Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Right Thing: Our Kind of Traitor

An episode of Law and Order called “We Like Mike” featured Frank John Hughes as an ordinary joe who helps a stranger change a tire and then becomes the chief suspect when the man is murdered. He’s exonerated, but the D.A. presses him to give the testimony that can convict the real killer, and though he’s still smarting from the treatment he received from the cops, he agrees to do it because he knows he should. It’s been years since I’ve seen this small-scale portrait of a man who’s instinctively drawn to do the decent thing, but it came to mind during Our Kind of Traitor, Susanna White’s gripping movie, adapted by Hossein Amini from the John Le Carré novel. Amini, one of our most skillful literary dramatizers, wrote the screenplays for The Wings of the Dove (Henry James), Killshot (Elmore Leonard) and The Two Faces of January (Patricia Highsmith), which he also directed. (The Wings of the Dove is a model of how to shape an entirely interior book that seems to
resist dramatizing at every turn.)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Podcast: Musical Chairs (A Radio Pilot, 1990)

In March 1990, Donald Brackett and I were growing concerned that music programming on the radio was becoming more niche driven. Since both of us grew up in an era when radio often turned you on to a vast palette of diverse genres, we wondered if we could create a show that – given these limiting programming changes – might accommodate more broad selections of music. We came up with an idea called Musical Chairs where we would create an identifiable theme of interest to a larger audience and then use that as our laundry line in which to hang a vast assortment of musical styles. The first show, which John Corcelli produced in the studios at CJRT-FM, was an examination of music that characterized the city as a homeless and hostile environment rather than the romantic vision heard in songs like "Chicago" and "New York, New York."

The selections included Charles Ives' "Central Park in the Dark," Ornette Coleman's "Skies Over America," Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," Bernard Herrmann's score for Taxi Driver, Bruce Cockburn's "Inner City Front" and concluded with Aaron Copland's "Quiet City." We also added the prospect of interviews on the show by including one with writer Timothy Findley talking about Toronto while in town promoting his book of short stories, Stones. Since I was just beginning work as one of the producers at CBC Radio Prime Time, I didn't have the time to promote the pilot, but Donald sought out interest both in Canada and the States. No one nibbled enough to take it on. So despite coming up with ten other episode ideas, we only got this far in what you might describe as a map of what we might have accomplished.

– Kevin Courrier

The full radio pilot of Musical Chairs can be heard here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Fail, Fail Again: David Ayer's Suicide Squad

I think the disparity we’re seeing in online reactions to Suicide Squad since its release, with critics absolutely blasting the film (it currently sits at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes) and fans defending it tooth and nail, boils down to the fact that critics showed up to this film to see a film, whereas the whiners wanted something much more difficult to provide – namely, validation for their obsession with a comic book brand. One such irate fanboy actually created a petition on suggesting Rotten Tomatoes be taken down entirely, due to its tendency to give the DC Extended Universe films “unjust bad reviews," which he saw as dangerous because that “affects people’s opinion even if it’s a really great movies [sic].” He has since retitled his petition to “Don’t listen to film criticism” and removed any references to specific films, no doubt thanks to a torrent of chortling commenters reminding him that Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Warner Bros, who produce the DCEU movies. To me, it’s an absolutely hilarious situation, which made sitting through the ugly, dull, reprehensible mess that was Suicide Squad ultimately worth it. For Warner Bros execs, I imagine the situation is far more serious.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Poetic Despair: Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate

If it’s possible to write an album about despair then Love & Hate (Polydor) by British singer and musician Michael Kiwanuka is about as poetic a statement one can make on the subject. The singer’s second album, whose density of emotion is dressed with an equally dense score, can also be a little demanding. Yet it is probably one of the most engaging records I’ve heard all year. And while it delivers a slightly dark message, I’m entranced by Kiwanuka’s bold pallet of sound matched by his inspired performance. Love & Hate is so full of sadness and resignation that at times it's almost too heavy to enjoy. But Kiwanuka’s album effectively succeeds in pulling you into his world and after awhile it’s not such a bad world to experience.

Love & Hate was recorded in both Los Angeles and London some four years after Kiwanuka’s highly touted 2012 debut album, Home Again. That record drew quick comparisons to soul singer Bill Withers and was nominated for the UK’s Mercury Prize. To me, the new album will probably garner similar comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s unforgettable disc, What’s Going On (1971). But the difference is that while Gaye was expressing his anger and astonishment with an often brutally changing America, Kiwanuka is completely self-centered in his observations. The first five songs, which are slow grooves, have a natural intensity balanced by light string arrangements and plenty of Hammond B3 organ to soften the mix. The opening track “Cold Little Heart” is just over ten minutes long, and it takes a few musical liberties, but the music shifts in tone and texture so much that the risk is worth it. Clearly his producers, Danger Mouse and Inflo, are interested in creating a larger musical pallet. Some critics have compared that composition with Pink Floyd, but Love & Hate is not a “concept album.” Yet the opening track does suggest something like Pink Floyd’s conceptual “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” But I think Kiwanuka is simply reaching for something beyond the 3-minute pop song and if it takes a 10-minute opener to draw the listener into his world then why not open with something long?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XIX

Comedian Lenny Bruce, who died fifty years ago, once wrote, "People should be taught what is, not what should be. All my humour is based on destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing in the breadline  right back of J. Edgar Hoover." I was first introduced to Bruce in 1970 while in high school where we were learning 'what should be.' Standing around in gym after class, where getting hassled by hyper-masculine athletic jocks comprised 'what is,' a long haired soul who appeared equally big and intimidating named Tony Sloggett handed me a book The Essential Lenny Bruce – and said, "You might like this." Then he walked away.

The Essential Lenny Bruce was a collection of this equal opportunity offender's best routines and many of them made me laugh  if not uneasily  because they didn't exactly provide comfort for my own views. At times, they weren't entirely understandable, either. In satirizing the straight world, Bruce employed both the argon of the hip and (since he was Jewish) Yiddish. Many of the hip words were pretty clear, but Yiddish was way out of my league. That left me chasing down the only Jewish guy I knew at my school, the straight arrow Mel Raskin, who was also a daily victim of the thugs in gym class. I'm still trying to imagine what must have been going through his mind as I followed him down the street asking things like, "Mel, what does shtup and putz mean?" (Mel has since, in a twisted irony known only to God, become a radio broadcaster of Oshawa Generals hockey games.)

When Bruce began to build his reputation as the "King of the Sick Comics," he took on everyone – from the Pope to Jimmy Hoffa. When he was a guest on Hugh Hefner's after-hours TV talk show, Playboy Penthouse, he did a television first  he blew his nose on camera. Bruce satirized and tested the prudishness of the audience. His daring wasn't in the romantic portrait Dustin Hoffman provided in Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974), where he was seen as the misunderstood rebel, but in his fearless approach of all that was sacred  even to liberals  and combining with that the performer's fervor in getting a rise out of the audience. We were as much the butt of his jokes as we were participants in them. One such example, which was one of the first routines I read in The Essential Lenny Bruce, was his outrageous "Christ and Moses" below in The Carnegie Hall Concert.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Musicals and a Two-Hander

The Pirates of Penzance at the Barrington Stage Company (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Musical theatre buffs are treated these summer days in the Berkshires, where Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company have been mounting exceptionally well produced shows just a few blocks from each other in Pittsfield. Both BTG’s Little Shop of Horrors and BSC’s The Pirates of Penzance are winding down their runs. Pirates, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (the team responsible for the best production I’ve ever seen of On the Town, which began at BTG and transferred to Broadway), revives the version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Joseph Papp had a hit with at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980. I saw the Papp Pirates in L.A. with Barry Bostwick as the Pirate King, Clive Revill (the original Fagin in Oliver!) as Major-General Stanley, and Andy Gibb and Pam Dawber as the lovers, Frederic and Mabel, and though Wilford Leach’s staging was erratic and the energetic mugging was sometimes a bit much, it was great fun. After years of sitting through G&S shows that dutifully mimicked the D’Oyly Carte traditions, it was refreshing to see a Yankee take on the operetta that parodied an entirely different set of conventions – out of American musical comedy, silent movie comedy and swashbucklers. (I wouldn’t put them on the same level, but the effect reminded me of Peter Brook’s marvelous 1953 film of The Beggar’s Opera, where the sources of the burlesque were twentieth-century operettas and swashbucklers.) The Papp Pirates was televised on PBS, but I’m sure far more people saw the 1983 movie adaptation, a loud, charmless mess that had only one thing going for it: Kevin Kline, who, recreating his stage performance as the Pirate King, sent up Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and every baritone in American operetta from Dennis King to Howard Keel.

Much as I enjoyed Pirates back in 1981, Rando is a better director than Loach, and his production, though certainly athletic and loaded with music-hall bits, is more graceful, the onstage chaos more controlled. The hamminess – a mainstay of the Papp revision – is perhaps overstated in the first act, and for me, at least, though Will Swenson’s Pirate King and his crew’s flirting with the women in the audience is a surefire crowd-pleaser, a little of that sort of hijinks goes a long way. But the show is extremely pleasurable, and it’s paced like lightning. Swenson digs into his hearty baritone to offer up “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die,” and David Garrison, a musical-theatre veteran whose career began around the time of the Papp Pirates, dispatches “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the most famous of the G&S patter songs, with cool finesse, tossing off a light buck and wing at the top. The otherpatter song, “Now for the Pirates’ Lair” early in act two, performed by Swenson, Jane Carr as the “piratical maid-of-all-work” Ruth and Kyle Dean Massey as Frederic, is just as much fun. Massey, whom Nashville viewers will recognize as Chris Carmack’s on-again-off-again soulful songwriter boy friend Kevin Bicks, is handsome and boasts a well trained voice, and he’s lucky enough to have Scarlett Strallen as his Mabel. She has personality and the wit as well as the chops to pull off a bull’s-eye parody of the typical trilling operetta soprano (on “Poor Wandering One”) – and then in act two, when she’s handed one of those gorgeous Arthur Sullivan arias, “Sorry Her Lot,” she turns around and performs it straight, with genuine feeling. The seven other Stanley daughters, which include a pair of identical twins, Alanna and Claire Saunders, are entirely winning. Phillip Boykin, the barrel-chested bass who was a memorable Crown in the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, enriches the ensemble in the small role of Samuel, the Pirate King’s lieutenant.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Long Shadow: Carol Anderson’s White Rage (Part One)

“We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

- Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March, 7th 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march

During the week of the Republican Convention when Donald Trump proclaimed himself as the candidate of law and order, and reading Carol Anderson’s historical catalogue of white resistance to black progress, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016), two thoughts came to mind. Rightly denouncing the murder of police officers, he said nothing about the murder of black men by the police, even the murder on November 26, 2014 of twelve-year old Tamir Rice who was killed in Cleveland, the city where the convention was held. No charges were ever laid against the officer. Secondly, I wondered whether Trump was aware that he was retrieving Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that pandered to racists during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon was another practitioner of dog-whistle politics: a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists. According to Anderson, one of Nixon’s most trusted aides, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, noted after the candidate saw an ad that showed entire cities burning without ever mentioning blacks, Nixon chortled, “It’s about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” By not acknowledging the African-Americans killed, Trump expressed a similar contempt for African-Americans at the 2016 Republican Convention.