Saturday, July 31, 2010

Naomi Watts' Face: Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005)

The first time I saw Peter Jackson's King Kong, about 4-5 days after it was released, I adored it. Everything worked for me, including the maligned-by-others centre portion that some felt went on far too long. I saw it in Goa, India at a beautiful movie theatre called the Inox -- built the year before for the Indian Film Festival -- that could rival any theatre in North America. Afterwards, I wondered if my reaction may have been affected by the fact I saw it in a very unique place on the planet. So, upon our return to Canada, my wife and I went to see it again at the local theatre in Markham near where we live. It was cold and snowy and the First Markham multiplex ain't anybody's idea of a great venue. It's serviceable, but that's about it. My reaction didn't change. We might not have been in Goa anymore, yet I still loved Jackson's King Kong.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering Paul Hoeffler: Master Photographer

Paul Hoeffler
On this, the fifth anniversary of his death, I thought it was appropriate to write about my friend, photographer Paul Hoeffler. Between 1997 and 2005, I was privileged to get to know Paul, a man many would consider – to use that old saw – a photographer's photographer. Not only was he a brilliant photographer, but he was also known as one of the best printers around. He could take images and in his darkroom create works of art out of less than perfect material. I got to know Paul through my job at the LCBO, Ontario's government-run alcohol retail outlet. By the time we met, I'd been working in the liquor trade for 15 years and Paul had been a professional photographer for 40. In my capacity as a Product Consultant, he came to me looking for advice. A conversation started – it was always easy to talk to him – and we quickly moved beyond customer/retailer relationship into a friendship. Within our friendship, we had an unspoken rule: he taught me about jazz music and photography and I taught him about wine (I got the better end of that deal).

Jimmy Smith
In the 1950s, Paul was in the right place at the right time. Going to school during the day at the Rochester Institute of Technology studying photography, he spent his nights at many of the jazz clubs around the city. Using his blunt charm (he suffered neither fools nor crude behaviour gladly), he managed to win the trust and respect of many of the greatest jazz artists of the day during their concert tours through his town. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie, amongst others, all gave him unprecedented access in Rochester and elsewhere after he left school. In the Rochester days, the photographs weren't only because of his complete love of the music and musicians, it was also his school work assignment. That access is something, Paul told me, that is impossible today. Their music inspired him to capture, visually, what they did musically. For example, the shot of Jimmy Smith, taken from below as he plays the organ (I use the present tense here on purpose, because so many of Paul's photos feels like the action is happening right now), his cigarette smoke languidly leaves the frame, could only be achieved if the subject trusts the photographer.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sherlock: The BBC Brings Us Holmes Again

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the new Holmes and Watson.

Every once in a while, a television series comes along and surprises you. Sometimes it’s because a show is so stunningly original that no precedent could have prepared you for it (e.g. HBO’s Carnivale and Fox’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But other times, it’s because a road has been so well-trodden that you go along for the ride, but honestly don’t expect to see anything new there. This past Sunday, BBC One broadcast “A Study in Pink” the first episode of Sherlock, a 21st century re-imagining of the celebrated Arthur Conan Doyle character. Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s The Last Enemy, Creation, The Other Boleyn Girl) stars as the titular Holmes and Watson is played by the more recognizable Martin Freeman (Tim in BBC’s The Office, and Arthur Dent in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The series is the brainchild of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Jekyll, Coupling) and actor/writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who). Moffat has a long history of critical and popular success on the BBC, and it is possible his career has recently reached a new height. In addition to this new series, this past year he took on the helm of BBC’s flagship series, Doctor Who. Given the numerous imaginings of Holmes available on television and film, one might be forgiven for thinking we need a new Sherlock Holmes series as urgently as we need a new brand of vanilla ice cream. Fortunately, this is one instance when that persistent gap between what we believe we need and what we get works decidedly in our favour!

This first run of Sherlock consists of three feature-length episodes, each running 90-minutes. (This coming fall, the series will air in the U.S. on PBS, under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner. It will also air, beginning September 10, on Showcase in Canada.) Set in contemporary London, the show succeeds in bringing familiar and beloved characters firmly into the new century while preserving the magic of the source material. The final result is a show that is funny, suspenseful, and eminently entertaining. Sherlock has something to offer both to those pre-inclined to love it, and those with no familiarity with Sherlock Holmes or the BBC.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Unstrung Hero: Remembering Maury Chaykin (1949-2010)

Was Maury Chaykin not the best character actor on the screen? I certainly thought so. But then some actors get prickly when you describe them as a character actor, as if you’d just demoted them to the role of gaffer. But Chaykin, like J.T. Walsh, brought out compelling intricacies in the characters he portrayed, idiosyncratic aspects that couldn’t be conveyed in the script. He took those roles out of the shadows and lit up parts of the movie that just weren’t getting enough light.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

AMC's Newest Series: Rubicon

With last Sunday's debut of Season Four of Mad Men, my original plan was to write a counterpoint to Kevin's analysis/shortcomings of the show. I agree to a degree with some of Kevin's commentary (I think Season Two was mostly a disaster), but I also disagree (Season Three redeemed the show for me with many moments where I found that I was in the world, not just looking at set decorations). However, after watching Season Four's debut I'm going to withhold my thoughts a week, because the debut was an almost complete flop. Choppy, ill-focused, unconvincing and, um "Who is Don Draper?" the supposed through line this year?! I thought that's what blinking Season One was about. There was little new here except more of Betty the bitch, etc. We discover that Don likes to be slapped around in bed by hookers (no surprise, due to his self-loathing), but not much more than we've been showed before. And what in God's name was the point of Peggy and the new irritating boy-toy constantly sighing "John" "Marsha" at each other? (It made no sense, since the novelty song they were quoting by Stan Freberg came out in 1951. What are they doing referencing it in 1964?)

As usual, the problem is probably control-freak, series-creator Matthew Weiner. He really has trouble writing coherent scripts (he had solo credit on this first episode), so I'm hoping he at least uses co-writers for the rest of the season or we're in big trouble. Anyway, I'll launch my defence, or not, depending on how good episode two is, next week. Instead, I'm going to talk briefly about the "sneak preview" of AMC's new conspiracy-plot series Rubicon (it debuts Sunday, August 1st) that came on after Mad Men.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Channeling the Blues: Los Lobos' Tin Can Trust

Los Lobos has always had the feel and honesty of the blues in their collective back pockets. On their new album, Tin Can Trust, the first of original material in a couple of years, the band uses the blues to channel this often-gritty record to great effect. This is most obvious on the instrumental track by David Hidalgo called, “Do the Murray.” The electric guitars let loose like a cannon shot through East L.A. But the earthy feel of the title track balances the angst of the instrumental perfectly.

“Tin Can Trust” is the lament of a poor man with nothing but a “tin can” with a few coins. He’s not able to buy his lady anything like diamonds and pearls, but he does have hope and the offer of love is his currency. By the time we reach track 10, “The Lady and The Rose,” Los Lobos has painted as strong a picture of spiritual torment as something out of Robert Johnson. This song tells the story of a man from the “barren slopes of a thousand hopes” suddenly finding divine intervention striking him cold in the face. It’s a powerful song and one that perfectly suits the theme of the record.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tabula Rasa: The Return of Mad Men

I wish I could share the enthusiasm expressed by many who have been eagerly awaiting the return of the hit series Mad Men, whose fourth season premieres tonight on AMC. But I’m not sure what there is to be so enthusiastic about except the show’s tantalizing ambitions, ambitions that have never travelled far from the shallow end of the pool.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s and examines the lives of the advertising men who work on Madison Avenue in New York City at the firm Sterling Cooper. Created by former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner in 2007, Mad Men does have a clever premise; creative ad men selling us dreams of an American life they themselves can’t possibly live. The main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director at the firm, isn’t even who he claims to be. He’s a con artist living out his own fantasy while selling products to others. Placing a con artist at the center of a story of self-made men is definitely appetizing. It draws significantly on the corruption of the American ideal where you can make of yourself anything you wish. In doing so, Mad Men tries to examine the changing mores of American middle-class culture from the post-War comforts of suburbia to the social upheavals of the sixties. But I’m afraid that the show ultimately fails to live up to its promise. Rather than capture an era in turmoil, or characters at crossroads between what they sell and who they are, Mad Men fixates itself on the details of the period, the minutiae of sixties kitsch, to compensate for its lack of dramatic coherence. Rather than go deeply into the characters behind the facade, the show chooses to illuminate the facade. In short, I think Mad Men is itself a slick bit of advertising.