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Monday, April 09, 2007


Sucking on the Luscious, Satisfying Teat of Culture

I've been over-indulging in culture of late, and there's simply too much to give full reviews to. So here's a quick run-down of what I've seen recently. Coming soon: Boy Culture, The Year of Magical Thinking, Inherit The Wind, LoveMusik, and Legally Blonde: The Musical!

Grindhouse: B
Yeah, it disappointed at the box office this weekend...but that's simply due to its 3-hour length, which limits screenings and stretches attention spans. And that's missing the point, anyway. As an exercise in genre exploration/exploitation, this double-feature is intermittently entertaining; but as a glimpse into the minds of two iconoclastic American directors -- both of whom came of age watching the films they now pay homage to -- this retro-electric trip is sheer bliss. Planet Terror, the zombie shoot-em-up directed by Robert Rodriguez, is the grungier of the two feature-length films that make up Grindhouse; its thin plot is a superbly cheesy launching pad for its iconic characters, played with enthusiastic verve by its cast (especially vixen -goddess Rose McGowan and her scruffy leading man, Freddy Rodriguez). After some ingeniously fake movie trailers (directed by Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, among others), Quentin Tarantino's contribution, Death Proof, follows a psychotic driver with a souped-up car who gets off on tormenting women...by driving them off the road, or by crashing his car while they sit unaware in the passenger seat. But as in so many of Tarantino's films, women are not quite the passive victims that men assume them to be. There's a chatty artifice in Death Proof that is tiresome; the camerawork faintly echoes 70's directors as disparate as Friedkin and Antonioni, but such classy elements dull the sheen of GRINDHOUSE...all of a sudden, the cheap, throbbing pleasure we've been enjoying reveals itself to be artistic. The good news, however: all is forgiven after Taratino's final car chase, which is the very definition of the word badassss.

The Lookout: A-
Written and directed by Scott Frank (Get Shorty), this unlikely heist movie is really another showcase for rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who follows his stunning performances in Mysterious Skin and Brick with an unsentimentalized turn as Chris Pratt, a former teen football star who, after a tragic accident, falls in with thieves to rob the bank where he works. It would be unfair to ignore the solid work by Frank (in his directorial debut), the superbly assured screenplay, or the performances by Jay Goode as the seductive thief or Jeff Daniels as Chris' blind roommate. It's far too early in the year to fill up a Top Ten list, but I'm guessing that The Lookout will still be a contender come next December.

Mika / Life in Cartoon Motion - B+
I've written, on this very blog, that I don't understand all the fuss about Brit pop sensation Mika. For the record, let me state my apology plainly: I was wrong. Life in Cartoon Motion is a nearly perfect pop confection, a full-length set that continues all the colorations you heard in the debut single "Grace Kelly." In each track, you'll hear elements of the Scissor Sisters and Queen, Elton John, the B-52's and Georgio Moroder -- but with a showman's flourish, Mika transforms those influences into a cohesive, infectious, thoroughly modern blend. Though he plays coy with his sexuality on and off the record, you don't have to read very deeply between the lines...and the lines aren't really the point anyway. What is called for here is fun. This is the disc you'll be playing all summer long.

Amy Winehouse / Back To Black - A
After Frank, Amy Winehouse's jazz-laden 2003 debut, it was clear to everyone that she was a songwriter of promise. But who could have predicted that her next outing would be a sassy gloss on the doo-wop of the Shangri-Las, infused with a unrepentant celebration of booze, drugs, love and sex? The bracing in-your-face quality of Back To Black may put off some softer listeners, but there's no escaping the catchy hooks, sharp observations, and rebellious neo-feminism. Motown is alive and well...and living in the beats of a British girl with a potty mouth and an alcohol problem. Hot!

Tracey Thorn / Out of the Woods - B-
Regular readers know that Out of the Woods was ModFab's most anticipated CD of 2007. Perhaps I was too eager. Or perhaps I love Tracey Thorn too much. Or perhaps I envisioned a different set of songs, especially after hearing Thorn's delightfully chirpy first single, "It's All True." Whatever the case, this album ends up a midtempo experiment that never really catches fire. Despite some of the most arresting lyrics in many a year, the music -- created with a variety of DJs and electronic music gurus twiddling the knobs, as opposed to her EBTG partner Ben Watt -- lacks cohesion or a grounded sense of place. There are a few truly spectacular moments ("Grand Canyon," "Get Around To It"), but in general Out of the Woods is a well-intentioned letdown.

Some Men by Terrence McNally - D
through April 22 at Second Stage Theatre, NYC
Some plays are good, some are bad. That's just the way it goes. But then there is a third category, the plays that are so poorly conceived that they send the viewer into a homicidal, murderous rage. Some Men, a hackneyed collage of scenes revolving around the history of gay men in the 20th century, is just such a disaster. Each moment in the play reeks of artifice, constructed with McNally's now-patented blend of soapy sentiment, thudding dialogue and WASP-y politics. So there's a dismissive wave to Stonewall, but a nostalgic longing for pre-AIDS bathhouses and the "freedom" of 1950's police-raided bars; the issues of race and class among the thinly-drawn homosexuals of history are glossed over like Selma never happened. Thankfully, the cast is top-notch, and their sublime abilities -- most noticeably the divine David Greenspan (She Stoops To Comedy) and Pedro Pascal (Based on a Totally True Story) -- go a long way towards covering the script's weaknesses. But no actor can save a stinker of a play, and Some Men is most definitely that.

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