Critics' Picks

What you need to see, read, do this week: Prom night tales, James Brown's '60s soul, Charlie's kindest Angel.

Published August 2, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

"The Time of My Life: Writers on the Heartbreak, Hormones, and Debauchery of the Prom," edited by Rob Spillman
What did the cool kids do on prom night? -- I mean the really cool kids, the ones who were cool after they got out of high school? Writers like Cintra Wilson, Mike Albo and Pam Houston offer contrarian takes on the cultural ritual, but the best is Susie Bright's reminiscence of her swim club's annual banquet. How many teenage girls point to the highlight of their big dance as getting a chance to pat the fluffy tail of a bunny in the Playboy Club? -- Laura Miller

"I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the '60s" DVD box set
James Brown's jaw-dropping, leg-splitting, ankle-busting, vocal-cord-snapping 1964 performance of "Out of Sight" in "The T.A.M.I. Show," though not the main focus of the three-DVD set "I Got the Feelin': James Brown in the '60s" (Shout Factory), is a moment as electrifying as the Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 10 months earlier, yet curiously less well known. It also represents one of the clearest demonstrations of the Godfather of Soul's intense style -- a frenetic soul voodoo ritual smelting anguish into ecstasy and pouring out as hot, sublime show business. Even Disc 1's documentary "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," a moving portrait of Brown's riot-stopping Boston Garden concert on April 5, 1968, the day after MLK's assassination, can't touch the pure, expressive explosion of "Out of Sight." Ironically, Brown did not believe in nonviolence, and later, he saw something good in Richard Nixon that many of his fans did not. The Boston concert was planned before King's death, and when fans found out it would be simulcast, many demanded refunds; Brown lost about $50,000, but he respected King enough not to raise hell about that. The second DVD is the PBS broadcast of the concert itself. The third, "Live at the Apollo '68," shows us a decaying video of the same set in March 1968, mere days before nationwide rioting and strife would radically alter the meaning of jams like Brown's "I Can't Stand Myself," "That's Life" and "Get It Together," and black America would put him, for a few years, on King's empty throne. -- James Hannaham

Jaclyn Smith on "Shear Genius"
"Shear Genius" (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT) may be the weakest of Bravo's professional reality competitions -- the contestants are almost uniformly uninteresting, and the hairstyles they create are almost uniformly ugly. Even so, its host, former "Charlie's Angels" star Jaclyn Smith, stands out as a kinder, gentler alternative to Bravo spokesmodels Heidi Klum and Padma Lakshmi. For some crazy reason, Smith has great wells of compassion for these bad people with their bad hairstyles. When she informs a hairstylist that it's his or her "final cut" at the end of each episode, Smith's eyes invariably well up with tears and her voice wavers as she carefully chooses a few comforting words as a send-off. Forget Klum's curt "auf Wiedersehen" and Lakshmi's indifferent "Pack your knives and go" -- Smith's tearful goodbyes seem to remind us, "What could be more human than empathizing with the untalented?" -- Heather Havrilesky

"The Furies" on DVD
In this superb, bracingly bitter 1950 Anthony Mann western, Barbara Stanwyck plays Vance Jeffords, the daughter of a rich rancher (Walter Huston, in his last movie) who assumes she'll inherit her father's land upon his death. When she learns there may be competition, watch out: Stanwyck, one of the great actresses of any era, gives a performance that brings some mighty unflattering human traits (ruthlessness, greed) into the light so we can get a closer look at them -- then she dares us to pass judgment. As Stanwyck plays her, Vance is both unlikable and unnervingly sympathetic. When her father returns from a long absence bearing a gift of pearls, she flings them to the floor -- they're what all the dull, average girls willingly settle for. What she really wants is the diamond necklace he has tucked away in his other pocket: Those stones are just as hard as she is, but not nearly as dazzling. -- Stephanie Zacharek

"Lewis Black's Root of All Evil" on Comedy Central
Which is a greater threat to the body politic? Oprah or the Catholic Church? Bloggers or ultimate fighters? Kim Jong Il or Tila Tequila? Worming its way into this heart of darkness is "Lewis Black's Root of All Evil," a weekly Comedy Central kangaroo court (just entering its second season; airing Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. EDT) in which mock attorneys track the damage done to our culture by the likes of Dick Cheney, Paris Hilton and YouTube. The outrage is contagious, the cultural commentary often spot on, and maybe the only thing holding the show back is the way it straitjackets Black, a fruitfully apoplectic comic who should be allowed to say "fuck" as much as humanly possible. Nobody says it better. -- Louis Bayard

John Gianvito's "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind"
John Gianvito's "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind" isn't a documentary or a fiction film or any other normal kind of movie. It's an hourlong tour of grave sites and other historical markers, inspired by Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States," with no narration and very little on-screen text. It could be called an alternate history of death in America. The grave sites belong to American radicals, revolutionaries, labor leaders and other renegades, from colonial times to the present. Gianvito devotes a little meditative chunk of time to each of them, capturing not just the final resting places of Eugene V. Debs and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Malcolm X and victims of the Homestead strike and King Philip's War, along with others almost entirely forgotten by history, but also the grass, trees, light and life that carry on around them. The effect is hypnotic, transcendent and highly mysterious. It's as if Gianvito, a longtime film curator at Harvard and now a professor at Emerson College, has distilled an atheist vision of spirituality, or made the most clear and accessible avant-garde film in cinematic history. -- Andrew O'Hehir


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