7.27.2009

The Season of the Witch - James Leo Herlihy (1971)


The Season of the Witch is a period piece, no doubt about it. It's a coming of age tale, in which our young heroine heads to New York City in the winter of 1969. Seventeen year old Gloria Random adopts the name "Witch Gliz" as she goes underground in the hippie subculture; hence "Season of the Witch." The driving arc of the story is her search for her father, who she believes to be teaching somewhere in NYC. That focus is as much a McGuffin as anything, since the real story is Witch coming to terms with her own life, desires and goals. Finding her father is simply the excuse to get her to NYC so that she can begin the process of becoming an adult.

Herlihy manages to write believably in the first person, a trick at the best of times much less when the narrator is a seventeen year old hippie-chick from Michigan. His handling of character is very good, masterful even. The writing captures the time beautifully, leaving one with the sense that even if this particular story didn't happen it certainly could have.

Reading it now, nearly forty years later, one can't help but be reminded of the spirit that inhabited the age in the late 60s. It's all there - the sense of promise as well as the feeling that the way has already begun to be lost. The book feels a little dated, but at the same time it evokes a moment in history so well that the fact that it is showing its age a bit doesn't seem a drawback.

Ultimately, though, the book is so firmly rooted in its setting that it is understandable that it has fallen by the wayside in a way that some other books from the time have not. Coming of age stories are eternal; coming of age in NYC in 1969 are not so eternal.

Overall Grade: B

Sharon Isbin, Journey to the New World (Sony Classical, 2009)


Well known in the classical music world, guitarist Sharon Isbin has made over twenty-five recordings. On her latest album Journey to the New World, Isbin crosses over into territory more commonly associated with folk music. She incorporates pieces from several different time periods, thematically linked by their connection to people who made the voyage across the Atlantic before settling in America.

Isbin starts with some baroque pieces from the British Isles, focusing on material that would have been played by early American settlers. She then moves on to a suite of instrumental adaptations of vintage American material from the singing of Joan Baez. This suite is bookended by a pair of songs featuring the venerable Baez herself. The album concludes with a long suite of tunes featuring guest
fiddler Mark O'Connor, who like Isbin is a primarily classical performer with an active interest in traditional folk music. This suite starts with some Irish-style tunes, before veering into some blues and ragtime and other distinctly American styles. Throughout Journey to the New World, Isbin mixes relatively unfamiliar material with standards like "Greensleeves" and "House of the Rising Sun," often embellishing the melodies as she plays them to the point that you have to listen closely to recognize the tune.

In short, Journey to the New World is an fine collection of folk music interpreted from the unusual perspective of a classical guitarist. Sharon Isbin is an exceptional player, and people looking for good guitar music will find lots to like here.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

For a video of Sharon Isbin performing some material from this album live, click here.

7.25.2009

Beyonce: B'DAY ANTHOLOGY VIDEO ALBUM

When MTV introduced the music video to the world, there was a time when every artist had a video for their songs and Tower Records (now gone) had a whole wall of videocassettes (a format now gone) of music video collections. With the so-called "music" channels focusing more and more on reality tv shows, music videos don't get much attention and either get a dvd release on an artist's greatest hits collection or never get released. So it was a nice surprise that when Beyonce released her album B'Day she also released B'Day Anthology Video Album, a dvd with videos for all the songs on the album, plus bonus songs.

B'Day is largely a celebratory party album, and this video collection reflects that spirit. Beyonce has no problems showing off either her dance moves or her body, whether she's singing and dancing next to Shakira ("Beautiful Liar"), strutting her stuff at a party ("Get Me Bodied"), living the high life ("Upgrade U") or wearing numerous rubber outfits ("Green Light"). Even slower songs like the new-man anthem "Irreplacable" find Beyonce getting her groove on.

B'Day Anthology Video Album is a nice little return to when the music video could be a fun part of music. Beyonce has a lot of talents, and she uses the video format to make the most of them all.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

video

7.22.2009

REVOLUTION!

Time to take over the town! In Revolution! from Steve Jackson Games, players seek to win through secret bidding, knowledge of the other players' resources, and knowing what's best to have and how much to risk to get it. This game is due out in August, but I was fortunate enough to play it last Wednesday -- thanks, Steve Jackson Games rep!

Each player starts with one Force token, one Blackmail token, three Gold tokens, numerous wood pieces in their color, and a board showing the different people in the town. During each turn every player secretly places their tokens on the townspeople, each of who gives certain benefits. Force beats any amount of Blackmail, Blackmail beats any amount of gold, and some townspeople can't be affected by Force, Blackmail, or both.

After all players have bid with all their tokens, their bids are revealed. Roles can give different things to the players, including: support (points towards victory); more Force, Blackmail, or Gold; moving their wood tokens onto spaces in specific buildings in town; switching two wood tokens between buildings, or replacing someone's wook token with another one. The buildings are all worth points, and whoever has the majority of tokens in a building at the end of the game gets the points for that building. Players who won that role get the benefit, and no one wins in case of a tie. If someone has less than five tokens, they get gold until they have five tokens. Then the secret bidding begins again. The game ends when all the buildings are full; then players get points for buildings and any remaining Force, Blackmail, and Gold tokens.

Revolution! is a lot of fun. Bidding is quite the challenge, as you not only have to anticipate what your opponents are doing but how much you'll risk to try and stop them. Some rounds I got multiple townspeople on my side with one gold piece, and other times I poured three or four tokens on townsperson and still lost them to an opponent. And while every turn is the same process -- bid, reveal, resolve, repeat -- Revolution! is easy to learn, pretty quick to play, and challenging. Let the Revolution! begin!

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.18.2009

Luminescent Orchestrii, Neptune's Daughter (Nine Mile Records, 2009)


When last we left Brooklyn's Luminescent Orchestrii, they were touring with their second album Too Hot to Sleep. The band had recorded that album as a quintet, but by the time I saw them live they were down to a quartet with new bassist Benjy Fox Rosen joining original members Rima Fand and Sarah Alden (both fiddle and vocals) and Sxip Shirey (guitar, melodica, vocals). Most recently I caught them last year in Huntington, making them the first of the City's many really good Balkan-inspired bands to make it out to Long Island (at least that I'm aware of). Now they're back with a new album called Neptune's Daughter, once again merging folk music from Bulgaria and Romania with Brooklyn street sensibility and a penchant for some rather goofy original songs.

As usual, Luminescent Orchestrii's biggest strength is their musicianship. Fand and Alden are superb fiddlers, and they really shine on instrumentals like "How to Play Romanian," a combination of a traditional tune and a piece composed by renowned New York klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman, and "Militsa," a raucous Greek traditional tune. They also do a nice job handling Bulgarian women's singing on "Mur Stojmeno." While Fand and Alden do most of the singing, the men contribute as well. Shirey sings two of his characteristically off-kilter songs, the hip-hop flavored "Nasty Tasty" and the nautical title track which closes out the album, while new member Rosen's interpretation of a Yiddish ballad called "Di Zun Vet Aruntergeyn" is a pleasant surprise. While the band's overall sound doesn't stray too far from what they've done the past, they do add some drums and a couple of tracks, and spice things up a bit with a rendition of a Cuban song called "La Tarde."

But while the band excels on the traditional material, I didn't feel that their own compositions on Neptune's Daughter quite reach the same standard. The quirkiness of their songs loses its novelty after a while, and none of the new songs here really add to what the band did on Too Hot to Sleep. Still, Luminescent Orchestrii are first-rate musicians, and an excellent example of the kind of quality globally-flavored music you can hear in the five boroughs.

Overall grade: B


reviewed by Scott


Luminescent Orchestrii performing "Jarba," a Gypsy song off their new album.

7.16.2009

FETISH by David Bramwell


Ah, the fetish: so much variety, so many forms of expression, such possibilities. David Bramwell's book Fetish is a tour guide to the world of kink -- both what is out there and how to practice it.

Following a brief discussion of what a fetish is (taking only a positive view and igonring any possibility that they could be a problem), Fetish quickly jumps into both information and guidelines. There are definitions and terminology (pygophilia certainly has a pop culture appeal); movies, books, art, and fiction; and references for more information.

Then there's how to enjoy them. Fetish gives lots of guidelines, advice, and occasional preferences for types of fetishes, popular role -playing scenarios, gear and items for use, and the importance of setting. There are numerous illustrations, both drawings and photographs.

This book has some flaws. Fetish says one section is on page 120 when it doesn't appear in the book. Every photo of a person has them with a tattoo, piercing, or both, instead of presenting the less-adorned practicioners. And their breakdown of the acronym "bdsm" left out the middle part. (If you're wondering, it's a combination of bondage and disciplie, dominance and submission, and sado-masochism. You're welcome.)

Fetish does provide a nice overview of the more popular areas of the fetish. Bramwell writes with both enthusiasm and practicality, encouraging people while also letting them know of costs and potential risks. For the beginner looking to learn about the fetish -- out of curiosity or to practice -- Fetish is a good place to start. Just look for the book with the rubber cover!


Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

7.15.2009

PORN: BUSINESS OF PLEASURE

While there have been numerous documentaries about pornography -- some reviewed here -- leave it to MSNBC to take a look at the business side of adult entertainment. Porn: Business of Pleasure is an hour-long program that's essentially a "state of the industry" piece.

Hosted by Melissa Lee, Porn: Business of Pleasure has lots of statistics and interviews about porn -- and its current problems. While adult entertainment is hugely profitable -- the show estimates porn is worth $13 billion in the U.S. and $100 million globally each year -- dvd sales for adult movies were down between 30% and 50% last year. The paradox, reflected on by several people, is that while technology has made porn more accessible, it's also made free materials more available, hurting sales. (There's also the contradiction that while we're told porn is less taboo, many here did not want their faces shown.)

Interviews are plentiful, including: adult star Jesse Jane talking about her drive to build a business empire; Max Hardcore, speaking right before going to prison for his obscenity conviction; female executives at Wicked Pictures, a writer for Wired magazine; and Michael Leahey, porn opponent and "self-diagnosed sex addict."
Porn: The Business of Pleasure does a decent job covering what's happening in adult entertainment today. If there's a flaw (apart from their incorrect statement that YouTube allows porn and ignoring 2257 laws overapplied to the Internet), it's what gets lost in its selected focus. There's very little history here, nothing on print adult entertainment (which may be suffering a lot more than movies), and anti-porn viewpoints are either ignored, given little discussion, or answered by those in the industry. Still, Porn: Business of Pleasure is a solid update of how technology can both help and hurt an industry at the same time.
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.13.2009

MORE DIGRESSIONS by Peter David

Peter David is a great many things -- comic book writer, novelist, bowler, husband and father, friend of (and co-speaker with) Harlan Ellison, movie fan, punster -- and he has chronicled many of his thoughts and adventures in his column "But I Digress" in Comic Buyer's Guide. More Digressions is the second collection of the "BID" columns (the first was printed 15 years ago), and it collects many of his essays from 2001 to 2009.

The essays in More Digressions are grouped together by chapters, each of which pursues a theme: comic books, freedom of speech, the love-hate relationship Peter David has with his fans, etc. Each chapter has a few opening thoughts on what follows, and a few essays get a historical note when appropriate. The incomparable Harlan Ellison introduces this book in Ellison's typical unique fashion.

I've seen many of the columns in More Digressions before -- in CBG or on Peter David's website -- and it's a pleasure to have them together for rereading. Even when I disagree with him, which isn't often, he makes his points with passion and intelligence. His writings are sometimes unusual or comic, he paints vivid portraits of some great people, and he gives the reader much to think about. I wish that the original publication dates for the articles were included, but other than that Much Digressions is another fine collection of the digr-- musings of Peter David.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.11.2009

OUT OF SIGHT

Elmore Leonard's novels have always been about character as crime, and the movie Out of Sight is no exception.
As much a romance as a crime caper, this Steven Soederbergh film is smooth, clever, and romantic to boot.
Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a criminal who relies on his brains instead of guns to rob banks. He escapes with the help of his friend Buddy (Ving Rhames), planning to steal a fortune in uncut diamonds from banker Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks), also in the prison. But as luck would have it, Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) happens to be stopping at the prison just as Jack is climing out of a tunnel in the ground. Buddy wants to leave her, but Jack brings her along, joining her in the trunk during the getaway. Afterwards, the two seem obsessed with each other: Karen wants to be part of the task force that's chasing Jack, while he calls her from time to time to chat.
Back to the crime... As we learn from flashbacks, ganger Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle) wants to be part of the robbery -- but he's a lot more dangerous than Jack. There's alos Glenn Michaels (Steve Zahn), a stoner who is easily led. And Marshall Cisco (Dennis Farina), Karen's father and a cop, sees before she does how deep her interest in Jack goes.
Out of Sight is a combination of the star-crossed lovers (here, the criminal and the law enforcement official) and the robbery caper. Neither of these are completely original, but they flow together seamlessly here. Director Soderbergh makes the action stylized, but not so much that it's over the top (as in his Ocean 11-13 movies). George Clooney puts on his frequent charming rogue persona to good effect, and Jennifer Lopez is quite good as the romantic, yet officially determined, love interest. Add in a good supporting cast and a few surprises on the way, and Out of Sight becomes a pretty good crime-romance movie.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

Rhett Miller, RHETT MILLER


Most musicians have a "signature sound," their own recognizable way of putting together a tune. If there's not enough variety, a familiar sound can become repetitive. This is the fate of Rhett Miller, the third solo album by Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller.

As always, Rhett Miller's music is about love lost and love not found. From the opening "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore" to the hopeful/wishing "Sometimes," Rhett's a lonely soul out to make a connection. (The exception: the science fiction-themed "Happy Birthday Don't Die.") Indeed, Rhett's trademark voice sometimes feels like it'll crack under the emotion any second.

The problem is that this is nothing new, and the songs on Rhett Miller tend to wallow in the mellow. Almost none of the songs have the energy of his work with the Old 97's or his impressive first solo album, The Instigator. Some of the songs here are catchy, and Miller always has a different sound than either top 40 radio music or classic rock. Still, Rhett Miller has a been there-done that feel for anyone who's heard Rhett Miller's other work.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.10.2009

Captain Bogg & Salty, Emphatical Piratical (Scabbydisc, 2009)


Captain Bogg & Salty are a band of musical pirates from Portland, Oregon. I don't know if they get out on the high seas much, but they draw crowds in clubs and libraries around Portland, and have built up an equally receptive following among children and adults. Both lead roles (Salty is the swab) are played by Loren Hoskins, who co-writes most of the songs with First Mate McGraw (Kevin Hendrickson, lead guitar, who also doubles as Chucklehead Pete the cabin boy). Contributions come from the whole band, though, including Sunny Jim the cook (Paul Ianotti, keyboards), Buckle the gunner (Andy Lindberg, guitar), Mr. Filibuster the hammock stretcher (Lucas Haley, bass), and Ramshackle the carpenter (Dave Owen, drums). They have made four albums, including the just-released Emphatical Piratical.

If you're looking for historical accuracy, or a serious discourse on pirate life, you've come to the wrong place. As the Captain himself states in the opening song and title track (sung to the tune of the can-can song), "We are pirates of the make-believing kind. We are pirates of the type you HOPE to find!" Given recent events off the Somali coast, I suppose that is an important distinction. The mail is delivered by a seal, the sea monsters are friendly and like to play, and the band shares Frogg Island with natives who call themselves the Bamboo Maroon. These natives worship a giant purple tiki who never says anything, but is evidently a very good listener. The musical style is mostly mid-tempo rock with a predictably Caribbean flavor, although there's also a fun surf rock instrumental called "The Plank Walker" and a rocking cover of "Never Smile at a Crocodile" from Disney's Peter Pan.

So in case you haven't figured it out, Captain Bogg & Salty specialize in some very silly but fun nautical mayhem. The band/crew do a fine job making songs that even most adults will find themselves singing along with. Kids who are into pirates will love Emphatical Piratical. Adults who act like children where pirates are concerned will like this as well. But if you're the kind of person who'd puzzle over how a pirate ship could be piloted by a secondary crew of bunny rabbits when the main crew goes to bed, you might find this a bit beneath you.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

7.05.2009

PANDORA'S BOX


The irrestible female has often been portrayed in movies, and one of the earliest remains one of the greatest: Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box. This wonderful silent movie combines many contrasting elements to create a truly memorable film.

Lulu (Loiuse Brooks) is a showgirl, and she has an irrestible combination of smouldering sensuality and childlike enthusiasm. Almost everyone she meets falls in love with her, including publisher Dr. Ludwig Schon (Fritz Kortner), his son Alwa (Francis Lederer), and even the Countess Anna (Alice Roberts). Unfortunately, misfortune and despair follow wherever Lulu goes, making her an innocent femme fatale. Her own entourage is made up of Schigolch (Carl Goetz), an old and shifty man who pretends to be her sponsor; and Rodrigo (Kraft-Raschig), a strong man who dreams of being in a variety show with Lulu.


Brooks' acting is perfect, but it's one of the many impressive features in this film. Some silent films rely on too much exaggerated gestures to show emotion, but director Georg Pabst manages to bring out the subtle tragedy of his actors. The lighting and action are well done, whether it's the hustle and chaos of a theatrical performance, the wealth of a wedding celebration, or the dinginess of life on the skids.

Pandora's Box is, from start to finish, an amazing movie. Brooks is a perfect leading lady (and the hairstlye she wore in this movie became known as a "Lulu" and is still popular today), and whether Lulu was an unknowing innocent or calculating user of those around her. This movie goes from high society to the slums, from generosity to selfishness, from crime to redemption -- with Lulu at the center of it all. Pandora's Box is a true classic.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.04.2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES

Gangsters and feds slug it out during the 1930s in Public Enemies, the latest crime flick from director Michael Mann. This movie is a clash of personalities -- but something is missing from the movie.

It's the Great Depression and bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is America's most famous and infamous criminal. Dillinger robs banks and blasts away with his machine gun -- yet he doesn't steal from individuals and proves amusing and charming even while committing crimes.

Naturally, the bad guys have to be pursued by the good guys. J.. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) wants publicity and funding for his Bureau of Investigation, and he sees getting Dillinger as the key to both. His pick to lead the pursuit of Dillinger is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who made headlines for killing Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). The supporting cast includes Billie (Marion Cotillard) as Dillinger's love, a coat check girl who is as excited by Dillinger's lifestyle as she is aware that he'll wind up in jail or in the ground; and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), a mobster who seems to enjoy killing.

Public Enemies misses a great chance to contrast its too leads. We learn much about Dillinger -- that he has a code of honor while also ruthless and self-serving -- but Purvis remains almost a mystery. Did the fed hate Dillinger, respect him, have qualms about the wiretape and brutal interrogations, or have his own ambitions? Bale plays Purvis as almost stoic and efficient, with little revealed beyond his duty.

Public Enemies is still an intriguing movie of crime and law enforcement. Depp's performance doesn't glamorize the criminal yet makes us able to see why he was so popular. The setting of the Great Depression also reveals why people would admire a criminal who went out and took what he wanted -- even if that was outside the law. And unlike many other movies, this shows the blood and guts of guns and violence, not neat, inoffensive little bullet holes. Public Enemies is far from perfect, but it is an entertaining diversion.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.02.2009

THE HURT LOCKER

An apolitical film about the war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker is a stark, powerful glimpse into what could be the most dangerous work of the American soldier.

Set in Baghdad in 2004, The Hurt Locker focuses on Bravo company, an army unit whose job is primarily to disarm or detonate explosive devices left by insurgents. As we see from the opening scene, the automated robot can't do everything -- and the thick protective suit doesn't guarantee survival, as Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) unfortunately proves when a bomb is set off.

Thompson's replacement is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a near-celebrity who's disarmed over 870 bombs. He's also reckless, ignoring the robot and ditching his protective gear as he wishes. Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is a by-the-book soldier whose job is to protect James despite his risks. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is somewhere between the two, neither as gung-ho as James nor as uptight as Sanborn.

Baghdad is as much a character as the soldiers -- and the city is a terrifying place. In the world of Bravo company, every piece of trash could hide an IED, every spectator could be waiting to detonate an explosive. Anyplace else and the soldiers would be paranoid; here, it keeps them alive.

Unlike many war movies, The Hurt Locker never discusses whether the American role is good or bad. Bravo company simply does its job every day -- James defusing bombs, Sanborn and Eldridge watching through their rifles for trouble -- and the movie occasionally tells us how many days are left in their tour.

Tension permeates The Hurt Locker. The atmosphere is, even with moments of humor, one where peril is a continuing companion. Director Kathryn Bigelow gets the most from the actors, making them three-dimensional characters who, despite serious differences, are ready in an instant to do their duty. The Hurt Locker doesn't give any easy answers or opinions; instead it is a harrowing look at a place and a duty most of us can barely imagine.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch