Great Big Sea: Fun over Art

Safe Upon the Shore
Redeye/Great Big Sea 010
* * *

Great Big Sea began life in a rowdy Newfoundland pub and eighteen years later, they’re still at it and still cranking out their unique mix of Maritime mayhem, folk rock, and Celtic-tinged music. On Safe Upon the Shore, the band’s tenth album, they’ve added a new twist—songs such as “Hit the Ground and Run” and “Don’t Want to Go Home” are what you’d get if you mixed GBS’s trademark good time bar band music with New Orleans-style brass and some Cajun spices.

GBS is not a subtle band and they remind us of this from the get-go. The album opens with some hot party music whose temperature rises when guest musician Sonny Landreth lets loose on slide guitar. A few tracks later the charismatic Alan Doyle adds some salt to the mix on “Yankee Sailor.” The sea, some romance, a rivalry, a hint of tension, and Doyle’s unique vocals that are filled with gravel one moment and butterscotch the next…. What could be better? How about a song co-written by Doyle and Randy Bachman (Bachman Turner Overdrive)? Or Bob Hallett’s “Over the Hills,” which takes a traditional sea song and reworks it as a contemporary cautionary tale on the idiocy of military adventurism? And for sheer fun, the GBS cover of Ray Davies’ “Have a Cuppa Tea” is sheer delight. If you know anything about the British-Canadian obsession with tea, this one will have you in stitches.

There’s lots of intriguing stuff on this album, though some of the finest to my ears are those that stick closest to what the band has always done well. Séan McCann’s cover of “Gallows Pole” is sublime, as the title track—an a cappella sea song with Séan on the lead and robust harmony choruses framing him. And GBS just can’t go too long without dragging out such kick-ass bad boys behaving badly songs. Both “Wandering Ways” and “Road to Ruin” fit that bill admirably and if you think Irish drinking songs are irreverent, they’re practically hymns compared to what their Newfoundland cousins conjure. Like I said, not a subtle band. On the art-versus-good time scale, their needle goes off the right-hand scale.


The Girl Who Played with Fire Fizzles Out

Lisbeth shouldn't play with guns or matches.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
129 mins. Rated R (graphic lesbian sex, violence, nudity)
In Swedish with English subtitles
* *

The toughest part of a trilogy is the middle. Everyone knows it’s a device whose major purpose is to make us long for resolution. It’s hard enough for novelists to produce compelling second books and it’s even harder to treat them for movies. Seeing The Girl Who Played with Fire reminded me of what an extraordinary directorial job Peter Jackson did with The Two Towers, a film that may well have been the very best of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hardcore Stieg Larrson fans will flock to The Girl Who Played with Fire, but if they praise it, they’re filling in the film’s considerable gaps with things that simply aren’t there. I adored The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I found the sequel tedious and barely watchable.

You shouldn’t even try this film unless you’ve read Dragon or saw the first film. All the principals are reassembled: the troubled Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), editor and Blomkvist lover Erika Berger (Lena Enda), and masochistic guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson). In this episode, Lisbeth returns to Stockholm to take care of business and just has enough time to take possession of an expensive condo and have hot sex with Miriam Wu before she finds herself the prime suspect in a triple murder she didn’t commit. Stockholm police can’t seem to figure out what is obvious to Blomkvist—two of the victims were a couple working on stories about Sweden’s illegal sex trade and were people Lisbeth never met. The attempt to get to the bottom of everything—which we know they won’t do entirely because there’s a chapter left to film—gives us insight into Lisbeth’s childhood, the incident that led to being declared legally incompetent, and the dark underbelly of Sweden’s democratic-socialist society.

If you’ve read the book you know that it dwelt on substantial explorations of motives, the sort of interior stuff that’s exceedingly hard to depict on the screen. Alfredson’s decision was, simply, to excise most of it. Gone are most of the details about sex trafficking; in fact, the investigative team Dag and Mia hardly appear at all, except as corpses. Gone also is the mole inside Armanskij’s firm, the internal turmoil inside inspector Jan Bublanski’s police team, discussions of Stockholm’s lesbian subculture, explorations of Lisbeth’s thinking, Blomkvist’s philandering, Erika’s husband, and just about everything else that would elevate this film above what it turns out to feel like: a bad James Bond film with a rumpled journalist cast as Bond. I will say in Alfredson’s defense that some of the film’s most seemingly preposterous parts are actually true. There really is an ex-boxer named Paolo Roberto (who plays himself), and there really is a medical condition called congenital analgesia that makes people impervious to pain. (One of the biggest clusters of this rare condition is in Sweden, which is where Larsson no doubt got the idea.) But you don’t really need to remember this, as there are plenty of equally preposterous parts of the film that don’t correspond to reality.

As I said, Larsson junkies will have to see this film. The rest of you don’t and shouldn’t. Give the first film a watch and, if you like it, *read the second book. Word is that the final book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is disappointing so maybe Alfredson can redeem himself with a superior film adaptation. LV

Postscript—The Salander-Wu sex scene is just the latest head-scratcher in why an American version of this franchise is in the offing. Smart money is that this won’t be in the American version, at least not the way it was done in Sweden!