Category Archives: art criticism

I’m a Kangaroo Kid

Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, would not like my title.  He wanted them to be referred to as “children” not “kids”.  The reasons were obvious.  “Kid” refers to a baby goat.  It’s all about the words.  It’s all about respect and propriety.

4e087cfa232cf.image But Bob Keeshan, though a TV personality, was much more of a teacher than anything else.  His show went on air before I was born, and I don’t remember a moment in my childhood that he wasn’t a part of it.  He was like Mr. Rogers, but came into our lives even before Fred Rogers appeared on the scene.  I watched the show in the mornings before school started, at a time when I walked all the way across our little Iowa farm town to get to school.  He taught me important early lessons in life that were just as impactful as the math and language and social skills I was getting later in the day.  Of course, I had to leave home for school before the show ended at 8:00 a,m. But just like school, watching and participating in any part of it was capable of teaching you something good.

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A lot of what I was able to do successfully as a teacher is a result of how Captain Kangaroo taught me.  He taught me to deliver information in small bites that a young learner with a short attention span could fully digest.  He taught me how to capture attention.  He did it with puppets, a moose, a bunny, and a dancing bear all thanks to Cosmo Allegretti, a versatile and multi-talented performer.  He could focus attention by letting Mr. Moose drop ping pong balls on his head.  Whatever came next after the moment of mirth was something I paid attention to.

He also helped us learn science.  Mr. Greenjeans in his low-key, deadpan way would teach us about eating vegetables, how farmers cultivate plants, and how to handle various small animals like kittens, rabbits, and even ferrets.  Mr. Greenjeans got seriously bitten by a lion cub on camera.  He simply stuck his bleeding finger in his pocket and went on with the show.  Yes, the man was a veteran in more ways than one.  (He was a Marine in WWII.)

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And Captain Kangaroo taught me how to share a book.  I became very good at reading aloud to students because Bob Keeshan and the crew that worked for him showed me how to read with expression, separate dialogue from narration, and build the excitement with pace and voice modulation.  They were experts at reading aloud.

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So, I say this with no disrespect, only veneration.  “I am a Kangaroo kid.”  I watched the show and internalized it.  I developed deep pockets like the ones in Bob Keeshan’s jacket that gave him the name Captain Kangaroo, and I stored many treasures from the Treasure House there that I would later share with my students.

 

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O Mio Babbino Caro

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This beautiful song, an operatic aria by Puccini, is from the comic opera Gianni Schicchi.  But, more important than that is what the song actually means in context.

In the opera, Gianni Schicchi is a con man intent on swindling a family out of their inheritance and knowing all along that he will be destined to go to hell when he dies.  The family is gathered for the reading of the rich man’s will, which is, because this is a comic opera, lost for the time being.  Their main concern is for the money, which rumor has it has all been willed to the church.  But one among them is actually worthy of inheriting the money, Rinuccio the son of the rich man’s cousin.  And, as luck would have it, as it always does in comedies, Rinuccio is the one who, during the manic and desperate search for the will, actually finds it.  And assuming he comes out well in the will, he secures a promise from his mother that if he inherits money, he can marry Schicchi’s beautiful daughter Laurretta whom he truly loves.

But when he reads the will, he is devastated.  The money all goes to a monastery.  He begs Schicchi to help him convince the family that he should marry Laurretta anyway.  This Gianni Schicchi tries and finds it harder than turning water into wine.  So Schicchi is about to give up when Lauretta finally speaks up for herself through the song,

O Mio Babbino Caro (My Beloved Father)

At this point Schicchi is moved by the beautiful song and even more beautiful love his daughter has surprised him with.  He not only agrees to help, but executes a bizarre plan, hiding the rich man’s body and pretending to be him come back to life to rewrite the will.  Now the will favors Rinuccio, and over the protests of the family, he inherits the money and marries his true love, Schicchi’s daughter.  The opera ends with Schicchi singing his case to the audience, telling them in song that going to hell is worth it to aid true love.

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And this, then, is the truth of O Mio Babbino Caro.

Love, expressed through the surprise of hidden talent suddenly revealed, is the most persuasive argument there is.

Whether it is the love in the music suddenly discovered in the overwhelming voice of a little girl like Jackie Evancho or Amira Willighagen, or the late great Maria Callas who also sang the role, or even the singer of Puccini’s greatest work who is yet to perform it and make silly old men like me weep for beauty’s sake, the song is the most persuasive argument there is in favor of true love.

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That is a thing I desperately want to capture in the novel I am writing now, Sing Sad Songs.  Love expressed in music.  Love that reverses loss.  Love that heals all things.  And Love that moves all people.  The love that is masterfully sung in O Mio Babbino Caro.

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P.T. Barnum

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Last night my wife and my daughter the Princess went with me to the movie musical The Greatest Showman at the dollar movie.  I was enchanted.  My wife laughed at me for how much the movie made me cry.  But it was a very touching and timely movie for me because it was about pursuing dreams in spite of economic hardships.  The award-winning songs promote with energy and stunning beauty the notion that you should follow your passion no matter the risk, and that choosing to do so will produce rewards as long as family and love are with you and along for the ride.

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Of course, one has to remember that the whole story is based on the life and work of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who is a lot more like Donald Trump than he is Hugh Jackman.  I really doubt he could sing and dance the way the movie portrays him.  And words like “humbug”, “fraud”, and “exploiter” apply to him in a very real way.

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Barnum was actually one of those wheeler dealers who wants to control the story.  He actively found ways to alter the public narrative about himself and used criticism to help promote his money-making shows.  The idea of bad publicity being just as good if not better than good publicity actually makes its presence felt in at least one scene in the movie.  There is ample evidence that more than a little of Barnum’s efforts were aimed at making himself a star.

And although the movie sentimentalizes his exploitation of freaks and special individuals, giving him credit for giving them self esteem and a means to make a good living, that was really only the fictional Barnum created by Barnum’s own media efforts.

The truth of the matter, though far more fascinating than the movie version of Barnum, does not make for a good musical libretto.  In the movie the theme of special people outcast from the society because of their uniqueness coming together to support each other in a circus is strongly woven into both the story and the music.  The song “This is Me” performed by Keala Settle playing the part of bearded lady Lettie Lutz is a powerful anthem for everyone who feels smaller than they really are because of prejudice, bullying, racism, sexism, or any of the other forms of moronic stupidity that humans are so often guilty of.  I have to admit, the song made me cry even as it filled me with joy.  The musical score of this movie is one that I intend to listen to again and again and again.  It makes the circus seem like an answer to life’s problems.  It is the same feeling that I got the first time, and every time, I ever saw the circus with all its clowns and jugglers, acrobats and lion tamers, bare-back riders and elephants.  And I knew it was all illusion.  All humbug.  But it was pure joy worth the price of the ticket never-the-less.

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The movie was only rated 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I rarely pay attention to things like that.  This musical goes into the category with The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and Mary Poppins of musicals I can’t live without.  Never mind the greedy little man that it is based on.  This movie is about big dreams and even bigger achievements.  And it is well worth the price.

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Only One Star?

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There are certain books that simply have to exist in order for me to be me.  I couldn’t be the person I am without The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  These are all books that have an allegorical element, a trans-formative effect, that shapes how you think and how you live after reading them. Some of these books have not been made into a movie.  Some probably still can’t be.  Others have not been made into an effective movie.  But, then, Disney in 2018 makes a movie version of A Wrinkle in Time that makes me relive the primary experience of the book all over again.

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I was disappointed to see the critics being harsh about the movie.  I had high hopes before going to see it.  Yet, you couldn’t miss the one star rating on the box office rating system of the ticket and show time site I was using.  But my daughter and I went to see it yesterday anyway.  It was far above my highest expectations.

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You see, the novel itself is magical.  The essential characters of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which have to be witch-like, super-real incarnations of inter-dimensional beings.  It is the view of them with open-minded childlike eyes that makes the complex relationships of this story to reality apparent to anyone who thinks clearly like a child.  It is the reason why this book is a young adult novel, written primarily for children, even though the concept of a tesseract is wholly mind-bending in a Stephen Hawking sort of way.  It is the wonder with which the director of this movie lensed the dimension-tessering time witches that makes this movie the best version.  Not like that failed attempt in 2003.  That was almost there, but not quite by half.

MV5BMjEyNjc0NDgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjYwMjcyMQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_ Strangely enough, the things that the critics seem to hate about this version of the movie are precisely the things that I think make it miraculous.

Critics don’t like some of the special effects and the color schemes of some scenes.  Many things about the final battle with evil are seen by them as inexplicably bizarre.  They don’t like the over-use of extreme close-ups on the faces of characters.  And they think the performances of some of the child actors are too wooden and unreal to carry off the story.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

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This is a story that takes place in the heads of the people involved, including the viewer of the movie.  The extreme close-ups pull you into the personal feelings and struggles of the main characters.  Particularly Storm Reid as Meg.  The story is about her struggle as an adolescent to be at peace with her own flaws and self-image while at the same time being responsible for finding and saving her father, as he has completely lost his way on his quest to “shake hands with the universe”.  Meg undergoes a challenge to her self image as she is cruelly bullied by another girl in school.  She has to come to terms with loving her super-genius little brother Charles Wallace.  And she has to weather the changes that occur when she encounters a potential first love in Calvin.  It is a coming of age story that really smart kids can relate to directly from their own personal experience.

This one-star movie with only a 40% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a far better movie than the critics would have you believe.  It is doing quite well at the box office.  Kids seem to love it.  And in my wacky opinion, it is the best movie version of the book to date.  I love this movie.

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The Last Jedi – An Uncritical Review

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There is controversy about this movie.  Fanboys were disappointed that they were so far wrong about what is really important in this movie.  Fan theories were all way off base.  And that was a good thing.  The movie was the best Star Wars movie they have ever made.

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I took my family to see this movie at a Thursday matinee a week ago on a regular screen so I could actually afford it, and we watched good battle evil once again.  And all the usual things were set up to be a replay of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  But this smashed all expectations.  The evil side very nearly won.  And the good side lost almost everything.  So, in many ways, this whole movie reflected reality in America.  Except, of course, for the fact that Emperor Snoke is actually quite smart and crafty.

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But the thing that makes this such a flaw-filled perfect Star Wars movie is how the story builds on everything that came before to make a coherent and very wise theme.  Threads of ideas that exist in all of the previous movies (except the Christmas specials) are drawn together and woven into a whole thematic cloth.  The Jedi tried to bring balance to the Force, and they failed because they thought balance was the same as the Light Side winning out over Dark.  Anakin Skywalker brought balance to the force by bringing back the Dark Side, and then Luke came along to bring the Light Side into balance.  Of course, the rise and fall of Light and Dark will occur over and over again.

This movie isn’t just another hero’s journey where Rey finds a master and learns what it will take to defeat evil.  Master Skywalker does not actually take her on as a student.  He is dealing with his own demons and refuses.  So the hero must learn the lessons on her own.  But she falls into the pattern naturally that Luke recognizes.  And Luke’s hero journey has not yet concluded either.  Luke recognizes his own past in Rey.  Master Yoda reappears and still teaches him something he needed to know.  “Failure is the greatest teacher.”

Rey shows signs in this movie of becoming the hero that win it all in the end.  But this is Luke Skywalker’s moment.  He learns from his personal failure with Ben Solo.  He steps into his old role as the light that guides the rebellion.  He creates a final duel with Kylo that calls upon him to use greater powers of the Force than we have ever before seen from a Jedi of the Light Side.  And he doesn’t win the battle.  He only delays Kylo and the First Order long enough to save Rey and the Resistance.  It will be up to others to fight on in the next movie.  But Luke has finally proved that the Jedi don’t always fail when the next power surge rolls through the Dark Side.  Metaphorical victories count too.  Surviving is a victory in itself.  No movie has ever been so relevant to my own life and struggles.  I have to fail so I can learn too how to win.

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So, yes.  I am a completely uncritical critic.  I only report on the things I love about movies.  I never quibble over how it should have been done differently, or how it disappointed me.  I actually loved the prequels, and Jar Jar Binks was one of my favorite characters.  But I loved this Star Wars movie more than any of the ones I have seen so far.  And the next one may surpass it.  Miracles do happen.  But this movie was the perfect thing at the perfect time in my life to accomplish everything I want a movie to do for me.  I loved it.  I wouldn’t change a  thing, even if I had the power in the Force to do it.

 

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Stranger Things Too

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I admit it.  I binge-watched Stranger Things 2 this weekend, just like everyone else who fell in love with the original.

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The monster is bigger and scarier this time.  It uses new versions of last year’s monster for minions.  The characters are growing and changing and falling in love.  If anything, I love the characters as people even more than last time.

The whole thing is very seriously set in 1984.  You know, the year of Ghostbusters as a summer blockbuster.  References to D & D, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and visual homages to Speilberg movies, gritty urban dramas like The Warriors, and the video game Dragon’s Lair  don’t merely set the scene, they are cultural references artfully used to weave the story together and move the plot, providing short-hand explications of science-fiction-y ideas and Steven King tropes.  There is story-telling mastery to be marveled at here.

And my favorite thing of all here is the satisfying collection of resolutions to ongoing issues.  Eleven re-connects with her past and separates herself from it again.  She finds a place for herself and someone to love her, in more ways than one.  Jonathan and Nancy and Steve work on their love triangle.  And Joyce and Hopper move closer together in spite of the tragedy that tears Joyce’s world apart.  (I can’t talk about Bob.  I identify with Bob. He is just like me in so many ways.  And what happens to Bob?  Ack!  There have to be horrors in horror movies.  And the best ones rattle the foundations that you live on.)

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I am the Uncritical Critic.  I only tell you about the things I love when it comes to movies, TV, books, and music.  And I definitely love this.

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About Bruce Timm

“Today I thought I would tell you about Bruce Timm.”

“Bruce Timm?  Who the heck is he?”

“You know. That artist with that style… you know, the Batman guy.”

“You mean he played Batman?”

“No.  He designed Batman; The Animated Series.”

“Oh, that guy… the guy who draws girls really good.”

“Yes, that’s the one.”

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“He gave all the DC heroes their modern, animated look… their style and flair.  He made them angular, immediately identifiable, and powerful.”

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“Yeah, I think he not only did the Batman cartoon, all film noir and retro-cool, but the Superman series that followed it, the Justice League, and all the cartoon series and movies that went along with those.”

“But that’s not all he did, either, is it?”

“No, there’s more.  He wanted to be a comic book artist, but before he got into animation, Marvel and DC turned him down.”

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“I heard he worked at Filmation for a while.”

“Yes, he got a chance to draw and design characters for Blackstar, Flash Gordon, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra; Princess of Power, and the Lone Ranger.

“Dang!  He was busy.  But only superhero stuff?”

“In 1989 he went to work for Warner Brothers.  He worked on Tiny Toon Adventures.”

“That Spielberg/Bugs Bunny thing?  The one with Buster and Babs Bunny?”

“Yeah, that one, believe it or not.”

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“Tell me more about the girls.  I want to hear about him drawing girls.  Wonder Woman in Justice League was hot.”

“Showing you is probably better than telling you.  Be prepared to cover your eyes, though.  He liked to draw the female figure nude and semi-naked.”

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Betty and Veronica from the Archie comics.

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“I like how he draws pretty girls.”

“You would.”

“He’s the artist you wish you could be, isn’t he?”

“Pretty much.  He’s about four years younger than me.  If I had gone the comic-book artist route instead of becoming a public school teacher, our careers might’ve been parallel.”

“Except he has talent.”

“Yeah, there’s that.”

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