Coming of Age Film ‘The Way, Way Back’ is a Summer Treat

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

Way Back imagesMy sister and I used to sit in the way back of our parents’ Ford station wagon. Like a lot of kids did, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride, going backwards. Of course, there were those times when it was embarrassing as hell facing the driver of the car behind us, so it was good that our parents traded the wagon in before I hit adolescence.

Duncan, the 14-year-old boy at the center of the coming of age film The Way, Way Backdoesn’t have it as easy as I did. He’s sitting in the last row of a station wagon at an age when he’s trying to mature while most of the grown-ups around him act like impulsive children. Played with slow-growing confidence by Liam James, Duncan is much like I was as an adolescent — awkward but feeling older in my head than my appearance. In this truly wonderful comedy-drama, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for writing, with Alexander Payne, the screenplay for The Descendants), Duncan learns to make the most of a summer vacation in which his mom (Toni Collette) is dating a conflicted jerk (Steve Carell), and Duncan is worrying about a possible romance (with the character gracefully portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) as well as concern about when he will next see his father. The kid really needs someone to take him under his wing to show him how to enjoy life in a world in which all the adults are unhappy. Cue Owen, the man-child who hires Duncan at the local water park and helps Duncan find self-worth and age-appropriate fun. Sam Rockwell is so freakin’ good as Owen, it seems high time that this dude get his Oscar nomination since he consistently colors his characters with texture and wit.

I highly recommend this film as one parents should see with their children, age 13 on up. It raises issues of family, love, and maturity in a way that isn’t heavy-handed but very honest. I saw The Way, Way Back with my wife and my way-back partner, my sister, and her husband. We all experienced it with laughs and tears and the feeling that it depicted a universal experience worth sharing with our older children.

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for July 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

JustinRoberts-Recess-imagesWe hopscotch to our new rundown of children’s music reviews with the welcome return of a Family Man favorite. Maybe kids don’t really care about great songwriting. They just know they like a tune when they hear it. I can tell you that kids love Justin Roberts’ music, as evidenced by boppin’ audience members at his concerts, the robust sales of his numerous CDs, and the consistent call-in requests to the SXM’s Kids Place Live channel. But a lot of adults admire superb musical craft and, man, does Justin Roberts have it. Each song on his newest recording, Recess, offers music and lyrics that change and surprise in neatly wrapped, highly kinetic packages.

Of the 12 tracks on Recess, a number of the outstanding examples are the title tune, with it’s Billy Joel tinges and words that glorify the beloved classroom break, and “I’ll Be an Alien,” with its Beach Boys harmonies performed with Roberts’ very awake bandmates, the Not Ready for Naptime Players. “My Secret Robot” has a ’60s British Invasion rock style in its account of a boy’s mysterious metal friend, and “The Princess Wore Pink” gets all medieval in this piece about a royal girl who starts a color craze. Whether he’s rockin’ out or getting all pensive, Roberts keeps us engaged with sounds and images that make summer cooler and brighter all at once.

Moock-imagesSInging Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids,  which comes from a personal place and leads its listeners to a public stage that showcases the strength of children who are battling/have battled cancer. Boston singer-songwriter Alastair Moock, who has quickly become one of the family music world’s rising stars, could have been leveled by the news of his five-year-old daughter Chloe’s diagnosis of leukemia in July of 2012. Yet, he found the power to write songs to inspire his child and the many other children and families who endure cancer. These pieces are beautiful, emotional, and honest.

On the first song, the quietly lilting poem “I Am the Light,” Moock says, “C is for cancer, that’s growing in me/A is for able, that’s what I will be/Able to bend like a tree in the wind/My branches are strong even though they are thin.” Moock shows the many facets of the experience, from the playful “When I Get Bald,” “B-R-A-V-E,” and “Take Care of Your Grownups” to the inspirational “Home When I Hold You” and “This Little Light of Mine.”  Lending their talents to this gorgeous project are Elizabeth Mitchell, the Okee Dokee Brothers, Rani Arbo, Chris Smither, and Aolfe O’Donovan.

LoriHenriques-imagesTwo other unique recordings complete this month’s children’s music reviews, including a new release from pianist-composer-singer Lori Henriques. With The World is a Curious Place to LiveHenriques exhibits her signature flair for witty lyricism, quirky vocals, and complex-yet-accessible jazz piano. She provides insights on carrots (“Crunchy Privilege”), language (“Le Francais Est Magnifique”), and philosophy (the title song). Then, there’s Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble, whose album I Like Everything About You (Yes I Do) brims with percussive and vocal sounds in their most natural state. This project of a non-profit arts organization based in Oakland, California, mines musical gems from around the world, from the U.S. to Africa, on such tracks as “Walkin’ the Dog,” “Yamawele,” and “Breaths.”

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Dad’s Reel Life

By Gregory Keer

Starbuck-imageI’m such a film geek that I used to keep a journal of all the movies I saw, complete with the pompous commentaries of my early-20s bohemian phase. My celluloid nerdiness turned off most of the girls I dated before I found the one woman who liked classic-film double features as much as I did (I married her). I even studied screenwriting in grad school and now teach motion-picture history and production in high school.

So the fact that I’ve gone to a movie theater twice this year says a lot about two things:

1)           I rarely have time to go to the cinema because of the family-work vortex.

2)           The vast majority of new movies suck.

I still view films at home, though, again, I have so much less time to do so and none of my kids want to watch anything featuring black and white, ‘70s fashion, or subtitles.

While fatherhood has definitely put a put a crimp in my reel life, it has also contributed layers of perspective for my movie-going experience.

The first movie of those rare theater visits was Starbuck, which involves a 42-year-old serial underachiever named David who, in his younger days, donated sperm – often. When David’s girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant (via the old-fashioned way), she offers to raise the child without him. However, David wants to be involved and pledges to prove he can be responsible. Soon thereafter, an attorney from the sperm-donor clinic informs this loveable loser that his “quality” sperm has produced 533 children, many of whom have filed a suit to be able to contact him.

Against the advice of his single-father lawyer friend, David drops into the lives of his now-grown kids, anonymously helping them like a guardian angel through difficult situations. This is where the film hit home for me, as David’s paternal instinct and know-how accrued from his failures drive him to help the kids he so impersonally fathered. It is indeed an endless circus act to parent my children, maybe not as hard as nurturing 142 of them like the movie character, but it is something I feel compelled to do. And few things make me as satisfied as teaching them lessons I’ve learned from my own mistakes.

Late in the film, David’s immigrant papa decides to help his wayward son reach his fatherly potential because the dad has always seen the true soul of David. The scene reminded me of how my own father has believed in me, despite my mistakes, and it highlighted my need to recognize the gold in my sons’ characters, no matter what they do to make me mad or disappointed.

42-filmThe other movie that watered my 2013 film-going desert is 42. Although it’s less directly about fatherhood, I can’t think of another motion picture I so intensely wanted to take my children to other than this one about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. I’m a huge baseball fan, having shared ballpark visits, stories, and statistics with my father for a lifetime. For the most part, my sons could care less about the game, but wanted to see 42 before I even asked them because their friends had been talking about it for weeks.

In the theater with my three boys as well as another dad pal and his son, I was never prouder to be a father as we watched the story of a man of integrity, smarts, and athletic talent who weathered the heavy weight of racism to survive and thrive in baseball. My kids had questions before, during, and after the film about American history, allowing me to be a teacher and dad at the same time. Since I actually knew most of the answers, my ego floated on cloud nine. The film was an all-too-rare opportunity, amidst entertainment fare about apocalypses and cartoon mayhem, to bond with my kids over subjects that were explained to me by my father when I was a lad.

Inspired by 42, my youngest son more regularly wants to play catch and all my boys have taken at least an occasional interest in baseball. We even watched another of my favorite baseball movies, The Natural, which allowed me to talk to my kids about folk tales, ambition, and wonder.

Films continue to be a huge part of my life. I love to watch them on my own, but nothing beats the shared experience in a theater to start conversation and connect emotionally about topics we hesitate to bring up in the course of a normal day.

For Father’s Day, I don’t really need much. Just take me to the movies.

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for June 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

This edition of our children’s music reviews lifts off with the debut album from Shine and the Moonbeams. While my musical taste is eclectic, I tend to reach for R&B first, which is the foundation for this superb collection from leader Shawana Kemp and her band. The ensemble has been building buzz for a couple of years, following live and guest recording appearances (including the recent albums by the Pop Ups and Sugar Free Allstars), so the quality of this album is an example of potential fulfilled. From the Latin rhythms of “The Melody in Me” and the Hammond-organ infused “Imagination” to the ’70s soul sound of “Kilimanjaro” and the smooth ’80s feel of “High Five” (already getting airplay on satellite radio), there is no denying the quality of Kemp’s voice and the easy appeal of lyrics fit for the whole family. This is the retro-yet-new groove album of the summer.

Joanie Leeds, with her band the Nightlights, rocks forward with her latest release, Bandwagon. Leeds and her group travel over all kinds of stylistic roads, such as the country of the title track, the garage-band sound of “Are We There Yet?” and the folk-rock of “Let’s Go.” Two other tracks of note are “Canon Song,” which spotlights guest vocalist Dean Jones, who also produced the album, and “Little Cloud,” with Rachel Loshak (of the Gustafer Yellowgold family) lending her voice. Then there’s “Nutritious,” a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which has all the markings of a kindie hit for its healthy lyrics on top of the classic melody.

Summer is never happier than when it’s refreshed by a new Recess Monkey record. Deep Sea Diver surfaces with ocean-inspired songs, including the wacky “Fish Sticks” (about a percussive fish), the funky “Shrimp,” the sea-shanty “The Seven C’s” (one of the most lyrically clever of the collection with its references to a band of friends whose names all start with C), the beach mellow “Seagull,” and the Southern-rockin’ “Seahorse.” The Seattle trio, which features longtime members Jack Forman and Drew Holloway as well as new member Korum Bischoff, has a seemingly endless well of smart pop for young kids and this album certainly is worthy of their musical IQ.

A special addition to our Father’s Day edition is Bob McGrath, a man who has been a father figure to millions via Sesame Street. His voice is as full of character and clarity as ever while he takes on 15 timeless tunes such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “Wheels on the Bus,” and “Skinamarink” (one of my wife’s favorites). On Bob’s Favorite Sing Along Songs, the instrumentation  that goes with McGrath’s inimitable voice is so good that it warranted second versions of the tracks with just the instruments. The whole package makes for a terrific interactive experience with preschool age children.

Finally, here’s a few really quick picks: Just ahead of the July 4th holiday is an apt soundtrack of sorts, American Playground, from the marvelous Putumayo Kids label. An all-stars-and-stripes cast of kindie rockers cover songs that reflect the richness of American musical traditions. Listen to artists such as Elizabeth Mitchell (“Keep on the Sunny Side”), Randy Kaplan (“Forever Young”), and Buck Howdy (“You Are My Sunshine”)….Boxtop Jenkins just won an Independent Music Award for his album “You’re Happier When You’re Happy,” a percolating melting pot of rock, bluegrass, and folk. Playing along with Boxtop (whose real name is Franklin Bunn) are special guests the Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins…Mr. Saxophone’s new album I Sneeze in Threes is a pleasant surprise of a project from Dave Farver, a music educator from St. Louis who plays sax and guitar. Along with the pop catchiness of the title track are several parodies, including “Luke, I’m Your Father” (done to the tune of “Smoke on the Water”).

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for May 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

May is proving to be bounty not just for moms, but for music lovers at all levels of a family. We kick off our children’s music reviews with an ensemble that made my list of favorites last Mother’s Day month, Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. Few bands make me happier than Lucky, Alisha, and the gang, who do so, this time, in Spanish. !Fantastico! marks the group’s first recording todo en español and it’s full of the same style-hopping music they’ve been delivering on their English-language albums. Among the most savory bits here are the surfer rock of “Gato Astronauto,” the Go-Go’s-like “A Bailar,” and the Louis Armstrong-meets-the-Delta-Blues “¿Que Dices?”

Another of my all-time fave family music people is Dean Jones, who’s been busy producing recent albums from Ratboy Jr., his celebrated group, Dog on Fleas, and a new disc (reviewed below). The Grammy-award winning kindie rock impresario fills When the World Was New with wonder and beauty. Standout tracks include the title song, which asks kids to imagine the world before civilizations; “Stand With Me” (with Shamsi Ruhe on vocals), which offers a vision of working together, and “Join a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” which suggests ways to explore passions and what’s around us. Jones has once again produced a record that challenges and soothes youthful ears. We are so fortunate to have him making music for us.

The brand-new project produced by Dean Jones comes from Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke, a songwriting and performing duo who have been crafting clever tunes together for more than two decades. On Pleased to Meet You, their second full-length family album, humor and sophisticated arrangements boost such songs as “Raised by Trolls” (given a Ray Davies-style feel by British born Mr. Clarke), “Wander Round the World” (firmly rooted in Americana with Texan Key Wilde leading on vocals), “Eggplant Man” (strangely catchy), and “Falling Star” (a simple gem featuring Wilde on ukelele).

Additional goodies for this month include Whatever I Want to Be, by Ilana Melmed and the Young Avenue Kids. This album has Melmed and remarkable kid voices singing original lyrics to classical music by everyone from Rossini to Grieg. Lastly, Roger Day teaches children about coastal ecology in a DVD of musical performances called Marsh Mud Madness. Filmed at the Savannah Music Festival and at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, the production is swimming with fun and thoughtful songs about the indigenous coast-dwelling plants and animals.

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Anti-Bullying Video “To This Day”

It’s Mother’s Day, so one reason I recommend viewing this anti-bullying video by the stunningly brilliant poet Shane Koyczan is for a line: “The definition of ‘beauty’ begins with the word ‘Mom.'” But you have to see the animated version of Koyczan’s poem “To This Day” because you need to hear and see and feel the context of what it’s like to be bullied, yet grow up to be so strong. Please trust me when I say that, even if you totally get that bullying is a problem and are making efforts to protect your kids and those of others, this video offers perspective so exquisitely presented that you will have at least a few minutes of feeling transformed. Shane Koyczan also has a Web site worth visiting to hear/see more of his powerful work.

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for April 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

April showers us with several refreshing new albums for this month’s children’s music reviews. We begin with a group whose name gives me the creeps, but whose music keeps me coming back for more. Despite its low-lying monicker, Ratboy Jr., comprised of Hudson Valley residents Timmy Sutton (vocals, guitars, and more) and Matty Senzatimore (drums, vocals, keys, etc.), offers a pretty heroic blend of rock with a slight punk edge on Champions of the Universe. Produced by Dean Jones (this Dog on Fleas frontman is a kids’ music hero, himself), the best giggle-inducing and roots rockin’ tracks include “High 5 Your Shadow,” “Where Do Monsters Go?,” and “Guitar Pickin’ Chicken.”

Miss Nina (Nina Stone) enlivens her Sha Do Be Doop recording with songs that range from hip-hop to pop. Among the more outstanding selections are the ones inspired by classic children’s books, including “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight,” “The Brown Bear Rap,” and “Wild Things” (the latter based on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.) Trained in dance and music, Miss Nina is also a music educator who applies her know-how to deepen the effectiveness of the songs, here, that make young kids want to sing and dance.

Among the month’s other worthy CDs are Latin Dreamland, Putumayo Kids’ latest release, which features the consistently superb selection of songs of various artists, this time from such countries as Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. And, the folks from Recess Music give us Share, the newest in The Best Foot Forward Series, which has 15 tracks to celebrate sharing. The all-star contributors to this record include Rene & Jeremy, Dog on Fleas, and Charity and the JAMBand.

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for March 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The Baltimore-based kindie rockers, Milkshake, headline the children’s music reviews for this month. Their new album, Got a Minute?, is the group’s fifth for kids, following their 2009 Grammy-nominated Great Day. For this project, each song’s playing time hovers around that proverbial minute, with a few eclipsing the two-minute mark. Remarkably, each tune fulfills Milkshake’s standard of excellence, with eclectic musical styles and lyrics that apply to kids (mostly of the tween-age variety). Standout tracks include the title song (with its driving electric guitar), “We Just Wanna Have Fun” (with a bagpipe charge at the forefront), “One Day” (featuring lead singer Lisa Matthews’ daughter, Jesse, singing her original composition), “One of a Kind” (with band co-leader Mikel Gehl’s son, Eric, on drums), and “Practice Makes Perfect” (with its message about effort). On Got a Minute, Milkshake offers real and rock steady music that represents the band’s growth and the development of the audience that has been listening to them for all these years.

As a longtime English teacher, it’s hard to resist the debut recording of Paul Spring, Home of Song, a singer-songwriter and English instructor. Produced by Dean Jones (of Dog on Fleas) and Joe Mailander (part of the Grammy-winning duo of the Okee Dokee Brothers), the album marries great roots-based music with superb storytelling. WIth an easygoing voice that sometimes reaches the transcendent timbre of Rufus Wainwright (especially on the title tune), Spring traverses the road on “Sloppy Jalopy,” flies high with literary references on “Peter Pan,”  and sunnily enlightens us about friendship with “Sherlock Holmes.” The CD is a true find and I could not be happier to recommend it as one that will likely appear on my “best of” list by year’s end.

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Family Man Recommends: Children’s Music Reviews for February 2013

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

The Grammys just wrapped and, I must say, I enjoyed the primetime show immensely. I particularly loved the performance of the Black Keys with Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band blasting through “Lonely Boy.” For the Best Children’s Recording, one of my favorite duos, the Okee Dokee Brothers, won for Can You Canoe? against a field chock full of stellar nominees.

For this short month, my children’s music reviews begin with one of the other 2012 Grammy nominees, Bill Harley, who has concocted yet another album of kid-friendly mirth and mayhem. This time, Bill is paired with Keith Munslow, who shares Harley’s hybrid status as a singer-songwriter-storyteller. The recording is called It’s Not Fair to Me and employs everything from ’60s-style rock (including surfer rock) to folk sounds in accompanying humor-drenched songs about fairness, whining, dogs, unflattering imitation, and stylistically offensive sweaters.

The Not-Its have one of the kindie-rock world’s best band names, so it makes sense for them to have one of the best recordings of this young year. KidQuake! rocks forth with a title song about the power kids generate, then speaks the truth about a “Temper Tantrum,” and recalls The Who’s pinball wizard themes with “Full Tilt.” The guitar-heavy quintet balances things nicely with vocal harmonies that vividly illustrate elements of modern families.

Rounding out the recs is Francie Kelley’s Where Do You Want to Go Today? A multi-award winner for her previous CD, Wake Up and Go to Sleep, the sweet-singing Kelley offers a globe-circling journey through songs that travel to “African Skies”, an “Irish Dream”, and the Argentine-inflected “Tarantula Tango” – a cleverly worded tune about an arachnid disrupting a backyard camp-out.

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David Code’s New Book on Socializing to Reduce Stress

Saying that modern parents are stressed out is nothing new. What is new is the emphasis that David Arthur Code has in his book, Kids Pick Up On Everything. Code, who is a marriage and family coach as well as an ordained Episcopal minister, has lived in several countries around the world, which is how he came to see that socializing was a key element in the effort to reduce stress in parents. In writing his book, Code studied neuroscience in addition to collecting his own observations.

Here are three of his top points from the book as articulated by Code:

“1) Parental stress is a major factor in the increase of child disorders today.  His research shows that kids soak up the stress in a household until their developing nervous systems hit ‘overload.’

2) Being stressed out is The New Normal for parents, and the main cause of our increased stress is NOT our jobs, or technology—it’s social isolation. Humans are social animals, with a primal need to bond.  That’s why our increasing isolation has left us more anxious and irritable, eroding our relationships as we escape into our screens.  Research shows we are far more isolated than only two decades ago.

3) Parents need to get a life! ‘If I could wave my magic wand and reduce the stress of today’s parents, I would give them a glass of wine, a friend, and a ‘piazza’–an Italian village square to go socialize in every evening.’ Sure, exercise buffers our stress, but socializing is #1.”

Another important idea Code discusses in his book comes from the fact that, while he observed families in South America, he learned that “it’s a myth that ‘the more attention you give your kids, the better they’ll turn out.’ Rather, the more time you socialize with other parents while your kids play together, the better they’ll turn out.”

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