Talisk, James, Gooding, Jesse Malin, Queen of Jeans, Austin Plaine, Porangui

The find of the fall was Talisk, a trio from Glasgow, Scotland that can raise the dead. Both BBC2 and the Alba Scots Trad Music Awards proclaimed it the band of the year for 2017 and it didn’t take long for the word to get out; Talisk has been playing sold out shows around the globe. It is a trio, but only in the sense that it has just three members: concertina wizard Mohsen Amini, fiddler Hayley Keenan, and acoustic guitar player Craig Irving. Lest you think I’ve forgotten the definition of a trio, give them a listen and you will suspect they must have a few more musicians hiding in their instrument cases. “Crooked Water Valley” is a track from their latest CD, Beyond, and one of numerous tracks you can hear online. It’s briefly a quiet almost pastoral tune with a down-home feel, but don’t get comfortable. Keenan’ fiddle takes us to jig tempo while Amini’s concertina pulses in the background. Eventually he shifts us to a fast reel tempo. At the 4-minute mark there’s a brief lull but if you think there’s going to be a loft landing, forget about it. It’s not for naught that the band name is derived from a term that means “land of the cliff,” and what good is a cliff unless something goes over it? Most Talisk tunes–they seldom resort to vocals–are paced by Armini’s concertina, an instrument generally not associated with rollicking music, but Armini assaults his humble box like Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire. Check out “Montreal” from the new album, or “Abyss,” the title track of their second recording. Another stellar offering is “Echo,” one is which Keenan fiddle is something between a pulse and a drone before Amini explodes into the mix. The tipoff for when Talisk is about to leap off the cliff is when you hear Amini’s foot begin to stomp like a mad carpenter with a wooden mallet. This is band that doesn’t waste time before shifting into high gear. I generally pay little attention to how performers label their own material, but Talisk aptly calls theirs “ScotSlam.” ★★★★★

Remember the English rock band James? They sold 25 million albums, were mainstays of college radio shows in the 1980s and 1990s, and were big heroes in their native city of Manchester. James broke up in 2001, but reassembled in 2007, when lead vocalist Tim Booth decided to supplement solo projects–shamanistic dance, acting, MTV criticism–with a return to the band. He again fronts what is currently a seven-member lineup. James features wall-to-wall sound and, as a recent Paste Studios Session shows, they sound as good as ever. Booth is his powerful self on “Coming Home (Part Two),” crooning against Mark Hunter’s keys on a bittersweet song: My life is always leaving somewhere away from here…. “All I’m Saying” is a jazz/pop/rock mash that’s adorned by Adrian Oxaal’s cello, whose notes he bends in ways reminiscent of a musical saw. Andy Diagram’s trumpet adds to the bright arrangement of “Leviathan,” though the song itself might be called pre-postapocalyptic: Before they drop the bomb make sure/We get enough/Fucking love…. “Broken By the Hurt” is about the fragility of life and heart and implores us to Find what really matters and let those kicked-in-the-teeth moments give us shape. Okay, so maybe this isn’t la-de-da cheerfulness, but it’s honest and it’s good to hear these guys again. ★★★★

Gooding is another band that may have fallen off your radar. The Nashville-based Gooding–named for front man Steve Gooding–never really went away, but it has concentrated on charity work in recent years. After a 5-year hiatus, its back with a new record, Building the Sun. It’s a tad uneven, but there’s plenty of good stuff on it. The album title comes from the refrain of “House is Not a Home,” Bring down the sun/I don’t care anymore/This house is not a home tonight. Gooding says he messed with it to make it sound less country and more like Tom Petty, though to me it has the frenetic pacing (though not the sound) of New Wave. “Horses of War” is a classic rock song with crashing guitars that tamp down the noise for vocals and then amp up for the instrumentals. “Last Train Out” features deliberate noting on the guitars and big bang percussion from Jesse Reichenberger. If Billy Driver’s bass sounds ominous and the song haunting, that’s because the song is about running out of time. I also enjoyed “Troublemaker,” which is rock n’ roll stripped to the bones–fuzzed out guitar, hard-driving, and unpretentious. To add a small note of criticism, many of the vocals are competent but not compelling. ★★★ ½

Short Cuts

I only heard two cuts from Sunset Kids, a new project from Jesse Malin: “Room 13” and “Strangers and Thieves.” Malin frequently haunted CBGB in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he was the punk band Heart Attack and glam punkers D Generation. His new project was produced by Lucinda Williams, who is no shrinking violet, but she is more melodic. Malin lowers the volume and we discover that he has a really nice voice. He’s also introspective. Both of the songs are reflective love songs, with “Room 13” gentler and “Strangers” done with a harder edge.  ★★★

An act with a name like Queen of Jeans must be a Texas country band, right? Or at the very least a Tennessee bluegrass act. Nope. It’s three-piece ensemble from Philadelphia that describes its sound as “crockpot pop.” They have a new album title If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid. It’s a young band with room for growth, especially instrumentally. The three tracks I heard sounded pretty much the same, some jangly guitar and some echoey electric texturing. I liked “Bloomed” and “Obvious to You,” both of which are about bad relationships, the first one that fell apart; the second one in the process of doing so. The vocals of Miri Devora and Mattie Glass remind me a bit of The Nields. They also do a nice cover of “Teenaged Dirtbag,” which they borrowed from the alt-rock band Wheatus.  ★★★

A young man from Minnesota named Austin Plaine is now in Nashville, where he has released his second project, Stratford. Plaine is a singer/songwriter whose music could be called enhanced folk in that it’s more acoustic than electrified folk rock. Plaine has a very pleasant light tenor voice and a lot of the songs from the new release are upbeat. Both “Honey” and “Lucky Ones” are love songs, the first about a traveler trying to sort wanderlust and the other kind; the second an enduring love that shines on the dance floor where cares are put aside. “Something More,” though, lives up to its title. Plaine has said that the first song that grabbed him when he was a lad–he’s all, of 23 now–was Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “Something More” borrows themes from that one: It might be a long long time/You wrote me a letter in riddle and rhyme/Secretly so I wouldn’t find you anymore… Several of his songs end and then redux for a few seconds. I’m not sure this is necessary, but I like what I’ve heard of Austin Plaine. ★★★★

Have you ever been to Sedona? If so, you know it’s a place where non-mainstream spiritualism thrives. It’s an ideal place for a shamanistic body healer musician named Poranguí. His self-titled latest download is a collection of remixes of past work and (apparently) some new ones. Poranguí is enigmatic and would have it no other way. “Ganesha” is very much meditation music and would be at home in a yoga studio. But Poranguí is best known for his prowess at looping, which allows him to be a one-man band when he wishes. “Cantode la Selva” is an example of this. You hear him on a small Brazilian ukulele/guitar hybrid called a guitalele, but also hand drums, and voice all at the same time, courtesy of said looping. But you might also hear him on didgeridoo (“Tonantzin”), wooden spirit flutes (“Danza del Viento”), or caught up in ringing tones suggestive of a gamelan (“Oxum”). Ashley Klein provides spoken word to Poranguí’s trance grooves that are part music, part healing ceremony. His music feels like a soundtrack to a Carlos Castaneda book. ★★★

Rob Weir


Lost Children Archive Both Moves and Sputters

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019)
By Valeria Luiselli
Alfred A. Knopf, 375 pages.

Lost Children Archive was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which generally means that it’s either brilliant or a book only other writers love. This time it’s a bit of both. Luiselli was under Man Booker consideration even though she lives in New York. She was born in Mexico, and grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India, the latter two being British Commonwealth nations.

The first thing to say about the book is that it’s ambitious; the second that it’s unorthodox. Lost Children Archive is many things: the portrait of a failing marriage, a multiple point-of-view novel, a meditation on U.S. immigration politics, a musing on literary sources, a ghost story, and a drama about imperiled children. It is also an exceptionally literate book that’s often not very literary. In fact, were it not as literate as it is, it would invite the charge that it’s really a big mess.

At the center of the book is a nameless family of four, referenced in the book as Mama, Papa, the boy, and the girl. The closest they come to proper names are identities they assume during a family game; respectively they refer to each other as Lucky Arrow, Papa Cochise, Swift Feather, and Memphis. They are on the road from New York to the Southwest where the boy, who is 10, realizes his parents will separate. Although both parents are in media production, they have incompatible goals; Papa is “documentarian” and Mama a “documentarist.” Translation: He is obsessed with recording all the sounds he encounters, but she is more of a “chemist” who wants to use sound and stories to illumine the plight  of immigrant children seeking to sneak into the United States. Moreover, he is of Native American ancestry and is going to the Southwest to stay in Apacheria, the land of Geronimo, the last Native to surrender; she wishes to visit the Borderlands and return to New York. The girl, who is 5, doesn’t realize it, but it’s likely that Papa and the boy will remain in Apacheria, and Mama and the girl will part with them there.

The family sets off with just the basics, plus 7 boxes for whatever collections are made along the route, books and tapes in Papa’s boxes; tapes, maps, and writing in Mama’s. Each child has one box. The boy becomes a Polaroid photographer whose shots document random events; the girl collects odds and ends. Each individual narrates chapters, though Mama has the lioness’s share. At one juncture she laments the dangerous journey of children to the border and ponders, “Were they to find themselves alone crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?” Uh oh. That line is a classic Chekov’s gun and readers immediately know that this will turn into a more personal lost children’s tale.

As noted, it is also a road trip, but this is no amber waves of grain/purple mountains majesty journey. Luiselli exposes America as it often is away from its cities and well-heeled suburbs: dusty, dirty, dangerous, and desperate. Among the untold stories of illegal immigration is of the intolerable conditions that drive individuals toward a land where hope American-style is on life support. In one of the novel’s more lucid passages Luiselli writes of child immigrants, “They weren’t looking for the American Dream…. The children were merely looking for a way out of their daily nightmare.”

Luiselli’s novel is timely and often poignant, but it’s an open question if she’s also overly enamored with trying to write an “important” book. Interspersed with an already loose narrative are oblique references to everyone from Ezra Pound, Rilke, and Homer to Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Galway Kinnell, and Juan Rolfo. In the afterword Luiselli tells us that her work is “built of a dialogue with many different texts, as well as with other nontextual stories…. [It] is both an inherent and visible part of the central narrative” whose references and materials, “function as intralineal markers that point to the many voices in the conversation that the book sustains with the past.” Okay, that’s just intellectual posturing!

Lost Children Archives works best when Luiselli seeks clarity and coherent narrative; it goes astray when she tries to channel her inner Susan Sontag. She has written what is sometimes a deeply moving examination of identity in modern America, but is too often a monologue delivered into a mirror. Luiselli is aware of, but does not clearly articulate, the ultimate irony of the immigration crisis: the horse has already left the barn. By this I mean that the United States is a multicultural and increasingly non-white society whether or not anyone likes it. Put another way, the targets of ethnocentrism and xenophobia conform to the old Pogo cartoon quip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I was glad that I read this book, but I think it wise that the Man Booker committee dropped this one from prize consideration. Lost Children Archive is too ambitious for its own good. Ultimately too much is stuffed into those 7 boxes and Luiselli is forced to jettison the one thing all novelists need: deep connection to their readers.

Rob Weir


The Irishman is Good, but not Great

The Irishman (2019)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Netflix, 210 minutes, R (language and violence)

Several things before I delve into The Irishman. I recently lamented that Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar. I was wrong; he won for directing The Departed (2006), a fact I had forgotten as I didn’t think much of it. (It was a remake of a movie made in Hong Kong, for heavens sake!) Second, there is no good reason why The Irishman needs to be 3 ½ hours long. Finally, there are women in The Irishman, but they are mere window dressing in a very testosterone-driven movie.

Many predict Scorsese will collect another Oscar for The Irishman, but I see it as a decent movie but not a great one. It follows the succeed-no-matter-the-cost career of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). We come in on Sheeran immediately after World War II. He is driving a refrigerated meat truck and has a chance encounter with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the Teamsters union. Sheeran parlays that into ways to ingratiate himself with Hoffa. Back then, getting close to Jimmy required cozying up to (mostly) Italian mobsters, especially those associated with the Bufalino crime syndicate. For reasons never entirely explained, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) takes a shine to Sheeran and the two become fast friends. Run with the mob and you end up doing dirty work that gets dirtier by the job. The title of Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, upon which Scorsese’s film is based, references the splatter of blood caused by being shot in the head.

Scorsese has long been fascinated by (obsessed with?) sin and temptation. His Frank Sheeran digs himself into a pit of corruption and murder. Like any good mob leader, Russell delegates gory assignments, mostly to Frank. We see doubt and confliction etched upon Sheeran’s face, but we also observe how he carries out his instructions without hesitation. His ‘contributions’ lead to his rise within the Teamsters union and into Hoffa’s orbit. That’s not necessarily a comfortable place to be in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) is doggedly pursuing corruption in labor unions,*especially the Teamsters.

Anyone who knows about the Teamsters or has seen the 1992 film Hoffa (with Jack Nicholson in the title role) knows what comes next: Hoffa’s 13-year prison sentence imposed in 1967, his 1971 pardon (by Nixon), his attempt to reassert control over the Teamsters, and his disappearance in 1975. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, though officially his case remains open. The Hoffa mystery has stoked rumormongers and conspiracy nuts everywhere. Most assume Hoffa was bumped off by mobsters. Depending on whom you believe, Hoffa’s body was burnt in an oil drum, dissolved in acid, compacted with a junked car, or buried–perhaps in Giants Stadium. Scorsese choses to believe Brandt, who allegedly got his details from Sheeran.

Pick your favorite conjecture. You need not accept Scorsese’s explanation to learn a lot about organized crime at a time in which much about the “Mob” was speculative.** Most of what we see in The Irishman is indisputable. In exchange for muscle, Hoffa allowed the Mafia to treat Teamster pension funds as a bank to underwrite all manner of enterprises, most of them crooked. Bufalino’s syndicate was centered in Northeast Pennsylvania and was friendly with the Genovese family, especially Tony Provenzano, a Teamsters vice president. The film also avers–though not very clearly–that organized crime was a nationwide web whose various threads often warred with each other, such as the Genovese and Gambino families.

My digressions point to a flaw in Scorsese’s film. Scorsese wastes time intersplicing a goes-nowhere road trip with Russell and Frank and their wives, and assumes viewers already know about Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Frank Rizzo (Gino Carfelli), Tony “Pro” (Stephen Graham), “Fat Tony” Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba). These names are familiar to me because I am a labor historian and I’m closer in age to Scorsese (77) than to average movie goer. Others may be lost. All you need to know is that there were Mob turf wars that were mostly between Italian-Americans, but with a few Irish-Americans like Sheeran also involved.

Let’s cut to what’s good about the film, starting with Joe Pesci who absolutely deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod. Bufalio was the ultimate behind-the-scenes puppet master. Pesci plays him as a quiet man behind oversized black frame glasses that rested upon a ruined nose that looks as if Russell had been the bum-of-the-month in dozens of undercard prize fights. Mostly, though, Pesci’s Russell is the soft-spoken type who could convince a crow to hand over its carrion. De Niro is also strong as Sheeran and will probably garner a Best Actor nomination, though his laconic performance may cost him come Oscar time. He essentially plays Sheeran as a savvier version of Mob heavy Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons). But really, all the performances are all excellent with the exception of Al Pacino as Hoffa. Pacino chews so much scenery when portraying Hoffa’s legendary bombast that we see Pacino, not Hoffa.

Robbie Robertson certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his musical direction. He composed and performed the film’s theme song and does a superb job of splicing in period music from everyone from The Five Satins, Percy Faith, and Jerry Vale to Jackie Gleason, Fats Domino, Flo Sandon’s [sic], and Glenn Miller.  

Currently The Irishman isn’t on track to recoup its $160 budget. This might not matter as Netflix released it for streaming on November 27, though if you want to see this film at all, you should view it on the big screen. I recommend it, but know that it’s no GoodFellahs. Note to Martin Scorsese: If you have any more movies in you, consider the crime genre done and dusted.

Rob Weir

* In the 1950s/60s, several labor unions were nailed for racketeering, the Teamsters by far the largest. Alas, all labor unions suffered an undeserved reputation for corruption. The Teamsters forged a Mob connection at a critical time when a conservative backlash sought to dismantle New Deal labor protections. The thinking at the time was that government was in cahoots with Big Business and only organized crime had the might to be a countervailing force. These thigs were true, but Hoffa unleashed a wild horse he could not ride as easily as he could the Teamsters rank and file.

**This changed when, in 1963, incarcerated gangster Joe Valachi spilled the beans of the existence of the Mafia and the FBI was able to connect the threads of its history.


Jojo Rabbit: A Black Comedy that Lampoons the Third Reich

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Directed by Taika Waititi
Fox Searchlight, 108 minutes, PG-13 (mild language)

It’s been 76 years since the end of World War Two but in some circles, Adolf Hitler remains the third rail of comedy. Numerous reviewers have frothed themselves into a moral lather over Jojo Rabbit and have accused New Zealand director Taika Waititi of glorifying Nazism. That’s absolute rubbish. Waititi’s father is Maori and his mother, Robin Cohen, is of English/Russian/Jewish descent. Waititi embraces both parts of his heritage and his film is a black comedy/drama that explores both the absurdities of anti-Semitism and how easily the flames of fanaticism can be flamed.

It is hard to find humor in the horrors of Nazi Germany, but Waititi is up to something more subversive than kneejerk revulsion: he delegitimizes fascists by painting them as destructive clowns. He is hardly the first to do so. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) made Hitler into a buffoon, as did Mel Brooks in The Producers (1967). Others had their crack at throwing a cream pie in the Fuhrer’s face: Donald Duck, The Three Stooges, TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Marvel Comics, and movies such as The Boys from Brazil (1978), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Jojo Rabbit centers on 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis). It is late 1944 and Jojo is enrolled in a Hitler Youth (HY) group. He dresses the part and tries to be a good little Nazi; he even has an imaginary friend: Hitler (Waititi), who appears from time to time to give Jojo advice, though he is an absurd fool who gets caught in his own contradictions. Jojo goes off to a HY camp and mouths all the right slogans, but he and his real friend, the pudgy Yorki (Archie Yates), are inept at being fascist badasses. When one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen) try to whip the boys into a sanguinary froth, Jojo cannot bring himself to slaughter a bunny and thus acquires his unflattering handle, “Jojo Rabbit.” The HY camp foibles immediately put me in mind of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom done up in Nazi drag. Waititi is often compared to Anderson, though earlier Waititi offerings such Eagle vs Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Boy are quirkier.

The first quarter of Jojo Rabbit might distress overly sensitive viewers. Despite his clumsiness, Jojo continues to spout fascist ideals, including making hateful remarks about Jews. Stay with it. Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a lighthearted optimist, tempers Jojo by paying scant attention to the war and deflects politics and queries about Jojo’s absent father. Much to Jojo’s shock, she is also secretly harboring a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As is often the case, hatred is easier in the abstract than in the flesh. Jojo must face two major dilemmas. If the Gestapo finds out, his mother will be arrested. Plus, Jojo is strangely drawn to Elsa, even though he’s scared of her. Some of the film’s darkest humor comes when Elsa deliberately sabotages Jojo’s efforts to find out what Jews are “really” like so he can compile his discoveries into an illustrated book.

Jojo Rabbit takes touching and poignant turns, though there’s no sentimentality wasted on the Nazis. Klendendorf is a sloppy drunk, Finkle a bumbling tag along, and Gestapo agents like something from a Monty Python sketch. Jojo Rabbit also evokes Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (2017). Isn’t it odd how few critics said it was wrong to satirize Stalin, who was also a mass murderer? In my view, Waititi gets right what Anderson and Iannucci failed to achieve. Anderson is often so droll that he valorizes detached hipsterism, and Iannucci stumbled when trying to redo Soviet politics as a comedic 1984. By contrast, Waititi imbues Jojo, Elsa, Rosie, Yorki, and a few surprise others with humanity.

The film is also crisply acted from top to bottom. Roman Griffin Davis is quite a find. At times his intensity is such that we can see how propaganda can warp even a child, yet Davis turns on a dime to make us understand that a child parroting bad things is still just a child–one who can cry over a bunny, live in a fantasy world, and learn how to differentiate good from evil. McKenzie–last seen in Leave No Trace, my favorite film of 2018–also shows great range; she is, at turns, furtive, fierce, frightened, and tender. Both Rockwell and Johansson chow down on their roles–in good ways–by turning on and off the humor/drama spigots as needed. Yates is like a bespectacled Teddy bear; Allen–Theon in Game of Thrones–and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm have bit roles that they make seem much bigger.

Despite the film’s outward content, it is indeed a comedy, but of the variety in which we laugh at horrible things lest we sink into despair. Waititi ultimately flashes his middle digits at fascists past and present by exposing them for what they are: fanatics and fools who ultimately fall. Even a 10-year-old can understand that! For what it’s worth, there is little that drives the grandson of German immigrant and Mussolini act-alike Donald Trump(f) to cold fury as those who refuse to take him seriously.

Rob Weir



Classic Films: Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Directed by Howard Hawks
RKO Radio Studios, 102 minutes, Not rated.

This classic film is #88 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films and it ranks high of my favorite list of screwball comedies. If you don’t know the genre, it was one that messed with traditional gender roles back in the 1930s and 1940s–long before today’s gender-benders were born. Screwball comedies often subverted traditional romances by immersing them in farcical situations in which the scripted gender roles of the day were flipped and further assaulted by barrages of witty repartee. Screwball comedies were the template for battle of the sexes movies; smart money was usually on the woman.

One of the delights of Bringing Up Baby is the demasculinization of Cary Grant. In this movie he is a nerdy paleontologist busily assembling a brontosaurus skeleton that lacks but one bone for completion. We see Grant as David Huxley puttering about in his lab coat and heavy-rimmed black glasses, and being led like a bull by a nose ring by his fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Swallow). The two plan to marry later that evening, but a chance golf course encounter with Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) will change all of that. Susan is a ditsy, fast-talking, accident-prone socialite who decides on the spot that she is in love with David. We don’t really know why, but screwball comedies are all about situations, not logic.

You want situations? This film has them in spades: a cheetah named Baby, a bone-loving dog named George, a wealthy aunt (May Robson), an alleged big-game hunter (Charles Ruggles), a befuddled constable (Walter Catlett), a pair of inept circus roustabouts, and Grant cavorting about in a frilly dressing gown. You are not meant to take any of this seriously. Bringing Up Baby is essentially a drawing room comedy that opens its doors so that the loonies can cavort both inside and out. Like said drawing room comedies, the humor is broad and ridiculous, as is the very notion of a conventional romance. Bringing Up Baby is goofy and charming–a film I watch every few years simply because it makes me giggle and smile.

Bringing Up Baby also reminds me of Marx Brothers films in that it takes the air out of a wide assortment of stuffy people and authority figures. The jailhouse scenes are kind of dumb if you think about them, but don’t! Law enforcement figures, attorneys, scientists, the monied classes, and psychiatrists take it on the chin in Bringing Up Baby and everything comes at you with machine gun pacing that’s designed to keep you off your stride. Director Howard Hawks is usually considered the second greatest of the screwball comedy directors (after Frank Capra). Watch enough screwballs and you’ll recognize that Hawk is playing to certain formulae, one aspect of which is that he aims for the funny bone, not your intellect. After all, David begins this film as a very serious man and it’s Susan’s zaniness that saves him from that burden–not to mention what would have been a dull, listless marriage to Alice.

A caution: This is a 1938 film, so there are a few references that might trouble the overly PC individual. Early on Grant utters the phrase, “That’s awfully white of you,” a now-inappropriate way of saying you’re a standup person. Just cringe and let it go. You may have a harder time with Barry Fitzgerald’s send-up of a stereotypical Irish gardener with a fondness for drink, but in screwball comedies pretty much everyone is lampooned.

Be wary of reading anything into this film other than playing for laughs. Grant galivanting about in a dressing gown is sometimes extrapolated by those who claim he was actually a closeted gay man. This was a charge raised by Scotty Bowman in The Secret Life of Hollywood and builds off of rumors that Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers. Grant’s daughter doubts said stories and Grant had five wives in his lifetime—a lot of trouble and alimony to pay if these were just beards. But, really, who cares? The best route is to let Baby, George, Susan, and David expose the absurdity of worrying too much about propriety.

Rob Weir


Madness of Sunshine a Page-Turner for Winter

A Madness of Sunshine (December 3, 2019)
By Nalini Singh
Berkley/Penguin, 352 pages.

Nalini Singh is well known for her fantasy and paranormal romance novels, but she surprises with A Madness of Sunshine, a crime/mystery offering.

It is set in the fictional hamlet of Golden Cove on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Golden Cove is a suburb of Greymouth–if a place of fewer than 10,000 souls can have ‘burbs. It’s such a small place that Greymouth seems large and Christchurch (381,500) three hours to the east is a veritable metropolis. New Zealand’s West Coast is remote—its southern access cut off by myriad fjords and inlets and access from the east made difficult by the Southern Alps, which form the spine of the South Island. Remote towns are, however, often more socially cohesive than larger places. In Golden Cove, most people know and look out for each other. It’s also a place where Maori–New Zealand’s first human settlers–and Pakeha (whites) enjoy mutual tolerance, even when it’s not genuine affection. Her hometown is a perfect place for native daughter and world-renowned pianist Anahera (Rawiri) Spencer-Ashby to recover from the triple shocks of burnout, her husband’s death, and the discovery of his philandering.

Not even her oldest friend Josie (“Jo”), who runs the local café, can believe that “Ana” has returned after more than a decade of living in London, though she and her resourceful husband Tom do all they can to prepare her mother’s old cabin for Ana’s occupancy. Other than summertime hikers, Golden Cove isn’t the kind of place that outsiders seek. One of the few new residents since Ana last visited is Will Gallagher, who has been the local law enforcement officer for just three months. Mostly, Ana finds that Golden Cove is much as she left it, ­except that her former cohort is now in their 30s and 40s and those she knew as children are now young adults. The latter includes Miriama “Miri” Hinewai Tutaia, who at 21 is both locally beloved and jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Ana is hardly settled in before Miri goes jogging and disappears. Is she lying at the foot of a trailside cliff? Was she swept to sea while running too close to a dangerous tide? Was she abducted? After several pass, Will is forced to investigate Miri’s disappearance as a possible crime. He learns quickly that 15 years earlier three female hikers disappeared near Golden Cove and all that was ever discovered of any of them was a water bottle, a backpack, and a bracelet. It was never clear if any crime actually occurred back then, but Will’s conclusion is distressing: If Miri’s disappearance and those of 15 years ago are linked, it’s highly probable that someone in Golden Cove is a serial killer.   

Another thing about small towns is that there are often skeletons residing in seldom-discussed closets. Miri’s Aunt Matilda, who raised her, has a history of inappropriate boyfriends, one of whom molested Miri when she was young. No one knows his current whereabouts, but Matilda’s current live-in Steve is pretty much low-life scum. Will’s closet friend in town, Nikau Martin, also has a rap sheet from his younger days and he’s very angry that his ex-wife Keira threw him over for Daniel May, a rich boy with lots of toys but little love for the locals. The deeper Will and Ana dig, the more Golden Cove’s luster fades. The Baker family is also rich. Vincent seems beyond reproach, a politician many assume will be a future Prime Minister of New Zealand. Ana, though, picks up on the fact that his spouse, Jemima, seems more of a trophy wife than a love match. More suspicious is Vincent’s younger brother Kyle, a spoiled brat who harbors a grudge that Miri beat him out for a prestigious Christchurch photography internship that she planned to begin in weeks. And what does one wish to make of Shane Hennessey, an Irish ex-pat writer who, for years, has been more prolific at attracting a cult-like harem of barely legal young women than of producing noteworthy poetry or prose. The other wildcard is Dr. Dominic de Souza, Miri’s straight arrow boyfriend. No one can quite figure out what the high-spirited Miri sees in him. Did he find out she was seeing someone else?

Everyone seems to have a shadowy past, including Ana, whose traumatic family life was such that one wonders why she would want to be in the same time zone as the South Island. And there’s Will himself, once cast as a cop hero. What did he do to earn banishment to a backwater like Golden Cove? A Madness of Sunshine is a page-turner mystery. I should say that I figured out the mystery before it was revealed, which generally tells me the story could have been more complex. I also found the title clichéd and histrionic. There is a sense that Ms. Singh ran out of steam toward the end and wrapped up things too quickly and neatly. Still, her novel is in the best everyone-has-scars tradition and I enjoyed remembering my time in the greater Greymouth area. (Okay, I loved nearby Hokitika but Greymouth is forgettable!)

A Madness of Sunshine releases on December 3. That’s early summer in New Zealand. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, A Madness of Sunshine makes for diverting reading as the days grow shorter.

Rob Weir

Note on Maori pronunciation: Maori words often appear daunting, but they are fairly easy to approximate if you remember that Maori seldom contains stressed syllables. The usual rule is to sound out every two letters unless vowels appear adjacent to each other, in which case you elide them. Hokitika is (roughly) Ho-ke-te-ka. Nikau is a bit like Nik-ow.



November 2019 Artists of the Month: Villalobos Brothers

Villalobos Brothers

If you’ve not already gotten the word, let me be the first to deliver it. The Villalobos Brothers are indeed three brothers (Alberto, Luis, Ernesto), each a violin virtuoso from Vera Cruz state in Mexico. They are joined by their childhood friend Humberto Flores on guitar, plus assorted percussionists who join them in the studio and on stage. The siblings were each childhood prodigies who left Mexico to study classical music abroad, but reassembled to enormous public acclaim. They have accompanied numerous Latin jazz ensembles and have collaborated with everyone from The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton, Leni Stern, and Dan Zanes. They have also shared the stage with the Cuban and Peruvian national symphonies and have headlined at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. In other words, they are the real deal.

Their new release Somos features both their considerable musical mastery and their commitment to social justice. For the Spanish-challenged–like me–the album title translates “We Are.” It is a simple and direct assertion of presence and the title track addresses the U.S. immigration crisis and backlash. You need not understand the lyrics to admire the passion and craftsmanship of the Villalobos Brothers. This song has the scope of a pop anthem. It is lively, upbeat, hopeful, and has tongue-twisting staccato interludes.

The Villalobos Brothers are polished to a slick veneer and don’t shy away from a bit of showmanship. For example, “Xalapa Bang!” is a mélange of classical, funk, jazz, and Latin music built around frenetic fiddling. If you watch the YouTube video, Luis explains that the song is about police brutality, and the brothers do a bit of pantomime to drive home the point. It might seem a bit hokey on the surface. That is, until you do a bit of research on the subject and start to tally the number of lives lost in both the U.S. and Mexico at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect.

Once again, though, you can admire the musicianship with or without the politics (though I recommend you add it). The ensemble has a wonderful ability to mix styles and emotions. “Hombres de Arcilla” translates “Men of Clay” and just happens to be the name of a show of Alberto’s ceramic masks. which he fashioned in honor of 43 students who were abducted from an Iguala, Guerrero teachers’ college in 2014, 40 of whom were never found.* Alberto explains that his ceramics–inspired by pre-Aztec death masks–and musical composition are also intended to call attention to the fragility of life. The composition opens with discordant and melancholy strains that skirt the edge of experimental music. The vocals, though slow and soulful, are reminiscent of 1930s Spanish Civil War laments.

On the lighter side, “Veracruzana” is imbued with joyful and playful sounds that evoke a Zócalo party. “Hermano Mio” is a delicate melody that’s simultaneously jaunty and sweet. It has the feel of a folk song. And again, on the musical boundaries, there is “Wind Song.” It’s decidedly a slice of jazz, but jazz as filtered through classical music and salsa. Perhaps all three also have a political message but, as noted, my Spanish is limited.

What’s not in short supply insofar as the Villalobos Brothers are concerned is talent. They bring to bear all of their classical training, but they place ardor and intensity at the fore rather than devotion to technical prowess or individual huzzahs. You will, however, be tempted to dole out plenty of the latter.

Rob Weir

** The 2014 kidnappings have yet to be resolved fully, though they have been linked to local police, politicians, and organized crime figures. Allegations remain that the federal police, military, and government were also involved.