Critics' Picks

Tina Fey rocks "30 Rock," Gretchen Mol lights up "Life on Mars," and the collected "Dykes to Watch Out For."

By Salon Staff
Published November 1, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)
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"30 Rock"
How long can our Tina Fey love bubble last? As the premiere of the new "30 Rock" season approached, I worried. I worried that we had adored Tina Fey too fervently, for too long. As if we weren't enraptured enough by "30 Rock's" Liz Lemon, the disheveled, acid-tongued career woman extraordinaire, Fey had also nursed us through the interminable campaign season with her mordant Hillary commentary ("bitch is the new black") and staked Sarah Palin with an unnervingly perfect send-up. But judging from the new season opener, NBC's "30 Rock" hasn't lost its gentle, goofy magic. Fey and Alec Baldwin still play like some classic movie duo transported to a madcap sitcom crammed with inane but lovable supporting characters, and Fey still delivers her zingers with perfectly deflated charm. This season finds her trying to adopt a baby; gesturing at a lifelike baby doll, she asks, "Is it so wrong that I want to have one of these to grow up and resent me?" So the good news is that Tina still rules -- and hopefully enough other people have caught Fey fever from her recent "SNL" appearances to raise "30 Rock's" ratings and keep it on the air. -- Joy Press

"Soft Airplane," Chad VanGaalen
When Beck is starting to bore you and Andrew Bird sounds more and more neutered, it's time for a new weirdo in town, some bedheaded eccentric with lots of flair and intensity, experimenting with odd sounds in the solitude of his basement. Combining alternately cheerful and morbid lyrics, a scrappy, wavering falsetto, and some clattering, rough-hewn instrumentation, Chad VanGaalen's third album is a rocky joy ride through his darkest moments. Odd, jangly and undeniably turbulent, "Soft Airplane" makes the latest effort by your favorite singer-songwriter feel like an instrument landing. -- Heather Havrilesky


"Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women" box set
Less flamboyant than Kurosawa and less of a purist and minimalist than Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi could best be described as the great melodramatist, great proto-feminist and great camera choreographer of Japanese cinema. Although he remains the choice of many film-world insiders in the Greatest Director Ever sweepstakes (if you enjoy those parlor games), Mizoguchi is known outside Japan mainly for his international hits of the 1950s, "Ugetsu" and "Sansho the Bailiff." Those are available in gorgeous restorations from the Criterion Collection, and now Criterion's entry-level Eclipse label offers a box set, "Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women," that comprises four rarely seen works addressing Mizoguchi's preoccupation with the sexual subjugation of women in Japanese society. It's especially awesome to see "Osaka Elegy" and "Sisters of the Gion," Mizoguchi's breakthrough double bill from 1936; both have a formal rigor and bottled-up emotional energy that feels quite different from his postwar work. Also included are the rage-fueled, neorealist-influenced "Women of the Night" from 1948 and Mizoguchi's final film, the 1956 "Street of Shame," a portrayal of Tokyo's venerable red-light district that led directly to the final outlawing of prostitution. (Whether Mizoguchi himself would have agreed with that decision is quite another story.) -- Andrew O'Hehir

"The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For" by Alison Bechdel
When I got at job at a feminist cooperative in the early 1990s, I had one indispensable field guide to the bewildering Sapphic soap opera unfolding around me: Alison Bechdel's brilliant, witty comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For," published in a local community weekly. This new collection (which will be a revelation to anyone who first discovered Bechdel through her graphic memoir, "Fun Home") took me back to those days, and got me caught up on the fortunes (and love lives) of neurotic Mo, upwardly mobile Clarice, bisexual Sparrow and (my favorite) that incorrigible womanizer, Lois. Bechdel has always tied the story lines to current events, so dipping into this volume, which invariably leads to a two-hour marathon session of browsing, will also take you back to the high and low points of the Clinton administration, the 2000 presidential election, Sept. 11, the Iraq war, and the Hillary-Obama primaries, among other controversies of the day. -- Laura Miller

Gretchen Mol in "Life on Mars"
When the then-unknown Gretchen Mol appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair 10 years ago, clad in a nearly transparent dress, she was branded for no good reason as a dumb starlet who couldn't act. Since then, she's been marvelous in little-seen pictures like Paul Schrader's melodramatic Sirkfest "Forever Mine" and Mary Harron's smart, affectionate pinup biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page." Now she plays '70s-era police lady Annie "No Nuts" Norris on ABC's "Life on Mars," and even though she's not the star of the show, her presence gives it such a luminous, subtle glow that she may as well be. Mol is a listener, one of those actors who recognizes that more than half her job is responding to her fellow performers, which is part of why it's so much fun to watch her size up the crusty chauvinists around her (played by the likes of Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli); she undercuts their tomfoolery with nothing more than the arch of an eyebrow. And she manages to look smashing even in that painfully era-specific winged hairdo. -- Stephanie Zacharek


The Knux, "Remind Me in 3 Days..."
The Knux is short for "knuckleheads," a rap group consisting of two New Orleans-raised siblings, one of whom refers to himself as Krispy Kream, the other Rah Almillio. Among their goofball blipster cred points is an actual life-threatening risk --they failed to evacuate during Katrina. Otherwise, they're damn shrewd. Kream has a Big Boi complex, the duo has raided Run-D.M.C.'s closets for their wardrobe, and like De La Soul wannabes, they try to get with a barista in their bumpy hit, "Cappuccino." In case you don't think their old-school nostalgia goes back further than the Starbucks explosion, "Roxxanne" is an answer record that arrives 20 years after the battle ended. But the Knux sound less derivative than the majority of their peers because they've reached even further back than last year's Timbaland or T-Pain collaboration for inspiration, to the unfashionable early '90s, and crafted a fresh rap-rock hybrid out of yesterday's garbage. Clashing phat bass, bad antique synths and drum machines with skronky guitars, these nerds explore the pre-bling, substandard, culturally omnivorous world hip-hop arose from, getting left in the powder room by a date, hating on Tyler Perry and referencing Elvis Costello while on the lookout for "extraterrestrial 'hos." Even their womanizing is charmingly inept. Brag though they might, they can't even get served in a coffee shop. -- James Hannaham

Albert Lewin's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" on DVD
I haven't seen Albert Lewin's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in 20 years, but I remember whole scenes as clearly as if I saw them last night. With its belated release on DVD, viewers can now savor one of the strangest and most beautiful films ever to come out of mainstream Hollywood. Even the film's central weakness -- Hurd Hatfield's curiously cold lead performance -- falls away before its manifest strengths: Lewin's hallucinogenic vision, masterful deep-focus cinematography by Harry Stradling, and a supporting cast that includes George Sanders, barbed and silken, and in the role of doomed Sibyl Vane, the young and lovely Angela Lansbury. Lansbury was one of the rare actresses who could portray artlessness artlessly, and her performance of "Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird" (under clouds of snow-confetti) is a career-defining moment. As Pauline Kael once wrote, "I don't think I've ever had a friend who didn't also treasure that girl and that song." -- Louis Bayard


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