, but infinitely more believable. Judge John Deed: Season Six is a good television series made great by the tour de force performance from its lead actor. Watch it and be amazed at what can be done by an actor at the top of his game.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6 on Blogcritics.)

August 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection


As a writer the origin of words has always fascinated me. In particular I enjoy finding out how words which today appear seemingly unrelated, not only have the same origins, but have similar meanings as well. It was while watching the newly released DVD set of the 2002/2003 remake of The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media that I began to wonder about a possible connection between the words property, proper and propriety. Set in the years spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century through to the mid 1920s among the British upper middle class, to whom property was king and the appearance of propriety and doing what was proper more important than anything else, the series made a connection seem likely. It turns out the three words share the same Latin root, proprietas, meaning one's own, or particular.

In many ways the entire series is built around characters' conflicting attitudes to the meanings implied by those words. While most people might have lived in a sort of grey area which allowed them some room to manoeuvre, there were those who either took them as gospel or rejected them completely. The Forsyte Saga is all about the repercussions of what happens when people from either end of the spectrum are brought into close contact and the damage it does to all parties involved. The Forsyte family are everything one would expect from the upper middle class during the reign of Queen Victoria. While they may not be titled they are wealthy in both cash and property. They are also firm believers in class and people acting in accordance with their station and standing. Any deviation from the norm is dismissed with the ultimate rejection of the era - "It's just not done".

When Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves) makes the mistake of falling in love with his child's governess and leaving his wife for her not only is he is cut off and disowned by the entire family, everyone from his father to his cousins act like he never even existed. As the eldest male child in the family he was to have taken over the family's affairs and inherited the bulk of the money when his uncle died. However, with his banishment role of heir passes to his cousin Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis). While Soames is everything the family could wish for, a successful solicitor who would never behave in a manner that would bring discredit to the family, he's not married. It's no good him being the heir if there isn't anyone to follow in his footsteps.
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Thankfully Soames soon meets the woman he wants to be his bride, Irene Forsyte (Gina McKee), and begins to relentlessly pursue her. Irene is almost everything Soames isn't and has no real interest in him. However her father has recently died and left her and her step-mother with very little money. When her stepmother threatens to throw her out she's left with no option but to marry Soames or to face a life of desperate poverty. Even then, before she accepts his proposal she elicits the promise from him that if she's ever unhappy he will release her from the marriage. He of course readily agrees to this saying he will make her happy. Unfortunately his proposal and her response foreshadow trouble in the future. He asks her, "Will you be mine?" and she replies "I will marry you".

Under British law at the time a wife was considered the husband's property much like a house or any other possession. While Soames does love Irene, he also treats her like a possession instead of a human being. While she might be surrounded by wealth and all the trappings that accompany it, her marriage rapidly turns into a gilded cage. When she approaches Soames to honour the promise he made her before their marriage, he refuses, claiming that he has done everything in his power to make her happy and that divorce is just not done. So it comes as little surprise that she eventually turns to another man, Phillip Bosinney (Ioa Gruffudd) to make her happy. Unfortunately he is just happens to be the fiancee of Soames' niece, the daughter of the man who left his wife for the governess.

As you can see the groundwork is being laid for what could turn into a very convoluted , multigenerational, and typical soap opera. However, this series has a number of redeeming features you don't usually find in soap operas. While I've never read the John Galsworthy books the show was based upon so don't know how the well they've adapted them, I do know this series does a fine job of bringing the era in question to life. Aside from British television's usual talent for dressing a set and its characters accurately, their recreation of Victorian England goes much further than skin deep. It would have been easy to have made the character of Soames a one dimensional villain who we could blame everything on. Instead what the show's creators have done is show how he is merely a product of his times, and that according to his lights and the standards of society at the time, his behaviour was always legally proper.

Right from the start of the series we see what happens to somebody who deviates from the norm in this repressive and judgemental society. There's no way a person in Soame's position could have a chance of knowing how to communicate with another person on an emotional level. At one point his mother says to him, "I'm sorry I didn't teach you how to love", but that's the closest anyone comes to admitting there might be something amiss in their world. Even when the world is changing around them, after WWl and into the 1920s, the Forsytes are still clinging to their outdated code. We see it in Soames' daughter by his second wife in the behaviour she exhibits when she starts to pursue the man she sets her sites on.
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However, what really sets this series apart from your everyday soap opera, is the quality of the acting. In the role of Soames, Lewis, does an extraordinary job. This is a guy who it would be easy to hate, but somehow the actor manages to allow us to see beneath the surface, and in spite of his reprehensible behaviour, we actually end up feeling sympathy for him. McKee, as Irene, is equally brilliant. She's one of these actors who appear strangely luminescent, so the screen literally lights up whenever she's in the shot. Her character could have been played as a wounded bird victim type, but then we would have wondered what the hell anybody saw in her. As McKee plays her Irene is a beautiful, spirited and independent woman. Bright and vivacious she would have shone like a lighthouse in a storm in contrast to the repressed society around her.

Even though Rupert Graves' character is disowned near the beginning of the show, he ends up being central to the plot of the series. As the only Forsyte willing to ignore propriety in favour of following his heart, we already know Jolyon is different from the rest of them. Throughout the series Graves does a wonderful job showing us the type of strength of character it takes to willing accept being an outcast and all that implies . While his father eventually comes around and accepts him again, and in fact ends up thinking he was right not to care what others thought of him, any chance there might have been for reconciliation with the rest of the family is permanently destroyed when he and Irene marry. It seems almost inevitable that Soames' daughter, Fleur Forsyte, (Emma Griffiths Malin) and their son, Jon Forsyte, (Lee Williams) fall in love.

Yet, even here the series manages to avoid being too cliched and does its best to steer away from the whole "star crossed lovers" theme. In fact, they use it to open the way to make Soames more human instead of having him just play the role of tyrannical father opposed to his daughter's wishes. Even better is the fact the two young actors give very believable performances as the respective children of their parents. For it's Fleur who actively pursues the relationship and manipulates events so she can get what she wants. Neither character is your typical ingenue and the series is far better for it.

The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection contains both the first and second parts of the series on six DVDs. The special features included with the set includes a biography of author Galsworthy, it's interesting to note the similarities between his life and the Forsytes, and a short documentary on the making of the series. The short film includes interviews with both McKee and Lewis, who talk intelligently and extensively about their respective characters and the society they lived in, and the show's creators, who outline what they were attempting to achieve and create with the series.

As is the case with other British produced dramas of this type, The Forsyte Saga not only does an immaculate job of recreating the time period the action takes place in physically but in all other ways as well. In particular we are left in no doubt as to the importance property, propriety and proper play in the lives of the Victorian upper middle class. While script, direction and design play a role in all of this, it's the actors which bring it to life. From the leads to those who have minor roles as servants every single actor is not only believable in their role, but brings a depth to their characterization that is a joy to watch. A word of warning - once you start watching its very hard to tear yourself away. Unless you're prepared to have a very late night, start watching early in the day and unplug the phone. You're not going to want to be interrupted by anything.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.

August 15, 2012

DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo

The world of animated cartoons has changed drastically since the days of Walt Disney and his first "live" action film, Steamboat Willie, featuring the character who would become Mickey Mouse. Instead of having to painstakingly draw each frame in a movie, animators have computers which not only "sculpt" images, but also bring them to life. The worlds which their creations move through are no longer hand painted static backdrops, but are three dimensional backgrounds co-ordinated to move in conjunction with the action taking place in front of them. While the ability to seamlessly integrate the animated character's activities with the world surrounding them has resulted in cartoons almost as realistic as live action movies, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes it still can't replace human artistry.

While there wasn't anything artistic about the assembly line conditions under which many commercial cartoons were created in the past either, there's something infinitely more impressive watching a feature drawn by hand than one done on a computer. To today's sophisticated audience used to CGI special effects and 3D rendering it might at first appear primitive and crude. However there is a certain magic to these efforts that will eventually win them over, especially if a film is as obvious a labour of love as Mia and the Migoo. The English language version of the film from French director Jaques-Remy Girerd's Folimage animation studio was released on DVD on August 7 2012 and is being distributed by GKIDS Films throughout North America.
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With every cell hand painted the film took nearly six years to complete from conceptualization to final product. However, when you see the results of this painstaking attention to detail on your television screen, you'll appreciate the care and effort that went into its creation. From the opening frames this movie is a visual feast. The use of colour in the beautifully painted backdrops catches your eye right away. In an interview with Girerd included in the DVD's special features he talks about how his studio works in the tradition of Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and you can see their influence in every frame. Whether a busy street, the interior of a house, a lush jungle or a stark mountain top, each background is a celebration of the shades and hues of colour that go into creating everything around us.

Mia and the Migoo isn't just beautiful to look at it, its an entertaining and thoughtful story. I hesitate in using the word, as people have the impression a movie can't say anything of substance without being preachy, but it also contains some nice messages about respect: self-respect, respect for others, and respect for the world around you. While some might bridle at the rather subversive idea that the environment and caring for those around you is more important than turning a profit, considering how so much popular entertainment aimed at children these days celebrates consumerism it makes for a refreshing change. The only problem is the message is so subtle it will probably be lost on most of its audience. While Girerd and company are to be commended for creating something which doesn't assume its audience is stupid, when people are used to being bludgeoned over the head they might not respond to a gentle tap on the shoulder.

The story is a combination of a classic road trip and adventure as young Mia leaves her village to look for her father, Pedro. He has taken a job far from home on a construction site building a resort in a remote wilderness area. Strange accidents have been happening on the site, cranes have fallen over and there have been land slides. When Pedro hears an odd noise in one of the tunnels they are building on the site he goes to investigate and is trapped by a cave in. Hundreds of miles away Mia wakes up from a dream of her father in trouble. With her mother already dead, she's not prepared to lose her father and after visiting her mother's grave heads out to find him.

Aldrin lives in a world so completely different from Mia it might as well be on another planet. His mother and father are divorced and his father, Jekhide, the businessman behind the development project Pedro was working at, is a workaholic who ignores him. His mother is a scientist studying the effects of global warming on the Antarctic ice-cap, so in some ways Aldrin spends the film in much the same way as Mia, looking for his father. For even though he ends up travelling with Jekhide to the construction site to investigate the mysterious accidents, they might as well be hundreds of miles apart even when they're in the same room. In so many ways Aldrin is the parent in their relationship as he's always having to take his father to task for his self-centred and selfish behaviour. In the end it's Jekhide's acting like a spoilt child which brings about the movie's crises.
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As the movie progresses each child continues on their journey in search of their father. Mia's search is the more adventurous as she must somehow cross great distances on her own. On the way she receives help from some unexpected sources, but it's her own self reliance and bravery that serve her best. One of the secrets to this movies success is the fact that it's through the example of its characters behaviour it gets its message across. While Jekhide's behaviour is slightly over the top at times, it is a cartoon so you can forgive the film makers any excesses that might seem unrealistic. The character's believability is aided by the fact the cast doing the English language dubbing are universally excellent. Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Modine (who also produced) Wallace Shawn and James Woods are given top billing, but all involved manage to make cartoon characters more believable then usual.

Speaking of cartoon characters slightly over the top, the Migoo (collectively given voice by Shawn) of the title are some of the best invented characters you'll find in this type of film. Bumbling, affectionate and slightly silly, they've also grown dangerously complacent in their role as nature spirits tasked with protecting the vital tree of life. The tree grows in the centre of the lake near where the new resort is being built. According to what the Migoo tell Mia, if anything happens to the tree, they will suffer and so will the world.

You can probably see where the plot is heading. Confrontation between Jekhide and the Migoo, as he believes they're responsible for sabotaging his construction site, an attack on the tree followed by its saving and a happy ending with everybody finding what they were looking for. However, as the saying goes, it's the journey that really matters, and in this case that's actually true. For while the idea of a little girl Mia's age travelling hundreds of mile on her own requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, the journey each character takes on the road to the happy ending is far more realistic than what one usually sees in cartoons.

The film makers make sure that Jekhide (and I don't think the combining of Jekyl and Hyde, the most famous split personality in literary history, in his last name is an accident) is shown as being pushed over the edge by circumstances and isn't really evil. His obsession with profit and success narrow his focus so much he loses sight of what was really important. When he thinks he has lost Aldrin he realizes his mistake and while it isn't easy, he does his best to make amends. So, even though his character has to undergo the biggest change, the progression he undergoes is actually quite believable. Naturally as the film is meant for a younger audience, the messages are fairly obvious. However, unlike far too many movies made for this age range it doesn't assume its audience are stupid just because they're young. There is never the feeling the film makers are either lecturing, talking down to or manipulating their audience.

Mia and the Migoo is not only exceptional for the quality of the artisanship that has gone into into its physical creation, but because of the thoughtful and creative minds behind the story it tells. First and foremost its a delightful piece of entertainment with enough humour and adventure to hold he attention of most young audiences. While it lacks the high tech bells and whistles people reared on video games are used to, it has one element those types of entertainment are seriously deficient in - heart. You might not be able to see it, but you certainly can feel it in every frame on the screen in front of you. It may take a while, but I think this movie could eventually win over even the most cynical audiences. A thing of beauty and a joy forever, Mia and the Migoo is a wonderful movie for the whole family.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo on Blogcritics.)

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

July 4, 2012

DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4


When filming any period piece television and film makers take great pains to make everything as authentic as possible. Whether it's ensuring the clothing people wear or the sets they act on are accurate representations of the period or they're speaking in dialects appropriate to the age, the attention to detail is remarkable. Yet for all the care taken film makers will still slip up in one crucial area by allowing characters to react in a matter reflecting modern attitudes and sensibilities. Perhaps I'm the only who finds it jarring to see anachronisms in behaviour, but when a character in a movie set in the 1950s expresses opinions more in line with the twenty-first century it can ruin the whole show for me.

In fact the closer a piece is to being contemporary the harder it is to ensure characters stay consistent with the tenor of their times. Especially difficult are those eras when a society is going through a period of radical change as it's tempting to allow characters to become caught up in events and ignore the reality of their situation. Like everywhere else the north of England in the second half of the 1960s was a society divided between those hell bent on preserving the comfortable world of their youth and those who weren't going to be satisfied with the world of their parents. While this type of atmosphere could provide complications for a police force, the law stays the law and no matter what's going on it has to be enforced. While that might sound somewhat inflexible, in the hands of Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) in George Gently: Series 4, released on DVD July 3 2012 by Acorn Media, it provides a moral compass which helps him steer a smooth course in turbulent times.

Teamed up once again with his young Sergeant, John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) the two ninety minute episodes of Series 4 bring the two officers face to face with the shifting moral ground of the times. In the first the death of a female secondary school student takes them into the fantasy world of pop music and romantic poems. In episode two the two officers have to deal with a case of local authorities wanting to not only maintain the status quo but turn the clock back in order to keep the peace. While each case is different, the two are forced to put their personal opinions and feelings aside and rely on the letter of the law in order to reach correct conclusions.
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As viewers of previous series are aware despite his youth and appreciation for some of the material changes occurring, flash cars and sharp suits, Bacchus is the more conservative of the two when it comes to social issues. However, this doesn't make Gently some sort of advocate for change. It's just that he's seen more of life than his junior, but instead of it turning him cynical and bitter it has made him more compassionate and understanding of others and their situations. Yet no matter how sympathetic he might be towards a person and their circumstances, he's firm in the belief that nobody is above the law. It was this belief which ran him afoul of his fellow officers when he served in London, he refused to turn a blind eye to police officers on the take, and continues to make him the bane of anyone who tries to obstruct or take the law into their own hands.

While the opinions and views of both Bacchus and Gently might seem a little dated or old fashioned to today's viewers, and the object of some derision among those they end up dealing with in their cases, they are consistent with people in their line of work and background for the time period. In the first episode their investigation takes them into the strange world of teenage girls on the verge of becoming women. Unlike earlier generations whose rebellion might have taken the form of illicit cigarettes, these girls are demanding independence and dreaming of being more than just dutiful wives and mothers. While this serves to muddy the waters of the circumstances surrounding the case of the girl who was murdered by introducing a number of potential suspects, including the host of a pop music show and one of the girl's teachers, it also shows the strength of the series' writing.

Some might look on this type of setting as an opportunity to make some sort of statement or comment on society. However, in this series they content themselves with depicting as accurately as possible what was happening during the time period and let the police get on with trying to solve the murder. While the plot does hinge on the over heated fantasy of a teenage girl, social conditions at the time have little or no bearing on who the guilty party is. Watching the two officers squirm,, especially Bacchus as they deal with a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality is both funny and consistent with what we've seen of the characters previously. It also makes perfect sense considering the time period. Sex was not something talked about easily by most people during this time, and discussing it in terms of young girls was just not done.
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In episode two we are given an even clearer picture of Gently's strict adherence to his own moral code of nobody being above the law. An informer Gently had used for many years both in London and in his new location turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. With the death occurring outside his jurisdiction he has to rely on another areas police force for information about the death. When he discovers an old colleague from his days in London is in charge he is initially hopeful, but he soon discovers discrepancies in the reports about the death that make him suspect something is being covered up. In spite of attempts to stonewall him, Gently eventually does end up solving the case.

However, while finding out how the victim died is of course the point of the episode, the circumstances surrounding the incident are such they offer a test to Gently's "nobody's above the law" credo. Not only does he pass the test once but twice in this episode. For aside from the coverup surrounding his informer's death there are other abuses of the system going on in the small community. Some might have seen the extenuating circumstances which are revealed as justification for not pressing charges against those involved with both impeding investigations into the murder and the other activities. Bacchus raises the question with his superior only to be told, in no uncertain terms, nobody is above the law, for any reason.

When working on a series set in recent history it would be difficult not to allow contemporary views and opinions to colour either a character's behaviour or their reactions to situations. One of the great strengths of the entire George Gently series is not only how well they manage to depict the way changes in society's attitudes and beliefs have a way of trickling into all aspects of life, but the various character's reactions to what's happening. Whether it's a teenage daughter refusing to conform to her parents' expectations as to what's proper behaviour or the larger issues of the day everything is presented in as realistic a fashion as possible. George Gently: Series 4, while living up to the standards set by the previous Series as a police procedural television show a notch above others of its kind, is further proof, if any were needed, of how well the show's creators have handled this task.

The two disc DVD set not only contains both episodes from Series 4, it also includes a behind the scenes documentary on the filming of the previous episodes. It has the usual shots of the cast members joking around on set and some amusing chatter from each lead about the other. However, they each make a point of talking about the time period the show is set in and how interesting it is to do an almost contemporary period piece. As interesting as it is for them to act in, George Gently: Series 4 is as fascinating to watch. Not only is the show intelligent and well acted its also an unsentimental look at a time which is too often coloured by somebody's personal opinion. For those wanting a detective show with more than just the usual bad guys and good guys, this will make a perfect fit.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4 on Blogcritics)

May 14, 2012

DVD Review: Monroe: Series 1


Television shows about doctors have been on the air for decades now. Probably next to catching criminals healing the sick has provided the basis for more shows than any other profession. Unlike police shows where there's the built element of danger our fascination with medical drams is based more on the mystery surrounding exactly what it is doctors, especially surgeons, do. Somehow or other these men and women cut people open and fiddle around with the internal workings of our bodies in order to fix things that have gone wrong. It's no wonder we look on them as part miracle workers and part magicians. They do things few of us have the capacity to understand let alone carry out.

All of which explains why we want to watch shows which not only show them carrying out their duties but depict them in their off hours. What kind of person becomes a doctor? How does their work effect their lives away from the job? How do they cope with the stress of performing life and death procedures or the times patients don't survive? We might look to medical shows for the answers to those questions. but is that really a valid source of information? Television exists to entertain us in the hopes of achieving high ratings so they can sell their advertising space. Out of necessity the scenarios they create for our viewing are going to emphasis the dramatic over reality. How riveting would it be to watch a surgeon performing twenty-five gall bladder removals and then go home to his nice family at the end of the day like any other professional? Therefore, since we're not going to be getting reality when we watch these shows, the best we can hope for is the characters are as believable as possible and their actions and reactions consistent with the character as presented.

Judging by the six episodes of Monroe: Series 1 to be seen on the DVD being released by Acorn Media on May 29 2012 the creators of the show understand this concept far better than most other medical shows I've seen. James Nesbitt plays Gabriel Monroe, a gifted neurosurgeon working in medium sized British hospital. Within each episode we usually watch him dealing with one major procedure, interact with fellow hospital staff - specifically cardiologist Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) and anesthesiologist Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley) and then with what time left over his wife, Anna, (Susan Lynch) and son.
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North American audiences will require a bit of time to get used to the differences between the way hospitals in England work and the way they do here. Surgeons like Monroe only see a patient after he has been examined by an admitting doctor and the surgery scheduled. In some ways they're not even considered "doctors" because they only do surgery - you'll notice that on most occasions Monroe is introduced to his prospective patient as Mr. Monroe, very rarely as doctor. It will seem slightly informal and odd, but once you acclimatize to the new environment (an environment which includes universal health care which explains why the patients come from all walks of life) the patterns of hospital life will take shape quickly enough viewers should have no trouble following the action.

As for the character of Monroe on the surface he seems confident and extraverted. Always ready with a joke or a sarcastic remark, the butt of most of his jokes in the highly reserved and seemingly dispassionate Jenny Bremner. As equally gifted a surgeon as Monroe she keeps her relationships with her patients strictly professional and never communicates anything to them other than information about the procedure she is about to perform. Monroe is just the opposite and does his best to reassure and comfort both his patients and their families. He isn't able to resist making jokes about Bremner, both to her face and to his best friend on the staff, Lawrence Shepherd, about her being an ice queen. It's hard to decide which is greater, his incredulity or his glee, when he discovers Shepherd and Bremner have started a relationship.

Yet, for all his apparent compassion, Monroe isn't able to find time for his family. In fact he's so out of touch with what's going on within his own home that Anna announcing she's leaving him now that their son has left for university catches him completely by surprise. Six years prior something happened which drove a permanent wedge between the two of them. He was able to lose himself in his work and caring for others, but he left his family alone, cut off from the emotional support they needed. For the first few episodes of the series he does his best to avoid dealing with these issues, but then something happens in the last episode which forces him to come to terms with it.
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What I appreciated most about this series was that it managed to avoid the melodrama so many of these hospital dramas seem to rely on in dealing with either the personal lives of the staff or the surgical procedures they perform. Never having been awake in an operating room, I've no idea whether the depiction of what goes on is accurate or not, but everyone's behaviour in surgery is consistent with what we know of their characters. Monroe is driven to try and rescue all his patients, and when a colleague has to undergo surgery to prevent an aneurism he skirts close to the edge of giving her permanent brain damage in order to save her. Yet, even this episode doesn't make a meal of the topic and turn it into something over the top. There's no dramatic recovery or sudden reversals - healing from brain surgery is a long slow process and there's never any guarantees of a positive outcome.

Over the course of this first series each of the main characters and the various secondary characters are gradually filled out. The writers, and the actors, understand there's no way for us to get to know somebody really well in only an hour, so they take the entire six episodes to let us get to know everybody. Even better is the fact that they don't follow the obvious patterns with characters. Bremner doesn't turn out to be hiding a heart as soft as a marshmallow beneath her hard exterior - she might not be the ice queen she pretends to be, but that doesn't mean she can deal with people's overt displays of emotions or has a sudden outpouring of compassion.

As Monroe James Nesbitt does his usual great job. The impish humour of his character is not just something he hides his troubles behind - its a genuine part of who he is. Yet he's more than a one dimensional character and the other aspects come out gradually over the course of the season. As we see in his relationship with his family he can be self absorbed to the point of ignoring everybody and everything save for how things affect him personally. For all his compassion he is surprisingly ignorant of the impact his actions or words can have on those around him. It's this type of carelessness that almost costs him his friendship with Shepherd, ends his marriage and almost alienates his son. As the series ends it appears that's he's beginning to understand this, and it will be interesting to see how his character is developed in any future episodes.

Maybe because Monroe is set in the relatively foreign environment of a British hospital it seems different from most of the hospital dramas that I've seen produced for television. However, the care taken with character development and the ways in which the show handles the surgical procedures its characters deal with gives it an air of realism that I've usually found lacking in other shows of this type. In the past I've never been interested enough in any hospital show to want to watch it on a regular basis, let alone watch six episodes in almost one sitting. This show was so well done I was disappointed there weren't more than six episodes on the two discs and found myself wanting to watch more. I don't know if its an accurate representation of life in a British hospital, but it sure is good television.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Monroe: Series 1 on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011


The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

April 27, 2012

DVD Review: Terry Pratchett's Going Postal


Adapting a book to the screen, be it television or film, is always a risky business. It becomes especially tricky when dealing with a work that has a huge popular following. Fans of the book will be on the lookout for anything they see as a deviation from a beloved text and take any transgressions personally. In some ways the writer of a work is probably a lot less demanding than his or her fans. To a certain extent a writer surrenders their work once they agree to its publication and don't have the same sense of proprietorship towards it as those who become its devotees. Having to deal with that type of scrutiny on top of the inherent difficulties of bringing a book to the screen it's something of a wonder some movies are ever made.

However, recent years have seen the turning of so many popular books into film it makes you wonder whether directors and producers are gluttons for punishment or are they willing to risk that much on the chance of cashing in on a book's popularity? And it is a risk, for every successful Harry Potter franchise there's disasters like The Golden Compass and Ergaon. The latter saw the first book in each series turned into a film and then nothing - not even word of a sequel. Still if it works, the payoff is obviously worth it, and the movies themselves can end up being wonderful compliments to the books. So when I heard that the two part television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal was being released on DVD by Acorn Media, I couldn't resist checking it out.

Now I'm not an initiate of Pratchett's Discworld, the who know's how many books the author has written set in a fantastical world populated by creatures from all corners of the magical universe. But I have read a couple of his books and liked his humour and sense of the absurd. You only have to read one or two in the series to appreciate the amazing amount of detail that's gone into creating the reality the books are set in. If you can picture a Victorian era with a strange mixture of magic and technology populated by vampires, werewolves, mortals, dwarfs and all the others you'd associate with tales of imagination and fantasy, then you can begin to imagine the difficulties a filmmaker faces bringing it to life.
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Of course setting the stage is only half the battle. Bringing the characters who populate the world to life and telling their stories is the real challenge. On the surface Pratchett's books are humorous escapades populated by flamboyant characters. However there is far more to them than meets the eye and to properly capture the nuances and subtleties on screen would take a great deal of care and effort. I was thrilled to see that the people behind this production of Going Postal had done just that and didn't settle for simply playing it for laughs.

The story is relatively straight forward. Convicted con-man Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle) is given a last minute reprieve from hanging by Lord Vetinari (Charles Dance) on the condition that he takes on the task of rebuilding the moribund post office. The new system of communications, a combination of telegraph and semaphore called Clacks, is not performing as well as it should and is making a hash of the Lord's attempts to play a long distance game of something like chess. Given the option of death or Postmaster, Moist takes Postmaster, unaware the reason the post office isn't doing so well is the previous five people who have held the position have met untimely ends. It turns out the man who runs the Clacks operation, Reacher Gilt (David Suchet) doesn't like competition and has employed the services of a Banshee assassin to shorten the odds in his favour. Initially the job's only redeeming feature for Moist is the head of the local golem union, Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy, who is responsible for the well being of the parole officer assigned to ensure Moist doesn't do a runner.

At first Moist tries his best to see how he can turn this posting to his advantage somehow. Is there some angle he can work to allow him to turn this into just another score? In order to do that he will have to make sure the post office becomes a success, which of course puts his life at risk. While threat of death from Reacher Gilt might seem enough of a problem to deal with, there's also the disturbing fact the post office itself is haunted. Not by ghosts of people, but by the words of thousands and thousands of undelivered letters. They seep into his sub conscience and when he's asleep he has dreams which show him the consequences of his crimes.

Night after night he has nightmares of the people's lives who were ruined by his scams and sees what happened to them. One of those people was Adora's father who had invented the Clacks but had them sold out from under him when banks were forced to call in all their loans because of forged bonds created by Moist. Even before he witnesses Adora's family's misfortunes he was starting to feel remorse for what he had done. Of course when she finds out he was responsible he's even more distraught. However, instead of running away he is determined to prove to her he has changed by making the post office viable and bringing down Reacher Gilt who had squeezed her father out of the Clacks.
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While the people behind the production have done a wonderful job of creating the world in which the story takes place and created a script, with the aid of Terry Pratchett, that allows the story to unfold without feeling rushed or forced, its the acting that really carries the show. You'll never find more unlikely romantic leads as the characters of Moist and Adora, but Richard Coyle and Claire Foy do brilliant jobs of bringing them to life. Foy's characterization is especially well done as she captures both the tough shell Adora has put up to protect herself from being hurt after her family is ruined and the vulnerability beneath it. Needless to say she is livid when she finds out Moist was indirectly responsible, but even then she manages to convey she wants to believe he's sincere in his efforts to save the post office.

Richard Coyle matches her performance as his transformation from the callous con man who initially tries to see how he can turn the post office gig to his advantage to the person who genuinely wants to make it work is very believable. While he might have been initially motivated by a desire to impress Adora and win her heart, we watch as he becomes genuinely attached to the job and the people he works with. Of course there's the added bonus that by making the post office viable again Reacher Gilt will suffer. David Suchet does a beautiful job of making Reacher Gilt the type of character you love to hate. He manages to take his characterization right to the edge of overacting, but never crosses the line. As a result he is delightfully creepy - his smile alone is a thing of absolute beauty/evil guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

The wonderful thing about Going Postal is you don't have to be an aficionado of Terry Pratchett's work to enjoy this adaptation. While the story takes place in the universe of Discworld the author has created, you don't need to have read anything else by him to understand what's going on. Part of that is due to the fact that Pratchett wrote these stories with that in mind, but it's also because the people behind the filming have made sure not to assume their audience know anything about the world it takes place in. As a result even if you've not read any of Pratchett's books you should have no problem understanding what's going on and enjoying this DVD. The acting is superb, its beautifully filmed and its a great story - you really can't ask for anything more from television.

(Article first published as DVD Review; Terry Pratchett's Going Postal on Blogcritics.)

April 21, 2012

DVD Review: In Their Own Words


The invention of first radio and then television should have witnessed the birth of an age celebrating the sharing of ideas. The ability to communicate to a large number of people over great distances was the ideal opportunity to bring the formerly exclusive worlds of art, philosophy and science out of the ivory towers of learning and the salons of the wealthy into everybody's living room. Unfortunately that wasn't to be the case. Instead of presenting a wide range of ideas they've been used mainly as vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda or marketing goods. In fact, if anything, radio and television has resulted in fewer people having access to the arts or being exposed to diverse opinions and ideas as their content bears a striking resemblance to a modern version of the Roman "Bread and Circuses" designed to pacify the mobs and keep them from reflecting on the ills of society.

While nobody seems to question the argument the media are only giving the public what they want, what kind of choice are they offered? Oh sure a few underfunded public television stations in North America offer alternatives to the standard fare, but they spend most of their energies on trying to stave off budget cuts by those whose best interests is served in keeping the public placated and uninformed. What's even more frustrating are those few examples over the years of the media fulfilling its potential with programming exposing listeners/viewers to some of the world's most creative and innovative thinkers. For those who don't believe that television or radio shows consisting of people talking can be as captivating as any situation comedy, soap opera, day time talk show or cop thriller should take the opportunity offered by the Athena imprint of Acorn Media release of the two disc DVD set In Their Own Words on March 13 2012.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have done more to bring the words and ideas of some of the great English language writers and thinkers to the world than other television stations. In Their Own Words is a compilation of highlights of this type of programming from the twentieth century. From the early days or radio comes the only known existing recording of Virginia Wolfe talking about her work and the voice of Sigmund Freud discussing his then groundbreaking ideas on psychotherapy.
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With disc one devoted to English language, predominately British, authors and disc two to great thinkers of the modern world, viewers are given the chance to re-familiarize themselves with the famous who are responsible for not only the development of the written word as we know it today, but the philosophies and policies that have come to form the basis of our society. Economists, social critics and scientists broach their ideas on the welfare state, feminism, free markets, genetics, quantum physics and medicine. We watch and listen to the steady evolution of the novel from the days of the world's recovery from WWI through the angry young men of post WWII and as the joint influences of technology and immigration from the furthest reaches of Britain's former Empire came to bear upon its format and content.

Presented in the format of a documentary about its subject the set is more than a compilation of old recordings and footage of the writers and thinkers in question. What's almost as fascinating as hearing from the various parties involved is seeing the twentieth century being treated like an historical era. Having known people who had lived during every decade in the century I had never really stood back and observed it. Watching this set I was able to see how patterns that have occurred history were repeated during my own lifetime.

You also gain a real appreciation for how the pace of change sped up as the century progressed. On both discs the first two or three eras covered are defined by events. So they start with WWI - the years just prior, during and the years after and then continue with WWII and its immediate aftermath including the 1950s. However from then on change comes fast and furious. While the 1960s are one segment onto their own, after that major shifts in thought and policy seem to be almost yearly occurrences. Is it any wonder there was such an explosion of wildly different world views during this time? You have the rise of Thatcherism in Britain but at the same time there is a new wave of civil rights protests by both women and homosexuals.

It's against this backdrop we witness the changes that occur among both writers and thinkers. In the early part of the century both were still the preserve of the upper classes. Even those considered radical like the Bloomsbury group that produced Virginia Wolfe and others came from upper class backgrounds while the major thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, were all academics with little real world experience. It wasn't until WW II and after that we saw novelists from other backgrounds making their voices heard. While academics still made up the majority of people making contributions to our understanding of the human condition, economics and philosophy, as the century progressed their work can be seen to develop a far more practical application then before. For instead of presenting theories that spoke in generalities about ideas, they started to try and come up with explanations for things that went on in society.

The various programmes from which the interviews that form the basis of the set were culled for the most part allowed each subject to present their ideas and thoughts without challenging them. In some ways this was quite refreshing as it gives the viewer the chance to form their own opinions without somebody else's influence. However, in order to give us a better understanding of a subject's significance the film makers have also included interviews with both their contemporaries and current experts in the field. However they have done their best to keep editorializing to a minimum and restrict the commentary to explanation and comparison to what had come before. We still may not agree with what somebody has to say or believe, but we will gain a much better understanding of why they thought what they did and the process which allowed them to develop their thoughts.

Obviously In Their Own Words is limited as its subject matter is only British writers and thinkers. However, it still manages to give viewers a wonderful perspective on the evolution of thought and literature in the twentieth century. Of course being able to hear first hand from people like Kinglsy and Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Greene, John Maynard Keynes, Jane Goodall, Martha Meade and the countless others who are the subjects of this set is somewhat amazing. The producers have done a great job organizing what could have been an overwhelming amount of material into a fashion that allows us to fully appreciate each voice and mind. Even better is they've taken material that has been stuffed in archives in some cases for nearly a hundred years, recorded on equipment we'd consider hopelessly primitive, and managed to clean them up sufficiently for us to have no trouble understanding those talking. All in all this is a must own for anybody interested in the history of thought and literature in the twentieth century.

(Article first published as DVD Review: In Their Own Words on Blogcritics.)

April 14, 2012

DVD Review: Shades


Most of us still wonder what will become of us after we die. While various religions try to reassure us that as long as we lead a good life here on earth we will be rewarded by an eternity of paradise, only the truly devout accept those promises at face value. What about those belief systems which insist we are destined to come back in different forms until we have gained the amount of spiritual enlightenment required to ascend to another, higher, plane of existence? Than there's the whole matter of ghosts, where do they come from and what's prevented them from either being assigned to an afterlife or taking the next step along the path to Nirvana?

While its difficult to find any religion taking an official line on the whys and wherefores of ghosts, one of the most common theories used to explain them is they are the spirits of people who had unfinished business here on earth. Until such time as they are either able to make peace with themselves or set their affairs in order they are stuck in sort of a half life. Some theories have them wandering among us invisibly, only able to communicate with those they loved indirectly, while other's have them able to appear as spectral type figures who are able to talk to us in spite of being almost transparent.

Ghost are most commonly depicted in popular culture as malevolent creatures intent on causing the living harm in revenge for some crime perpetrated against them when they were alive. Whether in movies or books they are most often associated with old abandoned buildings, long lost treasure or ancient temples protected by some curse or another. However, once every so often, the cliche is ignored and ghosts aren't merely a means to scare an audience, but are characters every bit as substantial as their living counterparts. Such was the case with the British six part mini series, Shades televised back in 2001 and now being made available on DVD in North America by Acorn Media on February 14 2012.

Maeve (Dervla Kirwan) and Mark (Stephen Tompkinson) never knew each other when they were alive but that doesn't stop them from being thrown together when they both die unexpectedly. She was killed by a hit and run driver and he died while undergoing a routine surgery to repair a hernia. While Mark's circumstances seem more poignant, his wife gave birth to their second child while he was dying, it turns out neither of them left behind an idyllic existence.
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Maeve had been having an affair with a married man and had been more focused on her career than relationships. Yet when she finds out her former lover wasn't just cheating on his wife with her, but sleeping with a friend of hers as well she is not only hurt but furious with both of them. Even though she tries to convince Mark she doesn't care what her former boy friend gets up to she becomes obsessed with checking up on him and finding out who he's "cheating" with. Mark, on the other hand, at first appears to have been a devoted husband and father cruelly deprived of the chance to see his son and daughter grow up. However it turns out he'd not been honest with his wife about their financial situation. An independent electrical contractor, his business had been steadily losing money for the last couple of years. The insurance policy that should have provided for his family after his death had been cancelled because he hadn't been able to make the payments. On top of that he had also left them with a pile of debts, including back taxes.

While both Maeve and Mark would dearly love to have direct interaction with those they've left behind, they soon discover anybody who knew them when they were alive is unable to see or hear them. They are able to communicate with strangers, but those people never remember meeting or talking to them. In fact, the second someone turns their back on them, they immediately forget they'd ever met them. This can lead to both amusing and rather sad consequences for both characters, but also means the only people they can rely on for anything are each other. At various times throughout the series they use each other to talk to those they cared for in an attempt to deal with their unfinished business.

Both Kirwan and Tompkinson do wonderful jobs of portraying the two ghosts. Initially their characters follow the same arc as they deal with the traditional three stages of grief; disbelief, denial and then anger, but from the non-traditional stand point of seeing it from the dead person's perspective. As a result they enjoy a sort of misery enjoys comfort relationship for the first little while. However the writers of the series took great pains to make sure that death didn't change them. The only way they're going to be able to correct the mistakes they made during their life is by learning the lessons about themselves they would have needed to learn had they kept on living. In order to do this they won't be able to simply wallow in self-pity or act like they did when they were alive.

One thing that puzzles them for the first little while is why they haven't run across any other ghost aside from each other? Where has everybody else gone? Then they meet an elderly man who is able to remember them from previous meetings. Curious as to why he has this capability they investigate and discover that he only has a short time left to live. As they get to know him they discover he has been keeping a secret from his wife. Finally, just before he dies he tells her and he dies happy. Maeve and Mark see him just after he dies, and he thanks them for giving him the courage to talk to his wife. However, the second they turn their backs on the old man he disappears, and they never see him again.

Now that they understand the only reason they're hanging around is because they have unfinished business to take care of most series of this sort would have Maeve and Mark happily fade away into some sort of eternal bliss by miraculously finding a way to deal with their own unfinished business. However, the writers of Shades haven't been doing the expected, i.e. read sentimental, route throughout, and they don't start now. Just because someone's dead doesn't make them any more insightful then they were when they were alive. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the series for you by telling you how its resolved. However, I will say that it stays true to the way the story has been told all along and it makes perfect sense considering the characters and the plot.

Whether you believe in ghosts or don't, Shades is a beautifully told story about two people thrown together under very peculiar circumstances learning to make the best of it. Well acted and intelligently written, it tackles the subject of death and survival with humour and sympathy without once stooping to cheap sentimentality. Whether seen through the eyes of the two central characters or through those they've left behind, the series never strikes a wrong note. It may not be exactly what happens after we die, but its definitely one of the more interesting takes on the subject you'll see in a long time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Shades on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2012

DVD Review: Everyday Sunshine - The Story Of Fishbone


Documentary movies about rock and roll bands are all the rage these days. The majority tend to be about those who most of us are already familiar with. I mean you have to have been living in seclusion for the past twenty years if you're a fan of pop music and not heard of U2 or Pearl Jam. While there's no denying the impact either of those bands have had, what can we really learn about them or the nature of popular music from a movie about either band? On the other hand, watching something like Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, a new documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler charting the story of one of rock and roll's truly unique bands, gives you insights into the nature of the industry, the dynamics of working in a band, and the sheer, almost perverse, energy required to keep a dream alive when everything seems to conspire against you.

Fishbone, for those who don't know, came out of the thriving Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. While they shared a lot of things in common with other bands of the era, one thing distinguished them from the rest, the fact they were nearly all from South Central LA and all were African American. Even today the idea of an African American rock and roll band is an anomaly and in the 80s it was unheard of. So how on earth did a bunch of guys from South Central end up as Fishbone? The movie tells us how in 1979 the California State Supreme Court decreed that the only way to achieve racial balance in the schools of Los Angeles would be to institute a program of mandatory bussing. Kids from the hood would be shipped by bus to the fancy and well funded schools in the suburbs. It was here that Norwood and Phillip Fisher (bass and drums) Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards) and Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were introduced to Led Zeppelin and other white rock and roll acts by their new classmates, and met Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone and thermin) one of the few black kids who actually grew up in the Valley.

While bussing may not have done much for racial integration in America, when it came to the musical integration of Fishbone, it was an incredible success. Slashing guitar riffs met R&B horns, funky rhythms, gospel tinged vocals and was wrapped up in the anarchic packaging of punk rock to explode all over the bars and clubs of LA. While they were a hit with anybody who saw them, nobody cares what colour your skin in in a mosh pit, when they started to move into the recording studio it was different story. Columbia, the first label they signed with, still had a black music division in those days, but Fishbone weren't Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson - hell they weren't even rap music - and they sure didn't fit anybody's image of what "black"music should sound like. Yet in spite of these obstacles by 1993 the band looked like they were on the verge of the big time. Spike Lee directed their music video, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and signing on for the Lollapalooza tour all seemed like things guaranteed to push them into the spotlight.
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However, coincidence or not, the wheels started to fall off around the time the four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and South Central went up in flames. Growing up black, poor and male in LA they had all felt the sharp end of the LAPD at one time or another and were just as angry as everybody else over the verdict and it came out in their music. Not something a mainstream record label like Columbia was going to be comfortable with. At the same time guitarist Kendell Jones started experiencing personal difficulties, drinking heavily and accusing his fellow band members of being instruments of the devil. When Norwood and a few others tried to stage an adult intervention in order to get Jones the psychiatric treatment they thought he needed, he had them charged with attempted kidnapping. While they were all eventually acquitted, the loss of Jones seemed to signal the beginning of the end as Chris Dowd left the band a year later.

As the movie makes clear, while others had joined the core group who came together in 1979 along the way, when the centre started started to fall apart the band began a long slow decline back from the brink of success. By 2003 only Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore remained of those who started the group, and the strain of holding it all together was starting to take its toll on them. The camera had been moving back and forth between the present and the past throughout the course of the movie as the directors wove archival footage of the band performing, rehearsing and hanging out in the studio with present day interviews, animation and even paintings to bring Fishbone's story to life. As is normal with these types of things we viewers are safe from any direct emotional involvement with the subject matter because it's all stuff that's happened in the past. So when the camera all of a sudden drops us down in the middle of something happening in the present the wall separating the audience from the movie's subjects comes tumbling down.

In footage shot at various points over the last decade we see how the struggle to keep the band going has come to affect the relationship between Fisher and Moore They both begin to harbour resentments towards the other which they start to reveal to the camera i their inteviews. Moore, the mercurial front man, is as potent a force on stage as he ever was and continues to look for new means of expressing himself. Exploding in all directions at once he washes up against the stolid and very grounded Fisher who as bass player has always provided the roots which gave the band its strength. Within the original band their were other members who could serve as buffers between the two with either the force of their personalities or their creative contributions. But the two of them as the only creative engines were gradually being pushed apart like polarized magnets.
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What's amazing about this film is that instead of merely hearing others talking about the problems between the two men, or even just the two of them talking about each other, the camera sits down with them and watches as they attempt to hash out their differences. Both of them are committed to the idea of Fishbone and have made huge personal sacrifices for the band. However that can only keep working as long as its able to fulfill each of their artistic needs. As we've seen from the present day footage showing the band playing for miniscule audiences or attending publicity events which nobody comes to, they're not making the force they once were. Yet in spite of their differences, neither Norwood and Fisher want to give up on the band and still believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. It's that common ground that allows them to work things out and to continue the band. In fact, as the movie ends it seems like the band's future is actually looking brighter then it has in ages. Kendal Jones joins them for a gig and not only appears to have rid himself of the demons that plagued him in the early 90s but also wants to play with the band again. Trumpeter Kibby had left the band in 2003, but came back in 2010 and Chris Dowd - who had been one of the main writers in the early days - plays a couple of gigs with them.

Watching the footage included in the movie of the band performing during their hay days of the 1980s you can see why people like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and others claim that Fishbone were the band who inspired them the most. You can also see how almost impossible it would have been for any record label to cope with them. Their music defies any sort of classification and their stage show would have a straight audience quaking in their boots. Moore thrashing atop the mosh pit, scaling the walls of the concert hall to climb into a balcony and diving into the audience and singing all the while while the rest of the band thrashes out a deadly mix of punk, funk, ska, rock and roll and jazz. What's truly amazing is how tight the band is. This wasn't some group of idiots who had no idea how to play their instruments or who couldn't find their way from the beginning of a song to its end without getting lost. No this was a tight knit and well rehearsed band with incredible skill whose vocal harmonies were as tight as a gospel choir and musical arrangements as crisp as any band.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone does a wonderful job of not only telling audiences who Fishbone was, but who they are today. However, it's not just about a rock band, its about the people who are in a rock band and what it is that keeps them going when times are tough. This is one of the few "rockumentaries" I've seen where which manage to capture the love and pain involved with playing rock and roll when you care about it more than anything else in the world. It can eat at your soul. but the rewards can also be glorious. As this movie shows so poignantly the members of Fishbone have seen both sides of that coin and the long grey areas in between as well.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2011

DVD Review: Case Histories - With Jason Isaacs

The policeman with the troubled past as a plot line for television shows and movies has been used to the point where its coming close to being a cliche. The worst of these has the cop nurturing some dark secret resulting in him bordering on a brooding sociopath who exacts bloody revenge on the criminal class. If I have to sit though one more flashback of a young hopeful cop coming home to find his wife and infant daughter slaughtered by a junkie looking for the money for a quick fix I might explode. You can pretty much be guaranteed at some point finding the cop either sitting in a bar staring into a drink or exploding in a senseless range.

What truly strains my credulity about these plots is in the world of modern policing most forces frown on officers having personal agendas influencing their behaviour. Not only do they now have police psychologists who would be quick to relieve anyone so inclined of their duties, the last thing they want are accusations of excessive force or police brutality screwing up a conviction. Anyway, why is it a cop's answer to his troubled past always violence? There are other ways people react to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Thankfully it turns out there are script writers who understand and have started to create characters who aren't quite so simplistic. As is often the case the best of these characters are being created for British television shows with the most recent example being the six part series called Case Histories. Now available as a two disc DVD set from Acorn Media, it was adapted from the works of British crime writer Kate Atkinson featuring the character of Private Investigator Jackson Brodie.
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Brodie, portrayed brilliantly by Jason Isaacs (Best known as Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) has previously been a soldier and then a cop. While he deals in the bread and butter of private investigation work, checking on cheating spouses for insecure partners, he seems to have a particular affinity for missing persons and cases where the trail has long since gone cold. We also learn early on that he is haunted by a memory from his childhood. It turns out his sister was murdered and his older brother was so guilt ridden he attempted suicide and has ended up catatonic in a nursing home.

While it sounds like we're headed into the typical brooding cop type thing mentioned earlier, the series manages to avoid that pitfall. Instead of having Brodie losing himself in a glass at the end of each day, the fact that his sister's killer has never been caught dictates his choice of cases. The other thing we quickly learn about him is he doesn't wallow in self pity. Instead the memories of his sister's death seems to have increased his sense of compassion towards both those who are victims of crimes and their families. He might never find out who killed his sister or have been able to protect her, but he's not going to let another murder go unsolved, allow someone to be victimized or to suffer needlessly.

While this white knight riding to the rescue sounds like it shortened his career as a police officer, we're never really told why he left the force. However,we do know the only cop he's on good terms with, DC Louise Munroe, played by Amanda Abbington. We do find out during one of his visits to Munroe at work that he somehow managed to have two cops suspended for apparently not pursuing the capture of a rapist as thoroughly as Brodie would have liked. Whether that happened while he was a cop or more recently isn't made clear, however it does explain why uniformed officers casually call him "wanker" whenever they see him.

However strained his relations are with the rest of the police, and no matter how much he might piss her off periodically, Munroe not only has a great deal of respect for Jackson's skills as an investigator, she also covers for him on those times he skirts around the edges of the law. As the series progresses the nature of their relationship actually becomes more not less confusing. Both of them become involved with other people, but they always seem to be drawn to each other, and you have the feeling with a little bit of encouragement they could become a couple. There's very little said overtly, but both actors are wonderful at communicating what's between the lines through the manner in which they each behave around the other.

It's like they both realize any relationship between the two of them wouldn't be casual, and they'd better well be damn sure about it. Both have had previous marriages and each has a child. It's not said what happened to Munroe's, but it's pretty obvious that Brodie's wife just couldn't put up with his work hours. It quickly becomes apparent that as far as he's concerned there's no off duty hours when he's on a case. He even takes his five year old daughter with him when he goes off to interview people, which thrills his ex-wife no end when she finds out.
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One of the great things about this series is the arc we're able to watch the character of Brodie travel. When we first meet him the death of his sister dominates his life. When his ex-wife announces she and their daughter will be moving to New Zealand for a year, he freaks. It's not just because he will be separated from his daughter whom he loves, but because he can't shake the belief something horrible will happen to her if he's not there to protect her. Even after he finally resigns himself to their going, he still can't let go. It hasn't helped that the cases he'd been working on prior to them leaving were two involving young girls who had gone missing thirty and about sixteen years ago respectively and two unsolved murders.

However its the last case he takes on in the series, after his daughter has already left for New Zealand, that helps him to finally begin to resolve his own issues. After a teenaged girl saves his life when he's injured in a train wreck, she convinces him to investigate the disappearance of the woman she baby sits for. It turns out this same woman had only just escaped being murdered as a child after watching her mother and daughter be cut down in front of her by a knife wielding crazy. She had managed to escape by hiding in the the tall grass near to where the murder took place. It was there she was found by a young soldier named Jackson Brodie who was part of the search party looking for her.

Now all these years later he's searching for her again and while he finds her and brings her home, he also sees how she was able to protect herself. Not everybody is a victim, and he begins to realize he can't and shouldn't try to be everybody's saviour. Sure he should do what he can for his daughter, but he also has to let go. Isaacs depiction of Brodie's transformation is so gradual you barely notice it happening over the course of the six episodes. However, when you look back at how he was when we first met him and compare that to the man we see on the television screen in the final frames of the series, it's like a twenty ton weight has been taken off his shoulders.

All through the series we've seen him running for both exercise and an attempt to run away from his past. However hard he runs though, his mind can't help but travelling back to the day he saw his sister's corpse being found. In the last frames of the show we see him crest a hill while running and looking around himself with a smile on his face. Case Histories is not your typical crime show and Jackson Brodie is not your typical private investigator. The cases he takes on are intriguing and following along with his investigations is as interesting, if not more, than any other series of this type. However it's the study of Brodie the character and Jason Isaacs's performance which elevates this show into a category all its own.

The two disc set contains all six episodes of the series plus a fifteen minute bonus, making of , short. While there's no real startling revelations in the feature, the interviews with Isaacs, Amanda Abbington and author Atkinson are interesting for the perspectives they offer on the characters in the show and the author's intent with creating the series. However, it's not the extra features that make Case Histories special, it's the show itself. If you weren't able to catch it on your local Public Broadcasting Station recently, than you need to watch it now. It ranks right up there as one of the best mystery/crime shows to come out of Britain in the last few years.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Case Histories Starring Jason Isaacs on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2011

Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - New Blood Live In London

I have to admit that I've never liked orchestrated versions of pop songs. As far as I'm concerned its usually one step removed from Muzak - pop music for people who don't like pop music. Even worse, as far as I'm concerned, are those times when some performer starts taking themselves way too seriously and decides to use orchestral elements in their music. The results are usually god awful as they simply don't have the talent to make it work, The smarter ones will hire somebody else to do the arrangements, but there's very little modern rock and roll that works orchestrated. One of the worst experiences I ever had in my life was sitting in an all night restaurant at 3:00 AM and hearing an orchestrated version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

After a scarring experience like that you'd think I'd swear off orchestrated pop music for the rest of my life. However I'm a firm believer in the maxim that its the exceptions that prove the rule. If there's one performer of popular music around today who has always been an exception to most rules it's Peter Gabriel. So when I first heard about his deciding to orchestrate a selection of music spanning his career I was intrigued. Last year he released a CD and toured with the equivalent of a chamber orchestra - a forty-six piece ensemble he called The New Blood Orchestra. Now, for those of us who weren't able to attend one of those concerts, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and special edition four disc digital CD versions of New Blood Live In London, recorded over two nights at London England's Hammersmith Apollo concert hall last March, on October 25 2011.

As I had hoped Gabreil has not just pasted an orchestra over top of his more popular songs by having them play the tunes instead of the usual mix of guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboard. Instead he and arranger John Metcalfe set out to reinterpret the material making use of the diversity of sound available with the instruments at their disposal. The name New Blood Orchestra proved very apt, as they have indeed injected new blood into the material in question. Right from the opening number on the DVD, "Intruder", you realize that once again Gabriel has pushed his music in a direction few others would either dare to attempt or have the talent to carry off.
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Instead of simply transposing the music to suit the range of the instruments in the orchestra, Gabriel and Metcalfe have broken the songs down into their component parts of rhythm and melody. Then they designated individual sections within their orchestra to bring them to life. The result is on some songs instruments, like violins, you would normally associate with the melody, are busy performing sequences of notes representing one element of the rhythm while the brass section plays another. The overall effect is stunning, for where you would normally hear these parts being played by two or three instruments at most and not notice the number of elements going into the rhythm, in this case you not only hear the overall pattern, you also hear each of its distinct components. At first it might feel a little chaotic as your mind tries to sort out and separate the sounds from each other because that's how we are used to listening to music. However, in the space of only a few minutes you find yourself starting to listen to the whole, including Gabriel's vocals, and the impact is as strong, if not stronger than anything you'll have heard produced by amplified instruments.

Of course a Gabriel show is more than just the music and the DVD does a fine job of capturing the visual presentations that accompany the songs. A series of screens and scrims - for rear projection - are hoisted in and out, some even dropping down in front of the performers, with various images being broadcast. Initially these consist of primarily abstract visualizations relating to either a song's theme or its musical content. However as the concert progresses they start to include film being shot live on stage by a variety of cameras. Some are in the hands of crew members scrambling around the stage, but others are hung from the grid above and offer the show's floor director what must be a confusing array of shots to pick from for broadcast. One of the cameras is given enough slack that Gabriel is able to swing it in gentle arcs out over the audience and the orchestra. Thankfully, as I would find that sort of thing paling quickly, they only use that technique sparingly - primarily for "Solsbury Hill".

The special feature included with the DVD package is a roughly twenty minute documentary about putting the show together called "Blood Donors" and features interviews with Gabriel, Metcalf, conductor Ben Foster and Blue Leach who directed the filming of the concert. The talk is primarily focused on the process of adopting the music and how their goal all along was to avoid as much as possible slapping an orchestra over top of popular music. It was fun to hear Gabriel talk about the project, because at no point does he ever take himself too seriously. I've found in the past that nothing guarantees pomposity among pop musicians quicker than an orchestra. So it was a delight to hear Gabriel freely admitting to going slightly over the top when they adapted "Solsbury Hill", including throwing in a few bars of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" as a tip of the hat to the old Beatles tunes which would sometimes fade out on classical tunes (Think of "All You Need Is Love").
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It's in the documentary that you also discover the 3D effects in the film were not shot during the live performance, but during the rehearsals with Gabriel wearing a metal harness upon which the camera was mounted. The framework extended in front of him what looked to be about six feet and the camera was focused directly on his head. The resulting shots would obviously be of his head suspended in front of the rest of the performers. During the concert itself Gabriel would augment those shots with ones he filmed while holding onto the camera suspended from the lighting grid that I mentioned earlier. Without a 3D television, and not watching the official 3D release, I can't tell you exactly how the effect worked out. What I can tell you is on my regular television it looked like Gabriel's head and upper torso were distinct from the background and floating around like a balloon. The only thing that saved it from being cheesy was the fact Gabriel was having so much fun with it, making it obvious he considered it a toy.

Aside from "Solsbury Hill", the set list for the DVD includes favourites like "Biko", "Single To Noise", "Red Rain", "Don't Give Up", "The Rhythm Of The Heat" and sixteen more tunes. Like most of Gabriel's work, it's neither an easy listen nor is it the type of thing you can throw on in the background. While there will probably be some dissatisfaction from fans over the way tunes have been changed and how what was once familiar is no longer, I think anyone who genuinely appreciates Gabriel's music can't help but be impressed. The orchestral interpretations bring another dimension to each of the tunes and reveal just how sophisticated the material was in the first place. I've always thought acoustic instruments have a far greater emotional depth than any electric or electronic instrument and hearing these reinterpretations only confirmed that belief.

"Biko", the song in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed in police custody in 1976, has always moved me. Yet it was like I had never heard it before. A bass and floor drum establish the rhythm to start the piece then are joined by bassoon and clarinet which begin to play the melody. Then, as the song progresses, new layers are added to the rhythm as the string sections begin to play the melody in time to the cadence established by the drums. Gradually the volume increases until by the time Gabriel turns the singing over to the audience - the chant which ends the song - its built to a spine tingling crescendo. Then, everything stops save for the two drums which started the song in first place, until they too come to a rest like a heart that's stopped beating.

As you would suspect the sound quality on the DVD is superb, with the option to choose from regular Dolby Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital for the concert footage, and the picture quality is fantastic - I can only imagine what it would be like in High Definition for those with Blu-ray capability. The DVD comes with a booklet containing complete credits, track listing, and includes some nice still shots from the concert. However, it's the contents of the DVD which really matter, and in this case they are spectacular.

In his interview during the documentary, Gabriel said he's already moving on to something else and won't be doing any more orchestrated versions of his material. So this will be the only time he'll be releasing these interpretations of his songs. Don't miss this opportunity to see and hear what happens when somebody makes the effort to take finely crafted pop music and turn them into equally finely crafted pieces of orchestrated music. The results are as truly unique as Gabriel, and prove once again that unlike many of his contemporaries he is deserving of being referred to as an artist.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel -New Blood Live In London on Blogcritics.)

DVD Review: Smiley's People

It's said that nothing can earn you enemies faster than being right. It seems like most people would prefer the status quo be preserved no matter what the consequences. In the televised adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pseudonym for british writer David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we saw how retired spy George Smiley, played by Alec Guinness, uncovered the deeply planted Russian spy, a mole, in British intelligence. In one of the final scenes of the series he tells the upper echelon of the agency, also known as The Circus, that he has been appointed the new head of the service. So it comes as something of a surprise to find out in the sequel series, Smiley's People, now reissued in a new three disc DVD set by Acorn Media Group, as of October 25 2011, that he is once more on the outside looking in.

What you don't know if you hadn't been following Le Carre's books, was another book, The Honourable Schoolboy continued the story of the Circus in the days immediately following the uncovering of the mole. With all his agents known, or blown in the terminology, Smiley was forced to recall everyone in the field and close down every outpost in the Circus' empire. However, after months of pulling in their horns they were finally able to launch one caper in an attempt to recoup some of their lost glory and regain a measure of credibility with the only ones who matter, The Cousins, American intelligence. Even as Smiley is putting his pieces into careful motion, manoeuvring in the corridors of power have started to have him replaced by someone less old school and untarnished by any associations with the betrayer. By the end of the book, in spite of scoring a huge intelligence coup for the Circus, Smiley is out and the new order has taken over.
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Of course as both Smiley and us now realize, there's only so far you can retire from the secret life. In Smiley's People he's once again he's called out of retirement by the Ministry responsible for The Circus. However, this time they don't want him leading an investigation, they want him to cover up something that might be potentially embarrassing; something that doesn't quite mesh with the new urbane image the service has been at great pains to cultivate. An ex Russian military officer, known simply as The General, who had formally spied for them has been murdered. Unfortunately just prior to having his face blown away by a high calibre bullet he had called The Circus requesting an emergency meeting with Max, his code name for Smiley. He told the agent who answered the phone to tell Max he had proof.

Only Smiley is willing to believe there is something behind his former agent's phone call. Everybody else dismisses it as an old man's desire for attention. Instead of following orders and merely making sure that nothing about the man's life can be traced back to The Circus, Smiley decides to investigate and discover whether the proof is what he thinks it might be. As we discover in a flashback years earlier the agent had approached Smiley with information they believed could bring about the downfall of the head of Moscow Centre, Karla, the very man who had recruited the mole in British Intelligence. At the time Smiley had told him that he needed more proof. Was this the urgent message The General was trying to deliver when he was shot, the proof required to bring Karla down?
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Smiley uncovers two pieces of seemingly unrelated evidence. The first is a letter from a Russian emigrant , Madame Ostrakova ( played by the remarkable Eileen Atkins) living in Paris, containing the story of how an obvious Russian spy has approached her with an offer to let her illegitimate daughter, who she hasn't seen in nearly twenty years, leave Russia and join her in the West. All she has to do is fill in an application at the Russian Embassy in Paris requesting she be allowed to immigrate, and the papers will issued. However after months of hearing nothing from either the Russian government or her daughter she is wondering what has happened. Her late husband had always told her if she ever needed any help with anything she should contact The General. The second piece of evidence is a negative that when developed shows two men and two women in bed together.

Watching Guinness make the rounds as George Smiley again, first trying to piece together the two pieces of the puzzle he's been left behind by dead men and then setting an operation in motion in order to snare the biggest prize of his career, is a joy. He's a different person from the rather self-effacing civil servant we met in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There's a layer of anger to him that wasn't there before. Anger at the mole who betrayed the Circus, but also anger at the Circus for what he sees as their betrayal of all his generation stood for. If they had only taken the General seriously he wouldn't have been killed. Even worse, if Smiley hadn't disobeyed orders by investigating, nobody would have followed up and they would have missed out on the biggest intelligence coup of the Cold War.

Somehow Guinness is able to convey all of that within his performance. The slight edge you hear in his voice, the bite of impatience that creeps in when he's dealing with petty officials and the air of overall fatigue he seems to exude at times when he thinks nobody is looking. Everything seems to be weighing on him now; the people he's known who have died and the moral ambiguity of his own work. At the end when he's congratulated by another character -"You've won George" - his half questioning response of "Have I?" makes you wonder what it must be like to have dedicated the majority of your life to something, only to find yourself questioning its validity as your career winds down.
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While Guinness is giving another tour de force as Smiley, the supporting cast is once again universally strong. Aside from Atkins my personal favourite was one of the returning actors from the previous series, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase, ex Circus agent, now dodgy art dealer. In "Tinker Tailor" his character had affected a British accent in an attempt to climb the ladder in the service, but now he's allowed his Hungarian roots to show through in his speaking voice. At first Smiley goes to him for help in tracking down information, then they work together to implement the operation. His character is a delight first as the dubious art dealer he's become after leaving the service and then as the field agent called back in for one last hurrah. He has some of the best lines in the series as far as I'm concerned: "There's Degas and there's Degas, George, it's sort of a grey area" he responds when questioned about a statue's provenance and "When dealing with creeps like that you need a creep like Toby Esterhase guarding your back George" is how he words his request to be included as part of operation. It's the way he says the latter with a note of pride in his voice that makes him so wonderful.

First aired back in 1982 Smiley's People is just as potent a piece of television today as it was back then. It not only features fine performances and a great script which brings the book it was based on to life wonderfully, it does a fine job of showing just how little separated one side was from the other during the Cold War in the world of espionage. Special features on this three DVD disc set are again limited to filmographies of the cast members and an interview with Le Carre about the series. However, nothing can detract from the fact this is another fine example of how to adapt a book to the small screen and somebody fully realizing television's potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Smiley's People on Blogcritics)

October 26, 2011

DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Television has often disappointed me as a media because of both its failure to live up to its potential and its willingness to sink to the the lowest common denominator. Unlike movies which are limited by time constraints and the need to make huge returns at the box office, television productions are relatively inexpensive to produce and can be released episodically in order to tell a story properly. Unfortunately this capability is mainly wasted now on so-called reality shows or glorified talent contests. The occasional gems produced by cable stations have become fewer and fewer as the years pass. Even British television, once far superior to its American counterpart, is no longer the reliable source for great television it once was.

Of course memory can play tricks on you, and it's easy to deceive yourself into thinking the past, or the good old days, were better then what's on offer today. So when I requested a copy of the newest DVD version of the television adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pen name for British author David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being released by Acorn Media Group on October 25 2012, I hoped it was as good as I had remembered it being from watching it on television some thirty years ago. I needn't have worried, its not only as good as I remembered it being, its even better.
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For those of you somehow unfamiliar with John Le Caree, he pretty much single handed changed the face of spy fiction as we know it today. Instead of James Bond style sex, glamour and violence he gradually introduced us to a world of furtive observers, back room manoeuvring and the faceless civil servants who were the backbone of British intelligence during the height of the Cold War. George Smiley, the quintessential faceless civil servant, was first introduced as a minor character in one of his early works, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His first "starring" roles were in Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, but these were just warm ups for his taking centre stage in what is probably Le Caree's most well known book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

When a loose cannon field agent shows up after mysteriously vanishing spinning a tale of a Russian agent highly placed in the British intelligence agency known as The Circus, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate whether or not there's any truth to the man's claims. Through a series of flashbacks we see how both George and his former boss and mentor, Control, were forced out. The Circus had been suffering from a series of failures. Agents captured in the field, spy networks arrested and sources of information going dry. All of a sudden a new source appears promising to deliver the innermost secrets from the Kremlin and Moscow Centre, the Russian equivalent of the Circus. Control smells a rat and sets out to prove the information is false and that one of his senior agents is a mole - a Russian spy who was recruited when he was young and has gradually worked himself up into a position of authority. Unfortunately the mole is one step ahead of Control and sets him up for one more disaster. As a result a British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and worst of all the events make the newspapers. When the dust settled Smiley and Control were out, and those who supported the new source were in.
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Once brought up to speed on the events of the past, we then follow Smiley as he begins the painstaking process of tracking back through the files, interviewing other former agents about what happened on the night the British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and finally tracking down the agent in question and hearing his story. At every step he discovers somebody has been doing a very careful job of trying to cover his or her tracks. Agents have been warned off and fired who had any information that either lends credibility to the mole theory or discredits the new wonder source.

What's remarkable about this televised version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is how beautifully it manages to translate the process of Smiley's investigation from the book to the small screen. Instead of rushing the information out in blurts and speeded up chunks, we are allowed to witness the whole story unfolding before our eyes. From the whispered instruction Control gives his chosen agent before sending him off to Eastern Europe in the hopes he'll come up with the name of the spy, the agent eluding possible tails on his way to meeting his contact and his eventual capture, to each step of Smiley's path on his way to pushing the mole out into the open, in one way or another the entire book ends up on screen. Very smartly the scriptwriters, Le Caree being one of them, make use of visuals to tell the story when able, and fill in whatever blanks that might have been left behind further on down the line. So if you are confused by what's going on at anytime during the show, don't worry, it will all come clear in the end.

However, the best thing about this series are still the performances. Simply put, Alec Guinness delivers one of the best performances of his career as Smiley, if not one of the best performances ever seen on television. In television everything takes place in a very tight focus, there are no vast vistas like film and very few long shots for an actor to hide in. Almost the entire time Guinness is on screen, he occupies the centre of the frame if he's not in a close up. The slightest twitch communicates volumes, and Guinness never over or underplays his performance. From the polishing of the glasses that was Smiley's most famous characteristic to his sudden displays of authority while conducting interviews and interrogations, he works with the camera to create one of the most fully realized characterizations I've ever seen on television.
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Of course Guinness isn't the only actor in the series, and the entire cast is a wonder. Ian Richardson and a young Ian Bannen (you might just recognize him as the same actor who played Jackie in Waking Ned Devine) in particular do stand out jobs as the intellectual and urban Bill Haydon and the agent Jim Prideaux, who was captured in Eastern Europe, respectively. You'll also notice Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame in a small but important role. No matter how small the role, each of the actors involved with the production are letter perfect. They go about their business calmly and sedately, lulling one into believing they are all simply minor functionaries in some obscure branch of the government. Yet every so often you are reminded that what they are so casually discussing over tea and biscuits around the board room table are things like Russian troop movements in Eastern Europe or reports on the inner workings of the Russian secret service.

The three disc DVD set contains all six episodes from the television series first broadcast back in 1979. Naturally the sound and visual quality are not quite what were used to, but that is more than compensated for by the quality of what you see on the screen. While the bonus features are primarily limited to things like cast filmographies, there is a wonderful interview with John Le Carre, in which he discusses everything from his experiences helping write the script for the show to his memories of Alec Guinness preparing for the role of Smiley.

This adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when television lives up to its potential. No movie could afford to take the nearly six hours required to create such a stunning adaptation. The series might have been first broadcast more then thirty years ago, but it's still by far some of the best television you're liable to ever watch.
(Article first published as DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection

I'm sure many have noticed how some actors seem better suited to one type of role than another. It's like they are only capable of handling a certain range of emotions, or playing a certain type of person with any credibility. However there are some actors whose talents are such not only are they perfectly capable of handling any role offered them, the characters they play come to life on screen or stage. Mainly this is due to their ability to render them as multidimensional and multifaceted as real human beings. Somehow they are able to not only enact what is required to tell the story being presented, they are able to tell the character's story simultaneously.

As we go through our daily lives each of us carries around an involved personal history which impacts our decision making process. Even though it very rarely bubbles through to the surface, the actor who is able to bring that sense of personal history to their portrayals, is far more convincing in his or her performance than another. Whether an audience is aware of them doing it or not, they recognize something in the character that helps them identify with him or her. Instead of being merely a one dimensional figure, they are fully developed characters who are far more believable than most of the ones normally seen on screens.

After watching the box set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection, being released by Acorn Media on August 31 2011, what sticks out the most is the quality of the acting of everybody who appeared in the series, and especially James Nesbitt's performance in the lead role of undercover police officer Thomas Murphy. Over the course of the five seasons the series ran we watch as Murphy's job evolves from being undercover as an observer in an effort to find answers to a crime (In the first episode of Series Two he pretends to be a homeless man in an effort to find the person who killed a fellow officer) to acting the role of a hardened criminal in order to gather evidence against various crime figures. As this involves winning the criminals trust, there are times when he has to play fast and loose with the laws himself and observe things that sicken him without reacting.
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While he lays on the stereotype of the comical Irishman, always ready with a joke and a laugh, to cover over any of his reactions to what he observes, there are times when the veneer cracks. Sometimes it's nothing more than him having to state into a mirror to make sure his mask in place, other times it's a certain deadness in his eyes and, when he's off duty, he'll go on drunken binges in order to dull his pain. By the time the fifth season comes around he's barely able to hold it together. Two fellow undercover officers, he had been their contact on the "outside - their cover officer, go missing on the job. The guilt and anxiety he feels over their disappearance manifests itself in anger and frustration at his fellow officers, the amount he drives himself to find them and the depth of his emotional reactions as he uncovers some of the secrets behind their vanishing.

While Nesbitt is wonderful, the rest of the actors in the various casts are equally as talented. While the first two seasons had each episode being a complete investigation onto itself, which didn't allow for much character development among the criminals, the final three seasons were each made up of multi-part episodes dealing with one case. In each we become as close to the criminals as Murphy does. While there are those who you're not going to spare any sympathy for, Series Five in particular deals with smuggling people in from Eastern Europe and trafficking young women as prostitutes, there are also times when even when we don't like the person in question we learn enough about them to understand how they ended up being the people they became.

Series Four in particular is wonderful for this as we are introduced to two brothers. Both former Loyalists - Protestant Irish who carried out terror attacks against Catholics - Drew, (Liam Cunningham, and Billy Johnstone, Brian McCardle, have left Belfast Ireland and moved to England upon being released from jail. As they had both been violent criminals into drugs, robbery and assault before they were jailed, when violence starts to erupt in the housing estate they now live in they are immediately suspected. However, the elder brother Drew claims to have converted to Muslim in jail and renounced the ways of violence and crime.

Ironically, while initially the police don't believe in Drew's conversion, it turns out to be genuine. It also turns out to be one of the reason behind the recent crime spree as his younger brother Billy longs for the days when it was him and Drew against the world. He gets it into his head if he can drive a wedge between Drew and those people who have "taken his brother away" everything will go back to the way that it was. It's only when we learn that Billy's mom, dad and sister had all died when he was ten we begin to understand the level of his panic at losing the only world he'd ever known. What he does might be reprehensible, but he ends up being so pathetic we almost feel sorry for him. The real victim of the series is Drew, who was genuine in his desire to turn his life around. We see him struggling with his demons and look to be winning the battle, but history and circumstances tear his dreams apart.
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Of course in order for there to be such good characters the writing and direction of the series have to be excellent. While British television excels at this sort of thing, Murphy's Law set's a new high water mark in crime dramas for others to reach for. While the episodes are always intense right from the start, over the course of the five series they become progressively darker and more involved both in their plots and character development. The more we learn about the lives led by undercover police, men and women, the more it makes us wonder why anybody would take on the job. For months on end they have to live completely isolated from their families, not able to trust anybody. Never able to let their guards down they must always stay in character and occasionally run the risk of, as one officer puts it, "going native", or crossing the line from doing what's necessary to get the job done to becoming who they're pretending to be.

While we don't learn the exact reasons why others do this kind of work, what we know about Murphy's past offers some insight into what could motivate an officer to take it on. His daughter had been killed by the IRA when they kidnapped her in an attempt to make him bomb his own police station. He loses himself in the danger of the work and the different people he portrays in order to run away from his feelings about what happened. Unfortunately he doesn't count on the fact there are just as many opportunities for emotional upheavals that only increase the amount of pain he feels. The work also prevents him from functioning in the "real world" as he's become so used to hiding behind masks he no longer knows how to deal with real individuals. This is depicted beautifully in Series Four where, when he's not dealing with the Johnstone brothers, he's trying to help his father cope with his mother's Alzheimer disease. It's heartbreaking to watch him attempt to offer comfort to his dad, hesitantly reaching out his hand to touch his shoulder as if he's not sure that's what he's supposed to do.

While the nine DVD set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection might not contain much in the way of special features - a written out biography of James Nesbitt and his notes on Series Four - the material is so brilliant that it is sufficient reason in itself to own the set. The writing, the direction and acting are of a calibre that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Even the musical score, especially Edmund Butt's for series 1 through 4, are amazing. Instead of overwhelming the action with melodramatic music that only points out the obvious, it compliments everything that happens on screen. So subtle you barely notice it, the music is like an extra actor who somehow adds atmosphere and colour to each episode. It all adds up to, with Nesbitt's performance leading the way, to being not only one of the finest police dramas ever made, one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen, period.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law - The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.)

June 21, 2011

DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3

While there are a number of difficulties facing any film or television company who sets their project in the past, most of them are easily overcome with just a little research. How did men and women wear their hair, what were the clothes like and questions about interior design can all be answered through a few trips to any library or museum. Shows set in recent history have it even easier as magazines and other media can usually be counted on to at least give an idea of what was fashionable during the time in question. However, while there is usually no problem in dressing a period piece, other, less tangible aspects, of recreating an era present far more difficulties.

Probably the most difficult of these is to try and recreate societal values and present them without comment, no matter how different they might be from those held by contemporary society. The more recent the history, the more difficult the task becomes as the differences become less cut and dried as attitudes evolve towards ones closer to our own. Complicating the matter even further is having to take into account how the pace of change came at different rates of speed to different areas. This was especially true in a country like England in the early 1960s where the impetus for change ran into into the stone wall of propriety and tradition. While there were some voices calling for change, many, from all walks of life, were happy to maintain the status quo.

However, change can't be put off, even in the remote areas of Northumberland where Inspector George Gently, former London cop, has settled in an attempt to start over again after the death of his wife. George Gently: Series 3, being released on June 28 2011 by Acorn Media Group finds Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) having to navigate through uncharted waters as they investigate two very different murder cases. In both Gently Evil and Peace & Love they are forced to deal with issues which to us might seem run of the mill, but in that era were barely heard of, let alone dealt with publically.
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In Gently Evil a young woman of questionable reputation is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Just prior to the murder neighbours heard voices raised in argument and one even witnessed a man running from the apartment. Unfortunately his eyesight is unreliable and can't be positive about what the person looked like, only that he sounded like he had a Scottish accent. The murder victim turns out to have been a mentally unstable young woman whose family had committed her at one point. In her small flat they discover a birth certificate for the woman's daughter on which she has crossed out the father's name and replaced it with Satan. Both the daughter and the woman's ex-husband were in town that night, and while the daughter was forbidden to visit her mother, it soon comes out that both husband and child had been at the apartment. When the husband confesses to the murder, angry at his wife's promiscuity and taunting he claims to have killed her in a fit of passion, the case seems closed.

However, there are too many loose ends for Gently, and as he starts to follow some of these threads to their centre the picture that begins to develop is hard for him to believe. First the case starts tie in to the mysterious death of a young child a year earlier. Then, first one child almost wanders off and another disappears, from a local camp ground near where the previous child's body turned up dead. When it turns out the murdered woman's brother has some connection to each case, Gently and Bacchus come to the obvious conclusion. Yet how does all this tie into the woman's death? Even when they discover the ex-husband wasn't the child's natural father it doesn't get them any closer to discovering the real culprit or uncovering the horrible secret behind the murder of the young woman, the missing child and the dead child from the previous year.

The remarkable thing about Gently Evil is not just the way the case is handled without sensationalizing the circumstances, but in the reactions of all those involved with the case as it unfolds. Ingleby, whose character's marriage has fallen apart and is only able to see his young daughter once a week, does an especially fine job depicting the anger of a man riddled by his own guilt over being a negligent father when he questions people about the children who have disappeared. In fact, from beginning to end, the reactions and actions of all the characters to a set of circumstances (unfortunately I have to be vague or I risk giving spoiling the story) beyond anything they've previously experienced, are as multilayered and complex as the situation deserves.

While Peace & Love, the second episode of series three, is not as complex as the first, it still deals with a couple of the cans of worms which were being opened during the era. Protests against nuclear weapons started as early as the 1950s in England so a demonstration against submarines armed with nuclear missiles being docked in the local shipyards is almost to be expected even in Northumberland. What's not expected is the murder of the university professor responsible for organizing it. However, the more Gently and Bacchus find out about the victim, the longer the list of possible suspects. There's any number of young female students he'd slept with, especially the most recent who he's just dumped and who is pregnant with his child. There's also a fellow professor who was once his lover who has any number of reasons for being pissed off at him.
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Spending time on campus bring Gently and Bacchus face to face with the societal changes which has barely rippled the surface of the stolid Northumberland waters until now. Free love, open dissent, revolution, ban the bomb and all the baggage, including soft drug use, are not what either man are used to. While Gently is old and experienced enough to look on most of it with a rather benign amusement, unless it contravenes a law or results in people being hurt, Bacchus is nowhere near as sanguine in his reactions. In fact, despite his youth and supposed "hipness" the younger officer is far more conservative and easy to shock than his superior. Again Ingleby does a wonderful job with Bacchus. Confronted by a young woman who takes the initiative, in any way that you can imagine, he is quickly thrown for a loop and left retreating in confusion.

As the two officers wade through the maze of university, sexual and radical politics in order to solve the murder of the much hated professor and the subsequent murder of a young man who had been an early suspect, they discover no matter how many changes take place in society, the motivations for murder remain the same. Blackmail, guilty secrets, ambition, thwarted desires and moments of blind passion have stood the test of time and no amount of sexual liberation or demonstrating against Polaris missiles are going to make a difference. Once Gently and Bacchus discover which of the above ties in with the murder, discovering the murderer isn't far behind.

The fascinating thing about both episodes of George Gently, Series 3 is how well they have managed to recreate the time period they are set in. The two cases under investigation delve into areas which might seem commonplace to our eyes, but in the early 1960s were either not talked about or would have been considered too far fetched by most to be believed. Part of the key to their success is how well they've managed to avoid imposing twenty-first century standards on the characters as their reactions to what they see are not only completely in character, but are also in accordance with the beliefs and prejudices of the times. We might be a little appalled by what they say or how they act, but to have them be otherwise would have made the show far less believable.

George Gently, Series 3 comes in a two disc DVD set with 5.1 surround sound. (Its also available as a single disc Blu-ray as well) As has been the case with the previous two seasons of this show the acting from the leads down to the smallest parts is impeccable and the scripts are both attention gripping mysteries and revealing looks at a society in the midst of change. England in the early 1960s was just starting to recover from the trauma of WW II and the split between those who lived through it and those who were born after was just starting to come to a head. It was a messy time with one side desperate to throw aside the conventions of the past and the other just as keen to hold on to them. Watching George Gently and John Bacchus navigate through this world is a treat you really shouldn't deny yourself any longer. There's only one shortcoming in this year's version; only two ninety minute episodes, which while wonderful, leaves you wanting more. Thankfully Series 4 is scheduled to start airing August 2011 in England, so hopefully it will end up on disc over here soon after.
(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

April 28, 2011

DVD Review: Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4

When people think of small town doctors the usual image that comes to mind is of a kindly old gentlemen who has known most of the people in the vicinity since he helped usher them into the world. He always has a friendly word of encouragement for the young person with the broken arm, can be counted on to make house calls in the worst of weather, and is generally considered to be one of the pillars of wisdom in the community. While it's a lovely image, the person probably never really existed outside of the minds of screenwriters and other Hollywood types.

If for some reason you've been hanging on to that image a sure fire cure for it is now available through Acorn Media in the form of the nine DVD box set Doc Martin Collection: Series 1 - 4. Doc Martin, (Martin Clunes) is the antithesis of the genial country doctor. A former London surgeon he was forced to give up his practice when he developed a phobia which would cause him to vomit and feel faint at the site of blood - a decided weakness in somebody performing surgery. Not wanting to give up medicine entirely, he applies to take over the practice in the village of Portwenn, Cornwall, the same village he used to summer in as a child.

Neither the good folk of Portwenn nor Doctor Martin Ellingham are quite prepared for each other. Ellingham is used to the highly impersonal world of a big time surgeon where patients are usually unconscious and a bed side manner is something you leave to the underlings and nurses. Portwenn's inhabitants, on the other hand, are used to a doctor, who, while he might not have been quite the stereotype described earlier, came pretty darn close to living up to it. He'd known most of those in the town and surrounding area since birth and leavened his health care practice with his knowledge of the individuals in question. In his time the doctor's surgery (In England a doctor's office is referred to as a surgery) was not just a place to go when you were feeling sick, it was also a social event with tea, cookies and chat on offer.
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To say that Doc Martin has a few issues when it comes to interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. He's rude, blunt, intolerant of those he considers fools (most of Portwenn) and is completely useless at small talk. These deficiencies are compounded by his stubbornness, the absolute belief in the fact he is always right and the fact that he's emotionally repressed to the point of being crippled. While he's obviously a brilliant doctor and over qualified for the work required of him as a General Practitioner in a small town, after only a few days in Portwenn he just about manages to alienate the entire town with his behaviour.

Now if this were your typical sit-com or even drama series you could predict what would happen. Eventually the town would come to love Ol' Doc. Martin and learn to see the soft-hearted man hidden beneath the crusty exterior. In his turn the Doc would learn to appreciate the spirit of small town life and come to respect the inherent wisdom of his neighbours. Well don't hold your breath waiting because over the course of the four years of the series so far the Doc is just as patronizing and condescending as he was on the day he arrived and would no more look to his neighbours for advice than he would the fish so many of them catch. For their part the villagers do come to appreciate the fact they have a top notch doctor, but don't go looking to him for the milk of human kindness or a sympathetic ear.

How is it than that as viewers we can stand watching the doctor in action? Wouldn't one season of watching him bully his clients and generally being an arrogant prick, let alone four, be a little too much to bear? It would if it weren't for the fact there is more to Martin Ellingham than what he shows the world. Thankfully the writers are smart enough to ensure we see far more of the Doc than just his attitude towards the fools surrounding him and also gradually fill us in on his history. We learn why and how he developed into the person he is sufficiently to appreciate his character more and more as the series develops. There's also the fact that a good deal of the time the people he treats are as big as fools as he thinks they are and we can't help but sympathizing with him for having to put up with people who wonder why they are sick after living on a diet of roadkill.
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Of course the series wouldn't be complete if there wasn't some sort of romantic interest. In this case its provided by the local school's headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz) There on again off again romance not only keeps the locals wondering, but the viewing audience as well. While for the villagers it might be what the hell does she see in him mixed with will they ever get together, for us at home its wondering whether Doc will ever find the courage to overcome a lifetime of repression and fear to tell her how he feels. Their relationship is marked by his mishandling of any moments of intimacy that do happen. Instead of allowing himself to experience and enjoy them he barricades himself behind a wall of medical professionalism that allows him to ask her about her dental hygiene after a particularly passionate kiss.

Her natural reaction of storming away - actually chucking him out of the cab they're sharing at the time - is completely understandable to everybody except poor Martin. Yet neither of them can deny they are attracted to each other. Like magnets who keep switching their polarity they push each other away periodically only to feel the pull of attraction to the other just as strongly, if not more so, as before, and come back together again. The best thing about their relationship though is how while there are moments that are genuinely funny, the writers of the series never play it for laughs. We want them to succeed and end up as a couple, but we can also understand why they just might not ever manage to.

It's this adherence to reality that makes the series so effective. It would have been easy to populate the village with types with stock phrases guaranteed to fetch laughs or write episodes which ended with warm hearted feel good moments that unite the town and the doctor. However the people who live in Portwenn have to work for their living and while they may come up with inventive ways to hurt themselves and illnesses that are occasionally off the beaten track, they are true to their environment and real people. Which means that while they may be grateful to Doc for saving somebody's life or figuring out why a person is sick, that doesn't mean they have to like him any better than they did before.

The myth of the small town doctor has been perpetuated to the point of nausea in films and television. Doc Martin is not only the perfect antidote to all that saccharine, its funny, thoughtful and a pleasure to watch. It doesn't hurt that the series was shot on location in Cornwall so the scenery serving as the backdrop for the stories is breathtaking. The new nine disc set containing all four seasons, Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4 (A fifth series is currently being filmed) might not keep the doctor away but it will make you very happy. The special features include some behind the scenes footage and written cast biographies. The discs are set up for 5.1 surround sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired or those who trouble with some of the thicker regional accents in England.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Complete Doc Martin Collection - Series 1 - 4 on Blogcritics.)

March 31, 2011

DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series 1 - 40th Anniversary Edition

My parents finally broke down and bought a colour television in 1973. At the same time they also decided that in order to get full value for the set they would try out what was still a new concept, paying to receive television channels, and signed up for cable television. Prior to then television had been free to everyone and with a good enough arial you could bring in all the stations you wanted. However, there was never any guarantee of quality, or of being able to receive certain channels all the time. Cable, on the other hand, assured us we would not only have consistent picture quality, but we would always be able to receive the stations they offered.

Naturally, as a kid I was thrilled. It opened up a whole new world of television. Living in Canada we were pretty much limited to what was offered on the two Canadian stations of the time and what could make it up from the States via the antenna. However, I soon realized I wasn't the only one who was receiving benefits from the increase in service. What I hadn't known was my parents had very sneakily purchased cable television not with my best interests in mind, but for their own selfish reasons. They wanted to be able to watch Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) from the United States without having to worry about service interruptions.

It was an appalling predicament, as all of a sudden I was in competition with my parents for use of the television. It never seemed to matter if there was something on that I wanted to watch, no priority was given over to what they wanted to watch. To make matters worse, the damned PBS station always seemed to be running something they liked during prime time at least one or two nights a week. However, the night I came to dread most, and basically gave up on ever being able to watch anything ever again on, was Sundays. How I came to loathe Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre.
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Although it wasn't the first show broadcast on the program, the one I came to identify most, and by extension loathe the most, with it was of course Upstairs, Downstairs. To a twelve or thirteen year old male the program was almost incomprehensible. First of all the women were not only all clothed, they were covered from the neck to the feet, secondly nothing ever seemed to happen. It was close to an hour of people seeming to do nothing but sit, or stand, around and talk about, well, nothing. Yet my parents were glued to the television almost from the moment it began broadcasting in North America until it went off the air five years later.

Of course in latter years I discovered what all the fuss was about and now in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the show's first airing Acorn Media is releasing box sets of each year's episodes, starting with Upstairs Downstairs Series 1: 40th Anniversary Edition March 29 2011. The 4 disc set not only contains all thirteen episodes from the first year, it also offers viewers a chance to see an alternative pilot episode that never aired in North America, and the first part of the documentary The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs. For those of you who have somehow still not managed to see any of this classic piece of British television, this set will get you well on the road to discovering why people would be riveted to their television sets every Sunday night for weeks on end when it first aired in North America.

On the surface it might not sound like much; a show set in the first years of the twentieth century that deals with the goings on in the very wealthy Bellamy household in London England. The Upstairs of the title refers to the aristocratic family who owns the house, while Downstairs is in reference to their servants, who live and work behind the scenes making sure everything is just the way it should be. Like I said, doesn't exactly sound like very entertaining stuff. However, unlike the majority of what is aired these days, instead of relying on flash and bang to draw an audience in, the show's writers and directors assumed their audience not only had a brain, but an attention span which could focus on something for more then thirty seconds.

The combination of superlative acting, intelligent scripts and careful attention to historical accuracy - including social mores, dress, behaviour and, most importantly, the British class structure of the time - works together to create not only a fascinating portrait of a bygone era, but wonderful theatre. The two worlds, the Upstairs and the Downstairs, are so far removed from each other, that neither really has a hope of understanding the other's reality. Even though they both occupy the same geographic territory, they live in separate planes of existence. For members of the Bellamy family can easily sit in a room and treat any servant sharing the space with the same amount of regard as they would the wallpaper or a piece of furniture until they require them to perform some task for them. The servants don't exist as individuals when they are Upstairs, they are defined by their function.
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However, appearances are deceptive, and as we discover the deeper we go into the series, it only seems like the Upstairs and the Downstairs are separated by an insurmountable divide. Aside from the fact that the Bellamy family depends on their servants to do everything from feeding to clothing them, and the servants depend on the family for their livelihood, we begin to notice there is another type of bond holding them together. While mutual respect might be stretching things to describe how they feel about each other, there's a sense that both groups are aware of their interdependence, which in turn breeds a certain level of trust between them. Certainly there's something paternalistic in the way Upstairs treats the servants, as they will often talk of them in the same manner as they would children. However their concern is genuine, and taken in the context of the times is more than enough to explain the servants loyalty.

The episodes in this first season do an excellent job of bringing to life both the lives the servants and the family and the relationship between the two. It's interesting to see how the only times conflicts develop between them is when the barriers separating the two worlds come down even a little. You can't be a master and a friend, as the family's son, James Bellamy (Simon Williams) discovers. Unfortunately he's not the one who suffers as he is protected by his position and his class, while the servants could end up not only losing their jobs, but their home. So when the older servants in the household, the butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) or the cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) offer the advice of "know your place" to younger servants, it's not just to keep order, but is sage advice on how to protect themselves.

In part one of The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs series co-creator and star Jean Marsh, she played the house maid Rose, tell us how the series came about and the story behind the extra pilot included in this collection. At the time the pilot was being shot television in Britain was just making the switch to full colour. Camera crews had been given pay increases to reflect the extra work they were having to do with the new equipment and the sound people all of a sudden they needed more money as well because, as Marsh says, having to record in colour. So in order to prevent a strike and get the pilot shot, it was originally filmed in Black and White. However that episode was never shown in North America, because it was decided to re-shoot it in colour before broadcasting it over here.

While the show is brilliantly acted and wonderfully written, and the producers obviously spared no expense in recreating the era through sets and costumes, forty year old television is still forty year old television. So the quality of the picture and sound aren't going to be what you're used to. However, whatever technical deficiencies the set might suffer from, they are more than offset by its substance. Upstairs, Downstairs was shot in the days when television had to rely on scripts, directors and actors to hold an audience's attention instead of special effects or pseudo reality/voyeurism. While it may take you a while to get used to the slower pace if you exercise only a little patience you'll discover this fiction is probably one of the most realistic programs you'll ever watch. It still might not appeal to twelve your old boys, but for the rest of us Upstairs, Downstairs remains one of the best examples of television living up to its fullest potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series One - 40th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.)

March 22, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3

Your life is a lie. Each day you wake up is another day you continue to live that lie, and if somehow you slip up and make a mistake you'll die. For weeks, months even, you pretend to be someone else and are constantly in danger of being found out and killed. Even worse are the things you have to do in order to preserve that lie. Watch with approval as people do things that all your instincts cry out for you to interrupt. Sometimes it's not enough to just sit back and watch, you have to join in, and tear another hole in your soul.

When does the lie cease to be a lie and become reality? Does there come a point when you cross the line and become who you're pretending to be? How do you hold on to the vestiges of yourself when everything you do is in direct opposition to what your conscience tells you is right? Do you ever find, to paraphrase Frederick Nietzsche, that by staring into the eyes of the dragon too long you start to become the dragon? It's hard to imagine there are people who would willingly put themselves into the type of position described above. However, as is brilliantly depicted in the Tiger Aspect production Murphy's Law, Series 3, now available on DVD from Acorn Media, that just about describes the life of an undercover police officer.

Detective Sergeant (DS) Tommy Murphy, James Nesbitt, is an undercover officer for the National Crime Squad working in London England. Those who have seen previous episodes of the show will know he's pretended to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic in the course of his operations. While he's had to deal with difficult situations in the past, the six episodes making up Series 3 take him down roads that are darker and more twisted than any he's walked before. Unlike previous years where each episode has been a stand alone story, on this occasion the operation he's involved in is spread out over the course of the season's six one hour shows. As a result we watch everything he has to endure in order to get a result.
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What starts off as a simple attempt to catch people willing to buy illegal firearms, Murphy is posing as a supplier and armament expert, gradually turns into a far more elaborate sting operation. When the person who shows up for the initial meeting, one Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender) tells him the gun will be used for a murder, Murphy refuses to sell him a gun but offers his services as a contract killer. It's hoped that by doing this he'll not only be able to prevent a murder from taking place, but be able to bring down not just Miller but whoever is responsible for ordering the hit as well. It's this spur of the moment decision that begins his long and dangerous journey of the soul.

It tuns out Millar's boss is somebody the police have been trying to catch for a long time, but have never been able to accumulate sufficient proof to nab him. Dave Callard (Mark Womack) is a known cop killer (A frustrated senior officer says "Two hundred witnesses just happened to be in the loo" on how Callard was able to get away with beating the cop to death in the street), and drug dealer who has been gradually giving himself the gloss of legitimacy through front operations. When the connection between Millar and Callard becomes clear, those higher up in the force decide this might be the chance to bring him down and direct Murphy to start infiltrating his organization in order to accumulate evidence against him.

They first fake the murder of Collard's target by bringing him into police custody and offering him witness protection in return for supplying them with evidence of Callard's illegal activities. After proving his worth as a hit man, Murphy is gradually drawn deeper into Callard's operations and starts to gain his trust. However, just as he thinks they're about to pull Callard in for possession of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Euros, a bigger fish appears on the scene and the officer in charge, Detective Superintendent Reece (Michael Feast) insists they put everything on hold so they can check out the nature of the new arrival's involvement.

While a good deal of the action takes place with Murphy undercover, the show also does a great job of showing the amount of work going on behind the scenes in this type of operations. One of the more interesting characters is DS Paul Allison (Owen Teal) Murphy's "cover officer". His job is to ensure Murphy's fake identity can stand up to any digging the target might do into his background. In this case that includes creating and entering into the system a false criminal record in his name, finding him a place to live, creating ID and coming up with any sort of documentation he might need at any time, for any occasion. Including a program for a funeral when Murphy has to come up with an excuse for missing a meeting and says his uncle died.
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Even more fascinating is the relationship between the two men. While the two characters are old friends and Murphy trusts Allison completely, it doesn't stop the latter from being a mixture of parent and confessor for the former. When Murphy sleeps with the wife of the man he supposedly murdered and looks to be developing feelings for her, Allison gives him holly shit for his unethical behaviour then lies to Reece in order to prevent him from finding out about the incident. When Murphy starts to go off the rails because the case is dragging on for far longer then was anticipated, it's Allison who both brings him back on track and convinces everybody else that Murphy is up to doing the job. In many ways Allison is the only real friend Murphy has, and knows him better than anybody else. He is Murphy's life line, the reminder of who he really is and what he really stands for.

Most police procedurals seem to think a one hour time slot is more than enough time to solve a crime no matter how complicated it might be. If you're lucky you may get a two or even three part special. Spaced over the course of six full one hour episodes (that's no commercials and about fifty-five minutes a pop) Murphy's Law, Series 3 gives the writers not only time to allow events to unfold in a much more naturalistic manner, but allows them to spend plenty of time with Murphy himself. Given that type of latitude, an actor of James Nesbitt's quality can't help but give what can only be deemed an incredibly special performance. While everyone in the cast is remarkable his performance is simply one of the best I've seen in a police television series before.

While he rarely allows Murphy to show any moments of weakness, even when he's off the job, things come up through the cracks periodically, He lives a life of almost complete isolation with no family nor friends outside of whomever is on his team at the time and the criminals he's associating with. His sleeping with Ellie, (Georgia Mackenzie) the wife of the man he "killed", is brought about by his genuine feelings of affection for her and his loneliness. Of course it also makes him hate himself for doing it, as he knows she would never have slept with him if she thought her husband were alive, and he's taking advantage of her grief. The layers of lies he is forced to live while undercover takes him places that tear him apart inside, and Nesbitt's depiction of what Murphy goes through because of Ellie, gives the viewer a clear indication of the effects this can have on a person.

Murphy's Law, Series 3 is not only an excellent police drama, it is also an incredible peak behind the scenes into the life of an undercover police officer. I've never seen another show on television to compare to this for the starkness of its depiction of the life people like Tommy Murphy have to lead in order to do their jobs. On top of that the show makes no attempts to hide any of the moral ambiguities associated with this type of work and in the process reminds us the gap between those who commit the crimes and those who prevent them isn't as wide as we'd like to think. For while there's no doubt who the good guys are, they tend to think a little too much the same as the bad guys for comfort. You might just end up agreeing with Callard when he tells Murphy at the end, "I could have been you and you could have been me". Only a really good television show would be brave enough to say that, and only the best of those have the ability to create a world where it is believable. This is one of those shows.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

(Article first published as DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet on Blogcritics.)

December 28, 2010

My Top Ten DVDS 2010

This is something new for me, in fact its a first. In all the time that I've been critiquing I've never put together a list of the movies/DVDs which have appealed to me most in a year. So what's so different about this year that all of a sudden I feel compelled to inflict my opinions on you? Looking over the list of movies I've selected the only reason I can think of is because none of them are ones that are going to be getting much, if any attention, elsewhere.

Let me be clear, I've not put this list together just because they are the ten most obscure movies of the year, they just happened to be ones that I've liked the most from those released this year on DVD that I've reviewed. There are other movies I've watched this year I might have liked more, but they weren't current releases or I didn't review them. (Primary among those was the film adaptation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books set in 17th century Spain, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen in the title role. It's taken me nearly two years to find a copy of the movie as its never been released in English speaking North America, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the South American DVD do so as its a brilliant film) However, that does not diminish the worth or quality of the titles listed below as each has something of value to offer an audience.

You might not necessarily be entertained, and I wouldn't recommend sitting down and watching all ten of them back to back, but the viewing will never be boring. I've never been a big fan of the passive entertainment that's normally on offer in our multiplexes and cinemas, and the list below is reflective of my tastes, so my choices aren't likely to have much in common with similar retrospectives. Hopefully you will be intrigued enough to follow the links to check out the full reviews and maybe even watch one or two of them. They may not be what you're used to, but they're all fine examples of the art of film making and the power of visual communication.

Che: The Collectors Edition. This three disc collection contains both parts one, The Argentinean and two, Guerrilla of the movie tracing Ernesto "Che" Guevara's life as a revolutionary. From his success in helping Fidel Castro overthrow the American backed Batista government in Cuba to his death in Bolivia, we follow him through the jungles of South America. While there're obviously going to be disputes over his place in history, hero or villain, there can be no disputing this is an excellent movie and that Bencio Del Toro gives the performance of the decade in the title role of Che. Complaints have been made that the movie ignores the executions he ordered and is biased, but after more than a century of a pro American bias in history books, the media and film when it comes to Latin America, isn't it about time we see and hear something representing another opinion?

The Yes Men Fix The World. About a month ago the mighty oil company Chevron was publicly embarrassed when their new ad campaign was subverted by press releases under their logo announcing they were taking full responsibility for all the environmental damage they've caused. Naturally they were outraged and said they would never admit to any wrongdoing or take any responsibility for any actions they may or may not have done. The Yes Men had struck again. Andy Bichlbuam and Mike Bonanno have been doing their best to take the corporate world to task for decades. They've done everything from go on live television as representatives of Union Carbide Chemicals promising to finally clean of and provide proper compensation for the disaster in Bhopal India to appearing as representatives of HUD in New Orleans after Katrina announcing the government had changed their mind and would rebuild all the public housing destroyed in the hurricane.

This movie documents the various actions they have taken around the world, showing us how they go about preparing for events, and just how gullible most of the corporate world really is. Unfortunately, as they are the first to admit, while they may be having a good deal of success increasing public awareness of what corporations like Chevron are up to, they're not having much success in stopping them. While corporate America might claim to be victims after a Yes Men prank, after watching this movie you have to wonder how that's possible. A multi billion dollar corporation on one hand - two guys, some friends, a good graphics program and a whole lot of chutzpah on the other hand, and the former are the ones crying foul because they're being called on their failures to take responsibility for destroying the world and the deaths of thousands of people? After watching a documentary like The Yes Men Fix The World you begin to understand why the world is in such a mess and how much work we still have to do in order to have a hope in hell of fixing it. At first this is a bit of a laugh, and although it ends hopefully, the overall impact is the realization we need millions of Yes Men if we ever hope to change the world.

Lost In La Mancha. Anybody who has any illusions left about the film industry will quickly have them dashed after watching this documentary about Terry Gilliams attempts to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. What was supposed to have been a project on the part of two film students, follow the director of a major motion picture through the process of making a movie from pre-production to screen, ended up becoming a record of the insanity involved in producing a film in today's market. As Gilliam discovers there is little or no room for artistry or imagination in this world as all anybody is worried about is the box office after the fact, not how you get there. The truly depressing thing about this documentary comes at the point when you realize the potential being lost with this movie remaining unmade. Without being overt, but just by letting the facts speak for themselves, Lost In La Mancha shows just how far removed film making has removed itself from anything close to representing an artistic vision.

Black White & Grey. I'd wager that most Americans who even think they know something about the visual arts wouldn't be familiar with the name Sam Wagstaff. However if you have any interest in photography as an art form, according to this DVD, its Sam you have to thank for it being considered something other than a poor cousin to painting and sculpture. The movie traces Wagstaff's career in the arts from a curator who championed experimental art in the early 1960s, an independent collector of first objects d'art and then photographs, to patron of the arts through his championship of his lover, the brilliant but controversial photographer, Robert Maplethorpe. As is usual with this type of film a great deal of what we learn about the man comes from other people's opinions, and some of the talking heads are just a bit catty and should be taken with a couple of tons of salt. However, people like poet and rock singer Patti Smith not only provide a good deal of insight into Wagstaff's motivations for collecting, but go behind the rumour and innuendo in describing his and Maplethorpe's relationship. While remaining relatively unknown outside of those active in the art world, without people like Sam Wagstaff it is impossible for a country to reach its potential culturally. Not a visual artist himself, he had an eye for knowing what was real and the courage to champion unpopular work. This is a moving portrait of one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary art in North America.

The End Of Poverty?. Anyone out there who still doesn't consider the economic imperialism of the developed world to be the root cause of poverty in Africa, South America and Asia needs to watch this movie. Interviews with economists, historians and individuals from various countries whose lives have been effected by the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show both how the system works and its results. When a country is forced to allow foreign corporations to develop their national resources so they receive little or no economic benefits and have no say in how the development takes place the situation is bad enough. When the raw product is then shipped overseas for processing and then sold back to the country again at usurious prices the effects on their economy are crippling. It's more than obvious after watching this movie that the answer to the question of the title is, there is no end in sight when it comes to poverty. You may want to deny what your hearing and seeing at first. but the arguments and testimony are too compelling to be ignored. By the end of this film you will have to agree there is a serious problem and the only way it can be addressed is if we radically change the way we treat the developing world.

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam. This is rock documentary with a difference. Inspired by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacore he and a collection of Islamic punk bands head out on a barnstorming tour of the US with their ultimate destination being the Islamic Society Of North America's national convention. When the tour is over, the cameras and Knight then follow one of the bands over to Pakistan where they are attempting to start a punk movement in their parents' homeland. For Knight it is also a chance to re-visit the mosque where he first studied after converting and to continue his exploration of his new faith by visiting the shrines of various Sufi saints. While a bit rough around the edges the movie does a good job in not only capturing the excitement felt by the young people involved in the tour and their fiercely independent attitude - best expressed by Knight as giving the finger to both Bush and fundamentalist Muslims. The movie also introduces us to Knight, a figure of interest for having converted to Islam at seventeen, and we learn he is a very complex and intelligent man not afraid to take responsibility for past mistakes and willing to accept the challenges converting throw at him. A fascinating portrait of a man that will also offer viewers a far different view of Islam than is normally seen in popular media - a view that as many people as possible need to see.

A Single Man. Aside from being one of the most beautiful examinations of life and death ever depicted, a wonderful script, and amazing cinematography this film should be compulsory viewing because of Colin Firth. Maybe there have been more flamboyant performances by an actor in a movie before, but this, to my mind, has to have been one of the most complete I've ever seen. Everything, from his body language to the way he uses his voice conveys something of his emotional state every step of the way through the movie. Their is such grace and economy of movement in everything he does that you almost forget he is acting. It's still beyond me how he could have failed to win the Oscar for best actor. If you haven't seen this movie yet, do so now as its brilliant.

Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire. In 1972 Leonard Cohen was probably at the height of his international popularity as a singer/songwriter. On his twenty concert tour of Europe that year he was joined by documentary film maker Tony Palmer who followed him with cameras on and off stage from Dublin Ireland to Tel Aviv Israel. For various reasons the film was never released and it was only in 2009 Palmer was informed the raw footage had been found in a warehouse in Los Angeles. After a year of restoring and doing what he could, he came away with this remarkable portrait of both Leonard Cohen the individual and Leonard Cohen the performer. You'll be surprised at both Cohen's sense of humour and the intensity of his passion. While there are obvious deficiencies in the sound quality, the tour was plagued by equipment trouble, the concert footage is wonderful for its intimacy and the way it captures the connection Cohen has with his audiences. While one movie will never be enough to reveal Leonard Cohen, this one does a remarkable job in peeling back some of his layers.

Infidel. There are occasions when a little irreverence is a lot better than a ton of seriousness, and this movie is proof positive of that. Completely without shame this movie makes fun of fanatics on both sides of the Muslim Jewish divide without ever losing sympathy for the individuals caught in the middle. Omid Djalli plays a British born man who is the son of immigrants from Pakistan. Naturally he has always assumed he's a Muslim, but when his mother dies he discovers not only was he adopted but he was born to Jewish birth parents. At first he tries to overcompensate, making blustery anti-Zionist comments, but soon he decides he must get in touch with his real roots. He turns to a Jewish taxi driver, Richard Schiff, who teaches him dance steps from Fiddler On The Roof, how to shrug and say Oi-vey and other essentials of Judaism. This movie is bound to offend people on both sides of the issue who take themselves too seriously, and brings a much needed human face to the divide between the two faiths. People tend to forget that Jews and Muslims are kin from way back, and its politics which truly separates them not religion. Hopefully this movie will help us all remember the things we have in common are more important than those which divide us.

Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother If you ever needed proof that notoriety is probably the worst enemy of art, this two DVD set is a perfect example. Each DVD contains footage from one of the last two public readings American poet Charles Bukowski ever gave. Over the years his rough and honest poems and his vivid descriptions of the rough life of an alcoholic garnered him a literary reputation as a great writer. Unfortunately far too many people were unable to separate the man from his work and would show up at his readings in the hopes of seeing some "action". So while the record of the two readings does give us a great idea of his abilities as a writer, we also quickly see why he stopped giving public readings more then fifteen years before his death. He can barely get through a poem's introduction without being heckled, and is reduced to having to yell at the audience to shut up so he can keep reading. Even his occasional reminders that they paid for him to be there, and he'll happily sit there and say nothing if they don't shut up, doesn't stop them from acting like idiots. It's a real pity, because if they bothered to listen they would hear between the lines the real beauty and pain that he describes in his poems and might just realize he's not anything like they think or expect. Watching these movies lets you know just how much our expectations of those we call celebrities can actually destroy the art we claim to appreciate.

(Article first published as My Ten Best DVDs Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2010

DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou - 1971 - 1973

The death knell for the innocence of the flower power years of the 1960s was first sounded by the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy in 1968 wiyh the latter resulting in the eventual election of Richard Nixon to his first term as President of the United States and an escalation of the war in Viet-Nam. With Nixon in office, and the body count rising in South East Asia, the non-violent protests of the 1960s were soon a thing of the past. In 1971 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students demonstrating against the war at Kent State university resulting in the deaths of four protesters. All of a sudden music about love, peace and LSD making the world a better place wasn't such a good fit for the times as people didn't really want to be reminded about what was going on around them but preferred entertainment which would help them forget their troubles.

The Glam - short for glamour - Rock movement which saw rock bands doing everything from wearing their girlfriends clothes on stage, (The New York Dolls) wearing elaborate costumes, dying their hair and slathering on the make-up, was, on the whole, escapism to the max. More concerned with style than substance the music was a harbinger of what was later to become known as the ME decade. Self indulgent, flashy and quite often musically simplistic, Glam Rock wasn't about social change, it was about everybody having a good time and rock and roll superstars preening in the spotlight. Of course that wasn't true of all those at the time, there are always those who find a way to transcend a genre and make a definitive statement about themselves and their music at the same time.
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According to a new documentary, The Sacred Triangle: David, Iggy & Lou 1971 - 73, being released on DVD November 23/10 by Chrome Dreams on the and distributed by MVD Entertainment, three such exceptions at the time were David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. While these three men are now well known singers and songwriters for a variety of reasons, the early 1970s saw each of them at a crossroads in their respective careers. Bowie was still looking to breakthrough as a popular performer; Reed was looking to start a solo career after his break with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and Pop was trying to recover from the excesses of the original Stooges.

The movie provides the usual rock and role documentary mix of talking heads, period concert footage and pop culture history lesson to tell its story. Although Bowie ends up being the pivotal figure, we learn that the impetus for his shift to the theatricality of Glam Rock, and by extension the Ziggy Stardust album which catapulted him to fame, was the work being done under the umbrella of Andy Warhol's Factory in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While The Velvet Underground's music and gritty lyrical content were responsible for his shift from being a solo performer on twelve string acoustic guitar to fronting a hard edged rock band, it was the outrageousness of Pork, a theatrical performance produced by Warhol in 1971, that inspired his stage shows and encouraged him to create the androgynous character Ziggy Stardust.

While the movie never says so overtly, one also gains the impression that Bowie also liked the idea of being an impresario along the lines of Warhol. For shortly after his initial success he formed MainMan Management, a production company. In fact, from information given in interviews, Bowie's ex wife Angie in particular, the feeling is that at that point in his life he was more interested in being a star first and a musician second and the latter just happened to fulfill the former goal. Former Factory denizen Leee Black Childers, who was later a vice-president of MainMan, is also interviewed, and explains how Bowie became the producer of record for Transformer, the album that brought Lou Reed into the public eye as a solo performer. He also talks about MainMan's attempts to work with Iggy Pop at this stage and how the one album they produced of his pretty much sank without a trace.
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The Sacred Triangle does a good job in bringing the history of the era and the key players to life. Those interviewed, including Jayne, (Wayne) County, were all able to talk intelligently and informatively about the three men and the events surrounding the period in question and to explain how the careers of Bowie, Reed and Pop ended up intertwined at this critical juncture in all their careers. However, what it doesn't do is live up to its title. While I've been an admirer of all three men at various points in their careers, the movie failed to convince me that there was any justification in referring to their collaboration at this time as the most dramatic shift in musical style since the beginning of the rock age, as the blurb on the DVD's packaging claims.

In fact, while there is no denying the music produced at the time was interesting, the lasting impression created by the film was of a movement based on titillation and a desire to shock rather than any great artistic motivations. There is something almost superficial about the way the movie treats its subject matter with the result at the end you're left saying, so what? If you were looking to gaining any new insights into either one of Bowie, Reed or Pop, you will come away disappointed. I've always considered Glam Rock to have been one of the symbols of how far rock and roll strayed from its roots in the 1970s by the way it seemed to celebrate fame and the cult of personality over the music. While that might be an unfair assessment on my part The Sacred Triangle did nothing to change my opinion. As far as I'm concerned, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie succeeded in spite of their association with Glam, not because of it. In fact, as it becomes clear in the movie, Bowie was the only one of three who even was part of the genre, and by 1973 he had divorced himself from it by retiring his Ziggy Stardust persona.

As for the technical quality of the movie, little attempt was made to re-master any of the original concert footage so the sound is only basic stereo. While some of the older clips are a bit fuzzy, the producers have done a good job in searching out pieces of as high a quality as possible. Unfortunately their flaws are obvious when they are compared to the material shot specifically for the movie and makes for some rather jarring transitions. It also only serves to emphasis the dated quality of the material, and making it seem even less significant in terms of its importance in popular music's evolution.

Those who are die hard fans of the performers under discussion, interested in background on Andy Warhol and The Factory, or who like early 1970s rock music will probably find The Sacred Triangle interesting. However, the rest of you can probably find better things to do with a hundred plus minutes of your time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Reed 1971 - 1973 on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

October 14, 2010

DVD Review: The Infidel

People are always surprised at how many similarities there are between the Hebrew and Arabic languages: the word for peace in the first is Shalom and in the second Salaam. As both Jews and Arabs are originally from the same part of the world and share a common Semitic heritage it really shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but because of the current political strife between the two over a few thousand square miles of what is basically desert land, its something most of us tend to forget. We also tend to overlook that historically speaking relations between Muslims and Jews were often far better than those either ever had with Christians.

Up until the 20th century Jewish people living under Arab rule fared much better than they did under Christian rule. In the Middle ages when Jews were begin persecuted all across Europe as scapegoats for the Plague and other social evils they were living relatively comfortable lives in Moorish occupied Spain. In the Cordoba region a Jew even served as advisor to the Caliph, something that would never have occurred under a Christian ruler of the time. It's only been since after World War One and the British occupation of what is now Israel that the two people were thrown into direct conflict. Instead of trying to figure out a peaceful means of creating space for the two people to live in the same area after their withdrawal - like maybe making a common country with shared rule - the British arbitrarily drew a line splitting the country and Jerusalem in half. Relations between the two people have been pretty rocky ever since.
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While most people might be hard pressed to find anything humorous about the division between the two people, thankfully there are some who don't think there's any cow too sacred to be tipped on its ass and laughed at. The Infidel, being released on DVD October 26/10 by New Video and Tribeca Films, is bound to offend or piss off everybody who takes themselves far too seriously on both sides of the great Semite divide. Starring Omid Djalili, he played opposite Heath Ledger in the movie Casanova as his servant, and Richard Schiff, best known for his work in the TV show West Wing, as a Muslim and a Jew who are thrown together under highly outrageous circumstances. The movie takes great joy in rubbing our faces in the bigotry and idiocy of the extremists in both religious groups, yet also manages to find the common ground between the two so often overlooked and forgotten.

Djalili's character, Mahmud Nasir a second generation Pakistani Brit, refers to himself as a relaxed Muslim, meaning he would much rather take in a football match than attend mosque. Happily married with two children, the only cloud on his horizon is his son's future father-in-law. It seems the fiancee's widowed mother has re-married a radical Muslim cleric she met in Pakistan, and he will only allow his new daughter to marry "proper" Muslims. In order to make his son happy, Nasir agrees to lay off the beer for a while and to even learn a few lines from the Koran. However, plans hit a really nasty speed bump when he's packing up his late mother's belongings and discovers papers showing he was adopted. Following the paper trail back in time, to his horror he finds out that while he has been raised Muslim, his birth parents were Jewish. Needless to say this results in a wee bit of an identity crises.

At first he tries to cope by becoming more anit-Zionist and anti-Semitic than thou, but when that doesn't help he seeks out the advice of Lenny, (Schiff), an ex-patriot American Jew who lives across the street from his late mother's house. Together they trace down his birth father to a Jewish old age home where Nasir is refused admission to his father's room by a rabbi. The rabbi is worried that the shock of finding out he has such an obviously Muslim son could kill the older man, and tells Nasir he can only see his father if he can be more Jewish. Turning to Lenny for help he begins a crash course in what it means to be a Jew, including learning how to shrug, say Oi Vey, dancing like Topel in Fiddler On The Roof and attending a Bar-Mitzvah. (One of the movie's best lines occurs at the Bar-Mitzvah when Schiff defines a Buddhist Jew as being a person who rejects materialism but keeps the receipts)

While the movie follows the expected pattern; Naisr's Jewishness being exposed at the worst possible moment; his alienation from family and friends; his son's wedding being called off; the denouncing of the radical cleric and a happy reconciliation, the way it travels that road is what makes it so much fun to watch. Schiff and Djalili are an absolute joy to watch working together as they verge back and forth between trading insults and learning to find common ground with each other. The contrast between Djalili's over the top bombast and Schiff's sarcastic wit makes for some of the film's funniest moments. There are times the movie will make most people cringe as it holds up a large mirror reflecting the bigotry each group has towards the other through some of the nastiest Jewish and Arab jokes ever told.
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That's when the movie is its most effective as it forces the audience to confront the reality of racial jokes and answers that old question of "Where's the harm in telling it?" The harm is the underlying hatred that is the basis for those types of jokes in the first place. When Djalili joins in a round of Jewish insults at work as he's still trying to come to grips with his own identity he transforms from a basically likeable guy into both a figure of ridicule and something genuinely ugly. Change the accents and the skin colour and it could be a group of guys in North America hanging around the water cooler making jokes about rag-heads and swearing about the fucking Muslims.

The divisions between Jews and Muslims aren't going to be closed without a willingness on both parts to step down from their positions of self-righteous indignation. The great thing about The Infidel is how it holds both sides up to ridicule while also showing why each also has every reason to be nervous of elements on the other side. It does the truly remarkable job respecting each groups beliefs while pointing out how ridiculous they are being. It may not bring instant peace to the Middle-East, but it might just give some people a different perspective on the situation.

The Infidel on DVD has many of the bonus features we've come to expect these days including commentaries from the two lead actors, the director and the script writer, interviews with the actors and director, a gag reel and bonus jokes. As usual it will sound and look best on newer home theatre equipment as its presented in wide screen format with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Infidel (2010) on Blogcritics.)

September 22, 2010

DVD Review: Richard lll

One of the few regrets I have from my days working as an actor was never having the opportunity to perform in a full length production of any works by William Shakespeare. Having been exposed to his plays from an early age, I was going to the Stradford Ontario Shakespeare Festival with my parents even before I was in high school, I never felt the same dread my contemporaries did when faced with the task of trying to decipher the meanings hidden within his text during school. In fact it was probably attending a production of his Richard lll during high school that inspired me to become an actor in the first place.

It was one of those weekday afternoon school performances meaning the audience was filled with teenagers more interested in being released from the tedium of classes than in attending a play. When the lights dimmed - there is no curtain in the Festival Theatre at Stradford as they perform on a thrust stage similar to the kind used in Shakespeare's time - and then came up again to reveal the actor playing Richard (Brian Bedford), hunched under the weight of his humped back, dragging his leg behind him and withered arm dangling uselessly at his side, nervous giggling broke out and spread like wildfire through the audience. He stood centre stage, and with the regal disdain befitting his character and station, he stared them all down until you could hear a pin drop. They were his for the rest of the performance, from the opening lines to his final plea of, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".
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Needless to say its always been one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays, no matter how historically inaccurate it might be. However, having been fortunate enough to have seen such a magnificent performance of it at an early age, has perhaps spoiled me, for I have yet to see a performance, on film or stage, to match it. Yet, when I first heard that Ian McKellen had starred in a film version of the play, and helped work on adapting the script, I was intrigued. For some reason even though it was initially released in cinemas back in 1995, it has taken until now with MGM re-releasing their film version of Richard lll on DVD, for me to see it.

Part of my hesitation surrounding the film was the fact the director had changed its setting from 16th century England to a fictional England in the 1930s. I've never been a big fan of updating Shakespeare into a contemporary setting, as the language seems to me so period specific, that having people speak in iambic pentameter behind the wheel of an armoured car or boarding an airplane has never worked for me. On the other hand the cast they had assembled for this production was so good that they stood a good chance of pulling it off. For joining McKellen was the cream of both British and American screen actors: Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorn, Kristen Scott Thomas and Robert Downy Jr. in the lead roles and equally talented, but lessor known actors, filling out the supporting cast.

At an hour and forty-four minutes its obvious they have lopped off a good deal of the script in order to satisfy the demands of a film audience. However, they have kept the basic story intact and made good use of film's ability to tell a story through visuals to help fill in any blanks. Richard, Duke of York, (McKellen) is the youngest brother of King Edward, and although hunchbacked and crippled with a withered arm and leg, has successfully led his brother's armies in defeating their enemies in a brutal civil war. While everybody else settles in to enjoy "the idle pleasures" of peace, Richard is only too well aware of his inability to fit into pleasant society. So, as he so plainly puts it in the opening soliloquy, "Since I can not play the lover to entertain these fair well spoken days, I'm determined to prove a villain".

So begins his bloody path to the throne. First of all he has to eliminate his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne), his eldest brother King Edward (John Wood) and his two nephews, the king's sons. Along the way Richard decides he needs a wife, so he marries Anne (Kristen Scott Thomas) the widow of the previous king's son, a man he had killed in battle. With the support of the Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and Sir William Catesby (Tim McInnerny) he manipulates events and people to have himself declared King after both his brothers are dead, and then proceeds to eliminate any potential troublemakers and rivals. Unfortunately, the Duke of Richmond (Dominic West), who Richard fears because of a prophesy naming him a future king of England, escapes his nets and flees to France where he raises an army to help him overthrow Richard.
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While I still have my reservations about the wisdom of setting Shakespeare plays in modern times, I have to give credit to both Director Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen for the job they have done in adapting the script to the screen. Too often film versions of Shakespeare plays don't take full advantage of the medium and end up failing because they can't decide whether they are a play or a movie. The only nod made to theatre here is that instead of having him try to force the appearance of naturalism by speaking them to the air, they've elected to have McKellen address the camera directly during his asides and soliloquies in the opening scenes. While this might be a little disconcerting, it serves the purpose of drawing the audience into the plot quickly and helps set the stage for all future action.

As I had suspected upon seeing the cast list for this production, the performances are exemplary throughout. Shakespearean language is difficult at the best of times, but even more so on film because it lends itself so easily to declaiming rather than sounding like natural speech. However none of the actors in this production fall victim to this and manage to make it sound as natural as possible. Conversations are conducted like they would be in any film, while even in the most heated of moments the actors retain the clarity of speech required to communicate their feelings as well as the words' meanings to an audience.

McKellen is riveting as Richard, the perfect combination of charisma and evil that makes you both repulsed and fascinated with him simultaneously. The way he manages to seduce his former enemy's widow while they both are standing over his corpse is a wonder. Kristen Scott Thomas' reactions as he gradually changes her hatred into grudging respect and pity are a wonder, and only serve to confirm her status as a great actor. Other performances of note are the jobs that both Annette Benning and Maggie Smith do with their respective roles as Elizabeth wife of King Edward and the Duchess of York, Richard, Edward, and the Duke of Clarence's mother. Nigel Hawthorn, although he is killed off early on in the proceedings, as George, the Duke of Clarence, gives a performance that will have you forgetting the cynical civil servant he was famous for on television's Yes Minister the moment he opens his mouth. His quiet dignity is something to behold.

Of all the villains written about or created by Shakespeare, Richard lll is probably the one most love to hate. While this film version of Richard lll still didn't manage to convince me of the validity of setting Shakespeare in modern times, it really strains credibility to have Richard sitting in a jeep stuck in the mud and calling out "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse", both the performances and the way in which it has been adapted for the screen make it worth watching. While the DVD doesn't include any special features, it does give you the option of watching it either in full screen or wide screen and the audio track has been re-mastered for 5.1 surround sound so it can be enjoyed on modern home theatre equipment. It may not be as impressive as a live performance of the play, but it is still one of the best film adaptations of a Shakespeare production that I've seen.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Richard III on Blogcritics.)

September 17, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen- Songs From The Road

It's not often that items are released within a couple of weeks of each other about the same artist where one was originally recorded some forty years before the other. It's especially rare to have two DVDs about the same person with that time difference surfacing one right after the other. The number of performers who have endured from the 1970s to now are few enough as it is, but for there to be anything new under the sun from the past not yet released that is actually worth viewing is as remarkable as the longevity required for them still to be performing today.

Leonard Cohen has actually been around a lot longer then since the early 1970s, but the DVD scheduled for release on August 31/10, Bird On A Wire, was of the never before seen film made of his 1972 European tour. (As of now the DVD has still not been released due to "concerns" on the part of Cohen's current label - you won't even find it listed yet at either the distributor's web site or at Amazon.com) Now two weeks later, September 14/10, Columbia Record's Legacy Recordings has released Songs From The Road a collection of twelve songs taken from Cohen's 2008/2009 world tour. Available as a CD/DVD package and Blu-ray, the songs are taken from eleven of the many venues Cohen performed at during his two years on the road, with two from his November 2008 concert at London's O2 Arena.

While twelve songs might not seem like much of a representation of a career that has spanned nearly five decades, that's not the point of this release. Instead it was an attempt to capture some of what the recording's producer, Ed Sanders, calls the tour's special moments. As we see in the special feature documentary included on the DVD, "Backstage Sketch", it was Cohen's habit at the end of each show to go directly from the stage to a waiting vehicle which would whisk him back to his hotel. Accompanied by only his tour manager and Sanders he would usually not even mention the show just performed. However, over the course of the tour there were nights when something special would have happened on stage which would compel Cohen to talk about the show. Each of these songs represent, either in Cohen's or Sander's estimation, one of those moments on the tour.
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Ironically, just like its predecessor from 1972, Songs From The Road opens with Cohen's Tel Aviv concert. In September of 2009 Cohen played to some 50,000 people at the Ramat Gan Stadium. While that might seem like a strange environment for a performer whose material is as intimate as Cohen's, you can't help but be amazed at his ability to connect to an audience no matter what its size. As he and the band work their way through a beautiful rendition of "Lover, Lover, Lover", the camera pans out over the stadium where the entire audience appear to be holding green light sticks which are swaying in time to the music like some eerily glowing field of grass. Even more than actually seeing the audience react to the song, one can't help but be impressed by the connection it demonstrates exists between Cohen and his audience or the implied power it represents. Yet, the appreciation he shows for their applause when the song ends is so genuine, it's his humility that leaves the strongest impression.

It doesn't seem to matter where he's performing, or the size of the crowd, each of the songs on this DVD manage to capture the sense of communion existing between Cohen and his audience. This is not your typical rock and roll tour with its crowd of worshippers, instead there appears to be a genuine feeling of reciprocity between the performer and his audience. After each song the applause is deafening and Cohen responds by standing before them humbly, either doffing his hat in recognition of their response or saying a genuine "Thank you friends", constantly surprised at the strength of their reaction.

No collection as small as this one will satisfy every fan of Cohen's, but what I liked about it is the mix of classics and lessor known pieces. "Bird On The Wire" and "Chelsea Hotel" are followed on the disc by "Heart With No Companion", "That Don't Make It Junk" and "Waiting For The Miracle", three songs that you won't often find on any greatest hits collection. "Heart", with its decidedly country feel and slightly tongue in cheek presentation, watch for the three back up vocalists doing some line dancing in the instrumental break, was an example of the rather surprising lightness of spirit that pervaded Cohen's performances. This was, after all, the guy who became famous for cutting a rather brooding and romantic figure. However, even though his material has lost none of its emotional intensity, there was prevailing sense of optimism to the proceedings.
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Perhaps the explanation lies not in what was being performed, but in the fact that both audience and performers were taking such joy in being present. This was something that went beyond the audience merely appreciating Cohen and the band's renditions of the songs, and is hard to define. Unlike other concerts where there is a clear demarcation of roles for both performer and audience, the line at these concerts seemed to blur somewhat. It was like the connection between the two was so strong each song became an experience to share, not something one sat back and passively observed.

One of the best examples of this is the recording of Cohen's performance of "Hallelujah" recorded at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Normally multiple stages are in operation at once, but festival organizers arranged it so Cohen's performance was the only one scheduled and he performed for the entire festival crowd. With a crowd that size standing in front of a stage you'd expect to notice people being distracted or looking around. Not on this night at this moment. Every face seemed riveted on the slightly stooped grey suited figure holding the microphone; hanging on his every word and awaiting their cue to start singing along with the chorus. As producer Sanders says in his notes, if he had to pick a moment as a highlight from the tour it would be hearing the tens of thousands of voices raised in a chorus of one word at the end of the song - Hallelujah.

Naturally the sound and visual quality of this CD/DVD package are excellent with the on stage visuals being exceptionally well done providing both wonderful close ups during solos and excellent full band coverage when required as well. However don't look to the special features for any startling revelations or insights into the artistry of Leonard Cohen. While the short documentary, "Backstage Sketch", introduces us to all the other people on the tour; band members, roadies, tour manager and even the tour accountant, Cohen himself only appears incidentally.

While Tony Palmer's film, Bird On A Wire from 1972 provided viewers with extensive back and off stage footage of Cohen and his band, the tour itself was plagued by horrible sound problems. As a result the footage from on stage was limited and not of the quality we're now used to. It was more than adequate considering the conditions and the time, but compared to what you can see and hear on Songs From The Road you truly comprehend the advantages our new technology has given us over films made in the past. While Bird On A Wire might have given us a better understanding of Cohen the man, Songs From The Road allows you a deeper appreciation of Cohen the performer and the amazing bond he has with his audiences.

(Article first published as Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Songs From the Road on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

DVD Review: Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen - Bird On A Wire

In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues where ever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, with him well into his seventies, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words, are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though, even now there are few performers today able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at Isle Of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place - due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning - did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn't what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a twenty city tour that would take him from Dublin Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film,theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding seventeen part television history of Pop Music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed twenty-three movies including concert films of Cream, (Cream Farewell Concert 1968) Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn't happy with Palmer's edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.
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Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like two hundred cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost forty years after it was originally shot Bird On A Wire, has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you'll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary film maker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend there way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it's not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers before hand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen's pleas for restraint things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn't go on.

What we don't know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on stage monitors - meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves - and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty in hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It's a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in, that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren't able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.
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While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he'd only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords so how could they possibly know what song he's about to sing? What's truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer's skill as a director there were times while watching it is easy to forget the footage that is nearly forty years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting back stage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour; backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members; far better than I've ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can't hide how he's feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.
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Like all artists he's plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can't be it shouldn't be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he's not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band off stage, uncertain as to whether or not he'll continue with the show. It's not about pride, or if it is it's the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn't want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back on stage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn't possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we've all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging, Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music's more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won't ever again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

August 23, 2010

Music DVD Review: Jackson Browne -Jackson Browne: Going Home

A couple of years ago I was interviewing Francis Jocky, a singer/songwriter from The Cameroon in Africa, and was rather taken aback by his answer to my question about early his musical influences. "I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne". While it's pretty typical for a kid from Africa to have been listening to Marley, and the fact he was listening to Newman was surprising, what really shocked me was he had heard of Jackson Browne let alone had listened to him in the Cameroon. While I've been listening to Browne's music since somewhere in the 1970s, it's always seemed to me that he's some sort of well kept secret. For a guy who has been playing professionally since he was seventeen and released more records than I can remember off the top of my head, it's remarkable how many people I've met seem to have either never, or only vaguely, heard of him.

Part of that is due to the nature of the music industry, with its your only as well known as your last hit record attitude, and part of that is due to the fact you weren't going to hear any of Browne's music on mainstream radio at any time through the 1980s or 1990s. Long before it was popular, or safe, to be writing and recording music critical of American foreign policy, Browne was one of the few mainstream musicians who put aside his career ambitions to write a series of albums containing songs openly critical of the Regan administration and American Imperialism in general. Writing songs critical of Oliver North, and all the other right wing heroes of the day, quickly assured your songs wouldn't receive radio play during either the Regan or Bush Sr. years. So, by the time that decade had ended the man who had written "Taking It Easy", "Late For The Sky", "Doctor My Eyes" and "Running On Empty" - FM radio hits through-out the 1970s - had disappeared off most people's radar.

I often wonder if the Disney Channel knew exactly who Browne was back in 1994 when they presented Jackson Browne: Going Home, now being re-issued on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment, to television audiences. Maybe they thought they were presenting the heart warming story of somebody's comeback or something, because I can't see them knowingly giving a ninety minute special to somebody as politically outspoken as Browne. However it managed to get on the air, Going Home is a fascinating mix of documentary and performance footage summarizing Browne's career to that point giving fans an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the man and his work and those unfamiliar with him a chance to see why his influence has been felt half way around in the world in The Cameroon.
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Interviews with Browne and others, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, not only tell the story of Browne's life but allow the viewer to understand this guy isn't your standard issue rock star. We learn from Browne about his jazz playing father and how he grew up in that rarest of things in twentieth century America, a fully integrated household as his father would often rehearse his multi-racial band at home. Not only would that influence him musically, but it would also help shape his way of looking at the world and his social conscience. For as we quickly discover from the conversations with others, even in the days before he was writing "political" songs, he was participating in, and promoting, benefit concerts for various causes.

While there are plenty of pop stars who seem more than willing to lend their names to causes or appear at events, its quickly obvious that Browne doesn't just view them as photo opportunities to salve his conscience like so many others do. One of the most telling scenes in the documentary is a clip of him with having a very serious conversation about the pros and cons of nuclear power with one of the arena staff where one of these events took place. Not only does he genuinely engage and listen to the person he's talking to, he treats him and opinions as equals. How many pop music stars can you think of who would not only take the time to have that conversation but treat the person with that amount of respect?

However, while its fascinating to learn about how Browne helped the Eagles launch their career when they all lived within a block of each other or that he started out his career when he was seventeen at Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York City, my favourite parts of the movie are those when he's filmed hanging out with his old friend, multi instrumentalist David Lindley. For those who don't know Lindley he's one of those folk who seem to be able to pick up any stringed instrument and make it sing. Yet according to Browne what truly distinguishes Lindley is his love of polyester. Lindley wears some of the most god-awful, eye watering and nausea inducing polyester clothes made while performing. Browne takes an almost perverse delight in commenting on Lindley's wardrobe, and in the process reveals his wonderful sense of the absurd.
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Then there's the music. The movie contains twenty-one of Jackson Browne's songs performed everywhere from him sitting in the back of a car travelling with his son, a rehearsal hall with his band as they prepare for an upcoming tour, a recording studio, and finally in front of a studio audience specially brought together for the taping of this special. It's during the latter that he's joined by special guests Nash, Crosby, Lindley and Jennifer Warrens. The songs span his career to that point from early classics like "Before The Deluge" and "Doctor My Eyes" to "Lives In The Balance" and "I'm Alive" from albums released in the 1980s.

To be perfectly honest I wasn't a big fan of most of Browne's contemporaries in the Southern California soft-rock/country scene as I found it mainly insipid and emotionally vapid. So much of it seemed to combine the mawkish sentimentality of the worst country music with boring middle of the road pop - think The Eagles "You Can't Hide Those Lying Eyes" and you'll get the picture. All you have to do is listen to any song of Browne's and you immediately hear the difference. Not only are they far more musically complex and interesting than anything done by those he supposedly influenced, lyrically he has the ability to take highly personal material, with the potential for being self-serving and cliched, and create something that speaks to people on a universal level. We can listen to a song he sings about his own experiences and recognize something of ourselves in it no matter what the topic.

As far as production values go you really couldn't ask for anything better considering the date of the original recording. With DTS Digital sound and the option of either Dolby 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital stereo the audio quality on the DVD is excellent and the video, 4:3 format, is of equally good quality. While some might be disappointed by the lack of special features the movie itself contains more than sufficient musical and biographical content about its subject to keep even the most ardent fan satisfied. While you may wonder at the value of a sixteen year old film, because of the insights it gives the viewer into Jackson Browne and what makes him tick combined with the amount of music included, it remains a valuable addition to any serious music fan's collections. Whether you're a long time fan of Browne's work or know little or nothing about him, Going Home will go a long way towards explaining the its appeal to an eight year old boy in The Cameroon.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Jackson Brown - Going Home on Blogcritics.)

July 5, 2010

DVD REview: A Single Man

At some point in most Western movies featuring Indians a particularly noble savage will turn to the camera and intone, in what Hollywood used to, and may still well, believe be the stilted way they talk, "It's a good day to die". As this usually happens just before a climatic battle scene the words have become wrongly associated with some sort of warrior ethos. However, the sentiment behind them was not meant as some glorification of death in war, but a celebration of a life lived to the fullest. Any day you live should be a good day to die because you have done your utmost to experience everything that has come your way, not because you're about to throw it away by getting gunned down by John Wayne.

While it might seem like quite a stretch to jump from Westerns to a movie about a gay university professor in the early 1960's mourning the death of his long term partner, writer director Tom Ford's adaptation of novelist Christopher Isherwood's novel, A Single Man, being released on DVD June 6th/10 by , is an object lesson in learning how to appreciate the beauty of what life has to offer. However, this is not some sentimental peon to the joys of middle class happiness complete with wife, kids, car and split level ranch house in the suburbs or any such Disneyfied view of the world. The lead character is an outsider from the mainstream in more than just his sexual orientation, as he's an intellectual in a society suspicious of ideas and a foreigner - English - to boot. A neighbour's daughter tells us all we need to know about his place in society when she innocently mentions to him that her Daddy has said something about him being light in the loafers.

The movie follows Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) around on what he supposes will be his last day on earth. At some point in the not too distant past his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident leaving him alone. As the movie progresses we learn about their life together through a series of flashbacks. We don't know how long they were together, but what we see of their relationship is enough for us to realize Falconer's devastation at Jim's death is justified - especially for a gay man at that time period. What other chance is their for him to experience life again in the same way? How could he ever be possibly happy again?
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The emptiness of his life without Jim is beautifully depicted in the opening of the movie as we follow Falconer through his morning routine prior to heading off to work. His despair is an almost palpable thing as he wanders through a house empty of everything but his memories. Everything, from the activity of his neighbours that he catches sight of through his bathroom window to his solitary breakfast, only seems to emphasize his circumstances. He appears to be completely cut off from the world around him. Yet, it's almost as if because he has reached a point of no return, that he no longer cares about about what will happen to him, the barrier he's erected between himself and the world since Jim's death falls away. Little things, like the patent leather shoes and the blue of his neighbour's daughter's dress shine with a vividness that makes them objects of wonder.

We learn a little more about George's life when he gets together with his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a single woman who has seen her beauty fade, her husband leave her for someone younger and her son grow up and leave home. Adrift, with no purpose, she had turned to alcohol and memories of her youth when she and George had a brief affair for solace. In the brief time that he spends with her, we see beneath George's shell as she forces him to loosen up, encouraged by a bottle of gin, and dance with him. There's an intimacy to their relationship that is surprising based on what we have seen of George up until then, but at the same time it's also in the past and holds no real hope of anything for the future.

As we follow Falconer through his final day on earth we are made aware that he is entering what can only be called a period of heightened awareness. When he's not remembering some moment of happiness that he experienced with Jim which makes his present seem even more desolate, he has a series of brief moments where he finds himself fascinated by the minute details of life around him. Director Ford has stressed this division visually as whenever George becomes engrossed in something the colours on the screen become just a little more vivid than they are when he's just going about his day. The technique is used so subtlety its not immediately noticeable, yet as the day progresses we can't help but be aware of them and the effect they are having on George. For when he starts to prepare himself for his suicide at the end of the day, his resolve no longer appears to be as solid as it was at the beginning of the movie. It's as if making the decision to end his life was what he needed to do in order to learn how to live again and appreciate the little things which make life special.
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A movie which places such heavy emphasis on one character's emotional voyage obviously requires an exceptional performance from the actor cast in the lead role. Colin Firth has always impressed me with his abilities as an actor, and he delivers one of the finest performances I've ever seen on screen as George Falconer. From the clinical way in which he lays out those items he wants to be found after his death, how you can read what he's feeling not only in his face but through the subtle changes his body undergoes, to how he manages to be utterly convincing in his portrayal of the process George goes through in the course of the day, everything about his performance is absolutely riveting. It's especially fascinating to watch his interaction with his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) at various points in the film as his attitude changes towards the younger man from slightly exasperated to appreciation.While we're not sure whether Kenny is flirting with him or not, Firth is able to communicate not only his character's flattered response to the attention he's being paid, but how Kenny's enthusiasm for life sparks the renewal of his own interest in living.

While there is no denying what a pleasure it is to watch Firth's performance, nor the excellent job the script and the director have done in making the process George Falconer goes through completely believable, the ending felt like a bit of a cop out. I don't know if its what was in the original story by Isherwood, or if it was handled in the same way, but it was the only part of the movie that felt contrived and was quite frankly disappointing. Compared to the artful, and almost delicate approach taken in the rest of the movie, it was about as subtle as a brick wall. I assume it was meant to be ironical, but to be honest it was just too predictable to be anything but cliched.

The DVD comes with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and is available in anamorphic widescreen format. While the special features are limited to a commentary by director Ford and a making of featurete, the latter is far superior to what you'd normally expect from such things. Instead of the usual thing where everybody sits around talking about how wonderful everybody else is, the interviews actually talk about the characters and the movie's objectives in and intelligent manner. We meet each of the four principal cast members and find out their take on the film, (Interesting side note - the two American male characters are played by British actors, Hoult and Goode, while the British female is played by the American Moore and it was only through the interviews that I found out about Hoult and Goode's nationalities) and the director talks about what he was attempting to accomplish with the script and what it was about the story that attracted him in the first place.

If you didn't have a chance to see A Single Man in the theatres, take the opportunity offered by it being made available on DVD, and Blu-Ray, Tuesday July 6th/10 to do so. Don't let the weakness of the movie's ending dissuade you from seeing this film. It's going to be a long time before you see a performance to match the one given by Colin Firth and a script as life affirming as this one.

(Article first published as DVD Review: A Single Man on Blogcritics.)

May 27, 2010

DVD Review: George Gently Series 2

I have to admit I'm not a big fan of police procedurals; television shows which follow cops through their day to day, but more specifically as they tackle a particularly vexing case. In fact I doubt I've watched anything remotely resembling one on a regular basis since the early days of Hill Street Blues. While I know there are people who swear by Law & Order and others among the wave of new shows of the type that are prevalent on the small screen these days, none of them have ever captured my imagination. Perhaps it's some sort of residual feelings left over from the anti-cop prejudices of my youth, but it takes a pretty special show to make me want to watch people get busted.

One of those shows has just had its most recent series of episodes gathered together as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media for release on Tuesday May 25th/10. George Gently Series 2, continues where the first season left off in following Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw), who after the murder of his wife by London gangsters and sickened by the burgeoning corruption among London police officers, relocated to the north of Britain in an attempt to start over again. Ironically, the Detective Sergeant assigned to assist him, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) is a slick young officer with dreams of a career in the big city, and who occasionally plays a little fast and loose with his ethics. Set in 1964 against the backdrop of an England adjusting itself to reduced role in the world's affairs and on the cusp of major social change, each of the four episodes contained in the set not only have the officers solving a case but dealing with the changing world around them.
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With each show being nearly feature length, around eighty minutes long, the show's writers have plenty of room to develop not only the plot in each instance, but the relationship between the two men. Interestingly enough, while Gently has a stricter moral code than his junior partner, in some ways he's by far more the liberal of the two. For while Bacchus is attracted to the material aspects of the new era, his world view is still rather limited and as a result is somewhat more close minded than his boss. There's a place for everything and everything in its place in John Bacchus' world, but Gently knows better, which leave him open to accepting that things might not always be as they seem. What's wonderful to see is how these characteristics subtly emerge while an episode is unfolding, so we are able to witness the natural development of their relationship and come to understand each of their characters a little better at the same time.

As for the cases themselves they start conventionally enough with the finding of a body and the boys being called in to investigate. However, while there's the usual stuff involved in the solving of the case like the cross examination of suspects, interviewing witnesses, checking the sites for any clues that might have been left behind and the following up of any leads that might develop, we spend far more time getting to know all who are involved with case than is normal for these type of shows. In episode one, for example, Gently With The Innocents, an old estate is in the process of being sold and when the developer who purchased it shows up one morning she finds the former owner dead in the garden. While Gently and Bacchus first suspect the mute gardener as he's found with some of the victim's blood on his shirt. there's far more to the picture then what meets the eye. What is the relationship between the village's police sergeant who was first on the scene, the developer, and the gardener? It also turns out that the old man hadn't wanted to sell but was being forced into doing so by his ex-wife and what looks like a falsified surveyor's report saying the building was in immediate danger of collapse and unihabitable.

Even the most cursory of looks around the mansion are enough to tell Gently and Bacchus the building is structurally fine, so why all this effort to have it sold and destroyed? Those who benefit most are the young woman who bought the place in order to build a housing development and the ex-wife, who now that the husband is dead, will receive all the money from the sale.Yet as their investigation continues Gently and Bacchus start to peal back the layers of mystery surrounding the building and those who owned it. In the early 1960's the sexual abuse of children wasn't a subject one talked about in proper company, hell it wasn't even a subject most cops would think about as the idea would be so alien to them. However when they find out the building was once a child's home, and then discover a boarded up basement containing a bed and the former inhabitants' old medical files, the picture that develops, while not pretty, can't be denied.
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What's fascinating to watch isn't just the police officer's disgust and anger at what's happened in the building over the years, but their gradual giving in to understanding and then believing what had happened. Not even world weary Gently who has seen the worst of what big city crime has to offer can get his head around the idea initially. That attention to detail is the hallmark of all the episodes. When social issues we're familiar with, like racism, birth control, and abortion, are brought up in other cases, they are done so in the context of the time period.

During the questioning of a suspect in Gently In The Blood Gently has to catch himself from using a racist epithet at one point, and admits to his younger partner how a few years earlier he had found himself making a similar slur and is unable to explain why he did. In another episode, Gently In The Night, while investigating the death of a pretty young woman their inquiries lead them to a doctor who they discover is guilty of giving birth control pills to unmarried women. It's touches like these that give each of the episodes a verisimilitude that merely using appropriate costumes or driving the right model of car can't match.

Shaw and Ingleby continue their high level of work from Series 1 with Ingleby in particular bringing more depth to his character of John Bacchus this time round. He's like a young child who resents that he can't have everything he wants, but who is gradually growing up and learning that some things are worth more than others. He's still trying too hard to impress his boss for all the wrong reasons, but at least he's no longer making the wrong decisions while doing so. More and more you see him beginning to have doubts about his earlier ambitions of moving to London. While he continues to spout them, you have the feeling it's more from habit than anything else and that he just hasn't figured out a way of backing down from them without losing face. Shaw's Gently continues to bear the scars of his time in London, but he shows a great deal more humour than before. While the anger he displayed in the first series is still there, it's now not as close to the surface and he's become far more open than he was in "Series 1". It will be interesting to see how the two characters develop in future episodes - Series 3 began filming in January 2010 - and I look forward to seeing what the writers have in store for both of them.

While George Gently Series 2 only comes with some basic special features; text interviews with Ingleby and Shaw, production note, and some historical data about 1964, you will see some familiar faces making special appearances in some of the episodes. In particular watch for Mark Williams (Mr Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) giving a remarkable performance in Gently In The Night. While I know people have become used to all sorts of special features and bonuses with DVD packages, in this case the actual material is so special that it doesn't need any bells and whistles to make it any more attractive. You're still not going to find a better police procedural television series anywhere on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently Series 2 on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

May 20, 2010

DVD Review: Griefwalker

Death doesn't seem the most inspiring of topics for a film does it? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say that the majority of us do our best to go through our days without thinking about death or dying. After all who wants to think about such a gloomy subject? What purpose would it serve anyway? Wouldn't thinking about your impending doom, because we are all going to die eventually, just serve to depress us? So it might surprise you to hear somebody say that by denying our eventual deaths we reduce our ability to live our lives to their fullest.

Stephen Jenkinson has a Master's Degree in Social Work, is a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, worked in the centre for children's grief and palliative care in a major children's hospital in Canada and as an associate professor in a Canadian medical school. He counsels individuals and their families helping them come to terms with their impending death and all its implications. He also lectures and leads workshops for people who work in palliative care and offers workshops to the general public on how to get the most out of your life - through a better understanding of death. Griefwalker, produced by The National Film Board Of Canada and distributed by Alive Mind Media, is a documentary about Jenkinson that was filmed over a twelve year period by director Tim Wilson who also happens to be Jenkinson's friend.

There are two parts to the film; one deals with Jenkinson and his work and includes footage of him working with clients, leading seminars and interviews with people who have worked with him, while the other is a mixture of the director's personal recollections of his relationship with Jenkinson and an examination of the man's philosophies and how his approach to life has shaped them. At times the director steps out from the behind the camera and becomes part of the film as he cross examines his friend or recalls personal memories. For at one point the director had come close to dying after what was supposed to have been routine surgery and Jenkinson had said something to him that pissed him off at the time. In the movie the two men discuss that time and it works into their discussion on death and people's relationship to it.
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The interviews with clients are some of the hardest things you'll ever watch in a movie because of their simple realism. These are real people talking about their circumstances and that makes it all the more poignant. There are two incidences where we are witness to Stephen at work counselling people, and a third is a young couple recounting their experiences with him when their infant daughter died. What we quickly find out about Jenkinson is that he's genuinely serious about helping people come to terms with the reality of impending death, and does so by forcing them to confront their fears. He doesn't come across as necessarily sympathetic - at least in the sense we might think of based on the sentimental ideas of sympathy we've been raised on. However there can be no doubting his compassion for the people he is dealing with as he coaxes them into admitting what they are really feeling or facing up to their situation.

The case of the young couple is a good example of this. Their baby was being kept alive by blood transfusions. Every two or three days she would need another transfusion but there was no promise of her ever recovering. The mother recalls how Jenkinson gradually helped her realize how she was in denial about her baby's chances of survival by making her say out loud the false hopes she was clinging to in her head. Eventually she and her husband took their baby home where she could die in peace and without pain. They were able to enjoy their child's last days to the fullest because of this instead of the gradual wasting away that would have occurred in the hospital.

I've a natural mistrust of people who assume the trappings of a culture other than there own as most of the time they have only a superficial knowledge of what they've adopted and make no attempt to actually live their lives according to what they supposedly believe in. So the sight of Jenkinson with his hair tied back in a braid was at first slightly off putting. However as the movie progresses you come to realize this is not someone who had merely taken on the appearance of his Algonquin neighbours, he has an understanding of their culture and belief system, and attempts to live his life accordingly. He has also looked to indigenous cultures around the world for the basis of his program for teaching people how to cope with death based on their connection to the world around them.
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The movie does a great job of only presenting Jenkinson's ideas on death and dying, but introducing us to the man and showing us not only how he formulated his concepts, but how the life he has chosen to live embodies them. He is what he preaches and does his best to live according to what he espouses. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, and the movie is a pretty convincing argument in favour of what he has to say about our fear of death and how that impacts our quality of life, you can't help but admire him for his dedication to helping people and his compassion for everybody he comes in contact with.

Probably everyone has seen a silly Western movie at some time or another where an Indian character on the verge of going into battle will say "It's a good day to die". However, the real meaning of that expression is live each day as if it were your last and enjoy it to its fullest. Greifwalker is the story of a man who does his best to make any day a good day for people to die in by helping them confront and defeat their fears surrounding death. While the DVD doesn't come with any special features, the person you meet in the film is probably one of the more special people you'll come across in a long time.

If you're interested in learning more about his counselling services and workshops be sure to go to his Orphan Wisdom web site where you'll find complete descriptions of what he has to offer and a listing of his scheduled appearances - so far - around North America for 2010.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Griefwalker on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.


(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

April 28, 2010

DVD Review: The End Of Poverty?

In the early 1960's a young man was sent by the CIA to try and assassinate the president of Iraq who was trying to divert some of the profits from the oil his country produced to stay in his country. The assassination was a failure and the young man, Saddam Hussain, barely escaped with his life. Not willing to trust such an important action to amateurs again, the CIA arranged for the president to be overthrown and executed on public television in Iraq and installed Hussain's family as rulers. Earlier, in the 1950's, when the democratically elected president of Iran tried to do the same thing, the British government on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) approached their former comrade from WWll, President Eisenhower, to see if he could take care of the problem for them. The CIA arranged for the deposing of the Iranian president and installed the Shah of Iran in his place.

Since the end of WWll a new economic colonialism has arisen to replace the old empires of Europe that has ensured, despite countries winning their political independence they are still subject states whose domestic and economic fates are dictated by decisions reached in the corridors of power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been assuring us in the developed world that the only hope for the future lies in the globalization of trade, they've not bothered to explain whose future is at stake. If in the last thirty years the number of people in the world going to bed at night hungry, dying of malnutrition and related disease, and living on less than a dollar a day has at least doubled, while a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population controls a greater amount of it's wealth, what does that say about globalization and and who it is helping?

While the connection between economic policy and CIA assassinations might not seem obvious to some, according to information presented in the documentary The End Of Poverty?, being released on DVD April 27th/10 by Cinema Libre Studios, they are both serving as means to the same end - keeping the control of natural resources the world over in the hands of a small minority. Not only has this resulted in increased financial hardship for the citizens of the affected countries, it has also seen the almost complete degradation of their social structure as vital services like health and education have either been reduced to a fraction of what they once were or simply become beyond their ability to afford. For not only have the countries lost any of the profits associated with the harvesting of natural resources, they have no access to them either as they are all shipped back to the home country of whichever company "acquired" the rights to them. Resulting in the country in which they were produced having to buy back they wish to use.
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The resulting loss of capital and needless expenditure means they have less money to spend on social programs and those costs have to be borne by somebody. That somebody turns out to be the people, who for the most part can't afford to pay the fees for sending their children to school or receiving even the most basic medical attention. When you barely earn enough to feed and house your family, paying for a doctor or schooling becomes luxury items you can't afford. Of course that means a new generation is being raised the world over with a skill set suited only for the most menial types of employment who have no hope of improving their or their children's lot in the world.

As The End Of Poverty? points out though, there's a fine tradition of these practices dating back to the 1500's when Spanish conquistadors first came to America. They were a little less subtle in their methods as they simply slaughtered anyone who stood in their way, and then began the process of carrying away as much of South and Central America's valuable natural resources as they could stuff in the holds of their ships. At the same time they began using the rest of the land to create plantations to grow crops suited for export, coffee and cacao primarily, depriving the local populations of even the means to grow sufficient food to sustain themselves. The same type of practices were carried out all over the world in one way or another by the Dutch, British, Germans, French, and Belgians in Africa, Asia, and North America.

The British and the Dutch took it one step further and stopped local crafts people and artisans from manufacturing goods made from these resources. They then stole the techniques used by textile workers in India (British) and pottery makers in Indonesia (Dutch) and created their own industries in the same products and sold them back to those who were no longer allowed to make them anymore. By the time the colonial powers were ready to surrender control over their colonies in the 1950's and '60's, they left behind countries with no industry, land that had been worked to death growing single crops, untrained and poorly educated populations, and massive debts from having to import everything.

It's at this point the new form of colonialism takes over, involving a mixture of bribes, threats, coups, assassinations and in some cases armed interventions. While numerous people were interviewed during the course of The End Of Poverty? from government officials, economists, to individuals from various countries describing the conditions they lived under and the way the current economic system sustains poverty, the two who were the most chilling were Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and author of Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Republic and John Perkins formerly employed by American business interests as an Economic Hit Man and author of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. While Chalmers confirmed things like the CIA's involvement in the assassinations of heads of state and coups to get rid of governments unfriendly to American business interests, Perkins was, if anything, even more scary in his description of his former job.

As an economic hit man he would meet with the leaders of developing countires in order to convince them to take out crippling loans in order to finance major infrastructure projects to be built by American firms. As a result of their debts these countries would then be forced to sell off the rights to their natural resources in an effort to pay back what they owed, usually to the company who was hired to build the project that caused the debt in the first place. He said that his arguments to convince leaders basically came down to you can accept this bribe and sign the contract or else we will replace you with someone more willing to assist us. According to him the assassination of world leaders from the Congo to Ecuador over the last fifty years can be laid at the door of these practices.

With the majority of the land in the hands of either large corporations or individuals and being used to either grow crops that offer no benefit to local populations or are strictly for export purposes people can't even grow their own food to offset their lack of income. As we find out when the cameras travel to Kenya and interview local farmers in the Rift Valley area, even holding on to your land doesn't help. Dominion Foods of the United States was allowed to dam the river to service their agribusiness in the valley and proceeded to flood the grazing lands and fields of all the local farmers. Land which had sustained them for generations has now been turned into swampland which means not only can't it be used for crops any longer, but the mosquito population has increased bringing with them malaria and other associated diseases.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to dismiss everything said in this movie as anti-American propaganda, the whining of liberal bleeding hearts, or socialist rhetoric. However, anybody who doesn't have some sort of vested interest, be it philosophical or financial, might start to realize after listening to so many people from so many different countries all over the world describing their circumstances, this has nothing to do with politics or national sentiment. People are starving to death on a daily basis in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension and it could easily be prevented. They might even start to agree with the conclusion John Perkins has reached; that as long as people's lives anywhere in the world are unstable because of poverty, nobody's life is secure. It took the events of September 11 2001 for him to come to the conclusion that something has to change for all our sakes - what will it take to convince you?

The End Of Poverty? is not easy to watch because of the information it imparts. However there's nothing wrong with how its delivered as everything is told in as direct manner possible in language anybody can understand. The special features include even more information as they contain in depth interviews with some of those who appeared in the film and some additional experts as well. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and aparthaid poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings". We just have to be willing to take action, and this DVD offers some of the most compelling arguments you'll ever hear for taking action. Poverty and starvation exist because of the greed of a few and the ignorance of many - after watching this movie no one will be able to plead ignorance ever again.

April 26, 2010

DVD Review: Murphy's Law

Gritty and realistic cop shows are no longer the rarity they once were. Gone are the days of the squad car with the clean cut officers in uniform helping little old ladies across the street and arresting the bad guys. It was a far less complicated time, when cops didn't swear, cheat on their wives, drink too much or have any of the personal problems that seem to affect cops on television these days. Heck, I doubt the boys on Adam Twelve could have even told you what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was let alone be suffering from it after being involved in one too many shoot outs or seeing one too many corpses.

Nowadays the troubled but honest cop with a checkered history is close to being a cliche. It's amazing there are any cops able to climb into a squad car on television anymore so many of them seem to be in need of therapy of some kind or another. It's come to the point where you have to wonder if there's anything new that can be done with the genre, or at least a way that doesn't flog the same old horse to death. On the surface the six episodes of Murphy's Law, Series 2 to be found on the two DVD set being released by Acorn Media on April 27th/10, appears to adhere to the familiar formula.

Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) has moved from Ireland to join an elite undercover squad in London in an attempt to put his daughter's murder by the IRA behind him. He's slapped on the stereotypical face of the charming wisecracking Irishman to hide behind while working on some of the most dirty and dangerous jobs the force has to offer. Even better, as far as he's concerned, is the fact his job requires him to take on a different persona for each case, giving him one more barrier he can throw up between himself and the rest of the world. Even with that extra twist, it was still a pleasant surprise to find how little Murphy's Law depended on the "troubled cop" for their story lines.
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Instead of spending huge swathes of time watching Murphy agonize at home alone or drinking himself into a stupor because of his past, its merely part of the baggage he carries around with him. Sure there are occasions when it all gets to much for him and he goes on a bender. However, most of the time it comes out in far subtler ways, as in his attitudes towards particular types of criminals or the decisions he makes when on a case. As for the cases themselves he works in a division of the police force which other cops don't even know exist whose job it is to investigate suspicious activity to see whether or not a crime has occurred. Murphy's job is to go under cover, blend in with the environment and ferret out information anyway he can. Needless to say his methods tend towards the unorthodox, but as he gets results his superiors usually have no trouble turning a blind eye to his means.

In the six episodes in "Series Two" Murphy pretends to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic as he investigates the apparent serial killing of homeless women, the mysterious death of a drug squad member, the covering up of a possible toxic waste spill, a victims of crime support group suspected of vigilante activity, a mysterious death in a convent, and joins forces with an Interpol agent in investigating a high end car theft ring. While for the most part the story lines are what you'd expect from the "lone wolf cop who marches to his own beat" type of show, Nesbitt's portrayal of Murphy, and the character's personal history, adds the extra ingredient needed to elevate them above the usual.

On occasion Murphy will let his emotions overcome his sense resulting in either his pursuing the wrong person or making decisions he will come to regret later. Whether sleeping with a suspect or taking the crime he's investigating personally, he always seems to get overly involved one way or another. While sometimes that doesn't work out to well for him on a personal level, it seems to be the way that he operates best. He's pushed to do that little bit extra others wouldn't in order to solve a case. He's not very worried about the legality of what he does either, as he has no problem breaking and entering into premises without a search warrant in order to garner evidence.
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While that type of behaviour might not help obtain convictions in court, as illegally procured evidence is inadmissible, in some cases Murphy appears more interested in justice as he sees it rather than convicting people. Which doesn't mean he's going to kill anyone, but he'll use whatever means he can to bring them to their knees and confess. In some ways you have the feeling that he sees the crooks he hunts down as surrogates for the person who murdered his daughter all those years ago. However, as we find out, no matter how personal it becomes, there's still a line he's unwilling to cross and he won't carry out a sentence on his own.

James Nesbitt does a masterful job of bringing the driven Murphy to life. When the mask slips completely, as it does a couple times over the course of the series, to reveal the deeply scarred man underneath, we see there's more than just grief at work. Guilt and self-loathing over the circumstances in which his daughter died are digging a far bigger hole in his soul than grief ever could. When we see that, we begin to understand why he's so reckless and willing to risk his life, and what drives him to take on the cases nobody else is either able or willing to deal with. He couldn't prevent his daughter from being murdered, or bring the people who did it to justice, so by solving these cases he's able to work off some of his frustration and guilt.

While Murphy's Law may have many elements that will seem familiar from other police procedurals, its elevated to another level by the performance of James Nesbitt. The box set of Murphy's Law: Series 2 may not come with much in the way of special features, a text biography of James Nesbitt, but that's more than compensated for by the one built into it; James Nesbitt. Even if you don't like police shows, you'll not want to miss these if only to witness his portrayal of Tommy Murphy.

DVD Review: Six Centuries Of Verse

Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, it's main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthral them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society alone, they end perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.
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British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic ocean when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27th/10 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990's, the sixteen episodes of the series trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980's. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, there are also a couple of surprises, Lee Remick and Stacy Keach, actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvellous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.
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Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was their attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the "Beat" poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are all ready interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

April 9, 2010

DVD Review: Black, White, + Grey

Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western World have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the Sur-realists absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures, so the definitions of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.

The history of art in the twentieth century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post- war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950's, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.

If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad, it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows, and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
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As the film points out you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met, Wagstaff, describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.

While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
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In the special feature included with film, a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography - people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate - and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.

There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.

Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980's was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However as the movie makes clear their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regards to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.

One of those interviewed in the movie commented on how at one time curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the sixties and seventies - from happenings, installations, to video and performance art - it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to access its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe, and the medium he worked in, that convinced him of there importance. Black, White, + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His more notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.

April 3, 2010

DVD Review: Lost In La Mancha

Back in the 1980's when I was working in theatre the film boom was just beginning in Toronto Ontario. Caravans of trailers, generator trucks, and honey-wagons taking up whole city blocks were still a novelty back then, and people would stand around gawking at the crews setting up a for a day's shooting, hoping for a glimpse of whomever might be staring in whatever feature was being shot. With my experience I could have taken advantage of the work that was coming available, but the little I had learned about the process of film making from those already in the business had left me wary of taking any more than the occasional day work as an extra or production assistant. If I had stayed in Toronto perhaps I would have eventually broken down and taken the plunge, but the more I've come to learn about the world of film production the happier I am that never happened.

Having listened to the drunken ravings of the city's premier set and light designer about having to work in what he called "tunnel-vision" (television) in order to make ends meet, and hearing horror stories about movies never getting off the ground because of producers taking their salaries of the top and leaving nothing left over for the actual making of the film, very little about it appealed to me. Sure the pay was ten times that what you'd make in theatre, but what you'd have to do and the conditions you'd be working under, never seemed to make the pay-off worth while to me. Even back then when there was far less reliance on technical effects and CGI were just initials, there seemed to be very little artistry involved when it came to movie production. In fact originality of thought and vision appeared to be more of a detriment than anything else for those considering a career in film, especially when dealing with the mainstream of North American film making - Hollywood.

I don't think it would bother me so much if they at least would stop with the sham of pretending they have anything to with art. However not only do they cling to the pretence that what they do is art, they've created the circumstances whereby those who are genuinely creative are either frozen out, discredited, or face incredible difficulties having their movies made because they aren't "commercially viable" or fit any of the familiar formulas. Twenty some years after I worked in film, two young film makers, Kieth Fulton and Louis Pepe, made the documentary Lost In La Mancha (available on DVD through Docurama Films) detailing how the system hamstrings genuinely creative people before they even begin shooting a movie. Given unlimited access by the director, Terry Gilliam, their movie, which was to have been a record of Gilliam making a film adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixiote, turned into a recounting of a director's worst nightmare.
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Having been labelled "difficult" and "out of control" (He refused to give his movie Brazil a happy ending so Universal Pictures created a version of it for America with a different ending from that which was released in the rest of the world and won't allow the original to be shown publicly in their) he was unable to secure financing for the movie in North America. What money he was able to raise in Europe didn't allow for any margin of error, so even before Gilliam has started shooting he's having to compromise his vision. However, in spite of the undercurrent of tension that you rarely find in a "making of" documentary, initially everything proceeds much as you'd expect. We follow Gilliam and his department heads through meetings about props and set pieces, sit in on discussions of logistics, and listen to what various people have to say about working with Gilliam and their hopes for the project.

In fact, the impression we receive is that from a technical standpoint everything is on track. The one disquieting note is there seems to be some problems co-ordinating the actors. Due to the budgetary problems the leads for the movie, Johnny Depp, Depp's partner Vanessa Paradis, and French actor Jean Rochefort, have agreed to work for less than what they would normally be paid, but that means Gilliam and company have to set their filming schedule around their other commitments. The trouble is that with time winding down before they have to start filming, they still haven't been able to get all the actors together for costume fittings and screen tests, let alone have any rehearsal time with them. Then, just as they're about to begin filming, Gilliam gets the word Rochefort is unwell and will be delayed.

This is about when the documentary becomes the account of the film's disintegration. For not only does Rochefort's health become a dominant issue, when they do manage to shoot some film they are plagued by everything from jets flying overhead during filming to a flash flood washing away their equipment. As the end of the first week of filming draws to a close it becomes painfully clear that the film is doomed and shooting will have to be suspended. Things go from worst to awful when it becomes clear that the insurance company who was supposed to be protecting them if things like this happened, declared that Rochefort's illness was an "Force Major", or "Act Of God", and not only were they not planing on paying, they ended up owning the rights to the movie through some convoluted business involving film financing.
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While the documentary is heartbreaking for the way in which it depicts how a man's dreams and visions can literally be stolen away from him through no fault of his own. However, you also realize that in spite of the reputation that Gilliam might have of being reckless and irresponsible as a film maker, he is actually the complete opposite. Watching him work with his people in the pre production stages of the movie you see how incredibly prepared he is for shooting with all the detail for each scene planned out to the smallest detail. The picture you receive of Gilliam is of a meticulous craftsman who not only has vision, but the ability to see it through to completion if allowed.

The package Lost In La Mancha is a two disc set, with the first being the documentary itself, and the second special features. The special features include interviews with Depp , Gilliam, and the documentary's directors and producer. It's quite interesting to hear what both Gilliam and Depp have to say about the reactions to the documentary, and how both at the time this was shot, 2003, were still committed to making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. (According to the Wikipedia page devoted to Gilliam he is set to begin filming it again with Depp sometime this year). However for sheer entertainment the highlight of the special features is the interview/conversation between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam that was shot during the 29th Telluride Film Festival. They talk about everything from science fiction movies to Gilliam's history and have a great time dissecting the film industry in the process.

Lost In La Mancha is not just a record of how things went horribly wrong during the shooting of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote its also a fascinating look behind the scenes at the bitter realities involved in the making of a film. While circumstances conspired to derail the production, the fact remains in a better world they shouldn't have been able to force its cancellation. As long as the power over what gets seen in cinemas remains in the hands of a relatively small number of people and we continue to be enthralled more by technology than artistry, originality will become a rarer and rarer commodity. We can only hope brave directors like Terry Gilliam continue to tilt at windmills and fly in the face of reason by attempting the seemingly impossible by taking real chances when ever they step behind the camera.

March 23, 2010

DVD Review: The Yes Men Fix The World

During the night between December 2nd and 3rd of 1984 the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal India released methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the air resulting in what has been estimated as between a low of 2,259 to as many as 15,000 immediate deaths. Now more then twenty-five years after the initial gas leak the 390 tonnes of toxins remaining on the site continue to leak into the surrounding ground water resulting in birth defects, ongoing medical problems and death among those living adjacent to the plant. With Union Carbide now being owned by Dow Chemical, the chances of any real restitution being made to those who suffered from the initial leak, those who are being born sick, or the mess even being cleaned up sufficiently to prevent any future damage appear non-existent.

So the world was shocked to hear a Dow Chemical spokesmen, Jude Finisterra appearing on a BBC World News special commemorating the twentieth anniversary in 2004 announcing the company was going to immediately liquidate Union Carbide and use the money from the sale, around twelve billion dollars, to clean up the site and properly recompense all those who were suffering because of the spill. With their share price plummeting, it fell 4.2% in twenty-three minutes for a loss of around two billion dollars, Dow was quick to release a statement denying they had any such plans and that the person who made the statement wasn't there employee. Who was Jude Finisterra and how did one of the most respected news agencies in the world come to believe he was actually a spokesperson for a huge multinational corporation?

Well, the folk at the BBC shouldn't feel so bad, for according to a new documentary being released on April 1st on DVD by Docurama Films, The Yes Men Fix The World, they weren't the first or the last to be fooled by the brilliant activist duo known as the The Yes Men. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have been travelling the world posing as everything from special assistants to the head of HUD, the arm of the American government responsible for public housing, to representatives of the World Trade Organization in their quest to fix the world. While they have had some great successes dating back to their early days working separately with Mike switching the voice boxes of Barbie dolls with GI Joes and Andy hacking images of men kissing into violent video games, this movie might just put an end to their personal involvement in any future actions.
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You can't go as public as this and tell everybody how you've been so successful in the past without at least somebody out there taking notice. They've let the cat out of the bag and now people aren't going to be as easy to fool. It will probably require more than just a web site saying you're part of Dow Chemical before they invite you to appear before a television audience of over 300 million. In the movie the Yes Men describe their two most dependable methods for attending conferences or being invited to speak at an event. The first is the setting up of websites which give a visitor the impression it is affiliated with the company in question. In the case of the Dow Chemical announcement they had set up a web site called DowEthics.com designed to look like a real Dow site that dealt with issues just like Bhopal and a BBC producer contacted them with an invitation to appear on the twentieth anniversary show.

In other instances they would find out about conferences they wanted to attend - lets say a meeting of over 500 oil industry representatives in Calgary Alberta Canada - and they would contact the organizers and ask them if they would like the head of Exxon to come and speak. At the last minute he won't be able to attend and his special assistant will be flown in to give the presentation and speak in his place. Which is exactly what they did to get invited to an oil industry conference in Calgary Alberta in order to introduce Exxon's newest bio-fuel - candles made from dead bodies. As there were going to be thousands of corpses caused by global warming - why not take advantage of this supply of raw materials? They even came with a sample candle and a video of the loyal Exxon employee who upon discovering he was terminally ill had volunteered himself for rendering.

Aside from detailing some of their more elaborate stunts, they've also included interviews with those voices who represent the free market system. These men, representatives of some of the biggest conservative think tanks in America, make no bones about what they stand for and boast about their achievements. One of them takes great pride in saying how if it wasn't for his group America would have signed the Kyoto accord. Part of the campaign they ran included a commercial, paid for by Exxon, whose tag line was: "Carbon Dioxide - they call it pollution, we call it life." Their logic being since such things as trees and plants breath carbon dioxide the exhaust their industries create support the growth of plant life. Of course they make no mention of the fact that industry has been responsible for such massive deforestation there aren't nearly enough trees left in the world to absorb all the carbon dioxide being produced these days.
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The Yes Men aren't afraid to take their lumps either, and throughout the movie they play clips of the media response to their stunts as well as relaying official statements from various politicians who have been duped by them. Its quite amazing how many times they are accused of playing cruel tricks upon people by creating false hopes. When they went to New Orleans and announced that HUD was changing its mind and would re-open all the public housing instead of tearing it down - public housing that had survived Katrina intact - or announced on world wide television that Dow Chemical was going to finally do what was right - the response was identical. Yet who were the ones who were doing the damage in the first place, who caused all the pain to begin with? Weren't those who made the decision to tear down public housing in New Orleans depriving people of a place to live being cruel? Wasn't the fact that Dow Chemical announced that it had no intentions of making restitution to the people of Bhopal or cleaning up the Union Carbide plant more of an insult to the people living there than anything either of the Yes Men could have said?

To find out Andy and Mike went to Bhopal and met with the people who run the community health clinic for those affected by the leak and with a journalist who not only broke the story, but for five years prior to the leak tried to warn the government the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. The journalist and the head of the Sambhavna Clinic both agreed that while they were obviously disappointed that the offer wasn't real, they thought it was a brilliant way to make the world aware of the ongoing situation and how Dow Chemical was shirking its responsibilities.

The truly scary part of The Yes Men Fix The World is the number of times people have taken them at face value. Whether they're explaining to people how to factor loss of human life against potential profits in order to figure out a projects net value, explaining how corporations should be allowed to buy people's votes in order to stream line democracy, or demonstrating an outrageously silly survival suit to insurance adjusters, nobody blinks an eye and merely want to exchange business cards. They were trying to shock people and ended up shocked themselves. The only times people got upset is when they made announcements about doing something positive for people who were suffering. What does that tell you about the world we live in?

While the feature documentary runs almost ninety minutes, the special features include records of even more stunts the Yes Men have pulled off, as well as going into more depth on some of the projects that were included in the main part of the documentary. For those wanting to know more about the two minds behind the Yes Men there's also some biographical details provided as well as some early attempts at Internet and video activism.

While there are moments of hilarity through-out the The Yes Men Fix The World, and they do their best to end on an note of optimism, it's hard not to feel pessimistic after watching it. Thinking of the literally billions of dollars that are spent annually in order to perpetuate the myth of the free market in the end its hard to believe, no matter how many people take to the streets, no matter how often corporate greed and duplicity are exposed, that business as usual won't continue to be business as usual. Until there comes a time when that changes, nothing much else will. As long as we continue to place a higher value on profit than we do on life that's not going to happen.

March 15, 2010

DVD Review: Che: The Collector's Edition

You don't see that many movie biographies anymore. There was a time when they were fairly common in both Hollywood and Europe, but now the interest in both making and watching them seems to have almost vanished. My guess is most producers and studios now a days think if there can't be a ton of action in it, there's no point in making a movie. If you think about it, the majority of the movie biographies that have been made recently are once about either sports figures (Ali) or performers of some kind (I Walk The Line and Ray). Each of those have set pieces like fights or concerts built in which guarantee there will be more than just people on the screen talking.

So to say I was surprised when I learned somebody was making a movie about Ernesto Guevara, known to most of the world by his nickname “Che” (which is an Argentinian slang word for friend) would be something of an understatement. First of all, the United States is one country where you can definitely be assured that Che's popularity is not widespread, if in fact he's not considered an outright enemy. Who in that country is going to have either the interest or the money to make a movie about a man who spent most of his adult life fighting against the spread of what he called "American Imperialism" in South and Latin America? As it turns out, nobody, aside from director Steven Soderbergh in the Anglo American film community was interested in a movie filmed primarily in Spanish about one of the most well known figures of the twentieth century. In fact it was the actor who ended up depicting Che, Benicio Del Toro, from Puerto Rico, who first proposed the project and was the driving force behind its development.

Originally released theatrically in two parts, The Argentinian, which deals with his time in Cuba during and after the revolution, and Guerrilla, detailing his attempts to bring the revolution to Bolivia in South America, IFC Films released a three disc DVD set, Che: Collector's Edition, in January 2010. The set contains both parts of the movie and a third disc of special features, primarily interviews with those responsible for its creation; Del Toro, Soderbergh, and author Jon Lee Anderson whose biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life inspired the movie. The special features disc also contains a typical "making of" the movie short about the first film, but there was nothing on the second film so it felt like sort of an incomplete package.
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However, any disappointment felt at the special features can easily be overlooked by the quality of the film itself. (As I watched the two discs one after the other I'm treating it as one movie not two) While some might feel slightly daunted by a four hour plus movie that's almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, watching it without a break gives you a far better idea of the scope of Guevara's life and his absolute dedication to his ideals. We first meet him in 1964 when he travelled to New York City to address the United Nations on behalf of his adopted country, Cuba. During his visit he was interviewed by reporter Lisa Howard (played by Julia Ormond) who questions him about the Cuban revolution. The interview, his subsequent speech to the United Nations, and the various activities he participated in while staying in New York serve as the impetus for flashbacks to the 1950's, beginning with a dinner party in Mexico City where he first met Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir).

We then follow Che as he and Fidel lead eighty-two men to Cuba to begin the struggle to overthrow the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Under Batista American corporations owned most of the land which they used for the production of sugar cane and as plantations. The majority of Cubans were uneducated and lived in poverty with no access to medical care and little chance of improving their lot in life. The major objective of the revolution, as stated by Castro and Guevara, was land reform, which would involve the redistribution of land owned by the big companies to the people of Cuba. They also promised universal education and medical treatment, running water and electricity, and a general over all increase in the standard of living for the poor.

The movie shows that right from the beginning, even when they were still only a small force in danger of starvation and death, the guerillas under Che and Castro began implementing what they could of their platform. They established a school for those who joined them so they could learn to read and write – one early scene in the movie shows Guevara telling people they can only join up with the rebels if they have their own weapon and know how to read and write. Once they had the facilities to teach people the guerrillas had to go to school and do studies while they were on the trail. When two guerrillas are caught stealing from local peasants, and raping and killing a family, Guevara has them executed. The revolution is being fought for these people, and anybody who attacks them is an enemy of the revolution.
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There is very little in the movie about either Che's personal life or his life as a government official in the Cuban government. While critics of Che and Cuba will claim this is to cover up the deaths he was responsible for, there are allusions to them made at points in the movie. However, this is not a complete portrait of the man, it is the story of the beginning and end of his life as a revolutionary. We see how as a young man how he was prepared to give up the security of a middle class existence as a doctor in Argentina to go and live in the jungles of Cuba at great personal hardship (he suffered horribly from asthma and at times he is pictured as being almost completely incapacitated by it). In 1966 he leaves his family and his secure position in the Cuban government to go live in the jungles of Bolivia in order to attempt the same type of campaign he had been part of in the 1950's.

The picture we do get of him is that of a man singularly obsessed by his vision to the exclusion of anything else. It is easy to see how he could very easily have ordered the execution of people he thought were conspiring against what he believed in. Those who see this movie as being an overly positive representation of Che, do so only because individual acts are not depicted. However, ask yourself what lengths do you think a person as possessed as the man shown in this movie would go to in order to see his dreams come true? This is a movie about a dedicated revolutionary who will stop at nothing in his attempt to shape the world according to his ideals. Whether we agree with his beliefs or not, we can't help but realize somebody this blinkered in their world view is as potentially ruthless to those he perceives opposing him as he is compassionate towards those he believes he is fighting for.

Benicio Del Toro does a magnificent job of bringing that dichotomy to life. We see a man who is genuine in his caring for people and sincere in his efforts to make the world better for those who are suffering from hardships. His Che is at his most humane and genuine when he's helping the poor in either Cuba or Bolivia. Yet put the same man in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations and he turns into someone you're sure would cut down anyone he thought stood in his way. El Toro also manages to capture that which has made Che the inspirational figure he remains to so many people around the world today. While he doesn't appear to have the charisma of someone like Castro, or any other renowned political leader you can think of, his quiet dedication and his ability to relate to almost anyone he meets on one level or another, make him someone people will not only listen to, but will willingly follow anywhere.

To oppressed people around the world Che Guevara remains a figure of inspiration and hope to this day. To others, he will always be a villain and a murderer. Any film biography made about an individual of this nature is always going to have its detractors who claim it misrepresented who and what he was. Che (The Argentinian and Guerrilla) doesn't do the impossible and find some sort of middle ground which will satisfy those on both sides of the argument that surrounds his status in history. What it does do is give audiences a view of a man who was absolutely dedicated to an ideal at the expense of everything else; his health, his family, and in the end, his life. A good biography should present the facts of a person's life and leave us to evaluate them in order to reach our own conclusions. Che accomplishes that objective even with its rather narrow focus. Dynamic, entertaining, and informative, you couldn't ask for anything more of a movie biography.

March 12, 2010

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1

Adapting any book, or series of books, to either film or television is a tricky proposition as those involved have to decide how to best recreate the authors vision on screen. This usually involves paring the original story down to its bare essentials, and finding a way to visually represent intellectual concepts. This job only increases in difficulty the more popular the original title, as the audience is going to have expectations about what will appear on their screens which the show's creators will have to live up to if they hope to cash in on the success of the books.

It's debatable which is the most delicate when it comes to making an adaptation; ensuring the story adheres to the original as closely as possible, or, bringing much beloved characters to life on the screen. On the one hand if the story deviates too much from the way the author wrote it audiences will leave the theatre feeling let down. However, if the characters they see on screen don't at least bear some resemblance to what the audience expects them to be like you can pretty much kiss good-bye any sort of success with a project, especially if it's an extended television adaptation that will air over a series of evenings.

Reginald Hill's series of police procedural novels featuring the characters Detective Superintendent (DS) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (DI) Peter Pascoe have been international best sellers almost since he published the first book, A Clubbable Woman. The two lead characters, their associates in the fictional Mid-Yorkshire Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and the civilians they associate with, have left indelible impressions on all who have read them, with DS Dalziel in particular being nearly literally larger than life. Those who made the decision back in 1996 to begin adapting the books for television faced the very difficult task of not only bringing to life stories that people were exceedingly familiar with, but ensuring the beloved characters were presented just right.
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Judging by the three episodes that made up the show's first season that have just been released as the DVD package Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1 by BBC America, not only did they succeed in retelling the stories, through a combination of skilled casting and well written scripts, they brought the two leads to life perfectly. Both Warren Clarke as DS Andy Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as DI Peter Pascoe manage to not only recreate their own characters, but have done an excellent job showing the beginnings of their professional and personal relationship.

The three episodes in "Season 1", A Clubbable Woman, An Advancement Of Learning, and An Autumn Shroud, all take place early in Pascoe's career with the Mid-Yorkshire CID. In fact, in the first episode it appears that he has not only just joined the force, but is also new to the area, as his boss spends a good deal of time filling him in about the locals and their stories. Pascoe and Dalziel are the proverbial "chalk and cheese", as the younger man is a university graduate with a degree in sociology while Dalziel is an old school copper who takes great pride in being referred to as "that bastard" and pleasure in announcing that he "scratches his balls in public and farts louder than is naturally necessary". However, as they discover to their mutual surprise, they work well together. It seems the combination of a bull in a china shop and polite intelligence is a very effective rendition of the good cop - bad cop routine.

Over the years Reginald Hill's mysteries featuring these two gentlemen have evolved to the point where the case they are attempting to solve almost serves as the backdrop for exploring a variety of themes and sociological situations. While these three earlier works were far more straightforward, the people responsible for creating the adaptations have still managed to capture those elements that even then separated Hill's work from others. None of the cases are the usual straight forward "who done it's" with a "bad guy", and an innocent victim, nor are the solutions ever completely cut and dried. Certainly somebody is always arrested in the end, but what their ultimate fate will be is another matter all together as there always seem to be mitigating circumstances that are sure to play a factor in their trial and sentencing.
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With each episode being nearly ninety minutes in length there is plenty of time to not only develop the plot slowly, but events proceed at what seems a far more natural pace than we usually see in police procedurals. Not only are the cases given plenty of time to develop, but equal time is given for character development for both our erstwhile protagonists and the other characters featured in that particular episode. Over the course of these first three episodes, and in particular episode three, An Autumn Shroud, special attention is paid to the character of Dalziel. Early on we learn that his wife left him years ago for another man, and although on the surface it doesn't appear as if he cares all that much, we are given glimpses beneath the rough exterior and something of the loneliness that he feels.

Needless to say the acting throughout, the leads, the secondary characters, and the special guests who only appear in individual episodes, is exemplary throughout. As usual part of the fun in watching an older British television show, and this one dates from 1996, is seeing familiar faces and trying to figure out what you might have seen them in since. However no matter how strong the work of those in secondary roles, the series still rests on the broad shoulders of Warren Clarke as Dalziel, and he does a magnificent job in bringing "Fat Andy" to life. He brings just the right mix of bluster, belligerence, and arrogance to the role in the first two episodes to make it obvious its not an act, while at the same time showing a natural intelligence and awareness that make his more introspective moments in episode three seem unforced and natural.

At this stage in the series Dalziel is the catalyst round which everyone else revolves, and the other characters' performances are still based primarily on reacting to their boss. Colin Buchanan's Peter Pascoe has caught just the right note of wry affection warring with impatience at his boss's pigheadedness. He does give us the occasional glimpse of his own intelligence, but at the moment his light is still being hidden by the rather large shadow cast by superior. All of which would be consistent for a person who has only just started working in a new situation for somebody as unique as Superintendent Dalziel.

It's not often that favourite books survive the transition from page to either small or large screen completely unscathed, and maybe there will be those who will be able to find fault with how well Reginald Hill's beloved characters have made that journey, but I'm not one of them. Not only have the episodes in Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1 succeeded in telling the stories with the same intelligence as the author, they have captured the spirit of the books as well. While the DVD package is straight forward with no special features, and the sound is basic stereo as befits the age of the original programming, the quality of the material is so superior that I doubt anyone who liked the books will walk away disappointed.

March 6, 2010

DVD Review: Blank Generation

The late 1970's saw pockets of new artistic expression break out in rebellion against the staid and conservative old order in various cities all over the world. The most obvious example was of course punk rock and its rejection of the glamour and wealth that had come to be associated with pop music stardom. Whereas the Beatles had received honours from the Queen for services to their country, the Sex Pistols penned an attack on the establishment with their harsh and sardonic take on the country's national anthem, "God Save The Queen". However it was more than just a rejection of old standards taking place, as punk symbolized the populist attitude towards the arts of the time.

The "do it yourself", independent spirit that was so much a part of the early days of punk rock, was also to be found in the film world as well. With the advent of video technology, it had become less expensive for an individual to make a film on his or her own without the support of a major studio. This period of independence happened to coincide with the rise in popularity in North America of Germany's great experimental film makers of the day; Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who inspired many both in North America and Europe to become film makers.

One of those who was closely associated with Fassbinder was Ulli Lommel, who ended up working in New York City in the mid to late 1970's, becoming involved with both the punk scene and associated with Andy Warhol. It was during this period that he made the movie Blank Generation, staring New York punk rocker Richard Hell, which has now been re-issued on DVD by MVD Visual. The DVD also contains an all new in depth interview with Hell looking back on those days and commenting on the film. For those of you familiar with any of Hell's music from the 1970's you'll recognize the title of the film as being taken from the title of what was easily the most popular song he recorded with his group of that time, The Voidoids.
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Don't be fooled by the cover of the DVD which reproduces the cover of the old Hell album of the same name, or the fact that it claims live performances of Hell and the Voidoids are part of the film, this is not a film about punk rock, or a punk rock film, in any shape or form. Richard Hell plays the roll of Billy, an aspiring punk "star", and the movie seems to be about his relationship with a French reporter who is supposedly shooting a film about him. Nada, played by Carole Bouquet, is also involved with a journalist from Germany, played by the film's director, who is in New York desperate to interview Andy Warhol.

If that sounds like very little to build a movie around, while you're right, as the film is rather a disjointed mess with none of the scenes seeming to have little or anything to do with each other. One could make the argument that director Lommel was trying to create the sense of directionless and nihilism suggested by the movie's title by showing us the characters own lack of purpose through these scenes. However there is so little of real substance within them, as an audience we quickly lose interest in what's going on with the characters.

As compensation of a sorts there are some great shots of New York City in the late 1970's - the movie was actually shot in 1977 - 78, even though it wasn't released until 1980 - including footage shot in CBGBs of Richard Hell and The Voidoids in concert. While we never see the band for more than a few moments at a time, the scenes inside the bar are great as they capture the look and feel of it wonderfully. In fact Edward Lachman's cinematography is one of the best things about the movie. He has captured the rundown feel of New York at the end of the late seventies perfectly with its dirty buildings, cracked sidewalks, and general air of abandonment. People may not remember, but there was a time in the mid 1970's when New York City came close to declaring bankruptcy, and the film captures the depression and decay of the city at the time.
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As for the music in the film, snippets of four of Hell and The Voidoids' songs are played underneath much of the films activity - with "Blank Generation" being used most often. I assume it was the director's not so subtle way of reminding us what the movie is supposedly about by playing the song as some sort of emphasis, but it starts to become a bit of a joke after a while. It's rather unfortunate, because Hell's music is very good, and a great example of the energy and intelligence that typified the best aspects of punk rock. However, here the music has been trivialized. The incidental music on the other hand is one of the other bright spots of the movie, as it works really well with the cinematography to create atmosphere and set the mood of the piece. It turns out it was one of the first soundtracks composed by future Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthal. I think it tells you something of the films quality when the soundtrack is one of its most memorable parts, but it also says quite a bit about Goldenthal's abilities that he was able to create something as interesting a he did with so little to work with.

The real highlight of the DVD is the forty-five minute interview with Richard Hell conducted by Luc Sante. In it Hell is not only brutally honest about his opinion of the movie and his performance - he thought he wasn't very good as he was horribly self-conscious during the whole shoot - he talks openly and candidly about the whole process involved with making the film. Hell is an articulate and witty individual, and he gives us some interesting background as to what he was doing at the time the film was being made, and what was happening in New York City as well. However both he and Sante are very damming about the movie and director Ulli Lommel with one of the few positive comments Hell having to make about the movie being in reference to Andy Warhol's brief appearance in it as himself. (Warhol was also an associate producer for the movie)

If you were thinking of picking up a copy of the newest DVD re-issue of Blank Generation because you were under the impression it was a concert film, or at least contained some good examples of Richard Hell And The Voidoids' material, you're going to sadly disappointed. Actually you're going to be pretty disappointed in this movie no matter what reason you pick it up for. However, the interview with Richard Hell is great, the movie does recreate New York City of the late 1970's really well, and it contains some pretty cool footage of the interior of CBGBs - so its not a total write off. Its a far cry from being comparable in any shape or form to some of the great art that was being produced at the time, and is more an example of how even during periods of great creative outbursts there are bound to be a few duds.

February 23, 2010

Music DVD Review: Joan Armatrading - Joan Armatrading - Steppin' Out

Whenever I make the mistake of listening to one of those radio stations that promises to play music from the 1980's I end up feeling horriblly confused. How is it that I barely recognize any of the music they play? Where, I wonder, are they finding the stuff they call the hits of the "80's" and what happened to any of the music I listened to? Sure some of the stuff was pretty obscure, but quite a bit of it wouldn't be out of place in today's market, and the folk who played it are still around and recording. Yet somehow they seem to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to being remembered for what they did thirty years ago.

Sure there's always the possibility that my memory could be clouded by sentimentality and stuff that I remember fondly wasn't actually as good as I think it is. Still, the Clash records I listen to today sound just as good as they did thirty years ago, so why shouldn't other stuff that I liked back then? So when I found out that Eagle Rock Entertainment was releasing a DVD of a concert Joan Armatrading gave back in 1980 I was excited. I remembered really liking her back in the early 1980's, especially the two albums that came out in 1980 and 1982, Me, Myself I and Walk Under Ladders. So I figured Joan Armatrading: Steppin' Out, being released on February 23rd/10, would capture some of the same magic I remembered enjoying on those two releases.

The concert was originally filmed for the German television concert series Rockpalast, which from past experience has proven to be a source of some of the better concert discs I've seen. So I knew there would be nothing to worry about when it came to the technical quality of the disc in spite of the fact the concert took place thirty years ago. Sure enough the sound and picture quality were great, with sound being re-mastered to modern specifications giving viewers the option of either DTS digital surround sound, Dolby 5.1 surround, or Dolby stereo.
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With the performance taking place shortly after the release of Armatrading's Me, Myself I, the concert features songs from that album including the title track, "Me Myself I", "Down To Zero", "Mama Mercy", and "Kissin' And A Huggin". What I remember liking so much about Armatrading's studio albums was, unlike others, her recordings always seemed able to capture the intense energy that made her songs so compelling. Even her slower, more romantic ballads, "Love And Affection" for example, had the capacity to hold your attention through the way they captured the strength of her emotional commitment to her material. So I was looking forward to seeing her caught live in concert. Hoping, that like others, her energy would be even greater live that it was in her studio recordings.

Unfortunately, whether it was because something about the recording failed to capture her performance, she was having an off night, or my memories of her weren't accurate, her overall performance seemed quite flat. The exuberance that one might have expected her to show singing songs which on the studio releases had been up-tempo and exciting just wasn't there. Oh the tempo was right, and the performance put on by her and her band was technically fine, it just seemed to be lacking in the soul that had been present on the studio albums.

Something that contributed to that feeling was the lack of connection between her and the rest of the band. While they were all in perfect time and playing together, they gave the weirdest impression of being a collection of individuals who just happened to be playing the same song at the same time, rather than a unit working together to create a performance. Perhaps they had only just started their tour and were still working on building chemistry, but it felt like watching people working in a studio who were only focused on laying down their tracks rather than giving a performance.
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However, in spite of this, there can be no doubting Armatrading's talent. Not only were her songs well written she was a great singer with an expressive voice that had a far greater range then you'd expect from a popular singer. On top of that she was also an interesting guitar player, not content with merely strumming her instrument, introducing neat flourishes into her songs and emphasizing moments with neat bits of staccato playing. All of this is made very clear while watching her on this DVD. In fact I couldn't help comparing her with the current crop of female singers making their way up either the R&B, soul, or pop charts, and she was head and shoulders above anybody I've heard since.

The DVD includes a post concert interview conducted by the host of the television show, so naturally its partially in German and English as he has to maintain a running translation for his audience. Unfortunately it does mean there's little of consequence said, so don't go looking for any deep insights into Armatrading's career in this one. Ironically, during the interview is when you get a glimpse of the joyful energy, which had been missing from the performance, that had made Armatrading's studio albums such a pleasure. There's a sparkle in her eye and far more life in her voice then had been on view during the show.

While the DVD Joan Armatrading; Steppin' Out doesn't do her justice in some ways as it fails to capture the power and energy of her music that could be heard on her studio albums, it will at least give viewers a chance to experience her music if they've never had the opportunity, and provides a retrospective of some of the best songs from that period in her career. Hopefully it will provide enough incentive for people to go back and check out some of her original albums, and maybe even pick up a copy of her new release. She was a very soulful and talented singer thirty years ago, and if she's managed to even just hold onto what she had back then, she'll be twice the performer any of today's so called talent could dream of being.

DVD Review: GBH

When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England the country became polarized between the two extremes of the political spectrum. While her Conservative government gutted England's industry in the name of the economy but in reality as a means of destroying the country's unions - if there are no jobs for union members there's no need for unions - extremists in the left wing of the socialist Labour Party seized the opportunity to take control of the party where ever possible. Municipal governments - town councils as they are called in England - became bastions of opposition against the federal government and did their best to disrupt the federal government whenever possible.

With both these elements intent on destruction rather than doing anything constructive for their constituents, there were plenty of people who ended up being caught in the middle and suffered accordingly. Those, who under different circumstances, might have voted for either the Labour or Conservative parties found themselves being left out in the cold. In the early 1990's British screenwriter Alan Bleasdale created a ten hour miniseries loosely based on events that occurred in the city of Liverpool during this period. GBH, being released as a four DVD set by Acorn Media on Tuesday February 23/10, is more than just your average political drama however, as it recreates the events of the period and shows them through the eyes of two people who have been ensnared in their web.

Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay play Jim Nelson and Michael Murray respectively, two men who find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence. Nelson is the headmaster of a school for children with developmental handicaps and Murray is the Labour Party Mayor of a mid sized industrial city in England during the Thatcher era. In an attempt to consolidate and increase his power base Murray hooks up with the radical wing of the Labour Party who encourage him to call a general strike in his city as a means of protesting against the Thatcher government. Pickets are placed around all the public services in the city from buses to schools, effectively bringing it to a stop, save for one small institution - Jim Nelson's school.
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With Murray having boasted in the lead up to the "Day Of Action" that he would close the city down, when the press catch wind that one school has stayed open they rub it in his face. Furious that he's been made to look foolish, Murray hurries out to the school with a group of "pickets" and surrounds the place attempting to intimidate Nelson into closing the school. Thus begins what will be an ongoing battle of wills between the two men that will last for the rest of the series. While on the surface this appears to be not very much to build a ten hour television mini-series around, what makes it fascinating is not only the way the show takes on everything from the press to the behind the scenes scheming in political parties, but the two characters who are the focus of the confrontation.

At first glance Murray appears to be your average ambitious politician, willing to hook himself to anyone and any cause that will further his career. He's not above pressuring an area hotel manager into rigging one of his rooms with cameras and recording equipment in order to catch people in compromising situations. However, underneath his slick surface is a boiling cauldron of insecurities and fears that are a result of things that happened in his childhood. We know from the start that his father was a great union organizer who died before Murray was born, but we learn throughout the series how that was the least of his problems.

Jim Nelson turns out to be something of a hypochondriac with a history of going to the doctor complaining of mysterious diseases and unexplainable symptoms which invariably turn out to be imaginary. While at first he appears to be somewhat of a figure of ridicule for this silliness, we gradually discover that he has very real psychological problems which manifest themselves in very strange ways. At first it's the imaginary illnesses, but as the pressure on him increases at work from Murray he starts to find himself waking up in very odd places without any clothes on. If the naked sleepwalking isn't bad enough, he then begins to develop an unaccountable fear of bridges to the point where he has to start planning car trips carefully in order to avoid even the smallest of bridges passing over local streams,
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What makes GBH so brilliant is the way it develops certain expectations, Michael Murray is a villain and Jim Nelson the victim, and then gradually starts to turn them upon their head. While Nelson is always going to be the hero of the piece as he struggles to overcome his personal problems and deal with the political pressure being brought to bear on him, the more we get to know about Murray, the more we realize that he's even more of a victim than any of his opponents. Whether it's the way he's being manipulated by those in his political party, or his past coming back to haunt him in the form of nightmares and blackmail, he gradually loses control over what's going on in his life and becomes little more than a puppet.

The performances of the two leads, Palin and Lindsay, are nothing short of magnificent. Lindsay in particular does a wonderful job in somehow making his despicable character sympathetic. He has these wonderful moments where Murray's smooth surface cracks and we see the turmoil beneath the surface, and then just as alarmingly see the veneer snap back into place and him carry on as if nothing had happened. Over the course of the show the surface gradually breaks down more and more as his control over events disintegrates and he watches his dreams of political power evaporate. The irony is that even at his most corrupt, he was genuinely doing things that were good for his community, creating more housing for the poor, easing relations between the black and white populations of his city - at a time in England when race riots were common - but those good things are gradually undone by his ambition for more power and what he does to try and achieve it.

GBH originally aired in the early 1990's so the technical quality isn't probably up to the standards you're used to from modern television shows, but the sound is stereo and well balanced so the dialogue isn't buried under the soundtrack or background noise. Speaking of the soundtrack, it was partially created by some guy named Elvis Costello, but don't be expecting it to sound anything like what you're used to hearing from him. He's done his job in creating music to augment what we are seeing on the screen, and a good job of it as well, as it doesn't interfere with the show, while helping to generate appropriate atmosphere. The special features include the usual filmographies of those involved in the production, an interview with the script writer Alan Bleasdale, and commentary for episode one provided by the two leads and director Peter Ansorge.

While GBH will probably be appreciated most by people who know something about contemporary British history, and the British political system, there's still plenty for everybody else to enjoy in this production. Aside from the two leads, the cast, which also includes Julie Walters, is universally excellent, the scripts are well written and intelligent, and you can't help but being caught up in the story of the conflict between the two men. It's not often that a ten hour television drama can hold you attention throughout its entire course, but without a doubt this one will have you glued to your screen from start to finish.

February 5, 2010

DVD Review: The Evelyn Waugh Collection

The works of the late British author Evelyn Waugh, focused mainly on the life and mores of the upper class in his country from the period leading up to WW II to the years immediately following the war. While some of his later works were primarily concerned with defending the place of Catholics in British society, (it is still part of the British constitution that no British monarch can be married to a Catholic) he is probably best known for his ability as a satirist. He was equally comfortable writing subtle, dark pieces which left one decidedly unsettled after reading them, to composing nearly farcical send-ups of everything from the military to journalists that were close to side-splitting funny. Either way his acid tipped pen could invariably be counted on to cut his subject matter down a peg or two, and hold any number of sacred cows up for ridicule.

Yet no matter how scathing he might be towards certain elements within society or the behaviour of a certain class of people, there would be always one or two characters in each book whom we the reader could relate to on some level or another. Often times this character would either serve as our guide into the world Waugh had created and we would see events unfold from his or her vantage point. Most of the time this character was usually an outsider being introduced to what on the surface is something new and splendid. However, as we and they observe more closely it turns out to be suffering some sort of malaise and we first see the wear and tear around its edges, until gradually the depth of its corruption is revealed.

In 1981, Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) telecast an adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons that went on to become one of the most successful imported mini-series. Of course it only stands to reason that having seen the success of one Waugh story from the page to the screen that others would be soon to follow. Now Acorn Media has released a package featuring two of those follow up releases, A Handful Of Dust and Scoop, under the title of The Evelyn Waugh Collection. The former being a dark look at the bored and idle rich, while the latter is a somewhat more farcical look at the press.
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A Handful Of Dust tells the story of the disintegration of the marriage between Brenda and Tony Last. For while Tony is quite content living in the country keeping up the old family home, Brenda is bored with country life and wants the fun of playing in London. It's because she's so bored that Brenda begins an affair with a selfish social climber nicknamed "Beaver". As usual the husband is the last to know in these instances and he quickly becomes rather an object of ridicule for Brenda and her new city friends as she and her paramour lead the high life paid for with Tony's money. Eventually Brenda convinces Tony she needs a flat in London so she can take "classes", and she and her lover are able to set up house together.

It's only when their young son dies in a hunting accident that Brenda decides to make the break with Tony. Being a gentleman, Tony agrees to grant Brenda a divorce and even goes so far as to pretend to be the guilty party by hiring a woman to spend the weekend with him in a hotel so he can be accused of adultery. However when Brenda starts to make unreasonable demands in terms of alimony - she has a young man to support in a style that he's accustomed to after all - he refuses to go along with the deal. Instead, when a chance meeting throws him together with an explorer setting off to chart unexplored regions of the Amazon river in South America, he agrees to fund an expedition and sets off into the wilds leaving Brenda high and dry.

While the acting of the leads is universally excellent, with Kristen Scott Thomas playing Brenda, Rupert Graves her young lover, and James Wilby the cuckold husband Tony, Anjelica Huston, Judi Dench, and Alec Guiness steal the spotlight with their cameo appearances at various points throughout the film. Unfortunately the script doesn't quite match up to the quality of the acting, for while we do feel some genuine sympathy for Tony, and loathing for Brenda and Beaver, we're never quite sure what has really motivated Brenda to take up with this young man who has almost no redeeming qualities and who treats her quite badly. He's so obviously only interested in her money, that one can't quite fathom how she could want to stay involved with him for any length of time let alone be the person she'd leave her husband for.
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Scoop on the other hand is not only well acted, it is a much better script. It does a great job in skewering all aspects of the British press from the reporters in the field to the owners of the papers and their editorial staff. Through a case of mistaken identity young William Boot, a nature writer for "The Beast", is sent off to the African republic of Ishmaelia to cover the civil war supposedly in progress. When he arrives he discovers the press core are all camped out in the capital city's one hotel and there's no sign of any fighting going on anywhere. Under orders to report back on a "Patriots" victory by Tuesday from the megalomanic owner of The Beast (Donald Pleasence), Boot is in serious danger of being fired until he uncovers an actual plot to overthrow the president by the minister of information.

Michael Maloney does a wonderful job playing William Boot, who although innocent to the ways of the world turns out not to be exactly stupid, as he does his best to report on a non-existent war. He is ably supported by Denholm Elliot as his editor at The Beast and Herbert Lom as a mysterious businessman who shows up in Ishmaelia just in time to help stage a counter revolution. Scoop is a rollicking ride which, although set in the 1930's, is every bit as topical in its treatment of the press as if were set today. This script captures Waugh's biting wit and acid tongue perfectly in both its depiction of the press's incompetence and the cynical manipulation of events by the unscrupulous businessman so he can secure Ishmaelia's mineral rights.

As both Scoop and A Handful Of Dust were originally shot in the 1980's neither are up to the standards were used to form modern productions when it comes to technical matters like sound and image quality. However these factors don't detract from the quality of the productions so they shouldn't be a deterrent to purchasing the package. Good acting, and, especially in the case of Scoop, quality script writing, overcome any technical deficiencies that you might experience.

Satire has become something of a lost art these days, so The Evelyn Waugh Collection from Acorn Media, is a very timely reminder of what that genre actually entails. Unlike today's writers who seem to lack the subtlety necessary to bring it off, Waugh never descended to the level of cheap laughs in order to win his audience over, and both productions in this package live up to that standard. This is an ideal opportunity to see two works by one of the masters of satire brought to life and shouldn't be passed up by anyone who still appreciates the genuine article.

February 3, 2010

DVD Review: Doc Martin Series 3

At one time or another I'm sure all of us have fantasized, or at least thought, of leaving big city life behind for the bucolic pleasures of living in the country. What could be better than to live in a small village - or even better a small village by the sea shore. It wouldn't take you long before you knew everybody, and while you might not like everyone, at least you'll know everybody well enough to know who to avoid. Of course if you ever get sick you'll be able to rely on the local general practitioner (GP) to take care of you.

Ah yes, the country doctor. An older man of the old school who is loved by all and has been present at the birth of everyone for the last three generations. A real country gentleman, he not only sets a broken arm and stitches up little Johnny's lacerated forearm when he tumbles down the cliff face, he'll find time in his busy schedule to sit and share a cup of tea with the lonely pensioner whose family has forgotten her. He can even be counted on to help out in lambing season when the local vet can't be everywhere at once and somebody has to reach up inside the mother sheep and turn the lamb so it comes out the right way.

Well if you end up in the small fishing village of Portwenn in Cormwall you'll soon discover that nobody bothered filling in local GP Dr. Martin Ellingham about what's required of him in the roll of that idealized country doctor. In fact, if you tried he would probably give them a blank stare, ask them what the hell they're prattling on about, and then promptly proceed to ignore them. Dr. Ellingham is the antithesis of the stereotype country doctor image we carry around in our heads. Brusque to the point of rude, honest to the point of - well rude again, and completely lacking in tact, he's also a brilliant and dedicated doctor. He not only deals with all the run of the mill illnesses a GP is expected to, he's able to handle anything the little fishing and farming community can throw at him - and they throw him some strange curve balls.
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While you'll probably never want to make use of the good doctor's services, and most likely won't be forced to, he and his patients do make for some highly entertaining television as can be seen on the recent (February 2nd/10) Acorn Media release Doc Martin Series 3. If the seven episodes that are included on the two DVDs are an indication of the show's quality, I'd recommend running right out and buying Series 1 & 2 as well, and hope that Series 4 makes an appearance some time soon. It's not often you find television where humour, intelligence, and acting of as high a calibre as are found here are combined in one package.

While there are a couple of ongoing story lines the show follows, each episode also deals with a particular issue - or two - that Doc Martin has to cope with. From medical emergencies; half the village apparently coming down with food poisoning apparently thanks to local plumber Ben Large's new restaurant, or the discovery that the new local constable suffers from narcolepsy and is literally falling asleep at the switch, to dealing with the eccentricities of his neighbours as in his aunt Jane taking a lover half her age in a bid not to feel so old, there's always something happening to keep him on his toes and us laughing. Meanwhile he is also struggling to see if he can resurrect his relationship with the headmistress of the local primary school, Louisa (Caroline Catz), as well as dealing with his pathological fear of blood - the sight of which makes him sick to his stomach.

There's a tendency with medical shows, even the funny ones, to make each episode into a disease of the week. Faced with people falling sick from unusual symptoms, the beleaguered medical personnel are frustrated in their attempts to heal those afflicted and it's only in the last five minutes of the show they come up with the solution that saves everybody's life. Even when Doc Martin is called upon to play medical detective on occasion, it never become the raison d'etre for an episode, and more often than not it ends up being the comedic highlight, not some nail biting drama.

An example of this is aforementioned time when Doc Martin accuses Ben Large of poisoning half the town because of unclean conditions in his restaurant. However the true culprit turns out to be in the doctor's office. Some how or other when he was hooking up his new dishwasher, the good doctor hooked up its intake hose to the outflow from his toilet and proceeded to wash all his dishes in .... . It's amazing how quickly the Norwalk virus can spread through a small town - especially when they've all been having a nice cup of tea while they're waiting to see the doctor.
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Martin Clunes does a remarkable job playing Doc Martin as we grow to genuinely like and admire him for who he is. This isn't just a one dimensional character whose always rude, but nor does his gruff exterior hide a soft squishy interior. He's opinionated and has no patience for fools and idiots - you do something stupid and he'll let you know all about it while he's treating you for the consequences of your actions. However he's not without his compassionate side, although sometimes he has to be reminded of it, and will surprise you with his ability to understand and willingness to help where others might not. What you gradually come to realize is there's an almost painfully shy man hiding behind the rudeness, one whose all to aware of his own shortcomings when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

This becomes clear when he and Louisa make what appears to be an ongoing attempt to establish a "relationship". In most cases like this on television the love of a good woman will bring out the best in our tormented hero and he'll undergo some sort of miraculous transformation. Thankfully that's not the case here as Martin invariably finds just the wrong thing to say on all occasions. While they do eventually stumble into each other's arms, almost in spite of themselves, its not what you'd call smooth sailing. The drawback of living in a small village is that everyone knows everybody and has something to say about them, resulting in both the doctor and Louisa doubting they can make the other happy.

For anybody who was raised on a diet of television shows depicting the small town doctor as something akin to a saint, Doc Martin will be greeted with a sigh of relief and a burst of laughter. The good doctor has a way of saying the things all of us would love to have the nerve to say - telling a mother who thinks her daughter might be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder there's nothing wrong with the kid save for being exceptionally annoying. It's like the editing function that most of us have in our brains that prevent us from speaking what we're really thinking has somehow broken down. Supported by a wonderful cast of loveable eccentrics, watching a couple of episodes of the good doctor's daily routine can't help but improve anybody's mental health.

The two DVDs that make up Doc Martin Series 3 come with only a couple of special features, the filmographies of the leads and some background trivia about the actors. As its a recent production it's suitable for playing on most modern digital systems, however the sound is only stereo which means there are occasional difficulties in discerning dialogue, although that could have just been my difficulties with some of the accents. However any technical failings in the sound are more than compensated for by the quality of the show itself. While it may cause you to have second thoughts about retiring to some peaceful fishing village in the country, Doc Martin is the perfect remedy for boredom as there's never a dull moment when he's on call.

December 14, 2009

Music CD/DVD Review: Luther Allison - Songs From The Road

One of the biggest mysteries about the American music industry is why it took British musicians to popularize American music in North America. Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Animals all had success on the American pop charts not only by singing the blues, but by playing old blues music. The even larger irony is the large number of American blues musicians, predominantly African American, who have had to go to Europe in order for their music to be fully appreciated. In some cases that has meant successful tours, while for others it has meant signing with European based record companies.

At one point in time the issue of race was a factor as mainstream American radio stations refused to play the blues as performed by African American musicians. Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" might have been popular, but there wasn't much chance of ever hearing Big Momma Thornton singing it on the radio. There is definitely something wrong with a system that would rather broadcast Pat Boone covering Little Richard than playing the genuine article. Sad as that situation was in the late 1950's and early 1960's, it must have been even more disheartening for musicians to hear young guys from England coming over and having hits with songs they had written - and not being given credit for writing them, let alone ever receiving a cent in royalties.

Thankfully for American blues musicians, black and white, European audiences had a taste for the real thing. Not only did many of them, and many still do today, have successful careers over there, but quite a number of the European blues labels began distributing recordings in North America, and putting energy into developing audiences for the blues back in the land where it originated. One of the most successful of those has been the German label Ruf Records, formed by Thomas Ruf in 1994. He had left school in the 1980's when he became Luther Allison's promoter, and the label grew out of that relationship with Allison's 1994 recording Bad Love (released in the US by Alligator as Soul Fixin' Man) being their first title.
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Sadly, Allison died only three years later from lung cancer just as he was re-establishing himself in North America. In fact he was diagnosed while on tour and gave the last performance of his career on July 10th/97 in Madison Wisconsin, the day he had was given the bad news, and died that August. According to anyone who saw him perform, it was his live shows that made Allison special, and now thanks to Ruf Records and Canadian television we have one more opportunity to see and hear him performing in front of an audience. On that last tour of North America, his performance on July 4th at the Montreal Jazz Festival was recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). While the original concert was ninety minutes long, the video was edited down to fifty to fit into an hour time slot. However the complete audio track survives allowing fans at least the opportunity to hear the entire performance on the new two disc, CD/DVD set, Luther Alison: Songs From The Road.

The first thing you notice about the DVD segment of Songs From The Road is its high quality. It's been re-mastered for surround sound and the picture quality is excellent. The CBC had been recording live performances of music for decades by then, and that shows in the quality of the presentation. From the number of cameras used to the seamless editing job, they did everything possible to bring the performance to life for the audience at home. From tight shots of fingers on fret boards during leads, close ups of Allison's face as he's wringing every last drop of emotion from a lyric, to shooting through the band allowing us to see the audience on their feet and dancing, the DVD brings you as complete a concert experience as is possible on camera.

Of course, there's Luther himself. Now, while I've heard any number of his recordings dating back to his earlier years on through his career, I never had the opportunity to see him perform. Unlike some performers who run all over the stage or contort themselves while playing their leads yet still don't feel like they are giving off the energy to rival a fire-fly, Luther Allison standing still centre stage feels like he could power a small city. There was one moment when he let loose a lyric, half-way between a primal growl and singing, sounding like the words were being torn out of his soul, that set shivers running up and down my spine. At that instant he became a small sun around which everything else revolved, dependent on him for the energy required for life to exist.
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I knew a theatre director once who referred to rock and roll stars as the shaman of the modern world as they had the power to control tens of thousands of people during their concerts. To be honest with you I had never really bought into that line because to my mind the power we awarded those people never felt like it was as a result of their actions, but more because of their status as celebrities. However, when Allison sang that note, even though I was separated from that moment by twelve years and technology, there could be no denying the pull he exerted on me by whatever it was he was generating. You could almost hear the collective drawing in and holding of breath by the on screen audience as they too were captured, and then the explosion of its release in the form of cheers and applause.

Electric blues music has been around for decades, and quite frankly a lot of it has become cliched and boring. Somehow the music whose power and mystery so frightened radio programmers thirty years ago they refused to play it has been turned into something bland. The passion has been sucked out of it by performers who put themselves centre stage ahead of the music. Instead of being conduits for its power, they suck it dry to make themselves look impressive. Watching Luther Allison on Songs From The Road, giving the next to last performance of his life, is to understand what the blues are and to be reminded what makes them so special.

He didn't know it was one of the last times he would ever perform, but he played and sang like it was, because that's what he always did. For those of you, like me, who never had a chance to see Allison perform the CD/DVD two disc set Songs From The Road is a treasure you don't want to miss out on. One warning, after watching and listening to these two discs, you might start experiencing a great deal of dissatisfaction with what passes for blues these days.

December 11, 2009

Music DVD Review: Grayson Capps - Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

Grayson Capps had really blown me away the first time I heard any of his music, and continued to do so with his most recent release, Rott 'N' Roll. Then in August of 2008 I had the chance to spend some time with Grayson on the phone for an interview and that only confirmed all the good opinions I had formed about him from listening to his music. You know how it is, sometimes a person might come across a certain way on record, but then when you talk to them you find out it was only artifice and they aren't anything like what you had heard. Well that's not the case with Grayson Capps, what you hear on the records is pretty much what you get when you talk to him.

A while back I came across a concert that he had recorded at the Paradiso club in Amsterdam that you could watch on line. I had like it so much that I had gone to the trouble to embed a link to it on the front page of my blog. Unfortunately I went back a short while ago and discovered the link no longer worked as the concert had been removed. Thankfully it turns out there was a good reason for it no longer being available on line, as Capps label, Hyena Records, has now released it on a new DVD, Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

The concert was filmed in May of 2008, and features Capp playing solo and unplugged. Over the course of about one hundred and ten minutes he sings twenty-five songs and regales the audience with stories about people he's known and some of the places he's been. Some of his songs tell versions of the stories that's he's just told us, versions that take us inside the story so that instead of being an observer all of a sudden we're sitting in that bar with him and Bobby Long on a Saturday afternoon in Alabama ("The Love Song Of Bobby Long").
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Watching Grayson Capps perform is almost like attending an old fashioned revival meeting. He's a commanding presence on stage, and not just because he's a big man but because of the force of his personality. Whether he's telling a story, singing, reciting, or leading the audience in a sing a long, he exudes a life force that has to be seen to be believed. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been carved from the wood of a tree that's been around as long as the Tennessee Mountains he sings about in his song "Arrowhead". Yet for every rough hewn song about some strange and tragic character who has crossed his path, there's an equal number of songs that express his joy and wonder at the world.

You get the impression with Grayson there's always a great big laugh just waiting to burst out even when he's at his most serious. It's like he can be serious if he has to, and knows there are times when it's important, but there is so much about life to enjoy that he can't hold it in for very long. In the song "A Love Song For Bobby Long" he talks about a character who was a friend of his dad when Capps was a kid. At one point he compares Bobby to Zorba, the character played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Zorba The Greek, who teaches a young English school teacher how to enjoy life to its fullest. You get the feeling that Grayson received similar lessons and took them to heart as he pours all of himself into all of the songs he performs that evening on stage at the Paradiso.

The set list pretty much covers his entire career as a solo performer, with songs from all three of his recordings, plus a couple of covers including a version of the traditional Scottish ballad "Barbara Allen" and the Tom T. Hall song "Fox On The Run". He alternates between playing an old battered Gibson acoustic, and a wooden resonator for when he switches to playing slide guitar. Interestingly enough he doesn't use a pick-up on either instrument, so he stays seated for most of the concert in order to keep in range of the microphone. However, unlike a lot of folk who stay seated while playing, you never get bored watching Grayson. He's got to be one of the most animated people I've seen. Even when just playing an instrumental on his guitar his whole body is involved, from his toes tapping out the beat to his eyebrows furrowed in concentration as his fingers strum, slap, and pick at the strings or fly over the fret board.

After having listened to a few of Grayson Capps' discs and talking to him on the phone for about an hour or so, I'd thought I had begun to get to know a little about him and his music. However, watching him perform, and seeing how the music brings him to life and how he brings life to the music, I realized that to really appreciate Grayson Capps you have to see him. He is such an integral part of his music; his personality, his zest for life, and, most of all, his spirit, that just listening to his songs on the CDs you'll never fully experience him or his music.

Which means if you're like me and live in some small city where the chances of Grayson showing up to give a concert are minimal (people usually only stop in my town to give concerts because the wheels on their bus fall off while travelling between Toronto and Montreal) your best bet is to find a good recording of him in concert. Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso is a great recording. Excellent sound recording and expertly shot, there's an intimacy you'd very rarely feel even if you were at a concert in person, let alone watching one on DVD.

Perhaps part of that is Grayson Capps himself, as without trying he brings the audience into his world by breaking down the usual barrier that exists between him and them. How many performers do you know are going to bum cigarets from their audience during a show? You could almost believe you were sitting around on his back porch watching the sun set on the Tennessee hills around his home. If you've never heard Capps before this DVD is a great introduction to the man and his work. For the rest of us, its a chance to see him in doing what he does best. Entertain, enrich, and exhort those watching to appreciate the wonder of being alive.

November 25, 2009

DVD Review: Life On Mars: Series 2

Sometimes it feels like people who make and develop television shows always try to milk a series just a little beyond the ability of the original idea to sustain interest. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't know how many times I've liked the first two, maybe even three seasons, of a show, but after that watched in dismay as it became almost a caricature of itself. Sure everybody likes a successful television show, and actors need the work, but wouldn't everybody be better served if people were left wanting more than feeling sick to death of something?

Everything needs an ending, of some sort of another, and the failure of so many television shows is their inability to deliver a resolution. Either they fade away from neglect or they are cancelled abruptly before they are able to wrap things up. So instead of everybody involved being in demand because they've generated such great memories among the public and the industry, they get shunted aside as either failures or has-beens. The next time you see the former leads from the show they're making guest appearances on something like Celebrity Hollywood Squares and they look like someone whose face used to be famous.

These flaws become glaringly obvious when you encounter a show which is handled properly by being brought to a successful conclusion. Those of you who have had the pleasure of experiencing Life On Mars: Series One will be thrilled to know that the producers and writers of the series have not only managed to match what they brought to life in Series One, but have surpassed it. They've not only retained all that was fresh and exciting about the first season, with Life On Mars: Series 2, the complete second season on four DVDs being released by Acorn Media on November 24th/09, they find a way to up the stakes for all involved and bring the series to a resolution that remains true to the characters and the story line.

Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Sam Tyler (John Simm) of the Manchester Police force in England is struck by a car in 2006, and the next thing he knows he's gone back in time more then thirty years and he's a Detective Inspector (DI) in the same city in 1973. Aside from having to deal with the obvious differences between the two eras ("Where's my mobile (phone)?" "You're mobile what?") where the culture shock hits him hardest is on the job. Aside from the primitive working conditions - when he asks where his PC is one of the others wonder what he wants with a uniformed police constable - the attitudes and approach taken by his fellow officers are what effect him the most. Unfortunately for Sam, his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) appears on the surface to be the epitome of all their worst attributes.

While over the course of the first season we discover some of those appearances are deceiving, San and Gene still disagree over the methodology used by the other. Although each develops a genuine appreciation for the other, they still come, literally, to blows over their differences in opinion on how suspects and cases should be handled. For while Sam comes from an era when police work is based on the analysis of data and the careful accumulation of evidence in order to build a case against a suspect, Gene uses a combination of bluster, force, and instincts ("gut reactions") to solve a case. Still, most of the time they're able to find a middle ground which not only makes them a good team, but helps solve some difficult cases.

Playing all along in the background throughout both the first and second series is Sam's desire to return home. Periodically he's made aware that he has another life beyond 1973. Mysterious messages from doctors and family members are transmitted to him via televisions, radios, and telephones. Are these actually things being said to him while he's lying in a coma in 2006 that are slipping through to this place where his mind is active? Will they really provide the clues he needs to be able to "find his way home" and wake up from the coma? Or is it something else? Perhaps the concussion he is said to have suffered in the first episode has given him amnesia so he's forgotten his "real life" as a policeman in 1973?

I've very deliberately not mentioned details of any of the episodes, as really very little can be revealed that won't be either spoil the fun of watching the officers solve each case, or how the series works itself towards its conclusion. What's important is the journey the creators of the series have Sam take through the course of the entire series. It's not just been in the workplace where he's relegated feelings to the back burner and it's the imperfect world that he finds himself in that makes him understand what he has been repressing all along. In the end he has to make a decision as to who Sam Tyler wants to be. No mater what he decides it will come with a cost, but in the end he understands some costs are worth paying no matter what the price.

As in the first series one of the delights of these episodes is the relationship between Sam and Gene. While Sam is still continually appalled by Gene's behaviour and Gene is equally pissed off with Sam's more anal qualities about rules and regulations, their friendship - while mystifying to everybody around them - continues to grow stronger and deeper. Both Simm and Glenister deliver multi-layered performances that are some of the most believable and enjoyable that you'll see on television. Glenister does a remarkable job of portraying both the bluster and the integrity that lie beneath the surface of Gene Hunt, and making the two seemingly irreconcilable characteristics believable.

The three supporting characters Detective Constables (DC) Anne Cartwright (Liz White) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) not only continue the excellent work they had begun in the first series, the writers have made sure to give them sufficient challenges which allows them to add even more depth to their portrayals. While Anne continues to be a mixture of Sam's confessor and conscience, her increase in self-confidence as a result of her promotion to detective results in her taking a more active role in their relationship. She pushes Sam and forces him to confront aspects of his character he might not otherwise have been brave enough to do on his own. While Skelton and Carling still provide a fair bit of the comic relief -mainly through their ineptitude - the actors never let their characters become caricatures and are completely believable in their roles.

The four DVD set comes with special features that provide some great background to both how those responsible for creating the series worked out how to conclude it (Do not watch the making of documentaries on discs one and four until after you've watched the episodes as they are full of spoilers) and provide some fascinating details about the mechanics of shooting a period television piece. Unlike some of Acorn's product which are limited technologically by a show's original shooting date, Life On Mars: Series 2 comes with 5.1 surround sound and wide screen pictures ideally suited to today's home entertainment equipment.

After having watched the first year of episodes one could be forgiven for having doubts about the ability of the people responsible for Life On Mars to either match what they had already accomplished or bringing the series to a successful conclusion. Doubt no more - not only do the episodes in the second season continue to match the level of excellence seen in the first year, the way they integrate the conclusion of Sam's personal story is brilliant. Life On Mars is a perfect an example of how to make use of the potential television offers for telling a story. Unlike most of what you see on the small screen its ending is as satisfying as its beginning. You may be left wanting more, but that's a darn site better than wondering what the hell its still doing on the air.

November 16, 2009

Music DVD Review: Fred Anderson -Fred Anderson 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge

There's an old saying, "Seeing is believing", and on occasions there's truth to those old sayings. Now I know quite a number of people who don't find seeing music on video very satisfying, and if it were the days before stereo sound and digital imaging I could understand. In those days not only was the footage not very good, but the sound was vastly inferior to anything you could hear through your home audio equipment. That was especially true for the more complex genres like classical or jazz. If you had the option of either listening to a track through your stereo or watching it on your television the former would win out every time.

Times have changed of course, and with the advent of DVDs, and not only stereo signals coming through televisions but surround sound as well, watching a performance on home video equipment has not only become more rewarding than just listening to it through the stereo, but in some cases even better than being there in person. People can talk all they want about the "experience" of a live concert, but I'm too old and fussy to want to be one of a hundred thousand people in a football stadium barely able to see even the video screens broadcasting the performance I came to watch. If I'm going to watch it on video I might as well have stayed at home where I could be comfortable and the sound would be a lot better.

Of course seeing a band in a small club is another thing all together, and if you have the chance to attend a gig where you know the sound is going to be good than there's still nothing to beats that for the intimacy and immediacy that it provides. However if you can't be there in person, then a well shot DVD comes pretty close to capturing the moment for you. I was reminded of all this because a short while ago I reviewed the CD
CD version of a concert that jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson performed at his club the Velvet Lounge with some old friends to help celebrate his eightieth birthday last May, and now have had the chance to view the DVD of 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash Live At The Velvet Lounge put out by Delmark Records.
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As on the CD he's accompanied on saxophone by the equally redoubtable Kidd Jordan, and they start the set off with a thirty minute plus version of the old Dexter Gordon/Wardell Gray tune written back in 1947, "The Chase". It has long since become the archetypical tenor saxophone "battle piece", where two tenor players compete and complement each other's improvisations. As one of the co-founders of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago back in the early 1960's Fred Anderson's bread and butter is improvisation. His buddy Jordan is no slouch either having been at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz movement on the West Coast while Anderson was setting up shop in Chicago.

Perhaps somebody more well versed in jazz than myself wouldn't need a video recording to fully appreciate their performances, but for me watching them at work was a revelation. For example, listening to "21st Century Chase Part I" on the CD I had assumed that the two men had been trading solos, that I had been listening to one player at a time. What was being played was so seamlessly perfect it had to be the work of one man hitting the high tremors and harmonizing low notes simultaneously. However watching showed both men playing with Anderson hanging onto every high note that Jordan played and inserting his counterpoints in such perfect order that with your eyes closed it sounded like one man.

While listening to the CD I was well aware that there was a guitarist (Jeff Parker), a bass player (Harrison Bankhead) and a drummer (Chad Taylor, but seeing them in action really brought home the power of their contributions. I don't think I've ever really appreciated the intricacies of avant-garde jazz bass and drum work as much as I do now after watching Bankhead and Taylor at work. They both seemed to be skimming over their instruments without rhyme nor reason, but at the same time what ever it was they were doing was perfect for what else was happening on the stage. Parker, on the other hand, turned out to be the one holding down what most of us would recognize as the melody of whatever tune was being played. He was the calm in the centre of a mini storm of jazz improvisation that ebbed and flowed around him.
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The DVD also comes with an extra track from that night's performance, and it features Bankhead switching over to cello and another old friend, Henry Grimes< picking up the bass. "Gone But Not Forgotten" sounds like it could be for all the ones who have gone before them. It feels like they've tapped into that great fountain of emotion which provides the joy we feel at the memory of the pleasure those who have gone used to bring us and the sorrow over the fact they are aren't here to be sharing the moment any longer. There's something about the extra underpinning of sound, perhaps the depth, that the combination of bass and cello bring to the song, which allows them to capture far more than you would expect from an instrumental of that duality of emotion we all feel for those who are no longer with us and meant so much.

If you appreciated and enjoyed the CD version of 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge the DVD version will surely enhance that experience. It doesn't hurt matters that Delmark records have become past masters at bringing to life the music of Chicago's clubs and bars on DVD whether its blues or jazz. Using five handheld cameras and great editing they capture everything needed to bring you right on stage with the performers and the excitement of being in the intimate surroundings of the club. With Dolby 5.1 surround sound and 16:9 wide-screen format complementing their expertise in shooting and cutting the material, watching the result on your home screen will make a believer in the power of jazz and the abilities of Fred Anderson and his friends out of anybody. You might not be able to get to Chicago for these concerts, but these DVDs come as close as possible to bringing them to you.

November 1, 2009

DVD Review: Throw Down Your Heart

From the back seat of Jed Clampett's jalopy carrying the clan into Beverly Hills to the backwoods predators of Deliverance, to most of today's world the banjo has its roots in the same back hills that gave us moonshine and country music. The fact that today's so called country music has about as much in common with the traditional Irish, Scottish, and British folk songs that were being sung in the hills of Tennessee as The Beverly Hillbillies did with reality, might suggest that some things aren't quite what they appear to be when you're talking about the roots of country music. However it is a little odd that nobody ever thought to wonder where it was that the banjo came from and who introduced it to the hill country.

It's unfortunate, but with country music being whiter than white in its early days, and segregation being what it was in the south, there probably weren't that many people playing the banjo who were going to be quick about admitting its origins were with the slaves who had brought it over with them from Africa. Forbidden to use their drums by the masters, they utilized the string instruments of home instead and incorporated them into their new life over here. Music had always accompanied work in Africa, so here it was no different. As slavery spread, and some were freed, the music and the instruments spread and were picked up by white people who started to use them in their music as well, and early forms of the banjo would have been part of the deal

Now Bela Fleck is not your typcial banjo player, you only need to take a quick glance at his career to see that. How many banjo pluckers list any of the Marsalis family as regular collaborators, or have played with everyone from tabla players from India to symphony orchestras? Like most banjoists Fleck started with the basics of country and bluegrass, but he hasn't limited himself to just those genres. Somewhere along the line he began to wonder about the roots of his instrument, and that led him Africa. Some people make pilgrimages to various religious shrines, but Bela Fleck decided to make a pilgrimage to visit the birthplaces of the banjo. The result was the hour and half long documentary film Throw Down Your Heart directed by Sascha Paladino, now being made available on DVD for the first time November 3rd/09 through Docurama Films.
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Starting in Uganda in East Africa we follow Fleck as he travels along the coast to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean, and then north and west up to Mali and The Gambia. Along the way we are introduced to the music and musicians of each area; some of whom are international stars in the burgeoning world music scene, while others are local villagers for whom music is an integral part of their lives. An extraordinary man in all senses of the word, Fleck's reverence for his subject and his delight in the people he meets is obvious and heart warming. Completely unaffected he's the same person whether he's recording with Mali's diva Oumou Sangare in a modern studio or with a group of Ugandan woman in a dirt floored hut with chickens at his feet.

For those of you who had any doubts about the banjo's African roots, they should be dispelled the first time you hear him accompany what we call a thumb piano - properly known as a kalimba - in one of the first Ugandan villages he visits as you can hear the similarities in tone between the two instruments; they sound like they were meant to be played together. It's not just instruments that sound alike which interest Fleck, he wants to learn about the music which the banjo sprang from, and then record with the people who continue to make it today. There's this wonderful scene in one village where the people are shown assembling a huge glockenspiel type instrument which involves laying keys the length of a forearm made out of wood over a pit or hollow log. Then a group of men assemble and begin playing it together; some of them slapping keys with the palms of their hands, others using mallets, and the result is as glorious display of percussion as I've ever seen. Fleck quickly finds how the banjo fits into the patterns they've developed and plays along as if its the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing.

In Tanzania we meet Anania Ngoliga, an amazing kalimba player, singer, and lover of music. It's the city he lives in, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, which gave the move its title. For when the slaves were brought out from the interior of the continent prior to being shipped east - the slave trade went into the Arab world as much as it did ours - and they saw the ocean for the first time they knew they would never see their homes again. Roughly translated into English they named the place "throw down your heart" to represent their sorrow at being taken from their homes. There's a beautiful scene of Fleck standing in the Indian Ocean up to his knees playing his banjo as the sun slowly sets behind him. The juxtaposition of his song, which captures the sorrow of the place, and the beauty of the scene, sum up so much of the history of Africa and its people.
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When we jump across the continent to Mali and the Gambia, Fleck meets up with people who are playing some of the instruments from which the banjo obviously descended. Bassekou Kouyate plays the ngoni, a two stringed instrument with a body made from either wood or a hollowed out gourd covered in raw-hide. When he and Fleck sit down to jam in Kouyate's living room their instruments bridged whatever communication gap existed between them (Kouyate didn't speak English and Fleck didn't speak French). While there were obvious differences between the two instruments in construction, the similarities were equally obvious and the men were able to play together without any rehearsal. On the special features section of the disc that includes extra scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film, there's an extended version of the two them doing a brilliant blues jam.

Everywhere Fleck went he seemed to find people of like mind. Neither he nor anyone he met had too far to travel before they were on the same page musically. There was an obvious connection between what type of music the banjo was comfortable playing and what was being played by the musicians he was meeting no matter what instruments they were utilizing. Its an amazing site to see people from such different cultural backgrounds finding common ground with their instruments with such ease. As the film progresses you are left with no doubt that the banjo has come home.

Considering how much of the film was recorded under less than ideal conditions, the sound and picture quality are amazing - it even comes with a choice of either Dolby stereo or 5.1 surround sound. The only disappointing thing that I found with the package was the lack of liner notes. It would have been helpful - and useful - to have included a breakdown of the various locations and who was appearing in each scene, as well as background information on each of the musicians who appeared in the film. After all they are an integral part of Fleck's pilgrimage.

However, that quibble aside, this is a wonderful movie, and you couldn't ask for a more passionate or interested pair of eyes to see this world through then Bela Fleck. While he might be learning about the banjo and the music that is responsible for its development, we're learning about him. His genuine delight in everything and everyone he encounters, combined with his willingness to accept that anybody could have something to teach him, makes him the ideal conduit for us to learn through. Even if you already are familiar with the music from parts of Africa, Throw Down Your Heart will take you further and deeper into the music then you'll have experienced before while introducing you to some of the amazing musicians who create it. All in all a pilgrimage well worth taking.

October 23, 2009

DVD Review: Life On Mars: Series One

Of the many things about the 1970's that I really disliked living through, cop shows and movies that glorified police violence and disrespect for the law were pretty high up on the list. Starskey & Hutch, Dirty Harry, and Serpico all depicted police officers who worked on the premise that the ends justified the means. Who cares if you had to beat the crap out of a suspect, lie to, or threaten them in order to obtain a conviction; as long as you got the bad guy in the end that made it all right. I couldn't help wondering then, and now, what kind of example those shows were giving when their message was it was okay to break the law as long as you were doing it for the right reasons.

Needless to say I don't share any of the nostalgia for the 1970's or early 1980's that has fuelled movie versions of Starsky & Hutch or Miami Vice. All of which might make it seem odd that I would have been interested in checking out a police procedural that was set back in those dark days. However, all you have to do is watch the first of eight episodes in the four DVD pack Life On Mars: Series One put out by Acorn Media earlier this year, to know this is going to be a completely different take on 1970's policing.

The premise of the show might sound a bit far fetched, a modern day British cop falls into a coma in 2005 and wakes up to find himself having been transported back to the mean streets of Manchester England in 1973, but the result is some of the most brilliant television that I've seen. Not only does it depict the tension you would expect between cops of the two eras, it does a credible job of having them conduct investigations into crimes, all the while sustaining the question as to what the hell is going on with the central character. Is Sam Tyler (John Simm), the cop from the future, lying in a coma thirty odd years in the future and is all this is a figment of his imagination?Or maybe he has somehow fallen through some chink in time that has allowed him to travel into the past? On the other hand he could be an officer from the 1970's who has suffered a head injury which has left him delusional. For although episode one opens in modern day Manchester with him going about his duties as a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), by the time it ends his new reality as a Detective Inspector (DI) thirty years back in time, is every bit as convincing as the former.
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Part of what makes 1973 so believable are the people populating it. Chief among them are Tyler's new boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). On the surface Gene appears to be your stereotypical 1970's copper, leading with his fists and filled with every racial and gender bias in the book. Gene isn't above planting evidence on somebody in order to get a collar -"Anybody I stitch up deserves it". Needless to say twenty-first century, scientific, and very clean Sam Tyler doesn't see exactly see eye to eye with Gene about his methodology which leads to quite a bit of yelling and the occasional punch up.

However, while Gene's bluff exterior isn't hiding a sensitive soul underneath, we soon discover appearances are not only deceiving, there's a bloody good reason for them. First of all Gene doesn't have any of the technology at his disposal that Sam or today's cops have. Forensic science that we take for granted like lifting finger prints from skin don't exist. Gene and his cops have to rely on what their "snouts" (informers) can tell them, their instincts honed from years working among the criminal classes of Manchester, and catching the guilty party either red handed or getting them to confess.

While both Sam and us are appalled by some of Gene's methodology, we gradually begin to understand him more with each episode and see what drives him so relentlessly. He takes any crime committed upon his streets personally and desperately wants to clean them up. Although he gets royally pissed off with Sam, he appreciates what he stands for and his abilities as a cop. There's one brilliant scene between the two of them where Gene talks about how he came to start accepting "backhanders" (bribes). When Sam asks him how it makes it feel inside he replies "like there's a creature inside eating away at me", and is happy to kill the creature when Sam gives him the opportunity by bringing down a local gangster.

While Sam and Gene are the leads, the supporting cast, Police woman Anne Cartwright (Liz White) Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) are equally important to the series. Carling thinks he knows what his "guvnor" DCI Hunt is all about, but only sees the rough and tumble exterior and not the brain and heart at work underneath, which leads him into making a horrible mistake. Skelton is torn between being interested in the new ideas Sam is suggesting about police work and not wanting to risk alienating his mates by chumming up to the new boss and doing anything that might look different from the way everyone else acts.
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Anne Cartwright could be a love interest, but more importantly she's a friend and acts as Sam's conscience by forcing him to consider what's more important to him - his procedures and "how things should be done" or his friends and the consequences of his actions. However, unlike the rest of the men she works with, Sam doesn't treat her walking into the room as an excuse for making dirty jokes, and doesn't think her gender makes her less intelligent then the rest of them. So although she treads carefully, over the course of the first series we begin to see her come out of her shell and taking a more active role in investigations.

As he's conducting investigations into murders and robberies Sam Tyler is also continually dealing with coming face to face with his "past". In various episodes over this first season he meets his mom, hears the voice of his younger self once or twice, and, finally, his father is a suspect in the final episode of the year. Sam "remembers" his dad mysteriously vanishing when he was young, and as the episode unfolds he realizes that he is not only going to be solving a crime but is about to discover what happened to his father all those years ago. Near the beginning of the case he latches on to the hope that maybe this is the reason he's been sent back into the past - to prevent his dad from leaving - and perhaps if he can do that he'll be able to go home. Back to the present.

Each of the fours discs are in widescreen format and come with optional cast and crew commentary. There are also various special features scattered throughout the four disc set including a very good two part documentary about the making of the series that includes interviews with the writers, producers, and cast members. I'd advise not watching it until after you've watched the series so as not to ruin any of the surprises in store during the show.

Life On Mars does an amazing job of weaving together the three story lines; the clash of police techniques, the actual investigations themselves, and Sam's quest to understand just what the hell is going on with him. A combination of great writing, even better acting, and a refusal to either glamourize the violence of the 1970's coppers or make Sam's character a saint, make it not only a great police procedural show that's surprisingly funny, but also amazingly credible. With the action being so believable, it becomes even more difficult to understand what Sam is actually going through and by the end of Series One we aren't that much the wiser. Life On Mars: Series One is as marvellously produced piece of television as you're going to see in a long time and leaves you definitely wanting more.

October 19, 2009

DVD Review: La Lune Dans Le Caniveau (The Moon In The Gutter)

It was sometime in the early 1980's when I first started to realize there was far more to film than what was produced in North America. One of the first foreign films I saw was by the great French film director Jean Luc Godard. I could probably figure out the title of the movie through a process of elimination by looking him and his movies up on the web, but that's not the point. The point was that after watching it my whole perspective on what constituted a movie changed. This wasn't some great intellectual epiphany or any such bullshit, it was just a matter of my eyes being opened to the fact there were more ways to tell a story cinematically then I had been aware of.

After that I started seeking out other movies by European directors. Now I wasn't a movie snob like some people I knew who would refuse to see anything made in North America, that was as bigoted and close minded as refusing to see a movie because it had sub-titles, but I did make an effort to seek out movies by Europeans over North Americans. It was sort of a personal affirmative action plan - if there was a choice between two movies on a certain night I would watch the European one instead of the North American. In the process I discovered that European directors could make crap movies the same as anyone else, if not worse for the intellectual pretensions they carried with them. However, when they were good, they were really good and far better than anything I had seen before.

At the time a trio of German film makers were making the biggest impression, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder on most people. However there was also a French director, Jean-Jacques Beineix whose name was being mentioned in the same breath as those others, primarily as a result of his first feature length movie, Diva, released in 1981. Two years later he released La Lune Dans Le Caniveau, The Moon In The Gutter, which will be available for the first time on DVD in North American October 20th thanks to Cinema Libre studios.
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Staring Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski The Moon In The Gutter is set in a French port town with most of the action taking place in a seedy neighbourhood full of tired whores, failures, and petty criminals. Depardieu's character, Gerard, is an emotional wreck following the rape and subsequent suicide of his sister. We discover as the movie opens that he is obsessed with catching the man who raped her and spends a great deal of time haunting the spot where she took her own life with his razor. Although he makes decent money working as a stevedore, loading and unloading ships, he hangs out in the run down bars of his neighbourhood in the hopes of finding the culprit. It's in that bar he meets an elegant and jaded young man who has travelled from the wealthy parts of the city looking for thrills, and through him his beautiful and enigmatic sister, Loretta, played by Kinski.

From their first meeting it's obvious that Loretta is attracted to Gerard, but is the attraction her merely looking for "a bit of rough" before returning to her real life and her own kind, or does she genuinely love him. As for Gerard, could Loretta be his way out of his obsession over the death of his sister as well as his way out of the sordid world of the dock yards? As the movie unfolds we're never quite sure as to either of their intentions, and even when it looks like they have committed to each other - Gerard wakes up alone back in his old house in the slums.

Depardieu and Kinski both give superlative performances in the movie, with Depardieu's being the most surprising. In North America we've not seen him when he was in his prime, a young man with enormous physical presence on the screen. However it's how he undercuts that, how he shows how his character's fear and insecurities turn him into a small boy afraid that the gift he's being offered will be snatched away because he's done something wrong that makes his performance so compelling. Kinski could have done nothing but stand there for her scenes and Loretta would have been alluring enough for most men. However she takes her character much further than that and we not only see what attracts Gerard to her, but what's in her that causes so much confusion for Gerard.
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In North America it seems like movies are all about the actors - the stars - while the director and whatever vision he may or may not have had for the movie is lost in the background. That's not the case in a Beineix movie as the actor's performance is merely one part of the production, just as the script and the camera work are. In The Moon In The Gutter Beineix has created an almost surreal world that exists after dark on the coast of France. Colours - like the red of the blood stain on the sidewalk where Gerard's sister was murdered, glow from the inside as well as reflecting the light of the overlarge moon. The moon is much lower in the sky here than it ever is in real life. It's so low you half expect one of the characters to reach up and pluck it from the sky like an apple.

That's not all that gives the movie an unrealistic cast, the street where most of the exterior action in the slums takes place looks a little bit off - something about it looks wrong. For when the camera shoots down the street we can tell its obviously a set, which gives you an odd sense of displacement. For while the action and the emotional intensity between the characters is very real, this doesn't let us forget that we are watching a movie.

<.i>The Moon In The Gutter is not a realistic movie, and if you watch it expecting to see something along the lines of what you see everyday in the cinema or on a DVD, you'll probably come away disappointed. It doesn't really have a plot per se, but it does tell a story, the story of the emotional turmoil one man suffers through because of the death of his sister. The director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, has used everything at his disposal to tell us this story; actors, sets, lighting, and sound, much like a painter uses paint on a canvass to elicit a response from the viewer.

The original movie was made in 1983 so don't expect anything like 5.1 surround sound, but the picture and the sound are surprisingly clean and clear in spite of its age. The DVD also includes a very interesting interview with the director in which they discuss the movie in detail, and he explains a little bit about his approach to movie making. Although there are some spoilers in it, watching the interview prior to the movie might actually help you understand and appreciate the movie.

The Moon In The Gutter may not be to everyone's liking, but if you have an eye for something a little different from the norm when it comes to movies, this is definitely not to be missed. Not only are you going to be able to buy the DVD when it comes out on October 20th/09, Cinema Libre are going to be releasing a box set, The Jean-Jaques Beineix Collection of Beineix's work on December 1st/09 that will include The Moon In The Gutter and more of his best works, some of which have never been released in the United States before. This is a great chance to own some of the most provocative and compelling film made by one of the more extraordinary directors of the 1980's. It may not be what you're used to, but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching. Take a chance on something different - you won't regret it.

October 17, 2009

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen -Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970

When 600,000 people showed up for the third annual Isle of Wight music festival in 1970, things quickly got out of hand. The tiny island off the east coast of Great Britain in the English Channel was overwhelmed by this invading army. Compounding matters were the huge number of people who showed up at the concert without tickets in the hopes of a repeat of what happened at Woodstock the year prior. Organizers there had thrown open the gates and declared it a free concert when countless numbers showed up without tickets ensuring that trouble was kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately those behind the Isle of Wight festival were less understanding and the event disintegrated into an ongoing battle between the people outside the fence squatting on the hill they called Desolation Row after the Dylan song of the same name, and those running the show. Acts who they had supposedly come to see were booed off the stage, Kris Kristofferson can be heard saying they look like they're going to shoot us. It was into this seemingly unsalvageable mess, after five days of insanity, that Leonard Cohen made his way onto stage. During the set that preceded him, Jimi Hendrix, someone had set the stage on fire, (not Hendrix), and although the fire didn't faze Cohen, the fact that the keyboards had been destroyed did. He refused to go on stage unless another piano could be found so his producer and band leader Bob Johnson could accompany him and the rest of the band.

In the end, it wasn't until something like two in the morning when he made his way onto stage, and in spite of the crowd's ire and impatience he didn't rush. Watching him stare out into the darkness, unshaven, and baggy eyed from lack of sleep at the beginning of Murray Lerner's film of the event, part of the two disc DVD/CD package Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970 being released on October 20th/09 by Legacy Recordings and Columbia Records, you feel a moment of fear that the crowd will tear him to pieces. Then he launches into "Bird On The Wire" and you can almost hear them settling into the palm of his hand.
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The DVD is an amazing record of the power of Leonard Cohen as a performer. The cameras never leave the stage, except for a couple of moments when they shoot the darkness to show people lighting matches at Cohen's request -"Can everyone light a match so I can see where your are"? - and that makes you feel as if Cohen and his band are a pocket of light and power within a sea of darkness. If you didn't know about the events leading up to his performance you wouldn't be able to guess that any of it had occurred as you can barely even tell that the crowd is out there. It's only after each song is played and the cheering begins that we are even aware of them. Even when Cohen is simply speaking there's not a sound to be heard, as if no one dares to interrupt him.

Interspersed through out the original film are present day interviews with Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Johnson, offering their perspective on both the festival and Cohen. Often times I find interjections like that to be annoying and tend to distract from the original film, but on this occasion the producers have done a very clean job of interjecting the present day material into the original footage. They serve as interesting footnotes to what is happening on stage, and help us develop a clearer picture of what we're on the screen.

Musically Cohen is at the peak of his prowess, he was about thirty-five years old, and his record. Songs From A Romm, had just hit number two on the British pop charts. The concert at Isle of Wight was just one stop on his very successful European tour that year and he was accompanied by a band that included Charlie Daniels on fiddle and bass. In spite of the fact that they are all obviously feeling the strain of the weekend's events and the lateness of the hour, the band never once flagged and played beautifully. There's a great moment during "Tonight Will Be Fine" when Charlie Daniels gets up from his chair and joins Cohen centre stage for a fiddle solo. The juxtaposition of the two men is extraordinary and has to be seen to be believed, as Daniels looks like a hulking bear next to Cohen and far too big to be playing anything so small as a violin. Yet there they are sharing a microphone playing and singing their hearts out respectively.
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While the DVD doesn't include all the music from the concert Leonard gave that night, in fact it doesn't even present the songs in their right order, it's still one of the best concert recordings I've seen for how it captures the spirit and intensity of a Cohen performance. The CD half of this two disc set contains the complete concert performed in the exact order as Cohen played that night in August of 1970. Here again the producers have done a great job in capturing the energy of the live performance by not attempting to make the sound quality perfect. By leaving in a great many of the glitches that used to be standard in the days of analog recording of live concerts they have made it possible for the listener to gain a more complete experience of what it must have been like to be at that concert.

While a lot of fuss has been made about Cohen's current tour and what an amazing performer he is today, the slick and sophisticated performance captured on the Leonard Cohen Live In London DVD pales in comparison to the raw passion and intensity revealed on both the CD and DVD parts of Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970. This is a raw and intense vision of a poet at work wooing his audience with words, music, passion, and intellect. Like those in attendance that night you're pulled into Cohen's vision of the world from his first word and only as the music fades away over the credits of the DVD or the last track on the CD do you find yourself re-surfacing. This is an opportunity to experience Leonard Cohen in a way that you've never experienced him before and its not to be missed.

October 4, 2009

DVD Review: Paradise Postponed & Titmuss Regained

The late British novelist John Mortimer, is most famous for his series of novels featuring the barrister Horace Rumpole. Rumpole Of The Bailey which went on to have enormous success as a television show on both sides of the Atlantic. A barrister himself, he defended Virgin records when they were charged with obscenity for including the word bollocks in the title of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks, it's not surprising that he had great success with novels about life in and around the London courts, specifically The Old Bailey, the infamous criminal court. However that didn't stop him from branching out into writing about other matters, including his satirical look at British social mores and the class structure in Paradise Postponed and its sequel Titmuss Regained.

As with Rumpole both books made a successful transition to the small screen in 1986 and 1991 respectively, and now they have just as nicely made the move to DVD. On Tuesday October 6th/09 Acorn Media will be releasing the five DVD set,Paradise Postponed/Titmuss Regained, with the first four discs being Paradise Postponed and the last Titmuss Regained. While the age of the original episodes means they are in full screen format and the sound is merely Dolby digital stereo instead of the wide screen and surround sound most of us have come to be accustomed to, that by no means detracts from both the quality of the writing and acting that are on view in all five discs.

Paradise Postponed tells the story of both the Simcox family; brothers Henry (Peter Egan) and Fred (Paul Shelly), their father Reverend Simeon Simcox (Micael Hordern), and Leslie Titmuss through a series of flashbacks that traces the interrelationship between the family and Titmuss from the time the boys are all children up to the present day. As the series opens noted social activist and wealthy brewery owner Reverend Simeon Simcox is clearly reaching the end of his life. So it's no surprise when he soon passes away. What is surprising, to the press and family who attend the funeral, is the appearance of Conservative cabinet minister Leslie Titmuss at the funeral. The Reverend, he tells anybody who will listen, was always very good to him as a child, and he was attending the funeral not as a representative of the government, but as an old friend of the family.
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That he is an old friend of the family comes as a bit of surprise to the family, the mother referred to him as that odious little boy when he was a child and still does to this day, but that's not the worst surprise that's in store. For it seems that Simeon Simcox has left his rather considerable fortune not to his sons as would be expected, but to Leslie Titmuss. At a loss as to explain how there father could have done something so "irrational" as leave everything to someone who is the antithesis of everything they believe in, Henry Simcox is convinced their father had taken leave of his senses in his last days and vows to contest the will on the grounds his father was not in his right mind.

Yet, as we learn in our travels into the past, Simeon Simcox was always taking an interest in Leslie Timuss' life. The other members of the family, and their circle of friends, might either do their best to ignore him or treat him badly, but the Reverend, no matter how obnoxious or obsequies the boy is, can't seem to turn him away. While it might be possible the reverend feels sorry for the child for the way others treat him, the truth of the matter is that Leslie Titmuss is not very likeable either as a boy or an adult. He has the unerring habit of always saying or doing the wrong thing which either ends up making him look a fool or a jerk. However neither of Simeon son's come off much better as Henry the eldest is mean and selfish, while Fred just turns out to be ineffectual.

The secrets that tie Titmuss to the Simcoxs, and other assorted dirty linen, come out over the course of the series until finally all the pieces fit into place. Those used to the faster pace of American television shows might find Paradise Postponed a little slow at first, but your patience is rewarded by the fine performances and the quality of the script. While there's very little to recommend about Leslie Titmuss when you first meet him, and he remains incredibly hard to warm up to over the course of the series, David Threlfall does a masterful job of inserting just enough humanity into his characterization that you can't end up feeling both a little sorry for, and respecting him, all the same. It's a good thing too, because Titmuss Regained wouldn't work at all if that weren't the case.
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In the sequel Titmuss still carries with him the resentments of his youth against the privileged who laughed at him, but now he's in a position of power that allows him to look down on them. However that doesn't stop him from wanting to fill the hole in his life left by the death of his wife in Paradise Postponed. A chance meeting with the widowed Jenny Sidonia (Kristin Scott Thomas) at a lunch in Oxford opens the door to romance in his life and he stumbles through in his usual blustery manner. Much to the shock of Jenny's liberal friends she actually begins to respond to his advances and agrees to marry him. However, while one can understand her initial attraction to Titmuss, it's not long before cracks start to appear in their relationship.

There's also trouble at the office for Titmuss as his ministry, responsible for development and planning, are studying plans for the construction of a housing development and infrastructure in the rural area where he not only spent his childhood, but has just bought a stately home for his new bride. While on the one hand he makes public speeches deriding those wishing to protect "unspoiled countryside" as selfish and looking to protect their privileged lifestyle, on the other the last thing he wants is a new town plopped down in his own back yard. As if that weren't bad enough his new bride strikes up a friendship with the head of the local protest group against the development, none other than Fred Simcox.

Like the earlier series Titmuss Regained is a wonderfully written and masterfully acted piece of television. Not only has Mortimer written an elegant story that satirizes both sides of the political spectrum in England, the snobbery of old money, and the callousness of the new conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, the script and the actors bring all the characters to life in a way that's rarely seen on television or film these days. With the exception of Jenny Sidonia, none of the characters in either Paradise Postponed or Titmuss Regained are completely sympathetic. While this might make it difficult to watch if one requires a character to identify with in order to enjoy something, the upside is that it makes for highly realistic and intelligent television. This even handed approach towards characterization also allows the viewer to make his or her own decisions as to who their sympathies lie with, although, in the end, you might just want to wash your hands of the lot of them.

Originally produced in the the 1980's and early 1990's when new conservatism in Britain was still fresh in everyone's memories Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained don't lose any of their bite for no longer being contemporary. They both so perfectly recapture the era and the people on both sides of the political divide in England at the time, that it remains just as potent a piece of television as it was twenty some years ago when it first aired. As a result it is one of the best pieces of social satire you're liable to see for quite some time to come.

September 20, 2009

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Fanfare Ciocarlia Live & Best Of Gypsy Brass

Somewhere near the Hungarian border in Romania lies a town so small that it doesn't even show up on the country's roadmaps. The trains don't stop at Zece Prajini, you have to tell the conductor which piece of farmland, indistinguishable from all the rest, is the one you want to be let off at, if you plan on travelling there. According to those who live there, a hundred years ago their families asked permission of the area's landowner if they could move their village from a desolate hilltop where they had been forced to travel miles each day for water and fire wood, to this valley where life would be somewhat easier. Easy is a relative term when you're Romany living in Eastern Europe, and they were grateful for any kindness.

The one way the inhabitants had of supplementing their incomes was the fact the village was famous for its brass band.They would be booked to play weddings and other events requiring music by neighbouring communities for miles around and over the years their reputation continued to spread and grow throughout the region. It was their reputation which drew a young German music enthusiast, Henry Ernst, to come and seek out this tiny village and its brass bands. He had been travelling through Eastern Europe searching out, and recording if possible, Romany musicians where ever he went, and he eventually heard of these amazing brass musicians who lived somewhere in Moldavia at the eastern edge of Romania.

The miracle is that he ever found the musicians the world has come to know as Fanfare Ciocarlia, let alone launched them on an international career. Yet now instead of playing weddings for Romanian farmers who were just as likely to stiff them as pay them because they were gypsies, and who was going to believe their complaints of being ripped off, they now play concerts on stages the world over and are fast becoming international stars. If you've seen the movie Borat than you know their music as they were the brass band who tore through "Born To Be Wild" for its soundtrack. Realizing that there are plenty out there who might not have had the opportunity of experiencing Fanfare Ciocarlia, their German record label, Asphalt-Tango, is releasing Fanfare Ciocarlia Live, a two disc CD/DVD package, and Best Of Gypsy Brass, a greatest hits package on a high quality 180 gram vinyl LP.
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The title Fanfare Ciocarlia Live is slightly deceptive, because aside from containing a recording (the CD) and a film of a 2004 concert they gave in Berlin, the DVD includes; the hour long documentary on the band, Iag Bari (Brass On Fire), an interview with the late elder statesman of the band Ioan Ivancea relating a history of the village and the music that has grown to define it, super 8 film the band members shot of themselves, and a variety of video clips of the band. The concert, both the film and the CD, are wonderful as they give listeners a chance to hear and see what happens when the band's intoxicating music meets a live audience. It's a wonder the roof doesn't blow off the concert hall with the amount of energy being generated by the combination of the band performing and the fervour with which the audience throws themselves into dancing to the music.

Yet, what's equally amazing about Fanfare Ciocarlia are the nuances and subtleties that you hear in their music. I don't know about anybody else, but normally when I think of a twelve piece brass band made up of tubas, trumpets, saxophones, percussion, drum, and a clarinet, noise is the first thing that comes to mind and music second. However, these guys do things with brass instruments that I've never heard from anyone. Even when they're playing at breakneck speed, so the music is pouring out fast and furious, every note is distinct and the music speaks to something inside of you on an emotional level that conventional bands can't hope to match. It's hard to describe the experience, except to say the music manages to capture the full range of the human emotional experience while blowing the doors out.
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In Iag Bari we travel back to the early days of the band when Henry Ernst was still skidding his car through unpaved roads, where the mud and icy slush came halfway up his hub caps, in order to rehearse the band for their third CD. We attend the wedding of a band member's daughter, meet the people in the village, and are taken inside their homes. Most are still heated by stoves, electricity is rudimentary at best, and pony carts are the predominant form of transportation. It's only when flash to shots of them on tour, with Henry steering their bus across Europe, that we remember it's 2004 when this movie was shot. This isn't the world of I-pods, cell phones, and personal computers that you and I take for granted.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie for me was the band members meeting with a Eastern Orthodox priest, and going over their plans for restoring the church in the village. They have pooled their earnings from touring and record sales so the village can have the first officially recognized "gypsy" church in Romania. The smiles that crease their faces when the priest tells them the project has been approved, and it will be consecrated are wonderful to behold. They may be on the verge of international success and becoming the darlings of the World Music scene, but that doesn't change who they are and what's important to them. Perhaps it's that sense of community that they carry with them onto stage when they perform that makes their music so special, They aren't just Fanfare Ciocarlia when they climb on stage, they carry with them the history of their village and the stories of all the people who live there.
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While the CD/DVD package takes us only up to 2005 in telling the story of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the LP Best Of Gypsy Brass takes you right back to the earliest recordings the band made and then carries you to their most recent triumphs including their infamous recording of "Born To Be Wild". I'm not sure what motivated Asphalt Tango to release this on LP instead of CD, but the music is still the music no matter how you present it, and this greatest hit's package is a perfect introduction to their music for someone who hasn't heard them before. Not only do the songs cover the entirety of their career but they also give you a good idea of just how diverse their sound is.

In the interview with Ioan Ivancea on the DVD where he talks about the history of Zece Prajini and the music they play, he makes a very telling remark. The people of this village he says have always had to toil in the fields, do hard physical labour, and work with their hands. As a result they've developed great lung capacity and have calloused and misshapen fingers. You couldn't imagine any of them even trying to play a violin or other instrument which requires delicate fingering, so it was only natural they gravitated to brass instruments. He also recounts how in the days when the Ottoman Empire ruled over this part of the world, the Turkish armies were always accompanied by brass bands, which would either lead them into battle in an effort to frighten their enemies or blow the fanfares that marked the coming of dignitaries. So not only were they suited to the instruments because of the nature of their existence, these were also the instruments the people of the area were most familiar with.

Fanfare Ciocarlia have gained the reputation as one of the supergroups among Romany musicians and are justifiably respected and appreciated where ever they play. With roots that are not only planted firmly in the soil of their home village, but the history of Eastern Europe, their music resonates with the sound of the human experience in a way few other bands can ever hope to emulate.

September 15, 2009

Music DVD Review: Indian Ocean - Indian Ocean Live In Delhi

One of the great pleasures of being a critic, and one of the things that keeps me from becoming jaded, is when you find a musician or a group you've never heard before who are performing music unlike anything you've ever experienced. While sometimes this means they are doing something that's truly original, other times it just means the approach they have taken to what others have done before is as fresh and invigorating as if it were brand new. However, no matter what the case is, hearing them is usually enough to remind me there are still musicians our there willing to experiment and, more importantly as far as I'm concerned, playing music for the sake of playing music, not to become rich and famous.

In recent years, as the music from various cultures from around the world becomes more available, there have been more attempts at fusing the music of North America with the other cultures' music. While it's obvious how many African musicians are able to find a common thread for their music with what's currently popular in North America, the same can not be said about those from India. Yet, while there is no denying there are differences between West and East when it comes to ideas about rhythm and the structure of a piece of music, much of the East is East and West is West and never the train shall meet idea that has been perpetuated about music arose out of the differences between Classical Indian and European music.

Once you break away from the rigid confines of 18th and 19th century Europe when it comes to music, you all of a sudden see that there's plenty of common ground to be found. Now I don't know as much about classical Indian music as I'd like, but I do know that much like jazz improvisation around a theme is a key element. So although I remember being surprised when I first found out about the popularity of jazz in India, the more I understood about classical music in that country, the more I saw the connection. Therefore, when I first heard the New Delhi based band Indian Ocean's DVD, Indian Ocean Live In Delhi, I was not overly surprised by their sound's marked jazz influence.
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Indian Ocean has been together in its current line up since 1994, and have built up an enormous following in India. While they have played in North America before, the tour they are currently embarking on is their most ambitious to date as they are criss-crossing the United States over the next month giving people from Albuquerque to Ohio a chance to hear their unique fusion of jazz and Indian music. However, those of you planning on attending one of their concerts and anticipating seeing sitars and other instruments you associate with India, will be in for something of a disappointment.

For while percussionist Asheem Chakravarty plays tabla and drummer Amit Kilam plays the two stringed percussion instrument from West Bengal known as the gabgubi, whose sound can be modulated by pulling the stings with one hand while simultaneously tapping out the rhythm with the other, the remainder of the instruments employed will seem very familiar. Kilam sits behind a very conventional drum kit and the rhythm section is completed by Rahul Ram on Bass, and Susmit Sen on guitar rounds out the group.One way they do differ from a great many modern jazz bands is the role vocals play in their music. Now all four of them have been known to pitch in on the vocals, but the majority of the vocals are split between Chakravarty and Ram with Sen and Kilam providing mainly harmonies and background vocals as required. Chakravarty's voice in particular is extraordinarily captivating as he soars in and out among the other instruments in ether a free form flow similar to scat or singing lyrics

While the band does introduce the songs partially in English, the lyrics are most definitely not in English, and the DVD I have was produced for an Indian audience so there was no explanation about the songs provided, let alone any liner notes. (If you buy a DVD make sure that you specify the right format as the version I have was PAL and I could only play it on the DVD writer in my computer as even my DVD Rom wouldn't play it - you want NTSC in North America, Japan, and a few other countries in the world, while most of Asia will want SECAM, and Europe and the rest of the world will want PAL) However I didn't find my enjoyment of the music in any way diminished by not understanding the lyrics. Chakravarty's voice in particular is so expressive that it's almost an instrument in of itself.
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I think the first thing you'll be aware of watching and listening to Indian Ocean is how full and rich their sound is. You might be wondering how a four piece band made up of two percussionists, a bass player and a guitarist could create music elaborate enough to be considered jazz, but that's only because you're used to how limited most pop musicians are when it comes to what they can do with their instruments. Each member of this band, it seems, is contributing to both the melody and the rhythm of each song. As a result a song builds and acquires a texture as it is played and another layer of either melody or rhythm are added. It's amazing how quickly you forget there are only four musicians playing.

Aside from stepping out from behind his drum kit to play the aforementioned gabgubi, Kilam also picks up a recorder at one point and produces a sound so hauntingly beautiful that you look at the instrument in astonishment. I had a hard time reconciling it with the cheap plastic things we used to play in grade school and try to play such complex songs like "Old Grey Mare" and fail miserably. Perhaps that's what so amazing about Indian Ocean overall, the way they take conventional instruments like guitar, drums, and bass and create such incredible music. Certainly the inclusion of tabla and Chakravarty's vocals adds an element that we're not used to, but that's not enough to explain how good they are or why their music is so entrancing.

Technically speaking the concert was filmed beautifully as the cameras didn't jump around all over the place from band member to band member or shot to shot, but lingered long enough at each point of focus for us to appreciate what was happening on the screen. The sound was crystal clear and perfectly balanced and the DVD offered you the choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound or regular stereo, so no matter what your set-up you'll be able to enjoy the music.

Indian Ocean: Live In Delhi is a great introduction to an amazing band playing some of the best, and most heartfelt, contemporary jazz that I've heard in a long time. If you have the opportunity to catch them in concert during their current tour of North America do so. However if you're not able to attend, get a hold of this DVD and it will serve as some compensation. Indian Ocean are one of those bands that remind us why we loved music in the first place and listening to them will leave you feeling as refreshed and revived as you would after a summer storm.

August 19, 2009

DVD Review: Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey

For some reason the more civilized we become the more we look to find what we've lost on the way amongst those who we at one time would have dismissed as primitive or savage. Even as early as the 19th century, when we were still forcing them onto reserves and destroying their means of livelihood, Native Americans were beginning to be seen as figures of romance. Photographer Edward S Curtis took to stamping about the "wilds" taking photos of various nations in traditional costumes. That the costumes he photographed people in happened to come out of his luggage and were usually garb only worn by those who lived on the great plains, mattered little to the white audience who to this day still lap up his photos of "authentic Indians caught in their natural habitat".

As the twentieth century progressed and people began experiencing dissatisfaction with their own cultural identities and the social mores they saw around them, their eyes began turning to other cultures and belief systems. The problem was that most of them had no idea what it was they were actually looking for and answers are hard to find if you don't know what questions to ask. As a result there has developed a tendency to idealize various cultures and their lifestyles and decide that the secret to a better world lies in emulating something that never existed. Attempts to take bits and pieces of a culture and apply them out of context don't do anything but diminish those one is trying to imitate.

One of the most disturbing trends is how people then begin to market what they've "discovered" about this other culture. I'm sure most of you have seen some variation on books with titles like Find The Inner Shaman Within You or some such crap. They promise you a better life through a spiritual awakening achieved by practising the secrets of the Amazon that they preach in their book. Of course if you're having difficulty with the achieving success with the book, you can take their workshop to get the full experience.
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Unfortunately these attitudes aren't limited to those trying to make a quick buck as I discovered watching the DVD of director Kathi Von Koerber's movie Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey from Kiahkeya Productions. Presented as a documentary about nomads, and the Tuareg of the North Sahara in particular, Footsteps comes across as being far more a mixture of "The Noble Savage" and "Discover Your Inner Nomad" rather than a true examination of what life among the Tuareg is like. The hour long film splits its time between shots taken in and around a small camp, and those taken at a couple of major festivals held in the Malian part of the Sahara.

One only needs to read the notes on the back cover of the disc to be warned that this isn't really a documentary, but rather a film made by people setting out to prove their own agenda. For in them it states that the director believes "the wisdom that nomadic life entails, gives deep insight into human's relationship to the earth". So instead of merely observing life among these people of the Northern Sahara, she skewed the footage to show what she wanted to show. Interviews with what she called tribal "elders" and a "healer" produced homilies like "nature is life" and "the further we move towards science the more we move away from nature". While those sound like noble sentiments, what the film doesn't do is place them in their proper context.

The Tuareg people are nomads who live in one of the harshest environments in the world. Like the Inuit of the far north their entire belief system is going to be based around what it takes to survive in their particular environment. Calling them keepers of an ancient wisdom is to wilfully misrepresent what their knowledge represents. Take the Tuareg out of their habitat and they suffer horribly, because nothing of what they know has prepared them for life outside it. Sure they have a deep understanding of the natural forces that are prevalent in their world, but it was born out of an understanding of what it takes to survive there and its not wisdom that can be applied in other situations.
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Nothing is mentioned in the film about the struggle the Tuareg have had to hold on to their habitat. Like how in Mali where this movie was filmed, there was recently an armed rebellion. Or how this has been the third major rebellion since the 1960's in an attempt to stop the steady encroachment of civilization into their traditional territory. While the Tuareg have roamed the Sahara for centuries, their primary territory now resides within the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger, with the latter two being the countries they have fought with the most.

It's incomprehensible to me, and also irresponsible as far as I'm concerned, that the film makers have completely ignored the reality of just how tenuous the Tuareg existence has become. By only focusing on one encampment and activities at festivals they have presented an extremely distorted view of life among the Tuareg. In fact the whole movie does them a great disservice by not telling the truth about their circumstances. Knowing this it's hard to take anything the moviemakers claim in this movie seriously, and I found the whole project distasteful and exploitive.

There have been a number of quite fascinating movies made about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. Desert Rebel and Palace Of The Winds have done a good job of explaining their situation and depicting the environment they live in. Unfortunately Footsteps In Africa is not one of them as it presents a highly idealized and romanticized version of who and what these people are. I would look elsewhere for the truth.

July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Tracey Ullman Tracey Ullman Takes On: The Complete Third & Fourth Season

Something that's always mystified me about movies is how the term character actor signifies a lower class of performer. You see I was always under the impression it was an actor's job to re-create the character that either the playwright or script writer had created. Silly me, people don't want to pay money to see Tom Cruise trying to be someone else, they want to see Tom Cruise fighting Martians War Of The Worlds or being a brave German army officer trying to kill Hitler Valkyrie. In fact, if the character's name isn't in the title of a film, I'd bet most audiences would only know his character as "the guy Tom Cruise played".

Nothing personal against Tom Cruise, you could replace his name in the previous paragraph with that of almost any other current or former movie star and it would be that same story. I say almost because there are some actors out there today who do create characters to play on screen, and aren't content to only play a variation of themselves. However, even when you do get someone creating a character for a movie, you often get more of a caricature than a real person. Most of the time what you'll see is a something along the lines of a few emotions passing itself off as a person; this is my character angry, sad, happy, and horny. Or even worse, what you see on screen is a mish-mash of stereotypes that identify a type but bear little or no relationship to a human being.

It's been years since I've seen any of Tracey Ullman's television work, so I had forgotten her skill at creating characters and bringing them to life. However, after watching the new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Tracey Takes On, a triple disc DVD set of the third and fourth seasons of the HBO show of the same name, her talent is indelibly etched into my brain. What makes her work so memorable is the fact her characters are multi-dimensional and the more you see and get to know them, the more human they become.
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The premise behind Tracey Takes On is that each segment of the show has Ullman's characters acting out what everything from "Obsession" to "Hollywood" means to them. Ullman introduces each collection of vignettes by citing an example or two of her own experiencesand then we immediately segue to the first of her characters with something to say on the subject. Now I haven't seen any episodes from the first two seasons, but I have to assume that the collection of characters we meet over the course of these three DVDs are ones that have appeared throughout the course of the show, so some of you might already be familiar with names like Ruby Romaine the make-up artist; "Chic" Middle Eastern taxi driver; Trevor the gay airline steward; Sydney Cross the loud mouthed attorney; Chris and her lover Midge, a pro on the LPGA tour; Fern Rosenthal a Jewish retiree from Long Island living in Florida; Linda Granger ex star of the television show VIP Lounge; and the rest of Ullman's menagerie of characters.

While her characters cross all boundaries of sex, race, religion, and age not once do they come across like stereotypes. Of course in some people's minds Ullman wearing black face in order to play an African American airport security officer named Sheneesha Turner, or her portrayal of Mrs. Non Nang Ning, the ancient Asian donut shop owner, is probably horribly politically incorrect. However as she's not holding back from skewering anyone or anything, I think these characters have to be taken within the context which they are presented, some of the best social satire you'll ever see on television.

It's not just the way in which she tackles each of the subjects being "taken on" in each segment, it's the fact that the opinions being expressed are by characters who border on being stereotypes which makes each scene's sharp edges even keener. For as we watch the characters over the course of the three discs we get to know them far better than we would normally know any character on television. Ullman tricks us on occasion by sliding in something that's not funny, or is very gentle in it's humour, which creates a bond between the audience and the particular character by showing them to be more then we had previously thought them to be.
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Of course some of the characters you're not going to feel any affection for like Birdie Godsen who has annual book barbecues in her gated community for her fellow Devout Christians living on Dan Quail Drive, or Erin McColl the earthy folk singer who you end up wanting to plant under six feet of earth for being so annoying. However, for the most part something of what can only be described as the characters' humanity shines through allowing us to identify with their situation. It also turns the tables on us as it changes them from being objects of ridicule who we've been laughing at into people whose feelings we can identify with, which leaves you feeling just a little wrong-footed.

It would have been nice if there could have been some liner notes with the package breaking down who appears in which episode alongside Tracy Ullman, or that supplied a little bit more information about the show aside from the blurb on the back cover. True, there is a link to the show's web site where you can find detailed information about each episode, but that's not the same thing as having something you can refer to while watching the show. The special features on the other hand are great as they feature in depth looks at two of the characters we met in this package and one we didn't meet at all. While one skit is a repeat, the rest is all new material and as funny and pointed as anything else in the collection.

It's a rare film and television actor these days whose willing to subordinate themselves to the character they're playing and even rarer to find one capable of creating a character with more depth than a cartoon cut out. Not only has Tracey Ullman created a very pointed, and sometimes poignant, look at modern life with her series Tracey Ullman Takes On she does so by creating characters who are both funny and very real. As this was a cable television show originally it comes with the requisite warnings about drug use, nudity, and some language. However it fails to give you two very important warnings that you'd be wise to heed before watching any of the material on this three disc set: Do not attempt to drink while watching this show because of the danger of chocking and spitting, and ensure that you have emptied your bladder in advance in order to minimize the risks of pissing yourself laughing.

DVD Review: Where The Road Bends: Tales From A Gypsy Caravan

In 2005 a group of Central and Eastern European countries initiated the The Decade Of Roma Inclusion, a ten year program aimed at improving conditions for the regions ten to twelve million Romani, more commonly known as Gypsies. Its aim was to tackle the educational and social disadvantages faced by Roma communities, and initial signatories included Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, and Slovakia. These eight countries combined account for over half of Europe's Roma population, which led to hopes that after centuries of persecution perhaps the Roma might finally know some acceptance.

Four years later an Amnesty International report on conditions among the Roma of Europe found the following: they were being denied proper education in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; discrimination in Italy; anit-Roma sentiment on the rise in Hungary; forced evictions in Serbia; refusal of adequate housing in Romania; and Roma being forcibly returned to Kosovo, from which they fled to escape persecution, by countries all over Europe. Five of the countries who supposedly were going to work to improve conditions for Roma showing up in an Amnesty International report on discrimination against the Roma is not what you would call heartening or is it bound to inspire confidence in this, or any, program's chances of success.

Of course with countries' economies reeling from the great "slowdown" everybody's looking for a scapegoat and the Roma and Jews have always run neck and neck for the title of favourite for that distinction in Europe. In fact, if anything, the situation is worse than it sounds. Amnesty's report of anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary is a genteel way of describing arson, murder, and rallies by the extreme right against what they call "Roma Crime" In a country which doesn't keep crime statistics based on ethnicity it's amazing how all of a sudden a minority population is responsible for an increase in crime.
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While the political will in Europe just doesn't seem to be strong enough to bring about any real change in the lives of the Roma, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to try different approaches. One such effort was a tour of North America by Roma musicians from Spain, Romania, Macedonia, and India organized by the World Music Institute and documented on film and DVD in the movie Where The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan. Directed by Jasmine Dellal the film not only joins the tour across North America, but spends time with each of the performers in their home countries introducing us to their lives. The hope was through the combination of the tour and the movie that people will get to know the Roma beyond the stereotypes perpetrated by racists and start to see them as humans as well as giving those involved an opportunity to tell their stories to a wider audience.

The two bands from Romania, Taraf De Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia might be stars on the road and be garnering international attention, but at home they still live in villages minimal amenities. Both bands are the main sources of income for their villages and it seems that in both cases a new generation of band members is being prepared to replace the current ones as they age. Seeing the people ploughing their fields behind teams of horses, and heating their homes with brush wood, it's hard to remember that this was being filmed in 2006. It looks like nothing has changed in hundreds of years, save for the naked electric light bulbs strung in public places.

Obviously the two Romanian bands had much in common, but one of the amazing things about the movie was watching how these groups from around the world without any language in common were able to connect with each other through their music. While all of the bands were fascinated with the group from India, Maharaja, as they represented the origins of the Roma, it was the Spanish flamenco duo of Antonio El Pipa and his aunt Juana la del Pipa who connected with them the most. By the end of the tour they had even managed to work out a performance piece called Tango Maharaja, where the two bands joined forces to dance and sing together. It was really quite extraordinary watcing how they found common ground without being able to talk to each other except through smiles, hand signals, and their music.
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Esma Redzepova from Macedonia is recognized globally as the Queen Of The Gypsies, an honour bestowed on her by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Aside from being a dynamic performer for over forty years, Esma, has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her political work on behalf of the Roma. Unable to have children of her own she and her late husband adopted forty-seven children and trained them to earn their livings playing music. As Roma go she is well off, but although she might appear to be a diva when on stage, off is another matter as can be seen from her interaction with the other performers on the tour. Even if there were some trace elements of diva that did shine through, after watching her perform you could forgive her anything.

Of course it's the music that is the most compelling part of the movie. From the all out assault of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the raw, fiery passion of Antonio and Juana singing and dancing flamenco, the eerie and beautiful music of Maharaja and their amazing dancers, the wild strings of Taraf De Haidouks, to the magnificence of Esma Redzepova, its an experience that has to be witnessed to be believed. Life, love, joy, sadness, sorrow, but never self-pity, pour from their songs and their dances like lava from a volcano. You can't help but wonder what these people do that allows them to experience life so fully that they can perform and share this with us to such an extent. After being spat on for hundreds of years, and still being spat on and treated like dirt to this day, they somehow find inside themselves the strength to not only continue living, but to play music that is far more life affirming than anything you'll hear from almost any other source.

It strikes me as one of the world's supreme ironies that these musicians were paraded around like this in an attempt to garner wider acceptance of the Roma among the world at large, when they should be giving the rest of us lessons on how to live. We should be grateful that the Roma are still willing to even make an effort to reach out to us instead of picking up weapons to fight back and protect themselves from our world. If you know nothing about the Roma, this movie will not only introduce you to their music but give you a peek into their lives and an overview of their history as a people since they left India over a thousand years ago to travel west. Perhaps you'll come to understand that you have nothing to fear from them except the chance of your heart being broken.

July 11, 2009

DVD Review: Punk In England

What happens when you set out to disrupt the established order and and somewhere along the way discover that you've become the establishment? After a couple of years of playing the same music over and over again that's what was happening to punk bands in England by the end of the 1970's. At least that's how Bob Geldof describes the situation in an interview near the beginning of Wolfgang Buld's Punk In England, the follow up to his 1978 documentary Punk In London, now available from MVD Entertainment. Geldof, who was lead singer of The Boomtown Rats at the time, claims that with the exception of The Clash, who were good enough to evolve without selling out and the Sex Pistols who imploded, punk bands by 1979 were at the end of the road. He says that by refusing to grow they allowed themselves to become the establishment which others wanted to overthrow because they had become boring.

While there is some truth to what Geldof says, there's also the fact that by 1979 major labels were catching on to the fact that there was money to be made from punk and began signing the more marketable bands to deals. After EMI's disaster with the Sex Pistols, labels weren't interested in real punk bands, they wanted bands like The Jam who could be marketed easily and looked nice. You only have to listen to the songs included on this disc by The Jam to hear how much different they are even from the supposedly evolved Clash. For while the Clash may have made their music more complex and slowed the tempo down somewhat, watching the clips of them included in this movie shows they haven't become any more commercial than they were previously. There's not many who would be prepared to call their music nice and safe and ready for mainstream radio play in the United States or other big markets. Sure compared to footage of them playing only the year earlier there's a huge difference, but listen to them compared to the Jam who appear soon after them in the movie and you'll see an even bigger difference.

While Geldof is right in saying that punk bands ran into a wall due to their own lack of creativity and new bands with fresher ideas did come along to replace them, the reality is that on the whole those bands who did come along and replaced them were a lot more commercially viable and less liable to lead a revolution. Sure there were some other bands at the same time like Spiz Zenergi but judging by the samples of their work we see in the movie, not only weren't the commercially viable, their music just wasn't that good. Band's like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who are shown here singing their song "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" were more like the novelty bands of the sixties who had one or two songs that caught the public's attention before they vanished from the scene. "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" might have been sold quite a few copies and received air play on some FM radio stations, but it's wasn't enough to guarantee Dury and his mates eternal popularity.
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The music movement that proved to have slightly more legs than punk did was ska, which really can't be considered punk so I'm not sure why it was included in this documentary. Maybe it was because bands like the The Specials and The Selector were political statements simply by virtue of their existence. Perhaps the fact that they were both inter-racial bands playing music which had obvious reggae influences was enough for Buld to include them as part of the punk movement. For, while them both having black and white musicians in their bands may not sound like such a big deal to us, in the racially charged England of the late 1970's it was huge. In 1976 Rock Against Racism was started in response to Eric Clapton making racist, anti black statements during one of his concerts, including chanting "Keep Britain White" the slogan of the neo-nazi National Front Party. On top of this there was also substantial amounts of racial violence directed against both the black and the south-east Asian communities in England.

So integrated bands like The Specials, The Selector, and a little later on The English Beat, not only created wonderful music but sent a message of tolerance that was badly needed at a time when there wasn't much to be seen anywhere else. The film makes a point of noting that neither the Specials nor The Selector were signed to major labels and both released discs on the independent Two Tone label; an obvious reference to not only the composition of their membership, but their musical influences. While ska of course had been around for a long time, and in fact predates reggae music, the type played by the bands in the late 1970's had a harder edge to it than any of the older ska I've heard. Listening and watching The Selector especially gives you a really good idea of how their music combined pop, rock, and reggae to make for a really upbeat, and high energy dance music.
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As a special feature on this release, another, shorter documentary by Wolfgang Buld is included, Women In Rock. Unfortunately it's pretty much as patronizing and a waste of time as you'd think it would be from the title. The only women who are at all interesting of those he's chosen to talk with or show performing are Siouxie, of Siouxie & The Banshees and the incredibly odd Nina Hagen. The clips of Siouxie and The Banshees playing in this second documentary are actually one of the high points of the whole disc musically as far as I'm concerned as they are much more musically interesting than most of the other bands who appear in either documentary.

While the quality of the sound and visuals are surprisingly good considering their provenance, there's not much the film crew can do to improve upon the quality of the music. In fact, while this may not have been the point of the film when it was made back in 1979, Punk In England shows how music that had once been considered a threat by the establishment was co-opted and made safe for mass consumption with bands like The Jam. Aside from the brief spark of life provided by The Specials and The Selector half-way through the movie, after the opening couple of tunes by The Clash, the music becomes boring and pedestrian. No matter what the title of this DVD claims, judging by the music it presents, there's really not much punk left in England by 1979.

July 9, 2009

DVD Review: Punk In London

In the summer of 1980 London England was close to a war zone with race riots and battles between police and demonstrators breaking out all the time. Then Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had created such a divisive atmosphere that the anger of the disaffected, the poor and people of colour, boiled over onto the streets routinely in June and July of that summer. For a while it looked like the song "London's Burning" that The Clash had written a couple of years earlier had every chance of coming true. While there were punk scenes in North America; New York City, Toronto Ontario, and Los Angeles, in comparison to what was going on in England, and specifically London, that's all they were was scenes, not the politically charged calls to action that were sound tracks for running battles with the police.

In an interview he gave in 2006, German film director Wulfgang Buld describes how news of punk had reached Germany. So when the film school he was attending demanded he do some documentary features as part of his course work, he set off to England in 1978 with a film crew to see what all the fuss was about. One of the films he made during that trip, Punk In London, has just been released in a re-mastered form on DVD by MVD Entertainment. The interviews with various musicians, and the footage of bands like The Boomtown Rats, The Jam, The Lurkers, Chelsea, Subway Sect, The Adverts, and The Clash not only capture the energy of the music and the time, but also the anger constantly simmering just beneath the surface. In the film the anger comes across as general dissatisfaction and frustration with the way things were shaping up in England at the time and make you realize the events of 1980 weren't just a spur of the moment thing, but a long time in the building.

The interview with Buld is one of two special features included on the DVD, the other being a concert given by The Clash in Munichin 1978, and while its interesting enough for establishing a context for the movie and describing how it came about, what makes Punks In London fascinating is its subject matter. Shot with one camera and portable sound equipment, Buld and his crew go everywhere from the clubs, the old warehouses bands used for rehearsal halls, to the storefront label/record store Rough Trade who played a key role in giving bands exposure.
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Unlike today when these things would have been arranged by a band's management or label, Buld would show up with his crew on location sometimes having phoned in advance and other times not. This resulted in the interesting scene of them being basically told to piss off by The Stranglers; "I'm not a prostitute" one them responded when asked why they didn't want to be in the film by Buld. However, because of that spontaneity it also means this is one of the best up close and intimate looks at the people and the music involved in punk I've seen. A couple of the more interesting moments that occurred because of this were an interview with Kevin Rowlands, who would go on to fame as the lead singer and founder of Dexy's Midnight Runners but at the time was fronting a band called The Killjoys, and following Bob Geldof onto stage with the camera to film the Boomtown Rats from behind their drum kit performing "Do The Rat".

Aside from the music there are also some interviews with people who were on other sides of the scene. Rough Trade was, and for all I know still is, a small independent record store/label which was one of the first places people could go to get information on bands, buy independently produced singles, and talk about what was going on in the world at the same time. The interview with two guys working at the store gives you some idea as to how the punk scene was being politicalized and hints somewhat at events to come in the future. There was also an interview with a reporter form the London music magazine Sounds where he takes credit for the magazine being one of the first music papers to take punk seriously. While I can't argue with him on that point, I did snicker a bit listening to the guy. Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's New Music Express (NME) was the magazine my friends and I all bought when we wanted to find out about what was going on in British music, while we considered Sounds a bit of a joke. So it was funny to see this guy taking himself so seriously and making out how important they were.
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However, the music is what was really important, and while some of the footage is a bit grainy and some of the sound isn't the best, what Punk In London captures like no other film I've ever seen shot from that era is the experience of watching one of these bands perform. If you ever went to some small hole in the wall of a club where far more than the legal limit of people have crammed into the space and felt the way the music connected audience and band than you'll understand that feeling, and how rare it is to see it caught on film. I've seen other footage taken during the same era, but I've never seen anyone manage to capture the spirit of the time on film quite like this.

The real highlight as far as I'm concerned is the special features section containing the full footage of The Clash concert. For those of you who may have only heard songs from later on in the band's history - say from Sandanista and after - and wondered why they were called a punk band, watching this film from a gig in Munich in 1978 will explain everything. Yet, no matter how loud, how fast, or how intense they were, they also dispel the myth of punk bands not being musical as they harmonize on their vocals and are as tight a band as any you're liable to see anywhere or anytime. It turns out these weren't ideal conditions either, for as we learn in an interview the tour of Germany had been a shambles as they haven't eaten in three days and were thrown out of their hotel by the police.

While there's no way to capture the feelings generated by the music and the times, and punk really was a product of time and place, this movie comes the closest to doing that of any that I've ever seen. So if you've ever wondered what old farts like me are going on about when we rave about how great punk used to be, this movie will give you some idea of what we were talking about. The revolution may never have happened, but you can see why we might have thought it possible. With energy like that as your soundtrack, you really could believe in your power to change the world.

July 7, 2009

DVD Review: Reggae In Babylon - Reggae In London 1978

The late 1970's and the early 1980's were times of civil unrest in England that was marked by running battles between the police and minority groups. Young south-east Asians and blacks in particular came under fire from the police for refusing to take abuse from either them or neo-nazi groups like the National Front. It was one of the peculiarities of British policing at the time that when Asian or black youth fought back against skin-heads the police always managed to show up to quell the "rioting" but were never to be found when the skin heads were on the assault.

In 1980 tensions between police and the black community boiled over amidst accusations of police brutality and racism and the resulting riots left behind damage that was still visible a month after. I was in London just after the riots and there were still store fronts boarded over with plywood and the underground press was full of stories of young black men being picked up and worked over for no reason. It seemed that the police were especially targeting the most visible among the black minority - Rastafarians - who were easily distinguished by either their dreadlocks or the colourful knitted caps they wore to contain their "dreads"

The Rastafarian religion had come over to England with Jamaican immigrates after WWll. It was started as a black liberation movement in the slums of Jamaica based on the writings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The name Rastafari comes from the name Emperor Haile Selassie I was known by before ascending the throne of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari Makonnen. In his writings Garvey had predicted the coming of a black king in Africa who would lead black people to freedom, and when Selassie was crowned in 1930 he was believed to be that man. The self styled Lion of Judah not only gave his name to the religion, he was taken as a god on earth by the more devout amongst his followers.
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For the Rastafarian, the white man's world, Babylon, is a prison and he will only be truly free when he is living in the promised land of Africa - specifically Ethiopia, In his documentary movie made in 1978, Reggae In Babylon, German film maker Wolfgang Buld's interviews with young British reggae musicians shows that while not all of them were strict adherents to the tenets of the religion, they did look upon it as significant for the role it played in establishing a black identity for young British of African descent. One of the members of the band Steel Pulse in their interview describes himself as not necessarily being an adherent of the religion, but he could appreciate it for the sense of history and identity it gave him.

Reggae In Babylon has just been reissued by MVD Entertainment and is an amazing historical document. In it the director went around and interviewed various key figures in the British reggae scene in 1978 when it was just beginning to take off. He not only talks to bands like Steel Pulse, he took footage of them playing both live and in the studio. The majority of what he talks to the various individuals about is the history of reggae, both in and outside of England, and its inter-relation with Rastafarianism. While there are no direct references to any of the troubles that are being experienced by the black community at the time, one of the interviews takes place in front of a bulletin board on which is hung a sign denouncing the National Front.
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While Steel Pulse are probably the name most of us are going to be familiar with of those interviewed for the film, the members of Aswad, are more of a Rastafarian band in terms of their religious convictions, and look more like what we have come to expect a reggae band to look like. For in these young days of British reggae, folks like the members of Steel Pulse have yet to grow their hair in dreads and are dressed in their street clothes when performing. The music however is pure reggae with all of the characteristics of the sound firmly established.

Lyrically Steel Pulse music reflected the tenor of the times more than any of the other musicians interviewed. In fact there were a couple of songs sung by Jimmy Lindsay, "Ain't No Sunshine" for instance, that weren't much different from most R&B or soul song in terms of content. The only real difference being the lyrics were sung with a slight Jamaican accent. Interestingly enough, as most of the musicians were born in England, and some are even second generation English, very few of them speak with the thick accent we've come to associate with reggae musicians. The guys in Steel Pulse all sound pretty much like anybody their age born in urban England.
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As for the other major characteristic of Rastafarianism, the use of marijuana as a sacrament, while there were some shots of people smoking while listening to Aswad playing, there wasn't much made or said about it by. In fact it receives only the briefest of mentions by one person when asked to define Rastafrianism. It doesn't appear to have been as important to these people as a whole as it might have been for reggae players elsewhere.

One of the nice surprises about Reggae In Babylon is the high quality of both the picture and the sound, especially considering it was filmed thirty years ago and the sound was originally mono. The images are sharp and clear, and the sound was a lot cleaner than many a disc shot these days. Whoever was responsible for re-mastering the tapes has done a magnificent job.

1978 in England was a turbulent time especially in the inner cities where punk and reggae were taking root among the young people and providing them a focal point for their frustration with the system. Reggae In Babylon not only gives us insights into some of the social conditions affecting the black community of the time, it shows the role reggae and Rastafarian religion played in giving it a sense of purpose and identity. While there was no Rastafarian church or leadership the people could rally around or follow, it still acted as a unifying element. Unlike previous generations they weren't going to be content with the role of docile servant and were prepared to stand up for their rights and reggae was the soundtrack for that fight.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the