6.29.2007

Film Review: Live Free or Die Hard

by Molly Kenney

Let’s pretend that I was tricked into paying $9.50 to see Live Free or Die Hard when it opened in theaters this week. (Of course I wasn’t drawn there by Bruce Willis’ beautiful baldness and geriatric grace or by my longstanding, closeted love for Die Hard.) The theater’s demographics were skewed heavily toward the adolescent male group, which I define as inclusive of those actually suffering from puberty and those who have maintained the immaturity and social awkwardness of the phase roughly 30 years after it is clinically deemed finished. As the lights dimmed, I glanced at the expectant eyes of the four boys I came with, adjusted my giant bag of Reese’s Pieces, and stole another sip of the immense pink lemonade that emptied my bank account. This fourth film of the Die Hard series, directed by Len Wiseman, was bound to be another testosterone-infused and mindless (no relationship implied) summer movie, I thought.

About an hour and a half in, as Bruce Willis balanced on the wings of a burning military jet spinning toward a giant, crumbled concrete overpass, I realized how wrong I was. This was not another stupefying summer moneymaker. It was an incredibly entertaining and hysterical stupefying summer moneymaker.

Dear old John McClane (played by Willis), battle-scarred (from three previous escapes from hard death), is asked by the FBI to escort New Jersey-based computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to Washington, DC for questioning about a break in the government’s computer network. McClane and Farrell both become soldiers in the fight against the evil cyber-terrorists when McClane saves Farrell from their assassins and continues to protect him as the country melts into chaos. The U.S. government, portrayed with subtle sarcasm as pretentious and idiotic bureaucrats, bungles the recovery effort, a repeat of FEMA and Hurricane Katrina as Farrell reminds us, and falls victim to a full-scale cyber-takeover of the country. As predicted, copious amounts of explosions, gunfights, and ass-kickings, along with the completely improbable survival of several characters, lead to McClane saving the day. It all makes for a fairly entertaining storyline and everyone’s acting is passable, but it’s the action that gives this film its glory.

McClane and Farrell battle through the streets of downtown DC, a power hub in West Virginia, and the cooling silos of the Social Security Administration. McClane blows up a helicopter with his car because, he tells Farrell, he “ran out of bullets.” The cyber-terrorist’s girlfriend is a gorgeous martial artist (played by Maggie Denise Quigley who goes by the Hollywood handle of Maggie Q) who manages to pose as an FBI agent, almost kill McClane, and wear knee-high stiletto boots the whole time. McClane fends off both her and an armed hitman while wedged in the trunk of an SUV dangling by its back bumper in an elevator shaft. It’s all ludicrous, but it’s loud, fast-paced, and absolutely riveting.

I admit I joined the obsessive Die Hard fans in the theater in cheering each time McClane blew up something or someone and then stopped to say something vaguely witty and very badass. He deserves a cheer. Thanks to him, Americans can live free and be very entertained.

(Promotional film poster from 20th Century Fox. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)









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iVoryTowerz Radio: Testaments & Subtexts

Are there hidden subtexts in this week's podcast and what do they really mean if they truly are there? You may have to listen to this one and ponder it a bit to find out. But beyond the messages, the music finds the usual range, from soul to punk with lots of straightforward rock in between, not to mention a journey back to the roots of rock 'n roll. This one should go down nicely with some lemonade and cherry pie on a hot summer day. And don't think too hard about the lyrical elements or you just might doze off with a smile on your face. Of course, that may be the point.

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)

Playlist

“Push It” by Garbage
"Was It Ever Mine" by Jon Troast
“Dark Stranger" by Kristy Kruger
"Chuck E's in Love" by Ricky Lee Jones
"Put Your Hands on Me" by Joss Stone
"If You Want Me to Stay" by Sly & The Family Stone
“Two Can Have a Party” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
"Latchmere" by The Maccabees
Cover Me: "Lost in the Supermarket" by The Afghan Whigs
Jeff’s New Wave: “Damaged Goods” by The Gang of Four
"Short Skirt/Long Jacket" by Cake
"Sex & Candy" by Marcy Playground
"36-22-36" by ZZ Top
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crue

(Mp3 Runs - 1:12:57; 67 MB.)

(Photo by calchan of Singapore via stock.xchng.)





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6.28.2007

The Joys of Air Conditioning

by Allison Doolittle

The sweat drips from the top of your head down your neck, careening along your spine to form a wet spot on the couch. Hot, sticky, tired, you sip a glass of water packed with ice cubes. Here you are in Texas where living without air conditioning – even for one day – is miserable. But, the AC is out. What do you do? Open the windows, turn on the fans, and blast the music.

For the last 50 years, families in Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Florida have relied on air conditioning for their day-to-day survival.

Air conditioning as we know it has only been around for the last hundred years. Evolving from a process used to preserve food, “The Apparatus for Treating Air” was patented in 1906 by Willis Carrier. His innovative mechanism to control humidity and temperature was pioneered for factories, stores, schools and even movie theatres in the 1920s. He created the “Weathermaker,” an air conditioner for use in private homes in 1928, the same year AC was installed in the U.S. House of Representatives. It wasn’t widely available to middle class families until after World War II. From then on, air conditioning became a necessity.

AC changed American architecture, allowing for new innovations and less reliance on cross-ventilation and thick walls. AC changed the economy, enabling businesses and factories to stay open even during the hottest months. AC even changed cars, allowing Americans to roll up their windows.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Americans spent 15 billion dollars on AC in 2001. Two thirds of this spending is by homeowners in Southern states. Some estimate that 20 percent of summer energy spending in the U.S. goes toward air conditioning.

Now, as global warming concerns heat up, it appears that the cost of air conditioning may escalate in the coming years. Some say our cooling systems may even contribute to global warming. “We hide from global warming behind our AC units without ever thinking about how much those AC units add to the problem,” writes Cindy Richards of The Chicago Sun-Times. Though we may get hotter in the long run thanks to global warming, Americans are certainly not ready to give up the pleasures of AC.

It’s easy to forget the importance of AC in everyday life… until it stops working, of course.

(Here's a playlist of some summer songs for listening with or without the AC, but with the AC is definitely a cooler proposition.)

“Broken A/C Blues” by Duane Jarvis
“Ya Viene el Sol” by Ozomatli
“Temperature” by Sean Paul
“She’s So Cold” by The Rolling Stones
“Son Fo” by Africando All Stars
“Cold as Ice” by Foreigner
“Summer Heat” by Etta James
“Cold Sweat” by James Brown
“Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter
“Here Comes the Sun Again” by M. Ward
“Island in the Sun” by Weezer
“Slow Dancing in A Burning Room” by John Mayer
“Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer
“Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
“1865 (96 Degrees In the Shade)” by Third World

(For an alternative take on summer songs, please also see: "The Songs of Summer," or "iVoryTowerz Radio: Summer Sounds.)

(Photo of an air conditioner on the island of Cyprus by jurek d. of Lublin, Poland via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

Editor's Note: This post was inspired by a summer air conditioning outage in Allison's home in Central Texas. We wish her well as she gets the AC back. This is Allison's last post on the blog, at least for now. We were lucky to have her for a second stint with us for part of the summer and we wish her well.






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6.27.2007

Guatemala Surrenders in the War on Drugs

by Rick Rockwell

Guatemala ran up the white flag of surrender in the Drug War this week.

Before a standing-room-only crowd in a hearing room of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 26, Jose Guillermo Castillo, Guatemala’s Ambassador to the U.S. admitted his government has little control over the growing influence of organized crime. Castillo noted narcotics gangs operate with impunity in Guatemala because the criminal justice system is compromised and broken. He also noted that drug mafias have infiltrated most major government institutions in his country.

To those who follow Guatemala, this is not new. Castillo noted this sorry state of affairs began during the long civil war (which ended in 1996) as some parts of the counter-insurgency apparatus spiraled out of control and became involved in smuggling and other corrupt activities. Some might even argue Guatemala’s instability began with the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954, which destabilized the country, an event that remains controversial.

What is new about Castillo’s words is that a representative of the Guatemalan government comes before the U.S. Congress and freely admits such weakness. Diplomats usually attempt to put a brave face on the poor conditions in Central America. Not this time.

Indeed, the last two Guatemalan presidents have noted that so-called “clandestine groups” may at times wield more power than the government in Guatemala City. However, the ambassador’s report was all the more disheartening because if this is what he is willing to admit in public, one might ask how much more is going wrong? Plus Castillo had to deal with the ignominy of hearing members of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere refer in an offhand manner to the arrest of the head of Guatemala's anti-drug agency last year on smuggling charges, among other incidents that reflect the grip drug cartels hold on his country.

Castillo did hold out a faint ray of hope that his country could establish a joint commission with the United Nations to investigate clandestine groups and their links to human rights abuses during and after the war. However, the administration of President Oscar Berger has grasped at that solution almost since Berger came to office in 2004. Although Berger and the U.N. signed documents to establish the commission last year, the legislation to approve that agreement has been stalled in Guatemala’s Congress. Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) pressed Castillo about the prospects for such a commission. Ever the diplomat, Castillo said he still has hopes but he admitted he would have to give Delahunt an off-the-record answer later about the hold up.

Testifying at a hearing on this topic later, Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America* predicted the U.N. commission idea would face significant resistance in Guatemala’s Congress. “We hope this hearing will send a strong message to Guatemala’s Congress for approval,” Thale said.

Castillo said his country needs a commission with judicial powers to take on the cartels because such a commission will be “like the Untouchables” and it would be “beyond reproach.”

But the problem such a commission must confront is huge. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 70 percent of all cocaine bound for the U.S. is shipped via Guatemala. Rogue elements of the military have been caught up in the drug trade for a generation and their links to Colombian suppliers are strong. The record of the U.S. in trying to help post-war Guatemala is poor. For those who take the War on Drugs seriously, the report from the Guatemalan front shows the situation is dire.

And it will take a lot more than the U.N. and Eliot Ness to clean it all up.

For related posts, please see:

*The author served as a consultant to the Washington Office on Latin America in 2002 and 2003 on the War on Drugs in Central America.

(Photo of Ambassador Jose Guillermo Castillo by Roberto Ribeiro for the Organization of American States at the signing of side deals for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005; the photo is in the public domain.)







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6.26.2007

Music Review: Nick Lowe's At My Age

by Jeff Siegel

Nick Lowe has been writing three-minute pop songs for so long and in so many styles that his career seems almost impossible. His first band, Kippington Lodge, shared a record label with The Beatles. He has been on hand for country rock, punk and new wave, rockabilly, and Americana. He gave Chrissie Hynde her start, played in a supergroup with John Hiatt and Ry Cooder, and produced two albums for Johnny Cash’s step-daughter.

So what’s so odd about his new record, the aptly titled At My Age? Nothing really, for anyone who has been paying attention. Lowe goes Countrypolitan on this one, mining the Nashville sound of the 1960s and early 1970s that produced Ray Price, Patsy Cline, and Floyd Cramer. But this is not your grandparents’ Countrypolitan, the commercially-driven, cash-jingling music that drove Willie Nelson so crazy that he let his hair grow and invented outlaw country (check out the album cover of 1962’s …and Then I Wrote, in which a clean-shaven Willie is almost unrecognizable). This is more tasteful, more ironic, and a whole lot more fun; call it Lowe-apolitan.

Lowe has been drifting in this direction since 1994’s The Impossible Bird, which featured “The Beast in Me,” a notable cover for Cash. But Lowe never embraced the style in quite the way he does here. This is his best album of material in a more than a decade, without any of the lesser songs that marred Impossible Bird, 1998’s Dig My Mood, and 2001’s The Convincer. Lowe covers Countrypolitan’s Faron Young with "Feel Again," reinterprets the rockabilly standard "A Man in Love," and throws in nine original songs. "I Trained Her to Love Me," a typically Lowe piece of tongue in cheek (about a cad who breaks women’s hearts because he can) has garnered most of the attention, but "A Better Man," "Long-Limbed Girl," and "Not too Long Ago" are fine additions to the Lowe canon.

What is also significant about At My Age is that there is nothing on this record to remind listeners of punk or new wave Nick, nothing even that sounds like his country rock days with the much underappreciated Brinsley Schwarz. He has cast off his past. This, after 42 years in the record business, is as impressive as it is difficult to do. But what else to expect from someone as talented as Nick Lowe?

(The cover of Nick Lowe's At My Age is from Yep RocRecords. To hear "The Club" from At My Age, along with a visual retrospective of Lowe's record covers, please check below.)








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6.25.2007

Stem Cells & The Politics of Morality

by Laura Snedeker

For President George W. Bush and the anti-science wing of the Republican Party, every embryo is sacred. Last week, the president again vetoed legislation for federally funded stem cell research, citing an ethical dilemma.

“The Congress has sent me legislation that would compel American taxpayers for the first time in our history, to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos,” the president said in an attempt to appeal to the GOP’s so-called “pro-life” base in the run-up to the 2008 election.

The president and the right-wing Christians, who oppose stem cell research on the grounds that it requires the destruction of potential human life, don’t care about the potential for curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or neurological diseases caused by shrapnel to the brain. For all they worship Ronald Reagan, they haven’t followed in the footsteps of former First Lady Nancy. After a decade of personal experience caring for a husband afflicted with Alzheimer’s, she came to the conclusion that America had already wasted too much time debating that could be better spent curing diseases.

Conservatives ignore the fact that most of these embryos will be destroyed whether or not they are used to further the advance of science and medicine, but instead have proposed adoption as a means of preserving the millions of frozen embryos lying in hospital freezers. Are there not enough orphaned and abandoned children in this country and around the world, children without health insurance or decent housing, that we need to promote the adoption of the frozen embryos discarded during in-vitro fertilization?

Political rhetoric has transformed Americans from “citizens” with a responsibility to help their fellow man and hold government to a high standard into “taxpayers” and “voters.” Citizens actively participate in democratic government and expect the president and Congress not to legislate morality. The taxpayer and voter have only two responsibilities: To pay their taxes and to go the polls every four years to elect a group of politicians who seek to minimize their participation in a representative democracy.

And while it may be the first time in our history in which Congress has compelled Americans to support the “deliberate destruction of human embryos,” it is not the first time, and will not be the last, that that Americans are compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human life in foreign lands.

During a press conference in 2005 in which he discussed his meeting with parents who adopted frozen embryos, the president affirmed his opposition to using government money to support stem-cell research. Government research facilities would have to use stem-cell lines from already-destroyed embryos, and only the private sector, which already controls a substantial amount of the American health care system, could use living embryos. The president explained that we “should not use public money to support the further destruction of human life."

America operates a multi-billion dollar defense industry, and no president would dare eliminate Pentagon subsidies for the arms manufacturers, who use their weapons on defenseless civilian populations or sell them to ruthless dictators in support of American foreign policy. No president would deliver a lecture on morality to the construction contractors who turn devastated war zones into gold. And then as wealthy political donors they turn around and deposit that gold back in the campaign funds of politicians.

How dare this president, standing upon his altar of human skulls, tell Americans that he knows what morality is? We have been told that it is unethical to use human embryos to research cures for diseases, but that it is necessary, even moral, for Congress and the president to compel American taxpayers to finance wars of terror against living, breathing people.

(Photo of stem cells from mice via the National Science Foundation; the photo is in the public domain. To see a cartoon about Bush's policies concerning stem cells from the Journal News of New York, please click here.)





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6.23.2007

Guatemala: Land of the Generals

by Rick Rockwell

Ready to wade into the political swamp of Guatemala?

One of that country’s leading generals turned politician, Otto Perez Molina is visiting Washington. At one of his sessions before D.C.’s think tank crowd, one of the city’s biggest experts on Latin America whispered to a few folks in attendance that this was an example of how Guatemala is a toxic bog. Not just a bog, but a toxic bog.

Why toxic? Some of it has to do with corruption. Some of it has to do with drugs. Some of it has to do with violence. And some of it has to do with a pattern of looking to the generals for answers.

Perez Molina is running second in the Guatemalan polls so he is a serious contender. He represents a new right-wing party called Partido Patriota (the Patriotic Party). The fact that the party is new means nothing in the Guatemalan political context where parties come and go frequently and no party has won re-election to the presidency in a generation.

Perez Molina’s key resume point is that he rallied the military to thwart President Jorge Serrano when that president tried to suspend Guatemala’s Constitution. But was Perez Molina a leader or a reactionary? Serrano had ordered censors into newspaper offices. The newspapers responded bravely by drawing public attention to Serrano’s power grab, despite the censors. The media got people into the streets to protest, and only then did the military and the oligarchy go along with dumping Serrano.

Perez Molina admits his candidacy is controversial, because during the administration of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, Perez Molina was running Guatemala’s spy agencies. Some may recall this was during the Guatemalan civil war, which simmered for 36 years and left more than 200,000 dead in its wake, not to mention an additional 100,000 who permanently disappeared. So clearly, some believe Perez Molina must have known about the semi-official death squads, the sanctioned massacres, and the military corruption of the era.

Perez Molina denies knowing any specifics. And in a neat political trick, he is running using all the right political rhetoric. He’s calling for government transparency, a fight against impunity, and outreach even to the indigenous communities, which were the target of the genocide of the latter portion of the 20th Century.

Perez Molina is not the first to resurrect a political career from the fetid history of Guatemala’s civil war, ripe as it is with story upon story of human rights abuses. Look at Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. Rios Montt is running again for a seat in the Guatemalan Congress, which carries immunity from prosecution. Even though Rios Montt was one of Guatemala’s dictators during one of the worst periods of the war, he served for years as the top leader of Guatemala’s Congress. After he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2003, he was put on house arrest while courts wrestled with whether he should stand trial for the death of a reporter during street protests engineered by his political party preceding the electoral campaign. But eventually, charges were dropped. Even though a Spanish court is trying to bring him to justice for the wrongs of the 1980s, Rios Montt is smiling and running again.

Meanwhile, Guatemala is suffering from a wave of political violence with representatives of most of the leading parties falling victim to the crimes; more than 50 have been assassinated so far this year.

This is why Guatemalans turn to the generals. They think a strong man can bring order. Cynically, some may also believe the former generals can get rogue elements of the military to heel.

And so prospects are good for Rios Montt and Perez Molina: as the level of insecurity rises, so too do their potential electoral fortunes.

(Campaign photo of Gen. Otto Perez Molina from the Partido Patriota.)









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6.22.2007

iVoryTowerz Radio: Post-Zeppelin (Borrowed & Blue)

This week, we have a program filled with discussions of musicology as we trace the riffs, chord progressions, and lyrical lifts, not just by Led Zeppelin but some contemporary bands too. As often is the case for the underground podcast, the spirit of the blues hovers, while the rockers take centerstage. And for those who are fans of the Hammer of the Gods, there's a hefty slice of the band that defined the 1970s done up in some unexpected ways.


(To stream or download this podcast, click here.)


Playlist

“Standing at the Crossroads” by Alvin Lee & Ten Years After
"Soul Kitchen" by The Doors
“On Your Side" by Madrugada
"Why Not Me" by Locksley
Jeff’s New Wave: “Between the Lines” by The Pink Fairies
"Baby Fratelli" by The Fratellis
"You Only Live Once" by The Strokes
“I'm Walkin'” by Robert Cray
“Bring It On Home” by Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck "Rice" Miller)
“You Need Love” by Muddy Waters
Cover Me: "Rock and Roll" by Jerry Lee Lewis & Jimmy Page
"Custard Pie" by Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes
"Tall Cool One" by Robert Plant
"Daphne" by John Paul Jones
"The Disregard of Time Keeping/Say You Will" by Bonham
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin
"Killing Floor” by Howlin' Wolf

(Mp3 Runs - 1:28:52; 82 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics.

(Photo of the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 from the U.S. Navy; the photo is in the public domain.)

This podcast is also posted as "From the Archives, No. 1."




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6.21.2007

So Long, Tony Blair, and Good Riddance

by Jeff Siegel


One of the differences between post-modern politicians and their colleagues in the old days (which, in this case, probably ended in the mid-1980s) is that post-modern politicians never make a mistake. Ever. It’s always someone else’s fault – sometimes the media, and even when it’s not, there are plenty of other people who can be blamed.

This is an affliction of both left and right. In this country, it is yet another example of why there is so little difference between Democrats and Republicans. The GOP-pretenders who make up the Democratic Leadership Council, who run Congress, and who are the face of the party have as little use for progressives as the people in the White House do. Equally as important, they are as ready to blame those of us who still believe in social justice for their mistakes as the Bush Administration. (You should see the e-mails I get from supposedly progressive politicians in Dallas, questioning my credentials because I have criticized them for acting in an unprogressive manner.)

In Europe, the problem is not as widespread, save for one very important, very influential and one very soon to be packed off into retirement prime minister. Tony Blair is the quintessential post-modern politician – media savvy, terrified of his place in history, and dedicated to the proposition that every mistake made during his term in office was the responsibility of someone else. Assuming he even made a mistake.

Blair has left Labour hanging on by its nails, and the party’s predicament is about much more than his Bush-like manipulation of the war in Iraq. Which was bad enough. There was the Peers for Cash scandal, in which he gave big campaign donors seats in the House of Lords. And don’t forget the BAE scandal, a £43 billion arms deal (equal to about $100 billion) that apparently involved enough payoffs to make a Chicago ward heeler happy, and that Blair’s government tried to cover up from day one. (BAE Systems, by the way, is the fourth largest defense contractor in the world.)

Through all of this, Blair has made no excuses and accepted no blame. He even told Parliament that the BAE deal was not a scandal, since an investigation would take years, damage the national interest and cost thousands of jobs. He certainly sounds like his buddy Bush there, doesn’t he?

But my favorite was Blair’s farewell speech, blaming the media for many of his woes and calling it a “feral beast.” This would be something to rationally analyze, save for two things: The way Blair co-opted Princess Diana’s death, using the media to his own ends; and his palling around with Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper and television tycoon who gives new meaning to the word feral beast. Blair wants what he wants when he wants it, and he really doesn’t care about anyone else. He will not be missed.

(Photo of Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush at the White House by White House photographer Eric Draper; the photo is in the public domain.)

(For another piece on Tony Blair, please see Laura Snedeker's "Tony's Retreat.")






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6.20.2007

Film Review: La Vie en Rose

by McKayle Davison

I’ve always been fascinated by Édith Piaf, the French singer who captivated the world in the 1940s and 50s with her heartbreaking and powerful voice.* I grew up listening to her albums, guessing what the French lyrics meant and thinking that I had never heard anything quite so beautiful as this person they called the “Sparrow.” Naturally, I was thrilled when I heard that French filmmaker Oliver Dahan had written and directed a movie about her life – La Vie en Rose. If nothing else, I thought, it would have to be interesting.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. I would have thought it impossible to make Piaf’s life story boring, but Dahan and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman seem to have done it.

Rose starts with Piaf’s heartbreaking childhood years. Abandoned by her mother (an aspiring singer) as a child, Édith’s soldier father leaves her and she spends her formative years in her grandmother’s brothel in Normandy. Just as she forms attachments and begins to feel secure, her father takes her back to Paris, where he tries and fails to make a living performing on the street as a contortionist. He soon discovers Édith’s talent and she begins singing for their supper.

The beginning is interesting – a childhood in a brothel, life on the streets – but it all goes downhill from there. Most of the film seems like a blur and cuts sporadically back and forth from young Édith in her prime, just getting started in the music business, to the prematurely old and wizened legend.

The film is somewhat redeemed by its actors. Marion Cotillard plays Édith from her teenage years until her death at age 47. Cotillard could be Édith – she is her spitting image, from her oddly thin eyebrows and hunched shoulders to her sorrowful eyes and unapologetic brashness. Gerard Depardieu is also refreshing in his brief appearance as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovered Édith and came up with her stage name – “La Môme Piaf” or “The Sparrow Kid.” But no matter how good the performances, they are not enough to save the film. An actor is only as good as the script – and this script is boring.

Aside from the opening about her childhood, the film is basically two hours of Édith throwing tantrums or, in her older years, shuffling ever so slowly from room to room. While she was famously high-strung and sickly, there was certainly more to her.

The film skims over what many would say were the most interesting parts of her life. For example, as an unwed teenager Édith gave birth to a daughter who died while she was still very young, and this barely warrants two minutes of screen time at the end of the film. There is virtually no mention of her two marriages, except for when she calls for her husband on her deathbed.

My very favorite story about Édith is omitted entirely. During World War II, she reportedly agreed to sing for German officers in exchange for the right to pose for pictures with French prisoners of war. She had fake passports made out of the pictures, which she returned to the prisoners, helping some of them escape. This is what comes to mind when I think of the woman she was – bold, spunky, and always ready to flout convention. I think this story is interesting enough for a whole movie, but it is not even mentioned in this film.

I just can’t wrap my mind around the choices the filmmakers made. There is no peak, no redemption. Maybe it loses something in translation, or maybe they were trying to show a different side of the legend. Either way, it was not for me.

I wouldn’t go see this film. To me, it’s more exciting to stay at home, pop The Very Best of Edith Piaf in the stereo, and lose myself in the tragic voice of the Sparrow.

*To hear the iVoryTowerz Radio take on Piaf, please check here.

(Promotional film poster from Picturehouse. To see the trailer for the film, please check below.)









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Pull up a Chair at the iVoryTowerz Diner

Every month more and more is revealed about those who enjoy this humble blog.

And so this month the realization is that those who enjoy this blog are not stuffy academics spending too many hours inside library stacks, but instead policy wonks who enjoy a good diner with a jukebox. At least that’s the analysis after watching some of the traffic flows of internet use in these parts.

Okay, first to the policy wonks. We have all types here. Even international policy wonks this month, tuning us in from the U.N. in New York and the UNESCO offices in France, along with the World Bank and the State Department in D.C. Let’s not forget those down at Ft. Mitchell in Kentucky either. All of these folks have been following the various posts on Venezuela, especially "The Closing of Venezuela's RCTV & Leftist Orthodoxy" and "Unplugging RCTV: Analyzing the Aftermath."

Let’s also not forget the domestic policy wonks who seemed to like Laura Snedeker's "Foxie Fred Thompson," which attracted readers from the U.S. Army Information Systems Center in Arizona and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Checking up on a potential new boss, perhaps?

Oh, and some of our readers in the U.S. Senate were tracking the immigration controversy through Jeff Siegel's "The Immigration Bill Sellout" and "The Republican Fallout Over Immigration," from guest blogger Frank Wooten.

But what about the folks over at the Federal Trade Commission searching for information on “bad soccer parents” and reading Caitlin Servilio's piece "The Soccer Parents Syndrome." Could they figure out a way to ban out-of-control sports parents? One could only hope.

Well, we’ll ponder that while searching for an affordable dining spot, because many of the capital’s wonks seemed to take to Molly Kenney’s piece "Even Tim Russert Likes a Cheap Eat." Just as many (or more) folks from the U.S. Senate and the State Department were reading that piece as any of the policy wonk specials. And let’s not forget all of those over at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) who also found that piece rather tasty.

But what is always impressive is those in the bureaucracy looking for good tunes. Like the folks at the Customs Service who discovered iVoryTowerz Radio this month. Or those seemingly conservative types at the Inter-American Development Bank who turned out to read Hilary Crowe's "Concert Review: Iggy & The Stooges Hit D.C."

Our favorite musical search this month though is reserved for those at the Justice Department looking for Wall of Voodoo. Given what is going on over at Justice these days, that seems like an appropriate soundtrack.

(Photo by adactio of Brighton, England via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)



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6.19.2007

Music Review: The White Stripes' Icky Thump

by Stephen Tringali

Last year, The White Stripes seemed poised for destruction.

Though Jack White insisted otherwise, his efforts were clearly invested in his other band, The Raconteurs. And the year before that didn’t exactly hold much promise for The Stripes, either.

Get Behind Me Satan, The White Stripes’ 2005 release, looked as though it might be the band’s creative breaking point. The duo had already recorded four albums worth of guitar and drums blues-rock. Did anyone really want to hear a fifth, or even a sixth, record of the same material?

Jack didn’t think so. He turned to the piano, to the marimba, and occasionally back to the guitar. On the band’s latest release, however, White doesn’t seem so self-conscious or so worried that breaking from the band’s original guidelines — blues-rock minimalism based around the number three — will somehow compromise his original ideal — to return rock and roll to its pure, emotional roots.

Icky Thump achieves that ideal better than any White Stripes album since White Blood Cells. Sure, it’s got some of the same embellishments that Jack used on Get Behind Me Satan: the mariachi horns on “Conquest” and the bagpipes on “St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air).” But it’s also got some of the heaviest guitar chords he’s recorded since “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground.”

The album’s title track finds Jack ripping off a series of crunching guitar chords while riffing on U.S. immigration policy: “Who’s usin’ who? / What do we do? / Well, you can’t be a pimp / And a prostitute, too.”

But that’s not even the hardest track Icky Thump has to offer. On “Little Cream Soda,” Jack lays down a galloping, almost metal-like rhythm to support his high-pitched, swirling guitar solos.

The following track, “Rag & Bone,” continues in this hard-hitting style. It’s even got some of Jack’s most playful lyrical somersaults: “Lots of homes we ain’t been to yet / The west side / The south-west side / Middle East / Rich house / Dog house / Outhouse / Old folks’ house / House for unwed mothers / Halfway homes / Catacombs / Twilight Zones / Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.”

Jack’s lyrics always seem to find the backseat when fans and rock critics talk about the importance of The White Stripes. The band’s music — that’s where it’s at, fans and critics say. That’s what’s keeping rock and roll alive. And there sit Jack’s lyrics, always hiding humbly behind a wall of viciously distorted guitar squall.

But take a close listen to “The Big Three Killed My Baby” and hear just how poetically pissed off Jack is with the automobile industry. Or check out “We’re Going To Be Friends,” a song on which the lyrics don’t have to battle so maniacally with the music for attention, and notice just how touchingly he captures childhood memories.

If Icky Thump doesn’t convince fans and critics of Jack’s lyrical prowess, it will certainly force them to notice a few standout lines. “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” concludes with an especially good set of lyrics: “But I can’t help but wonder if after I’m gone will I still have these three hundred mile per hour, finger breaking, no answers, broken, battered dirty hands, bee stung and busted up, empty cup torrential outpour blues?”

He might not know the answer to that question just yet. But he does seem pretty certain — and he should be as long as The Stripes continue making albums as good as Icky Thump — that his own reputation will be safe long after he’s dead and gone, as he sings: “One thing’s for sure. In that graveyard, I’m gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes.”

(Photo © copyright 2005 by Patrick Keeler, and used with blanket permission from Patrick Keeler and the White Stripes; via whitestripes.com. To see the video for "Icky Thump," please check below.)








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6.18.2007

The Court on Crack

by Molly Kenney

The Supreme Court’s decision, announced last week, to hear Kimbrough v. U.S. brings to public attention the ludicrous federal law on cocaine distribution. This law, created in the late 1980s to combat a surge in drug use and drug-related deaths, imposes equal prison sentences of five years for sellers of five grams of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powder cocaine. While the case does not involve the constitutionality of the law and its mandatory minimums, the Court’s consideration of the case shows judicial doubt about the law. Thus begins the much-needed erosion of this double standard.

The Washington Post reported that according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81.8 percent of crack cocaine dealing convicts are black. Crack cocaine is cheaper than powder and easier to buy on the streets, making it a popular drug in inner cities. Powder cocaine is far more expensive than crack and has had an easier time finding its way to the suburbs. By the way, only 27 percent of convicted dealers selling powder cocaine are African-American. Powder cocaine has been the cocaine of celebrities and the president, America’s real role models, and pop culture glamour since long before Eric Clapton sang his hit about the drug.*

One very comprehensive psychopharmacology class taught me that cocaine is cocaine in any form, and critics of the federal law agree. Cocaine has the same effect on the body in either form, but proponents of the law and warhawks in America’s War on Drugs proclaim the especially harmful effects of crack cocaine. Even if this fallacy was correct, busting small-time users and dealers for crack and slapping them with the same sentence as someone carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine (all signs point to a kingpin or trafficker) seems counter-intuitive. The biggest threat in this whole military theatre is the cartels and major suppliers, and the main objective should be eliminating them. Locking up impoverished addicts from the inner cities for five years for one stash is unfair when compared to the big powder distributors, but it’s also just bad policy — and I’m sure the racial composition of the sentencing statistics is just a coincidence.

It’s unlikely that this conservative Court will give judges the green light to sentence more equitably (read: be soft on crime), largely because allowing judges to ignore mandatory minimums invalidates them. However, mobilization for the arguments before the Court should provide publicity and spur discussion on this flawed federal law. Meanwhile, the White House, which asked the Court not to hear Kimbrough, will surely take a strong anti-crack stance. Just another chance for the president to strike a pose, while upholding injustice.

*Although Eric Clapton made a hit of the song "Cocaine," it was penned by J.J. Cale.

For other pieces related to the War on Drugs, please see:

(The photo of confiscated cocaine packets from a Mexican cartel is via the Drug Enforcement Administration — DEA — and the photo is in the public domain.)







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6.16.2007

The Songs of Summer

by Rick Rockwell

Officially, summer doesn’t arrive until next week, but for some, after Memorial Day the summer mode has definitely settled in and the search begins.

The search? The search for the summer song, of course.

A few weeks ago, as the unofficial summer began, on the podcast, iVoryTowerz Radio, the call went out for the anthem of the Summer of 2007.

Everyone seemingly has found a summer anthem, even if they don’t find one every summer. It’s that song that just keeps playing and becomes the soundtrack for the long lazy days.

For this writer, eons ago, Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle, the entire record, seemed to be the soundtrack of a summer. But that was before university days and more complex sounds. In graduate school, just cue up Core by The Stone Temple Pilots, another entire disc that brought the same heat as a summer in Southern California.

Of course, the single song summer anthems are easier: Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Genesis’ “Abacab,” The Talking Heads with “Burning Down the House,” ZZ Top’s “Legs,” Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator,” U2’s “Mysterious Ways,” and Jane’s Addiction with “Been Caught Stealin’.” More recently: Velvet Revolver’s “Slither,” and Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” filled the bill. And there are more.

The B-52s seem to have the ability to capture this writer’s heart in the summer with at least three summer anthems: “Rock Lobster;” “Roam;” and “Love Shack.” The B-52’s just seem to have a certain summer vibe: light, funny, catchy music with a good groove.

So far, this summer has some good candidates but no definitive anthems. On the list: Modest Mouse with “Dashboard;” the new White Stripes’ “Icky Thump;” Wilco’s new “Let’s Not Get Carried Away;” and “Tarantula” by the reformed Smashing Pumpkins.

Feel free to post your own nominations. Something fun with a nice hook is preferred.

(Photo by heydrienne of San Francisco via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)




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6.15.2007

iVoryTowerz Radio: In a Post-Beatles Mood

The voices of two members of the Beatles have echoed through the past week or so, with the release of two important compilations tied to Lennon & McCartney. So we dive into both: Instant Karma and Memory Almost Full.* But there's more than former Beatles in this podcast. Yes, as usual, the journey winds through some interesting niches: Southern rock, blues, and some very rare New Wave too.


(This podcast is no longer available for download.)


Playlist

“Instant Karma (live)” by Duran Duran
"Helen Wheels" by Paul McCartney & Wings
“The Song We're Singing" by Paul McCartney
"Vintage Clothes" by Paul McCartney
Cover Me: "Fat Bottomed Girls" by Salt Creek (by request)
"Cry" by Carlene Carter
"What a Crying Shame" by The Mavericks
“Tears” by Pure Prairie League
“Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites
“Sweet Thistle Pie” by Cracker
"Whammer Jammer” by The J. Geils Band
"I'm a Bad Luck Woman" by Memphis Minnie
"Wholesale Dealin' Papa" by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee
"Mannish Boy" by Jimi Hendrix
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Wicked Game” by H.I.M.
Jeff’s New Wave: “Wacker Drive” by Wazmo Nariz

(Mp3 Runs - 1:21:24; 75 MB.)

*For a full review of McCartney's release, please see Jeff Siegel's "Music Review: Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full." To learn more about Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, (which features the music of John Lennon) or to purchase tracks for charity, please check here.

(Photo of Abbey Road taken in 2004; discovered using Yotofoto and used with a GNU Free Documentation License.)





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