Saturday, May 19, 2018

Origin Story: The Legacy of King Solomon's Mines

Author H. Rider Haggard, often credited as a pioneer of the "lost world" fiction genre. (Photo: Getty)

A group of men take off on a quest into the unknown, seeking a potentially mythical MacGuffin and using their unique skills to get into and out of scrapes, with a few good-natured comic interludes thrown in along the way. That’s a setup of many popular films, and that’s part of why I found my recent experience reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines so interesting. Combined with a rediscovery of George Stevens’s 1939 film Gunga Din, which I hadn’t seen since childhood, catching up with Haggard’s classic adventure novel has provided some perspective on the origins of tropes that have begun to feel overly familiar after appearing in one franchise film after another.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lean on Pete: A Boy and a Horse

Charley (Charlie Plummer) with his titular companion in Lean on Pete. (Photo: Scott Patrick Green)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Lean on Pete belongs to a genre you wouldn’t expect Andrew Haigh, the gifted English writer-director of 45 Years and Looking, to be drawn to: that subcategory of coming-of-age movies in which the protagonist forms a strong emotional relationship with a special animal. Clarence Brown made the two classic Hollywood exemplars in the mid-forties, National Velvet and The Yearling, and Carroll Ballard directed the greatest of all of them, The Black Stallion, in 1979 (all three were adapted from beloved children’s volumes), using both National Velvet and the French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s incandescent short film White Mane (1953) for inspiration. Ballard made other splendid movies of this type – Fly Away Home in 1996 and Duma in 2005 – but The Black Stallion, with its dialogue-free desert-island second act and its horse-racing third act, its vibrant, painterly use of color (the film critic Pauline Kael wisely evoked the work of the American abstract expressionist Morris Louis by way of comparison), its juxtaposition of the archetypal and the elemental to explore the experience of an eight-year-old boy far beyond his ability to find verbal expression for, is indisputably the masterpiece of the genre. (Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script, also collaborated with Steven Spielberg on E.T., which substitutes a creature from another planet for the magical animal.)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Prose, Poem, & Power: Sony Santa Monica's God of War

Kratos (left) and his son Atreus (right) in Sony Santa Monica's God of War. (Photo: Sony)

Until this year, Sony Santa Monica’s God of War series was the 300 of popular games, like Clash of the Titans as envisioned by a drunk Michael Bay. Its focus on hyper-violent setpieces, which grew increasingly epic in scale as the series wore on, was appropriate for the time in which it was released, and for the audience that eagerly lapped it up. But in 2018, that kind of brainless uber-masculine power fantasy doesn’t really fly anymore. Despite its tendency to constantly shoot itself in the foot in terms of meaningful progress, the industry has indeed grown up a little bit, and so have the people who play – and who make – this sort of triple-A action-adventure fare. If it had any ambitions about competing critically and financially with the best we now have to offer, a new entry in the God of War series would be forced to grow up as well.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

World Mash-Ups: Valeria Matzner and Molly Tigre

South American songwriter Valeria Matzner. (Photo:

Two new releases have brought me great joy over the past couple of weeks for their excellent production values and spirited performances. Valeria Matzner’s album called Anima (Triplet) offers up some enthusiastic tracks with an eclectic music mix. New York’s Molly Tigre is an instrumental band with a difference: no guitar player. The band’s self-titled record on the VSR label is inspired by the desert blues entrails of Mali mixed with the street rhythms of New York City. While these two new releases won’t shatter the earth upon their release, they do inspire hope for the continual fusion of world music mashed-up with regional sounds.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Podcast: Don Shebib on Margot Kidder and Heartaches (1981)

Margot Kidder in Heartaches (1981)

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 writers and artists from all fields. In 1981, I sat down with Canadian film director Donald Shebib.

At the time of our conversation, Don Shebib, director of the Canadian classic Goin' Down the Road (1970), had just completed work on Heartaches (1981), written by playwright Terence Heffernan and starring Margot Kidder, Annie Potts and Robert Carradine. In this interview, Shebib speaks about his new film and what it was like to work with Kidder, at the time most famous for her work on the Superman movies and 1979's The Amityville Horror. Margot Kidder passed away on Monday, May 13, at the age of 69.

– Kevin Courrier

Here is the full interview with Don Shebib as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Monday, May 14, 2018

New Broadway Musicals: SpongeBob SquarePants & Mean Girls

Lilli Cooper, Ethan Slater, and Danny Skinner in SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway. (Photo: Youtube)

The output of musicals in the current Broadway season seems leaner than it is coming after the unusually hefty 2016-17 roster. The reason last season was so heavy was that many companies had elected to delay for a year to avoid coming up against Hamilton in the 2016 Tony Awards race. And even with more shows to choose from, I would hardly call 2016-2017 a banner year for musicals: I loved Bandstand and Come from Away, and there were several reasons to see Dear Evan Hansen if you could ignore the nonsensical book, but that was about all. This season brought the transfer of The Band’s Visit, one of the best new musical shows of recent years, from its downtown venue at the Atlantic Stage Company to a Broadway house. Having opted to skip the two new jukebox musicals, Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville and Summer (a bio of Donna Summer), I checked out the only other offerings, SpongeBob SquarePants and Mean Girls, shortly after their official openings.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Moles in American & Russian Intelligence in Jason Matthews's The Kremlin's Candidate

Author and former CIA agent Jason Matthews. (Photo: Booktopia)

"The world would know that the secret services of Russia were omniscient apex predators that could penetrate the governments of his enemies, discover their secrets, and exert their will over them . . . His active measures were creating lasting discord in the West, at minimal cost, and if he wanted to unseat an American politician, he had only to release an embarrassing, unencrypted email through WikiLeaks run by the languid dupe hiding in that exiguous Latin embassy in London. Partisan political hysteria now gripping American society would do the rest."  – Jason Matthews, The Kremlin's Candidate
The Kremlin's Candidate (Scribner, 2018) is the third and most compelling novel in Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow trilogy, concluding the series that began with Red Sparrow and continued with Palace of Treason. The final novel picks up with a prologue set in 2005, in which Audrey Rowland, an American naval officer and a scientist on a brief assignment to Moscow, is lured into a honey trap for the purpose of blackmail by Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy. The former ballerina began her career as a trained seductress in Red Sparrow, in which her first major assignment was to seduce CIA spy Nate Nash, the handler for a Soviet mole, and secure his identity. Instead, she was turned by Nash into a CIA mole in the Kremlin and he became her handler and lover. Fortunately, she had the protective advantage of being a synesthete, able to judge the intentions of others by the colours she saw emanating from them.