Monday, May 30, 2011

Mommy, Why is Po Talking Funny?

Considering the wacky Japanese to English translations and "The Hangover, Part II's" Asian flavor, it's not inconceivable that "Hangover Panda" is playing at a Tokyo movie theater.

Just to be clear, I'm not seeing the sequel. "The Hangover" might be the most overrated comedy of all time...Also, kudos to the billboard crew for not using an upside down "V" or a "U" and a sideways "I" to replace "A" in "Bridesmaids."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rachel McAdams's Charisma, 2005-2011

PHILADELPHIA -- Rachel McAdams's charisma died on Friday, May 13, after her performance in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." It was six years old.

The charisma's demise was directly attributed to McAdams's abrasive, nails-on-a-chalkboard performance in a romantic comedy. The time of death was announced at roughly 11:05 a.m., 55 minutes into the movie's critics screening.

Viewers had seen the warning signs since 2009, when McAdams delivered lifeless performances in two high-profile films, "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." Things took a turn for the worst after her spunky, grating star turn in 2010's "Morning Glory."

Unfortunately, Allen's iffy handling of McAdams's character and the actress's mystifyingly shrill performance were too much.

The charisma's death is survived by happy, questionable memories of McAdams's turn in "Wedding Crashers," Zooey Deschanel, and Carey Mulligan. In related news in early May, Kate Hudson's effervescence was euthanized after the release of "Something Borrowed."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

And now a musical interlude from Gamble and Huff

Why am I posting a profile on Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff on an avowed movie blog? There are two reasons. First, the article is not available online, and I'd like people to see it. Second, movies are still using their songs in soundtracks, so it's not like there isn't a connection.

More importantly, I'm proud of the piece, because it proved to me the value of finding additional sources. Originally, I wanted to do a straight up Q&A with the legendary duo, but it quickly became apparent that wouldn't work. Gamble and Huff were somewhat bored, which I understand. They've been interviewed so many damn times, that any question I asked they've probably heard about 25 times.

And, in all honesty, I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. My questions should have been sharper and better organized.

So I decided to call secondary sources to attest to the producers/songwriters' importance. Five got back to me, including Earl Young, the legendary session drummer, and Joe Tarsia, G&H's sound engineer.

The article, in a slightly different form, appeared in the May issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


"It did happen. You can't say what couldn't have."

"It's too scary to think about."

This is how Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff respond, respectively, when presented with the following scenario: What if the legendary hitmakers, the architects of The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP), had never met?

You can't blame them for dismissing such unpleasantness. Who wants to live in a world where we can't shimmy in our car seat to "Love Train"? Or where you can't belt "Close the Door" in the shower, the only acceptable venue for approximating the soulful yearnings of Teddy Pendergrass. Jeez, how many babies were made to "When Will I See You Again?", "Me and Mrs. Jones," and "Lady Love"?

The world long ago realized its good fortune. Philly native Gamble, 67, and Huff, 69, have been honored and feted thoroughly by various associations, colleges, halls of fame, and Philadelphia, the city that became their muse. Gamble and Huff Walk lies in front of the duo's headquarters, Philadelphia International Records—the famed record label they formed 40 years ago. Huff's hometown of Camden, NJ, features Leon Huff Way.

On Saturday, May 21, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia will join the respectful masses, holding a Lifetime Achievement Award gala for the duo. The event, held at the Westin Philadelphia, starts at 6 p.m.

Not to take anything away from awards and tuxedoed dinners, but the highest honor may actually be a statistic: Every 13-and-a-half minutes, somewhere in the world, a Gamble and Huff song is played on the radio. The appeal of TSOP—soulful singing, lush arrangements, and eloquent lyrics—remains untarnished by time. And appreciated by just about every one. The Chamber Orchestra plans to release a CD featuring a selection of the duo's hits (in classical form, of course) sometime next year.

"That's the mark of a real original," says Bruce Warren, program director at Philadelphia's WXPN, 88.5 FM. "You can create something so unique that it may have some immediate influences, but it can still stand on its own."

"There is nothing today that is playable that will bring you back to a better time," says Jerry Blavat, the legendary Philadelphia deejay/mover n' shaker, who has known Gamble and Huff since before their nearly 50-year partnership. "Their music brings you back to a better time."

Even Huff doesn't tire of his music following him wherever he goes. "It still sounds great," he says.


From the start they were musical soul mates.

Huff instantly felt the chemistry. Their early output was staggering, and effortless—"five or six songs a day, like it was nothing," Gamble recalls. They'd write song titles on legal pads, one would stick out, and then "Huff would hit a chord on the piano, and that would be it," explains Gamble. "We'd be off to the races."

"You've got to talk songs, to me," Huff says. "We always talked about life itself, and all the activity that goes on in the world. Some great songs can come out of conversations or other people's mouths or anywhere." A tape recorder was always running.

The ease of their productivity belied the music's depth. Blavat says the duo not only captured America's swirl of social change in the 1970s—think of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody" and The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers"—but they "knew what was happening musically in the streets, and they took it to another level with full orchestration."

TSOP's distinct sound—classical elements like violins and French horns mingling with finger-snapping drums and bass guitar—came from another acronym, MFSB. The 42-piece orchestra's rhythm section featured members of The Romeos, Gamble's former band. "We had great musicians, see, and the thing that made us real great is that we played together all the time," Gamble says. "Everybody knew each other. You knew what the other person could do."

"That created a certain sound, a certain quality of sound, that kept getting better and better," Huff says.

"We could play anything," says renowned drummer Earl Young, who was a staple on TSOP tracks along with his late bandmates, bassist Ronald Baker and guitarist Norman Harris.

"The major part of our production and skill was rehearsal," says Gamble. "We would rehearse a couple of weeks before we would decide what songs we were going to do with the artist." The performer would sing the song, and then the musicians would work on the groove, says Young. "It was more of a feeling than cutting a record," he adds.

Young says Gamble had a great ear, which allowed the producer to pick one drumbeat from the vast array that the drummer played. Gamble still marvels over Huff's instincts for knowing—regardless of how trivial it might be—what belonged in a song.

"If the song warrants it, that little ding could be important," Huff says.

Creating the music was an instinctive, even personal process. Gamble insists that songs were written specifically for the artist—"We didn't write songs just to write them." But there were roles, according to Joe Tarsia, TSOP's recording engineer and founder of the legendary Sigma Sound Studios. Gamble, he says, was the "architect of the story," while Huff developed the music's rhythm and intensity.

A "basic rhythm concept" would be worked on in the studio, Tarsia says. Then, voices would be added; arrangers would write music for strings and horns. By the end, a song could contain dozens of parts. "But it was always more than less, so that in the final mix it left room to make arrangements that built and climaxed," he says. "It was sort of sexual in a way—there was some foreplay before you got to the climax of the song."


We're currently in the nostalgic afterglow. All you need to cut a record these days, Young says, is a computer before dropping the tracks in the studio.

Thanks to the Internet, the music industry's bar of entry is pretty much on the ground. "You're a producer if you say you are," says David Uosikkinen, the longtime drummer for The Hooters. Tarsia compares the changing music scene to television. There used to be three TV stations, he says, but "now we have 300 [and] no one can afford anything of substance."

"Musicians don't go to the studio and create music anymore," Young says.

"I think that's the way technology has changed music," says Uosikkinen, whose project, In the Pocket (, features a rotating group of musicians playing songs either recorded in Philadelphia or by Philadelphians. "For better or for worse, that's how it is. It's expensive to do it [like Gamble and Huff]. There are a lot of economics involved. Just to get five great musicians into a room together costs money."

Just because something is the norm, doesn't make it right. "There's nothing like being in a studio [with musicians] because you're going to feel the real dramatics from the human beings that are going to be inflicted into your music," Huff says.

"Humans sweat," Gamble says. "That's what's missing from the records today, is the sweat and the effort and the energy. And the other thing that's missing from it is the mistakes that humans make that sometimes turn out to be something that's fantastic."

Gamble and Huff's collaborative, hands-on days do come back—every 13-and-a-half minutes, to be exact.

"That scene was remarkable," says Uosikkinen, who plans to record "Back Stabbers" with MFSB guitarists Bobby Eli and T.J. Tindall for In the Pocket. "It's part of Americana and it comes from our city. It's awesome."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Etc.--The Stripper Con, Rollergirl's Demise, Office Work

Writer's note: Apologies for the tardiness of this post. Consider this April's edition, with another to follow in a week or so.

My wedding is fast approaching, which means at some point I'll be having a bachelor party. I'm excited for this because I'll get to hang out with my closest friends. As I all get older and responsibilities mount up, it's harder to see everyone, so the bachelor party is a nice excuse to see everyone in a fun-filled venue.

It will not be an excuse to visit a strip club, get a lapdance, or any other activity involving soulless contact with a glassy-eyed 22-year-old. I'm too old to care if I'm cast as boring or not a guy's guy or a whimp. I'm too old to live my life according to Tucker Max.

So, friends, if you're expecting a shower show at my bachelor party, many apologies! Strap in for a Woody Allen movie marathion followed by a discussion moderated by the one-and-only Dick Cavett and "New York" film critic David Edelstein!

The strip club mystique is something I will never understand, because it involves men voluntarily labeling themselves as easily duped, walking erections. This woman doesn't like you, probably never will. It's not more exciting because it's live; I guarantee her mind is focused on a more pleasant distraction. She's essentially a waitress, but instead of delivering a turkey club, she's offering heavily perfumed lapdances. The same commerce-driven principles are involved.

Anything sexual is more gratifying when it's earned. It's one thing if the pert teller at the bank liked your vibe and started peeling off clothes to the lobby's muzak cover of "Disco Lady," but a stripper is a saleswoman. How is getting a dance from her a triumph of manhood or proof of attractivness? I refuse to buy into that sham, especially when there are myraid ways to get aroused that involve no money, less frustration, and less dings to the dignity.

Three unshakeable memories have also led me to this position.

1.) When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I had to cover a strip club for a story. (Don't ask. It was a Gannett paper.) This involved talking to a couple of the dancers, who were eloquent and straightforward. One dancer told me: "I barely take off any clothes, and I make a ton of money. It's all eye contact."

In all my years of reporting, I don't think I've come across a sadder, elqouent truth.

2.) At the same club, in between dances, the owner Windexed the pole. Classy!

3.) A year or so ago, my dad and I were driving down Route 35. It was a Tuesday afternoon, about 3:55 p.m. As we zoomed through the pre-rush hour traffic we passed a strip club whose doors opened at 4 p.m. There was a line of five or six guys waiting to get in. On a friggin' Tuesday afternoon, mind you.

We immediately deemed this phenomenon "the loser queue."

So, yeah, I'll pass on the strip club/stripper experience. Plus, my brothers-in-law will be there. Some experiences with family are best left unshared.

--R.I.P. Heather Graham's sex appeal. She's now reached wacky aunt territory, courtesy of the upcoming "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer." Though it's fun to think of young fathers taking their kids to see this while images of "Rollergirl" skate through their minds.

--Recommended reading time, including work from two friends. Our movie buddy R. Kurt Osenlund gives us a tour of his movie-centric office, and the outstanding Jacob Lambert mourns his local video store in this piece for The Millions. Also worth reading, Whitney Pastoreks's oral history of "Party Down."

--One reason for the delay in posts is that I spent about two weeks working in an office as part of a copy editing gig. It had been three years since I had done that. The weirdest things: Realizing that getting to work is work; dressing in casual business attire; not having access to my own fridge filled with my stuff.

At the same time, I sort of enjoyed the experience. It was a like a 9 to 5 fantasy camp. Now that I'm back home, my life somehow seems less exotic.

--By the way, two proud moments for the blog: We have an advertiser! And a follower we don't know personally. That's immensely satisfying. All I need are 10 more advertisers and I can pay my phone bill. Hooray!

--Writing announcements. If you haven't read my piece on dating shows for The Millions, you can do that here. And please check out my work for Virgo's SupplySide Community blog. It's about supplements, but I'll try to incorporate as many movie references as I can.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book of the Month, May 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they can be used in the making of delicious meals!

As a sports fan and a lover of sports books, I'm busting to read Tom Shales' and James Andrew Miller's oral history of ESPN, "Those Guys Have All the Fun." It promises to be ripe with anecdotes, scandal, and behind-the-scenes intrigue. The fact that Little, Brown has embargoed the book--no advance copies to the press--only makes me more excited.

Part of the reason for my anticipation stems from Shales and Miller's prior effort, "Live from New York," an oral history of "Saturday Night Live." The authors interviewed countless stars, guest hosts, writers, producers, and other talent to craft an addictive read into the inner workings of a comedy institution.

And some of the revelations on folks like Chevy Chase, Nora Dunn (hated by her female costars, Victoria Jackson and Jan Hooks), and Milton Berle are eye-popping. Especially Berle's classic line about his infamous appendage: "What do you think of the boy?"

However, Shales and Miller's work isn't the only must-read about SNL. I also recommend Jay Mohr's backstage memoir of SNL, "Gasping for Air," and the wonderfully reported "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live" by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingard. And let's not forget another wonedrful oral history that I profiled previously in these parts: "The Chris Farley Show."

The last two titles actually might be the best books about "SNL" that I've read. Anyone have any other suggestions?

Until next month, read in peace.

P.S.--Vastly underrated skit: John Belushi (pictured) as Joe Cocker.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Film Round-Up May 2011

In this edition of the Film Round-Up, another local filmmaker does good, two documentaries (one meh, one great), and a pretty enjoyable foreign film.

I don't have anything else to really say here, except that I'm so sorry these weren't posted sooner. I've been knee-deep in freelancing assignments, including one for a magazine that has required daily trips to New York City.

The move to PA hasn't cost me a step. I'm not bewildered by tall buildings. I can still swipe a Metrocard. I don't gawk at the young woman loudly berating her boyfriend on a cell phone. I'm still a badass.

As always, these reviews previously appeared in the April issue of "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


L'Amour Fou (Dir: Pierre Thoretton). After legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008, his longtime lover and business associate, Pierre Bergé, put their valuable art collection up for auction. As Bergé prepares to part with the objects, he reminisces about Saint Laurent, whose quest for creativity led to self-destruction and isolation. You would think the art would serve as some kind of symbolic motivator, a metaphor for two slowly separating lives, but debut director Thoretton ignores that possibility as well as others: Why is Bergé so eager to sell the collection? What's it like emerging from someone's shadow after decades? Hell, it'd be neat just to meet the potential buyers of these works, or to explore the particular difficulties of packing and shipping a Picasso. Bergé and Saint Laurent's tumultuous life together (and apart) is entertaining; after all, who doesn't like to learn more about the fabulously wealthy? But to focus on oral biography when so many tantalizing options remain unexplored—well, it's puzzling to the point of distraction. ** [NR]

Lebanon, PA (Dir: Ben Hickernell). Starring: Josh Hopkins, Rachel Kitson, Ian Merrill Peakes, Samantha Mathis, Mary Beth Hurt. Following the death of his estranged father, a brusque Philadelphia ad exec (Hopkins, ABC's Cougar Town) heads to quiet Lebanon, PA for the funeral and to settle affairs. His weeklong visit gets extended after he develops a bond with his 17-year-old distant relative/neighbor, pregnant, college-bound CJ (Kitson), and develops feelings for her married, dissatisfied teacher (Mathis). Complicating matters is that after years of tunnel vision and city life, the town's simple ways look awfully appealing to the young man. Writer/director/editor Hickernell's carefully paced, insightful character study covers familiar topics (teen pregnancy, finding yourself) but uses them to deliver universal truths: All small towns aren't destinations for spiritual rebirth; the intimacy there can embrace and suffocate you. A little heavy-handed in spots, but it's definitely worth watching. Hickernell, who also works as a freelance producer and director of photography for Philadelphia media companies, is a Haverford College graduate. Kitson is a theater major at Temple University. *** [NR]

Dumbstruck (Dir: Mark Goffman). Wonderful documentary focuses on five ventriloquists of various skill levels whom we initially meet at the annual Vent Haven Convention in Ft. Mitchell, Ky. Dylan is a 13-year-old who sheds his shy demeanor when giving voice to his wise-racking dummy; Kim, a former beauty queen, dreams of ascending to the next level—cruise ships; Dan, a respected veteran, struggles to balance family with his non-stop work schedule; and Bucks County resident Wilma, shunned by her family and behind on her taxes, views ventriloquism (and its community of practitioners) as her salvation. Then there's Terry Fator, who after 20 years of professional failure, became a Las Vegas sensation after winning TV's America's Got Talent. To his everlasting credit, debut director Goffman treats his subjects with compassion and respect, which prevents Dumbstruck from becoming a feature-length spoof on overzealous kooks: It's really a stirring, poignant look at the difficulties that arise when someone tries to make their dream come true. **** [NR]

The Princess of Montpensier (Dir: Bertrand Tavernier). Starring: Mélanie Thierry, Grégoire Leprince Ringuet, Gaspard Ulliel, Lambert Wilson. In 1567 France, the beautiful Marie de Mézieres (Thierry) gets hearts aflutter as the Huguenots and Catholics battle. Marie is forced to marry the Prince of Montpensier (Ringuet), a man of substance but lacking the flashy qualities that would enchant a young lady. She's madly in love with Henri de Guise (Ulliel), a dashing swordsman whose scars only enhance his brooding sex appeal. Helping to navigate her way through the tumult is the prince's right-hand man and mentor, Chabannes (Wilson), who in tutoring Marie about the ways of the world develops a dangerous affection for her. Takes a while to get going, but director/co-writer Tavernier's shifty focus—the movie doesn't invest all its attention on one character—and the emotional maneuvering keep you involved. The Princess of Montpensier is an intelligent romantic drama that never settles for pat answers—a rare find these days. *** [NR]

Review of Arthur (2011)

It's not that "Arthur" is a bad movie--it's not. But that's exactly why it should have never been made.

Also, Jennifer Garner has to stop being a breath of fresh air in second-rate movies. This is precisely the career path that will lead her to star in an NBC sitcom in three years' time with Kate Hudson and Topher Grace. Please don't let this happen.

By the way, what's Garner's workout routine? Lifting paint cans full of cement between takes? Bench-pressing the craft services table? Aspects must be culled from from Strongman competitions. Her arms and back looked huge in "Arthur."

I'm pretty confident that I could handle all comers in a female actress battle royale, except for Garner and possibly Angela Bassett.

Anyway, this review originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with the permission of everyone's favorite redhead, Trina Robba.


Joel and Ethan Coen's inspired, Western noir take on 1969's sappy True Grit demonstrated the cardinal rule of remakes: Make sure the property is in dire need of repair before considering renovation. If a director can't improve the original product, then what's the point of revisiting it?

That question is practically a leitmotiv in the new version of Arthur, a movie so unnecessary that its mere presence is redundant. The 1981 original, starring Dudley Moore as the millionaire man-child title character and John Gielgud as his long-suffering valet, doesn't creak like some older comedies, a testament to director Steve Gordon's charming, crackling screenplay. Rent the movie—it holds up.

But since Gordon, Moore, and Gielgud are all dead—and no one consulted me—we're subjected to the unhinged Russell Brand as the rudderless, fun-loving tycoon. An alcoholic womanizer whose idea of a good time is taking the Batmobile for a joyride around New York, he's a tabloid editor's best friend. If not for Arthur's ever-present nanny, Hobson (Helen Mirren), the young man's obituary would have been written years ago.

His mother (Geraldine James), who runs a mega-successful, multi-faced corporation, has had enough. She gives her only child—and heir to the family fortune—an ultimatum: Arthur must marry Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), an attractive corporate go-getter, or he's cut off. He reluctantly agrees, but the arrangement becomes stifling when Arthur meets the working-class, adorably attired Naomi (Greta Gerwig). There's obviously a connection between the two, but can love triumph over financial security?

I'll give you one guess. The lack of romantic suspense doesn't affect the enjoyment. What kills Arthur 2.0 is that its attempts to shake things up fall so flat. Susan was a minor character in the original. Here she's a shrill, humorless Gordon Gekko in Prada monster whose only function is to make the audience realize whom Arthur should choose. And she has a father (Nick Nolte) who's an overtly threatening, rough-around-the-edges man's man! (Having two pros like Garner and Nolte play such stupid sieves should be a federal violation of some sort.) Mirren is fine as Hobson, but director Jason Winer makes her into a tolerant surrogate mother. The beauty of Gielgud's Oscar-winning performance was that though he stood by his ward, he couldn't stand Arthur.

The only notable improvement from the first film is the casting of Gerwig. Long considered a cinematic breath of fresh air, the Greenberg star steals the movie as Arthur's soul mate. She remains blissfully natural. Some actresses have to huff and puff to reach winsome, but like Amy Adams, Gerwig does it without breaking a sweat.

That brings us to Brand. Moviegoers might remember the manic British comedian for his work as hipster doofus rock star Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the unbearable Get Him to the Greek. Brand is best enjoyed in small doses; he's almost like the comedic version of Daniel Day-Lewis. In Arthur, Brand is in nearly every scene. He isn't annoying, but his character's constantly shifting personality is. One minute, Arthur is witty. The next, he's child-like. Suddenly, he's partying like Charlie Sheen's eager protégé.

It's hard to warm up to an undefined character, and Brand's physical presence makes it even harder. Equipped with the build of a buff scarecrow, a mop of inky black hair, and a gaunt, serious face, he never resembles lovable. Brand looks so much like a professional goofball that he's a stranger in his own movie. This is the wrong kind of showcase for Brand, who can't even convey that underneath Arthur's lavish tomfoolery lies a lonely, miserable man. He's nothing but good times.

Arthur is just a marketing gimmick, a purposeless new spin on an old favorite, like blue ketchup or square bagels. It's not that Arthur is terrible. Thanks to Gerwig and a quip-heavy script, it's sometimes sprightly and fun. Overall, it's OK. But if you're going to remake a borderline comedy classic that's remembered fondly by millions, OK won't cut it. Judging by the movie's lackluster showing at the box office, audiences agree. [PG-13]