Friday, November 26, 2004

film: Alexander

Alexander 4/5

Yet another sword and sandal film, and one which references the hero Achilles several times. Troy and Gladiator seem succinct in comparison to this three hour story about Alexander the Great, a well-known historical figure who is famous but whose story is not as well known as his fame would suggest. But, at the same time, those two films seem almost pedestrian compared to the complexities of Alexander. Such subtleties either resonate with viewers or they don’t. They did for me.

The child of a broken marriage, that Alexander(Colin Farell) amounted to anything is a bit of a surprise, according to how the film portrays his father, King Phillip (Val Kilmer)and his mother, Olypias (Angelina Jolie). Phillip, king of the Macedonians, is a crude, womanizing drunkard, while Olympias is a creepy, snake-loving follower of Dionysous. She actually initiates the young Alexander into holding snakes so as to lose his fear, and teach the lesson of fearing nothing. Phillip teaches Alexander not to trust women, while his mother so hated Phillip that she was suspected as playing a role in his assignation.

Phillip did insist on his son learning from the finest mind in the land. Aristotle, played by Christopher Plummer, explains how the far reaches of the known earth were unnavigated, but promised a water route encompassed all of the land. Whoever could take advantage of such a route would surely be a great ruler.

In one of the first battles, Alexander plans a way to defeat a much larger army, who were gathering in the area. It’s risky, but he’s completely convinced that it will work. It’s also one of the most intelligent battles on film. I’m actually watching a documentary right now on the Discovery channel that is discussing this one particular battle.

Battle after battle, they press on towards the east. It’s a grueling, multi-year campaign. Along the way, they topple tyrant kings and gain the affection of the people. Look for the spectacular scenes in Babylon.

In one scene, he goes into a fit with his key advisors, not because they disagree with his perspective, but because he’s angry that they refuse to try understand a world unknown to them.

You can’t watch this film and not comment on the scenes that either hint at or overtly portray his homosexuality and his love for one of his childhood companions. He and a man-servant character are very doe-eyed, having not scrimped on the eye liner. His affection for these characters is never done in a gratuitous fashion. You’ll wonder if his upbringing contributed to his disinterest in females.

The acting is fine throughout. The costumes and sets are a tribute to detail. Oliver Stone’s direction is without grave error. Alexander is a spectacular film. It doesn’t tell a story that can be as easily fit into a neat little package, like most films of this ilk. For that reason, it’s receiving bad reviews. I would say that if you are at all interested in seeing this film, see it and you be the judge.

And it didn’t seem overly long to me and I would be happy to see it again.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

CD: Gonzalo Rubalcaba and New Cuban Quartet – Paseo

Gonazlo Rubalcaba and New Cuban Quartet – Paseo.

Forty-one year-old Cuban-born Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba has released his 23th recording with Paseo this year.

Rubalcaba met bassist Charlie Haden in 1986 and through Haden, he began an association with Blue Note Records. Haden’s association with Cuban music is well known through his Liberation Music Orchestra recordings from the Apart from playing with Haden, he’s also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Lovano, Jack Dejohnette and many other luminaries.

On the opening track the Latin-flavoured El Guerrillero (The Soldier), the drums beg to turn on a dime a few times, but they simply stamp out at the same pace. The instrumentation is fine but the track doesn't stand out.

What’s most striking about this CD is that Gonzalo Rubalcaba is a master technician of diverse styles. Witness his sublime balladry on Sea Change. This is a style he displayed when I saw Charlie Haden perform in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2002.

The major fault with this disc, though, is that it doesn’t sound improvised enough. There’s too much structure and the compositions aren’t terribly interesting. They do have the sheen of modernity, but when you listen below that layer, there’s little that qualifies as being memorable. There’s not enough tension and interplay between the otherwise capable musicians. At times, some of the tracks sound “busy” without having an engaging groove to them.

As an interpreter of jazz, Rubalcaba is as good as anyone. He knows how to cut loose and deftly swing. On Paseo, regardless of the inspiration behind the compositions, he’s holding back, in fact, the music gives me a stifling sensation. If you read a lot of the reviews of his albums, they often say similar things: great chops, masterful technician, not so memorable composer.

If you really want to hear Rubalcaba doing some mind-blowing piano playing, you owe it to yourself to check out Discovery - Live At Montreau from 1991. Listen to the fantastic first track, Monk's "Well, You Needn't" and be prepared to be bowled over by its virtuosity and electricity. It's widely regarded as one of the best major label debuts, with drummer Paul Motian and Charlie Haden on the bass.

If Gonzalo Rubalcaba were returning to my town, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to buy tickets and I would recommend him to jazz fans. I would only hope, though, that he would shed his shackles and do some serious swinging.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

film: National Treasure

National Treasure 2/5

Nicolas Cage is on a life-long quest to find hidden treasure, foretold to his grandfather’s grandfather, or something like that. His grandfather mentioned it to him, but his own father has ridiculed the claim, after spending twenty years of his own life looking for it. His family has gained notoriety as being conspiracy theorists, with the theory that the founding fathers hid a massive ancient treasure somewhere from the French.

This is just another hokey, Indiana Jones-ish Hollywood product, unfortunately. Were you expecting anything else?

Cage soon meets up a key bureaucrat in the US National Archives who just so happens to be a fabulous young, blonde (Diane Kruger, Troy, who is miscast. This reminds me of Denise Richards in the role of Dr. Christmas Jones from the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. There’s also a young sidekick who plays the role of tech wizard, able to tap into video surveillance lines at will, and fool the guards into thinking they are watching , real time when they are really watching taped playback, etc. We’ve seen it all before.

Sean Bean, once again, plays the main bad guy. Has this talented actor ever played anything else? I’m getting tired of him playing the same role over and over again – the team player who goes bad. Witness similar roles in The Lord of the Rings, in the Bond film Goldeneye, and in Patriot Games.

The film falls apart due to the enormous number of times that you will hear yourself say “How convenient.” Time and time again, we are asked to believe that the good guys won’t get caught, since the bad guys have lost their trail. Wrong.

The only redeeming quality about this lightweight fare is that it may spark an interest in history among some, due to its many historical references.

Would I see it again? Not willingly.

Friday, November 19, 2004

film: Sideways

Sideways is receiving a lot of critical praise and it is one of the better films of the year, so far.

Two friends head out to California’s wine country, to spend a week together before one of, Jack, gets married. Jack is a former TV actor, still handsome in his forties, but now relegated to voice overs. He’s intellectually lacking but also charming and fun in an immature, carefree way. Miles is a divorced English teacher who is obviously full of hang-ups, not the least of which relate to his divorce. He is a wine connoisseur and becomes even more driven to drink, when, on the trip, he discovers that his ex-wife remarried and will be bringing her new husband to the wedding.

Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Paul Giametti

Jack’s main mission for the week, though, is to get laid before he gets hitched. Along the way, they meet two ladies who appear to fit the bill for each of them. Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is a wild and free spirit, like Jack, while Maya (Virgina Madsen) is more laid back and happens to be another wine connoisseur. Madsen’s character is also an intellectual like Miles and the two have an obvious but somewhat tentative attraction to each other.

The camera loves Virginia Madsen. Seeing her through Miles’ eyes, you can’t help but be intrigued and captivated by her. In one scene, they both explain their attraction for some specific wine and through her explanation, she cleverly reveals how she’s attracted to Miles. You can pretty much guess who the awkward Miles responds.

What makes this film work is the realistic tension exhibited by Miles. He’s tired of his job and is a hoping to be picked up by a publisher as a first time author. Paul Giamatti’s performance is never dull because we can relate to his bruised self- esteem and he doesn’t conveniently end up in unrealistic happy situations.

The scenery in the valley was attractive enough to have some of the audience comment on how they would like to go there on a wine-tasting tour.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church

This is another film where you’re not positive what will happen next but you watch because the film stays within realistic parameters. There’s nothing outrageously far-fetched about it, save for the wallet retrieval scene, which is really funny.

Sideways isn’t as funny as the trailers tried to suggest but it brings up bittersweet emotions without gratuitous “crutches” that most films rely on, in the absence of a quality script or direction.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

R.E.M. concert Nov. 15 - sold out

It was a fun show, but they left out about 2/3 of their hits, like most bands do, in favour of unfamiliar new tracks from the new album and some really obscure songs. R.E.M. clearly aren't a hit singles band. The audience seemed rather subdued during the performance of the lesser known tracks. I visited a website that showed more or less what songs they were playing on this tour, so I wasn't surprised by the set list, and the inclusion of those two unrecorded tracks that were in the encore ("Permanent Vacation" - not an Aerosmith cover and "I'm Gonna DJ"). A less confident band, and a band on their way out would play nothing but the hits, and wear the badge of being a nostalgia act. Bands like that end up playing in Winnipeg casinos or at the Red River Exhibition. R.E.M. are still a vital creative force who refuse to sell out and record nothing but radio-friendly fodder. They take chances and occasionally reward the fans with superb material that takes several listens to warm up to.

This was the approximate set list.
Finest Worksong
Begin The Begin
Wake Up Bomb
Boy In The Well
Orange Crush
High Speed Train
Imitation of Life
Leaving New York
Strange Currencies
Losing My Religion
The One I Love
Final Straw
Walk Unafraid
Life and How To Live It
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
So. Central Rain
Permanent Vacation
I'm Gonna DJ
Man on The Moon

Being a fan for about 20 years now, I was in my glory!! Michael Stipe, adorned like a racoon, acknowledged that he heard the show sold in 90 seconds (2300 tickets). Not quite right, but it was the fastest sell out for a show that size in recent memory, if not in Winnipeg history.

Michael Stipe, Monday, Nov. 15, Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Haircut 100 reunited on VH1

Up unitl this evening, I knew next to nothing about the 80s UK pop band, Haircut 100. All I knew about them was that they wore preppie outfits and had typical 80s pop band haircuts. They were never played on the radio stations that I listened to and as time passed, they became just another band that I wasn't interested in.

Drummer Blair Cunningham (left) ambushed by host Aamer Haleem.

On Much More Music this evening, I watched this show called VH1 Band United. This episode was about finding the members of Haircut 100, 22 years after they broke up. It was actually a lot of fun to watch the show's host travel all over England, staking out hiding spots behind corners and springing himself on the unsuspecting members who were asked to agree to attend a reunion and perform live. You would never guess that some of these guys were in a hot pop band. They seemed so domesticated. Two were balding. One looked like a businessman. Only the drummer looked funky and similar to his old self. You wonder how many bands get approached only to have key members say no to the reunion and have the entire show not make it to air.

After being ambushed and agreeing to the gig, each member sat down for an impromtu interview, often in their backyard, with the host. It was really interesting to hear tell similar stories about how the band broke up without having a formal chance to say goodbye to their fans. Lead singer Nick Heyward essentially ended up with nervous exhaustion and decided to quietly fade away, while the band continued on for a second album. The reunion concert took place at the end of June, 2004.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

films Finding Neverland and The Incredibles

Finding Neverland 5/5

This story is based on James Barrie, the playwright best known for Peter Pan and it is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year, despite receiving next to no hype or marketing push.

James Barrie (Johnny Depp) is a playwright, successful enough to have a nice house with servants, and a beautiful wife (Radha Mitchell). Still, his marriage seems distant and he is bothered by the mediocrity of his creative output. On opening night, people complement him on his terrible plays and he knows they are just trying to be nice.

One day while sitting on a park bench, he encounters three adolescent boys, who he quickly befriends. He invites them over for dinner and also solidifies a friendship with their mother, played by Kate Winslet, much to the disappointment of his wife and her mother, the stern, protective Julie Christie. The boy’s father died from cancer and to some extent, his becomes their playmate, without trying to replace their dad. At the same time, his wife becomes increasingly disenchanted that her husband is spending so much time with another woman and her children.

As his friendship grows with the boys and her mother, he begins to develop a play, loosely based about them. While initially met with skepticism in the planning stages, the play ends up becoming Barrie’s most famous creation.

While less visually fantastic than last year’s Big Fish by Tim Burton, Finding Neverland has its own tastefully limited special effects, but it outshines Burton’s film in its amount of sheer heart.

I actually ended up seeing this film since I arrived too late for the film I originally wanted to see. At the end of Finding Neverland, I was not even slightly surprised to see the audience burst into applause. It was also nice to see that the film was sold out.

The acting is well done without being spectacular. I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, but he didn’t play the role with an extraordinary amount of charisma. Some people will see this as a failing, but I think a genuine performance is better than glitzy but shallow one. One of the children is particularly strong, playing the role of Peter. He’s the youngest but at the same time he’s complex, cynical and surprisingly mature.

Sometimes, a film will come along that stirs up emotions that need to be awakened, and makes you feel alive. Finding Neverland was such a film for me.

The Incredibles 5/5

Despite praise from a friend who saw it opening night, I resisted see The Incredibles until now. There was nothing in the advertising that made it look remotely interesting and I thought I would resist its slick computer animation charms until it came out on video.

I decided to give it a chance, though and I’m really glad I did. The Incredibles turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek satire of most notably, James Bond. There are several scenes that will remind Bond fans of Dr. No, You Only Live Twice and even The Man With The Golden Gun. Even the theme music is a clear Bond rip-off.

All the superheroes are forced into a witness protection-like program, due to the amount of people suing them for collateral damage injuries caused by fighting the bad guys. Mr. Incredible takes a job an insurance claims clerk but he sneaks out regularly by one of his former super hero friends to listen to the police scanner for people needed emergency help.

Eventually, he gets duped into traveling to an exotic tropical island to defeat a rogue robot. The family ends up being like the Fantastic Four.

There is no way that this film is aimed at kids alone. The audience at the late show was almost all adults, and they obviously enjoyed themselves. The animation is superb, probably the best that I’ve seen. Witness little things like how real hair looks. It looks even more realistic than the hair on the characters from the Final Fantasy film, from a couple of years ago.

The Incredibles stands on its own as a fast-paced, witty visual feast that absolutely begs for a sequel. The animated short that preceded the main feature was surprisingly dry in comparison. Bond films have always been a bit cartoonish and this film has raised the stakes for what to expect from Bond 21.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

DVD - The Guess Who - Running Back Thru Canada

Today is the eve of a four-day long weekend for me. My parents came up this afternoon and my little sister and her family are arriving any minute now.

As I was shopping with my Mom, I spotted the newly released Guess Who DVD, Running Back Thru Canada, which was filmed at the Goldeyes' baseball park in Winnipeg, in June, 2000. I was at the concert and I will never forget it. I can recall the darkening, menacing skies, with lightening flickering all over the area. Would we be spared from a downpour? We weren't, but with an unforcasted intermission, the show went on. The ten-minute intermission lasted over an hour due to the weather. Fortunately, the rain didn't last all evening. They actually risked electrocution by playing on instead of calling it a night, which made the evening all the more special. From watching the DVD commentary in between songs, the band was actually more concerned about the wind picking up and blowing apart the covered stage.

The band sounded fantastic. You might expect the sound at an outdoor show to be mediocre, but that wasn't the case from I stood, on the field. Seeing Randy Bachman play live only enhanced, in my mind, his status as a guitar virtuoso. Witness his euphoric, dazzling soloing on the jam part of American Woman. The Guess Who are my favorite Canadian band and at this warm summer evening show, I was in my glory. I only wish they had played another encore. Clearly, they left the audience wanting more. I know I would see them again and again and again, if I could.

The Guess Who have a huge amount of strong material, much more than they could play in a show. Some of the lesser known, but equally appealing songs that were played included: Rain Dance, Guns Guns Guns, Talisman and Glamour Boy. Also included was the Bachman-penned BTO hit, Takin' Care of Business and Takin' Care of Number One.

The now swelte Bachman looked liked a well-fed grandfather, with the beard and a bit too much girth. Donnie McDoougall and Bill Wallace on guitar and bass, respectively, didn't look anywhere near their 50-something years from my vantage point. Burton Cummings looked like he was in his 40s. Drummer Gary Peterson looked like he could lose a lot of weight, but he was solid in his performance and that's all that really matters.

There are some things you see in the DVD that I didn't notice from the show. During the American Woman jam, Bachman took a drumstick from Cummings and used it to run up and down the fretboard, which resulted in a string breaking, You suddenly see the broken string swaying by itself in the camera close-up.

There are a couple of things about the DVD that I was disappointed in. The concert was originally filmed for a 2-hour television broadcast. Consequently, six of the tracks are not part of the main feature, but they are relegated to the bonus section of the disc. It would have been better if all 21 tracks were played sequentially. There an inlay card, but no extensive liner notes. There's nothing that actually tells you who is in the lineup on the card.

The DVD also includes an interview and footage from one of their rehearsals. Although the concert was already aired on TV, I'm glad I purcased the DVD and I know I will watch it over and over again.

Monday, November 01, 2004



The term "musical genius" is casually thrown around far too often these days. However, few would dispute that Frank Zappa is richly deserving of such a title.

This is a new offering from the Zappa camp, which is billed in the liner notes as " audio documentary of Frank Zappa's multichannel recordings and mixes from 1970 to 1978," according to son Dweezil Zappa. The music can be best described as jazz fusion, and it's quite engaging to listen to. No surprise, there.

Unlike most DVDs, there's no motion footage! You see a photograph, accompanied by the "Quadio", (which may sound cool when played on home theatre system, but sounded unexceptional on my modest setup.)

Essentially, they stumbled across some old tapes that were meant for a 4-channel project that never saw the light of day, and they turned it into this DVD.

From a multimedia perspective, the results are underwhelming. I can't imagine too many people sitting around their living rooms, watching still photos of Zappa with his music. The track listing is:
1. Naval Avation in Art?
2. Lumpy Gravy
3. Rollo
4. Drooling Midrange Accountants on East Hay
5. Wild Love
6. Ship Ahoy
7. Chunga Basement
8. Venusian Time Bandits
9. Waka/ Jawaka
10. Basement Music # 2

The entire disc clocks in at 50:37.

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