Friday, February 12, 2010

A Sit Down With Saget

By Morgan Rousseau

Talking to Bob Saget, it’s hard to believe you are not sitting there with his former TV alter-ego, Danny Tanner. That is, until he drops the F-bomb.

Saget has battled the clean-cut, single father image of the ABC family sitcom “Full House” since it first aired in 1987. On top of that, Saget’s corny humor on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” branded him as a wholesome family comedian. But after bidding adieu to both shows, Saget exposed the darker side of his comedic talents - raunchy humor.

In an interview with the Collegian prior to his performance at Curry Hicks Cage Friday night, Saget opened up about his long-standing career in comedy, and where he's found himself now.

“Stand-up gives you a rush like nothing else. It’s nothing but fun,” said Saget, adding that he feels at home with a college audience.

“I think that’s one of the reasons people like me, because I appreciate that we have great, amazing young people,” said Saget.
Saget’s risqué style of humor was perhaps best depicted in the 2005 film “The Aristrocrats,” in which he tells the infamous dirty joke of the same name. He admits the joke is so risky that when he tells it at stand-up shows he usually loses 90 percent of laughs in the room. Needless to say, he told it Friday night.

“It depends on the audience. If I look down from the stage and see a 10-year-old kid sitting there, I’m going to clean it up a little bit. I mean, I won’t start talking about his mom’s t***ies, because...well, because he shouldn’t be having thoughts like that about his mom, anyway.”

But going out on a limb is what fills the seats, particularly if it’s a college-aged audience. College venues are now his forte, or so his tour schedule says. He was right at home with the depraved humor of the average male college student who has daily doses of “Family Guy” and “Opie and Anthony.”

This might account for why his stand-up act“This Ain’t Full House” sold out the Curry Hicks Cage on Friday night, and packed hordes of excited students. All chanting his name, of course.

As the scene of enthused pandemonium radiated through the Cage and into Saget’s backstage trailer, the comedian could only sit back and say, “I’d love to go out drinking with everyone here tonight, but I don’t want to get half the campus pregnant. It’s a joke.”

Young adults eat up a chance to hear a 50-year-old Danny Tanner -who we thought we knew so well - spewing a rainbow of profanity and talking about Uncle Jesse’s pubic hair, or lack there of.

Somewhere in the middle of his act, Saget grabbed a guitar and toyed around with it, swearing like a belligerent teenager. He was just too excited to be up there, it seemed, because his act was all over the place. He would start a story that wouldn’t draw to a close for another 40 minutes, or so. Tangents were a-plenty Friday night, and Saget was dishing them out like a caffeinated line cook. He intermittently named off some of the Internet’s most heinous adult Web sites; this was where male humor took over.

The manner of his stand-up is simple: swear constantly, be blunt and to the point, but most of all, remain confident. Anyone can try it and fail miserably, but Saget knows he is Bob Saget, and he is confident in every sense of the word. As we all saw Friday night, it is hard to stop a man who thinks he is The Man. I

Friday’s stand-up routine also consisted of UMass students screaming to Saget, and him playing off of it with a friendly yet offensive response. Combine that with rancid jokes as dirty as they come. As his set grew to a close, clusters of obnoxious girls rushed the stage, rambling incoherently and pleading for Saget hugs - but considering his cracks about college-aged girls, he must have enjoyed it.

Saget says he didn’t decide to be a comedian at a young age. Originally he was interested in filmmaking.

“When I was eight, my dad, who was a butcher, gave me an eight millimeter camera, and I played around with it,” Saget said. “I made all the cliché effects and showed them off. It was like “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

He went on to study film at Temple University, where he won a Student Academy Award for a documentary he made in 1977 titled “Through Adam’s Eyes.” After college Saget went to work at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where he met some of the most successful comedians in history, including Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.

“I was interested in acting but never thought I’d be good,” said Saget. “But I worked for free six years at The Comedy Store, and got to meet and become friends with some of the best comedians.”

In the 1980s the comedian turned to acting, and because of the popularity of his stand-up he gained roles in television shows, like “Bossum Buddies.” He also had a small role in Richard Pryor’s 1987 movie, “Critical Condition.”

“I’d land small roles in television shows, but at the end I’d be edited out, and the credits would still say ‘guest Bob Saget’ at the end,” Saget said.

But it’s the role in “Full House” as Danny Tanner that made the difference in his career. Saget said it was just a matter of good timing that he was cast on the hit show. He didn’t expect the show to run eight years.

With his success in “Full House,” ABC offered him the role of the host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and Saget accepted. Starring in both shows made him the first person in television history to have two top rated shows in the same week.

Since leaving his role as the host of “Home Videos” and the close of “Full House,” Saget has remained busy with directing, playing small roles in movies and doing stand-up. He has also tried having his own show again called “Raising Dad,” but it only lasted one season. Now Saget is in the process of developing his Web site,

Look for him later this fall, as he will be returning to television as host of NBC’s new game show “1 vs. 100.”

“The show has been on Europe, but now we are bringing it to America. It’s kind of like ‘Hollywood Squares’ but its one person answering against 100,” he said. “It’s Hollywood squares with diarrhea.”

As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian

NYC Band Looks East for Inspiration

Consider The Source Slams NYC with Ethnic Fusion
By Morgan Rousseau

They consider it “Progressive Ethno-Fusion,” while others would call it ideal late-night entertainment for the college aged youth of New York City. The eclecticism reflected in their music is ever-present in New York, from the Turkish corner store to the Indian restaurant a few blocks away. Consider The Source is a band that appreciates the layers of cultural dimensions that make up their city. Thanks to their relentless dedication and independent promotion, CTS plans to make this their year to shine.

On Nov. 10 at The Village Underground on West Third St. guitarist Gabriel Marin, a tall young man with classic rock star shoulder length blonde hair, shows off a distinctive style of playing his fretless guitar – hunched over and eyes closed, clearly lost in a musical realm of his own making. A Hunter College alum, Gabriel, 25, hails from the Upper West Side in Manhattan, but met fellow band mates and Queens natives John Ferrara and Justin Ahiyon, both 24, through a heavy rock circuit of musicians when they were in their mid-teens.

Bassist John and drummer Justin, both Queens College alumni and Oakland Garden natives, perform with a mesmerizing ability to raise your heart rate with steady, growing energetic rhythms. Justin’s vigorous drumming combined with a hot, cramped venue like The Village Underground prompts him to go shirtless mid-set. They are hard to miss, even through the smoky air of the tiny club. Sweaty and furiously thrashing, something in their music still manages to come across as serene. Most likely it’s the Eastern tint in their musical style.

Something all three of these young men have in common, though, is their down-to-earth modesty. They smile and hug members of the audience when their set ends. They even hit up near-by bars, inviting everyone in attendance to tear it up with a late night after party. Their amicable reverence for each other is nearly tangible. These guys share an unspoken relationship for each other, thanks to their music.

“We’ve become friends through the music. The three of us have a unique style on our instruments,” Gabriel said in reflection of the band’s roots. CTS began at a party one night about three years ago when Gabriel and Justin started jamming together. “He was the only other person that was into Turkish music,” said Gabriel. Soon after they brought John into the mix.

What culminated was, as Justin put it, “a dynamic connection in music,” so the musicians decided to make it official. They named their band, started recording their improvisations and booked venues.

Their use of Indian and Mid-Eastern musical style comes straight from the source – in January 2006 Gabriel and Justin traveled to India in search of authentic lessons in life and the exotic music of the land. They proudly announced on their homepage, that “we're traveling across the globe with our instruments, in pursuit of music and inspiration.” According to Gabriel, “The trip didn’t change our style as much as it reconfirmed that it was the direction we wanted to go in.”

While in India the pair crashed with the musical Gurus they were studying under in Calcutta, and at other times stayed in cockroach ridden youth hostiles. They were completely submerged in the poverty and chaos of the city, but took it as a learning experience. After a thirty-three hour journey to the South, they were pleased to stay in a decent apartment with other percussion students. They opened their minds, and tuned into the teachings of the East in the hope of brining a newfound strength to their music.

And so they did, only to return to the U.S with a deeper connection to the music of the Far East, and a spirituality that beckoned them to explore the idea of genre bending.

According to Gabriel, this aspect of their music includes Bulgarian folk tunes, Jewish folk music, Northern and Southern Indian classical music, Persian music, Turkish music and American jazz and heavy metal undertones. “We all grew up playing jazz, and I was really into classical, too,” Gabriel said. “[The fusion] comes from the metal, jazz and classical music in our blood. We were a fusion band for a year and a half before we went.

John picked up on his band mates’ enthusiasm for the sound right away. “It’s rhythmic, and in-depth. Once it was exposed, we had to explore it,” he said.

Justin described Indo-Eastern music as having the ability to “make you leave yourself,” like a vehicle for spiritual transportation. Once they started applying this aspect to their improvisational jamming, the two sounds of East and West just fell together.

With no lead singer, the band compensates for their absence of vocals with the sporadic insertion of one-liners from an electronic sampler, mostly in the form of quotations from the movie “Borat.” CTS said they are inspired by movies, and enjoy having a sense of humor when they perform because it lightens up their performance, and gets a kick out of the crowd. John said that the band is an instrumental trio that has no problem taking risks with their audience. He said that their strong instrumentation works for them because they have open-minded fans that produce what Justin considers “an atmosphere of love.”

“They are throwing love at us, and it inspires us to give it back,” he said, with a sudden surge of excitement. Justin then went on to describe the key ingredient to their crowd stimulating ability – he and his band mates thrive on the energy of the audience during live performances. Justin feels that fans may be disappointed with their studio albums after experiencing the invigoration of high-energy music at their live sets. Their studio album doesn’t quite capture that lively, improvisational peak that defines their live set. The band agrees that their albums may be more subdued and less captivating than their live performances, so the band’s next album will be recorded during a live New York show set for Feb. 2008, date to be announced. At the present time the band is focusing on promotion and publicity, and in turn they are taking a breath from booking many upcoming shows. Their next performance will be on Dec. 18 in Philadelphia, but they announce new shows on their Myspace Music site,, or where their two albums, Esperanto (2006) and Consider The Source (2005), can also be purchased.

As published in the Queens Times Ledger

Tool Shakes The Stage

The Tweeter Center Awakens With a Darker Art

By Morgan Rousseau

Their live performance is an emotional experience that channels our anger, excitement, inspiration and fear. And still, after a five year hiatus, Tool is still known for the exceptional quality of their live performance. On Friday the Tweeter Center in Mansfield welcomed Tool, along with thousands of their patient fans.

Most of the audience went wild with ferocity at the first instance of the band’s presence on stage. They started the show with “Stinkfist,” one of their comparatively better known songs from the album Aenima.”
The stage wasn’t embellished with decór, and neither was the band. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan, who has sported over the top costuming in past shows, replaced black body paint and leather briefs with an orange windbreaker and jeans. Regardless of the simple scenery, Tool still managed to engage the audience in an intense experience fueled by stellar music.
Shortly into “Aenima,” aesthetics found their way into the show. Although many venues offer large screens behind the stage, The Tweeter Center offers no such thing - so visual stimulation wasn’t too prevalent. But there were a few things to liven up the visual aspect of the show.
Thanks to two tiny screens on each side of the stage, the crowd watched the uniquely unsettling “claymation” film-art done by Tool’s guitarist, Adam Jones. Above the crowd tufts of smoke interrupted blue and green laser beams.
Although the band opened with one of their older songs, most of their set consisted of new songs from their album, “10,000 Days.”
After “Aenima,” they took it down a notch with “The Pot,” only to spike everyone’s adrenaline again by playing “Forty-Six & 2,” followed by “Jambi.”
The audience’s reaction showed a clear distinction between their old and new songs. Although their new songs were well enjoyed - their old ones were celebrated in the crowd. It was then that hair went flying in chaotic directions, and fists boxed the air.
The middle of their set consisted of the songs, “Schism,” “10000 Days,” “Rosetta Stone,” “Wings for Marie” and “Lost Keys.” But the highlight was yet to come.
A good performance knows how to simulate the ultimate performance - sex. Tool’s set had a deliberate arrangement designed to bring the audience higher and higher with excitement; but just before reaching the peak of satisfaction, they lowered us down to catch our breath. In between longer energetic songs the band soothed their crowd with their usual instrumental breaks, which are similar to what they do on their albums.

“Lateralus” delivered the climax. Anyone who is a fan of any solid musician or band knows what this means - complete satisfaction. A complete release shared by everyone within the radius of the performance.
Next, they played “Vicarious,” their first single from “10000 Days.” After that Keenan gave the words, “Peace the f*ck out.” But as confused fans waited in angst for something more than the band’s departure, the venue filled with the unmistakable grunting chants of “Ʈema.”
Tool has always done a good job of keeping their music as the center point, and separating themselves from the spotlight. This show was no different as the four band members maintained their exact places on stage
Their set lasted a mere two hours, which seemed short, but also understandable considering the Tweeter Centers’ 11 p.m. curfew.
After the show, like any other Tool performance, there is a feeling of relief and relaxation. Their musical delivery is an emotional and interactive release of many ferocious feelings.
While their music isn’t as aggressive as it used to be, it’s almost as stimulating. Their new songs are more political, whereas their earlier songs were more emotional, sexually aggressive and philosophical. Though still dark and heavy, their sound is not as hard or “thrashy.”
The band has often praised their fans for listening and respecting Tool as artists, and listening with their hearts. The fact that the band can take a lengthy break, and still have thousands waiting for them when they come back to the stage says a lot about their fan base’s dedication.
The band has withheld the test of time since their first release, “Opiate,” (EP) in 1992. Since then the band has released five more albums; “Undertow” (1993) “Aenima” (1996) “Salival” (2000) “Lateralus” (2001) and most recently “10000 Days” (2006).
All four members of the band gave remarkable performances; drummer Danny Carey produces hypnotic percussions, Adam Jones is mesmerizing on electric guitar, while Justin Chancellor delivers magnetic bass lines. And Maynard is a musical poet of exception. If you haven’t witnessed him stomping his leather bound boots in the dark corner of a morbidly lit stage, you should.
As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Bon Jovi Rocks the Garden

By Morgan Rousseau

Some music knows how to shine only momentarily in the rolling spotlight of pop-culture. But when Bon Jovi made pop meet metal in the early 1980s, his band’s classic style of hard rock learned to last as long as his good looks.
Bon Jovi’s music hooks the pop crowd with its clean, catchy tunes, but gives just enough grit to grab hold of those metal heads. Up-beat and badass sans swears, Mötely Crüe could never pull it off (good choice, Heather Locklear).

One year older than my mother, Jon Bon still manages to bring a blush to her cheeks and a flush to my own when he graces the stage in perfectly (painful-not-to-reach-up-and-grope) painted on denim. The Jersey-born front man stopped off at Boston’s TD BankNorth Garden (formerly known as the Fleet Center) Dec. 10 as part of his band’s “Have a Nice Day” world tour.

When you have the time of your life at a concert — with your parents — you know that the musician in question must be, eternally, an icon. I learned this first hand as my parents led my boyfriend and me through a packed arena dappled with fans of all ages, but mostly one gender: female.
When the lights dropped, the crowd went wild. Screaming women, hands on their husbands’ shoulders, jumped up-and-down in search of Jon Bongiovi Jr., whose band appeared on stage without the leading man

Within moments, the first tunes of “Last Man Standing” resonated, and Jon’s voice rose along with his image, which stood on a platform in the back of the audience. Jon bravely trekked through the crowd toward his band on the main stage, and rocked into a high-powered set of “You Give Love a Bad Name,” a song that set the energetic tone for the rest of the night.

The band rocked through hits like, “Complicated,” “Born to Be My Baby,” then a personal favorite, “Runaway.” Bon Jovi jammed out some Petty with a cover of “I Won’t Back Down.” The band varied from the classics and the new hits to keep the dynamic crowd pleased. We enjoyed the latest ones like “It’s My Life” and “Have a Nice Day,” though I must say the real madness came alive when the foursome rocked their old stuff. The tunes we all love, like “Bad Medicine” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Jon and Richie Sambora shared vocals in an acoustic set of “I’ll Be There for You.” J.B.J made many fans happy that night by venturing into the crowd again for an acoustic set of “Blaze of Glory.”

After about two hours of jumping, jamming and rocking the band took a bow and retreated backstage, only to reappear for an encore of eight songs that had just as much energy as the rest of their show. The band even rang in the holidays with a spirited version of “Run, Run Rudolph.” Finally, they wrapped it up with a soothing set of “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which ended with an exhausted Jon throwing his microphone to the ground with a satisfied grin. Then, Jon Bon Jovi and his band took a much deserved bow. For a quartet of middle-aged men, I’d say the band has maintained their rockin’ vigor with a bang. And my mother would agree.

An Interview With Maynard James Keenan

Tool’s Front Man Talks on Album, Tour and More
By Morgan Rousseau

At times they reach a climax of chaotic release, but approach it with complete control. The band is sometimes understated, and often over-analyzed, but at the core of their raw and powerful music, these five musicians deliver eloquence in its richest, most leather-bound state of glory.

Patient fans both here and abroad wondered where they went and waited as the band’s eclectic members worked on other musical projects. But truly, how long could A Perfect Circle keep us fed? It’s not that “Thirteenth Step” and “eMOTIVE” didn’t have their good points - it’s just that the true Tool fans salivated for their own distinct brand of raw musical meat.

It was finally served. Their latest album “10,000 Days,” surfaced to platinum status after its U.S. release in May of this year, and climbed to top ten of the Billboard 200 charts. But as far as we’re concerned, there’s only one thing that tops topping the charts - and that’s Tool on tour.
Though all members of the band know how to deliver chills, there’s one in particular that stands out as the strange beauty of an uncompromised communication.

His lyrics have left us breathless. A front man painted black and packed with fury - he unleashes a frenzy of emotion that if you’ve ever heard, you’ve surely felt. For a musician that craves the shadow so much more than the spot light, it’s a rare and coveted moment when he agrees to give an interview.

Lucky me.

In a conversation over the phone on Tuesday, Maynard James Keenan said a few things about their new tour, their latest album, and more.

Morgan: What was your initial intention when you set out to make “10,000 days?” Did it have a particular purpose?

Maynard: No. Nothing in particular. We just pretty much explore each other in a room and write music. The result is what it is.

Morgan: I’m sure it’s never smooth when you’re making an album, but comparatively, anyway, was it a difficult album to make?

Maynard: No. they’re all challenging in their own way. We were in the studio for about three or four months.

Morgan: Some of your songs have advocated enlightenment as the key to change. Somewhere in there is a sense of optimism. Do you maintain optimism about people and problems in the world?

Maynard: Optimism? No. I’ve never considered myself an optimist. I think that there is a balance between pessimism and optimism. You find it for yourself.

Morgan: Do you think your music has an influence over the decisions that people make?

Maynard: I’d hope not.

Morgan: Why not?

Maynard: Because if my music has an influence, then that means that other bands have an influence. And if those bands have the wrong message, then they could influence people in the wrong way.

Morgan: But what about your lyrical references to people being sheep?

Maynard: I think that some people act that way. They let anything guide them in any direction. But not all people.

Morgan: And your fans? Do you think you are reaching the same people now that you did at the time of “Opiate’s” release, or do you think your audience has changed?

Maynard: Well, after our first album, we played in front of audiences of 100 people. Now about 17,0000 people show up to our performances. So certainly our fan base has grown. As for the people ? I don’t know what kind of people are coming to our shows, but whoever they are, certainly more of them are coming.

Morgan: When you are touring, how does it compare to play the United States versus other nations?

Maynard: They’re all pretty much unique in their own ways. Every country and every venue is completely different. For every show we give, we make changes and alterations. That’s what makes each show unique. [This tour] is going great so far.

Morgan: I’m looking forward to your show this Friday in Mansfield. I’ve been to your shows before, and the performance absolutely blew me away, especially the aesthetics. How do the shows on this tour differ from the shows on previous tours?

Maynard: It’s hard to say. I’m not very objective. The differences in each show don’t really change how we relate to each other when we’re performing. But as far as what we do and how we do it ? it’s all really the same.

Morgan: Have you come to a point where you would say it’s easier now to maintain your integrity as a band who refuses to compromise their art? Or do you still encounter pressure to conform to what popular culture requires of popular musicians?

Maynard: There’s always pressure. People always want to manipulate other people in power, to seek their own power. You can’t avoid that. We still see it. No matter what, we’ll always face this.

Morgan: Are there any artists out there who you think succeed at stimulating an emotional and artistic consciousness?

Maynard: In general, people that are writing music from the heart. Nobody in particular, really.

Morgan: What’s next?

Maynard: We’re going to Europe.

Morgan: Any plans for another album yet?

Maynard: We’ve just had a baby.

Morgan: Of course.

Maynard: We have no plans yet for another baby. We’re still taking care of this baby.

Morgan: Is the band where you pictured it would be at this point in time?

Maynard: Where I pictured ? I suppose so. We’re always taking things in different directions. But yes, I’m very happy.

As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Woody Allen Scores with Match Point

Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jonathon Rhys-Meyers, Alexander Armstrong, Emily Mortimer
Rated R

Woody Allen’s newest film is gaining critical acclaim as one of his best in years. No doubt Allen has stirred up something peculiar, even for him, but in doing so stumbled on yet another story of human complications that has left audiences contemplating the struggle between morality and destiny.

Perhaps it is Allen’s notorious reputation for delivering intelligent, existential humor through sex, infidelity and irony that brings viewers to the cinema, but in Match Point it is the unlikely twists and curious outcome that leaves them astonishingly satisfied.

The film begins as what you would, but really wouldn’t, expect from Woody Allen. We have a couple of couples, and the inevitable triangle of temptation set to a posh London backdrop. The chemistry between the characters obviously lacks the familiar awkwardness we’ve warmed up to in films like “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” “Mighty Aphrodite” and even “Anything Else,”

After Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former tennis pro, meets a wealthy new friend, Tom (Matthew Goode), he starts to like Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and really enjoys the ins of the family’s rich lifestyle. But after Chris meets Tom’s sexy fiancée Nola (played by Scarlett Johansson) he becomes infatuated with her. Infidelity soon finds its way into the story, and the ball bounces between each lover’s court as games of lust often do. Morality, selfishness, temptation and luck propel Chris’ life in a shaky new direction that culminates into a unique twist of intrigue.

The film is graced by impressive performances by Rhys-Meyers, Good and Mortimer, but Johansson delivers the most passionate act of all. Ah yes, Scarlett. No wonder her face suits perfectly the character she plays, a seductive, out-of-work actress who manages to captivate the sexual intrigue of almost every male character in the film, not to mention every man in the theater. Although she played her part well, the performance doesn’t compare to her 2003 role in “Lost in Translation.” Johansson is flawlessly beautiful in Match Point. At first, the captivating curves of her face, above all her lips, would have done just as well depicting the sensuality of Nola’s character without any words. But as time goes on, Nola’s aura transforms from aloof to a desperation that is trickled with distinct human grit.

Viewers might see similarities between Match Point and Allen’s 2004 film “Melinda and Melinda.” One being that HE’S NOT IN IT, which may contribute to another: it isn’t candidly funny. But beyond lacking the neurotic ramblings of an eternally middle-aged comedic genius, the film centers more firmly on a purpose. Not just an analysis of love; who’s right, who’s wrong, and the unanswerable question, “Well... (adjusts black rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses) why, really?” but more so takes a rather startling look at the magnitude that chance plays in life. The peculiar outcome in Match Point, along with the circumstances leading up to it, examines destiny as an ever present force hovering over our own menial choices.

Before “Melinda and Melinda” clearly confronted the question, “What is the essence of life, tragedy? Or comedy?” most of Allen’s earlier films insinuate that he’s swaying more towards comedy. Now we are left to contemplate a shift from humorous reality to one that is harshly tragic. Match Point makes it obvious now more than ever that Woody Allen has contributed a plethora to modern pseudo-philosophical thought.

The film earned four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on Jan. 30. 2006

Last King of Scotland a Moving, Engaging Work

Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy
Rated R

Director Kevin Macdonald’s Last King of Scotland is an engaging masterpiece. Powerful and at times disturbing, Last King offers a story of power, corruption and relentless brutality. Whitaker’s performance, which earned his nomination in this year’s Academy Awards as the Best Leading Actor, casts a brilliant shadow over the film’s various other deserving qualities.

The charmingly grainy cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle propels the viewer into the 1970s with hectic and bustling camera work. With on-location filming in Uganda, Africa Last King, thrives on the visual reality of the exploited nation. Mantle’s cinema graphic work in Last King won him a Best Technical Achievement award at the 2006 British Independent Film Awards. The on-screen sights are unfamiliar yet tantalizing to the vast majority of viewers — ethnic dances, missionary camps, military men with guns slung over their shoulder at every bus stop and street corner.

Unlike fellow Oscar contender and African based film, Blood Diamond, Last King doesn’t initially give the impression that it’ll be painted in blood. But in Uganda, naivety is short lived. Despite a handful of sickening images, the film succeeds at delivering action without the usual necessity of non-stop blood-shed. The little violence that is present does more than enough to satiate even the hardest shelled desensitization.

And then there’s Whitaker.
While ego-obsessed characters have charmed the silver screen since the early days of cinema, it’s fair to say that few actors are capable of pulling it off. The Texas-born actor’s depiction of former the Ugandan president gives a fresh meaning to Megalomania.

Last King is a story of historic fiction centering on Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy) a young Scottish doctor who takes a job as Ugandan President Idi Amin’s personal physician shortly after his rise to political power. Idealism seems to be Garrigan’s initial flaw. Fresh out of med-school, and with the original intention to work in a Ugandan missionary, his youthful romanticism draws him to Amin’s magnetism like a polar opposite. The two become unlikely pals, and Garrigan is quickly seduced by the palace life. Women, luxury, foreign exoticism; Ugandan life seems lovely to the young doctor until gruesome truths of reality open his eyes to the world outside the palace walls.

No stranger to up’s and downs, most cinema goers are more than capable of smelling a “bad guy” minutes after the opening credits. But Whitaker does himself justice. The actor’s portrayal of the larger than life president initially seduces audiences with good humor and amiable personality quirks before the character’s horrid colors start to show. Garrigan’s admiration for Amin dissolves as the irking underbelly of power and corruption is exposed little by little; hence, persistent suspense.

Playing the role of missionary Sarah Merrit, a familiar yet improved Gillian Anderson (X-Files) did little to disappoint, and even less to impress. Kerry Washington’s role as Amin’s unfaithful wife, Kay, is played nicely, but has a “nothing exceptional” ring to it. The same can be said for McAvoy, whose leading role in Last King drew international recognition for the 28 year old Scot. Garrigan’s character is somewhere between likeable and heroic, but McAvoy’s performance is just likeable. The actor’s ambition seems a little over played, as does his cowering intimidation when in the presence of the overbearing dictator.

Obviously in the midst of an award typhoon, if the supporting cast seems par it’s not because they are mediocre actors (For her role, Washington was nominated for an Image award and a Black Reel award, and McAvoy won a BAFTA award for Best Supporting actor). It’s because Whitaker’s blazon performance makes the film. The actor engulfs the screen much like his character’s persona overwhelms a room. His buoyant presence transfixes with charisma just as a dictator should, which may explain his roughly twenty other nominations or wins, including; a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Drama, a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, a Satellite Award, New York Film Critics Circle Award, and an L.A. Film Critics Association Award to name a few.

All in all Last King is worth much more than its theater ticket or DVD purchase price. Not only does this film address and expose issues of government corruption and politically enforced homicide still plaguing African nations today, but it does so with clout. A hammering leading performance by Whitaker, and the distanced yet unsettling circumstances in Last King are capable of leaving viewers’ lungs bereft of steady breath.

As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on Feb. 21, 2007

Volver climaxes with compelling cast

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Penélope Cruz
Language: Spanish
Rated R

From the opening scene, Pedro Almodóvar introduces his delicate style of mixing morbidity and vibrancy as chatter-box women polish tombs of their departed loved ones. The filmmaker’s signature plasticity is nearly tangible in Volver, as it is in so many of his acclaimed works. Forget jewelry. In this quirky comedic drama even the scenery seems plastic. It’s so drenched in up beat charisma that even when it rains, it soars.

Vovler’s title, which translates to Coming Back in English, subscribes to the overwhelming desire of human beings to know, once again, those they’ve lost. It addresses people in life who have the power to shake our foundation. Their departure often leaves us shattered, and their return is needed to gain stability. Such is the common thread in Volver, as characters go in search of closure, of peace.

Consider, Almodóvar’s 1988 film Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) which features Carmen Maura as the lead role, Pepe. Maura returns in Volver, as the role of Irene, a mother of two grown women. While Maura’s role in Volver is emblematic of a warm, yet strong mother, her daughter’s character, Raimunda, resembles that of Maura’s character in Mujeres. Similar less in circumstance — though both Raimunda and Mujeres’ Pepe encounter extreme situations of stress and action — Pepe’s florescent essence shines through in Raimunda’s high-heeled confidence. To this day, Almodóvar does little to hide his adoration for lively female characters.

Heaving cleavage a-blazin,’ Raimunda’s cups are filled by Penélope Cruz. Her acclaim in international cinema seems to be overshadowed by her few American works, which do the actress little justice. The Madrid-born 32-year-old packed the part of Raimunda with more presence than any of her roles in such American films as Vanilla Sky, Blow and Gothika.

In Volver, Cruz’s character is no lady, at some points vulgar, but she is painted with femininity, both maternal and hard-edged. Her Best Actress award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival laid the way for little surprise at how well Cruz plays the colorful female role. A mother, sister, daughter and niece, Raimunda knows how to take care of business, and those around her. While expressive of emotion, and showing human fragility, Almodóvar’s Raimunda doesn’t lose control in dire situations. She maintains her cool, and does so with perfect liquid lined eyes and floral hike-up blouses. In this nearly all-female cast, other characters also excel at handling crises — they lend each other help, and don’t consider for a moment that any task is undoable.

Another distinguishing feature of Almodóvar’s present in Volver is his characters lack of concern about any consequences that may arise from their drastic actions. This may be attributed to its success at stitching humor into a story that’s built on murder, death, abuse and illness. While the film is a kind of murder-mystery thriller, its plot mainly focuses on the light, comedic queries of the “living” characters, and their strong relationships with one another.

One of the film’s main accomplishments is its ability to dangle questions over our brains, teasing with suspense and alluding to possible outcomes. Then, as though blossoming with resolution, answers fall to our feet with precisely the right timing, mere moments before too much confusion sets in.

A certain sentence haunts the movie, and contributes to the sometimes ambiguous nature of the story: “Someday I’ll explain it all.” Throughout the film, characters assure each other of this. They play off of one another, promising an explanation that ends up partly, though never fully, delivered.

Volver is a film of delayed explanations, but also of high reaching climaxes. While there are enough twists to quench even the driest attention span, the keen observer is able to spot some visibly approaching plot points before their arrival. Despite any anticipation, these twists are brilliantly crafted, and do enough to give viewers the closure that the characters themselves crave on-screen.

The film speaks to the towering endurance of personal anguish that haunts us all when bereft of explanation. It’s a film of confronting the pain of the past, and reconciling with demons that haunt our present. This colorfully written and buoyantly directed film exposes no doubt that Almodóvar’s work is as poignant and pervasive as ever.

As published in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian Feb. 9, 2007