Friday, April 13, 2012

On the Telly: “The Office”

It hurt me today to find out that my beloved The Office has received a record lowrating. This was the lowest for the American version of the series since its premiere in the spring of 2005.

The history of NBC’s The Office was not a smooth one in its inception. Initial critical reception was generally favourable, but also cool, with many noting its inferiority to the original British series starring Ricky Gervais (admittedly I was not a stark raving fan of it but that’s another blog post). The ratings were generally low-rated, but enough for NBC to continue with the series. Clearly they saw more potential in it than in the wildly misbegotten 2003 version of Coupling, which lasted exactly two terrible episodes. The cast developed and grew into an ensemble, headed by the brilliant Steve Carrell as Michael Scott. The lynchpin of the series was his continually embarrassing efforts to befriend the staff by trying too hard. In other words, perpetual social experimentation and wild failure was the engine of what drove the show, and how the staffers reacted to it. By the time Carrell left for his successful movie career in 2011, having led the cast for seven years and earning numerous honours including a Golden Globe and SAG Award, and half a dozen Emmy nominations, the show had become a respectable long-running hit. The question was: would the series survive, let alone thrive, without him?

New boss: Catherine Tate
The answer appears to be a hesitant “no”, at least for the moment. There has been a tortured attempt in the show’s narrative to fill the gap left by Carrell. He may have been incurably dorky, but he also drew the entire staff together and they came to care for him in the end. The humanity was what was missing from the original Gervais version of The Office in Britain. For Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch, the quest to fill the void Michael left behind mirrored his actor’s departure. Michael was Carrell’s signature role, and the problem was like any good pen, he left an indelible mark that could not be erased and would always be woven into the show.

Let’s liken it to what happened with Diana Ross when she left the Supremes. Without their biggest star, the one who defined the group, the effect was that the air was let out of the room. The Supremes carried on and did respectably, but they were never quite the same no matter how talented the members were who remained. Carrell’s from The Office departure echoes similarly, even a year later. The cast still has moments of brilliance and the ensemble plays well with one another, but the dynamic has changed radically. Sure, there’s great promise in British transplant Nellie as the by turns vicious and loopy new manager, played brilliantly by Catherine Tate in a turn balancing deft comic timing with a hint of dark turmoil, but she will need another year to make the show her own and to erase Carrell’s influence.

Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling)
It’s a bit disheartening that the show seems to be on its last legs. Longtime showrunner Paul Liberstein, who plays the harangued human resources manager Toby, has stepped down and NBC is advertising for a new showrunner. Mindy Kaling, fresh off the success of her terrific comic memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, is filming a pilot that hopefully gives us more of an opportunity to see this refreshingly bubbly actress on a regular basis. And Rainn Wilson has been offered a spin-off with his one-of-a-kind character Dwight Schrute, in a backdoors pilot that will be aired sometime within the next year. (I am looking very much forward to this project.)

Like every office after a major shift in management, The Office is still in a transition stage. What we need to determine is whether or not the company will survive the change and grow into a stronger whole, or be finished off for good. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sound Advice: on Shirley Bassey’s “Get the Party Started”

For those younger readers out there, the name Shirley Bassey doesn’t ring much of a bell. However, if I were to play you her two signature tunes from the James Bond films – “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” – you will hear that voice and know that singer, for no one else can utter that voice that suggests images of jewels slinking their way seductively out of a velvet pouch.

Having been absent from the music scene since her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Dame Shirley spent much of the 1980s and 1990s focusing on charity work and undoubtedly living off the residual income from her immortal recordings. Then, in 2006, she recorded a big, brassy version of P!nk’s smash record “Get the Party Started” for a Marks & Spencer commercial. It contains a slightly halted, almost spoken-word utterance of the opening verses before belting into a powerful crescendo.

Dame Shirley, eschewing the trend of aping youth in the name of commercial art (are you listening Madonna?), instead embraces her signature sound. The cover has big, sweeping brasses with a drum machine that grooves without wearying out the listener in a frantic attempt to party! Hard! Right! Now! The effect is a bold cover that can easily be remixed and made into a dance-club smash (if you want to party hard right now). It could be played as ambience at a more sophisticated lounge or social mixer. Or it could provide the perfect soundtrack to New York Fashion Week while models float about in the latest by Tom Ford or Mary Katrantzou. Although Bassey’s version of “Get the Party Started” doesn’t have the bouncy R&B-inflected youth pop of P!nk’s original smash, it does have what P!nk’s doesn’t have: a sense of occasion.

The popularity of Dame Shirley’s recording lead to the release of a 2007 cover album bearing the same name. To round out the album and flesh out its theme, the recording is big on interpolating brass and drum machine, giving the album grandeur and sonic sweep worthy of a dame. While not every song pops the way her cover of “Get the Party Started” does, there’s plenty to accompany your evening. The list of covers includes a saucy “Big Spender”, a worthy interpretation of Grace Jones’s “Slave to the Rhythm”, a suitably earth-shattering “I (Who Have Nothing)” and yes, another Bond cover, “You Only Live Twice”. The album, in a sign that music consumers still have good taste, became a Top Ten hit in the U.K. This was when she was 70(!!) years old, looking and sounding as beautiful and regal as the day she first blasted her way onto the airwaves nearly half a decade earlier.

And laced through the recording is that big, magnificent voice. Yes, Dame Shirley is still a belter and can indeed get your party started, whatever the occasion. There is nothing like a Dame.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Judging from the poster and title, Jiro Dreams of Sushi sounds and looks like a postmodern comedy directed by Michel Gondry. I immediately thought of Gondry’s 2006 film The Science of Sleep as a possible kindred spirit to Jiro, at least in theory. How wrong I was.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a snappy Japanese-language documentary about an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs a ten-seat restaurant hidden in the basement of a business building. It is close enough to access by metro and around the corner from the famed Printemps location in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district. The documentary is a paean to work and the love of it. We learn that Jiro was abandoned as a child and, having no formal education or means to access it, started working for survival at a young age. He has become a master sushi chef, evidenced by the fact that his little shop is the only one awarded three stars by the prestigious Michelin rankings. In case you’re wondering, a Michelin-rated three-star rating means that it is worth traveling to that country for the sole purpose of eating at that particular restaurant. And this tiny sushi bar – literally, it is just the bar with ten chairs – was chosen out of the literally millions of sushi restaurants in Japan.

Jiro is a workhorse, to put it mildly. He rises at 5 am and arrives at the famed Tsukiji fish market to ensure he gets the very best catch of the day for his customers. We are let in on some of the secrets to preparing and serving the best sushi (rice should be served at room temperature not cold; massaging the octopus for a good 45 minutes will ensure that your tako will have the perfect texture). The intense dedication comes at a hefty price, as menus are often chosen by the chefs based on the catch of the day and start at 30,000 yen a head (that’s $300 US), and reservations are taken a month in advance.

We learn that his sons have gone into the business as well, with the elder working directly for him and the younger having opened a chain in the upscale Roppongi Hills neighbourhood. We also learn that there are sacrifices to hard work, as Jiro often works from 5 am until well past 10 pm and admits that he missed most of his children’s formative years.

It’s a little odd that I’ve never seen a movie about sushi (I’m not counting Oldboy: fans will know why) and that, together with Sushi: the Global Catch, I’ve seen two of them in the space of six months. But such is the appetite for the food and its place in the global discussion on sustainability that Jiro and his sons worry about overfishing and overconsumption of seafood. The two films together would make a very informative double bill.

While Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not as whimsical as its subject sounds, it is also sincere and honest about the nature and love of work. Being a sushi chef is more than cutting up raw fish and putting them on plates served ice-cold. To master it, there lies a philosophy that whatever you serve, the next one will be better. This is an intimate documentary that is straightforward and, like last year’s masterful Bill Cunningham New York, shows the dignity and fun in working with something you love. (Take note that both Jiro and Bill Cunningham are working well into their 80s and show no signs of slowing down.)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently playing in limited theatres, and you can find out more about the restaurant here

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “The Turning Point”

If there’s one thing I learned from Black Swan, it’s that ballerinas are batshit crazy. One friend called it “Ballerina Fight Club”. From other films with ballet or dance, I learn only about some nondescript aspiring young Midwest girl hoping to learn about life and love and the big city. The dancing, in all of the stories, appears secondary to the life journey the often milquetoast, heterosexual white female undertakes to find herself, or some such nonsense. (See further: Center Stage, The Company.)

This is what makes Herbert Ross’s 1977 film The Turning Point unique in its day and even today, at least in the small canon of dance films. This is a film centering on two women who started off as aspiring ballerinas in the 1950s and took radically different paths in life. Emma (the late, great Anne Bancroft) became the prima ballerina of the premiere American ballet theatre company. Dee Dee (Shirley MacLaine) became pregnant, gave up a promising career and settled into a low-key life running a dance school with her former partner Wayne (Tom Skerritt) in Oklahoma. Twenty years later, the company plays two nights in their small town and Dee Dee is reunited with her former colleagues, including her best friend and formidable foe Emma. The “turning point” refers not just to the pregnancy, but also the lead role in Anna Karenina, which was awarded to Emma when Dee Dee had a baby, and became a career-defining role.

That baby, Emilia (Leslie Browne), has become a promising ballerina. The dance company offers her a summer scholarship in Manhattan, and Dee Dee accompanies her, surrounding herself with her past and the career that she left behind, which now awaits her daughter. In the background, a young Russian dancer (Mikhail Baryshnikov, in the role that made him an actor) romances Emilia. Into this turmoil there are rumours of the dance company suffering financially, a young prick of a director trying to make ballet cold and hip, and an old flame from Dee Dee’s past, amongst others.

There’s enough drama here to fuel an entire soap opera. In fact, the content of The Turning Point could easily have been the catalyst for a show like NBC’s Smash, and an heir apparent to Fame (which, by the way, was released just a couple of years after the success of The Turning Point and became a cultural touchstone in its own right). Playwright Arthur Laurents crams his screenplay not with clichés, but with several plot threads giving the film an aura of really living in the dance world. There’s constant worry about funding an art form that has considerable support in Europe but not in America, where it is considered an elitist pastime and not as part of one’s essential cultural education. The ballet is not just a backdrop into which a navel-gazing treatise a la Eat, Pray, Love is thrown to give some young starlet an acting showcase. This is a film that honours the dance tradition and is about people who eat, breathe, sleep and love the ballet, without irony and purely for the love of it. Their bodies may ache, their feet will bluster and their will beaten (and sometimes broken) under vicious taskmasters, but all of the assembled members of the company believe in their craft, using it to create art.