12/31/2009

A blog in review

Here is a list of posts from 2009 that I'm especially proud of:

I started The Audacity of Rock series mostly to show that new rock and old rock are equally ridiculous. The posts themselves are pretty ridiculous, but they give me an excuse to bum around the internet for an hour and find good musical matches. Anyway, you can look at all 34 parts (so far?) here.

January
  • Sylvia Scarlett is a really random movie, that I think is best remembered through pictures.
  • I love that the post that got the most traffic this year was my Buffy vs. Twilight one. For such a short post, it got a lot of comments both from haters and lovers. Seriously, go read the comments.
  • A Medley of the Day of creepy songs about teenage girls.
February
March
April
May
June
July
  • A Scorsese film I liked! Taxi Driver.
  • I really enjoyed my week-long Shyamalanathon 2009 series. While M. Night Shyamalan may need the wake-up call George Lucas never got, I hope people reconsider writing him off altogether. Here are my reviews of
  1. The Sixth Sense,
  2. Unbreakable,
  3. Signs (a vlog with quiet sound!),
  4. The Village,
  5. Lady in the Water,
  6. The Happening,
  7. and the lovely music by James Newton Howard.
August
September
  • A look at 1980's Raging Bull and The Elephant Man.
  • Prostitutes in musicals = great songs.
  • So I was really bored waiting for school to start and unofficially started a Shakespeare-athon, mostly based on watching all of the Shakespeare-Retold versions:
  1. The Taming of the Shrew
  2. Macbeth
  3. A Midsummer Night's Dream
  4. Much Ado About Nothing
October
November
December

12/30/2009

Shirley Valentine (1989)

I don't have much to say about Shirley Valentine except that people should know it exists. It's about a woman who used to a rebel in school, but is now a 40-something housewife who speaks to her wall*. She's due for a life/sexual awakening when she runs off to Greece with her girlfriend Jane and rediscovers her old self--Shirley Valentine--with an affair with a Greek bar owner guy.

Originally a one-woman show, the transition to full-fledged movie is choppy and awful. And honestly, Pauline Collins is painful onscreen, with her inability to convey feeling through her eyes or lilting speech, and Tom Conti is a British man playing a Greek man, 'nuff said.

The one redeeming thing about this movie: the title sequence.




*If only that wall could talk back, it might have been entertaining.

12/27/2009

148 minutes of propoganda and fake Asians

Apparently,
Dragon Seed is a 1944 war drama film starring Katharine Hepburn. Based on a best-selling book by Pearl S. Buck, the film portrays a peaceful village in China that has been invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese war. The men in the village choose to adopt a peaceful attitude toward their conquerors, but Jade (played by Hepburn), a headstrong woman, stands up to the Japanese. (wiki)
All I know is that I cracked at about 1 hour in, started singing narration to the movie right before the 2 hour mark, and nearly missed the movie ending, feeling like there was never a time before this movie started. I'm just grateful I had a friend* to survive another ridiculous movie from the Katharine Hepburn collection I got last Christmas (see also: Sylvia Scarlett).

Anyway, it's a really long movie that takes about 45 minutes at the beginning to blandly develop the main core of characters as if to prove that Chinese people are people too. Except the main characters are all played in yellowface. Facepalm.

With all the subtlety and accuracy of a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, I give you narrated stills from what has to be one of the worst movies I've ever seen:

Not one of these actors are Asian. Except maybe the baby.

Spot the one that doesn't fit.

The one on the right played Clarence the Angel in It's a Wonderful Life. My soul just died.

At least the children are Asian?

The two guys sandwiching Akim Tamiroff (whose accent was at least Russian and not faux-Chinese) got some lines. It was incredible.

I think Kate was trying to harness a demure and wifely attitude, but instead her performance was creepy and stilted.

Japanese soldiers after a self-sacrificing mother proving that mustaches are an international sign of villianry.


What I felt like watching this movie.

This baby was the only thing that entertained me for the last hour of this movie. Um, the poor thing is in a basket.

I think I was supposed to get some message that even the good guys can get caught up in the carnage of war. All I got was "this guy is frightening. Also, not Asian."

This attractive bespectacled soldier comes to the door at about 105 minutes into the movie for a total of 10 seconds. I should state that Dragon Seed's plot, as described in synopsis, all happens after this point, but I honestly stopped paying attention. This moment was the last time I felt pleased about anything in this movie, and I'm really only writing about Dragon Seed to let other people know that there exists a movie in which Katharine Hepburn is playing a Chinese woman. You're welcome.


*Thanks, Margaux!

12/25/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day

Merry Christmas! My last musical gift to you is the 1977 performance by Johnny Cash and June Carter for a Christmas program with Billy Graham and family:


These two are the sweetest couple. I love them so much.

12/24/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: She's Right On Time

This music video is ridiculous, but I always find Billy Joel's love songs heart-warming in their originality. 1982's "She's Right On Time":

12/23/2009

12/22/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Little Saint Nick

Why are the Beach Boys singing about a "Little Saint Nick"? I don't know, but I find their vocal harmonies adorable. Also adorable? Their 1964 performance on Shindig:

12/21/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: A Glummy Christmas

As I am writing this, I'm punchy from late night studying and the decision to plan out the last ten 25 Days of Christmas Music posts all at once because I don't want them to progressively get worse. I mean, Christmas should be the best, right? Anyway, I got 9 of them planned out, but for whatever reason I still didn't have one for the 21st, and I couldn't think of another Christmas song that I didn't hate. And then the Christmas miracle of a sidebar video option came up: "A Glummy Christmas." This is either the funniest thing I have ever seen, or the lamest, but I'm laughing hysterically. It's making fun of all the Christmas songs I hate (ones I've sung too many times/those involving claymation-based Christmas characters/drummers) all sung by one grim puppet.

Just watch it. And then tell me whether this is funny or not because I'm beyond repair at this point. I've watched it 5 times in a row, and it's not getting less hilarious.


Although I would still want to hear "Frosty the Snowman" with Michael McDonald. Am I right?

12/20/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: For Unto Us a Child is Born

My mom always says it's not Christmas until she hears "For Unto Us a Child is Born" from GF Handel's The Messiah. I tend to agree. Here's my favorite version from the 1983 recording of Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus.

12/19/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: White Christmas

This is Otis. I love Otis. And while I don't dream of being stuck in snow before I make it home for Christmas, I do love Mr. Redding's 1968 version of "White Christmas":

Cannonball Read #6: Maus

Maus (Parts I and II) by Art Spiegelman presents the Holocaust in what seems like a very modern, metaphysical way: through graphic novel that depicts his father's experiences of the Holocaust, contemporary experiences between Spiegelman and his father, and later how Spiegelman is dealing with the success of Part I of the novel itself (in Part II). It's as much a novel about creating the book as the recording the horrors of 30s/40s Europe.

What's odd about reading this book is that it could feel very trite. The Jews are depicted with mouse heads on human bodies, the Germans with cat heads, the Polish with pig, French with frog, American with dog. But it works, and adds a layer of (mostly) unspoken metaphor. In some ways the drawings make things easier to digest, but what's most odd is that seeing cartoon drawings of people with mouse heads being tortured and killed is so disturbing. For something so stylized to be so moving is probably because we know these things happened and we know that the author's own father is telling first hand accounts in this novel.

And I think it also has something to do with seeing Spiegelman's father depicted as a demanding old man. Certainly, conclusions could be made as to why he's so cheap and immortalizes his first wife while driving his current one crazy, but he's never depicted as extraordinary. He survived the Holocaust, but he's almost just an annoyance to his son. This element, trying to understand and deal with your parents, is universal and gives a reader with no connection to the Holocaust or Jewish culture something to relate to. And I think that's where the real genius of the book lies: it contrasts the relatable present to an unbelievable and horrifying past. How could something so terrible have happened to such an ordinary old man? To your parents? And what are you supposed to do with that history?

12/18/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Thank God It's Christmas

Hey! Did you know Queen had a Christmas song? Me neither! Released in 1984, here's Queen's "Thank God It's Christmas":


Note: sometimes I feel like I'm a radio host via my blog. That's all.

12/17/2009

The Godfather Part III

So, The Godfather Part III (1990). Like most sequels/prequels made years after their predecessors, GF3 just can't capture that original magic (see also: Star Wars Episodes I-III, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story). There are probably several reasons why the movie just didn't gel, but I think a lot of it had to do with being comfortable about how successful the film will be. By the time Part III was made, The Godfather Part I and Part II were legendary. And there's only so hard you're going to try if you already know whatever you do is going to be seen regardless of quality.

That said, this The Godfather Part III is not a bad movie, per se, I'm just not sure why it was made. It doesn't explore anything that the previous two installments didn't do better, and in the end it just feels like well-done fan fiction. It posits a "what if" scenario that essentially wipes out the resonance of the end of Part II and then tries to recapture it. But we already experienced Michael Corleone's rise and fall--and without the over-the-top plot. I can think of nothing more ham-handed than comparing the Catholic church to a Mafia man trying to look perfectly legitimate. Although it does teach us one valuable lesson: pretty much any time you involve the Vatican in your movie, just go the other way. It's not going to be anything but camp.

And by the end, I was just done. Notes I took toward the end of the film that illustrate what I mean:
  • And didn't the murder intercut with holy ceremonies thing already happen? Sigh.
  • Climax in the opera house??? Whatever.
  • Alone in the chair, again? Oh, no.
Although the beginning scenes are probably the clunkiest. The film takes a while to warm up, and for the family relationships to settle in, but it gets better. Especially with more Andy Garcia as Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone's bastard son, who starts a relationship with Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola, refreshingly relaxed in a shrill melodrama). And yeah, they're first cousins, but whatever. At least their storyline is something that didn't completely feel like a rehash of previous installments.

In fact, the highlight of the film comes when Mary comes to visit Vincent at his club, mostly in the form of Andy Garcia ogling. Prepare for gratuitous rolled-up sleeves:

Attractive man cooking.

Out of curiosity, whatever happened to chest hair?

Cooking lessons.


Basically, nothing in The Godfather Part III felt necessary. It's too long and a little outlandish, but it's not awful. It's just not its own movie.

25 Days of Christmas Music: Dormi Jesu

Have you caught on to my love of choir boys yet? I'm hoping that doesn't sound creepy.

Anyway, I bring to you the very first performance of John Rutter's "Dormi Jesu" by the Choir of King's College in 1998:

12/16/2009

12/15/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: The Christmas Song

My last name has subjected me to year-round assaults of people quoting or singing the opening line of "The Christmas Song" at me. It usually causes me to sigh in discontent, barely withholding my urge to punch the person singing it in the face. The one person I won't punch in the face for singing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"? (The ghost of) Nat King Cole. His is the most well known and most played version of the 1944 Mel Torme classic, and we should leave it to him to sing these words. Otherwise, I will punch you in the face.

The ever classy Nat King Cole, ladies and gentlemen:



As this posts, I will be either done or almost done with my hardest final. Yay!

12/14/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto

Occasionally, if I search hard enough, I find things on the internet that blow my mind. Take "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto" by Snoop Doggy Dogg featuring Dat Nigga Daz, Nate Dogg, Tray Deee, Bad Azz. Apparently Death Row Records released the seasonal album Christmas on Death Row in 1996 for charity. The result? Little kid dreams of Santa Claus, family togetherness, a little social awareness, and Snoop Dogg in a beard.

12/13/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Pat-a-Pan

From Wikipedia:
"Patapan" (or "Pat-a-pan") is the title of a traditional French (specifically, Burgundian) Christmas carol. The carol revolves around the birth of Jesus Christ, and is told from the perspective of shepherds playing simple instruments—flutes and drums—the onomatopoetic sound of which gives the song its name; "patapan" is meant to mimic the sound of the drum, and an accompanying lyric, "tu-re-lu-re-lu," the flute.
Also known as the antidote to "The Little Drummer Boy,"* here's a cool 2003 rendition of "Pat-a-pan" from the Dale Warland Singers:



*Um, in my own head. Let's just say I hate "The Little Drummer Boy" almost as much as I hate "The 12 Days of Christmas." Do either of those songs end? Ever?

12/12/2009

Watch I'm watching while studying

Finals week is a week where I do a lot of pretending to study. I stop hanging out with people, confine myself to the library or my house, take out my notes, and realize the silence is killing me and I'm just falling asleep. And then I pretend that having something mindless on in the background will help me concentrate/give me something to entertaining to look at and not fall asleep. Who know if this works, but at least I've got my notes out and am absorbing something, even if it's just greater pop culture knowledge*.

Anyway, taking advantage of a locally owned video store's 5 for $5 deal, these are the movies I've rented to watch while studying this weekend/week:
  1. Mumford (1999)--I remember liking it when I first saw it.
  2. The Sound of Music (1965)--Musical numbers are the only time you need to pay attention. And whenever Christopher Plummer is on the screen.
  3. The Godfather Part III (1990)--I'm going to have to see it eventually.
  4. Hot Fuzz (2007)--To see if I love this movie as much as I remember loving it.
  5. High Fidelity (2000)--To round out the top 5 ways I'm distracting myself.

*You don't even have to go to grad school for that.

25 Days of Christmas Music: Born on Christmas Day

Country tends to divulge in sentimentality more than other musical genres, and that's not always a bad thing. Proof: the always charming Brad Paisley's "Born on Christmas Day." Written when he was 13 years old, this recording from his 2006 album Brad Paisley Christmas combines 1985 Brad and 2006 Brad into one tune. It's not a spectacular song, but it's adorable.


12/11/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: O Tannenbaum

Is anything better than the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio? No? That's what I thought. Here's a jazzalicious rendition of "O Tannenbaum" from the 1965 special.


Fact: tannenbaum means "fir tree" in German.

12/10/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Gabriel's Message

I love the melody of "Gabriel's Message"--I just have a thing for minor key, mystical sounding religious music. Now imagine a rendition done by 80s-era Sting. Mind. Blown. It's a fairly sparse arrangement, with light instrumental accompaniment drowned out by layered harmonies of Sting's uniquely bombastic, almost out-of-range vocals.

This version of "Gabriel's Message" appeared on 1987's A Very Special Christmas. Here's by my favorite find for this series so far, the surreal video to this song directed by the prolific Matt Mahurin:

A gentler(?) version of this song appears on Sting's If on a Winter's Night... (2009).

12/09/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Christmas Song

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds sum up Jesus' life in one lovely acoustic song, "Christmas Song" (1993). Here's a live 2003 performance at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina:

12/08/2009

Cannonball Read #5: The Dangers of Mistletoe

So I went to the library to looking for some sort of Christmas classic that I've never bothered to read, but since it's the holiday season, they were all checked out. Thus, onto plan B: if I can't find something good, I might as well find something as bad as possible. Using the keyword "Christmas" on the library's catalogue system, all sorts of gems popped up, and fortunately Theresa Alan's The Dangers of Mistletoe was in stock. Lame title, creepy cartoony people on the cover that reminded me of Wheat Thins ads of yore, and an endorsement from chicklitbooks.com? Perfect.

I don't have much to say about the book itself except that's a combination of the worst kinds of lazy writing imaginable. The book is told in the first-person perspectives of a pair of sisters, the chapters switching off who narrates the story. Amber is single, lives in New York, is struggling to make ends meet with her massage skills, and of course has trust issues with men. Emily is recently married to a widower with two kids, lives in Colorado near the sisters' mom, and wants to pull off the best Christmas ever so her stepdaughter and mother-in-law will love her. Add some pseudopsychoanalysis of the sisters' daddy issues (their dad left their mom, and they verbalize this in both conversation and narration ad nauseum) and you've got what must have been the result of someone thinking, "You know what would make a great book? A Lifetime original movie." Then add some references to websites that read like product placement and pop culture comparisons that seem out of place. Sigh. It's books like this that convince me I could be an author if this is the kind of stuff that gets published.

I guess I'll fill up the rest of my review requirement by stating how much I dislike first-person narrative. It can be well done (see: The Poisonwood Bible), but it's hard to pull off if you have less than interesting characters. Especially characters that feel the need to tell you about themselves instead of just letting it come through their actions and reactions naturally. Why create interesting characters with motives they don't even know about when they can directly correlate their men issues to their daddy issues which is why they do everything ever and they're going to narrate and tell everyone in the book about it? Granted, The Dangers of Mistletoe reads better than the popular Twlight book series that obnoxiously uses first-person narrative for Bella's boring perspective*, but that's only because the characters seem to have life goals beyond "spend all my time with my marble-like boyfriend" and instead have goals like "find steady employment" or "be a decent stepmom." Decent goals, not particularly interesting when told from these roughly sketched characters.

But whatever. I'm the one who picked up the book, so I have no one to blame but myself. And don't worry. I've got more crappy Christmas books on the way. Can't wait til finals are over and I feel motivated to read non-fluff books again.


*How delightful was it when Jacob's perspective took over the 4th book and the book was interesting for 100 pages?

25 Days of Christmas Music: Sleigh Ride

Now, I'm not the biggest fan of "Sleigh Ride," but in the context of "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" (1980), it's pretty awesome. In this short film, Jimmy Stewart plays a lonely old widower who's only company on Christmas Eve is his cat George and a MoTab Christmas album. It is possibly the saddest movie I've ever seen, but I've probably seen it every year thanks to lazy Sunday school teachers. Even this clip where Mr. Krueger fantasy-directs the choir singing "Sleigh Ride" makes me tear up a little bit. Every. Time.


You can find the full version of this Mormon classic here.

12/07/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Christmas

The Who's 1969 rock opera Tommy is both an admirable feat of storytelling and the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. But man, is it a good album. Anyway, the song "Christmas" comes at a point in the opera when Tommy's mom and step-dad are still coming to grips with the repercussions of Tommy's deaf, dumb, and blindness.

Here's a live performance at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (with a bonus but unChristmasy track "The Acid Queen"). Please try not to be overwhelmed by Roger's fringe, Pete's extraordinarily high-waisted pants, and Keith's insane drumming.


See that bassist to the left? I just learned his name is John Entwistle. He's apparently incredibly mellow.

Note: I could have used a scene from the film version of Tommy, but I promised quality. Also, the combination of Ann-"overwhelming vibrato" Margret, Oliver "tone deaf but still cast in musicals" Reed, and the glassy eyed stare of a small child gives me the creeps.

12/06/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: In the Bleak Midwinter

English writer Christina Rosetti's poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" (1872) has become a Christmas classic with several different musical settings. Here's Harold Darke's version as performed by the Winchester Cathedral Choir in 1986.


Little boys in choir robes--awesome.

12/05/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

If you've never seen Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), for shame. It's a little too slow for me at the beginning, but it has some great moments full of great ways to get a guy (turning down lamps and snuffing candles, amiright?) and culturally sensitive musical numbers (during a wild teen party, obvs). Anyway, at one point the well-intentioned, but totally out of touch father plans to move the family from St. Louis for a better paying job--and just when Judy Garland's character was getting together with the boy next door! But she puts on a brave face for her little sister and sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" the night before their moving date.

Here's the original version of the song with our love-stricken girl still dressed up for the dance:

12/04/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Do They Know It's Christmas?

The hit "Do They Know It's Christmas" was written to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia for Band Aid 1984. Featuring mostly Irish and British popular singers of the time, the record shot straight to #1, preventing the perennial Christmas favorite "Last Christmas" from ever reaching the top of the charts.

I regret not recognizing more of the singers, although I picked out George Michael, Boy George, Sting, Bono, some dude from Duran Duran, Phil Collins, and lots of hair. Here's a full list of who's in it.


Favorite moment: the cut to Sting as the word "sting" is sung at 1:19. Classic.

12/03/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Sufjan Steven's barely over a whisper vocals work for me in this lovely and slightly bluegrassy version of "O Come O Come Emmanuel."

Cannonball Read #4: The Things They Carried

It's been about 5 years since I first read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. At the time I was a senior in high school, disinterested enough to feel done with high school, but nerdy enough to keep up in a schedule full of AP classes. I'm 5 years older now, 22 and a grad student. I went out of state to college where I made friends, lost friends, grew up a little more. Now I'm back in my home state of Washington for grad school, rooming with old friends I knew as a kid. I look back to high school and the last four years and it feels like all those experience are, in the words of O'Brien, "a lot like yesterday, a lot like never."

Is it weird to feel nostalgic at 22? Maybe. But it's impossible not to when reading The Things They Carried. Part of it has to do with growing up, and part of it has to do with O'Brien's incredible storytelling. The novel itself is more like a collection of short stories about a company of soldiers in, before, and after Vietnam flowing together to form a nonlinear collage of characters and impressions. It creates a sense of mood sadder and more nostalgic than a marathon of "The Wonder Years," but absolutely beautiful.

Comparing how the book affected me 5 years ago and now is an odd experience. The first time I read it, my mind was opened up to the possibility that "absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." This idea alone carried me through several university courses and has defined my outlook more than I probably realize. This time reading, I was struck by how true the stories were about young adults. The confusion, the loneliness, the early heartbreak. It doesn't matter that I didn't go to war, I understand these young men, specifically the chapter that O'Brien tells about his decision to go to war or dodge the draft. That feeling of choice paralysis, of complete aloneness in a decision, is captured so accurately, so perfectly. I understand that feeling exactly.

And that's O'Brien's thesis is, more or less, for this novel. Late in the book he states, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." O'Brien accomplishes this. I've never read another author that describes inner thoughts and doubts so well and so honestly. Maybe the stories are real--O'Brien did go to Vietnam--but maybe it's not. In the end it doesn't matter because they contains such a core of truth.

Reading this book is an experience. It causes you to live through the characters' stories they experience and tell and reflect on your own stories at the same time. It makes me wonder how much more nostalgic I'll feel, what truths I'll find, picking up The Things They Carried again 5 years from now.

"Stories are from joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."

12/02/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Baby, It's Cold Outside

You can never go wrong with Ella Fitzgerald. Here she is in 1949 with Louis Jordan singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The simplistic jazziness of this version keeps it far away from creepy undertones. Good work, you two.

12/01/2009

25 Days of Christmas Music: Nativity Carol

Even though I'm not in a snowy climate this year, I'm trying to get in the Christmas mood with music. I'm pretty judicious of what music I play during the holiday season since it can range from brilliant to ear-bleed inducing, so hopefully I can provide some great songs for y'all(?) to enjoy this month.

My first pick is a John Rutter's lovely "Nativity Carol" as performed by Neeber-Schuler-Chor in Frankfurt 1998. It's a bit quiet, but the sound mixing is great.