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Short Takes
EMPRESS OF THE SPLENDID SEASON By Oscar Hijuelos Unlike his bouncy The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos' latest novel is a slow dance, an elegy to a cleaning woman, that continues the author's celebration of his Cuban roots. His Lydia moves with stoic grace through decades of caring for a sickly husband, guiding her children to successful adulthoods and straightening up other people's digs. That she had been a head-turning beauty and proud daughter of a mayor in pre-Castro Cuba would not occur to someone sitting opposite her on the subway. Yet as a character endowed with romantic yearnings, she is hard to ignore. Hijuelos' episodic format doesn't quite gel. But that is more than offset by his emotional fine tuning and pitch-perfect prose.

SURVIVAL OF THE PRETTIEST By Nancy Etcoff As a culture, we venerate symmetrical faces, women with perky breasts, men with V-shaped torsos. But is it the fault of Vogue editors and Aaron Spelling that we do so? Skewering the popular wisdom that beauty is a social construct, this Harvard psychologist argues that we ogle such features because they radiate the health and fertility our species needs to survive. Avoiding ideological rant, Etcoff employs rigorous scientific research and amusing detail to create a great read, albeit one that won't become Naomi Wolf's favorite.

200 CIGARETTES Directed by Risa Bramon Garcia In this comedy about a dozen or so young'uns on New Year's Eve 1981, the first few minutes have promise (with an all-star list of Gen-X actors), and the last few minutes provide fun (with snapshots of lovers and losers). In between there is a void--feeble jokes, a lot of falling down and foolish declarations. Shana Larsen's script has the feel of a sitcom pilot, with the actors urged to make a quick impression. What's left? Fine turns by Courtney Love, Angela Featherstone, Dave Chapelle and Martha Plimpton. The film pushes them into mud, and they get up smelling sweet.

JAZZ IN FILM Terence Blanchard Once upon a time, the jazz or jazz-inflected scores for movies like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Man with the Golden Arm were breakthroughs. Today the sound of a saxophone wailing in the night is as tired a film noir cliche as the battered fedora--the stuff of Carol Burnett sketches. But Blanchard, a trumpet player and film composer himself, finds new beauty and wit in the originals, fashioning mini-suites from the above-mentioned scores (and others) that shift between cinematic lushness and small-group drive. Blanchard's bruised, lyrical solo on Chinatown is a highlight--a freshly heard cry in the night.

ROCK OF AGES VH1, Mondays 10 p.m. A show that intercuts between old people and kids as they analyze music videos shouldn't be this funny. But for some reason, just watching the faces of Catskill comedians, say, as they check out Marilyn Manson is entertainment aplenty. Cheery co-host Henry Alford elicits lines from small children that Bill Cosby sweats whirlpools trying to score. Debuting after the show on March 8 is a similar new one, Rock Candy. Though the ideas are great here (interview Quiet Riot at a concert for nudists), the execution isn't nearly as sharp as it is on Rock of Ages. Still, rock comedy hasn't been this smart since This Is Spinal Tap.

March 15, 1999 Vol. 153 No. 10

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