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.