Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bachelor weekend

Don is off visiting his sister in Maine so I'm taking advantage of the alone time; I tell my co-workers (those who will still listen to my flights of fancy) that when Don's gone, I prance about in my underpants, stuff my face with bon-bons, drink cheap American beer, and lie in the living room in a bloated stupor watching movies. Truth be told, I do all that when Don is here! When he's gone, I just do more of it. Yesterday, I whipped up some no-bake cookies made from my mom's recipe (cocoa, sugar, oatmeal, and, despite having my having developed a tiny little peanut allergy, peanut butter--these cookies are so good, it's worth a little wheezing afterwards). I also went out and bought the new Spoon CD (more on that in a few days), got a delicious Orange Passion Iced Tea from Starbucks--I like Starbucks and I love orange flavored things, but I don't really like their current summer Orange offerings except for this tea--and had veggieburgers and kidney bean salad for dinner, chased by a few cookies and a beer.

For the media part of the day, I caught up on the New Yorker (I like to keep a stack of at least 3 weeks, so by "caught up," I mean I finished reading thru the July 2 issue), read a couple chapters in my current books, pranced about in my incredibly comfortable American Apparel underwear (see left, and that is an American Apparel model, not me!) and watched a few Lingos and Chain Reactions and movies. I particularly enjoyed a post-war British mystery called Green for Danger, with Alastair Sim (best known as Scrooge in the 1951 Christmas Carol). A beautiful print from the Criterion Collection of a wonderful little Agatha Christie-like thriller about a murder in a civilian hospital (in a village mansion requistioned by the government). Sim plays the inspector who solves the crime, though he does pull a boner near the end that results in justice not totally being carried out. The movie has a thread of dark humor running through it, and Sim is delightful. I even watched most of it a second time to hear the commentary, which began well, but fell off about halfway through with a little too much repetition of details. Today, the sun is out so I may spend some time out in nature, but not too, too much, since cookies and beers and DVR'd movies call my name.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Coach potato summer

Well, it's midway through the summer (culturally, summer runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day) and true to form, we have become absolutely perfect coach potatoes, sitting in air-conditioned comfort, watching TV, Don knitting and me doing Sudoku puzzles, with an occasional bowl of ice cream (Breyer's Vanilla smothered with Hershey's Syrup) or a tall frosty beer to assuage hunger and thirst. Here's what we've been watching:

1) Season 2 of Foyle's War: The shows are getting predictable and the padded-out feeling is getting worse, but the characters are developing nicely, with a romance beginning between Foyle's hot son and Foyle's cute driver. Foyle's hot assistant, played by Anthony Howell (see pic at right), is also getting a subplot of his own concerning his troubled marriage. These shows make it seem like everyone in England in 1940 was either a Nazi sympathizer, a black marketeer, or ready to surrender to Hitler, so the tone of the shows is rather bleak. I think, however, that I need to let a little time pass before I borrow season 3 from the library.

2) Game shows: But, damn it, GSN has both of our favorites, Lingo and Chain Reaction, in reruns at the same time. We're still watching them (and Jeopardy) most nights, but I'm going to have Dylan Lane withdrawal soon. We gave GSN's new show Camouflage a shot, but it's old-fashioned (and not in an ironically retro way) and not very compelling--contestants finding words within words and phrases--and the host feels like second-string material, though Dylan Lane and Chuck Woolery are hard acts to follow.

3) DVDs: I'm pumpin' thru the Netflix discs. The latest was Army of Shadows, a 1969 French film about the Resistance during WWII; it was released here in the States for the first time last year and got rave reviews, but I found it slow and uninspiring. Yes, it's more realistic than the slick, upbeat Hollywood war films of the 40's, and it has a very good performance by Simone Signoret, but I got bogged down and had to split my viewing over two days. The downbeat ending feels honest and right, but it's not a film I'd revisit.

4) Harry Potter: I'm not a fan, but in the name of domestic calm, I go with my honey to see the movies. The latest, Order of the Phoenix, was perfectly fine, and gets extra points from me for being the shortest Potter film yet. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into a very attractive young man, and all the kids are getting stronger as actors. Not enough Maggie Smith for my taste, surprisingly little Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and a smidge too much Gary Oldman, but still quite watchable. Don is in the middle of the 17-disc audio book of Deathly Hallows, but I'll wait for the movie a few years hence.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Behind the Wall of Sound

"Tearing Down the Wall of Sound" by Mick Brown is a very well-written account of, as its subtitle states, the rise and fall of Phil Spector, legendary producer of a number of 60's hits, and, despite having made only a handful of recordings since the mid-70's, a continuing influence on pop music. Spector is in the headlines now because he is on trial, accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. This book makes Spector out to be a kind of tragic figure who had many personal demons which he could not overcome, and the story of his sad life (man wants fame and fortune, gets them early in life, but never finds happiness and goes a little--or a lot, depending on whose side you're hearing--crazy) is compelling reading. He never seemed to recover from the suicide of his father or the untimely death of his son Philip Jr. of leukemia at the age of 9. He was constantly brandishing firearems, and supposedly threatened people such as John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, and Joey Ramone with a gun in order to get his way in the recording studio. He married Veronica Bennett (better known as Ronnie Spector), lead singer of the Ronettes, and promptly made her a prisoner in his mansion.

All of these horrible things are reported in a non-sensationalistic way and help turn the book into a real page-turner, but what I found even more interesting are the accounts of how Spector, his engineers, and his musicians created the "Wall of Sound," the dense mix of multiple guitars, keyboards, strings, and voices, overlaid with chiming percussion, that became his signature sound in hits like "Be My Baby" (The Ronettes), "He's a Rebel" (The Crystals), and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (The Righteous Brothers). After a string of mostly girl-group hits in the mid-60's, the song that was perhaps the zenith of his method, "River Deep, Mountain High" by Ike and Tina Turner, was a bomb on the American charts (though it went top 5 in Britain) and Spector never quite recovered. He went into semi-retirement, though in the early 70's, he produced the Beatles "Let It Be," John Lennon's "Instant Karma" and "Imagine," and a record that is, for my money, the most gorgeous thing he ever did, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The rest of the story is a slow spiral downward into alcoholism, egomania, and madness.

Spector was able to maintain his lifestyle through the songwriting royalties that have continued to roll in over the past 35 years, though Brown strongly implies that in some cases, his contribution to the songs on which he got co-writing credit was minimal, sometimes taking credit simply for changing a word here and there. Nevertheless, there is evidence here that Spector truly was a musical genius, and the fact that he languished after only a decade of producing music makes one sorry for the masterpieces that could have been. To my ears, the best modern example of the Wall of Sound is a song Spector had nothing to do with directly, Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" (and several other songs on that album). Among the first 45's I ever bought were "Black Pearl" by the Checkmates, which Spector produced, and Andy Kim's cover of "Baby, I Love You," which sounds like a more cleanly produced version of the Wall of Sound. Harry Nilsson did a great sound-alike version of "River Deep, Mountain High" on his album Pandemonium Shadow Show. This book is one of the better rock bios and I highly recommend it--its lack of an index or a discography is frustrating, though there are plenty of web sites about Spector and his influence, including the very good Spectropop. I also recommend the fabulous boxed set of his music, Back to Mono, which exhaustively covers his career to 1969.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Checking off Chekhov

We borrowed the Judi Dench Collection, a 8-disc DVD set, from the library. It contains no movies, but has 9 British TV productions which first aired between 1962 and 1991. I like Dench, but the only reason I checked this out was to see a production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. For all the literature in my background (big reader and collector since I was 10, holder of bachelor's and master's degrees in English, teacher of college English for a few years), I have neither read nor seen any Chekhov, so this seemed the perfect opportunity. The set has two different productions; I opted for the 1962 one with John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in the lead roles--Dench, who plays the female lead in the 1981 version, has a fairly small role here. The play is billed as a comedy, but it doesn't fulfill either of the definitions of "comedy" that I am aware of: it is not funny, and it does not end with scrambled circumstances restored to normal. A well-to-do Russian family has fallen on hard times and must auction off their property, including the much-loved orchard of the title. The matriarch (Ashcroft) and her daughters return to the estate after an extended stay in Paris, and, along with her bachelor brother (Gielgud), their servants, and various neighbors and friends, spend the rest of the play feeling sorry for themselves. A couple of options are offered by outsiders but the family is too enervated to anything for themselves. In the end, they leave the locked-up house, forgetting the faithful old manservant who, when he can't open the door, just lies down and dies.

I'm sure if I were a little more conversant with Russian history of the time (the play was first produced in 1904), I might find some coherent satirical social commentary, but this production seemed slow and at times awkwardly staged for the TV cameras, and I never got fully invested in it. Gielgud (who also adapted the play from the Russian) and Ashcroft are fine, and it was great fun to see a very young (and surprisingly attractive) Ian Holm (see pic) as a student who is dating one of the daughters and is a voice of modernity--Holm might have made a good revolutionary (rather than Tom Courtenay) in Doctor Zhivago. Dench doesn't really get to make much of an impact; she looks impossibly young (under 30), but that intriguing scratch in her voice, which I assumed came with age, is there. We also watched the version of Ibsen's Ghosts from 1987, with Kenneth Branagh as Dench's syphilitic son--I like the play, but this version seemed a bit overdone, maybe because of all the TV close-ups. I usually enjoy watching taped or filmed plays on TV, but these two were not among the best I've seen. However, I can finally check Chekhov off my "need to read" or more precisely, "need to see" list.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Foyle's war

The other British series I'm currently watching is "Foyle's War," a detective show set in England during WWII. Michael Kitchen plays Inspector Foyle, whom we first meet in the spring of 1940, as the war was just getting started and fears of a German invasion caused tensions to run high. Foyle's son is off the join the RAF and Foyle, who fought in WWI, is feeling underused as just another police detective, but the cases he works on all have direct ties to the war situation and all reveal interesting tidbits of war history. One episode has at its center a pro-Nazi group which sympathizes with the Germans, doesn't like the Jews, and wants England to quit the war; the group, the Friday Club, is based on a real organization of the era called the Right Club. Another is about the rampant anti-German feeling which ran strong at the time, and one of the plot points centers on the internment camps in England where Germans who were considered security risks were put, a fact I knew nothing about until now.

So far, I've only seen the first season (four shows) and each show begins with a death or murder which often ends up not being terribly important to the plot as it unfolds. The other regular characters include Foyle's driver (Honeysuckle Weeks), his assistant (Anthony Howell) who came back from defending Finland with his leg shot off, and Foyle's son (Julian Ovenden) who pops in and out. Kitchen is very good, quite subtle; there is often more going in his face and body language than in his dialogue. He's creating a character who is likable but who will always keep himself at a distance from others, even his son. Both Howell and Ovenden are very handsome, and Howell is downright hot; I believe I said to Don during an episode, "Why doesn't every member of this cast want to have sex with him?"--though I may have used a common vulgarity in place of "have sex with." The shows are 100 minutes each, and would work better at closer to 90; as it is, they feel a bit padded out. But I intend to continue watching the other seasons which are available on DVD. This and The Vicar of Dibley are so much better than practically anything on American television right now.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"A babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom"

I'm not exactly a pop culture Anglophile, though I do love Monty Python. However, I have recently stumbled on a couple of wonderful British imports. Today I'll write about "The Vicar of Dibley," a sitcom series with Dawn French as Geraldine Granger, a female vicar assigned to the rural village of Dibley. The parish council members don't all take to her at first, but soon they, and all the villagers, love her, except for the stodgy head of the council, David Horton (Gary Waldhorn), though by the end of the first series (a batch of six episodes), even Horton has reluctantly gotten used to her, and may even come to have a slight crush on her. The plots are not out of the ordinary, and you'll see the continuing influence of the physical comedy of "I Love Lucy" on occasion. What's special here are the characters and the ways they connect.

Geraldine is surprisingly bawdy for a woman of God (she has framed pictures of Jesus and Mel Gibson on her wall, a juxtaposition in place many years before Passion of the Christ), and some of the episodes center on her search for a man. She is often sharply sarcastic, but is also compassionate and gentle when called for. Still, she is definitely the "normal" one here, as this is basically a traditional "ordinary person surrounded by strange people" type of comedy. Her assistant Alice (Emma Chambers) is a complete childlike ditz, and one of the funniest continuing bits is the joke that Geraldine tells Alice after the credits of each show; no matter how simple the joke (even lame knock-knock jokes), Alice never gets it, and when she does laugh at it, it's for the wrong reasons. The other council members are equally odd but endearing, with my favorite being Owen (Roger Lloyd-Pack), the farmer who loves to talk about his various bowel problems (and those of his sheep as well). For a show with heavy dollops of sarcastic lines, naughty talk, bathroom humor, and unrealistic situations, I find the show heartwarming as well, maybe because all the disparate characters truly do have affection for each other. I also love the theme song, a gorgeous choral setting of the 23rd Psalm by Howard Goodall which I was pleased to be able to download from iTunes. I've watched all the episodes that have been made so far (3 DVDs worth) and keep coming back for repeats.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Ghosts and rats

We spent a good chunk of the blazing hot weekend here in Central Ohio in movie theaters. Saturday we saw 1408, a decent ghost story based on a Stephen King short story. John Cusack is a writer of literary fiction who, after the death of his daughter from cancer, splits with his wife and wastes his talents on a string of "ghostbusting" books about supposedly haunted tourist sites. He winds up in room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York City; the manager, Samuel L. Jackson, tries to talk him out of staying in that room, telling him the details behind dozens of previous deaths, and saying that no one has survived more than an hour in the room. Cusack is anxious to expose the room as a fraud, but when his clock radio suddenly switches from the time to a 60 minute countdown while blaring the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," the horror rollercoaster begins. Most of this hour of the film is well done--good frights, nice effects, and a effective sense of entrapment. Of course, this being King, the writer's psychological baggage plays a large part in the chills and thrills, but by the end, when an FX extravaganza goes on a bit too long, Cusack's sense of guilt, fed by his estranged wife, over his daughter's death becomes the central plot point and things get a bit gooey/weepy for my taste. Cusack is not a perfect fit for the role--too serious and not snarky enough. Still, for the most part, it's a fun ride.

Speaking of rides, while watching the new Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille, my partner Don whispered in my ear during a sewer escape scene that he figured this would be the basis for a new ride in Orlando one of these days. He's probably right, though for the most part, this is not an overstuffed action cartoon like the dreadful Monster House. I'm not a big fan of animation these days, but Don is and this one got some of the best reviews of the season, so I went. I mostly enjoyed it, though if would benefit from a little judicious trimming here and there. Remy, a French country rat, has the gift of very sensitive taste and smell which he uses to warn the other rats in his colony away from poisoned food. He dreams of going to Paris to use his gifts to cook, and he gets his wish when, after the sewer escape scene, he winds up in Paris, befriended by a boy named Linguini, a janitor in a fancy restaurant who aspires to be a great cook. The rat, hidden beneath his hat, helps him gain a reputation for interesting new recipes, but their partnership is soon threatened, not only by a health inspector, but by Linguini's love for Colette, a fellow cook, and by the obnoxious head chef, Skinner. As this is a Disney film, there is a subplot focused on an absent parent, and there's a happy ending for the good guys and an appropriate comeuppance for the bad guy. Sweet-natured and well animated. The kids in the matinee showing we attended seemed to get a bit bored in the middle, but by the climax they were interested again. Don loved it because he loves Brad Bird movies; I found The Incredibles to be a giant bore, but that may have had to do with the muscle relaxant I was on the day we saw it, so I should give that one another shot some day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Insanely catchy pop music you won't hear on the radio

Yes, I'm one of those tiresome baby boomers who is constantly lamenting the sad state of pop music, but particularly pop radio, which is pretty much dead to me. If I find a band I like, I'm guaranteed never to hear their music on commercial mainstream radio (though I must admit I haven't sampled satellite radio yet). My car radio isn't on much these days thanks to my iPod, but when it is, it's on either oldies radio or classical music (which, as a commerical commodity is apparently in sad straits these days). I may have given up on radio, but I still search out pop music and want to report on two great discs I've discovered recently.

The Bird and the Bee is a singer/instrumentalist duo who make a kind of space-age cocktail samba music with hints of 60's melodies and 00's synths. Sometimes it feels like electropop folk. At any rate, it's bubbly and sweetly jazzy, with an occasional edge ("F*cking Boyfriend," the hip-hoppy "Because"), and while the sound gets a bit thin at times--a little more depth of instrumentation would be welcome on album #2--it is catchy and summery, and singer Inara George, daughter of Lowell George of 70's blusey, jammy Little Feat, has a great indie-pop voice.

Sloan is a Canadian pop band which has been making music for over 10 years; based on the evidence of their latest CD, Never Hear the End of It, I need to go to iTunes to do some catching up. This is shimmery Beatlesque powerpop at its best, and it doesn't sound dated in the least. This disc is perhaps a bit overambitious, with 30 songs, some of which are only a minute or so in length, which all segue together. Mostly, I find that device pretentious, though there are moments when the flow does achieve an "Abbey Road, side 2" feel. But when so damn many of the individual songs are so damn good, as they are here, I can overlook the faltering "concept." In a perfect world, where solidly constructed, glossy but not plastic, pop music was still the opium of the masses, songs from this album, such as "Ana Lucia" or the amazing "Who Taught You To Live Like That?" would be choking the airwaves. All they need is to get one of their songs in a commerical, and American chart success might be knocking--of course, that would also doom them as one-hit wonders in the US.