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Monday, Jan 8, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Diana Ross
I Love You

(Manhattan/EMI)
US: 16 January 2007


 


I Love You presents 14 songs personally selected for the album by Diana Ross in appreciation of their timeless, classic expressions of love and romance, including a brand new song, “I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters)”, a gentle ballad that captures the emotion of romance. The CD’s package includes stunning photos by Herb Ritts, Randee St. Nicholas and Douglas Kirkland and a letter to fans from Ms. Ross, who executive produced I Love You. The package also contains notes from the album’s co-executive producer, Marylata E. Jacob, a Grammy-nominated music supervisor and producer whose professional relationship with Ms. Ross spans 22 years, Peter Asher, who produced nine of the album’s tracks, and who has collaborated with Ms. Ross on many of her most cherished recordings, and the producer of five of the album’s tracks, Steve Tyrell, who has produced many recordings with Ms. Ross, including “Big Bad Love” with Ray Charles, and in 2005 produced her duet with Rod Stewart, “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” the lead single from Stewart’s Thanks For The Memory: The Great American Songbook I. I Love You’s deluxe edition adds a DVD with a photo gallery and an exclusive
behind-the-scenes look at the making of the new album.”—Manhattan/EMI


Behind the Scenes Video [streaming]
“I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters)” [streaming]
“More Today Than Yesterday” [streaming]
“I Want You” [streaming]


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Monday, Jan 8, 2007

Jerome Weeks has a good blog entry from last week about what’s happened to arts coverage in newspapers around the country.  His usual beat is books but what he says has a lot of relevance to other arts columns that are also getting cut back and consolidated in many places.  More specifically, these columns are being farmed out from other outlets that will stand to serve several communities (just like Clear Channel centralizes stations to serve several cities).  As Weeks notes, one place picking up the slack are the blogs themselves but why has print media given up on this?  A: it doesn’t bring in ad dollars.


Speaking of things you better not blink or you’ll miss, Nas and Mos Def came out with new records at the end of December.  Don’t feel too bad if this is news to you- fact is, the holiday rush time is a crappy time to put anything out because you’re not to get noticed too well then (prime time is usally March or September). 


In the case of Nas, that’s too bad.  History aside (which favors his first two albums), Hip Hop is Dead is probably his best record (and FYI, he means the title figuratively).  In Mos Def’s case, sad to say, it’s not much of a loss. True Magic sounds like a retreat after his ambitious agenda of his last album, 2004’s The New Danger (which was a wonderful kaleidescope of styles that worked almost as well as Speakerboxxx/The Love Below).  Oh, well… he’s still got the movies, plays, the inevitable Black Star reunion and I wouldn’t count him out on future releases.


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Sunday, Jan 7, 2007


In the last of our looks back over SE&L‘s brief time on the filmic forefront, it’s time to champion our occasional commentary pieces. Sometimes, we hit the nail right on its pointed little pop culture head. At other instances, we voice strong opinions that rub the average movie maven the wrong way. Between our first piece on hiring talk show hosts and actual directors to be film critics, to challenging the “classic comedy” stance of one of 2006’s biggest hits, the SE&L staff has never shirked its responsibility to be provocative, thoughtful and daring. The 14 pieces offered here provide clear proof of such a literary mandate.


A Critical Misstep
Parental Guidance Rejected
Plane Crash
You’re Joking
Home Video’s True Legacy
Bye Bye, Besson
Too Late?
Akiva Goldsman Must Die!
The Incredibly Inconsistent Career of Bob Clark
Is that the Fat Lady Singing?
Whorat
It’s the Year of the Yahoo!
The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam
Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronoksy’s The Fountain


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Saturday, Jan 6, 2007


Butcher Wing is a good-natured manchild who’s always in trouble with Master Wong Fei-hung of the Po Chi Lam School, where he studies. One day, he mistakenly attacks a member of the rival Five Dragons School and angry Master Ko demands satisfaction. He warns Master Wong that he will destroy Butcher and the entire academy if any more disgrace befalls the Dragons. Before taking a planned trip, Fei-hung warns Butcher not to get in any more trouble, but the arrival of two disparate entities to town will challenge this mandate. First is Butcher’s long lost brother, who along with his new wife is searching for the “skinny pig” sibling he remembers from years ago. Enter from the outskirts of dishonor Ko Hai Toi, Master Ko’s evil, shiftless son. He kidnaps Wing’s sister in law and even gets the dimwitted meat cutter to beat up his own kinfolk. With the help of a wine-obsessed vagrant, Beggar Kao (who may just be a kung fu master himself), Butcher sets out to set things right. But thanks to the wicked ways of the evil Ko Hai Toi, a series of tragic events leave Wing disgraced, disheartened, and marked for death by the Five Dragons. His only hope? Learn the iron arm techniques of the drunken derelict and use them, in combination with the techniques of Master Wong and the “five animals” school of kung fu, to defeat Master Ko, his family, and followers. And if he succeeds, he will bring honor and respect to Po Chi Lam and be forever known as The Magnificent Butcher.


Even though it ends too abruptly and takes a little while to get started, The Magnificent Butcher is still one of the best old-fashioned martial arts movies ever made, a rip-roaring adventure of loyalty and honor, family and fiends. Director/stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, newly discovered by Western fans with his wire fighting time tricks in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here shows why he is considered one of the greatest kung fu fight film creators of all time. Everything about The Magnificent Butcher is indeed spectacular. From the setting and set designs to the acting and athletic prowess of the renowned cast, this is the kind of foreign action film that gets non-fans instantaneously hooked on the genre, like John Woo’s epic crime dramas or Jackie Chan’s stunt spectaculars. If you don’t want to run out and immediately buy every film the beefy, gregarious Sammo Hung ever made after witnessing his physical brilliance in this movie, you just don’t appreciate true talent. Probably the least well known of all the famous Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts film stars, some may recognize the fleshy force from his short lived television series of a few years back, entitled Martial Law. But most action aficionados have followed “Big Brother” since he battled Bruce Lee in the opening of Enter the Dragon and watched him easily move from comedy (Wheels on Meals) to horror (Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind) to director of some of Hong Kong’s biggest hits (Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy). The Magnificent Butcher is primo Sammo and a definitive representation of the Asian action film in all its glory.


The reason most fans are drawn to martial arts films is for their spectacular stunts and freewheeling fights, and the ones created for The Magnificent Butcher are mind-boggling. Intricately choreographed like a tap dancer’s well worn routine and genuinely moving to behold, their mix of ballet with brutality, skill, and showmanship reminds the viewer of the physicality of Gene Kelly mixed with the ingenuity of Fred Astaire in their heydays. So graceful and delicate are the moves Hung and the others must manage with spilt second timing that their age and size just disappear. The minute they break into a series of intricate hand or foot moves, or they pick up a found object with which to attack or defend, a beautiful mesmerizing mystery unfolds before our unblinking eyes. Honestly, you will never witness physical agility and grace as profound as in the dance like kung fu exchanges in this film. Each is a minor miracle unto itself, but two specific sequences demand special note. Kwan Tak-hing, another legend in the world of Asian cinema, plays the role of Master Wong Fei-hung (sort of a Chinese El Santo, he essayed this character some seventy times in his career), and even though he is 74, feeble and frail here, when challenged to a calligraphy duel with Lee Hoi-San’s Master Ko of the Five Dragon School, he rises to the occasion spectacularly. Thus begins a complex hand and paintbrush battle that will have you picking up your jaw from the home theater room floor. As with all the clashes in The Magnificent Butcher, just when you think it can’t get any more multifaceted or outrageous, they add a flip or a close-up exchange that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. Sammo Hung also has a creepy fight with one of Master Ko’s henchmen, an insane fighter known as the Weird (or maybe it was Wild) Cat who uses a kind of claws and feline mentality style of fighting. Skittering up the walls, across the ceiling, and over and around columns, the tabby terror gives Butcher Wing a true run for his money, and between the oddity of the character and the intricacy of the hand-to-hand combat, it’s a truly memorable sequence.


But probably the best thing that Sammo Hung and director Yuen Woo-ping accomplish in this film is grounding the over-the-top skirmishes of skill in reality. Some martial arts movies make their participants out to be gods, unable to be killed without near supernatural special moves and almost impervious to injury or disability. Not so in The Magnificent Butcher. Characters die at the hand of their combatants, but not in some single blow balderdash. Indeed, each victory and/or defeat is earned in long drawn out encounters where nothing seems superhuman. And our hero is also a main recipient of pain and loss. Hung is a fantastic actor when he has to show remorse or resolve. While one assumes, from the goofy comedy undercurrent that flows through this (nay, most) kung fu capers, that Hung is trading on his size for some manner of slapstick silliness, the reality is that his clichéd jovial fat man persona hides a wealth of depth and desire. When shown in solo practice mode, running literarily hundreds of moves and combinations in elaborate, complex exercises, there is nothing dopey or dumb about him. He is all poise and power. Woo-ping’s camera is also precise, never interfering or disturbing the action. Like a great musical director, he seems to understand instinctively where the lens needs to be to capture the best angles and shots of the action. About the only complaint that can be offered is that the movie could have used an extra five minutes, post finale, as kind of a coda to Butcher’s story. He is such a likeable character, and we have followed him for almost two hours, that the freeze frame joke closing is kind of a letdown. Still, for the vast majority of its running time, Hung and Woo-ping create a timeless work of magical martial arts action.


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Spalding Gray was more than just a monologist. He was a capturer of moments, a filterer of the fallacies of man, turning insecurity, insanity and ineffectualness into an artform. Using that long lost human gift of communication to sell his sensibility, he worked in autobiographical shades, hoping his well-rehearsed screeds would lead individuals into some manner of performance epiphany. Though many may have known him from his minor turns in motion pictures, it was Swimming to Cambodia, and that story’s endless search for a perfect moment, that finally won him real recognition. That film, by live concert juggernaut Jonathan Demme, dealt with Gray’s growing discontent with life, his small role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, and a momentous swim in the Indian Ocean which resulted in a kind of karmic closure.


How ironic it is then that, nearly three years ago, the man took his life by throwing himself in the East River. New York was where he felt the most comfortable, the most escaped from his haunted New England past. The issues surrounding his upbringing (distant father, cracked Christian Scientist mother) and his late in life turn toward fatherhood (longtime companion and first wife Renée Shafransky was out, new spouse Kathleen and their two kids were in) have been dissected before. In his CD only offering, It’s a Slippery Slope, Gray used the noted philosophical metaphor to discuss both happiness and depression. Any person, he believes, poised on the precipice of both emotions, can easily see himself or herself sliding down, landing in an arena of tremendous joy, or endless torment.


If Cambodia was prophetic, then Monster in a Box is a last gasp warning. Genial in its tone but devastating in the problems it presents, Gray’s fierce follow-up to his sudden celebrity is at once a denouncement of such stardom, and a strangled attempt at dealing with his mother’s emotional suicide. Framed around the writing of Gray’s only novel, the eerily reflective Impossible Vacation, the process reveals a man in desperate inner pain, projecting his mental unease on everything and anything around him. As we follow his adventures at a writer’s colony, a bungalow in Beverly Hills (complete with earthquake), trips to Nicaragua and Russia, and a stint as the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, we hear someone slowly coming apart at the seams. Every adventure is attached to a disaster, all progress measured against endless internal angst.


Perhaps the best example of this collaboration of contradictions comes when Gray spends Thanksgiving in Manhattan. Ecstatic to be away from LA’s combination of cars and culture shock, he attends a screening of Cher’s Moonstruck. Prior to the event, his girlfriend Renee shocks him with the news that the rash she has on her inner thigh (something Gray describes as “radioactive blue shingles”) is sometimes considered a sign of AIDS. What follows is a perplexing combination of psychosomatic insanity (Gray gets incredibly sweaty feet, dry mouth, and tends to bark like a dog) and deliciously vile descriptions of the stage door slut who may have given him the disease. On the one hand, he celebrates the sexual score. On the other, he worries about the price he must pay.


Almost all of Gray’s monologues deal with mortality. One of his first was entitled Sex and Death to the Age 14. Gray’s Anatomy, the film that followed Monster, dealt with an eye condition and his investigation of alternative medicines. To call him hypochondriacal would be the cup of kindness. Gray is goofy on human physicality, awash in worries that no normal person places on themselves. The threat doesn’t have to be interior either. During Monster‘s fact finding tour of Central America (a trip as part of a potential film script deal for Columbia), he discovers that his roommate, a tightly wound pedantics major from Berkeley, is so paranoid that he’s threatening the groups security. Hoping to keep him out of a Nicaraguan asylum, Gray and the gang try to comfort him. Unfortunately, all our hero can do is make the man’s fears all the more fathomable (“No, I’m not part of the CIA…I think…”).


Interspersed throughout these travails are snippets of Vacation, an incredibly insular book that basically uses wild eccentricities, gay sex, and a few passages of sweeping literary majesty to mask the fact that Gray never forgave his loveable loon of a mother for taking her own life. The metaphor he uses – the notion of getting away and spending time in the leisurely pursuit of relaxation – is rather obvious, and its one he employs in Monster as well. The numerous projects he takes on post-Cambodia (an HBO special on UFO abductees, a year in residence at a LA theater interviewing people, etc.) become excuses, ways of not dealing with his mom’s decades-old decision. Even when he begins therapy with a strict Freudian shrink in California, his sessions are more an avoidance than an admission. Gray even states that Vacation was a way of working out his Oedipal issues. Sadly, it seems like it didn’t work.


Luckily, there is more to Monster in a Box than mental insights into a frayed and fractured soul. One of the reasons so many grieve for Gray is that, as a performer, he remains remarkable. His monologues are funny, full of snide little swipes at inanity and the impracticalities of modern life. When his LA assistant refuses to leave her car to help locate some potential interview subjects, Gray condemns her for having a “35 mph mentality” (nothing traveling below that speed registers on her retina). Similarly, a chance meeting with other Americans while in Russia results in the celebrity being booted from the Hermitage. The crime? Impersonating royalty. Like a less reference oriented Woody Allen, Gray mixed metropolitan life with personal phobias to enter a realm of vicarious victimization. And we simply sit back and laugh along.


Revisiting this movie today, some 14-plus years after its release (Image Entertainment deserves kudos for finally bringing it on everyone’s favorite digital domain), one is struck by how poignant and hopeful the ending is. As he describes his dream job – starring in Our Town – one senses a sort of finality for Gray. Even as he explores his moments of resignation and resolve, we can actually hear him exhale, subconsciously giving up a little of the ground the past has stolen from him. It’s just too bad that elements that most people find centering – family, children, success – didn’t really help this talented yet troubled man. As the middle sequence in a trilogy of trauma, Monster in a Box is Spalding Gray’s masterwork. It begs to be experienced, not only for what it says about this fine, fallen artist, but about life in general. 



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Monster in a Box was released on 28 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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