Wednesday, April 29, 2009

iPod Archives: Random "R" songs

"Radar Love" by Golden Earring. Another great driving song, as it's literally about someone driving to see his sweetheart (I think). "Radar love" seems to be a term implying an almost supernatural connection with a lover, though I'm not sure I really know what's going on in the lyrics; does the cry "One more radar lover gone!!" mean that the one of them has died on the road? It's a good line to shout along with in the car, but kinda creepy, too. One of the few songs of which I still prefer the long version to the short one. I owned the album, Moontan, with the original naked lady cover that was quickly banned and replaced with a drab earring cover. The other great Golden Earring song, "Candy's Going Bad" is on the same album.

"River Deep, Moutain High," the legendary Tina Turner version, one of Phil Spector's last big productions, and a commercial bomb that helped hasten Spector to the crazy side. It's got the wall of sound and Turner wailing and big emotions, and should have been a hit. Oddly, Harry Nilsson's version, a kind of B-movie take on Spector's production, is better; clear and precise, not muddy and murky like Turner's. His vocals aren't as evocative as Turner's but he's still damned good. I like both versions, but heretically, if I could only pick one for my iPod, I'd pick Nilsson's.

"Rendezvous" by the Hudson Brothers, the Jonas Brothers or Hanson of their day, though they never really had a single hit as big as "Mmm-Bop." Bill, once Goldie Hawn's husband, is the father of Kate Hudson. This is a mid-70's version of 50's-60's doo-wop harmonies and, though the lyrics are totally high-school ("Your mom and dad think I'm bad/But that doesn't mean you have to be so sad"), the vocals, both falsetto and basso, are spot-on.

"Ride" by The Wondermints, a little-known power-pop/bubblegum band who fell in with Brian Wilson and wound up touring with him and were recruited to help him reconstruct and record the famous "lost" Beach Boys album Smile. And no wonder, as their sound is very much a 21st-century Beach Boys sound, with a chunkier rhythm section, though generally with much less memorable melodies and lyrics. Still, this song is chuggy and catchy with a nice sing-along line, "We're on a Technicolor motor ride," followed by low voices singing what is undoubtedly "Motor ride" but sounds like "Motorin'" from "Sister Christian." Despite the creepy Night Ranger flashback vibe, a nice driving song, though the real Wondermints glossy bubblegum gem is "Shine On Me"; both are from the solid album Mind If We Make Love to You.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Go, Yog-Sothoth, Go!!

Someday, H.P. Lovecraft might get a big-budget adaptation, but until then, it’s B-movies all the way (and the more-or-less amateur short films that have been done). This is as “B” as you can get, and I actually admire it for not trying to be more than that. Unfortunately, except for some interesting ideas buried in the narrative and some good effects late in the film, there’s not much here worth recommending. The 1970 film of the same title was mostly just inspired by the Lovecraft story; this version sticks a bit more closely to the original tale about the awful Whateley family and their blasphemous breeding of human woman and the demonic monster Yog-Sothoth in an attempt at opening up a portal for the horrific Old Ones to return to Earth. The original film made Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), human twin of the monster spawn, into a nerdy romantic anti-hero who tries to lose his virginity to Tuesday Weld. In this film, Wilbur, played by Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs, is a drooling backwoods idiot (supposedly a 10-year-old who has aged 40 years physically) looking for a missing page in the evil book The Necronomicon which will allow him to finish the rite of re-entry.

What’s been added here is a genuine romantic couple, played by Griff Furst (at right) and Sarah Lieving, who are helping a Miskatonic University professor (played by Stockwell) find the missing page before Combs does. There’s lots of Lovecraft name-dropping; in addition to Miskatonic University and the Necronomicon, we meet Alhazred the Mad Arab, the author of that evil book, and Olaus Wormius, a decadent Necronomicon scholar. The decent opening sequence is right out of The Exorcist, there are nice effects in the climactic scene involving Yog-Sothoth’s appearance, and an effective brief shot of an ancient Lovecraftian landscape. Furst, who sometimes looks like Peter Sarsgaard or the early Mickey Rourke, is good, but the rest of the cast is mediocre, including Stockwell who practically sleepwalks through his part. Very bad dialogue doesn’t help anyone, and why they felt the need to transport Lovecraft’s New England towns to the Bayou is beyond me--the change adds nothing interesting. Not worth going our of your way for, but if it pops up on the Sci-Fi Channel and you have some popcorn in front of you, it’ll do.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Is your sword on fire, or are you just happy to see me?

I have a New Yorker cartoon that speaks to me on our refrigerator door: the title is "The Sullen 40-to-54-Year-Old Demographic"; a man is slouched in an armchair watching TV, muttering, "Amuse me, for Christ's sake, just amuse me..." Some days, that's exactly how I feel about about television. Though I have the TV on quite a bit, I'm mostly watching DVDs, or Turner Classic Movies, or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I'm not a fan of reality TV or the overwrought "documentary" channels or hour-long dramas, and the only one of those I'm currently watching is Castle, an average cop show with the always-charming Nathan Fillion. So that leaves me watching unfashionable sitcoms, like Big Bang Theory and Gary Unmarried.

If I'm like the sullen man in the cartoon, I must admit to being amused by a new Comedy Central show, Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire. It's one of those parody shows that harks back to Mel Brooks and Airplane that tends to toss in everything the writers come up with in hopes that enough bits will hit their mark to make the show worth watching. I'm not sure that quite enough sticks on the wall here, but to make up for that, there is the hunky eye candy of star Sean Maguire, from Meet the Spartans.

The show is a send-up of the Conan/fantasy, Robin Hood/medieval adventure genres, with elements of Star Wars and The Princess Bride. Maguire (at left) is Mändoon, a strapping but kinda dumb hero, leader of a small band of merry men/freedom fighters. There's the sorcerer who can't really do magic, the slutty but smart girlfriend, and the extremely gay ex-lover of Mändoon's late mentor (who himself shows up occasionally as an Obi-Wan-ish ghost). Their Darth Vader of Nottingham is Chancellor Dongalor, played by Little Britain's Matt Lucas, who is the closest thing the show has to a weak link. He's funny in small doses, but we get him in big doses, with almost as much screen time as Maguire.

The show is top-heavy with sex jokes and gay jokes, and the flaming character of Bruce could be on the edge of offensive for some, I suppose; for me, he's just one-note and therefore somewhat tiresome. Lucas' character is theoretically straight, but Lucas plays him with slightly more than a gay edge, which also gets tiring. But Maguire, in addition to being handsome and built, is genuinely funny as the deadpan center around which the rest of the characters spin wildly. The lovely India de Beaufort is also very good as the hot girlfriend who thinks nothing of having sex with 300 men in one night as part of a pagan ritual. It would be nice if it were a bit smarter, with wit in addition to humor, but as I'm slouched on the couch, I do find myself amused more often than not.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grappling with the unfathomable

I'm not a typically a reader of true-crime books, so I was somewhat surprised that I was interested in reading Columbine by Dave Cullen. I seemed to know the story as well as I knew any large-scale societal disaster narrative: two loner kids, members of a bullied outcast group called the Trench Coat Mafia, snapped and killed twelve fellow students (mostly jocks and pretty people) and a teacher at a Colorado high school, then killed themselves, leaving a small town in perpetual shock and misery.

But journalist Cullen has followed the story for ten years and has written a excellent account of the massacre and the aftermath, and his main achievement is to undo the myths that were perpetuated by the media: the two weren't members of any Trench Coat group; though they were fringe figures in their class, they weren't bullied--in fact, they often bullied others; they didn't target jocks but killed completely at random; their original plan was to blow up the school building, an act which would have killed hundreds of students, and scarily, they had the firepower to do so, but the big bombs fizzled. Also, the much-vaunted martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, who supposedly was asked if she believed in God, boldly said "Yes," and was promptly shot, is revealed as essentially an urban legend based on something that actually did happen to a different student who was injured but not killed.

The book is very well written, though oddly structured: the first hundred pages begins with prom weekend just before the shootings to the end of the day of the massacre, April 20th, 1999. Then the narrative goes off in two branches; one deals with the aftermath as experienced by the school, the survivors, the town, and the parents of the killers; the other deals with the killers, more or less chronologically from a couple of years earlier, when the lead killer, Eric Harris, started slipping off the rails. The final chapter, "Quiet," is especially powerful, a brief reconstruction of the massacre as it might have been seen by the killers. The consensus seems to be that Harris was, plain and simple, a psychopath; he had no gut-gnawing revenge to enact against those who had wronged him, he simply hated human beings, thought he was superior to almost everyone around him, and lacked any real empathy for others. I thought the author could have given a little more time in the book to fleshing out portraits of the dead students, some of whom are barely even mentioned by name, but aside from some fleeting problems with the structure, that's my only criticism of this excellent, eye-opening book.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A low-rent superhero

When it comes to comic book movies, I admit to a certain weakness for the lower-budget movies that feature the second-string heroes. I'm probably one of the few movie fans who prefers The Rocketeer (1991) and The Shadow (1994) to the Superman/Batman/Spider-Man extravaganzas. The films with the lesser heroes are usually lighter in tone, funnier, charming, more self-deprecating and self-conscious, and less burdened with angst. Sadly, the recent The Spirit turns out to be a second-stringer with pretentious ambitions toward blockbuster status and it seems to have wound up with no audience at all, despite being directed by fanboy fave Frank Miller, who originated the Batman "Dark Knight" storyline and wrote the graphic novels Sin City and 300 which became hit movies (and also directed Sin City which I have not seen).

The Spirit, created in the 1940's by Will Eisner, was a Batman-like crimefighter (though wearing a hat, suit, tie, and mask rather than a colorful costume) who was brought back from the dead and became a shadowy vigilante. My memory of the few Spirit stories I read is that Eisner had a light touch, filling the stories with humor and exaggerated Dick Tracy-like characters. The movie, of course, has to shove the story toward dark brooding angst, but as the characters remain very surface and comic-bookish, the tone of the film falls flat. Gabriel Macht makes a handsome hero (though we never actually see his face without his small "domino" mask) but he's not very compelling--more the fault of the writing than his acting. Samuel L. Jackson chews every last bit of scenery as the villain The Octopus, who it turns out was responsible for bringing the Spirit (actually policeman Denny Colt) back to life. I usually like Jackson (he was the only reason to sit through Snakes On a Mother-F**kin' Plane), but he wears out his welcome very quickly here. The women are the more interesting characters, namely Eva Mendes as Sand Seref, Colt's old flame who exists in that gray area between good guy and bad guy, and Sarah Paulson as the police commissioner's daughter. Scarlett Johansson, whom I almost never like, is as unlikable as ever as a rather drab villianess.

The only reason to see this movie is the visual style; it looks great on an HD TV, and probably looks even better in Blu-ray. Long stretches of it look exactly like a graphic novel brought to life, and sometimes, especially in the beginning, the look alone is exhilarating enough to keep your attention; the problem is that what's happening on screen is either stupidly convoluted or deadly dull (or both). I'm sorry I didn't like this film, but if you want to show off your big-screen TV to your friends, you might consider renting this for a night.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Johny Rotten & Scarlett O'Hara

I seem still to be stuck on pop culture non-fiction with these two books. One's OK, one's pretty bad. The OK one is England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond by Jon Savage. The subtitle says it all; the surprisingly dense book is about the Punk movement's cultural moment, in the mid-70's. Savage uses the Sex Pistols' short and brutish life, from their inception in London under the wing of Malcolm McLaren in 1975 to their implosion at the end of their U.S. tour in early 1978, as his narrative through line, branching off regularly to take note of other punk bands in both England and America. I was astonished to discover how much of punk was really about fashion, used as a way to express a range of feelings, from inarticulate personal rage to political ideology. This was the rare book on pop music I chose to read that centered on a kind of music of which not a single example lives in my head. Though I have heard music by The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie & the Banshees, etc., I was not a big fan of the genre and no "punk" songs come to mind (bidden or unbidden). I know some later-period Clash, but I wouldn't know "God Save The Queen" or "Anarchy in the U.K" if Johnny Lydon stood in front of me and played them live. Still, the book was interesting if a little clotted with extraneous detail.

The bad book was Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by well-regarded movie critic and historian Molly Haskell. I've seen her on TCM and heard her give movie commentaries, but I guess I've never read one of her books before. The relatively slim volume presents itself as a look at GWTW, the book and the movie, as pop culture phenomenon, but it reads like a poorly organized potpourri of ideas that Haskell's had for years and couldn't get to cohere into a thesis-driven argument. She focuses on three important figures in the GWTW legend (author Margaret Mitchell, producer David O. Selznick, and star Vivien Leigh), and also spends a lot of time examining, rather superficially, the Southerness of the story and characters, mostly as filtered through her own experiences. There are occasional interesting tidbits buried in the labored prose and the confusing structure, but not enough for me to recommend this.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

No catchy subject line

It was a lovely weekend outside but I was feeling a little blechy so I stayed in and watched a bunch of things that have nothing in common, hence no catchy subject line:

Gym Teacher: The Movie: Often while I'm reading a review of a movie online, I open up a new tab and put the film on our Netflix queue, then I tend to forget about the movie until it shows up in my mailbox. Hence, constant surprise at what's next from Netflix. I have no clue what made me put this on our list. The title seems to promise a Will Farrell/Ben Stiller type of monstrosity, and since I hate those movies (Anchorman, Volleyball), I can't imagine why I had ordered this one up.

It turns out to be a Nickelodeon made-(for teens)-TV movie with Christopher Meloni as a former Olympic gymnast who disgraced himself by running crotch-first into the pommel horse on live TV. Years later, he's a well-liked gym teacher still trying to live down his past. When a national gym teacher competition is announced, his principal (Amy Sedaris) and his students encourage him to give it a shot. The catch is that his entire class must participate, including the new kid (Nathan Kress), a shy little nerd whose mom makes him wear a helmet in gym so he won't hurt himself (his father was killed during a 3-legged race). Of course, as this is a sweet-natured inspirational family movie, Meloni overcomes his demons, gets Kress to take off his helmet, and wins the trophy. There are occasional touches of quirky humor that make this worth sitting through, though the groove the film settles into is too predictable. Meloni is excellent at creating his character, a twitchy but friendly guy who seems to be constantly thinking too hard about his next move or look or sentence. Even better is Amy Sedaris as the tightly-wound principal who has a thing for Meloni, but sadly her character vanishes from the film in the last half. David Alan Grier is wasted as a rival coach. I wasn't sorry to have seen this, but I still wonder what the hell I read that made me think I'd want to see this.

Alexander: I was on a Colin Farrell kick recently and decided against my better judgment to watch this. It's pretty terrible, though I can't quite put my finger on exactly why. As Alexander, Farrell is OK but never seems very commanding, and the goofy blond hairdo never stops looking goofy. Of course, my dear Angelina Jolie can do no wrong, and as Alexander's hot, ambitious mom (and, it's implied, almost lover), she is fabulous; even if she comes off as a bit campy, she injects some much needed passion and clarity of focus in this windy, rambling epic. It feels very much like one of those big expensive epics from the 50's and 60's, nice-looking but poorly scripted and empty. There are 3 different cuts of the movie, ranging from 167 to 207 minutes, but what it needs is to be sliced down to a lean and mean 90 minutes.

Doubt: We saw this on Broadway with Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne who both gave fantastic performances. Unfortunately, Hollywood never learns its lesson and had to go for bigger names for the movie version. I guess I can't really be fair to the movie since I was always comparing it to the play, and the play was always winning. Meryl Streep is a nun and principal of a Catholic school in the early 60's who suspects that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is abusing one of his students, the first African-American to enroll in the school. With no proof except an odd incident witnessed by another teacher (Amy Adams), Streep goes after Hoffman, vowing to get him removed from the classroom. She wins, but not quite in the way she wanted. As the title hints, the movie (and play) never gives us the final word on whether or not the priest is guilty, and that is the genius of the script. Streep and Hoffman are fine, but both have very different takes on their characters--O'Byrne was much more sturdy and likeable, Jones was a bit harder than Streep. Ultimately, the film opens up the play a bit, but not so it ruins it. It's an interesting movie, but different and a bit lesser than the play.