Thursday, July 30, 2009

Man on the moon

Made a rare foray out to a cineplex to see Moon, the first feature film directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones. The buzz made it seem like it had a lot in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and on the surface, it does: a man in isolation in space (in this case, on a mining camp on the moon), a computer with a calm, assuring voice (with just a hint of tension in it from time to time) that keeps the man's surroundings functioning, a secret that the computer is keeping from the man, and a malfunction/accident that exposes the secret. The visuals pay homage to 2001 as well, in shots of the moon and outer space and even of the glowing eye of the computer, although this computer, named Gerty and voiced by Kevin Spacey, has a smiley face icon that changes to register emotion. [The accompanying movie still below will certainly look familiar to fans of 2001.]

But 2001 was concerned with large scale philosophical of issues of mankind and extraterrestial life--at the time, one critic called it the most expensive religious movie ever made--whereas Moon is concerned with individuals and identity, having more in common with films like Blade Runner. It's difficult to discuss the issues involved without spoiling the surprises in store, so a bare-bones summary would be this: a lone moon miner, about to head back to earth after a long and lonely three years, suddenly starts seeing another person around, who looks just like him. Sam Rockwell plays both parts and does a good job, though he lacks the charisma to make this a real tour de force. The effects used to make him interact with himself are astonishingly well done--no obvious signs of blue screen or split screen--without drawing attention to themselves, aside from one startling moment when the two make physical contact that had me wondering, how the hell did they do that so well. (I'm sure a viewing on DVD would make it less baffling.)

I was pleased that this was the rare summer sci-fi movie without much action: no lasers, no Death Stars, no monsters, and not much blood, though one of the Rockwells spends much of the movie with substantial raw bruises on his face. The plot, despite its twists and turns, is easy to follow, though I wish the last moments of the film, which act as a kind wrap-up of loose ends, had been either more fully developed or cut out altogether. One way in which this movie is not like 2001 is in the grungy look of the moon base; though the color scheme involves lots of whiteness, it's not the gleaming blinding shininess of Kubrick's vision of the future. A film worth seeing, though you won't miss much by waiting for the DVD.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The good, the bad, and the hot; part 2

2) Watchmen. There's not much good or hot about this one, though to be fair, with my long-standing antipathy for most superhero movies, I am hardly the ideal audience member for this. Years ago, I read the graphic novel this was based on, about a group of much-maligned, retired heroes who gather together to find out who is killing them off. In its time (mid-80's), it was a different approach to the superhero genre (some called it an anti-superhero story) and I remember liking it, but it has not stuck with me.

The film has everything I dislike about the comic book-movie genre: tons of angst, a drab color palette, dull performances by actors who are afraid to find any fun in the material, and, in the continuing attempt to give these movies artistic credibility, an overly-serious tone that becomes suffocating--hence, I guess, the dull acting. The X-Men and Fantastic Four movies manage to break away from these conventions (especially the FF movies which are the closest things I've seen to the comics of the Silver Age put on screen), but Watchmen embodies all these negatives with very few positives. The one thing I liked was Jackie Earle Haley (pictured) as Rorschach; for most of the movie, he wears a mask and I didn't even know it was him, but in a prison sequence in the middle of the movie, he is unmasked and his performance is truly a scary gem, occasionally striking me as something out of a David Lynch movie (we had just re-watched Blue Velvet before watching this). Billy Crudup comes off fairly well as Doctor Manhattan, but that's because he is a digital (or digitally-enhanced) creation for most of the overly-long running time (I forgot to mention excruciatingly long running times as another negative characteristic of this genre). A director's cut which adds 25 more minutes to the bloated 162 minutes of the theatrical version is out there. Run screaming.

3) Push. The hot is back with Chris Evans (The Human Torch in the FF movies), but not the good. Though this sci-fi adventure is not based on a graphic novel, it feels like it should be. In a near-future and/or alternate world, there are people/mutants/freaks who have mental abilities/superpowers and the government and/or some shadowy organization is experimenting on these folks, giving them injections of something that is supposed to amp up their powers. But for years and years, these injections have instead been killing them. But that doesn't stop these scientists/bad guys/dumbasses. Eventually, one mutant survives the injection and goes on the run.

As vague as that description is, that is about all I'm sure of in this movie. Bits of backstory are leaked out now and then, but mostly it feels like the screenplay was based on a pre-exisiting graphic novel or comic book series that we're all so familiar with, we don't need to have it all re-hashed. But it's not and we do, or at least, we need a little more background. So a potentially interesting story is turned into another fairly mindless SF action thriller. Evans is nice eye candy, but doesn't really get to do much (and doesn't take his shirt off nearly enough). Camilla Belle, the mysterious woman who everyone wants to get hold of, is totally without charisma and has no chemistry with anyone. Djimon Hounsou is wasted as the chief bad guy, and Dakota Fanning (pictured, with Chris Evans) is OK as a little girl along for the ride. The powers these people have are interesting, and certainly fall within X-Men range, but the goings-on are so muddled, who cares?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The good, the bad, and the hot; part 1

I'd better write down my impressions of the movies I've seen lately before the forgettable little confections leave my head entirely. One today, two more soon:

1) The Proposal is a nice, harmless romantic comedy with two lovely people to look at while the predictable situations play out, and the dialogue strives but fails to rise above mediocrity. Sandra Bullock is a mean, high-powered editor at a big New York publishing company; Ryan Reynolds is her secretary who tends to her every work need. When she finds out that she is about to be deported to Canada, she asks him to marry her to keep her in the country, promising a quick divorce as soon as possible. He agrees, hoping she'll pay him back by making him an editor. The two don't really like each other, but as soon as she agrees to join him on a weekend jaunt back home to Alaska (the INS is watching), they begin to fall in love.

The set-up reminds me of Remember the Night, a lovely 40's romantic comedy in which the hard-edged Barbara Stanwyck (a shoplifter) is softened when she spends Christmas with Fred MacMurray's authentic, warm, slightly wacky Midwest family. There is pleasure in the predictable, in seeing the pieces all fall into place, and Bullock and Reynolds whip up some nice chemistry (not to mention sharing a cutesy nude scene), and Betty White has a couple good scenes as the new-agey grandma. But the writing never rises above serviceable--though I do appreciate that the age difference between Bullock and Reynolds is never made a plot point, and I also appreciate that White is funny without having to slip into vulgarity (frankly, I'd love to hear Betty White cuss up a blue streak, but old folks acting like that in movies seems so been-there, done-that by now).

And the ending is totally messed up. Instead of ending in Alaska as it should, the proceedings drag out an extra 15 minutes back to the big city for a completely anti-climactic ending. It doesn't quite ruin the movie, but it smells of too many writers spoiling the plot, or maybe of producers listening to too much audience research. Still, for a fluffy summer romance, it fits the bill, Sandra Bullock is charming as ever, and Ryan Reynolds is so very hot...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Skip this garden

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook (and why wouldn't you?), you've read my comments about the huge number of retrospective histories of the Woodstock Festival that are being published this year in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the event. I had just turned 13 when the huge rock festival was held, but mostly what I remember was the 3-record set of the music that was released a year later; my favorite bits were Sly & the Family Stone doing a fierce medley of "Dance to the Music" and "I Wanna Take You Higher," Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick yelling, "Good morning, people!!", doing "Volunteers," Santana's long instrumental "Soul Sacrifice," and, of course, Jimi Hendrix's legendary guitar rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." Through Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is rather ragged, there is some charm in them admitting from that stage to a half-million people that they're "scared shitless."

I do believe that Woodstock was a historically important moment, and you should probably pick up at least one book about it to read this year, but you can skip Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock by New York DJ Pete Fornatale. It's a half-assed attempt at an oral history, taken from a variety of sources, and there are some interesting ancedotes presented (any book on Woodstock that doesn't have some fun/weird factor should never have seen the light of day), but with only a handful of photos and only very selective in-depth presentations of some of the artists and their sets, it never finds a footing.

This is especially disappointing because the book is set up chronologically in chapters named after each performer at the festival. I assumed, naturally enough, that at the very least there would be some description of each artist's set and possibly a full set list. In some cases, there is, but in many, there is just not much information at all. The chapters on Sly & The Family Stone, Richie Havens, and Jimi Hendrix, for example, are fairly complete and interesting to read, but many of the lesser lights, such as Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, and Melanie, are dispensed with in very little detail. Even big names like Jefferson Airplane and The Band don't get much space.

The lack of set lists is especially frustrating; did Melanie (pictured) really only do two songs, even though, according to the book, the organizers were desperate for people to play on that confusing first night? A quick visit to Wikipedia gives me full set list information, and both sources say she sang "Beautiful People" but then I'm left with Wiki saying that Melanie did two other songs: "Tuning My Guitar" and "Johnny Boy," and Fornatale says she did "Birthday of the Sun." Frankly, in this case, I'm inclined to trust Wikipedia over the book. The author does note that readers will find contradictions in the accounts of various people about some events over the the three days, and I understand that and appreciate the caveat, but certainly someone in the book could tell us how many songs she did and what they were.

The book is not without its moments of interest, but the overall sloppiness, seemingly in the name of being subjective, is not a positive element. Our library has 6 other Woodstock books that have come in recently, which is about 5 more than I want to read through, but I'm sorry I picked this one to read to the end.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The end of Hi-Fi

I just finished a very interesting book, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. Despite the subtitle, the author, Greg Milner, says right off the bat that the book "is not an exhaustive history of recording technology," but an attempt to find "important fault lines in the narrative" of recorded sound, to find moments when things changed and people thought, ah, this is what recorded music should sound like. He does his job very well, beginning with Edison and RCA's competing methods of acoustic vs. electrical recording, through recording on tape, multi-track recording, the digital format of the CD, right up to today's MP3s.

The focus remains on the idea of what it is we seek when we consume recorded music. The book made me look at the term "high fidelity" in a whole new light. To me, who grew up in the stereo phonograph era, hi-fi has always been just a catchphrase for "good, clear sound." But Milner explains that it came about in an attempt to reproduce as faithfully as possible live music, capturing something that was lacking in the recordings of the first half of the 20th century, "presence," the illusion that the listener was right in the room with the musicians as they were performing. As a former academic, my mind went right to the idea of authenticity, that, as far as music goes, the more "real" it is, the better it is. [Milner has a chapter on Alan Lomax and his primitive recordings of authentic American folk singers, here "authentic" seeming to mean amateurs who weren't paid to perform but who sat on their front porches and sang songs passed down through the ages, but he doesn't tie this as strongly as he could to the continuing debate on what makes a recording "real" or "good."]

The peak years of hi-fi were the 50's and early 60's, until The Beatles quit performing live and retreated to the studio to use layers of tape and artificial devices to produce music that couldn't be reproduced live--is "I Am the Walrus" the most historically profound recording ever? [Interestingly, I have waiting for me on the Kindle a book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll, which I think will cover much of this ground in more detail, though perhaps more from an aesthetic viewpoint that a recording one.] From then on, musicians were more concerned with creating music in the studio than faithfully reproducing their live concert sound.

Milner thinks, along with many professional recording engineers, that digital sound was the beginning of the end, and the highly compressed sound of the MP3 is even worse. The book offers much evidence that, technically, he's right, but do consumers care? Obviously not very much. Should we care? I don't know. In this day and age when practically every top 40 song out there has been put together by computer, polished and corrected and made to sound like nothing that can be reproduced live in that same way, is authenticity at all crucial? The author examines a handful of recordings in detail (Def Leppard's Hysteria, Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca," and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication), criticizing them all (implicitly at least) for taking us further and further from authentic recording of performance, but all of them were huge hits, even career-making turning-points for the artists involved.

Quite frankly, I listen to music these days mostly from my iPod through the car radio or on my computer in the dreaded MP3 format, and I'm happy with it (that me and my iPod at left). I use our home stereo system maybe 2 or 3 times a year--mostly to play Christmas music while I put up and take down the tree. I now have a turntable hooked up to our computer so I can rip vinyl to MP3 or just listen to my old records, and I have always believed (with a vocal minority of music consumers) that digital music lacks some hard-to-define element that vinyl has--warmth, richness, "presence"--but the sound of my records now comes through small computer speakers. I understand that authenticity is, in many cases, an artificial construct that we often let stand for more than it should, but that doesn't mean that I don't see Milner's point, and even agree with him to some extent. Regardless, the book is compelling and fascinating, and though there are holes in it--he sometimes seems to think that method of recording is the most important element in a recording, more important than the song or the artist or the genre--I highly recommend this to music fans who like to think about their music.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Me and Captain Fantastic

Elton John and Billy Joel are playing a concert here in town tomorrow night; my cousin and her daughter are coming to town to see it and they asked me if I was interested in going, and I said, no, I'm too old for concerts. I don't exactly believe that, though I've only seen two concerts in the past few years, and it's altogether possible that I'll never again feel moved to attend a live music event.

But I don't need to see Elton because I saw him in his heyday; it was a great show and I don't want to run the risk of being disappointed in him now. It was 1973, I was a high school senior, and Elton was my idol. I was gay and knew it (though I wasn't exactly out to anyone except myself), but Elton's flamboyance wasn't the main reason I liked him (he wasn't out, either). I discovered him in early 1972, just a few months before he had his first #1 album, Honky Chateau, when a friend turned me on to Tumbleweed Connection, a very non-flamboyant work, almost rustic (though calculatedly and artificially so) with its countryish, folkish sound. It's still a favorite album of mine, and the album's masterpiece, "Burn Down the Mission," is still one of my favorite songs.

His appeal to me was that he was a pop chameleon; he, his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, and his band could do any kind of pop music: rock, R&B, easy listening, glitter pop, bubblegum, art songs, love songs, ballads, whatever. I had always liked piano-based pop, and Elton was a great piano player, a soulful singer, and a damned good songwriter--even when Taupin's lyrics got crazy, Elton's melodies were always compelling. I admit I haven't really followed his career much since the late-80's (and his last really good songs "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" and "Sacrifice"), but I can still listen to most of his music before that and enjoy it. The Elton albums of my high school and college days, especially Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, hold up well, and give me my necessary nostalgia fix.

The tickets for the Elton John concert, in October of 1973, just weeks before the release of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, were a birthday present from my mom. It was my first concert and I couldn't have picked a better first. Our seats were way up in the nosebleed section of OSU's St. John's Arena, but Elton's colorful outfits, oversized glasses, and shiny platform shoes were still visible to us, and since one of my friends brought along binoculars, we got some good close-up views. The music was great, and though the glow of nostalgia may color my memories, I can only think a handful of other shows that were as much fun for me: Queen in the mid-70's, Manhattan Transfer in the mid-80's, and Erasure just a couple of years ago.

I wrote down the set list all those years ago, and sadly, only a fragment of my written notes remain, but I'm fairly sure that the set list went something like this:

Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding
Rocket Man
Your Song
Madman Across the Water (with a long jazzy piano bit in the middle)
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Honky Cat
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Burn Down the Mission
Crocodile Rock
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting
with an encore of Honky Tonk Women

I hope my cousin and her daughter have a great time, but I've had mine and don't want to risk re-living it for real. I'll re-live it in my memory.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Push and a Shove

I hardly ever read gay fiction anymore, whatever that phrase means (to me, novels with gay--or sexually ambiguous--protagonists, and usually written by a gay author; I can only think off the top of my head of two "gay" novels I've read that are by straight authors: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon [in which the main character wasn't really gay] and The Dreyfus Affair by Peter Lefcourt [which was an off-the-wall comedy]). Most novels aimed at a gay audience these days are either fluffy romances or coming-out stories, and while those genres are important and necessary for gay readers, I'm kind of over them. Yes, we all have coming-out stories and I truly think it's important for us to tell them to others and to ourselves, but I've read enough for now.

So I was pleased to find this book, A Push and a Shove, by Christopher Kelly, a psychological thriller. The narrator, Ben, is bullied in high school by Terrence, a boy he has a crush on. The bullying is mostly verbal, (being called "gaywad" and the like), but one afternoon Terrence goes home with Ben, seemingly to befriend him, but when confronted with actual evidence of Ben's homosexuality, he ends up pushing Ben down the stairs, resulting in a mild concussion and some stitches behind Ben's ear. Terrence moves out of town and the two have no more contact until ten years later when a bullying incident that Ben witnesses leads him to hunt up Terrence to get some kind of revenge. They become friendly and slowly, their roles shift, with Ben becoming something of a bully to Terrence, leading to a suspenseful climax, undercut only by a slightly disappointing ending.

Plotwise, not everything fits together smoothly here; for example, it seems unlikely that Terrence would welcome Ben back in his life so quickly. There's also some other dysfunctional family stuff in Ben's background that is never, to my mind, well integrated into the main story. Still, the book is well written and compelling, and I especially like the author's handling of the unreliable (and sometimes unpleasant) narrator. It becomes clear that we can't completely trust everything Ben tells us, though I was shocked (enough to let out an audible gasp) when full disclosure of how far his unreliability goes is revealed near the end. Blurbs on the cover compare this to a Patricia Highsmith "Ripley" book, and I think that's overstating the case--this is nowhere as bleak and amoral as those books are--but it is a solid thriller and character study.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A good beach read (without the beach)

Even though I can't remember the last time I was anywhere near a beach for swimming and soaking up rays, I still try to find a good, mindless beach read every summer. Back when the fuss over The DaVinci Code was still building, I read Dan Brown's earlier book Angels & Demons and, though the writing was terrible, I stuck with it for the labyrinthine plot about art, science, and religion, and the satisfying twists and turns in the chase. (However, I did realize I never need to read another book by him--I'll just wait for the movies.) I spent two summers back when I was teaching reading Atlas Shrugged, half one summer and half the next. I don't like Rand's philosophy, but the baroque and melodramatic writing style was oddly compelling: big "narrative arc" sections of national reach and great import (and exposition) alternating with long, incredibly overwrought scenes of two people talking (philosophizing, fighting, loving)--completely unrealistic but fascinating. I was also amazed that I could put the book down on September 1st and pick it back up on May 15th of the next year and not be lost in the story.

This year, it was The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman, much closer to Brown than Rand. Tara, the daughter of a famous archaeologist, comes to Egypt to visit her father and finds him dead, and also finds a tantalizing fragment of an ancient wall that could reveal the whereabouts of a fabled site where, over 2000 years ago, an entire army perished in a sandstorm. A terrorist is after the fragment, hoping to find the site, plunder it of its treasures, and bankroll more of his terror operations. Some shady men at the British Embassy are also interested in the find, as is an Egyptian police inspector who has personal reasons to seek revenge against the terrorist. Finally, Tara's old flame shows up; he ditched her years ago because his career was more important than she was, but he seems ready to make up for lost time by helping her find the army site.

The writing is quite pedestrian (though not as bad as Brown's) but the setting is atmospheric, the set-up is interesting and, in the post-DaVinci Code era of pulp fiction, sneaky plot twists abound, with very few of the characters being exactly what they seem on the surface. I am a little ashamed to say that almost every single twist caught me by surprise, but on the other hand, there is a great deal of pleasure in not seeing these things coming, especially when the writer is generally playing fair. Only once was I disappointed in an M. Night Shyamalan trick in which part of a character's background is deliberately withheld from us for no good reason other than to give us a surprise near the end--as opposed to the fairer withholding of another character's motivations, fair because most of the other characters aren't aware of them, either. With summer not even half over, I might consider reading Sussman's more recent thriller, The Last Secret of the Temple.