Friday, June 29, 2007

Miss Potter's whimsy problem

I watched MISS POTTER this morning, a pleasant little film with Renee Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter, the renowned author of the The Tale of Peter Rabbit and a whole series of small (literally, in size) children's books featuring clothes-wearing animals such as pigs, ducks, and mice. Though most of them were written nearly 100 years ago, they are still in print and still sell quite well. I must confess that I never read any of her stories in my childhood, though I have read a couple since then, and one of my favorite show tunes is "Book Report," a song about the Peanuts kids having to write book reports on Peter Rabbit, from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

[Spoilers follow] The movie covers her early life; we first see her as a young woman under pressure from her social-climbing parents (especially her mother) to make a good marriage, but she'd rather sit in her room, draw whimsical animal watercolors, and make up stories about them. She gets "Peter Rabbit" published, becomes a success, and forms a strong friendship with her mild-mannered publisher (Ewan McGregor) and his relatively headstrong feminist sister (Emily Watson). Potter and the publisher fall in love; her parents disapprove of her marrying a tradesman, but when they finally give in, he dies of something or other (pneumonia it would seem, though Wikipedia says it was anemia) and she's distraught. Discovering how rich her books have made her, she buys quite of a bit of farmland and goes there to live out the rest of her life, eventually marrying a salt-of-the-earth man (Lloyd Owen) whom she'd known in her youth--though the impression is left that it may have been a marriage of convenience more than passion.

The movie looks wonderful--lots of misty shots of well-appointed rooms and lovely landscapes--and the acting is generally fine, with McGregor doing an exceptionally good job in a change of pace role as a quiet charmer, and Watson equally strong as the unorthodox sidekick. There's nothing wrong with Zellweger, but I wanted to see more of McGregor and Watson, partly because their characters are more interestingly drawn. The film has an odd device which pops up occasionally: from Miss Potter's point of view, her painted animals come to animated life; they don't have adventures, they just wink and twitch and hop. I wish the whimsical device had been used more often or not at all; it almost seems like the producer decided they didn't have the money to complete the animation, but the director couldn't cut what he'd done so far. The whole thing could use either more or less whimsy, and definitely more character development--it's the rare recent movie that I actually wished was longer than it was (90 minutes). Generally pleasant, but it should be more something (whimsical, romantic, tragic, funny).

Monday, June 25, 2007

The end of Studio 60

Aaron Sorkin is a genius and I've enjoyed all three of his network shows: Sports Night, The West Wing, and this season's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. His real gift, however, is in developing characters. The real strength of all three of the shows was the characters who seemed both larger-than-life and intimately real at the same time. This gift was especially appreciated in West Wing, a show which made me believe that politicians might be human after all.

Sadly, Studio 60, his latest show, has been canceled and NBC has been burning off the last few episodes this June, with the finale scheduled for this coming Thursday. I liked the show quite a bit until it jumped the shark in the last few weeks. I really think one problem with it was that it was one of two shows on NBC last fall that centered around a fictional version of Saturday Night Live. The other show, 30 Rock, was a half-hour sitcom, which is usually more my speed, but the hour-long drama not only had Aaron Sorkin behind the cameras, but Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford in front of the cameras, and somehow I felt it would have been cheating to watch both, so I never did see 30 Rock, which, despite having lower ratings that Studio 60, is returning for a second season in the fall. (I think Studio 60's big downfall was that it was quite expensive to produce)

Perry and Whitford have great chemistry, and I liked Amanda Peet much more than I thoughtI would. Sarah Paulson as a born-again Christian performer is superb. The real surprises, though, were Steven Weber as the assholish network executive who you occasionally sympathized with and Nate Corddry as one of the comics. Corddry in particular was impressive; I only knew him from his comic journalism bits on Jon Stewart's Daily Show and I always thought he was cute but lightweight; however, he's excellent on Studio 60, and it's not because he's just being Daily-Show-funny, because he's not. He *is* often funny, but he also has the acting chops to develop a fully-fleshed-out character.

Sadly, in mid-season, the show changed tone to become a sort of screwball romantic comedy and that didn't quite work. In these last few weeks, it changed again to be full of Sweeps Month trauma (terrorist kidnapping, pregnant woman in mortal danger, PR disaster for the show-within-the-show) and I've totally lost interest in most of the plot lines. But with just one more week, I'll watch to the bitter end, and hope that all those great actors get good regular jobs soon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Dirty life and times

In my report on my summer reading below, I forgot to mention "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon," an oral history of Zevon's life complied by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon. I can't say I was a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Zevon's, though his album Excitable Boy was one of my favorites during my first years out of college. An ex-boyfriend from that time got a particular delight from singing the line about Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the Queen (from "Werewolves of London") and the particularly nasty lyrics of "Excitable Boy" ("He dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones," for example). Zevon was a musical It Boy for a short time, between the runaway success of "Werewolves" and Linda Ronstadt's recording of a couple of his songs ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "Hasten Down the Wind"). But he more or less dropped out of the media spotlight until he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2002, when, according to this book, he made a concerted effort to get back in the game, if only to get a last brief shot at fame, and he succeeded--an entire hour on Letterman, a top 10 album issued just a week before his death.

This book shows just what a jackass Zevon was: abusive to his women, dismissive of his children, often unkind to his close friends and musical associates. Some of his behavior was undoubtedly due to his drinking and drug problems, which cropped up just as he was hitting the big time and led to his inability to keep the steamroller of success going, but even when he got cleaned up in the 90's, he was still kind of a jackass. Almost every song on Excitable Boy still holds up, especially the tender "Accidentally Like a Martyr" and the hilarious "Lawyers, Guns and Money," but I didn't care for its follow-up, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (despite the cool title) and from what I've sampled from his later catalog, he never regained the heights of his early years. I may check out his last album, The Wind, from the library. What a depressing read, almost as depressing as the Carpenters bio, and "Papa John," the John Phillips autobiography which is the single most depressing bio I've ever read. If rock stars can't have some fun, what hope do us workaday peons have?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer reads, part 1

I doubt that I'll actually get to a beach this summer, so my "beach reads" are books I read on my front porch, sitting in an orange vinyl/plastic lounge chair, aimed to catch some sun. What I've been reading in the sun so far:

"Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation" by Marc Fisher contains some information on the early history of American radio, but as per its title, it focuses more on how, beginning in the mid-50's, rock music changed the face of radio, wiping away the news and entertainment programming which was largely becoming the stuff of television, a medium in its infancy. The first part of the book is very interesting, but when he reaches the rock era, he shifts from a chronological narrative to jumping around by DJs and their specialties, and it loses some steam. By building his story around radio personalities, he wind up slighting, to some degree, the music, the playlists, the contests, and in general, how the audience experienced radio. Still, a generally fun read; the chapter on Jean Shepherd, author of the story which was turned into the classic movie "A Christmas Story," is fascinating.

"The Carpenters: The Untold Story" by Ray Coleman: I'm a little sorry I picked this one up as it really tarnishes the whitebread image I had of Karen and Richard Carpenter. We all know about Karen's struggle with eating disorders, but Richard also battled an addiction to Quaaludes, and during the most successful time in their career, they were still living with their mother (who is painted vaguely as a controlling monster). The two were also very controlling about each other, with Karen being particularly sabotaging of Richard's relationships with girlfriends. The book, written in 1995, is "authorized," and the author had the cooperation of Richard, but I suspect there are more undercurrents to the bizarre family dynamics that we'll never know. Not a terribly well written book, but filled with gossipy details about the people and the songs. Sadly, I'll never quite listen to "Goodbye to Love" or "Solitaire" the same way again.

"Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America" by Stefan Kanter: I'm having a hard time getting into this one. The subject, the thriving but now long-gone Yiddish theater scene in New York in the first decades of the 20th century, is one I'm interested in knowing more about, but Kanfer's style is not always easy going, and so far in the first half of the book, he is focusing more on the personalities than the plays or the audiences. I hope to report back on some fiction in the coming weeks; at the very least, I should finish Stephen King's "Cell" which has been sitting by my bed with a bookmark in it for about a month.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

True Colors in Columbus

The True Colors tour came through Columbus Thursday night and we went, making it our first concert event in ten years or so--the last one was Raffi or Manhattan Transfer. [My honey reminds me that it was actually The B-52's, which was only about 4 or 5 years ago] The point of the tour seemed to be twofold: 1) as a political action effort to support the Human Rights Campaign and the Matthew Shepherd Act, a hate crime bill currently under consideration in the Senate, and 2) as a way for some 80's acts with large gay followings to get some exposure. The turnout here, at the Schottenstein Center on the OSU campus, was small, with the arena half-empty; if they have arrived a week earlier while classes were still in session, I imagine they would have attracted a larger crowd.

We got there a bit late and missed most of a set by the punk-cabaret duo Dresden Dolls, though I liked what I heard (a song called "Coin-Operated Boy") and what I saw (the male member of the duo, Brian Viglione, shirtless and sweaty, pounding the shit out of his drums).

Debbie Harry, one of my 80's idols as lead singer of Blondie, was next, and though she sounded good, she disappointed the crowd by only doing solo material, mixing older stuff with songs from an upcoming album, Necessary Evil. Let's face it, she's never really taken off as a solo act, and I speak as one who does in fact own some of her solo work. She did "French Kissin' in the USA" and "Rush Rush," but I was sorry that she didn't do my own faves "In Love with Love" and "Brite Side." The new songs sounded good, but would it have killed her to close with "One Way or Another" or "Atomic"?

Though Cyndi Lauper was the headliner, and the person who put the tour together, the climax of the show for me was seeing Erasure, the synth-pop, dance-music duo who keep making music as though it were still 1988. Like Harry, they mixed new and old, and one new song, "I Could Fall in Love With You," sounded as good as anything they've done. However, their set was more heavily weighted with hits and fan favorites, and I was ecstatic when they did two of my favorite Erasure songs, "Blue Savannah" and "Drama!" even though they weren't big hits in the States. And when they closed with "Oh, L'Amour," I was in heaven.

Cyndi closed and she also still sounds great, though her sound mix was muddy and too loud--I didn't even recognize "Money Changes Everything" until the chorus. She did a slowed-down "She Bop" which wasn't as fun as the original, but she stuck to hits all the way, including "Time After Time," "Hole in My Heart," and of course, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The last song was a cute version of Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" with Cyndi and Andy Bell of Erasure. Overall, it was a fun event, but I could have used another half-hour of Erasure.

Friday, June 15, 2007

At last, the Silver Surfer!

I was a big comic book fan in my youth (60's and 70's, the Silver Age, if you will, of American comics), and though my heart was with DC kid, I read Marvel books, too. One of my favorite characters was the Silver Surfer, who was a bad guy turned good guy. To save his planet Zenn-La from destruction by the energy-devouring villain Galactus, Norrin Rad sacrifices himself to become a herald to Galactus, getting covered in a protective silver shell and surfing the galazies to find plants to satisfy Galactus' hunger. When he arrives on Earth, however, he takes a shine to the humans, joins with the Fantastic Four, and manages to save the Earth, at the cost of being stuck here forever.

I'm not sure what about the Surfer grabbed me. It might have been the almost psychedelic artwork (the galaxies are full of bright colors and light-show shapes) or the almost-naked physique or the sad exile story. Though I missed the original Surfer stories that ran in the Fantastic Four, I did manage to catch most of the run of his first solo book in the late 60's. My favorite t-shirt (and I pretty much live in t-shirts) when I was in college was my "Jaws" poster shirt, but my second-favorite was a Silver Surfer shirt, black with the Surfer in glittery silver, covered with a thin clear plastic-ish coating. I loved it, but the Surfer figure was heavy and gave me a sweaty chest whenever I wore it.

Now the Surfer comes to the big screen, albeit as a "guest star" in the second Fantastic Four movie, RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER. For as much of a comic book fan as I was, I have not enjoyed most of the recent comic book movies: they take themselves way too seriously, and they are way damn too long. But I enjoyed the first F4 film because it was dumb fun and was well under 2 hours. (And, yes, Chris Evans was hot in more ways than one as the Human Torch) The new one is even shorter--with the requisite endless credits, it's still just a smidge over 90 minutes--and if it's a little less fun than the first one, it's still quite watchable. Evans gets a short shirtless scene and the Surfer, a mostly CGI figure with an actor (Doug Jones) buried in there somewhere, is very well done. I wish it was a little wittier and more clever than it is, but the superhero angst that overburdens the recent Spider Man and Batman movies is largely absent here. I'm not crazy about Ioan Gruffuud and Jessica Alba as Reed and Sue, but Evans and Michael Chiklis have welcome light touches as the Torch and the Thing. Julian McMahon is underused as baddie Dr. Doom (and I kept thinking he would have made a good Reed Richards). But as noted above, they pull off the Silver Surfer perfectly, and I was happy. Now if I can just find a Silver Surfer shirt that fits me!

Monday, June 11, 2007

The return of Jericho and the future of TV

Glad to hear that Jericho is coming back for a short mid-season run next year. Like Lost, which I gave up on at the beginning of its 3rd season, Jericho will probably work best as a limited series, but it still deserved more than one season. It had its share of lackluster episodes and plot lines, but I liked the characters and the set up and am glad that the May cliffhanger won't be its ending.

On the other hand, CBS is saying that show won't go any further than its coming seven episodes unless the Jericho fans who besieged the network for its return get more people to watch it. What CBS really means is that they want more people to watch it "live" in its network time slot, and I suspect that's not going to happen. About half the people I know who watch TV series on a regular basis do not watch them "live" when the network airs them. Some watch from network web sites, some watch shows they download from file-sharing sites, some wait for the DVDs; I, like many others, record the shows on my DVR to watch at my convenience. Networks don't like this because these viewers don't get counted by the ratings system, and worse, aren't usually exposed to the commercials which, of course, allow the shows to be free to us in the first place. I think TV is entering that same relationship with technology that has bedeviled the music industry recently--we consume music and TV shows, but we want to take full advantage of the freedom that technology has given us to control our consumption on our own terms. Past experience has shown that the networks will need to adapt, and the first thing that should change is measurement of TV show popularity.

Friday, June 8, 2007

My Summer Music iPod Mix, Part 2

Now it feels a whole lot more like summer than it did a month ago when I first created my summer iPod mix--sunny, near 90, storms now and then--and here's what I heard this morning on my way into work:

"Mah-Na-Mah-Na"--Piero Umiliani--This odd little white-guy-scat ditty, which most people today probably know more as background music from Benny Hill or the Muppet Show, was actually a top 40 hit in the summer of 1969. The 45, which I owned, identified it as the theme from the movie "Sweden, Heaven or Hell," which as far as I know, never played Columbus. Wikipedia says it's a softcore porn movie. There's not much info out there about Umiliani except for this interesting web page.

"All Summer Long"--The Beach Boys--This short peppy song always makes me a little sad, partly because it's about a time later in the season when "it won't be long 'til summertime is through," and partly because it came at the end of the wonderful Beach Boys hits collection Endless Summer; the year it came out, I spent all that fall playing the double album of hits after dinnertime, and when this song came on, I knew it was almost time to stop my after-dinner goofing-off and start doing homework. I believe it was also one of the last songs played in "American Graffiti."

"Walk on the Wild Side"--Lou Reed--AM radio edited out the verse about Candy never losing her head "even when she was giving head," but who needed the single version when you had the album, Transformer, a great collection of gender-fuck songs just right for a teenage boy who was realizing that this gay thing was not just a phase. A mellow vibe just right for early summer evenings.

"That's the Way God Planned It"--Billy Preston--His first hit, and one of the few non-Beatle top 40 songs released on Apple. This was one of the first 45s I had that came in a picture sleeve. The message, about God's plan, and being exalted, and things not quite going according to plan is still a bit hazy to me, but that opening organ riff reminds me of waking up at 3 in the morning (to catch a bus for a family vacation), flipping on my transistor radio, which was right under my pillow, expecting to hear static and instead hearing this song. Wow! Radio stations were still playing music in the middle of the night! Who knew?

"Steal My Sunshine"--Len--A recent song; I have no idea what it's about, but it's fun and summery.

"Pump Up the Volume"--M/A/R/R/S--Is this my favorite dance song of all time? It certainly was my favorite during the summer of '88, just before I went back to grad school. With that first reverberating chord, I'm thrown back to sweaty nights in a gay dance club. Now that I think about it, it might have been popular in the late winter or early spring, but it was always kind of summery on the dance floor.

"Sons of Summer"--Carly Simon--Another bittersweet looking-back-with-nostalgia song that summer so often seems to inspire.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

It was forty years ago today...

Actually, it was forty years ago yesterday when the Beatles' classic album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released. I was 10 years old at the time and, though I had gotten caught up in the first wave of Beatlemania at the tender age of 7, by 1967 my musical tastes were more along the lines of movie soundtracks like "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Music Man," or cast albums for shows like "Man of La Mancha" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," so June 1, 1967 passed by unremarkably for me, as did most of that Summer of Love, though I do remember reading feature stories in Time and Life about drugs, hippies, and protest. I didn't discover Sgt. Pepper until the spring of '68, after I had become interested again in current pop music and had started catching up with the Beatles after buying"Magical Mystery Tour," a fabulous album even if it does get downgraded by most critics because it's mostly a compilation of previously released singles.

I remember being home sick from school one day that spring and listening to Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour over and over, all day long. As a middle-class suburban kid, I had certainly never done any illegal drugs at that point, but I was sure that the experience could be no better than losing myself in these two Beatles albums. Sgt Pepper is such a part of my personal and cultural baggage by now that I can't really approach in a critical fashion, but I had to revisit it yesterday, listening to it in the car on the way to work and back home. (As it turns out, a co-worker had the same impulse and she brought the album in to listen to while working.)

Not all albums of the 60's and 70's still hold up for me, but this one does. I think it's still my favorite album of all time. It was the first "concept album" and because the concept is a loose one, a concert by the title band, it's not hemmed in by an artificial narrative, even as it does feel like all the songs work together to create an atmosphere by turns playful, serious, and profound. Everyone agrees that there are great individual songs here, like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "With a Little Help from My Friends," though just as great for me are "Lovely Rita" (an ode to sexual frustration?) and "Good Morning Good Morning" (an ode to daily middle-class frustration?). Actually, many of the songs seem to be about frustration ("Getting Better," "She's Leaving Home"). The one song that many agree is the clunker, George Harrison's "Within You Without You" is the weakest song, but the interplay of the Indian instruments in the middle section still sounds fresh. The climactic "A Day In the Life" always gives me chills, and the fact that I'm still not sure what the song is about only heightens that feeling as the closing four-piano chord echoes into infinity. I'm pleased to rediscover that this is an album that still sounds alive and bursting with creativity (great use of keyboards and orchestration), and not just a relic for nostalgic baby boomers.