I'm Just Saying!

Representative Aaron Shock (R, IL) is only twenty-eight, so why doesn't he buy his own health insurance?

Time for a grab bag of end-of-the-year musings;

--If Congress doesn’t see the merits of expanding Medicare to fifty-five-year-old uninsured citizens, shouldn’t Congress require that all its members under the age of 65 must buy private health insurance? That would be most of them; the average representative is 56 and the average senator is 62.

--If the citizens of Connecticut don’t launch a recall vote of Joe Lieberman we can only conclude that residents of the Nutmeg State are unworthy of suffrage rights.

--American families racked up $973 billion worth of unpaid credit card debt in 2008 (the last year for which statistics were compiled). Shouldn’t a lot of folks clean up their own act before they criticize the government’s deficit spending habits?

--Need more evidence that the Democrats are brain dead? Martha Coakley, the heir presumptive to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, reversed herself and said she will vote for a health care overhaul that includes abortion restrictions. She's not even been elected yet and already she's back pedaling.

--If we do want to cut government spending a good place to start would be to abolish the U.S. Senate and move to a unicameral legislature based on population. Maybe bicameralism made sense in 1783, but in 2010 it’s ridiculous that states with less population than Los Angeles or New York wield the same amount of power. Dumping the Senate would also be the first step in getting rid of the Electoral College, an institution beloved only by Republican lawyers and ballot box stuffers.

--If you really care about government debt, a very simple way to cut into it is to check the label of things that you buy. If it says “Made in China,” put it back on the shelf. You’ll kill two birds with one stone—you’ll reduce America’s balance of trade deficit and you’ll end up purchasing higher-quality goods.

--Why does the U.S. have an ambassador to the Vatican? Nobody lives there and aren’t Catholics virtually represented in the embassies of nations in which they actually reside?

--What if we ran the nation like we run Major League Baseball? Let’s set a cap on what businesses can dole out in salaries and require a dollar-for-dollar match for what is spent above the cap that gets divided equally among those below the cap.

--Donald Trump has $3 billion in net worth. If we got rid of him we could give ten bucks to every man, woman, and child. I could use a Hamilton, so I say we do it!



We got lucky, but we need to get better!
And now it begins again. It’s easy to predict the next breaking wave in the wake of the disaster-that-almost-was-in-Detroit. The attempt of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner will certainly lead to beefed up airport security. Translation: longer lines, more searches, and more bad news for under-booked air carriers already pitching in turbulent recession air.

Congress is also certain to get into the act, and one can only hope that it does more than add to the turbulence. At the end of the day, there are, at present, only three options and each is problematic: search everyone, implement whole body security scanners, or profile.

Searching every passenger (and their luggage) would be enormously time consuming, would entail hiring many new security agents, and would certainly entail steep rises in airport security taxes. Airlines are likely to resist this option as it would devastate the lucrative short-haul business flight sector. Why fly from Boston to New York if you have to show up four hours early for an hour-long flight? Why not take Amtrak or the bus and save the hassle?

The best long-term solution is to follow the lead of airports such as Schiphol in Amsterdam and require every passenger to pass through a whole body scanner that sees through clothing. This technology faces hurdles in the US because: (a) it’s costly, and (b) alarmists have tarred it as a dirty-old-man machine. In truth it produces images of the body’s contours, not the kind of lurid detail Superman’s x-ray vision could offer, but this needs to be sold to prudes, privacy advocates, and politicians.

That leaves one other option, profiling, and it raises the ire of civil libertarians, civil rights veterans, and liberals. The latter can be summarily dismissed from the debate if they manifest bleeding heart symptoms. Liberals may want to believe there is good in everyone. They also make a good case when they say that US policy is responsible for anger toward Americans. Fine. That and a dime will get you… well, nothing. Let’s talk like grown-ups and admit that there are some truly nasty people in the world, many of whom share none of altruism of well-meaning one-world advocates. And while we’re on the subject, let’s have the common sense to admit that a disproportionate number of security risks come from the Muslim world—enough that it makes sense to profile Muslims.

Are all Muslims terrorists? Of course not! The vast majority of Muslim people are victims of the damage that terrorists do to the reputation of their faith. They are innocents. But then again, so are most of the victims of terrorism. Until the day that air terrorism ceases to be associated primarily with Muslims, the barbarism of those acts will continue to taint followers of Islam. Is that fair? No. Is it the reality? Yes. Profiling might ironically help law-abiding Muslims cast off the terrorism stigma. Imagine the response if Muslims led the hue-and-cry for airport profiling.

Profiling is, by nature, distasteful and imprecise. Many Americans recall the high-profile 1989 Carol Stuart murder case in which Boston police pursued black suspects—and even made an arrest—before it was revealed that Mrs. Stuart and her unborn child were slain by her husband Charles, who concocted the black assailant lie. Twenty years later racial profiling remains troublesome and many African Americans complain that whites remain too willing to assume that black drivers, shoppers, and passersby are crime-prone.

So why on earth should we profile Muslims? Lost in the Stuart ballyhoo is the fact that Boston police actually conducted their investigation pretty well. Stuart was the prime suspect early on and police only shifted their emphasis when medical examiners assured them that Stuart’s wounds were unlikely to be self-inflicted. Police then investigated based on what little evidence they had. They did not profile white Bostonians because the assailant was said to be black. The cops were wrong, but their reasoning was sound. Why profile? Because it’s all we’ve got at present.

As things currently stand it is simply absurd to pull Iowa grandmothers from security lines and search them just so we can say we don’t profile. We have enough evidence to suggest what kind of profile security should be looking at. In order, a terrorist is most likely to be a male coming from Muslim countries who is not traveling with family, a male with an assumed Muslim name that is not his birth name, a person traveling to or from a Muslim country who is traveling alone, a Muslim who has studied engineering, an American who has spent considerable periods of time in Muslim lands, and loners.

As in the Stuart case, profiling is hardly foolproof. Erstwhile shoe bomber Richard Reid might have still slipped through the net. So too would domestic copycats, unbalanced individuals of various persuasions, and recruits to the terrorist cause who fall outside the profile. And, yes, profiling would also stigmatize Hindus, Buddhists, and other anyone else who “looks” Muslim.

Should we do it? My choice would be the whole body scanner. Those too shy, too paranoid, or too prudish can choose not to fly. But until the machines come, rational profiling is the best we’ve got. And we need to do it because (sigh!) the world isn’t always the way that liberals and civil libertarians would wish it to be.--LV


White Ribbon: Village of the Damned

Our London correspondent recommends this challenging film--just don't believe your own eyes!
The White Ribbon
Dir: Michael Haneke
137 mins (b/w)

* * * *

Michael Haneke has always investigated society’s thin veneer of respectability and in this recipient of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, the investigation is of the eighteen months before the outbreak of World War I. In a feudal North German religious community, a series of accidents and disasters affect the normality, such as it is, of an inward looking people presided over by their main employer, the baron. No one is found to be responsible for these disturbing happenings though a collection of children seem to appear, always together, like the children of the damned. The enclosed society punishes its children severely and to make amends, each child is forced to wear a white ribbon to signify, and naively recapture, their purity. There are other family secrets unfolding concerning sexual molestation and ill treatment of wives and housekeepers. But this is not all. The entire story is narrated by the village teacher, now an old man, and his chaste relationship with a young nanny is threaded through the film. His narration might be unreliable, but we are asked to question this in conflict with what we see for ourselves – suggesting that not only is all memory unreliable, but even what we see and experience for ourselves is open to interpretation. Shot in crisp black and white, the bright exterior scenes are in harsh contrast to the imprisoning darkness of the houses’ interiors.

Haneke is an unusual filmmaker in that he operates outside the norms - preferring to concentrate on the darker side of human behaviour without resorting to clichéd melodrama. Some of his earlier films, Benny’s Video, The Pianist, Funny Games, and Hidden, dwell on this extensively but force us to confront its depiction in fiction and representation. The White Ribbon bears some resemblance to Rainer Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, a film of Theodore Fontaine’s bleak novel about the subjugation of a young woman by her aristocratic husband. Other comparisons are Carl Dreyer’s‘ Days of Wrath and The Word, both set in austere communities. Here, the power held in the hands of the few in a pious religious community could be seen as a metaphor for the encroaching war and the eventual Nazi rise in the 1930’s, and indeed at the film’s end, the singing congregation is gathered in church and filmed from on high over the altar as if watched by God as a voice announces the outbreak of the war - Archduke Ferdinand had been killed. This is a part thriller and part a study of an unjust social system that’s morally and physically disintegrating though no-one is prepared to confront it. Haneke’s masterful control of the drama leaves you space for contemplation amid the decay and downward spiral, in the end leaving you with the idea of the demon seed.

Lloyd Sellus.



Album of the Year!

Anybody who tries to tell you that choosing a best of list is purely objective is a person who has access to various controlled substances. I won’t pretend that this list is scientific or that I carefully dissected each release and measured the musicianship in any sort of scientific fashion. These ten are, simply, the ones that knocked mu socks off. I don’t think you’d be disappointed by any of them, but if you want to quibble with my choices, that’s why there’s a reply option on this site!

Please note that the artists whose names are underlined have longer reviews on this blog. Clicking will take you to them.

1. String Sisters, Live. This album brings together six of the finest female fiddlers on the planet and they bow magic whose roots lie in American, Irish, Norwegian, Scottish, and Swedish soil. It is an unparalleled mix of passion, energy, and skill—my reasons for choosing it as Album of the Year.

2. Richard Shindell, Not Far Now. You’d get little debate from me if you insisted that this one was better than my number one choice. Shindell is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to capturing pathos, irony, and small tragedies. It’s dark poetry, but it’s glorious.

3. Fiona J. Mackenzie, A Good Suit of Clothes. If you think that an album about Scots emigrants sung entirely in Gaelic would be a snorer, you’ve not heard the magnificent voice of Fiona Mackenzie. She dwells in high ranges that lesser singers struggle to ascend and emotes in ways that reveal the full gamut of the immigrant experience.

4. Donna Hébert, In Full Bloom. Few things in life are as much fun as Quebecois music and Donna Hébert fiddles with pure joie de vivre. Find out why this music is some times called “crooked tunes.”

5. Sa Dingding, Alive. Technically a 2008 release, but what the heck? i didn't hear it until 2009 and it's too good to get lost in technicalities. This pop singer brings Chinese and Tibetan music into the age of electronica and the dance hall. She’s been called the Chinese Bjork for her moxie.

6. Wild Carrot, Live: Crowd Around the Mic. Bluegrass music that’s so fresh that it blows away all the stale air that’s been lurking for too long. Pam Temple’s vocals are a revelation, the music is swingy, and the arrangements novel.

7. Antje Duvekot, The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer. This album is intimate, moody, honest, and fragile. Duvekot’s poetic writing, gentle and slightly nasal vocals, and Richard Shindell’s firm production make this a winner. (This was also reviewed--see acoustic archives.)

8. Warsaw Village Band, Infinity. Polish music like you’ve never heard it before. This driving mash-up of industrial rock, blues, world music, and psychedelia is Poland’s answer to Sweden’s Garmarna.

9. Cedar Hill Refugees, Pale Imperfect Diamond. Jack Clift and John Carter Cash wondered what they’d get if they combined bluegrass and Uzbek music. Now we know and we can thank them for a musical education! (See acoustic archives.)

10. Johnsmith, Gravity and Grace. Midwestern goodness and reflections on life from a guy who has kicked around a bit and lived to tell the tale. It might be schmaltzy it weren’t so damned true.

10. Sarah Bettens, Never Say Goodbye. This veteran of Europe’s punk scene turned to acoustic music in this pop/folk/jazz album. It suits her so well that maybe she should say goodbye to her old musical personae.


Note to Richie Lawrence: Just Play

Melancholy Waltz
Big Book Records 17
* *

Keyboard wizard Richie Lawrence has been a career sessions and side man who has shared stages with some of the giants: Bonnie Raitt, The Ramones, Willie Dixon…. He’s even been on stages on which polka king Jimmy Sturr and LSD guru Timothy Leary appeared. But being on the same stage with mega talent doesn’t mean it rubs off any more than standing in line with elves makes you Santa Claus. In Lawrence’s case, his brushes with fame have inured him to his own limitations.

Lawrence certainly knows his way around the ivories. Both “Le Milieu” and “The Melancholy Waltz (1990-2009)” contain resonant dark tones that are true to the album’s title. There are also two pieces that are stunners: the cascading-riff-laden “The Late Richard Lawrence” and the clever “Bee’s Blues (Für Elise).” The latter composition is Lawrence’s bluesy take on Beethoven, and it comes off as if the latter had snippets of “St. James’s Infirmary” stuck in his head.

If only Lawrence had stayed at the piano bench and away from the mic! He sings on six of the album’s dozen tracks and that’s precisely six too many. As a vocalist Lawrence not only lacks range, he lacks basic tunefulness. How a man with such a fine ear for instrumentation can be so utterly tin-eared when it comes to his own voice is a mystery. Several of the songs are downright painful to hear. One hopes that for his next release Lawrence will let his playing be all the spotlight he needs.--LV


Time to Say Goodbye to Democrats

A few weeks ago I did something I hadn’t done since 1971—there was an election and I stayed home. Prior to this I had a perfect attendance suffrage record. It didn’t matter whether we were electing a president or deciding whether to allocate town funds to dump gravel on a dirt road, I was there to cast my vote. So why did I sit out the Massachusetts statewide election to choose candidates to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate?

I suppose part of it was that the candidates induced in me roughly the same amount of excitement I feel when I buy a box of cereal. Martha Coakley will head the Democratic ticket. Ho hum. She’ll easily defeat Republican Scott Brown because: (a) this is Massachusetts, and (b) Scott who? But it wasn’t boredom that kept me from the polls; it was my utter disgust with the Democratic Party. Is it too early to declare the Obama administration a failure? I don’t think so. Break out the t-shirts with Obama’s picture and the slogan “I Voted for Change and All I Got Was This Stupid Pandering Democratic.”

Sound harsh? My view of Obama isn’t nearly as low as that I feel for those who blithely follow him as if he’s the messiah. Where the %#$@*& is the outrage? Obama has been, in many ways, worse than George Bush. Think that’s an exaggeration? Bush’s final defense budget was $513 billion; Obama’s will be at least $534 billion (and perhaps a $100 billion more). George Bush touted the Defense of Marriage Act –signed into law by that faux liberal Bill Clinton, by the way–and Obama’s Justice Department is spending tax payer dollars to defend it from legal challenges. Bush set up the Homeland Security Administration; Obama invented the concept of “sovereign immunity” to declare thousands of Intel and CIA documents off limits from public scrutiny. Many of those documents relate to torture the likes of which occurred at Abu Ghraib and for which Bush was excoriated. Candidate Obama said he’d put Americans back to work and had a plan to do so; President Obama told a December 9, 2009 Brookings Institute gathering, “There is only so much government can do.” Candidate Obama said he’d pull troops out of Iraq within 18 months; President Obama says it will be longer and that we need to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Candidate Obama pledged to reverse global warming; President Obama’s administration contributed a parsimonious $85 million for a $350 million international initiative to develop green technology. At Copenhagen he pledged that the U.S. would cut greenhouse emissions by 17% by 2020; the Europeans pledged a 30% cut!

This isn’t the half of it. Health care reform is in such shambles that the best we can hope for is that nothing gets passed. And how about all those new laws to protect labor organizers, limit CEO salaries, limit access to assault weapons, and pump money into education? And can you even imagine how liberals would have reacted had George Bush gone to Oslo to accept a Nobel Peace Prize and used the occasion to defend war?

Many of my liberal friends who so desperately want to believe in Obama cast the blame on Congress. I see their point. If you’re a progressive thinker and you don’t live in Vermont, chances are good that you’re un- or underrepresented in the U.S. Senate. I never expected much from Republicrats like Harvey Reid (NV), Claire McCaskill (MO), Mark Pryor (AR), Ben Nelson (NB), or Arlen Specter (PA). And I have nothing but pity for my neighbors in Connecticut who must endure Chris “Love-those-Banks” Dodd and Joe “Allow-me-to-kiss-the-insurance-industry’s-Tush” Lieberman. The ones who really get me, though, are the poseurs like John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein and their say-anything-to-be-a-player morals. And don’t get me started on the deplorable Nancy Pelosi in the House.

This said, how do we explain the fact that Obama isn’t battling for what he says he wants? Ronald Reagan rammed his agenda through a Democratic Congress, and George Bush never had the “super majority” supposedly needed to pass important initiatives. Lyndon Johnson was willing to bust heads and butts to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Wake up people! The Democrats are frauds. Okay, so most of them aren’t Neanderthals like Jim DeMint (SC), James Inhofe (OK), John Cornyn (TX), or Mitch McConnell (KY). But let’s not kid ourselves.
Change isn’t happening because Democrats reside in the same corporate pockets as Republicans, something Ralph Nader has been trying to tell us for years.

Voting for Democrats is like continuing to go on dates with an attractive escort who repeatedly dumps you and sleeps with someone else. I’m done with the Dems. I’ve changed my voter registration to independent and I plan to vote for Greens and true progressives. If that means Republicans win elections, so be it. I’ll hardly notice the difference and my conscience will be clean.--LV



There’s an old Appalachian saying that goes, “You gotta’ dance with them what brung you.” Add this to the list of things that President Obama doesn’t seem to get.

Who elected him in 2008? Of this there can be little doubt—the Northeast, the Far West, and the Mountain States. So explain to me why the eight-billion-dollar high-speed rail stimulus plan pretty much leaves out the Northeast, one of the few areas in the country where people still actually ride trains.

A glance at the above map from the Federal Railroad Administration shows the snub in dramatic fashion. The Boston-to-New York corridor, the nation’s busiest, is not slated for an upgrade. There are but two lines for California, one in the Northwest, and the middle of the nation is as blank a prairie in a blizzard. We will, however, see stimulus money spent to run high-speed rail through red states such as Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. You know--the places where anti-government sentiment runs deep and where politicians will howl about wasting taxpayer dollars. Places where Obama has as much chance of winning votes as a polecat running for Miss Congeniality.

This is a real head scratcher. Show me the compelling need for an Oklahoma City to Houston network. And why on earth would Obama waste political capital in the Deep South instead of shoring of his support timbers in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania? How about an Albany to Harrisburg line? Columbus to Washington? Denver to Chicago? Every day seems to bring more news that Obama is, as his pre-election critics charged, too green and inexperienced to be a strong leader. He naively plays nonpartisan games that have the net effect of appeasing those who will hate him no matter what he does whilst abandoning those who want desperately to love him. Arthur Miller said it best, “Without alienation, there can be no politics.” Elected officials such as Michael Bennet, (CO), Robert Casey (PA), John Kerry (MA), and Charles Schumer (NY) need to remind the president of this. Obama either starts dancing with those what brung him, or he’ll be dateless in 2012.



Live: Crowd Around the Mic
Chocolate Dog Music M001
* * * *

A lot of people will wince at this statement, but the musical truth is that bluegrass music has been mired in predictability for quite some time. Other than hybrid pioneers such as Béla Bleck and the Alisons (Brown and Krauss), there’s been too much same old/same old: affected nasal twangs (even if you grew up in Kansas rather than Kentucky), a bit of chipmunk-like harmony, and then cue the mandolin and banjo breakouts. The great irony is that bluegrass music is in the process of being rescued by acts from north of the Mason-Dixon Line: Railroad Earth, Dan Tyminski, Crooked Still…. To this list add Wild Carrot.

Okay, so their Cincinnati base is just over the Mason-Dixon Line, but Wild Carrot (Pam Temple and Spencer Funk) have joined forces with the Roots Band (Brandt Smith and Brenda Wolfersberger) to create something far more fresh and hip than the stale winds blowing from the hollows. There is, first and foremost, the mighty vocal wallop of Pam Temple. When you’ve got a set of pipes as glorious as hers, it would be silly to dress them up in rented garb and she does not. Her Midwestern warmth comes through in every syllable and she’s not afraid to air things out instead of trying to sound like a mountain waif. There is next the fact that Wild Carrot draws from many musical wells, not a set of pre-programmed expectations. “Bits & Pieces” infuses some Latin backswing that Temple picked up from her time in the Peace Corps; “Macpherson’s Lament” fuses a bluegrass arrangement to a Scottish tune,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before” is a reworked Sammy Cahn jazz classic, and “Blackbird” covers the eponymous Beatles’ song.

This twenty-four-track live album covers lots of bases. Wild Carrot’s take on “Pan American Boogie” is like the Andrews Sisters go country, “Hello Hopeville” is a sweet cover of a Michelle Shocked song, “Adieu False Heart” is a Temple/Wolfersberger tour de fource, and “Shut de Do” is a touch of folk gospel. There are moments of whimsy—as in their cover of Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes”—and inspirational anthems such as “What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up.” There are also superb original compositions from the mutli-talented Temple that range in themes from explorations of folk customs (“Blue Bottle Tree”) to a country love song inspired by locusts (“Golden Wings”). And, yes, for traditionalists there are also a few mando and banjo solos, though I personally preferred Brandt Smith’s dobro to these.

This is an album that is simultaneously lovely, clever, and swingy. Above all, it’s not predictable and is easily the most exciting bluegrass album I’ve heard since the last Crooked Still release.—LV

Here the band singing “Waters of Truth.”


Meep! Danvers Principal Courts Court Hearing

Does Beaker have more common sense than the principal at Danvers High?

The challenges facing high school administrators are daunting: teen pregnancy, drug use, rising levels of violence, sinking test scores…. So what does Thomas Murray, the principal at Danvers (MA) High School see as such a problem that he’s on a one-man crusade to stamp out? Why the use of the word “meep,” of course. What could be more pressing?

Yes, you read it correctly. Principal Murray has informed parents that he will potentially suspend any student who uses the word “meep” and, according to the Boston Globe, even forwarded to police emails using the word. It must be really bad, yes? Possibly some code word that awakens a terrorist sleeper cell. Well…not really. Insofar as anyone can tell—and who can since it’s a nonsense syllable?—meep made its way into the American lexicon via the Muppet character named Beaker. It’s the sound he makes before something silly happens. Look up the word online and you’ll find that it’s usually either a synonym for either “ouch” or “oops”—words presumably still okay to use under the Murray Regime. Mostly meep is infinitely malleable and means whatever you want it to mean, which is Murray’s real gripe against it.

When Murray complains that students often use it in a disrespectful way, it’s easy enough to imagine that a group of savvy teens use it to get under Murray’s demonstrably thin skin. How the hell does a guy like this get to be a principal in the first place? Since 1998 Massachusetts has required that all teachers pass an examination before they can be licensed. It may be time to institute one for administrators as well. It would seem a rock bottom criterion that before one becomes a high school principal he should have to demonstrate more common sense than a concrete block. And perhaps some familiarity with the First Amendment.

The Great Danvers Meep Mockery reminds me of my own brush with a high school generalissimo. Back in 1970 I was booted from a high school gym class for wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a peace symbol logo. (There was no official gym uniform.) Being the young firebrand I was, I contacted the ACLU, which promptly informed the football coach/gym instructor that peace was not an obscenity and was, hence, protected free speech. The coach was a tyrant, but he was no fool; he backed down and wisely ignored it when other students donned the once-forbidden shirt.

This is precisely what Murray should do. He’s setting himself up for a nasty confrontation, to say nothing of making a meeping ass of himself. What would you do if your kid got suspended for saying “meep?” I know what I’d do and I’ll bet I’d find any number of attorneys who’d salivate at the thought of taking such a case. But before it comes to that, Danvers parents ought to rally and push for Murray’s removal. The teenage years are anxious ones and Danvers kids deserve a wiser pilot to guide them through the shoals of modern life.


Pat LaMountain Shows It's Never Too Late

A Few Miles Later
Garden Gate Recordings 1006
* * *

Two things to consider upfront: First, if you know Pat LaMountain’s music solely through her country/folk collaborations with husband Tex, this album will surprise you as it’s cut from different cloth entirely. Second, if the music sounds vaguely retro, it is; A Few Miles Later is stitched together from songs written in the 1980s that were supposed to be recorded in the early 1990s until that thing called life intervened. This release feels, for lack of a better word, trippy—the sort of acid folk that Grace Slick used to dust off in more contemplative moments. LaMountain matches her light voice to ambient instrumentation in evocative ways. On “Summer Rain” her vocals drift in the air and she deftly uses high-end catches as if the drizzle briefly became a downpour. In like fashion, “Boys in the Summer” has a gauzy feel. By way of contrast, “Oh Papa” is honky tonk blues the likes of which Patsy Cline would have tackled, “Good Thing” is infused with pop hooks, and “Bricks” feels like it was plucked from the Depression era.

LaMountain is on the road promoting this album’s release. Can you hold album release parties twenty years after the fact? Why not? This release has an old feel, but it doesn’t come off as dated. To my ear A Few Miles Later arrived just in time.--LV


Brian Kelly and Notre Dame's Moral Muddle in the Huddle

Note the lack of a Notre Dame logo on Jesus's jersey!
Some people, universities, and religions are (apparently) shameless. University of Cincinnati football coach Brian Kelly announced that he is leaving his post to accept a position at Notre Dame University. His announcement comes just three weeks before his undefeated team is scheduled to appear in the Sugar Bowl—the biggest event in the history of U of C football.

I find football a colossal bore and the only Sugar Bowl I care about is the one in my kitchen closet. As an educator, I do, however, care about young people and I know that for the young men on Kelly’s team the Sugar Bowl is a very big deal indeed. What manner of heartless egocentrism must lurk in Kelly’s soul? Call him the Grinch who stole New Year’s Day. What--this announcement couldn’t wait until the day after the big game? It is, simply, reprehensible for Kelly to betray those young men on the eve of what should be their greatest moment of glory.

I am not so naïve as to accuse Kelly of violating the spirit of college athletics. It’s been decades since college football embodied amateurism and good sportsmanship. College football is soaked in cash and under the current logic Kelly is entitled to gobble down a big slice of Money Pie. U of C wide receiver Mardy Gilyard pulled no punches when he summed up Kelly’s decision: “He went for the money.” I hope everyone remembers that the next time a star player leaves school early to pursue a professional career. Like role model, like player. But, again, what’s the rush? Why didn’t Kelly just shake hands behind closed doors and hold the press conference later? To unravel the root of our sordid tale we turn our attention to a more vile cast: the athletics department and administration at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame used to claim it was a “special place” where character, integrity, and morality mattered. I guess those things all presupposed winning football seasons, because none of those high-toned principles were in play in the Kelly hiring. Desperate to revitalize faith in its true god, football, Notre Dame put out feelers to raid a high-profile coach from another program. Brian Kelly fit the bill for being sufficiently morally compromised. Notre Dame pushed for an early announcement so that it could get maximum press coverage. (It wouldn’t get it any other way as Notre Dame isn’t going to a bowl game and reporters will be busy with those schools that are competing.) If Notre Dame officials had any qualms about breaking the hearts of young men at the University of Cincinnati, they sure haven’t voiced them. The decision must have taken place in the same hierarchical Roman Catholic circles that decide that bishops should damn women demanding abortion rights while sweeping a pedophile priest scandal under the rug.

God probably cares about football even less than I, but maybe God should. May God bless the University of Cincinnati with a Sugar Bowl victory under its interim head coach, and may God smite Brian Kelly-led Notre Dame teams with miserable seasons for each of the five years of his contract.



Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
Directed and written by Daniel Barnz
96 minutes
* * * *

Nine-year-old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) desperately wants to be good. So much so that when she blurts out hurtful remarks or spits at her classmates, she devises cantrips and rituals she hopes will keep her on an even keel. When these fail—as of course they will—she resorts to sterner measures: self-punishment, bouts of sarcasm, escapes into fantasy…. The latter route makes a lot of sense given that she’s been cast as the lead in the school play, “Alice in Wonderland.” The adults around her—parents, principal, and a child psychologist—mean well, but they haven’t done much to help Phoebe, and the one person who “gets her,” drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) is deemed a dangerous influence. We watch as Phoebe’s control erodes incident by incident, and we soon realize what the adults do not: their prescriptions won’t fix what’s wrong with Phoebe.

This small gem of a film debuted at Sundance in 2008 and went into (very) limited theatrical release in 2009. It’s not hard to fathom why this wasn’t mall fare—there are no chase sequences, Phoebe is the only thing that blows up, it was director Daniel Barnz’s first feature film, the biggest star in the cast is Felicity Huffman, and the theme of a small child in distress is challenging for today’s nostrum-fed theater-goers. Allow us to be emphatic: Rent this film on DVD. Now! Phoebe in Wonderland is not a perfect film, but it is nonetheless a transcendent one and Elle Fanning is a revelation unto herself.

There are holes in the film. Believability gets stretched on occasion, starting with the film’s mise en scène. Phoebe’s family is pretentiously haute bourgeois, the kind of no-real-dialogue ensemble that might populate a Woody Allen film. It is also the sort that dons fancy clothes to dine at home with friends, sips expensive wines, and engages in philosophical (but contrived) discussions of what defines a “good mother.” Phoebe and younger sister, Olivia (Bailee Madison), have all manner of expensive playthings and reside in a lovely house. We wonder how this is bankrolled, given that paterfamilias Peter (Bill Pullman) is a writer and his wife Hillary (Huffman) is avoiding her dissertation. And we certainly wonder how they pay the tuition at what is obviously a private school for gifted children (and normal ones whose Yuppie parents insist are special).

There are also times in which the adult acting is (mildly) stilted and the children way too precocious. Campbell Scott plays Principal Davis as if he prepared for the role by reading Nerds for Dummies, and Pullman is, as usual, milquetoast mediocre. (Pullman is the previous generation’s Matthew McConaughey, a bland non-entity endlessly pushed into roles for which he lacks the range, depth, and ability to make memorable.) For her part, Felicity Huffman plays the clenched-teeth mom well, but too often. Barnz shows her excessive momism as a mirror to Phoebe’s own compulsive behavior, but after a while it’s hard to see Huffman as an aspirant doctoral candidate.

All of this would sink most films. So why four stars? There is, first of all, Patricia Clarkson’s superbly nuanced turn as Miss Dodger. She is, at once, the calm center of Phoebe’s storms and a simmering volcano in her own right. She does not suffer fools gladly, be they peers or children. Clarkson communicates all her emotions with icy control—a sideways glance or raised eyebrow expressing annoyance of frightening proportions, or a Mona Lisa-like smile bestowing unconditional acceptance. And lord help the child who is on the receiving end of one of her curt “thank you” this-encounter-is-over remarks.

The children are wonderful in this film, starting with Jamie (Ian Colletti), a gender-confused child who wants to play the Red Queen in “Alice.” Bailee Madison deftly plays the role of the younger sister whose own attention cravings are hijacked by Phoebe. All of the kids speak above their years, but they are so good at it that after a while we suspend skepticism, just as we forget the fact that a movie-within-a-movie paralleling “Alice in Wonderland” is a fairly shopworn idea. All flaws are more than covered by the astonishing Elle Fanning. Her older sister Dakota (Secret Life of Bees, Sweet Home Alabama) gets more press, but Elle is even more talented. She is a luminous presence each time she is on the screen, and the raw and honest emotions she exudes overcome script problems. Watching her is akin to looking at a small child and seeing a bodhisattva. We can but hope that she, unlike Phoebe, stays on path. If she does, Elle Fanning has the chops to be the next Meryl Streep. Yep! She’s that good.



Richard Shindell, November 20, 2009

The lights came up at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA and we made our way to the exit. As we were about to enter the unseasonably warm November night air, a disgruntled customer exclaimed, “I’m Shindelled out. Just slit my wrists. What a depressing evening!”

Is there a farm where clueless people are bred and then released into the wild? Do they fatten morons on Obvious Pills? Who goes to a Richard Shindell concert to relive Happy Hour? Of course the songs were depressing; Shindell’s stock and trade is his ability to make us feel the pain of Everyman and Everywoman. Which “upbeat” song was the complainer hoping to hear? The Civil War widow pining for her lost husband (“Reunion Hill”)? The apocalypse as New Jersey Turnpike traffic jam (“Transit”)? The campesino with a tragic secret (“Fishing”)? The lovestruck, homesick anti hero of “Balloon Man?” The post-war, resource-depleted landscape of “You Stay Here?” Even Shindell’s sunny songs such as “Are You Happy Now?” have bitter edges to them. This is, after all, a singer who does a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” as an upbeat segue.These are among the selections Shindell sang, as well as several from his glorious new release Not Far Now.

Mr. Grumpy was correct, however, in that the November 20 show did not rank among Shindell’s best. Maybe we’re simply so used to having Shindell astonish us that when he’s merely good, we feel slightly cheated. He performed with three-quarters of his band and generally favored smoother (and often slower) mixes that allowed Lincoln Schlieffer (double bass), John Putnam (electric guitar), and Sara Milonovich (fiddle, viola) to texture arrangements. The effect was more akin to being in the studio and it lacked the intimacy of Shindell’s solo performances. Synergy is sometimes the enemy of energy and on this evening Shindell appeared more of an orchestra leader than as a catalyst. It was left to the fiery Milonovich to pick up the pace and infuse liveliness into the concert. She was a revelation as she painted lyric lines with sparse but perfectly chosen notes one moment, and ripped off animated runs and added tasteful vocal harmonies the next.

Antje Duvekot was the surprise opening act, back on the stage just weeks after headlining her own show. Hers was the opposite of Shindell’s set in that performing with the backup band greatly enhanced her stage presence. Elsewhere we have noted that she is a wonderful songwriter and singer, but that she’s pretty ordinary as a guitar player. Having Putnam and Shindell standing beside her hides those flaws and we can concentrate on her lyrics. And her voice meshed beautifully with Shindell’s and Milonovich’s.

All in all, a solid evening of music. That will do; they can’t all be transcendent.


Ruah: Spirit of the Wind; Simply Amazing
Self-Produced (Available from http://www.jeffsnow,net/)
**** (Ruah); *** (Simply Amazing)

In Celtic music, it’s usually the fiddlers, pipers, flautists, and accordion players who get the glory. Guitar players? Aficionados will cite names such as Dennis Cahill, Dáthi Sproule, John Doyle, Tony McManus, Davy Graham, Martin Simpson, and John Renbourn. For the most part, though, guitarists are relegated to the rhythm section, where they lay down solid foundations and thrash out chord progressions that provide the scaffolding off which the lead instrumentalists leap into the spotlight.

That said, go to any session, take away the fretted instruments, and the loss is immediately felt. All of this brings me to Jeff Snow, a western Massachusetts artist who isn’t a household name but can hold his own in any ensemble, session, or solo concert stage. His precise fingering, ringing tones, and subdued modes remind me a bit of Grammy Award winner (and Maggie’s Music recording artist) Al Petteway and not just because Snow covers Petteway’s “Sligo Creek” on Ruah.

Snow’s two solo recordings showcase his abilities on six- and twelve-string guitars, bouzouki, autoharp, and hammered dulcimer. Ruah is the more authentically Celtic of the two records, a mix of traditional material such as “Greensleeves” and “Moran’s Return,” originals (the title track), and covers such as “Waltz of the Waves” (Harvey Reid) and “Sligo Creek” (Petteway). He also deftly mixes livelier material with moody, sleepy tunes such as “All Through the Night.”

The selections on Simply Amazing are, simultaneously, more diverse in style but less adventurous. There is no faulting the execution; each selection is expertly crafted and precisely played. It’s great fun to hear “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Lord of the Dance” on autoharp, but even that’s not quite enough to make us forget that both tunes are shopworn. This one gets an A for talent, but with well-traveled material such as “Amazing Grace,” “Harvest Home,” “Loch Tay Boat Song,” “Loch Lomond,” and “Silent Night” it’s hard to go beyond a gentleman’s C for originality.

But, then again, novice listeners may appreciate Simply Amazing simply because it is familiar and allows them to assess Snow’s talents. You can’t go wrong with either recording, so why not pick up both?


A perfect gift for whatever holiday you celebrate--including Festivus!

Compass 7-4520-2

* * * * *

If envy is a mortal sin, reserve a seat for me in Inferno because I’m consumed by jealousy for those lucky Norwegians who saw the debut of String Sisters (Liz Carroll, Emma Häredlin, Liz Knowles, Annbjørg Lien, Catriona Macdonald, and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh). A journey of any length is justified when any one of these talented ladies is on stage, but all of at once is my idea of Paradise. Backed by David Milligan (piano), Conrad Ivitsky (bass), Tore Bruvoll (guitar), and James Mackintosh (percussion), this superstar fiddle sextet wends its way through a collection of tunes that originated in Ireland, Sweden, the United States, Norway, Scotland, and Shetland, but which are transformed into music that transcends borders and defies simple classification. It’s a delicious treat to listen to the wild abandonment of Carroll, the smooth Donegal style of Ni Mhonaigh (Altan), the folk-meets-industrial rock sounds of Härdelin (Garmarna), the haunting Hardanger resonances of Lien, the Scottish-Scandinavian mix of Macdonald, and the Celtic-American mash-ups of Knowles. But it’s a sumptuous banquet when more than one is on stage at a time. Just about anything can and does happen. We get Shetland/Irish blends in which the linking Liz Knowles tunes were composed in Japan; an Irish/Estonian goulash; a stew of Swedish, Scottish, and Irish tunes, and just about every other permutation you can imagine. This is an album that’s so good that mere words cannot do it justice. Give it a listen and I’ll have plenty of company in the hot seats.
Check out how they move from smoke to fire on this live video. Hardelin not on stage in the video, but hear her gorgeous voice and trilling "r"s here. Then check out the wild Gothic rock stuff she does with her band Garmarna. It's like nothing else you'll hear.



Jeffrey Altergott
Bright Balloons

Jeffreyaltergott 004
* * * *
The music of Jeffrey Altergott is the kind that invites labels such as “folk-rock” or alt.folk, which means he plugs in every now and again and that a small band often joins in. It’s the sort of music that used to be called “soft rock” a generation ago when Paul Simon and James Taylor ruled the pop charts. Like Simon and Taylor, Altergott’s voice is a soothing tenor, the songs are built around sweet melodies with sharp hooks, and he’s not afraid to be playful with the music. Although Altergott can be very sentimental—as on the complexly mixed but stripped down piano-based love song “Dandelion”—he also has an edge and he’s not afraid to slice himself with it. On the catchy title track he speaks frankly of his inability to reconcile his own contradictions: “Maybe if I can embrace/things about myself I hate/it would be less a coffin and more a womb.” Like all good folkies Altergott has his causes—his “Every Day is a Reason” is a moving tribute to the courage of gay couples—but he also has a lighter side. “Kickstand” is a time warp in which he travels back to the swing era for a little small combo jazz. As for me, I like it when social commentary and humor collide, as in “Dismal Voyeurs,” Altergott’s skewer of reality TV and those who watch it. This is a thoughtful, tuneful album—one of those small gems you should go out of your way to discover.



An Education (2009)
Directed by Lone Scherfig
95 minutes
* * * * *

It’s 1961 and England has finally recovered from World War II. Skiffle and the Teddy Boys are a fading memory and life in London suburbs such as Twickenham has settled into a predictable and monochromatic sameness. That’s just fine by Jack (Alfred Molina), a lower-middle-class bloke who’d rather have tinned salmon than French cuisine and isn’t even sure how to get to London’s West End theater district. It’s also fine with his don’t-rock-the-boat wife Marjorie (Cara Seymour). But it sure as hell isn’t okay with their daughter Jenny (Carey Mulligan). She’s cute as a button, sharp as a whip, bored out of her mind, and thirsty for adventure.

As viewers, we know what Jenny doesn’t—that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mods and Rockers, Carnaby Street, and feminism are looming on the British horizon. As Jenny sees it, Oxford is her ticket out of Twickenham, so she’s pushed herself to be the best student at her private girls’ school and passes her out-of-class hours practicing cello, poring over Latin translations, and being pursued by a gangly and awkward teenaged boy. So what would you do if you were Jenny and met David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man more than twice your age who could expose you to the symphony, ply you with Champagne, and whisk you off to Paris?

That’s the central dilemma of An Education, but don’t let its seemingly creepy premise deter you from seeing it; it’s one the best films of 2009 and you’re unlikely to see another performance better than Mulligan’s. Those who’ve not seen it have denounced An Education as a predator movie. In truth, one of the subtexts of the superb script—Nick Hornby’s reworking of Lynn Barber’s memoir—is a morals-challenging exploration of who’s taking advantage of whom. David is, of course, a rogue, but is he any more so than Jack or Marjorie, who are perfectly willing to set aside propriety and affiance their precocious daughter to get a crack at David’s wealth? Are Jenny’s small lies any less pernicious than David’s big ones? How does one parse truth? And is Jenny really a victim? As the title suggests, she is introduced to a world of glamour, opulence, and opportunity that she could not have entered on her own.

This film is too smart and too well crafted to allow for simple answers. It features sparkling dialogue—thanks to Hornby—and superior acting. Sarsgaard tightrope walks between charm and smarm, never once losing his footing, just as Molina and Seymour hit all the right notes as parents who concern gives way to bourgeois longing. Several minor roles are equally delicious—Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike play Danny and Helen, David’s glittery partners in perfidy. Both are unapologetically shallow thrill-seekers who, for Jenny, are exciting counter role models to Miss Stubbs, her slightly shabby intellectual mentor (skillfully played by Olivia Williams).

At the end of the day, though, this is Carey Mulligan’s film and she is an absolute delight. Not since Ellen Page’s emergence in Juno have we encountered such a delightful and vibrant newcomer. Director Lore Scherfig—a Swede best known for her 2000 film Italian for Beginners—has the uncommon good sense to keep her camera pointed in Mulligan’s direction and we can’t get enough of her. Mulligan, who is twenty-four in real life, is totally convincing as a girl/woman equally at home in her knee-socked school uniform and in a slinky black dress and heels. She is, in turns, a smart aleck, a vulnerable waif, a schemer, naïve, and insightful. Like Sarsgaard Mulligan performs a delicate balancing act—in her case that of a teen moving between wide-eyed wonder and burgeoning sophistication. At one moment she is wiser and more confident than the adults around her; at the next she is girlishly clueless.

Mulligan is also, apparently, way more appealing than Lynn Barber, whose story she is recreating. Barber is a columnist known for being provocative and difficult. I gather that her reputation in Britain is that she’s something of a cross between Camille Paglia and Erica Jong. The film’s coda hints at what comes next. I do not know Barber’s work well enough to judge whether she’s been misunderstood, but I can tell you that you’ll have no trouble evaluating Carey Mulligan. She’s thoroughly lovable. Wrap that Oscar!--LV



The NCIS team can solve all mysteries except why Joss Stone is famous.
NCIS-Vol. 2: The Official TV Soundtrack

CBS Records 029

* * *

You can count on the fingers of a mitten the number of times my TV set is on in a given month; hence I had no idea that there’s been a show called “NCIS” on the air since 2003. According to the Web it has something to do with a U.S. Navy crime-investigation unit. That surprised me since the soundtrack CD has a cover that’s more kinky Yuppie than sailor serious, but I have to say that the music has me intrigued. The promo material claims that the show has pioneered in integrating music with the story narrative. Okay, I can see how Sheryl Crow’s “Murder in My Heart” or Keaton Simons’ “Grim Reaper” might fit into a crime show, but Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements?” I suppose it might fit a lab sequence, but that seems quite a stretch. I give the producers credit for eclecticism, though. The artists on the CD run the gamut from Norah Jones to Sick Puppies and there’s a previously unreleased Bob Dylan song, “California,” which never made it onto his Bringing It All Back Home album. My personal favorite was John Mellencamp’s “Someday the Rains Will Fall,” but all the tracks are good, with the exception of Joss Stone’s “Every Time I Turn Around.” Why Stone is hot is a complete mystery to me. She’s just another white girl trying to sound like the interchangeable black gals who’ve sung the same old histrionic (and generic) power pop that’s bored me since the 1980s. Maybe Stone’s fame should be investigated by the NCIS.


Christmas Shopping: Sweaters for Jesus and Commonsense for Believers

From Methuen, Massachusetts comes the news that Mary Jo Coady discovered an apparition of Jesus on her electric iron. There’s a definite trend at work here and I’m astonished that no one else has picked up on it: Jesus is cold. Coady’s revelation came on the day after Thanksgiving, 2009. It comes hard on the heels of the 2008 discovery of Jesus on a toasted cheese sandwich, a 2006 appearance of the Savior on a pancake, several 2005 reports of Jesus on cooking utensils, and 2004 appearances on a tortilla, a pizza pan, and another toasted sandwich. Christians should stop ogling the images and buy Jesus a sweater.

My childhood home in Pennsylvania is always good for weird religious news. For decades the Borough of Chambersburg has decorated the fountain in the center of town that sits at the intersection of routes 11 and 30. The yearly adornments always include a crèche, despite the fact that a 1984 Supreme Court decision forbids holiday belief-specific displays in public places. Changes come slowly in south central Pennsylvania, but this year the legal writs hit the fan.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the court’s decision—reaffirmed several times—does not ban religious symbols; it merely mandates that public agencies cannot favor one belief over another. Enter Carl Silverman. Silverman is the kind of guy you find in every town—an activist who often blurs the line between sparking needed public debate and just being a pain in the posterior. He represents groups called The Concerned Atheist Tax Payers Organization of Pennsylvania and the PA Nonbelievers, but he’s really a one-man crusader bent on making sure the line between church and state remains a solid one. When the crèche went up, Silverman asked for permission to put up a pagan solstice symbol and an atheist sign beside the manger.

What came next was the collision between provocation and elected stupidity. Borough officials ordered the crèche removed rather than allow Silverman’s assemblage. That decision pleased no one—Silverman promptly filed a discrimination suit and the Christian wrath overfloweth. Some church-goers have called for a boycott of downtown merchants, who had no say whatsoever in the decision. That would be a decidedly futile gesture anyway given that Chambersburg’s downtown is singularly devoid of holiday merchants. The town center has, for decades, looked like Detroit—a tawdry collection of consignment shops, used bookstores specializing in pulp romances, money-lenders, and a revolving door of erstwhile revivalists who soon go bankrupt.

So what has the Christmas season wrought? First, an opportunity for Borough politicians to look like morons. When will officials learn that the best way to handle provocation is to—dare I say it?—turn the other cheek? Second, it provided self-proclaimed Bible-believing Christians with another chance to spew hatred while patting themselves on the back for their public piety. The sanctimonious, but venomous letters in the local paper are worthy of something one might find on Al-Qaeda’s Website. Third, it’s a chance for hysteria to mutate into a mass flight from reality. Was the crèche mothballed? Not exactly; it moved all of 25 yards to the front of a Presbyterian church. Fourth, the depth of Christian intolerance has made a better case for a purely secular society than anything Silverman—or Karl Marx for that matter—could have ever dreamed up.

So there you have it folks. Your holiday shopping list is finished. Buy some sweaters for Jesus and some eau de commonsense for the faithful. Might I also suggest stocking stuffers of the U.S. Constitution and fruitcakes infused with anti-sanctimony chill pills? Perhaps some adult education vouchers to enroll in civics and logic classes? From where I sit, the biggest threats to religion in American society are the actions of fanatics. Apparition seekers render religion risible while Bible bashers make it baneful.



Time for Audrey Tautou to generate some heat?
Coco Before Chanel
2009, 105 mins.
* * * (of five)
In French, with subtitles

Audrey Tautou won our hearts in Amelie in 2001 and we’ve been begging for her to do it again. We’re still waiting. Coco Before Chanel¸ a liberty-taking biopic of the famed glamour designer is not a bad film, but neither is it a dazzling one.

As the title suggests, it tracks Chanel to the cusp of fame and ends with a runway coda in which the elegant Chanel is being lionized. The film takes up Chanel (1895-1971) at age twelve, when she and her elder sister were tucked into a Catholic Church orphanage because their recently widowed father had to travel to find work. On the screen, Chanel leaves the nuns at age eighteen to pursue a cabaret career. There she meets and becomes the mistress of the rich, fun-seeking, but vacuous Étienne Balsan and moves to his country estate. This is our first tipoff that director Anne Fontaine is searching for a spark; in real life Chanel apprenticed with a tailor when she turned eighteen and met Balsan in the shop.

Benoît Poelvoorde plays Balsan and is easily the best thing in the film. Balsan isn’t clever and he knows it. He lives the life of the idle gentry and knows his way around horses and barns much better than around independent women or society. This is the sort of role that invites overacting in British films, but Poelvoorde strikes precisely the right balance between being clueless, well-intentioned, and vulnerable. When Coco ultimately and inevitably leaves him for the dashing and more intellectual Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), we appropriately cannot tell if Balsan will muddle on or fall to pieces.

Once again Fontaine reaches into a grab bag of histrionics to advance the action artificially. Capel did indeed underwrite Chanel’s business ventures, become her lover, and die in a car crash but what takes place in an instant in the film took ten years in life. Why take such liberties with Edmonde Charles-Roux’s biography? This is Fontaine’s eleventh film as a director, none of which have set the world afire. Her track record and predictable story arc and camera work in Coco suggest she simply isn’t a very imaginative director.

Alas, the other thing weighing down the film is Tautou. After Amelie, Tautou was hailed as the French Audrey Hepburn, an ingénue destined to make us love her time and time again. This has not happened. Her work since Amelie has been uneven and includes one dreadful performance (Sophie Neveu in The DaVinci Code). In most of her films, including Coco, Tautou has been perfectly competent, but little more. The experience of watching her is akin to hoping that a smoldering fire will blaze, but it never does. The tacked-on cabaret sequences are there to capture an Amelie-like insouciance, but they simply don’t.

Let me reiterate—Coco Before Chanel is not a bad film, and one could certainly drop ten bucks on far worse. One does come away with a real understanding of what made Chanel revolutionary. She was a defiant champion of simple elegance in the waning days of frippery and excess, and an independent woman in the days in which Victorian wallflowers gave way to the New Woman. Coco is often fun to watch and Fontaine does a reasonably decent job of showing how Chanel created style from the rawest of materials. The film also invites us to compare the graceful standards Chanel established with the egocentric and trashy lines that purport to be haute couture these days. Chanel once remarked that “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Coco Before Chanel-- it’s relentlessly ordinary.--LV



Our London correspondent wants to know why people have forgotten that comedy is intended to upset the status quo.

Milan Kundera wrote a famed novel titled Laughter and Forgetting. Apparently some in Britain can’t do either. Recently, two jokes caused quite a stir. Here they are:

It’s a tragedy about soldiers coming home from Afghanistan minus limbs. Mind you the army can field a crack paraplegic team in the next Olympics.

It’s been disclosed recently that Anne Frank’s father was going to buy her a drum kit for her birthday.

The first one was from Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on a topical BBC TV news quiz called “Mock the Week.” No description of that show is necessary, but it makes Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” look like evensong so we are already in edgy territory. That joke, along with a couple of others, got Boyle removed from the program. The second was from UK comedian Jimmy Carr at a gig somewhere in the north of England. Apparently in the full house there were a few complaints.

My question is: Who decides what's an acceptable joke? In the first case I assume it was the BBC. In the second no one can decide apart from line drawn by the respective comedian as to what’s acceptable or not. In each case a howling of disapproval came from the mouths of those who either never saw the shows or simply disagreed with the sentiments. I wonder if any of them had ever heard Richard Pryor – a comedian both of the above men admire, and rightly so. Pryor had a real and recognizable agenda, but that should not prevent others from getting close to the comfort line. Whenever you venture close to the line, you’ll inevitably find yourself crossing it from time to time. Were these two jokes over the line? Do they allow us simply to forget the attendant horrors in each experience? So what if we do? A joke doesn’t make someone a default member Al-Qaida, the Taliban, or the Nazis.

Isn’t comedy by nature offensive? There’s always a butt of the joke, even if it’s oneself. So what got Boyle and Carr in trouble? Is it because they upset the status quo? Is it because their humor challenged the values that power elites want us to hear dear? And in the grand scheme of things, isn’t the entire controversy ultimately worth less than a pocketful of change? (Who would remember either joke if they hadn't been deemed 'offensive' by those seeking to promote some other agenda?) What does everyone else think?

As for my opinion of the jokes, the first one is one is average and the second excellent. So I take Kundera’s book title and cut it in half in the spirit of forgetting. Or do I? How sick am I?

—Lloyd Sellus



Army of Crime
Directed by Robert Guediguian

139 mins
* * * *

In the run up to the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, there’s been a wave of revisionist accounts of life under German occupation. Army of Crime is one of the better examples. Directed and co-scripted by Robert Guediguian, best known for his left-wing films of working-class life in the Marseilles area, this film concerns the complexities and dangers of resistance under the shroud of Nazism where no one can be trusted: neighbours, friends, family, authorities and police are all potential Nazi snitches. It opens with a convoy of buses going through the Paris streets carrying prisoners on their way to be executed. (Their stories are told in flashback.) We encounter the whispers of racism at the film’s beginning and slowly move towards the screams of revolutionaries in the development and rise of the resistance.

A small band of immigrants are led by a charismatic, but initially reluctant revolutionary: Armenian Missak Manouchian (brilliantly played by Simon Abkarian), who is happily married to a Frenchwoman (Virginie Ledoyen). They attack Nazis in cars, buses and buildings but this is no gung-ho war picture. This is a considered and intelligent investigation into a ragged bunch of resistance fighters who were aware they were being watched, possibly being betrayed, but who nonetheless display great courage in the face of the propaganda messages broadcast each day condemning Jews and communists. The torture scenes, carried out by willing collaborators, are horrific and are watched over by one whom we assume to be a sympathetic policeman from the 11th arrondissment, a poor area where many of the foreign immigrants live. But he is not all he seems as he befriends a woman whose Jewish husband is in prison. The web is complex and divisive.

Taking reference points from similar films by Rene Clement, Max Ophuls and in particular the downbeat Army of Shadows by Jean-Pierre Melville, this is a much needed antidote to the inanities of the recent Quentin Tarantino film about Nazi hunters. Dialogue heavy with discussions of freedom, human rights and the difficulties of pacifism under duress, this character-driven narrative never falters. The film title references the name given to the resistance by the Nazis. A film not to miss.

Lloyd Sellus.


The NFL of the future? Surely not, since--according to NFL fans--only baseball player use drugs.

Off the top of my head the only group I can think of that rivals sports fans for hypocrisy is horny fundamentalist preachers. The Internet is ablaze with self-proclaimed moralists renting their garments because of steroid use in the major league baseball. Most of that is in the past—and much of it came before some of the substances were banned—but that hasn’t prevented erstwhile protectors of the integrity of sports from shouting “A-Roid” at every possible moment, or suggesting that the records of “cheaters” be wiped from the record books.

Don’t get me started on the number of ways in which America’s war on drugs is a joke, but for sheer moxie I’m appalled at the number of Internet posters who righteously assert that they’re glad the baseball season is over because football is the true national pastime. I admit some bias on this—I can’t stand football and think it rivals only televised auto racing and golf on the just-shoot-me boredom scale. That said, if football is the national pastime now it’s a walking advertisement for a “Just Say Yes to Drugs” campaign. There’s way more use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in pro football than in major league baseball. Let’s get real. Do we really think it’s normal for a guy who weighs 260 pounds to sprint 40 yards in four and a half seconds? It’s not conditioning; it’s PEDs, as former NFL player Dana Stubblefield told everyone in 2008.

That was all of a year ago. According to U.S. News and World Reports, however, the Stubblefield allegations haven’t exactly cleaned up the sport. Forget the drug testing that allegedly rooted out the problem; until very recently NFL players used a (now-banned diet) substance called bumetanide to mask steroid use. They’re on to new masks now as new reports assert that 16.3% of all offensive linemen and 14.3% of defensive linemen use some form of steroid. Overall PED use is estimated at 10% of all NFL players.

So where’s the outrage? Baseball was collectively crucified when the Mitchell report contained 124 names of past users, but a 10% PED use in the NFL means there are 170 present users suiting up each week. Also buried in the back pages is the fact that three college players projected to be first-round draft picks in the upcoming draft tested positive for drugs. And who can even name the two New Orleans players who were suspended for PEDs? (Charles Grant and Will Smith, for the record). And how about the two Vikings players—Pat Williams and Kevin Williams—whose drug suspensions were overturned when they sued to say that the very act of testing was illegal under Minnesota law? That hit the papers the day the World Series ended, a coincidence I’ll bet.

Want more hypocrisy? How about Raiders coach Tom Cable, a guy who broke the jaw of one of his assistants? Are we to admire his mano-a- mano machismo? Well, maybe you didn’t read the small print about how he also physically abused his first wife, and a subsequent girlfriend. That also hit the papers the morning after the Yankees and “A-Roid” won the Series.

Football as the antidote to “cheaters” and boorish louts? Give me a break. It’s way worse than baseball—not that you’d hear that from the Internet crowd that wants to remove a splinter from the MLB but can’t see the beams giving the NFL a black eye.


Honk If You Care!

Note to Obama: Look up the word 'hubris.'
I want a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you give a crap what happens to Afghanistan.” My guess is that I could drive across America in relative silence. Afghanistan is a landlocked nation with few natural resources (other than opium), no strategic value, as many warring tribes as Somalia, and a putative president (Karzai) who’s as corrupt as a Wall Street boardroom.

For all of this, President Obama has announced he intends to “finish the job” in Afghanistan and keep American troops there. What job, exactly, are we finishing? Stopping terrorists? Ummm, more of them are in Pakistan than Afghanistan and unless we decide to level the mountain borders this is isn’t going to happen. Are we “bringing democracy” to Afghanistan? Good luck with that! Stability? See warring tribes. We are accomplishing exactly two things in Afghanistan: the depletion of American military personnel and fostering a hatred of American occupiers that breeds more terrorists.

President Obama needs to familiarize himself with the term hubris, cut his losses, and get us out of this sinkhole. Now! Is it possible to conquer Afghanistan? Sure—numerous groups have done so: the Medes, Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Mongols…. Is possible to rule it? Nope. Check the history books. Is it possible to get your butt handed to you on a platter? That’s the most likely scenario. What, other than arrogance, makes the United States think it can fill a void that the Romans, the British, and the Soviets could not?

If we leave would Afghanistan become a hotbed for terrorists? Probably. And that would be different how? There are far more effective ways to deal with terror than sending U.S. troops into a cobra pit. If we wanted to be mercenary about it, we’d just arm some of the tribes who hate the Taliban. In truth, however, they’d end up hating us even if they destroyed the Taliban. Or has everyone forgotten that we helped arm the Taliban back in the days in which they were battling the Soviets? Let’s face facts: Afghanistan is a failed state whose future is bleak no matter what we do. It’s time to leave and allow Malthusianism to take its inevitable toll.

Count me among those losing faith in President Obama. He continues to squander resources in two conflicts, Afghanistan and Iraq, from which he pledged to extract us, and his moral presumptiveness is approaching Bush-levels of arrogance.



Moralizers aren't happy and that's the Gospel truth!
So who’s happy in America? Must be those sun-worshiping Floridians? Or maybe folks in the Bible Belt who go to bed snug (smug?) in their belief that God loves them. Or maybe it’s those Midwesterners holding fast to family values. Nope! Want to be happy? Try minding your own business. A new study shows that, with the exception of Utah, folks in states with an ethos of live-and-let-live are happier than the self-righteous. Education and wealth matter more than good weather or piety, and happy states don’t get uptight about gay people either. The happiest ultra-Christian state? Texas at number 21. The bottom ten are all either post-industrial (Michigan and Ohio) or notches on the Bible Belt. For what it's worth, eight of the top ten are reliably Democratic in their voting habits, while nine of the bottom ten generally vote for Republicans. All that sun in Florida only gets residents number 30. See:




Either Mike has gone soft, or I'm more skpetical than he is!

Capitalism: A Love Story
Directed by Michael Moore
2009, 127 mins.
* * *

You know times are tough when reviewers are more pessimistic than Michael Moore. His latest is, essentially, his breakthrough Roger & Me twenty years later with financial corporations occupying the heavy’s role that General Motors occupied in 1989. Moore leaves Flint, Michigan and travels to Manhattan, where he turns up the heat on the pirates of Wall Street. (Flint, of course, does show up as Moore can’t resist using it as metaphor for economic collapse.)

I went to this film prepared for a ho-hum-been-there-done-that experience. By now we know Moore’s shtick. He’s going to take a film crew to the lobby of some corporate giant, announce he’s there to interview the CEO, and get unceremoniously bounced from the premises by humorless underlings and officious cops. He’ll then stand outside with a hang-dog expression on his face and plead his case as amused bystanders gather. Moore’s guerilla film tactics are shopworn, but his gift for letting arrogant power holders hoist themselves on their own petard remains an potent tool. Moore gets accused of doctoring footage to create propaganda, but that’s too convenient. He doesn’t need to do this because people like Sarah Palin, Baron Hill (D-Indiana), and William Black (R-Illinois) are so smug that they do Moore’s work for him.

So far, so familiar. After an unsurprising first half, things begin to pick up. Moore asks us to consider a distressing question that’s too easily glossed: What is the human cost of capitalism? In our post-Cold War self-congratulatory rush to declare socialism a failed ideology, few pause to consider whether socialism died of natural causes, or whether it was murdered. And speaking of high crimes, one reason why Moore arouses such negative sentiment is that he takes us places we’d rather not go: decaying tract houses where sheriffs evict people from homes nobody—including the bank—wants; to profitable businesses closed down because a handful of greedy stockholders figured an angle to make more money; to hospital emergency rooms filled with people without health insurance…. In other words, Moore shows us the United States as it really is for millions of people, not one bathed in the sunny nostrums of Fox News demagogues, free-market apologists, and Ronald Reagan worshippers.

Moore scores big time in his incisive decoupling of capitalism from democracy. He depicts an economic system so out of control that corporate heads actively discuss democracy as a “problem” that has to be overcome. This isn’t Michael Moore’s paranoia; he produces the actual memos detailing discussions of how to disempower the electorate. The internal attitude towards the poor and unemployed is basically one of “Who gives a damn?” The average American might as well be a Chinese peasant for all they care. Moore shows how the move toward autarky permeates the highest levels. Want to see democracy subverted? Check out Moore’s coverage of how the people’s will was subverted over the Wall Street bailout in less than 48 hours. Those who still think Nancy Pelosi is admirable after this film are probably brain dead! Heed the words of Representative Nancy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who pulls no punches in calling Wall Street’s actions criminal and the Congressional bailout irresponsible, perhaps even itself criminal.

Just when you think Moore has the biggest expose of the decade going, he turns mushy on us. He shows us an inspiring story of a sit-in that forced a runaway employer to pay his workers, yet downplays the fact that all they got was their back pay and a bit of severance; the jobs are gone. And Moore get’s misty-eyed sentimental about Barack Obama’s election in November of 2008. The film’s closing moment of Moore wrapping Wall Street with crime scene yellow tape is funny, but I couldn’t help but think, “My God, Mike Moore actually thinks the American people have risen up and are taking back the country.” To hear Moore tell it, Obama’s election was act one of a second American Revolution. Capitalism: A Love Story is not, ultimately, agit-prop; it’s an inspiring tone-poem to democracy. Michael Moore has been called many things, but until now I didn’t think that “naïve” would be among them.--LV