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 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


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


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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'm an old school dude with a kick on my shoes...

I've about given up on mainstream top 40 pop, but I am utterly charmed by the new album from Solange, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. Apparently, Solange is the little sister of singer and actress Beyonce Knowles, and as we still live in the era of Wildly Overblown Lead Vocals (thanks, Whitney; thanks, Mariah; thanks, Michael Bolton; thanks a hell of a lot, American Idol), I haven't been paying much attention to solo pop singers so I can't tell you what Beyonce sounds like--though I think I liked her OK in Dreamgirls. And according to the first song on this album, "God Given Name," Solange is trying like hell to differentiate herself from her more famous sibling ("Get me out of this box/... I'm not her and never will be"). This song is weak and whiny, but happily, things get lots better right away.

Her style (in both vocals and music) is like the last 20 years of pop music never happened; it's an updated Motown sound with lots of crisp, shiny arrangements, and sharp, bop-along rhythms: soul bubblegum, if you will. I'm tempted to say it's a 21st-century update mash-up of the Jackson 5 and Diana Ross (with some self-conscious props paid to Marvin Gaye, especially on the song "Ode to Marvin") ; I know that's not for all tastes, but it's mostly fizzy and catchy and the production has lots of bells and whistles which actually highlight the songs rather than obscuring them. The first single, "I Decided," is good, but "Sandcastle Disco" is better; the production on that song is like Phil Spector meets Motown's Norman Whitfield (R.I.P.) while eating lots of cotton candy and drinking red pop. I *definitely* know that description won't appeal to everyone, and not all the songs are quite that glossy, but most of them have strong melodies, and just to shake things up, there are two long, slow, quasi-psychedelic jams (unfortunately placed together at the end). I might tire of all this effervescence soon, but Solange is making me happy in the car on these sunkissed days of early fall.