Saturday, June 14, 2014

Musical Narratives and Streams: Interview with Gregory Porter

Gregory Porter (Photo by John Watson)

Gregory Porter has been called the new voice of jazz, and his velvet-rich baritone yields no argument. Since arriving on the scene just five years ago, the 42-year-old California-born, New York-based vocalist, songwriter and actor has become the darling of the international jazz scene. This year, he plays Newport followed by a much-anticipated appearance at this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 20. His Toronto concert is being hosted by local radio station, JazzFm91, which has been giving Porter ample air-play even before his heady win at this year’s Grammys for best jazz vocal album. A former football scholarship student at San Diego State University, the 6’4” 255-pound singer fell into music after a freshman shoulder injury sidelined his athletic career. The music came naturally enough. The son of a minister, Porter started singing as a child. His influences while growing up included Danny Hathaway and others in his mother’s record collection. Porter eventually created a musical about his relationship to the music of his youth in 2004’s Nat King Cole and Me  A Musical Healing, a theatrical production in which he wrote his own music as well as acted. Since then, he has focused on music full-time, putting out three records: 2010’s Water, 2012’s Be Good and 2013’s Liquid Spirit. He plans to work with orchestras next, Porter said in a recent interview from his Brooklyn home in which he talked about the all-inclusive embrace of jazz and the evolution of the love song. Here’s more of that conversation.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Neglected Gem #58: What Happened Was . . . (1994)

Karen Sillas and Tom Noonan in What Happened Was... (1994)

As Tom Noonan’s 1994 two-hander What Happened Was . . . begins, Jackie (Karen Sillas), an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, gets ready for a date; she’s invited one of the paralegals, Michael (Noonan), home for a meal. Sillas has a sensuous vulnerability, and as Jackie rushes about, semi-distracted, driven by something unspoken – loneliness? sexual desperation? – we’re hypnotized by her mysterious inward focus, her almost balletic gracefulness, her unexpected tempo shifts.What we’re watching might be an acting exercise performed by a stunningly gifted actress. We register that there’s nothing to the scene, really, except Sillas’s invention, her ability to keep the moves fresh through a conviction to stake out every corner of this woman’s personality and through the high premium Jackie places on how well the evening turns out.

In fact, all of What Happened Was . . . – which began as a stage play, written by Noonan – isn’t much more than an extended acting-class encounter on the theme of the tensions underpinning an attempt at a romantic interlude. Michael is a cynical know-it-all who’s made himself persona non grata among the lawyers at the firm, but he’s impressed Jackie, whom he pays attention to at the office and who thinks he’s smart and funny. But from the moment he arrives, too early, things start to go wrong. He’s so nervous and ill at ease he can’t shut up, and he makes a faux pas right off the bat by mocking her title at work (“Is that what they call secretaries now?”). She takes the wrong tack when she tells him she’s always defending him to co-workers who don’t see how insecure he really is. The movie, which is beautifully acted and directed, is a kind of sonata spun on their eccentricities and crossed signals. It’s slight – and the more serious it gets, the thinner it feels. (The script keeps reminding you of Paddy Chayefsky and other dramatists of the kinescope era who liked to write about the “little people.”) But you’re absolutely held by the two actors.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Treading Water: NBC's Crossbones

John Malkovich as Blackbeard, on NBC's Crossbones

Pirate stories were useful in the first few decades of Hollywood, when movie studios were in need of action vehicles for dashing, acrobatic male stars, most notably Douglas Fairbanks and, some years later, the young Errol Flynn. The last classic example of the genre is probably the 1952 The Crimson Pirate, in which Burt Lancaster and his stuntman-sidekick (and former partner in a gravity-defying act the two had performed for circus and vaudeville audiences) ricocheted all over the sets as if they were in a pinball game, grinning like happy monkeys while their bodies were doing things that most people would have trouble even thinking about doing without their features slipping into expressions of bug-eyed terror.

By then, the fashion in American action movie heroes had already begun shifting irrevocably away from men who express themselves gracefully in movement towards men who can convincingly perform acts of violence, even sadistic action, while cloaking themselves in an air of self-righteousness. Nobody ever suggested that Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson slap on an eye patch and a gold earring and slide down a sail with a knife between his teeth. But for reasons that defy logic, Hollywood directors have still sometimes tried to revive the pirate genre. Most of these labors of love—Swashbuckler (1976), Roman Polanksi’s Pirates (1986), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995)—are remembered solely for the spectacular scale of their cost and subsequent commercial failure, and the fact that they starred, respectively, Robert Shaw (at a point when he was forty-seven years old, alcoholic, and two years away from his death), Walter Matthau (outfitted with a wooden leg and a costume like a wedding cake), and the dream team of Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, really presses the point that the people responsible for the movies themselves had no idea what the appeal of the successful films in the genre was based on.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean film only superficially resembles an exception to the rule that the genre has seen its day: like The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears, and Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland, it actually belongs to that strange contemporary subgenre, big-budget movies “based” on Disney theme park attractions. According to solidly based conventional wisdom, the real secret of Pirates of the Caribbean’s box-office success was the bottomless entertainment value of Johnny Depp’s peacock-strutting performance, and the publicity surrounding NBC’s summer series Crossbones—the second pirate show of the year, after Starz’s Black Sails—has centered on another mighty hambone, John Malkovich, who makes his series TV debut as Edward Teach, A.K.A. Blackbeard, plotting and tending his legend in semi-retirement on an island in the Bahamas where he holds sway as Commodore.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trash and Art: Interview with Film Critic and Author Adam Nayman on Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls

There has probably no movie from Hollywood that has been so reviled and eviscerated as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Having already established himself in the Netherlands as their resident l'enfant terrible in films like Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983) for their explicit sexuality and violence, Verhoeven would come to Hollywood in the Eighties to continue drawing moustaches on sacred cows in racy thrillers like Basic Instinct (1992) and SF satires like Robocop (1987). But if those films were hugely popular for their outrageous daring, Showgirls, a film about a drifter, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who hitchhikes to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune by climbing from stripper to showgirl, was greeted with a tsunami of raspberries (including the 1995 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture).

In the subsequent years, Showgirls has been reassessed, but often in the way Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) gets redeemed, by embracing its badness as a form of pleasure. Film critic Adam Nayman in his book It Doesn't Suck. Showgirls (ECW Press, 2014), however, isn't interested in acclaiming it for its badness, or in heaping empty superlatives at an unappreciated masterpiece. Nayman's vastly entertaining and probing book gets to the core of the prickly undercurrents that upset so many viewers and critics at the time (and even touches on areas that could continue to start arguments today). 

Adam Nayman is a Toronto film critic who has written for The Grid and writes for The Globe and Mail. He is also a contributing editor to Cinemascope. Along with writing about film for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Film Comment, Cineaste and Reverse Shot, he also teaches film studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Nayman is also a programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Society.

Unlike myself, who saw Showgirls as a professional film critic back in 1995 and experienced the hate first-hand, Adam Nayman became a critic long after the hailstorm, which is where we began our interview.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mixed Menu: Jon Favreau’s Chef

Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau and Sophia Vergara in Chef.

In his new comedy, Chef, Jon Favreau directs himself as a culinary artist whose life implodes with his very messy, very public break from a high-end L.A. restaurant. But it becomes the best thing that’s happened to him when he creates his own food-truck with his adolescent son – a fly by the seat of your pants operation that’s as much fun as it is delicious. That’s a great idea for a comedy, and certainly it’s an improvement over his last feature film project, 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens (which should have been camp hilarity but had entirely the wrong tone). The problem with Chef isn’t the tone, for the most part, but its structure. Favreau hasn’t thought through the whole picture – it’s underdeveloped and bizarrely slow moving in places. The result is material that’s scrumptious one scene (to the eye, ear, and stomach) then flat the next. In a word, uneven.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and Those Damn Yankees

Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton (left) in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Playing Billie Holiday in 1959, just months before her death, in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Audra McDonald does an uncanny vocal impersonation of the great jazz singer in her late phase, when heroin had worn her astonishingly pliable buttered-rum contralto down to a nub yet her phrasing hadn’t lost its ability to wipe you out and she could still swing. It’s an impressive stunt – but it’s a stunt, and one that I wish McDonald, who has the finest instrument among today’s musical-theatre stars, hadn’t attempted. I had the same problem when, more than forty years ago, Diana Ross mimicked Holiday’s voice in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. It’s one thing when an actress who isn’t a singer plays a famous vocalist and lip-syncs her songs: in the title role of the TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Judy Davis got so far into the character that when you heard Garland’s singing voice come out of her, the results were spookily convincing. (It’s the best work Davis has ever done, which means, of course, that it’s one of the greatest performances ever put on the screen.) It’s quite another thing when one towering singer buries her own style and picks up another’s. I understand why McDonald chose to go this route: Holiday’s sound is distinctive and famous, like Garland’s. But so is Audra McDonald’s – and, certainly, Diana Ross’.

Actually I wish McDonald had passed on this project altogether. Lanie Robertson’s play (which I reviewed twenty years ago at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, when an actress named Rose Weaver took the part) is nothing but a series of monologues strung around fourteen songs – some of them Holiday standards (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit,” “Don’t Explain” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”) and some fairly obscure. (The final number, George Cory and Douglas Cross’ “Deep Song,” which I’d never heard Holiday sing until Charlie Haden built a beautiful instrumental around it on his 1992 album Haunted Heart, is a personal favorite.) Holiday, performing in a dive in South Philly because, as a result of her drug conviction, she’s lost her cabaret card in New York, is drunk and high when she staggers onto the stage to accompany a three-piece combo, and in the course of the evening she gets drunker and higher. The set-up is both dramatically hobbled and purely melodramatic and the script is bald; it barely qualifies as a play at all. And McDonald, normally a splendid actress, gives a shrill, maudlin performance interrupted by a couple of moments of authentic power: one when she remembers getting the news of her father’s death and one when she talks bitterly about the humiliation of losing the right to perform professionally in New York, where she’d become famous in the thirties.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tragi-Comic: Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy

Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.
                         – Stephen Leacock (quoted by Jeff Lemire in Essex Country)

In April, DC comics launched Justice League Unlimited, an ongoing comic series to be set primarily in Canada. The series is helmed by Canadian writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mike McKone and marks the return of Adam Strange (now newly Canadian!) to DC's New 52 universe, along with a other Justice League mainstays like Martian Manhunter, Supergirl, and Green Arrow. Originally titled Justice League Canada (that suggestive name still remains as the title of the series' first main story arc), the series also promises to introduce a new DC teen hero of Lemire's own creation: Equinox, a sixteen-year-old girl of Cree descent who hails from Moose Factory, Ontario (pop. 2500). The next issue of Justice League United goes on sale on June 11, but if you want a taste of Lemire's unequalled talent while you await the debut of DC's first First Nations hero, the best place to begin is with his now-classic Essex County Trilogy.

The three books – originally published as Tales From the Farm (2008), Ghost Stories (2008), The Country Nurse (2009) before being collected as the Essex County Trilogy in 2011 by Top Shelf – earned Lemire international acclaim, including a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent in 2008 and an Eisner nomination for the collection itself in 2010. Set in Lemire's home turf of Essex County, Ontario, the books are rendered with stark black-and-white lines and often minimal dialogue. While for many, the vast and urban Toronto likely dominates their image of life in Ontario, drive just 350 kilometres southwest from the city, and you will find suburban sprawl turn to prairie and longstanding farming communities with centuries-old histories. In three volumes, Lemire paints an unparalleled portrait of loss and survival, set among the fields, farms, and frozen rivers of small-town Ontario. Read individually, the books are powerful and poignant; read together, they tell an quiet but epic generational story that is as Canadian as it is universal.