Saturday, May 21, 2011

Symbiosis: Konitz, Liebman & Beirach's KnowingLee

Symbiosis is the best word to describe the musical collaboration of Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach on their new CD, called, KnowingLee (Out Note, 2011). The three musicians came together for this session in Germany last year and the result is a beautiful record that captures the exquisite tone of Konitz on alto sax, complemented by Liebman on either soprano or tenor saxophones. Beirach also performs fully relaxed on the piano in the knowledge that he can hit any key and still be in tune. This is particularly important on the gorgeous, improvised duet, "Universal Lament." Konitz, who plays soprano sax on this track, weaves through the melody like a robin in springtime, with a solid tone that emanates from his horn which is skillfully supported by Beirach.

The album features a few standards, "Alone Together," "Body and Soul" and Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love." With the vast range of experience these musicians possess, not to mention the countless number of times they've played tunes like these, you wonder where the fresh ideas come from. But the music flows as each player trades licks and improvise with sensitivity.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bridesmaids: Still Waiting at the Altar

Usually when I review a film for Critics at Large, I avoid reading the reviews of said movie. Not because I am worried about being influenced by my colleagues – I'm not – but because I like to write my reviews without having stumbled across an idea or bon mot that someone thought up before me. I recognize, of course, that readers may think I cribbed from someone else anyway if, in fact, any point I make about a film has already been remarked upon by another pundit. But I’ll take that chance, assuring you that my ideas and critiques are fully my own. If I do quote someone else I always identify them as the source of the quotation.

That review policy only applies to movies that I review upon the day of their commercial release. There are others that I don’t initially review, because there’s not much to say about them, or only get around to seeing at a rep house weeks or months after they open. In those instances, I will likely have read some reviews of those movies by then and one thing I keep noticing – and Critics at Large’s David Churchill and Kevin Courrier have pointed this out, too (see, I told you I credit others with the same point) – is that too many film critics adopt a pack mentality when it comes to their reviews. It likely explains why so many movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes a web site that collates critics’ reviews have a commonality, both negative and positive. There are a couple of curmudgeons (yes, you Armond White) who can be counted on to always be on the opposite side of any critical consensus (and I am not sure that White doesn’t do that on “principle” just to be contrary), but not many. I like to think that we, on this site, do go against the grain – and often. Mostly, my fellow film critics can be counted on to have more in common with each other in how they relate to any specific movie, than to be on opposing teams in the debate. Bridesmaids, an amiable but overrated comedy which opened last week, is the latest movie to demonstrate this point.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Keep on Rockin' in the Free World: From Society to Screen

Politically oppressive regimes threatened by the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll are a key factor in two 2009 films set three decades and 1,500 miles apart. Christian Carion’s Farewell (originally L’Affaire Farewell) is a feature that chronicles a true 1981 cloak-and-dagger tale in Moscow, where a Russian KGB analyst’s teenage son cares more about David Bowie than Karl Marx. Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, a docudrama by Bahman Ghobadi, focuses on the many illicit indie bands dodging authoritarian rule in contemporary Tehran. Both productions make for potent cinema that transcends cultures and continents, much like music.

 The Velvet Underground helped inspire Czechoslovakia’s bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution, apparently a designation that began to take hold among dissidents when a copy of the Andy Warhol-influenced band’s first album was smuggled into Prague 20 years earlier. In Farewell, French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) smuggles in a cassette of Queen’s News of the World, along with a Sony Walkman, at the request of a KGB mole, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica). In a field far from prying government eyes and ears, his alienated adolescent, Igor (Yvgenie Kharlanov), mimics Freddie Mercury’s moves to “We Will Rock You.” 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

(Not So) Pretty in Pink: Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter

When I became pregnant, after finding out I was going to have a girl, I was ecstatic. No offense boys, but I had whole-heartedly embraced (and still do) the honour, and challenge, of being the first strong female role model to a new member of the future generation. The one aspect I was not thrilled about aside from the thought of my daughter turning thirteen was the impending pinkification of everything. The thought of my baby looking like the Pink Panther was too much to bear. So I, unsuccessfully, forbade all friends and relatives from buying her anything pink. For the first two years of her life, I draped her in a wardrobe much like my own: mostly blacks, browns and burgundies (picture a pile of dead leaves). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against femininity (many of her dead leaf ensembles were dresses), but I find the frills and feathers all too frivolous, oppressive and often downright ridiculous.

Peggy Orenstein, journalist and author of such best-sellers as School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, shared this disgust with the colour and the girlie-girl culture overall. Prior to the arrival of her daughter Daisy, the thought of having a baby dipped in Pepto-Bismol, and many other stomach-churning issues, made her cringe to the point where she actually hoped for (yikes) a boy. Orenstein opens her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HaperCollins, 2011), with this shocking revelation. Through this work, Orenstein examines the rise of girlie-girl culture and its impact on the women they become.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Back to Africa: Criterion’s DVD release of Claire Denis’ White Material (2009)

It has become quite common of late to see black and Arab characters in the foreground of many French movies. Sometimes they have bit parts but often, as some of the films screened at Toronto’s Cinéfranco film festival demonstrated, they are the main characters. It’s a late recognition of the country’s multicultural mosaic, prompted, I suspect, by the realities of what’s actually happening on the streets of France, but also because of the increasing presence of actors and directors from those communities working in French cinema. But there was one French filmmaker, Claire Denis, who has always populated her films with members of these groups, beginning with her widely seen and hailed feature film debut, Chocolat (1988).  

That movie, loosely based on her childhood growing up in various African countries as the daughter of a French civil servant, touchingly focused on the relationship between a young girl named France (Cécile Ducasse) and the family ‘houseboy’ Protée (Isaach de Bankolé, who also pops up as an enigmatic figure, a rebel leader called The Boxer, in White Material) and brought forth a nuanced view of the colonial relationship between France and its African ‘possessions. Many of her other films, which were set both in France and other countries, including S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990), J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994), Beau travail (Good Work, 1999) and 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008) prominently featured blacks and Arabs, sometimes with their race or religion being a significant factor in the story, and just as often not emphasized at all and merely presented as a depiction of fact. The quietly powerful White Material (2009), her latest and tenth feature, based on a Doris Lessing novel and which Criterion has recently released on DVD in a pristine new digital transfer approved by the filmmaker herself, is one of the former, where race (and race hatred) is part and parcel of the tale. While White Material is also set in Africa, though a few decades later than the 1930s period of Chocolat, it's not in any way a sequel to that movie, it's more a re-visit to the continent. The movie also functions as a bookend to Denis’ oeuvre, not least because it, too, was filmed in Cameroon, the location of her debut.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trusting a Skinny Chef: Gwyneth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter Cookbook

It’s Saturday morning at 6:45am and I just finished eating one (okay, two) of the oatmeal raisin cookies that I made from Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness. I was introduced to the concept of “breakfast dessert” while visiting friends in Montreal a few years ago and, as someone always looking for socially acceptable ways of consuming more sweets, I immediately loved the idea. Then, while visiting Turkey last year, I was served Turkish delight after dessert…a dessert dessert! I think it’s the European way of prolonging every meal and lingering over food and conversation. Paltrow would approve. Her recipes are about preparing food with love for those we love: using wholesome ingredients to pleasurably create scrumptious dishes. So if my mother saw what goes into these oatmeal raisin cookies, even she might approve of having them for breakfast.

The abundance of celebrity cookbooks (Alicia Silverstone, Suzanne Sommers, Eva Longoria, Trisha Yearwood) makes it easy to dismiss Paltrow’s book as just another marketing agent of her media empire, which includes movies, television and the website/blog Indeed, whenever I pick up a cookbook with a modelesque woman on the cover, I immediate assume one of two things: (1) the recipes are “diet” recipes and therefore insipid and uninspired or (2) the cookbook has been ghost-written and has little to do with the person on the cover. My assumption was dead wrong for My Father’s Daughter. The recipes are tested, tasty and truthful. In fact, almost every recipe opens with an anecdotal sentence about Paltrow’s memories of the dish, how she involves her children in its preparation or simply why she loves it so much. Paltrow’s children are central to this book (she claims that she is her children’s mother every bit as much as she is her father’s daughter) and there are lots of practical tips on how to get children involved in making meals. The recipes not only bring people together for eating, but also for cooking. Children, inexperienced chefs and even just taste testers, can join the culinary action.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Luna Sea Radio: 12,000 Songs, 33.33 Days

As a very special gift for my 50th birthday, my friend and Critics At Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, made me 45 mp3 discs containing hundreds upon hundreds of songs. His intention had been to do 50 discs, but he ran out of songs. He has since made three more, bringing the total to 48 and he recently promised the last two to bring it to the full 50.

I started listening to this fantastic array of music in November 2009, a couple of months after the actual 'eventful' day. I did a very rough calculation that there were 48 discs, containing about 250 songs each. The total was 12,000 songs. If the average song length was 4 minutes, it would work out to about 48,000 minutes of music. To turn that into days, I divided by 60 to give me hours and then 24 to give me days. It worked out to 33.33 days. In other words, if I played Kevin's mp3s every day, it would take me 33.33 days to listen to it all (or, in the parlance of the old long-play LP, 33 1/3). I found that incredibly appropriate. I picked the song total at random without any idea what it would turn out to be. That it was 33 1/3 seemed right. It didn't take me 33.33 days; it took me 18 months. I didn't listen every day. I tended to only put the discs on while writing at work (yes, I work as a professional writer when I'm not writing a blog – addicted, or what?), so I didn't hear the discs on the weekend (with the exception of four discs I brought home with me and listened to out of order). Around the time of my book launch on October 19, 2011, I made two 75-minute discs of French music that for about a month became my preferred listening. As I've outlined in my post on U2's "Beautiful Day," I find music is my best way to keep a, well, beautiful day, or in this case night, alive. So, I interrupted the flow of Kevin's music with those two discs of French songs. So, it probably should have only taken me 17 months.