Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall TV?

Stop me if I've said this before, but when I was young, publication of the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide was always a big deal for me. It used to (in the 60's and 70's) come out around Labor Day, which meant at the beginning of the school year, so it was a race as to which would come first--first day of classes or the Fall Preview issue. I would read it from cover to cover (which I did with every TV Guide anyway), marvel at the lovely, colorful photos that accompanied each new show's entry, and plan my fall TV schedule.

Compared to those days, I barely watch TV anymore, TV Guide is a spindly shadow of its former self, and I work all year round, so fall is not such a big deal anymore. There are only two new shows I'm even bothering to dip into. Glee, about the misadventures of the geeky members of a high school glee club, actually aired its first episode last spring and it sucked me in with its creative musical numbers, quirky characters, and campy aura. But already, two episodes into its fall run, it's feeling a little tired. My main problem: the campy bloom is off the rose; as a friend noted, it's becoming a lot like Desperate Housewives, a show which also started off as something fresh and strange and quickly drowned in typical soap opera histrionics. Both shows kinda want to be Twin Peaks, but become Dallas. I'll still watch Glee for a while, for the production numbers (the first week's peak was a version of Jazmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows") and for Jane Lynch, the funniest character-you-love-to-hate I've seen in a long time, but I can see that even she is gonna get stuck in a rut pretty soon as the glee club's super-nemesis.

The other show is FlashForward, which is like Lost, except the whole world is the island. One day, every person on the planet blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds and gets a vision of his or her life 6 months in the future. The blackouts cause lots of death and destruction (planes fall out of the sky, drivers hit each other, patients die during operations) and we follow a loosely-knit group of characters as they muddle through the event's aftermath and try to figure out what the flashes mean: did they see a future that is predetermined, or can their actions change what they saw?

The central character is Joseph Fiennes, an FBI agent who is assigned to figure out if the event was a terrorist attack of some sort. His wife, Sonya Walger, sees herself living with another man whom she doesn't recognize (though we see him at the end of the first episode). Fiennes' work partner, John Cho, is understandably upset that he saw nothing during the blackout: does that mean he'll be dead in six months? And so on. One thing I like is that the layout of the show isn't clear or predictable yet: each week, will they delve into different people's stories? Or will it center on this small group of characters? In other words, will it be a detective show or a soap opera? Or, wonder of wonders, will it be something, in the words of Monty Python, completely different? The production values are high, the acting is good (Broadway star Brian F. O'Byrne plays Fiennes AA sponsor), and the first episode was intriguing enough to make me come back for more.

The only other shows I'm still watching regularly are all clustered on Mondays: Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, and with Don still watching Heroes, our DVR must remain in good working order. This week, we're dipping in and out of the latest Ken Burns' opus on PBS about the National Parks; it's beautiful and it makes me want to visit one of the parks, but as usual with Burns, it's too long and a bit too pretentious at times. Otherwise, it's just Jeopardy, Daily Show, Colbert, and Turner Classic Movies. I miss those Fall Preview days...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Cover bands are fun to hear live, but when it comes to sitting down and listening to a cover version of a song, I have mixed feelings. Of course, one's experience of a cover (a recording of a song that was originally performed by someone else) is crucially dependent on whether or not one has heard the original version. Back in the late 60's when I managed a record store, I remember a record company rep being a little bit disgusted that he was selling so many copies of the 12" single of "Knock On Wood," a big disco hit by Amii Stewart, because he thought it was a total bastardization of the original by R&B singer Eddie Floyd. A just-out-of-college punk like me chuckled at him, because I had never heard the original (I was deeply steeped in pop music, but at the time, aside from Beatles and Beach Boys, my knowledge didn't go much farther back than 1969), so Stewart's version was the only one I knew, and it was fine by me. When I eventually did hear Floyd's original, I liked it and understood what the rep felt, but because the disco song was my first version, and I knew it in the context of the disco boom, I still liked it. I experienced them as two different songs and liked them both.

But certainly the sales rep's reaction is common when one knows an original, especially a beloved one, then hears a cover. I'm not sure what makes a successful cover version in my eyes. I want it to be different enough from the original so that there's a reason for recording it, but not too far off so I can still get a taste of the pleasure of the original. Perhaps the best covers are done in a completely different genre from the original; in addition to the discofied "Knock On Wood," I'm thinking of the R&B versions of "Sugar Sugar" (Wilson Pickett) and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Aretha Franklin), and more recently the gently country-twanged take on Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town" by Sugarland. My favorite Beatles covers are Candyflip's lightly hip-hop "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Oingo Boingo's rockin' "I Am the Walrus," a song one would not automatically assume would make a good cover. Then there are the covers that are basically cunning stunts (Pet Shop Boys with their medley of "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Can't Take Eyes Off of You"), and those that feel like stunts but work remarkably well on their own (Tori Amos' "Smells Like Teen Spirit").

All this thinking comes about because of my recent purchase of two albums of covers, Under the Covers, Vols. 1 & 2, performed by Matthew Sweet (successful indie rocker from the early 90's) and Susanna Hoffs (formerly of the Bangles)--I bought them as entire albums from iTunes, but since I don't have any physical artifact, I have a hard time thinking I actually own the albums, but that's old man fodder for another blog post. The covers are largely quite faithful to the originals, but the duo manage to bring their own jangle-pop stamp to many of the songs. Half the fun here is the interesting selection of tunes; "Monday, Monday," "Warmth of the Sun," "Go All the Way," and "Hello It's Me" were all big mainstream hits and are actually, to my ears, some of the weakest songs here because Sweet and Hoffs seem to just be paying tribute to them and not adding much, though the performances are all more than respectable.

But it's in the lesser-known songs that the duo shine: Marmalade's 60's British hit "I See the Rain" (which I'd never heard before), Love's quirky "Alone Again Or" (their version doesn't seem that different but feels smoother and more fleshed-out), and a very good version of Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues," which succeeds largely because Hoffs takes the vocal lead rather than Sweet, giving it a slightly different gender spin. I like their vocal blend on the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing," Sweet sounds a bit like an in-awe fanboy as he does Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," and they even tackle the pompous Yes song "I've Seen All Good People" and make it listenable.

Some of the above tunes are bonus tracks available only through iTunes. I'm linking to two videos, one a performance of "Cinnamon Girl," and below, a live acoustic take of "Rain" not on either album. If you're familiar with Matthew Sweet, you'll be shocked to see that he seems to have turned into Charlie Daniels. Two thumbs up for both albums (the first volume, of 60's songs, has the edge for me).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

21st Century B-Movie

It's kinda sad that there is no more theatrical outlet for B-movies these days: no double features, no (or darn few) drive-ins, no inner-city grindhouses. Nowadays, the equivalent of the B-movie is the made-for-TV movie or the straight-to-DVD release, which is usually a movie which was made for theatrical release but which never got sold to a distributor. These movies usually have the stink of failure about them by the time they get on the market, and I'm just as bad as any other film snob--I will rarely watch a straight-to-DVD movie, though I did have a positive experience a while back with Kabluey.

I'm glad I took a chance on Night Train, a recent DVD release of a theatrically orphaned movie which was filmed in Bulgaria in 2007. On Christmas Eve, a bedraggled man, popping pills and clutching a Christmas present, runs to catch a train, gets on, and promptly drops dead. The other two passengers in the car, an alcoholic salesman (Steve Zahn) and a young med school student (Leelee Sobieski), open the gift and find a small locked wooden box with what seem to be priceless gems inside. The conductor (Danny Glover) wants to lock the box up until they get to the next stop where they can report the death, but Zahn and Sobieski talk him into an elaborate scheme to get rid of the body and keep the treasure for themselves.

Glover, whom we assume will be the moral center of the story, gives in--he has a sick wife and plans to use his cut of the money to get her better care--and soon we're in Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory as greed and paranoia get the better of the characters. Disposing of the body proves to be a rather messy problem (a funny but graphic scene, and one that shows that Sobieski has what it takes to be the leader of the group), but when they think they're in the clear, who shows up at the next stop but a man who was supposed to meet the dead guy. The important cinematic references become The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly. Just when our anti-heroes think they've taken care of him, the cops stop the train. Around this time, things take a turn for the Twilight Zone, and I'll give away no more of the plot except to say that the ending is both ambiguous and satisfying.

The first thing I liked about this movie is its look: virtually all of it is set on the train decked out with Christmas lights and decorations, giving most scenes a hazy red, green, or blue look that winds up being much creepier than you might think. Despite the limited setting, the active camerawork keeps the film energetic. All of the exterior shots of the train racing through snowy landscapes are done with CGI and look like it, but they're effective nonetheless.

I also liked the movie references. I can't give all of them away, but it's no spoiler to say that the dead guy's name is Cairo, the fat man looking for him is Gutman (both from Maltese Falcon), the salesman's name is Dobbs (Sierra Madre), and an old lady on the train is named Froy (Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes). The mix of noirish thriller, fantasy, and horror works well, and I like the twists and turns the plot takes near the end--not at all realistic, but catnip for movie buffs.

The acting is solid, with Zahn giving the best performance as the schlubby salesman; he gets the few comic lines in the movie and underplays them nicely. (I like that Zahn sometimes looks like a demented Robert Morse, as if his character in How to Succeed in Business had gotten laid off.) Glover does his usual sturdy, authoritative persona, and Sobieski is fine as the quirkiest character, who seems to have unplumbed depths. Richard O'Brien (Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror) has a surprising role. The characters are all underwritten, but this isn't a character-driven drama. Had this movie gotten out to theaters, it would likely have died a quick death, but perhaps it will find an audience on disc, though anyone renting this assuming it's an action quickie will be disappointed, and would probably be bothered by the mid-way turns to fantasy and horror. However, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Big men (and 2 crazy ladies)

I'm going to do my best to catch up quickly on some recent viewing:

POLLOCK (2001): Ed Harris directed this biopic of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock and stars as Pollock, the artist whose style of dripping and spattering paint on huge canvases led to the famous museum retort, "My kid could paint that!" Here he is presented as a disturbed man, certainly an alcoholic and possibly a manic-depressive, who was pretty much always risking alienating his friends and relatives (though his wife, played by Marcia Gay Harden, blames the brother for sending Pollock off on his jags). Solitary creative endeavors like writing and painting are notoriously difficult to dramatize, but Harris does a great job making Pollock's painting style visual and exciting, if not necessarily explicable. Harris is good portraying an unlikeable and generally unfathomable man, and Harden is even better as the wife who puts up with a lot but still manages to stand up for herself once in a while--she won an Oscar for this performance. It was interesting to see Bud Cort (of Harold & Maude) in a supporting role, looking exactly like S.Z. Sakall, the white-haired bumbler Carl from Casablanca.

LOVE IS THE DEVIL (1998): Another biopic of another unpleasant artist, Francis Bacon, played by Derek Jacobi. The focus here is on his relationship with a small-time thief, played by Daniel Craig. Jacobi catches Craig in the middle of robbing his flat, and the two wind up bed (a novel approach to seduction). Against the odds, they forge a relationship, physical and affectionate, though sadomasochistic, but when Jacobi begins to tire of Craig's neediness, things end badly. None of Bacon's artwork is shown in the film, but the director, John Maybury, makes many of the images in the film look like Bacon's thick, exaggerated, impressionist paintings. The most we ever understand about Bacon's inner life is when he is asked about expressing his feelings in his work, he replies, "Feelings? I prefer to show two men fucking." Not a particularly interesting film except for the visual style. Bonus: brief nude shot of Daniel Craig!

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD (2009): John Malkovich plays a magician whose best years are behind him; when he hires a new personal assistant (Colin Hanks), he tries for a comeback. This dry comedy reminded me of the Peter O'Toole film My Favorite Year. In both films, a young man goes through a coming-of-age process, led by a somewhat overbearing entertainer. Though Malkovich is magnetic as Howard, this is really the story of the Hanks character who has just dropped out of law school, despite pressure from his father (played by his real-life father Tom) to stay in; he's adrift trying to find a future that interests him. Of course, there's a love interest, played by the fabulous Emily Blunt (the British secretary in The Devil Wears Prada); in fact, she really seems way too fabulous for Hanks, and that strains the credibility of that plotline. But overall, it's a fun movie (though almost too lightweight) with a couple of clever scenes (one involving an off-screen Jerry Springer). Steve Zahn and Debra Monk are good in supporting roles.

BIG MAN JAPAN (2007): A Japanese man with a superpower (he can grow into a giant, pictured above, with the help of electrocution) is called upon to fight odd creatures that threaten Tokyo, but finds that being a superhero is a thankless job in today's society. This movie has a clever idea and might have made a good short subject, but at almost two hours and with a deliberately slow, even plodding, pace, it's not worth sticking with. It plays out like a documentary, with cameras following Big Man Japan around as an average citizen and as a giant, watching as he barely gets the best of the monsters, who, when defeated, are beamed up into the sky--no explanation is ever given, though I assumed that the monsters were being let loose on purpose, as entertainment for the masses. (?) The effects (mostly CGI) are fine, and the finale is truly weird, but I can't recommend it.

GREY GARDENS (2009): The "2 crazy ladies" movie of my subject line, this is a fictionalized TV-movie remake of the 70's documentary about two relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis who became infamous for living in a wreck of a house which was on the verge of being condemned. The original film documented the daily lives of Little Edie Beale, then in her 50's, a larger-than-life character who loved playing to the camera, and Big Edie, her mother, a more retiring figure who spent most of the day in bed. This film recreates a couple of key scenes from the original, but mostly, it consists of flashbacks that show us how these two former socialites lost (or, more precisely, gave up) their privileged life. I like the original film quite a bit, and this one is almost as good. Drew Barrymore (pictured) does a fantastic job with the accent and mannerisms of Little Edie; some critics have said she doesn't plumb the depths of the character, but frankly in this case, I think the surface is the character; I don't mean to trivialize the real person, but I think her surface was basically an exaggerated version of what was beneath. Jessica Lange is very good as well; the burden of her old-age make-up in the later scenes gets in the way of a full-blooded performance, but she's quite fine as the younger Big Edie. I'm not sure what folks who haven't seen the original Grey Gardens will make of this, but I was impressed and hope that Barrymore gets an Emmy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I think of myself as being as susceptible to winding up an obsessed fan as the average person. For example, I am a sucker for all things Beatles; imagine my distress when I discovered that the newly remastered "Beatles in Mono" boxed set was already sold out at Amazon, and the cheapest it seems to be available elsewhere is for around $400! I read books about the celebrities I like or admire, from Ernest Hemingway to Joni Mitchell. I have a Starbucks DIY tumbler with pictures of Jeremy Piven (at right) all over it. I have mini-posters of 2001 and Casablanca in my cubicle. And, of course, there are my idle crushes on people I only know through Facebook or Twitter (they're like my own private celebrities).

But really, I've realized over the years that I don't have the makings of a truly obsessive fan. I don't intend to pay $400 for the Beatles set; I don't buy new Joni Mitchell albums anymore, and I still haven't gotten around to reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls"; I have no desire to see Piven's latest movie, The Goods; I refused to buy the latest upgrade of Casablanca on DVD; I don't have it in me to become a danger to casual Internet contacts, or even to become much of a pest.

If I wasn't aware of all this before, I certainly am now after reading My Judy Garland Life by British author Susie Boyt. This odd, entertaining, but unsettling little book is part Garland biography and part memoir of Boyt's life. The author was born in 1969, just a few months before Garland's untimely death, and she discovered Garland via "Over the Rainbow"; since then, there's been no turning back. She calls the feeling she has for Garland "hero-worship," perhaps because she admires Garland for overcoming so many obstacles in her private life and giving joy to millions through her acting and singing, even if she was ultimately unable to survive in the face of her problems with drugs and personal relationships.

But to me, the feeling seems more like an overwhelming fixation on Garland. Boyt thinks about her all the time, imagining scenarios in which she could have become a part of Garland's life and helped her out by running her errands or making her dresses, nurturing activities that would have made her know she was loved. This extends to having similar feelings for Liza Minnelli--I half-understand that impulse, as even I root for Liza from afar, feeling oddly sorry for her as someone who could never quite get out from under the burden of being Judy's daughter. Early on, Boyt tells us she has a husband and a daughter, and a couple different jobs, including grief counselor, but if those passages were edited out of the book, I would assume she was a dreadfully lonely overweight loner who has no life except what she can imagine through the figure of Judy Garland. She also writes about her fellow fanatics, calling them "Judy-friends" (and remarkably only one of them is a gay man).

Boyt identifies with Judy in a number of ways: she wanted to be an entertainer but was constantly stymied in her attempts; she grew up in a single-parent household (though she did eventually have some contact with her father); she was put through incredible grief when her boyfriend was killed just before they were to be married. Her obsession with Garland seems to be a way to work through some of these problems, though to be honest, even though she shares a number of anecdotes about herself, they are disjointed and rather vague, and though the book is called a memoir, Boyt rarely comes into strong focus.

Most critics like this book, and some even mention its camp value, but for me, the total lack of camp value is the real problem with it. I kept waiting for some sense that Boyt knows how odd this obsession (or "hero-worship," as she calls it) is for an adult, but there's no distancing device used, no sense of irony or humor or high camp, not when she lovingly goes through Garland's make-up trunk, not when she imagines that ironing Judy's sheets might have made her feel more loved, not even when she contemplates stealing cigarette butts from Liza Minnelli's ashtray.

To her credit, there are bits of humor here and there, she does write a bit about the nature of obsession, and she includes an answer she got to a questionnaire about fan's feelings for Garland that said, "Your questions are really creepy"--and actually, they are. The anecdotes about Garland's life are interesting (best tidbit: that Judy could appear an emotional wreck with her audience clapping and weeping during an "Over the Rainbow" finale, but then whisper to little Liza, who came rushing onstage to comfort her mother, "Wanna send out for Chinese tonight?"), but overall the experience of reading this book is a little uncomfortable. I wound up feeling about Boyt like she felt about Judy; I'd like to pat her on the back and say, "Susie, things will be OK. Can Jeremy Piven and I fold your blankets for you?"