Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Philadelphia Orchestra Turns Mann Into The Best Movie Theater In Philly

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts has been the City of Brotherly Love’s summer residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1976. Following its bicentennial debut, the amphitheater has hosted the esteemed symphony and a cavalcade of artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Squeeze. Since 2010 the Philadelphia Orchestra has gradually turned the Fairmount Park facility into an unexpected superlative: the best movie theater in Philadelphia.

This summer the orchestra has performed the score to select films while a movie simultaneously plays on big screens. The events have a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere that is fostered by the Mann’s decision to allow picnics into the venue for these evenings. From the crest of a hill in Fairmount Park you can gaze at the Philadelphia skyline or look into the summer night as you listen to the dialogue from your favorite movies backed by one of the world’s most respected symphonies. You cannot find a greater experience for enjoying a movie anywhere else in the city.

The 2017 series is not the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first dalliance with the cinema. The symphony recorded the score to the 1940 Walt Disney spectacular, Fantasia (they also performed the soundtrack during a screening of the film at the Mann in 2013). After the orchestra served as the companion to Planet Earth in 2010, the Russian National Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have also provided a live soundtrack during movies at the Mann. The Philadelphia Orchestra began a more regular film series in the summer of 2014.

Not unlike its soundtrack for Mickey Mouse’s most sophisticated flick, the orchestra adds an amazing quality to the films it accompanies at the Mann. For once you do not merely hear the violins or the timpani drums, but you feel the piercing pitches of the strings and the rumble of the percussive sound during the movie. On June 24, members of the orchestra performed the score to the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Return of the King. The symphony’s sound was augmented by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. Even from the far reaches of the Mann Center’s lawn, the ensemble’s rendition of Howard Shore’s music changed how even this classical music pleb enjoyed the movie. 

Perhaps the best example of the conjoining majesty of film and music occurred as Gandalf rode his white steed Shadowfax across the plain from Minas Tirith to Osgiliath to shoo away a gaggle of flying Nazgul. While the wizard and his horse galloped on the screen, a member of the Boys Choir delivered a beautiful vocal solo. The awe of the moment only waned when Gandalf warded off the hideous creatures and the solo was completed. In a normal screening, the audience would have just cheered Ian McKellen’s White Wizard, but in this instance the member of the choir was the one applauded by the crowd.

Gandalf rides Shadowfax from Minas Tirath to Osgiliath

Moments like this happened several times for both this event and the 2016 showing of the film’s predecessor, The Two Towers. Many of those in attendance are clearly fans of the movies and add a dash of enthusiasm. From a man dressed as Gandalf, women wearing Elf costumes, and little girls adorned in princess attire, the concert series is for filmgoers as much as it is for fans of the orchestra. During The Return of the King the audience erupted just as often for on-screen moments as it did for the music.

Despite the presence of one of the most beloved film franchises in history, the star of this event was the Philadelphia Orchestra and its companion groups. Even though the orchestra succeeds in staying in the background throughout much of the film, the instances when a particularly beautiful piece of music or vocal solo take place are the defining part of the night. Many people who are at the Mann have likely seen at least some of the Lord of the Rings trilogy before, but not like this. The facility and musical ensemble combine for an unmatched moviegoing experience that changes how the movie is watched that cannot be found anywhere else in Philadelphia. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flat Circle Interview With Philadelphia Podcast Festival Co-Founder Teagan Kuruna

The 5th Annual Philadelphia Podcast Festival takes place from July 14-23. Festival co-founder Teagan Kuruna (founded with Nathan Kuruna) answered a few questions about this year’s festival, podcasts, and her own podcast Teagan Goes Vegan:

The Philadelphia Podcast Festival is organized by the Philadelphia Podcasting Society. What are the goals the Philadelphia Podcasting Society has in mind when organizing the festival every year?
We know that Philadelphia is an incredibly creative city, and that lots of great independent media is being produced here. We created the festival as a way to showcase the podcasts that people are making and to give podcasters and their fans an opportunity to meet each other. We’re both big podcast enthusiasts, so we understand the really cool, intimate connection between the creators and listeners, and being able to facilitate interactions between the groups is really fun for us.

This year is the fifth edition of the Philadelphia Podcast Festival. Has the festival evolved since it first began? If so, how has it changed?
The basic structure is the same: podcasters do live shows, we record it for them so they can release the live show as an episode, and fans come out to see them record. The biggest difference is the scale. Our first year, we had twelve live shows at a single venue. This year, we have 60+ podcasts recording at nine venues. This year, we’ve also added some podcasts from outside the Philadelphia area that have a national following. We hope that having podcasts like Sawbones, Call Your Girlfriend, and The Flop House helps spread the word about the Festival and creates some “cross-pollination” that gets people who listen to the national shows to check out some of the great media being produced right here in Philly.

There are a large variety of podcasts that are being featured in this year’s festival. When organizing the podcasts for the festival is there an emphasis on creating a diverse lineup?
We do keep an eye out for diversity. The default assumption is that podcasts are all about movies and comics, or are just a bunch of white guys talking, or are really polished like RadioLab or Serial or This American Life. We know that’s not the case, and especially not in Philly. This year we have the most diverse set of podcasts we’ve ever had. Our 2017 lineup includes podcasts about art, history, sex, books, pop culture, sports, Philly culture, true crime, comedy, and more. 

There are also many Philadelphia-area podcasts that are featured in the festival. Do you feel that the festival plays a role in growing the local podcast community?
We certainly hope so! After last year’s Festival, we’ve seen a big increase in the number of Philly podcasters sitting in as guests on other Philly podcasts. We also run a Facebook group for local podcasters, the Philadelphia Podcasting Society, that’s pretty active.

Podcasts are one of the fastest-growing mediums in entertainment. Why have they become so popular this quickly?
In my unscientific view, podcasts are popular because they are almost always independently produced and are incredibly niche. If you’re interested in families playing Dungeons and Dragons together, there’s a podcast for that. If you’re into intersectional feminism, there’s a podcast for that. There’s a podcast about pretty much anything you’re interested in.
There’s also a real intimacy that comes along with listening to podcasts. Many people listen to podcasts while they’re commuting, driving, or are alone. Especially when podcasts are released regularly, spending that much time one-on-one with people, even if they’re just voices on an MP3 file, builds a connection. And podcasters are real people like you and me, not fictional characters, so it’s a different connection than you might feel watching TV or a movie.

In addition to working with the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, you also host your own podcast, Teagan goes Vegan. Why did you decide to become a vegan and why did you decide to build a podcast around being a vegan?
I became and stay vegan for ethical reasons. I think it’s wrong to make other beings suffer so I can have a cheeseburger. I created the podcast because the more I learned about being vegan, the more I realized how differently people approach the lifestyle. I wanted to learn from people--what motivated them, what was hard for them, what they love most about being vegan. Ultimately, I’m just really interested in people and this was a good reason to talk to people all over the world about their values.

You are a vegan. I am more in the “meat and potatoes” category. How would you advise someone on the other side of the food pyramid if they were looking into becoming a vegan?
Well, I myself was a “meat and potatoes” kind of a gal for almost all of my life. I never met a burger I didn’t like, so I feel uniquely qualified to answer this question! For me, once I learned about the ways that we torture animals--and yes, it is torture--to get our meat, dairy, and eggs, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I could no longer consume any of those items.
I think that anyone who has even an inkling that something might be wrong with the way we raise animals for food, you owe it to yourself to learn a little more about what it really takes to make buffalo wings and cheesesteaks. I appreciated reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Personally, I can’t stomach the videos of slaughterhouses (realizing how disgusted I was by the videos was yet another reason I knew I had to become vegan), but many vegans point to Earthlings or Mercy for Animals’ undercover videos as their primary motivators.
Also, if you really like the taste and texture of meat, try some well-made seitan! It’s shockingly meaty and really hits the spot. Blackbird’s cheesesteak is a great place to start if you’re in Philly.

As someone who hosts a podcast, how do events like the Philadelphia Podcast Festival benefit your show?
First of all, it’s fun to have a live audience. It’s a different energy than recording in the studio. Secondly, I can be creative with the content. Last year, I did a taste test of vegan cheeses and ice creams that was really fun and interactive, and a total departure from the standard interview format of my podcast. This year, I won’t be doing a live show (too many other Festival activities going on) but I’m thinking about next year already!

2017 Philadelphia Podcast Festival Presents Great Opportunities For Podcasters And Fans

Podcasts are the fastest-growing medium in entertainment. With over a billion listeners devoting significant amounts of time to podcasts, the format has grown rapidly since its debut. And why not? There are so many different niches explored by podcasts that there can be dozens of podcasts for almost any topic of major or minute interest.

From July 14 to July 23, over 60 podcasts will record episodes in Philadelphia as a part of the 2017 Philadelphia Podcast Festival. Both Philadelphia-area podcasts and broader national shows are on the docket for the festival. The fifth year of the event is a tremendous opportunity to indulge in such a diverse segment of entertainment and maybe add a few more shows to your listening rotation.

Anyone can create a podcast that can be listened to at any time. The freedom for individuals to produce their own series on whatever topic has created unlimited opportunities for listeners and creators. The omnipresence of podcasts also has an adverse effect. Because of the booming popularity of podcasts, the medium may have become overwhelming almost as quickly as it came into being. Choosing the shows that satisfy a listener’s appetite for different topics can make it tough to sort through various programs. Similarly, with the unending wealth of competition it may be difficult for podcasts to break away from a crowded field to find an audience. Like other facets of the Internet, the world of podcasts has become so vast that word of mouth has ironically become one of the best ways to grow a show.

Events like the Philadelphia Podcast Festival give popular series a chance to interact with fans. Some of the wide range of shows at the festival include the medical podcast Sawbones and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which takes a biblical look at J.K. Rowling’s young adult series. Two days after HBO’s Game of Thrones seventh season debuts, Stark Raven Mad: A Game of Thrones Podcast crosses the Narrow Sea to the Philly Improv Theater on July 18.

The event, which is hosted by The Philadelphia Podcasting Society, is also showcasing local podcasts as well. Several area series are taping episodes at the Tattooed Mom in South Philadelphia on July 22. Some of the podcasts include the foodie show Jawn Appetit, the comedy podcast Nerds With Words, and the mischievous Twisted Philly.

With 60-plus podcasts taping episodes in 15 events at eight different venues, the festival promises to offer a little something for everyone and a chance to find some of your next listening choices.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

American Gods Finishes Season One On A High Note In Finale

This post contains spoilers for the American Gods season one finale.

American Gods completed its first season in spectacular fashion on Sunday. The Starz drama ended on a high note as the clash between the old gods and the newer deities finally began in earnest. After eight episodes where the journey of Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday was enjoyable, but lacked clarity, American Gods finally had some big moments. The principle participant revealed himself and the pending clash in Wisconsin began to take a more definite shape.

From the outset of season one, the strength of American Gods has been the actors who have been cast as the gods. Starting with Ian McShane and extending to some superbly egocentric divinities, the cast has been the glue of the show as McShane’s Odin traverses America and collects old gods from a large variety of religions and cultures to wage war with newer gods created by the advancements of modern technology.

Gillian Anderson has had a string of delightful performances as Media, a modern goddess who materializes in different forms. Whether it be as Lucille Ball, David Bowie, Judy Garland, or Marilyn Monroe, Anderson appears to be having a blast depicting some of the 20th Century’s biggest cultural icons. Pablo Schrieber’s Mad Sweeney is the punching bag and punchline of American Gods. As a leprechaun who ran out of luck and is stuck on a journey with a resurrected Laura Moon, Mad Sweeney, is the toy of Moon as she tortures with her taller travel companion without remorse. Their dynamic has added an entertaining comedic element to the show. Orlando Jones has also made a huge splash in his limited time on screen. His two scenes as Anansi, an African trickster god who has appeared on a slave ship and as a high-end tailor, have been some of the most electrifying on the show.

Even with the terrific acting, the overall plot of American Gods was not abundantly clear until the finale. While holding certain aspects of the plot to the finale is to be expected (the Odin reveal, Shadow’s newfound belief), the story may have been a struggle for members of the audience who had not already read the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel that the show was based on. By waiting until the end of the season, creators Brian Fuller and Michael Green scored a big finale, but allowed for a plot that seemed a bit hazy at times. A casual watcher of the series without knowledge of what the show is about may not have had trouble following the story. Smaller nuggets through the series may have gone a long way into developing a first season with better structure.

Despite the occasionally ambiguous aspects of American Gods throughout the previous seven episodes, any doubts about the show were cast aside in its finale. The series may have presented its most perfect casting choice in Sunday’s finale when Kristin Chenoweth made an appearance as the Southern belle goddess Easter. Chenoweth’s effusive charm was an instant hit as she hosted a gathering at a Kentucky estate that featured a score of Jesuses (representing different aspects of Christianity) and received messages from white rabbits that deposited fecal Easter candy throughout her mansion. Seeing Chenoweth, McShane, and Anderson finally share the same screen was a powerful jolt for a show with the potential swagger of American Gods.

The big moment of the finale came as Chenoweth, also known as the pagan figure Ostara, come to terms with the impending clash. Easter, who had been content with her rebranding as the Christian holiday, realized that she yearned for her former status as a beloved goddess. By coupling the powerful moment of Easter transforming the countryside around her into a barren wasteland with Odin’s a lightning strike upon Media’s dancing henchmen, Americans Gods finally saw a true throw down between deities.

The scene was a powerful display of divine might and flexed the potential muscle of future clashes between the gods. Prior to the finale, most of the old gods had been depicted in smaller moments without a true appreciation of their power. They had been scant characters that popped up along the journey without clear explanation. Like Odin and Easter, American Gods found itself in the season finale and teased great potential for season two. Without the need for a nebulous cover of the plot, it seems that the best of American Gods is on the horizon.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Tom Petty And Joe Walsh Hit Newark For The Heartbreakers' 40th Anniversary Tour

Two songs into a Friday evening set at Newark’s Prudential Center, Tom Petty peered into the packed arena. The 66-year-old singer referenced a vinyl record and said that he and the Heartbreakers would drop a needle at different points of their career as they brought their 40th Anniversary Tour to New Jersey. Petty and the Heartbreakers delivered on their promise by playing a 19-song, two-hour show that touched on various points of their tenure together and proved that after 40 years in the business they remain one of America’s most impressive live bands.

If the Heartbreakers were still looking for a challenge it came in the form of opener Joe Walsh. The veteran guitarist set the tone for the night with a career-spanning set that defied the typical boundaries for an opener. Accompanied by a large band that included four backup singers, Walsh went on stage promptly at 7:30 and played for just over an hour.

Walsh, who referenced his graduation from nearby Montclair High School in 1965, eased into the night by playing some lesser known selections from his discography like “Meadows” and “Ordinary Average Guy.” Midway through his ten-song set he dedicated an emotional version of “Take It To The Limit” to Glen Frey, his longtime bandmate in The Eagles who passed away in 2016. As the Prudential Center began to fill up with a late-arriving crowd, Walsh apologized to the millennials in the building for their parents listening to his music so often. He showed why he was a popular FM radio choice by closing with a great run of songs normally consigned to the headliner, “In The City,” “Funk #49,” “Life’s Been Good,” and “Rocky Mountain Way.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continued the hit parade with their own impressive array of songs that touched on different phases of the group’s career, drawing most heavily from the Wildflowers album. They opened with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first track from their debut record. The band then showed off their chops with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” before playing “Forgotten Man,” a subtle Bo Diddley-style song from their most recent album. One of the biggest surprises of the evening came from a tremendous version of “You Got Lucky.” An early-MTV era song, Petty noted that the tune had not been played on tour in quite some time. The band then played a pair of singalong hits from Petty’s first solo LP Full Moon Fever - “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.”

For perhaps the first time since 1985, the Heartbreakers tour sound has been regularly augmented by a pair of backup singers. English sisters Charley and Hattie Webb brought a new dimension to the stage through their extra layer of vocals. This new wrinkle to the Heartbreakers was especially important during a beautiful rendition of “Walls” and a consecutive trio of tracks from Wildflowers during the middle portion of the concert. After an extended version of “It’s Good To Be King” that blew away the audience, the group slowed the concert down with “Crawling Back to You” and “Wildflowers.”

After the Wildflowers suite, the band wove the catchy acoustics of “Yer So Bad” into the set before the Heartbreakers switched gears and reeled off a tremendous bunch of songs to close out the show. Led by 2010’s Led Zepplin-like “I Should Have Known It,” the group ended the first part of the evening with guitar-charged versions of Petty mainstays “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” After a brief break the band kicked into a version of “You Wreck Me” that even had keyboard player Benmont Tench jumping up and down as he and guitar player Mike Campbell traded solos. In a night filled with big chorus moments from two longtime rock ‘n roll staples, the Newark audience sang loudest with the Heartbreakers as they capped the night with “American Girl.”

The Prudential Center crowd was treated to a night of extraordinary musicianship. It would be difficult to find three guitar players with the abilities of Walsh, Petty, and Campbell under the same roof in any tour currently going. Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone are also highly sought-after musicians that have filled a long list of album credits for musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash. Both Walsh and the Heartbreakers clearly remain at the top of their game and show no signs of slowing down.

It is rare to go to an arena and enjoy a group where seemingly every song has a big chorus and even bigger guitar licks that are familiar to the entire audience. Sporting their most diverse and energetic setlist in a decade, the Heartbreakers are showing 40 years into their career that they are continuing their legacy as one of the truly great American bands. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Batman & Bill Sets The Record Straight On The Dark Knight’s Creation

Batman is the story of the Caped Crusader fighting for justice on behalf of those who need someone else to do their fighting for them. But who fights for Batman when the Dark Knight needs help? The answer: Marc Tyler Nobleman.

The Hulu documentary Batman & Bill examines the creative origins of Batman, one of modern pop-culture’s great icons. When the very first Batman comic was published in 1939 the DC Comics star had been accredited to only one man - Bob Kane. Ever since that comic was published, any television episode, movie, cartoon, or book were all produced with only Kane’s name on the cover or title sequence. With the guidance of author Marc Tyler Nobleman, Batman & Bill explores how Kane was actually a co-creator of the Dark Knight and that longtime collaborator Bill Finger was responsible for a large portion of the Batman universe.

Finger was the creative force behind Robin, The Joker, Catwoman, The Riddler, The Penguin, Scarecrow, Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Dick Grayson. He named Gotham City, the Dark Knight, the Batmobile, the Bat Cave; he wrote the origin of the story that involved Bruce Wayne’s parents; and he provided critical cosmetic changes to Batman. Finger essentially developed so much of what we loved about Batman, but until recently he has been largely unrecognized. The only credit Finger achieved while he was alive was a co-writing credit on an episode of the Adam West Batman series.

Nobleman, who wrote the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, shows how he devoted significant effort and research into finding out Finger’s contributions to Batman. He also located Finger’s granddaughter and helped push her into fighting to gain official acknowledgement of his work by DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Batman & Bill also shows how the journey to achieve recognition was an extremely personal one for Athena Finger. She is the daughter of Bill Finger’s only son, Fred. Fred Finger had died of AIDS when Athena Finger was very young and she had not really known her father.

Batman & Bill largely absolves DC Comics and Warner Brothers for omitting Bill Finger’s name from their credits. The documentary acknowledges that adding Finger’s name alongside Kane’s was a large headache for both companies with major legal ramifications that did not promise any real financial gain. Most of their blame is aimed at Kane, who showed some remorse for neglecting Finger’s contributions later in his own life. A major contrast between the two is shown. Kane gained substantial wealth while Finger had a small apartment. Kane stumped at conventions and told his fans about the work “I created.” Finger rode around on a bus and developed ideas through observation.  A friend detailed that when Finger died, eviction notices were on his front doorway. Kane had the Bat-Signal on his gravestone. At one point a friend thought that Finger had been buried in an unmarked grave in a Potter’s Field. The comparison between both of their lives is astounding and shows a clear contrast in fortunes.

The documentary opens with Nobleman discussing Batman with a group of school children. The message of the scene is clear: everyone knows Batman. As Batman & Bill unfolds you find that even the most ardent fans of Batman were unaware of his true creator. Before watching Batman & Bill I did not how know Batman had been cultivated.

By the time I began watching the cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, the Caped Crusader had been around for 53 years and there was never any thought as to how he came into being. Batman and his Gotham City cohorts had just always been there. Those same characters continued to entertain me throughout Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy and represented one of the few facets of my childhood that I could reengage with on a new level as an adult.

Finding out that so many dynamic characters that had filled my childhood were primarily developed by one person was fascinating. The additional layer of learning about the relatively unknown identity of their creator and about the struggle to give him proper credit made Batman & Bill a must-watch documentary that can inform every generation of Batman fan. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Ten-Year Legacy Of The Sopranos' Finale

This post contains spoilers for the finales of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire.

Tony Soprano and his family eat at Holsten's in the 2007 finale
It is a scene as familiar as some good gabagool or the dirty toll booth on the Jersey Turnpike. Tony Soprano walks into Holsten’s diner and sifts through the songs on the jukebox. He selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and sits in a booth. The mafioso hunches over a menu and the camera flashes to people as they walk into the restaurant. The moment unmistakably feels like a hit scene. He is gradually joined by wife Carmella and son A.J. as his daughter Meadow makes multiple attempts at parallel parking her Lexus outside. After his daughter finally parks her car she sprints across the street towards the diner. The bell in the doorway rings, Tony looks up, and the screen goes to black. And thus ended one of the most storied shows in television.

The closing moments of The Sopranos are among the most memorable in the annals of television. Aired on June 10, 2007, the episode “Made In America” capped six seasons of a show that had changed television. The series remains a signature program for HBO and has become a benchmark in an era of television drama where anti-heroes and moral gray areas dominate storylines. The open-ended closure of the last episode allowed for the final moments of The Sopranos to become one of the most widely-debated moments in small screen history. Ten years later, what is the legacy of the finale?

Of course, the diner segment was not the only scene in the finale. The most important story of the episode is the looming testimony of capo Carlo Gervasi and Tony’s likely indictment. The tension between Tony’s crew and rival boss Phil Leotardo ends when Soprano’s rival is capped and memorably run over in a gas station parking lot. A.J., the dolt of the series, manages to destroy an SUV, contemplate joining the army, and lands work in a movie (all in the same episode). Sadder moments are shown as Bobby Bacala is laid to rest and Junior Soprano’s dementia becomes fully realized.

But that diner scene.

The finale lacked a definite ending like Breaking Bad, another modern-era drama that has left its mark on television. The AMC series finished with a much more complete ending when creator Vince Gilligan frees Jesse and Walter dies. Breaking Bad clearly achieved a much more satisfactory conclusion.

Last episodes do not have to have to cater to the thrills of an audience to be successful. The Wire, an HBO contemporary of The Sopranos, concluded by showing the characters as they continue their lives in Baltimore. Some have happy endings. Others fall down a dark path. The sad message of the last show was clear: after five seasons of The Wire, life in Baltimore remained the same as it was when the show started.

The last moment of Tony Soprano and The Sopranos
How you evaluate the finale depends on how you interpret the last seconds of The Sopranos. The most obvious theory is that Tony is about to be whacked as he sits in the diner. A second argument is that creator David Chase wanted to depict the constant turmoil in Tony’s life coupled with the anxiety that he could be killed at any time. The latter fits more closely with the tone of the series. The Sopranos did not glorify mob life. The men certainly enjoyed the fruits of their labors, but frequently ran into the consequences of poor decisions. Even as he ate with his family, Tony was in danger of being hunted down by a rival at any time.

No matter which ending the writers chose, The Sopranos lacks the satisfaction of watching Jesse peel off into the night opportunity or the awareness that the grim circle of life in Baltimore continues.

The legacy of the finale is cemented in American television lore. The sudden black screen allowed viewers to debate the ending, but ultimately a great show’s most memorable scene was not great acting or writing. The drama’s biggest moment remains an unknown. The flaw of the finale was not that Tony was killed or that he lived on with his family, but that there is no ending. Instead, Tony may or may not have been brutally slain as he ate with Carmella and his children. He may or may not have finished dinner, gone home, and watched a movie.

Had Tony Soprano been killed, it would have been an anticipated and appropriate ending to a legendary character. If David Chase had simply opted to fade as the family ate he would have succeeded in giving Tony and his three family members one last moment on the screen. Chase managed to create one of the great television series of all-time, but by finishing the series with a question mark he left his audience in a state of confusion and disappointment. The show deserved a more definite ending, whatever that conclusion was. Unlike shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad, The Sopranos will perpetually feel incomplete and ultimately casts a negative pall over an otherwise well-done show. Walt died. Life went on in Baltimore. Tony is forever intertwined with a black screen and Steve Perry singing about South Detroit. 

The final scene of The Sopranos:

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Twenty Thousand Hertz, A Podcast That Is Exploring The Sounds Around Us

Have you ever wondered what noises you would hear if you were on Mars or why NBC uses three chimes for station identifications? Did you know that NBC once used an extravagant seven chimes and briefly used a fourth during World War II? From 8-bit video game sounds to car engines, the podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz examines the noises that we encounter in our daily lives. The series analyzes sounds that occur so regularly they are rarely thought about in a higher context. By the end of each episode the podcast has created a new take on old sounds.

Hosted by Dallas Taylor, 20k Hertz was first broadcast by the studio Defacto Sound in 2016. Most episodes run between ten to twenty minutes long, just long enough to create a different understand of something that is constantly occurring around us every day. Ranging from the routine (dial-up modem) to the unnoticed (The Wilhelm Scream), 20k Hertz even manages to create a level of intrigue about nails scraping across a chalkboard.

20k Hertz features an impressive slate of guests. Foley artists from Skywalker Sounds, Rick Greenhut (the last person to play the chimes on NBC radio), blind film critic Tommy Edison, and the first voice of Siri are just a few of the people interviewed on the podcast.

The series displays a tremendous ability to put sound in perspective. In the episode “Sound Of Extinction,” 20k Hertz allows the audience to dwell on the incredible history of the bells of London’s Big Ben. The tower, which was completed in 1859, has been in operation long enough that with only three notable exceptions its same bells have been heard by Londoners like Jack the Ripper and David Bowie. Even though Big Ben began renovations in 2017, the idea that a visitor could travel to London and hear the same sounds Britain’s most infamous and celebrated citizens have heard for over 150 years is just one of the many fascinating things detailed in 20k Hertz.

Taylor and his crew also delve into some deeper topics. “Space” wonders how humans would hear sound on different planets. “The Mystery Hum and its Government Coverup” probes a government-run Michigan facility that seems so eerie it could wind up as the new plot of Stranger Things.  

The podcast not only looks at current sounds, but also how sounds occurred in different eras and how they have changed. In the episode “Dolls That Talk… And Some That Listen," 20k Hertz explores the evolution of talking dolls. By playing a restored recording from a Thomas Edison talking doll (creepy) you can hear how some of the earliest talking dolls attempted to entertain children. By also highlighting Chatty Cathy (still creepy) and My Friend Kayla (it spies on you), analyzing the progression of the talking dolls of yesteryear to today is a surprisingly engaging topic.

So many of the sounds featured in 20k Hertz can be taken for granted as we go from A to B every day. The podcast and Defacto Sounds succeed in their pursuit of making these sounds seem “insanely cool.” It is not only informational, but 20k Hertz allows a new and more enjoyable appreciation of the noises around us.

In addition to being available as a podcast, past 20k Hertz episodes can be found online at

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Netflix Documentary The Keepers Offers Sobering Truths

The Keepers is a true-crime documentary that goes far beyond the normal composition of most films within its genre. A murdered nun, sexual abuse, and decades of deceit are the central topics of the Netflix miniseries that is far from a traditional whodunnit. The Keepers offers a sobering look at the corrupt cultures within long-established institutions that has gone on for generations.

The seven-part series begins with an examination of the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, S.S.N.D. A cold case from 1969, Sr. Cesnik was a 26-year-old nun who was teaching English at Western High School in Baltimore, MD. As The Keepers progresses, allegations are made that present a terrible culture of abuse at her previous school, Archbishop Keough. Her death becomes associated with the sexual assault ring at the school that was led by priests A. Joseph Maskell and Neil Magnus. The coverup of the abuse begins with the Catholic Church’s practice of shuffling delinquent priests from assignment to assignment, but ultimately extends to police officers and government officials.

As the scope of the complicity grows, any frustration, anger, and disappointment felt by the audience is reflected by the people interviewed by the documentarians.

The Keepers primarily focuses on two pairs of women who demonstrate considerable strength and grit. The first set of women are both alumnae of Archbishop Keough who have devoted considerable time to investigating Cesnik’s death. The second pair are two victims of the abuse of Maskell and Magnus. The Keepers also interviews a male victim from a parish that Maskell had been previously assigned to. It is through the eyes of these five people that the documentary depicts their personal horrors and exasperation as they try to find answers.

The Keepers is tough to watch, but offers viewpoints that are important to hear. Watching the victims of abuse describe their trials is not easy, but necessary to understand their pain.

2013 Baltimore Sun article detailing the Cesnik murder
While documenting the cruelty of Maskell’s actions is vital, The Keepers reaches for the greater truths involving the establishments who have enabled abuse. In searching for these truths the miniseries becomes relevant to multiple audiences. For Roman Catholics, The Keepers offers a visceral look at issues within the Church itself. By looking beyond the Catholic Church, the documentary scrutinizes police departments, politicians, and the F.B.I.

The Keepers brings the crimes of the past into the present by chronicling multiple instances of inaction from civil authorities. The documentary reveals the refusal of key figures within the General Assembly of Maryland to extend greater opportunities for abuse victims to come forward and a confounding weakness from the former state’s attorney to act with character. Towards the end of the miniseries, the ongoing efforts of the two alumnae are also shown as they struggle to obtain F.B.I files.

Unlike the 2015 Netflix documentary series Making A Murder, The Keepers offers a more airtight examination of evidence. Both documentaries offer a look at systematic corruption, but The Keepers is bolstered by a thorough presentation from its producers and the strong statements made by the subjects that are interviewed. Despite dealing with an old case and some suppressed evidence, the series presents its work in a diligent and methodical manor. At one point, even a Baltimore police detective appears impressed with the filmmakers’ work.

The Keepers is a must-watch series to achieve an understanding of both the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the greater role of the community in these cases. Even though the murder of Catherine Cesnik took place 48 years ago, the events surrounding her death continue remain to relevant today.