Archive for January, 2007

DVD Review: Macumba Sexual by Jess Franco

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Oh, how people love their B movies, and their C’s and D’s too. Spaghetti Westerns, MST3K-grade sci-fi, classic John Waters – all have their passionate fans and defenders. Reissuing genre movies is quite a thriving little industry.

The Spanish director Jess (or Jesus) Franco‘s 1981 sexploitation film Macumba Sexual, like some of his earlier and better known works (Necronomicon and Vampyros Lesbos among others), combines eroticism with horror in a way that’s predictable given its genre, and it features the luscious Lina Romay and the majestic transsexual Ajita Wilson in lead roles. In a new interview with Franco and Romay, the director – who plays an amusingly creepy idiot in the film – describes the exotic Wilson with some justification as a female Christopher Lee.

But the real star of this picture is its Canary Islands setting. Franco and cinematographer Juan Soler make love objects out of grand old ships, camel caravans, stark and seemingly endless rolling dunes, surrealistic architecture, and fantastical Senegalese statuary. The camera alternately pans, zooms, lingers over and leers at the sheer physicality of the place, sometimes for longer than one expects.

The plot, such as it is, moves as slowly as the direction. On holiday with her husband, buxom, wide-eyed Alice (Romay) follows the clues in her erotic dreams (using some unexplained supernatural radar, I guess) to the island of the tall, statuesque Princess Obongo (Wilson) and her slaves, who await the not totally unsuspecting businesswoman with a variety of sexual delights, as well as more sinister intentions. The sex scenes are graphic as far as they go, although tame by twenty-first century standards. The low-key horror elements are perhaps the stronger for being realized not through special effects but by artful cutting, deliberate pacing, and enthusiastic use of real tribal objects. Spooky music by “Pablo Villa” (who is actually Franco) adds to the supernatural weirdness.

Slaves, fetishes, and striking, symbolically sexual set-pieces earn the film the “exploitation” in “sexploitation.” On the whole, though, its eeriness is more visually arresting than shocking.

This new release, restored from the original negative, looks gorgeous in its original 2.35:1 format. It should establish Macumba Sexual in its rightful place as the Barry Lyndon of European sexploitation movies. The only extra feature is the aforementioned interview, which Franco gives in his own eccentric version of English (subtitles are helpfully provided) – it’s charming, but only because he’s an old man now.

Macumba Sexual is not great filmmaking, of course, and I wouldn’t call it even a great B movie, but neither is it quite the standard B fare. Fans of Franco (or the genre in general) will certainly appreciate having this beautiful-looking reissue.

In Spanish, with subtitles.

Derailment on the Straight Talk Express

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Arizona Senator John McCain is the nearest thing the GOP has to a Presidential front-runner at this early stage of the 2008 campaign run-up. But maintaining his trustworthy image and delivering a coherent message may prove difficult for McCain when press, pundits, and political opponents begin in earnest to accuse him of flip-flopping on issues and pandering to the far Right. After six years of Bushspeak, voters are yearning for a straight-shooter. But can McCain’s longstanding reputation for consistency and principle stand up to scrutiny?

As a legislator McCain is best known for pushing campaign finance reform. In the decade since McCain-Feingold was first proposed, however, waging a national campaign has become more and more frightfully expensive, to the point where any serious candidate in 2008 will be thinking very hard before participating in a public financing system whose restrictions might hobble him or her from the start. In 2004, both John Kerry and the Democrats’ early front-runner Howard Dean decided that if they wanted to raise enough money to compete in the crucial early-primary states, they had to opt out of receiving federal matching funds. President Bush’s re-election campaign also declined the funds.

A new incarnation of campaign finance reform raises the matching-fund amounts and tweaks the system so as to – at least in theory – make it more palatable to candidates. But this legislation is conspicuous for McCain’s absence as a sponsor.

No doubt it’s his Presidential ambitions that have induced McCain to drop the issue on which he made his political reputation during the past ten years. Campaign finance reform is certainly lower on the public’s list of concerns now than it was then. The public understands the high cost of campaigning, and it also has more urgent things to worry about. Still, lawmakers like McCain were supposedly pressing for campaign finance reform all along because of principle. Voters may be used to political expedience trumping integrity, but potential McCain supporters are likely to be disappointed in a “straight-shooter” who has turned out to be just like everyone else.

McCain is a canny politician who may find a way to head off such criticism. He may elect to participate in the matching fund program. He may successfully make the case that it’s not realistic for any candidate to do so under the circumstances. He may simply benefit from public indifference, which should never be underestimated. One thing the public rarely will countenance, though, is a frequent flip-flopper, and McCain’s opponents in the primary and (if he wins it) the general election will find ample ammunition for accusing him of being one. His positions have changed on many issues, including some important ethical or “values” issues on which holding to the conservative line is clearly meant to boost the candidate’s appeal to Karl Rove’s far-right “base.”

The most recent example, as The Carpetbagger Report points out, is Roe v. Wade. Formerly opposed to overturning the landmark abortion rights decision, McCain told George Stephanopoulos in November 2006 that “I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support.” Whatever McCain’s real views about Roe v. Wade may be – and at this point, who knows? – strongly anti-choice voters are likely to see his “conversion” as purely opportunistic.

Two of McCain’s flip-flops have already received a great deal of press attention. First, since sensibly referring to Jerry Falwell as an “agent of intolerance” while campaigning in 2000, McCain has cozied up to the hateful preacher, meeting with him and even delivering the commencement address at Falwell’s cynically named Liberty University. Second, after taking an unequivocal stand against the use of torture, the former prisoner of war caved in to the Bush Administration on the anti-torture law he himself had drafted, enabling the Justice Department to make a strong case that the rules didn’t apply to prisoners held at Guantanamo.

McCain has also changed his mind about Grover Norquist, Bob Jones University, and Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, among other things. Any one of his changes in position may be amenable to nuanced explanation, but their combined weight may be too much even for Wily John to carry into 2008.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Jan. 11 2007

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Tahiti 80, Fosbury

The French band Tahiti 80′s latest CD is chock full of sunny disco-soul, with lead singer’s Xavier Boyer’s ethereal voice soaring like a sleepy Smokey Robinson above graceful retro dance-pop arrangements. The best songs, like “Big Day,” “Changes,” and “Chinatown,” get the blood flowing, while the gentle “Take Me Back” shows the band can do a spare little ballad just right. “Matter of Time” harks back to Motown. So does “Give It Away,” which leads off the extra four-song EP that’s been included with the US release. “Cherry Pie,” by contrast, leans heavily on techno drums. Both sounds work for this inventive band.

The bonus EP also includes a reverent version of the Turtles’ classic “Happy Together,” which makes explicit the band’s obvious (yet strangely little-noted by the press) debt to bubblegum pop.

There are a couple too many songs on the main CD, but Tahiti 80′s curious, light, highly danceable and newly mature sound is very appealing. Listening to it one might think – just for a little while – that we don’t live in such a troubled world after all.

You can hear several tracks at their Myspace page.

Carey Ott, Lucid Dream

Listening to Carey Ott’s debut on Dualtone Records, I get that feeling of deja vu that often accompanies first exposure to a singer-songwriter. But what am I hearing, exactly?

Are his high notes a little like Thom Yorke’s? Yes, I suppose. Do the slow songs tinkle and droop like Tom Petty’s? Yeah, but…

Oh, right. Of course. The Beatles!

In some songs, it’s George Harrison, who I suspect might just be the most influential Beatle of all. In others, it’s John Lennon. The CD opens with the highly hooky “Am I Just One,” which is followed by “Daylight” in which a Radiohead influence is apparent, as it is in the gently insistent “Virginia.” Vocally, Ott often suggests Ray Davies singing in tune, and his “It’s Only Love” is clearly Kinks-inspired (in spite of having taken a Beatles song title).

“I Wouldn’t Do That To You” is another top-notch song. Indeed Ott’s knack for setting fine wordcraft to snappy melodies is evident throughout the CD. In “Shelf Life” he puts a Lennonesque effect on his voice to sing some of his most poetic lyrics: “Warsaw in winter, flowery graves/Can you still hear them whisper your name?/Afraid of the cold spots, caught in the tree tops/Love is a dogfight.” He closes the lovely “Kickingstones” with a succinct declaration of the power of song: “Isn’t love what you play for?/Don’t you have all that you need?”

And – there it is! The McCartney side of Ott’s Beatletude shines out in the powerful pop of “You Got Love.”

The only weak point – though it may be a significant one – is the lack of a distinctive sound. The only thing even mildly unusual about Ott’s arrangements is the tasteful but prominent use of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes. His singing voice is pleasing and assured but he sounds like a million other singers. Breakout artists tend to be those who have that little something extra or different.

Despite this reservation, I recommend checking out Carey Ott if you appreciate well-crafted and emotionally charged songwriting delivered with talent and class.

Red Wanting Blue, Live: The Warehouse Sessions

Heartland pop-rock, heavy on acoustic guitar and piano – that’s Red Wanting Blue. It’s fine in small doses. But excessive earnestness and melodic sameness consign this long, live CD to the boredom bin.

Its companion DVD contains much of the same concert, but, unlike in the similarly packaged set from The Clarks, this band seems to be playing for the recording engineer and not for the fans, who supply energy and enthusiasm that the bored-looking musicians don’t reflect. The recording quality is good and the DVD authoring excellent, with several amusing extras, all of which will perhaps make the set desirable to the band’s fans. But the concert itself is not an impressive introduction to Red Wanting Blue.

Listen at their Myspace page.

Elizabeth and the Catapult, self-titled EP

This EP opens with the nifty pop-jazz tune “Waiting for the Kill,” a galloping 5/8 number with acid-sweet vocals from singer-songwriter-keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman and hopping acoustic bass from Jordan Scannella. The smoky jazz flavor carries through to the lush ballad “Right Next to You,” but Ziman’s feathery vocals work better in the quirky “Momma’s Boy” and the vampy verses of “Devil’s Calling.” Overall the music is interesting and pleasingly arranged but hurt by a lack of vocal heft. Precision songcraft lets Norah Jones get away with this, but with music that doesn’t quite hit that bullseye, more oomph is needed at the music’s focal point, which in this case is the singing.

Don’t miss Ziman’s ethereal keyboard work in the closing ballad, “Golden Ink.”

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Book Review: The Means – A Literary Journal, Issue Two

Monday, January 8th, 2007

I have in my hands Issue Two of The Means, a new literary magazine. Purple Post-It® notes flap out from certain pages, but I’ll get to the journal’s choice bits in a minute. First let us reflect on the meaning of The Means.

The Internet has drastically changed our relationship to knowledge and information, but for literature we still turn to books. I suspect that having a solid object to hold and read from is integral to the way we want to ingest long works. Though millions of us happily read newspapers on the Web, looking at a computer screen is not a comfortable way to read for a long period, nor is it conducive to the state of absorption that we usually want from a book.

The continuing popularity of printed magazines, for their part, can be largely attributed to convenience. In a waiting room, or taking the train to work, people want to flip through short, easily digested articles in something that’s disposable.

Whither, then, the literary journal? Can a printed book-magazine hybrid maintain readership in the digital age? Old brands and habits die hard, and I wouldn’t expect venerable titles like The Paris Review and Poetry to vanish anytime soon. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses lists hundreds of members. Still, it might well be seen as folly to be starting a litmag in the age of Google and Wikipedia. So when a new journal publishes its Issue Two, one can’t help being a wee bit impressed.

Co-editor Tanner Higgin declares that while The Means is “labeled a literary journal, our editorial direction has no allegiance to mere fiction and poetry. Rather, we read everything sent to us and choose what’s good. It truly is as simple as that… interviews, lists, essays, humor, art, comics, and anything else that can be slapped onto a piece of paper are fair game.” Alas, he goes on to abuse the language he has implied that he loves: “The truth is that most [literary] publications are running on a shoestring budget with no readership and thus function as poorly compensated, careless behemoths with little to no interest in costly innovation or the acceptance of risky writing by unproven writers.”

The Means Issue Two

That’s what not having an editor for the editor gets you. But out of a sense of obligation I soldier on, and there turns out to be a lot of good work between the pink covers. A sharp little short-short story by Joelle Renstrom captures the sense of fascination a young person can have with a larger than life, tall-tale-telling relation. Poignant stories by Mike Magnusson and Jennifer D. Munro illustrate how connecting with other humans can pose awful difficulties whatever the state of one’s love life. Christopher Monks’s story “Lloyd: New and Improved” brings to mind both the gloom of Raymond Carver’s depressing slices of life and the sticky-sweet grittiness of Updike’s sexual tales.

Arthur Salzman contributes an engrossing essay on juggling as a metaphor for life, with imagery that goes to some unexpected places: “And sooner or later the juggler stumbles and grows sullen, the bowling ball having crashed through the breakfront, the hamster having tumbled and scuttled under the refrigerator, the hacksaw having become embedded in her husband’s neck.” Michael Nowacki reports on the Iraq War with an unusual slant, while Andrew Michael Roberts’s metafictional dialogue with his computer illuminates the human-machine interface circa 2006:

I delete nothing. I send each received message – each documenting a lived moment – to the “saved messages” file. To where, any time I choose, I can return and re-live. In this way, I, myself, am “saved.” I am multiplied in the re-living. So that out amid the cosmic swirl of time and being swirl innumerable, “saved” me’s.

Imprecise language, to be sure, but evocative.

Filling out the volume are some poetry and curiosities of varying merit. I haven’t mentioned everything, but you may fairly infer that while Higgin and co-editor Christopher Vieau are themselves but fledgling writers, their energy and taste are having good results. The contents justify The Means.

Theater Review: The Country Wife by William Wycherly

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Banned for 170 years because of its licentious plot and language so bawdy it would have made Shakespeare blush, William Wycherly’s 1675 farce The Country Wife – a favorite of Charles II – has, in our post-Victorian age, returned to popularity in all its dirty glory. HoNkBarK!’s ambitious new production eschews sociological analysis in favor of playing it mostly straight, which, in this case, puts the focus squarely on the play’s bent zaniness.

Based loosely on several earlier plays, including Molière’s more mannerly School For Husbands and School For Wives, Wycherly’s intricately plotted comedy weaves together three strands. The title character (Kristin Price), a young, sexually ripe naïf, is seduced by the profane charms of city life, much to the consternation of her jealous middle-aged husband (Ray Rodriguez). The object of her affections is Horner (Richard Haratine), a libertine gentleman who has spread a rumor that he’s become impotent, so as to be trusted alone with London’s desperate housewives. Meanwhile Horner’s pal Harcourt falls in love with the principled Alithea (Linda Jones), who is, alas, betrothed to the outrageously foppish Sparkish (Brian Linden).

How it all turns out isn’t important; it’s the wit that counts. Indeed Horner and his friends are self-conscious Wits, out-flowering each other’s similes and engaging the audience in panicky asides as they get entangled in their own absurd tricks. Linden is hilarious as the ridiculous but ultimately sympathetic fop who only thinks he can match wits with the smarter gentlemen, Price charms as the innocent but surprisingly resourceful country wife, and Haratine commands the stage as Horner, the hyper-confident cuckold-maker. The fast pace and continuous barrage of flamboyant dialogue demands close attention, but the play would be too long if paced more slowly. Crisply directed by John Ficarra and extravagantly costumed by Karl A. Ruckdeschel, the able and enthusiastic cast dances through the complex plot with the precise timing of an OK Go video.

The production, on this preview weekend, was still a little rough around the edges. The live baroque-style music suffered from weak wit and imperfect performance, while the lovely scenery, which consisted entirely of paintings – some cleverly applied to window shades – balked now and again. But as the production is quite ambitious for off-off-Broadway, with complex material, a large cast, and spectacular costuming, I found these flaws mostly forgivable and the play a nearly unqualified delight.

The student of theater will detect the influence of both Shakespeare and Molière in Wycherly’s flowery language and precise dissection of human foibles, and in turn find echoes of The Country Wife in farces and comedies of manners down to modern times – from Wodehouse to Ayckbourne, Monty Python to Gilligan’s Island. But this play is a good time in and of itself. No special knowledge of Restoration England is needed, for the human comedy, as captured by Wycherly’s barbed quill, has changed little since his time.

Through January 27 at the McGinn Cazale Theatre on Broadway & 76th St. in New York City.