Catching up: More consumption

Personal life made it tricky to post in the last week or so, so here’s a bit of catch-up:

CONCERT: Billy Bragg with Ron Hawkins and Kris Demeanor at Jack Singer: Uptown (Winnipeg’s alt.weekly) called Ron Hawkins one of the most underappreciated singer-songwriters in Canada, and if his opening set’s any indication, chalk me up as one of the underappreciators. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with his straightforward folk songs, but there wasn’t much to make you catch notice, either.
Demeanor, on the other hand, knows how to make the most of his single-guitar set-up. As good as he is when his Crack Band is around, his solo sets are something else altogether, crackling with energy and integrating the best parts of beat poetry and singer-songwriter tradition without settling into a coffee-house rut. “Practice” (about a string of near-non-existent international relationships) was a highlight, but “I Have Seen the Future” is still the showstopper. (Check out the award-winning animated short video for that below).
What can you say about Bragg? He brought a polished show, talking to the crowd at length about everything from American football (or “runny runny catchy,” as he calls it) to the benefits of Rock Band on a new generation of music fans to the Mermaid Avenue project (whose Woody Guthrie tunes were a highlight of the set). Some nice touches: When he switched to acoustic, Bragg told the crowd that “now’s the time to call me Judas,” and the guitar itself had “This machine kills time” stenciled on it, a clevernod to Guthrie. By the time his set neared the two-hour mark, the banter seemed a bit much and the tunes dragged a bit, but the rousing rendition of “There is Power in a Union” was a perfect end to the set proper, even if the crowd steadfastly refused to sing or clap along.

FILM: The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Reviews of movies like this often get bogged in the question of “How will this play to kids?” Put simply, I don’t care. Wes Anderson’s take on Roald Dahl’s story is so consistent with the director’s other work that adults could be forgiven for forgetting that the movie’s being marketed to 12-year-olds. The concessions to younger viewers (say, replacing all swear words with “cuss”) could just be considered quirks on par with The Life Aquatic’s Portuguese Bowie soundtrack, and while the setting and animation are plenty vibrant, the voicework (featuring Anderson’s usual roster — Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, etc, plus a note-perfect George Clooney) contains plenty of Anderson’s usual deadpan melancholy. In other words, it’s really just a more fantastical extension of Royal Tennenbaums and Rushmore which, if it doesn’t exactly speak to the director’s diversity, certainly speaks to his singular style.

FILM: In the Loop: This British film is supposedly a comedy, but while it is hilarious from start to finish, in practice it plays more like a tragedy. There’s certainly very little silly about it, and despite a mood that sometimes seems borrowed from deadpan British exports like The Office, it’s also not an awkwardness-comedy. Instead, it’s a deeply cynical satire on the political process, a film about the origins of war that places the blame more on petty egos and offhanded rhetoric than on overarching conspiracies or evil megalomaniacs. There are plenty of loudmouthed bullies, snivelling sycophants and ambitious fools to go around, but the atmosphere feels like high school politics with calamitous stakes. The one thing it does share with The Office, though, is that it’s far from a feel-good comedy — you’ll laugh, but leave the film praying (and doubting) that its portrayal of backroom dealings is exaggerated.

FILM: Zelig: Woody Allen’s one-per-year approach to filmmaking hasn’t led to quite as many stylistic oddities as you might expect, but Zelig is one of the exceptions. Presented as a newsreel documentary examining a great but forgotten personality of the 20s and 30s, the film is a lighthearted detour that travels some of the same ground as Forrest Gump without the schmaltz. Zelig’s title character (played by Allen) is an absolute nobody, a personality so meek that he copes by blending in perfectly with whoever is around him — even to the point of physically transforming, which leads to shots of Allen in blackface and other racial garb that would be offensive if it weren’t just silly. He’s eventually treated by a psychiatrist (Mia Farrow, in one of her first collaborations with Allen) and taught to integrate into modern society. As the film is heavy on narration, the performances are all slight — there’s simply not enough screen time given to the characters to allow for any depth. Instead, Allen relies on a whimsical story and then-impressive special effects integrating Allen into some key historical scenes. It’s a fun, interesting oddity from the director, but he was wise to keep it under the 80-minute mark, as it already starts to wear thin by the end.

BOOK: Worlds of Power: Ninja Gaiden: When I was in elementary school, I had two books in a thoroughly ridiculous series of novelizations based on N.E.S. games. Early this year, I had an idea for a project: Collect the rest (or get them from the library, at least) and do a series of blog posts reviewing each one. The inter-library loans have been slow in coming, so a year later, Ninja Gaiden is only the second I’ve read (after the side-scrolling Blaster Master adaptation). Both books (which are written under the amazing pen name F.X. Nine) are perfectly awful examples of kid-lit, but where Blaster Master took great pains to explain how video game oddities like health powerups could exist in its world, Ninja Gaiden is content to overwhelm its readers with the sheer awesomeness of being a capital-N Ninja. Expanding the storyline beyond the usual N.E.S. formula of “run to the right and kill things” leads to a bizarre plot involving an orphaned 16-year-old Ninja, an ancient conspiracy, CIA double-crosses and a sub-plot that verges on establishing a love interest without ever getting into that icky kissing stuff, but the highlight of both books has got to be the apologetic ‘If you liked this, you might like…’ tacked onto the end, which spotlights genuine adventure and science fiction classics. You get the sense that F.X. Nine is secretly hoping to help kids realize his books are bunk, but the powers that be won’t let him flat-out say it.

BOOK: Monster, 1959: The trouble with trying to satirize an era half-a-century after the fact is that what would have once been timely references now feel like knowing nudges. David Maine’s Monster, 1959 is heavily inspired by creature fare like King Kong, Godzilla and their more ridiculous (and largely forgotten) ilk, with the novel twist of being written largely from the perspective of the book’s creature, K., a giant lizard-ape-butterfly-thing kidnapped from its island home to be put on display in America. While the attempts to understand a beast that hardly even possesses the capacity for thought leads to some interesting passages, the references to political events, actors and films feel shoe-horned in rather than natural, and the message that even the heros in squeaky-clean B-flicks probably had less than squeaky-clean lives is a bit ham-handed. As an action-adventure, it’s a good yarn, but as political commentary, it’s like a more-forced Tom Robbins without the absurdist humour.

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