Movie Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence

Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville

This Netflix documentary follows Keith Richards as he works in the studio on new songs and travels through America to sites connected with American music. Theses scenes are intercut with archival footage of Richards and the Stones. The influences in this movie are musical – Blues, Country, & Reggae – and Richards talks about his love for music and how he creates his own. Musicians talking about music is the best kind of music documentary. It has all the joy and none of the bitterness of Richard’s autobiography.  As an added bonus, Tom Waits appears for a few scene-stealing interviews.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Author: Eliza Granville
TitleGretel and the Dark
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Stefan Rudnicki
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2014)

Deeply rooted in Grimm’s fairy tales, this novel tells two stories. One set in 1899 Vienna is about a woman given the name “Lillie” who claims to be a robot and is brought to psychologist Dr Josef Breuer (a real life figure who rather creepily keeps Lillie in his home and falls in love with her). The other story is from the point of view of a girl named Krysta who is gradually revealed to be daughter ofthe doctor at a concentration camp in the 1940s. The two stories are connected but I was surprised by how they are connected but also wondered why as it is rather bizarre. The latter parts of the book are most interesting and I like the idea of the power of storytelling but found this story to be rather mediocre beyond setting a creepy, gothic mood. 

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Little Book by Selden Edwards and Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Ballerina (2006)

Title: Ballerina
Release Date: 2006
Director: Bertrand Normand
This documentary documents a couple of years in the lives and careers of five women dancers in the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. These ballerinas – Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Ulyana Lopatkina, Alina Somova, &
Evgenia Obraztsova – are celebrities in ballet-crazed Russia. Each represents a different point in the career from a recently hired graduate of the grueling Vaganova Ballet Academy to a member of the corps de ballet getting her first solos to an experienced dancer venturing out to perform with companies abroad and a ballerina regaining her skills after being sidelined with a foot injury for two years. There are some creepy aspects to this movie such as young girls being selected for Vaganova simply on their body type and the dictatorial behavior of instructors and directors. The ballerinas are guarded in their interviews with one stating that she can only really express herself in her dance. So it is no surprise that the best parts of this documentary are the dance performances on stage, and even more so in rehearsal.

Rating: ***

Podcast of the Week: “Song Exploder: MGMT”

In each episode of Song Exploder, a musician or band breaks down a song and explains how it came together, both in stripping down to different musical tracks and instruments and in the creative process of writing a song.  In this episode the band MGMT “explodes” one of their earliest songs (and one of my favorites) “Time To Pretend,” which is particularly amusing in that it’s a song about playing at being a rock star that actually launched them into stardom.

Here’s the video for the song as well:

Beer Review: Couch Surfer Oatmeal Stout 

Beer:  Couch Surfer Oatmeal Stout
Brewer: Otter Creek Brewing
Source: Draft
Rating: **** (8 of 10)
Comments:  A dark black beer with a buff head, this beer has a sweet and creamy aroma and flavor with chocolatey taste a hint of coffee bean in the aftertaste.  The head persists and coats that glass with some nice lacing.  This is some good stuff!

Movie Review: Moonrise Kindgom

Title: Moonrise Kindgom
Release Date: 2012
Director: Wes Anderson
Summary/Review: Set in 1965 on a fictional, rural island in New England this movie tells the story of a pair of 12-year-old, both outsiders with “behavior problems,” who decide to run away together and the efforts of their community to find them.  This being a Wes Anderson movie it has all the hallmarks of his style – bright colors, symmetry, unusual music choices, and quirky behavior. I tend to waver on whether I like Anderson or not, but I ended up enjoying this movie.  I think it succeeds on the strength of the young actors in the lead roles, Kara Hayward as Suzy and Jared Gilman as Sam, where it could have failed with less authentic acting performances.  Hayward and Gilman even outshine the many big name actors who surround them, including France McDormand and Bill Murray who are either miscast or just underused as Suzy’s parents. The story of the community coming together around the missing children also strikes a nice balance of being sweet without being saccharine and sardonic without being cynical.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Wild Women of Boston by Dina Vargo

Author: Dina Vargo
TitleWild Women of Boston
Publication Info: Charleston, SC : History Press, 2015

This slender volume is chock full of stories of about two dozen women of Boston who bucked the societal norms of their sex and made an impact of history.  These women include leaders, innovators, and activists, but they also include witches, madams, and murderers.  Examples of the former include Revolutionary political writer Mercy Otis warren, art collector Isabel Stewart Gardner, celebrity chef Julia Child, and groundbreaking marathon runner Kathrine Switzer.  One of my favorite chapters is called Biker Babes and tells the story of women who biked their way into history in the late 19th-century bike craze, including Kittie Knox whose cycling skill had to break through segregation in addition to other barriers.  Some of the other stories are more sordid, but all are well-researched and entertaining and arranged chronologically from colonial times to the present day.  The author is a colleague of mine from Boston By Foot, so I may be biased, but I think I’d recommend this collection of important Boston women regardless.
Recommended books: Massachusetts Troublemakers by Paul Della Vale and Eminent Bostonians by Thomas H. O’Connor
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Tinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform by David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban

Author: David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban
TitleTinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995.

This slender but illustrative book traces this history of public education reforms across the 20th century.  Two themes run through the book.  The first is that public schools are set in their ways and very difficult to reform.  The authors show that many reforms are “successful” in that they’re widely adopted but don’t actually improve education.  Other reforms have changed teaching for the better and have succeeded so much that they’ve worked themselves into the basic nature of education so that they’re not even seen as reforms.  One example the authors give is the blackboard, a new technology adopted by schools that has become synonymous with education (even as they’re becoming less common in classrooms).  The second theme of the book is that proposals for reform are cyclical returning to the education policy debate generation after generation.  While the authors acknowledge this is true, they also point out that the context in which these reforms are proposed is always changing, thus the implementation of these  “same old” reforms can lead to very different outcomes as they address different problems.

As the title gives away, the authors find that incremental change and working through reforms by adapting to local needs are the most successful ways of carrying out educational reform that actually improves student learning and outcomes.  Although the book was published 20 years ago, the issues discussed are very familiar to anyone involved in today’s education policy debates, and it serves as a good bulwark against calls for sweeping reforms and disruptive panaceas to today’s education problems.

Favorite Passages:

“We want to probe the meaning of continuity in schooling as well as to understand change.  Change, we believe, is not synonymous with progress.  Sometimes preserving good practices in the face of challenges is a major achievement, and sometimes teachers have been wise to resist reforms that violated their professional judgment.

Although policy talk about reform has had a Utopian ring, actual reforms have typically been gradual and incremental.  It may be fashionable to decry such change as piecemeal and inadequate, but over long periods of time such revisions of practice, adapted to local contexts, can substantially improve schools.  Rather than seeing the hybridizing of reform ideas as a fault, we suggest it can be a virtue.  Tinkering is one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.” – p. 5

“Better schooling will result in the future – as it has in the past and does now – chiefly from the steady, reflective efforts of the practitioners who work in schools and from the contributions of the parents and citizens who support (while they criticize) public education.  This might seem to be just common sense. But in planning reforms in recent years, policy elites have often bypassed teachers and discounted their knowledge of what schools are like today. …

To the degree that teachers are out of the policy loop in designing and adopting school reforms, it is not surprising if they drag their feet in implementing them.  Teachers so not have a monopoly on educational wisdom, but their first-hand perspectives on school and their responsibility for carrying out official policies argues for their centrality in school reform efforts.” – p. 135

Recommended booksThe Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch,
Rating: ***1/2