Archive for August, 2009

Bend Me, Remake Me, Any Way You Want Me

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on 20 August, 2009 by Ally

I was dismayed to hear of two remakes in the pipeline. Steven Spielberg danced a merry jig on a few graves whilst announcing plans to remake Harvey, the classic 1950 screwball comedy (based on a 1944 play) starring James Stewart as a man who befriends an invisible rabbit. Meanwhile Disney and Robert Zemeckis are collectively pissing on the Beatles’ legacy by collaborating on a 3D version of psychedelic 1968 cartoon Yellow Submarine.

The cover version is a useful analogy. Cover a less successful song and discover it was a hit waiting to happen, such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe. Recreate a classic song accurately and it’s written off as pointless, like Westlife’s various crimes against music or Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Transform it beyond recognition and it’s desecration — i.e. Mark Ronson’s godawful output (even if you didn’t like the Zutons to start with).

And it’s hard to imagine Spielberg’s Harvey as anything but a Ronsonesque exercise in memory-soiling. We still regard the 1950 version with fondness. Anyone quoting it is compelled to mimic James Stewart’s distinctive Southern drawl, and another actor stepping into his shoes will find it damn near impossible to fill them. As for Yellow Submarine, didn’t Across the Universe serve as a stern warning that Beatle-inspired musicals just don’t work outside the 1960s? And do we really need to see the Fab Four rendered as eerie, dead-eyed avatars like those in The Polar Express?

Yes, remakes can be worthwhile. John Huston’s iconic version of The Maltese Falcon was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and it made Humphrey Bogart a star — partly because George Raft’s contract enabled him to pass on remakes! But while the third Falcon movie tried to fix some failings (or cash in on a hit book), modern remakes exploit the enduring popularity of the originals. Hands up who preferred the recent Taking of Pelham 123. How about Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Thought not.

Roger Ebert on US health care

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on 18 August, 2009 by Ally

The notion of “universal health care” does not mean “socialized medicine.” It means just what it seems to mean. America is the only developed nation on earth that does not provide it. Why does it inspire such virulent opposition? Who is behind it? It is opposed mostly from the far right, whose enthusiasm seems to be encouraged by financial support from some (not all) insurance companies. Those companies have priced American insurance out of the reach of millions.

~ Roger Ebert, 2009

Roger Ebert’s latest article is a beacon of reason in a whirlwind of ill-informed, bitter polemic. There is nothing I can add, so I simply urge you to read it.

Read “Death Panels. A most excellent term” by Roger Ebert.


Posted in Film with tags , , on 16 August, 2009 by Ally
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru translates as “to live,” something Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) hasn’t done for nigh-on thirty years, and won’t be doing much longer. Every day he sits at his desk in the department of something-or-other, stamping forms while most of the actual work is redirected to other departments. His wife is long dead and he is incapable of nurturing another meaningful relationship, whether with his coworkers or his son.

He suffers from a worsening stomach complaint, which the doctors reassure him is a mild ulcer. He is warned by a wise patient that such a diagnosis, matched with his symptoms, is more likely terminal cancer – it was customary for doctors to spare patients of such difficult knowledge. Faced with his imminent mortality and the realisation that his life has been intensely boring, Watanabe vows to make the most of his limited time. The problem is, he doesn’t know how.

The first half of Ikiru charts Watanabe’s desperate attempts to recapture his joie de vivre, carpe diem and other such untranslatable concepts. First he becomes a barfly, enjoying the brief respite from introspection that drinking allows him. Here he meets a writer who shows him the town. Hot jazz music, dancing girls and pinball machines all fail to thrill him. He even silences one club with a poignant barroom singalong of Gondola no Uta:

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips

Meanwhile his coworkers are mystified by his sudden absence, especially young Toyo, who requires his rubber stamp to submit her resignation. Watanabe is drawn to her youthful impatience and frank honesty, and she soon becomes his reluctant lifeline. Quizzing Toyo about her new job making children’s toys, Watanabe finds the inspiration to make meaningful use of his remaining time. His colleagues are surprised to find him back at work, bristling with energy and determined to transform a stagnant plot of land into a children’s playground.

The second, slightly drawn-out half of the film is told in a series of flashbacks as the colleagues remember Watanabe at his wake. They ponder over his mysterious change of character, and gradually come to the conclusion that the secretive Watanabe knew he was dying. Noting that we are all dying, the bureaucrats – stricken with grief, guilt and alcohol – vow to continue their lives in Watanabe’s spirit. Sadly this vow is short-lived and the department reverts to its old, wasteful and boring ways.

Parts of Ikiru are deeply moving. An obvious highlight is the iconic scene of Watanabe on the newly-built playground swing, singing softly to himself as the camera peers at him through the climing frame. Other parts are somewhat frustrating, especially the long wake scene. The bureaucrats take an absurdly long time to come to conclusions. Perhaps this is a way of baiting the audience, urging us to follow Watanabe’s example instead of theirs. But having spent the duration of the film contemplating my own mortality and making vows to myself, I too have reverted to my old, boring ways.

Take Five, Austin

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on 15 August, 2009 by Ally

Yesterday I shared a video by Hisae Nakajima. It was a performance demonstrating great technical proficiency, an innate understanding of music theory and, most importantly, soul. Today I present another jazz luminary of equal, possibly even greater talent. I speak of none other than the legendary Austin McBride.

To cleanse your palate, enjoy a true example of 5/4 time by the supreme Max Roach.

Song of the Day: “Ruby, My Dear”

Posted in Music, Of the Day with tags , , , , on 14 August, 2009 by Ally

Today I happily stumbled upon Hisae Nakajima’s beautifully angular performance of Thelonious Monk’s (already quite angular) ballad Ruby, My Dear. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Album of the Week: Members, Don’t Git Weary

Posted in Music, Of the Week with tags , , , , , , , , on 12 August, 2009 by Ally
Max Roach - Members, Don't Git Weary (1968)

Max Roach - Members, Don't Git Weary (Atlantic 1968)

Max Roach was one of the premier drummers of the bebop era and beyond. As well as playing on landmark sessions with jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, he recorded several celebrated albums as a leader. In the words of fellow drummer Stan Levey, thanks to Max Roach “drumming no longer was just time, it was music.”

Although best known as a bebop player, Max Roach flirted with post-bop and the avant-garde. His 1968 album Members, Don’t Git Weary is one such flirtation. The ensemble consists of Gary Bartz (alto sax), Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Stanley Cowell (piano), Jymie Merritt (electric bass) and Roach himself (drums).

Despite the use of electric instruments, Members is far from a fusion album. However the electric bass does lend an edge of funk to opening track Abstrutions; a short ‘n’ groovy piece punctuated by angular brass fanfares, but grounded by that funky bass and Cowell’s bluesy rolling piano.

My favourite track Libra takes us further out. During the main theme, the rhythm and horn sections appear to be playing in separate time signatures. The effect is equally compelling and unsettling, the divided ensemble conjuring complex and stimulating syncopations. The group eventually joins forces to provide a propulsive backing for solos by Bartz and Tolliver. Roach then blasts a furious drum solo before the group restates the theme to close.

Title track Members, Don’t Git Weary features a gospel-inspired vocal performance by Andy Bey, and is an uplifting call for strength and unity in the society of the time. When you consider the album was recorded soon after Martin Luther King was killed, it becomes all the more potent. Other tracks include Effi; a dreamy waltz which is oddly reminiscent of The Stranglers hit Golden Brown, Equipoise; a gentle modal piece with especially lyrical playing from Charles Tolliver, and Absolutions; the closing track to which Cowell’s electric piano and Merritt’s mantra-like bassline give an exotic quality.

I only bought the album yesterday, and have listened to it several times both for enjoyment and reviewing purposes, and could happily listen to it again tomorrow. Critics and experts may not see it as an essential album, but I couldn’t recommend it more highly. I won’t git weary (a-ho-ho-ho) of it any time soon.