Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Reviews

Review: Wandering Stars

The list of Jewish science fiction writers is extensive and includes several big names. Picking up Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction was a no-brainer: it included stories by Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison. The editor is Jack Dann, whose name I erroneously thought I recognized (but it’s a fortuitous error, as it turns out). The idea of a collection of SF and fantasy stories on Jewish themes is interesting and (for WASPy goyim like me) refreshingly unusual.

After an introduction by Isaac Asimov, the first story is by William Tenn, an old-school science fiction writer who has not published much since the fifties and sixties, and is largely forgotten today. It’s a story about aliens who want to become Jews. Actually, it turns out that if you ask twelve authors to write SFF stories on Jewish themes, 25% of them will be about aliens who want to become Jews. Of the three (or possibly four, if you want to count Ellison’s contribution), Tenn’s is by far the best. It’s the funniest, and beneath the humour there is the angst and strained optimism we expect from Jewish fiction. By contrast, Robert Silverberg’s story seems disappointingly bland, and Carol Carr’s is just suicide-inducing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iron Man 3

Iron Man was an above average superhero movie. Iron Man 2 was was a joke. But those were on the far side of the singularity that was The Avengers. The future of comic book movies has been uncertain ever since last year. It seems like a bubble just waiting to pop, and after pulling out all the stops for what was ultimately a debut effort, it looked like Marvel and company would not be able to follow it up convincingly. Especially since the next scheduled release was Iron Man 3, a movie for which I and many others had understandably conservative hopes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II

2001’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was an underappreciated little game. Built on the Dungeons and Dragons RPG system and connected tenuously to the earlier Baldur’s Gate games, it was a short, self-contained little fantasy adventure that avoided most of the pitfalls of the genre. Hubs and NPCs were few and the vast space between them was filled with some serious dungeon crawling. The gameplay was straightforward hacking and slashing with very little to complicate it. The inane fantasy dialogue was rare and mostly not spoken aloud—and the voice acting wasn’t half bad. It was short enough that you could complete it in a day, and the sense of continuity of gesture that this provided greatly enhanced the game. The plot made continual ill-fated attempts to shock you with twists, but this just added to its charm. It was like a daytime soap meets Tolkien meets Half-Life 2.

The sequel came out in 2004 and became instantly scarce. It is almost impossible to find at used game stores—and has been for nearly a decade now—and even online it has held steady at an exorbitant markup for the past few years. The upshot of this is that I, no doubt like many others in my situation, matured or at least grew significantly older during the time between playing the two games. I know now that Dark Alliance‘s story-telling is nothing to write home about, and that the game’s strengths lie in the overall experience it offers, not its literary quality. So some of the disappointment of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II could be due to the loss of youthful enthusiasm. Read the rest of this entry »

Mozart and Prokofiev

Yesterday’s concert was billed as a Valentine’s Day extravaganza because of the presence of extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on the program. The real main attraction, though, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K.503, one of the finest pieces of music ever written. The soloist, Angela Cheng, played with delicacy and ease. One might object to the character, which was floating and detached the whole way through—this was pure Apollonian Mozart, and I think there are at least a couple points where emotional release is warranted. But it was a satisfying performance overall.

The Prokofiev, which consisted of selections from all the R&J suites arranged to roughly follow the story of the play, hits that sweet spot period in musical history where orchestras were big and harmonies rich but the perverse tendencies of classical composers hadn’t yet completely taken over. The WSO was fortified with several extra musicians, including an oboe, a clarinet, a flute, two percussionists, two extra violinists, two keyboardists, a contrabassoon, and a tenor saxophone. This last was a very nice touch. The sound of saxophone and orchestra is really quite beautiful, and it’s a shame that so few composers have taken advantage of it.

The music draws on a broad expressive palette and was sensitively played all around. In particular the percussion was very good. This year has been a bit rocky, perhaps, but this concert is redemptive. Definitely one of the top two of the year.

Argo

Finally got round to seeing Argo. It’s basically everything it’s been made out to be—a fine take on a historical watershed, very interesting and educational with some good acting and snappy lines, but nothing life-changing. The 70s aesthetic is hilariously spot-on, Arkin and Goodman are as entertaining as ever, and Ben Affleck is remarkably not annoying. Tension runs high, but in a subdued way, in facial expressions and little glances. It never gets graphic, but some scenes implying tortures and executions are quite visceral. Alexandre Desplat’s music is very nice.

Oscar chances: set against Lincoln and Les Mis, not good. Alan Arkin for Supporting Actor is not completely ridiculous, but although his moments were excellent, he was so busy supporting that he was hardly even in the movie. Adapted Screenplay seems pretty likely (assuming Lincoln doesn’t pick it up in some big sweep). Original Score is actually pretty likely, because Desplat has been passed over several times—I don’t know that I’d give it to him over Thomas Newman, but we’ll see what happens.

Review: The Hobbit, part 1

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation has always struck me as one of the most smooth transitions from the page to the screen. He captures the essential spirit of the books but is ruthless about anything unimportant, difficult to dramatize, or stupid in them. I’ve not seen Return of the King, but the first two, at least, can satisfy even the most exacting Tolkienians while still entertaining a general audience.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, has looked more like a potential disaster the more we’ve heard about it. First Guillermo del Toro was set to direct, an exciting move that would give the project some much-needed independence from the main franchise while still keeping it under the auspices of Peter Jackson. That didn’t work out. Shortly after that, we heard the news that what was planned as a single film would have to be split up into three instalments, which strongly implied that they’d got The Hobbit all wrong.

Now filming has finished, as I understand it, and the first instalment has hit theatres. At the very least the movie is not terrible, but it has its problems and Tolkienians may be a little hesitant to give it the gesture of benediction. Read the rest of this entry »

Mahler 7 with the WSO

I have a complicated relationship with Gustav Mahler. For my whole life he’s been in fashion in the classical music world. Recording a Mahler cycle is every conductor’s dream and scarcely a year goes by in any city without at least one performance of a Mahler symphony. Musicians love his works because they’re big and challenging with many impressive moments for the woodwinds and brass, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they almost always require the local symphony to fill out their ranks with freelancers. Audiences love them because they sound like John Williams and audiences pretty much think what they’re told to think.

It wasn’t always this way. In the years following Mahler’s death his works fell into disrepute, largely fueled by anti-Semitism. After World War II he made a comeback, but attitudes toward his music were a little more temperate than today’s abject Mahler worship. Mahler is a great composer, but he’s also a flawed one. As a symphonist he is mid-rank, fluctuating between the top and bottom of the B-list sometimes several times in the same work. His worst tendency is long-windedness.

I know Mahler 7 primarily through the 1970 Kubelik recording, which is 72 minutes long. That’s weighty, but comparable to symphonies by Rachmaninov, Bruckner, and even Beethoven. It’s not unmanageable. Kubelik’s tempos show off Mahler’s best side—the work has a sweeping grandeur of its own, and artificially broad tempos will only distort it.

Last night, at the second performance of the WSO’s Mahler 7 premiere, Mickelthwate took it too slow right from the beginning. True, the first movement begins with a funeral procession, but Jesus Christ, we’ve only got the hearse for an hour, could you please move it along? The solemn and ominous tenor horn call was stretched out to grotesque proportions by this tempo, which was by far the most ill-chosen one of the evening.

The work itself is repetitious, frequently and pointlessly bringing back old themes with scarcely perceptible differences. The fourth movement, while pleasant, is especially bad in this respect. A slow reading will exaggerate this tendency and make Mahler seem even more dreary and German than he already is. While you can’t argue with the playing—the orchestra acquitted themselves well—you can with the music, which is uneven, and the interpretation, which did not play to Mahler’s strengths.

It goes without saying that there was a standing ovation. We’re a long way from the days when Pantages would test out new acts in front of Winnipeg’s ruthless audiences, and these days we’ll stand for anything as long as it ends with a bang (I stood, of course—everyone else was doing it!). There was also a hilariously fulsome review in the paper. But last night’s Mahler was not nearly as good as last year’s, and I think it wouldn’t necessarily end the world if we took a Mahler break for a season or two.

Review: Here Comes the Boom

Normally I would not see the latest from the esteemed filmmakers operating in the orbit of Adam Sandler. It’s hard to resent their success—they’re good at what they do and they appear to have fun with it—but it’s also hard to see how the lowbrow vomit comedies (vomedies?) for which they are known are supposed to appeal to people who have successfully passed grade eight. But a few months ago, I saw the trailer for Here Comes the Boom, the latest Kevin James movie, and it was hilarious. The scatology was dialled down to bearable levels, the physical comedy was ramped up, and the premise and tone were just too good to be true. Whether or not it turned out to be good, the movie demanded to be seen.

Well, it’s out now, and Here Comes the Boom is probably the funniest movie this year. Kevin James is Scott Voss, a bored, defeated biology teacher at a high school in a poor area of Boston. He makes friends with Marty (Henry Winkler), the school’s music teacher and the only person who seems capable of getting the students excited about anything. Marty is an eccentric. He conducts with a pencil, swinging his arms around in a grandiose parody of a 4/4 beat pattern. He is wildly enthusiastic about everything he does, and can’t understand why no one else feels the same. Such people make good music teachers.

Marty is one of Robertson Davies’s “cultured madmen”, the kind of teacher who is the most important influence in a student’s school career. The school’s orchestra is a motley collection of strings and brass, a massive woodwind section (including saxes) and piano (because why not?). Despite the group’s unusual makeup and battered instruments (bought at cut-rate prices and refurbished by Marty himself), he pulls the students together and makes them sound pretty good.

But the school is running out of money, and they are cutting extracurricular activities, including the music program. In order to save Marty’s job, they need $48000 by the end of the year. Scott, seeing all the good that Marty does for the students, tries to help Marty out by moonlighting, but his brother’s painting company is struggling and he can’t make enough money teaching citizenship classes to make a meaningful contribution. Through one of the students in his night class, Niko, a trainer at an upscale gym, Scott learns that UFC fighters can earn as much as $10000 a fight even if they lose. He cuts a deal with Niko to exchange civics lessons for fighting lessons, and makes his debut in an ultra-low-rent MMA promotion.

This is an inspired premise for a “save our school” movie. As far as the rest of the world is aware, this absurdist fantasy where the MMA-fighting teacher can honestly say he’s serving the students better than the school administration is not too far from what schooling is actually like in the US. I’ve seen those textbooks. The filmmakers touched a nerve at just the right moment, and they went for broke on the satire, speaking in complete earnest and holding nothing back.

Kevin James has a certain sloppy loveable charm, like a very restrained Jack Black. Henry Winkler does a perfect nebbishy band teacher—it’s hard to believe this man was once the Fonz. Several MMA fighters have bit parts as themselves or as characters, and they were good sports. The stunt fighting is stomach-twisting. Gary Valentine is funny as Scott’s many-childed brother, and Salma Hayek livens up a role that only exists so the movie can have a love interest and cheescake shots.

Adam Sandler movies (Here Comes was produced by his company, though his name does not appear in the credits; this belongs to the genre of “Adam Sandler movies” regardless of his actual involvement) are vulgar and often too disgusting to be worth the trouble. But they’ve always had a good heart, even at their stupidest. With Here Comes the Boom, they have surpassed themselves by hewing to their unique aesthetic while making a movie that is still watchable even outside the middle school classroom. Even, perhaps especially, if you don’t think you’ll like it, Here Comes the Boom comes highly recommended.

Rite of Spring at the WSO

This Saturday’s WSO concert was The Rite of Spring with two newer pieces: Mijidwewinan by Barbara Croall and the Bandoneon Concerto by Ástor Piazzolla. Not a first half that inspires confidence, to be honest. The “pre-concert chat” revealed Barbara Croall to be somewhat lacking in eloquence, and full of half-remembered quasi-philosophical ideas. It is no great testament to my clairvoyant ability to say that I correctly predicted I would not enjoy her piece.

There have been many Herculean attempts to merge the tradition of aboriginal music with western classical music, and I, as a good patriotic Canadian, have been subject to approximately all of them. Pretty much across the board they’ve yielded results that are incomprehensible to westerners and probably offensive to aboriginal people. I understand the desire to increase aboriginal representation in the concert hall, but it would be nice to do it while creating some worthwhile music.

Daniel Binelli, the bandoneon soloist, was clearly not very comfortable with English, so his interview was very short. He answered the question of whether he had met Piazzolla by playing a badass run on his instrument. Fair enough, I say. He seemed to be having a good time, and music precedes language anyway.

Last was the choreographer and the leader of the dance troupe for Rite. It hadn’t been made clear to me before the concert that there would be dancing. Rite was conceived as a ballet, but let’s face it: it’s a concert work through and through. The dance folks were, as it turned out, in much the same boat as Croall. There was quite a lot of mumbling about nature and the female spirit, but I doubt there was any kind of understanding of what the European philosophical tradition or aboriginal spirituality had to say about these things, let alone what they have to do with Stravinsky.

Croall’s piece was basically an accompanied nap. Croall appeared bored on stage, so I felt no guilt. I was a bit tired and the rest helped me stay conscious for the remainder of the concert.

The bandoneon is related to the accordion, but sounds much nicer. It’s common in Argentine tango music, and Piazzolla was essentially to that tradition what Bernstein and Gershwin were to jazz. The instrument has a unique and beautiful idiom, and Binelli played very well. Unfortunately the piece did not measure up—it had little in the way of unity, development, or interplay. Lots of good ideas, but they didn’t come together. The best parts were with the bandoneon unaccompanied.

Rite was very well played, but the upstage pageantry of the dance distracted from the music. Overall, the concert was disappointing, as was the previous one in the Masterworks series. There’s some good stuff programmed this year, but the first interesting concert isn’t till November, and what I’ve heard so far has been a mixed bag.

I realize we’re trying to attract young people, but look: I’m a young person, and a lot of “new music” bores me to tears. You want to attract young people? Play Scriabin next to Haydn. Play a Mozart piano concerto every other concert. Bruckner. Rachmaninov. Martinu. Milhaud. A deep and hard-won appreciation for the entire classical tradition will make better and more dedicated listeners than a cheap but shallow fondness for the gangrenous stump that is “new music”.

(Don’t believe the paper’s review, by the way. It’s a pack of lies, unless Friday night was drastically different from Saturday.)

Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Religion is a rare thing in SF. The genre grew up alongside the modern atheist movement, so God or gods almost never appear in any positive portrayal outside of inexplicably Nebula-winning short stories about Mormon space whale rape. This is a shame because it’s led to a very homogenized set of views on religion among SF authors and fans, roughly those dictated by people like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I disagree with these views, exactly, but they lack nuance and sophistication. If explicitly religious SF was a more common thing, I think everyone would benefit—religious folks from gaining a voice, and others from having their views challenged and clarified.

I read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s short story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a few months ago in an FSF anthology. Its quietly pious tone was refreshing, and it was funny as hell to boot. Miller expanded the short into a novel in 1960, incorporating another story from the same universe and a third incomplete work to create a post-apocalyptic epic spanning centuries.

In the beginning, the Earth has been made desolate by nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, roving mobs hunted down scientists and world leaders. They burn books and eventually turn their wrath on anyone who is literate, erasing gigantic swaths of knowledge from human memory. An obscure pre-Deluge technician named Isaac Edawrd Leibowitz founds a monastic order to preserve and copy the scraps of scientific knowledge that remain.

Centuries later, a novice of the Albertian Order of Blessed Leibowitz is visited in the desert by an apparition that may or may not be the Beatus himself. The old man leads the novice to a buried fallout shelter, where some of Leibowitz’s papers are preserved in an old toolbox. This incident prompts vigorous interest in the work of the Order and a renewal of the canonization process for Leibowitz.

The monk makes an illuminated copy of one of the blueprints he found. When the Vatican finally declares Leibowitz a saint, many years later, he brings the copy and the original relic with him on a pilgrimage to New Rome. On the way he is waylaid by bandits and the copy—but not the original—is stolen. So far this is all in keeping with the 1955 short story. Miller rejiggers the ending of this section and calls it part 1, “Fiat Homo”. The next two parts deal with the reinvention of electric lighting (“Fiat Lux”) and a second nuclear war between spacefaring civilizations (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”).

Miller manages to say his piece while avoiding the common pitfalls of this type of story, at least for a while. Part 2’s Thon Taddeo is no Hollywood-style Santa-slaying atheist, but neither is he an Ayn Rand hero. The various priests and abbots are dogmatists but not cruel ones, and they have some sense about morality and leadership that one can only wish was possessed by actual Catholic clergy. Miller presses his point without compromise but also without self-righteousness. He acquits himself well, at first. But toward the end it starts to come apart. Read the rest of this entry »