Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Change Is Gonna Come: The Life and Music of Bettye LaVette

Imagine growing up with a jukebox and a future music legend in your living room. That was a typical evening in the childhood of Betty Haskins, who would go on to become acclaimed rhythm-and-blues singer Bettye LaVette. Employees at a General Motors factory, her parents moonlighted in the 1950s by selling barbecue sandwiches and corn liquor at their Michigan home. This attracted touring African-American gospel groups, such as the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Soul Stirrers, featuring a then-unknown vocalist named Sam Cooke. They could eat, drink and listen to tunes there; nightclubs were off limits for them during the era of segregation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Snoozer - Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I doubt if there could be a timelier sequel, given the recent economic meltdown, than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. But timing is pretty much all it has on its side. Director Oliver Stone returns to the Machiavellian world of high financing that he first examined in Wall Street (1987), but the new picture is enervating and more dramatically conflicted than the original. It’s a snoozer.

Stone had a huge hit with Wall Street, and not just because it neatly reflected the yuppie obsession with junk bonds and insider trading. In his previous films (and screenplays), Stone revealed a split personality. Pictures like Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) may have shown Stone to possess a more left-wing perspective on American foreign policy, but the guy who also wrote Midnight Express (1978) and Year of the Dragon (1985) seemed to simultaneously hold some of the same right-wing macho attitudes of John Milius. That split added tension to Salvador (still his best movie) and most of Platoon, but in Wall Street, Oliver Stone smoothed over the cracks in his polemics. He created an American fascist of the financial world in Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an amoral predator, who wrecks companies to score millions as easily as a child dissembles building blocks. But Stone took it an extra step: He cleverly turned his adversary into an appealing character, a reflection of himself, by having his critiques of capitalism cozily couched in Gekko’s swagger. That’s why Wall Street became such a big success with Michael Douglas earning for him an Oscar.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Gloriously Flawed Jane Tennison: Prime Suspect 1-7

Helen Mirren as Inspector Jane Tennison, in Prime Suspect 2 (1992).

It was with great sadness that I watched the last few minutes of Prime Suspect: The Final Act in 2007 because it meant that I would never again see any new material featuring the character of Jane Tennison – one of the finest character ever created for television. Now that the entire series has just been released as a DVD box set, it's a perfect time to look back at this landmark program. Over the course of 15 years (1992-2007), in seven miniseries, Helen Mirren played Tennison as a work-driven woman who pushed back societal barriers of sexism, misogyny and finally ageism to become a Detective Chief Inspector at a London police division. Later in the series, she became Deputy Superintendent in Manchester and finally ended up back in London. Unlike most shows that would be happy just dealing with the uplift of an independent woman proving her chops amongst the men, Tennison was a deeply flawed woman who paid an expensive price for her ambitions. Prime Suspect never condemned her for her drive, but rather looked compassionately at the high cost of it: failed relationships, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, ridicule, petty jealousy and loneliness.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Remembering Claude Chabrol: La Cérémonie

I’ve been thinking of Claude Chabrol ever since news of his death, at age 80, was announced about a week ago. And it occurred to me that like fellow New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who also died this year (but from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum), Chabrol successfully carved out his own specific niche in a corner of world cinema. Whereas Rohmer, like Mike Leigh, offered up generous portraits of (mostly) middle class people he liked very much, Chabrol used his cinematic canvas to excoriate those he didn’t like at all, namely the bourgeoisie from which he sprung. His films were almost always about the evils and wickedness emanating from the monied classes but he didn’t assail them in a simplistic manner nor did he pretend that the lower classes were paragons of virtue, either. Usually, the downtrodden ‘victims’ of the rich were able to match them when it came to guile and venality, perhaps never more so than in one of his best films, La Cérémonie (1995).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Sum of its Parts: Contact's Five On One

Sometimes playing music isn’t about proving anything or making a social statement, it can just as much be about ebb and flow and being sensitive to the emotional nuances asked for by the composer. For jazz musicians, particularly as they age, it is less about ego and more about listening and contributing to the larger, musical picture. For Contact, a new band led by American Dave Liebman, the whole is definitely the sum of the parts.

Five On One is a new album of music featuring Liebman on soprano and tenor saxophones, John Abercrombie on guitar, Marc Copland on piano, Drew Gress on Bass and the remarkable Billy Hart on drums. Recorded in two days last January, Five On One is a sonic pleasure to the ears. The blend of sound is strong here because each musician is listening hard to what their fellow players are doing and having great ears, as I’ve written before, is the real key to making great music. The album opens with a very simple, yet direct 2-bar lick by Abercrombie called, "Sendup." But as usual (with the wry Abercrombie humour) the music is anything but parody. It’s a framework for the players to improvise and draw the listener in and it works immediately.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Big C Gets a C+

It is no longer necessary to make the point that television is currently a lot better than film. TV series are drawing not only A-list actors (Glenn Close and William Hurt on Damages, Sally Field in Brothers and Sisters, Holly Hunter on Saving Grace, to list just a few), but also A-list directors (Agnieszka Holland has directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, and most recently, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of the much-anticipated Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night). Television has come a long way, and TV viewers are richer for it.

To a large degree, the increasing richness of television can be traced to its overall honesty – television’s willingness to show us things which are uncomfortable or ugly, and its ability to illuminate the details which make the lives of our favourite characters so intriguing. But there are shows with all the right ambition, shows which, despite their potential and intriguing subject matter, fail to live up to their own promise. The Big C is one of these shows.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Fall and Rise of Jonathan Demme

Many fans of the works of Jonathan Demme think he made a major mistake when he directed his Academy-Award winning film The Silence of the Lambs (1981). Although the film was a huge hit and received critical acclaim, it was a step away from the type of funky, loose, music-filled films for which he had become known: Something Wild (1986), Married To The Mob (1988) and Melvin and Howard (1980), etc. Though I'm not among the naysayers (because I've always liked the picture), I appreciate their point of view. After Lambs' success, he got trapped in the world of 'prestige' pictures that seem aimed at garnering awards and attracting acclaim. Though a picture like the overly earnest Philadelphia (1993) won Oscars and was a hit at the box office, he went on to do the disastrous Beloved (1998) and the ridiculous remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). By embracing this type of film, he seemed to have lost that light touch (even in darker material like Something Wild) that made his earlier pictures so appealing.