Saturday, February 25, 2017

Canada All-Star Ballet Gala: From Russia with Love

Svetlana Lunkina and Ruslan Skvortsov in The Pharaoh's Daughter.

There's a lot of talk about Russia right now, about its extraordinary influence on other countries' political structures and growing impact on world affairs. That talk resonates on the front pages of newspapers. And, recently, it could also be heard at the ballet, where a program billed as masterpieces of the classical repertoire despite also being composed of works from other nations was Russian to the core. It couldn't help but be. Canada All-Star Ballet Gala, a one-night only performance that took place at Toronto's Sony Centre on February 11, owed its grandeur and impeccable styling to the great choreographers schooled at Russia's Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg more than a century ago. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina knows that tradition well.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Neglected Gem #96: Adventures of Don Quixote (1933)

Feodore Chaliapin as Don Quixote in G.W. Pabst's Adventures of Don Quixote (1933).

Adventures of Don Quixote is one of the true curiosities in movie history, and not only because it’s the one adaptation of Cervantes’ book by a major filmmaker that was actually completed. Orson Welles died without finishing his, and Terry Gilliam’s closed down early in the shoot when he hit one insurmountable difficulty after another (all of which are chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha). This 1933 film is the work of the great German director G.W. Pabst, best known for his silent films with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. He filmed three versions of the novel, one in French, one in English and one in German; all three starred the great Russian opera basso Feodor Chaliapin, who turned out to be both a magnificent camera subject and a mesmerizing actor. He doesn’t get to sing Mussorgsky (Chaliapin was celebrated for his Boris Godunov), but he does sing, and even though the music by Jacques Ibert is mediocre, these abbreviated arias are among the movie’s high points. Chaliapin had appeared in a couple of silent movies, but Don Quixote was his only major movie role, and his last. (He died in 1938.) If his name rings a bell today, it’s probably because his son, who bore his name, played the marvelous old grandfather in Moonstruck who asks his dogs, with magisterial impatience, “Why do you make me wait?” before taking them for their evening constitutional. (Chaliapin Jr. died in 1992.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Podcast: Helen Shaver on Sam Peckinpah (1985)

Rutger Hauer and Helen Shaver in a scene from Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend (1983).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields.

Earlier this week, film director Sam Peckinpah would have celebrated his 92nd birthday. It therefore seems appropriate to share this conversation I had with Canadian actress Helen Shaver very soon after Peckinpah's death in December 1984. Shaver had been one of the stars of Peckinpah's final movie, The Osterman Weekend (1983), and here she speaks about what it was like to work with the famed director.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the conversation with Helen Shaver as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – Terror On The Bayou

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was released by Capcom on January 24.

In my very first piece for Critics At Large, I bemoaned the state of the survival-horror genre, and the Resident Evil series of games in particular. Japanese developer Shinji Mikami, who helped to define the genre with the first Resident Evil game in 1996, had grown stagnant, straying in his design and philosophy from the core tenets that made that landmark game so popular. In short, his contributions to the series just weren’t scary anymore, and though his next (non-Resident Evil) effort The Evil Within was critically well received upon release, it too was lacking in imagination and innovation and is remembered now as a mostly forgettable mashup of earlier RE titles and other popular horror properties like Silent Hill. A shake-up was long past due – and apparently all it took for that to happen was Mikami's retiring from publisher Capcom so that others could take up the mantle, and achieve what he couldn’t.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Jazz in the Abstract: Strange Attractors by Ugly Beauties

The members of Ugly Beauties: Marilyn Lerner, Matt Brubeck and Nick Fraser. (Photo: Karrie North)

Back in the late 1940s, it wasn’t unusual to hear jazz at the Long Island house of American painter Jackson Pollock, who was inspired by the freedom and improvisational qualities of the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. In a way, it was his soundtrack to the changing face of post-war America. While he didn’t listen to music while he worked, his wife Lee Krasner said. in 1967, that he listened to jazz in marathon sessions in between projects: “He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records…day and night for three days running until you thought you would climb the roof! The house would shake.” (From Helen A. Harrison's "Jackson Pollock and Jazz: Inspiration or Imitation?")

By 1950, as the form developed, bebop music provided an aural canvas within a framework. Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, only had about 3 minutes of recording time, on a typical 78-RPM record, to express a theme, improvise on it and then return to the theme and end the tune. Many of the Parker tracks, especially on the Savoy record label, swung hard with extraordinary musical ideas that broke with the past while exploring new possibilities in the music by way of individual expression. In a sense, then, while the tunes had structure with a beginning, middle and end, the solos were abstract: improvised riffs never to be repeated or written down. Bebop was fluid music – full of soul, surprise and risk, much like the art that Pollock created in his “on the floor” paintings, such as Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Electric Blues: Bette Midler in The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Release of The Rose

Bette Midler in The Rose (1979).

When Bette Midler takes the stage as The Rose in Mark Rydell’s 1979 movie of the same name, singing the rocker “Whose Side Are You On?,” her face, mashed up as she spits out the lyrics, is ferocious. She’s not trying to look beautiful; on the contrary, she’s owning her odd-duck looks, facing off the stadium audience, daring them not to love her for who she is. There’s no grandeur to her self-presentation, just fuck-you bravado and sexual aggressiveness, but then she makes a connection with a handsome young man at the edge of the stage and she breaks into an unexpected toothy smile, as if she’s found a date for the high school prom. At other times her smile can look voracious, even predatory. Her whole face seems to be pushed toward her nose, and both her dramatic eye make-up and her frizzy hair accentuate the bones in that face, though when Vilmos Zsigmond’s lighting attaints its softest neon glow, her hair is like an aureole that turns her into a pop Madonna. You can’t pin down her look, and God knows you can’t pin down her performance to one thing. When we first see her, stepping off the tour’s private plane, she’s dressed like Janis Joplin in a broad-brimmed hat with gauze dripping from the back and a thin, wavy pink dress and shades, and she’s so drunk that she can’t stay upright: she has to hold onto the railing, and she misses a step or two, as if the stairway were melting under her. This is the wayward, unmoored side of Rose. We see it again on the plane when she sings a cozy, growling, sloshed version of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” – a song she learned off a Furry Lewis side – with a muted guitar accompaniment, then peers out the window, disoriented, bursting into tears.  And again late in the picture, when her manager and promoter Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates) tells her he’s setting her adrift (it’s his way of scaring her into submission) and she looks away from him, her face wavering on the edge of another realm.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

There Will Be Burgers: Michael Keaton in The Founder

When Michael Keaton made his memorable feature film debut in Ron Howard's agreeably funny 1982 comedy, Night Shift, he played Billy "Blaze" Blazejowski, Henry Winkler's high-strung co-worker in a New York City morgue, who described himself as an "idea man." Endlessly bouncing from side to side, as if hot coals were consistently biting at his feet, Billy Blaze was a whirligig of a hustler and budding entrepreneur, a frugging Sammy Glick, whose eyeballs popped out like headlights in a speeding car at the thought of inventing edible paper. His role in the film was to snap Winkler's sleeping nebbish back to life, and Keaton himself was wide awake, an endlessly riffing jack-in-the-box with the relentless beat of "Jumping Jack Flash" on constant repeat in his brain pan, sending comic bolts through the picture. As he plays Ray Kroc, an Illinois travelling salesman in the mid-fifties down on his luck trying to sell five-spindled milkshake machines to fast-food outlets across America, the blaze has gone out of Keaton's bluster and the beat has gone out of his step, but he's replaced it with the shrewd acumen of finely tuned opportunism.  Nipping religiously from a little flask, Keaton's Kroc is Billy Blaze with his headlights dimmed and Norman Vincent Peale setting the beat instead of The Stones, but his shark's teeth haven't lost their razor bite. When Kroc sets his eyes on a tiny burger enterprise in San Bernardino, California, run by brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who have begun to revolutionize the concept of fast-food service, he senses opportunity the way a vampire smells blood. Unlike Billy Blaze, who wanted to feed the world his teeming ideas, Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc wants to feed off the ideas of others and then take all the credit for himself. With a prowess that's canny, Keaton plays Kroc as a cipher magnate who, in time, creates a billion-dollar empire by branding an international restaurant chain that never had to bear his own name.