Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul and Joanne

My mother and I play a little game called Deathwatch, in which we vie to be the first one to call the other with a celebrity death. This morning, even before I'd had my coffee and donut, she called about Paul Newman. It was expected, as he had more or less withdrawn from public view a few months ago after being treated for lung cancer, but it's still sad news. He seemed like a sensible, likeable fellow who kept the "star" thing in good perspective. He was almost breathtakingly handsome back in his early days in films like The Silver Chalice (a very bad movie), The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Exodus, and he kept up a solid career right up through the last few years. Though he's probably best known for the early 70's one-two punch of Butch Cassidy and The Sting, I admired him more for going out on a limb and working with Robert Altman on two very uncommerical (indie before "indie" was a concept) films, Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Quintet. They weren't great films, but I liked them both better than Butch Cassidy.

But whenever I think of Newman, I think of his wife, Joanne Woodward, even though they rarely worked together on screen. By all accounts, they had a wonderful relationship, and though I haven't seen a lot of Woodward movies, I saw her live back in the early 80's when she appeared in a Kenyon College production of Shaw's Candida and it's something I'll never forget. At the time, in my twenties, I knew her name but the only thing I remembered seeing her in was Three Faces of Eve, which I thought was a rather old-fashioned psychological melodrama, so I had few expectations. The production also had Jane Curtin in a supporting role, and, as a Saturday Night Live fan, I was probably more excited about seeing her than Woodward. But as soon as Joanne Woodward came onstage, I was mesmerized. She had the audience in the palm of her hand. I couldn't begin to identify what is was about her talent that made her bring that part to such glowing life that night, but I knew I was in the presence of a great actress.

So I'm sad for the loss of Paul Newman, but I'm even sadder for what that loss must mean for Joanne Woodward, and I'm sad for myself that I never saw her on stage again, though her performance that lovely summer evening will stay in my memory forever.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dark whimsy, with pie

My favorite TV show last season was Pushing Daisies. The whole thing is driven by a plot device that was re-explained periodically throughout the first season. Ned, the sweet-natured pie maker, discovered in his youth that he had, literally, a supernatural touch; if he touched a living being (person or animal) that had just died, he could bring it back to life for 60 seconds. If he touched it again within that minute, it would die again for good. If he didn't touch it within that minute, it would stay alive, but some other living being in the vicinity would die. Finally, if he let the dead thing live, he could never touch it again or it would die for good. Got it?

It does seem a little more complicated than it should, but it's easy to follow, and it gives the show two good narrative touchstones: 1) Ned works with Emerson, a private eye who knows Ned's secret, and whenever a murder case comes their way, they visit the morgue so Ned can bring the victim back to life to answer a couple of quick questions that will help them solve the case; 2) in the show's pilot episode, one of the murder victims Ned brings back to life is his childhood crush Charlotte (nicknamed Chuck); he doesn't touch her within the first 60 seconds, so she remains alive (and a nasty funeral home director dies in her place, an event that becomes central to a later episode). This plot wrinkle allows indefinite, unconsummatable sexual tension; past shows like Moonlighting and Cheers used such tension to good advantage, but always wound up letting the central romantic pair go all the way, which then inevitably caused some damage to the characters' chemistry. These two can't even touch without a sheet of Saran Wrap between them, yet they manage to some off as sexy and romantic as any TV couple.

The show was chugging along nicely finding a smallish but loyal audience last fall until the writer's strike stopped it cold at its ninth episode. Luckily it was renewed by ABC and will start its second season in a couple of weeks. Happily, the entire first season was just released on DVD so I was able to refresh myself on all the show's whys and wherefores. This series benefits from a second viewing; with the plots and characters still familiar to me, I was able to concentrate on the two things that make the show unique: its whimsically dark tone and its wild color palate.

The show is set in its own baroque version of the real world, sort of Technicolor neo-Gothic; its look and its full-blown orchestral score make it feel a bit like a Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket movie. Ned's restaurant, the Pie Hole, is in a old but ornate urban building, the roof of which overlooks a clean mid-sized modern city; the morgue is painted bright white with thick red stripes; Chuck's aunts live in a cluttered crazy house, dark but still colorful enough--they used to have an aquashow routine as The Darling Mermaid Darlings but retired after Chuck's death. The one plot point I get a little tired of is keeping the aunts in the dark about Chuck's return to the living; with the wonderful Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene (below) as the sisters, I'd like to see them have more to do than mope (Kurtz) and be ditzy (Greene), though I have to say that Greene's rendition of "Morning Has Broken" in one episode was beautiful and left me a bit teary.

Speaking of actors, everyone here is well-cast, from the sweetly handsome Lee Pace (above) as Ned, to Anna Friel as Chuck, to Chi McBride as the detective (also a knitter). Best of all is Kristin Chenoweth as Olive, a Pie Hole waitress who is in love with Ned and, at least for a chunk of the first season, resents Chuck. The more she figures out about what's going on with the two of them, the more rounded her character has become (also what I like about the character of square Janet on Swingtown). There's a fairly heavy stage-actor presence: in addition to Chenoweth, Kurtz, and Greene, Raul Esparza has a recurring role, and Jim Dale narrates each show.

The dialogue is smart, full of wordplay, and fast paced, a bit like the writing of Aaron Sorkin (Studio 60, Sports Night), so both the eye and ear are delighted. This is one of the few hour-long network series that can stand up to repeated watching for me, and the DVD is a must have--the colors positively glow on an HD set, though I must complain about the skimpy extras: no commentaries, no real featurettes, just some very short interviews keyed to specific episodes, and unfortunately all stuck together on the last disc, so they're not even easily accessible after an episode has been viewed. But still, it's a delight to be able to have this season to keep, considering that other hour-long shows I've enjoyed recently (Swingtown, The Middleman, Three Moons Over Milford) have never come out on disc and don't seem like strong candidates to do so soon. It's nice that a show so different and interesting can still be found on network TV, and while I'm waiting for the second season, starting in a week or so, I'm giving the old shows another spin.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lunatic fringe

There is very little of interest for me among the new fall shows; as a die-hard sitcom fan, I'll probably give a couple of those a shot (Worst Week has a leading man who seems sorta doofus-cute, and Gary Unmarried has Jay Mohr who was good a few years ago in Action). We decided to give the new JJ Abrams show Fringe a shot. It was pushed as a kind of cross between X-Files and Lost, but it's really X-Files all the way. I liked X-Files well enough, and watched it for a good 5 or 6 years, a long time by my standards since I rarely follow hour-long dramas that long (CSI only got about 4 years out of me). But Fringe feels like X-Files reheated (in the microwave) and there are too many things wrong with it to fix in a short time--and don't ask me what that halved-apple image they're using as a logo is all about.

The double-layer premise, with 1) an overarching background "mythology" story, and 2) individual episode stories, is right out of X-Files, although the stated plan here is to make the background story less intimidating or complex so viewers can feel free to drop in and out to enjoy freestanding tales of weird science. The set-up: there have been numerous strange, almost paranormal things happening around the world and our three main characters have been drafted by Homeland Security to investigate these matters, the totality of which has been dubbed The Pattern, because, um, they think there's a pattern to the events. But we know from the beginning that the government knows more than it's letting on, and so do the folks at Massive Dynamics, a huge worldwide corporation with their fingers in all kinds of pies.

So all the bits of the formula are here: spooky doings, paranoia, lots of dark and dank interiors, and superiors who are not quite what they seem. Anna Torv is an FBI agent assigned to this fringe unit, John Noble is a "mad scientist" who is plucked out of an asylum to help out with the science, and Joshua Jackson is his skeptical son who's along for the ride because he's his father's legal guardian. The problem so far is the amateurish writing and weak acting. The dialogue is terrible and the "science" is ridiculously fantastic--in the second episode, they've already hit the bottom of the barrel by giving scientific credence to the theory that the last thing a person sees before he or she dies is somehow imprinted on the eyes and is recoverable.

Torv is OK, though because she resembles Gwyneth Paltrow, I'm having a hard time warming up to her. I don't like Noble at all: he's too predictably (and artificially) sad and goofy and funny by turns. Jackson (above) is a cutie-pie but the tossed-off, sarcastic humor his character uses does not come easily to him. It's nice that Blair Brown is back on network TV, but she's had a thankless role so far as a spokesperson for Massive Dynamics, and Lance Reddick, as Torv's boss, is so skeletal looking, he's the creepiest thing on the show. I think we'll give it one more shot, but I don't foresee keeping up with this one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

These magic moments, part 2

Heck, that was fun and easy, and I can do it on my lunch hour, so I think I'll do some more:

To steal one from "covetednoprizewinner" over at PowerPop, the surprising f-bomb in SteelyDan's "Show Biz Kids"--it still gets me every time

That carousel opening on Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown"

That horn blast opening on Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel"

Joan Baez doing Bob Dylan's voice on her version of "Simple Twist of Fate"

The ridiculous but sublime drum solo in the long version of Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire"

Phil Spector's last great production work on Sonny Charles' "Black Pearl"

The way all five Temptations voices separate and combine in "I Can't Get Next to You"

The swirling chorus (with that sudden stop-start beat in the middle) and the tricky wordiness of the 5th Dimension's "Love's Lines, Angles, and Rhymes"

Mark Knopfler's almost snotty vocal on "And Harry doesn't mind if he doesn't make the scene / He's got a daytime job, he's doin' all right" in "Sultans of Swing" (thanx, Tom, for jogging my memory)

A few more soon...

Monday, September 15, 2008

These magic moments, part 1

On a movie e-mail group I belong to, we were recently discussing "magic moments" in movies, short bits we love. On PowerPop this weekend, a similar thing was going on with music. So I think I'll do the same thing here over the next few days.

In music:
Marvin Gaye's soulful howl of despair near the end of "Inner City Blues"

The opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night"

Ella Fitzgerald disappearing at the end of "Angel Eyes"

The cacophonous middle section of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" (and Robert Plant's climax at the end)

The galloping string section and Elton John's pounding piano in the middle and end of "Burn Down the Mission"

The dramatic "real death waltz" verse of Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland"

Joni Mitchell doing a comical waitress voice ("Drink up now, it's gettin' on time to close") in the live version of "The Last Time I Saw Richard" on Shadows and Light

Michelle and Cass's soaring backing vocals on the chorus to the Mamas and Papas' "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)"

The jazzy instrumental sections of Steely Dan's "Aja"

Van Morrison's utter joy in performing near the end of "Caravan" in the Band's concert film The Last Waltz

What I hear in my head as a jumble of voices at the beginning of the Hollies' "Carrie Anne"

The way that "We Can Be Together" and "Volunteers" segue together on The Worst of Jefferson Airplane collection (and they don't on the original Volunteers album)

The angelic but spooky ending of Simon & Garfunkel's "Save the Life of My Child"

More to come...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Magic Garden music

I'm all about categories and genres and labels, so I have lots of categorized playlists on my iPod, like Christmas music, Beatles, old school, summer, etc. I'm about to construct a new one that I'm wanting to call "Magic Garden" for lack of a more specific phrase. And here's how it came about:

I love the 5th Dimension and their soaring vocal arrangements. On a reissue of one of their 60's albums, I discovered a nifty Jimmy Webb tune called "The Magic Garden." A little later, I discovered a version of the same song on a Dusty Springfield collection, and her version blew the 5th's out of the water. One day, my old iPod shuffle happened to play Dusty's "Magic Garden" and followed it with Richard Harris's "MacArthur Park" (also a Jimmy Webb song), Harry Nilsson's "1941," Dionne Warwick's "Trains and Boats and Planes," and Noel Harrison's late 60's swingin' pop take on Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." At the end of that run of songs, I felt like I'd discovered a new genre of music, though it's difficult to put into words what the genre's conventions are.

The closest name already out there is "Baroque pop," which Wikipedia defines as pop music with classical music influences, but that seems awfully broad, encompassing anything from the Beatles to Procol Harum to Jeff Beck to Emerson Lake and Palmer and so on. Wikipedia goes on to talk about "modern baroque pop," or chamber rock, and many of the recent artists they name in conjunction with this movement are ones I like (The Decembrists, Panic at the Disco, Last Shadow Puppets, Pink Martini) but most of them don't exactly sound like what I'm thinking of.

Here are the conventions I've come up with for my Magic Garden music:

1) Strong string or horn orchestration--though of course, that alone isn't enough, since everyone from Bing Crosby to Guns N' Roses uses orchestration.

2) An overall feel somewhere between easy listening and psychedelia, as the strings are usually accompanied by something interesting like a harpsichord or a sitar.

3) The songs are often multi-part, with fast and slow movements and quirky arrangements.

4) The vocals are emotional or dramatic (some might say "overwrought" as in "MacArthur Park").

5) Most of it was made in the mid to late 60's.

I guess I could say that most of these songs were written by Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach, both sophisticated songwriters, but that would narrow things down too much. They sometimes have a "sunshine pop" feel to them, like "The Magic Garden" itself, but just as often they are sad or downbeat. They lend themselves to multiple voices (5th Dimension, backing singers for Harris and Warwick).

Maybe the best definition I could come up with is "60's middle-of-the-road psychedelia." Not all Webb and Bacharach is Magic Garden music--"By the Time I Get to Phoenix," no; "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," no. Much of the 5th Dimension's 60's output is, but their album of Webb songs that bears the Magic Garden name is mostly drabber and shushier than it should be--and "The Girl's Song," though a Webb/5th D masterpiece, is not Magic Garden music. The best place to start to listen may well be disc 2 of the Dusty Springfield Anthology, with "What's It Gonna Be?," "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten," "The Windmills of Your Mind," and, of course, "The Magic Garden." YouTube has a nice video montage set to a medley of songs from the 5th D Magic Garden LP, but nothing of Dusty (at left) doing the song. Certainly I have gone on far too long about this, but I'd rather spend time worrying about the boundaries of a non-existent music genre than about terrorism or finances or the bleakness of infinity. In the words of "The Magic Garden," "It's so soft and warm/ Behind those hedges/No hard edges..."

Monday, September 8, 2008


Funny how the world works sometimes. We headed out to see the animated film Wall-E at the multiplex this weekend, but when we saw the crowds of very young kiddies waiting in line, we decided to gorge ourselves on lunch at the soon-to-be-closed Don Pablo's Mexican restaurant, then went home where we discovered we were getting an HD on-demand channel called FearNet; so instead of an animated movie, we watched a movie called Beyond Re-Animator! Wild, eh?

I loved the first Re-Animator from 1985, a tongue-in-cheek gorefest based very loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft story. Jeffrey Combs made the perfect intensely deadpan mad doctor who has invented a serum to re-animate the dead, but unfortunately, when they come back, they come back pissed-off and bat-shit crazy, and when you try killing them again by, let's say, dismemberment, their body parts remain twitchily alive. The gore is ridiculously over-the-top, especially in the scene when all the bodies in a morgue come back to life, but it also had lots of sly humor, mostly courtesy Combs and David Gale as a slightly less mad but more sinister doctor. The blandly handsome hero was well played by Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton made a sexy damsel in distress. A fun cult item, one that can be re-watched from time to time and still be entertaining.

Beyond Re-Animator, from 2005, is actually the third in the series (the immediate sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, despite the cute title, was totally forgettable, and I can in fact remember almost nothing about it). It's quite a comedown; the gore is still there, with exploding heads, skittering eyeballs, and twitching entrails, as is Jeffrey Combs, looking not at all 20 years older, as the same mad doc, this time doing his experiments in prison. But the humor is lame and the acting, except for Combs, is below par. The "hero," Jason Barry (pictured above behind Combs), would be good looking if you ran into him on the streets of your hometown, but he's no Bruce Abbott. Elsa Pataky is downright terrible (and a touch too trashy looking) as the love interest. Most of the acting here falls somewhere between porn and bad soap-opera; frankly, it's sort of fun to see modern, honest-to-God B-movie acting once in a while, but most of these folks need a little more practice to get up to B. A jokey bit with a detached penis threatens to be amusing, but goes on way too long (despite the incredible temptation to start a string of phallus puns, I will resist). Glad to see Jeffrey Combs having some fun (I hope), but this isn't much fun for the audience.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Guilty pleasure: Jeremy Piven

Some folks have a new celebrity crush every month or so. Some folks outgrow their celebrity crushes when they graduate from high school (or college or grad school or when they get married or when they join AARP). Some become obsessed fanboys (or fangirlz) and might someday wind up holding special stalker status.

I am a grown man with a celebrity crush on the actor Jeremy Piven, but I am not very good at being an obsessed fan. I discovered him when he played Ellen's cousin Spence on "Ellen." He's darkish complected, looks good with some stubble, and has a tight little compact body (and a nicely hairy chest which he's been plucking or waxing of late, tsk, tsk...), but it was really just as much his persona on that show that I liked: charming ex-frat boy, a bit of a loose cannon but likeable and funny. I watched "Ellen" (in prime time and later over and over in reruns on Lifetime) mostly for him, though the show's characters were all fun--as much as I loved that Ellen's character came out, that's when the show lost a lot of steam because the supporting characters got short shrift ever after.

After Ellen, Piven went right on to Cupid, and I watched the first couple of episodes but I never grew to like it, partly because Piven's persona was very different. I hunted down a few of his movies, and liked a charming little indie comedy romance called Just Write, but mostly he's better in movies as support, like being the best friend of the hero (The Family Man, Serendipity). He's naked in Very Bad Things, a violent dark comedy which is otherwise not really worth sitting through. Or course, he's excellent on HBO's Entourage, but as good as he is, I just can't bring myself to watch the show regularly--like most of the other projects he's been involved with, it's just not that interesting.

With the entire run of Ellen out on DVD and safe on our living room bookshelf, I've more or less decided that I don't need to keep keeping up with his oeuvre; however, I did enjoy the recent Smokin' Aces, a much better entry in the "violent dark comedy" genre than Very Bad Things, though it's really two kinds of movies: it begins as a Tarentinoish over-the-top crime comedy about a bunch of would-be assassins converging on a hotel in Reno to kill Piven, a cocaine-addicted stage magician (pictured above) who is threatening to talk to the Feds about his mob ties, but about 20 minutes from the end, it turns into a more serious thriller/puzzle like The Usual Suspects. The two halves don't mesh perfectly--the second half could have used a lot more plot and character development--but the movie is one of the better things he's done, and it also has the pleasure of a solid performance from Alicia Keyes as a lesbian hitwoman, and though Ryan Reynolds may never win an Oscar, he's pretty to look at.

I guess I shouldn't class Piven as a guilty pleasure, as he's an award-winning actor with a solid resume, but my interest in him has little to do with his acting ability and more with his looks and the persona he created over several seasons of a TV show. I have some pix of him up on my cubicle walls and he is the star of my DIY Starbucks tumbler. I watched a documentary TV special of him journeying to India and, honestly, I'm not sure I'd want to meet him (the picture below is as close as I'll ever get, me and a gigantic picture of Jeremy in a Gap store in Chicago). I just want to meet Cousin Spence (and maybe get him drunk), and that's why he's a guilty pleasure.