4/19/13

Angel D'Cuba/Latin Noir: Accomplished but Predictable

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ANGEL D’CUBA/VARIOUS ARTISTS
Heritage/Latin Noir” Everything Happens on the Beach
Angel d’Cuba (2012); Piraha 2648
 * * (both CDs)

If ever music is ripe for some innovation, it’s stuff being released from Latin America these days. Although there are superb performances on both of the above albums, there’s not much here that we’ve not heard before. I keep waiting for a Latino or Carib album to come at me infused with the sort of jazz, rock, world beat seasoning that adds zest to everything from Balkan and Celtic music to releases coming out of Africa and Asia, but what comes my way is simply a slicker version of what came before.

Angel D’Cuba is a case in point. He’s a Cuban transplant to Chicago and he could really use some Chicago-style blues to add some grit to his music. Once known as a salsa king, D’Cuba has added touches of samba, soca, son, cumbia, and funk to his repertoire, but despite his claim that James Brown is among his inspirations, his North American flavors tend more toward the pop end of the spectrum occupied by another inspiration: the Jackson 5. He tries a crossover piece with a remake of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” but manages only to make it into a generic-sounding power ballad with Spanish segues. His “Una Samba en Chicago” could be titled anything at all; there’s nothing Windy City about it. D’Cuba has a powerful voice, but thus far his attempts at creating a polyglot sound are akin to actors who try to hide their native accent by adopting a flat inflectionless tone.

Latin Noir opens strong with some edgy accordion from Argentina’s Chango Spasiuk (“Tierra Colorado”), but the energy is quickly lost and isn’t regained until track nine, when Piquete Tipico Las dusts off the raw sounds of a Cuban genre known as Danz√≥n, which sounds a bit like a brass street band more interested in being raucous than polished. The music on this album comes from as far away as Colombia and Marseilles and as close as Central Park. The performances are impressive, but once again they fail to be memorable. Several, in fact, open with nearly identical guitar runs and percussion. By the time I reached the Watcha Clan bonus track (“La Petera”), I was happy to hear something that broke new ground, even though their composition is more odd than appealing. I can’t fault the musicianship on either album, but what does it say that after 24 tracks, only Spasuik’s accordion stands out?--Rob Weir


4/17/13

Boston Marathon Bombings Reopen Security Debate

Smile! You're on security camera! 

Do you want to be secure, or private? Do you want to reduce crime, or just fear it? Which is worse, a national security state, or a war of all against all? Who do you think defends liberty better, civil authorities, or the American Civil Liberties Union? Do you want a regulatory or a libertarian society? Who can best keep citizens secure, trained government law enforcement, or state and local officials? Do you want spend money to alleviate things decades of research have proven are linked to violence–poverty, poor education, and unemployment–or complain about your taxes? Do American military ventures cause more harm than good?

Don’t like the choices? Neither do I. But we better start thinking about our answers to these questions. As the April 15 tragedy at the Boston Marathon revealed once again, an open society is an intoxicant that sets free the good, the bad, and the ugly. Americans delude themselves if they think that the bad and the ugly are rare aberrations–nearly every day brings new tales of how the beacon of liberty has been used to ignite fireballs of horror. We must face the reality that we are a nation of 314,000,000 people occupying nearly 9.8 million square miles. We can thump our chests and spout threats against terrorist sand lawbreakers, but what former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge told New England Cable News is true: it’s “impossible” to defend the United States against all attacks–the nation is simply too big and too open to defend 100% of the time.

This is the first time I have agreed with Ridge on anything. That said, there are some things we can do to reduce terror and violence. Alas, they come with strings attached. They include:  

            --Security cameras: Boston has twice failed the security test. (Two of the 9/11 planes left from Logan.) It–and the rest of urban America–needs to become more like London, where hundreds of cameras monitor crime and traffic. This won’t be popular with those paranoid of Big Brother government, and it is intrusive. But, if you’ve ever used the Internet, a cell phone, or mail order you already have less privacy than you think. Recording public life isn’t foolproof, but banks have been videotaping us for years and they capture 40% of all robbers. If that sounds low, compare it to murder, where more two three fail even to yield an arrest, or rape, which has a 3% conviction rate. Big public events such as the Boston Marathon should have cameras operational along the entire route 365 days a year.

            --Real transport security: Just friggin’ do this! Every person who flies or takes a train or bus undergoes a full body scan and every single bag gets x-rayed. If you can’t stand the idea of somebody seeing your body on a screen or receiving a pat down, stay home. No more random checks. No more false modesty. Everybody gets scanned. Now.

            --Mandate the monitoring of rightwing groups: We’ve spent lots of effort going after lefties and Muslims in the past decades, but we spend almost nothing on domestic surveillance of the ideological right, though it has a bloody track record. It’s time for the FBI to bird-dog dangerous characters lurking in the NRA, Operation Rescue, survivalist groups, the Tea Party, and fundamentalist churches.   

            --No more offense from the Department of Defense: Foreign adventurism, nation building, insurgency funding, and other forms of aggressive interventionism have yielded little but heartache and unbalanced budgets. Pull the plug on Iraq and Afghanistan, stop giving military aid to foreign governments, don’t arm anybody’s civil war, and eliminate foreign aid for nations on the U.N. human rights watch list. It’s one thing to respond when attacked, but the U.S. military should become a purely defensive force, except in the case of…

            --Setting up a U.S. Carbinieri. Let’s follow Italy’s example and place armed, uniformed military personnel on American streets. This makes more sense than allowing any paranoid fool who wants to play cop buy a gun. (Did someone say “George Zimmerman?”) Police unions don’t want a national military police force, but cash-strapped cities can’t afford more cops and the ones they have won’t go into the projects, ghettos, and high-crime areas. Let soldiers earn their combat stripes in Kansas City, not Kandahar.

            --Write and enforce a national hate crimes law. The First Amendment was never intended to give hate groups and provocateurs a get-out-of-court-free card. Fox News pundits are already fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment, though no one knows who bombed the Boston Marathon. The Internet reeks of the stench of hate- group Websites. We must be careful not to lapse into mindless censorship, but we might consider that any group whose intent is clearly to deny the civil liberties of others has none of its own that must be protected. Don’t let groups like the ACLU defend the KKK; shut it down! (President Grant did in 1871 and the KKK was out of business until 1922.) And use the FCC to enforce truly “fair and balanced” media standards. Pull the plug on remarks intended only to polarize and incite.

            --A reregulated capitalist economy. Free trade is the biggest fraud Wall Street has ever perpetuated on American workers.  We’ve gutted the national wage structure to empower modern-day robber barons, union busters, lawless investors, and Walmart importers. Domestic economic consequences aside, pegging U.S. foreign policy to the demands of global capitalists has meant that our government cooperates with dictators, power brokers, and vulture capitalists around the globe that fleece and oppress their own citizenry while the U.S. takes the blame. I’m not an isolationist, but Jimmy Carter’s practice of linking trade to human rights was a noble one in need to revival. So too is the notion of reining in runaway capital, ending tax breaks for outsourcing, and investing in new regulated domestic ventures that cannot be moved at stockholder whims. These have the added advantage of reducing the perception abroad that Americans are swashbuckling pirates performing rapine with contracts instead of cutlasses.

4/15/13

Frank and Robot a Delightful DVD Rental

ROBOT AND FRANK (2012)
Directed by Jake Schrier
Dog Run Pictures
PG-13, 89 mins.
* * * *

Robot and Frank is a classic “small” picture the likes of which sneak in and out of the local mall so fast that they never generate the needed buzz to build an audience. Small pictures are often gems that enjoy a better fate on video and so should this tasty little hors d’oeuvre.

If forced to pick a genre I’d call this one an offbeat comedy, though a major subtheme, dementia, is no laughing matter. The film is set in suburban New York (Cold Spring Harbor, actually) in the not-so-distant future, where we meet Frank (veteran stage actor Frank Langella). Frank is equally parts charming, cantankerous, and exasperating; he’s also elderly and starting to “lose it.” His kids are grown, with daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) traveling the globe trying to rebuild her own messy life, and son Hunter (James Marsden) busy with business and family and weary of the long commute he makes every week to check in on his dad. One weekend Hunter arrives with Frank’s new companion—a personal assistant robot (voice by Peter Sarsgaard). It’s a state-of-the art model programmed to act as caregiver for dementia patients for whom routines are important. Thus begins one of the stranger “buddy” films in recent movie history.

We learn that Frank’s tidy home was probably purchased with ill-gotten funds and that he isn’t quite what we expect—he’s a paroled (semi-) retired cat burglar with a fondness for shoplifting and dreams of a final heist before he puts away his lock picks. He even has a target—an obnoxious Yuppie computer-geek couple that’s new to town and hell-bent on ridding the town library of its outmoded books and automating the system. (Instead of good cop/bad cop, we get good robot/bad computers!) This distressed Frank, as he likes hanging out in the old building and flirting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). All Frank needs for his denouement caper is a partner, but how much help can you get from a robot programmed to resist Frank’s bad habits?

You can probably see where all of this is going, but it’s rollicking good fun to watch it unfold. Writer Christopher Ford’s script has just enough small twists—including one involving Sarandon--to compensate for the obvious plot, and he’s inserted enough poignancy and pathos to provide a bittersweet ending. Kudos also for humanizing dementia and showing us the humanity in those moments in which it begins to ebb away. And let’s give a shout out to Langella, a superb actor whose talent is woefully underappreciated.

Robot and Frank isn’t path-breaking cinema--just a very enjoyable small film that will leave you smiling at the same time your eyes moist over. Don’t be surprised if you feel as much for the robot as for Frank. Rent this and discover the soul of the new machine.—Rob Weir