Saturday, November 07, 2009

Living in a White Collar World

I've been watching a lot of TV lately.

A lot.

Truth to tell, once I got over the rush of all a new season promised, I crashed like an energy drink addict. I was all giddy at first, full of energy and fire after viewing the upfronts (well, some of them, anyway.) After a few hours of viewing all those new shows, though, the sugar of the sitcoms and the caffeine of the crime procedurals wore off, and I crashed. For all the hype, the networks weren't offering anything that they hadn't been offering for years. In fact, they were offering less--recycled reality shows and endless Leno was not my idea of innovative programming.

Fortunately, basic cable doesn't play that way. USA network, for example, may be the stepchild of NBC, but it's an unruly one. Monk wouldn't have lasted eight seasons on NBC, much less garnered all the awards it has over its run had it been on the parent network. Even in its last season on USA, it's going out with dignity and buzz. But all good things come to an end.

Filling the gap Monk will leave is the new series White Collar, which is like a shot of B12 for the prime time fatigued. It's smart, funny, and leaves you wanting more. Read my full review here:

Obviously, I'm a bit excited about White Collar. There's hope for TV after all.
I'm also excited about the news that USA is relaunching its Character Arcade ( There are a lot of new features with the relaunch, including:
-Facebook Connect Integration; sign in with your Facebook account & challenge friends
-Game of the Week promotion featuring weekly prize give-aways
-Point System to buy accessories and upgrade avatars [redeemable for physical rewards coming soon]
-New virtual trophy case-New Games including MMO and downloadable PC Games
It's all very exciting, don't you think? I'll keep you posted on all upcoming details and news as it breaks. Until next time...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wow-- it's been nearly a month since I've posted here. Sorry about that...
I've been very busy with what I'll laughingly refer to as "Real Life." I won't bore you with all the details, other than to say I have been writing. And I've been watching TV. A lot of TV.
And as I've been doing for going on four years now, I've been keeping up with Dexter. I scribbled a few of my impressions here:
Check it out, won't you? And don't be shy posting a comment.
See you soon-- much sooner than of late.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tokyo! via France and Korea

Cities are organic. They may have their origins as towns—trading posts or shipping ports or strategic fortresses—but they mutate and evolve as people gravitate to them seeking shelter from the wilderness. In the process, the town takes on a symbiotic life of its own, imperceptibly absorbing its inhabitants while shaping itself to accommodate its hosts.

That’s how towns morph into cities.

And that’s how people become one with their city, whether they like it or not.

Tokyo! is a triptych of diverse short films, each of which examines an aspect of the isolation that often accompanies individuals living in the midst of millions. The common thread uniting the films comprising Tokyo! is alienation, with the city itself serving as a canvas upon which the surreal sketches are played. Two of the stories are directed by Frenchmen, and the third by a South Korean, further enhancing the otherworldly feel of Tokyo!

In “Interior Design,” writer-director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes a Kafkaesque spin on finding one’s identity in the city. Loosely adapted from a Gabrielle Bell graphic novella, the story follows a young couple from the sticks trying to find their fortune in Tokyo. He’s an aspiring, if not very good, filmmaker, and she’s his unassuming but resourceful girlfriend. As he becomes more wrapped up in his importance as an artiste, she quietly tends to their day to day survival. As he becomes more self-important, she struggles to find her own voice, eventually morphing into a chair, literally. As terrifying as such a metamorphosis could be, she finds a new freedom as she explores her niche in society.

“Merde” is the contribution by director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge), and it’s part paean to Japanese kaiju films, part silent film comedy, and wholly disturbing. Merde (literally “shit” in French) is the titular character, gleefully portrayed by Denis Lavant, who rises from his subterranean home like some mad mime. At first, he’s a bothersome clown with a ridiculously curling beard and a chalky eye, snatching flowers and cigars from pedestrians, disrupting their routine before he disappears into the sewers. Deep within his lair, he happens upon an abandoned cache of hand grenades from the thirties, which he lobs at the citizenry when he next emerges above ground. Dubbed “the creature from the sewers” by the Japanese press, he’s put on trial for murder, and becomes a cause célèbre in the process.

“Shaking Tokyo” is an unsettlingly quiet film by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (The Host.) The main character here is a hikikomori, or urban shut-in, who’s lived with minimal human contact for over ten years. He survives on monthly checks from his father, delivered through the mail slot in his door, and apparently lives mostly on pizza delivered anonymously to his small but meticulously kept apartment. It’s lined with empty toilet paper rolls and pizza boxes, all neatly stacked as if to keep time of his solitude. His pastoral existence is abruptly disrupted by two concurrent events the delivery of his pizza by a lovely delivery girl and an earthquake. She passes out from the excitement and he’s forced to make contact with the outside world to revive her. He’s shaken by her, as well, and finally ventures into the outside world to find her. What he discovers, however, is that Tokyo has all retreated indoors to become a city of hikikomori.

Tokyo! is an act of synergy. Taken as individual films, the movie does little at first glance to portray Tokyo, the city, as a vibrant force of 21st century culture. Truth to tell, none of the three films portray Tokyo as anything more than a supporting, though omniscient, character in the lives of its citizenry. There are references to the city in all the stories—the horrors of housing in the city in “Interior Design,” xenophobia and the island’s denial of history (not to mention Godzilla references) in “Merde”, the constant threat of earthquakes on the island in “Shaking Tokyo”—but they’re only brush strokes in the larger canvas of Tokyo! Ultimately, the movie works because it’s greater than its parts. While all three episodes are complete unto themselves, they’re a bit self-conscious when taken alone. But viewed together, they become integral parts of a surreal tapestry. With elements of absurdism, science fiction and romance, Tokyo! manages to paint a portrait not so much of the city, but of the souls who go largely unnoticed until their hearts collide with the mindset of the megalopolis.

Tokyo! the DVD is unrated. It’s presented in widescreen, and Dolby 5.1, with a Dolby 2.0 option also available. Fittingly, it’s in Japanese, with English or French subtitles. Video transfer is flawless, and the subtitles are presented in a way that doesn’t distract the viewers attention from the visuals. Special features are sparse, consisting of “making of” featurettes of the individual films, and interviews with the directors, as well as the obligatory theatrical trailer.
Fighting Against the Tides of a Recession Depression
I know, I know-- it's been a while since we've chatted. And I know my fans have missed me (you both know who you are.)
It's not that I've been vacationing. And it wasn't a case of writer's block-- I never believed in that, anyway.
Truth is-- the Recession reared its ugly head. For a while there, I didn't have Internet access, Hell, for a while, I didn't even know if I was going to make rent. My day "job" cut back hours to next to nothing, all in the name of increasing corporate profits at the expense of its employees.
I may write about that in more detail very soon.
Anyway, I survived. And I'm back.
Good to see you again. . .

Friday, May 22, 2009

Viva Midori!
Maybe it was economic worries. Or perhaps it was fear about the swine flu. It might have been the unruly weather. The fact that the 5th fell on a Tuesday probably didn’t help, either. For whatever reason, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Dallas were muted this year.

That’s not to say we let the holiday go unnoticed—we just took it inside. See, Cinco de Mayo in these parts is a lot like St. Patrick’s Day—everybody is Mexican for that one day, even if we don’t know anything about the Battle of Puebla and its importance. Something about Cinco stirs us nonetheless, and reawakens our need to buy avocadoes, peppers, tomatoes and the like to show off our recipes for guacamole and taco salads of every hue. And in Dallas, it also signals the beginning of summer, as we raise our glasses to the city’s unofficial beverage, the margarita.

The origins of the margarita are shrouded in mystery and local lore—some say it was invented in 1936 in Puebla, Mexico by Danny Negrite, who named it after his girlfriend Margarita, who liked a dab of salt with her drinks. There are rumors it was invented in honor of Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita. Some say it was first concocted by Dallas socialite Margarita Sames in 1948 curing one of her frequent cocktail parties at her vacation home in Acapulco. We do know that the frozen margarita was invented at Mariano’s Mexican Restaurant in Dallas’s now defunct Old Town in 1971.

We’ll probably never know who poured the first margarita, or where it was first concocted, and that’s just as well. Some things are best left to the imagination. It’s how things evolve and take on a life of their own. It’s how legends are born, and it explains how the margarita has surpassed all other drinks to become the best-selling mixed drink in the United States.

During this past Cinco de Mayo celebration, I rediscovered Midori melon liqueur, a treat I’d neglected since my club days in the eighties. It’s green, and a bit too sweet to be enjoyed as a cordial. But I’d forgotten what a great mixer it is. Midori, from Japan’s Suntory distillery, was introduced to the United States in 1978 at the height of Studio 54’s popularity. It was an instant sensation, maybe partly because of the way turned any drink neon green, but mostly because it added a certain exotic twist to any cocktail, mixing equally easily with vodka, gin or even fruit juices.

In 1987, Suntory moved production of Midori from Japan to Mexico, where it gradually gained a reputation as the perfect alternative to Triple Sec as the secret ingredient of the perfect margarita. Now, in 2009, I’ve fallen in love all over again with Midori and margaritas, and discovered in the process that salt on the rim of the glass is optional.

Here are a few recipes to prove that point. Enjoy!


1 oz Midori® Melon Liqueur

1 ½ oz Cabo Wabo ™ Blanco Tequila

1 oz freshly squeezed organic Lime Juice



1 oz Midori® Melon Liqueur

1 ½ oz Cabo Wabo ™ Reposado Tequila

5 slices fresh organic Cucumber peeled and seeded

2-3 slices fresh organic Jalapeño (to taste)

1 oz freshly squeezed organic Lime Juice

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1 oz Midori® Melon Liqueur

1 ½ oz Cabo Wabo ™ Blanco Tequila

1 ½ oz Coconut Cream

½ oz fresh-squeezed organic Lime Juice

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So there you have it. The key to a good margarita is a premium tequila (blanco for poolside, reposado for indoor get-togethers), lime juice (fresh-squeezed, of course), and a good base. I prefer Midori over Triple Sec or other citrus bases. Midori just mixes better, without overpowering the tequila. It makes for the perfect margarita in the summer—cool refreshment in the hazy heat. And no salt is needed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A New Look for Blogcritics--and a Possible New Direction for TV
Regular readers of this blog (both of you, in fact) know that much of it consists of reprints of articles I originally wrote for Blogcritics. BC just went through a redesign, which I find quite exciting. Rather than go into a lengthy dissertation about the redesign, I'll just sharewith you some comments I left in a letter to the writers' group:
I'd call this more a relaunch than a redesign. And it's long overdue. I was a never a big fan of the 2nd generation page-- it was staid at best. It certainly didn't look like a "magazine"--more like a table of contents. The new look is hip, a little edgy, and gives newcomers a second pause. It's not "busy" at all--if anything,it's a look of controlled chaos that's perfect in keeping with the "sinister cabal"core idea of Blogcritics.
The word baloon header is a great idea, and I hope it sticks. I instantly lets the viewer know they've stumbled upon a site that may deal with convoluted issues, but doesn't take iteself overly seriously. After all, BC is not a scholarly journal-- it's about pop culture in one form or another when all is said and done.
For a first-timer, navigation is intuitive--I think BC regulars may be resistant to change. I'm glad to see the "Fresh Comments" bar disappear-- it had gotten to the point where it was a private playgroung among regulars, and didn't do much to enhance the site's overall image. There was also no reason to list each writer individually on the front page, so that's an improvement, also.
I dig the new look immensely. Finally, the Blogcritis splash page looks like the magazine it's always claimed to be. Expect a lot more attention in the future!
In short, check it out! Now! Blogcritics
I was very pleased to be a part of the lead piece of the relaunch, in which Eric Olsen asked writers to submit ideas about the Obama's administration's impact on pop culture. This ia what I wrote:
The Nation Has a New Face--So Does TV
President Obama knows how to work a room—and well he should. Born in 1961, he’s the first President of the United States who cannot remember a time before television. I Love Lucy was already in syndication when he was born. NBC was experimenting with color TV, most notably via Bonanza. And on a related pop culture note, the so-called Marvel Age of comics was born when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released the first issue of The Fantastic Four. JFK may have been the first president to utilize the power of the then new medium (notably in his televised debate with Nixon), but Obama is the first to be a child of it, fully immersed in it, and fully in control of it.

Let me rephrase that—no mere mortal is in control of what Harlan Ellison dubbed “the glass teat.” Television has always been ruled, in one way or another, by corporate bean counters. It exists, not to entertain, but to sell product. “Product” can be anything from hygiene accessories to political messages, and often, the two are so subtly intertwined, the guy sitting at home on the couch doesn’t realize he’s been had. The political climate of any given time sells those commercials. Thus, in the past eight years or so, we’ve been barraged with commercials treating everything from household insecticides to baby wipes as articles of urban warfare. And the programming that accompanies them has had that same take- no- prisoners attitude. 24 is a glaring example, extolling as it did, the virtues of torture in the name of the greater good. Dexter, too, made serial killing acceptable, if it was done in the name of justice. Comedies, even game shows, fell under the us-or-them spell.

The winds of politics and culture are fickle, and a storm of change is in the air. We’re already seeing it. President Obama personifies cool, with his swagga and his almost Spock-like way of expressing his thoughts. His approval rating never wavers below 60%, and Michelle’s is even higher. And it has as much to do with style as politics. What America craves now is a whisper from the darkness that things will get better. have no idea what Obama watched as a child, but it’s not hard to imagine he spent more than a few hours with Star Trek, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Dream of Genie, and even The Wild, Wild West. We do know that these days these days, the President is a fan of HBO’s Entourage, which is not too surprising, since it revolves around an aspiring actor and his friends beating the odds in Hollywood. Obama was also a regular viewer of the now defunct The Wire. Considering the series’ gritty portrayal of urban life and sociopolitical issues, it stands to reason he would be a devotee the show. But the President also enjoys Hannah Montana and Spongebob Squarepants with daughters Malia and Sasha. And of course, his love of ESPN’s SportsCenter is well documented.

Obviously, even the President has no control over the whims of network programming—that’s more the province of the almighty 18-49
demographic (which Obama falls into.) But we have a First Family that has already become a barometer of the state of pop culture. Michelle has an even higher approval rating than Barack, due in no small part to her no nonsense fashion sense and her dedication to education, the daughters are always adorable, and even Bo the puppy has elevated a little known breed to superstardom. Barack, of course, is just cool—urban hip, confident, with an air of reserve and detachment when it matters, yet with a fighter’s instinct smoldering beneath it all.

With that kind of popularity (not to mention the street cred to back it up), the President will have at least an indirect influence on television programming over the coming years. I don’t think it will be anything revolutionary, but I do believe that we’ll see a return to stylish storytelling, and well thought-out scripts. We’re already seeing a shift in crime shows, returning to characterization and motivation as opposed to the dry procedurals that we’ve endured over the past years. NBC’s newest entry in the field, Southland, works because it portrays the cops and the bad guys as players on the same game board. The Mentalist, on CBS, emphasizes the smug self-assurance of the lead character, rather than any kick-ass attributes. Show that were once favorites, like 24, seem hopelessly dated now, remnants of a Bush-Cheney agenda that didn’t work.

It’s not that Obama has a television agenda—if he did, the cable news channels would be in dire straits, since he never watches them. Conversely, ESPN would be top of the pops. But his election reflects a shift in the American psyche. We’ve become a little more aware of the world around us—maybe too aware in some ways. With the economy a major daily concern and new wars always lurking on the horizon, we’re going to expect more substantial entertainment delivered to our homes. Expect more wit and social commentary on the tube in the future, particularly in dramas and comedies. And don’t be surprised to see so-called reality shows drop in popularity. We have enough reality—we’re craving old-fashioned entertainment. As the President would say, “Change is coming.”
Of course, my piece is only part of a larger article, and you can read the article in its entirity here. It's good reading, and you'll probably discover some new writers you'll want to follow.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Returns
When I was a wee tyke, there was nothing in the world cooler to me than The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And why wouldn’t it be? Week after week, intrepid U.N.C.L.E. operatives Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) saved the world from the nefarious clutches of THRUSH, and they did it with aplomb and style.

Jack Bauer was barely out of diapers when the exploits of Solo and Kuryakin debuted in 1964, the first and only spy series on television at the time. Instrumental in its creation was James Bond creator Ian Fleming, so it’s no surprise that Napoleon Solo had much of that same debonair charm as Bond. In fact, the original premise, as envisioned by Fleming, was titled “Solo.” Producer Sam Rolfe, fleshed out the premise, creating the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and Solo’s Russian counterpart, Illya Kuryakin. U.N.C.L.E. was a global agency that knew no borders and was beyond ideologies. It had one mission, and that was to thwart the machinations of THRUSH, or the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

That was pretty heady stuff for me as a little kid. The idea that there was a clandestine organization based in a secret passageway behind a tailor shop somewhere in the upper forties of NYC, operating solely to save humanity from equally shadowy, but infinitely evil, forces fueled my imagination. It wasn’t long before I was a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent, outfitted with my own UNCLE gun and ID badge, saving my little childhood world from evil adults that I knew made their way through secret corridors once they left their day jobs. That is, until I got bored with that game, and took some time to play rock star ala The Monkees or superheroes like the Green Hornet.

As I grew older, my priorities changed, I guess. The closer I got to puberty, the sillier The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed to me. It wasn’t just me getting older, though—these were the Swingin’ Sixties, after all, and the series, in its second and third season jumped on the camp bandwagon that the Batman TV series ignited. Halfway through its fourth season, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled, replaced, fittingly enough, by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Still, it’s those childhood memories that we hold most fondly, and that eventually shape us as adults. Solo and Kuryakin inspired me, much like Sherlock Holmes and Batman, to investigate all the angles and be prepared to act with confidence when the situation warrants it. More importantly, though, they taught the importance of looking and being, well, cool. And even at its campiest, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cool.

That’s why I harbored high hopes for The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. When it first aired on CBS as a made-for-TV movie, I wasn’t terribly impressed, as I recall. Then again, in the early eighties, I was jaded about pretty much everything on television. Twenty-five years later, the movie fares a bit better on DVD. It’s not that I believe the film is any less asinine than it was when it originally aired, or that it takes on some significance in retrospect. No, it’s much simpler than that. It illustrates, that despite all the technological advances that propel TV stories in 2009, the formulaic storytelling techniques of television haven’t advanced one whit.

The set-up for The Fifteen Years Later Affair is simple enough—THRUSH has hijacked a nuclear weapon that will detonate over a major U.S. city unless a 350 million dollar ransom is paid to them. There’s one other proviso in their demand—the ransom must be delivered by U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo. The problem is, Solo retired from active duty fifteen years earlier. And therein lies the hook. Solo, for unexplained reasons, is retired from the spy business, and now sells computers, theoretically, at least. From what we see, he spends most of his time in Atlantic City casinos, gambling poorly, wearing immaculate tuxedos and rescuing mysterious femme fatales from equally mysterious KGB agents. He’s lost contact with U.N.C.L E., now headed by Sir John Raleigh (Patrick MacNee), after Mr. Waverly’s (Leo G. Carroll) death. Illya Kuryakin is a bit easier to find, since he’s turned his back on espionage in favor of fashion design.

After some plot contrivances that take up half the movie (including a car chase that features George Lazenby—the forgotten Bond-- known only as “JB” here-- cruising in a rather beat-up Aston Martin DV8--) the U.N.C.L.E. duo are eventually reunited, if only briefly. The movie fails in that it loses the interaction between the suave Solo and the introspective Kuryakin. Instead, it sends them on parallel missions to thwart the ransom demand.
To see the JB car chase scene, click here:

The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was intended to spark interest in reviving the series. Unfortunately executive producer/ writer Michael Sloan watched only a few episodes of the third season of the original series as a basis for his research. The result is a campy version of any of the Roger Moore James Bond movies (which in themselves were campy.) If the Batman TV series had been a Quinn Martin production, it would probably have looked a lot like this. All those late seventies/early eighties character actors that dominated the small those screen are there—particularly Anthony Zerbe, as the head of THRUSH.

There are some little nudge-nudge jokes here, and some insider references, but the made for TV movie falls back on cliches to drive the story. THRUSH grunts wear orange overalls, U.N.C.L.E. agents wear blue. The final assault plays out like a boy’s fantasy wherein good guys never get hurt and the bad guys drop like flies. And that’s the part that reminds me of when I was a ten –year old U.N.C.L.E. operative. This DVD also reminds me of how some childhood fantasies are best left alone. It’s a TV movie, presented in its original format, mono soundtrack and all. The only extra is a trailer—read that “commercial”-- promoting the film. And while it’s not the reunion I would have wanted, it was still enough to transport me to a time when when things were simpler.

Even if the bad guys had a nuke pointed at us.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Power of Early Sidney Poitier
Though he hasn’t made a film since 1997, Sidney Poitier remains one of the most important actors in the history of American cinema. It’s not that every movie he made was great—many of them would be considered exploitative by today’s standards. What Poitier brought to all of his roles was a quiet sense of dignity and pride hitherto unseen by a black performer in America cinema. The Bahamian born actor, in 1963, became the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field. By 1967, thanks to his roles in To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, he was the #1 box office attraction in America.

The Sidney Poitier Collection, recently released by Warner Brothers Home Video, consists of four of Poitier’s lesser known, earlier works that nonetheless illustrate his commitment to making socially relevant films from his earliest days. The films included are Edge of the City (1956), Something of Value (1957), A Patch of Blue (1965) and A Warm December (1972).

Edge of the City is the earliest of the movies in this collection, and is easily the most powerful of the lot. It’s one of the earliest, if not the first, American film to explore an interracial friendship. Set in the New York dockside railyards, it features Poitier as a labor gang foreman who befriends John Cassavetes, a laborer with a past that makes him beholden to a rival, bigoted gang boss, played by Jack Warden. The film also marks the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, who went on to direct Hud and Norma Rae.

Over a half century after its release, Edge of the City remains relevant, not so much because of its racial undertones, but because of its examination of inequities that still plague some segments of the blue collar workforce. Bullies in the workplace still abound, just as they did when Edge of the City was released. The only difference now is that they’re more readily recognized. This early work featuring Poitier and Cassavetes was among the first to recognize them. Its message is as important now as it was then.

Pity the same can’t be said for 1957’s Something of Value. An early effort by director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Looking For Mr. Goodbar), it’s a very Hollywood-ish adaptation of Robert C. Ruark’s novel about the Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya after the close of World War Two. Call it a creature of its times, but its messages about racism and warring cultures are painted in the broadest of strokes. It’s all very formulaic, with Rock Hudson as the noble b’wana and Poitier as the black man raised white, but driven by his inner cry for freedom, forced to join the Mau Mau rebellion. It’s a Hollywood B- movie, with Hollywood backlots and soundstages substituted for the publicized native locales. It’s a Rock Hudson vehicle to be sure, but it’s Poitier as the emotionally tortured Kumani, who brings substance to this otherwise lackluster attempt to explore race relations.

Much more subtle and infinitely more satisfying is A Patch of Blue. This 1965 film, directed by Guy Green (Best Cinematography Oscar, 1946 Great Expectations) works on the simple tag “Love is color blind”. In it, Poitier plays easy-going Good Samaritan Gordon Ralfe, who unwittingly becomes involved with a blind girl, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman.) Besides being blind, Selina lives with an emotionally abusive mother of questionable repute (Shelley Winters) and a well-meaning but hopelessly alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford.) Selina’s only refuge is the park, where she meets Gordon, and since she can’t see, she has no idea he’s black. Gordon takes her under his wing, teaching her how to dial a pay phone, cross the street and various things that sighted people take for granted.

A Patch of Blue is a Cinderella story of sorts, but not necessarily one with the requisite “happily ever after”ending. It’s a love story to be sure, but it’s a story that focuses more on social conscience and the greater good than personal desires. Shelley Winters won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, and Elizabeth Hartman won a Golden Globe Award for her efforts.

The final movie in this collection is A Warm December, a 1972 film Poitier directed, as well as starred in. It’s a clumsy effort, playing more like a made for TV travelogue romance than a drama. Poitier plays a widowed American doctor vacationing in London, ostensibly to race dirt bikes in a European competition. Only minutes into the film, however, while strolling around London, he encounters Catherine (Esther Anderson) who enlists his help in eluding a mysterious man who is following her. She promptly slips away, of course, and Poitier, his curiosity piqued, follows her. What follows is a lighthearted romance at this point, a mysterious intrigue at that, a nod to Love Story here and a mention of sickle cell anemia and its disproportionate effects on people of African descent. None of it gels in the end, and its only worth a look to see Poitier’s early attempts at directing, which he would late hone more decisively.

What makes The Sidney Pointier Collection worthwhile is not that it that it contains his better known films—the only one included here that may be largely familiar is A Patch of Blue, and that because it was released at a post-segregationist awakening. It’s certainly not the special features included in the set. They mostly consist of the individual films’ theatrical trailers—only A Patch of Blue offers any special features, and even those are sparse—a commentary feature by director Guy Green, and some stills galleries and notes. All of the movies here are presented in widescreen, and with the exception of A Warm December, they’re all B&W, with excellent reproduction and very good contrast.

Where this collection ultimately succeeds is that it shows that even in his earliest work, Poitier (and the people who worked with him) wanted to present a portrait of America where dignity, love, prestige and worth knew no color. We take those principles for granted today, but in the 1950’s and sixties, those were radical concepts. Sidney Poitier paved the way, at least in film.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Blues As Cultural Compass

If the blues is not the foundation of all modern pop music, it comes pretty damn close. Jazz was an outgrowth of the blues, originally adding brass to the 12 bar structure of the blues. Country music was born alongside the blues, and, as marketing worked in those early days, differentiated primarily only in the race of its performers. Rock and soul are lineal descendents of the blues, and their offspring, metal and hip-hop, owe their heritage to the genre. In fact, even modern classical music pays homage to the blues. Had it not been for the blues, there would have been no Count Basie, no George Gershwin, no Sinatra, no Hank Williams, no Elvis, no Beatles, no Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Beastie Boys, no Springsteen, no Jay-Z—at least not as we know them.

The blues is as integrated into our modern psyche at least as much as Prozac, and as such, flows through us largely unnoticed. But it’s always there, lying dormant until some contemporary riff awakens our collective unconsciousness, and we realize it was inspired by something born in the Mississippi Delta, and nurtured across the States, particularly in Chicago. And from there, the blues spread across the world, finding an unlikely home in England, where it spawned a new legion of fans who became the next vanguard of rock and roll.

Late in 2008, UK-based Acrobat Records branched out with a series of reissues available for the first time in America, dubbed collectively as “The Premier Collection.” The U.S. label debut features 15 reissues include jazz/big band, blues, country, R&B, doo-wop and rock. But what really caught my attention were two blues titles by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, previously unavailable domestically.

Howlin’ Wolf: Rockin’ the Blues Live in Germany 1964 was recorded in Bremen, Germany, and was part of the American Folk Blues Festival that enthralled Europe at the time. The Wolf was at his height during this set, maybe bolstered by the fact that the Rolling Stones had just topped the charts with their cove of his “Little Red Rooster.”

That song’s not included on this set, but the nine tracks here are impressive in their own right, and immediately recognizable to fans of blues or rock. They include Willie Dixon’s “Shake It for Me,” Wolf’s “Rockin’ the Blues,” and the duo’s collaboration “Howlin’ for My Darlin’.” The quartet of musicians backing the Wolf up are legendary in blues circles—frequent cohort Willie Dixon on bass, Sunnyland Slim on piano, longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and Clifton James on drums.

This is hardly a definitive Howlin’ Wolf collection, however. The recording is left intact from the way it was released in 1964, which means its mono, and there’s nothing to suggest it was recorded before a live audience. In an odd way, though, that endears it to the context of the time. What remains intact is the raw power of Howlin' Wolf’s voice, and the virtuosity of the band. This is a rare grouping, and listening to them jamming seamlessly makes up for any shortcomings in the editing. Consider it a primer on Howlin’ Wolf’s inestimable influence on the evolution of rock.

While Howlin’ Wolf’s large footprint is all over rock, it’s B.B. King who’s brought the blues into the mainstream of pop culture. B.B. King and His Orchestra Live is a testament to that premise. Recorded in 1983 in Cannes as part of a jazz concert that included Pat Metheny and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the album is part soul revue, part big band jazz and a very large part blues, all wrapped into a palatable package.

King’s band director at the time, the late trumpeter Calvin Owens sets the tone for the concert, with a funky extended intro that heralds King’s arrival to the stage. It gives Owens and King an opportunity to expand on the musical idioms that the blues introduced—particularly big band jazz and soul, even touches of country. In fact, a third of the set is an instrumental collage of those influences. ”Why I Sing the Blues” and “Darling, You Know I Love You” are performed as instrumentals once King takes the stage, and he delights in playful guitar variations as he performs them.

From the extended intro, King smoothly segues into his recognizable repertoire, with powerful renditions of King standards, such as “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss.” Perhaps most telling is his cover of Louis Jordan’s Caledonia.” It’s here that King blurs the lines between jazz and blues, not unlike Jordan did when he blurred the lines between R&B and jazz on his original.

The best way to experience the blues is to hear it performed live, preferably in a club setting. There’s something about the genre that dares the listener to step inside the performer’s heart and brain, and discover we all share common joys and pains. While B.B. King and His Orchestra Live tries valiantly to create that experience, it falls short, due to editing that reduces audience reaction to cross-fades detween the numbers. The performance of King and his orchestra, however, make up for those shortcomings.

While neither the Howlin' Wolf or the B.B. King releases are essential in a blues collection, both offer insights into how the blues have been integrated into our mindset. Howlin' Wolf shoved the blues into British rock, which, in turn, returned it to America and transformed American rock, causing musicians to research their unknown roots. B.B. King has pretty much singlehandedly brought the blues into the 21st century, where it, more than ever, is the foundation for almost everything we hear from presidential inaugurations to pharmaceutical commercials.

The blues is far from being dead. It’s in a constant state of evolution.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Obama and His Journey Chronicled
As I write this, MSNBC and CNN are all aflutter with their continuing coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. Right now, they’re covering the president-elect’s whistle stop train tour as he makes his way from Delaware to Washington DC. I’ve been watching it off and on for several hours now, and frankly, it’s becoming redundant. It’s kind of like watching the SuperBowl pre-game show or one of the interminable red carpet warm-ups to all the movie and TV awards programs flooding the airwaves these days. I mean, the warm-ups are nice and all, in a fawning all over ourselves sort of way, and they do give us ample time to collect up our chips, dips and assorted beverages before settling into our comfy sofas for the main event.

And I’m ready for the main event already. There’s only so many chips, dips and adult beverages one can consume between now and Tuesday, when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. We’ll say our farewells, fond and otherwise, to Dubbya, and finally, finally stop referring to Barack as President-elect Obama. We’ll breathe a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday, even as we look with some trepidation to the future. It’s not that we fear the change that has finally come—it’s the glut of souvenirs from third parties that will send our heads swirling.

Don’t get me wrong. I have my own little collection of Obama memorabilia—campaign buttons that I acquired during the journey, my “Yes We Did” poster from MoveOn, an article I wrote nearly a year ago supporting him-- little items I treasure from the campaign itself. I’m equally proud that I don’t own any of those so-called limited edition Franklin Mint Obama gold coins. And I haven’t bought any of those “Special Edition” news magazines commemorating Obama’s election. Nor do I recommend anybody rushing out to buy the various cable news channel DVDs that are already available for pre-order.

I will recommend one DVD, however. Barack Obama: The Man and His Journey is released today, and as souvenirs go, it’s about as good as it gets. As you might expect, it’s a bit on the sentimental side, and lacks a lot of depth. But as a straightforward biography, it contains several nuggets that have hitherto gone unnoticed in the whirlwind of the 2008 campaign. For instance, as a state senator in Illinois, he introduced an unprecedented 800 bills, 181 of which were passed into law. We also realize that his multi-ethnic heritage forged his viewpoints—not fitting in anywhere in the traditional senwe made him fit in everywhere. And it may very well be that his love of basketball, both as a participant and as a spectator, shaped his competitive prowess.

What really stands out in this portrait, though, is the attention given to Obama’s formidable intellect and his determination to make things happen. Narrated by Blair Underwood, and featuring exclusive interviews with Martin Luther King III, George Lopez, Hill Harper, Roland Martin, Linda Johnson Rice, Congressman Jesse Jackson as well as other prominent national personalities in the fields of politics, entertainment, religion, business and academia.

This is a portrait created out of admiration. Co-produced by Ebony/Jet and Vivendi Entertainment, it doesn’t offer a lot of controversy, though there are clips of the McCain-Palin gaffes during the latter days of the campaign. Even those, though are brushed off as part of Obama’s strategy. So are the sparse extra features, consisting mainly of seven vignettes that showcase Brian McKnight’s song “Yes We Can,”and also showcase Obama’s view on economics, family, the war, economics and the like. Oh, and there’s also an official Obama holographic trading card.

President Barack Obama The Man and His Journey is a somewhat uneven of the man’s meteoric rise to the presidency. It would be nice if it spent a bit more time on his struggles, and a little less on how he triumphed despite those odds. The new President has major obstacles confronting him, as do all of us. But for now, celebrating his ascendancy is an inspiration to all of us. For the first time in our history, we can really believe theat mantra that anyone can rise to any position they want o attain.

Yes we can, indeed.