Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fanfare for the Career Mom: Afterthoughts on I Don’t Know How She Does It

Regardless of the fromage-splattered red flags that appeared in the trailers, I couldn’t help but check out Sarah Jessica Parker’s (SJP) new film I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011). Alas, I have a soft spot for anything that involves a scattered, exasperated, working mother. This decision did not go unpunished. Upon telling friends and colleagues about my plans, they gave me that look. You know the look. It’s the one people give you when you say you’re going to a funeral. (I guess it hadn’t received the kindest of reviews.) Of course this caused some mild anxiety leading up to the feature presentation. Yet, perhaps because my expectations were so low, or maybe due to that soft spot I mentioned, I actually enjoyed myself. 
I Don’t Know How She Does It is the film adaptation to the 2002 Allison Pearson novel of the same name. In the film, SJP’s character, Kate Reddy, is a successful manager for a Boston investment firm. She has an adorable, supportive husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) who works as a downsized architect. The happy couple also has two children: a six-year-old girl who lays on the guilt pretty thick every time her mother takes a business trip, and an otherwise forgiving two-year-old boy. 
If that wasn’t enough to juggle with a demanding job and a family, Kate gets offered a promotion at work. A wonderful opportunity for her career, but it involves a lot of traveling between New York and Boston. It also involves a lot of time spent with her gorgeous new boss Jack Abelhammer (played by Pierce Brosnan). Predictable, yes. You can probably imagine the obstacles and stress that ensue.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gesundheit: A Big Dose of Fear On the Big Screen

Jennifer Ehle as a research scientist in Contagion
There was no way I could remain objective at a recent matinee of Contagion, the star-studded thriller by Steven Soderbergh about a new virus strain that decimates humanity. A few decades ago, I was stricken by the kind of flu that keeps moving from one part of the body to another. Down for the count, I spent five weeks malingering in bed. A friend intending to cheer me up dropped by with a gift he didn’t realize would, in fact, have the opposite effect. It was a paperback copy of The Stand – Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, in which humanity is decimated by a new virus strain.

I finally recovered back then, of course. As an ardent believer in flu shots now, I rarely even come down with a cold any more. Earlier this month, though, I returned from a visit to Toronto with a whopper (Thank you, Canada!) that still has me hacking and sniffling more than a week later. And that’s how I slipped into a dark movie theater the other day, hoping not to frighten the few other patrons enjoying a good old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster with hordes of protagonists and extras hacking and sniffling and foaming at the mouth and experiencing convulsions.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Staying Power: Jerry Granelli’s Let Go

Jerry Granelli can best be described as a drummer who keeps moving forward. Now 70 years-of-age, Granelli is more prolific than he was 30 years ago. Let Go (Plunge Records, 2011) is his 12thalbum in the past ten years; a remarkable achievement for a musician not signed to a major label. It's also his first trio recording where he’s leading the band. Let Go is as much about what happens in the space between the notes as it is about collaborative composition.

Born in 1940, Granelli was a commercially successful musician in his mid-twenties. His claim to fame was the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the music of the Charlie Brown animated TV shows, in particular A Charlie Brown Christmas first broadcast in 1965. He later played with Mose Allison and Denny Zeitlin (who also scored Philip Kaufman’s 1979 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) associating himself with theSan Francisco music scene in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a fruitful experience for Granelli who seemed to be headed in a direction that would make him a preeminent drummer in jazz along the same lines as Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette.

But a conversion to Buddhism in 1970 changed Granelli’s focus and consequently his pursuit of music towards commercial success. Those years were a mix of live performance, teaching and spiritual practice that probably paid the bills but gave Granelli the kind of peace-of-mind he needed. By 1999, after visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, he decided to leave the United States and immigrate to Canada’s east coast. It was a powerful decision that led to furthering a productive career.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Giddy Thing: Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre (August 29, 2011)

There are worse ways to spend a summer night in London than in a lush West End theatre watching a high-octane Shakespeare production, but I have to confess that my girlfriend and I hadn’t actually planned for it. Coming on the heels of a much more orderly two and a half weeks in France, our time in London had a satisfying seat-of-your-pants feel to it, since it was essentially a pit stop en route from Paris to our final destination in Scotland  But even months earlier, when all we’d confirmed about our time in the UK were our arrival and departure dates, there was one thing we were certain of: we knew exactly where we would be on Saturday August 27 at 19:00 GMT. That night we’d be sitting in front of a TV screen watching the much-anticipated fall premiere of Doctor Who. The preceding episode of the season had aired way back in early June, and I have no shame in confessing that our twin geek hearts were genuinely aflutter with the mere idea of watching the show’s return live on British soil. (Europe is lovely yes, but we’d let our travelling interfere with our TV watching quite enough at that point in our month-long trip!) And so perhaps you can imagine our excitement when, while looking for the entrance to the Charing Cross tube station, Jessica and I stumbled serendipitously upon Wyndham’s Theatre. There, on the marquee, were the shining faces of David Tennant and Catherine Tate – both of Doctor Who fame! – headlining as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. No doubt all the stars in heaven had conspired to bring us to this very moment: these were our last two days in London, and it turned out to be the last week of the show’s 3-month run. We simply had to see this play.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who
And so, on the morning of Monday August 29, Jessica and I got up early and stood in line for that day’s lottery, hoping to secure two of the few remaining seats for that evening’s sold-out performance. We weren’t alone, it turned out. The line outside the theatre that morning was well populated, but buoyant. Many were coming to see the show for a second time, and true to form, the conversations we had were less about Elizabethan theatre than that Saturday’s Doctor Who episode. In the end, we left with two standing room tickets, and were grateful for them! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the Tate Modern and following a quick visit to a nearby pub, we got to the theatre a half hour early (as we’d been advised to do by the lovely woman, and rabid David Tennant fan, we’d met in line that morning) in order to secure a good standing spot for ourselves. It turned out we needn’t have worried: Wyndham’s is a fairly intimate space (especially in the Stalls), and the back of the house had a clear, unobstructed view of the whole stage. And so we waited, and watched, as every seat in the sold-out house slowly filled up.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Off the Shelf: Slither (2006)

Slither is the kind of grossly entertaining B-horror movie that gets you giggling right from the opening scene when a flaming alien-infested comet hurtles rapidly to Earth. (This chattering chunk of rock has the worst possible intentions when it arrives.) The biggest joke on the audience, though, is that when these critters finally get hatched, things get much worse than anyone could possibly imagine. Slither in quick order becomes horror trash without a trace of solemnity.

Set in the quiet rural town of Wheelsy, S.C., Grant (Michael Rooker of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is a strapping he-man who may be losing the affections of his generally devoted wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks of The 40-Year-Old Virgin). While ruminating the state of his marriage late one night in the woods, Grant gets rudely invaded by a slithery slug-like creature. Before long, Grant begins mutating into a whole different species of he-man. He first impregnates a woman (who becomes a host for a litter of slimy beasts) and then later devours dogs and cattle. (These aliens come with a generous and purposeful appetite.) As Grant soon begins to resemble Jabba the Hut with a bad case of psoriasis, Nathan Fillion (the sardonic space captain from Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity) as the town police chief demonstrates some of the funniest straight-faced double-takes in movies while tackling both this mutant infestation and his hidden lust for Starla.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Horse and His Boy: War Horse

War Horse is a piece of high-voltage populist theatricality, like The Lion King – the kind of show that underlines the uniqueness of the live theatre experience and can make lifelong theatergoers out of young audiences. It’s an adaptation by Nick Stafford of a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo that opened five years ago at the National Theatre of Great Britain and is still playing to full houses in London’s West End, where it transferred after its NT run. The production, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, opened in the spring at Lincoln Center with a fresh cast (considerably fresher than the one I saw in London in June).

The play begins in Devon, England in 1912, where a farm boy named Albert Narracott (Seth Numrich) falls in love with a beautiful chestnut horse that his father, Ted (Boris McGiver), buys impulsively at auction, really just to get a leg up on his older brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith), who’s bidding for the same animal. The brothers’ relationship is poisonously competitive, though rarely equal. Arthur is constantly needling Ted, throwing his financial success and his record of service in the Boer War – when Ted stayed home to support his family – in his face, and when Ted has had a few drinks he can’t resist the bait. The horse is an impractical purchase: it’s a hunter, not a work animal, so it’s of no use on the farm, as his wife Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan) is quick to point out. But true to a certain kind of coming-of-age narrative – National Velvet (1944) and The Black Stallion (1979) would be the key examples from American movies – the proud, noble animal exerts a magical pull on the boy, who names him Joey and tames him. Arthur wants the horse for himself, so he gets his brother drunk and bets him the mortgage money that he can’t train Joey to haul a wagon, knowing that if he loses he’ll have no choice but to sell the horse to Arthur. When Ted’s impatient efforts to train Joey aggravate the horse into kicking him, his impulse is to administer a savage beating, so an incensed Albert goes to work himself to try to win his father’s unlikely bet for him. And in an archetypal scene Joey surpasses everyone’s expectations and drags the wagon over the designated line. The resulting idyll of horse and boy is disturbed when war breaks out two years later, however. Ted sells Joey to the army behind his son’s back; only the guarantee of Lieutenant Nicholls (Stephen Plunkett), who admires the horse and has been making sketches of him, that he’ll take personal care of him calms Albert. But Nicholls falls in battle and his sketchbook is sent home to Albert. The boy, terrified about Joey’s fate and still furious at his father, lies about his age (he’s only sixteen at this point) and signs up so that he can search for his beloved horse. That’s the first act. Act two intercuts Joey’s and Albert’s adventures during the course of the war, with other characters – a German horseman named Müller (Peter Hermann), a traumatized little French girl (Madeleine Rose Yen) – replacing Albert as the human figure in most intimate contact with Joey.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Open Roads: Life is a Highway: Canadian Pop Music in the 90s, on CBC Television

Life is a Highway is the fourth chapter in the history of Canadian pop music, a CBC television documentary written by Nicholas Jennings. It's the story of Canada's rise on the international music scene in the 1990s, one of the most successful decades ever for Canadian pop. It follows Rise Up (the 80s), The Beat Goes On (the 70s) and Shakin’ All Over (the 60s).

With a steady pace and an editorial eye to celebrating Canadian music, Life is a Highway is a delight to watch. With comprehensive broad strokes it looks at the history of Canadian pop that successfully merges the regional and cultural influences that have shaped the sound of Canadian music in many ways. Canada covers a large geographic footprint, the larger part of North America in fact. It's a country whose regions has played havoc with politics from a federal perspective, but through music have helped defined them. This chapter in the television documentary tells a story of musical convergence where different musical styles from African rhythms to Celtic jigs begin to blend in with hip-hop and pop.