News and Notes
The Distinguished Gentleman
A con artist pulls the ultimate play -- getting elected to Congress. Initially, he heads to Washington with plans of fleecing America, but he quickly learns that he can't out-con the grifters who are already there. This satirical update of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington takes shots at corporate greed, influence peddling, even racial politics. Eddie Murphy suppresses his urge to overact and turns in a sweet performance as the likable hustler, Thomas Jefferson Johnson. (TN)
Our Dumb Century
Subtitled "100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source," Our Dumb Century is an absurdly detailed trip through the 1900s, as interpreted by the masters of satire at The Onion. While some might claim that the book's humor is primarily derived from its amusing use of profanity ("Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon"), its true appeal comes from the editors' deep knowledge of U.S. history and their willingness to skewer it mercilessly. If you're not careful, you might just learn something from this book, but you'll probably be too busy laughing your guts out. (TR)
Stiff Records Box Set
Way back before the '90s heyday of DIY, there was a label in England called Stiff, run by a couple of guys whose only rule was: Put out what you like. Sure, lots of labels since have said that, but most of them obviously don't have any taste. Beginning in 1976 Stiff released seven-inch slabs of wax by future stars like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, the Damned, Madness, and Devo, as well as more obscure artists like Wreckless Eric, the Belle Stars, Dr. Feelgood, Furniture, and even Tracey Ullman. No wonder it took four CDs to cover it all. It's like Freedom Rock for aging punks.
It's MTV as it was originally conceived. All music videos, all the time. No game shows or Real World marathons. No TRL. It actually seems to be programmed by people who like music. From the latest Belle and Sebastian to vintage clips from Prince, you'll see videos that wouldn't make the cut on the channel's top-40-driven older sibling. If you're tired of the now bland and banal MTV, check out M2's eclectic blend of rock, rap, and R&B. Once you've made the switch, you'll never go back. (EG)
The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4:
Back at the Vanguard
Pianist Mehldau and longtime collaborators Jorge Rossy (drums) and Larry Grenadier (bass) share a brilliant set at New York's pre-eminent jazz club, the Village Vanguard. Standards, originals, and even a Radiohead cover flow together perfectly, each song providing a solid foundation for Mehldau's daring, yet never self-indulgent improvisations. Along with great songs like "Nice Pass" and "I'll Be Seeing You," Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 offers sharply written liner notes from Mehldau himself, decrying the sorry state of jazz criticism.
An aged civil servant attempts to find meaning after he learns he's dying of stomach cancer -- in the hands of another director, this story might degenerate into bathos, but Kurosawa uses complex structure and shifting perspective to avoid sentimentality, while still managing to produce a myriad of powerful emotions. Indeed, the film is heartbreaking, uplifting, and humorous -- sometimes within the same scene. Takashi Shimura gives a brilliant performance in the lead role.
The SETI@Home screensaver is a computer geek's dream -- download eye-catching software and donate excess computer cycles to analyze cosmic radio signals for signs of intelligent life. SETI@Home even tracks affiliated users and tallies who has crunched the most numbers. Ironically, the winning teams also get the prize for the greatest amount of unproductive computer downtime. Current top groups include NASA, Microsoft, The Ministry of Silly Walks, the US Navy, and overall leader SGI, weighing in with 1300 years of CPU time dedicated to SETI. Doesn't anybody do any actual work anymore?
DeLillo's tenth novel chronicles the muting of the artist's voice in modern culture and the simultaneous appearance of darker, more sinister voices. Protagonist Bill Gray is paralyzed, caught between the burden of his life in hiding and his refusal to be shaped by the culture industry. On top of this, the news addiction and image worship that disable him also provide a medium for terrorism. As Gray observes, "Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory."
Quasi is Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney and her ex-husband Sam Coomes. Featuring "Birds" is an album full of amazing songs -- lovely, complex, rocking, sad, lyrical -- brilliant except for the fact that they don't sustain themselves long enough and they seem to defy all structural conventions. Nonetheless, even near brilliance is rare and should be sought, bought, and cherished.
Take the story of Wyatt Earp, add a script that liberally combines fact and fiction, hire a cast of b-list stars (Kurt Russell, Dana Delany, Michael Biehn, that guy from Ned and Stacey), and garnish with a few aging superstars (Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum). A recipe for disaster? Not quite. Throw in Val Kilmer as the terminally dissipated, devastatingly charming Doc Holliday and you've not only salvaged your concoction, but offered up a true delicacy. As Holliday puts it, via Kilmer's perfect Southern drawl, "I'm your huckleberry." And it's true.
Sporting News Baseball Register
Every February The Sporting News offers up this impressive fact book, subtitled "Every Player, Every Stat." It's an indispensable resource for every armchair manager who appreciates the nitty gritty details of the national pastime. Best kept close at hand while watching baseball on TV, this book solves any questions that might arise -- a player's birthplace, his minor-league travels, or his major-league numbers. The Register comes out like clockwork each winter. Scoring a copy each spring is a must for any true fan of the game.
In the 1980s, Neil Young was actually sued by his record company (Geffen) for "not sounding enough like himself." Taking on a new persona and a new genre with every album, he spent the decade exploring the diverging avenues of popular music, from techno to country to pop to rockabilly to blues. Yet underneath the disguises, Young was still writing great songs, as evidenced in this "best of" collection. In other words, he was being himself.
In the absence of the real story behind Watergate informer "Deep Throat," director Fleming offers up his version of All the President's Men. Woodward and Bernstein rely not on a White House insider but on two ditzy teen-aged girls, who stumble onto one damning detail after another when they're hired to walk the president's dog. Blending history and farce into an amusing game of "what if," Dick is as smart as it is funny.
When they got bogged down in the intricate plotting of Miller's Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen took a break and wrote Barton Fink. On the surface, it's the story of a playwright who comes to Hollywood and struggles to write the B-movie script assigned to him. But lurking just below that premise is the Coens' signature stylized madness. Layered with symbolism and filled with verbal gymnastics, Barton Fink is dark (even for the Coen Brothers) and wickedly funny. As usual, the brothers bring out extraordinary performances from their actors.
Ain't That America?
Like the Minutemen and the Big Boys, Shoutbus are large men who sing short, fast songs. And like those bands, their songs are filled with social commentary and held down with a hard groove. And, like both of those bands, Shoutbus has a unique and powerful musical vision. This is punk rock:
should make minimum wage
should make minimum wage
should make minimum wage
should be able to live on it
One of the engineering triumphs of the modern age, as well as one of its greatest social disasters, the U.S. interstate highway system affected everyone from urban tenement dwellers to isolated prairie farmers. It didn't just move dirt; it moved entire communities. It fueled the great American love of big cars and the open road, not to mention bland suburbia and thousands of strip malls. Lewis neither celebrates nor condemns this concrete and steel ribbon. Rather, he offers a lively look at the characters who fought for, and later against, the system.
Some Like It Hot
The American Film Institute calls it one of the funniest American movies ever made, so I thought I should see for myself. As it turns out, they were right. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are the boys in the band who make beautiful music with Marilyn Monroe. A delicious mix of innuendo and slapstick, this is one classic comedy not to be missed.
The Who Sell Out
Radio London reminds you,
Modeled on a British pirate radio broadcast, this brilliant album proves that media-savvy irony didn't begin in the '90s. The music ranges from the hard-rocking "I Can See for Miles," to the lilting stories of "Tattoo" and "I Can't Reach You," to the sly "Odorono," with cagey pseudo-advertisements (some for actual products) linking the pieces together. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may have been the album that defined the time, but The Who Sell Out was far ahead of it.
Charles Sturridge Brideshead Revisited
This 6-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's chronicle of a tragic friendship and a doomed family is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on television. Charles Ryder, played by a young Jeremy Irons, is the loyal and smitten friend of sad-eyed Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), whom he can love but never save. A brilliant cast, evocative score, luscious cinematography, and gorgeous costumes are all underpinned by Waugh's unflinching psychological insights.
Mr. Ives' Christmas
You can file this mystical story under "why bad things happen to good people." Mr. Ives is a passionate husband, loving father, and loyal friend; but when tragedy strikes, his patience and, ultimately, his faith are put to the test. Hijuelos, author of Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, offers a powerful moral tale that will stir even the most hardened cynic. (TN)
The Stories of John Cheever
"On Sunday, I sneaked seven cigarettes in various hiding places and drank two Martinis in the downstairs coat closet. At breakfast on Monday my English muffin stared up at me from the plate. I mean I saw a face there in the rough, toasted surface. The moment of recognition was fleeting, but it was deep, and I wondered who it had been. Was it a friend, an aunt, a sailor, a ski instructor, a bartender, or a conductor on a train? The smile faded off the muffin but it had been there for a second--the sense of a person, a life, a pure force of gentleness and censure--and I am convinced that the muffin had contained the presence of some spirit. As you can see, I was nervous."
-- from "The Death of Justina"
Answer the Phone, Dummy
From a band that cites Queen and the Ramones as major influences, you might expect "Bohemian Bop" or something similar, perhaps neatly labeled "punk rock opera." But the Fastbacks have been defying categorization for the last twenty years, and Answer the Phone, Dummy is no exception. From the blistering ear-candy of "On Your Hands" to the complex dynamics of "Trumpets are Loud" and the six-minute opus "Meet the Author," the Fastbacks forge a sophisticated sound that will have you pondering as you pogo.