Friday, April 07, 2006

When Do We Eat?

After watching this movie, I’ll never, ever think my family is the least bit dysfunctional. The Stuckmans are a large Jewish family gathering together for their annual Passover meal. Unfortunately, none of them really want to be there and all of them are warped in some way. For example, the dad runs a Christmas ornament company, the oldest son has recently and unconvincingly remade himself as a strict Hasidic Jew after failing as a high-powered business executive, and the oldest daughter is gay and shows up with her African-American girlfriend. But wait, there’s more: the youngest daughter is a very hands-on sex therapist, the younger son has a healthy drug habit, the mom might be having an affair with their construction worker, and the oldest son and his attractive female cousin are irresistibly drawn to each other in strict violation of his Hasidic beliefs as well as common decency. Stir all these elements together and it makes for a very interesting dinner engagement. Did I mention that young son slips the uptight dad a hidden hit of Ecstasy to spice things up?

The movie is set almost entirely during the Seder dinner ceremony at the family home. There’s very brief but adequate back story for each character as they step away from their normal lives to join the family for dinner. Dad hates the ceremony and wants to get through all of it as fast as possible, which is fine by most of the family. However, he does go through enough of it that non-Jews get a healthy glimpse at the many rituals involved. We also get exposed to some trippy drug-induced visuals when Dad starts rolling, adding some interesting visual flair to the proceedings.

While the basic concept is to throw all of these freaks together and watch hilarity ensure, there’s enough interplay between all of these related foils that viewers get a strong sense of the love they ultimately feel for each other. Although they may profess to hate each other, it’s obvious that everything will work out just fine in the end.

The cast is far from A-list, but it is fairly deep and well-known for what appears to be a very low-budget affair. The biggest treat is the presence of Jack Klugman as the grandpa, although his voice has been reduced to such a breathy rasp that his limited lines are frequently unintelligible. Leslie Ann Warren is probably the next most recognizable face as the mom, followed by Shiri Appleby moving from her alien days on Roswell to this role as the very free-spirited sex therapist. Max Greenfield is a virtual unknown but gets the best role as the Hasidic son since he gets to play with the most conflict between his strict faith and his lust for his cousin and past wealthy life.

The film is very straightforward, moving along at a crisp pace without any melodrama or needless exposition. The wrap-up is fairly obvious, as even the most dysfunctional of families always find a way to work through their differences and stick together. It’s no main course, but it’s a delightful appetizer that will keep you satisfied until the next big comedy rolls around.

Teddy Pendergrass - Teddy! Live in '79

I’ll admit it, I knew very little about Teddy Pendergrass or his music before watching this dvd. Sure, I knew the name, but I’d be hard pressed to name even one of his songs. Still, it was impossible to pass up the prospect of a live R&B performance filmed at a Lake Tahoe casino in the late 70s. Think of the possibilities: ridiculous costumes (especially on the audience members) matched with funky, soulful grooves, all wrapped up in a casino lounge environment…solid gold!

While Pendergrass built up a solid name for himself during the late 70s, his performing career was largely curtailed in the aftermath of an auto accident in 1982 that left him paralyzed. He continued to enjoy some popularity throughout the 80s and still records sporadically, but this dvd is nearly the only available record of his performance peak. And what a record it is.

As the show begins, Pendergrass takes the stage dressed in an all white ensemble including a flowing cape/robe and proceeds to work up a mighty sweat through his incendiary performance during the first couple of tracks. After slowing things down with a moving cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”, he launches into a medley of his hits from his previous group, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Then it’s back into his own catalog for the rest of the show, with time out for an extended audience sing-along near the end. I suspected that his songs would be primarily slow jams, so I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of funk in the mix, with Pendergrass even assisting on percussion on a few tracks. A couple of tracks drift too far into extended, unfocused jams, and Pendergrass proves to have much more of a vocal presence than a stage presence, but the unbridled joy of the audience and performers is infectious and far outweighs any minor detractions.

The video quality is fairly crisp and clear considering its origin as a tv broadcast. The sound quality is not as great due to the mono broadcast standards of the time, but a decent home theater setup will allow the discerning listener to tweak the limited spectrum to a passable sound mix with just enough bump for the subwoofer.

Aside from the hour long concert performance, there’s an insightful half hour interview with Pendergrass filmed at his home in Philadelphia in 2002. During the interview, he talks about his reasons for splitting from his original group, as well as the aftermath of his accident and his triumphant return to the stage during Live Aid in 1985. He has no regrets and seems completely content with his current life, making him an even more likeable figure.

Fans of Pendergrass should purchase this release without hesitation, while newbies can also find much to admire. The dvd serves as both a time capsule of a bygone era as well as a stunning introduction to, or reminder of, the vocal mastery of Pendergrass.