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A seasoned film critic eyes TV’s biography

At 75, David Thomson is the sultan of cinema criticism. British-born but long based in America, he is the author of nearly two dozen film-related books including “Moments that Made the Movies,” “’Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films” and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

Now Thomson has switched his gaze, and his analysis, to the TV medium.

In “Television: A Biography” (Thames & Hudson, $34.95), David Thomson focuses on TV from its individual genres to its broad social impact during the past 70 years. As ever, his writing is bright, puckish and reader-friendly.

At 400 pages, the book is a bit weighty, but not the prose.

But what made Thomson, who had never before put his take on TV between covers, decide to change channels? During a recent interview, he explained.

“I was at a point where I felt that the movies were not really going anywhere very exciting, and that if you were looking for the best American movies, you probably needed to look at television. ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ — they were so much more ambitious than anything made for theaters.

So I began to develop an historical perspective on TV that I had had on the movies for a long time. I’m much more interested now in thinking about and writing about TV than the movies.”

A VIEWER’S BOOK

“You may have watched a lot of TV but never thought systematically about it. I wanted to do a book which would give you a sense that the totality of the medium had been addressed. Not covered, but addressed. And if you have never watched television, after you read this book I think you can say, ‘I understand what television is.””

A DIFFERENT CREATURE

“Our relationship with TV is different than with almost any medium we’ve had before. It’s all well and good for something on TV to be so riveting that you don’t want to miss a moment. But when you tune in to watch one show, you may end up just watching TV overall. There’s such a lot on television that is sort of tidal — it just washes in and out, over you. You turn it on like you would turn on a light, and you may be doing other things. But even if you’re not watching, it enters into you in ambient ways.”

SHORT LIST

Thomson, film’s consummate list-maker, shared “off the top of my head” a few pick TV hits:

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” … the BBC version of “The Singing Detective” … live coverage of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy … “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” … “a couple of episodes of ‘All in the Family’ where Edith is just sublime” … the ESPN documentary series “O.J.: Made in America,” which he calls “a major work” … and, of course, “Breaking Bad.”

“But this time tomorrow,” he cautions, “I would revise the whole list.”

TV PRESIDENT

“With Donald Trump in the White House, I think we’re going to get more of the same as with the campaign: His administration will have to be judged as an ongoing TV show. He is a television person, so I think it’s going to be a presidency of shows and moments. My instinct is, in terms of policy, he’s doing to be dreadfully disappointing to his supporters. But on TV, I think it’s going to be amazing _ until it becomes grotesque.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“We watch stories and stars, but it’s more and more evident that, as TV viewers, we go where the technology takes us. My sense of television is that technology has always driven the whole thing, and I think that will continue. I think more sophisticated, interesting fusions of what we still call television with the computer are going to occur. That will be more important than any sort of new genre or new narrative form in entertainment. And I see the end of the movie house. But it’s inevitable that a cellphone will be built into our hands. So maybe a screen could be implanted in our heads. I think that will happen!”

 

Study shows 2 dangerous chemicals released at Iowa plant

A federally mandated study has concluded that Pella Corp. inadvertently released two dangerous chemicals into the ground at its plant in Pella, Iowa.

The study said pentachlorophenol and dioxin have reached the groundwater.

Only those two chemicals were found at higher than acceptable levels, according to the Des Moines Register.

Pella officials said the contaminants do not threaten the city’s drinking water, which comes from the Des Moines River and the Jordan aquifer.

“There’s very limited exposure to human health for this,” Pella engineering manager Jim Nieboer said. “And really, it’s limited to people who work in our buildings and grounds crew who may be digging in our soil periodically planting flowers and tulips.”

Pella used pentachlorophenol to treat wood, and was stored in above-ground tanks and drums. Although the chemical was widely barred in the 1980s, it is still used as a preservative for telephone poles and railroad ties. Dioxins, a byproduct of pentachlorophenol manufacturing, are described by the World Health Organization as “highly toxic.”

The study was a result of a 2010 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, which required the company to test for 30 different possible sources of contamination. Nieboer said Pella will wait for guidance from the EPA on whether Pella must remove the chemicals from the ground.

“It’s primarily underneath our manufacturing buildings,” Nieboer said. “There are ways we can intercept and remove groundwater. Given the clay soils in Iowa, it could be a very long-term process of removal and treatment.”

Pella spokeswoman Heidi Farmer said the company does not know of any employees who became ill from the soil, but still continue to monitor and test the facility to ensure the health and safety of Pella’s team members.

Duds and gems found on Phish’s ‘Big Boat’

Bookended with a couple of duds, obfuscating some real gems in between, Phish’s 13th official studio effort is an uneven affair.

Big Boat may leave longtime fans of the Vermont-based jam band scratching their heads at some of the choices made while doing little to persuade anyone new to the scene to pay attention to Phish’s studio output.

To be sure, there are songs worth remembering. “Waking Up Dead,” by bass player Mike Gordon, is a standout as are songs the band worked out live before recording, most notably “No Men in No Man’s Land.”

Keyboardist Page McConnell appears to channel outsider musician Daniel Johnston in the refreshingly ragged ditty “Things People Do.”

But “Friends,” the track that kicks off Big Boat, is an overproduced disaster that sounds more like a Pink Floyd outtake. “I Always Wanted It This Way” also sounds like a Floyd cast-off, and not in a good way.

Then there’s “Petrichor,” the orchestrated closer named for the pleasant smell that comes after a rainfall following dry weather. At 13 minutes, it goes on about 10 minutes too long.

“In a world gone mad, world gone mad,” Trey Anastasio sings on “More,” a jaunty rocker that should really spring to life onstage. “There must be something more than this.”

Indeed.

University of Wisconsin-Madison is top party school in US

University of Wisconsin-Madison leaders are chafing under a state-imposed tuition freeze and the football team didn’t crack the Top 25 preseason rankings. But no school in the country throws a better party, according to the Princeton Review’s 2017 edition of “The Best 381 Colleges.”

Here’s a look at how it decides who’s No. 1, as well as other notable “best of” rankings, such as best financial aid and most beautiful campus:

WHAT’S THE PRINCETON REVIEW AND HOW DID IT PUT TOGETHER THESE RANKINGS?

The Princeton Review is a New York-based tutoring, test prep and college admission services company that publishes a book every year ranking colleges in 62 categories. This year’s edition is based on an online survey of 143,000 students at colleges selected by an editorial board.

HOW DID UW-MADISON EARN THE TOP PARTY SCHOOL RANKING?

The survey asked students about alcohol and drug use on campus, the popularity of Greek life and the number of hours they study each day outside of class.

UW-Madison is famous for its parties, especially Halloween and an end-of-year block party. Every home football game is preceded by hours of off-site drinking.

It was last named No. 1 party school in the 2005 survey. Princeton Review senior vice president and publisher Rob Franek noted that the school has ranked among the Top 20 party schools in 22 surveys over the last 25 years.

“You won’t find a more friendly place to be as attendees share brats, offer up beers, and join in singing some of our most memorable chants — all before the game even begins,” one unnamed student said in the survey.

UW officials greeted the news coolly, issuing a statement that called heavy alcohol use on campus a “pressing public health concern” that hurts academic achievement and makes schools less safe. They said incoming students go through mandatory programs to be educated on alcohol use, and that many students drink moderately or not at all.

WHAT OTHER SCHOOLS GET THEIR PARTY ON?

West Virginia University in Morgantown came in second, followed by the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign, which was ranked No. 1 last year. Two Pennsylvania schools — Lehigh University and Bucknell University — filled out the top five schools.

DID UW-MADISON EARN ANY OTHER TOP RANKINGS?

Yes, “Best Health Services” and “Lots of Beer.” It was also fourth in friendliness toward LGBT people.

WHO WON OTHER CATEGORIES?

For students who don’t care to drink, Brigham Young University is the place to be. The private school that’s affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took top honors in the “Stone-Cold Sober Schools” category for the 19th straight year.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has the best financial aid. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst has the best campus food, Washington University in St. Louis the best dorms and Penn State University the best athletic facilities.

If you’re looking for a picturesque campus, head to Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, which was named most beautiful. If you want the best teachers, you’ll find them at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

West Point is tops in the “Students Study the Most” and “Most Accessible Professors” categories.

Amos Lee hones sweet spot he found a long time ago

Amos Lee continues to deliver the kind of laid-back, soulful sound that has set his work apart for years.

He just keeps getting better at it.

On his latest album, Spirit, Lee is in his sweet spot, one that has long prompted one of the more interesting “Who does he sound like?” discussions anywhere.

The truth is, he doesn’t sound like anybody but Amos Lee — though for years now he’s turned out music wonderfully evocative of singers like Al Green in his 1970s-era prime and vintage, mellow Isley Brothers.

With his new record, the first he has produced himself, Lee doubles down on his distinctive style, delivering a fuller sound without abandoning the elegant simplicity that set him apart in the first place. The best musicians know when not to play, and none of the added touches violate that rule.

The opener, “New Love,” is resplendent with understated gospel inflections and brass reminiscent of the late, great Memphis Horns, who of course played behind Green, Otis Redding and other legends.

And Lee’s gentle acoustic playing sets him apart from those greats even as he follows the silky trail they blazed.

That comes through beautifully on a striking ballad called “Lightly,” which Lee builds around a surprisingly elegant banjo riff, and on a tender but morose breakup song called “Vaporize.”

Both showcase Lee’s ability to explore new territory without abandoning the essential goodness of what he’s been doing for years. And they elevate an album that broadens the range of a singer who will never be mistaken for anyone else.

Dolly Parton doesn’t break new ground on new album, and that’s OK

The list of country legends able to do whatever they want musically without alienating their fans isn’t long: Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and maybe a handful of others.

On her new album, Pure & Simple, Parton tests the limits of that license with an odd mix of cheating songs and fairly predictable elegies to endless love she wrote herself.

The sound is stripped-down and agreeable, but the words don’t break new ground — and some are downright cloying.

There is no “I Will Always Love You” or “Little Sparrow” here.

There are a couple of songs you won’t be able to un-hear — “I’m Sixteen,” a parade of cliches about feeling young even though you’re old, and “Head Over High Heels,” which might be a candidate for radio play but won’t inspire much beyond the urge to change the channel.

But here’s the thing: Parton remains impossible to dislike.

What made her great in the first place was her disarming honesty, her cut-to-the-chase openness.

It’s rare for legends to produce original work on the back end of their careers.

Both Johnny Cash and Lynn managed it when they had a little help from their friends, but it’s anything but a given.

So listeners with tempered expectations and an endless love for Dolly will get what they came for here.

There’s enough of her essence to satisfy the most devoted fans, and maybe that’s OK.

Music review: Crystal Castles bring the noise on ‘Amnesty (I)’

Electro-punk noisemakers Crystal Castles return with a lineup that’s 50 percent new and a sound that’s still 100 percent uncompromising. Original vocalist Alice Glass left amid reports of acrimony in 2014, and on Amnesty (I) producer-maestro Ethan Kath is joined by new singer Edith Frances.

The essentials of Crystal Castles’ ethos remain. Frances’ vocals — ranging from ethereal to insistent — counterpoint Kath’s sonic assault on an album that blends electronic bleeps, industrial screeches and the human voice to often unsettling effect.

The title seemingly refers to the human rights organization Amnesty International, and the lead track is “Femen,” a mix of synths, electro beats and snatches of choir that may reference the Ukrainian feminist group of the same name.

Or maybe not. Crystal Castles are reluctant to explain their work, leaving listeners to decide whether to be infuriated or intrigued by what they hear.

Frances’ strong voice is blended so deep in the mix that lyrics become obscure. The voice is just one element on an album whose pleasures lie in its patchwork of contrasting textures.

On “Fleece,” Frances sings words of love over jagged noise, while “Enth” sounds like techno night in an imploding nightclub.

Energy builds to the up-tempo “Kept” — the nearest thing here to a party anthem — before the gentle closer “Their Kindness is Charade.”

For fans, the album will likely be a welcome return. Listeners less familiar with Crystal Castles may find themselves puzzled, provoked, shaken and stirred.

‘Behind Closed Doors’ is gripping domestic thriller

The domestic thriller genre is based on a simple theme — sometimes the worst terror comes not from strangers but from those closest to us.

That premise receives a gripping workout in B.A. Paris’ terrifying and often realistic debut. Behind Closed Doors, a best-seller last year in the U.K., is now receiving its U.S. launch.

Grace Harrington expected a happily-ever-after ending when she married successful, charming and handsome Jack Angel after a whirlwind romance. Besides, they aren’t the only couple who decided to wed a few months after they met, nor are they the only ones who married without having first slept together. Jack seems perfect, especially because he genuinely seems to care about Grace’s 17-year-old sister, Millie, who has Down’s syndrome.

But Grace discovers on their wedding night that Jack is only interested in the facade of perfection that his new wife brings to the marriage. By day, she is a virtual prisoner in her bedroom in the couple’s pristine mansion in Spring Eaton, England. Grace knows she has to obey Jack’s every demand and keep up appearances, especially when they have guests for dinner.

Behind Closed Doors alternates between the couple’s past and present, showing how relentless intimidation has affected Grace. Once a bright, independent executive whose job took her around the world, she is soon reduced to timidity. Jack has made it clear that he will hunt her down and harm Millie if Grace leaves him.

Jack’s constant haranguing sometimes makes him resemble a villain from a melodrama who has come looking for the rent. One expects the cape and moustache to appear at any moment. Still, the sense of believably and terror that engulfs Behind Closed Doors doesn’t waver.

Justice Department to review police response at the Pulse

 

The U.S. Justice Department plans a comprehensive review of the Orlando Police Department’s response to the mass shooting June 12 at the Pulse nightclub.

The review will be conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services — known as the COPS Office.

Announcing the review, COPS director Ronald Davis said he commended Orlando Police Chief John Mina for his leadership in asking for the assessment.

“The lessons learned from this independent, objective and critical review of such a high-profile incident will benefit not only the Orlando Police Department and its community, it will also serve to provide all law enforcement critical guidance and recommendations for responding to future such incidents,” Davis said.

U.S. Attorney A Lee Bentley III, assigned to the Middle District of Florida, said, Mina’s decision to seek an independent review of the law enforcement response “is another example of his effective leadership.”

On June 12, on “Latin Night” at the LGBT nightclub in the central Florida city, a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. He pledged allegiance to Islamic State terrorists in his call to police.

Some raised questions about the police department’s response, specifically whether law enforcement waited too long to storm the club after Omar Mateen’s rampage began.

Mina has said an early exchange of gunfire between Mateen and police forced the gunman into a bathroom at the club, where he held hostages. About three hours passed between those early shots and the police-killing of Mateen.

COPS will assess:

  • OPD’s preparation and response to the mass shooting.
  • Strategies and tactics used during the incident.
  • How the department is managing the aftermath of the massacre.

Similar reviews have been conducted in other cities, including Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Bernardino, California; Ferguson, Missouri; Tampa, Florida; and Pasco, Washington.

In Ferguson, an assessment followed the police-shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, and the mass demonstrations that followed Brown’s death.

The federal review led to a series of recommendations for the city of Ferguson and the police department regarding diversity, officer training and policies for responding to protests.

COPS dates back to 1995 and was established under Bill Clinton’s administration.

In ‘Tarzan,’ a questionable return to the jungle

Tarzan has been dusted off, his abs polished and his vocabulary spruced up in David Yates’ handsome but altogether pointless “The Legend of Tarzan,” a chest-thumping resurrection of the Ape Man that fails to find any reason for the iconic character’s continued evolution.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why Tarzan has yet again swung back into our lives: Tarzan and Hollywood were born almost simultaneously, like conjoined twins of a new pop-culture machine. The first “Tarzan” silent came just a few years after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ initial novel.

More than 50 films have followed. But as time has gone on, Tarzan has ceded his mass-market turf to a new set of brawny, questionably attired do-gooders, who swing not from vines but webs and grappling hooks. Monkey Men are out; Batmen are in.

Tarzan’s relevance has also drifted. He was originally conceived as a pulpy fable for a society feeling nostalgic for nature as it watched Model Ts roll off assembly lines. Burroughs’ tale coincided with the National Parks movement and the creation of the Boy Scouts.

So if properly outfitted for today’s back-to-the-land trends, Tarzan probably should be a thinner, bearded man who can brew a hoppy IPA and lives off-the-grid in Brooklyn coffee shops.

Can such a vestige of imperial-era imaginations — one dreamed up by a man who never set foot in Africa — be updated to today? “The Legend of Tarzan” suggests not, and the film’s main source of suspense is watching it twist and contort a century-old property into something meaningful.

Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad’s script sets the tale a decade after the discovery of Tarzan in West Africa; seen only in flashback is Tarzan’s origin story, including a more violent version of his famously loquacious introduction to Jane. Tarzan or John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) is living in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). The jungle is far behind him: he’s a Lord, polished and serious but still with ape-like hands that would impress even Donald Trump.

He’s coaxed back to Africa by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American and veteran of the Civil War who seeks to uncover what he believes is Belgium’s introduction of slavery to the Congo. The character, loosely based on a real historical figure, is the most intriguing if awkward addition. A better, more realistic movie could have been made about him.

In the Congo is Belgium’s envoy, Capt. Leon Rom, a linen-suited hunter of diamonds to fill Leopold’s coffers. For this symbol of refinement and menace, the filmmakers naturally turn to Christoph Waltz.

The simplistic historical backdrop of late 19th century Congo here is more cartoonish than even Tarzan, himself. But the atmosphere is richly exotic, full of majestic vistas and vivid close-ups. Filming largely on sound stages, Yates, veteran of later “Harry Potter” films, has firm control of the film’s lushly romantic imagery. You feel that Bogie and Bacall could drift down the river at any moment.

But the film, searching for a purpose and some drama, doesn’t deserve the grandeur Yates gives it. Tarzan, played with sufficient muscle and smarts by Skarsgard, leads an uprising through his ability to communicate with animals and the (largely faceless) natives. He’s a Jungle Jesus returned to fight colonial incursion, and among the more ridiculous white saviors you’re likely to see.

The wildlife is also comically over stimulated. The CGI gorillas appear like Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons on steroids. Effort has been made to make Jane more than a damsel in distress, which she literally denies being at one point. The scene-stealing Robbie breaks though the role’s stereotypes even while still being mired in them.

Agility is the prime trait of Tarzan, but “Legend” has little of it. The film strains to juggle the character’s baggage instead of embracing the tale’s innate silliness and spirit of adventure. (Over the years Tarzan fought dinosaurs and Roman gladiators.)

That this is merely another naked attempt to profit from a well-known property is visible even in the film’s title. There, not even hidden by a loin cloth, is a little trademark symbol next to “Tarzan”: King of the Franchise.