Mini-Review: Strange Powers

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Documentary, 2010

89 minutes

Starring: Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Daniel Handler, Carrie Brownstein, Neil Gaiman, Peter Gabriel

Directed by: Kerthy Fix, Gail O’Hara

In another time, or perhaps another place, Stephin Merritt would be widely regarded as a lyrical genius. He’d be the next Cole Porter, a witty wordsmith whose songs are both deliciously hummable and surprisingly poignant. He’d be famous, in demand, celebrated for his virtuosity…. In his own time and his own situation, though, Merritt is regrettably more obscure than that. While perhaps an indie icon, he is no radio star; his songs are largely unfamiliar to anyone who has not sought them out. Perhaps this suits him just fine. Or, maybe, baroque pop sensibilities and instruments like the ukulele will never be for everyone. Whatever the case, fans like me will have to take solace in the fact that Merritt is, if not an actual star, at least the star of this documentary, which chronicles the ups and downs of his band, The Magnetic Fields, over the course of 10 years. Strange Powers offers an intimate look at Merritt’s process, from writing down ideas to practicing, revising and eventually recording a song. It also gives insight into his close relationship with longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson. For anyone completely enamored of the band’s music, this documentary is a must. It provides access to Merritt that is so rarely granted, and an opportunity to connect with the music on a deeper level. And, no surprise, it has an amazing soundtrack.


Mini-Review: Take the Money and Run

Take the Money and Run

Comedy, 1969

85 minutes

Starring: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire, Jacquelyn Hyde

Directed by: Woody Allen

Written by: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose

Take the Money and Run is the first “real” Woody Allen movie, the one whose DNA we can still find traces of in the writer-director’s most current offerings. It’s a straight-up comedy, but not necessarily slight. In fact, it’s one of the first of its kind: a mockumentary that employs a wide variety of gimmicks to create the illusion of authenticity. Using this form, it tells the story of Allen’s failed criminal protagonist, Virgil Starkwell, a crook so pathetic that his attempt at a bank robbery is foiled by his poor penmanship. It features both footage of Starkwell and interviews with those closest to him; the best subjects are his parents, who agree to appear only on the condition that they be allowed to wear Groucho Marx glasses (to conceal their identity).

The gags are plentiful, and usually very clever. One of my favorites is a scene of Virgil in his high school’s marching band: he plays the cello. He struggles—and fails—to keep up with his classmates, sitting down in his chair and playing a single note, then getting up and scrambling to keep his place in the band. It’s simple and silly, but also a brilliant bit of visual humor, which Allen does quite well anyway. The whole film is full of such scenes, and my descriptions can hardly do them justice.

…So go watch it, learn it, enjoy it, and then we can start our own club. The password will be, “Is Kowalski a midget?!”

Mini-Review: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls

Written By: Patrick Ness / Inspired by: Siobhan Dowd

215 pages

Middle Grade/ YA Fiction

Publisher: Walker Books

First Published: 2011

A Monster Calls, a middle grade novel by Patrick Ness, was written to make you cry. I don’t care if you’re a preteen for whom the book was ostensibly written or a full-grown adult who was encouraged to read this book because I am highly persuasive. This novel is devastating, in the truest, most emotionally-wrenching sense of the word. And how could it not be? A Monster Calls took shape from the notes left behind by author Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could ever begin writing the actual story. It is, in fact, inspired by her own illness, as the main character, Conor, is dealing with his mother’s rapidly progressing cancer. It’s impossible to say how Dowd’s story would have gone, but Ness crafts an impressive, emotionally potent tale of his own based on a very simple premise: a 13-year-old boy, living alone with his cancer-stricken mother, begins to be visited at night by a towering monster who insists on telling him three stories. The plot itself, however, isn’t necessarily important; what matters is how Conor’s interactions with the monster and the people around him help him to come to terms with the more pressing horror of his everyday life. Ness understands grief in a way that very few of us do, although most of us have at some point experienced it. His story is a lump in your throat that doesn’t go away until long after the final page has been reached. Yet, for all that, it is a kind of salve, an exceptionally moving piece of writing that reminds us that grief and fear can only dominate our lives for so long. It is a tough read, but one that is indisputably rewarding.

%d bloggers like this: