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.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Spies, cute and dissolute

Typically, the TV sitcom is my cup of tea; I have never been one to appreciate the hour-long drama. When I was young, I watched a few, like Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West. Over the years, I have watched St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and CSI, but typically the form in a continuing basis does not appeal to me. However, this summer, I am enjoying the USA Network's Burn Notice. Jeffrey Donovan plays a free lance spy who discovers that there is a "burn notice" out on him, meaning that he has been cut loose by his bosses and generally considered unemployable. He hightails it to Miami and, as he tries to find out why he's become persona non grata, hangs out with his mother (Sharon Gless), his former girlfriend (Gabrielle Anwar), and a former colleague (Bruce Campbell) who, though informing on Donovan to the CIA, is still his buddy. Though the arc of Donovan's predicament is developing over time, each episode is mostly a self-contained story in which Donovan uses his spy and disguise skills to help some less fortunate soul out of a jam. Donovan is slickly attractive (I swear I've seen him in a sitcom bit part or two, but IMDB tells me I'm wrong), and cult actor Campbell looks surprisingly dissolute--big gut, jowls, dark eyes--and how much of that is makeup and how much is Campbell living the good/bad life, I don't know. I didn't like Anwar at first, but she's growing on me. What I really like about the show, and what's missing from so many network dramas these days, is its light tone. Shows like Lost and Heroes and CSI have their tiny moments of humor, but overall their tones are dark or at least very serious. In this one, the tone is light with moments of seriousness. It won't go down as a TV Land classic, but it makes good summer viewing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Set the controls for the heart of the sun

We spent this sweltering summer weekend watching movies. Sunshine was plugged as being a cross between Armageddon and 2001; I've not seen the first film, but I'm a big 2001 fan so I was excited about this. Big mistake to believe the hype. Some years in the future, the sun is faltering (it's not explained why) causing potentially fatal global cooling. A crew in a ship called the Icarus II (following the disaster of Icarus I a few years earlier) is heading for the sun to re-ignite it with a massive nuclear payload. After a series of problems on board, they run across the original Icarus with no sign of life, but with lots of food and oxygen, which they will need if they hope to make it back to earth after delivering the bomb. After a solid first hour which does indeed feel inspired by 2001 (an on-board computer with a human voice, recorded messages home, philosophical mysteries, and a few shots which visually quote the Kubrick film), it turns into Alien, with a rather far-fetched "monster" creating havoc. Cillian Murphy is a bland (and kind of gross looking) leading man; the very hot Chris Evans (the Human Torch) is never allowed to be shirtless; the best acting comes from Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Sanada, but neither one makes it to the end. There are some great shots of the sun as seen through the ship's observation deck, though a potentially interesting subplot about how staring at the sun may not be good you physically or psychologically is never allowed to come to fruition. The end has some great fx but is otherwise a huge letdown.

On DVD, we caught up with an SF flick from last year, The Host, from Korea. This was a lively, funny, creepy film which is about 15 minutes too long (isn't every movie these days about 15 minutes too long?). A dysfunctional extended family winds up right at the center of events when a giant amphibian worm/snake/slimy-thing monster comes leaping out of the Han River, eating people and snatching the family's young daughter. She is assumed dead--there is a very funny (albeit in a black-humor way) scene at a mass memorial for the dead--but when her slacker father gets a cell phone call from her, he decides to leave no stone unturned to find her before the monster gets around to eating her, with the whole family helping out. (Because the family business is an outdoor food stand, they reminded me of the Bluths of Arrested Development.) We know the beast was created from the lackadaisical dumping of old formaldehyde by a U.S. military base in Korea, setting up a nice Godzilla parallel. Later in the film, there is a confusing subplot in which the government announces that the monster is spreading a deadly virus, but this turns out to be false; as a plot device, it's a convenient way to throw obstacles in the path of our family, but thematically (a government lying to its citizens as a way to keep them scared--sound familiar?) this falls by the wayside with no payoff. Nevertheless, the film is well worth watching for its nice mix of terror and humor, for its good effects, and because it's one of the few monster films which mostly takes place in broad daylight. There's a nicely shot last scene, though I'm not sure what it means, if it really means anything.

We also saw Meet Me in St. Louis at the Ohio Theater downtown, a wonderfully restored old movie palace which shows classic movies on the gigantic screen in the summertime, and I watched a fun 50's B-horror flick called Zombies of Mora Tau, with the statuesque Alison Hayes (the star of the original Attack of the 50-Foot Woman) and the handsome Gregg Palmer (see pic) facing down some zombies who are guarding a sunken treasure. It's not very scary and it's a little slow moving, but it's fairly slickly made for its ilk (though the non-slick productions have their own pleasures).

Friday, August 3, 2007

Donovan, we hardly know ye

When I was a sexually confused adolescent in the late 60's, my earliest celebrity crushes were Raquel Welch (I had the poster of her in a dripping wet bathing suit from the movie Fathom on my wall for more years than I will admit) and Donovan. Why Donovan, I don't know--I think there were pictures of him looking snub-nosedly cute and scrawnily bare-chested inside his Greatest Hits album, and his best friend Gypsy Dave looked kind of dangerously hot as well. My interest in Ms. Welch dwindled soon after Kansas City Bomber, but even after my teen crush on Donovan ended, I still enjoyed his music, and songs such as "Sunshine Superman," "Season of the Witch," "Atlantis," and "Goo Goo Barabajagel" remained in heavy rotation over the years on my turntable, tape deck, CD player, and now my iPod.

I am sad to report that his recently published autobiography, subtitled "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," is a massive disappointment. First, it is badly written; I respect the fact that he apparently decided against a ghostwriter, but this book shows why there is a place for ghostwriters in the literary world. The prose is awkward, the chronology is occasionally jumbled (he has Jimi Hendrix performing "Sgt. Pepper" months before the song was released or even written), and the pretension is staggering--apparently, Donovan is the reason for the popularity of folk-rock, Celtic rock, psychedelic rock, and heavy metal; he inspired Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Beatles (individually and collectively), the Rolling Stones, and T. Rex, among others; and he thinks he is responsible for the founding of Led Zeppelin (as all the members but Robert Plant played on the "Hurdy Gurdy Man" sessions). Even granting some of the above (he surely made the world safe for T. Rex), he comes off sounding like a rather obnoxious person. He is honest about his drug use, and I respect him for not trying to excuse it away or claim it meant nothing to him, and there is something touching about his story of finally finding the love of his life, Linda, after several years of missed connections. But to make sense of his career and his influence, I will have to wait for someone a bit more objective (and someone who is a more straightforward writer) to issue the definitive book.

Lastly, the book was terribly edited and proofread. There are glaring mistakes of every kind on every page. The names of people such as Allen Klein, Phil Spector, and Steve Winwood, all of whom come up more than once, are misspelled consistently. Sentences are missing the words that would make them grammatical, or even make them make sense. At one point, he mentions the chart positions of some songs, but someone forgot to go back and dig up the chart numbers for a Bob Dylan song, resulting in blank spaces instead of numbers. Considering this came from a major publishing house (St. Martin's) and that the book was originally published in the UK two years ago, leaving plenty of time for corrections to this edition, this is nothing short of shameful. The book is a huge letdown and I cannot recommend it. Instead, go back to his original albums, most of which are available on CD, and listen to his music, most of which holds up quite well. [Now for those of you who stuck with me to the end, here's Ms. Welch!]