Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Declining Art of the Movie Poster

In 1979, on Markham Street, behind Honest Ed's in Toronto, I found my mecca. As a movie-mad university student, Memory Lane -- a film poster, lobby card shop and general treasure trove of pop culture paraphernalia owned and operated by "Captain" George Henderson -- was a godsend. I'd fallen in love with the posters used to promote the films I loved, hated, or had never seen. The artistry of the posters immediately caught my eye and I was instantly hooked.

George's place was a cluttered paradise featuring piles of posters and lobby cards stacked in no particular order. You just picked a pile and dug away. Over the years, I unearthed some real treasures for next to nothing (all lobby cards were $1 and posters were $5 - the exception was the year Ronald Reagan was elected. George hauled out all his old Reagan posters, put a $15 to $20 price tag on them and watched what had been gathering dust disappear). Amongst my finds were a full set of lobby cards from The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a set of 20 lobby cards from Barry Lyndon, a huge three-sheet poster for Dr. Strangelove, a lobby card for Bogart's The Desperate Hours, a lobby card for Preston Sturges' Christmas In July, the one-sheet for Hitchcock's Marnie, another - but badly torn - of Hitch's North by Northwest, lobby cards for Lolita (a good friend of mine spotted the stack of cards before I could, but he graciously gave me one). It went on and on. The posters in particular were often outstanding hand-illustrated works depicting scenes or characters from the films. Artists, such as Frank Frazetta, who went on to great fame as a comics and poster illustrator, worked their magic in this field too (Frazetta's poster for a film I don't even like, Hotel Paradiso (above), is still a favourite). If I wanted an image of the actors, I bought the lobby cards.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Wake of the Flood: Louisiana,1927

Louisiana, 1927
Before the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the worst flood of the Mississippi River took place on Good Friday, April 15, 1927. When the levee broke, just above Clarksdale, water inundated the state. New Orleans in particular was hit with 14 inches of rain in 24 hours, although the city itself survived. What was most significant about the calamity was the transformative effect it had on the culture of Louisiana.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Greasy Pan: Cooking with Stella

I'd like to think that Canadians have a sense of humor -- after all, we poke fun at ourselves as if it's second nature. No doubt this is due to our undefined national identity toppled by a vast amount of strikingly absurd stereotypes, ones that are ripe for comedy. Canadians know this, just watch an old rerun of SCTV or even try to catch an episode of Degrassi Junior High. Americans definitely find the joke funny; the academy of voters even went so far as to nominate a song called "Blame Canada" for an Oscar. The Canadian film industry doesn't mind tossing out grants to have our culture mocked so long as our cultural diversity shines through. The problem inherent through Cooking with Stella is that we're not in on the joke. Canadians are presented as little more than friendly idiots with deep pockets.

Cooking With Stella is a slight comedy about a Canadian diplomat (Lisa Ray) and her husband Michael (Don McKellar) living in New Delhi with their cook, Stella (Seema Biswas). All through Dilip Metha's film, she works overtime to build a positive relationship between Michael and Stella. But Stella, who is at first kind and willful, quickly gets transformed into the villain of the picture, gleefully stealing thousands from Michael (and others) through a very profitable black market business. What is problematic about this is that Metha doesn't view her as the story's antagonist. Allegories instead get drawn to Robin Hood, but unlike that prince of thieves, Stella's hand is merely a selfish one.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Redacted

When The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, it was a refreshing choice. Instead of going with the manufactured posturing of Avatar, the Academy voters instead were drawn to a more original subject: the addiction of war. (The only other recent film that tackled this subject with intelligence and imagination was the 2008 Israeli picture Waltz with Bashir.) While some decried that The Hurt Locker by-passed the political issues surrounding the Iraq War, I think the examination of a different kind of technological war, where cell phones do as much damage as an air strike, has a political aspect that transcends dogma.

Although we've already seen dozens of movies about the Iraq War, few have come close to making sense of its meaning. Allowing that people of different political persuasions will have separate views of just what that meaning is, most dramas (like 2007's Rendition and In the Valley of Elah) have only reduced the conflict to tired platitudes, or banal melodrama. Perhaps The Hurt Locker succeeds so well because it doesn't attempt to summarize what is still in process, but rather, seizes on an aspect of the war that can now be understood. (Let's not forget that during the Vietnam era there were no Hollywood movies about Vietnam - not, at least, until the conflict was over.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ties That Bind: Bong Joon-Ho's Mother

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is devastatingly good. It begins as a story about a middle-aged single mother in a small South Korean town with a mentally-challenged son who gets incarcerated for the murder of a young woman. But it ultimately goes far beyond the basic mechanics of melodrama. For Bong, the director of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2007), genre is merely the starting point for a more searing examination of the family ties that bind.

The umbilical chord that holds a mother to her son is also the link between a country divided and a society not far removed from the rituals of authoritarianism. Like Germany in the post-war and Berlin Wall years, Korea is also a severed nation. But unlike the post-war German directors, like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used genre pictures as a means to express their guilt and hopelessness, Bong Joon-Ho uses conventional narrative to uncork the violence and pain of being estranged. Given that authoritarianism imposes ritual, Bong is naturally drawn to genres that have rules – but rules he feels compelled to break. The Host, for example, begins as a humorous, wily tribute to '50s monster movies like Creature of the Black Lagoon and Godzilla, but it quickly becomes a surprisingly stirring drama about family honor and loyalties. When a slimy reptilian monster (a product of chemical pollution) kidnaps the daughter of a rather dim-witted father, he goes on a torturous mission to get her back. The Host evolved into that rare horror film, one that became inconsolably poignant. Mother shares many of The Host’s virtues, as well as some aspects from his first film, Memories of Murder, a procedural about a Korean serial-killer.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cougar Jazz: Carol Welsman with Peter Appleyard at the Markham Theatre

Two weeks ago, I wrote how Jamie Cullum had a huge set of cojones by letting the very talented Imelda May open for him. He trusted his abilities enough to let a very talented unknown wow his audience before he hit the stage. Last Friday, jazz singer/pianist Carol Welsman did a variation on the theme. She wisely invited the brilliant veteran jazz vibraphonist, Peter Appleyard to not open for her, but play with her as her 'special guest'. Somebody had to come on and wake things up.

Before inviting Appleyard on stage, Welsman ran through three or four songs supported by a trio of very talented musicians: Jake Langley on guitar, Mark Rogers on double bass and bass and Jimmy Branly on drums and cajón (essentially a wooden box that Branly massaged magic out of). The songs she picked (from her new tribute album to Peggy Lee, I Like Men) were fine, but the problem on this night was Welsman herself. I'd heard her on record, and she was a credible singer and pianist, but on stage she was well, frankly, dull. Her playing was ordinary, her singing was just okay. And her dancing? The less said about that the better. In fact, the title of this piece came to me during the sleepy portion of first act before Appleyard came on. As Welsman noodled through these first few songs, she reminded me of a cougar who enjoys this type of smooth jazz as she sits at a jazz lounge sipping a martini or two. Harsh, perhaps, but that was the vibe (pun intended) she was putting out. I thought I was on an ocean liner watching the jazz act go through the motions, albeit a jazz act with talented musicians but saddled with an uninspired leader. And then a tidal wave hit the stage and his name was Peter Appleyard.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Imitation of Life: Bob Kuban & the In-Men's The Cheater

Most pop songs are inspired by personal stories and contain observations about a variety of subjects (although love is generally the prominent one). There are a few tunes, though, that seem to foretell future events - for instance, Jan & Dean's prescient "Dead Man's Curve," where Jan Berry almost fatally encountered it. But then you have the downright eerie - as in Bob Kuban & the In-Men's 1966 hit, "The Cheater." Maybe you have to be of a certain vintage to remember this white soul track, but it still occasionally pops up on Oldies radio programs. While many of us can think of many pop performers whose lives would make great material for movies (let's say, Queen Latifah playing Aretha Franklin, or Andre Braugher as Louis Armstrong), the story of "The Cheater" would make a great procedural drama.