Saturday, May 18, 2013

Off the Shelf: The Source (1999)

Watching Chuck Workman's impressionistic, stirring, and often quite entertaining documentary The Source, you'll certainly get a supple feeling for who, and what, the literary movement known as the Beats was to American life. While weaving together a dazzling collage of free-associating visuals and sounds, Workman aptly demonstrates that there is certainly no shortage of material – written, filmed, or recorded – on this group of socially radical writers. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, in the late Forties, came to be the pioneers of this subterranean movement. Out of this material, The Source creates a wealth of associations about the Beats with the details – and incongruities – of their history lurking under the surface.

It was America's post-Second World War desire for calm and conformity that spawned the Beat Generation. These writers, as the official story goes, set out to break down the walls, shake up the straight world, and reject the spoils of American society. They wrote novels and books of poetry that shocked both the literary and the artistic world with explicit language, performed improvised readings that captured the bop rhythms of cool jazz, and lived lives of notorious excess. Novels like Kerouac's On the Road, Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, and Burroughs' The Soft Machine or Naked Lunch, ripped into the fabric of the staid Eisenhower Fifties. Yet this rebellious subculture, filled with individuals who laid claim to being desolate and underground dharma bums, also sought access to the mass culture. They wanted to be cool and hip, and to live out the mythology they helped create. The Source is a riff on their mythologized history. It's about how they created a movement, which became co-opted on television and in the movies, that would be the antecedent for Sixties counter-culture and, later, the music of such diverse bands as Soft Machine, Steely Dan, Sonic Youth and the head-butting poetry of Henry Rollins.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Soul Survivor: Philip Kerr’s A Man Without Breath

Somebody has to give a damn, otherwise we are no better than the criminals themselves.
– Bernie Gunter speaking in The Pale Criminal

Scottish writer Philip Kerr’s ninth Bernie Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013), has all the familiar trademarks of its predecessors: impeccable research and textured detail, an ability to weave history with a mystery, and to some extent, the unabashed sass and defiance of authority by the chief protagonist, the onetime homicide detective in Weimar Berlin. In The Pale Criminal (1990), Gunter displays that barbed wit when mocking Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “That funny old book they gave free to all newlyweds? It’s the best reason to stay single I can think of.” That hard-boiled sarcasm is one of Gunter’s weapons as an anti-Nazi German who never abandoned his belief in the democratic values of the Weimar Republic. He valiantly struggled to retain some semblance of his own humanity amid the inhumanity and immortality of National Socialist Germany, the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and postwar Vienna, Argentina, Cuba and Germany.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blues U Can Use Part 1: Duke Robillard Band

The Duke Robillard Band: (from left) Brad Hallen, Mark Teixeira, Duke Robillard and Bruce Bears

In 1967, while many of their friends were playing in rock bands, Rhode Island natives Duke Robillard and Al Copley formed, A Roomful of Blues. It was an 7-member ensemble that played Chicago-style blues with a heavy dose of Jump-Blues, R & B and rock ‘n roll that was entertaining and fun. But after a series of gigs in New England, the band got noticed by songwriter, Doc Pomus who helped them launch a working career in music with their first record deal in 1977 on the adventurous label, Island. Duke Robillard left the group in 1980 to pursue a solo career. Guitarist, Ronnie Earl, replaced him. Fast-forward to 2013, and the two have just released new solo records on Stony Plain, the fine Canadian label established by Holger Peterson. My next review will be Ronnie Earl’s album, but today I’d like to talk about Robillard’s latest release called, Independently Blue.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Something Big: Pain & Gain

Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg, and Dwayne Johnson star in Michael Bay's Pain & Gain

The true-crime black comedy Pain & Gain is set in Miami in the mid-‘90s and stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, an egotistical musclehead who works in a gym as a personal trainer. Lugo, whose most ambitious attempt at making his dreams come true has involved a fraud scheme he ran on senior citizens that landed him in prison, can’t understand why he’s living in a tiny apartment, bouncing checks, and getting turned down for dates by his clients when other people less cool than himself are raking it in, and he bristles with the resentment of someone whose thinks the system must be rigged against him. His master plan for getting ahead is to team up with a couple of other muscleheads Adrian (Anthony Mackie), who needs money for medical treatment to correct the damage that his steroid use has done to his sexual virility, and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a homeless ex-con with a cocaine addictionand kidnap one of his rich clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and torture him into signing over all his funds and assets. Things spiral downward from there. The movie opens with Lugo, on foot, running from the cops who are coming to arrest him, and the words “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” flash on the screen. At one point much later, after the main action has begun to unfold in flashback, there’s a scene in which someone who has been tasked with making the bodies of a couple of murder victims unidentifiable cuts off the corpses’ hands and barbecues them on an outdoor grill, and the words ‘THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY” appear. There are a few different ways that a filmmaker could go with this material. The director, Michael Bay, goes with a tone of thrilled, grossed-out amazement at how stupid his characters are and how depraved their behavior is. The film speaks in a voice that has only one reaction to anything: “Can you believe this shit!?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Resident Alien: One on One with Defiance’s Trenna Keating

Trenna Keating as Doc Yewll on Defiance, now airing on SyFy and Showcase

Already, 2013 has been a bit of a banner year for science fiction television. Since Fringe aired its final episodes in January, television viewers have been given a number of new and very promising series. Showcase’s time travel drama Continuum began its second season a few weeks ago here in Canada, and BBC America and Space launched its clone thriller Orphan Black at the end of April. (All this, and Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special in November!) And three weeks ago, Defiance premiered on the SyFy network, in the U.S., and on Showcase, in Canada.

Defiance is an ambitious ensemble drama; part space Western, part post-Apocalyptic intrigue, the series is set on Earth, some years after the arrival of several colony ships,bearing seven different alien races from a nearby Votan star system. Earth has survived a traumatic ‘terraforming’ event and a disastrous inter-species conflict (called the Pale Wars), and now humanity struggles to get back on its feet in partnership (and often conflict) with its new, and suddenly diverse, populations. Our story takes place in the outpost town of Defiance, a makeshift city built on the ruins of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s been a little over three decades since the aliens’ arrival, and Defiance is one of the few places where the human and alien races have voluntarily come together in their struggle to survive.

Trenna Keating plays Doc Yewll on Defiance. Keating is a Canadian actress who has appeared on ABC/Global’s Combat Hospital (as Sgt. Hannah Corday), CTV’s Corner Gas, and CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie. Doc Yewll is a resident of Defiance and an Indogene, a member of one of the seven alien Votan races. Keating describes the character “as a bit of a misfit, scientific and mathematical in her way of thinking, who doesn’t really get humans necessarily.”

Mark Clamen sat down with Trenna Keating for an exclusive interview for Critics at Large.  

(Note: this interview was conducted on May 9th. On May 10th, SyFy announced that Defiance would be returning for a second season.) 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Three Musicals, Three Eras

Tessa Faye and the cast of Goodspeed's Good News (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Of the collegiate musicals that used to be a staple of the Broadway stage, like Best Foot Forward and Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls, Good News!, with its sweet and snappy DeSylva, Brown and Henderson songs, is probably the most enjoyable. (That is unless you count the 1943 movie version of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, which changes the setting from a ranch to a rural college.) Good News! opened in 1927 and though its cast of characters is mostly undergraduate, it presents a juvenile version of the Roaring Twenties, with its sorority flappers and freewheeling football players and its air of unrestrained frivolity – its tacit conviction that youth ought to be able to last forever. Vince Pesce’s new production at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is true to that ebullient spirit. Typically for a Goodspeed show, it’s expertly sung and danced and the numbers (choreographed by Pesce) are spirited.  One – “The Varsity Drag,” one of the play’s big hits, which comes before intermission – is a rabble-rouser that finds half a dozen clever ways to get the high-stepping ensemble back and forth across the relatively compact space.

The double conflict centers on the feasibility of getting Tait College football star Tom Marlowe (Ross Lekites) into the climactic game against Tait’s traditional competition, Colton, after he’s flunked his astronomy exam. Professor Kenyon (Beth Glover), a Tait alumna, reluctantly agrees to give him a make-up, and his debutante girl friend, Pat Bingham (Lindsay O’Neil), persuades her egghead cousin, Connie Lane (Chelsea Morgan Stock), to tutor him. When, inevitably, Tom and Connie fall in love, he realizes that if he plays he’ll be duty-bound to marry Pat, who’s pinned their engagement to the outcome of the game. Professor Kenyon’s unresolved one-time relationship with the football coach (Mark Zimmerman) and a secondary (comic) love triangle involving the most formidable physical specimen on the team, Beef Saunders (Myles J. McHale), spunky Babe O’Day (Tessa Faye), and a skinny clown named Bobby Randall (Barry Shafrin) round out the romantic entanglements

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spirit of Engagement: Hot Docs 2013

One thing inarguable about Hot Docs 2013, celebrating their 20th Anniversary this year, is that they are now reaching a mass audience with record-breaking numbers estimating 180,000 people. Many of the pictures at this year’s festival also showed just how much the definition of the documentary film has expanded over the last two decades. Some of this is due to the digital revolution (which reduces the cost of making documentaries considerably) as well cable networks (like HBO in the United States), or Canadian government sponsored networks (like TVOntario), who broadcast and produce them. So you can’t overlook the cultivation of a curious audience eager to come out – rain or shine – to see such a wide range of material daily. But are these documentaries on the cutting edge of what can be done with the form? It depends.