Friday, May 13, 2011

Paging Matthew Broderick

So I was hearing that Hugh Grant almost replaced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. And when that deal fell through, we heard today that Ashton Kutcher has been cast instead. What both these data points suggest is that the producers are looking to cast a character at least roughly in the Charlie Harper mold--a womanizing, drunk, misogynist (no offense to Hugh Grant, who I actually like, or Kutcher, who I kind of don't and yet have nor reason to believe to be a drunk or woman-hater).

And, to me, this is entirely wrong. By writing a new character with similar traits, you pretty much will automatically get a character that is an imitation of Sheen's. Not that many couldn't play the role better*, but then the game becomes comparing the Sheen show to the new show. You've got a situation where every character interaction and plot has to compete with the memory of how that same type of interaction or plot was dealt with before. Which, in my estimation, would be death to the show.

But what if they wrote a character that existed on the other side of Cryer's nebbishy Alan, and made Alan the wild-by-comparison one? A kind of Sancho Panza thing, where Cryer's character has become more like Sheen's character over the years**. So we get someone more repressed, nebbishy, straightlaced to play off of Cryer. To me that's a much better solution. It keeps intact the odd couple dynamic that is at the heart of the show and yet opens up an entirely new possibility of dynamics. And it allows Cryer to nominally take over the "lead" role, a position he has no doubt earned, and earned hard.

Am I nuts?

Until Whenever

*During the whole Sheen brouhaha, what insulted my sense of right and wrong most was that Sheen believed that it was his talent that was the key ingredient to the show's success, when it's always been very clear to me that many, many actors could have played Charlie Harper better and with more skill.

**Which he has - when the show started Alan was a much more stable, whitebread, moral character. Over the course of the show he became as sexually exaggerated and, in different ways, out-of-control as Charlie.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Song of the Week - "Criminal" - Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple is one of those artists who I knew of long before I actually heard any of her music. I pretty much stopped listening to the radio with the advent of mp3 players, and so, even though I knew the name and that she was supposed to be famous, I knew nothing of the actual songs.

Oddly enough, I can't even remember what compelled me to finally give her stuff a try. I do know that it wasn't the first album but the third (and still most recent, the 2005 (!) release Extraordinary Machine, which I pretty much instantly loved.

I'm pretty sure that I actually had the song "Criminal" from a CD exchange before I got the actual album, but as is so often the case I hadn't really listened to it more than the once. When I got the album proper I finally got what the hype was about - it really is a great song.

Until Whenever

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Game of Thrones Episode 3

Apologies for the tardiness, but a business trip combined with my still-somewhat-atrophied blogging rhythms combined in maleficent ways this week. I’m hoping to get back on tracks as we go along.

Anyhoo, for episode three, the scene I wanted to focus on is the Baratheon scene, with the king and two members of his Kingsguard discussing their first kills. (A side note: I find it interesting that, three episodes in, the show still hasn’t bothered to explicate what Jaime’s role in the King’s inner circle really is, or by extension the notion of the Kingsguard itself. If this is simply a matter of economy, with that kind of detail held off until needed, I can live with it. If it’s supposed to be a matter of inference, though, with the fact that Jaime killed the previous king and is around this one a lot (and guarding the door here) meant to suggest what the Kingsguard is, a sort of Westerosi version of the secret service, well, I think they may be stretching with how much an audience can be expected to infer.)

This, as far as I remember, is a scene not found in the books, and yet I can see why it was created here. As the season progresses, we need to learn more about our flawed king, and in the book Robert is not one of the POV characters. So Benioff and Weiss have created this scene, which does a lot of work towards deepening our understanding of Robert’s character.

Perhaps what I found most fascinating about this scene was the control and subtlety Addy played Robert’s drunkenness with. It wasn’t until we had progressed somewhat into the scene that I realized how drunk Robert was, and I love how Addy demonstrated that inebriation through a bitter, depressed anger, and not as sloppiness or giddiness. When the scene starts, Robert is peering into an empty glass and talking about how long it’s been “since his first.” We are meant to take a sexual meaning, and to be somewhat discomfited when he turns to the elderly knight in the room and asks if he remembers his first.

Of course, it’s not sex he is talking about but death. After the elderly knight (who readers of the books can infer is Ser Barristan Belmy, but whose identity the show leaves unclarified) briefly describes his first kill, Robert goes into a monologue about his first, a “dumb, high-born lad, thinking he could end the rebellion with a single swing of his sword.” It’s during this monologue that I first caught on to the degree of Robert’s drunkenness. Something in the way he hits the words “Gods, I was strong then” hints at the raging despair the wine has loosened. It’s a wonderful line reading, with the sense of loss this once-mighty king feels made palpable.

There’s another great character moment a few beats later; as Robert recounts the boy’s impassioned cry of “wait, wait” he spits out a guttural, dry, bitter laugh that hints at the impact that first kill had. It’s then that he utters the line that at least two prominent critics singled out to lead their initial reviews of the series: “They never tell you how they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs.”

It’s a great line that, yes, could serve as a sort of thesis statement for the series as a whole, in the way it suggests a story meant to depict the harsher realities fantasy typically glosses over) but even more notable is the far-off look that haunts Addy’s eyes as he says the words. “Stupid boy.”

Robert finishes his reverie by imaging the life of domestic quietude that could have awaited this headstrong boy had he lingered on the edge of the battlefield like his smarter friends, seemingly linking it to his own life of fat and danger-less peace and quiet, and marriage to a woman he does not love. Seemingly in an attempt to shake off the haunting memories he has conjured up he barks at the waiting serving boy for more wine. Turning his churned-up anger at the server, a Lannister cousin of some sort, we get a sense of Robert’s contempt for the family he’s married into.

Calling for Jaime, who had been guarding the door, he taunts him, asking to hear his story as well. “What did the Mad King say when you stabbed him in the back?” he asks.

“He said the same thing he’d been saying for hours. Burn them all.”

The look in Addy’s eyes at this moment (and it is almost the last shot in the scene) is just stunning, a fearful mixture of guilt, sorrow, and drunken, wasted rage.

What I love about this scene is the way it takes the time to key us into Robert as a man and as a king. We learn much about him – that his excessive gluttony and carousing ways mask to some degree an angry, very despairing man, and that his hatred for the Targaryeans has deep roots. In a conversation last episode we heard that Ned’s brother and father has been burned by Arys Targaryean, here we get another data point that describes Viserys’ and Daenerys’ grandfather. It’s all starting to add up to indicate the depth of Robert’s hatred for the Targaryeans, and, in its own oblique way, this scene does much to inform our understanding of Viserys and Daenerys as well.

Until Whenever

Friday, April 29, 2011

Song of the Week - #1

Yes, I am shamelessly stealing this idea from the Samurai Frog; what are 'ya gonna do. My sense is that he just posts about a song he likes, which if of course a fine methodology, but my idea will be to interject a little more chance into the mix. The idea is simple. I will use the shuffle feature to randomly select a 5-Star song (as per my own individual, byzantine rating system) and will post it.

Got it? Good.

Here goes.

"Tokyo Storm Warning" - Elvis Costello
This is one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs. I think what I like most about it is, in addition to the very Dylan-esque stream-of-consciousness lyrics, is the steady pulse of the arrangement. That Sesame Street-with-attitude riff just grinds away. It's one of those devices that shouldn't work, but does. Oh, and I can't forget the drums. Absolutely love that opening attack.

Until Whenever

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Truly, a Time of Wonder

A few nights ago, when I really should have been heading to bed, I sat on my couch and browsed through a list of every Saturday Night Live episode from the 1970s. Making mental notes to catch the Paul Simon eps, the Elvis Costello ep, and several others, I stopped in shocked delight to see that there was a Bob Dylan ep! Within a minute I was watching the 70s "I found Jesus" Bob, sing "Save Someone," a damn fine song from that Christian period.

Yesterday, I continued my re-watch of The Office with the season 3 episode where Andy gets Dwight fired. I had forgotten what a changed Andy has had over the seasons, just as much as Michael really. H really was kind of an obnoxious jerk. I've also, through this re-watch, managed to get a better feel for Michael's arc from oblivious jerk to well-meaning stunted child. Alan Sepinwall has a wonderful re-cap of the key inflection points in that changeover here, but there were a few other moments that (so far) have caught my eye. There's a Season 3 Christmas episode ("Benihana Christmas) where a dumped Michael manages to convince a waitress to come back with him to the office party. When the waitress leaves, a dejected Michael pretends as if he's lost yet another love of his life. And as he mopes and cries, there's a great scene where Jim gently brings him around to seeing that this was a woman he had met just hours before and that he was really being silly. Laughing, he admits to Jim that he had to mark the waitress wit ha marker to distinguish her form her Asian friend. It's a great moment, and one where you see Michael gain a degree of self-awareness he had perhaps not had before. Season 3 had some nice moments of dawning self-awareness like that. Toby explaining to Michael that the office was teasing him in the Prison Mike ep, that they really didn't wish they were in jail, is another example.

On the train ride home today I continued watching the "Dwight at Staples" ep on my iPhone, which I had started watching the night before on my laptop. And which I will likely finish on my TV (through the Blu-Ray player, Netflix-enabled) tonight. Each time, the ep will start where I left off.

Other options available (just in my queue) include 30 or so episodes of Penn and Teller's Bullshit, every episode of Lost, every episode of The Twilight Zone, a 100 or so episodes of Roseanne, and every (I think) episode of Cheers.

All of this--plus access to thousands and thousands of DVDs and Blu-Rays (out right now? a The Closer, season 3 disc, The King's Men, and Rabbit Hole). For a little over $20 a month.

So - what's the point of all this?

When is Netflix going to collapse? This can't be a sustainable business model.

And when are shows going to pull out? After all, those SNL sets had been mildy attractive at one point. Now? Not only don't I have to buy them, but accessing episodes is easier than it would be if I had 20 DVDs to juggle.

Again. This can't last.

Can it?

Until Whenever

Monday, April 25, 2011

Game of Thrones – Episode 2, “The Kingsroad”

Casting can make or break you. I mentioned this last week, but the sheer casting of Joffrey does a lot of work all in and of itself. Jack Gleeson, the young man who plays him, may well be an absolute sweetheart of a human being, but he looks like an unbelievably smarmy prick. So before we had heard a single word from the young prince we distrusted him and had some faint dislike for him. Now, hopefully this doesn’t happen to young Master Gleeson in real life (although, to abandon political correctness for just a moment, I must suspect that it does—try as we like to avoid it, we as humans do a lot of snap judging, and I would wager that Gleeson gets judged on that face quite a bit), but on film, his casting works as a sort of wonderful shorthand.

Here in Episode 2, however, we do get to hear him speak, and judge him as a character, not just a face, and the effect is pitch-perfect. For the character of Joffrey is a spoiled, entitled, arrogant young man. We get a sense of this in his insolent mocking of his uncle at the start of the episode. But we also get a sense of the terrified, helpless coward that lurks beneath the surface of this preening kid when he is challenged and attacked by his uncle and has no recourse but to threaten to tell his Mommy.

It is this threat of telling Mommy that ends up anchoring the scene, or sequence, I want to focus on this week, that of the execution of a pet. First off, let’s acknowledge the faint absurdity that this is what seems to be getting the most play as demonstrating that perhaps HBO has gone too far with this program. Rape, incest, the attempted murder of a child—all are deemed worthwhile subjects for fictional treatment. But the (merciful!) execution of a wolf (that we see as a domesticated pet dog like our very own Fidos and Spots)? Unforgivable.

But before the dog is killed we must back up to Joffrey and the smitten Sansa taking a walk in the woods during a stopover as they journey to King’s Landing. They hear the sound of wood clacking on wood and investigate, only to find Arya play-fencing (with wooden sticks—not, it is important to note, with the very real sword given her by her half-brother as a going-away present) with a somewhat larger boy, who turns out to be the “butcher’s boy,” Micah.

This is a fascinating scene, in that we see the larger world of men and power played out by children who, for the most part, are aping the parts they have seen their elders model. So Joffrey revels in and is quick to demonstrate his power over this lower-class laborer’s son, behaviors we can intuit he learned from his mother and uncle, and certainly to a degree from his father. Micah, no fool, shows quick and eager deference, agreeing to whatever Joffrey says and apologizing for whatever he is thought to have done. And Sansa takes the passive seat she has no doubt seen countless court ladies take when disputes present themselves.

But Arya, the rebellious tomboy who we have already seen chafe at the role she is supposed to play, cannot stomach seeing her playmate hurt. It’s important to remember that Joffrey promises not to hurt him, "much," and while that is most certainly the cruel taunt of a cruel child it is also in its sick way honest—we have no reason to believe that Micah’s life is actually in danger. A situation Arya changes when, unable to stomach the cowardly act of Joffrey slowly slicing the boy’s face, she attacks the prince she knows she cannot. It’s a thrilling moment in the traditional sense of “yay, the bully is getting beat,” but a sickening one in retrospect when you realize that her action results in no real triumph beyond the satisfaction of seeing Joffrey shamed and beat. For the consequences are quick and hard—not only is the boy Micah hunted down and slaughtered by Joffrey’s brutal protector The Hound, but when Arya’s direwolf (who had attacked the prince to save his master, just as Bran’s wolf does for him) cannot be found, a cruel and clearly embarrassed Cersei demands that Sansa’s hound pay the price in his stead.

A quick, further word on casting. Maisie Williams gets more to do here as Arya, and she proves herself a wonderful young actress. Witness the way she tosses Joffrey’s sword into the water, and the way that we can see in the action how heavy this sword is for such a small girl, and how she must use her entire body to hurl it into the river. It’s a small detail, but a wonderful one.

Arya’ sister hates her, her wolf is gone, her sister’s murdered, her friend murdered, and Joffrey only wounded, in both spirit and flesh. And what I find fascinating is how Arya did the right thing. And got nothing for it. In the pilot last week, we heard Ned tell Bran that “he who passes the sentence must yield the sword.” It’s a noble, right sentiment, and I think one of Martin’s primary themes throughout the series. The notion--that when men, leaders especially, insert too many proxies between the decisions they make and the impact they have on the real world, disastrous results ensue--is one we will see in multiple guises. Here, we see it with Cersei and Robert. Robert refuses to take responsibility for a decision—first passing on any kind of judgment, and ready to accept a “kids will be kids” defense, and then, when Cersei presses the issue and demands that Lady be sacrificed, as he refuses to even pass the sentence himself, much less yield the blade.

It’s a chilling moment, as Ned calls after his friend, asking him if his is indeed his ruling, and getting a cold shoulder and silence in return.

And yet the actual execution is, again, not something Ned will allow another to carry out, even though this was not his sentence. So it is that he must destroy his daughter’s pet himself. Robert refuses to shunt off the distasteful duties of being a father and ruler to another. As a man of the North, he believes in owning his actions, and not passing them down the line. It’s a lesson that we learn almost at the very beginning of the series, and one we will see more of as the story progresses.

Until Whenever

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three things I liked about The Station Agent.
  • This was one of those movies that I had been hearing wonderful things about for years but had never gotten around to viewing. I was reminded of that dereliction of duty by the presence of Peter Dinklage on Game of Thrones and finally shunted the film up to the top of my Netflix queue. And boy was I glad I did. More than anything it's the tone of the film that flattened me. Quiet, simple, reserved, with not much going on in the sense of plot mechanics, and yet so very, very assured. This was the kind of movie where I stopped several times during it to try and figure out why I liked it so much, given how little was happening.
  • From stem to stern the small cast was uniformly excellent. I had only seen Dinklage in comic cameos (Elf) and he is a revelation here as the loner Finn. What's so interesting about his performance is how he captures and conveys the character's inherent loneliness and the way he's walled himself away from the world without coming across as bitter or angry, just quietly resigned to a life that's easier to deal with by not getting close to people. The interplay between him and Bobby Canavale, as a doggedly friendly guy running a hot dog cart for his father, is wonderful, with Canavale's insistence on making a connection constantly hitting a dead end, and him never caring. And Patricia Clarkson is excellent as always as a grieving woman unsure of how she fits into the world. It was also neat to see how many of the very small character parts were played by actors we recognize, including Michelle Williams as a young librarian, John Slattery as Patricia Clarkson's ex-husband, Richard Kind as a lawyer, and The State's Joe LoTruglio as a local burnout.
  • What I liked most about the setting was that it avoided the cliche of the gorgeous, life-affirming natural beauty of the landscape that you might guess we would get in a film like this. Although the film is set in a lakeside, community, the feel of the place is not of a natural wonder, but of a slightly worn-down, decrepit, quiet NJ community. In fact, the setting is a real town not far from where I live in northern NJ, and, even though it is not shown as any kind of idealized place of beauty, I'd still like to see it.
  • I absolutely loved how the film is in large part about how society can make life difficult for a little person, and the way the constant stares, giggles, and outright abuse can weigh down on someone, without being preachy or really all that overt. It's all shown through subtle looks and glances, so that when it does come to a boil late in the film, and a drunk Finn causes a scene at a bar, the moment has real power.
Three things I did not like about The Station Agent.
  • The movie avoids the kind of forced coincidences that are the stock in trade of much fiction, so when it turns out that the librarian's jackass boyfriend is the same jackass who we met earlier being a jerk to Finn it feels a little arbitrary.
  • Wow. This is hard. I guess I did wonder a few times how Joe, the Canavale character, could afford to just close the hot dog stand so much.
  • Hmm. Not sure if I disliked anything else. Maybe Finn should have been able to show residence, when he wants a library card, without a bill? Wouldn't he have had some legal papers? Man, I'm stretching.
Until Whenever

Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones – Episode 1

If you are a fan of the kind of episode-by-episode TV blogging that’s become extremely popular over the last few years, and if you are looking for reactions to the premiere of Game of Thrones, you have no shortage of places to satiate your needs. Alan Sepinwall’s site at Hitfix. James Poniewozic at Time. Mo Ryan, formerly of The Chicago Tribune, at Stay Tuned. Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club. There are many more.

So I am going to try something a little different. I am going to write about Game of Thrones every week, and I certainly may discuss my general reactions and provide some general thoughts about the episodes. But the primary thrust of these write-ups will not be a comprehensive (or cursory) review, but a “close read” of a specific scene. Not quite a shot-by-shot analysis (something I frankly do not have the background or knowledge of filmmaking to even attempt), but a close look at a scene in the episode and what makes it work (or not).

The scene from the pilot I will be focusing on is the wedding scene in Pentos. The quick summary of the scene: The exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen has been basically sold off by her brother Viserys to Khal Drogo, a local warlord, in exchange for the support off Drogo’s army of Dothraki warriors. Viserys and Daenerys are the last surviving members of the Targaryen dynasty, and Viserys plans on returning to Westeros to retake the throne that was taken violently from his father 17 years before—hence the need for an army.

What this scene emphasizes for me is what I (after the admittedly piss-poor example of just one episode) am most concerned about in terms of the series. At the same time, it capably demonstrated some of the things that are most encouraging about this series so far. Let’s start with the worrisome bit.

George R.R. Martin is on record in numerous venues as saying that when he set out to write the epic fantasy series this program is based on he was deliberately taking advantage of the “unlimited budget” of novels to craft a story of the scope and ambition he had learned from years in the business would never work on TV. So he created a vast, sweeping story that spanned continents, encompassed hundreds (thousands?) of characters, and featured massive action set pieces, in addition to the frank depictions of sex and violence that TV (at the time) would never touch.

The violence and sex problem was taken care of by the advent of R-rated (hard R-rated) television series being created and aired by pay TV networks like HBO and Showtime. And the scope problem was (partially) addressed by the expanded budget allowed by the new television business model—with shorter seasons, fewer series to budget for, and a pay model almost dependent on spending money and making sure it shows (thereby creating the feel that these were programs worth paying a premium subscription price for), the scale of Westeros was within reach. On top of this, the last decade has seen CGI advance to the point where a creation like The Wall is possible on a TV (albeit HBO-TV) budget.

But is everything Martin has imagined possible on an HBO budget? That’s a question that future episodes (and, especially, future seasons) will address. And yet we do get a hint of it here.

The wedding scene, in the book, is a bit of a set piece. The wild madness of the scene, the “orgy-on-a-grand-scale-feel,” and the sheer scope are intended to be breathtaking. It is meant to be a massive celebration on the part of Drogo’s army of thousands, and hangers-on, marked by a terrifying (to Daenerys) amount of violence and sexual aggression. And yet, the scene in the pilot doesn’t have the scale it needed. Other similarly outsized elements in the pilot work beautifully—The Wall; the entire world of Westeros, as depicted both in the wonderful opening credits and in the landscapes and CGI cities and castles we see; the massive banquet Ned holds to welcome the King. But the wedding feels small—as if it is a celebration, not of thousands, but hundreds. And, yes, this does matter, because the scene is meant to not only demonstrate the horrible position Daenerys has been put in by her brother (a task it accomplished quite nicely), but also the formidable size and scale of the army Viserys has just bought for himself—which we don’t really feel or see, but instead are just told about, with the evidence somewhat contradicting that telling.

All that said, the wedding scene does do a very good job of shorthanding the brutality of this culture. Not only do we see a woman raped on what in our world would be the dance floor of her wedding, we see two warriors fight over her, to the (suitably) violent death. It’s easy to look at the actual killing and wonder if the tawdriness of a visible disembowelment, replete with intestines hanging to the ground, is really necessary. But, as conceived by Martin, it is, for we need the extreme of the violence to really convince us of the fierceness of this newly bought army. What we miss, again, is the scale, the sheer massive size of this army. And that’s a small, but important, detail.

Remaining random reactions
  • My sense from other reviews is that the plot and characters are understandable by newcomers to this world, albeit only if closely watched and perhaps supplemented with some on-line research. As someone who has read the books, I’ll only say that there are details alluded to here (the fate of Viserys' father those 17 years ago, for example) that would be no clearer had you read the books up to this point. Because the books are written from a fairly limited POV of just a handful of characters, including children, a lot of backstory is only alluded to in bits and drabs, and never just provided whole.
  • Apart from trifling minutia (why isn’t Illyrio fatter? Why isn’t Tyrion uglier?), the casting so far is showing no weak links. The biggest revelation so far is Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, who with precious little screen time and few lines manages to paint a fully realized, dynamic character. That look she gives Bran after hitting the bullseye with her arrow? Genius.
  • I was actually a bit taken by the main theme during the opening credits, and am eager to give it a second listen. Nonetheless, that’s one area I expect the budget and timing to affect as well—an epic fantasy series like this deserves a great, epic score, but those are few and far between on TV.
  • My only exposure to Mark Addy had been his amiable acting and wincingly bad American accent on the sitcom Still Standing. Wow.
  • Jack Gleeson as Joffrey gets no lines in this episode, and yet conveys much about the character with just his overall effect.
  • It will be interesting to see how they deal with the direwolves as they grow. That dead mama was large.
 Until Whenever

Thursday, April 14, 2011

That Big Box of Vinyl

I've been participating in a CD mix exchange, off and on, with some old friends for a few months now, and I thought this month's theme was worth sharing. The theme is "music you remember your parents listening to." Now, I grew up with my mother and step-father, and saw my father on weekends. My father listened to CBS FM out of NY pretty much exclusively, and I don't think owned a record player (or, later, CD Player), never mind any records. Ditto my mother--our household's music collection was pretty much all my step-fathers, and he had a big box of vinyl that I would leaf through on occasion. That's the musical environment I grew up in; here's the playlist it yielded.

1. "Feels So Good" - Chuck Mangione
When I first got a CD player, and didn't have many CDs of my own, I would leaf through my step-father's CDs to see if there was anything good. The Chuck Mangione Greatest Hits CD was one he would play around the house, and it's one I would listen to as well. Now, why a somewhat cheesy flugelhornist from the 70s would appeal to me I have no idea. But he did. Does. I mean, come on. This is just awesome.

2. "Deacon Blues" - Steely Dan
My step-father was a Steely Dan fan and had a few of their discs. This is the song that always stood out for me; something in the lyric "They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose." That's a great line.

3. "The Logical Song" - Supertramp
Another CD that got heavy rotation in our house was The Best of Supertramp. This is a band that seems pretty forgotten today, but damn they wrote some great melodies, didn't they? Something a bit old-fashioned and structurally sound a bout them. And I'll never stop loving that high note.

4. "Travelin' Prayer" - Billy Joel
My step-father had this album on vinyl, and it was my first real exposure to Billy Joel. I knew "Piano Man: already, but this banjo-and-jew's harp-driven song is the one that just delighted me as a kid. Still does.

5. "Blue Sky" - The Allman Brothers
I'm cheating a bit now, since I really don't remember him playing The Allman Brothers much, but we went to see them at The Beacon a few years back, and it was a good time.

6. "Jesus Is Just All Right" - The Doobie Brothers
Yet another greatest hits album that got a lot of play in our house. I always liked The Doobies, and was always excited to come across their What's Happenin'? episode on TV.

7. "The Wonder of You" - Elvis Presley
This is one for my wife, for this is one I heard through her father, not mine. It's his favorite Elvis Presley song, and one I had never heard until it was played at a wedding we were at for her family. He's right; it's one hell of a song.

8. "Heaven On Their Minds" - Andrew Lloyd Weber
The Jesus Christ Superstar album is another I discovered in that
box of vinyl. I dubbed a copy so I could listen to it on my Walkman, and must have listened to it a hundred times, easy. I still expect to hear skips in a few places when I listen to it.

9. "Tuesday Afternoon" - The Moody Blues
Both my mother and step-father were big Moody Blues fans and we saw them in concert a few times. As a teen I didn't quite see the orchestral titles and grandiosity as closely as I do now, but I still kind of love this stuff.

10. "Colour My World" - Chicago
My mother and father's wedding song. I somehow got a hold of an easy piano version of the sheet music and had fun playing through that piano line.

11. "Can't Help Falling in Love" - Elvis Presley
A staple of those CBS FM car rides with my dad.

12. "Rainbow Connection" - Willie Nelson
The The Muppet Movie soundtrack was another find from that box of vinyl. I couldn't find the awesome Kermit version on iTunes, but this Willie Nelson cover is pretty much the most awesome thing ever so I'm happy to share it. Again.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Unlikely Chameleon

Tracy Chapman gets a bid of a bad rap (albeit not a completely undeserved one) for being a bit of a one-trick pony. Her albums can have an unfortunate feel of sameness, with many mid-tempo, slightly melancholy, acoustic guitar-driven songs drifting in and out of each other. I'm a fan (I know--I'm getting there), and even I have trouble keeping her albums straight in my head.

And yet she has an uncanny ability to toss off real, honest-to-goodness gems every once in a while, the kind of songs that make my ingrained habit of buying her albums completely justified.

In fact, probably the best song I heard last year (and, yes, it's off of an album that came out in 2008; I said I still buy her albums--just not right away all the time) is indeed a Tracy Chapman song. And it is not an acoustic pop song of the ilk you might associate with her. Instead it's a wistful piece of jazzy Tin Pan Alley-inspired songwriting, the kind of song you'd expect to hear some fey bandleader sing on Boardwalk Empire. Even the lyrics reflect a certain old-fashioned discipline in the sense of their rhyme scene and scansion. Really, it's just a great song, and one that will have me following Chapman for quite a while longer.

OK, one more. This song, also offof a more recent album, is moody, a bit dark, hushed, and strikingly angular in the melody. What it really sounds like, to me, is a lost Radiohead song. It has that same paranoid, desparate feel that so much of their music does, andyet it is very easily identifiable as a Tracy Chapman song.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's Real?

One of the things that's most fascinating about having kids is seeing the acquisition of culture, including pop culture, at play in real-time. Now my kids (seven-year old twins), as long-time readers may recall, are, how you say? Scaredy-cats. They have a history of finding any kind of drama, or conflict, too intense too deal with. When we saw Tangled, they both spent about half the film with their heads buried in our chests.

And yet sometimes movies I would expect to be far too intense turn out to ones they like. A few months back, on a Sunday afternoon, E.T. happened to be on HBO, and Twin B and I caught it about a third of the way in. I was expecting to have to turn it off, especially as we neared the "E.T. gets sick and dies" stuff, and yet she was engaged throughout--without any of the "turn her head away from the screen" behavior I was expecting.

Now, just last week, on a lazy Sunday morning, I put one of my all-time favorite movies on the good 'ol Netflix Streaming--The Iron Giant. If you haven't seen it, The Iron Giant is a great, great movie, the directorial debut of The Incredibles' and Ratatouille's Brad Bird. It's a fun movie about a boy befriending a giant metal robot form outer space, but it's also a deeply moving film about what it means to carve your own destiny, and how no one can tell you the kind of person you are--you get to decide. Gorgeous old-school animation, an exciting climax, the movie has it all.

They hated it.

Well, maybe not hated. But they were, if not as scared by it as, say, Tangled, uneasy. And in the end it was just not something they liked. Which of course was deeply disappointing to me as a big nerd. And yet intriguing in a way, as it illuminated for me how adult, in a sense, so much of the film, and its themes, are. Maybe it's not really a kids' movie. Maybe it's too deep for a seven-year old.

Or maybe they just didn't like it.

Another thing that fascinates me is how they process the reality of a film. It's taken some explaining to get across the idea that a movie isn't real. I still remember watching just a little of Spider-Man and explaining to my daughter, with the remote pausing and rewinding multiple times, how they mix an actual man in a Spider-Man costume with a cartoon of Spider-Man drawn on a computer to get the effects they want.

And yet she still sometimes needs reassurance that things are not "real." This evening, watching a bit of Home Alone, she wanted to make sure that the little boy wasn't "really" alone. So I explained to her that in real-life he wasn't alone--that there was, indeed, a man right in front of him holding a camera. And she seemed to get it.

I like explaining some of the tricks this way, showing the girls how movies get the effects they see--and that sometimes frighten them. I think it helps, and it feeds a natural curiosity that I love. And yet sometimes I wonder if I should do a little less of it. Let some of the magic keep as magic. As mystery. If only for a little longer.

Until Whenever

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Note: 3x3 contains spoilers about the films, books, and TV shows discussed.

Three things I loved about Broadcast News
  • This is going to be hard. This was simply a great movie--one of those you finally watch, after years of hearing how good it is, and find the hype completely justified. Limiting myself to just three things I liked? Eep. OK, how about the cast? Holly Hunter, as producer Jane Craig,  has never been more charming, all twitchy passion and dedication. One of the things TV and movies can do very well is show an audience a professional who is awesome at their job in action. At the same time, it's an easy thing to mess up--that sense of verisimilitude can be hard to come by. But they got it here. Hunt is completely believable as a supremely skilled producer. Albert Brooks, someone I know largely by dint of The Simpsons, very nicely balances neediness, intelligence, and a weird melange of assurance and doubt into a very sympathetic character as reporter Aaron Altman. And William Hurt, as anchor Tom Grunick, takes a sort-of thankless role, that of a pretty talking head who knows he's a pretty talking head, and makes it work. Just great acting all around.
  • The ending. The girl doesn't get the guy, the guy doesn't get the job, and the guy doesn't get smart. And yet they all end up happy. An ending that felt fair and true to the characters.
  • The deja vu. Here's a movie that hangs a major scene and turning point in the plot on military action in Libya, with much discussion of Qaddafi, and that features as its central theme the notion that TV news has become corrupted by the need to sell soap. Wow, we can't relate today at all.
Three things I did not like about Broadcast News
  • OK. This is going to be hard. Well, the score, by Bill Conti (who scored Rocky) is pretty much forgettable "romantic comedy" music, and this is not a forgettable "romantic comedy."
  • The opening, with our three leads as kids demonstrating their character traits, seemed off. The genius kid who graduated high school at 15? No, he does not go into journalism. And what does an obsession with pen pals have to do with producing the news?
  • (Stretching time.) The old-age makeup on Grunick's dad (who we see in the opening when Grunick is a kid and then later as an older man) was pretty lame.
Until Whenever

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Jammin' and having fun

In all of my excitement over the impending arrival of Game of Thrones I had kind of forgotten that Treme was coming back soon. Silly me.

I found Treme to be very much a slow burn in its first season, but by the time the finale arrived I was completely and wholly invested. The show got a bit of a hard time for being somewhat plotless, and while I sympathize with the creators' claims that what people were seeing as "plotless" was really just an absence of violence/mystery-driven plot, I don't now that I entirely buy it either. That said, whatever plot was or wasn't there wasn't what hooked me. I found Treme to be almost like a sitcom, in that the real joy of the show came in just hanging out with characters you had genuine affection for. The only (well, not really only, but it sounds better that way) difference is that, in a sitcom, our hook into these characters is that they are funny; with Treme it was the music.

In anticipation of the return of the series, I recently got the first season soundtrack, and really can not recommend it enough. What makes it so enjoyable is not just all the great music, but also the sense of the characters the music gives you. This is lived-in, often off-the-cuff music, and feels spontaneous and organic, and not overly deliberate or plotted. And that really makes it a fun record.

If you didn't give the series a try last year, check out, at the very, very least, the opening credits, which do a superb job of capturing the mood of the show:

And to get a sense of that "off-the-cuff" feel I mentioned, give a listen to this protest song led by one of the show's main characters:

OK. One more. Two unconnected main characters in this mosaic of a cast meet by chance:

Until Whenever

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

How Unreliable Are We Talking?

I recently finished reading a very, very good novel called The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. The central conceit is quite simple. Bruno is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak. He is dictating his life story to an off-stage transcriber, and this is the story we are reading.

 Before I dive into the point of this post, let me say that the novel is everything I had heard—erudite, funny, moving, and reflective of a deep and abiding passion for language. I heartily recommend you read it.

But, since this is my blog and a straightforward review is not what has spurred me to write, I will instead discuss two things:

  1. The narrator
  2. Bestiality
1. The Narrator (see how I left bestiality for second, to encourage you to read this part?)

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the book where Bruno, faced with an emergency, must call for help. At this stage of the story, precious few people in the world know about his gift for gab. So when Bruno frantically knocks on a neighbor’s door and begs for help, and the neighbor goes with him with nary a comment about the fact that it is a talking chimpanzee she is listening to, it gives the reader pause. And at the end of this chapter, Bruno acknowledges this, and sloughs it off by saying that the details may not be all accounted for in his story but that the truth has been left intact.
This moment gave me pause. For this is a book in which our narrating chimp seems to gloss over certain important elements to his story—not only how people reacted to his speech, but also the actual development of that speech and the critical nut of his eventual romantic and, yes, sexual, relationship with his primary handler/de facto owner, Lydia Littlemore. And the question that jumped into my head was of how much we were supposed to take Bruno—or, more to the point, his transcriber—at face value.

Because, again, this is a novel that is being written, within the world of the novel, by a researcher who Bruno is dictating to. And so I start to wonder—how much can Bruno really talk? As someone with a fascination with chimps and language, I have read a little on the subject, and I recall reading at some point that experiments designed to give chimps the ability to speak were doomed to failure, simply because of the physical limitations posed by chimp physiology—position of larynx, tongue, teeth, etc. And indeed in the course of the novel Bruno does address this supposed limitation, a limitation he, again, glosses over with something about how it only takes practice and good posture to get past those physical challenges. But—who is (really) saying this? Bruno the chimp or Gwen, the researcher who is writing this story? Are these “glossings” a coded way to suggest to us that our narrator is indeed highly unreliable, and that Bruno cannot really talk, and that, indeed, the entire novel is meant to be read as a wildly exaggerated and hyperbolized version of the life story of a chimp who had some strange adventures?

2. Which brings us to bestiality

 As already suggested, the central relationship in the novel is between Bruno and Lydia. And it does indeed become a romantic and sexual one. While reading those scenes, especially the ones that chronicle the beginnings of this affair, I have to admit to some severe discomfort and inability to suspend my disbelief quite as far as I was being asked. Yes, I do understand that human-animal sex is something that has happened historically. And yes, the novel does go to pains to paint Lydia as an emotionally damaged, depressed woman, presumably to help explain why she would go to the places she goes. And yet I still had some serious trouble believing in those scenes and that relationship.

But—what if that’s kind of the point? Does Benjamin Hale, the novelist, intend us to read the narrator’s unreliability in such a way that we understand that the relationship being described was not as salacious as presented? Are we to assume that this is more of Gwen’s extreme exaggerations? No review I’ve read of the book takes this tack, or at least they all seem to take the reality of the depicted events (within the world of the novel) at face value. So maybe I am just tilting at windmills in a vain attempt to find a construct that will help my limited mind make sense of the notion of the relationship at the heart of the book.


Until Whenever

Monday, April 04, 2011

Winter, It Came

Spoiler-free—for readers of the books and non-readers alike

So, as I mentioned in my “why I am returning to blogging” post last week, one reason is to have a space to try out the kind of episode-by-episode television review blogging I never really did during Tosy and Cosh’s first incarnation. And with the imminent arrival of HBO’s new fantasy series A Game of Thrones, the time seemed right.

When I was in high school I read a bit of epic fantasy. A bit—not a lot. I read pretty much all of Terry Brooks, but never got into his obvious antecedent (and to one degree or another, all of epic fantasy’s antecedent), The Lord of the Rings. Then in college, I bounced off of Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (after being taken by a roommate’s passion for the books), not once, but twice. Yes, I read a good 90% of the first book’s 800 or so pages twice before admitting that this just wasn’t my cuppa.

This was where I stood when, about two years ago, news of a forthcoming HBO series spurred me to give my first epic fantasy in years a try. Two years later, I have read the first three books in the series twice, and the fourth once. It has been years since I’ve re-read fiction like that—probably not since I got hooked on Stephen King as a teen.

So, yes, it is with some excitement that I came to last night’s preview of the first 15 minutes of the pilot. And afterwards? I remain very convinced that this is a series that will get most things right. It’s not just the overall fidelity to the plot that was hinted at in these first few minutes. It’s the fidelity to the world. The massive scale of The Wall. The look of the characters’ clothes in the North, all furs and leather and bundling. The scale of Ned Stark’s sword, a massive slab of iron near as tall as the man itself. The look of the landscape, green, but barely so, with the hint of winter in the air palpable.

Yes, there are, as there always are with book-to-screen translations, liberties being taken. No, the children are not quite as young as they are in Martin’s books. And no, we will not be privy to all of the details Martin has crammed into these novels. But how could we be?

As long as the tone, overall plot components and structure, and, most of all, sense of character are maintained I will be happy. And on that last point, all signs are very encouraging. Nearly all the main character we met last night radiated a sense of who we know them to be from the book. Bran’s fear at not measuring up; Arya’s impatience and impertinence; Stark’s quiet, troubled dignity; John Snow’s uneasy connection to his stepmother and easy bonds with his siblings. After all, it is these characters that made the books come alive—and it looks as if they will do the same for the series.

For readers of the books only

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Ineffable Effect of Art Direction

As I mentioned on Twitter, I've been re-watching the first season of Dollhouse, primarily because it's a) on Netflix streaming and b) it's a show I liked but never finished watching when it aired. I saw almost all of Season One, but missed the end of Season Two, and I was intrigued enough to want to give the whole thing a go.

Last night I watched Episode 5, which featured a particularly credibility-straining plot involving Echo going undercover in a cult to act as an unwitting mole for the FBI. (For those of you who don't remember or never saw Dollhouse, the short version of the premise is that a secret organization houses mindwiped young attractive people who it "imprints" with specific personalities and skills for paid missions (which more often than not seemed to involve sex--it occurred to me last night that the entire series could easily have been spawned by a bet Whedon made with someone that he could get a network to greenlight a series with a prostitute as its main character), rewiping them anew after each mission and keeping them at the ready as blank, child-like slates).

The cult Echo infiltrates is situated on a dusty compound in the middle of nowhere, with all of the cult members dressed in Amish-like garb. As soon as we saw the compound, I was reminded heavily of Big Love's Juniper Creek compound--same dusty, frontier-like milieu, same plain, prarie-esque clothing.

But on Dollhouse, the set and costumes looked like  . . . sets and costumes.

Where on Big Love Juniper Creek looked like a real community, populated by real religious fundamentalists. Not actors playing dress up.

And of course, I wondered why. And I couldn't really tell. What's interesting to me is not that the money spent on production (which I am assuming to be the differentiator here, Dollhouse being a network show given a short leash and Big Love an HBO show, where production value is king) makes such a difference, but that it makes such a difference in so subtle a way.

If forced, I couldn't point to a prop, or a hat, or a blouse, and describe what made it authentic-seeming, or not. But the overall effect was very clear.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"I am Lazarus, risen from the grave!"

So it looks like I'm going to give this thing another whirl. After a few years of more-or-less regular posting I abandoned the blog almost two years ago. A hell of a long time for a battery re-charge, eh?

So what's compelled me to pick up quill and ink again? A few things. The advent of Twitter and Facebook has linked me in new and interesting ways to an online community that, amazingly enough, simply didn't exist in this form two years ago. And I kind of like the idea of seeing how blogging works in this new context. Backwards, I know--many are abandoning blogging, given the ability to share opinions and links on Facebook and Twitter, and here I am picking it up again. Well, so be it.

Another contributing factor is the nagging TV series blogging itch I've always wanted to scratch. During Round One of the blog I did plenty of TV blogging, including posts about specific episodes, but never the kind of episode-by-episode blogging of an entire season I am so much a fan of in my own online reading. And with the imminent arrival of HBO's Game of Thrones series, the time seemed ripe. I am a big fan of the books, which I had just started reading when I abandoned the blog two years ago, and have been very eagerly following the development of the series over the last year. So it just seemed a natural fit to try my hand at the form with this series. We'll see how I do.

More factors? Sure. Over the past six months I have been blogging for work some, on the topic of innovation on my company's internal blogging system. And that blogging has most definitely awakened the urge.

Finally? I miss sharing thoughts, opinions, and arguments about the many forms of pop culture I imbibe in, and I miss having my tiny little platform on the web to do it on. I miss Tosy and Cosh.

So. Here I am. What's new with you?

Until Whenever