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The Ladies’ Man’s Bad Seed

New albums by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, reviewed

New albums by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, reviewed

There’s something sinister and sad and kind of ugly about the first seconds of Leonard Cohen’s latest live album. Songs from the Road opens with a recording made one year ago today at Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv; the crowd applauds in 2/4 time as Cohen takes the stage to sing “Lover Lover Lover” from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The knee-jerk, gut-level reaction is that there’s something awfully gauche about clapping to a dirge whose refrain pleads, “Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.” It elevates the song to the status of arena rock standard, reducing this later-life Cohen to showman, to vendor of spectacle: a role which has been imposed upon him in the past five years.

It’s a part he’s played out of necessity and, one imagines, with great uneasiness. The elephant in the room is Cohen’s financial problem, the result of long-time business manager Kelley Lynch siphoning millions from his retirement account, leaving the usually reclusive poet/novelist/songwriter with little recourse but to churn out more work, and exhaustively tour the globe.

This air of obligation hangs heavy over most of his recent work, from the rushed-to-market feel of 2006’s Book of Longing, a compilation of poetry and illustrations that reads like the B-side to much of Cohen’s more accomplished writing, to the 2009 release of Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (also not very good), and now to this Songs from the Road — the second live album, following 2008’s Live in London, to survey his last two years of touring. But where the London release documented an entire, solitary concert, Songs from the Road stitches together various sets recorded in Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Glasgow, San Jose, England’s London, Ontario’s London, and elsewhere. It’s a best-of live album, padding out the catalogue of an artist whose output has been compiled into a bulk of best-of albums, including The Essential Leonard Cohen, The Best of Leonard Cohen, and the uninspiringly titled More Best of Leonard Cohen. (more…)

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Posted in Music  •  4 Comments

Death Becomes Him

Reflections on TIFF 2010: Barney’s Version, the film version, reviewed

Critical reflections on TIFF 2010: Barney’s Version, the film version, reviewed

Barney's Version, the film versionBarney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) and his father (Dustin Hoffman)

To call director Richard J. Lewis and producer Robert Lantos’s film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version an ode to the Great Male Narcissists isn’t necessarily a slight against it. In literature, film, and music, the GMNs have managed between them a prolific, often productive, and most of all pervasive body of work.

The GMN’s old guard — Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, even Leonard Cohen (whose music pervades the soundtrack to Barney’s Version) and Richler himself — as well as the inheritors of their legacy (like Morrissey, Jonathan Franzen, and Nick Cave) have fruitfully mined their own patent self-absorption in ways that transcend mere navel-gazing vanity. Even when inversely configured and self-admonishing (by his own admission, Cohen’s ladies’ man repute has always served as something of a joke), the GMNs have worked to fortify the ideas that life is a thing best examined with careful cynicism, and that love is a thing made more beautiful when it is left to wither on the vine.

Richler’s Barney Panofsky (played by Paul Giamatti in the film) is the ne plus ultra of the GMN, and thus it is fitting that circa 2010 we should spend two-plus hours watching him die. Because Barney Panofsky is the sort of character that is interesting: the sort of man that seems exuberant and robustly alive in a way that is undeniably appealing — witness his refined taste for fine cigars/single malts/women, his cultured bearing and intelligent wiles, his graceful crotchetiness — but ultimately outmoded, infertile, and fit to be retired. Because ultimately, Barney’s a dick. (more…)

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Posted in Uncategorized  •  No Comments

Behind the Screen

TIFF Cinematheque programmer James Quandt celebrates two decades of artful film curating

James Quandt, senior programmer of the rechristened TIFF Cinematheque, celebrates two decades of artful film curating

James Quandt (TIFF)
James Quandt (courtesy of TIFF)

Film programmers are cinema’s unsung heroes. Granted, block bookings of Avatar or Marmaduke (opening this Friday, marking the first sign of the Rapture) at your local multiplex are divined by some Invisible Hand, but at any worthwhile art house, quality programming requires a certain thoughtfulness that is no less methodical.

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the TIFF Cinematheque — née Cinematheque Ontario, recently rebranded along with all of the Toronto International Film Festival’s various adjunct organizations. And for two decades, James Quandt has worked diligently to line up hundreds of series, from retrospectives of major filmmakers to national surveys and thematic programs. He has not only brought the best in contemporary and classic cinema to local audiences, but toured the Cinematheque’s programs throughout North America and Europe.

To mark the Cinematheque’s vicennial, the senior programmer and his team have prepared a robust summer schedule. Celebrating what would have been the hundredth birthday of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, the Cinematheque is presenting the suitably titled “Centenary of the Sensei,” which unspools over two dozen of Kurosawa’s films from June through August. There are also retrospectives dedicated to the work of British actor James Mason, Italian provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini (“The Poet of Contamination” according to Quandt’s programming notes), a tribute to the late Canadian film critic and scholar Robin Wood, and plenty more.

Like the bulk of TIFF’s operations, the Cinematheque is currently preparing for its move to the festival’s new headquarters at the Bell Lightbox, a space which promises to expand the purview and possibilities of art house programming in Toronto. Walrusmagazine.com chatted with Quandt about history’s role at the Cinematheque, the dizzy logistics of programming, and the impending relocation to the Lightbox. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  1 Comment

Family Ties

Canadian filmmaker John Kastner uncovers the truth behind a heartbreaking small-town murder
Still from Life With Murder

Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.

Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.

Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.

Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about.

Walrusmagazine.com spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  22 Comments

A Decent Proposal

The Saddest Music in the World

Last summer I took a gig hosting a film screening and lecture series at a library well north of Toronto. In a sterile meeting room upholstered with folding chairs and an extravagant hi-def projector that nobody employed there knew how to use, I began the series by screening Beshkempir, a 1998 Kyrgyz-language Bildungsroman. It’s a poky piece of social realism shot in a country most of my viewers had never heard of, but was a unanimous hit amongst the crowd of suburban housewives and budding cinephiles. The reaction to the second (and final) film I screened was even more startling.

The movie was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, one of my favourite Canadian features of the past decade. My idea was that these eager armchair film scholars would learn how vibrant, exciting, and bizarre their national cinema could be. Their response? Not so much.

As I began to suss out feedback, one woman furrowed her brow and shook her head, grumbling “I couldn’t find one thing that I liked about it.” My attempts to defend the film, its extraordinary humour, its stylistic idiosyncrasy, its riffs on American cultural imperialism, and the obsessive peccadilloes of its director fell on deaf ears. Whether they got it didn’t matter. They disliked it.

As I prepared to pack up my notes and get back on the roundabout bus route home to my downtown basement apartment, there was a stir of dissent in the ranks. An older, Eastern European man popped out of his metal chair and ardently defended the film’s clever use of montage editing, and its cartoonishly tragic thematic flourish. Not only did this crotchety retiree get Maddin’s film. He liked it a whole lot too. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  2 Comments
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