Adrian Raso, Fanfare Ciocarlia, and Living Dangerously

Devil’s Tale
Asphalt Tango Records 4414

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Pictures tell stories. The cover of Devil’s Tale features a bat-flocked Gothic background. Front and center we see a lady of no discernible virtue leaning against a tuba. Guitar-packing Old Nick sits astride a horse led by a cigar-smoking skeleton holding a trumpet.  Maybe the old legend is true and the Devil does have the best music. Within Balkan music, Fanfare Ciocarlia occupies the semi-mythical space analogous to The Bothy Band in Ireland, Vartinna in Finland, or La Bottine Souriante in Quebec. Soaked in the brine of Romani music and seasoned by everything from Austrian military band music and Macedonian melodies to Bollywood and radio pop sounds, Fanfare is brassy, bold outfit that often sounds like Gogol Bordello meets a mariachi band. Their mix of energy and whimsy is cyclonic and virtuosic. You need to be good, really good, to keep up with these guys. Enter Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso, whose rakish personality and love of Django Reinhardt put him on the same wavelength. When Raso is laying down a seriously fast lick, it’s what you’d get if you stuck a Gypsy soundtrack to microwave popcorn. Put some fierce brass behind all that, and even the Devil had better watch out. Even song titles suggest inequity: Urn St. Tavern,” “The Absinthe Minded Gypsy, “Devil’s Tale.”  Throw what you know about time signatures out the window and move the furniture from the room, you’re going to need room to flop, flail, and dance along with the musical demons partying in your head.

Rob Weir


The Dinner Tasty, though not Gourmet

Herman Koch
Hogarth 978-0385346856
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The Dinner was a runaway bestseller in Europe that has recently been translated from Dutch into English. It’s a good read, though not one that justifies the hullabaloo. I’ve no idea who (if anyone) influenced whom, but North American audiences will find startling parallels between The Dinner and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Both novels center on the dilemma of what parents should (or will) do if they discover that one of their children has committed an atrocity. Both also probe the question of whether the biological sins of fathers are visited upon their sons. Facebook also factors prominently in each novel.  
The biggest difference is that Landay’s book is a thriller, and Koch’s book is a drama wrapped in a black comedy. The book’s revelations unfold during (and at the pace of) an evening-long dinner between two Dutch brothers and their wives, none of whom particularly like each other. Paul Lohman is a former high school teacher, who snapped badly in the classroom, wasn’t well served by the psychological community, and hasn’t worked since. He and his polished, scheming wife Claire have a 15-yar-old son, Michel. Serge is Paul’s opposite­—an airbrushed politician who carefully measures each word and emotion before exposing them to the public. He’s so good at it that few see beneath the sheen and he’s the odds-on favorite to become the next prime minister of The Netherlands.
Serge and his wife, Babette, are actually insufferable social climbers keen to polish their caring image.  They live amidst haute bourgeois splendor with two biological children, 15-year-old Rick, 13-year-old Valerie, and “Beau,” an adopted black son from Burkina Faso. Saints preserve anyone that even hints that Beau is anything less than 100% Dutch, or that political correctness can be self-parodying. Serge likes to be in control of everything, including picking the restaurant in which the foursome dines.  Because that establishment has the buzz of being hot, Serge sings its praises though it’s actually a humble joint basking in its brief moment of hipness. The owners and staff are hovering and obsequious stuffed shirts the likes of which will try to make patrons think that browned butter is their own gourmet invention. Some of the book’s most hysterical passages involve wait staff regaling diners with the provenance of every (tiny) portion on their plates.
 As we proceed through the courses from aperitif to coffee, we learn that this novel’s takedown of the petty bourgeoisie forces us to gaze at what lurks beneath lustrous surfaces. The purpose of the dinner is to discuss what should be done about something Michel and Rick have done (and to which Beau is privy). I shall say no more, other than the resolution probably won’t play out the way you expect.  
The Dinner is a tasty read. It’s also akin to its setting in that its reputation is more exalted than what makes its way to the table. Think a very good hamburger, not a gourmet meal.
Rob Weir


American Hustle Con Not Good Enough for Top Marks

American Hustle (2013)
Directed by David O. Russell
Columbia, 138, R (for language and eye-popping cleavage)
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American Hustle is typical of David O’ Russell films like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and Silver Linings Playbook in that there’s less here than meets the eye. By his own admission, Russell is more interested in the external trappings he commits to film than in narrative integrity. It shows–in good and bad ways.  

American Hustle was inspired by the Abscam scandal. The time is 1978, just two years after New Jersey voters approved gambling and the year the first Atlantic City casino opened its glitzy doors. Disco was peaking, fashion was loud and ugly, the economy was in the toilet, and factories were folding like a man holding unmatched poker cards. The late 70s were like a disco mirror ball–reflective surfaces devoid of depth that only dazzled when the room was dark. The hustle was a dance rage; it was also a popular economic activity. The FBI launched the Abscam operation (for Arab Scam) to nab hucksters pawning off American assets (and casino licenses) to the highest foreign bidders. The FBI’s fake Middle Eastern business consortium eventually netted some high-powered boys with their fingers in the wrong piggy bank, including six U.S. Representatives, Mayor Angelo Errichetti of Camden, and U. S. Senator Pete Williams of New Jersey. Russell nails the time period’s shallowness, greed, and desperation.

The tale centers on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a low-level con man with a beer gut, an appalling comb over, and a tacky office from which he deals fake art and arranges crooked loan deals. He also operates a few legitimate dry cleaning joints at which clients routinely abandon their threads, because they were too smashed to recall where they left them, or because they were hustled out of the wherewithal to pay the cleaning bill. Irving’s love life and shady business activity leap to the next level when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose affected British accent, fake aristocratic credentials, plunging necklines, and slit skirts could con a monk out of his habit. Their sweet operation and affair goes awry when FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) nails them and offers them a choice between assisting the Feds or rotting in jail–something free bird Sydney couldn’t tolerate and Irving wants to avoid, as he also has a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and an adopted son to whom he’s mightily attached. DiMaso would rather fry big fish, but are any of them up to the racket necessary to contain oily politicians and smooth Mafiosi that leave corpses on the street and ask questions later? (Check out Robert De Niro’s cameo.)

American Hustle is part drama, part comedy, and lots of eye candy–debauched discotheques, raucous Italian-American restaurants, big cars, and urban blight slum tours. But there’s no candy sweeter than Amy Adams. One wag has nominated the double-sided tape she wears for “Best Supporting Actress,” and he’s not wrong–it’s all that stands between Adams and a full display of that with which Nature endowed her. Lawrence is also a head-turner, both for her va-voom physicality and for her chameleon-like ability to be everything except what you’d expect. Both women are amazing in their roles and have rightly carried off Golden Globe awards. Jeremy Renner is also superb as Mayor Carmine Polito, a puffed hair Joe Peschi look-alike and Errichetti stand-in who is slowly reeled into things he probably neither understands nor desires. (Entrapment rules were revamped after Abscam.)

This is the good news. The bad is Christian Bale is miscast. It’s not his fault and he worked hard to get into the character as it was written, but that character stretches credulity to the point where we stop believing it. A knockout like Sydney could do much better than an overweight, underdressed, intellectual lightweight like Irving. Louis C. K. is also miscast as DiMaso’s superior, Stoddard Thurston, and does little except provide some very loud screaming and some very cheap slapstick. Bradley Cooper is more present than impressive, and most of the male parts in American Hustle are all surfaces–like the mirror ball. A bit like the script. The plot seems more complicated than it is because there are continuity holes the size of Bally’s Casino.

I suspect that surfaces were Russell’s intention. Everyone hustles. Got that. But films  with more double crosses than a tic-tack-toe tournament have been done many times, and better than this–think Body Heat, The Grifters, House of Games, Intolerable Cruelty, The Spanish Prisoner, Up in the Air, and The Sting. Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr liked American Hustle, but called it “an exuberant con job of a movie.” Con job is harsh, but David O. Russell reminds me of the wicked smart kid that should be my top scholar but is content to carry an 82 average and hopes he can con me into a B by semester’s end. Not this time: American Hustle gets a B-.   Rob Weir