Barbra Streisand returns to Broadway with some famous pals on ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

Encore: Movie Partners Sing BroadwayBarbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, PartnersEncore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman,  or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.

The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.

Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).

As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.

But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.

At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious  – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway on amazon.com.

 

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Amy Schumer bares her soul in the hilarious and heartbreaking ‘Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo’

Amy Schumer is one of the buzziest comedians working today. Due to an exhausting work schedule, she finds herself in an enviable position, one that few stand-ups can claim: not only is she household name, but she’s branching out – along with a hit sketch show, she’s also got a $100 million film under her belt, and has become one of the most influential comedians. Unfortunately, this bright-hot fame has its downsides: her politics have been shoved into the public eye after two women were shot and killed during a showing of her movie Trainwreck in Lafayette, Louisiana; she also is a constant target for online haters and trolls, picking apart her politics, her looks, and her intelligence; and recently, she’s gotten flak because a writer/friend on her show released a string of sexist tweets regarding rape and victim-blaming. But this kind of up-and-down seems a consistent in Schumer’s life, as she chronicles in hilarious and heartbreaking detail in her first book, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

Part memoir-part essay collection, Girl is an intimate look at one of comedy’s brightest and smartest acts. She writes that her book is not a how-to manual or an advice guide, but like Kathy Griffin’s memoir, Official Book Club Selection, Schumer’s book works as evidence that a hard work ethic is the most valuable tool one needs to make it in show business. And Schumer is a hard worker. She writes of paying her dues in clubs before “making it” so to speak, by appearing on a reality show (Last Comic Standing), only to  bomb consistently on the show’s tour. But she keeps plugging away, working hard on her craft, creating a strong and distinct comic persona. Girl doesn’t undo that persona, but it adds more layers to it.

The most surprising thing about Girl is how disarming and vulnerable Schumer allows herself to be; for most comics, the microphone is a symbol of power – for female comics, it’s even more potent and subversive because of societal standards of female gentility. On stage, Schumer presents herself as a joyous and witty Wife of Bath for the 2010’s – sexual and liberated. She’s also presented as a lustful life of the party – one who can probably drink even the hardiest party animal under the table. Her willingness to embrace this loud and raucous side of her is what makes her such a powerful comedian – she lays claim to territory that is rightfully her’s, even if prudes find her distasteful and inappropriate. But in Girl, Schumer also allows the more sensitive side of her to shine – one that may not be as loud and dynamic as her stage persona, but one that is equally potent.

Despite the f-bombs and the hilariously lascivious tales, Schumer is a deep thinker and an intellectual. She approaches her comedy from a very smart place, and that translates to her writing, too. Also, she allows herself a larger, wider breadth, to explore introspective and sometimes-darker parts of her story. She’s very upfront about being a victim of sexual assault and domestic violence, and bravely shares these deeply personal stories with her readers. As evident with the recent racist/misogynist online attack of Leslie Jones, women are still reduced and dehumanized – Schumer’s candid approach to her story gives a huge spotlight and megaphone to an issue that is still sorely misrepresented by the media and law enforcement. And just as personal and profound is her grief over the deaths of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, the two women who dies in the screening of Trainwreck. Schumer puts on another guise, that of policy wonk, as she details why our current gun laws are too lax, and lays out the tragic consequences (there’s even a helpful part in the appendix in which Schumer shares the names of those in congress who benefit from the gun lobby).

But these departures from the funny don’t feel inorganic or forced. Instead, they present a complicated, complex, and very interesting woman. One who is devoted to her family and friends. Her family life can be described as difficult and she works out some stuff about her relationships with her mom and dad (who is living with MS). She loves her sister (a writer on Inside Amy Schumer and a very funny lady in her own right) and their relationship looms largely, as it seems to influence a lot of her work. Her writing about her mother is fraught with tension – at times her mom comes off as self-involved and self-destructive, this is especially true in the passage that deals with her mom’s infidelity, one that destroys her family when it comes to pass that Schumer’s mom and her best friend’s dad leave their respective spouses and marry each other. But Schumer is equally honest about her dad, whom she admits to idolizing, but who also had affairs and a string of wives (which resulted in the phenomena of a string of temporary step-siblings, too).

What is so remarkable about Girl is how assured its voice is. This book does not feel like a debut, and in reality it really isn’t, as Amy Schumer has been telling her story for years now. It’s just different now because she’s committed it to paper. What elevates Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo from the library of similar books-by-comedians is that its author has a strong and highly-developed literary voice. One that will make readers laugh out loud, but one that can also bring readers to tears. The book is a fantastic read that brings together all sorts of issues including feminism, rape culture, comedy, gun violence, politics, sexual politics, self-esteem, and family. Like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Kathy Griffin before her, Amy Schumer has masterfully created a literary persona: one that is wise, funny, bruised, and resilient. I can’t wait to read her next book.

Click here to buy Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo on amazon.com.

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Melania Trump is not the enemy – slut shaming her won’t end sexism or stop the Donald

And we’re seeing it with Melania Trump, who is now being unfavorably compared to Michelle Obama on the Internet. The gist of a lot of the criticism is that Trump, a former fashion model, has posed nude, and is therefore incapable of being a decent first lady (the fact that we still have “First Lady” is something we should address too). And there are memes showing Obama looking resplendent, elegant, and beautiful, juxtaposed with images of Trump, naked and exposed, black bars discretely covering her nipples. We’re then pushed to choose one over the other.

And that sucks out loud because Trump’s background in modeling has little to do with her capabilities as FLOTUS. And when we create a binary of a “good woman” versus a “bad woman” we’re playing into the gross hands of respectability politics that seek to shame and ostracize women who are sexual. And what’s worse is that in this heated fight, in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the combatants, we’ve dragged in an innocent bystander. After all, think what you will about Melania Trump, she’s the enemy, Donald Trump is the enemy. We’re picking on the wrong Trump.

Women – particularly women in the public – but women as a whole have had to move throughout various circles in our society, being everything to everybody. They have to be tough, but not too tough, otherwise they’re unlikable and aggressive; they have to be sensitive, but not too sensitive, because then they’re just being emotional; they have to be competent, but not too competent because then they’re intimidating; and they have to be sexual, but not too sexual because then they’re sluts. All of these weird expectations that we place on women foster these awful culture wars in which we have to praise one woman, but we also have to remember to knock down another woman in the process. Yes, Michelle Obama is lovely. Yes,  Michelle Obama is brilliant. Yes, Michelle Obama is qualified to be president (wow, wouldn’t that be great? Can you imagine?) These are all true and they will remain true whether or not we crap on Melania Trump. So, if Obama’s awesomeness is guaranteed – a sure thing, then we don’t have to demean ourselves by hitting Trump. As Michelle Obama said in her brilliant, fabulous DNC speech, “when they go low, we go high.”

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With ‘Erotica’ Madonna offered an F-U to an overly hostile public

EroticaIn 1992 Madonna was arguably the most famous woman in the world. She had some tough competition: Oprah, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, but the pop diva seemed omnipresent in every form of media. And because this was pre-Internet, pre-YouTube, pre-social media, popular culture was much more narrow –  Touré referred to it as a monoculture, when one cultural product – a movie, a CD, a book – was able to dominate. Record sales were still in the millions, and Madonna seemed to be everywhere.

With that kind of exposure, came the inevitable backlash. People said that Madonna was a slut. She wasn’t talented. She used sex and shock to sell records. This period of her career, roughly spanning from 1992 to 1994, was paradoxically one of her most high profile periods, yet it also represented an encroaching nadir. She came out with five major projects during this time: Erotica, her fifth studio album; Body of Evidence, an erotic thriller directed by Dino De Laurentiis; Dangerous Game, a drama directed by Abel Ferrara, Sex, a near-pornographic coffee table book; and her The Girlie Show tour. The work she did was informed greatly by her use and exploration of sexuality as well as examining of taboos in our society. Unfortunately, the noise that surrounds Madonna as an entity drowned out any virtue of any of the work at the time.

And that’s a shame because stripped of its baggage, Erotica is a fantastic record, easily one of the best in her oeuvre. The album feels like a defiant fuck you to all of the naysayers who seem to find pleasure in denigrating her career and her choices. It’s as if she internalized all of the slams thrown at her, and excorsized them on Erotica. She seemed to say, “You think I use shock value and sex in my music to sell records and get attention? Well buckle up, fuckers, ’cause you ain’t see nothin’ yet.”

Erotica starts off with the title track. Over a thumping bass, we get tinny record scatches  and cold industrial beats. Madonna’s voice is a monotone drone, as she portrays Dita, her dominatrix alter-ego. Throughout the song there are swishy record scratches and lonely, melancholy pianos, along with the iconic horn sample from “Jungle Boogie.” The song’s lyrics – penned by Madonna, Shep Pettibone, and Shimkin, explore the various sexual fantasies that Dita would fulfill. It’s a departure from Madonna’s other music – it’s darker and less commercial, signaling that the album itself would also be more challenging for her fans. During the song we hear the clanging of chains and the haunting chants, while Madonna herself alternates between her croaky mumbling and simulating orgasms.

Quickly, the record jumps to trancey house with Madonna’s cover of “Fever.” It’s an appropriate song to ape, as its original artist, Peggy Lee, like Madonna, combined the cool, calculated blonde image with simmering sensuality. Like “Erotica” and most of the album, the song’s production is precise and chilly. Her vocals are distant and sound bored, despite the fiery image of the title, as well as the lyrics’s preoccupation with passion.

As it’s 1993, and Madonna is nothing if not an astute cultural observer, New Jack Swing finds its way into Erotica with “Bye Bye Baby.” Madonna’s sound and image has always skirted around the edges of black pop culture. From her swiping of black and Latino gay culture (particularly drag culture) to flirting with race in her imagery and in her music videos, Madonna’s career has always had a messy relationship with cultural appropriation. “Bye Bye Baby” is complete with Old Skool record scratches and samples of soulful shouts that recall Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It).” To fit into the theme of emotional distance, Madonna’s voice is processed through record filters that tweak her already-thin voice to squeaky, Betty Boop-like levels.

If Madonna fans were confused and slightly disappointed at this moment, it’s understandable, because though Erotica is opened with a trio of dance songs, they’re hardly the dance floor thumpers her wannabes are used to. As if to assuage and anxiety about Madonna’s status as a disco diva, we come up on “Deeper and Deeper,” a self-referential, autobiographical song that is a logical sequel to “Vogue.” Just like “Vogue” Madonna extols the virtue of clubbing as a form of escape. One of her queerest songs, “Deeper and Deeper” feels a touch out of place on Erotica, which up until now, felt like an exercise in perfunctory sensuality. “Deeper and Deeper” is the kind of Madonna song that fans love: humane, poignant, and celebratory. It’s the first song on Erotica to remind listeners of her club roots, her fascination with Latin music (there’s a brief bit with Spanish guitars and castanets), as well as with her allegiance to queer culture with the self-referential sample of “Vogue.”

“Where Life Begins” is the first song that isn’t a single, and it’s easy to guess why. It’s about cunnilingus. Produced and co-written by Andre Betts, celebrates a “different kind of kiss” in which she urges her listeners to “go down, where it’s warm inside.” On any other album, the tune would feel like filler: it’s not sonically all that innovative. But its lyrical content forces listeners and Madonna’s public to confront a woman who not only is comfortable singing about sexuality and sexual desires, but is comfortable in being demanding and assertive in her desires.

“Bad Girl,” a song that broke Madonna’s stretch of 27 consecutive top 20 hits, is the albums first ballad (and features one of her best videos, in which she gives a moving performance, confirming that Madonna is a gifted actress in brief spurts). The song is a pop ballad that tells the story of a woman who turns to vice – alcohol and smoking – when her love life falls apart. It’s a strange topic and point of view for a singer who a few years before roared that women should express themselves and kick scrubs to the curb. In what feels like strange moralizing, Madonna’s narrator seemingly condemns the titular bad girl who goes through her life making seemingly bad choices. While initially it seems like a scolding song, after a few listens, it takes on some resonance, as it fits neatly into the theme of Madonna’s career of doing the unexpected. Just as soon as we think we’ve got her figured, she swerves, offering contrition and regret for anti-social behavior.

Betts gently guides Madonna back to hip-hop with “Waiting” which is yet another New Jack Swing number that yet again includes Madonna’s ever-present spoken verses. The song as a companion piece “Did You Do It.”Both songs share the same backing tape – a thumbing pass and a floating horn, but in “Did You Do It” two men are sharing tales of bedding a conquest. Betts admitted that when Madonna was out of the studio, he added the rap over the track, and the song was greeted with good humor and enthusiasm. “Did You Do It” is a self-aware mocking of the sexually-explicit hip-hop that became popular in mainstream radio. But as the song progresses, we’re made to understand that the rapper’s braggadocio is all an act, as his companions dismissively sniff, “you didn’t do it…she’s still waiting.”

“Thief of Hearts” is the closest thing to actual filler for Erotica. It’s a snippy number in which Madonna adopts a bitchy persona, warning her listeners of the thief of hearts, a maneater that is cause for alarm. Like “Bad Girl,” “Thief of Hearts” can feel a bit regressive and anti-woman. It’s unclear if like the misogyny of “Did You Do It,” is the female-on-female crime is merely a joke. The production – courtesy of Shep Pettibone is a capsule of early 90s pop house with thick beats and muted pianos.

Moving away from the snide “Thief of Hearts” comes “Words” a brisk dance song that has Madonna sing about the power of language and its potential for emotional violence. Though the song could be about a lover, it could also work as Madonna working out her frustration with a nasty press, who use words to denigrate her work and her career. As with the other Pettibone songs, “Words” is a song that feels claustrophobic and crowded as sounds, instruments, elements, and vocals seem to compete with each other. Like “Erotica” there are Middle Eastern influences as well as listless spoken verses (again, raspy, as if Madonna needs to clear her throat bad). As the song reaches its crescendo, the sounds start to pile on top of each other, cleverly conveying the paranoia and frustration Madonna feels when words are used against her.

If Erotica as a whole seems like a rather uncommercial work from an aggressively-commercial artist, then “Rain” would be the one concession to pop radio. As such it’s probably the least interesting song on the record. An elegant pop ballad with Madonna harmonizing with background vocals, it’s very pretty, with a simple message of love and romance, but little else. From any other artist, “Rain” would be a career high, but given the complexity of Erotica and the experimentation that she does, “Rain” feels like a safe retread. It’s the sole moment when Erotica reaches A/C territory.

But as soon as “Rain” is over, Madonna returns to the shakier arena of experimentation with the reggae-pop of “Why It’s So Hard” a socially conscious song about tolerance and peace. It’s a song of good intentions, but like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, it just misses the mark ever so slightly because instead of addressing an actual ill or issue, Madonna sings about love and peace and chants “brother, sister” over soupy beats.

Far better is “In This Life” a dirge-like ballad about the scourge of AIDS. Madonna’s history with AIDS is well-documented. As a dancer and struggling singer in the late 70s, early 80s, Madonna was a first-hand witness to the disease’s destruction. It’s a surprisingly complex tune, given the simplicity of “Why It’s So Hard,” with Madonna switching from recounting a personal story of a friend who died of AIDS, to asking larger questions about the disease and its accompanying stigma. This song reminds viewers that Madonna is nothing if not sensitive – beneath the bluster of her sexually-charged image, beats the heart of a sensitive singer-songwriter. In 1992, homophobia was largely accepted by mainstream pop culture, and the AIDS epidemic only further bolstered that fear and hatred. For a pop star of Madonna’s mainstream acceptance and cred, speaking to the anti-queer stigma that hampers any advances in the fight against AIDS is pretty bracing and brave. Just like “Deeper and Deeper” and the aforementioned “Vogue,” “In This Life” is an explicit call to Madonna’s large queer fan base.

After the sadness of “In This Life,” the tone shifts to the humorous “Did You Do It,” before ending on the trippy “Secret Garden” which sounds influenced by Deee-Lite. Madonna’s flirtation with trip-hop and acid jazz is a bit prophetic because she would later show an affinity for the sound when she scored a major critical success by working with Massive Attack covering Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” “Secret Garden” further argues the case that Erotica is arguably Madonna’s most adventurous and interesting record (if not her most consistent). The jittery, dancey drum, a twinkling piano, a lumbering bass, and an airy vocal performance by Madonna makes the song a standout among a collection of songs that all vie to push Madonna’s sound into different directions.

When it was released, Erotica was met with a muted critical and commercial response. Its reputation was further damaged when it was dragged into the scandal of her other sexually-charged work of the period, thereby ensuring that it would be quickly forgotten. None of the singles are particularly well-remembered, and her follow up, 1994’s Bedtime Stories, a collection of pillowy lush tunes and luxury pop ballads seemlike an apology for her hell raising. But Erotica deserves multiple listens because even more so than her genre-defining pop classic, Like a Prayer (1989), it shows that Madonna wasn’t merely a dance-pop singer, but an artist who was looking to grow creatively.

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‘Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie’ as an ante-Brexit fantasy

Absolutely Fabulous The Movie.jpgJennifer Saunders reportedly started working on the script for a film version of her cult show Absolutely Fabulous back in 2012. This was four years before the nightmare of the Brexit happened, when the UK was still ensconced in the EU. And though the film wrapped before the EU referendum took place, it’s difficult to watch the film without contextualizing it in what the UK looks like now: smaller, meaner, and more isolated. The film provides an hour and a half when viewers can watch a Great Britain frozen in time before the plunge: one in which races coexist, where London pushes its way ahead when it comes to creativity, multiculturalism, and globalism. In short, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie works as an ante-Brexit fantasy because it allows viewers to savor a UK that remains relevant in the international scene.

That’s not to say that Saunders’ creations: Edina Monsoon or Patsy Stone are great ambassadors of tolerance. They’re not. But they are international. The show’s 25-year history relies on the two characters’ international appeal. The show took them to various locations throughout the EU and the world. For Edina and Patsy to successfully delude themselves and others into believing they’re the last word on what’s fabulous, they have to have a stilettoed heel firmly stabbed in more than one country.

It seems strange that the script took some four years to write (though Saunders was busy during that time writing other shows, acting, and writing a book), because the plot seems paper thin. It’s an excuse to string together Saunders’ sharp-as-a-needle wit. The story takes place some four years later after the last episode, “Olympics” which yet again, highlighted just how international London is (and should remain). In the ensuing four years, life has been tough for both Edina and Patsy (Joanna Lumley). The two women are not only facing ageism in an industry hellbent on erasing older women, but they’re also looking at a pop culture landscape that somehow has passed them by. Edina is a PR maven, but no longer a tycoon. Her client list is limited to Lulu, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, and Queen Noor. That Lulu and Bunton appear as recurring characters – as themselves – throughout the series, lampooning their waning celebrity status show just how attractive Saunders is (and it proves that they’re great sports….Queen Noor hasn’t appeared on AbFab, though).

To inject some much-needed money into her bank, Edina plans to write a memoir. And why not? Every reality “star” has some kind of tome popping up in the bookstores. But Edina has always been averse to hard work – particularly hard work that she doesn’t understand, so when she shows up at her publishers with garbagey nonsense, she’s rebuked. Stung by not getting a hefty advance, Edina is thrown a lifeline when she learns that Kate Moss is looking for PR. At a fashion event, Edina shmoozes with the London glitterati, and Saunders crams in as many celebrity cameos as she can. It’s wall-to-wall famous people, and there are so many faces that it becomes difficult to figure out when we’re watching a celebrity cameo and when are we watching an actor play a part. Jon Hamm does his usually-funny shtick, playing himself, and we get a preening Jerry Hall good naturedly sending up her image.  When Edina spots her nemesis, fellow PR monster, Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), she makes a mad dash for Kate Moss, knocking the supermodel off the balcony and into the Thames.

Now, Edina is wanted for murder and flees London with her pal to the South of France. The plan is that the two lay low and live in Cannes indefinitely. It’s not much of a plan, and of course it falls to pieces because it appears as if the whole world is collectively in despair over the death of Kate Moss. All of the news coverage, including the scrawling crawl on the bottom of the television screens, is devoted to the late and lovely Kate Moss. Flowers and teddy bears pop up on the makeshift memorial, mirroring the extravagant and media-orchestrated world grief over Princess Diana’s death (with time, those of us who blubbered and sobbed can recognize that even though the death was tragic, we did take things too far).

The setting takes the characters out of their usual environment. Some of the best moments of AbFab took place in Edina’s living room, kitchen, or office. It’s in these spaces that Saunders had to rely heavily on caustic wit and a complete flagrant disregard for taboos. The characters were often thrown together and sparred with each other, nursing heavy grievances. While Patsy and Edina had a sick and codependent friendship, it’s their interaction with the other characters that added much of the darkness to the comedy. Edina’s daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), was a target of abuse and resentment from Patsy, while Edina herself approached her daughter with neglect and contempt. But years of growing up in such a twisted household made Saffy strong and reliant in her own right, and she was capable of hurling the abuse just as well as her mother. Speaking of mothers, Edina’s mother, Mrs. Monsoon (the seemingly ageless June Whitfield), is a constant reminder of just how Edina turned out wrong: a deceivingly cheery and lovely facade that hid a colder interior. When the four women were confined in a space together, Saunders would write some crackling dialogue that would tear open emotional wounds that never got a chance to heal.

But in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Saunders takes her troupe of actors on a trip. And it’s all beautiful, visually. Cannes is gorgeous, even when you’re not trying to idealize it. Much of the action takes place on the grounds of the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, where beautiful people swan about in expensive clothing and relax around stunning swimming pools. And when Patsy and Edina go on the lam to avoid being caught by the gendarme, we’re treated to our two heroines indulging in some nifty physical comedy. It’s a good thing, too, because Saunders and Lumley are crack physical comics. The sight of the two of them smashed into the microscopic cab of a three-wheeled delivery van is priceless – the sight of seeing them in said van, slowly sinking into a swimming pool is even better.

As a writer, Jennifer Saunders excels when her characters are throwing around quips and one-liners. She’s best when she’s creating situations that allow for her characters to be terrible and cruel to each other. Edina and Patsy are at their most appealing when they’re being vile and unappealing. The characters aren’t real people, they’re glorious cartoons come to life. There’s little “development” or “character growth” though there are spots of introspection, when Patsy and Edina stop for a moment to digest just how ridiculous their lives sometimes can be. But thankfully we don’t get too much of that – Absolutely Fabulous is meant to be a Bacchanalian feast of decadence and impropriety. And if the caper in the middle part of the film starts to show strain, it’s all easily digestible because it’s so damn funny.

And as escapist fantasy, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie couldn’t have come at a better time. The summer of 2016 will go down as one of the most depressing and unstable times in recent history. Starting with the June 12 terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, it feels like a week doesn’t pass by with some tragic or catastrophic news. The instances of terrorism in Nice and Munich threaten the kind of cosmopolitan glossy world that Sanders presents in her film. The characters seem blissfully innocent of the carnage and xenophobia that take place in a reality just a few steps away from the triumphant end. When Kylie Minogue warbles the show’s theme, it takes on an unintended poignancy, because in the current political climate on the international stage seems intent on crushing the kind of international feeling that the film tries to impart.

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Summer reading for 2016 (so far…)

Because I’m not in school right now, I’ve been able to pick up on my reading. I burned through quite a few books this summer so far. My goal was to read more fiction – something I find hard to do since I graduated from college back in 2010. Aside from my yearly reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I tend toward creative nonfiction, specifically travel books or food writing.

I took a class in a-realism literature and we read some challenging literature, including László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó and Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness, both books that kinda knocked me on my ass when we read them as a class. So I re-read them on my own, with more time – they’re fantastic books, and am glad that the professor – Kyle Beachy, a fantastic author in his own right – assigned them.

Anyways, my summer so far has been a crazy mix of YA (which I don’t normally read), fantasy (Again, I don’t read), plus some great stuff by feminist authors (which I do read, a lot of…).

  1. Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
  2. I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro
  3. Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
  4. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters
  5. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  6. Role Models by John Waters
  7.  Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie
  8. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons
  9. The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
  10. I Know What I’m Doing – and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction by Jen Kirkman
  11. Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai
  12. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  13. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  14. Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  15. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  16. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
  17. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler
  18. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  19. Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
  20. A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk’s Greatest Hits by Kris Kirk

I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the books I read throughout the second half of May and all of June. Overall, I was pretty happy with the books I’ve read – nary a dud in any of them. The most surprising thing is that I enjoyed Riggs’ books so much. It’s a fantastic trilogy about a young boy named Jacob who travels through time with band of kids. There are time loops and the author references historical events, namely WWII and parts of the novels’ action takes place during the Blitz. The Riggs Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children novels are YA, but they’re quite violent and disturbing – especially with the allusions to the Holocaust. Like X-Men, Riggs uses the concept of children with special powers to highlight discrimination and bigotry. In that respect, he’s not doing something new, but having the kids try to navigate throughout different time periods, all the while battling larger, more evil forces made for some gripping reading. My favorite were the first two, the third one being just slightly less interesting – it felt episodic and padded. Tim Burton is making a film from the first novel, and already I see that his screenwriter Jane Goldman has played with some of the plot points, which have elicited angry comments in the comments section of the trailer’s YouTube page. While I’m wary of these changes, too, I’m hoping Burton – who has a great track record – won’t make hash of this book.

I also was on a mini-John Waters break. I’m a fan of his movie work, and now he’s pretty much retired  from movie making, so he’s writing books and traveling the country on his one-man tour. I enjoyed his books – they’re similar in style and humor to his films, though alternative. Role Models is a great look at different people that Waters has run into in his life – people like Little Richard, Cy Twombly, Tennessee Williams, and Leslie Van Houten, are among the people he profiled in the book. Leslie Van Houten is especially sad – Waters recognizes that his fascination with Charles Manson can be seen as morbid and macabre, and he paints a sympathetic, but not white-washed, image of Leslie Van Houten. The Little Richard interview was fascinating because of the rock legend’s rigid need for control over his image. Carsick was interesting in that Waters split the book up into thirds: one part of the book was a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip that goes well, the second part is a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip from hell, and the third is a factual account of Waters’ hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco. I thought the book’s structure was a neat gimmick, and the first two parts of the book were pretty funny – especially the disastrous trip. The authentic story in the book was also good, but felt a bit like a let down because the trip wasn’t all that memorable. I did like how respectful he was of the kind locals who picked him up – creative types can be a bit dismissive, if not downright condescending, so it was a relief that he imparted a dignity to everyone he passed by. Crackpot is an earlier piece (I read it almost in one sitting, during a long subway ride out of the city to visit my dad and stepmom), which is a collection of essays on a wide range of topics – celebrities, cities, films, etc. My favorite essay is a crazy interview he conducted with Pia Zadora – I love Pia Zadora for the same reasons everyone else does, she’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that there is such a thing as Pia Zadora – and though Waters definitely sees the camp value in his subject, he’s not mean and ends the peace on a high note (Zadora’s reinvention from b-movie star and c-list pop star to respected torch singer). I was always a big fan of John Waters’ work, and was sad to learn that he slowly faded from film making. One thing that was interesting was John Waters’ fascination with Christmas: he has a Christmas record and one of the last film he was hoping to put together was a twisted tale of Christmas. I know this because when I bought Crackpot from After-Words New and Used Books (a fantastic bookstore), the kind seller behind the counter shared with me the tidbit about the aborted John Waters Christmas movie.

Earlier in the summer, I blogged about going to see Lindy West and Rebecca Traister at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. I was prepared for the event and I read both West and Traister – I enjoyed West’s book a lot. I love humor essay collections, and I love funny ladies (nothing greater in the world than a funny dame). West, a comedienne who is married to a stand-up comic, became known for her funny, heartfelt, and emotional response to popular culture, specifically how it shapes women and feminists. The book is very funny, but also quite heartbreaking at times, none more so than when she talked about the stress of battling against the comedy world over the permissive use of rape jokes. She writes about how comedy essentially broke her heart. I love Lindy West’s sharp sense of humor and I laughed out loud many times reading Shrill, so I hope that one day she and comedy can have a healthy reconciliation. Traister is a journalist I’ve been following for a bit now – she wrote a fantastic essay on Hillary Clinton (and I’m currently reading her book on the 2008 elections). All the Single Ladies is more “journo-speak” than Shrill, though it’s still funny and personal at times. It charts the history of married women in the United States and charted the growing number of single women – and what that meant for gender parity.

There were two other feminist books I read this summer: Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, which is a great takedown of corporate feminism and the commodification of feminism; and Susan Faludi’s engrossing In the Darkroom which chronicled her late-in-life relationship with her estranged father who came out as trans. Zeisler is the editor of Bitch magazine, one of the best sources of media criticism ever (I say this even after I was rejected for writing fellowship). Zeisler takes on this trademark feminism that has sprung up in advertising, television, pop music, and film, and examines how destructive and ultimately emptying a neo-liberal/capitalist takeover of feminism is. In Faludi’s book, we are treated to a difficult father-daughter relationship as she starts to rebuild her tie with her father, who came out as trans at the end of her life. Faludi – whose book Backlash is still required reading according to me – treats her father with great respect, but the book is weighed with the pain she felt when she was younger, hurting because of her father’s abuse. When Faludi shifts away from her interactions with her dad and onto more journalistic writing, the book loses some of its power – I also find it difficult to read trans narratives – particularly criticism or theory on trans issues – when written by cis authors.

Along with Lindy West, I read some other comedic memoir/essay stuff. Jen Kirkman is one of my favorite comediennes of all time. She’s great at skewering popular cultures obsession with motherhood and shaming women into having children. Dave Holmes was an MTV VJ – one I had kind of a crush on – and he writes about his childhood and adolescence, as well as his career trajectory, framed by the titles of pop songs. Faith Salie is an NPR favorite of mine, and I devoured her book, too – I especially loved her writing about her close relationship with her gay brother. The strangest of the comedic memoirs was Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person. I almost don’t consider this a comedic memoir, but Notaro’s a comic, so…For anyone who hibernated underneath a rock, Notaro is this fantastic stand-up who had a year of complete hell: her mom died, she had a bacterial infection that landed her in the hospital, her relationship collapsed, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a pretty heavy book, but with some beautiful writing. It’s not light, easy reading, and those who marvel at the brilliance of Notaro’s voice on stage will be floored at her candor and her insight, especially when she writes – with devastating humor – about the reactions of those around her, who want to claim she’s brave and a hero (though she is a comedy hero of mine).

I picked up Flight 232 for a number of reasons. One, I remember hearing a rapturous review, I think on NPR. And two, it’s the inspiration, in part, of one of my favorite films, Peter Wier’s 1993 film Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Rossellini, and Rosie Perez. United Airlines Flight 232 was an airplane that crashed in July of 1989 – it was a catastrophic crash landing that killed 111 people. The miraculous thing about the incident was that 185 people survived the crash, mainly due to the work of the pilots, flight attendants, and heroic passengers who helped each other. It’s a heavy book to read and obviously not a fun one – but Gonzales has done some exhaustive research and was able to piece together a compelling work that often read like a novel. And he maintained a dignified restraint, eschewing dramatic or gory language that would feel exploitative, given the subject matter.

When I found Dave Holmes’ book, I initially though it would be essays about music. Kris Kirk’s  A Boy Called Mary is a collection of essays about pop music and its intersection with UK queer culture in the 1980s. So much of queer culture in the 1980s was wrapped up in pop music, which was at its gayest. He interviews various pop stars, including Dusty Springfield, Erasure, Bronski Beat, and Boy George, and he writes about AIDS, drugs, gay rights, drag. It’s a fantastic book – one of my favorite. Kirk later would die from AIDS and he became a folk hero of sorts because he was one of the first people in the UK to come out as being HIV+.

Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea was a great read. Funny, harrowing, and sobering. I picked it up after reading about Otto Warmbier, the college student who got 15 years of hard labor, after being arrested in North Korea for trying to steal a poster from the hotel in which he was staying. Warmbier’s plight broke my heart, but I ‘m ashamed to admit, I wondered “what kind of person wants to visit North Korea?” Which is super racist and super xenophobic on my part, because all I know of North Korea is from Western media that portrayed the country as some kind of far-away monster. Simmons’ book is useful because it shines a spotlight on a country that everyone seems to have an opinion on, but hardly anyone has actually visited it. Her stories of her trip are interesting in that she writes about traveling in a country that is highly restrictive and under a government that is highly controlling. There’s just the right amount of gallows humor to make the book as fun a read as possible (we are talking about North Korea, after all).

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Second season of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bests first season

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was all about how Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) gets acquainted with a world that has changed during her 15 years living in a bunker with a maniacal cult leader and her fellow victims. Because she’s so strong and resilient, Kimmy was able to carve out a life of some normalcy – she got a job, made new friends, even started to date. Most people take these kinds of life markers for granted, but Kimmy was entering a new adolescence at 30.

The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looks at the damage Kimmy suffered in that bunker. Though she’s smart, perky, and extremely competent, Kimmy is also bruised. The writers barely hinted at the dark trauma, and for the most part, even the worst parts of Kimmy’s imprisonment were played for laughs. But in the second season, Tina Fey and company are willing to push the character into new emotional depths. She still maintains her rigorous positive outlook on life, but throughout the second season we also see cracks in her upbeat facade.

The first season ended with Kimmy successfully sending the Reverend Gary (Jon Hamm) to jail. Meanwhile her best friend Tituss (Titus Burgess) finds out he’s married. And Kimmy’s socialite boss/friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) reconnects with her Lakota roots. And landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), who was rather under served last  season gets her own plot in which she futilely battles against the oncoming gentrification of her neighborhood.

Kimmy’s journey to fulfillment is riddled with obstacles. Though she finds a job at a Christmas store, her dogged commitment to her friends causes her to lose it; her love for Dong (Ki Hong Lee) causes her much heartache, and though the two try to reconcile and pick up their attraction, it ends disastrously; but the most important thing going in Kimmy’s life is her disintegrating self-control.

Because Kimmy was defined by her strength, it was easy for her to fall back on it, rather than deal with what kinds of wrong the bunker did to her. But in the second season, she’s starting to exhibit some symptoms of PTSD that were merely hinted at in the first season: she’s triggered by certain stimuli, she has unresolved issues with Velcro, and whenever she mentions the bunker, she retches uncontrollably and belches foully. To this end, we get a wonderful recurring character, Andrea Bayden (Tina Fey), a horrible shit show of a person who’s a superb analyst and psychologist, but also a hopeless drunk. What makes the episodes with Andrea work so well is that though her character’s alcoholism is funny (in the way that Fey plays it), it’s also very sad, highlighting yet another damaged character. It won’t be a surprise to many viewers to see that as much as Kimmy needs Andrea’s help, she also wants to save her doctor, too. There’s a wonderful moment of epiphany for Kimmy at the end of the Andrea story arc that fully explains why Kimmy is so hellbent on helping people, even at the expense of her own mental health. It’s a profound realization that isn’t pat nor easy – and the story line ends rather bleakly for Kimmy.

Along with Tina Fey, we also get Lisa Kudrow guesting as Kimmy’s mother Lori-Ann, a disaster of a parent who spends her life riding roller coasters. Like Fey, Kudrow is perfectly cast as the fey, somewhat distant and scattered mother, but the writers are careful to imbue Lori-Ann with poignancy. Like Kimmy, Lori-Ann’s life largely became defined by the kidnapping: she was either a figure of pity or a figure of derision. She’s not off the hook for her neglectful parenting, but she isn’t necessarily pillared by it, either. Like every other character on the show, she’s flawed and very human.

Part of Kimmy’s life involves her work. She’s industrious and good at her job. The problem is her job left when Jacqueline left for her parents’ reservation. Jacqueline’s Native American heritage is tricky to play (and the backlash was spoofed in one of the episodes), but the writers just managed to push the story along by adding great comedy and sentiment. Since Jacqueline’s divorce and exile from Manhattan high society, she’s become a transitional figure: she doesn’t belong in her old world, but she doesn’t belong with her parents, either. They not-so-gently kick her out, and Jacqueline decides to return to Manhattan, humbled and poorer (though not poor), and vows to use her wealth and frayed society connections to help Native American causes. Making Jacqueline altruistic is an interesting choice, given that she’s often a monster of selfishness.

Like Kimmy, Jacqueline is looking for a mate, but this isn’t about love. She believes that her worth lies mainly in her beauty. And if she wants to raise any money for her cause, she needs to bag herself a rich man. She gets a sidekick in her endeavors, Mimi Kanasis (Amy Sedaris), a fellow trophy wife who has been thrown aside. And though Kimmy is willing to be on hand to be Jacqueline’s accomplice, their relationship changes as they are no longer employer/employee, but friends. But because Jacqueline is so far up her own ass, she often doesn’t recognize just how entitled and awful she can be, which causes a deep strain between the two. Again, the writers gift Krakowski and Kemper with some great and hilarious scenes together as they try to figure out their new relationship, which is missing what defined their former relationship: their lopsided power dynamic.

For Tituss, the second season is all about self-discovery. His career as a singer-actor is going no where, and though he’s very talented, he’s struggling to make any kind of progress. But thankfully the writers give Tituss a love interest, Mikey (Mike Carlson), the construction worker from season one, who sexually harassed Kimmy on the street (to no avail, due to her naive nature), and who later came out. Carlson is an excellent addition to the cast because he brings such warmth and stability in Titus’ life – and he and Burgess have great chemistry and the relationship grounds what can be a rather cartoony character.

Speaking of cartoony characters, the only mildly sour note of the first season – Lillian – was fixed when the writers decided to make the character more than just a wacky neighbor. Carol Kane is a great actress with crack comic timing, but her large, saucer eyes always seem on the verge of tears, which works out great for her story line: her neighborhood is starting to gentrify as hipsters start to infiltrate, swapping pawn shops and greasy spoons with cafes and trendy sneaker stores. Lillian isn’t railing against this onslaught because she’s old and recalcitrant; instead, she sees this move as a way of erasing not only her past but her presence, as well. Where will she fit in, if her neighborhood suddenly becomes a haven for trendy millenials? The general apathy of her friends and neighbors also has her spooked, as this is her family, and she feels that she must fight his war solo. And though there are the requisite hipster jokes (they’re so quirky!), the story line packs a strong emotional wallop when you see just Lillian’s world threatened.

If my review makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sound sad, well, it’s because the show is sad. It’s very sad. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gags, the show could work as a drama. The cliche of comedy being tragedy plus timing is never more true than with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, in which the writers aren’t scared to deliver a one-two punch of sad/funny. And the biggest thing going for the show is Ellie Kemper, who proves with the show that she’s the greatest tragicomic comedienne working today. She’s an expressive actress, and her takes, even if she’s in the background are a wonder. But what works best is when she has to portray the anger or despair behind the smile. In one particularly affecting scene, Kimmy has to confront the fact that she may lose a close friend, someone whom she protected in the bunker. The thought drives her into panic mode and she starts to cry – something we’ve never seen Kimmy do. And it’s alarming and unnerving to see her break down. It’s this kind of blend of loopy humor and heartbreaking sadness that makes me wonder how Kemper hasn’t been festooned with awards for her work.

And though Kemper is easily the best of the bunch, Burgess, Karkowski, and Kane all do great, sometimes incredible work. Krakowski in particular is given some wonderful scenes, and though Burgess is an easy stand-out, she should be given the MVP title for this season’s show. Recurring guest star Tina Fey also is superb – she’s not the most versatile or natural of actresses, but she gives probably her best onscreen performance as the wildly inebriated Andrea. Lisa Kudrow, the master of combining light and dark, also does personable work. Other guest stars include David Cross, Fred Armisen, Ice-T, Judy Gold, Jeff Goldblum, Josh Charles, Joshua Jackson, Zosia Mamet, and Kenan Thompson. It’s a testament to the writing, directing, and acting, that none of these feel like stunt casting (Martin Short’s cameo last season as Dr. Grant felt a little spotlighted), and the actors manage to blend into the crazy world of the show.

The tagline of the second season is “making the world a Kimmier place.” In one of the adverts, Kimmy is walking blindly through the streets, making everything pretty and cute while mayhem ensues in her wake. I don’t think the ad is a good representation of the show because Kimmy is not blind or oblivious to what’s happening around her. And while Kemper’s smiling visage would imply that making the world a “Kimmier” place would mean making it light, airy, and fun – the truth is Kimmy’s no Pollyanna. And though Pollyanna played the Glad Game with shot got tough, Kimmy’s 10-second rule (if she’s going through something, she counts to 10, reasoning that one can stand anything for 10 seconds) is no Glad Game because it’s a way of coping with something that is terrible. It’s a credit to the writers that they refuse to soft peddle what Kimmie went through – it was awful. But the genius of the show is that it portrays something so terrible, but does it with so much humor and funny.

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