Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No top 10 list??

I don't think I'm going to have time to make up an end-of-the-year top 10 list this year. To be honest, since most of the mass media artifacts out there are no longer aimed at me (I'm too old and too nostalgic), these lists are no longer as fun as they used to be. At least half of my posts this year were about "old" songs or movie or books, and I suspect that ratio will increase this year.

But I will take a quick look at the things I liked in 2008. I think of myself as someone who doesn't watch much TV (except for old movies on TCM or FMC), but a surprising number of my memorable media moments this year were from television shows: Mad Men, Rome, Swingtown, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Middleman, Jericho, and Pushing Daisies. I'm sorry that Pushing Daisies has been cancelled, but honestly, the quality has gone way down this season. The arc story has gotten needlessly complicated, and icky-creepy to boot, with the return of Chuck's long-dead father being a jump-the-shark moment as far as I'm concerned. I'll miss the cast (especially the angelic Kristin Chenoweth, pictured) and the gorgeous and whimsical set design, but I harbor some animosity for Bryan Fuller, the show's creator, for smothering the light (though admittedly somewhat creepy) tone of the first season with silly and unmotivated soap-opera agonies--I never believed for a moment that Chuck would really want to bring her father back--and I kept wanting them to let the wonderful aunts in on the piemaker's secret.

I'm sad to read about Jeremy Piven's odd medical meltdown this season; after scoring a major critical success on Broadway in Speed-the-Plow, he left the show in a matter of weeks after claiming he had been feeling ill for some time. His doctor said he had mercury poisoning (from too much sushi), and I have no reason to doubt that as a plausible scenario, but the press surrounding the incident, including a remark from David Mamet that Piven was apparently looking for a new career as a thermometer, makes me suspect some diva-style behavior from my favorite sexmonkey.

I seem to have quit going to movies this year; the last time we went to a theater was to see Mamma Mia last summer. I'm not saying that movie put me off all movies forever, but there has been very little out that has made me want to get off my ass out of my comfy home and mingle with loud moviegoers. I'm still keeping up with the films I really want to see via Netflix and the library, but I hope I never completely lose the attraction to seeing movies on the big screen, at least partly because popcorn at home is never as good as popcorn at the multiplex.

Maybe I'll have more to say in a day or two about music and books, but honestly, as I was looking over my past posts, I see I've had a tendency to promise to write about certain subjects later, then never following through. So who knows...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Random red & green memories

I've just realized how many treasured holiday memories of mine involve not just loved ones, but loved "media artifacts." Of course, there are the songs and carols that stretch back to my earliest Christmases. My mom had a friend named Joyce, and I remember that in one carol, I thought I heard a line about "the angel Joyce" and thought how cool that was. I now realize it must have a carol like "O Holy Night" with a line like "the angel voices" or maybe some other song with "angel rejoices" in it.

The first Christmas after I quit believing in Santa Claus, Santa actually came to our door on the 23rd. Our family had a tradition of Santa's elves giving us each one present on the two or three nights before Christmas, so my parents hired a Kiwanas Santa to come to the door one night, saying his elves were too busy to come by, so he brought us our early presents himself. I was totally freaked out (what the hell? didn't I just learn that he's an imaginary figure?) and my brother was in total awe. And I still remember the present he gave me: a children's abridged War of the Worlds.

Naturally, I associate traditional Christmas movies with holidays past, but I also have nostalgic associations with other films I saw on or near Christmas, such as Stairway to Heaven, Things to Come, Harold and Maude, and the 70's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I also remember certain albums I got for Christmas way back when: The Archies first album, Carly Simon's No Secrets (which I fell asleep to Christmas afternoon while listening to it on my new headphones), Lou Reed's Berlin (not a very jolly album, I know), Emerson Lake & Palmer's live album (a 3-disc set, as I recall).

Christmas was also a time for big media hardware updates: I loved my first 8-track car player and my first VHS player, our lasderdisc player and our first DVD player. (This year, my sweetie got me a turntable [see pic] w/software which can convert vinyl songs to mp3s.) I have many rememberances of books and videos as Christmas gifts--each Christmas for many years running, Don's mom got me the lastet season of Friends on DVD as each came out, and now I have them all! I guess it all sounds rather "commercial," but these tangible things all have rosy glows of Christmas pasts attached to them, and warm thoughts of the people who gave them to me. So let part of Christmas remain commercial; would we really want it any other way?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It ain't over til the Fat Man comes down the chimney...

...so I have a few more days to review a few more made-for-TV Christmas movies.

Hallmark Channel's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (2008) is practically an archetypal holiday comic romance movie. Brooke Burns is a beautiful single mom, on the verge of getting engaged to a boring yuppie (Woody Jeffreys) and is wrapped up in planning a Christmas Day dinner for him and his parents. Henry Winkler, her recently retired uncle, arrives for the holidays and has in tow a very handsome stranger (Warren Christie, above) he met on the plane who is trapped in town due to cancelled flights. Winkler talks the reluctant Burns into putting Christie up for the night; he’s the perfect Harlequin Romance man: good-looking but not a pretty boy, masculine but not dumbly macho, helpful around the house, a free spirit who might just be in the mood for settling down, and, of course, he’s good with the kid (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a chef about to open a restaurant). Naturally, Burns finds herself falling for the stranger, and when her fiance proves to be a big jerk, the road is clear for her to hook up with the hottie, providing she can chase him down at the airport on Christmas Day. The writing is nothing special (though I like the running gag about the huge wreath on the front door), and neither is Burns, but Christie is awfully cute and likable, and Winkler steals every scene he’s in. I think Winkler is a fine and underrated comic actor--he was always hysterically funny in Arrested Development, and I enjoyed his short-lived 2005 sitcom Out of Practice with Stockard Channing. There is isn’t a moment here that can’t be predicted from a mile away, but there is some pleasure is seeing the Christmas-movie machine operate so cleanly.

Silent Night, from 2002, is based on a true story: On Christmas Eve, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, a German woman and her young son, staying in an isolated forest cabin, take in three lost American soldiers, one badly wounded. The woman (Linda Hamilton) talks the men into leaving their weapons outside and a rapport develops between her and the soldiers. When three German soldiers show up, Hamilton gets them to dump their guns as well, and one of the Germans successfully “operates” on the wounded soldier. Over the course of the evening, the group finds common bonds that allow trust and understanding to develop, eventually softening even the suspicious German lieutenant (Martin Neufeld). They even make a small Christmas tree, with a pair of dog tags at the top as a star. The next morning, reality intrudes in the form of an armed American soldier, who turns out not to be quite what he seems, and tension returns, threatening even Hamilton, who it turns out is trying to escape with her son after he’s gotten his conscription orders to join the Hitler Youth. The conclusion is surprisingly satisfying, even if things get settled a little too easily. The soliders are all fine, especially Neufeld, and Al Goulem (pictured) and Romano Orzari as the unwounded Americans. Hamilton is generally OK, but her German accent seems artificial. Still, it's different from the run of the mill seasonal TV programming.

Lastly, another new Hallmark Channel film, Our First Christmas. Unfortunately, I haven't saved the best for last. This one is chock-full of clichés and drippy sentiment. It's basically a totally serious Brady Bunch update: gym teacher and widow Julie Warner marries guidance counselor and widower Steven Eckholdt, and the blending of the two families hits a rupture at Christmas as old traditions clash; her daughter wants to spend the holidays with her grandma (Dixie Carter) in snowy Colorado, and his two kids want to stay in California with their grandpa (John Ratzenberger) and appear in the school pageant like they have every year. As in The Brady Bunch, the kids conspire behind the adults' backs to get what they want, which is to have the family separate for Christmas. Unlike in The Brady Bunch, very little of it is played for laughs. A nice compromise does occur at the last minute, with both families sacrificing something but getting to stay together, but the writing is so clichéd and predictable, an 8-year-old will groan at the dialogue and plot twists (well, an 8-year-old who has seen a few holiday family movies). Usually reliable pro Carter seems to be sleepwalking through her role, though the kids are good and Ratzenberger does a nice turn with a character that is miles away from Cliff the Mailman on Cheers. The handsome Eckholdt (above) is aging very nicely, and he and Warner are satisfactory, but they can't do much with their leaden roles. You can skip this one, and I can start watching some of the classics now, like Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Get me a bromide... and put some gin in it!

That line is one of many memorable quotes from the witty, bitchy 1939 comedy The Women, which is, despite its retrograde portrayal of women as scheming hussies who spend all their time and energy fighting over men, one of my favorite comedies of all time (right next to The Philadelphia Story and Blazing Saddles). This year's remake, about to come out on DVD, was bound to be a disappointment and it is, but for the most part, it's not as cringe-inducing as it could have been, and it makes at least one smart and interesting change in the original.

I apologize if you haven't seen the original but I cannot write about this film without comparing it to that one. The basic plot is the same: high society wife Mary Haines finds out that her husband has been cheating on her with a common shopgirl, Crystal Allen. After enduring well-intended advice from friends, including her best bud, the brittle and bitchy Sylvia Fowler, Haines goes to Reno to get a divorce, makes some new friends, is betrayed by Sylvia, then a year later, when she discovers that her husband is unhappy with Crystal, schemes with her gal pals to get even and get her man back.

The remake updates the times and the social mores: here, most of the women, wealthy as they are, have jobs, and it is the finding of a career that helps save Mary Haines (Meg Ryan). The "spinster" author of the original becomes an out lesbian (Jada Pinkett Smith). Crystal (Eva Mendes) is still a gold-digging tramp, and one of the friends (Debra Messing) is still a baby machine. As with the original, there are no men to be seen, but at least one change was made of which I approve: Sylvia (Annette Bening) is actually a good friend to Mary, and she has a rationale for her betrayal (job insecurity). Much as I love Rosalind Russell's wonderful portrayal of Sylvia in the '39 film, her character always was a bit of a problem in terms of narrative and motivation--she's a one-dimensional bitch who lives for gossip and backbiting. This Sylvia is more rounded and sympathetic. In fact, in some ways, this is as much the story of her liberation as it is of Mary's.

The movie is badly directed and poorly paced; all the women are lit terribly, almost amateurishly, it seemed to me; and most of the acting is lackluster, though I did like Bening. Bette Midler and Carrie Fisher are underused in cameo bits, and I hate the fact that, despite the feminist updatings, the last scene, rather than being about Mary's triumph (though I could do without the anti-pride message) is about Debra Messing delivering a baby. It's a slapstick scene and Messing is good, but it feels like a random way to collect up the narrative threads. I did stick with it to the end, but generally I think this was an interesting possibility pretty much squandered; they took the easy route and made it a second-rate Sex and the City (speaking of which, Candice Bergen is fine in a fairly small role as Mary's mother). The poster at the top of this post is almost more fun than the movie itself. By all means, go rent or buy the original (pictured above are Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell), or catch it on Turner Classic Movies where it is shown frequently.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's a Made for TV Christmas... (Part 2)

My favorite TV-movie of the season so far is the Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Choir. It claims to be based on a true story, but the cliches and coincidences run so thick, I imagine this is more fiction than fact. Jason Gedrick is a workaholic accountant who, though not quite a Scrooge, has let his work life affect his personal life: his girlfriend has just broken up with him and his secretary is getting fed up with all the extra hours. One night, while nursing his broken heart at a downtown bar, he is befriended by a homeless guy (Tyrone Benskin); when the two head off to a nearby homeless shelter together, they bond over their love of music. Gedrick, goaded by the earthy nun who runs the shelter (Rhea Perlman), finds a new meaning to his life: he organizes a "Christmas Choir" of homeless men to sing in the subways, so they can collect a little money to make their holidays a little better. Of course, all the predicted obstacles (uh-oh, no permit; uh-oh, what to do about that pesky alcoholic singer) and some more outrageous than predictable (would you believe a major fire at the shelter, right on Christmas Eve?) occur, but the performances make it work--I even got a little teary at one point. What I wasn't as crazy about was the "While You Were Sleeping" romance between Gedrick and subway token taker Marianne Farley. The handsome Gedrick is very good but Farley lacks any oomph. Your'e always in good hands with Perlman, a total pro. This is one I might consider watching again. More coming...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's a Made for TV Christmas...(Part 1)

...with that subject line being sung to the tune of "It's a Holly Jolly Christmas"! Most years, I watch one TV Christmas movie, usually featuring blandly handsome actors on their way up or down the Hollywood ladder, and I review that movie on my MoviePalace blog. Most of these movies, on cable channels like Lifetime or ABC Family, fall into one of three categories: 1) a Scrooge story about a crank who finds the meaning of Christmas; 2) a "Wonderful Life" story about a poor slob at the end of his or her rope who finds the meaning of Christmas; 3) a holiday romance involving either glossily attractive young folks or craggy lonely old folks. I'm not so much for the romances, but I'll generally take a stab at the other two kinds of films. This year, I've decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into the maelstrom and watch as many as I can without losing sanity or consciousness. So far, I've watched two, neither of which falls into the above categories.

The first, Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (made in 2004, cast pictured above), is based on the American Girl series of young adult historical novels. Samantha, a 9-year-old orphan living with her grandmother at the turn of the century, befriends three servant girls who live next door. Eventually, Samantha goes to New York City to stay for a time with her loving uncle and his new bride; while there, she learns that the girls' father has died and they've been sent to an NYC orphanage run by Annie's Miss Hannigan..., well, not exactly, but close. Samantha, aided by her new aunt and her aunt's rich friend, expose the nasty orphan-mistress, but whatever will happen to the three girls on Christmas Eve? My leading man here is the handsome Jordan Bridges, nephew of Jeff Bridges, done up in Victorian-era slicked-back hair and thick mustache; he's OK, but he gets caught up in the same problem most of the other actors here have, which is using a stiff and artificial acting style to convey living in a past era. The best acting is by AnnaSophia Robb as Samantha and Mia Farrow as "Grandmary": I'm not really big Farrow fan, but she is a pro and she nails the role perfectly.

The second is Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith, a 2-1/2 hour film first shown on NBC in 1979. I caught it this month on Trinity Broadcasting Network, not one of my usual stops on the TV dial. It's too long, and the acting is problematical, but I stuck with it. It conjures up an unusual context for the familiar Nativity story: the courting couple Mary and Joseph get caught up with a band of Zealots calling for violent revolt against Rome. Judah, leader of the group which includes a halfhearted Joseph, thinks that God will not provide the promised messiah for the Jews unless the people become activists in the fight against Rome and prove they are worthy of one. Mary, on the other hand, believes that the people must remain peaceful and keep the ways of the Lord. Jeff East, fresh from playing the young Clark Kent in the first Superman movie, makes a goofy Joseph--he's always got a simpering look of "I don't get it" on his face, and his boyish looks do not benefit from a fake full beard. Blanche Baker isn't much better as the bland Mary. Colleen Dewhurst gives this project some heft as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The narrative is interesting, but the Nativity story itself ends up taking up only a few minutes of screen time, with no bands of angels and no wise men (though there is a star and a couple of scraggly shepherds). 2006's The Nativity Story, while not great, is a better option for this kind of holiday viewing. More coming soon...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Spooky Stormy Man

I was sad to read that Dennis Yost died Sunday, right here in Ohio (as good a place as any, I guess). He was the lead singer of the Classics IV, a soft-rock band from the late 60's. The group's name may not come to the tip of your tongue, but they have been immortalized by the Industrial Military Complex... I mean Oldies Radio... as at least 3 of their songs are still in heavy rotation on oldies stations: "Spooky," "Stormy," and "Traces." If you are anywhere near my age, you know these songs, and I'll leave it to you to find them on YouTube.

The band had its short period of chart success from 1967-1969. Three of the guys left the band to form the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Yost kept recording with versions of the band until the mid-70's but the songs got softer and quit hitting the top 40. The New York Times obituary notes that Yost referred to Classics IV as "the first soft-rock band," though if you're not paying attention, they can sound a lot like The Association ("Windy," "Cherish") who were charting a year earlier than Yost. What sets them apart a little from the Bread-style bands that were churning out easy listening radio fodder in the 70's is Yost's vocals, which were a bit more bracing than other middle-of-the-road singers. The song of his I like the best, and which is conjured up in my shower singing quite frequently, is "Everyday With You Girl," from 1969, the year I discovered AM pop radio. It's no pop masterpiece, but it's breezy and sweet, and will float to the top of my brain now and then until I die (like Yost, in Ohio, probably).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mad about Mad Men


We finished watching the first season of Mad Men on DVD. We made the mistake of trying to watch a whole bunch of episodes over a weekend, but, aside from the fact that I hate watching clumps of TV shows in a short time, Mad Men is really a downer of a show. It's excellent, but the mood is definitely downbeat, so by the end of the weekend, I wanted to slash somebody's wrists--not mine, cuz I just love life so much. We took the last few episodes a bit more slowly. This show, which runs on AMC (Another Month of Crap), has lots of buzz but not many viewers, though after it won the Emmy this year for best series, that may change.

Though it seems to be about the people who work at a big NYC advertising firm in the early 60's, it's really about one guy, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm (at left), who by the end of the season has been made a partner. He's the "hero" in the sense that we get to know him and generally want to see him get ahead, but he's also a bit of a shit. Some of that is because of the times: he's a man's man at a time when the 60's feminist movement was still a few years away. But we also find out he has a complicated past; during the Korean war, in an attempt to escape a bad childhood, he switched identities with a dead soldier, so he's not really Don Draper, a fact that plays a central role in a blackmail scheme. He doesn't treat his wife (January Jones) very well: he cheats on her with more than one woman, and he blames her discontent on her psychiatrist.

The other main character is a young secretary (Elizabeth Moss, the President's daughter on West Wing) who slowly learns the ropes, and even winds up being given a job writing ad copy, though she also winds up in a rather scary predicament in the last episode, one that will have repercussions next season. There are also a group of ad men, most of whom either worship Draper or are scared of him, or both. John Slattery is the one of the chief partners, and in a recurring role, Robert Morse is the other. I love the in-joke irony of picking Morse for the part, 40 years after he became famous playing a completely different kind of ad man in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Jon Hamm, who is rarely offscreen, is fantastic, giving his all to a complex role, and he really should have gotten an Emmy; except for Morse, none of the other men come close to seeming as natural as he does. Vincent Kartheiser (Connor on Angel), who is Hamm's chief foil, is especially weak; he seems like he's in way over his head as an actor, especially when he has to hold his own on the screen against Hamm--he just can't do it, which makes their big confrontation in episode 12 lots less tense than it should have been. The women, however, are all quite good; I especially like Christina Hendricks (above) as the executive secretary, who does a fine job conveying sexiness with a certain smothered smartness. There are problems with the writing on occasion; most of the characters are a little too one-note, and the story of Draper's past could use more attention. But I really do like this show--it's the rare "adult" show on TV, not in terms of sex or language, but it terms of content: no teenagers, no vampires, no doctor romances, no courtroom shenanigans. I must admit that I wish it had been produced by HBO so Don Draper could let loose with a few of the choice expletives that you know he wants to say.

BTW: 1) Shame on AMC for showing this beautifully shot widescreen series in square full-screen format. That's the main reason we waited for the DVD rather than watch it as it was running.

2) I dare you to play a drinking game in which you have a drink every time a character lights a cigarette. You won't be conscious by the end of an episode.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More winter music

I know very little about Sarah Brightman: she was married to Andrew Lloyd Webber, she was the original female lead in his musical Phantom of the Opera, and she was the target of a very funny series of bits in the parody show Forbidden Broadway (her voice keeps getting higher and ridiculously louder as she sings) that had me laughing hysterically. She has an operatic voice and has had a successful pop music career worldwide (though more so in Europe than America, where she remains something of a cult figure).

I'd never been tempted by her music until the release of her new Christmas album, A Winter Symphony. Her voice takes a little getting used to--it's very high but fairly shallow, like a more highly trained version of Kate Bush--but her song choice and production (by Enigma member Frank Peterson) make the album quite enjoyable. As noted in the title, Brightman, like Enya, goes beyond just Christmas songs, though there are several of those here, including the traditional carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" and a very lovely vocal version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." One song, "Child in a Manger," puts original lyrics about the Nativity to the melody of "Morning Has Broken."

She also goes beyond traditional classics, including Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas," ABBA's "Arrival" (which is here by virtue of a line that mentions Auld Lang Syne), and Roy Wood's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," a song I'd never heard before but which was apparently a big British seasonal hit in the 70's (and has been covered by the Spice Girls). This song, with its big Spectoresque production, is probably the album's best shot at becoming a standard, though it also has a very creepy moment when Brightman exhorts a children's choir to join in, screaming, "Come on children, sing" in a most demented fashion. She also does an OK "Silent Night," a Vince Gill broken-heart song called "Colder Than Winter," and Neil Diamond's "I've Been This Way Before," despite no apparent tie to the season. Overall, a very enjoyable album for the season and beyond. I might even head over to iTunes to look up more of her music, if I get some iTunes gift cards for Christmas.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

iPod Archives: "Holy Man," or the perils of interpretation

In the fall of 1970, when I was 14, one of my favorite records was "Holy Man" by a singer named Diane Kolby. This is her only record to make the national charts, getting to #67 on Billboard. She was signed to Columbia Records as something of a new Janis Joplin (big, bluesy voice), but as far as I can tell, after one album, she vanished from the music scene. According to Internet ephemera, she is currently living in Texas. I have always loved this song; I played the 45 to death, and I have never seen it crop on a CD, though I got a copy off of Napster way back when, so it has remained an active part of my musical life.

The lyrics are interesting: A woman singing softly but dramatically to a man:
"You know you/You're the one/Who said 'I can fly'
I know you/You're the one/Who knows when I will die."

The chorus, fast and raucous, says,
"Let me run down your fingers/Til I melt in your hands
Then lead me into your wisdom/Teach me.... holy man"

I assumed the song was about a woman obsessed with a preacher, and even when I was 14, I assumed a certain ironic distance about the lyrics, as though Kolby the singer was not necessarily Kolby the character, and she was not necessarily "endorsing," if you will, this obsession. (Wow, was I thinking too hard back then? Maybe that's one reason why I never really had a date until college.)

But now I find a homemade video on YouTube for the song, and it's all about Jesus. I find that just a bit creepy, as the song seems to have a certain physical lust at its core. If it is someone singing to Jesus, then it feels like a showtune for a Southen Gothic musical melodrama. Of course, my interpretation is probably just as creepy, like a darker "Son of a Preacher Man." I can think of no interpretation of this song that wouldn't be at least a little weird. But I still love the song, and sing it in the shower on occasion. (I guess that's a little creepy, too.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

iPod Archives: Beach Boys go disco!!

One of the coolest things about listening to the iPod on random (technically, I've got it on alphabetical-by-title play, but with over 2500 songs, it serves the same function as random shuffle) is being surprised occasionally by a song I forgot I had, or hadn't heard in years. That happened this morning with "Here Comes the Night," the notorious disco song by The Beach Boys. They first recorded the song in 1967, and again in a discofied version in 1979 for their album L.A (Light Album). But the recording I heard this morning is the spectacular 10 minute 12-inch-single remix version of the 1979 song. The song was roundly derided when it came out and was not a hit, but I always liked it.

At the peak of the disco era, I was in my late-college and post-college days and I liked the music but never really went dancing (my discobunny days, when I discovered the gay bar scene, were in the mid-80's), so I experienced disco music second-hand, so to speak, in the privacy of my own room, dancing with myself (thanks, Billy Idol) or just tapping my foot. Most of the 12-inch singles I owned were just artificially extended versions of songs with long sections of thumping percussion inserted before the final verse or chorus.

But "Here Comes the Night," while it may have been constructed in the same fashion, seemed different. There were swirling strings, disco whistles, and old-fashioned Beach Boys harmonies in the mix (sounding like space-age 50's doo-wop), and the entire 10 minutes felt like it was recorded as a complete work, not just a 3-minute song that was given an extra few minutes in the middle by a staff of re-mixers. And in fact, if you can read the credits on the single label above, there are names listed for production, arrangement, stings, and synthesizers, but not for re-mixing. I'm not crazy about the gruff lead vocal by Carl Wilson, but everything else about the song just screams creamy disco ultra-pop production. It's the perfect heterosexual disco record, which begs the question of whether it's really disco or not, I guess. But it's fun.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Funnymen?

I've had the occasion recently to see a number of current film comedies and I planned on writing a long 2- or 3-part post about the state of the Hollywood comedy in the early 21st century, but then I realized I'd just come off as a cranky old curmudgeon, and that happens enough without me making a multi-part affair of it. Frankly, I know Hollywood is not making movies for me anymore, and for the most part, I've quit taking chances on films I'm pretty sure I won't like. So instead I'll just give a few quick opinions about what I've seen lately.

Just as Jaws and Star Wars are often noted as turning points (for better or worse) in the history of movie blockbusters, so There's Something About Mary was a turning point for me and comedy. I'm over 50 and I still chuckle (who am I kidding, sometimes I laugh hysterically) at bathroom humor--just mention the 90's rock band the Ass Ponys to me and see what happens. But I couldn't finish watching that movie. Not because I'm squeamish (the idea of semen as hair gel makes me smile), but because I just didn't find much in it to be very funny. I want to like Ben Stiller--he seems like a nice guy and I respect his parents--but I have yet to see him in a movie I like. To be fair, I've skipped most of his hits, like the Fockers series, because they just don't sound funny to me. But recently I've seen Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder (pic at right) based on the recommendation of friends, and both left me rather cold.

In both films, Stiller is an cartoonish, egocentric prat (though in Dodgeball, he's also a supporting character and a bad guy) and he's surrounded by similarly cartoonish people. The plots are silly parodies but some of the bite is missing because each film wants, to some degree, to be the thing it's making fun of: for Dodgeball, a heartwarming sports film, for Tropic Thunder, a summertime action movie blockbuster. Yes, I chuckled occasionally in both films. Rip Torn is great fun in Dodgeball, screaming "My sweet dick!!" from a wheelchair when the dodgeball team wins their first game. And Robert Downey Jr. has fun with his role as a white actor who has his skin darkened to play a black character in a film. But both films have cardboard heroes (Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball, Stiller in Tropic Thunder) I never cared about. Blazing Saddles, the granddaddy of movie parodies, is one of my favorite films of all time, but are these slack, bombastic, cynical bores what that film hath wrought?

Other comedies I've seen in the past year: The Simpsons Movie (disappointing), Fred Claus (Oh, Jesus, the pain--see pic at left of Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti, both of whom you'll feel sorry for by the end, if you stick around that long), Hot Fuzz (not bad but too long), and Get Smart (took its action plotline way too seriously). Hell, Iron Man might be the best comedy I've seen lately, and the comedy there is mostly incidental to the action. I still have faith in the Coen Brothers--Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading are all worth seeing, but they're not exactly mainstream laughfests. I also have some mild affection for The Brothers Solomon (photo below), a B-movie comedy with Will Arnett (Gob of Arrested Development) and Will Forte (from SNL), though even there, the dumb humor hit/miss ratio was still too high in the wrong direction.

I am not attracted at all to the recent "genre" of overgrown fratboy films (the domain of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, though surprisingly, I enjoyed The 40-Year Old Virgin) and I haven't even considered the issue of romantic comedies yet, because I haven't seen very many of them lately (I like Sandra Bullock, but haven't seen a film of hers in years). I don't mind "dumb" comedy now and then, but a few "smart" comedies to balance things out would be nice. I'm willing to give some more comedies a chance, but I fear I'm in for mirthless times.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Little Mister Sunshine

I am a little ashamed to report that I am and have always been someone who has a tendency to judge books (and albums) by their covers (and titles--Elton John had a great streak of fabulous albums from 1970's Elton John to 1975's Rock of the Westies, but just because Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is such a great title, I think that's my favorite). Maybe "judge" isn't quite the right word, but a striking or interesting cover is a good way to get my attention. So the other day, I picked up a movie I'd never heard of at the library because of its cover.


Kabluey fits neatly in that "indie films about quirky and/or dysfunctional families" niche which goes back at least as far as 1995's Flirting with Disaster, and hit critical mass a couple of years ago with the success of Little Miss Sunshine. This one concerns a 30-something guy (Scott Prendergast) who would have been called a "slacker" a decade ago--don't know the current lingo. He's schluby, can't hold a job, and isn't the best socializer. In another movie, he might be a serial killer, but here, he winds up being a babysitter for his nasty sister-in-law (Lisa Kudrow) whose husband in stationed in Iraq. She's gotten a job (to keep health benefits for her kids) at a dot-com company which is in the midst of a major downsizing, and she gets Prendergast a part-time job with them, dressing up in the company's mascot costume (on the DVD cover above).

The guy can't make small talk and doesn't get along with Kudrow or her bratty kids, but when he stands by the roadside in his big puffy blue outfit, looking cutely melancholy, like a gigantic kid's teddy bear, he becomes a figure of interest to travelers. Some of the attention is positive, as when Christine Taylor drives by with a carful of kids and asks him to entertain at a birthday party, and some is negative, as when he triggers very amusing conniption fits in Terri Garr, a woman who was shafted by the company he's representing. Prendergast fits in more with people when he's stuck, unable to speak, inside the outfit, and he even starts getting along with Kudrow's kids. A plot develops about an affair Kudrow is having with a slimeball from the company, but the film is at its best when it is simply observing the big blue guy interacting with others.

All the actors are good. Prendergast (at left) nicely underplays his role--you can imagine Ben Stiller or Jim Carrey doing this but with all kinds of overblown tics and unnecessary slapstick--and Kudrow is very good going against the Phoebe grain; the character isn't likeable, but you can feel her pain as she, a bit like Prendergast, feels herself becoming unmoored in her own life. Best of all is Conchata Farrell as Prendergast's irritable boss, prone to yelling obscenities in the empty warehouse that has become her office. Unlike Little Miss Sunshine, this doesn't resolve itself quite so neatly for all concerned; Kudrow gets a happy ending, but Prendergast is left more or less where he was at the beginning. This is one time I made a good choice based on a catchy cover picture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Forever Enya

People who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know that I shrieked in delight like a little girl when I found out that Enya had a new CD coming out, and that it was a Christmas CD. Yes, I know, every Enya album sounds alike; all creamy overdubbed vocals, hushed synthesizers, muffled percussion, and the tolling of ancient bells, all sounding like they were recorded in a huge cosmic cathedral. Each album begins with an instrumental, the second or third song is usually what I refer to a "bippity boppity boo" number (thanks, Tim Lauer), because it's suddenly bouncy and chirpy. Amidst the slow and quiet songs, there will be a song or two in a foreign language (sometimes Gaelic, sometimes Latin, sometimes in a made-up language called Loxian), and some tunes which are rather dark and stormy before the album ends with a long slow angelic fade out.

Her new album, And Winter Came... is not very different from her last, Amarantine, or the one before that, A Day Without Rain, or, for that matter, her first hit album, Watermark, from almost 20 years ago. This one has a theme, winter, or, more commercially speaking, Christmas, though there's only two traditional carols, and one, "Oiche Chiuin," is a choral version of the Gaelic "Silent Night" that she's recycled for years. The title cut, the first song, is an unmemorable instrumental, but things get better from there. Musically, most of the songs are stock Enya, as I've described above, with at least one major surprise, a song called "My! My! Time Flies," which, with a 70's guitar break and a strong vocal, is as close as she's gotten to a rock song. Most of the songs contain winter imagery, and more than half actually mention Christmas.

My favorite, in addition to "My! My! Time Flies," is "White Is In the Winter Night," with its catalog of traditional Christmas colors and images. This could stand an outside chance at becoming a seasonal radio standard--the catchy rhythm and melody put me in mind of George Harrison's "Piggies": "Have you seen the mistletoe" vs. "Have you seen the little piggies." I also like the childlike "One Toy Soldier," the romantic "Stars and Midnight Blue," and her take on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," partly in Latin. I admit I would have liked another 2 or 3 carols; "Coventry Carol" particularly seems tailor-made for Enyaization. I suspect that Enya won't make a lot of new fans with this; those buying it just because it's being sold as a holiday album will probably be disappointed. Though the ratio of peppy songs to somber songs is maybe a little higher than usual, this is just another Enya album, but that's what we fans want.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Christmas at the iPod corral

Exactly one year ago today, I posted the first of several holiday season posts that continued through December 25th. In that post, I laid out my thoughts on the season and on starting to think about it so soon, so I won't belabor the points except to quote myself thusly: "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."

So on to my iPod Christmas playlist. Again, I babbled quite a bit about the kind of Christmas music I like last year; this year, I'll just mention some of the the stuff that's on the iPod. My preference is for three kinds of Christmas music. First, traditional carols in a classical-style, usually a choir accompanied by some orchestration. Oddly the Morman Tabernacle recordings have a bit too much bursting orchestral color for me. I like a better balance, with the voices outweighing the background by at least a bit (Robert Shaw Chorale, Royal College Choir). Second, songs by the old-fashioned crooners. I've got a lot of Bing Crosby, though not "White Christmas," which I don't mind hearing on the radio but I don't need to have as part of my regular rotation. Also Perry Como, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Andrews Sisters, and The Carpenters. Third, new agey instrumental music, with pianos and synthesizers and chimey bells and occasionally creamy layers of background vocals.

The carols I have multiple versions of on the iPod include those I grew up with, like "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "We Three Kings," and carols I grew to like later, such as "Carol of the Bells," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming." As for seasonal pop tunes, I've got Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" (the only Mariah Carey song I can stand to listen to), a couple of "Sleigh Ride"s, a couple of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"es, several "Silver Bells," two or three versions of Joni Mitchell's "River," and some music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. I also have the theme from The Bishop's Wife and a little-known carol featured in that film, "O Sing to God." For novelty's sake, I have k.d. lang's raucous "Jingle Bell Rock" from the Pee-Wee Herman Christmas special, a Coca-Cola holiday ad, and a Gap ad from a few years ago that melded "Ice Ice Baby" with "Sleigh Ride" (genius).

I'm not just any old Christmas goober; I won't be listening to my Christmas playlist 24/7 all season long. My holiday moods tend to ebb and flow over the next several weeks; sometime right after Thanksgiving, I get a little tired of it all, but then a week or so later, I'm back in the swing of things. But right now, I'm listening to Bing Crosby sing "Adeste Fideles," even though it's only one day after Veteran's Day and 50 degrees outside. I'll enjoy it while I'm in the mood.

Friday, November 7, 2008

John Lennon, Barack Obama, and Rumplestiltskin

I'm killing two birds with one stone here:

1) When I started this blog, I wanted to spend a fair amount of time writing about music, but I've found that I can't really express myself well about why I like the music I like, especially if it's music that I've known and loved for years. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, REM, The Temptations; damnit, they're just great artists, what more can I say.

2) Yes, I'm happy about the election, but like another blogger I know, I'm not really into the high-fiving. It's a wonderful moment in history, but now I feel like I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping he can really can lead us to the promised land. Still, the last couple of days have been good.

So anyway, my iPod currently has about 2500 songs on it, and I'm playing them all in alphabetical title order. This morning, I heard John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and, for the first time, I actually felt a little teary (in a happy way, like so many folks were on the evening of Nov. 4th) about the election, as though John was singing, "Happy Election! Bush is Over!" Next came the fabulous opening riff of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," and my little driving-to-work high continued.


Then came Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." It's an OK little pop ditty--I have it on the iPod for the double-speed closing section--but I realized I knew every single word of that dumb song, while simultaneously remembering that I almost forgot my bank card PIN the other day at the ATM, and I got pissed off at myself. I had what one of my friends calls my "Rumplestiltskin" moment where I curse loudly and stomp and spin about in anger and/or frustration. Since I was driving, I didn't actually stomp and spin, but I cursed loudly and made a face and wondered if I'll still know every word of this damn song as I lie on my deathbed, recognizing no one around me.

All of which led me to decide to try and post more here about the music I hear on my iPod. I already post each day's playlist on Facebook (much to the boredom of my followers, who are legion), so I won't go that far, but I will try to remember to post about some of the more interesting things that pop up, songs I forgot were on the iPod or songs that mean a lot to me, or songs that are just f**kin' cool. This is a promise and a threat, I suspect.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My favorite political movies: a null set?

While almost any movie can be read as having a political agenda or subtext or aura, movies which take the world of politics as a primary focus are relatively few and far between, and good ones are even rarer. In an obligatory nod to the day, I tried to come up with a list of my favorite political films, but failed to come up with much of anything.

Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is usually mentioned in lists such as these, but as much as I like Capra and James Stewart, I can't warm up to this overdone bucket of sweat and sentiment. I guess I admire Stewart's gutsy filibuster turn, but I don't quite buy it. This feels like a dry run for Capra's later Meet John Doe, a better film though still not one for a top 10 list. All the President's Men is another one that everyone likes, and I guess I do, too, but I haven't seen it since its theatrical run 120 years ago, so I don't remember enough specifics (except that Redford, above, was dashing, of course) to talk meaningfully about it.

Some people pick films like The Manchurian Candidate or Being There as political films, and while they both have explicit political content, to me they're both "fantasies" with political undertones. Feel free to disabuse me of this idea, because I like both films (I love Being There) and would put them on a Top 10 Political Films list if I felt more solid about the "political" part.

There are some "good" movies that could be put on a "political" list, such as JFK, Advise and Consent, The Best Man, All the King's Men, The Conformist, and Bob Roberts, and there are many by non-American filmmakers (Costa-Gravas' Z and Missing, Bertolucci's The Conformist and The Spider's Stratagem, Visconti's Senso and The Leopard). But most of those (especially Advise and Consent and All the King's Men--the original; haven't seen the remake) aren't exhilirating or entertaining enough to watch more than once.

That leaves, for me, three satires, two sharp and cutting and one soft and sweet. Dr. Strangelove is one of the best satires ever, mocking Cold War thinking and the "mutual destruction" military mindset of the time. Some satires are funny and make good points, but aren't necessarily good "art," but every aspect of this one, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is primo, from the various photographic styles to the superb acting all around, especially from Peter Sellers (above) and George C. Scott. Wag the Dog is very funny, if lesser art; we happened to see this tale of a government that conjures up a fake war to divert the public's attention from a Presidential sex scandal right around the time that the Clinton administration was conjuring up an international incident to divert attention from the Lewinsky unpleasantness, so the effect of the movie was startling. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances here.

The last movie is Dave, the cute Capraesque film in which Kevin Kline, a look-alike for the President, is pressed into service as, well, a look-alike when the real President is felled by a stroke. The President is a jerk, but Dave is a sweet guy, and the President's wife (Sigourney Weaver) falls in love with him. It's no more realistic than any 30's screwball comedy, so the satire is not especially effective, but it's a sweet movie with several good performers, including Laura Linney in a small, early role. Now that I look back, the best political entertainment of all, aside from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is probably the TV series The West Wing. Martin Sheen is undoubtedly the best president we never had.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cthulhu '08!!


Just as I did last October, I reread some H.P. Lovecraft for the Halloween season, though actually I read more of Lovecraft's fellow travelers than the master himself. I picked Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, a two-volume (in paperback) anthology from the 1970's with only two stories by Lovecraft, and many by his contemporaries like Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame), and Clark Ashton Smith (of rather limited cult fame), and by later admirers (Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley). I won't rehash my comments about Lovecraft, found in the link above and here, but I like the nice balance of in-jokiness and dead seriousness found in the earlier stories by the "Weird Tales" writers who chose to expand on Lovecraft's original universe of ancient unspeakable and indescribable gods, and the puny humans who either worshipped them or got in their ways and paid with their lives, or at least their sanity.

Some of the stories are basically just horror tales of cosmic monsters with a Lovecraft name (Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth) or place (Arkham or Innsmouth) thrown in as an easy reference. The best ones, the most fun and usually the most effective, actually engage in the specifics of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, and often use Lovecraft himself as a character. Frank Belknap Long's "The Space Eaters" has Long and Lovecraft as its protagonists; it begins in a fun, cheeky manner, but moves along to become as horrific as any Lovecraft story with its unseen creatures that swoop down out of the trees to suck brains out of heads.

Volume 2 has a trilogy of stories that work together well. Robert Bloch wrote "The Shambler from the Stars," a very short story which has a unnamed version of Lovecraft (pictured at right) at its center; the character is killed horribly at the end. Lovecraft replied with "The Haunter of the Dark," a longer tale in which an author named Robert Blake investigates a mysterious old church which was the home of a blasphemous Cthulhu cult; Blake/Bloch winds up dead. Though it also has an almost jokey manner in the beginnning, it grows in power and is one of Lovecraft's most memorable stories. Years after Lovecraft's death, Bloch wrote "The Shadow From the Steeple" as a direct sequel to "Haunter" and it too is a powerful tale. There are many volumes now of stories by Lovecraft imitators, and while I think it's difficult to find a completely bad story with such inspiration, these early efforts are certainly among the best. Highly recommended, even for newcomers to the Mythos stories.

Last note: as I was standing in line (for over 2 hours!) to vote early today, I was reading one of my Cthulhu Mythos paperbacks when a reporter for Salon.com stopped to ask me a couple of questions, one of which was about my reading matter. I was a little sorry I wasn't caught with something more conventionally literary, but at the same time, I was tempted to tell him I was voting a straight Cthulhu ticket...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sabu, Satan, and Sleeping Beauty

Varied weekend viewing:

1) Song of India, a jungle adventure from 1949. Sabu, the eternal jungle boy (his career more or less peaked before he was 20 in Thief of Bagdad and The Jungle Book), is an Indian prince who lives like, yes, a jungle boy. His village is threatened by the modernized Army officer who arrives with an entourage to hunt and capture animals in a part of the land that has always been considered forbidden for such activities. Single-handedly, Sabu manages to stop the desecration and win the heart of a modernized Indian princess. Turhan Bey, another "exotic other" who hit it big in Hollywood in the 40's, plays Sabu's enemy. Poor Sabu was losing his looks by this film, though he was only 25. For a Saturday matinee movie, it was fun, though it would have been even more interesting if it had been shot in color.

2) The Omen, the 1976 occult thriller about the birth and early childhood of the Antichrist. The film spawned sequels and a 2006 remake, but, although Damien: Omen II isn't bad, the first remains the best (I have not seen the remake, which is included on this new DVD package from 20th Century Fox). It's a lot like a slasher film, in the sense that people keep dying in varying spectacular or grotesque ways, and half the fun is guessing who's next and how they'll meet their maker. The film mostly still holds up over 30 years later, thanks to the creepy plot and the non-campy acting of Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and especially Billie Whitelaw as the Satanic nanny. Visually, it has an ugly, murky look, which was largely, I think, part of the original production design. We tried to listen to the commentary by director Richard Donner and his film editor, and it was one of those in which the speakers did no prep work and wind up yakking a lot but imparting little of educational or entertainment value.

3) Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. I missed out on much of the Disney movie canon when I was a kid, so I first saw this during a theatrical reissue in the late 70's. It's gorgeous looking, but from an adult point of view, rather slow-moving, and lacking memorable songs except for "Once Upon a Dream," with a melody adapted from Tchaikovsky. This newly released DVD features the film in the widescreen Technirama format for the first time since its initial release, and the pristine print is indeed full of glowing colors, mostly pinks and greens and blues, the colors of the dresses of the tiny fairy ladies who are basically the main characters in this retelling. OK, but not quite up to the highest Disney cartoon standards.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mishima

On a whim, I netflixed Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a 1985 biopic about the world-famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima, who committed public ritual suicide in 1970. When I was growing up in the 70's and there was a paucity of gay "role models" (for lack of a better, more precise word choice), I would search out info on anyone who was or was rumored to be gay; Mishima was apparently bisexual, and had written at least one book involving a homosexual character, so I bought several of his novels, though I never finished even one of them.

The movie, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is an example of a big name talent (Schrader had directed American Gigolo and Blue Collar, and written Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) and a big studio (Warner Bros.) doing a small indie-type film--back then, it would have been called an "art film." It's in Japanese, and as far as I can tell, there was never an English-language dub, though in its initial American release, the narration was in English, done by Roy Scheider. (The current Criterion disc lets you choose the English or Japanese narration.)

The film plays out at three levels: the frame story is set on the day that Mishima died; he and some members of his ultra-nationalist, pro-Emperor paramilitary sect go to an army base to deliver a ranting public speech and incite a rebellion. When the soldiers react with contempt and mockery, Mishima goes inside an commits seppuku, a Samurai suicide ritual involving disembowelment. The second level, shot in black and white, consists of chronological flashbacks of Mishima's life from childhood on. The third and most interesting level depicts scenes from three of Mishima's stories, each of which, while not directly autobiographical, comments on or highlights elements of his life, including the constant tensions he felt between beauty, art, and action.

It is that third level that makes this film so unusual (and such a hard sell for a mainstream audience, aside, of course, from the subtitles). The scenes from his novels are set on stylized, theatrical sets, as though we're seeing a theater company act the scenes out on a stage, and shot in glowing, vivid color. The film goes back and forth between the levels, framed by the beginning and end of Mishima's final day, and the narrative flow remains clear throughout. The acting is fine, and Ken Ogata as Mishima is especially good (coincidentally, Ogata died just a couple of days before I received the disc, which had been in my queue for more than a month, in the mail). On the recent Criterion DVD, you can pick the English or Japanese narration; I watched the first half in Japanese and the last half with Roy Scheider's voice and both worked just fine. Mishima (pictured above re-enacting the passion of St. Sebastian) remains an enigma but this film has made me want to go back to my mom's basement and see if I squirreled away my old mass market copies of his books, so I can give them another try.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To Wii or not to Wii

As if I didn't have enough crap to do to serve as a front for not having a life (blogging, netsurfing, watching TV, watching classic movies, reading), now there's a Wii in the house. I'm not much of a video or computer game player--I was well out of college when the first wave of games hit it big, and I've never gotten very interested in catching up. I got hooked on Super Mario Brothers, Lode Runner, and various versions of Mah Jong and solitaire in grad school; they were good ways to come home and just veg.

Since then, we haven't had much interest in such gaming until my niece and nephew introduced us to the Nintendo DS last fall. My horizons never expanded much past Brain Age 2 and Tetris, but it was becoming a part of my nightly ritual to spend an hour or so with my cramping hands clutching the DS; so much so that I developed a form of tendinitis known as "Nintendo arm" and had to scale back significantly. Last spring, Don bought a Wii on a whim and we had fun playing some basic Wii sports (my faves are billiards, ping pong, and bowling). Then he got the Wii Fit, sincerely thinking it would help get us in better shape--for men of 52 (me) and 44 (him), we're not in bad shape, and I do exercise regularly (walking, hiking, light weights), but we both eat too much--so I decided to play along for a while and see what happened.

Most of the Wii Fit exercises must be done on a balance board which registers your weight and your center of balance. The basic exercises are broken into a handful of categories: yoga, aerobics, strength training, and balance. The yoga poses and stretches and the strength training exercises are of the most interest to me, but the problem is that, because the board can't really tell if you are doing jackknifes or stretches very well, it relies overmuch on balance, something it can calibrate quite well, and something at which I've discovered I'm not very good (that's my Mii at left).

When I'm doing, for example, a side stretch, I find myself not actually stretching very much at all because I'm too busy trying to keep my balance within certain boundaries so my Wii Fit trainer will give me positive feedback ("You have really good posture!"; "Wow! You're strong!"). I accumulate points based on how well the Wii thinks I'm doing, but in order to get high points, I sometimes wind up "cheating" by, for example, not really standing on one leg so the Balance Board thinks I'm balancing. I can stand on one leg, but I can't do it without shaking a bit. So I think I'm actually getting less of a workout on the Wii than I would get alone in the basement with my hand weights and Billy Blanks aerobic tape.

We've named our trainer Paolo (pictured at right); he looks fairly Nordic, but he makes Italianish hand gestures when he talks. He's soft spoken, but enthusiastic. I like our "Mii" avatars, and I like that they get excited and jump up and down when they do well (and pout when they don't). Don made "guest" avatars that look like Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, and Catwoman, and the last time my nephew was up, we copied his avatar over on our Wii, so it's fun when I jog and see all those familiar faces running with me. I'm still really a beginner at it--I've only used the Wii Fit a few times so far--so maybe my balance actually will get better, but I'm pretty sure I won't lose the 6 or 7 pounds it wants me to lose, even though my BMI (body mass index) is in the normal range. So I'll play with it for fun, and some of the aerobic and strength exercises might actually do me good, but I won't stop using my weights or taking walks out in the real world, where the chances of coming upon Stephen Colbert (let alone Catwoman) are fairly slim.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Torchwood

I loved science fiction and fantasy books and movies in my youth, but I've fallen away from the genre in the last several years. My partner Don, on the other hand, still loves SF, especially on TV. He is a big fan of shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Doctor Who, and I'm sure if I were an enthusiastic fanboy, he'd probably watch many more (Stargate Atlantis, Farscape, etc.). I did follow Firefly, and I've dipped my toes in the rest, but to no avail. Most of the problem isn't really the content, but the form--the hour-long drama which I have such problems with (but that's for another post).

Don's latest fave series is the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, about a group of "Men in Black" types who battle extraterrestrial baddies (and have been since the era of Queen Victoria). The group is led by a handsome omnisexual hero, Captain Jack, played by the hot gay actor John Barrowman, and when I heard that season 2 began with a big make-out scene between Barrowman and James Marsters (formerly Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another one of Don's favorite shows), I thought, maybe this is an hour-long SF series I can get into. Alas, we got the Season 2 boxed set but I could only struggle through two and a half episodes before my usual TV drama malaise crept upon me, so I have enlisted Don to review the boxed set:

DON: At the core of the new Doctor Who general franchise--that is, the new Doctor Who series and its spin-offs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood--is a gimmick: the writers continue to build complexity through internal allusions, cross-over story arcs, and guest spots. This provides a lot of fan satisfaction, but it also makes the parts of the franchise, let alone the individual episodes, increasingly inaccessible to new-comers. That's why when Mike lost his way in Torchwood: The Complete Second Season, I offered to pinch hit. He's not a Doctor Who fan, and no one who isn't already invested in the general story franchise is going to find much to appreciate in this DVD set.

The season begins with a lighter tone than what ended last season. Jack is back; there's some entertaining fisticuffs and sexual titillation (including some man-on-man snogging); teammates are put in jeopardy and then rescued. But as with the first season, the trajectory is toward the grim and, I'm sorry to say, toward the maudlin. Jack is mopey because Gwen is settling for marriage to Rhys; Tosh is mopey because Owen doesn't notice her, and at one point (because an alien has messed with their memories), Owen is mopey because Tosh doesn't notice him. It's nice when Martha Jones shows up for a couple episodes and she doesn't seem to be moping at all. Meanwhile, we keep getting dark but unspecific hints about the horrors to come in the 21st century when "everything changes."

More of the episode plots hinge on time travel or Jack's immortality, which has an appeal beyond the standard "catch the alien" mission of Torchwood. During the series, Owen is killed and then resurrected, and his immortality provides something of a contrast with Jack's. The season ends, as I mentioned, in maudlin excess, but it does clear the way for some new blood and fresh inspiration in Season 3.

The DVD set, from BBC and Warner Home Video, is packaged well, the individual discs set into hard, clear pages that flip like the pages of a book. There seems to be a recent trend to put all special features together on a separate disc, as with the Pushing Daisies set. This is probably cheaper and easier to produce, but it makes it inconvenient to watch a particular episode then watch its extras. Still, for the fan who had probably decided to buy this set anyway, it's a solid purchase which she won't regret.

MICHAEL: Don doesn't mention the actors, who are mostly satisfactory, but my particular favorite is Gareth David-Lloyd, at right, who also shares a kiss with Barrowman during the season. He got that "cute Brit" thing going on, as opposed to Barrowman who is a drop-dead handsome Scot. I also liked Naoko Mori, who plays Tosh. The effects are decent, but the writing is a bit sloppy, but that could just seem that way because I jumped cold into the middle of the series.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fall TV catch-up

1) I saved the last Swingtown to watch until fall weather hit. Well, it finally dropped below 50 degrees one night so I finished off the series. I really liked it, but I also appreciate the fact that it's probably going to be a one-shot limited series. It worked quite well as a seasonal show, going through the summer of 1976 in something like real time (4th of July to Labor Day), and I liked the relative unpredictability (relative because we are still talking about network TV) of the plotlines. The swinging couple experimented with fidelity, then went back to swinging, and we left the pregnant Trina deciding whether or not to have her child (as it's network TV, an abortion is probably out of the question). Both members of the formerly "straight" couple, who did some swinging during the season, are on the verge of extramarital affairs. And Janet, the "square" tradtional wife and mother, got a backbone and took some stands. I'd love it if it came back--apparently it's going to be rerun on Bravo, and it will be out on DVD before Christmas--but the show was fun while it lasted and came to an ending that was both a cliffhanger and satisfying at the same time. And Lana Parrilla (Trina, pictured) deserves another show post haste.

2) As a sitcom fan, I am sampling Worst Week and Gary Unmarried. Worst Week is a one-camera, no-laugh-track show (like Arrested Development) about a semi-schlubby guy who's about to marry his pregnant girlfriend and is trying like hell to get along with her parents. It helps that the lead, Kyle Bornheimer, is cute and funny, and he and his gf, Erinn Hayes, have a nice, casual chemistry. But each episode so far has been a long slapstick pile-up of errors that leads up rather frantically to a big visual climax. The first time was fun, the second time was a little nerve-wracking, and I'm not sure how many more I want to subject myself to. It seems to be the kind of show I could just drop in on now and then.

3) Gary Unmarried is a more traditional sitcom, seemingly shot before a studio audience and features Jay Mohr (pictured with Jaime King) as a single father of two dealing with 1) his ex-wife's marriage to their former marriage counselor; 2) the raging hormones of his teenage son; 3) his own current foray into the dating world. This is less frantic and not terribly original, but Mohr, like Bornheimer, is a charming doofus, and Paula Marshall is good as his ex. Frankly, I could do with a little less of the kids, but this has promise.

4) Already given up on Fringe and Chuck (an hour-long drama has to be really special for me to stick with it), and Pushing Daisies started off OK though it was a loser in the ratings. I hope it makes a comeback. Big Bang Theory is back and just fine, though I think Sarah Gilbert should just be a recurring regular rather a real regular--her name is in the opening credits so I assume we'll see a lot more of her. How I Met Your Mother had a good season debut, but frankly I hope Sarah Chalke doesn't really turn out to be the "mother.

5) We're catching up with Mad Men on DVD. If there are any other shows worth watching out there, I don't know about 'em.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dance crazy!

A couple of years ago, when the first boxed set of Busby Berkeley movies came out from Warner Home Video, I told a 30-something colleague how excited I was about having such classics as 42ND STREET, DAMES, and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 on DVD. Her reaction: "Busy Bee? Who's he?" That has become a running joke between us now, but it does show how much danger Berkeley's reputation may be in.

Though he did direct some movies, mostly rather dismal B-comedies and melodramas, he's a crucial figure in Hollywood history as a choreographer and visual director of musical numbers. Before he came along, most dance numbers in films were simply shot front and center on a stage. Berkeley freed the camera to roam about the stage, zooming in on dancers' faces and between their legs; he expanded the "stage" of a theater or nightclub to be as huge as he needed it to be, though the camera always returned to "realism" at the end of the song. He made the overhead shot of dancers as a human kaleidoscope a movie musical cliche. He retired in the 50's, but lived long enough to see his production numbers rediscovered by a new generation in the 70's as mind-bending, quasi-psychedelic experiences.

Though the best of his movies were in a 2006 boxed set, Warners has just released a second volume featuring four more films in which he was involved. Two of the movies are from the Gold Diggers series, formulaic comedies featuring chorus girls looking for rich sugar daddies while working in shows that are threatened with financial and artistic troubles. Most of the these movies have Dick Powell as a young pup of a songwriter (or actor or singer, or, in the 1937 edition, an insurance salesman) who gets romantically entangled with a leading lady like Ruby Keeler or Joan Blondell.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 is good fun and ends with a typical Berkeley blockbuster, "All's Fair in Love and War," which features chorus lines of men shooting their guns at chorus lines of women who fight back with perfume atomizers. The look of the number, matching many of his 30's spectacles, is all rich, glossy blacks and glowing whites, and every so often, there is a shot that makes you scratch your head and wonder how the hell he did it in the pre-digital fx age (here, seen at right, it's dancers twirling large flags in full circles, in total disregard for the floor they must certainly be standing on but that seems not to be there). The less said about PARIS (with Rudy Vallee instead of Powell), the better, though parts of it are still fun.

The real gem in this collection is HOLLYWOOD HOTEL, an amusing satire of movie folks and their ways. Powell is a sax player with Benny Goodman (whose band does an amazing, though unfortunately shortened, version of "Sing, Sing, Sing") who wins a talent contest and heads to Hollywood with hopes of being a star. He winds up as a waiter at a drive-in restaurant before he is picked to dub in songs for an non-singing star (Alan Mowbray). There's also an obnoxious actress, very well played by Lola Lane (pictured below; think Ann Sheridan in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) and her sweet-natured look-alike (real-life sister Rosemary Lane). One lovely scene takes place one evening in an empty Hollywood Bowl, there's a cute communal musical number at the drive-in restaurant, and a couple of fairly elaborate musical numbers, but I have to say that the best song is right at the beginning: "Hooray for Hollywood," led off by novelty jazz singer Johnnie Davis.

The fourth film, VARSITY SHOW, is a cute "let's put on a show" musical, with college students, feeling oppressed by a fuddy-duddy professor, getting some help with their annual talent show from alumnus Dick Powell, now a Broadway producer struggling to get his career back on track. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians appear along with two Lane sisters (this time, Rosemary and Priscilla). It's quite watchable, even if no one looks college age, and no single production number really stands out. Each disc has the usual generous Warners extras, mostly cartoons and short subjects. The GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 disc has a particularly interesting extra: two scenes from the very first Gold Diggers movie, 1929's GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which a considered a lost film (some sound and film elements remain). One of the numbers is "Tip Toe Through the Tulips," which, though not done by Berkeley, has a wild moment when gigantic vases with tulips appear among the dancers. I recommend this set, but be sure to get the first volume as well.