Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mixed Blessings: Stratford Festival's Kiss Me, Kate & The Tempest

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s current productions of Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate and William Shakespeare’s drama The Tempest highlight the limitations of what can be done with sub-standard material. While the two plays are impeccably, even superbly, directed and acted, they’re still not representative of their creators’ best work.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Intimate and Satisfying Deeds: Pegi Young's Foul Deeds

Pegi Young’s Foul Deeds is a very satisfying album. (Pegi Young's music career has traditionally been seen in the shadow of her famous husband Neil. Yet she has written her own songs and released a few albums featuring members of Neil's band.) But it’s sad to learn that Ben Keith, the long-time pedal steel guitarist who died July 26, 2010, has turned up on Foul Deeds as his last recorded statement. After a good career in Nashville as sideman and studio musician to such greats as Patsy Cline and Faron Young, Keith was hired to play on Harvest (1972), one of the most beloved albums in Neil Young's catalogue. Listening is the most important element to good musicians and Keith's ears were second to none. His work on Foul Deeds is exceptional in giving the record a sound and musical quality that's "in the pocket." Keith's style and tone supports the singer and the song while fueling the tempo. "Side of the Road," featuring Neil Young on harmonica, makes the case.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doing The Right Thing: New Orleans Five Years Later

Spike Lee evenhanded and upbeat? Yup. In If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise – a four-hour HBO documentary timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – the famously feisty filmmaker refuses to go all Kanye West on us. Maybe George Bush doesn’t care about black people, as the hip-hop artist suggested during a subsequent televised benefit concert, but that theory is not espoused in this cinematic work. Instead, the narrative traces every major issue – disparities in education, health care, housing and employment, as well as neglect, police brutality and, of course, racism – with equanimity and a satirical perspective.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unfinished Notes From an Abandoned Book: The Weight (2009)

The Band in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978).

A couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called The Weight. It was about Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), his concert documentary about The Band's farewell Thanksgiving concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. My thought was to send a proposal and a sample chapter to the British Film Institute for their annual chapbook publications on key films. Having just done a CBC Radio documentary on The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink (1968), I was primed to delve into the air of melancholy that lay beneath the spirit of celebration that Scorsese caught while shooting that extraordinary concert. But I decided to abandon the project when there didn't seem to be any interest from publishers. However, I came across some of the notes I'd written in preparation for The Weight which, upon re-reading them, looked apt for a posting.  Kevin Courrier

Friday, August 27, 2010

Life During Wartime: More (Self) Loathing From Todd Solondz

Life During Wartime, the latest film from Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998))  is just more of the same, another putative drama full of caricatured human beings, who generally loath themselves and exist merely to reflect in turn the self loathing of the director. The deep humanity of a Mike Leigh (All or Nothing, Happy-Go-Lucky) is not for Solondz; he’d rather take facile shots at American society, kill off his own characters (as he did with Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener at the outset of the wretched Palindromes (2004)), and offer up a facsimile of feeling and insightful commentary. Life During Wartime, though, is somewhat more competent than his norm, which considering the otherwise deep flaws of the movie, isn’t reason enough to go see this film.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Transfigured Modernism: The Glass Chamber Players' Schoenberg/Glass

The Glass Chamber Players is a new sextet of handpicked musicians dedicated to the music of Philip Glass. Each player was either a soloist or ensemble musician familiar with the music of the American composer and selected for their “talent and passion for music.” This approach to performing and recording has its pros and cons. The group could drop their egos at the door and make the best music possible, or they could argue over seating arrangements. Fortunately, I’m happy to report, the Glass Chamber Players sound like seasoned veterans who’ve been playing together for years, but it’s not perfect. The sextet made their debut last December in New York at the Baryshnikov Arts Center performing two works by Arnold Schoenberg, Verklarte Nacht or Transfigured Night and the Sextet for Strings by Philip Glass. The latter is a new work arranged by Michael Riesman from Glass’s Symphony No. 3. Schoenberg/Glass is a recording of that debut and in many ways it's a remarkable album.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vampire, Werewolf and Ghost Walk Into A Bar: Being Human

Sure, as other critics have recently pointed out, the premise behind the new-to-Canada British TV series, Being Human (2009), does sound like the start of a dusty, old joke. Fortunately, its premise is not as bad as the title of my piece suggests. The show's conceit is that a vampire (Aidan Turner), werewolf (Russel Tovey) and ghost (Lenora Crichlow) decide to share an apartment in contemporary Bristol. Yet, the show, in the best British-series tradition, finds a way to bring both humour and tragedy to its high-concept idea.

It borrows widely from several current and older horror movies and TV shows: the vampire has become unwilling to 'partake' of human blood (Twilight (2008/2010), True Blood (2008/2010)); the nice-guy werewolf struggles with the dual nature of his personality – the desire to be a good man coupled with the need to tear people apart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, David Thewlis in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)); and the sweet, sexy (mildly annoying) ghost who just wants to be able to hold those she formerly loved (Ghost (1990)). It is also visually inspired by John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), because how George the werewolf became a werewolf is not only identical in terms of location (the wilds of Scotland), but when we see his transformations, it is very obviously quoting, sometimes shot for shot, Rick Baker's effects in that film. And yet, this show is still original, bright, sexy, very fresh and, as I said above, sometimes very funny and deeply moving.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As White As in Snow: Jan Troell’s Little Seen Masterpiece

Swedish director Jan Troell received some acclaim and critical notice last year with his fine 2008 film Everlasting Moments, based on the true story of Maria Larsson, a Swedish working class woman in the early 1900s, who wins a camera in a lottery and goes on to become a photographer. But usually his movies, such as Hamsun (1996), his devastating portrayal of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who was branded a traitor because of his naïve support of Adolf Hitler, are little seen outside of his home country. That was particularly the case with his 2001 film, As White as in Snow, a biography of the much less famous Elsa Andersson, Sweden's first aviatrix., But as with Hamsun, the results are equally compelling. Little is known about Andersson, who died tragically in a parachute jump in 1922 at age 24, except that she blazed a small trail for women. Troell begins his film as Elsa (Amanda Ooms) takes the train to her last performance, and then flashes backwards to the key events of her life. It's a conventional approach to biography but the movie is anything but ordinary.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return & Reissue: Cyndi Lauper's Memphis Blues/Martha & the Muffins' Danseparc

Pop singer Cyndi Lauper is trying to reinvent herself on Memphis Blues, a first-rate collection of blues standards, which is dedicated to blues great Ma Rainey. As usual with Lauper, though, she never takes herself too seriously. You get the impression listening to this record that she’s not so much interested in feeling the blues as she is in presenting herself as some kind of cabaret night club act. The images in the cover booklet certainly point in that direction. Ironically, Lauper has always had the vocal chops to perform this music earnestly and with conviction. This is particularly true on “Romance in the Dark”: a sexy interpretation with just a tinge of sadness. The musicians on this record do inspire Lauper to free herself of any pretense on these songs. On the tracks with pianist Allen Toussaint and guitarist Jonny Lang, the restraint is removed and Lauper is free to carry the lyrics as far as she wants. Alas, that’s not always the case on Memphis Blues, with the notable exception of “ Down So Low.” It’s the strongest track on the record because of the horn arrangement and Lauper’s solid vocal. The album closes with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and it’s a valiant duet with Jonny Lang but it rings false for me because it imitates the blues rather than lives it.

Out of print for many years, the re-issue of Danseparc by Martha & the Muffins is a welcome return to the catalogue. Produced by Daniel Lanois with Mark Gane and Martha Johnson, this album features all of the sonic values of the now famous producer without the clutter. This is a record of well-crafted pop songs in the true sense of the word, something many critics and fans mistook for being light and frivolous. On the contrary, this record has all the mystery and sexual tension of a dance club where young men and women size each other up on the floor. Most of these songs, like "Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing," are about how dance is a tribal ritual where men and women relate to one another (“Watch you move is like sensing the scheme of things pushing apart at the seams/Your gesture is knocking a hole in the air!”). Other songs, such as the title track, contemplate the future in a fearful way (“Every day it’s tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be/Everyday it’s tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need”). I’ve always liked the personal/observer approach that Mark Gane and Martha Johnson use in writing songs with a punk angst but also with an intelligent, earthy design. This album combines substantive lyrics and stories with interesting, slightly experimental music. The remastering on this record serves to refine the tracks rather than “improve them sonically.” Consequently, the songs are less “tinny” and feature more mid-range and bottom end. Unlike much of the synth-pop music of the 80s, M + M wasn’t afraid to let the guitar sound like a guitar rather than a synthesizer, an unfortunate popular diversion during this decade.

The disc features three bonus tracks, a B-side ("These Dangerous Things") to the extended 12-inch of Danseparc, plus a live performance of "Sins Of The Children" recorded  in 1983 at  the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto. I had the privilege of working there and caught that show. As I recall, it was a strong performance in front of an enthusiastic audience, so I hope there’s more from that show to be heard from in the future.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Justified: Portrait of a 21st Century Lawman

There are some TV shows that come out of the gate with such polish and promise that from the very first episode you know you’re watching something special. Justified is one of those shows. Based on Elmore Leonard’s 2002 short story “Fire in the Hole,” Justified premiered on the FX network on March 16th, ran for 13 episodes, and ended with an explosive season finale on June 8th. Already, it's shaping up to be one of FX’s most consistently solid series since The Shield. A second season has been ordered for 2011. (It airs on Super Channel HD in Canada.)

The show follows Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) from Miami back to Harlan, the rural Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town where he grew up. On the heels of a much-publicized shooting incident, Givens reluctantly leaves behind investigations of international drug cartels to face the problems and people he happily left years earlier. Though the story is set firmly in 2010, when we first see Olyphant, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish Givens from Sheriff Seth Bullock, the character he played for three seasons on David Milch’s Deadwood on HBO: they’re both men with well-defined, albeit personal, codes of justice, men who don’t draw their guns unless they intend to use them. Wearing a white Stetson above the stoic and squinting expression of an old West lawman, Givens is a man out of time, or more precisely, a man out of genre. From the Emmy-nominated song playing over the credits (a track by Gangstagrass, a New York-based band known for a unique brand of bluegrass/hip-hop fusion), the tone is set. The show is itself a mash-up—the old West with crystal meth and Smartphones, the story of a 19th century man with a 21st century life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peripatetic In Cinematic Prose: Eat Pray Love

An Israeli woman once told a friend of mine that there is no Hebrew term for “alone.” The only equivalent phrase, she explained, translates as “I am with myself."

I have no idea if it’s true, but what a brilliant concept. My friend is plagued by the fear of being lonely. The same could be said of author Elizabeth Gllbert in her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, now a film starring Julia Roberts. More in the book than on screen, the lead character has been waging a lifelong battle with personal demons. Anxious to flee a contentious divorce and unsatisfactory affair, she takes off from New York on a journey to find freedom from perpetual torment. Intended as a year of living without sex, her quest begins with the pleasure of great food in Italy, before moving on to spirituality at a guru’s retreat in India and renewal of passion in Indonesia. So much for celibacy.

The literary version of Gilbert has stopped taking her medications, under the assumption that the trip’s adventures would fill up the space usually reserved for misery. After ten days in Rome, the “Pinkerton Detectives” -- how she has anthropomorphized depression and loneliness -- once again track her down. The movie dispenses with such gloomy thoughts of clinical despair. Just as well. Julia Roberts has a cheerful persona, with a boisterous laugh that’s surely one of her most endearing attributes. The cinematic Liz feels guilty about breaking up her marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and sad about her deteriorating relationship with David (James Franco). But that’s only boyfriend baggage, not the gravitas of chemical imbalance or family dysfunction or whatever keeps most depressives in its grip.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Welcome to the Machine: Samuel Maoz's Lebanon

The Israeli anti-war film, Lebanon, which just opened today in Toronto, could just have easily have been called Tank. Based on director Samuel Maoz’s experience as a 20-year-old gunner in the Israeli army tank division, Lebanon (which was the first Israeli film to win the Leone d’Oro at the 66th Venice International Film Festival) depicts the 1982 conflict but not from a broadly observant perspective; instead, we experience the war through the eyes of four Israeli soldiers within the tank: the driver in the tank’s hull, the commander in the turret, the loader and the gunner. Lebanon is obviously made by a director trying to do justice to his memory of the conflict (as Ari Folman also did with his Waltz with Bashir), but Lebanon becomes gripping in a more mechanical, relentless way because our perspective ends up as limited as that of the soldiers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ambivalent Viewing: Season Four of Mad Men

The problem with Mad Men this season, and in fact sometimes in every season, is that creator Matthew Weiner is obsessed with letting character trump story (ironic for a network whose cutline is “Story Matters Here”). As a result, we have episodes such as one and three this year (and large swathes of Season Two) that have been nothing but character bits attached to little narrative drive. This is the exact opposite of films such as, let's say, Tranformers, which are nothing but plot/story and character is never even considered – I think both approaches are ill-conceived. The show's only thread this year that seems to connect it to 1964/1965 have been bits of dialogue in episode one (“Buy her some Beatles 45s.") and episode four (“Did you hear Malcolm X was shot this week?”). This is laziness. At least last year, the handling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was masterfully staged, as two characters discussed their problems as if it were still November 21, 1963. In the background of the scene, unnoticed by them, a TV announces a new era has begun (Kennedy's death). And yet. And yet. I still find myself compelled to watch this year.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Ron Shelton's Cobb

Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb (1994)

After directing the street smart basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump (1992), Ron Shelton approached the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with the idea of doing a biography of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. Given the success of White Men Can't Jump, as well as Bull Durham (1988), his sublime romantic comedy about baseball, the studio figured they couldn't miss. After all, what could be better than a baseball movie about a legend who was one of the greatest players in the history of the game?

What they didn't know  until they read Shelton's script  was that Ty Cobb was also a hateful, ferocious and bigoted alcoholic who had alienated even his teammates. And when they saw that Shelton had Tommy Lee Jones in mind for the part (just before he'd become "bankable" again in 1993 with The Fugitive), the film was put on waivers. Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked up the ball  so to speak  and took a daring risk on a complex project. Then, shortly after releasing the picture during the Christmas season in 1994, they abruptly dropped the ball. To this day, Ron Shelton's best movie remains virtually unknown. Even though Cobb emerged in theatres parallel to the OJ Simpson murder case, which could have helped promote interest in the picture, the issues that both stories raised about celebrity and hero worship were obviously too uncomfortable to comprehend. The studio, some critics and many film goers didn't like the adulation of their heroes tainted by events that tarnished that adulation.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Last Woman Standing: Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work

Johnny Carson: “Some men prefer smart women.”

Joan Rivers: “Oh, please, Johnny. No man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.”

In the opening scene of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, a compelling and discomfiting new documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback), we see in close-up the 75-year-old actress and comedian Joan Rivers having make-up applied to her face while flashbacks of her long career drift by. Although that made-up face remains for the entire film, Joan Rivers, the performer, artist and human being, ultimately shows her true portrait behind that mask. She reveals an actor whose work as an entertainer is perched right on the edge of that desperate need for acceptance. Rivers presents herself as the last woman standing in a world that's now wedded to youth and beauty. In doing so, she gives a triumphant, humourously vitriolic performance as a comedy queen who refuses to go quickly - and quietly - into the dark night.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Father and Son: The Zappa Legacy

In the mid-nineties, when American composer Frank Zappa's full catalogue finally became available on CD, it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was fulfilling to finally see his vast body of work - at that time including over fifty albums that spanned his rock, jazz and classical material from 1959 to 1994 - available in a digital format. But it was also deeply disappointing that, in his preparation for these releases, he felt compelled to remix and recut albums (Freak Out! Hot Rats), or poorly remaster them (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Chunga's Revenge, You Are What You Is, Tinsel Town Rebellion). In the case of We're Only in it For the Money (1967) and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968), he even went so far as to erase the original rhythm section and re-record the backing tracks with contemporary musicians. The justified outcry of fans concerning We're Only in it For the Money had some impact in causing Zappa, before his tragic death from prostate cancer in 1993, to re-release the CD from an original vinyl recording. Since apparently there weren't as many fans of Crusing, his marvellous R&B doo-wop hybrid, that album didn't get the same treatment - until now. Thanks to the Zappa family, who have been springing surprises from Frank's vault of tapes for the last number of years, the original recording of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (along with alternate takes and mixes) is finally available under the new title Greasy Love Songs (just order from Zappa.com).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

No, Mr Bond, I Don't Want You To Die: The End of James Bond?

About three weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about James Bond. Over the past few months we'd been hearing the stories about the fact MGM was having money problems, to the point where there was speculation that the studio would fold. As a result, the planned 23rd James Bond movie was indefinitely postponed. My friend said “I don't think we'll see Daniel Craig as Bond again.” He basically believed that the money problems were so severe that it would be years before another one would be made. When it was, the producers, (Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson), would decide to reboot the series and recast. I said, "there's no way. Craig's a great Bond. I can't see them doing that."

Cut to three weeks later and this week's cover story in Entertainment Weekly magazine, “Goodbye, Mr. Bond.” The magazine predicted almost exactly what my friend had said. They wrote that the last time there was a delay like this – six years, in fact – the studio returned with a new Bond when Pierce Brosnan replaced Timothy Dalton. The difference between the last long delay and now is that they've got an absolutely perfect Bond in Daniel Craig. As M (Judi Dench) said in Casino Royale (2006), “I'm not sure a blunt instrument such as yourself will understand, Bond.” Bond is and always was an uncouth blunt instrument who happened to be on our side. The reason Craig was such a refreshing return to form after a VERY LONG fallow period was because he was a boxy, thuggish, though handsome brute who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends. The last time we had a Bond this good was, of course, Sean Connery. Yes, I know I'm in a minority in this, but Pierce Brosnan (who's been very good in other films such as The Matador (2005), The Tailor of Panama (2001) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)) was completely awful as Bond – a purse-lipped pretty boy who was completely unconvincing as 007. Hell, Roger Moore was better (at least in the early pictures like Live and Let Die (1973)).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: Another (Opposing) View

In yesterday’s Critics at Large, Mark Clamen weighed in on what is likely to become a major cult hit, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, He liked the movie. I didn’t. Here’s why.

I should point out that, unlike Mark, I haven’t read the graphic novels upon which the movie is based. But since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is apparently quite faithful to its source material, I don’t think that matters all that much. More to the point, I don’t get what’s so great about this film, whose story has nerdy, anal and self-involved Torontonian Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) falling for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a new (American) girl in town and, in order to keep her, being forced to fight  to the death with her seven evil exes. That’s pretty much the whole story and after ex- number two showed up on the scene, I was getting bored of the whole affair.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Scott Pilgrim' Levels Up

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Imagine a world which is organized by the logic of video-games and comics. What if life’s painful social situations were staged as epic confrontations between good and evil? Also, while you’re at it, imagine you play bass in an unambitious garage band, live in a low-rent bachelor apartment, and have an unconscious littered with low-resolution exiles from old Nintendo games.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opens theatres everywhere today, and nowhere (outside of comic conventions perhaps) is it more highly anticipated than here in Toronto. Based on Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is a special kind of triumph. Love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before. With its extended dream sequences, balletic fight sequences, and sometimes breakneck pacing, the film is a kinetic roller-coaster ride. The movie is not unlike a Golden Age Hollywood musical—except instead of the characters’ emotions manifesting themselves in song and dance numbers, here they become epic battles to the death.

If you, like me, missed the film’s sneak preview at San Diego’s Comic-Con three weeks ago, seeing it in Toronto is a solid consolation prize. There wasn’t an empty seat at the advance screening I was at Wednesday evening and the room was primed with eager anticipation. When the 8-bit rendition of the Universal Pictures theme rang out, the crowd let out a cheer. No doubt, the film had come to the right place. Whatever its box office numbers,  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult classic in the making, and could forever engrave Toronto in the hearts of video gamers and comic book fanatics worldwide.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: Remembering Patricia Neal

There are three reasons why I fell in love with the science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) when I was nine years old. One was the quiet, thoughtful presence of Michael Rennie as Klaatu, the man from space, who came to Earth to warn us of our destructive habits (i.e. nuclear warfare). The second reason was the eerie score by Bernard Herrmann which introduced me to the wondrous and evocative world of electronic music. The third reason was actress Patricia Neal, who became Klaatu's soul mate in getting the proper attention paid to the consequences of ignoring his warning. Her most famous scene, of course, would be preventing his robot Gort from destroying the planet through these famous words: Klaatu barada nikto. But I was taken by something else in Patricia Neal, who died a few days ago from lung cancer at the age of 84.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hill Street Blues: Still a TV Standout

It still holds up. Nearly 30 years after the groundbreaking series Hill Street Blues revolutionized and reinvigorated a moribund, sanitized and dull American TV landscape, the indispensable cop show is as impressive as it was when it debuted as a mid season entry on NBC in early 1981. Much has been made about how the drama, created by Steven Bochco and set in a precinct situated in a decaying and unidentified U.S. city, likely Chicago, influenced future television dramas for the better, chiefly because of its gritty, handheld look, overlapping dialogue and complex characterization. But that’s not its chief attribute; after all Robert Altman had pioneered much of Hill Street’s innovations ten years earlier with M*A*S*H (1970). Hill Street Blues stood out because it forthrightly tackled social issues that were rarely dealt with on TV cop shows before but have become a staple of quality TV dramas since its seven year run ended in 1987. The ethnic and racial tensions underlying day to day life in Hill Street precinct were a constant focus of The Shield. The bureaucratic obstacles facing Hill Street’s street cops and brass were part and parcel of the plotlines in The Wire. And the strong ensemble performances, and the varied personalities on view each week, were what distinguished everything from St. Elsewhere (which did for hospitals and the medical drama what Hill Street Blues did for the cop show genre) to ER, The Sopranos and Deadwood. That’s high praise indeed but it’s warranted.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Four TV Shows You Should Watch With Your Kids

Television viewers have never had it so good. In this age of DVDs, digital cable, and iTunes downloads, there is almost no end to what is available. A few weeks ago, I recommended five recently cancelled TV shows that you should definitely watch. Today I turn my attention to a different kind of programming: four quality shows that you should watch with your kids. Popular culture produced for children doesn’t always have a reputation for quality, and Saturday morning shows even less so. But it isn’t all Hannah Montana or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. As with adult fare, it is usually simply a question of knowing where to look. Each of these shows is perfect for kids 8-12 years old, but they are all worth checking out, with or without child supervision!

All of the shows I discuss below have finished their runs. Although these series were not necessarily cancelled before their time, they may still have passed unnoticed. Children’s programming is often underappreciated, but each of these shows, in their own unique ways, demonstrates the real strengths of television as a storytelling medium. Even when its target audience can’t legally drive, television continues to create cleverly constructed worlds, with fully-defined characters, intelligent dialogue, and compelling stories.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Swinging Hard: James Blood Ulmer's InAndOut

In the history of music and in particular the guitar, James Blood Ulmer is the link between Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman. He’s the musician responsible for pursuing music as a free-jazz experience based on the blues. Born in South Carolina in 1942, Ulmer developed his unique guitar style by playing everything from R&B, blues, jazz and soul music. But instead of focusing on one style, he came up with his own sound and incorporated everything he learned. Consequently, when listening to his music, one is equally impressed by his technique and the “outside” musical choices he makes.

InAndOut, his latest album on the German label In+Out, is no less satisfying for its groove-based jazz ("Eviction"), and its Mississippi blues ("No Man’s Land") to heavy jungle funk ("Baby Talk"). Bringing all of the styles together is Ulmer’s unmistakable style and a kick-ass rhythm section, namely Aubrey Dayle on drums and Mark Peterson on electric bass. But this isn't just your ordinary rhythm section, Ulmer uses a solid ensemble that interacts while the beat kicks with crisp and efficient support. The weakest track on the record is a simple song called "Maya." Alas, Ulmer’s voice hasn’t aged well over the years and this tune sounds strained to me. But the band comes right back with a straight-ahead blues boogie called, “My Woman,” with a great John Lee Hooker style vocal. “High Yellow” is a Monk-inspired bop-tune with great interplay and Ulmer’s loose soloing. This number really swings hard. The record closes with “Backbiter,” another instrumental that showcases the group’s element of surprise. InAndOut is not only good, improvisational music, it’s Ulmer's most accessible record in several years.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

This is It: Some Final Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I recently caught up with Kenny Ortega's 2009 documentary Michael Jackson's This is It and thankfully it isn't an act of exploitation. Now I wouldn't put Ortega in the same league as Bob Fosse (Cabaret), but This is It certainly proves that great choreographers can sometimes make pretty good film directors. The movie documents Jackson's rehearsals and preparations for the comeback he was about to launch on July 13, 2009. When he died on June 25th, however, the only remnants of what might have been were captured by Ortega's film team shooting Jackson running through musical numbers, auditioning and directing the dancers, the conceptual stage design work, and some interviews with those who took part in the preparation for the show that never was.

What's particularly staggering - and thrilling - about this extremely entertaining picture is that it manages to both fundamentally shape the process of Jackson's art as well as demonstrate it. That is, we get to see Michael Jackson (who looks in peak form) working out the program as well as executing the numbers. This is It also reveals that the concerts were designed as a Michael Jackson musical primer that would cover his entire career dating back to the Jackson Five. Ortega stages the numbers as if he's imagining what they'd look like in their finished form. He thinks like a dancer so the images move fluidly with the music. (The footage was filmed at the Staples Center and Los Angeles Forum arenas in California.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Going the Distance: Charnett Moffett's Treasure

The electric bass has always had a peculiar place in the history of jazz. To the purists, it’s sacrilegious to consider anything “non-acoustic” as having a place on the bandstand. Miles Davis changed all that in the late '60s after seeing Sly & the Family Stone play their heavy funk/rock mix in performance. Davis was the first musician, in fact, to welcome the electric bass into the jazz world to spite the critics and his fellow players. In doing so, he opened the door to the new sounds of “fusion”: incorporating rock, funk and jazz into the idiom. For young electric bass players who were attracted to the new sound, a whole world of opportunity was laid out. Consequently they had legitimate reasons to play with the best jazz artists willing to include them in the rhythm section. Stanley Clarke, Dave Holland, John Lee and the one and only Jaco Pastorius inspired a whole generation.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bummers in the Summer: Salt & Inception

Since I’m no longer reviewing movies regularly, it’s taking more time for me to catch up with new releases. In the past, I used to see things at pre-release press screenings before all the marketing hype (and their corollary reviews) kicked in. So before going to see Phillip Noyce’s hit espionage thriller Salt, I was already inundated with laudatory comments claiming Angelina Jolie as the top female action star in Hollywood history. Judging from the picture’s huge financial success at the box office, you can’t argue with the figures. But the questions left unasked are: Is anyone truly buying her performance, or even this movie?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pernicious Pacifism: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke and Julian Assange's WikiLeaks

While doing research into World War II for a writing project, I came across Nicholson Baker's non-fiction book, Human Smoke (2008 – Simon & Schuster), on the bargain tables at my local Chapters bookstore (it was a second-printing hardcover). Looking for a stand-alone source of quotes and thinking on the war while it was happening, Baker's work looked promising. The book consists of hundreds of short vignettes (the shortest 20-30 words; the longest 1 page) taken from letters, diaries, speeches, books, magazine and newspaper articles published from between August 1892 and December 31, 1941 (the first vignette is a quote from Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, and the last is by Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian-Jewish writer and diarist). The majority of the book covers the years between 1933 and 1941. Baker's thesis? If the Allies had not been so complicit, so blood-thirsty in their actions, and only listened to the pacifists, a peace treaty could have been established between them and the Axis powers. Because Baker is a pacifist, the book not only repeatedly argues that a peace treaty of some sort could have been established with the Axis powers (thus preventing the war), he also blames the Allies for much of what happened to cause the war to break out in the first place. Although, to be fair, Human Smoke doesn't let the Nazis off the hook, Baker's book does suggest that Roosevelt and Churchill were little different than Hitler.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Matrimonial Muddle: The Kids Are All Right

Perhaps I’m being politically incorrect, but The Kids Are All Right is not so all right with me when it comes to selecting an enemy. The otherwise lovely new Lisa Cholodenko feature, beloved by forward-thinking audiences across America, zeros in on a suburban Los Angeles married couple with two children. The partners happen to be middle-aged lesbians, each of whom gave birth to a baby conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor. The youngsters are now teens who decide to find their biological father. His sudden presence in their lives leads to a crisis.

Great premise. Terrific actors: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the moms, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the offspring, Mark Ruffalo as the unsuspecting third parent. Disappointing resolution.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Good Wife and United States of Tara: One Circle Opens Wide, The Other One Closes

Julianne Margulies in The Good Wife

Note: the following post contains spoilers for the recent seasons of The Good Wife and United States of Tara.

I was glad to see CBS’s very fine drama The Good Wife do so well in the recent Emmy Award nominations. It was a fitting recognition of last year’s best new network TV series and also a reminder that when they want to, the free channels can also match the quality of cable series and in the comparative case of United States of Tara, which imploded in its second year, surpass them, too.

(I was also pleased to note that ABC’s clever sitcom Modern Family dominated the recent nominations, as well, from among the new network shows that premiered last season, though I am baffled by FOX’s Glee, which had the most nods among the neophyte TV series. Well mounted as Glee is, it strikes me that this musical drama about a group of outcast teens who begin to discover themselves when they join their school’s fledgling glee club, isn’t doing anything that Fame, the movie and TV series, didn’t already do back in the early eighties.)

While Modern Family is the latest smart comedy to hit the airwaves (post-Frasier, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory), The Good Wife is the show that really reworks a tried – and tired – formula. (Modern Family, for all its many virtues, is following in the footsteps of several previous comedy series, such as The Office, both versions, and the short lived 1980 Helen Shaver/Beau Bridges series United States, by eschewing a laugh track and playing out as a mockumentary.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

You Can't Go Home Anymore: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Before the music press hype-machine begins to wind up, I had the chance to listen to the new Arcade Fire record slated for release on August 3, 2010. Usually anything that receives too much hype, particularly in the arts, annoys me to no end. But The Suburbs turns out to be a compelling concept album by Arcade Fire and it’s the band’s most personal statement yet about the aging process and personal loss. The band had already expressed some of the same themes on Funeral, their 2004 debut, namely the loss of ancestry and identity. On their follow-up, Neon Bible (2007), the group sang about the loss of spiritual idealism to the televangelists and bible thumpers of America. But this new album is about the loss of the neighbourhoods of their youth and the unfulfilled promises of the new century. For Win Butler, that loss includes long drives on the streets in the summer, putting a band together to cut a record in the basement (or garage), and it’s about the anxiety of high school and what to do when one is "bored."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama's Subway Dream: Randy Newman's "Sail Away"

Back on June 2nd, Paul McCartney performed at the White House for President Obama, the First Lady, Michelle and their two kids. The occasion was McCartney receiving the third Gershwin Prize For Popular Song from the President. As well as accepting the award, McCartney played a whole selection of songs. With Stevie Wonder, he reprised "Ebony and Ivory." He serenaded the First Lady with the obvious choice of "Michelle," plus had other invited guests cover his material. In top form, Jack White turned "Mother Nature's Son" (morphing it with "That Would Be Something") into something strange out of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Dave Grohl amped up "Band on the Run," Emmylou Harris brought a plaintive mournfulness to "For No One," and Elvis Costello revisited the shimmering "Penny Lane." The Jonas Brothers (no doubt brought in for the kids) surprised all with their dynamic rendition of "Drive My Car." Later, President Obama praised McCartney saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

Randy Newman.
But what if, with the success of that evening still ringing in his ears, Obama decided to celebrate an American performer who was equally worthy of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - say, Randy Newman. The evening might go like this: Newman turns up looking rather surprised to have been asked to perform (for the first time) in the White House. President Obama assures Newman that his kids loved his songs in Toy Story while Newman quietly suggests another more appropriate song. The President graciously tells Randy that it's his concert and in the new democratic spirit of the land he should play what he wants. Newman then takes his place at the piano which is situated under the photos of George Washington and his wife Martha. He begins nervously by introducing the number. "Years ago, I wrote this sea shanty for a short film that was ultimately never made," he began. "It was in the Nixon years so there wasn't very much money for this kind of thing." The audience laughs quietly in recognition of a time that had long passed. "But it's an Irish kind of tune, you know, like 'The Ballad of Pat O'Reilly.'" Everyone looks a little puzzled - especially the kids - since nobody knows the song. "Anyway, it's about a sea voyage that begins in Africa and it kind of goes like this."