Monday, June 30, 2008

First week of summer

An average week in my summer media consumption:

1) Swingtown, week 3: I'm still interested enough in this show to keep watching, which almost guarantees it won't be renewed. After Bruce & Susan "swung" once with Tom & Trina, they decided not to do it again, but by this week, Susan has decided they should keep their options open. When Roger, of stodgy Roger & Janet, finds out about the swinging episode, he freaks out and, without saying why, asks Janet to cancel their planned weekend cabin getaway with Bruce & Susan, so Tom & Trina ask themselves along. After an afternoon skinny-dipping event which seems to be a prelude to more uninhibited behavior, Roger & Janet show up and an awkward dinner ensues. Just when total disaster seems inevitable, Trina puts pot in Janet's brownies. Surprisingly, Janet goes ahead and indulges, and soon they're all having a giggly time playing Twister. No mate-swapping occurs, but what I like about this show is the unpredictability of the characters. Janet turns out not to be a total prig, and Trina reveals her fears about being lonely once Tom begins his U.S.-to-Japan piloting job. The teenagers' plotlines remain less interesting to me, but the 70's music is still fun.

2) The Middleman, a new sci-fi/superhero show on ABC Family. The first episode was fun, but I fear its retro-comic book feel will stop it from getting a big audience; as with Swingtown, my interest in the show will certainly kill its future chances. Matt Keeslar (above left) is a "Men in Black" kind of operative, fighting evil for a mysterious agency. He recruits Natalie Morales (above right), a young college grad stuck in a dead end job. The effects are about average for basic cable, but the show has a quirky tone that reminds me of Pushing Daisies, and the humor and the fine deadpan performance of Keeslar are above par and make this worth watching. One reviewer on IMDb criticized "the pace of the delivery of the lines"; it's called "fast-paced," and for me, that's one of the best things about the show.

3) Get Smart, at the Multiplex. It was about what I expected based on the reviews. Not as much slapstick humor as I would have liked, though the action sequences were well done without being overdone. There are some nice in-jokes for us baby-boomers who remember the original show (including a last-minute appearance by Hymie, the robot) and each of the show's memorable bits of shtick (the shoe phone, the cone of silence, the "Would you believe..." riffing) get used once, which is enough. A pleasant way to pass a Sunday afternoon.

4) "Let It Blurt," a book about rock critic Lester Bangs, pictured at right. I loved reading Bangs' reviews and articles in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and 70's-era Creem, and the bio, though incredibly well researched, was depressing, as Bangs comes off as a total jerk whose only redeeming quality was his ability to use language in an interesting fashion (I hope no one says that about me some day...). Bangs died at 33, and the author, Jim Derogatis, made this an exhaustive biography; he seems to have used every scrap of every interview he got, including one with Bangs just days before his death (an accidental prescription drug overdose), which makes the book feel awfully long, but I'm glad someone cared enough to put something like this together, even if it took over 20 years.

5) "The Silence of the Bees," a PBS Nature documentary about the problem of colony collapse among the honeybees of the world. It was much less repetitive and melodramatic in tone than all that crap on the various "documentary" cable channels (Discovery, History, National Geographic), though once or twice, narrator F. Murray Abraham did threaten to twirl his mustache. Still, thank goodness for PBS.

6) Cloverfield, on HD Movies on Demand. Blair Witch meets Godzilla. If that phrase piques your interest, you'll like it. The opening is dreadfully slow, the middle is grand fun, but once we start actually seeing the monster, the film loses a lot of tension. The effects are quite good, the acting unremarkable.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A short rant on violence vs. sex

By coincidence, I saw 2 violent films last week, both based on graphic novels: 300 and 30 Days of Night. (Honestly, the only reason I wanted to see 300 was because I thought its parody, Meet the Spartans, looked fun, but I figured I should see the original first). 300 was a ludicrous cartoon, almost literally, filmed with real actors but with CGI backgrounds, and if I'm not mistaken, even the muscles of the near-naked bodies of the male soldiers were augmented by CGI--I'm not even gonna mention the spectacular gayness of this frat boy movie. The violence was very brutal and graphic, even though the blood which was constantly spattering everything in sight was mostly black rather than red. 30 Days of Night, a vampire movie set in an Alaskan town where it's dark for a month at a time (apparently in real life, there would be at least a few hours of twilight light every day), has less CGI but as much violence, explicitly and brutally carried out against both humans and vampires. The film starts out well, but goes down the tedious one-note toilet by the halfway mark.

I don't object to screen violence; one of my favorite movies of all time is Clockwork Orange. But I am truly shocked that these movies got "R" ratings. The violence, to repeat myself, is not only graphic but extremely brutal. I imagine the argument for giving these films less than an NC-17 goes as follows: In 300, it's righteous war, and it's mostly CGI; in 30 Days of Night, it's mostly against vampires who aren't as human as we are--and the vampires in this film are particularly animalistic. But the irritating part to me is that films like this will get mass distribution, but any film that shows a little too much human genitalia, or a pair of hips grinding together one too many times, will get slapped with the highly restrictive NC-17. I am reminded of George Carlin's wonderful routine in which he suggests replacing the word "kill" in westerns with the word "fuck," as in, "OK, sheriff, we're gonna fuck ya now, but we're gonna fuck ya slow." Sadly, Carlin died yesterday, but his battles against hypocrisy are still relevant and vital.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

On my mind, like a song on the radio

So, being an old-school kind of gay fella, I bought the new Madonna album, on the old-fashioned CD format, more or less for old times' sake. It's OK--it sounds very much like an early 90's Madonna album with hip-hop/electronica inflections. The catchiest song is the first single, "4 Minutes," which apparently hit #1 on Billboard, but since I almost never have a current top 40 station on my car radio (or Internet radio, for that matter), I rarely hear new hit music at all, and almost never hear new songs played to excess so that they get stuck in my head forever.

As I thought about that, driving around in the summer weather with Justin Timberlake chanting Madonna's name like a charm against faltering CD sales, I realized I miss not having new songs played to excess. I miss not being one of the masses who will be singing along with a new hit song all summer long, and having that song haunt me for years. Most pop songs bring a time back vividly for me, usually the time when that song was being blasted out of every radio and storefront speaker I passed. Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel" brings back that magical summer of 1969 when I turned 13 and hit puberty; ZZ Top's "La Grange" was part of the soundtrack of my high school graduation; Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" conjures up my first boyfriend; Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" reminds me of the bleak winter days when I had just broken up with my first partner. I heard The Beach Boys' "Kokomo" every damn morning as I was driving to campus my first quarter of grad school. And so on.

I quit paying much attention to top 40 music a few years ago when I left teaching. To some degree, my students kept me up-to-date whether I wanted to be or not. Jay-Z's "99 Problems" is the last "current" song I associate with a specific time and place, my last semester of teaching, which was also the semester I spent a good chunk of time on crutches. Anyway, I no longer listen to top 40 music, though I do still keep up with some alternative or below-the-radar pop bands (and occasionally a song like "Hey There Delilah" will accidentally get into my head for a week or so). Despite how annoying the overplaying of songs on radio can be, I now kind of miss that sense of knowing the same songs that everyone else does because of radio oversaturation. The good thing is that MP3s and iPods have allowed me to remain in a bubble of music of my own choosing, from 60's Beatles to 90's REM; the sad thing is that I'll no longer walk down the street humming the same song that's in the air and that everyone else is humming. I'm giving Madonna & Justin a chance, but I don't "4 Minutes" will do the trick.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Got to get down to Swingtown

As a child of the 70's (the decade which contained my high school and college years), I was interested in seeing Swingtown, the CBS summer series advertised as being about "swinging" (i.e. mate-swapping) couples at the peak of the sexual revolution before AIDS and other STDs brought it all to a crashing halt--as least according to our mass media. My parents were not swingers, and I've only known one couple who went to Plato's Retreat, the notorious NYC sex club, and I suspect they did more watching than swinging. At any rate, though I am a mongomist in practice, I always approved of the ethos of open relationships for others, but it's been difficult in the past 20 years or so to find any positive portrayal of such behavior in mainstream media, with the downer messages of movies like The Ice Storm the norm.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that, at least based on the first two episodes of this show, the message here may not be as bleak as one might expect from network television; it's being directed by Six Feet Under's Alan Poul, and Jericho's Mike Kelley created and is co-writing the show. The set-up: in suburban Chicago during the summer of 1976, the upwardly-mobile Bruce and Susan (on the left in the above picture) have moved into a new neighborhood and been befriended by airline pilot Tom and his wife Trina (on the right above), who have an open marriage. At a Bicentennial party, we see folks smoking dope, taking Quaaludes, and engaging in group sex in the basement "playroom." (Yes, this is on CBS!) Tom and Trina convince Bruce and Susan to "swing" that night, and surprisingly, the next morning, there are no regrets. (Yes, this is on CBS!) The new couple decide once was probably enough, but temptations will continue popping up, as in the second episode when they have a few drinks at the Playboy club and Sylvia, a former Bunny turned lawyer, begins flirting with Bruce.

Providing some "moral balance" are Bruce and Susan's former neighbors, Janet and Roger. Janet sternly disapproves of the swingers, and though she is the butt of several of the show's jokes, she also seems to be developing into a three-dimensional character. I find the teenager subplots of most TV shows uninteresting and so far these are no different, though there was a fun scene of a feminist production of Waiting for Godot that Bruce and Susan's high school daughter attends. She has the hots for her summer school English teacher, and her brother is getting interested in the emotionally damaged neighbor girl, whose slutty mom does coke and puts aluminum foil up on her windows.

The acting is solid all around, but especially good is Lana Parrilla as Trina, the swinging wife, who is so far the most interesting character. The music is solid period stuff including "Spirit in the Sky," "Golden Years," and "Dream Weaver," which was particularly well used in the pilot episode. We've also heard Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," which didn't come out until '77 (did the producers really think we baby boomers wouldn't check up on this stuff?), and where the hell is "Afternoon Delight"? As long as the teen stories remain secondary, I'll stick with this for the summer, though I can't believe it will last any longer, both due to network behavior and the seemingly built-in limitations of the show--for how many seasons can Bruce and Susan remain on the fence about swinging?

Monday, June 9, 2008


Turner Classic Movies is running a series this month on Asian Images in Film, specifically Hollywood film. They'll be doing one night of the Asian detectives (Chan, Moto, Wong, all played by Caucasian actors), and they're also running THE GOOD EARTH and DRAGON SEED, which I've never been able to bring myself to watch because of what I think of as the painfully dignifed "yellowface" of the leads, even though DRAGON SEED has some excellent actors: Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, and Henry Travers.

But the most interesting films of the batch have been the silents and early sound films which were on last week. I watched two films with Sessue Hayakawa (pictured at left). A silent film called THE DRAGON PAINTER was OK, but more interesting was DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, a rarely seen Fu Manchu film from 1931. It's not a particularly good movie (though there is some stylish cinematography here and there), but in the last half, a romance develops between Anna May Wong (Fu's daughter) and Sessue Hayakawa as an Chinese detective (though the actor was actually Japanese!). I realized it was almost startling to see two Asian actors in leading roles in an early Hollywood film, and it made me a little sad that this kind of casting did not become accepted. I used to think that the studios were somewhat justified in using Caucasian actors as Asians as there were no Asian stars at the time to guarantee box office. But both Wong and Hayakawa were quite popular in their day--Hayakawa was apparently almost as popular as Valentino back in the 20's--and they are both fine in the film; I've always found Wong to be a bit wooden, but Hayawaka is very good. This seems like proof that the studios could have churned out some reliable Asian stars from their "factories," but just didn't care enough to do so.

A documentary called The Slanted Screen made it clear that the situation isn't that much different today. Though Asian cinema is quite popular worldwide, Asian actors have made little headway in Hollywood, except in indie films. The point is made in the documentary that one group of stereotypes (Asians as servants or laundry workers or exotic "other" sex objects) has just been replaced by another (martial arts masters, nerds, and still, exotic "other" sex objects). Even though I'm a gay, liberal, mostly PC kind of guy, I had never really given much thought to the folks who were protesting the running of the restored Charlie Chan movies on Fox Movie Channel a few years ago. I feel like I've had my consciousness raised a bit on the subject of "yellowface"; I own 4 Chan DVD boxed sets (with non-Asians Warner Oland and Sidney Toler) 2 Mr. Moto boxed sets (non-Asian Peter Lorre), and a Mr. Wong boxed set (Boris Karloff, though at least one of the films stars genuine Chinese actor Keye Luke), and I'll still watch these films and enjoy them, but I'll also feel sad that the opportunity to develop a pool of Asian stars in Hollywood was missed, and I'll believe it was more than just benign neglect behind it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Indy IV

I like the Indiana Jones movies. I don't quite love them, but I like them. My favorite is Temple of Doom (despite the horrific whining of Kate Capshaw) because of the wonderful opening musical number, the Gunga Din-inspired cult shenanigans, and that cute little Short Round kid. I've seen Last Crusade 3 or 4 times, but I can never remember anything about it. We watched Raiders again recently to prepare us for the new film and I was pleased to see that the first movie still holds up quite well. The new one, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has gotten mixed reviews but of course we'd have to see it no matter what. I was fearing it would be a chore, but it wound up being quite entertaining, maybe my new second favorite after Temple.

The negatives first: Ford is teetering on the edge of being too old for an action hero (I hope he makes this his last Indy movie, or does the graceful thing and go out with a cameo in the next one); the plot begins as convoluted and ends as incoherent; Karen Allen doesn't have enough to do.

The positives: Lots of kick-ass action set pieces--one of them, the jeep chase through the jungle, might be even more fun than the truck chase in Raiders; the tributes to Sean Connery and the late Denholm Elliott; Jim Broadbent makes a good successor to Elliott; a typically strong opening sequence; the sci-fi elements scattered throughout; I started out not liking Shia LeBeouf (he can't carry off the Brando drag early in the film) but he grew on me--he's not really cute, but he looks good in a t-shirt. I won't give away any of the plot details--actually, the details are fun, but the overarching storyline really needed some more work. I would say ignore the critics who wanted this to be the be-all and end-all of adventure films; it's just the fourth Indiana Jones movie, but that's all it needs to be, and if you approach it that way, you'll have a good time.