Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Champion of Pleasantries: Jack Johnson's To the Sea

Jack Johnson has always been a songwriter who’s comfortable in his own skin. With the release of his fifth studio album, To The Sea, we find the former champion surfer back in Hawaii with his band-mates putting words to music in a most positive way without leaving the comforts of home.

This record, dedicated to his late father, is not as dark as 2008’s Sleep Through The Static; it’s a groove-laced album full of mid-tempo tunes aimed to please the ear and the heart. One of my favourites, "When I Look Up." is less than a minute long, yet it pulled me in immediately. “From the Clouds,” a great love song full of idealism, follows this short tune. Even when Johnson writes a tougher song like “Turn Your Love,” the feeling isn’t wrought with pain or angst; it’s more of a request for emotional balance from his partner in a most polite way.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3: Once Too Often To The Well

I wish I could say that Pixar’s Toy Story 3 is up to the high standards of most of their previous films. But it’s not and it also suggests something of a continuing slippage in quality control in the company’s output.

I’m actually not sure why the folks at Pixar felt the need to revisit Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang of toys, after the previous two excellent movies in the series, released in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Did Disney, which owns Pixar, pressure them to go with something familiar for Pixar’s second foray into 3-D, after Up? (Toy Story 3 is also being released in 2-D.) That’s possible because the film simply doesn’t do much that’s fresh with its likable and diverse characters and the film’s 3-D effects, fine as they are, seem to be driving the story instead of serving the needs of the screenplay, which was written by four writers, Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, who also directed the film.(Four writers on one film is two writers too many.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Revolutionary Rastaman: An Encounter with Bob Marley

Bob Marley cannot seem to rest in peace. In 2008 director Martin Scorsese was working on a documentary about the reggae singer, who died of cancer in 1981, but dropped out last year due to scheduling conflicts. Jonathan Demme signed on, with blessings from the Jamaican performer’s family. The plan was to screen the finished work in February 2010, coinciding with what would have been Marley’s 65th birthday. When the rough cut displeased billionaire real-estate heir Steve Bing, the chief investor, Demme also exited the project. Somewhere in Rasta heaven, Marley must be jamming. As a prolific songwriter who regularly excoriated wealthy capitalists, perhaps he’s even referencing a line from “Stiff Necked Fools” to sum up his feelings on this cinematic stalemate: ”Yes, you have got the wrong interpretation/ Mixed up with vain imagination...”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Finding the World In One City: FIFA World Cup 2010

Okay, let's not delude ourselves. It's going to be at least two World Cups before Canada gets back to The Show (our last appearance was 1986 where we failed to even score a goal). Yet Canada, or at least Toronto, is embroiled in a wonderful every-four-year frenzy that is probably more exciting (for some) than the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup (two years at least, probably more, before they contend, so relax).

If the Olympics in Vancouver got Canada to puff out its chest with pride (see my blog on the CTV 2010 Vancouver Olympics DVDs on June 12th), the FIFA World Cup in South Africa gets us -- at least in the big cities across Canada where there are significant ethnic communities -- to embrace our heritage, but thankfully not at the expense of our Canadianness. People display their ethnic backgrounds during this time by proudly flying flags of their home countries featured in the World Cup that began on June 11 (and ends on July 11). If there is a victory, a spontaneous street party will break out, especially in ethnic communities with large population bases (the Italians, the Portuguese, the Koreans, etc.). It also gets us to open up to each other, especially in cold-hearted Toronto where you never EVER look at each other as you pass on the street, let alone dare talking to complete strangers. Yet, so far this week, I've started a brief conversation with a woman carrying a British St. George's flag. The flag became the signifier that said "it's okay to talk to me as long as it's about football." We discussed England's chances (she was convinced they'd do fine, but I'm not convinced, though I wasn't rude enough to say so). Then I bid her good luck and continued on my way.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Enduring Simplicity: Keith Jarrett's Jasmine

Recorded in March 2007, with Charlie Haden on acoustic bass, pianist Keith Jarrett captured the enduring quality of music in a timely way. In spite of the delay from ECM, this is an album of simplicity and there’s beauty in that simplicity. Jasmine as Jarrett writes in the liner notes, “is a night blooming flower with a beautiful fragrance.” The real reason for the delay, however, was the number of songs Jarrett and Haden had recorded and their trying to decide what to do with them.

The process of weeding through the music was a challenge because they didn’t want to release anything “over-played”: again beauty in simplicity. I don’t know who first said it, but the most difficult thing to create is something simple, something unpretentious and so it is with this music. “Where Can I Go Without You,” by Victor Young and originally sung by Peggy Lee is an exquisite example of simplicity. The playing also has nuance since the musicians articulate the lyrics without vocalizing them. But just when you thought the album would slumber under the weight of that sad tune, the duo comes back with an up tempo version of “No Moon At All,” a Redd Evans/David Mann once sung by the likes of Julie London, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. But it isn’t all standards from a bygone era. Jarrett and Haden provide a sweet version of Joe Sample’s tune called, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” recorded by Sample with Lalah Hathaway in 1999. Again, the R&B flavoured ballad is slowed to a more introspective tempo under the hands of Jarrett and Haden whose sensitive touch to their respective instruments creates the delicate mood of the piece; it’s textured in a detailed way like fine silk lace.

Monday, June 14, 2010

True Blood #2: Fear And Trembling On The Bayou

Last night, HBO’s True Blood returned from its long sleep. In September 2009, the show about vampires in a small Louisiana town ended its second season on a high, firmly establishing itself as HBO’s most watched series since The Sopranos. The series, Alan Ball’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed and much beloved Six Feet Under (also on HBO), certainly owes some of its popular success to the recent pop cultural vampire phenomenon, but make no mistake: these are not your daughter’s vampires. The show is unabashedly sexual and graphically violent, often at the same time. Everything about it is excessive, and as a result, despite its ratings success, it tends to divide audience and critics alike.

Set in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, the series is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a book series by Charlaine Harris. It’s been a couple of years since vampires have “come out of the coffin” so to speak, and they are struggling as a community with issues of bigotry and integration. Though placing it in the South brought to the fore much of the allegorical weight of those themes, the first season played out mainly like a supernatural whodunit, as the town hunts a serial killer in its midst. Along with the growing mystery, we met our main players: Sookie Stackhouse, a mind-reading bar waitress, played by Anna Paquin; Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a Civil War-era vampire returning to his home town after over a century; Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s randy but slow-witted brother; and Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar, with thinly-concealed feelings for Sookie and a secret of his own, played by Sam Trammell.

When the show premiered in 2008, I watched the first several episodes largely as a guilty pleasure. Though invariably fun and playfully shocking, it initially suffered poorly in comparison to both the exquisiteness of Ball’s Six Feet Under and to the more emotionally and narratively ambitious TV vampire fare like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But by the end of the first season, the show had successfully found itself on its own terms, and its second season played out with renewed focus.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

True Blood #1: Complex Vampires, Stock Christians and Uneasy Comparisons

Alan Ball, the creator of HBO’s True Blood, which begins its third season tonight, has generally failed to match the quality of his previous show, Six Feet Under. That HBO series, which dealt with a family of funeral directors in Los Angeles, was a smartly written, superbly acted and directed show, which raised challenging questions about life, death, family, love and all the other big questions which have galvanized humanity since the beginning of time. True Blood, a vampire series about creatures that rarely if ever die, while not without merit, isn’t nearly as smart about the issues that matter to us all.

Based on Charlaine Harris’ series of novels, True Blood centres around a world where vampires -- having come of the coffin just a few years ago -- are agitating for equal rights as the latest put-upon minority in the United States. True Blood sticks reasonably close to the books, which I admit I have only been able to skim (they’re pulpy and not all that well written). Its main character is Sookie Stackhouse (The Piano’s Anna Paquin, now grown up) -- a virginal Southern lass, who can read minds. The show is set in Bon Temps, a small town in rural Louisiana, where Sookie has lived her entire life and where she works in the local bar, Merlotte’s, owned by Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), who has a power of his own. Her eventual lover Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), is an undead Civil War veteran, who’s the gentleman caller of the vampire world. He’d rather not kill humans, or even drink their blood, and he doesn’t regard us as prey that exist simply for his community’s predations. Because a Japanese scientist has invented 'Tru Blood,' an artificial blood substitute that can meet the vampires’ nutritional requirements, Bill and his compatriots don’t have to drink the real thing anymore. That invention is also the reason that the vampire community has decided to reveal itself to humanity. Unfortunately, not all the undead want to live in peace with their human hosts.