Joyful Noise

I'm a big fan of both Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. I mean, when they're in quality stuff. Not everything is gold. The two of them haven't been in close proximity in my pop culture world since that disappointing flick of 2012. Until now! By happenstance, I happened to catch the two divas in a single weekend, though it was in different movies that are separated by several years.

The first was the new HBO movie Bessie, which was about legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. I'll let you guess which of the two actresses starred in that one. I never knew much about Smith, but for some reason, I had an image in my head of a matronly lady who picked her way carefully through life in order to avoid making waves. Boy, I couldn't have gotten that more wrong. She made more waves than the Pacific Ocean. She drank and fought and slept with with whoever caught her fancy, either male or female. She was totally awesome.

If only the movie about her could've been as electric. Queen Latifah is perfectly cast, but the movie makes the mistake a lot of biographical films do: Trying to cover too much material. If it had focused on one time period or one aspect of Smith's life, the material would have had space to breathe. Instead, we lurch forward at a breakneck pace in order to cover as much as possible, resulting in scenes that are too shallow and brief.

There are times when it slows down, and when it does, Bessie shines. The explorations of the relationships between Smith and her paramours may be rushed, but her relationship with Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique) is terrific. Ma Rainey was, by turns, Smith's mentor, her enemy, and her closest friend, and the scenes between Mo'Nique and Queen Latifah are fantastic.

There's plenty to like besides that, too. The music is, obviously, a treat. There are some funny one-liners that I'll be quoting for days. The clothes are beautiful. As something to kick back and watch with a friend and some mimosas on a Sunday afternoon, I couldn't have asked for better, but if I'm assigning it a grade based just on its success as a movie, Bessie could have used a rewrite.

This is where this business of grading puts me into kind of a pickle, because is the 1992 Dolly Parton vehicle Straight Talk a better movie than Bessie? No, not really. But it unquestionably does a better job of achieving what it was going for, which is to highlight Parton as a funny, warm, folksy heroine.

Parton stars as Shirlee Kenyon, an unappreciated Arkansas dance teacher whose boyfriend treats her like garbage, and who gets fired from her job as a dancing instructor for being an overly chatty busybody. She's a plucky gal, of course, so she sees this as an opportunity for a fresh start, grabbing what little she has and heading for Chicago. Because this is a romantic comedy, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings has her landing ass-backwards into a gig as a radio shrink.

James Woods is the reporter who smells a rat, and sets out to expose her as a fraud, but can't help but falling helplessly in love with her. Actors often like to complain about being pigeon-holed into certain types of roles, but we often forget that pigeon-holing can be a good thing. If you don't believe me, sit back in amazement and watch James Woods attempt to play a comedic, romantic leading man here. I like him a lot, but he needs to stick to playing creepy weirdos. Hugh Grant, he is not.

Much like Bessie, there are some funny lines and some enjoyable music. It's a silly movie, to be sure, but as cinematic comfort food, it hits the spot.

Bessie: B-
Straight Talk: B

Summer Movie Preview: June 2015

June promises to be a busy month for me; I might not have many opportunities to see movies. But hey, that's all the more reason to sort everything into categories, the better to know how best to spend precious free time. June is when the summer movie season really kicks into high gear, so let's see what's competing for our attention.

The Main Attraction: OK, so Pixar doesn't have a perfect track record anymore, but that's to be expected. And it doesn't lessen my excitement for Inside Out (June 19) one bit. I didn't love the preview, but it's got a great cast and embraces the premise of Herman's Head, but with a female protagonist and a bigger sense of adventure. I'm guessing it's going to be a blast.

Looks Promising: Sometimes, a movie will get onto my radar through pure word of mouth. So I can say without knowing much about the plot that I need to pay attention to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (June 12), which is getting all sorts of buzz from film sites and movie fans.

Possible Rental: Melissa McCarthy movies fall into one of two groups: Hilarious or poisonously awful. It seems to be impossible to be able to tell ahead of time which way they're going to lean, so I'll wait for the reviews of Spy (June 5) before I decide if it's worth a watch. It's not often that reading about a movie for the first time in the preview will spark my interest, but a documentary about seven home-schooled brothers who rarely left their home and obsessively watched movies certainly fits the bill (The Wolfpack - June 12).

We'll See: Last year, I was as pleasantly surprised at Chris Pratt - Action Hero as everyone else. That doesn't make Jurassic World (June 12) a sure bet, though. The trailers are pretty dire, and it's not like the other sequels are shining jewels. Still, I wouldn't be shocked if it turned out to be good. Classics are sometimes an attractive possibility, so I'm still waffling over Madame Bovary (June 12).

Tofu Conundrums and the Veggie Ultimatum

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 17

Listen, I love meat. I love beef and veal and lamb and sausage and bacon and chicken and fish and shellfish and sweetbreads and ham and and just about any other one you can name. But once in a while, it's nice to step back from the meaty extravaganza that is the modern American diet and focus instead on the realm of vegetarianism. So, we've turned over an entire episode to it! It was enjoyable to take a break from the butcher shop and stick to the produce department for a while. How about you join us? Click over to Four Courses and listen to Episode 17!

Topics include Tree House, the fruits, veggies, and herbs that insinuate themselves into the world of drinkin', reliable vegetarian dishes for an omnivorous diet, and a fun discussion of the social responsibilities surrounding vegetarianism. We go out on a Sell Me On... segment in which vegetables we don't love get a second chance. Enjoy!

Mitt Stains

I enjoyed the 2010 book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, despite a title so needlessly lengthy as to be laughable. Seriously, authors. Enough with the Post-Colon explications. The book was co-written by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, and was a fascinating, inside look at the 2008 election. It was full of such insight and - let's just admit it - juicy gossip about both the Democratic and Republican primaries, and the final showdown between Obama and McCain.

So obviously, I was up for another ride on the roller coaster that is American politics with their 2013 follow-up, Double Down: Game Change 2012. The 2012 presidential election was an interesting one, but for much different reasons than 2008's. I was looking forward to diving into what was driving decisions behind the scenes, and while Double Down did an excellent job of summing up the events and the snafus that comprised the big moments of the election, it couldn't quite capture the same lightning.

Some of that is naturally down to the players in the game. 2008 had the downfall of John Edwards and the walking hot mess that is Sarah Palin. There's just nothing that can be said to make Herman Cain and John Huntsman as intriguing as them. They're not insane enough. So we're left with chapters about Obama's mood swings and Mitt Romney's strained relationship with the Republican party he represents, all of which is interesting, but not as dramatic. The focus on the rest of the clown car that made up the Republican primary (Bachmann, Santorum, Perry, etc.) is entertaining, but pretty brief.

There's still plenty to like in this book. If there's one thing it does well, it's humanize Mitt Romney, which the media at the time of the election had real trouble doing, with no help from the candidate himself. I'm glad he's not president, but he's not an awful human being, and it's important to realize that in our increasingly divisive politics. That said, the book does not shy away from his many mistakes, from his inability to relate to the middle class to his lurches to the far right and back in an effort to appeal to as many voters as possible. The 47% comment that almost single-handedly sunk his nomination is given curiously little time, given what a bombshell it was. Still, I appreciated the authors' efforts to get into issues that had a lot of meat on them, like the handling of the auto industry bailout and the vagaries of the national conventions (thanks to Clint Eastwood).

I haven't mentioned the Obama sections of the book, and that's because they're pretty sedate. Obama is a clear-headed, no-drama kind of guy, and while that makes him an effective president (in my opinion, anyway), it doesn't make for thrilling reporting. Heilemann and Halperin do their best to make his disappointing performance in the first debate seem like an earth-shaking threat to his candidacy, but hindsight isn't the only thing pushing back against that image.

Now we're getting into the next presidential election cycle. What kinds of shocks and gaffes and backroom deals await us in this next year and a half? I guess we'll have to meet back here in 2017 to read all about it. Probably in a book with a title fifty words long.

Double Down: Game Change 2012: B

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #14: Mommie Dearest

It seems incredible to me that I haven't written about Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud for the Pantheon yet. There's an oversight I'll have to rectify soon. It's a book I've read about, oh say... sixty times or so. I only bring it up as a reference point for how fascinated I am by the lives and careers of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both are gay icons, but that's not why I find them so endlessly compelling. One was a consummate actress who worked her way towards becoming a movie star, and one was a movie star who worked her way towards becoming an actress. And they loathed each other. But I'll spare the gushing about the book until I get around to writing that entry.

I was at a movie-themed trivia contest recently, and for winning a door prize, I was allowed to pick anything off a table of swag. When I saw Christina Crawford's 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest, I immediately snagged it. Bette and Joan references Mommie Dearest heavily, and naturally, I'd heard of it before, but I'd never gotten around to actually sitting down and reading the damn thing, nor watching the 1981 film adaptation of it. The closest I'd come is seeing the hilarious movie/ABBA remix at Showtune Tuesday back when THAT was a thing at gay bars.

I'm wandering off on too many tangents. All this blathering is to say I have no good excuse for missing out on Mommie Dearest until 2015, but I don't have to worry about it anymore, because in the span of a week, I'd picked up the book, read it, noticed the movie is available to stream on Netflix, and watched it. I'm nothing if not efficient. For the five people who haven't heard about it, Mommie Dearest is about Christina Crawford's relationship with her adoptive mother, and is a tell-all about how manipulative and abusive Joan Crawford was, both emotionally and physically.

There's a lot of evidence that Joan Crawford only adopted children for the publicity they brought, and to put on a good public face for her fans. When it came down to actually having to raise kids, she was woefully inadequate. Christina details everything from her mother's tirades to her excruciatingly over-reactive punishments to the ritual beatings Christina got for even the slightest misbehavior. It's an interesting read, and dovetails pretty neatly into everything else I've read about Joan Crawford, but there's something...off about it. Memoirs are, by necessity, pretty one-sided, and I accept that. They're supposed to be biased in the author's favor. But you know that feeling you get when you hear a one-sided story, and even with the bias built into it, you still can't accept the storyteller's version? That happens here a lot. There's multiple instances of "Well, I politely informed her that such-and-such happened and she just blew up at me," and the reader can tell that something's missing. Not that I necessarily blame her for this; anyone growing up in that household was bound to have issues.

Also, child abuse was not a widely-discussed problem in 1978, and Christina Crawford not only shined a spotlight on it, but did so about a woman who did everything in her power to appear like a perfect, doting mother to the outside world. This book exploded the entertainment world. Think about what it'd be like if one of Meryl Streep's kids wrote a book detailing how they'd been beaten and choked by her. So while it seemed a bit shifty, fact-wise, and a bit too self-congratulatory, this book was one hell of an interesting read.

It was also melodramatic as hell, which explains the movie, which is campier than national parks in summer. Faye Dunaway stars as Joan Crawford, and chews every single line of dialogue. This is the broadest, hammiest movie I've seen in ages, where nobody is able to hold a normal conversation. EVERYTHING must be....SPOKEN....VERY THEATRICALLY. Slaps and punches and grotesque makeup abound. This movie set out to make Joan Crawford look like a monster, and not just figuratively. If I'm judging it based on pure movie-making skill, it's terrible. But if I'm judging it based on how much damned fun it would be to drunkenly watch with a group of friends, it soars. In a way, I guess it's kind of sad that a book about airing a family's dirty laundry in order to highlight the horrors of abuse because an absolute hoot of a movie, but hey baby. That's Hollywood.

Mommie Dearest (1978): B-
Mommie Dearest (1981): B


I'm not even going to begin to describe the backlog of television shows on my Catch-Up-On-This-Sometime list. Let's just say that it's...formidable. It always feels good when I can knock one off, especially if the show winds up being better than I thought it was going to be. Such was the case with BoJack Horseman, a weird little Netflix show from 2014. I remember reading blurbs about it on some of the entertainment sites I read, but didn't really give it much notice until it kept showing up in my recommendation algorithms. Not that those algorithms are always dependable (I'd rather watch an episiotemy than the Adam Sandler dreck someone keeps trying to shovel), but I finally gave in and decided to give this one a whirl.

It is, in a word, batshit. But in a good way! In the universe that this show inhabits, humans and animals are peers. Every fully-functioning member of society is a man or a woman...or a cat or a lizard or a dog or a mole or whatever. The protagonist is BoJack Horseman, who used to be on a silly-but-popular sitcom - think Full House, but starring a horse - but who is having trouble adjusting to life after fame. And by "having trouble adjusting", I mean he's an alcoholic, womanizing (well, "female"-izing) misanthrope who makes himself and the people (well, people and other animals) around him miserable. He begins to fall in love with the woman who is writing his biography and who is dating his main rival, and the show takes off from there.

If it had a different cast, I don't think I'd have liked it as much as I did. It's pretty clever about skewering the cults of fame and the lifestyles of those in the entertainment industry, but is rarely laugh-out-loud funny (the only joke that gave me a belly laugh is when a character named Vanessa Gekko turns out to be human). Luckily for the show, putting Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Aaron Paul together to do the voices was enough to really elevate the material into something worth watching. The excellent casting continued with the guest voices, including everyone from Naomi Watts to Anjelica Huston.

Even if BoJack Horseman isn't everything I'd want in an animated comedy, there's plenty to keep me interested, and I was happy to hear that Netflix has ordered more episodes. And it's not as if I can't be patient for Season 2 to show up. That vast TV backlog is still staring me down.

BoJack Horseman - Season 1: B

Reverting to the Mean

This has already been a real grab bag of a year, reading-wise. Some books have been great! Some books have been disappointing! Taken as a whole, though, so far they've averaged out to be, well, average. If only I could read a book that explores popular applications of mathematics and how they might lead you astray! Oh wait, I just did, and it was...average.

First, though, I followed a recommendation to check out Miriam Toews' 2014 novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Let me say up front that I had no expectation that this would be a rollicking hoot. It's told from the point of view of Yoli, a down-on-her-luck woman doing her best to juggle the pressures of life, but with the added complication of a gifted sister (Elfrieda) who seems determined to commit suicide. Elfrieda is a talented pianist, a fierce intellectual, and is happily married, but has inherited the strain of self-destruction that has afflicted several members of the family. Yoli is determined to save her sister one way or another, but doesn't know how best to assist, wondering if the best thing she can do for her sister is to help give her the release she so desperately craves.

There's a lot of meat to explore in this type of story, but I'm afraid it just didn't catch on with me. Toews' style is fluid and poetic, and I'm coming to realize that I prefer a more straightforward method of writing. There's also a certain amount of Hard To Watch: Based on the book “Stone Cold Bummer” by Manipulate going on with this one. I understand that a story about a family being steadily disintegrated by mental illness can't be all sunshine and rainbows, but it'd be nice if Yoli could score even a minor break in absolutely any area of her life. This is one of those books that I can easily understand appealing to other people, but as for me, I can't deny that the clang as it fell to the bottom of the library return bin was the happiest sound I've heard in a while. Excellent book cover art, though.

So, back to math. I like math, so it drives me up the wall when I hear mathematical arguments in ads or political debates that are transparently being twisted to fit a certain narrative. "75% of customers who switched to Geico saved money!!!!" Well, of course they did. BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO WOULDN'T HAVE SAVED MONEY NEVER SWITCHED IN THE FIRST PLACE. AAAAARRRRGHHH! When I read a review of Jordan Ellenberg's 2014 book, How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, I was very excited to read all about these traps and how to avoid them. What I got instead was a puzzling book that was by turns too simplified to be useful and too esoteric to be accessible.

There were some gems hidden here and there, including a chapter that explains why democratic elections can be so damned complicated, and the dangers of mathematical slippery slopes. For the most part, though, I couldn't discern who Ellenberg's audience is supposed to be. If it's aimed towards an average reader, then this book is needlessly complicated. If it's aimed toward mathematics aficionados, then it's needlessly elementary. While Ellenberg may be a brilliant mathematician, when it comes to communication, he could use some work.

I'm sure I'll read some more stellar books this year, and I'm sure I'll run across some clunkers as well. But as these two books prove all too disappointingly, a lot of the material out there is just plain meh.

All My Puny Sorrows: C+
How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking: C+

We Don't Need Another Hero

Back when I was gushing over The Avengers, I made sure to mention that not only was I pleased because it was such a great movie, but that I was pleased because it was obvious that Joss Whedon had put a lot of effort into avoiding the common problems that add up to a bad movie. Naturally, expectations shot up after he accomplished that feat with such aplomb, and while Avengers: Age of Ultron is far from terrible, it highlights just how difficult it is to pull off such a delicate balancing act.

As with many Marvel movies, the plot is almost incidental. Heroes must find their MacGuffin and defeat Evil Villain Who Turns Out to Be a Front for An Even Bigger Evil Villain. Rinse and repeat. But that, right there, is part of the problem with this sequel. I can accept that the framework will be the same from movie to movie, so it falls to the writer/director to somehow make that repetition interesting, and in this instance, I'm afraid he fell short.

He at least makes the effort. There's some interesting story to be explored in Iron Man's reckless plan to implement artificial intelligence to defend Earth without putting it through any kind of test or due process and the opposition he meets from the other team members who aren't an Ayn Randian Wet Dream. At least, it would have been an interesting story, if we weren't veering off every three minutes to talk about one of the many tangential plotlines or the many secondary and tertiary characters competing for screentime. This movie is, in a word, overstuffed.

Here's another word: Formulaic. Talk-quip-punch. Talk-quip-punch. Talk-quip-punch. And it's not that the talking is interminable, or that the quips are labored, or that the punches are dull. None of that is the case. It's just a very connect-the-dots approach, in which every string is clearly visible. When a movie is actively disappointing me, I tend to latch onto minor things that do not help its case, like Scarlet Witch, whose powers are never fully explained, but who can do basically anything she's required to do as it's called for. Or a needless death precipitated by yet another idiotic child who refuses to run when danger is looming. Congrats to that character, by the way. He is officially the one billionth stupid kid who ruins everything.

I don't want to make the movie sound more dire than it is. It was...fine. There were some exciting moments, some charming interaction scenes between the heroes, and some fun lines sprinkled in among the bombast. But taken as a whole, the one superhero power this team sorely needs is an ability to trim the fat.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: B-

Unpronounceable Entrées and the Ethics of Cake Destruction

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 16

Sppppprrrrrinnnnnnng! Once the weather lightens up, there's so much more to get out and do, food-wise. OK, everything-wise, but that's not what we're about. Want to know what we are about? Then click over to Four Courses and listen to Episode 16!

Topics include Yemanja Brasil, the Spring edition of "Our Favorite Drinks", the shoddy reputation of wedding food, and a very careful chat about how one should tip when there isn't a server in play. We go out on a Sell Me On... segment in which the herbs of the season are passionately advocated for. Enjoy!
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