Sunday, August 28, 2011

Saying Goodnight to Irene

Article first published as Saying Goodnight to Irene on Technorati.

With the whole east coast evacuating their homes or hunkering in fear awaiting the arrival of what will have to be, at least for awhile the storm of the century, albeit the century is still young, it takes a folk singer to look for the pony in the proverbial room full of horse manure. In this case the pony comes in the form of a folk song first popularized back in the 30's by a black ex-con with a haunting voice and a name to reckon with, Leadbelly, and then made really popular in the 50's by a group of left leaning radicals, the Weavers. The folk song in question of course is the iconic "Goodnight Irene," and what more appropriate as the lady herself makes her way up the coast from the Carolinas to Battery Park and beyond.

Along comes Christopher Paul Stelling, and either in an attempt to get a little publicity for his ingenuity (which he probably deserves) or with an almost post modern irony he offers up a cover of the classic perhaps as a talisman akin to the old chestnut, "Rain, rain, go away. It's either too cute by far, if you have no sense of humor or a one of the neatest puns of last few days.

So here is the link to Stelling, often praised for the emotional impact of his vocals, doing his cover of the Leadbelly classic.

And here for even more juju is the link to Leadbelly himself.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

DVD Review: Babar: The Classic Series: School Days

Article first published as DVD Review: Babar: The Classic Series: School Days on Blogcritics.

I don't remember the last time I opened that big red covered picture book with that elephant doffing a derby hat in his trunk and carrying a sign with the title on his back to read The Story of Babar, but to this day, though there is much that I have forgotten, I can still remember that elephant in a Paris department store for the first time riding up and down on the elevator. I can still picture the pompous store manager admonishing him, something to the effect: "That's not a toy Mr. Elephant." Now although this kind of sentimental childhood memory may not resonate with quite the cache of Proust's petite madeleine, it is the kind of memory we clearly want for own children. For many of us the best place to get that experience is the original, and luckily the original and all its sequels are still available.

On the other hand in this age of electronic media on demand, parents may find it difficult for books in general let alone these classics from a bygone day to compete for their children's attention. With a children's TV landscape cluttered with the likes of the Bubble Guppies and The Backyardigans, not to mention Dora and Sponge Bob, parents who remember with fondness having those classics of children literature read to them at bedtime, books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit with those wonderful Beatrix Potter illustrations and Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline, may have better luck with an electronic introduction to Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's beloved elephant . The upcoming DVD release of Babar: The Classic Series: School Days offers just this kind of opportunity.

The digitally restored and remastered DVD offers four different episodes based on the original stories. It also offers a little eight page coloring book. Most all the characters from the books are there and they are drawn much in the traditional style. Backgrounds, especially in the episodes that take place in France have an authentic period feel. In general, the series' cartoons are more carefully realized than much of the fare on children's television today and the artwork compares favorably to the original.

The episodes themselves are all aimed at teaching the young child some life lesson. School Days, the first of them illustrates the importance of accepting all people regardless of their individual differences as a young Babar is bullied at school because of his trunk. Kings of the Castle has Babar trading places with Rataxes the king of the rhinos and both of them learning that different situations must be handled differently. Every Basket Has a Silver Lining teaches the importance of telling the truth and working patiently to get what you want, as Pom tries to make the school basketball team. Peer Pressure, the last of the episodes, shows a young Babar recognizing that it is a mistake to do things you know are wrong in order to make friends. This is a series that focuses on family values.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Music Review: Mikey Wax-Constant Motion

Article first published as Music Review: Mikey Wax-Constant Motion on Blogcritics.

Every once in awhile you hear a song for the first time and you can't get it out of your head. You need to listen to it again and again, and no matter how many times you hear it, it doesn't get old. "Marion," a haunting ballad on singer/songwriter Mikey Wax's sophomore CD Constant Motion, is just such a song. I don't know if it's the arrangement that builds from a simply stated melody to a climax and then falls back to echo the beginning with a framing effect. I don't know if it's the emotional intensity of the sometime cryptic lyric, which seems to speak to an ineffable relation between the past and the present. The Marion of the title is the mother of the woman the singer is in love with, perhaps has just married. She is a woman he has never met, but as he dances with her daughter who is wearing her long white dress, it is as though he can feel her presence, as though somehow the past is an inevitable part of the present. The trouble with getting too analytical is like any great lyric, the more you try to explain it, the more there is to say.

And "Marion" is not the only gem on the CD. Whether he slows things down with a ballad or goes up tempo, Wax has a knack for infectious pop melodies. In songs like "No Regrets" and "Keep Dreaming," he can take a retro vibe and make it over into something new. Then in songs like "Long Lost Dream" and "Counting on You" he can turn to propulsive power pop. He can move from the simple lines of "Fall For You," to the more complex rhythms of "How it Feels." But no matter the direction, the melody is always front and center.

Constant Motion, the CD's title, is taken from a phrase in "Counting on You." In a world that is in constant motion, that is always changing, we need something, someone that we can count on. "Ah love, let us be true /To one another," says a poet from an earlier day, for the world has "neither joy, nor love, nor light, /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." This was Matthew Arnold way back in the 19th century, and it is a message Wax has resurrected for the 21st. "You and I, we will make it through" is Wax's version of Arnold, and in one way or another it is the plaint of each of the eleven songs on the CD. Don't get me wrong, these are not art songs. Most of these are the kind of pop tunes which will be playing on your local radio station any day now.

See for yourself. Check out the singer's website: he's offering his fans a couple of free downloads.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

TV Review: Big Sexy

Article first published as TV Review: Big Sexy on Blogcritics.

There was a time when big as applied to women was probably a good thing. Even a glance at the women in paintings by an artist like Rubens makes it clear that pleasingly plump was the ideal female body type. Even as late as the middle of the last century, softig women like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell had the figures that women coveted, the bodies that made male mouths water. That all changed as the century progressed. The new emphasis on youth culture found its ideal of the female form in the slender nymphet—curves were out and thin was in, thin to the point of starvation chic. Of course there were still big women, but more often than not they were made to feel freakish because of their size.

What big women need is a new image, a hip image. They need to feel good about themselves. They need role models who are unashamed of their thighs, their stomachs, their butts. Big Sexy, TLC's three part series which premieres Tuesday, August 30th at ten, takes a shot at supplying those models.

The series introduces the viewer to five plus size New Yorkers, three aspiring models, Audrey, Tiffany and Nikki, and two wannabe fashion designers, Heather and Leslie—women who not only claim to be comfortable with their bodies, but celebrate their size. This is not to say there are moments of doubt, they are after all human beings and human beings suffer their insecure moments. Still when it comes right down to it, these are women who refuse to accept the stereotypical roles set aside for big women. They want everything their skinny sisters want, and they are going to do their darnedest to get it.

We follow them as they visit Fashion Week at Lincoln Center and marvel at the anorexic models while envying the stylish clothes that would never work for them. We see them rejected at a club holding one of the after parties. We watch them at a BBW (Big Beautiful Women) party, and later a round of speed dating. Their experiences are not always very satisfactory, but through it all they remain upbeat and optimistic.

The first episode ends with one of those let's put on a show moments as the women decide that fashion shouldn't be limited to petites. Big women deserve fashionable clothes too. With a little help from their friends, they decide to put on their own runway fashion show. There is some drama about bathing suits, but in the end the women come through with flying colors, and there is something empowering as these ladies strut their stuff. While the idea of the plus size fashion show may not be entirely new, I seem to remember an episode on Project Runway where the designers created 'looks' for full figured women, the emotional stakes for these women in this particular fashion show are much greater. This is all about their self image and when they walk down that runway, they walk tall and proud of whom they are. They are big and they are sexy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post: A Great Newspaper Fights For its Life

Article first published as Book Review: Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post: A Great Newspaper Fights For its Life by Dave Kindred on Blogcritics.

There is something misleading about the main title of Dave Kindred's book on the recent history of The Washington Post: Morning Miracle. Anyone aware of the epic problems the newspaper industry has been facing with the emergence of the internet not to mention 24 hour cable news and the general financial debacle seeing the word "miracle" applied to the Post might well be forgiven for thinking the book was about how the paper managed to beat the odds and maintain itself in the grand tradition of Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, Donald Graham and Len Downie. That at any rate is what this reader expected; that isn't quite what this reader got.

The tradition is there. There are plenty of stories both old and new about the paper's great years: Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, of course, but also about more recent coups. There are detailed accounts of the stories that garnered the Post six Pulitzer prizes in 2008, especially the expose of the poor treatment of veterans at Walter Reed, the coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech and the feature story on virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell busking in a busy D.C. subway station. Significantly, these unprecedented successes came even as the paper was losing money, losing circulation and downsizing to try to cope with the intractable problems that might well lead to its demise. Quality reportage, it seems, was no guarantee of survival.

An impassioned defense of importance of the daily newspaper for the social and political fabric of a community is there. And while it is for the most part the kind of lament one has heard repeated over and over again for the past few years, as one paper or another folds its tents and drifts off into the 'nethersphere,' it does ring with a sense of truth. If newspapers can’t earn the kinds of returns necessary to justify long form investigative reporting and news gathering facilities around the world, who is going to do it? Who is going to speak truth to power? What the newspaper does is necessary in a vital democracy, the argument seems to go, even if no one is willing to pay for it.

What is not there is a solution. It's not there, because no one has yet figured one out. The Post, like the other major newspapers has tried and is continuing to try different models to find ways to use the internet to help save the print journal, to diversify its holdings, and to reinvent its voice for the local community. Some of these seeds have borne fruit; some are yet to blossom. Whether they will ever be able to bring back the good old days, whether the newspaper will ever be the kind of force it was back in the day when Ben Bradlee walked the newsroom remains to be seen. If there is a miracle, it is in what The Washington Post was and what it might be again, not what it is.

Kindred has a truly romantic attitude towards journalism and the people who practice it. The most interesting parts of the book are the profiles of the individual reporters and editors who inhabit the newsroom. These are the people who will wake at dawn and spend the next twenty three hours chasing their story. They will gobble down fast food and guzzle coffee as they pursue leads. They will corner the powerful and ask the embarrassing question, and ask it again and again until they get an answer. They will bleed red for their story, and they will do it all on their day off. Who, he asks, wouldn't want a job like that. These are people who love what they do and they would do it for nothing, or maybe meal money. The newsroom of today may not move to the incessant beat of the typewriter keys, but for Kindred it is still the newsroom of The Front Page.

There are nicely done verbal portraits of some of the old warhorses. Walter Pincus: asked why the septuagenarian was a reporter, he answered, "To change the world." There are the mid-career hot shots. Dana Priest: five months pregnant she takes an assignment to Baghdad: "This," she says, "is what I'm living for." There are the callow 'wannabees.' James Hohmann: started his own paper reporting on his family and selling it to them for a dollar a copy. He was five years old. Kindred has a real knack for getting at the essence of the people he describes. Some of them may be cranky at times, but they are always committed. He is not inclined to show anyone's clay feet.

The one major exception is Katherine Weymouth, the Graham niece who takes over running the paper and has the responsibility of turning its fortunes around. She doesn't come across quite as nobly as some of the 'real' news people, but even here he treats her with kid gloves. Responsible for the policy of buying out a number of the Post stalwarts, for changing the culture of the paper, and for trying to return it to profit at the expense of some of the traditional newsman's cherished values, she would have been a ripe target. Yet although criticism is implicit in much that he has to say about her and her short tenure, he never really attacks her.

Morning Miracle has a lot to say about the plight of the newspaper industry in the first decade of the 21st century as illustrated in the story of one of the great papers as it struggles to remake itself and reaffirm its place in the media hierarchy. Unfortunately though it may be a losing battle, it is one that Kindred at least feels needs to be fought. Given the current landscape, if it, or any other newspaper manages the trick, it will indeed be a miracle.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

TV Review: Livin' For the Apocalypse

Article first published as TV Review: Livin' For the Apocalypse on Blogcritics.

Discovery's Livin' For the Apocalypse set to air on Sunday, August 28th at ten gives the viewer an intensive look at four couples who are spending their lives making physical preparations—food and water, arms, shelter-- for an Armageddon they are certain is coming. It may be a natural disaster. It may be a foreign invasion. It may be an economic collapse. It will definitely be the end of the world as we know it. It may even be the end of the world altogether. Wait. . . .Hold that last one: if that happens, there probably isn't much of a need for the kinds of preparation these people are engaged in. On the other hand, if Cormac McCarthy got it right in The Road, these four couples and perhaps their loved ones, these four couples will be ready.

The show begins with a nominally reasonable looking couple who have raised what seem to be seven lovely grown children. They seem like two fairly normal people until they begin to talk and tale the camera on a guided tour through their preparations for the calamity they are sure is coming. Rooms filled with canned goods, dried food and other necessities, a root cellar that can serve as a hurricane or even a bomb shelter at home and another fully equipped shelter in the building that houses the wife's business. If necessary they also have a well stocked mountain retreat from which the man of the house tells us he can hold off an army of invaders with his private arsenal. In many respects this couple, a couple their own children seem to think have gone off the deep end, this couple is the most normal of the people on the show. Their fears have at least some justification as they describe a tornado that just missed their house. Besides they have also managed to parley their apocalyptic fear into what seems to be a budding business opportunity.

Next there is a gun toting chiropractor who calls himself the Survival Doc and his wife. This is a man who hordes silver, raises bunnies for meat to supplement his obligatory cache of supplies, studies martial arts and hosts his own internet show advising others of the survivalist credo: "One is none; two is one." Oh, and sometimes he dresses up like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. A very nice looking young couple with two young children comes next. They are raising tilapia and vegetables in their swimming pool and composting to grow grubs to feed their chickens. Not only that, but they are teaching their children to get used to full body protective gear including gas masks through a kind of play activity. For the grand finale, we are introduced to an older woman and her transgendered house mate who raise guinea pigs to sell as pets and for food when the time comes. Their house is so stuffed with supplies they have begun keeping things in the bathroom. They even have some home canned beef heart for the rainy day to come.

The documentary takes no specific editorial point of view. There is no commentary by outsiders or experts about what is shown. The subjects are given the floor. They show the viewers what they want them to see and they explain their ideas at length. Although it would appear these people are deadly serious about what they fear and what needs to be done, it is hard for the viewer to take them seriously. The more you see, the more you hear—the more you are convinced that these people have problems. On the other hand you have to remember that old fable about the ant and the grasshopper; come the day of reckoning they may well be standing there telling us cynics: "I told you so."

But then there are those Mayan prophecies about 2012.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: July, July, by Tim O'Brien

First Published on The Compulsive Reader.

Tim O'Brien has gained a well deserved reputation for his Viet Nam war fiction. Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried are two of the most compelling narratives to deal with the effects of that war on those condemned to fight it, indeed two of the most compelling narratives about the effects of any, and probably every, war.
Not content to be a one trick pony, O'Brien's new novel, July, July, marks his second attempt at exploring new territory. While not leaving the war behind completely, O'Brien here weaves it together with other elements as part of a larger tapestry. There is a Viet Nam veteran. There is the story of his ordeal on the banks of the Song Tra Ky. There is the picture of his life consumed by drugs, failed romance, and the loss of a leg. But this is only one of the stories of blighted lives and wasted promise.

In an interview (, O'Brien point out he as much interested in the fact that ordinary everyday life goes on even in the face of historical cataclysms. Those who didn't fight go on living. Yet in some sense, even from this perspective, the war may well be the two ton gorilla in the novel.

July, July uses the thirtieth reunion of Class of 1969 of Darton Hall College in Minnesota as a frame for individual stories focusing on critical moments in the past of ten of the celebrating alumni. Usually, after each story, the reader is brought back to the reunion for a glance at how these children of the war years have turned out. We see them before we know their individual stories, and we see them after; we see them singly, and we see them as part of the group. We see them as individuals, and we see them as representatives of an era. In a sense the hero of the novel is the Class of '69.

It takes a few pages to get beyond the confusion of which name goes with which character, but unless the author provides a general prologue in which each parades past to the tune of a lively character sketch, such confusion is inevitable. Yet since O'Brien deftly defines each with telling strokes--the pot bellied mop manufacturer, the alluring temptress with two husbands and a lover, the female minister fired from her pulpit for house breaking--the early confusion is kept to a manageable minimum.

As in any group some characters, some stories are more memorable than others. Everybody can't be the Wife of Bath. Dorothy Steir is a rock ribbed Republican with a pool and a house and a patio, trying to come to terms with a radical mastectomy. Ellie Abbot sneaks off for an affair only to have her companion drown in a lake while she watches from the shore. David Todd loses a leg in Viet Nam and a wife on Christmas morning ten years later.

July, July however is not simply a collection of stories set in a frame to keep them neatly in place a la Boccacio or the Arabian Nights. These are works in which it is the individual tale--the part, rather than the whole-- that is focus. July, July tries to knit stories and characters together so that the whole is something more than the sum of its parts.

Stories complement one another. If one character goes to war and wrecks his life, another runs off to Canada, and though he manages to avoid the war, becomes no less an emotional cripple. If they marry at all, they marry the wrong people. If they are successful in their careers, they find that success unfullfilling. No matter what they have, they always seem to want something else, more often than not something they cannot have.

Spook Spinelli, class tramp, is a good example. She has one husband, she wants another. She gets a second, she wants a lover. She gets him and she still comes to the reunion looking for something more. Marv Bertel, he of the mops and bellies, on the other hand, wants only one thing--Spook, and he's wanted her for thirty one years. Spook may never get what she wants because she is not really aware of what it is; Marv knows exactly what he wants, although one is tempted to wonder if he would be happy if he ever got it.

Still they could dream: "And then for some time they fantasized, taking turns at inventing a happy ending for themselves. . . .It had become the ninth day of July, Sunday ,just before three in the morning, a new age, a new century, and for both Marv Bertel and Spook Spinelli, the turbulent world of their youth had receded like some idle threat or long-lapsed promise. Nixon was dead. Westmoreland was in retirement. That war was over. Now there were new wars. But still, as with Spook and Marv and several million other survivors of their times, there would also be the essential renewing fantasy of splendid things to come." (pp, 318-319)

These "survivors of their times" come to the reunion looking for something of that splendid promise that never quite came. Some find it, not always where they expected, but find it nonetheless. Of course, whether what they find is something lasting is another question. Some go home as empty handed as they came.

July, 1969, as the author reminds us, was a year of miracles. There were the amazing Mets. There were men walking on the moon. It was a time when the world was all before us. The class of '69 was graduated into a world where anything and everything seemed possible. July, 2000, when they come together once again, that optimism seems little more than naive.

Even if you live in a house in the suburbs, even if your husband is a senior vice president at Cargill with a matched set of Volvos and you've canvassed your neighborhood for Ronald Reagan, you can still wake up to find that your husband can't bring himself to look at the scar where your breast used to be. You can find kinship with a Viet Nam veteran shot in both feet, with a prosthesis where his leg ought to be. And if you find yourself walking home alone in a drugged euphoria in the middle of the night, there may well be some who are finding comfort in each other, even as you have found some comfort.

If July, July never quite reaches the heights of O'Brien's best work, it is a much more successful piece of fiction than Tom Cat in Love, his last attempt to stretch his horizons and a book that bodes well for future attempts.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: The Shooting Salvationist, by David R. Stokes

Article first published as Book Review: The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David R. Stokes on Blogcritics.

Late in 1926, Dexter Eliot (D.E.) Chipps, a divorced lumberman walked into the First Baptist Church office of the nationally renowned fundamentalist preacher J. Frank Norris. He was there to warn the preacher against his continuing his attacks on the Fort Worth mayor and other political crones that Chipps considered his friends. What exactly happened in that office is a matter of dispute, but what isn't in dispute, is that Chipps was never to leave that building alive. Either in self defense or with murderous intent, an unarmed D.E. Chipps was shot, shot three times, shot by J. Frank Norris, shot with a gun he kept in a drawer in his desk. The story of the killing, the tensions that caused it and trial that followed—a trial as notorious in its day as the trial of Casey Anthony today--is the subject of David R. Stokes' popular history, The Shooting Salvationist.

It is a remarkable story filled with religious and political conflict and Stokes does his best to milk it for all its drama, but unlike many of the more prominent legal battles of the early twentieth century some of the early parts of the narrative are burdened with the need for a good bit of exposition. People famous and infamous in their day have become meaningless names; institutions and organizations that once dominated the country have faded and disappeared. The modern reader needs a good deal of information to understand what is going on and why it's happening. This kind of background may be necessary, but it can stall the narrative. Stokes is very good at supplying the needed information, although there are times the reader might have hoped he could have done so with a bit more style and a little less repetition.

He is careful to set the story in its historical, cultural context, constantly relating it to some of the more well known events of the day: the death of Harry Houdini, the Dempsey, Tunney fight, the death of the last of Abe Lincoln's sons, the Scopes Trial. He talks about the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism in the fundamentalist churches. He describes the political infighting in the city of Fort Worth and in the state of Texas. He emphasizes the importance of the church in the lives of parishioners and in the community in general.

Norris, as the spiritual leader of the largest congregation in the city, indeed one of the largest in the nation, was one of the most prominent people in Fort Worth. His sermons and his writings were published around the country, and he was sought as a guest preacher all over the nation. Although earlier in his career he had been tried for arson and perjury, he had been acquitted and was now a community stalwart. Stokes describes his position: ". . . by the middle of 1924, J. Frank Norris had the largest Protestant church in America, a newspaper that went into more than fifty thousand homes, and a radio station and network that could potentially take his voice to millions."

That such a man should be on trial for his life was the kind of scandal dear to the hearts of the tabloids of the day, a fundamentalist sequel to the recently ended Monkey Trial, but this time with even greater personal stakes for the accused. If this trial didn't quite feature a battle between mythic giants like Darrow and Bryant, it did have the cream of Texas lawyers butting heads in an Austin courtroom. It is in the description of the trial, often using actual transcripts that Stokes is at his narrative best. He looks at the attorneys and their strategies. He looks at the press coverage. He shows the effects of the trial on Norris and his family, on Chipps' ex-wife and his friends. It is a comprehensive account, but it moves with the kind of pace and intensity that makes for truly exciting courtroom drama.

If The Shooting Salvationist doesn't quite match up dramatically with some of the top level popular historical accounts of recent years, books like Eric Larson's The Devil and the White City or even with Donald McRae's more scholarly The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, it is still a book that will both keep you reading and teach you some things you may not have known about the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Music Review: The Spin Doctors-Pocket Full of Kryptonite: 20th Anniversary Edition

Article first published as Music Review: The Spin Doctors-Pocket Full of Kryptonite [20th Anniversary Edition] on Blogcritics.

The Pocket Full of Kryptonite: 20th Anniversary Edition, set for an August 30th release to commemorate the band's classic debut album, is a two CD set featuring a re-mastered version of the platinum selling album on Disc 1 and a set of previously unreleased demo tapes and live performances on Disc 2. A CD set to get the mouth of any real fan of this funky 90's jam band watering, this anniversary edition, especially the previously unreleased tracks—over 75 minutes of rarely heard music, has got what it takes to satisfy even the casual listener.

Disc 2 opens with six songs from a 1989 "Can't Say No" demo. It includes earlier versions of "Jimmy Olsen's Blues," "Forty or Fifty" and "Hard to Exist," all of which were to turn up on the Kryptonite album. "Big Fat Funky Booty" and "At This Hour" showed up on later albums. Of the eight tracks from the band's last cassette, the 1990 "Piece of Glass" demo four are songs that made it onto Kryptonite: "What Time is It?," "How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me)," "Refrigerator Car," and probably their biggest hit, "Two Princes." "Hungry Hamed's" and "Rosetta Stone" appeared on the 1994 Turn it Upside Down. "House," which the liner notes calls "a signature live show rabble rouser," adds some improvised lyrics from singer/songwriter Chris Barron, something he used to do at live gigs. The two live tracks are a 1993 performance of "Turn It Upside Down" from the Kingswood Music Theater in Toronto and "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" from the Continental Divide in New York in 1990.

Fans who have never had the opportunity to hear these demo tapes are in for a treat. There is a quirky joy the band takes in what they are doing that comes through loud and clear as they revel in developing their signature funky rock style. Guitarist Eric Schenkman says: "Our sound just kind of revealed itself to us. Like some kind of crazy sandwich that's exponential, where strange things happen and two plus two equals five." This is clearly a band ready to make their move.

Although it may have taken the album a year or so to hit its stride, it did go gold in 1992, and eventually five times platinum. The re-mastered Kryptonite album holds up well after 20 years. Drummer Aaron Comess, fresh from his recent Beautiful Mistake CD, reflects in Cree McCree's liner notes: We recorded the album about a year before it came out. . . .By the time it came out I was over it. I felt like we're better now, that was a year ago, and you should hear us now. Now I hear the record 20 years later and I'm like, this is a great record!" And you know what? He's right.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TV Review: My Collection Obsession

Article first published as TV Review: My Collection Obsession on Blogcritics.

If your acquaintance with women obsessed with shoes is limited to Imelda Marcos and Carrie Bradshaw, you may want to take some time to meet Darlene Flynn on the Sunday, August 21 premiere of the TLC special, My Collection Obsession. When you're talking shoes, this is the go to lady. We're not talking about a closet filled with shoes, we're talking about a house filled not only with shoes to wear, but miniature shoes, shoe ornaments, shoe decorated knick-knacks, a shoe lamp, and as she makes ready to purchase her 15,000th shoe related collectable, a shoe shaped planter. A certificate from the Guinness Book of Records, attests to the fact that when it comes to shoe obsession, this woman is the champ.

She is the first of three individual and one pair of obsessive collectors featured on the special. Joining her are a vacuum cleaner collecting teenager, a doll collector, and a male couple who collect Dolly Parton memorabilia. Like Darlene they all live in houses stuffed to the rafters with the objects they have collected over the years, every piece, be it a Kirby Legend vacuum, a life like breathing new born doll, or a Mae West costume Parton wore on a TV show, as prized and beloved as if it were a piece of fine art or a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation.

We meet their families, supportive for the most part, although the vacuum cleaner collector's sister has trouble avoiding rolling her eyes talking about his "weird" obsession. We follow them as they pursue their passion. Marilyn goes shopping for shoes with a doll the size of a five year old in a stroller. Kyle spends his Saturdays running around to garage sales in search of a rare Kirby or Hoover. Patrick and Harold make weekly visits to Chasing Rainbows the Parton museum in Dollywood to see if they can get something from their collection put on display. Through it all we hear them explain how important, how fulfilling their collections are to them. If they feel that there is anything odd in their behavior, they never show any embarrassment. As Kyle says at one point, there is nothing stranger about collecting vacuum cleaners than there is about collecting rocks or baseball cards. And if you think about it he's right, except it may make sense to differentiate between collecting and obsessive collecting.

My Collection Obsession makes no judgments about these people and what they do. There are no talking heads describing the psychological stresses underlying their behavior. There are no narrative voiceovers editorializing about their obsession. There is no snarky commentary by people they come in contact with. Kyle gets called upon to help people repair their machines. Patrick and Harold get serious treatment from the Chasing Rainbows curator and one hell of a surprise visit. Marilyn takes her doll to the playground and attracts a few interested children. And if Darlene is dismayed, after an appraisal, to discover that her collection may not be worth what she had thought, that dismay doesn't last very long.

This is not to say that the viewer comes away from this show without making judgments. It is nearly impossible to watch these people and not at least smirk at them. When Marilyn treats the arrival of a new doll as though she were giving birth, the viewer has to wonder. When Darlene's boyfriend serves her breakfast in the form of a shoe, some viewers might think it cute, some might cringe. When Kyle shows off his ability to identify vacuum cleaners by their sounds, the viewer might find it hard not to agree with his sister. In some sense, you really don't need a talking head to tell you that these people have a problem.

In an environment where people—celebrities and ordinary folks--are more than willing to go on TV and parade their neuroses and behavioral problems before the public, these obsessive collectors are a lot closer to normal than many. Human beings do some odd things, and if these people are not necessarily doing the oddest things, what they are doing is certainly odd enough to be interesting. If you're looking for "oddest" on the other hand, you'd probably want to be watching My Strange Addiction.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Friday Night Lights: On the Page and On the Small Screen

Article first published as Friday Night Lights: On the Page and on the Small Screen on Blogcritics.

Just as Rick Perry has been haunting the announced Republican candidates in Iowa in preparation for his own entry into the campaign, Texas has been haunting me in the past week. Everywhere I look: Texas. I got through a marathon viewing of season four of Friday Night Lights only to discover that Netflix wasn't making season five available for instant viewing and the network was only making the final few episodes available on the net. Most of Mao's Last Dancer, a film I picked up earlier in the week takes place in Houston. One of the books I have been reading The Shooting Salvationist deals with a true crime and trial in Midland and Austin; and the other which I have just finished in my Friday Night Lights binge is the H. G. Bissinger book on which the TV series was based.

While that may be just about as much Texas in one week as any Northeasterner can reasonably be expected to suffer without some long term damage, I must confess that the TV series sucked me in with a passion. If George Bush's Texas was anathema, Coach Eric Taylor's was another thing altogether. Sure they were football crazy, but here in Steeler country that isn't necessarily something to be disparaged. And, although as the episodes progressed with romances—teen and adult, divorces, and abortions, the series began to take on something of a soap opera aura, it was still compelling enough to keep this viewer watching, and intrigued enough to check out the original source even though it was now over 20 years old.

It is interesting how much more critical of Texas football and the social environment in general Bissinger's book is compared to the TV series. It is not that the TV series shies away from the problems. Race, economic disparity, fundamentalism, educational issues—all these problems are dealt with in one way or another in the course of the series. Indeed in many respects these are issues that become even more important than the fanaticism about football that is the major focus of the book. It is not that the series sugar coats these problems. It treats them as seriously as they are treated in the book. The difference is that the series creates a fictional Dillon, peopled with characters who may have their faults but who have their good points as well. They are shown trying to deal with all sorts of problems, often problems not related to football. The real Odessa is a much starker place. The only people Bissinger is really concerned with are the football players and perhaps some of their family members. Moreover everything is seen as it is related to football. It is always the game that is front and center.

Coaches in the book, for example, are much more callous than those on TV. Coach Taylor as played by Kyle Chandler is hard on his players but he cares for them deeply. He will go out on a limb for them; he is there for them when they need him. He is there for them even when they don't want him there. Coach Gaines, Odessa's Permian coach, is hard on his players, but once they can no longer help his team, he has no interest them. If he has any interest in anything beyond football we never hear anything about it. Coach Taylor has a home life; Coach Gaines only exists on the field and in the locker room. Gaines never really emerges as a human being.

It is by humanizing characters that the TV series takes a truly interesting sociological study and turns it into a work of dramatic art. It is by giving the coach a wife that has more to worry about than fans complaining that she stands in their way during the game. It is by giving him a teen age daughter with a mind of her own, and then adding a new born to deal with. Moreover, it is by making their problems just as important as his. And what is true for the coach, is just as true for most of the other characters on the show.

While traces of the characters in book seem to find their way into some of those in the series—the introverted under sized quarterback, the rowdy hard drinking running back with his string of girls, the black star looking for a scholarship to a major college, these are only traces. Over the weeks of the series, they develop; they become rounded individuals. Quality drama depends on character. It is in the careful development of character that the TV series excels. Bissinger is less interested in drama, not that he excludes it, he pumps the football games for all they're worth; his concern sociological reportage. What he wants is just enough drama to make his point. Obviously the book and the series are doing two different things, and they are both doing them well.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Marc Maron Podcasting Super Star

Article first published as Marc Maron Podcasting Super Star on Technorati.

Cerebral comic Marc Maron, out with a new stand-up album, This Has to Be Funny, is riding a new wave of popularity as a result of all things a podcast. His twice weekly show, WTF With Marc Maron, soon to go over its 200th episode begins with a ten or fifteen minute rant about Maron's state of mind, and then features one or more long form interviews, usually although not always with fellow comedians. Guests have included some major celebrities like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon, and some lesser known—Steve Hughes and Simon Munnery. There are old timers like Jonathan Winters, and newer stars like Ed Helm.

As interview shows go, what makes Maron's podcast stand out is a knack for getting his guests to talk about things other than whatever they are interested in plugging at the moment. You can hear Jimmy Fallon talking about his father in the navy singing doo wop. Australian comic Greg Fleet talks about his habit of borrowing money from all his friends. Bobcat Goldthwait riffs on his brother's taste for shooting animals. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are dead serious.

And it is in those dead serious moments that the show is even more compelling. There are the times when his guests are more than willing to talk about some of their darkest moments. Maron, of course is known for his own darkness, a depression he has made a career of sharing with his audiences, so it may not be odd that a guest would be willing to share his melancholy with a fellow sufferer. Whatever the reason, Maron can sure get them comfortable enough to talk.

Check out Episode 190 with Todd Hanson, a long time writer for The Onion. The first of two interviews broadcast together, unlike most of the episodes which are recorded in Maron's garage, is held in a Brooklyn hotel. They talk about Hanson's skill as a dishwasher. They talk about his career at The Onion. They talk about his depression as a younger man. There seems to be something he wants to talk about, but can't quite bring himself to do it. The interview ends, but then some weeks later, now ready to talk about it, he does a second interview. Turns out the hotel has a special significance for Hanson; turns out that not that long ago he attempted suicide in that very hotel—not the kind of stuff you get on The Tonight Show.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Movie Review: Mao's Last Dancer

Article first published as Movie Review: Mao's Last Dancer on Blogcritics.

Until you get to the last few scenes of Bruce Beresford's 2009 screen adaptation of the autobiography of Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin Mao's Last Dancer it plays like one of those anti-communist propaganda films Hollywood used to turn out with regularity back in the fifties and sixties. It may have been Russia. It may have been one of the Eastern European satellites. In this case it's China.

A young boy is taken from his poverty stricken family. He is placed in a school where he is both trained robotically in some specific skill and indoctrinated in Communist ideology. He becomes adept at his craft and gets a chance to study in the United States. There he sees the wonders of capitalism, falls in love, marries, conquers the world with his excellence at his craft, and defects to the West. The ruthless Communist government tries to force him to return to the homeland, but well intentioned Americans stop them. He is allowed to remain in the States, but he will never be allowed back in China and will never see his family again.

Nothing here that wouldn't have played back in the days when Chairman Mao actually ruled the roost, but one would have to wonder about the wisdom of making this kind of propaganda film in 2009 when China, while still in many respects the big bad boogey man, has become the loan shark of the world. It seems at least mite hypocritical to be bad mouthing the country at a time when without their money pouring into our bonds and securities, we might be well having a financial crisis that dwarfs current problems. It is not strange then that when you get to the end of the film, it turns out that China has changed. Li's parents are permitted to surprise him in America. His first marriage doesn't last (just as the Chinese liaison trying to persuade him not to defect predicted). He is allowed to visit his home in China and even dances in the village for his old ballet teacher. It is a heartwarming fairy tale ending where everyone (anti-communists and ex-communists included) lives happily ever after.

Politics aside, the film is a more or less typical bio pic in which a poor boy works hard to develop a talent and rises to become a star. It may well be the truth of Li Cunxin's life, but it is a truth we have seen many times before. Details may be different, but the story is either archetypal or cliché depending on the viewer's level of tolerance. The quality of the film then would seem to rest in the details as opposed to the rather predictable plot.

So, what then do the details have going for them. First of all, and most important, is the dancing. Li Cunxin is an accomplished ballet dancer; he is played as an adult by Chi Cao, Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Scenes from The Rites of Spring, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote are magical. Chi Cao and his partners, Camilla Vergotis and Madeleine Eastoe, are exquisite performers. Even a scene from a Chinese propaganda dance choreographed to conform to the demands of the government flunkies has a power and excitement that belies its intent. It is in the dancing that the film really shines.

The structure of the film is interesting. Instead of straight linear narrative, Jan Sardi's screen play interweaves the film's present with Li's arrival in the States with scenes from his childhood and training in China. The use of sub-titles in the Chinese scenes lends the film a welcome touch of realism, and while many of the settings reflect the gloominess of China under the Communists, there is some beautiful scenery as well. The Chinese cast is led by the veteran Joan Chen in an admirably touching performance.

Unfortunately the American cast though certainly adequate is less impressive. Bruce Greenwood ad Ben Stevenson, the director of the Houston Ballet, does a lot of mincing around, but little else. Kyle MacLachlan doesn't quite manage to convince as a high powered immigration lawyer. Aden Young comes off as a good old Texas boy as the spouse of a prima ballerina. Amanda Schull, on the other hand, does a nice job as the less talented ballerina who becomes Li's first wife.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Comedy Review: Dan Levy, Congrats on Your Success!

Article first published as Comedy CD/DVD Review: Dan Levy - Congrats on Your Success! on Blogcritics.

Comedian Dan Levy's CD/DVD combo Congrats on Your Success is set to be released on August 16 by Comedy Central. The DVD is made up of his special from Comedy Central Presents, five web videos and seven episodes of his "Laugh Track Mashups." The CD is made up of 15 live tracks recorded at the Comedy Works in Denver in September of 2010 much of which is the expanded, less TV friendly version of the Comedy Central set, and it’s a good thing. It's a good thing it's here. Whoever called the shot knew what he was doing. Levy's TV shot is professional and competent enough—he gets his laughs, and he gets his obligatory applause, but he never seems truly comfortable in front of the cameras. On the other hand, in the Denver set he is full control; he sounds like the comic who was named "Comedian of the Year" for 2011 at the Young Hollywood Awards.

The web videos are more or less sophomoric skits light on acting chops and, unfortunately, laughs. The two best pieces are Stunt Man where a nerdy Levy gets lessons on who how to do a number of different stunts and ends up losing his glasses in a foam pit and Drunks vs. Highs, a reality show satire in which Levy emcees a series of contests between (truth in advertising) a drunk guy and, you guessed it, a happy high guy. The scripted skits are less successful. Blimp Prom sets up as some scattered scenes from a high school horror movie that ran out of finances. Ralphie and Me has Levy playing a young professional with a pet dinosaur. The best of the scripted pieces is At Your Service a satiric promo for a TV show that features Levy as a British butler for a rich African American family. Some, like He Said, She Said which features a date with a babe who sounds just like Levy when she speaks, are developed from his stand-up act. It wouldn't have been a bad idea with some better acting.

The CD set, on the other hand, is a winner. He opens with "My Terrible Cell Phone," a routine he uses on the TV show, but here it has a lively electricity that the TV performance never quite equals, and it's not merely because on the CD he gets to bash the actual cell phone company. This is a comic in control. While the whole set is well done, stand outs include his riff on a friend's pick up routine, "My Friend's Dick Pix," some thoughts on amateur porn in "You Porn" and the two tracks that end the set, "My Roommate Ate My Pot Cookies" and "The Other Dan Levy."

There is a cliché about comedy and delicacy. Material that works one night doesn't work the next. The audience, the comedian, the venue: who knows why. It's not that Levy's jokes bombed on TV. The audience laughed. They were appreciative, but there was something missing. At least for this listener, whatever that was, it wasn't missing in Denver.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Chike and the River, Chinua Achebe

Article first published as Book Review: Chike and the River Chinua Achebe on Blogcritics.

Best known as one of the major voices of contemporary African literature ever since the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has made it one of his goals to be a spokesman for his native culture and its values. In a world still in many cases dominated by colonialist ideas about the dark continent, his work clearly demonstrated the falsity of those ideas. It emphasizes both European ignorance and African social norms. There is a clash of cultures played out in Things Fall Apart, and although the Europeans with their religion and their armies win out, an impressive traditional culture has been lost. The advocacy for this tradition has been the work of Achebe's life.

Chike and the River a novelette written for children back in 1966 is now being published in the United States for the first time. It is the story of the 11 year old Chike who is taken from his village to live with his uncle and go to school in Onitsha on the banks of the Niger. When he hears exciting tales about the town on the other side of the river from his school friends, the dream of crossing to the other side and seeing this fabulous place consumes the boy. The problem is he has no money for the ferry fare. The story goes on to describe his various attempts to get the money, and his eventual discovery when he does that things don't always live up to their hype.

Chike is an endearing character in his naiveté and wonder who learns valuable lessons about life as his story progresses. He is set in contrast to his friend S. M. O. G. who is seemingly more worldly wise and Ezekiel, a trouble maker, nicknamed "Tough Boy." Even here though, the boys are more mischievous than they are evil.

As in Things Fall Apart, although without interspersing any of the Ibo words and phrases, Achebe uses a prose style reminiscent of fable and the primitive folk tale. He includes traditional stories like that of the quarrel between the bird and the river. He includes proverbs: "little drops of water make the mighty ocean." He includes metaphoric adages on how to live: "Why should we live on the River Niger and wash our hands with spittle." It is a style rich with the wisdom of a continent and its culture, and it is told in a style likely to capture the imagination of the younger reader. It is a style echoed in the Edel Rodriguez' primitive folksy illustrations for the edition. Chike and the River is a book that can both teach youngsters about other cultures and entertain them while doing it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Comedy Review: Mark Maron-This Has to be Funny

Article first published as Comedy CD Review: Mark Maron - This Has to be Funny on Blogcritics.

Anyone who still had doubts about the significance of podcasting in the age of the internet has only to look at what has happened to the career of navel gazing comic Marc Maron. Resurrection may or may not be too strong a word, but reinvigoration is probably much too weak to describe what WTF? With Marc Maron the twice a week interview podcast he's been hosting for almost two years now has done for him. It's not that he wasn't successful before, certainly he had almost a cult status that had many talking about his comic genius, but as listeners to his podcast know genius is just another way of saying unsuccessful with the larger audience: too smart for the house.

And Maron is smart—smart and funny. Which attribute is more important for a comedian is clear, but if one is essential, the other is a welcome option. If you listen to his podcast, you can hear him discussing semiotics with Michael Showalter, Australian aborigine superstitions about the didgeridoo with a Greg Fleet, and absurdist comedy with British comic, Simon Munnery. But he's just as comfortable talking about the Borscht Circuit with Richard Lewis or the Rolling Stones and Doo Wop with Jimmy Fallon, and people are comfortable talking to him. Over and over again he finds his guests revealing the kind of personal information you would never expect to hear in this kind of public forum. Just listen to his interview with Todd Hanson still available on iTunes. It is a combination that has garnered him plenty of praise and plenty of new fans.

So, it's not strange that he take the moment to parlay some of that success with the release of his fourth CD, a live performance recorded last year at the Union Hall in Brooklyn, on August 9th. This Has to Be Funny is a stand up set that mixes his patented dark soul searching with a dollop of social commentary. He talks about his current successes and his self destructive urges which are bound to surface, albeit in the most colorful of language. Maron fans are of course familiar with his favorite four letter work, and are likely to be offended if it were not thrown in liberally. The thing is that whether he is ranting about his ex­-wife giving birth or texting while driving (of course in the Maron universe, it's he that's doing the texting), he has got the audience in the proverbial palm. And who knows what else he might have had in that palm.

In a set that includes thirteen tracks there are big laughs and smirks. After all everything on the CD, as advertised, has to be funny. For me Maron is at his best in the longest piece on the set, "The Creation Museum," a classic satiric rant on the conflict between religion and science. A former host on Air America, although he was sure canceled a number of times, his particular point of view is not difficult to guess. "Earl's Rooter" is a laugh out loud anecdote about the comic's return from a trip to some intriguing drain problems. The bit builds to a really unexpected climax. It is a button to die for. "Dating Agressively" is an insane commentary on his love life, and "A Situation In My Head" focuses on the impossibility of explaining himself to others.

Take an hour or so to listen to one of Maron's podcasts. If you like it, you'll love This Has to Be Funny. It has to be funny and it is.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review: The Best American Short Plays 2009-2010, ed. Barbara Parisi

HTML Article first published as Book Review: The Best American Short Plays 2009-2010, Edited by Barbara Parisi on Blogcritics.

Last year's edition of The Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009 was impressive because of both the quality and the variety of the works selected. It included work by both major playwrights and some lesser known voices. Some of the plays were experimental, some were more traditional. There were serious dramatic pieces; there were comedies. It was possible to disagree with some of her selections, but certainly Barbara Parisi, the editor, had a clear critical point of view and had made her choices in the light of that aesthetic.

I'm not so sure about her criteria for her choices in the 2009-2010 edition. In her introduction, she talks about her focus on subtext which she defines as "the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters," and its importance in the short play. Now while on some level it could be argued that there is no communication without subtext, it would seem that the there are four essential criteria that ought to be considered as primary for best American short play of '09-'10. They should be American. They should be short. They should fit into the time period. They should be the best. I'm not quite sure that plays that focus on the importance of subtext automatically are the only plays that fit those criteria. Moreover I wonder about whether some of her choices fit those other criteria.

Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, the very first play in the anthology, offers a good example of the problem. What exactly constitutes short? At 103 pages with stage directions for significant scenic moments without actual dialogue, the play doesn't seem to qualify for the short play category. Since it was first produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2005 it doesn't seem to fit the 2009-2010 category either. It does have a 2010 copyright, but there are other plays in the volume that have an earlier copyright.

It is a play that deals with three individuals who each have their own agendas, a depressed young playwright who has been considering suicide, his friend who ostensibly wants to help him out of his funk, and a prostitute who is supposed to do the job. But as the play progresses, and a second scene a year later is added, it is clear that what was happening on the surface was only a small part of the story. If subtext, then is the basic criterion, the play certainly has it. Still, in what way does it follow that subtext is the sole or even major criterion for "best?"

The volume ends with a set of seven plays which were produced together as a benefit for a multiarts center in New York. Collected under the title Seven Card Draw, they are separate and distinct pieces, and although they are all in theory, according to the creator Daniel Gallant, "darkly comic tales about risk and reward," they are also available for performance individually. In other words they do not constitute a single work. If that is the case, are all seven of the plays examples of the "best?" Truth be told, they are an uneven bunch. Four of the seven are monologues, and of the four only Neil LaBute's "Totally," which deals with a young woman's revenge on her cheating fiancée is really impressive in its creation of character. The other three, all by notables—John Guare, Clay McLeod Chapman and Gallant, himself—are nicely done, but I don't know about "best." Indeed the other three plays in the set are fine enough as well, but none is particularly memorable.

Enough carping, there are some gems in the volume. Jill Elaine Hughes has concocted a brilliant feminist comedy in This is Your Lifetime which mashes together television for women, feminine hygiene and Chunky Monkey some good natured laughs. Avi Glickstein's Pair and a Spare makes a clever comment on the failures of human connection. Death Comes for a Wedding is Joe Tracz' Kafkaesque vision of a personified Death demanding a bride as a sacrifice to avoid his wrath. Samuel Brett Williams tells the story of three misfits living in despair in Arkansas a few years after Katrina in The Trash Bad Tourist. These are finely crafted plays and worthy of inclusion in any reasonable "best of anthology."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Movie Review: Sympathy for Delicious

Article first published as Movie Review: Sympathy for Delicious on Blogcritics.

The oddly titled Sympathy for Delicious which marks actor Mark Ruffalo's directorial debut has been making its second theatrical run in the Maya Indie Film Series. The story of a wheel chair bound homeless DJ living out of his car who suddenly discovers he has the power to heal through the laying on of hands, the film won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2010, but has since received mixed reviews. It is a film that has a lot going for it, but it is also a film that has its flaws.

First of all there is the film's lead. Dean O'Dwyer aka Delicious D (which explains the film's title), is played by the lesser known Christopher Thornton who is also the script's writer. Thornton and Ruffalo go back some years when they were both roommates and students of Stella Adler. He was working on a stage career when at age 25 he was paralyzed from the waist down in a hiking accident. Although he was confined to a wheel chair, Ruffalo and others made it their business to help him continue in his acting career. A few months after the accident he took the stage with Ruffalo in a production of Waiting for Godot. Since then he has done a good deal of stage work and some small film parts. Delicious D marks his first major role and he handles it with honest emotion.

Moreover it has a supporting cast that many a director would envy. Ruffalo himself plays Father Joe, a skid row priest who wants to use the Dean's gift to attract donations for a homeless shelter, and has to come to terms with his own spirituality. Juliette Lewis is a drug addled bass guitar player who tries to get Delicious D to audition to be a part of her band. Orlando Bloom is Stain the band's Mick Jaeger like lead singer. Laura Linney, masked in heavy eyeliner, though somewhat out of character playing the band's tough broad agent, manages to pull it off effectively. Noah Emmerich has a small role as a paralytic believer who introduces the Dean to faith healing. Robert Wisdom, who I've been watching on The Wire and for some reason does not appear on the IMDb cast listing, shows up as a derelict and the DJ's first healing success. This is a cast of professionals and they know how to do their jobs with professional skill.

Delicious D is caught between God and the devil. He has a divine gift. It can be used to help others; it can be used for money, drugs and rock and roll fame. Father Joe, perhaps selfishly, tries to push him one way; his own demons push him the other. In a rather traditional symbolic journey, he has to go through "the dark night of the soul." He has to sink to the depths to rise once again. Unfortunately, it is in dealing with Delicious D's descent and redemption that the script hits some bumps. His motivation is never really developed and his actions are not particularly convincing. Everything, both his fall and his spiritual redemption, seems rushed. The discovery of his healing powers, on the other hand, is handled much more effectively. In general, the script, especially in the third act, could have used some work.

For both Ruffalo and Thornton, Sympathy for Delicious was clearly a labor of love. It was a project they had been working on, revising and promoting for a good ten years. For a first time director with a first time lead performer, despite the problems, they managed to produce a film that can at times hit with an affecting emotional impact.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Movie Review: Without Men

Article first published as Movie Review: Without Men on Blogcritics.

The big buzz about Without Men, Argentine director Gabriela Tagliavini's film adaptation of James Canon's Tales From the Town of Widows which opened in Los Angeles at the Maya Indie Film Series seems to be about star Eva Longoria's lesbian love scene with Kate del Castillo. And if that's the kind of thing that floats your boat, you might well want to see the film; if not, there is little else to recommend it. There is a lot of sex in the film, but most of it is on the level of the dirty joke. It is neither stimulating, nor exciting. Certainly it is meant to be funny, but more often than not it is merely embarrassing.

Without Men is a comic fairy tale set in a small town "mucho mucho far away," where all the men, except the local priest, have either been killed by revolutionaries or impressed into their service. Left alone the women are forced to take over, and after a hiccup or two, it turns out they can handle the job as well if not better than their bumbling men folk. They may need the men to keep the race going, but that's about it. Longoria plays a bossy strong willed woman who becomes the mayor of the town after the men are gone, and while she does eventually get the women to work together as a cohesive community, and demonstrate that women can get along just fine without male supervision, it almost seems to happen in spite of her, rather than as a result of anything she does. If this is meant as a feminist statement, and I would suppose it is, it is feminism 'lite.' Still, it is a comedy, so what else could you expect.

Bright vivid colors in the town contrasted with the darker tones of the outer world emphasize the fairy tale quality of the film. It very much echoes the transition from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz. Indeed the colors pop just as brightly. Oneita Parker's costumes, except for the few scenes immediately after the men are taken when all the women but one wear widow's black, burst with color as well. A bright musical score including some catchy songs adds an additional magical element to the film's mise en scene.

Aside from Longoria, the film features a cast of other well known actors, most of them unfortunately with little to do. Christian Slater is an Anglo reporter who stumbles onto the story and goes off in search of the town. Camryn Manheim is his boss who gets to rant over the phone in a few scenes, once while receiving. . .well why spoil it for those who go to see the film. Oscar Nunez plays the village priest with broad gusto and Paul Rodriguez has little more than a cameo as the rebel leader. Del Castillo's lesbian feminist is an over the top parody of the typical western's lone stranger.

While it seems clear that the film aspires to be something more than a comic sex farce, my own feeling is that those aspirations evaporate in the leering sex. Sure there is a statement being made about human sexuality. Sure there is a satiric thrust at the Catholic churches' teachings on sexual morality. Sure there is some fun poked at the patriarchal social order. The trouble is that these things get lost in lame comic scenes where a madam teaches prostitutes and the rest of the ladies in the village about masturbation, where a virgin is taught how to get a man excited, where pornographic clichés are played out under an office desk. When it comes to the merger of sex farce and satire, Aristophanes has little if anything to worry about from Without Men.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Music Video Worth Your Time: Erin Hill

Article first published as Music Video Review : Erin Hill - "Giant Mushrooms" on Blogcritics.

To whet the appetites of the geeks among us for the October release of her sci-fi video album, Girl Inventor, psychedelic electric harpist, Erin Hill, has posted "Giant Mushrooms," the first of the album's videos. She describes each of the ten projected videos as something like a little four minute Twilight Zone Episode, and "Giant Mushrooms" is a good example of what she is talking about. The video juxtaposes scenes of the singer and her band against scenes of the song's narrative about a young boy back in the Leave it to Beaver days of the fifties growing giant mushrooms in his cellar. He finds an ad for them in the back of one of popular pulp magazines of the period, and although cautioned by his father, he sends away for them. Given the later associations with mushrooms, their eventual effect on the boy and his mother is not unexpected. The video has a kind of creepy humor that meshes well with the eerie quality of the music.

While the idea of mashing together science fiction with pop rock is not exactly new (think Major Tom and ground control, among others), it is not something that has saturated the market, to say nothing about featuring the harp in a rock video. This is still a form with fresh possibilities. And if this video is any indication, those possibilities are soon to be realized.

Hill is an energetic performer with a dynamic voice and a wide range. Not only does she rock, she is no slouch with an operatic aria. Listen to her version of Giacomo Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Gianni Sicchi. She is no less at home with traditional Irish music. This is a talented singer, and a promising song writer. A clip of a second video single, "Lookout, Science," a song described as a "smackdown" between science and religion is due out sometime next month so we'll have a chance to see if that promise continues to be realized.