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by Matthew Sorrento

16 Jan 2009

Arden Theatre Company presents
James and the Giant Peach
By David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
10 December 2008 – 8 February 2009
F. Otto Haas Stage

Readers hold Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—itself a standout from the author’s body of classics—as personal as Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, and countless others children’s tales.  Peach also proves to be an “interactive” as any other.  After the premiere of David Wood’s new Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden in Philadelphia, adult audience members shared their favorite character from childhood.  “I always likes the spider,” one woman said.  A man returned: “I love that centipede, with all his shoes.”  Nostalgia was in the air, while their kids found a new delight.  Some recognized the bright-lit and -spirited performance from a book their parents recently read to them.  With questions and enthusiastic comments, others were obviously newcomers.

As for my favorite characters, I have always loved those wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker.  They offer the darkest dimension to Dahl’s text.  As recognizable family members, they are at once associated with the familiar, but nonetheless are distant, strange.  When James comes to live with them—after Dahl’s whimsically placed rhino kills the boy’s parents—they set little James to endless chores, thus serving as the wicked stepmother motif of classic fairy tales.  Meanwhile, we have two aunts living together who are not clearly marked as sisters—two lesbians that society (and cultural history) has locked away, perhaps?  If so, then their wickedness is no fault of their own, in that they are trapped in the cultural “closet” for the story’s purpose. 

Mean-spirited or no, the aunts serve as an accidental jest to modern audiences, and it certainly isn’t lost on Whit MacLaughlin.  This stage director has cast Harum Ulmer (Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theater) as Aunt Spiker in David Wood’s Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden (running through February 8), next to Stephanie English’s Sponge.  Ulmer makes for an outright tranny-ish Spiker, lovably villainous to the kids as the parents wink along.  The gangly actor grates his lines and hams them up like Tyler Perry’s Madea, shrunken thin to fit the current proceedings.  English’s pillowy Sponge – complete with butt pads the size of basketballs – serves as a sidekick. 

Their victim, the unlikely named James Ijames, plays the title character with wide eyes, a sure friend for the young audience.  Wandering into a nightmarish life, he is a noble savage that finds a better family in those bugs that have grown along with the peach, the boys wish-fulfillment escape realized as a fantasy device.  (While never forgetting his young audience, Ijames’s appearance in a schoolboy uniform with cap cannot escape the image of Angus young of AC/DC.  Later in the show, the phrase “Hell’s Bells!” pops into the dialog, in case anyone’s missed the connection.)  The title’s other main attraction comes in three forms: as a 12-foot-high prop emerging from the backstage, a floating version the size of a softball, and as a centered platform on the jutting stage, on which the bugs and James travel from the aunts’ grounds to a new home. 

Of ripe color that’s almost florescent, the giant peach(es) is framed by a multi-panel digital screen friendly to the eyes of our digital youth.  On screen appears backgrounds, and a cute introduction to the bugs, who are soon to be James’ friends.  The digital projection adds much landscape to the jutting stage, even if it is outdone by the analog elements before it, more tactile to the intimate audience. 

And, naturally, the other dark subtexts of Dahl are jettisoned in this very child-friendly adaptation, such as the sperm-like jewels that squirm into the ground to impregnate the waiting peach pit.  Ijames’ mimed immersion into the peach—after it has grown large but is only imagined on the stage, at this point—sure feels like a birth-in-reverse, but that’s as close as this telling comes to Freudianism.  Wood and MacLaughlin use the layout of the thrust stage in the F. Otto Haas theater to draw the kids into a (mostly) classical approach to children’s theater.  It may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones’ hands.

by PopMatters Staff

16 Jan 2009

M. Ward
Never Had Nobody Like You [MP3] from Hold Time [17 February]
     

The Decemberists
The Rake’s Song [MP3] from The Hazards of Love [24 March]
     

Mos Def
Quiet Dog [MP3] [RCRD LBL]

N.A.S.A.
Whachadoin? (feat. Spank Rock, M.I.A., Santogold & Nick Zinner) [MP3] [RCRD LBL]

Dirty Projectors & David Byrne
Knotty Pine [MP3]
     

Southeast Engine
Black Gold [MP3] from From the Forest to the Sea [17 February]
     

Great Northern
Houses [MP3] from Trading Twilight for Daylight [28 April]
     

Odawas
Harmless Lover’s Discourse [MP3] from The Blue Depths [17 February]
     

by Rob Horning

16 Jan 2009

Megan McArdle is right; this alleged quotation from Marx’s Capital supposedly “making the rounds on Wall Street”—

Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.

—definitely is not Marx. It sounds more like a half-informed graduate student summarizing what he thinks Marx might have said about the current recession, and besides, “taking the communist road” sounds more like Maoist lingo. (If it really was from Capital, you’d more likely see a tedious reference to how much wool could be spun from so many spindles and so forth.)

Not that nothing in Capital is relevant to the current situation. Marx does have a few sketchy pronouncements about the credit system and about potential effective demand problems—the need to discipline the ways in which the working class reproduces its labor power and get them to soak up some of the surplus and so on. I think the passage I quoted in this post, from the chapter on money in volume one, has some application, for instance.

But the idea that Marx suggested that the state would lead a country down the path to socialism is absurd; generally the state is regarded as being completely captured by the capitalist classes to do its bidding. Or else capitalists have ceded political power to the state so that it can divide the working class’s wrath between Business and Government. Or else the state operates as a competing power base in a triangulated struggle over the shape of social relations. Etc., etc. But the general gist of Marx’s theory is that a revolution is necessary to smash the state and eventually do away with it.

Whoever made this statement up and attributed it to Marx probably wanted to use Marx as a kind of boogeyman, who is supposed to automatically discredit any idea that he can be associated with. The gambit here is to discredit the Fed and Treasury’s efforts to ameliorate the financial crisis and make sure nationalization remains a dirty word, as Yglesias talks about here.

by Mike Deane

16 Jan 2009

My first prediction of 2009: Katie Stelmanis is going to blow up. She’s been ignored for too long and after her performance at SXSW this year, it’s going to be “Stelmania” (I stole that phrase from her MySpace).

Join Us

Join Us

Katie Stelmanis was already starting to pick up steam in 2008. Almost a year since her nearly unnoticed debut album, Join Us dropped on Blocks Recording Club (a record co-op based in Toronto), Stelmanis was featured on Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life, and split a Matador released 7” with them in late 2008. In 2009, people are bound to pick up on the ethereal and eerie leanings of this powerful vocalist and songwriter. 

The album shares some similarities with the darker side of Kate Bush, but for the most part it’s hard to find an apt comparison to Stelmanis’s slightly operatic, dark, synth-based debut. Rufus Wainwright shares a couple of her characteristics on his more gothic sounding numbers and one could compare certain songs to that spooky Christmas song “Carol of Bells”(I mean this in the best way possible), but there’s nothing completely comparable. The album is well-paced and there is patience and artistry in each composition and they usually swell to commanding and satisfying multi-voiced choruses.

Album opener, “In My Favour”, and the three following tracks are throbbing slow-builds while “You’ll Fall” and “I’m Sick” are classically tinged balladry. In addition to the originals, a highlight is her penchant for atypical cover songs. The album ends with an amazing interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and on her MySpace page is an equally excellent cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. 
Add this to her already impressive oeuvre and you’ve got a success-prone arsenal set to explode in the coming year.

by Bill Gibron

15 Jan 2009

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the genre, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. Within this formulaic film, new to DVD from Universal, is an interesting tale about one man, his dream of mimicking his idol, the abject racism of the day and how talent and tenacity managed to trump such intolerance…sometimes. Unlike the theatrical experience, however, the disc here fills in many of the gaps the effort failed to address when it was released back in October. It still doesn’t make the experience any more invigorating, however.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X. And the DVD offers up deleted scenes, historical information, and a commentary that explains why some of the facts were “altered” to conform to commercial filmmaking.

Indeed, Fleder seems to think that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

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