Saturday, May 25, 2013

Blues U Can Use Part 2: Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters' Just For Today

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 a seven-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.

On May 16th I wrote here about Robillard’s latest release called, Independently Blue. Today it’s Just For Today (Stony Plain) by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. In 1980, Ronnie Earl (Horvath) took over for Duke Robillard in A Roomful of Blues. He was a young New Yorker filling the shoes of a fine guitarist. Five years earlier, Earl attended Boston University and took up the instrument after seeing Muddy Waters in concert. He developed his style through careful study of blues music with a pilgrimage to Chicago at the invitation of blues singer, Koko Taylor. He later spent quality time in Texas with Jimmy Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a band Duke Robillard did time with before going solo.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beyond Palookaville: The Criterion Collection Release of On the Waterfront

"I can't discuss it as a movie anymore," director Martin Scorsese tells film critic Kent Jones in an interview included on the new Criterion Collection release of Elia Kazan's powerhouse 1954 drama On the Waterfront. "It's more of a phenomenon. Are there better movies? Probably. I see how the story is structured to make a point...[Yet] there is something revolutionary about that film." There are few movies that take us beyond the experience of simply watching one. Certainly Citizen Kane (1941) does, with its dazzling sound and visual innovations, where director Orson Welles – having come to Hollywood out of his daring work in theatre and radio – combines the two mediums in order to treat our eyes in the way we often use our ears. In doing so, he distracts us from some of the shallowness and the flaws in the plot and unleashes something boldly new and entertaining. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) is undoubtedly another, where all the rules of genre get broken to create a masterpiece of multiple genres mingling together into something so new that the viewer is both engaged and moved by a picture that defies classification.

On the Waterfront is a straight-forward drama, written by Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run), about a New Jersey longshoreman and ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who comes to tackle the moral dilemma of whether to remain loyal to his mob-connected boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Terry's brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), who is the mobster's right-hand man, or to talk instead to the crime commission and name names. It doesn't seem to belong in the same category of films that could be described as "revolutionary." But that's only if you seize solely upon the melodramatic structure of its plot. What sets On the Waterfront apart from more conventional melodrama, besides the emotional force of its storytelling, happens between the lines of the story. It even goes beyond the film into the larger world that shaped it. "On the Waterfront is no more about the real business of the docks – working conditions, union racketeering, or reform – than Hamlet is an expose of corruption in the medieval Danish court," writes filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Nadja) in the DVD liner notes. "[On the Waterfront arrives] at an elevated place in our collective consciousness, a place where familiar images and scenes continue to seem urgent, to surprise us, to trigger intense feelings, reaching past the long shadows of politics and the blind wind of success or failure." To define that elevated place Almereyda refers to, you first have to grasp the social and political issues that turned On the Waterfront into the very phenomenon that Scorsese describes.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Mother, May I?": Pietà

Lee Jung-jin stars in Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà

At the start of Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà, which generated headlines and won top prizes when it played at the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin Film Festivals, the central character, a professional sociopath named Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), wakes up in his squalid home, masturbates, staggers into his bathroomwhose floor is littered with entrailsand shaves. Then he leaves, after yanking a knife out of the wall, where it’s embedded in a drawing of a woman. For anyone who has seen some of the other Kim Ki-duk pictures that have played in this country but have fallen out of touch with his work in the last several years, this blandly presented procession of transgressive weirdness will feel like the director holding out his arms and crying, “Welcome back! The place is pretty much just like you left it.” Kang-do works as an enforcer for a loan shark, shaking down people who can’t pay their debts and mutilating them so they can collect on their insurance claims. With his baby fat, glaring eyes (with a hint of eyeliner), and mop of spiky, tousled black hair, Lee Jung-jin suggests an awkwardly grown-up version of the kind of child actor who gets cast as Damien the baby antichrist or one of the kids who inhabit the Village of the Damned.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Twilight of the Soul: Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Canadian Opera Company

Adrianne Pieczonka (centre) and members of the COC in Dialogues des Carmélites (All photos by Michael Cooper)

Dialogues des Carmélites, which the Canadian Opera Company is performing at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts now through May 25, is an impressive theatrical creation. Sobering and meditative are words that also come to mind in describing it. Despite an outstanding predominately female cast and conductor Johannes Debus' firm grasp of Francis Poulenc's mercurial score, an evening’s diversion it is not. There is no romance here. No spectacular effects. Like its Revolutionary setting, Dialogues is dark and brooding. No tra-la-la among the tra-la-las.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To Boldly Go Where No Parody Has Gone Before: Galaxy Quest (1999)

What's disappointing about J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek film is that it feels less an inspired tribute to the original TV series than an attempt to simply exploit the fondness fans feel for it. While the new cast seems more at home in their parts than in the last one, Star Trek Into Darkness unfortunately is a cluttered action adventure. It also tries to clone itself from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but without the core of emotion that gave that film its special poignancy. The new film is intermittently entertaining, but Star Trek Into Darkness takes its title perhaps a little too literally. (The 3-D effects have a way of making the picture look like it was shot through sludge.) Abrams also gives the picture an obvious post-9/11 context, but it doesn't resonate in the same way The Wrath of Khan's literary allusions did. That's, in part, because Abrams explicitly imposes the War on Terror on the material of Into Darkness whereas A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick were thematically linked to the overall story of The Wrath of Khan. It would hardly be necessary for me to continually bring up The Wrath of Khan had Into Darkness not copied so much from it. But Abrams seems to want the cachet of the latter film without actually earning it. He's hoping that in using some of the same powerful scenes from Khan he will magically ignite his own picture. But they don't because Into Darkness lacks the sensibility to underscore the significance of what those scenes reveal about the characters. Which is why sometimes parody does better at capturing the appeal in a favourite TV show than the straight homage of Abrams' approach.

Tim Allen as Quincy Taggart
Galaxy Quest (1999) is that rare kind of parody that actually has the same affection for its subject as Into Darkness does, but director Dean Parisot and screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon create a genial, often hilarious lampoon that manages to get at the crux of why these space adventures have such a devotional audience. (Into Darkness merely caters to that devotion without reflecting on it.) Galaxy Quest doesn't even have to trash the genre to accomplish this task. It's a peppy comedy that instead redeems the love of the fan. Galaxy Quest isn't telling followers to get a life, as William Shatner once did to followers of Star Trek; it examines why this is a life. Tim Allen stars as actor Jason Nesmith, who played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart on 'Galaxy Quest.' Like Captain Kirk (William Shatner) of Star Trek, he's given to uttering such pontifically heroic lines as "Never give up, never surrender" when in imminent danger. Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane, a stylish Shakespearean actor who portrays Dr. Lazurus, a half-humanoid, half-reptilian alien. Dane is endlessly depressed that he is forever being identified with 'Galaxy Quest' rather than his higher calling. "I was an actor once," he is given to moan. Sigourney Weaver is the blond and bursting-at-the-chest Gwen DeMarco, who was the fictional ship's communications officer. Her biggest complaint is that fan magazines write "six paragraphs" on her boobs rather than her brawn. Tony Shalhoub, as actor Fred Kwan, is the unperturbed Tech Sergeant Chen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Kinetic Art: Everybody Street (2013)

from Brooklyn Gang (1959) by Bruce Davidson

“What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their pictures?” the art critic John Berger asked of the expressive plein-air portraits made by this turn-of-the-century photographer. “And how did he say it so that they all believed him in the same way?” These are the kinds of questions asked and answered in Everybody Street (2013), a documentary made by Cheryl Dunn about street photographers in New York City. Profiling the likes of Bruce Davidson, Joel Meyerowitz, Boogie, Mary Ellen Mark, and the New York Photo League’s Rebecca Lepkoff with her 16 mm video camera, Dunn, a New York street photographer herself, captures the curiosity, spontaneity, and obsessional passion that drive the craft. In showcasing the work and careers of her colleagues and idols, Dunn reveals street photography as both a kinetic art and a romance. The documentary seeks to pay homage to the art and the artists while probing the distinct means by which each photographer invites their shared subject – New York City – to reveal itself anew. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Big Knife: Botching the Trick

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale in The Big Knife, at the Roundabout Theatre Company (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Staging Clifford Odets is tricky business, but Bartlett Sher’s production of his 1937 Golden Boy last fall showed that in the twenty-first century there’s still a way to use his language – stylized but firmly grounded in Stanislavskian psychological realism – to unleash theatrical power. Unhappily, the second Odets revival of the season, The Big Knife at the Roundabout, is a lame duck. Under Doug Hughes’ direction the actors either pretend the language isn’t heightened at all or else they seize on it as an excuse for overacting.