Monday, December 31, 2007

The year in mixed media

I used to spend quite a bit of time and energy at the end of the year coming up with top 10 lists of favorite movies and books. Nowadays, I don't see enough good movies to make a top 10 list so I'm mixing it all together for a list of the favorite media products I consumed (how's that for obfuscating technical language?). In no particular order:

I see very few movies in theaters anymore, though I do try to catch up on the smaller indie and foreign releases from Netflix later. Three movies I saw during their theatrical released and liked quite a bit are worth mentioning:

1. Breach, in which a young CIA agent helps bring down a turncoat; Chris Cooper, of course, was excellent as the bad guy, but Ryan Phillippe was surprisingly good as the "kid" who gets Cooper to take him under his wing so he can betray him. The fabulous Laura Linney is fabulous, though she doesn't have enough to do. Same goes for Dennis Haysbert; this is really a two-man show.

2. Grindhouse, the B-movie double feature from Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez. I like the Tarentino half better, though my partner makes a good point that Grindhouse should be considered as one whole since the two films were presented as one program, complete with fake trailers, film scratches, and projection room glitches. I probably wouldn't want to sit through the Rodriguez half again, but I'm also angry that the two movies were released separately on DVD. Once they've gotten their money out of those, watch for a greedy repackaging of what should have been packaged together in the first place.

3. Hairspray, the movie of the stage musical of the non-musical movie. It's not the second coming of the musical, but it's fun and fluffy and colorful, and survives the miscasting of John Travolta in Divine's role. The final number, "You Can't Stop the Beat" was glorious on stage and is just as good on film, one of the all-time great show tunes, and frankly, I'm happy to have a recording of it that isn't ruined by Harvey Fierstien's croaking as on the Broadway cast album.

4. The Vamp and Camp double feature of She Done Him Wrong and Cobra Woman at the Ohio Theater in Columbus. I haven't seen an audience have this much fun in a theater since the Sound of Music sing-along.

5. On DVD, I was pleased to catch up with Dick, the 1999 Watergate comedy with Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams (great 70's soundtrack) and The History Boys, the 2006 comedy/drama about a group of English working-class students spending a year preparing for entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge. The play was almost certainly better, but the film has fine acting all around. Richard Griffiths gets all the acclaim, but the other teachers (Stephen Campbell Moore and Frances de la Tour) are just as good.

6. This was my year of living dangerously and immersing myself in the works of Leni Riefenstahl, German actress, dancer, and director of the notorious Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. I read two books about her, rewatched Triumph and the first half of Olympia (the second half never came from Netflix), and saw a number of her earlier mountain films, which are fascinating quite apart from Riefenstahl's participation--I'll be reviewing them in January on my Moviepalace blog.

7. Seeing Godard's Contempt and Breathless for the first time. Breathless in particular was quite enjoyable (with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, above), though I don't know how much else of the French New Wave of the 60's I'll try to track down.

8. Books I enjoyed: Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (I'm not sure I'm ready for the Bold Print Atheist label, but I liked that fact that Reason now has a movement and some smart public voices--I'm gonna catch up with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens soon); No Applause Just Throw Money, a history of vaudeville; a chilling office politics novel called The Exception by Christian Jungersen; well-written biographies of Stepin Fetchit (by Mel Watkins) and Phil Spector (by Mick Brown); a wonderful graphic novel/kid's book called The Arrival by Shaun Tan which finds brilliant visual metaphors for the disorientation an immigrant feels in a new land.

9. On TV, there was Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice and The Big Bang Theory, and then this damn writer's strike! I'm tired of going through Jon Stewart withdrawal!

10. Finally, a complaint: American Life Network, a pathetic little cable channel, dropped the three reasons they were worth watching at all: 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6, all early 60's detective shows. I have vague memories of them from my childhood, and though they may not be great TV, they are fun (and are filled with handsome young men). Now American Life has dropped these hard-to-find shows in favor of the same old shows that you can find in syndication all over the local and cable dials, and even on DVD. 77 Sunset Strip (see Efram Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Moore at left) is an especially good show which is now in limbo, available nowhere, and since American Life Network seems to pay no attention whatsoever to e-mail that they themselves ask for, I have no use for them.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Tin Man

Wizard of Oz puns and references are just too easy, so my title for this post is just the title of the TV show I'm reviewing, a six-hour miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel. It's a re-visioning of "The Wizard of Oz" which is based on both the original book and on the beloved MGM musical. The heroine DG (for Dorothy Gale, get it? Of course you do!) gets ripped off of her Midwest farm during a storm and finds herself in what I guess is a parallel world called the Outer Zone (O.Z.). On her quest (finding her real mother and father, as it turns out she was born in the O.Z), she has the help of Glitch, a lobotomized guy with a big zipper in his head, Cain, a cop or "tin man" who happens to have spent several years stuck in a big metal body jacket, and Raw, a somewhat cowardly beast/man. Soon they run across a shape shifter from DG's past named Toto (her childhood name for his position in the family, Tutor) who frequently turns into a dog--and who may be a spy for DG's nemesis, her wicked sister Azkadellia.

Anyone settling in for six hours of this stuff is going to be on the lookout for clever references to the movie, and in this respect, the series does not disappoint. My favorite was the presence of lions and tigers and a bear in the forest, but I also liked the flying monkeys which are tattoos on Azkadellia's chest that come to life, and the chanting guards in front of Azkadellia's castle. The effects are pretty good for a cable TV production, though the story is a bit too convoluted, especially in the middle third. Zooey Deschanel is very good as DG, and Alan Cumming, who I sometimes don't care much for, is wonderfully whimsically befuddled as Glitch. Though Glitch is obviously the Scarecrow, here the "tin man" (Neal McDonough) takes the Scarecrow's place as the character we have the most invested in; McDonough is good, though he's too cold to warm up to (though I realize his coldness is thematic, since the Tin Man didn't have a heart). Richard Dreyfuss has a thankless role as the Mystic Man (i.e., The Wizard); he has nothing much to do and the character goes nowhere. Kathleen Robertson is a bit too Disney Channel-evil as the wicked sister, but I did like Callum Keith Rennie as her main henchman. I sort of wish this had been either a little shorter, or quite a bit longer, like a 9 or 10 episode series that would have developed the characters and the situations better, but I'm glad I stayed with it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tim Burton tries to kill the movie musical

We saw Sweeney Todd this weekend and, while I respect Tim Burton for keeping the material operatic (there's only about 10 minutes worth of spoken dialogue, with all the rest sung), the man just cannot shoot a musical. Stephen Sondheim's musical play, based on a figure of 19th century English folklore, is about a man who goes mad and becomes a serial killer because of his desire for revenge. A barber by trade, he sets out to kill the judge who sent him away to prison, stole his wife (which apparently led to her suicide), and currently has his grown-up daughter under lock and key. In addition to wanting to kill the judge, he's also decided that all of mankind is worth getting rid of, so he starts slashing the throats of his barbering patrons, and his landlady, who runs the pie shop downstairs, gets the bright idea of using the corpses to make meat pies.

The stage production was gory and bleak and so is the movie. Most of the color has been bled out, so to speak, leaving blacks and grays and blues, with bright red for the frequent slashings. Johnny Depp is not a great singer, but he's good enough here, and Helena Bonham-Carter as the landlady is even better. Alan Rickman was born to play the sleazy judge, though the actors who play the younger romantic pair are total washouts. The movie hasn't been opened up much, but the real problem here is that Burton seems to be actively fighting against the idea of shooting a movie musical. Granted, there are no real "production numbers" in the stage version, though there are some choreographed dances, but perhaps in order to heighten the darkness and claustrophobia, Burton has used almost all close-ups and tight two-shots, resulting indeed in claustrophobia, but also making an ugly movie in the process. Every time the movie feels like it's going to shoot off into movie musical heaven ("A Little Priest" and "God That's Good," both songs dealing with the meat pie operation), it plops right back down to earth. It's good enough to make me wish that it was way better, and it makes me feel sad about the state of the movie musical. One step forward (this year's Hairspray), one step back, I guess.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Last-minute listmaking

Being unable to resist any reason for making a list (and maybe checking it twice), here is my last Christmas music post of the season (probably): a list of my 10 favorite carols. I was raised Catholic but do not believe in the reality of any religion--frankly, I'd rather believe in Zeus and his compatriots than the Christian god because it's easier to understand why the Greek gods behave the way they do--but I think the Nativity story is a lovely, magical, hopeful myth, and I love immersing myself in the music of the season. These are the carols I like regardless of who performs them:

1. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"--lovely melody, angels, and messages of peace and mercy.

2. "Good King Wenceslas"--no obvious connection with the Nativity, but an equally magical story.

3. "Carol of the Bells"--currently on the verge of overkill, but still a powerful melody which goes from a whisper to a full onslaught of voices (or bells) and back

4. "Soulcakes" ("The Souling Song")--apparently more appropriate for Halloween (or November 1st), as it was sung when English youths went begging for pastries in exchange for promising to pray for the dead.

5. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"--an Advent carol, minor key and almost spooky

6. "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming"--a beautiful, beautiful melody

7. "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"--a most magical skyful of angels

8. "Wassail, Wassail" (aka the Gloucestershire Wassail)--a grand Saturnalian caroling song, with cheer and eating and drinking, and even a threat of violence if the food and drink aren't produced quickly enough

9. "Patapan"--Nicely rhythmic drum song, less drudgy than The Little Drummer Boy

10. "We Three Kings"--Speaking of drudgy..., but still all its lyrics are ingrained in me, and it's got a weird little twist in the way it conjures up both joy over birth and sorrow over death.

Merry Christmas to all!!

Friday, December 21, 2007

More harking and jingling and decking

My Christmas music roundup entries wouldn't be complete without mention of a few more beloved CDs, starting with George Winston's December, the granddaddy of the entire New Age music movement. A beautiful, spare recording of solo piano pieces which evoke not just Christmas and December but all of winter, it established the mold for dozens, if not hundreds, of other New Age pianists who continue to ply their trade to this day. 20 years later, this album still sounds fresh. It's not lush or sappy, but sharp and crisp with interesting arrangements and moments of almost hypnotic beauty. His versions of Pachelbel's Canon and "Carol of the Bells" are second to none. He also does "Some Children See Him," a beautiful hymnlike song by Alfred Bart, best known in an equally gorgeous version by Tennessee Ernie Ford on the album The Star Carol.

I have a couple of albums of Christmas music played in the Baroque style; the one I grabbed on the way out the door this morning is Christmas Goes Baroque by the CSSR State Philharmonic Orchestra. It's on Naxos, and my understanding is that there may not really be such a body as the CSSR State Philharmonic Orchestra, that some of their albums are recorded by "house" orchestras under various names. Still, these are lovely arrangements of carols in the Baroque style, which means they all sound like Bach and Handel. I own Christmas CDs by Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, and the Roches. Some of my favorite contemporary holiday songs are "Step Into Christmas" by Elton John, "Happy Xmas" by John Lennon, the Eurythmics take on "Winter Wonderland," and the Roches' fun version of "Sleigh Ride" with its robust male "Yoo-hoo!, Yoo-hoo!" I am most assuredly not a Mariah Carey fan, but I don't mind her "All I Want for Christmas Is You." I bought a Christmas remix album a few years back and didn't care for most of it, but I do enjoy the Beef Wellington remix of Bing Crosby's "Holiday Inn" and Mocean Worker's mix of a brass version of "Joy to the World." I feel one more Christmas blog entry in my bones, maybe tomorrow.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wassail, wassail!

Out of the 125 or so Christmas albums I own, I really only dig out a handful to play during the season. I've already written about the Carpenters, Leroy Anderson, and the Royal College of Music Choir. Two more of my favorites are both out of print but worth searching out. "A Victorian Christmas" by the Robert DeCormier Singers, from 1984, sounds a little like a very good local church group that went into a studio and put their hearts into this one chance to cut an album. I mean that as a compliment; the performances are excellent, but the ambiance is a bit dicey at times, like it's a homemade recording. The singers are accompanied by an ensemble with keyboards, guitar, harp, flute, etc. The songs are all traditional carols, sometimes with interesting arrangements, such as a version of "Jingle Bells" titled "The One Horse Open Sleigh"--same lyrics, slightly different melody in the chorus. We used to put their boisterous "Gloucestershire Wassail" ("Wassail, wassail, all over the town...") on our answering machine in December. There's an American carol called "There's a Song in the Air" which was new to me, in addition to perennials like "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Coventry Carol."

The other album, from a group headed by guitarist Ed Sweeney, is somewhat misleadingly titled "A Dickens' Christmas... Inside Fezziwig's," conjuring up the festive holiday party at which the young Scrooge made merry in "A Christmas Carol." It's a fine album, with traditional carols played on "authentic acoustic instruments" such as guitar, banjo, handbells, fiddle, and concertina, but it's a far more somber affair than I imagine when I read about Fezziwig's party. I certainly don't know what English music of the 19th century sounded like, but the sound of these "authentic" instruments puts me more in mind of "A Little House on the Prairie Christmas" than Dickens. Nevertheless, as an instrumental Christmas album, it's a lovely alternative to full orchestras or the abundantly available new-agey sounds of people like Tingstad and Rumbel. There's a nice assortment of 17 songs, with many of the usual suspects and a few interesting choices, such as a medley of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and "Angels We Have Heard On High," and an Irish carol called "The Leading of the Star." Both of these albums are in high rotation on my car CD player this month, and every December.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Too much Stardust, or not enough?

Stardust, the 2006 fantasy based on a comic book series and novel buy Neil Gaiman, is enjoyable in fits and starts. It feels like someone took a semester-long master class on the generic conventions of fairy tales, then tried to cram everything he learned, whether it fit or not, into a two-hour-plus movie. Inevitably, some of it works and some doesn't. I enjoyed the movie, but not until I gave up looking for narrative coherence and interesting characters. In a fairy-tale England, a long, dilapidated wall separates the human world from the magical realm of Stormhold (nice name, but not a storm in sight). A young man sneaks past the wall, has a one-night stand with a woman, and nine months later gets delivered a child--I assumed with my smattering of folklore knowledge that his "changling" status would be important, but I don't think it is. Anyway, he grows up (into the handsome Charlie Cox), falls in love with an obnoxious blonde beauty (Sienna Miller) and as a gesture of his love, vows to retrieve a falling star which he saw fall behind the wall. The star turns out to be Claire Danes, and other people want her as well; aging witch Michelle Pfeiffer thinks Danes holds the power to make her young again, and the sons of the late King (Peter O'Toole) compete to get hold of a pendant she has which will legitimize a claim to the throne. Cox finds her and, in the process of trying to get her back to his village, falls in love with her.

The plot sounds simple, and it is easy to follow, but I didn't always know why certain things were happening. At one point, a witch turns Cox into a mouse, but there seemed to be no reason for the transformation--Don, who holds a degree in folklore, said rather tersely that she did it because it's a fairy tale and "because she could" (OK…). I also didn't know: 1) why and how a star would take human form; 2) why the star's pendent bestows kingly power; 3) why a single fragile old man guards the wall and why more people didn't try to get out just for the hell of it; 4) why, at the end, humans and Stormholdians are mingling for a coronation ceremony. Robert De Niro puts in an appearance as the leader of a group of sky pirates; he's tough as nails on the outside, but prissy and girly (and a bit of a transvestite) in his private quarters. Many critics have lambasted De Niro for his "sore-thumb" performance; his character definitely doesn't feel organic to the story, but I rather enjoyed his scenes. Other things I liked: 1) as the King's sons die off, they hang around in ghostly form to watch the proceedings; 2) Michelle Pfieffer (above) is by far the most interesting actor (and character) in the movie and was a joy to watch; 3) the ideas of the wall, the village, and the magical town are fun, though details weren't fleshed out as much as I'd have liked; 4) the special effects, sets, and costumes are all top-notch. I also liked Ricky Gervais' cameo and his sparring with De Niro. Danes is also good, and masters her accent quite well. With its hodgepodge of fairy tale conventions, there's almost too much going on, but at the same time, maybe not quite enough in terms of character and plot. An interesting misfire, I'd say.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The anti-Lord of the Rings

We saw The Golden Compass this weekend and I quite liked it. I have not read the book; my partner has and loved it (and the other two books in the series as well), and I think he was a bit disappointed in the movie as, with a running time of under two hours, it leaves out huge chunks of the book. I suspect that's one reason why I liked it: it was short, to the point, had good effects, built up an interesting fantasy world, and left you wanting more. While I appreciate what Peter Jackson did with his epic production of Lord of the Rings, each movie was far too long and I felt exhausted (and not in a glowing, happy way) after each film. There are battle scenes in Golden Compass which, if Jackson had made the movie, would have lasted a good half-hour or more; here, director Chris Weitz gets us through them in five or ten minutes, tops, and they are all more effective for their relative brevity.

A narrator spends the first moments of the movie setting up a fascinating parallel world, a sort of Victorian-era fantasyland with airships in the sky and lots of animals on the ground, which are actually people's "souls," externalized as accompanying animals called daemons. The main character, a young girl named Lyra, is trying to find out what's happened to the children who have been vanishing off the streets (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). She is helped on her quest by a grizzled adventurer with his own nifty airship (like Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon) and a magical bear (the effect is a little like Aslan in the Narnia movie), and hindered by a beautiful but wicked and powerful woman (yes, just like the Witch in Disney's Snow White). There's also an unexplained substance called "Dust" (The Force??) and an big battle between good and evil (Tolkien), and a resolution which was satisfying to me, but might not be to fans of the book.

All the fuss over the movie being anti-religious is ridiculous; the institution of the Magisterium, which in the book is apparently a stand-in for the Catholic Church, is, in the movie, much closer to being a stand-in for a Orwellian fascist government that thinks free will is bad. Of course, you can see where the connections once had been (the word "heresy" gets thrown about a bit), but nothing in this film, which strikes me as perfect family entertainment, will lead a child down the path of Questioning Religion. As with most fantasy epics, the acting is not the reason people go see the film; here, Dakota Blue Richards does a fine job as Lyra, Nicole Kidman is excellent as the wicked Mrs. Coulter, and Ian McKellan's voice gives the animated bear Iorek a real personality. Sam Elliott is a smidge too old as the cowboy; Daniel Craig, despite his special billing and ubiquitous presence in the movie posters, is only in the film for about 10 minutes, but he strikes many handsome, commanding poses in that time. The film may not do well enough to warrant a big-budget sequel, but I enjoyed it and would consider seeing it again.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

December snowflakes

Well, the Christmas tree is up; my partner's birthday was December 6th (which, he would want everyone to know, is also Santa Claus's birthday--or at least the feast day of the real Saint Nicholas, who died on that date, and who, so says Wikipedia, was never officially canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Chuch, though he became one by popular acclaim, so to speak--you learn something new every day!); we had our "Christmas" with my brother's family this weekend; and there is snow on the ground, so I guess for all intents and purposes, the Christmas season is officially in full swing, which means guilt-free Christmas media indulgence!

So the other night, we watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas," my favorite seasonal TV program of all. I remember seeing it when it was first broadcast in 1965 (I would have been 9). My mom was making bourbon balls for a school bake sale (and she tells me that they all sold before they made it to the sales floor), my dad was reading American Rifleman or Argosy or some other kind of manly magazine, and my kid brother of 4 was probably getting ready for bed. We were living in Arizona at the time and temperature was in the 60s with no promise of snow (though it did snow at least one Christmas day while we lived there), but the show had such a warm Christmassy feel to it that the weather didn't matter. Obviously, the fact that I remember so much about the circumstances of my first viewing shows the program made an impact on me (I also remember a TV Guide cover that week with Charlie Brown and Lucy), and I continued watching it most years even when I was in high school (and too cool to watch cartoons). It's become a must-see every December; even in the years when I'm feeling Scroogish, I still watch this and the Pee-Herman Christmas special.

The show is now lionized in some circles for its "bravery" in being a kids Christmas show that dares to include a Biblical reading referencing the Nativity, but I think the real reasons it's remained popular are the same reasons that the Peanuts strip ran so long: its dry humor, its self-deprecating satire. and its use of children as portrayers of adult foibles. We've all been Charlie Brown at one time or another, the kid who champions the scrawny Christmas tree even though he knows he'll get laughed at by the crowd. What's kind of odd here is that Charlie is actually redeemed at the end, something that rarely happened in the comic strip, and maybe for that reason, its an ending that still makes me tear up just a little. I always identified more with Linus (yes, I had a favorite blue blanket as a kid, and my partner Don might be persuaded to tell people about my continuing connection with a worn and nubbly brown blanket I still wrap myself up in on cold nights) and I imagine that he grew up into a bookish and somewhat shy but nerdishly charming gay guy (not at all like me). The music is also fabulous--even though the jazzy score by Vince Guaraldi feels so right to us now, I bet it was a daring choice back then for what was marketed primarily as a kids cartoon show. And one last bit of identification with Charlie Brown: I think most of us have, at one time or another, felt that free-floating anxiety which Lucy diagnoses as pantophobia: the fear of everything!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Good, better, and best humbugs

A blogger named Woolgatherer has rated the Scrooge performances he's seen over the years, inspiring me to do the same. One of the pleasures of watching the movie and TV versions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is seeing how each one differs. Each actor who plays Scrooge has to play a mean and stingy villain in the beginning and then undergo a credible redeeming change into a life-embracing, Christmas-loving softie by the end. But each actor usually finds some small way to make the part his or her own. My own favorite is the 1951 British film with Alistair Sim, officially titled Scrooge, but called A Christmas Carol in America; almost "film noirish" in tone, it's dark and creepy as befits a ghost story, and Sim makes a wonderful Scrooge, not melodramatically wicked but hard and cold and greedy, and his backstory gets fleshed out a bit more here than in other versions. He is equally fine as the transformed do-gooder, leaping and singing to himself with abandon. Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddley are excellent Cratchits. The spirits are OK, and, as with most versions, the less said about Tiny Tim, the better. (It's not usually the fault of child actors--it's basically an impossible role to do well.)

My second favorite is the 1984 TV version with George C. Scott. The visual production is outstanding, not so much dark, but snowy and misty. Scott throws more of his actorly weight into the role, which leads to his almost (but not quite) going over the top on occasion. He is better as the mean Scrooge, but still does a nicely nuanced turn after he turns warm-hearted, and is especially good in the final scene with Bob Cratchit (well played by David Warner). I don't care much for Angela Pleasance as the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Edward Woodward makes the best Christmas Present ever: realistically larger-than-life, jolly yet able to scold Scrooge when needed (all the more impressive when you realize he's scolding George C. Scott and holding his own).

Third is the 1938 MGM production with Reginald Owen, a reliable supporting actor who specialized in stiff-upper-lip Brits in American films of the 30's and 40's--toward the end of his career, he was Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins. This version is the shortest and has the lightest touch and probably the biggest budget, leading to a nice glossy look which is pleasing even if it works against the gloomy ghostly aspects of the story. Owen is fine, even if he doesn't truly make the part his own. What makes this version a little different is that Bob Cratchit seems to get almost as much screen time as Scrooge. Gene Lockhart shines in the role (pictured above), especially in a long scene in the beginning in which, while horsing around with some children in the streets, he knocks Scrooge's hat off his head with a snowball.

Those are my top 3. I also like the 70's TV movie An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler as a mean landlord foreclosing on a handful of families during a Depression-era Christmas. The animated Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, in which the nearly blind actor Magoo plays Scrooge in a theatrical production, is surprisingly serious for much of its running time, confining the humor to the bits of Magoo crashing into things offstage. Like Woolgatherer, I am not a fan of the Bill Murray Scrooged, a modern updating of the story--nice idea, but it falls flat, and Murray's final improvised speech is the most cringe-worthy moment in mainstream Hollywood cinema, bar none. There's a 1935 British version with Seymour Hicks who made a specialty of playing Scrooge on stage for most of his career, but the public domain versions I've seen of it are incomplete and murky. The Muppet and Mickey Mouse versions have not stayed with me, so I guess they are ripe for rediscovery.

Cable TV versions really should get their own entry, as there seem to be at least one or two new ones popping up every year. The only ones that stand out to me are Ebbie and A Diva's Christmas Carol, with Susan Lucci and Vanessa Williams respectively as female Scrooge figures, and a cute variation called Karroll's Christmas with Tom Everett Scott as a man to whom the three Christmas ghosts appear by accident--they were supposed to visit his cranky neighbor, Wallace Shawn. Robert Zemeckis is working on an animated version for 2009, but if it winds up anything like the dreadful Polar Express, I won't be in line to see it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

More Christmas Music

I mentioned earlier that the Leroy Anderson Christmas Album was my favorite recently-released Christmas album. But I would probably rank it only in the top 10 overall among my all-time favorites. (I love making lists; I'm trying not to make yet another "all-time" list, but I don't have much will power!) My absolute favorite would be The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait, first released in 1978. It's got glossy production values, old-fashioned but creative musical arrangements, creamy choral backgrounds, and of course Karen Carpenter's lovely lead vocals. For many years, this album was only available in a truncated version combined with cuts from their second (and inferior) Christmas album, but a few years ago, A&M Records released a 2-disc Christmas Collection with both albums in their entireties, so that's the way to go. The album is best listened to as a whole, as most of the cuts (some of which are medleys of 2 or 3 songs) segue into one another. Whenever I hear any version of "Sleigh Ride," I always expect to hear it slide right into a rollicking piano figure followed by the lines, "It's Christmas time and time for a carol, time to sing about the little King..." The songs are mostly 40's and 50's secular holiday songs, though Karen sings a lovely version of the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" and the album opens with a nice instrumental medley of traditional carols.

#2 would have to be Carols for Christmas, a 2-disc collection by David Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir with some occasional embellishment by organ or brass. These are all traditional carols, in traditional arrangements, sounding like they were sung in a giant old cathedral; when I listen to this in the car, I imagine I'm in that cathedral singing right along. Practically all my favorite carols are here: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Good King Wenceslas," It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Patapan," and a few I was less familiar with, like "O Little One Sweet" and "Whence Comes this Rush of Wings." The album was originally released in 1983 and was marketed as a tie-in with a book of Christmas art from the Metropolitan Museum. Sadly, both the book and the CD are out of print, but both are worth looking for, especially the album.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three wise men

I've started the Christmas viewing onslaught with three films. First was It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of my top 3 movies of all time. There's nothing much to say about it now, though I enjoyed it more this year than I have in the past few years. Some years, the dark, almost noirish overtones are overwhelming, but this year it felt lighter. Next was a quirky one called The Ref, which I hadn't seen in a few years. This comedy from 1994 is about a quarreling yuppie couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who are held up by a small-time crook (Denis Leary) who has just bungled a burglary and wants to get out of town. He makes the couple take him back to their house while he waits for his incompetent partner-in-crime to make getaway arrangements, and winds up serving as a marriage counselor during a very funny dysfunctional family Christmas Eve dinner. Wonderful Christmassy sets, a funny script, and strong performances from Spacey, Davis, and Glynis Johns as a horrible matriarch make this a holiday treat. The ritual watching of It's a Wonderful Life on TV even provides an important plot point.

The third wise man movie (after wise George Bailey and the wise burglar) is The Fourth Wise Man, an 80's TV-movie based on a classic novella. Martin Sheen is a Magi who wants to go off with the other Three Magi to find the Messiah, but keeps missing them, mostly because he stops to help others. Years later, old and sick, he is present in Jerusalem for the Crucifixion and finally has his moment with the resurrected Christ. Between the TV-movie feel and an broadly comic performance by Alan Arkin as Sheen's faithful slave, this was hard to get into, but it gains in power by the end. It looked like it was shot on location, but apparently it was all made in California. Not bad; worth a rental if not a purchase. (Apparently it's still shown on television occasionally, but trimmed from its original 75-minute length by about 10 minutes.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cosmic Cowboy

I just finished "Twenty Thousand Roads," a new biography of fabled country-rock singer Gram Parsons by David N. Meyer. The author, while not making Parsons into a saint (he died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26), clearly feels it's his mission to set Parsons up as one of the most influential musicians of the rock era. I gotta say that based on the evidence of the book and his few extant recordings, he seems more like an interesting footnote, though he was undeniably an influence on the 70's country-rock and 90's alt-country movements. Parsons was a rich kid from a dysfunctional family living off a trust fund. He played in bands as a teenager, hooked up with The Byrds, hung out with The Rolling Stones, was the lead singer with The Flying Burrito Brothers (which included Byrd Chris Hillman and future Eagle Bernie Leadon), cut a couple of solo albums, and helped Emmylou Harris get her career going. He tried to bring "authentic" country music (an early idol was Buck Owens) together with rock, R&B, and gospel to create what he called "Cosmic American Music."

Meyer has done his research well and is honest about Parsons' prodigious drug and alcohol use; he makes it clear that Parsons was not the "tormented junkie" type, but someone who liked drugs and what they did to him. But I'm not convinced that Parsons had a strong enough work ethic or a coherent enough aesthetic to have done much more than he did before he died. The author is also very opinionated which at times is refreshing but also leads me to question the objectivity of his reportage. For example, he hates The Eagles for bastardizing Parsons' "cosmic" music into pop bubblegum, and every time the band is mentioned, it is with disdain and nasty adjectives. I'm not exactly an Eagles fan (though I do like their On the Border album a lot), but to be fair, the Eagles were after something different than Parsons was; it feels like Meyer is blaming the Eagles for Parsons' failure to stay alive and bring his amorphous musical vision to fruition. The author also tries to include all voices when there is a difference of opinion about some aspect of Parsons' life, but he also plays favorites without letting us know why.

Overall, I enjoyed the book--it's a fast read and contains just enough lurid gossip to keep the pruriently-inclined reader interested. It also sent me back to Parsons' music, which I'm sure would make Meyer happy. He states that Parsons' Burrito Brothers albums are among the worst-produced "influential" albums ever, but I don't know that a glossier, crystal-clear production would have suited Parsons. I just heard a few cuts off of a "new" Burrito album of a live concert from the Avalon Ballroom in 1969--the sound quality is pretty bad, and Parsons is not in strong voice (according to Meyer, most of the Burrito live shows were total drug-fueled messes), but there is a good version of "Hot Burrito #2" and a great studio demo of "Thousand Dollar Wedding." And I also revisited Emmylou Harris' Elite Hotel album; I think that her version of "Sin City" is a masterpiece of creepy, apocalyptic beauty.

Which reminds me: though Meyer does a decent job discussing the music, he never touches on any of Parsons' spiritual beliefs, which might have provided some more insight into a guy who wrote a lot of songs about sin and death.

Monday, November 12, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Yes, I admit it, I'm a big Christmas fan. I love Christmas about as much as I love summer. If I had to choose between living in Eternal August and Eternal December, August would probably win out, but only by a smidgen because as I get older, cold makes me crankier. My first point to get out of the way: Christmas is really a secular holiday, or more precisely a pagan holiday in Christian clothing. Sorry, but Jesus is not the reason for the season: the reason is cold and snow and darkness and agrarian seasonal cycles, and the need for a little magic and partying and kindness and reassurance in the middle of the darkest and coldest days of the year. We've made room for Jesus and Santa, and both fit in fine, I guess (and frankly, Santa, as the impulse to give to others, is probably closer to the "reason").

My second point: Now that Halloween is over, the Christmas season can begin and anyone who complains is just not facing reality, because it's beginning whether we like it or not. Granted, I've always had a strong appreciation for the season (mostly because of my mother who always makes Christmas a wonderful season) so I don't mind seeing fully decorated Christmas trees in the local Kroger at 9 p.m. on October 31st, though I do understand the complaints of people who don't like hearing the music or seeing the decorations (or, in the case of my sweet partner, watching the "Santa riding the razor" TV ads) for 8 or 9 or 10 weeks. But because the structure of our economy has come to depend on the longer Christmas season, it's not going away--unless of course we get a nationalized health care system and therefore fall under the sway of godless communists.

I'll be writing about Christmas media over the next few weeks, so bear with me. I'll start with my new favorite Christmas album: A Leroy Anderson Christmas. Issued on CD in 2004, it's a compilation of recordings made some years ago (the woefully inadequate liner notes don't say when, but Internet sources indicate the 50's and 60's). I don't need another version of Anderson's most popular song, "Sleigh Ride"--my favorite version is the Roches' on their Christmas album We Three Kings--but the rest of the album is a gem. There's "A Christmas Festival," a long medley of several popular Christmas carols, followed by three "Suites" of carols, one for brass, one for strings, and one for woodwinds. The sound is cleaned-up 50's high-fidelity, which is just fine for this nostalgic album. Along with my absolute favorite seasonal album, The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait, this album plunks you down in the middle of a past Christmas that really only existed in fantasy, or fiction, or memories made perfect by their distance.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A documockery?

If a mockumentary is a postmodern form which satirizes the documentary, what is a mockumentry which actually does some real "documenting" along with its mocking, further blurring the lines of fiction and non-fiction film? In the satirical film genre pioneered by Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind), seemingly real situations are documented on film, but the people are all actors playing characters. Pittsburgh, a film directed by Chris Bradley and Kyle LeBrache, purports to be a filmed record of real events (the production by a local Pittsbugh theatrical group of "The Music Man" with Jeff Goldblum and his girlfriend Catherine Wreford in the lead roles), and does indeed follow real people, including Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr., and Illeana Douglas, around, but these real people are, at least to some degree, not "being themselves," but playing fictionalized personae. It all leads to some befuddled head-scratching for the viewer, but it's a pleasant befuddlement.

According to the film, Goldblum, who was born in Pittsburgh, goes home to take the lead in this musical so that Wreford, a Canadian citizen and musical actress, can get a visa to stay in America. He talks his buddies Begley and Douglas into going along for the ride, to play Mayor Shinn and his wife. However, it turns out that the director of the show doesn't necessarily think Goldblum is a perfect fit for the part--and indeed he doesn't seem to be, though to be fair we don't get a chance to see much footage of Goldblum on stage as Harold Hill. As Goldblum deals with his growing insecurity, we also see Douglas's dating relationship with singer Moby fall apart (he's too much into groupies and amateur porn) and we see Begley dealing with the problems of trying to market his "Solarman 2000" solar cell invention, with some somewhat reluctant help from Goldblum.

What's definitely real: The "Music Man" production in Pittsburgh, with Goldblum, Wreford, Begley, and Douglas (you can call up online reviews of it on Google). What's definitely made up for the movie: Douglas's relationship with Moby, who is perhaps the best sport in the film, making himself look like an insensitive jackass, breaking up with Douglas in public during a Mardi Gras parade. Everything else seems to be up for grabs. My own suspicion is that virtually everything else is fictional (go ahead and Google Solarman 2000; Begley is the next-best good sport in the film). The DVD contains deleted scenes including a couple of very funny moments with Scott Caan (inspired by mushrooms to produce a sprawling sci-fi trilogy in which he is cloned into a million-man army) and Bob Odenkirk (ranting that musical theater is dead and has been for hundreds of years). There is audio commentary by the directors and I am tempted to give it a whirl, but I don't know if I really want everything explained away. Little of the film is really laugh-out-loud funny like the Guest films, but it is consistently amusing and compelling.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

End of October reading and viewing

I've finished my annual October re-reading of Lovecraft. This year, I read most of The Dunwich Horror and Others, a hardcover collection from Arkham House which includes some of his best stories, including Cthulhu Mythos tales (the original "Call of Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth) and non-Mythos stories like "The Music of Erich Zann," "Pickman's Model," and the frequently anthologized "Cool Air" which was adapted for Rod Serling's Night Gallery (as was "Pickman's Model," though I never saw that one). The Mythos stories are long and, if you're not in the right mood, rather draggy. The plots are all fairly similar in construction: a first-person narrator tells of his involvement in an incident in which someone has meddled in the rites of the Old Ones, usually having used the Necronomicon, an ancient book of spells and rituals by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, to allow the horrifying beings to return to earth. The meddler (or some innocent bystander) always meets a bad end, and often the narrator himself is scarred for life in some way by his own involvement.

The Old Ones, horrible gods from our distant past who seem to be exiled out in infinite space, are rarely actually seen, though we do have a sense that they are large humanoid creatures with tentacles. We see some gross flying beasts in "Whisperer" and a freakish race of half-human/half-fish people in "Innsmouth" (the basis for the fairly decent Lovecraft movie Dagon, technically also based on an early Lovecraft story called "Dagon"). The non-Mythos stories are shorter and often more immediately creepy, "Erich Zann" being one of his very best--the narrator befriends a lonely old man who plays unearthly music and can apparently see beasts from another dimension out of his attic window. Oddly, I actually like the 70's movie of The Dunwich Horror more than the story (like most Lovecraft adaptations, the movie is only "inspired" by the story, rather than being a close adaptation), but "The Colour Out of Space" is a way better story than its film version, Die Monster Die.

I got an idea for a Lovecraft drinking game: every time he uses the word "blasphemous," have a drink. Of course, you'd never get to the end of a story, because that is his favorite adjective, whether it's appropriate to the noun or not--what the hell are "blasphemous angles"? Still, I quite enjoyed immersing myself in Lovecraft's baroque fiction again.

On my classic movie blog, I've reviewed a number of horror and sf films I watched in October, but one that didn't fit the blog was House, a mediocre 80's haunted house movie. A writer, troubled by the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent breakup of his marriage, moves into a haunted house, has ghostly visions, gets his neighbor and his ex-wife involved, and may get a shot at redemption by saving his son after all. The low-budget FX are OK and the supporting cast is so-so. The star is William Katt, the prom boy in Carrie and the star of the TV show "Greatest American Hero." He's handsome and he fits the Stephen King-ish lead character pretty well, but as usual with this kind of film, it all falls apart in the final third, and the internal logic that has been set up fails, too. My favorite horror film of this October was Hangover Square, part of a new boxed DVD set from Fox. I haven't decided what's up for Halloween night--probably a Universal classic, like the original Dracula, or Bride of Frankenstein. After all these years, the first 20 minutes of the Lugosi Dracula still gives me chills.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The fuss over Dumbledore

Full disclosure: I am gay, but I am also not a Harry Potter fan. I have seen all the movies, but quit reading the series after the first book. It was a good young adult book, and I might have become a follower if the series had come out when I was 13, but I really don't get the huge popularity of the series among adults.

At any rate, the current fuss over J.K. Rowling's public remark that the character of Dumbledore was gay is astonishing. The audience who heard her at Carnegie Hall applauded her, but many columnists and bloggers are up in arms about it. At a public reading, an audience member asked her if Dumbledore had ever been in love, and Rowling replied, "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay," and said he'd been in love with a wizard named Grindelwald. Barbara Kay, in the Canadian National Post, says that kids shouldn't have to be confronted by issues of sexuality in their literature. Except I believe that Harry himself handles such issues in the books and movies, not about his sexual orientation, but about sexual attraction. (And, honestly, the Potter books wound up having more adult readers that kid readers.) Jeffrey Weiss, in the Dallas Morning News, says to Rowling, "If you didn't put it in the books, please don't tell us now." Except then he backtracks and says it's OK if she talks about some things, like how she came up with certain characters or ideas. of the implicit compact between author and reader" by making such comments about her work after the fact. He points out that making Dumbledore gay in the books would have strengthened her theme of tolerance, but that making a casual remark about it later is an easy out. He does have a point here; an openly gay character in the Potter series would have made an unmissable statement, even though it might also have increased the book burnings.

But frankly I think all of these commentators are overreacting, possibly out of various levels of discomfort with gay people. Rowling softened her revelation by saying she's always thought of Dumbledore as gay. She did not describe him engaging in sex (as I imagine he has in some of the fan fiction out there), she didn't give him a political agenda based on his being gay. She didn't even say, "Yep, he's gay!" In the same way that many readers have imagined fuller pasts and futures for literary characters, she imagined a fuller past for Dumbledore. Somehow, I think that if she had said, "Dumbledore was a cannibal," or "Dumbledore murdered helpless old ladies," or "Dumbledore was an existentialist," the commentators would have kept silent. It isn't really the encroaching of an author on the "integrity" of a work's relationship to its audience that truly bothers these people. A reader can always say, "Well, I've never thought of Dumbledore as gay," and let it stand at that. The real problem here is homophobia--it's still OK to express your dislike for gay people in public discourse as long as you don't use the word "faggot." Even though I think that Mabe has an interesting point, I wonder if he would have bothered to bring it up if the issue had been vegetarianism rather than homosexuality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fall harvest: Beatles, geeks, and pies

The fall season is now fully underway and nothing much is sticking with me. My highest hope was for the Julie Taymor movie Across the Universe, the story of a boy, a girl, and a decade (the 60's) as told through Beatles songs. The New York Times review gave me high hopes, making me think of Moulin Rouge, a musical I fell in irrational love with, but the movie wound up being more like Mamma Mia: enjoyable songs but a tedious narrative--though with Meryl Streep currently shooting the film of Mamma Mia, that might wind up surprisingly good. Jude, a nice working-class lad from Liverpool, goes to the States to find his birth father and winds up in the company of a rich kid, Max, and his friends as they try to find their places in the turbulent times. There's drugs and protest and free love; Max winds up in Vietman and Jude falls in love with Max's sister Lucy.

The narrative certainly seems to have been meant to be secondary to the musical numbers, all Beatles songs sung by the cast, but sadly even the musical aspect leaves something to be desired. Things start well with a wonderful "Hold Me Tight" in which we cut back and forth between a high school hop in America and a scruffy bar band in Liverpool. "Dear Prudence" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" are also promising, but there's just not enough electric splash to the production numbers. It's mostly John Lennon numbers for the storyline, and mostly Paul McCartney numbers for onstage performances (by Dana Fuchs as a Janis Joplin-type and Martin Luther McCoy as a Jimi Hendrix-type --BTW, Joplin and Hendrix wind up together, happy, and unburdened by addictions at the end; hooray for fiction!). The leads, Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood, are pleasant but bland, but this is not actor's movie as none of the characters are really allowed (or probably even meant) to come alive. I did like the games Taymor plays with character names: with a lead named Jude, you know "Hey Jude" will pop up eventually, but other names, like Max and Sadie and JoJo do not lead to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "Sexy Sadie" or "Get Back." Saddest of all, the visuals are not spectacular enough to make a big-screen viewing essential. Wait for the DVD. Maybe "Sexy Sadie" will wind up in the deleted scenes.

On TV, I'm enjoying The Big Bang Theory with Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons as physics geek roommates, and Kaley Cuoco as the sexy but sweet waitress who lives across the hall. The way the plot is developing, Galecki is getting interested in Cuoco, but I like reading a gay subtext into the geeks' relationship, and that is a compliment to their acting. Galecki and Parsons make the characters feel like intimate longtime friends, and sometimes Parsons's dialogue and his snippy, almost nervous delivery feel just a shade gayish. We also like Pushing Daisies (cast pic above), with Lee Pace as a piemaker who can touch dead people and bring back to life (briefly, at least). With a cop who knows about his secret power, he goes to morgues and questions the recently murdered for clues about their demise. He has a girlfriend (Anna Friel) who he brought back to life to stay, but the catch is that he can't ever touch her again. The show is whimsical, colorful, and wonderfully stylized with a look and tone unlike anything else on TV right now. I also love Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Friel's eccentric aunts, and the always delightful Kristen Chenoweth as a pie shop waitress with a thing for Pace--they let her burst out in song a couple of weeks ago, singing "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and that just added to the lively sense of the unpredictable that will keep me coming back to this show.

I still have the debut episode of Viva Laughlin on the DVR but since it's already been canceled, I can't decide whether to erase it, or go ahead and watch it to see just how bad it is/was. We also slogged through the Ken Burns' documentary The War on PBS. A little too long and too dully reverent, mostly due to the somber music. The stories themselves are worth reverence and didn't need the extra emotional tugs of the music and slow pacing. I'm glad to have watched it, but won't be needing the DVD.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

You've got to get on to get off

For a brief shining moment in the 70's, during the "porno chic" era, there was a dream (a wet one, perhaps) among some filmmakers that mainstream Hollywood films could be made with scenes of hardcore sex, not just for titillation but in the service of legitimate narrative thrust. It never really happened here, although there have been a handful of European films with explicit sex scenes (and at least one American indie film, The Brown Bunny, which was a critical and commercial disaster). The movie rating system is one big hurdle (and to my mind, not so much the system itself but the way the ratings are handled by theaters and communities, but that's a different blog rant), and it's not at all clear to me that this kind of thing could work well aesthetically. The only mainstream films with explicit sex I've seen are Caligula and Devil in the Flesh, and frankly both were interesting only as highbrow porn. The sex was almost completely incidental to Caligula, and though integral to the plot of Devil, it didn't make it a better film.

John Cameron Mitchell, best known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has made an indie narrative film with hardcore sex scenes. Though the movie, Shortbus, didn't ultimately come together for me, it is an honorable attempt and, had it been made in the 70s, it might have triggered a whole new genre of film. Shortbus focuses on the sex lives of seven New Yorkers, including a female couples counselor who has never had an orgasm, her unemployed porn-addicted husband, a gay male couple who are thinking about getting into a menage a trois, and a lonely dominatrix named Severin whose real birth name, when revealed, provides the movie's funniest moment. Their lives intersect at an after-hours sex club/cabaret/meeting room called Shortbus, presided over by drag performer Justin Bond, playing himself. Though all the story lines are rather melodramatic, they all seem to have relatively happy endings--though a major fault of the film, for me, is that the most intriguing character, Severin, doesn't really get a satisfying wrap-up.

The movie opens with a montage of hardcore sex scenes, mostly played for laughs (or at least smiles), acclimating the audience to what's ahead, though actually, there isn't all that much explicit sex later on; primarily an orgy sequence which while explicit is not shot in pornographic detail, and a gay three-way which is more funny than sexy. The integration of sex works well here and, while it is occasionally mildly arousing, anyone, gay or straight, watching this film just to get off will be disappointed. The acting varies wildly from weak to solid, with the best coming from Sook-Yin Lee, the therapist, and Lindsay Beamish as Severin. Justin Bond gets the best line as he surveys the orgy crowd and says to Lee, "It's just like the 60's ... only with less hope." The movie looks great (had it been done in the 70's, it would have been grungy and dark, but this is colorful and crisp) and has some wonderful CGI work for short connecting sequences which swoop through New York City. I'd give Mitchell a B for what's on the screen but an A for effort and intent.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The call of Lovecraft

I re-watched The Dunwich Horror and Die Monster Die recently as part of my annual immersion in all things H. P. Lovecraft, a writer of horror stories who was little known in his day but who has become quite popular since his death in 1937. I'm not sure how widely read he is, though virtually his entire oeuvre of over 60 works (mostly short stories and novellas) has remained in print from a variety of publisher, and he's even got a volume in the Library of America series, though I suspect that many young people know him more from several popular video and role-playing games based on his work. (My sweetie even found a small green plush toy of the fearsome Ancient Dark God-Beast Cthulhu which he bought for me--see below.) I first encountered Lovecraft in college, back in the 70's; I can still vividly recall the circumstances of reading that first story, "The Call of Cthulhu," in the OSU library, in a comfortable reading chair up on the 3rd or 4th floor, looking out the huge window on the cloudy, blustery October day. I read several stories that quarter, and bought all the Ballantine paperbacks that were available.

Ever since then, I have made a point of reading or re-reading at least a couple of Lovecraft stories every October. The thing about his stories is that, while I enjoy them, they are not, individually, all that memorable. I have probably read some of his stories 5 or 6 times without retaining any knowledge of the plot or outcome--though the outcome is often some horrifying sight, unspeakable yet rendered IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Aside from that first Cthulhu story, the only other stories I remember well are "Dagon," about a race of water creatures, and the novella "At the Mountains of Madness," about an expedition to Antarctica that finds the ruins of a very scary and ancient site which was once home to some Ancient Monsters from the Stars. His writing is dense and long-winded, and often in the first person, with a narrator either relating something that happened to him in the past, or something that happened to someone else (usually a tale found in a journal or diary after the subject's death or mysterious disappearance). This means the stories lack the tension and immediacy of the writings of, say, Stephen King, but they do have atmosphere, and though the tales sometimes run together in the memory, they do build up a cumulative power over time. I'll report back as I do my Halloween Lovecraft reading over the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Six degrees: H. P. Lovecraft to Barry Manilow

I was watching a DVD of The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story about Unspeakable Blasphemous Ancient Eldritch Gods--you can read my review later this month on my Classic Movie blog. Anyway, the theme music, by Les Baxter, who wrote the scores for scores of American International horror films of the era, is a catchy ditty that kept reminding me of some pop tune of the 70's. I finally recalled that it was the same melody as "The Palace of Versailles," a song on Al Stewart's album Time Passages (one of my all-time favorites of the 70's). On the CD liner notes, it says that the song is based on "The Earle of Salisbury" by William Byrd, a 16th century English composer. So, this may be a tortured "Six Degrees" game, but...

HP Lovecraft wrote "The Dunwich Horror," which was made into a movie featuring a score by Les Baxter, who snitched the theme from William Byrd; the same piece of music was snitched (with appropriate credit) by Al Stewart, who in the 70's was on the same record label as Barry Manilow.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Columbus Soul from WVKO

With the brief flurry of media attention to the 40th anniversary of 1967's Summer of Love, I was in a more nostalgic musical mood than usual in the past couple of months, and spent some time making up a 1967 iPod playlist, which I'll blog about later. I also discovered a wonderful album of old locally-produced soul singles from the late 60's and early 70's. Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Years, is part of a series of collections of little-known, local R&B records from back in the day. (I use "soul" to refer to R&B music since when I grew up, that's what Billboard magazine called their R&B chart.) These songs were produced in Columbus for the Capsoul label, founded by WVKO DJ Bill Moss (later a political activist and controversial school board member before his untimely death in 2005). As a suburban white kid in the 70's, I got most of my music, soul and otherwise, from the local Top 40 stations, mostly WCOL, but I did occasionally venture down to the far end (1580) of the AM radio dial to listen to VKO, though it never seemed to come in very well.

These songs are a little rough around the edges in both performance and production, but what amazes me is how good they are. A tiny bit of polish on these songs could have led them to be national chart competitors. They're a little bit Motown and a little bit Stax; there's a little pop and a little gospel in the mix. The Four Mints sound like a slightly raggedy Temptations, but their song "Row My Boat" is a lovely mellow ballad that sounds as good as anything that was on 70's AM radio. The same goes for "I Want to be Ready" by Kool Blues. There's a Sam Cooke groove on "You're All I Need to Make It" by Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, and Bill Moss himself has an inspirational track called "Sock It to 'Em, Soul Brother," which is basically a series of shout-outs to the "brothers doin' good," like Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, and Willy Mays. Most of the 19 tracks here are worth hearing, but the real find is a singer named Marion Black. His deep, bluesy vocal on the minor-key "Who Knows" is a killer; "Go On, Fool" has lyrics that teeter on blues parody ("You had children/Out of wedlock/On the day we met..."; "Come Friday, Saturday and Sunday, you're gone/I had to shop, cook, and clean all alone") but Black's voice makes the song memorable. There is also a fun instrumental called "Hot Grits!" by the fabulously named Elijah and the Ebonites, with Elijah yelling, "Oooo-weee, Hot grits!!" whenever the mood takes him. Sadly, my iTunes version of the album had no digital booklet with liner notes, so I don't know anything about the artists (though there is a press release for the album at Columbus Music History). Sadder still is how short-lived Capsoul was, and that none of these great tunes ever made the national charts.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Down to a sunless sea

If I lived in New York City, I would by now have seen the current Broadway musical of Xanadu, the notoriously bad 1980 Hollywood musical. The stage show is supposedly good, campy fun. Sadly, the movie is not. I saw it when it first came out and I remember how dispiriting it was to sit and watch as so many things went so wrong. 27 years later, I borrowed the movie from the library to see if I could find anything redeeming in the experience. I could not.

Olivia Newton-John is a muse named Kira who comes to life, zooming off of an alley mural in Los Angeles, to help inspire two lonely people: an insipid and whiny commercial artist (Michael Beck) who hates his job--and seems to have no life outside of his work at a record company--and a retired night club owner (Gene Kelly) who has an itch to get back in the business. Kira skates around Hollywood and brings the two guys together to open a fabulous roller disco called Xanadu in an abandoned theater.

The fantasy plot has potential, but no attention is paid to dialogue or characterization. Beck is intensely unlikeable, Newton-John can look nice but has little else going for her, and virtually all the actors read their lines like they're at a community theater rehearsal. The one exception is Kelly who actually does seem to be trying. At almost 70, he is livelier than either one of his co-stars. The potential for an interesting romance between a mortal and an immortal (as in The Bishop's Wife) is wasted: Kira is "freed" by the gods to be with Beck at the end, but we get no sense of what this means for her. Beck, for a romantic leading man, is remarkably asexual and, did I already say, unlikeable. Another wasted plot point has to do with the fact the Kira had materialized to Kelly back in the 40's to be his muse, and he sort of recognizes her in the present day, but this is not developed. As my partner who, God love his soul, endured this movie with me, noted, there is not a drop of dramatic tension. Nothing is at stake. There are no major obstacles for anyone to overcome. The music is OK (that damn "Have to believe we are magic" song is lodged in my head now) and one production number which combines music and dance from the 40's and 80's is sort of fun, but too overblown to be truly enjoyable. If you have a yen for Xanadu, either go to Broadway or read Coleridge.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The movie of the musical of the movie

The current film version of Hairspray is a musical, based on the stage musical, which was based on the original movie by John Waters, not itself, strictly speaking, a musical, but a movie with a lot of music. The plot is the same in all three versions: in early 60's Baltimore, fat schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad achieves her dreams of 1) getting to be a regular dancer on a local "American Bandstand"-type show, 2) getting the popular and sexy main male dancer on the show to be her boyfriend, and 3) getting the local African-American kids allowed on the show. Though Turnblad's mother is played in each version by a man, there is nothing directly "gay" about the material. In fact, though Divine is wonderful as Tracy's mom in the first movie, there is really no narrative or thematic reason for the character to be played in drag. Nevertheless, it has become a good gimmick to give the show a hook; Harvey Fierstein played her on Broadway (and we saw Bruce Vilanch play the role on the road) and now John Travolta plays her in the new movie. He obviously saw it as an acting challenge and is OK, though he tries too hard to play the part as a "naturalistic" woman, and part of the charm, if you will, of the earlier incarnations, is that the actors were clearly big drag queens. Not only is Travolta not a drag queen, he isn't all that big, having to be padded out both in body and face. He doesn't ruin the movie, but his interpretation doesn't add anything interesting to the mix, though he is a hoot in the final scene when he cuts loose on the dance floor.

The stage musical, with its elaborate sets, glossy and colorful look, and energetic songs, is a lot of fun; the new film a little less so, perhaps (ironically) because it tries to be truer to Waters' own deliberately rough, indie-film aesthetic. The dances are staged well, but everything looks drabber than it did on stage. The exception is the high-energy finale, an ultra-catchy number called "You Can't Stop the Beat," which gets stuck in my head for days whenever I hear it. The actors are all fine: newcomer Nikki Blonsky is Tracy, current hot teen idol Zac Efron is the hot teen dancer on the show (he is appropriately glossily handsome, though a bit too plastic to be sexy), Michelle Pfeiffer is the villainess, trying to keep both fat kids and black people down, Christopher Walken is Tracy's dad, and Queen Latifah is Motormouth, the blues singer who joins in the civil rights fight (though the attempt to open the play up with a protest march in the streets falls flat). The biggest surprise is James Marsden, so dully sincere as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but so sparkling and such a good singer here as the host of the TV show. This film is fun, but see the stage show if you can. [I must add that I miss the original movie's theme, "Hairspray" by Rachel Sweet, and the 60's dance song "Madison Time" by the Ray Bryant Combo not being carried over to either musical version.]

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Fall Preview nap

One of the many, many ways by which I know I'm not getting any younger is that the Fall Preview excitement that the media always whips up in September doesn't excite me anymore. In fact, I find myself skipping most of the special movie/TV special supplements, since the few things I do wind up liking are usually things that fly beneath the major media radar. I have heard of a few things that I might try to catch in the next few months:

* The Kingdom, an espionage thriller, only because it has Jeremy Piven.
* Across the Universe, the Beatles-themed coming-of-age film by Julie Taymor (see poster at left). I liked her first film, Titus, but I haven't even bothered with Beatles-music movies of the past (Sgt. Pepper, All This and World War II) because they seemed so misguided. This one may not be great art, but it sounds worth a look.
* The Golden Compass, a big-budget fantasy based on a popular young adult book, which my sweetie is looking forward to. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages, but the movie looks glittery and diverting.
* Sleuth, the essentially 2-character thriller play which was done on film by Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in the 70's. The surprise will be gone from this remake with Caine (in the Olivier role) and Jude Law, but the acting sparks might make it worth catching.

Not much. The Big Bang Theory, about two computer geeks, is the only sitcom that looks even close to being amusing. I've liked Johnny Galecki in the few things I've seen him in. I will probably check in on Back to You, the Kelsey Grammar sitcom about TV news folks, but I can't imagine it will fly. Moonlight, a vampire detective show, is promising, as is Viva Laughlin, a "musical dramedy" (I believe that's how it was described in Entertainment Weekly) with Hugh Jackman at the producing helm (and he'll be an occasional co-star).

It looks it's going to be a good fall for catching up on the DVD boxed sets I got for my birthday!

ADDENDUM: I just read the New York Times review of Across the Universe and my hopes are up. The way Stephen Holden describes his feelings about the movie echo my own feelings about a similar kind of film from few years ago, Moulin Rouge:

"Somewhere around its midpoint, "Across the Universe" captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"...And I'm sorry you have the devil's curly hair"

Saw The Simpsons Movie this past weekend. I like the Simpsons, but it's one of those shows I watch in reruns, or whenever, not one I've ever really kept up with. Still, when our local Fox station was showing it at 5 and 5:30 every weekday, I caught lots of 'em. The movie was very funny in spots, but it got too carried away with its own plot--Homer adopts a pig, dumps its toxic shit in the lake which makes the lake a environmental catastrophe, leading to the EPA cutting the town off from the rest of the planet with a giant dome, then Homer and his family go to Alaska to start all over again, etc., etc. The shows are too short for plot concerns to overwhelm the humor, but 90 minutes, though short for an average movie, is a little too long for one Simpsons storyline. Still, I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud several times. I'm a sucker for animated bulging-eyeball jokes, Ralph Wiggum, and Homer's bad parenting, and those accounted for many laughs. I also liked Spider Pig and Tom Hanks' cameo and Marge's curse word. The title of this post is the punch line I laughed the most at; it comes near the end, and BTW, be sure to stay through all the credits.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Flawed but human

I just finished a debut novel called Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger. I don't read much fiction these days, and even less of what could be pigeonholed as "gay fiction," but this looked like a cute "Will & Grace"-type story, and the cover art was done, I believe, by a cartoonist whose name has slipped my mind but whose work I have enjoyed over the years (I'll correct this when I get a chance to look at the book's "T.p. verso," librarian lingo for the page behind the title page).

The book centers on a gay man (Ken) and a straight woman (Iris) who meet in an anger management class they have both been sent to, unfairly they believe, and strike up a friendship which itself becomes centered on their cheating partners: Ken has just thrown his boyfriend out after catching him cheating, and Iris discovers information leading her to think that her boyfriend is having a fling with a work acquaintance. In a Strangers on a Train twist, they agree to spy on each other's partners to sort out what's what. They both learn things about the partners, about themselves, and about relationships.

The plot is solid, and I liked the fact that it didn't necessarily go in predictable directions (I thought for sure that Iris's bf was going to wind up gay, but that doesn't happen). The lead characters seem like real human beings and are quite charming. The details about places and characters seem right. The only real weakness was in the humor; maybe I'm being unfair because the set-up seemed so sit-commy, but I was expecting wittier writing, more laugh-out-loud dialogue. The tone of the book is definitely comic, but I rarely did more than crack a smile. Still, I enjoyed the time I spend with the characters, and I liked the way things turned out.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Vamp and Camp

The downtown Ohio Theater in Columbus, Ohio is a 2700-seat old-fashioned movie palace built in 1927, restored in the 70's, and kept up in marvelous shape as a year-round arts venue. Every summer, they have a classic movie series, and much as I love to go there (in part because the building is so beautiful, and a seat in the front loge is movie heaven), we have slacked off in recent years, partly because of DVDs. This year we went only three times: once for Meet Me in St. Louis, once for Sunset Blvd. (and it was truly fabulous being one of those "wonderful people out there in the dark" watching Norma Desmond have her breakdown), and last week for what was advertised as a "Vamp and Camp" double feature of She Done Him Wrong with Mae West, and Cobra Woman with Maria Montez.

The summer movies are fairly well attended; I'd guess at least 300-700 people depending on the film. I assumed for this that there'd be a fairly small group of middle-aged gay men and hard-core film buffs, but I was shocked to see one of the biggest crowds I'd seen there in a couple of years, of all types and age ranges, from families to packs of teenagers to people in walkers and wheelchairs. It was great fun as the audience was what I would call "respectfully enthusiastic," quiet for dialogue-heavy scenes, laughing at the humor, both intended and unintended, and seeming to be truly involved in the proceedings. The presence of onstage organist Clark Wilson, who plays before and after all the films, added to the atmosphere.

The most fun was had during Cobra Woman, a famously campy piece of exotic adventure and romance with the well-known B-movie team of Maria Montez (see pic above) and Jon Hall; many of us in the audience were mimicking the Cobra salute that the islanders use (arm bent at the wrist, thrust into the air like a biting snake), and during and after the terrible Montez dance number, there was much whooping and applause. The prints for both were good, and for Cobra, spectacular. The Technicolor was crisp and bright; though this may sound like blasphemy, at times it looked like Michael Powell's Black Narcissus, what with the exotic setting and the rich colors. I hope they do more unusual programming in future seasons, and it makes me wish I had more opportunities to see classic films in a theater.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dog days

In these sluggish dog days of summer, I've been too busy reading, watching TV, eating, and doing nothing to post here in a while. What has occupied me:

1. My birthday: I got lots of wonderful DVDs and CDs (like a Charlie Chan set, a Wild Wild West set, the 1980 Flash Gordon, the Michael Shayne Mysteries set, a very very 70's TV special with the 5th Dimension, and the new album by the Decemberists) and I got treated to lots of wonderful meals--at the Olive Garden, at Thai Taste (the pomegranate martinis are heavenly), and at a homemade grill-out at which I ate 2-1/2 cheeseburgers (with luscious slabs of onion), 3 ears of farm corn, assorted sides, and some dark chocolate cake, so I guess you could say I've been in recovery since.

2. The Burma Road, a book by Donovan Webster on what was known as the China-Burma-India theater in WWII. I'm an amateur WWII buff, but I often get lost in books which focus on the battlefields. This, however, is an excellent account of the bloody conflicts between the Allies and the Japanese, focusing on the figure of Joseph Stillwell, who not only fought with the enemy but had to traverse the tricky waters of diplomacy with Chiang Kai-shek, not to mention an early rivalry with American Claire Chennault, head of the independent Flying Tigers. The book is clear, well written, and informative. I could have used a few more maps--one reason I get lost in battleground books is that I need detailed maps to visualize what's happening--but otherwise a very good book. (It doesn't hurt that the photo of Webster on the inner book flap (see left) makes him look like Richard Gere.)

3. Masters of Science Fiction, a 4-episode series that ABC has dumped on Saturday nights in August. The shows are all very reminiscent of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, both in content and tone. Even the visual style is a bit retro, though what fx they use are fairly well done. The first two episodes had explicit political messages (one about a president who has a nervous breakdown after he triggers a nuclear holocaust, the other about a military attack against aline beings who are not quite what they seem); the third was about genetic engineering and issues of what it means to be human. The actors have been an interesting bunch: Sam Waterston, Judy Davis, Malcolm McDowell, and Terry O'Quinn. It was fun to see William B. Davis, the Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files, and the only bad apple so far is Anne Heche. There's one more episode due, and sadly it almost certainly won't get picked up for the future, but it would be nice to see this kind of anthology show find a home at Sci-Fi or HBO.

Monday, August 13, 2007

My Summer iPod Mix, Part 3

Summer's coming to a close, both culturally (school starts soon) and naturally (the days are getting noticeably shorter), though it's still darned hot, with a string of days in the past week with highs in the 90's. This evening, driving home from work, here's what I heard from my shuffled summer mix:

"Sugar, Sugar" -- The Archies -- As much a summer sound as anything by the Beach Boys, as this was a huge hit the summer of '69, the first summer I spent glued to the AM radio. Ron Dante, the lead singer, had a great pop voice, and still does, based on the evidence of a recent CD he did of pop song covers, California Weekend.

"Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In"-- 5th Dimension -- Hey, another big hit from the summer of '69, and an odd medley of the opening and closing songs from the musical Hair. The first song is hopeful, and the last one, though it sounds upbeat in this medley, is actually the last part of a very depressing yet exhilarating song called "The Flesh Failures." Catchy, though, and I always love the moment when Billy Davis Jr. (I think) exhorts us to "sing along with the Fifth Dimension!"

"Summer's Coming Around Again" by Carly Simon and "One Summer Dream" by Electric Light Orchestra -- Both slow, dreamy, perfect summer afternoon songs, a little sad but not depressing, just sad in that, "Geez, wouldn't it be nice if all afternoons were warm, breezy summer afternoons?" way.

"Sweet Hitchhiker" -- Creedence Clearwater Revival -- Not one of their best known songs, but a good sweaty sex-on-a-road-trip song, what with her riding on his "fast machine" and all.

"Love Or Let Me Be Lonely" -- Friends of Distinction -- The definition of breezy summer soul.

"Love Plus One" -- Haircut 100 (see photo below), whose every song feels like spring or summer.

"Another Park, Another Sunday" -- Doobie Brothers -- Nothing really summery, I guess, except being set in a park.

"Feelin' Stronger Every Day" – Chicago -- My favorite Chicago song of all time.

"Kodachrome" -- Paul Simon -- Heard this for the first time on the first morning of my first real summer job, so it’s a summer song for me.

"Ariel" -- Dean Friedman -- Cute, mildly sexy novelty story song about a first date, with some fun details (they go to the DQ for lunch but she can only have an onion ring and a pickle because she's a vegetarian) and memorable lines ("I said "Hi"/she said, "Yeah, I guess I am")

"Escapade" -- Janet Jackson -- Perfect escapist pop!

"A.M. Radio" -- Everclear -- Maybe the most recent song on my summer playlist.

"Sealed With a Kiss" -- Bobby Vinton – The perfect high school summer romance song.