Jeffrey Altergott
Bright Balloons

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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
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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

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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.