Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Same old new season, part 2

Elementary: I am something of a Sherlock Holmes buff, though most real buffs would probably think me a pantywaist. I have not read all, or even most, of the Doyle stories; I enjoy more the homages and pastiches of other authors; my favorite incarnation of the great detective is Basil Rathbone. Yes, I know that Nigel Bruce played Watson as too much of a nincompoop bumbler, and many fans prefer Jeremy Brett in the British TV versions, but for me, Rathbone will always be the #1 Holmes. I don't like the modern updating from the BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch--part of the problem is the BBC series problem that most episodes are 90 minutes or more and feel padded because they should be 60 minutes. This modern version is under an hour and there is promise in the situation, but I don't care for the actors. Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes, a British detective living in the United States, who has just come out of rehab (nice touch). Lucy Liu is Watson, a woman being paid by Holmes' father to be his companion to make sure he stays out of trouble. Aiden Quinn, who looks better now than he did in his heyday, is the police captain with whom Holmes works. I didn't like the pilot, and I haven't seen any more, though I might drop back in on it to see if it finds a groove. But since my problem involves the lackluster performances given by the two stars, that seems doubtful.

666 Park Avenue: As above, there is promise in the set-up: Satan and his lovely minion (Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams, above) own a grand old apartment building in Manhattan, and they make deals with various tenants; the tenants get what they want (talent, fame) but if they don't make good on their end of the deal, they are snatched away into Hell--or at least into the apartment building walls. I was looking for this to be an anthology series of sorts, with a different person dealt with in each episode, but while that may happen, there is a arc story which involves a nice young couple who has been hired to manage the building. My problem with that, as with American Horror Story last year, is this: why would this couple hang around for an entire season when they begin to realize what they've gotten into? A mini-series would seem to be the better outlet for that. The first scene of the pilot was nicely creepy: a musician playing violin on stage in an orchestra suddenly finds his fingers bleeding copiously, realizes that O'Quinn is watching from a box, and races out of the theater to his apartment, where O'Quinn makes him pay the price for his failure to carry out whatever he was supposed to do. But the show got boring pretty quickly after that and I haven't made a return visit.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Same old new season, part 1

I am not the person to make judgments on the new TV season, as TV series today are not made for me. I don't care for hour-long dramas in general (especially crime and medical shows), I never watch reality shows, and even sitcoms have to be just right for me to commit to watching (love Friends and Cheers and Big Bang Theory, don't like Two and a Half Men or Home Improvement). Still, here's my two cents on the few new shows I've sampled.

Go On: This was the most promising fall show for me: it's a sitcom with Matthew Perry, whom I loved on Friends and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I even liked him in the ill-fated Mr. Sunshine--he and Alison Janney were good, the rest of the cast, not so much. Here, he's the host of a radio sports show whose wife has just died in a car accident, and his bosses insist that he join a grief & loss therapy group. The humor comes from his cocky attitude (claiming he doesn't need help) and the interaction of the group members. Some of the set-ups are predictable, such as the potential for attraction between Perry and the therapist (Laura Benati); some are less so, such as the strange bearded guy (Brett Gelman) who spouts inappropriate remarks and non sequiturs with some frequency.

So far, all of the episodes have had at least one serious, sad moment, usually involving a breakthough that Perry has had in his grieving process. Julie White is very good as the lesbian getting over the death of her partner, though John Cho, as Perry's boss, has been mostly wasted so far, but I'll stick with the show for a while. I wonder how they'll keep him in the group for more than one season if he keeps making grief breakthroughs like he has.

The New Normal: A gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannels) hires a young single mother (Georgia King) to be a surrogate mother. The three of them (and King's young daughter, Bebe Wood) get along fabulously but King's nasty bigoted grandmother (Ellen Barkin) is a constant thorn in everyone's side. What I like: the relationship between Bartha and Rannels is the closest thing on TV to a real gay relationship I've seen yet. They are affectionate, funny, and when they disagree, they talk things out without raising their voices. Much as I like Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, they are far more loud and aggressive than most gay couples I know--and I realize that "loud and aggressive" is the default tone for all the couples on that show. Also, Bebe Wood gave an incredible performance in an episode in which she imitated the speech and mannerisms of Little Edie from Grey Gardens for the entire show--don't ask, you have to see it (it's called "Sofa's Choice").

What I don't like: Barkin's character and delivery are too harsh. In small doses, her nasty, fiery attitude is funny, but her role is too big and she unbalances the show. Perhaps to make up for this, the show winds up being too preachy. I want to like this, but if it doesn't strike a different tone soon, I will give it up.  I'll cover a couple more shows in a few days.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Funny as damnit

I discovered P.G. Wodehouse back in 1980, when I was living away from my parents for the first time. I had a job I didn't especially like, was living with a roommate I didn't especially like, had broken up with a boyfriend, and I didn't have a car. Things seemed a bit on the dark and gloomy side. Then I discovered Wodehouse through his novel Full Moon and found myself laughing out loud on practically every page. Within a couple of months, I had a better job, a car, and a new boyfriend with whom I eventually moved in. Clearly, Wodehouse changed my life!

I got on a bit of a Wodehouse jag, reading 3 or 4 novels and some short stories, and over the years I kept buying his books, and have accumulated over 20 Wodehouse volumes. But my guilty secret is that I that after that first rush, I quit reading him. He is a very witty writer, but his plots are all the same. In his most famous series, Jeeves is a valet to young rich gadabout Bertie Wooster and is constantly getting Bertie out of all kinds of scrapes, mostly involving wriggling out of unwanted engagements with young women. His other famous series involves escapades among the rich and the servants (and often, some prize pigs) at Blandings Castle. I would find myself laughing quite a bit, but then I'd get to page 40 and realize that the story was going in the same direction as all the others, involving characters I couldn't keep track of and didn't really like. Funny as damnit, as Bertie might say, but I'd get bogged down, close the book, and never pick it back up.

Last month, I bought a Wodehouse reprint (many if not most of his over 100 books, written between 1915 and 1974, have remained in print), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, read it all the way through and enjoyed it. This time when I hit page 40, I realized that the plots and the characters don't really matter very much--what matters is, as a quote on the cover from Simon Brett says, the way Wodehouse plays with language. More to the point in the Jeeves books, it's the narrative tone of Bertie Wooster, a jackassedly unreliable narrator who gets everything wrong but who, thanks to the intervention of Jeeves, comes up smelling like a rose by the end.

Here is Wooster on his own image: "'Wooster,' those who know me have sometimes said, 'may be a pretty total loss during the daytime hours, but plunge the world into darkness, switch on the soft lights, uncork the champagne and shove a dinner into him, and you'd be surprised." Describing himself leaping in the air to get away from a snarling dog: "A cat on hot bricks could not have moved with greater nippiness." I now find myself wanting to say things like, "Well, I'll be dashed" and "Got to leg it home" and "She was what-the-helling all day" in casual conversation. My favorite Woosterism is using initials, sometimes confusingly. He refers to the Woosters' being able to "take the rough with the s." and it took me a minute to figure out the s. was the smooth. Pouring oil on troubled w. was a little more obvious.

Now that I've decided not to worry about plot or characterization, I may be at the beginning of another Wodehouse jag. I'm watching some of the Jeeves and Wooster shows from the 90s with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (pictured above) and a colleague of mine at work who loves Wodehouse has decided to read some Wodehouse along with me, so we'll have our own little 2-person book club, laughing our a.'s off and ignoring the real world.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

From Space Oddity to Major Tom's a junkie

When I was a teenager, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust was one of my favorite albums. It was mysterious, it was science-fiction, it was gender-bending, and it rocked. So I was quite interested in a new book, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett. The format of the book is rather unusual: it's essentially a song-by-song analysis of Bowie's entire recorded output of the decade, presented chronologically, with sidebars for albums analysis and biographical information. Each song has a number (like an opus number) for easy reference, and Doggett includes a section in back covering most of Bowie's pre-1970 work as well.

Having recently read a decent Bowie biography recently (David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka), I was looking for this book to complement that a stricter focus on the music. Some of the individual analyses are interesting, and when he sets up the context well for specific albums (the Berlin albums with Brian Eno, for example), it can be downright compelling reading. But the book occupies a strange place, stuck between being a reference work and a narrative. At times, as with the Ziggy Stardust and Eno eras, Doggett does get a good narrative arc going, but at other times, particularly during Station to Station and Young Americans years, the story stutters along in fits and starts. He also misses, or maybe deliberately omits some well-known facts about the songs (like the origin of "TVC-15" involving Iggy Pop's girlfriend disappearing into a TV set). Interesting, but too quirkily hit-or-miss to be essential.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Coen Brothers in Norway

OK, once again I try to revive this blog. I don't seem to have the energy to write long critical analytic posts about books, TV and current movies anymore--must be using all that juice on my classic movie blog. So here I re-commit to posting shorter entries on the media I consume, right after I consume it--though I have a lot of movies from the past year or so to work in as well. First up is Headhunters, a Norwegian film based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø. Roger (Aksel Hennie), a guy who does executive headhunting, is also an art thief on the side, largely so he can keep living beyond his means to impress his lovely wife (and his mistress). When he headhunts Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), former head of a GPS company, he finds out that the man has a rare painting which had been was stolen by the Nazis, so in the grand tradition of crime films, Roger decides to pull one last big heist then call it quits. Of course, it turns out to be not so easy; Clas isn't quite what he seems to be and he soon turns the tables on Roger, perhaps getting help from the wife and the mistress, not to mention the aforementioned GPS company.

With narrative whiplash, dark and gory comic setpieces, and characters you shouldn't like but do, this feels very much like a Coen Brothers film, particularly Blood Simple, which for my money is still their best. This film isn't quite that good, but it's much more interesting (and more perversely fun) than the DVD box art makes it look. It is not an action/adventure hit-man movie with Jason Statham. It is a quirky crime-cum-noir indie film with a good cast and an unusual setting (Norway). I have to admit the main reason we watched this was because of the presence of the ridiculously comic-book-handsome Coster-Waldau (above), who plays Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, and he is indeed very good, as is Hennie. I suspect the inevitable Hollywood remake might feature Aaron Eckhart as Clas and Steve Buscemi as Roger, and they would be fine, but don't wait, go get this one, especially if you like your crime films darkly funny, fairly bloody, and a little scatological.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reading the Supremes

I joke about all the things in my childhood that "made me gay": seeing The Music Man on TV, buying the cast album of Man of La Mancha, reading Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, taking acting lessons and having to recite "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden," all of which happened between the ages of 9 and 11. I could also blame (or credit) Diana Ross and the Supremes. One the earliest non-Beatles 45s I bought was their "Love Child." I was 12 and didn't completely understand the meaning behind the lyrics, but I sure belted them out in my best diva fashion as I played the record, over and over, in my bedroom. Sadly, "Love Child" was one of their last big hits before Miss Ross left for a solo career, though later in my teens, I caught up with their earlier hits, and have a vivid memory of lip-syncing and dancing to "Stop! In the Name of Love" at high school parties.

I just finished reading a bio of the group, The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal by Mark Ribowsky. I was too young to experience the Supremes' earliest glory days when they had an unprecedented ten #1 hits between 1964 and 1967, but one of things this book does well is to recreate the pop culture milieu of that era and show just how successful they were and how important they were to Motown Records and its founder, Berry Gordy. In fact, Gordy seems to have focused so strongly on the Supremes that he ignored other Motown talent in the late 60s, and may have hastened the end of Motown's glory days. He was in love with Ross and with the money and power that the Supreme's fame brought him.

The book also goes into great detail about the acrimony in the group, especially against Florence Ballard (at right), who was considered troublesome, expelled from the group in 1968, struggled with alcoholism and died a few years later. In fact, in some ways, Ballard is the central character in Ribowsky's narrative. This is an interesting view, though I think it was partly necessitated by his reliance on only a handful of fresh interviews, relying largely on previous published biographies and autobiographies. Ribowsky clearly doesn't always believe what Ross, Gordy and Mary Wilson have written about themselves, but he's not always able to build a persuasive alternate story, except with Ballard's life, which isn't hard to do given the posthumous attention she's gotten--Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for playing a fictional Ballard in the movie Dreamgirls.

But for me, Ribowsky's book is essential reading for the focus it puts on the music. Ross is a good song stylist, but does not have an especially strong voice; Ballard and Wilson, who, after 1967, never sang lead vocals on any of their hits, are fine but given their use as background singers, could have, in terms of sound, been replaced by anyone--indeed in the last few years, they only sang in concert, not on the records, which were recorded with studio singers. Ribowsky made me realize that the appeal of their music (and that of probably 75% of pop music) is in the the production and the songwriting.

His crucial interviews are with the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie, who were two-thirds of the legendary songwriting and producing team known as Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H), responsible for all the Supremes' hits until 1968, as well as hits for Marvin Gaye ("How Sweet It Is"), the Four Tops ("I Can't Help Myself," "Reach Out I'll Be There") and Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave"). Though much credit for Motown's success has been given recently to the pack of studio musicians, informally called the Funk Brothers, who played on most of the hits, the Hollands make a case for the equal importance of their catchy songs and production hooks.

And sure enough, no matter how good the voices are or how funky the musicians were, it's H-D-H's work that stands out to me: the marching percussion that leads to the chanted "Baby, baby" at the beginning of "Where Did Our Love Go"; the swirling organ figure that leads to the shouted "Stop!" on "Stop! In the Name of Love"; Diana name-checking Florence and Mary in "Back in My Arms Again" ("And Flo, she don't know/'Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo"); the psychedelic swirls of "Reflections"; and, of course, the symphonic bombast of "Love Child." When I was 12 and singing along with lines like "Started my life/In a worn torn dress that somebody threw out," I wasn't identifying with the song, I was glorying in the music, the rhythms, the voices, and the words, and all of those together made (and still make) the music of the Supremes unforgettable.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Beach Boys, Then and Now

In 1967, Brian Wilson drove himself into a nervous breakdown trying to complete an album for the Beach Boys called Smile. Stepping away from the simple surfing and puppy love songs the Boys were known for, and feeling like they were in a contest with the Beatles for the next Giant Step Forward (after Rubber Soul and Revolver) this was going to be an Important Statement. "Good Vibrations" came out as a single and was indeed a huge smash and a Step Forward, but the album was never completed; had it been finished and released on time, in January of 67, it certainly would have been acclaimed as the 1st psychedelic masterpiece of the year--that summer would see the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper, perhaps the biggest single Giant Step Forward in all of pop music. Instead, it came out in the fall as a cobbled-together collection of songs called Smiley Smile.  Most of the songs meant for the original Smile were eventually released piecemeal on various albums over the years, and in 2002, Brian Wilson recorded an all-new version of the original Smile material. It was interesting  and weird and fun, though Wilson's voice wasn't at its peak, and as much as I love the Wondermints, the band that Wilson was recording with, the lack of Beach Boys harmonies hurt the album.

Last year, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions, a newly edited compilation of original Smile material, put together following the order that Wilson established on his re-recording, and it's a revelation, even after hearing the 2002 version. Had this come out in 1967, it surely would have been a critical hit, and possibly a commercial one too, if it had been accepted as an album meant to be listened to all the way through in one sitting. There aren't many actual songs here, by which I mean songs of 2 or 3 minutes with a verse-chorus-verse structure. There are 19 tracks and only 11 of them are over 2:30 in length. 5 are a minute or less, just fragments or extended segues. Aside from "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations," and maybe "Surf's Up" (all of which are songs made up of distinct sections or fragments) none of these pieces will stick in my mind as songs. But as a 50-minute album, it's a wonderful listen.

What will make me return to this album are the heavenly harmonies, the gorgeous arrangements (lots of tinkly keyboards), and the flow of the fragments as they've been pieced together. Apparently, Wilson (pictured above) says that this still isn't really Smile as he would have released it in 1967, but it sounds right. Unfortunately, the lyrics by Van Dyke Parks are a major sticking point. The Beach Boys went, perhaps too quickly, from surf, sun, and the girl next door to artsy avant-garde lyrics which make no narrative sense. Even "Heroes and Villains," which was a top 20 hit in 1967, isn't a straightforward lyric sequence. The songs give the impression of being about American history and Americana: "Rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over"; "Have you seen the grand coolie workin' on the railroad?"; "The Spanish and Indian home of the heroes and villains." There are references to barnyards, vegetables, Auld Lang Syne, and "home on the range," and "You Are My Sunshine" is directly quoted. Frustratingly, for those pop fans like me who read lyric sheets, there are damn few places where the words do more than just create an impressionistic haze--hence the psychedelic reputation. But if you turn off (or down) your left brain, it's a great pleasure to just let this album wash over you, beginning with the utterly beautiful wordless acapella chant, "Our Prayer," and ending with the sublime "Good Vibrations" in a version with a different last half than the one everyone knows.

The Boys have regrouped recently for a 50th anniversary album and tour, and it's nice to report that the new album, That's Why God Made the Radio, is a good one. Four of the guys who were on Smile (Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston) handle most of the vocals and they still sound fine. Once again, lyrics can be a problem: "Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We're back together," in a song called "Spring Vacation." But at least the songs make sense, and the subjects are familiar Beach Boys touchstones: radio, summertime, romance, beaches, and good times. The lyrics of the last half of the album are of the sadder but wiser variety: "Summer's gone/It's finally sinking in." One of the prettiest songs, "Daybreak Over the Ocean," is essentially a Mike Love solo cut that he sings with his family. And, a bit like Smile, the album works well consumed in one sitting. Even better, they don't sound like a bunch of old guys making one last stab at working together. They sound like a fully functioning, fully engaged pop band.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I loved comic books and science fiction in my youth, but in my middle age, I am generally not a fan of recent movies of these genres. 2001: A Space Odyssey is sci-fi's cinematic zenith and will never be bested. Comic book movies, which used to be low-budget serials and B-films, now have huge budgets so they can be fully realized on the big screen, but I find them mostly to be a lot of sound and fury over very little--oddly, perhaps, my favorite superhero films are the "dumb" ones, like Green Lantern and the Fantastic Four movies, which concentrate more on cosmic bad-guy bashing and less on personal angst and darkness. Having said that, it comes as no surprise that I'm not a fan of two big, recent examples of these genres, The Avengers and John Carter.

The most interesting thing about the Avengers movie is that the build-up to it was skillfully orchestrated, with entire movies featuring Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor seeming to exist primarily as feature-length appetizers for this main course. In a nutshell, a group of superheroes who don't exactly play well together are asked to band together to battle the evil Norse god Loki (introduced in last year's Thor movie) when he tries to take over the world. Generally, personality problems are downplayed here in favor of action.  But the action scenes are all terribly long and exhausting and incoherent in the way that most comic book movie action scenes are. At almost 2 1/2 hours, it could easily be cut to about 100 minutes, most of the loss coming from the battle scenes--especially the scenes in the middle that feature the heroes fighting among themselves, which really bog down the movie. I enjoyed some of the acting. Robert Downey Jr. continues to impress with his light touch as Iron Man/Tony Stark, and Jeremy Renner (pictured below) is nicely subdued as the archer Hawkeye. I also liked Scarlett Johansson, who I usually dislike, as Black Widow. But despite everything being done in supersized doses of action (and an unimpressive use of 3D), this one won't lose much at home on DVD.

The Avengers, distributed by Disney, has become a blockbuster, but Disney's other recent big action film, John Carter, bombed at the box office, at least relative to its cost.  A lot of people went to see it, but word of mouth was not good and there was not the repeat business it would have needed to make back its $250 million dollar budget. I was actually looking forward to this since in my youth, I was a fan of the John Carter of Mars pulp sci-fi books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sadly, this film, the first live-action work from Pixar director Andrew Stanton, appears to have killed off the franchise already.  A low-budget, direct-to-video version appeared a couple of years ago, and though it's cheap and poorly acted (see my review here), it's about as enjoyable as this bloated, convoluted film.

John Carter, a Civil War veteran, is wounded on Earth, stumbles into a cave, and finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants) where he winds up in the middle of a Barsoomian civil war between different races of creatures. He falls in love with a princess (the original novel, the first of several, is called A Princess of Mars) and helps her side in the planet-wide battle. To do Carter right, spectacular special effects are called for (Carter can leap huge distances, one race of beings is green and has 4 arms) and generally, this movie gets the look and feel of Barsoom right.  Below is one of the best effects, the lobster-like airship.

The convoluted pulp plot isn't handled very well, but that alone is not fatal--as long as we know the good guys from the bad, we can muddle through. But I failed to feel engaged with any character (except maybe for the giant cute alien dog that bounds after Carter throughout) and again, action scene overkill dully hammers out any enthusiasm I had worked up for the movie. Here, acting is not much of a  consolation: Taylor Kitsch is terrible and isn't muscled enough for the part, and the few actors who are good (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and Dominic West) don't get much screen time. Lynn Collins as the Princess Dejah Thoris is OK but she's not enough to make this movie interesting. Potential for a good series is wasted due to a bloated budget, unclear narrative, and an uninspiring lead actor.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The good, the bad and the Smash

Smash has ended its first season (and been renewed for a second) and so I will include spoilers here as I discuss the high and low points of the show.  I wrote about the first few episodes already here and will try not to repeat myself too much, but generally things went along much as I expected them to.  The soap opera drama carried the day over the potentially more interesting examination of what goes into the making of a Broadway musical.  Debra Messing cheated on her husband with a man from her past, the actor chosen to play Joe DiMaggio in Bombshell, and her husband found out and left her (briefly) until their teenage son got in trouble.  After the Bombshell workshop, which featured Megan Hilty as Marilyn, the producers decided to go for a big Hollywood name (played by Uma Thurman, and if she was channeling a specific real-life actress, it wasn't clear to me), though both Hilty and her rival Katherine McPhee were given roles in the chorus, with McPhee being made understudy.  On the opening night of the Boston tryout, someone spiked Thurman's smoothie with peanuts--she's allergic.  Over the objections of most of the creative team, the director (Jack Davenport) picked McPhee to go on rather than Hilty, and McPhee was a "smash," leaving Hilty in her dressing room contemplating a Monroe-like suicide with a bottle of pills.

The good:  Debra Messing and Angelica Huston (as the producer, pictured above with Davenport) continued to give the best performances, though Messing had a few too many teary scenes as her domestic drama developed.  Huston met a scruffy bartender whom she's sleeping with and who is helping to bankroll her show.  The Bombshell show numbers continued to be strong, though the single best number of the season was "A Thousand and One Nights," a Bollywood-style fantasy number performed by McPhee and featuring virtually the entire cast.  The music and costumes were fun and the number managed to comment wordlessly but effectively on almost every storyline in  the show.  After a shaky introduction, Thurman (below with McPhee) did a nice job as the obnoxious star who can't sing and tries to take over the production.  And Hilty remained strong, even as she was forced by the script to slip into the soap opera "bad girl" role--though to be fair, her character was given some sympathetic moments.

The bad:  Megan Hilty is still clearly the right choice for Marilyn, and the writers and the actor (Davenport) were unsuccessful at making us understand why the director chose McPhee for the starring role.  I appreciate McPhee's talents, though they seem limited, but her singing is almost always augmented by Auto-Tune technology to sharpen it up, whereas Hilty's big voice doesn't need gimmickry.  It feels like the writers knew the audience would be on Hilty's side, as they make Davenport's decision to use McPhee an unpopular one among the rest of the creative team.  Regardless, what should have been a sure-fire feel-good climax as McPhee plays Marilyn fell flat for me (and, according to the blogosphere, many other regular viewers as well).

They didn't seem to know what to do with McPhee's good-hearted boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) so he had a one-night stand with Hilty, and now comes news that Jaffrey will not return next season.  Christian Borle, as Messing's songwriting partner (above in the Bollywood number), comes off well acting-wise, but his personal storylines have been boring and led nowhere.  Some of the dancers have been fleshed out a bit, and I hope will continue to add color to future episodes.  I'll watch next year, but I'll be looking for more fun, and fewer pre-existing pop songs done Karaoke-style by the stars--I hope they'll use Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the writers of the Marilyn songs, more.  And I'll be waiting for Megan Hilty to get her reward.    

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Last Horror Movie

It's difficult to write meaningfully about The Cabin in the Woods, the new horror film from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, without using all kinds of spoilers.  To say that it isn't really a horror movie as much as a postmodern commentary on the horror genre, with tones of sci-fi, comedy, religion, and even Lovecraft thrown into the mix may be giving too much away, but most of the above becomes apparent to the viewer after only a few minutes into the movie.  Some critics have noted that this is the ultimate, as in last, horror movie, and while that is certainly not true, I understand the feeling: after watching this, I wondered, where else can the genre go and still move forward?

Two things are happening here (well, three things, but I can't reveal that third thing although you will find a couple of clues in this review):  1) five college students, the usual mix from shy girl to studly guy to stoned joker, head off for a weekend at an isolated cabin in the woods; 2) two white-collar guys in what looks like a small-scale Mission Control building, are observing the five all the way, from when they leave their apartments to their arrival at the cabin and beyond.  It soon becomes apparent that the two guys (and a large team of assistants) are to some degree controlling what happens to the kids.  The tone in the office is light-hearted, with bets going on as to what the kids will do and what will happen to them.  My first thought was that the kids were unwittingly either starring in a reality TV show, or participating in a secret scientific experiment, but things soon take a dark turn when zombies appear and people start dying--or do they?

And that's about all I can say about the plot mechanics.  Not only would more detail spoil the twists, it would spoil the fun.  And despite the blood and gore, this is a fun movie, though ultimately, it really isn't.  The apocalyptic tone that takes hold near the end cancels out some of the fun.  This movie is not about the actors, though they all do OK, with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins standouts as the two white-collar guys.  It's not even about the effects:  there aren't many effects in the first half, and the last half is filled with CGI, but I think the movie would have worked even with a lower budget.  It's about the ideas: about the horror genre, about human nature, about our mythologies.  And a little bit about what scares us in the dark.  The two best scenes in the movie: 1) early on, when the five kids go down into the cabin's dark basement and find, well, every possible spooky artifact that could ever set a horror movie's narrative in motion; 2) a scene near the end which I can't describe except to say it happens when a bunch of elevator doors all open at once--I was scared, I laughed, and I was in awe all at the same time, three feelings that this movie conjures up regularly.  It's not perfect--a more detailed backstory would have filled in some glaring plotholes--but it's damn fun, and a little scary, and kinda awesome.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Walter Pidgeon?!?

According to his memoir, Full Service, Scotty Bowers, a Marine in WWII, spent a good chunk of his life as a pimp and a whore to Hollywood stars and celebrities, male and female. The subtitle of the book, My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, pretty much sums up its appeal. I love a gossipy tell-all as much as the next bitch, but this one leaves a lot to be desired.

It opens with a bang, so to speak, as young studly Bowers, a gas station attendant in Hollywood, is hit on by Walter Pidgeon, taken to a Hollywood mansion swimming pool, and has a three-way with Pidgeon and a non-celeb. Starting with Pidgeon is a good move to establish your credentials; he's not the biggest name these days, and he's not someone about whom I've ever heard many gay rumors. (I almost titled this post, "I Blew Walter Pidgeon," but that would have been too scandalous even for me.) But most of the rest of the parade of celebs (mostly gay or bisexual) that pass through this book are the usual suspects: Charles Laughton, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Katherine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Ramon Novarro, Cary Grant & Randolph Scott (pictured below) and many more. It's a hopping busy gas station.

The problem with this book is that it is terribly written. The style, construction, and narrative flow are all just awful. Bowers apparently (with his co-author Lionel Friedberg) didn't want this to be pornographic--there is almost no graphic sexual content--but there's no other reason to read this book than to be titillated. The simplistic style apes that of porn fiction, but without the porn all you have is deadly dull prose. It's also repetitive; all of the stars are his dear friends (except for Roddy McDowell, with whom he apparently didn't get along), and he uses the word "trick" and its variations constantly--he sets up tricks for Hepburn, he tricks with Perkins, etc. Despite all the tricking, he insists he wasn't a pimp because he didn't take money, he just made arrangements for others for fun, or out of the goodness of his heart, but still, a pimp's a pimp for all that.

Bowers rarely come to life in these pages. I believe he's real and his adventures are probably real, but we get very little sense of any inner life. Every so often (too often, in fact), he notes that he's not one to judge the morality or kinkiness or his "friends," and his background story is moderately interesting, but there is absolutely no reflection or philosophizing that goes any deeper than, "To each his own."

If you're willing to brave bad prose and a couple of fairly standard coming-of-age chapters, you will get to a few juicy stories. Most interesting to me is his claim about Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I've read that their much-vaunted romance was more an intense friendship than a love affair, but Bowers claims that they didn't even like each other very much. There's also a three-way with Errol Flynn and a young lady that sounds like it really happened, and he tells us that Tyrone Power was into watersports and scat (check Wikipedia). J. Edgar Hoover, Brian Epstein, Cole Porter, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor--Eddie and Wallis--all get a few paragraphs, but honestly after a while, it all sounded either fake or exaggerated. Bowers should have taken some hints from Xaviera Hollander (The Happy Hooker) and at least made the book a hot read. But it's not.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Broadway on TV

The new show Smash is about the making of a Broadway musical; though hit musicals still tour the country, the audience for such a show would seem to be fairly small, especially in terms of audience size needed for a network hit (at least 8 million, I think), but recent programs like American Idol and (especially) Glee have made its appearance possible. As a theater fan, I was looking forward to this show, and the pilot episode was promising, but that promise is being squandered.

The plot revolves around a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe: the songwriting team working on it, the producer trying to raise money for it, the hopefuls auditioning for it, the director putting it on, and various tangential folks (assistants, friends, family). When the (TV) show sticks with the (Broadway) show, it is great fun. As song and dance numbers are rehearsed, we see the actual bare-bones rehearsal intercut with the full-fledged vision the creators have for the finished numbers, and these usually wind up the best parts of the show. The original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, co-writers of the musical Hairspray, are quite good and feel like authentic show tunes.

At least two of the actors are very good: Debra Messing as one-half of the songwriting team and Angelica Huston as the producer. Both are saddled with soap opera plots: Messing and her husband are trying to adopt a baby (though why, when they have a teenage boy, is never explained) and Huston is going through a messy divorce from her former co-producer. The best running gag involves Huston tossing a martini in her ex-husband's face. Every time a drink and the husband are in the shot, you know it's going to end up splashed across his face. For some reason, I haven't gotten tired of this yet--in fact, I look forward to it.

That's the good. The rest is not so good. There's the gay composer who is given little to do, his straight assistant who started out sweet and is becoming a creep, and the somewhat slimy director who sleeps with his leading ladies. The main focus is on the two women vying for the lead role of Marilyn. Katherine McPhee (at the top of the pyramid in the logo photo) is the nice girl from the sticks trying for her first role outside of the chorus. We seem to be steered toward favoring her, as she is pretty, pleasant, friendly, and of course, the underdog. But her personality is bland and her voice is plain and overprocessed, making her sound like a mid-range "Idol" contestant. Megan Hilty, the other hopeful (pictured above), has played supporting roles on Broadway and has the advantage of already being blond and fairly buxom, and her voice is far more of a natural "Broadway belter." What I like is that, in some ways, we root for both of them; neither one has been demonized (yet). But Hilty is so clearly the better option for the role of Marilyn that there was very little suspense in the first few shows--SPOILER!: Hilty gets the role, though I'm wondering if what's in store for McPhee is to be the understudy who gets to go on in the lead at the last minute.

My biggest problems with the show so far involve the soap-opera elements, and I guess that's not fair because it really is a soap opera. I was hoping for more color, more fun, more larger-than-life personalities, or conversely, more reality about how stage actors struggle against the odds. The show is pitched in the middle right now and, though I'll probably stick with it, I'm feeling like an opportunity for a really interesting and enjoyable show on this subject has been lost.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Macca the jazzbo

Well, it's been a while. I used to post to this blog when I had a reference desk job in a library and I had a fair amount of time on my hands in front of a computer. Now my library job is in Technical Services, which means I'm not in the public eye, but I'm busy in front of the computer all day long, hence fewer posts here over the past year. I'm still consuming media, but I have less time to think and write about my consumption. So in order to reboot my blog, I'm going to try and write shorter posts.

I'll start with Kisses on the Bottom, the new Paul McCartney album. I love Paul, but he's largely a spent force on the music scene. He gets an album out every few years, there are usually respectable reviews, it hits the charts for a few weeks, then disappears. This new one is a collection of standards, or at least older songs. Some truly are standards ("Bye Bye Blackbird," "It's Only a Paper Moon") and some are songs that are less well-remembered ("Get Yourself Another Fool," a cute novelty song called "My Very Good Friend the Milkman"). He performs them in nightclub-jazz style--subdued vocals, brushes on drums--and he has some musicians with true jazz chops, including Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli, backing him.

But Paul is not a jazz singer, and he strains to sound like one. For most of the album, he sounds like a very old man half-whispering the songs. My first thought was, Oh, poor Paul, he can't sing anymore. But on a handful of songs, including the upbeat "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," he sounds like the same old Paul. So I'm guessing on the other songs, he was trying on the "jazz singer in a film noir nightclub" suit. It doesn't fit well. As an experiment, it was fun to listen to once, but the album is not a keeper. The odd title, by the way, comes from a line in "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" about putting XXXs at the bottom of a letter.