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: Mediocre

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: The Dark Knight Rises

I don’t think anyone was expecting not to be disappointed by this movie. There’s just too much that went right with The Dark Knight, and the best case scenario was a comparatively flat and lifeless finale. Leaving aside its pedigree, The Dark Knight Rises had to contend with the release of The Avengers, which is still fresh in the minds of the moviegoing public. The Avengers is the paradigm comic book movie of the year, and its relentless optimism has made Nolan’s dark vision of Batman seem hopelessly dated. This movie was never going to have an easy time of it.

Even adjusting for that, though, I think it was a complete failure. The pathetic attempts at philosophical depth have become more grandiose. The tone is so gritty that Batman looks out of place in his own movie. This is a pretty serious problem, and it’s only gotten worse since Batman Begins. Zimmer’s score is so noisy that at times it coalesces into an ugly block of sound. Bane’s distorted voice is difficult to understand, and the actors are plagued by odd pauses in their delivery. Michael Caine’s affected accent has become more cartoonish. The movie’s plot is a broken mess and the ending is not an ending at all, but a miserable cop-out.

The Dark Knight Rises attempts to fit elements of the Knightfall event from the comics into the continuity of Nolan’s Batman movies. There’s a masked mercenary super-genius named Bane plaguing Gotham. Batman tries to stop him and fails, getting his back broken in the process. Here the two versions of the story diverge. In the comics, a character named Azrael took over the role of Batman for a while. In this movie, Bane stages a revolution ostensibly in the name of the people (political subtext, dontcha know), blows the bridges into Gotham, and uses a nuclear bomb to hold the city hostage.

This is a vastly simplified version of the timeline. The movie takes place years after The Dark Knight and has a 5-month skip in the middle of it. Now, the classical unities were a very silly restriction on narratives, but there was a good point behind them: stuff that happens a year from now scarcely seems relevant to today. There are situations where you can make a large time skip work, but this isn’t one of them. When Bane takes over Gotham and begins his pseudo-populist reign of terror, the stakes have changed at a fundamental level. It’s a new story, with a host of new possibilities, and that’s not the sort of thing you can throw into the middle of an existing drama, especially one that’s meant to cap off a trilogy.

The weird shift of emphasis causes other strange story defects. As Moviebob noted, there are two separate learning-to-be-Batman-again arcs, one right after the other. For all that, though, Batman hardly even appears in this movie. The unwieldy machinery of the plot eats up so much screen time that there’s no room left for the hero. They manage to squeeze him in at the end, but he takes a minor role in a plan initiated by a group of less important characters, including one who hasn’t been in any of the previous movies.

Any grand statement the movie was trying to make is lost in the senseless behaviour of its principals. But I’m not convinced that The Dark Knight Rises has anything to say at all. The Dark Knight did have something to say, but it also had a lot of pseudo-philosophical waffle. The Nolans have ramped that aspect up in the script for Rises, perhaps hoping to increase the catch by widening the net (pseudo-philosophical waffle is easy to produce). It hasn’t worked. What we’re left with is an impressive spectacle, but it’s not an enjoyable spectacle because it can’t be rationalized.

The impending release of this movie prompted some reevaluations of the previous two, and I’m not the only one who lowered my estimation of Christopher Nolan as an adapter of comic books as a result. The Dark Knight was so good that it made us forget that Batman Begins was a very flawed movie. In retrospect, I think the only thing about The Dark Knight that really holds up is Heath Ledger’s crazy hobo Joker.

As I mentioned above, in Knightfall Bane breaks Batman’s back. Batman is replaced by Azrael, a no-holds-barred hero typical of the 90s. He did not have a “no killing” rule. DC thought this would play very well with the fans, as it ran in the same direction comics had been taking for several years. As it turns out, it didn’t play well at all, and soon people were clamouring to have their Batman back. The gritty “realistic” affectation of comic books and their movies is unsustainable. If Rises does one good thing, it definitively brings this series to a close, allowing us to move on to bigger and better things.

I have hopes for The Hobbit—what little I’ve seen of the LoTR films was very good, and The Hobbit is if anything a better story. As long as they don’t try to make an epic out of it, it should be memorable. Still, I have to think hard about whether or not I’m going to see it in theatres, because spiders.

Oz: The Great and Powerful sure came out of nowhere. I wasn’t clamouring for another movie about Oz (I don’t even like the 1939 Judy Garland Wizard of Oz), but here’s hoping they make something worthwhile out of it. Again, this is another place where the risk is in trying to make it into a fantasy epic. By the way, I would swear it was supposed to be “Oz the great and terrible“, not “powerful”. This online edition seems to agree with me.

Man of Steel looks like it’s going for the grim-and-gritty crowd. This is not going to work. The release of The Avengers means we no longer have to downplay the red-yellow-blue colour scheme. For God’s sake, it’s Superman. Have some fun with it!

The Campaign seems surprisingly bearable and even occasionally funny. I sure wasn’t expecting that. The Bourne Legacy is the latest in a series of second-rate action movies that I couldn’t care less about. Speaking of which, Taken 2. Ugh.

By the way, I forgot to mention Skyfall last time. I’m excited about a new Bond movie, because I’ve always liked the series and Daniel Craig showed promise in Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace was a misstep, but hopefully they can right themselves by not taking things so seriously. I’m seeing a theme emerging here.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Unlike most people complaining about the latest Spider-Man movie, I’m no fan of the previous three. Spider-Man 3 was obviously beyond the pale, but 1 and 2 never really drew me in, either. It’s unfortunate, because I believe a good movie could be made about Spider-Man. It just hasn’t happened yet. And now that The Amazing Spider-Man is in theatres, it still hasn’t happened.

You probably know the background: the creators and cast of the previous series were booted off the Spider-Man 4 project, and a reboot was hastily put together to fulfil contractual requirements. They acquired a younger, less likeable actor to play Spidey and a new director whose name is more amenable to puns. They shot a load of footage, put the whole thing together, hacked it up in response to test audiences, and then shovelled it out to theatres on a Tuesday night just to get the whole thing over with. These are not ideal circumstances for artistic integrity or even skilled hackwork, but someone who cared enough could make it work.

Unfortunately, no one did. The Amazing Spider-Man, in addition to whatever other flaws it may have, is shot through with cynicism in every frame. Not even the music escaped this: James Horner’s score steals sweeping string lines (a practice we abandoned for a reason) from old school Hollywood and “epic” choir parts from movie trailers. Every plot detail and character trait is prefabricated, and each scene is so obviously tailored for a specific demographic that there must be a bingo card or drinking game to be made. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Changes

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has grown into something almost unrecognizably different from its original instalments. The first three dealt with small-scale local supernatural problems, and was often compared to hardboiled detective novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Buffy, Butcher apparently found this style unsustainable past a certain point, and by the fifth book we have minor international intrigue which gets bigger and bigger as the series goes on. This culminated in Changes, released last year, where Harry Dresden is framed for blowing up a building, and eventually finds himself at the centre of large-scale manoeuvring by a supernatural empire.

The first line of the book has been out for quite some time now, having been released by Butcher long before the book came out:

I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, “They’ve taken our daughter.”

Dresden, of course, didn’t know he had a daughter. The girl was taken by the Red Court, Butcher’s take on traditional vampires, as part of a revenge plot. As he fights to get her back, we’re pushed through the requisite plot twists and big fights, but they all come off as a bit forced. The return of Susan is not nearly as interesting as it’s meant to be—she’d been gone so long that I’d pretty well stopped caring what happened to her long ago. While this is by far the biggest Dresden story so far, the bigness is just what works against it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Patriot Games (book)

The Hunt For Red October, Tom Clancy’s first book, was a sprawling and brilliant battle of wits. The movie, starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, has become a classic of the action genre. That movie’s sequel, Patriot Games (which replaced Baldwin with Harrison Ford), was almost as good—fast-paced, tightly plotted, everything an action movie should be. So it should go without saying that Patriot Games the book measures up to its predecessors, shouldn’t it? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Thor

2011 looks like the year of the B-list superhero, as Marvel and DC drag out some of their less interesting characters (Green Lantern, Captain America) for movie adaptations. These are not characters with timeless conflicts like Batman or Superman. Nor are they obscure but interesting heroes like the Question. They’re in the canon out of a vague sense that they’re historically important, but nobody can seem to recall much about them.

If you asked Joe Schmoe on the street about one of them, he’d probably know a few things–their name or details about their costume. But he’d never come up with one of them if you asked him to name a superhero. That, in a nutshell, is what Thor is all about. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Sam Fisher used to be a breath of fresh air from the usual stoic, tough-talking action hero. He always had a pleasant sense of humour about his work, and treated friends and enemies alike with respect. If you played the games properly, he hardly ever killed anyone, and when he did they usually had it coming. He didn’t have the usual dark, sorrowful past. He was a respected Navy SEAL before becoming a secret agent. Aside from a mysteriously missing spouse (which, let’s face it, is commonplace these days), he had a solid family life, with no problems at home. The Splinter Cell games were about international politics, and the sneaky, underhanded stuff that goes on when the general population isn’t looking. Not about Sam’s daughter getting caught in an animal trap while being chased by a cougar. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iron Man II

Everyone has a favourite superhero that they secretly wished they’d grow up to be one day. Mine was Iron Man. At the time, I didn’t know much about him except that he had a really nifty robot suit which, to a seven-year-old, is all you really need to know. A few years ago, when the Iron Man movie was announced, I was cautiously excited. It was nice to have a movie made of my childhood idol, but I ran the risk of ruining perfectly good memories. I sat nervously in my seat when I finally went to see it, anxious for the movie to start. Five minutes in, I was convinced. Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark is one of the best casting decisions I’ve ever seen. The movie was consistently funny and charming, and of course the action and special effects were nothing to sneeze at. Along with The Dark Knight, it gained superhero movies a kind of grudging respect, since even the most traditional critics had to admit that they were both good movies.

As you might expect, I was eagerly awaiting this sequel. The trailers showing Whiplash (the only Iron Man villain I could name) were exciting, and Downey Jr was just as roguishly loveable as always. I had high expectations for this movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Insert Pun About Watching the Watchmen Here

Some thoughts about the Watchmen movie, in no particular order. This is mostly made up as I go along, since I don’t feel like writing a proper review.

  • The opening sequence with the Bob Dylan song and the various flashbacks to the Minutemen era was very powerful. I’m not sure if a newcomer to Watchmen would get what’s going on, but personally I liked it.
  • Nixon made me laugh. He reminded me too much of Futurama-Nixon.
  • I was surprised at how much was lifted from the book. Faithfulness isn’t exactly the right word for it. The script was mainly written with the Ctrl, C, and V keys. This is not entirely bad, because Alan Moore wrote some good stuff, but there are things that sound good on paper but don’t sound good spoken out.
  • Rorschach was perfect. Jackie Earle Haley’s performance was great, and he looked the part, too.
  • Most of the stuff they cut out could be safely sacrificed. I’m not all that concerned that the scene where Hollis Mason dies didn’t make it into the movie, and while the Black Freighter stuff was an interesting foil to the main plot in the book, it would seem very awkward and out of place in the movie.
  • The ending they inserted instead of the giant squid worked perfectly fine. I personally thought the giant squid thing was a bit silly, and the new ending (which I’m not going to spoil here) was a little bit more realistic.
  • In the book, while it leans toward “Rorschach’s journal gets published and everything goes to hell”, the ending is really ambiguous. It’s the reader’s choice what happens next. The movie removed the ambiguity, showing the journal being read. I prefer the Kind Hearts and Coronets-style ending of the book.
  • It’s probably clear from the beginning that Veidt was the one who killed the Comedian, since the killer fights the same was Veidt does and has the same ridiculously slender build. I already knew this, having read the graphic novel, but I’m pretty sure anyone who hadn’t could at least hazard a guess.
  • The use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during the scene where two characters do the nasty was bizarre, to say the least.