Saturday, March 10, 2012

Failure to Launch: Unsuccessful TV Pilots – L.A. Confidential and The Time Tunnel

Over the past month, hundreds of actors and actresses have descended upon Hollywood for what is called pilot season. Each year, all the studios commission and shoot dozens of pilots for potential TV series. Most of them never see the light of day since there's only a few shows that make it to air, and most of them get cancelled before too long too (Terra Nova, The Event and soon I really fear, Awake). Sometimes, a pilot seems like a no-brainer. Based on a hit movie, a project gets the green light hoping that lightening will strike twice. Sometimes, someone has the idea of resurrecting (or 'rebooting,” in the current parlance) an old TV series, dusting it off and hoping nostalgia for it might catch the attention of those who make the decisions about what will and what will not make it to air. For every M*A*S*H or Battlestar Galatica, there is an L.A. Confidential and The Time Tunnel.

Friday, March 9, 2012

For the Sheer Pleasure of the Text: Criterion's DVD Release of Vanya on 42nd Street

Louis Malle with the cast of Vanya.

One way of describing Louis Malle's extraordinary Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which Criterion has just released on regular and Blu-ray DVD in a sparkling newly remastered print, is to say that it depicts theater director Andre Gregory's workshop of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But it is neither a documentary nor is it filmed theater. It's not even in the traditional sense of the word a movie. Vanya on 42nd Street is more like an inspired laboratory where a number of actors plus their director delve into the play by peeling away all of its acclaim, its reputation and various interpretations, plus its legendary hold on modern theater, in order to get to the very root of its tragic realism, to reveal what it is that makes this seminal work last. As if he were setting out to rediscover an old forgotten language, Andre Gregory takes his cast through Vanya for the sheer pleasure of the text; to find out just what this text reveals to the actors about the characters they inhabit. "What Chekhov is about fundamentally is the nature of the quality of [the] passing [of] your life, of what it feels like to be here as we travel across the ocean of life," is how Gregory explains the making of Vanya in the DVD's documentary Like Life. If so, he started with the right play where its tone and substance, the very essence of contemplation, illuminates its plot.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

It’s Mourning in America: NBC’s Awake

Jason Isaacs stars in Awake, on NBC.

Tonight, NBC will air the second episode of Awake, its new fantasy-crime drama from writer/creator Kyle Killen. Awake tells the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a police detective finally returning to work after surviving the tragic car accident which claimed the life of Rex, his teenage son (Dylan Minnette). Or was it his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen) who died that night? Actually, it was neither. Or, perhaps more precisely, both. As we quickly discover, Britten has been living in two realities since night of the accident: he goes to bed at night with his wife sleeping beside him, and wakes up the next morning in bed alone, with his son sleeping down the hall. The series follows Britten as he slips back and forth between these two universes, one in which his son is mourning the loss of his mother and another in which his wife is mourning the loss of their son. It is an ambitious and challenging premise, and it was masterfully executed, in writing, acting, and direction – and if the pilot is any indication, it promises to be one of the most ambitious and creative new dramas of the television season.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Unadorned & Unaccompanied: Stephen Fearing's No Dress Rehearsal

Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, AKA Blackie & the Rodeo Kings

A few months ago I attended the Hamilton Music Awards. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings were headlining. I've seen BARK a few times before, and they're always an entertaining night out, filled with great music and a few laughs. The laughs generally come from wondering how early Tom Wilson will start swearing. This night he was pretty much under control, prowling around the right hand side of the stage like a wolf, with his low-slung Gibson guitar. That’s the one with all the autographs on it Ralph Stanley, John Fogerty and Johnny Cash among them. It's interesting to note that of all the guitars on stage, this is the one that comes on and leaves with its owner. No stage stand for this baby. Colin Linden is on the left of the stage (stage right to you theatre people) wearing his ever-present fedora, and clearly enjoying himself. He bounces up and down as if on a pogo stick, contrasting Tom's horizontal movements across the stage. In the middle is Stephen Fearing, who basically stays put. The three Kings are backed by John Dymond on bass and this evening Tom Hambridge on drums. I have to put in a special word for Tom (award-winning producer of Buddy Guy), who did a tremendous job filling in for the usual drummer Gary Craig. From "Water or Gasoline" through "Stoned" and "49 Tons," with a brief look back to Willie's "White Line" and a generous sampling of the new (and critically acclaimed) Kings and Queens, they simply rocked the place. They’ll be featuring the Kings and Queens album later in March with a very special concert at Massey Hall (which I’ll tell you all about later). But right now I’d like to focus on the guy in the middle: the quiet one who ‘stays put.’

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Imagining the Unimaginable: The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester

As I fall in sync with a group of rush hour commuters, walking along in our daily parade, I give little thought or consequence to the land beneath our feet. A patch of dirt here, an errant pebble there. Only when we hear of some distant earthquake, or put a porous shoe through an unexpected rain puddle, does the average urban pedestrian remark on the earth we trod upon – if, in a modern landscape of asphalt and concrete, any such earth remains on the surface at all. Even in the greenest rural pastures, rarely do we have cause to wonder: over what does this seemingly solid ground lie? And even when this question does arise, our satellite images, modern geological equipment and the apparent omnipotence of Google can render an answer in mere moments.

Of course, this wasn’t always so.

Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World (HarperCollins, 2001) takes us back to the English countryside of the late 18th century, to a man who asked these questions without any such resources to satisfy his curiosity. William Smith, a young surveyor with a passion for history and scientific enquiry, took it upon himself to map the strata of rock beneath England on a scale never before conceived, and – according to Winchester – thus secured his place among the founders of geology.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Venus in Fur: Role Playing

Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda stars in Venus in Fur

Everyone who teaches in a theatre department knows David Ives’s one-act plays, ingenious small-scale amusements that are ideal for undergraduate directors. (They’re collected under the title All in the Timing.) He’s also the go-to playwright for the Encores! series when alterations to the books of various musicals are asked for, and he adapted Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? when it finally received a New York production five years ago. But his two-hander Venus in Fur is the first original full-length comedy I’ve seen of his, and it’s very accomplished. It’s also enjoying considerable success in New York: it played two sold-out runs off Broadway before its current Broadway iteration at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In all three the spectacularly funny Nina Arianda has starred as an aggressive young actress who talks a playwright (Hugh Dancy, replacing Wes Bentley) into letting her audition for him at the end of a long, wearying, fruitless day.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Articulate Conversation: Duets by Reg Schwager

Duets (Jazz for Rant, 2011) is the latest from guitarist, Reg Schwager whose been carving a musical niche for himself since the early 80s. I’ve seen Schwager play on a number of occasions through the years in Toronto and his technique and musical vocabulary is second to none. It’s for this reason alone that Duets is the best showcase for his remarkable sound and articulation. It is a thoughtful and introspective album of standards and original compositions, with four of Canada’s finest bass players: Pat Collins, Neil Swainson, Don Thompson and Dave Young.

A lot of cross-pollination has taken place between the performers. Thompson and Swainson have played and recorded with George Shearing. Young has played with Oscar Peterson and Pat Collins is a teacher, bandleader and accompanist to musicians and singers, such as Maureen Kennedy, in Toronto. Schwager has also earned the experience of playing with everybody on the scene in Canada by forging a career of constant one-nighters. His commitment has paid off: Duets captures a musician at the top of his game.