Janet Jackson makes a solid comeback with ‘Unbreakable’

Once upon a time Janet Jackson was the mightiest pop star there ever was. In the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s, she ruled the pop charts with an iron fist. She always seemed just shy of usurping the thrones of brother Michael and Madonna, but few artists can claim the kind of consistency that Jackson enjoyed during her salad days – a thrilling, seemingly unending list of top ten hit singles and multi-platinum album smash after multi-platinum album smash. But by the 2010s, Jackson’s schtick got tired, and she was overshadowed by Britney, Rihanna, and Taylor. People stopped buying her records and it looked like Janet Jackson, Pop Star was no longer.

But Unbreakable – the pop diva’s 11th studio effort and her first on her own independent label (yup, these are the times when megastars like Jackson have become indie artists) – works to break up the string of failures Jackson racked up since the underwhelming Damita Jo (2004), which was followed by the equally unsuccessful 20 Y.O. two years later, and the final, aforementioned Discipline (2008) which closes out the most uninspiring trilogy in pop music. Unbreakable is the kind of record Michael Jackson would’ve made late in his career – a record made by an artist with something to prove. Janet Jackson has a lot to prove – namely that she still has the pop chops.

And for the most part, Unbreakable works as a fitting and appropriate comeback for an artist that has been absent for far too long. Jackson seems to have learned her lesson from the failures of her previous albums, because the mistakes that she committed on those releases are thankfully MIA on Unbreakable. The most startling change is Jackson’s subject matter. Since 1993, Jackson has been preoccupied by all things carnal. Though janet. (1993) and The Velvet Rope (1997) were highly sexually-charged albums, the music was brilliant and the lyrics reflected a woman finding herself sexually and enjoying her growth as a sexual being. Unfortunately, she quickly confused sexuality with crassness and her subsequent releases often felt smutty and one-note. On Unbreakable, Jackson jettisons the sex talk (for the most part) to take on other issues: namely, aging, her place in pop music, social justice, and love. It’s the kind of record Janet fans have been salivating for – the kind of record we were waiting for.

Reteaming with her musical kindred spirits Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson has put together a strong, solid set of tunes that showcase a satisfyingly mature and developing artist. She opens the album with the title track, an anthematic R&B – joyfully retro number, which pays tribute to Jackson’s longtime fans.  “Burnitup!” is a fantastic dance song that reunited the singer with Missy Elliott, another music legend that has been gone for too long. The song is sounds like classic Janet Jackson, and Elliott shows that her hiatus hasn’t slowed down her rhyming skills. “Dammn Baby” is a wonderful slice of Minneapolis funk that recalls Jackson’s Control days. “The Great Forever” is a swinging number with a chugging beat and catchy hook.

In fact, all of the songs are catchy – which just goes to show just how Jackson’s talent for pop hooks is evergreen. Because she’s working with such disciplined producers like Jam and Lewis, the songs are immaculately crafted. So that even a by-the-numbers tune like “Shoulda Known Better” – an EDM banger – is still a faultless piece of filler pop.

But looking back at Jackson’s work, what was best was when she and her producers took risks with her sound. In the past, she played with disparate musical styles like jazz, opera, rock, and house. On Unbreakable, the songs reflect that kind of sonic ambition and diversity. The album’s brightest spot is one of the most uncharacteristic numbers, “Gon’ B Alright,” a swirling, rollicking number that would do Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown proud. It’s a tight-fisted, rocking funk n roll number with Jackson belting in an appealing lower register.

Speaking of Jackson’s vocals – on all of her albums, Jackson’s voice has been a point of contention. She’s got a good voice – a pretty, sweet croon. But it’s wafer thin and very airy. On the dance numbers, it’s fine because her producers create wall-to-wall Janet Jackson vocals – layering what feels like thousands of Janet Jacksons to give her slip of a voice much needed oomph. Unfortunately, on her ballads, Jackson’s limitations as a vocalist are amplified – often her voice is magnified so much that it takes on an almost surreal, synthetic feel – this is true with the piano ballad “After You Fall,” which feels as if Jackson had a microphone surgically inserted into her throat. Also, the album’s lead single “No Sleeep” feels, well, sleepy – with Jackson’s vocals sounding indecipherable and indistinct over the pillowy synths. In fact, because Unbreakable‘s sequencing often groups the slower numbers together, the energy of the record dips at times, making the ballads bleed into each other.

But these are minor quibbles, because Unbreakable is remarkable in the savvy way in which it alludes to a wide variety of styles in popular music. Most modern pop albums work as vehicles for a clutch of hit singles. Jackson’s beyond that now. And because she’s no longer beholden to a fat, multi-million dollar record deal, she can experiment a little more, indulging in an artier, riskier direction. That isn’t to say that Jackson and company aren’t trying to craft her next hit single – but the desperation that stunk up Damita Jo, 20 Y.O., and Discipline is gone now. Instead, the Jackson of Unbreakable is calm, steady, and confident.

Click here to buy Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable on amazon.com.

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‘Emma Approved’ is a delightful entry in the Austen filmography

Emma ApprovedBernie Su found success creating The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the wonderful Web series based on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. In expertly transporting Austen’s Regency tale of love and marriage into the 21st Century, Su was able to bring out how timeless some of Austen’s themes and concerns are. In Emma Approved, Su once again finds Austen’s work easily adaptable to the digital age. Like Amy Herkerling’s Clueless (1995), Emma Approved is an adroit and canny update of Austen’s classic novel, and stands proudly alongside the more traditional adaptations of the BBC or PBS.

In a nutshell, Emma is about a headstrong, stubborn, and beautiful young woman who fancies herself a master matchmaker. Unfortunately, she blunders terribly when trying to play cupid, and eventually she learns her lesson. In Emma Approved, Su and company take Emma Wodehouse and make her an entrepreneur – a smart choice because it only makes sense that a 21st Century Emma Wodehouse would work for a living. She runs a lifestyle company – a sort of comprehensive service provider that fixes relationships and plans events (I’m thinking it was inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop). The books male lead, Mr. Knightly, is transformed from Emma Wodehouse’s kind, yet stern brother-in-law, to Emma’s kind, yet stern business partner. Harriet Smith, the young naive protegee Emma takes under her wing is changed from an illegitimate orphan into a hyper-competent, yet still naive executive assistant. For the most part, these changes are seamless, and work well within the narrative, which closely follows the original story.

Emma Approved tells the story of Emma (Joanna Sotomura, charming and lovely), bright and ambitious young woman who has a very high opinion of herself. Emma thinks she knows best when it comes to love and does not shy away from manipulating those around her to suit her needs and wants. Her business partner Alex (Brent Bailey), tries to keep a semblance of decorum and control over Emma’s machinations, but proves to be unequal to Emma’s ambition and ego. Like Emma, there’s no large overarching plot to Emma Approved (which is what many people complained about with Emma), but that’s okay, because in tiny, five-minute episodes, it’s okay that the story tends to feel chopped up and episodic. Emma Approved moves from one small story to another – all held together by the string of Emma’s meddling and how it affects the lives of those she loves best.

And while Emma Approved is successful as a whole, it does show some minor limits to its genre. As with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved is shown in tiny, bite-sized Web episodes. The conceit is that Emma is recording her business transactions and her successes in hopes of putting together a successful documentary. This format doesn’t always work, especially in the more dramatic moments when we’re supposed to believe that Emma is fighting with her friends on camera. It’s difficult to buy that the more personal and difficult arguments would be filmed, and that the characters would agree to have their wrenching moments recorded. Also, the actors are too careful to cheat to the camera, even when in conflict which intrudes a bit on the reality of the show.

And though the characters’ transitions from 1810’s England to 2010’s America is for the most part well done, a few of the choices seemed iffy. I’m thrilled that Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates were written as African-American. I’m not so thrilled that Miss Bates was transformed from a silly sad sack to a jovial collection of sassy black lady cliches. The other nods to multiculturalism in the program work – it’s unforced and reflect the diverse viewing audience that would watch Emma Approved.

But really, the show could’ve had the best ingredients and still failed if it didn’t have the right Emma. Luckily Sotomura is more than up to the challenge. Emma is one of Austen’s trickier characters because so much of her behavior is so wildly unlikable, that it’s difficult to create a story around such a potentially unsympathetic character. Emma is mule-headed, strong-willed, egotistical, and single-minded. She’s also kind, loving, and deeply compassionate. It’s difficult to meld such disparate characteristics into one cohesive character, and often adaptations of Emma reduce the character into an entitled spoiled brat. Thankfully, Su and Sotomura do so much more with her. We still get the reckless abandon and reaching ambition, but we also understand that Emma’s schemes had good intentions. She really wants her friends to be happy. In that respect, Sotomura’s interpretation of Emma reminded me a bit of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. Like Leslie, Emma doesn’t shirk away from a challenge, no matter how daunting it may be; and like Leslie, Amy often will steamroll over anyone who stands in her way, including those she loves most. What makes Sotomura’s performance so right is that she deftly combines the steely pragmatist with the dewy romantic. She’s also a strong comedienne with great timing, and easily anchors the show with a winning performance. Casting directors take note: Joanna Sotomura is a major talent.

Hopefully, purists won’t turn their noses up at Emma Approved because of its unconventional approach to taking on such a canonized classic. What Bernie Su does is make the case that Austen is as relevant now as any other contemporary author. Her sharp satirical takes on society, class, and gender still apply today. And though, Austen’s point of view sometimes veers to close to conservatism (her heroines get married, and class differences matter), her pointed critiques on love, romance, and gender all work for contemporary audiences. Hopefully, after watching Emma Approved, some of the show’s younger audiences will be more compelled to go to the library and borrow a copy of the real thing.


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‘The View’ celebrates its 19th season with a rocky start – can the show fix itself

It’s clear after watching the season premier of the 19th season of The View that the show’s slide that began late in season 17 doesn’t look like it’s letting up. The episode opened with a new panel – Goldberg returns from last season, now in her 8th year as the show’s moderator; Joy Behar returns after a two year absence; Raven-Symone and Michelle Collins, both additions from last season are back; and the two newbies are journalist Paula Faris and former TV child star Candace Cameron Bure.

The show’s 19th season got off to a rocky start as each host showed her weakness, particularly the younger panelists. Surprisingly enough, it’s Behar who comes off best. The reason why Behar works so well is because she’s smart and funny, but there’s part of her that seems like she’d rather be somewhere else, which is funny and refreshing. It’s no surprise that Fred Armisen’s send up of Behar has him twitching nervously and muttering “Who cares?” Because that’s Behar’s essence. She’s not trying hard to be liked, nor does she want to sound provocative or controversial. She’s had over 15 years on The View to establish her persona as the liberal cutup, so she doesn’t seem desperate to make her mark.

Goldberg, the other View vet, seems to be unraveling. What’s fascinating about Goldberg is that The View shows off the Oscar-winning comedienne at both her best and her worst. At her best, Goldberg is insightful, intelligent, fearless, and thought-provoking. At her worst, she’s self-important, confusing, and garbled. It’s clear that as a performer, Goldberg is an important and vital social critic – when she has her patter scripted and memorized, there are few like her. But when it’s time for her to react off-the-cuff, she has as much of a chance of saying something absurd as she does, saying something profound. When Robin Williams died, Goldberg hosted a masterful hour in his honor; when Bill Cosby’s rape allegations were discussed, Goldberg failed miserably. The loose setting often will prompt a remark from the comedy legend that would have been edited out if she were producing a concert film.

Still, both Goldberg and Behar have gravitas to even transcend some of their bumpier moments. The same can’t be said for the other women climbing on this sinking ship. Of the younguns, Bure seems to be best choice. It’s no secret that Elisabeth Hasselbeck was a big part of why people loved The View: some agreed with her opinions, while others enjoyed seeing her publicly owned by the other panelists or a liberal guest. When Hasselbeck left, her slot was filled by Nicole Wallace, who was mostly known for helping run a doomed presidential campaign. She was an ill fit immediately, as she seemed indifferent to the show’s lighter segments, and unwilling to be goaded into a fight during the heavier moments. Simply put, Wallace was too brainy and moderate for a show like The View that thrives on conflict.

Bure seems like a perfect replacement for Wallace and Hasselbeck. Like Hasselbeck, she’s a beautiful mom, whose gorgeous and has an appealing demeanor. This may sound sexist, but it’s not – television personalities often rely on the visual, and Bure fits in well with the female conservative pundit role. And as seen by her few appearances last season, she’s willing to speak her mind, even if it meant offending her fellow panelists, as proven when she defended the rights of the Oregon bakers to discriminate against a lesbian couple. Raven-Symone literally pouted and fumed on camera, glowering as Bure offered a defense of “religious freedom.” Tellingly enough, it was one of the few times that The View was in the news, and it wasn’t about the hemorrhaging ratings.

While Bure seems like a good fit for the show, Collins doesn’t. Which is a shame because Michelle Collins is a talented comic, but her voice does not mesh well with the show, and she comes off as unfunny – which is a joke, because when she’s “on,” Collins is a real talent. Part of the issue is that Collins was hired as a stand-in for Behar – the funny, comic voice of reason. The problem is, she doesn’t keep abreast of the issues as much as Behar, and her schtick doesn’t translate as well to a panel discussion as Behar’s does; her one-liners sometimes work, but often they fall flat, leaving the hosts scrambling to fill the silence they expected would be filled with laughter and applause. She’s also unsure when to inject a zinger and when to simply discuss, which makes things awkward, as proven during a Kim Davis discussion, during which Collins went after Davis’ looks (thankfully, Behar quickly moved on from that poor-judged quip by insisting that Davis “looks fine”).

And finally Paula Faris. The View always has a “real” journalist to bump up its cred. In the past Meredith Viera, Lisa Ling, and, of course Barbara Walters, all sat at the table, giving the show a sheen of professionalism. Though Ling and Viera are accomplished journalists, well-regarded in their fields, this slot is a bit of a joke, because in one episode the women will discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and then in another segment they’ll hash out the latest tweet from Kanye West, or discuss whether Kris Jenner is a good mom. It’s this schizophrenic approach to programming that often sinks the show because the individual panel members’ interest and knowledge of the subject veer wildly. In the last season, poor Wallace was left out in confusion land when the Kardashians were discussed, but then Collins looks mystified when Obama’s Iran deal is brought up.

At the end of the episode, there was a sad defiance to the way the women sat together, facing bravely another season of what will probably be lower ratings. In The View‘s wake, we’ve seen short-lived imitators (remember the all-male The Other Half) as well as successful Xerox copies (The Talk and The Real are both regularly beating The View in key targeted demographics). When Barbara Walters first cooked up this coffee klatch back 1997, it was to correct the imbalance she saw in current affairs programming. Women are rarely seen on television, and even it’s even rarer to see women discuss political issues, without some guy jumping in to mansplain. That’s why shows like The View serve a purpose. Unfortunately, the gist of the show got away when it became tabloid fodder.

So, is it curtains for The View? Or can the show survive and reinvent itself? Well, it’s unclear what kind of future the show has, but there are some things that it can do in the meantime.

  1. Get rid of the fluff pieces – no one cares. The Hot Topics segments are always a mixed bag. Sometimes the women discuss meaningful topical issues like trans rights or Islamophobia. When Rosie O’Donnell took over as moderator back in season 10, she successfully reinvented the show as a watering hole for politically conscious viewers. She was able to destroy the condescending cliche that housewives were more interested in household products than politics. Even though O’Donnell’s tenure on the show was brief, it had some of the most interesting conversations in the show’s 19-year history.
  2. Get a smart conservative. The jury is still out on Bure. But in the past, The View has been really spotty on getting a consistent conservative point of view. Wallace was one, but she also looked bored most of the time. The ideal would be the enthusiasm of Hasselbeck with the chops of Wallace. Also, it’s important that The View picks conservatives who are nice. In the past Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Star Parker have guested, and they are so unpleasant and hateful, that it leaves a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. One needn’t be a raging bigot to be a conservative, and The View has unfortunately contributed to that stereotype by its limited representation of thoughtful, kind conservatives.
  3. Get more comics – but smart ones. At one point in the show’s history, all of the regular panelists were comedians, with the exception of Walters: in the show’s lean 17th season, Goldberg shared the table with Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy. Unfortunately, this mix didn’t work because both McCarthy and Shepherd were more often than not, making some very questionable comments, and McCarthy’s anti-vaccination crusade seemed off-putting. But overall, the show works better when it’s smart funny women gabbing. Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, Fran Drescher, and Wanda Sykes have all made appearances on the show, elevating the conversations and making the show funnier.
  4. Stop with the revolving door of hosts – it looks bad. Just as any company with high turnover looks unstable, the show’s penchant for shedding hosts makes it look troubled. Goldberg made a funny quip at the start of the 19th season about the mugs, which unlike the mugs in the past, did not feature pictures of the panelists, probably because it got expensive changing them around (“What are we gonna do with all these Debbie Matenopoulos mugs???”) but it’s a telling joke, because the musical chairs that The View is playing is making Destiny’s Child seem consistent by comparison.


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My favorite episode – ‘Frasier’ – “Fathers and Sons”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

TV land is littered with the carcasses of failed spin-offs. What can seem like a good idea at the time – hey, let’s give this break out character her own show! – often ends up being embarrassing (three words: Joanie Loves Chachi). But sometimes spin-offs work – for every Joey, there’s an Angel. What makes a spin-off work is being able to draw a supporting character out, and make her interesting enough to be a central figure, and it means giving her more to do. Often break-out characters are popular because they spout some crazy catch phrase, or because they’re wacky – in small doses that can be tolerable, even enjoyable, but trying to create a whole vehicle around a catch phrase is difficult.

That’s what makes Frasier so special. It took an important supporting character from an iconic show (Cheers), and successfully created a new ensemble around him. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was the pompous, amorous barfly psychologist on Cheers, who acted as a romantic foil for Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers, and initially the character seemed more barbed. What the creators of Frasier did was fit Frasier into a French farce style sitcom. The character became more sympathetic and three-dimensional, and much kinder in the spin-off. The show also heightened his hauteur by matching it with the sophisticated, sparking tone of the writing. Cheers celebrated the dignity of working class people, while Frasier reveled in the absurdity of the upper class. Like Cheers, Frasier was a dynamic ensemble show, featuring a cast of incredible comedians – first among equals is David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s younger brother, Niles, also a psychologist; John Mahoney played crotchety pop Martin, who is permanently disabled by a bullet to the him; Jane Leeves is Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, who caught Niles’ eye, and the two characters engaged in a will they/won’t they tango for about 9 of the show’s seasons, mirroring Cheers‘ Sam and Diane story lines; and Fraiser has a work buddy, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), a sexually liberated cut up who’s on hand to puncture any of Frasier’s inflated ego.

“Fathers and Sons” is a late episode – it’s near the end of the 10’s season (the show’s penultimate season). In the 10th season, Daphne and Niles are adjusting to married life, while Frasier is still trying to find Ms. Right. The episode is important because it provides some backstory into Martin’s marriage to Frasier’s mom, forensic psychologist, Hester (sometimes played in flashbacks by Rita Wilson). In the first season, Martin reveals that Hester cheated on him – the infidelity wasn’t mentioned again until “Fathers and Sons,”when her old friend, Leland Barton (M*A*S*H‘s David Ogden Stiers) comes to visit. Leland was Hester’s research assistant, and the two were extremely close.

During Leland’s visit, Roz can’t help but note just how similar his mannerisms are to Frasier’s and Niles’. This plot device is a perfect way to goose up the prissiness of the main characters – David Hyde Pierce is especially wonderful and the physical comedy. The Crane boys and Leland share a love of opera, art, sherry – all the finer things in life that Martin looks at with disdain (he’s never happier than basking in his recliner). Up until this episode, we’re meant to understand that Frasier and Niles got their high-minded thoughts and behaviors from the intellectual Hester, but Roz is startled at the similarities and stupidly shares her suspicions with Martin.

At this point, the show becomes classic farce – a comedy of errors that Frasier is so well-known for. Martin is nursing his deep fears that he may not be the biological father to his boys, and must watch as every tiny glimpse of commonality between Leland and the Crane boys is amplified. At one point, Martin comes in at night to see an ailing Frasier tucked in bed, being red to by Leland, and later on he sees Niles toddling over to Leland’s outstretched arms like a baby learning his first steps. The twist is that Leland was reading excerpts of his memoirs to Frasier, and Niles was struggling to straighten out his cramping legs. The show reveled in this kind of mistaken comedy – though some may compare it to the kind of goings on that took place on Three’s Company, there’s something appealing about the frantic, misplaced comedy of Frasier.

But more importantly, the episode showed that Martin Crane really loved his sons. Too many times during the show, Martin’s macho demeanor meant he couldn’t open up to his sons in a meaningful way. By the 10th season, though, the characters’ differences mellowed out, and a cohesive, oft-harmonious concert too place every week. Things were never perfect, and Martin’s more humble interests always unnerved Frasier, but the closeness was apparent. In “Fathers and Sons,” Martin is faced with the possibility that maybe his sons aren’t his – but then Roz asks the perfect question: would he love them any less if they weren’t his biological sons. “Of course, I wouldn’t,” he immediately answers (though a few seconds later, he consents that maybe he would – but I always take this as Martin’s curmudgeon sense of humor, always on, even in times of family crisis).

I liked that Frasier took a potentially devastating story and told it through a distinctly Frasierian-like manner. Lots of effete comedy with sentiment folded in. In this episode, Grammer and Pierce are stellar, but it’s Mahoney who’s the MVP, being able to play Martin’s edgy, panicked nervousness brilliantly. His wide-mouthed takes are great, and I loved when Martin tried to join Frasier, Niles, and Leland in a rousing rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major -General’s Song,” by desperately bellowing “With many cheerful facts about the scary hippopotamus,” while the others warbled, “with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

As raucous and fun as the episode is, it deals with some heavy subjects: namely infidelity. Martin adores his wife and idealizes her despite their history (he even blames himself for the affair), and is wounded that her memory is, yet again tainted. It’s hard enough for him to reconcile her affair with his memories of her, if what Roz guesses is true, then Hester not only cheated on Martin, once but twice – and took her secret to her grave. As Leland leaves for the airport, Martin confronts the man he suspects was Hester’s paramour – Leland admits that he loved Hester very much, to which Martin hesitantly asks, “how much.” Leland replies, “Enough to trust her with the fact that I’m gay.” Mahoney, yet again, does wonders – in just a few seconds, he manages to convey surprise, relief, happiness, and regret. Because Martin realized how unfair he was to Leland and his friendship to Hester, he generously reminded him that she loved him too. The two part on good terms, and Martin is reassured that the Crane boys are his.

“Fathers and Sons” came at a point in Fraiser‘s history when the show started to wind down. There was a sense of closing doors at this point, and it’s only fitting that the shows – despite all being very funny – also included moments of gravity and tenderness. Martin loves his sons – though he’s rarely demonstrative, until he’s unsure of his paternity, and then he’s all over them, slapping their backs, and enthusing about “his boys, his boys.” Roz’s question earlier in the episode about Martin’s fear – “Would you love them any less?” is interesting because so much of Cheers was about building a family unit of friends and/or coworkers. But with Frasier, the family unit is comprised of  blood relatives (Fraiser, Niles, Martin), spouses (Daphne), and close friends (Roz). So for Roz to bring up “what makes a real family” is interesting because those two characters in particular have created a familial bond with each other that initially was dependent only on their connection with Frasier, but later grew to a love for each other that was independent from him. What makes the episode feel safe is that even if a strange Maury-style twist occurred at the end, in which Martin was deemed “not the father,” I know that he’d still love “his boys” regardless.

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Reading while in grad school

After a good summer, I’m back in school. I’m about halfway through my MFA studies, and am enjoying the process, so far. A good thing about summer is the chance to get through the stacks of books I’ve compiled throughout the school year (though honestly, my pile is perennially high).

A few weeks ago, I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (I’ve read it so many times, that I anticipate some of the sparkling dialogue). Since I’m on a Jane Austen kick of a bit, I’m currently working my way through Sense and Sensibility. It’s my third favorite of Austen’s works (Emma is my favorite – and I can’t wait to start on that).

During the summer I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was brilliant. Because it was reportedly based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I picked up Baldwin’s work, as well just to draw the parallels. I was lucky enough to attend one of Coates’ talks about reparations and the Great Migration. Fantastic.

Anyways, back to reading when in grad school. I’m in two classes this term, a fiction writing workshop and an internship of a literary magazine. In the former, we’ve got a decent list of books on the syllabus, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is what was assigned first. I’m about halfway through the book – a collection of short stories. The reviews have been great, but so far, I’ve yet to become really involved and/or attached to Johnson’s work. The literary magazine has us reading 20 short stories, plus some publishing articles in the first week. Whew.

Given the work load, one would assume that I would put off reading other books for now, but I’m looking to start reading Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria as well as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life is also beckoning me.

I don’t know, sometimes I wish my mind was like that grid from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. I’d love for each segregated section of my mind to be wholly independent from another, that way I could read 9 different books and not get confused.

On top of everything, I also make it a semi-official policy to read books by professors whose classes I’m taking. I just got a copy of my professor’s book last night, and am looking to read it as well.

For the past few weeks, I lost my Kindle, and just found it last night under my bed, underneath a pile of books. I had to clear the books out of my way, like rubble, to unearth the Kindle (the battery was depleted at that point). I was excited because a shit ton of books were stored, and I wanted to get to them.

I love to read – though it’s weird to say I’m well-read (it feels pretentious to stay so, especially since most of what I read is, well, crap). For many who aren’t English majors (or writing majors), they think that English majors are 24/7 happy because we do what we love all the time – after all, our homework is what we do for a hobby. I admit, I felt that way about theater students (until I took theater classes in a brief, misguided moment when I wanted to be a comedian). But I do a different kind of reading when I’m in “grad student mode,” versus just “me” mode. I admit that years of college has destroyed my ability of reading or watching anything without trying to deconstruct it in some way, but still, when I’m reading for myself, I stick with books and subjects that I know will appeal to me.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of stories, and so far they all feature strong violence and disaffected characters. Johnson’s writing is excellent and he’s a great story teller, but I’m drawn to writers who look at the world in a funny light. I’m going to have to read Jesus’ Son a few times so that I can participate in the discussions in class (a big part of my grade).

I’ll leave reviews of Sense and Sensibility as well as Jesus’ Son soon.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘Mahogany’

Mahogany [VHS]Mahogany is the movie that killed Diana Ross’ film career. The Wiz buried it, but Mahogany was the film that made movie audiences rethink their adoration for the diva, after her spectacular debut in Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross is in practically every scene in the film, and though not a musical, she’s seemingly treated the film like an extension of her concert career. For those who have never seen Miss Ross on stage, a hallmark of her performing style is epic schmaltz. She urges her audiences to bask in the glow of her dewy love, but it all has an edge of artifice and calculation. Mahogany‘s storied background is far more intriguing than the resulting film – Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson was fired, replaced by Motown head, Berry Gordy, who had a deeply personal relationship with his star, that often resulted in public spats. Gordy wasn’t a film director, and his novice status shows in how badly he mangled the film. Aside from Ross, he also wasted the estimable talents of Billy Dee Williams (Ross’ costar in Lady Sings the Blues) and a nervy Anthony Perkins, who, surprisingly brings the most energy in the film, despite the awful writing. After watching the film for the first time, and having my laughs, the second time I watched it, I no longer had the self-satisfied snark that accompanied my first viewing. Instead, I was sad because so few movies with a black director and two black leads get the full studio treatment like Mahogany. And its critical failure undoubtedly made it all the more difficult for these kinds of movies to be made.


Mahogany starts off as a promising film: Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a fledgling fashion designer who makes a living as a secretary for Miss Evans (Nina Foch), a buyer at a luxury department store. On her way home, she meets local civil rights activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), who is leading a crusade to stop developers from tearing down houses in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Tracy is initially wary of Brian, seeing his politicking as a waste of time and energy, but when a prank she pulls goes horribly wrong and Brian ends up in jail, Tracy bails him out of guilt. Soon, a relationship develops, but Tracy quickly becomes an appendage to Brian’s burgeoning political career. But before his ascent can begin, Tracy is whisked away to Rome by Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), who hires her as a model. This is when the film swan dives into sheer absurdity. She suddenly becomes a supermodel and deftly adapts to the hedonistic lifestyle of the fashion world, but chafes at being simply a living mannequin. In another lurch in the plot, Tracy is yet again, rescued by another man, this time a rich count, Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont). At a fashion show, Tracy’s hideous Kabuki-inspired getup is mocked by the audience, until Rosetti offers 20 million lire for the monstrosity. Sean is insanely jealous (in fact, he does everything insanely), and tries to kill the two of them, in what has got to be the most ridiculous scene in film history (more on that in a bit), in which he careens down the Roman highway, leaden foot pressed on the gas, while keeping his hands off the wheel, snapping away at a panicking Tracy. The car crashes, leaving Sean dead, but Tracy is found covalesing in the Christian’s grand manor (that looked like a scrubbed up Grey Gardens to me). Inexplicably, Christian bankrolls Tracy’s fashion career, and she’s a hit. But she’s lonely at the top, and returns to Chicago, to support Brian’s congressional ambitions.

The movie is ridiculous. The message is garbled and confused, and it’s unclear whether Gordy and his screenwriter, John Byrum, knew what kind of story they wanted to tell. When set in Chicago, Gordy attempts at a serious drama that highlights the widening gap of income and racial inequality. With Brian Walker, Byrum creates a mouthpiece for racial and social justice – just not a very effective one. Byrum’s ideas of social justice don’t transcend mere political talking points and the socially-conscious aspects of the script feel forced and superficial and reductive, which is a shame because there is potential in telling the story of a young black woman from the inner city who wants to leave for a more financially stable and lucrative life. Quickly, we’re given the parallels of Brian, the hardworking, dedicated dynamo, and Tracy, the feckless diva, and Tracy’s concerns are dismissed as one-note and frivolous, when compared to Brian’s more high-minded work.



For Chicagoans, Mahogany is fun to watch because the film takes advantage of some great locales for the film – and for the younger folks, it’s nice for them to see what the Red Line looked like back in 1975. Gordy comes perilously close to capturing the city in all of its complex glory, but seems bored with the grittier aspects of Byrum’s speech, because the majority of the film takes place in a decidedly more glamorous Rome. It’s during the Chicago scenes that Ross also gives the best of her performance in the film. She’s loose and funny and not done in by the neurotic mannerisms that plague her performance later on. When Tracy is interacting with her Aunt Flo (a lovely Beah Richards), the chemistry is sweet, and Ross gets to show off her underrated comic skills. The early courtship of Brian and Tracy also shows that Ross and Williams should’ve become a legendary onscreen couple a la Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy.


But as magnetic as Williams and Ross are, they also cause one of the films many problems, in that it’s hard to forget that we’re looking at movie stars. Though costumed to look suitably working class, Ross and Williams exude star power and Hollywood glamour, and at times, look sorely out of place in their realistic surroundings. The sense of realism that Gordy is going for in the Chicago scenes is broken up by the magazine cover gorgeousness of his leads. Byrum also doesn’t do Ross and Williams any favors by writing them lines that sound stagy and precious (the film’s tag line is “success is nothing without someone you love to share it with” which Williams delivers with hair-quaking seriousness), and the two often speak to each other in slogans.



But the issue of Ross and Williams being too glammy quickly falls away when we’re whisked to Italy. It’s telling that the film’s most potent moment is an extended fashion sequence set to the film’s theme song “Do You Know (Where You’re Going To).” The film achieves some kind of transcendence here because it highlights Ross at her best – not only is her dreamy voice singing the haunting theme, but she’s paraded around in a variety of kooky outfits, posing on the streets and ruins of Rome. Some of the film’s most iconic images come from the movie – including a fantastic sequence, in which Ross is done up like Cleopatra. It’s worth noting that a movie is pretty bad if its best sequence is a fashion montage.








The Italy scenes though, indulge in some fine camp, courtesy of Anthony Perkins, who seems to see his character as a blend of Richard Avedon and Norman Bates. Perkins, a fine actor, is also a nervy and edgy one, and even when Sean isn’t being crazy, there is always something unsettling about the fidgety, tense manner in which he delivers his lines. Sean is the second man in Tracy’s life who tries to act as a Svengali of sorts – mirroring Gordy’s relationship with Ross, no doubt. He essentially establishes Tracy as a model, even calling her Mahogany. He sees models as inanimate objects (another model is christened Crystal), and exploits them. There’s also some strange psycho-sexual issues lurking beneath Sean’s quivering exterior, and in a hapless sex scene, he proves to be impotent as well.



As said earlier, Perkins is probably the best of the bunch in this sorry spectacle, but that’s some damning with faint praise. Gordy obviously watched Psycho a few times, and instructed his star to recreate the role and shoehorn it into Byrum’s script. There are two notable scenes which should be discussed when looking at Perkins’ performance. The first one occurs when Tracy is reunited with Brian in Italy. After surprising her by showing up at her doorstep in Rome, Brian and Tracy must examine their relationship as Tracy’s modeling career has positioned her as a queen in a decadent world in which Brian feels uncomfortable (there is some knee-jerk homophobia and transphobia throughout the infamous party sequence that’s troubling given Ross’ stature as a queer icon). Sean feels threatened by Brian’s presence and invites him to an office, where he pulls a gun on him. What happens next has got to be the most awkward and badly choreographed fight sequences in film history, in which Brian and Sean lethargically roll around the floor, struggling over a gun. The fight culminates in a nasty bit of subtext, in which Brian overpowers Sean, and forces the gun into Sean’s mouth, mocking fellatio, and pulls the trigger, only to discover the gun is a fake. Sean is left in a happy heap, laughing maniacally, while an unnerved Brian leaves.



The other scene has Sean and Tracy fighting in a sports car during a commercial shoot. Occuring shortly after Tracy dumps Brian, she looks rough and tired (well, as rough and tired as Diana Ross will allow herself to look). Instead of fighting in front of the camera crew, Sean jumps into the drivers seat and starts to drive the car, while taking snapshots of an irritated Tracy. Quickly the scene turns from boring to ridiculous as he presses on the gas pedal and allows the car to swerve crazily while he continues to snap away with his camera. Tracy lunges for the wheel to control the car, but Brian roughly pushes her aside, wanting to capture real fear and panic with his camera. The two fight over the steering wheel, while the car hurdles down a suspiciously-empty highway, before Tracy gets in on the act and starts to grimace hideously for the camera, before the car flips over.






When I watched Mahogany the other night at the park, the scenes I just described provoked laughter from the audience. In the next scene, when Ross was swathed in bandages, the audience erupted in cheers. It’s clear that Gordy’s intention was to inject drama, tension, and poignancy in the film, but failed. Instead, his all-thumbs grasp at directing a film showed just how little he knows about film making. He allowed his actors to mug hideously – Ross, in particular, who when pitched feverishly, gets shrill and grating (it’s amazing that her gorgeous coo of a voice can get so metallic and nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating).


And though Perkins is all kinds of crazy in Mahogany, Ross gets to act ridiculous, too. The aforementioned party scene, Ross gets to revel in the decadence of the fashion world. After Brian storms out of the party because the party was too much, Tracy shrugs off her fashionable robe, and starts to drip candle wax on her naked body. It took a moment for me to realize that I’m watching Diana Ross, ex-Supreme, writhing on the floor, holding a candle aloft and letting the wax pour on her gorgeous body. Like Brian, we’re meant to shake our heads in disapproval – after all, in the beginning of the film, Tracy prim and proper, morals firmly intact. But with the influence of sexually-ambiguous fashion folk, Tracy lets loose, while Brian jets back to Chicago to do good work, rallying folks in the inner-city and plotting his political ambitions.


After watching Mahogany I left feeling very unsatisfied. I hated the ending, in which Tracy chucks it all to return to Chicago to be with her man. In the final scene, Brian is addressing a crowd, during his congressional campaign (he’s running as an Independent). Some of the crowd is receptive to his speech, but others are a bit skeptical, and while he’s spinning in his wheels, Tracy pipes up from the crowd, recreating an in-joke they shared, in which she pretends to be a poor widow with small children, contending with a slum lord.


I wasn’t happy with Tracy dismissing her fashion career to support Brian’s political career. And then I remembered Tracy’s designs, and I thought, “Huh, she may have a point.” Let’s be real, Tracy’s designs are fuuuugly. A disaster of Kabuki-drag (which Ross took the blame for…er, took credit for), her designs are so garish, drag queens would’ve wished for something subtler. Christian’s heroic bid of 20 million lire for her garbage designs is an act of charity that rivals the greatest works of Mother Teresa.





Mahogony1Watching Mahogany 40 years later, it’s clear to see how well intentioned the film was. It’s a strained attempt to make Diana Ross a multi-platform diva – a star of film, stage, screen, and music. Like her biggest artistic rival Barbra Streisand, Ross sought to become an all-purpose diva, a quadruple threat. Instead, it’s become a pale relic and a camp artifact, imprisoned in various cabarets, drag clubs, and gay bars.

Click here to buy Mahogany on DVD from amazon.com.

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Carrie Fisher shares her demons in ‘Wishful Drinking’ – a review

Wishful DrinkingHollywood is littered with the carcasses of Hollywood wannabes – starlets and has-beens who couldn’t weather the tough grind of celebrity. For Carrie Fisher, the road was particularly tawdry and controversial because not only was her family life pretty spectacular (dad was Eddie Fisher, mom is Debbie Reynolds), but her stepfamily was also pretty noteworthy (one of her stepmoms was Elizabeth Taylor and another was Connie Stevens). It’s also important to note that her own life – Star Wars, being married to Paul Simon, her drug addiction – is tempestuous enough to fill up the tabloids.

But Carrie Fisher is nothing if not a survivor, and she’s a sage, as well. And a comedienne. Known in the entertainment industry for her withering wit and sardonic humor, Fisher is great at looking at the mess that is her family history and making astute and funny observations. Aside from her healthy career as an actress, she also had a side career as Hollywood’s answer to Dorothy Parker. Her novels, including Postcards from the Edge were tart send ups of American celebrity and its pitfalls and absurdities. She writes what she knows.

In Wishful Drinking, her one-woman show filmed for HBO, Fisher talks about the various demons that marked her life, as well as, some of the ridiculous matrimonial details of her family life. It makes for an entertaining show because the star is candid and without an ounce of vanity.

Opening with a bellowing rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Fisher opens the show with a tragic story – her best friend dying in her bed. The story is typical Fisher: dark and very upsetting, but told in a frank manner that finds the ridiculousness in the situation. She then quickly segues to the subject of her parents: dad, Eddie Fisher was a famous crooner of the 1950s, who later became famous for bedding Elizabeth Taylor. Mother Debbie Reynolds with the sweet as pie movie star. Of course everyone knows that Taylor and Reynolds were BFFs until Taylor became a widow and Fisher rushed to her side to console her (and then to bed her). It’s a story that has been repeated over and over again, and in Wishful Drinking, Fisher spends some time covering it, before going over a twisted family tree, whose branches include various b-list celebrities including Connie Stevens, Joely Fisher, and Trish Fisher. Our hostess presents all of this information like a college professor, standing in front of a chalk board with a pointer, and even awards a medal to an audience member who manages to keep up with all of the convoluted details.

She shares stories of her parents – mainly their awful marriage, breakup, and subsequent marriages and financial troubles. She’s much more protective of Reynolds than she is of Eddie Fisher, making sure that her mom’s legacy as a movie star (and gay icon) is mentioned, while she takes pot shots at her pop (including at his extensive plastic surgery which she quips made him look Asian). Reading Postcards from the Edge, one can gleam that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with her mother wasn’t smooth (the DVD has an hour-long interview in which Reynolds discusses her daughter’s drug use), but she’s still charmed by the film legend’s eccentric diva behavior.

But Wishful Drinking doesn’t just focus on Fisher’s family – she also had a substantial career of her own, highlighted by her performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films (she even wears a wig with the iconic buns). It’s clear she looks at the films with affection, but the iconic role is also a little bit of an albatross (“George Lucas ruined my life…I mean that in the nicest possible way” she grouses). The film’s reputation and cult status forever sealed Fisher’s fate as Leia, and everything she did afterwards languished in its shadow. She also pokes fun at her sex symbol status, particularly when she had to don the infamous metal bikini, forever cementing her as masturbation fodder for a certain segment of the Star Wars fan base.

All of these stories are told in Fisher’s expressive, matter-of-fact style. She doesn’t try for poignancy and at times, her flippant attitude can seem as if she’s trivializing some pretty serious events in her life, but that’s all part of Fisher’s considerable charms. Hollywood isn’t known for being a brain trust, so it’s nice to see one of its most notable scions be so smart. Wishful Drinking doesn’t always hit emotional highs, but like its author, its never boring and always insightful.

Click here to buy Wishful Thinking on DVD from amazon.com.

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