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March 28th, 2013 by Mark Blankenship

Visit My New Website!

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Hey everyone! The Critical Condition is closed, but you can keep up with all my writing and filmmaking, plus contact me at markgblankenship.com.

March 26th, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

Join Me at Logo TV’s New Now Next!

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Hey everyone! Perhaps you noticed that I stopped updating The Critical Condition last month. I am delighted to say that my long pause is being followed by a great opportunity.

As of today, I am a pop music blogger for Logo TV’s New Now Next.

That’s right! I’m getting paid to write about pop songs by the same people who bring you RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ll be posting around 5 stories per week, and I’ll basically be covering music the way I covered it here. Please come join me at my new home!

My New Now Next posts will always be archived right here.

As for The Critical Condition: I’m not abandoning it. I just won’t be updating it unless I’ve got something I really want to say. Check in from time to time and say hello!

If you ever want to chat, drop a comment here, on my New Now Next posts, or tweet me at @IAmBlankenship.

Here’s to the future, y’all!

February 21st, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

“Warrior:” The year’s most philosophically terrifying Oscar nominee

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No joke: The worldview in Warrior, the fighting movie that scored an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte, makes me shiver. It’s terrifying. And I just wrote about why at NPR’s Monkey See.

Here’s an excerpt:

make no mistake, Warrior wants us to know it has a philosophy. Consider younger brother Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy): Within the first ten minutes, we’re told he was an undefeated young wrestling champion, which made people compare him to the ancient Greek fighter Theogenes. We even see the family’s homemade chart comparing Theogenes’ and Tommy’s records. Young Conlon is less a man than a heroic ballad waiting to be sung.

And the MMA tournament the Conlons join? The winner-take-all competition that nets the champion $5 million? It’s called Sparta.

And Paddy Conlon? The father? He wallows in regret about his drunken past by listening to Moby-Dick on tape. He even gets so loaded that he confuses himself with Ahab. Could that mean his sons, who were alienated by his addiction, have become his white whales? Maybe so.

You can read the full essay here. (And if I may be tacky… I’m really proud of this one!)

February 15th, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

Elizaveta’s music is weird… and I like it

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You guys, Elizaveta’s music is weird. Her album Beatrix Runs, which was physically released yesterday after arriving in digital form a few weeks ago, fuses opera, chamber pop, and electronica into this Regina Spektor-Tori Amos-Enya combination that really stands out from everything else I listen to. I only discovered her work, in fact, because it was on the iTunes homepage. (Nice work on that ad buy, Universal Records!)

But here’s the thing: Elizaveta’s music is also entrancing. I’m running out to see two plays today, so I can’t really get into it right now. But I wanted to put this in front of your ears. Take a listen to the songs embedded below, and then let’s discuss more thoroughly in the comments section.

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February 14th, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

When Watching a TV Show Is Like a Screwed-Up Relationship

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You know how sometimes you feel like you’re in an actual, romantic relationship with a TV show? A few days ago, my friend Casey and I G-chatted about that, and we started thinking about all the different types of TV romances we’ve had. The broken, the beautiful… we covered it all. And just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Which TV relationships would YOU add to this conversation?

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February 2nd, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

“Top Chef” Meets Pee-wee (God help us all)

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Last night, Pee-wee Herman was the guest judge on Top Chef. And I don’t mean that “Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee-wee Herman” was a guest judge. No. I mean that Paul Reubens in character as Pee-wee Herman showed up for the Quickfire and opined on everyone’s pancakes. Then he told them they’d be riding bicycles to pick up ingredients around San Antonio before serving him lunch at the Alamo. You know, because Pee-wee’s Big Adventure revolves around a lost bicycle and the supposed basement of the Alamo. And that’s really relevant because that movie came out in August of 1985, making this… no kind of anniversary.

But look: I don’t even care about the speciousness of the theme. What bothers me is thatTop Chef degraded itself and its contestants (as well as Reubens) by having everyone pretend that Pee-wee Herman was a real person. Never once did they acknowledge he was playing a character, yet everyone’s pained eyes told us they were straining to act like they enjoyed the charade. Let me break it down like this:

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February 1st, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

The Best Food Writing I’ve Read in a While

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As I was making my daily internet rounds this morning, I came across an especially delightful essay in the New York Times by Leslie Kaufman. Titled “My Sons, the Sous-Chefs” it chronicles her recent decision to get her sons—one 14, one 10—to be responsible for cooking some of the family meals, and if I were teaching a writing seminar, I’d use it as an example of how to turn a personal experience into masterful prose.

Kaufman’s craft starts shining in the fourth paragraph. After opening with a standard “mystery/revelation” construction—in which she creates the “mystery” of a sophisticated diner praising a subpar meal, then “reveals” that the chef is her teenage son—she lays out her thesis like this:

I cannot remember exactly when it occurred to me that my children should be cooking dinner for me instead of the other way around.

It almost certainly came at the end of a typical long workday: I rush home from the office, start hustling in the kitchen even before my coat is off and then, maybe 15 minutes later, a child stumbles downstairs from playing a video game. He peers into a bubbling pot and moans, “Not pasta again,” or “Don’t you know I hate tomatoes?”

It would be easy for her to cast her cooking lessons as feminist actions on behalf of her male children, and really, I guess they are. But rather than banging that drum, Kaufman makes the point gently. She introduces herself as a harried character who cooks pasta, which is pretty standard fare, especially considering that her son was introduced as making seared duck breast. Then she describes her son’s typical teenage behavior but has the grace not to comment on it. She just lets the details create a picture of him (and her.) If we want to read feminist (or other) themes into the work, then we can, but we have to do it ourselves.

Even better, she keeps describing her family’s “flaws” throughout the story, never once reducing herself to grand moral statements or easy conclusions. “I made it clear that they could cook only when an adult was in shouting distance,” she writes. “But the goal was to have them plan and execute the meal on their own while I commuted home or ran errands — or drank a glass of wine on the couch.” That’s right, sister! She can be a good mom who creates boundaries and rules, but she can still have the self-interested desire to drink wine. She makes herself human.

Further down, Kaufman also admits that she makes mistakes in how she responds to her sons’ efforts, describing a scene where she tosses some undercooked meat back into boiling water. Her son freaks, she freaks, doors are slammed. “Sam stormed upstairs in a fury and despite my apology missed what turned out to be a very delicious meal,” she writes. “Later, he said he would have preferred serving the dish the way the recipe said to. If the meat wasn’t cooked enough, he would have put the bowls in the microwave. It’s not what I would have done, but it was his meal, and I should have let him make his own mistakes, too.”

And again, for me, these details make Kaufman and her family seem like flawed, loving people who care and screw up and try to grow. It sounds pretty sentimental when I put it that way, but the story itself never uses this language. It lets the reader come to these conclusions privately, which is incredibly flattering.

The story ends with a glorious triumph for her oldest boy, which just clarifies that what Kaufman’s really doing here is writing a short story disguised as a food column. I don’t know if all of it’s true or if some of it has been exaggerated, but who cares? The essay creates a sharp portrait of a family at work and offers some deeper things to ponder. I can’t ask for more from this kind of thing.

January 26th, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

Two of My Favorite Musical Theatre Songs (And Why I Love Them)

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I don’t have a particular reason for writing this post today, except that I’ve been meaning to write it for a while. In late 2010, I had the good fortune to see this embedded performance of William Finn’s Elegies, a song cycle he wrote about the people in his life who had passed away. Finn—who also wrote Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is my favorite musical theatre composer because his lyrics burst with unusual details that make the characters feel remarkably alive. Matched with his complex-yet-accessible melodies, his words make each song feel like missives from a peculiar, beautiful world.

Elegies is especially rich with songs like that. In “Infinite Joy,” for instance, the singer reflects on the philosophy of a departed loved one:

“Goodness is rewarded.
Hope is guaranteed.
Laughter builds strong bones.
Right will intercede.
Things you said, I often find I need.”

But more than that philosophy, the singer reflects on how easy that philosophy has become to adopt—how much and how potently it makes the drab daily world seem astonishing. And that’s where the specificity elevates the lyrics:

“I see the world through your eyes:
I taste lemon on my lips.
I marvel at the sailing ships
of well-dressed girls and boys.
You told me life
has infinite joys.”

Lemon on the lips. Such a distinct sensation. Marveling at beautiful children on a ship. Such a lovely thing to imagine marvelling at. And it tells you so much about this person who has died. It makes them stand just behind your chair.

And brilliantly, the song is also vague enough to let us fill in the rest. We don’t even know the gender of this person, but we know that he or she found bottomless happiness everywhere, even in the taste of lemon.

That’s something a lot of composers miss, I think. A song like this doesn’t work if you’re just reciting everything you and your lover bought at the market yesterday. Even in its specificity,the song has to give the listener’s mind something to do. It has to tantalize, not delineate, our imagination.

And that leads me to the one-two punch of “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts” and “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” two songs that tell one continuous story. Watch this clip—from the performance I saw at Pace University in Manhattan—and see if you’re as moved by these songs as I always am. (Forgive the home video quality.)

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January 23rd, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

My Dream Oscar Ballot

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The Oscar nominations are being announced tomorrow morning, and unlike most recent years, I’m not really jazzed about the frontrunners. I mean, I liked The Artist well enough, and I didn’t hate The Descendants, though that little brat of a teenage boy sure pulled me out of the story every five seconds. When a film has a character that is so obviously inserted into scenes just to let the filmmaker make a joke or a point, then I get annoyed. (For an excellent report on that movie’s limitations, check out Sarah Bunting’s write-up.)

Where was I? Oh, right. Frontrunners. I’ve also been up front about why The Help left me frustrated and Midnight in Paris made me wish Woody Allen hadn’t soured his sweet little films by indulging his desire to scorn Republicans.

There were, however, many films I enjoyed in 2011. To celebrate them, I’ve created a dream Oscar ballot for Best Picture and the acting categories. What’s on your fantasy list?

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January 19th, 2012 by Mark Blankenship

5 Hollywood Stars Who Squandered Their Goodwill

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Last night, while I was waiting for Top Chef, I decided to watch Devil on HBO On Demand. In case you don’t know this masterpiece, it’s mostly set in the elevator of a Philadelphia office building. The elevator gets stuck, and one by one, the five people in it are murdered. Because one of the passengers is Satan.

This is a pretty good idea for a movie—a supernatural update on the claustrophobic suspense of Lifeboat and other such tales. But the good idea gets trampled by the execution.

Consider that we learn about the Devil’s presence from a building security guard who is watching the elevator madness unfold on closed-circuit television. He proves the Devil’s nearby by dropping a piece of toast on the floor. When it lands jelly-side down, he says, “See? When he’s around, things always go wrong. The toast lands jelly-side down.”

This is not played as a joke.  Jellied carpeting is considered proof that El Diablo is in on the grounds.

I could spend more time dissecting this movie’s awfulness—what’s up, African-American with a criminal past and Hispanic gentleman who believes in “spirits!”—but the fact is, I wasn’t surprised it was awful. You see, it was executive produced and based on a story by M. Night Shayamalan. His name alone signals hackery.

That wasn’t always so, of course. There was a time when Shayamalan was a Golden God in Hollywood and with audiences. But now, he’s destroyed that goodwill.

And that got me thinking: Who else has pissed away the love they so rightfully earned? Who else is close to doing so?

I’m pleased to present this round-up of goodwill squanderers. Can you think of any more? Let’s discuss!

(Caveat: They have to have ruined themselves through their work and not through their tabloid behavior. Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson are not who we’re talking about here.)

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