Saturday, August 9, 2014

Neglected Gem #59: Masquerade (1988)

Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly in Masquerade.

The title of the 1988 film Masquerade suggests an association with the exotic thrillers of the sixties (Charade, Arabesque), and it certainly is stylish. But it’s actually more of a cross between Hitchcock’s Suspicion and The Heiress, William Wyler’s 1949 film of the Henry James novella Washington Square. In the first, Joan Fontaine plays a mousy bride who suspects her husband, Cary Grant, of scheming to eliminate her; in the second, Olivia De Havilland, a homely heiress belittled by an embittered widower father (Ralph Richardson), is wooed by a fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift). In Masquerade, which was written by Dick Wolf and directed by Bob Swaim, Meg Tilly plays Olivia Lawrence, a rich orphan who lives in the Hamptons with her alcoholic, lecherous bully of a stepfather, Tony Gateworth (John Glover). When she meets Tim Whalan (Rob Lowe), a handsome playboy sailor who has been hired to captain a yacht belonging to one of her neighbors – he’s moonlighting as a bedmate to his boss’s attractive wife (Kim Cattrall) – Olivia falls for him, and he rises to the bait of her irresistible fortune. (Masquerade is the name of Olivia’s boat; Obsession is the vehicle Tim works on. Both names acquire a sinister resonance as the story unfolds.) At this point Wolf’s ingenious plot takes the first of several twists, and difficult as it is to discuss the movie without revealing any of them, I don’t want to spoil any of its considerable narrative pleasures. Suffice it to say that there is a death, followed by an investigation, and that the cop on the case is Mike McGill, Olivia’s childhood friend (and one-time suitor), played by Doug Savant.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Vocalest Vocation: I Know That Voice!

Lawrence Shapiro's recent documentary I Know That Voice! (2013) is fast-paced, theatrical, and as exuberant as the actors themselves – who, the film forcefully tells us, strongly identify themselves as actors, and not just voiceover artists or studio jockeys. James Arnold Taylor, voice of Fred Flintstone since 2004, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the popular Clone Wars series, contends that the craft of voice acting is far from reading lines off a page. These people inhabit their roles, becoming their characters as surely as any screen or stage actor (in fact, some see it as even more challenging, as they must express as much with just their voice as other actors do with their whole bodies). The picture is insistent in making sure you understand this; in fact, if it were emphasized any more distinctly, this well-meant assertion might begin to stink of insecurity. But perhaps this is apropos: the actors’ intimations about the true workings of the industry suggest a difficult, uncertain working life, which is at once fun and fragile. Job security for a voice actor means taking after Bob Bergen, who deconstructs Porky Pig’s famous stutter to show exactly how complex it is, and how only those who can master something so difficult can sleep comfortably at night.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Opening the Door: The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane Quartet's Crescent

The John Coltrane Quartet's Crescent [Impulse!] was released 50 years this past June. The anniversary has largely gone unnoticed; much like the record itself did all those years ago, eclipsed by its follow-up masterpiece, A Love Supreme. Crescent has the seeds of all the ideas that are developed on A Love Supreme, but it’s a much more introspective experience. Revisiting the album recently, I was astonished to hear the quartet in the midst of musical change. The record opens with the prayer-like title track, a simple, personal ballad that doubles in tempo after the main theme is established. The playing here is superb, from Elvin Jones steady, unadorned rhythm on drums to McCoy Tyner’s piano drone that pulls the beat along. Coltrane's refined sound on the tenor saxophone sounds magnificent: a tribute to his lyrical and melodic lines. All of that will change by the next recording as if Crescent is opening a door to a more powerful and emotional breakthrough on A Love Supreme. The opening cut is followed up by a piece called, “Wise One,” another introspective work that creates a Zen-like trance in its continuous roll. “Bessie’s Blues”, a brief tribute to Bessie Smith, is its flip side: an unabashed bebop tune, typical of the Coltrane we heard a decade earlier. It’s an accessible song that closes out side one.

It might be said that the album has all the earmarks of the post-JFK era. But I think it would be unfair to label the record as a memorial to Kennedy and his legacy. Coltrane wasn’t that political a musician. Nevertheless one can’t help but think the leader and his band felt differently after their President’s shocking death in 1963. That said, "Lonnie's Lament," which opens side two, is a sober, mid-tempo modal tune, with darker, yet richer musical colours. Jones mixes up the rhythm behind McCoy Tyner's solo when the two lay out completely at the 6-minute mark. Jimmy Garrison provides a straightforward bass solo that carries the theme without veering off too much from the original chord changes. Garrison joined the quartet in 1962 replacing Reggie Workman. He remained with Coltrane until the band leader died in 1967. Like the whole record, there's beauty and simplicity in the compositions and the playing, while Coltrane, who was in his prime, seems sedate without being detached. To my ear, he sounds relaxed, and entirely in the moment. This is particularly evident on the final cut, "The Drum Thing," featuring ideas first explored on the under-recognized, Impressions (Impulse!, 1963). Elvin Jones is the featured soloist whose contribution to the quartet really served the music very well. In many ways, this quartet defined the Coltrane sound, as we know today. That they should record and release, six months later, one of the most important recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme, goes to prove it.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Making What's Past Present: Bonnie Dobson & Her Boys' Take Me for a Walk in the Morning Dew

Sometime in my younger years I watched a film on television. It starred Gregory Peck, and Fred Astaire I recall. Took place on a submarine, headed for, or based in Australia, the last country inhabitable after a nuclear war. It was called On The Beach and I’ll never forget some of it… though other bits made no real impression. Fred Astaire gave up and committed suicide in his garage. There was probably a love interest involved for Mr. Peck since I found Ava Gardner listed in IMBD. I was probably 10 years old when I saw it, since it was released to theatres in 1959. The film made a bigger impression on one Bonnie Dobson, folksinger.

Bonnie Dobson was older than me, born in Toronto in 1940, so the film spoke to her far more than to my 10-year-old self. It caused her to write the song for which she is most well-known.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Starship Joyride: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Chances are you've heard of Guardians of the Galaxy, or at least seen its characters splashed on huge billboards or across the side of a bus. Marvel has poured massive, unconcealed energy and cash into the marketing campaign for this film, making a hard and unmistakable push to recreate the success of its previous smash hit, The Avengers. Comparisons to that film, as well as Star Wars, Serenity, and many other similar ensemble feel-good cosmic fantasy blockbusters are inevitable. And I feel confident in saying that, if you're a fan of those types of film, you'd be unwise to ignore the ads: Guardians is fun, hilarious, action-packed, and I can't wait to see it again. Seriously, do you need someone to go with? Send me a message, I'm in.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Unformed: Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida

Ida, by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, has a harsh, spare lyricism, like Bertolt Brecht’s poetry; the camera set-ups are simple, basic, but the framing is unconventional, jarring until you get used to it, though Lukasza Zal’s lighting is lovely. You feel chilled and bruised while you’re watching and shaken up afterwards, but your vision is clearer. The setting is Poland in the early sixties. Agata Trzebuchowska plays Anna, an orphan raised in the convent who’s now about to take her vows; the Mother Superior at her convent (Halina Skoczynska) urges her first to visit the aunt she’s never known – who refused to adopt her when her parents died – before she becomes a nun. So she shows up at the door of this woman, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who tells Anna that she’s really a Jew named Ida Lebenstein whose parents, Wanda’s sister Roza and her husband, were killed in the Holocaust. Wanda has a brusque manner but she isn’t unkind to her niece; she offers her food and money (both of which Anna refuses). And on their second meeting, after she returns from work – she’s a judge – she’s warmer and more welcoming, showing the girl family photos and talking about her mother. Anna wants to visit her parents’ graves but Wanda says there are none and that she doesn’t even know how they died, but she agrees to drive the girl to the rural area where they disappeared. “What if you go up there and discover there’s no God?” she asks, playfully. She’s amused by this sweet, innocent Jewish girl who’s preparing to become a nun.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Complicity: Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”
 Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes

Adam Lanza, James Holmer, Seung Hui Cho, Dylan Klebord and Eric Harris, Robert Hawkins may or may not be household names, but the horrific violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a movie theatre near Denver, Virginian Tech, Columbine and a shopping mall in Nebraska, will surely be etched in the minds of most readers. The spree of rampage killers and the speculation as to what extent the wider culture contributed to this tragic mayhem inspired Stephen King’s most recent offering, Mr. Mercedes (Scribner, 2014), the first of a projected trilogy. Unlike most of King’s previous and prodigious output, there are no supernatural or paranormal phenomena. Instead, King draws upon the conventions of the mystery genre which he experimented with in The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013) to create his first hard-boiled detective tale. But Mr. Mercedes is no whodunit since we learn early on that the perpetrator is a banal psychopath, Brady Hartsfield.