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February 08, 2005 - Image 8

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2005-02-08

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February 8, 2005
arts. michigandaily. com
artsp age @michigandaily.com

ART s

6

8

' Prep'
refreshes
boarding
stigmas
8y Evan McGarvey
Daily Music Editor

wt sb psirfrigLn.l of ln&e, xd tat 01,p,vllee. 0V,*M0$ 01.3*3*3,3, ,me..W.t

curtis sitten fe

The boarding school novel has long
been supported
by the grandfa-
therly twin pil- Prep
lars "Catcher in By Curtis
the Rye" and "A Sittenfeld
Separate Peace."
Both classic Random House
books show a
world of boys
in seclusion - young men of idle
wealth tucked away in corners of
New England, playing lacrosse and
biding their time until their eventual
move to New Haven or Princeton,
With her debut novel, "Prep," Cur-
tis Sittenfeld draws a new picture of
the classic East Cost boarding school.
First, her protagonist isn't particu-
larly snobby or precociously intel-
ligent; Lee Fiora is a Midwestern
girl who finds herself at Ault School,
overwhelmed academically and envi-
ous of each rich Greenwich girl who
looks like "she had spent the after-
noon playing tennis in the sun." Sec-
ond, nothing really happens. With
no cataclysmic personal events or
historical backdrop, the reader is left
to witness the minute details of daily
life in a boarding school. Finally, the
characters are shaded in wonderfully
gray tones. Lee isn't completely like-
able and even the most frigid of the
privileged ice queens occasionally
shows flashes of tenderness.
Sittenfeld initially sets Lee up as
a pure observer - a watcher who
catalogues the everyday behaviors
of Ault notable figures. For all the
unique elements often mythologized
and romanticized about boarding
schools, Sittenfeld never relies on the
blunt stereotype. After all, on some
level high school is high school.
Expectedly, Lee, ever the blue-

collar scion, cycles through a series
of romances: her awkward courting
with a dinner-hall worker, the rec-
ognition of a lesbian friend and, of
course, her book-long passion for
Cross Sugarman, the WASP-y, flax-
en-haired golden boy of her class.
The author captures the often un-
romantic, crudely sexual mechan-
ics of juvenile relationships with
unnerving accuracy.
Sittenfeld's canny eye and
unflinching storytelling lend an air
of authenticity (the author herself
attended Groton and now teaches at
St. Alban's) that end up as "Prep's"
biggest selling point. She handles
the details of oft-misunderstood
places with a calm restraint and a
surprisingly aged reserve. The smell
of a dining hall at night, the endless
nightly rituals that mark the close of
day, the shape of the green spaces
around stately classrooms - Sitten-
feld captures the places that prep-
school graduates remember best.
The characters in the novel are, by
and large, plausible but sometimes
fall into their expected shapes. Read-
ers may find the protagonist's constant
social climbing and working-class
resentment grating. Additionally, few
of the characters are without major
secrets; It's the only true gap in the
novel's believable narrative.
Instead of simply rehashing the
well-worn stereotypes of older prep-
novels and films, Sittenfeld takes a
fresh look at modern schools and
finds wounds in new places. She's
effectively retold the story of a fas-
cinating subset of American teenag-
ers with realism and brutal honesty.

Courtesy of Fine
Line Features
"This way,
grandma.
It's almost
time to
watch
'Murder,
She Wrote'
reruns."

ACTING, DIRECTING CARRY CONTROVERSY-LADEN DRAMA

By Zach Borden
Daily Arts Writer

Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies") may not yet

be a household name, but for
the past few decades, he has
moved up the ranks of Ameri-
can film, becoming one of
the most revered and gifted
writer/directors. The British-
born filmmaker has proven to
be a master storyteller when
it comes to the intimate, often

Vera Drake
At the Michigan
Theater
Fine Line Features
focusing in on the

forms illegal abortions for troubled girls in her
community. But when one of the women she has
helped nearly dies, Vera's balanced life crumbles
the instant a criminal investigation leads right to
her front door.
What makes "Vera Drake" such a noteworthy
film is the way Leigh balances the story. While a
more conventional filmmaker might allow the saga
of Vera's arrest to become needlessly controversial
and political, Leigh doesn't ever let the weighty
theme of abortion overshadow Vera's individual
tragedy. The characters are honest with their feel-
ings about abortion, but most of their emotional out-
bursts result from Vera's shocking situation. Leigh
does not give the story a firm stance on abortion
either, but instead wisely chooses to make the film
about robust family bonds and unbounded loyalty.
Leigh, who is known to improvise much of the
dialogue with his performers, also makes sure
the characters stay true to themselves. There are
several moments that have the potential to irri-
tate audiences, but instead are taken in much
more convincing directions. Ultimately, Leigh
achieves a magisterial tone with his story; he
puts up harsh ironies and contrasts London's
then-strict laws with human sensibility. Leigh's

assured visual style also adds to the film's real-
ism; his shots glow with concise details and the
dark color scheme emphasizes much of the mov-
ie's seedier undertones.
A cast of British character actors, led by Imelda
Staunton, heightens the film's realism and emo-
tional power. She gives a rich and textured per-
formance perfectly capturing a simple woman
whose life and joy is taken from her in an instant.
Staunton makes Vera so endearing and warm that
it's impossible not to sympathize with her. The sup-
porting players, particularly the actors who portray
Vera's family, are also excellent as they deal with
inner turmoil and tremendous conflict while facing
the difficulties of Vera's situation.
As a character-driven narrative that is poignant
and challenging, it's clear that "Vera Drake" is
not a film for everybody. Nonetheless, the film's
emotional core is sincere and resonant and Mike
Leigh's commitment to the tricky material is more
than admirable. "Vera Drake" is incredibly satis-
fying, and Staunton brings a unique power to the
title role. And while Leigh has already achieved a
very distinguished career as a filmmaker, his lat-
est effort is another exercise in cinematic bliss that
truly is one of his best achievements.

English working class and their personal dramas.
Leigh's latest, "Vera Drake," is a tough and rivet-
ing character portrait, featuring all the director's
trademarks, including a troubling resolution that
does not offer any easy answers.
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton, "Sense and
Sensibility") is a cheerful and motherly cleaning
woman in early 1950s London, who lives a rou-
tine life with her husband and family in a tiny,
cramped flat. While her life may appear painfully
ordinary, Vera keeps a dangerous secret: She per-

Folkster
lfndS new
partner
By Andrew M. Gaerig
Daily Arts Writer
Will Oldham has been fucking
with fans' perception of him for the
past decade. Oldham, the Kentuck-
ian folk/country musician behind
the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moni-
ker - as well as the Palace fran-
chise - mixes the arcane poetry
and melody of
old-time Appa-
lachian music Bonnie
-nd humanizing, "Prince" Billy
vulgar frivolity and Matt
so well that it's Sweeney
<difficult to take
': him seriously. Superwolf
After all, serious Drag City
artists don't mix
,aw-droppers
like "Lift it up / Above the light /
'Twas the wonder of my life" with
= Napoleon Dynamite" goof like
And the creature form of superwolf
/ Will meet you eye-to-eye" in the
same song, let alone right frickin'
next to each other. Serious artists
lon't grow Allen Ginsberg beards
- and dress in full-bodied, hot-pink
jumpsuits - as Oldham did during
a performance at the Detroit Insti-
tute of Arts last spring - do they?
This arcane mix of spiritual folk
and wordly humor is the paradox on
which Oldham has built his career
and a cult following.
On Superwolf, Oldham teams
up with indie-rock veteran Matt
Sweeney, who was last seen gigging
with Billy Corgan's doomed-from-
the-moment-it-was-named Zwan
project (he held a more respectable

MAT 2W NE

RW~ B LW

'American Dad' doesn't know best

By Nick Kochmanski
Daily Arts Writer
E
With the recent wave of conservatism and political

7 j

awareness sweeping the country, it's
only fitting that Fox would choose
to air "American Dad" after the all-
American tradition of Super Bowl
Sunday. The latest Seth MacFarlane
("Family Guy") creation, featuring a
CIA agent named Stan Smith, is a
well placed complement to one of the

American
Dad
Fox
year's biggest ath-

:

:

,,, &{OL

post in overlooked mid-'90s rockers
Chavez). Oldham handles all of the
vocals, and while Sweeney is cred-
ited with "music," there's no doubt
that some of Oldham's powdery
acoustic pickings made their way
into the writing process. It'll be a
great injustice if Sweeney's part in
this project goes overlooked, how-
ever, as Superwolf contains a spark
that was missing from Oldham's last
offering, the flowery Master and
Everyone.
If nothing else, Sweeney's sticky
electric arpeggios provide a more
interesting bed for Oldham to lay his
old-world tenor onto. The music still
wouldn't break a pane of glass mov-
ing at full speed - no one bothers
to thwack a drum or vibrate a bass
string for the majority of the album's
44-minute runtime - but Oldham
sounds inspired again, moving away
from the placid folk mush of Master.
His voice is liquid here, rolling in and
out of the descending guitar lines of
"Blood Embrace" and caressing the
soft distortion of "Lift Us Up."
Sweeney's star turn comes on

the album's first song, "My Home
is the Sea." He lights up his ampli-
fier, splitting the track down the
middle with a layered, ringing gui-
tar riff. Elsewhere, Oldham turns
in a beautiful, whimsical lyric on
"Bed is for Sleeping" and mashes
hearts on "Rudy Foolish," Oldham's
first spine-chillingly great hymn in
years. k
Ultimately, who wrote what on
this album will be the type of detail
lost to history, as Sweeney proves
himself amply capable of inspir-
ing the inscrutable Oldham. For an
artist considered essential in some
circles, Oldham's catalog is surpris-
ingly inconsistent - Superwolf is
his first great record since 1999's
all-world I See a Darkness. Old-
ham is equally capable of eroticism,
humor and knee-buckling sincerity;
at his best, he can do all three in the
space of a few couplets. Superwolf
embraces his contradictions, and
Sweeney's guitar reminds that while
we'll probably never solve Oldham's
puzzles, looking for clues is half the
sadistic fun.

letic competitions.
"American Dad" is, in many respects, similar to "Fam-
ily Guy," only more patriotically oriented. The show is
centered around a middle-class family consisting of a
buffoon-like father, misunderstood son, liberal daugh-
ter, attractive wife and inexplicable space alien. With
the help of a creepy German goldfish, these characters
join together to create a show rife with comedy.
The pilot begins with an early-morning breakfast
where it is revealed that Steve, the awkward son, is going
to ask out the hottest girl at his school. This, of course,
piques the interest of his super-masculine father, Stan,
who offers advice on what it takes to woo a woman. As
the episode progresses, however, Steve is turned down
by girl after girl. Even after employing the services of
the lamest dog this side of "Air Bud," he remains unsuc-
cessful. Naturally, Stan jumps into the ring to help, rig-
ging his son's school election in order to place his boy
in a position of power.
The pilot also involves a subplot concerning the seri-
ously obese alien Roger and Stan's daughter, Hayley.
Since Hayley's mom has put Roger on a strict diet, he
offers to write Hayley's term papers in exchange for a
vast assortment of Little Debbie snack cakes. Besides
revealing Roger's gross yet fascinatingly hilarious ten-
dency to spew green goop every seven hours, this sub-
plot is underwhelming and poorly developed.
The biggest problem facing "American Dad" is that it
doesn't make the most of its unique premise or larger-

Courtesy of Fox
"I hope the title of 'Earth Girls Are Easy' is correct."
than-life characters. Rather than tailoring any smart
writing or sharp dialogue to Stan's CIA job, this latest
Fox cartoon falls back on recycled "Family Guy" humor.
The show cuts away to random scenes of absurd events
to elicit laughter, which, though sometimes funny, hin-
ders the show from branching out. However, despite its
weaknesses, "American Dad" is still enjoyable. Though
it's not the most original new show of the season, "Amer-
ican Dad" successfully delivers a few laughs.

Improv orchestra prepares for tour

By LUoyd Cargo
Daily Arts Writer
In a city as artistically diverse and
remarkable as Ann Arbor, the Creative
Arts Orchestra stands out as a rare gem.

Founded in 1992 by University Music
prof. Ed Sarath, the Creative Arts Orches-
tra has a fluctuating membership that
ranges from 15-30 musicians and cur-
rently features diverse instruments and
tools ranging from the tuba to laptop
computers. The concerts are typically
improvised, emphasizing skills such as

dominated by the traditional big band." As
one of the only ensembles of its type in the
country, let alone the world, the Creative
Arts Orchestra enjoys a position of prestige
rarely found in student-led music groups.
"Cadence" magazine remarked during a
review of their acclaimed album, Strata,
that "this is what spontaneity brings forth

6

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