December 29, 2009

Last Call for 2009: Film, Music, and Books

No way I can post any definitive lists this year. Raising a 2 year old does not allow for a ton of free time. There were so many films I didn't get to see and most of my viewing was spent catching up on what I missed in 2008.

But I did catch a few great ones. Heard a few brilliant albums. Read a few outstanding books.

Books (None from 'o9; just ones I read this year)

1) Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Posits humor, sex, and some damn fine philosophy into a great humanist piece. His Theodicy of Shit is brilliant.
2) Cormac McCarthy, Suttree - A god of prose, McCarthy's characters and settings shudder with a deep sadness. Consistent with his other books, the always-present theme of human choice.
3) Erik Larson, The Devil In the White City - Big surprise for me. Non-fiction paced like fiction. Larson comprises a narrative arc by showing the connection between one of America's defining moments in history (Chicago World's Fair) and also its first serial killer.
4) John Steinbeck, The Pearl - Steinbeck re-creates old Mexican folklore and puts together some impressive mythology. Great descriptions with his usual grasp for story.
5) Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Unlike anything I've read before. Murakami plays with chronology and dual-realities without traipsing into silly fantasy. Subtle at times, but always with the tension of beauty and violence.


1) The Road -
Hillcoat's astonishing recreation of McCarthy's novel is only overshadowed by Viggo's acting.
2) State of Play -
Great dialogue, pacing, story-lines. Intelligent political commentary.
3) District 9 - Sharlto Copely put on the acting job of the year, in my books. Plays with themes of identity and refugee and manages to foster real empathy for CGI aliens. Worth every penny.
4) Coraline - What happens when Pixar takes a tab of acid. Dark, luminous story-telling with gorgeous effects. Stop-motion animation at its finest.
5) Two Lovers - A sedate, strangely realistic romantic film that focuses more on human decision than trying to manufacture a pretty ending. Some great ambiguity here.


1) Mastodon, Crack the Skye -
Moody and progressive with great story-telling. Avoids most "metal" cliche--not to mention the best album art in the past decade.
2) Pearl Jam, Backspacer - Great form that hints at their earlier work without sounding immature.
3) Magneta Lane, Gambling With God - An example of Canadian Arts Council funding going somewhere worthwhile. The lead singer's voice somehow bridge's the gap between two vastly different eras of female vocals.
4) Baroness, Blue Album - In the same vein as Mastodon. Well crafted, ambient metal that borders on being literary.
5) Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue - heavy, morose, and with a new vocalist that seems up to the task, though likely forever singing in someone else's shadow.

December 7, 2009

On My Own Work & Two Kinds of Writers

Right...that's what this blog was supposed to be about. Long-winded diatribes exaggerating my limited knowledge of writing to avoid actually having to do any.

Lately, I've found talking about my own projects detracts from their need to be written. Not a universal need, of course, just a personal one. If someone asks what I'm working on--a rarity in itself--a hasty, manufactured response is all they get. Anything more and the story is lessened somehow. I think this has to do with "speaking" the story too much before it is written. At some point the story gets told too soon.

But I will say that I have a larger project in mind, one I hope to start in January. My prep has been intermittent, and was heading down the wrong track before an all-important conversation with a friend. I had been working on a time-line, story arcs, chapter breakdowns--a skeleton of what the plot was to be before I began writing out. The problem was, the entire process felt completely disingenuous.

Speaking this aloud to a friend, she mentioned her opinions on novel writing methods. For her, writers of novels fall into two camps: those who work from a plot-driven framework and those character-based.

The plot-driven writer is compelled to sort out the bones of her story beforehand--as best she can for a first draft. The story is then a matter of adding flesh to the bones. Or maybe it's a matter of dredging the body out of centuries-old peat bogs. Difficult to say. Tweaking comes later.

Character-based writing, to my understanding, follows a protagonist (at first) through an ordeal. It can be existential, or merely an unraveling, prima facie event that requires challenge. But the writing, for the author, is exploratory--a delving into the mind of something or someone other.

Both methods are completely legitimate--and both produce great literature. But what is produced differs greatly. For example one can read hard-hitting crime/detective novels that deliver fine prose, but focus on the mechanics and complexities of the story arc. I presume the authors of such works to write from the plot-driven method.

On the other side, experimental pieces that study the human-ness of a character and, in deceptive fashion, pull away from traditional structures. A character moves through the world and becomes a living, intuitive mechanism in their own concentric plot. It's not that plot doesn't exist, but it doesn't take main stage. It can even seem too simplistic because the focus is on character choices, and the arrival at such choices. The focus seems more microscopic.

I like to think I can tell which method an author employs as I'm reading their book. Probably not true--at least not entirely. I've read great books from both methods, though. And, as to be expected, those sadly less-than-impressive.

December 1, 2009

Why All the Remakes?

No question that film adaptations of books are big money, and often result in some outstanding movies. But I can never figure out why remakes occur so frequently. And lately, we have films coming out that are remakes of films only a few years old.

Take 2009's Brothers directed by Jim Sheridan. I haven't seen it yet, so it might be a corker--and given the cast the performances are bound to be decent. But why Sheridan would feel the need to remake such a recent film is beyond me. What is gained?

2005's Brothers, directed by Susanne Bier is one of my favorite films. Tremendous performances. Bier is one of those careful directors who knows how to pull complex emotion from her actors. She creates unimaginable tension in this story of close family bonds separated by infidelity and war. It doesn't need to be remade.

Sheridan's list of credits is about as impressive as they come. Director of My Left Foot, The Boxer, In America, he is one of those film makers who takes his time choosing a project and truly delivers once he finally does. Which is why his decision to remake an already great film surprises me. He, of all people, should recognize the need to let original work to stand on its own. And what of Bier--also a great director (Open Hearts, After The Wedding)? Would she not have to sign away the rights to her film in order for it to be made?

I pose this as a real question, as I don't know what is required for remakes to be authorized.

Sheridan is not alone. Think back to 2002's Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams--a daft, silly piece that did no justice to the original Danish Insomnia (starring Stellan Skarsgaard) made in 1997. Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom, a truly creepy television mini-series also fell victim to a horrible network remake by Stephen King, called Kingdom Hospital.

Maybe someone in the film industry can explain this better to me. Are there no more original ideas out there? Does all of filmdom consist of adaptations and remakes?

I don't want to see great films remade into different, probably lesser projects. Let a film stand on its own. If it's a matter of gaining a wider audience, North American distributors need to ball-up and work aggressively to get the originals into the theaters upon their release.