Monday, March 6, 2017

Life with Archie

I read a lot of comic books in my youth (back in the 60s and 70s), mostly DC superheroes lines, but my guilty pleasures were the Archie comics. Since Archie has, against all odds, retained a presence in current popular culture, I assume I don't have to go into a lot of detail about his background. Suffice to say that the stories focus on red-haired high school student Archie Andrews, his off-and-on girlfriends (the rich and bitchy Veronica Lodge, the perky and innocent Betty Cooper), his buddies (the slacker Jughead and cocky jock Reggie), and his misadventures at Riverdale High. The details in the comics have changed to keep up with the times, most notably with the addition of gay student Kevin Keller, but the overarching themes remains the same: trouble with girls, trouble with teachers, trouble with money, etc.

The new CW series Riverdale takes these iconic characters (they've been around since 1942) and puts them not only into the 21st century, but into a small-town gothic atmosphere. Much has been made of the show's resemblances to Twin Peaks, and that is certainly true on the surface, though the surreal dreamlike quality of that show has not been carried over here. I liked the show quite a bit in the beginning, mostly watching how they were both updating and honoring the original characters. Archie was a likable but clueless kid; here, he's likable but sensitive, playing football but also concentrating on his songwriting hobby, which he takes seriously. Veronica is the rich girl who has, had to move from Manhattan back to her mom's hometown because her rich father has been jailed on fraud charges. Jughead is less a doofus and more a loner. Betty is the closest to being like her comic book self, blonde and perky and carrying a torch for Archie; they're best friends but he can't quite see her has a partner in romance. Kevin is delightfully and openly gay (happy, not tormented); Reggie has become downgraded to a bullying bit player, and other side characters like Moose, Dilton Doily, and Josie and the Pussycats are also present.

Even bigger changes have happened to the adults. In the comic books, parents are basically background dressing (except Veronica's dad). Here, they all have backstories, mostly sad ones. The most disturbing change is in Betty's mom, who doesn't like Archie or Veronica, and Betty's dad, whs, who may be implicated in a murder. The prim elderly teacher Miss Grundy has been turned into a mild-mannered music teacher who seems to be a cougar at heart--she has a torrid affair, if short-lived, affair with Archie.

All the characters, young and old, now lean toward depression and brooding, largely because, as in Twin Peaks, the overarching narrative involves an unsolved murder, that of Cheryl Blossom's brother Jason. The first few episodes were an interesting mix of humor and whimsy (watching how the characters and situations would be adapted) and creepiness (the weirdness of the parents, the almost incestuous vibe between the Blossom siblings). Veronica and Kevin (pictured below) had a funny "meet cute" moment; Josie and the Pussycats snuck in a snatch of the Archies' 60s hit "Sugar, Sugar"--BTW, the Archies are another guilty pleasure of mine, perhaps the greatest bubblegum group of the era; the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle was played around with a bit before being dropped completely; and Veronica actually called Archie "Archiekins."

I was really enjoying the show for a while, but now, six episodes in, the glow is fading. The humor and whimsy levels have dropped precipitously and it's becoming just another gloomy show about teenagers. I don't like TV shows that focus on teens, but teens seem to be a major market for the CW (Vampire Diaries, lots of DC superhero shows) so I guess I should have expected this. The acting in general is fine: KJ Apa is a surprisingly hunky and handsome Archie, Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes are note-perfect as Betty and Veronica, Casey Cott is an appealingly snarky Kevin, and the adults (Luke Perry as Mr. Andrews, Marisol Nichols as Mrs. Lodge, and Madchen Amick--an actual Twin Peaks alumnus--as Betty's mom) are all fine. I also have to mention Cole Spouse as Jughead--when I realized that he played Ross' son Ben in Friends, I felt incredibly old! I'm just wishing the scripting was better, that the blend of mystery and humor that worked so well in the first few episodes had been sustained. I'll stick with it for the season, which may be as long as it lasts given the ratings drop it's experienced lately).

[BTW, the product placement involving Cover Girl is out of control. In almost every episode, in addition to ads for Cover Girl featuring Reinhart and Mendes, we get a lingering close-up on a Cover Girl product being used by Betty or Veronica. I'm not categorically against this kind of thing, but a little more subtlety would be welcome.]

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Not arriving

The Old Curmudgeon (um, that's me) says science-fiction movies have been on a steady decline since 2001. Well, since 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. 2001 was widely seen as the first adult sci-fi movie, one that was not intended for kiddies or the feeble-minded. There were no bug-eyed monsters, no blasting laser beams, no buxom women in skintight spacesuits. It made an implicit claim to verisimilitude—we all thought this might really be what space travel could be like in the year 2001—and involved issues of morality and philosophy. This film was thought to be the harbinger of a new wave of SF movies. [I’m going to use SF from here on in, as this abbreviation caught on briefly in the 60s when it was thought it could stand for both science fiction and the larger genre of speculative fiction.]
Now, it looks like 2001 (the climax of which is pictured above) was more a dead end than a new route. Though it was popular and commercially successful, most of what came after it seemed to be a reaction against the direction in which it was pointing. To be fair, the dialogue was (intentionally) banal, there wasn't much of a narrative—and what there was presented elliptically with a wildly ambiguous ending—and the pace was slow. And, of course, it was made by a cinematic genius, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe there was nowhere to go from here except backwards, way back to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers B-movie serials of the 1940s, but with bigger budgets (Star Wars, etc.)

I have followed rather casually the flow of SF movies over the years and though few have attempted to follow 2001 (maybe Solaris and Sunshine), many have stuck to the modified space opera formula of Star Wars. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another genre strand emerged: the personal, intimate SF film, leaving behind the monster scares of Them! and Tarantula, and thecosmic philosophies of 2001, to focus on an individual's personal journey. It may still have impressive SF effects but it often comes down to being about the transformation of one person or family. Examples include Blade Runner, Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian, hitting bottom with the execrable Signs, which was about how God sent a huge destructive alien force to Earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father. Of course, no matter how scientific science fiction stories get, they have to be about people to give us a way in. But instead of focusing on the awe of the science, or the scientific mysticism, or the possibilities of the future—all of which Close Encounters did very well, while still being about people and family—most of these recent films put the SF stuff in the background while foregrounding the personal story, instead of, more or less, vice versa. (To clarify, I like some of these movies, most notably Blade Runner, but am not crazy about this being the "winning" genre.)

I thought that Arrival might be different. The film, which feels like an update of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is about the arrival on Earth of large, hovering spaceships piloted by creatures who can't speak our language. It got rave reviews and is up for several Oscars. The lead actors give very good performances. Amy Adams is a linguist who, we come to believe, is divorced and has recently lost her daughter to cancer, and is sort of sleepwalking through life when she is approached by the military to try and figure out the language of the aliens. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who is part of her project team and with whom she develops a close and trusting relationship. At first, their process of learning to communicate with what they call Heptapods (they look a bit like octopi with seven tentacles) moves slowly, and the researchers in all the countries in which the aliens have landed share the knowledge they gain. But soon Russia and China become distrustful of the visitors and cut off communication. Because of the fear that some nations may use force against the Heptapods, Adams and Renner soon have a very tight timetable.

As the demands of the traditional puzzle narrative would insist, Adams has a breakthrough just in the nick of time. But, as in an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, this solution ends up changing our perception of much of what we thought was going on. No spoilers here, though I will say that I rather liked the twist involving the alien language, but was less excited about how that twist affected the rest of the story. The cosmic "awe" that I thought I was headed for here turns into a kind of sloppy "Awwww…" involving the fates of our characters. I'm sure part of my reaction is just me being recalcitrant and looking back fondly on 60s and 70s cinema which will never return, but I felt doubly disappointed in Arrival because it was so highly praised. I'm thinking I'd better lower my expectations for La La Land.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Take the Fifth

The 5th Dimension was basically a 60s sunshine pop vocal group that managed to outlast the "sunshine" trend and kept having hits into the mid-70s. They had 30 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1976, in a wide variety of styles, but their biggest hit was something of a fluke: a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The lyrics and to some degree the music was on the hippie-trippy side of 60s pop and they never really did anything else like it, even though it was their biggest hit.

I’ve always loved the group, and I own not only the CD reissues of their 60s album but also the 2-disc Up, Up and Away: Definitive Collection from 1997. But I am pleased to add this new 3-disc set, The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles, 1966-1975, to my collection, if for no other reason than it contains the single edit of "The Declaration" by itself as a 4-minute song and not as part of a 10-minute medley. But this set also gave me a clearer look at the career of the group from their non-hit beginnings in 1966 to the end of their chart hits in 1975.

In their first phase as The Versatiles (four songs included here), they were a generic Motown-type R&B vocal group, not bad but nothing special. When Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon signed them to Soul City Records and changed their name to The 5th Dimension, the two men also changed their musical direction to what is often referred to as sunshine pop, not jangly enough for bubblegum but not lush enough for easy listening. They began having mid-chart top 40 hits, most notably with what became their signature song, "Up, Up and Away." Their arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, became more complex, and they recorded songs by two of the most well-regarded songwriters of the era, Jimmy Webb ("Up, Up") and Laura Nyro ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues"). Sometime after the huge success of "Aquarius" in 1969, perhaps because sunshine pop was falling out of fashion, they transitioned to a third phase, easy listening, with strings and slow tempos and saccharine romantic lyrics ("One Less Bell to Answer").

What I noticed listening to the singles (A-sides and B-sides) in order was how their vocal style changed. As The Versatiles, Billy Davis Jr. took the lead part, but through most of their sunshine phase, there weren't really traditional lead vocals; either singers took turns or sang in unison or, often, did both in one song ("Carpet Man," "Sweet Blindness"). There were exceptions—Davis on "Aquarius," Marilyn McCoo on "Wedding Bell Blues"—but it wasn't until the group's third phase, easy listening, that McCoo pretty much took over lead vocals ("One Less Bell," "Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes," "Never My Love") and the arrangements reduced the others to just backing singers. Those above songs are fine, and "Angles" is one of my very favorite 5th songs, but this was a definite move away from the 60s rhythmic sound to a lush orchestral feel, from interesting arrangements involving sitars and tack pianos, and sometimes a political message ("The Declaration," "Save the Country") to a more conventional sound.

The later songs also reveal clearly what a great singer McCoo is. Her creamy voice is on a par with Karen Carpenter's, and with different handling, she might have had a strong solo career, but that never happened. After his Versatiles songs, Davis never again felt as confident as an R&B singer, though his voice remained distinctive. The B-sides allow the other three (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore) to handle some leads and they're fine, but McCoo had the strongest voice, and strongest visual appeal, in the group. None of the B-sides are lost gems but a couple are of interest: "I Just Wanta Be Your Friend" has a loose War feel to it, and "Skinny Man" and their cover of "Feelin' Alright" are as good as any of the hit sides. I still think it's a shame that one of their strongest songs, Jimmy Webb's "The Girl's Song," wound up wasted as a burn-off single released by Soul City to draw attention away from their newer work on Bell Records. Generally, even their most cringe-worthy hits (like "Living Together, Growing Together") are worth hearing, though two of their last songs, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Flashback," are ones I'd skip next time around. Still, 2-1/2 discs worth of great music is a solid legacy for the group.
I would say that this is now the definitive collection of 5th Dimension music, but it's missing two strong songs from the earlier collection, "Orange Air" and "Time and Love." Plus, these are single mixes so most of them sound like mono, and a couple sound a bit muddy compared the album versions. So go ahead and splurge for this and for Up, Up and Away (which has since been reissued as The Essential Fifth Dimension.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Film on film

The title of this book, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, excited me and gave me pause. The good part: a book about the world of people who collect film--not DVDs, not videotape, but movies on film. I know that private collectors have been responsible for restoring missing sections of classic films and in some cases have had the only extant copies of some movies thought missing, so this seemed like an interesting topic. What gave me pause: the word "bizarre." That could be either promising (colorful interesting characters) or threatening (are we talking about mentally ill people here?). As it turned out, they are definitely more colorful than ill. Calvin Thomas Beck, the editor of the legendary horror movie magazine Castle of Frankenstein, is mentioned in passing as being a little like Psycho's Norman Bates, but due to his love for his mother, not for any murderous activities. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a missed opportunity.

The authors, film collectors in one way or another themselves, have essentially put together a collection of short magazine article-length interviews with a number of these collectors, even giving some pages to a couple of famous people (Roddy McDowell, Kevin Brownlow). Some individual chapters are fairly interesting, but what's missing is a chronological, overarching narrative that explains the whole phenomenon: How did the private collecting of film prints get started in the first place? Where do most of them come from--pilfered from studio archives? Duped from theatrical prints? Why were studios, for a time, so hot to crack down on the collectors? (McDowell was the subject of a sting-type operation in the 70s that got a lot of press.) Unless I missed something, I didn't get comprehensive answers to any of these questions. I did spend some time in the company of some unusual folks--though many of their stories are blandly sad--but I wish there had been more ambition on the part of the authors to tell a fuller story.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Real Gone Christmas, part 3

It's 2017 but I wanted to get in a few words about two more Christmas music reissues from Real Gone Music that arrived after the 25th. The music of Italian conductor and arranger Mantovani pretty much defines "easy listening" music (or, for a more pejorative term, elevator music) of the 1960s: a big light-orchestra sound with lush, cascading strings, taken at a fairly slow tempo. Christmas Carols is a reissue of a 1958 stereo version of an earlier mono album and it's exactly what one would expect from Mantovani: big, bright symphonic arrangements of traditional carols. And, as one expects from Real Gone Music, the remastering is spectacularly clear and bold. For fans of this style, this is perfection, though for myself, if I want to hear instrumental Christmas carols, I'll probably opt for the classical style orchestras or smaller ensembles.

For years, RCA put out instrumental easy listening records under the "Living" moniker: Living Strings, Living Brass, etc. The Living Voices were, of course, vocal, and their albums were a big part of my childhood, not because my family ever owned any, but because they were everywhere, not just in record stores but in bargain bins, drug stores, grocery stores, Woolworth's--pretty much any place that ever stocked records seemed to have room for a few Living Strings or Voices albums. As the liner notes to this CD reissue note, the Living Voices was not any one group or conductor, though the entire series of Living albums was under the control of producer Ethel Gabriel. Two albums are included in this Living Voices reissue and they are by completely different ensembles.
The first, Living Voices Sing Christmas Music, came out in 1962, but was actually a reissue of a 1959 album by the Ralph Hunter Choir. The second, The Little Drummer Boy from 1965, was mostly arranged by Anita Kerr, best known for albums in the 60s she produced with the San Sebastian Strings which set the poems of Rod McKeun to music. Had I not read this information, I'm not sure I would have noticed the differences between the two. Both albums have that familiar lush and creamy middle-of-the-road sound, and the selection of songs is par for the course; a few carols, a few contemporary songs. But since I was listening for differences, I did hear them.

The Anita Kerr record, The Little Drummer Boy, is the more traditional one, though the choral sound seems a bit smaller than on the other Real Gone CDs I've been listening to. It's well produced but fairly undistinguished, except for two lesser-known songs from Broadway musicals of the era: "Be a Santa" from Subways Are for Sleeping and "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" from Here's Love (a musical version of Miracle on 34th Street)--versions of both are also included as bonus tracks on the Christmas Mitch Miller reissue from Real Gone Music.

The Ralph Hunter album, however, tinkers more with the arrangements. They aren't jazzy or cocktail-ish; in fact, the tempos are taken quite slowly. But every so often, there's an odd touch. On "White Christmas," a piercing soprano voice noodles wordlessly in the background on occasion. "The Wassail Song" begins cleverly, with a fade-in as though this band of carolers was slowly approaching, but oddly, at the end, a small marching band begins plays, quite merrily but still unexpectedly. There is also an odd little version of "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" without lyrics but with voices almost scatting over the melody.

This album might join my permanent Christmas repertoire, perhaps visited more sparingly than some others. But I've certainly enjoyed listening closely to these albums from Real Gone Music, discovering subtleties and oddities that might otherwise have just slipped through my consciousness like, well, elevator music.