Friday, 11 April 2008

Stanley Kamel Passes On

Actor Stanley Kamel, perhaps best known for playing Adrian Monk's psychiatrist, Dr. Kroger, on the TV show Monk, died Tuesday from a heart attack. He was 65 years old.

Kamel was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on January 1, 1943 and raised in South River, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers Preparatory School and later Boston University. He studied under acclaimed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who also taught actors ranging from Gregory Peck to James Caan. He began his acting career in various off Broadway plays. He made his television debut in a bit part in an episode of Mission: Impossible in 1969. A year later he made his film debut in a bit part in the movie Bacchanale. Throughout the Seventies, he made guest appearances on such shows as The Sixth Sense, Mannix, The Mod Squad, Emergency, and Kojak. From 1972 to 1976 he played the role of Eric Peters on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Kamel appeared on Broadway in the musical Plantinum in 1978.

The Eighties saw Kamel make yet more guest appearances, on such shows as Quincy M.E., Three's Company, Hill Street Blues, and The Fall Guy. He was a semi-regular on Cagney and Lacey. He appeared in the films Making Love Star 80, and Murder by Numbers. The Nineties saw Kamel's career at its peak. He continued to guest star on such shows as Murder She Wrote, Matlock, and The Nanny. He was a regular on both Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 and a semi-regular on L. A. Law. On Murder One he was a regular as the slightly frightening psychiatrist Dr. Graham Lester. He also appeared in the films Automatic, Ravager, A Fare to Remember, Stonebrook, and Running Red. The Naughts saw Kamel cast as Monk's long suffering psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Kroger, in the TV show Monk. He also appeared in the David Lynch movie Inland Empire, and the movies Judge Koan and Domino.

Stanley Kamel was one of the great characters of more recent generations. He could play a wide range of characters. Often they would be unsavoury characters, such as the scheming Tony Marchette on Beverly Hills 90210. Other times they might be a bit unsettling, a particular example being Dr. Lester on Murder One. Yet other times his characters could be comforting and reassuring, such as Dr. Kroger on the TV show Monk. What is remarkable is that Kamel could play all of these roles very convincingly. He was one of the many great character actors who often go unnoticed in film and television, almost never winning awards, but brightening any film or TV show in which they appear. It is sad that he had to die all too soon.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd is easily one of the most famous characters to come out of England. Indeed, he is perhaps the earliest fictional serial killer to achieve any sort of fame. He made his first appearance n the serial The String of Pearls, published in The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7 (November 21 1846) to 24 (March 20, 1847). The String of Pearls would meet with incredible success. The serial was not even completed when the first dramatic adaptation appeared, written by George Dibden Pitt for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in London.in 1947. Tales of the demon barber of Fleet Street would become popular fare in pubs across England. He would appear again and again throughout the latter part of the Nineteenth century and into the Twentieth, in print, on stage, on film, and even in music hall ballads. It would have a lasting influence on British literature, influencing future detective stories and a novel called Dracula. In many ways he became the stuff of legend.

That is not to say that the portrayal of Sweeney Todd would not vary over the years. In his earliest appearances, beginning with The String of Pearls. Todd's motivation was simply to become very, very rich. It was in 1973, in his play Sweeney Todd, that playwright Christopher Bond would give Sweeney the motive for which he is best known now--revenge. In 1979 Stephen Sondheim would adapt Bond's play into the highly successful musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It is Sondheim's musical which director Tim Burton adapted for the big screen.

Fans of the musical will naturally notice some differences between the original musical and its screen adaptation. The musical clocks in at nearly three hours, while the movie is only around two hours. Several songs were cut and others would lose verses. But overall, the movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is fairly loyal to the musical. The central plot is still there, in which Todd seeks revenge for iniquities committed against him, and every character from the musical can be found in the film. This is definitely for the best. Film being a different medium than the stage, the plot should not be slowed down for songs which may be peripheral to the central plot thread. Similarly, in a musical such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the characters are ultimately more important than the songs. Both the film and the musical are character driven works, in which each character is driven by his or her own, often very powerful, motives and desires.

As to the overall quality of the film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it is a bloody good film, emphasis on the word bloody. Both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are adequate as singers, but they make up for any lack in the singing department with stellar performances. Indeed, Depp's performance brings to mind the horror actors of old, particularly Boris Karloff. His Todd is wonderfully quiet and often very, very still--the effect of which can be unsettling at times. As Mrs. Lovett, Carter realistically potrays a lonely widow one can believe would fall in love with a revenge driven madman. Kudos must also go to Alan Rickman, the judge and villain of the piece who puts the whole plot into action when he falsely imprisons Todd. Rickman's Judge Turpin is wonderfully intimidating and even a bit creepy.

Of course, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction. And the very look of the film does lend it much of its appeal, and not simply because of the movie's fantastic production design. From the costumes to Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, the movie creates a very dark, very rich atmosphere that is in many ways reminiscent of the Hammer movies of old.

While speaking of the overall look and feel of the movie, I suppose I should mention the violence of the movie, of which much had been said and written. Indeed, the MPAA's rating carries with a warning about "Bloody graphic violence." And there is a good deal of blood in the movie, as might be expected of a film in which a murderous barber slashes his victim's throats with his razors. In fact, blood not only flows in this movie, it spews. That having been said, I think Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is actually less graphic than many horror movies (particularly the many torture chic films). While there is a lot of blood, there are no guts in sight. At any rate, I must warn viewers, if you have weak stomachs, this movie is not for you.

As someone who loved the original Stephen Sondheim musical and has followed Sweeney Todd in his various incarnations, I must say that Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the best interpretations of the demon barber. More than that, it is a genuinely good film with fantastic performances, some great songs, a fantastic look and feel, and, as might be expected, a lot of blood...

Monday, 7 April 2008

You’ll Never Find Someone Like Her: an Interview with Karen Stever

You may not have heard the name "Karen Stever," but I am willing to bet that in the coming years you will hear it plenty. Born in Canada and now in Los Angeles, Karen is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and animator. Late last year she released her CD Playground Isolator. Co-produced with Frank Gryner (who has worked with the likes of Rob Zombie, The Dandy Warhols, and The Cult). Playground Isolator contains some of the most starkly original and inventive songs to come down the pike in years. Karen and Frank also animated and provided the theme song for the trailer for Ben Templesmith's graphic mini-series Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse.

Through the modern miracle of email, I recently had the opportunity to interview this brilliant, multi-talented artist.

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Mercurie: Growing up, did you always want to be a singer and songwriter?

Stever: Just today, I received a picture of my niece from my sister who looks alot like me (I am told she is acting a lot like me too...not sure that is good or bad....lol)

My sister said she just started grabbing the camera and taking pictures of herself. When one of her parents clicks her picture, she always asks, "Am I in it?" Apparently, that was me. I was a kid who always danced in front of a mirror and banged on things. I think I was free then. I had a time period in my life where I was not free and the idea of being a singer/songwriter was called a pipedream/stupid/not a real job so I shelved it. The music haunted me and called me back. I've mentioned before to people that it's an appendage. It really is. Cutting it off just creates a ghost that you don't want haunting you. As soon as I accepted that it was my path, I was lived in harmony with the ghost. My path changes a lot...the voices and words that are constantly flowing through my head probably aren't going anywhere anytime soon,
but if they do go away, I'll follow the next path. I've learned to listen more.

Mercurie: On a related note, what music did you grow up listening to? That is, what are your influences?

Stever: Everything except country. It was pretty much banned from my home as my father was a touring musician who got paid the most to play country and hated it. His annoyance rubbed off on us like a prejudice. HA! Despite the fact that I loved the metal, pop, new wave stuff that my siblings listened to, anything orchestral and rock made me "feel" the most. My home was filled with just about every kind of music you can imagine...and family jams on Sundays. Many people know about Lisa Dalbello being a heavy influence on me as she never seemed afraid to be herself. She taught me through her music to accept my own voice and experiment with it.

Mercurie: How would you describe your music stylistically and thematically?

Stever: Stylistically; heavy and orchestral. I like to grind my teeth and clench my fists to music. My life is intense, so in keeping it honest, thematically the subject is generally intense. I'm a bit of a boy really...so everything has a healthy level of sand and sawdust on it.

Mercurie: Could you tell us about your creative process? How do you go about writing a song?

Stever: This could change from day to day and hour to hour lately. A song like "Sicko" was written in the middle of my bed as a diary entry and turned into a poem and then a song later. "Sicko" ripped my guts out whereas a song like "Ride of Your Life" was written upside down on a couch on a crappy piece of paper with my foot tapping 4 on the wall (as opposed to 4 on the floor) throughout. Really my main goal with the process is to exorcise the voices in my head. They dance in insanity in there ya know...LOL. I have to free them and give them all a home. I am a foster parent of my songs...keeping them safe, giving them some stability and organizing them in such a way that they will have legs to stand on and wings to grow someday. It's awkward and ugly sometimes. It's a lot of tears, ripped up paper and anger. I'm probably not the best person to teach a seminar on song-writing. I'm still trying to figure out where the melodies come from. I don't write them. They present themselves in an obvious way to me. They float in my head, I match them up with their word partners and away they go for better or for worse. The Playground Isolator cd varies from song to song in it's conception. A few songs my co-producer Frank Gryner had some preliminary instrumentation for and he'd hand it off to me. "Funeral Mute" was perhaps my favourite (as far as fun) process. I had some words written and Frank had a very crappy acoustic guitar with him and we came up with the chords and I put my melody and words with it. I later played with the accordion sounds and then instrument by instrument layered on. I will say that I believe a song that works should be played around a camp fire and work. I never believe instrumentation should hold a song together.

Mercurie: Were there any authors, film makers, or artists who have had a strong influence on your work?

Stever: I love Italian Renaissance art. I also love anything graphically insulting meaning if it makes me feel uncomfortable, I question it and become envious of the courage of the artist.

Shakespeare was an enormous influence on me (even though I don't write like him) because of his theatrical experience in Elizabethan times. I was into theatre a lot in high school. I didn't understand him though so my mom would break down what he was saying into modern day terminology and I started to see the beauty of his poetry. It made me want to write. But instead of writing like him, I just wrote with the modern words. Poetry after all doesn't have to be eloquent. LOL I was always more inspired to write music after watching Bugs Bunny (because of the orchestration) and a film like The Crow makes me feel dark and edgy enough to put myself in the appropriate place to write. Anything intense doesn't influence me so much as gives me licence to also do it.

Mercurie: How many instruments do you play? And what instruments are your favourites?

Stever: I am a hacker. I don't look at instruments how they should although I was taught to play piano growing up. I was the kid that annoyed my teacher because I would improvise songs to make them more interesting rather than follow her ugly notes. I would also argue with her that the writer sucked at writing and therefore it wasn't a good song to learn anyways. SO I play drums, guitar and bass POORLY...I mean POORLY whereas the piano I am comfortable on. I like writing at my piano. I probably should have been a drummer though as I tap incessantly ALL DAY LONG. All the instrumentation on the Playground Isolator cd was shared between Frank and myself. We played what we needed to when it came up. I sing all my own vocals and backgrounds. I would never subject another soul to how we do things...UGLY UGLY UGLY.

Mercurie: You're originally from Canada, but you are now based out of Los Angeles. Was it difficult in making the move from Canada to California?

Stever: I like to think I am not based out of anywhere. I want to keep my mind somewhat nomadic. Location doesn't mean anything. It is the people you are around. Travel breeds tolerance and for me right now, being anywhere permanently means I am not listening to where I am needed. Canada will always be my home, but unfortunately having lost both parents, I don't have a family home to visit. New York feels like a second home to me as I feel really comfortable when I am there. People are dark and edgy. Middle America has rocks and landscapes that inspire me. But California has sunshine which is like an anti-depressant for the suicidal. California is a good place to be for a time to renew one's relationship with the sun and hills. If I feel the need to settle down somewhere, I hope it is an old abandoned church in the middle of nowhere...somewhere I can sing into the rafters and feel the history around me.

I think a move is only difficult when a person is to attached to where they are. For the first time, I'm not.

Mercurie: You are also an animator. Do you find animation more or less satisfying than your music?

Stever: Oh please let me say I am no animator. I hack at that more than music! I couldn't tell you how half these programs operate. I want it to do something and I use the help menu and make it work for what I want at the time. Something like Ben Templesmith's Wormwood trailer took probably 50 times longer for Frank and I to do than it would some professional because we honestly don't know what we are doing. But to answer your question, it's SO MUCH FREAKING FUN! It's just something cool to do.

Mercurie: Do you think the advent of the internet and digital formats such as MP3 has drastically changed the music business? Is it quite as important for an artist to be attached to a music label as it once was?

Stever: Oh wow. Don't hit my nerve like that! hahahahaha.... Seriously, if one single artist out there reads this, I will say if a major label comes to you, turn and RUN. The majors are dying. I have had contracts in front of me and they are RAPE. Not only that, what they offer is irrelevant nowadays. They may hate me for saying it, (all a person has to do is look at sales and stock market numbers) but they will sink into the ocean. People are constantly being fired as we speak. I suggest every artist out there goes and reads the Bob Lefsetz Letters and educates themselves. With the internet, you don't need major labels. It does depend on the artist's motivation though. Despite the dozens of requests I get from these people for cds etc, I don't want to be a big star. I want to remain being an artist and my goal on earth is not to be wealthy, it's to make a difference in the lives of PEOPLE. I don't even like the term "fans". People I meet inspire me daily. I learn from them. We are a community. I don't want fans...I just want to have relationships with like-minded spirits. I hate the hierarchy and arrogance of the "Rock Star" Get down from your pedestal. You look stupid up there...morons... lol. I do think too many artists put money before art. Art should not be driven by the need for money. I did (and do) other things to pay the bills so the art doesn't suffer. It keeps it pure. I've seen artists make bad choices because of the need to make money. My dad quit those country gigs he did, kept farming to pay bills and spent his evenings playing the music he loved with his family. No interest in fame. Just an interest to enjoy his life.

Mercurie: Any parting words for our readers?

Stever: I am delighted you made it this far. Anyone who is part of my blog community knows what a rambling, blithering idiot I can be. Thanks for being so patient with me. ;)

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For those of you who would like a sample of Karen Stever's work, here is the video to her song "Sicko."



If you would like to hear more of Karen Stever's songs, you can visit her profile at MySpace.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Charlton Heston Rides Off into the Sunset

Legendary movie star Charlton Heston, played roles ranging from Moses to El Cid, died last night at the age of 84. In 2002 he announced that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. While a very young child, Heston's family lived in St. Helen, Michigan, When he was only ten his parents divorced. Not long after his mother married Chester Heston. His mother and stepfather then moved to Wilmette, Illinois. He was active in the drama programme at New Trier High School and acted in plays at the Winnetka Community Theatre, Heston majored in drama at Northwestern University. It was while attending Northwestern that he made his film debut, in a film adaptation of Peer Gynt in 1941, directed and written by David Bradley. Bradley would later direct Heston as Marc Antony in his 1950 adaptation of Julius Caesar.

During World War II Heston served in the Army Air Forces as a radio operator on a B-29 with the rank of sergeant. Following the war he took to acting once more. He and his wife, the former Lydia Clarke, founded he Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina in 1947 (the theatre was named for the city's famous son). In 1947 he also made his Broadway debut, as Proculeius in a revival of Antony and Cleopatra. In 1949 he returned to Broadway for Glenn Campbell in the play Leaf and Bough. In 1950 he appeared on Broadway in the drama Design for a Stained Glass Window. It was the same year that he made his debut on television, in an episode of The Clock.

It was also in 1950 that Charlton Heston appeared in David Bradley's non-professional film adaptation of Julius Caesar. The film brought Heston to the attention of Hollywood. He was soon cast in his first Hollywood film, the noir Dark City, released in 1950. For the next few years Heston appeard frequently on television, making appearances on Lux Video Theatre, Suspense, and several on Studio One. It was in 1952 that he had his breakthrough role, as circus manager Brad Braden in Cecil DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.

For the next several years Charlton Heston appeared both on television (in episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse, Your Show of Shows, and Playhouse 90), all the while starring in major motion pictures (such as Pony Express, Arrowhead, and The Private War of Major Benson). It was in 1956 that Heston appeared in the role with which he would become most identified, playing Moses in Cecil DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Arguably this was the beginning of Heston's richest period in his career, as he not only played a number of historical figures, but also starred in a number of classic films. He starred in Orson Welles' classic noir Touch of Evil. He played General Andrew Jackson in The Buccaneer. Heston had the title role in Ben Hur. He played Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the title role, in the classic El Cid. And he played Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

As the historical epics went out of vogue, Heston's career changed as well. With the release of the mega-hit Planet of the Apes in 1968, Heston increasingly appeared in various genre films. He played Robert Neville in The Omega Man, the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. He starred in the dystopic sci-fi movie Soylent Green. He also had the role of Cardinal Richlieu in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, as well as Henry the VIII in Crossed Swords. Heston also appeared in new versions of Julius Caesar (once more as Antony) and Antony and Cleopatra (again as Antony), as well as the films Call of the Wild, Midway, and Two Minute Warning.

The latter part of Heston's career was spent playing supporting roles in feature films, as well as appearing in television movies. He was a regular on the TV series The Colbys. He also appeared in the telefilms A Man for All Seasons (as Sir Thomas More), Treasure Island (as Long John Silver), and The Crucifer of Blood (as Sherlock Holmes). He appeared in such films as In the Mouth of Madness, Alaska, Tombstone, True Lies, and in an uncredited cameo in the re-envisioning of Planet of the Apes. His last appearance on screen was in Egidio Eronico's My Father, Rua Alguem 5555 in 2003.

In addition to his extensive film career, Charlton Heston was also a president of the Screen Actors Guild for six terms. He was also a chairman of the American Film Institute. While justifiably famous as an actor, Heston would also be well known for his sometimes controversial political views. Early in his career campaigning for such candidates as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, his political views grew more conservative has he grew older. He would campaign for Ronald Reagan and both Bushs. He also became the outspoken president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003.

While I disagreed with many, perhaps most of Charlton Heston's political views in his later years, he has always remained one of my favourite actors. Square jawed, tall, and muscular, with a commanding voice, he was well suited to playing many of the larger than life roles he did. I dare say that when most people picture Moses in their mind, it is Charlton Heston that they see. And although Heston won only one Oscar (for his role as Ben Hur in the movie of the same name), I have little doubt as to his talent. His performance as narcotics detective Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil is one of the best things in a movie that is nearly perfect as it is. And while usually playing heroic roles, Heston was utterly convincing as tormented artist Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Indeed, Charlton Heston starred in some of my favourite movies of all time. Planet of the Apes and El Cid both remain in my list of the greatest movies of all time. And, quite frankly, I am not sure that any other actor could have played Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the legendary El Cid, quite so convincingly. While I may have disagreed with Heston's politics, I have no doubt that he was one of the greatest leading men of all time.