Saturday, July 5, 2014

Law & Order: An Actor’s Paradise

Back in 1998, Susan Green and I wrote the only companion book on the popular legal drama Law & Order. Besides being in the rare and charmed position of having the show's creator, Dick Wolf, give us complete access to cast and crew, we were also allowed complete autonomy to write what we wanted. With that freedom in mind, we both opened up to the possibilities the book offered in terms of content. For instance, we thought why not have other voices besides ours. We quickly conceived a chapter which would include a number of other people who also had an intelligent and probing perspective on the program. After soliciting a number of people, we were thrilled to see that all of them agreed to take part. They included civil rights attorney William Kunstler, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and theatre and film critic Steve Vineberg. Unfortunately, our publishers didn't share our enthusiasm for broadening the scope of the book and all the pieces were turned down. Speaking with Steve Vineberg recently on the phone, however, he reminded me that he still had that piece he wrote, which was about how a number of great performers provided what he termed an actor's paradise on the show, and it was still unpublished. Since Steve now writes for Critics at Large, that terrific essay has now finally found the home it was once denied.

Kevin Courrier
Critics at Large.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Acting Naturally: An Interview with Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr (Photo by Kevin Winter)

Does the world’s greatest drummer really need an introduction? Not really. Who hasn’t heard of Ringo Starr? The one-time Beatle? The charismatic actor of A Hard Day’s Night and The Magic Christian? The Fab who right out of the gate, following the break-up of The Beatles at the end of the 1960s, defied all expectations by having, at least for a while, the best solo career of his fellow band mates? Despite a dark period marked by drug abuse, alcoholism, and artistic shiftlessness (while simultaneously being a decadent globe-trotting European playboy in the late 1970s through to the end of the 1980s), The Ringed One’s glory days are many, continuing even now, with the 25th anniversary tour of his All-Starr Band which kicked off at Casino Rama in Ontario on June 5. 

This time around, his group of ace musicians and former hit-paraders includes Todd Rundgren, Greg Rolie of Journey and Santana, Electric Light Orchestra drummer Gregg Bissonnette, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page. Ringo plays the skins, but he also sings, often standing solo in front of his band with a microphone in hand, his once awkward vocal performance (John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to write songs for him to suit his limited range) now polished through years of practice and professional coaching. An old dog who is more than capable of learning a new trick. Just how old is he? Well, next week, on July 7, Ringo turns (gulp!) 74. And yet as the millions who saw him on television this past February, performing as part of the Grammy’s 50th anniversary tribute show honouring the Beatles where he was accompanied by Sir Paul, the only other surviving Beatle, can attest, age has not withered Ringo Starr, neither his drive or appeal. Not only is he touring, performing in Dallas tonight, Vancouver on July 15, Los Angeles on July 19 and other dates in between, he is presently working on a new record which he is producing himself and planning to release in early 2015. 

He is also the subject of an exhibition of self-portraits which opened at New York’s Soho Contemporary Gallery on June 19, with additional exhibitions of his art work on display now at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago and the Ocean Gallery in Stone Harbor, N.J. There’s also an upcoming TV special, Ringo Starr: A Lifetime of Peace and Love, a tribute concert featuring performances by Joe Walsh, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Brendan Benson, Bettye LaVette, Peter Frampton, Kenny Aronoff and others that will air July 13 on AXS TV. Taped in January in Los Angeles, according to a report in USA Today, the concert launched the Ringo Starr Peace & Love Fund , a division of the David Lynch Foundation, “which provides Transcendental Meditation instruction to tens of thousands of at-risk students in underservedschools, women who are survivors of domestic violence, and veterans with post-traumatic stress.” How does he do it? What is the secret of his success? A good attitude for one thing, he tells Deirdre Kelly in a rare one-on-one interview. A belief in the power of love, for another. Speaking of which, for his birthday on July 7, Ringo is asking fans to pause at noon, local time, to share in a “peace and love” moment. He’ll be participating in one of those himself, in front of the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. The reason? “I really do believe in all you need is love.” Here’s more of that conversation.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cradle of Lust: Baby Doll (1956)

Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956)

Last week, in my roundup of movies set in Mississippi, I left out one of my all-time favorites, the Elia Kazan-Tennessee Williams collaboration Baby Doll (1956). The oversight fell all the more stinging when, the day before my piece appeared, Eli Wallach died. Wallach, who was 98, appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows, in addition to his legendary stage career; a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he was probably best remembered by general moviegoers for having played Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But he made his screen debut in Baby Doll, as a Sicilian whose fiery temper and sense of justice are tempered by his suavity and sure knowledge that, in rural Mississippi, he is surrounded by people who will do business with him so long as it suits their purposes but who regard him as The Other. It may have been the biggest star performance Wallach ever gave in a movie; it was almost certainly the sexiest.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Borealis of Canadian Talent

James Gordon performing at Kitchener's Registry Theatre in 2010.

There’s a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, and (wait for it) a flock of seagulls! But what does one call a whole bunch of Canadian artists? Well, I’d like to make a pitch for a borealis! That’s right, a “borealis of Canadian musicians.” Why? Because the aurora borealis is the name for the Northern Lights, and Canada is…northern; and because Borealis Records is responsible for so many of the records released north of the 49th parallel! You shouldn’t really call what these people do ‘Americana’ but no-one seems to have affixed the ‘Canadiana’ tag to anything, so we’ll just call them ‘roots’ music and be done with it. But ‘roots’ could mean anything couldn’t it? I mean, we all have roots in something or another and so, too, do these releases. First up Linda McRae.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raucous Reich – Wolfenstein: The New Order

My colleague and fellow SF enthusiast Shlomo is an avid aficionado of alternate-history fiction, relishing stories in which significant historical events are given the “what if” treatment: what if Lincoln or Kennedy had survived their assassinations? What if Russia had been the first to land on the moon? What if the September 11th terrorist attacks had never happened? Perhaps the most well-known example is the enduringly fascinating question of “What if the Nazis had won World War II?”, which has been explored in countless books, films, graphic novels, and video games – notably in the last case through the classic first-person shooter (FPS) series called Wolfenstein. The latest incarnation, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is the most well-equipped of the series to tackle this intriguing premise, and does so with intensity, humour, polish, and no small amount of teeth (though I’m not sure it would be up Shlomo’s strasse, so to speak – I expect his review of the game would be altogether different).

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cole Porter, Late and Early

Paul Anthony Stewart and Elizabeth Stanley in Kiss Me, Kate at Barrington Stage (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Any short list of great American musicals would have to include Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, with its witty, ingenious book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. The Spewacks turn The Taming of the Shrew into a backstage meta-musical about a musical-comedy version of Shakespeare’s comedy starring a once-married pair of gigantic egos whose behavior around each other suggests a modern variant on Petruchio and Katherine’s. You can’t do much to bury the misogyny in Shakespeare’s comedy – unless, like the great English company Propeller, you make it the critical focus of the show, i.e., deconstruct it – but Kiss Me, Kate gets away from it by making the two main characters, Fred Graham (who is also directing the musical within the musical) and his leading lady Lilli Vanessi, equally foolish and equally culpable. They hark back to the protagonists of Twentieth Century (and the musical based on it, On the Twentieth Century), played memorably in the sensationally funny 1934 Howard Hawks movie by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and those of the lesser known but also funny 1937 comedy It’s Love I’m After (played by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

When Faith Becomes Dangerous: Philip Kerr’s Prayer

Over two years ago, Lawrence Krauss posted an article in The Guardian about the vehement animosity expressed toward individuals who were not believers. A 16-year-old atheist from Rhode Island had to take time off from school after being threatened and targeted by an online hate campaign for requesting that a Christian banner be removed from her school. She is even described on the radio by a state representative as an "evil little thing." Krauss also alludes to a study that suggested that atheists were among the most distrusted groups in society on par with rapists. The article goes on to suggest that science itself has become suspect among believers. The most chilling implication of this piece is the length that believers will go to disparage and demonize unbelievers, including scientists. It convinced me that Philip Kerr’s Prayer (Putnam, 2014), his latest standalone novel, has an unnerving basis in reality. Kerr, who is probably most well-known for his historical crime novels featuring the sardonic German detective, Bernie Gunther, has now turned his attention to the role of faith in modern society and to its dark underbelly. Faith in God – or not – initially appears to be the underlying theme throughout Prayer.